The problem this week I have no name for, apart from the fact that it appears to be a technical hitch.
Some of you can see the actual image in my previous post, Avatar Remaindered Part 12.
Some of you could for three seconds see the image doubled.
Since then the image is represented with the website URL, that needs clicking on to see the paragliders.
That’s all the technical part of the problem.
I haven’t discovered a solution yet.
Sourcing images to illustrate my blog posts has become increasingly difficult, and I frequently suffer through a bout of homesickness for the ‘good old days’ … the good old days of the Internet of about ten years ago I’m talking about, when it was easy to find, copy and paste all kinds of images and reference them in the caption.
In the Middle Ages there was such a thing as a Common in most villages, towns and even cities. Common ground that Internet style was called the Public Domain. In those day we either camped right on the grass or had our crofts nearby.
These days, us commoners are being shouldered aside by the moneyed classes. They set up their compounds all over the grass and indeed the trails we used to use to get places, and their gatekeepers require serious ducats to pay for entry. They all want their coin and I don’t have a bottomless purse.
It was well into dawn now and still no Greg. Sard waited in the dip as instructed the day before. Waiting impatiently. Was Greg going slow motion because of their conflict earlier? Sard so couldn’t use hold-ups now, what could he do but try to please the man? He scooted here and there, on his knees, to be not seen above the level of the plain, setting up the bag-over-the-bush water getting trick. Using the same round pebble. Different bush. His suit remembered everything perfectly. Good to know.
< You + I are continuous >
Sard wrung his hands in the way he thought resembled Greg’s hands knotting the snare. Worked good. The suit remembered it.
“What have you been up to?” Greg stood on the edge of the dip with the sun behind him. His expression was in the shadow of his own head. Neat trick.
Sard looked up with a winning smile. “Practicing what you taught me?”
Greg stepped down. His eyes were narrowed. “You look smug. Self satisfied. It’s not safe to get too sure of yourself. The landscape, the weather, the people out here … none of them act the way you might expect.”
“Well … it feels good to me that I can at least depend on my suit. Are we going back through the desert door?”
But Greg led the way onto the ridge. “I’ve got something to show you up there.” He stopped at the eastern apex. “No talking from here on. No rolling rocks. Not any noise at all, okay? It’s the minion stronghold we must get near to.”
They clambered around the top of their own Pit, according to Sard’s feel. The superior sense of direction was one of his avatar talents. There began to be a sick-making stink on the breeze from the sea. He concentrated on not retching. Not safe.
Greg indicated that he should sit on the rim around the Pit. Did that mean no one was in there? How did Greg know? Sard mimed vomiting and only barely managed to keep it in.
< Waste not = want not >
Greg mimed pushing their suit-hoods back.
Sard shook his head. No thank you. Not here. The stink was indescribable even through the suit’s mask. He tried not to breathe. He concentrated on hoiking without a sound. His eyes streamed with tears. He crawled back along the trail.
Greg followed him, without any regard for his suit’s colour against the mainly blue-sky background. Sard had no energy to try and work it out. Back at the triangle, he trusted the air enough to finally push the hood back. “What was that?”
“Not the kitchens,” Greg said. He smiled.
“Bastard. Was it the moldeckery?”
“Yes. I figured you should know the smell of death before you leave. Might make you think. Might make you appreciate what people are doing for you. You might even come to believe that you might not have the worst deal.”
“That’s the smell Srese is having to deal with, is that what you’re saying?”
Greg nodded. “The so-called mermen, poor bastards, are sewn into raw human skins and sent out into the open ocean, waves taller than this ridge, to fish and fetch shell food, as near as I can make out.”
Sard’s main but fleeting thought was how well—in the courtship he intended to get going as soon as—he’d compare with men sewn into skins. “And Gammy our digital game master still has expectations?”
“Srese is out of the picture,” Greg said. “The lead merman has taken up with Zoya. She’s better at the signing they do to communicate.”
Greg’s expression was hard to read. “And so you’re relieved on the one hand,” Sard said. “And on the other hand you’re worried sick about what Gammy might do to Srese? I would be.”
Greg said, “That’s about right.”
There, Greg on the way to being mollified. A bit of stroking and a tad of empathy was all it took. “What happened?” Sard said, indicating with his head, “Smells like a lot of customers.”
“Daredevilry at the storm-watch. One of your arch-enemies, Phin, and quite a few others bit the dust in an attempt by our digital taskmaster … Greg grinned wolfishly at the taskmaster jibe before continuing. “…to make it possible for us to feed the incoming women and children.”
“Mmm. So the Pit’s closed?” Sard said sympathetically. All he was going to say as he didn’t want to undo his good works? Getting through the next couple of hours as almost-friends surely preferable?
— — — —
The corridors were quiet. A curfew, perhaps. Sard didn’t ask. Better to just follow Greg and not invite trouble. They met no one in Mab’s shop or in the dome. “Safe to talk?” he said. “No one here, every place we came by, quieter than … well, quiet.”
“Everyone’s busy. Us being up here is all about the kite,” Greg said. “You getting acquainted with it in a lit-up, hidden place where we won’t be disturbed. Especially by remaindered wannabes like Youk. Watch out for him when you are out and about and you’ll probably survive.” He pulled a tight roll from a storage bag and undid various knots in strings. Silk fabric flowed from his hands like a river. “Help me lay it out?”
Plenty to worry about in that little speech. He should stick with the going concern. “I worry about it being a kite,” Sard said, taking the swag of cloth offered to him. “This all seems far too much fabric.”
Greg chuckled. “I told Rider we were calling it the wrong word. It isn’t shaped anything like that kind of kite and when used properly, it’ll help you float over the desert easy peasy.”
Was that the man being sarcastic as well as mysterious? “The beige-coloured side on top?” Sard said walking backward with his arms full. The beige-colour being the same indefinable shade and texture as his life-suit? “I have no idea about the shape but what the heck.”
“Just copy-cat me on this side shaping it, on your side,” Greg said.
Trying to get more info, Sard started listing the kite’s features as he discovered them. “Right. An elliptical mat made of many flat sausages laid side by side.” Waited.
“Sausages will fill with air,” Greg said.
Mmm. “Each of the sausages has three strings hanging from it?” Sard said.
Greg stared at him in waiting mode.
“Strings where they are fastened to the sausages …”
“Cells,” Greg said. “The sausages are cells.”
Fine, cells. “All the strings up to the middle cells are gathered first in triplets, then them in pairs dancing to the left and right and then them …?”
“To a brake each to help you control the rig, and then them to your harness which will be—if you get good—a glorified seat, just right for the lording it over everything kind of guy that you are. When you’re wearing the harness you’ll be hanging under the kite.”
Guess I didn’t do such a good job with the empathy. And it doesn’t sound like the time to pile on more. What then? Ignore? “A brake in each hand?” Sard said.
Greg nodded. He seemed to come to some sort of conclusion and continued with his instructions. “Now we lay it in a sickle moon shape, so the front edge, which is called the leading edge in the video-mentaries, is on top. Ready to take in the wind.”
“Oh. You got all this from a video-mentary,” Sard said. “I think I remember it. Some of the words anyway. We did an entertainment once about the different ways of flying.” Oops. Reminded him who I am.
“Prove it,” Greg said. “That you studied that video and that you recall any damn thing. I think you’re just buttering me up. Have been all along today.”
Oh well, back to the beginning. “The cells together are called a canopy,” Sard said. “But that’s just a word. I could never really understand how one person alone could open the cells enough for the wind to get into them. The openings to the sausages, I mean cells, are small and flat. How are they going to fill?” Like, wasn’t it obvious it just wouldn’t work?
Greg rested in his tai-ji stance. Said nothing, not even with his face.
“What now?” Sard said.
“You don’t need me. You already know it all,” Greg said.
“I think I said, I could never really understand?” Sard said. “I do understand that for me to get out of your face, you need to tell me how to work this thing. I thank you for all the trouble you have gone through for me. I’m keen to leave. As soon as.”
“I’m listening,” Sard said.
Greg stared at the blue sky dome but did continue. “I think you need to be at the centre, facing the wind, already strapped in. Whether you’re lying down, sitting, I don’t know. Probably depending on the strength of the blow.”
“Rider is still working on the harness.”
“If only we had some wind,” Sard said.
“We can fire up the airlock machinery and open the doors into them.”
Which resulted in a couple of flutters at the leading edge and the kite staying stubbornly on the floor.
Sard went to stand in the place where he’d hang between the two ends of the wing. “The air is passing straight over me, look at these thread ends.” He launched a couple of the silk bits that attached themselves to everyone passing through Mab’s workshop.
“Let’s lift up and see what happens,” Greg suggested. “Each at an end. No, forget that, We’re stretching it too tight, the air can’t get between the two layers.”
“I suggest we hang on to just the top layer of the front edge then, loosely. Now we run. One … two … three.” The moving air grabbed the cloth from their hands and deposited it at the other side of the hall.
“Right.” Greg looked nonplussed.
“Obviously not made to work without someone hanging on,” Sard said. “I guess I’ll just run into the wind dragging it.”
“All we need is your feet off the ground.”
“If I can get it to billow, I’ll be happy.” Sard bunched each side’s lines and wound them around his hands.
Three big breaths. Five big steps into the centre of the hall, into the so called wind. He lifted his arms despite the weight and the foregone uselessness.
The wings took in a smidgin of air that danced its way from front to rear, causing a brief ballooning that collapsed as Sard hit the wall.
“So now we know,” Greg said.
But what do we now know? Sard didn’t say. “I’m going to try running directly at an airlock.” He set about arranging the wing on the floor on the opposite side of the hall. Greg encouraged the machinery.
Sard ran. Halfway across, the canopy filled with the rushing air, bloomed and crumpled against the wall above the door. Sard dug himself out from under. “Did you see that!”
Greg pumped his hand, slapped his back. “It’s going to work! When I think we had only the old video-mentaries to go on. No patterns or anything.”
They pulled the fabric straight and rolled up the pleated length as tightly as possible. “Okay, let’s fit you with the pack,” Greg said.
For a joke Sard made his knees buckle at the weight.
“Yeah mate, and there’s still the shoes and the harness. Rider is stitching them like a fury. You need to go down to his workshop, fit the tackle to your size and I’m sure to be wanted in the kitchen.”
Rider’s workshop was next to Mab’s, Sard discovered. They had the use of the kitchenette between them. Rider’s doorway was hung with drying silks inside and out and the worktable was screened from the shop-front too. Prospective customers shouldn’t know of Sard’s presence, Rider signaled.
Sard pulled the suit-hood over his face, fastened it to the suit-neck. Make us alive-to-background, he thought at the suit.
< We are continuous >
After hot-sealing the adjustments, Rider loaded Sard with the harness, the two brakes and his flying boots. With the wing, his clothes, food and water it would be quite a load. But once he and Ahni flew, the luggage would weigh nothing, he had to believe.
Back in under the dome, Sard patiently allowed Rider to explain the webbing though it was pretty self-explanatory. Sard told of his and Greg’s experiments so far. He and Rider attached the brakes to the lines and played with their actions for a while.
At dusk, the dome lit up with a vibrant sunset. Shreds of cloud breathing pink wisped across a red background which over time became sapphire and finally night blue.
Greg brought a feast of take-out boxes filled with special titbits. Ghulia followed him in. “Zoya couldn’t make it and I can’t stay very long, darling. Things are hotting up.” She hugged Sard until they were both breathless.
Choosing delectable tidbits, Rider hovered his chopsticks over the dishes. He said, “Last thing we need to talk about is your reason for being.”
Sard choked. After the coughing and back-slapping—by way of Greg’s heavy hand—Sard said, “What? My reason for being?”
“You’ll need a trade that allows you to travel,” Mab said. “Why else would you be wandering the country side?”
Trying to equate the idea with what he intended to do, Sard said the first, weakest thing that came to mind. “I thought that at first I’d be living in the desert around here?” He twirled his raised hand to show his meaning.
“The clay-faces maraud through all the wild places,” Rider said. “On the ground, you’re no match for them on their camels, hunting people with nets and sizzle-sticks. You’ll have a better chance to live in the villages to the northeast.”
“Not so,” Mad said, contradicting as if she knew. “Those villages are small. Even one extra mouth, however beloved, is a burden if it doesn’t produce food as well as consume it.”
“What you can do well is fireworks,” Greg said, grinning at Sard. “Isn’t a traveling trade what we’re setting him up for?”
A hard-hearted wolf sneer that was, Sard thought. “Fireworks?”
“Last time I watched you do your fountaining. With sparks and flames and criss cross spatters gobs of light; stripes rippling; neon lighting up the dark. Damn, I’m jealous! I’ve had my suit for years. Never thought to ask it for fireworks!”
Sard hardly had time to take in Greg’s reasons for envy before Mab ran with the idea. “So he needs a magician’s cloak,” she said.
Sard back on track. “I was thinking a circle of this cloth would be good to hide under, camouflage in the desert. For the fireworks I’d put it on the ground, see if the light will pool.” Glancing at Greg’s baleful expression, he added. “Once I got good, I mean.”
In his mind he knew he was good already. He was a rider on a steed of light, a seahorse in the sea of the night. A fire fuelled with light. A firefly dancing above its reflection.
“Attaboy, Sard,” Greg said. “Put away those glazed eyes. Presuming people everywhere are the same as the people I dish up for, what you need is patter. To get them in, stand around. Pass the hat afterwards. ”
“You’re fast,” Rider said. “You’ll think up the patter when the occasion demands. Your practice in the meantime must be with rocks and sand.”
Finally all the goodbyes were said and Sard, not being able to flit with the load he had on his back, or fit through any secret tunnels, made like he was in transportation and counted himself lucky he didn’t meet anyone.
He slept at the lens door until dawn. Then there was just enough time to backpack his gear to the head of the ridge before the sun rose from the sea like a proverbial ball of fire. After fixing himself a time-honoured wake-up trick, with a strand of silk fastened across the path from the beach and tied to one of his toes, he napped.
Lagoon: copy from 13051770_10154119532324146_3933095396926093854_n copy
For his home away from home, Sard chose a large slab of rock leaning at an angle against the solid part of the ridge. There was just enough space in the gap for him to lie full length and stare out the west-by-north facing back door—so to say—across the desert watching for Clay Faces.
Or he could crawl in from the west-by-north and get a bit of afternoon sun on his face. The outlook at this angle was down and onto the beach. The storm had left behind a sizeable lagoon. He wouldn’t mind seeing the famous mermen frolicking in it when they decided it was safe again to be outside.
The life-suit surprised him with a burst of errant color. Maybe caused by his errant thoughts and feelings? < Discharging excess energy in a I-am-safe situation. > So, another thing about the suit useful to know. What had possessed him to think he was ready to start gallivanting out in the wilderness?
Waking after he had inevitably fallen asleep while he sunned himself, his suit smugly let him know its condition. < My exterior colour, sand, shaded and sun-touched > Which was a great saving when he saw the many legs, bare, tall and small, walking up to the edge of the cliff.
Thank you, Sard thought at the suit. He allowed his gaze to travel up the legs, past the thigh-length skirts, and past the bare breasted chests in a hurry, to the faces. Could these be the rest of the mermen’s tribe? Didn’t look like any mer-people he’d ever imagined. The adults, all of them women, dragged various small kids back from the steep fall and sent them to sit on a bunch of rolled-up mats.
How good was it that he was still invisible? < You + I are continuous with the background > But which meant that because he was practically among them, he wouldn’t be able to slide backward into the rock shelter without shifting the sand or his shadows. Better stay put.
No, he was wrong. One person could see him, a girl probably of an age with him and Srese. She stared at him with wide startled eyes. Someone called out, and she turned her head to attend. He watched her like a hawk. She moved away without saying anything about him, as far as he could tell, because the rest of the women continued to ignore him.
Her eyes were a sparkling green and he guessed her to be shorter than him by about half a head. Her hair was warm-dark, wavy, overlaid with silver. Her skin texture reminded him of the smooth inner layer of mulbry tree bark. And, she was bare breasted. His heart galumphed.
He hardly allowed his eyes to rove—he definitely didn’t want the whites of his eyes to be seen by the flat-breasted older women—the girl’s breasts, with rosebud nipples, were small and neat and separated by the bag-strap that she wore diagonally across her chest, with the bag sitting on her hip. She wore a ragged mini-skirt made of strips of a soft floppy fabric nothing like any sort of silk or tree fibre.
He stared, not breathing, while waiting to be noticed by the rest of the women or children. But they didn’t. Nobody took any notice of him whatever. Nobody saw him except her. Vaguely he was aware he should be asking why she could see him.
Also, a stronger feeling was that surely he was due for some rest and recreation? He was getting desperate for relief from the work of living in reality. Ten minutes holiday is all I ask. He waited all of a minute for a sign from the universe to tell him his request was not granted.
Nothing. Nix. Nada. No answer. He chuckled. It is all in who you ask and how you phrase it, Sard-Man. He relaxed. His suit made him a magic man. And here were his players. He could finally dream up his future. The first step was watch watch watch and know his target. Figure of speech, that. No time now to think up a more appropriate word. Breathing lightly now he stared covertly at the women congregating at the lip of the cliff.
Or was that covetously? He chuckled again. He was on track. Bet the women discussed the state of the beach, or what was left of it. He’d been surprised too. Apart from the lagoon in the angle made by the cliff curving round at the south end, there was a narrow strip of sand along the foot of the ridge where it faced the waves. That strip was all that was left of dry land. Misstep and you might be sucked out to sea in the still vicious backwash.
One of the women, with her hands around her mouth, shouted, “Coo-ee!” Another shrilled a long sequence of sounds. They attempted to contact someone at the caves? Sard filled in the details he couldn’t see. By and by everyone sat down like they waited for the tide to ebb.
The three older women and the girl unrolled a large mat over them all. Protection from the sun was all he could come up with for a reason, though the wind still scudded busily among the waves.
Excitement gripped his belly when his girl—how he thought of her already—sat down nearest him, to hold up that corner of the mat. She drew it over her head, and down her curvy back with both hands, and lifted her sit-bones from her feet to anchor the mat under her sit bones. She glanced toward him again, sideways, seemingly to measure the distance between them.
She couldn’t have done that accidentally. Heat in his abdomen. She must be as interested in him as he in her. It was like she’d already started to separate herself from the rest of them by showing so much interest in him. Too bad he couldn’t creep closer. He shouldn’t be discovered before he had the kite and knew how to use it escape with them both.
The woman under the next corner called out. “Ahni.” The girl twisted round to attend to her. Telling him that her name was Ahni. He loved it that she had a name not in the Name Book. He imagined her in his arms, soaring high on the wind as they traveled to a place where they’d make their new lives.
The timing was excellent. What with the way the entertainments usually played out, Sard was pretty sure Gammy would keep Ahni and her people until they had been milked of all the novelty they presented. Sard would be using that time to practice the kite. He’d be ready for Ahni and waiting at the top of the path, when the women and children were turned away. As this was the only way back up onto the uplands.
The idea of leaving home was suddenly exciting. With her he wouldn’t be lonely or an outcast because he’d—or rather they—would be the ones deciding where they’d go. She’d given him the best best motivation to leave.
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.”
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.
Sard was in the Dining Hall eating his breakfast by 5.03 AM the next day.
Ghulia slid bright-eyed into the seat opposite. “Hungry, are you?”
He’d picked a two-seater by the wall. He stopped eating long enough to bend forward for her peck on his forehead. With Greg serving the early shift, Sard had had no problem getting two serves of everything.
“I’m very happy to see you,” Ghulia said.
“You’re late,” Sard said. “Bet you wanted to make sure I’d be here.” He meant it as a joke but to his own ears his words sounded accusatory and stilted. He felt shy after his adventures and the dining hall didn’t seem the right place to speak about them. “Will you be attending the class?” That was the most devious way he knew of asking if she was going to the dome.
He nodded and Ghulia returned to being his mother grinning fiercely to keep in her tears. She fetched herself a coffee and croissant breakfast though she pushed the eats his way quite soon. She just seemed to want to watch him eat. He didn’t mind today.
She fiddled with her hair while she sipped her coffee. Straight brown shoulder-length. Usually tied back. She tucked it behind her ear and hooked it loose again so it fell half over her face. “Zoya is at the gym so there’s time for a shower.”
He almost exclaimed that she spoke so plainly. Then he realised the meaning of her fiddling. She’d spoken with her hair covering her mouth. He coughed and spluttered. “Mouth full …”
Next minute Greg was there thumping on his back. “You all right?” Under cover of Sard’s coughing he said, “Rider would like to start you as soon as. Come as you are, is the message.” Greg was as devious as Ghulia at hiding his face from the sensors. The first thing I need to learn, is where all Gammy’s sensors are.
— — — —
With a business-like expression on his face, Rider started Sard on hand-to-hand combat. Sard slid over the floor before he had the chance to take notice of the reality of the punches. Is it always going to be like this?
Too much thinking, Rider informed him. This is the way to fall. By the time Sard skidded out three times, he knew the trick that tripped him. “Wish I’d known this before. I could’ve seen Phin and Youk off a year ago.”
Rider changed to a different sequence of push-me-pull-me while Sard still spoke. Sard bit the dust again. He had no more time to talk. Or think.
So it was well after the lunch brought by Greg, that Sard recalled his promised shower. “Wash here,” Rider said. He nodded toward one of the entrances to the dome as the place for ablutions.
Sard ignored Rider’s expression. Didn’t even try to work out what the man thought. “I need to see Srese. Warn her about something.” He beseeched Ghulia. “Can we?”
Ghulia asked Rider without asking and Rider shrugged. Sard hated seeing her so dependent. She wasn’t like that. He started down the corridor they’d used to get to the dome, to force her to either join him or try to stop him.
“Here’s hoping Zoya took the kids to the market,” Ghulia said just before they left the hidden passage. She meant the market out front of the apartments, in Central Circle. “So we’re making for the Neilson-side foyer?” Sard said.
Ghulia nodded as she hesitated very slightly on the sensory-mats in front of the first set of fire doors, giving him time to slip through beside her without touching. Him not having any bots meant that the door-opening software didn’t read his presence. At the next set he was ready to slip beside her and she hardly had to stop at all.
They didn’t meet Phin and or Youk. They didn’t meet anybody, in fact. Arriving home, they had no trouble hearing the argument between Srese and Zoya. One of their usual upsets, Sard judged. Zoya wept. Srese shouted. And, Sard saw with a glance, this time Srese would surely commit a murder. He strode into his and Ghulia’s side of the Nest, calling to Srese from there. “Don’t do it, Sis.”
She looked up. Disbelief and not-understanding warred in her expression. “Sard?”
“Over here, Srese. Bring me that coffee. I’ve got to get cleaned up.” He hugged her in turn, taking care not to spill the hot liquid.
“I feel so sad,” she said.
“Liar! And don’t you dare cry!” If she started crying he’d lose it too. And besides, he needed that time to tell her what she needed to know. He punched up his favourite shower sequence.
“Everything has changed.”
“You’re not wrong.” He handed her the coffee back and tore off his shirt. “Don’t go away. I’ll only be a couple of minutes.” He stepped into the en-suite. “I missed you, believe it or not.”
“I got the stupid job without even doing anything,” she said from the bedroom. “When you should’ve, because I don’t know anything about producing.”
Acting was her forte, he didn’t need to tell her. “Don’t worry about it,” he said through the water. “It was always going to be you.” He slapped a bit of depilatory cream on his chin and cheeks and rubbed it in. “Do you think? I’m really glad you’re back. I was hoping to see you before I go to see Ferd. Because of our plan.” He washed his face, stubble gone, and sluiced water up into his armpits. “Forget that too, because it was never going to work. It had to be you, because they’re mermen! Get it?”
“We can’t just let it go!”
“Knock knock. Are you in there?” He slung the towel round his hips and stepped out of the stall. “Did you or did you not see mermen?”
She turned her back as he picked up his pants. He let go the towel.
“Zoya worried about that too.”
He pulled on a t shirt.
“What’s so amazing about a romantic-attachment plot that you can’t be around?” she said. “When we used do them all the time.”
“I don’t know. I’m betting it’ll be nothing like any scene we ever did.” He was about to broach the subject of Youk, to tell her to be careful of him and about Youk’s hide-out, when Ghulia came in. He didn’t want to have to suspect that maybe she was listening at the doorway but he did.
“Are you ready, Sard?” Ghulia said. “Srese, I’ll be here tonight. Why don’t you and I have a soiree?”
“Where will I be?” Hell. He hadn’t meant it the way that came out. And look at Srese looking, with that commiserating expression when she thought she knew exactly what he was feeling.
“Can’t I come wherever you’re taking Sard?” she said. She trembled visibly and oh how he wished he’d been more aware. “Sard and I are stronger together,” she said.
He almost cried then at her being brave to shore him up. What she always did and what he’d never understood before.
“If you tried to leave with us,” Ghulia said. “You would alert Gammy to Sard’s presence still in the habitat.”
“And?” Srese said.
He didn’t blame her for asking because how was Ghulia’s answer an explanation?
“And Sard certainly, and Zoya and I probably, would be taken by the minions and moldecked. You’d have to live with that through all the years needed to play your part. After that …” Ghulia made the throat-cutting sign. “The way we’re running it, we might all live a while longer.”
Sard was feeling sick about it long before Ghulia finished. “Doesn’t sound like you should try to come, Sis.”
She shook her head.
“Ask me everything later, Srese,” Ghulia said. She gathered Sard in behind her. “Give us a start, dear one.”
Sard mouthed silent instructions at Srese over his shoulder, for a quick meeting. He’d escape Ghulia and see Srese before she went to dinner. He had to warn her about Youk.
Ghulia led him to Greg’s apartment beside the kitchens. She matched her left palm flat on one of the handprints on Greg’s doorjamb. Door slid aside. Greg not at home. “What are we doing here?” Sard said once they were inside.
“It’s a safe house. Mab is at her stall at the market. We can’t go to the dome until later. We can catch up on our sleep.” She lay down on Greg’s three-seat couch and waited. Sard stayed sitting up, leaned against the wall, and half-shut his eyes. No intention of sleeping.
— — — —
Sard was waiting in the south side foyer with his ear by the door-join when he heard the north side doors sough shut. Zoya was out with the infants so that had to have been Srese. Guess she hadn’t got his posturing. He sidled out and shot into Central Circle. No Srese. He jogged past the radials. She wasn’t in Wingham Street. She had to be in Sixty, all she would’ve had time for. Good guess. He started after her despite the lack of cover. He could only hope that people in general weren’t yet aware of his new status.
Srese passed the intersection beside the third block of apartments and suddenly she had company. What would short tubby Quinella, the hardcopy keeper, want with Srese? He shadowed walls and doorways despite that a sideways glance from Quinella was all that it would take to discover him.
Quinella stopped Srese and caught up Srese’s hands. She studied Srese’s palms. Srese tried to pull away. Sard didn’t hear what Quinella said but Srese was like a deer caught in a spotlight. Then she straightened. Good work, Sis, make her feel even shorter than she is.
Sard tensed because Srese tensed. Preparatory to her making her get-away, he hoped. He could by-way through Neilson and get ahead. Catch her as she passed him. Didn’t happen.
Quinella stumbled into Srese and held her against the wall. A holo formed right there in the corridor – they were quite close to the holo-wall of MediLab One – with virtual water on the floor. A white sand rise against one wall, a coconut palm that interfered badly with his line of sight.
Did that mean Gammy was onto him? He stepped into the middle of the corridor anyway. Yes, what he suspected, there was a merman figure lying in the pretend-water. Quinella gasped theatrically. She flung a hand up to her brow and made like she swooned.
“Srese! Go!” he shouted.
Srese wrenched loose and was out of sight in seconds.
Quinella swore and almost ran to reach him. She fumbled at the minion-calling pendant she always wore on a ribbon around her neck. “Don’t move. I’ve called the minions. That’s who usually tidy up remaindered avatars. Isn’t that so, Zoya?”
Amazingly, Zoya reached him first. She carried one of the infants and had the rest following her. She frowned. “That may be so, Quinella. But it’s very convenient that Sard is here, since I have this nauseous child on my hands who should be taken home before he vomits all over all of us.”
Quinella shrank back. “Get him out of here. I can’t stand the smell. Call the medics.”
“It’ll be quicker if Sard takes him.” Zoya pushed the supposed sick kid into his arms. “Danny. Mab’s grandson. Medic around corner there.”
Sard strode away with the child on his arm, its head over his shoulder in case of the vomit, with him pretending he knew exactly what to do.
In Neilson, there were two larger than life-sized steel bots standing side by side on their brushed steel column-like legs, wide across the corridor. Waiting for him? Sard hid the infant’s face in his neck and started to sidle by along the wall. The minions bent their bland steel expressions on him approaching.
At the last moment, he noticed the flickering pinprick eyes. The nearer of the two touched Danny’s forehead with a steel fingertip. The minions both turned and were out of sight with three strides. Oh. Meaning Danny really was sick? Sard turned and made for the Nest. There the doors slid aside for him, no problem, showing Ghulia about to come out with her expressions alternating between white—probably shock—and the red of rage.
He hesitated, feeling quite white himself.
“Why are you here?” Ghulia said. Explosively. Red. Raging still.
“Minions,” Sard said. “Quinella called them. Zoya asked me to take Danny home. He’s feeling nauseous. One of the minions checked his temperature I presume, and they left. I can’t make any doors work except these.”
Ghulia hooded her anger. “Danny, what’s wrong?”
“Don’t like bear puppets. They’re scary. They make me feel sick. But I’m all right now.” The infant slipped from Sard’s kneeling hold, and joined the rest of the infants coming chattering into the Nest, ahead of Zoya also with thunder on her face.
“I need to talk to you,” she said at Ghulia.
“Hey kids,” Sard said. “Let’s play keeping-the-fat-ball-in-the-air.” He shamelessly timed his throws to the children to hear what the women said. “I thought you had a plan,” Zoya said. She sounded muffled. Sard snuck a look. Zoya in Ghulia’s hug.
“Zoya, thank you thank you,” Ghulia said. Sard started in, to apologize. Ghulia frowned him away.
“Why is a remaindered avatar still wandering the caves, endangering all of us?” Zoya cried with tears splattering everywhere. “I want him to be gone by the time Srese gets back.”
“Give me five minutes to scout the surrounds,” Ghulia said. “Please, Zoya.” His mother left, brushing past him as if he was a stranger.
Sard continued the game calling out the different children to catch the ball, pretending he’d heard nothing of Zoya’s and Ghulia’s quarrel. Zoya clattered things in the Nest’s kitchen.
Ghulia returned. “Sard, come.”
He threw the ball at Zoya in the entry to the kitchen. “Thanks. I was trying to save Srese a couple of troubles?” She looked through him as though he didn’t exist.
Ghulia dragged Sard against her left hip. She obscured him at every cam and sensor. Opened every door with her hand out front, half-carrying him with the other. “Make like you’re hurt. I’m taking you to the workshop medi-clinic.”
They met no one but Sard saw flashes of brushed steel, minion arms and legs, at several street corners. The minions pulled back each time and let the indivisible Ghulia-Sard pair pass. The worst journey of his life.
When she finally released him in the stone passage behind Mab’s workshop, Ghulia stood for a full minute with her hand raised to slap him while he stood angling his cheek to take it.
Finally she lowered her hand. “Now do you understand the danger you are in and the danger you are to the rest of us?”
“It won’t happen again.” Srese would just have to take her chances.
Sard loitered just inside the natural rock arch entry to Crystal Cave, disgruntled at having to hide. He fiddled with his and Srese’s torches, for when they used to come here to their cubby, stored side-by-side on the shelf just inside the cave.
And I still haven’t been told anything. He felt jittery. But, his arch-enemies Phin and Youk would be weeding in the vegetable gardens in the Simmonds-Everard quarter, ha-ha, furious that Sard wasn’t there to do it for them. Tiny iota of satisfaction. No idea where Srese is.
He flicked his torch on off, on off, then directed the beam at the different cave features. Gave himself a frisson of fear. Is that a minion behind the crystal faun? He had to know when to start running, didn’t he? A joke he used to play on Srese when she’d irritated him beyond words.
He resumed his watch from the arch. Just in time, because there was Ghulia with huge pack on her back rounding the Gaudi-wall. The only, real, little-pieces-of-glass-and-stone mosaic in the habitat. Every other wall always covered with holos or video representations or a combination.
“You came through the kitchen garden?” Sard said. The garden in the curve of the aforesaid Gaudi-wall. Greg’s personal handiwork. No one else allowed. Greg’s basil, chili, garlic. Greg’s cinnamon tree in a tub. Greg’s cola tree in the other tub.
“I’ve got a pass,” Ghulia said. She appeared to be serious. He studied her face for further clues. He wasn’t Srese who knew the meaning of five thousand facial expressions. “Carry the pack?” he offered.
“Later,” she mouthed.
“I’ve got a thousand questions,” Sard said.
She pushed by him making a zip-your-lips sign. Beckoned him further into Crystal Cave, signing for him to take his torch. She took Srese’s. She unfolded a silk-paper map. Very softly, so he could barely hear her, she said, “These crossed squares in circles represent Gammy’s sensors. They in turn represent him keeping tabs on his avatars. Go ahead, have good look.”
Even behind the frozen waterfall, in the amber glow where he and Srese used to have a cubby, there were sensors. And also everywhere he had just shone his torch at.
Ghulia pressed two fingers on his lips. She smirked like she knew his fears exactly.
He frowned like thunder but pressed his lips together.
“Safe to let go?” Ghulia breathed. After he nodded and she dropped her hand she turned and started along the walk-path. Clock-wise.
He studied her making sure her clothes or the pack did not brush by the walls or the cave-furniture, stalagmites and things, and mirrored her demeanor as best he could, though he doubted that the very walls were alive. Duh stupid, he thought on the next breath. It’s all about noise. Clothes brushing along the wall. Feet scuffing.
Ghulia stopped midway a blank stretch of stone-kreet and crowded him close to the wall with her. To whisper in his ear again. “Picture the map.”
“Why not look?”
She pinched his ear.
He sneered. He wasn’t a child anymore. She twisted it.
“Ow!” he said soundlessly. She twisted harder with her face on fierce. He pulled away but subsided. She might gut him before telling him the important bits. He nodded against her hand. I’ve got the map. So what?
She stepped forward and was gone.
He almost dropped his torch. There’s a holo in this bit of blank wall? His pride fell to his knees. He stepped forward. Ouch! He managed to not cry out as he clapped his hand to his nose. Hit the wall, of course. Not enough instructions. He stepped sideways and forward. Made it through.
Ghulia swung Srese’s torch, its wide-beam setting, to show him the space they were in. “No sensors here. Look at this wall, Sard.” She was letting bygones be bygones. Surely that should’ve been him offering that particular olive branch? He hated being pre-empted.
The cave they were in was huge but seemed to be partitioned off. A natural sand-colored wall rose perpendicularly to meet with the ceiling while the actual rock ceiling continued beyond. The partitioning wall meant they were in a huge half-egg-shaped space. Ghulia pointed back the way they came. “Our Crystal Cave is through there, its contours made to look natural with stone-kreet. Now look down here.”
He tracked her torch beam to the path they stood on. “Perambulating? The same as through there?”
“And look up here.”
At a height along the path’s boundary-wall that he could reach with his up-stretched hand, were holes of two sizes a couple of paces apart all the way around, he proved to himself with the swing of his own torch. “The larger ones to hold sensors, the smaller ones for cladding and wiring fasteners?”
Ghulia nodded. “In this habitat, the entrance to Two Forty is directly opposite the holo to our habitat, equal in distance left or right along the perambulating path. Remember that.”
“Right.” He forgot it as soon as he played his torch beam over the central space. “What are these pedestals in the middle, like mesas rising above the cloudy dust?”
“A very good likeness.” She chose anti-clockwise along the new stroll path. “Where the cave-furniture stands when this habitat is in use.”
He recalled how in their tender youth he and Srese had tried to knock over the crystal faun in Crystal Cave without succeeding. “I’m hardly going to believe that.” The mystery making, like the dust, was getting up his nose.
“Look here.” She pointed with her beam at a street-sign pointing into a dark tunnel.
Two Forty. “A radial? My apologies. Perhaps we are standing in a disused habitat.” Ha, that was good. How he made his apologies sound disbelieving by the addition of that scornful perhaps.
His erstwhile care-mother was in the ignoring mood apparently. “We’ll stop here, take a break,” she said.
“Great. A picnic in the dark.” He orchestrated her moves with the light of his torch.
She took off the pack. Got out sandwiches and a bottle of cola water. Greg’s special recipe that would be. “Only the ground to sit on, I’m afraid. Think. If this is Two Forty, where can you expect the rest of the complex?”
Incredible how she bulldogged him. Sard chewed. Drank. Recovered his cool. The input of brain food, probably. He marshaled home base in his mind. He had nothing better to do this minute. “The CAVES, aka the performance complex, are a left and a left.”
Was that an expression of regret that passed over her face? Instantly smoothed. She reached over and switched off his torch. “In this habitat the performance complex is at the end of Wingham,” she said.
“Why?” It slipped out before he could think of a superior expression.
“Dependent on natural features.”
“We’ve got our mulbry plantations at the end of our Wingham. I suppose it’s useless to ask what natural features?” he said.
Her silence was the answer to that little ploy. “Is that where we’re going?”
“Where you are going to lead me.”
“Right. Okay to use my …?”
“Torch? If you must.”
“… augmented sense of direction?” He felt his face redden. Good thing it was dark. Some would say that this was what he was made for.
He strode into Two Forty. Swung his torch to light up the mouths of Second Circle, left and right. He ignored the lanes. The entries to First Circle on both sides of Two Forty were exactly where he expected them to be, complete with appropriate street signs.
Radials always ended in Central Plaza. Here too. This market place was twice the width of the Circles, the same as the one at home. Though it still had its flagged-look stone-kreet paving there was no evidence remaining of any stalls. At home the front walls of apartments facing the Plaza were of carved mulbry wood. These had no front walls.
He led past the mouths of Two Ten, Simmonds, One Fifty and One Twenty and swung left into Wingham.
“Very good,” Ghulia said.
He shook his torch. It seemed to give out less light.
Ghulia stepped past him to take the lead. “We go left here, then right and right. There’ll be an airlock with no lens installed.”
Sard stopped at the shutters. “There’s a sound, but it can’t be the ocean.”
“Why not?” Ghulia said.
“Just a feeling.” He shrugged. If he verbalized it, he would sound like the kid she obviously still thought him. “I’d rather experience its right or wrong than solve it as an intellectual exercise.”
She looked slightly bemused, if there was such an expression. “Well,” she said. “You’d better help me get the hatches open, then.” He joined her at a large steel wheel on the wall beside the hatchway. As they turned it with both their hands on the patterned grips, both pulling clockwise, a vertical shutter slid sideways, into the wall, in a crude parody of an irising doorway. Reddish sand from outside trickled in over the sill.
“Don’t go away,” Ghulia said when he let go the wheel. “There’s the horizontal shutter.”
The shutter creaked upwards. He was still groping for a wisecrack when his feet lit up with light brighter than a thousand of the habitat’s lights burning at once. Then his knees, his whole body, with the unbearable brightness creeping up his face. The light was blinding. His eyes shut of themselves. But I don’t do reflexes, he told himself.
Ghulia laughed. She pushed past him and stepped over the sill. Talked at him from out there. “Ah Sard, my love, you won’t keep the Earth from its path or the sun out of the picture.”
He stepped back and back. Opened his eyes with his head in the blessed shade. Used the lintel to frame out the golden glob. Ghulia stood with her back to the spectacle, her face shadowed. But the bottom edge of the sun leaked down and turned the top of the doorway into a slab of molten gold. He retreated farther. Huge amounts of light smashed into the airlock, more than he could cope with. The sun was like something alive as it followed him back and back. More and more of it showed all the time.
“Come out here, Sard. Stand with your back to it.”
His eyes spronked with black spots. He bumped unseeing against Ghulia’s mothering hands as she turned him. But there was no roof overhead and no UV barrier in the sky and the whole unknown un-moderated world waited behind his back. He felt totally helpless.
“On the map this place is called THE DOORSTEP, capitalized because, I assume, it immortalizes some other, older doorstep,” Ghulia said. “It’s big enough to camp on. These sidewalls will keep out the wind.” She gestured left and right, and let the pack slide down to the ground.
He controled his breathing. She was calm. So would he be. The head-high stone-kreet walls on both sides defined the space as a sort of room. He needn’t look beyond it yet.
“Put these lenses in, darling. You’ll fry your eyes if you look at the sun without them,” Ghulia said. So like in her care-mother mode. He took them, hating her viciously for a couple seconds. If she’d done her job properly, he wouldn’t still need all this mothering.
She lay out a small cloth between them. Chopsticks at its opposite ends. She dished cold rice into two dinner bowls. Shared the contents of a jar of sauce between them. “Eat up. The curry will provide the heat. There’s water in the bladders beside the airlock. Did you see them?”
“Fetch.” Was that a tinge of impatience in her voice? He was glad to be inside for a minute. The situation was starting to fall apart. He loitered. “Sard. Bring out a bladder of water!”
She took it and drank her fill. She gestured with her chopsticks.” Eat. It’ll be dark soon.”
“Eating is such a puny thing to do while this …” he gestured in his turn, “… is happening.”
She put her chopsticks and bowl down and watched the sun’s descent with him. Ha ha, he’d shamed her into appreciating the event. The sun was a blob, a huge golden orb, melting inexorably down to the horizon. “There should be a stately-grace music track to accompany it.” All the surfaces of the DOORSTEP were plated gold. Every grain of sand had a mad glitter.
Now the sun’s lower arc touched the edge of the land far away, making a rim of flaring fire that then leaked into the land and pooled below it. The main body of the orb sank further and further. At its final gasp it collected its excess from the land and left it dun and cold after the last rays faded.
Ghulia pushed a cylindrical object into his hands, the size of a cutlery canister. “Watch what I do with mine because I’m only doing it once.”
Whatever. But he watched for another possibility of gaining the upper hand.
She held her cylinder by its top circular edge with one hand. Pulled a string tail at the bottom and rose to her feet at the same time as shaking out the cylinder’s folds. Unfurling the thing, whatever it was. Standing now, she took the corner and flapped the fabric over her head.
He saw his opening. “Hey presto! A batman cloak.”
She pressed her lips together.
Gloating over her irritation he missed her next actions. Suddenly she was a cocoon, kneeling geisha-style then subsiding down on the ground. Not waiting for him to digest the previous steps, she pulled up a sort of hood from the wrinkles around her shoulders.
“Your turn,” she said. “Unless you want to sleep cold.”
The light was gone by his tenth try. Figuring she couldn’t see what he did, her being so honorable about her torch, he flapped the sheet out onto the ground, stretched himself over half of it, and pulled the rest over himself.
She made no comment so he probably got away with it.
She said, “What we just witnessed was a sunset. The sun sets in the west. In the morning, the sun comes up in the east behind this, the ridge which contains the habitats.”
“The sun comes up in Everard, you mean.”
“Everard, Wingham, Neilson and Simmonds were Gamester’s original engineers. Using their names instead of the traditional names for the directions was part of Gamester’s connivance to keep reality from us. And indeed, most people never see a real sunset, or experience sleeping under the stars.”
Time to change the subject. “What were the dots out there?” he said.
“Tussocks of a spiny desert grass. Spinifex.”
“How is coming out here going to help me get up beside Srese?” Sard said.
“If you find that you don’t want to leave your comfort zone, then you’ll have to take what’s coming without my support.”
He couldn’t read her expression in the dark. “What do you mean, what’s coming?”
He heard her pace her breathing. “Rider is a Yon Kerr clone,” she said.
“Like Ferd,” Sard said, bitter because Ferd would be teaching Srese from here on in. “Though it’s me that’s the genius.”
“Rider has more in common with Ferd’s twin. They both were remaindered. As now you are too. Most remaindered avatars are moldecked soon after their competition is judged. Ferd’s twin sister left the habitat with a herder woman. Both she and Rider escaped.”
Sard ignored the thing about being moldecked. Had to be her trying to scare him into behaving. “But Rider came back? Why?”
“To help a group of us train for survival. While he was out in the world, he learned of all the disasters that might kill an enclosed community such as ours. Rider’s twin taught Ferd and then was moldecked in the usual way. Like Ferd must teach Srese.”
“And be moldecked straight after?”
“Yes. This trip was designed to be the first step toward your escape. Now shut up and let me get some sleep.”
He turned his back. Spent a bit of time re arranging his sheet. Why sleep on the bare ground when it was so easy to bring a couple of self-inflating mattresses? That’s what they did camping in the Pit.
A bright light torched into his face. He couldn’t even open his eyes until he turned to the ground. Breathing up sand. He wasn’t in bed? Was that the sun bearing down on him? Blinking groggily, he searched for Ghulia from ground level. Nowhere. Another of her tricks. He’d kicked out of his sheet during the night and he was toasted. He climbed to his feet. Every part of him twanged.
No Ghulia. The only things remaining were his sheet and the silk-paper map weighed down with a lump of stone-kreet. He unfolded the map with trembling sweating hands.
On the back spiked her handwriting, “Change is Life. Life is Change.” What she always said. “You need to learn things faster than I can teach you. Counting this new day as Day One, I am looking forward to your company at early breakfast on Day Two. You can do it, son. Remember that I love you to pieces. G.”
Sard is still in shock but is beginning to get his act together. He feels cheated that his care-mother never took him to the secret places they now visit. The old man they meet, Rider, has to be a such a fake that Sard plans to out him the minute he’s free ..
Getting the art for posting the novella in chapters is a process in action, as is sourcing a good book cover, without which it can not be published. Enjoy!
Part 2: Plan B
Ghulia sat beside him. “You look like you’ve got a week of work to do in three minutes.”
“Srese is it.” Sard indicated the mini-monitor above the bed. “What does that mean for me?” How could he trust someone as scatty as Srese to look after his interests?
His care-mother leapt up onto the bed, he was amazed to see, and switched off the mini-monitor.
“People think because there is no sensory-felt in the Nest, there are no receptors. Never dreaming that the communication gear itself might carry signal,” she said shakily.
He stared, his mouth agape.
When she noticed she hugged him hard. “Sard-baby, this is it. The first day of your new life.” Cheerful when obviously that wasn’t how she felt. “How much time do you think until Phin and Youk notice you missing?” she said.
“Probably around lunchtime when Phin will want to make sure I don’t eat. They’ll find their clothes ruined in the ionizers and suddenly they’ll care a lot. Why?”
“You have no more time at their disposal. In fact, you have no more time at all for ordinary things. Get into some nondescript clothes and smoothe down your hair. I’ll call in sick, which everyone will consider perfectly understandable.”
If it hadn’t been for her fear—utter and stark—Sard wouldn’t have gone along with her chivvying. He didn’t understand half of what she was on about but changed into ordinary jeans and shirt. Moccasins on his feet. His hair combed as flat as it would go. He could but coast in her wake until the facts came out.
“We need to go to the Dining Hall,” Ghulia said.
“I wasn’t there that long ago.”
The corridor walls, though still mainly grey, fluttered with blue stalks and leaves. Sard started every time a bird shadow exploded from the undergrowth. “That’s how you feel?” he said.
She talked from behind the bit of her scarf that she covered her mouth with. “Ignore it. It’s Gammy guessing.” She led him into the Dining Hall, empty of breakfasters, and into the kitchen-office cubby and introduced him to that fool, Gregorius the Dining Hall Manager, as though Greg and Sard had never met.
“You know my care-son?”
“Sard,” Greg said. “Will I put you on the roster for early breakfast?”
“There is a roster?” Sard’s amazement wasn’t a put-on.
“Only for the early session, mate,” Greg said while he made them a coffee each.
Ghulia was like, go on this is an emergency, and it was an easy thing to commit to when Sard had no idea of what was blowing in the wind. “Yeah sure, put me down for a couple of weeks.”
Ghulia took the coffees and led him to a table. No one else around helped make it too weird to enjoy. His care-mother waved him down opposite her. She stared pointedly, dragging his gaze along with hers, at every sensor within their range – alongside every light fitting and behind every air-filter screen.
Because of them, she explained without a word, she wouldn’t be saying anything about the emergency in here. She allowed him about two minutes to gulp down what was a hot drink. She drank hers as if it had no flavor and no heat. Like it was water straight from the moldeckery. He followed her out into the corridors. “Where are we going?”
She shrugged and brushed her ear.
Oh yeah. Gamester all ears. They’d exited in the Lane alongside the Dining Hall, walked Neilson-wards. Left into First Circle, crossed Neilson Street and into the lane alongside the silk weaving workshop. They went to its back entry in the corridor parallel to First and Second Circles. As they entered, Ghulia grabbed the doorbell with a practiced move. Obviously to prevent the bell jangling.
She pulled him down onto his hands and knees with her to crawl under the silk stretched from the wall to the loom. The woman already under there apparently had the task of tying off the beginnings and ends of the silk cocoons after their filaments were woven into the new fabric. Ghulia mouthed, “Mab, this is my care-son.”
“One of the avatars, Ghulia.” Mab likewise spoke voicelessly. Sard was like he attended a ball game, his eyes following the action.
“Not chosen for the game,” Ghulia said.
“Plan B?” Mab raised her eyebrows.
Mab tossed her head to indicate that the person they wanted, whose name Sard was not able to read from her lips, was still up there. Wherever that was. She waved Ghulia and Sard out from under the loom and Ghulia pushed him through a curtained doorway into what was at first glance a kitchenette.
Or maybe the place where they cooked up dyes, he decided seeing the various cooking vessels with coloured slops. The whole rear wall was draped with silks.
“The drying racks,” Ghulia said. “Vents in the floor and ceiling.” She bent and felt for something under a swag of silk scraps in a basket. “Go on through.”
“Huh?” he said pointedly when he could’ve said a ton of other stuff.
She pressed a headband into his hands that had a torch on the front, and pushed past him through the curtaining. A passage? How was it that when he and Srese had investigated every corner of the habitat in their single digit years, Ghulia and he now stumbled along a passage Sard hadn’t even known existed?
He nodded his head to swing the torch up, across and down. The sandstone walls were darkened with age. So, not a newly carved passage. The floor was ordinary polished-with-use stone-kreet. He felt betrayed by the way Ghulia, who might have shown him the tunnel as a treat but didn’t–ever–showed no hesitancy in her walking having obviously been through here many times.
“Mind the ceiling.” She led him up a set of steps. He had go bent for a couple of paces before they went down again, and that for only a couple of steps before they had to do it all again. Why not a straight tunnel for pity’s sake? His temper started to build. “Where are we going?”
“The sooner we get there, the sooner you will know,” Ghulia said.
He ignored the tartness in her tone in favour of a bit of his own. “How is that an answer?”
Fine. The way the passage slung about twisting and turning, they could be going anywhere. About all he was sure of anymore was that they’d entered the passage in the silk workshop in the Neilson-and-Everard Quarter.
“Ouch.” He forgot to duck and did his mother stop to commiserate?
She had entered a foyer. The two sets-of-doors-setup made it like the foyer into the Nest, that he and Srese called the airlock. Where they used to play their spaceship games. He wasn’t attending when he should have been, he thought dismally, when he just about fell into the room beyond. It was so large and light and round, he was totally overwhelmed.
By the time he’d collected himself, Ghulia had abandoned him and was stepping out a pattern in the middle of the room with an old joker already there. The person they’d probably come to see. The man’s features were certainly something to see. Grey hair and wrinkles that Sard only ever saw in video-mentaries and then only because he’d searched beyond the common tripe. Most people he knew would prefer to be moldecked than grow old.
The grey head continued to step and turn and gesture, completely unselfconsciously. Sard’s hands grew clammy from embarrassment about the weirdness of someone ignoring bystanders. Personally, during a public performance, he had to have everyone involved in the action of the moment. He’d sent people out if they refused to be in the moment.
Finally the oldster made a namaste-type ending to his routine. After a minute on hold he turned and came. Ghulia would be no help as she continued on hold, Sard saw. She wore her unapproachable meditational expression.
The oldster arrived in Sard’s face while he was still thinking daggers at Ghulia. At the same time—like the old man timed it—a vast bright light sprang into being at the top of the rock rim above the perglass dome ceiling that Sard had had no spare time to see yet. A sun event. He’d bet on it.
“It’s the sun,” the old man said. “Too hot in here when that gets going. I’m known as Rider.”
Sard didn’t nod to say he understood, because he understood nothing. He shook Rider’s proffered hand to express a minute vestige of politeness.
“Have a seat,” Rider said.
There was only the floor. Polished stone. No rugs or cushions. Sard remained standing. Damned if he was going still further out of his comfort zone without knowing why. His skin crawled as he felt the man studying him.
Sard pointedly studied the scene. The perglass dome perched on rickety columns of stacked stones. Nowhere did the dome meet the walls. In the gaps between the stone pylons, the room’s air must mix freely with the outdoors. Or what it looked like.
Seeing where Sard looked, the old man said, “Originally the dome sat on that rim of rocks.” He pointed at an edge far above the dome, that was just now limned with sunlight. “Lucky for us the glass didn’t break when it slid down, though naturally it needed stabilizing.”
“Naturally,” Sard said. The floor was of the usual polished stone-kreet. Including the one they’d come through, three dark entrances broke the encircling wall.
“When it rains, it’s all hands on deck for bailing,” the old man said.
One point to Sard for having moved his attention on while the old man was still on about the gaps between the dome and the wall.
Above the dome hung a circular piece of what would have to be sky, brown-tinged by the aging UV barrier in the per-glass. “The dome dislodging from its original mounting caused this hall to be abandoned by the community,” Rider said. “One of Gamester’s engineers’ mistakes. Serendipitous for us.”
Ghulia finally came to grace the meeting with her presence. “Rider, this is my care-son, Sard. Superfluous to Gamester’s needs.”
“Mmm,” Rider said.
Ghulia nodded. Something she was doing a lot around these people. Sard interrupted the flow of meditational discourse, whatever they thought they were doing. “I don’t need plan B. Srese will get me into Plan A with her. What we planned when the competition was first posted.”
Rider stared at Ghulia. “He doesn’t know?”
“I brought him as soon as I was sure.”
“Yet it is his life,” Rider said. “He needs the knowledge. I think Plan B, Scene 2, Ghulia. You know what to do?”
She bit her bottom lip then seemed to come to some conclusion. “Yes.”
“I thought you just agreed to no more decisions without my input?” Sard said. What did he care about the whine even he heard in his voice?
Amazingly, Ghulia laughed. “Rider, you know him better than I do.”
“I was him once,” Rider said. “Still am sometimes, though I try to keep those moments private. We should get out of here. The heat,” the oldster explained to Sard. He hustled them towards their entry.
Sard let Ghulia take the lead back down the secret passage. He felt like his ears had burned off. He decided he’d go to the hardcopy museum next, and read the Name Book. Bet there was no Rider in it, the man was such a fake. That grey hair had to be a wig.
Ghulia stopped well before they reaching the curtaining of drying silks. “I want to show you a couple of things before you’re too old to enjoy them. You take Two Forty and Second Circle. Don’t let anybody see you. Hide in the overhang of Crystal Cave. I’ll be there in half an hour.”
“Indulge me, son. You owe me for that tantrum back there. I thought I did a better job than that, socializing you.” She had him by the ears then, and not gently either. She shook him. “Wake up to yourself, Sard-baby.”
Tears in her eyes and her voice. What could he do but indulge her?
This is the (1) before the previous (1). I thought I wouldn’t need reading in my new life?
The idea that I could slough off my old life and take up a completely new one isn’t happening and was probably doomed from the start. It’s true that while I was in treatment, I put everything normally ‘me’ out of my mind to keep my attention on the main event, to learn the disease, what was required every day, learn the people involved, how the meds affected me, keep my oxygen line straight. [I was on oxygen for ten days]
But after a while it became necessary to take up reading again. In between engaging with staff, which was mostly in the mornings, hung swags of time. Watching TV while in hospital is difficult. Volume is restricted. You can’t turn the TV off, attend the x, y, z person/procedure needing your attention, and turn it back on expect to hit the same place where you left off. The remote is fiddly, usually on the same gadget as the nurse’s call button.
While I was on the Oncology Ward at John Flynn Hospital, out in the corridors practicing my walking, I discovered nooks with bookshelves filled with books. Life-savers, in effect. Not that I read every book. But every walk I took, I’d change a book, like at at a library. I’ve read both fiction and non-fiction voraciously for most of my life.
I’m now officially in remission with a totally clear PET scan. My last chemo session was at the end of January, followed by two Rituximab (monoclonal antibodies) chasers taking me into the beginning of March. A ‘stupendous recovery’ my hematologist calls it, given where I began. My hair started growing again the week of the first chaser. My toenails apparently need more time.
Since I moved into the unit where I’m living now, I’ve been sorting through books … nineteen boxes of them. Some books don’t need a decision. Anything to do with fungi make it onto the shelves beside my work station. Fiction using fungi as plot devices, bad or good, also onto the shelves.
Most other books get the will-I-want-to-read-this-again question. If not, straight into the remaindered pile. If maybe, I open the book anywhere and read a few pages. If boredom sets in after only a few paragraphs, into a remaindered pile it goes. The books that will be sent on their way so far number about eight boxes.
Other things I’m reading at the moment are an article titled Proposal for a subdivision of the family Psathyrellaceae, which I keep for breakfast reading since it is a .pdf and must be read on the laptop. ‘Sideshow’ by Sheri S Tepper. This follows on from ‘Raising the Stones’ which is one of fungi-related novels in my collection. Tin Tin in Adventures on the Moon by Herge for light relief. And I’m thinking of soon reading ‘Meld’ the second part of my trilogy Doomed
Every morning I open the vertical blinds out to the patio and open the glass door then the screen door and go out to check what little things have sprouted. I said fungi would be first thing in my new life, and so it has so far been.
I take their photos: caps, stems, undersides, the way the gills attach to the stem, the pattern of their gills, is there or is there not detritus from a partial veil on their caps, what color is the cap, what color is the center? I note a few more things for future reference.
All of them are tiny and really to make good photos I’ll need some equipment superior to what I have. An older model mobile phone with a 50% success rate where the photo is sharp enough to enlarge for extra detail. Just like the older model operator whose eyesight is not as sharp as it was, but whose eye for detail still works very well.
After breakfast and a couple of chores I may sit down at my laptop and do online fungi IDing on the various FB fungi groups I’m a member of, or I may submit a few more fungi observations to https://inaturalist.ala.org.au
Some days … when my state of being doesn’t allow me any running around … that’s all I do. Like today. Have to keep reminding myself, need to crawl before I can walk.
A recurring part of my new life will be fungi. Even though I can’t get out into the field as yet … am stuck photographing whatever comes up in plant pots … I’m spending the majority of every day traversing the four FB fungi groups I belong to, and now also adding old data to my account at iNaturalist.org