A Pilgrimage to Plaka Kalada
Section 1 - click here for section 2Ida Brahma woke with the words of an alien religion on her lips.
"Blessed be the One Who Watches. And praise to God for my safe arrival on Borboth."
She was not yet mentally organized enough to know who she was or where she was, but post-hypnotic compulsion forced her to say those words. On saying them, she realized they were designed to save her life. But how?
"Borboth is not yet," said the blurred mish-mash of colors which loomed below her. "Thy pilgrimage has entered another phase. Blessed art thou amongst the blessed."
Who owned that face of mashed colors? Ida groped for names. One name, above all others, was important to her.
"Velpa Dora," said Ida, giving life to the name.
Then, in horror, she realized that she had just made an appalling mistake. Saying that name in the wrong place could get her killed. But the voice that was swimming below her did not seem to have noticed that she had spoken.
"Blessed art thou," repeated the voice.
"I am?" said Ida.
"Thou art," confirmed the voice.
"How so?" said Ida.
For a moment, there was no answer. Suspended in silence, Ida endured a memory of a purple face blotched with liverish red splotches. Where did that memory come from? Nobody is purple. While trying to figure it out, Ida realized the blur had been speaking to her again.
"What?" said Ida.
"Valahajakalisa Nanchurstingapata," said the blur, repeating itself, "thou hast won the privilege of pilgrimage on Plaka Kalada."
Valahajakalisa Nanchurstingapata? Who was that? And what in the name of nails was Plaka Kalada?
"Valahajakalisa Nanchurstingapata! Arise!"
So saying, the blur of colors abruptly consolidated itself into a face. Not the purple face of Ida's unplaced recollection, but a face with a more conventional olive complexion. As the face consolidated itself into coherence, the world rotated. The face swung up into the sky. Ida realized she was lying on the couch of a stasis chamber - starship grade, by the looks of it - and that something had gone hideously wrong.
"I need to see a doctor," said Ida. "Now."
Her training had been rushed, but the key points had gone deep. If you hit bad trouble - really bad trouble - try to escape into a hospital. Or, failing that, a lunatic asylum. As a last resort, a prison - even getting sentenced to a ten-year stretch in jail is better than getting discovered.
Because, if they find out who you really are, then you are worse than dead.
On the way to the starship's clinic, Ida was led past a gaggle of women whose hair was dyed pink. They were wearing dark creamy ivory white silk sarongs and restrained coughstone jewelry. Out of the babble of their conversation, one name stood out clearly.
" ... Velpa Anx ... "
Ida wanted to stop, to ask, to interrogate. But "Velpa Anx" is not the same as "Velpa Dora", is it, now? And surely nobody would be talking about a Velpa Dora here.
Even though Ida could not yet remember what a Velpa Dora was, she knew it was something you did not talk about lightly. Loose talk could get you killed.
Asking for a doctor might have been a mistake. For Doctor Defrock, the doctor on board the Cornstalk Blue had a weird purple face blotched with patches of inflamed pumpkin. He was very much like the unindexed demon which was haunting Ida's chaotic memory bank. Did she really remember him from somewhere? And, if so, where?
For whatever reason, Doctor Defrock looked very pleased with himself. It was if he was brimming with some unimaginably delicious secret. Or maybe he was drunk. In any case, Ida liked neither the man nor his attitude. She seemed to remember him, vaguely, from the early stages of the voyage, before she (along with most of the rest of the passengers) went into stasis. He had looked at her too often, and too intently.
"What seems to be the problem?" said Doctor Defrock, studying her with his devouring eyes.
Ida was not used to being looked at like that. At the age of thirty-nine, she rarely attracted the predatory attentions of men. But, of course, "rarely" is not "never".
"I am disinclined to travel," said Ida cautiously. Then, realizing this might not do the trick, tried harder. "I'm, uh, suffering from fear of markets. Oh - and sky terror. Classical version, Mental Debility Coding - sorry, I forget the coding. But I'm suffering from it."
"Ida," said Doctor Defrock.
"What?" said Ida, sharply.
"Nothing," said Doctor Defrock. "I was talking to myself."
And he nodded, very slightly, and moved his eyes sideways, just once, as if glancing at the walls. Of course. Eyes and ears have walls. No, Ida! The other way round! Walls have ears. And eyes, naturally. And noses? Maybe. I don't seem to be able to think straight | |
"Valahajakalisa Nanchurstingapata," said Doctor Defrock, frowning slightly as he consulted his records. "I have got the right name?"
"Yes," said Ida. "That's my name."
"Then, please understand," said Doctor Defrock. "An element of mental confusion is natural after awakening from stasis. In your confused state, you may even feel, well ... disinclined to accept even this most sacred, most holy honor. But you were automatically entered in the pilgrimage lottery when you boarded this ship, and you have won."
"And?" said Ida.
"And," said Doctor Defrock, "as you will no doubt realize when your mind clears, to refuse this honor would be the worst kind of blasphemy, the Blasphemy of the Body Rejecting, equivalent to rejecting an offer of food from a high priest."
"And?" said Ida, who wanted to know more.
"And I don't need to tell you the consequences of that," said Doctor Defrock. "For, as one of the Nu-chala-nuth, you know the consequences all too well."
"I see," said Ida.
She did not see at all, but, obviously, circumstances did not permit Doctor Defrock to explain further.
"Well," said Ida, "I guess I'd better, uh, collect my baggage from the purser guy, the guy ... Bobby, right? Yeah, Bobby the Purser."
"You will certainly be uplifting your baggage," said Doctor Defrock, "but not from Bobby. Bobby is dead."
"Say what?" said Ida, shocked.
Bobby was her contact on board the ship, the person the intelligence service had told her would ease her arrival on Borboth. And now he was - dead? Impossible!
"He was eaten by a hammerhead shark," said Doctor Defrock. "Mostly eaten, anyway. The legs - "
"I don't believe this!" said Ida, getting angry. "It's a bad joke, right?"
"I wish it were," said Doctor Defrock. "But, as the person who had to dissect the shark, I can assure you it is not."
"How could anyone possibly be eaten by a shark on a starship?" said Ida.
"It's a long story," said Doctor Defrock, "and one that we don't have time for now. We have to collect your luggage or you'll miss your flight downstairs."
On the way to the Purser's office, Ida glanced out of one of the portholes. (Real portholes, since a starship, traveling as it does through realms which have no physical existence, does not have to worry about the external environment except when it is in planetary orbit.) Below, the blue-green arc of a planet. Definitely not Borboth, for Borboth was a desert planet. Always had been, always would be.
"Plaka Kalada," said Doctor Defrock, indicating the planet downstairs.
A new planet. And Ida had no idea where it was or why it was or what to expect there. Well, maybe the Purser could answer some questions.
The new Purser was a tired and harried man, exhausted by the demands of his passengers, and in no mood to give geography lessons. Besides, there was no time for a briefing - the globe ship which was to take Ida down to the surface was about to leave.
"Here is your pilgrimage itinerary," said the new Purser, handing Ida an envelope. "And here, your lottery cash bonus."
Ida had won not just a free pilgrimage to the planet Plaka Kalada, but a wad of cash into the bargain. The cash came complete with a moneybelt.
"Can you confirm that this is all your baggage?" said the new Purser, indicating a faded blue suitcase adorned with a shiny green and gray tartan decal advertising Fetish Fried Frogs.
"That's it," said Ida.
"It will have to travel separately," said the Purser. "It will be at the baggage claims area when you land."
Then it was on to the globe ship. To Ida's discomfort, Doctor Defrock followed her to the very boarding gate.
"Goodbye to you, doctor," said Ida, in her most formal manner.
"Ida," said Doctor Defrock.
"That's not my name," said Ida, wishing that she could remember what, in fact, her assumed name was. "Goodbye."
"Ida," said Doctor Defrock, disregarding her dismissal. "You do love me, don't you?"
"You must be out and out crazy," said Ida flatly.
And, turning her back on him, she marched into the globe ship. She did not look back.
While making the descent to Plaka Kalada, anonymous amongst the tourists and pilgrims, Ida was jolted by a sudden burst of memory. She remembered what a Velpa Dora was, and what it could do. And, at the same time, she remembered precisely what her mission was.
"So!" said Ida, a little shocked.
And, at the same time, excited - childishly thrilled, even
- at her own daring at taking on such a task.
"Do I know you?" said a man, mistaking Ida's unfocused gaze for a look of blissful adoration.
"No!" said Ida. "No, of course not! And don't you dare touch me, or I'll bite your finger off."
As the globeship continued its descent, Ida, doing her best to act normal, consulted the pilgrimage itinerary she had been given.
The first page began with a thumbnail outline of the planet she was descending to.
"Welcome to Plaka Kalada. This unspoilt planet, as yet untouched by the Higher Technologies, is sacred to seven religions. In particular, while not a Nu-chala-nuth planet, it is a leading place of pilgrimage for the Nu-chala-nuth. To those who come with holy hearts, we unbutton our skins. Those who come with malice aforefoot, however, should remember that our elephants have heavy feet."
So now you know.
The first page then outlined a simple schedule, and gave her the barebones information she would need to get through the next twenty-four hours.
It seemed straightforward enough. There was a city waiting down below, apparently. A city called Durbar Maslok. In the city was a tourist area, called Camel. In the tourist area, a hotel. The Hotel Pearly Snakes. Go there, check in, then make a pilgrimage to the temple of Mingu the Tramp. This, apparently, was in Camel, and the route leading there was well-signposted. The pilgrimage should be completed inside of an hour.
For her guidance, a copy of the pilgrimage protocols was included, complete with the Holy Equations which she was to recite in the temple. Oh, and a note about reconfirming her onward travel - "please contact the reservations office at least seventy-two hours before departure." Well, worry about that later. Presumably, she would be continuing to Borboth on board the Cornstalk Blue, the starship which had brought her here.
And the rest of it?
Ida flicked through a few pages. Discount coupons for stone baths, pumice massages, maze races ("thrill to the progress of the rodent of your choice"), temple tours ("observation of the ritual water buffalo sacrifice is an optional extra") and so forth. Then some maps and stuff concerning a long walk, something called the Karma Bataan - an optional extra, perhaps. Rubbish. Ignore it.
That was when, unasked for, another memory of Doctor Defrock surfaced. That purple face, burnt by the blazes of its birthmarks. Obscene. Wet with milk. Soft as tomatoes. The texture of pumpkin yielding as her plump flesh gave birth to a dinosaur's dream.
A rush of stuff - hallucinatory memories, impossible, yet freighted with the urgency of fact. She recalled, distinctly, being embedded in glacial ice. In that blue-green haven, her ice maiden's secret yielded to the lava of Doctor Defrock. He was molten rock, embracing her, and her flesh shuddered with exalted pleasure as he took her.
The moment passed, and Ida regained her normative possession of herself. It was hard to resist the hideous thought that someone might have tampered with her mind. And, if so -
"We have landed," said the globe ship.
We have? Apparently so.
The crowded disembarkation tunnel smelt of wet rubber and glue. Hustled along by the tumult of the crowd, Ida found herself precipitated into chaos - a huge mob of struggling, yammering people. A door opened, and a man in a workman's oil-stained overalls came out of it. Through the door, Ida saw a couple of people with pink hair. Wearing - what? Too late. They had already vanished around a corner.
Pink hair. There had been pink-haired women on board the Cornstalk Blue, and they had been talking about a Velpa Dora - right? Well, maybe not. For some indefinable reason, Ida had the feeling there was something wrong with her memory.
Even so -
"Thank you," said Ida, ducking into the open doorway, pursuing the pink-haired one.
The man in overalls tried to remonstrate, but Ida closed the door in his face and strode quickly away down corridors which were comparatively quiet, if badly lit. Now, where were the pink-haired women? No sign of them. Choosing a direction at random, Ida set off, hoping to find them.
"Seize the initiative," said Ida, reciting her credo to herself. "Seize the initiative, and don't let the straitjackets hold you."
But the spaceport was a maze of halls and tunnels, apparently built out of mud bricks, and, with no sign of the pink-haired woman anywhere, it soon became apparent that seizing the initiative might not have been the optimum course of action. Everything was murkily lit and ambiguously labeled, and before long Ida had to admit that she was hopelessly lost.
What now? Seek authority and surrender to it? No! No way!
To start with, coming her disguised as someone else might, all too easily, attract the unwelcome attention of elephants with heavy feet. Beyond that, to complete her larger mission she had to preserve her identity.
She had to discover the truth of the rumor.
Was it really true that the Nu-chala-nuth were building a Velpa Dora, a hyper-weapon capable of unraveling the structure of Known Reality? If the rumor was true, the weapon was being constructed on Borboth, a planet off-limits to Unbelievers. To investigate, then, Ida had to preserve her assumed identity as one of the Children of the Way, one of the Nu-chala-nuth.
Any confrontation with Authority was likely not just to precipitate an immediate disaster (an elephant-sized disaster) but to imperil her long-term mission.
"So sort it out, Ida," said Ida to herself.
Then was shocked at what she had just done. For if the walls on this "unspoilt planet" had ears - as walls are so likely to, these days - then Ida had just betrayed her true identity.