Inside the globe a brutal landscape of a barren world was emerging. An appallingly desolate expanse of red-orange terrain swept toward distant gray mountains. It was clear that the mountains offered no hope of relief from the barren plains, no promise of vegetation or water, only more endless desolation. The land looked as if it suffered from far too much heat, yet there was a strangely chilled feeling to the scene. Harsh, dry, endless, the landscape provoked no pleasure. Yet Cidra found it harder and harder to look away from it.
“Is it a QED scene?” she asked quietly after a long time.
Severance didn’t look up. “Yeah.”
“It looks different in your painting than it does in the holo tapes I’ve seen,” she ventured, trying to understand herself why that should be so. On the surface Severance’s painting looked to be a highly accurate representation of a landscape. But she had seen plenty of shots of QED’s empty lands and unforested mountains. None of them had made her uneasy the way this light-painting did.
“This is the way it looks to me.”
Cidra slipped out of her chair and edged closer. “Have you spent a lot of time there?”
“No more than I can help.” Severance straightened, staring down into his creation. He studied it for a moment, and then his hand moved briefly on the control panel. The globe shimmered and emptied.
“You didn’t save it!” Involuntarily Cidra reached out to catch his fingers, but the damage was done. The painting had disappeared but not into the memory bank of the light-painting globe. It could never be recalled now. She felt his scarred hand under her palm and hastily withdrew her own hand.
“I told you, I don’t save much of my work. It’s just a hobby.” Severance shut down the globe and stood up to replace the painting machine in a storage bin.
“It’s more than a hobby. You have real talent, Severance. I’ve never seen anything quite like that.”
He braced himself with one hand against the bin he had just closed and eyed her steadily. “You like art?”
“Well, doesn’t everyone?’
He nodded thoughtfully, appearing to come to a decision. “I’ll show you some real art.” He paced back to his bunk and went down on one knee to reach into the storage bin underneath.
Cidra watched with interest as he withdrew the metal container she had spotted her first evening on board. A part of her sensed that she was about to see something very personal, something very important to Severance. In spite of her earlier curiosity about the contents of the box, she was suddenly a little uncertain. She moved a hand instinctively, on the verge of telling Severance that she didn’t need to see what was in the container. But it was too late. He had already opened it. Cidra went toward him slowly, half afraid. Then she caught a glimpse and relaxed with a pleased smile, feeling her mood lighten instantly. Not an uncommon occurrence for viewers of the sort of objects housed in the box. The small carvings often had that effect.
“Laughing Gods! They’re wonderful, aren’t they? Don’t tell me you collect them, Teague Severance. Not after all those disdainful comments you made about leftover Ghost junk.”
She grinned at him and reached down to pick up one of the exquisitely carved stones.
The object was about the size of her hand and seemed to smile up at her as it lay in her palm, inviting her to smile back. The strangely compelling expression etched into the stone was eons old. No one had yet succeeded in dating the Laughing Gods with any real accuracy. The stone from which they were made was as old as Lovelady and Renaissance. For that matter, no one knew if the creatures were even supposed to represent Ghost gods. Some theories held that the carving might represent individual Ghosts themselves. If that was the case, they had been a very beautiful people, even though they appeared intriguingly alien to human eyes.
Cidra turned the carving over in her hand, admiring the wide, slanting eyes, the vaguely feline profile with its delicate but obviously sensitive nose, lips, and ears. It was difficult to tell what the body was like, because in all the carvings she had seen the Gods wore intricately designed clothing that seemed to float around a slender frame.
It was the smile that bridged the gap between human and alien. The lingering, utterly charming, endearing smile gleamed in the eyes and shaped the full-lipped mouths. There was a subtle, warm laughter in that expression, and on some gut level humans knew that any species that had laughed like that had to be a species with whom communication would have been possible. If the Ghosts had survived and if these carvings were, indeed, representative of them, there could have been contact and perhaps understanding.
“So you don’t consider all Ghost finds as garbage, hmm, Severance?” Cidra laughed, handing back the carving she held. “When did you start this collection?”
His expression was unreadable as he stayed on one knee beside the container. “I didn’t start it. My brother did. I hung on to it after he died. Once in a while, when I find a good addition, I pick it up.”
“I see.” She sensed that she had trespassed again, but this time she didn’t feel embarrassed or guilty. Severance had more or less invited the conversation. Cidra also sensed a new ambivalence in him, as if a part of him wanted to go on talking about his brother, but another, more dominant, part forbade such openness. She was trying to pick her way through the uncertain situation, wondering if she should ask about his brother, when Severance closed the container without any warning. Cidra blurted out her question.
“When did your brother die?”
“Two years ago.”
Intuition made Cidra ask, “On QED?”
Severance shot her a hard look as he rose to his feet. “How did you know?”
She bit her lip. “Something about the light-painting led you to mention the Laughing Gods. Opening the container made you mention your brother.”
“Is that a fact? Real Harmonic intuition at work, I imagine.”
Cidra flushed, but her eyes were steady. “I’m sorry, Severance.”
“Don’t be. Did your brilliant Harmonic intuition tell you anything else? Like how my brother died?”
“No, of course not. Please, Severance. I meant no rudeness.” She bowed her head very formally. “I’m sorry for your distress. I won’t mention the subject again.”
“Forget it. My temper is on a short leash these days.”
Cidra blinked. “I’ve noticed. Perhaps you would like another game of Free Market after dinner?”