Vara Liso had not slept through the night in years, for fear of what she might hear while asleep or on the edge of sleep. It was at these times that she could feel her net spread out over her neighborhood like a cloud, and when it came back, reeling itself in as it were, stuck to it were the emotional colors and desires and worries of her fellow humans for kilometers around, like fish she could not help but consume.
When young, this unwanted talent for night-fishing had come only once or twice a month, and she had never been sure whether she was simply mad or really could learn what she seemed to learn, from parents and brother, from neighbors, from lovers, the few she had attracted, for there was something spooky about her manner and appearance even then.
Now, the net swept wide every single night, and she could no longer absorb what it brought back, nor could she discard the bits and pieces of other people’s lives. She felt like a strip of insect-gathering paper left to hang in a garbage dump.
It was when she had been approached by other mentalics-that was what they called themselves, though she had never given her talent a name-that she realized what she could do might be valuable to some. And it was when she spent one night in training at Streeling University, with other mentalics, that she caught a bit of dream that shook her to her core.
It was a dream of mechanical men. Not tiktoks, those funny little worker machines that had so worried the workers of Trantor and other worlds in their heyday, now gone, not tiktoks, but robots who looked like men, who could move unnoticed among men.
And there were even mechanical women, so this dream showed, capable of amazing feats, capable even of murder and of provoking love.
Vara Liso thought about this dream for weeks before requesting an audience with the Emperor. This half-mad request-how could she hope to have an audience with such a lofty personage!-had been answered, and she had met not with the Emperor, but with another, his self-anointed Voice of Imperial Conscience, Imperial Councilor Farad Sinter.
Sinter had received her with politeness, a little cool at first, but as she had expanded upon her evidence, he had begun to burrow down with his questions, digging underneath her confusion to find the gems of evidence she herself had missed. Farad Sinter had taken a dream fetched raw and alive from anonymous night and given it political authority, a logical weight and structure she herself could not have pieced together in a million years.
In her way, Vara Liso had come first to respect Sinter, then to admire him, and finally to love him. He was so like her in many ways, sensitive and nervous, tuned to frequencies of thought no others could see…or so he convinced her.
She wanted to become his lover, but Farad Sinter convinced her that such physical pursuits were beneath them. They had loftier intimacies to satisfy them.
So she went this morning to his complex of private rooms in the Palace, escorted as always by a frosty pair of female security guards, convinced she was going to deliver to him that which he most sought. Yet Vara Liso kept something to herself, something that did not fit somehow.
“Good morning, Vara!” Sinter greeted. He sat at a small breakfast table on wheels, still wearing an ornately quilted golden robe, and his small, piercing eyes crinkled with something like amused welcome. “What do you have for me today?”
“Nothing more, Farad.” She slumped into a couch in front of him, tired and discouraged. “It’s all so jumbled. I swear I get so cluttered!”
Sinter tsk-tsked and shook his finger at her. “Don’t disparage your particular talent, lovely Vara.”
Her eyes widened with hungry need, which Sinter pretended he had not seen. “Have you learned who started you on this? With his dream of mechanical men?”
“I don’t know whether it was a man or a woman, and no, I still don’t know. I remember faces of those in the dream, but recognize none of them. Have you caught her?”
Sinter shook his head. “Not yet. I haven’t given up, though. Any other clues, other candidates?”
Vara Liso blushed slightly and shook her head. Soon enough she would have to reveal how this had all begun, that she had once worked to become part of a group of low-level mentalics, much weaker than she, and weaker by far than the young woman she had sensed just two weeks before, whose mind had blazed in the night. But they had treated her well, and she had kept this back from Sinter for two reasons: because quite clearly these people were not robots, and because she had at least some sense of honor and loyalty. She tried to guide his vision this much, that he would not go off searching for every little petty mental persuader; she was sure he was wrong there, though of course she would not tell him so.
She suspected Sinter would not react well to being told he was wrong, even in some small detail.
Sinter had sent her to Dahl because of an unexplained hunch that there were more candidates there than elsewhere on Trantor, and that was where Vara Liso had tossed and turned one night in a dingy hotel room, gathering in her web, and bringing back the biggest catch ever.
She had hated Dahl, with its miasma of resentment and neglect and anger. She hoped never to return.
“I think you’ll have to return and help the Specials personally,” Farad Sinter said lightly. “They’re not having much luck.”
She stared at him, and tears welled up in her eyes.
“Oh, Vara, so sensitive! It’s not as bad as all that. We need you there, to help us find this particular needle in the straw. If she’s as talented as you say, well…”
“I will go if you wish me to,” she murmured. “I had hoped you would have enough to go on.”
“Well, we don’t. I don’t. I doubt I’ll be given much more time to come up with hard evidence.”
She forced herself to brighten, and asked the first question that came into her head. “What will these robots do if they know we know?”
Sinter’s face stiffened. “That is our greatest danger,” he said darkly. He lowered his gaze for a few seconds. “Sometimes I think they will replace us with replicas of ourselves, and we will go on doing everything we have ever done, just as we used to do it. But without spirit, nothing inside.” He dug for the ancient word that sounded so mysterious and alien when spoken. “No soul.”
“I don’t understand what that means,” Vara said.
Sinter shook his head briskly. “Nor do I, but it would be terrible to lose it!”
For a moment, they enjoyed this grisly prospect together, Savoring the sense of shared and secret danger.