One of them, facing a wall-mounted shrine, made a speciality of devotional objects and displayed a more-than-ecumenical tolerance: from luminous St. Christophers through miniaturised Korans sealed into bracelet charms and guaranteed to contain the entire authentic text to traditional Yatakangi incense volcanoes. At this one Bronwen insisted on stopping for a thorough inspection, while Donald fretted and fumed because their halting allowed their followers to close in and surround them. Most of them were teenagers, with a sprinkling of older folk: some pushing bicycles, some carrying packages, interrupting their shopping or delaying an errand to gaze at the foreigners.
And yet … their presence wasn’t the only thing that made hm uncomfortable. He looked up, over their heads, and there was the volcano looming.
The impulse was ridiculous; nonetheless, he made an effort of will and gave in to it. He pushed his way to the window of the booth and bought one of the incense cones. The seller naturally assumed he wanted it for a souvenir, and tried to persuade him to take a Solukarta bust as well. Only slapping down a two-tala coin, the exact price of the cone, made him shrug and desist.
“What do you want that for?” Bronwen asked, putting back a pair of bright yellow sun-glasses which were far too big for her.
“Tell you later,” Donald said curtly, and shoved the Yatakangis aside so that he could get at the wall shrine.
As they realised what he was doing, they exchanged looks of surprise and their chatter died away. Embarrassed by their intent scrutiny but determined to go through with what he had started, he placed the cone on the shrine’s brass tray, crusted with the ashy traces of a thousand such. Having lit it, he made the proper ritual gesture—a bow and hand-movements akin to the Indian namasthi—and wafted a wisp of the smoke towards Bronwen.
The reaction of the natives was all Donald could have hoped for. Puzzled, but not wishing to fail in the proper procedure, members of the crowd moved towards the shrine, each placing his or her right hand in the smoke for a moment and muttering a short conventional prayer. More courageous than the rest, a boy of fifteen or so thanked Donald for buying the cone, and the remainder copied his example. After that, they dispersed with many backward glances.
“What was all that about?” Bronwen demanded.
“I couldn’t explain without giving you a course in Yatakangi sociology,” Donald grunted. “It merely proved that something I read about nine years ago hasn’t been changed by the current government.”
“Governments don’t change things,” she said. “Only time does that.” The statement had the glibness of a proverb. “I know the pig is a cleanlier animal than the sheep, but try telling that to a yelling mob … There’s a dress-store, on the next block. Perhaps I’ll get what I need there.”
* * *
With maximum patience, Donald sat through forty minutes of trial and error while she paraded before him in a succession of Yatakangi clothes to ask if this one or that one suited her better. He began to grow annoyed. Honesty compelled him to wonder if it was at her or at himself. For years he had enjoyed the comfortable, no-questions attitudes of the prosperous modern bachelor working the New York shiggy circuit, but something—contact with Gennice, maybe, or simply the disruptive intrusion of real life into his placid existence—had made him discontented. Ordinarily it would not have bothered him that Bronwen was clearly very vain. He had had an astonishing amount of pleasure from her slender brown body; moreover, someone suffering from leukaemia was to be pitied and allowances ought to be made.
Yet, when the choice was made and her gorgeous evening sari had been packaged in a plastic satchel and she herself in a shareng of peacock brilliance and she asked him whether it wasn’t time for lunch because she was hungry, he hesitated over his response.
He said finally, “You’re taking a lot for granted.”
“I am here on business, you know, I have other obligations besides helping you to find your way around Gongilung.”
She flushed. Her pale brown skin mottled with the darkening effect of the underlying blood.
“So am I,” she said after a pause. “Though mine, of course, is the kind of business where it’s pleasanter to pretend that one is merely amusing oneself. Do you not have to eat, though?”
He didn’t answer. After a moment, she put out her hand and took the bag containing her sari, which the saleswoman in the store had given to Donald automatically.
“In bed,” she said, “your American crudity has a certain exciting quality. Out of it, it’s merely bad manners. Thank you for giving me so much of your valuable time!”
She tucked the package under her arm and spun on her heel.
Donald watched her go, wondering just how much of a fool he had been.
With a little trouble, he found his way to the press club, a State-run organisation which was inevitably plastered with testimonials to the beneficence and unalloyed Asiatic thinking of the Solukarta régime, but which, he decided after wandering around its facilities, was going to prove very useful. As well as a restaurant, recreation-rooms and a bar—with a special section for Muslims offering only coffee, soft drinks and huqahs—there were phone and telefax rooms, a large library with a selection of a hundred or so prominent Asian journals, and a series of TV sets tuned to all the most important services covering the area, including the satellite relays in English, Russian, Chinese, Japanese, Arabic and the major European languages.
On a California time-base it was about time for his evening meal. Served by waiters as obsequious as if the colonial period had never ended, he ploughed his way through a huge dish of ristafl, the Yatakangi counterpart of paella but bearing a corrupted Dutch name cognate with the Indonesian rijstaafel. There were not many other people in the restaurant, but literally everyone else stared at him for the same reason that had drawn a crowd around him in the street: he and a mannish woman with Slavonic features, whom he assumed to be a Russian, were the only white people among Asiatics and Africans.
Having an hour to kill before his three o’clock appointment, he went to the library to digest his food. While he was patiently reading the day’s issues of the three major Yatakangi papers—here, the impact of TV’s instant news had not yet abolished the ancient influence of the printed press—he grew aware of someone looming over him.
He glanced up to discover a tall, dark-skinned woman of early middle age, her hair drawn tightly back on the crown of her head and lending her a severe expression. Guessing at once that this must be the Gongilung representative of Engrelay Satelserv, the one Delahanty had warned him to be tactful with, he rose to his feet.
“Donald Hogan,” the woman said, with the typical slight Afrikaner accent of the modern South African. “My name is Deirdre Kwa-Loop. I found your message at my office when I called back an hour ago, and guessed you’d be here since you weren’t at your hotel.”
She offered him a blunt-fingered hand which he shook as cordially as he could.
“I gathered from some of the things they said over the past few days that Engrelay wasn’t exactly overjoyed with what I’d been doing for them on the optimisation story,” she went on, dropping into a chair that faced him. “I’m sorry they took it quite as far as sending out a biology specialist, though. That’s what you are, correct?”
Donald, settling himself back in his own seat, gave a wary nod.
“Putting it simply, friend, you’ve been sent after a non-story. I’ve seen a few in my time, but this is the baas of them all.”