Zach awakes to ferocious gusting. With luck Lev won’t have heard his groan. Their world has been compressed into this small, temporary shelter where they may be warm, they may be fed, they may even be safe, but Zach knows that if he were to risk a few steps beyond the tent, he’d be taken by the storm.
It’s supposed to be a sleepy kind of death. Once the violent shivering subsides.
Do they program dreams to taunt him? No Inuk would ever club a seal senseless, then shove it into the water to drown.
He stretches as unobtrusively as possible, mostly his cramped legs, which could have used another four or five centimetres of sleeping bag. Back to back, he and Lev have managed to preserve a semblance of privacy, but Lev rolls over, slips an arm out, and unzips his bag. There’s not much he misses.
‘I’ll turn up the heat and put on the kettle,’ Lev says. ‘Get up and move round a bit.’
‘I’m fine,’ Zach says. ‘It was just a dream.’
‘Remind me to add an entry to my translator. Fine can also be used for stubborn.’
Light is soon flickering along the sides of the tent, whose billowing and snapping remind Zach of sheets hanging from a washing line. Crisp sunshine, a last brisk day. To elude Ben he dodges through the heaving walls of the maze, where the three-eyed, sword-toothed monster guards the treasure. This time he’s going to reach it for sure, and find the gold, and the spell-locked casket of jewels, and win the sloe-eyed princess’s hand. The air smells of autumn and woodsmoke. Leaves crunch underfoot. His father is chopping wood, his mother collecting walnuts in a basket. The wind kicks and pummels like a small, baffled child wailing to be let into the snowy labyrinth of memory.
‘Zach?’ Lev says.
The boy, and the incident, vanish in a whiteout.
They take turns at knee-bends and toe-touching, the dogs watching with somnolent amusement. His self-appointed guard hugs Zach’s side while they drink tea. Up close, her coarse fur smells pleasantly oily, like fresh-toasted wheat germ, and Zach finds himself combing her coat with his hand, digging his fingers into her thick ruff.
‘Bella’s very discerning,’ Lev says. ‘She’s got the team’s best nose.’
‘I don’t suppose you smell any sweeter.’
‘Is it my scintillating wit and delightful company, or have you always been so touchy?’
After a moment Zach releases a laugh. ‘OK, I deserve that.’
Lev rolls a cigarette, permits himself two brief drags, then extinguishes both it and the light before crawling back into his sleeping bag. ‘Let’s rest while we can. It’s going to be a difficult trek to the hunters’ camp.’
‘How long will the storm last?’ Zach asks.
‘No telling. We’ll have to wait it out.’
Lev’s teas are very soothing. Zach yawns, closes his eyes, drowsily listens for the sound of a zip, the usual pre-sleep noises. They don’t come. Instead, Lev’s hand skims Zach’s shoulder, so lightly that at first he wonders if he’d drifted off for an instant.
‘You’re welcome to share my sleeping bag.’
So much for sleep. At the end of a held breath Zach mutters, ‘Look, it’s not that I don’t like you.’
‘No need to be so nervous.’ A soft chuckle. ‘I’m not going to jump you.’
Embarrassed, Zach blurts out, ‘Is homosexuality common where you come from?’
‘Our categories are somewhat different,’ Lev says dryly.
Zach rolls to face Bella, who works herself into the harbourage of his body. He moves his hand to her neck, again plies the firm stratum of muscle beneath her coat, and she gives a little whimper of pleasure. Dogs are heavily taxed, enough of a luxury for Laura to have called it her mum’s perfect excuse whenever Max asked for a new puppy to replace the spaniel which died young—one of those new and devastating metaviruses. Fucking morons, wanking round with uploads when they can’t even develop some decent antivirals.
‘I promise you, we’ll find her.’
There is something in Lev’s voice which sounds pre-recorded. Zach shifts round fast enough to catch the look on his face.
‘You keep tugging at Laura’s chain like that, it’ll break and you’ll convince yourself it’s an omen.’
After a long hesitation, Zach lets Lev zip their sleeping bags together. A meagre comfort, that shared warmth, but a measure of comfort nevertheless.
She comes to him in the hours before rising.
The light is blue, the penetrating eerie blue of an ice cave, and she too is frosted in blue, her hair shimmering with ice crystals.
He says her name. He says
In the morning—Zach finds it easier to think in conventional blocks of time—he asks if they can’t make a start despite the snowstorm, but Lev is blunt. ‘I might manage on my own, but what will you do if something happens to me?’ Neither mentions that Zach’s chances for survival, alone, would only be marginally better in optimal weather, even with the dogs. Neither mentions the abort function.
To pass the time Lev produces a small, square board which glows from an internal power source and whose playing pieces float just below the surface of an unfamiliar translucent material, a material with the brilliance of cut glass but the tactile intimacy of free-flowing water. The pieces move at the touch of a finger. The rules are so simple that Zach wonders why nobody has thought of them before, then reminds himself that nobody thought of the Wu constant for the longest time either—or the biro. But it’s surprisingly difficult to win, and when he manages to stalemate Lev, Zach grins like a little kid who has just scored his first goal.
‘Even trickier than Go,’ he says.
‘All sentient races develop such games.’ Lev kneels before his pack. ‘Here, you may as well see what you can do with this.’ He passes Zach an oblong case about the length of a devil stick. ‘Just keep the volume down or the dogs will go mad.’
The instrument has a mouthpiece, though the reed isn’t made of any material Zach recognises, and its body, roughly clarinet-shaped, seems to be constructed from the same crystalline substance as Lev’s game. No keys are visible. When Zach raises it to his lips for a tentative blow, he’s astonished by the force of the tone he produces, a shrill F#. The dogs lift their heads and Jagger gets to his feet with hackles raised.
‘How does it work?’ Zach asks.
‘Try playing while you think of a tune, a scale, whatever you like. Remember, think softly.’
Papageno’s aria from The Magic Flute teases a smile from Lev, who is nothing if well versed in sapiens culture.
‘Will it play anything at all?’ Zach asks.
‘A full rendition of Bach’s St Matthew Passion, you mean? Complete with soloists, double orchestra and choir?’
‘I’d be happy with a chord or two, though I wouldn’t turn up my nose at accompaniment.’
‘You’ll have to be patient. Neuronal changes take time. Ultimately, though, you ought to be able to dispense with the reed, explore far beyond the limitations of the clarinet.’
‘A musical instrument which affects my brain?’
‘A reciprocal adaptation, though there will be more neurogenesis, more rewiring of your neural networks than hers, since you haven’t been brought up with such’—another of his smiles—’such facilitators.’
Zach weighs the instrument in his hand. ‘She?’
‘He. She. What an odd language you speak. Depends on your understanding of gender. On you, in the end,’ Lev says. ‘The main thing is, the higher dimensions are conscious. Think of music as one of their languages.’
And just for a moment, a velvety arpeggio giggles in Zach’s ear. A very girlish giggle.