Fiction: MELD

The writing hand
My hand-painted hand writing my next tome

MELD, Part 2 of the Doomed? trilogy is going through a structural edit. Here my attempt at conflating Chapters 1 and 2 into one, while keeping all the important information.

  1. Two Mules and a Misfit

Tardi rock-hopped through the northern ridge-top pass. He grinned at his human toes stinging when he skimmed them over a boulder. I still hurt. I’m still human, you know? The stony going wore down his toe-roots without hurting them.

The monster-in-him made like it was a heavy-water balloon bouncing in his gut. Tardi’s soured breakfast rushed up his gullet and he vomited acid. Choked on its sting.

“You okay?” said Shad, the younger of the Stormies with him. He passed Tardi the water-bag left-handed. The pack of cards in his right hand.

Tardi rinsed his mouth and spat. “Thanks,” he said. He drank. You’re going to starve me, aren’t you? The monster’s silence grew obdurate or was that his imagination? One of your reasons is following behind.

Trinnet pushed by them. Him. You’ve passed the baton to him. “Good. Because-a-promise-made-under-duress-isn’t-binding.” His mantra, the words that shaped his actions.

The big rocks of the gap gave way to a slope of basalt rubble stones. Shad and Trinnet leaped down the slope like a pair of rock-wallabies. Tardi followed more steadily. At the bottom, Shad fished his hat from down his shirt. He punched it out. “Dint want to lose it leaping about,” he said, clapping it on his head.

“Is that that adder’s skin round it?” Tardi remembered the death-adder’s saddle-needle teeth spiking into him.

Shad nodded. “Fright you gave us. Have a piece of possum-jerky? The monstrous critter inside you seeks to starve you?”

Tardi narrowed his mind’s eyes. He knows what I thought? He accepted the jerky. “It’ll set me up for a good run.” Long slow hills. Shrubs. Long grass.

He stopped well past midday. “Flat enough for fire?”

Trinnet and Shad also stopped, which he took as agreement. He pulled the tarp from his pack, partially unrolled it and cross-legged down. “I wouldn’t mind a brew.”

Shad grinned. He put his cards into a pocket and took dry sticks from his gleaner bag. He built a fire. Where Ace was Tardi’s uncle, he was Shad’s father. Making Shad and Tardi cousins. Shad came along of his own free will, apparently.

Trinnet, an older man, took the water-bag Tardi carried. He filled the billy-can he carried and set it by Shad. “Be quicker if we heated water in our mugs. Couple of good walks will get us along the road the Great Flicker is planning.”

Trinnet was sent along by Ace. “Keep my nephew honest,” Tardi heard back at the Stormy village early one morning. Probably they thought him still unconscious. Ace talked while Trinnet listened, Tardi discovered, peering from under his eyelashes. In the here and now, he took example from Shad and didn’t answer Trinnet.

Trinnet hunkered opposite Tardi and Shad.

“I’d like us to parse-out the task a bit more,” Tardi said. “If parsing-out means analysing a problem?” Stormies had a dialect all their own.

“Close enough,” Trinnet said. “Ace covered all that. I was setting there listening.”

“Good,” Tardi said. “You can explain the bits I don’t understand. Could be I was still woozy due to the snake bite?”

“You should’ve been fine with every Stormy’s good blood in you,” Trinnet said. “Watering down the venom-gift to your mulish constitution.”

Tardi rose, shaking his head. Save me from Trinnet-speak to unpack. He spread his tarp out all the way.

Shad shared tea among the three mugs. “Cold anyone?” he said. At a nod from Tardi, he slurped cold water into both theirs.

Trinnet sipped and blew his uncooled brew. “What don’t you understand?” he said finally.

Into the deep end, Tar-boy. “I’m meant to tame the alien so it can be milked of its very advanced technical knowledge—otherwise known as magic—for that technology to advance Stormy culture?”

“Sums it up?” Trinnet said like asked. Like he said what’s the problem.

Tardi laughed. “What I thought hearing Ace spout it all? High falutin’ crap. What I think now, after thinking on it while we traveled? It’s rubbish. Garbage. Send it to the limbo of stupid ideas.”

Shad laughed. “Got a way with words.” He set out an array with his cards. One, three, five, seven. Half a stepped pyramid. One cliff-straight edge.

“The mule laughs,” Trinnet said. “Will you be the Tamer’s yes-man, as well as his cousin, and his …”

“Stop right there,” Shad said. He was up without Tardi seeing him make a move.

Shad held his knife by the tip, ready for throwing.

Trinnet scoffed. “Huh. Touchy.” Like he backed down.

Tardi had no clue what threatened just then.

Shad sat, gathered his cards and spat into the fire. “Hi-falutin’ is the best word yet for the wonky plan. I’m hearing that the Tamer has no flicking idea. An the way he sets it out, neither have I.”

He a-sided to Tardi. “Given you’re still learning the lingo … flicking, flick, flicker and all such terminology refer to the poor saps that were changed. They suffered eons of flickering before they stabilised and became us. The words now be used as swears.”

Tardi nodded. More questions to hold in my heart. “Let me lay out my thoughts for you, Trinnet. I’m apparently meant to steal the alien’s support group—his so-called ladies—from Zoo Hall and deliver them somewhere safe to hold them. Right so far?”

Trinnet nodded.

“Why bother with that when in Zoo Hall they are already in a safe facility?” Tardi said. “But say you insist I do steal them. Where is there a safe Stormy-owned facility?” He shrugged. “I don’t believe it my job to organise that?”

Shad grinned. Took a card from the top of his pack. Turned it face up. Glanced. Put it under. And again.

“Next step in the plan,” Tardi said. “Milking the alien of its advanced technical knowledge? Huh? Oh wait, I forgot. It doesn’t mean milking it like a snake is milked of its venom, it means forcing the alien to tell us about its magic. That right?”

Trinnet frowned. “Magic is why you’re the Tamer.”

Tardi forced a chuckle. “I’m the Tamer because I bested a bunch of eels?” Steve’s poor eaten-off face hovered in his mind. He cleared the frog of unending sad from his throat. “No magic in that. I used my feet and fists. And though I’m also said to be good at stopping live-minds, I don’t do that by magic either.”

Catching an edge of Shad’s faster-than-fast frown, he swallowed the rest. According to Tardi’s little brother when he was still alive, Tardi picked up ruinous programming dealing with recalcitrant live-minds. Shad upset at me saying ‘stopping live-minds’? Why?

On we go. “So, I’m meant to harness a thing that isn’t a horse or a bullock, and I’m meant to advance Stormy culture. You sure that’s what is wanted? Advance it to where? See, it all sounds like Uncle Ace—using his nephew—is trying to advance through Stormy politics. Whatever that looks like.” Tardi glanced at his listeners.

Trinnet frowned. Shad rose and pocketed his cards. He threw water on the fire. Tidied away their mugs and wok. “I’m with you for the real thing. Need help to get up?”

Trinnet grunted. “Pit stop,” he said. “All that tea.” He stepped into the trees.

Shad gripped Tardi’s arm and pulled him up from his knees. “My flicking father’s desires are just another thing to not-achieve,” he said.

What other thing does Shad think there is? Thoughtful, Tardi shoved his folded tarp under the flap of his pack.

————

Trinnet led them north-west, through a vine-edged thicket, and then sloshed through a wide shallow creek.

“How is the alien influencing you right now, Trinnet?” Tardi said. “You being infected with him the same as I am?”

“We call him the Great Flicker,” Trinnet said. He stopped shin-deep. “He’s letting me get on with paddling my Stormy-craft.”

“What about when he doesn’t let you get on with it? What does he do then?” Tardi said. He also stood in the creek. His skin—where human—goose-pimpled sensually from the chill. His right-foot toe-roots grappled the stony creek-bottom.

“What?” Trinnet said. He sounded confused. He sneered watching Tardi free his dripping foot from the creek bed.

“The Great Flicker intends us to go northwest where there’s a signalling station,” Tardi said. “It doesn’t want us at either Zoo Hall or the Reefarium. Which is what I got from his signal in me earlier, when we still headed north.” At the end he said, “My flickering toe-roots trying to grapple the stones underfoot.” Explaining his actions to them both.

Tardi caught Shad glancing all over him. Face, neck, shoulders, chest and down to the way his one leg stood in the water while he lifted the other. Though Shad barely allowed his gaze to touch anywhere, Tardi enjoyed what unaccountably felt like a caressing. He grinned into Shad’s direction, quick and friendly.

“Every time I think of either Zoo Hall or the Reefarium,” he said. “The Great Flicker sends me the makings of a stomach upset. Nausea. Cold sweat. I would’ve puked again if you hadn’t angled northwest.”

“The Great Flicker sends you gut-wobbles if you cross him?” Trinnet was disbelieving.

“How does he normally affect you?” Tardi said.

Long silence. “Probably I don’t let him rule me that close,” Trinnet said. He brightened. “Could be I have a maturity you’re still lacking? Contradictorally to you, mule,” he said at Shad. “Standing there gawping at the tree-hair. Eating him up.”

Shad went red-brown towards his cheek-bones while his mouth, lips pressed together, became pale.

Embarrassment the one and fury the other, Tardi hazarded. Shad was a guy about Tardi’s own age who’d proven already that he didn’t need protection. But still. Tardi turned on Trinnet. “Could it be that you follow the Great Flicker’s instructions without thinking? That you’re compliant, and that’s the reason we’ve angled northwest?” He turned for the creek-bank they’d just left, where Shad still stood.

“What’ve you got against northwest?” Trinnet said.

“If we continue that way,” Tardi said, chin-pointing at the forest-clothed slope opposite, “We’d be aiming at a signalling station. Before the death-adder bit me, the Great Flicker planned for me to cross the ranges south of your village, then travel south to Parkes, where there is another signalling place. I believe he’s hidden his shuttle in the southwest, across the Central Sea.”

“Could be he wants to go home?” Kind, like the man instructed a youngster.

“No home to go to,” Tardi said. “Star blew up. Planet is gone. He thinks Earth is a good place for his people. Data packages in his starship. They’ll reformat Earth, make our home-planet suitable for them. Which is why we’ll angle northeast for now.”

“Make for the cane-fields if you wish still to lead,” Shad said.

“You can have it,” Trinnet said. “I’ve got to think. Talk with the Great Critter somehow.” He waited while first Shad, then Tardi passed him.

————

Shad led them into a service road between a pair of sugarcane fields. “Good place for a camp. Cane only half-high, big enough to hide us without losing the breeze.”

Trinnet glanced at Tardi sitting on his blue tarp. “An you don’t trust him, you’ll never have peace.”

Tardi rose. “Can’t sit too long. The tree in me is never going to stop its flesh-grab no matter what promises were promised.” He walked a little circle while deciding his next strategy. “Do you trust the monster to know what’s best for humans, Trinnet?”

“Humans when Stormies aren’t? This is what he can do with the sapient lot,” Trinnet said. He gobbed together a wad of saliva and spat.

Tardi’s green hair strained wanting to prickle from unease, but too heavy. The Stormies don’t consider themselves human? Why? Why not?

Shad lay aside his cards and set Tardi’s wok in the flames. Poured water into it. Dropped leaves in it, then a couple of cuts of possum. Sprinkled a spice. Lay bits of sugarcane over for a lid. He nodded at Tardi. “The sooner we get out from under our flicking father-uncle, the better for both of us. The cards tell me that.”

Oh ho. First time Shad said anything about the cards always in his hands.

“The Flicker asks me how we will get north other than on foot,” Trinnet said. “To a place he knows where we can cut west. On foot we are slow. He has space-time and the tides of the planet to consider.”

Tardi wanted to roll around with laughter at the pomposity of the man. “Don’t even dream I won’t be asking about Stormy ancestry,” he said. “Everything else we’re talking about here is social grease and en-flummox-ment.”

Shad laughed.

“Mules. The pair of you.”

Shad took the sugarcane lid from the wok, piece by piece, and stirred the stew. “That’s the third time you’ve called us that. Explain.”

Trinnet laughed. “That’ll be my pleasure, oh up-jumped youth. Always Ace shut my mouth on the subject but what can he do out here and him still at home? We’ve got that system of marrying in and out. Not enough women, ever. A woman takes two husbands, we still have a man unrequited. Some requite themselves with each other being made that way.”

“What about women made that way?” Tardi said.

“How would I know when I’m a man?”

“He means,” Shad said. “How would he know, being an unmarried man. He does not have the confidence of any woman, no matter how he tries to charm them. The women will have a system.”

Tardi recalled Trinnet in the company of the two little ladies during the storm, when Ace rescued Tardi. And how he’d trusted Ace with his life until the minute that Ace had cut them both and forced a blood-share. What a fuck-up.

Smiling about some private joke, Trinnet continued. “Some men marry out. Like Ace. His woman outside bore him Shad and Bundy. A pair of tainted children. Tch-tch. But happy days for Ace because he fathered a girl, proved himself fit for husbanding. So deemed the women. Hyee took him as her second.”

Tardi feared for Shad sitting like a stone-man beside him. “You’re saying Shad and I are both half-Stormy?”

“Mules. Infertile. Like the young of horses bred with donkeys.” Trinnet smiled broadly. “No issue for either of you.”

No problem for me. “I’ve never heard of a second human species living into modern times,” Tardi said.

“Did I say we are human?” Trinnet said.

“You’re not sapient, you said,” Tardi said.

“The women drove your mother gone,” Trinnet said. “Never happy with what she had. Why she died in the end, I hear. Lucky for me that it weren’t by my elbow.”

“You’re doing it again, the flummoxing,” Shad said. ’Things the Tamer knows already. Letting your poor-me-I’m-hardly-done-by show. Because all the women turned you away. A proper trey we are, a misfit in the company of two mules, and with the Great Flicker a here and there at every discussion.”

“You didn’t know Ace kept you just for this.”

“Ace told you that?” Shad’s eyebrows up. “I was raised for this. Why wouldn’t I have known?”

“Oh ye-es,” Trinnet laboured his irony. “You’ve got that skel-sicht!”

Both Shad and Trinnet bristled.

“Stew is starting to smell challenging,” Tardi said. “Here’s my mug.”

Shad laughed, took Tardi’s mug and scooped out a good amount. He filled Trinnet’s and his own. “Seconds when you’re ready.”

“What’s a trey apart from a three?” Tardi said.

“You never saw us but singly or in threes,” Trinnet said.

“Treys, Pents and Septs is how Stormies organise themselves,” Shad said.

“You never said what you think to do,” Trinnet said.

Tardi blew over is after-dinner brew to cool it. “About what?”

“Controlling. Managing. How you think to tame the Great Flicker,” Trinnet said.

Is this guy for real? “I thought I told you the limbo of bad ideas?” Tardi said.

“Didn’t tell me nothing,” Trinnet said. “Spouted a whole lot of cover. Keeping whatever you were deciding in your purse-net.”

“Interesting turn of phrase,” Tardi said. “I might start collecting them.” He’d have to extemporise, or whatever the terminology was for skating close to the truth. “I was deciding that I don’t know enough. That I need advice. I know of a woman at the Reefarium who can maybe help with that. So that’s where I thought we’d go first.”

Silence.

Trinnet stared into his mug. Maybe he read the pattern of the brew’s leaves in the bottom. “Well. So. We won’t need to walk the whole way. You probably know the glass merchant, the combo as travels north middle of the week? You—the trucker amongst us—can cadge us a ride with him.”

————

Tardi lay rolled in his tarp. Trinnet already snored. Glints in Shad’s dark eyes showed him still awake, still upright, by the glowing fire.

“Paddling our Stormy-craft,” Tardi said. “Is that what your-father-my-uncle sent him along for?” He didn’t say ‘Trinnet’ in case that gentleman woke on hearing his name.

“There’s steering with paddles, the Stormy way,” Shad said. “And there is steering with a rudder.”

“Half the effort, and it’s in the back of the boat,” Tardi said softly. “Will you be the rudder in this craft?”

Shad grinning disbelievingly is what Tardi heard. “You? You need steering?” Shad said.

“There’s so much shit to come,” Tardi said. “My attention span for external things gets smaller the more that the monster, the tree and now also your flicking father pile on my back. So, yeah. Someone to steer me sometimes would be good.” He waited for Shad’s response.

“I like it, Cuz,” Shad said. “Sleep. I will keep watch.”

A calculated risk for not having to guard myself from Trinnet day and night.

What I Did Yesterday …

Embroidery in progress …

A couple of days ago I read someone else’s post on this, describing how you can ‘say’ whatever you like without anyone ever really knowing you. It’s what you ‘do’ … maintains the theory … that will identify you.

I don’t know yet if it’ll work. Can but try, in the words of one of my characters. I have several typical days, and since it has been raining here for about a week, I can only describe a typical day at home.

I wake but do not roll instantly out of bed. One of my eyes will never open right away, I have to lie there and think a while, convince it of the day. On blue-sky days, my bedroom is striped with light–due to vertical blinds–after sunrise. But, all this week, the daylight stays grey.

Roll on to my side, sit up, swing legs over the side. Stump down the grey corridor to the kitchen. Oh wait, you expected me to at least wash my face? Yeah, I did that. Ablutions. In the en suite.

And I dressed. T shirt and shin-length pants. Slide my house-keys and rest of needs-musts in my right pants pocket. Mobile/cell in the left pocket. A few years ago, I fell over in my house and after lying unconscious for a time, had to crawl injured to a landline phone to raise the alarm. Since then I’ve worn a mobile on me at all times.

The kitchen is in the middle of the apartment. Dark on a sunless day. I make it friendlier by pulling out the slide-out range hood so that its automatic light shines warm above the benches. I get a bowl out, spoon in muesli, cooked brown rice, LSA and hemp seeds. Mix and pour on rice milk. Boil water. Dole out mineral supplements and anti histamine. Today, due to the dark, I eat at the round dining table.

While still drinking my three mugs of warm water, I check yesterday’s step score on my mobile and enter it in my exercise chart. Also on the mobile, I check the weather to see what temperatures and humidity I can expect. Then I check the weather in the town where I lived last year, the weather in Copecabana in NSW; Dover in Tasmania; Perth in Western Australia; Karratha in Western Australia; Cape York in North Queensland, Amsterdam and Singapore. All my places of interest for various reasons.

Still using the mobile I will have quick look at Facebook comments, trying not to get involved yet with anything needing research and or deep thought.

Today, after stacking the dishes in the sink, I started on my exercises. Eleven–I’m building up to fifteen– push-aways against the front door. It’s timber and the only place in the apartment that can take it. Eleven stand-ups from sitting on a chair not using my hands. Walking with half kilo weights, twelve stretches from front of the house to the back. I expect to graduate to 1 kg weights after my birthday in a few weeks.

Chart to record daily exercises

Make a cup of coffee and sit down with the laptop. Check my emails and answer the ones requiring it. I resist getting involved with newsletters though do read a couple of articles from the Fifth Estate Magazine. Do my Wordle.

Rain, rain, go away, many of my local acquaintances are saying. I also read a science article (on the weather website?) about research in Antarctica with ice cores. Averaged out over two thousand years, east coast Australia has had only two hundred wet years. That’s ten percent. Can’t get away from climate change. It’s going to get a lot drier is the forecast.

By about 11.00 a/m, I open the work of the day. MELD, part two of the Doomed series. I’m in the thick of a structural edit. I need to lose at least twenty thousand words, rewrite the first chapter, and re jig the first act. Finesse the middle fifty percent. The final act is good to go.

So, today, I read chapters 7 and 8 aloud to figure how I need to change them.

At about noon, a pathology assistant arrives. Courtney is her name. She is the only live person I talk with today. IE it’s Friday. No phone calls. I’m still isolating, as I have several co-morbidities and do not want to get sicker than I already am. I’m lucky because I don’t have to go out for a blood test. S & N come to the house. Takes ten minutes. My veins are recovering after the beating they received having chemo this time last year.

Afterwards I walk round the house for a while to start to build up the step count. I visit all the rooms in turn about twenty times. Lunch then. A frozen meal. Wack it into the microwave, 4.50 minutes. Dish up. Yum. Another three mugs of warm water. I read the two first chapters of MELD, printed out earlier, and start to mark up bits to keep and bits to cut.

Today, I do my lying down exercises after lunch. On my bed. Yes, the temptation is to doze off. Twelve air-grabs that warm up every muscle. Six bridges to a count of ten per bridge. Six legs raises, each leg, each raise for a count of ten. Twelve clam-shells, hold open to a count of ten. Doze, five to ten minutes.

Oh man. This is taking a long time. It doesn’t feel like I don’t do anything much.

Get up. More walking in the house. Still raining. BOM (Bureau of Meteorology) says 120mm has fallen in the last 24 hours and a huge rain cloud still hangs overhead. No going outside today. I get some walking music going. It’s God Speed You! Black Emperor today. I walk about an hour more, 5000 paces plus.

Sunset despite rain

When I rest this time, I do some embroidery while I listen to an ABC podcast. The stitching is slow but joyful. The colors sing. After the podcast I catch a few minutes of news. Nothing cheerful about that with old man Putin doing his thing.

Dinner is two rounds of toast, smashed avocado and a boiled egg. A pear for dessert. Three mugs of warm water. I start to re-read The Tailor of Panama by John Le Carre (1996) which I will talk about in the future.

After dinner, I work on this. I’m not posting it tonight. I need to mail myself some photos, from my mobile to my laptop.

Fiction: ‘The Pup’, and ‘Wolf’

This scene is from a long ago prose project—looks like the one on memoiring—the first time I wrote anything with a dog in it.

Evanna woke to the rasp of a stainless steel food bowl being shoved across the old concrete laundry floor in the back of the house. That’d be the pup trying to get food by vigorously licking an empty bowl. There was silence in the rest of the house though it was time to get up. Get up, she said to herself, and felt herself dozing on. Get up, she thought at herself again, opening one eye to check the time. My god, is that the time?

She leapt out of bed and jumped into an old tracksuit, not forgetting to slip her spectacles into her pocket. Couldn’t bear to wear them this early in the morning. She knocked forcefully on the bedroom door of young son, the Half-Grown Hunk, until he answered just as forcefully.

The back of the house was alive with animal sounds. The cat miaowing at the back door to be let in. The chickens clucking for their grain. The Childdog scratching at the inside of the laundry door to be let out for her big good morning welcome, and a quick pit stop. In the middle of her routine, the Half-Grown Hunk wandered through.

The pup immediately transferred her attention to her chosen pack-leader, leaving Evanna to attend to the chooks, put a load of washing into the machine, read the rain gauge, shake the pup’s bedding and put it out to air, and finally clip the pup onto her long lead so that she didn’t raise Cain in the backyard while her humans had their breakfast.

Chores this morning were a load of washing, a 24-hour collection of the dishes, sweeping, and mopping a couple of floors. The pup was distraught when she was shut from the excitement of the sweeping broom, when Evanna lost her patience the third time the broom head came off in the dog’s jaws. The chores were followed with a quick training game with the dog … Sit, stay, good dog. Evanna walked five paces. Come. The Childdog came.

Six out of ten this morning. After the game, the pup was put back into laundry with a bone, fresh water, and her bed.

<<<>>>

The second dog I’ve written was to give Beren of Lotor a companion. This YA story is set in the time when humans, already having colonised Moera, a (fictional) planet in the (actual) Procyon Two-Star System, turned their attention to the second (also fictional) liveable planet in that system. This was Lotor, unbeknowest to them, a living entity. The humans brought their animals and Lotor produced analogues. Not yet published.

The Plan
The dogs looked up. Their eyes glowed like coals though they were blind to the red light. They belonged to the invaders and were as blind as them to the light of their own dying star. Though the dogs were his friends.

Wolf most of all. He got all of Beren’s special patting and cuddling. The soft, wriggling pups were good too. They found him by smell alone and licked him blindly with their warm wet tongues. When he came from his attic, he always dropped down into the dog-box and hid the end of the rope in the gap between the box wall and the stable’s outside wall. The head stable lad might be friendly, but there were the rest of them. A rope out of sight was a rope out of mind.

The dog-box walls were still too high for him to see over. And smooth on the inside to stop the dogs getting out, so no climbing up them either so Kandor let Beren have a latch on the inside, at his own level.

He slipped out the half door with Wolf beside him though it was still nighttime to Wolf. The horses, because they were Lotor horses, were awake and watching with their eyes a-glow like golden jewels. Twenty pairs followed his every move. Wolf padded at Beren’s left side so he wouldn’t get trodden on with the hard tip of the crutch.

Beren’s left foot was a human foot and his right foot was a hoof.

“Lotor doesn’t have the pattern for people off by heart yet,” Dev said once. Dev was the head stable lad. “There are people all over the planet with bits of their bodies that weren’t human. So you’re in good company.”

Beren didn’t know if he believed it. Dev never showed him the bit he had that was wrong. Maybe Dev joked. But still, Beren was afraid to think of the day Dev would decide to stop being a lad and decide he was a man.

The tack room was at the front on the right, then the feed store.

Wolf stood beside Beren to prop him up while he stacked hay biscuits on his left arm. “Good boy.”

Wolf turned when Beren turned so he was always on Beren’s left side. They slap-thocked to the horses leaning over their half-walls and doors while they talk to him and to each other, whinnying and blowing their bronze-colored hair from their eyes.

He put their breakfast biscuits through the slot above their feed tubs. He talked at them. “Good girl. Good boy.” Bet whiffed him in his face and blew his hair – mouse grey Kandor called it – out of his eyes. Wolf pressed his furry warm side against his leg. This was his favourite time of the day.

The dust Wolf and Beren stirred up with their comings and goings sparkled in the pink light as he walked Wolf back to the dog box. When Wolf figured out where they were going, he made a noise in his throat. Like he said, what are you up to now?

“It’s all right, boy. I’m thirteen. I’m allowed.” But Beren hesitated shutting Wolf in. But then, what if Wolf got excited and ran in under the jenny? No, it really was better to shut him into the dog-box. “It’ll be safer, Wolfie.”

Wolf whined, telling him he wanted to join Beren whatever he did.

“Be quiet, Wolf. This is something I need to do by myself.” He push at Wolf with his knee and Wolf went reluctantly into the box. Beren snicked shut the dog box using the high latch on the outside.

Dogs: Jesse (1997 – 2009)

Jesse, Half-Staffie/Half-Australian Shepherd, loyal friend

Despite reading many wonderful novels with dogs and other animals as important characters, I didn’t try to write dog characters until I had raised a dog myself. That was Jesse, named by my son after one of the dogs in Footrot Flats by Murray Ball, a popular comic strip in the newspapers in the 1990s.

Our Jesse was a medium-sized half-Staffie/half-Australian Shepherd, according to the farmer who we bought her from. The Staffie part was dominant, except when it was a case of her habit of herding the poultry we also had at the time.

The first dog I wrote about was Jesse herself, for she was still a pup then, and I just described her and how she fitted into my life at the time.

Jesse lived just on twelve tempestuous years. Human mothers and fathers of dogs will know what I mean when I say that your children grow up but your dogs will always stay two and a half years old. A toddler, needing just as much input and supervision.

The times that the human parents relax their attention will be time when the dog suffers a collision with a moving car; or get a tick on her; or take fright at a Little Athletics starter gun when out walking; or, or, or … All these things happened to Jesse.

She broke her shoulder joint while still little more than a pup and was forever crippled. Mea culpa. She almost died of a tick that I didn’t find until almost too late. Due to the accident with the car she was always frightened of loud noises. The starter gun incident caused me—walking her in the wrong place at the wrong time—to be pulled to the ground and dragged behind her, clutching the lead.

When I finally was able to get to my feet, we returned home along the fastest way possible. Running along a creek bank, away from any activities by human people, in fact. After I had secured her in her beloved old laundry, with her head under her blanket, I had to go find my spectacles, lost from my face while I was on the ground.

She herded chickens, as I said. The little black bantams however were her equal, and would not be scared into running. The white silkies ran, here and there, and sometimes crashing into fences and gates. They hated it. Small children were herded without them realizing.

In 2003, Jesse’s favorite person in the whole world left home. He was eighteen, and needed to find casual work, get trained and then find permanent work. Even if he hadn’t been keen to leave home, our town of five thousand people was too small to support 300 school leavers every year.

Tibby on Jesse’s bed, establishing her dominance

From then on it was Jesse, me and the cat jostling for the top-dog-position. When the cat decided the dog’s bed would be hers, Jesse decided better make friends with the biggest person and we could fight the monster together. Our good times started then.

Jesse’s absolute favorite activity were our walks by the sea, though she mostly ran or swam. The Brunswick Heads Dog Beach was a 400 meters length marked out along the bay, south of the Surf club and ‘Main Beach’.

At times there were a hundred dogs there, playing together, socializing and generally racing around.

Jesse did not socialize—she had no patience for other dogs—and would snarl or snap her teeth at them to warn them away. Her work at the beach was to chase her stick into the waves, bring it out, drop it at my feet, and grin and wag her tail to encourage me to throw it again. I was very fit in those days bending over, picking up the stick, tossing it as far as I could.

We did low tide, high tide, storm tide. Even when the tide was so high that there was barely a beach to walk on, we were there, at our work. While swimming, Jesse’s crippled shoulder did not seem to bother her and she was as good in the water as any other dog. I always thought she must have some water-dog in her. A touch of Labrador genes, maybe.

Her end came more suddenly than I expected. She developed hiccups. They didn’t stop whatever I, or the staff at the vet clinic, tried. After twenty four hours, she was worn out. I let her go. The diagnosis was a brain tumor.

Thirteen years later, I still regret that I couldn’t bury her in our backyard. We lived on a floodplain and we were having a very wet year. The yard was a sea of water and mud. The vet took her away in a body bag.

Favourite Reads: Dog Boy

My favourite novel about dogs

For a long time the novel-version of The Incredible Journey (1963) was my favourite ‘read’ about dogs. Then, 2009 or there abouts, I was at The Writers Festival in Byron Bay. Heard, or heard about Eva Hornung’s then new book, Dog Boy. Bought it after the segment to leaf through it while taking time out, and lunch, in my car.

I’m not a fan of events with 45+/- thousand people … probably not that many … but enough that I didn’t meet any friends or acquaintances] Read about 60 pages, kissed the Festival goodbye, drove home and read the rest.

It’s worth all the accolades. Every hyped up adjective. It’s “confronting”. “Highly descriptive, confident and thought-provoking.” “Completely believable. Unrelenting.” “Meticulous research.” “Pared-down, non-sentimental writing.” “A tour-de-force of imaginative empathy.”

In my opinion, it’s the most moving, frightening, heart-breaking story of how a child, to survive, becomes a dog. It’s writing from the soul.

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6667541-dog-boy

Words: Dog (Canis lupus familiaris)

Grey wolf, Canis lupus, single mammal on snow, captive

Type ‘dog’ into your search engine and you will get the facts about dogs, their history of domestication, the variety of dog breeds, the origins of the word ‘dog’. Everything you might want to know about Canis lupus familiaris. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dog#Terminology.

There are hundreds of dog related metaphors. I wouldn’t be surprised if you know a few more than are described here: https://symbolismandmetaphor.com/dog-metaphors-similes-idioms/

BUT … all the above were not the concepts I had in mind when I started this research. I wanted to know how dogbox, dogger, dogging & dogman fitted into the word ‘cloud’ to do with dog. How these words originated. Have they anything to do with the canine subject of the title?

Apart from ‘dogger’ hard to find.

So. Dogger. Is not originally an English word. It’s an Old Dutch word for codfish. Pronunciation, I assume, is with the Dutch/Scottish -ch-. The boats the Dutch used to go fishing for codfish became known as ‘doggers’; then the place in the North Sea where they usually went fishing got the name Dogger Bank. Now sometimes known as Doggerland. Quite a bit if interesting reading about that: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2021/aug/01/doggerland-lost-atlantis-of-the-north-sea-gives-up-its-ancient-secrets

Dogbox, dogman and dogging. The only place i found mention of them is in the Australian construction industry.

“To safely sling a load, it requires an understanding of the suitability of the lifting gear, as well as what method of slinging is required. Further consideration of the nature of the load, such as its mass and centre of gravity, is also a factor. The Dogman course teaches you the basics to get the load moved safely.” https://constructiontraining.com.au/courses/dogging-courses.html

At the bottom of that page: “The simple explanation is that a dogman, colloquially known as a dogger, is the person. The actual task – the slinging techniques or guiding of loads mentioned above – is called dogging work.” The basket used to lift a load of smaller items is referred to as the ‘dogbox’.

Finally, back to Canis familiaris, in Australia someone culling feral dogs is also called a dogman.

Any other interesting uses out there of this three letter word?

World vs Earth …

It’s easy to forget that the “World” we live in, is totally embedded and laced through and through, with the “Earth” system, where the “World” is the cultural system and the “Earth” is the biological system.

I’m calling them both “systems” because neither stand still. They are always moving and always changing. It’s just that we–slow creatures–still, often, think ourselves part of the World but separate from the Earth.

Where I now live … looking out from under my patio roof. Tuckeroo tree to the left, framing my world

Nice place, isn’t it? Gardens, central swimming pool, blocky buildings from the 1980s. Birds, mostly rainbow lorikeets but also Torresian crows, chattering and whistling in the trees surrounding the central grassed area. The place is gated to keep out the riff-raff.

So why am I complaining?

I’m indoors, looking out for 90% of my hours. This isolation caper is pretty boring after a whole year of it already. Numbers in Queensland doubled overnight. [We live in pretty amazing times that most of the world will know what I’m talking about in those last two sentences.]

Our premier is saying this time next year every Queenslander will have had it. She’s of course not forecasting the death toll. Not wanting to be one of that unsaid number, I’m isolating. Again.

I know. I know. Omicron is meant to be mild. Not a killer of healthy immune systems. Ten percent of us are feeling left-behind. We are a long tail about to be shortened. This is biological and indeed evolutionary reality.

In the meantime, I’m going to be talking about the Earth versus the World. How we’ve been thinking about it up to now.

Fiction: Avatar Remaindered, 22

Sard’s Sky by Rita de Heer, mixed media

The Last Straw

When the life-suit gripped him—like it shrink-wrapped him—how he’d always imagined it might feel—Sard closed his eyes ahead of being forcibly cowled with the mask. The suit expanded again and he relaxed into it. Shrinking. Easing. It was like part of a rhythm. Like breathing.

He shoved up the mask. All he could see was darkness. Not the seven wooden drawers of his boyhood above him. All he could feel, above him—with his hands questing—was rock, a handspan above his face.

Searching down by his left side one-handed he found the rounded curve of the ceiling meeting the back of an overhang. With his other hand he found flat pavement. Exploring upward with that hand, he discovered the ceiling at maybe knee-height. From under the stairs in the limestone house back into the stony overhang atop the plateau … he’d had no sense of the transfer being a journey.

He rolled from under the overhang. A long way above stood the half-sickle moon in the cold night. Stars, too. Pin-pricks of light that he knew were even farther away. Unimaginable distances. Why I like to imagine that they are beads on a net surrounding the ball that we live on. A star in every angle is enough for me.

< Sit up and stare at the rock-edge. >

Oh right. It tells me to sit up and stare at the overhang’s edge in the dark? To what end?

The suit gripped him with its shrinking-lengthways trick. < I am merely elongating this entity’s muscle fibres. It’s a possibility I’m proud of discovering. The first new thing I caused to happen since I being released from my bondage. >

Sard breathed to the limits of his lung capacity. A fraction of what he needed. He wheezed. “Enough.” The image of the suit as a bio-construct was enough to give him the heebie-jeebies. Life-suits were lab-grown human skins? Couldn’t be. What about all the tech they also had? They couldn’t be. He’d lived in a large tech-construct all this life. Couldn’t live in bio-construct and a cramped little one at that.

The suit relaxed, but only a little, obviously expecting resistance.

“Okay. Okay. Sit up you said.” The gap between the two opposite overhangs was double his knee-length. Or make that the length of his whole leg. Plenty wide enough for him to scrabble to his elbow, push on that to sitting. Stare-at-the-rock’s-edge meant sit with crossed legs and turn ninety degrees.

Slouching somewhat, his eyes were level with the rock’s edges which were about as thick as his forearm—he pressed his arm along the ledge—a thick dark line separating the very dark below from the dark sky above. “Staring,” he said. Reporting for action. Yes sir. No sir.

< Close eyes. Wait for light. >

“That’s hours yet. What will I be looking for?”

< Less than an hour. Places where humans bumped up against these edges. Or scraped by. >

“And then what?”

< You will suck the human substance from these places so that I can discover their DNA. If they are my people—runaways—we will overtake them. We will force them to return to the cave habitat where I need them for the entertainments. >

Sard pulled off one of the gloves and rubbed a rock edge with his bare fingers. Granular feel. Like sandstone. He could almost see the group escaping, running for their lives, resting here overnight. Maybe while it rained and their usual roads, the chasms, flooded. And in their hurry to get to safety, some of them scraping up against these rocks hard enough to lose skin and blood.

Then he imagined sucking on the ledges. Why not just licking? He slopped his tongue over a dark place for a try out. Mmm. Could almost be smooth, sinewy and leather-tasting. He whipped off the life-suit’s face mask to see what he tongued.

With the help of the faint pre-dawn light, he made out a dark handprint imprinted on the stone right there in front of his eyes. The sight burned into his brain. Dried blood? He gagged. Spat saliva. Coughed.

Every little thing he knew and remembered about Ahni reeled through his mind. How the bio-construct was cut out of her—and her just abandoned—and about Ahni’s people running for their lives into the right direction to meet up with the clay-faced slavers. What if this hand-print was of someone who got away?

He found scuff marks, half footprints, a place where five small toes had pressed into the thin sand. Where the basket sat …. Saw all this before the dream. And damn it, I know it better now. None of them would want to be caught. Not one will want to return to CAVE.

And neither did he—as a matter of hoity-toity fact—want to deliver anyone, least of all the Sea-people into that bondage. Which means I shouldn’t follow them. Or it means that I shouldn’t take the life-suit to them. He livened up. Yes. That.

A dozen ideas, things to do, things to achieve, things to watch out for, barged into his mind. Plans. I bared my hand and my face. I’ve started already. There’s been no squeak from the life-suit since then. Such peace. He chuckled. Tore loose the chest piece and loosened the tie that gathered the suit edges over his ribs. Shoved the suit down over his shoulders one by one and pulled his arms free. The dawn air on his bare skin like he was in a cool bath. He crawled to the place where he’d stashed the pack.

Unpacked it to discover what he had that’d help him in the journey he planned.

————

But here he still stood at the end off the channel in the stone platform, taking time to think through what’d happen when he developed sores on his shoulders. Dressed in just his outer wear—shirt and pants—the pack’s straps cut into his shoulders. Plus the sun was rising almost dead ahead, give or take a few degrees, and while the sky there was a glory of red and pink, he couldn’t see anything else ahead.
I need a sunhat and I need more padding. About turn. Leaving the life-suit behind is a dumb idea. The chest piece will do me for a hat. The suit itself folded and stuffed under the straps. Now … no more hesitations, hold-ups or hang-ups brought on by stupid impulsivity.

He strode into the grasses.

Repeat of the country that he walked yesterday. Stony channels between islands of tussock, gravel and sand. Here and there a twisted wind-worn shrub. The plateau, what he saw of it, could’ve been an unending plain of tussocks. But he knew—first hand experience—that it was riddled with chasms. Probably with caves underneath. What did he know. Better to stay at the edge.

Walking, he kept his attention on the ground he covered. Safer. And it meant the sun didn’t shine straight into his eyes because he could angle the life-suit’s chest plate just-so, giving himself a shaded outlook. Which got easier because the sun rose.

Some people, apparently, believed that the Earth spun like a top and turned east day and night. Making it seem like both the sun and the moon rose in the east and set in the west. He never got much further studying how they got seasons and all that. No seasons in CAVE apart from the ones the games demanded and the techies organised.

Uh oh. Careful now. A damned chasm across his path. Lost in my thoughts. He evaded what might have been a sticky end by turning south. Saw it just in time. How far would he need to go? He now resented any foray into that direction. Sun shining on his left side.

Finally the end of the crack in the plateau. Wouldn’t he like to have a drink of cool mountain water right now? Don’t have any water. Not wearing the suit. Need to make camp while sun still shining for getting water from plants. Good old Greg, teaching me that.

Fiction: Avatar Remaindered: 21

Storm over Lake Ebb (a salt lake), watercolor and gouache painting by Rita de Heer

The Dream, or Was It?

Sard woke. How many more times would he have to wake in this story? When we gamed in CAVE, we don’t bother with night and day. It was always day. He let his thoughts continue on to CAVE.

“Oh look, he’s waking up,” said someone. A girlish voice. Sard turned to see her but there was no one with him in the rock hole. Huh. “Where will we have him?” said someone else he almost knew. He started to try to remember him.

“We haven’t seen him do anything real yet.” Different boy. Just figuring how many players is all I have time for? “Can you believe that it’s one of the avatars in that suit?” First boy again. “I thought they’d all been cast out?”

“Let’s try that village at the edge of the salt lake,” the original girl said.

Sard gave up.

Someone sounding a lot like Gre…Greg?…chuckled. “You mean Sard and Srese Yonker, and Youk Kerr? You are a dim-witted bunch if you’ve forgotten them already. Do it. I want to see Sard in that village. I want to see how Sard reacts.”

Being warned, Sard held onto stone left and right. He heard swearing off stage, scoffed at himself. Yeah right. How did I even know that?

He closed his eyes—his thoughts went fuzzy and his whole body shook—bones, flesh, heart and head. His ears funnelled in a loud incessant buzz. This doesn’t sound like somewhere I want to be. He pinched himself. Ouch. I’m awake?

He opened his eyes. Where is this place? Village at the edge of the salt lake reverberated in his thoughts. Can’t see either a salt lake or any houses. Only thing he could see straight in front was the underside of his stair-set of drawers that he’d had since childhood.

Was it them at an arm’s length distance? He marvelled running his fingers over the silky timber undersides of the fourth, fifth, and sixth drawers. He leaned forward. I wonder if the crabby life-suit entity brought all my treasures in the drawers as well?

Stop. I don’t want to give the damned life-suit entity the satisfaction. He lay back, thought about the drawers themselves to distract himself. Old and older, maybe the oldest piece of furniture in the habitat, according to Ghulia, and inherited through her from her forebears.

Passing concrete objects down through the generations shouldn’t even be possible, given the anonymous way they were made. How did she manage it? And why the drawers here—he looked beyond the staircase they were part of, and through an open doorway—in this lime-stone white house at the edge of a salt lake?

No one out there. No. Wait. A bunch of people dressed in white, walked half-heartedly, even hesitantly, out on the salt. They all wore a thing over their eyes. Looks like a swim-mask, people. You look ridiculous. He felt his face. No mask himself.

< You don’t need virtual-world goggles. You are wearing me. >

Sard laughed. I am wearing a life-suit colonised by an AI entity. It confirmed his suspicions. Apart from that, I am inside a virtual building somewhere, as well as in an actual rock-shelter.

“He went in here,” said a voice he knew. Greg came into view, also with swim-goggles over his face, and leapt up the stairs. Dust from between the treads spurted into Sard’s face. He was under the stairs he saw, recognising the boxed-in treads. They are the drawers containing my life.

< You’re wondering how a life-suit knew about your drawers? >

“Not really,” Sard said. The way the entity said ‘life-suit’ gave the game away. If it was a game. Preening and so superior, as if an ordinary life-suit was far beneath what the entity itself was capable of. Which might be true, remember that.

The people watching or involved in the interactive play, seemed to think they were involved in a game. Sard listened interestedly to the stomping on the floor above, and the high, excited voices up there. Everyone ran up and down the stairs at least twice each.

Then the search continued in the room alongside the stairs—with him in plain sight he would’ve thought—and then the room beyond, a kitchen maybe. Plenty of people called out they saw him whenever someone thought they found him.

Nobody did, though he wasn’t hiding particularly, just laying on a pallet under the stairs. All they had to do was glance aside. But they of course wore the goggles that were in the control of the entity that also controlled the life-suit.

< These people have had things too easy for far too long. >

Whatever the stupid entity meant with that apart from the glaring fact that it—the entity—was now in charge. It now seemed to Sard that Gammy—the AI owner of CAVE who once was Gamester—a regular human being who had his brain pattern uploaded into a computer—had ruled by division. All energy-chewing tasks were separated. Life-suits could not communicate with the virtual goggles. Gammy’s strategies were to preserve the system for as long as possible.

This entity obviously had no such desire. He wouldn’t be surprised if CAVE ended during its reign. Did it even know what it wanted? And what did it know about Sard’s people? Because how easy was it in fact to know that every move you made was being judged, and if you didn’t come up to the expectations of the pernickety AI in charge, you’d be moldecked without regrets? You were told a fantasy that you’d be reborn. Better luck next time, people had learned to say to each other.

Who, or what, was this entity?

“Got you!” Greg said. He’d shoved his mask up on his forehead. He grabbed Sard by an arm and dragged him into the open. “Let’s get you into the daylight. I knew you’d be somewhere in plain sight.” He stood Sard on his two feet.

“I’m surprised to find you in the game, oh noble warrior,” Sard said. “It’s quite a short trip, it seems, from standing back all your life to suddenly being as involved as any Tom, Hinny and Darren.”

Greg hesitated. He dropped his hands from Sard, and tore off his mask, which squawked as if the life-suit entity had an audio channel in it, and it resisted. His dazed expression cleared to the one Sard recognised as the Greg he knew.

“Same old Sard. You calling me out?” Greg said.

“Just wondering what the hell is going on?” Sard said. “Not like you to be taken in by anything an AI serves up?” He replied with the same tone Greg gave him.

Greg frowned. “An AI? Other than Gammy, you’re saying?”

Sard gestured at the houses made from blocks of pristine limestone, at the sheet of white glare beyond. “When did Gammy ever serve us up with this? Or peopled it with swim-goggles and a life-suit at the same time? I think he’s been overwritten. You probably know better than me what with.” He didn’t dare go further.

Greg grinned. “What’s it like, wearing it?”

The thing in the life-suit slammed Sard to the ground hard enough that he hurt. < Next time stay where I put you. >

Next it slammed Greg down beside him. It must have, no way would Greg ever purposely throw himself down beside Sard and lay there winded and looking concussed.

Thinking to check Greg’s life-status, Sard put his hand on Greg’s chest. The AI messaged Greg and it reverberated up Sard’s arm. < Don’t make me over-write you as well. >

It could do that? “Drop the mask,” Sard mouthed at Greg.

Greg nodded minimally. Freeing his fingers from the mask’s strap, he leapt to his feet. “Come on, Sard. Let’s go. Save yourself.”

The life-suit squeezed Sard the way he had come to know. The python trick. “You,” he gasped. “You save yourself!” The life-suit picked him up and forced him to run at Greg on four feet, like a beast.

Greg grimaced horror, turned and ran into a corridor.

< Your body lies on the plateau. There is no going or coming other than with me. > < Wait here. >

The life-suit forced Sard back into the hutch under the stairs.

Fiction: Avatar Remaindered: 20

A scene in the Great Dividing Range by Frances Guardthis only a few metres downhill from the plateau

Mark 1 versus Mark II

The breeze all around Sard slowed. What is the problem? He glanced up. His wing’s air cells lost their fat sausage look as he watched. He didn’t plummet, but started circling downward in a tight spiral. A different kind of breeze.

< Very nice. A lovely scene in my latest entertainment. >

Ignore. Still spiralling downward, he looked between his feet, and watched the plateau become a dangerous landing ground of a stony floor with boulders and tussocky vegetation here and there. He clenched his jaws. Needs must.

< You’ll need to bring us nearer to the home ridge for me to transmit your doings. >
Sard pulled on the brakes, then on the strings above them, to try and slow his progress. He intended landing to the left of the chasms.

< I warned you-ouou-ou! >

Mark II’s voice faded out. Thanks be the universe. Sard touched down, and ran along a narrow stony slab for a half dozen paces while remembering to yank down hard on the strings to the rear of the wing to empty out the cells.

He stopped without tripping and the wing fell over and around him. He dropped to his knees and after catching his breath, untangled himself from strings. How can I test that Mark II has really gone?

Do nothing. Rest up. He grinned. It’s a plan. He tented the wing over the vegetation. Crawled under and made a comfortable nest.

The life-suit pulsed. Damn, he was just asleep. “What?”

< Input of energy is required. >

“I doubt it when I’m resting.”

< At rest the organism needs 70 units of energy per hour. The support system an additional 30 units to be able to maintain shelter from the elements. >

Sard lifted the flap of the wing. Dark night with only the stars. “Go to sleep. I don’t need you.”

— — — —

He woke shivering so hard his teeth rattled. Get up. Move. Warm up. He tried leaping, windmilling his arms. Stumbled. Trembled. The life-suit wasn’t working? His gut felt hollow from hunger. “Wake up! Wake up!” What was the correct instruction again?

< Wake up is the correct command. >

“Frosty.” Sard laughed despite his gut pain. Relief, probably. “You’re right. We need food. Though there isn’t that much left.” He upended the pack over the wing. Only a few food packets tumbled out.

< Think the food types at me and I will compute the eating plan. >

“Okay,” he thought, then said it. “Two of Greg’s savoury potato cakes. Mulberry and fried grub slice, my favourite, so only one of those. Sweet potato slice, not my favourite, so four pieces of that. Six cubes of mock cheese. Half a packet of shake mix.”

< There is choice. With enough water we can have many days of rest. Seven days if things need to be done. Half that with hard labour. >

“Seven days, of course. Even I understand we can’t stay here and expect to live. What can I have?”

< The fried grub slice. Two wet fingers dipped in the drink mix. >

“And that’s it? I could eat the whole lot, no problem.”

The suit made no answer.

“Just joking. You’re making me eat my favourites first. Less temptation. So what’s required is me getting us to a place where I can get more food. Do you know any?”

The only answer was the wind whistling among the sedgy tussocks. “Of course you don’t. My apologies. Do you have any suggestions?”

Negative on that too.

After a while he recalled the suit’s original programming. Cuffed himself on his forehead. Fool. The life-suit doesn’t understand anything not connected to it. And this is that programming back in spades. The one I yearned for. Fool again, for taking so long to remember it.

Eyes open, Sard-man. Ears, all my senses. A low wind soughed and rustled the vegetation, also low. Sard clambered up the nearest taller than knee-high boulder. He stared in every direction, trying the imprint everything in his memory.

Half the circumference, to the left, west through north to east, he sensed rather than saw the drop off. In that 180 degree half circle, the vegetation, the sedgey tussocks and low shrubbery stopped abruptly about ten metres from where he stood and were backed by blue sky. Ten metres, that’s not a lot.

He overpowered his instinct to instantly move in the opposite direction. From west again—the direction behind him—but through south to east this time, the same vegetation types went on and on and became a brown haze. Remember, though, the chasms intermittently and not visible until you get near. He looked for the smoke specifically. Sniffed. Something he remembered. From Greg teaching him? He hardly remembered Greg. Did it matter? Can’t smell smoke or see any. What about the breeze, then? Where’s that going?

The breeze came whistling over the edge of the escarpment in the north (on his left hand) and went south (to his right). Smoke and smell both would be carried away from him. He stepped down from the boulder. Peered closer at the surrounding landscape. Underfoot were rivers of bare rock and islands of grit and stones bearing the plants.

This is a desert as much as the red sandy one below. Barring the spinifex down there nearly the same vegetation. Probably the same animals. No birds the whole time I’ve been looking. Except … he glanced skyward. A raptor up there, would you believe. What is there down here for it to eat?

If in answer, a finger-length red-and-blue locust hopped from one bush to the next. Before Sard could think what to do about it, the bird swooped down, grabbed the insect and was up and away again. A little raptor. Hobby falcon. Too small, too fast and too smart to catch. The insect. Red-and-blue. How was that camouflage? The bushes. Ah. Little red flowers. Blue shadows.

Got to find something bigger than a little raptor or more than a single locust. Both of them need too much energy to catch. But also, I can’t stay in one place here the same as I couldn’t stay in the dip down there after I ate that one single rat. But still. If I can find a dip here, maybe I’ll be able to catch a rock rat. Make a fire and cook it. There’s no one up here.

He packed up the wing as well as he was able in the circumstances, not being able to lay it out flat on the ground. Make that he crumpled the wing’s cells to his chest to empty them, and gathering in the cloth, stuffed it into the backpack. But he gathered in the lines methodically and after coiling them inserted the bundles neatly between pack and fabric. Set the pack on the boulder and shrugged into it.

Set off away from the edge of the land toward a region—he scoffed at his continuing internal pretentiousness—where the vegetation seemed taller. That might signify a depression where any rain on this benighted plateau might have drained to and the veg as a consequence had grown taller.

Following the rivers of rock he was easier on his suit-legs, less cutting from the prickly vegetation. No answer to that. The incumbent version of programming was not nearly as chatty as the other.

< Following the rivers of rock will take you twice as long to get anywhere and using more energy. >

Uh oh. It’s the Mark 2 program back. How did that happen? Sard trembled. He felt the shiver go through him from his throat to his toes, him trembling from the fright of being encased in an unfriendly entity. His mouth dried. His outer covering, aka the fucking life-suit, narrowed its elasticity—somehow—resulting in a length-ways squeezing like that python trick way back when.

My own stupid fault. I thought at it—I’m still gaming it when I should know better by now. I told it I was following a rock river. And it answered me. Proving right there, that this is the other program.

He stopped, walking and thinking. To his left he could hardly see where the veg cut off at the edge of the plateau to his north. I’ve come too far south. He zigzagged back north to his safe zone. Keep walking. Get really safe. Falling off the plateau might be the lesser of the two evils.

After a long time hard walking, he stopped again. Stood there, pack still on his back. Not giving the entity any more clues than need be. My shadow getting quite long. Sun sets in the west, behind me, and I’m not even going to check that. Need to find somewhere to lay down and sleep.

The moment the sun sank all the way below the horizon, the air cooled. Damn. Nearly cold. He half expected—hoped—the suit to instantly tell him to get into shelter. Suit obdurately silent. Walk walk. The runnels of stone became harder to see. Shadowed shrubs. Almost dark, I might as well say.

Put his foot down on a place that wasn’t there. Huh? His knee collapsed and the rest of him plunged after.

He fell deeper than how he remembered a dip in the landscape. What is this place? The pack on his back pressed him down while he lay on … he felt about … on rock. Struggling out of the pack’s restraints he looked up at the edge of the ground where he’d been. Rock edges all around, the dusk grey sky beyond. The depression was maybe waist deep?

Down where he was, there were already black-dark places. A bunch of ledges over hollows? If I had a flash light … don’t need one, I have a life-suit. Grim dark thought—what else don’t I know about it?

Should he appreciate the fact that the exterior of the suit started to glow? Didn’t know it could do that either. Is Youk really so far ahead of everyone with his programming?

< A silly boy who dressed Roman style for his capture by the clay faces. >

What? Youk? Captured?

< You should attend to the shallow business of surviving in this hole. >

The suit squeezed him to get his attention is what it felt like. Is that the way to talk? A thought that might have got to it because the exterior of the suit started glowing. In patches. His right side leg and arm when he had his head turned that way because of the way he lay, but now directed his gaze into the overhangs there.

Three separate overhangs no higher than about fifty centimetres. No deeper than a body sheltering. Their gritty floors scuffled. A lot of random handprints medium-size and small scattered about. People getting comfortable in the only shelter available, that might mean.

Sard rolled to his left side slowly enough to give the suit the chance to light up the dark on his other side. One side faded. The other lit up—greenish, then bluish then white. Good approximation of a flood light.

Yep, the suit knew what he meant. His thoughts or his actions. Whatever.

This side the holes were both deeper and higher. The adults would’ve slept here, he thought. He searched for large handprints and found them. Also the imprints of weaving. Rounds and sloppy ovals.

< Where they rested their baskets. I must know who they are. >

Yeah right.

< Sleep. I will study the matter. Perhaps this benighted community has technical expertise I need. You do not have enough energy stored to serve both me and your body, and I will take most of it. You will need to cover yourself. >

Huh? He could parse that out but was in fact he was too tired. He registered the last fact and pulled out the circular underlay that was to have helped him do magic. Hmph. He lay where he lay and covered himself.