‘It’s getting worse, and we’d bloody well better take some sort of action!’
Pelly sipped from his glass of sparkling water to keep from smiling. Slade was competent enough as a research head, but the squat toad had no clue about PR, and very little about crisis management. Must be fifty-three, fifty-four already. There was no way he’d ever make it in politics—no charisma, no mystique, no animal magnetism. He could manipulate terrified rabbits like Litchfield, but pit him against someone who understands market dynamics, and he’d go down faster than the crows they’d shot as kids. It would be like asking your grandmother to pitch the latest condom flavours to the rainbow generation. Come to think of it, his, Pelly’s, 78-year-old granny could probably do a better job of it than Slade.
The meeting wasn’t going well. No meetings called for Monday morning at eight went well. Those who were expected to attend usually fortified themselves in their private offices beforehand—except for Huang and his dour p.a., of course—Pelly’s choix du jour washed down with a hazelnut grande, extra cream no sugar. And when traffic was godawful, with a slurp of water from the tap, having just made it past security at a run. ‘Where’s the fire, Mr Pelly? Left your secretary on simmer?’ Wanker could only get away with sexist remarks like that because he was nearing retirement.
Pelly glanced round the boardroom while several people shifted in their chairs. Slade was always a model of rectitude, never so much as a hell or damn out of him. Even Huang, inevitably deadpan, blinked several times in rapid succession.
‘Perhaps more surveillance devices?’ Helena de la Croix suggested. She crossed her legs, and normally the hiss of her sheer black tights compensated for the commonplaces she uttered, the utter fatuousness of her proposals. There was always one at executive level—somebody smart and very hungry, but without the least soupcon of imagination. Even Slade could do better than CCTV, for Christ’s sake. But Helena was an asset to Fulgur, and Pelly knew it. Huang knew it. Hell, Fulgur himself probably knew it (and there were those rumours, subterranean as termites, about a radical project he’d initiated before his sudden death). Unless Legal Affairs poached Addison from Cortech, they’d find no one in the entire country with as comprehensive knowledge of international corporate law as Helena. Sometimes Pelly wondered whether a near photographic memory commandeered too many brain cells or synapses or whatever, so that not enough were left over for creative thinking. She was a great fuck, though, and absolutely as discreet as her profession required.
At a signal, Huang’s p.a. clicked through the next slides in the presentation. The images were cleverly arranged. (What else? Pelly himself had done it.) The latest bombing incident, first from a distance, then closer and closer shots, till they saw only a corpse . . . then parts of a corpse . . . then flesh that could have been an abstract mural . . . then bright gore. The sequence interspersed with graffiti in bright gory colours, everywhere in the city, and spreading like a virus: fuck augers, kill the Fulgur transfucks, Fulgur hires terrs, bomb Fulgur not babies.
‘As you can see,’ Huang said, ‘we have a situation.’
‘Do we really need to worry about some street vandals?’ Claire Murphy asked. Most of the others nodded, and the new blimpish bloke with the beard that didn’t quite conceal his scars—on loan from Jo’burg, supposed to be some sort of genius with net space—muttered ‘storm in a teacup’ under his breath. Obviously one of those pathetic sods who could copulate with the cyber world, but not the real one.
Lopez sat up from his disarming slouch and indicated with a flick of a finger that he’d like to speak. Nobody could ignore those brazen eyes. He’d have made a formidable journalist, even Pelly would give him that, the sort that smiled as he severed your vocal cords with a mellifluous phrase. It was rumoured the Brazilian commanded seven or eight languages; though Pelly’s own school Mandarin was a bit rusty, just last week he’d overheard Lopez discussing the latest provincial poetry with Huang, or maybe it was the latest provincial elections. Currently Human Resources, and one of the youngest team members.
Pelly caught Kantor’s eye, the glint in it. This would be good.
Lopez indicated the screen, and they all studied it once more. A caricatured simu with the ubiquitous Fulgur two-headed dragon emblazoned on his chest, wearing a lit bomb like a cap or turban on his head.
‘I don’t believe we should underestimate the potential of underground movements.’ Golden Boy’s English was perfect, unaccented. ‘History has repeatedly shown that they can be very potent indeed.’
Slade reasserted himself. ‘Fabio’s quite right to be concerned about the growing unrest. Never ignore the grassroots, I always say. These thugs may start with graffiti, but barricades and Molotov cocktails and burning effigies aren’t far behind.’ He tapped a forefinger against the side of his nose, a sure sign of an impending witticism. ‘I daresay we might find these artists jobs right here at Fulgur—in media or PR, say—where their talents could be put to productive use.’
‘With all due respect, Russell’ —there was very little humility in the smile Lopez directed at Slade— ‘I fear this may be a bit more serious than a few scrawled slogans. And already, at least in part, an internal problem.’ His smile broadened. ‘A Human Resources problem, you might say.’
He had them now, of course. Huang nodded to his secretary, who switched to a blank screen and took a seat.
‘Please continue, Mr Lopez,’ Huang said.
Surreptitiously, Keith activated the recorder function on his wrister. Lopez was a daredevil, but reliable; these Insec types were one of Randall’s smartest moves. Still, good security work never overlooked any possibility, no matter how remote. And Huang actually believed he was above such measures. Overbearing Asians, think they run everything. It amused Randall to let them switch off in-house surveillance, but he wouldn’t be satisfied with a transcript; he always insisted on replaying the sessions for himself. With the new sensors, you could see the slightest twitch, hear the slightest mutter; just about smell their sweat. Orientals never seemed to sweat.
‘I’ve had reports that some of our own employees are unhappy with the divisions which rely heavily on cognoscens talent,’ Lopez said. ‘Very unhappy indeed, in certain cases.’
‘Rumours, Fabio?’ Helena asked.
‘I’m not going to insult your intelligence by repeating that old chestnut where there’s smoke etc., but I will say that I’m fully capable of distinguishing between substantiated and unsubstantiated information,’ he said, his voice smooth as vanilla ice cream. The cholesterol hit came later. ‘While nothing is gained by being unduly alarmist, we can’t disregard the long history of fabricated terrorist attacks, often for political gain.’
‘Such as?’ Mfana asked, pawing his beard. He was always touchy about his homeland.
‘Such as the burning of German Reichstag in 1933. Such as the self-inflicted GEL epidemic in the U.S. in the late 90s. Such as what we may be witnessing right now.’
‘No one has ever established that the outbreak of GEL was a propaganda tool,’ Helena said.
‘It’s unlikely that it will go so far, Helena, but should you ever need airtight documentary evidence for court, Dr Huang knows that he can rely on my sources,’ Fabio said. ‘The Purists may not be outlawed, but some of their activities are at best questionable, and possibly downright criminal.’ His eyes rested for a moment on Keith. ‘Fulgur can hardly desire or afford such employees.’
‘Isn’t that a matter for Internal Security, or at least the police?’ Keith asked with a touch of belligerence.
Fabio permitted himself another smile. ‘It’s the responsibility of Human Resources to cooperate fully with government. We all know that the simus are beginning to agitate for a new Human Rights Act.’ —a sullen mutter of ‘depends on how you define human’ from Keith, largely ignored— ‘It’s in fact Fulgur’s express policy to support them in this endeavour—within the limits of the law, of course. I liaise regularly with the authorities, who keep a careful eye on simus and Purists both.’
‘Not careful enough, it seems, when people are being blown up,’ Helena said.
‘Helena’s right, there are simus, and simus,’ Keith said. ‘My son Tim’s in a couple of classes with one of ours. This Zach is a real troublemaker. Breaks every rule he can, and then some. You know how it is, kids hear things. At least one incident with the police already, a lot of earlier stuff that’s sealed. Savage stuff, too. And Tim told me our prize simu was there at the club when the bomb went off. He disappeared right after his date was blown to bits. Hasn’t pitched up at school since, the police have been questioning all the kids and teachers. Damned suspicious, isn’t it? Anybody else—any decent human being—would’ve stayed and done what he could to help. Like Tim and his mates did. One of their friends lost a leg, another—Litchfield’s girl—has been so traumatised that her parents have had to send her away for treatment.’
‘How sweet. A Purist in our midst,’ Mfana said rather sourly.
‘Purist isn’t a dirty word!’ Keith said. ‘I’m not a party type, but if someone talks sense, I listen.’ He swept his arm in a wide circle, nearly overturning Pelly’s glass of water. ‘And so should you. Fulgur needs its simus, but not the dangerous ones—the aberrant ones.’ His lips were moist, as though he couldn’t swallow fast enough. ‘The devis.’
‘The law makes provision for non-sapiens castration,’ Helena said. ‘In severe cases of antisocial personality disorder, particularly uncontrollable aggression.’
At once talk broke through the surface calm of the meeting, blisters of claim and counterclaim in a seething pool of verbal mud. Clay and mud have been used since ancient times to draw impurities from the body. Fabio kept his eyes on Claire, whose husband’s ‘snog blog’ was beginning to stray from the indiscreet to the inflammatory. Her salary was decent, but it was her husband’s network of sites which gave them the income to finance the country house, the carbon exemptions, the nanny, the holidays abroad; holidays, according to Mfana, which afforded breathtaking views of Table Mountain. A sociologist with a background in political and economic theory—and a father who had one time been Deputy Minister of Finance—she was something of anomaly at Fulgur, though her work in building virtual environments was considered exemplary. Most men would find her sleek, dark elegance attractive; Fabio found her feline. The sort of woman whose nails his mother had manicured. Nevertheless, the sort of woman who had her uses. Mfana was a frequent guest in her home.
Claire said very little, her attention following remark to heated remark. One opal fingernail punctuated the corner of her mouth whenever Keith spoke.
Huang raised a hand. ‘Ladies, gentlemen, please. We’re here to formulate a plan of action with regard to the escalating defamation of Fulgur and its cognoscens programmes, not to debate human rights issues. In a corporation of our breadth, the whole political spectrum—the legal political spectrum, I hardly need say—is bound to be represented. In fact, this is entirely desirable, hence the Board’s latest directives.’ He glanced openly at his wrister. ‘Now are there any relevant proposals?’
Pelly squirmed like a schoolboy with the right answer. It was never any different at these meetings—the same few vying for approval; most of the others hoping not to be called on to recite.
‘It won’t be too difficult to mount what we in PR like to call a raid—TV spots, net saturation, a decent song or two (I’ve got just the rapper in mind). Something along the lines of the classic black is beautiful model,’ Pelly said. ‘And for the more conservative, some well-documented material about how the simus are helping with research into psychotic disorders, intelligence enhancement, that sort of thing.’ He grinned, entranced by his own cleverness. ‘Maybe even an announcement that Fulgur is near a breakthrough on the neuropsychology of terrorism.’
‘There’s no such thing.’ Kantor rarely spoke at all, whether in a boardroom, his office, or a lab, though everyone knew his work on metapsychology was crucial to far more than the rehabilitation project. Over lunch, however, he’d been known to say too salty today or Geraldine replaced the light pad in the bathroom last night. ‘Only fools would believe there’s a clear-cut terrorist psychopathology. Even multidisciplinary research has yielded imperfect understanding of what is a very complex phenomenon.’
‘No problem,’ Pelly said. ‘I’ll need fifteen, twenty minutes of your time, say, to get down the key concepts.’
Kantor examined the biro in his hand as though it might write his next research paper on its own. Then with a small shrug he looked towards Huang for help.
‘Thank you, Mr Pelly, I have no doubts whatsoever in your ability to draft an effective campaign despite the awkward propensities of the more scientifically inclined members of our client base,’ Huang said.
Pelly beamed, which decided Huang. The man would have to be replaced. Despite his extensive network of media contacts and decided PR skills—he’d handled that last press conference with both boyish charm and finesse—he lacked the necessary subtlety for this particular division. Perhaps a place could be found for him in Business Communications. Even better—Multimedia Entertainment, which would suit his flamboyant talents. Huang would have a word with Maurice. ‘A lateral move, with much better opportunities for advancement. Someone like you is wasted in Neurocognition.’ It was always bad practice to offend PR people, you never knew where they might turn up a few years down the road. And Fulgur policy had always been clear—employee loyalty paid for itself many times over in increased efficiency, word-of-mouth marketing, fewer security risks.
‘Mr Lopez?’ Huang could see the amused lift to a corner of the man’s mouth, the almost sleepy crease to his eyelids. Not for the first time, Huang wondered if there were something in Lopez’s genetic atlas which didn’t appear in his records. Fulgur’s clearance procedure was exacting, but there were always ways to hide secrets—or aberrations. Especially for someone in Lopez’s position. Perhaps Manu could have another look. He was very meticulous, very discreet. Very loyal.
‘I’m certain Jim will mount an outstanding PR offensive, but it would be prudent to fight the problem on several fronts,’ Lopez said.
‘And you have a suggestion?’ Huang asked.
‘Oh yes, I’ve got a suggestion. A rather radical suggestion.’
‘Then perhaps you’ll be kind enough to share it with the team.’
‘Naturally. We’ll use one of our own simus—this Zach will be the perfect choice—as bait to flush out any radical activists. And not only in our own ranks.’
‘How?’ Kathy asked bluntly. ‘Some kind of undercover—’ A grating American accent. With bleached hair the colour of greasy chips and florid make-up to match, Kathy had one of the most astute minds in the room. And two doctorates, one in mathematics, one in biological engineering. ‘ —undercover operation? Spying, in other words?’
‘Not at all.’
‘Mr Huang will confirm that Fulgur is prepared to commit a certain amount of its resources to supporting the fledgling Janus party.’
‘Shrewd move,’ Claire said. ‘Judicious.’
‘A bunch of simu misfits, plus a few teenage hangers-on!’ Keith exclaimed.
‘Hardly that,’ Fabio said mildly. ‘It’s inevitable that simus want a voice; their own representation.’
‘What have the Janus got to do with our problem?’ Helena asked.
‘If we agree on this step’ —Huang inclined his head a fraction— ‘I think I may be able to persuade Zach to join. He’s exactly what they’re lacking—someone to rally round. A leader.’
‘How will that rid us of any terrs?’ Pelly asked. ‘Besides, from what Keith has said, you’ve got to admit it sounds like our Zach is one himself.’
‘A risk-taker, yes, maybe even something of a rebel, but no terrorist. I’ve scrutinised his profile and would stake my professional reputation on his innocence. But he’s very articulate, very charismatic, very uncompromising. He’ll tread on a lot of toes—the more, the better.’ He glanced for a moment at Mfana. ‘Using provocation as a political tool has been around for a good long time. And even school children know how to needle someone till they lose it.’
‘I don’t like it. He’s going to be in a precarious position,’ Kathy said. ‘A potentially lethal position.’
‘The police and Internal Security will be happy to cooperate with Fulgur if it means apprehending those responsible for the recent spate of bombings. They’ll keep an eye on Zach. As I will.’
Huang’s gaze circled the table, resting for a fraction of a second on Slade’s drumming fingers before returning to the American. ‘Unfortunately, Dr Shriver, we’re sometimes called upon to sacrifice the interests of an individual for the good of society as a whole.’ There was no mistaking the note of regret in his voice. Nor the faint smile on his lips, the first this morning.
Slade left off drumming to thrust his head forward. ‘Litchfield claims Zach is virtually indispensable to the rehab programme’ —a modest chuckle at his own pun— ‘but I don’t buy it. As far my department is concerned, a good simu serves Fulgur in any way necessary. You’ve got my vote.’
‘And you know what? We’ll sell it as community service,’ Pelly added.
‘Stupid fool, do you want to kill yourself?’ Laura asked as she heaped all the blankets she could find on top of Zach, who lay in front of the fire.
‘That might be the easiest solution.’
Despite the hot shower and even hotter drink, he was still shivering uncontrollably. After a moment’s reflection, Laura dragged off her clothes and dropped them onto the floor behind them.
‘What are you doing?’ he asked.
‘Shut up and make room for me.’
‘I don’t think this is a good idea.’
‘If you imagine I’m about to service you, you’re sadly mistaken.’
The seal pendant gleaming between her breasts, she slid beneath the covers. Her skin radiated brazen heat, like a brazier on a windy beach filled with fiercely glowing charcoal, and ignoring his protests, she stretched herself the length of his body and reached under his tracksuit to rub his back, his flanks, his buttocks with both hands. Though it took a while for the trembling to cease, he soon warmed.
‘Well?’ she asked with a mischievous smile.
‘A purely physical reaction.’
‘What a shame. I actually thought you might like me a little bit.’
It was his turn to tell her to shut up.
Later she brought them bowls of pasta, and they ate the garlicky meal on the floor without talking much. There was even some grated cheese to sprinkle over the sauce, and Laura finished with a few spoonfuls directly from the tin.
‘It’s the country air,’ she said. ‘Always makes me hungry.’
The roguish note in her voice went unnoticed. Zach set his plate aside and hugged his knees, staring at his own thoughts. After a short silence he spoke guardedly, ‘I’ve decided to go back tomorrow.’
Laura rose and carried their dishes to the kitchen. Despite her best efforts, the washing-up took less than a quarter of an hour. She swept the floor. Mugs of tea occupied her for another five minutes. Finally, she found some candles and a packet of biscuits, added them to the tray, and returned to find Zach in the same position, his eyes held by the fire.
‘Please don’t be racked,’ he said as she set the tray down before him.
Laura fitted the candles into holders on the couch table and lit them.
‘Look, Laura, what choice do I really have?’
She moved to the window, where the flames of candle and fire seemed imprisoned in the pane, caught like living butterflies under glass. She admonished herself not to cry—in the wild they would have soon perished, their fragile wings and lush colours reduced to ashen remains. She laid her hand on the glass. It was cold on her skin.
‘The roads are probably still blocked,’ she said.
‘It’s stopped snowing, just about. The main roads, at least, will be clear.’
The tea was getting cold. Laura went to the tray and knelt, but picked up her mug without drinking. Zach watched her as she gazed into its depths. The fire hissed and crackled from time to time, the cherrywood still a bit green though very aromatic—almost overpowering.
‘There’s no place else you can go?’ she asked at last.
‘Another country, you mean?’
He shook his head. ‘Fulgur has a long reach. And then there’s the serum. Without a job, I couldn’t afford black market prices for long.’
‘There’s vending in it?’
He laughed without much mirth. ‘Worth far more than heroin. With so few of us, the street market’s very limited, and Fulgur’s got the monopoly on manufacture.’
‘If I spoke to my dad . . . ‘ Her voice trailed off, it was too ridiculous even to contemplate.
Zach took her hand and turned it over as if he were studying her palm, her lifeline. When he raised it to his lips, she looked away. The expression in his eyes reminded her of an incident she hadn’t thought of in ages. One spring when the nights were still cold Max had found three tiny unfledged birds on the ground, next to them a nest which had obviously tumbled from the hawthorn. Max wanted to take the birds inside and care for them overnight, but her dad had insisted on replacing the nest. ‘The parents will be searching for them.’ Next morning Max had gone out just after dawn and brought her the lifeless, milk-white little things, huddled together in the nest, bones folded under their skin and heads way too big for their bodies. Though he hadn’t cried, his eyes had been lost inside his face the way colour is lost inside a drizzle.
‘Max needs me,’ Zach said.
Laura jerked her hand away. ‘A lot of good you’ll do him if some thugs get you first!’
‘I’ve been thinking about it. I might move into housing for a while.’
‘I thought you don’t trust Fulgur.’
‘I don’t, but they won’t dispense with me just yet.’
‘How can you be so sure?’
‘A successful business looks after its assets. I’m pretty much the best they’ve got.’ There was no arrogance in his voice, rather a weary resignation.
A long silence before she dared to whisper, ‘And what about us?’
His answer was to fetch his clarinet.
And when he played for her, Laura couldn’t tell if he’d opened a sealed casket of jewels or frail ash-white bones.
Next morning Zach rose just after dawn and dressed quickly in the cold.
‘Did you hear the hooting at night?’ Laura asked. ‘We even get Snowy Owls sometimes when they migrate this far south. Max likes to imitate their calls.’ Max, with his first pair of binoculars. Max, searching the net for toxicity reports on birdseed. ‘You’d think he was talking to them, asking about their lives in the Arctic.’ Maybe the reason he loved animals so much was that he couldn’t hear them.
‘Yeah, I heard them.’ Zach picked up her jumper from the floor and shook it out. ‘Want some tea?’ he asked, draping the jumper over a chair near the window. ‘I’m going to make a pot, then go for a walk.’
‘Why so early?’ He hadn’t slept well; several times at night his restlessness had woken her.
‘I need to clear my head.’
She saw his face and sat up in bed. ‘Stop blaming yourself.’ When he turned away, she hesitated for a long moment before asking, ‘Zach, who’s Ben?’
He appeared not to have heard. The remains of their late-night sandwiches lay on a plate near the bed, mostly the hard crusts she’d left from Stella’s dark bread. It gratified Laura to break this, one of her mum’s strictest rules—though of course there were plenty of rules, all of them strict, all of them demented. But food on the floor was about as grievous a transgression as unnatural carnal sins. Dropping crumbs was worse than dropping your knickers.
Zach scooped up the plate, then went to the window and threw it open. After tossing out the crusts, he balanced the plate on the window ledge and stood with his back to the room, as though watching for the morning’s first birds. Within a short while he began to shiver, and Laura wrapped the blankets tighter round her shoulders, though the fresh air smelled vibrant with promise; a new day.
He turned round, hugging himself, and Laura understood then that the open window was a stratagem to disguise the reason for his shivering.
‘Don’t you want to tell me about Ben?’ she asked gently.
‘Which Ben do you mean? There’s a couple at school . . . ‘
Did he think her a simpleton? ‘Sometimes at night you cry out his name.’ She heard the note of irritation in her voice and held out a hand. ‘Come on, it’s freezing. Shut the window and get back under the blankets.’
As he moved to close the window, his arm caught the plate and it fell to the floor with a clatter but without breaking. Zach picked it up, stared at it for a few seconds, then all at once pitched it outside and slammed the window so hard that Laura feared the pane would shatter.
‘Christ, what a perfect birthday present,’ he said.
‘It’s your birthday?’
‘Carla’s.’ A bitter laugh. ‘I asked her out to celebrate her twenty-first.’
‘I should have known you’d like older women.’
‘She’s dead!’ he snapped.
Her fingernails digging into a forearm under the duvet, she couldn’t believe she’d said that. When would she finally learn to think before twatting off?
‘Look,’ he said after a moment, ‘something tells me they planted the explosive on her—in her bag, maybe.’
‘It was an evening bag—very small.’
Another girl would have understood the significance of Laura’s powers of observation, but to her relief, Zach, in a typically laddish manner, marked only her technical ignorance.
‘That’s no problem these days. You can put a powerful bomb into a pen, a tube of lipstick.’
‘Is it possible she—’ She stopped, reluctant to spell it out.
‘Carla? A suicider?’ The suggestion was so far-fetched that he kept his temper. ‘Even I’m a more likely candidate.’ He turned back to the window, breathed on the glass, and began tracing patterns with a fingertip in the condensation. Her parents hadn’t bothered with the latest glazing for the cottage. ‘My escape from hypertech,’ her dad had said.
‘Then it’s not your fault, is it? If you’re right about Carla, she was probably picked at random—any simu would have done.’
‘Yeah, you lot can’t tell us apart anyway.’ At the sound of her response, part snort and part squawk, he left off doodling and faced her. ‘Laura, simus can’t keep taking this stuff. I made a mistake by running away, I wasn’t thinking straight. It’s never a good idea to underestimate your enemy. These people plan their strategy. I’m convinced I was supposed to die in the blast. But now they’ll play it for all its worth. The only way to prove I’m not an inhuman monster—we’re not—is to go back and fight.’
‘But why you? Because of some solidarity work, Nigel’s flash posters? A blog campaign doesn’t make you a terr!’
He shrugged. ‘People are beginning to take notice.’
‘Then why not hide the bomb in something of yours?’
‘I’m a lot more careful than Carla would have been.’
‘She was working with you?’ Hoping this was true, ashamed of hoping, and hoping even more that nothing in her face would betray her. She was good with a casual tone, but sometimes at the expense of her expression. How did actors manage to concentrate on everything at once?
‘Ironic, isn’t it? Carla was about as apolitical as you can get. She was studying to become a dentist, for godsake.’ His morose smile leaked around the edges. ‘She even liked cleaning teeth.’
Laura wrapped herself in a blanket and went to him. For a few minutes they stood quietly together, their breath fogging the windowpane. They could have been two children looking into a picture book. Out into a enchanted tableland of snowy linen and silver and crystal, just beginning to be tipped by light.
‘It’s so beautiful, like a fairytale,’ Laura said.
‘Not the Snow Queen, I hope.’
In her dream she was swimming in a sea of light. Slowly she awakened, or half awakened, to the certainty she’d just clambered into a boat, which rocked slightly under her weight. Water ran from her hair, and for a few seconds she closed her eyes again, rocked and floated, rocked, trying to recapture the ripples, the eddy and spume of her dream, the tendrils of glossy black seaweed. Then she realised that the entire room was submerged in dazzling sunlight, pouring through the window, through her pores—transforming her eyelids into panes of skin. Yawning, she sat up and stretched. What time was it? The wooden floorboards gleamed as though freshly burnished, a tender black hair floated in the pool of light warming Zach’s pillow, she must have slept for hours.
Abruptly she pushed back the covers.
‘Zach?’ she called out on her way to the kitchen. At the threshold she stopped, began to giggle. Across the floor lay a trail of footprints cut from white paper, a stack of which was always kept on the living room bookshelf for homework and scribbling. On every footprint he’d drawn a bright red big toenail, each in a different shape—square, triangle, rhomboid, heart. The trail led from the kitchen table through the living room into the hall; the last footprint was fixed under the front door, so that Laura could only see its heel. Enjoying the anticipation—prolonging it—she skipped back to the kitchen, drank some cold tea from the teapot on the table, and went to get dressed.
His clarinet case toppled over when she opened the front door, and she righted it with surprise. Was there some fundi reason he’d put it on the porch? Something to do with acoustics? It was one of several sturdy plastic models he owned for difficult conditions, and typical for him, a vintage instrument: a Bundy, wasn’t it? Wooden clarinets tend to crack in the cold, he’d said.
She didn’t have far to search. Yesterday she’d been yearning to make a snowman; this morning Zach had built one near the path she’d cleared. But not a snowman—a crow about the height of a fair-sized dog, a lab or collie. And in its beak was wedged a paper cylinder.
Laura unrolled the piece of paper. It contained a hand-drawn music staff, some notes. Across the top Zach had written in ink: Clarinet Sonata in E Major, For Laura. And at the bottom: to be continued . . .
It took her a few moments to recognise what she’d probably known all along—she’d better carry a ball of stout twine for the labyrinths into which Zach’s mind would lead her.
‘You crazy wonderful idiot,’ she whispered.
Back in the house she nibbled on a hunk of cheese and an apple while she assembled the ingredients for scones. Plenty of homemade jam on the pantry shelves, packets and packets of longlife cream and milk. No matter how much she resented her mum’s obsessions, there were times when they could be useful. As Laura dumped flour into a bowl and added baking powder and salt, her mind sifted through possible objects to leave for Zach as a reply to his message. She poured in cream, then stirred. Too thin, the dough looked like soft drifts of snow, her wooden spoon leaving sleigh tracks for the love-hungry to follow. That was it! Dropping the spoon with a grin, she wiped her hands on her jeans and went to rummage in Max’s room. He never threw anything away; his old colouring books ought to be there somewhere.
In fact, it didn’t take her long to find the yellowing book. Laura ripped out a picture of the haughty Snow Queen on her sledge, which Max had coloured mostly in blues and silver, with odd touches—long black fingernails, a purple shadow along one cheek and her throat. With a red felt tip Laura scribbled across the top: Come inside, she can’t have you! Then she rolled it up, slipped an elastic round it, and dashed outside without bothering with boots and jacket to lever it firmly into the snowcrow’s beak.
The scones were cooling on a rack when she heard the sound of the clarinet. Again she tore through the cottage and yanked open the door. There he was in the snow, nose and cheeks reddened, clarinet case slung over his shoulder by a strap, eyes golden with laughter, playing. A madman.
When he saw her, he launched into something soulful, and she stood hugging herself till he’d finished.
‘It’s wonderful,’ she said. ‘What is it?’
‘It’s by O.V. Wright, an American who died in the late 70s. The usual story—drugs, hard life. Some of his stuff really hurts. I’ve got a compilation of his songs back at the flat, if you want to listen to them.’ His smile was hard to interpret. ‘You’ve still got the key.’
‘I’ll wait for you.’
He tucked the clarinet under his arm and picked his way towards her, the sheet from the colouring book poking out of his pocket along with his gloves.
‘What’s this one called?’ she asked.
‘We’re Still Together.’
‘When did you realise that Max was a simu?’ Laura asked, her mouth full of scone. ‘How did you realise?’
‘It’s really your brother’s story,’ Zach said, then ducked. ‘OK, OK.’ He licked whipped cream from his forefinger and took a long sip of tea. ‘Delicious scones.’
‘And jam. And cream. And tea. When you’ve run out of stuff to compliment, you might try answering my question.’
God, but could he smile.
‘For a long time—months probably—I’d noticed Max watching me at school, but at first I thought it was . . . ‘ Zach fished a stray hair from his plate. ‘You know.’
‘You’re too prickly. Sometimes it’s just ordinary curiosity.’
Zach studied the hair for a moment before flicking it to the floor. ‘Max hasn’t told you about the mute swan?’
‘Another animal he’s rescued?’
Zach prodded a crumb with a fingertip, then skated it round his plate like a reluctant novice with wobbly ankles. Laura waited, silence her sharpest blade. Max had gone through an ice hockey phase when he was about nine or ten, reading everything he could find, dreaming of games and leagues and stardom—or had he? Once she would have sworn she understood him through and through, his skull as transparent as a new skin of ice on water—only the faintest refraction to distort his inner depths. The ice hadn’t merely thickened; now coated with frost, it had become a half-silvered surface which transformed the entire world into his personal spyroom. Except, of course, that it had always been—in her own blindness she hadn’t noticed.
Waiting, Laura imagined ice-skating with Zach on the lake, rolling the huge round base of a snowman, heating the sauna and rolling in the snow . . . Was there any way to keep him here for another day? Round and round her eyes chased his finger chased his thoughts. Laura, someone called. She jerked round, the sudden movement slicing into Zach’s reverie.
‘What?’ he asked.
‘Nothing. I thought I heard a voice.’
He listened carefully, then shook his head. ‘Nobody’s there.’ Though she tried to keep her face blank, he reached over and took her hand. ‘What’s wrong?’
She shrugged, but his silence could be very insistent.
‘It’s nothing, really,’ she said. ‘Just sometimes, for a moment, I hear my mother.’
This time he traced a finger along her lifeline, so delicately that she shivered at the sensation. It felt as though he were writing on her skin with a ghostly quill and invisible ink.
‘She doesn’t own you, Laura.’
Laura smiled, a decent effort. There was no point explaining that she could still hear the echo, as eerie as Max’s mimic hootings of an owl. And was afraid she always would.
‘You were going to tell me about the swan.’
His fingers went back to crumbling fragments of scone.
‘Max had never heard the voice of an animal before. It scared him. Terrified him. I came home to find him huddled against the door to my flat, but it took hours before he’d speak.’
‘When was this?’
‘Not long after the adder bite.’ Zach spoke evenly, she couldn’t tell if his gargoyle grin concealed a deep-running hurt. ‘Just as well, otherwise your parents might have noticed something was wrong with Max.’
‘Try not to blame your brother. It’s been very difficult for him, and secrecy becomes a habit.’
‘You ought to know.’ When he looked away, she felt ashamed. Like poorly controlled blade edges, conversations with him always seemed to skate off in unwelcome directions. ‘Listen, I’m sorry. All I meant was it’s my parents, not Max, who’d be at fault. My mum sees only what she wants to see, and as for my dad—’ She stopped short, annoyed to find herself on the verge of a rant. It was time to resurface the rink. ‘Please, let’s start over. What happened with the swan?’
‘Max was coming home from football practice and made a detour through the docklands.’
‘Yeah, well. He wanted to check up on an injured water vole he’d been nurturing. He was afraid the reed bed might have frozen over.’
‘Don’t voles hibernate in winter?’
‘Not according to Max. They burrow into mudbanks, even under the snow.’
‘What about the swan?’
‘I’m coming to it. Max located his vole, fed it, tossed some stale bread to a group of swans in the river. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have the heightened acoustic range of most simus, so the blisters were able to sneak up on him.’
‘Simu slang. People who feed on kids. Not simus, obviously, otherwise he’d have sensed them.’
‘No. More like hucks who vend fresh meat to the highest bidder. Usually to China, where they’re still exotic.’
‘Shit. What happened?’
‘The swan happened. A big brute of a cob, Max said. Told Max to throw himself to the ground, then flew in hissing like Vengeance itself. A few seconds later, several other swans joined the attack. Their wings are terribly powerful.’
Laura began to laugh. ‘I don’t believe it! Makes a good story, though. What did Max actually do? In football it’s his imagination, and his snark, that make him so brilliant. He’s always pulling something unexpected. Good thing there aren’t any rules banning telepaths from playing.’
‘If you’d seen Max, you wouldn’t—’ Zach broke off and tilted his head.
He held up a hand, but after a few seconds flipped back his hair in a gesture that in fact reminded Laura of her grandfather, who kept his elegant silverwhite coif just a touch overlong. ‘Like a mistress,’ he liked to quip. Once Laura had overhead her Aunt Alice muttering vicious remarks to her sisters, though neither of them would have dared to say anything to their father openly. Otherwise there was nothing at all similar about Zach and Granddad, except perhaps their startling intelligence, their musicality. And their fondness for Max.
‘My turn to be hearing things,’ Zach said.
‘Not any swans, I trust?’
‘Look, it’s not like Max claims they have human language.’
‘He’s always had a special rapport with animals. You mean he hears their thoughts?’
‘No, he doesn’t. I’m not sure it’s even possible cross-species. It would be interesting to see what would happen with an alien intelligence. If any are out there, which seems unlikely.’
‘But you said—’
‘—that the swan spoke to him. OK, that was the abridged version.’
‘And the whole text?’
‘Fulgur has been dabbling in some very freaky, very secret, and very illegal transgenic engineering.’
Laura stared at Zach while she worked out whether you could possibly adapt a human nervous system for a bird. ‘Where would the brain fit?’
‘It depends on how you define brain.’
‘Could you please try to make sense?’
‘Your dad could tell you a lot more about it than me. I’m not privy to that kind of information. But piecing together what I know about neurochip development, and what Max learned from the swan, it appears that Fulgur is playing with uploading consciousness in different ways.’
‘AI, you mean?’
‘Not exactly.’ He hesitated, and Laura could see he was reluctant to continue. ‘Look, I’m not supposed to talk about what I do there.’
‘You don’t seem particularly loyal to Fulgur.’
‘They pay the bills.’ He gestured angrily. ‘They own us.’
‘There’s got to a be way to do something about the serum. I’ve been netting round. Isn’t a monopoly on certain kinds of medicine illegal? Under the Essential Drugs Act?’
‘Yeah, except who wants to bring a test case?’ His laugh was short, and bitter. ‘For a handful of freaks? And anyway, challenging Fulgur is never easy—or particularly healthy.’
‘Aren’t you overdoing the sinister stuff just a bit?’
‘Then ask your dad what goes on when Fulgur exercises its simu option. Or better yet, what goes on when someone refuses to accept the contract. Ask him why he’s kept Max’s secret for so long.’
‘Because my mum—’ she began, then stopped. ‘God, how stupid of me, I should have realised, Dad must have faked Max’s gatlas.’
They were silent, both aware of the consequences of such a stratagem. Only someone who was very desperate, or utterly mad, skirted public exposure in quite that way. There had been dissidents in every society, they’d learned about the phenomenon in history and political science and even psychology, but this was different. The world had changed.
‘You’re afraid for Max,’ Laura said slowly.
‘Yeah.’ He pushed back from the table and stood, resting his long beautiful hands on the back of his chair. ‘For all of you.’
A brackish scum on the tea in her mug, and barely lukewarm. Nevertheless Laura swallowed some before getting up to help Zach, who had begun to clear the table. There was plenty of hot water from the range, and she enjoyed watching his hands at work—the sure, graceful movements for even the most humdrum task. They never seemed hurried no matter how fast his fingers flew. She touched him on the arm.
‘Can we at least wait till afternoon before leaving? There’s still so much to talk about, and I was looking forward to building a snowman with you.’
‘My crow too tame?’
‘Why did you pick a crow? Everyone thinks they’re such pests.’
‘A sadly maligned bird. They’re clever and loyal and playful, if a bit noisy. Often fearless too.’ He made a raucous sound in his throat, half laugh, half gurgle, and Laura groaned before aiming a finger pistol at his head. ‘And hard to exterminate,’ he added, now smiling in that wry way of his. ‘Though individually not long-lived, their numbers are on the increase.’
‘I like your crow just fine.’ Laura slipped a hand under the waistband of his jeans so that her fingers rested over his navel. ‘But once in a while I crave a nice round belly, something with heft.’ She gave him enough of a pinch for him to yelp and grab for her, his hands dripping sudsy water. The ensuing scuffle might have given them a few more minutes if Zach hadn’t stopped to remove a twist of hair from her mouth, but there’s always a bully waiting behind a tuft of maram grass to kick your castle to ruins, your lives to arid dune.
Zach went still. An electric stillness, the sort Laura remembered from the one time on holiday that she’d been stung underwater by a jellyfish, and the excruciating surge of pain had cracked the hourglass of her skull, so that all thought and all volition drained into the sea, and there was nothing but sensation, she was nothing but pain, and she’d been unable, for a few seconds or as many minutes, to move. Or breathe, which had probably kept her from drowning in the strong undercurrent.
Even as a little kid, she’d been exceptionally good at holding her breath. Max hated how she always won, but had never given up trying to beat her. She stared at Zach, held her breath and stared. She had the feeling that winning this time would be no win at all.
‘Is there some place for you to hide?’ he asked.
‘Several cars are headed this way. Two, I think, and one might be a van or off-road vehicle.’
‘Can you tell where they are?’
‘Close enough. They’re moving slowly in the snow, but I’d guess from the muffled sounds that they’ve already turned off the main road into the lane. You wouldn’t happen to have neighbours you haven’t told me about?’
He shrugged, tried to smile.
‘Police?’ she whispered.
‘Maybe. Probably, unless some trippers are out on a picnic.’
‘There’s no real place to hide except the wood.’
‘Hurry up and get dressed then. Go out the back door and round by the shed, where the tracks will be harder to follow at first.’
‘I know the woodland better than they ever could. We’ll lose them, tracks or no tracks.’
‘You will.’ ‘You’re not suggesting—’
‘There’s no time to argue.’
Laura crossed her arms in front of her chest. ‘Absolutely not.’
Under her steadfast gaze his eyes changed from molten to sea glass, from kiln fire to ash. Their colour had never been more impenetrable. He sighed. ‘Look, I’ll tell them you didn’t come with me, that I stole the key from you or broke in or something.’
‘Yeah, as if they’ll believe that.’
‘I doubt they’ll care, so long as they can bring in their trophy.’
‘I told you. No.’
‘Please, Laura. Don’t do this. You’re putting Max in danger.’
She stepped close and gathered a fistful of his jersey over where his tattoo must be. A strong trace of woodsmoke clung to his clothes, but she could also smell the unique signature of his skin—sweet like fresh-pressed cider, peaty, intense.
‘You can’t teach me anything about manipulation, I’ve imbibed it all with my mother’s milk. Max would want me to stay.’ She laid her head against his chest to listen to his heartbeat. ‘And so do you.’