“Attlevey,” said a sharp metallic voice. I detected who it was before I looked round.
“Well, if it isn’t Kley,” I said.
Kley was female right now, which meant watch out, but, when I glanced about, in a new body. Dazzling. Hair like lava, eyes like raw gold, skin like polished brass, and dressed to kill in see-through patterned with gold daggers, and with a brazen skull—of all antique masterpieces—grinning on her groin shield.
“I must say,” she said, “you’re looking pale.”
“That’s the idea, Kley. My body’s designed to look pale.”
“Oh, yes. You’re being a consummated poet, aren’t you?”
“Consumptive, ooma, consumptive,” I said.
“Filthy,” she said. “Your ideas are absolutely sick.”
“Sick as anything,” I agreed. “Sick as three Jang in an angelfood factory.”
“And your vocabulary!” she bawled. “Those words! Factory? What’s that?”
“A place where they make audio plugs,” I said.
We were on the old, non-moving walkway that trails up from behind Third Sector Committee Hall, and leads eventually to the History Tower. It was a remote route, not much favored, for the Tower itself was rarely visited, and so Kley’s arrival on my heels was as unexpected as it was unwelcome.
“You ought to pull yourself together,” she now bellowed, her voice striking and bouncing back off the steel statues lining the walk. “It’s all over the city about your dalika with Hergal. Even the flashes reported it.”
“Whoopee,” I said. I had turned and was walking on, but she kept after me and even grasped my arm firmly with a gold-gloved hand.
“Danor’s coming back on the sky-boat at sunset.”
“Yes, I know.”
“And you’re going to meet her?”
“Kley,” I said, “right now I’m on my way to the History Tower.”
“Oh no,” she said, “you’re coming with me. I’ve been reading the latest Jang love manual, the Purple Summit. You’re going to marry me for the afternoon and we’re going to do everything it says together, including the Trapezium with the red-hot Star-Whip, and—”
“Kley,” I said, “look at me. Do I look strong enough to go through anything like that?”
“Of course you don’t,” she snapped. “That’s how you had the body made, isn’t it? But if I know you—”
“Kley,” I said, “you don’t.”
Unlike the bright and burnished History Museum—where a couple of rorls worth of Flash Records and similar junk were kept—the History Tower, Harbinger of the Arcane, was suitably black, old, grim, and uninviting.
And the facade worked pretty well. How many people went there? Twice, when I was pouring over some vis-plates, I heard the distant puttering of somebody else in another part of the building, the hiss of a flying floor going up and down. And once an Older Person, female and disapproving, came marching in to look up the origins of some committee motto for a treatise she was writing—or said she was. I wasn’t in my poetic body then, and she scowled at me as I slouched there robustly. I heard her later mutter something to one of the elderly robots that clanked about the Tower that Jang should not be allowed in.
And when did I first enter those portals? About twenty units after I got out of Limbo that time, twelve vreks gone, when I made history myself by passing out cold, and was compulsorily refitted with flesh. Thinta had visited me, oh yes, I well recall. Thinta, clothed by innuendo: “Do you remember that funny word…” I had uttered it, apparently, on my way down. The funny word had turned out to be “God.” Thinta said she’d looked it up in the History Records. She said it sounded like a kind of very large special computer. She said it worried her, so she’d come along and worried me with it so she could feel better. In the end I arrived at the Tower to investigate for myself. I never really unraveled the mystery. The farther back you went, the more fragmentary the Records—and it was something to do, I believe, with the days when uncertainty was everywhere. However, I began to like the privacy of the Tower, and I began to delve into the Records, fragmentary or not, for their own sake. The things they teach you at hypno-school are barely a scratch on the surface.
It was a substitute, too, let’s face it, for the activities I’d given up, like the Dream Rooms, since even the most meticulously programmed dreams—awash with swords, dragons, and so on—invariably turned into nightmares of the unprogrammed sort. The very last time I went I woke up screaming, and created history once again in Four BEE. I’d dreamed I was fighting a great monster of fire that burned flesh from bone, and it wouldn’t die however often I severed its head or pierced its heart. That was a dream I’d grown used to since, but at least I didn’t pay a Dream Room any more to saddle me with it.
In the Tower, a crotchety robot came wheezing up. It looked quite pleased to see me, and its lights did a little display. The rooms smelled of metal and dust and a sort of incense smell, too, from some of the very ancient books which were kept in special vacuum containers and turned over by air jets rather than machine, to keep them from crumbling into bits.
Actually I didn’t delve much on this particular visit. I sat in my alcove with some old (about ten rorls) music playing at me, and began to entertain rather romantic thoughts about Danor. Of course, she might be the disappointment of the vrek. Or she might have turned into a Hatta-horror, though it seemed unlikely. Poor frigid Danor. My reading up here had given me a few ideas. Looked at calmly, Danor was in the nature of a scientific experiment, but dress yourself in a poet’s skin and you find you’ve reached for a machine, and started to compose poetry to go with it. A Jang love poem for Danor, as elegant, charming, and empty as an unfilled room.
She must have left Four BEE about the same moment I emerged from Limbo, carrying a cask of metal tape under my arm—that depressing saga of events I’d authored there. Possibly Hergal’s mouthings were true; she’d fled in fear of me, since our individual descents into misery occurred about jointly. But why come back?
Finally I switched off the music and abandoned the alcove. Beyond the transparalyzed windows, the Four BEE sun was trudging down the sky.
And there, on a steel bench, lolled Kley, smoking a hilarious golden cigar.
“Paler than ever,” she remarked acidly. She flipped open an armband and offered me an energy pill, which I declined. “Going to faint at Danor’s feet, are you?”
Yes, someone would always dig that up.
“That shouldn’t be necessary,” I said.
“Well, come on,” she vociferated. Her finger-long nails flashed in the sunset. “The whole circle’s going to the lock to welcome her in. Probably a few other circles, too, recollecting that old thing she had about playing hard to get.”
“Go on, Kley,” I said. “Strain yourself; play hard to get.”
She nearly got me with a sideswipe of those nails, and five robots came over and hustled us out with disapproving creaks.