Inspiration is everywhere but I like to start with a scrap of painted watercolor exercise, of which I have many. Tearing and cutting, I lay them out in a collage and hope I remember to glue them down before I start the drawing and sketching.
This page done with a uniball ink pen, which behaves very well on thickly coated mixed media paper. On the unpainted craftbook pages the ink sinks in and often wants to spread.
Up until September 14 2020 I lived in New South Wales, in Australia. On that day, a friend drove me to the adjoining state Queensland and negotiated with the border police to get me through the Covid 19 barrier between the two states. I was sicker than anyone guessed.
My friend took me to hospital where I was diagnosed with stage 4 lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system. Treatment began right away. Chemo. Six cycles of R-CHOP at three weekly intervals. Then four lumbar punctures with same drugs and a rituximab (monoclonal antibody) chaser. My last treatment and PET scan in February. I’m in remission.
Long time readers will say that I’ve said all that before. I have. I wanted to feel what it felt like now, to look back on it, six months down the track.
At first, being in remission was the most frightening place on Earth. The reality of dealing with the after- and side-effects of both the chemo and the lymphoma on my own was pure anxiety. Luckily there’s a really good support group on FaceBook that we haunt, all of us in the Downunder Lymphoma boat, and I’ve only had to call the ambulance twice. So here I am, six months into the remission journey.
What with Covid lock-downs and a really low immune system … like, no B cells! … I’ve been pretty well housebound except for food shopping, doctors appointments and walks. So I thought I’d get back into writing reading knitting music pretty easily. Lots of time after all.
I’d be lying if I told you yes, really easy.
Early on I spent most of my time sorting through the stuff that came with my decision to stay in Brisbane. I had a lot of books, not all of them fit on the shelves I now have. Clothes, the same. Textile crafts, the same. And I’m still at it, every so often. Divesting myself of my old life to be able to fit into my new life.
I’ll write that sentence again and even bold it. Divesting myself of my old life to be able to fit into my new life.
It suggests my new life is smaller. I’m not talking about its length, more what I can do in my days … and so also today, this minute, I need to stop this meandering. More on this as time permits.
When the life-suit gripped him—like it shrink-wrapped him—how he’d always imagined it might feel—Sard closed his eyes ahead of being forcibly cowled with the mask. The suit expanded again and he relaxed into it. Shrinking. Easing. It was like part of a rhythm. Like breathing.
He shoved up the mask. All he could see was darkness. Not the seven wooden drawers of his boyhood above him. All he could feel, above him—with his hands questing—was rock, a handspan above his face.
Searching down by his left side one-handed he found the rounded curve of the ceiling meeting the back of an overhang. With his other hand he found flat pavement. Exploring upward with that hand, he discovered the ceiling at maybe knee-height. From under the stairs in the limestone house back into the stony overhang atop the plateau … he’d had no sense of the transfer being a journey.
He rolled from under the overhang. A long way above stood the half-sickle moon in the cold night. Stars, too. Pin-pricks of light that he knew were even farther away. Unimaginable distances. Why I like to imagine that they are beads on a net surrounding the ball that we live on. A star in every angle is enough for me.
< Sit up and stare at the rock-edge. >
Oh right. It tells me to sit up and stare at the overhang’s edge in the dark? To what end?
The suit gripped him with its shrinking-lengthways trick. < I am merely elongating this entity’s muscle fibres. It’s a possibility I’m proud of discovering. The first new thing I caused to happen since I being released from my bondage. >
Sard breathed to the limits of his lung capacity. A fraction of what he needed. He wheezed. “Enough.” The image of the suit as a bio-construct was enough to give him the heebie-jeebies. Life-suits were lab-grown human skins? Couldn’t be. What about all the tech they also had? They couldn’t be. He’d lived in a large tech-construct all this life. Couldn’t live in bio-construct and a cramped little one at that.
The suit relaxed, but only a little, obviously expecting resistance.
“Okay. Okay. Sit up you said.” The gap between the two opposite overhangs was double his knee-length. Or make that the length of his whole leg. Plenty wide enough for him to scrabble to his elbow, push on that to sitting. Stare-at-the-rock’s-edge meant sit with crossed legs and turn ninety degrees.
Slouching somewhat, his eyes were level with the rock’s edges which were about as thick as his forearm—he pressed his arm along the ledge—a thick dark line separating the very dark below from the dark sky above. “Staring,” he said. Reporting for action. Yes sir. No sir.
< Close eyes. Wait for light. >
“That’s hours yet. What will I be looking for?”
< Less than an hour. Places where humans bumped up against these edges. Or scraped by. >
“And then what?”
< You will suck the human substance from these places so that I can discover their DNA. If they are my people—runaways—we will overtake them. We will force them to return to the cave habitat where I need them for the entertainments. >
Sard pulled off one of the gloves and rubbed a rock edge with his bare fingers. Granular feel. Like sandstone. He could almost see the group escaping, running for their lives, resting here overnight. Maybe while it rained and their usual roads, the chasms, flooded. And in their hurry to get to safety, some of them scraping up against these rocks hard enough to lose skin and blood.
Then he imagined sucking on the ledges. Why not just licking? He slopped his tongue over a dark place for a try out. Mmm. Could almost be smooth, sinewy and leather-tasting. He whipped off the life-suit’s face mask to see what he tongued.
With the help of the faint pre-dawn light, he made out a dark handprint imprinted on the stone right there in front of his eyes. The sight burned into his brain. Dried blood? He gagged. Spat saliva. Coughed.
Every little thing he knew and remembered about Ahni reeled through his mind. How the bio-construct was cut out of her—and her just abandoned—and about Ahni’s people running for their lives into the right direction to meet up with the clay-faced slavers. What if this hand-print was of someone who got away?
He found scuff marks, half footprints, a place where five small toes had pressed into the thin sand. Where the basket sat …. Saw all this before the dream. And damn it, I know it better now. None of them would want to be caught. Not one will want to return to CAVE.
And neither did he—as a matter of hoity-toity fact—want to deliver anyone, least of all the Sea-people into that bondage. Which means I shouldn’t follow them. Or it means that I shouldn’t take the life-suit to them. He livened up. Yes. That.
A dozen ideas, things to do, things to achieve, things to watch out for, barged into his mind. Plans. I bared my hand and my face. I’ve started already. There’s been no squeak from the life-suit since then. Such peace. He chuckled. Tore loose the chest piece and loosened the tie that gathered the suit edges over his ribs. Shoved the suit down over his shoulders one by one and pulled his arms free. The dawn air on his bare skin like he was in a cool bath. He crawled to the place where he’d stashed the pack.
Unpacked it to discover what he had that’d help him in the journey he planned.
But here he still stood at the end off the channel in the stone platform, taking time to think through what’d happen when he developed sores on his shoulders. Dressed in just his outer wear—shirt and pants—the pack’s straps cut into his shoulders. Plus the sun was rising almost dead ahead, give or take a few degrees, and while the sky there was a glory of red and pink, he couldn’t see anything else ahead. I need a sunhat and I need more padding. About turn. Leaving the life-suit behind is a dumb idea. The chest piece will do me for a hat. The suit itself folded and stuffed under the straps. Now … no more hesitations, hold-ups or hang-ups brought on by stupid impulsivity.
He strode into the grasses.
Repeat of the country that he walked yesterday. Stony channels between islands of tussock, gravel and sand. Here and there a twisted wind-worn shrub. The plateau, what he saw of it, could’ve been an unending plain of tussocks. But he knew—first hand experience—that it was riddled with chasms. Probably with caves underneath. What did he know. Better to stay at the edge.
Walking, he kept his attention on the ground he covered. Safer. And it meant the sun didn’t shine straight into his eyes because he could angle the life-suit’s chest plate just-so, giving himself a shaded outlook. Which got easier because the sun rose.
Some people, apparently, believed that the Earth spun like a top and turned east day and night. Making it seem like both the sun and the moon rose in the east and set in the west. He never got much further studying how they got seasons and all that. No seasons in CAVE apart from the ones the games demanded and the techies organised.
Uh oh. Careful now. A damned chasm across his path. Lost in my thoughts. He evaded what might have been a sticky end by turning south. Saw it just in time. How far would he need to go? He now resented any foray into that direction. Sun shining on his left side.
Finally the end of the crack in the plateau. Wouldn’t he like to have a drink of cool mountain water right now? Don’t have any water. Not wearing the suit. Need to make camp while sun still shining for getting water from plants. Good old Greg, teaching me that.
Sard woke. How many more times would he have to wake in this story? When we gamed in CAVE, we don’t bother with night and day. It was always day. He let his thoughts continue on to CAVE.
“Oh look, he’s waking up,” said someone. A girlish voice. Sard turned to see her but there was no one with him in the rock hole. Huh. “Where will we have him?” said someone else he almost knew. He started to try to remember him.
“We haven’t seen him do anything real yet.” Different boy. Just figuring how many players is all I have time for? “Can you believe that it’s one of the avatars in that suit?” First boy again. “I thought they’d all been cast out?”
“Let’s try that village at the edge of the salt lake,” the original girl said.
Sard gave up.
Someone sounding a lot like Gre…Greg?…chuckled. “You mean Sard and Srese Yonker, and Youk Kerr? You are a dim-witted bunch if you’ve forgotten them already. Do it. I want to see Sard in that village. I want to see how Sard reacts.”
Being warned, Sard held onto stone left and right. He heard swearing off stage, scoffed at himself. Yeah right. How did I even know that?
He closed his eyes—his thoughts went fuzzy and his whole body shook—bones, flesh, heart and head. His ears funnelled in a loud incessant buzz. This doesn’t sound like somewhere I want to be. He pinched himself. Ouch. I’m awake?
He opened his eyes. Where is this place? Village at the edge of the salt lake reverberated in his thoughts. Can’t see either a salt lake or any houses. Only thing he could see straight in front was the underside of his stair-set of drawers that he’d had since childhood.
Was it them at an arm’s length distance? He marvelled running his fingers over the silky timber undersides of the fourth, fifth, and sixth drawers. He leaned forward. I wonder if the crabby life-suit entity brought all my treasures in the drawers as well?
Stop. I don’t want to give the damned life-suit entity the satisfaction. He lay back, thought about the drawers themselves to distract himself. Old and older, maybe the oldest piece of furniture in the habitat, according to Ghulia, and inherited through her from her forebears.
Passing concrete objects down through the generations shouldn’t even be possible, given the anonymous way they were made. How did she manage it? And why the drawers here—he looked beyond the staircase they were part of, and through an open doorway—in this lime-stone white house at the edge of a salt lake?
No one out there. No. Wait. A bunch of people dressed in white, walked half-heartedly, even hesitantly, out on the salt. They all wore a thing over their eyes. Looks like a swim-mask, people. You look ridiculous. He felt his face. No mask himself.
< You don’t need virtual-world goggles. You are wearing me. >
Sard laughed. I am wearing a life-suit colonised by an AI entity. It confirmed his suspicions. Apart from that, I am inside a virtual building somewhere, as well as in an actual rock-shelter.
“He went in here,” said a voice he knew. Greg came into view, also with swim-goggles over his face, and leapt up the stairs. Dust from between the treads spurted into Sard’s face. He was under the stairs he saw, recognising the boxed-in treads. They are the drawers containing my life.
< You’re wondering how a life-suit knew about your drawers? >
“Not really,” Sard said. The way the entity said ‘life-suit’ gave the game away. If it was a game. Preening and so superior, as if an ordinary life-suit was far beneath what the entity itself was capable of. Which might be true, remember that.
The people watching or involved in the interactive play, seemed to think they were involved in a game. Sard listened interestedly to the stomping on the floor above, and the high, excited voices up there. Everyone ran up and down the stairs at least twice each.
Then the search continued in the room alongside the stairs—with him in plain sight he would’ve thought—and then the room beyond, a kitchen maybe. Plenty of people called out they saw him whenever someone thought they found him.
Nobody did, though he wasn’t hiding particularly, just laying on a pallet under the stairs. All they had to do was glance aside. But they of course wore the goggles that were in the control of the entity that also controlled the life-suit.
< These people have had things too easy for far too long. >
Whatever the stupid entity meant with that apart from the glaring fact that it—the entity—was now in charge. It now seemed to Sard that Gammy—the AI owner of CAVE who once was Gamester—a regular human being who had his brain pattern uploaded into a computer—had ruled by division. All energy-chewing tasks were separated. Life-suits could not communicate with the virtual goggles. Gammy’s strategies were to preserve the system for as long as possible.
This entity obviously had no such desire. He wouldn’t be surprised if CAVE ended during its reign. Did it even know what it wanted? And what did it know about Sard’s people? Because how easy was it in fact to know that every move you made was being judged, and if you didn’t come up to the expectations of the pernickety AI in charge, you’d be moldecked without regrets? You were told a fantasy that you’d be reborn. Better luck next time, people had learned to say to each other.
Who, or what, was this entity?
“Got you!” Greg said. He’d shoved his mask up on his forehead. He grabbed Sard by an arm and dragged him into the open. “Let’s get you into the daylight. I knew you’d be somewhere in plain sight.” He stood Sard on his two feet.
“I’m surprised to find you in the game, oh noble warrior,” Sard said. “It’s quite a short trip, it seems, from standing back all your life to suddenly being as involved as any Tom, Hinny and Darren.”
Greg hesitated. He dropped his hands from Sard, and tore off his mask, which squawked as if the life-suit entity had an audio channel in it, and it resisted. His dazed expression cleared to the one Sard recognised as the Greg he knew.
“Same old Sard. You calling me out?” Greg said.
“Just wondering what the hell is going on?” Sard said. “Not like you to be taken in by anything an AI serves up?” He replied with the same tone Greg gave him.
Greg frowned. “An AI? Other than Gammy, you’re saying?”
Sard gestured at the houses made from blocks of pristine limestone, at the sheet of white glare beyond. “When did Gammy ever serve us up with this? Or peopled it with swim-goggles and a life-suit at the same time? I think he’s been overwritten. You probably know better than me what with.” He didn’t dare go further.
Greg grinned. “What’s it like, wearing it?”
The thing in the life-suit slammed Sard to the ground hard enough that he hurt. < Next time stay where I put you. >
Next it slammed Greg down beside him. It must have, no way would Greg ever purposely throw himself down beside Sard and lay there winded and looking concussed.
Thinking to check Greg’s life-status, Sard put his hand on Greg’s chest. The AI messaged Greg and it reverberated up Sard’s arm. < Don’t make me over-write you as well. >
It could do that? “Drop the mask,” Sard mouthed at Greg.
Greg nodded minimally. Freeing his fingers from the mask’s strap, he leapt to his feet. “Come on, Sard. Let’s go. Save yourself.”
The life-suit squeezed Sard the way he had come to know. The python trick. “You,” he gasped. “You save yourself!” The life-suit picked him up and forced him to run at Greg on four feet, like a beast.
Greg grimaced horror, turned and ran into a corridor.
< Your body lies on the plateau. There is no going or coming other than with me. > < Wait here. >
The life-suit forced Sard back into the hutch under the stairs.
I’m late posting the next installment of Avatar Remaindered due to complications publishing Half Shaman.
Who knew that the very big publisher owns Royal Road? I didn’t, and so blithely posted up my second draft of Half Shaman on RR, thinking to use it as a sort of sandbox for getting critiques.
That didn’t happen and after ten weeks of silence from the most voracious readers in the online reading universe … well, so I was told by various people who have managed to get what they needed … I gave up and started a Blogspot blog. Leaving the ten chapters behind on RR and even forgetting them, I admit.
So last week I tried to publish and was told the big publisher does not accept new iterations of things that are available for free anywhere else, and especially not on its own platforms.
I had to take rearguard actions deleting the ten early chapters on Royal Road, and even deleting the chapters I published on my old blog that were transferred to this blog. And I hope, can’t remember, that there’s nothing sitting in the G+ archives. Having another go of course.
Jeb is a half-trained shaman in her community on Lotor, an inimical, constructed planet in the Procyon Star System, when she is taken by Lotor’s sand people and imprisoned in one of their strongholds. After she spends three years in a white cell a group of her people arrive at the same time that the Ark Ship arrives back in orbit and makes itself known to Jeb.
The Ark Ship has come to pick up its people as was promised 200 hundred years ago. Read how Jeb, the only one remaining who knows how to communicate with the starship, leads her people to the last remaining shuttle that can take them to the starship.
The breeze all around Sard slowed. What is the problem? He glanced up. His wing’s air cells lost their fat sausage look as he watched. He didn’t plummet, but started circling downward in a tight spiral. A different kind of breeze.
< Very nice. A lovely scene in my latest entertainment. >
Ignore. Still spiralling downward, he looked between his feet, and watched the plateau become a dangerous landing ground of a stony floor with boulders and tussocky vegetation here and there. He clenched his jaws. Needs must.
< You’ll need to bring us nearer to the home ridge for me to transmit your doings. > Sard pulled on the brakes, then on the strings above them, to try and slow his progress. He intended landing to the left of the chasms.
< I warned you-ouou-ou! >
Mark II’s voice faded out. Thanks be the universe. Sard touched down, and ran along a narrow stony slab for a half dozen paces while remembering to yank down hard on the strings to the rear of the wing to empty out the cells.
He stopped without tripping and the wing fell over and around him. He dropped to his knees and after catching his breath, untangled himself from strings. How can I test that Mark II has really gone?
Do nothing. Rest up. He grinned. It’s a plan. He tented the wing over the vegetation. Crawled under and made a comfortable nest.
The life-suit pulsed. Damn, he was just asleep. “What?”
< Input of energy is required. >
“I doubt it when I’m resting.”
< At rest the organism needs 70 units of energy per hour. The support system an additional 30 units to be able to maintain shelter from the elements. >
Sard lifted the flap of the wing. Dark night with only the stars. “Go to sleep. I don’t need you.”
— — — —
He woke shivering so hard his teeth rattled. Get up. Move. Warm up. He tried leaping, windmilling his arms. Stumbled. Trembled. The life-suit wasn’t working? His gut felt hollow from hunger. “Wake up! Wake up!” What was the correct instruction again?
< Wake up is the correct command. >
“Frosty.” Sard laughed despite his gut pain. Relief, probably. “You’re right. We need food. Though there isn’t that much left.” He upended the pack over the wing. Only a few food packets tumbled out.
< Think the food types at me and I will compute the eating plan. >
“Okay,” he thought, then said it. “Two of Greg’s savoury potato cakes. Mulberry and fried grub slice, my favourite, so only one of those. Sweet potato slice, not my favourite, so four pieces of that. Six cubes of mock cheese. Half a packet of shake mix.”
< There is choice. With enough water we can have many days of rest. Seven days if things need to be done. Half that with hard labour. >
“Seven days, of course. Even I understand we can’t stay here and expect to live. What can I have?”
< The fried grub slice. Two wet fingers dipped in the drink mix. >
“And that’s it? I could eat the whole lot, no problem.”
The suit made no answer.
“Just joking. You’re making me eat my favourites first. Less temptation. So what’s required is me getting us to a place where I can get more food. Do you know any?”
The only answer was the wind whistling among the sedgy tussocks. “Of course you don’t. My apologies. Do you have any suggestions?”
Negative on that too.
After a while he recalled the suit’s original programming. Cuffed himself on his forehead. Fool. The life-suit doesn’t understand anything not connected to it. And this is that programming back in spades. The one I yearned for. Fool again, for taking so long to remember it.
Eyes open, Sard-man. Ears, all my senses. A low wind soughed and rustled the vegetation, also low. Sard clambered up the nearest taller than knee-high boulder. He stared in every direction, trying the imprint everything in his memory.
Half the circumference, to the left, west through north to east, he sensed rather than saw the drop off. In that 180 degree half circle, the vegetation, the sedgey tussocks and low shrubbery stopped abruptly about ten metres from where he stood and were backed by blue sky. Ten metres, that’s not a lot.
He overpowered his instinct to instantly move in the opposite direction. From west again—the direction behind him—but through south to east this time, the same vegetation types went on and on and became a brown haze. Remember, though, the chasms intermittently and not visible until you get near. He looked for the smoke specifically. Sniffed. Something he remembered. From Greg teaching him? He hardly remembered Greg. Did it matter? Can’t smell smoke or see any. What about the breeze, then? Where’s that going?
The breeze came whistling over the edge of the escarpment in the north (on his left hand) and went south (to his right). Smoke and smell both would be carried away from him. He stepped down from the boulder. Peered closer at the surrounding landscape. Underfoot were rivers of bare rock and islands of grit and stones bearing the plants.
This is a desert as much as the red sandy one below. Barring the spinifex down there nearly the same vegetation. Probably the same animals. No birds the whole time I’ve been looking. Except … he glanced skyward. A raptor up there, would you believe. What is there down here for it to eat?
If in answer, a finger-length red-and-blue locust hopped from one bush to the next. Before Sard could think what to do about it, the bird swooped down, grabbed the insect and was up and away again. A little raptor. Hobby falcon. Too small, too fast and too smart to catch. The insect. Red-and-blue. How was that camouflage? The bushes. Ah. Little red flowers. Blue shadows.
Got to find something bigger than a little raptor or more than a single locust. Both of them need too much energy to catch. But also, I can’t stay in one place here the same as I couldn’t stay in the dip down there after I ate that one single rat. But still. If I can find a dip here, maybe I’ll be able to catch a rock rat. Make a fire and cook it. There’s no one up here.
He packed up the wing as well as he was able in the circumstances, not being able to lay it out flat on the ground. Make that he crumpled the wing’s cells to his chest to empty them, and gathering in the cloth, stuffed it into the backpack. But he gathered in the lines methodically and after coiling them inserted the bundles neatly between pack and fabric. Set the pack on the boulder and shrugged into it.
Set off away from the edge of the land toward a region—he scoffed at his continuing internal pretentiousness—where the vegetation seemed taller. That might signify a depression where any rain on this benighted plateau might have drained to and the veg as a consequence had grown taller.
Following the rivers of rock he was easier on his suit-legs, less cutting from the prickly vegetation. No answer to that. The incumbent version of programming was not nearly as chatty as the other.
< Following the rivers of rock will take you twice as long to get anywhere and using more energy. >
Uh oh. It’s the Mark 2 program back. How did that happen? Sard trembled. He felt the shiver go through him from his throat to his toes, him trembling from the fright of being encased in an unfriendly entity. His mouth dried. His outer covering, aka the fucking life-suit, narrowed its elasticity—somehow—resulting in a length-ways squeezing like that python trick way back when.
My own stupid fault. I thought at it—I’m still gaming it when I should know better by now. I told it I was following a rock river. And it answered me. Proving right there, that this is the other program.
He stopped, walking and thinking. To his left he could hardly see where the veg cut off at the edge of the plateau to his north. I’ve come too far south. He zigzagged back north to his safe zone. Keep walking. Get really safe. Falling off the plateau might be the lesser of the two evils.
After a long time hard walking, he stopped again. Stood there, pack still on his back. Not giving the entity any more clues than need be. My shadow getting quite long. Sun sets in the west, behind me, and I’m not even going to check that. Need to find somewhere to lay down and sleep.
The moment the sun sank all the way below the horizon, the air cooled. Damn. Nearly cold. He half expected—hoped—the suit to instantly tell him to get into shelter. Suit obdurately silent. Walk walk. The runnels of stone became harder to see. Shadowed shrubs. Almost dark, I might as well say.
Put his foot down on a place that wasn’t there. Huh? His knee collapsed and the rest of him plunged after.
He fell deeper than how he remembered a dip in the landscape. What is this place? The pack on his back pressed him down while he lay on … he felt about … on rock. Struggling out of the pack’s restraints he looked up at the edge of the ground where he’d been. Rock edges all around, the dusk grey sky beyond. The depression was maybe waist deep?
Down where he was, there were already black-dark places. A bunch of ledges over hollows? If I had a flash light … don’t need one, I have a life-suit. Grim dark thought—what else don’t I know about it?
Should he appreciate the fact that the exterior of the suit started to glow? Didn’t know it could do that either. Is Youk really so far ahead of everyone with his programming?
< A silly boy who dressed Roman style for his capture by the clay faces. >
What? Youk? Captured?
< You should attend to the shallow business of surviving in this hole. >
The suit squeezed him to get his attention is what it felt like. Is that the way to talk? A thought that might have got to it because the exterior of the suit started glowing. In patches. His right side leg and arm when he had his head turned that way because of the way he lay, but now directed his gaze into the overhangs there.
Three separate overhangs no higher than about fifty centimetres. No deeper than a body sheltering. Their gritty floors scuffled. A lot of random handprints medium-size and small scattered about. People getting comfortable in the only shelter available, that might mean.
Sard rolled to his left side slowly enough to give the suit the chance to light up the dark on his other side. One side faded. The other lit up—greenish, then bluish then white. Good approximation of a flood light.
Yep, the suit knew what he meant. His thoughts or his actions. Whatever.
This side the holes were both deeper and higher. The adults would’ve slept here, he thought. He searched for large handprints and found them. Also the imprints of weaving. Rounds and sloppy ovals.
< Where they rested their baskets. I must know who they are. >
< Sleep. I will study the matter. Perhaps this benighted community has technical expertise I need. You do not have enough energy stored to serve both me and your body, and I will take most of it. You will need to cover yourself. >
Huh? He could parse that out but was in fact he was too tired. He registered the last fact and pulled out the circular underlay that was to have helped him do magic. Hmph. He lay where he lay and covered himself.
Sard sighed. There, all his disappointments, gone. He breathed deep for starting again. Have a look at a map. Redirect my travel. It’s still only middle of the morning.
< We’ll cross the right arm and be on our way, swinging round northeast and then southeast. >
That’s Youk’s program, it’s the one that says we instead of you + I. Sard summoned up an argument. I want to go west and southwest so I can rescue Ahni. CAVE lies southeast. Why there?
< It’s a question of reach. CAVE’s signals reach no further than the outer arc we are standing on. >
Why does the Mark II version want me in the home range and is so blatant about it? I’m pretty sure that Rider switched off the need for signals between the life-suit and CAVE. Why else would he have talked about the delta which is so much further? Mark II is so sure I need it, that it thinks I’ll just fall in with its plans? That is so like Youk. He snorted.
Staring out across the canyons, he wished he could fly. Well, fly properly. No way was he going to trust himself to his ignorance crossing the chasm. I’ll fall like a stone and end my story.
< Attention. >
He attended, reluctantly, but what else was there? The life-suit made a series of images. Sard harnessed up and dragging the wing behind him. Sard running into the wind. The air cells filling and the wing lifting him. Sard drifting across the chasm to the far side.
Where did the life-suit get all that info? How? It’s nothing like Mark I which complained whenever I asked it something it couldn’t touch. He smiled at the reminiscence. The only thing I know about tech programming is that superseded software stays on the hard drive unless they are purposely deleted. My program is still in there.
“One problem I see is that the air above the chasms might not hold us up this time of day.” What did he know? He was just marking time, giving Mark II more rope to hang itself. “We crash into the chasm, another storm, and then what?”
The life-suit looped the Sard-harnessed-up-and-drifting-across-the-chasm sequence.
“Another problem is this sea-breeze stroking over the chasm and replacing cold air with warm. My wing would take me north out over the junction and then if we were lucky to that side. I’m not risking that either.” Whatever. His voice squawked like a lone seagull’s when he talked down into the chasm. Again the life-suit looped the Sard drifting across the chasm sequence.
Youk programmed the damned suit with that streak of stubborn? How? If I didn’t know better I’d suspect an AI identity. Which should be impossible with the walls CAVE installed to prevent that kind of takeover. Sard stepped back from the brink. All this is taking time I don’t have and I know enough useful things to get me across. He bent his thoughts to lessons back home and all the research he’d done. The sun warms the land and hot air rises should be enough to get me across. There is no alternative other than walking back and joining the road and why would he risk his life again like that?
He broke a couple of stems from the nearest clump of spinifex and set to splitting them into short fibrous lengths. After laying a handful on the stone at the rim, he turned to work on the wing. He had had it in and out of the pack so often to camp under it that the lines were utterly tangled.
A little past noon the spinifex stems he launched boated down slowly. He lay out the wing and shrugged into the still separate harness, then loitered at the edge. A breath, just an air of warmth, touched his face when he leaned forward. He stepped back. “Won’t hold us yet.”
The life-suit showed Sard crouching and turning in under the lines and crossing them in front somehow. Then apparently he was to gather the wing in his arms and throw it forward into the air fountaining up in the centre of the gorge.
“I take it that this is you telling me to get ready. Good idea, for a change.” He arranged the wing like an extra long train on a wedding dress. He grinned. Like it was one of Srese’s over-the-top designs. He stepped over the strings to the jump-off stone and connected the brakes to his harness. Threw a couple of pieces of grass toward the middle of the gap.
They twirled up.
The life-suit made a picture of late-afternoon light. Sard sinking in air past its peak heat. “Okay! Okay! So do me that launch again. Step by step!”
The life-suit waited for each achievement as Sard turned and twisted and gathered lines in his hands and with his fists full castled the wing’s fabric onto his arms. How will I have enough strength to fling it all the necessary distance, metres of string as well?
The suit allowed the strings to droop down the cliff. The next move was the preparation for shooting-the-tiger-with-the-bow, a tai ji move.
“But my hands, the wing?”
< The hands as for flinging the net. >
A virtual performance, long ago. He had no time to sweat over Youk’s perfidies.
< Do it and attend to my count. >
Sard tightened his muscles for the screwing-down move to the right, gathering his strength for the fling. The suit pulsed. …four … three …
Sard flung the wing into the air above the gap. Stepped back as the wing unfurled in front of his face, smooth as smooth. The wing floated up so leisurely that he barely felt it take him from the ground. Above the depth he tensed himself for the fall. The harness straps tightened around him and he didn’t plunge down.
He twisted his body into an air punch. “I did it!” The whole assembly, himself a part of it, rocked. Sard’s heart in his mouth. The wing flapped and righted itself. Sard crouched in his harness for the touchdown the moment he crossed the gap.
Wind and wing had other ideas and they took him high, and then higher as he circled the Y junction in slow loops. After he fought down his nausea—seasick, up here? No thank you—he started to enjoy himself. Not that he dared shift his hands into a different configuration. No way did he want to encourage a twirling back down to the chasm.
What Sard enjoyed was seeing his options. If he forced a landing in the cup of the Y, he’d be going backward. This observation despite that a minute ago he’d intended that. From the height where he looped and swayed, he could distinguish camels and herders—with lots of both of them—and even the pale brown of many clay masks camped right next to a green place in the southwestern quadrant on the coast, that he would assume to be the swamp. Seeing them like that—as a force to be reckoned with—Sard decided he couldn’t help Ahni, he’d be throwing his life away.
Next loop round he studied the life-suit’s second option. All the land that lay to the west of the Y shape of the canyons, was a downward sloping desert covered with the saltbush and spinifex mix. He’d be alright for water but what would he be eating? Rats were the only life he’d seen. And he’d be in Mark II’s control. He studied the area some more however, he might need to know it one day. CAVE’s home ridge bounded about a third of the farther edge, backed by the ocean which was bigger than he ever knew. West of CAVE’s ridge wandered a maze of single file dirt paths looping and traversing a nearly straight double track path suggesting the camel herders also used carts.
In the north east, his third option, were more of the single file tracks mazing round a set of cart tracks travelling in as straight a line as was possible. Interestingly, all the tracks stopped at the edge of an escarpment that even from the height where he soared, he could not clearly see beyond. The horizon in that direction glittered, that’s all that his augmented avatar eyes could see.
He looped again trying for higher by briefly tilting the brakes so that the forward edge tipped up slightly. Ha, it worked! He rose on a slow slant. Except that now he had his back to the escarpment and still couldn’t see beyond it.
A stony plateau a long way down and beneath his feet was all he could see of his third option. It lay to the left of the Y shape when he imagined the place where he’d taken off from. If that plateau went all the way till it met the wall closing the delta off from the desert, Sard expected to see one of the cities he’d heard about, on the point of the so-formed elbow. Zeolite.
Beyond the escarpment were flatlands cut into rectangles. Cropland maybe. The vast glitter bordering the fields was the inland sea if his geography sources were correct. A sluggard river, guarded by ancient crocodiles, was said to maintain a seeping flow at the base of the plateau. Out of his sight, it was still a fable, a mighty river that had been reversed and now flowed, however slowly, in the opposite direction.
Tardi Mack, of Mongrel is in the hot seat being interviewed. Read this introduction:
Dear readers, tonight we have a truck-driver from 22nd century Australia, who in a freak surfing accident got infected with a sentient alien substance. We caught him talking to Trucker & Jockey magazine, describing life post-infection while trying to avoid a rather persistent ex-girlfriend.
Tardi: You’re from the Trucker & Jockey magazine? Well met! I was a trucker once, with TLC, a family company. My dad and brother ran the workshop, and I drove our old Mack and jockeyed our live-mind freighter. Hope you’re recording all this? I also surfed for Virtual Surfing. Check me out on their website, they still have me in the sensor-suit surfing the actual waves and voice-overing the rides. My pay from them allowed me to rent in Watego’s Wall on Byron Cape, still a hot-shot tourist destination. Yes, formerly Byron Bay.
Me in the past? Oh, my name. My parents intended to register me as ‘Trader.’ The old man can’t spell and neither can I. Learning to write my name, I transformed it into ‘Tardi.’ They did an about-face on names when my brother Steve was born five years later. But Steve. Oh man. My brother and my burden. He drowned and I couldn’t save him. And Herm wouldn’t let him go. Don’t ask me more about Steve, mate. I’ll be tearing-up for the rest of the day. The landscape? Look outside. Boat-ways instead of streets. Major roads on stilts. Get up on one of them and in the distance you’ll see Wollumbin, a world-famous volcanic plug. Nearer at hand is the pimple called Chincogan. The Koonyum Ranges hunker at the back of the valley. And there are the trees, more than ever.
My kid-sized surfboard was absolutely my favourite thing when I was a kid. My dad taught me the basics. And there’s my cherished memory, him waist deep in the sea, pushing me off. Fishing me out when I fell. He’d plonk me back up on the board half-drowned, and push me off again. Remembering him then—like that—makes me feel warm in my heart, you know? You’re asking what I do now? Good question that I don’t know the answer to. On we go to one of my latest adventures …