Sard dozed in the early sun, picturing how thankful Ahni would be to meet up with him again. He lay still to keep the silk strand unbroken. Something—he snapped his eyes open—make that someone—tweaked his other toe.
“Knew you’d be here somewhere,” Youk said. Full of cheer.
Sard’s heart sank. What could Youk possibly want?
“Aren’t you interested how I know you’d be here?”
“Mmm,” Sard said, meaning whatever, knowing Youk would not be stopped. How was he even out here, with not having Phin now to back him up?
“By hacking into Gammy’s incoming data, of course. Interesting that sometimes you show up as digital input when I assumed that no bots meant no data.”
“So why did you? Bother with the hacking?”
Youk jumped straight in. “I’ve got a proposition.”
“I’m all ears.” Sard tried for his most neutral tone.
“My mastering plan, as I call it.” Youk chuckled. “As ferals we can do the game a lot of damage. You especially, since when you are inside and aren’t wearing a life suit, the minions have got to be told where you are before they can see you.”
“I don’t get what you are on about.”
“I’m talking about the stupid game and doing unto all the others what they’ve been doing to me?”
“The new game, you mean,” Sard said.
Youk took a deep breath. “The game of life, our supposed world, the slavery we’ve had to endure, the boredom, the wasted time because we haven’t had a say over how we’d like to spend it. That game!”
Sard could only think of the many moments he’d enjoyed. “How are these others to blame for your problem with Gamester’s setup?”
“All through your childhood you’re a golden bloody avatar! And I’m just another no-account player when I’m at least half you. So I want revenge!”
“On me?” Sard said.
“You don’t now have anything that I want except your help and I deserve that! I thought you’d want to revenge yourself for the way Gamester turned your life upside down?” Youk watched him intently. “I thought we could work on this together?”
Even Sard parting his lips to begin talking might inflame the situation.
Youk continued, patiently informative, making his objective sound reasonable and sane. “You’re still ignorant of everything that’s been done to your sort. You’ll burn when you read the histories on my standalone. And by the way, my hide-out is ten times more comfortable than this shelter. With me hacking and you wrecking, we can do a lot of damage. How about it?”
“Not with you sitting pretty and me out and about with mud on my hands,” Sard said, letting only a little of his exasperation show.
Youk clenched his jaws on his. “Is that the tone to take with your loving brother?” Still with a hardly-done-by manner he shuffled himself into the shelter beside Sard and leaned back against Sard’s pack. “That’s better. All the conveniences of home, eh?”
Sard rocked onto his knees and out of the shelter. Slipping the silk loop from his toe, he allowed it to slither out of sight. He sat down, in the sun, diagonally opposite Youk, to purposely leave him his retreat. If only.
The suit grumbled. < Proper exchange of heat and coolness cannot begin. >
Because hood still in my neck? Sard teased. In adverse circumstances we have to do the best with what we have.
“Why sit out there when there is ample room beside me?” Youk said.
“Giving my suit a bit of a work-out.”
Youk began all over again, his usual strategy when he didn’t get what he wanted. “I came up here thinking we’d do this thing together, like brothers.”
“Don’t run off with the red herring,” Sard said. “I’m not all that confused by your tactics. What is this brotherly concern about suddenly?”
“I’m Ferd’s genetic son by a desert woman, fruit of the previous cave-wide. And Ferd is one of Gammy’s clones, like you are. So … you and Ferd are identical.”
“Only in our DNA,” Sard said.
Youk surged on. “So-o, half my genes are identical to yours. That’s got to be enough for brotherly concern.”
“My brotherly concern for you, you’re saying.”
“Because you owe me.” Youk maybe took in Sard’s obdurate expression and didn’t wait for affirmation. “After we’ve given Gammy and the rest their just deserts, we can ske-daddle out of here. We’ll catch a ride with the clay faces. They do a circle, hit Sink City. We’ll make a new life, better than we ever had here.”
Sard rose, the better to bring his new skills into play if need be.
“So you’ll come?” Youk rose too.
“But I need you.” Youk leaned toward Sard.
“Don’t bother with the intimidation. Besides, you’re off balance. One little push from me and you’re broken on the rocks.”
“Good joke, Sard. Come on, let’s go, my patience is not unlimited.”
Sard stilled his imaginary tai ji horse between his knees. He sat back on air. The suit would know to allow him extra energy.
“What’s your problem?” Youk obviously meant his grin to be endearing. “Srese jumped at the chance to make good her mistakes.”
“If she did, why do you need to try the same garbage on me?”
“Can’t we at least be friends?” Youk reached for Sard’s arm.
Sard allowed his shoulder blade to slide down and behind the basket of his ribs to take his arm out of the way of Youk’s grasping fingers at the same time that he slid his left hand along the inside of Youk’s outstretched arm, and with his right hand now gripping Youk’s elbow, he pulled Youk alongside and down.
Sard stood aside as Youk sprawled.
Youk didn’t get up. Just griped from down there. “Why can’t you see what it’s been like for me, all these years in your shadow? The golden twins! And you not even knowing I existed until I volunteered to be your friend. I’m here now because I want us to be real friends. I need your friendship.”
“No,” Sard said again. “You really don’t.”
“I had a lot of time to study you and I think your thing is to be needed. What could be more fitting, me needing you?”
Sard didn’t answer.
“Your last word, huh? Well, don’t come crying to me when the clay faces put their shackles on you.”
Finally the end of the conversation. Sard looked away to hasten Youk’s retreat. Stuff was happening on the beach. Groups here and there. The sea was back in its place and the lagoon a sheet of aqua. The youngest of the mermen, leading three little boys, approached its calm.
Youk came to stand beside Sard. “Oh, I get it. You’re waiting for the Seapeople, because you haven’t the gumption to go out on your lonesome.” He shivered dramatically. “You’re so transparent, sitting here in your little cave looking back. This whole world, the size of it, boggles your mind, doesn’t it? Fortunately for me, among them, it’s the women who run the show and they are such amazons they’re sure to find you wanting. When they turn you down, mine will be the only option you have left.”
Despite the glare of the sun, Youk bent a wide-eyed topaz yellow stare at Sard. “Even if for some unfathomable reason the Seapeople allowed you to ragtag, you wouldn’t be able to keep up. I bet they tie to a rock and leave you to die courtesy of the sun. The men wear skins of people the women have cannibalised. Can you see yourself lasting in that kind of scene?”
The activity on the beach was not the busy preparation of people getting ready to travel. Sard still had time to get rid of Youk gently. There wouldn’t then be the need to guard against revenge. “Since you have me pegged so thoroughly, you might as well leave me to come at my own pace.”
Youk made like he’d contradict.
“Don’t worry. I’ve been to your hide-out, and I already know about Sully and the rest of my sort.”
“Why not come now?”
“My life-suit needs powering up.”
A desperate lie that Youk took at face value. “That must be one of the earlier models. I’ll look out a better one.”
When he was sure Youk was really gone, Sard backpacked his things to the dip in the desert. At more than a kilometre out he’d be invisible to Gammy’s ghosts, and as the place was lined with clumps of spinifex, the depression made him near to invisible. Tomorrow, in the dawn, he’d practice his kite.