As it turned out, Zach didn’t get his hour of sleep, not then, and not later that night either. Laura rushed back after about twenty minutes, her mobile clutched in her hand. It was hateful to rob him of the rest he obviously needed, and under other circumstances she’d have been alarmed at how long it took to rouse him, how drugged he seemed. He muttered a few incomprehensible phrases before opening his eyes, then groaned and squinted as she switched on the bedside lamp. He was still so groggy that for a moment she wondered if someone had slipped him a drink. Urgency overrode her qualms. She shook him, no doubt too roughly, but it worked.
As soon as she told him about Max, he threw back the covers, made it to his feet, and stumbled into the bathroom to pee and dash cold water into his face.
‘Don’t worry, I’m not going to bother shaving,’ he said when he saw her hovering in the doorway. Not that she ever minded his stubble.
After tying back his hair, he yanked on his jeans while she went to brew some strong coffee, which he then gulped fast enough to scald his mouth. Though at first he grimaced at the suggestion of food, she pointed out, quite reasonably, that he’d need the energy. He ate some lasagne straight from the pan, standing at the hob and spooning it in like medicine.
‘What are you going to do?’ she asked while he poured a second mug of coffee.
‘First try to contact Max.’
‘That signalling he’s taught you? What’s the point, if you can’t hear him?’
‘To reassure him.’
In order to concentrate, Zach, mug in hand, went into the living room, leaving Laura to drink the last of the coffee despite her jitteriness; leaving her to regret her promise to her dad; leaving her to remember the fire, and the other kids he’d tried to protect.
There’s a rash-like persistence to the memories you’d rather forget—often quiescent, mostly in fact, yet itchier than hell, and uglier too, when you need them least. One year her dad had bought her mum a hand-carved mahogany music stand for her birthday, a 100-year-old antique which no one else was allowed to touch. Max must have been four or five at the time, Laura couldn’t remember precisely. On the afternoon Dad had brought it home, her mum was out—shopping, or a rehearsal, maybe. They’d seen her dad carry it in from the car and take it upstairs to hide in the loft. ‘Don’t tell your mum,’ he’d said, ‘it’s a surprise.’ When the babysitter left, Laura persuaded Max to spring the secret at supper. ‘I told him not to say anything,’ she pronounced over her chicken leg with just the right note of innocent dismay. She’d been a good liar, even then. Her mum had never bothered to disguise her preference for Max, but his wails of protest were too loud to be convincing (aided by a judicious pinch under the table). He knew better than to provoke Laura’s wrath, whereas there’d be no punishment from their dad; he didn’t do punishment, except the punishment of disappointment. And better yet, he’d blamed himself for mismanaging the whole business.
Her dad must have already begun drugging Max. How else could her brother have missed the nasty pus oozing from her brain cells? Laura pushed back a sleeve and scratched her forearm, and scratched. Severe itching is close to pain. Her dad would have explained that they share some neurophysiological pathways.
Not ten minutes later Zach came back into the kitchen. He stared at the red welts she’d raised, then took her arm and ran a hand over her skin, smoothing it as only he was able, smoothing and easing the ache.
‘We’ll find him,’ he said. ‘I promise.’
‘I’m terrified that Fulgur’s got him.’
He shook his head, then regarded her intently. ‘Why Fulgur?’
Though it had never disturbed her before, concealment felt a good deal like subterfuge, like deceit. Keep something back, Olivia liked to say. Secrets are sexy. Olivia liked to say a lot. Another talker like Laura’s uncle.
After a silent apology to her dad, she told Zach about the fire. ‘Max doesn’t know exactly what’s happened, Dad didn’t want it. But someone knew about the twins, what if they also found out about Max? What if word has got back to Randall?’ Zach’s face grew stony but he didn’t reproach her, not that he wasn’t prepared to be secretive himself when it suited him. And inconsistent. In a lot of ways he was like every other lad she’d met—those sapiens lads he was so quick to despise.
‘Fulgur would have no reason to kidnap him, the law’s on their side,’ he said. ‘It’s got to be someone else.’
‘Who then?’ She hesitated, then forced herself to ask, ‘Have you told Fabio?’
‘Fabio would never, but never, jeopardise Max.’
‘How can you be so sure?’
‘Family means everything to Fabio. I was going to tell you about it, it’s something I’ve just learned. You see, his brother Mateus was another like Max, maybe the first.’
The wars over oil reserves are nothing compared to what we’re likely to see in the near future. The mind—the cognoscens mind, especially—is our most valuable natural resource. Fulgur has just been quicker to recognise it.
Goosebumps, and a sense of déjà vu. Without a word she plunged from the room. The photograph on Zach’s bedroom wall looked even eerier in the half-light of biography. Zach appeared in the doorway and switched on the overhead, but the dead need no séance, and no darkness, to speak.
‘The fire was a hate crime,’ Zach said. ‘But kidnapping is different. More business-like. It gives us a much better chance.’
‘So what now? Dad will go to the police only as a last resort, unless my mum changes his mind. She’s convinced that the police are capable and trustworthy, equipped for this sort of thing, our only real hope.’
Zach looked away. When she reached for his hand, the tensing of his muscles gave off a buzz like static and a sharp electric smell which she knew could only be her imagination. For a terrible moment it seemed that he might reject her gesture of solace, but then he brought her hand to his lips.
‘I’m going to ring Fabio,’ he said.
It had just gone midnight, with Laura’s mum sound asleep under sedation. Zach was pacing back and forth in the kitchen while Laura and her dad sat at the table drinking coffee, a plate of untouched sandwiches testimony to her need to do something, anything. Upon their arrival her dad had welcomed them with almost furtive relief, his eyes straying frequently to her mum, who accepted Zach’s presence, if not warmly, at least without hostility. It could have gone either way. When distraught, her mum was as unstable as pure nitroglycerine, liable to detonate at the slightest shock. She’d been persuaded to lie down for a short while till the police arrived, Charles having promised to ring them, though from her snores he’d obviously given her a much stronger dosage than he let on. There was still no further word from the kidnappers. Again and again Zach tried to reach Fabio, the interval between each attempt shorter than the last, Zach’s messages terser. Laura was beginning to think her dad was right, that they had no choice but to notify the police. The longer Zach paced, the greyer her dad’s face became, the deeper the lines of fatigue. Silent and withdrawn, he sipped his coffee, and sipped. She preferred Zach’s pacing.
‘I’m going to ring them,’ her dad said, breaking the silence. He reached for the phone, which had been centred between them like a piece in a bizarre game of feint and counterfeint—who would seize it first?
Zach stopped his pacing. ‘Don’t be a fool.’
‘I haven’t noticed that you’ve made any useful suggestions.’
‘Who else do you expect me to call? Randall? The head of the Purist Party? The Almighty Himself?’
Laura thumped her mug onto the table, sloshing coffee. ‘Stop it, both of you.’
The phone rang.
They all stared at it, and Laura was reminded of an old picture book of Max’s in which some children find a board game whose playing pieces come ominously to life. She couldn’t remember, however, if the story ended well.
Her dad snatched up the handset and thumbed the talk key. ‘Yes?’ He listened for only a minute or two, then rung off with a curt ‘All right, I understand.’ Pushing back his chair, he beckoned for them to follow. ‘We’d best switch on the pc.’
It was impossible, and yet it was happening: Max gagged, bound, and blindfolded on a bed in a darkened room; after a few seconds, Fabio under harsh lights. Trussed to a chair with wide bands of duct tape, metres and metres of it, he stared into the webcam as though his eyes alone, green as serpentine, green as goldengrove, raw and blazing green, could bridge the strips sealing his mouth. Moments ahead of Laura, Zach understood why Fabio was allowed to see his captors.
‘Don’t look,’ Zach said grimly and gripped her hand.
Though the voice that spoke was distorted through some sort of filter, there was no mistaking the message. ‘If you want to see your son again, then provide us with the formula for the serum, and complete instructions for its production. No police and no tracer and no negotiations. You’ve got till 7:00 a.m. for Laura to bring it on her own. She knows where. We’ll be waiting.’ The voice broke off to whisper something. ‘And to show you that we don’t play around, watch carefully.’
Fabio jerked now, throwing himself against his restraints, straining against an off-camera threat, against and against. His head whipped as far to the side as the bonds permitted but there was nowhere to go, no escape from the already. His back arched. The tendons of his neck ridged in protest, and a strangled cry issued from his stoppered throat. Laura dug her fingernails into Zach’s hand. ‘Please,’ she whispered. ‘Please no.’ But which gods could you beseech for this?
A sound that she recognised from a million movies.
‘This is a live transmission.’ A laugh. ‘Or was.’
More distorted laughter as the camera panned to convey the mise en scène, then the screen went blank.
The silence which entered the room had a palpable presence. It felt heavy on Laura’s chest, and in her lungs; the sensation of air too dense to breathe. Once on holiday they’d stepped from a chilly air-conditioned airport into the humid heat of a tropical island. It had been her first experience of the solidity and sheer weight—the thingness—of things not seen.
She didn’t want to go back there.
She would have to go back there.
For a long while no one moved. Then Zach released Laura’s hand. He ran the ball of his thumb along her lifeline, slowly, gently, back and forth several times, before caressing each finger in turn.
‘I’m going outside for a moment,’ he said.
‘I’ll come with you.’ Laura said. ‘It’s too warm in here.’
He shook his head. ‘I want to try to communicate with Max again. He must be terrified, and he’s also going to need his medication soon.’
Laura glanced at her dad, whose lips were moving as he played with his wedding band. She couldn’t imagine her dad praying, so it had to be another sort of mantra. The formula for the fucking serum, maybe? She felt her arms begin to itch, and she had to make an effort not to dig at them while Zach was still in the room. It wasn’t just that he’d notice. He had a way of looking at her which made her look at the things she’d rather not see—a certain blistering truth which burned like sunlight. You could only take so much exposure before you ended up with skin cancer; with cataracts.
Her father was one of their chief neuros. It was possible—no, it was likely that he’d helped develop the genetic defect and its fix. How ironic, she thought viciously, that he would be made to pay in this way. Then she remembered that it was Max who was paying, and Fabio who’d already paid. And how many others?
Zach returned from the doorway to remove her hand. ‘Don’t scratch,’ he said. ‘We’ll get him back safely.’ She almost believed him, so flinty were his eyes despite the windscreen of lashes. A slight spin of circumstance, the smallest spark, and he’d ignite.
‘Is it a complicated formula?’ she asked her dad once Zach had gone.
Her dad left off fiddling with his ring. She saw something very sobering in his gaze, so that the start of a new unease sharpened her voice. ‘You will give it to them, won’t you?’
‘There’s nothing to give.’
‘There’s no formula, not in the way they mean.’
‘But surely a good—’
Her dad didn’t let her finish. ‘Laura, you don’t understand. No serum exists, and no genetic flaw. I expect the kidnappers are simus who hope to break free of Fulgur. And they’re not going to believe me.’ His eyes glistened, as close to tears as Laura had ever seen him. ‘They’ll think I’m holding out on them. We all saw what they’re prepared to do.’
‘What do you mean, no genetic flaw?’
Her dad spread his hands helplessly, then went over to their old upright piano and stared at the framed photos on display, which her mum had programmed to change each Sunday. He picked up the one in which Max, legs and kit streaked with dirt, was squinting in bright sunlight, a football under his arm. The grass was very green, its blades sharply defined. An ordinary day not too long ago. After a lengthy silence, her dad replaced the picture and turned to face her, though he blinked rapidly, and his eyes kept sliding sideways.
‘There was never any question of defects. Fulgur needed a way to control the simus, that’s all. This seemed the easiest solution.’
Her brain felt sluggish. ‘But I’ve seen for myself what happens when Zach goes too long without the stuff.’
‘The withdrawal symptoms are even nastier than from heroin. And the damage from long-term use, unfortunately, much more profound.’
It took a few seconds for this to sink in. ‘Fulgur has reduced the simus to junkies?’
Just above a whisper. ‘Yes.’
‘Which drug is it? A form of heroin?’
For a moment she thought he wasn’t going to answer. ‘No. It’s purpose-made.’
‘By who?’ His reluctance forced her to walk across the room and stand right in front of him, repeating, ‘Who?’
He gestured with his face averted.
‘Answer me! Say it, damn you.’
‘I did. I developed it.’
‘And you give to Max? To your own child?’
‘No. He gets something else for his special needs. Something non-addictive. Something safe.’
Safe. All at once Laura couldn’t breathe the same air as this monster. She spun on her heel and strode away, but paused at the doorway with one last question.
‘Tell me, Dad, just how many years have you stolen from Zach’s life?’
She slammed the door without waiting for a response.
She was crying in fear-fuelled rage by the time she located Zach, who was sitting on their old childhood swing in the cherry tree. He rose, unzipped his jacket, and folded her under its wings.
‘It’s too cold for you to be out here only in a jumper,’ he said, wiping her face with a gloved hand. ‘And your tears are going to freeze to your skin in a moment.’
She gave a watery laugh, then rested quietly in this temporary shelter while working up the courage to tell him what she’d learned. To her bewilderment he showed no sign of anger; not much reaction at all.
‘Zach, did you hear me?’
‘All of us, all these years . . . ‘ Pensive, he pulled off his gloves, stuffed them into a pocket, and felt for her chain. She’d noticed how often he ran it through his fingers while working something out. For all his smarts, he had some dead weird habits. Maybe she ought to buy him a rosary. (Or ask her granddad for one, she could just imagine his face.) The more she came to know him, the more of an impossible, infuriating, rackety, wickedly gorgeous enigma he became. Those Fulgur neuros, they were idiots, imagining they could replicate a person like Zach with a bit of silicon and a handful of novy algorithms. Any ten-year-old had more sense.
He tucked the chain back under her collar. ‘It’s not good, but it’s not so bad either. I detest the cold. Fancy living someplace where you can swim outdoors all year round? In a hot-pink thong?’
‘How can you joke about it? They’ve turned you into an addict.’
‘Addictions can be broken.’ He nuzzled her, very not-Zach. ‘Some kinds.’
‘I hate him!’
When she nodded, tears welling again, Zach said, unconvincingly offhand, ‘Listen, the kidnappers won’t believe you or your dad, but they’ll believe me. I’m going in your stead.’
‘Sod that! Don’t you dare even think it. You heard their instructions. They’ll kill you on sight.’
‘I don’t kill all that easily.’
‘He’s a simu. They won’t hurt him, not when I tell them.’
‘What if they’re not simus?’
‘Trust me, they’re simus.’
‘They’re also bloody murderers who know exactly what’ll happen to them.’
‘Not if nobody else finds out.’
‘You can’t do that. What about Fabio?’
Zach was quiet for a moment or two. ‘He was after the formula, he told me himself about some sort of plan. I don’t know what went wrong, but the only way I can find out is by talking to them.’
‘They’ll never believe you won’t turn them in.’
‘Simus don’t betray each other, Laura. And Fabio’s the last person to want me to. Fabio damage the Janu cause? No chance. Not to avenge himself, not even to avenge his brother. They may be calling me Corvus, but Fabio is the real mover, the cognoscens he could never be, farsighted and driven and just demented enough to haunt you. Yeah, he’s made enemies, and there have been times when I could have throttled him myself, but everyone recognises him for the rare person he is.’ At last, a breath like a gash. ‘Was. A visionary.’
A fanatic, more like. This wasn’t the first time she wondered if Zach could be a touch naïve when it came to Fabio. But he was dead, and she didn’t like to speak ill of the dead. In another century, they would have walked in retribution.
An anxious wind berated them for lingering. Zach insisted on giving her his jacket, though his cheeks and nose were already reddened from the cold. As they made their way back towards the house, a flash of light from the far corner of the garden caught Laura’s attention, and she swung round, expecting her mystery figure. Maybe Zach would believe her now; maybe he’d even see the man for himself. But it was merely the neighbour’s motion sensor, triggered by the swaying branches of a rhododendron, whose frosted leaves glinted in the sudden illumination.
‘Come on, you’re going to get pneumonia out here,’ she said, glancing round again.
‘I won’t mind if you promise to give me hourly sponge baths to bring down the fever.’ More preoccupied than deadpan, he didn’t even attempt a smile, and he sounded far too much like Fabio. If this was the best he could do . . .
‘You won’t need them,’ she said testily. ‘In about ten minutes your body temperature will be below freezing.’
She turned to leave but he snared her arm.
‘Where are they?’
She watched the vapour formed by his breath, as if something ghostly had appeared between them, or was dissipating. Smoke lingers for days, even now it might rise from the ruins of the cottage.
Zach wasn’t her dad. Zach had caught that child molester, hadn’t he? The Zach she knew would never ignore a monstrous crime. But she wasn’t her dad either.
Moving closer, she teased a finger the length of his zip, then quite deliberately began to arouse him. For a moment he leaned into her, his cock trapped within the narrow leg of his jeans, trapped under the flat of her hand, and she thought he would give himself over to the relief of pure sensation, but after a harsh intake of breath he grasped her wrist and broke away. ‘Don’t.’ Unlike her dad, he held her gaze. ‘No. I want you to tell me.’
‘I’m going by myself.’
‘Out of the question. You know that I’m right, they’ll never believe you. And if you’re hoping to get away with a bogus formula, I’m certain they’ll hang onto Max till they’ve run their tests.’
Still she hesitated, her thoughts scrabbling like a drowning skater at the frozen ceiling overhead; scrambling for air, for an out, for a solution, for another way to rescue her brother.
‘Laura, if we fail, if I don’t do this, it will always lie between us like thin ice. One false step, and you’ll plunge through, or I will. I promise you, we’ll end up hating each other.’
‘I could never hate you.’
Exasperated, he grasped her by the shoulders and spun her round to face the deep night, its tenting so moth-eaten that the cold light of far-distant galaxies drilled into her face. She expected him to argue, but as usual he surprised her. Though his lips were close enough for her to feel the warmth of his breath, she had to strain to hear him.
‘When I was first sent to the Foundation, I’d wait till my roommates were fast asleep, then get up and open the curtains. I can still remember the feel of the heavy cotton. It was rough. It smelled dusty. Someone told me they’d saved money by purchasing an auction lot of the same sort of sheeting exported for burial shrouds.’ Lightly he stroked her left shoulder as if back in that room, back at that window, the fabric of the past unfurling beneath his fingertips. ‘From my bed I had a clear view of the window. I couldn’t stand being indoors but it took me a while to figure out how to sneak past the night guard. It’s not like we were locked in, exactly. It only felt that way.’
Laura reached up to lay a hand atop one of his, but she dared not interrupt lest he stop speaking.
‘For months I’d try to count the stars. Whenever there were stars, which wasn’t often. Some silly kid’s idea, like not stepping on cracks or touching every fence spike between home and school, that if I got the number right, the past would unhappen, my family would be restored to me. I thought it was my fault, you see. I thought I’d done something wrong.’ He gave a bitter laugh. ‘Which I reckon I had, in a way. I’d been born an auger, hadn’t I?’
At this she was unable to remain still. ‘You’re the most right person I know.’
She couldn’t see his eyes but he went on as though he hadn’t heard. As though he’d unlatched that long-ago dormitory window to let the fetid air escape. ‘After a while—after something like four or five months, I was a tenacious little bugger—I finally gave it up. I stopped missing my parents and began hating them instead. They’d made the mistakes, they’d been stupid, they were the monkeys. Hating is terribly easy. I got very good at hating.’
He was shivering now. She slipped out from under his hands and turned to face him. ‘The only person you hate is yourself.’ Holding his gaze tautly like a guy rope, she bunched his jumper in her fists so that he couldn’t pull away. ‘And you’ve never stopped missing them.’
He shook his head but she persisted. ‘I think you should try to find them.’ He drew her close, a sad ploy which fooled her not at all, but she left him that remnant of his pride, or self-delusion. Even for Zach tears were difficult.
His voice was muffled when he finally spoke, ‘I know where they are. They’re dead.’It was all he could manage at the moment. Though it was late, and the garden fenced and gated, and the night riven with cold, they weren’t alone; she felt them buffeting against her, the windy dead. Their fingers plucked at the seams of her self, loosening a thread here, unpicking a stitch there. She pressed closer to Zach until the skin of him stretched to sheath her, until the silk of her spindled round his bones. The dead, she thought, aren’t dead. They’re the very stuff from which we’re sewn.
‘All right,’ she said, ‘but I’m going with you. They’ve got Max in the old Rex Cinema.’