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.