Are you a classical music fan? Then this new article is a must-read for you. I’ve written the first of a short series for Playlist, the website of Playlist Magazine. Find out about compressing and importing classical music, joining tracks and more here.
A friend gave me an idea the other day. What if you could control your iPod by voice, in the same way that you can dial numbers on a cellphone? What if you had a small hands-free mic on the headphone cable that you could use to issue commands: Play, Pause, Back, Forward, Next, Previous, Louder, Softer… ?
An interesting idea indeed. But let’s go a step further. What if you could record, through this mic, the names of playlists, albums or songs, the way you record names on a cellphone, and start them playing as well? Let’s face it – when the iPod’s in your pocket, it’s a hassle to take it out and change what’s playing. Sure, with the wired remote (in my opinion, an indispensable accessory) you can perform the same actions as with the click wheel or the buttons on the front of your iPod. But you can’t access specific playlists, albums or songs.
This would be great for lots of people. Imagine when you’re walking home in the freezing cold and you don’t want to take your gloves off and get your iPod out of your pocket or its case? Or when you’re jogging, biking, hang-gliding or even driving and can’t take the time to look at the iPod’s screen? Or when you’re in an intimite situation and just have to get that Barry White music on – you don’t want to have to stop, find the iPod (which is plugged into speakers in this type of situation) and change the playlist.
The technology is there. Is the need real though? I think it is, for many people. What do you think?
Update: Les Posen pointed out that he has already suggested this. Thanks for pointing this out, Les.
Read more articles in this category: iPod & iTunes
So, you know that iTunes lets you listen to Internet radio. That’s great, and it lets you discover lots of music you’ve never heard before. It’s especially good if, like me, you live in the country and don’t have many FM radio stations.
But there should be more. Apple should introduce iTunes Music Store radio stations, to play selected tracks available from the iTunes Music Store. Why? Well, when you go into a bricks-and-mortar store, you can see thousands of CDs. When you go into the iTunes Music Store, you only see a few dozen for each genre. Okay, up that to at least 100 for each, since you can look at the list of top albums or top songs. But that’s not much. Especially if you aren’t interested in the best-sellers.The iTunes Music Store is great when you know what you are looking for – you can search by song, artist, album or composer, and listen to previews. But what about all the other music you’ll never hear because you’ve never heard of it? If Apple were to create one Internet radio station for each genre, listeners could discover much more music. I can imagine that a simple double-click on the song name in the iTunes display would take you to that song on the music store.
The reason behind this idea goes beyond simple commercialism. Sure, Apple would sell more music, but it would also allow more artists to get their music heard. Listen to any FM radio station today and you’ll hear about 30 songs in rotation, over and over. We need variety; musicians need exposure; and Apple would get sales. Everyone would be happy.
Read more articles in this category: iPod & iTunes
I don’t usually post articles here that simply point to other web sites or blogs, but today I’ll make an exception. Merlin Mann, writing at 43 Folders, has a very insructive article entitled Five Mistakes Band & Label Sites Make. He points out how many bands and record labels just get it wrong when it comes to their web sites. From Flash-based sites, to non-existant MP3 tags on downloads, lots of bands just don’t grok the web. (Though it’s not necessarily their fault; a lot of these problems come from general web-design trends, and most musicians don’t know enough about the web to understand how limited their web sites are.)
When I was researching my latest book, iPod & iTunes Garage, I came across the same problems. One of the most annoying was the lack of any contact information for many bands and musicians, even those whose renown is limited. Since, for my book, I wanted to contact musicians and ask them what they considered “essential music”, I found this especially annoying. Sure, the bands would have to filter out basic fan e-mails from serious requests, but unless you’re an A-list band, you should welcome any kind of publicity.
Read more articles in this category: iPod & iTunes
The media are all focused on the resounding success of the iPod – by all accounts, Apple should reach the 10 million mark by the end of the year, which is great for Apple, for its stock price, and for my forthcoming book on the iPod and iTunes.
But while the iPod has attracted a whole new group of users to Apple’s fold – notably Windows users – the real revolution is not in the hardware, but in the software that manages the iPod. iTunes is much more than simply a tool for managing music, and, in the near future, is likely to spearhead the real digital content revolution. iTunes started out several years ago as a simple program for organizing, managing and playing MP3 files, and for burning CDs from these music files. Apple was not a trailblazer in this area; there had already been several other programs that played music files. As it progressed over the years, it developed powerful new features, such as new file formats like AAC and Apple Lossless, and the ability to sync music to the iPod, when the portable music device was released. But the real innovation – and the part that merits the word “revolution” – came when Apple added the iTunes Music Store.
If you’ve never bought music from the iTunes Music Store (iTMS), the hallmark of the process is simplicity. You create an account, enter your credit card number, find the music you want, then: click! Download. Click! Download. It’s as simple as that. You can buy one song, start downloading it, then go browse and buy more songs. When you purchase music like this, you don’t even notice the time it takes for songs to download (unless you are connected to the Internet with a modem). If you purchase entire albums, it will seem to take longer, but if you have a relatively decent Internet connection, you’ll be able to download an album in minutes.
Revolutionary? Not yet… Because there’s more. Sure, the iTMS lets you download music with a few clicks, but the real revolution will come later, when the iTMS sells more than just music.
It’s tempting to predict the future, though perilous in the computer industry. But looking at the iTMS and the way it works shows that Apple’s real revolution is in having designed a simple, fast, efficient and painless way to sell digital content. Sure, they’re only selling music now. But just wait…
Why does Apple offer movie trailers in the iTMS? Certainly not because they sell movies… yet. But the interface is there; all they need is for users to have broadband fast enough to download movies (and, of course, the MPAA’s acceptance of Apple’s digital rights management (DRM) system). It seems almost obvious that Apple will, in the near future, sell movies through the iTMS. When you’ve gotten consumers used to using a system that works, that is easy to use, and easy to understand, it makes sense to leverage it for other purposes. Those movie trailers are simply a way to get users prepared, to have them think of iTunes as more than just for music.
But why stop there? I’ve already suggested that Apple should make an e-book reader, and focus on selling periodicals. The iTMS could easily deliver that kind of content as well; after all, Apple has already shown that they can deliver PDF files through the iTMS. Why not sell magazines and newspapers using the same interface? Users could buy individual issues, which would download as easily as songs do today; or they could buy subscriptions that are provided through the iTMS. In the latter case, you’d simply need to connect your e-book reader to your computer to get the latest issues that iTunes has already downloaded in the background. Or you could read them on your computer.
The digital content revolution is only just beginning. Music is the first step, since it is one of the most popular forms of entertainment, and it ends up being one of the simplest to transfer over the wires. But anything that can be digitized can be sold in the same way. Of course, there are still limits: music, movies, books, magazines, newspapers; there’s no way to download pizza, at least not yet. But if you look at the numbers that these different forms of content represent, you’ll realize that Apple is on track to becoming much more than a hardware and software company. With iTunes, and the iTunes Music Store, Apple has taken the first steps toward becoming the leader in providing downloadable digital content.
Read more articles in this category: iPod & iTunes
Apple has regaled us with a new iPod, with a color screen and photo display functions, rounding out the iPod range. There are now three distinct types of iPods: the mini, the 4G iPod and the iPod Photo. So, for a while, we can consider that Apple will rest and allow these iPods to sell a bit.
In the meantime, it is clear that Apple’s recent foray into non-computer devices for consumers has been profitable in many ways. The iPod has boosted Apple’s earnings, profit margin, and share price, and has turned the company, once again, into the darling of the business world.
So it’s time for Apple to release another innovation: the Apple iServe.First, don’t assume that I have any inside information on the possible existance of such a device: this is merely what I would like to see. But this idea is based on existing Apple technology and would follow what seems to be the direction Apple will be taking in the years to come.
The Apple iServe would be a home server, a headless Mac (one without a monitor) that would centralize all the elements that make up a user’s digital hub: music files, photos, and videos. It could also store other personal files such as word processing documents and spreadsheets. Instead of each user storing their files on their own computer, they could put everything in one place, providing simpler access to other users, and allowing for backups of all users’ files simultaneously.
This is most useful for “digital hub” files: music, photos and videos. Why should each user’s computer contain all their music files, many of which may be duplicated on another user’s Mac? (Considering that the iTunes Music Store allows up to 5 computers to play the files, this is not a violation of copyright; the same is true for music files that users rip from their own CDs.)
In this scenario, all the Macs on a home network would be connected to the server via AirPort – the server could contain an AirPort base station, or simply be connected to a base station or an AirPort Express. An Ethernet jack would allow the iServe to be connected to a wired network, which could include other Macs without AirPort or computers running Windows or Linux. Users would be able to access shared files by simply mounting the server on their desktop, or would even be able to play music using iTunes built-in music sharing – the iServe would run iTunes itself, or a simpler version of the program, to provide a shared library to other computers on the network.
But let’s not stop there. iPhoto offers photo album sharing, so users can access photos on the iServe from any Mac. Videos would be a bit more complex, since iMovie is merely an editing and authoring tool, but, again, the technology exists to provide shared video in a manner similar to iTunes’ shared music.
If the iServe were to go one step further, it could even be used in the living room to record video from a TV, set-top box or decoder; the Apple version of the TiVo would be a welcome competitor to Microsoft’s forays into this area. Or Apple could simply work hand-in-hand with TiVo to provide a seamless connection to their TV recorder.
The iServe would run a slimmed-down version of Mac OS X Server, one that allows simple management of users and groups, either through an Apple Remote Desktop server or through a web-browser interface. Since the iServe should be small – remember the cube? – it wouldn’t need a monitor, keyboard and mouse, though it should be possible to connect these if desired.
The Apple iServe would be the perfect solution to the once-hyped convergence of computers and other digital entertainment devices. If it were priced right (less than $500; ideally even cheaper than that), Apple could spearhead a new world of home computing. And, with a small business model, offering more advanced server features, the same iServe could help Apple get a stronger foothold in the critical market of businesses who need such features but cannot afford the time or the complication of full-scale server solutions.
This is just an idea, of course, but who knows? Maybe Apple will surprise us…
Read more articles in this category: Apple & Mac OS X
The fine people at Change This have posted an attractively laid-out PDF of a speech Cory Doctorow gave to Microsoft about DRM (digital rights management). Cory has a way with words, and he puts his words where his mouth is, by giving away the novels and stories he’s written.As the Change This website says:
Usage of Digital Rights Management (DRM) has been hotly debated since a college student threatened to put an entire industry out of business with a little application he built in his spare time, Napster. In this transcript of a speech he gave at Microsoft’s campus, Cory explains why DRM doesn’t work, why DRM is bad for society, bad for business, bad for artists, and a bad move for Microsoft. Using Sony and Apple as examples of companies that are using DRM to punish consumers, he suggests Microsoft use the opportunity to once again champion users’ rights. To follow our current path, Cory argues, is to stifle innovation and contradict the purpose of American copyright law: to promote the useful arts and sciences.
There is an irony in this document being made available in a proprietary format: PDF. But since you don’t need Acrobat to read it – there are several other PDF readers, including Preview, if you use Mac OS X – I guess that’s all right.
in any case, it’s an intereting read, as Cory goes over the history of copyright and piracy.
iTunes is an awesome program. As anyone who uses it regularly knows, it gives you a great deal of power and flexibility to organize your music, and, especially, to organize what you put on your iPod. But when you start putting a lot of music on your Mac (or PC) with iTunes, you run into a problem: you end up with so many playlists that you have to scroll up and down looking for the one you want. And this is even more complicated on the iPod, since you can only see a few at a time.
The solution is pretty simple: iTunes needs nested folders.Ideally, you should be able to create folders to put your playlists in. Think of list view in the OS X Finder: you can have a folder, and, when you click the disclosure triangle, you can see its contents. iTunes needs the same thing. With nested folders you could create as many folders as you want, and reduce the number of playlists you see at the top level.
You could create folders with the names of specific artists, genres, types of playlists (party, chill-out, etc.), music you’re tired of, or whatever you want. You could then group your playlists in whatever way fits your style. Ideally, you’d even want to create aliases for playlists, so you can put some playlists in multiple folders. (The same way you can put songs in multiple playlists.)
Here’s an example of why I’d like to see this. I’m an eclectic listener, and my iTunes library contains rock, jazz, classical music, Grateful Dead concerts and more. I’ve got a lot of live recordings, such as two box sets of Bill Evans concerts that I have grouped into playlists according to the setlists of the original concerts (the songs cover more than one CD for each one). That gives me 14 Bill Evans playlists. I’d find it much easier to have a Bill Evans folder, then have the playlists appear when I click the disclosure triangle. Same for the Grateful Dead – I’ve lots of their live shows, and I don’t need to see one line in my iTunes list for each one.
Naturally, if this were implemented for iTunes it would have to be done for the iPod as well. And it would be just as useful on the iPod – with its limited display – as it is in iTunes.
Will we see this feature soon? I’m sure someone at Apple has already thought of it. If not, I hope they visit this site.
Read more articles in this category: iPod & iTunes
No one knows how the Scaythes of Hyponeros managed to secure so much influence on the planet Bella Syracusa, the Queen of the Arts.
Or how they infiltrated the entourage of the Ang family, the dynasty that had ruled uninterrupted for 15 standard centuries.
Or how they progressively got hold of key positions within the Empire.
Or how they managed to make themselves indispensable by creating the functions of thought detector and protector.
Or how, feared because of their extraordinary mental abilities, they gradually created a reign of terror.
Who were they?
No one knew anything about Hyponeros, or had even heard of this distant world, so distant that it may only have existed in peopleâ€™s imaginations. But, it turned out that one of its offspring, Pamynx, was given the supreme dignity of being named Chancellor, an honor which had, up until then, been reserved for the sons of Syracusaâ€™s leading families.
This event took place during the reign of Lord Arghetti Ang.
At the time, few were offended by it. What had become of the proud Syracusans of the days of the conquest? Were they empty shells, shadows, or just puppets of illusion?
Woe to he by whom the offence cometh.
Excerpt from an apocryphal mental text, received during his wanderings by Messaodyne Jhu-Piet, a Syracusan poet of the first post-Ang period. Some scholars think it may have come from stray thoughts of Naia Phytik, of Syracusan origin herself.
Chancellor Pamynx, his face shrouded in the hood of his blue acaba, appeared from the darkness and joined the Lord Ranti Ang and his young protÃ©gÃ© Spergus who were awaiting him, with their thought protectors, on the stationary gravitational platform.
“If my lordship would be so kind as to follow me,” said Pamynx, bowing.
“And none too soon,” scolded Ranti Ang. “Are you coming, Spergus?”
With their thought protectors following them like shadows, they stepped into a dark narrow tunnel. They soon came to a heavy wooden door that was incredibly ancient, blocked by thick metallic bars. After a short while, which seemed interminable to Spergus, the bars slid along their rails, which were sealed inside the walls of the tunnel. The damp, close air made Spergus feel ill at ease. He had the unpleasant feeling that the mold in the rank air was penetrating every pore of his skin.
The door opened onto a wide balcony lit by two floating light-bubbles where a small group of men were waiting, their faces hidden behind white masks. Three crossed silver triangles glimmered on the stiff breastplates of their gray uniforms.
Ranti Ang looked at Pamynx with wrath in his eyes.
“You are the high protector of the law, Chancellor! You are therefore aware that Pritivian mercenaries are forbidden to set foot on Syracusa!”
The restrained impatience that pervaded his words showed that he was on the brink of losing control.
“At least do me the honor of answering! Was it really necessary, for the public good, to retain these adventurers?”
“You will understand why they are here in good time, my Lord,” answered Pamynx in a dispassionate tone of voice.
The balcony overhung a huge empty round chamber; in the middle stood a figure, dcensoredd in the folds of a jet-black acaba.
“This place is sinister, my Lord!”
Spergus suppressed a shiver. The spectacle of this ghostly figure, standing as still as a statue on the floor below, dimly lit by underground water lamps, cause venom of anxiety to spread through his young, impressionable mind. The smell of death wafted through the close air.
“Is that one of your students that you have told me about, Chancellor?” asked Ranti Ang.
Pamynx nodded in agreement.
“May I not see his face?”
“Not for the moment, your highness. But this is not out of a lack of respect for you. The hood of his acaba will cover his head during the experiment to prevent our thoughts from focusing on his image, which could weaken his psychic potential.”
“Good gracious! And he really possesses this”¦ this power that you have told me about?”
Pamynx did not reply to Ranti Ang’s mocking disbelief. He removed a tiny ring of golden optalium from within the folds of his acaba and struck it with a rock crystal. A loud ringing sound spread from the ring, much louder than seemed possible from its size. A part of the wall slid away, as if changed by the lingering sound, and let in a flood of harsh light.
Three new figures were seen entering the room: two Pritivian mercenaries and a man whose coarse canvas clothes gave off a stench that was almost that of an animal. His simian face was ashen with fear.
Ranti Ang’s face showed a faint expression of disgust.
“It looks like a Mikat.”
“A Mikat from the satellite Julius, your highness,” confirmed Pamynx. “He was put on the index and declared raskatta. I thought that”¦ for our experiment”¦”
“From what I see, or should I say from what I hear, you are trying to vindicate yourself again, Chancellor!” said Ranti Ang, mockingly. “In fact, don’t you spend most of your time trying to vindicate yourself? For everything”¦ and especially for nothing!”
Spergus’ bright laughter punctuated the Lord of Syracusa’s comments.
“The Kreuzian Church considers that the Mikats are endowed with souls,” argued the Chancellor. “However, the”¦”
Ranti Ang cut him off curtly.
“Unfortunately for you, Sir, I am not Arghetti Ang but his elder son. My father thought he was doing the right thing when he appointed you to this position of great responsibility, and so be it. But if I must respect his choice, as he made me promise, nothing requires me to give my esteem to the beneficiary of his choice! Do be so kind as to not bring the Church of Kreuz into your sordid schemes! After all, isn’t this Mikat one of my subjects? Isn’t it up to me, and me alone, to decide if his life should be sacrificed for the common good?”
Pamynx kept his resentment hidden behind the impassiveness of his face and bowed ceremoniously. His day of revenge would soon come. This perspective helped him remain patient in spite of this constant harassment, these daily humiliations.
While this was going on, the two Pritivian mercenaries dragged the terrified Mikat to within a few feet away of the motionless black acaba.
“Spergus?” Ranti Ang’s voice was suddenly gentler. “Would it please you to know what this Mikat is thinking about, at this very instant?”
“That would”¦ greatly amuse me, my lord,” mumbled the young man.
A vague smile showed on his painted lips. He tried to hide the intense fear that this gloomy vault aroused in him.
Pamynx was annoyed by Spergus’ presence. Lord Ranti Ang thought it was a good idea to have his young protÃ©gÃ© present to witness the key experiment that was about to take place. But it was dangerous to bring affective elements into this first public trial, which required a psychically neutral environment.
“Well, what are you waiting for to reveal to our dear Spergus what is going through the Mikat’s mind? If something is going through it, of course! Is it fear that is causing this horrendous stench?”
Pamynx stared at the Mikat, whose greasy black hair was cut in the traditional manner of the Mikatun of Julius: very short, straight on the neck, and shaved on the sides. Under his protruding eyebrows, the poor man’s bulging eyes flitted back and forth around the chamber as though they were following crazy butterflies. From the balcony to the dark threatening figure; from the dark figure to the two Pritivian mercenaries, anonymous behind their white masks.
“His skin is all black!” whispered Spergus.
“That is because he works outdoors each day that Kreuz gives us with his infinite kindness, under the rays of the fire-star Ahkit,” said Ranti Ang.
The disgust that Spergus felt, induced by this creature from another world and another time, welled up within him like nausea. But he could not take his eyes off that thick neck, the strong arms, wide hands, and stubby fingers with their dust-encrusted nails.
Spergus’ wild uncontrolled thoughts perturbed his concentration and interfered with Pamynx’s mental investigation. The two protectors assigned to Spergus’ security turned out to be incapable of holding back the reckless torrents emanating from his mind. The Chancellor decided to not let anything show – it would be the wrong time to cast doubts on the Scaythes’ efficiency.
Pamynx was, like the thought protectors, a Scaythe from Hyponeros, a paritole, and his origin could bring up the question of the constitutional immunity that his high rank was supposed to confer on him. The great Arghetti Ang had had to stifle the wrath of the Syracusan dignitaries to impose him as the Chancellor, and his position was becoming increasingly insecure as time went by, and as the memories of the current ruler’s father faded away.
But for now, Pamynx needed Ranti Ang’s support: this would guarantee the capital needed for the structure of the Great Project; for the fulfillment of the tremendous secret task he had been given by his masters, the Master Embryos of the Hyponeriate. He would soon have a chance to wipe the grin off the Lord of Syracusa’s face.
“We are still waiting, sir. Could it be that you have lost your so-called powers in one of the brothels of Salaun? Yet, you are sexless, are you not”¦?”
Spergus’s mischievous laugh broke out a second time.
“Fear paralyses the Mikat’s mental potential,” the Chancellor finally said. “He is incapable of formulating the slightest coherent thought. I can tell you, however, that he is trying to recall the face and the body of a woman from Mikatun. Probably his own wife”¦”
“What an extraordinary discovery!” chuckled Ranti Ang. “You don’t need to be learned in the sciences of the mind to figure out that he is thinking of his wife!”
“Why do you say that, my Lord?” Spergus asked naively.
The Lord of Syracusa let out a little sarcastic laugh.
“Before Julius was annexed to Syracusa, these animals, the Mikats, did not marry, and the women of the tribe belonged to all the men of the rural communities. For the last two centuries, the law and the church have required them to take just one spouse. This is the first law of the moral-genetic code governing the satellites. That is why, Chancellor, you revealing no wonders by stating that this sub-human is thinking of his wife!”
Impassive, Pamynx ignored Ranti Ang’s mockery and went on: “I also see the faces of some children. Three boys and two girls”¦”
Subjugated by the importance of the people watching him from the balcony, terrorized by the Chancellor’s words, which were the faithful transcription of the few images that were going through his mind, the Mikat let out a scream like a cornered animal and fell on his knees on the cold tiled floor.
“He has a very crude brain,” added Pamynx.
“If his brain were as simple as you are suggesting, what would be the value of this experiment applied to superior intelligences? We don’t have to bother with this muddle of cheap witchcraft to subdue the Mikatun of Julius! Our ancestors have already taken care of that without violating the precepts of our holy Church!”
Suddenly, Pamynx realized how delicate his situation was. Engaged by so many different projects, he had not paid attention to the rumors that suggested that he had fallen into disgrace. He did not need to slip into Ranti Ang’s mind – a sacrilegious action, which could be punished by death – to understand the deadly intentions that his tone of voice implied.
The Chancellor had underestimated the importance of the conspiracy that had been orchestrated against him by Tist of Argolon, the renowned bard of the Syracusan tradition. Even though he had intercepted some thoughts about the underground actions of his Syracusan rival, Pamynx had not deemed it worth his getting involved, thinking that the quality of his relations with the great Arghetti Ang and the length of his service put him above all of these palace schemes. In fact, his behavior was irresponsible, unworthy of a higher-level Scaythe, of a superior transceiver. This carelessness could compromise the Great Project, the universal plan the Master Embryos of Hyponeros had been preparing for centuries. He now realized that he had much less room to maneuver. The future of the entire project now rested on the success of this one experiment.
“Well, sir, this is no time for daydreaming!”
“My students will not be operational right away,” argued the Chancellor. “This demonstration is only designed to show you the current state of their progress. After this is finished, you will realize that the budget allocated to mental research, which has been disparaged by so many of your counselors, has not been squandered. In the future, we will continue our experiments on complex, refined brains and forge ahead until the technique is fully mastered.”
“What has this Mikat done to be put on the index and declared a raskatta?”
Spergus’ airy voice was a striking contrast to the rich metallic sound of the Chancellor’s voice.
“For goodness sake, Chancellor! Answer his question!”
Ranti Ang’s increasing irritation was slowly breaking through the fragile barrier of his mental control. He was having a terrible time complying with the rigorous code of sycophantic emotion, which was followed at the court of Syracusa. Pamynx remained calm and found that his noble interlocutor’s anger gave him a new source of motivation.
“May I please request that you be patient for just a moment, my Lord? The data about raskattas from your territory has been entrusted to the Scaythe Markyat, who is the archiver of justice. It will just take a moment for me to enter into contact with him”¦”
“Hurry up! We would like to return to daylight soon. We feel like rats wallowing in a squalid sewer!”
Heavy greenish eyelids, furrowed with dark veinlets, fell over Pamynx’s uniformly yellow eyes. The hood of his acaba hung on his shoulders, uncovering a deformed face, a long bald head, and rough cracked skin. He looked like one of the monsters from the Osgorite legends, at least the idea that Spergus had of them. A chill went up his spine. The crimson circle of the Round Rouque Moon cut through the haze of his memories. For a brief moment, he was carried away to Osgos, the industrial mother, the largest of Syracusa’s satellites. He was running, naked and free, among the dried grass and the scalding stones of the abandoned gardens, chased by happy, noisy brown shapes that danced in the waves of heat. He breathed in the heavy smells of budding bucanas, and the heady sap of fruit fountains.
Suddenly, he felt cramped in his bodstocking, the Syracusan undergarment, the second skin that covered them from head to foot. His mauve head-cover and its light-band held his hair, his forehead, his cheeks and his chin tightly together. His two braided blond locks of hair, the only extravagance allowed, stuck out under the edge, near his temples, and framed his effeminate face.
Spergus’ skin called out for the fervent caresses of the Round Rouque Moon. Recovering his self-control, he angrily fought off the melancholy that was coming over him. He was not allowed to have regrets: he, the son of humble Osgorite merchants, was treated more considerately than the great courtiers, more than the descendants of the old, illustrious Syracusan families. Even though this preference sometime became a heavy burden; even though he had to put up with the looks and the wounding words of Lady Sibrit, Ranti Ang’s wife; even though he was hardly comfortable among the never-ending schemes and intrigues of the court; even though he was never allowed to go anywhere without his thought protectors, hidden in the red and white acabas of the Royal Protection Corps, those ever-present shadows, silent and intriguing.
He tried to push the nostalgic memories of his youth mercilessly from his mind. He accepted the obligations and the annoyances of the court for the love of his Lord. For the love of the absolute master of the most famous of all the planets of the Naflin Federation, for the love of this century-old man with such delicate features, whose eyes were limpid blue, whose blue-gray locks of hair lay on the shimmering cloth of his hood. For the love of a man who was the living expression of nobility, of grace, of refinement, the cardinal virtues of the Syracusan etiquette and tradition.
The Mikat was convulsitng. The rhythmic banging of his knees on the tiles broke the silence that had become oppressive.
“He is a follower of the religions of the index,” said Pamynx suddenly, turning toward Spergus.
Spergus shuddered in surprise. He could not stand looking into the sharp impenetrable eyes of the Chancellor. He was terrified of the Scaythes’ telepathic powers, and particularly those of Pamynx. An instinctive reflex forced him to turn away, to seek the reassuring presence of his thought protectors.
“Those centers of abomination!” said Ranti Ang. “They should be destroyed once and for all!”
The Lord of Syracusa’s slender fingers, covered with rings of white optalium, were nervously twisting the silvery lock of hair that ran along the black edge of his hood. This tic was a forewarning that he was about to lose his control.
“This Mikat is a member of the Gudurayam heresy,” specified Pamynx. “He adores the effigy of Gudur, a false prophet who was burned on the crucifire three hundred standard years ago. He is venerated now like a martyr.”
“Animals! Stupid fanatics that do not hesitate to sacrifice humans!”
“And where do they hide?” asked Spergus. This information seemed to captivate him.
This question had the unexpected consequence of defusing Ranti Ang’s anger.
“Imagine, my friend, that some of them are found even on Syracusa! In the mountains of Taheu’ing and in Mesgomia, countries that are very difficult to get to and where it is not easy to clear them out. All the same, it is on Julius that the Gudurayam heresy is the most present, though the number of his followers has been greatly reduced since reprisals have been stepped up and crucifires have been used more regularly.”
“Two details, if you will allow me, my Lord,” added the Chancellor. “The first is that the parents of this Mikat were burned on a crucifire during your father, Arghetti Ang’s visit to Julius. The second, more picturesque, is that the person who turned him in is none other than his own wife, the one whose memory he is recalling at this very instant. And all this for the measly sum of one hundred Julian Keulis, the equivalent of a handful of standard units. This insignificant amount of money turned out to be more attractive than the love of her husband!”
The hint of a smile came across Ranti Ang’s face. The Mikat, lying on the floor prostrated, was hit head-on by the force of Pamynx’s words, harrowed by this final, hideous revelation. He stopped trembling. Large tears rolled down his unshaven cheeks.
“But”¦ but he is crying! Do you see, my Lord? He’s crying!”
“Yes, my friend, he is crying!” said Ranti Ang. “He does not, like you or I, have a means of controlling his thoughts. This is how some creatures show their emotions, as unbelievable as that may seem!”
Spergus was leaning over the solid guardrail that ran along the edge of the balcony. His eyes were wide open; he was trying to look more closely at the shiny rivulets which flowed from the Mikat’s eyes.
In response to a discreet sign from the Chancellor, the Scaythe in the black acaba approached the prostrated body. Deep within his hood, Spergus got a quick glance of two flaming red embers, full of energy. Two evil stars in a pitch-black sky.
“We are ready, my Lord.”
“Ready? But for what?”
The Mikat, very worried, picked his head up. Seeing the rough, black cloth coming closer, so close that it was brushing against his skin, his eyes opened wide in terror. His arms and legs shook violently.
“This is a great wonderful deed!” said Ranti Ang ironically. “Don’t tell me that you have prepared this grandiose presentation with the only goal of terrorizing a bumpkin!”
“If my Lord would please have a little bit of patience”¦”
The Chancellor’s mind was infiltrated by a pernicious doubt, a slow poison that he could not keep under check. But he had carefully chosen Harkot, the Scaythe doing the experiment, from a hundred handpicked postulants, all of them gifted with extraordinary mental capacities. He himself had overseen the selected student’s training, had carried out animal testing, and then the tests on the manimals of Getablan. However, he had not yet had the time to start working on complex minds, higher up on the evolutionary scale. There was therefore a chance that this experiment would fail. But Pamynx would not be allowed a single failure. He regretted this haste, which was not his usual way of doing things, but the race between his many critics and his few partisans had made it inevitable.
A plaintive gurgling escaped from the Mikat’s throat. Trickles of drool flowed from the corners of his mouth and dripped onto his slightly protruding chin.
“If you will please now remain totally silent,” said Pamynx softly, noting with relief the first signs of the Scaythe’s mental actions.
The Mikat’s convulsions got progressively further and further apart. His breathing turned into panting, then wheezing. Instinctively, he raised his large hands to his neck. Then, in a desperate jump, he tried to grab hold of the black acaba, but his curled up fingers only grabbed the air. There was a death rattle, a final spasm, and he fell motionless on the floor.
The room was shrouded in mortal silence. It was Spergus, who was still leaning over the guardrail, who broke the silence.
“What”¦ what happened to the Mikat? He’s not moving!”
“He… is… dead,” answered Pamynx, separating his words very carefully in order to highlight their terrible simplicity.
“Dead, my Lord.”
“How is this possible?”
The Chancellor, who had now recovered his serenity, took a perverse pleasure baiting his listeners’ curiosity. He paused for a long while before answering.
“This Mikat was killed merely by the will of Harkot, our Scaythe experimenter. You have just witnessed the first mental execution, my Lord.”
He said these words with an indifferent tone of voice, as if he was talking about a banal, trivial incident. The Scaythe in the black acaba made a slight bow, to which Ranti Ang answered with a brief nod of his head.
“Do you think you can lead us to believe something that ridiculous, Chancellor?”
“Belief is not allowed in my laboratory, my Lord. I leave that to our holy Church. As a scientist, the only thing that convinces me is certainty. Harkot has just imploded this guinea pig’s brain, so to speak.”
“Do you mean that he can kill from a distance with his thoughts?” said Spergus weakly.
“As long as he is not too far away. At least for now. Interference from other thoughts may reduce, even staunch the efficiency of the mental intentions of death. But let us say that Harkot has effectively, to use your words, killed at a distance, without the help of a weapon. Right now, of course, this process is only effective on very simple types of brains, such as that of this Mikat. However, we have no worries about soon being operational with more evolved brains. And even those that are very highly evolved.”
The Chancellor’s self-confidence had come back to him. In spite of the thought protectors, those black and white wraiths whose job was to maintain psychic screens, he picked up some raw fragments of feelings from Ranti Ang; he did not detect the slightest hint of resentment. The perspectives that had been opened by this extraordinary experiment, which had just been carried out under his eyes, were filling the Lord of Syracusa’s mind completely.
“And do all Scaythes have this ability?”
“Only those who have advanced mental faculties.”
“This”¦ this is witchcraft!” cried Ranti Ang.
He uttered this accusation without any conviction, as if he had already guessed the answer.
“You have nothing to fear from the Muffi of the Kreuzian Church, my Lord. These techniques are, I repeat, scientific; developed by our physicists specialized in the field of subtle waves, and not by some village witch or wizard. Witchcraft is a synonym for obscure, subjective practices. It is the exact opposite of our technology, which remains objective, provable and verifiable. In addition, if you so wish, my Lord, our scientists would be delighted to give you a more detailed explanation of the mental mechanisms used by our students. It is therefore out of the question,” and the Chancellor’s tone of voice here was very firm, “that our holy Church class the future mental killers on the index. It goes without saying that we would not have presented this new technique to you if it was found to go against Kreuzian principles.”
Pamynx was not taking too many risks in betting that the clergy would support him: Barrofill the Twenty-Fourth, the Muffi of the Kreuzian Church, had been informed about what was brewing in the Chancellor’s secret laboratory a long time ago.
“I would like you to tell us more about this technique, sir,” suggested Spergus.
“Oh, I am afraid that this would bore you,” answered Pamynx. He was happy to get a small amount of revenge by being begged to continue.
“Go on, Chancellor, please grant our dear Spergus’ request,” interrupted Ranti Ang, in a wily tone of voice.
Even though he avoided showing it, Pamynx was jubilating. His lack of foresight could have fatal consequences for the realization of the Project, but he had managed to turn the situation around, as could be seen by Ranti Ang’s change of attitude and tone of voice. He had just won what he needed most: time. In addition, he now held the courtier Tist of Argolon and his accomplices in the palm of his hand, and this perspective filled him with boundless joy.
“These techniques come from a forgotten science that dates back thousands of years before Naflin. The only ancient science that ever really examined the potentials of the mind: Inddic science. We have found traces of it on Terra Mater, a very tiny planet in a solar system on the edge of the Milky Way. It also seems, as astonishing as this may be, that Inddic science originated on Terra Mater.
“To sum up briefly, two Scaythe ethnologists learned by accident that the religious hymns of a tribe of Terra Mater, the Amerynes, were sung in an Inddic dialect, even though this vernacular language had not been spoken for six thousand standard years. Our ethnologists went to Terra Mater, where they discovered a strange phenomenon: these hymns seemed to have geo-climactic repercussions on the environment, and they could cause seasonal upheavals, such as sudden blizzards in summer. When they collated their observations, they discovered the unbelievable properties of certain Inddic sounds, which are called uctras or antras.
“Good heavens, get to the point!” exclaimed Ranti Ang who had noticed that Spergus was no longer paying attention. He, too, was in a hurry to escape from the macabre atmosphere of this cellar.
“I’m getting to the point, my Lord. It was necessary to give you some context in order to help you and Master Spergus understand a little bit more clearly. We quickly realized that the Amerynes were using very specific sounds for ritual animal sacrifices or for punishments given to those who broke the law.
“A concrete example: adultery. The guilty party, or both parties together, were tied up in the middle of a sacred circle. Four Amphanes, or Ameryne priests, would sit at the four cardinal points, singing the death chant, a succession of uctras, which would end up causing irreparable brain damage and bring about death in a few minutes. But one of our physicists recently discovered that these same uctras proved to be more effective, more powerful when emitted at a subtle level.”
Spergus was once again paying unflagging attention to the Chancellor’s explanations.
“We based our work on the following theory: the destructive power of the Inddic uctras depends on the quality of the silence in which they are used. Little by little, the Amerynes forgot this basic principle. Instead of internalizing the uctras, they exteriorized them by chanting them, thereby reducing their power.
“One of the essential qualities of the Scaythes of Hyponeros is that they can attain levels of inner silence that no other living creatures can reach. Excited, superficial minds would not be able to use these uctras correctly. However, our students were trained in the greatest of secret, which is what called for the unpleasant but necessary presence of the Pritivian mercenaries, and they have managed to master them by stabilizing calm states of mind. They first tried them out on embryonic brains, then on mammals, then on the manimals of Getablan, and finally on this Mikat. By the way, I beg you to please clear up the concerns of some Kreuzian missionaries from the satellite Getablan. We had to”¦”
“Already having problems with the Church, Chancellor?” said Ranti Ang. “I thought these experiments were kept totally secret! I imagine, in fact, that if the other member states of the Federation learn that you have been using the services of mercenaries from Pritiv, we will lose all credibility during the next Asma on Issigor.”
“The five-year assembly will not take place, as planned, on the planet Issigor.”
“How? And why?”
The Chancellor’s yellow eyes locked on those of Spergus.
“I will explain that to you later, my Lord. In private. May I continue? In order to have enough guinea pigs, we had to promise the missionaries that we would return these manimals unharmed. But”¦”
“A white lie, but a lie, Chancellor!” said Ranti Ang, making fun of the bombastic tone of the people of the church.
“I thought that for the good of”¦”
“Don’t think anymore, if you please! The noble goal of these experiments was to serve science, was it not? And the fact that a few manimals have disappeared as a result of it does not shock my Kreuzian convictions. I will take care of all that with the Muffi Barrofill. Am I not, after all, his appointed protector and personal friend? But are you absolutely sure that no one else has found out about your experiments?”
“Absolutely sure. The only person who could impede us has been banished from Syracusa. By you, my Lord.”
“I am sure that you still remember the trial of Sri Mitsu, the Mustah.”
“Sri Mitsu? What does he have to do with this?”
Even though Ranti Ang was using all the resources of his mental control to let nothing come through, he clearly loathed recalling this memory.
“Quite a bit, my Lord,” answered Pamynx, almost feeling this discomfort – he knew exactly where it was coming from. “Inddic science had come through space and time, and three great masters are still alive: Sri Mitsu is one of them.”
“If this were so, we would have known!” said Ranti Ang. “Sri Mitsu has always refused mental protection: our inquisitors could read his thoughts as easily as they could read a light-book!”
“The exceptional psychic capabilities he had developed by practicing Inddic science exempted him from protection, my Lord. That, and the fact that he belonged to the brotherhood of Smellas, could have proved to have disastrous consequences for our projects. For that reason, and for that reason only, I insisted to you and to his Holiness the Muffi that he be tried in a sensational public forum. The accusations against him, unnatural sexual practices, were just a pretext, as I am sure you understood. He had to be removed. Fortunately, everything went as planned: his aura as a Smella, his influence on the other member states, his overall good reputation, all these things were turned against him during the trial and he was condemned to perpetual banishment.”
“Why have you hidden these true reasons from me, sir? Do you have such little esteem for me?”
Ranti Ang’s voice was bitter. Pamynx refrained from showing the contempt that he had for the Lord of Syracusa. He thought Ranti Ang was superficial, frivolous, fickle, incapable of handling the heritage that had been left to him by the great Arghetti Ang. Behind the scenes, the Chancellor constantly worked for a more expeditious succession than that which was a part of Syracusan tradition.
“I did not wish to overload your already busy schedule, my Lord.”
“Who are the other two masters of this”¦ Inddic science?” asked Spergus. “You said a minute ago that there were three of them and we have only heard one name.”
“Another Syracusan: Sri Alexu, a very discreet man who we never see in the court. But he lives right here, near Venicia. He is not involved in State affairs. He is only known to have two interests: his daughter, a young beauty named Aphykit, and flowers. He is under constant surveillance.”
“And the third one?”
Spergus’ insistence bothered the Chancellor. Had he underestimated the role of the Syracusan Lord’s protÃ©gÃ©? Perhaps this disarming naivetÃ© hid some precise calculated intentions.
“Seqoram the Mahdi.”
Ranti Ang gave an exclamation of surprise, an uncalled-for, indecent showing of his emotions, contrary to the code of sycophantic emotion.
“Good Lord! Do you realize what you are saying, Chancellor?”
“Why? What is it? What has he done?”
“The Grand Master of the Absurate Order. But don’t worry yourself, Spergus: we have compromised the Absurate knights and we have made sure to lead them down the wrong paths. And we go over their reports very carefully.”
“Perhaps! However, attacking the Absurate Order is attacking the very foundations of the Naflin Federation!” objected Ranti Ang. “The knighthood has devoted itself to the study of the arts of war for centuries. No lord, however powerful he may be, would have the recklessness to defy it! Have you lost your mind, Chancellor?”
“The Order knows nothing of the weapon that we are preparing, my Lord.”
Pamynx froze suddenly in a solemn attitude.
“My Lord, the time has finally come to carry out your father’s visionary dream. All the conditions are right: the federal army, the Interlice, is under the command of your brother Menati, and this until the next five-year Asma. We will ensure that this takes place on Syracusa and not on Issigor. In accordance with our advice, Menati has managed to bring the senior officers around to our cause with promises of titles and territorial concessions. Pritivian mercenaries are prepared to grant us unequivocal support, because they long to battle with the Absurate Order that their founders, the knights who broke away from the Order, came from. The Kreuzian Church is expanding thanks to the indefatigable activity of missionaries in the farthest corners of the Federation. Its crucifires and mental inquisitors are already a very useful repressive apparatus. There was only one thing we needed, my Lord, and this thing is what you have just seen materialize in front of your eyes.”
He stopped talking and watched the effects of his words on those in front of him. Spergus, his mouth hanging open, his eyes wide, looked like a holographic mannequin from the pre-Naflin museums. The only thing that made him look alive were his two blond locks of hair, swaying lightly in the air. This young and exuberant boy, who was a victim of his curiosity and of Ranti Ang’s feelings, already knew too much. Whatever part he was playing, whether it had two sides or one, he was a danger. His wheel of fate, the rota individua of the Kreuzians, would soon stop turning.
As for the lord of Syracusa, he was rubbing his lips absentmindedly with his right index finger. His blue eyes wandered over to the body of the Mikat and the black acaba of his assassin. Fleeting bright sparkles came from the dozens of ephemeral gems in the long scarlet cape that covered his white bodstocking.
“We must now act very quickly,” said Pamynx. “We must definitively eliminate Sri Mitsu, who, in spite of being in exile, remains dangerous. The Pritivian mercenaries will take care of that. We must also eliminate Sri Alexu and his daughter. They don’t look dangerous but this is probably just to deceive us. You must use your discretionary power, my Lord, to obtain additional credits so we can perfect our technology of mental execution. Then the Absurate Order must be attacked and destroyed, as well as the obsolete relic of the Federation, the final traces of Inddic civilization. In order to ensure that this is so, the Amerynes of Terra Mater should also be reduced to silence.”
“Do you realize, Chancellor, that if this genocide – because you are suggesting genocide – if this got out, we would be under a direct menace from the Absurate knights!” said Ranti Ang. “And it will get out, because the main member states have eyes and ears all around!”
“We need to learn that the Order is no longer an insurmountable obstacle. Our chances of success rest on speed and precision, on the element of surprise. All we need now is your formal agreement, my Lord. It is up to you to now become the first ruler of a post-Naflin empire.”
As he said this, he was thinking that Ranti Ang would never have this privilege. In the fifth stage of the Great Project, the masters of Hyponeros had planned for the Naflin Federation to be broken up and for power to be taken by a wise tyrant, a unifier. A man of a much different caliber than the current lord of Syracusa.
The four Scaythe thought protectors had slackened their watchfulness. The light from their half-closed eyes, coming from within the darkness of their red and white hoods, was less intense. They were violating the first law of the treaty of the Honorable Code of Protection: At all times day and night, I will be a zealous guardian of the mind of my Lord, because he alone has the right to follow the flow of his thoughts.
Pamynx noticed this inattention. He could have slipped for just a second into Ranti Ang’s mind, which was momentarily unscreened. He preferred to wait for his fellow Hyponerians to realize their unforgivable negligence. Today, the Chancellor would ask for no additional heads to fall. The most important ones would soon be rolling at his feet, and this perspective was more than enough to make him happy.
“My Lord, I would like to discuss the next steps of our undertaking,” he said softly, as if he did not want to awaken Ranti Ang from his daydreaming too suddenly. “Young Spergus should be allowed to avoid this tiresome chore. Send him someplace which is more in accordance with the concerns of his young age.”
Without waiting for Ranti Ang to answer and without paying any attention to the deadly look from Spergus, he walked off into the dark underground corridor with a firm step.
The Warriors of Silence
by Pierre Bordage
translated from the French by Kirk McElhearn
Copyright Pierre Bordage 1993-2004
The was a persistent rumor on the planet Two-Seasons, a rumor that returned as often as the rain, suggesting that the wet season was coming to its end.
Slumped in a chair so old and dusty that the light of its tubes merged with the half-light of the agency, Tixu Oty, originally from the planet Orange, watched the heavy drops fall with the look of a divine cow contemplating an antique rocket train.
During the five, maybe six standard years that he had been on Two-Seasons, Tixu Oty had slowly changed into a shaggy, lifeless mass, soaked through with alcohol and boredom. A sickening stench oozed from his crumpled uniform, which had once been light green, and its pungency was reminiscent of the giant river lizards of the rainy season.
Frightened by his grim look, the rare customers who had the incongruous idea of opening the broken door of the agency stayed just long enough to mumble a quick apology. What impression could these unfortunate travelers have of the ILTC, the largest transfer company in the known and unknown universe! The ILTC with its thousands of agencies scattered over the hundreds of planets of the Naflin Federation, even on the outlying planets of the Marches. The all-powerful ILTC which had managed to achieve an almost total monopoly over long distance cellular transfers, thanks to ad campaigns with sensational slogans, as well as a bit of political and financial scheming.
Somewhere, within his swamp of indifference, Tixu knew that an inspobot appointed by the decisional college would eventually pay him a visit. He would have to provide some explanations when this occurred. Management did not neglect any of the agencies, even those that were near the limits of the recorded universe. The absolute minimum – and one, which, if it happened, would be the result of a great deal of luck – was that he would be purely and simply fired like the slob he had become. This was an optimistic hypothesis, but it was merely a reflection of an unconscious desire.
As logic would have it, he would be more likely to stand trial before the Company’s Internal Ethics Court, where his countless incidents of professional misconduct would be solemnly exhumed. For good measure – and since the rainy season never comes just once – they would add a few minor trifles to the list; things he had nothing to do with. The ILTC was not used to playing around with their corporate image, and never missed a chance to make an example of someone. He risked being convicted to ten, or even fifteen years of recycling-workshop, at a repair and testing center located on the planet Russk. He would have the choice there of either being a test pilot for the new machines designed by the Company’s engineers (death rate: 30.3%), or working on the irradiated fault detection line (death rate: 26.7%).
Nevertheless, through an extraordinary effort of non-will, Tixu had managed to drive this entire little world from his non-thoughts: the Airain Charter, the Company’s internal manual, on which he had pledged an oath on during the enthronement ceremony, the rules, and their never-ending sub-paragraphs a) and b), the inspobots and their lexicons of cellular inventories, the customer-is-always-right, the unenviable fate that awaited him… From now on, the only thing that counted was when he heard the hostess’ artificial voice, on the internal channel, announcing the standard closing time for all of the agencies in zone 1O98-A of the Marches.
Driven by a conditioned reflex, Tixu would then type the confidential code for the deremat room on the old keyboard, push the lever that controlled the magnetic protection shutters, lift his carcass from his seat and leave the agency, always forgetting to turn off the antique holographic sign that had been missing two of its four letters for eons. This was probably the worst kept travel agency in the known and unknown universe.
Walking haltingly, Tixu penetrated the city’s intertwining network of dark twisting streets. Then he went up on to the jumble of high footbridges, set up in rainy weather, that crossed over the ponds, streams, rivers, all those liquid spaces whose broken mirrored surfaces reflected dreary rays of light from light bubbles buffeted by the wind. From time to time, a dozen-meter long carnivorous river lizard shot up in a sudden bubbling of foam. Its light yellow scales and its tiny ruby red eyes burst into the grayness, its mouth opened showing a triple row of razor-sharp teeth, its tail whipping the surface of the water with a vengeance.
It often happened that a local citizen, drunk or in a feverish delirium, would be blown from a footbridge by a gust of wind. There was no way out: there was always a lizard prowling in the area; one that would throw itself on the poor victim without further ado (death rate: 100%).
Tixu would sometimes spend a few minutes watching one of these aquatic monsters, making sure that he was holding fast to the upper rope of the handrail. Not that he cared more about living than anything else, but he just held on to what he could, and in this case it was a rope. The natives of Two-Seasons, the Sadumbas, claimed, with a straight face, that the river lizards were water deities. Before the massive arrival of the colonists from the Federation, they would make offerings of a few of their newborn as a sacrifice. In spite of the Federal law protecting ethnic plurality and the respect for local customs, the Federal Interlice had forbidden this age-old practice, which was judged to be degrading, barbarian, and contrary to the ideals of an enlightened society.
Tixu passed a few vague shapes, some silhouettes who were paying attention to keeping their balance on these unsteady, slippery wooden planks. Even though the rain was lashing his face, it had not yet managed to awaken him from his torpor. Tixu’s feet led him toward the only bar in the city, a simple hut sitting on top of tall slim piles, which did not inspire much confidence. Under its crumbling sign, a bit of collapsed terrace seemed irresistibly attracted to the swirling waters of a stream below. This was probably the worst kept bar in the known and unknown universe.
Every evening, Tixu would come and help swell the dense ranks of the mumbÃ« drinkers. MumbÃ«, the local alcohol, was an indeterminate blend of acid and poison, which was rotgut for anyone of normal constitution. Tixu would empty glass after glass without uttering a word, and without glancing either in front of him or behind. The others, either leaning on the bar or sprawled over the rustic tables, also drank in silence. Their glossy bloodshot eyes stared into the void. The waiters, three brothers who came from the planet Red Spot, filled their glasses without any unnecessary remarks. Their greedy hands skillfully grabbed the small change on the duralumin bar.
The Three Brothers’ Tavern (that was what everyone called it, since no one had been able to make out the letters on the sign) was a hub for smugglers of red tobacco and adulterated alcohol from the Skoj, which had been put on the Index by the Federation one hundred sixty standard years before. From time to time, women with multicolored hair would pierce through the curtain of smoke and wander near the bar. Their wispy negligees gave a glimpse of their withered skin, their wilted shapes, their breasts uncomfortably defying the law of gravity, their legs sheathed in cellulite, their bald pubes… These prostitutes were at the ends of their careers, and could not afford esthetic youthing treatments; they sold themselves cheaply to optalium diggers, to sleazy functionaries, or to traveling salesmen passing through the sector.
It was during these dejected periods that Tixu gave in to the sad call of the flesh. The tricks were usually transacted in a room on the second floor, right in the middle of a swarm of buzzing aggressive black mosquitoes. These women were professionals worried about cost-effectiveness; they could get cash, erection, and ejaculation in less than thirty seconds. Each time, he was left with a queasy memory of the persistent odor of disinfectant that stunk up the stained mattress.
Sometimes, above the heads of the customers, snatches of conversation could be heard, words half pronounced, escaping thoughts.
“censoreding rain! To think that this has been going on for more than twenty years… This dump should be called One-Season!”
“Yeah… And poor Morteen Olligrain, ending up the way he did. Eaten in his mine by a filthy lizard.”
“I told him not to dig so close to the water! No one has ever found any optalium near water, and anyway, you could see the ground was going to cave in.”
“He should have been less stubborn. They’re all like that, those half-breeds from Artilex! Always right!”
“Hey, you, Orangeman! As soon as I hit a good lode I’m comin’ to see you! You stick me in your damn machine and I’m home! And younger too!”
“Enough, Amigoet! A deremat transfer costs at least ten grand! And anyway, that story about getting younger is just a legend. You might get a couple of months out of it, but since your cells keep your biological age in memory, you’ll lose them right back. That’s what they call the Gloson correction effect, right Tixu?”
Tixu gave his mouth a little twist, which could be taken for a yes.
“Don’t laugh,” said the other one, insisting, “I’m telling you I’m near a good lode! The big one, old buddy!”
They came here to dig for optalium, a rare metal that was highly valued by the sculptor-jewelers of Bella Syracusa and the sacred craftsmen’s guilds of Marquinate. But the miners were ravaged by Zenoiba, the rainy season fever, an incurable disease. Their foreheads dripped with sweat, their skin was sallow, their teeth were loose, and they had crazy looks in their eyes. They had come from all over the universe, and you could spot them easily in their traditional outfits of thick brown cloth called tibu’shes. Their only hope: find enough money as quickly as possible to pay for a deremat transfer to their home worlds, so they could die there in peace. By an ordinary shuttle, it would take years, and they would not survive the trip. The old ships, from the period of the conquest, took six months, and sometimes even a year, to reach the major planets of the Federation. Not counting the dangers of pirates and shipwrecks.
“According to an estimate by specialists in geo-prospecting, the ground of Two-Seasons contains an incredible amount of white optalium…”
This terse wire report, picked up by some unimportant anchorman of a little-watched bubblevision channel, was enough to set off a mad rush. Independent miners took the planet by storm, killing one another to get the best concessions and squandering their skimpy savings to bring their heavy material: excavators, drills, proppers, extractors… But the never-ending rain, which filled the galleries with water and mud, the river lizards, and the Zenoibic insects, made the extraction of this precious ore more than difficult. The only thing the miners had extracted so far was that deadly raging fever which thwarted even the best medics from the FHO, the Federal Health Organization.
The more or less magic potions used by the Imas Sadumbas, the native sorcerers, were hardly more effective than the chemical, sonic, or undulatory cures that the FHO used. In addition, the Sadumbas themselves were seriously stricken by Zenoiba, since their immune systems were probably weakened by their poor hygiene and an overuse of mumbÃ«. The natives of Two-Seasons had the habit of walking around entirely naked. The networks of their dark veins pushed through their hairless translucent skin, which was sickly-white. They were unintentionally defying a recent Federal decree, voted at the instigation of the Kreuzian Church of Syracusa, which required that all Federation citizens wear clothes. The Sadumbas couldn’t care less about decrees, whether they were ancient or recent. They wore a permanent expression of gloom and melancholy, which was in stark contrast to their round faces and their shapely bodies.
Some miners, the oldest and the sickest ones, claimed that the Sadumbas changed completely at the beginning of the dry season: their bodies became as dry as the tough skin of a shriveled person from Red-Spot, their pigmentary cells became colored with melanin to give them a nice brown skin color, and, above all, they became incredibly happy: singing, dancing, indulging in a permanent orgy that everyone was amicably invited to participate in. While waiting for these glorious days, which probably only existed in the hazy minds of the optalium diggers, the few specimens of male and female Sadumbas seated quietly in a corner of the barroom, glasses of mumbÃ« in their hands, seemed to be reflecting on all the dark thoughts in the known and unknown universe.
As dependable as an antique pre-Naflin clock, a strange person came into the bar every evening at the same time. He was tall and pale, with a shock of surly red hair overflowing from the hood of his dirty, saffron-colored bodstocking full of holes; his face was all angles and sharp edges, his eyes sparkled under bushy eyebrows, and his long neck was emaciated like a vulture’s. His bony arm would unfold from within his crimson surplice, and his accusing finger would dominate the sputtering of the rain on the sheet metal roofs.
“You fiends of the Index! Alcohol has made you raskattas, outlaws! You are animals, lower on the evolutionary scale than the river lizards! A heap of stinking animals! Inferior beings enslaved by vice! The time will come when you will appear before the Kreuz, you will atone for your errors and you will be purified by fire! The time is near. Fear the Gehenna of the redeeming crosses: they will come to punish you for your insolence!”
Everyone calmly awaited the end of the storm. The Kreuzian missionary then turned toward the prostitutes, who were clearly taunting him by spreading their legs, licking their tongues on their red lips, or caressing their breasts.
“Cover yourselves, evil women! You putrid harlots! Your bearing is an insult to the divine Laissa, the mother of Kreuz! Your places are already reserved on the crucifires!”
His burning eyes wandered for a long while across the shadows in the smoke-filled room, his Adam’s apple piercing the wrinkled skin of his throat. Then he walked out like a sleepwalker and the prostitutes started chuckling as he walked by, both sarcastic and worried.
“The Kreuzian’s crazy as usual! It must be Zenoiba!”
“He thinks he’s going to scare us with his crucifires,” snickered one seated man.
“You’re wrong to laugh!” answered another who looked older than he really was. “These damn things exist, I’ve seen them!”
Every head turned toward the miner who was holding on to the bar with both hands, to keep his shaky legs from giving way. Worried, the prostitutes deserted their clients, and came and crowded around him.
“It goes back to the time when I had a concession on Julius, one of Syracusa’s moons. The Church of Kreuz is the official religion there, there’s no choice, and anyone who refuses to be converted is systematically sentenced to suffer the crucifire. I’ve seen entire families, husband, wife, and kids, burning slowly. It’s a disgusting sight.”
“You must be a censoreding Kreuzian,” yelled one guy, who had been made more aggressive by the mumbÃ«. “Otherwise you would have burned like the rest of them!”
A murmur of approval greeted this comment that bore the stamp of common sense.
“I was!” said the miner. “On Julius I was a Kreuzian. It was either that or my life. And I like living! It may not be a great life, but it’s the only one I have! Now I’m as much a Kreuzian as you are a rich man!”
Everyone laughed. The prostitutes, now reassured, went back to the tables like a swarm of bees on a clump of flowers full of pollen. The silence slowly returned. The patrons’ brains drifted in the alcoholic haze. It was time to go to bed. It was a dangerous undertaking to confront the night, the rain, and the wind without falling from the swaying footbridges and becoming an impromptu dinner for the river lizards.
Tixu never remembered how he managed to find his way back to the boarding house. He usually did not have enough energy to put his feet on the gravitational platform, and fell asleep at the bottom of the staircase. It was the night watchman, a Sadumba decked out in a uniform jacket that was much too small for him, and a purely symbolic loincloth, who took care of the rest: he found the right door of the right room, located the bed among the indescribable mess, and placed the inert body on the mattress which gave off a repulsive odor of vomit, alcohol, and filth. Once this difficult task was finished, the night watchman would mutter a few stinging insults in his native lingo and leave. Each time, his feet would trip over the countless bottles lying on the floor, he would swear again, and close the door. Tixu would open one eye and catch a quick glance of a tremendous pair of white buttocks under a ridiculous black jacket, and then fall into a deep sleep that would show all the symptoms of a deep coma.
That morning, the smarmy voice of the hostess, who announced the wake-up call for all the employees of zone 1098-A of the Marches, was particularly unbearable to Tixu Oty. It felt as if each word that was spit out of the closed-circuit channel of the reverberator was a nanoscalpel cutting through his nerves.
The day watchman, a mute Trobloss, underpaid but dressed from head to toe, brought him breakfast: spicy Sadumba pastries and a strange thick piping hot drink that some people dared call coffee or even tea. The Trobloss yawned his head off, which was his own pleasant way of saying good morning. Tixu sat on the edge of his bed and answered with a small movement of his chin. The day watchman did not appreciate this lack of courtesy. He slammed the tray on the heap of clothes piled on the coffee table, and walked away.
Like every other morning, Tixu did not touch his breakfast, he did not take the time to wash up, even briefly; he unfolded his painful carcass and lunged into the hall. He crossed the lobby, muttered an inaudible apology to the scowling Trobloss, and went out into the street. Annoyed by the rain, the wind, and the permanent half-light that shrouded the city, he went straight to the agency.
During his rare periods of early morning sanity, he tried not to be noticed by the automatic comprehensive verification system, which would set off an immediate visit by an inspobot. Since his main worry was to keep this inevitable event from happening, he absolutely had to open the agency on time.
He pressed the activator on his personal resonator, which was stuck deep in a side pocket of his jacket. The sizzling bluish curtain of the force-fence faded away. He sat at his desk and typed in the confidential passcode to open the deremat, an old decrepit model, which offered, in addition to the journey, a few tiny inconveniences that the ILTC’s bubblevision advertisements neglected to mention.
Then, as an expert in the seated position and its many variations, he settled himself comfortably into the chair, sank into his usual torpor, and plunged into the contemplation of the raindrops dancing a sarabande on the clouded window. He soon fell asleep.
“Excuse me! Hello!”
Tixu lifted his head. The girl was standing in front of his desk. He had not heard the automatic doorbell when she came in. A reflex-thought flashed through his mind, A Syracusan! What the hell is a Syracusan doing in this dump?
Her sumptuous turquoise eyes, flecked with green and gold, fell on him with the grace of the music-birds of Organne, a province of Orange known for its extensive variety of wildlife. She carefully wrung out the two locks of hair that protruded from under the crimson edging of her white hood. She was dressed in a large cape of bright, changing colors, all of one piece, and made of a kind of fabric known as life-cloth, which was closed at the chest with a simple brooch of pink optalium. Her skin was of a gossamer-like paleness, her features were extremely graceful, her lips lined with white, and her movements were refined; everything about her betrayed her Syracusan origins, even the hint of arrogance in her poise and in the look in her eyes.
Tixu was frozen in his seat for a moment. Then, as if a spring loosened inside of him, he suddenly started arranging everything in the agency that needed urgent arranging: his slumped position, his shirt collar, his tangled hair, his uniform jacket, his belt, the wild mess on his desk, the unnecessary papers, all the things that were out of place. He tried to smile at the young lady, but, in doing so, he had the strange feeling of being stuck inside the skin of a white olphel, one of those domesticated monkeys that was especially good at making faces.
“Uh, good morning. Can I help you?”
The visitor gave an expression of subtle irony.
“I would like to travel. You do sell transfers, don’t you? Unless I have come to the wrong place…”
Tixu’s solar plexus felt the full force of her warm melodious voice. She, like most Syracusans, knew how to focus and aim it like a precisely concentrated sound wave.
“Uh, yes, of course, a transfer…” he mumbled, feeling out of breath. “Uh, maybe you’d like to sit down?”
“Yes, thank you, but where?”
“Excuse me. I’ll call the seat.”
Since he had violated rule 3c, paragraph 12, of the Traveler’s chapter of the internal manual (A potential customer should never stand while waiting), he had forgotten the very existence of the self-propelled chairs. Blushing, he pressed a rarely-used gray button on the lighted control panel. A light-chair of indescribable ugliness came out of a hatch that opened in the wall and, preceded by an exasperating grating noise, rolled out toward the visitor. She looked at the dust that had built up on the air cushion.
“I am greatly obliged, but I think I would rather stand. I believe that you sell trips by de- and re-materialization?”
“Deremats? Uh, yes, of course. You know, or maybe you don’t know, that you have just entered an agency of the ILTC, the largest transport company in the known and unknown universe. So I ask you, where else would you find a deremat if not here?”
Much to Tixu’s surprise, the words rushed out of his mouth. He usually just spit out a few threatening grumbles, whose goal was to test the clients’ strength of character. They would most often just go away, shamefaced, and resign themselves, in desperation, to giving three weeks of their lives to one of those regularly scheduled shuttles that made the trip between Two-Seasons and the other planets of the Marches.
“That’s fine. So I need a… a deremat, is that it? To go to Red Spot. I assume that you can handle that?”
“Red Spot?” said Tixu, surprised.
A new smile came over the visitor’s opaline lips. She seemed calm, distant, almost absent. The ability to control emotions was one of the most important subjects of Syracusan education. Faces and gestures should never betray feelings, especially in front of a stranger. As for Tixu, his eyes wide with astonishment were an abyss open on the desert of his soul.
“I am waiting for an answer! Is it possible or not?”
Tixu could make out the hint of anxiety coming through in her voice. He could also see the slight shaking of the life-cloth of her cape, caused by the nervous trembling of her leg.
“It’s possible, of course. Our programs can send travelers to all known worlds. It’s just that… Excuse me for butting into something that’s not my business, but what is a woman like you going to do on Red Spot? Please understand, this is the first time I have met a Syracusan in the Marches, and…”
She cut him off sharply, “What makes you think I am from Syracusa?”
“Hey, don’t get angry,” said Tixu spreading his arms. “I’m not trying to spy on you or get any information from you. I… uh, I’ve traveled a lot in my life and I can recognize a Syracusan, that’s all. You know what they say about Red Spot, don’t you?”
“I’ve heard about it, like everyone else. And that won’t change anything.”
“It’s your business, after all. Do you have family there? Anyone to meet you? I mean with the reputation of the place, it would be better for you if…”
Her tone of voice, now sharp, made it clear that there was to be no more discussion. Tixu took on the pathetic role of the humble ILTC employee again.
“You’re the customer, ma’am, and the customer is always right! I was just trying to help.”
His fingers brushed over the keys on the console. But he could not stop the swirling stream of thoughts that broke through his dam of boredom and indifference. He seriously regretted his untidy look; his patchy beard; his dirty nails, that he tried to hide from her eyes by pressing them into his palms; his teeth, yellow from the red Skoj tobacco and the mumbÃ«; the humidity and the filth all around him. He was suddenly, in front of this Syracusan full of grace and haughtiness, aware of the emptiness of his existence, of how low he had fallen.
Some fluorescent numbers came up on the curved screen.
“Transfer to Red Spot: Fifteen thousand standard units.”
“Fifteen thousand! That is too much!”
“I… I don’t think you’ll find it cheaper anywhere else,” answered Tixu, taken aback by the fact that a Syracusan would lower herself by bargaining. “The ILTC is the company that offers the lowest prices in the universe… known and unknown. In any case, there are no other deremats on Two-Seasons.”
The visitor’s eyes locked onto Tixu’s, and he almost staggered from the force of her stare.
“I do not have that sum of money right now,” she said slowly, her words like arrows. “But it is essential, vital that I go to Red Spot! Do you understand?”
“I understand, I understand,” said Tixu, lying, as he was clumsily trying to free himself from the terrible pressure she was using on him. “In that case, take the ordinary temporal shuttle.”
“Totally out of the question! It would take at least three standard weeks, and there is also the problem of pirates. Fifteen thousand, you said…”
She was obviously looking for a solution. She was biting her lower lip, which became white from the pressure of her teeth, covered in bluish mother-of-pearl. Her leg was trembling more than before. She was clearly having great trouble stabilizing her emotional control, which showed just how deeply she was worried.
“I can offer you eight thousand units,” she continued, overcoming her obvious dislike for this kind of sordid bargaining. “The rest later. It goes without saying that I will leave you my personal prints on a promissory note.”
“Sorry ma’am, I cannot accept,” said Tixu with a smile that was meant to be conciliatory, but which lacked the conviction which would have made it totally convincing.
Then he quickly added, to justify himself, “Whatever your reasons are for making this proposition, and I am sure that they are good reasons, I cannot allow myself to infringe the internal regulations of the Company.”
As soon as he said those words, a meddlesome little voice came out of the depths of his soul. Why was employee Oty, code MSÃ˜ 12 A 2, suddenly so worried about the internal regulations of the Company? Was this a leftover of his conditioning, conscientiousness, or just a way of getting attention?
He thought that she was going to clear out, and he already regretted it, but she was not like the usual customers, who were demoralized by the slightest thing. She put her long thin hands, her artist’s hands, on the desk. Her face came dangerously close to Tixu’s, and he was slightly intoxicated by the smell of her perfume.
“I know that you have to follow your regulations. Everyone has to follow something. But this trip is indispensable! Indispensable! Please, listen to me with all your heart and all your ears instead of hiding behind your regulations.”
She paused for a second and looked at Tixu, who was crushed against the back of his chair.
“This trip is not indispensable for me, but for the universe. For the universe! The Naflin Federation is in great danger. And this has nothing to do with your regulations. I must leave immediately!”
Her nails, which were painted with silver, and pointed, in the Syracusan style, were almost driven into the cheap fake wood of the desk. Tixu, uncomfortable, twisted his chair back and forth. Bursts of sparks came out of its light tubes. He felt some prickles on his wrists and forearms.
“The universe! Well, you sure don’t just go halfway, do you? The Company’s insurance is limited to covering our customers’ personal effects, but not the entire universe! Especially not for eight thousand units! That’s below the lowest market price.”
While he was saying that like a poorly-wound mechanical parrot, he was calculating the possible consequences of selling her the transfer at a reduced price. If he gave false information to the program, the deremat would immediately stop working. The number of passengers, the exact destination, the standard price, the method of payment; all the data needed for a deremat was handled by the central memory partition of the administrative center of zone 1098 A. The necessary amount of money had to be credited to the Company’s bank account. That left about two or three minutes before the computers reconciled the accounts and reported the discrepancy, two or three hours before the auditors checked into the problem, and a day or two before the inspobot showed up in the agency.
Tixu decided that this ridiculous game of hide and seek with the Company had gone on long enough. This girl gave him the perfect chance to put an end to his sad stay on this diluvian planet. He was almost cheerful when he said, “So you have eight thousand units?”
“Almost. Does that mean you agree?”
He tried to keep looking into her eyes, thirty centimeters away from his. He was screwed and he knew it, so he could afford to do a favor for a pretty Syracusan, even if she did have a way of acting as if she thought he was a total moron. And this story about saving the universe (from who? from what?) was a welcome change from the feverish ravings of the miners.
“You know, I’m taking a big chance selling a transfer this cheap.”
Beaten, but a poor loser, Tixu was trying to make his action look important: the heroic action of a humble employee who puts his career on the line for a woman’s smile. She did not let any admiration show. He lowered his eyes.
“So, for eight thousand we get a double expedition: you go to Red Spot and I get in trouble. I’ll have to take your prints for the promissory note, not that it will change anything.”
The Syracusan’s blue, green, and golden eyes sparkled brightly. Her face lit up with a radiant smile. Tixu’s mind was filled with an image of a white-edged corolla opening to show a bluish pistil. He quickly wondered how long it had been since he had kissed a woman. The flacid mouths of the prostitutes do not encourage passionate kisses.
“When can I leave?”
“As soon as you have taken care of the medical formalities. Even though the Company has decided to make you this special offer, you can’t get out of the medical check-up. Do you see the small room over there? Just follow the instructions on the bubble-screen inside. Let this be clear: if the phys check doesn’t give you a go-ahead, the machine will immediately interrupt its cellular recognition. No matter how important your trip is for our dear Federation…”
She did not listen to what he was saying, and walked lightly to the room, which was separated from the main office by a glass door. Tixu typed the code to start the phys check.
He felt that he was really screwing up. The ILTC considered dealing transfers to be a firing offence. Not only did he risk an internal sanction, but also a criminal conviction, and being put on the raskatta index. He cursed his stupidity: he was being taken for a ride just like a total paritol, as the Syracusans contemptuously called the inhabitants of other known worlds.
At the same time, he felt as happy as a kid. Happy to get this over with, happy to forget about the rules, happy to finally do what he felt was right. The phys checker’s red lights went off one by one. A green and black triangle was flashing on the right of the screen: the passenger was physically fit to withstand the destructuring and reconstitution of her cells and DNA.
Tixu was disappointed: he could not go back on his decision now. Even if this girl was distant and inaccessible to him, her presence had set off a confused feeling of renewed vitality deep within him. She made him think of the Alchim women, in the old Orangian legends, who could change dismal deserts into fertile lands. Coming from a distant world, she was as distant from him as the Central Worlds were from the Marches, but she was a first ray of sunlight in his endless winter.
A few seconds later, she was in front of his desk again. She was surrounded by a subtle grayish-blue halo: she had left the room too soon, and the Phys checker had not had the time to dissolve its light-investigation fields. She was really in a hurry.
“Is everything ready?”
“Almost,” answered Tixu reluctantly. “We just need to settle the… the financial problem. Yes, let’s just say we’ll settle it, to make life easier.”
His humor, the hopeless humor of someone who knows he is about to lose everything, left her indifferent. She removed a many-colored ruby-incrusted purse from the inside pocket of her cape.
“Here, I will give you everything. It is Syracusan money, which I unfortunately did not have time to change into standard units. Count it: it is worth eight thousand units.”
“I trust you,” muttered Tixu.
He was not about to argue over one more breach of regulations. And besides, that was fine with him; he had always hated the interplanetary money-changing system.
“Oh, yes, I was about to forget. Our deremat is a very old model, not to say ancient…”
“But it works, doesn’t it?”
Worry could be heard in the traveler’s voice once again.
“Of course, that’s not the problem. But it does have a few disadvantages that the newer models have corrected… You see, Two-Seasons is far from everything, and…”
He could again feel the weight of her glance. He blushed up to the roots of his hair. Sweat started dripping down his forehead and his neck. Warm rivulets formed under his armpits and flowed down between his shirt and his arms.
“It is designed to transfer human cells. Only human cells. Which means it will only transfer your body. Your clothes will not go with you. No other objects either. All of your personal effects will stay here: your bag, your money, everything else. That’s why I asked you before if you knew someone there, so I could program your transfer to their house.”
She was silent, suffering an intense internal struggle, which was betrayed by the vertical crease on her forehead and the renewed shaking of her leg. The prudish Syracusans never took their clothes off in public, let alone their bodstockings. Since having pure white skin was one of the major canons of Syracusan beauty, they avoided exposing their precious skin to the rays of suns. Tixu was seized with the crazy hope that he could keep her there one minute, one hour, perhaps one day longer; he came out with the punch line:
“You will show up on Red Spot as naked as the day you were born, ma’am! And it’s already a planet with a bad reputation…”
She eyed him with such contempt that he quickly regretted what he had said.
“I know no one there,” she said in a dull voice. “More correctly, I do not know where the person I need to contact lives.”
“That’s a problem.”
“I guess there is no way around it.”
“Yes! Don’t go. Or at least take some time to prepare yourself. If you want, I can help you to…”
He understood at that moment that there was no way he would weaken her resolve. He typed in the code for the 3D filmap of the capital of Red Spot. Streets awash in red light and broken-down buildings scrolled on the screen.
“I’ve never been on Red Spot myself,” he said. “But I know that outside the capital is nothing but deserted land. I assume that you don’t want to find yourself naked and without water in a temperature of 65 degrees centigrade. On this filmap you can make out the collapsed buildings in the southern part of the city.”
He turned the screen for her to see.
“According to the notes, vagrants live among these. But be careful, when they take too much of a drug called happy-powder, they can get aggressive. You’ll probably be able to find some old clothes. But I am warning you: Red Spot is a hub for smugglers on the Index, especially for those who deal in human stock, that is, slaves. Don’t count on the Federal Interlice to help you if you have any problems. They’re all in the smugglers’ pockets. I think the best thing is to send you here.” The filmap stopped at a broken-down three-storey building, slightly askew in an empty lot. “What do you think?”
“I don’t think anything!” she answered, caustically. “I have no choice. If I understand you correctly, when a customer comes to your company, they must be prepared to travel naked and with no money?”
Tixu snickered a bit. He hadn’t laughed for centuries.
“No, ma’am. Not if you take the basic precaution of going to a bank to have your money wired to a branch at your destination. In fact, with… normal transfers, this is a service we offer to our customers…”
“It does not matter! I must leave right away. Now, about the promissory note.”
“Oh, forget about it! I won’t be here anymore if you ever get the ludicrous idea to reimburse the Company. However, you can pick up your clothes if you ever happen to pass through our wonderful planet again. The ILTC guarantees that it will take good care of them and not sell them for two standard years!”
She ran her eyes over his uniform.
“You can do with them whatever you wish. I doubt that they will fit you.”
He had forgotten about his messiness, his filth and his stench. She made sure to remind him of it. A new wave of shame engulfed him.
“Follow me!” he said offensively.
He opened the airlock brusquely. The reinforced door opened with a sharp click. Followed by his passenger, he went into the hall leading to the deremat room. The airlock closed automatically behind them. The control screens and the transmitters, set in concave metallic cubicles, lit up one after another. In theory, they would allow an employee, who was busy taking care of a transfer, to survey the main office of the agency, and, in case of a problem, to contact the Company’s technicians.
A corrosive heartache was eating away at Tixu’s gut. He would have done anything to keep his arrogant passenger from going. She despised him, probably thought he was some sort of freak of nature, and needed only to blink her eyelashes to have him in the palm of her hand.
She had fanned the embers of his internal flame. He could not shake the idea that this magnificent creature had not come across his path by accident. But she was about to leave his life forever, and this perspective sent him tumbling into an abyss of sadness and suffering.
The machine sat imposingly on a platform in the middle of an arched room. It was a half sphere with wide black sides, and looked like some sort of prehistoric cauldron that had been turned upside down. At first sight, it was hard to believe that this machine could even send anyone across the street.
Tixu pulled a lever in a recess to the left of the entrance. An intense ray of light made a halo around the top of the machine. A black glass window opened.
“Go inside.” muttered Tixu, suddenly in a hurry to get this over with. “Through this window, please. Lie on the bunk and follow the instructions on the ceiling screen. Above all, do not hold onto the walls. You will probably have a headache for a few hours after the reconstruction. But you must know that. You’ve already traveled by deremat, haven’t you? You must have, because the normal shuttle only comes here every two weeks.”
Before going into the narrow passageway, she turned her beautiful face toward him and said, “You are too curious. Although, sometimes, curiosity can be an incredible driving force for evolution.”
“Okay, okay, ma’am. Can I at least ask you one last question? You know, a convict always wants to know the real reason for his sentence. That story you fed me, about the serious danger for the Federation, it was a joke, wasn’t it? You can come clean, now, you got what you wanted.”
“Sorry to disappoint you, it was not a joke! But I cannot tell you any more. The less you know, the better it will be for you. In any case, I thank you with all of my heart for what you have done for me.”
There was such warmth in her voice, in her smile, in her eyes, that Tixu was overwhelmed. She put her legs, then her torso into the access tube. The black window slid shut with a long slow hiss. Choking with unexpected emotion, Tixu leaned over the small external transmitter and mechanically announced the usual technical information.
“Arrival on Red Spot, in the capital, in two standard minutes. Atmosphere: breathable. Local time: 1300 hours. Temperature: 49 degrees centigrade. Sky: red. The ILTC wishes you… I wish you bon voyage.”
He opened the panel of the console and programmed the transfer with the light buttons: Red Spot; capital, coordinates 456, latitude 54, longitude 321, relay point X2 T3 prime, supine position, time and place of departure 07:57, Two-Seasons. Price: 15,000 standard units, fully paid (his tense fingers had to correct this last entry twice, before he could get it right).
The machine gave off a low hum while the halo above its top circle slowly faded away until it was completely gone.
Three minutes later, a red light came on above the window. Tixu opened it and went inside the passageway. The Syracusan’s clothes were lying there, spread out on the transfer bunk. A flowery scent drifted in the warm close air. Distraught, Tixu picked up the cape. It was soft, and its colors, sometimes bright, sometimes subtle, changed as the light played on it. Deprived of the presence of the voyager, Tixu was overcome with a desire to smell her fragrance, the only link left between them. Crouching down, he thrust his face in the white bodstocking, as light as a feather, and breathed in deeply, for a long while, the subtle smell of her skin, her sweat, the odor of pepper and flowers that imbibed the cloth.
He left the room with infinite regrets. He now had to immerse himself again in the disastrous atmosphere of the agency, and await, with resignation, the visit from the inspobot.
This was, without doubt, the coldest, most depressing perspective in the known and unknown universe.