By the time Zach reaches him, Lev has sliced open the seal’s belly and removed part of its liver.
‘Here,’ Lev says, ‘your share.’
Zach stares from the glistening piece of meat to Lev’s face and back to the blood dripping onto the snow, dripping and freezing near mitts discarded for the heat of the animal’s open cavity.
‘Where’s the polar bear?’ Zach asks.
Lev chews, swallows, licks his fingers clean. ‘Eat.’
‘Seal liver’s toxic.’
‘Only in large quantities. Go on, it’s good for you.’
‘I’m not going to touch raw meat.’
‘This is the Arctic. Stop obsessing, I’ve apportioned the right amount.’
The small slab of liver is still steaming. Zach hesitates for another moment, then pulls off a mitt and cautiously takes a bite. It’s strong-tasting, but not nearly as slimy as it looks. He discovers that he’s hungry, and eats it all, even to licking off his fingers. Lev, however, has consumed a much larger quantity.
A throaty rumble halfway between burp and purr, then Lev plunges his knife into the snow and wipes it on his trousers before sheathing it. With a large bone needle he sews up the cut in the seal’s belly. ‘To keep the blood and organs inside while we drag her back to the cabin.’
‘Inuit fashion,’ Zach says.
‘Some things even Fulgur’s scientists can’t improve on.’
‘Right, that axes it.’ Zach draws on his mitt. ‘Who are you? How did you catch the seal? And where the hell is the polar bear?’
‘Do you really think they tell you everything?’ Lev gives that chuff of his. ‘Frozenhell, they don’t know everything.’
Zach helps himself to what he hopes is a marmite sandwich and some steaming coffee from the flask on the table. He stirs in several teaspoons of sugar, takes a cautious sip, and grimaces; it tastes of seal liver, heavy as rolled copper on his tongue.
‘Ethan’s looking much better,’ he says.
‘Still a bit feverish, but nothing will keep him from a kill,’ Chloe says, grinning in a way that makes Zach want to look over his shoulder.
‘It’s a big animal, Lev will be glad for the help.’
A burning wedge of wood tumbles from the fireplace in a fortuitous shower of sparks, occupying Zach while he considers how not to react. Chloe comes over with her mug, but when she lays her fingers on his arm, he realises that last night hasn’t been a bad dream, or a glitch in the program. Only in his program, he reflects grimly—a release of nothing other than a teaspoon of ejaculate. Self-disgust makes him inept.
‘You know, Lev. The tall, fair bloke with the scar and the blue eyes. The third member of your party.’
But Chloe regards him with a sympathetic expression, as if he’s admitted to an endearing secret like stealing library books or masturbating with his teddy bear.
‘Lev,’ he insists. ‘The hunter. The macho, you called him. He’s out in the lean-to butchering the seal.’
‘Ethan’s by himself. I’ve just brought him some coffee.’
‘There’s no way I could have speared a seal on my own.’
‘You can’t remember? I’m not surprised, the cold does weird stuff to you.’
Her hand on his arm. All he does is remember.
Shivering slightly, he stepped back into the alcove and removed a book from the shelf. It was hard enough to believe that Bach or Mozart or Coltrane weren’t simus—and then these books, these magnificent books, all written by monkeys. She crowded in close to read over his arm, their hips touching. Customers were rare: most people bought online, and those who came to the tiny, dusty, draughty shop had eyes only for their own obsessions.
‘I’d like to buy this for you,’ he said. ‘But it’s a signed first edition, your mum might ask where it’s come from.’
‘Then I’ll keep it at your flat,’ Laura said, laying a hand on his arm, and after a moment’s hesitation, standing on tiptoe to kiss the corner of his mouth—so lightly that he might have imagined
her hand on his arm, and all he ever does is try not to remember.
‘Don’t touch me,’ he says.
Chloe snatches away her hand, then mutters angrily, ‘You liked it well enough last night.’
No good, he’s just making his job more difficult. Though why he should bother about what happens to her . . . shorten her stay, she just gets to cheat on the next bloke a bit sooner. He doesn’t need to know her to know what she’ll do. They’re all alike, those girls who sleep with his kind.
‘Look, I’m sorry,’ he says. ‘It’s not you.’
‘Who’s to know?’ she asks, moving closer again.
‘I was tired. It was—you know.’
‘It gets lonely here. What’s wrong with a little companionship? Not everyone thinks like the Purists.’
‘I’m not a very good companion.’
She glances up at him quickly, avoiding his eyes—no surprise there. But her next words startle him. ‘OK, if that’s the way it is. I didn’t know simus have partners.’
She must have seen something on his face. Uncomfortable now, he goes to replenish his coffee. With his back to her, he says, ‘It’s not easy, but sometimes we do. Have long-term relationships, I mean.’
‘One of your own sort?’
But he won’t talk about Laura.
Chloe adds another log to the fire, straightens his mitts and balaclava, which are drying on the mantelpiece, then joins him by the table.
‘What was your offence?’ he asks.
‘Defacement of public property.’
‘That must have been one hell of an axe job. Or did you use an explosive?’
‘Now you’re axing me. No way they’ll send you here for a bit of spray paint.’
They must learn it early on, like their lying—that trick with the eyebrow. He frowns at her, not bothering to disguise his distaste, then crosses the room to the larger of the two windows and twitches aside the curtain. The building faces south: a thin bruising low on the horizon, dark violet and cobalt, is the most anyone will see of the sun for many weeks. Laura has to be out there somewhere, perhaps at another camp, perhaps trekking in the open.
‘Maybe I ought to help Ethan.’ Zach says. ‘Butchering a seal sounds like a time-consuming task.’
‘He likes to butcher, and he likes to do it alone.’ She laughs softly. ‘I expect he’ll be in this place for a very long time.’
‘He doesn’t talk much about it, but it’s pretty obvious.’
‘You’re not afraid?’
‘You’ll just have to keep bringing us fresh kill. I do like my meat.’
Zach can’t tell whether the glint in her eyes is mere amusement—the teasing which is as much a secondary sexual characteristic as functional mammary glands—or a taunt to repay him for his rejection.
Chloe begins gathering together the coffee things. After a moment she stops, walks around the table to one of the bookshelves, and turns her back to him with all the appearance of searching for a title. Zach spends a few minutes trying to piece together the events of the morning. He can recall the journey to the ice, he can recall the wait, recall the advent of the polar bear, recall the return trek with Lev, seal in tow; but he’s not sure if recall is the right word for the jarring sense of disjointedness, of double exposure, of slippage when he pictures Lev and the bear on the ice. Which had been which? And that memory of raw liver: would he even eat raw liver?
There’s no point eroding a client’s confidence in him any further. ‘Chloe—’ he begins.
She turns to face him, a half-smile on her face and one hand behind her. After a moment her smile broadens, then she reaches up and slowly unzips her fleecy top. She isn’t wearing a bra.
Shit, he thinks. Not again.
‘Lovely as buttered crumpets, the last bloke said. Want a taste?’
‘I thought you understand.’
‘No.’ And maybe because they are quite lovely, and his imagination has begun to work, and there are all kinds of loneliness, he snaps, ‘No bloody way. Get it?’
‘Oh yeah, I get it.’
With no more than a slight tightening of the skin around her eyes, as if she’s just applied a cooling astringent, she brings her other hand out from behind her.
‘I forgot to mention that I’ve always painted my graffiti in fresh blood.’
And then she throws the knife.
A sound like a seal’s harsh bark. A puzzling sensation, as though a fishhook has snared his gut and tugged sharply. No pain. Some burning deep inside. He moves sideways, but slowly, very slowly. The ice is thin, he has to slide one foot forward, then the other, till he can reach her. Laura is clinging with both hands to the jagged edge, her knuckles white. It’s too cold for her to pull herself up. At this temperature you freeze before you drown. Her eyes are wide and dark, fixed on his face. I’ll always hear you, Zach. He can see her forearms trembling. Not long now. Another step. Another. And then the ominous ping of cracking ice, a live wire in his midriff, sudden pressure, the smell of blood, and the world begins to tilt. Her fingers loosen. As he falls, his last thought before losing consciousness: she swims like a sleek seal of ice across her lips.
Watchdog duty—routine, necessary, boring. Andy drums his fingers on the console, working out a pull that’s been giving him trouble. Gradually switching up the tempo till his muscles begin to tense, he breaks off, shakes out his hand, begins again. Like any dead-tired mother who sleeps soundly along with her infant but can jolt awake at the first snuffle, he suddenly leans forward to study the code riffing past. That’s odd. After watching for long enough to recognise a break in the usual pattern, he fires off an instruction, then a second. An instant later he swears and keys in the manual override. It takes him only a few fingerstrokes to realise that there’s no change in the data stream. He swears even louder and reaches for the phone. Litchfield, however, is in the midst of a synapse procedure and can’t be interrupted. After another attempt to modify the code, Andy rings the division head. Reluctantly. Russell F.—he always insists on the F, too blinkered to cotton on to the wisecracks—is a total arsehole.
‘Russell,’ Andy says, ‘can you come down?’
‘I’ve got a conference in a few minutes.’
‘Postpone it. We’ve got a problem.’
‘An anomaly in the stream.’
‘Where’s Charles? That’s his domain.’
A sigh. ‘Which simu is it?’
‘Well, correct it.’
Unfuckingbelievable. ‘First thing I tried, of course. No response. We may have to abort the run.’
‘Nonsense,’ Slade says. ‘The system’s got more backup than a space probe.’
‘And I’m telling you that I know this baby. Better than my vintage Ibanez. Way better. This isn’t a hardware issue.’
‘I don’t know.’ He stares at the display, sweat gradually soaking through his shirt despite the room’s carefully regulated temperature. ‘I’ve never seen anything like this before.’
‘You know how much each run costs. They’ll have our heads if we pull him too early.’
‘Fuck that. I’m not going stand by and let you kill him for a better balance sheet.’
Andy can just about hear Slade wince. ‘I’ve warned you before, watch your language. And nobody’s said anything about killing.’
‘Oh yeah? The way this looks, something’s degrading fast. I’m not even sure we can still get him out. Call it, Russell. Now.’
There’s a short silence.
‘You’re overreacting, son,’ Slade says. ‘I’ll send word for Charles to pop down as soon as he’s finished. A few hours won’t make any difference.’
‘No way, Russell, I’m warning you, I’m begging—’ Andy breaks off, suddenly aware that he’s speaking to the trilling dialtone Fulgur prefers for its phone system. The bastard has rung off.