“Wycliffe,Wycliffe, someone’s dead. How can we be talking about this when someone has just died? Can we please stop talking about this? Shit. Shit.”
“You killed him,” Wycliffe said, accusatorily, but without an excess of passion.
“You don’t have to tell me that, Wycliffe. You’re so obvious sometimes…” Real anxiety now, real distress.
What had happened was that Capt. Samuel Wycliffe, sometime commander of C Company, 2nd Battlegroup of the Heavy Transporter Dropsy, had proposed one of the secure meeting rooms as the place in which to see Sigmund, and forgotten to lock the door. Pt. Tsigalkis had opened the door and said: “Um, oh. Good afternoon, sir.” And Capt. Wycliffe had said, “Could you close the door, please?” And Tsigalkis had closed the door behind him. Then he had seen Sigmund, who said “Aaaah,” and Tsigalkis’ jaw had dropped. It dropped to the floor and he made a slight moaning noise with his mouth (because no tongue) and he fell down dead.
“Isn’t this what you were meant for, hmm?” Wycliffe said, loudly, to get past Sigmund’s grief. He was fascinated. It was a quality inherent in him, that he was always interested in learning, in observing. He was not intrinsically a soldier, see, but he could put two and two together just like that, and that was helpful – Major Head had said so herself, affirmed it, so she said, in no uncertain terms.
“Shit, shit,” Sigmund said.
“It’s just one person,” Wycliffe screamed. “Aren’t you made for this?” He needed to get Sigmund to focus, to come to the issue at hand.
Sigmund turned this way and that, bobbed up and down, “Please, Wycliffe. You know better, why must you do this now… Descendants aren’t made for anything. That’s the entire point of it, that’s the whole reason…”
Wycliffe was relentless, “But why,” he said, “Why are you so upset? This is a war, you know, death is in the bond, it’s the interest.”
“Oh, Wycliffe, I need time, I need time. This is so affecting.”
Wycliffe allowed himself to feel some pity, secreted a small drop of it and held it there, poised, a tingling between his nipples. He reached out to Sigmund, who flinched, he imagined, jerked in the air a little, and ran his finger across the bottom the little black sphere, a gesture intended to comfort. Sigmund liked that, he knew, has an animal indenture in – him? her? it? – that had not been shaken off, and he could thread that needle…
“Thank you, thank you,” Sigmund said. Its voice quavered. “You don’t know, you really don’t know how much this helps, this human contact, these small acts of kindness, you really don’t know.”
“It was my fault,” Wycliffe said, reasonably.
“It was,” Sigmund says, “Wasn’t it absolutely? I told you, didn’t I? I told you. I said if we used these rooms I couldn’t tell if someone was coming…”
“You could,” Wycliffe said, now stung, convolute movements of the finger almost now stopping, poised … “Surely it must be an easy thing for you.”
Sigmund was in a real state. The poor thing had killed someone –“How can you demand this of me? I tell you now as I told you then, I tell you, it takes effort, it would have been a waste, people might have detected it, oh, Wycliffe, there are all these reasons –”
“So killing him was a right thing to do, then,” Wycliffe ventured, cooingly.
“That is not it. That is not it! It was so unnecessary, Wycliffe, I hate it, this loss of life. It’s fucking awful.” Sigmund floated off, a little higher, beyond the sympathetic writhings of Wycliffe’s finger. It fixed Wycliffe with a look, it turned and made sure that the little eye spot, what appeared to be an eye spot, had Wycliffe squarely in its gaze. The deep dispensaries in Wycliffe consulted manuals … generated, even now, after so many shared moments, moments of love, almost, and confidentiality, a recipe for fear–
“Do you think I am not being serious?” Sigmund asked.
Wycliffe merely observed. His sphincters were tight, quiet, expectant.
“I am being serious, Wycliffe, I am trying to be as honest as possible. I hate killing people. Now poor Tsigalkis is dead, and what can I do? I didn’t have to do so, something else was possible, maybe I could have done something with the memory… it was all an accident, you must believe me when I say this will come with me to the grave, I acted without thinking –”
Wycliffe drew himself up, put down his terrors. This was the moment. He must intervene. “There will be no grave,” he verily shouted, “There will be no grave because we will succeed. Am I not my brother’s keeper?” Wycliffe knew that Sigmund could not die; it was the tragedy of its nature. But the gesture counted, surely, in this war that was a tissue of gestures, what harm could one more do, but also what good, what good indeed…
“Yes,” Sigmund said, still hovering slightly out of reach. “Yes, I am sure we will succeed.”
“What about the body?” Wycliffe said.
“That’s the thing.”
“I am sorry.”
“All this effort …” Sigmund said. “I’ll put a lie in the computers. Do not worry about it.”
“When they ask me, where has he gone? I will have to say something…”
“Something will do, you must trust me on this, doesn’t something always do? Don’t make me dwell on this any longer than I have to, Wycliffe, this is cruelty. This is the basest kind of cruelty. Now we must be about the business at hand.”
“I have noticed things, you know,” Wycliffe said. “There are signs, there are signals. It must be your work.”
“What signals, Wycliffe? If you see things you must tell me, we must discuss them together. This is an enterprise, I’m sure you know that…”
The swerve of the conversation was much to Wycliffe’s liking, and he enjoyed the power. He had made the title of observer into a high exalted thing, an object of envy. He expanded. Was he an anarchist or a humanist? He did not know. But he was moving somewhere, he was gravitating, that he did know, with clear and terrible certainty.
Wycliffe paced in a manner that be believed to be stately, hands moving, always moving. “I was reading the reports on Ebannen, you know. Every big installation there has been destroyed. All of it, utterly reduced to rubble, a real tragedy. Except of course for the train station at Fahrer, the network there has been untouched.”
“I know that,” Sigmund said.
“There are no E carriages.”
Sigmund reeled back like it had been physically hit (although it might have been the case that in its entire existence it had never once been physically hit…) Then it said, still frozen in that position, “I am afraid, Wycliffe, that once again you have gone in a direction that is beyond me. You must explain, you must explain, my state is so fragile, you see. Help me out here.”
“You see – on the North Line, and the Southwest, and the Circle, the trains all have E carriages. A, B, C, D, E, F, and so on. But on the Crossline, on the Crossline, I was looking this up, this is the line we often use if we have slow-carry weapons we need to bring to Borundum, on the Crossline, there are no E carriages. They have gone. The Es are gone. Maybe they are still there but they are called by a different name. Do you know what I am saying? Do you sense the weight of it?” His voice rose, trembled. “There is a pattern, something was changed before we came…”
“Fascinating.” Wycliffe had rarely seen Sigmund like this. He could sense the thoughts in Sigmund, could feel odorous layers of them coming off it.
“I can read you like a book, Sigmund.” Reckless. Triumphant. (In fact Wycliffe also knew that Sigmund smelt like a book, like old heirs of lignin and cellulose, ancient admixtures of benzaldehyde, ethyl benzene, 2-ethyl hexanol, akyl ketene dimer, furfural, acetic acid, tolulene, all the assorted halituous products of lipid peroxidation … even vanillin, yes, even that, Wycliffe could detect it entombed beneath all those aromatic strata, rudely agamic perfume that reminded of cream, of cake, strangely generated by this thing made purely, he was told, of metal, and nothing else, not even a soul with which to guilt it…)
“I am not a book,” Sigmund said. “Why would you read me like a book?”
Wycliffe was shocked by this rudeness, this kind of naiveté, he was actually staggered by it.
“Tsigalkis!” Sigmund cried, shrilly. “Don’t step on Tsigalkis!”
Wycliffe was annoyed at his boots getting dirtied that way. For a moment he was about to say something vehement, something about Tsigalkis and Sigmund going around like that, killing people on instinct, the inhuman bastard… But he seized himself. He was above that.
“I can read you,” he said, coldly, “And I tell you there are no E carriages.”
“There is a solution,” Sigmund said.
Wycliffe beamed. He was not offended, not offended at all – this was part of the frolic, it was how they played it, the quodlibet (the whole bloody thing was one, you know?), it was how they had to move, not stepwise but sliding…
“There is a solution. Right before the attack, the Crossline – it got sold to Massive Transit Operations, a company that offered services, that made the trains move… but it was flawed. The divination of its monies said that the way to make the trains work well on the Crossline would be to switch the carriages around; a flexible-coupling arrangement. They would move. They would mix and form new trains, strange and wonderful new combinations constantly pulling in – can you imagine coming into one of these, stepping into a permutation that is actually unfamiliar, actually new? All the others, all the other lines, had fixed combinations. Do you see? And it was decided that E had to go. It would be too confusing otherwise. Just imagine the sounds! Bee, Cee, Dee, Eee… Do you see how a reasonable person might find it too much, if a train was all eee sounds in the wrong order? Dee, Cee, Eee, Bee. Hellish!” And Sigmund looked sad at this. “So E had to go. No E carriages. A, B, C, D, F. It was called for. A fundamental reordering, all so that passengers would experience the very minimum of confusion on the system, and travel in maximum comfort and relaxation. There would be no compromise.”
“I was meant for this,” Wycliffe breathed. “These deep things. It is hard for me to speak about such things, sometimes, it can be so hard to find the words, but it is good that you are around. You resonate.”
“Aah. Aah. ‘What could the world have to be like for language to be possible?’”
Wycliffe was on the very verge of seeing the connection, he could feel it against his skin like underwear, it lay just beneath open statement, just beneath the level of explicit feeling… but it was gone.
“What?” he said, his anguish suddenly apparent.
Sigmund was being carried away. “This is important,” it said, “This might be crucial for what happens on Ebannen. You have led me here, you have a hand in this too. ‘What would the world have to be like—’”
Wycliffe snapped. “Well,” he huffed, “Well,” he swelled, “Well, it would have to be like this –” (he stamped his foot; a little of Tsigalkis’s blood jumped into the air) “It would have to be like this, the one we’re in right now, wouldn’t it?”
“But why, Wycliffe, why, we must be rigorous in such fundamental inquiries…”
“We’re using it now, you traitor, we are talking –”
“What do you mean?”
“What if this, all this, is a wilderness of coincidences—”
“Are you saying that all this time, we have not been talking, hm? We have not been –communicating? Has something gone wrong inside you?” One could not simply throw a relationship like that aside. “I will not help you anymore, if you insist on this, and then you will have to kill everyone on this ship yourself. There, and there.”
Sigmund was so appalled that he immediately recognised this as the petulant joke that it was. “Wycliffe! Wycliffe, you could not, this is not in my brief, I could not possibly contemplate such a moral horror. Tsigalkis alone, Tsigalkis – I need you to help me, this is important. We want the mission to succeed, yes we want it do, very dearly so, don’t we? So you must help me, we must guide each other along…”
“Yes,” Wycliffe, says, “Yes. But you must say different things now.”
“You led me here, Wycliffe, and I am profoundly grateful. After this –”
“On with it, on with it.” Shrieking, beating the air with his fists in gratitude.
Eventually Sigmund came within reach again, so that Wycliffe could stroke it sullenly.
“What I want to know,” Sigmund enunciated carefully, delicately, a dark sheen in Wycliffe’s hand – (Wycliffe imagined playing tennis with Sigmund, not against, but with – tha-whoosh, and a 250 km/h screamer that smears over the net, Sigmud screaming in the panic of it and letting it all go so that the spectators bubble and topple like dominoes…) “What I want to know is, what we should figure out is, does a nonexistent object have properties?”
“No,” said Wycliffe with finality.
“Ah,” said Sigmund.
Wycliffe knew that he had to be patient. “What?”
Sigmund was silent.
“The thing is,” Wycliffe said, carefully, “The thing is, that if it does not exist, then there’s nothing to it, is there?”
“But if you know – but surely if you know that something does not exist it is because of something that has been ascribed to it that allows you to say it does not exist? Things in the stories? Fictions? Hmm? I need your assistance in this, Wycliffe.”
Wycliffe thought hard. Little torpedoes behind his eyeballs, exploding, bright things of sputum—
It struck him like a thunderclap, and he held Sigmund at arm’s length, goggling with revelation. “No… I know what it is, what it is – it is this – are there nonexistent things? I have it, Sigmund.”
Sigmund looked exactly the same, but it was a look of awe, Wycliffe knew.
“You must see where I am coming from, Sigmund – you cannot think of something – you cannot say anything about something, not even that it does not exist, without first thinking of it existing.” Words like a flood, today Wycliffe was inspired, he was in a different place altogether, the phantasmagory rising between his legs, in his telencephalon – “‘There is’ and ‘There exists’, they’re not the same – look! If only things with meanings can be true and I say – ” Wycliffe pointed at Sigmund and said, “You have no mother, surely you have no mother.”
“I do not,” Sigmund affirmed.
“A name, I need a name!”
“Maman,” Sigmund offered.
“If I say – Maman, your mother, does not exist, then surely if this is true then this statement must mean something – but then each part of it must mean something – and if Maman must mean something – ” Wycliffe was flushed with the intensity of this exhalation. “Do you see what I am saying, Sigmund? There is a contradiction here because ‘Maman does not exist’ – for that to make sense, if we are to put our hands together and say this is true then Maman must denote something, and therefore exist…”
Sigmund was contemplating Tsigalkis’ jaw. “There is a way out,” it said, at last. “I must puncture your rapture, Wycliffe, although it is something to behold, quite, quite extraordinary … Let me say this. Let me describe, let us not use the name – names, they are so devious, they lie, you know, I have experience … Let me say, instead of ‘Maman does not exist’, let me say ‘It is not the case that there is exactly one Thing, which is my mother.’ My terms are general, they are uniqueness terms, there is no problem –”
Wycliffe chewed his lip with ferocity. “You said this was important for the war.”
“It is crucial.” Solemn now, in its unpinnable way.
“Well then,” hands together, numbness in his skull, violence all wrapped under skin, MIRVs poking from his teeth, “Well then! Then I say to you you are naive – for we do not – aaaahh – there is no need, if you look at what we do – we do not need these definite descriptions, sometimes our idea if what something is is not a unique thing at all even if we think it is – all I know about Leviathan is that he rules the Kingdom, but there have been many rulers of the Kingdom … or my identification of him might be wrong, the correspondence might not be clean – ahh, this is deep, Sigmund, this is what I like about you…”
“Solution!” Sigmund egged. “You stand on the abyss now, you daring – you, mad little cumlet—”
“I have said it, I just said it – do you not listen to me, Sigmund? After all this time? Never mind, I forgive, I am always forgiving, anything for victory, you say… The solution is that these things are different – ‘There is’ and ‘There exists’, there is altogether no relation between them whatsoever.”
Sigmund was testing this idea. Wycliffe felt it like cancer in his marrow, like hot lead. He dabbed at his trembling lip. “So if I say there is a round square –”
Trivial. Wycliffe batted something away. “No, no, it is impossible, it is not in this world. In this world, in this possible world, it cannot be – it is a contradiction. But in all the other impossible worlds – I have no right to divine, who can say what things lurk there? All our nonexistent Things have all their properties. But they’d better damn well stay in their worlds…”
“It’s a jungle out there,” Sigmund offers. “All these worlds, these repositories of nonexistent things, this concrete theatre…”
“A big jungle, you are damn right it is a jungle.”
“And all these things hiding in there.”
“Bright spangly fish, little darting things.”
“Empty names. Monsters. Big things with teeth.”
Wycliffe was suspicious of Sigmund when it spoke like that, like it had been expecting the answer from the very beginning. He had an ear for these things (even though he did not know it; and Wycliffe was a person unusually aware of his own talents). A wild suspicion took hold of him and he felt like reaching out and grabbing Sigmund, thought what it needed was a good shake through and through – but he was magnanimous; he could give Sigmund this small taste of victory. The heavy lifting had been his and a sense of sickening robustness gripped him with ferocity. “And now on to Ebannen,” he proclaimed, “who can say what lies there?”
“This was important,” Sigmund said, “Merely speaking about this, conjuring – I tell you this will have effects – ”
Wycliffe moved towards the door. “There is no more time,” he said. “They will be looking for me now.”
“Yes,” Sigmund said, “Yes, you should go now.” It turned wearily to the body.
Wycliffe was nearly at the Officers’ Mess when he realised that he and Sigmund had never got around to discussing that matter at hand. But he was too joyful to care. He breathed in, he breathed in so many smells.