The Last Straw
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.
The Dream, or Was It?
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.
Mark 1 versus Mark II
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.
Testing Himself, Testing His Wing
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.
Into the Chasms
Sard was half an hour more in the life-suit’s python squeeze—he watched a shadow lengthen—before it released him from its squeeze. He rolled to his feet, slung the pack on his back, and set off into the east. He sneered about the irony of it. Like, how I can get away from an entity I need to wear to survive? The sunset behind him gave him a long bulky shadow, a shadowed path to walk along. Just walking along in my own shadow. Not a squeak out of the damned life-suit.
Walk. Walk. His attention had to be on his feet, no more tripping. Put them out front one by one. Left. Right. Left. He walked until it was too dark to see. No moon tonight? No answer. He stopped, dropped to the ground and lay his head on the flap of his pack. Tired beyond.
Woke once to a great moon staring down, lighting up the scene with its cold silvery light. Moon. Good to know. He turned on his side. Closed his eyes.
He missed the sun’s rise though the sky was still the blue that was kind to his eyes. He frowned. Why did he even need to notice that when he wore the life-suit? Not a squeak out of it all night and he was hungry. What’s going on? Forget the suit, just wear it. Make tracks while the cool lasts, Sard-man. The swamp beckons.
Today, resting during the heat while waiting for plants to bleed out water would be his jig. Tomorrow he’d hit the swamp and there’d be fresh water. It’s a plan. He dug into the pack for the snacks bag. A couple of Greg’s best and half the water.
Walking, he kept the sun to his right. A bulky shadow slogged through the loose sand to his left. He intended looping out far enough that he wouldn’t meet any camels. Then, at half dark, he’d jog for the swamp. Walk. Walk. The land unending. The sky was starting to look too big, too bright. The sun? Well, he didn’t even glance over that way. His shadow was crisper in its outlines. Maybe look for a place to lay up?
Beginnings of what looks like a gully here. Wrong direction in that it’s going northeast but is becoming narrower and deeper and shutting out more glare. Go with it. A narrower sky meant less sun, less light, and not the endless distances to look at. Might even help his life-suit keep him cool. If it’s still available for that.
The silence oppressive. Down in the gully that was more noticeable. There’s no pleasing you, Sard-man, he thought in his mother’s voice. Hmph. Where was she right now? Not back home, he guessed.
“You mean you escaped because I escaped?” he said to break up the silence. “Your work on me was done and all you had to look forward to was the moldeckery? If that’s how things are run, I wish you good health, wealth and wisdom.” Little echoes of his voice sounded like people in the background, just around the corner of an outcropping of rock. Down deeper into the canyon the resonances stayed closer, as if a small crowd of friends surrounded him. Who would he have? “What friends? I walk friendless.” A lower voice resembled the burble of water or the hum of aircon.
Skinks that lay sunning themselves on ledges scuttled away as he approached. But when he stopped for a spell, they’d poke their heads from among ferns and mosses in the crevices where they hid. “That’s right, nothing to fear from me.” His mood lifted. What if he was approaching his destination? He’d been walking long enough. The chasm seemed to swing from side to side and could easily have led him northwest. He imagined it widening into the kind of lush swampy valley he’d travelled in dozens of stories.
The stone walls surrounding him dulled. The gold light-and-shadow play on the chasm floor faded. He tripped over nothing. Where was he? The air overhead grew moist as a thick cloud replaced the strip of blue sky above. Need to find shelter. He glanced along the base of the cliffs. Good hole there. Nice sandy floor.
He hadn’t even bent to crawl into it when the rain began. Long rods of hard, wet, fast-falling water. He huddled against the base of the cliff to wait out the shower.
Water trickled down the cliff. In a minute he was standing under a spate. < Climb. > What’s that? Someone finally awake? Luckily he’d strapped his pack securely this morning. < Climb, oh stupid youth. >
Caught you out at last. Different voice, intonation and different words. There’s two of you, right? But he did start to climb. I’m not hurrying, I don’t want to slip. So he was only halfway up when he heard the roar. Of water. He knew it instantly. Acting on instinct alone, he grabbed any ledge and handhold, shot up the rest of the cliff dragging the so-and-so pack bouncing behind him.
He saved himself. Duh, Sard-man. Not like you didn’t know. Many old-time games featured a rush of water through a narrow chasm originating in a far off rainstorm? At the top there was only rain, hard and fast. Visibility nil. He crawled through it until he reached a slabby height by feel alone, a little island above the swirling flood. < You are dry and moderately warm. > I’m not listening. You’re the wrong program.
While he sat there, the light went from grey afternoon, to dark metal dusk, to black dark night. He worked on tripping the life-suit’s new program. The old program now seemed preferable, it didn’t judge him.
When the moon rose, he shrugged into the pack’s harness and set off wading among the shadowed spinifex tussocks and clumps. Need a safer place. He tried to keep parallel to the misty black crack in the landscape that was the chasm in the far left of his field of vision.
After a time of walking—sloshing ankle-deep now through fast disappearing water—a second crack appeared on the right. Huh? He blinked. The etched meander didn’t disappear. He stopped, compared the two openings. Different, because there were two chasms, one on each side? Or the same chasm, because he hallucinated? He stared eyes wide open. Frowned with eyes peering. No difference. Too hard to see. A good time to lie down and sleep, maybe. Not interested in breaking my neck, falling down a chasm I can’t see properly. Moonlight making a mockery of shadows and distances.
— — — —
Sard stood on a stone slab elevated all of about half a metre above the plain with a hand above his eyes, the life-suit’s management apparently absent, studying the landscape. Never mind the missing guide, he could manage quite well will his Big Eye lenses. At a point near the horizon, two hand spans to the left of the place where the sun rose, the two chasms seemed to join. A mist or a light smoke rose from that spot.
He scrolled though his memories for stories and movies and virtual performances featuring similar effects. All he could come up with was that mist might be the spray of a waterfall. Or plain old water vapour, the land drying under the sun. Smoke could be due to a bush fire.
Or a camp-fire. That meant people. His mood rose. How he missed having other people around. Even meeting up with the traders would suit him. The chance to free Ahni a bonus. He hoped the people, if it was people, stayed long enough for him to catch up. When he stepped off the rock, he felt so superior—deciding all that himself, he didn’t need either of the life-suit’s entities—he could’ve been walking on air.
He arrived at the junction roundabout mid-morning. His suit, whichever of the two entities, refused to allow him to the edge with his pack still on his back. < Our centre of balance is awkwardly placed. >
“Peevish,” Sard said. “I know you now. You are not my favourite program.” But he dropped the pack away from the edge before he went to stand on the lip between the two chasms.
Sheer cliffs on his right and left sides with a deep canyon continuing northwest if he finally had his directions worked out, making a Y formation. A river in full spate in the bottom with nowhere to walk alongside even if he wanted to risk his neck down there. Not the pleasant green valley he’d envisaged. The smoke or mist still far away was the biggest disappointment.
He slumped away from the view. He’d so anticipated people and the end of his solitary exile. The land made him an ant lost from its nest and smaller with every step he took. The sky was worse. Always far away. Always blue and cheerful or with cloud and impersonal storm. Sun moon and stars. Unreachable.
When the Wind Changed
A loud braying roar like a clarion from hell woke Sard out of deep sleep. The light, the angle of the sun was wrong. How long had he slept? And what was that terrible terrible racket? The kite’s fabric tenting them, rippled with the vibrations of the roaring!
He rolled into a protective crouch over Ahni—oh fuck, she was still trussed, yesterday was not a nightmare! Great animal legs trampled among the bushes he saw through a gap between the ground and the flapping tent.
You delivered us into a game? he thought at the life-suit. He jerked loose the life-suit’s zip and shoved the hood up and out of his way. Couldn’t trust any damn thing the life-suit told him. Bet Youk is doing this in his hide-out. Why pick on me? I didn’t cast him out.
The animal brayed and slobbered its stinking breath over him where a corner of the wing flapped loose. Sard fell back. It’s real? The animal is a real animal? He scrabbled to his feet, semi-crouched under the wing, froze. Couldn’t think.
The Ahni’s voice came. “Srese-brother! It’s-a-camel-animal!”
Will the great thing attack the kite? Trample us? Why is Ahni still talking to me? Words from long ago history lessons sprang into his mind. One-humped, feral over a large area of the continent. He dragged Ahni from where he thought the animal might step next.
“Sard! The-tent. Bird-to-fly-away.” Ahni stared wildly past Sard at the flapping kite.
Her eyes were fever bright, he noted before realising what a flapping billowing tent meant. The wind had got up finally? He ditched his other half-assed plans. This was his chance. They could escape for the best reason in the world, an attack by a wild animal?
He wriggled into the harness and made quick lark-headed loops to what bridles he could reach, two on each side would have to do. He concertina’d the wing loosely behind him.
The slobbering roar overarched them. “Enough!” Sard punched at the infernal gape—his knuckle hit a chain hanging from the camel’s lower jaw! A domestic animal?
A gust of wind took the wing from Sard’s quick containment and billowed it up over his back. The camel skittered back with mad eyes and a different note to its bawling. “Yeah, just back off!” But coming fast, he now saw, was another. A braver animal, he wasted time thinking. Two more roars sounded in the distance. “Ahni! Come on! We’ve got time!”
The canopy filled and lifted Sard onto his toes. The wing was about to take off. How could Ahni get up, trussed as she was? He bent. “Arms around my neck, hurry! We can make it!”
“Sard, leave me. Leave me,” she cried. She wriggled up the hollow’s wall, scrambled to her knees and then her feet. She started to run.
How can she run? The wind swept him into her. To save her being bowled over, he grasped her around the body with his hands and knees. “Quick, turn around! Loop your arms over my head!”
The wind walloped under the wing and they were dragged face first over the saltbush. “Hang on!” Sard kicked hard at the ground. The next gust will get us up.
A pair of fists came out of nowhere and squeezed his arms. Sard’s hold around Ahni weakened. He shouted. “Ahni! Grab the lines!” She screamed a helpless bird cry as she slipped from his arms. His strength was sapped, hers fever-burned.
Somewhere below him and out of sight she cried joyfully. “Kes! Kestrel!”
Kestrel? Who’s that? Sard swung confused as the wind gusted and he rose high and free. Must have misheard. “Ahni, I’ll be back as soon as I can! I’ll find you!” he yelled. What is there for me otherwise?
— — — —
Brassy sky, red gravel, and a dozen tussocks of spinifex grass kaleidoscoped as he bounced over the plain, the wind that gusty. He pushed at the ground when it came at him with now a foot, now a hand, all the time willing that the wing take him properly into the air.
Then the wind dropped altogether. The wing wilted and Sard with it. When he’d fought from among its folds, he was alone with only the ridge of home in the distance, and a singing silence. He’d fallen between two clumps of spinifex, his only luck so far. A raptor hovered overhead.
His victorious escape with Ahni in his arms had ended with her caught by a clay face—though he didn’t recall that the man actually wore a clay mask—and Sard scudding witlessly along the ground. I refuse. My adventure is not finished. He bundled the wing furiously into his pack. He would trail the clay faces to a good ambush point so he’d be able to explode from behind a rock, startle the camel carrying his beloved into skittering so that she could fall into his arms. Shouldn’t be too hard. He’d practiced everyone of these moves in the virtual performances back home.
Sard pulled the life-suit’s hood back over his face as he’d need the suit to spare him the brunt of the sun. Handy too that it would salvage his sweat and so be able to save him from dehydration. Thumbs hooked behind the straps to steady the pack, he took off through the spinifex, angling into the direction where Ahni said the swamp lay. A contested place where both the clay faces and Ahni’s people rested, it made sense as the place to make for. A raptor, same or different he didn’t care, kept station overhead.
The problem was that he had to choose directions, left or right, around every tussock in his way. Hours went by with the life-suit helping him only with that, it telling him the time passing, with him like that bug crawling over a tabletop. The weight of the pack was a joy-killer, though there was nothing in it that he didn’t need, he decided a couple of times.
When he finally stopped for a break, it was due to his legs. Like they were on fire? I have got to sit down have a break have a bite to eat. He punctuated each thought with an action. Shucked off his pack. Sat down. Explored the pack for something good to eat. Drank a long draught from the water bag. Ate some of Greg’s health bars. Mm-mm, can that man cook.
He lay back against his pack, shut his eyes. He might even have slept if the life-suit hadn’t decided otherwise and let him swelter. Damn. What is it with you?
< A dangerous place to stop, in sight of the home ridge. >
I’m nowhere near home! Been walking for hours!
< Nevertheless. >
He was quarrelling with a bit of Youk’s programming? That’d be right. Just like quarrelling with Youk himself. But, never the fucking less I should have a look. See if I can see any familiar landmarks. See how good my map reading is. All that.
He grinned, cheered by his take on his troubles with the damn suit. He hauled himself to his feet and walked to a little rise. Might as well take in the scene from up here. Ha ha ha. Good one, Sard. A rise all of thirty centimetres above the plain?
He looked all about. Practiced the old-time compass points by staring into the north. Nothing he recognised there apart from blue distances fronted by saltbush. Red dirt. East. Mmm, ditto. South? Give me something to recognise. Okay, yeah, in the southeast is that low old mountain. But funny it’s no nearer than it was yesterday? Move along, Sard-man. In the south proper? Not even the a roll of dust brown up by a camel. There remains only the west.
In the west lay the dark shape of the home-ridge, near enough that he could see smoke rising from the moldeckery. A bad taste flooded his mouth. His gut griped and sent reflux. Why?
< I’ve taken over the functions of this suit and you need to ask? So stubborn—such a know it all—so much self-praise. A good dose of fear might wake you to the danger of hanging around too near ridge. >
As before, the life-suit python squeezed him to the ground. < Taking you from the horizon. >
Sard crawled to where he had left the pack. Is this all about Youk, how I bested him? His revenge?I’m supposed to think I’m the fool? That I wasted all my time and energy purposely?
Ahni was still strapped to the operating chair, mercifully still unconscious. Her skull gleamed whitely and her hair hung to one side, unnaturally long and dripping with slow blood.
Sard crooned while his hands dithered with indecision. “Ahni. Ahni. Ahni.” What to do. What not. Could he save her? He sprayed disinfectant and covered her wounds with lint. He bandaged her arm to her shoulder, and tied it to her body, all the time studying the horror of the thing done to her.
Ahni’s scalp hung inside out like it was an extension of the blood heavy hair. It would have to be sewn back. Sard cringed at the pain he’d deliver her. A year and a day of careful stitching. Would he have time before someone came to investigate? Need to take her somewhere hidden. Start, Sard-man. While she is still unconscious.
With his own head-skin clenching tight in sympathy, he swabbed the flap with disinfectant and rolled it back over Ahni’s skull bones. He tied the scalp in place with the stiffening hair. Then with bandages, leaving her nose and mouth free. More bandages to take with them, more of everything rolled in a lab coat and tied around his middle.
He lifted Ahni’s unresisting body over his shoulders, old-time fireman style, and staggered to the chocked-open doors. The arch cave was now empty. He hadn’t the time or interest to guess where Zoya, Ghulia and the merman might have gone. He slopped straight through their pool and ran with small steps along the beach.
< Energy also is lacking. >
Sard relaxed where the life-suit was concerned—like, we’re back to normal—he threw a thought at it. Take what you can. Cilliary action in the regions where he wore the simulated clothes told him they were disappearing. He felt his face reverting to the life-suit’s anonymous mask by the suit releasing its grip on the folds and grooves it had fashioned on his cheeks and around his mouth.
His strength gave out as he reached the lagoon. He caught Ahni by the shoulders as she slid from him when he fell against the bank. He pulled her across his legs to support at least her head above the water. Salt water any good for wounds? he asked the life-suit.
< Wounds may be sterilized by the application of saltwater. >
It was out of his hands however. Ahni sighed as she slid further into the pool and its cool silk bathed her.
— — — —
Sard woke. His first awareness was of the weight across his lap… he’d sagged and allowed Ahni’s head hang perilously near the water. As he stirred, she rolled from his arms onto her good hand and her knees in one move. She sat back in the water and one handed tried to pry the bandaging from her eyes.
“Hang on,” Sard said. “Let me help.” Activity everywhere all over him reminded him he wore the life-suit. “Contrast to background,” he said at it and was rewarded with a sapphire outline. “Face and eyes,” he said.
Ahni, when he’d helped her free her eyes, smiled tremulously. She looked everywhere but at his still impossible face. The sea. The lagoon. The sky. She paused at each, as if to think through something that needed to be done. She frowned at his face, then ignored it while signalling with glances into a space beside his head, and small gestures, for him to release her hurt arm.
Sard pulled the part of his hood covering his face away, then the whole thing up over his head. Cowled it in his neck.
< You + I are discontinuous. Your hands/I hands. Your head/I head >
Live with it, Sard flashed at the life-suit. The climb seemed not to frighten Ahni. Sard swarmed round her, cajoling and encouraging, choosing the easiest places for her feet and hands. He pulled her by her good arm, and pushed her when she needed more strength than she had. At the top they rested. Night came like velvet and after a while Sard fetched his pack.
She could not eat. Sard shook up all the soluble food he had in one of the water bags so that she might sip when she felt the need. Then he held her until she had gathered her strength. Walking, they kept the tracks of her people underfoot. They walked and rested alternately. All she had strength for was to sip the food, sleep and then blindly, with her good hand in his, follow those tracks.
Whenever Ahni seemed more coherent, Sard started to explain the kite, how it could take them east, to a safe place. But each time she rested only a short time and continued along the tracks. What’s the hurry he wanted to say. We can get ready and wait for a good wind. Be away.
But seeing her driven need to follow the tracks, Sard hadn’t the courage to stop her. He planned now that they’d fly to their new lives after they’d saved her people from the clay masked riders. He’d work out those details when he and Ahni caught up with them.
When daytime came, he rigged up a shelter using the alive-to-background cloth. In the afternoon he unwrapped Ahni’s wounds and squirted disinfectant into them. With the speechless glances and gestures again, she encouraged him to cut off her hair and to bury the blood-stiff bundle.
Sard scrubbed his hands with hot sand and brushed off every grain to prep himself to close part of Ahni’s wounds. He revised the moves Mab taught him by forcing him to push a needle through a piece of raw leather. With Mab he’d made four holes, two stitches. Ahni’s wound was ten times longer. Today, he decided, he’d close the part between her head and shoulder where skin edges rubbing against each other kept the incision from healing.
She bore his trembling work with a set face.
They slept again—he kept her good hand in his—until moonrise. In the night, she explained silently, she knew her way very well.
— — — —
Towards the second dawn the cliff edge angled west. Ahni halted indecisively.
“What’s up?” Sard said.
“Tower here,” she said. Her first words. She walked toward the new cliff and sat down well short of the edge. Stared into the sea.
Sard arranged the packs so that they’d both have a backrest. “Tower? In the water?” Where she was staring.
Slowly, as the sea retreated, there appeared an outcrop of rocks, half a wall, and foundations like a broken tooth at the foot of the left-hand cliffs. Ahni wept. Sard could not convince her to come with him to a camp among the bushes.
He forced himself to relax. Did it matter that they sat on? The morning wind pushed at their backs, no good for flying. Sea shadows and the sun wrestled for ascendancy until the molten ball surfaced. “Let’s get into some shelter,” he said. He tried for his most cajoling tone though he didn’t know anymore which of his voices had any effect.
“I-must-say-goodbye-to-our-tower-home,” Ahni said.
“I worry about your wounds, Ahni. We don’t have much water left. Need to be near to some bushes to collect more.”
“Soon, Sard-onyx-stone, Srese-brother.”
Sard was stunned. She knew who he was? She certainly knew the meaning of his name. Sounded like she and Srese have been talking. What does that mean for me? I do not like that she called me Srese-brother. Like she’d decided he’d be her brother, too.
“Our-tower-bones,” Ahni whispered. “Where-shall-we-live-when-the-swamp-is-not-ours-alone?”
A wonder anyone survived. All the cyclones in the tower’s lifetime had helped the work of the last. Caves, on the other hand, were strong and safe. When Sard now thought of their future together, he dreamed of a little cave, where they’d make a life for which he wouldn’t need a game master and Ahni wouldn’t need any of the amazons he’d seen in the group. How could he convince her of this wisdom? He almost thought his wisdom but that would be excessive pride, wouldn’t it?
Ahni shuffled back from the brink and teetered to her feet for the next push. Sard helped her walk with an arm around her, half lifting her in places. Need to get her mind away from the Srese-brother concept.
They angled east. The wind lay down and slept. Heat sapped their strength. The wide ploughed track became a hard single-file path wandering through the saltbush. After Sard was sure she wouldn’t fall if he released her, he walked before and behind, found short cuts across loops, and debated whether to steer them further into the desert. He doubted that that swamp existed. How could it persist in this heat? Ahni drank the last of their water. “We really do need to stop now,” Sard said.
He found a depression encircled with saltbushes over which he could drape the kite. With the inner fabric beating back the sun, they had a moderately cool tent. Ahni fell asleep as soon as she lay down.
Time he got himself some sustenance. Sard hauled the life-suit’s hood up and over his face. Sealed the neck. He’d need to be stronger than usual. He opened the water-bag and folded out the gussets. He rolled a stone into one corner and …
Huh? He almost dropped the water-bag. Damn life-suit. It’s the chatty program. Youk’s doing. He almost zipped open the life-suit’s hood at his throat there and then.
< No, don’t. You need whatever sustenance I can give you. >
Fine. He’d put up with it while Ahni slept. He re-assembled the water-bag and stone and tied it onto the bush he’d chosen for its swaggy foliage. Then answered the question. Yes.
< How is she after her trauma? >
Feverish and sad. Her tower-home is a ruin, all its people gone. She’s sleeping at the moment. Tonight she intends to start toward the swamp to see if anyone is there. How’s a damned life-suit going to process all that? How I will is more to the point.
< You don’t sound very keen. >
He snorted about him sounding like anything while he thought. Figure of speech, I’m sure. But maybe his thoughts about it all might be clearer once he’d explained them to a thing that supposedly could only understand a set of concrete understandings. Here’s hoping. He laid out his hopes in detail.
< Nice planning! Do exactly as I tell you and we will all have a lot of fun. >
Sard preened about the nice planing. He hadn’t lost his touch. But what’s with we-will-all-have-a-lot-of-fun?
< Figure of speech. Stay continuous. I can’t help you otherwise. Lie down behind her on your side and get as near as you can without touching. Do that first. >
Sard stepped over Ahni and lay down with slow careful moves. I wonder how Youk managed the superior processing power? He’s better at it than I thought?
< Ready? >
Ready. Weird that the life-suit can’t tell from the way I’m lying that I’m ready. On a spurt of silent laughter he thought, I’ll have to talk to Youk about you, finesse some of your sensory inputs.
< The Youk person was cast out of the community. He awaits the clay faces at the base of the ridge. >
What? Sard wanted to rise, get out of the scene. Youk was cast out? What the fuck?
< Careful! When you first touch your beloved it had better be with just your hand. I suggest you start with stroking. Whisper things that will put her at ease. >
Sard stroked Ahni, not because he obeyed but because it was the only way he could think of to get Ahni thinking positively about his plan. He really really did not want her thinking of him as a brother.
< That’s right. Delicately along her sore arm and more assertively over her hip and leg. >
Ahni stirred. “Wake up, sweet girl,” Sard said. “Will you have some water?” She turned her face to him and made a sucking sound with her lips, accepting his offer.
< Quick. Kiss her and caress her. >
Sard bent over Ahni and kissed her wherever he could reach. Her mouth just once and after she turned her head away, her cheek and then the sewn wound on her shoulder. She wept and struggled to get from under him.
< Tie her up! If she gets away you’ll never see her again! >
Tie her up? What is the damned suit thinking? Sard felt suddenly hot and slippery inside the suit. I’m sweating and the suit is not taking it up? What happened to we-are-continuous?
< Put up with it. I have no time. >
His hands—encased in the life-suit aka the life-suit running the show—searched blindly and found the cord for parcelling up the wing. What was he thinking to entrust his actions in his first real love affair to a damned life-suit?
When he looked up from his rant, Ahni lay trussed before him. Her eyes were scrunched shut. Her mouth a down-turned slit of resolve. His heart sank. She’ll never love me now. I had a chance with her for about three minutes? He almost wept.
< She’ll come good when she discovers who we really are. The show must go on. >
Yeah yeah. Bleak is what I’m feeling. I lost Ahni because I trusted the fucking entity encasing me? It used my hands. She won’t be able to walk, he thought at the life-suit.
< She won’t need to. We will wait in this hollow for the wind to change. Lie down. Sleep. >
He was laid down by way of the life-suit doing a python-squeeze on him. This is not how it is meant to behave. He intended to watch, but nothing in the whole world stirred nor was there a breath of wind and anyway the suit refused to let him rise.
The Bionic Implant
Sard woke with a start. The life-suit squeezed him the way he’d once imagined a boa constrictor might take its prey. He gasped. “I’m awake.”
< To interact with the assembled cast, all you need to do is follow my instructions once you enter the CAVE system. >
Ouch. I totally recognise the way I used to act. I bet Youk programmed that in for me to recognise. But good. The suit is allowing me to organise myself from here to wherever I decide to enter the CAVE. No question but that I will retrace the steps of the Seapeople. He bundled up the kite and bunched it into the back pack. He had no room or inclination right now to fold it up properly. Or enough time probably.
He sealed the life-suit’s hood over his face and covered his hands. He dragged his gear outside, and stashed it beside the beginning of the path south that Ahni’s people had taken. He briefly stood on the alive-to-background cloth to think its parameters at it, then draped it over his two packs. Still holding onto an edge, he finessed his instructions, mumbling, “Allow the deep-shadow holding pattern to swing with the varying input of the sun.”
< You + I + a-to-b cover = amalgam >
Sard gritted his teeth. One minute the life-suit acts like it has been reprogrammed, the next that the old programming pushes through. Is that what I’m supposed to think?
Thankfully, no answer. Barring the tracks by the Seapeople, the beach lay empty, once more a picture-perfect idyll lacking only palm trees. A tiny breeze ruffled the surface of the lagoon within the stony elbow of the ridge.
After climbing down, Sard sidled along the feet of the cliffs. The waves were quite far away with a large swath of wet sand between them and the narrow strip of dry sand. Low tide. The main risk were the sensors everywhere. Here’s hoping Youk isn’t at his standalone tracking me.
The main entrance arch had probably been opened specially for the Seapeople since all CAVE’s openings to the outside were temporary. Another smaller arch beside it had already been sealed again though the upper cover was still set on transparent. No one on duty at the console behind it so no one tracking Sard.
He allowed himself a tiny flicker of satisfaction at his management of the journey so far. In under the arch, the cold-air curtain spurted ineffectively. Things were in disarray if energy was being allowed to dissipate like that. This area of CAVE all but open to the weather and the ocean’s eternal audio-patterning. Civilisation has been sloughed off. Never was Sard’s sense of a disaster-unfolding so acute.
He dropped his gaze from the felt strips—wall covering—sloughing from the walls and ceiling. Dug into the sandy cave floor was a shallow pool. Three adults lay fast asleep in the water but with their heads close together on the edge of the pool.
Sard blinked when he saw Zoya, Srese’s care-mother—had to be Zoya—with a baby high on her chest for it to be above the waterline, presumably. The baby suckled on Zoya’s breast. His jaw dropped when next he saw Ghulia—his own care-mother—arm in arm with the merman, their heads pillowed close. He stared a long time trying to make sense of the scene. His mother and Zoya, had he even known them?
In the next room, again entered by a wide open arch and with the same lack of climate control, viewing galleries had been built recently—he’d never seen them—that looked like they’d been abandoned about three minutes ago. All the usual stuff lying about that people brought to events. Picnics. Shawls. Cuddle blankets. What on earth could be more riveting than Zoya’s and Ghulia’s show? If an entertainment was what that little scene was meant to be, he thought glumly.
The exit from this space into CAVE had a self-closing door so was the first obstruction to his progress.
< What is the hold-up? Don’t talk out loud. >
“I don’t have bots.” He mumbled. “How will I pass through?”
< Put your palm on the lock. >
He did and the latch slid back. The door opened to his touch. Useful skill. Not sure if the earlier program could do that. I might’ve warmed to this version if I hadn’t been so sure that Youk wrote it. He could see uninterrupted all the way to the Nest at the centre of the complex. Where was everybody?
Wait. I can hear them. The sound was of a crowd in one place, a composite of talking weeping shouting and braying-with-laughter. He frowned. The latter did not at all sound good. Was the event in the Pit? He listened more carefully—what direction should he take?
All the usual background sounds were as usual. Pumps hummed extracting heat. The energy plant thrummed. All events had their musical accompaniment. This one too. Though that music right now seemed to be building to a crescendo. He recognised the early phrases of Ravel’s Bolero among the more familiar tech tympany. Something definitely about to happen.
He ran through the narrow lanes parallel to Second Circle. Through the Simmonds and Wingham Quarter, useless to try and remember the proper directional words, and crossed into Parks & Gardens. From there he’d see what he could see happening at the dining hall, which was the place where the music seemed to be leading him.
Okay. Yeah. Makes sense. It was after all the place where important events were assimilated never mind that they usually happened elsewhere. Sard sidled into the back entry of the kitchen. No Greg or Relda was the first surprise. Greg had definitely said that Relda would be Greg’s understudy. But okay, good, since he was pretty sure that him being alive-to-background would mean some very strange visual disturbances for anyone seeing him.
I need clothes, he thought at the life-suit. An anonymous face and hands. For a wonder the life-suit didn’t quibble or try for extra information. Not like the original program again. He stepped into the pantry to vaguely hide the process, but to his amazement, the six or so kitchen attendants lining the serving counter were so engrossed that they probably didn’t even know he was in the kitchen with them.
He inspected the black-and-white checked pants and a white tunic resemblances. Yep. Good. Like every other kitchen attendant. He soft-footed toward where he could see for himself what so engrossed them. All the action, and attention of everyone present in the dining hall, was on the fixed holo-wall.
Royland, medical technician and wielding his famously preferred instrument, a plain knife, inscribed a long careful cut on someone. Likely a woman, going by the swag of smoky dark hair pulled forward and to the side. The cut went up the neck to an ear, C-shaped around that then lightly over the woman’s temple.
Laying bare the woman’s face, one of Royland’s assistants swagged the hair to the back of her head.
Ahni! It was Ahni whom they … ?
Royland wore no gown, no protection against the transfer of matter that might cause infection. Sard grew hot and cold in quick succession, if he hadn’t been wearing the life-suit he might’ve been covered in a cold sweat. Do something, he ordered the life-suit.
< Too busy. >
Royland steered the knife-tip along the top of Ahni’s forehead, and then along a pre-shaven track round the top of her head. Not a lot of blood meant that Royland had probably frozen her skin along the intended cut line. Royland lay down the knife.
Sard’s gorge rose as Royland and his assistant eased Ahni’s head skin from her head and just let it hang there, Sard saw with quick little glances between swallowing away the horror. He saw, hardly watching at all, how the assistant eased a metal cap from Ahni’s head while Royland freed wires and other bloody lines all along the cut he’d made which went—Sard now saw—all the way down Ahni’s arm to the palm of her hand.
Royland and his assistant lifted the cap and the attached wires and laid them reverently in the womb tank they had ready, the cam with them all the way. Everyone else present in the dining hall breathed a great sigh of release as the object was gently laved with the life medium.
“They’ll bring it here now,” said one of the kitchen hands. “Always stating the obvious,” said someone else.
The double entry doors slid open as if on cue and a confusing mass of people pushed through. Sard made out Royland and his crew clustered around a womb-tank on its trolley. All of them ensuring as shock-free a journey as possible.
With perglass sides, the womb-tank was like an aquarium. Its passenger, what Sard could see of it, resembled an alien sea-creature trailing wires instead of tentacles.
The group stopped the cart at the in-hall game station. Royland’s techies sprang to link the womb-tank to CAVE’s network. With a measured formality—great smile on his face—Royland flipped the switch.
The expectant silence exploded. Raving, ravening, crying, screaming, banshee wailing filled the dining hall. Some people fled the hall with their hands over their ears while the majority surged forward. People fell over chairs and each other. Royland’s assistants linked arms around the tank trolley.
As Royland dampened down the volume, Sard slipped into the scrum and emerged at Royland’s side. “Is it alive?”
Royland laughed indulgently. “No, no, no. It’s a particularly fine example of a bionic implant. Where have you been these last few days?”
“In solitary, for my para-tech exams,” Sard said. First thing that came into his mind. Who does he think I am?
Royland went into a spiel for the public. “Largely unused for years, we suspect, since the Seapeople’s life-style hardly warranted such a sophisticated machine. A very valuable tool we’ll find it.”
Sard clenched his jaws on anything he might’ve asked in previous times. He already knew who Royland had cut up to get it.
“The implant proved to have been transferred into the girl only recently,” Royland continued. “Very fortunate, as its circuits hadn’t had time to fully integrate. Much less attrition to the machine than we expected.” He bent his head toward the speakers from the womb-tank and fiddled with the volume controls. “Ah. Got it.”
An unbroken stream of memes flowed from the tank. “Intercom … neoprene … epidemiological studies … crepitation … carbon neutral … water governance … ENSO … tropical maritime … plagioclase twinning … companion planting … protein synthesis.”
Sard worked his way to the back of the mesmerised crowd and with his hands over his ears made like he was one of those escaping.