I knew very well what the answer would be, but I had to try. I tried for hours, for days. I tried shouting, pleading, speaking extremely serenely and rationally. I wept and I swore.
The computer simply reiterated its message. We were to use the painkilling drugs we possessed, the antibiodermics, the healing salve. Further supplies would be sent us.
“The salve isn’t good enough,” I kept saying. “It can’t heal that kind of wound—not properly.”
The computer said that pain could be alleviated, and infection prevented, that this was the most that we were entitled to, exiles as we were. We knew that new bodies were no longer allowed us, or any form of surgery or replacement.
“But the skin is—the scar will be—”
Rattle click. Rattle click.
“Damn you,” I screamed, “it’s your fault!”
“Your bloody fault—your plot—it didn’t come off! Your stinking Q-Rs are melted all over the grass out there—”
Kam shut off the link before I could elaborate.
“No use,” he said. “It’s on Receive Only. You won’t get any more reaction.”
“Whatever they send—drugs, supplies—how can we trust them?”
“We’ll check everything they send,” he said, “as you suggested earlier. But I don’t think they’ll try again. That point about their programming still holds good—they could only go as far as they did by blinding themselves to it. It’s out in the open now. Next time they would know. Ergo, they won’t.”
“Oh, what does it matter, anyway?”
There was a great stillness in the ship. They were mostly sitting in the saloon. Nilla and Felain were intermittently crying, but very softly, holding on to each other for dear life. Naz was generally pacing in the corridor; each time he turned at either end the Jang topaz beads on his trouser hems came together with a little cold clink. We had been going on like this, with minor variations, for five units.
I opened the door of my cabin.
Danor was sitting with him. She was quite motionless, and so was he, but he was at last awake.
I’d been hoping he wouldn’t wake up for an indefinite while, though, of course, there wasn’t any pain, not with the miraculous drugs, so easy to use and so expedient. The whole of the right side of his face and neck was shielded by a silk-of-ice bandaging, under that the anesthetic foam barrier, keeping the material from actually touching the ruined flesh. The blast had ripped the side of his face open, peeling back the tissues in layers—somehow, incredibly, it had missed the mouth, the nostril, the eye. So it was with two eyes, those eyes that were still mine, that he was able to look up at me as I came toward him.
“Hello, Esten,” I said.
“Hello,” he said.
The right eardrum had been badly damaged, but that didn’t necessarily have to matter. The robots and the machines had already worked out and implanted some sort of miniaturized something or other that would do the ear’s work for it—a process they knew, since it was part of their own self-servicing technique.
Danor rose and went out. I didn’t want her to go. I didn’t want the responsibility of being alone with him, conscious. Unconscious, I had sat by him here four days, four nights, barring my sessions with the monitor computer, when Kam or Danor relieved me.
I’d felt helpless enough then, useless enough. But now.
I didn’t know what I could say to him. Particularly since—
“Sit down,” he said courteously. “I suggest that we should talk.”
“Do you feel up to talking? I think—”
“I think you’d rather not talk, and you’re putting the onus on me. But I say we have to, and I’m fine, so pull up a float-chair and sit down.”
I sat, and I peered at him. I wanted to cry. He said:
“You don’t bravely have to stare me out, you know.” So I lowered my stinging eyes, ashamed.
“I look fairly grizzly, I imagine,” he said calmly, “and when this excellent bandaging comes off, I’m going to look sixteen times worse. Aren’t I?”
“Not necessarily. You see, the salve is still very good. And if you keep on using it—it may take a while, but—”
“Shut up, ooma,” he said. “You never could lie about anything that really mattered to you. Just listen to me, and then we’ll have it straight. I came out to this place to get you, and I got you, and I don’t regret it. Neither do I regret saving your greenery from extinction. However, I do see that as your bed mate, with this face, my days are numbered. So, in a little while, Naz is going to bring me in his total hoard of renounced ecstasy and a few other things as well, and I’m going blissfully to overdose myself out of this Ego-Life, into PD.”
I jumped—off the chair, backward, upward—
“No,” I shouted. “PD is out. Suicide is out. You’d give them the satisfaction of voluntarily doing what they tried to push us into—after this?”
“Ooma, it’s my life, what’s left of it. It’s up to me.”
“No, not anymore it isn’t.”
“Please don’t squeeze out a host of insincere protestations of eternal affection, or start howling that my irrevocable hideousness will make no difference to you. You’ll only regret it, and I shan’t swallow a syllable.”
Somehow I’d got back to the chair, and flattened myself down in it as if an ogre were after me. Perhaps it was.
“Let me do what I want,” he said. “There’ll be other males along, you can be sure of that. Run a check to make sure they’re human next time.”
“Be quiet,” I said. I tried to get my breath, and realized I wasn’t going to be able to, so I’d have to explain it all to him without breath. “First, I know it makes a difference. What else could it do? Every time I look at that scar—oh, yes, there’s going to be one bloody awful scar—my guts are going to knot up like a nest of reinforced steel cobras. Not with revulsion, with anger. Anger that it happened to you. What other difference could there be? You’re still you—still me, you body-thieving bastard. If your hair went white, would I stop feeling anything for you? What does it matter anyway? In Four BEE and BAA and BOO the physical side was, in any case, a joke, wasn’t it? If you fell for someone, you fell for them, their personality—their—their self, whatever it is—not whatever flesh they happened to have put on that unit. Which is why any true feeling was rare. Oh, yes, the body turned me on, looking like me and everything, but it’s you who got through to me, you fool. And this thing that’s happened to you—it’s something that was done to you, not you yourself. You’re still you.” I managed to get a breath then, and I stabbed the last words out at him as a final cold blow to bring him back to his senses and to me. “Still you—Hergal.”
“Oh,” he said, quite lamely. He looked as if he might be going to laugh.
“Of course,” I added, “maybe you’re so effete you can’t live with it yourself. Maybe you don’t give a damn about me. You just want to piss off to nice PD and leave me here alone for the rest of my days with your filthy little child to bring up.”
“What?” he said.
I caught up with myself just then.
“Er, I hadn’t quite meant to tell you, like that. Oh, I’m not even absolutely sure. Actually. So, er. Yes.”
“Well, I think you’d better tell me. Again. Quietly and in detail.”
I rose, and then sat on the edge of the bed.
“You see,” I mumbled, feeling acutely embarrassed for some reason I couldn’t fathom, “Kam and I were near the bomb blast, so we ran checks on ourselves to be sure everything was still in order physically. And it was. But my machine had a little fit and spat out bits of blue tape over me, and it said I was—it’s the old word—pregnant. That means that you and I have done what we wouldn’t have been allowed to do in the cities, which is, make a child. Only instead of growing in the crystallize tanks, ever so hygienic and safe and everything, the poor little idiot’s going to have to grow inside me. I’m carrying, fecund, in the club, um, etc. I couldn’t work out why, to begin with, but the machine did eventually. It’s the ‘home-grown’ food I’ve been devouring so rapaciously. Those tubers and sun-peaches and lettuce things. It has altered my body chemistry, screwed up the contraceptive properties that apparently linger in our exclusive city diet. So, whoops, we’re going to be makers, Hergal, and if you go off and leave me here, I’ll never forgive you.”
He just lay there, expressionless. I wondered if he’d grasped what I’d said; I could hardly grasp it myself. Then he took my hand, and he said:
“If you want me to stay, I’ll stay. But there’s one thing we’d better have clear from here on. I’m not Hergal.”
I gazed at him, and wildly verbalized a list of males who at one era or another had been close: Drar? Rannik? Lorun?
“No,” he said. He looked at me and then he told me.
And I didn’t believe him.
“Twelve vreks back,” he said, “that was the last time you ever really registered me, and not surprising. I couldn’t express myself then, particularly not to you. You were like a wall of solid glowing metal. When I was with you, the heat and the brightness shriveled me up. I became all the things you hated most in sheer self-defense. I couldn’t say a sentence to you that didn’t sound as though it had come out of a rusty mincer. In the end, I instigated for myself a sort of game. I knew you expected me to be a dull, reactionary, clod-hopping lump, with a ragbag of platitudes in place of a brain—a kind of faithful promok, who’d dog your footsteps, and creep away when you got bored. Because I could never manage to put over my true thoughts against that glowing wall of indifference, I just used to act out the part you’d allotted me. I’d shamble up looking like Monster-Night, and say: ‘Onk, it’s not ethical, but I mustn’t grumble,’ and blink a couple of my eyes at you, and I could see the circuits engaging in your mind, the right patterns being achieved. A sort of neon sign would light up in your face: Here comes that bloody silly cunt, Hatta. Of course, this was not the way to deal with you, but I’m a defensive man, oversensitive. I can’t help it, I need a shell. I got a rather bitter and depressing laugh at the way you had me so wrong every time, and I played up to it. I could tell myself: She doesn’t understand me because now I won’t let her see me.
“Then they chucked you out of Four BEE, and that was it. I knew I’d got to come after you because you were the only thing that gave any value to my life. I’d been too nervous, too scared before to run on your road. The only time I’d ever put myself on the level, you’d smashed my ego down my throat. But out here there wasn’t any other way. Being a monster freak has compensations, but not when there’s nothing else you can be.
“To begin with, I had a spell of being female. I was trying to find out something about you, to get over the thing that scared me in you. And I succeeded. It was a kind of therapy I thought might work, and it did. Being a girl is not for me. I’m eighty percent masculine, and stuck with it. But I found out what makes the clock tick, and high time. To nick your last male body was pure inspiration. Very disturbing it was, I might add. More for me, perhaps, than for you when you initially saw me. That was the first time, or almost the first time I’d ever had you at a disadvantage. No neon came up on this occasion. You were just completely nonplussed, standing out there in the glamorous remains of that jewelry dress, staring up at me. I’d tried to acquire your manner, your extrovert qualities, in order to deceive you. The strange thing is that I took to them quite easily, once I’d got over the fear of being in the open, not hiding behind six red eyes and eight legs.”
His gaze never left my face while he said this. When he stopped, I said:
“Well, it looks rather as if the only one of us two who’s a right floop is me.”
He said, “Now you know who I am, do you still want me to stay?”
“Hatta—” I began, but he said:
“No, Esten. Let’s keep that the way it is. Hatta is past tense.”
“All right, Esten, then. You used to say, when you were Hatta the Horror, that you loved me.”
“Unchanged,” he said. “That’s what it’s about.”
“Well—Esten—I don’t know if I love you. But if you leave me, a bit of me will go with you. Maybe it’s just the clever trick you devised, but you really do seem like a part of me, myself. And I’ve got your seed in me, growing, and I want that child, and I want you. What more can I say?”
“Knowing you,” he said, “bloody plenty.”