‘Laura,’ Zach whispers.
For a moment he can still see her and lifts his head, only to gasp as his belly tears apart, deep-gutted. He drops back onto the pillow, riding the waves of pain like a surfer. Breathing. Breathing. Then sinking.
When he opens his eyes again, Lev is bending over him.
‘Here,’ Lev says, ‘drink this.’
He slips an arm behind Zach’s shoulders, and with his help Zach manages to take a few sips from the warm drink.
‘What is it?’ Zach asks.
‘Something to ease the pain.’
‘Drink it up. It also contains an extract to promote healing.’
Zach is too muzzy to argue. It crosses his mind that Fulgur might be able to stage a fatal mishap due to a so-called technical error. Would they risk an outcry? And didn’t they still need him? He tries to recall the wording of the release each participant, client and instructor equally, is obliged to sign. Something about ‘highly experimental programme’, ‘unforeseeable developments’. Like moths round a weak light, his thoughts flutter without settling. If he can’t trust Lev . . .
‘Think back, we’ve both proved that we can trust each other with our lives,’ Lev says.
Clamping his lips round the rim of the mug, Zach finishes the seaweed-coloured liquid. A feeling of lassitude is spreading through his limbs; the stuff must be far more potent than Lev’s offhand manner indicates. But his head is clearing, he’s not spilling any more thoughts, and he discovers he can shift his body with less pain. He draws up his legs and rolls gingerly to his side in a move to sit up.
‘Not so fast,’ Lev says. ‘I want to be sure there’s no internal bleeding.’
With a hand on Zach’s shoulder, Lev coaxes him to relax once more, then folds back the blankets and runs a hand over Zach’s abdomen and chest, lingering longest over a spot just below his ribcage, right of centre where the liver nestles. Lev’s touch is assured but gentle, as though he were a practised doctor, or blind sculptor tenderly examining his model. A nude model, in fact. There’s one sharp twinge as Lev’s fingers light on the area which seems to concern him most, followed by a deep dull ache—but nothing like that surge of excruciating pain, still vivid despite Zach’s initial grogginess. He doesn’t need to be told that some memories are forever; some pain.
A gust of wind heaves at a corner of the roof, and the flames in the fireplace leap in the updraft. For the first time Zach takes note of his surroundings. ‘Where are we?’
‘A cabin I use from time to time.’
‘How did I get here?’
‘I thought it advisable to separate you from the others during your convalescence.’ A wry shrug, the kind that hopes to elicit complicity: yeah, I’m sudsing you, and you know it, and I know that you know it, and you know that I know that you know it, so . . .
Zach isn’t amused. ‘If you’re not careful, this liking of yours for equivocation is going to land you on the tip of a knife. Chloe’s, for example. She’s rather quick to anger.’
‘Good, you do remember. I’ve been worried about the integrity of Fulgur’s cognoscens algorithms.’
Now thoroughly disturbed, Zach struggles to an upright position. He’s not about to confront Lev while flat on his back. Questions swarm as thickly as blackflies to caribou, but Lev has his own laconic means of repelling them.
‘I’ve got some things to take care of,’ he says, reaching for a hooded parka tossed on a chair near the fireplace.
‘Look here, I want to know—’
‘I may be a few hours, but you’ll be all right if you take it easy.’ Lev nods towards a lidded cast-iron pot suspended from a hinged arm over the inner hearth. ‘There’s stew when you get hungry. But not too much at once, mind. And try to sleep.’
‘Your questions can wait.’ The raffish look is back. ‘Ask the caribou. Merciless insects like mosquitoes and blackflies always return in spring.’ And then, without another word, he’s gone.
The firewood has a resinous smell which Zach finds soothing. Less so, the thought that Fulgur is manipulating him in some way. Once might be coincidence, but Lev has skimmed his, Zach’s, thoughts rather too often for comfort. What if they’ve got what they want? What if Charles couldn’t prevent it? That bastard Randall would stop at nothing. What, in fact, if Max had been right, pleading with a child’s frantic desperation, with a lad’s dry-eyed urgency, that Zach not go?
They couldn’t have succeeded, not this fast. Except . . . except that only the best simus—and he knows he’s one of them—can function effectively within the interface. No sapiens could possibly do so; their neurophysiology lacks the necessary complexity. It would be like expecting an orangutan to compose a Brahms symphony.
Which wouldn’t stop the monkeys from wanting the impossible. Their whole history is one long attempt to scoff (or shag) someone else’s banana.
Zach swings his legs over the side of the bed, then stops to rest. In the firelight the room is eerie, a flickering shadow of the Litchfield cottage. Shut his eyes and he’d be able to see Laura seated on the floor by the fireplace, arms wrapped round her knees, staring into the flames. Waiting for him in that ridiculously outsized jumper and woollen socks which never seemed to stay put, a bit like Laura herself.
All at once a feeling of dread stronger than the ache in his gut propels him to his feet. Dizziness, which he conquers by breathing deeply and concentrating on the fire. Whatever he does, he mustn’t close his eyes till he’s certain. The programming could alter in an instant, there’d be no proof, no means of dispelling his doubts. They’ve taken enough, damn them, they aren’t touching his memories.
The brain is plastic, and the cognoscens brain more plastic than even the simus themselves are aware. Max’s first word, Laura once said laughingly, wasn’t mama or dada but self, and no glut of memories has ever shaken his endearingly boyish sense of self. But Max hasn’t had to confront the Fulgrid, no child has. Nor will. Do you hear me, Max? That’s a promise.
When the furniture holds steadier than the snickering shadows, Zach makes a protracted circuit of the room, using the walls as support and ending at the only window, its curtains drawn. He slides one back, the soft clink of the metal rings punctuating the quiet, then swallows in relief. No shed, no rutted lane, no woodland, no lake glittering through winter trees. Snow and ice—clean, inviolate, innocent. Shivering a bit, he wonders where to find his clothes. He casts one last look at the scene beyond the glass, still as a painting. It’s too perfect, he thinks. Not a breath of wind to stir the powdery snow, not a hummock or ridge in the ice, not a ripple on the obsidian slab of open water beyond the shorefast ice, not even a sideways drift to the floes studding the black sea like small iced cakes at a funeral tea. There’s something dreadfully wrong. Only the imagination imposes this kind of frozen certainty on a landscape. Reality is fluid.
Then Zach snorts. ‘Idiot! What’s the matter with you?’ His voice is husky, as though parched, or ratched by dope. They can program what they like.
But they always code for verisimilitude. Authenticity. Fine attention to detail.
Once more he stares outside. There should be footprints, shouldn’t there? From this angle he can see a small roofed porch, two cement steps to the ground, a corner of the building. No path freshly cleared, yet a snow shovel leaning against the railings. Or is there another entrance to the cabin?
He’d better see about a toilet. And some clothes, there’s a noticeable draught. He closes the curtain. As though he’s flipped a switch, he hears the wind start up. It whispers under the eaves, taunting him. Running his hands up and down his arms to drive off the gooseflesh, he walks haltingly across the room and stands by the fireplace. He has no intention of playing hide-and-seek with the elements. As soon as his front is warm, he turns to face the room. Really, it’s nothing like Laura’s cottage. Merely a superficial resemblance, heightened by firelight and weakness and whatever concoction Lev has plied him with. His memories are safe; they belong only to him, and can’t be destroyed or altered—can’t be raped for profit or power or sport like the once pristine Arctic, like so much else the monkeys lay their paws on. He swallows, but spit pools straightaway under his tongue again.
By candlelight Zach tracks down warm clothes draped in readiness over a rack in the tiny bathroom. Though rather voluminous, they accommodate his height, and he slips them on. Above the basin hangs a tarnished mirror in which he examines his reflection for a clue to his condition. Pale above the stubble, eyes duller than usual, perhaps a bit bloodshot. At least two, three days since his last shave. Setting the candle on the rim of the basin, he finally has a good look at his stomach—fading bruises all down his front, one neat scar underneath his ribs, pinkish with a pronounced ridge but no sign of stitches. He uses the toilet, splashes his face with cold water, thinks about the pleasure of a toothbrush—failing that, a strong sweet cup of tea.
Further exploration reveals a fair-sized kitchen with table and paraffin lamp, unpainted wooden cupboards, and bottled-gas cooker. Zach locates some matches, dispenses with the candle, and puts the kettle on. He’s beginning to feel drained again. Palms down, he leans heavily on the tabletop till the discomfort under his ribs—all right, deep grinding pain—lets up a bit. By the time he can straighten, the room is filling with steam.
A clean teapot has been left on the table, next to a bowl of sticky brown sugar, a tea canister, some enamel mugs sprouting teaspoons, and a large half-eaten bar of chocolate. A note—help yourself to anything you want—plus a small origami box made of paper, with a hand-inked, lopsided but recognisable sketch of a crow on its lid. Zach breaks off a piece of chocolate, letting it melt in his mouth as he considers the box. He hefts it and hears a soft metallic clink. It must be for him, so he carefully prises up the lid.
At first there is only blankness—not even disbelief—then his hands begin to shake. It takes him a while before he dares to remove the chain; before he’s able to.
A ringed seal worked in gold is resting in the palm of his hand.
‘For me?’ Laura asked, her eyes startled, then shining as he nodded.
Zach unfastened the clasp. She turned, and he encircled her neck with his hands, laid the supple chain along her throat, and secured it under her hair. She turned back to him, a delighted smile on her face. The gold complemented the warm honey tones of her skin. Zach stared at the seal, playfully at swim in the gentle swell of her camisole. He was glad he’d bought an extra-long chain—this was theirs alone, he wanted no one else to see. He focused on the delicately worked pendant, but couldn’t prevent his eyes from straying, and he wanted very badly, he suddenly realised, to touch those small firm breasts, to find out just how warm and honeyed they were. To taste them—and with that thought, he felt the first tightening at the base of his cock.
With a harsh sound Zach flips the seal over. It feels as real to him as anything he’s felt in a long time. And the letters too are there—the LL he had the jeweller engrave on the underside. His skin contracts and grows cold. Mind numb, he drops the chain onto the table, turns up some tea bags, and makes himself a mug. Drains it, not caring if he scalds his tongue—welcoming, in fact, the sensation. Mechanically, he rinses the mug. Back at the table he stares down at the chain for a minute or two, then suddenly snatches it up in his hand. He flees with it through the cabin, adrenalin flushing his cheeks and speeding his heart in a mad rush of energy. He yanks open the front door, dashes barefoot onto the veranda, and flings it away full force with a loud cry of rage. He stands without moving until silence settles back over the world. Then he spends ten minutes, still barefoot, searching through the snow for Laura’s necklace, which he can only contrive to fasten round his own neck once his fingers have thawed before the fire. It has to be his imagination that the chain burns as much as the hot tea.
Back under the covers, he can’t seem to stop shivering. In the end he takes himself in hand, the usual litany clacking in his head like beads on a rosary—someone else, picture someone else, nice big tits, plenty of willing girls, lads, anyone, better yet no one at all, who needs them—but it does no good, at some point the chain of words snaps, and he comes as always to Laura, only to Laura.
As he finally drifts off to sleep, his hand wrapped round the bit of gold as though, unstable as a dream, it might transmute into a base and bitter memory, he hears the sound of her voice reading to him from a favourite poem: ‘Somewhere inside that numbness of the earth our future trying to happen.’ Words now as dry and lifeless as felled wood, welling tears of sap.