Title: Yesterday's Toys
Chapter 7: She remembers… she thinks
I'm just a little sorry that I have to die at the hands of my best friend.
Her eyes began twitching as she fought the urge to cry; the struggle quickly threatened to take over her entire face. Fortunately for her, before it got any worse something distracted her – the many-legged cleaner creature had come back to life. It proceeded to scamper off with the cube of Mael, which it transported to its hole in the wall before returning to deal with the rest of the wrappers from their meal. This time, it finished the job, like a worker anxious to impress in the presence of the boss.
The Golden One—she was thinking of him as that because she thought it safer not to think of him as anything else—got out of the floating egg. She watched him a little nervously in case he was going to undress himself again or some other equally unnerving thing. Instead, he opened a compartment that had been effectively invisible in the cloaking darkness, and took out a flat black sheet of an unknown material to her. At first, she thought it was a picture of his face since that was what she could see on the surface, but when the image changed with his every movement, she realized that the smooth surface of the sheet was reflective like a mirror.
The black mirror began to glow at his touch, becoming luminous white. Lines of dark squiggly shapes took shape and settled into a pattern that wasn't an image of anything that she recognized, but it seemed to fascinate him nevertheless. He looked intently at the shapes, immobile except for an occasional flick of a finger that moved the lines of squiggly shapes up and down the surface.
When neither staring nor coughing attracted his attention, she asked, "What are you doing?" with genuine interest.
The answer was a short one. "Reading."
She waited for him to elaborate on that, but when it became apparent that there weren't any more words coming from him she had to turn to her own resources. She said the word in her head, trying out different ways to see how it sounded – quickly and slowly, drawing out first one sound—reeeeding—and then the other, and finally in two pieces like it was two words.
I remember what it means… At least, I think I do.
He'd said 'reading' was what he was doing with the glowing sheet, unless he meant that 'reading' was the name of the sheet itself. But 'reading' in her head was something to do with sheets of thin white stuff, covered with black marks that were less dense and regular—though they did look somewhat like the ones that held his attention—and didn't dance up and down at the command of a finger.
She said the word silently again, eyes closed this time to really focus on it, mentally turning it over and shaking it like it were some strange object she'd found. She was fairly sure that reading made the black marks say something, but without a sound. At any rate, she was quite sure that was true for marks that stood still. For those that moved, she wasn't quite as sure, but she wagered that those black marks were speaking to Machaely. And that was why, she concluded, he was so enthralled by them.
Maybe if I looked at them long enough, I could hear what they're saying to him.
She craned her neck to get a good look at the shapes and waited for them to yield up their message to her. But the black squiggles stubbornly refused to give up their secrets.
She endured the burning curiosity for as long as she could before asking, "What is it... that you're reading?"
He glanced up at her for only the briefest of moments before his eyes were drawn back to the shapes. But at least he gave her an answer. "A message." After a short pause, he added, "From the first Golden One."
She'd learned nothing that she hadn't already guessed, but he'd gone quiet again. The silence stretched, thinning out into unfulfilled tension. The desire for a response was growing like a maddening itch, turning into a downright craving. She felt like grabbing his glowing toy from him if not smashing it outright.
He seemed to sense her agitation, because he finally looked at her properly.
"He called it the Log. But it's just writing." He paused, as if to gauge her understanding, and when she nodded stiffly, he went on. "Reading and writing, they always go together. I can write—make these marks—and leave them where you can see them. Then you can read them later and know what I want to say to you, even when I'm not here."
Again, she nodded carefully. It wasn't as if he'd told her anything that she didn't already know from dredging up her memories, but it was the longest stretch of words he had said to her since he'd taken her from the cavern, and she hoped that if she demonstrated her interest, he would be encouraged to say even more. Much to her disappointment, he just bowed his head over the screen again. Whatever brief connection that had flared up between them died, stillborn.
She sighed, which turned into a yawn. She was tired again to the point of fatigue. She didn't know why it should be so, since she hadn't done anything more strenuous than walk around the space and cleaning herself up. Perhaps, she thought, it was the gloom. Or the eating and not moving. Or maybe—she thought with an eye-roll of exasperation—it was simply the exhaustion of trying to communicate with a person who refused to cooperate.
There being nothing else she could do, she went and plopped down on the bed. It cushioned her without judging, prompting a bitter 'At least something wants me here.' She'd thought she'd just lie down since sleep was impossible in her present state of mind, but she drifted off with surprising speed. It was a dreamless slumber this time.
Upon waking, how much later she had no way of calculating, she sat up and hugged her knees.
She deduced from the general gloom that the Golden One—Mach—wasn't there anymore. Her lips drew together in resentment at how he'd abandoned her yet again.
Is it because he can't stand being with me?
Or because I'm so tempting that he's afraid he'd eat me up in spite of his insistence that he won't?
The thought of how unreliable Mach had become sent the emerging pout into full bloom, particularly when she began comparing him to the other men in her life. Her father would not have that problem, she knew – he had a will stronger than Mael. Nor Wylin, because he didn't care what others thought of his decisions. His decision to choose her as life partner hadn't been well received, but he'd stuck to it; he'd stood by her.
Not that it matters now.
Her hollow stomach made its demands known in no uncertain terms. She sighed, got up, found herself food. She deliberately slowed herself down, stretching out every little movement to the maximum amount of time she could use up with it. But there was still a limit to what she could do. With the meal done, time stretched out again before her in a flat, monotonous vacuum demanding to be filled. A long, slow twist in her guts offered a distraction; she couldn't ignore the internal workings of her body anymore.
Looks like it's time to 'go down to the river'.
Mach's instructions had been to use the cubicle for that purpose. She stood in front of it, rocking on her heels and toes like a fighter facing a superior foe. The water source she was fairly confident in using; it was a simple matter to pull the lever and make the water flow. But she didn't think she'd fit in the tiny basin that held the overflow. So, it had to be the other structure that she was supposed to use. Based on the chair-like shape of the structure, she worked out how to position herself. She did so slowly, moving as gingerly as someone going through a prickle-bush patch, and only remembering at the last moment to operate the garment disc.
Liar Mach... This is NOTHING like using the river.
She yelped in surprise when something touched her, leaping to her feet and backing away from the chair in panic. But it was only a jet of water that had issued after she was done.
She giggled nervously. It was just the chair being helpful. She reseated herself to finish. When she was completely done, the next thing to happen, she predicted, would be everything disappearing down the hole the way the black sludge from the insect-creature had done.
Nothing happened. The process did not seem complete to her. Yet she was mystified as to what she should do next. A sharp cracking sound made her jump, but it was only a hinged part of the chair falling to cover the seat. She hadn't noticed it earlier. There were no further signs of what she should do next, so she assumed that was it.
Idiot Mach. If there's something you want me to do, you should tell me properly what it is!
She stared hard at the body-cleaning cubicle instead. Successfully using the waste-chair had given her a surge of confidence. She didn't feel particularly grimy, but the experience with the chair had made her realise that if she didn't try it out on her own, she'd have to do it when Mach was there.
…which meant probably making a fool of herself fumbling over the controls
…and worse, getting undressed in his presence
…and she didn't think he'd look away like she'd done.
She was determined not to let that happen. It wasn't that being naked was such a terrible thing to be, or that she'd never seen a naked man. It wasn't even a problem that she'd be seen naked by another person. Communal bathing at the river—as a necessary precaution against being gored or crushed by temperamental water beasts three or four times the size of a person—made all those regular occurrences.
It was the niggling feeling of being defeated, as if he would gain some kind of upper hand over her by seeing her not just naked but naked and behaving stupidly. That was the deciding factor. She undressed—smoothly, now that she had mastered the use of the disks controlling it—and stepped into the compartment. She passed her hand over the panel, exactly as he had done, and held her breath for whatever the sensation of having her skin rippling felt like. A long moment passed until… nothing.
She sighed and redressed herself.
A pattern was emerging. The lights, the leggy cleaner creatures, the waste-chair… none of them functioned when Mach wasn't there.
I guess they know who's in charge here.