Dawn to sun up, when Sard had agreed to meet Greg, felt like hours yet. Out of pure boredom, he started collecting rocks for the border between Gammy’s influence and freedom, placing them every few meters.
Damn, but the day wasn’t lighting up! He turned to where the sun should be rising. For a couple of seconds he didn’t know what he saw.
Clouds? He scoffed at himself. Yes, clouds. I knew that. They bulked up, rising above the ridge as if on fast-forward. The red from the fire of the sun staining their grey portended something awful, a story would say.
Everyone he knew would be gathering in the Pit with Gammy moderating the event. And he’d be out here Storm-Watching on his lonesome? Sick.
The rest of the sky grayed imperceptibly while the anvil, a type of storm cloud that Gammy had introduced last vigil, leaned over him. When Greg took him the five kilometres out, Sard felt small. If that cloud fell on him, he’d be a gnat-sized blot.
He started. What was that?
A bolt. Pure white light zapped to the ground. Never saw that before. His heart thumped. Remembered the word for it. Lightning. Next, the sky like split open—that was the sound—a vast crack! His guts, heart, everything inside him tremored. Despite the suit, he had time to think.
Icy stones rattled to the ground, and he stood there deluged?
< Most incidences of this particularity last 10 minutes or less >
After the stones came the water. Sheeting down. More water than he’d ever seen. More water than he’d ever been in.
< External temperature = falling. Fuel intake recommended. I ≠ alive-to-background > The suit sleeves over his arms and legs blotched.
“Go for it,” Sard said. “I’m not staying out in it.” He jogged Simmond’s way—couldn’t at this moment recall the proper term—along the Clay Face road along the bottom of the ridge. Angling his face against the slashing rain he searched for a place he might recognise. The suit’s eyepieces did not cope and he had to keep wiping them.
There. The roofless room where Ghulia left him about a lifetime ago. What it felt like. The stones lining the slope looked smoothed, machine made. When he was up there before, he’d had no idea he’d be running up them so soon.
The hatch were wedged open, with roll of tent on the floor track. He had no time to wonder who’d organised that. He grabbed food as he went by and ate the energy bars as he negotiated the blessed dark. He relaxed.
In fact, he loitered along First Circle. What a fish out of water he was in his present mode. He hated how he had to be. Even about that kite Rider was putting together for him. What would Sard do with a kite, when he didn’t plan on wandering very far at all? Rider’s plans weren’t his and Greg’s plans weren’t his. What was the use being a hero with no one to be a hero for?
Finally he arrived in the cave with the holo entrance into Crystal Cave. You could say despite his best negative efforts. Uh oh. A shadow jittered in the opening. The person was backlit by the amber glow of emergency lighting. It was the wrong shape for a minion. He cleared his throat, made a noise to test the situation.
“There you are,” Greg said. He handed Sard a roll of clothes. Jeans and shirt. “Clothes in case we meet someone. I don’t think Gammy will know you’re here. He’s pretty busy.”
Glancing aside while he dressed, Sard saw that Greg was in his closed-mouth mode. Fine. The Pit, next door to Crystal Cave, was abuzz with the storm vigil. Much more interesting.
Greg pulled him away. “We’ve got business elsewhere.” The corridors were eerily empty.
When they stepped in the dome, through a curtain of water, Rider was dragging sandbags from the water tunnel. Water gushed through every gap between two pylons. Greg pointed Sard at Mab’s airlock, himself staying at Rider’s. Rider slid bags at them and Sard and Greg built dams around their airlocks, and strung a net across the water tunnel’s maw.
Sard marveled at the depth of the river flowing over the dome floor and down into the water tunnel. Ankle deep, then shin-deep, three layers of sandbags and still the water rose.
A lull in the water sheeting down the perglass dome allowed them a breather. “What’s with the net,” Sard said.
“If you were swept down when the system is in full spate, and it’s getting that way,” Rider said. “You’d arrive down in the cubby jungle as a slow-rot case. For obvious reasons, we’d bury you rather than report you missing.”
Right. Interesting, Sard thought, how the life-suit coped with the downpour, keeping him warm but wet now, instead of dry and perhaps cold. He’d certainly never been as wet. When it came again, the rain was deafening, numbing, an unrelenting barrage.
< With adequate fuel intake, you + I + exterior input = continuous >
When the rain eased into splatters on a gusting wind, Rider and Greg fitted plasti-boards to broomsticks—both stored in the ceiling of the water tunnel—and began to shove out the pooling water. As a swath of floor was cleared, Sard dragged sandbags forward and mopped the floor behind them.
“That’s it,” Greg said. “We’ve still got a dome. I’m off. The kitchens call me.” “Sard, why don’t you stay awhile?” Rider said.
Was there a choice? Sard wondered about the conditions outside. What did he know? “All that water down in the cubby jungle … aren’t the trees floating?”
“Another tunnel beyond and a fall into the sea,” Rider said. He restrung the net along the ceiling of the water tunnel and hung his clothes to dry.
Sard added his jeans and shirt. The life-suit underneath was dry already. When he stripped off the top half of it and let it hang from his waist, the last of the breeze was like a balm on his own skin. He fetched mats from Mab’s airlock. Rider divided his last meal for them both.
Sard forestalled Rider asking for his adventures. “It feels like I’m marking time, in here or out there.”
“You have learned all you need to know about your suit?” said Rider.
It felt like a trick question. “Mmm. Probably not.” He sorted through a couple more possible answers. The suit would best be tested when Sard was tested? Which might lead to uncomfortable inquiries into how he tested his suit now. He settled for his main thought. “It’s like something in me is refusing to get excited about the whole deal?”
Rider’s expression was noncommittal. “And you’ve been thinking that through and trying to come to a conclusion?”
Sard started with the explanation he’d come up with. “My project at the delta is far away in time and place. Between then and now there are only survival skills to be managed and those are taken care of by the life-suit. That’s my problem. I don’t have any way of influencing things to happen and hardly even myself to organise. I’m bored. Already.”
Rider did not smile or act appreciative of Sard’s problems. “I suggest then that you spend the whole next week out. You’ll get the chance to experience many unforeseen situations all requiring their own strategies. Which will also give us more time to work on the kite, progress of course being put on hold by this storm.”
All right. If it was going to be like that. Sard wanted to tell Rider he didn’t want the kite. What use would it be when he’d be staying around the ridge. Waste of everybody’s efforts.
But never mind, Rider was up and ready to take Sard through a couple of patterns. “Ward off the cold,” Rider said. And after that, still not giving Sard any quarter, caught up a pair of staves and clickety-clack fought Sard to a stand-still.
Only then was Rider ready to farewell Sard into the dark tunnels with advice and instructions on what to take for his week-long jaunt into the desert wilderness.
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.
Greg came every day, after his afternoon shift in the kitchen. He set their food for the next twenty-four hours on the shelf by the entry doors and then joined Rider and Sard at their work. Free fighting was one of Greg’s specialities.
“Last warning,” Greg said. “And from today it will be no holds barred. Your suit is getting good enough at protecting you.”
“Whenever I tell it, it tells me we are continuous,” Sard said. Of course by the time Sard told the joke, Greg had him on the floor in a head hold. “What? You’re telling me I should chat less?”
“Might help.” Greg fetched his life suit from the bag of stuff he had hanging in Rider’s foyer. He sloughed off his shirt and dropped his pants. Pulled his life suit on over just his sweat. “Don’t make a face. My suit loves my sweat like yours loves your sweat and everything else about you. Nature of a good life suit. What we want now is our skin colours wherever we’re not wearing clothes.” He didn’t put his clothes back on.
“Ha,” Sard said. “I should take off my shorts?”
“You’re uncomfortable about your underwear?”
“More like uncomfortable about my lack of underwear.”
“Underwear gets in the way of a suit’s processing. You’ll get used to it.”
Sard dropped his shorts and kicked them towards his mattress roll. Give me skin colour, he thought walking over there and putting his shorts away properly. He watched the back of his hand. Still the spangling.
“Ask it your skin colour on its outside,” Greg said.
My skin colour on your outside.
< Your exterior surface colour, ivory, on my exterior surface, ivory >
“Today we’ll explore the near environs,” Greg said. “We exit through Rider’s camp. In the passage beyond we need to be super silent, due to it running below a minion tunnel. It’s a section of the habitat where the original engineers were told to raise the level when the boss came to check their progress.”
“Their boss, Gammy?” Sard asked.
Greg grinned. “In the flesh, one presumes.”
In the rounded-out mouth of the passage was Rider’s gear. Couple of patched silk bags hung from hooks along the walls. Rider’s sack of scraps for sleeping on lay folded.
Sard followed Greg down a narrow stair cut in the stone that descended down down down. Greg’s suit lit the way. Sard didn’t know how to ask his suit. Keep it for practice another time. The passage leveled out and bent to the left as if they were under Second Circle.
Sard strode where Greg strode, a pace behind him, and like Greg fingertip-touched the walls either side every couple of paces. He felt as if he skied on air, he touched the ground so lightly.
As the passage narrowed Greg’s suit glowed brighter. He stopped and pointed at his feet. Huh? No, he pointed at the floor. “A trench in the stone, cut by water. A runnel.” Sard nodded.
Next, Greg pointed at a bit of wall. Carved as before, but with long narrow half-cylindrical channels as if the rock-carving machine had abandoned it and this section was done by hand.
They moved several more paces to the end, as far as Sard could see, of the passage. The walls looked water-worn and were wider apart. A fist-sized drain-hole that Greg demo’d with his closed fist, took the water away. Where did the water come from in the first place? The ceiling?
Sard looked up. Natural rock hung down with sheets and stone ribbons. A long way up was a hole to the outside, daylight glowing through. When rain fell this couldn’t be a good road to travel.
“One hand here,” Greg said, his hand on that spot. Sard grasped the cold steel hasp set waist-high in an angle in the runnel wall, his hand next to Greg’s. “The other here, at shoulder-height.” Greg pulled himself up one-handed, planting his feet on the hasp Sard held onto. The reason no doubt for all the push-ups every day, Sard thought, watching Greg out of sight.
Out of sight? That can’t be right. Enough light came through the hole and it wasn’t so high that he shouldn’t still be seeing Greg. Sard pulled himself up onto the ladder. Climbed to the place where he first noticed Greg’s suit fading. Stopped. I need a new look, he said to the suit, your exterior colour like this stone.
< My exterior colour. Stone. New >
Sard’s arm in his suit’s sleeve reaching for the next rung showed him his colour, newly cut sandstone. Another thing to work on in his spare time. What spare time? He lifted himself up to the edge of the hole. Push-ups again. Into some of that same sunshine he’d been in with Ghulia, though it wasn’t nearly so hot. Even though the ball of fire was almost overhead.
< You give I warmth. I give you coolth >
Oh yeah, the suit took care of the heat exchange. Rock walls made the place into a roofless passage. Greg was nowhere. Sard stood up and stretched while he waited.
“What you need here,” Greg’s voice said from right beside to him, “is alive-to-background. Your suit.”
Programming was what he was doing. Better get used to it, Sard-man. I need your exterior alive-to-background, Sard thought at the suit.
< Parameters are incorrect. Lower background is near. Upper background is too far >
“It’s telling me the upper background is too far.”
“Because you’re standing up with only the sky behind your head.”
Sard dropped to his knees. Damned suit. His exterior colour melded with the rock surfaces around him.
< You + I are continuous with the background >
“You made it,” Greg said quietly, still invisible. “I’ll show you a couple of things while you work out how I knew your exact position.” He joggled Sard’s elbow.
< Breath of accompanying insert organism + survival entity. Amalgam. Such as you + I are not >
“My suit is telling me you and your suit are an amalgam,” Sard said, inviting Greg to laugh about Sard’s suit’s pretentious phrasing.
“But not it and you?”
“Not yet, it says. Should I apologise for joking?”
“Something for you to study on, in your spare time,” Greg said.
“The first definitely and also the second?”
“You have to ask when I make a joke?” Greg said. “We’re in a ditch in the rock between two domes.” He gave Sard no time to think up the next move in the wordplay. “Just over the wall to your right, to the east, is the Pit’s domed roof. Opposite, the dome of Crystal Cave. To the northwest and northeast are another two habitats, with another two domes. Youk is often about on these paths. As are minions on maintenance duty. A dangerous place for you to be, you’ll understand.”
Sard wanted to contradict. They were invisible. How would they be seen? He recalled the suit’s problem with the sky. He checked where the sun was. “You’ve got a shadow. I’ve got a shadow. How you knew where I was.”
“Now work out the safest place to descend from the ridge onto the desert,” Greg said.
“The steel hatch to the outside at Youk’s hide-out, is welded shut. There, I reckon.”
“Tell me the way north.”
Sard pointed. “Lead you?”
“More dangers around the corner.”
“Right.” Sard flattened himself against the wall of the runnel for Greg to pass him.
Greg stopped with a hand still on Sard’s shoulder. “There’s a sharp corner with a chasm at our feet. After a storm it’s full of water. Cold enough that even your suit will die before you can be saved. Watch for my feet.”
Greg’s lower legs and feet appeared. Black, as if they were laced in a circus performer’s boots. Greg joking? Greg’s suit joking?
“Follow my feet along this ledge.”
Greg was around the corner before Sard got going. He faced outward and slid his feet sideways. His hands helped him to cling to the rocks behind him. The opposite walls came closer and a new runnel presented itself. This one wider. They passed a hump of stonework that covered what he thought must be the dome. “Safe to talk?”
“Next time ask me through the suits,” Greg said. “Like this.” He gripped Sard’s arm.
< Accompanying amalgam desires the you + I continuity to initiate the vocal exchange >
Greg dropped his hand.
If Sard hadn’t been wearing the suit, he would’ve sweated trying to work that out. Hesitantly he grasped Greg’s forearm. Ask the accompanying amalgam if it is safe to speak?
“You could teach it my name,” Greg said. “It’s shorter. In your spare time. Yes, it’s safe to talk for a minute.”
“All I wanted to ask was if we were above Simmonds in this unused habitat?”
“Yes. Always be alive-to-background.” Greg tapped the rock roofing lightly, “This is where Youk was born. He acts like he owns it. He’s often out here tweaking his power supply.” Greg directed Sard’s own arm to point into the direction of a solar installation, which Sard shamefully hadn’t noticed yet.
At the edge of a slope of large stones, Greg stopped Sard with an arm across his midriff. “Check the landscape often for the Clay Faces. You should do whatever it takes to stay out of their clutches. They’re usually on their camels. Cloaked and masked. They use whips and chains and sell whoever they catch into slavery.”
“Worse than the slavery Jin wrote about?”
Greg laughed. “You’ve been into Youk’s files? Good for you.” He sobered. “Our slavery is a holiday in comparison.”
Sard swept his gaze from the north to the west and as far to the south as the ridge allowed him. “Can’t see any?”
“What did you look for?”
“Movement on the plain.”
“Do it again, checking the horizon for wriggling. That’s about five thousand paces distance. As far as we can see from here.”
“How do you know?”
“Rider checked it when he was what you are. His project.”
Good thing they were invisible, because Sard-man must have been visibly stunned. What he felt like, anyway. Greg’s understanding of what Rider’s project was being so different from what Rider said to Sard about Rider’s project.
Could there be public projects, as in the public who were in the secret company, and secret secret projects? It’d be another interesting thing to discover in his supposed spare time. “What’s mine? My project?”
“I’ll tell you after I teach you the desert.”
They clambered down the slope and stepped onto the desert floor. Sard saw his feet re-appear pointillist-style. Maybe his suit wasn’t coping with the change in colour. Please fix our feet.
< The you + I continuity foot-soles register a sand-over-clay walking surface >
Red sand, Sard told it. The suit footlets faded.
“But which won’t be today,” Greg said. “Lead me the way back and tell me, by way of our suits, the reasons for everything.”
Sard slept on a sack of mulbry-felt scraps, under the centre of the dome. Rider had his quarters in the second entryway. On a night of no moon, he dragged his bed out, next to Sard’s. “We should face into the north tonight.”
Sard swung his bed around.
Rider woke Sard before sunrise, with a hand on his shoulder. “Tell me what you see, apart from the stars.”
“It’s my second time staring at the sky?” He almost fell into his habitual blame-thinking. But probably Rider woke him for a good reason. “What am I looking for? Satellites? Planets?”
“Closer in,” Rider said.
The rock rim all around framed the dome with shadows. The dome itself … Sard hesitated in his seeing task. “There are lines inscribed on the per-glass?”
“The Celestial Equator, curving overhead from the west to the east,” Rider swung his arm from the left behind his head to the right behind his head. “It’s a consensual-reality line that helps us observe the stars.”
“The dot behind our heads?” Sard said.
“The Southern Celestial Pole, equidistant between the two arms of the Celestial Equator that seem to finish in the west and east, do you see? The rest of the Celestial Equator is out of our sight, below our horizon.”
“The lines between the space pole and the space equator are…?”
“Celestial latitudes, not of our concern tonight,” Rider said. “We are at the beginning of Silver Time as the seasons are counted in the delta. It lasts from mid July to just past mid summer, mid January.”
“That’s half the year.”
“All through Silver Time, the Lodestar is in the night sky. This morning it is visible in the east. Look there.” Rider swung his right hand this time, over Sard’s face and forcing him to swivel his head.
He sighted along Rider’s arm. “A bright star. Just inside the rock rim. Just outside the space equator,” he said.
Rider sat up. “All my away-time I worked to gain the trust of the grey people of the delta for my project to learn about their lodestar. The only thing I could discover is that there’s a connection between that star and the seasons. The time the lodestar is present in the night-sky is Silver Time. When it is not present … that’s called Tarnish Time.”
“Tarnish suggests black,” Sard said. “As if they think it’s a black time when their favorite star isn’t in their sky.” He shrugged. “It could be that easy.”
Rider laughed. “In the villages to the west of the delta, where I lived at the time, people maintained that the Lodestar is another name for Procyon, the star that rises before the Dog Star. An Aerk Islander I met said that the Procyon System was where the Aerk Islanders originated, and the Lodestar is a remnant of the starship that brought them. I advise you not to discuss your project with anyone.”
“Project?” Sard said.
“The men Gamester has attracted to his outer cave, these swimmers, visit the delta regularly. They’re considered friends of the grey people and I did indeed hear rumors of swimmers while I was in the delta. In your away-time, for your project, I’d like you to learn more about that link, between the Lodestar and the grey people. I’m ninety percent sure that in the future that link will affect us in some way …”
Probably Rider had been going to say more but Sard heard only ‘in your away-time’. “You mean I don’t have to go forever? That I can come back? Why didn’t you say so? That’s a whole other slant.”
“You’ll always be behind the scenes, like I am.”
“You won’t be sorry. I’m a good organizer.” He recalled the performances he had had practically to rewrite on the go due to people dropping out. Or people wanting to join at the last minute. “I thrive on surprises.”
“Those are considerations for after your away-time,” Rider said. “Perhaps if you could tell the grey people you’d met these swimmers …”
“I get that. Make friends so …”
Rider made a cutting-off gesture. “Someone in the airlock.”
It was only Mab, asking for instructions apparently, Sard saw with a couple of quick glances. While Rider was busy with her, Sard tidied up the bedding, dumping Rider’s by his private airlock, and rolling up his own. He stored his gear between two pillars. He started his exercises. The slow ones, so he could fantasize his success.
— — — —
Washing and the rest were done in the opening to the so-called water tunnel equidistant between the two airlocks. Time would have to tell the reason for its existence, because Sard had too much to learn each day to remember to ask.
He lifted the lid closing off the end of a wide pipe ending at the level of his knees approximately, and peed down into it. Flushed the pipe with the half-bucket of waste-water standing ready.
The pipe went down through the intervening rock – cunningly camouflaged wherever it went through any living spaces, according to Rider – and discharged with general dome wastes to be buried in the soil in one of the plantations.
Sard washed himself with a couple of handfuls of water in the clean-water bucket, the water from a pipe sourcing gravity-fed rainwater from a cistern up on the roof. He poured his used water into the waste-water bucket, and rinsed the clean-water bucket ready for the next user.
He pulled on the life suit since it was the subject of his learnings and Rider’s teachings, though he tucked the gloves into the sleeves, and the hood down his back. Pulled on a pair of shorts over the top.
Today, breakfast was cold riced soybeans garnished with a spicy hot sauce. Same as dinner last night. He was learning the fine art of rationing and plus the use of his strength of mind. Food was brought only once a day. “How can will and knowledge be enough?” he asked Rider while he tried not to wolf down his food. He doubted his strength of mind where the purpose of the whole exercise of saving his life was concerned. Not that he told anybody. What if they stopped trying because he was doubtful?
“With good skills and a good kit they’ll be more than plenty,” Rider said. “Those are the next layers in the pyramid of survival – training your own capabilities and learning those of your equipment, such as that life-suit, for instance.”
In the mode of a good acolyte, Sard cleared and cleaned the dishes. Their kitchen was a shelf beside Mab’s airlock above another bucket, this one containing sudsy water for washing dishes.
“Today we’ll explore the fountain-of-light meditation,” Rider said when Sard took his place opposite Rider.
“Because it’s my favorite? I mean, because with it I can best control my wayward thoughts?”
The suit, because he was thinking about it, peacocked with multi-colored blotches and liquid spurting stripes.
Rider ignored Sard’s quips. He did his sitting-down-on-air trick, bowing his legs to accommodate an imaginary pony between his knees.
Sard did his diagonal four-step to end up next to Rider, as he still got confused mirroring his actions. He bowed his legs and summoned his own tai-ji pony. Be pastel, like the sky, he ordered the suit.
< You + I are discontinuous. Your hands/I hands. Your head/I head >
Be pastel. Like the sky, Sard thought as he pulled the gloves on and the hood on over his head.
Though the suit’s electrical discharges grew calmer, its colors stayed bright. < What is pastel, I know not sky >
The sky is overhead. Pastels are faded colors. Fade.
< I cannot perceive sky. I cannot feel what I cannot touch. I cannot compute sky >
Every time Sard worked the suit, he learned more of what it could and could not do. Looks like today it was telling him about suit-specific perception. How, if he wanted it to feel something, it had to be able to touch whatever it was. Didn’t bode well for the rest of its senses. Uh oh, Rider’s getting ahead of me.
Rider squatted and knuckled metaphoric light from the floor near his feet.
Sard breathed and half-squatted and knuckled a pair of imaginary cables from the stone by his feet. Make them strong and live and light.
< Intermittent energy pulsing, ground to head height, rising as you rise >
Rider breathed in while he rose out of his squat and split his cable in two, one end in each of his fists. He drew his imaginary cables up through his legs, through his gut and held the pose with his fists in front of his heart.
Sard breathed in while he rose, managing to observe the pain of his screaming muscles and then to ignore them. Give me twin cables, lit and alive, and thread one through each foot, through our leg bones as if they were hollow, and loop them round my knees and thighs. With his fists knuckling together, he guided the suit-provided cables up through his groin and his gut.
Rider breathed out slowly as he drew his imaginary light through his neck and out through the top of his head.
Sard breathed out slowly as he drew twin strings of spangling light through his neck and head – the life suit gave him stars bursting from his mouth and nose and eyes, then spurted light from the top of his head. He fizzed like a roman candle. Oops, the candle sputtered and almost died. He spread his fingers and hands and arms and showered light in a sparkling fountain falling and fading. He resumed the start position, feet a shoulder-width apart, hands hanging, long fingers pointing straight down his legs. Thank you, he said at the suit.
< You + I are continuous >
Sard made his breathing match Rider’s pattern, recovering from the show.
“Now do it again, without me,” Rider said.
Sard summoned light from the ground and on a rising breath fisted sparkling stuttering cords up his body, gapping and twisting, to the top of his head. As he spread his arms and separated his fingers, he breathed out. Light spattered in and out of the lattice of his bones and joints, strobing and fading before it hit the ground.
“One hell of a piece of equipment,” Rider said. “Did you notice that its patterning went to pieces when you allowed yourself to become distracted?”
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 tiptoed into Youk’s domain. He couldn’t ever take anything for granted ever again. He had to eat. He’d never been so ravenous. He broke open a new food pack from somewhere in the bottom of Youk’s pile. Protein biscuit and dried berries, he washed them down with the water he brought. Though the light in here glared steady and bright, he took a torch to keep by him, also from the bottom of that pile. He arranged the remainder to look untouched.
He circled Youk’s standalone. He was glad now that he’d ignored the teasing he copped for having a go on a similar model in the hard copy museum. Cords snaked over the floor from the back of this one into a geriatric power supply. Solar, perhaps. He didn’t have time tonight to check that out as well. He dared press a few switches. The LEDs flickered. The monitor lit up.
The desktop screen divided in two and both spaces filled with file icons. On the right-hand side was everyone he knew. Even him. This he’d have to see. Hah. A diary of his activities, comings and goings. The last entry was about the ionized clothes. He couldn’t help grinning as he read. Phin would be seeing to him when next Sard turned up for work?
Next he opened Srese’s file. A diary of Srese’s days, mostly negative scores for the way she didn’t give Youk his dues. And Youk had icons for Ghulia, Sard’s care-mum, and Zoya, Srese’s care-mother. Caro, Relda, and Tye were in there too. Even Ferd had a file? All their interactions with Youk scored out of ten. No explanations unfortunately. Seriously weird.
The names on the left side of the monitor screen were arranged in pairs. He saw no names that were used these days. He clicked down into a “Jin” and read Jin’s words.
“Gamester is a very rich bloke who set this community up for his personal entertainment. He told me that it wasn’t enough for him to have just to play computer simulation games. No, he wanted to do it with flesh and blood people. Mere empire building got boring he said. Humans have curiosity, variety, creativity. He thought he’d never be bored with real people to entertain him.”
Sard recalled Ghulia telling him that story. And he’d told Srese, because as Srese said, Zoya wasn’t Ghulia. He skim-read the rest of Jin’s file.
“My father says Gamester never grew up. My mother says there was too much money in Gamester’s family, we should never have come. My father throws up his hands and says, “As safe a haven as I could find … the war … the babies … remember what it was like?” My mother goes misty-eyed remembering her babies and I miss my Jan so much.
“Slave, slavery, enslavement: I think keeping people against their will to make them work is slavery … Gamester says he deserves my good will, he used his whole fortune to set up the game that saved us all from extinction.”
Sard sat up. Jin and Jan had a care mother and a care father. That was new. The habitat as a haven from war was another thing he’d never heard of. He flicked back to the desktop. Picked another pair of names. Jen and Jarrah.
“Gamester says we are STALE”, Jen said. “Stale means when things are not humming along at top notch quality. When people do things like pay all their credits to grow plants we have no use for. Or drool over old recipes with impossible ingredients. Or choose silly names for their children like Cloud and Mary and do their work any-old-how to spend their real lives with their daydreams in the CAVES.
“The game can die when STALE happens so Gamester must call on his kids for help. The one that passes the test, wins the quest. Jarrah should’ve won. I never was the best at pretending. Gamester says I don’t need Jarrah because he is made of Gamester’s genes the same as Jen is, so he is the same, he is Jen.”
Sard squirmed. He didn’t like where the logic was taking him. Both Jin and Jen were versions of Srese, who had won. He wanted to read about Jarrah. He saw no file written by Jarrah. He tried another pair, further down the column. Clicked on Sully.
“Gamester made my bots sharp. A campfire warmed the overhang with glowing light and strangers slept there, like golden slugs. Gamester wanted to know them and I am the avatar. He forced me out there. Fenna, the previous winner whom Gamester kept to teach me my job, planned my meeting with the strangers. She explained how I should move, what to say.
“I trembled as I picked my way toward them. Stones underfoot, how would I run if they turned fierce? The man pushed the women behind him when he saw me still coming. He pointed a knife to warn me off.
“Fenna told me I should smile sweetly, in particular at the younger woman. If we could get her inside, Gamester would chase the others off. When I put the food on the ground, the man pushed the girl toward me.
“When Fenna and I later got close to the girl, bile burned my throat. Her skin is leprous and torn, with shreds hanging from her. Unclean. Her rags cover sun-rot. Her eyes are unseeing and white. Gamester I cannot.”
Sard gagged. Here’s hoping the mermen weren’t similarly sun-struck, Srese my sweet sister. Maybe he hadn’t got the worst half of the deal. And Sully wasn’t finished yet.
“Gamester hurt me. His bots cut my flesh. My blood leaks from my veins. Neither she nor I will be wasted.”
Sard went to spit his bile into the pile of sand inside the hatch door. This hatch was welded shut, he saw with the help of his torch. No way anyone could escape here. Shuddering, he scuffed sand over his vomit. Read what I have to and get out. Then he saw a name he knew. Ferd.
Ferd’s sister was the Federica who had had to leave. Sard clicked her name and for once there was a file backing it. “Ferd won the quest and in a minute I am gone …”
This one is for me, the loser. Sard stilled his fear before continuing. Ghulia wouldn’t have taken all that trouble if she’d meant for me to be lost. He continued reading Federica’s story. “… Though not before I have my say. All you after me, there is no contest. It all depends on the kind of outsider who is tricked to come. Male or female. Whatever they are, the chosen one will be the other.
“After the big head’s brain was spliced into the mainframe, there was plenty of flesh left for cloning. Trouble for me, and all you future clone-kids, he was a coward. Meaning his cells were old before he dared the procedure. The cheap biotech he bought before he inclosed our people from the rest of the world meant his labbies couldn’t grow young cells from old ones. Meaning, we clones are old straight after we are young. Never in between.
“So, biotech must make sure to always have a pair of young clones on hand. One of each, yin and yang, so that when human people take shelter at the edges of the game, appropriate bait for the trap already exists. Boys are his clones. Girls his chimeras and are made with two copies of his one X chromosome. We’d be messy creatures if it weren’t for the techies who fix up our weirdings.
“This push to lift DNA from all the world’s wanderers isn’t the bighead’s idea at all. Think baby makers and our infertility, because what would the techies play with if the players all died, say some disease got in? Our people think Gamester invents outsiders so that we clones can earn our keep. I’m telling you this because to be forewarned is to be fore-armed. I’m out of here.”
Sard reeled away from the standalone. Fear and rage burned in him like a hot sword twisting in his gut. He wished it was all Youk’s fantasy and that he could go and take Youk out over it. Tempt him into the unused complex and lose him in there. Hit him over the head in the dark.
But, there were too many supporting realities for it to be a fantasy. Ferd, for one. The twin avatars, himself and Srese. Ghulia’s actions and reactions. Mab talking of Plan B. Even Rider’s existence behind the scenes. Ghulia said Federica left with a herder woman. Better than by herself, because who could live out there on their own? Because look at the sand hilled up even in an airlock with the door welded shut? The wind, yes, he could hear the wind out there picking up. Screaming.
Ferd was the geriatric avatar kept on to teach the next winner, Srese. The way Fenna had directed Sully. What future for me?Ghulia means me to live. She’d known that a month of Sundays wouldn’t have been enough time to explain it all. He hadn’t been in the frame of mind to listen. She’d taken him along secret byways to a man she trusted, in a place invisible to Gamester and his minions. A place not part of the game, yet not in the world.
Which he had rejected with high-handed ignorance. Then she took a risk with him that he’d almost wasted. He was awake to it now and he most definitely wanted to live. He kicked the standalone, gently. He ought to thank Youk, for supplying him with the facts, however unknowingly. He’d warn Srese if he could. He shut down the standalone and made sure the hide-out was as he’d found it.
Sard dragged himself into the airlock, trailing the sheet and the map. He was sand-caked, the sweating he did, and rolling around trying to escape the blare of the sun. And still got sunburned. Unbelievable. No shower. No bathroom. No facilities of any kind. He hated starting the day unwashed. Sandy in this case. With his eyelids puffy and sore. The only good thing, and that was due the time of the day, was that the sun didn’t intrude. He grumped about, looking at things. Shelves, three high, plasti-kreet to the left and right of the hatchway. Packed with stuff. What he’d stupidly put off asking about until this morning. And his supposed care-mother abandoned him?
Watching the line of sun-bright expand in over the hatch-sill, he thought a while. The sun’s light falling from the overhead position – didn’t that mean it was past mid-day? The day half gone? He almost heard Ghulia say her piece. Chop chop Sard, be back in time for early breakfast tomorrow morning.
The food here, he grabbed down a belt of rations and opened a couple of the canisters in turn, looked unappetizing in the extreme. A sheet of mashed together curried field fungi on rice, dried and rolled up. The rice grains a la bas-relief in the texture. No thank you! Hell, he intended getting back in time for dinner. Tonight.
So let’s see, what can I use? A torch? His one from yesterday had gone dim. This little thing? It resembled an antique clock dial. Only this thing had N W S E in place of the numerals and only one pointer. Which wriggled back to the same place every time regardless of how he positioned the dial. The pointer had an N on the tip. So did it always point Neilson-wise? The proper name was North, Ghulia said. He couldn’t remember if she told him the others. Too confusing. He put it back among the rest of its sort.
Then there were these tight packs of fabric. Of a size he’d seen before. He grinned, pulling a cord that hung from the center of one of the larger-sized packs. The bundle unfolded gracefully and made itself into a tent of the sort that couples used when camping in the Pit. For privacy, they’d tell you before you even asked. He moved along. What about these smaller teardrop-shaped parcels? He pulled the cord exiting from the lowest point and it folded out into a heart shape. A floppy fabric bundle, all sleeves and pant legs, opened loosely.
He picked up the … leotards-part? He tried to think back to when they’d used a couple of these – life suits, that’s what they were – in a performance. The heart-shape was the breastplate because of the contours, and plus it had contacts and sensor ends on the inside where presumably it would sit/hang centrally over one’s ribcage. The edges on the wearer’s chest would join to the U-shaped gathering of the elastic leotards. He couldn’t remember who brought them.
His stomach growled from hunger. He’d take the suit and its thingummy and try it out later, for a bit of fun. He’d be stupid to carry a full bladder of water. Home was only a dogleg, a couple of caves, and another dogleg distant. He wouldn’t need all that water. He squeezed half the water out, onto the ground outside, and pressed the air from the bladder to make it easier to carry. He was lucky that Ghulia forgot to take the map …
Suddenly he was laughing at his delusions. She left you the map, idiot.Rider thinks you are as stupid as anyone. She set this up to prove him wrong. I’m remaindered. I don’t need to prove myself to anyone.
Indecision stole over him. He sat down against the shelves to think the better. I could live here, sleep on a shelf. Food and water at hand. I’ll learn the life suit and steal back into the habitat. Go where I want. Eat what I like. Not be anyone to anybody. Just be myself. He gave himself to the planning.
He woke when the sun again touched his already burnt ankle. He pulled up his knees, the back of them burnt earlier too. The magic of plan C was gone. He should instead surprise everybody and front up at the dome. Find out more about Plan B. Once he was on his own with it, and it did seem that would be a requirement, he could adapt it to his own ideas.
Right. He was on track. He packed the suit things in the map and knotted the four corners. Looped his belt through the resulting parcel and through the loop of the water bladder. Settled them on opposite hips. Took up his torch.
He strode around the outside of the empty dark holes that once were the Computer Augmented Virtual Environments, CAVEs – a stupid name now without the computers – into Wingham. He took Second Circle because it would be quicker than the dogleg through the Nest.
He counted lane entrances: One Twenty, One Fifty, the next opening as wide as a street. Had to be Simmonds. Oops. Force of habit took him down Simmonds. Well, never mind. His famous sense of direction would see him right.
Huh, plantations at the end? Not that there were trees. The dust of ages and the bare loamy earth that damped all sound, even the fall of his feet. It was darker too. He shook the torch.
The beam flickered, rallied, and died. He stretched his eyes as wide as they would go, making himself super-ready to see. Not a skerrick shred or pinprick. Why oh why hadn’t he thought to take a spare torch? A whole shelf and he’d ignored them? Now what? Back for another torch, or forward and home in ten minutes? He closed his eyes to help him not worry about the impenetrable dark. Breathe, one and two. Better.
He’d be just as good by feel. Better maybe, given his avatar augmentations. They had to be good for something. He stood for a minute or so visualizing the same place in the home habitat, to get the feel for the way. Slog slog. This lane should be Two Ten. Up that and back into Second Circle, he trailed his fingers along the curve. The next opening would be Two Forty. Ignore the ends of the old labs. He quested for the next lane. There, the cave entrance.
“Yes.” His voice bounced around in a big space, he was in the cave.
He followed the wall, not risking over-confidence and crossing diametrically, his left hand brushed along it soundlessly. There. The holo? Yes, he could touch both sides easily. Though he had no way to feel the pixels pixelating him as he stepped through. Now to negotiate Crystal Cave. A snack, since he knew it by heart.
Only problem was, he’d expected to be able to see. Ambient light from the home hole. Where was it? He’d proceed on the premise that this was Crystal Cave and that the home hole had technical troubles. A power problem. Let’s see, if he left the path here, he should hit the curtain of drinking straws pretty well straightaway. Srese’s name for that speleotherm.
Missed it. Easy enough in the dark. But never mind, the stalagmite dome was next. Missed that one too. He stood still. Waved his arms around. Maybe he’d feel an air current flowing between the frozen waterfall of flowstone and the banded shawls?
Nothing. He dropped to the ground. The dust he remembered. He felt for the platforms, the mesas as he so cleverly had likened them to. He crawled on and on. No cave features. Maybe he was in the home habitat’s Pit, after dark? There’d be path lights. Or was he in a wild hole? Didn’t Ghulia sort of say there were more than one other habitat? Was he fated to wander a maze of undiscovered caves forever?
He stopped. Took a drink. His forever wouldn’t be too long since he’d so stupidly poured away half his water and hadn’t taken any food. Would Ghulia send a search party? Go on, he goaded himself, have a fit of hysterics. No. Get it together. Close your eyes. The dark in your head can’t be as bad as the dark around you. He dropped to his hands and knees. Kept his toes glued to the wall and felt all along the ground. Here, a ridge in the sand. Beyond it was bare rock, like it was swept. A stroll path. The holes Ghulia showed him. Back at the wall, here and here. Big ones for sensors. The small ones for fasteners.
Phew. Not lost. Still the Pit Ghulia and he came through yesterday. He must have got turned around. He should just follow the wall until he came to a way out. If it was Two Forty, he’d fetch a torch and if it was a holo with light behind it, he’d be home. Walk walk walk. An opening. Even his sense of time passing had got turned about. It felt too soon for an opening.
Only stale air here, no through-flow of recycled air or the unmoderated stuff. But anyway, if there was no wind outside, why would the air in a habitat move? He spread his arms out to measure the width of the thoroughfare and touched both sides. A Radial. He was going back for a torch and some food. He was so confused though, he knew that he should stay in the rind of the habitat, the dead plantations and the gardens. He’d surely hit on the performance complex sooner than if he went to the Nest and had to count off radials and streets by heart.
He kept the open places to his left. Passed one street and three lanes mouths. Good, he was on track. A wall, a wall, we have the T-junction. Though its arms curved away from the center making it a wide hug-shape. He pressed himself into the wall, giving thanks that he’d found it again.
The corner of his eyesight tripped over a streak of light.
He turned his head. Blinked.
Rays of white light, as steady as … well … light beams, glowed between the two walls of the lane. Funny he hadn’t noticed them before. Probably Ghulia distracted him just then? One of her ploys?
He stared and stared. They didn’t move. Motes of dust twirled into their cool silver-blue light and out again.
It came to him, finally, that one of the walls was pierced like a peeping wall and that light from the CAVE behind it beamed through the holes onto the outer wall of the corridor.
Sound emanated from the holes as well.
Had to be human, because who else was there? Gammy’s minions had no voices.
Would the occupant of the CAVE know if and when Sard peered at them?
He started. Because incredibly, it was Youk in there talking to himself! Playing, typing, whatever, on a standalone. His back to the open door. Meaning, Sard realized, his stupid self had certainly got turned around, and properly.
He’d better drop all his fantasies about himself instantly. He was obviously in a third habitat complex. The airlock and stores were beyond his reach. But never mind, he peered into the overflowing piles of stuff in the corners of Youk’s hide, Youk had got in all the goodies from the shelves. Torches, tents and suits in one corner. Bladders of water and food containers stacked in another.
“It’ll have to be that silly little Srese!” Youk said.
Sard almost swore. Out loud. Youk was in one of his rages and what did he want with Srese? Had Youk heard him?
Youk was showing no inclination of getting up to flush Sard out. Sard wanted to rack his brain for instances of Srese-Youk interaction.
Keep it, Sard-man. Concentrate on the now. Two ways out of these CAVES that both went through the T-junction and he didn’t know Youk’s habits. Lost through his own stupidity, he especially did not want to be discovered by Youk.
He wanted to find out Youk’s moan against Srese. He’d have to forget about dinner at home but hope Youk wouldn’t. Five AM was still all the hours of the night away. Where to hide in the meantime? Uh oh, Youk’s chair scraped back and Youk was on the move.
Sard stealthed up the road a bit to keep out of the light of Youk’s torch and where its beam might swing. Youk being left-handed and so with his torch in that hand, meant Sard hid on Youk’s right-hand. Youk strode past him up the street not bothering about all the noise he made. Sard followed a long, safe, way behind.
Straight through the Nest – both sets of foyer doors were chocked open – and into the street directly opposite. Which forked at its end. This was nowhere Sard had ever been. Youk took the left entrance. When Sard arrived, he saw Youk halfway along a well-worn path looping among a bunch of empty pedestals. A holo glowed at the path’s end. Once Youk was through and Sard’s eyes had adjusted to the lack of torchlight, the holo glowed with dusk time. Yes! The home Pit was on the other side.
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?