d out a box of sober-ups, and passed them around.
The problem was strange, but the assignment seemed straightforward enough. I read Valcarenghi to be sure. His emotions were a bit more complex this time, but not much. Confidence above all: he was sure we could handle the problem. There was honest concern there, but no fear, and not even a hint of deception. Again, I couldn’t catch anything below the surface. Valcarenghi kept his hidden turmoil well hidden, if he had any.
I glanced at Lyanna. She was sitting awkwardly in her chair, and her fingers were wrapped very tightly around her wine glass. Reading. Then she loosened up and looked my way and nodded.
“All right,” I said. “I think we can do it.”
Valcarenghi smiled. “That I never doubted,” he said. “It was only a question of whether you would. But enough of business for tonight. I’ve promised you a night on the town, and I always try to deliver on my promises. I’ll meet you downstairs in the lobby in a half-hour.”
* * *
Lya and I changed into something more formal back in our room. I picked a dark blue tunic, with white slacks and a matching mesh scarf. Not the height of fashion, but I was hoping that Shkea would be several months behind the times. Lya slipped into a silky white skintight with a tracery of thin blue lines that flowed over her in sensuous patterns in response to her body heat. The lines were definitely lecherous, accentuating her thin figure with a single-minded determination. A blue raincape completed the outfit.
“Valcarenghi’s funny,” she said as she fastened it.
“Oh?” I was struggling with the sealseam on my tunic, which refused to seal. “You catch something when you read him?’
“No,” she said. She finished attaching the cape and admired herself in the mirror. Then she spun toward me, the cape swirling behind her. “That’s it. He was thinking what he was saying. Oh, variations in the wording, of course, but nothing important. His mind was on what we were discussing, and behind that there was only a wall.” She smiled. “Didn’t get a single one of his deep dark secrets.”
I finally conquered the sealseam. “Tsk,” I said. “Well, you get another chance tonight.”
That got me a grimace. “The hell I do. I don’t read people on off-time. It isn’t fair. Besides, it’s such a strain, I wish I could catch thoughts as easily as you do feelings.”
“The price of Talent,” I said. “You’re more Talented, your price is higher.” I rummaged in our luggage for a raincape, but I didn’t find anything that went well, so I decided not to wear one. Capes were out, anyway. “I didn’t get much on Valcarenghi either. You could have told as much by watching his face. He must be a very disciplined mind. But I’ll forgive him. He serves good wine.”
Lya nodded. “Right! That stuff did me good. Got rid of the headache I woke up with.”
“The altitude,” I suggested. We headed for the door.
The lobby was deserted, but Valcarenghi didn’t keep us waiting long. This time he drove his own aircar, a battered black job that had evidently been with him for a while. Gourlay wasn’t the sociable type, but Valcarenghi had a woman with him, a stunning auburn-haired vision named Laurie Blackburn. She was even younger than Valcarenghi—mid-twenties, by the look of her.
It was sunset when we took off. The whole far horizon was a gorgeous tapestry in red and orange, and a cool breeze was blowing in from the plains. Valcarenghi left the coolers off and opened the car windows, and we watched the city darken into twilight as we drove.
Dinner was at a plush restaurant with Baldurian decor—to make us feel comfortable, I guessed. The food, however, was very cosmopolitan. The spices, the herbs, the style of cooking were all Baldur. The meats and vegetables were native. It made for an interesting combination. Valcarenghi ordered for all four of us, and we wound up sampling about a dozen different dishes. My favorite was a tiny Shkeen bird that they cooked in sourtang sauce. There wasn’t very much of it, but what there was tasted great. We also polished off three bottles of wine during the meal: more of the Shkeen stuff we’d sampled that afternoon, a flask of chilled Veltaar from Baldur, and some real Old Earth Burgundy.
The talk warmed up quickly; Valcarenghi was a born storyteller and an equally good listener. Eventually, of course, the conversation got around to Shkea and the Shkeen. Laurie led it there. She’d been on Shkea for about six months, working toward an advanced degree in extee anthropology. She was trying to discover why the Shkeen civilization had remained frozen for so many millennia.
“They’re older than we are, you know,” she told us. “They had cities before men were using tools. It should have been space-traveling Shkeen that stumbled on primitive men, not the other way around.”
“Aren’t there theories on that already?” I asked.
“Yes, but none of them are universally accepted,” she said. “Cullen cites a lack of heavy metals, for example. A factor, but is it the whole answer? Von Hamrin claims the Shkeen didn’t get enough competition. No big carnivores on the planet, so there was nothing to breed aggressiveness into the race. But he’s come under a lot of fire. Shkea isn’t all that idyllic; if it were, the Shkeen never would have reached their present level. Besides, what’s the Greeshka if not a carnivore? It eats them, doesn’t it?”
“What do you think?” Lya asked.
“I think it had something to do with the religion, but I haven’t worked it all out yet. Dino’s helping me talk to people and the Shkeen are open enough, but research isn’t easy.” She stopped suddenly and looked at Lya hard. “For me, anyway. I imagine it’d be easier for you.”
We’d heard that before. Normals often figure that Talents have unfair advantages, which is perfectly understandable. We do. But Laurie wasn’t resentful. She delivered her statement in a wistful, speculative tone, instead of etching it in verbal acid.
Valcarenghi leaned over and put an arm around her. “Hey,” he said. “Enough shop talk. Robb and Lya shouldn’t be worrying about the Shkeen until tomorrow.”
Laurie looked at him, and smiled tentatively. “OK,” she said lightly. “I get carried away. Sorry.”
“That’s OK,” I told her. “It’s an interesting subject. Give us a day and we’ll probably be getting enthusiastic too.”
Lya nodded agreement, and added that Laurie would be the first to know if our work turned up anything that would support her theory. I was hardly listening. I know it’s not polite to read Normals when you’re out with them socially, but there are times I can’t resist. Valcarenghi had his arm around Laurie and had pulled her toward him gently. I was curious.
So I took a quick, guilty reading. He was very high—slightly drunk, I guess, and feeling very confident and protective. The master of the situation. But Laurie was a jumble—uncertainty, repressed anger, a vague fading hint of fright. And love, confused but very strong. I doubted that it was for me or Lya. She loved Valcarenghi.
I reached under the table, searching for Lya’s hand, and found her knee. I squeezed it gently and she looked at me and smiled. She wasn’t reading, which was good. It bothered me that Laurie loved Valcarenghi, though I didn’t know why, and I was just as glad that Lya didn’t see my discontent.
We finished off the last of the wine in short order, and Valcarenghi took care of the whole bill. Then he rose. “Onward!” he announced. “The night is fresh, and we’ve got visits to make.”
So we made visits. No holoshows or anything that drab, although the city had its share of theaters. A casino was next on the list. Gambling was legal on Shkea, of course, and Valcarenghi would have legalized it if it weren’t. He supplied the chips and I lost some for him, as did Laurie. Lya was barred from playing; her Talent was too strong. Valcarenghi won big; he was a superb mindspin player, and pretty good at the traditional games too.
Then came a bar. More drinks, plus local entertainment which was better than I would have expected.
It was pitch black when we got out, and I assumed that the expedition was nearing its end. Valcarenghi surprised us. When we got back to the car, he reached under the controls, pulle
“Hey,” I said. “You’re driving. Why do I need this? I just barely got up here.”
“I’m about to take you to a genuine Shkeen cultural event, Robb,” he said. “I don’t want you making rude comments or throwing up on the natives. Take your pill.”
I took my pill, and the buzz in my head began to fade. Valcarenghi already had the car airborne. I leaned back and put my arm around Lya, and she rested her head on my shoulder. “Where are we going?” I asked.
“Shkeentown,” he replied, never looking back, “to their Great Hall. There’s a Gathering tonight, and I figured you’d be interested.”
“It will be in Shkeen, of course,” Laurie said, “but Dino can translate for you. I know a little of the language too, and I’ll fill in whatever he misses.”
Lya looked excited. We’d read about Gatherings, of course, but we hardly expected to go see one on our first day on Shkea. The Gatherings were a species of religious rite; a mass confessional of sorts for pilgrims who were about to be admitted to the ranks of the Joined. Pilgrims swelled the hill city daily, but Gatherings were conducted only three or four times a year when the numbers of those-about-to-be-Joined climbed high enough.
The aircar streaked almost soundlessly through the brightly lit settlement, passing huge fountains that danced with a dozen colors and pretty ornamental arches that flowed like liquid fire. A few other cars were airborne, and here and there we flew above pedestrians strolling the city’s broad malls. But most people were inside, and light and music flooded from many of the homes we passed.
Then, abruptly, the character of the city began to change. The level ground began to roll and heave, hills rose before us and then behind us, and the lights vanished. Below, the malls gave way to unlit roads of crushed stone and dust, and the domes of glass and metal done in fashionable mock-Shkeen yielded to their older brick brothers. The Shkeen city was quieter than its human counterpart; most of the houses were darkly silent.
Then, ahead of us, a hummock appeared that was larger than the others—almost a hill in itself, with a big arched door and a series of slitlike windows. And light leaked from this one, and noise, and there were Shkeen outside.
I suddenly realized that, although I’d been on Shkea for nearly a day, this was the first sight I’d caught of the Shkeen. Not that I could see them all that clearly from an aircar at night. But I did see them. They were smaller than men—the tallest was around five feet—with big eyes and long arms. That was all I could tell from above.
Valcarenghi put the car down alongside the Great Hall, and we piled out. Shkeen were trickling through the arch from several directions, but most of them were already inside. We joined the trickle, and nobody even looked twice at us, except for one character who hailed Valcarenghi in a thin, squeaky voice and called him Dino. He had friends even here.
The interior was one huge room, with a great crude platform built in the center and an immense crowd of Shkeen circling it. The only light was from torches that were stuck in grooves along the walls, and on high poles surrounding the platform. Someone was speaking, and every one of those great, bulging eyes was turned his way. We four were the only humans in the Hall.
The speaker, outlined brightly by the torches, was a fat, middle-aged Shkeen who moved his arms slowly, almost hypnotically, as he talked. His speech was a series of whistles, wheezes, and grunts, so I didn’t listen very closely. He was much too far away to read. I was reduced to studying his appearance, and that of other Shkeen near me. All of them were hairless, as far as I could see, with softish-looking orange skin that was creased by a thousand tiny wrinkles. They wore simple shifts of crude, multicolored cloth, and I had difficulty telling male from female.
Valcarenghi leaned over toward me and whispered, careful to keep his voice low. “The speaker is a farmer,” he said. “He’s telling the crowd how far he’s come, and some of the hardships of his life.”
I looked around. Valcarenghi’s whisper was the only sound in the place. Everyone else was dead quiet, eyes riveted on the platform, scarcely breathing. “He’s saying that he has four brothers,” Valcarenghi told me. “Two have gone on to Final Union, one is among the Joined. The other is younger than himself, and now owns the farm.” He frowned. “The speaker will never see his farm again,” he said, more loudly, “but he’s happy about it.”
“Bad crops?” asked Lya, smiling irreverently. She’d been listening to the same whisper. I gave her a stern look.
The Shkeen went on. Valcarenghi stumbled after him. “Now he’s telling his crimes, all the things he’s done that he’s ashamed of, his blackest soul-secrets. He’s had a sharp tongue at times, he’s vain, once he actually struck his younger brother. Now he speaks of his wife, and the other women he has known. He has betrayed her many times, copulating with others. As a boy, he mated with animals, for he feared females. In recent years he has grown incapable, and his brother has serviced his wife.”
On and on and on it went, in incredible detail, detail that was both startling and frightening. No intimacy went untold, no secret was left undisturbed. I stood and listened to Valcarenghi’s whispers, shocked at first, finally growing bored with the squalor of it all. I began to get restless. I wondered briefly if I knew any human half so well as I now knew this great fat Shkeen. Then I wondered whether Lyanna, with her Talent, knew anyone half so well. It was almost as if the speaker wanted all of us to live through his life right here and now.
His speech lasted for what seemed hours, but finally it began to wind up. “He speaks now of Union,” Valcarenghi whispered. “He will be Joined, he is joyful about it, he has craved it for so long. His misery is at an end, his aloneness will cease, soon he shall walk the streets of the sacred city and peal his joy with the bells. And then Final Union, in the years to come. He will be with his brothers in the afterlife.”
“No, Dino.” This whisper was Laurie. “Quit wrapping human phrases around what he says. He will be his brothers, he says. The phrase also implies they will be him.”
Valcarenghi smiled. “OK, Laurie. If you say so . . .”
Suddenly the fat farmer was gone from the platform. The crowd rustled, and another figure took his place: much shorter, wrinkled excessively, one eye a great gaping hole. He began to speak, haltingly at first, then with greater skill.
“This one is a brickman, he has worked many domes, he lives in the sacred city. His eye was lost many years ago, when he fell from a dome and a sharp stick poked into him. The pain was very great, but he returned to work within a year, he did not beg for premature Union, he was very brave, he is proud of his courage. He has a wife, but they never had offspring, he is sad of that, he cannot talk to his wife easily, they are apart even when together and she weeps at night, he is sad of that too, but he has never hurt her and . . .”
It went on for hours again. My restlessness stirred again, but I cracked down on it—this was too important. I let myself get lost in Valcarenghi’s narration, and the story of the one-eyed Shkeen. Before long, I was riveted as closely to the tale as the aliens around me. It was hot and stuffy and all but airless in the dome, and my tunic was getting sooty and soaked by sweat, some of it from the creatures who pressed around me. But I hardly noticed.
The second speaker ended as had the first, with a long praise of the joy of being Joined and the coming of Final Union. Toward the end, I hardly even needed Valcarenghi’s translation—I could hear the happiness in the voice of the Shkeen, and see it in his trembling figure. Or maybe I was reading, unconsciously. But I can’t read at that distance—unless the target is emoting very hard.
A third speaker ascended the platform, and spoke in a voice louder than the others. Valcarenghi kept pace. “A woman this time,” he said. “She has carried eight children for her man, she has four sisters and three brothers, she has farmed all her life, she . . .”
Suddenly her speech seemed to peak, and she ended a long sequence with several sharp, high whist
les. Then she fell silent. The crowd, as one, began to respond with whistles of their own. An eerie, echoing music filled the Great Hall, and the Shkeen around us all began to sway and whistle. The woman looked out at the scene from a bent and broken position.
Valcarenghi started to translate, but he stumbled over something. Laurie cut in before he could backtrack. “She has now told them of great tragedy,” she whispered. “They whistle to show their grief, their oneness with her pain.”
“Sympathy, yes,” said Valcarenghi, taking over again. “When she was young, her brother grew ill, and seemed to be dying. Her parents told her to take him to the sacred hills, for they could not leave the younger children. But she shattered a wheel on her cart through careless driving, and her brother died upon the plains. He perished without Union. She blames herself.”
The Shkeen had begun again. Laurie began to translate, leaning close to us and using a soft whisper. “Her brother died, she is saying again. She faulted him, denied him Union, now he is sundered and alone and gone without . . . without . . .”
“Afterlife,” said Valcarenghi. “Without afterlife.”
“I’m not sure that’s entirely right,” Laurie said. “That concept is . . .”
Valcarenghi waved her silent. “Listen,” he said. He continued to translate.
We listened to her story, told in Valcarenghi’s increasingly hoarse whisper. She spoke longest of all, and her story was the grimmest of the three. When she finished, she too was replaced. But Valcarenghi put a hand on my shoulder and beckoned toward the exit.
The cool night air hit like ice water, and I suddenly realized that I was drenched with sweat. Valcarenghi walked quickly toward the car. Behind us, the speaking was still in progress, and the Shkeen showed no signs of tiring.