Even the shadows were green in the Garden. I’d felt tired before; I was wide awake now. Just because I was going out to collect some dope of a Jang male off the dunes, probably tossing ecstasy down his throat, and howling. “Attlevey, ooma-kasma, it’s insumattly derisann, believe me, and I’m all up on the stars, you bet.”
Garden’s End was still about half a mile off, though the perimeter seemed to be widening itself a little, small dry grasses seeding, pastel-yellow thistle flowers clutching the sand. Coming from the shade, the sun strikes like a blow on the skull. I thought, collecting it for the three-thousandth time, I ought to get the machines to make me one of those old tribal sun-hat things, an oopsa or oosha or whichever. But I was brooding on down-to-earth practical details in order to stop my fantasies racing up my spine into my brain like an invading horde.
The beast was striding on toward the sand-ship, and me, only a few hundred yards off now over the dunes.
It was almost like a return of my agoraphobia, those few splits I was crossing the open sand. I was half scared to look up, even when the ink-black shadow of the gemstone animal fell thankfully around me. However, shading my eyes with an arm from the elbow of which amethyst trimmings still dripped, I raised my eyes, and stared aloft at the dragon’s rider.
“Nice weather,” he flippantly remarked. “Bit warm. But nice.”
A lot of things hit me at once. I wasn’t ready for any of them.
“Who are you?” I demanded, gritting my teeth with a sensation of white-hot lava crowding me from my flesh.
“My name’s Esten,” he said. “Derisann to meet you.”
“Damn you, you’ve got a farathooming bloody cheek. What are you up to, you bastard? What’s the grakking game, you—”
“Esten,” he supplied graciously, as if I’d forgotten, and was only filling in with insults to cover the lapse.
“Balls, Esten,” I said. “How’d you get it? Where’d you get it? Why’d you come here in it?”
“Oh, this? You mean the body, do you?”
“What else, you God-forgotten floop of a Jang thalldrap?”
“Oh, well,” he said, and just waved his hand ever so vaguely, and smiled. It was a long-fingered artistic hand and a charming unexpected smile, the smile of a poet for an attractive girl, the bittersweet greeting of one who is a lover of life despite the tragic death that is slowly, inevitably, devouring him. I knew it pretty well, and not surprising.
He was in my body. The last one, the poet’s, slight and graceful build, aquilinity of feature, mane of loosely curling dark hair and large shadow-smudged blue opal eyes and all.
He hadn’t missed a trick. Not a farathooming one.
Even the gestures were mine.
Only the tan was different, designed to take the sun. Dying of consumption the poet might be, but he didn’t fancy sunburn on top of it.
“Well,” I said, “I’m waiting.”
“And very lovely you look doing it,” he said, gallantly. I must have looked, actually, like an electric circuit about to blow its valves out. I tried to calm down.
“Either you tell me,” said I, in a measured, steely voice, if a bit heat-melted at the edges, “why you chose to arrive like that, or you can turn your—your whatever-it-is around, and prance off back to BAA.”
“I can’t do that,” he said. “You know it.”
“Then explain your conduct. Quickly.”
He gave the BAA dragon a little tap and it gracefully knelt. He gracefully slid off and leaned there on its side, immaculately fragile. Oh, I knew that stance. He must have seen the pot boiling over again, because he held up one of those poet-swordfighters’s hands and said:
“It’s quite simple and perfectly mundane. You’ll be sick if I tell you.”
“You’ll be sicker if you don’t.”
“Very well, my lady of Jang. I saw the magic film, the film of the enchantress in the waste with her green garden. And I lost mind, soul, and heart. To you.”
“Crap,” I politely replied.
“Possibly. I told you you’d be nauseated. But you insisted on knowing my reasons, so it’s your own fault. There is something about your unique brand of boorish, arrogant stupidity that ties me up in a bow. So adventurous, so cynical, such a funny combination of valor and cowardice, idiocy and intelligence. Your dear little face being all lick-arse to the Committee while obscene signs shone from your eyes like neons. I knew at once I’d never fancy another female as long as I lived. So. I traveled to BAA in the legitimate last public sand-ship running, intrigued my way into the android-animal breeding-tank domes outside the city, persuaded some floop of an Older woman to let me try a quick dash over the sandy waste on a dragon, and never bothered to go back.”
“What about oxygen?” I said.
“They keep supplies on the out-city farms in case they need to leave the farm-domes in a hurry. Oxygen, anti-dehydration tablets, meal injections, the lot. I nicked what I required when the Older lady was resting, after our little—er—chat.”
“Fascinating,” I said. “You still haven’t mentioned my—your—body.”
“Obsessed with you as I was, what else could I do the moment I reached BAA, than order a replicate? It seemed also an excellent way to instant seduction. You’ve heard the theory, I suppose, that most of us only want to make love to ourselves? Here’s your chance, ooma. A never-to-be-repeated offer.”
He didn’t make a move, however, just went on looking at me.
I knew the theory fine. Another thing he’d stolen from me. Something in it, too, if my reactions were anything to go by. My heart was slamming about in my throat, and the other responses—those denied hormones pining so long—were leaping and prancing like things possessed. So, of course, I resented it. His cunning plot, my physical inebriation. And I didn’t trust him, he was too clever.
“You’re too clever,” I said. “I don’t trust you. I’m not sure I believe you, either.”
“My oxygen ran out last night,” he said. “This slightly asthmatic wheeze isn’t part of the act, it’s real. If I collapse at your feet, will you take me in?”
“Forget it,” I said. “One point you overlooked. I know the line; I should, I invented it. Get back on your animal and follow me. I suppose I’m stuck with you the way I’m stuck with all the rest of them.”
“Won’t you join me on the dragon?”
“No, thanks awfully.”
So he swung back up, and the beast rose, and they paddled behind me over the last stretch of sand, along the steel paths of the Garden, to the ship.
It wasn’t a pleasure to watch him. I think a small part of me was emerald with envy. After all, I’d hopped it from that excellently designed skin before I was really ready. Now, here he was, poetically swooning all over my veranda, with a reemerged Nilla scurrying to bring him food, drink, and cushions, and even Felain and Glis out and about, Glis getting medical machines to take his pulse and Felain cooing in his ears.
I stood at the other end of the veranda and sulked, glaring around with an air of rabid interest in the state of the climbing plants, the sky, the day. When Felain kissed his hand, I got off the veranda and went stalking toward Moddik’s workshop.
The dragon had nodded off enormously in the grass at the forest’s edge. It was a full android, with no need for food or water. Little curls of scented smoke came from its nostrils. Rather nice it was really, but, unfairly tarred with his brush, I hadn’t gone for it much before. What would the Gray-Eyeses (binnimasts) think of it? And the swan? That was better, I was cooling down a little.
I knocked on Moddik’s weird-shelter door. A strange clattering ensued. Then the door opened to reveal Moddik among a confused undergrowth of wires, steel frames, and transparent webbing. I began to believe what they’d said, he and Glis, about his knowing how to get anything from anything, as a machine does. In Moddik’s case, the rorls had obviously been put to good use. Everywhere actual machines were clicking and spatting, and Borss had been propped like a demoralized drunk in the corner.
“Is the arrival pleasing?” asked Moddik, tactfully blunt. “Is our young leader glad?”
“No, our young leader isn’t glad. The arrival’s Jang, and he’s had the abysmal gall to turn up here in my last male body—or a replicate.”
“Ah!” said Moddik. “I said he was enterprising, did I not? An acquaintance of yours, perhaps, from Four BEE?”
“You know, that never occurred to me. He says his name’s Esten, and I never met an Esten that I recall. He doesn’t behave like anyone I knew. Or even misbehave like them.”
“His manner may be assumed, carefully worked out beforehand in order to mislead. His name could also be false, since, out-dome, it hardly matters.”
I sat down to muse on this and hastily got up again with a yell. Moddik removed the six or seven pointed rods from the chair, and began to stuff them in an extraordinary apparatus that appeared to be growing into a gray jelly at the center of the room.
“I could ask Danor,” I said. “She was in my circle. But then, he may not have been in my circle.” As I said this, the pulse in my throat slammed me so hard I had to swallow to get rid of it. “He, oh, he said he got the body at BAA, via BEE. I suppose he reckoned that way, even if BEE got suspicious, they’d never catch up to him in time.”
“Bright lad,” said Moddik. “I shall look forward to meeting him. My prefab horror should be arriving, courtesy of the Committee, about noon,” he added. “I gave them directions, so it won’t land on the fire-root or anything. Then I’ll want that extra machine I mentioned from the ship—and, with any luck, by sunset tonight, the first water mixer will be serviceable. Not as beauteous as our friend out there, just ropy old steel nozzles and an ice-glass dome, but it’ll water the land, and that’s the idea, isn’t it?”
“What can I say?” I asked him. “I’m overwhelmed.”
“Then go and investigate your double and leave me in peace, you wretch of a Jang girl,” roared Moddik, flapping sleeves and steel tubing and an unseen, nonexistent, ancient sorcerer’s white beard.
“Hallo, ooma, may I join in?” Danor asked, gliding into the saloon from which Yay and Jaska were clearing the messy remains of the Jang’s dawn meal. I was eating the home-grown sun-peaches for mine. I handed her the dish, with slight misgiving.
“They’re lovely, and they seem OK, but are you sure you want to? I may start an indiscriminate hair growth or something.”
“Might be pretty,” said Danor. “Long flamy gold-brown hair growing out, um, everywhere.”
We giggled secretively in the way of females who have shared many and varying experiences together. Having been in the same circle did count for something, despite my constant propaganda to the contrary.
“Oh, well, anyhow, that smashing nut Moddik was in here last night gobbling those pink things, so I reckon we might all just as well get boils together.”
We gnawed in silence awhile. Presently, pouring us fire-and-ice, I told her about the advent of Esten, what he had said, what Moddik had said, quite a lot about my own feelings on the subject.
Danor looked taken aback. I hadn’t, selfish and feeble-minded that I am, thought of the implications for her confonted by another me-as-male, a duplicate of the one with whom she had whiled away the hours without Kam. But, in point of fact, this scarcely seemed to trouble her, and she received my awkward mutterings calmly.
“No, ooma,” she said, “I was just considering what Moddik said, how it might be someone you know. I haven’t met him yet, but—do you remember what I told you about our circle when I got here?”
“Yes,” I said, and elegantly held up my hand (his gesture—my gesture—I’d caught it back off him). “Honestly, I did think of that. But, how would he ever dare?”
“Oh, I don’t think daring it would be the problem,” said Danor.
Hergal, female, with a male like my previous body, going off to BAA…I looked into my wine and didn’t say it. I truly didn’t know what I should say, or think. Or do.
Not, of course, that really I could do anything.