Her name was Killashandra Ree; and after ten grueling years of musical training she was young, beautiful—and still without prospects.
Then she heard of the mysterious Heptite Guild on the planet Ballybran, where the fabled Black Crystal was found.
For those qualified, the Guild was said to provide careers, security, and the chance for wealth beyond imagining. The problem was, few people who landed on Ballybran ever left.
To Killashandra the risks were acceptable . . .
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Killashandra listened as the words dropped with leaden fatality into her frozen belly. She stared at the maestro’s famous profile as his lips opened and shut around the words that meant the death of all her hopes and ambitions and rendered ten years of hard work and study a waste.
The maestro finally turned to face her. The genuine regret in his expressive eyes made him look older. The heavy singer’s muscles in his jaw relaxed sorrowfully into jowls.
One day, Killashandra might remember those details. Just then, she was too crushed by overwhelming defeat to be aware of more than her terrible personal failure.
“But . . . but . . . how could you?”
“How could I what?” the maestro asked in surprise.
“How could you lead me on?”
“Lead you on? But, my dear girl, I didn’t.”
“You did! You said—you said all I needed was hard work. Haven’t I worked hard enough?”
“Of course you have worked hard.” Valdi was affronted. “My students must apply themselves. It takes years of hard work to develop the voice, to learn even a segment of the outworld repertoire that must be performed.”
“I’ve repertoire! I’ve worked hard and now—now you tell me I’ve no voice?”
Maestro Valdi sighed heavily, a mannerism that had always irritated Killashandra and was now insupportable. She opened her mouth to protest, but he raised a restraining hand. The habit of four years made her pause.
“You haven’t the voice to be a top-rank singer, my dear Killashandra, but that does not preclude any of the many other responsible and fulfilling . . .”
“I won’t be second rank. I want—I wanted ”—and she had the satisfaction of seeing him wince at the bitterness in her voice—“to be a top-rank concert singer. You said I had—”
He held up his hand again. “You have the gift of perfect pitch, your musicality is faultless, your memory superb, your dramatic potential can’t be criticized. But there is that burr in your voice which becomes intolerable in the higher register. While I thought it could be trained out, modified—” he shrugged his helplessness. He eyed her sternly. “Today’s audition with completely impartial judges proved conclusively that the flaw is inherent in the voice. This moment is cruel for you and not particularly pleasant for me.” He gave her another stern look, reacting to the rebellion in her stance. “I make few errors in judgment as to voice. I honestly thought I could help you. I cannot, and it would be doubly cruel of me to encourage you further as a soloist. No. You had best strengthen another facet of your potential.”
“And what, in your judgment, would that be?”
He had the grace to blink at her caustic words, then looked her squarely in the eye. “You don’t have the patience to teach, but you could do very well in one of the theater arts where your sympathy with the problems of a singer would stand you in good stead. No? You are a trained synthesizer? Hmmmm. Too bad, your musical education would be a real asset there.” He paused. “Well, then, I’d recommend you leave the theater arts entirely. With your sense of pitch, you could be a crystal tuner or an aircraft and shuffle dispatcher or—”
“Thank you, maestro,” she said, more from force of habit than any real gratitude. She gave him the half bow his rank required and withdrew.
Slamming the panel shut behind her, Killashandra stalked down the corridor, blinded by the tears she’d been too proud to shed in the maestro’s presence. Though she half wanted and half feared meeting a fellow student who would question her tears and commiserate with her disaster, she was inordinately relieved to reach her study cubicle without having encountered anyone. There she gave herself up to her misery, bawling into hysteria, past choking, until she was too spent to do more than gasp for breath.
If her body protested the emotional excess, her mind reveled in it. For she had been abused, misused, misguided, misdirected—and who knows how many of her peers had been secretly laughing at her dreams of glorious triumphs on the concert and opera stage? Killashandra had a generous portion of the conceit and ego required for her chosen profession, with no leavening of humility; she’d felt success and stardom were only a matter of time. Now she cringed at the vivid memory of her self-assertiveness and arrogance. She had approached the morning’s audition with such confidence, the requisite commendations to continue as a solo aspirant a foregone conclusion. She remembered the faces of the examiners, so pleasantly composed; one man nodding absent-mindedly to the pulse of the test arias and lieder. She’d been scrupulous in tempi; they’d marked her high on that. How could they have looked so—so impressed? So encouraging?
How could they record such verdicts against her?
“The voice is unsuited to the dynamics of opera. Unpleasant burr too audible.” “A good instrument for singing with orchestra and chorus where grating overtone will not be noticeable.”
“Strong choral leader quality: student should be positively dissuaded from solo work.”
Unfair! Unfair! How could she be allowed to come so far, be permitted to delude herself, only to be dashed down in the penultimate trial? And to be offered, as a sop, choral leadership! How degradingly ignominious!
From her excruciating memories wriggled up the faces of her brothers and sisters, taunting her for what they called “shrieking at the top of her lungs.” Teasing her for the hours she spent on finger exercises and attempting to “understand” the harmonics of odd off-world music. Her parents had surrendered to Killashandra’s choice of profession because it was, at the outset, financed by Fuerte’s planetary educational system; second, it might accrue to their own standing in the community; and third, she had the encouragement of her early vocal and instrumental teachers. Them! Was it the ineptitude of one of those clods to which she owed the flaw in her voice? Killashandra rolled in an agony of self-pity.
What was it Valdi had had the temerity to suggest? An allied art? A synthesizer? Bah! Spending her life in mental institutions catering to flawed minds because she had a flawed voice? Or mending flawed crystals to keep interplanetary travel or someone’s power plant flowing smoothly?
Then she realized her despondency was merely self-pity and sat upright, staring at herself in the mirror on the far wall, the mirror that had reflected all those long hours of study and self-perfection. Self-deception!
In an instant, Killashandra shook herself free of such wallowing self-indulgence. She looked around the study, a slice of a room dominated by the Vidifax, with its full address keyboard that interfaced with the Music Record Center, providing access to a galaxy’s musical output. She glanced over the repros of training performances—she’d always had a lead role—and she knew that she would do best to forget the whole damned thing! If she couldn’t be at the top, to hell with theater arts! She’d be top in whatever she did or die in the attempt.
She stood. There was nothing for her now in a room that three hours before had been the focal point of every waking minute and all her energies. Whatever personal items remained in the drawers or on the shelves, the merit awards on the wall, the signed holograms of singers she’d hoped to emulate or excel, no longer concerned her or belonged to her.
She reached for her cloak, ripped off the student badge, and flung the garment across one shoulder. As she wheeled around, she saw a note tacked on the door.
Party at Roare’s to celebrate!
She snorted. They’d all know. Let them chortle over her downfall. She’d not play the bravely smiling, courageous-under-adversity role tonight. Or ever.
Exit Killashandra, quietly, stage center, she thought as she ran down the long shallow flight of steps to the mall in front of the Culture Center. Again, she experienced both satisfaction and regret that no one witnessed her departure.
Actually, she couldn’t have asked for a more dramatic exit. Tonight, they’d wonder what had happened. Maybe someone would know. She knew that Valdi would never disclose their interview; he disliked failures; especially his own, so they’d never hear about it from him. As for the verdict of the examiners, at least the exact wording handed her would be computer sealed. But someone would know that Killashandra Ree had failed her vocal finals and the grounds for failure.
Meanwhile she would have effectively disappeared. They could speculate all they wanted—nothing would stop them from that—and they’d remember her when she rose to prominence in another field. Then they’d marvel that nothing so minor as failure could suppress her excellence.
Such reflections consoled Killashandra all the way to her lodgings. Subsidized students rated dwellings—no more the depressing bohemian semifilth and overcrowding of ancient times—but her room was hardly palatial. When she failed to reregister at the Music Center, her landlady would be notified and the room locked to her. Subsistence living was abhorrent to Killashandra; it smacked of an inability to achieve. But she’d take the initiative on that, too, and leave the room now. And all the memories it held. Besides, it would spoil the mystery of her disappearance if she were to be discovered in her digs. So, with a brief nod to the landlady, who always checked comings and goings, Killashandra climbed the stairs to her floor, keyed open her room, and looked around. There was really nothing to take but clothing.