SALUTATION BY MEAL
The pedestal upon which I stood rose.
I was lifted up through the floor of the Pegasi fumatory and then the pedestal clicked into place with a faint shudder. I was positioned in a well surrounded by dozens of white Pegasi and hundreds of their scuttling staff. The Pegasi scarcely seemed to take notice of me, though many of their staff pointed their brown, cow-like eyes in my direction. The air was thick with talk.
The language management device built in to the intelligent plastic skin I wore seemed confused by the dense whorls of intermingling babble, and offered only surreal poetic snippets of what it could suss out from the miasma. "Frenzied locution," it said into my ear. "Predisposition for aggravated your plumage has silkened wonderfully good daycleft my estimable numerous counts of a new shampoo."
Greskin Mile slithered out of the crowd and stood beside me. A Pegasi who turned out to be the Master Barrister for the Accused bounced calmly into place on my other side. I was having some difficulty distinguishing one Pegasi from another, particularly as they seemed to wear no clothes and have no given names. Greskin explained that they recognized one another by scent, and that maps of their familial relationships involved model trees whose individual leaves exuded a distinct musk upon being tickled. Greskin added that business cards were even more tricky.
A light strobed near the front of the fumatory, and then a thick thunderhead of smoke roiled forward through the crowd.
"Clear the air!" spoke the translation; "I will have silence!"
Wide-bladed fans hanging from the ceiling began to turn, and in a moment the fog of conversation was whirled away. The revealed chamber was round, its ornate walls constructed of a substance that resembled wood but marked by unfamiliar patterns of grain and growth. Like all Pegasi rooms I had seen so far it was designed with an indifference to colour, resulting in a characteristic muddiness broken by gleams of metal. The dozen or so Pegasi retired into a ring around the perimeter, their staff clustering beneath their loins. In a strip above our heads was a ring-shaped gallery densely packed with observers -- Pegasi and their staff, as well as hairless human beings, glossy in their plastic skins.
I looked down into the wet blue eyes of the Master Judge, who looked just like any other Pegasi. The Master Judge was neither taller or wider, nor decorated by special plumage or any contrived badge of office. At least a dozen staff clicked and blinked and scampered around the base of the dais upon which the Master Judge sat, legs folded and pointy knees settling on either side of a long, grey face. The Master Judge blinked twice, slowly.
A train of fumes began to chuff from the spongy mouth, my translator speaking up after a few seconds' interval: "Hereby begins the arraignment of the Solar human being Terron Volmash, alias Nestor Simonithrat Fell, alias Hellig Apples, alias Simon, with regard to seven hundred and twenty-three violations of the Second Intragalactic Charter of the Panstellar Neighbourhood of Sentient Races, and twenty-nine activity networks with nodes intersecting the Solar Declaration of Living Dignity. The Accused is present."
Smoke dappled from the Master Barrister on my right. "It is so, Master Judge."
"Are the officers of the court present?"
"Yes," affirmed the Master Barrister. Half a dozen other Pegasi made the same statement. Greskin Mile said the word and the neck of his plastic suit shot steam.
"Very well," expelled the Master Judge, shifting into what I can only assume was a more comfortable position, "let the reading of the charges commence."
The reading commenced.
It was very long.
When short pauses came the Master Barrister would either say "guilty" or "not-guilty," a subject over which Greskin and I had argued long into the night. "Why not just answer guilty across the board? Who I am to try to minimize what happened?" I had eventually asked, exasperated.
"You may decide to stand for Volmash, cha," Greskin had replied seriously, "but it is not up to you to let a thousand bad precedents be set by admitting malformed charges. This is the case of the millennium, Simon. What sticks on you will be applied to others for generations."
As the arraignment proceeded I looked around, the drone of translation unbroken in my ears. I tried to see if I could recognize any of the humans up in the gallery, but the haze and the distance rendered all figures nearly alike. Some of them held plates before their faces, scanning the view with informatic overlays invisible to me. I realized with a queasy lurch that the informatic networks were likely clogged with data concerning this event. I imagined that my face must be being broadcast to every living star.
I tried not to slouch.
After many long hours the assembly began to break up. Greskin patted me on the back. "You did well," he assured me. I smiled back uncertainly. I wasn't sure how to feel about being complimented as an obliging bag of televised meat. "I'll see you in a few minutes, cha."
The pedestal upon which I stood descended, and when the fumatory had disappeared above me two members of the Master Barrister's staff were there to escort back down the corridor to my cell. Someone was waiting for me there.
Before I had really thought about it I pulled the copper-skinned human executive into an embrace and clapped him upon the back. "Sir," he said. He wore no plastic suit and I found the effect disquieting -- like a scuba diver under the sea come upon a man in a business suit, breathing without the benefit of any apparatus.
"It's good to see you," I said. My eye was caught by something fuzzy and red in the foreground. "You don't mind if I eat, do you? My pills are precipitating and I find it annoying to have them clattering around uneaten."
"I do not mind."
The pills dropped down and I knocked them back, then enjoyed a wee drink. "Wonderful accommodations they have here," I commented. "I imagine the tourists have to beat each other off to visit."
"You will presently be moved to a facility more appropriate to your metabolism," said Jeremiah.
"You should write their travel brochures," I told him darkly. "What I really want to know is whether or not I'll have to go through the entire trial with my bum showing."
"I do not have much time," he said quickly, ignoring me. "We may not be able to meet again."
I furrowed my brow. "Why?"
"Listen to me, Simon. There is something I have not told you."
I blinked. "What is it?"
Jeremiah's hesitation was interrupted as the Master Barrister for the Accused swept in through the door, the rest of his staff scurrying at his long, four-toed feet. Greskin Mile followed and did a double-take as he spotted Jeremiah. "You can't be here, lizards to lies!" he said.
"Quite improper," agreed the Master Barrister. "The Master Executive must be leaving immediately."
Jeremiah was already moving toward the door, and when I tried to follow him the Master Barrister extended one of his long legs and blocked my path. I caught Jeremiah's black gaze fleetingly as he disappeared into the corridor, and I spun on Greskin. "What's going on? Why can't I see him?" I cried, and then added, "He's my friend."
"Are you sure?" asked Greskin poignantly.
"It is forbidden," trumpeted the Master Barrister densely. "This dialogue is quite improper and it has already ceased. Do you understand, Co-counsel? Do you understand, Accused?"
"I bloody do not!" I shouted.
"Easy Simon," said Greskin, touching my arm. "The Master Barrister is just on the sharp for bad protocol pies the prosecution can force feed us later. We best mind your executive friend alone. You know what I'm saying?"
"Because he is a material witness," explained Greskin, avoiding my eye.
"I don't understand --"
"It is forbidden!" repeated the Master Barrister, and then to reinforce the point reared up menacingly upon the full height of grasshopper-like legs, the heretofore spindly-looking arms at the chest extending with surprising length and speed to feint a breath away from our faces. The display was cross-cultural -- the Master Barrister was pissed off. "Quite improper!"
Greskin and I flattened ourselves against the wall mutely.
The Master Barrister regained a measure of composure, legs folding and spine curving to draw the intimidating alien into the more familiar, compact form. The scene was over in a heartbeat, but in cringing before that bestial charge I had come to remember how Captain Gold explained to me that all globe-girdling sentient animals arose on a pinnacle of dominance. I had caught a glimpse of the predator in the Pegasi, and it was mean.
"Forgive me, Master Barrister," said Greskin.
"Forgive me," I said, too.
"Let us proceed."
Greskin nodded. "Alright Simon. The arraignment went very well. What's going to happen now is you're going to be up-and-chucked to your permanent quarters. We have a few days before things get rolling, and the Master Barrister and I are going to spend that time working on your defense as we've discussed. For the time being you'll just sit tight and pretty and think happy thoughts. Got it?"
"What about visitors?"
Greskin looked stricken. "I'm still fighting the good fight, dude. We'll keep you apprised, sure as sandwiches."
We left the cell together and then parted ways in the corridor. I followed a brace of the Master Barrister's staff into a lift and then through another maze of halls. I had become so used to seeing no one else on these little excursions that I jumped and shouted in fright when we turned a corner and I found myself face to face with Abermund Blighton.
He had purple bags under his bloodshot eyes, glistening beneath the film of his intelligent plastic suit. "You!" he cackled, his voice muffled by the bubble over his mouth and nose. "What a special coincidence."
I backed up a pace. Two greyish staff were poised at Blighton's liver-spotted feet, their antennae crackling. My own staff stiffened to attention. "Blighton," I breathed hollowly.
"You haven't destroyed me!" he claimed, the tendons in his neck straining.
"Okay?" he sneered, shaking his head. "Is that the best you can do, you idiot? Fate stages us a scene of epic confrontation between a god and the bug who struck him down, and all you can give the ages is okay?"
I shrugged. "Are these staff your guards? Are you a prisoner here, too?"
"You have not destroyed me!" he shrieked, fists balled.
"Um, yes," I nodded. "You mentioned. Well, I'd best be off. It's nearly time for my red pills. Nice chatting."
"I'll murder you," he promised, and then froze in a very strange attitude with one arm raised menacingly and one knee partially bent. His eyes bugged out and his face flushed as if in great effort, but he moved no further.
I blinked. "Blighton?"
"Let me free, you horse-faced bastards!" he screamed, his face contorting but his body still rigid. The grey staff scurried around his feet, electrical discharges popping between their antennae.
I stepped forward and touched Blighton's arm: the plastic encasing it had become as hard as diamond. He grimaced at the sight of my touch, his mouth working but no sound coming out. I nodded. "Always a pleasure, Abe."
The Master Barrister's staff pulled on my leg for attention. They wanted to proceed down the hall. I followed them, stealing glances over my shoulder at the statue of Blighton. Just as he disappeared from view behind us I saw a shaggy grey Pegasi surrounded by grey staff approach him.
"I hope you don't try to pull that stiffening trick on me," I said to the white staff. Their brown eyes blinked inscrutably.
Golden robots drove me in a darkened car. The members of the Master Barrister's staff stayed behind. The ride was brief. After I disembarked the robots steered me into a shower under which the layer of plastic over my skin dissolved. The wires of the translator's speakers broke into tiny bits and swirled down the drain. My diary was undamaged. I stepped out of the cubicle feeling truly naked for the first time in days, and it was good.
At last I was deposited in a dimly-lit, spacious apartment. I felt soft grass beneath my toes. The golden robots entered behind me and silently took posts on either side of the door as it slid closed. There was a little washroom complete with a proper sink and toilet, a chair and desk with a dataplate on it, and an honest to goodness bed with sheets and covers and everything.
I sat down on the bed and exhaustion overcame me. I lacked the will to even dictate a diary entry. The wall above the headboard was black and reflective, and in it I caught a glimpse of my face. I looked tired, though I lacked the tortured aspect that had been written so deeply into Blighton's features. The surface was a bit dark for a mirror, but I suppose the Pegasi -- for whom vision seemed to be a tertiary mode of perception at most -- were doing the best they could to meet my strange Solar needs.
I lay back on the bed to sample its firmness; I awoke uncountable hours later.
My first thought was that the room had become very bright, and I wondered whether the lights had come on automatically sensing my conscious state or if I had been awakened when they illuminated. I blinked blearily at the little lamp on the night-stand, and saw that it was still only dimly lit. I turned around.
The sections of black wall I had taken for poor mirrors were, in fact, windows.
I could see the salmon-coloured sky, and it was crossed with clouds. My old friends, the clouds. They had never left me. They had been waiting behind the walls for the duration of my enclosure, patient for the moment when I could see them again and remember the consanguinity of all living skies. Even on Pegasi Secundae there are clouds.
I was filled with joy. I laughed out loud. I shook my head and sighed. I fell back on the bed and spent a few minutes just feeling good. The carpet of grass exuded a wet fragrance that made my lungs feel new.
My stomach rumbled. I crossed my eyes to see if my yellow and blue pills were ready yet, then remembered that I was now without the clinging second skin. I sat up groggily and blinked until I could focus on the golden robots standing by the door, their carapaces shining ruddily in a beam of sunlight. "I say," I called, "can either of you fellows tell me where I might get some food pills around here?"
"Sir," replied one of the golden robots, startling me; "breakfast will be served momentarily. Clothes and tea have been prepared."
"Clothes and tea?" I echoed.
I looked around, now able to take in the details of the apartment for first time. In one corner there was a semi-circle of countertop carrying a kettle, a cup, a bowl, a plate, and several packages. The kettle whistled, and the golden robot who had spoken to me poured the hot water into the cup and then took a teabag out of one of the packages. I watched him, hypnotized, partly unwilling to believe the tea could be for me.
My attention was caught then by the second golden robot, who picked up a neat fold of clothes from a nearby chair and offered it to me. It was a simple, one-piece garment of dull brown, but it was soft and opaque so I donned it with relish. "Thank you," I said.
The first robot handed me the cup of steaming tea. "And thank you," I said with special emphasis, sipping. I gasped at the aroma and rich flavor as much as the heat.
Everything is one shade better once you've had a hot cup of tea. Nurse Randa used to say so, and it's true.
I wandered back to the windows, and from my standing position I could now see the land. I don't know what I was expecting exactly, but what I saw shocked me more by its familiarity than its strangeness. There were trees, for instance. They weren't green or leafy, but their thick branches carried fans of long needles that swayed in the breeze, their stacked structure making obvious their thirst for light. These trees lined the streets down which ambled Pegasi and their staff, cars zooming back and forth in a neat grid far overhead that mirrored the layout of the roads. Pegasi architects were evidently fond of domes, for their pewter curves shone between the treetops as far as I could see.
In the distance I could see plumes of yellow and red smoke rising from a common spot, like a thousand Pegasi chanting. I wondered if it were some kind of a ceremonial gathering, or whether something had simply been spilled.
An insect landed on the window, and I regarded it. It looked like a miniature bird, the size of my thumb. It had no eyes. It licked the glass with its proboscis and then flew away.
A third golden robot brought me breakfast on a tray: buttered toast and hot beans, a bowl of bacterial culture with blueberries, and a tall glass of frosty juice. I ate it too quickly and developed a case of the belches. A few hours later I had mastered myself sufficiently to take lunch at a more reasonable pace. Dinner, however, I wolfed down again. I couldn't help myself. It was pretty good.
And so that was the first day.
On the second day I was able to be more critical. The chicken at lunch was a little dry, and the side-dish at supper was under-spiced. Never the less, it beat little red pills hands down.
The golden robots would not engage me in idle conversation. And, unlike Mr. Bug, they could not be moved to wave any antennae around if I tickled them. I passed most of the hours leaning against the windows, watching the shadows change as the world progressed. Three times each day the Pegasi rushed into the streets and traffic thickened. At mealtimes the city outside seemed virtually deserted. The sunset turned the sky green and brought out swarms of bird-like insects with micro-plumage that glistened in the twilight.
The glass was impervious to sound, so I never heard a noise. The world beyond the windows was like a projection, and if I stared at the vista too long I could convince myself it was tiny -- that I could reach through the glass and pluck the cars from the sky between my fingers.
In the afternoon of the third day Greskin stopped by. He was wearing a dapper white suit, and couldn't stop touching his stubbly pate with his hand. "Hot dollops it feels great to be out of that plastic, cha!" he crooned. "And the good news doesn't stop here, no."
"No and no and no. One of three: they're doing up the courtroom with oxygen-nitrogen tents so we won't have to be suited up for the whole thingamaroo. It's a crazy rig they've got going. You'll see. Which brings us to two of three: the ball gets rolling tomorrow -- no more sitting on your duff watching traffic go by. And..." Greskin grinned. "Three of three: you're set for guests."
"In about an hour. First thing tomorrow morning you'll come by the Master Barrister's office, and then we'll all drive to the courthouse together. Sounds fine, cha?"
"Sounds fine," I agreed. "Um, about these quarters..."
"Are they satisfactory, my friend?"
"Of course they're satisfactory. It's all a bit luxurious, really. Is this what I deserve? What kind of prison is this?"
Greskin chuckled. "It's a prison for a man who may be innocent. Had that never occurred to you?"
I smiled ruefully. "No."
After he had left again I went back to looking out the window and watched a group of obviously juvenile Pegasi being herded by their parents' staff, jostling and clambering over one another, a trail of primally hued smokelets diffusing in their wake.
I spun around at the sound of the door and saw a strange human executive standing there, his skin and robes dappled in alternating stripes of grey and blue. His black eyes fixed on mine.
"Hello," I said. "My name is Simon."
"I know," said the human executive. "My name is Piciatus."
"Piciatus --?" I stammered. "Pish?"
And then the blue-grey human executive did something I had never seen any of their kind do, even briefly. He grinned. "Ta-dah!"
I ran forward and hugged him, then pushed him away to take a look at him: his new face was so strange, and yet somehow familiar. I could not trace what lines connected it to the shape of the freckled child I had known, but there was undeniably something there. His grey cheeks were patterned with blue specks, and they pushed expressively at the bottom of his dark eyes as he smiled. "My," I said faintly, "...how you've changed."
"I grew up," said Pish.
"Well, yes. I suppose you did. Um, congratulations."
"How does it feel?"
"You have stripes."
"Yeah," he said, holding out his blue forearm and examining the grey spots there. "Nobody figured on it. It's an artifact from the genetic recombination."
"It's quite fetching."
I chewed my lip awkwardly. "Do you...do you remember -- how it was?"
"Oh yes," he replied. "And thank you for that, too. Thank you for everything, Simon."
"What do you mean?"
He looked at me tenderly. "What else could I mean? You were my dad."
I gulped. "You had a dad."
"I had two," he corrected gently.
What a sweet kid. I wiped my eyes and invited him into the apartment. He turned around to look expectantly at the door. I followed his gaze. "Hi Vera," I said.
"I brought you a present," said the girl who had been Glory, stepping through the door and letting it slide closed behind her. Her brown hair was no longer bound in cables of beaded braiding, but rather brushed out straight and very long. Her clothes were looser and less revealing, but she still wore her high black boots.
"A present?" I asked dumbly.
She smiled and handed me a flat box. Inside was a red silk robe. "Wow," I said, slipping it over my shoulders and belting the sash. "It's wonderful!"
"We saw your ass on television," explained Vera. "Figured you could use a spot more dignity."
Vera hugged me and kissed me on the cheek. "How are you?" she whispered.
"Oh, about the same," I whispered back. "You?"
"Don't worry about me, baby," she replied. "I'm gonna live forever."
We each pulled up a chair and sat down to chat. Vera was telling me about how bizarre life was in Patch Seventy-Two on Callicrates, and about how she had almost had to shave her head to visit me until I had been reassigned to the Solar pavilion. "Lucky we can gate in air here," she said, "because there was no way Jeremiah was going to talk me into one of those coital Pegasi skin-suits."
The golden robots interrupted with my lunch. "Oh, I'm sorry --" I apologized.
"No, please," insisted Pish. "Eat."
"It does tend to get cold..."
"Eat," grunted Vera. "We don't care. Honestly."
I pulled the tray closer to me on the desk and picked up my cutlery. "The food here is really not so bad," I told Pish, cutting into a roll of some kind of pasta topped with white curdles of cheese. I stuck a piece with my fork and offered it up. "Would you like to try some?"
"I don't eat anymore, actually," said Pish sadly.
"Oh," I said consolingly. "Vera?"
"No thanks, Simon."
I shrugged and popped the morsel into my mouth, chewing thoughtfully. "I mean, I guess in contrast to food pills...anything...would...be..." I trailed off, swallowing. I frowned and cut another piece of the pasta roll. I tasted it. "Mother of love..." I commented, looking up to see Pish and Vera watching me closely.
I gasped. "Duncan is here!"
We all looked over to the door as it slid open, revealing Duncan's bulky form. He was dressed in a Zorannite cassock, his head shaven. His sparkling eyes shone beneath his bushy brows, the expression of his mouth lost in the brambles of his dark beard. "We'll visit you again," Pish assured me, standing up with Vera. They both squeezed past Duncan with a nod, who then stepped heavily into the apartment and let the door slide closed behind him.
I stood up and then hovered in place, uncertain how to react.
"Enjoy the cannoli?" he rumbled softly.
"Words can't describe."
"You did right by Pish."
"I left him wounded on Metra."
"I know all about what you've done."
"Have you come to spit in my eye?" I asked. "Because I don't know what I mean to you, but it would break my heart."
"You're my son," he said simply. "If I stood by you as a tyrant what makes you think I wouldn't stand by you now?"
"You stood by me then?"
"I was steadfast in my faith in you then, despite everything," he clarified. "Though I didn't know your name I knew there was a Simon inside of you. I never gave up hope for your redemption, Terron."
My breath caught in my throat. His use of the name stabbed at me, and called up something vague and grim but familiar from the deeper pools of my mind. Some small part of me that might have remained forever sceptical gave up the ghost, and I thought to myself, Mother of love -- it really is true, isn't it?
"I remembered what you told me," I said. "I'm taking responsibility for the past."
"More than may be your due," said Duncan.
I sighed, holding his green eyes with my brown ones. "Somebody has to be Volmash," I said. "The title is assumed. It always was. For good or for ill."
Duncan said nothing for a moment, nor did he blink. At long last he nodded slowly and sighed. "Then my crime was worth everything. I helped you and Aro escape Kamari...I never knew you would try to escape your self."
"Ever one for dramatic gestures, me."
Duncan smiled. "That can't be denied."
"Thank you for coming to see me."
"How could I not?"
"I didn't know you were free to. When Pish and I saw you taken by Militia Samundra we didn't know what to think."
Duncan scratched at his beard absently. "Yes. Delightful hosts they were, the bastards. Thought they could squeeze me to find out what I knew about the Nightmare Cannon."
"Never you mind," he said, waving a big hand dismissively. "Executives came for me before too long. It's all done now and best forgotten. Finish your cannoli -- it's getting cold."
"I'm not hungry."
"You should eat. And then sleep. Tomorrow's going to be a big day."
I asked, "You'll come again?"
"Pish and Vera and I are staying here at the Solar pavilion. We'll visit as often as they'll let us."
On his way out he paused to shake my hand firmly and lingeringly while looking into my eyes. "I can't believe I had you under my own roof and I didn't even know," he said wonderingly. "I can't believe I have you back, son."
"I will do you proud," I promised.
"Don't," he replied. "I can't stand to lose you again."
I bowed my head. The door slid shut. I sat down before the delicious pasta but forgot to eat any more, dazed with wheels of thought spinning and grinding, clashing and flashing across my mind. I crossed my legs and rebelted my red silk robe, playing my fingers across the hem.
Hours after the sun had set I continued to stare at the glass.