Jeremiah Zakale scored again. The instant replay flashed up on the big screen, bracketed by ads for Hades high-g condos and a Berellian ship-scrubbing service, fronted by a runty grinning lizard.
Jeremiah was a sleek brown bullet in the turquoise water, darting between the blurs of the defenders, twin thruster jets on his hips snapping him about erratically, like a yacht in a storm. He tucked his body, rolling away from one opponent, while driving his shoulder into the gut of a second, sending him spinning away.
He was falling away from the goal, suspended between two regulation-cut spurs of rock. The shield wall of the goal glowed coral pink as it drifted across the space, thicker where it thought Jeremiah would shoot. The drone cams zoomed in on his face for a second, that cute furrow in his brow, like he was working on a math problem. His gills billowed the exertions of his manoeuvres in twin steams of bubbles. His face cleared, as it always did at the last moment. They marketed that. Bottled juice flavours, loaded with caffeine. “Zakale Zen” flavour.
Jeremiah feinted left, the ball curled under his arm. The goal tracked him. He threw right, but the goal was ready, tracking the glowing orange sphere as it curved through the water. But he’d anticipated that.
At the last second, as the ball was on the edge of his striking, Jeremiah blasted his port thruster and brought his foot sweeping around his body, connecting again with the ball and striking it left. It blasted at the unprotected side of the goal like a meteor. Two of the opposition hit Jeremiah at the same moment, and he disappeared in a tangle of limbs. But it was too late.
The ball punched through the skein of the goal shield with an audible pop. The scream from the goal was lost in the roar of the crowd, layered in their thousands in the curved open dome around the stadium, the business end sunk thirty metres below.
Jeremiah burst from the scrum with his finger pointed at the heavens, rocketing upwards on both thruster jets. He broke the surface like some magnificent sea creature, the twin suns glimmering off his sleek body. He turned a flip in mid-air, that finger still high. And his trademark wink, before he fell back into the depths.
Eldred sighed and swiped the replay away. The game fell away too, to expose the view from the spire, half a kilometre above the action. Eldred could see a cluster of curved white buildings below, like tiny seashells. Wythll, the floating city. The only floating city in a planet of 97% water. Calm, turquoise water enclosed the sports city in every direction. Somewhere out there in the clouds, there were three great docking platforms, with shuttle services to the games. If you were rich or a competitor, anyway.
Eldred was neither of these things. But as the consort of the most valuable player in five systems, she didn’t need to worry about that.
“He’s pretty.” A familiar voice called from behind her as she stood at the window, half-empty glass of warm beer in her hand.
Eldred turned to Gabriella, sprawled lengthways across a couch. She was wearing tight shorts and a flimsy blue shift. Her perfume was filling the lounge again, and she was chopping up lines of some blue powder with the edge of her hand terminal.
“You’re dead.” Eldred reminded her.
“So’s your conversation. What’s new?” Gabriella yawned. “Anyway,” She finished chopping a line and began rubbing it into the soft part of her wrist. “Can we get back to loverboy?”
Eldred leant against the railing encircling the pit Gabriella was sitting in. “If we have to,” She sighed.
“He’s not your usual type, El,” her twin fixed her with a penetrating glare.
“Like you know my type.”
Gabriella finished rubbing in the powder and leant back with a smile. “You want some?” She gestured at the table between them.
“You’d better get that shit out of here before he gets back.” She told her sister. “If they catch him near-”
“I take it back.” Gabriella said. “He is your type. Square as a fucking brick.”
“At least he’s alive.” Eldred pointed out.
“Sure,” Gabriella rolled her eyes. “He only comes alive when you turn him on.” She mimed hitting a switch and deleting Jeremiah’s program. “Come to think of it,” she mused. “That doesn’t separate him from most men.”
Eldred rubbed a hand over her face. This wasn’t right, was it? She’d never simmed Gab. Not that there was anything wrong with that. It was written into most Wills these days. You never had to say goodbye, if you had the credits. But she’d been afraid to. Afraid she’d get addicted. Afraid she’d never come back.
“Where am I, Gab?” she asked. Outside she could hear the cries of large birds, squabbling in the clouds over the larvae that swam in them.
Gabriella pretended to think. “You’re sitting in a place too fancy for your budget, kicking your heels and waiting for a man who doesn’t exist, and talking to a corpse. Sound about right?”
“I’m not waiting on any man!” She latched onto the easiest option.
Gabriella shook her head, her long dreads whipping through her neat lines of powder and scattering it on the carpet. Jeremiah would be pissed.
“I thought I taught you better than that, El.” She said.
“We were on a planet, we stole something.” Eldred said, looking down into the dissipating foam of her beer. “Something that fucked me up.”
“No more than usual, I’d wager.” Gabriella grinned.
Eldred said nothing.
Her dead sister sighed and pulled herself into a sitting position with a groan. She cupped her head in her hands for a moment. “You always had to spoil the little moments.” She said. “Okay, fine. I’m dead and you’re dreaming. Your brain right now looks a bit like Harlo city. All the lights are on and burning twice as bright as they should. Even in the places where light isn’t supposed to go. Rooms that haven’t been opened before.”
“Since when did you go in for poetry?” Eldred scoffed.
“Hey, being dead gives you a lot of free time.” She grinned. “You pick up new hobbies.”
“Pick my foot out of your ass.” Eldred said. It felt good. Too good. Something hurt inside her as she said it.
Gabriella continued smiling but said nothing.
“What’s happening to me, Gab?” She whispered, clammy fingers tight on the railing. “How are you here?”
“Tough questions,” Gabriella acknowledged. “and I don’t have great answers. It feels like I’ve just woken up. Getting used to this body again, even if it’s just in your head.”
“Where did you come from?”
“Maybe I’ve always been here, it’s hard to say.”
“I’ve never stopped thinking about you.” Eldred said. It didn’t feel like a dream. She had full control of her speech, her actions. She could have run across the lounge and picked up her sister like Jeremiah’s jetball. But something was holding her back. Because she didn’t think it was Gab. At least, not just Gab.
“We were sad you took it, El.” Gabriella looked it too. Were those tears perching in her eyes?
“We hoped we could stop you. We can’t hurt you. Not like we hurt the others. Maybe that’s why they chose you.”
Eldred felt cold. She shrank away from the railing and the Gabriella-thing, towards the bubble window. Soft carpet crushed under her feet. Something crunched and released a stale food odour.
“What are you?” She whispered.
“Gabriella,” said Gabriella. “And a lot of others besides.”
“What do you want?” She clutched her shirt against her chest as she hit the bubble glass with a soft thump.
The Gabriella-thing rose gently, stepping lightly out of the pit to face Eldred again.
“Keep back!” She shouted.
Its face fell for a moment, and Eldred felt that pain again, somewhere in her chest. It looked so much like her –
“We’re trying to help you.” It said.
“I don’t need your help!” Eldred shouted again. “I was doing fine until I, until I …”
“Until you came to Orduu.” It offered.
“Well I’m done with that!” She shrank away again. There wasn’t any further to go. Her hair stuck greasily to the glass. “I won’t go back again, I’ll stay well the fuck away.”
“It’s not that simple.” The avatar shook its head. “You need to stop them. They can’t be allowed to -” its face twitched suddenly, one cheek rising and a squint of pain.
“El?” it said. She – it – sounded lost, hurt. Like that time she’d walked in on Gab crying over dad. When the big sister act had fallen, just for a moment. She wanted to hold her like she had then. Whisper comfort into her hair and promise her she’d never hurt again. She’d failed that promise. “This is a lot for me to handle. All these voices.” It looked down at her and now it was crying. “More even than when I was alive, I-”
Eldred was crying now too. “You’re not Gab!” She choked. “She’s dead! I was there! Stop punishing me for it!”
The avatar sank to her level, took her writhing hands in soft, cool ones. Eldred tried to fight it, but it was too strong. The glimpse of her sister was gone, the light in the thing’s eyes cool and hollow. But it wasn’t an empty hollowness. There was something down there. But it didn’t feel threatening.
“We don’t have long.” It told her in Gab’s voice. “We’re sorry we can’t let you stay with her.”
Eldred sobbed and felt herself go limp. The thing’s eyes were so blue. Soft, enveloping. She wanted to trust it. Needed to trust something. She wished Gab would come back.
“We’re weak when we’re near the stone.” It told her. “And the longer you’re near it, the more it will tempt you. You’re the key to everything. The last one.”
“I don’t know what you mean!” She wailed at it, trying to push it away. But it was already growing blurry, translucent. She could see the doorway through its head. A large mass was stuck in the opening, twitching, furry, brown like some kind of warm sea urchin.
She tried to latch onto the Gabriella inside the thing, but that was gone too. Now there was only a ghostly blue mass, dissipating like ash on the wind even as she watched. It was hissing softly like the pressure had been let out of it. But there were words, if she strained her ears. The furry brown mass was halfway into the apartment now, forcing itself through a hole much too small for it.
“Don’t trust the construct.” The wind told her. “It lies.”
“What construct?” Eldred sobbed into the snuffling, warm brown mass. “What con -”
Bril’s breath was warm on her face, the short grey trunk quivering in the lustrous brown fur as he raked her face with his claws, hard enough to sting. She gathered it wasn’t the first time he’d done it. Her friend’s eyes were large, dark, worried. She reached up to brush him away, but her arm was too weak. He was heavy on her chest. But he wasn’t the only thing.
The ship must still be under thrust. Her chair held her like a prisoner, tubes poked out of her neck, pumping cool fluid beneath her skin. But that wasn’t all that entered her as she came to. She could feel the thing from across the bridge, even if she couldn’t see Decker right now. She wasn’t sure if she even wanted to. The stone called across the expanse from dead millennia, and suddenly Gabriella and the dream went out of her head like an intrusive thought.
Everything was fine. Everything was fine now. She smiled to tell Bril so, the thrust gravity making the smile crawling and painful. She’d fallen asleep, that was all. There was nothing to worry about. Nothing at all. It was best to focus on what she could control. Like surviving the next few hours once Decker’s sluggish brain caught up to the fact that she and Bril had almost fucked them over. That would be hard enough in itself. She’d better check on Jeremiah. He might have some answers.