• 2 •
Clovis’s apartment overlooks a stretch of the New River, which is clean and sparkling. People who live along the banks can open their windows on it, unlike the people who live along the banks of the polluted Old River, who have to use the filtered air-conditioning even in winter. Every apartment there has a warning notice cut into the window frame, which says: The Surgeon General has established that to open this window for more than ten minutes every day can seriously damage your health. Clovis has friends on the Old River who leave their windows open all the time. “Will you look at the muck on the buildings,” they say. “Why don’t the Godawful Surgeon General and the Goddamn City Marshal clean up the air and the traffic fumes before going dippy over the Godball river?” Clovis also asserts that he never opens his own windows as the view of the New River is too hygienic and bores him. But so far he hasn’t moved.
When I arrived on the fifteenth gallery and spoke to Clovis’s door, it wouldn’t let me in for a long time. When it did, I found Clovis was in the process of trying to get rid of a live-in lover by holding a seance.
Clovis doesn’t like relationships, except sometimes with women, and they are non-sexual. He once shared his apartment with Chloe for ten months, but his boyfriends come and go like days of the week. Actually, the term Mirror-Biased really applies to Clovis. He doesn’t just sleep with his own sex, his lovers always look like him. This one was no exception. Tall and slim, with dark curly hair, the young man lay on the couch among the jet black cushions, eyeing me solemnly.
“This is Austin,” said Clovis.
“Hallo,” said Austin.
I remembered the robot saying “Hallo” to me in his smiling, musical voice. I wished I hadn’t come here.
“And this is Jane,” said Clovis to Austin. “Jane is really a boy in drag. Awfully effective, isn’t it?”
Austin blinked. He looked rather slow-witted, and I felt sorry for him, trying to cope with Clovis.
Clovis finished arranging the plastic cards with letters, basic punctuation and numbers one to ten around the seance table.
“Get up and come and sit down, Austin. And Jane, since you’re there, come here.”
This playful phraseology showed Clovis was in a deadly mood. He seated himself cross-legged on the rug before the table.
“Oh, Clo,” said Austin in a whine, “what ever do you think you can pick up in a modern building like this?”
“You’d be surprised what I’ve picked up here,” said Clovis.
Austin didn’t get this. But he slunk over to the table.
“But the apartment is so new,” whined Austin.
“Siddown,” barked Clovis.
“Oh all right. If you’re going to go all brutal. I’ll sit down. But it’s infantile.”
He folded himself on the rug like a rope. I went over and sat on the other side. A cut-glass goblet, that had been chipped a year ago when one of Clovis’s lovers had thrown it at him, rested in the table’s center. We each put a finger on it.
“This is so childish,” said Austin. “If it does move, it’s just pressure. Your hand trembling.”
“My hand doesn’t tremble,” said Clovis.
“Oh, I know, dear,” said Austin.
I felt very alone, and I began to cry again, but neither of them noticed me. By lowering my head, I could let the tears just fall straight out of my eyes onto my lap, where they made a strange abstract pattern of dark polka dots. It became quite interesting, wondering where the next tear would land.
“Oh, dear,” said Austin. “This is dull.”
“I do it all the time,” said Clovis.
“How dull of you.”
“I am dull.”
“I just hate dull men.”
The glass began quite suddenly to move. It glided across the table and back again, and started a liquid circling motion around the fringe of letters and numbers.
“Ooh,” said Austin. “You’re doing it.”
Clovis took his finger off the glass. The glass, with Austin and me still adhering, went on.
“She’s doing it,” sneered Austin. “I might have known.”
“Take your finger off the glass, Jane,” said Clovis.
I did. The glass went on twirling with Austin still attached.
“Ah!” screamed Austin. He let go as if it had bitten him. Undeterred, the glass swirled about the table.
“Oh God,” said Austin.
“I don’t think it’s actually God. You could ask.”
“I’m not speaking to it.”
“Everyone,” said Clovis, as if addressing a crowd of thirty people, “put your fingers back on. First Jane, then Austin. Then I will.”
I did as Clovis said, and Austin anxiously followed suit, yelping as he touched the glass. Clovis put his finger on the glass and Austin said, “Has someone died in this room?”
“Not yet,” said Clovis.
“Then how can it get anything?”
“People have died everywhere. And don’t forget, twenty years before this block went up, there was a condominium on the site. It fell down with a massive loss of life. And we are sitting, as it were, on the rubble and the bones.”
“You do have a horrible turn of phrase. Why did it fall down anyway?”
“Did you not,” said Clovis patiently, “ever hear of the earthquakes, tsunamis and geological collapses that occurred when we captured the Haemeroid?” (The Haemeroid is Clovis’s name for the Asteroid.) “When a third of Eastern Europe sank and North America gained seventy-two Pacific islands it hadn’t had before. Little, easily overlooked things like that.”
“Oh,” said Austin. “Is this a history lesson?”
The glass jumped up from the table and came down again with a noisy crack.
I thought of all the people dying in the earthquakes, and swept away, shrieking, in the seas, and tried not to sob aloud. I had seen lots of ruins, lots of swamps, but I had been too young and didn’t remember them. I saw Chez Stratos falling out of the sky. I saw the city tilt into the purple river and the clean river, and Silver lying trapped under the water, not dead because water couldn’t kill him, but rusting away, and my tears joined together in the lap of my dress, making the map of a weird new continent.
“What do we do now?” said Austin, as the glass made bullfrog leaps all over the table.
“Ask it something.”
“Um. Is there anyone there?”
“Obviously there isn’t,” said Clovis.
“Oh. Er, well. Who are you?”
The glass rushed to the letter N, and then to the letter O.
“In other words,” said Clovis sternly, “mind your own damn business. Do you have,” Clovis demanded of the energetic glass, “a message for someone here?”
The glass flew to the letter A, letter U, letter S, letter T—
“Sit down, Austin.”
“Yes, Austin. Austin would like to know what the message is.”
“No,” cried Austin, alarmed. “I don’t want to know.”
“Too late,” said Clovis with great satisfaction.
Swiftly the glass spelled out, Clovis reading off the letters and then the words: There is a negative influence about you. You must take a risk. Excitement is waiting for you, but not here. Be warned.
“Well, thanks,” said Clovis.
The glass shuddered to a halt.
“You’ve frightened it off,” complained Austin.
“Well, you saw what it said. I’m supposed to be a negative influence. Bloody thing. Comes into my home and insults me. Where are you going?”
Austin had risen and sauntered to the apartment door.
“I need some cigarines,” said Austin.
“I thought you gave them up.”
“Oh, that was yesterday.”
The door let him out, the closet handing him his three-tone jacket as he passed. The door buzzed shut, and presently we heard the lift.
“If only it could be so quick,” mourned Clovis, clearing the seance table. “But he’ll come back. He’ll come back and he’ll brood for at least another day before he takes the message to heart and goes.”
The table is rigged. Jason, who’s very clever with electrical stuff, did it for Clovis, and put the electronic magnet, the size of a pinhead, in the glass—you can just see it, if you know. Clovis memorized the sequence of letters and the message is always nearly the same. Clovis is really very cruel. He prefers to play with his lovers and watch them react to just telling them to get out. Of course, this probably works better, in the long run.
“Hallo, Jane,” said Clovis, after the sound of the lift had faded. “If you were trying to water the plants, your aim is a little out.”
“I didn’t think you saw me.”
“Weeping so bitterly? Since when have I been blind?”
I stopped crying, and Clovis brought me a glass of applewine. His comfort is limited to words and gestures at a distance. I don’t think he’s ever touched me, and I never saw him touch one of his lovers, though they constantly touch him. To be hugged by Clovis would, now, be embarrassing.
I told him about S.I.L.V.E.R., rather fast, not really explaining it properly, partly because I didn’t understand myself, and partly in case Austin came back quickly.
Clovis listened, detached and elegant, and beyond the window, the New River quivered in the late afternoon sunlight.
“What a nasty idea,” Clovis said when I stopped. “A metal man. Sounds like a comic strip. Decidedly kinky.”
“No, no, it wasn’t like that—he—he was—”
“He was beautiful. Well, he sounds beautiful.”
“It’s simply that—how can he be a robot and a—”
“He can’t. He isn’t. He’s just a bit of metal. Worked metal that can move fluidly, like a sort of skin. They’ve been easing up to it for years, you know. Someone had to make one. Clockwork and machinery designed to look like musculature from the outside. A wonderful sort of super male doll. Take off the skin and you find cogs and wheels—what’s the matter? Oh, Jane, you’re not going to throw up on my rug, are you?”
“N-no. I’m all right.”
“If he—it—has this effect on everyone else, Electronic Metals Ltd. are going to regret their advertising campaign.”
“Everyone else was fascinated.”
“And you were allergic.”
“I was—” My eyes spilled water again.
“Poor Jane,” said Clovis. “What a gargantuan emotional reaction. I wonder if,” said Clovis, “he’d go with the furnishings? I could buy a model and install it in the wardrobe. Then, when I wanted to get rid of an Austin, I’d just trundle out the robot. They’re fully equipped, I suppose.”
“Jane, your innocence can only be assumed.”
“Oh. I suppose they are.”
“I do believe you’ve missed the point of the Sophisticated Formats altogether. They’re sex toys. Nine models, the flyer robot said? Nine Sophisticated Formats—”
“But he sang. He was playing a guitar.”
“All extras built in. A robot can do anything. Pretty soulless music, I’d say.”
“No, it was—”
“And pretty soulless in bed. Still, buggers can’t be choosers.”
When Clovis says things like that he is disturbed in some way. Perhaps my own disturbance was affecting him. Most of the time I forget that he’s only a year older than I am. Much of the time, he seems a great deal older, twenty, maybe. The robot had looked about twenty.
“And,” elaborated Clovis, “he could march out and play Austin a tune—you are going to be sick.”
“You know where the bathrooms are.”
I ran into the green bathroom and banged the door. I hung over the pale green lavatory basin, which I matched, but I wasn’t sick at all. Eventually I lay down full length on the marble tiles, not knowing what was wrong with me, or where I wanted to be, or who I wanted to be with. As I lay there, I heard the lift, and the apartment door, and Clovis saying with irritation: “Don’t blow that foul corner-store marijuana over me.”
When I came sheepishly out, Austin had put on a rhythm tape and was gyrating before the window, perhaps hoping someone with powerful binoculars on the other side of the river would see him.
“Shall I call you a taxi?” said Clovis. “There’s a new line running from Jagged’s with human drivers. A gimmick. It won’t last.”
“I’ll take the flyer. There’s one due at the corner of Racine at five P.M.”
“Racine is a rough stop. I shouldn’t like your little blond face to get carved up.”
“I’ve got my policode.”
“Ever called the cops with it? I once did, and it was two whole minutes before they arrived to rescue me, by which time I could have been structurally redesigned.”
Austin giggled, waving his hips wildly.
Everything was normal again. I would be normal. I had already recollected Egyptia, and wondered if I should try to find her, at the Theatra, or her apartment block on The Island, or the Gardens of Babylon where she sometimes sat drinking among the flowery vines. Or I could go off alone, there were a hundred places I could go to. Or I could call Chloe, or Medea. But I knew I wouldn’t do any of those things. I knew I’d go home, just as Clovis anticipated.
Chez Stratos was my security. Whenever anything went wrong, I felt shaky until I got back there. I would go home, and I’d tell my mother what had happened to me—Clovis had merely been a way of putting it off. Already I felt safer, just thinking of telling her, though probably it would turn out that my reactions were suspect.
Anyway, Clovis wanted me to go. He doodled on a pad on the coffee table, drawings of a beautiful young man with long hair and a key protruding from his back.
“Don’t look so stricken, Jane,” he said. “You have it out of proportion. As usual. Go home and relax.”
Austin ran his hands down his body and blew me a kiss.
I didn’t like Clovis then, and I turned on my heel just like the robot and went to the door and out.
It must be odd to live on Social Subsistence. Odd to have to palm print every month and get a sub. check in the mail every week. There are all sorts of training schemes, aren’t there, but mostly they’re dead ends. The colossal boom in robot circuitry, essential after the Asteroid threw everything into confusion, has left all these gaping holes with human beings in them, frantically swimming and trying not to go down. Mother says the creative arts are the safest, there are jobs there. But if robots can start to make music beautifully and expertly, and sing like angels, what then?
And if they can even make love—
I’d been very silly to get sick over that. Was it so revolting? After all, if they could make love, then they must feel of skin and flesh to the touch, feel human, too, in… every way. Only it wasn’t revulsion, somehow. Somehow, it was worse. I sat in the cab I had, after all, dialed from a kiosk, sticking my nails in my hands to stop my recurring nausea from getting a grip.
I’m not very good at being alive. Sometimes I despair of ever mastering it, getting it right. When I’m old, perhaps, when I’m thirty—
The cab drove fast on the highway, and the dust spooned up on either side, glowing a lovely gold in the westering sun, that calmed me. The robot driver was just a panel and slot for coins and notes. The flyer costs much less and is much nicer, because it travels a hundred feet above the ground.
The Baxter Empire travels in the air too, one of those old vertical lift-offs. Mother used it in the jungle, its blades smashing the forest roof out of the way as it went up, and portions of severed monkeys falling past the windows. Although I’ve forgotten all the important parts of my early travels, that’s one part I do remember, and I remember I cried. Mother then told me nothing dies ever, animal or human. A psychic force inside us survives physical death, and continues on both in the spiritual, and in other bodies. At the time I thought rebelliously for five minutes she was just making an excuse for killing the monkeys, as if killing them didn’t matter, because they weren’t really dead. But even so, I guessed she was right. It was easier to believe it anyway.
It was peculiar thinking of the monkeys now, over ten years later. What was the connection between them and the red-haired robot outside the Theatra? I wanted to stop thinking about him. But I wouldn’t be able to until I’d told mother. That was peculiar, too. Even when I hadn’t wanted to bother her with things, with my problems, or events which had unnerved me, I never could deal with them until I’d discussed them with her. Or rather, till I’d told her and she’d told me what to do. Doing what my mother says makes life, which I find so confusing, much simpler. Like adopting her opinions, and so thinking on a sort of permanent tangent that’s probably wrong so doesn’t matter. My living is like that, too. I do what she says, and follow her advice, but somehow my life—my true response to life—goes on quite differently and somewhere else. How strange. Until I wrote it here, I’d never thought about it before.
After about twelve minutes, the slim steel supports of the house appeared. But not even a ghost was visible of the house now, in the thickening light. I paid the cab the balance, and got out and walked up the white concrete approach between the conifer trees. The house lift is in the nearest support, and when I speak to it it always says: “Hallo, Jane.” When I was a little girl, all the mechanisms in the house would speak to me. I was, am, very used to intelligent mechanical things, totally at home with them.
The lift went up, smooth as silk, and gaining terrific momentum until its gradual slowing near the top of the support, neither of which processes can be felt at all. I’d thought perhaps my mother wouldn’t be home yet. She’d been addressing a meeting somewhere, or giving a talk. But there had been a faint scent of pear-oil gasoline vaguely noticeable on the approach, the gas the Baxter burns. And the conifers had the slightly sulky backcombed look they get from the down-gale of a VLO. Even so, I might be mistaken. Once when I was eleven and very upset, and had rushed home, I smelled the Baxter’s gas though my mother had been away. I tore into the house, and found she still was; it had been a psychosomatic wish-fulfillment odor. My olfactory nerves had made it up to kid me she was there when I needed her, and she wasn’t, and didn’t come back for hours.
When the lift stopped and the door slid away, however, I also caught a faint, faint whiff of her perfume: La Verte.
When I was a child, the scent of La Verte could make me laugh with pure happiness. Then one morning, I poured it all over the carpets and the cushions and the drapes, so the whole house would smell like my mother. She sat with me, and explained my psychology to me, very carefully, and meanwhile everything was de-odorized. My mother never hit me, never smacked me, or ever shouted at me. She said this would be a sign of failure. Children must have everything explained. Then they could function just as concisely as adults.
The funny thing is, I think I was more mature as a child than I am now.
The lift opens on the foyer, which is, apparently, imposing. (“How imposing!”) Egyptia said that when she first saw it, it seemed to be made of frozen white ice cream, which would devour her. But really it’s white marble with tawny veins. Pencil-thin pillars rise in groups to discs which give a soft light at nighttime. But during the day, the light comes in from round high portholes. They’re too high, actually, to see much out of, just a glimpse now of the goldening sky—probably I shouldn’t make up adjectives, but it was. In the middle of the foyer is the openwork lift to the next floors. Mother had it designed like something she saw in an old visual once. Leading from the foyer is a bathroom suite, and door to the robot and mechanical storage hatches under the house, a kitchen and servicery, and the wine cellar. There are also two guest apartments with two more bathrooms in an annex to the east. When you get in the house lift and go up, you pass a mezzanine floor with more things like guest rooms, and a tape-store which locks itself and which only the spacemen can open. The tapes are house accounts or business records, or else very precious and ancient documentation. Only mother goes in there. There’s also a book library, with a priceless globe of the world as it used to be before the Asteroid altered it. One of the balcony-balloons runs off from the library, and sometimes I sit there to read, but I never do, because the sky stops me from concentrating.
The top floor has mother’s suite and study and studio on the north, all together, and these are soundproofed, and also locked. The rest of the floor is the Vista, a wonderful semicircle running almost all round the outside of the house, and blossoming into huge balcony-balloons like great crystal bubbles with the sky held in them. When you come in, the sky fills the room. One is in the sky, and not in a room at all. To make sure of the effect, the furniture is very simple, and either of glass or pale white reflective materials, which take on the colors of the upper troposphere outside. We’re not really up into the stratosphere, of course, that would be dangerous. Even up where we are, the house is pressurized and oxygenized. We can’t open our windows either. Nor do we ever close the drapes.
This evening, when I came into the Vista, the room was gold. Gold carpets, gold chairs, a dining table in a balloon-bubble seeming made of palest amontillado sherry. The chemical candelabra in the ceiling were unlit, but had gold fires on them from the sky. The sky was like yellow plum wine. I walked into one of the western bubbles, dazed, and watched the sunset happen there. It seemed to take weeks, as it always does so high, but as soon as the sky began to cool I crossed over into an eastern bubble and watched the Asteroid appear. It looks like a colossal blue-green star, but it pulls the winds with it, and the sea tides answer it in huge heaves and buffetings. It should have hit the Earth, but some of it burned off as it fell, and then the moon’s gravity also attracted it; it shifted, and then it stabilized. I think I have that right, don’t I? Men have walked on the Asteroid. Jason and Medea stole the bit of blue rock we had that came from it. It’s beautiful, but it killed a third of all the people in the world. That’s a statistic.
At the southern curve of the room is another little annex, and a small stair that goes up to my suite. The suite is done in green and bronze and white to match my physical color scheme. It has everything a contemporary girl could want, visual set, tape deck and player, hairdresser unit, closets full of clothes, exotic furnishings, games, books. But, though there are windows, they aren’t balcony-balloons, so I tend to stay in the Vista.
I was just wandering over to the piano, which was turning lavender-grey now, with the sky, when my mother came into the room.
She was wearing the peacock dress, which has a high collar that rises over her head and is the simulated erect fan of a male peacock, with staring blue and yellow eyes like gas flames. She was obviously going out again.
“Come here, darling,” said my mother. I went to her and she took me in her arms. The gorgeous perfume of La Verte enfolded me, and I felt safe. Then she eased me away and held me, smiling at me. She looked beautiful, and her eyes were green as gooseberries. “Did you look after Egyptia, darling?”
“I tried, Mother. Mother, I have to tell you about something, ask your advice.”
“I have to go out, dear, and I’m already late. I waited in the hope of seeing you before I left. Can you tell me quickly?”
“No—I don’t—I don’t think so.”
“Then you must tell me tomorrow, Jane.”
“Oh, Mother,” I wailed, starting to cry again.
“Now, darling. I’ve told you what you can do if I’m not able to be with you, and you’ve done it before. Get one of the blank tapes and record what happened to you, imagining to yourself that I’m sitting here, holding your hand. And then tomorrow, about noon, or maybe one P.M., I can play it through, and we’ll discuss the problem.”
“Darling,” she said, shaking me gently, “I really must go.”
“Go where?” I listlessly inquired.
“To the dinner I told you about yesterday.”
“I don’t remember.”
“That’s because you don’t want to. Come along, Jane. Let go of my sleeves. You’re intelligent and bright, and I’ve encouraged you to think for yourself.”
“And to talk to you.”
“And we will talk. Tomorrow.”
Although as a baby she had taken me everywhere, as a child, she had sometimes had to leave me, because my mother is a very busy woman, who writes and researches, is an expert perfumier and gem specialist, a theologian, a rhetorician—and can lecture and entertain on many levels. And when she used to leave me, I never could hold back the tears. But now I was crying anyway.
“Come along, Jane,” said my mother, kissing my fore-head. “Why don’t you go to your room and bathe and dress and makeup. Call Jason or Davideed and go out to dinner yourself.”
“Davideed’s at the equator.”
“Dear me. Well I hope they warned him it was hot there.”
“Up to his eyes in silt,” I said, following her from the room and back toward the lift. “Mother, I think I’ll just go to bed.”
“That sounds rather negative.” My mother looked at me, her long turquoise nail on the lift button. “Darling, I do hope, since you haven’t yet found a lover, that you’re masturbating regularly, as I suggested.”
I blushed. Of course, I knew it was idiotic to blush, so I didn’t lower my eyes.
“Your physical type indicates you’re highly sexed. But the body has to learn about itself. You do understand, darling, don’t you?”
“Good-bye, darling,” said my mother, as the lift, a birdcage with a peacock in it, sank away.
In the ethereal silence and stillness of the house, I just caught the thrum of the white Chevrolet as it was driven out of the second support pillar. And I could just see the tiny dazzle of its lights as it ran away into the darkness. I strained my eyes until I could see the dazzle no more.