I woke to find the swan seated on my belly, dulcetly singing: “You are the wonderful sun of my sky.” I took this initially as a sentimental gesture of concern for me on the swan’s part, and was quite moved, until I recollected that this particular ditty seemed to be its method of calling for help. I struggled up and discovered, sure enough, that it had got its leash—snapped again—tangled around the bed legs, and was slowly strangling. I released it with some difficulty, and it strode out in search of Danor or food, or both.
The windows had been clouded. I cleared them. Outside it was night, the sky glowing with stars and flash signs.
I felt almost normal, and the sword slash had healed completely in response to Hatta’s quick-cure salve. It could only have been a flesh wound after all, though a bad one.
Hatta had apparently brought me home, also. A noble gesture, or maybe he was just nosy and/or after Danor.
There was no sign of either of them, but, following a split or two during which I warded off urgent robot plates with viands and noticed that the recluse switch was firmly depressed, I picked up the sound of their voices in the garden.
For some reason, or perhaps it was obvious, I guessed they were talking about me, so I sneaked toward the door and leaned there.
It was a strange sight, an azure angel in conversation with a red balloon, and, midway between them, the swan staring up at the dome-sky in a bemused yet creative fashion, as if trying to fathom the secrets of the universe.
“It’s all so silly,” Danor was saying vehemently. “So stupid, so silly, like everything else.”
“It may be,” said Hatta, “but the fact remains that it’s a Committee order.”
“It must have happened before,” said Danor, “sometime.”
“Never, they say. At least, not on city record. The notion of crime has been abolished for rorls, so they don’t know what to do. That means they’ll invent things, and that means a superlative screwup.”
Stunned by Hatta’s perception, rancor, and colourful choice of words, I emerged on the marble terrace, and Danor jumped guiltily.
“What Committee order?” I inquired.
But they burst out, Danor:
“How could you leave me behind like that?”
“How long have you been there?”
“You were involved enough, Danor. About one split, Hatta. I repeat—what Committee order?”
“A Committee messenger bee came while you were sleeping,” said Danor. “They want you and each of us at the Committee Hall in Second Sector tomorrow, first thing.”
“Surprise, surprise,” I said. It sounded but too familiar. “And how’s Zirk?”
“They’ve kept him in Limbo for observation,” said Danor.
“Nice for them.”
“You ought to take this seriously,” said Hatta.
“How will that help?”
We sat and stared at the pool.
The swan teetered to the edge, but Hatta flapped it away again with his bizarre arms.
“You, er, you know I’ll stick by you,” said Hatta.
“Please,” I said, “I’ve got enough problems without that.”
“Oh, ooma—” said Danor.
“Oh ooma nothing. If he ‘sticks by me’ at the Hall looking like that, they’ll slap an I.A. First-Class Maladjusted label on him from the start, and what good will that be to me, might I ask?”
“You are a bastard,” said Hatta, unnerving me again slightly, for strong language, even when obsolete, was not generally his province.
“No such thing, Hatta, not anymore. Been in the History Tower too?”
“I’ve been just about everywhere you’ve been, and you know why,” said Hatta.
Yes, I knew why. Hatta loved me, and once, when I had been broken in pieces by everything and he arrived on my porch with hair the color of honey and a body fair as morning…I’d only got to dig up my metal-tape saga from twelve vreks ago to find that dismal story.
“Get going, Hatta,” I said. And Hatta, as ever, got.
“You’re very unkind to him,” said Danor.
“I suppose Kam would have acted differently?”
She looked at me.
“Yes, Kam would.”
“But Kam wasn’t Jang,” I said. “Jang—Jang—bloody Jang.”
We sat silently in the garden for some while, and the swan careered about in the flowers, occasionally falling down or singing: “The wild white magic of your hair, the warm mauve magic of your eyes, both drive me zaradann.”
I wondered if I’d see my old Q-R of the water carpet, the poor sod who’d formerly nursed me through my successive ambitions—the anti-Jang change, the work search, and my last scheme to make a child, which ended in such horror and wretchedness. However, there was neither sight nor sign of him. Maybe he’d had to be dismantled after his dealings with me—the strain must have been considerable. Or possibly he was just keeping out of my way—ditto.
Danor came with me, which I could have done without. I anticipated a grim sequence ahead.
We went through the usual Committee Hall routine of tunnel-rides, flying floors, waiting areas, and finally emerged in a circular cold-cream room with seats in tiers, mostly empty, and a central dais, mostly full. Q-Rs with miserably stern faces were packed onto it, their memory units and what-have-you no doubt clacking and clonking away in their joints. The people back on the tiers were all Older, and obviously had some vague status—doubtless merely titular—in the running of the city Committee affairs. Along the edges of the dais, like a garish flower bed, sat just about every Jang I had a nodding acquaintance with in Four BEE. Not to mention my circle. Kley, female; Mirri, female—fast work, she must have overdosed her meal injections again; Thinta, female of course, but no cats—probably forcibly tom from her at the entrance; even Hergal, male, and neurotic at being here and covering by slumping in attitudes of defiant nonchalance; and, at the very end, a tiny, delicate, perky little creature, tinkling crystals, with pale-pink satin lotus buds in her hair the exact exquisite tint of her mammalian tips, Zirk!
I burst into raucous laughter at that, overwrought as I was, and had to be restrained. Danor tugged at my arm, bees zoomed, Q-Rs flapped, and Older People muttered disparagingly. A male Jang appeared at my side.
“Get a grip on yourself,” he said.
“Get a grip on your graks,” I suggested. He was nothing special, gray and gross, an unimaginative haphazard body choice, but at least no duplicate limbs or heads, and no scarlet: it was Hatta come back to be my Tower of Strength.
“It’s Hatta,” said Danor.
“I know. Who else could it be? How’d you change so fast, Hatta? Your thirty units weren’t up.”
“Never mind that,” said Hatta, embarrassed by his selfless act—he detested suiciding. “I took your point last night.”
We had reached the dais, and were now separated. I found myself right in the middle of everything—room, Q-Rs, Jang, the lot. An unenviable position.
I tried to relax, but it was difficult. Muscles tensed and the skin twitched under my shadowy poet’s eyes.
Everyone was fluttering and whispering. Nobody actually came out with a direct sentence. I looked around at them and beamed beneficently. “Well, isn’t this fun?” I said in a loud voice.
It brought the Q-Rs to attention, as I’d suspected it might. One in the center, an important-looking being in gold, rapped on the little table in front of him.
“You will kindly not display levity. This is a very dreadful situation,” he said.
“Oh, awful,” I agreed. “Poor Zirk cut down in his prime, and back five splits later looking like a refrigerated silk flower.”
Zirk jumped up and began to squeak malevolently at me, with crystalline tears welling from her dusky eyes. Other Jang joined in, and the gold Q-R rapped and rapped until a gong went off somewhere, and every body stopped shouting in surprise.
“This inquiry will be conducted with propriety,” thundered the Q-R, rather optimistically. He turned to me. “You will now give us an account of what precisely led up to this unfortunate event, whose significance, clearly, few of you comprehend.”
“All right,” I said. “One day when I was standing outside Silver Mountain, Zirk—male, and about the size of a small museum—knocked me flying and challenged me to a duel. That is—”
“Yes,” said the Q-R. “We have looked up dueling in the files and we know.”
“I agreed to the duel, and we met in Ilex Park, where, due to superior skill and more practice, I won. Zirk is now happily installed in a new body, and everything, I should have thought, is insumattly derisann.”
There were some laughs at this, which the Q-R ignored.
“It is not,” he said. “Neither is that a full account.”
“Oh, well, I do apologize. I thought it was. Of course, I omitted to say that Ilex Park at the time was its usual uninspired jade-green and the dome sun was rising in its usual damn silly way and the dry ice was puffing about nicely all over us. Is that better?”
“You will be silent,” said the Q-R.
“Don’t bank on it.”
“You will be silent,” went on the Q-R, “or you will be silenced by hypno-spray. Which?”
“I’ll be silent,” I agreed.
“Jang Zirk,” said the Q-R, “perhaps you’d give us your version.”
Zirk got up again, balancing precariously on her weeny silver-slippered feet. She dabbed her eyes and said, huskily now: “I see it was ever so selt—er—foolish of me. But I, um, lost my temper.” She tittered like a peal of bells. Just think of Zirk loosing her temper, ooh! How quaint of her.
“Permission to speak,” I said. They looked at me. “If Zirk continues like this, I’m going to be ill all over your lovely white room.”
I shouldn’t have risked it, but I was past reason. Giggles filled the air, Zirk stamped and nearly fell down. Next second a cool rain dropped on me from an overhead bee, and I was rendered duly limp and speechless, only my ears and eyes and brain left ticking, which I could have foregone.
And Zirk was continuing.
“It was just the way he lied to us all and carried Danor off. I mean, we were all so frightfully anxious to meet her! And then, not marrying! So shocking to avoid a Jang custom like that. Well, I just got ever so angry”—eyelashes flittered, mouth pouted—“and when I met him, I just couldn’t control myself. Oh dear. And we’ve been such sweethearts in the past, he and I. I couldn’t tell you the times we’ve married and had love. Oh, there I go, digressing. Well, I only meant it to be a sort of friendly bout. But he went zaradann—zaradann, I tell you. I’ve never seen such a thing.” Zirk clasped her pink-nailed hands and sighed with terror. “He cut me down without mercy.”