Lagoon: copy from 13051770_10154119532324146_3933095396926093854_n copy
For his home away from home, Sard chose a large slab of rock leaning at an angle against the solid part of the ridge. There was just enough space in the gap for him to lie full length and stare out the west-by-north facing back door—so to say—across the desert watching for Clay Faces.
Or he could crawl in from the west-by-north and get a bit of afternoon sun on his face. The outlook at this angle was down and onto the beach. The storm had left behind a sizeable lagoon. He wouldn’t mind seeing the famous mermen frolicking in it when they decided it was safe again to be outside.
The life-suit surprised him with a burst of errant color. Maybe caused by his errant thoughts and feelings? < Discharging excess energy in a I-am-safe situation. > So, another thing about the suit useful to know. What had possessed him to think he was ready to start gallivanting out in the wilderness?
Waking after he had inevitably fallen asleep while he sunned himself, his suit smugly let him know its condition. < My exterior colour, sand, shaded and sun-touched > Which was a great saving when he saw the many legs, bare, tall and small, walking up to the edge of the cliff.
Thank you, Sard thought at the suit. He allowed his gaze to travel up the legs, past the thigh-length skirts, and past the bare breasted chests in a hurry, to the faces. Could these be the rest of the mermen’s tribe? Didn’t look like any mer-people he’d ever imagined. The adults, all of them women, dragged various small kids back from the steep fall and sent them to sit on a bunch of rolled-up mats.
How good was it that he was still invisible? < You + I are continuous with the background > But which meant that because he was practically among them, he wouldn’t be able to slide backward into the rock shelter without shifting the sand or his shadows. Better stay put.
No, he was wrong. One person could see him, a girl probably of an age with him and Srese. She stared at him with wide startled eyes. Someone called out, and she turned her head to attend. He watched her like a hawk. She moved away without saying anything about him, as far as he could tell, because the rest of the women continued to ignore him.
Her eyes were a sparkling green and he guessed her to be shorter than him by about half a head. Her hair was warm-dark, wavy, overlaid with silver. Her skin texture reminded him of the smooth inner layer of mulbry tree bark. And, she was bare breasted. His heart galumphed.
He hardly allowed his eyes to rove—he definitely didn’t want the whites of his eyes to be seen by the flat-breasted older women—the girl’s breasts, with rosebud nipples, were small and neat and separated by the bag-strap that she wore diagonally across her chest, with the bag sitting on her hip. She wore a ragged mini-skirt made of strips of a soft floppy fabric nothing like any sort of silk or tree fibre.
He stared, not breathing, while waiting to be noticed by the rest of the women or children. But they didn’t. Nobody took any notice of him whatever. Nobody saw him except her. Vaguely he was aware he should be asking why she could see him.
Also, a stronger feeling was that surely he was due for some rest and recreation? He was getting desperate for relief from the work of living in reality. Ten minutes holiday is all I ask. He waited all of a minute for a sign from the universe to tell him his request was not granted.
Nothing. Nix. Nada. No answer. He chuckled. It is all in who you ask and how you phrase it, Sard-Man. He relaxed. His suit made him a magic man. And here were his players. He could finally dream up his future. The first step was watch watch watch and know his target. Figure of speech, that. No time now to think up a more appropriate word. Breathing lightly now he stared covertly at the women congregating at the lip of the cliff.
Or was that covetously? He chuckled again. He was on track. Bet the women discussed the state of the beach, or what was left of it. He’d been surprised too. Apart from the lagoon in the angle made by the cliff curving round at the south end, there was a narrow strip of sand along the foot of the ridge where it faced the waves. That strip was all that was left of dry land. Misstep and you might be sucked out to sea in the still vicious backwash.
One of the women, with her hands around her mouth, shouted, “Coo-ee!” Another shrilled a long sequence of sounds. They attempted to contact someone at the caves? Sard filled in the details he couldn’t see. By and by everyone sat down like they waited for the tide to ebb.
The three older women and the girl unrolled a large mat over them all. Protection from the sun was all he could come up with for a reason, though the wind still scudded busily among the waves.
Excitement gripped his belly when his girl—how he thought of her already—sat down nearest him, to hold up that corner of the mat. She drew it over her head, and down her curvy back with both hands, and lifted her sit-bones from her feet to anchor the mat under her sit bones. She glanced toward him again, sideways, seemingly to measure the distance between them.
She couldn’t have done that accidentally. Heat in his abdomen. She must be as interested in him as he in her. It was like she’d already started to separate herself from the rest of them by showing so much interest in him. Too bad he couldn’t creep closer. He shouldn’t be discovered before he had the kite and knew how to use it escape with them both.
The woman under the next corner called out. “Ahni.” The girl twisted round to attend to her. Telling him that her name was Ahni. He loved it that she had a name not in the Name Book. He imagined her in his arms, soaring high on the wind as they traveled to a place where they’d make their new lives.
The timing was excellent. What with the way the entertainments usually played out, Sard was pretty sure Gammy would keep Ahni and her people until they had been milked of all the novelty they presented. Sard would be using that time to practice the kite. He’d be ready for Ahni and waiting at the top of the path, when the women and children were turned away. As this was the only way back up onto the uplands.
The idea of leaving home was suddenly exciting. With her he wouldn’t be lonely or an outcast because he’d—or rather they—would be the ones deciding where they’d go. She’d given him the best best motivation to leave.
Dawn to sun up, when Sard had agreed to meet Greg, felt like hours yet. Out of pure boredom, he started collecting rocks for the border between Gammy’s influence and freedom, placing them every few meters.
Damn, but the day wasn’t lighting up! He turned to where the sun should be rising. For a couple of seconds he didn’t know what he saw.
Clouds? He scoffed at himself. Yes, clouds. I knew that. They bulked up, rising above the ridge as if on fast-forward. The red from the fire of the sun staining their grey portended something awful, a story would say.
Everyone he knew would be gathering in the Pit with Gammy moderating the event. And he’d be out here Storm-Watching on his lonesome? Sick.
The rest of the sky grayed imperceptibly while the anvil, a type of storm cloud that Gammy had introduced last vigil, leaned over him. When Greg took him the five kilometres out, Sard felt small. If that cloud fell on him, he’d be a gnat-sized blot.
He started. What was that?
A bolt. Pure white light zapped to the ground. Never saw that before. His heart thumped. Remembered the word for it. Lightning. Next, the sky like split open—that was the sound—a vast crack! His guts, heart, everything inside him tremored. Despite the suit, he had time to think.
Icy stones rattled to the ground, and he stood there deluged?
< Most incidences of this particularity last 10 minutes or less >
After the stones came the water. Sheeting down. More water than he’d ever seen. More water than he’d ever been in.
< External temperature = falling. Fuel intake recommended. I ≠ alive-to-background > The suit sleeves over his arms and legs blotched.
“Go for it,” Sard said. “I’m not staying out in it.” He jogged Simmond’s way—couldn’t at this moment recall the proper term—along the Clay Face road along the bottom of the ridge. Angling his face against the slashing rain he searched for a place he might recognise. The suit’s eyepieces did not cope and he had to keep wiping them.
There. The roofless room where Ghulia left him about a lifetime ago. What it felt like. The stones lining the slope looked smoothed, machine made. When he was up there before, he’d had no idea he’d be running up them so soon.
The hatch were wedged open, with roll of tent on the floor track. He had no time to wonder who’d organised that. He grabbed food as he went by and ate the energy bars as he negotiated the blessed dark. He relaxed.
In fact, he loitered along First Circle. What a fish out of water he was in his present mode. He hated how he had to be. Even about that kite Rider was putting together for him. What would Sard do with a kite, when he didn’t plan on wandering very far at all? Rider’s plans weren’t his and Greg’s plans weren’t his. What was the use being a hero with no one to be a hero for?
Finally he arrived in the cave with the holo entrance into Crystal Cave. You could say despite his best negative efforts. Uh oh. A shadow jittered in the opening. The person was backlit by the amber glow of emergency lighting. It was the wrong shape for a minion. He cleared his throat, made a noise to test the situation.
“There you are,” Greg said. He handed Sard a roll of clothes. Jeans and shirt. “Clothes in case we meet someone. I don’t think Gammy will know you’re here. He’s pretty busy.”
Glancing aside while he dressed, Sard saw that Greg was in his closed-mouth mode. Fine. The Pit, next door to Crystal Cave, was abuzz with the storm vigil. Much more interesting.
Greg pulled him away. “We’ve got business elsewhere.” The corridors were eerily empty.
When they stepped in the dome, through a curtain of water, Rider was dragging sandbags from the water tunnel. Water gushed through every gap between two pylons. Greg pointed Sard at Mab’s airlock, himself staying at Rider’s. Rider slid bags at them and Sard and Greg built dams around their airlocks, and strung a net across the water tunnel’s maw.
Sard marveled at the depth of the river flowing over the dome floor and down into the water tunnel. Ankle deep, then shin-deep, three layers of sandbags and still the water rose.
A lull in the water sheeting down the perglass dome allowed them a breather. “What’s with the net,” Sard said.
“If you were swept down when the system is in full spate, and it’s getting that way,” Rider said. “You’d arrive down in the cubby jungle as a slow-rot case. For obvious reasons, we’d bury you rather than report you missing.”
Right. Interesting, Sard thought, how the life-suit coped with the downpour, keeping him warm but wet now, instead of dry and perhaps cold. He’d certainly never been as wet. When it came again, the rain was deafening, numbing, an unrelenting barrage.
< With adequate fuel intake, you + I + exterior input = continuous >
When the rain eased into splatters on a gusting wind, Rider and Greg fitted plasti-boards to broomsticks—both stored in the ceiling of the water tunnel—and began to shove out the pooling water. As a swath of floor was cleared, Sard dragged sandbags forward and mopped the floor behind them.
“That’s it,” Greg said. “We’ve still got a dome. I’m off. The kitchens call me.” “Sard, why don’t you stay awhile?” Rider said.
Was there a choice? Sard wondered about the conditions outside. What did he know? “All that water down in the cubby jungle … aren’t the trees floating?”
“Another tunnel beyond and a fall into the sea,” Rider said. He restrung the net along the ceiling of the water tunnel and hung his clothes to dry.
Sard added his jeans and shirt. The life-suit underneath was dry already. When he stripped off the top half of it and let it hang from his waist, the last of the breeze was like a balm on his own skin. He fetched mats from Mab’s airlock. Rider divided his last meal for them both.
Sard forestalled Rider asking for his adventures. “It feels like I’m marking time, in here or out there.”
“You have learned all you need to know about your suit?” said Rider.
It felt like a trick question. “Mmm. Probably not.” He sorted through a couple more possible answers. The suit would best be tested when Sard was tested? Which might lead to uncomfortable inquiries into how he tested his suit now. He settled for his main thought. “It’s like something in me is refusing to get excited about the whole deal?”
Rider’s expression was noncommittal. “And you’ve been thinking that through and trying to come to a conclusion?”
Sard started with the explanation he’d come up with. “My project at the delta is far away in time and place. Between then and now there are only survival skills to be managed and those are taken care of by the life-suit. That’s my problem. I don’t have any way of influencing things to happen and hardly even myself to organise. I’m bored. Already.”
Rider did not smile or act appreciative of Sard’s problems. “I suggest then that you spend the whole next week out. You’ll get the chance to experience many unforeseen situations all requiring their own strategies. Which will also give us more time to work on the kite, progress of course being put on hold by this storm.”
All right. If it was going to be like that. Sard wanted to tell Rider he didn’t want the kite. What use would it be when he’d be staying around the ridge. Waste of everybody’s efforts.
But never mind, Rider was up and ready to take Sard through a couple of patterns. “Ward off the cold,” Rider said. And after that, still not giving Sard any quarter, caught up a pair of staves and clickety-clack fought Sard to a stand-still.
Only then was Rider ready to farewell Sard into the dark tunnels with advice and instructions on what to take for his week-long jaunt into the desert wilderness.
Greg came every day, after his afternoon shift in the kitchen. He set their food for the next twenty-four hours on the shelf by the entry doors and then joined Rider and Sard at their work. Free fighting was one of Greg’s specialities.
“Last warning,” Greg said. “And from today it will be no holds barred. Your suit is getting good enough at protecting you.”
“Whenever I tell it, it tells me we are continuous,” Sard said. Of course by the time Sard told the joke, Greg had him on the floor in a head hold. “What? You’re telling me I should chat less?”
“Might help.” Greg fetched his life suit from the bag of stuff he had hanging in Rider’s foyer. He sloughed off his shirt and dropped his pants. Pulled his life suit on over just his sweat. “Don’t make a face. My suit loves my sweat like yours loves your sweat and everything else about you. Nature of a good life suit. What we want now is our skin colours wherever we’re not wearing clothes.” He didn’t put his clothes back on.
“Ha,” Sard said. “I should take off my shorts?”
“You’re uncomfortable about your underwear?”
“More like uncomfortable about my lack of underwear.”
“Underwear gets in the way of a suit’s processing. You’ll get used to it.”
Sard dropped his shorts and kicked them towards his mattress roll. Give me skin colour, he thought walking over there and putting his shorts away properly. He watched the back of his hand. Still the spangling.
“Ask it your skin colour on its outside,” Greg said.
My skin colour on your outside.
< Your exterior surface colour, ivory, on my exterior surface, ivory >
“Today we’ll explore the near environs,” Greg said. “We exit through Rider’s camp. In the passage beyond we need to be super silent, due to it running below a minion tunnel. It’s a section of the habitat where the original engineers were told to raise the level when the boss came to check their progress.”
“Their boss, Gammy?” Sard asked.
Greg grinned. “In the flesh, one presumes.”
In the rounded-out mouth of the passage was Rider’s gear. Couple of patched silk bags hung from hooks along the walls. Rider’s sack of scraps for sleeping on lay folded.
Sard followed Greg down a narrow stair cut in the stone that descended down down down. Greg’s suit lit the way. Sard didn’t know how to ask his suit. Keep it for practice another time. The passage leveled out and bent to the left as if they were under Second Circle.
Sard strode where Greg strode, a pace behind him, and like Greg fingertip-touched the walls either side every couple of paces. He felt as if he skied on air, he touched the ground so lightly.
As the passage narrowed Greg’s suit glowed brighter. He stopped and pointed at his feet. Huh? No, he pointed at the floor. “A trench in the stone, cut by water. A runnel.” Sard nodded.
Next, Greg pointed at a bit of wall. Carved as before, but with long narrow half-cylindrical channels as if the rock-carving machine had abandoned it and this section was done by hand.
They moved several more paces to the end, as far as Sard could see, of the passage. The walls looked water-worn and were wider apart. A fist-sized drain-hole that Greg demo’d with his closed fist, took the water away. Where did the water come from in the first place? The ceiling?
Sard looked up. Natural rock hung down with sheets and stone ribbons. A long way up was a hole to the outside, daylight glowing through. When rain fell this couldn’t be a good road to travel.
“One hand here,” Greg said, his hand on that spot. Sard grasped the cold steel hasp set waist-high in an angle in the runnel wall, his hand next to Greg’s. “The other here, at shoulder-height.” Greg pulled himself up one-handed, planting his feet on the hasp Sard held onto. The reason no doubt for all the push-ups every day, Sard thought, watching Greg out of sight.
Out of sight? That can’t be right. Enough light came through the hole and it wasn’t so high that he shouldn’t still be seeing Greg. Sard pulled himself up onto the ladder. Climbed to the place where he first noticed Greg’s suit fading. Stopped. I need a new look, he said to the suit, your exterior colour like this stone.
< My exterior colour. Stone. New >
Sard’s arm in his suit’s sleeve reaching for the next rung showed him his colour, newly cut sandstone. Another thing to work on in his spare time. What spare time? He lifted himself up to the edge of the hole. Push-ups again. Into some of that same sunshine he’d been in with Ghulia, though it wasn’t nearly so hot. Even though the ball of fire was almost overhead.
< You give I warmth. I give you coolth >
Oh yeah, the suit took care of the heat exchange. Rock walls made the place into a roofless passage. Greg was nowhere. Sard stood up and stretched while he waited.
“What you need here,” Greg’s voice said from right beside to him, “is alive-to-background. Your suit.”
Programming was what he was doing. Better get used to it, Sard-man. I need your exterior alive-to-background, Sard thought at the suit.
< Parameters are incorrect. Lower background is near. Upper background is too far >
“It’s telling me the upper background is too far.”
“Because you’re standing up with only the sky behind your head.”
Sard dropped to his knees. Damned suit. His exterior colour melded with the rock surfaces around him.
< You + I are continuous with the background >
“You made it,” Greg said quietly, still invisible. “I’ll show you a couple of things while you work out how I knew your exact position.” He joggled Sard’s elbow.
< Breath of accompanying insert organism + survival entity. Amalgam. Such as you + I are not >
“My suit is telling me you and your suit are an amalgam,” Sard said, inviting Greg to laugh about Sard’s suit’s pretentious phrasing.
“But not it and you?”
“Not yet, it says. Should I apologise for joking?”
“Something for you to study on, in your spare time,” Greg said.
“The first definitely and also the second?”
“You have to ask when I make a joke?” Greg said. “We’re in a ditch in the rock between two domes.” He gave Sard no time to think up the next move in the wordplay. “Just over the wall to your right, to the east, is the Pit’s domed roof. Opposite, the dome of Crystal Cave. To the northwest and northeast are another two habitats, with another two domes. Youk is often about on these paths. As are minions on maintenance duty. A dangerous place for you to be, you’ll understand.”
Sard wanted to contradict. They were invisible. How would they be seen? He recalled the suit’s problem with the sky. He checked where the sun was. “You’ve got a shadow. I’ve got a shadow. How you knew where I was.”
“Now work out the safest place to descend from the ridge onto the desert,” Greg said.
“The steel hatch to the outside at Youk’s hide-out, is welded shut. There, I reckon.”
“Tell me the way north.”
Sard pointed. “Lead you?”
“More dangers around the corner.”
“Right.” Sard flattened himself against the wall of the runnel for Greg to pass him.
Greg stopped with a hand still on Sard’s shoulder. “There’s a sharp corner with a chasm at our feet. After a storm it’s full of water. Cold enough that even your suit will die before you can be saved. Watch for my feet.”
Greg’s lower legs and feet appeared. Black, as if they were laced in a circus performer’s boots. Greg joking? Greg’s suit joking?
“Follow my feet along this ledge.”
Greg was around the corner before Sard got going. He faced outward and slid his feet sideways. His hands helped him to cling to the rocks behind him. The opposite walls came closer and a new runnel presented itself. This one wider. They passed a hump of stonework that covered what he thought must be the dome. “Safe to talk?”
“Next time ask me through the suits,” Greg said. “Like this.” He gripped Sard’s arm.
< Accompanying amalgam desires the you + I continuity to initiate the vocal exchange >
Greg dropped his hand.
If Sard hadn’t been wearing the suit, he would’ve sweated trying to work that out. Hesitantly he grasped Greg’s forearm. Ask the accompanying amalgam if it is safe to speak?
“You could teach it my name,” Greg said. “It’s shorter. In your spare time. Yes, it’s safe to talk for a minute.”
“All I wanted to ask was if we were above Simmonds in this unused habitat?”
“Yes. Always be alive-to-background.” Greg tapped the rock roofing lightly, “This is where Youk was born. He acts like he owns it. He’s often out here tweaking his power supply.” Greg directed Sard’s own arm to point into the direction of a solar installation, which Sard shamefully hadn’t noticed yet.
At the edge of a slope of large stones, Greg stopped Sard with an arm across his midriff. “Check the landscape often for the Clay Faces. You should do whatever it takes to stay out of their clutches. They’re usually on their camels. Cloaked and masked. They use whips and chains and sell whoever they catch into slavery.”
“Worse than the slavery Jin wrote about?”
Greg laughed. “You’ve been into Youk’s files? Good for you.” He sobered. “Our slavery is a holiday in comparison.”
Sard swept his gaze from the north to the west and as far to the south as the ridge allowed him. “Can’t see any?”
“What did you look for?”
“Movement on the plain.”
“Do it again, checking the horizon for wriggling. That’s about five thousand paces distance. As far as we can see from here.”
“How do you know?”
“Rider checked it when he was what you are. His project.”
Good thing they were invisible, because Sard-man must have been visibly stunned. What he felt like, anyway. Greg’s understanding of what Rider’s project was being so different from what Rider said to Sard about Rider’s project.
Could there be public projects, as in the public who were in the secret company, and secret secret projects? It’d be another interesting thing to discover in his supposed spare time. “What’s mine? My project?”
“I’ll tell you after I teach you the desert.”
They clambered down the slope and stepped onto the desert floor. Sard saw his feet re-appear pointillist-style. Maybe his suit wasn’t coping with the change in colour. Please fix our feet.
< The you + I continuity foot-soles register a sand-over-clay walking surface >
Red sand, Sard told it. The suit footlets faded.
“But which won’t be today,” Greg said. “Lead me the way back and tell me, by way of our suits, the reasons for everything.”
Sard slept on a sack of mulbry-felt scraps, under the centre of the dome. Rider had his quarters in the second entryway. On a night of no moon, he dragged his bed out, next to Sard’s. “We should face into the north tonight.”
Sard swung his bed around.
Rider woke Sard before sunrise, with a hand on his shoulder. “Tell me what you see, apart from the stars.”
“It’s my second time staring at the sky?” He almost fell into his habitual blame-thinking. But probably Rider woke him for a good reason. “What am I looking for? Satellites? Planets?”
“Closer in,” Rider said.
The rock rim all around framed the dome with shadows. The dome itself … Sard hesitated in his seeing task. “There are lines inscribed on the per-glass?”
“The Celestial Equator, curving overhead from the west to the east,” Rider swung his arm from the left behind his head to the right behind his head. “It’s a consensual-reality line that helps us observe the stars.”
“The dot behind our heads?” Sard said.
“The Southern Celestial Pole, equidistant between the two arms of the Celestial Equator that seem to finish in the west and east, do you see? The rest of the Celestial Equator is out of our sight, below our horizon.”
“The lines between the space pole and the space equator are…?”
“Celestial latitudes, not of our concern tonight,” Rider said. “We are at the beginning of Silver Time as the seasons are counted in the delta. It lasts from mid July to just past mid summer, mid January.”
“That’s half the year.”
“All through Silver Time, the Lodestar is in the night sky. This morning it is visible in the east. Look there.” Rider swung his right hand this time, over Sard’s face and forcing him to swivel his head.
He sighted along Rider’s arm. “A bright star. Just inside the rock rim. Just outside the space equator,” he said.
Rider sat up. “All my away-time I worked to gain the trust of the grey people of the delta for my project to learn about their lodestar. The only thing I could discover is that there’s a connection between that star and the seasons. The time the lodestar is present in the night-sky is Silver Time. When it is not present … that’s called Tarnish Time.”
“Tarnish suggests black,” Sard said. “As if they think it’s a black time when their favorite star isn’t in their sky.” He shrugged. “It could be that easy.”
Rider laughed. “In the villages to the west of the delta, where I lived at the time, people maintained that the Lodestar is another name for Procyon, the star that rises before the Dog Star. An Aerk Islander I met said that the Procyon System was where the Aerk Islanders originated, and the Lodestar is a remnant of the starship that brought them. I advise you not to discuss your project with anyone.”
“Project?” Sard said.
“The men Gamester has attracted to his outer cave, these swimmers, visit the delta regularly. They’re considered friends of the grey people and I did indeed hear rumors of swimmers while I was in the delta. In your away-time, for your project, I’d like you to learn more about that link, between the Lodestar and the grey people. I’m ninety percent sure that in the future that link will affect us in some way …”
Probably Rider had been going to say more but Sard heard only ‘in your away-time’. “You mean I don’t have to go forever? That I can come back? Why didn’t you say so? That’s a whole other slant.”
“You’ll always be behind the scenes, like I am.”
“You won’t be sorry. I’m a good organizer.” He recalled the performances he had had practically to rewrite on the go due to people dropping out. Or people wanting to join at the last minute. “I thrive on surprises.”
“Those are considerations for after your away-time,” Rider said. “Perhaps if you could tell the grey people you’d met these swimmers …”
“I get that. Make friends so …”
Rider made a cutting-off gesture. “Someone in the airlock.”
It was only Mab, asking for instructions apparently, Sard saw with a couple of quick glances. While Rider was busy with her, Sard tidied up the bedding, dumping Rider’s by his private airlock, and rolling up his own. He stored his gear between two pillars. He started his exercises. The slow ones, so he could fantasize his success.
— — — —
Washing and the rest were done in the opening to the so-called water tunnel equidistant between the two airlocks. Time would have to tell the reason for its existence, because Sard had too much to learn each day to remember to ask.
He lifted the lid closing off the end of a wide pipe ending at the level of his knees approximately, and peed down into it. Flushed the pipe with the half-bucket of waste-water standing ready.
The pipe went down through the intervening rock – cunningly camouflaged wherever it went through any living spaces, according to Rider – and discharged with general dome wastes to be buried in the soil in one of the plantations.
Sard washed himself with a couple of handfuls of water in the clean-water bucket, the water from a pipe sourcing gravity-fed rainwater from a cistern up on the roof. He poured his used water into the waste-water bucket, and rinsed the clean-water bucket ready for the next user.
He pulled on the life suit since it was the subject of his learnings and Rider’s teachings, though he tucked the gloves into the sleeves, and the hood down his back. Pulled on a pair of shorts over the top.
Today, breakfast was cold riced soybeans garnished with a spicy hot sauce. Same as dinner last night. He was learning the fine art of rationing and plus the use of his strength of mind. Food was brought only once a day. “How can will and knowledge be enough?” he asked Rider while he tried not to wolf down his food. He doubted his strength of mind where the purpose of the whole exercise of saving his life was concerned. Not that he told anybody. What if they stopped trying because he was doubtful?
“With good skills and a good kit they’ll be more than plenty,” Rider said. “Those are the next layers in the pyramid of survival – training your own capabilities and learning those of your equipment, such as that life-suit, for instance.”
In the mode of a good acolyte, Sard cleared and cleaned the dishes. Their kitchen was a shelf beside Mab’s airlock above another bucket, this one containing sudsy water for washing dishes.
“Today we’ll explore the fountain-of-light meditation,” Rider said when Sard took his place opposite Rider.
“Because it’s my favorite? I mean, because with it I can best control my wayward thoughts?”
The suit, because he was thinking about it, peacocked with multi-colored blotches and liquid spurting stripes.
Rider ignored Sard’s quips. He did his sitting-down-on-air trick, bowing his legs to accommodate an imaginary pony between his knees.
Sard did his diagonal four-step to end up next to Rider, as he still got confused mirroring his actions. He bowed his legs and summoned his own tai-ji pony. Be pastel, like the sky, he ordered the suit.
< You + I are discontinuous. Your hands/I hands. Your head/I head >
Be pastel. Like the sky, Sard thought as he pulled the gloves on and the hood on over his head.
Though the suit’s electrical discharges grew calmer, its colors stayed bright. < What is pastel, I know not sky >
The sky is overhead. Pastels are faded colors. Fade.
< I cannot perceive sky. I cannot feel what I cannot touch. I cannot compute sky >
Every time Sard worked the suit, he learned more of what it could and could not do. Looks like today it was telling him about suit-specific perception. How, if he wanted it to feel something, it had to be able to touch whatever it was. Didn’t bode well for the rest of its senses. Uh oh, Rider’s getting ahead of me.
Rider squatted and knuckled metaphoric light from the floor near his feet.
Sard breathed and half-squatted and knuckled a pair of imaginary cables from the stone by his feet. Make them strong and live and light.
< Intermittent energy pulsing, ground to head height, rising as you rise >
Rider breathed in while he rose out of his squat and split his cable in two, one end in each of his fists. He drew his imaginary cables up through his legs, through his gut and held the pose with his fists in front of his heart.
Sard breathed in while he rose, managing to observe the pain of his screaming muscles and then to ignore them. Give me twin cables, lit and alive, and thread one through each foot, through our leg bones as if they were hollow, and loop them round my knees and thighs. With his fists knuckling together, he guided the suit-provided cables up through his groin and his gut.
Rider breathed out slowly as he drew his imaginary light through his neck and out through the top of his head.
Sard breathed out slowly as he drew twin strings of spangling light through his neck and head – the life suit gave him stars bursting from his mouth and nose and eyes, then spurted light from the top of his head. He fizzed like a roman candle. Oops, the candle sputtered and almost died. He spread his fingers and hands and arms and showered light in a sparkling fountain falling and fading. He resumed the start position, feet a shoulder-width apart, hands hanging, long fingers pointing straight down his legs. Thank you, he said at the suit.
< You + I are continuous >
Sard made his breathing match Rider’s pattern, recovering from the show.
“Now do it again, without me,” Rider said.
Sard summoned light from the ground and on a rising breath fisted sparkling stuttering cords up his body, gapping and twisting, to the top of his head. As he spread his arms and separated his fingers, he breathed out. Light spattered in and out of the lattice of his bones and joints, strobing and fading before it hit the ground.
“One hell of a piece of equipment,” Rider said. “Did you notice that its patterning went to pieces when you allowed yourself to become distracted?”
Sard was in the Dining Hall eating his breakfast by 5.03 AM the next day.
Ghulia slid bright-eyed into the seat opposite. “Hungry, are you?”
He’d picked a two-seater by the wall. He stopped eating long enough to bend forward for her peck on his forehead. With Greg serving the early shift, Sard had had no problem getting two serves of everything.
“I’m very happy to see you,” Ghulia said.
“You’re late,” Sard said. “Bet you wanted to make sure I’d be here.” He meant it as a joke but to his own ears his words sounded accusatory and stilted. He felt shy after his adventures and the dining hall didn’t seem the right place to speak about them. “Will you be attending the class?” That was the most devious way he knew of asking if she was going to the dome.
He nodded and Ghulia returned to being his mother grinning fiercely to keep in her tears. She fetched herself a coffee and croissant breakfast though she pushed the eats his way quite soon. She just seemed to want to watch him eat. He didn’t mind today.
She fiddled with her hair while she sipped her coffee. Straight brown shoulder-length. Usually tied back. She tucked it behind her ear and hooked it loose again so it fell half over her face. “Zoya is at the gym so there’s time for a shower.”
He almost exclaimed that she spoke so plainly. Then he realised the meaning of her fiddling. She’d spoken with her hair covering her mouth. He coughed and spluttered. “Mouth full …”
Next minute Greg was there thumping on his back. “You all right?” Under cover of Sard’s coughing he said, “Rider would like to start you as soon as. Come as you are, is the message.” Greg was as devious as Ghulia at hiding his face from the sensors. The first thing I need to learn, is where all Gammy’s sensors are.
— — — —
With a business-like expression on his face, Rider started Sard on hand-to-hand combat. Sard slid over the floor before he had the chance to take notice of the reality of the punches. Is it always going to be like this?
Too much thinking, Rider informed him. This is the way to fall. By the time Sard skidded out three times, he knew the trick that tripped him. “Wish I’d known this before. I could’ve seen Phin and Youk off a year ago.”
Rider changed to a different sequence of push-me-pull-me while Sard still spoke. Sard bit the dust again. He had no more time to talk. Or think.
So it was well after the lunch brought by Greg, that Sard recalled his promised shower. “Wash here,” Rider said. He nodded toward one of the entrances to the dome as the place for ablutions.
Sard ignored Rider’s expression. Didn’t even try to work out what the man thought. “I need to see Srese. Warn her about something.” He beseeched Ghulia. “Can we?”
Ghulia asked Rider without asking and Rider shrugged. Sard hated seeing her so dependent. She wasn’t like that. He started down the corridor they’d used to get to the dome, to force her to either join him or try to stop him.
“Here’s hoping Zoya took the kids to the market,” Ghulia said just before they left the hidden passage. She meant the market out front of the apartments, in Central Circle. “So we’re making for the Neilson-side foyer?” Sard said.
Ghulia nodded as she hesitated very slightly on the sensory-mats in front of the first set of fire doors, giving him time to slip through beside her without touching. Him not having any bots meant that the door-opening software didn’t read his presence. At the next set he was ready to slip beside her and she hardly had to stop at all.
They didn’t meet Phin and or Youk. They didn’t meet anybody, in fact. Arriving home, they had no trouble hearing the argument between Srese and Zoya. One of their usual upsets, Sard judged. Zoya wept. Srese shouted. And, Sard saw with a glance, this time Srese would surely commit a murder. He strode into his and Ghulia’s side of the Nest, calling to Srese from there. “Don’t do it, Sis.”
She looked up. Disbelief and not-understanding warred in her expression. “Sard?”
“Over here, Srese. Bring me that coffee. I’ve got to get cleaned up.” He hugged her in turn, taking care not to spill the hot liquid.
“I feel so sad,” she said.
“Liar! And don’t you dare cry!” If she started crying he’d lose it too. And besides, he needed that time to tell her what she needed to know. He punched up his favourite shower sequence.
“Everything has changed.”
“You’re not wrong.” He handed her the coffee back and tore off his shirt. “Don’t go away. I’ll only be a couple of minutes.” He stepped into the en-suite. “I missed you, believe it or not.”
“I got the stupid job without even doing anything,” she said from the bedroom. “When you should’ve, because I don’t know anything about producing.”
Acting was her forte, he didn’t need to tell her. “Don’t worry about it,” he said through the water. “It was always going to be you.” He slapped a bit of depilatory cream on his chin and cheeks and rubbed it in. “Do you think? I’m really glad you’re back. I was hoping to see you before I go to see Ferd. Because of our plan.” He washed his face, stubble gone, and sluiced water up into his armpits. “Forget that too, because it was never going to work. It had to be you, because they’re mermen! Get it?”
“We can’t just let it go!”
“Knock knock. Are you in there?” He slung the towel round his hips and stepped out of the stall. “Did you or did you not see mermen?”
She turned her back as he picked up his pants. He let go the towel.
“Zoya worried about that too.”
He pulled on a t shirt.
“What’s so amazing about a romantic-attachment plot that you can’t be around?” she said. “When we used do them all the time.”
“I don’t know. I’m betting it’ll be nothing like any scene we ever did.” He was about to broach the subject of Youk, to tell her to be careful of him and about Youk’s hide-out, when Ghulia came in. He didn’t want to have to suspect that maybe she was listening at the doorway but he did.
“Are you ready, Sard?” Ghulia said. “Srese, I’ll be here tonight. Why don’t you and I have a soiree?”
“Where will I be?” Hell. He hadn’t meant it the way that came out. And look at Srese looking, with that commiserating expression when she thought she knew exactly what he was feeling.
“Can’t I come wherever you’re taking Sard?” she said. She trembled visibly and oh how he wished he’d been more aware. “Sard and I are stronger together,” she said.
He almost cried then at her being brave to shore him up. What she always did and what he’d never understood before.
“If you tried to leave with us,” Ghulia said. “You would alert Gammy to Sard’s presence still in the habitat.”
“And?” Srese said.
He didn’t blame her for asking because how was Ghulia’s answer an explanation?
“And Sard certainly, and Zoya and I probably, would be taken by the minions and moldecked. You’d have to live with that through all the years needed to play your part. After that …” Ghulia made the throat-cutting sign. “The way we’re running it, we might all live a while longer.”
Sard was feeling sick about it long before Ghulia finished. “Doesn’t sound like you should try to come, Sis.”
She shook her head.
“Ask me everything later, Srese,” Ghulia said. She gathered Sard in behind her. “Give us a start, dear one.”
Sard mouthed silent instructions at Srese over his shoulder, for a quick meeting. He’d escape Ghulia and see Srese before she went to dinner. He had to warn her about Youk.
Ghulia led him to Greg’s apartment beside the kitchens. She matched her left palm flat on one of the handprints on Greg’s doorjamb. Door slid aside. Greg not at home. “What are we doing here?” Sard said once they were inside.
“It’s a safe house. Mab is at her stall at the market. We can’t go to the dome until later. We can catch up on our sleep.” She lay down on Greg’s three-seat couch and waited. Sard stayed sitting up, leaned against the wall, and half-shut his eyes. No intention of sleeping.
— — — —
Sard was waiting in the south side foyer with his ear by the door-join when he heard the north side doors sough shut. Zoya was out with the infants so that had to have been Srese. Guess she hadn’t got his posturing. He sidled out and shot into Central Circle. No Srese. He jogged past the radials. She wasn’t in Wingham Street. She had to be in Sixty, all she would’ve had time for. Good guess. He started after her despite the lack of cover. He could only hope that people in general weren’t yet aware of his new status.
Srese passed the intersection beside the third block of apartments and suddenly she had company. What would short tubby Quinella, the hardcopy keeper, want with Srese? He shadowed walls and doorways despite that a sideways glance from Quinella was all that it would take to discover him.
Quinella stopped Srese and caught up Srese’s hands. She studied Srese’s palms. Srese tried to pull away. Sard didn’t hear what Quinella said but Srese was like a deer caught in a spotlight. Then she straightened. Good work, Sis, make her feel even shorter than she is.
Sard tensed because Srese tensed. Preparatory to her making her get-away, he hoped. He could by-way through Neilson and get ahead. Catch her as she passed him. Didn’t happen.
Quinella stumbled into Srese and held her against the wall. A holo formed right there in the corridor – they were quite close to the holo-wall of MediLab One – with virtual water on the floor. A white sand rise against one wall, a coconut palm that interfered badly with his line of sight.
Did that mean Gammy was onto him? He stepped into the middle of the corridor anyway. Yes, what he suspected, there was a merman figure lying in the pretend-water. Quinella gasped theatrically. She flung a hand up to her brow and made like she swooned.
“Srese! Go!” he shouted.
Srese wrenched loose and was out of sight in seconds.
Quinella swore and almost ran to reach him. She fumbled at the minion-calling pendant she always wore on a ribbon around her neck. “Don’t move. I’ve called the minions. That’s who usually tidy up remaindered avatars. Isn’t that so, Zoya?”
Amazingly, Zoya reached him first. She carried one of the infants and had the rest following her. She frowned. “That may be so, Quinella. But it’s very convenient that Sard is here, since I have this nauseous child on my hands who should be taken home before he vomits all over all of us.”
Quinella shrank back. “Get him out of here. I can’t stand the smell. Call the medics.”
“It’ll be quicker if Sard takes him.” Zoya pushed the supposed sick kid into his arms. “Danny. Mab’s grandson. Medic around corner there.”
Sard strode away with the child on his arm, its head over his shoulder in case of the vomit, with him pretending he knew exactly what to do.
In Neilson, there were two larger than life-sized steel bots standing side by side on their brushed steel column-like legs, wide across the corridor. Waiting for him? Sard hid the infant’s face in his neck and started to sidle by along the wall. The minions bent their bland steel expressions on him approaching.
At the last moment, he noticed the flickering pinprick eyes. The nearer of the two touched Danny’s forehead with a steel fingertip. The minions both turned and were out of sight with three strides. Oh. Meaning Danny really was sick? Sard turned and made for the Nest. There the doors slid aside for him, no problem, showing Ghulia about to come out with her expressions alternating between white—probably shock—and the red of rage.
He hesitated, feeling quite white himself.
“Why are you here?” Ghulia said. Explosively. Red. Raging still.
“Minions,” Sard said. “Quinella called them. Zoya asked me to take Danny home. He’s feeling nauseous. One of the minions checked his temperature I presume, and they left. I can’t make any doors work except these.”
Ghulia hooded her anger. “Danny, what’s wrong?”
“Don’t like bear puppets. They’re scary. They make me feel sick. But I’m all right now.” The infant slipped from Sard’s kneeling hold, and joined the rest of the infants coming chattering into the Nest, ahead of Zoya also with thunder on her face.
“I need to talk to you,” she said at Ghulia.
“Hey kids,” Sard said. “Let’s play keeping-the-fat-ball-in-the-air.” He shamelessly timed his throws to the children to hear what the women said. “I thought you had a plan,” Zoya said. She sounded muffled. Sard snuck a look. Zoya in Ghulia’s hug.
“Zoya, thank you thank you,” Ghulia said. Sard started in, to apologize. Ghulia frowned him away.
“Why is a remaindered avatar still wandering the caves, endangering all of us?” Zoya cried with tears splattering everywhere. “I want him to be gone by the time Srese gets back.”
“Give me five minutes to scout the surrounds,” Ghulia said. “Please, Zoya.” His mother left, brushing past him as if he was a stranger.
Sard continued the game calling out the different children to catch the ball, pretending he’d heard nothing of Zoya’s and Ghulia’s quarrel. Zoya clattered things in the Nest’s kitchen.
Ghulia returned. “Sard, come.”
He threw the ball at Zoya in the entry to the kitchen. “Thanks. I was trying to save Srese a couple of troubles?” She looked through him as though he didn’t exist.
Ghulia dragged Sard against her left hip. She obscured him at every cam and sensor. Opened every door with her hand out front, half-carrying him with the other. “Make like you’re hurt. I’m taking you to the workshop medi-clinic.”
They met no one but Sard saw flashes of brushed steel, minion arms and legs, at several street corners. The minions pulled back each time and let the indivisible Ghulia-Sard pair pass. The worst journey of his life.
When she finally released him in the stone passage behind Mab’s workshop, Ghulia stood for a full minute with her hand raised to slap him while he stood angling his cheek to take it.
Finally she lowered her hand. “Now do you understand the danger you are in and the danger you are to the rest of us?”
“It won’t happen again.” Srese would just have to take her chances.
Sard 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 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.