Chapter Forty-Six

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As soon as Zach emerges from the iglu, an icy wind snatches the breath from his lungs. He shuts his eyes and doubles over, gripping his knees till a shout drags him upright. Through his tears he discerns Pani silhouetted against the horizon, gesticulating anxiously. Despite the clouds, colour is returning to the world. Has he really forgotten how beautiful even weak sunlight can be? There, beyond the iglu, lies a low bank of rubble, blushing at its own mounds and crevices. There, the lead sheeted in crumpled purple. And there, shyly, lifting the curtain on the first morning after, the sun. My god, has he been blind! The promise of it has no counterpart in fact. One day he’ll not visit Svalbard or Greenland as a tourist. Not walk on the ice, what remains of it. Not listen to the groaning of the distant, dying glaciers. Not scan the tundra for a sign of polar bear. Not shiver except in the chilly breezes of memory. For only here, in Thule, his Thule, is the wind fierce enough to defy the guardian equations of time. ‘I’ll never let you go,’ she said. He turns his face to the punishing wind, wondering how long it would have been before she left; before he’d have wanted her to leave. For only here, in Thule, their Thule, the light itself can sing.

Then, Zach, you have still not understood the Arctic.

‘Lev?’

Though Zach peers in all directions, there’s no sign of man or bear.

Pani is nimble-footed, but Zach slips midway across an innocent-looking belt of glossy, meringue-like crust, lands awkwardly on one knee, and while recovering from the jolt of pain, makes out a dull wingbeat overhead which sends him scrambling to his feet.

‘What is it?’ Pani asks upon doubling back. ‘Some sort of bird?’

The air quivers as if to the flight of a pterodactyl. They stare into the sky, the black dots which Zach first takes for afterimages from unaccustomed exposure to the sun—simus are particularly susceptible to retinal damage—quickly transforming his blindspots into birds into raptors into paratroopers into a menacing sense of déjà vu. He curses himself for his foolish daydreaming. Even Pani wouldn’t make it back to the iglu now, not that it would offer more than a short-lived bulwark against the swarm dropping from the cloud cover. The winged figures swoop straight for them, fifteen of them, twenty, and as they descend, Pani grabs Zach’s arm with a soft cry, while Zach at last recalls the source of his dread.

‘No one move!’

The warning has the opposite effect on Pani, who whirls into a half-crouch, mitt at his feet and panak already grasped in a fist. Zach has barely enough time to wonder how long it takes to perfect such a slick manoeuvre swathed in thick furs before a soundless burst of light sends the boy sprawling.

‘Pani!’ Zach dives for him. A second flash of light, this time aimed at Zach. Though he maintains a desperate hold on consciousness, the sensory overload stuns him, and he just manages not to vomit, not to lose control of his bladder, not to let go of Pani.

‘Another rash stunt, and the boy is dead.’

Within moments they’re surrounded. At a signal from the spokesman, Zach gets slowly, dazedly, to his feet. Pani is still crumpled on the ice. Zach stares at the creatures, trying to make sense of what he sees: tall, graceful men clothed in the thinnest of black bodysuits, masks, and boots, but whose enormous wings, no matter how virtual, pulse with cold-defying life. He’s never envied Max his particular gift, but right now an inkling of their intentions would be welcome. These are not the monstrous chimeras of ancient myth, of psychosexual nightmare, of budget flick and massive multiplayer games, but have a fearsome Blakean beauty which confounds him. And then a grim thought: is this how the sapiens see us?

The same spokesman beckons for Zach to approach.

‘Don’t hurt the boy,’ he says. ‘Please.’

‘That’s up to you.’ The birdman levels his right hand at Pani, and a weak pulse of light arcs from a fingertip to strike the boy, who jerks slightly and moans.

‘No!’ At a peremptory and unbirdlike gesture, ‘OK, OK, I’ll do whatever you want. Just tell me what it is.’ Zach stumbles aside, exaggerating however his weakness.

‘First, your chain.’

‘My what?’

This time the finger is pointed at Zach’s throat, and within a fraction of a second he snatches off the pendant and flings it at the man’s feet, then fingers the blister already forming on his skin.

The man bends to retrieve Laura’s pendant. ‘We’re not inhuman, you know. Those dogs you were fond of—I’d never have removed them if they hadn’t been so menacing. Some of the retrogrades cannot seem to tolerate us. And though I genuinely regret the need to deprive you of your keepsake, your age has yet to understand the full nature of entanglement.’

Several of the birdmen move to encircle Pani, and one kneels to examine him with worrying care, then nods at the spokesman. No words are exchanged. An image of powerful white wings and a whip-like neck, a vicious beak, surfaces from Zach’s memory. He’s never learned the full story behind Max’s swan, though he has his suspicions—now stronger than ever.

‘Primitive,’ the man says, ‘but a beginning. It will take upwards of a century for transgenic organisms to become truly viable. Intelligent transgenic organisms.’ Eyes that knowing ought to be hidden behind goggles. ‘The crow, for obvious reasons, will be of particular interest; pivotal, a Leveller would say.’

All arrogance, the birdman doesn’t wait to see if he’s unsettled Zach, but wheels towards the iglu, spreads his wings, and fans the air, feathers gleaming like iridescent onyx. As if on command, the others take up position in a semicircle, the one in charge of Pani carrying him gently—almost tenderly.

‘Who are you?’ Zach asks.

The spokesman doesn’t trouble to answer, his attention focused on the area inside the formation. Again he raises an arm, and the ice wavers and shifts, not precisely melting; terraforming in a swirl of snow to a shallow, milky bowl. Pani’s caretaker steps forwards and sets the boy down in the centre, then joins his cohorts, who proceed to close the circle. The spokesman, wings now folded, strides into their midst.

‘What are you doing with him?’ Zach’s voice cracks, sign of his struggle to hold himself in check.

‘Your self-control is admirable, but in fact I’d like you to join me.’

As Zach reaches Pani’s side, columns of ice begin to appear inside the ranged guards, proportioned as before but etched like petroglyphs, each with a different carving. On one there are pterodactyls and a Spinosaurus; on another, a troupe of apes; a Neanderthal woman; a simplified Vitruvian man; a crow. Some bear symbols which seem to be mathematical, some a script or alphabet. Zach wonders if the sign for infinity could possibly be universal. The glyph which disturbs him most, however, is the two-headed Fulgur dragon. And there’s no representation of the birdmen.

Play, Zach.

Zach whirls round, half expecting—hoping—to find Lev, only to stiffen at the shameless laugh which strips the fraying insulation from his temper. He snaps, ‘So, what are you then, a flock of telepathic robots?’

Something in this finally gets to the creature. ‘Corvus is reputed to be a lot smarter than you’re acting. Potentially all humans are telepaths.’

‘Except you’re obviously not human.’

The man shoots a hand towards Pani, then after a hesitation lowers it again. ‘Perhaps we’ve made a mistake. If you’re not Corvus . . . ‘ He indicates the column engraved with the Fulgur dragon. Only a cognoscens would be able to detect this beam of light; whether anyone else can see the image it reveals becomes superfluous as soon as Zach cries out. At the sound of Laura’s name the column reverts to icy inscrutability.

‘So . . . as I thought,’ the man says. ‘We’ve killed the right girl.’

‘Zach—’ If Pani weren’t beginning to stir, Zach would be at the birdman’s throat. ‘Zach, my head hurts.’

He crouches, helps Pani to sit up. ‘It’s OK, just take it easy for a moment.’

‘He’ll be fine. The pain fades quickly. Unless further treatment—sedation—is required.’

Zach looks up. ‘Let him go. It’s me you want, isn’t it?’

‘Rather over fond of an avatar, aren’t you?’

‘He’s no’—shivering now—‘say that again about Laura.’

‘It’s really very simple. Most things are, in the end.’ The birdman sweeps a hand round so that each column in turn emits a different gonglike tone, the last three deep within the cognoscens register. ‘She died to bring you here.’

Would that the casings of self were wound from steel. Zach feels the way a violin string might feel, if it could feel and articulate the feeling, the instant before it snaps from over-tightening. Too much tension in the string can damage the integrity of the instrument itself.

‘Why? God damn you, why?

‘Zach—’ Pani tugs at Zach’s sleeve. ‘Your spirit skin, it’s orange again. Almost red, like flames.’

Play, Zach.

‘In ice and in fire: so the beginning. And sentient life multiplied to fill the world until the world was desolate, the cities burning and the land laid waste. Hunger walked the face of the earth, thirst dredged in its bowels. Rank were the once sweet waters and the salt. The two-headed dragon with claws of steel and scales of gold and heart of ice grew fat on the children of men. Who would slay him? Who would rise up and lead us? Who renew our strength so we would mount up with wings like ravens, renew our spirit so that we would rejoice in song, renew our minds so that we would sunder the barriers of time and space forever?’

‘What kind of answer is that?’ Zach asks.

‘The incipit from the Book of Corvus.’

Silence falls, a belljar silence in which each breath is audible, a silence so glassy it seems to magnify the collective tension.

‘I am not that Corvus,’ Zach says.

Play.