At Stella’s name, Zach closed his eyes against and against, lashes trembling. He made no sound except the sound of a laboured bellows, as if he had to remind himself to breathe. Is there ever a right time for such news? His scar glinted with the veneer of healing, a pearly sheen, and a small dark shape scuttled along the alley, but Laura was unable to fix her gaze on anything for long. They were both shivering, and the air smelled of snow. Zach needed shelter more than the anaesthesia of cold. Whatever else was waiting for them inside the Rex, it wasn’t an impending snowstorm. If the door was bolted, Zach might be persuaded to leave. If the door was bolted, Max might already be wedged into a threadbare seat. Gloveless, she gripped the metal handle, and gripped. The cold cut into her palm.
‘Why haven’t you told me this before? I’ve been trying to find out what’s happened to her. To all of them.’
The door to the cinema swung open smoothly—too smoothly. Could someone have oiled the hinges? She slipped inside, Zach followed and shut the door behind them.
‘Why haven’t you told me? ‘
Laura found herself repeating the account of her first visit, elaborating it, filling in details, drawing attention to each face, each shaky step she’d taken. Though unfeigned, her nervousness served like a magician’s practised patter to misdirect Zach from the gaps in her story—those images on the screen. He’d never believe her; she wasn’t quite sure she believed it herself. Sometimes it seemed as if she’d hallucinated the whole episode—not the bodies, not that, but she’d been so desperate to find Zach . . .
‘I don’t know, exactly,’ she answered. ‘I guess I was afraid.’
When she said nothing, Zach’s face darkened. At first she thought he was angry, and she stepped backwards towards the exit, stepped backwards without, at least, flinching. He lowered the torch, which cast his features into waxen, high-contrast relief. Almost imperceptibly the skin surrounding his eyes took on the tautness of a mask as though she’d said something vicious and hurtful, and then she realised that she had, in her silence even more than in her words. But she didn’t know how to explain, and this was hardly the moment for it anyway. An inkling of a disturbing possibility crossed her mind: was she in some way afraid of Zach?
‘I’ve been doing a little reading,’ he said softly, ‘Abuse victims often spend their lives self-destructing, driven by their desires, consumed by them, which are raw and ugly and conjoined to the abuse itself. Is that what I am to you?’
‘Zach—’ She swallowed, longing for a glass of water. ‘Zach, you’re the most beautiful thing that’s ever happened to me.’ She glanced the length of the dark corridor ahead of them, the end of which remained shadowy despite the beam from their torch. She couldn’t remember the passage being quite so long. ‘Look, we’re both on edge, and you’re way too whacked to be anywhere except in bed.’ Again she searched the corridor. ‘I don’t like this. Something feels wrong, really wrong. Maybe we ought to leave while we still can.’
‘You’re absolutely certain everyone was dead? Stella?’
‘I didn’t imagine it!’
‘That’s not what I’m suggesting. They could have been drugged or in a coma.’
‘They were dead,’ she said flatly.
In response Zach took her by the arm, drew her away from the exit, and handed her the torch. Then, to her astonishment, he began to undress.
‘What are you doing?’ she asked.
He gave her a sardonic grin, Fabio’s influence all too apparent. ‘We’ll celebrate after we get Max to safety.’ He was already down to his boxers. ‘Stay here with my stuff. I want them to see straight off that I’m unarmed. If I’m not back in half an hour, ring for a taxi and go home.’
‘Yeah, right. And do what? Make popcorn?’
‘Your dad will probably have to contact the police.’ Now barefoot, he stopped to listen for a short period before laying his hands on her shoulders. ‘I mean it, Laura. No tricks. I’ll hear you if you try to follow.’
‘Then why am I here? As a clothes rack?’
He gazed at her a moment longer. ‘To keep me from giving up halfway across the city.’ This time his grin didn’t quite make it to his lips. ‘I’m nowhere near as brave or as admirable as you conjecture.’
‘But a deal more foolhardy.’
He kissed her, gripping her shoulders tightly. When she ran her fingertips over his tattoo, it felt like a ghastly goodbye. Zach felt it too; he muttered an oath and tore away, leaving her with the torch for scant cheer. She watched while he disappeared through the swing door to the theatre proper. Senses alert, she pulled out her mobile and gave him precisely one minute. She’d planned on waiting two, but the pressure in her chest was threatening to erupt into tattered gasps, lungs like a ripped mainsail flapping futilely in a squall. With as little noise as possible, she let herself out into the night. Once the door was shut, she raced round the building to the other emergency exit, the one she hadn’t mentioned to Zach; the one she’d used for her last escape. Let it be unlocked, a ragged voice chanted in her head, please let it be unlocked. If she were at all religious (or did she mean superstitious?), she’d have taken it as an omen—good or bad yet to be determined—that the building was prepared to re-admit her.
She navigated the corridor without stumbling, a reef of stacked theatre seats the only hazard. It looked as if someone were stripping the cinema. Her eyes fell on an antique steamer trunk bellied and staved like the one her mum had inherited from a stage-magician uncle or great-uncle or something. Flush against the wall and half hidden by the seats, it aroused Laura’s curiosity, particularly in an unlocked building, but she didn’t stop to investigate its contents. As she flitted towards the lobby, a few grisly possibilities crossed her mind, and she wondered whether she’d have had the nerve to lift the lid.
The door to the lobby was gaping, the ornate but dilapidated décor of the cinema reminiscent of an ageing film star with a heavy encrustation of jewellery. And then a memory, as memories will: a gamy, gaping, ghoulish mouth. All her grandmother’s teeth, in her last illness, had been removed along with the tumour. It had been terrifying to see her yawn, terrifying the required kiss—fleshy gums, the gangplank tongue, the black pit of the throat with its red plushy walls, the lips crimson in a parody of youth and health while the lipstick bled into the surrounding wrinkles, the glistening milky pearls on the sunken neck. But a child’s frantic pleading, then sobbing, has no effect on a certain type of mother.
Fury at the years of powerlessness and fear—is that what they mean by courage?
She played the torch about the foyer, shrugging at the cobwebs on the plasterwork but lingering over the dark rise of the staircase to the upper level, lingering too over the magnificent teardrop chandelier which, uselessly, still glittered overhead—grimy but indomitable, refusing to relinquish its stellar role. There was a small amount of light from the street seeping through the crisscross of boards across the main entrance, whose glass was intact in places. A passer-by might catch sight of the beam. After a short hesitation she switched it off and waited while her eyes adjusted.
Max, she thought, if you’re here, listen carefully. Zach doesn’t believe me, but there’s someone who may be able to help us. I don’t know if he’s a simu or not, I don’t even know what he is at all, but he seems to be able to talk inside my head, the only one who ever has, and to appear at strange moments. And it’s somehow related to Zach. Call for him, or whatever it is you do. I’m going to picture him as best I can. Maybe that will make it easier for you.
Gingerly she made her way across the lobby to the counter from which drinks and popcorn had once been sold, now listing and buckling like a riprap of pavement slabs under the onslaught of giant roots. The doomers liked to rant on about the claws of wind time and jaws of wolf time wresting the world from its human trespassers. No one took them seriously, yet you couldn’t help wondering who would walk the planet in a few thousand years, which was nothing in earth time. Likely Fabio had been right: if anybody, it would be the simus. All at once it wasn’t difficult to picture a Neanderthal girl falling in love with one of Laura’s own distant ancestors, only to be banished from her tribe for her transgression.
Laura laid both torch and mobile on the counter, then removed Max’s old water pistol from her pocket. Made of lightweight plastic, it was a fairish replica though unlikely to fool anyone for long, even in the dark. Still, imitation firearms were banned from all public venues for a reason. She was also carrying a keyring pepper spray, which she’d armed herself with after the police attack on Zach—not much use against more than one person, but she’d seen what Zach could accomplish given the opportunity. One man down was one man less to deal with. If it came to it.
For all Zach’s tribal loyalty, simus could be just as unpredictable as the rabble.
She listened attentively but there were no voices and no sounds she could detect, aside from the wind wrestling to invade this once majestic palace—this theatre as absurd as any in which her grandfather preached (and he’d preached in some impressive ones). Resting her forearms on the rickety countertop, she closed her eyes and repeated her message to Max, struggling to intersperse it with an image of that smiling, blue-eyed, crystal-toting figure. Her memory was sketchy at best, for she’d only seen him in brief flashes, but even a well-known face wouldn’t have made it any easier. Odd how a person like Zach could be so vivid, so present, so utterly the breath and cell and pulse of you, yet impossible to project onto the screen of your mind.
I don’t have a single photo of him, she suddenly thought. And then for one canted moment saw him as she’d first seen him—late for class, leaning into the wind, indifferent to the sheeting rain as if it were no more than planes of grainy light, unsmiling. He lifted his head and his eyes passed over her. ‘Look at that,’ Olivia breathed, clutching Laura’s arm. He stopped—she now realised that he must have been able to hear—and regarded them. Olivia preened at the library window, too self-absorbed to catch the sudden lash of sleet in his eyes before the shutter closed.
In the long weeks and weeks to come it would have devastated Laura to see their colour darken almost to crow-black, clouded by pain.
‘Still playing with toys?’
Laura cried out and snatched for the water pistol, but only succeeded in knocking her entire arsenal to the floor. As she backed up against the counter, her heartbeat louder than the final clatters, Fabio bent to pick up the scattered objects. He replaced the torch and mobile, weighed Max’s toy in the palm of his hand. ‘Not even any water,’ he intoned mournfully.
‘You’re supposed to be dead!’
‘Is that so?’
Halfway to the pepper spray, she jammed to a halt. Afterwards, she promised herself, once he explains; by then her hands would have stopped shaking. Fabio, however, studied his wrister, made an adjustment, and with predictable insouciance merely smiled, handed her the water pistol, and walked off, apparently expecting her to follow. She stared at his retreating back for a second or two before hissing, ‘You’re insufferable.’ At his low laugh she switched on the torch and waited to see if he’d demur, then stuffed her mobile into a pocket when he continued crossing the lobby without a backward glance, though beckoning over his shoulder.
‘Fabio! Where’s Max? I’m not moving a step till I know he’s OK.’
He took no notice, and with that the last of her fear burst into rage. ‘How dare you! How dare you, after losing a brother yourself! Or was that another of your lies, your little games?’
Fabio stopped and slowly turned round. There was no smile on his face now, and the protean silence carried the voice of Mateus, and the ashen voices of Nicola and Eliot, and voices lost, and voices stolen, and above all the one voice which would call to her, and always call, as if nothing ever changed or died, and forever called.
‘I think you’d better tell me what’s going on,’ she said.
Still he gazed at her.
‘Are you a simu?’
‘Then who—or what?’
‘It’s your Ophelia who says it best: we know what we are, but know not what we may be.‘
‘And I must be madder than Ophelia to expect a reasonable answer from you!’
He stared at her a moment longer, the ghost of a smile beginning to lighten his face.
‘It’s not funny,’ she said severely.
‘No . . . no, I suppose you’ll need a few more years to see the black humour in death. The young are so very earnest. It’s one of the first similarities I observed amongst the sentient races.’
Gooseflesh threatening, Laura cracked the lid on first one, then another scenario, not keen to examine any of them closely. She resorted to a familiar stratagem. ‘You’re a very bizarre sort of ghost. Don’t they let jesters and stand-up comedians into the afterworld?’
Fabio laughed softly again, then came back to stand in front of her. ‘Shall I kiss you to prove I’m real? I’ll be happy to oblige once you’ve given me the formula.’
The pepper spray was burning a hole in Laura’s pocket. ‘I take it you know Zach is with me,’ she said. ‘Haven’t you spoken to him?’
‘He’s busy chasing phantoms.’
‘There’s no one here.’
‘Your brother’s fine, don’t worry.’
‘But that video . . . the simus . . . ‘
‘Simus can act as well as sapiens. Even young ones like Max.’
A short silence.
‘You know about Max?’
‘It’s my job to know. Just as it’s my job to protect them.’ He waved a hand towards the auditorium. ‘So let’s save Zach further anxiety. The formula, please.’
‘Given this little charade, how am I supposed to trust you? You wear fancy togs, you sport fancy gadgets, you drive a fancy car, and from what I’ve heard, you’ve got a very fancy shot at the top of the corporate food chain.’
For the first time she saw a flash of real anger cross Fabio’s face. ‘Don’t equate me with Fulgur!’
She crossed her arms in a stance which would have reminded herself of her mum, had she been looking. Big Mamas come in all shapes and sizes, and whatever else he was, Fabio was Human Resources, someone who saw himself as both connoisseur and mercurial seer, fundi of high-potential startups. Those green eyes of his began to gleam.
‘Where I come from, we don’t hurt children,’ he said. ‘You can trust me because Zach does. Because the point of this exercise is to free the simus from Fulgur’s tyranny, eventually to find a workaround for the genetic defect. Because our interests, yours and mine, coincide.’
‘Laura, it’s a rare and wonderful privilege to witness a major paradigm shift. Believe me, right now I wouldn’t be anywhere else in the scheme of things.’ There was no mistaking the fervour in his voice. ‘I would never—never—do anything to endanger a single simu.’ The almost manic passion of the man. ‘You’re very young to be a leading actor, and younger still to be an agent of transformation—a fundamental transformation of human life. But it’s what Zach wants.’
She nodded, discomfited by the tightness in her throat, the proximity of tears.
‘Perhaps I’d best show you.’ He indicated his wrister. ‘Be prepared for a shock.’
‘More shocking than resurrection from the dead?’
She met and held his gaze. ‘You’ve changed,’ he said almost grudgingly.
Annoyed at herself for wanting his approval, she became testy. ‘Zach isn’t the only person chasing phantoms.’ Let him beg a little for it. ‘You, dear Fabio, need to reprogram your Ouija board.’
‘Wow. You mean there’s actually something I know that you don’t.’
‘Plenty, I daresay.’
Damn those eyes! ‘Then plug this into your motherboard: there’s no serum.’
‘Quite a wicked roll you’re on. Under the circumstances.’
‘I’m not joking.’
He heard out her explanation, then muttered what could only be a colourful phrase in Portuguese. ‘The wily bastard,’ he added.
‘Your dad. Jesus, it’s always the quiet ones.’
Without further preamble he played his fingers over his wrister, which by now was making her insanely curious. In an instant, however, the present was forgotten, jolted into a sort of retrograde amnesia by the panorama which unfolded before her, a panorama at once utterly alien and achingly familiar, though glimpsed only for a split second at the smouldering ruins. It was as if she were gazing upon a vision of all the selves she was and could have been, laid out in light. Shock didn’t begin to cover it. Nor could she know that this was a baptism very like the immersion Lev would give Zach from a tent in the midst of a blizzard, his however a living singularity in sound.
Later she wouldn’t be able to guess how long she stood there, the narrated self of before and during and after compressed to infinite disorder. Gradually she became aware of Fabio’s voice, at first distant and watery, then growing stronger as she began to surface.
‘Consciousness is fundamental to the cosmos, and indistinguishable from it. It’s always a matter of concern when a sentient race seems bent on self-destruction, as localised as the event may be initially. Your physicists are just beginning to understand the concept of entanglement.’
‘Who are you?’ Laura repeated in a whisper, still awed by a cognitive overload approaching the seizure threshold.
‘In all essentials I’m as human as you. Beyond that there’s no answer I can give you which would make sense, not in your language, not without the mathematics. Sometimes, of course, there have been references to angels and the like.’
‘Please, whatever you do, don’t tell me that my grandfather’s right after all!’
His sultry laugh. ‘Religion is the infancy of self-awareness. What an impatient lot you homo sapiens are.’
‘I mean that Zach, and the simus generally, must be protected, and nurtured, or humans will find themselves in an evolutionary deadend. Not for the first time, need I add, on your world.’
Laura’s disorientation was ebbing. ‘Yeah, we learned about the Neanderthals in school. Some people think they were smarter than us.’
‘Have you seen pictures of those metal branks once used to bridle slaves and heretics and scolds?’
‘A kind of iron mask?’ Laura asked, puzzled by the apparent irrelevance of Fabio’s question.
‘Intelligence takes many forms. Sometimes it can be a cage—a stifling, torturous, inescapable mind cage—just like such primitive devices. Believe me, smart, even brilliant as you sapiens can be, you need the simus. They’re your future.’
‘Then what about Mateus? Was he really your brother?’
There was no answer.
Where had he gone? Her sight now close to normal, Laura caught a glimpse of shadows at the periphery of her vision, caught shadows and whispers, then felt certain she was being watched, but when she shone the torch into every corner and alcove of the lobby, aim wobbling, pulse jumping, the only oddity she found was a vintage zoetrope, still intact, affixed in a niche not far from the staircase. But no Fabio.
If no one was here, she could call out for Zach.
She didn’t call out for Zach.
She did, however, refresh her memory, and for one canted moment saw him as she’d first seen him—late for class, leaning into the wind, indifferent to the sheeting rain as if it were no more than planes of grainy light, unsmiling. He lifted his head and his eyes passed over her. ‘Look at that,’ Olivia breathed, clutching Laura’s arm. He stopped—she now realised that he must have been able to hear—and regarded them. Olivia preened at the library window, too self-absorbed to catch the sudden lash of sleet in his eyes before the shutter closed.
In the long Arctic to come it would have devastated Laura to see their colour darken almost to crow-black, clouded by pain.
As she made her way towards the theatre doors, steeling herself for the unlikely, the improbable, surely the impossible, she heard, or thought she’d heard, keep telling him—words now so intimate that the threshold between hearing and remembering and confabulating, between herself and the other, seemed as elastic as nilas, that thin, transparent crust of sea ice which bends rather than fractures under pressure. If she repeated the words fast enough, they flowed into one another like frames of a film. Or she could drawl them to a near standstill, so that each sound loosed itself from its auditory moorings. Upon immersion in freezing water a mammal undergoes a powerful autonomic reflex, the diving response. Vital signs—breathing, heartbeat, peripheral blood circulation—diminish to a near-death state.
Keep. Telling. Him.
Her dad had been the one to test the ice on the pond before they were allowed to skate. ‘I’ve seen totally unnecessary fatalities during my stint in A&E,’ he’d explained. His ardour for exactitude impelled him to add, ‘Sometimes, though, we’d get lucky. If you’re young and fit, and especially if you keep your head above water, you can survive hypothermia for up to an hour. Once, a boy’s arms froze to the ice, and we managed to resuscitate him. But don’t count on it. Usually, you die.’
Zach, do you hear me? I’m not going to let the ice have you. No matter what it takes.
Laura couldn’t put it off any longer. Her stomach cramping, and her mouth beginning to fill with spit, she placed her ear against the narrow, almost non-existent gap between the double doors. There was nothing she could make out, certainly no murmur of voices. Her own breathing seemed exceptionally loud. With her free hand she patted the bulge in her pocket like a talisman. She’d decided not to go in brandishing a pistol. Keep something back for the last length, Janey always insisted.
Laura swallowed, tightened her sticky grip on the torch, cautiously pushed the right-hand door open no more than a finger’s breadth, and listened again. Still only silence. In just such a silence she’d found two rows of corpses lined up like inflatable dolls. In just such a silence the screen had burst forth with an impossible silent movie. In just such a silence a dead Fabio had appeared behind her in the lobby. She would torch this place herself once she and Zach (and Max?) were away.
After a quick glance over her shoulder, she nudged open the door and sidled through, her beam wavering in sync with her qualms. Perhaps it would have been best not to advertise her presence after all. She paused, nervously scanning the rows of seats. As before, the torch fell short of adequate, its light swallowed by the rococo folds of darkness. There was a stale, yeasty smell to the air; a morning-after smell. Her sense of walls breathing, cramped limbs stretching, was very strong, and into her imagination came a brazen rumble of laughter. Told you before, better know what you’re doin’. The past, sugar, never lies down meekly.
Laura moved forward towards the top step, the memory of those haunting, silenced faces never more substantial. She’d glimpsed them in dreams, sometimes. Sometimes she’d caught sight of them from the corner of her eye. But over the years she’d become adept at ignoring what she didn’t want to think about, didn’t want to remember. Sometimes.
Max wouldn’t end up like the boy they’d found in the factory.
Perhaps because she was afraid—or just perhaps—she was suddenly seized with the desire to thumb her nose at this stupid theatre and this stupid world and all the stupid, insane, incomprehensible, pointless deaths stretching generation upon generation back to a troupe of flea-bitten apes. She descended several steps, aimed the torch at the blank screen, and with her right hand in the shaft of light, formed a deliciously grotesque shadow puppet.
‘So there!’ She giggled, waggling the hooked nose.
A large bird swooped from above to peck at the nose. It missed and struck Laura’s temple, a hot, sharp, staggering blow. With a cry she dropped the torch, which rolled out of sight. Not that it would be missed: to the stinging slap of a saltwater breeze, the raw smell of gutted fish and rancid blubber, the screen came to terrifying life. Keep telling him. In a split second Laura’s thoughts crossed the stimulus barrier to forever, vivid images of Zach flashing before her eyes.
They faced each other in the gloom of the projection booth, where Fabio had tracked Zach. Any equipment had been stripped out long ago, leaving truncated cables, split tubing, and jagged holes to attest to haste rather than regard. Despite the observation window, oppressive dark red walls and a low ceiling shrunk the proportions of the room, though it was in fact much larger than standard for a time when cinema owners were anxious to cram in as many viewers as possible into an auditorium. Flakes of paint and chunks of plaster lay in untrodden dust, the way an ancient burial chamber is no longer of interest once plundered. Several times Zach eyed the overhead projector ducts, unable to shake off the feeling of being watched through mammoth binoculars, and made no objection when Fabio switched his pencil torch to full power.
‘Where’s Max?’ Zach asked angrily after hearing out Fabio’s brief explanation.
‘At my flat gorging on pizza and crisps and some arcane delicacies like marshmallow almond-crunch liquorice ice cream, if I’ve got that right. All the stuff his mum won’t buy. I set him loose in the aisles—virtual, mind you—of my favourite online grocery.’
‘You’re out of your fucking skull! There was no reason to stage this farce.’
‘It’s worked, hasn’t it?’ Fabio grinned his grin. ‘Come on, a few hours of anxiety are a small price to pay for the formula. I wish it could always be this easy.’ He sneezed once, then twice more. ‘Jesus, this room is dusty. And look at you, nearly naked and shivering. Let’s find Laura and get out of here before you catch a chill. Has she got the formula, or have you left it in a pocket?’
Hugging himself, Zach rubbed one bare foot along his calf, but the friction generated little warmth. Of a sudden the streaks of dirt on his leg, the clump of dust hanging from his big toe, the sartorial elegance of his paisley silk boxers—the irony of Fabio’s machinations—struck him as supremely funny, and he thumped his foot to the ground and began to laugh. ‘Formula? What formula?’
‘What do you mean?’ Despite the note of confusion in Fabio’s voice, there was something, the sideways flicker of his eyes, the timing maybe, something Zach couldn’t put a name to, but something, which stirred his disquiet. Then he caught the flash of light in the observation window, OK, Fabio had merely seen it first.
‘That’s a torch,’ Fabio said. ‘Laura must be down there.’
They crowded before the dingy pane of glass, almost opaque with dirt and fly specks. Distastefully Fabio brushed the desiccated corpses from the narrow sill. ‘Where do they all come from?’
An instant later he was shoved aside. Zach drew back and made a fist. The glass shattered as much from the impact of his cry as his blow. ‘No! Laura!’ Then, knuckles bleeding, he catapulted from the room. Fabio moved to the broken window and gazed down at the scene below, a smile on his lips. By the time Zach reached the auditorium, the future would have vanished without a trace. And even if he’d glimpsed a figure, he’d have seen what his mind told him to see—an attacker with a large backpack, maybe a cape. Yet no marks or wounds, the kind of puzzle Zach himself might have appreciated under other circumstances. In preparation for an emergency call, Fabio removed his mobile from a pocket and turned to leave. He didn’t want Zach wondering at the delay, though there was really no need to hurry.
Laura watches as Zach kneels by her sprawled body. How beautiful he is, those magic eyes, that hair, the tender arc of his back, she finds it hard to breathe. Watches as Fabio comes dashing up. Watches as Zach tries to find a pulse. ‘She’s not breathing. Oh god, she’s not breathing.’ Watches as Fabio shakes his head. ‘I’m sorry . . . so fucking sorry . . . What happened? All I saw was a flash of light.’ Watches as he flips open his mobile and keys in a number, touches Zach’s shoulder, speaks. Watches as Zach bends to begin artificial respiration.
‘Come on, Laura,’ Zach says, ‘breathe. Just breathe. We’re getting help.’
Laura is still watching when she feels the first feathery touch on her face. She holds out an arm. It’s beginning to snow, light snowflakes which soon thicken and obscure the screen.