5. Youk’s Hideout
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.