Fiction: Avatar Remaindered, 11

Lagoon: copy from 13051770_10154119532324146_3933095396926093854_n copy

  1. Sard’s Plan

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.

Fiction: Avatar Remaindered, 10

DD

Photo by David Gangur

  1. Sard Learning Himself

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 >

Oh.

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.

Fiction: Avatar Remaindered, 5

Compass of the sort Sard might be using: Image from Orienteering by Gscore.com.au

5. Youk’s Hideout


Sard tiptoed into Youk’s domain. He couldn’t ever take anything for granted ever again. He had to eat. He’d never been so ravenous. He broke open a new food pack from somewhere in the bottom of Youk’s pile. Protein biscuit and dried berries, he washed them down with the water he brought. Though the light in here glared steady and bright, he took a torch to keep by him, also from the bottom of that pile. He arranged the remainder to look untouched.

He circled Youk’s standalone. He was glad now that he’d ignored the teasing he copped for having a go on a similar model in the hard copy museum. Cords snaked over the floor from the back of this one into a geriatric power supply. Solar, perhaps. He didn’t have time tonight to check that out as well. He dared press a few switches. The LEDs flickered. The monitor lit up.

The desktop screen divided in two and both spaces filled with file icons. On the right-hand side was everyone he knew. Even him. This he’d have to see. Hah. A diary of his activities, comings and goings. The last entry was about the ionized clothes. He couldn’t help grinning as he read. Phin would be seeing to him when next Sard turned up for work?

Next he opened Srese’s file. A diary of Srese’s days, mostly negative scores for the way she didn’t give Youk his dues. And Youk had icons for Ghulia, Sard’s care-mum, and Zoya, Srese’s care-mother. Caro, Relda, and Tye were in there too. Even Ferd had a file? All their interactions with Youk scored out of ten. No explanations unfortunately. Seriously weird.

The names on the left side of the monitor screen were arranged in pairs. He saw no names that were used these days. He clicked down into a “Jin” and read Jin’s words.

“Gamester is a very rich bloke who set this community up for his personal entertainment. He told me that it wasn’t enough for him to have just to play computer simulation games. No, he wanted to do it with flesh and blood people. Mere empire building got boring he said. Humans have curiosity, variety, creativity. He thought he’d never be bored with real people to entertain him.”

Sard recalled Ghulia telling him that story. And he’d told Srese, because as Srese said, Zoya wasn’t Ghulia. He skim-read the rest of Jin’s file.

“My father says Gamester never grew up. My mother says there was too much money in Gamester’s family, we should never have come. My father throws up his hands and says, “As safe a haven as I could find … the war … the babies … remember what it was like?” My mother goes misty-eyed remembering her babies and I miss my Jan so much.

“Slave, slavery, enslavement: I think keeping people against their will to make them work is slavery … Gamester says he deserves my good will, he used his whole fortune to set up the game that saved us all from extinction.”

Sard sat up. Jin and Jan had a care mother and a care father. That was new. The habitat as a haven from war was another thing he’d never heard of. He flicked back to the desktop. Picked another pair of names. Jen and Jarrah.

“Gamester says we are STALE”, Jen said. “Stale means when things are not humming along at top notch quality. When people do things like pay all their credits to grow plants we have no use for. Or drool over old recipes with impossible ingredients. Or choose silly names for their children like Cloud and Mary and do their work any-old-how to spend their real lives with their daydreams in the CAVES.

“The game can die when STALE happens so Gamester must call on his kids for help. The one that passes the test, wins the quest. Jarrah should’ve won. I never was the best at pretending. Gamester says I don’t need Jarrah because he is made of Gamester’s genes the same as Jen is, so he is the same, he is Jen.”

Sard squirmed. He didn’t like where the logic was taking him. Both Jin and Jen were versions of Srese, who had won. He wanted to read about Jarrah. He saw no file written by Jarrah. He tried another pair, further down the column. Clicked on Sully.

“Gamester made my bots sharp. A campfire warmed the overhang with glowing light and strangers slept there, like golden slugs. Gamester wanted to know them and I am the avatar. He forced me out there. Fenna, the previous winner whom Gamester kept to teach me my job, planned my meeting with the strangers. She explained how I should move, what to say.

“I trembled as I picked my way toward them. Stones underfoot, how would I run if they turned fierce? The man pushed the women behind him when he saw me still coming. He pointed a knife to warn me off.

“Fenna told me I should smile sweetly, in particular at the younger woman. If we could get her inside, Gamester would chase the others off. When I put the food on the ground, the man pushed the girl toward me.

“When Fenna and I later got close to the girl, bile burned my throat. Her skin is leprous and torn, with shreds hanging from her. Unclean. Her rags cover sun-rot. Her eyes are unseeing and white. Gamester I cannot.”

Sard gagged. Here’s hoping the mermen weren’t similarly sun-struck, Srese my sweet sister. Maybe he hadn’t got the worst half of the deal. And Sully wasn’t finished yet.

“Gamester hurt me. His bots cut my flesh. My blood leaks from my veins. Neither she nor I will be wasted.”

Sard went to spit his bile into the pile of sand inside the hatch door. This hatch was welded shut, he saw with the help of his torch. No way anyone could escape here. Shuddering, he scuffed sand over his vomit. Read what I have to and get out. Then he saw a name he knew. Ferd.

Ferd’s sister was the Federica who had had to leave. Sard clicked her name and for once there was a file backing it. “Ferd won the quest and in a minute I am gone …”

This one is for me, the loser. Sard stilled his fear before continuing. Ghulia wouldn’t have taken all that trouble if she’d meant for me to be lost. He continued reading Federica’s story. “… Though not before I have my say. All you after me, there is no contest. It all depends on the kind of outsider who is tricked to come. Male or female. Whatever they are, the chosen one will be the other.

“After the big head’s brain was spliced into the mainframe, there was plenty of flesh left for cloning. Trouble for me, and all you future clone-kids, he was a coward. Meaning his cells were old before he dared the procedure. The cheap biotech he bought before he inclosed our people from the rest of the world meant his labbies couldn’t grow young cells from old ones. Meaning, we clones are old straight after we are young. Never in between.

“So, biotech must make sure to always have a pair of young clones on hand. One of each, yin and yang, so that when human people take shelter at the edges of the game, appropriate bait for the trap already exists. Boys are his clones. Girls his chimeras and are made with two copies of his one X chromosome. We’d be messy creatures if it weren’t for the techies who fix up our weirdings.

“This push to lift DNA from all the world’s wanderers isn’t the bighead’s idea at all. Think baby makers and our infertility, because what would the techies play with if the players all died, say some disease got in? Our people think Gamester invents outsiders so that we clones can earn our keep. I’m telling you this because to be forewarned is to be fore-armed. I’m out of here.”

Sard reeled away from the standalone. Fear and rage burned in him like a hot sword twisting in his gut. He wished it was all Youk’s fantasy and that he could go and take Youk out over it. Tempt him into the unused complex and lose him in there. Hit him over the head in the dark.

But, there were too many supporting realities for it to be a fantasy. Ferd, for one. The twin avatars, himself and Srese. Ghulia’s actions and reactions. Mab talking of Plan B. Even Rider’s existence behind the scenes. Ghulia said Federica left with a herder woman. Better than by herself, because who could live out there on their own? Because look at the sand hilled up even in an airlock with the door welded shut? The wind, yes, he could hear the wind out there picking up. Screaming.

Ferd was the geriatric avatar kept on to teach the next winner, Srese. The way Fenna had directed Sully. What future for me? Ghulia means me to live. She’d known that a month of Sundays wouldn’t have been enough time to explain it all. He hadn’t been in the frame of mind to listen. She’d taken him along secret byways to a man she trusted, in a place invisible to Gamester and his minions. A place not part of the game, yet not in the world.

Which he had rejected with high-handed ignorance. Then she took a risk with him that he’d almost wasted. He was awake to it now and he most definitely wanted to live. He kicked the standalone, gently. He ought to thank Youk, for supplying him with the facts, however unknowingly. He’d warn Srese if he could. He shut down the standalone and made sure the hide-out was as he’d found it.

Fiction: Avatar Remaindered, 2

Wall in the secret corridor

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.”

“Nevertheless.”

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.

Ghulia nodded.

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?”

No 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.”

Sard frowned.

“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?

Fiction: Avatar Remaindered, 1

DNA strand … Sard’s will be weirder than that
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 wish.”

“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.