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White Sailors

by Peter Jerrim

 
CHAPTER 11

'Stop crowding.' Huan pushed her elbows into the glits who pressed around her, staring at the VR screen. They stepped back a moment then shuffled forward again to watch what she and Bryan were doing to Lequila. Reflections from the screen glittered from the Huan's diamond facets as she twisted in her unaccustomed skin. 'Pardon me, guys,' she said, 'I forget my manners. I haven't got used to how friendly we all are.'

The other glits twittered, 'That's OK, quite understandable, don't worry...'

Huan attended to the screen.

The vivid image of Lequila, sitting in ashes, floated before her. Huan reached into the screen, stroked the image. 'I'm sorry. I wish you didn't have to go through this...'

Bryan sat beside her at the console. 'Concentrate, everyone,' he said. 'Think of some more experiences to saturate her need for sensation?'

A tiny glit beside Bryan looked up and tugged his arm. 'But she'll still see and hear when she becomes...'

'We're talking about tactile sensations,' said Huan, 'and taste. I mean, we can feel through our glitskins...but it's not the same.'

The glits who thronged around the console twittered:

--tattoos
--bath of milk
--oyster
--peacock's eye
--mud wrestl...
--throw her
--to the lions
--boil in
--oil

'Some of these things hurt,' said Bryan. He looked at the grey image of Lequila before him. A stone Buddha daubed with ochre, quite still, apart from the occasional shudder and the slow, deep digging of her nails. 'Have you forgotten what it's like to live in a natural skin?'

--a stonemason
--a carpenter working with wood
--kneading dough
--a mother's touch

'Now we're talking,' said Huan. 'Her mother died when she was young. There will be unfulfilled needs there. Do we have data on her mother, Bryan?'

'SEARCH,' commanded Bryan. 'TADONIDIS. FEMALE. DIED OUTLANDS CIRCA 3100.'

'I think I remember,' said Huan, 'Her first name. Lequila mentioned it once. Ann...Anna...Plurabelle... ANABEL. I don't know about the Tadonidis...'

A tall, female glit came forward from the back of the crowd. Her skin had a pale ruby cast. She squatted between Huan and Bryan at the console. 'I think I've got some data on this,' she said. She held her hands to her temples and rocked on her heels. 'Well most of it's just techno stuff I can beam straight into the console--coordinates, genome, etc--but the main thing is I've got what she downloaded when she reprogrammed shortly before her death. I think there are some memories here...' She began to chant, 'Menarche, first date, adventures in cells 1, 3, 9, 405, sectors Zyklus, Runia, Outlands...'

'Thanks Sirima,' said Bryan, 'Let's concentrate on the Outlands, with particular reference to Lequila, of course.'

The ruby female smiled. 'I've got some feelies from that time. Recorded by a droid her husband kept for the purpose. Before a family argument and the droid was deactivated. Anabel had a romantic notion about living as nature intended.'

The little glit next to Bryan said, 'Will we play the feelies to the subject, then?'

'No,' said Bryan. 'We'll load them straight into the console. Then the subject--Lequila to you, thank you--can experience it from the inside, so to speak, without a voot suit. It'll be so close to her own memories that there shouldn't be any conflict.'

'But once the scene is underway,' said Huan, 'we'll edit it.'

'Will you use pseudo?' said the little glit.

'A bit.'

 


 

The ashes turn to cream and, though she can't see it, Lequila can feel a cat licking her. All over. It's delightful. And in the sudden absence of pain her skin roars with pleasant sensations. She stands and is about to step out of the fireplace when she feels herself shrinking. The thatched hut decomposes, the trees evaporate, the beach and the sea shrivel up like cling wrap in a flame, the sky peels back.

She is a little girl being led by the hand through the darkness by her mother. They step through a doorway and into a small wooden building with windows of coloured glass. Long seats of polished pine are positioned neatly parallel to one another on either side of a central aisle.

Lequila and her mother walk down the aisle.

When they reach the other end of the building they stop at a raised section and her mother kneels on the wooden floor and closes her eyes. Lequila kneels next to her and gazes at the table that stands before them. Light from the windows illuminates it with red, violet and gold.

Resting on the table is a glass sphere. There is something inside it but Lequila can't see it properly in the gloom. She slips her hand from her mother's and tiptoes to the table. The ball of glass is almost at head height but she can see clearly the image inside it. A woman is nailed to a cross of wood that looks like an X floating on its back in water. One half of the woman is white and the other half is black. Her eyes are green and her nipples are pink. She wears a short skirt made from leopard skin.

Underneath the cross are three small objects that look like they're lying at the bottom of the sea--a gold chest so full of jewels its lid can't close, a white flower with a bee sucking its nectar, and a white egg that has cracked open where a hand punches out.

Lequila can't resist the temptation to touch the sphere. It's hot! It becomes a wobbling globe of blood that drains through her fingertips into her body leaving the table empty and Lequila bulging with excess blood.

The next thing she knows her mother is running, screaming, with Lequila in her arms, down the aisle, out the door and through the long grass of a plain that stretches forever.

Lequila sobs into her mother's heaving breast as she runs on and on.

When her mother slows to a walk, Lequila looks about. They have entered a defile between barren hills. Soon she hears the sound of a waterfall. They are on a track that runs beneath a cliff, high above the pool into which the waterfall pours. Lequila's mother throws her child into the pool.

There's a pause in time, then a rush of air and Lequila is thrashing in the water, screaming every time she surfaces. She flails her arms and eventually reaches the bank where she crawls out and vomits.

Something viscous and green slips from her mouth and she feels much better. Then her mother is holding her in her arms again and she feels safe in a way she has never felt before.

Afterward they are back at the ranch and Lequila's parents argue into the night.

--holy, thrice blessed
--before her time
--a sister or brother for her
--the size of the debt
--your veins
--can't finish this commission
--deprogrammed, reprogrammed
--hypnotised
--over emotional
--why, why, why
--not the first thing
--the droid an investment
--you tell her then

Lequila is comforted. After the argument her parents will get angry enough to make love then be happy for days. It's a mystery. She lies there kicking her cold feet in the sheets. The rough cloth of her nightdress rubs her body when she moves. She wraps the corner of the blanket round her thumb, sucks it and sleeps.

 


 

The glits were tired. One by one they stalked away to recharge. Some needed to sleep. Lequila rested with her head on her arms before the image of Lequila as a sleeping child. Feelie shadows of the parents' arguing played in the background.

Bryan had absented himself for recharging. Sirima, the ruby-coloured glit, sat in his place, chatting to keep Huan awake. 'This is hard for you as a new glit,' she said. 'I remember after my englitation it was weeks before I could think straight. And that was before the struggle with the Manse had come to this.'

'I still don't understand what's going on with the Manse,' said Huan. 'By the way, can I plug and recharge while I'm at the console?'

'It's not exactly good manners,' said Sirima, 'but if you insist.'

'No, no, I can wait.' Huan's backside felt itchy. She had come to recognise this as a sign that she needed to recharge within the next couple of hours. She remembered the first time she had recharged. The pleasure was hard to forget.

'It's just like any programmed behaviour,' Bryan had said, 'If you didn't feel the need to do it and if it didn't feel good when you did it then it wouldn't happen enough, would it? And you'd run low and you'd die.'

That was the first time she had heard of a glit's dying. It had worried her. She didn't think that anyone died in the Sleeve, except by misadventure. People just got older very, very slowly. When they reached 200 they usually uploaded to a new body. She asked Sirima, 'What did eventually happen to Lequila's mother, then?'

'I'm surprised Lequila never told you.'

'We've been at the academy together for years and share everything, intimately. But whenever I try to talk about the past she changes the subject. She only once ever talked of her mother. That's when I found out her name.'

On the screen the bubble contents of Lequila's brain showed some flashes of imagery.

'Woops. No dreaming allowed,' said Sirima. 'Let's turn up the theta level.' She fiddled with the controls. 'That's better. A deep, dreamless sleep. Being a nat, she still needs its restorative power.'

'Yes,' said Huan, 'She had been depressed for a few weeks--which is very unusual for Lequila--and the usual aroma electrics didn't make any difference.'

'Ha!' said Sirima. 'The stinkatron'd jerk anyone out of a bad mood.'

'She was being plagued by memories that kept rising up unexpectedly, at inconvenient times. Like, during jungle training in a high-G sector, dangling from vines above a crocodile-infested river. Marta had her suppressed, of course, but it didn't make any difference.'

Sirima turned down the volume of Lequila's parents argument, which was playing in an unedited loop. 'You mean that woman who runs the academy? Don't tell me she has the authority to order memory suppression.'

'It's part of the deal you sign when you join,' said Huan. 'In loco absentis or something. It never bothered me.'

'Tell me what Lequila did say about her mother.'

'Now that's the bit we're going to play next,' said Bryan who had returned, revitalised. 'Slightly modified, of course. We want turn it into a happy memory, if we can.' Byran inclined his head toward the two females and bowed. 'Huan, why don't you go off and recharge while Sirima and I deal with this? We won't immerse it till you return.'

 


 

Lequila grasps the pen in her fist and stabs the paper with it. The end of the pen snaps off and skitters over the table onto the floor. Lequila takes a knife from her belt and sharpens the end of the pen, holds it as her mother taught her and writes.

It's hard enough when you dictate to a droid. Your thoughts have to be clear or it will keep asking you stupid questions. But when you want to do the writing yourself, in private, you have to do it the hard way. No one teaches you this sort of stuff. No normal person has used a pen in the history of the Sleeve. Except my mother. A nature lover. A freak.

The pen that Anabel has made for Lequila is a wooden tube filled with a mixture of graphite and clay. She had selected a branch from a box pine to the north of the canyon. It was finely-grained enough to turn on a lathe she had made with a pole, a string and a treadle hinged with leather. (She had killed the quoll herself and skinned it and soaked the leather in her own urine. It stank in the shed for a week.) Lequila's mother had turned a dozen cylinders and attempted to drill them down the centre. Finally she had what she wanted. Then she mixed soot with soft clay and poked and squeezed it down the central hole. In a few days it was hard enough to use--on the paper she had likewise slaved over, producing it from a slurry of maguey bark and the pulped fibres of old cotton clothes.

She even makes me wear clothes made from cloth. Scratchy cotton. Unbearable wool. No one has worn clothes like this for a thousand years. Till my mother thought of it. My mother certainly does things the hard way. She makes up her own rules then lives by them. Me and my dad try to fit in as best we can. Most of the time it's OK. When everything works Mum's in a good mood and we all get on fine.

At least my memory tells me so. But it hasn't been like that for a while. In fact, I can't remember the last time Mum was happy. Lately she's so busy 'reprogramming' herself she doesn't have much time for me. It makes me angry. I get this lump in my throat I want to hack up and spit out. Sputum, Dad calls it. It's yellow and evil and clogs my throat. He says it's just my reaction to the spores. But I think it's my mother.

I mean we have just eaten our fifth meal in a row in total silence.

I hate this meanness at mealtimes. When my parents argue I want to put a bucket over each of their heads so they have to listen to their own words echoing around. And spare me. But instead I have to suffer in silence. In my head I'm playing feelies. I just imagine going to another planet and fly among clouds or swim in the ocean. I've learnt this from my father. In every argument he reaches the point where he knows he can't win. He plays by one set of rules and my mother has another set. Her rules always win in the end. Then my father blanks out. He stops talking. After a sentence or two my mother stops talking, too. Then nothing can start them up again. And I'm too scared to say anything. I don't want the treatment.

When silence reigns it's like a bad dream that repeats. I am walking along a path full of deep holes. I can see the holes but I can't stop myself from falling in. That's what my parents' silences are like. Cavities I can't avoid.

Then I can't make a sound. Even the thoughts in my head slow down. Soon nothing happens in my brain at all.

Their cruellest accusations are silent. While their eyes look at their food or the wall their foreheads burn with contempt.

Yet I know they love each other, In a day or a week they'll be over this and we'll be a happy family again. Then we'll be working on our ranch together and I won't mind being stuck out here away from other kids.

Writing words is strange. It took me weeks to learn. My mother made me practise every day during the spore season when the winds howled outside and the spores drifted down through the cracks in the roof. When it stopped we couldn't go outside until the rains came and washed it away into the creeks.

The hardest stuff to learn was punctuation because I'd never really noticed it in stuff that I'd read.

After the rains the brown bush and the stone country is caressed by creeks. The water tickles it green. Frogs croak for a mate and spawn their mucusy dots. Which turn into commas.

I suppose I started life a period, a full stop a dot. Then I grew to a comma. I was still hardly a punctuation mark in my parents' lives. It was a long time before I became a word or a sentence.

 

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