Obediently, the lift halted at the third floor. Zach stepped into the corridor, his eyes travelling from the familiar security doors to the ID card in his hand to the lens of the prominent surveillance camera. Mockery will get you nowhere, Jiao would say in a voice whose chilly menace had hovered over their days like a winged omen. Zach saluted the camera with a military gesture, then gave a tired laugh. Nowhere was exactly where he’d like to be.
‘Where the fuck have you been?’ Andy snarled as soon as Zach entered the prerun room.
‘Randall insisted on seeing me.’ Zach barely acknowledged Fabio, who ought to have explained. There was no other reason for his presence.
‘I’ll fetch Charles.’ Andy limped away without a glance at his console, a sure sign his departure had been pre-arranged.
And sure enough, Fabio plunged into a rapidhit cross-examination which only ceased when Zach sank down onto a bench adjoining the neural imager and gripped his head as though it were too heavy to support without manual assistance. In the silence which followed, the carrion past smelled so sharp and rank that it brought tears to his eyes. ‘Knackered,’ he said in response to Fabio’s frown. In a few days it would be Ben’s birthday. Without a grave there could be no graveyard lilacs to sweeten the spring. The owlie’s all rained and broken, Zach, can’t you fix it? Not an owl, a crow, but don’t touch, it’s full of germs, must have been a cat.
This would be a good moment for a footnote, to explain how whole futures came into being in Zach’s struggle for compass. Qliworlds quantise even as they are born—or before, to translate Wu’s third theorem into a simple conjunction. In one Zach will have chosen Laura, in another loneliness. The mind is a reverberant space like the great cathedrals: time hewn from mute bone. Wu, of course, will not turn out to be wrong, merely one of the great sapiens visionaries. Confucius’ teachings are still contemplated, Shakespeare’s plays performed, Gauss’ proofs admired, Darwin’s works read, Bach’s cantatas sung. Levian causality admits of an infinite variety of organised complexity, unlike fledgling cosmologies. Time, Lev will tell Zach, is the strangest, the subtlest, the most beautiful metaphor of all.
‘Perhaps it’s time to move to the next level,’ Fabio said.
‘What?’ Zach lifted his head, but his eyes were remote, his face like a clock which has stopped.
‘We’re ready for serious networking,’ Fabio said. ‘A lot of people are starting to watch you very closely. And a lot like what they see—the power to inspire, the fierceness, the foresight and ideas and imagination, the mystique. This is it, this is the now-or-never moment to sell you big time as the newest new thing. Everyone is sick to death of the old political models. You’re hot, Zach, you’re the start-up in someone’s garage that’s going blow the competition away. I’ve been negotiating with Bender, I think he’ll be willing to take a leave of absence from Netwind if you talk to him, he’s viewed a couple of your meetings but he wants a one-on-one to assess things for himself. Not just the wow-factor, but your smarts and guts and staying power. And mostly whether he can trust you.’
‘Bender’s an entrepreneur, someone who’s built a mammoth social networking site. Sure he’s a wizard, but what does he know about politics?’
‘You’ve got to be sudsing me. No funds, no politics. You can’t power a movement, any kind of movement, without cold, hard cash—and plenty of it. Bender understands money and he understands the new media. We’re going to do grassroots the Netwind way: online, friend to friend to friend, quid by quid.’
‘So now I’m viral?’ Enough of a smile to suggest Fabio’s campaign was working.
‘Not every virus is pernicious.’
Zach glanced down at his hands. Pernicious . . . vicious . . . malicious. What was it about certain word clusters? Did they carry their own sort of virus? Seditious Janus. Ambitious Fabio. Capricious universe. And he himself the most noxious of all, tainted, infectious, contaminating anyone he’d ever cared about. And Laura called him superstitious?
‘All right,’ he said. ‘But I need your help first.’
Fabio held up a warning hand while he adjusted his wrister.
After a terse summary of what had happened in Randall’s office, Zach subsided into silence for a moment, then did what he’d promised never to do. Better to risk Max’s ire (and trust) than his life.
The room was too small for pacing. On Fabio’s second pass in front of the console, he knocked over a bottle of water, which by some miracle of engineering failed to shatter, though it fizzed and sprayed a small amount on its descent. Zach might have snatched it up to hurl at the neural imager, the soundproofed walls, the past; Fabio nudged the bottle with his foot and watched it roll under the washbasin. And watched it. When he finally retrieved it, he made an attempt to twist off the cap. An offer of help would be no help at all. Zach waited till Fabio positioned the bottle carefully on the ledge above the basin, turned on the tap, and ignoring the plastic tumbler, drank from a cupped hand, then plunged his head under the gush of cold water. Ten seconds, twenty. Zach rose and fetched the towel from the rack, laid a hand on Fabio’s shoulder, waited again. By the time Fabio was ready to dry his hair, any sign of anguish had been wiped from his cheeks; not from the depths of his eyes, however.
‘A telepath like Mateus?’ Fabio asked.
‘Yeah.’ Zach reached for the towel. ‘Bend down.’ Zach began to rub Fabio’s head as if he were a child, were Max. With a muffled sound—half sob, half bitter oath—Fabio groped for Zach, and they embraced. Fabio dug his fingers into Zach’s back. Clumsy at offering comfort, Zach found himself muttering a few words, stroking a shoulder blade, an upper arm, allowing himself to be clutched in bleak need. The first kiss came as a surprise; the second, coupled with dismay at Fabio’s erection. It was rare for Zach to be at a loss in an encounter. Why hadn’t he seen it coming?
Gently, as gently as he could, Zach disengaged himself. ‘Fabio, listen, I’m sorry, but I can’t . . . ‘
‘Haven’t you ever made love to a man?’
‘Of course I have, but this is different.’ He tried to smile. ‘You know how messy sex can get when people work together. And imagine what it would be mean if the media—if the Purists—got hold of it.’
Hair still dripping slightly, Fabio stooped for the towel. He took his time over the job, emerging apparently unflustered, and unembarrassed, from its rough folds. ‘It’s her, isn’t it?’
‘What the hell do you see in her? OK, she’s a looker despite those swimmer’s shoulders, and I admit she’s got a certain Lolita charm, but you’re a cognoscens, you’re headed for great things, you’re Corvus, for godsake.’
Fabio plucked the towel from his shoulders, straightening them as though fit to bear the weight of mightiest monarchies. ‘One day a wife may be a political necessity, but it’s hardly a priority at this stage. And when, she’ll have to be an asset, not a liability. You can’t possibly imagine that Laura’—the towel, tossed aside, slid from the bench to the floor—‘that Laura . . . come on, you’re worth fifty, a hundred of—’
‘That’s fucking enough, I said!’
‘OK, OK.’ Fabio held up his hands, candour plainly mistimed. ‘Forget it, my mistake. I’m not being fair, I don’t really know her, I apologise. The stuff about my brother threw me, I wasn’t thinking straight. Now let’s figure out what to do about Max.’
They didn’t have much time; Andy would have to hide every minute under a steganography payload: time is data. Their discussion, stilted at first, each prickly, each weary, circled round and about, the ice thin where Laura was concerned, the water icy. Neither of them believed Randall was bluffing. Neither expected he would be patient. Neither could guess exactly what he knew, but it was imperative (or at least good sense) to assume he knew something. Neither thought a scandal—supposing one could be staged—would stop the Fulgur juggernaut for long; there was a hungry, clamouring queue of Randalls to replace him. And Zach was adamant. ‘No way I’ll betray a cognoscens. If it comes to it, I’ll go underground first.’ But even while speaking, he pictured Laura as a pawn or hostage; alternately, Laura spending her life on the run. ‘And I’ve already decided this is my last run.’
‘We’re not ready to break with Fulgur,’ Fabio said. ‘Not yet, anyway. We need their backing, their money. And then there’s the little matter of your serum. Litchfield’s serum.’
‘Serum or no serum, I’m through with their damned Fulgrid and their damned uploads. Let them assign me to the kitchens. Better still, bog duty. Nothing like the sound of flushing water to refresh your mind.’
‘Don’t worry, Litchfield will add a mind-altering substance to your serum. Or strychnine.’
‘No luck with another source?’
‘So you think we ought to tell him?’ Zach asked.
‘That wimp? No way he’d risk his own scrawny neck.’
‘Come on, they’re his kids.’
‘And his neck. He’s so risk-averse I bet he wears a life jacket in two centimetres of bathwater,’ Fabio said. ‘Tepid bathwater.’
‘The quiet ones can fool you. Look how long he’s kept Max’s secret, that’s not the actions of a coward.’
Fabio shook his head, on guard not to capitulate too quickly.
Zach, however, was already convinced. ‘He loves his kids. With the right approach, he’ll help, I’m sure of it. Any decent lab will be able to produce enough serum once they’re given the molecular portfolio. It would have happened long ago if Litchfield hadn’t engineered a self-mutating drug.’
‘So what if he’s Nobel Prize material. I’ve studied his profile. Don’t take offence, but just because he’s Laura’s dad . . . I mean, it’s understandable that you’re trying—’
‘Nonsense! Trust me on this one. He’ll do it.’
‘I don’t know . . . maybe . . . You’re right, though, that if we can break Fulgur’s stranglehold on the serum, we’ll be in a much better position to negotiate. And Litchfield’s undoubtedly easier to manipulate than Randall.’ He glanced at his wrister to conceal his smile. A simple strategy, but it worked almost every time. People love to persuade you of your own ideas.
‘You’ve just given me an idea,’ Fabio said.
‘There might be a way to ensure Litchfield’s cooperation. Look, I need some time to think it through, do a bit of checking. Not to mention that they’ll have Andy transferred to sanitation—on one of the outstations—if you don’t start your prerun damn soon.’ It was Fabio’s sang-froid, so at odds with his fiery Latino looks, which unsettled most of his colleagues. They could never quite tell when he was making fun of them. ‘In fact, I’ll be obliged to do it myself.’
‘Don’t worry about Andy. He was hacking before he was out of nappies. From what I gather, he rewrites the stego manual every couple of months.’
‘Fulgur issues a manual?’
Zach laughed. ‘It’s so well concealed that only he can find it.’
Her neck stiff from holding it high the entire day, Laura let herself into the house. Max had loped off to football practice, and she could hear the sound of her mum’s viola from the spare room. She needed to collect some of her gear before the meeting, and then do a bit of shopping. It worried her how little Zach had been eating. In sleep his hipbones looked as if they’d tear through his skin at a touch, and though he was beautifully muscled in that understated simu way, an image of the Tollund Man from when they’d done the Heaney poem in school had insinuated itself last night into her consciousness and wouldn’t be dislodged. Something like two thousand years ago he died, hanged in sacrifice to the old gods. It was the eerie tranquillity of his face which haunted her, its distinctive features preserved by the bog as though he’d lain down to sleep only yesterday; how he’d apparently accepted his fate without a struggle.
In the kitchen she located an old lasagne pan which her mum used for extra wooden spoons and eggwhisks and skewers, for all the odd bits and pieces which like your tarnished bangles and tattered friendship bracelets you didn’t need any longer but were loathe to discard. As she was filling some dried oregano into a plastic container, the music broke off, and a few minutes later her mother appeared in the doorway.
‘What are you doing?’ she asked.
‘I’m going to make a lasagne.’
Her mother’s eyes rested on the container in Laura’s hands. ‘Haven’t you looked in the oven? I’ve already prepared a fish flan.’
Laura lowered her eyes and shrugged. There was a short silence.
‘It’s for him, isn’t it?’
Laura propped the packet of oregano against the pot of early daffodils on the kitchen table but it fell over, scattering most of its contents across the clean surface. Laura felt herself tense, but instead of raising her voice her mum turned and left the room. Quickly Laura swept the dried herb into a small mound with the edge of her hand, then went to the cupboard for a storage jar.
‘Leave it, I’ll do it.’ Her mother handed her a brown envelope the size of a paperback book.
While her mother tidied the tabletop, wiping it with spasmodic strokes of a J-cloth, missing some spots and almost scouring others, Laura opened the flap and extracted a sheaf of folded newspaper cuttings and internet printouts. After skimming the topmost item, she pulled out a chair, sat down, and spread the sheets out in front of her. They all were yellowing and brittle. They all dated from the same period eight years ago. They all concerned her uncle’s death and the subsequent police investigation. Her mother went to the sink, rinsed the cloth and draped it over the spout, then stood watching Laura with an intent look, her hands propped on the worktop behind her as if for support.
‘I don’t get it. Why should this old stuff interest me?’
‘How serious are you about this simu?’
‘He’s got a name, you know.’
Her mother didn’t take her eyes from Laura’s face, a momentary knitting of her brow the only indication of her irritation. Laura picked up the clipping which, in addition to a picture of the wrecked car being winched from the water, showed a ‘before’ shot of her uncle carrying Toby on a summer outing. They were at the zoo, a pair of giraffes in the background, and Laura supposed that Aunt Elizabeth had taken the photo. Toby was wearing a floppy hat, his nose was smeared with zinc paste, and he clutched a dripping ice cream cone in one chubby fist.
‘From the family album, I daresay. How sweet.’
‘Sometimes no father is better than the wrong sort.’
To cover her surprise at such an incongruous—even for her mother, such an unfeeling—remark, Laura returned the cutting to the table and picked up another, this one about the autopsy.
‘A drunkard,’ Laura said in disgust.
‘Very convenient, if I may say so.’
At this Laura gave up all pretence of disinterest. She pushed back her chair, rose, and went to stand directly in front of her mother.
‘When did you manage to get so tall?’ her mother asked.
‘I haven’t been a little girl for a long time now.’
‘Then don’t make a child’s mistake.’
‘If you mean Zach—’
Her mother interrupted. ‘I mean that you mustn’t chose someone for all the wrong reasons. Unnecessary reasons. Like protest. Like revenge. Like self-punishment.’
‘Is this a new way of trying to get me to stay together with Owen?’ Laura took a step backwards. ‘Because if it is, you’d better forget it. It’s over, and it’s none of your business anyway.’
Her mother brushed back her hair wearily, then gestured towards the tabletop. ‘I’ve kept them for you. I was waiting for you to be old enough to understand, but maybe I’ve left it too late.’
‘Too late for what? I still don’t get it.’
‘I never gave him the chance to get near you again.’ A light came into her mum’s eyes that Laura had never seen before. ‘But do you think I wouldn’t make sure he was punished for what he did?’ How even her teeth were, how white. ‘It took a while for the right opportunity, that’s all. The viola has taught me a great deal about patience, and timing, and careful preparation. Something I imagine your Zach would understand.’
Laura was frowning at the list of unsolved differential equations on her screen when she heard the door to the flat open. With a small sigh of relief she pushed back the chair from Zach’s desk and went to meet him. The wintry light was fading, and with it her desire to attend his meeting. Still, he was late, which wasn’t like him, and he hadn’t responded to her text.
‘There’s a lasagne in the oven,’ she said as he hung up his jacket. Over dinner she’d tell him about her uncle. Or maybe after the meeting.
He was very tired; she could see it in the line of his shoulders, the pallor of his face. He smiled at her, but it was an effort. And his kiss was perfunctory—like an old married couple, she thought with some amusement before remembering her mother’s ‘play housekeeping’.
‘OK, I’ll just wash my hands.’
He was silent at the meal. It was surprising, and a bit hurtful, that he didn’t ask about her morning at school. After a first, then a second attempt to start a conversation, she was half relieved by his withdrawal and kept her eyes on her plate till, unable to resist, she looked up to find he’d cast his fork aside and was staring at his glass, most of his food still untouched.
‘Don’t you like it?’ she asked.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘it’s really good but I can’t manage it right now.’
He gave her a wan smile. ‘Just tired. I think I’ll lie down for a short while.’
She followed him into the bedroom, where she drew back the bedding as he shed his jeans. Wordlessly she picked them up from the floor, the first time she’d seen him do that, and draped them over a chair while he slid into bed without bothering to remove his jumper or socks.
‘Will you wake me in an hour?’ he asked.
‘Zach, you don’t have to go tonight. There are other speakers.’
He shook his head.
‘What if I . . . I mean, I suppose I could say a few words in your stead.’
‘No.’ He held out a hand, which she took as she sat down on the edge of the bed. ‘It’s important for me to be there.’
‘Why are you so knackered?’
His eyes were already half shut, and he opened them again with a struggle. ‘Some new prelims. I’ll tell you later, OK?’
‘Then I’d best go back to my stupid maths. There’s a test tomorrow.’
His hand tightened on hers. ‘Please stay for a minute or two.’ And when he was nearly asleep, so that she couldn’t be certain she heard him right, ‘He killed them.’