Book: Don't Bite the Sun
My friend Hergal had killed himself again. This was the fortieth time he had crashed his bird-plane on to the Zeefahr Monument and had to have a new body made. And when I went to visit him at Limbo, I was wandering around for ages before the robot found him for me. He was dark this time, about a foot taller, with very long hair and a mustache, all glittery gold fibers, and these silly wings growing out of his shoulders and ankles.
“Attlevey, Hergal,” I said.
“Attlevey,” said Hergal, and flapped his wings about. “Groshing, aren’t they? No strength, of course, just for show. Have to get another new bird-plane if I fancy a flight.”
“I thought,” I remarked, popping a button for a floating chair, even though mannerless old Hergal hadn’t bothered, “that the Committee might have canceled your license to fly.”
“Ha ha!” gaily chortled Hergal. “Wouldn’t dare.”
“I do wish, though, you’d pick somewhere else to crash down on top of. It gets rather monotonous, always the boring old Zeefahr. I mean, how about trying the Robotics Museum? You might even manage to crack the roof, and that must be an achievement.”
Hergal tugged his mustache.
“Hmm,” Hergal said.
“Anyway,” I said, giving my messenger bee a good kick—it’s always dozing off and falling on me in the street, usually when hordes of people are about—“I’ve brought you some ecstasy pills and a sixth-dimensional cube to contemplate.”
“Oh, good,” said Hergal. I could see his mind (?) was on higher things than ecstasy and contemplation. I remembered the nasty time Hergal and I got married for mid-vrek, down at the Prism Playgrounds, and then lost each other, and I ended up stealing lots of glass dresses out of confusion, and having my dreams analyzed, and buying a desert animal from Four BOO that was fierce and furry, and snored all the way home in the bubble and then bit me at the last moment, when I’d actually decided I could stand it being fierce and furry, and snoring.
Hergal, of course, just rented a bird-plane and crashed on top of the Zeefahr Monument. That was number nine. What I was trying to say was that Hergal’s mind had been on higher things then, or so he said.
“Listen, Hergal,” I stated, “I’m afraid I’ve put in an order to have you officially cut out of my circle of friends. It’s not that I don’t like you. I mean, you’re really lovely, particularly with your—er—wings, but I’m just tired of everyone coming up and saying to me: ‘Is it true you know that floop Hergal? Do tell!’ ”
“I see,” said Hergal. He didn’t even have the politeness to cry. Everyone in the Jang always cries when they’re officially cut out of circles.
“Oh well, there’s nothing more to be said then, Hergal.” I got down from the chair and bounced on the crystallize-rubber floor. My bee fell on my head.
“Oh farathoom!” I snapped.
Hergal looked a bit surprised, but he didn’t bat a gold fiber eyelash until I strode to the doorway.
“Er,” he ventured then.
“What did you say?”
“Er,” Hergal admitted. “Perhaps you’d tell me what circle you’re cutting me out of.”
“Mine, you thalldrap!” I yelled.
“But…who are you exactly?”
Well, I mean, I’d had it flashed all over the city that my new body was pale and slim, with knee-length silver hair and antennae. He just didn’t try.
Outside, my bee fell on me again, right in front of the Robotics Museum and a crowd of visitors from Four BOO.
I was so depressed I went and drowned myself, for the tenth time, in my bubble. Perhaps I could even get a duplicate of Hergal’s body and really drive him zaradann.
Of course, when I woke up in the Limbo Tub I’d changed my mind. Some quasi-robot medicine man was peering in at me.
“Look here, young woman—I see that is what you predominantly are—this has got to be stopped. This is the second time you’ve been back here in ten units.”
“Mmm,” I swam around a bit and smiled at him with my emotional response wires.
The Q-R went away, and someone came and asked me what I wanted to come out as, and by then, you see, I’d anti-Hergaled myself. How drumdik it would be if people actually thought I was Hergall! What with that, and that floopy bee swooning in my hair…I showed them the new me. As usual it was depressingly lithe and glamorous. Hatta, and lots of other people I know, nearly always makes a point of having a fat body once in a while, or spots or something. Anyhow, this me was willow-waisted, with an exotic bust and long, long scarlet hair. I got into it, and it felt so odd I had to go somewhere quiet and have an ecstasy pill, and forget about it for a while.
Hatta found me not long after.
“Ooma Hatta,” I purred. Everyone always looks nice when you’re in ecstasy, even Hatta, who was being fat and spotty just now, with three eyes.
“Attlevey, ooma. Groshing again, I see. Don’t you ever get a mite ill with it?”
“No,” I said.
“I’ll take you for a meal. It must be coming up to some eating time or other, isn’t it?”
“Well, I’m hungry. I drowned just after meal three, and this new body hadn’t had a thing.”
We went out, Hatta holding me up—I was extremely ecstatic—and rolled on to the float-bridge. My awful, beastly bee came rushing out after us. I just couldn’t get rid of the thing. It fell on Hatta this time.
“Onk!” said Hatta, typically and nauseatingly mild about what happens to him. I threw the bee off the bridge, but it came back again. “Let’s go to the Fire-Pit.”
The Fire-Pit, they say, is absolutely the place to go if you’re feeling low. I almost cheered up, but, in the end, just before we got there, my Neurotic Need asserted itself and I had to get off the bridge and go steal something. It was alive, this thing, with long white fur and big orange eyes. Its whiskers got tangled up in my hair, and I gave it to my bee to hold a second or so before I got hysterical.
“Here we are,” Hatta said.
We jumped off the bridge, and fell about twenty feet until the electricity wave-net of the Fire-Pit neatly caught us. Hatta looked apologetic. In the Fire-Pit everything burns with scarlet fire. The tables float in flames, non-hot of course, and fireballs bounce gently in the plates. I matched.
“I forgot,” Hatta said, “about your hair.”
I’d calmed down now anyway, but he shoved another ecstasy pill into my mouth, just in case, and then had to carry me to a couch.
“What will you have, dear?” Hatta asked kindly.
I winced at his un-Jang vocabulary, hoping no one had overheard.
We had a large nut steak on fire, with all sorts of burning fruit stuck out of it on burning skewers. Hatta carved with the molecule needle knife and did it all wrong, but we got something to eat eventually. Ecstasy was wearing off by then.
“I hear,” Hatta mumbled through steak, “that you’ve had Hergal officially cut out.”
“Yes,” I said.
Hatta went on eating for a while. Our bottle of fire-and-ice arrived and he sniffed it and tasted it and stared up at the fiery ceiling.
“Eight-first Rorl, I shouldn’t wonder,” Hatta said. I fingered a skewer, but Hatta only murmured: “Er, I really admit you’re looking groshing.”
“Thank you. I can’t say the same for you, ooma.”
“The thing is,” Hatta said nervously, “I haven’t had love for two units now, and I wondered if perhaps we could get married for the afternoon.”
“Not with you looking like that we couldn’t,” I said. Well, I mean. Outraged pimples and a couple of tons descending on you with three yellow pupil-less eyes to watch the effect.
“Look,” Hatta encouraged me, “can’t you see that it’s an Essential Experience to have love with a body you’re not really attracted to?”
“Why?” No, I wasn’t going to be bamboozled with Jang Essential Experience jargon, particularly from reactionary old Hatta.
“Well…” began Hatta.
We were interrupted. Kley and Danor had arrived with a pet animal that immediately started a fight with my white, stolen thing, and therefore with my bee. In the confusion they drew up floating fire couches and helped themselves to our nut steak. They were both male this time, with long iridescent hair, and Danor had those silly wings like Hergal’s and kept knocking things off the table with them.
They vaguely greeted me and began chatting with Hatta.
I stood up, got my white furry animal under one arm, and drained my third goblet of fire-and-ice.
“I must flit, oomas,” I said gaily.
“Oh, but—” Hatta began.
“Thank you for a wonderful fourth meal, Hatta,” I gushed. “I’ll see you next body.”
Outside it was one of those depressing blue-crystal-golden-drops-of-sunlight afternoons. The weather is always perfect at Four BEE, but now and then the Jang manage to sabotage something, and we get a groshing, howling sandstorm come sweeping in past the barrier beams to cheer us all up. I’ll never forget the time Danor and I, both female then, I might add, disabled the robot controller at Lookout 9A and let in a down-pour of volcanic ash from one of the big black mountains outside, floods of it for units and units—everything went zaradann. They had to deliver food by bird-plane, and the roads were full of robots trying to dig us all out. We even achieved an earthquake once. Nothing fell down, of course, though we all hoped the Robotics Museum would. Hergal and I were sitting in a big crystal tower at the time, unsuccessfully having love telepathically, and it shook like jelly, which was more than we were doing.
I went to a call-post and had my new body flashed out, so my friends (?) would recognize me. I put a scanner on the Zeefahr and waited for ages to see if Hergal would hurtle out of the sky on to it, but he didn’t. So I signaled Thinta.
“Attlevey,” I said when her three-dimensional female image appeared in front of me. She looked nice, pleasantly plump, with big green eyes and sort of furry hair. She hadn’t changed for ages. Stability at last.
“Oh attlevey, ooma, I was just making a water dress.”
She held it up, greenly opalescent and gently dripping.
“Thinta,” I said, “I’ve just been drowned and come back like this, and I’m absolutely droad.”
“Oh, I didn’t know it was you,” Thinta said. She obviously hadn’t seen the flash yet. “Well, ooma, why don’t you go to one of the Dream Rooms? Wait a split and I’ll be with you.” She vanished.
Thinta liked the Dream Rooms, though it was reckoned to be pretty anti-Jang really. You always met lots of Older People with “set ideas” who told you you shouldn’t be there, but out having love and ecstasy or sex changes or Sense Distortion, like all young people are usually rigidly expected to have. I went into Jade Tower to steal some jewelery while I waited for her to come gamboling down in her miniature safe pink bird-plane.
Stealing is an absolute art, and one of my few simple pleasures.
There’s a big dragon in Jade Tower, bred on some farm near Four BAA. It rattles its jade-plated scales at you, and green fire comes out of its mouth and gives you a really invigorating, pine-scented, all-over shower. I’ve always liked the dragon. It stirs me in an odd romantic way. I once sat in its nice warm mouth for ages and tried to get Kley to rescue me, but he just took an ecstasy pill and rudely collapsed. I think I’d embarrassed him.
“Attlevey, dragon,” I said.
I got into its right ear for a while—it looks like a shell inside—and thought about what I might like to steal, while the dragon roared and sprayed away at everybody.
My bee, clutching my white, furry, stolen pet, followed me as I wandered innocently through Jade Tower. I waited subconsciously for both of them to fall on my head. Other people’s bees zoomed by, all efficiency and programmed determination to serve. I felt conspicuous—transparent clothing, chains of gold anemones, toe rings, fingernails as long as my fingers—utterly Jang. And honestly, I never liked wearing it all that much. You feel so naked if you forget to pop a tinselly flower in your navel, and finger-long nails are dangerous.
All the Older People nodded approvingly at me. I was just what a young person should be, tinkling, almost nude, my one-color eyes still dark from ecstasy, and my Jang vocabulary working like a catalyst in everything I said.
I sidled up to a large revolving tray of scent bomb earrings, smoking fragrance, light winking and glittering on their tortured shapes. I stretched out my hand. A floating mirror swam down to me and showed me my new face. I selected a pair of solid-phosphorous things, magnetized them to my ears, and watched them uncoil and wend lovingly down my neck, over my shoulders, and sigh to rest on my abdomen.
“Madam looks charming!” sang angelic voices in the domed, see-through roof.
I knew I’d come at the wrong time. Jang girls usually trail in in the mornings when the whole place throbs to Jang upper-ear music, which you can’t actually hear consciously but which sends you into euphoria in seconds. Then they can sell you practically anything, with machines screaming: “Simply groshing!” and “Ooma, how derisann!” all around you.
Then, all at once, I felt light-headed, happy, and abandoned. The older ladies looked bewildered and clapped in their portable audio-plugs. Upper-Ear had been turned on full blast. Zaradann with joy, I cursed Jade Tower’s observation robots. I removed my spoils, put my hand down among a pile of junk, and let them go. I brushed back my hair and magnetized about six pairs of coiled, random earrings which I had just picked up, and which were probably all odd, in the tangle at the back of my neck. But it was a reflex. I was too ecstatic to get any sort of satisfaction out of it, really.
I went past this woman on the way out. She was busy paying, working up into a real frenzy, and I noticed she’d left her audio-plugs out, so the Upper-Ear could help her along. Honestly, she must only just have migrated from the Jang herself.
“It’s so groshing!” she was crying while the machine, only going on her clothing and hair, was saying:
“Absolutely charming, madam,” and all the time the vis-take was feeding her enthusiasm into electrodes which changed emotion into power, and pushed it into Four BEE’s main power station banks.
It was rather sad, somehow. I never pay for anything if I can help it. I just enthuse ever so unexcitedly, and drive all the robot assistants zaradann.
Outside Jade Tower Thinta was waiting for me, looking as impatient as Thinta can look; more patient than ever, in fact.
I took out my earrings and found one pair, four odd. Thinta ignored me. I threw them down the Jade Tower terrace and watched electricity wave-nets catch them at various junctures. My mind bounced between my demagnetized ears, from the retreating aural joy and delight that had ruined my stealing enterprise.
“Attlevey, Thinta,” I remembered to say. I suddenly realized I’d rather be solo, but here was Thinta and we were going to a Dream Room.
No, really, I liked the Dream Rooms. I’d never let on what dreams I programmed for myself, though Hergal always dreams of flying. I thought Hatta probably dreamed of being some sort of three-headed monster.
“What’s that?” Thinta asked, gazing up at my white, stolen pet, kicking and hooting in the clutches of my bee. Thinta’s bee moved in to help. Thinta’s bee always moves in to help. It gets you down. Thinta tried to stroke my pet, and my pet tried to bite Thinta.
“Stop it!” I shouted at all of them. I felt pretty tosky, actually.
We got to Four BEE’s Third Sector Dream Rooms more or less all right. Thinta flew safely, and I realized how much I preferred being with Hergal and feeling the blood drain out of my head with fright. Actually when I’m with Hergal I always realize how I prefer being with Thinta and not feeling the blood drain out of my head with fright.
“Here we are!” Thinta cried, and proudly guided us down to a superb landing in one of the nets. I mean, you don’t have to guide anything into a net. They’re there to catch you. Oh well.
We got out and on to a movi-rail. There were lots of people buzzing up and down, and crowds of Jang for once. The ones coming out were discussing what they had been dreaming—all symbols and astral projection and so on. I felt a bit small. I usually did. Honestly, I just couldn’t feel at home in that place if someone didn’t make me feel inferior about what I chose to dream. The average Jang dream ecstasy is to be a mote of pulsing light, sucked to and fro between fiery suns, novas and palely smoking moons, a kind of cosmic, all-over comprehension of having love. No, really, I read it on a flash. Anyhow, Hergal dreamed of flying. Good old Hergal.
The bottom of the shaft is lovely, masses of smoldering pink cloud architecture with rays of gold passing in between, and the whole thing shifting ever so gently. Cloudy robots guided us to little transparent cubicles and helped us drop clothing and anchor ourselves on comfortable air cushions that give you a stimulating tonic massage as you dream.
I waved to Thinta as the walls, ceilings and floor began to smoke up and turn opaque, then settled back and dictated my dream to my robot. The idea is just to give them the skeleton of what you want; they think up the relevant sets, costumes, special effects, and also lots of little twists and surprises to delight you. But I was a bit of a pest. I always have too much imagination to fit inside my head. I’ve been told, though of course I don’t remember consciously, that, during my twentieth of a rorl at hypno-school, that was the worst problem my tutors had with me. I could turn a seven-dimensional geometric exercise into an epic adventure, where all the planes and double planes were really the inhabitants of a besieged citadel, fighting off hordes of triple bisectors with paralyzer-beams.
The robot struggled valiantly with my detailed color descriptions, my quick but elaborate costume sketches on the thought-receptive wall-panel, my demands for background music, and the sweeping grandeur of ruined palaces I kept stressing whenever new thought flagged. I think Thinta had been long gone by the time the robot staggered out.
I lay back, closed my eyes, and waited. Suddenly you feel this stroking sensation all over, and then you’re there….
Oh, well done!
A sweeping grandeur of ruined palaces, fallen marble blocks and pillars towering upward without roofs, crumbling stairways, and great window spaces through which burning arrows of light streamed and bubbled. Overhead an enormous planet hung low, like a pitted emerald in the pale green sky. Arid desert, faintly glittering, stretched away and away.
I’d just come in sight of this place, after traveling for units without sustenance across the Blazing Waste. It was twilight. The huge creamy-tawny beast I rode stood stock still, its pads planted in the sands, its shaggy-maned head lifted to stare at that baleful planet overhead. I dismounted and climbed one of the crumbling stairways. I was all gold: gold hair, gold skin and eyes, gold tunic and groin-high boots, ancient double-bladed dagger with a gold-plated hilt. I saw my reflection in cracked glass floors and shreds of mirror.
Darkness gathered. Things twittered high in the ruinous roof.
Two red candles up ahead. No, not candles. Eyes, watching me. I could sense, I could tell, there was something in this place that would hurt me if I wasn’t careful. Obviously, I was fairly weak from my ordeal in the Crystal Deserts, but mine was an old and noble line, forged like good steel (of course). I felt no fear (what’s that?) but drew my gold-hilt dagger and went forward through the dense viridian dusk.
The eyes went out.
There ahead was a terrible monster, breathing a poisonous fire that almost scorched me. I uttered ancient mystic words to protect myself from the flames, and closed with it. The fighting was long and awful. (Naturally.) But grace was in my every movement, my blade was swift and certain. (What else?) Eventually the thing collapsed and blew away like the desert dust, leaving only a bleached skeleton at my booted feet. I went on. Nets of bronze dropped down. Too proud to struggle, I was borne upward through the tall ranks of pillarheads, to a vast hollow rampart. I found a table of glass laid out with a feast of exotic foods and sparkling wines.
“Eat,” boomed a voice out of nothing and nowhere. “Drink. You are weary.”
I stepped up to the table and, mistrusting the food despite my hunger, spoke first a magic charm. At once the whole thing went up in purple fires (surprise! surprise!) and a clap of thunder howled around the rampart. Huge winged horrors flapped down on me. I beat at them until my strength was almost exhausted, and then, using ancient incantations, managed to drive them into the fire on the table, where they were consumed. Many more demons attacked me during the long and terrible night. Blazing meteors screamed from the sky and exploded far out in the desert wastes, as I slew pythons of flame and dragons of brass. Temptations were offered me and countless mirages, all of which I resisted and all of which proved to be false. At last, toward dawn, when I knew I was almost too weary to save myself any longer, even though my beauty and my luster were still undimmed (sort of pale gold with romantic shadows under my eyes, all swooning and gorgeous) a tall figure appeared at the end of the rampart.
A male. A mythical figure and handsome beyond belief, dark-eyed and pale-haired, but with evil stamped all over his marvelous face. He drew a long and phosphorescent sword, and we were at it again. Where my extra reserves of strength arrived from was quite beyond dream-me (though real-me knew all right) but, by my insumatt skill, I at last had the being at the point of annihilation under my long dagger. But I paused. Something stopped me. His beauty clouded my reason and I could not strike. Ashamed, I flung down my blade, and cried:
“Kill me. I am unworthy to be your opponent.” And the great sword lifted and then was gone.
I looked up astonished. My enemy was my enemy no longer. Three times more marvelous, he embraced me, and told me of the ancient and terrible curse that had lain upon this place and upon him. I, by my bravery and beauty, had saved both him and his land. (Splendid!)
He led me down the steps into a wonderful hall of gold and fire, and I saw that the palace was a ruin no longer. There was the glitter, past long windows, of the unlocked rain, and all around the desert was blossoming.
To the tremulous tinkle of fountains bursting from rock, I woke up.
“Who am I?” I often thought that after a dream. “Where am I?”
It doesn’t take long to recollect, however. I felt disappointed. Life had been just beginning for me, for us. We had been going to feast and have love, and now I would never know what it was like to—Of course, I could have had that added on to the dream if I’d asked. Only I never do. I know of people who go to a Dream Room just to dream about having love, but what’s the point? I mean, you can have love any time you want, really, any way you want, and there are millions of pills and stuff to guarantee results. So why go off and dream about it too?
“You’ve been ages,” said Thinta.
It’s not the dream that takes the time—they stretch your time sense or something, and every dream lasts a regulation ten splits—it was all my pre-dream direction that hung everyone up.
Thinta was drinking silver-water cordial, but I wanted to go away alone and think about my lover, and the dragons I had fought.
“I have to dash, Thinta ooma,” I said. “I have to go back to Limbo for the first unit checkup on my new body.”
It’s true. They like to check you if you don’t stay in for a unit or so. Hergal always stays in.
“Of course, ooma,” Thinta smiled drowsily. Perhaps she wanted aloneness too. But no. “I’ll come too. We have to pay yet.”
Oh farathoom! Thinta’s such a bore about paying for things.
We trailed along to our pay booths and she was off.
“Thank you, thank you. It was absolutely groshing, groshing! Oh thank you, I’m so happy. It was so derisann! Oh! Oh! Oh!”
Oh shut up.
“Thank you,” I droned urbanely.
Machines registered protests, started to encourage me. The booths were full of people yelling their guts out with praise and joy. All right, I thought, I’ll show you.
I raised my voice.
“Oh thank you,” I screamed. I took an ecstasy pill and soared and soared. I ranted. I screeched until my throat gave out. I hugged the machinery with unbridled passion, and tears of love ran down my face.
Thinta helped me outside. She looked approving.
“You’ve been a very good girl,” she congratulated me.
Perfect sunlight hit me in the face and threw the husks of my vision at my feet. Dragons eddied on the gentle breeze. My lover faded and was gone.
I left Thinta and went to Limbo by Body Displacer. They’re efficient, but they tend to make you puke. No one uses them now except Older People, who think they have to be in a hurry about things and have cast platinum stomachs. I got in and threw switches and wished I hadn’t. It’s quick of course, but really I think you lose so much time being sick at the other end when you get there that you might just as well hop on a float-bridge. Anyhow, I arrived, and I did feel pretty weird, actually, as if I’d left something behind. My head or something.
Robots glared at me. They disapproved. Body Displacers are non-Jang, and non-Jang youth is obnoxious, unreasonable, tosky, zaradann.
They gave me my check. I’d lost a small, artistically placed mole in transit, and they grumbled. Otherwise my body was fine. Except I was tired of it.
“I’d like to apply for a new body,” I said.
“How long does it take?”
“Your request has been registered,” the quasi-robot told me. “Normally you would have to wait for thirty units. It has been marked on your records, however, that you have gone through fourteen bodies in the past vrek. You will therefore have to wait for sixty units.”
“Can I appeal?”
“Will it do any good?”
I went out.
The afternoon was getting more tiresomely lovely with every second.
I went down to Peridot Waterway and signaled for my bubble. The water ran past going steeply uphill, a smooth pearly green. Buildings towered up all around me. My bee fell on my head but I was too depressed to swear at it. That white, stolen pet landed in my arms and took a good-sized slice out of me. We slapped each other, and it jumped down to the floating road where a magnetizer caught it and slammed it up against somebody’s artistic, eighth-dimensional statue.
The bubble came along and I got in. I dragged the pet in with me, I’m not sure why, I suppose because I had stolen it. I always attach importance to the things I steal, except where my pleasure in getting them is ruined, e.g., Jade Tower. It sat and sneered at me, slitting its big eyes. I rubbed stuff on my hand and the tear healed up. The pet looked disappointed. I set the bubble for home, but I didn’t really want to go there. I’ll drown again, I thought, and farathoom to their sixty units.
I reached for the controls, but before I did anything I thought of the pet. It would probably go zaradann with panic; it just wouldn’t understand, when the water filled the oxygen locks. It wouldn’t like the asthmatic drowsiness of dying, and I couldn’t explain.
Oh well, I could always drown tomorrow.
Home. Home is where you tie your bubble, as they say. It was where I tied mine. We went up the moving ramp, me, my bee, and the pet, and under the big gold ornamental lamp in the porch that opens and shuts like one of those ancient flowers. Home. It’s all glass, delicately misted up at strategic points and shot through with rainbows. It booms to the echo of tireless mechanical voices, begging to know what they can bring us to eat or drink, or do to make us laugh. Music you could hear (but is it music?) raged around the glass halls, all clicks and tattoos and crashes and chimes. I signaled my makers and took the flying floor to where they were. Older People hardly ever change their bodies, and my makers were the same as they had been for vreks and vreks. They were both male; they had been male predominantly now for ages, very soolka in their dark beards and tasseled sandals, having a simply groshing, non-Jang orgy, with lots of older women in terribly sexual, opaque dresses.
“Who are you?” they inquired mildly.
I told them.
“Oh,” they turned a few memorizer mirrors on me so they could try to store my image somewhere in the place for future reference.
“Don’t bother,” I told them, “I’m changing again in sixty units or so.”
The flying floor wafted me away from them, and they returned to their antics without a backward glance, even at my hair. I remembered one of them, the one who had been my female maker all those vreks and units ago, hated scarlet. Oh well, perhaps she was more tolerant now that she was a male most of the time. I couldn’t recall when she’d last been female. Probably not since my post hypno-school period, when the two of them decided to set up home and include me. Usually people don’t bother about staying together, but my makers had always been pretty kinky.
Up among the slowly revolving glass turrets, I had to turn on the vacuum drift and be sick. I’d sort of been waiting for it ever since the Body Displacer affair. Then I immediately felt hungry. I’d missed about ten mealtimes, what with one thing and another.
Artistically shaped fruit, toasted snow-whirls and drinks with silver ice in them came whizzing to my aid, even before I’d opened my mouth. My makers had been adding telepathy units while I was out; I’d have to be careful. I wandered into the fur room, my feast following me on dainty crystal trays and singing atrocious little songs about how tasty it was, in case I forgot the filthy stuff was there. I settled in warm, smoky-gold drifts, absentmindedly eating it all up.
I turned on the picture-vision in the ceiling and lay looking up at the most absurd love-rites I’d ever seen. Everyone had about six bodies, and they twined and twined, gorgeous colors, amid the heavy aroma of incense and the slow hiss of cymbals. I turned off the picture-vision and had the ceiling open into a sixth-dimensional cube, but you had to be in the right mood to contemplate. Sometimes you really get going with it, it sucks you in, but when you’re low it just looks a mess.
I left the fur room and went to the pool. I injected myself with oxygen and swam for a long while among the waving jungle of exotic weeds at the bottom. I was a lost princess of an ancient line, seeking a monster in the turquoise depths of some forbidden sea.
Crash! That thalldrap, Kley, had signaled. The three-dimensional image of Kley and some tosky Jang party he was at careered all over the pool.
“Switch on, ooma,” Kley called.
“I’m tired,” I said. “Go away. Go away.”
But they wouldn’t go. They were in ecstasy, but with energy pills to make them energetic at the same time. Oh, it was ghastly.
I got out of my ruined, forbidden-sea pool, and the dancing image followed me through our neat gardens, bashing into abstract statues and whatnot, and getting tangled up in the five-dimensional pillars. I found the recluse switch, and the party was gone, exploded out of its nonexistence back to its real existence somewhere or other.
I saw the pet bounding across the gardens, a white blur through the silk-of-aluminum grasses.
I wanted sleep.
I dreamed all night, unprogrammed dreams in which a nebulous, dark being chased me through fires and waters and finally bit me, while overhead the perfect ornamental stars under Four BEE’s invisible, domed wave-roof glittered and gleamed.
I remember that time at the Prism Playgrounds I had my dreams analyzed, when Hergal and I lost each other. Not that I understood a word of what the robot told me as I stared into its big electric eyes. I really think I was too busy cursing Hergal to concentrate properly.
In my sleep, I heard an awful crash. I woke up. A flash was blazing over the city. Hergal again. We weren’t far from the Zeefahr, and I nearly always heard the impact. I transparalyzed a wall and watched the flame streamers licking the sky.
What an unimaginative pest Hergal was.
But the flash was clearer now, and it wasn’t Hergal.
This time it was Thinta.
How utterly drumdik.
“Hallo, Danor,” I said.
He looked pleased. I’d recognized his new body immediately. I’d seen the flash as I gave myself a meal injection. (I can hardly ever face anything more solid first thing in the morning.) He’s always so slim and dashing, though, whether male or female, that you couldn’t miss him really. He was all long hair and drooping mustache, totally the rage just now, and both absolutely jet black with a sort of sapphire sheen to them, midnight blue eyes, and no wings. Antennae, though.
“Like me?” He turned slowly around, and I admired him. He did look rather effective and was wearing a kind of metallic second skin, with the sort of boots I’d programmed in my dream of the cursed lover.
“Derisann,” I said.
It was quite late morning. When I sleep, I sleep on and on, often until Four BEE gets itself dark again and turns on the starlight. Otherwise I knock back my stay-awake pills with everybody else.
“Come and eat,” Danor invited. He adored food.
“Couldn’t,” I said.
“Oh. The Dimension Palace, then. Hatta said there’s a new labyrinth on Super-Seven.”
He was so enthusiastic, it seemed a pity to put out the flame, so we trailed along to the Palace.
The Committee, which is continuously bringing out reports on everyone and thing in Four BEE, states that the D.P. provides an “essential outlet for negative motivational reflexes.” Anyway, that’s what it says on the flashes.
The dimensions are, of course, interesting; air can be solid or different colors, or everything be inverted so that, for instance, you look at your nose in a mirror and have a fit because it’s growing inward instead of out and you can only see with your eyes shut.
All told, the Dimension Palace really shakes you up. It’s very popular. I suppose you don’t get many shocks in Four BEE normally, except when an automatic door opens upward instead of down, or something.
Super-Seven was a total nightmare and I didn’t last long. I suddenly found myself over in one place, looking back at myself in another, or rather at my body from the hips downward because I’d split in two. It was pretty ghastly. I mean you obviously haven’t really split in two or anything. It’s just that the law in this particular piece of dimension makes it look as if you had. I could even still experience what my legs and feet felt like, and when I put my hands down to them I could touch my thighs. When I did that I saw my hands appear by my thighs, which was reasonable, but as my thighs were on the other side of the room, it looked a bit drumdik. Then I found I’d split again. I was peering back at my faraway hips and legs and feet, and, a little nearer, my willowy waist and exotic bust and shoulders, all with coils of scarlet hair lying neatly about them, but chopped off at neck level. I was just a head presumably. Sweat leaped out all over me, and I could feel it all over me, thank goodness. What would happen if I moved again? I risked it. Farathoom! I was staring at my upper body now, and a bit farther off my poor disorientated head, and I was looking, actually, out of my feet.
At that my yells took on form and flapped all over the place; the panic button went off on my belt, and seconds later hordes of robots, oblivious of the ghastliness all around, hurried me back to sanity.
Danor and I floated drowsily in our adjacent baths of warm liquid air, still trembling from horror. Once the delicious relief wore off, I knew I was going to feel, as I always did, how futile that kind of nonconstructive terror is. But just now, completely attached to myself, my hair unfurling like a fabled red anemone, I was quite glad I’d come. Danor came drifting to the dividing wall and pulled himself over into my bath. We plunged around and quite soon began kissing each other, and then Danor hauled us on to one of the air cushions.
“Let’s have love,” he suggested, making the proposition quite appealing.
“You know that’s only for Older People,” I said. “It’s absolutely non-Jang not to marry first.”
Danor rolled on to his back and stared at the abstract picture mist on the ceiling.
“Then let’s get married,” he said, “for mid-vrek.”
Mid-vrek is forty units and that’s a long time, but Danor looked hopeful and somewhat tempting, so I agreed.
We took his bubble up Purple Waterway and dashed through corridors of mauve liquid, with Danor thumping the controls wildly. He seemed in an awful hurry.
The Ivory Dome is a good place to marry. The quasi-robots tend to keep their opinions to themselves, and not remind you all the time that on the last six marriages they did people were more grateful and enthusiastic about paying, before rushing off and having love. In the creamy foyer we bought each other rings, five each for the left hand, and I just didn’t have the heart to try to steal mine, with Danor so gallantly bawling himself hoarse in the pay-booth.
We coughed along the moving spiral to a free hall, and got into all the floating white stuff you have to wear. The quasi-robot in a black robe and sparkling headdress took our vows of loyalty to each other for mid-vrek with a superb show of interest.
“I promise to have love with you and no other for the period aforesaid, unless I seek annulment, which may be granted on alternate units throughout the marriage, and which must be paid for.”
Four BEE’s power station banks do rather well out of this, actually, because long-term liaisons nearly always fade away quicker than the participants have reckoned. Four BEE covers itself on short-term alliances, too: If you only marry for a unit or an afternoon, which naturally falls short of the annulment period, you have to pay both before and after your stay together.
Danor and I exchanged the ten rings without dropping any. (Hergal usually dropped every single one and they made a terrible row, crashing and rolling all over that marble.) Then, together with our robot, we paid our “thank yous,” after which Danor dragged me out of Ivory Dome and into the bubble again, and we splash-dashed away to a floater.
The floaters, which drift gently in the sky and are made of plastic-reinforced cloud mass, are favorites with newlyweds. I’d been in them quite often, but their niceness seldom palls.
Danor pushed me gently but firmly on to a large, soft but adjustable bed of gold and purple storm-drift, and ran a melter over my clothing and his.
“I find your body most attractive,” he breathed. “It’s one of the best you’ve ever designed.”
Flattered, I smoldered under his caresses, and was rather shocked when he suddenly drew away and sat up.
“What’s wrong, Danor?”
Danor looked sad.
“It’s no use,” he said. “I thought, with you, it might be, but it isn’t.”
We tried again, however, in various positions, and it began to get dark, and we were tired of it all by then. We rested and drank love-potions, and swallowed ecstasy and energy pills, and finally lay side by side, panting with unproductive fatigue.
“If only,” Danor murmured, “we could have had love at the Dimension Palace, I know it would have been all right. It’s all this delay. It’s always the delay.” He peered at me soulfully. “I haven’t had love now, successfully, for ten vreks.”
I was horrified. Poor Danor.
“Surely,” I said, hiding my disappointment rather well, I thought, “it’s just that you’re predominantly female, the same as I am. Possibly more so. When I was male last and Kley was female, everything went splendidly. But you’ve been male for ages. I expect you need a change.”
“Unfortunately,” Danor said, “it’s no use then, either. Just easier to pretend it is, when I’m a girl.”
I tried to think of some bright encouraging sentence, but none came.
Danor went to a cloud wall and turned on the pressure so that a large oval window appeared. He looked at twilit Four BEE, glittering underneath.
“Goodbye,” he said. And he jumped out and fell hundreds of feet into the city. It stunned me. He looked as though he meant it, even though it was a pointless act when they’d only shove him in a new body ten splits after he hit the ground. A most weird feeling went over me, like when you meet the dragon in a dream—only not like that because that’s enjoyable terror and this wasn’t—and I struggled and tried not to let the feeling fill me up. And suddenly I recollected we’d married for entire mid-vrek, and now I’d have to pay for the annulment tomorrow. So a warm reassuring anger came instead. Annulment is something you can’t steal, and you can’t marry anyone else, even for half an hour, until you’ve bought it.
I fumed and fussed around the floater all night; I punched at those silly clouds and shouted at them when they served up this groshing meal I didn’t want.
I faced the dawn disheveled, not wanting to stay up there and hating the thought of all that thanking I was going to have to do at Ivory Dome, with the quasi-robot probably looking disapproving that we’d lasted such a ridiculously short time.
“Attlevey, ooma,” said a voice, and I saw the signal light was on, and there in the room with me was the three-dimensional image of this gorgeous girl, with a body very like mine, except for jet black hair with a sapphire sheen to it.
“It’s me, Danor,” she said.
“Groshing,” I said. And a little cold bead rattled in my mind, but I was fed up to my back pearly teeth, wasn’t I? And I soon forgot it.
“I thought you’d like to know,” Danor said calmly, “that I’m going up to Ivory Dome now, to pay for the annulment.”
“Thanks,” I barked, and flicked the recluse switch.
I wandered around Four BEE all day, then felt a bit odd and realized that I hadn’t eaten again, and had a meal injection.
I met Thinta near the Robotics Museum. She actually likes it in there. I didn’t know her at first in her new body, but she was just the same in fact, underneath the soft gray fur, and her eyes, although without any whites now, were the usual clear green.
“It was the Dream Rooms,” Thinta explained as we drank snow-in-gold at an underwater restaurant. “I always dream I’m some sort of cat thing. I wanted them to make me a cat’s body, but they refused. The fur’s only a compromise, really.” She started to grumble about the Committee and the way they hadn’t let her have a built-in purring system, and I got away as soon as I could.
I honestly wanted to cut every single friend out of my circle, I was suddenly feeling so droad and alien with all of them, but in the end I officially cut myself out, which was easier and then I sat on the steps of Jade Tower under the dragon roars and sprays, and cried.
I mean, it’s polite to cry when you’re cut out of anyone’s circle, even if it’s your own. But it went on and on. I couldn’t stop.
I think I cried all night.
I got home about morning, and found my makers were in the act of splitting up.
“Home is yours,” they said kindly, “we’ve made our own arrangements.” Older People can do that—just pack up and leave each other and go off with someone else whenever they like. They were both still male.
Robots were moving out their stuff. It felt odd, seeing them go, just like that, not that we’d ever been close or anything. You never are with makers, even if they do stay in the same place with you after hypno-school is finished.
“Don’t worry about the home-payments to the Committee every third vrek,” they added. “We know how you hate paying, so we’ve made provision to pay for you, alternately. It seems only right, after so long.”
I was almost glad when they’d finally gone. I felt so peculiar about it all.
And home sort of…echoed. I don’t know.
Hatta signaled me ages afterward, or perhaps not so long, really, it just seemed ages. His voice invaded my privacy, but without any image—probably just as well, knowing Hatta.
“Attlevey, Hatta,” I sighed.
“What’s all this,” Hatta demanded, “about cutting yourself out of your own circle? You can’t. It’s not—well—it’s not ethical.”
“Oh,” I said.
“No,” said Hatta. “Are you feeling low because of the annulment with Danor?”
“No,” I said; I wasn’t sure.
“You need cheering up,” Hatta told me. “I’ll take you for a meal.”
“No. Thank you.”
“Well, the Adventure Palace, then? There’s a new Upper-Ear symphony in Fourth Sector. Fire-riding?”
“Really, Hatta. I honestly can’t—”
“Look, ooma, I’m serious,” said Hatta seriously. I cursed him, but rather wearily. “I’d like so much to marry you. Just for the afternoon.”
“Let’s see you,” I said coldly.
“Well, er,” said Hatta.
“Your image,” I said. “Now.”
“There’s something wrong with the control. I can’t seem to get an image through to you—”
“Nothing ever goes wrong with the control,” I said. Well, it doesn’t. Hatta muttered. And then, there he was.
“Oh Hatta!” I shouted. “You utter thalldrap! You floop! Oh go away!”
He was huge, bluish, shiny, lumpy, but it was the two heads that really got me down.
“No. Nonononono! If you want me so much, get yourself a reasonable body.” He hung around in midair, undecided, and so drumdik I nearly went out of my mind. I threw an abstract stone thing, with moving colors in it, at him, and thrust down the nearest recluse switch.
I felt better, though, after throwing something at Hatta. More my bad-tempered self, I suppose. The pet came crashing in from the gardens and bit me, and I chased it all over the place, trying to land it one with a big furry cushion, and with machines clucking and clicking disapprovingly around us, as they tried to get on with the cleaning. It was quite merry.
Eventually the pet curled up warily on a suspended flying floor, just out of my reach, and went to sleep, keeping one orange eye open and one fang delicately protruding, just to remind me I suppose.
I ate a meal and began to think.
I was tired of being Jang.
I took my bubble down Peridot Waterway, with the pet sitting on a passenger couch, staring at me. I’d tried to leave it behind, but hadn’t got the bubble side closed in time. It had developed a new game in between starings, trying to swat my bee as it zoomed overhead, always threatening to come down. I noticed that the bee seemed to keep aloft much better with six white paws and a mouthful of teeth careering at it.
I tied up a little way down from the Zeefahr and took a moving street to Second Sector’s Committee Hall. The pet bit legs on the street, and things got a trifle noisy, though the Older People seemed to forgive me as I was Jang. Ironical!
We tumbled off, me, my bee, and the pet, and went into the Hall, which is black and imposing. They make it look as antisocial as possible to keep everyone out, but it doesn’t seem to work. The place was packed.
I sat down in a free space in one of the gently revolving circles of chairs and pressed the Attention Required light. Everyone seemed to be complaining today. Complaints about picture-vision programs not being erotic enough, and old-established aphrodisiacs and laxatives that didn’t seem to work anymore. Moans about fading silk-grass in the parks, falling leaves being heavier than last vrek, the starlight being late or dim or something over First Sector last night. People saying they were paying too often for their homes, and thank-you-hysterics who said they weren’t paying often enough.
A robot arrived in front of me.
“Age and status change,” I said.
There was a sort of hush, and I could feel eyes peering at me and tiny minds thinking: “Whoopee! A freak!”
“Registered,” snapped the robot, then couldn’t resist adding: “One-A, First-Class Unusual. Do you have medical grounds for this?”
“Do you have any grounds at all?”
“I think so,” I said. “You probably wouldn’t.”
And I glared around at those peering eyes and suddenly noticed the pet was glaring at them too, snarl-hissing nastily. I stroked its pale head and just managed to get my fingers out of its reach in time.
The robot had gone away, but very quickly a messenger flew up to me and signaled me to follow. Everyone else grumbled. I’d jumped to first place, due entirely to originality. Probably somebody felt like a good laugh before getting on to the usual boring routine.
I went up the moving spiral after the messenger and was ushered through glassy corridors to a round compact room, with a moving painting on the ceiling and a non-wet water carpet. A quasi-robot official sat in a floating crystallize chair, anchored more or less to one spot by a golden chain. I sat on the other crystallize chair, also anchored but rather lower than his, and, to my surprise and astonished discomfort, the pet gave a splashing leap and landed firmly on my lap. It sat bolt upright and looked at the Q-R. We both looked.
“Now,” said the quasi-robot, gently flicking his mustache at me, “what was your request again?”
“Age and status change,” I said, undaunted. Well, I pretended I was.
“Hmm,” said the quasi-robot. He stared serenely at the spot just above my eyes. My bee fell on my head, the pet jumped and aimed at it, the chair dipped, and we all fell into the water carpet, creating a most ghastly tidal wave.
“Oh farath—onk!” I started swearing and hastily toned it down, just in case. You never know with Q-Rs.
The chair followed me and I got back on. The pet landed on me again, unfortunately.
“Yes,” said the Q-R, “I see.”
We floated gracefully around for about five million vreks, and then he added: “You’re Jang, of course.”
“And that’s the whole trouble,” I told him.
“Oh come,” chortled the Q-R, just like a maker really, “the prime of life. Total awareness of the eighty senses, the peak of imaginative resource—”
I really detest people quoting that nonsense at me, but I sat very still and listened politely, beaming as though I thought he was the most absolutely groshing thing I’d ever floated around a room with. Eventually he shut up. I said:
“You’re quite right, of course, but I honestly think I’ve speeded up in my development somewhere, and I need to go on to the next stage, an Older Person.”
“And how long, my dear,” and he smiled, “have you been one of the Jang?”
“Ages,” I said.
We floated around again. I looked up at the ceiling picture, and there were these beautiful bodies, with leaves and flowers growing out of them, doing a sort of dimensional dance, so that bits kept disappearing and reappearing somewhere else.
“I’ve just looked you up in the files,” the Q-R told me abruptly. They do it with the telepathy units in their elbows, so Hatta says, but it gives you a fright all the same, to be perfectly frank. The usual mind-blower is: “I’ve just looked you up in the files, and your new body has not been registered as yet. Thus, you are temporarily dead.” I recollect that happened to Hergal once, when I was with him in the Adventure Palace. We both felt pretty funny about it. I think that’s why he always stays in Limbo for two or three units now, just in case. Anyway the Q-R went on:
“According to your history records, you have only been Jang for a quarter rorl. The usual period is at least half a rorl, my dear young lady. Except, of course, in very exceptional cases.”
“I’m an exceptional case,” I cried.
“Oh, I don’t really think so, my dear,” smarmed the Q-R.
He started to explain, but I didn’t understand, and I don’t honestly think he did either. So I cut in:
“Can’t you test me? Isn’t there some sort of guide to find out special cases?”
“Well, er,” said the Q-R. He went off into another trance, flicking through memory banks and whatnot. “It is rather an involved business. Mental and physical examinations and so on.”
“Right,” I said.
I’d actually startled him. Derisann.
“I’m ready,” I said. “When do we start?”
He blinked at me a while.
“Er. Would you wait one moment?” he said, and lowered his chair to the floor. He went across the water carpet and left me there. I mean, they never do that. It’s all part of the superiority thing that they stay in their chairs, and you’re the one who has to bob in and out. I’d really confused him. My ears felt hot with excitement and a kind of panic. Was I really ready to go on to the next stage? Was it the answer? Suddenly I felt like bolting out of the door, but I stopped myself. Being Jang was what was getting me down. It must be. Therefore, logically, being non-Jang would help to make me feel better. The door went up and another messenger signaled me to follow.
I went after it, trembling as if I were in the Dimension Palace.
We went through a subway under Gold Waterway, a private subway belonging to the Committee Hall, riding in a little sledge bobbing about a foot off the ground on drifts of pretty pink steam. The gold water-light shone through the transparent roof making everything look rather cheerful, except me, I’ll bet. I took a serenity pill, and felt gently euphoric and entirely capable of dealing with anything.
The sledge went under archways and ended up in a big hall, full of flying floors. The messenger got me on one, the bee fell on, and the pet ripped and clawed its way after us. Up we all went and arrived in this big, crystallize and steel room, where the bee suddenly found itself magnetized on a rack full of other bees, and the pet was whisked away by robots, grumbling about unhygienic fur and so on.
It reminded me of parts of Limbo, and so did the quasi-robot medicine man in pale attire who waved me ever so graciously to a big soft seat, and sat down opposite—rather higher than me, naturally—hands together, and recording units no doubt whirring away inside.
Then we went through it again. Obvious, I suppose. I really should hang on another quarter rorl, and come back then. Did I know (Interesting Incidental Fact) that quite often people were still predominantly Jang after half a rorl, and sometimes went on for a whole one? Wasn’t it conversely possible then, I said, for somebody to be out of the Jang stage after a quarter rorl? Well, it had happened, very occasionally, he admitted (Suave Concession of Point) but their behavior in these cases indicated this and mine, apparently, did not. Anyway, I told him, I’m here now, so you might as well get on with testing me. I suppose I’ll have to pay whatever happens. He looked slightly embarrassed, but rode it well. Of course he could, he said, if it would set my mind at rest. (Bland Diplomacy in Dealing with Jang Female Barbarian.)
“Some simple little questions first,” he comforted me, and referred to a reading screen which he had turned on in the desk pillar in front of him. “Firstly, do you ever steal?”
Well, all right, I jumped. No good lying either. Anyway, for all I knew, it might be one of the first signs of true anti-Jang.
“Occasionally,” I said.
“And what do you steal?”
I had a sudden queasy feeling they were after me for Evasion, so I didn’t say a word.
“Let me assure you,” he said then, “that anything which is said during these tests will be kept strictly confidential. The only use to which we will put the information is in finding what is best for your future.”
Well, robots don’t lie, so I answered:
“Different things. It doesn’t really matter what, terribly. It’s when I’m low, usually, or getting droad,”
He nodded, and I thought he looked pleased, which had to be bad, but it was too late now.
“Now, about your sex-life—er, ‘having love.’ You’re predominantly female, but male once in a while, I see. You’ve devised a very sensible balance, I should think.”
Congratulations, me. He was trying to knock my poor little guard down already, was he?
“That’s right,” I said, “but I’ve been put on a sixty unit body restriction, for overdoing my changes.”
I meant to make him disapproving, but again there was that little smile. Oh…onk!
“And about how often do you have love?”
“Oh, pretty often, really.”
“Could you be a little more precise?”
“It averages about once every six units. Less lately, though.”
I’d scored. Non-Jang not to have love practically all the time, and it was true I’d lost interest….
“When was the last time you married?”
“Two units ago.”
“I see.” Again he was pleased.
“But it didn’t work out—” I hastily added, but he glossed over that.
“Do you have a favorite meal or drink?”
I said no. Food didn’t do that much for me. He asked if I ate now, what I’d like, so I said nut steak, which was the very first thing that came into my head. I couldn’t tell his reactions much after that. He was getting a bit more careful.
It was clothes next.
I’d deliberately come out in the least Jang thing I could get hold of, but it’s difficult somehow to get the really soolka stuff. This was transparent at the top, but pretty thickly jeweled and embroidered, and the sleeves and skirt were deep gold and almost opaque. No ornaments either, and my hair plain instead of coiled through with flowers and pearls and metal things, with gold bells, probably, on the end of each strand.
“I like deep colors,” I said truthfully, “not just glassy metal-silk with a lot of skin showing.”
“Yes, I understand. And what do you wear? I see the top of your dress reveals all it should, and most attractive it is too.”
Oh, v….n you!
“It’s not what I prefer—” I began.
“Then why are you wearing it, my dear?”
He just went on talking as I frantically tried to explain how Jade Tower and Silver Mountain, and all the other clothes and jewelery centers, drag you off to the Jang counters and stone you with Upper-Ear music, and you just can’t seem to get anything in the older range, no matter how you yell and threaten.
“Activities,” I heard him purr, when I eventually stopped trying to make him hear me. “Do you go to the Dimension Palace?”
“Yes,” I said.
“The Adventure Palace?”
“The Dream Rooms?”
“Yes.” Anti-Jang? Apparently not.
“Hmm. Do you always program similiar dreams?”
Ah ha, thought I, now you’re in for it, ooma. My dreams are non-non-non what all the flashes tell us Jang dreams should be.
“More or less similiar,” I started, “and—”
“Good,” he said. Just: “Good.”
“Don’t you want to hear what I dream?”
“I don’t really think it’s relevant.”
“Well, I think it is.” I told him about my last dream, dwelling on the dragon and the lover and the blossoming desert. He just sat and listened. When I stopped, he smiled.
“It sounds very agreeable, if rather energetic,” he applauded me.
“But it’s weird, isn’t it? An abnormal dream?”
“Not at all,” he said. “Agreeably normal. For a start, you obviously have your male tendencies nicely coordinated with the female ones. You make yourself both the fighting hero and the swooning maiden. You have a subconscious and refreshing yearning to see the desert waste blossom. And very good color sense, I might add.”
“On the flashes,” I began heatedly, “the average Jang dream ecstasy is to be a mote of pulsing light, sucked to and fro between fiery suns—”
“The average, my dear, is not always as totally representative as it might be. You are what is termed an active dreamer. You like a story. In point of fact, most young people who attend the Adventure Palace in addition to the Dream Rooms invent sagas similiar to yours.”
I felt shattered. I think I went pale. No one ever talked about it, having that sort of dream. I suppose we honestly thought we were queer to have them, and made up tales of how we’d been light motes afterward, so no one else would laugh. And I suddenly thought of Hergal telling me he dreamed of flying.
“But I spend ages on the programming,” I tried weakly, “designing all the costumes and so on.”
“That simply means your mind is more productive in that region than those of your friends who rely on the robot’s judgment. And you are not unique.”
There were a few more questions after that which sort of passed in a daze. Then we went on to pictures.
“That’s red,” I said as the screen flashed red. “And that’s blue. Pink,” I added, “pink with blue edges. Green. Green and red. Purple.” The screen switched from color to shape, speeding up even faster. “Square. Circle. Cube. Sixth-dimensional cube. Fourth-dimensional rectangle. Circle. Octagon.” I couldn’t work out why all this was going on, but we rushed away to a succession of buildings and parks and things. Was he testing my eyesight? Or whether I could talk that fast? Then the buildings and parks started appearing in weird mists of color, with dragons kicking them over or sort of fire clouds going up all around them, and eventually I said, did he have to, it made me feel funny. I couldn’t help it, it did. And he looked really delighted, the floop.
After that we played a kind of game where a picture of a person or thing appeared, and I could direct objects at it, to which it responded accordingly. There were sky-boats I could lose in cloud, and a lovely shot of the Robotics Museum I floored with an enormous avalanche of syrup and fruit, and I chased grumpy quasi-robots with mechanical ants, and finally realized he’d lulled me and I was enjoying myself, that I’d probably done everything all wrong and proved I ought to go on being Jang for rorl upon rorl upon rorl. There was also some sort of unheard soothe-music about, making me relaxed and gaily irresponsible all over the place, or perhaps I shouldn’t have had that pill on the way down. I didn’t seem able to put the brake on.
After the pictures, we went on to three-dimensional images, with smell and sound and aura and so on.
I forget all the stuff we waded through. There was one of a snake-thing swallowing itself that kept cropping up, and a woman dressed in flames, dancing to drumbeats that nearly drove me mad wanting to have love with her, or be her having love with someone else, or something. I was getting confused. I honestly thought I was male once. You know, I just knew I was, only I wasn’t.
Then we had the last two images. The first was a young male glittering with Jang gear and great big angel’s wings, with long copper hair and mustache, and a beautiful male body. Oh, he was derisann. Then, next to him appeared this older man, soolka and a bit solid-looking. You could imagine him paying for everything, and calling you “my dear,” like Hatta does but more so. And it was so obvious that, even in my bemused state, I snapped alert, and when the quasi-robot pointed I was ready.
“What do you think of this young male?” he inquired, all smiles, and I steeled myself. I felt I was betraying the gorgeous, lovely, desirable being the Jang male was, condemning myself to a life without love with such as he. But I said coolly:
“Very nice. But those wings are a bore, aren’t they?” and that at least was what I usually felt, even though, right now, I fancied him, wings and all.
The quasi-robot didn’t waver, however. Still all smiles, he pointed at the other male.
“And how about this?”
“Oh, he’s groshing, absolutely derisann! He drives me zaradann! I want him!”
And then—! The two images had swapped clothes, expressions, wings, everything. I felt utterly bewildered. I knew dimly this wasn’t fair to me somehow. I stared at the copper-haired young male in the soolka clothing and staid expression, and the older male all nudity and chains and gaiety, with two great silly wings flapping about behind him, and the quasi-robot said:
“And who do you prefer now?”
And it seemed all right. Really. Logical. The young male had been made into an Older Person, and the Older Person was Jang. I’d won. And I’d soon take the pompous look off that copper-haired ooma.
“Him,” I said, and I pointed at his now-hidden but beautiful chest.
And the quasi-robot looked pleased.
“Well, that’s right, isn’t it?” I cried. “He’s non-Jang, isn’t he? Absolutely soolka, in fact.”
“I’ve noticed,” the Q-R remarked, rather gently, “that you’ve used Jang-slang predominantly throughout our talk.”
“Well,” I snapped, “I’ve heard predominantly nothing else for a quarter rorl. What do you expect? And you haven’t answered my question. The young male is non-Jang now, isn’t he?”
“He is still,” the Q-R said, “a young male.”
And for the life of me I couldn’t see it, until the messenger had led me away for the physical examination, and I was on my back, being internally reviewed by scanners in the roof.
They checked me, thoroughly, making sure nothing had gone amiss with my nerve units or brain likely to create depression or hysteria, and made notes on the way I had designed my latest body. It was a Jang body, of course—not a weirdo body for Essential Experience like Hatta’s little efforts, it is true—but Jang nevertheless, at its carefree and most flower-like best. They also went through files on my other recent bodies, and I suppose they were all the same. They tested my reactions to ecstasy and energy, and even put me in a trance-state, in which I thought I was marrying that gorgeous, copper-haired male for the afternoon and then having love with him. I must admit it was derisann, but when I woke up again, I knew I’d sunk like a stone.
Even the silver-water cordial they gave me, to lend me strength to face the Committee Hall again, was a sort of test.
I went through the subway on a sledge, alone this time. A robot had apparently taken my bee and the pet on ahead of me to my bubble.
A messenger led me back into the round room with the water carpet, and I sat down in the floating chair again, opposite my original interviewing Q-R.
“Ah yes,” he said benevolently. “Not too exhausted, I hope. These tests are rather sapping, I’m afraid.”
“Yes,” I agreed. “Well?”
“Well.” He spread immaculate hands. “I think you know already.”
“You refuse to send me on to the next stage?”
“You’re not ready, my dear young lady. Your mentality, your tastes, your appetites are still belonging entirely to the Jang. Minor deviations do not count. If, by some error, we had applied for your changing as you suggest, it would have brought you almost immediate distress.”
“This is absurd,” I said. “I’m distressed now.”
“Of course.” He looked at me, anxious for my happiness. “I think you will find that the answer to your problem is to throw yourself more wholeheartedly into Jang pursuits. Fill your time. Stop thinking: ‘I must be joyous,’ and then hating everyone when you fail to achieve joy in this manner. Relax.”
“Thank you,” I said stiffly. “I suppose I have to pay?”
“That is entirely up to you,” the Q-R said blandly. “If you would rather not, there is no need.”
So I was spared that at least.
I went out feeling hopeless, in a sort of nightmare. I kept saying over and over to myself: They’ve done me. It’s all a big plot. None of those questions meant anything, just a sort of game to make me think they’d tried.
I got to the bubble and shut the door, and kicked my bee into relative submission. I sat down, and there was the pet in my lap. I looked at the pet, into orange jungles of eyes that had lived somewhere far out near Four BOO, among rock-thrusts and restless desert.
“They’re right,” I said, “it’s no good. I’m still Jang, and I don’t want to skip ahead at all. What’s wrong then? What is it that’s so terribly the matter with me?”
And I put my arms around the pet and my cheek in its fur; it let me stay like that for ten whole splits before it bit me.
Hatta signaled yet again, and I was so fed up and bewildered I actually said I’d meet him for eighth meal.
We went to Blue Sky and sat on the see-through floor, with the darkening city moving slowly under us, and tried to eat salad-on-ice without being ill from vertigo.
They had assured me at the Committee Hall that my disgraceful urge to change from being Jang would never leak out, and that my friends, therefore, would never curl up into hooting hysterics at my foolishness—I more or less quote. I kept getting an uncontrollable desire to tell Hatta, though; he always seemed so reliable and stolid. I suppose the ugliness helped. But I didn’t. I think the Committee staff had done a good job and I really was ashamed.
As we got on to the confectionery and cactus-pineapple stage, he thrust the marriage proposal at me again, and I again declined.
“I couldn’t stand it,” I said. “I feel tosky enough as it is.”
We sat and stared down at the lights lighting up, and I wondered why, if he found the need of me so pressing, he didn’t change into something attractive. I liked Hatta after all, and in a pretty body he’d be nice. Then I thought, perhaps he does it deliberately to stop me from ever agreeing. Perhaps he doesn’t really want me at all, and just likes to kid himself he does. This somehow made me feel as if I’d wilted, and I said I wanted to go home.
He’s very good really. You know he’ll probably be around when you need him, and go away when you want him to.
I wandered through my lonely glassy palace, looking vaguely for the pet, who didn’t appear.
“You should throw yourself more wholeheartedly into Jang pursuits,” the Q-R had told me. Throw yourself, presumably, anywhere but at the Committee. All right, I would devise a program of adventures for tomorrow. Thousands of splits later I lost my mind or something, and went raging around, totally frustrated at my lack of enthusiasm for anything I could think of. I turned on all the picture visions and music units, and woke up the kitchen and house cleaners, and sat there in the middle of absolute chaos, pulling at strands of my hair.
I took a hypno-croon to bed with me and got it to say to me, all night long in my sleep:
“I will be constructive, I will be constructive. I will think of something wonderful to do.”
And I thought of something.
I actually did. I opened my eyes with it nestling in my brain.
Something to involve me, take up my time, something to wake up for. I wasn’t quite sure what sort of thing was going in Four BEE. One of my makers had once done a spell with the flashes, and came back home every mid-vrek refreshed to an enchanting degree.
I splashed happily in my lagoon bath, dressed as Jangily as I possibly could, just to please them all, and sped away to the Zeefahr in my bubble, thence to the Committee Hall.
I was ushered straight in to my old friend with the water carpet, who looked at me nervously.
“I’ve decided to take your advice,” I declared. “I’m enjoying being a Jang.”
“Er, good,” he answered.
“Like it?” I pirouetted, displaying all my beads and gold chains and flowers and tinsel and see-through. “And I’ve eaten the most popular Jang first meal, toasted angel-food, and bought a whole new track of Upper-Ear music—stolen it, actually,” I confided, all gay abandon. It was really wild. But my Q-R wasn’t taken in. His emotion gauges must have been standing up like quills. He smiled and said:
“And what precisely did you want, young lady?”
Smite him with my fiery wings, I thought.
“Work,” I cooed.
“I understand,” he said, and we looked at each other.
“I’m afraid,” he said a little later, “that we have come back to the original problem.”
“Oh yes?” I said, and I must have looked dangerous. His hand strayed to a summoner-button, ready to call in millions of loyal robots to rescue him if I leaped for his mustache or anything.
“You see,” he said, eyeing me, “the Committee does not employ the Jang. Your minds should be free to explore recreation and pleasure. Older People, if they wish, may render some sort of voluntary service, certainly, but in the formative years…”
“Have you ever asked any Jang whether they’d like to spend a few formative years doing something slightly useful?” I demanded.
“Er—” he said.
“ ‘New laws for new worlds.’ I believe that’s one of the Committee’s mottoes,” I galloped on.
“That is not—” he tried.
“And how do you know this generation of Jang is just like the last generation of Jang? Well? We might all be an emotional breakthrough, and you’re just sitting there ignoring it.”
He looked flustered, but not by my brilliant, oratorical logic. He looked flustered in the way you look flustered trying to explain to a desert animal that it must pee in the vacuum drift, not up the picture-vision. But then he suddenly knocked the breath out of me by asking:
“And what did you have in mind to work at?”
“Well, what is there?” I stuttered.
“Very little,” he told me, “particularly just at the moment.” He added: “You’ll be taking away the chance to work from an Older Person, who’s entitled to it,” but I ignored that. Who cared? Not him, I bet.
And then he stood up.
“I’ll take you,” he said, “on a little tour of Four BEE’s work centers. That is the usual procedure when someone has a query of this nature.”
We rolled out in a little, low-flying Committee Hall sky-boat. The wind kept thrashing my miles of scarlet hair into the Q-R’s eyes, but he was very good about it. My bee fell on his head and he was very good about that too.
We swooped into the nets of Second Sector’s Flash Center, and the way the Q-R just slammed off the controls and let us go down out of order, nearly missing the nets altogether, reminded me nostalgically of Hergal.
Inside it was bright, plastered with jeweled slogans and reports of particularly brilliant (?) occurrences, such as the latest Jang sabotage, letting in a volcanic cloud-mass over First Sector two nights ago and blotting out the stars (oh, yes, both the Q-R and I remembered that one) or one of Four BOO’s desert animals escaping from captivity in Fourth and causing “havoc and destruction.” Well, havoc, possibly, I suppose. In the main hall robots came charging in and out, bearing tidings from every corner of the city, and screens relayed pictures from high vantage points complete with instant zoom-lens if anything epically frantic, like a moving street jamming for two splits, started to happen. I must say it looked very alert and alive, all of it, that is, except for the Older People, two of them, sitting watching picture-vision and occasionally popping a button or flicking a dial.
“The robots, screens, etc., do the news gathering for the flashes, as you can see. The banks of monitors here receive and sort the Committee reports and essays on social behavior. This computer relays direct from Limbo each day’s list of body changes as it is compiled, and this one sends out individual identifications at the owner’s request.” The Q-R took me around the room and gave me his little lecture.
“And how about them?” I inquired, pointing at the two oblivious workers.
“Oh,” said the Q-R, “they work the buttons which activate each flash.”
“So really, without them, the whole place collapses?” I asked.
“Well, not entirely,” the Q-R admitted. “Each button pops automatically after half a split.”
“I see,” I said.
There were one or two other wildly exciting tasks, all of which would happen automatically if forgotten, which was just as well, as you could see the two workers had just about nodded off.
“Thank you,” I said. “Where do we go next?”
Pathetic, really. I thought City Planning sounded promising. Actually what happens is this: The Committee does a survey, for instance, and finds how the air traffic going to the Adventure Palace gets in a jam near the Time and Space Monument. So the Committee draws up a report saying this is because of the queue of bird-planes waiting to drop into the Monument nets, and how about making them a special bridge to go and queue on, which will get them out of everyone else’s way. This comes through on a computer and is translated by another computer, after which the message is given to the Older Person, officially designated Planner. Swooning at his exhilarating task, he digs up an assortment of suitable machines and programs them to work out the best way the bridge should be built, of what, when, how traffic should be diverted meanwhile, etc. Then, proudly bearing the machines’ mathematics, color proposals, artistic balance directions and sign-posting arrangements in paws clammy with enthusiasm, he trundles off to another machine park, gets a robot to feed the instructions into the relevant computer, and palpitatingly watches metal apparatus go to work making the diversion bridge. And they really kid themselves they’ve made something, this lot.
“That spiral I constructed by the Thought Museum,” they modestly let drop, keeping one hot eye on the nearest computer all the time, just in case the Committee’s found a blockage in Purple Waterway, or anything similarly heart stopping.
I was, by now, prepared for the worst at the Center of Artistic Design.
It’s in pastel shades, with gigantic, almost-but-not-really-there water statues outside, and bronze trees dripping bronze foliage over you. I got tangled up and nearly strangled in my hair before the Q-R got me out. He gave me an odd look. Perhaps he thought I was going after a new body again.
And then we were inside, up a couple of flying floors, and I got excited because people were actually doing things. I remarked—well, I squawked really—on this fact.
“Ah, yes,” my Q-R said kindly, “there is room here for the personal touch.”
Then we stopped to look at an elated female bashing bits out of a huge white stone block, and I noticed that (a) she was using a machine with a sharp biting tooth on the end, and (b) that the stone was marked out pretty clearly, and that the marks magnetized the tooth. A bit farther off, the artists had got tired and were letting the machines crank on with it alone, while they had fire-of-wine and biscuits.
My Q-R must have seen me go all pale and mad. He said quickly:
“The actual designing is done by the artists themselves.”
“Prove it,” I challenged.
We rode up again and found them hard at it, and they really were, only it went something like this:
Artists’s question: “If I put a rod in at right angles on the left, will it balance?”
Red light, indicating the thing will fall down.
Artists’s question: “If I lift the rod with a second rod, twice its width, and support the two with a skeleton cube entering sideways, will it balance then?”
Yellow light, and a spool of metal paper indicating that, yes, that
might do it and (helpful advice) two skeleton cubes diametrically
opposed would ensure success.
There was also: “Look here, you robot, I can manage the eyes if you give me a hand with the cheek bones.” And: “Would your machine mix me that lovely yellow shade the sky goes at sunset? Mine’s gone pink.”
I stood there and stared at it all, and went zaradann.
“Get me some stone!” I screamed at everyone. It really bothered them. My Q-R touched my arm and I yelled even louder: “Stone, and a chisel machine! And paint! Now!”
Well, I was an idiot, wasn’t I?
It fell to pieces, didn’t it?
Not until I’d given it my all, though, of course.
Robots trundled it up and sort of threw it at my feet, this big rough block of impossible-looking stuff. I didn’t really know what I was doing, and they were standing around gawping at me. The Q-R sat down in an artistic-looking chair and appeared to be contemplating.
I took aim. There were no easy magnetized markings here, but the rush with which the chisel-tooth started nearly took my arm off. And I found I’d gone right through to the other side. Well, I mean, I’d meant to, hadn’t I? Courage! I tried another shot and this time nearly went right through the block after the chisel. I flicked my hair back and had another go, and managed to join the two chasms together with a thin swooping arc. I’d got something.
I hacked and scraped away at the thing for ages, chips flying off into the magnetized pans in the floor, and soon I was crawling about inside the cavities, drilling and bashing. It was very intricate and I liked it, and I’d stopped being conscious of eyes peering.
All at once, someone grabbed me by my hair in an agonizing vice. I swore at them vigorously, until I realized it wasn’t a someone after all. My scarlet tresses had got wound up in the stone lace. The Q-R had to come down, ever so patiently, and untie me, and after that he had to come down again and again.
“Oh, use a cutter or something,” I snapped, as I finally found myself hanging in a great big oval frame, in a sort of frenzied spider’s web of hair, with millions of stone chips buzzing around in it. My hair got shorter and shorter after this and, by the time it was lopped to the backs of my knees, I decided I’d had enough and got out before I went bald.
There were enormous scoops of gloriously colored paint ranged up around my working area, and I dipped in and out of them with gusto. I began to change color too. My hair was now several feet deep in platinum pink, and I had a viridian nose. I played with the color to create illusions, painting the shadowed recesses in luminous, vivid tones, and the prominent planes thunderous crimsons and violets, carrying a motif in an unbroken line across varying angles, and making whirlpools like fire appear and retreat across the stone.
We’d missed endless meals, my audience and I. It was well into the afternoon.
I stood back and wiped my hand across my brow, forgetting. I didn’t care anyway. I was proud. I could see it now, high in the Sun Gardens of Fourth Sector, or gracing some glassy walk beside a waterway, reflected softly in the tide. I just hadn’t noticed the tiny little cracks where the chisel-tooth had slipped slightly, the small imbalance, the way one side was somewhat heavier than the other.
I went up to it and brought my hand down on the top, a sort of pat on the head for my lovely stone pet. The minute I touched it, it made this ghastly sound and the whole lot, drooling uncemented paint, collapsed slowly and with filthy finality, inward, inward, till it was just a heap of rubble.
They dug me out.
The Q-R smiled.
“It’s always as well,” he said, “to seek the advice of the computer in these matters.”
“V.…n the computer!” I said, and, amid shocked silence, he whisked me away.
He was pretty nice, really. He didn’t tell me not to sit and sulk, as I sat and sulked.
We had a meal injection each, for which he paid, but I don’t think it was that chivalrous of him. Q-R’s always find that sort of thing much easier to do, since the relevant circuits are built into them. After that we fluttered around and saw hundreds of bored people being supervisors of Water-Flow, Air-Traffic control, Food-Planning, etc. All they had to do was pop buttons and turn dials, which popped and turned anyway. It began to get dark, and he said that was about it, apart from the Picture-Vision Devisory Center, and I grabbed him and said I wanted to see it, so we went. I think I only got enthusiastic on a reflex. It was going to be crawling with machinery and computers like everything else, wasn’t it?
It’s a big dome-y place, with actual picture-vision of simply enormous, gigantic figures galumping around being erotic and so on going on all over it.
Inside we went up and down softly gold-lit corridors, smoky with incense, with big metallic flames writhing around the ceiling, and saw lots of neat little shut-off rooms, with solitary Devisors working away inside them. We weren’t allowed to crash in and disturb them, but you could plug in a little pickup and get a complete resume of what was going on. And what these people were doing was actually coming out of their own minds. They used machinery for reference purposes, like making sure this particular sequence wasn’t going to clash with, or be too similar to, the one that had gone out ten splits beforehand. And they were working the controls themselves to make the images do what they wanted on a great big screen in the ceiling.
The ideas were rather monotonous, though, all dancing and twining and having love, full of flowers and floating hair. Gorgeous, but banal. A challenge.
“This is it,” I said.
“What?” the Q-R asked.
“The work I want to do,” I said. “I mean, they are actually doing it, aren’t they?”
He looked the tiniest bit troubled, but said he would try to arrange a free room for me to try it, if I liked. I liked. He went off down the corridor while I buzzed around outside the neat little offices, peering in and probably frightening people with my paint-smeared hair and green nose, which I’d temporarily forgotten.
A spiral suddenly whirled down beside me and asked me to get on, and up I went, past moving limbs and flowery torsos, into another corridor, where a gaily striped messenger showed me into my own little playground, with my own little control bank and my own little big screen.
I did actually have to ask the reference machine how everything worked, but it was very simple really. And they wanted symbolism, did they, and emotions? All right. I must admit, though, I based it a bit on Sense Distortion, even if I didn’t realize it at the time.
I started with this golden-haired girl walking through a sun-splashed forest of moving plants, and after a while the plants sort of became males. Only very slightly at first, but soon you could see for sure. They’re beautiful, long-limbed and really groshing, but still sort of imprisoned in the trunks of the plants they were, and you come to understand that you’re seeing them through the girl’s eyes, and she’s just imagining them to be males. Then it gets really weird. You see that while she’s looking at these plants as men, they’re looking at her as another plant, a sort of fantastic, pale-stemmed flower, her arms like long leaves, her hair a sunburst of huge golden petals, not walking anymore, just gently swaying there in the middle of them. Then they start fighting for her, first one at a time, then all at once, thrashing tendrils that become arms, and muscular leg movements that change back into writhing roots. I suppose it was a bit of a liberty, thinking this forest was so sex-starved it would go completely zaradann over one fragile-looking little flower, but there you are. Anyhow, this fight comes to an end and there’s the victor, a dark plant or a dark male with long black hair. And he moves after the girl-flower, and they go into a sort of running-away from coming-toward each other dance, and finally have love, tangled up in petals and leaves and limbs, which was strange and beautiful more than erotic, but anyway, I was pleased.
I pressed the signal button and a cage came down and took away the recorded track. I sat and waited.
I didn’t have to wait long, though.
An intercom signal screeched at me, and the three-dimensional image of some Q-R controller or other appeared a couple of feet away.
“Ah yes,” said the controller, “a very reasonable attempt, I must say. We rather enjoyed it.”
“Hurrah,” I said. I already knew.
“The trouble is, my dear,” murmured the controller quite sadly, “that there is too much story and too little eroticism. You must understand,” he went on, forestalling any possible outburst on my part, which I felt too tired to make anyway, “that picture-vision is almost entirely watched by the older groups of Four BEE. In addition, most people who watch it simply like to switch on and off when they wish, and if all our entertainments had plots, what confusion there would be, wouldn’t there?” Pause for chortle in which I did not join. “However,” he finished up, “your color sense and originality are promising. Perhaps we might have another talk about it when you’ve completed your period as Jang. Your ideas will be mellower then, more conventional, more acceptable, I’m sure. So do come back later on, if you still feel like helping our little company.”
I felt like throwing the reference machine at him, but I desisted.
My Q-R met me in the corridor.
“Don’t despair,” he said. “Have a little rest. See your friends. You were doing so well this morning.”
“Toasted angel-food,” I said, “makes me sick.” And I marched out and left him there, and went home.
In the night Hergal woke me up crashing on the Zeefahr.
One of my makers signaled me in the morning—I’m not sure which one because he’d changed, still male but another body—and asked me if I was all right.
“Oh yes, thanks. I’m fine.”
It was the last I heard of them, actually, but it was a nice thought.
Hatta had got some machine or other to write me a Jang love-poem, and the pet tore up all the silk flowers by the pool and brought them to me proudly, one by one, with a separate sneer in each orange eye.
I signaled the Picture-Vision Devisory Center and asked to have my track as a souvenir, in a bitter sort of voice that they ignored. I got the track, though, and the pet and I watched it run through over and over again, all afternoon, on the wall screen.
Night bloomed over Four BEE, and I went out walking along ancient, non-moving paths, the pet dogging my heels, playing with its shadow and mine, blackly cast from us by the big stars and the jeweled signs sizzling between buildings.
We went fire-riding at the Onyx Playgrounds, at least I did. The pet crouched under the cushions and snarled whenever a particularly bright sweep of flame whooshed by. Other fire-boats, gaudy and gold, leaped past in a spatter of sparks. I noticed two Older People, a male and a female, dressed to match in acid green, sitting in one holding hands and giggling like a couple of Jang. They got me down, somehow, and then they intrigued me, they looked so pleased with themselves. When they pressed their control for down, I followed them. We landed, and I tucked the pet, struggling and obstreperous, under one arm and tracked the couple between the fun booths and the fountains. Jang are always following people around, according to the Committee essays on Jang behavior. I’d never made much of a habit of it, but at least, if they turned around and saw me now, they wouldn’t throw a fit or anything.
They were tireless and absolutely boring in what they wanted to do. They kept stopping to catch fire, or crawl down the purple throats of great big furry snakes from Four BAA, and buying the most nauseous playground food you could think of and gobbling away at it.
Eventually they sat down in the middle of some non-wet, rainbow-colored and flower-scented fountains, and started twittering to each other. I’d stationed myself quietly a little way off, but the pet took this opportunity to blow its mind and went crashing over to them, kicking water around with its great big, fluffy, silly feet. I dashed after to catch it before it bit into their sugar thistledown-on-gold wands, or satisfied its bodily functions on their nice green boots or something. But everybody had made a hit somehow.
“What a charming animal,” they told me. Oh well, I could see they were prepared to go along with everything tonight.
The pet turned around and tried to bite me, just to show it knew who its friends really were.
“What a lovely body, my dear,” they congratulated me as I cavorted around, trying to avoid the pet’s teeth. “Let’s hope our girl,” the female added, “will have such good taste when she becomes one of the Jang,” and they both giggled.
Oh, I got it.
“You’re makers?” I asked pityingly, because they were sitting there quite breathless with wanting me to ask.
“Oh yes. Just,” they explained.
“This afternoon,” the female said, “Rul gave his half of the child. We watched the two halves being mated. Oh!” She patted Rul’s matching arm.
“Which of you is going to be the guardian?” I inquired. Only one maker has to accept legal custody of the child through its growing years and the time at hypno-school. After that it becomes Jang and a free agent anyway. These two disconcerted me, though, by saying:
“We thought we’d both stay together, at least until it becomes Jang.”
“My makers did that,” I said. I suddenly felt a sort of cold hollowness somewhere. “They split up a couple of units ago.” And their faces fell. I was rather ashamed of myself. “They were both predominantly male though,” I said to cheer them, “that’s why.” And cheered they were. Well, she was obviously predominantly female, at any rate. Too predominantly female I should think, to be frank.
I said I must dash off and have ecstasy now, and everybody looked approving, except the thalldrap pet, who be-seeched them with its eyes, seeming to say: “Once we’re alone together, she’ll beat me unmercifully.” I got its scruff, dragged it off them, and stalked away across the park.
“You let me down,” I accused it. It laughed. Truly, I’m certain it did. My bee fell on my head in front of a great big crowd water-skating.
“I wish you could answer me,” I snapped at the pet. “Then we could have a real dalika, and make it up afterward and feel better.”
And that was how I first thought of the child. Something to have a row with. It’s a dreadful admission I suppose, but there you are.
The pet went bounding away to play star-ball with some pale-haired Jang in the middle distance; I sat on an ornamental stone thing with rubies frozen in it, and the thoughts came creeping up on me.
A child. I, too, would make a child. The male involved was unimportant; he need have nothing further to do with the enterprise beyond providing the other half to mine. I would be the guardian. I would watch the flower grow in its crystallize twilight, take it home and tend it, send it out each period to hypno-school and receive it home again each mid-period, glorying in its accomplishments. I could discuss its problems with it. I would stimulate its interests and desires. I would help to make a person, a baby, a Jang, an adult. I throbbed with obscure but passionate love for my yet unmade, unrealized second self.
“I know exactly what you’re going to say,” I told my poor old Q-R with the water carpet.
“Oh yes. You’re going to say: ‘We have come up against the original problem. You are Jang, and you are too young, and you must go on being Jang and too young for another quarter rorl.’ However, I’ve looked it up in the flash records at the History Museum, and it’s happened before.”
“Perhaps you would tell me what happened before,” my Q-R suggested.
“Jang becoming makers.”
“I see,” said the Q-R. “You want to become a maker.”
“Yes,” I said.
“And who is the other maker?”
“I haven’t decided yet.”
“My dear young lady,” said the Q-R, “it may not have told you in the flash records, but when members of the Jang have been granted permission to become makers, it has always been when a young male and female have formed a particularly strong attachment and wish to cement their closeness with a child.”
I was all mental agility this morning, though.
“All right,” I said, “I’ll admit there’s a special male I have in mind, but he’s in Sense Distortion at the moment. He’s had it booked for ages and couldn’t break the appointment, or he’d be here with me now. We’ve thought about making a child for a long while,” I went on, dreamy-eyed. “A part of ourselves…”
“Really?” asked the Q-R. He wasn’t sure, I could tell. He flicked through circuits and relays, and said, “Apparently the ruling is not so strict now, anyway. If you are willing to undergo the relevant examinations, we will consider your application.”
I nearly had a seizure.
“You will?” I honked.
“Yes,” said the Q-R. It suddenly struck me that he really was kind, or really had been programmed to be kind. “I know,” he said, “how difficult you are finding things at the moment and, in my judgment, I feel a relationship with a growing being might well help you. Providing, of course, you recognize that a certain amount of Committee inspection will take place during the child’s early years.”
I burbled happily. The Committee could inspect what they liked. I’d trot the child out, singing, “I love Four BEE and hypno-school, and I will be Jang beyond Jang,” if they wanted. Oh, derisann Q-R!
I went by sledge to a pale yellow, soothing sort of room, where two or three Q-Rs in gold encouraged me to tell them why I wanted to make a child. When I reeled off all this stuff about presenting Four BEE with another happy citizen, they looked quite surprised, but I knew I was saying the right things. I’d read up on it all, you see. I also said I felt associating with a child’s naivety and innocence would give me a sort of mental tonic bath, and they went wild at that. I actually sort of felt it anyway, so I suppose it rang sincere. Apparently difficult, tosky, nuisance Jang like me had been reformed before by prolonged sexual relationships and the making of children.
Then we got on to another subject: “You realize your chosen male must be another Jang, and where is he?” So I trotted out the Sense Distortion thing again. When you attend Sense Distortion, it can go on for ages, and you can be anonymous while you’re at it. It’s a sort of safety valve. I suppose, a manner of getting out of it all. So my chosen male, whose name I didn’t give, was shut away for the moment and I wasn’t quite sure when he’d emerge.
They accepted it blithely; obviously the rules were a bit slacker now or they’d have been routing everyone out of Sense Distortion till they found him.
Then I had to go wait in a room full of bowls of ecstasy pills and love machines, and after a million and one vreks a messenger came to take me back, and they said it was going to be all right.
They gave me a little chat next on the responsibilities of makerhood, how I could apply for help and where from, how the Committee would send Q-Rs to inspect my efforts—apparently gaily informal little visits, gurgles at baby and furry toys and so on, but I’m not that selt—and warnings about forms I would have to fill out later for hypno-school and the rest. Making children is fairly involved.
I felt terribly overexcited and glowing, with hot cheeks and banging heart. When they sent me on to the medical this enthusiasm registered on the machines, and the Q-Rs looked moist-eyed. I honestly nearly went out of my mind trying not to laugh at them. I had this feeling if I started I might not stop, and they’d mark me as One-A First-Class Hysteric and say no children ever! So I hung on while they took blood groups, brain electricity readings, and chalk measures of bones. Then someone leaned over me and said did I want to make a male or a female.
“Female,” I responded, rather aggressively I suspect.
They asked if my chosen mate was in agreement.
Oh yes, of course.
Well, of course he would be, wouldn’t he, whoever he was? And it suddenly seemed it had to be someone a bit special, after all.
I suppose they’d corrupted me into feeling that.
And the ghastly thing was, the first person I thought of was Hergal.
I tried to reason myself out of it.
Hergal is such a bore, I kept telling myself, and decidedly off-Jang and zaradann to boot, and oh, all sorts of things.
But it wasn’t any good. I suppose I’ll always have a soft spot for the mannerless, vague nonchalance of him, the essence of his life spark, so alien to and yet, in some weird way, so parallel to mine.
He’d still be in Limbo probably, after the last crash—the forty-first, wasn’t it?—but that wasn’t a problem. As to having him cut out of my circle, I’d since cut myself out as well, so we were sort of outcasts together, so to speak.
Actually he came into the dream. The dream is what they give you while they take the necessary half from you to make the child. The main idea is to get you to dream of being with the child, and it’s wildly idyllic, so you’re practically weeping with joy in your sleep. I was running with her, my child, across rose fields full of scent and pink sunlight, and both our hair was scarlet, clashing with everything, only we didn’t care. There wasn’t much to it, just this bursting, sobbing happiness that shakes the heart out of you. And then the child looked up and pointed at something glittering in the sky.
“Maker, what’s that?”
And it was silly old Hergal, looking utterly groshing, entirely gold and catching the sun, flying around and around in circles on these huge angel’s wings that really worked.
So I woke up, and they’d popped my half into crystallize cold-storage; they said to send my male along as soon as he was ready, and they’d get cracking on it. And I thought of Hergal.
I was so happy riding to Limbo on the floating bridge. I kept going off into these crazy euphorics about how wonderful the life spark was, that little, indefinable something which has to be made initially by a male and a female, no matter how many bodies it hops in and out of once it’s grown up. It still puzzles everyone, that. The Q-R scientists can’t come to terms with it, even now. They sort of go “Er, humph!” whenever anyone mentions it.
“The essential difference between the Quasi-Robot (android) and the living man,” the books have it, “lies in the fact that the Quasi-Robot is living flesh motivated by electrodes, metallic plasma, and a steel brain, built into the cells as they grow. Man is pure flesh without electronic or metallic interference, created from female and male cells, containing that ancient element once termed the Soul.”
But I was crazy with joy on the bridge, thinking of my half, lying waiting, the tiny spark from my spark, little pale ooma, my child, my self. I felt as if I were in ecstasy, but I hadn’t touched a pill for ages.
Near Limbo, I realized I hadn’t got anything to take Hergal, so I went and stole a robotic serpent with pearl plating, really insumatt, then felt mean and went all the way back to pay for it; it wouldn’t really be a present, after all, if I’d stolen it, would it?
When I got to Limbo, I had the usual trouble with everyone trying to find Hergal. I hadn’t seen the flash about his new body, and wondered what he’d be like this time. I soon found out.
“Oh Hergal!” I practically screamed. “How could you?”
“What’s wrong?” Hergal inquired, lazily uncoiling her lithe, silver body from a floating couch and jumping neatly into bounce on the crystallize-rubber floor.
“You’re female!” I stated.
“Top marks,” she sneered. Her hair was long and twilight mauve, plaited and full of jewelry. She had emeralds pasted on the nipples of her small, delectable breasts, and a groin shield of flowers.
My happiness exploded and was gone. I explained, between the dry sobs of my furious disappointment.
“Well, how was I to know?” Hergal asked me, reasonably enough. She tried to comfort me, but at the touch of her lovely soft arm I rushed out and went home. I’d forgotten to give her the snake, but the pet had fun with it, and for units after I fell and tripped and skidded over dismantled pearl plates. Symbolism again, I suppose, of my dismantled hopes.
To torture myself, looking into his four pink eyes, I imagined saying: “Hatta, make a child with me.” Ugh! Just to think of it. I didn’t suppose the Committee would allow it anyway. The baby would probably grow three or four heads, and hooves or something.
“No,” I said to Hatta, not really having listened to what he was saying, but having guessed—correctly too, presumably, judging from his woebegone expression. He went away.
The pet wanted to play and I didn’t. We had a one-sided row and it bit me.
Who? That was the question. Who? Who? Who? I couldn’t think of anyone I wanted to give their half to my child. Besides, everyone seemed to be being female all over the place. Even Kley.
And then I thought of the sand-ships, one every twelve units, out of Four BEE, across the Burning Desert, etc., into Four BOO and Four BAA. Perhaps some handsome body with a handsome life spark inside it was waiting to be useful there. Oh joy!
“Want to come?” I asked the pet doubtfully.
I knew it would insist on coming, and bite everybody all the time, and go zaradann at the worst possible moments. It followed me to the porch, honking softly.
“Come on then.” I hefted it and ducked unsuccessfully a bite on the nose which turned out, luckily, to be a kiss instead.
It felt really strange, going out of Four BEE.
You had to book your place on a sand-ship, but I was lucky, they said, this was an off-peak traveling time. Actually, it’s always off-peak now. The desert and those great black mountains and volcanoes, extinct or otherwise, give people the creeps. When I got aboard I could see my fellow travelers sitting around cringing, waiting to be flung out at the inhospitable bosom of what is, after all, our own planet. There were a few Jang, but obviously a complete circle who didn’t want an outsider like me slipping in. They looked pretty female, anyway, even the two males. And they were cringing too, while being superficially ever so young and daring. They’d probably never even sabotaged anything. I must admit the first sabotage I did, with Hergal and Kley, nearly an eighth of a rorl ago, I felt really agoraphobic about the great open spaces beyond the lookout post at 6D, though it was sort of wonderful too, to find something your stomach could really churn over at last. The two or three other passengers were Older People, one hugging a pink animal, and I tugged at the pet’s scruff worriedly.
“You dare,” I said.
The pet, unstained innocence incarnate, licked its shimmering coat.
After we’d been sitting around for a while, a robot came aboard from somewhere or other and checked us, with irritating slowness, against a passenger list in one of the steel pillars.
The robot informed me that my animal was unregistered, and I would have to sign a special document if I wanted it to stay on board. I nearly took the opportunity to have the pet thrown out, but couldn’t bring myself to, so I signed. The pet tried to bite the robot. There was a lot of noise. Hey ho, conspicuous again.
There were clankings and the whoopings of sirens, and we started off at a slow gallop. The ejector nets grabbed us with a bit of juddering here and there, and we eased, with a high-pitched whistling sound, out of the electricity wave dome that covers Four BEE. The light changed. There was a soft bang as the dome locks shut. The passengers all glared around at the covered window spaces, looking ghastly with pretended jollity and sangfroid. And then this announcement came on that nearly made me choke with sadistic glee:
“Those of you who wish to avail yourselves of the Transparency Tower in the stern may now do so.”
And nobody, of course, stirred. Well, I mean, look at all that drumdik, beastly great desert, all those foul natural phenomena, like rain-carved rocks and wind-chiseled screes—I was up before I knew it. All right, I did want to avail myself of the Transparency Tower. The robot nearly collapsed, but tottered after me somehow to switch on a guide machine which droned on about natural features. The pet followed me and peered out too, probably remembering its desert home near Four BOO in the good old days, before stupid people dragged it out of its burrow by its long, curling, impossible whiskers, and condemned it to being a pet to some fool like me.
The T.T. was oval, made of glacia-view, resistant to atmospheric pressure, weather, sand, but completely see-throughable. The dome of the roof was also clear, bearing some sort of blurred crest of the old sand-ship fleet. They’re a pretty ancient institution. Everyone thought they’d be replaced by body displacing machines until we all found out that they make you vomit. By then everyone was anti-travel, anyway.
“How does it feel to man a relic?” I asked the guide machine, which was trying to bully me into turning into twenty pairs of eyes stuck in a revolving neck. “No, I won’t look at that geological fault. No, nor the extinct volcano on my left. I’ll do my own looking.” And I did. Honestly, the rock spires looked just like fantastic castles from some myth or other. I caught myself imagining they were, and stopped myself. Oh but…and the sky was dark, sort of turquoise more than blue, with a ghost of greenness moving through it all the time. Everything else was in tones of black, with the odd pinky-red vein here and there, except the sand, which was just pale and seemed to reflect rainbow. Dust devils shimmered and canyons yawned, and I was just going into a quiet frenzy when suddenly the sides and roof opaqued. I had a moan at the robot about this, but apparently they clear automatically at certain periods of the day and then cloud pretty quickly, in case it proves too much for you and you go zaradann all over their ship.
Back below, I found the pet had run off and was having a fight with the pink animal, and everybody else was having hysterics. Couldn’t I control my monster, they wanted to know? No, I couldn’t; would they care to try? They backed away, and I lunged and somehow got the pet and an armful of teeth as well. The older female grabbed the pink animal and hugged its tattered, snarling body to her bosom. It kicked her.
Then, fortunately, this silvery ringing tone announced the arrival of a meal in the saloon, and we trouped off to gorge. It was pretty groshing, really, gold plates and so on, and goblets with patterns and little mauve bubbles blown in the crystallize. We started off with iced fire-tomatoes in red wine, progressed to root steak and forced beans in amber sauce with spices, and ended up with spike-fruits, desert plums, and lichen cheese with nuts. There were gallons of fire-and-ice and Joyousness, which contains ecstasy.
I ate alone and fed the pet from my plate, just to get on everyone’s nerves. It wasn’t keen, though, and only brightened up when the robot trundled up with its dish of syntho-meat substitute and cactus cream. I had to pay heavily for that. They even gave it some wine but what wine precisely I’m not clear on. It didn’t go into ecstasy though, or anything, thank goodness.
After the meal—apparently they only serve seven meals on the ships but you could get cold snacks in between; it’s sensible really. Even then, only one man attended every sitting—the Older People went off to watch picture-vision and the Jang had a swim in the pool-tank, which, I have to admit, tempted me. Not with them in it, however. I took one of the large moving-picture magazines from the ship’s store and went to sit in the Transparency Tower, keeping the pet firmly tucked between my feet.
Quite soon the glacia-view unclouded and I saw a troup of long-eared things with antennae and ski feet, thumping across the desert at a great rate. They looked dreadfully purposeful and intense. You could imagine them grabbing you at parties and telling you all about the Movement. It made me giggle, then feel odd, as if I’d been cut out of a circle and had to cry. However, the pet diverted my attention by staring at them and barking.
“You’ve never barked before,” I admired. “You should do it more often.”
It gave me a withering look.
Several opacities later, I saw that the turquoise sky was blushing slightly on the horizon, over a tall black funnel of mountain. There was a dullish boom of earthquake thunder and the ship sort of shuddered ever so gently. Immediate signal for cries and screeches from below. In the saloon, where some of them were having another meal, a solitary crystallize goblet bounced across the floor. I resigned myself to the stupid glacia-view clouding over to prevent my incipient, though in fact nonexistent, paranoid hysteria. But it didn’t. It probably presumed I’d have run below, yelling and sweating with the others. So I saw this derisann and positively insumatt eruption, complete with exploding pink and mauve flowers of smoke, fountains of sparks, and a great whoosh of lava and black ash. What joy! The sand-ship, of course, was suitably programmed to avoid this sort of involuntary cabaret and took off from its air cushions at a steep angle, going to port like anything and soon leaving the panorama behind. Still, I’d actually witnessed a real event. The pet honked.
“All right,” I said, “you’re always honking. There’s nothing so wildly original in that!”
I spent a really revolting night, at least to start with. First of all the pet kept jumping on to my anchored float-bed and messing up its soothing, rocking action. Then it kept forcing its way into the bed with me. Then there would be a scene, the pet would leave, and two splits later there it would be crashing down on me again. Eventually it wandered off and got rid of its wine ration in the saloon. It was the robot who woke me up this time with the above joyful news. It said I was to be sure to take the pet to the pet vacuum drift, next to the ordinary vacuum drift, as the automatic cleaners should not be got out at this time of night. So I guiltily crawled from bed and forced the pet into performing a pee of insignificant extent in the right place.
Then I really couldn’t sleep, despite turning on the bed’s cooler-waves, then the heaters, the ecstasy machine, and a lullaby unit that was utterly nauseous and seemed to think I was still at hypno-school.
I got up and tailed off to the T. Tower and, to my great delight, discovered it stayed clear all night, so I swallowed stay-awake pills in case and spent six hours or so with red-flickering, volcanic darkness, low-slung, hard, cold living stars, the quick ignition of animal eyes through rock arches and in strings of gold along the sand. And I actually saw a real dawn. It was less spectacular than in a dome, but they had a sort of ethereal wonder about them, those pale, arrowing green shafts of light that slowly pulled from the dark this round orange sun, which turned brighter and fiercer until I had to look away, my eyes streaming. I saw black spots for ages, and honestly got a bit scared until they finally went off. No one had warned me that you couldn’t stare at the real sun like you can stare at that false yellow thing in Four BEE.
The Jang passengers appeared fairly soon after. They’d been having some sort of suitable Jang orgy in their single cabin, with ecstasy, Upper-Ear music and, as I gathered the two males were married to the two females, presumably having love all over the place as well. They looked vague as they knocked back their energy pills and ate toasted angel-food.
“Attlevey,” I gaily cried, to see what would happen. They attlevey-ed in return, even more vaguely. Circles seemed to get more and more cliquey every vrek.
The pet and I had first meal alone again, and we ate cactus mushrooms and fried root bread. I don’t usually eat that early, but the journey had given me an appetite. Trite, wasn’t it? The pet snuffled about and decided it liked mushrooms. It toyed with its syntho-meat substitute, but golluped down all the wine with floating cream. I liked the look of that and ordered one. Mine came in a goblet, and very nice it was too, before the pet realized, gave it a good swipe out of my hand, and drank the resultant spilled stuff on the floor. Again the robot came and told me off, and the Older People, who didn’t seem terribly Jang-disposed, probably because being surrounded by a lot of explosive volcanoes disturbed them, chat-chatted away about disgraceful lack of training in the pet—all my fault—and disgraceful lack of table manners in me, letting it drink from my goblet. Well! That’s one way to put it, I suppose.
I was rather glad when we got to Four BOO. I’d heard the older female with the pink animal tell the robot that I ought to be put out of the ship, and the pet too. Apparently I had priority; the pet was just an afterthought. I didn’t think it would happen, though. It’s quite illegal unless, of course, I’d turned homicidal, and then they’d have to give me oxygen tablets or hypodermics, maps, drinking water, food, a floating hydro-tent….Still, it makes you feel a bit odd when people want to throw you out that badly. I could just see that woman stunning me with her great big crystallize and gold chronometer, chucking me from the lock-port, and then thrusting the pet down the vacuum drift, through the antiseptic layer, into Nothing. The pet got the last laugh, though.
Just before arrival, I heard this female screaming around, yelling that she’d lost her pink animal. Everyone sort of joined in the search and eventually located these ghastly noises coming from the saloon. There were gasps and grunts and little wounded cries, and a sort of background honking that could only be—
“Oh! You abominable Jang Girl!” screeched the older female. “My poor little Honey-Nut is being massacred by your thing.” Honey-Nut was presumably the pink animal; the “thing” was presumably guess who.
In fear and trembling we all advanced into the saloon, and there they were, Honey-Nut and the pet, and honestly, I think the older female would have been happier if the pet had just tom Honey-Nut’s rose pink throat out.
“Aah!” she shrilled. “How could you!”
It was a small betrayal.
What the two of them were actually doing was having love. No, really. And apparently it was absolutely groshing, judging from the row. The female hopped around, yelping that somebody ought to go and tear them apart, and I think I really upset her when I asked how she’d like being tom apart from her chosen male in the middle of something like that. Anyhow, sense prevailed and we left them alone, watching fascinated until the climax came in a rolling, shrieking ball of flying fur and pistoning paws and thrashing tails. They collapsed exhausted. Well, it must have taken at least thirty splits. I felt ridiculously proud of the pet when it stood up, shook itself, and came strolling over, the epitome of nonchalance. I picked it up and congratulated it, being very careful how I held it. It was probably a little sensitive here and there.
“I’ll have the Committee on you!” yowled the older female. “Despoiling my animal! And if she lays an egg…!”
I thought she might be going to have a fit, but she didn’t, unfortunately. Somehow I got the feeling that Honey-Nut had laid eggs before.
And just then, luckily, the ship announced that we were approaching Four BOO.
Well, I really was out of Four BEE now.
Of course, Four BOO and BAA are pretty much the same, except for the volcanic pits at BOO and the huge android animal breeding grounds at BAA which produce gorgeous semi-synthetic creatures, like Jade Tower’s dragon. The other thing to remember is that a messenger bee in BAA becomes a baa, and a boo in BOO. Logical but confusing.
Anyway, naturally the first thing that happened when I got off the sand-ship was that my boo fell on my head in front of the Jang, the outraged Older People, a positively glowing Honey-Nut, and a whole crowd of robots and Q-Rs and general gawpers who’d come to see us arrive. I tried to look blase.
I was ever so Jang for disembarkation. I had to attract Jang males, after all. I wore see-through trousers with little silver disks on the ankle hems, and a corresponding see-through tunic with corresponding disks at the hips. Both were lightly spangled with silver dust. Silver chains clanked around my groin, and between my breasts big greenish opals on platinum ropes quivered and bounced. I wore long turquoise earrings reaching to my navel, which also proudly sported a turquoise to match. My hair was a riot of silk flowers, metal do-dahs, and a big fan comb dribbling pearls.
We were on the Arrival Stretch, a close-shaved area of feather grass with artistic copper trees with tortured trunks. Nearby, outside the protective dome, volcanoes roared and spewed fire, but you’d never have known. They actually reduce all that splendor to helping their power station banks, but that’s kind of nice because it makes things cheaper and sometimes, after a particularly good eruption, everything you buy is free for the unit.
I stared around and flashed my toe rings, but there wasn’t a Jang male in sight.
We had to give our identities and place of origin at a little reception desk with glass pillars and a fountain. After that the others all trundled off into waiting rented bird-planes, bubbles, etc. I made for an old walkway with some rather nice eighth-dimensional sculptures along it. I wanted to see and be seen. The pet rushed along behind me, tapping at my silver ankle disks with heavy white paws.
“Who had love with Honey-Nut?” I felt suddenly prompted to ask, and we did a little dance together among the statuary. Astonishing! I felt wildly happy.
This machine thing with tentacles zoomed up soon after that and began offering me accommodations. They can spot a tourist in about two splits, the Committees in our cities, and once they have, they’re after you. Still, I suppose it’s quite useful. There were lots of exotic places to “relax and enjoy myself.” I chose the Volcanic Lake Palace; it sounded as though it would be crawling with Jang males. The tentacled thing rushed off in hysterical delight and was back in seconds with a bird-plane in rainbow colors that apparently would be free of charge. Good. The pet and I got in, and the tentacled thing gave the robot directions and then slipped tactfully away, assuring me I would never regret my choice. Well, that was a real laugh.
I started to feel peculiar the moment we flew over it, this great big, roiling, heaving lake of lava treacle. Bubbles popped and exploded in it, and jets of steam hissed and crackled. The Palace was obsidian, of course, and towered up in the middle of the chaos, obviously anchored, but still heaving slightly, along with all the rest. I suppose it was a stunning sight. The dark was coming on, deep blue, and the lake and the massive structure of the Palace glowed like flames. I still felt sick, though.
The bird-plane delivered me at the entrance, a terrace with steam pillars, and I went in. The floor was veined with gold inside, and presently it had other decorations as the pet threw up seventh meal in all directions.
I apologized, did some obligatory paying, and signaled another bird-plane to rescue us.
As we drifted over Four BOO I thought: They can keep their palaces. We’ll sleep in a park tonight. Firm ground, and the weather’s always perfect, of course, in a dome. And lots of Jang. I’ll say I’ve come here to do some contemplating.
So we went and bought an utterly insumatt cube of glass and steel and gold, shot through with wonderful color, containing about fifty possible infinities. It would be worth contemplating this thing, even if nothing else did turn up. Then, in the bird-plane, full of crazy hopes and remembering again with intense joy my half child waiting in Four BEE, the pet and I and the beastly boo floated down in the starlight on a soft park lawn.
I skimmed along, having turned the boo’s little evening light on, and chose a grove of diamante trees. I got arranged, had a meal injection, inspected my hair and clothes and everything else in the long mirror in the boo, and then half reclined, graceful and languorous, with the cube anchored to a tree trunk just the right distance away. And I really got lost in it, even with all my crazy hopes and so on. I truly didn’t hear their voices till they’d been at it for quite a while.
They were both male, both pretty groshing, one white-haired and one dark-haired.
“I’m Sarl,” said the dark one promptly, as soon as I’d looked. “This is Lorun.”
“How derisann,” I murmured. The pet snarled, and I tried to land it one surreptitiously.
“Lonely, are you?” asked Sarl. He leered at me. Well, it wasn’t going to be him, for a start.
“Oh, I’m not lonely,” I said, “just rather hungry. I’ve been so busy contemplating, you know, I’d forgotten about meals. Is there anywhere…?”
“Come with me,” said Sarl.
“No,” I said, “I want to go on contemplating. I’m going to have ecstasy soon. Could you bring me something, I wonder?” And Sarl, the thalldrap, went marching off to do just that. I looked at my spoils. Mmm.
“And you’re Lorun.” I smiled.
“That’s right,” Lorun said. He didn’t even sarcastically congratulate me on my remarkable memory.
“This is my pet. I’m afraid it might bite you.”
“Oh, I’m used to animals,” said Lorun. He came up and sat down, and soon there was the pet rolling on its back, with its six mad paws in the air, going zaradann as he tickled its tummy. Well, you couldn’t blame the pet. Really, the male had the most arresting body. He was sort of slight but muscular, with long powerful legs and groshing, artistic hands. His hair was quite short, only to his shoulders, and he didn’t have a beard or mustache, just these somehow frightfully endearing dark eyebrows and lashes, which were crazily derisann against his ice-paleness. Good taste.
“I’m sure you are lonely,” he eventually said, when he’d practically driven the pet and me out of our minds.
“Well, yes,” I conceded, “it’s possible.”
“Stranger to Four BOO, perhaps?”
“Four BEE.” I must confess I wasn’t even thinking about the child at that particular moment.
“Ah then, as a native, you must let me take you under my wing.”
“What a good idea. I’m sure it would be a nice wing to be under.”
“How charming you are,” said Lorun. “But what about your ecstasy?”
“It can wait,” I decided.
But he decided it couldn’t. We would have ecstasy together. Just then he spotted Sarl marching back to us across the lawns and terraces, bearing food and wine.
“Come on,” said Lorun, “or did you particularly want to eat now? We can wait if you like.”
I didn’t like, and said no. So we scampered off through the trees like naughty children at hypno-school, our boos dragging along the pet and the contemplation cube, with their lights out.
We had ecstasy in a robot-controlled bird-plane, but Lorun kept messing around with the gears and buttons, and it was like being with Hergal in one of his better moments.
In the middle of the most ghastly nosedive, that any other time would have frightened all the breath out of me, Lorun inquired whether I would care to get married for two or three units.
Even the pet didn’t make a fuss about it. I think it was somehow under the impression that it had married him too.
Well, I never thought I was cut out for idylls, but apparently I was. We really lived, breathed, ate, slept each other. Lorun also had a present maker who was absent then in Four BAA. Their home was a huge crowd of shut-in domes and spires under a palely golden lake, near the center of the city. It was a pretty select area, with not many other homes down there, under the fawn silk waters. Weird water plants waved around the windows, as we had love and had love and had more love.
And it was all such fun, apart from being so erotically satisfying. We romped and played about with the awful pet, and Lorun really didn’t seem to mind it tearing up the creeper curtains and ripping at the air-lock doors. We went swimming and bubble-riding under-lake, visited the under-lake restaurants and playgrounds—also very select and very groshing too—talked and laughed and were crazy together. I really thought I was on to something, but I didn’t bring up the subject of the child just yet. Somehow there seemed more to this relationship than just a prospective other-self-maker hunt. And then, when the three days were up, Lorun suggested we apply for an extension to the marriage.
We got duly extended and had love to celebrate, nice but not original, and then somebody signaled Lorun and said would he care to help in some Jang sabotage.
“Want to join in?” he inquired.
“Don’t you want me to, ooma?”
Lorun proved conclusively that he did, so we went together.
I hadn’t sabotaged a thing for vreks and vreks, and felt a bit rusty and tosky through the euphoria of being with Lorun. We met the rest of his circle, four weird females with tendrilous hair and one with a single whorled horn growing from her left temple, Sarl and another male. Sarl snarled at me.
“Er, attlevey,” I said, feeling decidedly alien. I said circles are getting terribly cliquey and this was a fine example.
“Attlevey,” they all droned, looking at me as if I’d just unexpectedly returned up the vacuum drift or something.
“You’re Lorun’s new marriage, are you?” horny-puss asked nastily. I could just tell her finger-long nails were more than mere Jang decoration.
“Oh, I thought you were still the last one,” said another female, with all-blue eyes and eight-fingered hands—even more nail danger. Well, honestly.
“Sorry,” I said sweetly, “I’m the new one with the quick temper and the uncontrollable homicidal tendencies.”
“Oh really!” they flounced, but still looked a little worried.
Lorun seemed oblivious to it all, Hergal-like, though none of the predominantly female females in my circle—like Thinta and me—were quite as atrocious as this lot.
“Come on then,” Sarl said, dismissing me as beneath his contempt. “Let’s not muck around.”
So we didn’t, but lolluped out of this floating park where we’d met, if you could call it that. We went by a succession of float-bridges and moving streets, terribly complicated, meant to be part of the excitement or something. I just got toskier and toskier, and eventually said they’d have to wait for me a minute. I went out and stole three chains of mother-of-pearl and amber, which I nonchalantly swung around my hips. I felt a bit better then but the circle grumbled about the delay, not realizing about my Neurotic Needs, which was just as well.
Lorun stopped it by just gazing at them and saying, ever so silkily and softly: “Shut up, you double-eyed thalldraps.”
I felt gratified or something, and then a bit annoyed too, I couldn’t quite work out why. Anyway, not long after that we actually had to walk, and we were getting near the outposts of Four BOO. The lookouts here have names as well as alphas. The one we were after was called Dulsa D.
“Here we are!” they announced when we arrived on this flat rock platform at the bottom of millions of flights of non-moving steps. The lookout was a little bluish cube, set near one of the dome locks. We strode up to the ice-glass doors and pushed the call button. I began to feel really nervous, then realized how much I was enjoying being nervous, after which I went deadly calm and stopped enjoying it, which was a shame. Pink lights flashed in Dulsa D. A voice asked us what we wanted.
“Emergency!” we shrilled in panic-stricken voices. Honestly, I thought, you’d think if the Committee worried about these little disasters, they’d program their lookout robots to realize there can never be an emergency, that it’s only a lot of stupid Jang trying to get in and mess things up. I suppose that’s the answer. The Committee isn’t worried. How depressing not to be able to worry someone, anyone, no matter how hard you try.
Naturally, once our screams of terror registered inside, the pink lights changed to red, the usual succession of ten doors opened and shut behind us, and we charged in yelling. Sometimes there are two robots, sometimes only one. This time there were four. Needless to say, we thrilled to this prospect of action.
Lorun and Sarl and the other male grabbed the nearest one and crashed it into the one behind, then sat on the struggling metallic mass and pulled out their dismantling plugs. Three females rushed another and floored it with swinging ropes of crystallize beads, while horny-puss and I suddenly found ourselves comrades in arms as we jumped the last. I found its dismantling plug while she bashed it in the electricity reflex circuit with her horn.
Glowingly we congratulated each other and headed for the controls. But really, I thought, there’s not much you can do except create a very minor shudder in the barrier beams, which allows a bit of real weather or earthquake or something in for about two splits. Still, we’d blind ourselves to that and convince ourselves we were being daring and terrible, upsetting the system. We looked at the scanners and there were these three ooma mountains all starting to erupt at once, with lava pouring toward us.
“Now!” Lorun yelled, and everybody smashed around among the buttons and dials with practiced paws.
And the next thing we knew we were on the floor. Four BOO had given a great heave or something. Already the waves would be knitting themselves together again all around, but some of that lava was bound to get through. And then something struck me. This wasn’t rain, or ash, or earth-shudder that city buildings laugh at. This was painful, deadly, red-hot magma. In Four BEE the volcanoes are fewer and less active. I don’t think we could have got lava into BEE if we tried. But to try, to arrange things so lava would be the main course on the menu…I felt horrible, cold and sick all of a sudden.
“People will be burned,” I said to Lorun, with a surprising total comprehension of what was happening that I could see was beyond the others.
“So?” Lorun said. “It’s an Event. We’ve made something happen. “We’ve come here before, but never had much luck with the lava. This is groshing, my ooma. Enjoy it.”
“Oh, Lorun,” I whispered. And then I noticed something no one else saw: a little green light coming on and off in the wall. I went and looked at it, and it was neatly engraved with the words Emergency wave shield now operating. The Committee! I loved the Committee! The wise, wonderful, groshing Committee! They knew about Jang sabotage, but they protected the city. All right, let the Jang open up the dome but, with dangerous lava about, have an immediate response mechanism to shield the dome while the waves rescued themselves, and a mechanism you couldn’t get at, either.
Our sabotage had been thwarted, and I felt so happy.
I flung my arms around Lorun and kissed him. He looked pleased. He looked less pleased when we ran off afterward and found the city perfect and untouched. The others turned positively filthy. They somehow seemed to think I was responsible for their failure, and if wishing was doing, I suppose I was.
After the lava business, I should have been firm with myself over Lorun. But I wasn’t. All right, I reasoned, there was something—one item—about him I didn’t like, but I was still insumattly zaradann over him. I just couldn’t say “I’m off now. Get us annulled.” I informed myself that I would hold out until the end of our marriage extension, which was in about ten units, and decide then about the maker idea.
Then Lorun said would I care to go to Four BAA in his private bird-plane, and that settled it. Well, I wanted to see Four BAA, for one thing.
“My maker,” Lorun said, casual, “is something to do with the breeding farms. We can go and have a look around one, if you like.”
The bird-plane was superluxurious and robot-flown. We had love and played rather special Upper-Ear, which made you feel gentle and soothed as well as crazy with delight, and ate sugar plums on gold-ice, and were generally debauched.
The pet came too, and was just as debauched as we were. It gobbled up sugar plums and rubbed against Lorun with positively nauseating love luridly illuminating its wicked orange eyes.
The bird-plane went fast and we reached Four BAA inside a day, just before desert dawn and sunset in the dome. I was sorry to miss another real dawn, but I’d noted sadly that the window spaces in the plane were tastefully opaqued with a gold brocade effect.
We went to Lorun’s maker’s residence. The maker looked at us vaguely and asked which of us was her child. Apparently Lorun had been in a different body the last time they met. Lorun promptly said it was me, thereby causing tornadoes of embarrassment. We got sorted out eventually and the maker went away with a gorgeous older male with dark red hair, leaving us to our own devices.
We janged around the home, then went out to eat on a blue lake under the stars on a canopied golden raft, attended by jeweled quasi-robot girls with long hair made of non-wet blue water. BAA is the absolute center of all things rich and strange. Dragons with sapphire scales blew fountains out of the lake all around us. A pearl-encrusted serpent came up on the raft to peer at us and I had to grab the pet quickly, in case it thought this was another robot animal like the snake I bought for Hergal. Actually the pet got a bit tosky and went burrowing into Lorun’s chest, honking.
After eighth meal, we rode through a tunnel of specially grouped stars, very high up, on the back of a wonderful bird with burning silver plumage and a ruby beak; it sang strange love songs in a light, sweet, melancholy voice, the most beautiful and passionately sorrowing I’d ever heard. Practically weeping, Lorun and I lay in each other’s arms among the red cushions, and soon he said, “Marry me for vrek after the extension ends, or two vreks, you derisann angel of scarlet light.” I think the poetry was contagious, but anyway, I was lost.
“Oh yes,” I breathed. “Ooma, ooma, oh yes.”
But the extension wasn’t up yet.
We went out to this android animal breeding farm in Lorun’s plane.
It sits there, way off from the city, though you can still see the enormous glitter of the dome sides stretching up and up till they’re out of sight in the distance.
The farm, the first of seven, only one of which makes actual Q-Rs, is also under a dome, but a small dome with a mere pebble of a sun and sequins of stars, and they’re just around to get the animals used to it all. Apparently Lorun’s maker is one of the button-popping, dial-turning brigade, but even so you’re expected to fraternize with the growing animals, and it seemed really groshing, interesting, worthwhile work. I had this sudden vision in which my future gelled, more or less permanently married to Lorun, our child at hypno-school, and me working at the farm with his maker, being ever so companionable and all that. It got to me so much that I turned to him and said:
“Lorun, there was an ulterior motive in my coming to Four BOO. I wanted to find…” and then I hesitated, I don’t know why, although perhaps I really do know. I felt I just couldn’t ask about the child just yet.
“Yes?” he prompted.
“No,” I murmured, “after this. I’ll tell you later.”
He looked a bit irked, but let it pass.
We left the plane and went in and out of pagodas and towers and palaces, stopped by lakes and rode up to cloud masses where birds of fire and perfume were being trained to fly and sing. And after a bit I started to feel depressed out of my mind. I tried to fight it and got high-voiced and over-merry, but it didn’t do any good. I think it was the pet’s fault, really. It went silent and started to shiver.
“I think the animals here scare it,” I said to Lorun, to start with. I mean they were all puffing out flame and scent and waterspouts and goodness knows what, and half of them were phosphorescent or watery, or disappeared at every third step and reappeared at the fourth, or something. And then I began to see that this wasn’t what got the pet down. The pet was an animal too, but a real animal, a born animal, primitively conceived and carried, hatched out of a warm, sat-on-by-a-furry-bottom egg, in the desert. These animals were made of the same molecules, by similar primaries and ovaries, but with the Q-Rs’ electrically motivated life-spark, and the same subservience to mankind. They’re for decoration. They are to be pretty and mythical. And suddenly I recalled my ooma dragon in the Jade Tower, and a pain burst in my heart like a great flower. How often had I sat in its harmless mouth, full of pine scent and green fire, that should have been able to champ me into mash? I knew an intense longing to cry but couldn’t, and held the pet to my face so that we could share our twin inhibited misery.
Lorun was elegantly, callously, leading me from lawn to pen, from turret to waterway. “Stop!” I wanted to shout. “I can’t bear any more.” I wanted to set them all free to play in the desert, and then I realized, with even more intense pain, that the real animals would run from them in fear at first, but finally would tear their defenseless bodies to pieces.
Then Lorun suggested we go stare in at the breeding tanks in their crystallize twilight, and I thought of my real, half-alive child, waiting for its own crystallize twilight, and gasped: “Take me back to the city. Please take me back.”
“What?” Lorun was immediately irritated. I became aware how irritable he always was when things went against his own plans.
“I’m sorry,” I said, “I feel tosky. I can’t—it’s all those poor unknowing animals. I—”
“Oh, what a fool you are at times,” Lorun said almost pleasantly; he thought I was sweetly aggravating.
Misery changed to anger. I suppose I just felt on the defensive.
“Take me back to the city, v….n you!”
Lorun’s urbanity slipped, but his face said more than words. He came striding over to me and I cowered. All at once the pet turned around from my cheek and snarled at him. It was the first time the pet had ever snarled at Lorun. Lorun at once took time off to propitiate it, to prove to us all how easily he could charm flame from clay. He cajoled and ingratiated and stretched out his hand. The pet possibly thought this was an aggressive move, but was the pet that selt? I don’t think so.
Growl—snarl—snap! went the pet, and bit Lorun the hardest it had ever bitten anyone, and it had done me a fair amount of damage on the quiet.
Lorun slapped the pet hard, and then he swore. He used words I’d never even heard before; I vaguely recollect trying to remember them for future use, through my sorrow and shock.
“I’ll take you back,” he said finally, “but not that floop beast you’re holding so fondly.”
“Take both or neither,” I snapped.
“Then neither,” Lorun said, dripping blood.
“The relief is all mine,” I said, ice-cold and feeling as if I was going to be ill underneath the cold. I sounded marvelously final, though. I turned and he came after me.
“All right,” he said, “I’m sorry, but the ghastly thing shouldn’t have bitten me.”
“It had my full approval,” I said, but I still wanted to be talked out of it.
“You know you drive me zaradann,” he said. “Come on. We’ll all be friends again.” He caressed my hair. “Let’s go see the breeding tanks.”
I flung him off.
“Haven’t you listened to anything I said?” I screamed at him. “I hate it here! I hate the principle of what we do to those animals, what we make them into! I hate this farm, I hate the filthy cities, and I hate every one of the thalldraps in them, and that includes you, you precious nothing!”
“I’d better return you to Four BAA,” he said, angry and sullen.
It was nightmarish. He took me to the sand-ship base like I asked, and all the way there I kept nearly strangling on my desire to forgive him and beg him to forgive me. But I couldn’t. I knew that whichever one of us was right, I could never kid myself we were compatible again. So, no more blind idyll. When we arrived, I said stiffly:
“Thank you for a wonderful time. The marriage will be over in half a unit, anyway, so don’t bother about an annulment. Actually, I wanted to ask you to help me make a child, but I see now what a mistake that would have been.” I don’t know why I bothered to tack that on. It was unfair and unnecessary, and it nearly killed me to say it.
And that was our goodbye. The plane doors shut, and the pet and I were alone again.
There was a ship that unit, which was lucky. Well, what’s the good of being lucky about unimportant things like that?
I couldn’t bear the thought of Four BEE, where my half child waited, so I went back to Four BOO.
I was the only passenger.
I suppose I always am, in a way.
When I got to Four BOO I found having the pet around was upsetting me, so I summarily sent it back by robot ship to Four BEE and home.
I hung about alone for ages, in parks and palaces, ignoring any Jang males who spoke to me, or else being violently rude. I was horribly scared that if I took up with one of them the same terrible thing would happen again. It’s called disillusionment, I believe.
Then I noticed I was really enjoying chatting to Jang females and registering all their good points.
A body change seemed to be in order, and a sex change as well. I suppose I’d temporarily sated my female side with Lorun and was also rather repelled for the moment by being a female. I didn’t see why it should stop my maker-hunting if I changed. I’d probably be better able to size up the floops if I were one of them. Of course, my sixty units weren’t up in Four BEE yet but, in another city, you have a clean record. Various people who don’t like suiciding have trundled off to BOO or BAA to get a body change when they wanted one in a hurry and had been put on ration. Hatta did it once and came back covered in warts, looking utterly drumdik beyond belief.
Anyway, I went to Four BOO’s Limbo and explained the situation, and how I felt I needed to be male for a while. They said they’d do it willingly—for a price, never forget the price, and there was a dearth of eruptions that unit, so it was damn expensive too—but did I understand that it wouldn’t go on the records of Four BEE for five units, as I’d had it done at BOO? This would mean no one would know who I was in BEE for five units, unless I told them, and I wouldn’t be able to flash my identity from a call-post until the flash computer registered me.
It all sounded highly unworrying, so I agreed, paid, ordered a soothing dream, and woke up a while later an utterly insumatt male. I was thoroughly pleased until I noticed how like Lorun I’d made myself. That did get me down a little, particularly as I now wanted to go punch him on the nose, I went and had a meal injection instead, and ignored all the Jang girls angling to get at me.
My male mind still craved to make a child, even though my way of looking at it was now somewhat different; I also found, as a man, I would have preferred to make a male child. I rationalized that once I changed back I would revert to the original preference, and I was, after all, predominantly female. Nevertheless, I still hadn’t solved my maker problem.
I was certainly no better judge. As a male I had even less patience with them, and eventually found a curving and graceful Jang female and married her for the afternoon. It was brief, uncomplicated, and groshing. The way it ought to be.
And it was as I was lying back in the twilight feather grass of the park, returning her final wave as she slid deliciously away, that I had the crazy idea. I nearly went hysterical, even though you don’t go hysterical the same way when you’re a male. Different hormones or something. But I sat bolt upright, called my boo, and stared at my masculine self in the long molecule mirror.
I was going to be the other maker.
I tried to look as if I hadn’t spoken to the Q-R with the water carpet before, as I explained I was the chosen male. They wouldn’t have a record of me in Four BEE, I said, as I’d only just arrived. But, said the Q-R, the young lady had said the chosen male was in Sense Distortion. So he had been, said I, and she’d got fed up waiting and returned to me, one of her past loves from Four BOO. Now she was in Sense Distortion.
It was a bit thick, really, but I suppose Q-Rs are programmed to think of Jang as irrational twits, flitting from sensation to sensation and being tosky and zaradann in between.
Anyhow, after a brief wait, they accepted me.
I had another dream. This time I was with a blonde child who clung to me, all admiring, and I felt protective and strong, ready to guard her against any nonexistent dangers Four BEE might have to offer. It wasn’t a field of roses, either, but a fire-ride.
They said would I stay and watch the mating of the two halves, but I felt too emotional and my male impulse was to repress that, so I fled into the night. I was also a bit scared now that they might realize what was going on and refuse to go ahead.
I signaled Thinta.
“Attlevey…Hergal?” she asked vaguely. Hergal must have crashed on the Zeefahr again.
She looked very attractive, minus her fur now, with clouds of long green hair and a delicate, chiseled-looking pale body, so unlike her rather hysterically stolid personality.
“It’s me,” I said, and told her who I was.
“Oh! Aren’t you groshing!” she cried, evidently pleased. She always warms to me more readily when I’m male, I’ve noticed.
“Come and marry me for a couple of units,” I suggested, and she was almost in my lap before I’d switched off.
We went to a floater, and really, to be frank, I did it as much to hide as anything else. It was pretty derisann, though. Her current body was awfully lithe at the most ideal moments.
Near dawn, when we were having a brief rest, there was this horrible droning noise outside.
“What is it?” Thinta cried worriedly, clutching me.
We soon found out. Committee messenger bees can barge in anywhere. This one charged right up through the middle of the cloud bed. Thinta shrieked. The messenger indicated me and snapped:
“Come at once to the Committee Hall in Second Sector.” Amazing how they could program it to sound so utterly nasty.
“What have you done?” trembled Thinta. “It’s nothing to do with me,” she hastily assured the messenger.
So they’d found out, had they? Well, it was too late now.
“I’m very disappointed in you,” said the Q-R, “and surprised you should resort to such a foolish ruse.”
“Well,” I said, “it worked.”
“Long ago,” the Q-R obstinately grumbled on, “this would have been a punishable crime. Since the notion of crime has been abolished, there is nothing we can do, I’m sorry to say.”
I felt hurt in an odd way; he’d been so nice and would-be understanding before.
“But it worked, didn’t it?” I persisted.
“Worked? Of course it didn’t work.”
“What,” I demanded. “You mean you found out before you mated the two halves?”
“Indeed, no. I wish we had. We found out when we mated them.”
“What happened?” I asked.
“My dear young man,” said the Q-R, “have you never heard of two negatives making a positive? In this case, unfortunately, the reverse is true. Two halves of the same person make a decided negative.”
“But one was male and one female,” I protested. “I don’t understand—”
“We were dealing,” said the Q-R, “with a true-life and not an android.” Did I detect bitterness? I thought of the farms at Four BAA and began to feel strange. “With a true-life,” said the Q-R, “the most important element is the life-spark, and the life-sparks offered both belonged to one being—yourself. The moment they touched they exploded and returned into vacuum. You have killed your child. You will not, of course, be allowed to make another until you are out of Jang, and even then, I’m afraid, you may find it difficult to get permission.”
I knew I was going to be sick, and luckily he did too, and turned on an emergency drift for me.
He was quite kind afterward, and stopped me from banging my brains out on the crystallize chairs.
But he needn’t have bothered.
I went and drowned in my bubble the first moment I could.
When I woke up in the Limbo tub, they started straight in at me. I’d gone and got myself a new body in BOO, and then gone and ruined it, and was still exceeding my ration, and I’d have to stop, and the next change—I must have screamed or had a fit or something. Apparently my emotional response wires got all tangled up and something overcharged itself and exploded. I yelled and yelled at them. They said I yelled that I didn’t want a new body, but wanted to stay there in the tub forever. They got worried about me and hundreds of Q-Rs fluttered around saying soothing things. They were promising me any body I wanted in the end and telling me that it didn’t matter how I kept exceeding my ration, and there, there, and I’d have to leave sometime because other people were waiting. They doubled the number of people waiting every time they mentioned it, and I suppose eventually I got altruistic and agreed to come out.
I chose this terribly ordinary sort of female body. It was thin and fragile, with insignificant breasts and lank straggly hair. I designed it with slow, meticulous, perverted care. I made it too long in the leg and waist, with dark, unvibrant eyes, behind which I could hide and be safe. I was being a weirdo, not as bad as Hatta the compulsive horror visitation, but strange and alien nevertheless, in a world where almost everyone is beautiful. Then I hung around Limbo for ages, and they let me, only hinting every so often that I ought to go home.
Hergal and Hatta came to visit me.
Hergal, a gorgeous male again, stared at my plain sad appearance and looked slightly uneasy. He liked exoticism, after all. Hatta just accepted me with every blink of his four pink eyes.
They were very careful and kind. So careful and kind it was positively tactless and spiteful. Hergal kept making bright remarks and telling me the wonderful things to be seen outside now. Hatta refrained strainingly from repeating his beastly marriage proposition. But I suppose they had some effect on me. I decided to go home after all.
They wouldn’t let me go in my bubble. They were ever so diplomatic about it, but firm. They flew me home in a robotically controlled, unmessable-around-with bird-plane in soothing yellow tones.
I went into the porch under the golden flower opening and shutting and wandered through the pristinely clean rooms, where a few machines were still at it, dusting and polishing. I went into the garden and suddenly saw the pet by the pool having a thorough and very involved sort of wash.
“Oh pet!” I cried. I remembered sending it away from me, home alone, so callously, just because it reminded me of my time with Lorun. I realized how long I’d left it alone and not thought of it, and was stricken with aching remorse. I rushed forward, arms open, and it gave a screaming, honking, hysterical sort of snarl and fled away across the gardens, hooting.
I felt awful about it, shocked and weak. It was a final blow. I sat there by the pool, hugging my refused arms, racked by pain and guilt, and suddenly woke up to what was the matter. I could have laughed it was so simple. It wasn’t bitterness the pet had just displayed, but genuine, bewildered fright. I’d changed. I was no longer the known Jang girl with long scarlet hair, willowy waist and exotic bosom, all beauty and physical grace. I was this lank, thin, paste-faced twig of life. It didn’t know me. Farathoom! I probably even had a different smell!
So I leaped into my bubble, rushed over to Limbo, and burst in. They looked quite peculiar when they saw me. I explained and they backed off, saying, “Oh no, er, no, no, er, certainly not…” and so on, after which I remembered how I’d unintentionally won their sympathy before, and went into these feigned hysterics, screaming about the awful things I was going to do, like jumping into the tub as I was. They gave me a spray of something that made me go limp, and then discussed me flurriedly and agreed they’d better humor me. So I made them get out my records and ordered an exact copy of what I’d been before, scarlet hair and all.
I walked out to the pool, jingling chains of gold anemones and purple shells, singing a Jang ditty. I was unprepared for what happened. This white furry comet hurled itself out of the glass-grass and leaped into my arms, covering my face with soaking wet kisses.
“Oh, what fools we are.” I almost wept as we chased each other around the pool and got tangled up together in the resustated silk flowers.
The pet gave me a sudden long, telling, orange stare. It seemed to be saying, “Do you know, there was some stupid female here earlier, trying to pass herself off as you?”
Things didn’t seem so bad after that. I married Hergal for three units, and we had a groshing time. The pet got to like him, but Hergal was always a bit tosky about the pet, looking around nervously to make sure it wasn’t creeping up on him for the kill or anything. Everybody thought I was terribly original going back to an earlier body, and lots of people started doing the same. It was fun. You could actually recognize someone occasionally. Then Hergal and Kley got married and went off to BOO for a while, Kley female and being a real bully and screaming at everyone, because for some reason she’s always so aggressive when she’s female. As for Danor, she—still a girl—was the center of vast attention because she’d stopped having love with anyone at all; of course everyone was running after her—even Jang from other circles—and it’d become quite a fashion in Four BEE to be “yearning for a vrek in her arms.” But Danor and I still shared a sort of cold shadow and never spoke of it.
Hatta came around, and I found he too had reverted to an old body, the three yellow-eyed one, with spots. Still, there was only one head to cope with, at least.
“I didn’t ask you at Limbo,” Hatta began, “but I still wish you’d marry me for a little, just a morning if you like.”
“I’ve told you,” I told him.
He sighed, looked mournful, though you could barely see it through all that ugliness.
“You don’t understand,” he said.
“No, I suppose not.”
“Can’t you see,” Hatta said, pathetic, “the body I’m in doesn’t matter that much? I’m still me.”
“Well, be you in a groshing body and I’ll marry you immediately,” I said wildly. “That’s a promise.”
“No, no,” wailed Hatta.” Oh, look, think, ooma. I want you—I want you. You’ve been a hundred different bodies; I’ve wanted you as you are now, as you were with all that silver hair and the antennae, as you were all those vreks ago with soft-blue tinted skin and golden eyes. I’ve wanted you as a male. I’ve wanted you as you were last, pale and thin, a little nothing girl. Can’t you do the same? It’s not the body that matters; the physical side is a joke in Four BEE and BAA and BOO. It’s irrelevant. It’s like wanting someone because they’re wearing red toe-rings. Oh, ooma, can’t you understand?”
And I almost did. I really almost did. But I couldn’t stand the thought of having love with him as he was now.
“Go away, Hatta,” I snapped.
And away he went.
And that evening Four BEE was shocked, stunned, stultified, nonplussed, and staggered by the news of the Great Archaeological Expedition.
Flashes came sizzling across the city. A “sympton of the times,” they called it, a “general desire to get out and at it!” Well, I knew the feeling all right.
Apparently this man, an older male from BEE, had spotted what looked to him like possible ancient ruins out in the desert between BEE and BOO, but well off the sand-ship route. It was quite likely, since nobody ever went into the desert now except to rush through to another city, preferably without looking at anything. But this male—eccentric and exciting he sounded—actually went out there in his special private bird-plane, with clear windows! He’d been making some sort of study of ancient pre-city history, wars and sagas and whatnot, and then the civilizations that grew out of them like obstreperous phoenixes, nomadic and desert-roaming and so on.
I was fascinated as these flashes continued at great length. They ended up by saying this supermale wanted volunteers. I nearly went zaradann. I signaled the Flash Center and asked where I could get hold of him. I just didn’t stop to think. I felt wildly excited again. My poor battered old brain was closing up to all the recent bad bits and fastening its frenzied tentacles on the Expedition.
The Flash Center robots were very helpful. They put me through direct to this man, in his weird all-long pillars and false-hair carpet villa. He was known as Glar Assule, the glar presumably self-designated. He was handsome but in a most odd way. He’d chosen a body that looked somewhat aged. I mean he had lines, wrinkles, and the jet black hair receded from a big domed forehead. He’d honestly made himself look just like a real glar from all those aeons ago. He wore a black robe and a single steel ornament on a chain. I gathered that the ornament was based on some design he claimed to have found in the desert on one of his earlier trips.
“Good evening, Glar.” I dug in at once, radiating enthusiasm, but he didn’t respond. He frowned at me.
“How may I help you?” he asked, looking as if the thought of helping me made him go ice cold from the feet up.
“Well,” I murmured, respectful, “I’ve just heard about your grosh—marvelous expedition, and how you wanted volunteers.”
“Indeed,” he said.
We sat and looked at each other’s three-dimensional images.
“Well,” I said eventually, “I want to be a volunteer.”
Oh floopy farathoom, it was just like chatting to a Q-R.
“Look,” I said then, after this long beastly pause, “if you want volunteers, you’re just going about the best way to get them, I don’t think.”
“Actually,” said Glar Assule grandly, “the sort of volunteer I had hoped for would not be one of the Jang.”
I laughed. No, really I did. It just rushed out of me like something with wings. I really detested him. He was literally chucking all the failures of the past vrek back in my face by saying that.
“You don’t want Jang,” I barked at him. He jumped. I can be pretty nerve-racking when I try. “Why not?”
“I don’t think I have to explain,” he said.
“Oh but you do. Common politeness, or have you never heard of it?”
He went stiff and pompous, then droned out:
“Jang are too irresponsible, I’m afraid, for the serious study I have in mind.”
“Well,” I said, “Jang are probably all you’ll get. We’re all pretty droad”—I didn’t care about using the slang on him now, he deserved it—“and have this groshing youthful enthusiasm apparently, which is being wasted. I personally can think of nothing nicer than studying an ancient ruin, in the middle of those derisann black mountains, but if you told my makers about it, they’d probably laugh till they puked all over you.” Whereupon I made a very nasty Jang-slang sign at him and bashed the recluse switch.
Well, he’d never take me on anyway, so there was no harm done, I reasoned, as soon as the glow wore off and I began to reproach myself.
But I got a real surprise. Ages afterward, when I was deciding whether or not to signal Thinta and go drown my sorrows with her somewhere, experimenting as to whether the pet would go around my neck, which it wouldn’t, the signal light came on and there was Glar Assule again, very edgy and pink looking.
“I think,” he waded in, “that your youthful rudeness points to possible spirit, and I might consider giving you a place on the team after all.”
But I was feeling sadistic.
“Oh yes,” I crooned, “and just how big is the team?”
He hummed and hahhed, but we got there eventually. There were three others. Apparently he’d been sending out personal flashes for ages, with no luck, and the official flash had brought in these three droopy-sounding persons who were just doing it, I noted later, out of misguided notions of culture. They weren’t actually Jang, but they were useless. Twitty old Glar had realized I might be really interested to sit around and listen to him expounding theories and so on, and to poke about among the rumbling dark mountains of our lost forgotten world.
He still had to be a nuisance though. He’d take me, he said, providing I apologized.
“I apologize,” I said at once. It didn’t matter to me. I couldn’t resist, though, once his image was gone, making that sign again and hissing:
“No I don’t. I meant every syllable.”
Childish, but slightly satisfying.
Thinta told me I was zaradann to go, Kley laughed raucously, Hatta just looked repulsively sad. I wished he looked handsome and sad, and then I could gratify my impulse to cuddle him and say “Oh, ooma, don’t!” without being sick immediately afterward. He didn’t, though, so I didn’t and wasn’t.
I was amazed when Danor came to see me. There were about eleven males and even a couple of females hanging around her, with a glittery, predatory look of waiting in their sequined eyes.
“They have a running bet,” said Danor, drawing me aside, “to see which one I’ll succumb to first.”
I was startled by Danor; once so dashing, now she seemed…serene?
“That sounds pretty drumdik,” I said. “Have you tried changing to male to shake them off?”
“Yes, actually I did,” whispered Danor. “They all promptly suicided and came back as girls.” She gave a giggle and I saw a ghostly, sad little hint of mischief in her eyes. “Anyway, ooma,” Danor said, “have fun in the ruins.” And she kissed me so sweetly I made an abrupt mental note that, next time I was male and Danor female, it might be an idea to try the floaters again and see if we could do any better that way. As for the hangers-on, they went every shade of green and puce, wondering if I’d beaten them all to it.
Glar Assule signaled me again and said the team was going to meet in five units outside—guess!—the Robotics Museum.
“How derisann!” I glowed, and he gave me a dirty look.
He said he had some urgent things to attend to for the next three or four units, hence the delay, but I think he was just procrastinating, hoping a few more people would call him and ask to go. No one did, though, and five units later there we were, feeling beastly and conspicuous, with this rotten little robot bee buzzing around us, getting snippets of information for the flashes. I told it to something off, and everyone looked disapproving.
The three other volunteers were an absolute catastrophe. They weren’t even pro-Jang either, at least not here. They thought I should be having love or ecstasy, etc., well out of their range of reception. They insisted on calling me “dear” all the time too, with a sort of undertone that showed they’d really like to call me lots of other things, like Scruff-Bag, and Intolerable-Pest-for-Coming-and-Spoiling-Our-Chance-to-Get-at-the-Glar. They were all female.
He turned up late and bloated with himself; he took us to a private sand-ship he’d hired specially and had reprogrammed to get to the right place. It was full of his equipment, his robots, and his idea of how to furnish a sand-ship—which meant orange hairy drapes and blinding bronze—and him. The females twit-twittered around him. “Yes, Glar,” and “No, Glar,” they smarmed. And was the Glar comfortable? And could they tell the robot to get the Glar anything? I was so glad I’d brought the pet. They cringed whenever it went near them, which it didn’t actually, if it could avoid them. Glar Assule wasn’t too bad, though. He looked as if he was repressing a seizure, patted the pet’s head and nearly got bitten, and said he was glad I’d taken an interest in the desert wildlife. I agreed the pet was pretty wild.
Anyway, we eventually got started and—joy and delight!—there was this Transparency Tower, clear all the time. We went to sit in it, but pretty soon the three females got uneasy; they went off to rustle up some desert orange on ice, or play with their light-crochet machines.
The pet and I and the Glar stayed on, and he looked quite impressed by the way the desert mesmerized me. Once I saw a troop of purple animals with long, long fur, burrowing around some dunes, and he was actually able to tell me what they were.
I began to feel lighthearted. Don’t ever do that; it tempts some dark and evil force abroad in the universe.
In the night, I gather, the three females had a fight as to which one was going to have love with dear old Assule, and then, when they’d practically killed each other and the victor staggered along to his cabin with tom plumage and smeared eyelids, it turned out he was stoned with sleep and threw her out when she protested. It really made a din, all this, but the pet and I got a good laugh out of it.
Dawn came and we were there. The females were very upset because they’d arranged this elaborate first meal for the Glar and he refused to take time to eat it.
He was very good at getting us organized, though. I suppose his domineering streak helped. We had hot wine and four oxygen tablets each.
“When you get there,” he said, “remember to breathe normally and not strain to get extra air; you won’t need it. And it’s not like swimming under water, when you don’t breathe at all,” he added to me. I shrugged. All right, so all Jang swim under water. So. Then the robots got our equipment and went out through the small air lock, and we went out afterward, and oh—
It’s all real out there.
It’s all beautiful and real, and throbbing and singing and alive!
I staggered; he grabbed me and snapped: “I told you you had to breathe, didn’t I? Why don’t you pay attention?”
But I had breathed. I’d more or less gasped my lungs inside out.
It was all so—
I shook as I stood there.
It was dawn and red this time from some ooma mountain bursting flames, and greener near the top of the sky, and velvet dark above that, with a last sugar-sprinkle of stars. All around, the tall shapes—not buildings but mountains—craned up and up as if to see us, or possibly to avoid seeing us and just stare into all that clear sky. And the sky was so enormous. It made me giddy.
“Here we are,” said the Glar, as grandly as if he’d invented it. “Come along.” And we trooped after him across the blood-soaked-by-light dawn sand.
He pointed to a rock platform and some rock terraces leading up to it, and up again from it.
“There’s the site,” he announced.
“And here’s the sun,” I breathed.
The pet suddenly lost its mind, or found its mind or something, and rushed from my side to roll and spray everyone with the crazy sand.
“Oh, stop it! Stop the nasty thing!” chirruped the females.
The Glar never even noticed.
He was striding on ahead, the robots and machinery trundling after him, making big runnels in the sand for us to walk in.
The site was supposedly something to do with those nomads and things, a primitive rock citadel where they stopped off once in a while, and these were the foundations. Assule reckoned they’d been covered with sand for ages and then some pre-rain storm had blown it all off. It would rain soon, he said, and then we’d have to scramble back to the ship and take cover. They were very wet rains, apparently.
The third female kept going swoony and having to lean on Assule because she hadn’t mastered the breathing technique. The others were furious they hadn’t thought of that one first.
We had first meal up on the site, sitting on heavy rugs. Assule went on and on about the civilization that had been here first. It could have been very interesting if he hadn’t managed to make it so boring. I don’t know how he did it, actually. Some latent talent for sending everyone droad, I suppose.
After this, he went stamping around the site, disappearing and reappearing from behind rock spires, with about six robots to give him a hand. The rest of us sat on the rugs and the world became turquoise all around us.
Eventually he came back.
I sat up straight and waited for him to give me an ancient swing-pick or something, but he didn’t. He said:
“I think I’ll start machines six and eight over there.” And my heart fell down the stairway of my ribs into my stomach and lay there like solid storm. Here we were again: Always consult the computer….The machine knows best….Oh, they pop automatically in half a split, anyway….
“But Glar,” I burst out, “aren’t we going to do anything ourselves?”
“What?” He was scandalized. “Of course not.”
“But can’t I even brush the sand off the relics as they come up?” I pleaded, being pretty optimistic too about those relics, I must say.
“Certainly not,” he said, “you might damage something.”
The three females fluttered agreeingly and looked at me as if I was obscene even to think of going near anything so precious with my clumsy Jang hands. So all he truly wanted us for was just as an audience to his boring old voice.
And all through that derisann desert unit, I traipsed around behind those machines, with the pet at my heels. They drilled and sawed and nothing was found. They clipped and buzzed and inched up the terraces, and drew a complete blank.
“It’s definitely a foundation,” he muttered all over us, till I felt quite sorry for his embarrassment.
It went on and on, unit after unit. A bird-plane with covered-in window spaces flew out to us from Four BEE bringing supplies. The females cogitated sullenly. He was proving unobtainable, and they were pretty bored with his ideas by now.
And then, one evening, just as he was going practically zaradann with frustration, one of the machines gave a great hoot and a heave, and the rock floor gave way, and smash, crash, boom, down it fell into a vast underground chamber underneath. When the sand and gravel cleared, we pounded up and found we’d discovered a storeroom or something. At least Assule said that’s what it was, though I don’t really think he knew, but was just guessing.
The machines lowered other machines into the cavity to send us up pictures of what it was like, and very uninspiring it was too. The search lasted for ages, and eventually they unearthed this one shard of ancient pottery stuff that was actually, according to the Glar, breakable. So he wouldn’t let us go anywhere remotely near it, and the robots took it back to the ship to investigate it.
It was quite late when Assule came howling into the saloon, screaming about an inscription.
“It’s an old desert proverb,” he croaked, holding on to one of the females for support. She smirked. “Yes, yes, it is. You can just make it out. Look at this three-dimensional reproduction machine number nine has made.”
“What’s it mean?” we asked. It was unintelligible and blurred, and in another language, though one or two words sort of looked a little familiar, here and there.
“Ah,” said the Glar. He sat down and gave us another lecture on the nomadic peoples before he told us. What the inscription actually said was:
DO NOT BITE THE SUN, TRAVELER,
YOU WILL BURN YOUR MOUTH.
According to Assule, this was their way of saying be sure you stay in the shade where you can and wear your oosha—which is a sort of desert man’s sun hat thing—and carry enough water. In other words, the sun is a dangerous enemy; don’t take risks or you’ll get hurt.
But somehow there was another significance in the words for me. They haunted me all night, and I didn’t sleep. I went to sit in the T. Tower, and they haunted me there too.
Don’t bite the sun, don’t bite the sun—my mouth burned me.
Next morning Assule was much better, or worse, depending on how you looked at it. His confidence had been restored. He strutted and preened himself all over the place, and even allowed himself to have a half-interest in one of the three females. It was rather engaging, watching her trying to coax him off to some cave or other, when all he wanted to do was tell her about this terribly old tribe who used to eat each other, ceremoniously, of course, when the ponka herds got low.
“Now that we’ve made a start,” he deigned to say to me as we ate third meal, “we’ll find all sorts of levels under the site, I’ve no doubt. Weapon rooms, for example.”
Oh, it really could have been interesting.
Well, it could.
I mean, I’ve got this thing about ruins and citadels and weapons and dragons and exotic intrigues and so on. But Assule soon made it seem as though we were listening to him reprogramming one of his floating floors or something.
Anyhow, the machines went on digging and churning and crashing, and found absolutely nothing at all. Once there was this boom, and we rushed off to see what it was, but it was just some power charge or other exploding.
I began to feel claustrophobic about the site and wanted to rush out into the desert and roll around like the pet kept doing, but I felt a bit agoraphobic too, so didn’t. I actually thought the pet might run off and leave me for its native element, but it always came back. I got used to seeing it scampering across the rock fells and dunes, mottled with loose grains, sneezing and honking happily and then leaping into my arms and scattering sand in every direction.
Things were tense now. It wasn’t our silly insignificant tenseness, either, it was sand tenseness and mountain-and-sky tenseness. Assule informed us that it was the desert waiting for the rain. He felt it too, you see, but the females didn’t. They looked blank and I could see the thought: Oh, well, you have to put up with these terribly attractive males who go batty now and then.
Another plane came out with supplies, and one of the females actually gave in and elected to go home on it. The other two glared at each other to see who would be next. A little later one of them, the more typical of the two, took me aside among the rocks.
“You know, dear,” she tweeted, “I really can’t understand what a little Jang girl like you sees out here to make her stay.”
“Oh, it’s Assule,” I said.
“Assule?” she queried, shocked.
“Oh yes.” I smiled. “I know he couldn’t go on without me.”
“Well!” she started.
“Oh, it may sound vain, I know,” I said, sweet and sorrowing, “but when you’ve known him as long as I have…”
“Known him as long as—?”
“Shared his ups and downs…”
“Ups and downs—?”
“Been his support and comforter in times of stress…”
“You realize that he needs you, really needs you, just for the odd word of encouragement, you know, just the occasional warm embrace,” I finished up, watching her control her impending hysteria.
“He’s your maker,” she suddenly accused, seeking a reasonable explanation and a way around what I’d said.
I looked affronted.
“Certainly not,” I snapped.
Poor woman. She went white around the nose and her eyes gave off sparks as I strolled away.
It was a bit of a nuisance, though. I had been toying with the idea of going home and now I’d have to stick it out to the bitter end. Couldn’t have Glar Assule prancing around, all happiness and joy, without his little support and comforter, could I?
But the desert was making me feel really strange. I kept on having dreams about being a desert woman, in an oosha and long dark veil, trucking across the wastes, by burning day and black night, the odd volcano my scarlet lamp. Sometimes I had this child with me, pale-faced and anxious.
“Maker,” it kept saying, “where’s the next watering place?” And I knew it would die on me if we didn’t get to one quickly, and I didn’t know where the watering place was or even how to recognize it. And then the dream would sort of slip and we’d both be lying there flat out, our faces in the sand, with this huge orange fire ringing around the sky above us and a voice pounding and pounding out:
“Don’t bite the sun. Don’t bite the sun.”
And then the site was invaded.
Oh, it could have been a laugh, really, if any of us had had a shred of humor left that morning.
There we were at first meal on the rock, Assule, the two females, who now studiously avoided me, myself, and the pet. I looked up from a plate of fried root-bread and honey, and what should I see, ho-ho, but this tawny, furry face staring at me from around a rock. The pet barked. Yes, it was one of those again, the long-eared purposeful ones with ski-feet. It flipped these ears around, twitched its antennae, and sort of went “Fpmf” down its nose.
“Assule, what’s that?” I started to ask, when suddenly they were on us. I suppose it was the smell of cooked food that brought them. They’d probably been traveling for units across the sand, following their furry noses. The females screamed as great elongated feet came down splat in the root-bread and tawny paws flailed among the opal-wine.
“Are they dangerous?” I tried to ask Assule, while I attempted not to be trampled into the honey.
“Come on!” Assule yelled, and we rushed out of it and back to the sand-ship, leaving the rugs, the meal, the machines, everything, at the mercy of those great feet and ridiculous ears.
We staggered into the T. Tower, turned on Zoom Scanners, and stared. We had a perfect view of the citadel foundations positively dripping furry bodies. They were devouring the food, slurping up the wine, and going “Fpmf!” all over the place. Pretty soon they began to eat the rugs, spreading honey on them first, I might add.
“I just hope they don’t get at the machines,” Assule just hoped, but they did.
They were really very intelligent, in a zaradann sort of way. They had a lovely time finding out how everything worked, then dismantling it. They rode machine number eight down the terraces, clinging on all over it and bomping the sides with their feet; they rolled clear when it finally pitched over and smashed to bits in the sand.
Assule had, by this time, set up a background music of steady wailing. I kept trying to find out what the animals were, and he seemed to think I was awful for still wanting to know. I suppose it was too much, really.
About noon some of the wild activity quieted. They lay around the site, sleeping it off.
“I just hope they don’t spot the sand-ship,” Assule started off again, and sure enough it was the signal for furry paw pointing, “fmpf”-ing, and a general pound in our direction.
“Oh! Oh!” screamed the two females.
“Please be calm,” snapped Assule, suddenly deciding to be calm himself for a change. “We’re quite safe. I’ll activate the shock wall.”
He played around with some red dials and things marked: For purposes of defense only. Unauthorized use punishable by fine—which was a pretty obsolete injunction, since no one gets fined for anything anymore, though the Committee probably wishes they would. Apparently it worked. There was a sort of shimmer in the air around the ship suddenly, and as soon as the ski-feet made furry contact, they jumped about five yards high and keeled over, looking utterly blissful.
“It won’t kill them, will it?” I implored.
Assule didn’t throttle me, surprisingly.
“No,” he said, “something smaller would be killed, yes, but they are simply stunned. I don’t believe in damaging these interesting species unnecessarily.”
I felt relieved, and really, they looked ever so happy as they reeled off the shock wall. They kept on trying for about three splits; I think some of them only did it to have an Essential Experience. You could see them inspecting their fallen comrades’ ecstatic faces first and almost weighing things up, thinking, well, it looks like fun, and then rushing into the wall, ears and fur flying. In the end, though, they went off and had a “fpmf” talk about the situation, came back and carefully towed the casualties (?) out of shock range, then picked them up over their backs and went leaping away across the sands.
The females started going swoony, saw Assule wasn’t taking any notice, and gave up.
We waited about twenty splits to be on the safe side, deactivated the wall, and wandered out to the site. According to Assule, there was no chance of their coming back. Apparently they never return to the scene of one of their raids; in fact they’ll go miles out of their way to avoid it, once their extraordinarily strong smell-powers tell them they’re getting near. It seemed to point to a sort of guilt complex, as far as I could see, but Assule more or less told me not to be a floop when I said so.
And the site was drumdik. Oh, the utter, unqualified abandoned mess of it all. For once the females and I joined forces in trying to stop Assule from going completely zaradann. It wasn’t much good, though. He went roaring around the rock turrets, dabbing at honey and chewed rugs on the machines, cradling broken robots, and screaming at intact robots to mend everything. Actually, once he stopped getting in their way, the robots from the ship made a very good job of it. Machine number eight was the only failure, and they had to scrap it.
“In order to prevent any further calamities, I’m going to get the robots to rig up a shock wall all around the site,” Assule told me, over the row of banging and repairing, “around the site and the ship. A radius of about—” And he quoted some vast area or other. I was barely listening.
“Look, Assule,” I said, “now’s our chance to prove we’re better than the machines.”
“No, listen,” I persisted, ignoring his horrified indignation, “while they’re out of action at least let’s try to find something ourselves.”
“Certainly not,” said Assule. “I’ve told you, machinery is best.”
“Well,” I said, “they don’t seem to have found much so far.”
“Please don’t forget the pottery shard with the inscription. Of course, no doubt you think that very little in your untutored Jang fashion.”
“Look,” I said, “I’m just as interested as you are, honestly, but really that machine fell right down into your storeroom, or whatever it is. It could have smashed and buried all sorts of valuable relics, if there’d been any more than the one we found.”
“I find your attitude offensive,” Assule glowered. It was just like talking to a lump of rock.
“Talking to you is just like talking to a lump of rock,” I said.
Assule went pompous.
“You will apologize,” Assule told me.
“Oh, for goodness sake,” I snapped, “I’m not going to apologize for stating a fact. And while we’re at it, I unapologize for the other time.”
And then I really got mad at him and made that Jang sign again.
Without waiting to watch him go into automatic combustion, I turned around, leaving even my bee, and stalked off.
Right off the site.
Away from the sand-ship.
Into the desert.
I’d heard of people doing that, walking off in fury and not realizing where they were going. Thinta told me I once made her so angry with my stealing habits that she walked right into the pool without taking any oxygen, and nearly ended up in Limbo.
When I realized, I found I didn’t know where I was or anything. There was no sign of the site or the ship, nor a sound of all that noisy repair work that had still been going on when I left. There was just sand and more sand, glittering, and a horizon of black crags and impending sunset. I had this moment of absolute, icy panic. I was lost. Then I had this second moment of absolute, icy panic. Oxygen! I’d had my usual four tablets this morning, which would last me till tomorrow, but after that, what then? Oh, I really got in a state.
Then I had a thought. Turn around and follow my own footsteps back through the sand, that’s what I’d do. Which is what I did, and I was really getting elated when they suddenly stopped in a fresh drift. There are always little sand winds eddying around, and this one had really made a nice job of losing me. I climbed a rock spire and looked around in every direction, but saw nothing but rainbow glitter on the smooth and unmarked dunes.
And then I did see something, and this thing was moving. Oh no, I gasp-thought, the ski-feet are after me. I wondered what ghastly furry death they would condemn me to. Then I saw that this thing was a solitary thing, and much much smaller than a ski-foot, and it was streaking toward me over the faceless desert. The pet! Wonderful! It must have followed me, leaving its own track of six fresh paw marks, which we would now follow back to the ship. Calling and honking, we bounded to meet each other. The pet leaped into my arms and kissed me passionately on the nose and ears.
“Oh, ooma,” I gasped, “clever, derisann ooma!”
And holding it nestled close, furry and comforting, I started back along its track.
And then, of course, this sand storm had to start, didn’t it?
I was so scared. You couldn’t see or breathe or anything. I got my transparent tunic off and wrapped it around my face. I could glimpse things that way through the embroidery and the sand, and I could just breathe slightly too, and with the oxygen tablets it was enough. I tried to protect the pet, but it burrowed into my skin and seemed all right. I suppose it had weathered storms before. Its fur fluffed up around it too, in added protection. There was no point in going on and, besides, my bare parts were being nastily stung, so I got us into the lee of the nearest bit of rock and cowered down into the sand there and waited.
I’ll never forget the sound of that sand wind. I think I’ll hear it all my life.
Visibility cleared eventually and I dug us out; we stood there and stared around us. Well, if I was lost before, I was really lost now. I redonned my tunic and began aimlessly walking. Every so often I’d sort of choke out to the pet: “It’s no use, why bother?” and slump down. And then I’d get fierce with myself and say, “But I’ll never find it if I sit here, and I might if I walk on.” And on I’d go until the next choke and slump.
It was very dark and still. The stars were out. And there was this colossal feeling of waiting. The pet kept lifting up its head and sniffing.
Then this roaring started, somehow near yet far away all at once. I wondered in vague hysterics if there were still dragons in these parts, or if the ski-feet developed new and particularly awful personalities at night. But it was only thunder, in fact. And soon there were blinding green flashes of lightning to go with it.
“The rain,” I said to the pet, my sunken heart going down to about my kneecaps, but the pet just looked thrilled and wriggled until I let it go. It dashed about and rolled in the sand.
“Well, I’m glad you’re pleased,” I said.
In its good old desert units I imagined the rain was a big event; even though I didn’t know anything about it, I’d worked out it only happened every three vreks, from what Assule said.
And then there was this sound. A kind of soft, soft, pat-pat noise, like tiny paws clapping. I was just thinking how pretty it was, crazy and disorientated as I’d become, when the heavens opened and the desert was under water. The rain rustled and thundered to the earth, but over it all I could hear a chorus of excited twittering and wailing and squeaking all around me from millions of small furry throats in sand burrows and rock holes, celebrating the rain-rite. You couldn’t see eye gleams through the deluge, but I knew they were there. The pet got one of my ankle chains in its mouth and gently but firmly tugged me to some sort of shelter in the rocks. A bit late, though. I was soaked. I’m sure Four BEE could produce a rain-resistant fabric, but who needs it in Four BEE? The only rain there had been a couple of widely spaced drops after a minor Jang sabotage.
The pet honked and honked.
“You’re right,” I said, trying to dry my wet face on my wet hands, “it is beautiful.”
And it was really: solid silver wetness, the song of the desert drinking and drinking all around me. And from the burrows and holes, the song of life.
I never thought I’d sleep through the discomfort and the noise, but I did. I dreamed that I was a desert woman with a child, and we had found, at last, a watering place.
Dawn, like a pale green note of music in the mountains, woke me, and I sat up, damp, cold, and alone.
Now I’ll die, I thought, out here with no nice robots to carry me to Limbo. I’ll die of cold and hunger and oxygen deficiency, and loneliness. The pet had gone. “The rain’s stopped, anyway,” I congratulated it, as I crawled out of the rock and began to see.
And then I nearly did die, but not because of anything I’d thought of. It was what was out there that did it.
I’d never seen such unexpected, unlooked-for beauty. That the dunes, starved of water for so much of their life, could return a vote of thanks like this for what to them must have seemed a mere half-cup, was beyond me. I groveled mentally before the wonder of it all.
The desert had blossomed.
I thought the rocks were on fire again, but it was the flame of sudden flowers, the sparks of erupted gorse. Cacti had leaped high in the night, bursting as they went into showers of green orchids. Pools lay between the rock sweeps, perhaps draining even now, but crowded with quick fern, starred with petals grown in seconds by rain, knocked free by rain in ten splits. And in the sand grass was waving. I looked and far off, in every direction, I saw the purple and the green, the gold, the peridot of blowing stems, not silk or glass or satin-of-steel, but living feathers, greenness that breathed. And I breathed, deeply, slowly, because the growing things had saved my life, had given me, in a night of miracle and silver, all the oxygen my lungs would ever crave.
I went forward, nervous at first, afraid to tread on this carpet of life, but all around the little animals were rushing, bouncing and orgying in the growth. I saw a tribe of ski-feet in the distance, dancing together in a weird, almost awful, dance of strange and primitive joy. Suddenly I was part of it. I, with my brand of mankind, my Jangness, my cityness. I tore off the ridiculous chains and see-through, the earrings, the ornaments. I could have put real flowers in my hair, but could not be so sacrilegious as to pick them. Besides, my hair was scarlet fur, and I danced and ran and laughed and sang with the mad small animals among the glory of the woken green; it was so hot now, I was dry as a bone.
Then I found the pet.
It burst at me from the grasses like a pure, pale blossom.
I can hardly remember the laughing and the running now, and the playing and the dancing, but I remember the happiness, the happiness like a wound, that bleeds the life-spark.
Oh, we ran, side by side, the pet and I, and never have I known such closeness with any of my race, my mankind, as I knew with that white animal I stole, in casual and neurotic need, from a store in Four BEE.
Once, when we lay in the grass, I said to it:
“You must have a name; no, no, you must. You are a personality, the same as I, a being, a life.” And I called the pet Thunder-Flower, because of the flowers all around us, that grew from rain and flaring light and thunder, and then we ran on.
And how simple it would have been if we had never found our way back to the sand-ship. But we did. I hardly noticed the slight familiarity of the landscape. The rock terraces were bright with flowers now in the redness of twilight.
We rushed on side by side. Sometimes I was a little ahead, knee-deep in the dune grass, sometimes it was the pet, its head barely cresting the green, its fur pink in the sunset’s aftermath. And then it was ahead of me and I saw it leap high, clear of all the grasses, and drop back, and not appear again. Then I saw the shimmer in the air.
“Oh no!” I called out to the desert and the sky. “Oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no!” And I ran on and flung myself against the shock wall that Assule had erected to prevent calamities.
Yes, it’s a strange sensation, an absolute tremble of fiery ecstasy all over, like the near-climax of a love machine, but I was barely dazed when the robots came and picked me up.
The pet, of course, was dead.
Assule kept telling me what a fool I was.
“I told you about the shock wall,” he shouted. “You might have been hurt far more than you were.”
He didn’t mention the pet. He did mention that any accident I’d suffered was really my own fault for rushing off so rudely. I just lay there in my cabin, looking at him, and said “Shut up” every once in a while. The females hung together in the doorway and said how disgraceful it was I’d been found quite nude, and where were all my chains and see-through?
Once they’d drawn off a bit, I made one of the robots bring me the pet’s limp, furry, white body. I stared at its glazed orange eyes. It looked so full of bliss in death.
“I want a plane back to the city,” I told the Glar. “Now.”
Well, he was only too pleased to see the back of me, so he got one, and I got in and rode home, staring at the covered-in window spaces, the pet in my lap. There was nothing left to see, anyway. The desert’s blossoming cannot be sustained for more than a single unit. The glory I had run through had been dying already.
At Four BEE I went straight to Limbo.
“This is my pet,” I told them, “it’s very important to me. I want you to give it a new body.”
But they wouldn’t, and I’d known they wouldn’t. They tried to explain how ethical they were being.
“We cannot do this for an animal,” they said. “Besides, it has been left too long.” But this was only an excuse. Oh, please, make it have been an excuse.
So I went home alone. And I was alone there too.
And I dreamed all night of the desert and the sun I must not bite, and at last I knew the significance that the proverb held for me. I was so tired I could admit it now. I had tried so often and so hard, and it had been no good.
The sun. Oh, yes. The sun. A little bit of breakable clay had suddenly defeated me, from its nest in a desert of rainbow and erupted fire. I knew what the sun was; perhaps those records meant it the same way, I’m not sure. The sun was the Ordained Way of living. In my case it was the Ordained Way of going to hypno-school, of being Jang, graduating to an Older Person, one’s entire life mapped out irrevocably, even death not allowed, but merely a new body, or a long rest in a mind-darkening twilight, after which the cycle begins again, with all past memories wiped clean. So irrevocable, so unavoidable, so terrible, so dull, so doomed to a tragedy that was even too small, too dull, too doomed to be a tragedy at all. Don’t bite the sun, you’ll burn your mouth. I’d bitten ceaselessly, hopelessly, and I was burned, I was burned. I was a cinder.
I knew what was happening to me, and repeated aloud:
“The pet has officially cut me out of its circle.” After which I knew I had obeyed the rules and was free to weep.
I lay around home for almost a tenth of a vrek, in a kind of stupor. I must have cried most of the time. When I started to come out of it, the first thing I noticed was how sore my nose and eyes were, and how inflamed my cheeks were where the tears had gone on and on streaming down. So I had a soothing face-salve pack, and soothing eye-lotion pads, and in about twenty splits I looked normal again, at least. Then this pop-pop came from the porch signal, and I switched on the image, and there was this derisann male, with long honey-colored hair and mustache, and a lovely, tawny, athletically slim body.
“Hergal?” I asked.
“It’s me, dear,” said this beautifully modulated voice, and that “dear” told me it couldn’t be anyone else but Hatta.
“Yes, dear,” said beautiful, groshing Hatta. “I heard all about it. I’m so sorry. Can I come in?”
And I activated the door and went down to meet him. We met in a goldish sort of hall, and he looked so derisann and sad for me that I just grabbed him and started howling my eyes out again. He was so good. He’s always so sweet really, Hatta is, I think he’s compulsively kind.
He put me on a couch and turned on the lullaby rhythm and the most soothing upper-tonal music he could find, and then he sat and rocked me gently in his lovely arms.
When I got a bit better, he mopped me up. I just sat and stared at him as he poured me fire-and-ice, and fed me small sugar grapes.
“You’re so wonderful, Hatta,” I said, and his hands trembled. “Oh Hatta,” I said, “let’s get married. Now.” But he made me lie down for forty splits before he’d even let me say it again. Then he said, very softly:
“Are you sure, ooma? Are you?”
“Oh, Hatta,” I said, “don’t be silly. How could I possibly object?”
He kind of shook his head, but he sat and waited quite patiently as I had another face pack and got ready, and then we went out to his rented bird-plane, and shot off to the Ivory Dome. We promised to have love exclusively for the afternoon, and to come back and pay afterward as well, as you have to if you’re inside the annulment period.
Then we went to one of the underwater caves, green and shells and stuff, and had the most glorious love. I think when you’re shaky and recovering from something, you receive better. Anyway, it was groshing.
“Oh, Hatta,” I sighed afterward.
But he turned away.
“Oh Hatta, what’s wrong?” I asked. I got up and went around to the other side of the synthetic seaweed couch, and he was lying there, his eyes shut, great tears rolling down his face now. “Hatta, Hatta,” I implored, “ooma, what is it?”
“Can’t you see,” he asked softly, “how useless it all is?”
“What?” I said. “I thought you wanted me to marry you. I don’t understand.”
“No,” he said, “you don’t, do you?”
“But I loved every minute,” I said. “Didn’t you?”
“Oh, yes,” he said, “I loved having you, my ooma, and you loved having my body, my new, unreal joke of a body. I loved you, and you loved the shell of me.”
“Oh Hatta,” I said.
We were silent for a long while.
“I love you,” he said then.
“I know,” I said.
“And you love my body,” he said.
“Yes,” I said “and, Hatta, I think you’re so terribly nice and derisann and—”
“And you don’t love me, do you? Just the outside.”
“Yes,” I said.
And he wept silently.
And I got tosky again.
“Hatta!” I screamed at him. “Look, I just can’t stand this on top of everything else. I’m in such a chaos, I can’t cope with your chaos as well. Really, I’m sorry, but if you don’t stop I’ll go zaradann.”
He apologized, got up, said he’d pay the other half of the marriage-fee, and went away, leaving me the bird-plane.
And when I saw him next, he had four arms and scales. Poor, poor Hatta. If only he could learn to hate.
I booked Sense Distortion after the episode with Hatta. I think word of my unusually hysterical state had been passed on to the Committee, because I didn’t have to wait long. They even sent a little blue-and-pink sky-ship for me, all merry and gay and so on, and they played merry and gay and so on music to go with it.
“Ah yes,” they said when they saw me, and led me away by the hand.
So I lay down in the soft furry cubicle and waited to become a flower, and my last thought, I recollect, was, Where did this fur come from, a desert animal? And I vowed to dismantle the fur room at home.
And then I was in this still, morning forest with a pale sky, and I was a tall plant, gently waving and growing, my mind full of plant thoughts, receiving sunshine and feeling my molecules transmute it into green cells. This was very soothing. I was a flower for ages, and it should have done me good. After being a flower, I became a mountain, which was rather grand. I think I felt a bit like Assule, actually. Certainly I thought the sort of thoughts I bet he did. I am ancient and enduring, I am a god-thing, I am eternity. I ignored the winds and the sand chipping me, the rain eroding me, the hot sun drying me up. Later, I was a lake, blue and rippling, miles of me, and it’s wonderful to be so long and wide, and aware of every inch and eddy of yourself. I kept giving gentle little twitches, flinching the sun off my skin, encouraging my water plants to grow.
I came to and was surprised at first to find I had two arms and legs and hair, and all the boring rest of it. I had this impulse, which apparently is quite common after S.D., to dash off to Limbo and say “I want a long, blue, rippling body.” But they sidetracked me. They came buzzing along and gave me a meal injection, and encouraged me to write poetry on a machine about my experiences.
Thinta came to meet me—I have this feeling they suggested she should, and of course, Thinta, being loyal and painfully duty-bound, came haring over in her safe pink bird-plane. Oh, yes, she was being very safe today. You’d never think she crashed on the Zeefahr too, not so long ago, just like habit-ridden Hergal.
“Let’s make water dresses,” twittered Thinta.
We went and got the stuff and the instructions, and wandered for ages along galleries of clacking light-crochet machines, steel-knitters, and picture wool on which you can paint with electric rays, landscapes and things to bewilder yourself and your friends with. I wanted to see what Thinta would do, and fairly obviously stole some fire-needles; she just looked a bit uneasy and pretended she hadn’t seen. Well, I really was being humored. Wild possibilities of how I could drive everyone zaradann flitted through my brain, but I felt too basically fed up to pursue any of them.
We ate fifth meal at the Fire-Pit, then went and made our dresses in the deadly perfect sunshine of the Ilex Park, with a lot of jade leaves bashing us. In the middle of it all, the jade reminded me of the dragon in Jade Tower and all the other animals in Four BAA, and then of Lorun, and I started crying again. The tears got muddled in with the water dress and ruined it.
“Oh,” Thinta kept imploring, “oh, do stop, ooma.” I only managed it because I could see how upset she was getting. I’m not sure if it was sympathy that was disturbing her or embarrassment. Probably both.
We had sixth meal and Thinta enthusiastically paid for it, and then gave me a gentle fluttering sort of little talking to, on the sky-ship where we were eating it.
“You know,” she started, “everybody has silly times.”
“Do they?” I inquired unhelpfully.
“You know they do, ooma,” Thinta said. “Look at me and that business about wanting to be a cat thing, and the fur and the purring reflex that, thank goodness, the Committee was wise enough not to give me. Now I can see how ridiculous I was being and laugh at it. Ha, ha!” Did her laugh sound a bit strained?
“I don’t think you really laugh at it,” I told her callously. “I think you pretend to laugh, when really you’re furious you can’t sit and purr at me.”
“Oh, really,” said Thinta, looking as annoyed as Thinta can look, which means she just looks puzzled. The only time I’d ever seen her really angry was over the refused purring mechanism. “Anyway,” she said, “what I’m trying to say is, anyone can get over anything.”
“I see,” I said.
“Oh yes, really they can, ooma.”
“Perhaps they can,” I said, “but perhaps they shouldn’t.”
She couldn’t answer me. She tried but she couldn’t. Well, I couldn’t answer myself, could I?
I really did try, though, to get back into life as I’d known it, but it was like a tunic the wrong size; it didn’t fit me anymore. If it ever had. I shopped and stole, bubble-rode and fire-rode, went and cursed the Robotics Museum, and married Hergal again, though I could feel he didn’t enjoy our afternoon very much. He was too worried I’d start crying or something all over him, though I very considerately didn’t. I went to the Dimension Palace and didn’t even get properly frightened, just thoroughly tosky, though I suppose it was the best result I’d got so far.
Finally I thought of the Dream Rooms.
I went to Fourth Sector’s version, which has purple clouds and floating cubicles, and took about eighty splits programming the robot to make sure I got a perfectly groshing fantasy. I didn’t even have any guilt feelings this time—my Q-R with the water carpet had indirectly done that for me, at least.
And there I was, this fantastically erotic and famous dancer of an ancient desert tribe. We’d been captured by another more powerful tribe and taken in chains out into the desert with them as slaves. We lay by night under the cold desert stars, glaring at their big, dark blue tents, and the biggest tent of all, which belonged to their chieftain. I’d never seen the chieftain, but apparently he’d seen me and heard of my reputation in the dancing line; now, at the beginning of my dream, he’d requested my presence before him in his huge tent, and sent me this groshing costume to wear. I got into it and admired myself in the mirror his servants held up for me. It was scarlet, embroidered with seed pearls and silver disks and bled-red tassels. I had thick black hair, oceans of it, and green eyes, and I looked insumatt. Then this old wise-woman of our tribe came clanking up in her chains, poor old thing, and drew me aside.
“You must kill him,” she said, not messing around or anything.
“How?” I said. I wasn’t overly bothered. I mean, we were all bred hard fierce, and brave (as usual) out in this desert.
“With your knife,” said the wise-woman. “Here, I saved it for you when we were raided.”
And there it was, this bone-handled deadly blade, given me by my maker in my infancy or something. I caressed it, and promised to slay the terrible chieftain—the signal for my people to break loose and conquer the bewildered, leaderless enemy—or perish in the attempt. I was going to fall madly in love with him, of course, and not be able to do it, and he with me and not be able to punish me, and then our tribes were going to unite on equal terms, and everything was going to be derisann. Only things started going wrong.
It was all right to begin with. I stepped out, having concealed my knife in my scarlet sash, and strode between the campfires toward his imperious tent, positively glowing with pride and beauty. Slaves held the door flaps for me and in I went to this blue incense gloom and the rusty murk of torches. And there he sat, dark-skinned and black-haired and marvelous, and the drums started, and these thin pipe things, and cymbals, and dried seeds shaken around in clay pots, and I poised myself and started a slow and sensuous dance, guaranteed to hypnotize the place. The music got faster and faster, and I whirled and spun, and then whipped out my knife and leaped at him. And I stopped short. I was meant to, but not for the reason I had. I was meant to halt because of his beauty, but actually I halted because there, on his cushioned chair, sat a great big furry ski-foot, gently flapping its ears.
I yelled and dropped my knife.
“Have some cactus-pineapple,” offered the ski-foot, indicating a silver dish. “Now, now, don’t be silly,” coaxed the ski-foot as I backed away. “I do so hate shyness.”
I looked around wildly and found the whole tent-full had changed into the most ridiculous things with fur and feathers, long ears and trailing whiskers, little twitchy noses and long twitchy noses, horns and antennae and various tails, and they were all quacking and clucking and grunting away at me encouragingly. I only sat down because my knees went weak.
“That’s much more cozy,” said the ski-foot. “Now, do tell me, why are you trying to kill me? Was it because of our raid?”
“You enslaved us,” I tried to choke out all my prearranged dialogue but really, it looked so earnest and furry and concerned. I giggled hysterically.
“Dear me, she’s hysterical,” observed a large plumed dragon on my left.
“Have some wine,” said the ski-foot, “you’ll feel better,” and it reached toward a side table. But the table had ideas of its own. It unfolded four furry legs and walked calmly out of the tent, the wine and stuff bouncing around on top of it.
“Stop it,” cried the ski-foot, and the assembled company gave chase, squawking and booming and falling over each other’s tails and apologizing. “Come along,” added my host. “I think they’ll need some help.” So it and I added ourselves to the chaos, and we all pounded after the table, through the coals of the campfires. The table broke into a run and we never seemed likely to catch it, though our pace didn’t slacken. We pounded over the dunes, under the white stars, whooping and hooting, and the ski-foot grabbed my hand in a large capable paw.
“Must keep together, you know,” it panted. The poor thing was quite out of breath already. It probably only wanted to hold hands so it didn’t get left behind.
Every so often something would fall off the table with a crash and we were soon rushing through thousands of silver dishes and goblets and crushed fruit.
“It’s no use,” the ski-foot suddenly said and sat down in the sand, pulling me with it. Everyone else stopped and gathered around. The table gave a great kick of its furry heels and disappeared behind a rock.
“That’s the seventh we’ve lost in ten units,” said the ski-foot, and tears gushed from its eyes. “We can never catch them.”
Everybody started crying, and I started crying too.
And I woke up crying.
Oh, I complained. There was a terrible row at the Dream Rooms. Q-Rs rushed out and said I mustn’t upset everyone else. Eventually I was taken to this purple plush room full of robots, and this chief Q-R, also in purple, asked me to give them a full account of just what was wrong with my dream.
“Well, everything,” I cried. “I mean, it was a dream, an unprogrammed dream. And it really made me unhappy.”
They said they saw that and, oh dear, they just couldn’t understand it, it had never happened before, would I object to submitting to a mind reading? I said yes, I would object. They said the trouble was probably that I was thinking too hard about other things. I gave up eventually.
“I refuse to pay, though!” I added belligerently.
Of course, under the circumstances, they would not dream of charging me.
I went home.
Well, it was something to make history, I supposed.
I started to cry again, remembering those forlorn, zaradann animals, weeping over their lost table; then I saw the funny side as well, and started laughing at the same time.
Kley signaled me, looked frightened when she saw me, and hastily went away again and left me alone.
I wished I could leave me alone too.
I decided I could leave me alone, after all.
I’d been in this body a long while, even if it was two bodies, really, one a duplicate. I looked irritably at my scarlet hair. Gold would be nice for a change. I carefully never admitted that I knew no one would be bothered that I’d changed, no one would run away honking and hide its white fur and orange eyes among the silk grass, thinking I was someone else.
I knew Limbo would make a fuss if I asked for a change again. Humoring me was one thing, but I was a bit quieter now, and they might not be so anxious to help. I went and looked at the bubble, but I was bored by now with that way of dying. All right, I thought, I’ll admit it for once, I’m just as bad as Hergal. I kill myself to get a change, not just because I’m tosky or depressed. But I’m not going to admit it too often. I daren’t.
I signaled him.
“Attlevey, Hergal,” I said. “What, still blue-haired? I think we both need a change. How about the Zeefahr?”
He was amenable for once.
We rode out there in his plane and poised a while among the clouds, watching the tiny speck that was the Zeefahr’s dome down below.
“Ready?” Hergal asked.
“Quite,” I said. I determined to enjoy it, but I didn’t.
He arranged the controls with practiced hands and leaned back, casual and nonchalant. Everything began rushing up at us at a ghastly rate. The dome grew bulbous, shining, terrible.
“Hergal!” I screamed. “Stop us!”
“Can’t,” was the last thing I heard him say before the impact blotted everything out.
And the first thing I said to him, as we woke up in the Limbo tub was, “Hergal, why do you always do it like that? It hurts.”
“Pain is a reality,” Hergal said, and turned out his communication light.
The circle got together at the end of the vrek and had this typically Jang party. I married Hergal, and Kley, male now, married Thinta, and Danor—having temporarily sloughed her following—just came and looked beautiful, and Hatta was just going to come and look ugly, and then didn’t come after all.
We used the floaters, drank fire-and-ice and snow-in-gold, had ecstasy and love machines, a lot of noise, having love, and messing about. Hergal and I had both got these angel’s wings. They were strong, actually, and we found, by sticking to it, that we could sort of fly very clumsily, short distances—inside the clouds, of course. We’d both had an official warning from the Committee about our body changes. If we didn’t wait thirty units, they’d put us into cold storage for thirty units after the next suicide. It’s pretty uncomfortable, Hergal tells me; it’s happened to him before. And they did take away Hergal’s license on the bird-plane.
My bee crashed on my head in the middle of it all.
“I don’t know,” Thinta said through Kley’s hair, “why you don’t reprogram that thing.”
“I suppose I must like it falling on me,” I said. “I suppose it’s different.” I don’t often admit that either. I must have been pretty ecstatic.
We abandoned the floaters about dawn and ran through Four BEE singing and semi-flying, all the way to the Robotics Museum.
“Oh, don’t hurt it,” Thinta implored us. I think she must be approaching adulthood or something. I’ve suspected it for a long time. We floored robot caretakers and bashed about disconnecting things, feeling wildly happy and quite zaradann. Jang are always doing it, actually, but we kidded ourselves we were original. Then we stood around in the chaos, idly kicking at broken things with our gold-sandalled feet.
Four BEE’s yellow sun was just coming up over the rim of the transparent roof, bringing another unit of perfect, monotonous sunshine and joy.
I felt this singing noise in my ears, and the room darkened, though it should have been getting brighter.
“Oh God,” I said, “I’m absolutely droad.”
I think Hergal must have caught me, or perhaps it was a catch net. Anyway, I never felt myself hit the floor.
They were really worried about me in Limbo. Apparently I’d actually “fainted,” something nobody’s done for aeons. They popped me back in the Limbo tub and gave me a compulsory new body, in case there was something wrong with the old one, even though they couldn’t find anything. I had Thinta worried too. She came to visit me when they made me stay in for observation for four units.
“I’ve brought you some ecstasy pills,” she said, “and a moving picture magazine on fashion.”
“Thank you,” I said. I tried to look interested.
“Er, ooma,” she quavered then, “I didn’t tell anybody, but do you remember that funny word you said, just before, er, just before…”
“I fainted?” I asked. I was quite brave about my freakiness by now. “No.”
“You said…” Thinta paused. “You said you were droad, and you said, just before you said you were droad, you, er…”
“Look, Thinta,” I began.
“No. All right, I’m sorry. You said ‘Oh…God’?”
“Did I?” I inquired.
“Well, yes, you see, you did, actually.”
“Are you sure it wasn’t just a groan or something?” I queried.
“No,” said Thinta.
“Well,” I said, “what does it mean?”
“I don’t know,” Thinta said. “I looked it up in the history records and they sort of mentioned it here and there. It sounded like a kind of very large, special computer.”
“Doesn’t seem very likely to me,” I said.
“No,” Thinta said, “it’s just—it worried me somehow.”
Well, all right, so now I’m worried too. Thank you, Thinta ooma.
I worry sometimes now. I wake up in the night from all my weird dreams of the desert and think, God? God? But there doesn’t seem to be an answer.
I’m very calm now, anyway. Serene. Like Danor, perhaps. I don’t usually get excited or angry the way I used to. I suppose I’ve come to accept the sun, and given up biting at it.
Hatta signaled me again the other unit, all lumps and bumps and tentacles, and it seemed such a shame really, but I just can’t stand him like that. I know he needs this proof of love, I can understand; he’s trying to hide it from himself now and just keeps on again about how important it is to be ugly sometimes, and how going away with him as he is would be an Essential Experience. Perhaps it would and I ought to. Perhaps sometime I will.
And not long ago, as I rode in my bubble, I suddenly thought how wonderful it would be if there was somewhere in the city where you could die without the robots ever finding you. Of course there’s the desert, but it would be a kind of dirtiness to die deliberately in the desert in all my cityness, like using it as a huge vacuum drift. I made them bury the pet out there—yes, I can actually say it now—but that was different. It had to go back into the sands that hatched it. I belong in this twilight that hatched me. Or do I?
Or do I?
Although I have put the Four BEE into equivalent modern English, the Jang slang vocabulary which the writer uses pales in translation. I have therefore left the sixteen or so odd words she employs untouched, and included on the following page a glossary, which provides an adequate, if imperfect, guide to what they mean.
dalika Violent argument.
derisann Lovely, beautiful.
droad Bored out of one’s mind.
drumdik Utterly horrible, the most ghastly thing.
farathoom Bloody, fucking hell.
floop Cunt. See also thalldrap.
groshing Fabulous, marvelous.
onk Mild ejaculation, e.g., “Bother.”
ooma Darling, honey.
ooma-kasma Extreme term of affection, e.g., “love of my life,” not generally used.
selt Slow on the uptake, easy to fool.
soolka Well-groomed. Applied by Jang only to non-Jang.
thalldrap See floop.
Vixaxn A word never written in full in the first section of the autobiography. Though spelled fully here, the meaning—though obviously still pretty bad—is also still obscure.
zaradann Insane, nuts.
Glar Early Four BEE title, similar to professor. The term hung on as a polite name for Q-R teachers at the hypno-schools, but otherwise was extinct by this time.
mid-vrek Middle period of any vrek, lasting forty units.
rorl Four BEE equivalent of a century.
split Four BEE minute.
unit Four BEE day.
vrek Period of one hundred units.
TANITH LEE was born in 1947 in London, England. She received her secondary education at Prendergast Grammar School, Catford. She began to write at the age of nine.
After school she worked variously as a library assistant, a shop assistant, a filing clerk, and a waitress. At age 25 she spent 1 year at art college.
From 1970 to 1971 three of Lee’s children’s books were published. In 1975 DAW Books USA published Lee’s The Birthgrave, and thereafter 26 of her books, enabling her to become a full-time writer.
To date she has written 58 novels and nine collections of novellas and short stories. Four of her radio plays have been broadcast by the BBC and she has written two episodes of the BBC cult series Blake’s Seven. Her work has been translated into over 15 languages.
Lee has twice won the World Fantasy Award for short fiction, and was awarded the August Derleth Award in 1980 for her novel Death’s Master.
In 1992 Lee married the writer John Kaiine, her partner since 1987. They live in southeast England with one black-and-white and one Siamese cat.