History favours the grandiose—the magnificent failures no less than the heroes. Zach would never imagine himself as either one, but by the time of his final run at Fulgur, he will have already become an urban legend; hated by many, idolised by many others. In time the explosive power of his grief will engage historians as well as alternate historians, a conundrum like an unending time loop: what if he hadn’t undertaken the run? The moment you realise there are some things you can’t alter is the moment you leave childhood behind; so they used to say. Of all his many bad decisions Zach will torment himself most savagely about yielding to Laura over the matter of the Rex. And yet the Rex will become the first cognoscens museum; almost, a shrine.
Tuesday. A morose afternoon, grey snow underfoot and the light already failing. Laura barely noticed the clutch of younger kids just beyond the school gates when she came out of the building, Owen at her side.
‘What’s that crossfuck doing back here?’ Tim snarled, loud enough to carry. ‘Sod this for a lark!’
‘Too right, time to get rid of him for good,’ came a loyal echo.
The group of wannabe bikers parted as Zach lowered the kickstand, tossed back his hair, swung his leg over the saddle, and advanced on Tim. Already other kids were drawing near like iron filings towards a magnet, though the lines of flux had yet to be fixed. Already the excited whispers were beginning. Everybody, it seemed, loved a fight.
Zach stopped within spitting range of Tim.
‘Care to hit me again?’ Zach asked.
‘Zach—’ Laura began.
He turned his gaze on her for the first time. ‘Choose,’ he said.
‘What?’ she asked.
‘Right here, right now. In front of all your mates. Choose. I’m on my way to a meeting. You can come with me if you’re prepared to stand up on the podium and take sides, not hang about near the exit. Or you can return my key.’
‘You’ve got a key to his flat?’ Owen asked in disbelief.
Laura ignored Owen. ‘I thought you didn’t want me at your meetings.’
‘I’ve changed my mind.’ Zach gave her a humourless smile. ‘Or are only monkeys granted that prerogative?’
‘Don’t call us dirty names or I’ll shove them down your gob!’ Tim said hotly.
‘Tim, be quiet.’ Laura took a step towards Zach. ‘What’s wrong?’ she asked softly.
His gaze shifted inwards for a moment. Then with finality, ‘Choose.’
From the corner of her eye Laura caught the look on Olivia’s face, the same glazed look she’d seen her friend give a triple-dip chocolate fudge ice cream cone before taking her first lick. Laura knew Zach had slept with plenty of girls; had any one of them ever held him when he shivered? (Had he slept with Olivia?)
She took a deep breath, preparing herself for the icy plunge; this pool was unheated.
‘Hey, mulac, how come you got away? Word’s out on the net they blew up an entire classroom block in that fancypants school of yours.’ Everyone within range swivelled to stare at Cormac, an outer with more mouth than brains; and more swiffled than stone cold sane. All except Laura, who kept her eyes fastened on Zach. ‘Hidin’ in the bog like a nerdy turdy while your mates are screechin’ and bleedin’ and scrabblin’ for their body parts?’
A gust of wind blew Zach’s hair across his face. Her own eyes tearing in the cold, her cheeks stinging, Laura could see his gloved hands tremble slightly as he wrangled with it. She tugged off her gloves and woollen cap, plucked the elastic from her ponytail, and jammed her gloves into a pocket and her cap back in place. One step, and she was at his side.
‘Bend down, you idiot. And where’s your helmet?’
As he ducked his head, no smile appeared on his face, no gleam of satisfaction. His hair felt alive in her hands, warmer than it should be in this weather, and sinuous as an electric reelingout of whiplash sound. You couldn’t hold it. It slipped from your grasp, and you reached for it again, this time your fingers tingling with the shock of naked, disembodied song as though skin were a tympanic membrane. The clarinet’s reedy voice sang in your inner ear till you thought it would shatter. E. electricus has no need of scales, its stacked electroplaques fire both to defend itself and to communicate; to choose a mate.
For a barless measure Laura held her breath, listening. Rare, the attended moment; rare, ‘the music heard so deeply that it is not heard at all, but you are the music while the music lasts’. Laura had never read T.S. Eliot, had in fact never read a single poem outside school till Zach handed her that first slim volume, but there are quartets which sing in the meanwhile of wordy time; quartets which electrify even the silt of neural dark.
‘Zach,’ she whispered, ‘I’ll always hear your music.’
With her hands still tangled in his hair he said, ‘You’re the reason I still hear it.’
Laura took a step backwards, a few strands of his hair caught in her fingers. She glanced round. Had they heard? The crowd was watchful, curious, greedy for some high drama. For a moment she was tempted to scream a delicious ‘fuck off’ at them but caution clamped its hand round her vocal cords as she caught sight of Owen’s belligerent face; Tim’s ecstatic one—he was primed for a thunderous, preferably final drum roll.
‘Owen,’ she began in a conciliatory tone, ‘I’m sorry but—’
Derek elbowed his way to the front. ‘Hey Tim, we’re not going to allow some auger cunt to treat Owen like this, are we now?’
There was an instant of silence. Laura’s heart began to thud, and if her anorak weren’t so thick, those nearby would have surely heard its ominous beat. She forced herself to face Owen. ‘Please.’ She swallowed, steadied her voice. ‘Owen, please. Don’t let them do this.’
Uncertainly he dropped his eyes, but Tim, prancing in place, grabbed Owen by the sleeve and jerked him towards Laura. ‘Hold her, while Derek and I take care of the auger.’ Owen shook off Tim’s hand and looked round the waiting crowd; muttering, a growing buzz, open smirking, a whistle, some catcalls. One or two girls eyeing Owen speculatively. A few kids slinking away, but most jostling closer, the thin frail layer of snow beneath their stamping feet already trampled and muddied.
Owen’s eyes returned to Laura. Expressionless, as though waiting to be filled.
‘Owen,’ she said in a rush, ‘you’ve got it wrong. I’m not going anywhere with him. I felt sorry for him, that’s all.’ She turned to her friend. ‘Livs—’
There was an ugly laugh from Derek. ‘Damn right you’re not going anywhere.’ He made a crude gesture, then moved sideward to flank Zach from the left. ‘Come on, Owen, let’s not chickenshit any longer.’
What happened next happened so fast that most of the onlookers missed it, though they’d be talking about it for days afterwards, each version more elaborate than the last: ‘Did you see when he cartwheeled in midair . . . ‘ ‘A perfect butterfly kick . . . ‘ ‘Three metres, he was practically flying . . . ‘
‘Behind me,’ Zach ordered. Instinctively, Laura supposed, since there was a blur of movement and then Derek was sprawled on his back, winded, his nose bleeding, while Tim lay curled up in the slush, groaning, his face twisted in agony and his hands cupping his genitals.
Zach stood near the centre of the arena, midway between the fallen gladiators. For a long moment he was still, vapour feathering his nostrils. Then with a small but audible sigh, he raised his head and slowly scanned the crowd, ‘Anyone else?’ He spoke quietly, neither taunt nor triumph in his voice; rather, the kind of weary resignation which in a lesser person would border on arrogance. Nor was he out of breath.
Laura was astounded by how swiftly the mood of the crowd changed. The scattered whistles became admiring, interspersed with some cheering. Heads turned when someone yelled, ‘That’s showing them, Corvus!’ Zach’s anyone else kept their mouth shut, and while Owen repeatedly licked his lips, he didn’t seem inclined to speak up for his mates. Laura almost felt sorry for him.
Without so much as a downwards glance Zach stepped over Tim and addressed Owen in an undertone. ‘You’re hanging around with the wrong sort, but you’re not stupid and you’re not vicious. And you’ve been misled. That’s why you’re not horizontal right this minute.’ Zach cast a sidelong look at Laura. ‘Laura owes you an apology.’
As Laura’s cheeks reddened, Olivia pushed her way forwards. Smiling broadly, she reached out to lay a hand on Zach’s forearm. He swayed out of reach. ‘Haven’t you noticed nobody touches me unless invited?’ Acidly, with a nod towards the two still on the ground. ‘I think your friends might appreciate a hand, however.’
If there had been hope of a reconciliation, it was now lost. The blood rushed to Olivia’s head, providing her brain cells with plenty of oxygen to fuel her fury. ‘You two deserve each other. I hope Zach here has panoramic vision. He’s going to need it to watch his back.’
Zach answered Laura’s questions in monosyllables, or not at all, as they made their way to his motorbike. While he fiddled with a saddlebag, Laura glanced back towards the milling kids, most of whom seemed reluctant to leave. Owen was crouching next to Derek, a wad of tissues staunching his nosebleed, but Tim had already risen to his feet. His eyes were fixed on Zach. There was no mistaking the look on his face, a look of malice so potent that Laura flinched and laid a hand on Zach’s arm. He turned and saw the direction of her gaze.
‘Don’t worry about him,’ he said. ‘He’s just a bully.’
It wasn’t until they were underway, Laura’s face pressed into the shelter of Zach’s back against the bitter wind, that she recalled Tim’s shooting medals.
A quarter of an hour later Zach took a sharp turn into a churchyard, slowed along the yew-lined walk until he found an opening, and brought the motorbike to a halt behind a knurled trunk wide enough to hide at least two vehicles. Like a stern monk, its girth of pleats and tucks mounted guard against desecration under a cowl of snowy white. And yet when Laura looked up, her eyes again watering in the cold, a face seemed to be smiling kindly at her. She blinked, and the features dissolved into knobs and whorls of bark.
Zach switched off the engine. The sudden quiet was thicker than the clean, rimpled snow, and more suffocating. Laura waited, breathing with some effort.
‘What is it, Zach?’ she eventually asked, not quite sure why she was whispering.
For a long while he didn’t stir. The fight had drained her as well. She laid her head against his back and closed her eyes. School she would think about tomorrow.
‘Sorry, I need to get down for a couple of minutes.’ Zach’s voice roused her from the drowsy cloister of meandering half-thoughts. With a soft grumble she clambered from the saddle for him to let down the kickstand and dismount. She yawned, then stretched while he walked off towards the small graveyard. She was a bit surprised; he wasn’t usually shy about peeing in front of her.
The limbs above her creaked in a gust of wind, splattering her with loosened snow. By the time she brushed herself off, Zach had halted by a tombstone. She watched as he cleared the top of the rectangular slab. Watched as he traced his gloved fingers along what must be a carved epitaph. Watched as he pulled off her elastic, tipped back his head, and held his arms out cruciform, an angular scarecrow in a scrim of skirling snow. The headstones like godswept windrows the cold and dead of a winter dusk. His hair blowing wildly. A landscape empty of colour, empty of days; deathwrought.
She began to flounder towards him. He turned, and she could clearly hear the scream he wasn’t screaming. He came to meet her.
‘Please will you hold me.’ Almost begging.
She struggled to contain his shivering. He leaned into her while her rage at the world gave her strength to remain upright. How could you fight every fucking Tim? She slid her hands underneath Zach’s clothing and splayed her fingers against his back, its fretted ribboard sounding at her touch.
‘Nine,’ he whispered.
In counterpoint she leaned backwards to look into his face. And dug her fingers into his flesh to keep from falling.
‘Nine died straightaway in the blast,’ he said. ‘And fourteen, fifteen more are in critical condition.’
‘Oh god, Zach.’
‘I—’ He stopped, took a shuddering breath. ‘I can’t—’ All at once he gripped her head between his hands and rammed his mouth to hers so violently that their teeth clashed. She tasted blood, his or hers she couldn’t tell. In the space of a semibreve it was over, however, and he was tearing off his gloves and wiping her mouth and holding her temples, stumbling between apology and breathless rant, jumbling fact with guilt with barely swallowed sob.
‘Zach,’ she said. ‘Zach, listen. Please listen.’
In the end there was nothing to do but hold on and wait till he exhausted himself. Which he did like an engine running out of petrol, shuddering and gasping, then catching again with a last spurt of go, then dropping his head onto her shoulder and subsiding into silence, thoroughly spent.
She stroked his hair, stroked it with mute tenderness in every fingering; with solace in every ghost note. Patiently she stroked his hair, and stroked, and stroked.
After a long while Zach noticed that she was beginning to shiver. He lifted his head. ‘We ought to leave. You’re cold.’
‘Can’t you postpone the meeting? I don’t think it’s a good idea right now.’
‘There is no meeting.’
‘But you said—’
‘I needed to know.’
They broke apart while she gazed into his rawsilk eyes, still shot with tears. With a garbled sound, half oath and half endearment, she grabbed his hair in both fists, pulled his head to her level, and kissed first one, then the other eye.
‘Now you know.’
His first smile this whole long afternoon.
‘When’s the next occasion to dandle wet nappies and duck rotten eggs?’ she asked.
‘Day after tomorrow.’
‘OK. It’ll give me a chance to prepare.’
He shook his head. ‘No.’
‘You’re not going. I told you, it’s too dangerous.’
‘Frot that. From now on we do this together.’
She was close to hitting him. ‘Look, either I’m there with you, or I’m back fucking Owen after school. Which will it be?’
‘Is that some sort of ultimatum?’
‘You’re damn right it is. You force me to make a choice in front of practically the whole school. Now it’s your turn to choose. If you want this relationship to work, then you get to wash just as many dirty knickers as me.’
Now he laughed. ‘As long as I don’t have to wear the lacy ones.’
‘Only buy them.’
This time their lips, though chapped, cold, and slightly bruised, conversed fluently without exchanging a word.
A few minutes later, when Zach slid her jacket zip far enough down to speak to the tender chakra of her throat, she wondered what it would be like to make love in the snow, then remembered the ice sculptures during the Festival of Angels, and giggled.
‘Tickling you?’ he asked.
‘No, but let’s go see if the church is open.’
Open, but not particularly warm. Zach gave Laura a quizzical look when she worked the wooden bolt on the church door into place, but said nothing. They made their way slowly along the nave, where the age-darkened tiebeams and kingposts seemed low enough to clip Zach’s forehead, so that he ducked reflexively as they passed under the first support. It was a small stone church with a Norman tower, dignified but rather damp and bleak; and probably unlocked because there was nothing much to steal or vandalise. The most interesting feature was a monument slab in the floor, which Laura stopped to examine.
‘She was so small,’ Laura said. ‘Not much taller than a child.’
He crouched and ran a hand over the face of the incised effigy, delicately, as though he were caressing someone beloved. ‘I wonder if she died in childbirth. So many women did.’
‘Or from a fever.’
‘Maybe there was a young child who survived to mourn her. To remember her laughter, her voice when she sang him to sleep, her last—’
Laura looked up swiftly but he’d turned his head towards the pews to his left. She touched his sleeve but he rose and began to walk through the gloom, his footsteps too muffled to echo. Lives trod in memory to stone. After a moment she followed him.
They sat side by side beneath the altar, the only area of the church which was carpeted.
‘Where did you learn to fight like that?’ Laura asked.
‘At boarding school. There were a couple of incidents, so we were offered martial arts training.’
‘But the way you moved—that’s way beyond school sport.’
‘Simus have a physical edge, you know that. And I kept it up when I left, took a few private lessons.’
He shrugged but despite the failing light she could see the amused gleam in his eyes.
‘It’s getting dark,’ she said.
‘Shall we go?’
‘That’s not what I meant.’ She rose to her knees, unzipped her jacket and tossed it aside, then tugged her jumper and camisole over her head. As usual she wasn’t wearing a bra.
‘Don’t you think it’s time I got a share of that physical edge?’
‘Don’t talk like that.’
‘Owen fancies the way I talk just fine.’
Zach sprang to his feet. Rapidly he shed his jacket, his jumper. ‘Go on, finish undressing.’ His jeans. ‘You’re absolutely right. It’s time you got your share.’ His boxers.
Laura stood up and stared at him. She put a hand on the button of her jeans, hesitated, then dropped it again.
‘You think I’m a slut, don’t you?’
‘You don’t want to know what I think.’
‘Of course I do.’
‘Sure of that?’
She crossed her arms in front of her chest, trying not to shiver. ‘Yes,’ she whispered.
‘I think’—no, she was wrong, she didn’t, absolutely did not want to hear—’I think you’re so confused that you don’t know the difference between fucking and making love. That you’re so desperate you can’t bear to be even a single day without a boyfriend, any boyfriend. That you’re so terrified that you swim in the hope of outracing whatever’s chasing you. That you’re so damaged you’ll sabotage anyone who tries to—’ He shuddered to a halt, whirled, and gripped the edge of the altar with both hands. His breathing tore jagged chunks from the air.
Laura closed her eyes but this time the hedges were near enough for her to feel their fetid breath on her neck, hear the snapping of their thorny teeth. Close to tears, she bent to fumble for her clothes. Get dressed. Walk to the road. Thumb a lift. ‘Tart,’ he’d call her just before he came. ‘Sweet cunt,’ his tongue beastly with slobber. Men will always give you a ride on their gearstick.
In the day’s last light she glimpsed the muscular cut of Zach’s buttocks, the bass clef of his spine bowed over the altar. Once, years ago, her mother had taken her backstage to meet the members of a visiting string quartet. Laura had been more interested in the sensuous shape of the cello, the mellow glow of its fine-grained wood, than the musicians. She’d surreptitiously stroked the cello’s sonorous belly when the adults hadn’t been looking—warm, satiny, alive. It had purred beneath her fingertips.
She crossed the short distance to the altar. Zach didn’t move until she bent and brushed her lips across the mossy hollow at the base of his spine, the small secluded spot where he loved to be kissed. At her touch he shivered, and Laura heard his breath catch.
‘You’re wrong,’ she said softly. ‘I’ve known the difference between making love and fucking for a long time. A very long time.’ She paused to swallow. ‘Since I was seven, to be exact.’
He straightened and turned to look at her but said nothing. His eyes were impossible to read; an impossible colour.
She licked her lips and glanced behind her. He was dead, why did she keep thinking he’d overhear, he’d somehow pounce on her?
Still without speaking Zach laid a warm hand on her cheek and ran his thumb along her jawline, which felt less like a caress than a warrant of safe passage. After a moment she was able to continue.
‘When I was seven Max was ill, seriously ill, and contagious. At least that’s what my parents said when they sent me to my aunt’s house for a few weeks.’ A hoarse whisper. ‘My mother’s younger sister Elizabeth. There was only my cousin Toby, a small baby then, and—’ She faltered, and dropped her eyes.
‘I need a drink of water.’
‘Laura, whatever happened, it wasn’t your fault.’
‘My uncle,’ she squeezed out. ‘He—he used to read to me at bedtime. And kiss me goodnight. And soon—’ Her voice trailed off. It was no use; she couldn’t tell him.
But of course Zach understood. He drew her into his arms and stroked her hair. His voice, however, would strip the flesh from a corpse. ‘I’ll kill him.’
He tightened his arms at the sound of her laugh. ‘Too late. He’s dead.’ She continued to laugh, which even to her own ears sounded like a rising scream. ‘Ssh, it’s OK,’ Zach murmured, ‘you’re safe now, ssh,’ over and over again as the hedges crept closer and she edged towards the place where they couldn’t reach where nobody could reach her and she’d be safe forever dark and safe and
She shuddered and began to hiccough.
‘It would have helped,’ he said when she rested her head on his chest, ‘if you’d have been able to confront him. To see him punished.’ He clasped her as if she might race off. ‘But you’re strong, good and strong.’
‘Stop that. You’ve got muscle where it counts.’
‘Now you’ll never want to sleep with me.’
He held her at arm’s length. ‘You’re mad. It’s all I can do to keep from jumping you about a million times a day.’
He gave her a small shake. ‘Now more than ever, you muggle.’
They stared at each other, Zach’s irises lustering the way they did when he was aroused. Snowflakes are fractals; so too DNA sequences and the distribution of galaxies in the universe. Only a fool could believe there was something unnatural about his wonderfully strange eyes.
‘Do you still think about them?’ she asked. ‘You know, the cottage.’
‘If you step in dogshit, you wash it off, not let it foul your soul.’ A harsh laugh. ‘Sometimes.’
‘Zach, if you can’t . . . I mean, if that’s the reason . . . I know how ashamed men are but I don’t mind. Really. We’ll find a way to sort it.’
Now he gave a genuine laugh. ‘Dysfunction, you mean?’
‘It wouldn’t matter.’ She was quiet for a moment, then touched his lips with her fingertips. ‘I love—’
‘No!’ Hurriedly he covered her mouth with the flat of his hand. ‘Don’t say it.’
She twisted away. ‘Why? Why don’t you want to hear?’
‘Words scare me. They’re so potent . . . so loud. Mock if you like, but somehow I feel the universe is listening, just waiting for a chance to fuck us over.’ He couldn’t be that superstitious, could he? With all the girls he’d slept with, candyfloss declarations probably sickened him by now. Something of her thoughts must have shown on her face, because he added, ‘Isn’t it enough to know that I want to spend the rest of my life with you?’
And then, here in this cold and dark and dreary little church, it was suddenly easy, and the chancel floor served them very well, and no words could have been as articulate as the promise of this double concerto. Laura lost all sense of the dark backward and abysm of time once Zach was, at long last, inside her. A consummate musician, he understood the fierce and tender emotive depth of a lento movement rather than the dazzling flourish of vivace.
Afterwards they lay quietly together, wrapped in their shared warmth, until the chill from the stones beneath the threadbare carpet raised gooseflesh. Laura kissed his tattoo before getting up to dress.
‘You didn’t pretend?’ he asked.
‘No.’ She thought of Owen. ‘And I never will.’
‘Only music comes close to this kind of ecstasy.’
Laura awoke from a place so flooded in light that her eyes were swimming with tears, and they continued to tear as she squeezed them shut in order to sink back into dream. She’d been hang gliding towards a yolky sun low on the horizon, its rich, almost oily colour spreading across the griddled sea beneath her. Ten minutes. Or even five of that wondrous flight, before the shell of sleep cracked open on the blunt edge of morning, on greasy dishwater light, and school.
‘Tea?’ Zach said, a mug in each hand.
Fully dressed in cords and black jumper, though barefoot, he sat down on the bed, then set the mugs on the bedside cabinet when he saw the moisture on her cheeks.
‘A bad dream?’ he asked, his fingers gentle. She could hear the misgiving in his voice; the unvoiced question.
‘No regrets,’ she said.
He picked up his mug and sipped, then watched her through the rising steam.
‘Tears of happiness,’ she said. He said nothing, his lengthy silence drawing the words up like water from a deep well—cold, clean, unadulterated. ‘I’m so afraid, Zach. I don’t deserve to be this happy.’
‘That’s your uncle’s voice.’ He kissed her forehead, his hair falling forward to tickle her. Still damp, it smelled of the fruity shampoo she preferred to his usual sort. ‘Do you want some breakfast? I’ve got to leave soon.’
‘What time is it?’
‘Just gone six.’
‘Why so early?’
‘After breakfast, I’ll drop you off at school.’
Laura closed her eyes. ‘I don’t know . . . ‘
‘It won’t get any easier. And you promised your dad.’
Laura squirmed to a sitting position and reached for her tea. She blew across the lip of the mug before drinking. ‘You don’t go any more.’
‘You know that’s different. Anyway, it’s not quite true.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I’ve been attending some lectures at university.’ A diffident shrug which wouldn’t have fooled a three-year-old. ‘Some music and literature stuff. A philosophy class. And if there were a chance in hell of escaping Fulgur, I’d love to do a performing degree.’
‘A professional musician?’
‘Yeah, why not? If I’m going to dream, I may as well dream big.’ His grin reminded her of a child’s crayon drawing in which the mouth was lopsided, the colour smudged.
Setting her tea aside, she bent forward and took Zach’s mug from his hand, then parked it next to her own. She would never tire of his heartbeat, which always beat faster than her own, beat with passion, beat with pain, beat with a raffish syncopation, beat against the thin conduits of his veins, against the battens of his breast, beat against the traps and wings and secret catwalks of his life, against his velvety skin, beat right through the iron curtain of her shame, a lifebeat both wilful and terrifyingly fragile.
‘Getting up from bed this morning was one of the hardest things I’ve done,’ he said, feeling along her chain for the seal, which he liked to play with; foreplay with, she thought with a private little giggle. She could feel his heartbeat quicken when she slid her hands under his jumper to the small of his back. ‘Laura, they’re preparing a new run. I have to be there.’ But he didn’t release her, and as her hands moved lower, his heart clapped wildly in its dark red plush-lined theatre just, it somehow seemed, just for her.
As he dragged off his jumper, her eyes fell on his tattoo. ‘What kind of run? When are you finally going to stop hiding what you do at Fulgur?’
This time he drove recklessly, as though pursued. She couldn’t help wondering if her questions had turned his lovemaking so feverish. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, resting his head briefly on her shoulder. ‘I was much too fast for you.’
‘I told you I wouldn’t pretend.’
He was quiet for a moment, then lifted himself away. Laura held her breath. Most lads—most people—prefer lies to an unwelcome truth; even Livs had never got full marks on this, Laura’s own Secret Assessment Test.
‘Then I’ll just have to learn, won’t I?’ Nobody had tweaked her hair like that since primary. ‘Now come and shower. If we hurry’—a crooked smile—‘if I help you wash the hard-to-reach spots, we’ll have just enough time for some toast and coffee. And for me to tell you about my job.’
Fabio waylaid Zach outside the laboratory. ‘You’re wanted upstairs.’
‘Now?’ Zach checked his wristwatch, a gift from Josh originally belonging to his father. Watches were crack again this year, but mostly the plastic models that changed colour with your mood (and often contained illicit mood-altering components). ‘I’m scheduled for a neuro prerun in a couple of minutes. They get pantsy if sequencing time is lost.’
‘They’ll have to wait. It’s the Big Boy himself.’
‘Randall?’ Zach asked incredulously.
‘Comb your hair.’
Eyes laughing, Zach applied his fingers so that his hair became even more flyaway. ‘Not unless he’s invited the Almighty to the party.’
‘Be careful what you wish for.’ Fabio spoke grimly, without his usual air of amused tolerance. He gave Zach five minutes to inform, if not quite mollify Andy and his assistant, then hurried Zach through the corridors to the directors’ lift.
‘Since when do you have this kind of clearance?’ Zach asked.
‘Shut up, will you.’
‘I’ll speak with him alone.’
Fabio hesitated, unable to conceal his reluctance, but there was nothing he could do except send Zach a warning glance, nod suitably (deference not being part of his repertoire), and shut the door behind him. Randall indicated an austere leather sofa, before which stood a low, glass-topped table. Zach had expected a much more opulent office, not this white-on-white box, spacious of course, but bare of any decoration whatsoever, and perplexingly windowless. It reminded him of a marble or granite mausoleum, not a working space, and with a mausoleum’s hush, except that the vaults of mighty princes were decidedly more ornate.
Zach took a seat and crossed his legs, then stared at the tabletop. Intricate patterns formed, dispersed, and reformed within the glass, varicoloured patterns which seemed oddly familiar though he couldn’t quite place them. After a few seconds he leaned forward with a soft exclamation. He’d spent some time fooling around with a recently developed program which mapped music in multidimensional space. Unless Fulgur were hacking into his computer, there was no way that the first movement of Laura’s sonata could be simulated by accident.
Randall came to stand on the opposite side of the table. ‘Like my little toy?’
‘What is it?’
‘Think of your last fuck.’
Though not easily flustered, Zach coloured and set his lips. The table, however, immediately produced a very tolerable image of his bedroom, his bed, and this morning’s interlude; of Laura. He slammed a fist against the glass, damaging it not one whit.
‘How dare you spy on me! Where have you hidden the cameras?’
‘Do you really imagine we need to use such crude surveillance methods?’
‘Cybil, let’s give him another demonstration.’ Randall waved a hand towards the far wall, which became a transparent obsidian pane, rain-spattered. There must be a fierce storm, for the droplets were immediately fleeing like a panicked herd across the glass, fleeing and merging so that all illusion of singularity was lost. In the extreme quiet of the room, which Zach had assumed was soundproofed, it was disconcerting to hear the wind shrieking, the rain stampeding against the window.
The scene changed.
Two figures stood in silhouette before an open but modest fire, so that the rest of the room remained in shadow, though Zach could make out the corner of a worn chesterfield which reminded him of the one in his childhood home—the same cracked brown leather, the same missing buttons. This time the glass was crizzled, as though the window had become pitted by the storm; the tableau slightly blurred like a memory. Not the voices, however.
It’s OK, I’ve arranged it, the man said.
When will we be able to leave?
Tomorrow after dark. We daren’t wait any longer.
And you’re sure nobody knows? the woman asked.
We have to trust her. The man threw something into the fire, which flared for an instant. There’s no other way to keep them from taking Zach away from us.
Zach cried out and rose to his feet, knocking his right shin sharply against the edge of the table. His eyes filled with tears. By the time he could see clearly again, the wall had reverted to the mute indifference of stone.
‘My parents,’ Zach managed.
Randall dressed conservatively, but there was always one element of attire which slyly proclaimed him to be above the dictates of corporate fashion. When he shrugged out of his jacket and tossed it onto a nearby chair, Zach caught a glimpse of Ω embroidered in red on the lining; not even Randall was egomaniacal enough to pair it with an A.
‘We’re not monsters, Zach. They were foolish and short-sighted, your mother and father. They tried to gamble with your life.’
Zach strode to within a few centimetres of Randall’s face.
‘What’s going on?’ His voice shook. ‘Where the fuck did you get that from?‘
Randall hadn’t risen to his position by cowering, nor by yielding to threats, implicit or otherwise. ‘Sit down. Or this conversation is at an end.’
Suppressing an urge to bounce Randall’s head off his pristine wall, Zach moved back to the sofa but remained standing. He gazed down at the tabletop. For whatever reason, Randall didn’t repeat his request for Zach to sit.
‘You’d like a dispensation, wouldn’t you?’
‘I haven’t thought about it.’
‘No? Well, she’s not bad-looking, and with all that swimming I bet she’s in terrific shape. Has she done any skiing, do you know?’
Zach kept his eyes fixed on the table.
‘Or perhaps I should ask Edward’s lad? Owen, I believe his name is. He doesn’t seem to mind sharing.’
‘I hear there’s even a club for it.’
For a moment Randall looked disconcerted. ‘That many?’
‘Auger baiting. The new executive sport.’ Zach gave Randall a tight smile. ‘Now what do you want in exchange for a permit?’
Randall cocked a hand into a trouser pocket, his own smile bestowed like loose change on a busker. ‘I’m relieved that it won’t be necessary to give you a tedious lecture in microeconomics.’
‘You haven’t answered my question.’
‘We know there are other simus like Cybil here. An enterprising lad like you ought to be able to find one or two of them for us.’
On the surface of the table, somewhat to the left of centre, a splotch of red colour appeared—almost the shape of a familiar face—followed in seconds by others. Swiftly they spread and ran together, as if the glass were bleeding from a welter of internal ulcerations. Within a short time there was only redness. In the same way, an ugly thought rapidly haemorrhages from a pinprick suspicion into a full-fledged stroke of rage.
‘This thing’—Zach snatched a breath—‘this toy, you called it, it’s alive?’
‘A hybrid, using certain cognoscens neural structures.’
‘Someone you wouldn’t have known, he died a while ago. A shame, really. Mateus was a promising lad, very promising indeed. In many ways you remind me of him.’ A lightpad on Randall’s desk flashed, but after a glance he ignored it. ‘Except, of course, that you don’t have his special talent. The ability to read minds is exceedingly rare. I hardly need tell you how valuable it would be—how appreciative we would be—if our neuros had the opportunity to work together with another such simu.’
For all his finesse, Randall had a great deal in common with a simian like Tim. This man was running Fulgur?
‘Are you saying that Cybil reads my mind?’
‘To a certain extent. She’s only a prototype, you see, and not as stable as we’d like, though quite good with infantile and repressed memories. With trauma. Which means that some of our current theories about the workings of episodic memory—both encoding and retrieval—are unsound, or at least incomplete. The clinical applications alone would be invaluable.’
The table had reverted to pattern making, silvery hexagonal lattices rotating through a blue-tinged space. Zach circled it, grateful for the simple blocking techniques Max had taught him, but wary enough to keep an eye, surreptitiously he hoped, on any changes in the glass. If there were anything of Mateus left in this Cybil, she’d never betray a fellow simu.
The lattices began to shift through the colours of the spectrum. He almost missed it, the swift subtle play of light beyond the sapiens range.
‘How did he die?’ Zach asked. And thought, orange.
All the lines became orange.
Violet, please. An indisputable display of violet appeared.
‘Don’t play the fool,’ Zach said, striving to keep a smile from his face. ‘Mateus, of course.’
With an athlete’s speed Randall crossed the room. The slap cracked like thin ice under a skater’s blades.
‘I see we need to tighten discipline at the Foundation,’ he said.
Zach held himself still, refusing even to lift a hand to his cheek. There would be no apology. Let the bastard throw him out, the dispensation was little more than a pretext anyway.
Cybil, somehow I’ll find a way to help you. But you mustn’t tell them about Max. Promise me you won’t. Promise me with green.
‘It was suicide, you know.’ Randall flicked a glance at the tabletop, now displaying a spring meadow green with promise, and removed a coin from his pocket. He curled his hand into a loose fist, held the coin between his thumb and forefinger, and with a bland smile, walked it across the back of his hand along the first phalanx of his fingers. In an unbroken manoeuvre the coin travelled the underside of his hand and returned to the starting position. He repeated the trick several times, watching Zach the entire time. ‘It takes a bit of practice. Care to try?’
When Zach shook his head, Randall flipped the coin into the air, where it seemed to hang for a moment, winking like a miniature beacon, before beginning its descent into his outstretched palm. He caught it deftly and tucked it back into his pocket.
‘I’ve never heard of a simu killing himself,’ Zach said. ‘It must have been kept very quiet.’
A metallic gleam lit Randall’s eyes. ‘Of course. Surely you understand the need for circumspection. Suicide is always distressing, particularly when the victim is young. Think how Laura’s parents would feel under similar circumstances.’ Nothing so boorish as a smile, but the gleam intensified. ‘Still, if she succumbed to a rare virus like the recent one, her father, outstanding medical man that he is, would be racked just as much by guilt. Don’t you agree?’
In the lift Zach rested the back of his head against a wall panel and closed his eyes without keying in a destination. Ligeti’s difficult, anguished second bagatelle. Lamentoso. Seven bars in, his inner voice ran down like a rusting clockwork mechanism. He straightened and stared at the touchpad. Music had been his home, and his refuge, as long as he could remember. Now it threatened to become an empty box, bereft of all but time’s ratchet and clack.
Unlike Randall, Zach didn’t keep small change at the ready in his pocket. After entering the code for the lift to return him to the laboratory floor, he withdrew three coins from his wallet and amused himself with a simultaneous three-coin walk, first with his right hand, then with his left. Randall was right about one thing: like music, it required practice.
The lift door slid shut before Zach realised that he’d got off at the wrong floor. Instead of the corridor which to the left led to a series of small offices for the neurotechs, a kitchen and conference room, a bioelectronics workshop, and Litchfield’s own suite (his theatre and clean rooms, however, were in another wing), and to the right, the double security doors barricading the cognoscens interface unit, Zach found himself in a cramped, featureless vestibule. The walls were white, the floor covered in black coin-patterned PVC, and the air smelled faintly antiseptic, reminiscent of the chlorine which clung to Laura’s hair when she rinsed it hastily after training. Oddest of all, another lift graced the opposite wall not two metres away. Despite his curiosity, he gave what amounted to an inner shrug and turned to summon his own lift again. After his session with Randall he had no desire to be caught wandering where he didn’t belong, and in any case, Andy would be just about ready to vaporise a few billion of Zach’s dendrites by now.
At first he wasn’t alarmed not to see a call button for the lift. The facility engineers were always installing some sort of new gadgetry. He passed his hand in front of the door, then along the metal surround, then up and down the adjacent walls. He stepped back and approached again. Nonplussed, he tried enunciating a command. Politely.
‘What the fuck?’ he finally muttered.
The security centre would know his whereabouts; everybody was tracked. Why weren’t they responding? There were never fewer than three people on duty, despite near-perfect algorithms for authentication.
The door behind him opened.
‘Right, mates,’ he said. ‘If you prefer the other one.’
There was no operating panel. ‘Third floor,’ he said. The door shut almost noiselessly. Later he would berate himself for not being observant. And much later he would come to pinpoint this, albeit arbitrarily, as the moment when he left off expecting to disentangle the enigmatic—the utterly glorious—polyphony of life; when reason became counterpoint to the cantus firmus of his song of songs. No lift, whether at the Fulgur campus or elsewhere, lacked an alarm and emergency controls, and even a position indicator was required by city by-law. Almost at once, however, he noticed that the cab was descending. His luck, they’d stop at every sub-basement to hell, and every floor and mezzanine on the way back up.
‘Listen, I’m late enough as it is. Can’t you take me straight to CI?’
The lift halted. ‘You are about to enter a restricted zone. When the door opens, please remain still during the security check.’
‘There’s some mistake. I want the third floor.’ The situation was so singular, however, that he found his curiosity mounting. Randall would just have to make it good with Andy. Whatever the CEO had in store, it wasn’t likely to be dangerous, not at this point, not till he got his money’s worth.
The door slid back to reveal an impervious blue light, dense and clouded at first like a wall of ice, then clearing for a moment so that the only barrier to the cave beyond, its pool and bats and glittering flowstone, was his fear.
‘Cybil?’ he whispered.
In response the lift door shut in his face. ‘Entry denied at this time. Please see Dr Zhou for clearance.’
‘That’s impossible.’ he said. ‘Zhou’s dead.’
He could feel the lift begin to ascend.
‘No, wait. Stop, please stop! Let me have one more look.’
But there was no answer; no voice, except the lyre of his own disordered, yearning thoughts that wander through eternity to return, narrowly, to the lived moment.