‘You are here to become that Corvus,’ the birdman says.
Zach shrugs off his hood, the wind slicing through his jaggedly shorn hair as though determined to bareblade him. He misses Stella terribly; get real, she’d have told this creature with an earthy laugh. It’s easy to picture the flash of her scissors, clipping the overzealous wings.
Pani thrusts his chin forward like a stolid little wooden nutcracker, the Christmas ornament sort. ‘Mr Bird,’ he says, ‘what’s an avatar?’
‘Pay no—’ Zach says, but the birdman interrupts. ‘One of your spirit selves. Come, I’ll show you.’ At a flick of his wrist, the dragon pillar reproduces a solemn, mussed-hair, chipped-tooth likeness of Max, vivid as ever despite the amnesiac snow. Zach grabs for Pani, who wriggles free to run across the circle and press his face against the ice. Surprised, ‘It’s not cold at all.’ And then, excitedly, ‘I can hear him!’
‘Pani, don’t,’ Zach says. ‘He’s not real, it’s a trick.’ Moving to draw the boy away, he stops, not at the whisper of a remembered voice, not at the unfurling of wings, not even at the birdman’s raised hand, but at the change in Pani himself.
‘He’s calling me,’ Pani says.
‘No!’ Hastily Zach steps backwards, hoping that this will reverse whatever has been set in motion. But as the air around him glitters, Pani continues to fade. ‘Pani, look at me! Pani!’
For a moment it seems to work. Transparent as frost on glass, Pani throws a glance over his shoulder, then fetches halfway round. Ice can carry sound with astonishing clarity, even over great distances.
Play your music, Zach.
A gust of wind blows loose snow across Zach’s face, obscuring his vision with the dazzle and sting of a prism ground to fine powder. Through a prickle of tears he sees the snow rime to Pani, rendering him as delicate as wind chimes, as fine-blown as a crystal bauble. Indistinct now except for his fiery, speaking eyes, he makes no attempt to speak, but the supplicating notes of a clarinet tremble in Zach’s ear.
‘Don’t—’ Zach breaks off, fearful, as he’s always been fearful, of a future riven by fearful symmetry. After a moment he ventures a hesitant ‘Pani,’ then falters once more. He’s right to fear. Pani is shaking his head, colour and texture returning to his skin, while Max, a grieving and lonely and vulnerable Max, is beginning to waver, waver and dim.
*Let It Be*
‘Weigh your choices carefully,’ the birdman says.
Oh yes, carefully. *Fulgur uploads carefully selected participants in the rehabilitation trials, each a volunteer with full parental consent. All other individuals a facilitator will encounter are modules carefully designed and programmed for verisimilitude.*1
Zach chooses not to wring the birdman’s neck, most carefully. After brushing phantom hair from his eyes with a small, bitter laugh, he scoops up a handful of snow for one last snowball, but the crystals are too cold to compact. Without taking his eyes from Pani, he lets the snow trickle from his hand. He lets it trickle until the boy is gone, leaving only a memory to shimmer against the outspread wings.
Zach learned early on that adults wield secrets like swords, a will to power. The real childhood secret, the thing to do, is not to play the game. He reminds himself of this dictum at the sound of wings, the wind plunging its cold steel into his gut as he cranes his head to watch the figures vanish into the clouds. Their spokesman, however, remains behind as if Pani’s death—and it certainly feels like a death—is just a practice drill with wasters.
‘Not curious what they’re up to?’ the birdman asks.
‘Not even if I tell you they’re meeting with Lev?’
‘Not even if you tell me they’re meeting with Laura.’
‘There’s no need for that. You may not believe me, but I’m on your side.’
‘Then prove it. Find her.’
‘Lev didn’t tell you?’
‘Tell me what?’
The birdman spreads his wings, and for a moment Zach thinks that he’s about to take flight, leaving him, Zach, to . . . to do what exactly? Wander aimlessly, hopelessly, till he stumbles and falls into a lead and drowns, till he throws himself into one, till in any case, and inevitably, the ice gets him. But under the transept of those vaulted wings, the birdman shakes his head in an unmistakable, and possibly universal, signal of denial. ‘I regret—’ His wings flutter, fold, and he begins again. ‘Look, whatever Lev may have said, or not said, no qliworld is deathproof.’
Zach says nothing. The air smells of insomnia, nights and nights of brutal, shivering sleeplessness.
‘Those Levellers.’ The wind makes it difficult for Zach to tell if the birdman has sighed. ‘Though we sometimes cooperate, they have their own agenda.’
‘Everyone has an agenda. At least Lev is no murderer.’
‘We may kill, but we don’t murder.’
‘Oh really? You must have an interesting definition of murder.’
‘What we do, we do for good reason—very good reason.’
‘I’ve already heard your so-called reason for murdering—pardon me, killing—Laura. It was, you, wasn’t it, who killed Stella? And six—six, damn you!—of her companions. Was that one reason or seven separate ones?’
‘The derelict cinema.’
‘I promise you, if I ever get the chance, I’ll burn it to the ground.’
‘You’ll get the chance, much sooner than you think, and I promise you, you won’t.’ Laura’s chain reappears in the birdman’s hand. He tosses it up a few times, where it catches the light. ‘As I said, we prefer to avoid unnecessary bloodshed. Sometimes the well-meaning do great harm. Yes, Stella was a friend of yours, and yes, she was a friend to certain Janus, but ultimately she’d have had no place in her belief system for Corvus.’
‘So you killed her.’
‘And the others?’
‘A splinter group in the making.’
‘Nonsense! Simus don’t obstruct each other.’
Now the sigh is audible, deliberately so. ‘Just a few seconds ago you said it yourself: everyone has an agenda. Even cognoscens girls don’t like to be spurned. And especially not for a sapiens.’
‘Jessica? Surely you can’t mean Jessica?’
‘A shame that someone so gifted would chose to manipulate shamelessly. Stella had no idea what was happening.’
‘You should have let me deal with it!’ Zach turns and faces into the wind, its steely edge carving his anger into a monument to his own failings. The birdman seems impervious to the cold.
‘Hardly impervious. There are worlds and worlds on which I shiver.’
‘No ice in your veins? Tell me, what did you do with the bodies?’
‘We’re not barbarians.’ He dangles the pendant, swinging it back and forth, back and forth, almost nervously, almost—if the notion weren’t ridiculous—to calm himself. ‘Look into your own nature, look deep within, before claiming that a cognoscens is incapable of killing.’
The wind flings itself against the crow-embossed column, which rings as though the ficta were inscribed as accidentals in the ice.
Of course. ‘You’re cognoscens, aren’t you?’
The birdman encloses the pendant in the palm of his hand, then removes his mask and the two of them study each other.
‘I’m not ready for wings,’ Zach says.
‘There are other ways to cross the ice.’
‘The ice of time?’ The birdman’s tone is mocking, yet gently so, and Zach is reminded of Pani probing the frozen surface of the polynya with his harpoon.
‘Who doesn’t regret his terrible mistakes? Who doesn’t want to go back and make things right? If your wings can do that, then I’ll accept their weight. Only tell me how to find Laura.’
Zach’s eyes follow the trajectory of the necklace, flinching at the burst of radiance as it enters the column. On a plain dark, waste, and wild, it would blind him; here in the white forever of the Arctic, he bows his head and shivers; shivers like a sail drawing strength from the wind.
‘You have your wings, Corvus.’
Ben is chasing fireflies.
Mark and Zadie are arguing.
Sean is whittling a reed.
Stella is kneading bread dough.
Pani is adding a cheeky grin to a snowman.
The great wings open to the gathering light. How magnificent they are, how fearsome. What must it be like to soar? Childhood’s dream, yet Zach knows that dragons too can fly. He sends his gaze once more out onto the ice. In a last attempt at a warm start, he mutters the abort code. Another bout of trembling accompanies his silent message to Lev. Play your music: the voice is Lev’s is the birdman’s is Laura’s is Corvus. There can be no evading this, his diabolus. Without another word he raises the clarinet to his lips. He fills his lungs the way Sean taught him so long ago. Laura, he thinks, or perhaps whispers. If the birdman utters an incantatory phrase, Zach doesn’t hear. He is listening for time’s torturous tritone. He plays. He plays, and fearing, steps forwards into the column, forwards into the codes beyond code, into that strange and wonderful theatre of living where he feels the first feathery touch on his face. It’s beginning to snow, light snowflakes which soon thicken and obscure the ice.
Laura refreshes her memory, and for one canted moment sees him as she first saw him—late for class, leaning into the wind, indifferent to the sheeting rain as if it were no more than planes of grainy light, unsmiling. He lifts his head and his eyes pass over her, then he smiles, a slow and dazzling smile, a smile to stop the clockwork of her heart, to blind the watchmaker of the gods, to fibrillate time itself.
‘You’re wearing the chain.’
‘Of course, you know I never take it off.’ She glances at the countertop, but it’s too late to conceal Max’s toy gun. ‘Where have you come from? I didn’t hear you at all.’
He waves a hand towards the double doors. ‘I was checking out the auditorium. You were supposed to stay put.’ He points to the gun. ‘What are you doing with that silly thing? Do you want to get yourself killed?’
‘Have you found them?’
‘Only Fabio. But Max is OK, he’s not here.’
Laura stares at him in some consternation. ‘Zach, you’re acting very odd. First the chain, now this. You know Fabio’s dead.’
‘No, it was one of his less endearing ruses. It’s a long story . . .’
They both look round at the sound of footfalls. Fabio clatters down the staircase from the upper level, brushing a cobweb from his hair. ‘Bah, this place is filthy.’
‘A ghost ought to expect a few spiders,’ Laura says dryly.
‘I see you’ve found her, Corvus,’ Fabio says with his usual infuriating glint. ‘Good. It’s about time.’
*Corvus ex machina*
1 *Fulgur Training Manual for Rehabilitation Facilitators*, p. 3