8: Learning the Life Suit
Greg came every day, after his afternoon shift in the kitchen. He set their food for the next twenty-four hours on the shelf by the entry doors and then joined Rider and Sard at their work. Free fighting was one of Greg’s specialities.
“Last warning,” Greg said. “And from today it will be no holds barred. Your suit is getting good enough at protecting you.”
“Whenever I tell it, it tells me we are continuous,” Sard said. Of course by the time Sard told the joke, Greg had him on the floor in a head hold. “What? You’re telling me I should chat less?”
“Might help.” Greg fetched his life suit from the bag of stuff he had hanging in Rider’s foyer. He sloughed off his shirt and dropped his pants. Pulled his life suit on over just his sweat. “Don’t make a face. My suit loves my sweat like yours loves your sweat and everything else about you. Nature of a good life suit. What we want now is our skin colours wherever we’re not wearing clothes.” He didn’t put his clothes back on.
“Ha,” Sard said. “I should take off my shorts?”
“You’re uncomfortable about your underwear?”
“More like uncomfortable about my lack of underwear.”
“Underwear gets in the way of a suit’s processing. You’ll get used to it.”
Sard dropped his shorts and kicked them towards his mattress roll. Give me skin colour, he thought walking over there and putting his shorts away properly. He watched the back of his hand. Still the spangling.
“Ask it your skin colour on its outside,” Greg said.
My skin colour on your outside.
< Your exterior surface colour, ivory, on my exterior surface, ivory >
“Today we’ll explore the near environs,” Greg said. “We exit through Rider’s camp. In the passage beyond we need to be super silent, due to it running below a minion tunnel. It’s a section of the habitat where the original engineers were told to raise the level when the boss came to check their progress.”
“Their boss, Gammy?” Sard asked.
Greg grinned. “In the flesh, one presumes.”
In the rounded-out mouth of the passage was Rider’s gear. Couple of patched silk bags hung from hooks along the walls. Rider’s sack of scraps for sleeping on lay folded.
Sard followed Greg down a narrow stair cut in the stone that descended down down down.
Greg’s suit lit the way. Sard didn’t know how to ask his suit. Keep it for practice another time. The passage leveled out and bent to the left as if they were under Second Circle.
Sard strode where Greg strode, a pace behind him, and like Greg fingertip-touched the walls either side every couple of paces. He felt as if he skied on air, he touched the ground so lightly.
As the passage narrowed Greg’s suit glowed brighter. He stopped and pointed at his feet.
Huh? No, he pointed at the floor. “A trench in the stone, cut by water. A runnel.” Sard nodded.
Next, Greg pointed at a bit of wall. Carved as before, but with long narrow half-cylindrical channels as if the rock-carving machine had abandoned it and this section was done by hand.
They moved several more paces to the end, as far as Sard could see, of the passage. The walls looked water-worn and were wider apart. A fist-sized drain-hole that Greg demo’d with his closed fist, took the water away. Where did the water come from in the first place? The ceiling?
Sard looked up. Natural rock hung down with sheets and stone ribbons. A long way up was a hole to the outside, daylight glowing through. When rain fell this couldn’t be a good road to travel.
“One hand here,” Greg said, his hand on that spot. Sard grasped the cold steel hasp set waist-high in an angle in the runnel wall, his hand next to Greg’s. “The other here, at shoulder-height.” Greg pulled himself up one-handed, planting his feet on the hasp Sard held onto. The reason no doubt for all the push-ups every day, Sard thought, watching Greg out of sight.
Out of sight? That can’t be right. Enough light came through the hole and it wasn’t so high that he shouldn’t still be seeing Greg. Sard pulled himself up onto the ladder. Climbed to the place where he first noticed Greg’s suit fading. Stopped. I need a new look, he said to the suit, your exterior colour like this stone.
< My exterior colour. Stone. New >
Sard’s arm in his suit’s sleeve reaching for the next rung showed him his colour, newly cut sandstone. Another thing to work on in his spare time. What spare time? He lifted himself up to the edge of the hole. Push-ups again. Into some of that same sunshine he’d been in with Ghulia, though it wasn’t nearly so hot. Even though the ball of fire was almost overhead.
< You give I warmth. I give you coolth >
Oh yeah, the suit took care of the heat exchange. Rock walls made the place into a roofless passage. Greg was nowhere. Sard stood up and stretched while he waited.
“What you need here,” Greg’s voice said from right beside to him, “is alive-to-background. Your suit.”
Programming was what he was doing. Better get used to it, Sard-man. I need your exterior alive-to-background, Sard thought at the suit.
< Parameters are incorrect. Lower background is near. Upper background is too far >
“It’s telling me the upper background is too far.”
“Because you’re standing up with only the sky behind your head.”
Sard dropped to his knees. Damned suit. His exterior colour melded with the rock surfaces around him.
< You + I are continuous with the background >
“You made it,” Greg said quietly, still invisible. “I’ll show you a couple of things while you work out how I knew your exact position.” He joggled Sard’s elbow.
< Touch of accompanying insert organism + survival entity amalgam >
Next, Greg’s breath came by Sard’s ear.
< Breath of accompanying insert organism + survival entity. Amalgam. Such as you + I are not >
“My suit is telling me you and your suit are an amalgam,” Sard said, inviting Greg to laugh about Sard’s suit’s pretentious phrasing.
“But not it and you?”
“Not yet, it says. Should I apologise for joking?”
“Something for you to study on, in your spare time,” Greg said.
“The first definitely and also the second?”
“You have to ask when I make a joke?” Greg said. “We’re in a ditch in the rock between two domes.” He gave Sard no time to think up the next move in the wordplay. “Just over the wall to your right, to the east, is the Pit’s domed roof. Opposite, the dome of Crystal Cave. To the northwest and northeast are another two habitats, with another two domes. Youk is often about on these paths. As are minions on maintenance duty. A dangerous place for you to be, you’ll understand.”
Sard wanted to contradict. They were invisible. How would they be seen? He recalled the suit’s problem with the sky. He checked where the sun was. “You’ve got a shadow. I’ve got a shadow. How you knew where I was.”
“Now work out the safest place to descend from the ridge onto the desert,” Greg said.
“The steel hatch to the outside at Youk’s hide-out, is welded shut. There, I reckon.”
“Tell me the way north.”
Sard pointed. “Lead you?”
“More dangers around the corner.”
“Right.” Sard flattened himself against the wall of the runnel for Greg to pass him.
Greg stopped with a hand still on Sard’s shoulder. “There’s a sharp corner with a chasm at our feet. After a storm it’s full of water. Cold enough that even your suit will die before you can be saved. Watch for my feet.”
Greg’s lower legs and feet appeared. Black, as if they were laced in a circus performer’s boots. Greg joking? Greg’s suit joking?
“Follow my feet along this ledge.”
Greg was around the corner before Sard got going. He faced outward and slid his feet sideways. His hands helped him to cling to the rocks behind him. The opposite walls came closer and a new runnel presented itself. This one wider. They passed a hump of stonework that covered what he thought must be the dome. “Safe to talk?”
“Next time ask me through the suits,” Greg said. “Like this.” He gripped Sard’s arm.
< Accompanying amalgam desires the you + I continuity to initiate the vocal exchange >
Greg dropped his hand.
If Sard hadn’t been wearing the suit, he would’ve sweated trying to work that out. Hesitantly he grasped Greg’s forearm. Ask the accompanying amalgam if it is safe to speak?
“You could teach it my name,” Greg said. “It’s shorter. In your spare time. Yes, it’s safe to talk for a minute.”
“All I wanted to ask was if we were above Simmonds in this unused habitat?”
“Yes. Always be alive-to-background.” Greg tapped the rock roofing lightly, “This is where Youk was born. He acts like he owns it. He’s often out here tweaking his power supply.” Greg directed Sard’s own arm to point into the direction of a solar installation, which Sard shamefully hadn’t noticed yet.
At the edge of a slope of large stones, Greg stopped Sard with an arm across his midriff. “Check the landscape often for the Clay Faces. You should do whatever it takes to stay out of their clutches. They’re usually on their camels. Cloaked and masked. They use whips and chains and sell whoever they catch into slavery.”
“Worse than the slavery Jin wrote about?”
Greg laughed. “You’ve been into Youk’s files? Good for you.” He sobered. “Our slavery is a holiday in comparison.”
Sard swept his gaze from the north to the west and as far to the south as the ridge allowed him. “Can’t see any?”
“What did you look for?”
“Movement on the plain.”
“Do it again, checking the horizon for wriggling. That’s about five thousand paces distance. As far as we can see from here.”
“How do you know?”
“Rider checked it when he was what you are. His project.”
Good thing they were invisible, because Sard-man must have been visibly stunned. What he felt like, anyway. Greg’s understanding of what Rider’s project was being so different from what Rider said to Sard about Rider’s project.
Could there be public projects, as in the public who were in the secret company, and secret secret projects? It’d be another interesting thing to discover in his supposed spare time. “What’s mine? My project?”
“I’ll tell you after I teach you the desert.”
They clambered down the slope and stepped onto the desert floor. Sard saw his feet re-appear pointillist-style. Maybe his suit wasn’t coping with the change in colour. Please fix our feet.
< The you + I continuity foot-soles register a sand-over-clay walking surface >
Red sand, Sard told it. The suit footlets faded.
“But which won’t be today,” Greg said. “Lead me the way back and tell me, by way of our suits, the reasons for everything.”