“Pedro’s had a difficult time this past year,” Georg said; half-confiding, half in an attempt to forestall the wrath of the little stranger who made him very uncomfortable to watch. “His wife died. She was an artist in psychic ambiances, a very fine one, known all across the galaxy.”
“Really?” said Niko Daun. “I’ve worked in PAs myself. Who was she? The wife.”
His tone wasn’t precisely dismissive, but there was a challenge in it. Daun didn’t regard himself as a top PA artist, but he didn’t expect to find a better one on this wretched planet.
Hathaway drew drinks. Larrinaga looked up and said, “My wife was Suzette. That was her working name. She was a saint. And there’ll never be an artist like her. Never in all time!”
“Suzette was from here?” Daun blurted. “Blood and martyrs!”
Margulies raised an eyebrow in the direction of the sensor tech.
Daun turned his palms up. “She’s—” he said. “Well there’s taste. But the best PA artist in the galaxy, yeah, you can make a case for it. I’m amazed…Well, I didn’t think she’d have come from a place so …” (they are currently on the planet Cantilucca, which is mostly a slum full of thugs)
He looked at Larrinaga, who was staring morosely into his beer mug. “Suzette’s work is so tranquil, you see,” Daun said. “It’s not what I’d expect coming from Cantilucca. From Potosi, anyhow.”
“Pedro?” Hathaway said. “Can I show them the draft? It’s not the same, but they’ll get the idea.”
“Do what you please,” Larrinaga called as he left the alcove.
“He leaves it here,” the innkeeper explained as he opened a cabinet beneath the serving counter. “He doesn’t have a place of his own anymore.”
The innkeeper was setting up a table-model hologram projector. Niko moved to help him. The unit had a lot of flash and glitter, but it looked clumsy compared to the trim projectors in use on Nieuw Friesland.
“Pedro had been taking a lot of gage (an amphetamine-like drug)
, mostly gage, because he’d loved Suzette so much. He wouldn’t have sold at all if he hadn’t been, well, if he’d been in better condition. Because Suzette’s greatest masterpiece is a part of the home where they’d lived, you see.”
“And then he lost the money,” Evie added harshly. “He was drugged silly, and he gambled, and he lost every peso of the price.”
“The price had been a good one, though,” her husband said quickly. “Master Suterbilt didn’t cheat him, not really, since the art can’t be moved
and its value’s only what it’s worth on Cantilucca.”
“Suterbilt didn’t cheat him in the notary’s office, you mean,” Evie said. “He left that job for his friends at the roulette table.”
Her fingers clicked the (knitting)
needles with mechanical precision. Moden thought of the old women watching the guillotine
; and realized for the first time how much, and how rightly, they had hated the aristocrats being beheaded.
“Why can’t the PA be moved?” Daun asked in surprise.
“What?” said Georg. “Because it’s built into the fabric of the room, sir. You’d destroy the whole thing to try to move it.
The technician frowned. He didn’t argue, but it was obvious that he couldn’t understand the problem.
“There,” said Hathaway. “Watch this. It’s the holographic draft Suzette did before she created the ambiance itself.”
He dimmed the alcove lights. The policemen were watching from their table. Larrinaga reappeared from the rest room. He stood in the archway instead of reentering the saloon.
A psychic ambiance was just that, a recorded vision—a waking dream—capable of being transferred to recipients in the focal area. It couldn’t be copied, because it depended on inputs too subtle to survive the duplication process. (which sounds suspiciously like the author waving his hands: if it can be created, it can be recorded)
Though the PA was immaterial, the artist normally started with a visual or auditory sketch, just as medieval fresco
artists drew cartoons
on the wall before applying a coat of fresh plaster on which to fix the paint.
Suzette worked visually. The holographic sketch was of a verdant paradise, a mythic place in which fountains played and the geologic features seemed themselves alive though immobile.
No animals could be glimpsed, though the movement of plants hinted their presence. Above all, the shifting holographic image was suffused by light and a warmth for which the objects described could not themselves account.
The sketch began to repeat itself. The second time through, individual facets merged into a whole greater and quite different from its parts.
Daun frowned. He could almost grasp the unity to which the intersections of light beams were building in this holographic shorthand.
“Well, yes, but …” Suterbilt said. “Ah—the ambiance is at the end of the hall. It was the master bedroom.”
“I assumed that,” Vierziger sneered. “I’m glad you had sense enough to lock your guard slugs away from it. Otherwise there wouldn’t be anything left for Astra to threaten, would there?”
Niko sniffed. “Not much of a lock,” he said. It was an add-on, cemented to the panel and jamb. “I guess it’s good enough, though.”
The guards were restive and concerned. One of them had drunk enough to be obviously angry, but a pair of his fellows gripped his wrists. The group was armed with the assortment of shoulder weapons, pistols, and knives that had been typical street wear for the gangsters before Madame Yarnell arrived.
“I’ll open it for you,” Suterbilt said, stepping forward with an electronic key. Vierziger’s sneering superiority had reduced the factor to nervous acquiescence with every demand, spoken or not.
The room illuminated itself softly when the door opened. The fixtures in the portion of the house which the guards occupied had been dimmed over the months by a grimy miasma. Here the light, though subdued, had the purity of evening over a meadow.
“Nice installation work,” Niko said as he surveyed the bare room. “Some artists, they think the hardware is beneath them. Not her.”
“What?” Suterbilt said. “Are you joking? I had the furniture removed. Quite a nice bed. I’m using it myself.”
“No, no,” the sensor tech said. “The ambiance
, of course. Look at these heads
Daun walked into the center of the room. His focus on the psychic ambiance burned through the layers of good humor which made him easy to get along with. Niko Daun liked to be alone when he was working … and people who’d been around him while he was in work mode didn’t care to repeat the experience.
“There,” he said, pointing to a glint in the ceiling, a rubidium-plated bead the size of a man’s thumbnail
. “There, there, there, there”—the sidewalls—“and the main board here”—he pointed to the shimmering fifteen-centimeter disk in the center of the floor
— “where the bed would keep people from walking on it. Though I doubt that would have hurt the resolution, the way she’s got the projectors bedded. Just look at the way she faired them into the matrix!”
“Yes, it can’t be removed without destroying the whole thing
,” Suterbilt said. “And probably the house as well.”
Daun turned on him with the casual prickliness of a cat. “Don’t talk nonsense!
” the technician snapped.
“Specialist Daun,” Vierziger said smoothly, “we’re here to—”
“Look,” Daun said, the first time anybody who knew Johann Vierziger had interrupted him in a long while. “Since we’re here, I’m going to try the ambiance. This is probably the only time I’ll be around a genuine Suzette.”
Nothing in the sensor tech’s tone suggested he was willing to discuss the matter further. As he spoke, he took a flat, palm-sized device from his smaller toolkit and opened its keyboard.
Vierziger laid the tips of his left index and middle fingers on Daun’s wrist. “Master Suterbilt will switch on the ambiance for us, I’m sure,” Vierziger said.
“Yes, yes, but I’m in a hurry,” the factor grumbled. He took another key from his wallet. He flicked the on switch in the air without result. “Let’s see …”
“Stand over here,” Daun said, gesturing Suterbilt to a point near where the head of the bed would have been.
Suterbilt frowned but obeyed.
“I could have turned it on easier,” Daun grumbled under his breath to the other Frisian.
“You could remove the work so that it could be reconstructed?
” Vierziger murmured back.
“Huh?” said Daun. “Course I could. Don’t be an idiot. The adhesive’ll powder at twenty-eight point nine kilohertz. Take about three seconds each. And realigning them afterward, that’s no sw—”
The room shimmered out of the present and into a golden timelessness. Suterbilt had finally managed to trigger the ambiance with his low-powered key.
Vierziger was in an individual paradise. Foliage waved slowly in breezes the viewer could not feel, and the air was perfumed with life itself.
Movement was thought-swift and effortless. The trees mounted like towers holding the sky, far taller than was possible for normal vegetation which fed its branches by osmosis against the drag of gravity. The viewers’ minds could ascend the roughness of the bark, feel the single-celled microflora which gave texture and color to the trunks, or exist as the entire world—plant, animal, and the supporting soil beneath.
The ambiance was more real than the sidereal universe to those within its pattern of impinging stimuli. Through it all, informing it all, was the single warm presence of its creator.
“ …what remains of my wife is here …” Larrinaga had said. He was right, and he was perhaps right as well that Suzette was a saint.
That wasn’t a subject on which Vierziger felt competent to judge.
The glow dimmed, vanished. Physical reality reasserted itself and memory of the ambiance sucked itself down a wormhole into the unconscious of the men who had experienced it.
Suterbilt shook himself. “I ought to come here more often,” he said. “It relaxes me.”
Niko Daun looked at the projection heads, shaking his head in delight. “Amazing,” he said. “Absolutely amazing. I wish I could meet her.”
“I think,” said Vierziger, “that you just did.”
The effect was no more than a mental hologram; not life, not even something alive. But Vierziger could understand why Larrinaga believed his wife was still present in the ambiance. He supposed that was all you really had of any artist, and perhaps of any human being: the things they had done.