Fulgur headquarters is located on a substrata of Jurassic oolitic limestone, deposited after the breakup of Pangaea when sea levels rose a good 200 million years ago. Fossilised dinosaur bones and footprints have been found throughout the region, where swamps and salty lakes remained once the seas subsided again.
Andrea Frechen, principal architect for the complex, sleeps very little. She’s known for her eccentricities, particularly her habit of driving to the site of her current project in the middle of the night and walking round for an hour or more. It soothes me, she tells the security guards, but any laughter isn’t malicious, for she’s always been well liked.
Aware of the importance of the Fulgur campus, no one was surprised by the young architect’s frequent visits. And it was Frechen who, one rainy November night during the early stages of construction, spotted what turned out to be an almost complete skeleton in its prehistoric resting place, along with well-preserved if puzzling tools. In contravention of the right of sepulchre and in a move that she will never be able to explain satisfactorily to herself, she disinterred the bones without calling in the proper authorities, first hiding the remains in her 4 x 4, then in an outbuilding on her private property. An archaeologist would cheerfully sacrifice his right arm for a glimpse of the skull alone, which Frechen isn’t trained to recognise as neither sapiens nor Neanderthal. Nevertheless, she has been prescient enough to safeguard the find, and in time it will surface and cause an upheaval in thinking about human evolution. Lev, of course, could have saved everyone the trouble.
At the sound of overboiling Laura wrenched herself back to the present. Zach wasn’t in the kitchen. She rose, and after an instant of light-headedness, went to deal with the soup. The air in the room had the feel of half-congealed aspic, transparent but slightly clouded; gelatinous. Just lifting the stockpot and wiping down the hob filmed her forehead in sweat, and she leaned on the worktop to catch her breath. She debated whether to finish laying the table, but the trip to the fridge for butter seemed only a fraction less daunting than a clean dive from the 10m platform. She must have been awfully ill to tire so easily. Slowly she made her way through the flat, her hand on the wall, her legs wobbling and near to buckling, her thoughts trailing like exhaust from an airplane.
The door to the bathroom was ajar. Laura leaned against the doorjamb; she could see Zach washing his hands at the basin. His hair, no longer bound in a ponytail, fell forward to screen his face. He didn’t look up, and at first she thought he was merely concentrating on the task with his usual intensity; it always thrilled her to watch him clandestinely, and even now, when she could barely stand, his presence felt like a secret hoard of sweets: the best ones wrapped individually in metallic foil, so that you couldn’t cram them into your mouth all at once; each with its own signal pleasure—the orange, filled with tangy cream; the blue, with the heady bite of a liqueur; the green, concealing the crack and crunch of praline; and her favourite, the gold, bittersweet chocolate wrapped round a rich ganache centre. She’d once kept a collection of the papers, which she used to make a collage for a school art project—how could she have forgotten that airplane, resplendent as a stained-glass bird in full sunlight, soaring like the spires of a cathedral above tiny leaden earthbound figures? She wondered what had happened to it; for the longest time it had hung in the passage like all of their drawings and paintings.
Zach rinsed the soap from his hands. The water still running, he ran his fingers through his hair. The water still running, he hunched over the basin. The water still running, he picked up the bar of soap, stared at it for a moment, and put it between his lips. He took a bite. The water still running.
‘Zach!’ she cried. ‘What are you doing?’
He jerked round, the soap slipping from his hands to the floor. Laura could see the white froth on his lips.
‘Spit it out, you idiot,’ she said, launching herself towards him. When he made no move to do so, she grabbed his arm and reached for his mouth. He swallowed, gagging a bit.
‘Oh god.’ She shook out his toothbrush and filled the tumbler with water. ‘Here,’ she said, thrusting it towards him, ‘drink it.’
He backed away. Backed right up against the tiled wall where it met the shower, then dropped to his haunches and covered his head with his arms as though anticipating a blow. Laura knelt in front of him, water sloshing over the lip of the plastic beaker and dripping onto his jeans. She wasn’t much steadier herself.
‘Please,’ she said.
Permafrost eyes, but at least he was looking at her. With her fingertips she wiped the soapy residue from his lips, then held out the water. He drank a few sips.
‘They made you watch,’ he said.
She set the tumbler down on the floor. With a fierceness that bordered on anger she gathered him close. He shuddered, but after a few minutes his arms encircled her. His jumper smelled faintly fruity, the wool like a good salad oil, maybe a walnut or light olive. It was terrible to hold him and not know what to do. Though elegant as ever, he was dreadfully thin, and it felt as though he’d slip from her grasp at the slightest misword. Why wasn’t it enough to love someone?
‘I was terrified they’d kill you,’ she said.
‘They will, but not yet.’
‘Maybe this Janu business . . . I don’t know, maybe it doesn’t have to be so political, so in your face or something.’
He laughed without humour. ‘You ought to read more history.’
‘Yeah, you’ve said.’
His arms tightened, and she stiffened involuntarily, the phantom limb of his rage threatening to seize her hair. She choked back a cry, but too late. A sound like the wind in the dark alley of her throat. He caught his breath, at once released her. His face paled. They stared at each other in silence till Laura rose to her knees, bent forward, and gripped his shoulders. She kissed him, first lightly, then sharing the lingering taste of soap.
‘They raped us both,’ she said.
Zach brought their bowls of soup to the living room, where Laura had stretched out on the sofa at his insistence. She was feeling mildly feverish again, and though her hunger had vanished, she made herself eat several mouthfuls before laying aside the spoon. But she drank the sweet milky tea and even asked for more.
‘I’ll ring my dad,’ she said.
‘I don’t think you’re well enough to leave yet.’
‘You’re very busy. I’m just in your way.’
A lopsided smile. ‘I’ve needed to catch up on my reading anyway. And practise clarinet.’ He gestured towards her bowl. ‘Eat some more.’
To accommodate him she swallowed another spoonful. Then she leaned her head back against the cushions. Perhaps she slept for a while. The room was dark when she opened her eyes to the childhood memory of a blanket being drawn up to her chin, tenderly; of a hand stroking her hair. ‘Tell me another story,’ she murmured, then came properly awake at his soft laugh.
‘Sleeping Beauty?’ he asked, still tucking the blanket round her shoulder.
‘If you promise to kiss me.’
His eyes glittered in the light from the passage as though he were the one with fever. ‘Do you know how many times I’ve imagined making love to you these past five days? How many times I’ve come imagining it?’
He bent and brushed his lips across her forehead.
‘Closer,’ she said.
He moved back and sat down on the couch table, folding himself inwards like a fragile origami sculpture—exquisite, complex, easily crushed.
‘Why?’ she asked. When he didn’t answer, ‘I won’t see him any more.’
Zach looked down at his hands. ‘It would still be rape.’
‘You’re ill. And you’re not ready.’
‘Isn’t that for me to decide?’
In response Zach stood, crossed the room to his desk, and switched on the lamp. Though the sofa was comfortable, Laura shifted to her side to ease the stiffness in her neck, her hips; to see him better. The light cast the hollows of his face in relief, like a high-contrast photo.
‘You’re way too thin,’ she said.
‘Would you like me to read to you?’ He was holding a slim volume which fell open to what must be a favourite page. His every gesture as spare and graceful and consummate as the couplet of a ghazal, he ran his forefinger over the paper, and for a moment Laura fancied that he was writing something of himself into the text.
‘I really ought to go home,’ she said.
A whisper like fading ink. ‘Stay.’
She could see the book trembling. ‘Zach, please talk to me.’
‘I’m not a good person to be with.’ With a brittle smile he shut the book. ‘Not a safe person. You’re much better off with someone like Owen.’ He turned so that she could no longer see his face.
Slowly she sat up. ‘Is that why you left me?’
‘I don’t leave people.’
Now she made an exasperated noise. ‘Could have fooled me.’
He whipped round, his voice splattering her with gall. ‘Do you have any idea, any idea whatsoever, how vulnerable you make me?’
So that was it. Laura clenched her fists under the blanket, glad that her face was in shadow. ‘I’m sorry I’ve put you in danger. I’ll ring my dad.’
‘Fuck it.’ He strode across the room to tower above her. ‘I want you to stay—to stay tonight, to stay tomorrow, to fucking stay for as long as you can bear to be in the same room with me, but I’m so afraid. Not for myself, damn you, otherwise I wouldn’t be doing any of this. For you, for how they could use you—will use you.’ He plunged his hands downwards in a gesture of such eloquence that Laura wondered what the movement for despair in sign language might be.
‘So why am I still here?’
‘Your parents weren’t easy to convince.’ His sudden grin. ‘Must have been my fatal charm, I reckon.’
‘I didn’t mean my parents. And it’s hardly your charm I’ve fallen in love with.’
A long silence.
‘You know why you’re still here,’ he said.
‘Then tell me.’
A very rare virus, her father explained next day, then questioned her about her contact with animals. By then she’d remembered Jasmine, but though he dismissed the cat as a source—‘biosafety measures at Fulgur’s containment labs outstrip the most stringent of international standards, nobody does it better’—she could tell there was more to it by the exchange of glances between Zach and her dad. She was too tired to argue with them, and both, in their different ways, could be ridiculously stubborn.
‘So am I quarantined?’
‘No, you’ll be back in school as soon as you feel strong enough,’ her dad said. ‘There are no restrictions. Now what about some ice cream? I’ve put a container of your favourite chocolate fudge into the deep freeze.’
He was hopeless, she’d have to work on Zach.
She remained three more nights at his flat but their relationship was precarious. Though he’d stopped sleeping on the sofa, he shied from all attempts at intimacy. A kiss, a brief embrace, and then he’d pull away. Twice he’d shifted close enough in sleep for her to notice his erection, while she lay wide-eyed and tense, not daring to move, not daring to whisper a word of endearment, or his name. Inhaling, tasting his name. Nor would he talk about the cottage, not even the good moments. But he brought out his clarinet and played to her. As much as the admission rankled, the years of piano lessons and torturous hours of supervised practice were paying off: she could understand, if not the entire grammar of his second language, then at least enough to decode the rudiments; and she sometimes wondered whether music was in fact his native tongue—the language before language.
The night after her dad’s visit had been a night of recurring nightmares for Zach, his ‘Ben’ anguish. By eight in the morning she was in tears and throwing together her belongings, only to sink down on the sofa as the notes first pounded against her ears like an angry tirade, then muted to a plaintive strain till whimpering to a final hoarse fermata. They were both crying, though his tears were liquid sound. Bitter, but more speaking than words. She stayed.
And stayed when he locked himself in the bedroom during Owen’s visit that same afternoon, then went out without speaking and returned before dawn to slide naked into bed. At first it seemed as if he finally wanted her, but he began to shiver at her touch so that she withdrew to the very edge of the mattress, and dreamed of falling.
Max wasn’t allowed to visit, though he rang several times. Her dad claimed it was best not to call too much attention to her continued presence, which she’d believed till Owen laughed it off. ‘They won’t touch Zach now, not for something that minor. Everyone’s afraid of the whole Janu thing blowing up in their faces.’ Her mum, as usual, must be behind the prohibition, the way she was always going on about Max’s health. And about the ‘wrong sort of friends’, as if the diseases of the rich were any less contagious. Just wait till she found out Max was a simu! When Zach infuriated Laura by refusing, yet again, to discuss his work at Fulgur, she imagined letting her mum loose on him.
‘Then at least talk to Max,’ she said between spoonfuls of the gooey porridge Zach insisted she eat. ‘He’s overheard—OK, tuned into—some nasty stuff at Fulgur. They’re going to use you to find them someone like him.’
‘Nobody uses me,’ he said. ‘Not any more.’
‘Oh yeah? What about’—just in time, she choked down Fabio’s name—‘your serum?’
‘Fabio’s working on it.’
Like all first-time visitors, Charles’ attention was caught by the painting in Fabio’s office. Even after taking the proffered seat, his gaze strayed towards the canvas as if he’d been invited to an opulent banquet following weeks of near starvation. Human Resources apparently commanded considerable resources. Molly would already be calculating the cost of the sumptuous leather sofa, the hardwood coffee table, the crystal water jug and glasses on the tray.
‘What an amazing painting,’ he said.
Fabio removed his wrister, laid it on the table in front of them, and rubbed the place where his skin had been constricted by the band. ‘I’m glad you like it. My brother’s work.’
‘The lad who died?’
‘Yes. In fact, he’s the reason I’ve asked you here.’
Charles concealed his surprise by feasting once more on the painting.
‘I know you’re extremely busy,’ Fabio continued, ‘so I’ll get straight to the point. Randall tells me that you’ve got neurodata for Mateus.’
‘It could be.’ Warily, ‘I’ll have to check.’
‘There’s no reason to be concerned, this is a perfectly legitimate request. As Mateus’ next of kin—the documents are on file—I’ll need to give my permission for any use of the data. Randall would like to try a Fulgrid upload. Would this be feasible?’
‘I’m afraid not. There’s been some early work, but we’ve only been able to deepscan with sufficient precision for the interface in the last eighteen months or so. Unless I’m mistaken, your brother died several years before that.’
‘I see.’ He relaxed into a smile. ‘Yes, I see.’
Charles sympathised with Fabio’s open relief. Randall was a tough man to refuse, and many people were still superstitious about the dead, Latinos more than most.
‘I suppose it wouldn’t really be Mateus anyway, would it? Just an avatar of sorts . . . ‘
‘Not at all. Even a first-rate cognoscens like Zach would have great difficulty telling an upload from the real thing.’
‘That sophisticated already?’
‘Absolutely. Of course, there are some issues to work out, but we’re getting there.’
‘Still, when it’s your own flesh and blood . . . ‘ Fabio’s gaze shifted briefly to his brother’s painting.
‘Exactly then. It’s no secret that family members of Fulgur employees are being deepscanned as quickly as possible. My own children were among the first, there’s really nothing to fear in terms of safety. Granted, in rare instances the neurodata may be corrupt or incomplete, but we’re refining our procedures all the time. In fact, I’m planning to schedule Max for a new scan. Which parent wouldn’t give his child the chance to live on in case of—well, just in case? It’s only natural.’
‘Odd definition of natural.’
‘You know what I mean. We’re not about to go back to blood-letting and surgery without anaesthesia and ECT and penicillin anaphylaxis, are we?’
‘I’m not sure the comparison is apt.’
‘Wait till you have children. Then you’ll understand.’
On Laura’s last evening Josh handed her a gift while Zach looked on over a mug of tea, hers and Josh’s cooling on the coffee table. Josh had already visited several times and apparently had even sat with her for an hour during the height of her fever when Zach needed to do some shopping, though she had no memory of the vigil. Josh’s Christmas present was still stowed at the bottom of Zach’s wardrobe—a blue amber necklace, enormous and heavy and utterly spellbinding. There was no way she could have hidden it at home. Surreptitiously she slipped her hand under her collar to finger Zach’s chain, which she’d been able to conceal so far from her mother. Or had she? She thought of her dad’s stethoscope, its cold and intrusive ear, deaf to any plea for amnesty.
Josh had bought the necklace years ago in the Dominican Republic. When she’d gone to thank him after the holidays, he’d demonstrated its strange property. The polished stones were a molten gold in both artificial and natural light, but if the sunlight shone on them against a dark background—not through them, for example, against a window—they became a deep cobalt blue. Josh explained the phenomenon by fluorescence, which made it no less mysterious, no less beautiful. ‘Kind of like Zach, eh?’ he’d said. Once alone Laura had spent a lot of time playing with the necklace, fascinated by the colour tricks it performed. Ice and flame: wasn’t it in the Norse myths that life originates where the two realms meet? Zach would know. She hadn’t shown him the necklace yet, though perhaps he’d found it during her illness.
Now Laura unwrapped the cloth from the bulky parcel, then opened the front cover of the new gift with shaky fingers.
‘Yours?’ she asked.
‘Yup, no earthly good to me any more. Can’t see them,’ Josh said.
A photograph album, the old leather-bound sort like the ones at her grandparents’ that she and Max used to love looking through when they were small. Magic books, they’d called them. Setting the album down on the table, she went to give the old man a fierce hug.
‘I’ll treasure it,’ she said.
‘Treasure him as well,’ he whispered in her ear. ‘There’s no finer man.’
Zach dipped his head to sip from his mug, his cheeks colouring faintly. Laura supposed that Josh didn’t know about Zach’s hearing. Though with Josh you never could tell. ‘One of the few pleasures left when you’re old,’ he’d once told her. ‘Riling people.’
‘I reckon you’ve been practising for a good long time,’ she’d retorted.