Chapter Eighteen

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While the dogs feed in the open, Zach and Lev set about unpacking their gear and securing the sledge. Lev cuts some blocks of snow to melt for water, and though not the usual Arctic practice, the huskies are allowed to join them inside the tent. After thwacking the snow from their boots and outer clothing, Lev installs a shivering Zach inside a down sleeping bag on top of several insulating pads, then hangs their clothing to dry from a line strung for that purpose. The temperature rises rapidly once Lev powers up the cunning little device on which their supper is now simmering, a stove which also provides heat and light and appears to work on a type of fuel cell. The tent is snug if a touch overcrowded; the dogs radiate considerable warmth of their own, having consumed a good meal of frozen caribou and fish. With one husky fewer, there are more than enough supplies, including two large sacks of dry nuggets, to last till they reach their destination, a hunters’ settlement. Zach has been keen to curtail their rest since learning that a ‘white seal’ has recently been sighted there—a visitor, sacred in some way, and very beautiful—a piece of information which Lev hadn’t scrupled to conceal earlier, and all he claims to know.

‘I thought you’re worried about being followed,’ Zach says.

‘We’re well hidden here.’

They’ve pitched camp in the lee of a pressure ridge, a wind-sheltered site which a she-bear herself might have chosen as a maternity den. The snow is still falling heavily, and already their tracks have been obscured. Whereas the glow from their stove is sure to be visible at close range, it’s unlikely that anyone will happen their way in near-blizzard conditions. There’s no coaxing further information about unwanted visitors from Lev; no coercing, no tricking.

‘Here,’ Lev says, passing Zach a mug of a thick hot soup which smells similar to fresh-ground almonds. And though Zach doesn’t recognise its ingredients, it tastes wonderful, with a gingery afterbite. He finishes it quickly, hungrily, wrapped in his sleeping bag.

‘What is it?’ Zach asks, holding out his mug for a refill.

‘Quarsh. A particularly nutritious grain.’

They drink in silence, companionably enough, while the dogs shift and snuffle, the stove hisses, the wind mutters. While Zach mulls Lev’s words.

‘Where’s it from?’ Zach eventually asks.

‘Quarsh?’ At Zach’s nod, Lev says, ‘It’s native to a high-mass, slightly warmer world than yours.’

‘Don’t you reckon it’s time you finally explain who you are? Or is there some magic number of times I’ve got to ask?’

Perhaps their isolation—their forced intimacy—induces Lev to answer. Or perhaps he too is simply lonely and needs to speak.

‘A facilitator of sorts, I suppose you’d call me.’

Zach laughs. ‘I wouldn’t, I hate their psychospeak.’

‘Nothing to do with Fulgur, and it does fit, but if you prefer, think of me as a gatekeeper.’

‘To where?’

‘You wouldn’t believe me—not yet.’

‘I’m starting to think I’d believe anything of you.’

‘Is that a vote of confidence or condemnation?’

Zach shifts inside his sleeping bag, then unzips it partway. The tent is so warm that he’s beginning to sweat.

‘Why don’t you just tell me?’ Zach asks, though not belligerently. At this rate he’d soon qualify for the diplomatic corps, he thinks wryly. Not that they accept any of his kind.

Your kind isn’t all that different from those you despise.’

Zach shoots him a startled look. ‘You can read my thoughts.’

‘Only a few of the stray surface ones. And only because you’re a cognoscens. The sapiens neural network is too rudimentary.’

‘Then don’t lump us together with the fucking croakers.’

Lev leans forward and throws a handful of herbs into the boiling kettle, then lowers the power source on the stove. In the dim light his face is shadowed, and weary. Silently he completes a few housekeeping tasks, then without embarrassment hands Zach a squat wide-mouthed plastic jar with a screw-top, not much smaller than the canteen size used for pickles or ketchup. ‘To relieve yourself.’ Only one of the dogs pricks its ears as he pours two mugs of herbal tea. ‘Drink it hot, it’ll help you to sleep. I want to get an early start.’ He avails himself of a second jar, climbs into his own sleeping bag, and douses the light. ‘Goodnight,’ he says without much warmth.

‘Look, can you blame me?’ Zach asks. ‘They treat us like crap. And remember what Chloe did to me.’

For a while Zach waits for a response, then gives up and drinks his tea, settles into a comfortable position, and is just drifting off to sleep when Lev’s voice jerks him back. ‘You don’t understand about Chloe and Ethan.’

‘What’s to understand? Two twisted minds who deserve a life sentence, not rehabilitation.’

‘Yeah, well, you’ve got your wish.’

‘What are you talking about?’

Several dogs stir at his sharp tone. From the way Lev turns his head to regard them in the residual glimmer from the stove, murmuring reassurance, his eyesight must be at least as acute as Zach’s own.

‘Chloe and Ethan are prisoners here. They can’t return, because there’s nothing to return to.’

‘Nonsense. It’s only a temporary upload.’

‘That’s where you’re wrong. Fulgur has been systematically destroying experimental subjects to test the viability of memory and personality in a virtual environment.’

Bella, who seems to have taken a liking to Zach, presses closer, lays a paw on his chest, and licks the side of his jaw. His skin prickles at the rough sensation.

Can it be true? Maybe all business moguls are megalomaniacs, but Randall’s in a class of his own. Damn the lying, murdering bastard! With little reason to care about the fate of the offenders—of sapiens altogether—Zach doesn’t fancy himself an assassin, even at a twofold remove. Though one tidy bullet to Randall’s temple . . . No wonder Fabio hates to be associated with Fulgur. Once again he’s seen it coming: ‘Whoever owns the Fulgrid, owns the future.’ But he, Zach, is through with all that. Let someone else fight the good fight, let someone else take back what rightly belongs to the simus, let someone else break himself (and those he cares about) trying to break the Fulgur monopoly on the interface. Let someone else be the fucking hero.

‘Immortality?’ he finally asks.

‘Consciousness is far too complex to be replicated like a gene. Chloe has already begun to deteriorate. Hence her actions.’

‘But Chloe’s only—actually, no matter what it feels like, every person, every sneeze or breath of wind, every last snowflake here is only a sequence of encoded binary bits. Why should they degenerate? Is it the programming? Or is there something wrong with the grid itself?’

‘No, in fact the hardware is surprisingly sophisticated for your stage of development, but there are certain fundamental principles your physicists have yet to discover.’ Lev hesitates, as though debating whether to continue. ‘The relevant equations are at least a century in the future, though of course sudden breakthroughs are always possible. Nobody expected Fulgur to develop the neuro-interface quite so fast.’

‘OK, suppose I accept, at least as a working hypothesis, that you’re from some other world. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out our science would seem primitive to you. What fundamental principles? You still haven’t explained the problem with the simulations.’

‘That is the problem. They’re not simulations, not in the sense you mean, anyway.’

‘You keep hinting that this place is real, but that’s absurd!’

‘Is it? You know, it’s your arrogance most of all which betrays your close kinship with those you dismiss as monkeys.’

The wind buffets the shell of the tent, so that it seems to lift and float for a moment, while its mooring lines groan against the snowflukes anchoring it in place. Then it sinks again.

‘Ethan seems OK,’ Zach says.

‘For now. But degeneration is inevitable.’

Zach’s heart is beating so loudly that Lev must hear. ‘And Laura?’

In the dark Lev reaches out, fumbles for Zach’s shoulder, and squeezes gently. ‘Yeah. Laura too, I’m afraid.’

The smell of wet dog is very pungent. It brings tears to Zach’s eyes.