What do you do about a story that has a beginning, a middle, and an end--and one day you find that the ending has altered--into a second beginning?
* 1 *
You're not going to like me.
I apologize for that.
It was Jane; she was the one you liked. I liked her, too.
And I--am not Jane. Not in any single way. But one.
And that one single way is perhaps the only thing you and I also have in common.
Because if we liked Jane, we loved Silver.
The temptation is to start this just as Jane did, with a description of my early life, and where I lived. Jane's mother was rich, and some of what Jane described might have been predictable--the travels, the house in the clouds. Even the way Jane came into existence--that was, selected, carried physically for five months, taken out very carefully, brought to full-term, and then nursed by machines--the Precipta method. But I was just born. I was a mistake. My mother made that very clear, apparently, when she dumped me ten months later on Grandfather.
I say Grandfather. He wasn't. He was the man my mother had herself lived with when she was a child. He had sort of brought her up, but then turned her out on the street when she was fifteen. He was a believer in the Apocalyte religion, and was pretty strict, and my mother was always in trouble of some sort--drink, drugs, legal and otherwise, men. When she gave me to him, she contemptuously told him, "Maybe you can do better with this one." The Apocalytes were "charitable." So they took me in. That was the first eleven, twelve years of my life, then, that gray-white wreck of a house on Babel Boulevard.
It was quite tough there. First the babies' room, which I don't remember. Then about twenty girls all ages in one dank dormitory. The roof leaked in the rain, and in summer you could hardly sleep for the scratching and shuffling of rats in the walls. Three grim, frugal meals a day in the communal hall. Lots of prayers. God was a wonderful being who wanted us to love him and sent us not only irresistible temptations we must ignore, but horrible mishaps--sickness, poverty, earthquake, and fire--to see if we would still do it. But if we did fall out of love with God, God got upset, and then he would make us burn in Hell forever. I swallowed all this along with the awful food. What else did I know? After all, the Big One was coming soon, the Day of Wrath, when the Asteroid, captured between Earth and moon about two decades before, would crash into the Earth and destroy us all, which is what had nearly happened previously. Whenever we strayed, Grandfather would take us up on the dodgy roof by night and show us the Asteroid, rising blue-green and molten over the slums. "Behold the eye of God's Destroying Angel," announced Grandfather. Hey, guys, you bet we tried to be good.
There were tremors once or twice, too, (quite a bad one when I was five) to help remind us. Quake-sites still existed all over the city, except in the richest areas, where they had been put right after the initial disturbance.
I suppose, growing up with this, I got used to it. Life was simple. Obey Grandfather, love God, wait for the Day of Wrath when we--the righteous ones--would be swept to Paradise on golden wings. Did I believe in Paradise? Perhaps. No, not really. Strange, maybe. I believed in all the bad things--Hell, punishment, an insecure and vengeful deity--but not in that.
There was a much larger earthquake when I was nine. It happened just before dawn. I remember waking--cold, there was snow on the ground--to hear the usual small tremor stuff, creakings, grunts of timber and brick, the shift of powder-dust dislodged and falling--and that rumble under the bed like a truck was revving up right outside. Oh, it's a tremor, I thought, and nearly went back to sleep. But then the rumble rose to a bellow, the mattress leapt, and part of the wonky ceiling dropped into the dorm and landed with a crash between the beds. Something even hit my legs--bounced off--I wasn't hurt. The girls started screaming then. Me, too. We pelted out of the room and tried to go downstairs, but some of the staircase had come apart. So someone said we should crawl up the swaying upper steps to the other end of the roof, the sounder reinforced area over Grandfather's room.
When we'd gotten up there--I'll never forget the roar and boom that was surging out of a city gone almost black but for the sprays of appalling lights like fireworks, which were flyer cables snapping, and power and electricity wires breaking and catching on fire. And next it was brighter because the sun was coming up, but also a couple of buildings were alight. Was it now? Was this it?
Then everything settled with a disgusting grinding crump. And Grandfather appeared up the fire escape, which was somehow still in one piece. Plaster dust in his iron hair only made him more apocalyptic. He led us at once in prayers of thankfulness to God, who had spared us even while he chastised the unholy city.
We were put on the lower floor for months, above the boys' dormitory, where there were only three or four weedy male kids, until some members of another house of the Order finally came and fixed the stairs and the roof a bit. Then we moved back to our own dorm. We couldn't sleep for a long time--too scared--but we were mostly children, and in the end we did. The aftershocks were slight, but a great deal of damage had been done in the city from the new quake.
A week after the quake anyhow, I was ten. My birthday was marked by a solemn blessing, and I had the special birthday privilege of washing the others' feet.
It was next year that I found the Book.
It was my week for washing dishes and I was down in the basement, doing just that. Outside it was dull and close, thundery, and through the very tops of the windows all I could see was a jagged line of brassy overcast above a broken wall. The water heater didn't work properly (not auto), and half the time I had to boil jugs on the nonauto electric stove. I was very hot and yawning so much with tiredness and boredom, I was nearly insane.
Then, crossing back to the stove for yet another jug, I trod on a slab of floor that shifted under me. I yelled, but there was no one else to hear. I thought the floor was giving way and I was going to fall down into a (Hellish?) abyss. But it wasn't that at all. When I righted myself, I saw that only a small square part of the floor had tilted, revealing a small dark slot beneath.
I--and countless others--had stumped over that floor a thousand times and never disturbed it. But one of the recent minor tremors must have loosened something, some glue or padding that had been used to close the little hatchway tight. And now it had only taken my narrow just-eleven-years-old foot, with about sixty-six pounds behind it, to tip the hatch open.
Of course I kneeled down and peered in. I didn't see what was there for a minute, because it was wrapped in a worn dark scarf. When finally I realized and pulled it out, the scarf itself tore at once in a ragged hole. I'd heard of people hiding money in old houses--obviously not I.M.U. cards, but nickels and dimes, or whole fortunes in antique gold. My heart stood still, and when I saw what was wrapped in the scarf was only a battered paper book, I felt a wrench of bitter disappointment. Maybe that was itself my first true whiff of rebellion--for I know, if it had been money, I'd never have told the Apocalytes. To them, to have wealth of any sort was just one more sinful Hell-deserving giving-in-to-temptation.
The cover of the book was plain resined black paper. Not knowing what else to do with it, I opened it. Which is what you do with a book, except I'd never had a chance to open anything but an improving religious tract. (Even the Bible was generally kept from us by Grandfather, who only occasionally read us alarming snippets.)
And the book's title seemed depressingly like those of some of the lesser religious works: Jane's Story. Under that, however, was this: Published by Catch-Us-If-You-Can Press. Be advised, to possess this book is to risk intimidation and possible prosecution by the City Senate. Do not read this book in any public place--you have been warned!
I sat on my heels, gaping at the book, and in the background the jug was boiling dry on the stove.
Then I heard someone descending the stairs. I could tell from the flump of the footfall it was Big Joy, the oldest girl, who was in charge of the rest of us.
I found I'd gotten up and pushed the book in the pocket of my dishwashing overall. I kicked the hatch-thing back into place and ran for the jug. When Big Joy came in, I was lugging it over to the sink like a virtuous little Apocalyte. Joy was a bully, and perhaps, if it had been one of the others, I might have shared my discovery. I'll never be sure.
Someone else stumbled on the hatch, and hurt her ankle, a few days later. Obviously there was nothing in there by then.
Rather curiously I'd thought the book was ancient. (Like the fortune I'd hoped for?) But naturally it had been published by an underground press only a few years before I found it. I assume someone from outside, but still from our own beloved Order--one of the ones, probably, who came to fix the stair and roof--managed to set it in under the basement floor on Babel Boulevard. Either they were hiding it for their own safety, or they were passing on the Book, covertly, knowing that sometime it would again come to light, and then another person might read it. I think there was a lot of that with Jane and Silver's Book, as maybe you know. A whole kind of secret club, reading it, whispering about it, moving it along for others to read and whisper over. If you're reading this now, I guess you were part of that shining, shadowy chain.
I read it, too. Cover to cover.
What do I say to you, then, about reading that Book?
What would you say to me?
But maybe I presume. Maybe you didn't.
Okay. Plotline: There's this girl of sixteen (Jane), rich and naive, and under the thumb of her tyrannical, bloody, mind-fucking bitch of a mother--only Jane innocently doesn't know how terrible Mom is--but one day the girl meets a robot. Now we've had robots for ages, right. They do most of the jobs people used to--and so create a permanent underclass of unemployed subsistence plebs, like me. But anyway, we're accustomed to machines, and they are simply machines--boxes, tubes on wheels, faceplates that look as real as a badly made statue. Only this one is different. He's part of a new line designed for pleasure--of all and every sort. And he looks just like a man--a beautiful one. He's tall, strong, elegant, and handsome. A musician, a lover--and his skin is silver, his hair russet, his eyes amber. He truly does appear and feel--if you touch him, which is all you want to do--human. But he is to humanity what sunlight is to a low-wattage bulb. He is--indescribably--wonderful.
And Jane falls in love with him. And, knowing that no human could be allowed to love a robot--still she can't stop herself. So she leaves Dire Momma, and goes to live with Silver in the pits and craters of the slums. And he makes her life heaven on earth. And for the first time ever, she's--happy.
But then the firm that created him calls back all the robots of that special super-deluxe line. Something wrong with them, they say. But we all know, we who are reading Jane's Story of Silver, that all that's wrong in Silver's case, is he's too right.
She tries her damnedest to save him. Gets betrayed--her evil little friends, Jason and Medea, her lunatic friend Egyptia. Life intervenes--earthquake, muddle. He's caught. They dismantle him. They kill him.
And she . . .
Jane tried to commit suicide. Didn't make it. But then she received a message from beyond the gate of death. Without a doubt it's him. He tells her things only she could know. Proves he is still alive after death . . . somewhere, out of the world. And proves, too, by doing the rest, that inside the robot body there had been a soul.
So then Jane tries to go on living, living both her own life and his, knowing that one day, far, far off (for the rich can survive to be a hundred and fifty years of age) she will see him again.
That's the plot in the most crass terms, of Jane and Silver's Story.
Well. It changed my life.
I used to read it in the eye-aching half-dark of stubs of candles--in the basement at one a.m., the yard where the chickens were kept, on one of the lavatories, with people banging on the door and me calling, "I got sick!" and retching to show I needed to stay there. Chasing the truth of love.
When I finished that Book, I started again at the beginning.
I read it twelve times, that year between eleven and twelve.
Was apprehended only once.
"What are you doing reading, girl? You should be at prayers." "Sorry. Only this--" proffering the religious leaflet in which I had wrapped Jane's Book--and getting away with only a slap across my head.
I loved him. I loved him so. And through his strength and compassionate sweetness, I learned a lesson none of them had ever tried to teach me. That God might not be fire and hell and horror. That God was love. And so sometimes, here in this vicious world, love was to be found, too.
That was the lesson.
At twelve years old I had it--by heart.
* 2 *
We went into the city quite often. An aspect of the Apocalytes' "mission" was to knock on doors or talk to people on the street and try and pin them down to a long old natter about the deity--i.e. how rotten the world was, how sinful they were, and that ours was the only means of salvation.
After the quake when I was nine/ten, we'd even made a bit of progress. A couple of scared citizens signed up for our regime of total self-denial and utter hatred of all physical enjoyments. No drink, no cigarines, no painkillers even--sex only in the effort to construct one more little Apocalyte. But strangely, not everyone was keen.
From the Paperback edition.