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First unit of my second vrek in the valley.

Me on the veranda eating melon pancakes, thinking lazily of the work we were going to do today, Jaska, Borss, Yay, and I.

Water mixer on the prowl, dimly visible through an early haze, now and again hidden by trees, ferns, shrubs. A confused snake courting itself in the grass about nine feet off. Nose to tail: Come on, give us a kiss. The tail coyly refusing.

Then a familiar-unfamiliar sound in the sky, the snake going stiff as a ramrod, and I walking out and staring up.

Sometimes bird-planes had passed over, actually far to the west. Rarely did you catch their noise. Purely at random, I had established my haven well off the sand-ship and plane routes. This abomination, however, was directly overhead and presently swooping earthward.

Farathoom, and similar oaths. Watch out for the purple trees! (I had a name for everythinggenerally analogous. This saved muddle. Sometimes.) No, the purple trees had escaped barbering. The thing was going to land right in the cactus roses. It did.

Pancake still in hand, I thudded from the porch and ran to the plane. Very garish it was, and drizzling colored neons, but I didnt bother with that.

Get the Infinity off my flowers, blast you! Look what youve done.

The anticipated robot voice came melodiously from the opening door:

No need for alarm.

Im not alarmed. But youre going to be if you dont move that tin can of yours.

Just then the visitor emerged, a roly-poly machine, somehow conveying broad smiles, wires waving, lights popping on and off. It had Flash Center written all over it.

Dont tell me, I said. Some soup-brained promok spotted a fern in the desert, and mentioned it to some other Older promok at a Flash Center, and now theyve sent a reporting machine to collect some pulchritudinous flashes to be pulchritudinously flashed all over Four flooping BEE. Yes?

Oh, yes, chortled the flash machine, programmed by some incorrigible moron to sound like the worst type of human jolly. They probably thought the distraught Outcast would be glad to chirrup away to something human-sounding, however obnoxious.

Well, old ooma, you can just hop back on your plane and go, I said, before I turn the water mixer on you.

The flash machine looked uneasy somehow. Maybe it wasnt rustproofed.

Oh, but please. Everyones ever so interested. Theres even going to be a special interruption to Picture-Vision, and a perma-film of all this put on for five whole splits.

That rocked me. The last time that had happened had been whenwhenwell, when? Ever? Surely the Committee hadnt thought this up? Perhaps people were interested, or some people. Perhaps Danor might want to know how I was making out. Or Hergal. Yes, I could just see Hergal, reclining somewhere, semi-ecstatic, with golden limber limbs elegantly stretched like one of Thintas cats. He might even get romantic over me for half a split now I was in noncombatant female form. Thinta, on the other hand, liked me less that way. Possibly she would mutter something like: I tried and TRIED with her. I did all I could. But she wouldnt listen. It hurt to think of them, but it was a pain Id have to get used to. I couldnt always just shut off whenever some image of the city stole up on me. Sometime Id have to face it. But part of me had warmed. I looked at the flash machine differently.

Well, I said, if youll shift that plane over a bit, and let me do the talking.

Of course!

And could you readjust slightly, and speak more in the frigid supercilious vein Ive become used to with machines? Oh, and Ill need half an hour to get ready.


Oh, well, the first chance Id had to be vain for over a vrek. Could be the last chance, too.

A good machine can rustle up clothing in fifteen splits if you know how to inspire it. Id long since got out of wearing traditional Jang see-through in BEE, so Id had lots of practice in the art. The ship clothing machine, left in the wall till now, nearly went zaradann, and threw off a gown of syntho-silk the color of fresh snow and embroidered with zircons. The cosmetics chute had fun, too, and tossed jeweled bottles of this and that at me with a disarming, childish delight. My feminine side had reestablished itself with a vengeance.

I emerged back into the outdoors, looking unbelievably glamorous and confident, eyelids enameled, earlobes spangled, and even the calluses rinsed off my ringed hands with medicinal salve. This was how Danor and Hergal and the rest were going to see me, if see me they did. Prosperous, fortunate, desirable, happy. And out of reach.

You have been three half-hours instead of one, stated the flash machine.

Oh, good. Youve reprogrammed to sound unpleasant. Thats a relief.

No I have not, but my batteries will go flat if

If we waste any more time, so lets get going.

Full tour. Everything. Theyd cut it later, anyway. Five splits! What could they show in five splits? Just enough, maybe.

Trees in a stasis of showering green, irrigation canals sparkling like crystal, the monstrous water mixer lifting on its legs and striding off, a solitary Gray-Eyes caught napping in the fern. Me, pampered and relaxed. Jaska and Borss digging Yay out of a subsidence. (Youd better cut that. Bet they wouldnt.) Fruit ripeningno, I didnt know what it was, but as it had grown here on the north side where the original water-and-provision spout had erupted, possibly some of the semi-constructed food had taken root or whatever it did. Id be testing soon to see if it was edible.

Eventually the flash machine asked for a speech. I considered Vixaxn the Committee, succinct and sincere, but decided if I really wanted any old friends to see this reel Id better think of something else.

So: I just want to thank the Committee, I said, dewy-eyed, for being so considerate. I made a terrible mistake, as everyone knows, but, despite exiling me, the Committee has been the soul of good will and consideration.

How about loneliness, the machine asked, abruptly brutal, and impending age?

You can be lonely in a crowd, I said, worse than out here. And age is something the ancients used to cope with, so I can cope with it, too, cant I? Besides, Ive got a good half rorl or more before I need start worrying about that. Im built to last.

When the flash machine had gone, it was rather quiet for a bit.

I tidied up the cactus roses, but they were tough, and their scarlet heads were soon raised high again. So was my sun-bleached one.

Finally I got on the monitoring beam and asked the computer if they would relay the flash film to me on my own Picture-Vision unit. After a pause the computer said yes, and then:

Currently, bones are reinforced while the child is growing in the crystallize tank, said the computer. So are teeth and nails. They no longer break.

Thats a relief, I said. Are you going to drop this femur business now?

The computer rumbled.

What is God?

I cant tell you. Dont ask again.

This word does not fit into my vocabulary.

Nor mine. Dont worry about it. Get them to wipe off the tape or something.

Rattle, pattle, ping.

The film wasnt bad. I didnt understand then (how could I? Maybe I could have, should have) how un-bad it was.

The Garden looked wonderful. Unbelievable. What effect would that produce after the silk-of-glass flowers and jade ilexes of the city? And I, well, I looked as Id wanted to: radiant. My speech was in, even the hint of diabolic irony I hadnt noticed had slipped through on the good will and consideration bit. Still, probably the citizens would just scream: Ooh, nasty real rough trees with creepy-crawlies up them, and horrid Jang exile murderer much too brown, and never trust people who give themselves pale eyes, ugh! And rush for the vacuum drift.

Peace be with you.

| Drinking Sapphire Wine | c