“So what exactly do I call you? Am I supposed to go, like, yo, Leviathan, or do I kneel and go O Leviathan, or do I just go hey dude or what?”
Late Heavy Bombardment was pretty crowded. Way-on-Hill did not have a surplus of good bars and LHB was much treasured among the studentry. The World Championship was going on, so people had slowly pooled over the course of the evening to watch. No-one was using an engine; those were for later.
Leviathan was not sitting with anyone. He was alone at his table. He looked up at the screen and frowned slightly. He was young, maybe around 16 or so, and kind of thin but in an athletic way. He was wearing jeans, sort-of-sneakers, a plain ochre T-shirt. Not one of those loose-collared things so common in the current heat. His hair was short, brownish, maybe messy, with a tuft over the forehead and at the nape of the neck. He was both very good-looking and very nondescript. He hooked one heel over the other foot and leaned back in his chair and put the knuckle of his thumb up to one eye, rubbing.
When he heard Garfield he turned around quickly. He moved with a gangly kerfufflement that appeared to broadcast what were more or less good intentions.
“Hey,” he said. “Uhm. My name’s actually Salix. I guess you’d call me that.” He extended his hand.
“Salix,” Garfield said. She extended her hand; he shook it. She dragged a chair over and dropped into it. “Salix. As in, line?”
“As in line.”
“Hmm.” She rocked the chair backwards. “You should get something to drink. Do you drink?”
Salix shrugged; Garfield left and came back with a small shot glass of what looked like water.
“What’s that?” he said, eyeing it warily.
“What I’m wondering,” Garfield said, “is where all the descendants are. Shouldn’t there be a ton of them just sort of hovering around?”
“I’m not really attackable here on Stize, I think.” Smiling slightly.
“Fair enough. That’s Sudden Acute Paralysis, by the way.”
Salix looked at the shot glass. “So what’s this about, really?”
“What do you get?”
“I can’t really tell.” Garfield gestured at the glass. “They say it’s good if you want to think. After – you know – after the paralysis wears off, obviously.”
“Fair enough,” Salix said. He downed the clear fluid and winced. “You’re not going to get –aack – anything more than this, I’m afraid. Aack.” He shrugged.
Garfield looked disappointed. “Well. It’s still a bet won. Must say I was hoping for a little more, though.”
“Sorry,” Salix said. “None of this stuff works on me.”
“Is it a design thing?”
“It’s a design thing. Poison etc.”
“It’s not poison.”
“Well, it impairs judgment.”
Garfield looked at Salix, aghast. “This is a university,” she said.
He toyed with the shot glass. “If you were in my position –”
“Yes, yes,” Garfield said. “Some blood factor?”
“Something like that, yeah,” Salix said.
“Let me see,” Garfield said, and grabbed Salix’s right hand. It was a tight and wiry thing. She peered at the veins. “Looks like the usual colour, though. I got told it was sort of greyish.”
“It’s not the usual,” Salix said. “I’m red all the way through.”
“Ahh,” Garfield said. “And your token?”
“You know, the –”
“Oh, you mean this.” Salix spread out the index and middle fingers on his left hand, exposing the little web of skin in between.
“There you go,” Garfield said. “The mark of the beast.”
“It’s a semicolon,” Salix said.
“It does look like one, doesn’t it?”
“I’ve got a little semicolon printed on me.”
“Can I ask you a slightly macabre question?”
“Um, yeah. Sure.”
“So you have this blood factor and it’s not the usual protective suite.”
“So say that we were not on Stize, say that there was no CompyDust around, say there were no descendants either –”
“Oh dear,” Salix said. “No, or maybe yes if you went to great lengths.”
“So what exactly would happen if I stabbed you? Or shot you? And say you didn’t expect any of this.”
“It would hurt. A lot. From a close enough distance at least. I’d be pissed,” Salix said. He stopped and thought. “Probably really pissed.”
“It’s all probabilistic, but yeah.”
“That’s very cool.”
Salix raised his eyebrows. “I’m sort of valuable, you know.”
Garfield stared and started laughing. Then she said, “Do you know what’s so strange? There’s all these people going at you edgewise because they’re so scared and it turns out you’re just like this.”
“Bizzo!” Garfield yelled. People turned to look. Ordinarily people might have shushed them (Game 5 had started as a Greenfield and descended rapidly into a subtle and murderous tactical slugfest; the analysis was not easy even with the mind-clearing aftereffects of Sudden Acute Paralysis) but at this particular point in time they chose not to.
Bizzo was a person. He came over, coughing, shoulders inbent as a hierophant’s, greenly painful hair without conceivable symmetry or function under a polypoid flat cap, eyes dead.
“Hello, Garfield,” he said. His voice was oddly mild. It was nasal and soft-vowelled and sounded like it came through an ancient radio. Rhotic Rs. He was missing several teeth. “I thought you’d be here.” Bizzo had odd breathy Ts and his Is were more like OIs.
“Garfield,” Salix said. “You didn’t tell me your name.”
“I must have,” Garfield said, “Didn’t I?”
“Never mind,” Salix said. “Hi, Bizzo.”
“Bizzo, meet Salix, Leviathan, soon of the House of Leaves, the Latter Circuit, etc. Salix, meet Bizzard, singer-songwriter, fluid dynamicist, environmental terrorist.”
“Ex-environmental terrorist,” Bizzo said. Salix and Garfield waited as a curiously regurgitative cough intervened. “Nice to meet you.”
“Are you unwell?” Salix said.
“No,” Garfield said.
“Yes,” Bizzo said, “But I like it this way.”
“He’s from Hakon,” Garfield said.
“What about Hakon?” Salix said.
“We talk strange,” Bizzo said.
“They’re positively freakish,” Garfield said, with enthusiasm.
Bizzo coughed in protest or just coughed. “QC let me have the drugs,” Bizzo said.
“Was this in return for the terrorism?” Salix said.
“He was very good at it,” Garfield said.
“Did you do ecoterrorism for your Justification, then?” Salix said.
Bizzo scratched idly behind one ear. “On Ditarod, after Habermas,” he said, wistfully. “Those were damn good times.”
“I considered going there,” Garfield said, “But eventually I settled for the Undercover Infrastructure programme on Domis. Nothing as vivacious as terrorism.” She looked sad.
“It wasn’t that bad,” Bizzo offered. “You did a deep insertion.”
“It’s not like anyone actually died, though,” Garfield said.
“It’s not that great.” Bizzo said.
“Question,” Bizzo coughed, looking at Salix.
“Well – hrrm –not really a question.”
“Yeah, sure, go ahead.”
“More like a directive, really.”
“You know, it’s a bit weird, you being Leviathan – you know what I mean.”
“I don’t mind at all, really I don’t.”
“Well, you’d better solve Ditarod soon. That’s it. You really have to solve that place.”
“I will,” Salix said.
“He’s got strong feelings about this,” Garfield said.
“I can tell,” Salix said.
Bizzo coughed again. “Salix, you could kill half of the people on Ditarod and it wouldn’t make a difference. I tell you the place is a total horror for the people. They have jobs, it’s unimaginable. All the days, again and again, they can’t choose, they don’t even have any time. I was thinking about what it would be like. You just sit there and your life is parcelled out and monetized away and when you get home you are so tired nothing can be done about it anymore. And then you realise you need to get your own food, or whatever, you need to get out and do more things – and the thing is you’re doing all this just to stay alive. They tie themselves to some office, it’s a really tiny space, can barely move, can’t talk, all that just so that they can pay for having a house. You know? It goes on like this for years and years. They’re so fucked-up – so many of them are so fucked-up – they’re better off dead. They don’t know that, of course.”
“Rant,” Garfield nodded. “Truth.”
“Sorry about that,” Bizzo said. “I must have sounded really condescending.”
Salix shook his head. “You should get a seat,” he said. “You can’t stand all night.”
Bizzo delicately angled himself into a chair and leaned back, eyes filmed with exhaustion. “Aaah,” he said.
“All those recreational drugs,” Garfield said. “Mainly I disapprove of the green hair.”
“How long was he on Ditarod?”
“Two years or so.”
Salix sighed. “He’s right, he’s right, but there are other ways to go about it.”
“Ask her about K8,” Bizzo wheezed enigmatically. Now his voice was so soft it was hard to catch what he was saying.
“Does he know what’s going on?” Salix asked.
“He’s perfectly fine, this comes and goes.”
“So what about K8?”
“Oh, she’s talking about K8 again,” Bizzo murmured.
“He looks properly blissed out,” Salix said.
“It comes and goes,” Garfield said.
“So what about K8?”
“I went all the way up it, in a bike.”
“Just a bike?”
“A mechanical mountain bike. It was a very good one, though.”
“Just standard-body. Lost most of the fingers on my left hand on the way down but it got replaced. It was really weird.”
Salix stared. “You went up Stize’s fourth-highest mountain in a bike.”
“There was a lot of hopping around involved. I carried it sometimes when it got really steep.”
“That is ridiculous.”
“It sort of makes up for my not being a terrorist. And the training was awful. ”
“Wow,” Salix said.
“You’re not going to ask me why I did it, I suppose.”
“It’s not that hard to understand.”
Garfield went quiet and looked thoughtful.
“You know,” Garfield said, “I went up K8 alone.”
“Well – ”
“I told QC that I didn’t want any help.”
“Okay,” Salix said.
“Actually this reminds me of something I was hoping to ask you.”
“Go ahead,” Salix said.
“This was when I was nearly at the top. It was very cold, still a little dark. You would expect all of that. And then when the sun came up it was so bright it was difficult to see. But just beneath the summit there was a dead person. Not all of it, I didn’t see the whole body. But there is this small overhang on the East Face, and these two rocks come together like a V, and there was – is, probably – someone crouched there. Sheltering from the cold, obviously. One hand stretched all the way out. That’s the first thing I noticed, actually. There was a stiff hand all wrapped up in a heavy jacket, orange, the normal colour.”
“I see,” Salix said. Abruptly there was something about him that was very observant.
“I’ve always wondered about that,” Garfield said.
“Why did QC let the climber die?”
“Have you asked QC?”
Garfield stared at Salix as if he was some kind of strange object. “I want to know,” she said, “what you think.”
“Whoever it was probably asked to be left there.”
“Do you think someone would do that?”
“Why would someone do that?”
Salix put his head on the table. It was a strangely childlike thing for him to do. “I really cannot say.”
“You don’t think QC let it happen just because it could.”
“Just because it could.”
Garfield did not know how she ought to elaborate. “Just because it could.”
“I don’t know. What does that mean?”
“Was QC responsible? Did it do it?”
“The climber asked QC to stay away. I think that’s what happened.”
“I suppose,” Garfield said.
A little time passed. Around them on other tables pieces clacked softly on the analysis boards.
Salix cocked his head. “What?” he said.
He could imagine it, a hand out there, bright in the ice and the air, nearly all the oxygen gone.
“Nothing,” Garfield said. “I’m going to get some Sudden Acute Paralysis. Do you want some more?”
“It doesn’t work on me,” Salix said.
“Could you turn it off?”
“As in, my blood?”
“No, obviously. Just the immunity.”
Salix spread his hands in a gesture meant apparently to convey some sense of futility. “Oh well,” he said.