‘What the hell have you been up to?’
With an angry set to his shoulders Lev tosses down his satchel and seizes the lamp off the floor. In a moment it’s burning brightly again, a stark light which accentuates the planes and angles of his face. But his examination is as skilful and sensitive as before, and this time Zach feels a liquid warmth spread under his skin, a warmth which reminds him of spilled sunlight. Until Lev fingers the pendant with a provocative lift to his eyebrows.
‘No!’ Zach cries, and clamps Lev’s hand in his own. ‘Don’t touch it.’
‘Let go,’ Zach says, ‘or I’ll break your fingers.’
Lev regards Zach without flinching, a frank appraisal. It’s not easy to intimidate someone who can face a polar bear with more steel in his balls than fist. Slowly he nods and Zach releases his hand, which Lev flexes with no apparent resentment. Appreciatively, even.
‘Laura’s,’ Lev says.
Zach’s hand slides back to the pendant. A long silence, in which Lev trims the lamp, moves it to a less prominent position, waits. Zach counts, then recounts the stone figures lined up on a shelf, half of them in creamy green, the other half a dark burgundy. Thirty-one, thirty-two. Lev could have filled the air with verbal shrapnel—most people do. After a struggle, Zach allows that he might need more than Lev’s medical skills.
‘How do you know about Laura?’ Zach asks.
Lev reaches for a pouch lying on the mantel. ‘Mind if I smoke?’
‘I’d offer you one, but it’s best you wait till you’re fully healed.’
‘I don’t smoke.’
Lev extracts a packet of cigarette papers and some tobacco, whose sweet aroma, even unlit and from across the room, is distinctive if slightly noisome. Zach eyes the chessmen intermittently while Lev rolls his cigarette, touches a taper to the hot embers in place of a match, and inhales with serene pleasure, then notices the direction of Zach’s gaze.
‘Do you play?’ Lev asks.
‘I carved them myself. Fine occupation of an evening. Like to see one?’
‘You must think me an idiot!’
They study each other again. Lev wears a mask of smoke, no doubt aiming the two thin streams upwards from his nostrils as deliberately as Zach himself would have done.
‘How did you get her chain?’ Zach asks at last.
‘What you really mean is, have I seen her?’
‘Well, have you?’
‘Let’s just say I’m aware of her importance.’
Testily Zach brushes his hair off his forehead, only to grimace. His hair is greasy and needs a good wash. He needs a good wash. Meanwhile, Lev flips the end of his cigarette into the fire and proceeds to rummage in his bag.
‘Here,’ he says, handing Zach an unopened toothbrush and a tube of toothpaste. ‘Do you want me to help you bath?’
‘No. What I want is to understand what’s going on.’
‘Will it allay your suspicions to learn we have certain interests in common?’
Zach casts his blanket aside, rises to his feet, and makes his way slowly and laboriously to the shelf on which the stone chessmen rest. He picks up a red pawn and cradles it in his hand. Runs his thumb over its surface. Beautifully carved for such a minor piece. Yet even a mediocre player knows the value of safeguarding his rooks. He sets it back down and turns to Lev.
‘Are you telling me that you’re also looking for Laura?’ Zach asks.
Lev joins him at the shelf, where he plucks an irregular piece of dull red stone from beside the chessmen. He weighs it in his hand for a few minutes. ‘Funny, but I sometimes prefer the raw stone, unprepossessing as it seems.’ He replaces the stone with the air of a small boy who’s been showing off his treasures. Proud, yet not quite sure someone else will appreciate their worth. ‘How about something to eat? I don’t know about you, but I’m famished.’
At Lev’s words Zach’s stomach grumbles, alerting him that some of the residual ache may be hunger. He has no idea when he’s last eaten; no idea, in fact, how long he’s been here. Despite Lev’s trickster mindset, Zach finds himself asking that very question.
‘I’ll fetch some bowls. It’s warmer by the fire.’ Lev hoists the lamp and takes a few steps towards the kitchen.
‘Hold on. You can’t treat me like this.’
Eyes crinkling, Lev pauses to look from Zach to the chess set. ‘It must be that simus are exempt from military service. Every soldier knows what it means to be a pawn—vital, but not always privy to command information.’
‘And every simu knows not to take orders from self-serving monkeys!’
‘Before jumping to conclusions, ask yourself why the abort function didn’t work.’
‘What the fuck are you trying to prove? That you’re cleverer than me?’
‘Intelligence—at least the sort to which you cling like men drowning—is vastly overrated in the larger scale of things.’
In exasperation, Zach sweeps a hand through the air as though clearing away a cobweb, the kind which hangs in horror films and ghost stories. ‘Any more catchy—’ he begins, then happens to glance down at his fingers. His mouth snaps shut. With mild distaste he rubs his fingers on his trackpants to dislodge the desiccated fly and sticky strands clinging to his skin.
‘Enough’s enough,’ he mutters. Then louder, ‘Abort the bloody run, you arseholes. There’s a serious malfunction.’ Again he tries the code; as a last resort, the escape key implanted in his upper left third molar, which he’s always thought of as another of Mishaal’s jokes.
‘You still think it’s a malfunction?’ Lev asks, amused.
Lev lowers the lamp below knee level, making him look much older. Not just older—more skelemental, as though his skin has thinned to reveal struts and fathomless conduits, the very viruses swarming through his system. But a virus is unable to replicate without a host. It’s not alive. Zach feels the hairs on the nape of his neck stir even before Lev speaks.
‘I’ve disabled the return functions precisely so that Fulgur can no longer get its hands on you. Not till you’re ready to deal with them.’
‘Look, it’s obvious that whoever you are, you have some understanding of the interface. Maybe I imagined the cobweb, maybe I’ve been so ill that I can’t remember how I got here, maybe even one of the programmers somehow learned about Laura’s chain, but one thing is dead certain—the coding can’t be altered from within. First of all, it’s out of the question technically. And it would be madness to give that sort of power to anyone.’ After a brief pause he concedes, ‘Even to a simu.’
‘I’m not a cognoscens.’
‘A monkey?‘ Zach asks incredulously.
There’s no dramatic change in the room—no sudden chill, no explosive fatal strike, no fresh blood or gore to stain his dreams. Tornarssuk, three-quarters of a ton of shrewd clawed blade-toothed battering ram, remains out of sight, patiently awaiting its long-stalked prey. But as Lev turns to leave, the air around him shimmers with a light dusting of crystals like fine dry snow in moonlight—a furred nimbus which disappears in an instant as Lev transfers the lantern to his left hand. By contrast, the pungent oily smell lingers first in Zach’s nostrils, then in his memory, along with Lev’s parting words.
‘Remember, not every virus is malignant.’