Chapter Twenty-Eight

Play


A cognoscens is unaccustomed to the complete absence of light. With returning consciousness Zach sees patterns in the deep blackness where there are none, patterns which hover on the threshold of signification. He fixes on them, dazzling and puzzling, a message to decode, a formula to derive, an art form to explore. Like ripples in water, they describe reiterations of a restless, ceaseless, seamless, senseless energy, his liquid mind flowing into itself. Is that why he’s not afraid?

You’re faced with a choice.

Lev?

Either the abort function is restored

I’ll be able to go back?

or you’ll remain to find the other way back.

It’s Laura I need to find!

Then you’ve made your choice?

I don’t understand the choice.

That’s why it’s a choice.


The iglu perches on a wafer of ice, adrift in a sea darker than the darkest wine. Even from the air it would be impossible to guess the island’s size: the monochromic Arctic palette distorts scale as well as depth perception. Is there too much space in this place, or too little? Fulgur instrumentation would no doubt furnish a string of numbers, whose accuracy is an article of faith for their techs and scientists and policy makers. Yet absolute pitch doesn’t make a Mozart; and absolute faith, a deity. Zach, however, will not get to see it from above. His wings have been clipped.

Nor will he get to see Ethan strangle Chloe.


Trap or shelter? This is the question Zach asks himself as he stares at the iglu before him, its walls glowing with muted but beckoning light. Slowly he turns to take stock of his surroundings, and his memory.

‘Lev,’ he calls.

‘Lev,’ he shouts. ‘What’s going on?’

‘Lev!’ he screams.

A fierce updraft flings snow like a round of curses into his face, once upon a bitter time playground bullies, now a ground blizzard. Skin already burning under his mask, he’s left with little choice but to get out of the icy wind. As expected, the abort code proves useless. He scoots along the trench to the vestibule, then folds himself into the L-shaped cold sink at the entrance, a tight squeeze and at one point a panicky one, when it feels as though the trap has already been sprung and he will be wedged here forever, unable to wriggle forwards or back, frozen into the white purgatory of the Arctic. No one, he recollects grimly, talks about what happens to your head if you die in the Fulgrid. Are your neural circuits wiped so that you’ll be watching snowy static and crooning white noise till someone pulls the plug?

Once inside, he gets to his feet and throws a tense glance to all sides, then hunches over with his hands on his thighs to catch his breath. If there’s a trap, it’s not in the guise of a harpoon-brandishing hunter defending hearth and home. The iglu is lit by a large, cheerful storm lantern—not the traditional kudlik, or saucer-shaped soapstone vessel which burns seal fat—with candles and a supply of kitchen matches placed in readiness on a low wooden table, alongside a length of sturdy twine, a water bottle, and basic cooking utensils. The double-burner campstove looks new, and Zach assumes that the storage box contains food. The walls and hard-packed floor are lined with caribou fur, likewise the rear sleeping platform, on which a down bag, more pelts, and a pair of sealskin kamiks wait like favourite soft toys abandoned till bedtime, a little shabby but still loyal. On the right he sees a metal bucket, a spade, even a machete-like panak for cutting snow. A drum which probably contains fuel. Not much else, but it’s obvious that someone intends for him to survive. For now.

Zach huddles by the lantern, which emits a surprising amount of heat. Within a short time—measured by the metronome beat of his heart—he feels warm enough to take off his hat and mitts, unzip his anorak, and slump down onto the sleeping platform, where he gazes at the lantern, listens to its soft crooning, inhales the pungent smell of paraffin. The painful prickling of skin returning to normal body temperature seems genuine, yet he makes no move to undress further. With his fingertips he traces the line of jaw and cheek, the thin sharp slope of nose, at last his eyelids, trying to recapture the sensation of burning. But sensory memories are erased from the mind’s buffer within fractions of a second, as irretrievable as the previous tick of a clock, the final beat of a heart. Briefly, he wishes for a mirror. ‘Fool,’ he mutters, ‘as if that would prove anything.’ Shaken by the sound of his own voice, he resolves not to speak aloud again.

He’s tempted to remove his boots and crawl straight into the sleeping bag, but he forces himself to make a meal. And it’s true, he feels better after the mug of pemmican-and-noodle soup, the fistful of raisins. Underestimating their energy needs killed a great many Arctic explorers. He settles back amid the furs on the sleeping platform to gnaw on a slab of dried meat, thickly edged with fat, and tries not to think of the horror stories they used to tell after lights-out. No one was ever scared; no one admitted to bug-eyed insomnia, to nightmares or—the cringing horror of it—a wet bed afterwards. Zombies, for him, had been the worst: the living dead, sapiens who looked normal but had become inhuman simulacra of an already horrifying species.

Going without sleep isn’t an option. The other way back: WTF is that supposed to mean? Fulgur programmers ought not be allowed within reading distance of fantasy or science fiction. Even a spoilt dickhead like Owen would have no trouble foreseeing that the Abominable Snowman will seem a big, cuddly teddy bear, and the Snow Queen a fairy godmother, compared to the treats likely to be in store for Lord Zachariah, Archmage of the Realm of Fulgur—dupe, more like. He should have paid attention to the weirder totems of gaming, something no simu much bothers with.

After the last bite of biltong—a South African word he’s adopted—Zach rubs his fingers together, the greasiness a discomfort only tolerable as a salve to near-constant chapping. The lantern sighs like a living creature, and he gets up to reposition it. Or perhaps it’s the entire iglu which has awakened from a long hibernation in his presence. Beneath the insulating furs the walls are sweating, but when he turns the campstove down, they’ll refreeze into an even more airtight surface. Tomorrow he’ll calculate his fuel requirements, but a rough estimate—the drum is full—suggests that he’ll run out of food first. He can afford to sleep with the companionship of his lantern.

His belly is full, he’s warm, and the sleeping bag is for once long enough, yet sleep, fickle as a saucy goddess coyly fingering pomegranate tits, disdains his every offering, every lure and plea, every twist and roll and squirm. A book would help. He remembers how irritated he’d get with Lev during their long hours shut up together in the storm. He remembers the hunger for solitude—he could deal with bodily functions, it’s the way another person abrades your skin that leaves you so raw and oozing. He remembers longing for a book, any book, in which to escape for a while. He remembers waking from a nightmare with Lev’s arms around him, Lev’s breath like tobacco-scented unguent. Zach remembers that he’s promised himself not to remember.

‘I’m going for walk,’ he said.

‘Brr, it’s awfully cold,’ Laura said.

He moved to the window, beyond which lay miles of snowy darkness, woods and frozen lake.

‘Stay inside,’ he said.

‘You’re getting sick of being cooped up with me.’

He held out his hand to her then, and she joined him at the window.

‘Look,’ he said, breathing on the pane.

‘What?’

Again he frosted the glass with his breath.

‘I don’t understand,’ Laura said.

He smiled at their reflection. ‘Sometimes you need to cover something up in order to see it better.’

Zach flings aside the covers and yanks on the zip, the fabric catches and he’s forced, sod it, to spend some minutes easing it free of the teeth. Time lost? How much more inane can you get? He kicks off the sleeping bag and prowls round again, searching the iglu for clues, anomalies, anything really. At this point he’d settle for a sleeping pill, an aspirin even, toxic as the stuff is to his system. He finishes off the dregs of his soup, eats another handful of raisins. His water bottle is two-thirds full, hardly an excuse to venture outside. Undecided, he hovers near the entrance. His memory is good, he can recall quite a lot of poetry. A lot of music. There’s always the clarinet, but without Lev . . . anyhow, you don’t need an instrument to play for yourself. Often it just gets in the way like a bad translation. And what about the sonata he’d started in another life? Don’t leave it unfinished, Andy said. It’s for Laura, isn’t it? Write it, and you’ll write her into every beat and note. As if notes were knots stitching up all that’s come undone . . . 

‘You won’t fall in the lake, will you?’ she asked.

‘It’s frozen over,’ he said.

‘The ice might not be thick enough. It hasn’t been cold for that long.’

‘I’ll keep to the woods.’

‘What if you get lost?’

‘Look, I promise I’ll be OK.’

‘That’s not something you can promise.’

‘Simus keep their promises.’ His tone became wry. ‘And everyone knows we have a great sense of direction.’

She traced a loopy chain in the condensation on the window pane, again and again, loopier and loopier, threading her way from dot to precarious dot.

‘What?’ he asked.

‘Promise not to laugh.’

‘What?’ he repeated, already laughing a bit.

‘Take your clarinet with you.’

Then he did laugh. ‘You mean like a dog whistle?’

But she was serious. ‘I’ll hear it. Whenever you play, I hear your music.’

Hear it now. If there’s any justice in the universe, then hear it now.

His anorak is hanging to dry on the line he’s rigged between two of the antler toggles securing the overlapping caribou skins to the walls. He ducks under the damp folds and removes the clarinet case from an inner pocket. The instrument brightens at his touch, but Zach carries it gingerly to his bed and hesitates before putting it to his lips. As if in entreaty, it coughs a delicate subliminal cough while he recalls Lev on the ice, Lev laying his hands on Zach’s abdomen, Lev imploring him to practise. Wherever in this divine comedy you’ve gone, Zach thinks, I hope you know what you’re doing. He runs his fingers along the crystalline surface, wondering as always at its feel—the way warm ice might feel, or Bach’s Art of Fugue if worked in matter.

Its simple theme replays in his head: D minor, a serene key. Then the rest of the first contrapunctus, whose four voices fill the iglu with clear black notes like flocked birds in flight—now rising as one, now drawing apart to swoop and counter and plummet, now rising again, and rising, now infolding. Each note with its own sleek body and wings—singular, yet never alone. Meaningless alone.

Eyes closed, Zach waits for the notes to recurve and settle. For a measureless time he waits.

Finally, with a grimace at his stiffening muscles, he lays aside the clarinet, still untried, and lumbers to his feet. How did Bach do it? he asks himself as he bends and stretches. Single notes that anyone can repeat, even anticipate. And yet at some indefinable moment the notes become fugue become never-ending flight.

He adjusts the lantern and slips the elastic from his rather greasy hair, combs it through with his fingers. There’s a bar of strong-smelling yellow soap but no brush—no toothbrush or towel, for that matter either. Washing can wait. He’ll sleep in his underwear and fleece. Wind overalls still damp, he plucks his down trousers from the line, rolls them into a tight pillow, and covers them with one of the furs. After tugging off the kamiks, he slides inside his sleeping bag and rearranges several other pelts as blankets, with one for—well, for the feel of skin near his face, a ghost of breath. Inside the sleeping bag, the clarinet is tucked safely at his feet. He needs a reason for tomorrow.


Woodsmoke—the scent of cherrywood. Some spitting, a few sparks. She brushes a finger across his tattoo. I want to play your clarinet, she says. Yes, he says. She bends her head and rolls her lower lip, seals the corners of her mouth, blows a gentle stream of air until the reed begins to vibrate. Careful, he says. But she has a good natural embouchure, just the right pressure from her jaw. A single rising note, rising.

He wakes, at first disoriented. But as reality remixes, he fights it. Sometimes if you cling to the vestiges of a dream, you can go back. The firewood still a little green, the tree felled only this autumn. The cottage with its sauna and borehole and generator, its owls and mice. Laura’s childhood books, his clarinet. The snow. Their music.

Except that he has to deal with the lees. He wrangles out of the sleeping bag, so hungry that he must have slept for hours. Before even lighting the stove, it’s a fistful of raisins and a huge slab of something which resembles a cross between dark chocolate and freeze-dried tofu and Josh’s dish sponge but tastes surprisingly of ripe banana; surprisingly delicious. Once dressed in his down trousers, he rinses and hangs his things to dry. Coffee, he thinks with zest, extra strong with heaps of sugar. By then the water’s boiled, and he takes a few minutes to savour the aroma, the slightly smoky flavour—who thought they’d bother with such a luxury—and chews a bone-hard biscuit that probably contains enough kilojoules to power a wormhole. Maybe he’s got more time—more food—than he first supposed. Maybe nothing’s been left to chance. Maybe all he needed was sleep and a decent meal, a monkey meal—he can hear that indulgent chuff of Lev’s. Maybe, in fact, it’s time to trust him. After a last swallow of coffee Zach picks up the clarinet and begins to play.