• 1 •
I dreamed of him that night, after I wrote the second chapter of what had happened. The first time I ever dreamed of him. We were flying over the city. Not in a flyer, but on the wings of angels out of an old religious picture. I could feel the beat of the wings through my body as they opened and closed. It was effortless and lovely to fly, to watch him fly just ahead of me. We passed over the broken girders and our shadows fell on the ground among the orange foliage of the autumn weeds. It’s supposed to be a sexual dream to dream of flight. Maybe it was. But it didn’t seem to be.
When I woke, it was early morning, just like the dream, and I looked out of the window at the orange twining the girders, where our shadows had fallen. Beyond the subsidence was a blue ghost of the city I could just see, cone-shaped blocks all in a line, and the distant column of the Delux Hyperia Building. The view wasn’t ugly or dismal anymore. The sun was shining on it. In five years, if they left the subsidence alone, a young wood of weed trees might be growing there. The sky was blue as Silver’s shirt had been.
Dazed by the dream and the sunlight and the autumn weeds, I went into the bathroom and ran hot water, though it was expensive. I showered and dressed, and brushed my hair. My hair looked different. And my face. My hair, I guessed, was fading out of tint and needed molecular restructuring or the bronze tone would all go, but I’d sold my hairdresser unit. I could go to a beauty parlor, and get a color match and molecular restructure done, but it might not be the exact shade. Anyway, it would cost a lot. I’d have to revert to being dull brown, or whatever it was I’d been that hadn’t suited me on my coloressence charting. My face though, what had happened to that? I turned three quarters on and saw that my flesh had hollowed slightly. I had cheekbones, high and slender but unmistakably there. I looked older, and peculiarly younger, too. I leaned close to the spotted glass, and my eyes became one eye, flecked with green and yellow.
I put the Casa Bianca P.O.D. check in a sling purse over my shoulder, and went out and down the cracked cement stairs.
I couldn’t tell what I felt, but I didn’t feel as I had. The street turned into a run-down boulevard with an elderly elevated running overhead, the lines long unused, and rusting. I bought a bun and an apple and a plastic cup of tea at a food counter, and ate and drank as I waited for the city center bus. By daylight, I knew my way about far better than I’d thought, even here. Of course, I’d sometimes been in ramshackle areas, always with other people, always a tourist, but still enough to have a few scraps of knowledge.
The blue sky made the sidewalk interesting. People moved about, ran, argued, and steam came out of food shops. Flowers spilled from the elevated.
I’d always known the city. I had no reason to be afraid of it, even now. And my jeans looked shabby because I’d slept in them on the hairy old couch, shabby enough not to attract attention. The shirt would get shabby.
“Bus late again,” one woman said to another behind me, in the verbal shorthand of the usual. “Thought of walking to South for the flyer, but it’s too much money.”
“Mechanical failure at the depot,” said the other woman. “They don’t service regularly downtown, that’s the trouble. City center runs, that’s fine. But out here, we can walk all the way.”
Then they muttered together, and I knew they were talking about me, and I went hot and cold with nervous fear. Then I caught the word “actress” spoken with pity, scorn and interest. I was startled, to have myself compared to exotic Egyptia, even on the streets of the poor. Glad, also. To be an actress from this end of town meant I was struggling, too. They wouldn’t hate me. I was a symbol of possibility, and anyway would probably starve.
The bus finally came. I got off at Beech and went into the Magnum Bank, and cashed the check.
Actress. They thought I was an actress, just like Copper.
Then a flyer came, and I took it from force of habit, regretting it as I paid the coins. I was being so meanly careful of money, and then lapsing in unnecessary extravagance, and it was all a proof that I couldn’t deal with the situation, but I wasn’t going to think of it just now. Or of my mother. Or Clovis, or Egyptia, or even of him.
I got off at Racine, and walked over the New River Bridge, to Clovis’s apartment block.
As I came to the outside of his door every bone in my body seemed suddenly to turn to fluid, but I spoke to the door, anyway, asking to come in.
Maybe he, they, were out. Or—busy. And the door wouldn’t open.
The door didn’t open and didn’t open, and then it did.
I walked in, holding my purse in front of me like a sort of shield, and not looking around at the living area with its couches and pillows and tasteful decor. No one was there.
Snakes fought each other in my stomach, but I ignored them. I sat down on the couch with black cushions, and stared across at the window where I’d said “I love you” to his reflection in the glass, and he’d seen me and known.
After a few minutes, Clovis came through from the main bedroom in a dark blue three-piece suit, as if he were going out. He appeared elegant and casual, as he always does, but as soon as he looked at me, he blushed. I’d never seen the adult Clovis blush, a wave of painful color, hitting the inside of his skin so fast the pulses jumped in his temples. I remembered again, he’s seventeen. And I started to blush in sympathy, but I wouldn’t look down, and it was Clovis who turned his back and walked over to the drinks dispenser.
“Hallo, Jane. What’ll you drink?”
“I don’t want a drink. I’ve brought your money.”
“Dear me, and I was hoping to get the pound of flesh.”
He turned around with something in a glass, drinking it, cool again.
I got up, opened my purse, and counted out the large-unit notes on a table in front of him. It took quite a long while. He watched, sipping the drink from time to time, and there was lace on his shirt sleeves, like the Renaissance shirt Silver had worn on the Grand Stairway.
When I stopped, he said,
“He isn’t here, you know.”
“I know.” I had known, too. Nerves or not, I’d have sensed if he were there, that near me. “Now please just tell me what you spent on Egyptia. Did you buy her the fur coat?”
“No. She bought it herself on her delay account.”
“Do you want the money for the lunch you bought her?”
“No, Jane,” said Clovis. “Jane, it really could have waited.”
“No it couldn’t.”
“Did you have to cry all over your mother to get it?”
I stared at him. It was funny how I could dislike him, detest him so much, and still feel such affection. I didn’t really want to fight with Clovis, I didn’t really want to confide in him, but something made me, perhaps because he was the first person I could tell.
“Would you really like to know how I got the money?”
“Am I going to be awfully shocked?”
“You might be,” I said doggedly. “I sold everything I own. At least, I think I owned it. The contents of my suite. Bed, chairs, ornaments, books, stereo. Everything. And most of my clothes, and—”
“Oh my God,” said Clovis. He took a cigarette out of the box, brushed it over the automatic lighter and started to smoke. “That explains why Demeta called me at seven-thirty this morning.”
I drew away from him, actually backed a step.
“What did she say?”
“Oh, calm and collected, as ever, and not much. Just, Is Jane with you, Clovis? And when I said No, and Did she know what time it was, she said, Please don’t try to be rude to me, Clovis. Do you know where Jane might be? And I said, I haven’t a notion, and I find it quite easy to be rude, I don’t need to try. At which she switched off.”
“Were you alone?” I said.
“He wasn’t with you.”
“Who? Oh, the robot. No. I sent him back to Egyptia. She wanted him. For something.”
“You wanted him.”
“Ah. You saw through my transparent falsehood. Unsubtle little me.”
“But I’ve repaid your money now. So your claim is nonexistent.”
“True. Egyptia, though—”
“I can handle Egyptia.”
“Can you?” Clovis stared back at me. “Is this our sweet little Jane talking? Such wonders, such chemical changes, can love perform upon the human spirit.”
I didn’t know I was going to do it any more than I’d known I’d tell him what I had done. My arm flew up as if on a spring, and I hit him across the face. It must have stung. And to Clovis, who fastidiously abhors any contact except in a bedroom, it had an added horror.
Yes, it must have stung. He moved away from me and stopped looking at me, but he said very coolly:
“If you’re going to start that, get out.”
“Did you think I wanted to stay?”
“No. You want to chase your bit of metal excitement round the city.”
“Just to Egyptia’s, where you sent him. What was wrong, Clovis? Had to turn him out before you started getting serious?”
“Oh please. Just because you’re bloody maladjusted doesn’t mean we all have to be.”
I gulped, and holding on to my now almost empty purse, I ran to the apartment door.
In the lift, I said the word over—maladjusted. Then I laughed hysterically. Of course I was maladjusted. So what? I got out of the lift hysterically laughing and greatly surprised a heavily Rejuvinexed couple waiting to get in.
Life was a shambles. I mustn’t hesitate now. If I paused, I’d be afraid, or recognize my fear for what it was. But how interesting, a month ago I’d have shriveled with shame if anyone had found me laughing alone in a lift—or anywhere, for that matter. I’d hit Clovis, but he was right. I had changed.
I had to ride the ferry across to The Island because the bridge was shut for repairs. Otherwise I’d have walked the thirty minutes it takes on foot.
The basin of water that surrounds The Island used to be a reservoir, and trees grow out from the waterline, that the ferry has to curve around. Maybe you know it, my unknown, would-be, nonexistent reader. And the concrete platform rising on its pylons, with the rich people’s towers standing amid their landscaped gardens.
Egyptia has the top floor, and therefore a private roof-garden, with miniature ten-foot palm trees at the center, and a pool. Floating up to her oval, gilded doorway in the external lift, it all seemed suddenly unbelievable after the rental block on Tolerance. Or was it that the rental block seemed unbelievable? Surely this was just a social call, and I’d be going home directly to Chez Stratos.
(Is Jane with you, Clovis? Do you know where she might be? She’d have called Egyptia, too. And Jason and Medea. And Chloe. But not Davideed. He’s at the equator, Mother. And it will only have taken Egyptia to tell my mother about Silver, what Clovis had probably revealed. Silver. I don’t want to call him that. It’s a registration—Am I going to have to fight with Egyptia?)
The lift stopped adjacent to the gilded oval door and let me out in the high-walled enclosure before it. Egyptia’s pot plants are dying. She forgets to turn on the hose. When they lie there in brown husks, she weeps for them. Too late.
I touched the door panel.
“Who is here?”
The door-voice is Egyptia’s voice, reproduced, velvety, carnal.
“One moment, Jane.”
He must love her voice. He’s a musician. Her voice is so musical, has such a variegated tonal inflexion. He’s here. I can feel it. I’m going to make a fool of myself. I’ve sold my world, and if Egyptia says “No,” I’ve lost everything. And she’ll say “No,” won’t she? Yes, all right. I supposed Clovis lied about Egyptia demanding him back. But Clovis, to be perverse, having—enjoyed, that’s the word, enjoyed him—sent him back to Egyptia, just as he implied he had to. A sort of neat, spiteful tying up of ends. And Egyptia, having received her lover, has been with him all night again. Or part of the night. The fact that she owes the price of him to someone, now me, isn’t going to stop her from being overwhelmed and playing her ace card, her legal ownership. She’ll say No.
After ten minutes, I touched the panel again.
“Who is here?”
“Jane. I’ve already told you.”
“I am still signaling Egyptia, Jane. Please wait.”
She’s in bed with him right now. That’s why she won’t answer, won’t let me in. She’s locked against him, she’s crying out in ecstasy, just as I did. His face is poised above her, or buried in her long dark hair. She’s so beautiful. And the apartment is so rich. He appreciates artistry.
What can I give him to appreciate? That ghastly room. Me. I ought to go away.
And suddenly the door swung open.
At once I heard a tremendous, unexpected noise, which alarmed me. I shrank away from the door involuntarily, then moved forward, then stood indecisively on the threshold, not allowing the door to close.
As I did so, Lord slunk down the long, much-mirrored corridor. I remembered it was Lord, limp-handed Lord who’d guided me through the Gardens of Babylon that night I saw Silver again. And Lord remembered me.
“Oh hell, it’s you,” he said, striking a pose.
“Oh hell, it’s me,” I said. I amazed myself, for it sounded clever, even though I was only repeating what he’d said. (A trick worth keeping?)
“Well, you’d better come in. We’re in the throes of Peacock.”
He must mean the play.
“Normally, we rehearse at that Godvile theatre,” he added, looking into a mirror at himself. “But darling Egyptia brought us here. Then we’re going to lunch at Ferrier’s. You’re not coming, are you?”
“I don’t think so.”
“I shall always recall you, I’m afraid, as the girl who gets drunk and throws up.”
I’d have liked to say something to that, but I couldn’t think of anything. Then I did.
“That must happen to your girlfriends a lot,” I said, “but are you sure it’s because of the drink?”
I walked past him and down the hall into Egyptia’s vast salon, my brain singing and ringing. I couldn’t quite believe in myself, and I stood there, stunned, intoxicated, and looked for him and found him not. Instead, I saw how the floor had been cleared and five male actors were on it, viciously fighting each other, while three women actors stood to one side, their heads tilted back, their eyes veiled, their hands and arms outstretched. Six or seven others of all sexes stood on the edge, or lay over the pushed-back chairs. One had swathed himself in an Indian tiger skin. A man with a small machine by him sat cross-legged on the coffee table, checking the script. Thin and handsome, he once or twice called out, in a thin, handsome voice, “No, Paul, to the groin, dear, the groin. Corinth, you look as if you’re selling him ice cream, not trying to disembowel him.”
“You eaten any of my ice cream?” Corinth, a young man in glint-stitched jeans, yelled back.
A comfit tray on a nearby cabinet was knocked to the floor with a dull clang.
Egyptia stood on the little stair that went up to the bedroom half-floor above. Her face was so white I feared for her life. Then I realized she had painted herself for her part. She leaned forward slightly. Her eyes were holes through into space, with golden centers. She was living the scene in a depth none of the others even knew about. She was flawless and unreal. It was true. In some indescribable luscious way, she was like a robot. Did he respond to that? Her sheer unblemished skin like that of a smooth and succulent fruit, her oceanic hair?
The last actor fell.
Egyptia’s lips parted. She was going to speak her lines, and, despite everything, love, trauma, the chaos of my life, my fear and doubt at not finding him, I was mesmerized, waiting for what would come out. And in that second Lord shouted across the room at her: “Egypt. Your little blond friend’s here. Can you come out to play?”
I could have killed him. I was abashed, the focus of all eyes, blamed for his fault. Egyptia’s robotic optic lenses flickered as if she were coming to after losing consciousness. She looked at me, not knowing me. Who was I? No one from Antektra’s tortured world.
I went over to her.
“I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“That’s… all right. What is it?”
“I need to talk to you. Not now. When you’ve finished.”
“Oh.” Her eyes closed. I thought she’d collapse. My head spun. “Oh, Jane,” she said.
“Where is he?” I said. “Just tell me. Please. Please, Egyptia.”
Suddenly, both in our separate agonies, our wires touched.
“Somewhere—the bedroom—or the roof—”
“Not with you. Why not with you?”
“Darling, he’s a robot.”
Suddenly as the touch of the wires, I heard the vague intransigent brutality in her voice. Instead of recoiling, I took her by the arms, and her huge eyes swam on me, so sensitive to everything, and nothing.
“Egyptia, I sold every scrap I own. I left my mother’s house. I paid Clovis the money for—him.”
I’d reached her, over the gliding honeyed slope of her inward-turned concentration.
“All of it?” She breathed. “But you—”
“I know. I could only afford it by selling everything. Even my clothes, Egyptia. But you, you of all people, understand why.”
Behind and around us the actors sighed with boredom, unable to overhear, drinking Egyptia’s minerals and spirits, popping her vitamins and pills. I ceased to believe in them, but I held her fast.
“Listen, Egyptia. You’re so aware, so sensitive. You have so much love in you—He’s a robot, but I’m in love with him. However silly that would sound to anyone else, I know I can tell you, I know you’ll understand. I love him, Egyptia.”
I had her measure. Her eyes filled voluptuously with tears, just as I realized mine must have.
“Egyptia, he’s my life.”
“Yes, Jane, yes—”
“Egyptia, let me take him. Away from you. You have so much. You have your genius—” I meant it, I’d glimpsed it, like a smell of fire, and it was so useful to lie with the truth—“You have your genius, but I—I need him, Egyptia. Egyptia!”
She held me rigidly to her, then away. She stared at me, imperiously. She was Antektra. She was God.
“Take him,” she said. And let me go.
I went by her up the stair, turned into the bedroom foyer. A door led out on to the roof-garden, and I took it randomly, for I was reeling. I walked to the pool and sank down beside it, and I laughed, laughed as if I had really gone mad, holding myself in my arms, rocking, crowing for breath, shaking my hair around myself like a faded golden shawl.
I had handled her. But, the stupid thing was, I’d believed every word.
Presently I stood up.
Fleets of immaterial sponge-cake-color clouds were blowing slowly sideways over the blue sky. The little potted palm trees rattled. The pool was green as a fruit acid. With the guitar across his body and resting in his arms, he was sitting not ten feet from me at the brink of the water. He wore dark blue and the shadows tangled over him, hid his face. His expression was serious and still, and the eyes were expressionless and flat—circuits switching over. His face cleared very gradually, and he didn’t smile. And I was afraid.
He said to me: “What’s happened to you?”
“Why?” I said. I didn’t know what to say. “Aren’t you pleased to see me? I thought you were always pleased to see anyone. Did you have a lovely time with Clovis? And a lovely, lovely time with Egyptia?”
He didn’t answer. He set the guitar aside. (The guitar, the extra clothes, these must be in Egyptia’s keeping. He hadn’t brought them with him when he had gone with me.) He got up and walked over to me, and stood close to me looking down into my face.
I couldn’t look at him. I said, again: “I’ve left my mother’s house. I’ve paid Clovis all the money. I’ve told Egyptia I need you, and she’s agreed to let you go.” I frowned, puzzled. How could she bear to let him go? “I’m living in a place like a rat-hole, in a slum. You’ll have to pretend to be human, and my lover. I don’t know how I’ll survive and probably in the end I shan’t, and you’ll come back to Egyptia. Did you sleep with her last night?”
“I don’t sleep,” he said.
“You know what I mean. Did you?”
“No,” he said. “I slept in her robot storage compartment. She was with a man last night.”
I raised my eyes to his contemplative, noncommittal, beautiful face.
“You look incredibly perturbed.”
“Blast her!” I cried. A puerile oath, but I meant it literally. I knew a fury like no other fury I had ever known and my eyes grew blind.
He took my hands very lightly.
“Jane. It doesn’t matter.”
“I am a machine.”
“And Clovis—I suppose Clovis—”
“Clovis didn’t put me in the robot storage.”
“I bet. Oh God. Oh God.”
“Be more gentle with yourself.”
“Oh God. Oh God,” I said in despair, and he took me in his arms, and we leaned together, our reflection perfect and still in the acidulous pool.
At last, I said,
“If you don’t want to come with me, I’d understand. It’s more artistic here.”
He said, “What perfume have you got on? It has a beautiful smell.”
“Nothing. I didn’t—nothing.”
“Then it must be you.”
“It can’t be. Human flesh must seem disgusting to you, if you can smell us.”
“Human flesh is extremely seductive. After all, it’s only another form of material.”
“With a jumble of organs underneath.”
“Just another kind of machinery. Sometimes less effective. Biologically more attractive.”
“Ugh,” I said, like the child I am. He laughed.
I looked at him then and said,
“It doesn’t matter, it’s my decision, but I think I sold my soul for you.”
“I see,” he said. “Do you want to buy it back?”
“I only want you.”
His eyes were dark, something to do with the shadows.
“Then I’ll have to try to make it worth your while.”