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In the 90s physicist Wu Li took a sharp left turn along the ratiocinative superhighway into the metasphere, his theories at once controversial and groundbreaking. The Fulgur Corporation saw their commercial potential early on, and as soon as Zhou and Groening came on board, jettisoned the air-surfing division after the Aconcagua fiasco, poached some of the best minds from research institutes and universities worldwide, including Charles Litchfield, with the lure of putting science—and scientists—rather than profit first, and broadened its core focus from immersive entertainment to encompass neuroscience and the new metapsychology, then, in a strategic and farsighted move which would ensure its rapid rise to market dominance, augmented cognition. Homo cognoscens. The augers.
Simus, they like to call themselves. Zhou first referred to them as simulacrums, but the tag only really stuck after the Zimbabwean neurogeneticist on the pioneering team told them that his own name Simu, short for Simudzai, meant forward in his native tongue.
The interface prototype was mostly Groening’s work, with his engineering skills, though it was Zhou who developed the algorithms from Wu’s theorems. None of this would have been possible, however, without the self-replicating viruses which Litchfield’s mentor at university, then Litchfield himself, synthesised in order to activate what would, in certain cases, become momentous germline mutations.
‘Get up, lad. You’ll freeze to death like this.’
Zach raises his head. His skin and lips are already numb, his nostrils packed with ice crystals. The splint and dressing after they’d broken his nose had not felt much different—a foreign body, one which he’d welcomed as a constant reminder. He’d flushed the painkillers down the clinic loo. And six months later, one of the kids needed an implant for the two front teeth he’d lost; a few weeks afterwards, the second one spent ten days in intensive care; and the third would likely never father a child.
With gloved fists, Zach digs at his eyes like a small child but the lids are iced shut and it frightens him, that feeling of resistance, as if someone has used catgut to stitch away the evidence of his genetic code. The man helps Zach to a sitting position, and crouching before him, places a hand on either side of his head. Without any sign of disgust he blows on first one, then the other eye, again and again, until Zach’s sight is restored. The man is a smoker, Zach can smell tobacco on his breath.
‘Who are you?’ Zach asks, blinking against the brightness. It’s stopped snowing, and the tundra glitters in the moonlight. Those who are unfamiliar with the far north imagine months of winter darkness, but ice and snow have a spectral fierceness as beautiful as a dreamscape, as implacable as hatred. His training required a certain amount of reading, which in fascination he soon broadened to include numerous accounts, many first-hand, of expeditions to the high Arctic—of explorers and whalers, of scientists and entrepreneurs, of madmen and dreamers.
‘Here they call me Lev.’
Lev draws Zach to his feet, then reaches into a deep flapped pocket and brings out a small flask, which once uncapped, steams and gives off the rich smell of coffee. Lev holds it to Zach’s lips.
‘Slowly now, don’t burn your tongue.’
The coffee is black and very sweet, laced with what may be cardamom in the Saudi style. Though a fine programmer, Mishaal is something of a jokester who leaves his version of a calling card wherever most eccentric; a wink between fellow Janus. A few sips, and heat blossoms in Zach’s stomach like a spurt of blood from a reopened wound, and his shivering subsides.
‘OK?’ Lev asks.
Lev points towards what, under the circumstances, couldn’t possibly be a flock of sheep clustered near an open pond. As Zach peers at the gleam of aquamarine, a snow-covered building comes into focus. A hut or shed of some kind. And yes, now he can see light flickering in a window, lantern- or firelight.
‘It’s nearer than it looks,’ Lev says, ‘but we’d best get started. This cold will kill you faster than a terr bomb.’
‘Is Lev a nickname?’ Zach asks. ‘It’s not on my client list.’
‘Not exactly. But conserve your energy—the first rule of survival here. We’ll talk inside.’
Inside consists of a narrow anteroom where they shed their boots and outerwear, and through a tightly fitting door, a surprisingly good-sized living room furnished with a long wooden table and benches, two simple sofas, a few chairs, bookshelves. Over the floorboards several brightly-striped carpets are strewn, interspersed with furs—possibly polar bear. A fire is burning in the open fireplace, though the almost uncomfortable temperature suggests another, and primary, source of heat. The second door will lead to a kitchen, bathroom, and some sort of sleeping quarters. Though far from luxurious, this basecamp is less primitive than others Zach has used. As an instructor—not counsellor, and absolutely not Fulgur’s ridiculous facilitator—at least he’ll have his own room, no matter how small. He couldn’t bear it otherwise, not now.
Personal data about clients is kept to a minimum—’to avoid prejudice’, reads the team manual—but Zach is disconcerted when two girls glance up as he enters. They’re seated cross-legged before the fire, a jigsaw puzzle half-finished on a large tray between them—5000 pieces, by the look of it. Slender, hollow-cheeked girls without makeup.
Zach turns away for a moment till sure his face expresses the right degree of polite interest. There’s no way it could be this easy, and though he’s known it all along, the sight of the girls brings blotches of colour to his cheeks. He moves closer to the fire, the heat of which would redden even the darkest skin.
Lev comes into the room, shutting the door behind him, and Zach has his first good look at his rescuer. Cropped dark blonde hair, blue eyes, a small scar at the corner of his mouth, as though he’d been licking off a steak knife and it slipped. A few years older than Zach himself, possibly in his mid-twenties. Not a youth offender, then, so what is he doing here?
The girl with dark curly hair gets to her feet. ‘There’s some hot soup in the kitchen,’ she says. ‘You two look as if you need it.’ Zach realises that she is in fact the lad he’s been expecting.
‘You’re Ethan?’ Zach asks.
Ethan nods, then indicates his companion. ‘And this is Chloe.’
Neither of them seems discomfited by Lev’s presence, so Zach decides to say nothing till he works out just who this bloke is. A misstep at the outset could easily destroy Ethan and Chloe’s trust in a field instructor—tenuous at best—making cooperation difficult, if not impossible. Zach has never heard of anyone dying during Virtual Wilderness Therapy, but he wouldn’t like to put it to the test.
After the meal Zach introduces himself, a nicely offhand set piece, but contrary to Fulgur guidelines, restricts his remarks about the programme itself to the briefest sketch of his immediate plans. They’ve surely been lectured enough; a few days on the ice sharpens everyone’s listening skills. Then he gives each of them a chance to talk. ‘Anything you like,’ he says, ‘questions of course, but anything at all, even how much you detest the cold and the snow and don’t want to be here and are bored out of your skull and didn’t do anything wrong anyway and plan to throttle me as soon as I’m asleep.’
‘Nah,’ says Chloe, ‘fuck you.’
For a fraction of a second Zach thinks she’s swearing at him. He manages to keep his face deadpan when she adds, ‘I’m dying to find out if an auger cock’s really dead brute. A whopper, a piece of metal, a fucking iron harpoon, you’re supposed to have between those skinny legs. Ethan doesn’t mind sharing for once, do you, babe?’
‘Sorry I can’t oblige,’ Zach says coolly. ‘Against the rules.’
‘Is that so?’ Unperturbed, she smiles and glances round. ‘Don’t worry, no one will nark. Just like they won’t mention how you, our Arctic mentor and guide, got lost on his way to our cosy little character-building venue.’
Ethan laughs, while Lev stretches his legs, crosses his ankles, and tilts his chair back at an improbable angle, his eyes glinting with amusement. Zach meets their gaze impassively, each in turn. Manipulative behaviour is one of the first things he’s been taught to deal with.
‘Sending Lev out to find me shows a genuine sense of responsibility. It means that you’re ready to move on to the first phase of the outdoor programme. We’ll start tomorrow right after breakfast.’
‘It was a test?’ Chloe asks with some chagrin.
Zach frames his response carefully. ‘You’re in good hands. Fulgur leaves nothing to chance.’
They discuss the chore roster, with none of the usual complaints—perhaps a consequence of Chloe’s come-on. She and Lev carry the dishes into the kitchen to wash up. While sorting through some of the puzzle pieces together, Zach asks Ethan a few casual questions. ‘Any newcomers? Girls passing through?’
Later when Zach is struggling to find a way around his memories towards sleep, Chloe comes to his narrow cot. He knows that he doesn’t want to do this and that he’s going to regret it afterwards, but the need for release, however momentary, translates into an involuntary groan which she misinterprets. Once she touches him, he’s lost. She doesn’t seem to notice that he won’t let her kiss him or stroke his hair, nor does she realise his final cry is one of despair.