Chapter 31 Hat

        Porett had decided to do some sightseeing. The first two days after his arrival in Taltu were spent at East/Trad's imposing offices, in meetings with senior management and middle-ranking people from Sales. The next day was occupied entirely by a trade delegation representing Estavian components-manufacturers, and the two days after that were taken up visiting his newly-acquired warehouses and distribution centres. Both of the evenings on the visit days had been set aside for one-on-one talks with the most talented few of the individuals he'd encountered on days one and two.
        Today, though, the executives he'd brought along from Cala could handle things. He needed some time off from boring business, and when you're in one of the great cultural centres of the world you may as well concede something to its tourist attractions.
        Taltu did not have a major river, only a sad trickle that merited no bridges boasting more than a single arch. The Taltuers made up for this oversight on the part of their city's founders by constructing a long, tree- lined boulevard that furrowed from the former bear-ring in the north down to the High Cathedral in the centre of the old town.
        They called the street the Heavenly Course. Since he was staying near the bear-ring, now a covered theatre for staging epic musical dramas, Porett had decided to walk its length into the heart of the city, where ruins and reminders of Estavia's glorious imperial past were everywhere. As he strolled, however, he found himself increasingly impressed by the later-period buildings lining his route. They were tall, well-kept, and elegant. The upper floors were expensive apartments; ground-level was a gallery, a coffee house, perhaps a small shop selling sweetmeats or exquisite porcelain dolls from Berean. In one section, set slightly back, wood-panelled antique emporia lent a gentlemanly, almost bygone character to the roadside, yet they didn't seem out of place. Further down, a row of classy restaurants was opening ready for late breakfast, their names written large at the base of their grand facades. Such signs of wealth were so pervading, so different from his native Cala, that Porett could barely believe Taltu was a conquered city.
        And everywhere, there were trees, huge elms and limes, cherry trellises, their leafy bowers turning burning red with the onset of Autumn. Well-tended flowerbeds lined the broad, sheltered pavement. Here and there were tame birds, wood pigeons, even peacocks; Porett watched a weathered old man making up small packets of seed, a cluster of children bubbling around him. Strange statuary lurked in the shade, earnest artists sketched arboreal scenes, the whole avenue was full of the true-life minutiae that make first-time experience of a great city such a joy.
        Although few people would have supposed it, Porett's interest in Taltu for itself was honest and genuine. He wanted to see the statue of King Piatr not simply because it was the foremost surviving work by Tol Savna, "the greatest sculptor who ever lived," but because it was so magnificently detailed, life-like and composed. Even the representations of it he'd seen had caused him to feel it could speak, silently, yet with a stunning eloquence imbued by the immense skill of its creator; it said that Piatr was an honourable and just man, but one who, when he found it necessary, was capable of being absolutely without mercy of any kind. Close up, the effect would be awesome. Frightening even after twenty centuries.
        These days, people could make illuso-copies of the figure, of course, but their own attempts at original works were invariably lacking. What if Tol Savna were alive today, with magic at his disposal? What masterpieces could he create in a fraction of the time it took to work the marble King Piatr? Porett admired craftsmanship, yes, but what really impressed him was the way that some works of art could drive an emotion straight into the heart, without having any apparent means to do so. He hastened his pace, eager with anticipation.
        In a pouch hanging from his belt was the com-3. He'd taken it with him, rather than risk leaving it untended. As his stride quickened, it swung out wildly, thudding into his thigh every step. He slowed down. His other self was negotiating with the Crown Office, arranging an audience with Justan when he came to Taltu next week; they'd originally been due to meet today, but The King's post-battle analysis schedule had taken precedence. Porett rested his hand on the bag to steady it, and noticed a slight green reflection. He peeked inside; the comsphere was glowing.

* * *

        It was some time before he found somewhere secluded enough to allow him to talk to his com-3 without arousing suspicious stares. The place he chose was a small square, just off the Heavenly Course, with an ancient column mounted in the centre, topped by a pewter owl. There was inevitably a story behind it that he could read about later in his guidebook, but for the moment he ignored the monument and positioned himself in a narrow gap between two buildings. The faint smell of freshly-baked bread wafted by. He half-opened his leather pouch, peered at the comsphere, tapped in.
        "It's hard to talk in the open, what do you want?" Whispered.
        "Small thing first, the meeting with Justan is on for a week tomorrow. He's due back in three days' time."
        "Lots of people to see, I know how he feels. What else?"
        "I tracked down Vyval Reeve, he was wounded at the Erva. He's in Cala, recovering."
        "Damn!" Porett's voice had grown louder, he strove to lower it again. "What has he told Ansle? Anything?"
        "Nothing, as far as I can tell, we can trust him; but Ansle already suspects he was on the C-3 project, it's only a matter of time before he proves out what they were working on."
        "When he does, the very least he'll know is that you exist. Might even contrive to swap the com-3 for a com-2 and illusion himself to look like us." He paused. "We'd better fix up some protocol so we can be sure who we're talking to."
        "Some ally..." said in unison.

* * *

        Inside the High Cathedral, Porett knew he was distracted. He was gazing on some of the most accomplished works of art in civilisation, visually striking, serenely executed, and yet he may as well have been staring at empty walls, his mind was awhirl with ideas. Minutes earlier in the Resdav Collection, housed in a squat, oval tower outside, he'd seen a painting called "The Desire of Being" by some Davian artist who'd died two hundred years ago. It depicted a pale young woman, resting on a mound of cushions and furs; her wrists were cut deep, and rich pools of blood had formed on loose sheets of satin. Yet as she lay dying, there was a faint smile of contentment on her lips, for in a mirror behind her could be seen her soul, descending into the body of a handsome, sleeping man. When Porett saw it, a thought flashed across his consciousness, so strongly it was almost physical. It described almost exactly his experience in the com-3 when he'd linked to Conley, so sexually charged that his then-self had asked to be overwritten rather than merge back an addict. Being as one with another person was what some people, himself perhaps included, desperately wanted! In the painting, the woman had killed herself to achieve it, if only for a brief moment. He, however, was able to do it at will. Could he produce something that would allow other people similar facilities? It could out-sell happy shots!
        There were other possibilities, non-pornographic ones that might have more mass appeal. Linking to someone climbing a mountain, skiing, diving from a cliff, anything exhilarating, might draw an audience. Visiting faraway places, actually seeing and touching famous sculptures, ancient books, viewing magnificent paintings in private collections. Listening to well-known people, apparently talking right at you; more down-to-earth uses - making sure your children are safe, or having them attend school without leaving home. Military applications, intelligence- gathering. Barely had he thought of one possibility when the next pushed it aside. Could such general-purpose linking be implemented?
        He'd lost his most gifted researchers when the prototype com-3 spell had lost colour and blown away the entire lab. The new people were smart, and the com-4 would be a sturdy, reliable product, but they lacked the visionary imagination of their predecessors. One of the original team had been on vacation when the disaster hit, though, thus escaping death. He'd been responsible for the internal comsphere environment, ensuring that the captured mind had a ghost body to control while imprisoned in the bauble. He'd know a way to get round the Elidia-syndrome breathing problem without inducing sleep. But would he work for Porett Technologies again? Perhaps, now that life in The King's army had suddenly lost its gloss...

Copyright © Richard A. Bartle (
21st January 1999: isif31.htm