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The nightmarish sound of howling rousts Zach from sleep. At least two or three wolves, possibly more. The human brain is an archaeobiological site of ancestral adaptations, so that cognoscens no less than sapiens will freeze when the ground opens at their feet, recoil (or flee) at the sight of a snake. After his heartbeat settles, after he drives any oneiric wargs from the threshold, after a thorough reality check, Zach throws off the covers and stumbles to the window. He presses his face against the glass, draws back to wipe away the condensation, and peers out again through the captive flames, only then noticing that he’s still muzzy, perhaps a trifle queasy, but not in much pain. How long has he slept? For the first time he wishes for a watch, one of those fancy chronometers that do everything but sit up and bark. Out front Lev is feeding steaming chunks of something which hasn’t seen a slaughterhouse, never mind a supermarket, to a pack of huskies. Zach swallows; Mishaal is a born-again Vegetarian. A sledge, humpbacked, crouches as if ready to spring.
As soon as Lev enters, Zach asks him where the dogs have come from.
‘I’m dying for a cup of tea.’ Lev is already halfway across the room, bringing the smell of intense cold with him. His nose and cheeks are bright red. ‘The wind’s fierce today.’ He tosses his anorak onto a chair and goes to drape his hat and mitts over the mantelpiece before warming his hands at the fire. ‘Feeling better?’
‘Much better. Well enough, in fact, to blow your fucking limbic system into oblivion!’
‘Care to try?’ Again that indulgent note.
Their eyes meet and Zach shrugs, unwilling to test such thin ice. It might be a long winter. ‘The dogs aren’t black, are they?’
‘Mostly white and cream and grey, though Bella’s a gorgeous coppery brown, why?’
‘Hellhounds, I hear, are the colour of midnight.’
‘Like ravens?’ Lev laughs. ‘Nothing supernatural about my beauties. You’ll soon see how smart and swift they are. How loyal.’
It might be a long winter, but Zach has no intention of skating in the dark. ‘Planning a dogsledge race?’
‘A small journey.’
‘OK by me. Time to get back to basecamp anyway.’
‘Sorry, but that’s not on. We’ll be heading in another direction.’
‘No way. This isn’t a holiday on ice. I’ve a job to do.’
‘True. Only thing is, we’re not talking about the same job.’
‘Listen, I’m not going to abandon my clients, however borderline Chloe may be. You don’t understand what Fulgur—’
Lev interrupts brusquely, not his usual style. ‘And you don’t understand what’s at stake. Why else do you think I’d risk modifying the STrinth? Every event has a quantum co-event; too many, and there’s the chance of a bounce.’ He hesitates, then adds, ‘Ethan and Chloe have plenty of supplies, they’ll be fine for as long as it matters.’
From no information to an overload. Zach doesn’t know what to ask first. ‘Would you mind making at least a minimum of sense? What’s a strinth, for example?’
‘STrinthos is actually the customary translation, I seem to have picked up your penchant for abbreviations, your slang too.’ The fire crackles and sends out a starburst of sparks. With a stockinged foot Lev nudges the largest ember back from the perimeter of the hearth and waits till it ceases to glow. ‘Not *a* STrinth, but *the* STrinth. There’s only one fundamental spacetime—well, call it *spacetime entity*. Your language is woefully inadequate to describe the cosmos.’
Zach is silent for a time, watching the flames. Even Mishaal wouldn’t dare to saddle him with an alien straight out of a space opera, one with a *penchant* for quantumbabble. Slade and his ilk aren’t precisely known for their sense of humour, nor their appreciation of parody. ‘You act as if this place is *real*. It’s only VR, for godsake. A very fancy sort of VR, but a simulation nevertheless.’
‘I see that we are going to have some interesting discussions about the nature of reality on our journey,’ Lev says dryly.
‘I haven’t agreed to go anywhere with you.’
From a pocket Lev removes something small enough to be concealed in his fist. A flick of his wrist, and it flies through the intervening space like a golden snake, uncoiling in midair. Zach’s hand shoots out in time to snag it with his fingers.
‘I thought you wanted to find Laura,’ Lev says.
Her gold pendant is warm in Zach’s palm, as though he’s been wearing it next to his skin.