and paneled with wood. There was a complete library there, mostly Earth classics bound in synthaleather, with a few novels from Baldur, our home world. Somebody had been researching our tastes. One of the walls of the bedroom was tinted glass, giving a panoramic view of the city far below us, with a control that could darken it for sleeping.
A Song for Lya
by George R.R. Martin
A Song for Lya
by George R. R. Martin
Two telepaths investigate the newly discovered world of Shkea, where every native inhabitant, and an increasing number of human colonists, worships a mysterious and deadly parasite. Winner of the 1975 Hugo Award for Best Novella.
THE GLASS FLOWER
Copyright © 1974 by George R. R. Martin. All rights reserved.
Original Publication: Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact, June 1974.
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A Song for Lya
By George R. R. Martin
The cities of the Shkeen are old, older far than man’s, and the great rust-red metropolis that rose from their sacred hill country had proved to be the oldest of them all. The Shkeen city had no name. It needed none. Though they built cities and towns by the hundreds and the thousands, the hill city had no rivals. It was the largest in size and population, and it was alone in the sacred hills. It was their Rome, Mecca, Jerusalem; all in one. It was the city, and all Shkeen came to it at last, in the final days before Union.
That city had been ancient in the days before Rome fell, had been huge and sprawling when Babylon was still a dream. But there was no feel of age to it. The human eye saw only miles and miles of low, red-brick domes; small hummocks of dried mud that covered the rolling hills like a rash. Inside they were dim and nearly airless. The rooms were small and the furniture crude.
Yet it was not a grim city. Day after day it squatted in those scrubby hills, broiling under a hot sun that sat in the sky like a weary orange melon; but the city teemed with life: smells of cooking, the sounds of laughter and talk and children running, the bustle and sweat of brickmen repairing the domes, the bells of the Joined ringing in the streets. The Shkeen were a lusty and exuberant people, almost childlike. Certainly there was nothing about them that told of great age or ancient wisdom. This is a young race, said the signs, this is a culture in its infancy.
But that infancy had lasted more than fourteen thousand years.
The human city was the real infant, less than ten Earth years old. It was built on the edge of the hills, between the Shkeen metropolis and the dusty brown plains where the spaceport had gone up. In human terms, it was a beautiful city: open and airy, full of graceful archways and glistening fountains and wide boulevards lined by trees. The buildings were wrought of metal and colored plastic and native woods, and most of them were low in deference to Shkeen architecture. Most of them . . . the Administration Tower was the exception, a polished blue steel needle that split a crystal sky.
You could see it for miles in all directions. Lyanna spied it even before we landed, and we admired it from the air. The gaunt skyscrapers of Old Earth and Baldur were taller, and the fantastic webbed cities of Arachne were far more beautiful—but that slim blue Tower was still imposing enough as it rose unrivaled to its lonely dominance above the sacred hills.
The spaceport was in the shadow of the Tower, easy walking distance. But they met us anyway. A low-slung scarlet aircar sat purring at the base of the ramp as we disembarked, with a driver lounging against the stick. Dino Valcarenghi stood next to it, leaning on the door and talking to an aide.
Valcarenghi was the planetary administrator, the boy wonder of the sector. Young, of course, but I’d known that. Short, and good-looking, in a dark, intense way, with black hair that curled thickly against his head and an easy, genial smile.
He flashed us that smile then, when we stepped off the ramp, and reached to shake hands. “Hi,” he began, “I’m glad to see you.” There was no nonsense with formal introductions. He knew who we were, and we knew who he was, and Valcarenghi wasn’t the kind of man who put much stock in ritual.
Lyanna took his hand lightly in hers, and gave him her vampire look: big, dark eyes opened wide and staring, thin mouth lifted in a tiny faint smile. She’s a small girl, almost waiflike, with short brown hair and a child’s figure. She can look very fragile, very helpless. When she wants to. But she rattles people with that look. If they know Lya’s a telepath, they figure she’s poking around amid their innermost secrets. Actually she’s playing with them. When Lyanna is really reading, her whole body goes stiff and you can almost see her tremble. And those big, soul-sucking eyes get narrow and hard and opaque.
But not many people know that, so they squirm under her vampire eyes and look the other way and hurry to release her hand. Not Valcarenghi, though. He just smiled and stared back, then moved on to me.
I was reading when I took his hand—my standard operating procedure. Also a bad habit, I guess, since it’s put some promising friendships into an early grave. My talent isn’t equal to Lya’s. But it’s not as demanding, either. I read emotions. Valcarenghi’s geniality came through strong and genuine. With nothing behind it, or at least nothing that was close enough to the surface for me to catch.
We also shook hands with the aide, a middle-aged blond stork named Nelson Gourlay. Then Valcarenghi ushered everybody into the aircar and we took off. “I imagine you’re tired,” he said after we were airborne, “so we’ll save the tour of the city and head straight for the Tower. Nelse will show you your quarters, then you can join us for a drink, and we’ll talk over the problem. You’ve read the materials I sent?”
“Yes,” I said. Lya nodded. “Interesting background, but I’m not sure why we’re here.”
“We’ll get to that soon enough,” Valcarenghi replied. “I ought to be letting you enjoy the scenery.” He gestured toward the window, smiled, and fell silent.
So Lya and I enjoyed the scenery, or as much as we could enjoy during the five-minute flight from spaceport to tower. The aircar was whisking down the main street at treetop level, stirring up a breeze that whipped the thin branches as we went by. It was cool and dark in the interior of the car, but outside the Shkeen sun was riding toward noon, and you could see the heat waves shimmering from the pavement. The population must have been inside huddled around their air-conditioners, because we saw very little traffic.
We got out near the main entrance to the Tower and walked through a huge, sparkling-clean lobby. Valcarenghi left us then to talk to some underlings. Gourlay led us into one of the tubes and we shot up fifty floors. Then we waltzed past a secretary into another, private tube, and climbed some more.
Our rooms were lovely, carpeted in cool green,
Gourlay showed it to us dutifully, like a dour bellhop. I read him briefly though, and found no resentment. He was nervous, but only slightly. There was honest affection there for someone. Us? Valcarenghi?
Lya sat down on one of the twin beds. “Is someone bringing our luggage?” she asked.
Gourlay nodded. “You’ll be well taken care of,” he said. “Anything you want, ask.”
“Don’t worry, we will,” I said. I dropped to the second bed, and gestured Gourlay to a chair. “How long you been here?”
“Six years,” he said, taking the chair gratefully and sprawling out all over it. “I’m one of the veterans. I’ve worked under four administrators now. Dino, and Stuart before him, and Gustaffson before him. I was even under Rockwood a few months.”
Lya perked up, crossing her legs under her and leaning forward. “That was all Rockwood lasted, wasn’t it?”
“Right,” Gourlay said. “He didn’t like the planet, took a quick demotion to assistant administrator someplace else. I didn’t care much, to tell the truth. He was the nervous type, always giving orders to prove who was boss.”
“And Valcarenghi?” I asked.
Gourlay made a smile look like a yawn. “Dino? Dino’s OK, the best of the lot. He’s good, knows he’s good. He’s only been here two months, but he’s gotten a lot done, and he’s made a lot of friends. He treats the staff like people, calls everybody by his first name, all that stuff. People like that.”
I was reading, and I read sincerity. It was Valcarenghi that Gourlay was affectionate toward, then. He believed what he was saying.
I had more questions, but I didn’t get to ask them. Gourlay got up suddenly. “I really shouldn’t stay,” he said. “You want to rest, right? Come up to the top in about two hours and we’ll go over things with you. You know where the tube is?”
We nodded, and Gourlay left. I turned to Lyanna. “What do you think?”
She lay back on the bed and considered the ceiling. “I don’t know,” she said. “I wasn’t reading. I wonder why they’ve had so many administrators. And why they wanted us.”
“We’re Talented,” I said, smiling. With the capital, yes. Lyanna and I have been tested and registered as psi Talents, and we have the licenses to prove it.
“Uh-huh,” she said, turning on her side and smiling back at me. Not her vampire half-smile this time. Her sexy little girl smile.
“Valcarenghi wants us to get some rest,” I said. “It’s probably not a bad idea.”
Lya bounced out of bed. “OK,” she said, “but these twins have got to go.”
“We could push them together.”
She smiled again. We pushed them together.
And we did get some sleep. Eventually.
Our luggage was outside the door when we woke. We changed into fresh clothes, old casual stuff, counting on Valcarenghi’s notorious lack of pomp. The tube took us to the top of the Tower.
The office of the planetary administrator was hardly an office. There was no desk, none of the usual trappings. Just a bar and lush blue carpets that swallowed us ankle high, and six or seven scattered chairs. Plus lots of space and sunlight, with Shkea laid out at our feet beyond the tinted glass. All four walls this time.
Valcarenghi and Gourlay were waiting for us, and Valcarenghi did the bartending chores personally. I didn’t recognize the beverage, but it was cool and spicy and aromatic, with a real sting to it. I sipped it gratefully. For some reason I felt I needed a lift.
“Shkeen wine,” Valcarenghi said, smiling, in answer to an unasked question. “They’ve got a name for it, but I can’t pronounce it yet. But give me time. I’ve only been here two months, and the language is rough.”
“You’re learning Shkeen?” Lya asked, surprised. I knew why. Shkeen is rough on human tongues, but the natives learned Terran with stunning ease. Most people accepted that happily, and just forgot about the difficulties of cracking the alien language.
“It gives me an insight into the way they think,” Valcarenghi said. “At least that’s the theory.” He smiled.
I read him again, although it was more difficult. Physical contact makes things sharper. Again, I got a simple emotion, close to the surface—pride this time. With pleasure mixed in. I chalked that up to the wine. Nothing beneath.
“However you pronounce the drink, I like it,” I said.
“The Shkeen produce a wide variety of liquors and food-stuffs,” Gourlay put in. “We’ve cleared many for export already, and we’re checking others. Market should be good.”
“You’ll have a chance to sample more of the local produce this evening,” Valcarenghi said. “I’ve set up a tour of the city, with a stop or two in Shkeentown. For a settlement of our size, our night life is fairly interesting. I’ll be your guide.”
“Sounds good,” I said. Lya was smiling too. A tour was unusually considerate. Most Normals feel uneasy around Talents, so they rush us in to do whatever they want done, then rush us out again as quickly as possible. They certainly don’t socialize with us.
“Now—the problem,” Valcarenghi said, lowering his drink and leaning forward in the chair. “You read about the Cult of the Union?”
“A Shkeen religion,” Lya said.
“The Shkeen religion,” corrected Valcarenghi. “Every one of them is a believer. This is a planet without heretics.”
“We read the materials you sent on it,” Lya said. “Along with everything else.”
“What do you think?”
I shrugged. “Grim. Primitive. But no more than any number of others I’ve read about. The Shkeen aren’t very advanced, after all. There were religions on Old Earth that included human sacrifice.”
Valcarenghi shook his head, and looked toward Gourlay.
“No, you don’t understand,” Gourlay started, putting his drink down on the carpet. “I’ve been studying their religion for six years. It’s like no other in history. Nothing on Old Earth like it, no sir. Nor in any other race we’ve encountered.
“And Union, well, it’s wrong to compare it to human sacrifice, just wrong. The Old Earth religions sacrificed one or two unwilling victims to appease their gods. Killed a handful to get mercy for the millions. And the handful generally protested. The Shkeen don’t work it that way. The Greeshka takes everyone. And they go willingly. Like lemmings they march off to the caves to be eaten alive by those parasites. Every Shkeen is Joined at forty, and goes to Final Union before he’s fifty.”
I was confused. “All right,” I said. “I see the distinction, I guess. But so what? Is this the problem? I imagine that Union is rough on the Shkeen, but that’s their business. Their religion is no worse than the ritual cannibalism of the Hrangans, is it?”
Valcarenghi finished his drink and got up, heading for the bar. As he poured himself a refill, he said, almost casually, “As far as I know, Hrangan cannibalism has claimed no human converts.”
Lya looked startled. I felt startled. I sat up and stared. “What?”
Valcarenghi headed back to his seat, glass in hand. “Human converts have been joining the Cult of the Union. Dozens of them are already Joined. None of them have achieved full Union yet, but that’s only a question of time.” He sat down, and looked at Gourlay. So did we.
The gangling blond aide picked up the narrative. “The first convert was about seven years ago. Nearly a year before I got here, two and a half after Shkea was discovered and the settlement built. Guy named Magly. Psi-psych, worked closely with the Shkeen. He was it for two years. Then another in ’08, more the next year. And the rate’s been climbing ever since. There was one big one. Phil Gustaffson.”
Lya blinked. “The planetary administrator?”
“The same,” said Gourlay. “We’ve had a lot of administrators. Gustaffson came in after Rockwood couldn’t stand it. He was a big, gruff old guy. Everybody loved him. He’d lost his wife and kids on his last assignment, but you’d never have known it. He was always hearty, full of fun. Well, he got interested in the Shkeen religion, started talking to them. Talked to Magly and some of the other converts too. Even went to see a Greeshka. That shook him up real bad for a while. But finally he got over it, went back to his researches. I worked with him, but I never guessed what he had in mind. A little over a year ago, he converted. He’s Joined now. Nobody’s ever been accepted that fast. I hear talk in Shkeentown that he may even be admitted to Final Union, rushed right in. Well, Phil was administrator here longer than anybody else. People liked him, and when he went over, a lot of his friends followed. The rate’s way up now.”
“Not quite one percent, and rising,” Valcarenghi said. “That seems low, but remember what it means. One percent of the people in my settlement are choosing a religion that includes a very unpleasant form of suicide.”
Lya looked from him to Gourlay and back again. “Why hasn’t this been reported?”
“It should have been,” Valcarenghi said. “But Stuart succeeded Gustaffson, and he was scared stiff of a scandal. There’s no law against humans adopting an alien religion, so Stuart defined it as a nonproblem. He reported the conversion rate routinely, and nobody higher up ever bothered to make the correlation and remember just what all these people were converting to.”
I finished my drink, set it down. “Go on,” I said to Valcarenghi.
“I define the situation as a problem,” he said. “I don’t care how few people are involved, the idea that human beings would allow the Greeshka to consume them alarms me. I’ve had a team of psychs on it since I took over, but they’re getting nowhere. I needed Talent. I want you two to find out why these people are converting. Then I’ll be able to deal with the situation.”