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?
Sard was born an avatar in the community where he lives, and has honed his skills in the production of cave-wide games for most of his sixteen years. With his twin sister Srese, who is a superlative actor and usually stars in his productions, they top this competitive profession. To his consternation his sister is chosen over him as the one to star in Gamester's newest production, while he is remaindered!
Remaindered? What does that even mean, he wonders as the electronics of the underground community begin to shut him out. His care-mother; one of the previous, now hidden, remaindered avatars; and Greg, the community's chef all help him to stay alive as he comes to grips with his new status. But how will he now live, doing what?
In this, Part One, Sard learns a couple of the facts about his new way to be and a whole lot of unpleasant suppositions, and he's hardly in the position to be able to tell one from the other.
Sard strode through the pastel yellow arch out of the Nest. He needed the roiling colours of his envy and disappointment and anger. Because how come Srese won the contest when he was always the better producer? He wanted reds and blues and greens storming along the corridor walls alongside him. Where were they?
He stopped. The Nest doors soughed shut behind him.
The walls, what he could see of them, were grey. And all the holos, one on every block-end, were extinguished.
Some kind of power cut? I don’t think so. He stepped back seeking with his fingertips the comforting painted story on the Nest’s doors. A fill layered into the dark green paint made the bas relief trees. A rectangular brown roughened area signified a door into a tree trunk. Zoya, the kiddy-carer, regularly pasted the profile of a different infant over the door as if they were then pushing it open. She’d painted a tremble of golden light as if it came through the aperture.
The doors slid open behind him because he still stood on the sensory-mat. He breathed relief. Phew. At least a couple of doors still worked for him.
A chatter of voices neared from the Wingham direction, the group still out of sight around the bulging-out curve of the Nest. Dorms and family apartments fronted First Circle on that side. This late in the morning it was probably Tye and his girls. Sard almost bolted back into his hole. What good, though? He had to eat.
“Bad luck, mate,” Tye said as he passed Sard. “Not winning, I mean.”
Sard was slightly comforted. If that was all Tye knew, he could probably brazen it out and go to breakfast at least.
Tye hugged Relda to him. Both had dressed gypsy-style. She swirled a shin-length red and yellow skirt. Tye’s pants were about the same length, with the cuffs artfully folded up and he wore a neckerchief the colour of Relda’s headscarf. Gold coins sewn over both. Caro arm-in-armed Viva, twirling so each could add her play to the hotspots in the holos.
So far they’d conjured a carved gypsy caravan pulled by a horse plodding along a sandy track in a high summer scene of green and gold. The ceilings round about were now blue and they seemed to walk on the same gold sand track.
“What do you think?” Caro said.
“I like it.” Sard touched the opposite wall, near where he walked, where flowers burgeoned in a field of green. His touch killed off a swatch of flowers. He jerked back. Hope no one saw that.
“You want to input your alterity?” Viva said. “Since you’re not costumed?”
“No. Go ahead. You two are doing a great job.” They were all represented in the mural. The couple strolled in the meadow and Viva drove the horse. The Caro-alterity did cartwheels alongside.
The gypsy caravan followed them across Second Circle and pulled into a meadow forming on the Dining Hall’s long wall between Second and Third Circles. The horse began to graze and the alterities followed their people around the corner toward the Dining Hall entry where they pixilated into the scenery.
Sard walked into the Dining hall among them. His heart hammered when for the five or six seconds that he was the only one on the sensory-mat, the doors started to slide shut. He pressed back the near one. Should he suspect that the door utility suddenly didn’t know him anymore?
Youk and Phin were already in there, shoveling scrambled eggs down their respective gullets. How he hated them. Obviously he was late, along with every other trouble this morning.
“Don’t let them get to you,” Tye said.
“Thanks.” How, was the question. He fetched his porridge, the white pap, his eggs, the yellow pap, on the baked and toasted pap. If he was slow about it maybe his tormentors would leave. But they were still at the table and so because he dormed with Phin and Youk he had to go sit with them.
As usual Youk across the table from him watched everything he did. Didn’t the guy ever have anything better for his yellow eyes to do than make sure the avatars didn’t get ahead of him? Youk said, “Shoveling it in rather, aren’t we?”
“What?” Sard could’ve kicked himself. When would he learn not to react?
“Shoveling the food in like the farmers didn’t grow it to your taste.”
“Ha ha,” Sard said around the egg. “Since I’m one of the farmers.”
Phin, diagonally across from Sard, smiled benignly. He kicked Sard’s feet out of his way under the table and hooked his own under Sard’s chair.
“Finished?” Youk said. “Good. You and I have business.” Loud enough for everyone to hear, he said, “Fare thee well, oh golden avatar! Do you wend to your Herculean labours?”
Of course everyone remaining at the other tables looked up and laughed and commented.
“Do you join him, Youk, to be dusted by his benison?” Tye said. He winked. At Sard when of course both Youk and Phin could not miss seeing.
Thanks Tye, for nothing. Sard thrust back his chair, hopefully doing damage to Phin’s hooked-up toes. Sard stood in a hurry to catch the chair before it fell. All he needed was a whip, to tame his lions. He put the chair down and shoved it hard against Phin’s outstretched legs. He didn’t say sorry because he would pay whatever he did.
Youk followed him near enough that he looked like he hustled Sard from the Dining Hall.
“Master and slave. Youk in his favourite role,” Tye shouted after them.
The doors closed when Sard and Youk stepped from the sensory matting, shutting them off from any further ribaldry. Because he had Youk breathing down his neck, Sard made for the dorm he supposedly shared with him and Phin. He dived into the lane beside the Dining Hall, and took a left into the corridor between Second and Third Circles. Walls, where available, were grey.
The dorms fronted onto the lane with doors and windows, and backed windowless onto the Circles allowing a lot of wall to be given over to holos. “Surely the walls should’ve been flaming red on black?” Youk said. “Gammy-the-damned-AI loves strong emotions all said and done.”
Youk was of course commenting on Sard’s lack of nanobots. Yesterday Sard hadn’t had any nanobots either, but he’d been a whizz at programming holos. The same as Caro. Today, because he didn’t win the programming competition he suddenly was nobody? It still didn’t make sense. He stood back for Youk to unlock.
Youk stood back, too.
It looked like it would be a stand-off.
“Well?” Youk said. “You’re the golden-bloody-avatar!”
But how much of an avatar could Sard ever have been to be so instantly excised? “No nanobots, remember?” he said. “You’ll be missing lunch along with me if we stand here all morning.” As if Youk will miss lunch, he thought. “Funny how the corridor walls don’t reflect your mood. Shouldn’t they be a dirty green? The colour of envy?” Youk had envied Sard and Srese all their lives.
“The stupid AI wouldn’t dare try,” Youk said. He stepped forward. “He knows I’d hack into him with no respect.”
“Yeah right. Full of gas as usual.” Sard pushed past Youk’s fist.
The main room was a disaster. Any clothes that Sard hadn’t taken to the Nest were trodden into the rest of the mess. He started picking them up. “That’s what we’re here for? For you to tell me that the walls aren’t reacting to me?”
“And the rest. But why would I help you? You’re so stupid.”
“Oh, you mean you’re now not going to tell me the walls aren’t reacting to me today?” He sprang aside to escape Youk’s kick.
“The Pit would’ve been the better place.”
“Why would I have gone in there with you, with every man of your friends joking and laughing at my expense.”
Youk slung his arm over Sard’s shoulders and sidestepped him into the bathroom. Dirty clothes underfoot wherever they stood. Phin refused them the use of a laundry basket.
“See what I just did?”
“What you just did?” Being thickheaded was often his best defense against Youk.
Youk shook him. “Stop that. I was demonstrating how friendly I can be.”
Sard laughed. “You hate me. I’m the golden bloody avatar, remember?”
“You’re an insufferable know-it-all clone. Just like my father. Just like Gammy. You and your sister both are just a pair of damned Gammy-clones.”
“Srese would remind you that we are twins, same DNA, womb tanks side by side.”
“Trust me, Srese is half Yon Kerr doubled, and you’re Yon Kerr.”
“What would you know?” Sard said. “Though why would you know is probably more to the point.”
“Ferd is my father. He’s the Yon Kerr clone of his generation. I’m his natural-born son.” Youk stood up straighter. Even puffed his chest out.
“They say that about you,” Sard said. “So what?”
“I wasn’t made in a test tube or decanted out of a womb tank. My mother was the desert woman Yon Kerr got in for my father to romance. He won a contest to star in a cave-wide entertainment.”
Like Srese just did. Sard swallowed.
“Ring a bell does it, that phrasing?” Youk said. “I was going to show you what happens to remaindered avatars. It’s why we should’ve gone to the Pit. Walked through a holo there into the next disused complex.” Youk punched Sard’s disbelief back into him. “You didn’t know that there are more habitats than this one, did you?”
Punch. “Too bad, I could’ve shown you my hide. I have a standalone there with all the info you would’ve been likely to want.” Youk shook his head. “There’s history there you wouldn’t believe. You’re so superior that you don’t even want to know? When Srese has so obviously won and you’re suddenly remaindered?” Youk let Sard go as if he was suddenly poisonous. He flung himself onto the couch.
Sard bent and picked up a pair of pants. “I’m not worried,” he said. “Srese and I have an agreement.” Whichever of them was picked for the role would hoist the other twin up with them. He’d been so green with envy himself, he’d forgotten. People said they were the best CAVE actor-and-producer team ever. Not that he’d swirl that cape in front of Youk.
And anyway, Srese and he knew the habitat inside out. Spent years finding all the nooks and crannies. No unused complexes that he knew. As for the other thing, he’d have to believe she’d remember their pact.
“So what will you be doing about it?” Youk said, almost friendly.
How stupid did Youk think he was? Sard shrugged. He wished Youk would go. He went round the room picking up his clothes. “My laundry.”
“You could do some of mine.”
“You know what Phin will say.”
“What will Phin say?” said Phin, coming in.
“About Sard doing just his own laundry,” Youk said.
“Phin will say that that isn’t right,” Phin said. He gripped Sard by his arm. “Wait right here. Youk!”
Youk piled the rest of the clothes from the floor, overalls, towels, the lot, on Sard’s armful. “Go at it, young fellow.” He opened the door into the corridor.
Phin put his foot on Sard’s butt and shoved him out.
The corridor walls should’ve been incandescent but stayed obdurately grey. The corridor’s laundry was centrally situated. That no one else was in there to witness his fury, was one good thing, and very convenient for his plan was the other. But would he even be able to program the damned ionizers?
He seethed as he sorted clothes and stuffed them in three separate machines. Right, yes. Probably the laundry was on a slave circuit, not yet changed. He grinned wolfishly changing the settings for Youk’s and Phin’s clothes.
His own clothes tumbled about for the regular two minutes. He took them out clean and creaseless. Folded them and packed them flat in his washing bag. The twelve-minute cycles finished. Folding those clothes would be pretty well impossible, storing them like having a set of minions falling out of the cupboard every time you opened it. He walked away.
Not back to the dorm. The Nest was where he seemed to spend every second night these days. Thank Gammy his care-mother had kept his room in her apartment. Make that, thank Gammy his care-mother had been allowed to keep her apartment in the Nest after Sard had been assigned his dorm. Yeah, ha ha.
He let himself in through the apartment’s street door. Another slave circuit. Not everyone need know Sard was sleeping at Ghulia’s again this week and he’d rather not meet Zoya, the kiddy-carer who also was Srese’s ditzy care-mother. Or even Srese and her tears and dramatics.
He dumped his clothes in his drawers and switched on the mini-monitor above the bed. Might as well watch a movie. He wouldn’t go to work at all.
The same words still on the screen. <<Srese Kerr awarded the main role in the new cave-wide games>>
Sard closed his eyes, dozed. Words still there when he opened his eyes the second time. His gut churned. There had to be worse things in life than not being picked to be the primary avatar. There had to be worse things in life … It was no good. He didn’t know anything worse right now.
He wanted to shout and scream. Not fair! Not fair! Not fair! Srese was so young still! He ground his teeth. He’d never believed they were identical, or twins. He wished now he’d let Youk be victorious. What did being remaindered mean?
“Oy,” Ghulia tweaked his toe.
He hadn’t even heard his care-mother come in? Sard sat up, feet over the side of the bed.
This is the (1) before the previous (1). I thought I wouldn’t need reading in my new life?
The idea that I could slough off my old life and take up a completely new one isn’t happening and was probably doomed from the start. It’s true that while I was in treatment, I put everything normally ‘me’ out of my mind to keep my attention on the main event, to learn the disease, what was required every day, learn the people involved, how the meds affected me, keep my oxygen line straight. [I was on oxygen for ten days]
But after a while it became necessary to take up reading again. In between engaging with staff, which was mostly in the mornings, hung swags of time. Watching TV while in hospital is difficult. Volume is restricted. You can’t turn the TV off, attend the x, y, z person/procedure needing your attention, and turn it back on expect to hit the same place where you left off. The remote is fiddly, usually on the same gadget as the nurse’s call button.
While I was on the Oncology Ward at John Flynn Hospital, out in the corridors practicing my walking, I discovered nooks with bookshelves filled with books. Life-savers, in effect. Not that I read every book. But every walk I took, I’d change a book, like at at a library. I’ve read both fiction and non-fiction voraciously for most of my life.
I’m now officially in remission with a totally clear PET scan. My last chemo session was at the end of January, followed by two Rituximab (monoclonal antibodies) chasers taking me into the beginning of March. A ‘stupendous recovery’ my hematologist calls it, given where I began. My hair started growing again the week of the first chaser. My toenails apparently need more time.
Since I moved into the unit where I’m living now, I’ve been sorting through books … nineteen boxes of them. Some books don’t need a decision. Anything to do with fungi make it onto the shelves beside my work station. Fiction using fungi as plot devices, bad or good, also onto the shelves.
Most other books get the will-I-want-to-read-this-again question. If not, straight into the remaindered pile. If maybe, I open the book anywhere and read a few pages. If boredom sets in after only a few paragraphs, into a remaindered pile it goes. The books that will be sent on their way so far number about eight boxes.
Other things I’m reading at the moment are an article titled Proposal for a subdivision of the family Psathyrellaceae, which I keep for breakfast reading since it is a .pdf and must be read on the laptop. ‘Sideshow’ by Sheri S Tepper. This follows on from ‘Raising the Stones’ which is one of fungi-related novels in my collection. Tin Tin in Adventures on the Moon by Herge for light relief. And I’m thinking of soon reading ‘Meld’ the second part of my trilogy Doomed
Every morning I open the vertical blinds out to the patio and open the glass door then the screen door and go out to check what little things have sprouted. I said fungi would be first thing in my new life, and so it has so far been.
I take their photos: caps, stems, undersides, the way the gills attach to the stem, the pattern of their gills, is there or is there not detritus from a partial veil on their caps, what color is the cap, what color is the center? I note a few more things for future reference.
All of them are tiny and really to make good photos I’ll need some equipment superior to what I have. An older model mobile phone with a 50% success rate where the photo is sharp enough to enlarge for extra detail. Just like the older model operator whose eyesight is not as sharp as it was, but whose eye for detail still works very well.
After breakfast and a couple of chores I may sit down at my laptop and do online fungi IDing on the various FB fungi groups I’m a member of, or I may submit a few more fungi observations to https://inaturalist.ala.org.au
Some days … when my state of being doesn’t allow me any running around … that’s all I do. Like today. Have to keep reminding myself, need to crawl before I can walk.
A recurring part of my new life will be fungi. Even though I can’t get out into the field as yet … am stuck photographing whatever comes up in plant pots … I’m spending the majority of every day traversing the four FB fungi groups I belong to, and now also adding old data to my account at iNaturalist.org