by Allen Kopp
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
I waited for what seemed a minute and then I went out the door and down the hallway to the left as he had said. I walked calmly — not fast and not slow — as if I belonged there. I went down the stairs and down the long hallway to the door at the end. In less than a minute I was outside the building, breathing in the night air.
I crouched down in the shadow of the building for a minute or two to make sure there was nobody around who might spot me, and then I began walking away from the building. I found the gravel road and stayed on it until I came to the paved road, the Hyphen Road, and began walking on it toward the east. I knew that five miles was a long way to walk without stopping, but I was moving forward almost without effort. My legs seemed almost to be working independently of my body.
I had to admit that it felt good not to be locked in a small room. The night, with its smells and sounds, was delightful. Only once did I encounter other people: I saw two men walking toward me — they apparently didn’t see me — and crouched down in the tall grass beside the road until they had passed.
I first saw the docked airship from about half a mile away. It seemed enormous, like a huge sleeping animal. I felt my heart beat faster as I came closer to the airship. I was happy that the thing hadn’t left without me but also apprehensive with the feeling that anything might happen. I still believed my “escape” might be something other than what it appeared to be.
I was surprised to see no one around the airship, no workmen or crew preparing for flight. One lone man was standing at the bottom of the steps that went up into the airship. As I approached, I could see that he was a strikingly handsome boy a year or two older than me with pale skin and tousled brown hair.
When he looked at me and smiled, I saw from his slightly luminous eyes that he was a robot. For a moment I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, because he was by far the most lifelike robot I had ever seen, a welcome change from the utility bots I had become accustomed to for the last couple of years.
“I’m Lloyd David,” I said. “Mr. Thackeray sent me.” My own voice sounded to me like somebody else’s voice.
He gave me a salute and stood aside and gestured for me to board the airship. I went up the ladder on shaky legs, with him right behind me, and when we were both inside he gestured for me to follow him. He took me down a small flight of stairs through a passageway and down a corridor to a door. He opened the door and stepped aside for me to enter and when I had gone inside he closed the door again and was gone.
I found myself in a small but comfortable cabin. There was a cot, a small table and two chairs and not much else. I could see through the one porthole in the cabin that it was starting to get light outside. I sat down and was taking off my boots when the robot opened the door again and came back into the room.
“We’ll be taking off in a few minutes,” he said.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“My name is Phiz,” he said.
“Where are we going?”
“It’s going to be a long flight, so just make yourself comfortable.” He closed the partition over the porthole, blocking out the light, and then he was gone again.
I lay down on the cot and fell into a deep sleep, during which I dreamt of the room I slept in at home when I was a child; the room was high up in the house where we lived and I used to pretend it was a cabin on an airship bound for exotic ports.
I don’t know how long I had been asleep when I awoke with a start. Phiz, the robot, was standing at the foot of the cot looking at me. He had a strange way of seeming to come alive when I looked at him; he was at other times, I suppose, in a dormant state to conserve his energy supply.
“Where are we?” I asked. “Have we landed?”
“Still airborne,” he said, raising the partition over the porthole.
“When will we land?”
“Not for a long time yet. Would you like some food?”
“Yes, and something to drink.”
He was gone no longer than five minutes and when he came back he was carrying a tray with a covered plate on it. When he put the tray on the table and removed the cover, I could see the plate held some kind of roasted fowl surrounded by vegetables. I sat down at the table and began eating. He left again and in a moment came back carrying a bottle of wine and a glass. He opened the bottle and poured the glass full and handed it to me. The wine was light and delicious, unlike any I had ever tasted before.
He sat down across from me at the little table. “Would you like me to sing to you while you eat?” he asked.
“I’d rather talk,” I said.
“Of course. What would you like to talk about?”
“Why haven’t I seen any other people on this airship since I came aboard?”
“You and I are the only ones here,” he said.
“Somebody has to be steering,” I said. “Somebody has to be navigating. The thing just doesn’t fly itself.”
“If you must know, I’m steering and I’m navigating.”
“Oh, I see. And who cooked this food?”
“You do everything?”
“I’d like to see the captain,” I said. “I want to know where we’re going.”
He looked at me as I stood up from the table and went out the door of the cabin. I had been in airships before and I knew where the control room was. I ran to the front of the airship and up a stairway to where I believed the captain and navigator would be. I opened a hatch and stepped into a large empty space. There were no steering device, no navigating instruments, and no crew.
I ran back to my cabin and looked out the porthole. I hoped to see a mountain, river, or city, some feature that might tell me where we were. Clouds were all I saw; we were in a thick cloudbank.
“I know all about you,” Phiz said, “from the day you were born.”
I turned and looked at him. “Who are you?” I asked.
“Don’t you know?”
“I’m the Nonpareil.”
I let out a little snort of laughter. “The Nonpareil is a robot named Phiz?” I asked.
“The Nonpareil is different things to different people.”
“I want you to turn this ship around and take me back to where we were.”
“That isn’t possible. We’ve passed through the portal. There’s no going back.”
“The portal from one plane of existence to another.”
I sat down heavily on the bed. “So this is what it’s like to be dead,” I said.
“Do you feel any less alive than you did?”
“I want to go back.”
“I just told you. You can’t go back. And, believe me, where you are now is better than where you were.”
“I’ll figure out how this thing operates and turn it around.”
“You would be wasting your time even to try.”
“I’ll open the door and jump out.”
“You would drift forever in purgatory. It’s a horrible existence.”
He sat down beside me on the bed. I could hear the slight whir coming from inside his chest, the robot equivalent of a heartbeat.
“I don’t want to be here,” I said, “with a robot. I’ll figure out a way to bring this thing down, even if it kills both of us.”
He smiled sympathetically. “You’re not making sense,” he said.
“Where are we going and when will we land?” I asked. “I want to know!”
He gripped the back of my neck gently in his hand and, in spite of myself, I leaned into him and put my head on his shoulder. If I had had a knife, I would have ripped his beautiful face apart and done him some real damage.
“This is what you always dreamed about, isn’t it?” he asked. “Just drifting among the clouds, without a care in the world?” He began making little cooing noises, which I found strange in a robot, and pretty soon I began feeling drowsy. The next time I woke up it was dark but I could see his luminous eyes looking right at me.
Copyright © 2011 by Allen Kopp