• 3 •
I fell asleep in my sunken bath, and my bathroom video telephone woke me. I turned off the video and answered it. It was Egyptia.
“Jane, Jane. They accepted me.”
In the background were noises like a party.
“Who?” I sleepily asked.
“Don’t be stupid. The Theatra Concordacis drama group. They responded to the interview. It was as if we’d known each other always. I’ve paid my subscription. I’m giving a party in the Gardens of Babylon. It’s a wonderful party. Champagne is flowing, simply gushing, down the terraces.”
I recalled my mother’s advice.
“Can I come to the party?”
“Oh,” Egyptia’s voice was more distant.
I didn’t want to go anyway. The bath was cold, I was depressed. But my mother had thought it was best for me to go out.
“It isn’t really the sort of party you’d like,” said Egyptia.
Normally, I would retreat at that. I had before, quite often. Why was it that Egyptia always wanted me to herself? She wasn’t M-B. Was it that she was ashamed of me? Something made me say: “I’m unhappy. I can’t bear to be alone.”
Sometimes, by sounding like Egyptia, I could evoke a reaction. I realized I’d done this intuitively before, not knowing I did it, but now it was calculated. I didn’t want to go to the party, but I didn’t want to be alone.
“So unhappy, Egyptia. When that man upset you on the Grand Stairway, I was so shocked. I couldn’t bear to go with you. I was afraid for you.”
“Yes,” she breathed. I could imagine her eyes swimming, reliving it all.
And I was lying. I shouldn’t be lying like this, not consciously, not for something I didn’t even want.
“Egyptia, I want to come to the party to see you. To see you’re all right. To see you happy.”
“It’s on the third tier, under one of the canopies…”
Probably she was paying for the party. Of course she was, and the whole horrid Theatra group battening on her misguided euphoria. Why did I want to go?
But the most extraordinary thing was happening. I was hurrying. Out of the bath, into the wardrobe. I was even singing, too, until I recalled how awful my singing is, and stopped. I stopped again, briefly, when I had put on green lingerie and a green dress, to look at my wide hips. I don’t really like being a Venus Media type. Once, when Clovis was drunk, he told me I had a boyish look. “But I’m a Venus Media.” Clovis had shrugged. It’s possibly my face, which is almost oval, but has a pointed chin with an infinitesimal cleft—like that of a tom-cat?
I tried to put up my hair myself, but despaired, and combed it down again. I made up, using all the creams and powders and shadows and heightenings and mascaras and rouges and glosses. Until I looked much older and more confident. Sometimes I’ve been told I’m pretty or attractive, but I’m never sure. I wish I were someone else really.
I got the automatic on the phone to fetch another cab, and at nine P.M. I drove back into the city, which I think is amazing by night. The buildings seem made of thousands of little cubes of light that go up and up into the darkness. In the distance, they look like sticks of diamante. But I expect that’s a bad analogy. The jewelry traffic goes by on the roads, and clatters past overhead, punching out rosy fumes. I felt excited. I was glad I’d come back.
I felt at least twenty-five as I paid off the cab, and stepped on the moving stair that flows into Babylon, among the hanging mosses and garlands lit to liquid emeralds by the neons under the foliage.
The autumn night was soft. The lights in the bushes melted in the softness, and were only hard where they streamed out from under the canopies with the hard music of orchestras and stereophonics. Under the Theatra-Egyptia canopy, the light was hardest of all, but that may only have been the hard, beautiful makeup everyone was wearing.
I stood at the brink of the light and saw Egyptia in sequins dancing the snake dance with a thin handsome man among other couples doing the same. People and bottles were strewn thickly on the grass and currents of blue smoke went through the air. It was the sort of party Clovis liked a lot, because he could be so terribly, cuttingly rude about it.
Someone came up to me, a man about twenty-one, and said, “Well who are you?”
“My name is Jane. I’m a friend of Egyptia’s.”
“I didn’t know she had any friends. Why not be my friend instead, then you can come in.”
“Oh, don’t thank me.” He looked at my dress, which is pre-Asteroid Asian silk. There isn’t a thing in my wardrobe I can put on which isn’t expensive and doesn’t look it. “Sweet little rich girl,” said the young man, who was good-looking and nasty. “Would you like an interview for the drama, too?”
“I can’t act.”
“Everyone can act. We spend our lives acting.”
“Not on a stage.”
“Theatra Concordacis can’t afford a stage. We put tables together.”
He was probably joking, and I didn’t know what to say. I’m a failure as a wit, too.
He led me by the hand—his hand was dry but limp—under the canopy, and told me his name was Lord. He poured a glass of fizzy greenish wine and gave it to me and kissed me on the lips as he did so. If I say that to be kissed by men, even passionately with the mouth open, bores me, it sounds like a silly attempt to be blas'e. But it’s true. I’ve tried to get interested, but I never can. Nothing happens, except sometimes a faraway sensation that I always hope will become pleasant but is really only like a vague itch somewhere under my skin. So I shrank back from the young man called Lord, and he said, “How fascinating. You’re shy.” And I blushed, and I was glad that my makeup hid it. But I didn’t feel twenty-five anymore. I felt about eleven, and already I wanted to leave.
Then the snake dance ended as there was an interval on the rhythm tape. I wondered if Egyptia would see me and come over, or pretend she hadn’t seen me and not come over. But she seemed very interested in her partner, and truly didn’t see me. She looked so exotic. I sipped my icy wine and wished very much that she’d be a wonderful success at the Theatra. Her eyes shone. She had forgotten about comets crashing on the earth.
“Oh, no more rhythm, per-leez,” someone called. “I’ve been waiting all evening to hear these songs. Do they exist? Am I at the wrong party?”
Other voices joined in, with various clever, existentialist comments.
I tensed for a song tape to be put on, probably raucous. But a lot of people were surging across the open space where the dancers had been, waving glasses.
“Improvisation!” somebody else yelled. Mostly they were rather high. I was envious. Another failure. I find it difficult to smoke, the vapor refusing to sink below my throat into my lungs. It’s very awkward. I have to pretend to be high, usually, when I’m not. (We spend our lives acting.)
Then another rhythm tape, or the same one, came on. Then, after four beats, the song came. Of course, rhythm has no melody, just the percussion and the beat, for dancing. I’ve heard people improvise tunes or songs over it before; Clovis is quite good at this, but the songs are always obscene. This song was savage, the words like fireworks—but they dashed away from me, while the chords of a guitar came up from the ground, resonating, and hung in the hollows of my bones, trapped there. Almost everybody was quiet so they could listen. But Lord-who-had-kissed-me said, “It sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Better than I’d have thought. Have you seen it yet? It’s awfully effective. Come on, I’ll show you.”
I was thinking, Who is singing like that? But I said to Lord: “No, I don’t want to.”
So I knew.
My feet were stumbling over the grass as Lord led me, with his limp hand on my waist, toward the savage music. And the guitar played up through my feet and my legs and my stomach and my heart, and filled my skull. All my blood seemed to have run into the ground in exchange. I dropped the glass of green wine. I couldn’t breathe. I thought I would die.
My guide went on telling me things. I heard, but didn’t hear, how Egyptia had informed the Theatra group, in scorn and despair, how the man had mistaken her for a robot. Three of her new friends had gone to look for the original. Egyptia flashed her money like a sequined scarf, flaunting it, drunk on the prospect of being generous to those who loved her and could give her the means to explore her own genius. They took the real robot’s registration, called Electronic Metals Ltd., and hired him for the party. Hired him as they had hired the canopy, the tapes, the machinery that kept the bottles coming up onto the lawn in little crates.
We were on the periphery of the crowd. He sang. The robot sang. He sang into my veins where my blood had been and where instead the notes and throbbing of the guitar now flowed. I could feel his song vibrating in my throat, as if I sang it too. I couldn’t see him. If the crowd parted and I saw him, I would die.
Why had I come here? Why had I hurried here, almost as if I had known? But if I had known, I should never have come.
Someone moved, and I saw a white muslin shirt sleeve with a silver pattern sewn on it, and a silver hand and flecks of light on steely strings. I shut my eyes, and I began to push my way viciously through the crowd toward him. I was cursed and shoved, but they moved away for me. I only told from the feeling of space across the front of my body that I had come through the crowd. Only he was in front of me now.
The earth shook with the beat of the rhythm and the race of the guitar following it. Sheer runs of notes. It was very clever but not facile. It didn’t sound like a robot, though it was too brilliant for a human musician. No man could play as quickly and clearly. Yet, it had the depth, the color-tones—as if he felt, expressed what he played. There had been a brief interlude, without voice, but then he sang again. I could hear all the words. They didn’t make sense, but I wanted to keep them, and only a phrase was left here and there, snagged on the edges of me as the song flung past—fire-snow, scarlet horses, a winged merry-go-round, windshields spattered with city lights, a car in flight and worlds flying like birds—
I opened my eyes and bit my tongue so I couldn’t scream.
His head was bowed. His hair fell over his face and his broad shoulders and the muslin shirt sewn with silver. Clovis has a pair of jeans like that, the color of a storm cloud, and Clovis might like the boots the color of dragon’s blood, or he might not. The robot’s hair looked like somber red velvet, like a sort of plush. His eyebrows and eyelashes were dark cinnamon. There were hairs on his chest, too, a fine rain of auburn hair on the silver skin. This frightened me. All the blood that had run away came crashing back, like a tsunami, against my heart so I nearly choked.
“Shut up,” someone said to Lord, who I suppose was still talking or trying to talk to me. I hadn’t heard him at all anymore.
The song ended, and the rhythm section ended. Of course, he would be able, computerlike, to judge where the section would end, and so end the song at the right place to coordinate. No human could do that, unless he knew the section backwards.
Someone switched the tape right off. Then there was silence, and then a detonation of applause that tailed off in self-conscious swearing and giggling. Did one applaud a performing machine?
He looked up then. S.I.L.V.E.R. looked up. He looked at them, smiling. The smile was friendly; it was kind. He had wanted to give them pleasure, to carry them with him, and if he had carried them and pleased them, he was glad, so glad.
I was afraid his eyes would meet mine, and my whole face began to flinch. But they didn’t. What did it matter anyway? If he saw me with his clockwork amber eyes.
Egyptia and her partner came through the crowd. Egyptia dropped like a swath of silk at the robot’s feet. She offered him a glass of champagne.
“Can you drink?”
“If you want me to, I can,” he said. He conveyed amusement and gentleness.
“Then,” said Egyptia, “drink!”
The robot drank the champagne. He drank it like someone who has no interest in drink, yet is willing to be gracious and is gracious, and as though it were lemonade.
“Oh God what a waste,” someone said loudly.
“I’m afraid it is,” said Silver, grinning at them. The grin was gorgeous, and his teeth were white, just as he had whites to his eyes. There was that faint hint of mortal color, too, in his mouth and in his nails.
“You are so beautiful,” said Egyptia to the robot.
People laughed. Egyptia took the robot’s hand.
“Sing me a love song.”
“Let go of my hand and I will.”
“Kiss me first.”
The robot bowed his head and kissed her. It was a long, long kiss, as long a kiss as Egyptia indicated she wanted, presumably. People began to clap and cheer. I felt sick again. Then they drew apart and Egyptia stared at the robot in deliberate theatrical amazement. Then she looked at the crowd, her hired crowd, and she said: “I have news for you. Men could become redundant.”
“Oh, come on,” muttered Lord, “there are female formats, too, you know.”
Egyptia sat at the robot’s feet and told him again to sing her a love song. He touched the guitar, and then he sang. The song was about five centuries old, and he was changing the words, but it was “Greensleeves.”
“Alas, my love, you do me wrong, to cast me off discourteously. If passion’s limit is a song, the lack will work hell with my circuitry.”
Laughter burst out again. Egyptia laughed too.
“Greensleeves is my delight, in her dress like summer leaves. Greensleeves, truly, I never bite—unless so requested, my Greensleeves.”
This produced mild uproar. Egyptia smiled and pouted in her sleeveless gown. Then he struck the last chord and looked straight at me. And I remembered the color of my dress.
I think I was petrified. I couldn’t move, even to flinch, but my cheeks and my eyes burned. Nor could I immediately look away. His eyes on me had no expression. None of the coldness, the potential cruelty I had seen before—or had I imagined it? Was a robot permitted to be cruel to a human?—and no kindness, and no smile.
In desperation, frantic, my eyes slid away to Egyptia.
Pretending to see me for the first time, acting friendship now where she had acted Cleopatra-in-lust a second before, she rose and swam toward me.
(We spend our lives acting.)
“Darling Jane. You came after all.”
She threw her arms around me. I felt comforted in the midst of fear, and I clutched her, being careful not to spoil her clothes, a trick I sort of mastered with my mother. Over her shoulder, the silver robot looked away and began to tune the guitar. People were sitting down by him, asking him things, and he was answering, making them laugh over and over. I hadn’t seen him before because he was surrounded by people. Built-in wit. If only I had some.
“Jane, you look adorable. Have some champagne.”
I had some champagne.
I kept hoping the leaden feeling would go away, or the other feeling of burning up inside would go, but neither did. Later he played again, and I sat alone, far away amid the bushes, forcing back the stupid uncontrollable tears. In the end, the nasty Lord took me to a grove in the gardens, and seated under the vines there, which were heavy with grapes, he fondled me and kissed me and I let him, but I kept thinking: I can’t bear this. How can I make him stop?
About one in the morning, as he was telling me to come along, we’d go to his apartment, I thought of a way.
“I—I haven’t had my contraception shot this month. I’m overdue for it.”
“Well, I’ve had mine. And I’ll be careful.”
“No, I’m a Venus Media, very fertile. I can’t risk it.”
“Why didn’t you bloody well tell me before?”
Acutely self-conscious and ashamed, I stared at the grapes. If I cried again, my mascara would run and he would hate me and go. So of course, I couldn’t cry. I thought of the robot. I thought of the robot kissing Egyptia, and all the women who would ask to be kissed. If I asked, he would kiss me. Or bite me. Or—do anything I said, providing someone paid Electronic Metals Ltd.
“I feel sick,” I said to Lord. “Nauseous. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t vomit over me,” he said, got up, and fled.
There was some wine left, so I sat in the grove and drank it, though it had no taste. I tried to make believe I was in Italy, long ago, the grapes around me, the heavy autumn night pressed close as a lover to the city. But I heard gusts of a band somewhere, or a rhythm tape elsewhere.
Catching the lights in the leaves, his silver skin glowed, though his hair only fired up when he was ten feet from me. I thought he was coming toward me and my heart stopped. Then I realized I was close to the non-moving stair going down to the street, and he was simply leaving the gardens, the guitar on its cord over one shoulder, and a blood-red cloak from the old Italy I’d been trying to go back to slung over the other.
He went by me and down the steps. He ran down them lightly. A eucalyptus tree screened him and he was gone.
My heart restarted with a bang that shook me to my feet.
Holding up my long skirt, I ran down the steps after him.
There were bright lights, and quite a few people out on the sidewalk, and cars hurtling by. All the shops and theatres and bars which stayed open flared their signs and their windows. And he passed through the lights and the neons and the people and the fumes of the traffic, now a slim dark silhouette, now a crimson and white one. He walked with a beautiful swagger. When a flyer went over like a prism, he put back his head to look at it. He was human, only his skin gave him away—and the skin might be makeup. He moved like an actor, why not paint himself like one? People on the street looked at him, looked after him. How many guessed? If they hadn’t heard Electronic Metals’ advertising, no one.
I followed him. Where was he going? I supposed he was pre-programmed to go back to—to what? A store? A factory? A warehouse? Did they put him away in a box? Turn off his eyes. Turn out the smile and the music.
A man snatched my arm. I snarled at him, surprising him, and myself. I broke into a run in my high-heeled shoes.
I caught up with the robot at the corner of Pane and Beech.
“I’m sorry,” I said. I was out of breath, but not from running or balancing on my high heels. “I’m sorry.”
He stopped, looking ahead of him. Then he turned slowly, and looked down at me.
“I’m sorry,” I repeated quickly, blinded by the nearness of him, of his face. “I was rude to you. I shouldn’t have said what I did.”
“What,” he asked me, “did you say?”
“You know what I said.”
“Am I supposed to remember you?”
A verbal slap in the face. I should be clever and scornful. I couldn’t be.
“You sang that song to embarrass me.”
“No,” he said, “I simply sang it.”
“You stared at me.”
“I apologize. I wasn’t aware of you. I was concentrating on the last chord, which required complicated fingering.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“I can’t lie,” he said.
Something jerked inside me, like a piece of machinery disengaging. My eyes refused to blink, had set in my face, felt huge, as if they had swallowed my face. I couldn’t swallow at all.
“You—” I said. “You can’t be allowed to act this way. I was scared and I said something awful to you. And you froze me out and you walked away, and now—”
He watched me gravely. When I broke off, he waited, and then he said, “I think I must explain an aspect of myself to you. When something occurs that is sufficiently unlike what I’m programmed to expect, my thought process switches over. I may then, for a moment, appear blank, or distant. If you did something unusual, then that was what happened. It’s nothing personal.”
“I said,” I said, my hands clenched together, “you’re horrible. How dare you talk to me?”
“Yes,” he said. His gaze unfocused, re-focused. “I remember you now. I didn’t before. You started to cry.”
“You’re trying to upset me. You resent what I said. I don’t blame you, but I’m sorry—”
“Please,” he said quietly, “you don’t seem to understand. You’re attributing human reactions to me.”
I backed a step away from him and my heel caught in a crack in the pavement. I seemed to unbalance very slowly, and in the middle of it, his hand took my elbow and steadied me. And having steadied me, the hand slipped down my arm, moving over my own hand before it left me. It was a caress, a tactful, unpushy, friendly caress. Preprogrammed. And the hand was cool and strong, but not cold, not metallic. Not unhuman, and not human, either.
He was correct. Not playing cruelly with me, as Clovis might have done. I had misunderstood everything. I had thought of him as a man. But he didn’t care what I thought or did. It was impossible to insult or hurt him. He was a toy.
The heat in my face was white now. I stared at the ground.
“Excuse me,” he said, “but I have to be at The Island by two A.M.”
“Egyptia—” I faltered.
“I’ll be staying with her tonight,” he said. And now he smiled, openly, sweetly.
“You and she will go to bed,” I got out.
He was a robot. He did what he was hired to do, or bought for. How could Eygptia—
“How can you?” I blurted.
I would never have said that to a man, for Egyptia’s lovely. It would be obvious. But he, with him it was a task. And yet—
“My function,” he said, “is to amuse, to make happy, to give pleasure.” There was compassion in his face for me. He could see me struggling. I, too, a potential customer, must be pleased, amused, left laughing.
“I suppose you’re a wonderful lover,” I shocked myself by saying.
“Yes,” he answered simply. A fact.
“I suppose you can—make love—as often as—as whoever hires you—wants.”
“And sing songs while you’re doing it.”
He himself laughed. When he did, his whole person radiated a kind of joy.
“That’s an idea.”
Irony of the gentlest sort. And he hadn’t remembered me. The wicked flatness of his eyes had been a readjustment of his thought cells. Of course. Who else had been averse to him?
I raised my head and my eyes looked into his, and there was no need to shy away from him because he was only a machine.
“I was at the party you were hired for. You’re still hired, aren’t you, until tomorrow? So.” The last words didn’t come out bravely, but in a whisper. “Kiss me.”
He regarded me. He was totally still, serene. Then he moved close to me, and took my face in his silver hands, and bowed his auburn head and kissed me with his silver mouth. It was a mannered kiss, not intimate. Calm, unhurried, but not long. All he owed me as Egyptia’s guest. Then he stepped away, took up my hand and kissed that too, a bonus. And then he walked toward the subway, and left me trembling there. And so I knew what had been wrong all day.
I tell myself it’s the electric current running through the clockwork mechanisms that I felt, as if a singing tide washed through me. His skin is poreless, therefore not human. Cooler than human, too. His hair is like grass. He has no scent, being without glands or hormones or blood. Yet there was a scent, male, heady and indefinable. Something incorporated, perhaps, to “please.” And there was only him. Everything else became a backdrop, and then it went away altogether. And he went away, and nothing came back to replace him.
I’ve written this down on paper, because I just couldn’t say it aloud to the tape. Tomorrow, my mother will ask what I wanted to discuss with her. But this isn’t for my mother. It’s for some stranger—for you, whoever you are—someone who’ll never read it. Because that’s the only way I could say any of it. I can’t tell Demeta, can I?
He’s a machine, and I’m in love with him.
He’s with Egyptia, and I’m in love with him.
He’s been packed up in a crate, and I’m in love with him.
Mother, I’m in love with a robot…