• 3 •
The night before the first day of the new month, we were sitting out in the subsidence, on one of the girders, watching the stars stare their way past the last of the clinging leaves, and the distant city center blooming into its lights. We often came out there, which had firstly been his suggestion. Sometimes he played the guitar there quietly and sang to me. It was beautiful in the subsidence. Mysterious at dusk, and wild, like the heart of some forest, with the safe edges of civilization around it. Now and then, the white cat appeared, and we’d bring a plate of cat’s meat and leave it by. Despite its apparent homelessness, Silver had spotted, with his faultless sight, the little mark on the hindquarters of the cat, which means it’s had its anti-rabies shots quite recently. I had a wish to lure the cat into the apartment. But that night the cat didn’t come, just the stars. And as I lay against him, wound with him in the cloak, I said, “This is the happiest time of my whole life.”
He turned and kissed me, and he said, “Thank you.”
I was touched suddenly by the innocence inherent in his sophistication. I held him. The coolness though not coldness of his body had never troubled me, and now, from proximity to mine, he seemed warm.
“I don’t even mind that you don’t love me,” I said. “I’m so happy.”
“But I do, of course, love you.”
“Because you can make me happy.”
“Which means I’m no different from anyone you make happy, you can love us all, so it’s not what I mean by love.” At last, it didn’t hurt; I was arch and unconcerned, and he smiled.
I shall never grow tired of, or familiar with, his beauty.
“I love you,” I said. “Let’s go. out to dinner. Do you mind? Will you pretend?”
“If you’re sure you want to spend money on it.”
“Yes, yes, I do. Tomorrow I’m back to a thousand.”
“I confess,” he said, “I rather like the taste of food.”
“Should I be ashamed, I wonder?”
“Oh yes,” I said. “Most reprehensible.”
Our positions were reversed for an instant, our dialogue, our speech mannerisms. He was playing, but I had still learned.
“You’ve changed me,” I said. “Oh thank God you have.”
We went in, and I washed my hair. I’d hardly seen it since we’d started work. It had been bound up in scarves as I painted and glued things, and it was thick with dry shampoos because it takes so long to dry without a dryer when I wash it. But tonight I was lavish with the wall heater. As my hair began to dry before the painted mirror, I saw emerge among those blue hills and that tigerish foliage, a mane of light, the color of blond ash.
My mother had got something wrong. Or had she? Or the machines, perhaps, the coloressence charting. Or had my natural hair color simply altered as I grew older? Yes, that must be it, because—
“Oh,” I said, touching my hair, “it’s beautiful. It’s beautiful in a way it never was.”
“And that,” he said, “is your own.”
I put on one of my oldest dresses, which Egyptia once gave me, and which had been hers. Demeta hadn’t thought it suited me, and neither had I, but I’d kept it for the material, which was strange, changing from white to blue to turquoise, depending on how light struck. And tonight it did suit me, and I dared to put on the peacock jacket and buttoned it, and it fit. I was slim. I was slim and tall. And my hair was moonlight. And I wept.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know why—”
“Yes you do,” he said. He held me until I began to laugh instead. “Poor Demeta,” he said.
“I don’t understand.”
“If I told you,” he said, “I was hungry, you wouldn’t believe me?”
“No. Tell me why my mother is supposed to be ‘Poor Demeta.’”
“I think you know. Look at your hair, and ask yourself if you do.”
But I was feverish and elated. I thrust thought aside and hurried us out of the building, through the streets which now I knew quite well, up onto the only partly moving escalator on South Arbor, to the flyer platform.
We sailed into the center of the city. I wasn’t afraid of meeting anyone. Part of me, perhaps, almost wanted to.
Who, after all, would know me? (And I forgot what he had said.)
As we sat in Hunger And Answer, eating charcoaled steak and tiny little roast potatoes shaped like stars, I thought: Now I can phone them, all of them. Egyptia, Clovis. My mother. The wine was red. It matched his hair. And like his own glamour, the wine didn’t interest him very much.
We walked home all across the city.
The ultimate leaves blew and crunched beneath our feet. The streets close to the Old River were shut off again, unless you bought those smelly throwaway oxy-masks at the cheek gate. We went over Patience Maidel Bridge though the center end had the Walk Fast notices up, and there were no buskers. When we got past the halfway mark, it was apparently clear, though empty. For some reason he and I started to sing, idiotic songs we made up as we walked, no longer fast, about the snarling fish in the purple water. Catch one for the cat—Oh hell—the fish has ate my cat—Oh well—dress the fish in fur—teach the fish to purr—kid me it’s the cat—Cat-fish can be swell.
The green light was on as we came off the bridge, and just as we moved down toward East Arbor, I saw there were two buskers. They weren’t performing, but seated on a rug, a boy and a girl, eating french fries out of a paper over a guitar with three broken strings.
Despite my thoughts of earlier, I hesitated. For they were Jason and Medea.
Once, a year ago, they’d done this before. It was a basic idea. Jason sang, rather badly, and Medea went around the crowd, if one was tone-deaf enough to gather, or if not, through the passersby with a plate. As she did so, she picked pockets. Usually she was caught out, or had been last time. Both were minors, but their father had had to pay a considerable fine.
“What’s wrong?” Silver asked, sensing how I held back.
“Some people I know, and don’t like.”
As we spoke, Jason looked up and right at me. An expression of astonishment went over his face. Very slowly, he nudged Medea. Their thin still eyes seemed to congeal identically. There was no other way but to walk on and meet them. Did they know about Silver? About me? About me and Silver? Or not?
“Hallo, Jane,” said Medea.
“Hallo, Jane,” said Jason.
I looked at them, pausing, my hand in Silver’s. The strength in his hand comforted me, though it seemed a long way off.
“Hallo,” I said. And then, rashly, coolly, “Do I know you?”
“Oh, I think so.”
“I think so,” said Medea. “Your name is Jane, isn’t it?”
“The bleached hair’s not bad,” said Jason. “And the diet. Does Mother know?”
Then they hadn’t been told I’d absconded from Chez Stratos. Or had they…
“Did you have a nice evening?” I inquired politely.
“Pickings were quite good,” said Medea flatly.
Jason smirked. He smirked beyond me, at Silver. Suddenly Jason’s smirk faltered.
I glanced at Silver. There was that look I’d seen before, like a metal mask, the eyes burning, impenetrable, fearsome. Circuits switching?
“Who’s your gorgeous actor friend?” said Jason. His voice didn’t quite sound as sure as it usually did. “Or is it a big seekwit?”
“Does your mother know?” repeated Medea.
I stood there, my skull quite empty, and Silver said to them in the most gentle and reasonable and truly deadly of voices, as if it were an analogy for their lives: “You have just dropped a chip inside the sound-box of your guitar, which won’t do either of them much good.”
“Oh, thanks for caring,” said Jason.
“Personally, I don’t like silver makeup,” said Medea. “What drama are you in? Or are you out of work? It must be nice for you that you met Jane.”
“Yes, Jane’s very rich, isn’t she,” said Jason. “We’re rich too, of course. But we don’t make friends with out-of-work actors.”
“But Jane’s such a softy,” said Medea.
“Luckily for you,” said Jason.
They stopped. They’d said all they could think of for the moment.
I knew none of this mattered, but it was still awful. I didn’t look at Silver anymore. I could feel the roughness of the embroidered cuff of his shirt, which we’d bought in the market three nights ago, against my wrist. I supposed it was up to me to make the move to get away. To Silver, this was irrelevant.
Then I began to see what was happening to Jason and Medea, and I started to be fascinated. They were wriggling, actually and definitely physically wriggling, their little hard eyes glaring at him and slithering off him. And Medea had gone a dreadful yellow color, while Jason’s tanned ears were turning red—I’d never seen anything like this happen to them before, even when they were children. And now their hands were plucking feebly at the french fries, they were gazing at the ground, their backs were stiffening as if in the grip of a horrible paralysis. I didn’t turn to Silver anymore. I realized that cruel annihilating look of his, which he said meant nothing, was still trained on them like a radioactive ray, mercilessly letting them shrivel beneath it.
It was Medea who finally managed to say, in a shrill, wobbly wire of a voice: “Why won’t he stop staring? Doesn’t he know it’s rude. Make him stop it.”
But it was Jason who scrambled suddenly to his feet. Not waiting to pick up the guitar, the ill-gotten gains, the chips, or even for Medea, he thrust by me and jumped hastily away onto the escalator up to the bridge. Medea, in a speechless frenzy, snatched the money and the guitar and bolted after him. I felt Silver turn to watch them go, as I had turned. Medea turned too, just once, though Jason didn’t. She was at the top of the escalator. Her face was a yellow bone triangle and her mouth hissed, or looked as if it did. Then she ran after Jason.
I was shaken too. I didn’t move until Silver slipped his other arm round me.
I knew his face had changed then, so I looked up at him.
“I thought,” I said, “you wanted everyone to be happy.”
“Don’t I?” he said.
“Your circuits were just switching over,” I said.
“You meant to frighten them.”
“I meant to shut them up.”
“But why did it matter to you?”
“The temperature of your hand changed. It went very cold.”
“And I bought you, so your loyalty was to me. Like the Golder robot being a personal bodyguard,” I said, with amazing stiltedness.
His eyes, unblinking and jewellike, looked back at me. There was a long pause.
“Jane,” he said. But nothing else.
And I was suddenly afraid. At the meeting with the twins, at the uncanny thing he’d been able to do to them. Afraid of being here with him, afraid for him, and for myself.
“What is it?” I whispered.
“I think it’s time we walked on,” he said.
And he let go of me, even my hand, and we walked on. Like two lovers who’d quarreled. And the night was cold as knives.
The bed was cold that night, too, and we didn’t make love in it.
In the morning, just as the light started to come, I woke up. Silver was sitting cross-legged on the rainbow carpet. He was dressed, and his hair fell forward over his face because his head was bowed. He looked like a beautiful advertisement for psychosthetic meditation. But sensing me awake, he looked up. He smiled at me, but the smile wasn’t the same as at any other time before.
“Do you mind if I walk about outside for a while?”
Of course. He was my property and had to ask my permission.
I couldn’t even say, “Are you all right?” He was a machine. Obviously he was all right. And just as obviously, something was wrong.
“I’ll be back in an hour.”
“No. Come back when you want to.”
“Will you,” he said, “be okay?”
“Yes. I have to buy some groceries and start the card off for this month. I’ll need change for the rent money.”
“Do you want me to come with you?”
“Oh no.” I sounded bright and self-sufficient.
He got up, sort of melting to his feet as if every muscle were elastic, and probably it is.
After he went, I was alone for the first time since he’d come with me from Egyptia’s. “Alone” now had a new meaning. It felt as if I’d been cut in half. Half of me was here in the apartment, and half out on the street walking about, only I didn’t know where.
I got up, wrapped myself in the emerald shawl from the couch, and made some lime-spice tea. I sat and looked out of the window, drinking the hot tea, watching the last rags of leaves falling like dead birds.
I tried to go over what had happened, how everything had been fine until we met Jason and Medea. And then—but what had happened then? All that kept coming into my mind, dredged up like Davideed’s silt, were those words of the vile Swohnson’s: This one doesn’t check out. Not that I’d really thought about that aspect, only its nightmarish result—Silver, his eyes replaced by wheels… Yet now, I began to see a curious unevenness, a strange incoherence. Sitting there, shivering over the tea, I pictured those other Sophisticated Format robots, the Coppers, the Golders, the two Silvers, that I’d seen performing at Electronic Metals. How lifelike they’d been, in appearance and in attitude; mannerisms, movements, speech. So lifelike, if you hadn’t known, you’d have taken them for men and women. And yet there was something, something which gave them away, maybe only when you knew, but something which told you they weren’t men, weren’t women. Something that told you they were machines. And did I imagine it, or was Silver, my Silver—S.I.L.V.E.R.—not like that at all? Was Silver truly like a human man, truly believable as human—even when you knew he wasn’t? And was it this which had set E.M.’s computers ticking on the checkout? Some sort of independence, beyond any autonomy, however profound, that they’d programmed into him?
But how? And why?
No, that wasn’t what concerned me. I was just afraid because I might lose him, lose him even though I owned him. He wasn’t a slave in Imperial Rome. And yet, he was a machine. He was, he was. And suddenly the enormity and the insanity of my emotions boiled up before my startled inner eye. I loved a machine. Loved it, trusted it, had rested the foundations of my world on it. And on the game I played that it could be kind to me.
I had a terrible feeling. As if I’d been walking in my sleep, and woken up in the middle of an unknown and deserted plain.
In a daze, I showered and dressed, and took up my purse with the credit card, and wandered out into the city. I had a kind of need for the proof of money. I had a need, too, to be out of the apartment. Maybe when I went back, my arms full of fruit and soap, Silver would be home and everything would be as it had been. Yes, this must be the way to break the spell.
It was raining in the city. As I crossed over from the elevated, robot ambulances screamed past me. Someone had been run over outside the Hot-Bake Shop. I felt a dreary depression and fear.
I went into one of the large stores off the boulevard, because I’d seen a crimson glass jar there that I wanted to buy for the bathroom. It was purely ornamental, and I see now I was still basically acting just like someone rich. I hoped the jar would stop me from feeling the incredible sense of dread, and when they gave it to me and I put it in the wire basket with the crackers and the nectarines, it almost did. I picked up some bath towels, too, and a paper knife from the second-owner counter. Then one of the ambulances went by the windows. I remembered the man who had been stabbed at the visual, and how it hadn’t bothered me, except somewhere inside, some sort of mental bottom drawer, where it had obviously bothered me a lot. I stood in the queue to pay. I was thinking, My mother taught me about self-analysis and so I should be able to analyze why I’m suddenly so scared of death or injury. And then I thought: When I get back, he’ll be there. He’ll be sitting on the couch playing the guitar. I had a picture of the winter, and the snow coming; of being snowed up in the apartment block with him, a sort of glorious hibernation. And then I had a picture of going home and finding him not there.
Then it was my turn at the checkout. It was automatic, in this store, but sometimes got cranky, and so there was a bored girl supervisor sitting nearby, painting her nails.
My goods ran through and the total rang up, and I put my card into the card slot. Instead of the bell sounding and the groceries card, and change coming out of the other end of the machine, a buzzer went sharply. A red light appeared over the card slot, and my card was regurgitated. As I stood there, the bored girl glanced over, got off her stool and walked up.
“Your card must be overdue.”
“No. It’s an indefinite monthly.”
She picked it out of the slot and looked at it.
“Oh, yes,” she said.
A thousand I.M.U. indefinite was probably unusual in this area, and I hoped she wouldn’t say the amount aloud. She didn’t.
“Let’s try again,” she said, and pushed my card back into the slot. And once more the buzzer went and the card was vomited out.
People were piling up behind me. They muttered, unfriendly, and I blushed like fire. Even though my heart was growing cold, I already knew what had happened.
“Well,” said the girl, “looks like someone’s blocked your account at the other end. Anyone have authority to do that?”
I reached for the card, blinded by shame and fright.
“Do you want to pay for your things in cash?” she asked lazily. She seemed to be holding the card just out of my reach. In a moment I might leave it with her and run away.
“I haven’t got enough money on me.”
“No,” she said. She gave me the card. She thought the people I worked for, since in this part of town generally only firms issue credit cards to employees, had fired me, and I’d been trying it on to get free groceries.
I walked out of the shop, guilt blazoned on my face, trembling. In the street I literally didn’t know which way to turn, and went randomly leftward, and so into another raining street, and so into another, without knowing or looking or caring where I was going.
Demeta, of course, had stopped my card as soon as she could, on the first of the month. Why not? She had every reason. I’d run away from home with scarcely a good-bye. I couldn’t expect to go on taking her money. I could see that now as clearly as I could see nothing else. How could I have reckoned to get away with it? It was some silly childhood thing that had prevented me from guessing. Some part of me had still believed the implication she’d always given me that, because I was her daughter, her money was mine. Stupid. Of course it wasn’t.
Why then was I hesitating at this phone kiosk, standing in the rain until the woman came out, and then moving in myself and closing the door. Altogether I had ten units left in cash. Not enough to pay my rent. More than enough to call my mother’s house.
Even as I put the coins in and pressed the buttons, I thought, But she’s so busy, she might not be there—and then I thought: She’ll be there. She’ll be sitting there waiting for this call. Waiting for my voice, for my frantic weeping words: Mother, Mother—help me!
And then I didn’t feel afraid anymore, only dreary and small and very tired. It was true, after all, wasn’t it? I’d rung her for help, for forgiveness, to plead with her, or beg her.
I leaned my forehead on the cold dank glass that someone had cracked on the outside with a stone. There was no video in this part of the city. She couldn’t see me. Was that good or bad? I counted the signals. She made me wait through twelve of them before she turned on the autoanswer that, left to itself, replies after two.
“Good morning. Who is calling, please?”
“Jane,” I said. Rain had fallen on my lips, and I tasted it for the first time as I spoke. Jane. A pane of crystal, the sound of rain falling on the silken grain of marble, a slender pale chain—
“Please wait, Jane. I will connect you with Demeta’s studio.”
My humiliation had sunk, and I was hollow. I heard her voice presently. It was politely warm, almost approachable. It said: “Hallo, Jane.” Like the lift.
I clenched my hand so hard on the speaker of the phone it seemed to melt like wax in my grip.
Jain, Mother. Jain.
“Hallo, Mother,” I said. “Isn’t it lovely weather?”
“I’m sure, dear,” she said, “you didn’t call me to discuss the weather.”
I smiled bitterly at my dim reflection, bisected by the crack.
“Oh, but I did. And to say hallo, Mother. Hallo, Mother.”
“Jane. Try to be sensible. Your recent actions have been rather unusual, and very unlike you. I’m hoping that this will be an adult exchange.”
“Mother,” I said, “I’m sixteen. Not twenty-six. Not ninety-six. Sixteen.”
“Indeed? Then why have you acted like a child of six?”
I shuddered. I’d drawn her. She’d lashed back at me, neatly and calmly—and decidedly. The rain drizzled. I could smell onions frying and wet pavements, and… La Verte. La Verte filled up the kiosk.
“I really just called you,” I said, “to tell you how happy I am.”
My eyes filled with tears, but I held them inside me, and they drained away.
“I’m sure you actually phoned me, dear, to ask why your monthly I.M.U. credit has been stopped.”
I felt a surge of awful triumph.
“Oh,” I said. “Has it?”
She wouldn’t believe me. She knew she spoke the truth and I was the liar. But still, she’d had to say it, and not me.
“Yes, Jane,” she said patiently. “Your account has been frozen. Permanently. Or until such time as I unfreeze it.”
I stood and watched the rain. My hand had left the speaker, and I was drawing a rabbit on the steamy flawed glass.
“Jane?” she said firmly.
“Mother, why did you call me ‘Jane’? I mean, why not Proserpina? That was Demeta’s daughter in the legend, wasn’t it? Didn’t you think I’d be glamorous enough to be called Proserpina, Mother?”
“Where are you?” asked my mother suddenly. It was a trick. I was meant to blurt out a location.
“In,” I said, “a phone kiosk.”
“And where is the kiosk?”
Too late, Mother.
“The kiosk is on a street, and the street is in a city.”
“Jane,” she said, “have you been taking an illegal drug of some kind?”
“I don’t think, dear, that you quite understand your situation. Your card is inoperable. There is no other lawful way you can obtain money. I think I had better explain to you, in case you’re thinking of it, that finding a job of any sort will be next to impossible for you. To begin with, you will have to possess a labor card. Before any employment bureau will give you one, they will take a body print reading. They will then check you out and see that you are the daughter of a rich woman. Accordingly, they will ask me if I am prepared to support you. There’s a serious shortage of work, Jane, which I’ve no doubt even you are partially aware of. No one who doesn’t need to work is even considered. And when they ask me if I will support you, I will reply that of course I will, you are my chosen child. You have only to return home, and everything you need will be supplied, including money.”
“You once said,” I murmured, “that I ought to get a job in the city, to appreciate the struggle the poor go through.”
“With my sanction, that could have been arranged. Not, however, without it.”
It was warm in the kiosk, so warm the rabbit was running all down the glass.
“All you need to do,” said my mother, “is go into any bank, anywhere in the state, and identify yourself. You will then be able to draw the exact fare money to get you home.”
“Home,” I said.
“Home. I’ve already redesigned and refurnished your suite. You know me better than to think I would ever say anything about the state in which you left it.”
I burst out laughing.
“Jane. I must ask you, once more, to control yourself.”
“Mother, you’ve left me no choice but to become a thief. I’ll have to rob a store or take someone’s wallet.”
“Please don’t be silly, Jane. This sort of hysteria is distressing—however well I may be able to interpret your motivation, we are still mother and daughter. It’s my very concern for your inability to cope with real life that makes me insist you come back to the house. You know in your heart this is true, Jane, and that I’m only thinking of you.”
A clich'e. Never be afraid of a clich'e, if it expresses what you wish to say, Jane. The kiosk was hot and I couldn’t breathe. I put my hand inadvertently to my throat, and felt the policode, and I said: “Does my policode still work, Mother?”
“Yes, Jane,” she said. “For three more days. And then I’m withdrawing your print from the precinct computer.”
“That’s for my own good, too, is it?”
“You know the expression, Jane, I must be cruel only to be kind.”
“Yes,” I said. “Shakespeare. Hamlet.” I drew in a hard impossible breath. “Spoken by a lunatic who’s just killed an old man behind a curtain, and who has a deep-seated psychological desire to sleep with his mother.”
I slammed down the switch so violently I broke the skin and my hand started to bleed.
It was raining fiercely now. Vaguely through the rain I could see someone else was waiting outside to come in and use the phone.
It became a matter of enormous importance then, not to let them see my face or what sort of state I was in. Though I wasn’t even sure myself. So I pretended I hadn’t hit the switch, and went on listening, and talking to the receiver-speaker for a few moments. My face was burning, and my hands were cold. I couldn’t really think about what had just happened. “No, Mother,” I said to the dead phone.
“No, Mother. No.” I’d feel better when I got out of the stuffy kiosk. Better when I’d walked to the apartment, dodged the caretaker after the rent, gone, with my arms empty of packages, into the room empty of Silver. Of course, he wouldn’t be there. Perhaps he’d guessed. Perhaps robots picked up special telepathic communications from other machines. I wasn’t solvent. So he might be now with Egyptia, his rich legal owner. What was I going to do?
My head tucked down, I pushed open the door of the kiosk and almost fell out. The cold and the water hit me like a wave and I seemed to be drowning. Someone caught me, the person waiting for the phone, and a horrible embarrassment was added to my illness.
“I’m all right,” I insisted.
And then a scent, a texture, the touch itself—I looked up through the rain, and my head cleared and the world steadied—“You!”
Silver looked down at me, amused, compassionate, unalterable. His hair was nearly black with rain and plastered over his skull as if in the shower. Beads of rain hung and spilled from his lashes. His skin was made of rain.
“How did you—”
“I saw you come out of the store, when I was several blocks away. I could have caught you up, but I’d have had to run fast, and you want me to pretend I’m human, don’t you? So I walked after you, and waited till you finished your call.”
“Silver,” I said, “it’s all over. Everything’s hopeless. But I’m so glad you didn’t leave me.”