Sard forked his breakfast down as fast as he could swallow it, to be out of here. Scrambled eggs it was supposed to be. Pap in different colours, most of it. As usual, Youk diagonally across the table, watched everything he did. Didn’t the guy ever have anything better work for his yellow eyes than make sure the avatars didn’t get ahead of him?
Youk said, “Shovelling it in rather, aren’t we?”
“What?” Sard said, mentally kicking himself. When would he learn not to react?
“Shovelling the food in like the farmers didn’t grow it to your taste.”
Phin, beside Youk and directly opposite Sard, smiled benignly at his henchman. Kicking Sard’s feet out of his way, he stretched his legs under the table. Phin, the bloody boss-farmer. Youk his off-sider, and Sard his yokel.
“Finished?” said Youk. “I’ve got some important news for you.”
“Really.” Sard said with the slightest possible inflection. “I’m racking my brains. What do you know that’s important for me to know too?”
“Fare thee well, oh golden avatar!” Phin said. “When will you do something about your looks? Still with the golden Greek baby curls, still with the hairless ivory chin. Do you wend to your work, oh princeling?”
He meant Sard should start down at the farm. Weeding probably. Of course all the other late-eaters remaining in the Dining Hall mingled in, laughing and commenting. “Do you join him, Youk, to be dusted by his benison?” Tye said, showing off madly in front of his girls. Youk got up.
Sard thrust back his chair, then stood in a hurry to catch it before it fell with him still in it. With the chair in his hands he could’ve been a lion tamer. As if. Anyway, neither of his bullies was anything as noble as lions. He shoved the chair hard against Phin’s outstretched legs, putting it back by the table. He didn’t say sorry because he paid every day, whatever he did or didn’t do.
Youk followed close enough behind him that he would look like he hustled Sard from the Dining Hall.
Nothing new in that.
“Youk in his favourite role! Roman master with his Greek slave,” Tye shouted after them. “No prize for guessing which is which!”
Caro laughed. “Ooh, Tye! Why not?”
The hall doors soughing shut behind Youk, cut them off from any further ribaldry, and because he had Youk breathing down his neck, Sard made for the dorm.
“Funny how the corridor walls don’t reflect your mood,” Youk said. “Surely they should’ve been flaming red on black? The AI loves strong emotions, all said and done.”
That was Youk commenting on Sard’s lack of nanobots even though he was deemed old enough to sleep in a dorm. With Youk and Phin! Two years later and he still hardly believed it.
And the bloody-power-that-be, aka Gammy the AI, thought Sard mature enough to be working with Youk and Phin as well. As their bullying went on, he was in danger of growing younger about it. What with Gammy’s message on the mini-mon this morning, he felt positively immature.
He could but reply in kind. “Funny how the corridor walls don’t reflect your mood. Shouldn’t they be colour of envy? A dirty green?”
“The stupid AI wouldn’t dare,” Youk said. “He knows I’d hack into him with no quarter given.”
“Yeah right, full of gas as always.” Sard stopped. “That’s what we’re here for? For you to tell me that Gammy isn’t reacting to me?”
“Not out here, stupido. Though after that little comment, why should I?”
“Typical. In the dorm?”
“The Pit would’ve been the better place.”
“With every man and his company working off his calories?”
Youk slung his arm over Sard’s shoulders and sidestepped him into their dorm. Dirty clothes underfoot wherever they stood. Phin refused them the use of a laundry basket.
“See what I just did?”
“What you just did?” Acting dumb was often his best defense against Youk.
“Stop that.” Youk shook him. “I was going to do you a favour.”
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. A damned pair of insufferable Gammy-clones.”
“Srese would remind you we are twins, same DNA, womb tanks side by side.”
“Srese is half Yon Kerr doubled, and you’re Yon Kerr. Bloody Gammy clones.”
“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.”
“They say that about you,” Sard said. He stored the new facts in favour of keeping Youk at bay. “So what?”
“I wasn’t mixed in a test tube and decanted into a womb tank. My mother was a desert woman Yon Kerr got in for my father to romance. He won a contest to star in a cave-wide entertainment. Ring a bell, does it, that phrasing?”
Like Srese just won. Sard gulped down his worries. “What happened to his twin?”
“I was going to take you to find out. Walked through one of the holos in the Pit and into the next disused complex.” Youk forestalled Sard’s disbelief. “You didn’t know that there are more habitats than this one? Too bad, I could’ve shown you my hide. I have a standalone with all the information you would’ve been likely to want.” He shook his head. “There’s history there you wouldn’t believe. But as I said, it’s too late now.”
Youk was insufferable when he thought he had the upper hand and he always reneged on his offers.
“I’m not worried. Srese and I have an agreement,” Sard said. Whichever of them was picked for the role would hoist the other twin up beside them. After all, they were the best CAVE director producer team ever. Not that he would say anything of that to Youk. Red flag to a bull, that would’ve been.
Youk flung himself on his bed. “What are you going to do about it?”
Sard shrugged. He went round the room picking up his clothes. He wished Youk would go. “Laundry.”
“You could do some of mine.”
“You know what Phin will say.”
“What will Phin say?” Phin said, coming in.
“About Sard doing just his own laundry,” Youk said.
“That isn’t right,” Phin said. He stopped Sard by gripping his arm like in a vise. “Load him up, Youk.”
He shook Sard. “And you can fold them before coming over for your chores at the farm. Missing lunch of course, as a result.”
Youk piled the rest of the clothes from the floor, their work coveralls, their glad rags, their towels on Sard’s armful. “Go at it, young fellow.” He opened the door into the corridor ready for Phin to put his foot on Sard’s butt and shove him out.
The corridor walls should’ve been incandescent. But they stayed obdurately grey as Sard hadn’t his nanobots, as Youk so kindly pointed out. The corridor’s laundromat was exactly in the middle. No one else doing theirs, very convenient for what he had in mind.
Sard seethed as he sorted clothes and stuffed them in three separate ionizing machines. He programmed Youk’s and Phin’s to cycle half a dozen times each. Folding the clothes afterwards should be a real problem. His own clothes he took out clean and creaseless. Folded them swiftly. Packed them flat in his washing bag. Walked back.
Not to the dorm. The Nest was where he seemed to spend every second night, might as well this morning too. Thank Gammy his care-mother had been allowed to keep her apartment in the Nest after Sard had been assigned his dorm. Thank Gammy that his care-mother had kept his room in her apartment. Thank you, Gammy.
He let himself in through the apartment’s street door. Not everyone need know Sard was sleeping at Ghulia’s again this week. Though the infants shouldn’t have arrived yet. After Youk’s efforts, he just didn’t want to see anyone for a bit. Especially not Srese’s ditzy care-mother, kiddy-carer Zoya. She’d probably love it that Sard didn’t get the part. He didn’t even want to see Srese. Her tears or her dramatics.
He dumped his clothes in his drawers and switched on the mini-mon above the bed. He planned to watch a movie instead of going to work.
The same words again appeared on the blue screen.
He closed his eyes. His gut churned. Words still there when he opened them the second time. He wanted to yell and scream, not fair. Srese was so young still, he’d never believed they were identical or twins. He was a boy, she was a girl. He had his yellow eyes. His name Sardonix, describing them. Hers brown, the same as everyone else’s. He wished now he’d let Youk be victorious. That he knew already what being remaindered meant.
“Oy.” Ghulia tweaked his toe.
He hadn’t even heard her come in? Sard sat up, feet over the side of the bed.
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-mon above the bed. “What does that mean for me?” How could he trust someone as scatty as Srese to look after his interests?
Ghulia stared up at the words and leaped onto the bed, he was amazed to see, and switched off the mini-mon. “People think no sensori-felt, no receptors. Never dreaming that the communication gear might carry signal,” Ghulia said shakily.
He stared, his mouth agape.
She hugged him hard when she noticed. “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?”
“Probably round lunch-time if they don’t first find their clothes ruined in the ionizers.”
“And will they?”
“Probably not. They’ll be expecting me to wait on them hand and foot. Why?”
“You have no more time at their disposal. In fact, you have no more time at all for ordinary things.”
If it hadn’t been for her fear, utter and stark, Sard wouldn’t have gone along with her chivvying. Seeing her calm slip like that put the wind up him severely. He decided to coast in her wake until the facts of the matter came out and he could decide for himself.
“We need to go to the Dining Hall,” Ghulia said.
The corridor walls, still grey, fluttered with the blue shadows of vegetation. Sard started every time a bird shadow exploded from the undergrowth. “That’s how you feel?”
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 diners, and into the kitchen-office cubby and intro’d him to that fool, Gregorius, the food hall manager, as though Sard never ate here. “You know my care-son?”
“Sard,” Greg said. “Will I put you on the roster for early breakfast?”
“There’s rosters?” Sard’s amazement wasn’t a put-on though the way Ghulia was acting perhaps it should have been. Greg made them a couple of coffees in the meantime.
“Only for the early session, mate.”
Ghulia was like, go on, this is an emergency and it was an easy matter to commit to when he’d always preferred early breakfast. “Yeah sure, put me down for a couple of weeks.”
Ghulia took their coffees to a table. Everyone else was, presumably, at work. He could’ve been feeling good about that, if it hadn’t been for the overtones. She sat down opposite him and behaved in a manner that opened his eyes to every sensor within their range – alongside every light-fitting and behind air-filter screen.
Because of them, she explained without a word, she wouldn’t be saying anything about the emergency in here. She allowed Sard about two minutes to gulp down what was a hot drink and drank hers as though it had no flavour and no heat. Like it was water straight from the moldeckery.
Sard lost the rest of his sure self confidence. He followed her out into the corridors. “Where are we going?”
She shrugged and waggled her head.
Oh yeah. Gamester all ears.
They’d exited in the lane alongside the Dining Hall, walked along it to First Circle. Left in the Circle, crossed Neilson Street. Into the lane alongside the silk weaving workshop. Its back entrance in the corridor parallel to First and Second Circle.
As they entered the silk weavery, Ghulia grabbed the doorbell with a practised move, obviously to prevent it jangling. She pulled him down onto his hands and knees with her and they joined a woman who sat beneath the loom. Her task apparently to tie off the beginnings and ends of silk cocoons as they were unwound and 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 audiencing a ball game, his eyes following the action.
“Not chosen for the game.”
“Plan B, huh?”
With a toss of her head, Mab indicated that someone, whose name Sard wasn’t able to read from her lips, was still up there. Wherever that was. She waved Ghulia and Sard out from under the loom.
Ghulia bent and felt for something under a heap of silk bits in a basket by a curtained doorway in the back of the room. “Go on through,” she said.
When she joined him she had a torch for both of them. On caps to wear on their heads. A passage? He was amazed. How was it that though 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 his torch beam up across and down, The walls and ceiling weren’t newly carved. Nor painted. The floor was ordinary ash-dark polished-with-use stone kreet.
“Mind the ceiling.”
She led, at a good pace, up a set of steps carved into the rock. The ceiling was low for a couple of paces until they went down another set of steps. Why not a straight tunnel for pity’s sake. After the third similar situation he could feel his ire building. “Where are we going?”
“The sooner we get there, the sooner you’ll know.”
Fine. He’d wait some more, though the time when he’d burst from lack of info was fast approaching. About all he was sure of was that they’d entered the tunnel in the silk weaver in the Neilson-and-Everard Quarter. The way the passage slung about, twisting and turning, they could be going anywhere. There was that trick of counting stairs up and down and cancelling them out against each other. Except that he’d lost count after the third set. “Ouch.” He forgot to duck.
Finally Ghulia stopped. But only to enter a foyer. The two sets-of-doors-setup made it like the foyer in the Nest, that he and Srese called ‘the airlock’ and where they used to play their spaceship games.
He wasn’t attending when he should have been, he thought as he nearly fell into the room beyond. It was so large and light and round he felt overwhelmed. Managing not to fall was the main thing for a couple of seconds.
By the time he collected himself, Ghulia had abandoned him and was stepping out a pattern with an old joker already in the middle of the room. The person they’d probably come to see. The man’s hair colour was certainly something to see.
Grey hair and wrinkles Sard only ever came across in videomentaries and then only because he searched beyond the common tripe. Most people he knew would prefer to be moldecked than grow old. Though maybe, seeing his mother so earnestly mirroring the old fellow’s moves, he was wrong.
The grey head continued to step and turn and gesture, completely unselfconsciously. Sard’s hands grew hot 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. And he always made sure that at curtain-up, he’d be behind the scenes. Not that ‘curtain up’ was what they did in the CAVEs.
Finally the oldster made a namaste-type ending to his routine. After a minute on hold he turned and approached Sard. Ghulia continued on hold. She wouldn’t be any help at all.
A vast bright light sprang into being at the top of the rock rim.
The old man said, “It’s the sun. Too hot in here, when that gets going. I’m known as Rider.”
Sard didn’t nod but shook the fellow’s proffered hand for politeness.
“Have a seat,” Rider said, gesturing and expecting Sard to cross-leg down. The floor was polished stone. No rugs. Sard stayed standing. Damned if he was going even further out of his comfort zone. He refused to meet the fellow’s gaze but could feel the man studying him.
Plenty to look at. More amazing was what he would guess to be, a per-glass dome perched on rickety pylons of stones stacked one on the other to the height, he guessed, of an adult man. Nowhere did the dome rim touch the walls so that in the gaps between the pylons cave air blended freely with the outdoors. Or what it looked like. Or it could be holos.
“Originally the dome sat on that rim of rocks,” the oldster said.
The sun picked out an edge far above the dome.
“Lucky for us the glass didn’t break when it slid down, though of course it needed serious stabilizing.”
The floor and walls behind the pylons holding up the roof, were of polished stone-kreet, with three dark entrances including the one Sard and Ghulia had come through.
“When it rains it is all hands to the deck, bailing.”
Above the dome hung a circular piece of sky, brown-tinged by the aged UV barrier in the glass.
“The dome dislodging from its original mounting caused this hall to be abandoned. One of Gamester’s engineers’ mistakes. Serendipitous for us.”
Ghulia finally came to grace the meeting with her presence. “Master, this is my care-son. Superfluous to Gamester’s needs.”
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. The way we’ve been planning since we discovered the possibility.”
Rider looked at Ghulia. “He doesn’t know?”
“I brought him as soon as I was sure.”
“Yet it’s his life. He needs the knowledge. I think Plan B Scene 2, Ghulia,” the man said. “You know what to do?”
His mother seemed to come to some conclusion. “I thought you just agreed to no more decisions without my input?” he said.
Amazingly, she laughed. “Rider, you know him better than I do.”
“I was him once. Still am sometimes, though I try to keep those moments private.”
Whatever that all meant. Sard’s ears burned. He decided to go to the library next, to read the Name Book. He bet there was no Rider in it.
At the end of the tunnel Ghulia said, “I want to show you a couple of things before you are too old to enjoy them. You take Two Forty and Second Circle, not letting anybody see you. Hide in the overhang of Crystal Cave. I’ll be there in half an hour.
“Indulge me, boy. You owe me for that performance.” She took him by the ears and smacked a wet kiss on his chin. Tears in her eyes again. What could he do but what she asked?