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Hergal, I said, if you say that one more time I am personally going to knock you straight through that wall.

Hergal looked at me in grave wonderment.

All right, he complied, and said it. He didnt look surprised, either, when I got up and did exactly what Id promised Id do. Maybe he was only humoring me. As he lay there on the other side of the wall, surrounded by bits of shattered silk-of-crystal, I added:

I suppose youre too much of a damned ignoramus to know what comes next?

Absolutely, said Hergal, removing glittering chips from his long orange hair and wringing spilled orange wine from his sleeves.

Swords at dawn, I said, or pistols. Take your pick. My challenge, so its your choice.

You have been at the History Records again, remarked Hergal, and as I observed prior to our little dalika just now, being a male half the time is getting you all tangled up, old ooma. Youre predominantly female, so why dont you No chance to finish. I laid him flat on his back again.

He stared up at me woefully.

Swords? I inquired. Or pistols?

Graks, said Hergal. If you want to play ancient grandeur, do it in the Adventure Palace like everyone else.

And thus, rising to our gold-shod feet, we glared momentarily eye to eye, after which he strode out into the morning, whistling one of the current Jang favorites: I only want to have love with you, for you are so derisann.

About twenty robots and Q-Rs, of various descriptions but unanimously unfriendly, were bearing down on me, so I also strode out of the little restaurant on Crystal Terrace and made off along Crystal Walkway in the opposite direction to my friend, mate, and crony, Hergal the Turd.

To be quite frank, what really tied me up in a knot was the pure logic of Hergals deductions. True, I had been at the History Recordsagain. True, I, predominantly female as I was, had been male with no break for almost three vreks. There had, of course, been a variety of assorted bodies, but they were all much the same.

There were many like Zirk, who, when a male, tended to rangy heroic types with shoulders the width of Committee Hall doors, rippling bronze musculature, and a loud personafor which Zirk made up, when female, by being about three feet tall, delicate as porcelain, and timid as a Four BOO sand-rabbit. Then there were the ones like Kley, who, when male, was a quiet, well-mannered nonentity, and became a raging bully when in girl-shape. I, however, remained much the same either way. Always inclined to violence, chivalry, and general moodiness, the size of my breasts, or any alternative apparatus I happened to have about me, didnt really color the situation to any vast degreeat least, I dont think so. But my particular circle, which had enlarged itself, as most Jang circles do, over the last twelve vreks, had got sensitive about my eternal malenessas Hergal was pleased to call it. I had come to the conclusion that Hergal, himself predominantly male, resented my intrusion on his preserves. He and I got on well enough when I was female and he male. But I had noticed, as time slithered by, that when we were both of one ilk, the fur flew. Another thing that troubled male Hergal in the male me was perhaps my superior success with the female portion of the group.

Thinta, in fact, was becoming a bit of a pain.

You need looking after, she would say. Someone to keep an eye on you. You remember that business before. I havent forgotten. Neither has the Committee, you can be sure of that. And then, glowing her cats eyes at me, Well get married for mid-vrek, and you can come and live at home with me, and everything will be groshing.

Thintas home was another of the ubiquitous palaces of Four BEE, with seven emerald towers, each one packed floor to roof with pale-green cats. Thinta had always had a cat fixation, which, unit by unit, seemed to be getting worse. Open a door in her place and a cat fell out; lie down on a couch in her place and a cat jumped on you. Having love there with Thinta could be an ordeal. The first time, I thought it was Thinta wailing and making those long, white-hot, silver-wire runnels down my back. But it wasnt Thinta, it was three of Thintas cats.

No thanks, Thinta, I said. We can marry for a unit, yes. But well go to the floaters.

But Thinta still liked to keep an eye on me. She would signal me in the center of night, and wake me out of deep slumber, and ask:

How are you?

She would arrive in her safe pink bird-plane at all the least convenient hours of sunlight, and say:

Are you sure?

Meanwhile, Zirk, when a sand-rabbit, timorously appeared at the tables of restaurants where I was eating, or on the surface of water-skating pools, and whispered flutteringly:

Why, attlevey, ooma. Fancy meeting you!

And Mirri, Hergals last love, the one he added to our circle personally, and with whom he spent so many secret hours, now pursued me up and down the movi-rails, walkways, and sky-lanes of Four BEE, her hair flapping like a rainbow flag, and her face alight with predatory instincts. Even Hergal I vaguely recall arriving at midnight in female form, and saying in a fascinated calculating fashion:

You know, I think I begin to understand you at last.

The scene with Hergal, however, in Crystal Air, had come about because wed heard Danor was moving back from Four BAA.

Danor and I. That was distant history.

Danor and I and that silly chilly sequence those many vreks before, when she told mehe then, I shethat he couldnt have love and like it. Danor jumping from a window in the floater clouds, and falling hundreds of feet into the citypointless action, since the robots would be on him and have him removed to a new body inside the houryet just as if he meant it.To me, now, that event was somehow the beginning of what happened to me, all those things that happened to me back there, twelve vreks in my own past. My fight against the world, the biting and snapping of a wild animal at the sun. Look over my shoulder, and Id see, in the wreckage, the struggle to find a challenge, the wild attempt to make a child and the fatal mistake that killed that child in its crystallize twilight; the nutty relationshipthe only relationship that held anything for memy love and my rapport with that pet I never named until it was too late. My pet who died. Death, death everywhere, death in this society where no one dies.

I wonder what sex Danor is going to be for the home-coming, said Hergal, looking at me obliquely through his apricot lashes.

Female, I said.

Yes, she did stick at that for quite a while, said Hergal.

Maybe hed guessed whybecause she said it was easier to pretend to passion that way. Lucky she never read the History Records as I had done, and found, among their other little horrors, the ironic essay on frigidity, some ten rorls old.

Still, said Hergal, shes been in BAA long enough to get over her perpetual girlhood. Thatll leave just you and Hatta as the circle freaks.

I resented, Ill admit, being classed with Hatta, whom wed just seen bundle by outside, looking like a scarlet balloon on three legs that had been struck simultaneously by lightning and plague. Hatta had also thrown knives in my heart, but that was way back with the rest. Now he seemed to go about his compulsive ugliness in a spirit of inventive venom that was almost engaging. Each body was worse than the last, which should have been impossible. Maybe he hoped that wed both throw up fourth meal at the sight of him when he leered in at the crystal window.

Seen Mirri lately? I asked Hergal casually. I, too, had an armament.

With you, I saw her, said Hergal, but dont reckon on making Danor. Danor cracked up when you cracked up, and got out of BEE to get away from you. Thats why this is the first time shes been back since.

How flattering, I said, to have such a profound effect.

Listen, said Hergal, you sit up there on your tail in the History Tower, in the dust with a couple of rusty robots that dont know what rorl it is. You read about things that dont exist anymore and wont ever exist anymore. Adventures, wars, illness, obsolete social behavior patternspoets. This last was a knock at my appearance, modeled by me from a sort of amalgam of the romantic pale young men who, with masses of loosely curling dark hair, slight and graceful build, aquilinity of feature, and large shadow-smudged blue opals for eyes, were conjured three-dimensionally on the history walls from long-ago drawings of a vanished intellectual world. All these beings traditionally died youngof ancient, unheard-of diseases of the lungs, at sea, in battles, in burning planes and unexpected accidents. It seemed required of them, and I wont say I never laughed in their pretty and tragic faces. Death of that kind was a hard thing to realize, even for me, in this place where death never permanently threatened human life. Imagine those poets expressions, rescued by the robots of Four BEE, and emerging newly clothed in flesh from the Limbo Tub. Do you mean I have to write more verses of my bloody poem after all? How utterly drumdik.

Listen, reiterated Hergal slyly, you havent had a body change for ages. Go to Limbo and have one, and Ill meet you. Do you remember that body of yours with the cinnamon skin and the lemon hair? That was really insumatt.

You mean the female body?

Oh, yes, said Hergal. Why not get them to look it up and order it again? Then you and I can make a couple of units of it.

So you know for certain, I said, that Danor is coming back female. Hergal looked at me. I added: Danor and I have a longstanding agreement. I shouldnt like to let her down. Perhaps you could persuade Mirri. Ill tell her Ive got something else on.

You only get them, said Hergal, because youre still seven-eighths one of them. Its cannibalism.

What erudition, I said. Can it be youve been to the History Tower too? With so much time on your hands these days

Youre a misfit, said Hergal. You always were. You dont go to the Dream Rooms because you cant even get through a dream anymore without messing it up. Youre trying to live eighty rorls back in the past because you cant come to terms with things as they are.

You can, I said. Youve stopped crashing onto the Zeefahr Monument, and last mid-vrek you hanged yourself in Ilex Park off a jade tree, where all the kids from hypno-school could see you. How well-adjusted.

At least, said Hergal, when I get out of Jang Ill be able to make a little kid to go to hypno-school, since I didnt manage to annihilate the last one.

Definitely he had been snuffling about in the History Tower. The words were archaic, as half of mine were now. But no matter. This was the moment when I swatted him right through the wall, and we presently parted company.

Id known, however, despite my challenge, that he was a safe dead loss for a duel, even if he had read about them. Picture Hergal firing from the shoulder at ten paces in the dawn. Yawning would spoil his aim.

PART I | Drinking Sapphire Wine | c