Pani has saved his strength for good reason, needing every bit of it, and then some, to haul hard on the line while Zach braces himself and heaves, claws and heaves and finally flails over the lip of the crevasse. Both sprawl in the snow till they catch their breath, though it’s Pani who recovers first, who urges Zach to get up and move about. Still drained, Zach lifts his head to stare at the deposit of rubbled ice, some slabs the size of prehistoric megaliths. It doesn’t take much to imagine a team of extraplanetary archaeologists excavating this site centuries from now, speculating about what destroyed such massive tower blocks. The ivu has obliterated any landmarks he’d have recognised; obliterated everything, it seems, but the deadly cold, and the shrilling of the wind. He thinks of the banshee legends he’s read about and scrambles to his feet. Ghosts in Fulgur’s god machine?
Pani butts Zach in the stomach and sends him sprawling again.
‘Why?’ Pani screams. ‘You’re a shaman, you saved my life, why not theirs?’
Zach holds the sobbing boy, all the while trying to figure out how they’re going to survive without food or equipment or destination.
They’ve lost track of time, and Zach suspects they’re lost. Overhead the stars provide a measure of illumination, frost smoke rising deceptively above the open lead at their feet in mimicry of hot springs. Pani bends to examine a darkish clump in the snow.
‘Polar bear kill,’ he explains. ‘And we’re lucky, he’s left enough for us.’
‘What is it?’
‘Natsiq. A ringed seal. Most of the skin and fat is gone, but there’s some meat.’
Zach gazes across the black channel of water, ridged on the far side with debris, beyond which lies a deeply fissured, torturous icescape. It’s doubtful he could make the leap even in peak condition, not to mention half frozen and falling-down exhausted; and he wouldn’t allow Pani to try under any circumstances. Which leaves them where? Scavenging a chewed-over carcass. When you’re hungry, a little polar bear saliva sounds as tasty as a dollop of aioli.
‘If the bear has eaten, I guess it won’t attack,’ Zach says.
‘He’s probably far away by now.’
Zach moves off a few steps to conceal his shivering, but Pani follows and takes his arm.
‘I’m tired, Zach. Can we stop here and build an iglu?’
At least they still have Pani’s harpoon, panak, and pouches, as well as Zach’s pocket knife; they’ve eaten the purloined blubber hours before. Left to himself, Zach would simply burrow into a drift the way dogs will do, hunters if caught out in a blizzard. Despite their arduous trek, Pani moves nimbly to search for suitable building snow—not too soft, not too icy, not too granular. Once Pani has found a supply, Zach does his best to assist but his trembling has become despotic by now, and no amount of exertion can warm him. Finally Pani lays down his snowknife on one of the dozen or so auviqs already extracted from the drift.
‘Go and sit down for a bit,’ Pani says, pointing to the nearest block. When he sees that Zach is about to refuse, he abandons his attempt to spare Zach’s pride. ‘Please. I can do it faster alone. Rest for a couple of minutes till I call you. I promise, I won’t let you freeze.’
The auviqs spiral upwards with such speed that Zach finds himself blinking back tears—the boy could have walked for hours yet. Teeth chattering, Zach hugs himself and rocks back and forth while he considers their options. Even if Pani is right about another winter camp, his sole information is that it lies vaguely westward along the shear line—‘four, maybe five days away.’ With some food in their bellies, they might just make it that far, or at least Pani might. The truth is, Zach isn’t much use, and by tomorrow, with no source of heat, he’ll be none at all. Worse than none.
‘It’s not your fault,’ Laura said.
‘It’s not your fault,’ Stella said.
Zach closes his eyes but the voices continue to intone not your fault when the smell of your fault the slaughterhouse smell of his mum screaming to the god of fault for Laura to dive while the shivery silvery water spindles away along a deep fault towards
At Pani’s touch he jerks awake, confused, half submerged, still swept by the tide of voices, a wrack of images.
‘It’s finished,’ Pani says. ‘Come inside.’
Now, and snow.
It’s surprisingly bright within the small shelter, as if the snow itself were radiating a fierce supernal energy. They settle themselves on the platform Pani has managed to construct as additional insulation. He’s also carved up the seal remains and insists that Zach accept the fattiest pieces. As they eat, they exchange only a few words, and though Zach is still shivering, he feels marginally warmer. He considers whether they might risk lying down for an hour or two.
‘Is Laura your wife?’ Pani asks.
Zach’s chapped lips are coated with grease. Before answering, he rubs the last scrap of fat over his cheeks, which are taut with windburn. It stings like saltwater on abraded skin.
‘A friend,’ he says.
‘You must miss her. You were crying her name when I woke you.’
‘Yeah, I miss her.’
They finish their meal without further conversation, and Zach is again impressed by Pani’s delicacy, his considerateness. Just about any other boy his age—even Max—would ply Zach with questions. And then he asks himself if this isn’t a prejudice like so many. When did he ever pay much attention to others? Except to spurn them. Except to fuck them.
‘We can take turns sleeping,’ Pani says. ‘You go first.’
Though reluctant, Zach eventually yields because there is sense in Pani’s argument. With his head in the boy’s lap, he stretches out and closes his eyes, but his shivering soon resumes full strength, and after a while Pani shifts uncomfortably and bends to whisper, his voice hesitant.
‘Zach, I think I need to help you get warm.’
From the blush that rises to the roots of Pani’s hair, Zach realises what the boy is proposing. Zach almost laughs, then looks away and feels his own cheeks reddening—Pani is serious.
‘Please, Zach, don’t be cross. It’s normal, it’s what we do when something like this happens.’
In the end, Zach agrees rather ruefully, then dozes afterwards, his sleep fitful. Later he will remember rough waves, the taste of salt. Sometimes he mutters, and Pani hears Laura’s name several times, though the rest is the sort of gibberish which sounds like sense, if only you’d listen a bit closer. But when he strains to catch hold, the words flop about like a badly speared fish. At one point Zach raises his head and opens his eyes to stare at Pani without recognition, music like firesong filling the iglu, warming their blood, then gives a strangled cry, rolls to the side, and retches. Pani holds Zach’s head till the spasm passes, but at no time does silence fall. The iglu is bathed in an intense blue light.
When Zach finally rouses, it takes him even longer than before to clear the soupy frazil from his mind.
‘Pani,’ he mutters, ‘why didn’t you wake me?’ Then, ‘Why is it so warm?’
‘You’re a very powerful shaman.’
‘I’ve told you, I’m no shaman.’
‘Oh yes you are. You talked a lot in your sleep, strange shaman talk, but it was when your raven flew far out over the ice that I wished for spirit wings.’
There it is again, that switchback of memory, or dream, or something, then like a deer that’s already leapt away from your headlamps, it’s gone, and he remembers nothing—sensation without content, a neuronal misfiring in this place of ice. He passes his hands through his hair—his hair! It feels indecent, the depth of his hunger. What else would he give to have Laura back for good? His limbs as tithe, his eyesight, his mind? There are far too many questions he hadn’t got round to asking Lev, but the crucial one, the one which would have made a difference, had been self-censored: will a cognoscens upload eventually disintegrate to the same degree as a sapiens?
Pani follows Zach’s gesture. ‘You shouldn’t have cut it off. It’s bad luck for a shaman.’
‘Zach, I saw a cave deep under the sea, a beautiful blue cave, and the White Seal. You were combing her hair.’
Zach stands rather too abruptly, then sits down again till the vertigo passes. ‘First a raven, now a fish. Not a shark, I hope.’
Pani regards him soberly. ‘That’s not all I saw.’
Must have been like an all-night cinema.
‘The best part was the music.’ Pani hums a few phrases, his rendition as accurate as ever, so that Zach, with the sudden feeling that Cybil has been robbing the graveyard of his memory all along, gropes under his parka. Laura’s pendant warms under his fingertips, warms and silkens into cloth of gold. He remembers his history—the cloth of kings and emperors and sultans, of tapestries and pageantry. And funerary palls.
‘You see?’ Pani says. ‘She’s kept the ivory seal.’
Zach feels round under his clothing, then gets up and flaps each layer vigorously, front and back, sides, front again, to dislodge the pendant. ‘It’s missing,’ he says. Hearing how lame this sounds, he dredges up, ‘I must have lost it in the crevasse.’
‘You think so?’
That grin! Feeling vaguely guilty—but for what, exactly?—he catches himself about to say ‘It’s not my fault.’ Irritation sharpens his tongue. ‘Believe your fairytales, if you must, but they’re not going to get us out of this mess.’
Pani turns away, but not before Zach sees a bleak expression cross his face.
‘Pani? Look, I’m sorry.’
The boy busies himself with apportioning the remaining food.
‘I’m sorry about your family. I wish I could change what’s happened’—if only Pani knew—‘but I can’t.’
His face now expressionless, Pani removes one piece from the pile closest to him and adds it to Zach’s; a second. The silence lengthens, each minute longer than the last.
‘Will you please stop that,’ Zach says at last, ‘and look at me.’ When Pani complies, Zach is blindsided, achingly, by the hope which trembles beneath the child’s long, dark lashes, a pleading look; the look of a much younger boy. Words leak as though from an aneurysm before he has a chance to clamp the memory. ‘Where I come from there are many different sorts of—well, you’d call them shamans. Maybe I can talk to one of them. Maybe one of them can help. But no matter what, I promise not to leave till you’re with some of your own people.’ Damn his glibness! If Fulgur hasn’t pulled him by now, there’s a good chance they won’t—or can’t. He mutters the abort code under his breath, then half in self-mockery, half in defiance, reels it off backwards. So much for magic incantations (and prayers).
Pani delays lying down for as long as possible, and even then fights to keep his eyes from drifting shut. He talks about the ‘white time’ of dreaming. He talks about the First Spirits. He talks about the people’s ways till Zach takes his hand and begins to hum the same ballad which lulled Laura at her most feverish. Most of his favourite people live in books, yet are no less real to him than the lost or dead. Memory has a certain plasticity: imagination can replicate the engram encoding of past experience. And the simu neural network, never static, is subject to multiple coding.
Pani’s hand, the warm skin, the bones. Zach brings it to his lips, while Pani widens his eyes in surprise, then smiles a sleepy smile. Zach can smell the mixture of sweat and seal and sea, can anticipate the salty taste. Pani’s breathing is slowly slipping into a presleep rhythm, its own lullaby. If he, Zach, a cognoscens, can’t tell the difference between this boy and the one who must have been his template, is there one? Or has the very question become irrelevant, supplanted by new metaphysical conversations?
Zach wonders how much time remains to him here, then laughs wryly to himself. We never escape our earliest grammars, do we? Even in Mandarin, where verbs have no tense, you slice time by adverb and particle into discrete slivers of an imaginary cake; in reality, a quantum cake. Wu’s Qli theorems are the most inaccessible of all his work, often misconstrued to mean that consciousness by and of itself begets time. But in fact he demonstrated that there are manifold timeframes—an infinite number—though the human mind can’t access them. That had been Zhou’s dream: to facilitate a consciousness which could escape the windy tunnel of linearity; a consciousness capable of quantum perception. Homo cognoscens.
Except, like everything else, there is no predicting what you actually render.
Pani’s breathing has become regular enough for Zach to remove his hand, but as soon as he attempts to rise, the boy curls up his legs, renews his grasp, and mutters ‘stay,’ all without waking properly.
With a small shiver Zach lowers himself like a bather reluctant to plunge into frigid water, props his elbow on a thigh, and bows his head. The restive quiet eddies round him, deceptive, plosive in its power to burst the dykes and dams of constructed choice. Again he’s being asked to fulfil someone else’s expectations. Again someone wants him to play the hero. There’s something bizarre about a virtual existence which parodies the real. Who in god’s name has been doing the programming? For all his pranks, this isn’t like Mishaal. It’s rumoured that, before the Reign of Randall, Groening would occasionally appear in the labs to watch a caged mouse run itself to death on its treadmill. Novelists must feel a certain omnipotence over their fictional characters: how much more skewed do you have to be to make your living transcoding real people into virtual fictions?
‘Lev,’ Zach whispers, ‘what now?’
At the sound of Zach’s voice, Pani opens his eyes to reveal fully dilated pupils, dark tunnels shot with veins of raw, molten light. ‘Play your clarinet.’ He slips his free hand under the opposite sleeve and begins to dig at his forearm, a gesture so familiar that Zach’s vision blurs.
‘Play,’ the boy repeats before his lids seam shut.