Into the Chasms
Sard was half an hour more in the life-suit’s python squeeze—he watched a shadow lengthen—before it released him from its squeeze. He rolled to his feet, slung the pack on his back, and set off into the east. He sneered about the irony of it. Like, how I can get away from an entity I need to wear to survive? The sunset behind him gave him a long bulky shadow, a shadowed path to walk along. Just walking along in my own shadow. Not a squeak out of the damned life-suit.
Walk. Walk. His attention had to be on his feet, no more tripping. Put them out front one by one. Left. Right. Left. He walked until it was too dark to see. No moon tonight? No answer. He stopped, dropped to the ground and lay his head on the flap of his pack. Tired beyond.
Woke once to a great moon staring down, lighting up the scene with its cold silvery light. Moon. Good to know. He turned on his side. Closed his eyes.
He missed the sun’s rise though the sky was still the blue that was kind to his eyes. He frowned. Why did he even need to notice that when he wore the life-suit? Not a squeak out of it all night and he was hungry. What’s going on? Forget the suit, just wear it. Make tracks while the cool lasts, Sard-man. The swamp beckons.
Today, resting during the heat while waiting for plants to bleed out water would be his jig. Tomorrow he’d hit the swamp and there’d be fresh water. It’s a plan. He dug into the pack for the snacks bag. A couple of Greg’s best and half the water.
Walking, he kept the sun to his right. A bulky shadow slogged through the loose sand to his left. He intended looping out far enough that he wouldn’t meet any camels. Then, at half dark, he’d jog for the swamp. Walk. Walk. The land unending. The sky was starting to look too big, too bright. The sun? Well, he didn’t even glance over that way. His shadow was crisper in its outlines. Maybe look for a place to lay up?
Beginnings of what looks like a gully here. Wrong direction in that it’s going northeast but is becoming narrower and deeper and shutting out more glare. Go with it. A narrower sky meant less sun, less light, and not the endless distances to look at. Might even help his life-suit keep him cool. If it’s still available for that.
The silence oppressive. Down in the gully that was more noticeable. There’s no pleasing you, Sard-man, he thought in his mother’s voice. Hmph. Where was she right now? Not back home, he guessed.
“You mean you escaped because I escaped?” he said to break up the silence. “Your work on me was done and all you had to look forward to was the moldeckery? If that’s how things are run, I wish you good health, wealth and wisdom.” Little echoes of his voice sounded like people in the background, just around the corner of an outcropping of rock. Down deeper into the canyon the resonances stayed closer, as if a small crowd of friends surrounded him. Who would he have? “What friends? I walk friendless.” A lower voice resembled the burble of water or the hum of aircon.
Skinks that lay sunning themselves on ledges scuttled away as he approached. But when he stopped for a spell, they’d poke their heads from among ferns and mosses in the crevices where they hid. “That’s right, nothing to fear from me.” His mood lifted. What if he was approaching his destination? He’d been walking long enough. The chasm seemed to swing from side to side and could easily have led him northwest. He imagined it widening into the kind of lush swampy valley he’d travelled in dozens of stories.
The stone walls surrounding him dulled. The gold light-and-shadow play on the chasm floor faded. He tripped over nothing. Where was he? The air overhead grew moist as a thick cloud replaced the strip of blue sky above. Need to find shelter. He glanced along the base of the cliffs. Good hole there. Nice sandy floor.
He hadn’t even bent to crawl into it when the rain began. Long rods of hard, wet, fast-falling water. He huddled against the base of the cliff to wait out the shower.
Water trickled down the cliff. In a minute he was standing under a spate. < Climb. > What’s that? Someone finally awake? Luckily he’d strapped his pack securely this morning. < Climb, oh stupid youth. >
Caught you out at last. Different voice, intonation and different words. There’s two of you, right? But he did start to climb. I’m not hurrying, I don’t want to slip. So he was only halfway up when he heard the roar. Of water. He knew it instantly. Acting on instinct alone, he grabbed any ledge and handhold, shot up the rest of the cliff dragging the so-and-so pack bouncing behind him.
He saved himself. Duh, Sard-man. Not like you didn’t know. Many old-time games featured a rush of water through a narrow chasm originating in a far off rainstorm? At the top there was only rain, hard and fast. Visibility nil. He crawled through it until he reached a slabby height by feel alone, a little island above the swirling flood. < You are dry and moderately warm. > I’m not listening. You’re the wrong program.
While he sat there, the light went from grey afternoon, to dark metal dusk, to black dark night. He worked on tripping the life-suit’s new program. The old program now seemed preferable, it didn’t judge him.
When the moon rose, he shrugged into the pack’s harness and set off wading among the shadowed spinifex tussocks and clumps. Need a safer place. He tried to keep parallel to the misty black crack in the landscape that was the chasm in the far left of his field of vision.
After a time of walking—sloshing ankle-deep now through fast disappearing water—a second crack appeared on the right. Huh? He blinked. The etched meander didn’t disappear. He stopped, compared the two openings. Different, because there were two chasms, one on each side? Or the same chasm, because he hallucinated? He stared eyes wide open. Frowned with eyes peering. No difference. Too hard to see. A good time to lie down and sleep, maybe. Not interested in breaking my neck, falling down a chasm I can’t see properly. Moonlight making a mockery of shadows and distances.
— — — —
Sard stood on a stone slab elevated all of about half a metre above the plain with a hand above his eyes, the life-suit’s management apparently absent, studying the landscape. Never mind the missing guide, he could manage quite well will his Big Eye lenses. At a point near the horizon, two hand spans to the left of the place where the sun rose, the two chasms seemed to join. A mist or a light smoke rose from that spot.
He scrolled though his memories for stories and movies and virtual performances featuring similar effects. All he could come up with was that mist might be the spray of a waterfall. Or plain old water vapour, the land drying under the sun. Smoke could be due to a bush fire.
Or a camp-fire. That meant people. His mood rose. How he missed having other people around. Even meeting up with the traders would suit him. The chance to free Ahni a bonus. He hoped the people, if it was people, stayed long enough for him to catch up. When he stepped off the rock, he felt so superior—deciding all that himself, he didn’t need either of the life-suit’s entities—he could’ve been walking on air.
He arrived at the junction roundabout mid-morning. His suit, whichever of the two entities, refused to allow him to the edge with his pack still on his back. < Our centre of balance is awkwardly placed. >
“Peevish,” Sard said. “I know you now. You are not my favourite program.” But he dropped the pack away from the edge before he went to stand on the lip between the two chasms.
Sheer cliffs on his right and left sides with a deep canyon continuing northwest if he finally had his directions worked out, making a Y formation. A river in full spate in the bottom with nowhere to walk alongside even if he wanted to risk his neck down there. Not the pleasant green valley he’d envisaged. The smoke or mist still far away was the biggest disappointment.
He slumped away from the view. He’d so anticipated people and the end of his solitary exile. The land made him an ant lost from its nest and smaller with every step he took. The sky was worse. Always far away. Always blue and cheerful or with cloud and impersonal storm. Sun moon and stars. Unreachable.