I sank into sleep and dreamed of Moddik the mad male with a long white beard, and looking quite ancient though very sprightly, for his young body had been well and truly belied by his tones. He was jumping about over the archaeological site with an inexhaustible supply of pitchers of sapphire wine, one of which, every so often, he would drop with a thudding crash. From a nearby pillar hung the flayed skin of Glar Assule, a fact which filled me with delight rather than apprehension. Elevated on a cloud sat a Q-R Committee. They aimed lightning bolts at Moddik, which he effortlessly dodged. Where they hit the ground, they turned into the wreckage of bird-planes, and out of each lot of wreckage emerged beautiful joyful people, laughing. “You won’t get us that way, you steel-arsed bastards,” warbled Moddik. And apparently they didn’t.
Danor woke me, gently, just before sunset.
She had a rough message to make up for it.
The Nillaloxiandphy brigade had the Picture-Vision on, and there had been a flash broadcast—just like when they flashed out the film of Me in the Waste. I’d missed it, being asleep, but Kam, hearing the row the others made, went in and caught the end. Moddik and Talsi were out in the Garden, Glis and Felain in one of the cabins, apparently, and didn’t respond, so they missed it too.
Once so rare, flash interruptions to Picture-Vision seemed on the increase indeed. Neither were they normally relayed out-dome. It rather looked as though the Committee had made sure we got this one on our wall, in addition to the citizens of Four BEE. And they said they were going to repeat the flash. The hour they gave corresponded chronologically to desert sunset.
I flew about, demented, and grabbed the nearest article of clothing, which turned out to be my party outfit, meant for yesterday. Looking incongruously glamorous in amber with amethyst scintilla, and a nervy frown, I arrived in the P-V room just in time. Not a large area, it was now packed with the Jang and the three older outcasts. Danor’s swan had sat in a seat and wouldn’t be moved—it had pecked Nilla again when she tried. Danor and I perched by the wall with Kam.
Presently the flowery orgies faded off the screen, and a solemn Q-R appeared. The Jang promptly made crude noises and shushed each other. The Q-R produced a second or so of guff about not alarming anybody, and how unhappy he—the Q-R—was about the situation and the action that had to be taken. Then he gave a brief resume of the events which led up to my exiling—accurate, I had to admit, if biased—my departure, and the film they’d shown of me. Several misguided citizens had since followed me. Of course, they were the lunatic fringe, and perhaps safer in exile. However, the valley was now a hotbed of unbalanced, anti-city activity. In order to discourage further of these misguided citizens from leaving the dome in order to join the misanthropic band, the Committee wished it to be known that in the future, aid and supplies to the exiles would be limited to the barest minimum. They could expect oxygen, vitamins, the basics of food materials, but no luxuries (a kind of protein porridge would be all we’d be able to coax from the provision dispenser, once our current supply of syntho ran out, and no drinks, ecstasy, energy, or similar). Water mixers we had, and must make them go around, rationing in emergency, but we might ask for painkilling drugs and medicinal salve should we require them. Anything more drastic and we could forget it. (Thank God, I thought, thank God Danor and Kam hadn’t sustained serious injury.) Building materials would be sent to us on request, but in specific form, nothing left for us to shape to our own ends. In fact we’d get nothing at all they thought we might be dangerously creative with. We were on our own. And we were to be left on our own. No one else was going to join us. No sand-ships, bird-planes, or other vehicles would be given to those known to be sympathetic to us. Those with their own planes would have their licenses withdrawn. Private flights outside the domes were prohibited forthwith and until further notice, and general intercity traffic would be restricted. Citizens were asked to bear with us this inconvenience in the interest of communal harmony.
Lastly, the Q-R said, staring out at us from the wall, his face without malice or pretension, only sad—self-convinced, at least—“The unhealthy craze which has swept the cities will shortly evaporate. The exiles will be left to their own devices. Having defied order and the laws of order, they can hardly expect the Committee to keep them in dome-fashion, free of charge. Their plight is sorry and pathetic, and will presently be resolved in mutual suicide and PD, which is still open to them, and will always be open to them until they are ready to return to it.”
The image faced, and roses fell down the wall. The flash was over. We switched off and sat in silence. Then Kam said quietly:
“They added a line or two this time. And they were using upper-tonal to emit a depressing atmosphere.”
I hadn’t got that, and was relieved, for depression had swamped me and I’d thought it was me. The Jang, obviously relieved too, booed and blared militantly.
Suddenly Moddik was on his feet.
“Load of rubbish,” he said vehemently. “Silly nonhuman fools.” He shot a glance at me. “You look as if you agree. Splendid. Just give their basic food elements to me when they come in, and I’ll fiddle about with them a bit. The meals ought to be even better than they are now. Besides which, half the stuff can simply be reprogrammed from its own leftovers. All you need is an infinitesimal atom of fire-apple and you can process for fire-apple till the sun falls. Food machines don’t need great shovelsful of the muck to do an analysis. Our precious androids are just trying to flummox us and everyone else, and it won’t work. As for their building specifics, I’d like to see them foist a prefabricated utility-palace off on me. And I know a way to get a blueprint for water mixers and just about everything else, simply by wiring one of your robots into the original model for a couple of hours.”
We gawped at him with mingled hope and disbelief.
“Come on. Get your jaws off the mosaic,” he said. And to me: “Where’s the meeting you spoke of earlier, and when?”
“The saloon,” I said. “Now.”
Not a very orderly meeting.
First of all, Loxi fingering the fringe on my dress and “Oh, ooma, I had one like this once, when I was a girl—in BAA—all flames it was…” Naz moaning about ecstasy, and Phy suddenly breaking down in floods of tears, his darkness-melancholia finally catching up, or just plain fear at our plight. Talsi, the non-Felain-fancying older woman, comforted him in a makerish—no, be precise—maternal way, very touching to behold. Danor and Kam sat close to each other, calm as could be, secure in their bond. I didn’t feel jealous anymore, but a sort of hollow place had come in my heart, and notices stood on the bare sand of it which read: “Vacant, and never now to be filled.”
“Very well,” I said, when things had settled a little, “we each know adequately who everyone is, and what our own and each other’s problems are likely to be, so maybe we don’t need to go into that right at this split. Our total numbers are eleven, not enormous, and our sexual leanings, despite our current bodies, seem fairly fluid, so I’m not sticking any labels on anyone. We’re going to have to cope with that as best we can, since we won’t have a chance of changing for the rest of our lives.” The slight murmuring that had started up fell off again at this doomful clarion call. “However,” I tritely said, “situations have a habit of altering unexpectedly. Who knows what tomorrow may bring?”
“Sand fleas?” volunteered Nilla.
“From here on,” I said pointedly, “we have to work together where possible, and try not to drive each other zaradann. For this purpose I suggest splitting up, and not living altogether in a bunch here on the ship. If Moddik can do what he says in the way of adapting—”
“I can do more than I say,” interposed Moddik flatly.
“Yah, yah,” said Naz. “Has yet to be seen, my soolka old ooma.”
“Good,” said Moddik. “Healthy opposition. I may clip you around the chops, young man, but don’t let that stop you. How many water mixers were you wanting?” His bright glance flashed at me like a couple of steel animals up on their hind legs, ready for havoc.
“About nine,” I said, to gauge his reaction. “But that’s for the valley. We’ll need more for the extra homes if we’re going to have them.”
Moddik nodded, got up, and went out.
I thought we’d offended him or something, but Glis smiled at me and said:
“He really is entirely brilliant. He’s going to wire up your third robot—Borss, is it?—for the blueprint to the watermixer outside. He’ll also use the monitor beam to request building materials. When they arrive, he’ll start reconstructing. You simply have to understand the principle of reprocessing, and then you can alter any substance eventually to fit your needs.”
“And Moddik does,” I said.
“It sounds impossible to me.”
“Oh, no. After all, most of the machines can do it, and once you grasp the fundamentals of the mechanical brain, which Moddik has, it’s easy.”
“When we were at hypno-school, two rorls back,” put in Talsi, rocking the now smiling Phy upon her walnut satin bosom, “they sometimes gave awards for signs of genius. In those units it was even possible to make some sort of career for yourself if you wished to and were clever enough. Moddik won all the awards. Glis was a little boy when she was a child, and also very talented. I’m the stupid one. But I have a strong makerish streak, as you see, tied into my sex drive, so I shall be quite useful.” She beamed about, managing to catch Naz’s eye, Loxi’s eye, and even mine. Phy’s she didn’t need to catch.
Right then Moddik strode back in, and he’d done as Glis had said.
“I’m very glad you got through to the computer,” I said, “I wasn’t sure the link would still operate.” And with only this for introduction, I told them what had happened to Kam and Danor, after which Kam and Danor were madly questioned by hysterical Jang and briefly and sanely questioned by mad Moddik. Having established the facts to everyone’s horror, I thought I’d better add the final grim epilogue—or prologue? “Something has gradually become clear to me, one rather gruesome truth. Which is that, of all the three bird-planes that came out here, not one was without a malfunction. Moddik, Glis, and Talsi’s plane was out of control on landing and went up like a rocket just after. Danor and Kam’s plane got here OK, but on the second flight spilled oil into the batteries and nosedived. The Jang plane made a rotten touch-down so I got my robot Yay to check and correct it, and if I hadn’t I imagine my body would now be tastefully bedecking the mountains in various stages of incompleteness. This coincidence seems rather odd, to me. Even my sand-ship wasn’t of the best, and the provision dispenser exploded at the first possible opportunity.” There was silence thick as velvet in the saloon. You could hear the desert night wind furling round the ship. “How often do planes malfunction in the city? Ever? Perhaps once every rorl. Now, I’m not saying the Committee has done anything positive, but I do think that maybe they’ve let their robots get deliberately careless, forgotten to service the servicing machines, something like that. I don’t quite know how they managed, since they’re supposed to be permanently programmed to protect human life. Possibly they’ve got around it by recollecting that even when we die we don’t actually die, and what’s mere Ego-Death to an android? Our life spark goes on, they see to that. I don’t know. My theories are embryonic and the whole thing scares me. But I know this. By one means or another, subtly, unconsciously even, they are out to get us. They want the desert clear of us and our anti-city-system ideas. They fear that we’ll overthrow the harmonic rule of law and order, bring civil collapse, anarchy, and destruction in our wake—God knows how, but that’s the core of the matter. So we’d better watch out from here on. Every supply the city sends us we’ll machine-check, just in case someone’s omitted something and the next prefabricated building block goes into automatic combustion and blows us all to PD.” I paused, about long enough to take a breath. “I might add that food has been growing here on the northwest side, and the toxicity check has proved negative. For my eighth meal tonight I’m going to sample homegrown produce. If it’s pleasing, we can extend the venture. Self-sufficiency isn’t a bad thing to aim for, particularly placed as we are.”
Everybody stared at me. Even the shock of Q-R treachery had been slightly muffled by surprise at the food announcement.
“I’m not eating it,” said Nilla predictably. “I bet it’s absolutely drumdiky.”
“No one’s asking you to,” I said. “I’ve explained that I’ll do it.”
“Splendid heroic attitude,” said Moddik. “It’s probably delicious. But one point. The city syntho-food contains certain additives. Introduce additive-free substances into yourself and your body chemistry may change.”
“Yes, I realize that,” I said, “but I think I’ll acclimatize. If I don’t, no one else will try, that’s all.”
Felain and Loxi were looking at me worshipfully. Danor looked faintly troubled. Kam said:
“I’d like to volunteer to do it myself. You’re the founder of this enterprise. It shouldn’t fall to you.”
“It’s the very reason why it should,” I said.
I felt quite glad of their admiration or concern. Actually I had total faith in my ability to survive a few rosy fruits and a slice or so of tuber, or I’d never have done it. After all, it was city food to begin with, if unmixed and now intermingled with the properties of the wild. Somehow, having gone through so many traumas with the desert and survived, I’d come to feel there was nothing further to fear from it. An adversary to respect, to battle with, but not a mean one, not underhand. If it came at you, it came head-on, with a storm or an eruption or a tribe of marauding ski-feet. Not slyly, with a juicy fruit whose pips, germinating in some inner tract, would turn my skin green and scaly or my voice into a bark. Besides which, the negative tests showed that any effects that did crop up would be minor and easily reversed.
You don’t get a coward like me being a heroine with a real dragon about. I hang my sword on the wall, and get under the float-bed, ooma.