3: Still the First Day
Sard loitered just inside the natural rock arch entry to Crystal Cave, disgruntled at having to hide. He fiddled with his and Srese’s torches, for when they used to come here to their cubby, stored side-by-side on the shelf just inside the cave.
And I still haven’t been told anything. He felt jittery. But, his arch-enemies Phin and Youk would be weeding in the vegetable gardens in the Simmonds-Everard quarter, ha-ha, furious that Sard wasn’t there to do it for them. Tiny iota of satisfaction. No idea where Srese is.
He flicked his torch on off, on off, then directed the beam at the different cave features. Gave himself a frisson of fear. Is that a minion behind the crystal faun? He had to know when to start running, didn’t he? A joke he used to play on Srese when she’d irritated him beyond words.
He resumed his watch from the arch. Just in time, because there was Ghulia with huge pack on her back rounding the Gaudi-wall. The only, real, little-pieces-of-glass-and-stone mosaic in the habitat. Every other wall always covered with holos or video representations or a combination.
“You came through the kitchen garden?” Sard said. The garden in the curve of the aforesaid Gaudi-wall. Greg’s personal handiwork. No one else allowed. Greg’s basil, chili, garlic. Greg’s cinnamon tree in a tub. Greg’s cola tree in the other tub.
“I’ve got a pass,” Ghulia said. She appeared to be serious. He studied her face for further clues. He wasn’t Srese who knew the meaning of five thousand facial expressions. “Carry the pack?” he offered.
“Later,” she mouthed.
“I’ve got a thousand questions,” Sard said.
She pushed by him making a zip-your-lips sign. Beckoned him further into Crystal Cave, signing for him to take his torch. She took Srese’s. She unfolded a silk-paper map. Very softly, so he could barely hear her, she said, “These crossed squares in circles represent Gammy’s sensors. They in turn represent him keeping tabs on his avatars. Go ahead, have good look.”
Even behind the frozen waterfall, in the amber glow where he and Srese used to have a cubby, there were sensors. And also everywhere he had just shone his torch at.
Ghulia pressed two fingers on his lips. She smirked like she knew his fears exactly.
He frowned like thunder but pressed his lips together.
“Safe to let go?” Ghulia breathed. After he nodded and she dropped her hand she turned and started along the walk-path. Clock-wise.
He studied her making sure her clothes or the pack did not brush by the walls or the cave-furniture, stalagmites and things, and mirrored her demeanor as best he could, though he doubted that the very walls were alive. Duh stupid, he thought on the next breath. It’s all about noise. Clothes brushing along the wall. Feet scuffing.
Ghulia stopped midway a blank stretch of stone-kreet and crowded him close to the wall with her. To whisper in his ear again. “Picture the map.”
“Why not look?”
She pinched his ear.
He sneered. He wasn’t a child anymore. She twisted it.
“Ow!” he said soundlessly. She twisted harder with her face on fierce. He pulled away but subsided. She might gut him before telling him the important bits. He nodded against her hand. I’ve got the map. So what?
She stepped forward and was gone.
He almost dropped his torch. There’s a holo in this bit of blank wall? His pride fell to his knees. He stepped forward. Ouch! He managed to not cry out as he clapped his hand to his nose. Hit the wall, of course. Not enough instructions. He stepped sideways and forward. Made it through.
Ghulia swung Srese’s torch, its wide-beam setting, to show him the space they were in. “No sensors here. Look at this wall, Sard.” She was letting bygones be bygones. Surely that should’ve been him offering that particular olive branch? He hated being pre-empted.
The cave they were in was huge but seemed to be partitioned off. A natural sand-colored wall rose perpendicularly to meet with the ceiling while the actual rock ceiling continued beyond. The partitioning wall meant they were in a huge half-egg-shaped space. Ghulia pointed back the way they came. “Our Crystal Cave is through there, its contours made to look natural with stone-kreet. Now look down here.”
He tracked her torch beam to the path they stood on. “Perambulating? The same as through there?”
“And look up here.”
At a height along the path’s boundary-wall that he could reach with his up-stretched hand, were holes of two sizes a couple of paces apart all the way around, he proved to himself with the swing of his own torch. “The larger ones to hold sensors, the smaller ones for cladding and wiring fasteners?”
Ghulia nodded. “In this habitat, the entrance to Two Forty is directly opposite the holo to our habitat, equal in distance left or right along the perambulating path. Remember that.”
“Right.” He forgot it as soon as he played his torch beam over the central space. “What are these pedestals in the middle, like mesas rising above the cloudy dust?”
“A very good likeness.” She chose anti-clockwise along the new stroll path. “Where the cave-furniture stands when this habitat is in use.”
He recalled how in their tender youth he and Srese had tried to knock over the crystal faun in Crystal Cave without succeeding. “I’m hardly going to believe that.” The mystery making, like the dust, was getting up his nose.
“Look here.” She pointed with her beam at a street-sign pointing into a dark tunnel.
Two Forty. “A radial? My apologies. Perhaps we are standing in a disused habitat.” Ha, that was good. How he made his apologies sound disbelieving by the addition of that scornful perhaps.
His erstwhile care-mother was in the ignoring mood apparently. “We’ll stop here, take a break,” she said.
“Great. A picnic in the dark.” He orchestrated her moves with the light of his torch.
She took off the pack. Got out sandwiches and a bottle of cola water. Greg’s special recipe that would be. “Only the ground to sit on, I’m afraid. Think. If this is Two Forty, where can you expect the rest of the complex?”
Incredible how she bulldogged him. Sard chewed. Drank. Recovered his cool. The input of brain food, probably. He marshaled home base in his mind. He had nothing better to do this minute. “The CAVES, aka the performance complex, are a left and a left.”
Was that an expression of regret that passed over her face? Instantly smoothed. She reached over and switched off his torch. “In this habitat the performance complex is at the end of Wingham,” she said.
“Why?” It slipped out before he could think of a superior expression.
“Dependent on natural features.”
“We’ve got our mulbry plantations at the end of our Wingham. I suppose it’s useless to ask what natural features?” he said.
Her silence was the answer to that little ploy. “Is that where we’re going?”
“Where you are going to lead me.”
“Right. Okay to use my …?”
“Torch? If you must.”
“… augmented sense of direction?” He felt his face redden. Good thing it was dark. Some would say that this was what he was made for.
He strode into Two Forty. Swung his torch to light up the mouths of Second Circle, left and right. He ignored the lanes. The entries to First Circle on both sides of Two Forty were exactly where he expected them to be, complete with appropriate street signs.
Radials always ended in Central Plaza. Here too. This market place was twice the width of the Circles, the same as the one at home. Though it still had its flagged-look stone-kreet paving there was no evidence remaining of any stalls. At home the front walls of apartments facing the Plaza were of carved mulbry wood. These had no front walls.
He led past the mouths of Two Ten, Simmonds, One Fifty and One Twenty and swung left into Wingham.
“Very good,” Ghulia said.
He shook his torch. It seemed to give out less light.
Ghulia stepped past him to take the lead. “We go left here, then right and right. There’ll be an airlock with no lens installed.”
Sard stopped at the shutters. “There’s a sound, but it can’t be the ocean.”
“Why not?” Ghulia said.
“Just a feeling.” He shrugged. If he verbalized it, he would sound like the kid she obviously still thought him. “I’d rather experience its right or wrong than solve it as an intellectual exercise.”
She looked slightly bemused, if there was such an expression. “Well,” she said. “You’d better help me get the hatches open, then.” He joined her at a large steel wheel on the wall beside the hatchway. As they turned it with both their hands on the patterned grips, both pulling clockwise, a vertical shutter slid sideways, into the wall, in a crude parody of an irising doorway. Reddish sand from outside trickled in over the sill.
“Don’t go away,” Ghulia said when he let go the wheel. “There’s the horizontal shutter.”
The shutter creaked upwards. He was still groping for a wisecrack when his feet lit up with light brighter than a thousand of the habitat’s lights burning at once. Then his knees, his whole body, with the unbearable brightness creeping up his face. The light was blinding. His eyes shut of themselves. But I don’t do reflexes, he told himself.
Ghulia laughed. She pushed past him and stepped over the sill. Talked at him from out there. “Ah Sard, my love, you won’t keep the Earth from its path or the sun out of the picture.”
He stepped back and back. Opened his eyes with his head in the blessed shade. Used the lintel to frame out the golden glob. Ghulia stood with her back to the spectacle, her face shadowed. But the bottom edge of the sun leaked down and turned the top of the doorway into a slab of molten gold. He retreated farther. Huge amounts of light smashed into the airlock, more than he could cope with. The sun was like something alive as it followed him back and back. More and more of it showed all the time.
“Come out here, Sard. Stand with your back to it.”
His eyes spronked with black spots. He bumped unseeing against Ghulia’s mothering hands as she turned him. But there was no roof overhead and no UV barrier in the sky and the whole unknown un-moderated world waited behind his back. He felt totally helpless.
“On the map this place is called THE DOORSTEP, capitalized because, I assume, it immortalizes some other, older doorstep,” Ghulia said. “It’s big enough to camp on. These sidewalls will keep out the wind.” She gestured left and right, and let the pack slide down to the ground.
He controled his breathing. She was calm. So would he be. The head-high stone-kreet walls on both sides defined the space as a sort of room. He needn’t look beyond it yet.
“Put these lenses in, darling. You’ll fry your eyes if you look at the sun without them,” Ghulia said. So like in her care-mother mode. He took them, hating her viciously for a couple seconds. If she’d done her job properly, he wouldn’t still need all this mothering.
She lay out a small cloth between them. Chopsticks at its opposite ends. She dished cold rice into two dinner bowls. Shared the contents of a jar of sauce between them. “Eat up. The curry will provide the heat. There’s water in the bladders beside the airlock. Did you see them?”
“Fetch.” Was that a tinge of impatience in her voice? He was glad to be inside for a minute. The situation was starting to fall apart. He loitered. “Sard. Bring out a bladder of water!”
She took it and drank her fill. She gestured with her chopsticks.” Eat. It’ll be dark soon.”
“Eating is such a puny thing to do while this …” he gestured in his turn, “… is happening.”
She put her chopsticks and bowl down and watched the sun’s descent with him. Ha ha, he’d shamed her into appreciating the event. The sun was a blob, a huge golden orb, melting inexorably down to the horizon. “There should be a stately-grace music track to accompany it.” All the surfaces of the DOORSTEP were plated gold. Every grain of sand had a mad glitter.
Now the sun’s lower arc touched the edge of the land far away, making a rim of flaring fire that then leaked into the land and pooled below it. The main body of the orb sank further and further. At its final gasp it collected its excess from the land and left it dun and cold after the last rays faded.
Ghulia pushed a cylindrical object into his hands, the size of a cutlery canister. “Watch what I do with mine because I’m only doing it once.”
Whatever. But he watched for another possibility of gaining the upper hand.
She held her cylinder by its top circular edge with one hand. Pulled a string tail at the bottom and rose to her feet at the same time as shaking out the cylinder’s folds. Unfurling the thing, whatever it was. Standing now, she took the corner and flapped the fabric over her head.
He saw his opening. “Hey presto! A batman cloak.”
She pressed her lips together.
Gloating over her irritation he missed her next actions. Suddenly she was a cocoon, kneeling geisha-style then subsiding down on the ground. Not waiting for him to digest the previous steps, she pulled up a sort of hood from the wrinkles around her shoulders.
“Your turn,” she said. “Unless you want to sleep cold.”
The light was gone by his tenth try. Figuring she couldn’t see what he did, her being so honorable about her torch, he flapped the sheet out onto the ground, stretched himself over half of it, and pulled the rest over himself.
She made no comment so he probably got away with it.
She said, “What we just witnessed was a sunset. The sun sets in the west. In the morning, the sun comes up in the east behind this, the ridge which contains the habitats.”
“The sun comes up in Everard, you mean.”
“Everard, Wingham, Neilson and Simmonds were Gamester’s original engineers. Using their names instead of the traditional names for the directions was part of Gamester’s connivance to keep reality from us. And indeed, most people never see a real sunset, or experience sleeping under the stars.”
Time to change the subject. “What were the dots out there?” he said.
“Tussocks of a spiny desert grass. Spinifex.”
“How is coming out here going to help me get up beside Srese?” Sard said.
“If you find that you don’t want to leave your comfort zone, then you’ll have to take what’s coming without my support.”
He couldn’t read her expression in the dark. “What do you mean, what’s coming?”
He heard her pace her breathing. “Rider is a Yon Kerr clone,” she said.
“Like Ferd,” Sard said, bitter because Ferd would be teaching Srese from here on in. “Though it’s me that’s the genius.”
“Rider has more in common with Ferd’s twin. They both were remaindered. As now you are too. Most remaindered avatars are moldecked soon after their competition is judged. Ferd’s twin sister left the habitat with a herder woman. Both she and Rider escaped.”
Sard ignored the thing about being moldecked. Had to be her trying to scare him into behaving. “But Rider came back? Why?”
“To help a group of us train for survival. While he was out in the world, he learned of all the disasters that might kill an enclosed community such as ours. Rider’s twin taught Ferd and then was moldecked in the usual way. Like Ferd must teach Srese.”
“And be moldecked straight after?”
“Yes. This trip was designed to be the first step toward your escape. Now shut up and let me get some sleep.”
He turned his back. Spent a bit of time re arranging his sheet. Why sleep on the bare ground when it was so easy to bring a couple of self-inflating mattresses? That’s what they did camping in the Pit.
A bright light torched into his face. He couldn’t even open his eyes until he turned to the ground. Breathing up sand. He wasn’t in bed? Was that the sun bearing down on him? Blinking groggily, he searched for Ghulia from ground level. Nowhere. Another of her tricks. He’d kicked out of his sheet during the night and he was toasted. He climbed to his feet. Every part of him twanged.
No Ghulia. The only things remaining were his sheet and the silk-paper map weighed down with a lump of stone-kreet. He unfolded the map with trembling sweating hands.
On the back spiked her handwriting, “Change is Life. Life is Change.” What she always said. “You need to learn things faster than I can teach you. Counting this new day as Day One, I am looking forward to your company at early breakfast on Day Two. You can do it, son. Remember that I love you to pieces. G.”