Chapter Thirty-One

Play


‘Who’s there?’ Laura cried, whirling instinctively to peer behind her.

There was no answer, and though she could see the flickering on the screen from the corner of her eye, there was no beam of light from the projection booth either. Her hand unsteady, she swept her torch over the seats, discovering nothing—discovering how many wells of darkness there were in which to hide. Finally, with deep reluctance, she turned round again to face the screen.

She discovered you could gasp without making a sound.

Zach was sitting on a platform made of ice, shoulders slumped and head propped on one hand. Aqua light tinted everything, even his hair and skin, but this was no underwater setting. Could he be inside an ice cave or grotto? a glacier? He looked so tired—so defeated—that Laura found herself descending the steps towards the screen as though she could take him in her arms, but halted with a shiver of recognition at the sound of his clarinet. Suddenly light-headed, she dropped to the carpeted tread and hugged her ribs. This was impossible—impossible.

Maybe the dead could also rise up and speak.

Her neckhairs stirred, and for a moment she was tempted to crawl under one of the cinema seats, the way she’d done as a small child. She’d nearly forgotten: her dad used to take her to his favourite scifi films, the classic ones with scary aliens and megalomaniac cyborgs and grotesque virus-deformed plague victims, till her mum got wind of where they’d been. Nearly forgotten, too, the ice cream and popcorn; the delicious taste of conspiracy.

I’m not going to look at them, she told herself. The dead stay dead.

After a quick backwards glance, she raised her eyes to the screen. As if on signal, Zach lifted his face, and she could see tears wetting his cheeks. He put his free hand to his hair—his beautiful hair, now uncombed, dirty, lank as Zach himself. Never more beautiful.

‘Zach,’ she said, hoping that whatever window had opened between them wasn’t glazed in mirrored glass. ‘Zach, where are you?’

He raked his fingers repeatedly through his hair, then straightened up. Laura glimpsed a tousled, black-haired head asleep on his lap. The sight drove her to her feet.

‘Damn you,’ she said, ‘I get to find dead bodies while you—’ She stopped, conscious of how ridiculous her words sounded, even if nobody could hear. How contemptible.

For there was no mistaking the despair on Zach’s face. Plainly thinking himself unobserved, he closed his eyes, and fresh tears continued to slip from under his lids to the accompaniment of unfamiliar but exquisite music—music which she suspected was his own. He’d lost weight again, and there were smudges under his eyes, dark cratered smudges deriving from more than lack of sleep. The cigarette burn on his cheek had healed to a pearly cameo, crimped at the edges and likely to remain beardless.

Where had they taken him? Fulgur’s network was so extensive that he could be thousands of kilometres away—even, she supposed, on one of the outstations. Laura studied the scene: the blocks of ice, Zach’s clothes, the intense, almost surreal blue light. She felt like directing the camera operator to pan for her. Under her fixed stare, the picture was beginning to blur. She wiped her eyes angrily, she couldn’t afford to miss any details which might provide a clue, though how she intended to penetrate some secret installation had not yet occurred to her—but it would.

Then she noticed that the music was fading as well. ‘No,’ she cried, her voice like a wrong note, ‘wait!’ Now the image was dimming visibly, so that it reminded her of a transparent webskin. ‘Zach!’ The webbed texture of the screen itself lent Zach’s skin a macabre reptilian appearance. Frantically Laura started down the stairs, caught her foot, and flailed the rest of the way to the bottom, cracking her forearm against one of the aisle seats with a jaw-clenching jolt of pain, despite the padding of jacket sleeve and jumper. Fuckfuckfuck, she was making this a habit—falling to reach Zach. Winded, she took a few minutes to right herself, massage her arm, and scrabble for her torch, by which time Zach was no more than a pale shadow of himself.

‘Zach!’ she cried even louder, no longer concerned about being overheard.

Zach straightened and opened his eyes. Laura had no reason to believe he saw her, though his gaze was disconcertingly point-blank. Squinting, he leaned forward with an air of fierce concentration, as if searching for something which had slipped from his grasp into deep surf. For a moment his image sharpened, filling the screen in a close-up so that the rest of the room disappeared from view. Then his lips moved, but it was impossible to tell whether he was talking to himself, to his companion, or to someone else entirely, and Laura couldn’t read his lips.

‘Zach, listen to me’—she started again after a shaky breath—’listen. Play, don’t ever stop. I’ll find you.’

She watched without moving as the screen became blank once more, the cinema dark. She could never be sure at which point Zach’s image dissolved into afterimage, though in retrospect she believed it was just at this threshold that she caught a whiff of the sea, briny and chill; that she saw, though only for a fraction of a second, a flash of speaking, bright blue eyes.

Keep telling him.


Fulgur was famous for its Christmas bash—luscious food, wine from its own South African cellars, a top band, always a few dazzling celebrities to mingle with the crowd. And a themed children’s party, held simultaneously. It was said you needed a postdoctoral degree in child psychology or education, plus a minimum of ten years hands-on experience, to serve the fruit punch. Last year one award-winning children’s author had been unobtrusively escorted from the room because he’d been caught spiking his own glass of orange squash. There were always gatecrashers to both events, despite stringent security measures.

Laura spent the evening before the party at Zach’s flat. Whatever Josh had done—and he refused to tell her—the neighbours were no longer a problem. ‘Just don’t make it too obvious,’ he’d warned. After cooking him a meal, she presented him with his Christmas gift, though she planned to come by sometime during the holiday. She wasn’t a particularly creative cook—Zach, she remembered glumly, had far more flair—but her mum had insisted on teaching her the basics. For years she’d resented not being allowed to eat the frozen pizzas and tinned puddings on her mates’ supper tables, so it came as something of a surprise to find that she took pleasure in rolling out a slab of pastry.

‘Wonderful mince pies,’ Josh said, already on his third or fourth.

‘My mum likes to bake when she’s not disinfecting the toilets or scrubbing the floors with a toothbrush.’

‘About to get your period? Listen, in my younger days I used to bake my own bread.’

Laura grimaced. ‘All that kneading.’ She no longer blushed at his remarks.

‘As good as a massage when you’re wound up, and much better than bashing pillows. Think of the feathers everywhere.’

She smiled to herself at the scene conjured. A shame her mum was allergic, a split pillow or two would be just the thing to induce a heart attack.

‘The way my mum hates mess and muck, I’m surprised she doesn’t wear surgical gloves when faced with a mound of sticky dough.’

‘Kids never have a clue about their parents.’

‘Don’t bet on it. And besides, fair’s fair. Parents haven’t got a clue about their kids.’

Just before she left, Josh shuffled to a cupboard and handed her a newspaper-wrapped parcel. ‘Sorry about the paper.’

He always seemed to know when she got teary. ‘No need for that,’ he said, patting her as usual on the shoulder, ‘it’s just some old thing I’ve had lying around in a drawer. But don’t open it now, keep it for Christmas.’

When she kissed him on the cheek, his face pinkened with pleasure. ‘Mind, we don’t want to make Zach jealous.’

They were both silent till Josh said, ‘Ah well, those simus don’t make much of our holidays anyway.’

Laura went back to Zach’s flat to tidy up the kitchen, her fantasy only fleeting that Zach was in the living room, reading or studying a score, tapping away at the computer. She’d stored extra pies and cheeses in the fridge, two containers of a meaty pasta in the freezer compartment, though she knew Josh would never fetch the stuff for himself. His code of behaviour reminded her a bit of Owen, and rather more of the heroes in the soppy historical romances Olivia liked to read.

Christ, what a bitch you’re turning into. Olivia reads all sorts of stuff, she never goes anywhere without a book or, since her last birthday, her reader. In fact, Olivia ought to have been far more Zach’s type.

‘Come on, you know what he’s after,’ Olivia had said even before the club bombing. ‘You don’t think he’s interested in your mind? No matter how much I dislike him, there’s no denying he’s damned smart.’ She’d laughed in that cool way of hers that made you want to riposte with a subtly double-edged thrust—if only you could think of one. ‘About as smart as me, I reckon.’

Laura stopped scrubbing the baking tray for a moment while she recalled the peculiar, almost cagey expression on Olivia’s face.

To avoid temptation, she stowed Josh’s parcel out of sight in Zach’s wardrobe before sitting down at his desk. As futile as the exercise seemed, she was writing him a Christmas letter, and by hand. Zach had an old-fashioned predilection for fountain pens; he collected—and used—the oddest things. But she uncapped one, an elegant black-and-amber instrument she’d seen him write with: some thoughts needed the delicacy, the weight of ink; its idiosyncrasy. It was slow going, and she blotched, then tore up more than she kept, but in the end she folded two closely written sheets of paper, slipped them into an envelope, and addressed it with his name. She stretched and went to the window, thinking how much she hated the short dark days of winter. The streetlamp which barely lit this stretch of canal gleamed like the single baleful eye of an old tom, scarred survivor of innumerable street battles. There was no sign of the snow that was predicted, yet again. Everyone had their own theories about the severity of this particular winter, right down to the religious fanatics.

Could her grandfather be right? Hard to imagine. But if there was the remotest chance . . . then she hoped Stella was warm enough at last.

‘Why are you doing this?’ Laura had asked her. ‘If you’re arrested, you’ll be tried under the new terrorism laws. They won’t deport you, if that’s what you’re reckoning on.’

‘They’ve got to catch me first.’ Stella had made a sound that took Laura a moment to recognise as a laugh. ‘Don’t you worry none about me, I’m mean and wily as a mountain cat.’

‘But why?’ Laura had persisted, a trifle dangerously to judge by the yellowish gleam in the woman’s eyes. But Stella rose to her feet, grunting at the stiffness in her hips, and stood over Laura. With her fingertips—and with the privilege of age, or perhaps indomitability—Stella lifted Laura’s chin to study her face. Laura was reminded of her mum applying paint stripper to an old wardrobe: a swimming costume was fully clothed, and then some, compared to this.

‘Kids,’ Stella said at last with an exaggerated sigh. ‘You’re in love with him, yet you’ve got no earthly clue who he is, do you?’ A short silence. ‘Who he’s going to be.’ Another, longer, silence, in which Laura could hear an icy surf hurtling towards the shell of her ears. ‘But maybe it’s better that way.’

Which was all Stella would say.


Despite the late hour, Laura made a detour to the cast-iron footbridge over the canal, from which she posted her letter to Zach via the sluggish water.


During the second set Laura was sipping tomato juice when the long-haired bloke who had been talking to Andy—his left leg still in a cast—detached himself, wended his way skilfully through the press of overdressed, overheated bodies, and stopped in front of her. Olivia would have already thrust out her chest at the approach of his arresting green eyes, diamond stud, feline grace. He looked as though he’d just stepped out of a cool shower. He looked as though he expected she was picturing him dripping wet, reaching for a crisp white towel.

‘Dance?’ he asked.

‘Sorry, I’m waiting for my boyfriend. He’ll be back in a second.’

The man took her elbow. Laura stepped back, trying to pull free without making a scene, and bumped into someone nearby, sloshing some of her juice onto her cream-coloured top.

‘Damn it, let go of me,’ she hissed. ‘Look what you’ve made me do.’

His eyes danced. ‘No problem. Come back to my office, I’ve got a couple of spare shirts in the cupboard.’

‘You’re mad if you think I’m going anywhere with you!’

‘Is that so?’ He seemed entirely unperturbed. ‘We ought to leave straightaway. Randall’s going to make a few remarks that I can’t miss, and you shouldn’t.’ At her glare, he added, ‘The CEO.’

‘I know who Randall is.’ Again she tried to tug her arm away. ‘I’m warning you one last time, I’ll scream if you don’t—’

The man smiled a lazy smile and bent his head to hers, whispering conspiratorially. ‘Scream away, though I doubt Zach will be able to hear you.’ His breath smelled fresh, as if he neither drank nor smoked, fruity without a cloying overlay of mint. ‘The acoustics are far better in my office.’

As the import of his last remark sunk in, Laura went still. The man released his grip and held out his hand for her glass. Wordlessly, she followed him out of the overcrowded room with her heart pounding to match the drums.

Inside the lift the man fiddled with his wrister. ‘There, that should do it.’

‘Do what?’

‘Sorry about the shirt.’

‘Is this some sort of party entertainment? You know, a treasure hunt or maybe charades?’

He leaned back against the brushed stainless steel wall, crossed his arms, and smiled in appreciation. ‘My name’s Fabio.’

‘OK, Fabio, tell me what’s going on.’

‘I’ll see that it gets dry-cleaned.’

‘Will you stop pissing on about my damned shirt?’ His grin broadened, but there was nothing mocking nor remotely unkind about it. Provocative, though—and one of his eyebrows lifted like a question mark. Laura wanted to thump herself for being so dim. ‘You’ve planned it all along, haven’t you?’ she demanded, plucking at the damp red stain.

‘I knew Zach would never chose a witless girl.’

With a small dip of approval the lift came to a halt and opened its door at the seventeenth floor. Fabio directed her to the left along a carpeted corridor, on through a glass-domed atrium filled with tropical plants and a large toucan-inhabited birdcage, then along another corridor where after a short distance they halted by a security door. During the voice and retina routine, Laura studied the long but narrow canvas—exceptionally long, a mural-like five metres—mounted on the textured concrete wall opposite. Painted only in black, white, and shades of grey, it showed a stunning if brutal array of street scenes which flowed seamlessly into one another like a dreamscape—a bad dream, including the decapitation of a naked baby by a machete. The painting was worked in fine detail, yet only the animals could be seen in their entirety; men and women, children too, were placed so that either their lower limbs or their heads and upper bodies were truncated by the borders of the canvas.

Laura looked up to find Fabio’s eyes on her, those eyes which despite being obviously sapiens reminded her of Zach’s.

‘Do you like it?’ he asked softly.

‘No . . . yes . . . ‘ She shook her head. ‘I don’t know, it’s the sort of art that gives you nightmares.’

‘It’s supposed to.’

‘Probably it’s only my imagination, but somehow it’s like a photograph Zach has in his flat, though I don’t know why, the subject’s completely different, the setting . . . ‘ Her voice trailed off, she felt stupid again.

‘A naked child at the seashore? Eating from a bowl?’

‘You know it?’

‘My brother’s work.’ He indicated the painting. ‘You’ve got a good eye, that’s his as well.’

‘He’s very gifted. What other kinds of stuff does he do?’

‘He doesn’t.’

From the way Fabio spoke, Laura knew it was a painful subject. After a hesitation she asked, ‘Has he stopped painting?’

‘He’s dead.’

He held the door open for her; the subject was closed.

Laura found herself in a reception area which, though not large, would not have disgraced Randall himself—minimal clutter, burnished woods, soft lighting. At first she was riveted by another oversized canvas on the far wall, this one drenched in rainforest colours and hung so that every eye must automatically fall on it, but then an inner door opened, and before she had time to distinguish the subject matter of the painting from its chromatic overload, fluid and vivid as a hallucination, vivid and fluid and synesthetic, it all fell away.

Zach stood in the doorway.

Though half expecting him—and totally passionately blindly hoping for him—she couldn’t even manage his name. She stumbled towards him.

And was stunned when he sidestepped her and moved to one of the windows.

‘I’ll leave the two of you alone for a few minutes,’ Fabio said.

‘I prefer that you stay,’ Zach said.

Laura could feel the blood drain from her head, but before she had time to realise how pale she must have become, how unsteady, Fabio was at her side—Fabio, not Zach.

I will not cry. I will not.

Fabio led her to a chair, while Zach flicked back one of the panels of the blinds to gaze out the window, his back to the room. It was dark out, what could possibly be of such interest? For a moment Laura wondered if she’d fallen into one of the paintings, so unreal did everything seem. But the glass of water that Fabio held out to her was beaded with condensation, and cool in her hand. She hung on to it, afraid that it would slip from her fingers.

‘You’ve been looking for me.’ Releasing the blind, Zach turned to address her for the first time.

‘Stella—’ If he knew, wouldn’t he say so straight off? ‘I mean, I’ve been worried.’

‘There’s no need.’

Laura stared at the burn on his cheek, still an angry red, while searching for something else to say. Something that wasn’t as lame as, ‘It hasn’t healed yet.’ Which, for a short sentence, ended up sounding unaccountably like babbling.

Zach shrugged.

When the silence became uncomfortable, Fabio prompted Zach. ‘You asked to speak with her.’

Laura took a sip from her glass and wondered if they could hear her swallow. Her teeth had rattled against the rim. Zach came across the room to stand over her. ‘I don’t want you to come looking for me any longer.’ His voice was level, and only someone who knew him very well would realise why he’d crossed his arms.

‘It’s OK, you’re here now.’

‘That’s not what I mean.’

‘Then explain.’

‘It’s over. We’re not going to see each other again.’

Light-headed be damned. Laura got to her feet, mindful however to rest the fingertips of one hand on her chair. ‘Will you at least tell me why?’

‘Relationships end.’

Laura glanced towards Fabio, who was studying his brother’s painting as though for the first time.

‘Is it because of what happened at the cottage?’ Laura asked softly.

Zach couldn’t conceal his shiver. A film like a polar bear’s nictitating membrane slid across his eyes to protect sensitive tissue from a blinding glare. Laura had never seen them so tenebrous.

She spoke to Fabio, ‘Please, will you go now?’

‘No!’ Zach said, then turned on his heel and strode towards the open doorway beyond which, Laura supposed, lay Fabio’s private office.

‘Zach,’ she called, her hand tightening on the water glass. When he stopped and looked back over his shoulder, she asked, ‘What about Max?’

Zach said nothing.

‘Who’s put you up to this? Fulgur? My parents? Who, Zach?’

‘No one. Can’t you accept that things change?’

‘When they do.’

‘For Christ’s sake,’ he said, facing her now, ‘I’d have preferred not to hurt your feelings, but you lot always need to have everything spelled out. OK, here it is then: you bore me. It’s fun for a while, usually a very short while, but then it’s only tedious. And you’ve lasted longer than most. Maybe if you read a bit more . . . but I doubt it. Have you got any idea how stupid you monkeys really are?’

He swung round and headed for Fabio’s office.

‘Look, Laura—’ Fabio began, but at that moment the water glass struck the back of Zach’s head, then fell to the floor without breaking as Zach choked off a squawk, staggered, and put a hand to his scalp, then sagged against the doorjamb.

‘Real stupid, that’s me,’ Laura threw at his soaked back, her cheeks suffused. ‘Stupid enough to care. Stupid enough to think we could be different. And stupid enough’—her voice wavered, and she snatched a breath—‘stupid enough never to have become bored with you.’

Fabio caught up with her at the security door, which she was futilely trying to open. He made an adjustment to his wrister, flipped the shirt he was carrying over a shoulder, and touched her arm.

‘Are you OK?’ he asked.

‘Perfect, thank you. Please release the door.’

‘I wish you hadn’t done that.’

‘He deserved it.’

‘Not that.’ He indicated his wrister. ‘I’m going to change the settings in a moment, then I’m going to kiss you. It’s fine if you want to struggle a bit, but give in after a while. Make it look good. Do you understand?’

‘What?’

‘Don’t waste time. Shut up and do exactly as I say.’

Though there was little dissemblance in her struggling, neither was the subsequent encounter entirely feigned. By the time he’d pulled her into a nearby storeroom, bolted the door, and played yet again with the device on his wrist, Laura had caught her breath.

‘What comes next?’ she asked.

‘Don’t tempt me. Zach’s got very good taste.’ He flicked back his hair and grinned, and just for a moment Laura wondered why everything always had to be so complicated. Then she looked away, afraid that he’d be able to read her face.

‘Here.’ He shook out his shirt. ‘Put it on. And don’t spill juice on it downstairs, it’s pure silk and damned costly.’

She seized it from his hands, then met his eyes and began to giggle.

‘That’s better,’ he said. ‘Feeling sexy is nothing to be ashamed of, even when you’re in love. He’s been gone for a while.’

‘Please tell me what’s going on,’ she said, clutching the shirt to her chest.

‘I’ll look after him.’

‘That’s no answer!’

Fabio was quiet for a time. Then he tapped his wrist. ‘Do you know how many of these there are in the world?’

‘What is it? I’ve seen how often you fiddle with it.’

‘A few people would recognise it as a matilda, but they’d be wrong. There are no more than three on the entire planet.’

Planet?

‘Who are you?’ Laura whispered.

‘Think of me as Zach’s guardian, at least for now.’

‘Guardian as in jailer.’

‘Laura, we need augmented cognition. Look at the mess we’re in—one crisis after another. Gaia is strangling, with sapiens at the limit of their ability to analyse and comprehend the data our computers already generate. The only possible direction is a biological interface. Or cede the planet to the machines and the insects.’

‘They talk about moving out into space.’

‘Even more reason to blast through human limits.’

‘There are enough simus. Pick someone else.’

‘No one else is like him, though he doesn’t quite know it yet. Doesn’t want to know it.’

‘He’s that smart?’

‘If it were only about intelligence, there’d be plenty of candidates. Zach’s unique—and a born leader.’

Laura snorted. ‘Zach? A leader?’ Recollections like the recursive patterns of a kaleidoscope—Zach with the ambulance driver, with Owen, with his simu mates, Zach holding an audience in thrall, at school . . . born leader—patterns flowing to an improbable symmetry, elegant and dismaying. ‘All he wants is to live some kind of quiet life, with his books and his music. And with—’ She swallowed, completing the thought in her head. How naïve she’d been, how stupid. She could see Olivia’s knowing smirk.

‘You’re old enough to have realised that very few of us get to live the lives we dream about.’

‘So we live the nightmares instead?’

From a stack of paper on a shelf Fabio took a sheet—a pale, slightly felty grey—folded it to make a square, scored the crease sharply with a thumbnail, and tore off the rectangular strip, then turned his back to Laura so that she could change her shirt. The cool silk draped her torso like an indecent suggestion; immediately she wanted to fumble with the buttons again, drag it off, tell him she preferred tomato juice to champagne, cotton to the silky strands tightening round Zach.

‘I won’t let you destroy him,’ she said. ‘However noble your so-called ideals.’

Fabio didn’t laugh; didn’t ask how she, a powerless seventeen-year-old, intended to stop him or Fulgur or whoever else was slavering for their piece of Zach; didn’t in fact remind her of Zach’s injunction. Instead, he handed her a deftly folded origami bird, which she stared at in consternation.

‘Trust him. Trust in him. They won’t break him.’

‘They nearly have!’

‘There are already whispers. Corvus, they call him.’

‘The simus are hated.’

‘By some, but there are those—’

‘By many,’ Laura insisted, tears of rage—tears Stella wouldn’t have wanted—threatening at last.

‘And many are ready for—long for—a change. The numbers will grow. Wait and see.’

Angrily Laura screwed up the piece of paper and bounced it off the corner wastebasket. ‘You’re just using him.’

‘Yes, I am, but honestly. And he’ll thank me for it later, when he’s grown into his skin. Zach is too restless, too driven, too visionary to be satisfied with a quiet life.’

Laura went to retrieve the crumpled bird. Crouching beside the bin, she flattened the paper over her knee, smoothed its creases with the flat of her hand; blinking hard, smoothed her features. But Fabio came and touched her shoulder with a gentle hand.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘Don’t think I’m not.’

She rose and tucked the paper into her trouser pocket. Then, not quite on impulse, though later on she’d curse his damned sympathy, she told him about the Rex. About the bodies: if he thought her prone to hallucinations, she might never see Zach again.


In his office Fabio found Zach at the window, staring into the cheerless winter night.

‘Has she hurt you?’ Fabio asked.

When Zach didn’t answer, Fabio crossed the room to stand near his desk, but no closer.

‘Zach, I need to go down to the party. Randall will be speaking in a few minutes.’

‘Go then,’ Zach said without turning.

‘Are you sure you’re OK?’

Zach rounded on him, the glass Laura had thrown in his hand. That he concealed nothing was statement enough. There was pride, and contempt too, in this open display of tears.

‘Zach—’

‘Get out.’

‘I’m sorry. You know—’

‘Get out!’ Without further preamble Zach swung for the framed black-and-white photograph on the wall, a companion to his own. Glass—drinking and photo—shattered upon impact, spraying the room. ‘Unless you want to join your brother . . . ‘


‘Hey, Laura, what’re you doing out here by the pissroom?’ Tim asked, still tucking himself in. ‘Owen’s been looking everywhere for you.’

‘Me? What about you? I thought you couldn’t stand this place.’ She matched his leer while scratching himself with the only look he’d understand. ‘Not enough simus.’ Even when sober he was impervious to irony.

‘Sh, not so loud.’ He glanced round, but nobody was loitering nearby. ‘The music’s crap but being here was part of the deal. At least the food’s rad.’

‘You mean the lager, don’t you?’ She dipped away from his noisome, raucous laugh. ‘What deal is that?’

His ‘whisper’ could probably be heard in Randall’s penthouse suite. ‘My dad’s got me an interview. They need someone my age as a control subject for their teen rehab project. Good money.’ This time it was a belch, and her stomach clenched. ‘Three times what they pay for wanking off. You know, a sperm donation.’

Could be Tim’s dad was smarter than his son. Any rehab had to be better than none, and ‘control subject’ sounded like a splendid pretext. Tim was too dim to realise that though it wasn’t illegal to pay research subjects who were minors, Fulgur avoided the practice. ‘Child abuse’ had a nasty tendency to terminate executive careers prematurely.

‘Tell Owen I’ll be right in,’ she said.

The thought of Owen’s arm, Owen’s breath on her neck, Owen’s signature cologne, the thought of the hot sweaty half-drunken party-goers brought on another wave of nausea, and she rushed back into the toilet where she’d already spent fifteen minutes. But there was nothing left to heave up except some foamy spit, less bitter than her thoughts. She rinsed her mouth at the washbasin, then drank a little cold water. In the mirror her face looked composed: this time tears hadn’t reddened her eyes or blotched her cheeks, and she’d already redone her lashes; some fresh lipslap would be enough. She was tempted to head for the bus stop, but she’d promised to rescue Max from the children’s party after the speeches, and she was curious what Randall had to say. Fabio had hinted that it would be something important, hadn’t he?

She was not hoping that Zach would think it important enough to make an appearance—or that they would let him. You hoped for a decent grade on that last history essay; you hoped for a new pod for Christmas; you certainly hoped your protection was good enough (hadn’t you heard something about vomiting?); maybe you even hoped that a long-lost, long-lived, and lifelong celibate great-uncle in South Africa would die and leave you a goldmine; but nobody with a nanogram of sense wasted any energy on hoping that an alien spacecraft would land in your yard with the mission to treble your IQ and transform you into a drop-dead gorgeous, honey-voiced number with big tits, megastar charisma, and a custom board that seduced every bloke to surf the wave; aliens who’d beg you to accept the gift of immortality, plus, if you were lucky, exclusive world rights to the grand unified theory of the cosmos.

From the doorway Laura searched the crowd, determined to avoid Owen (and Tim). Either the conference hall had shrunk, or the numbers had swelled like flies to rotting meat. Laura swallowed, then swallowed again. After a deep breath she pushed her way through the swarm of noise and smell to the back of the hall, her eyes roving restlessly, registering for the first time how few simus were in attendance. Most of them were tall enough to stand out, though few as tall as Zach. She tried to remember how it had been last year (her first time at the ‘real’ party). Surely there had been more of them. Her stomach cramped. She could feel the juices sloshing like cold slops in a bucket, ready to spill. You are not going to do this to me, she instructed her gut, not here, not again. But her real dread had little to do with throwing up in public.

Laura wedged herself between a display board on casters—the latest success story in Tim’s rehab programme, some girl who’d just won a place to study psychology, ‘I want to help others like me’ bannered in fucking gold across the top, do you believe that crap—and a fleshy potted plant as tall as a small giraffe, which growled at her. In her present mood she was ready to growl back, and tear off a few leaves with her teeth for good measure, till she noticed the flash of a metallic collar. The man holding the cat—black, sleek, hardly bigger than a kitten—was half-hidden by the foliage, though he stepped forward as soon Laura caught sight of him.

‘What a lovely cat,’ she said, a faint inflection conveying her puzzlement.

‘Jasmine’s an absolute beauty, isn’t she?’ He took another step forwards. ‘Go on, stroke her. She adores attention.’

Laura extended a hand, then jerked it away with a small cry as the cat hissed and sprang into the planter. ‘Shit!’ Three scratches, already welling. She’d begun sucking the back of her hand before it occurred to her to wonder about pathogen transmission. Animal viruses were mutating all the time.

‘Has Jasmine clawed you? How odd.’ The man stooped and with a single murmured word enticed the cat back into his arms. ‘Let me have a look.’

‘I’m surprised Security let you in with a cat,’ Laura said as the man examined her hand. He had a plump laugh to match his smooth plump cheeks, pink from heat—he didn’t look the sort to drink or dance. The little cat settled back into the crook of his arm like a kangaroo into its mother’s pouch, and her purring was so loud that it could be heard above the music.

‘Worried about health clearance, are you?’

‘Not exactly—’

‘Here, take one.’ With one hand he extracted a handful of foil packets from his pocket. His laugh became a loud guffaw when he caught sight of the expression on her face. ‘Disinfectant, Laura. A special formula, but only disinfectant. I always carry a few, since Jasmine has got some genetic material from a panther. You’re a right little savage, aren’t you, sweetheart?’ This last to the cat, who, Laura could have sworn, smirked at her the way even your best mate would smirk when asked by the hottest lad at school to the cinema.

Laura broke open one of the packets, removed the strong-smelling swab, and ran it over the scratches, which were still oozing slightly.

‘Don’t worry, Jasmine’s absolutely clean. The disinfectant is just in case she’s picked up some stray bugs from the floor. She likes to wander.’

A placebo, then. ‘Who is she?’ Laura asked.

Jasmine hissed, and her fur puffed to give her the appearance of a small dark thundercloud about to discharge a bolt of lightning. Again the man murmured to her, and though her fur settled back in place, she flicked her tongue as if about to speak, an entirely unfeline movement. Laura wondered what other genetic material this creature incorporated.

‘Jasmine’s one of my charges.’

‘She must like to hunt birds. What about bigger ones, like swans?’

With a yowl Jasmine sprang from the man’s arm and disappeared in the direction of the double doors. The man muttered something under his breath, but at that moment the music ended, and in the hush the electronic crackle of the speakers indicated that Randall had stepped up to the microphone. Like everyone else in the hall, Laura’s attention shifted to the stage. Grey-haired and elegant, Randall was nearly as tall as a simu. It was said that he spent considerable time on the tennis court and ski slope, and since he was always travelling, his tan might be natural; certainly his crow’s feet were. He carried his extra weight with ease, confident of his magnetism, energetic in a way her scrawny dad would never be. It always surprised her when fat people—not that Randall was precisely fat, at least not yet—could move with such agility, grace even. Whenever Olivia had complained about getting out of breath while dancing, Laura used to say, ‘Just stop eating the stuff.’ Where had she learned to be so smug? And that Olivia had never retorted—how stung she must have been.

Just stop thinking about him.

Laura watched Randall take charge of his audience before saying a word. Admittedly there was something engaging in the way he fumbled with the mike, and then the almost boyish, apologetic shrug as he handed it to an assistant for adjusting: it had Laura wondering what Zach would look like in ten years—in twenty. That black hair, threaded with silver? He also had a taste for classy gear: she pictured him coming into the house, tossing a dark tailored jacket over a chair, loosening his tie, unbuttoning his shirt, rumpled, lightly sweat-stained. She pictured the silky skin, with just the right amount of comfortable fleshiness—a bit soft around the centre like a favourite praline; love-handled like a familiar memory.

‘All good speeches begin with a joke. But since this isn’t going to be a speech, and we all know that CEOs have no sense of humour whatsoever’—Tim was probably braying with laughter—‘I’m going to tell you a story instead. A very short story—word of honour.’ More laughter, and mostly genuine, though his remarks weren’t particularly funny, or original. The man was a natural. ‘One of my favourite memories.’

It’s not enough, she whispered fiercely under her breath. I want more than memories; more than storied daydreams. They can claim what they like about our brains—there’s a difference, a bloody great difference.

All at once she was desperate to know what Fulgur did with the simus. Why would nobody ever talk about it, not even Zach? She turned to smile at the animal man, whose friendliness might lead afterwards to some information, but he was gone—chasing his Jasmine, probably. A good name for the little wildcat. And with that thought came another, accompanied by a prickling of unease: he’d called her Laura. He’d known her name.

‘ . . . so this latest research means that, thanks to you, we have finally achieved what we’ve long been striving for. Thanks to each and every one of you in the Fulgur family. There is good reason to celebrate.’

This was insane, could she have missed the announcement already? With a silent oath she brought her mind to heel. The crowd crackled with expectancy, reminding Laura of earlier Christmas mornings before the presents were opened. She’d missed the stocking, she concluded, but not the pile under the tree. Then she noticed that a number of children, each carrying a large basket, were working their way through the throng, distributing crackers. Max was among them, and he was heading in her direction with a fixed smile on his face, devoid of all humour, anxious; he wanted to talk with her.

‘Some of you may have already heard the rumours, so let me reassure you. Like all the tastiest morsels of gossip, they’re true.’

This time the laughter felt like the blast of hot air upon opening an oven door. You took a step backwards.

‘To get to the point: the UN has just passed a new international law requiring all children to be base-scanned at birth, scanned once again upon entering school, and a third time at age eighteen, thereafter every ten years, so that their neural network—like their genetic code—will be part of their permanent record. Because of Fulgur’s breakthrough work in the field, we have been awarded the primary contract to undertake this enormous endeavour.’

Randall paused, a broad smile on his face, till the applause died back. He held up his hands.

‘You know what this means, of course. Rehabilitation in case of brain damage, illness, ageing. For those who want it, the opportunity to recover lost memories, lost skills.’ He put his arm round his wife, who was standing alongside him. ‘Celia is always telling me I really must do something about my creaky Spanish.’ The city’s mayor, she was a clever and able politician who joined in the laughter.

‘And at first for some, but one day for all of us—the indestructible storage of consciousness. Minds that no longer perish.’ He didn’t have to say the word; it was already being whispered through the hall: immortality.

‘So,’ he concluded, holding up his own cracker, ‘to celebrate with a flourish, I’m going to break with tradition. Celia and I won’t pull first. Instead let’s all pull together, as in fact we’ve been doing here at Fulgur all along. But before we do—on the count of three—let me just add a word about your Christmas bonus.’

Quiet fell while Randall’s eyes passed over the assembly, so that each person felt the CEO was speaking directly to them alone, a private and intimate interview, a reward. Even Laura felt it, though it annoyed her. Something about this man was beginning to remind her of her mother.

‘Take one,’ Max whispered to her. She hadn’t noticed that he’d reached her side. ‘Don’t stand out.’

‘Twelve percent. Twelve percent of your annual salary, tax free. And not in options.’

This time he had to wait for the cheers to end before he could begin his count. Laura braced herself for the noise of the crackers, but in fact it was Max’s words, muttered just before the outburst, that drowned out everything else.

‘After the crackers, get your jacket and meet me outside by the fountain. There’s something wrong. Weird stuff is going on, evil stuff. We’ve got to help Zach.’