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Fthel V: Skerow
Starry Nova was a name stuck on the port city of Fthel V by Solthree jokers. The Russian words stary novy, old new, where there were no visible stars and nothing was new, gave a good sense of the grubby middle-aged facility.
Skerow was endlessly fascinated with Starry Nova. The Khagodi are brisk about playing down an exaggerated reputation for moralityalong with the well-deserved one for telepathic powerbut their presence has always commanded too-extreme respect and unwanted reverence. Skerow liked to visit dark and grimy cities like this one set in the cold dank center of a continent of mines and ore refineries; a city of lowered skies, lodgings rather than homes, few pleasures and fewer legal. The inhabitants paid no attention to Khagodi.
"You are a romantic!" Tony Labonta had cried, dancing in his buckled pointed shoes and balancing a goblet of the local gargle with a star-fed tidbit.
He had said this several years ago during Skerow's last visit on the assizes circuit at a function honoring the appointment of a new commissioner of mines and resources. Skerow, a grave and sober judge, looked down from a height of over two meters on the curly head of Tony, a tiny and pugnacious prosecuting attorney known for his youth and daring. "Romantic! You are meaning to tease me, Tony!"
But he was grinning up at her with no concern about keeping his mind shut, and it was true that he saw something shy and wild in her: farouche, was his word for it. He had other words to describe her: streamlined baby allosaurus, for instance, but she was not sure what they meant, or that she wanted to know.
She put those thoughts away now, while she lingered by the window of chambers late on a slate-colored afternoon, slow about dressing herself in a judge's dignity. The robe, a long surcoat of thin crinkly leather, was an old one she had inherited from a retired associate, a Khagodi from the equatorial regions of her world, when she was not sure how long she would remain a judge. Later, secure, she had not bothered to replace it, though it smelt of salt seas and musty scales. Before she was done Thordh came in; he stood hesitating in his rippled draperies. She waited; she had never made small talk with him. At length he said, "Will you take the bench today? I would like to go back to quarters."
Khagodi judges traveled in pairs and alternated on the long wearisome circuits. Thordh had been the protégé of Skerow's old associate, and came from the same country. She herself lived among the stony hills of the Northern Spine Confederacy, and had first expected him to be a warm and effusive Southerner, but he had little to say to her, and held his esp shield down tight.
"Certainly I'll sit for you. Are you ill?"
"A little." He spoke lingua with a precise and refined diction. "I find the old ague rises in my bones from the chill air of this place. Here,"offering his case of spools and tablets"three may be some notes you do not have." With the other hand he picked up a magnificent impervious helmet of silver and bronze, and put it into its traveling case. The helm was too heavy for Skerow; she preferred her silver net, which had its own disadvantage: it rubbed her scales wrong way.
That Thordh of yours is a very sober sides, Tony had said.
He's none of mine, Tony. The image of Tony, hair ruffled, jigging with some private joke or other, folded itself away, and she arranged her face in the sober mien of the Law.
• • •
Skerow did not need any kind of seat before the lectern; she rested on the base of her heavy tail. Sometimes she rather enjoyed her power; sometimes she found it wearisome, as today, when the robe seemed shabby and she felt like a bumpkin wearing it, and the court was heavy with the stink of atmospheric tanks for fifteen kinds of humanity; even Thordh's absence, the empty cubicle below and to one side of her, seemed looming and intrusive. Tony Labonta stood waiting, neat and tight like a duelist; she did not think of him, but called the court to order.
Defendant was a Solthree named Henri Boudreau, a smuggler caught in port, a pirate rather, dragging a long record over five worlds.
The sheriff led him into court, a man of fierce brows and mustache; he glanced up at Skerow and his eyes bulged: he snorted into the supplementary oxygen tank. Defense, an old warrior woman, drew her mouth tight. Tony's eyes narrowed. Skerow had tried many cases in this court; now, for a moment, she became disoriented.
The Warrior, a powerful black woman with elaborately coiffed hair, drew close to the railing. "I understood that Justice Thordh was trying this case."
"He is indisposed and has asked me to stand in for him." Because Defense did not seem to be ready to withdraw, she asked, "Do you wish to make some formal objection, Madame?"
"Um, no." Defense stood for one more instant of paralysis, turned to a statue of basalt; Skerow, caught in the moment by her own unease at Thordh's having so casually rid himself of the case, waited with her. Defense shook her head slightly and withdrew beside her client.
Tony brought in twenty-three witnesses, and with the hammer of his argument nailed down the case with them one by one, hardly pausing to sniff oxygen. Skerow, mindful of Tony's brash enthusiasms, allowed half of Defense's objections, but Boudreau's activities had been so blatant that the Warrior's dramatics were mechanical and tired.
When the arguments had wound up Skerow called the lawyers into chambers to discuss sentencing.
"His record stretches across the Fthel system and beyond," Tony said.
"He's never had a major conviction, or served as much as a year, with time off," said Ms. Sama, for the Defense. Again she was looking oddly at Skerow, as if she wished to say something, but not with her mouth. Of course Skerow could not remove the helm to esp: all Galactic Federation judges were obliged to use them, and particularly the powerful Khagodi.
"A question of sentence," said Skerow. "If we send him to mine the iridium and beryllium he smuggles out he will have easy access among the miners toand probably die ofthe drugs he has smuggled in. Does that seem fair?"
Tony lifted his hand to forestall an angry outburst from Sama, and smiled at Skerow, who nodded and said, "Perhaps a few years supervising the robots at an ore-processing plant where there are no drugs available and he has no soul to corrupt but his own. What do you think?"
Out in court Boudreau stood gaping and red-eyed while this sentence was read. "Five years," he whispered. Then said something silently that by lip movements might have been: Where is Thordh? But Skerow was not sure of reading a Solthree's lips correctly.
"Your attorney will appeal," she said. Boudreau knew this well enoughsentences of more than one year were always appealedand also that appeals made to assize courts took years, and he might well have finished his sentence before even the clerical work was done. He turned to Sama, opened his mouth and shut it again, and returned to staring at Skerow. His face was flaming, nearly purple.
She looked at him for an anxious second before she faced the court and asked the formal question of its observers:
"Is Justice seen to have been done?"
"No! No!" Boudreau leaped from his cubicle and beat his fists against the rail.
He flung his tank at the lectern and shoved his foot through the railings to kick at it, screaming, "Thordh, you filthy bastard! Where are you?"
"Be still, man! Bailiff!" The bailiff aimed her lightning-rod at Boudreau. Skerow said sharply, "Don't be violent with him! Just return him to the holding area."
"You sonofabitch, he swore you'd let me off easy!" Boudreau howled. "I'll die before I get out of those hellpits!"
The bailiff summoned two guards to remove him, and the courtroom began to stir like dry leaves before a storm. A burly Tignit with swarming tentacles sniggered through his vocoder, "Give him five more years for bribing the judge!" Attending court was one of the few legal pleasures of Starry Nova.
An elderly Solthree woman in a mineworker's uniform said in a quiet but penetrating voice, "Give him death. His drugs killed my son."
"Quiet!" Skerow's small hoarse voice was passing its limit, and the bailiff tapped the railing with her rod: a spark jumped from it, hissing.
"Get that prisoner some more oxygen before he suffocates." She slammed her heavy tail on the floor. "Court is adjourned! This is the last session of Galactic Federation Assizes in the city of Starry Nova until next quarter." Tony was looking at her slantwise, but said nothing. The audience gathered itself up and away, grumbling; there were plenty of local courtroom scenes to be enjoyed, but no more exciting interworld ones for another quarter-year.
Skerow turned now to Sama, who was lingering to get her files together. Her voice had been reduced to a hiss and a squeak; she went down the ramp to the floor below the cubicle so that her head would be level with Sama's. "You wanted to tell me," she whispered.
Sama pulled her lips tight and shook her head.
"I will not bring down more trouble on your client's brow," Skerow said. "Five years of prison in Starry Nova is a very heavy sentence. Thordh is a different matter."
Sama looked at her and shrugged, then muttered, "Boudreau said Thordh would let him off with a short sentence, that he'd done it before. Twice." After a moment she added, "I knew that would have to come out some time, but I had an obligation to him, and he might have been boasting. Of course I haven't checked on what he said."
"Quite right. But Thordh said this to him directly? Boudreau could not have been allowed to see him in person."
"I think there was an intermediary, someone who actually spoke to Thordh."
"Yes." He said I'd get off…"Whatever it is, there's nothing to be done about it this moment," except, of course, that I must speak to Thordh, "officially. Good night."
In the empty courtroom she and Tony looked at each other. "I had the impression that you thought I would let that go by. Did you really believe I would be so derelict, Tony?"
"Not at all. It might be easier on you if I spoke to him. That's all I was thinking."
"I must speak to him first. He cannot be let off easier than Boudreau." Tony kept on looking at her. "But I cannot go on sleeping in the same room with the man while this lies so cold between us."
Tony snickered faintly. "I never knew you slept with him, sweetheart."
"Not in the same basin," she hissed.
"Tsk." Tony whisked himself away.
She found herself suddenly very hungry and thirsty. In the lavatory she moistened her gill-stoppers and dropped a pellet of Khagodi sea salt into her water bowl; she was just flicking her tongue at the water when the reaction hit her. Thordh. Fussy, careful Thordh. She felt slightly nauseated but drank anyway.
…Some notes you do not have…
A very sober sides, that Thordh of yours.
But this was foolish. At the least premature: an enraged felon, an attorney resentful of Khagodi authority…
Yet…with the cage off her head, and her mind free-ranging, she recalled the wisps of thought, the suspicions, the remarks aside that she had just barely caught when she and Thordh were preparing this case, the efforts she had made not to know or hear. Half-consciously to hide her dislike of the man she had known and often worked with for twenty-five years.
Khagodi: a name made by the Ancestral Saints from compounding words: Double heart, single mind. Or expanding them from a chance-found name, perhaps: her people carried these words everywhere throughout the Galaxy. She felt her two hearts beating their heavy uncoordinated rhythms.
Why should I feel betrayed? This one was no Saint and I never liked him. I think I am suffering from deflated vanity. Obviously my judgment of others is not as good as I thought it was.
"Oh Judge Skerow!" Before she had shut the door behind her in the corridor there was a journalist, a thin dark Solthree with a microphone, plucking at her robe. "Where is Thordh, Judge? Where?"
Skerow stared down at the insolent face beneath the broad-brimmed rain hat. She could tell that beneath it he was wearing a commercial shield to hide his journalistic secrets. "He is indisposed," she said, and flicked away the restraining hand with one pearled claw.
She called off the limousine and walked the streets in the dirty rain. There was still a smear of dull light toward the west, but the eastern sky roared with takeoffs and landings, and their muffled thunders rolled across the city from beyond its limits. No stars to be seen. Twenty-five years of riding circuit with Thordh and others had brought her here four or five times, and each time renewed her fascination with the thick and lurid sky, the shimmering pavements, the coldlight displays advertising shoddy and expensive gewgaws. In no other city that she knew did hunched figures slink in and out of crumbling archways in such a sinister way, in no other streets could she expect to be confronted out of the darkness with such huge bubble windows that blazed with light to offer satisfaction of the darkest urges in a half-score of species.
Khagodi who live among northern hills and dry plains are usually of a smaller, tighter build than those of the south, and can walk halfway gracefully; the others have a heavy wagging gait that is tiring even to watch. In spite of this advantage in size, the shocking trial had wearied Skerow, enough to make her look for a short cut, though the residence was not far away. She searched for a street where she could go slower and out of the rain, which she liked well enough when it was clean. Now it was coming up over the soles of her sandal-boots, and the chill dampness was getting to her the way it bothered Thordh. She paused in a dimly lit stone passageway leading to an open square. It seemed clear except for the odd drifting flock of bockers and footpads, and the one nuzzer who slithered up to her, whining, "Mama, you want a pogue?"
She spat in his face while she swept her tail to knock down the huggard creeping up on her from behind. Then she moved forward quickly into the light of the stone square.
and I'll kill you for this!
The thoughtvoice came from nowhere, sharp as a steel dart, and she stood still for a moment among the flashing, bloody-colored lights; the passersby stared, and their thoughts eddied around her.
:Who is that? Who!: No answer: the cry had come from emptiness, as if it had been waiting at the gate of her thought for a stimulus. She turned about, still searching, and behind her left shoulder found the kind of display she had been thinking about, the kind that made Starry Nova so interesting. She stood staring.
A huge bubble of lightno, an illuminated water tank formed the advertisement and window of one shop. She was dimly aware that the line of symbols on its base spelled the name of a chain of brothels famous in a hundred cities on three worlds.
There were two creatures in the tank. One lay on a bed of fake jewels: it nearly covered them, so pearly pale, all tentacles and violet-rimmed mouths: Skerow did not want to know if it was sentient.
The other was…a Solthree woman. No matter that itthat shewas hairless, with dark red skin and a blade-shaped tail that propelled her in angry circles, that her forehead and chin receded steeply from the firm mouth, and her huge eyes had sealed transparent lids. Those eyes were empty of thought only because she was sleeping, and twitched with angry dreams that made her open her mouth and clench her teeth. She was a human Solthree woman, not merely sentient but intelligentpowerfully built, with square hands and spatulate fingers, a navel in her belly, and milk glands. Breasts. The sight of them with their stub nipples, of her, exposed and perhaps used, in this window, gave Skerow a powerful pang of vulnerability. Was she the source of that furious threat?
The woman's head rose, her eyes came alive and sharp.
:You out-there do-nothing!: Furious enough, but not the voice that wanted to kill. :Scaly lady-woman, you tell Lord Big One Upthere, that Nohl, when I catch a good hold of him there is not much left that the dung-fish chew on, you tell him Kobai say so!: Her dark red palms and knees pressed flat against the glastex, she pushed her bright red mouth and tongue against it in a threat-face. :You tell him!:
For the first time in her life, Skerow had absolutely no idea what to do.
She knows me! No…she knows Khagodi, Nohl is a Khagodi name. Worse. She is from Khagodis! A captive…
The wild and foolish thought came: rescue! She calmed herself: the young woman, really a girl, seemed healthy, unmarked, maintained in the kind of water she needed. Even treated like a possession she was being cared for in a legal establishment, and any fuss Skerow might make would harm her. :Kobai, I understand. I will help you. Tell me:
She felt other eyes on her. The madam, a blue-skinned Varvani woman, was standing in the doorway: she balanced her elephantine legs on gold clogs, and the enormous bosom above her chain-mail skirt was tattooed with red kissystars. The bouncer, a Solthree weightlifter, appeared behind her. She said in a deep plush voice, "Don't block the window, dear heart. You want a sample, come on in."
:You tell that Nohl!:
Skerow bared forty-six teeth at the woman, and snuffed air through her nostrils, but she very much wanted to avoid bringing further attention to herself and the captive woman. The Varvani knew nothing: she had only accepted delivery of a sullen package. Skerow told Kobai, :I don't know him. But I will find him.:
And without waiting for answers hurried away into the darkness.
Because Fthel V is part of the Twelveworlds system, the Administrative Headquarters of Galactic Federation, and run by GalFed, its Outworld Residences are older and shabbier than those of worlds in other systems. They are built and furnished in Early Civil Service, and maintained threadbare and grimy. But this policy does not apply to the more exotic outworlders who need special mixtures of water or atmosphere, and particularly to Khagodi, whose basins and mud-tubs need constant sealing and renewing, as well as new floors to bear their weight: Skerow's quarters in what was called The Luxury Suite were no more than half a century old.
When she came round the corner to the entrance she was astonished to find the walkway full of street people, looking up at a window; it was her own, bright with much more light than her room's dim lamps could give. Her first thought was that either the basin had broken, or the mud-tub had fallen through the floor, and perhaps Thordh had been hurt. She dipped lightly into the minds of the people around her, but they knew nothing, and when they saw her, scattered.
Just inside the gate a Solthree woman in a uniform was waiting for her: local police. Behind the helmet visor her eyes told of something more serious than a broken tank, or a sunken tub. "You are Madame Skerow?"
"Yes. Where is my colleague? Judge Thordh?"
The bright light came from floods on stands. The basin was whole: Thordh was floating in it. Red ribbons of blood swirled round him; it had come from his eyes; squirting was typical of many Khagodi from his part of the world, along with high blood pressure. As he turned in the water the light refracted from his scales, pink, green, metallic blue and sudden red. A bubble had caught in his gill where his breathing siphon had retracted until only its stub was visible; his hands were open, as if he were beseeching.
There were five people waiting for her, two Khagodi, two Solthrees, and a Lyhhrt in a workshell.
"What happened? Is he dead?"
"Yes," said one of the Solthrees. "I'm Lieutenant Strang and this is Sergeant Ramaswamy. You know Commissioner Erha, and here," indicating the Lyhhrt, "is Medical Examiner Um." This was not the M.E.'s name. Lyhhrt were difficult to introduce because they did not have names. Strang offered a recording microphone. "Can you identify this person?"
"Yes. He's my colleague, Judge Thordh, of Khagodis. Did he die of a stroke?"
"We're not sure how. Or when." He added grudgingly, "Someone called in without leaving a name."
One of the Khagodi, an iridescent young woman, said, "The unknown person also called Lawyer Anthony Labonta, and he sent me when he could not reach you." Her name was Hathe, and she was a friend of Tony's who worked in the Public Defender's Office and lived in the complex.
Skerow turned to the other Khagodi, the Commissioner whose party she had attended years earlier; he and Skerow, along with Hathe, now made up the complete Khagodi population of the city. "Erha Twelfth," she said, for he had Lineage, "can you tell me something about this?"
Erha said awkwardly, "I don't know that I can, Skerow. I was called in…" He turned away from the lamps and the sight of the body. "I knew this man for most of my life…must we stand here looking at him?"
Without esping him, as she dared not for the sake of privacy, she knew:
You were called in, Twelfth Generation Erha, Father of Many, because someone told you that Thordh, another Father of Many, was in all of that trouble.
Boudreau:…he swore you'd let me off easy!
Give him death. His drugs killed my son.
All the images of the trial boiled in her mind, and the vision of the woman Kobai imprisoned in a bowl. She had deliberately left off the helmet to avoid an appearance of defensiveness, and now she wished she had worn it. She was shielding perhaps to an unusual degree: Sergeant Ramaswamy put aside the daybook into which he had been both dictating and tapping out notes. "When did you see him last, Madame?"
"During adjournment before the last trial, end of noonchime three. He asked me to replace him and gave me his notes."
"Do you have them here?"
"Yes." She opened her carryall and offered the spools and tablets. "For some you will need an esp-reader. I scanned through them but there was no new material in them."
"He left after he spoke to you, then?"
"As far as I knew. I found the trial very disturbing, and decided to walk home. I never saw him again."
Strang said, "Did you know he was under investigation, Madame Skerow?"
"No! It seems I am the only one who did not!" She glanced at the body. It was drifting in the darkening water, spirit long gone, discussed with as little concern as if it were a stone of the desert. "I only learned today that there was some kind of trouble. He told me nothing." The water-refresher caught her eye. "Look!"
"What?" The Lyhhrt, previously only a statue of some vaguely hominid and sexually neutral being, stepped forward. She pointed to the rim of the basin and the inset container that normally purified the water. A thread of dark green stuff was seeping through its perforations. He said, "What is that?"
"It is not water purifier."
The Lyhhrt scooped up some of the green-stained water into a specimen jar without touching his metal hands to it.
"He might have poisoned himself," Strang murmured.
"Would he have done it so elegantly?" Ramaswamy asked. Strang gave him a look.
The Lyhhrt was kneeling at the edge of the basin delicately turning the body with a flexible wand. "Was this a moody person, Madame?"
"Self-contained and self-respecting," said Skerow. Smug she did not say. That glossy stud from the Lesser Archipelagoes, Tony had called him. He would have poisoned himself most elegantly.
"Yes," Strang said. "We will probably call on you again, Judge Skerow. I know you intend to ship out, now that the session is over, but I hope you will be staying for a while."
"Ten days, until the Zarandu leaves orbit."
"Good. You may remove the body, Medical Examiner."
"The van is waiting."
She dared a flash of esp at them as they left. The room was not bugged. :What really happened, Hathe?:
:What makes you ask?:
:I have not esped you, but those persons are a little uneasy with you.:
Hathe was embarrassed. :I hid one small thing. Come to my chamber, where I am sure there are no spies.:
Hathe's room had two basins, like Skerow's, but it was not offered to important people: two Khagodi would have been cramped in it. :I never mentioned the tethumekh.:
:So much excitement, I had forgotten him.: The tethumekh, Skerow's pet, or more truly companion, was a small primate reptile: a rare and ancient miniature given to her by her brother. It was perched on a basin faucet, flicking dead scales from its shoulder with a tiny forked tongue. "Eskat!" she hissed, and it leaped to her shoulder so that its glittering tail curled beneath her jaw. :How did he come here, Hathe?:
:I found him running in the corridor. Someone…: Some murderer…:left the door open…I know I should have told the police, but I was afraid they would take away your pitiful Eskat and torment him for evidence. I will tell this to them though, if you want it.: And aloud, "Would you like to spend the night here, and use the extra basin? I have enough water allowance, and plenty of food."
"I'm grateful, Hathe, but too tired."
"Then share the evening meal with me tomorrow."
"Yes I will." Then she was taken with a feeling of mild but definite unease, because the whole atmosphere of Thordh's deceptionsand deceptiveness in generalseemed stiflingly close. "Thank you for preserving my Eskat, but if any question about him comes up, tell the truth. Thordh's death has already made Khagodi double-minded in the eyes of others."
When she returned to her room she found the comm buzzing and flashing. "Hullo, sweetheart!" Tony wanted to hear about and tell her everything: "Like a kind of man's voice, like a Solthree's, could have been anybody disguised'Tell the police, tell the other Big Squat her Thordh's dead!'"
Will I never get rid of "my Thordh"?
She listened to the light baritone voice, and thought of a desert windflute, and the scrap of her poetry that went with the thought:
the sea of
the desert it sings
Thinking of the sea reminded her of the swimming woman. Shall I tell him about Kobai?
She heard in memory the words:and I'll kill you for this!
Is there something about that mindvoice, some familiar echo, that links it with Boudreau? With Thordh, and Kobai too?
And Skerow…the final judge of Thordh. Yes, why should she not also be a target of this violence?…or Tony, who had a pretty little wife and two frilly daughters. "Scramble, Tony. I want to speak to you."
"That's what you're doing, love!"
Not over the comm. "Face to face, Tony. Head to head."
"Not to esp you!" The idea amused her: Tony was only too generous with his thoughts. "I want to give you what is in my mind. Will you come and meet me in the Hub Common Room?"
Where there are plenty of people night and day, and particularly guards.
"All right, but let me get the girls to bed first. They and Jenny have got all excited over having the police here."
"Not in your sector, Tony!"
"Yes, yes! The Terrarium's buzzing. Give me a stad and three ticks."
"Good. I'll put my thoughts in order."
"Dear lord no, Skerow! I can't bear another headache like the one you gave me last time you did that!" He switched off, laughing.
Silence now. No, the rustle of the tethumekh's tail along her neck, its tip like a crystal of topaz that matched its eyes.
Skerow took pity on Tony, and on her own weariness, and let her thoughts drift. Perhaps her indulgence in his presence took precious time away from his family; she hoped this was not so: this friendship was one of the very few pleasures she enjoyed on this world. There had been none at all in Thordh's company; so many nights shared in a room of basins, and so few thoughts or feelings. His presence turned her shy and inhibited; that of all her peers, male Khagodi, did, and he had been a big man, just her own size. He had floated there asleep with the colors playing on his scales, perhaps three siguu away, tail curled around his Lineage, his ten sons and seven daughters…
She could not drag her mind away now: the little picture-cube had been on the shelfhow had it got into her hand? Finger touching the switch-stud like a magnet.
The holo image floated on the water of her basin. She could not bring herself to move the cube and disturb it, so very slender, so frail a girl holding the little transmitter in her pearl talons: :It is Tapetto, Bathi! I hope you are well, and Tada. Everyone here says I am looking so much healthier, I will be home by the time Tada comes for Holidays, and I will race with you!:
One breath of wind for those ashes. And he had divorced her for infertility.
She thought of composing a poem, but there would be too many desert winds blowing through it, and she still had a half stad in which it would be wise to make her way most slowly and thoughtfully to the Hub Common Room, all senses extended.
The tethumekh had dropped to her shoulder and was trying to groom the scales of her neck. A member of this species almost always wore around its neck a fine chain hung with a pendant that had begun as the small seed of a kesshi fruit. The tethumekh sucked at its rough surface to rid itself of a substance in saliva produced by overbreeding, and after years of accumulation produced a precious jewel, very much like an opal: now Eskat was building the eleventh of such jewels. He tapped it with a claw, and the iridescent bead swung in the light. This time she would not leave him loose. She scratched him gently under the jaw and slipped into his mind: it was like looking into a crystal which showed things magnified but blurred…his daylong memory bank:
Day always dark, no Sun to sleep in, he is bored and sucks furiously on the bead; once long ago there was a Big-one who kept him locked up and cruelly teased to make it grow. Not this Big-one. This One puts out food and water. Stale meat, strange-tasting water, some kind of small dried things, says this is good-good! He spits. When she goes and Other-one comes with that thump-step, yellow-eye looks him down, he squeaks: eeyik! Other wants to wring his neck, he is glad to jump-into-cage-pull-the-door-shut!
But now Other-one sleeps and he is bored again. No,
Here Comes Somebody!
Wants to play!
No! Skerow's teeth clashed involuntarily. The tethumekh squeaked and skittered to the floor.
But yes, no choice but to know everything now. The murderer had not reckoned with her patience, her particular link with this animal. She picked him up very gently, he trembled in her hand and drew the faceted gem of his tail down the side of her head. She soothed his scales down carefully the right waynice, good Eskat!and lived along with him the rest of his afternoon.
When she was done there was almost no time to keep her appointment properly. She left without hurry just the same, caging Eskat and setting all her personal alarms. Tony would be anxious, but she would watch what was going on about her.
The hall was bright with white diffuse light, its neighboring doorways framed with black-enameled Cruxan thaq-wood that lasted for centuries. She kept her mind tightly closed though there was no one about and the apartment doors connected white-noise circuits that shielded both the people behind them and whoever might be in the halls. She loathed the impervious helmet; Khagodi sight and hearing were slightly duller than those of most non-ESPs, and while she very rarely esped intrusively, the low-level scan she usually maintained sharpened her senses, especially on these worlds where the skies were so thick and dark. The helm made her feel blind and deaf.
The walls of the first cross corridor were lined with grey slotted machines dispensing oxygen tanks, water-purifying cartridges, air-fresheners, meal and transportation tokens, franking-stamps, signet rings and sealing wax. The hard unresonant floor was covered with colorless carpet tiles that looked the same whether they were threadbare or new.
At the next hallway the traffic began to thicken with people of other species who breathed similar oxygen mixtures: two prowling Ungrukh who liked a night run, shaking imaginary fleas out of their crimson fur, looking calmly at her with eyes of the same color that flashed green as they turned them to the light: they wanted fresh meat and their thoughts clearly expressed what they felt about what they got instead; a long and twisting Sziis ambassador roiling because she had been obliged to smoke too much ge'iin at a party celebrating the acquisition of a hovercraft factory for a colony world; a Solthree, lugging an oxygen tank, who had been trapped by a flight delay and found no room in the Terrarium. None of these intended Skerow any harm. All of them, no matter of what species, sensed her in some way as prehistoric with her massive head balanced by the long heavy tail, her powerful tread and glistening scales.
Two doorways watched by guards formed a loose airlock that led into higher oxygen country and eventually the Terrarium. Skerow put filters in her gills to thin the air and stepped on the moving walkway nervously: she did not trust ground that slid under her feet. After a while the decorative foliage shifted in emphasis from succulents to broadleaf plants; these too looked as if they had lasted centuries: although the air was much moister here they seemed to be writhing for lack of water.
The moving corridors put out branches that grew from and fed into more lanes swinging up and down to other levels. The one Skerow was traveling seemed to go on forever. Along all its length of siguu no other person was riding it. The traffic had melted, and the walk lay deserted from one vast stretch to another. She quickened her pace, but the exit ramp seemed to recede, or perhaps her eyesight had dulled because there were no sharper eyes to see along with.
She was conscious of movement to one side, and glanced to her right; all she saw was a mirror where another Skerow paced along the reflection of her walkway.
She blinked. There was no mirror here, and never had been, but there was another Khagodi keeping abreast of her on a walkway running parallel to her own that was about to swing down to a lower level.
Startled, she realized that it was her awareness rather than her eyesight which had gone dim. In this moment she lost the power of her shield. Her mind was naked to a thought-attack of a kind she had never in her life experienced.
Of all the criminals in her dock, Khagodi or extraterrestrial, no matter how furious and cursing they had beensome far worse than Boudreaunone had tried to attack her in this way, not even when she was bareheaded.
She was helpless: her mind was so bent back on itself that all she could see was her own reflection, as if she were surrounded by mirrors; did not know who was attacking her or why, tried to run, to thrash about, and could not even see her body or anything but her own image, could not move. Light was fading from her eyes, the whine of her blood in its vessels rose with the drumming of her hearts; she began to sink under the pressure of the mirrors.
She gasped, her jaws opened in terror and panic, but her nostrils and voice-bladder had collapsed; she was voiceless; when her teeth clamped again involuntarily they came down hard on her tongue; this time she found a shrill voice, and saw hideous stars of pain. When she could get her eyes open after that there was a dim tunnel of sight opening away from her, and at the end of it the tiny figure of Tony with his mouth open in a round shape and his hands turned out like finger-clams. The mirrors hovered at the edge of her vision ready to close in, but from the corner of her eye she saw the prehistoric figure looming, always running to stay where it was on the walkway.
When she realized thisIt must run to stay where it isshe saw clearly through the pain that her enemy's intention was divided, and also aimed at Tony, the unknowing witness.
:Now you are going to stop that,: she said firmly.
The other Khagodi stared at her with pale yellow eyes.
She seized her consciousness to herself with all her being, and said, :YOU WILL STOP THAT OR I WILL BECOME REALLY ANGRY!: She felt rather foolish saying this, like a teacher addressing an unruly pupil, and at the same time rather savage, because of the threat to Tonyand the pain in her tongue. Her eyes locked with the Other's. She tasted blood.
The stars and mirrors crashed down on her.
• • •
She rose from the rubble of smashed mirrors to just below the surface of consciousness, and her mind began a tentative exploration, as if she were probing the extent of a sore place. The sore resolved itself into the bite on her tongue, which had swollen so much it was a painful lump that filled her mouth. She was floating in her basin. Her head was under water but her autonomic system had extended her breathing siphon and inflated the fold of membrane at its lip into the big bubble that anchored its opening to the surface of the water; it was trembling with each of her short breaths. Someone had brought a Solthree chair for Tony, and he sat with Eskat digging claws into his shoulder, watching her. The tethumekh had become a decorative jewel like the swag of gold on a diplomat's uniform, making him look odd and out of place.
Strang and Ramaswamy had come and gone, and so had Commissioner Erha, but the Lyrhht Medical Examiner was bending over her. He had stayed because he was the only one who had even a notion of how to treat a Khagodi in shock. He had warmed her bath and given her a nutrient IV drip. Since she had had no time to eat the previous day's meal she was saved from nausea. Now he said, "I have put my signal into the comm here, and you may access it with the emergency code," and left.
Alone with Tony, she watched through his eyes as he watched this big drowsing woman, so shy for all of her authority. At a just-below-conscious level she understood that now she was safe and in privacy, and she began to stir: her mind boiled anew with images of lightning flashes and shattered mirrors. The tethumekh sucked fretfully on its bead and squeaked: ik! eeyik! She saw through Tony's eyes that a thread of blood had drifted from the earslit at the top of her gill; she turned to look at it and her siphon dipped and bubbled.
"Watch it, sweetheart," he whispered.
She could not force her mind back to the walkway.: What happened, Tony?: Her eyes opened.
"You don't know your own strength, my love. I'd hate to be around when you became really angry."
:Did I kill her?: She shifted and began to lever herself up on a hip and one elbow. Her siphon-bubble deflated, and the tube folded concertina-wise into its gill-slit. The water streamed from her shoulders and neck.
"Watch out for the IV! The doctors may be able to put her head together again."
"Who brought me here?"
"Five medics and four trolley-servers lashed together."
"My folly in being so headstrong…this flask is nearly empty, and I suppose I no longer feel hungry." She pulled the needle from her neck, filled a spitbowl with fresh water to rinse her mouth. "It…was Hathe then?" She spoke a bit raggedly: because of the sore. Through Tony she could see that her dark red tongue had a flaming lump on one edge.
"Didn't you know?"
"I tried to keep from knowing." Her head seemed dull, and she felt as if her body had shrunk. "I had left Eskat out of his cage, I didn't expect Thordh would come back first. Thordh loathed him, but he took care not to let him escape. Hathe didn't even think of Eskat while she was poisoning Thordh, and he thought she'd come to play…he followed her afterward…"
"Do you think she poisoned him only because he refused to let Boudreau off?"
"Not only…I believe someone must have bought her for that reason. To spy on Thordh. According to Sama, Thordh had let Boudreau off twice earlier, and there must have been other cases she didn't know about. Thordh was a double-tongued man; it seems that he was in the hire of smugglers. Perhaps they had doubts about him already, and when he betrayed themby having me take the case this timethey had him killed. I wonder about him…whether that one last time was one too many, and he was trying to redeem himself. Or just that he felt footsteps on his tail."
"Then why would Hathe sell herselfreally?"
"Must I know that? To gain some kind of power, meaning an apartment with more space and bigger basins? To get away from this ugly world? Tell me, did I truly harm her so badly?"
"Not on purpose."
"She was very powerful. It's a pity, she could have been…I will apologize to the Saints. I've lost a person I thought was a friend."
"So have I, and I thought I knew her even better than you did."
"When she showed herself to me on the walkway…after Thordh disgracing us…I thoughtperhaps hopedsome other intelligence was putting on a Khagodi image. I was deceivedI deceived myself. Not altogether. There was a possibility that the attacker was Nohl."
"Nohl? Who's that, Skerow?"
She told him about Kobai. "When Hathe attacked me I was on my way to tell you…" And gave him the picture.
"My God. From Khagodis? I've never heard of that kind of person. Who could she be?"
"There is no other indigenous sentient life on our world, and nothing at all that looks in the least like a Solthree, not under the waters or in the trees or in the air."
"Poor woman! Why didn't you tell the police?"
"I'm not sure I know…first I was too astonished at Thordh's death even to think of her, and then I only wanted to get away from them, get them away from me, and yes, I do knowbecause some of my own people were behind this on a world where there are so few of them, and the citizens here don't much care for Khagodi authority figures. And, you know, the police don't either."
"There may not be anything they can do about this woman but the police ought to know just the same."
"Perhaps they know already. Brothels bring in a great deal of money."
"I never expected to meet that degree of cynicism in you, loveand so suddenly."
"Because my manner is rather awkward you believe I'm ignorant and naive. You have many preconceptions about me, Tony."
"I did. But I don't think I'll have too many more!"
Ramaswamy looked at her with soulful eyes. "It is not a human being, Madame."
"It is registered as an experimental animal, legally imported under the terms of the Recreations & Amusements Act, Brothels & Zoos Division. I was shown the bills-of-sale and receipts."
She looked hard at him. "Experimental animal? I spoke with her! And that is a trash law, Ramaswamy, designed to let Zamos's establishments operate. They are not running a zoo."
He shrugged. "Whatever they run, Madame, is under the authority of the local police. Traditionally they are jealous of that authority."
"If I might see her"
"Zamos's admits her presence, but we are not zoo inspectors, Judge Skerow. As long as this being has no status as a person, is legally accounted for, with documentation, and is seen to be in good health, those people are within their rights, no matter how ghastly a pleasure is taken from her."
Skerow hissed, "There is nothing at all to be done then?"
"Judge Skerow, you may be correct in your belief that there is a suffering person illicitly held by Zamos's establishment, but you know," he looked hard at her, "that you cannot go near it, and I cannot do anything except by catching them bloodhanded." He took out his daybook and switched it on. "If you can tell me whatever you know, or even think you know, I will consult with Lieutenant Strang and we will try to keep an eye on that place."
"I am sure she came from Khagodis. The Nohl she told me about was certainly a Khagodishe thought I knew him. No. She was sure I must be associated with him. Experimental animal! We import most of our technology. How could we produce those kinds of experimentsanimals that look like Solthrees!" Almost absently she held her hand out: Eskat landed on it in one leap from Tony's shoulder, and ran up her arm to his usual perch on her head. "Even creatures like Eskat are rarely bred nowadays because it is considered cruel, and I would never own a tethumekh if my brother had not given him to me more than fifty years ago…"
Ramaswamy waited. Skerow was feeling quite dim, but tried to focus her thoughts. "She called me an 'out-there-do-nothing,' had no idea where she was or who I could beexcept a Khagodisaid I was to tell Nohl, Lord Big One Upthere, that if, no, when she caught him, there would be nothing left of him, nothing for the dung-fish to chew on. I've never seen one of those, but I know they exist, under a slightly different name…There were others like herself in her mind, I think, perhaps one Solthree…and, the fish we call scrapfish. I think they come from the Volcanic Isthmuses, an equatorial country. Some people there actually eat them, but Isthmus-men like to eat all kinds of poison. Since she called me a do-nothing, she must be some kind of worker, or even slave…she is hand-oriented, and would have been working in the waters of that country…what I think is that she's a gold-picker. Yes…a gold-picker. I wouldn't swear to it in a court of law, but that's what she is."
"I don't understand, Judge Skerow."
"You know gold, Sergeant. In the Isthmuses, where you'd find the scrapfish, the veins of gold that swell up from earthquakes break off in lumps of almost pure gold and roll into the seas, where the currents wash them down smooth as pebbles. People pick them, as they do on any world where gold is, and we get quite a bit of it that wayjust picked up. Ourselves, we are not big gold users; we manufacture a few instruments and some bits of jewelry and export the rest. But in the same way that non-ESPs believe they can become telepathic if they take mind-altering drugs, there are Khagodi and some other peoples who believe gold enhances their esp if they eat it in compounds. That is only because it makes them toxicjust as with the others."
"Then there is likely an illegal trade in gold compounds, same as any other head drug," said Ramaswamy.
"Maybe so, Ramaswamy, and I am also sure that Kobai is a victim of illegal tradein people. And if so, then I am forced against my will to believe that a respected man like Thordh must have been involved in all kinds of that trade, along with any other Khagodi smugglers to or from this world. And by all my Saints and Ancestors I want it stopped."
"We will do what we can," said Ramaswamy.
It was noon. Skerow felt that she had not eaten and not slept: rightly, because she had taken IV fluids and lain for hours in the drowse of shock. She thought vaguely that she ought to bestir herself, if only to show Tony that he need not worry about her. Although the Assizes were over, he had plenty of other work: he dealt with international cases as well as Galactic ones, though in this cold laboring world the nations were huge mining and industrial companies.
There were no aboriginal peoples on Fthel V: Khagodi called it tikka, meaning Five, and all of the names given it by other worlds were analogous. The world Khagodis had a name, but in one basic way it was similar to Five. It too was a colony world, and it had no paleoanthropology.
The Khagodi did not know their home world or people; they knew only that thousands of years of exploration and digging had yielded no buried family lines of descent, not even for tethumekhs and other wild reptiles. The ancient skeletons of thumbless animals had unrelated structures and inimical chemistries. There were branches of Khagodi religions that considered these conclusions heretical: the Diggers and some of the Inheritors contended that no one had yet dug in the right place; but the Watchers and Hatchlings, who believed that their ancestors had been delivered by burning gods in enormous eggs, were probably a half step nearer the truth. Whatever their religion, Khagodi did not believe in lost gardens of innocence, or any other kind of ignorance.
Skerow's home had few gardens and many mountains that rose fiercely out of the desert. She missed its thin cool air and vast blue skies by day and the white salt light of its two moons by night. No matter how powerful a yearning for warmth and tropic greens might sweep her at times, her visits to equatorial lands left her suffocated by the heat and moisture that winds and storms would not blow away. Dismal worlds like Fthel-tikka gave her part of her livelihood, and beyond that only piqued her curiosity with their degraded cities.
Dutifully she set her mind toward work. Eskat scratched her head. There were documents to be collated with those prepared by Tony and Sama, and reports to write…now Hathe would no longer help with ledgers and trial records.
Would you like to spend the night here and use the extra basin?
Would I still be alive if I had? You must suppose so, Skerow, since she would not likely have wanted your dead body in one of her tubs! Hathe! How could you have given yourself in that way? And Thordhwhat price did you sell yourself for? Dear Saints and Ancestors, let me not become a complete cynic in less than one day!
But Kobai! How could she have come there? Can there be people on Khagodis breeding and importing slaves?
Work was out of the question. She opened her personal copybook and called up what she had last set down:
• • •
I drown in moonlight
• • •
This is as near as can be described in general terms the form of the seh written by Khagodi in the Northern Spine Confederacy: three lines of one, three and five syllables in any order. It is not the only form of poetry produced in the Spines, but certainly the one considered by critics in equatorial lands to be the most dry and frigid.
What Skerow was thinking was: alone in moonlight. She erased and rewrote the last line with these words.
Now I can never show this to anyone. she said to herself. Far too revealing. Nevertheless she considered it in a stead-fast way, and added:
• • •
see the burning star
When the sky is very clear more than one can be seen. She thought for a moment, went back to the first seh and wrote:
• • •
I burn in moonlight
• • •
She was content with this but now, having used up the idea of burning, did not know what to do with the second seh. The comm buzzed, scrambler-tone. There were very few now who knew her scramble code.
"Skerow!" said the voice.
"Yes. Who is speaking?"
"A friend." This was a male Solthree's sharp but seductive voice.
"Do you have a name, friend?"
Her fingertip hovered over the recording button, but once activated it would trip a signal on the caller's panel. Unless he was calling from a cheap public comm. She pressed the button very gently.
No reaction. "What do you want, then, aside from befriending me?"
"Skerow dear, would you like to become a senior magistrate?"
"I believe I already am one."
"Are you earning as much as Thordh?"
"No. But he is dead, and not earning it either." He would have gotten the code from Thordh, who used the same one.
"Thordh dead, Judge?" the sharp voice sniggered. She was being mocked.
Where is Thordh, Judge? Where? In the courthouse hall after the trial: a thin dark Solthree with a microphone and an insolent face, plucking at her robe and pushing a microphone at her. Mocking her.
He is indisposed, she had said. Now she refused the temptation of a flippant answer. The man was dead, murdered, perhaps at the order of this person or someone like him. "I don't care to pay Thordh's price for advancement."
"For showing a little mercy?"
This was not one with whom she would discuss justice. "I was thinking more of the dying."
"Really? You believe he was killed?"
I'll kill you for this!
She was already hanging up when she realized that the particular pronunciation of killed was very near what had rung in her mind, from one raveled tag-end of thought, out on a busy street. But there was nothing to be gained now by speaking longer.
Neither Strang nor Ramaswamy could be reached; she transmitted the recording of her conversation to their comms. When she finished this her mind of a sudden became wonderfully clear.
Hathethat woman tried to kill me. Really tried. Did her best. And I burned her brain to smoke and sea-wrack. This man is some kind of demon. I am sure he ordered the death of Thordh, whom I knew for twenty-five years, and who died horribly in my own sleeping room. He tried to tempt me to do terrible evil. No, I was not tempted, but I let him speak to me. I listened.
She began to shake, her teeth rattled, the sore on her tongue flamed. She seized at herself as she had done when she was under attack out on the walkway, forced herself to let her mind slip out of gear, to relax long enough to find a flask of the mildly sedative herbal tea that most of the time calmed the strung-out nerves of powerful Khagodi ESPs.
The latch hummed on the outer door, and it slid open. She crouched staring.
The person who faced her was the servant who replaced the towels, drinking bowls and water purifiers, and left fresh flagons of bath oils, salts and softeners for her skin. A small grey-skinned hominid in a blue robe, whose sex, species, world of origin she did not know. Thin-boned and hairless; soft pinkish eyes rested on her in a moist-rimmed gaze.
Drugged on something strongby choice or force?…perhaps Kobai has been drugged, taken away to some even more terrible place or killedjust because I found her?
She pushed away these panic-thoughts sparked by her state of delayed shock. The servant, who looked more like a Solthree than a Khagodi, and more like a female than not, was staring at her with something of fright in her face. She whispered in lingua, in an accent unknown to Skerow, "I came to freshen your basin for you, Madame."
"I think I would like to sleep a little now," Skerow said weakly.
"It takes only a moment, and the water would be sweet." She was wearing a cheap mesh white-noise helmet, not for her own privacy but to show she could not receive the thoughts of others. After a pause, she added, "These flasks are safe-sealed."
Skerow looked at her closely, but she was only waiting with a drudge's patience, explaining local standards to the outworlder. Skerow pulled herself up sharply: her brains were surely still out of order. "Thank you, go ahead."
She watched the stale water being gulped by the drain, and then the fresh flowing into the clean basin, mixing the oils and crystals into swirls. On impulse she asked, "What world do you come from, dems'l?"
The servant stopped in mid-motion and stood without moving, as if she were a robot that had been turned off. For a moment Skerow wondered if she might not actually be a robot; then she said quietly, "Why not take off that uncomfortable helmet for a moment?" The small grey creature took off the mesh cap with a submissive gesture, and Skerow forced herself to ask the question again.
And with obvious effort, the servant made herself answer: "This world, Madame."
"You were born here?"
"And your parents?"
"Here. We have always lived on this world." As far as Skerow could tell, her consciousness and memories of parents and world were genuine, though not sharply detailed.
Skerow whispered as if she were a conspirator: "Do people ask you this question often, dems'l?"
"No one has ever asked it of me before."
"Thank you for speaking with me. Don't forget your cap."
The servant pulled up a cloth that had been looped into her cord girdle and wiped her head with it before replacing the helm. "Yes. It was a relief to be free of its weight for a moment." She gave Skerow a little dipping curtsy as she replaced the cloth, and her eyes cooled and seemed to flatten. "May all good go with you, Madame."
And Skerow was left alone with her thoughtsor against them.
In a day of twenty-eight stads the man she had worked with for a quarter century had been revealed as a criminal and murdered; the woman who had seemed to be one of her two or three friends on this world was shown to be a murderer; she herself had barely escaped with her life and done terrible violence on her attacker; she had discovered that there was a species of intelligent life which she had never heard of living on her home world, a member of which was held captive; the working world she had believed to be without indigenous life, and which was part of Galactic Federation Headquarters, had turned out to have something very much like it; and both of these kinds of life were very much like slaves.
"The first version was better," she said to the empty air.
She sank into her basin, extended her siphon and let the water flow over her eyes and mouth.
I drown in moonlight
Zamos's Brothel: Skerow and Ned Gattes
Having slept exhausted until the evening, Skerow prepared herself a listless rehydrated meal.
It was a grisly irony that, because the Khagodi population had halved in one day, the availability of its food supplies had doubled. But the foods were still the same freeze-dried strips of myth-ox and sea-smik, the same preserved kappyx bulbs. This irony induced a mild sadness in Skerow, but it did not dull her appetite for better stuff than was usually available to interworld travelers. She had tasted a few foods grown on other worlds and liked them, but so far had found no one who liked myth-ox, sea-smik, or kappyx, so there was no question of trading.
There had been no messages on her comm when she woke, and she shrank from calling Strang or Ramaswamy to press for news. Thoughts of Kobai haunted her, of the help she had been unable to give, the near impossibility of giving it now. She was afraid that her whole trail of connections was no more than a story she had told herself, with no evidentiary basis at all.
She laid it out once more:
The first sign had been that Thordh excused himself from sitting on Boudreau's trial because of "indisposition"; then Boudreau's defense counsel, Sama, had behaved oddly when she heard about Thordh; Boudreau's reaction to a change of judges was extreme because of his stated expectations of being let off by Thordh and his claim to Sama that this had been done twice before.
The strange Solthree "journalist" with the microphone had pestered Skerow in the corridor; the flicker of thoughtand I'll kill youhad caught her in the streetor only the tag-end of a half-heard conversation? Kobai had flashed on her like a dream, with her certainty of recognizing a Khagodi.
The day and its events had been growing darker all the time, with the murder of Thordh, the news that he had already been under investigation by GalFed for misconduct, and her reading of the tethumekh to discover his murderer (Eskat darted his little tongue at her sea-smik, and she absently shooed him away, but on taking thought offered him some). And the battle with Hathe that seemed to close the incident, all in the space of one day.…
Kobai, who was no vision or dream, was called an animal. An experimental animal whom she believed to be a victim of illegal trade.
The bribing voice on the comm that stirred echoes of the rude journalist and the threat thought; last, the servant who claimed to be an aboriginal on a world Skerow had always believed to have none.
There were three stories there: Thordh, Kobai, and the servant. Thordh's had a clear line line that could be substantiated by police work, more clearly if Hathe could be examined. That story was separate from the others. There was evidence enough that Kobai existed, but Skerow did not know how to prove she was a person. She had noticed the servantfor the first time in all of her visitsonly because Kobai was on her mind, and made her think of indentures and slavery; she was afraid her attention had endangered both of them.
• • •
She washed out her bowl and shelved it, she mopped a spill of water from the rim of her basin, she paced and wrung her hands. Eskat jittered on her head, squeaking. She called up her report in its ledger, hissed at it and shut it down again. She looked at her face in the mirror and rolled her eyes at it. There was nothing to do but get out of this place.
She stalked the streets. Away from its blistered port area Starry Nova looked from above like what it was: a city that had been built by computer simulation. Skerow watched it through the eyes of buzzer and hovercar pilots: its concrene warehouses and glastex offices stretched beyond and beyond, their square clusters occasionally varied only by the cancerous spread of a factory with landing pads and transport terminals on its roof. Beyond the factories and warehouses were more and more that stretched out like amoebas with ever-narrowing arms gesturing at the mines with their engines and satellite towns. The cloud lowered ever closer and darker toward the winter season.
Down in the city center, the rivers of life flowed along the wet pavements, past the shops flickering with coldlight displays, shouldering the little squat runabouts that carried the mandarins of industry and policy on errands of civil or personal service; these did not pause at the narrow fronts of the stopover hotels or the grimy restaurant faces, each advertised by one yellow lamp. Establishments like Zamos's had private back roads for them, covered with arcades of imitation shrubs, and richly draped and carpeted entrances. The poorer people, bold and shy, who slipped past the gross Var-vani or the comatose bouncer in the street doorway beside the window were most of them on their way home to slots in the wall of a workmen's hostel.
Skerow's thoughts brooded over the city. Citizens of five thousand worlds, GalFed and neutral, labored here in perhaps fifty thousand establishments; her mind hovered above the one where Kobai was or had been. She was a little calmer now, and did not much fear that Kobai was in great physical danger, even though she was hidden away behind the crackling white-noise barrier: the life of the swimming woman had come to the attention of too many people outside its milieu.
Three buildings away from the complex that housed the two-faced bordello, Skerow peered without seeing over the railing of a bridge into a stream that was not a river but a drainage channel; her mind's eye was watching Zamos's traffic from the eyes of passersby. Outside the bubble where the dead-eyed creatures floated there was a scuffle going on.
A Solthree mack was beating a whore, also a Solthree, though she looked anything but, more like a Pinxid with her blued skin and lips green as a fruit peel, the way she writhed and howled pitifully, and clawed with green nails; perhaps she specialized in Pinxin. Skerow knew that there was a specialist for everything. The woman was dressed in some blue smoky wrap that seemed to have caught the raindrops in it, and a fold of it had been draping her dark blond hair, but was beginning to drift away as she shrieked and twisted. Her voice rose sharply among the mutterings and gestures of a thousand languages. She was screaming incoherent words: bass'd! muffker! cocksker! Her face was in shadow.
The pimp was gripping her wrist with one hand and buffeting her face and head with the other. "It's me or nobody!" his voice was tight with fury, "me or nobody!" He pulled a horn-handled knife and flicked its blade open. His hair was slick, and he wore a velvet jersey that raged with red and blue coldlight designs, and tight blue skinlo pants, but his face looked grubby because of his uneven beard stubble. Each seemed to be wearing a big fake diamond earring, but these were oxygen capsules implanted in their necks.
Skerow watched through twenty minds and pairs of eyes as their owners came within view of this couple and moved out of it: large topaz ones rather like her own, which saw them like her own, weak and blurry; mammalian and reptilian eyes, brown, green and pink, whose owners hurried to get out of the way for fear of the pimp's knife; steely ones sensitive to infrared (red thermograms throbbed with the furious heartbeats of the combatants); robotic eyes in cyborgs that saw them abstractly as flickering points on a grid; flat sound-reflecting pupils that intuited them as concepts. Two Solthree eyes flat with stupidity, their pupils shrunk by opium.
Skerow from her distance felt equally stupefied, but was sharply pulled back to self-awareness when the Varvani madam clapped her hands and the dim eyes of the bouncer livened with resolve: he moved neatly and quickly toward the pimp as the knife flashed upward at the woman's throat. At the same time the brothel's bubble window flashed even brighter as some new orange-and-yellow creature swam into Skerow's ken, and she saw then not the dueling pair but in her mind's eye Kobai raging in captivity, in the situation she could do nothing about. She sent her thought more quickly than the pimp's knife hand to disarm its controlling mind.
Out, out, lady! Out! This was not a formed thought but an almost physical repulse coming from the pimp as the thickly painted whore twisted her head away and brought her hand's edge chopping on his arm. Skerow did not exactly see into the steel trap of the man's mind but caught a mental configuration that said: Agent, Madame, your side.
This was the truth, and she did not want to break his barriers then, but watched the fleeting moment in which the musclehead from Zamos's knocked the knife from the rogue's hand with a mallet fist and the prostitute picked it from the air and cast it away.
The bouncer did not grab at her but unhooked his lightning-rod and advanced on the pimp, who scrambled away like a craven cur, howling, "Take the damned fireship!"
The bouncer sniggered and tossed him a gold coin, which the pimp did not hurl back at him but tucked into his waistband before he scurried off, snatching up his knife as he ran. The Varvani opened her arms to the beaten woman, and she like an orphan rested her decorated head on the huge blue bosom.
Skerow let herself drift from their orbit and waited on the bridge, eyes downward. She did not hear the steps as the pimp climbed the arch and put his elbows on the opposite railing, but her ears caught his still-harsh breaths. He was looking out toward the garish window of Zamos's as if he was waiting for the woman to come back to him.
"Ned Gattes at your service, Madame Skerow." He did not esp, but kept his shield down tight and his voice to a hoarse whisper.
She took a closer look down at him in the glancing lamplight and saw that the stubble covered a rash. He was nearly as short as Tony, but heavily muscled. "You know me. Of course. The only Khagodi woman in the world now. Don't expose yourself to more danger, Ned Gattes."
"A pimp who is allowed to run from Zamos's back door is safe."
"You did all of that very nicely."
"I was well trained."
"Is your lady safe?"
"She has no more virtue to lose than I do, and takes good care of herself."
"Do you work for the police?"
"With them. Right now I am working with yours."
She did not want to mention, or even think of, Kobai in this place, but she could not help asking: "Are you looking for…?"
"A woman, yes."
The sky over Starry Nova had darkened, and, except for intermittent alarms, the city had fallen silent, even around Zamos's, like any other that had no urban culture. She heard his hand rasping over his jaw. "You have some trouble with your skin."
"Ingrown beard. I think I will kill whoever picked this skin for me."
She had to think a moment before she said, "A graft."
"You must have lost your own in curious circumstances."
"I did." She sensed rather than saw his grin. "The face suits pimping for cheap whores."
"Are you really a pimp?"
"Only for tonight. Usually I'm a pugilist, gladiator, whatever it's called on this world."
That was quite right; slender Tony was the fencer, this one the pug. "Then you would not have missed with the knife, if you had meant to use it."
"I would not. But I'm not an ESP, either. None of the pugs are. I'm just a sensitive with good blocking ability."
"What was the gold coin you picked up, Ned Gattes?"
"A token for fourteen percent off the price of Ophiuchi flameheads, tonight's specialty. It will have useful fingerprints and sweat traces. Goodnight, Sta'atha Amfa Skerow."
• • •
Skerow left Ned Gattes to do his work and went back to her lodgings: ate again and slept again. Then she wrote up her legal reports and one more for Strang and Ramaswamy, describing her encounter with her room-servant, and all she had seen or heard, or thought she had seen or heard, or simply thought; she was content at least that she had done everything possible to place and preserve the endangered in safety. After that she boarded the shuttle and then the Zarandu, bound for home. Once on board, she went, along with Eskat, into starvation mode, stasis, and deepsleep early so she (and he) would not have to eat any more dried mythox and sea-smik, or preserved kappyx bulbs.
Copyright © 1998 by Phyllis Gotlieb