Chapter Six

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On a ridge surmounting the sea ice, Zach and Lev are stretched out on a caribou skin over deep snow compacted by their feet. It’s taken a long, painstaking trek across uneven terrain to locate the breathing hole directly below them. There are fresh polar bear tracks out on the ice, clearly visible after the new fall of snow.

‘He’s hunting,’ Lev says. ‘Ringed seal’s his favourite snack.’ He offers no explanation other than a lame joke for the second set of footprints, the ones which resemble their own but circle the aglu without an inbound or outbound trail. ‘Some winged angels with a taste for hi-tech expedition boots, maybe.’

‘Better than armoured ice bears equipped with subtle knives,’ Zach says dryly. ‘Listen, seal meat makes good eating. Lots of calories in the blubber.’

‘Without a harpoon? Anyway, a seal is no challenge. But it depends on how long you can take the cold.’

Zach edges closer to his companion. For now, their layered clothing, lightweight but well insulated, defies the wind. Though they’ve avoided overtaxing themselves—sweat, like any moisture, has sinister consequences in the far north—the cold always wins in the end. Zach is grateful for the mitts Lev insisted on, better than his own, and the bubble-fleece face mask. Refusing a pair of ski goggles— ‘they’ll only interfere with my vision’—may have been a mistake. He remembers the feel of Lev’s lips, their restorative warmth. And with a sharp twist of pain, Laura’s.

‘Are you OK?’ Lev asks.

‘Polar bears are supposed to be curious,’ Zach says. ‘Wouldn’t it be easier to show ourselves? Attract attention?’

‘The only way I can hope to take him is when he’s distracted, concentrating on his prey.’ Lev nods towards the breathing hole, the nearest of several. ‘That’s the other reason for the caribou pelt. A seal won’t surface if it hears the scrunch and squeak we’d make on loose snow, even just shifting in place.’

‘How long have we got to wait?’

‘No idea. Could be a while. Don’t worry, I’m not that stubborn—or rash. Seal stew is preferable to hypothermia.’

‘There’s black, open water in most of the agluit,’ Zach says. ‘They’ve been used recently.’

‘You’ve done your homework. Now be quiet.’

‘Look here—’ Zach says, but Lev puts up a warning hand and points towards the expanse of shorefast ice. The moonlight enables them to see four, maybe five kilometres out. It’s hard to tell, for there are no landmarks which signify anything to Zach, no real means of gauging scale and depth, and the entire vista is so vast, so eerie, so ethereal that he might be gazing upon a poem rendered in light rather than words.

Yet the ice isn’t featureless. Not only are there small domes over some of the breathing holes, but fissures and cracks where the snow shades to lilac and cyan, to a bruised violet like veins under the skin of a newborn; dunes and snowdrifts blown into ridged formations and hollows reminiscent of the open desert; low piles of rubbled ice, grey and barely frosted with white; in places, drifting hoar mist; and even some meandering leads of open water, black as the lead in the great cathedral windows. At first he thinks of a lunar landscape, then realises that the comparison is inadequate—that, in fact, the very attempt to impose a foreign grammar on such a place would prevent him from communicating with it. If it has a language, he needs above all to listen. Not like the monkeys, who in their discontent and greed redefine everything with their paltry nomenclature, make and remake and make again in their own stunted image. Little backwater gods, scared shitless that they’ve been shunted onto a sidespur of evolution.

A flicker of movement, barely discrete—more a warping of the light, as though passing through a prism—there, near the edge of a lead. Something is moving across the ice. Zach touches Lev on the shoulder, who nods to show he’s seen it too. The bear has surfaced so quietly from the water that its presence seems like a ghostly gift: the one who gives power, according to the Inuit.

As Zach concentrates on the animal, he begins to make out its strategy. Chest flat on the ice, the bear is sliding along centimetre by centimetre in their direction, its hindquarters slightly raised, propelling itself forward by its powerful rear legs. And difficult as it is to credit, this canny creature is pushing a piece of ice in front of itself like a shield. What does Lev think he’s doing, arrogantly hunting such a tool-wielding being? He can’t hurt it, of course, but he doesn’t know that. VWT only works if its participants are totally immersed in the experience; if they’re convinced it’s real.

Zach debates rising right then and there to shout and gesticulate and head off the impending encounter. Nark or not, Lev has been decent, Zach flinches to think of what’s coming. Briefly he wonders which crime could have sentenced Ethan and Chloe to this place: murder? a bombing? grievous bodily harm? or even the one Zach can hardly bear to contemplate, sexual assault? The harsh polar regions are almost invariably reserved for the most violent cases. He’ll find out, of course. More than half the clients tell him themselves within the first twenty-four hours—some boastfully, some defiantly, some with a battery of excuses, some in deep denial and protesting their innocence. Not the child molesters, however; they give nothing away. Like their victims.

Without a watch it’s impossible to tell how many minutes pass. Though Zach has learned to read the Arctic sky, its cycles conflict with paradigms so long accepted as to seem natural and unquestioned, instilled since infancy and as much a cultural given as, centuries ago, a geocentric cosmos or humours or hatred of the infidel; angels, for godsake. Nor is he entirely sure whether the programmers don’t set the time parameters to suit a company directive. Time here is as malleable as the snow itself. Or perhaps no more so than elsewhere, but in the same manner that extreme conditions strip away pretence, the cold distils and purifies the senses till only a true core of perception remains—the dark unfrozen sea which lies beneath the ice.

The bear halts at an aglu about ten metres from their vantage point. Zach can sense Lev’s heightened awareness, though he moves even less than before, his breathing so quiet that he might be hibernating. Nor does he tense, the way most people would. Two different species, but in this inhospitable landscape strikingly alike, bear and man—as if the exigencies of the hunt have interfaced their very genetic code. And both understand silence.

Then comes the faintest ripple of sound—a seal surfacing for air. A few bubbles. Like milk at the boil, both bear and Lev erupt instantly. The bear lunges in an explosion of snow and ice and ferocious strength, its massive paws slamming through the aglu. The sea churns, water foams and spumes in all directions. By the time Zach has blinked, Lev is on the ice, knife unsheathed and raised to strike.

The polar bear whips round. Having lost the seal, it’s maddened with rage. It roars and swings for Lev, who dances back, just out of reach of those steely claws. Those paws that can kill a walrus—or man—with a single blow. The bear lowers its head, glares at Lev with febrile eyes, and roaring once more, springs. Lev goes down.

The bear pauses and swivels its head to survey its domain. Zach has risen to his feet, their eyes meet. Afterwards Zach will be ready to swear that it smiles at him. Its intent is plain, and it makes no attempt to conceal it. This Arctic warlord will have its kill, one way or another.

And Zach reacts. He doesn’t have time to think about what he’s doing, how absurd his impulse is. How counterproductive. How foolhardy.

‘Abort,’ he cries, and reels off the string of code that will end the run.

Except that nothing happens.

‘Abort,’ he repeats, enunciating the code more slowly and distinctly.

Then he drops his arms and stares at the scene which is unfolding on the ice, surreal as vintage simulations, as early neuroscience.