They were out there again, Sard following where Greg led. The burnt-orange ground was covered with sharp burnt-orange stones. Not pebbles because of never being washed by water. Greg wove a path among the tussocks of gold spinifex.
Sard’s life-suit proved extremely able, because he wasn’t spiked once. Thinking that, he tripped. Damn. Full length into a dip in the land filled with waist-high shrubbery. “You could’ve said.”
“You could’ve looked where we were going,” Greg said.
“I’m looking now, with my eyes just about at ground-level. I was to follow you, you said,” Sard said while he registered the dip’s opportunities. The stony sandy ground was covered with narrow tracks, as of small animals.
Or is it that my life suit is on the job? < You + I are continuous > “You being alive-to-background doesn’t somehow allow me to see you,” Sard said.
“Skin,” Greg said.
An instruction to Greg’s suit apparently because Greg abruptly became visible.
“Good trick, that instant thing,” Sard said. He grasped Greg’s forearm and told him again through both their suits.
“You’re getting it,” Greg said. He appeared mollified.
The Greg + survival entity amalgam’s skin colour on your exterior surface, Sard thought at his suit while he still gripped Greg. Sard’s suit turned red-brown, albeit slowly.
Greg shook off Sard’s hand. “Very funny.”
“Not meant to be. It’s neat. Say I get among the famous delta-born, shouldn’t I be grey?”
Greg looked him up and down. Like Greg measured him, it felt like. Sard escaped Greg’s piercing stare by checking out the vegetation. “This stuff,” he swished the low shrubs. “Is trying to be green. Could bother will be some wildlife around?”
Greg was not distracted. “Tell me Rider didn’t give you a mission that I’m not to know about?”
“He told me some of his adventures to warm me to the idea of my away-time,” Sard said.
Greg sniffed disbelief. “This is where you learn how to get water from a dry landscape. In your pack you should have a large plastic bag.”
Sard rooted through his still largely flat survival pack. “Ah ha. The bag, in a side pocket!” He snapped open the bag.
“It’s flimsy,” Greg said. “Hope you didn’t ruin it.”
This time Sard hear the steel in Greg’s voice. And again, Greg could have warned Sard. But he didn’t and what did he mean by that? That he hates me? He flinched when Greg touched his forearm.
< The Greg + survival entity amalgam’s instructions are to find a round stone to put into the bag to weigh down one corner. >
Oh. I absolutely expected Greg to hit me. Sard searched the ground. “I’m to find a round stone. Here it is.” Sard dug the pebble from the soil. “Interesting how there’s pebbles in the ground and sharp stones on the ground.” He rolled the pebble down the inside incline of the empty bag. “I guess a pebble won’t cut the bag.”
Greg squeezed his arm.
< The Greg + survival entity amalgam’s instructions are to drape this container over a couple of green branches. I cannot perceive green branches. >
Greg nodded at a bush that had branches with plenty of leaves arching down.
The slower-than-a-snail-pace of proceedings was what killed it for Sard. How could he liven things up? You do it, he thought at his suit.
< I am motivating your arm and hand muscles. Please help me to see the target entity by touching the target entity. > Still squatting, Sard shuffled closer and let the branches brush against his amalgam.
His arms and hands, moving seemingly without his input, draped the bag over the branch, leafy twigs inside it. How was that not a good trick?
“Now tie off the neck,” Greg said.
Do as the accompanying amalgam says, Sard thought.
< The Greg + survival entity amalgam has not spoken. >
Sard glanced at Greg. “You’re laughing at me.”
“You’re not wrong. Hope you’ll recall all those moves the day when you are out here and maybe have lost your suit.”
“I thought the idea was never to be out of my suit?” Sard said.
“Tie the knot without the help of your suit.”
Says you. Help me tie a knot in the bag, Sard said at his suit.
His hands pulled the top of the bag flat, the edges against each other with the branches between. His hands twirled the bag’s corners a couple of times and tied the resulting ends into a neat reef knot.
His main problem was his face wanting to twitch and grimace at the feeling of his own muscles working without his input. Thank you. He laughed inwardly. Knots were so not his strong point.
< You + I are continuous. >
“There’s a cord in the pack,” Greg said. “Watch me tying a slip noose.”
Sard crouched beside Greg. He thought of touching him surreptitiously. Probably wouldn’t work. Greg’s suit had to be as good as his own. He aped Greg’s moves empty-handed.
“Your turn,” Greg said.
The you + I continuity had the moves so good that their noose looked even better than Greg’s.
“Watch where I’m setting my snare,” Greg said, still instructing. “It’s probably a rat’s tunnel. Put yours across the back entry.”
Easy peasy. Sard rose and stretched. “Now what?”
“Now we walk. Out to the horizon.”
“You’ve got time for all this?” Sard said, making conversation. The silence of the landscape unnerved him, even while he was inside his suit.
“Relda is understudying me,” Greg said.
“I really really love hearing how life is continuing without a hiccup,” Sard said.
— — — —
They walked west until the home ridge was a brown line on the horizon, turned and started back.
“See any kite-hawks?” Greg said.
Sard checked the whole bright bronze sky. “No.”
“See any dust puffing horizontally?”
“What if it’s vertical?” Sard said.
“A dust devil, baby-dust storm. Horizontal is dust kicked up by camels.”
“Don’t see any, horizontal or vertical.” Sard yearned for a bit of real stimulation. “Don’t we need to worry about Youk seeing us?”
“You don’t want to hear about home, you just said.”
“I was letting my green-eyed envy off its leash.”
“Envying me?” Greg said, genuinely surprised. “For what?”
Sard scoffed. “You get to stay at home and have adventures outside. You train with Rider with no questions asked. You can take your pick of girls. You’ve got everything.”
“The easy explanation is that I’ve got four or five years on you and so have had more time to do it all.”
Greg too. “You and Youk are so similar. In your unhappiness, anyway. He’s busy and in the thick of it. Taking Srese to and fro while I’m the one who loves her. What do you think I’d rather be doing while he’s supposedly guarding her from her fans? The crowds are getting too excited. And while she’s with Ferd in the CAVEs, Youk is running messages. But complaining. He’s bored. It’s like you both want it all without the work.”
Now Sard seriously wanted to disrupt Greg’s composure. “So is it happening, the avatar and merman romance? How does that fit in with your plans?”
Greg frowned. He hesitated a long time. “There’ve been a few problems.”
“I guess even you don’t get it all your own way,” Sard said.
Greg struck Sard a glancing smack over the head. Friendly but not. “The entertainment part of the whole deal, which is to keep the population-at-large happy and engaged, is endangered because the mermen stink of rotten meat. Ferd is reluctant to have the twain meet.”
Sard laughed. “How much of a problem could that be?”
“Srese had to have her bots augmented with a stink-cutting agent.”
“They didn’t think of just switching off her sense of smell for a while? What is the whole deal?”
Greg punched Sard on the arm as he passed. Hard. Not friendly.
< Touch of accompanying insert organism + survival entity discontinuous. Parameters of insert organism ≠ survival entity >
Sard ran to catch up, enjoying Greg’s discomfort very much. “Even my suit knows you’re upset. Something I said?” It wasn’t only that he envied Greg because Greg could stay when Sard had to leave. He discovered that he resented the fact that everything Greg did, he did well. Bloody superman. And he wasn’t even an avatar?
They arrived back at the dip, with Sard not following but forging his own path through the spinifex. The sag of the bag around the branch of the bush showed the presence of water and the snare had sprung.
Sard was hardly hungry and seeing the dead rat, with ants already at it, turned him off completely.
“I hope you remember how your suit set up the snare?” Greg said. “And how your suit arranged the bag around the vegetation?” Greg put his arm over Sard’s shoulders and leaned heavily. “I know you were missing from the equation. You’ve worked out how to let your suit learn things for you.”
“I always delegate when it isn’t rocket science,” Sard said. “Why should I bother to engage when I have the suit to do that for me?”
“Fine,” Greg said. “You can test that out some more tonight. And if need be, you can always fall back on the sustenance we left back there.”
“We’re staying out another night?” Sard said.
“You’re staying out another night. See if you can survive a bit of real stimulation.”
“Such as what? I doubt there’s any real excitement anywhere out here.”
Greg laughed. “I’ll see that you eat those words. For now you can start with mapping Gammy’s eye-cams which will be indicated—if you can work out where to look—when he sends out his ghosts to find the aberrations in his digital landscape. You may not have any bots but you’re fully encased in a digital appliance. That can be your gift to the community that nurtured you.”
“Ghosts?” Sard said. He disbelieved instantly.
“Ghulia didn’t tell you about them?” Greg said. “Wearing the suits we broadcast a lot of digital signal. The whole home ridge bristles with cameras and sensors. When we are within reach of them, we are part of Gammy’s digital landscape. He sends out ghosts, as I said, to find aberrations.”
“Minions, you mean?”
Greg laughed again. “Got you worried finally, have I? Ghosts are more like lightning. They are electrical signals sent out to disrupt a target. Interestingly, we can see their shape only if we’re in a suit. If they touch you, the suit’s energy is instantly bled off.”
“Is this one of your practical jokes?” Sard said. “All the time we’ve been out here there haven’t been any ghosts chasing us?”
“Which would’ve been a good point if I hadn’t been wearing an old suit recognised by Gammy as a maintenance outfit.”
“What do you mean by aberration?” Sard said.
“When you’re not part of the game. When you’re not in the maintenance squad. When you’re a remaindered avatar, hanging around. If you do get bled off and you’re stuck in your suit, you’ll boil when the sun comes up and freeze when it goes down. Say you don’t have a knife at hand?”
Sard mustered his attitude. “Cool. See you tomorrow.”
— — — —
When he got to the place where he decided to take his stand, he was stupidly nervous. Silver moonlight made the desert a pewter platter.
< I will smoothe agitation to enable superior continuity. > The suit increased its warmth.
Sard gambolled self-consciously within the triangular pie-slice-of-sight where he guessed Gammy could see, courtesy of a couple of cams he’d located on the face of the ridge. He tried to imagine how a digital aberration would present itself. A human outline in a field of zeros? A stuttering in a field of silence? How long would he have to keep it up?
Not long at all. At the periphery of his arena moonlight intercepted various new shapes seemingly made of ground-mist and moon-cloud. How many ghosts had Gamester sent?Three. Gammy was trying to triangulate the co-ordinates? Or—Sard thought in what he imagined would be Gammy’s turn of phrase—Gammy tried to fix the aberration’s position accurately in the overlap of his ghosts’ fields of vision.
Sard moved back to the desert oak he’d marked as his base. The ghosts drifted nearer, two staying parallel and the third equidistantly behind. Meaning Sard could only ever see two, however he turned. Fear sweat prickled over him.
< Your wastes are my fuel >
Take heart, Sard thought. Remembering what happened in the habitat in an event of crowd belligerence. The minions always removed the ringleader first. This they did with unintelligent precision—by wading through the crowd—careless of life and limb. Though there were always a lot of candidates for molecular destruction, a smart thinker could usually outwit Gammy’s half-minds and live to see another day. Meaning by that, that the outcome here is also not a given.
Sard stopped at the tree. The life suit matched colours with the bark without being asked.
< Waiting = state of non-change. Not a good strategy in this case >
Sard started to slowly circle the tree trunk, always keeping his back to it to keep watch on all three entities. They floated with him, staying level. The ghost furthest from the caves began to shimmer. Could it be that Gamester tired from the unaccustomed effort of keeping his ‘arm’ outstretched?
Sard stepped side to side, not-waiting, not not-changing but without moving.
The shimmer increased. Finally the other ghosts stepped back into the direction of the ridge. The outer figure collapsed. Ha, one down. His patience had paid off. He almost relaxed, exultantly, like he’d won.
Simultaneously the remaining ghosts leapt into a run towards their fallen comrade on their original converging paths. Picking up their mate and hustling him between them, they ran straight down the middle of the triangle, their shortest route! They skimmed by Sard, so close that the life suit registered their disruptive electricity by pulsing red lightning into its lenses over his eyes.
< Our electrical field ≠ safe >
Sard’s thinking went like lightning as well. Abandoning the outer ghost had allowed Gamester to re assign its energy to the other two, giving them the power to run to the apex point of Gamester’s field of influence and, using the shortest route back, return to Gammy’s energy zone before he lost control of them again.
The result being that Sard now knew the particular extremities of Gamester’s reach here, and by comparison the extremities of reach elsewhere. Also, that the life suit was extremely smart? Thank you.
< We = continuous >
Now what should he do—lay down and sleep? What if a Clay Face comes riding along just then? Too bad nobody ever did a project to find out more about them. Knowing their routes and the times of the year they traveled them would be good.
Only thing to do is to practice for my so-called departure. He walked toward the setting moon and stopped when he reached the dip. He drank the respired water and crawled under the bushes. Slept.