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I grew up with my mother in Chez Stratos, my mother’s house in the clouds. It’s a beautiful house, but I never knew it was beautiful until people told me so. “How beautiful!” They cried. So I learned it was. To me, it was just home. It’s terrible being rich. One has awful false values, which one can generally only replace with other, falser, values. For example, the name of the house, which is, apparently, very vulgar, is a deliberate show of indifference to vulgarity on my mother’s part. This tells you something about my mother. So perhaps I should tell you some more.
My mother is five feet seven inches tall. She has very blond hair, and very green eyes. She is sixty-three, but looks about thirty-seven, because she takes regular courses of Rejuvinex. She decided to have a child rather late, but the Rejuvinex made that perfectly all right. She selected me, and had herself artificially inseminated with me, and bore me five months later by means of the Precipta method, which only takes three or four hours. I was breast-fed, because it would be good for me, and after that, my mother took me everywhere with her, sometimes all round the world, through swamps and ruins and over broad surging seas, but I don’t remember very much of this, because when I was about six she got tired of it, and we went to Chez Stratos, and more or less stayed here ever since. The city is only twenty miles away, and on clear days you can see it quite easily from the balcony-balloons of the house. I’ve always liked the city, particularly the look of it at night with all the distant lights glittering like strings and heaps of jewels. My mother, hearing this description once, said it was an uninspired analogy. But that’s just what the city at night looks like to me, so I don’t know what else to say. It’s going to be very difficult, actually, putting all this down, if my analogies turn out badly every time. Maybe I just won’t use analogies.
Which brings me to me.
I am sixteen years old and five feet four inches tall, but mother says I may grow a little more. When I was seven, my mother had a Phy-Excellence chart done for me, to see what was the ideal weight and muscle tone aesthetically for my frame, and I take six-monthly capsules so I stay at this weight and tone, which means I’m a little plump, as apparently my frame is Venus Media, which is essentially voluptuous. My mother also had a coloressence chart made up to see what hair color would be best for my skin and eyes. So I have a sort of pale bronze color done by molecular restructuring once a month. I can’t remember what my hair was originally, but I think it was a kind of brown. My eyes are green, but not as green as my mother’s.
My mother’s name, by the way, is Demeta. Mine’s Jane. But normally I call her “Mother” and she calls me “Dear” or “Darling.” My mother says the art of verbal affection is dying out. She has a lot of opinions, which is restful, as that way I don’t have to have many of my own.
However, this makes everything much more difficult, now.
I’ve written bits of things down before. Or embarrassing poetry. But how to do this. Perhaps it’s idiotic to try. No, I have to, I think. I suppose I should begin at the beginning. Or just before the beginning. I have always fallen in love very easily, but usually with characters in visuals, or books, or with actors in drama. I have six friends, of roughly my own age—six is a balanced number, according to the statistics—and three of these have fathers as well as mothers. Clovis, who has a father, said I fell in love easily—but only with unreal men—because I didn’t have a father. I pointed out that the actors I fell in love with were real. “That’s a matter for debate,” said Clovis. “But let me explain. What you fall for is the invention they’re playing. If you met them, you’d detest them.” One morning, to prove his theory, Clovis introduced me to an actor I’d seen in a drama and fallen in love with the previous night, but I was so shy I couldn’t look at the actor. And then I found out he and Clovis were lovers, and I was brokenhearted, and stopped being shy and scowled, and Clovis said: “I told you so.” Which was hardly fair. Secretly, I used to wish I were Clovis and not me. Clovis is tall and slim, with dark curly hair, and being M-B, doesn’t have to take contraception shots, so tells everyone else who does they’re dangerous.
I don’t really like my other five friends. Davideed is at the equator right now, studying silting—which may indicate the sort of thing about him that I have no rapport with. Egyptia is very demanding, and takes over everything, though she’s lovely to look at. She’s highly emotional, and sometimes she embarrasses me. Chloe is nice, but not very exciting. Jason and Medea, who are brother and sister, and have a father too, are untrustworthy. Once they were in the house and they stole something, a little blue rock that came from the Asteroid. They pretended they hadn’t, but I knew they had. When my mother asked where the blue rock was, I felt I had to tell her what I thought, but she said I should have pretended I had broken the rock so as not to implicate Jason and Medea, who were my friends. Loyalty. I see it was rather unsubtle of me to betray them, but I didn’t know any better. Being unsubtle is one of my worst faults. I have a lot.
Anyway, I’ll start when Egyptia called me on the video, and she cried and cried. Egyptia is unhappy because she knows she has greatness in her, and so far she can’t find out what to do with it. She’s just over eighteen, and she gets terribly afraid that life is moving too fast for her. Though most people live to be a hundred and fifty, or more, Egyptia is frightened a comet will crash on the earth at any moment and destroy us all, and her, before she can do something really wonderful. Egyptia has horrible dreams about this a lot. One can’t comfort her, one merely has to sit and watch and listen.
Egyptia never had a coloressence chart or a Phy-Excellence chart done. Recently, her dark hair was tinted dark blue, and she’s very thin because she’s been dieting—another of her fears is that the world would run out of food because of earthquake activity, so she practices starvation for days on end. At last she stopped crying and told me she was crying because she had a dramatic interview that afternoon. Then she began to cry again. She knew, when she sent the voice and phy-tape to the drama people that she had to do it, as her greatness might occur in the form of acting. But now she knew she’d judged wrong and it wouldn’t. The place where the interview was being held was the Theatra Concordacis, which had been advertising for trainees for weeks. It was a very little drama, with a very little paying membership. The actors had to pay to be in it, too, but Egyptia’s mother, who was at the bottom of an ocean exploring a pre-Columbian trench, had left a lot of money to look after Egyptia instead.
“Oh, Jane,” said Egyptia, blue-tinted tears running through her blue mascara. “Oh Jane! My heart’s beating in huge thuds. I think I’m dying. I shall die before I can do the interview.”
My eyes were already wet. Now my heart started instantly to bang in huge painful thuds, too. I am very hyperchondriacal, and tend to catch the symptoms of whatever disease is being described to me. My mother says this is a sign of imagination.
“Oh, Egyptia,” I said.
“Oh, Jane,” said Egyptia.
We each clung to our end of the video, gasping.
“What shall I do?” gasped Egyptia.
“I don’t know.”
“I must do the interview.”
“I think so, too.”
“I’m so afraid. There may be an earth tremor. Do you remember the tremors when we trapped the Asteroid?”
Neither of us had been born then, but Egyptia had dreamed about it frequently, and got confused. I wondered if I felt Chez Stratos rocking in an incipient quake, but it’s supposed to be invulnerably stabilized, and anyway does sometimes rock, very gently, when there’s a strong wind.
“Jane,” said Egyptia, “you have to come with me. You have to be with me. You have to see me do the interview.”
“What are you dramatizing?”
“Death,” said Egyptia. She rolled her gorgeous eyes.
My mother likes me to spend time with Egyptia, who she thinks is insane. This will be stimulating for me, and will teach me responsibility toward others. Egyptia is, of course, afraid of my mother.
The Baxter Empire was out with Mother, it’s too extravagant anyway, and besides, I can’t drive or fly. So I walked over the Canyon and waited for the public flyer.
The air lines glistened beautifully overhead in the sunshine, and the dust rose from the Canyon like soft steam. As I waited for the flyer to come, I looked up at Chez Stratos, or up where I knew it was, a vague blue ghost. All you can really see from the ground are the steel supports.
Just before a flyer comes the air lines whistle. Not everyone knows this, since in the city it’s mostly too noisy to hear. I pressed the signal in the platform. The flyer came up and stopped like a big glass pumpkin.
Inside it was empty, but some of the seats had been slashed, presumably that morning, otherwise the overnight repair systems would have seen to it.
We sailed over the Canyon’s lip, into space as it were, and toward the city I could no longer see now that I was lower down than the house. I had to wait for the city now to put up its big grey-blue cones and stacked flashing window-glass and pillars on the skyline.
But something else had absorbed me. There was something odd about the robot machine which was driving the flyer. Normally, of course, it was just the box with driving digits and a slot for coins. Today, the flyer box had a head on. It was the head of a man about forty years of age, who hadn’t taken Rejuvinex (or a man of about seventy, who had), so there were some character lines. The eyes and the hair were colorless, and the face of the head was a sort of coppery color. When I put my coin in the slot, the head disoriented me by saying to me: “Welcome aboard.”
I sat down on a seat which hadn’t been slashed, and looked at the head. I had, of course, seen lots of robots, as we all do, since almost everything mechanical is run by robots in the city. And even Mother has three robots who are domestic in Chez Stratos, but they’re of shiny blue metal with polarized screens instead of faces. They look like spacemen to me, or like the suits men wear on the moon, or the Asteroid, and I always called our robots, therefore, the “spacemen.” In the city, they’re even more featureless, as you know, boxes on runners or panels set into walls.
Eventually I said to the flyer driver: “Why have you got a head today?”
I didn’t think it could answer, but it might. It did.
“I am an experimental format. I am put here to make you feel at home with me.”
“Do you think I am an improvement?”
“I’m not sure,” I said nervously.
“I am manufactured by Electronic Metals Ltd., 2 1/2 East Arbor.”
“If you wish to receive a catalog of our products, press the button by my left ear.”
“I’ll ask my mother.”
Demeta would say: “You should make the decision yourself, darling.”
But I gazed at the back of the colorless hair, which looked real but peculiar, and I thought it was silly. And at the same time it was human enough so that I didn’t want to be rude to it.
Just then the outline of the city came in sight.
“You may see,” announced the head, “several and various experimental formats in the city today. It will also be possible to see nine Sophisticated Formats. These are operating on 23rd Avenue, the forecourt of the Delux Hyperia Building, on the third floor of Casa Bianca, on Star Street—” I lost track until it said “—the Grand Stairway leading to Theatra Concordacis.” Then I visualized Egyptia going into hysterics. “You may approach any of these formats and request information. The Sophisticated Formats do not dispense catalogs. Should you wish to purchase any format for your home, request the number of the model and the alphabetical registration. Each of the Sophisticated Formats has a specialized registration to enable the customer to memorize more clearly. These Formats do not have numbers. There is also…”
I lost interest altogether here, for the flyer was coming in across Les Anges Bridge. Below was all that glorious girderwork like spiderweb, and underneath, the Old River, polluted with chemicals and fantastically glowing purple with a top sheen of soft amber. I’m fascinated always by the strange mutated plants that grow out of the water, and the weird fish in armor that go leaping after the riverboats, clashing their jaws. A great tourist feature, the Old River. Beyond it, the city, where the poor people work at the jobs the machinery has left them to do, atrocious jobs like cleaning the ancient sewers—too narrow and eroded for the robot equipment to negotiate safely. Or elegant jobs in the department stores, particularly the more opulent second owner shops, which boasted: “Here you will be served only by human assistants.” It’s curious to be rich and miss all this. My mother considered sending me to live for a year in the city without money, but with a job, so I’d learn how the poor try to survive. “They are the ones with backbone and character, dear,” she said to me. Sociologically she is highly aware. But in the end she realized my unfair advantages would have molded my outlook, so that even if I succeeded among the poor, it would be for the wrong reasons, and so would not count.
I got out of the flyer at the platform on the roof of Jagged’s, and went down in the lift to the subway. There was a gang fight going on in one of the corridors and I could hear the scream of robot sirens, but I didn’t see anything, which was a disappointment and a relief. I did once see a man stabbed at an outdoor visual. It didn’t upset me at the time. They rushed him away and replaced the parts of him that had been spoiled, though he would have had to pay for that on the installment plan—clearly he hadn’t been rich—which would probably mean he’d end up bankrupt. But later on, I suddenly remembered how he had fallen down, and the blood, and I began to get a terrible pain in my side where I pictured the knife going into him. My mother organized hypnotherapy for me until it went away.
Egyptia was standing at the foot of the Grand Stairway that leads up to the Theatra Concordacis. She was wearing gilt makeup, and a blue velvet mantle lined with lemon silk, and people were looking at her. A topaz hung in the center of her forehead. She made a wild gesture at me.
“Oh, Jane. Oh, Jane.”
“Shall we go up?”
She flung up her arm, and I blushed. She made me feel insignificant, superior and uneasy. As I was analyzing this, I saw someone hurrying over, a man, who grasped Egyptia’s raised arm excitedly.
“All right,” he said. “Tell me your number.”
Egyptia and I stared at him. His eyes were popping.
“Go away,” Egyptia said. Her own eyes filled with tears. She couldn’t bear the stupid things life did to her.
“No. I can pay. I’ve never seen anything like it. I heard it was lifelike, but Jesus. You. I’ll take you. Just give me your registration number—wait—you don’t have one, do you, that’s the other type. Okay, it’s alphabetical, isn’t it? Somebody said it’s to do with the metal. You’d be gold, wouldn’t you? G.O.L.D.? Am I right?”
Egyptia lifted her eyes to the tall building tops, like Jehane at the stake. Suddenly I knew what was happening.
“You’ve made a mistake,” I said to the man.
“You can’t have it,” he said. “What do you want it for? Mirror-Biased, are you? Well, you go and find a real girl. Young bit of stuff like you shouldn’t have any trouble.”
“She isn’t,” I insisted.
“She? It’s an it.”
“No.” I felt on fire. “She’s my friend. She isn’t a Sophisticated Format robot.”
“Yes it is. They said. Operating on the Grand Stairway.”
“Oh, God!” cried Egyptia. Unlike the rest of us, He didn’t answer.
“It’s all right, Egyptia. Please, please,” I said to the man, “she isn’t a robot. Go away, or I’ll press my code for the police.”
I wished at once I hadn’t said it. He, like Egyptia and me, was rich, and would have his own code round his neck or on his wrist or built into a button. I felt I’d been very discourteous and rash, but I couldn’t think of anything else to do.
“Well,” he said. “I’ll write to Electronic Metals and complain. A piece of my mind.”
(I saw this as some sort of surgical operation, the relevant slice delivered in a box.)
But Egyptia spun to him abruptly. She fixed him with her eyes which matched the topaz, and screeched wordlessly like a mad bird of prey. The man who thought she was a robot backed sideways along the steps. Egyptia seemed to close her soul to us both. She flung her mantle round herself and stalked away up the stairs.
I watched her go, not really wanting to follow. Mother would say I should, in order to observe and be responsible.
It was a beautiful day in autumn, a sort of toasted day. The sides of the buildings were warm, the glass mellow, and the sky was wonderful, very high and far off, while in the house it looks near. I didn’t want to think about the man or about Egyptia. I wanted to think about something that was part of the day, and of me. Without warning, I felt a kind of pang, somewhere between my ribs and my spine. It might have been indigestion, but it was like a key turning. It seemed as if I knew something very important, and only had to wait a moment and I would recall what it was. But though I stood there for about five minutes, I didn’t, and the feeling faded with a dim, sweet ache. It was like being in love, the moment when, just before the visual ends, I knew I must walk away into the night or morning without him. Awful. Yet marvelous. Marvelous to be able to feel. I put this down because it may have a psychological bearing on what comes next.
I began to imagine Egyptia acting death in the Theatra, and dying. So finally I went up the Grand Stairway.
At the top is a terrace with a fountain. The fountain pours over an arch of glass, and you can stand under the glass with the fountain pouring, and not get wet. Across from the fountain is the scruffy peeling facade of the once splendid Theatra. A ticking clockwork lion was pacing about by the door. I hadn’t seen anything quite like it, and wondered if this was the Sophisticated Format. Then something caught my eye.
It was the sun gleaming rich and rare on auburn.
I looked, and bathed my eyes in the color. I know red shouldn’t be soothing to the eyes, but it was.
Then I saw what the red was. It was the long hair of a young man who was standing with his back to me, talking to a group of five or six people.
Then he began to sing. The voice was so unexpected. I went hot again, with embarrassment again, because someone was singing at the top of his lungs in a crowded busy place. At the same moment, I was delighted. It was a beautiful voice, like a minstrel’s, but futuristic, as if time were playing in a circle inside the notes. If only I could sing, I vaguely thought as I heard him. How wonderful to have such sounds pour effortlessly from your throat.
There were bits of mirror on his jacket, glinting, and I wondered if he was there for an interview, like Egyptia, and warming up outside. Then he stopped singing, and turned around and I thought: Suppose he’s ugly? And he went on turning, and I saw his profile and he wasn’t ugly. And then, pointing something out to the small gathering about him, he turned fully toward me, not seeing me. He was handsome, and his eyes were like two russet stars. Yes, they were exactly like stars. And his skin seemed only pale, as if there were an actor’s makeup on it, and then I saw it was silver—face, throat, the V of chest inside the open-necked shirt, the hands that came from the dripping lace at his cuffs. Silver that flushed into almost natural shadings and colors against the bones, the lips, the nails. But silver. Silver.
It was very silly. I started to cry. It was awful. I didn’t know what to do. My mother would have been pleased, as it meant my basic emotions—whatever they were—were being allowed full and free reign. But she’d also have expected me to control myself. And I couldn’t.
So I walked under the fountain and stared at it till the tears stopped in envy. And then I was puzzled as to why I’d cried at all.
When I came out, the crowd, about twenty now, was dispersing. They would all have taken his registration, or whatever, but most of them couldn’t afford him.
I stood and gazed at him, curious to see if he’d just switch himself off when the crowd went away. But he didn’t. He began to stroll up and down. He had a guitar slung over his shoulder I hadn’t noticed, and he started to caress melodies out of it. It was crazy.
Then, quite abruptly and inevitably, he registered that someone else was watching after all, and he came toward me.
I was frightened. He was a robot and he seemed just like a man, and he scared me in a way I couldn’t explain. I would have run away like a child, but I was too frightened to run.
He came within three feet of me, and he smiled at me. Total coordination. All the muscles, even those of his face. He seemed perfectly human, utterly natural, except he was too beautiful to be either.
“Hallo,” he said.
“Are you—” I said.
“Are you—the—are you a robot?”
“Yes. Registration Silver. That is S.I.L.V.E.R. which stands for Silver Ionized Locomotive Verisimulated Electronic Robot. Neat, isn’t it?”
“No,” I said. “No.” Again without warning, I began once more to cry.
His smile faded. He looked concerned, his eyes were like pools of fulvous lead. His reactions were superb. I hated him. I wished he were a box on wheels, or I wished he were human.
“What’s the matter?” he said eventually, and very gently, making it much worse. “The idea is for me to amuse you. I seem to be failing. Am I intruding on some sort of personal grief?”
“You horrible thing,” I whispered. “How dare you stand there and talk to me?”
The reactions were astounding. His eyes went flat and wicked. He gave me the coldest smile I ever saw, and bowed to me. He really did turn on his heel, and he walked directly away from me.
I wished the concrete would open and swallow me. I truly wished it. I wanted to be ten years old and run home to my mother, who might comfort or lecture me, but who would be omnipotent. Or I wanted to be a hundred and twenty, and wise, and not care.
Anyway, I raced off the terrace, and to Clovis.