I only knew something was wrong with Ghailo when he suddenly announced that he was going to the hospital. We were on the slider that connected my studio to the Hub, watching the square gray roofs of Anziki rise, when he stated simply, "I must go to our medicine."
I looked down at him, wide-eyed. "What? Your medicine? You mean, your clinic?"
"Yes," he said, giving the swaying Tarakian equivalent of a nod. He looked vaguely embarrassed as he lowered his small eyes.
"Why?" I asked, growing more worried. "What's wrong?"
He struggled to explain, his voice a low growl until he could come up with the right words. "I need to be fixed. My body, yes? Fixed. I will gone some days."
"But what is it?" I'd never felt so frustrated at our language barrier. And there seemed to be other barriers involved here, too; we knew little about the natives' physiology and, of course, even less about their cultures. So I wasn't sure I'd understand his problem even if he told me.
"I can't say, yes?" Did he mean he couldn't express himself or wouldn't tell me? "Not good," he said, and indicated himself with his chin the way Tarakians do, with a slight dip of his almost perfectly round head. "Not good, yes?"
"I'm so sorry."
When he saw the look I gave him he waved his hands. "No, no! Not to scared! Be fixed, some days!"
"But. . . . "
"No danger!" Ghailo "laughed." Tarakians made no sound when something amused them, but their flat, wide faces shivered a little.
I didn't know what to think. Was he just trying to keep me from worrying, was I really making too much of this? "Can I see you there, at the clinic?" I asked, hoping that kind of request didn't violate some code or other.
"No," he said emphatically. "When I back." He tapped my arm hard with his three fingers. "Only when I back." By now we were in the Hub. "I go; not to scared," he said firmly, and waved goodbye in a human manner. I stood for a few moments watching him fade into the Central Square crowd.
For the first time since coming to Tarakia, where I'd once thought I'd always be scared by the very alienness of the place, I was really frightened--not for myself, but for one of my best friends.
I'd met Ghailo not long after I came to Tarakia, at one of the orientation workshops held at the Republic's embassy. We discovered immediately that we shared a love of art and sweet foods, and a disdain for officials and their functions. He did everything he could to make me feel comfortable here, helping me adjust both physically and mentally to the place, and put up with (and was a bit flattered by) my incessant questions about customs and etiquette. He was fascinated by my work, and often visited me at my studio, carrying a bottle of achatya (local wine which I could barely stomach) or some expensive Earth delicacy he picked up at the Hub just because he thought I might be craving a taste of home.
I tugged my bag higher on my shoulder and made my way to the gallery, unable to shake my fear for my friend. The fact that Ghailo didn't want to discuss his problem might mean the same thing in their culture as it did in ours, that the problem was serious. Or it might mean nothing at all.
The gallery was closed, but I knew Karen was inside, doing some last-minute paperwork before dinner. I put my right forefinger against the doorpad, and when the scanner read it I rubbed it against my thumb. Most of the scanners here were still the old-fashioned "dirty" kind, and I had visions of radiation- cancers growing in the whorls of my fingerprint even as I stood there waiting for Karen to answer. I glanced to the left, where the flash from the Asuhi Fast Food outlet's annoying holos caught my eye. Garish multi-hued pseudodishes--fish, noodle, the new African-inspired stews--flickered above the counter and just under the ceiling, striving to attract hungry natives or humans. Asuhi's was the nearest stand in the Hub's Food Court, the flashy collection of multicorp franchises with their appalling travesties of holo-art that violated every principle I'd learned at the Academy. The neighbourhood was all wrong for an art gallery.
The door finally slid away, and Karen, her hair pulled tightly back and up to keep it out of her way, smiled at me and shouted my name. "Great, great!" she cried, much too loudly, and motioned me to come in. "You caught me! I was just about to leave."
"I'm not keeping you, am I?" I said that as a courtesy; she often worked late, and seldom made plans more than two minutes ahead. I slid the bag off my shoulder and twisted its straps between my hands.
"No, no, no. Come." She looked covetously at the bag. "For me?" she asked, mock-childishly, deepening the tiny wrinkles at the corners of her eyes.
"I hope so." We went toward her office, past paintings and sculptures in almost as many media as there were individual items. A violent mobile by a Swedish sculptor I knew attracted my attention: in a holo-loop a pair of native mythical creatures were tearing each other apart, the smaller one (called a stalok, I think) stretching up to chomp the throat of its huge attacker. So many Earth-based artists were trying the same thing I was, to capture this planet in their work. . . .
Karen motioned me to a chair facing her desk, and pulled up another chair beside mine. I set the bag on my lap and hesitated, conscious of the chair's sedative hum. I needed all the relaxing I could get right now. If Karen didn't like what I showed her, all those months of effort (and all the hope I'd been riding on) were lost. I took a deep breath and ripped open the velcro flaps, then reached into the bag to retrieve the five disks inside. I figured I might as well activate them all at once; I didn't know which one she'd prefer, and if I made a dramatic show of displaying them one at a time I might end with one she'd hate.
I laid the disks on her desk and tapped their centres. Each in turn leaped into life, the holoimages rising and filling out over them. These were only scale mocks of the final versions, but I was sure Karen would be able to judge what I was trying for.
Karen stared at the pictures, rotating each disk slowly so as not to distort the images. "Landscapes, eh?" she said noncommittally. I watched her elf-like face for some sign. "Okay, okay. Okay." She pointed to Number Three. "I think I recognize this, eh? That's O'Gannon Ridge, right?"
"I like your lines, Tony, really." But her face said otherwise. My innards sagged. "Seriously, it's not bad, not bad, but I don't know, something's lacking. Maybe it's me."
"What? What's wrong?"
"I don't know. It's hard to say. An abstractness . . . there's something academic about it."
I refused to believe my fears were coming true. "`Academic.' What . . . ?"
"It's like they weren't even done here. I don't know."
"Look, I'm not claiming that this is really Tarakia. No one ever does. . . ."
"I know, I know, but it still has to be the subject, eh?" Karen smiled at me, her already bulbous cheeks getting even rounder, like those of a trumpet player. "I'm not saying they're bad, Tony, don't get me wrong; I mean, I might take them, but could you spend a bit more time, you know, looking?"
"I mean," she said, poking her finger through the pictures to tap the disk centres, "spend more time looking at these landscapes, then come back to your pictures and see if you can't soften the lines, the colours, a bit." She pointed in the direction of her Food Court neighbours with her thumb. "You're not really competing with them, you know."
I calmed myself down, and even smiled. "Art is long, but fish goes stale."
"Exactly," she said, whether she knew what I meant or not. "Bring them in again next week, after you've had a chance to work on them a bit, and I'll see what I can do."
"Okay." I scooped up the disks and threw them roughly into the bag, the frustration tightening my chest and neck. True, I'd spent five years at an Earth academy, but I'd lived nearly as long here--almost a Tarakian decade--and I couldn't accept that I was imposing foreign models on its landscape that blatantly. Maybe she was reading things into my images . . . whatever the case, she didn't want them, not now, and there was no point begging. "Thanks for looking at them, anyway."
"My pleasure. I'd ask you to join me for some of that lovely seafood next door but Yuri Karpov--you know, the offworld dealer?--called just before you came and invited me to dinner."
"Something big in the works?" I asked. I stood up and let her show me to the door.
"Here's hoping, here's hoping," she said, waving thin crossed fingers at me. "I mean what I said, Tony. Show me what you do with these next week."
"Okay, I will." As if I had anyone else to show them to. I walked past the noodle stand toward Patricia's office, punching my bag lightly with every step. Damn. I ignored the native counter-girl, who looked invitingly at me as she gestured to the godawful holos above her head.*
I found Patricia reading the paper on a mall bench outside her office, her brow tight as she stared at the celluloid square. Her thumbs worked vigorously on the edges of the square, calling up or sending away the reams of information she could speed-read and absorb at an amazing rate. The shape of the card protruding from the top of the square told me that she was reading an Earthnews paper, naturally enough given that her specialty was Federal, not local, law.
When she saw me approach she grinned and said, "Hah!" then lowered the paper, looking a bit reluctant to give it up altogether. As we kissed she hugged me with one arm and left that arm around my waist as we walked to the restaurant. "So, how did it go?" she asked, her tone implying that she already suspected.
"Shit." She tightened her grip on my side sympathetically. It was exactly what I need right then. "What did she say?"
"That I don't have an eye for Tarakia's native charms."
"She's full of crap." She slid the paper into a Federal Standard wallslot for recycling and picked up the pace. "I'm starved."
"How did your trading case go?"
"I think it'll be all right. I don't think Chiu really wants to face us in court; too many funny things aboard his ships."
"Really?" We joined the line outside Stein's Deli and I wondered how long it would take to get a table. I was in no mood for a long wait. "Like what?"
"Lately Tarakia's been lousy with strings. I think Chiu's trying to bring them in." Strings! If there was one thing Federal law was very clear about it was importing DNA strands. The racial status of every planet in the Republic was considered sacrosanct, but especially when it came to this unique world. Humans had only just begun to colonize other planets when we stumbled onto Tarakia, and hadn't expected to run across another intelligent species so soon. Fortunately, the Tarakians had been pleased--if not downright awed--by their human visitors. "Did Karen give you a downright no?"
"No . . . on top of that, something's wrong with Ghailo. He's seeing a doctor."
"Really? Oh, no." Patricia looked thoughtful. "One of ours or theirs?"
"Theirs. He's already arranged to go to a native clinic."
"I don't trust theirs." Her eyebrows knit with worry. Ghailo was my friend, not hers, but whenever something bothered me it seemed even worse for her. She was truly empathic, taking on other people's emotions and showing in her expression what others felt inside. "Their medical technology is this far from witchdoctoring." She showed me how far with her thumb and forefinger. "Did he say what the problem was?"
"No. He didn't seem too concerned, but it's hard to know for sure." I half-shrugged helplessly. "I mean, the language, the tone . . . you know."
"Yes. Well, I'm sure you're worrying for nothing." We finally came to the front of the line. "It doesn't do any good to imagine the worst."
"I know, but it's hard not to."
She squeezed me again; I smiled my thanks to her and kissed her again. "We should learn more Aklatese," I said. That was the closest the Tarakians had to a lingua franca. "But they're so damned anxious to learn English." English was the interplanetary language of the Federal Republic, and was quickly becoming the sole language of inter-species communication, too. Everyone--on Earth and here--was trying to speak English no matter how odd the results: Patricia's own accent, for instance, a strange mixture of Hungarian and Dutch. I found not having to learn other languages too easy, too comfortable; it wasn't right to make others adapt without reciprocating in some way.
The native host nodded and smiled, then led us toward the rear of the restaurant. I began to crave the smoked-meat platter I always ordered here. The meat was flash-frozen in Montreal and shipped all the way out here without losing too much flavour. As we wound our way through the tables I saw that, as usual, more than half the diners were human, but all the staff were native except for the suited manager talking to the woman behind the bar.
"Typical," I muttered.
I tried calling Ghailo all night after we got home from the restaurant, but there was no answer, either at home or on portable. Humans had imported their own communications systems-- phones, nets, even TV--and the natives had adopted them readily after acknowledging their technological superiority over the Tarakian radio systems. Federal law prohibited imposing technologies on other planets, but there was nothing stopping a people (if that was the right word to use for the Tarakians!) from choosing to abandon their old ways in favour of more efficient ones. But though the natives had gladly accepted the human networks, they didn't always know how to use them. I was sure Ghailo would have brought his portable with him to clinic, if he was already there, or at least left a message. I hoped that his silence was the result of a glitch in the microwave lines somewhere.
"Still nothing?" Patricia asked after my sixth try. I shook my head. "Transmit a message note, then." She rubbed my neck and kissed my ear as I tapped the codes that would make Ghailo's phone flash rhythmically. I recorded a message saying that Karen had liked my pictures a little, but that I might have to go away "for some days to fix them." Patricia said, "Maybe if you worked on your images it would take your mind off it."
She mussed my hair and went into the next room (her "study" as she called it, although it consisted of nothing more than a net terminal and a dart board). I retrieved my bag and set the five disks on the kitchen table. Maybe I would see something if I examined them in this light, as opposed to the harsh glare in my studio . . . I touched the centre of the disk holding my favourite work and watched carefully as the image scrolled up. I could barely make out the almost microscopic range of mountains, with their jagged silhouettes rendered almost abstract by my use of solid outlines and complementary colours. Maybe the fields in the foreground valley were a bit too geometrical and bright, given how barren the real ones were; but didn't I have the right to express myself? I was surprised that Karen wanted me to be more representational, given that she'd trained with the neo-surrealists at the Dubai Institute.
I spun the disk slowly on its tiny bottom boss, watching as the southern end of the mountain range narrowed and finally ended in the cleanly sliced edge imposed by the limit of my image. The sketches I'd done, the work I'd put into the finished image at my studio, everything had gone as if guided by something outside or well inside me--everything had seemed so correct, almost predetermined. But maybe I was making some unwise choices in the severity of the outlines, maybe I was trying too hard to make a point. The planet was so barren, compared to Earth and the terraformed human colonies, but it still breathed.
I sat back, half my mind on the image, half on Ghailo. There was nothing I could do for him, by his own choice; I had no way of getting in touch with him, and I wouldn't hear anything for days. So I decided to take Karen's advice, and travel back to the sites to look again at what I'd tried to capture in holos. The excursion would at least keep me from obsessing about Ghailo. Whether or not I could justify the trip on artistic grounds, I needed Karen's good opinion. And someday, if she put me in touch with the offworld dealers, I wouldn't feel so guilty about making Patricia do almost all the breadwinning for us, which she'd been doing almost since the day we moved in together.
That night Patricia tried initiating things, but I was too distracted to go beyond holding.
"I know you're worried," she said.
"It's hard not to be."
"That's all right. Quiet." She used that word not as an imperative, but as a way of saying how we should be for a while: no talk, no lovemaking, just mutual presence. The first time we were "quiet" I thought she was upset about something, but I didn't know how to ask her what. It was a couple of days before she finally explained herself and I discovered how little I'd understood her. And how much I relished the way she could be so simply comfortable with me.
The next morning I tried calling Ghailo one more time, not really expecting to reach him. I didn't, of course. Where was he? What was happening?*
I left two days later, after booking excursions on two local sublines. I couldn't really spare the extra expense for suborbital flights, but I didn't want to spend more time than necessary in transit, in case there was any word from Ghailo. After all, he'd kept watch over me years earlier, when I ran out of the nitrex pills new immigrants needed to help them adapt to the atmosphere; I lay in the Earth hospital mostly paralyzed, and absolutely sure I would die then and there. At times I was ready to give up but he wouldn't let me. After I pulled through he dismissed my unending thanks as ridiculous. "What else, yes?" he said again and again.
I first went to O'Gannon Ridge, the subject of my favourite piece. I shouldered my knapsack and stepped off the plane, stopping on the tarmac of the hilltop subport to stare at the line of mountains to the east. The others--tourists, both human and natives--did the same, and maybe thought it was my first time here, too. I followed the crowd through the control gates and shook my head as I passed the inevitable concession stands. Ever since arriving on Tarakia, not long after graduating from New York Academy, I'd watched the planet grow depressingly more Earth-like. The corporate and bureaucratic desire to remake the planet had been bad enough; but most of what had happened had been the natives' own choice. Not that they'd surrendered their culture completely--by no means. But on top of aboriginal ways, structures, forms, they were adding a layer of Federal elements that almost left the native culture invisible. I hadn't come all this way just to see more Federal malls, fast-food concession stands, tourist guides, and pedicabs.
The Ridge was made easy for tourists to visit by a footpath that wound through the thin forest atop Nahayek Hill; every hundred metres or so it poked out, bringing walkers to a lookout that gave a "breathtaking view" of the stark cliffs across the valley. I followed the path until it reached the route I'd found for myself the year before, down the eastern face of the hill. I stood waiting for the tourists to disappear into the woods, then climbed down. By hugging the hillside for about two hundred metres I came to a marvelous lip of rock that would hold me, my palette, and even my sleeping bag if it got too late. Everything was just as I remembered it, and I reached my vantage point in only half an hour.
I got there almost an hour before the sunlight was right, plenty of time to set up my palette. I laid my palette on a flat boulder and slid off the plastic cover to reveal the protruding rims of the three primary-colour dials beneath. I flicked the toggle on the palette's left side to engage the liner, and then sat motionless with my fingers resting on the ridged rims of the colour-wheels, doing precisely what Karen had recommended: looking.
The planet's landscape was really harsh--and seemed even harsher because unlike places like the Alberta Badlands, the Ridge, with its valley full of rugged farms and its mountainsides of antapta pastures (where the goatlike creatures grazed, looking like termites from this distance), supported families, villages, even the County government. The natives were, in the old cliche, "ekeing out a living" where none should logically be attempted. It was that foreignness, that contrast between what you'd expect from an area like this and what it was actually being used for, that I'd tried to capture--that I thought I had captured--in my image. I'd used the techniques I had, because how else could I try to portray this place. But according to Karen all I'd succeeded in doing was losing the scene entirely, burying it under conventional composition (and, come to think of it, a slightly "off" perspective).
I called up my old picture from the palette's memory and let it take shape unrevised in the air above the palette. I hugged my knees and looked back and forth, between the mountains and my rendering of them, letting my eyes move constantly as my training had taught me. I bit the inside of my upper lip and now stared at the Ridge, trying to absorb it through my eyes and skin.
Karen had been dead right.
My image was too rigidly outlined, I'd tried too hard to encompass the rugged in the geometrical, I'd been too afraid of being photographic. It was an image I could have painted anywhere in the Republic. There was nothing native about this picture, even to show how alien it would always be to me. The image was embarrassingly . . . not naive, so much as cowardly. The very sort of thing Karen would hate.
And Patricia, too, if I'd been stupid enough to show it to her.
I tapped the "edit" key next to the liner toggle, and began manipulating the liner ball with my palm, making the glimmering outlines lighter, less insistent, much less fundamentally straight, and followed instead the lines of the Ridge (though not slavishly; it wasn't a photograph, after all). Enough of O'Gannon Ridge showed through now to make my image true as well as personal. I kept the colour dials in constant motion, mixing and remixing until I found the closest hues I could to the rainbow of pastels on the Ridge slopes. As my light slowly faded with the passing of Tarakia's foreshortened day, I managed to repair the two images of the Ridge, making them better both in Karen's terms and my own. If she still hated them after all this. . . .
By then it was too late to go looking for a lodge, so I unrolled my thermatex sleeping bag in a cleft beside the boulder. In the dying sunlight something glinted off to my left. I crab- walked over and found that it was a coffee tube one of the tourists had thrown down the hillside. I shook my head and pocketed it; it would have aerodegraded in a week or so, but I couldn't stand the thought of it lying there with me. After packing up the palette I slid into the sleeping bag.
I'd brought six nutribars and ate two of them, staring between my feet at the Ridge beyond. From where I lay I could just make out the top of the Ridge and see virtually all of the eastern and southern sectors of the night sky. I watched a Federal satellite--looking like a planet in a hurry--sail between the stars overhead, providing humans with a transit point for themselves or their communications. The sight of it half- comforted, half-appalled me.*
I spent the next day at the Kana-sawl Icefields, huddled in the sleeping bag outside the way-station as I painted with frozen, almost immobile fingers, then caught the first subliner out. I did the best I could with the Icefields, although for some reason they carried less emotional meaning for me than did the Ridge. I thought my versions of them were as close as I could get them without being a photographer. But I really wanted Karen to like my Ridge images, and was impatient to return home and show them to her. And call Ghailo.
As soon as I landed at the Anziki City Subport I dialed his number. His face came on the screen, but over it hung the red line indicating this was not a live picture; apparently he'd learned the controls of his phone well enough to leave a message by remote. "Sorry," Ghailo said in English; I reasoned the message was intended primarily for me. "I am not here, yes. I will back in one day; call then!" His image faded; in frustration I lightly punched the side of the phone with the base of my fist. The computer-generated image would automatically change the number of days before Ghailo's return, meaning that no matter how long ago he'd recorded it I would indeed have to wait seventeen hours to learn anything.
I called Patricia. She broke into her broadest smile at seeing me. "You're back already!"
"Yeah. I. . . . "
"How did it go?" She glanced to her right and through her gestures and expression waved away someone trying to get her attention. "Did you make the revisions?"
"Yeah, I think the images are much, much better. Karen should like them."
"Great!" She leaned toward the screen. "I missed you."
"Haven't they been keeping you too busy to notice I was gone?" I asked with a wry smile. To any outsider her answering look would have seemed humourless, insulted. "Okay, how stupid was that question?"
"Extremely," she assured me. "But I do have to get back at it, I'm afraid. Oh, yes, Chiu was arrested."
"No!" I knew that she'd suspected before taking the case that it would be a Major Thing (her term), but I doubt she ever had a clue just how Major.
"`Importing' strings, human strings, for illicit purposes." She rolled her eyes at the person to her right. "Must run! See you at home."
I caught a pedicab home, and as soon as I got in the door and deposited my stuff I called Karen to make an appointment. "I did what you suggested," I told her. "I went back there."
"Yes, yes?" She seemed flattered that I'd taken her advice to heart. Good. "And?"
"I think you'll like the results."
"I'm sure I will. Come by at five today or tomorrow, it doesn't matter, doesn't matter at all."
I showered, ate some real food (at as leisurely a pace as I could manage), and spent most of the afternoon up at the studio examining the images over and over for flaws. A line here, a colour-blend there, needed work, but overall I wanted to keep the pictures faithful to what I'd done out there, at least until Karen got a chance to look at them. At exactly 4:30--following a rigid schedule I'd just made up--I saved the images to disks and put them in my bag, then made my way down to the Hub. I got to the gallery at precisely 5:00, just in time to see the beginning of the dinner rush; humans and natives lined up in front of the Asuhi stand, and the chicken stall next to it. Beyond them stood the Tarakian-food stand, patronized mostly by older natives and those who'd given up on the other lines.
"Come in, come in!" Karen said. "I'm anxious to see what you've done!" She cleared a spot on her desk and motioned for me to set my disks down. "Incidentally, I was able to sell a number of native pieces to my dealer-friend, he was happy-- happy!--to do business with me. Okay, let's see what you've got."
I laid the disks out in a line and put my hand over my mouth, rubbing the corners of my lips nervously as she tapped their centres. I watched her face; her expression changed only slightly: a thin smile.
"Good. Much, much better. Yes." She nodded. "Yes, I'll take these two," she said, pointing to my favourite and one other Ridge image. "On consignment, of course."
On consignment: I'd hoped for more . . . but, yes, she would take them! "Great!" I barely kept myself from cheering. "Thanks so much."
"They work much, much better now. Absolutely." She raised the disk holding the other Ridge image between her thumb and forefinger and turned it slightly. "You got the seams, even; good, good! This feels better. Nice work. And offworlders might really go for these."
"I hope so." I couldn't wait to tell Patricia, to celebrate.
She put down the disk and held out her hand. I shook it, and a wave of pleasure and relief coursed through me. My pieces, full-sized and, I hoped, prominently displayed, would be here beside the works of all these other artists, both native and human. That she hadn't bought them outright no longer mattered. "Have to run, now, Tony, but thanks for showing me these. Come by to see how they're doing."
"Okay." I thanked her again and left the gallery, walking slowly back to the slider and relishing every moment. I thought of stopping by Patricia's office to tell her but decided to save the news for later, when I was alone with her and could make a more dramatic announcement.
Back at the studio I flicked on the palette and called up my favourite picture. What could she not have liked about it? I turned the image around, searching it the way I'd stared at the Ridge itself. Why had she liked the other more . . . maybe because its colours had been more subdued, its detail more defined?
The studio bell chimed, and I set the image down on the table. It wasn't like Patricia to come here; she was excessively scrupulous about this being my place. I unlatched the door with a few light taps on the pad and waited as it slid away. Instead of Patricia, though, a native stood outside it holding a handkerchief in front of his or her face, the three reddish fingers in constant motion as they nervously clutched the thin cloth. "Tony?"
My heart jumped. "Ghailo? Is that you? I thought. . . . "
"I am to rest, but I cannot wait to show." He yanked the handkerchief away, and I stared. Ghailo's head: it was thinner, more oval; his face was altered, too. "I fix, yes?" Ghailo said, beaming with what was an almost human smile. That was it: his face had become half-human, or more like a travesty of human. "I make better, more like you, yes!" Like the operation I'd heard about that you could once get in the Orient, to eliminate the eye-folds. . . .
"Ghailo, why . . . ?"
"Native more ugly, yes? I am more good now. Do you like?" Ghailo smiled again, and I stared. It was disgusting . . . "And genes, too; I find doctor. My children. . . . " I backed away from the door, not listening to my friend any more, trying not to hear him.
"Ghailo." I didn't know what to say; I didn't know what to think. I just stared, sickened and amazed.
"Good now, yes? As good, now."