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.