Chapter Sixteen

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One of the dogs is lame.

‘We’ll have to go back,’ Lev says. ‘That, or shoot her.’

‘Can’t we splint it?’ Zach asks.

‘She’ll never keep up.’

‘Or camp here till it heals?’

Lev wipes his goggles with a gloved hand, then with a dissatisfied frown lifts them to gaze out over the pack ice. They’ve taken the shortest route from a spit of embayed ice towards the opposite shore, after discussing the delay that travelling along the coast would entail. A stiff wind is blowing, numbing their faces through the thermal masks, and it has already begun to snow—thin stinging flakes which catch on Zach’s lips and eyelids like barbed crystals whenever he slips off his goggles. Most of his kind struggle with the cold. To outrun the weather had been one of those good ideas which are so compelling at the time. But Zach is coming to appreciate that no one and nothing defeats the ice.

‘Can’t you do something?’ Zach asks.

‘Like what?’

Zach turns so that his back takes the brunt of the wind. His breath fogs in front of him, though not for long. It too seems to freeze into brittle particles, some of which find their way into his lungs.

‘Like whatever it is you do.’

Lev laughs. ‘A tropical paradise? I’m flattered, but geo-engineering is best left to the experts, and world-building to your novelists. You overestimate my capabilities.’

‘And you, my patience.’

‘Fine. Have a temper tantrum, if you think it’ll help.’

Zach would like to stalk off, but he’d probably land on his arse—and where would he go? Strange, in the real world where it might matter, he can’t bother to be accommodating, and here in electronic lalaland, he’s learning circumspection. He rubs a hand across his chest.

‘Still hurts?’ Lev asks sympathetically.

‘Some. It doesn’t help to breath crushed glass.’

Lev nods. ‘OK, we’ll get you out of the cold soon.’

‘How? It’s hours back to basecamp.’

Lev turns and peers again into the distance, but visibility is poor in the absence of moonlight.

‘We need to get off the pack ice,’ he says. ‘We’re courting trouble with the wind picking up like this.’

It doesn’t feel as though they’re moving, but Zach remembers from his reading that displacement is mostly imperceptible on larger floes. Sea ice shifts erratically before the wind, often breaking loose from the pack and leaving any inadvertent hitcher stranded. A polar bear or walrus could swim, but neither he nor the dogs would last more than a few minutes in such water. As to Lev . . . anybody’s guess.

Yet Lev is alarmed, and making no attempt to conceal it. He pushes back his hood, pulls off his mask, and tilts his head to listen intently. Despite layers of insulation and the obstinate wind, Zach too can hear the constant creak and groan and fretful grumble of the ice as it adjusts and readjusts itself like a bedridden patient beset by sores.

‘Wait here,’ Lev says. ‘I’ll be right back.’

He dons his mask and goggles, strides off as if heading for the next bus stop. From his own attempts to walk boldly, Zach can tell that Lev has a very long acquaintanceship with snow—a bit like a sailor’s sea legs. Within a few seconds Lev has disappeared, leaving Zach alone with the dogs.

Still in harness, the injured husky is curled up on the ice, while her team-mates are nosing about as if sensing Zach’s restlessness. To unhitch them means risking a chase, for even when tired, huskies will run at will . . . and run . . . and run. The snow is gradually thickening into big fluffy flakes which melt on the dogs’ coats. Zach puts out his tongue and catches one, remembering. Laura liked to say they taste like fresh-cut lemons. But this one has no flavour; perhaps his tongue is numb.

He crouches by the lame animal, whose eyes are a brilliant gold-flecked green. Has any of the programmers ever seen a husky? Mishaal can be damned snarky—sly almost—something’s going on there, he’s made more than a couple of cracks about Fabio’s ‘fuck me’ eyes. You don’t like to think about how close you yourself came . . . Can Lev sense physical stuff, that first sweet quickening? Incredible, that Max has remained so . . . so innocent. Yeah, fuckme eyes, green to fuck all greens.

Except that memory intensifies as it fades. The things we imagine become a vivid presence, daring to quicken where there is no flesh, to sicken where no virus. Zhou dreamt of a quantum consciousness—’a mind able to speak the language of God,’ he’d said to appease the religionists. Laura’s grandfather would condemn Fulgur from his pulpit—stone his own son-in-law—at the slightest hint of what they’re up to, yet Zach can’t even heal a ligament tear in the primitive neuroelectronic circuitry of the Fulgrid. ‘I daydream about a better interface,’ Andy once revealed in frustration. ‘What Randall’s geniuses know about cyberspace will someday be the equivalent of creationism.’ Zach shivers and glances over his shoulder, strokes the dog’s head, digs his fingers into her pelt. This place has become so alien that he’s glad of any contact with a living creature—a familiar species. At home he sees as few people as possible, wanting only to be left alone. Here you find out tripletime about self-delusions. The ice lies like a cold-blooded mirror beneath the skin of snow.

As the minutes pass, Zach becomes perturbed, then agitated almost to the point of monkeydo panic. What if Lev has gone off for reasons of his own? Or if something has happened to him? No one is invulnerable, he’d learned that soon enough with Laura.

He springs up and stares blindly into the rising snowstorm. ‘Lev,’ he hears himself shouting. ‘Lev!’

‘You’re not going to find her that way.’

Zach whirls, nearly losing his balance. Lev is directly behind him.

‘What?’ Zach asks stupidly.

‘You were calling for Laura.’

Zach shakes his head. ‘No, I was . . . ‘ His voice trails off. What difference would it make?

‘Stay with the dogs. Talk to them. I don’t want to unnerve them.’

‘What’s going on?’

‘The ice is breaking up ahead. We’re going to have to abandon Leila.’

Working swiftly now, Lev attaches a line to the beautiful husky, separates her from her companions, and extracts what can only be some sort of handgun from a pack on the dogsledge. Before Zach has a chance to protest, Lev gestures beyond their rapidly shrinking field of view.

‘There’s a lead ahead. Open water. I prefer not to leave her body exposed.’

Zach’s surprise at such sentimentality is short-lived.

‘Somebody’s stalking us,’ Lev explains.

‘Who?’

But Lev has already been swallowed up by the snow.