FROM CHAPTER NINETEEN
Trees began appearing after a short distance, closing together quickly and consolidating into the band known as Forest, which extended the full width of Ringvale from the crest of one bounding ridge to the other. Here, Korshak veered rightward and began climbing; or at least, he followed an angled line to ascend what had been a rising valley side when seen from the floor. But because of the localized vertical effect, he experienced the peculiar sensation of the ground beneath his feet sloping only mildly upward, while the vista of Ringvale on his left opened out and rose higher to become an impossibly concave sweep of landscape arching overhead like an immense wave of green frozen at the moment of being about to break. Many people--especially those whose perceptual norms had been formed on Earth-- confessed that they had never been able to get used to this. Maybe for this reason, and also because the growths of vegetation became coarser and denser, and the trails harder and sparser, the numbers of people to be seen dwindled rapidly until Korshak was able to enjoy for a brief while the illusion of actually picking his way through a real wilderness forest, far from human habitation. It brought back fond but at the same time, in some ways, sad memories of land that stretched endlessly from horizon to horizon, day after day. He sometimes wondered if he would make the same decision again, with the better understanding he how had of the "magic" that had created Aurora. But it was not to be changed now, and he thrust the thought from his mind. The high extremes of Forest were one of Mirsto's favorite places too. Vaydien had promised to bring him out to Plantation for a visit if Korshak found that he needed to stay on for a while.
Guided by the sketch that Dari had given him, he came to what had to be Highwood on the far side of Forest, right at the ridge crest. From here, the West Ridge forming the opposite side of Ringvale had rotated to a position almost directly overhead, while beyond the nearer ridge line that Korshak had almost reached, a blue expanse of what would be seen from below as sky curved away and upward, giving the impression from where he stood of a crazily tilted ocean rising from a shore hidden by the final line of trees.
By this time the trail had shrunk to a path barely wide enough for one person. From what Korshak could see of the rooftops, Melvig Bahoba's place consisted of a typically narrow-plan two-level house with outbuildings and an attached shed of some kind at the rear. Behind that was an area which from the absence of treetops seemed to be cleared. The trail approached the house from the side, and a short distance ahead, came out onto a wider track from the front, pointing straight downward toward the valley floor--or from Korshak's distorted perspective, "upward." The breeze generated by air recirculators located behind the ridge line carried a hint of horse manure. Might as well get some practical return from the animal types that were being preserved, Korshak supposed.
After studying the layout for a few minutes, Korshak left the trail, having decided to circle around to learn what more he could before approaching the house directly. He might even spot Tek if Tek was there, which would at once make the whole business of having to ask questions of Bahoba unnecessary. But maybe because Korshak had fallen out of practice at judging such things over the years, the going was heavier than he had expected. Trees and undergrowth closed together into a thicket that quickly had him struggling to find a way through, in the process making all kinds of noise that was the last thing he needed. He had just stopped and given up with the intention of returning to the trail, when an irascible voice called out from somewhere nearby.
"Tek, is that you? What in the name of whatever's holy are you doin' out 'ere? I've been looking all over-- Oh." A man who must have been at least in his sixties had appeared from among the trunks and brush a few yards away. He had a full, bushy beard, grizzled but still with traces of coppery hue, and was wearing a floppy-brimmed hat with a leather vest, work pants, and calf-length boots. He peered at Korshak as if unsure for a moment if he might be seeing things. "Who the Earth are you?"
Well, at least that had saved a lot of care and questions, Korshak reflected. He grinned awkwardly. "Is it Melvig Bahoba?"
"The name's Korshak. I was told by Dari in Jesson that you might have a slot for some short-term help here." Korshak had seen no reason to complicate anything further by using an alias. He was used to people recognizing his name, but if that was so of Bahoba, he didn't show it.
"What kind of work d'ye think you can do if ye can't even find the front door?"
"I thought I saw a short cut through the trees, but it wasn't. Maybe I'd have been better coming up the direct way." A brown and black dog had materialized alongside Bahoba, having made no noise although it must have long known that Korshak was there.
"Hm. Well, let's talk about it inside. You'll be better off this way than trying to go back, in any case." Bahoba turned and began leading back the way he had come with the dog falling in at his heels, positioning itself between the stranger and its master. The brush thinned as they approached the rear of the house. They emerged into a yard stacked with various cuts of timber, and crossed it to a work area covered by the roof that Korshak had seen from the trail. A wall of the house bounded the far side of it. They entered via a door into a small scullery and storage room that led through to the kitchen.
More than anything, it suggested an interior of the cottages that Korshak had known in his years of traveling among countries like Arigane. A bare wooden table cluttered with an unwashed plate and bowl, and some items of food yet to be put away took up the center of the room, augmented by a couple of upright chairs, an open-fronted dresser with shelves of dishware and knick-knacks, several cupboards, one of which looked like a pantry, and a sturdy cooking range. A door to one side opened through to the rest of the house. In the center of the far wall behind it was a hearth with an open fire--the first that Korshak had seen since leaving Earth. He had never heard of such a thing anywhere across Constellation. Yet there had been no chimney visible outside. If there were, he would surely have noticed it.
Bahoba must have followed his surprised gaze. "Some contraption up above there takes care of the smoke," he supplied. "If it were up to me, I'd let it blow free. That's nature's way of cycling nutrients back into the soil. Instead, they go to all kinds of palaver doing it with chemicals an' such. Do they think anything would 'ave grown back on Earth if the rain were sterile?" He closed the door that they had come through and hung his hat on a hook behind it, alongside a coat and a device with a long handle and straps that looked like a tool of some kind. The brown and black dog remained outside. "Anyroad, it's 'andy enough for getting rid of the trash." So saying, he scraped the leftovers from the plate into a bowl on a side table and deposited the plate in the metal sink below the window. "'Ave y' eaten yet, yerself? There's fresh stew in the pot, still warm."
At Bahoba's waved invitation, Korshak sat down on one of the chairs at the table. Bahoba took a pipe from a jug on the mantle above the hearth, along with a tin that was lying alongside it, and pulled up a worn, upholstered fireside chair for himself. "Thanks, but I just ate with some friends down just this side of Huan-ko," Korshak said.
"Oh. Anyone I know?"
"Helmut Goben and his wife Sonja. I knew them when they lived on Aurora."
"Yes, I know of 'em. She teaches at the school down below. He's into bugs and bacteria and whatnot. Their little girl comes up 'ere sometimes with 'er friends. You know--exploring around, the way kids do."
"Aye, that's 'er. There's more mischief in that one than looks would tell." Bahoba finished packing the bowl of his pipe, applied a flame from a spill the he lit from the fire, and sat back to regard Korshak as he puffed it into life. "So, ye're thinkin' ye might want to come an' 'elp out 'ere, eh?"
"Just looking around at this point," Korshak replied. "Dari gave me a list of possibilities."
"D'ye know much about trees and timber?"
"A bit about woods and woodcraft, anyway. I could turn a pretty good hand to carpentry at one time--in the days back on Earth."
"Is that right? And what else did ye do?"
"I suppose you could say I was a kind of traveling entertainer."
Bahoba nodded. "Aye, I thought mebbe so. It's in the eyes. They've got their own kind o' life with folk like that, and they miss nothing."
"You don't seem to miss much yourself," Korshak returned.
"Ah, well . . . I 'ave me moments, I suppose, like everyone else." Bahoba puffed some more."It's a case of keepin' the mind exercised and active, in't it? Learnin' to trust yer own opinions. If ye're just goin' to soak up what comes from outside, ye might as well be a sponge." He sank back and contemplated the kitchen contentedly through rising wreaths of smoke, then after a pause remarked distantly, "I still need to fix the 'andle on that drawer."
The first question that had brought Korshak here was already answered. He pondered for a few seconds on the best way of using this knowledge to press things further, and decided, with somebody like Bahoba, on the direct approach. At the same time, he couldn't come straight out and say he was here looking for Tek, since that would implicate Dari, who had trusted in his discretion.
"That name you were calling, that you thought was me when I was thrashing about out there," he said. "Tek."
Bahoba's eyes shifted instantly, but his expression remained neutral. "Yes?"
"I work with a scientist on Aurora who does research into machine intelligence and builds robots," Korshak said. "One them was called Tek. It's not a name you hear every day. It couldn't be the same one, could it?"
"Would you expect to find 'is robots working in places like this?" Bahoba asked.
"You never know. One of the big problems they still haven't really solved is giving them the knowledge of everyday life that people start absorbing from the moment they're born. So they get sent to all kinds of places to widen their experiences." Korshak gestured vaguely, indicating the surroundings outside. "Frankly, it wouldn't surprise me. I was just curious."
Bahoba emitted a single reflective puff from his pipe and nodded. "Yep. 'E's the one. Been 'ere about two weeks or so, I'd reckon. Doesn't do a bad job either. Follows just what ye tell 'im, which is more than I can say about some people that I've known. Mind you, that can 'ave its drawbacks too, on occasion. You learn to be real careful about exactly what you do tell 'im. Gets some strange meanings into his 'ead sometimes, does Tek. Like, if I was to ask you to put the fire out, you'd know what I meant, wouldn't yer? But ask 'im the same thing, and he'd likely chuck it through t' window, heeh-heeh-heeh!" Bahoba cackled wheezily.
"So how did it get here?" Korshak asked.
"Come knockin' on t' door, askin' fer a job, same as you did--except at least 'e were able to find it. 'T were Dari who sent 'im up as well. She probably didn't know what 'e was, though. All wrapped up in a big cloak, with an 'at, an' a beard the size of an 'orse's tail--like some kind of villain from those horror movies that the kids like."
"Did it say why? Where it was from? What is was doing here?"
"Didn't figure it was any o' my business. Two 'ands is two 'ands. And to tell you the truth, I were a bit intrigued meself." Bahoba watched and waited a while. "Will you 'ave something to drink, anyroad?" he asked at last. "There's good coffee on the stove. Grown right 'ere, just down a little ways."
"Sure . . . thanks," Korshak replied, grateful for the break while he digested the information. Bahoba got up, took two mugs down from the dresser, and turned to fill them from a pot standing on the range.
"I just take mine black with nothin', the way the Maker intended," he said over his shoulder. 'Ow does yours go?"
"What? . . . Oh, the same will be fine."
Bahoba turned back, handed one of the mugs across, and sat down again with his own. He treated Korshak to a long, thoughtful stare while he tasted it. "That weren't no coincidence, you working with the scientist who built Tek," he said. "You came 'ere lookin' fer 'im, didn't yer? That's why ye were prowlin' around at back an' gettin' all tangled up out there."
Korshak sighed and nodded. "Yes. Tek went missing on a trip from Aurora, and nobody knows why. They asked me to try and find it."
Bahoba picked up his pipe again and considered the statement. "From the way 'e were all dressed up, I'd say 'e didn't want to be found. Anyroad, what right does anybody 'ave to say 'e can't go where 'e wants, the same as you and I can? I mean, it's not as if 'e were the same kind o' thing as a gearbox or an 'arvesting machine over in Evergreen, is it?"
AI's rights was a subject that Masumichi talked about frequently, and as far as Korshak was aware there seemed to be as many opinions as specialists. It wasn't something that he especially wanted to get hung up on now. He replied, "Some people argue that they're like children, and you can't let them just go wandering all over the place. It's not really a side that I get involved in. I was just trying to do a favor for a friend." And then, to change the subject, "Do you have any idea what it's up to?"
"Tek's future plans, you mean?"
"Well, I'm not sure. 'E asks a lot o' questions about funny things . . . you know, them strange groups they've got goin' all over Etanne, and the daft things they believe."
"The cults and churches."
"Aye. Only Tek takes it all seriously. I don't mind so much when it's things like thinking that dead people or aliens out there somewhere can talk to your inside yer 'ead. That's their lives and their business as far as I'm concerned. But it's the ones who make other people's lives their business that I worry about. You know what I mean? The kind who think the world would be a better place if more people were like them, an' they're so sure of themselves that they want their own likes and dislikes to be forced on everyone else. That's what they call fanatics, in't it?"
Bahoba took his pipe from his mouth for a moment and gestured with it. "If some of 'em 'ad their way, I wouldn't be allowed to do this. Fer me own good, mind you. Bad fer me 'ealth, they say. Shortens yer life. So what if it is? It's my 'ealth and my life, in't it? I'd rather live a shorter life that's me own than one where other people 'ave more say over it than me. And there's others with ideas about drugs and medical stuff that they think everyone should be made to take--'fer their own good'. Then you've got the scares going around about 'ow there's goin' to be too many people, an' everythin's goin' to run out, an' we 'ave to be told 'ow much we can use, an' what way to live. I mean, where would it stop if people like that ever got in charge of things?"
"You seem to know quite a bit about them, Mr. Bahoba," Korshak remarked.
"Aye, well, we get a lot of 'em coming though 'ere, on Plantation. Some kind of ritual they go through, to do with getting free from the influences of artificial places like Aurora and the rest before their minds can open to whatever great wisdom it is they think they're goin' to find. I think it's more a case of gettin' 'em away from anyone who might talk some sense into their 'eads." Bahoba sucked at his pipe reflectively. "There's some crowd over on Etanne that calls 'emselves the Dollarians. Them's the ones that Tek asks the most about. They're to do with some kind of mad god that was worshipped all over the old world before it blew itself up. From some o' the things I've 'eard, that 'ad a lot to do with why it 'appened."
"I've heard of them, but I don't know much about them," Korshak said.
"Me neither. I've got better things to do than worry meself about them kind o' carryin's on." Bahoba took his pipe from his mouth and gestured with the stem. "But if ye go about 'alf a mile north from 'ere along the ridge, ye'll come to an animal reserve with a fence around it, because there's some there that can be dangerous. The warden's name there is Jor-Ling. 'E's got a feller workin' there who'd be able to tell you more about the Dollarians than I can. My understandin' is that 'e's meanin' ter join 'em before very much longer."
"Do you think that's what Tek's doing too?" Korshak asked.
"Well, I wouldn't really know. I've never 'eard of a robot doin' anythin' like that before. Ye'd be better off askin' Tek."
Which they didn't appear any closer to being able to do. Korshak braced a hand on his knee, looked behind him first to one side, then the other, then turned back. "I'd like to. So where is it?"
Bahoba frowned and rubbed the back of his neck. "Ee, it's right funny, that. 'E were 'ere, workin' away one, maybe a couple o' hour ago. Then I realized it 'ad all gone quiet out there, and when I went out, there were no sign of 'im. I 'aven't seen 'im since. The only thing I can think of is, 'e might be up in 'is room."
"The robot has a room?"
"I know, it sounds funny, don't it? But I just let 'im 'ave the same one that all the others who come to 'elp 'ere use. Didn't seem right, somehow, not to. Better than 'avin 'im 'anging around down 'ere all the time, too. Anyroad, come on. We'd better go up and 'ave a look."
Bahoba set his mug down on the table and got up to lead the way through to the house. "That's a fine dog you have," Korshak said as he followed into a small hallway at the foot of a flight of stairs. "Interesting that he didn't make any noise when I was out there."
Bahoba began climbing with slow, heavy steps. "Well, 'e likes to see what people are up to before 'e lets 'em know 'e's there. No good yappin' an' makin' a fuss an' scarin' 'em off, is there? That way yer never find out what's goin' on. I've known a few people who could learn from that. I think every animal's there for a reason. They've all got something to teach, if we'd only take the time to get to know 'em. . . . Whew. When I was a young lad, runnin' up 't stairs was as easy as runnin' down. These days it's as 'ard to go down as it is to go up."
They had reached a landing with a hall stand and a couple of doors, and a short passage leading away to more doors. Bahoba stopped outside one, rapped on it a couple of times, and waited. There was no response. He rapped again, louder. "Are you in there, Tek? Ye've someone 'ere who wants to talk to yer." No answer. Bahoba and Korshak exchanged questioning looks, Then Bahoba shrugged, turned back to the door, and pushed it open.
Inside was a small room with--incongruously, considering its present occupant--a bed, an upright chair and table by a window looking down over the wider track at the front of the house, an easy chair, a freestanding closet, and a few other basic furnishings. The walls were of board painted cream, and bare except for some pictures, a mirror, and a set of shelves in an alcove. There was no sign of Tek.
Bahoba stood in the middle of the room, looking around for several seconds. Then he pushed the door closed to reveal some hanging hooks on the back of it, which were empty. Frowning, he moved to the closet and opened it to inspect inside.
"It's gone--all 'is stuff," he announced. "That cloak that 'e wore when 'e come 'ere, 'is 'at and the big coat--all of it."
"You mean Tek doesn't wear any of it around here?" Korshak said, surprised. The thought hadn't crosses his mind. "It goes around openly as a robot?"
"There's nobody to mind up 'ere. Wouldn't be able to work in that lot, anyroad. See fer yourself."
Korshak moved forward and peered inside. The closet was empty apart from some pillows, linens, and other oddments that obviously belonged to the house. He looked at Bahoba questioningly.
"I suppose there's a place for you 'ere if you decide you want it," Bahoba said. "But I don't think that's what ye really came for, is it? It looks as if Tek's gone, Mr. Korshak. "And if you want my opinion, don't ask me 'ow, but I'd say 'e knew you were comin'."