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White Sailors

by Peter Jerrim

 
CHAPTER 9

Squatting in the top of a tree, Huan gazed down over the skirts of vegetation that flanked the cliff. Deep below, a pool foamed at the base of a steep waterfall. Bobbing about in the milkshake were two figures in coracles, each boat like half a walnut shell with standing room for one person only. Lequila wobbled in one coracle, clutching a staff, trying to stay upright, while in the other a larger woman stood, her weight setting her deeper in the foam. Better balanced, every time the coracles were brought close by the waves she swung her staff at Lequila who met the blows as best she could.

Huan listened to the sounds of the forest and the pool, trying to identify the positions of the van twins and their other partner. As soon as she located one of them she would signal to Damon who waited at the bottom of the tree. But above the hiss of the waterfall only the cries of parrots and the singsong of a butcher bird met her ears. Then Huan twitched with surprise. Rotating out of control, Lequila had received a blow on the back from her assailant's staff. She lost her balance, fell out of the craft and disappeared beneath the surface.

A few moments later Huan saw a head bobbing among boulders in the downstream wash. The large woman brandished her staff over her head in victory. Too soon. Unseen by her, from behind, Roger the pirate rose through the foam. A flash of light reflected from the short sword which he drew from its scabbard and plunged down through his adversary's coracle, ripping its thin covering. The coracle sank and Lequila's assailant also was swept downstream. Roger, who was tall enough to stand in the pond, clambered out and waved up to Huan.

'We've got to get out of here,' she yelled down to Damon. 'The idiot has given away our position.' A spray of non-lethal particles hummed about her as she descended. 'Ouch!' A sting on her right calf announced a hit. By the time she reached Damon a red mark had bloomed around the wound.

'That's two for them,' Huan said as Damon hoisted her onto his shoulders, 'and nil for us. I'm glad pseudo guns are weak at a distance or I'd have to spend a month in the manse growing a new leg.'

They found Lequila hiding in the pines beside the stream.

'Let's look at you,' Huan said as Damon lowered her to the ground. 'You'll have a massive bruise there but the skin isn't broken. How are you feeling?'

'The bitch hit me twice in the stomach with her stick. Wait till I get my hands on her on dry land.'

'Remember it's the brothers we have to punish. Their accomplices are like my big Damon here, smart and strong enough but pseudo. They can't feel anything. They only exist for a day.' Huan patted Lequila on the bottom and said, 'So let's go hunting.'

'We'll put your Damon to work then. He can carry us while we look for Dim and Dum. Giddy up, Tigger.'

'It'd be a pleasure, ma'am,' the giant purred, 'but what about Roger?'

'Jolly Roger can look after himself for a while. He's programmed to find us when we need him.'

The giant padded through the pine forest for half an hour. Huan rode on his shoulders, dodging branches and shaking pine needles from her hair. Piggybacked, Lequila snuggled against the sweep of Damon's back and gripped his jacket to keep her balance. She recalled being carried like this by her father on their outland ranch when she was little. It had been a windy day and dust and spores blew in her eyes. Her father wiped away her tears and hoisted her on his back. She buried her face in his sheepskin jerkin, using its greasy fleece as a mask to filter the dust. They were walking to her mother's hillside cabin where she was reprogramming herself before the rare second pregnancy she had been granted by the College of Gaiamancers. Lequila had wondered what it would be like to have a sister or brother to play with.

Her father had said, 'Don't expect your sibling to be a normal child. Its destiny will be quite separate from yours.' She gripped her father's shoulders and held tight, enjoying the warmth of his body and the rhythm of his walk but trying to expel the cold contradictions of his mind.

Less than a year later her mother Anabel had died during childbirth. 'A simple haemmorhage which a droid could have fixed,' her father said after the funeral, 'but your mother insisted that we live as Outlander primitives...' He never mentioned her mother again...nor the child he buried alongside her.

Huan called down, 'I didn't know there were droids in the Cube.'

Lequila snapped out of her reverie. 'Damon's useful, but he's not really a droid. He's more of a doll--a living doll--made out of pseudo.'

'Is that true, Damon?'

'That's a reasonable description,' he said.

'Then what's it like to be only one day old?' Huan said. 'All this must be as strange to you as it is to us.'

'It all seems normal to me,' laughed Damon. 'As soon as you selected me this morning I was issued with an operating system with a standard personality, enough intelligence and 60 years of memories to match.'

They had entered a small clearing in the forest. Damon deposited the girls on some moss-covered boulders, sat next to Huan, unscrewed the lid from his hipflask and offered her a drink. Lequila sipped, too, then stood and walked across the clearing to inspect a pile of rocks surmounted by a smooth stone slab, large enough for her to lie on. The slab sat on the rocks like a table top. She ran her hands over its surface, brushing away the twigs and needles that had fallen from the surrounding trees. An ant carrying a tiny globe of candied sap scurried in a zigzag across the table and down the side. Lequila watched it disappear into a crevice. Had Damon also been carrying his burden into some dark place for a purpose only known to him? Suddenly Lequila was not convinced by his easy talk. Perhaps she and Huan should take more care. The duel they thought they had freely chosen in the Cube might instead be a test for them, more mental than physical. Perhaps it wasn't a duel at all. After all, she had had only one quick fight in that ridiculous little boat against the cold-eyed Amazon before Damon had whisked them away into the forest. Yes, she would have to warn Huan to take more care.

'Hadn't we better be moving on?' Lequila said as she turned to recross the clearing.

There was no answer. A shaft of light shone through the forest canopy, illuminating Huan and Damon where they sat on the boulders. But they had stopped chatting and were still. Damon seemed frozen in the act of replacing his hipflask. Huan stared up into the trees with a stupid expression on her face. Above her a bird hung in midair, its wings still, in the position of flight.

Lequila grunted in surprise as colour drained from the scene.

She was staring at a flat, grey, high definition image of what a few moments before had seemed to be solid, colourful, three-dimensional and alive.

A breeze blew through her mind. Her body felt like ice. Something like a powerful magnet was drawing her life force from her. Her awareness began to slip away like particles in a force field. Lequila knew that if she didn't do something, in a few more seconds she would cease to exist.

With an immense act of will Lequila stepped forward and touched the picture in front of her. It felt like photographic paper she had once held in a museum. She ran her hand over the image of Damon. It was just shiny paper. Then her fingers trembled on Huan's face. The image became sticky. Lequila pulled her fingers away and Huan's face was drawn off like honey, leaving a hole in the picture where the face had been. Without thinking, Lequila licked the stuff from her fingers. It was sweet. A small warmth spread around her mouth, down her throat, and into the pit of her stomach. She touched the picture again and drew off more. It tasted good. Soon she had eaten the whole picture. She felt strong, alive, in full possession of her faculties.

She was standing on a white floor. Before her was another flat, grey image. On the left of the picture the woman who had fought Lequila in the coracle was frozen in the act of clambering up a rocky embankment. Reaching down to lend her his hand was van Dum. At the top of the embankment an identical woman aimed a particle gun at the head of a huge snake which had wrapped its coils around van Dim. His head protruded from the coils. His tongue protruded from his purple, swollen face, his eyes bulged.

Despite her revulsion at what it displayed, Lequila wanted to eat this picture, too. But as she stepped forward to do so the floor began to tilt.

That's what it felt like. It was hard to tell, with no reference but the floor and the picture. As the floor apparently tilted ninety degrees into an upright position, Lequila remained steady and kept her balance. She seemed to be standing on the wall, perpendicular to it, facing down at the picture which now spread out before her.

But when Lequila jumped out from the wall she fell, face first, into the picture of the Amazons, the van brothers and the anaconda.

The image cracked like toffee hit with a hammer, then she melted through it and continued falling, as if down a deep, white well. Another picture rushed up towards her. She just had time to glimpse a bird, a spider and a human mouth and she was through it, falling, accelerating, breaking through picture upon picture upon picture. Each time she smashed through an image something went snap in her mind and she knew the image was stored there, unconsciously, ready for retrieval and reflection later. But for now all Lequila had to do was to surrender to the thrill of the fall.

Which ended abruptly. She bounced in a rubbery greyness then was tipped into a pool of cold water. She held her breath until she floated to the surface. She climbed a ladder, stepped through a blast of hot air and looked about. She was clean and dry, standing on the orange deck of a VR studio. Seated at a console, with its back towards her, was a glit. It swivelled round and spoke to her.

'Welcome to my world.'

It was Bryan.

For a moment Lequila was sure he, too, would taste like toffee.

Then she blurted, 'Bryan, what...?' and her legs shook so much she had to sit on the floor.

Bryan gestured and a sofa slid from the wall. He helped Lequila onto it. A number of other glits gathered round, staring at Lequila as though she was a giant fish they had pulled from the surf by surprise.

'Give her room,' said Bryan.

He stroked her brow. 'We've had to let you into our little secret sooner than I had intended. Once you've got your breath back I'll introduce you to everyone and then explain what's going on.'

One of the glits gave her some water then they left her alone to recover.

Lequila knew her body was resting on the sofa but she felt she was in free fall while her mind raced to process the data overload of the images through which she had plunged. She needed to calm herself. Reintegrate. She sat on the edge of the sofa, drew up her legs, tucked in her feet, straightened her back.

Pose of the lotus, she thought. I am in a dark room. At peace.

When Lequila opened her eyes an hour later the diamond face of a glit was in front of her, close enough to kiss. The glit's dark eyes stared without embarrassment into Lequila's eyes, as if looking into the depths of a pond. Lequila felt her returning thoughts swim up like goldfish towards her surface awareness. At first she tried to control the thoughts, to hide them from the glit. Then she let them go. Lequila sensed that everything had changed. She was playing a game with new rules that she would have to learn one at a time. The glit continued to stare into her and Lequila surrendered to the inquisition. Gradually she became aware that the glit was a female. That her jaw was working. The transparent film over her mouth stretched to reveal white teeth, a pink tongue, a little saliva. The glit was saying something...

'Hello,' she said. 'My hame is Huan.'

Lequila felt a bolt of lightning thrill through her but she stayed calm and answered, 'I think you have some explaining to do.'

 

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