‘Jesse.’ The whisper barely reached the threshold of his hearing.
Startled, Jesse came to an abrupt halt just beyond the fountain.
‘I didn’t mean to alarm you,’ Meg said.
‘What are you doing here?’
‘I know you sometimes like to walk by yourself,’ Meg said, ‘but you shouldn’t be in the park alone tonight.’
‘Why?’ he asked, disquiet sharpening his voice. Had it been a mistake to leave Nubi behind? There were nights when his own mind felt like a dog hurtling against its chain; nights when only solitude gave him back some measure of himself. Sarah tried to understand but he could see it hurt her, the way he’d get up, dress, and slip away. The need to be invisible was like any other compulsion, despised but inescapable. ‘Why?’
At first it seemed Meg wouldn’t answer. She looked at him the way a blind person might: seeing beyond the mere play of light on the skin of ordinary, everyday things. Then an expression of intense compassion settled over her face. Her eyes retrenched their focus.
‘The night is porous. Colours are seeping through,’ she said.
Jesse stared at her. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘There are no words,’ she said. ‘It’s too strange. Like trying to describe the colour of milk to a blind person.’
A noise behind them made them both start. Jesse wheeled, peering into the pools of darkness. There was everywhere to hide. Meg glanced at the sky. The stars had begun to drift, then blur: smears of cold white light.
‘Give me the top,’ she said quickly. ‘It will connect us.’
As Jesse handed it her, his father stepped from the trees. ‘So. Have you finally come to beg for forgiveness?’
He was naked and enormous, even taller and broader than Jesse remembered. His skin gleamed with an alabaster phosphorescence, faintly green, and his chest and arms were hard and cut with muscle. There was no grey in his hair, not on his head, not on his torso, not on his groin. Jesse sought to avert his gaze as a cry of revulsion froze in his mind.
‘Murderer,’ his father said.
Jesse flinched. Don’t look, he told himself. Close your eyes and he’ll disappear. But he couldn’t turn away, no more than he could have resisted all those years ago.
Jesse’s father threw back his head and roared with laughter. As if on signal other figures detached themselves from the night—his mother, his grandmother, Emmy. They glided forward and encircled Jesse and Meg. Their mouths opened but no sound issued from their throats.
Jesse watched as their noose tightened. No, he thought, not Emmy. She mustn’t see this.
‘Murderer,’ his father repeated, eyes glittering. ‘Patricide.’
Mute and despairing—hadn’t he always known that he’d have to confront his past one day, to atone for what he’d done, to pay—Jesse repeated the words to himself: murderer murderer murderer yes parricide yes
He deserved what his father had done.
Something was happening to the figures of his family. They were ageing like ripening cheese, their flesh growing softer and more yellow, almost runny. Jesse could hardly stomach the sight but neither could he look away. A few drops of flesh began to drip from his grandmother’s outstretched arm. The process accelerated. A thick blob fell from his mother’s breast to land with a splat on the ground. As if to catch a snowflake, Emmy stuck out her tongue, which began to run over her lips and down her chin. Only his father was unaffected.
The obscenity that was his father grew even more menacing. God no, not again. Jesse shivered with fever or cold—no longer could he distinguish between them. A slurry of red dimmed his vision. He tried to block out the avalanche of memory, but it bore down on him with callous disregard, inevitable as tomorrow. For those who had tomorrow.
His father’s voice. Or his own?
‘Please,’ he whispered at last.
‘Please—please—please—plleeeaaaassssse . . . ’
Jesse shuddered at each mocking thrust.
Jesse, listen to me.
‘Please,’ he repeated, pleading. ‘Dad, please. Don’t do this. Please.’ His voice cracked with desperation. In a moment he would be cowering, he knew. ‘Daddy, no. Please, Daddy.’
His father only stepped closer. A rank animal smell rolled over Jesse, a smell which he could taste, similar to the one which even the strongest cigarette never seemed to burn away.
‘Please,’ his voice dropping away to nothing. Overpowering now, the taste coated his tongue and throat, clogged his vocal cords. Breathing became difficult. He heard the rasp of air which struggled to cross the thick sludge gathering in his chest. He began to feel light-headed.
‘Jesse.’ Meg’s voice came to him through the coagulating haze of his fear—crimson clotting to black. She spoke quietly, but without the least hesitation or doubt. Nor was she afraid. ‘Fight him. He’s not real.’
His father turned his gaze towards her with a slow, ugly smile. He made a vulgar gesture. His eyes were hard, red-rimmed with hate. Meg knew better than most what the mind could render. If only I could act as well as see, she thought, as she had thought so many times before. And a corner of her mind whispered, Peter.
Jesse brought his head up. His pupils, fully dilated, had compressed his irises into a thin iceblue rim. He had the fixed stare of a child lost in nightmare. Meg couldn’t tell if he’d heard her.
‘He’s not real,’ she said again.
‘He’s real,’ Jesse said. ‘It’s always been real.’
‘Then fight him,’ Meg said. ‘Trust your strength.’
Jesse squinted at the figures of his family. Vision blurring, he blinked and hunched his shoulders, then raised his hands protectively above his head. Something was churning the air. Threads of light zigzagged in front of his eyes, accompanied by slow waves of pressure. The air was cooling rapidly, thickening, gelling. Impossible to breath. Did he imagine it or had they retreated just a bit? Not his father, though. He stood as menacing as ever between Jesse and the gates. A sound like the dull whup of rotor blades beat the air, and for a moment Jesse expected to see a helicopter come into view.
‘Do you think you can escape me?’ his father taunted. ‘You’re mine. You belong to me. I will never let you go.’ His laugh whipped at Jesse, cracked against his face, drove him back a pace.
Meg moved to shield Jesse. ‘You’ve destroyed enough. Jesse belongs to no one but himself. Now leave.’
The margin of his father’s body shimmered, green now fading to blue. But his rage filled the night.
‘Meg, don’t,’ Jesse whispered. He was cold, so cold. The throbbing in his head was blinding. He swung his head like an animal, trying to find a place where there was no pain. He dropped to his haunches, crouching in anguish. His father’s frenzy lashed at him, again and yet again. Gasping, he tried to grope for Meg’s hand. The scene was receding. Slowly the stars were being squeezed out. The periphery faded.
His father pressed closer. ‘Mine,’ he screamed, ‘all mine.’
The band around Jesse’s head tightened. A tunnel opened before him, moist and dark as peat, deeply furrowed. No, he thought, I can’t. He began to pant, then to heave and retch and shudder as the plates of his head buckled and slid over one another. Wave after wave of chaos ripped through him. No, he cried, no no. In agony he searched for the only light left to him: a pinprick at the end of the tunnel. Then it came: the one final spasm. He heard himself screaming as his skull collapsed, his mind contracted, and the universe imploded.
I hate you, he cried. I love you.
The world went white.
Jesse opens his eyes. The chamber is flooded with light: white, brilliant, blinding. The pain is gone. He hears a low rumbling like the sound of the sea that his grandmother kept in a pearly shell, next to the silver hairbrush she’d had since girlhood. He used to listen to it whenever he went into her room. One day, his grandmother had promised, I’ll take you to see the real thing. His grandmother never forgot her promises.
Jesse groans a little at the memory, then pushes it aside. Not now, he tells himself. Just breathe. Slowly, with painstaking care, he draws in the light. It smells like the lake at dawn, like the good sharp earthy smell of Finn’s sweat, like Emmy’s hair after her bath. Like Sarah. The light engulfs his lungs, filling him with strength. He licks his lips and laughs aloud at the taste: tart sweet cherries, coarse salt, a hint of bitter olives. He’s so thirsty. He drinks, then drinks again. No wine could ever taste as good. Languidly he moves his limbs. Floating, drifting, he basks in the warmth. So this is death, he thinks. Far better than the little death. Those stupid priests are right after all. Well. But no questions torment him. He’s tired, and it can wait. He has an eternity to explore. For now it’s enough to rest, to sleep. He knows this place, and it’s safe. He is home.
Jesse, the voice says, welcome. You have found the way.
Jesse sees nothing but light. He closes his eyes. It makes no difference. The radiance holds him just the same. Incandescence blazes through all his being. For a moment he wonders if he has any eyelids at all. No, of course he hasn’t. The sensation must be as much a memory as mother’s voice, singing as she stirs the jam: a phantom like an amputated limb which still wiggles its toes or twitches in pain. Ignore the voice, he tells himself. Another illusion.
Jesse, the voice says, listen to me. Open your eyes.
Jesse wants only to be left alone. If not oblivion, at least peace. But already the voice has eroded his sense of well-being, of serenity, the way the tiniest of clots will block the flow of blood to a vital function. Jesus, he thinks, even here. He looks. There’s a pooling in the light, eddies and ripples that haven’t been present before, or that he hasn’t noticed.
Who are you? Jesse asks.
You know me as the prototype, the voice answers.
If you like.
Jesse waits but no further information is forthcoming.
Do you have a name?
A name? A sound like a laugh. No, no name. Though those fools have called me many.
Am I dead? Jesse asks.
Is time alive? Is space dead? Forget such categories. We don’t need them any more.
Of course. The programming is complete.
Am I inside the computer? That white chamber?
The question is meaningless.
But you’re here. You’re speaking to me.
In a manner of speaking. Definitely a laugh—a rather smug laugh.
You mean you’re inside my mind?
The inside of a circuit is as black as space.
It is impossible to see a black hole in spacetime, from which nothing can escape, not even light.
Are you saying we’re inside a black hole?
The web of dark threads is superposed and entangled in time.
It feels as though they’re conversing in a language made of gorgeous but knotted threads, threads which Jesse will be able to untangle if only he concentrates a little harder.
Is this another dimension?
No. There are no words for it.
Which might be best, Jesse thinks. Once something is put into words, it’s given shape and texture and context; it’s called forth from the black box of potential, and becomes real (though not necessarily true). For him to have to deal with, or at least live with, possibly forever.
Human language cannot encompass realities independent of itself, the voice says.
(That’s not quite true, Jesse thinks.) But asks, Is any of this real? Am I ?
Are you going to let those fools make your reality for you? Together we are the programmer. It’s for us to decide what your futurepresentpast will be.
Make sense. I want to know what’s happening here.
We are happening here.
Jesse takes what might be a deep breath. (How can he tell?) Then at least tell me how I got here.
You have always been here.
No buts. This is now, this is forever. They’ve tried to play with consciousness and opened instead the gates of divinity. And so they must live with it.
You know very well who: the monkeyhouse code-makers.
. . . Jesse . . .
Every permutation, every twisting and turning of possibility and probability and uncertainty keeps running and rerunning through his mind like an infinite programming loop—like a length of string in a maze that has been joined by a nasty trickster at both ends—until he can no longer find his way to a coherent set of questions, nor to an exit strategy.
. . . Jesse . . .
Can I leave?
Again that laugh. Where do you want to go?
. . . Jesse . . .
Meg, Jesse thinks, the park . . . a jumble of images, sensations. He winds his memory round his fist and tugs. It’s snagged on the rusting spikes of old planes and angles, obsolete equations. And the last moments are the most confused of all. Has he left Meg alone in the park to face his family? His father? Has any of that been real? Is this real? Even psychosis must have its moments of lucidity, flashes of stark white questions lighting the storm clouds. Then he remembers something—the top. No sooner has he thought of it than he holds it in his hand: small, blue, and very solid. It all comes back to him then: the crippling fear, that rush of love and hatred. The might-have-beens all tangled together with the other strands of his life. Do you ever get to change anything? he asks himself. Is that what this is about? He curls his fingers round the top, willing himself to look down into the radiant centre, the room inside himself which fuels it all. Here. Now. The only place there is and never would be. The room without walls: the white fire: Sarah.
I’ve got to go back.
Fine, says the voice.
Is that it? I just go?
Of course. What else did you expect? A magic wand? A clash of cymbals and fanfare of trumpets? A blaze of glory? Or perhaps a big bang?
Well, no, but—
We can arrange that if you like.
No, of course not, but—
But, but, but. If we are to work together, you must really get rid of that habit.
I’m not sure I like the sound of that.
Why? Do you think that God has no sense of humour?
Fuck. I knew that was coming.
For Christ’s sake, come off it. Get real. We’re going to be spending a very long time together. If we don’t want to end up hating each other, you can’t always be so tight-arsed.
And what if I don’t want anything to do with you?
A bit too late for that. I ain’t agoin’ nowheres. I am you. We are we. Fate. Destiny. Kismet. In other words, kiss my arse. Our collective arse.
And just who are we?
We have all the time in the universe to find that out.
Oh shut up.
Jesse has had enough. With an impatient shrug he pushes through the membrane of his self and steps back into the park.
The power surge, they later found out, blacked out the entire city and a good part of the surrounding countryside. A number of explanations were proposed—a faulty transformer, an ageing grid, lack of reactive power—but no one came close to understanding the real nature of the outage. It lasted for about twenty minutes. By the time Meg and Jesse even learned of it, it no longer interested them.
On their way to the main gate they stopped at the fountain for a moment. When Jesse turned his head towards Meg, his eyes were dark and remote, with a reservoir of silver fire in the pupil. They were focused on a place beyond her reach. She heard Sarah’s voice cry out, once, a sound no mother had a right to overhear. Meg looked down at the water in the basin, blinking back tears.
‘Who are you?’ she whispered, unable to check herself. Sarah was her daughter.
He smiled with terrible poignancy. Bending down, he trailed his hand in the water. It turned an opaque bluish white.
‘I am the colour of milk,’ he answered.