For the next three days Zach practises a great deal on what could be deemed a clarinet only by a play of his imagination, gradually developing his facility so that, at times, the instrument becomes his own. Lev dismisses Zach’s questions with an infuriating ‘the best learning is self-taught’—admittedly reminiscent of Sean—and as the tent shrinks, Zach spends longer and longer outside in the blizzard. He and Lev take turns exercising the dogs, though Lev insists on a safety line, as if Zach were fool enough to race off at the first whiff of caribou. When Lev proposes yet another game of Pace, Zach barely controls his flare of irritation. He stalks to the strut from which the traces are hanging.
‘I’ll be back soon,’ he mutters, ‘the dogs could use a run.’
‘Don’t forget your own tether.’
‘Sod it, stop reminding me!’
‘Need to cool off?’ Lev asks rather too solicitously.
Zach tells himself that he’d probably be ready to throttle a teddy bear after another day at such close quarters.
The wind has dropped, and though it’s still snowing, the flakes are fat and soft and almost frothy, falling lushly rather than flinging themselves like shards of glass into his face. The temperature must be rising; in the extreme cold, snow is powdery. The last time he’d gone out, his goggles clogged, and he made the mistake of lifting them. The tears which spurted into his eyes froze his lids shut almost straightaway, and he hauled himself back to the tent along the guide rope, blind and thoroughly chagrined.
Perhaps they’ll be able to break camp tomorrow. He stops to switch off the torch and peer at the sky, trying to convince himself that the cloud cover is thinning. He hasn’t seen the moon in days but knows it’s out there. Out there, and singing offkey. With a bitter laugh at his own absurdity, he nevertheless risks frostbite by baring his ears for a spell of magical listening. In the meanwhile the dogs vanish like wraiths, their silhouettes blanching into the snow on their extra-long traces. There’s a moment of cognitive fade, when it’s impossible to tell whether he still sees them or merely remembers their shape. Bella is the last to disappear.
In thickly falling snow you move through a labyrinth of self-sealing chambers, recursive like the worst metafiction. Now would be the time for Someone Authorial to pitch up and juggle those fictional devil sticks. Yo Zach, break outa that sad sealed self. Rap an epiphany? An alchemist’s retort? A matrioshka brainwave? Or how ’bout Ben? Pesky, tagalonelong Ben? Gotcha. WHAM! BANG! ZAP! Right over there, bro.
But no matter which way you turn, you see no further than the billowing sheets of snowy, tangled neurofibrils. No matter how loud you call, your voice won’t be heard. What would you say to Ben, anyway? The treasure was never real? You’re sorry, so fucking sorry? Two choices, Zacho, that’s all we get: to untie the tether or take it in our clumsy mitts and flounder through the fragile, lonely, dogged business of survival.
Torch in hand, Zach trudges back to the tent, where he tramples a short path in front of the entrance, but makes no effort to clear away the snow which has drifted high above the snow flaps and helps insulate the interior from the cold. His chest twinges, though it’s nothing like that early pain. A few more days, and he’ll be ready to run in harness with the huskies. A few more days, and he’ll run naked, tearing at his skin.
Back and forth he tramps, back and forth, playing out the rope to its limit. A bit out of breath now, he forces himself to keep going. Slack muscles will slow them down. And he certainly doesn’t want to give Lev an excuse to put off their departure.
Bella comes bounding out of nowhere. Zach rubs a hand across his goggles and through the smeared plastic sees Patsy and Jagger close behind. All the dogs are covered in snow, and Zach laughs when Bella shakes her head, trying to dislodge the clingy stuff. After a quick sniff at Patsy, Bella thrusts her muzzle in his crotch, then at one of his mittened hands. Some affectionate roughhousing seems called for, part of their usual routine, but Zach is soon puzzled by Bella’s actions: repeated nips at his forearm, interspersed with odd little yelps. Huskies rarely bark, but when Bella lifts her head and yowls, his own hackles rise.
‘Where’s Rosie?’ he asks, suddenly aware that the fourth husky is missing.
At the sound of Rosie’s name, Bella’s howling intensifies, with Patsy and Jagger joining in, until Zach begins to edge backwards towards the tent, images of wolves baying at a full moon flashing through his mind. Silver moon, silver snow, silver . . . Of course he doesn’t believe in superstitious nonsense like Norse berserkers or skin-walkers or shape-shifters, but an uneasy sense that legends often have some basis in fact nudges him faster towards the entrance. And faster still when he wonders about Mishaal’s reading habits; the other programmers. Computer geeks were known for their fondness for fantasy, weren’t they? Mythical creatures. Hostile landscapes. The unending, desolate, inhuman snow.
Might that explain Lev’s presence after all?
‘What’s going on?’ Lev says, his head thrust between the edges of the outer door. ‘Why are the dogs making such a racket?’
Lev’s matter-of-fact tone dispels the dense graupel clouding Zach’s thoughts. He reels in the long trace to discover that Rosie’s harness is still attached. She must have managed to slip free, something a clever husky will occasionally bring off. Lev takes Jagger out to search.
‘No sign of Rosie,’ Lev says an hour later, gratefully accepting a mug of tea and some dried fruit.
‘What could have happened?’ Zach asks.
‘Hard to say. We tracked her a good ways, but the terrain became too creviced, the fresh snow cover too thick.’
‘Maybe.’ But Lev doesn’t sound convinced.
For the night run before bedding down, Lev checks over the harnesses and traces, then obsessively rechecks them. His better-safe-than-sorry spiel loses its selling power as soon as he takes the gun from his pack and slips it into an anorak pocket. Zach would like to get a closer look at it, and a demonstration if possible, since Lev has been cagey about its particulars, warning that cognitive weapons aren’t for the untrained. ‘You’re a powerful cognoscens, I can’t take any chances.’ After days of near sloth, the dogs are frisky whenever they’re about to be let out, and Lev must perforce leave quickly before they begin to jump around.
Zach picks up the clarinet with the intention of working on something, just a phrase or two so far, nothing you could even call a melodic fragment, much less a sustained, explicit motif. Electronic reproduction of sound in the last century changed music forever, and no acoustic violinist is without his digital collection or his John Adams; and often plays an electric violin as well. But now Zach has been confronted with an entirely new . . . new what? technology? medium? He has only an inkling of its potential and is already wondering if there’s any way to obtain—construct?—such an instrument outside the Fulgrid. Instead of lifting it to his lips, he shuts his eyes and runs his fingers along its length. It could almost be his favourite Buffet. Almost, it could be breathing. Now that’s a real twist for Andy: a liquorice stick more alive than the surfeit of hollow ‘dead wood’ you hear in the clubs. Lev calls it something unpronounceable, loosely translated as ‘the joystick which hypnotises infinity beyond angst’—worth a quick laugh but hardly an irresistible sound bite. Zach will stick with clarinet. Never, but never, some sickly-sweet nickname like the saxists fancy. Mouthy up-themselves cretins, most of them.
‘I hear her little brother calls her Lolly. Reckon he gets some too?’
‘Say that once more, you won’t even remember what it feels like.’
He remembers. Clumsy first attempts aside, who knows better than a simu just how addictive your drug of choice can be?
His fingers tingle and he flexes them, a suspicion that the clarinet may already be tampering with his head increasing his jitteriness. (How long has Lev been gone anyway?) ‘Stop that,’ he mutters, then feels foolish addressing the clarinet, and in any case the tingling has stopped. According to Charles, Fulgur has finally approved research into the cognoscens capacity to perceive tactile sound; neuroscientists tend to focus on the big two, hearing and sight. Zach raises the clarinet to his lips and blows a few halfhearted tones, but he’s restless and there’s no life to it. He gets up and fiddles with the stove, rearranges the dishes, moves his sleeping bag a centimetre to the left, then shifts it back again, fiddles with his hair, with the chain, only just restraining himself from unzipping the door and peering out into the frigid darkness. It’s tempting to wank off. He opens the bag of dried fruit and sorts it into piles of apples and pears, apricots and prunes and bananas, counts them all, and tosses them back into the bag with a couple of hefty shakes in case he wants to confirm the data for a rigorous evidence-based study. How long would it take to count the dehydrated vegetables, or better yet, the grains of sugar? He sets a pot of water to boil, reflecting sardonically that he may as well watch something which will result in tea. Lev has shown him how to play Pace against its strategy banks, but he’d lose at noughts and crosses at this point.
Lev is grim upon his return. Zach helps him shed his torn outerwear, detaches Bella’s lead, and feeds her. He adds extra sugar to Lev’s tea, then after a silent nod from Lev, a splash from their small emergency ration of brandy. Zach doesn’t drink, and strictly speaking, neither should Lev, because alcohol consumption increases the risk of cold injury and hypothermia by accelerating heat loss. But this seems to be an instance where an exception is called for.
‘They would have got Bella too, if she hadn’t slipped into a narrow lead and was preparing to scramble out,’ Lev says at last. ‘I was down on the ground, ready to help if necessary.’ He looks away. ‘Bastards.’
Zach has never heard Lev swear.
‘Who was it?’ Zach asks.
After a long silence, Lev indicates that Zach should join him on the sleeping bags.
‘Sit down,’ Lev says. ‘I think it’s time I explain a few things to you.