“I’m sorry, ooma,” Danor said, “I didn’t mean to shock you. But I wasn’t sure what else I could do.”
I tried to say something, but my teeth were chattering too much.
“I remembered you aren’t male anymore,” Danor continued soothingly. “And we—I won’t impose on you.”
“D-D-D—” I tried feverishly. Oh, God, get a grip on yourself. “Danor,” I grimaced.
“Danor, you shouldn’t be—what are you doing here? Isn’t there some sort of Committee bar on anyone visiting me?”
“Oh, yes,” she said, so quietly only the greater quietness of the desert made her audible. “According to their records, no human must visit an outcast. If they do, they forfeit their right to return to the cities. They gave everyone a talking-to after you left.”
“My dangerous tendencies, rubbing off on you, contagious, like a sickness…forfeit rights to return…what do you mean? Do you mean—?”
“I mean,” said Danor, “of our own volition, we’ve made contact with you. Because we don’t intend to go back to the cities.” Very feminine and not at all coarsely she added: “They can stuff them right up.”
I wasn’t sure if the feeling in my chest and throat was nausea, tears, or nervous asthma.
“Oh, Danor, what an idiot. Get on your plane and get going. It’s all very well, I’ve got some sort of ambition out here. But it’s still rackingly lonely. Oh, get on your plane. Say it malfunctioned and you never meant to land. Say you spat in my face—horrid, antisocial freak that I am.”
“Don’t be silly, ooma,” said Danor. “I wouldn’t dream of saying it. Neither would—” she broke off, and through my panicky emotion I became aware that she’d broken off here and there before, and that some of the related actions had been plural.
“Neither would whom? You’re not by yourself.”
“No,” she said. “He has a private bird-plane. We can live in that if we have to. We don’t want to crowd you, or make you feel any obligation. It’s our own decision to come out here. We can move off over the mountains, if you’d rather.”
“You still didn’t say who,” I said.
“Kam,” she said. “Who else?”
She spoke his name, not in the way I’d heard her use it before, as if she had lost him forever and learned to exist with the fact. She spoke his name with a sort of exultation, not possessively, but rather as I had said, only half an hour before, “Look at that sky.”
And then, despite the unprecedented situation, and the amount that hung palpitatingly upon it, despite the fact that, as a female, I felt nothing sexual or even romantic for Danor, a pang of scorching jealousy went through me. A compound of many things, no doubt, recollected male pride in my love-making with the specter of Kam, who held her before me, hovering in the air; the fact, too, that no chosen male had followed me into the waste, no one had been near and dear enough to consider it or be considered.
“Shall we walk on, to the plane?” she asked. “Will you come and meet him? I came alone to try to lessen the fright I’d give you. How are you, ooma?”
“Simply derisann,” I grated. “Groshingly, insumattly marvelous.”
She lowered her eyes—lavender eyes, designed expressly to please Kam.
“I’m sorry,” she said again. “You must think us terrible. We did see the flash-film. I think everyone saw it. But truly, ooma, I’d thought of this before. And we won’t stay if you don’t want us to. Even though you’ve made this place so lovely.”
An impulse in me told me to reiterate my warning to go, not merely from concern now, but from irrational malice. But, shaking to my soul, confronted even by two people to be jealous of—two people—I said hoarsely:
“Yes, all right. I’ll meet him.”
The whispery insects indigenous to the valley had long since made a home deep among the green, and by night their dry rustling filled the avenues of the Garden. Starlight flecked the paths and faceted unreal tourmalines to spark among the leaves. Once Danor’s eyes suddenly flooded with tears—something beautiful she’d glimpsed, you could tell. She said nothing more, afraid I should censure her cowardice in not risking everything till she saw what could be done with the dunes.
Parked on the southern perimeter, lights beaming, the bird-plane was blue and modest.
Danor went up the ramp before me. She called out nothing to him, simply stood there, then turned and smiled at me. That smile. It would have looked silly and sugary on anyone but Danor, but she gave it a sort of genuine gleamingness, or perhaps her authentic passions did.
The plane, though smaller, was rather like that of Lorun, my sometime lover from Four BOO, everything laid on in miniature as it were, float-bed, bath unit, little provision dispenser. Of course, I was peering about at it, avoiding looking into the shadowy area of the control panel where Danor’s Older Male was sitting.
“This is Kam,” Danor said, introducing us politely. So I did look at him then. I felt disproportionately disagreeable, as I mentioned. The whole thing had thrown me flat on my nose.
“Attlevey, Kam,” I said, making a big thing of the Jang slang—Danor and me sweet young Jang, him elderly decrepit gentleman.
He wasn’t, naturally. He looked scarcely older than either of us, since bodies are all made youthful unless otherwise requested by the Older Person in question. Only in the eyes and the way he moved his face—his expressions—could you see the extra years, the Experience of Life. And he was a handsome bastard, in true style, smoke-dark hair, smoke-blue eyes, tanned like a beautifully varnished smoky bronze. Which made everything much worse. He was the first male I’d seen for one hundred and something days, and he belonged—every square inch, you couldn’t miss it—to my friend Danor.
So now I was jealous of both of them.
“Saw the film then, did you?” I inquired. He’d said nothing yet. He smiled too—what a smile that was, maybe he couldn’t help designing himself to be so attractive, but he could try and tone it down a bit for my sake.
“Yes. We saw the film together.”
“Oh, together. Surprised you made the time to see films.”
He laughed. Not at me, with me. Showing me I’d cracked a joke, and if I’d only get off my arrogance kick I’d be simply super company. I frowned unbecomingly.
“After you left Four BEE,” Danor interpolated, “we disintegrated rather.”
“Poor things. It must have been absolutely awful for everyone, stuck there in the dome, and me out here in the middle of nothing and nowhere with nothing and no one—” I stopped just before the self-pity, creeping up under a cloak of fury, got me by the ears.
“Yes, we were selfish,” Danor said, “and very, very frightened. Up until you actually left, everyone kept going by being angry and fulsome, and having a mad time—like the party. But on the fifth unit…” She stopped and her face was pale, so pale it took me back into that Committee room when she had stood there, palely answering the Q-R’s rotten probings about Kam and her, her hands trembling. She hadn’t wanted to be there and answer them, but she hadn’t had much choice after I’d done over Zirk in the park. After all, it had been my own fault, hadn’t it, throwing around challenges, getting violent, blaming everybody but myself.
I sat down on one of the rather pleasing midnight-blue seats.
Danor didn’t resume talking. I could feel Kam looking at her, her looking at Kam, and great mutual gusts of sympathy for me passing between them.
Let’s face it, he hadn’t jumped down my throat for screwing his lover the moment his back was compulsorily turned by BAA Committee. And he had more rights than me, sniveling little predominantly female fool.
“Er, would you like anything?” he quietly asked.
“Don’t be kind,” I said, “or I shall smother the upholstery with tears. Maybe Danor could go on with what she was saying, and I’ll try to keep my ill-natured trap shut.”
“Oh, ooma—” said Danor, but Kam must have shaken his head, telepathically advising her to do what I said. They really were a pair, just like lovers in old books—one mind, one heart and so on. They’d have made you puke if there hadn’t been that sense of something shining and rock-hard at the spine of their idyll.
Danor went on in a light matter-of-fact voice.
“First of all, Hergal went and crashed on the Zeefahr again. We thought he’d given that up, quite a surprise. She—Hergal—came back a girl, and rushed off in a dreadful state with some other-circle Jang male to BAA. The male resembled your last body, ooma. It was sort of funny and sad. Thinta just shut herself in her green palace with swarms of cats. Mirri and Kley looked frightful. Mirri finally booked into Sense Distortion. As for Zirk, she got cut out of the circle. She was going around and around the city, female, with about six enormous other-circle males, and half the time saying she was someone else. So the Committee are on to her for Evasion, since paying for home and various other things in another name doesn’t count, apparently. And Hatta looked unbelievable the last time we met.”
“Utterly drumdik,” I managed. “I can imagine. Eight black eyes, four yellow ears, and a tail.”
“No,” said Danor, “that’s just it. Female, and beautiful.”
Even in my arrested state, this registered. Hatta—only once had I known him to be beautiful, and never female.
I’d looked up by now, and shown some signs of incipient animation. Kam had popped a button somewhere and cool glasses of a non-Jang white alcohol had appeared. I drank, cautious at the shared, unknown but tasty liquor. Was I going to forgive them their naive and unkind arrival, all glittering with their love?
“Yes,” said Danor, “Hatta as a girl is riveting. I don’t know what she felt; she never spoke of it. But obviously she was making up for lost time. She was marrying male after male—generally two or three a unit.”
“Oh well,” I said, feeling dreary again in my mateless condition, “good for Hatta. And what about you?”
“I sat in your palace,” she said. “I kept thinking about you. I know how stupid and useless and selfish I was. I hadn’t been exiled, you had. But, ooma, I couldn’t help it. People said you’d suicide and come right back to PD, but I knew you wouldn’t, not after what you’d told me—that dream. The desert was—part of you? I’d known that somehow from the very beginning. Do you remember the Archaeological Expedition? I thought it then. I thought you’d find some wonderful buried fortress or something, and stay in the dunes, oh, vreks. When you spoke about it, the sand was blowing there, behind your eyes.”
“She won’t believe you if you put it like that,” said Kam.
He might have read my thoughts, too—though I hadn’t balked at the words as much as I would if someone else had offered them. Danor wasn’t artificial. If she said she’d seen sand blowing behind my eyes, she meant it. And really, I knew what she meant, too. It stirred me, scared me, made me want to run out and start up the hoeing or dig another irrigation ditch.
“I believe her,” I said. “No doubt you understand why I believe her.”
He nodded, a little embarrassed suddenly, becoming aware probably of how they paraded their feelings without meaning to or being able to do anything else.
“But then,” Danor said, “Kam signaled me.”
“Ah ha,” I said, “just like in an old romance. I might have guessed.”
They both blinked, but, having got them both off balance, I didn’t feel spiteful anymore, rather protective, really. Though they hardly needed my protection.
“I gather,” Kam said, “you know about the earlier business.”
“I think we both know about each other’s business in respect to Danor.”
“Ah. Well. Maybe.”
“To recap,” I said, “the Committee in BAA fed you a whole lot of indigestible rubbish about you being bad for each other.”
His eyes abruptly glinted.
“Don’t be tactful,” he said, “or I’ll smother the upholstery with tears.” Danor giggled. I found I had too. Oh, well. “The Committee actually said I was messing Danor up, so I cleared my unhealthy carcass from her path.”
“And then, despite many experimental love scenes with groshing older ladies, the nagging pain continued in your heart,” I said. They gazed at me. “Meanwhile, back in Four BEE, Danor wandered pale beside my pool in the deserted palace. And then. Hark! A signal popping and winking. Danor sadly switches on the image, and there, or here, is her lover. With screams of joy they greet. Well,” I added slyly, “you did tell me not to be tactful.”
“That’s all right,” said Kam generously. “You’re not far out. The screams from my end were somewhat deeper. Otherwise…I asked her to meet me in BEE; my boat was due in four units.”
“When we met,” Danor said, “we just went back to where we’d been before, only rather furtively. Kam really did pretend to be my maker half the time. I think Hergal guessed. Just before she fled with her new marriage partner, she kept on about you when you were a male. I think Hergal was more distressed than any of us. Isn’t that odd?”
“Peculiar,” I agreed.
It transpired that finally the idea had come to Danor—ignore the Committees and fly the cities, and live for love in the wild. They’d just come around to the notion when my film was flashed out. It made a sensation—which it hadn’t been meant to, at least not in the way it did. Possibly the Committee had allowed the film in the hopes that I, emaciated and dolorous with despair, would provide a nice extra example of what unsocial tendencies got you. Or possibly even, if I looked fairly healthy and jolly, people might stop worrying and debating about me, and get on with the droad city round. But—
“Half the Jang went running about on the mono-rails immediately after,” said Danor, “screaming and shouting. There were sixty-eight sabotages of the dome that night, and sand and volcanic ash and a couple of earthquakes got through. About forty Older People went crazy as well, and got roaring drunk in your honor, and drove the Q-Rs mad at Ivory Dome saying they wanted to get married to each other.”
“A historic evening,” said Kam. “In the morning the Committee signaled Danor, informed her that she and I had been registered as together once again, and must part for our own sakes.”
“So we said we were leaving,” said Danor.
“At which the Committee,” said Kam, “accused us, in a most extraordinary tone, of planning to join you in dangerous, out-dome, anti-city activities, and that, if we left, it would be assumed we also wished for permanent exile. Like you, we could expect aid and supplies, and like you, we could expect to remain outcast until natural death placed us at the Committee’s mercy for PD.”
“God,” I said.
Kam looked at me.
“That’s a very old concept.”
“So is the concept of androids working against people. But it sounds to me as if the Committee is boiling all over its electronic brain casings.”
“Quite,” said Kam.
“So why ever did you come?” I asked, breathless (breathless and girlish beneath these charming eyes I would have to accept as paternal or fraternal). “Knowing—what would happen.”
“I said they could be damned,” he told me, “and Danor said much the same, with a few colorful Jang adjectives thrown in. Because I want her with me, and she wants me, and if the only way we can have each other is by leading what, after all, used to be a perfectly normal life, then that’s the way it’s going to be. If you’ll befriend us, you’ve got a willing pair of hands for your greenery out there, two pairs, in fact. If not, and we realize you might rather not, we’ll go and try to get something started elsewhere, the way you have. The growth rate of vegetation in the desert is phenomenal, which has always been known, and accepted, and entirely ignored by everybody but yourself.” He was really getting going. I loved watching him. Better to have a crush on Danor’s Kam than on a flooping robot. “I admire the way you’ve organized this,” he said to me, and I glowed, choosing to forget the fact that almost everything had occurred as a result of accident, mismanagement, and idiocy on my part. “I’d like to help, and Danor would. And I’ll tell you something else. Four BEE blew to the skies the night they showed the film. There are going to be others coming out here, too. Plenty of them.”