Chapter Four

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Next morning Ethan is feverish, shaking with chills, and so dizzy when he stumbles into the living room that Zach sends him straight back to bed. Though conditions are meant to be as realistic as possible, Zach is disgruntled by the delay and can’t help wondering about this unexpected development, the second in two days. Illness isn’t unheard of in Fulgur’s little cyber realm, but never during the acclimation phase, which is stressful enough on its own.

In the kitchen he finds a stock of herbal remedies and brews a pot of lemon balm, yarrow, and ginger tea, well sweetened with honey. Ethan drinks only a few sips before knocking the mug aside, rambling on about harpoons of acid blue light and batmen and a shapeshifting ice cave, but soon falls into a doze while Zach mops up. Despite official assurances, Andy has warned him to be on the watch for anomalies, particularly cognitive dysfunction, which might indicate a programming glitch. There’s always the backfeed for reporting minor problems, but persistent hallucinations could necessitate a premature shut-down. Any simu who aborts a run without good reason assumes its entire cost. You’d be in debt to Fulgur till too old to notice. There are no aborts.

If it weren’t for Laura, Zach would have stuck to his resolve never to do another run again. And once they find out what he’s up to, there’ll be no other. Let them banish him to custodial duty; he’ll scrub their toilets with savage glee. They wouldn’t dare to assassinate him outright—not now, not with so much unrest. A martyr’s death would suit him just fine.

At breakfast Chloe appears in a cherry-red tracksuit whose thick fleece might as well be diaphanous silk, or nothing at all, the way she turns sleepy eyes and moist pout and an aura of torpid conquest on Zach. He finds himself colouring, at which she laughs complacently. The run is fast becoming a disaster.

Lev rescues him by suggesting Chloe stay indoors with Ethan while the two of them try to bring down a polar bear.

‘What for?’ Zach asks bluntly.

‘We ought to take advantage of the good weather. It’s stopped snowing.’

‘You know that’s not what I mean.’

‘Practice. Teamwork and bonding in the face of a tough obstacle. Survival skills.’ Lev says. ‘Isn’t that what you’re here to teach?’ There it is again—that brief glint in Lev’s eyes, like a flash of metal through the trees. The scar makes it difficult to tell whether his half-smile is sardonic, or merely the result of reduced muscular control. ‘Fresh meat.’

‘A full-grown male can weigh as much as 700 kilos, occasionally more.’ Zach falls back on a practical concern. ‘You and I can barely drag a quarter of that between us.’

‘We’ll take whatever we can. Isn’t that what humans always do?’

Chloe is becoming restive. ‘I’m going to have a good wash’—her lower lip is a touch overripe for her smirk to be tasty—’and check on Ethan while you two machos work out your kill.’ She saunters off in the direction of the bath, then stops on the threshold to say, ‘I forgot, the bath is filled with Earl Grey, I’ll have to use the teapot.’ Lev gives Zach an indulgent shrug as she heads for the kitchen; there’s no accounting for sense of humour.

‘Killing a polar bear takes exceptional skill. How long have you been here anyway?’ Zach asks once they’re alone.

‘Why don’t you wait and see what I can do?’

‘That’s quite a lot to take on faith.’

‘We’re expected to trust you.’

‘Not exactly the same thing, is it?’

‘Have you forgotten that I could have left you in the snowstorm to freeze? Perhaps you ought to remember one of the cardinal principles of wilderness training—mutual trust.’

A test of some sort? Zach meets, measures, matches the daredevil in Lev’s eyes. ‘There are no firearms. So what will you use instead? A magical incantation?’

Lev gives the first laugh Zach has heard from him, a rough snort like an animal’s—a polar bear’s chuff. Lev lifts his long jumper, exposing an age-darkened knife sheath on a belt. Zach can see the Puma logo embossed on the leather, and the distinctive staghorn handle that generations of hunters have reached for.

‘You must be sudsing,’ Zach says. ‘Easier to melt a glacier with a hair-dryer.’

‘We’ll see. Now eat up, we’ll need the energy. I meant it, you know, about meat.’

They finish their coffee and bowls of salty porridge to the accompaniment of singing from the kitchen. Chloe has a lovely voice, Zach acknowledges silently, a rich alto just smoky enough to be at home in a dimly lit club. For a moment he imagines an old song, a bitter song, dark as stout and liquid as tears yet with a touch of sweetness, a song pursued by the pleading voice of the clarinet, its subtle and bittersweet disharmonies, but never diluted, never tainted, never contained; siren song.

Without comment Lev carries their dishes to the kitchen. The singing stops, and Zach hears low voices, though only snatches of what’s being said. Lev returns with a bottle of dark yellow oil, which once unstopped gives off a strong fishy odour. ‘Rub it on your skin,’ Lev says. ‘Polar bears have an acute sense of smell, even over vast distances.’

‘I haven’t agreed to this misadventure yet. Ethan shouldn’t be left.’

Lev explains that Chloe will apply ice packs to Ethan’s groin and armpits if his fever worsens. ‘The therapy programme is built upon learning to assume responsibility, isn’t it?’

‘It’s a bit early to expect any changes.’

‘Chloe’s prickly but not unfeeling. It’s not for me to tell you your job, but there’s nothing you could do for Ethan at this stage that she can’t. And maybe you yourself ought to remember that she’s more vulnerable than she pretends.’

Zach accepts the bottle in silence.