Read Freenet Online

Authors: Steve Stanton

Tags: #Science Fiction / Space Opera, #Science Fiction / Hard Science Fiction

Freenet (7 page)

A stalactite dripped steadily in the distance for many minutes as Simara examined her feelings for Zen. He was an attractive and sensitive man, a comfortable friend, but did she love him? Could she live her entire life with him? Mothership, they had only just met. She could not imagine being intimate with him, sharing his body.

Hunger began to gnaw inside her. She wondered if she might be allowed to bring food for Luaz, who surely must be in grave discomfort by now at her age, but realized with a start that she was completely lost underground. She couldn’t wander the tunnels on her own in search of a kitchen pantry and risk getting trapped in a sinkhole or killed in a fall. She was still at the mercy of her captors, trapped in a maze of rock on an alien planet. She folded her arms and settled her back against cold prison bars. “How did you birth a baby here, Luaz? Zen said it was impossible.”

“The rads on Bali ruin all delicate DNA, but Trade Station stays in protected orbit on the dark side from Signa, shadowed from danger. Valda was a governor in those days, so we were able to travel to the station for fertility enhancement. Zen was conceived by genetic cleansing and lived his first year in a controlled biosphere.”

“It must have been terribly expensive for you.”

“We were rich in those days,” Luaz said. “We took too much for granted.”

“You raised a fine boy.”

“Yes, that much is true,” she said wistfully. “The early days were the best, the days when Zen was in school, before the turmoils of adolescence. The teenage years seemed so fraught with meaning, every nuance of life blown out of proportion. Was it the same for you?”

Simara shook her head, unable to empathize. “I don’t think so. I lived a solitary life in space, conjoined with machine intelligence.” Her guardian mothership was her only real friend, but this elder woman would have little understanding of digital consciousness or the psychic realms of the freenet. In simple grounder terms, Simara had spent most of her waking life as a V-net avatar, a phantom in the machine. “My stepfather went through a series of wives, so I had surrogate parents of sorts and a good relationship with the latest one. She died a few months ago in a vacuum breach.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear such tragedy,” Luaz said in sympathy.

“That’s all right. We’ve both had our share of pain.”

“There will always be pain,” Luaz said. “That’s the one constant of life. We must remember the joy and dwell on it anew every day.”

Simara lapsed into silence as she considered the wise and gentle counsel of the elder. Her own memories were filled with bad images and emotional trauma, leering faces and foul language. Where was her happiness? Where was her reward?

Finally Zen and Justin arrived in the prison house and approached the magistrate’s table with contrition. Zen looked bleary-eyed with a hangover, his chin speckled with downy stubble. Justin’s face was puffy and bruised, his parrot-nose red and swollen. The magistrate spoke in hushed anger to the boys as they exchanged courtroom evidence outside Simara’s earshot. He looked over at her periodically with petulance, and finally summoned her with a growl. She hobbled over and stood with her head bowed, afraid to speak, feeling a doom of impending punishment. The boys had matching purple welts under their left eyes and Justin’s nostrils were stuffed with cotton. Of course she should have noticed his romantic signals. He had touched the back of her neck on the way to the lover’s cavern—that was probably the height of foreplay on this horrible planet!

The magistrate scrutinized her from under bushy brows. “You are a dangerous woman.”

Simara struggled to swallow against a constriction of panic. Should she agree or disagree? Admit guilt or decline responsibility? She was bereft of social custom in this place.

“We don’t allow physical violence on Bali,” the official continued. “Life is too short and precious.”

“I understand and agree, sir,” she said, and raised her voice a notch for the benefit of Luaz in her cage. “Life is precious above all.”

“Serious charges have been brought against your account, and you have surely disgraced your clan.” He nodded with determination toward the cell where Luaz lay imprisoned in her stead.

Simara bowed her head, afraid to speak and trembling with fear before judicial authority.

“The law is clear in matters of romantic entanglement,” he said, “and I want to make your situation plain before you enter your petition.”

“Thank you, sir. My ignorance of your statutes is no justifiable excuse.”

The magistrate’s face seemed to soften a notch at her expression of humility. That was good. Maybe she was on the right track. “I may have sampled some strangely mixed drinks while visiting your festival for the first time,” she said. Was she laying it on too thick? Trying too hard? Surely intoxication was a common problem during Vishan.

The magistrate frowned. “You would do well to show some care in the future.”

Simara felt a surge of promise in her knotted abdomen. Did she have a future, some chance of penance? Could she dare hope for a simple slap on the wrist?

“Your clan mother has offered atonement for you and will suffer penalty in your place,” the magistrate continued, louder so that Luaz would not miss a word with her ear to the bars of her cage. “The Charter of Privilege grants her this legal right and is of no small judicial consequence.” Was that a hint of displeasure at potential paperwork, some legal jargon? Simara could sense an opening before her, an escape route through the choking haze of rules, but could not grasp it clearly, and could only stand downcast in confusion.

“However . . .” The magistrate cleared his throat to signal the importance of his upcoming declaration, as only a judge can do. “If it can be shown that the accused was partnered to another person in a situation of domestic violence,” he said, “then onus would fall on the male interloper to honour that commitment, and he would have no justified argument against any . . . self-protective gesture.”

“I did not know the girl was partnered,” Justin spoke up. “She gave no such indication and wore no scarf!”

The magistrate raised a palm. “The facts are clear, and let the truth guide us henceforth.” He turned deliberately toward Simara. “Unprovoked aggression does not go unpunished on Bali. Do you certify for the court that you are partnered with Zen Valda of Star Clan, son of Luaz who has redeemed your honour?”

Simara’s jaw dropped into a downshaft. Partnered? As in
married
? What the hell? So that was the bottom line of patriarchal law on Bali. The dice were loaded, the table rigged. She turned to Zen wide-eyed with surprise. What a crazy ride they had been on together in such a short time, like twin stars rotating in gravitational frenzy! First a handsome rescuer in the twilight, then a cute pool-boy sharing her breakfast beside a hot-spring geyser, Zen had turned out to be a hard-working and hard-drinking businessman. Now he was a man of heritage, son of the politician Valda, firstborn of Luaz, her redeemer suffering silently in her stead, paying the penalty for her sin. How could this be? She scrutinized Zen’s bruised and bleary face, searching for a signal, some portent from Kiva. Could this man be her partner, her potential soulmate destined to her by this convoluted trail? Did he care for her as much as she cared for him? Did he love her? His eyes were brown and beautiful, and his face was healing quickly. His honest smile emboldened her to speak with clarity from the heart. “Yes, sir, I do.”

The magistrate quirked a smile to indicate she was on a delicate track to freedom, and turned to her husband with a nod. Zen sidled closer and took hold of her sweaty palm, causing her to stiffen with shell-shock at his public touch.

“Simara and Zen of Star Clan, do you press charges of violation against Justin of Moon Lizard Clan?”

Carefully, Simara studied the magistrate’s graven face. A serious condemnation was clearly at stake, some crime of passion, likely with dire consequences. She turned to Justin to gauge his reaction. The blond boy looked as if he might pee his pants in consternation, but he dared not offer another outburst of complaint. His eyes pleaded for pity. A charge of violation? He had exposed himself in public in a moment of drunken romance, but he was hardly an adulterer. Would the other side of the interpersonal coin leave Simara open to slander as a slutty housewife inviting obscene advances, a shameful wench pandering to youngsters? What a sordid business.

“Certainly not,” Simara said. “It was an accident, a mistake, a crude clash of social customs after a long night of festivity.” She caught the eyes of the magistrate with a steely stare. “This young man deserves no blame on his record, and Luaz must go free.” On this she would stand her ground and stake her reputation, and damn their stupid rules!

The magistrate tightened his lips in deliberation for a moment and cast a glare at each person in turn to confirm his final authority. “So it shall be, and greater care will be taken by all. This matter is hereby absolved. Get your women out of here, Zen.”

Justin turned and fled quickly with downcast eyes as Zen helped Luaz from her prison perch. Simara stilled her pulsing heart as the magistrate tidied his desk with a smile of satisfaction at a job well done and a conundrum avoided. He probably had family waiting for a private Vishan celebration at home.

Luaz came close and placed a palm on Simara’s shoulder in motherly love. “Whatever you do,” she said, “go with the grace of Kiva always.” Her flagrant touch was a signal of celebration mixed with sadness, a welcome to the family mingled with recognition of divergent paths ahead, the last goodbye so soon.

“Of course,” Simara said. “Thank you for everything, and bless you.”

Zen seemed sullen and thoughtful, probably still suffering a hangover, and they followed Luaz home in silence, trudging in single file down narrow corridors of hewn rock while Simara battled with her imagination. What must Zen be thinking, forced into a marriage of convenience with a strange alien girl? What behaviour might he expect from her? To serve and obey in some traditionalist fantasy? To cook his meals and keep his cave clean? And what about sex, or what passed for pseudo-sex in this backwater world? Simara was certainly not practised in the art of erotic massage.

Back in their private quarters, Zen took off his ceremonial cassock and folded it in a drawer for safekeeping. He dug his money belt out of hiding and strapped it on under his leather loincloth. “We should probably go,” he said.

Simara put on an airy smile with a show of good nature. “Yes, I think I’ve caused enough trouble for one Vishan.”

Zen winced and nodded. “You don’t need to apologize.”

“I wasn’t going to.”

Zen studied her with a hint of perplexity. “So we’re good, then?”

Simara shrugged. “I’m ready to leave. Do you need to say goodbye to anyone?”

“I didn’t go back to her.”

“What?”

“Jula,” he said. “I didn’t see her while you slept.”

So he was still thinking about his ex-girlfriend, and on his ersatz wedding day no less. Simara frowned. Wait a minute, did he suspect she had sought out Justin to gain revenge for some imagined slight? Simara squinted at him. Had they stumbled together into some complicated interpersonal morass? “Zen,” she said with as much sincerity as she could muster, “it was a simple accident with Justin. I didn’t think anything bad about you or Jula.” She cast her hands down at her hips. “My brain doesn’t function without digital support. I really am as stupid as I appear on this planet.”

He grinned at her theatrics. “Don’t say that. You’re the smartest girl I’ve ever known. You have mysterious wisdom.”

“Well, let’s get out of here before I break some new religious observance. I can hardly wait to get home to our hot tub.” She splayed a palm for him to lead, and followed his beautiful butt with thanksgiving as he ducked under the door tapestry in an escape to freedom. They gathered their breathers from lockers near the entrance showers and slapped on guck from a cauldron of pesticide near the tunnel opening. The buggy had a full solar charge, and the late-day sun baked the desert like a griddle. DNA-blasting rads rained down on them, spectral messengers of infertility, and Simara could imagine her cells shrieking and popping as they bounded across the sand. Cosmic rays, gamma rays—Bali was whipped daily by solar flares and too close to the sun for civilization. She could never live here as a colonist in these primitive conditions, cut off from the V-net and separated from mothership. She was only half human in this place—less than half. Digital life was her true existence, not this torture in the body, this tedium of flesh.

Sand gathered in her tunic and shorts and chafed her blistering skin raw with every movement as she sucked hot air in her breather. Her mythical sandman was at the wheel again, his skin caked and fissured with dry mud. A garish striation of pink cloud blocked the sun as it waned to the west, a brief shadow of respite. A trio of sand lizards loped across the dunes, pacing their path for a few minutes before falling behind such difficult prey. They passed the monument where Cary the pilot lay resting at peace in a foreign and dangerous land.

In time they arrived at their bunker and parked the buggy under an overhang of camouflage. Simara stretched aching legs to touch ground again and steadied herself on shifting sand. Zen plugged in his solar charger and joined her at the entrance to their nest. He blocked her path with an arm and bent to one knee to investigate the rock. He rose and surveyed the horizon. “Someone’s been here,” he said.

A chill of electricity stiffened Simara’s spine, an urge to fight or flee. An intruder in their home? “How do you know?”

Zen pointed. “Spiderwebs are broken. I feed the star spiders here to keep a healthy colony. By now the entrance should be covered with a spoked wheel of webs.”

Simara peered into the tunnel darkness. “Could they still be inside?”

“We can’t chance it. Only an offworlder would be out during Vishan. Or a bounty hunter. We’ll have to go.”

Simara whirled to squint into the blistering desert. “Go where?”

Zen shrugged. “Find some shelter. Build a new campsite.”

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