Kind of getting away: 14

It’s been good the last few days. I’m tired but things are going well. Lots of tagging, sampling. Yesterday we came across the Bochstiannanas, and it was so windy that most of the water was going up, white spray plumed and very cold. The B. is not quite iced over yet but in a few weeks it will be.

I’m coming to the edge of the Bowl now and the trees here are thinning out. Warm colours in the long blue light. It is a good place to be. This is the outside: neither structured by geometry nor struck by any kind of grief, nor made poor by want of expression, nor exuberant for its own sake. None of that. But the colours. On and on. Nothing for with an apology can be made, things textured in themselves over and over again. There are little lakes everywhere around that are bigger than they appear. The water continues through the surrounding grass and when it is very still throws back the sky at me. But most of the time it just wets my feet and makes a gentle sound when I go through it. That sound. Something more felt than heard, a communication, something that deepens the world, by which I mean all of it, all of it just from this burble, this lilt that comes up from my feet when I move. Sometimes I just stop, not because I have planned a rest or anything like that. Petrified by being. But I stand there and listen to something for a while. I have discovered the Trove is a part of this, can be invited in: Tableaux Suite 33, no.2, in C, or TS 32 no.10 in B minor. They’ve given the composers names now: this one is called Taiga[1].Nothing to hold, but something that feels like flight, like being in the air, oceans of holy feeling opening up.

One slightly – I suppose – strange thing happened, and that was two days ago when I sort of stumbled into a Harpiege with my Cover down. It was feeding but the moment I moved it heard me and turned to stare. Its eyes[2] were all pupil and it looked straight at me, or maybe it looked down at me. It couldn’t have been particularly large but I seem to remember it looking down. It’s a look only animals can master, something that is utterly unaware but also all-encompassing, all understanding and no thought. Everyone knows it: a pulse of luminous blackness. It made that circular movement of the head that is part of its FoFR. And then as I was taking a step back it made a tiny retching noise and opened its mouth and spat venom all over me, a spatter that went down my face and front. It must have been terrified; I was nearly completely covered in black. I felt and resisted a stupid urge to call Helper. The venom is harmless. I am not, after all, of this world.

Checked the log today. Some interesting developments. The tertiary fold  of the polypeptide chain in the Tk-haemoglobin of Fleckeri spp. resembles that of the Eastern White Fallwhale Tk-(D)myoglobin complex. Genetic conservation? Probably. Plus strange diversity found in the basic structure of tryposin inhibitors[3].

Oh well. I’m out of this area now.

I am outside for many reasons. The biggest thing, however, is Dyhaus. While living there I decided to hike the Eastern Wind Flank Trail. Don’t know even today why I decided to do it or why I chose the EWFT. The EWFT is long, very long, 2600km. Maybe that’s why I did it. It goes all the way from the Dyhaus/Enalt border to South Throuper. It might have just been me wanting to take some serious time out, trying to see what of the natural world there was on Ditarod. No. No. The main thing eventually was that I kept being told how beautiful EWFT was. Giant Park was on the trail, and Fincher Pass, and Cascade Park, and Monument Range. 63 mountain passes. A stretch where you have to walk 281km before you see a road.

The EWFT monument at the beginning of the trail was a plain thing; a vertical stone column stating the date of the trail’s completion and its length. Hikers’ hands had worn the edges on the bottom of the column smooth. I put my name in the trail register and I read what thousands before me had written. Impossible to be cynical at that moment. There were many people wishing everyone else luck. And then the usual: The only impossible journey is one you never begin; Kate & Rog –stupid way to do a honeymoon but HERE WE ARE!; A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step; CONQUER NATURE – CONQUER YOURSELF. It went on. It was in, a strange way, moving. I think I was afraid and a bit puzzled at myself. The trail register helped. It said: you are one among many.

People do the EWFT because they love hiking or because they want to leave something behind. There are traditions: Hikers get a trail name. It is a token of membership. You are on the trail for a long time; at least a month, for most people attempting a thru-hike. It is a way of dilating what happens here. I write here but of course what I mean is there. It is a way of sieving out the normal life from the life on the trail. There is a code for what you ask people about, what you ought to automatically help out with: EBliSus. Equipment, Blisters, Sustenance. You don’t ask people which trail they are planning to take; you let them tell you. You don’t ask them why they are doing what they are doing. People will talk; sure. Let them choose to do so. But you help each other out with food. You respond if someone needs equipment repaired. And you lend each other plasters. Actually, you’d really better fucking pass those plasters around. Blister really is a totem for the physical trials of the hike. Blister includes sprain, fracture, and bad graze.

It was a primitive part of a primitive world. It was good. The trick to living this sort of life was, I found out, to put in slightly more effort into almost everything than I would think reasonable. I had done hikes before but nothing this big. But the rhythm came eventually. I’d hike for several days and then head to a town to pick up the food boxes I’d mailed ahead. I stocked up in convenience stores where I could.  The early bit of the trail was winding, taking us over the crests of the Snakes. Rocks and big cool forests.

I became Poley to trekkers. I had a habit of using my trekking poles to stabilise my tent. I had a small superlight was not too stable and I thought it was a good idea. About a week in I met Boiler. I was in my tent and she came over to apologise about the noise.

“What noise?” I asked.

“Fantastic,” she said. “Don’t worry about it.”

We liked each other almost immediately. She was taking her gap year; we talked about astronomy and where to find food places along the trail. She passed me antifungals from her bounce box when she got it. We went over Gamble Pass together and headed on the West Branch after that to hit the good old Runoff.

“We should fish or something,” she said.

“Yeah,” I said.

We both stank, as everyone else did. I mostly wanted to splash about.

“Do you know how to fish?” I asked. It was a stupid question because the important question was whether or not we had any fishing equipment, and I knew the answer to that was no.

“No,” Boiler said.

We took off our pants went down into the Runoff’s shallows, bracketed in that space by the ridges all around. We waited until we saw the gunmetal flash come past and then we plunged our hands in and tried to grab them. They were fast. I could feel them moving around my feet. At the end of the evening we had caught seven. The barbecue was delicious.

I eventually figured out why Boiler was Boiler. She didn’t use the standard-issue water safety pills. She boiled her water. I’m not sure why: she had WSPs in her bag. But we all need rituals. Here is water; here is what I shall do. The alcohol stove, the little holding container. A flame that hisses out suddenly in the evening. Light snagged against the trees, casting about only for people. Sparks ghosting out, brief companions to minor stars.

Friendship on the EWFT was not simple but it was straightforward. In the day, when we were crossing the desert plain of the Carazon in the flush of the spring flowering, we’d often get separated or walk with other groups we found; we’d get three, four, kilometres apart, sometimes, but at night we usually found by some unarranged magnetism where the other was camping. Or we’d see each other the next night. Once, I don’t remember exactly when, we stopped at a road crossing and Boiler waited for me whiIe and I went off and fell asleep in a hollow under a big Brescia Fir for a couple of hours. When I came running back I expected her to be gone but she was there, looking like perhaps she was starting to get worried.

“I thought you’d be gone,” I said, not knowing what to feel. We often ducked out for brief rests from the sun but I had been gone very long.

She hefted her pack, looking bemused. “It’s okay,” she said. “The place is nice. I talked to a couple of speeders.”

“I fell asleep. There was a spot that looked just irresistible.” I grinned and she grinned too.

We took the Six Point Route across Carazon. We went up and down the stony dunes, sometimes following the crests. As we did we listened to the apocalyptic alt-rock Boiler liked and eventually she convinced me to sing to it: Because eh-eh-eh you know the world eh-eh-eh cannot catch you aah, aah, o-AAH— We played impromptu football with plastic bottles on the flats with other trekkers taking a day off. In any case I got tired after the Carazon, and after we descended Ripas Gorge together I said I wanted to take a rest day or two at a trail angel lodge. I had my stinking clothes off and had my feet in a creek.

“If you want to go on,” I said, “You should go on.”

And she left.

It is like that on the EWFT: friendships become memories fast. Nothing to be spoilt by time and overexposure. It was the early sections of the trail and people at this stage wanted to get as much distance out of daylight as possible. Maybe she had a tight schedule. I don’t ask. But there was nothing bad about what happened.

It was at the midpoint of the EWFT, after Lake Niyare and approaching the Dippers, when we had come to the basalt fields of Mishila, that I met Bread. He explained the name. He’d gotten a bad nosebleed early on.

“I had nothing to stop it,” he said. “Except bread.”

“I see,” I said.

“I never knew how good bread smelt,” he said. “Not the freshly-baked sort of smell, but like the actual doughy smell you get when it’s right up there in your nostrils.”

Bread wasn’t quite like everyone else. He was small and skinny and pretty young. He looked too fresh to the entire thing. His frazzled little beard grew out rather than down. His MexTexes looked a little new. My Merrells were tattered and filthy and looked considerably more comfortable.

I never asked him why he was doing the EWFT. Beside his pack’s shoulder strap there was a scar where there had been a chemo[4] port. He kept fingering a spot under his hipbelt. Sometimes he did it absentmindedly.

He didn’t want to go fast. That was good for me; I had time. We chatted for long times about lots of crap. He was a bit of a daydreamer. He talked a lot about wanting to make the Big Three. I indulged him. After a while I stopped indulging him and the conversations took on a life of their own; he actually wanted to do it.

When we were leaving Mishila the trail started to rise. We had done 20km of the climb when he stopped on the lava flats and waved his arms and yelled from up ahead, “Look at this!”

I looked around.

“Isn’t it fucking amazing?” he said.

Around us the taut rocks flexed, frozen and perfect. I was very tired but I looked around.

“It’s like a river!” he said. “Must have been amazing when this was all lava. Like standing on the surface of the sun.” He sat down, let himself collapse, with his legs in front of him, looked out at the sun. He squinted or winced. He sighed. We ate granola with a stick of butter in it. Trekkers eat lots of butter. We took off our shoes. We felt some blisters that looked threatening. He started crying. I didn’t say anything. “I fucking love granola,” he said. He poured some into his mouth and wiped his lips.  He swigged water hard from his bottle. I hugged him briefly. “I’ll be okay,” he said. He looked very determined.

Bread kept taking selfies. At first I was a bit embarrassed by this. It turned out I was more embarrassed at being embarrassed, however, and we really got into it. Standing nearly at the peak of Tall Dipper, crags falling away around us into unbreathed blueness; clinging to the guide ropes in the middle of Hilper Fall, eyes barely open in the spray and the thundering noise; pointing at lewd signs outside towns; us dwarfed against the Tempuis of Catherdral Park.

When Bread and I stopped in a town for a food box he would try to find some place to develop the photos and mail them to someone. He wrote letters too. He had his writing stuff in a Ziploc and in the evenings if he was not shattered he wrote a little. He always kept his Gillie hat with all its rings of sweat on when he wrote. Hikers have rituals.

“Does it sound stupid,” he asked, “to say I feel like I can do everything? Does it sound, like, arrogant or something?” We were in a Youth Lodge and between the clothes and the shoes and the sweaty burnt bodies the place reeked. We stopped smelling it after a while and he had started writing.

“Nope,” I said. “Sounds perfectly good.”

“The problem about hiking,” he said, “is that after a while it’s very hard to make it sound different. I mean all the places you’ve been.”

“Yeah,” I said. “I think it’s something you must do.”

“The thing is its shit. It’s so wearying. But that makes it great. Doesn’t it?” People were bedding down so he said this in an intense whisper.

I laughed. It was true.
We had a strange cold spell right after that. Snow, even. There were danger signs going up but Bread decided to go on and I decided it was probably okay. Sometimes after a day of walking our hands got too cold for us to do anything properly in the evenings. We clipped our tent canopies using our teeth. It was pathetic and it was noble, and it was shared. We had hysterical and near-silent laughing fits in the tents.

Two months in or so I got up one morning to find that he could not move. His eyes were alert and glassy.

“Box in left compartment,” he said, very softly. He tried to turn and an involuntary sound came out of his mouth. “Fuck,” he cursed. “Fuck, fuck.” I rummaged around in his pack. The box was there, near the top. I opened it. Small compassionate rows of pills, muted colours. Inert. Incredible that so much could ride on this. An autoinjector.

“Needle,” he said. “Right hip.”

He insisted on moving on the moment he could walk.  He wrote a little more, over the next week, I think, or maybe I started giving it more significance. We bought jellybeans and gorged on them. I tried to notice when he took his pills. I saw him take them in the mornings, but only occasionally. We made one or two detours to scenics, which before we hadn’t really done. We looked irrepressibly happy in the photos we took. Negotiating terms. When the trail widened for two to walk abreast we did so.

After White Meadows he started to slow down. He had an easy way with the trail but now he struggled more than he usually did. He would stop and bend over and breathe for a while. He took his hat off and used it to wipe sweat off his face. On Temple Rise for every seven or eight steps he took he slipped a little and would curse.

That night he said, “It’s really frustrating sometimes, hm?”

We had just treated ourselves to baked beans.

“I get so frustrated sometimes,” he said. “If I don’t finish this it’s all going to be my fault.”

“We’re going pretty well,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said.

“Half the people who start out finish,” I said. “We’re only two weeks away.” After all those weeks, all the mountains and the ridges, the long desert plains, I felt a thrill.

He laughed. “We’re fucking boss,” he said. We were near Brotherswater. If we were very quiet we could hear the water. We had talked about how we were going to fish in Brotherswater. I told him about what Boiler and I had done in Runoff. He had said that we could probably only do that in running water. I told him that mountain lakes were worth visiting anyway. He said of course we’d have to go.

“We’re fucking boss,” I said.

“Wait for the Big Three,” he said.

“I’ll read the news,” I said.

Before he finally went to sleep he said, “I’m feeling so lazy now. Late morning?”

I said that I might walk to my next pickup and come back.

“I won’t wake you,” I said.

“Thanks,” he said, and then later, in his tent, I heard him say, “This has been unbelievable.” He didn’t say it so loud that I thought he was talking to me and so I said nothing.

The next morning his trail runners were in the camp and he was gone. I remember seeing them, grey things with laces undone, outside his tent. I don’t know what happened. You cannot walk far without shoes. You cannot walk at all, in fact. But I never found him. In the morning he must have gotten up, looked up at the dawn, and decided that this would be the end of it.

The Marshal came to ask me questions and I answered all of them. But I wasn’t thinking about that. I kept thinking about that last night. In the end I decided that he had not done anything wrong at all. I never asked about a corpse or Bread’s name. It had been perfect, what he did. He knew when beauty and struggle became too much to bear and how to put it away, put it out. Too much to bear.

I imagine myself standing there, the tent not far away, while the trees rise and arch around me, and I am looking at myself from above, rising and rising until the trees are pointillist specks tethered to a great tide of rock, and I am a point, turning about and seeing only trees, finding nothing, and I see now where Bread is, how big the spaces he occupies, how pelagic the urges he carried, how unfoundable. I’ve always wanted to go outside since then.

[1] There is nothing cold or particularly Arctic about the stuff that has been attributed to Taiga. I’ve no idea why the people on Stize opted for this. But TS33/2+32/10 fits perfectly with that name.

[2] Its two primary eyes. The secondaries on the top of the head were invisible.

[3] Bichirality responsible again? Possibly.

[4] I think we got them to stop it and use GpTH eventually, but that was after I left. It’s what they do to you if you get cancer: they pump you full of cytotoxins that destroy basically everything in your body, but destroy the cancer a bit more effectively than everything else because of how fast it divides.

Consultation

“If you want to do it, you absolutely should,” The Magician said.

“What Alfen is saying,” Garf said, “Is that you would be an absolute moron to try.”

Alfen Vrodie-Stangster, known everywhere to people who followed the game as The Magician, winced and tried to smile at the same time and Sal felt a sudden stab of pity for her. “I don’t think the Leviathan is a – uhm – well, a moron, necessarily, in anything, Garfield,” she said.

They had been talking for a while and it was clear to Sal that Alfen was one of those people so monomaniacally nice that they became sort of boring. In Alfen’s case she was so flatly unaware of her banality that it was touching, in a way, an impairment that elicited sympathy.

Alfen was also the 6th-best player of the game on Stize, that is to say, stupendously, horrifically, strong. She was possibly, behind the World Champion, the most popular onplanet player. Alfen’s over-the-board inclinations were diametrically related to her personality; her over-the-board style was hyperaggressive, antipositional, wildly speculative, sacrificial. In her first ever First League tournament a 15-year old Alfen had played two games where she sacrificed, almost at whim, huge amounts of material for vague compensation that had evolved gradually into a welter of murderously subtle mating threats; the games were enshrined in brilliancy collections everywhere. The second, an Old Sicilian with a queen sacrifice on f6 on move 12, was held as a kind of rallying totem for attacking club players. “A magician,” the commentators had said then, had breathed as beautifully coordinated, classical positions withered under wild attacks, “This is the work of a magician.” The name had stuck. Alfen never stayed at the board when she was playing; she made her move and immediately walked off, to look at other games. Whenever she did choose to remain at the board she bowed her head as if praying, eyes closed, often with one hand covering them, unmoving, a pose that made her look as if she was weeping and was trying to hide it, but was rigid with concentration. Everything about it spoke to a magic, yes, this was The Magician.

Alfen’s style was fundamentally unsound; engines found refutations, obscure and cold-blooded but refutations nonetheless, to most of her ideas. “But sound chess is not so fun,” Alfen had said, earnestly, when she had been asked. “You know, I don’t understand the positions I get OTB. But my opponents don’t understand them either. So at the very least both of us have something to talk about after the game.” “I see,” the interviewer had said, looking skeptical. “That’s all there is,” Alfen said, “Really.” “And why do you walk away?” “The board gets in the way of calculation. If it’s a messy line then looking at the board makes you hallucinate, makes you see ghosts, forget that things have moved.”

“He is being a moron, Alfen,” Garf said.

“It does take time,” Alfen said, agreeably. She moved her head from side to side slightly as if considering seriously a suggestion she had just made to herself, confirming something. “I was at it for 8 years before I made it into the First League.”

“But it wasn’t so bad once you were there,” Sal said.

Alfen paused. “No. But that was not, uhm, so typical, really.” In fact Alfen was one of the very few Grandmasters that had not begun their FL careers with a string of agonising losses. Her particular style had come as something of a shock to most people. Most aggressive players who entered the FL did miserably. Aggressive players relied on two things for wins: getting good positions from which attacks could be launched, and on opponents cracking under consistent pressure. There was nothing shameful about the latter, nothing dishonest about the technique; it was just the way humans were. Four hours of perfect defense could be ruinously spoilt by a single slip. Everywhere outside the very highest levels of chess an asymmetry of economy existed; attackers had an advantage. Attacking moves were easy to find; defensive responses were often subtle and difficult to spot. For the attacker calculation was easy because the moves came in a neat sequence, like the path of an arrow: I will push my h-pawn, I will place my knight on f4, I will place my queen on g3. Mate will then happen. But for the defender, seeing even three moves ahead was difficult because there was no straight path; there was no arrow. Instead the lines branched and branched again, a thicket that extended beyond the horizons of brute calculation: if this, then this? or this? or this? And if that, what then? Is my endgame worse? Do a sacrifice a pawn now to stave off the attack or do I cling to my material? Do I defend or try to drum up my own initiative? And then a mistake would come, or a series of small inaccuracies that swell and crest into something greater, and out of the blue a forced sequence – a line with no branches at all, where each move and countermove allowed for only one response, a continuation rigid with clarity – that caused the position to fall apart.

None of this was true in the FL. Everywhere else, yes, this logic held, but not in the FL. A part of this was due simply to brute playing strength; the GMs of the FL could sneer at what their intuitions told them were unsound attacks, and they could simply sit and cold-bloodedly calculate their way through the wildest variations. And a part of this was because they knew enough theory that they would never allow an attacking player to get a good position in the first place. But there were threshold effects at work too. Any attack tended to burn bridges – often material would be sacrificed by the attacking side, so that if the attack was beaten off without a countersacrifice the attacker was left with fewer pieces with which to play the endgame. It was the most painful game for the attacking player: to see an attack peter out to nothing while the vast desolation of a long defensive grind in a lost endgame beckoned.  But more commonly it was simply the case that the attack expended all the positional trumps in a position – pawns aggressively advanced left behind weak squares, pale tremulous things over which the opposing player’s pieces swarmed, weak points suddenly appearing and multiplying until the position collapsed; or pieces clustered around the enemy kingside would leave unprotected other areas of the board where a vicious counterattack would gradually emerge, hints of counterplay that would constantly imply themselves, which would be replied to almost as an afterthought, but would demand more and more attention, would gnaw at the position until the attacker would eventually be defending, and the position would give way.

This was the basic problem for the attacking player: if the attack failed, the game would be lost. There was a general complaint, not unjustified, that in the FL it was nearly impossible to see out-and-out attacking games. Positional manoeuvring was everywhere, yes: subtle attacks on weak pawns, the rarefied combinatorical mathematics of endgames, but few actual attacks on actual kings. Many aggressive players, having made it to the FL, moderated their natural tendencies, traded the neurotically barbaric King’s Indian or Kmoch for quieter positional systems: the Caro-Kann, the Catalan, the Berlin, the Chebanenko-Sprung, the Quiet Game. All except for The Magician. In the cool waters of the FL she burnt like a cinder. She played games that held out the notion of there being some mysticism in the game, that represented gloriously unscientific commitment to complexity, to ideas that could be ramified but not tamed…

“You’re the only really aggressive player to be holding a title now, aren’t you? The only really, you know, romantic player.” Sal said. “The Noa.”

“Yes,” Alfen said, looking uncomfortable. “I don’t like it when my table gets relabelled, though. GM Vrodie-Sangster feels correct. Noa Vrodie-Sangster feels too flattering. I was very lucky.”

“Title?” Garf said. “Noa?”

“Uhm,” said Alfen, and looked unhappy at the idea that she would have to explain.

“Don’t you follow anything about the game?” Sal said.

“Fuck you very much,” Garf said, smoothly. “When you summit K7 on a mountain bike I’ll give you permission to mock.”

Sal laughed.

“It’s a lot more impressive than being good at the game,” Alfen said. “K7 is pretty ridiculous.”

“Tell her about being Noa,” Sal said to Alfen.

“I’d really rather – ” Alfen said, “Uhm, you know.”

“Hm?” Sal said.

“Please,” Alfen said.

“So,” Sal said. “There are seven tournaments in the FL that stand out, so-called Supertournaments. Invite-only, and very difficult to win. Named after the organising colleges: Intemper, Noa, Learnt, Tityrant, New, Ancient, Estuary. They’re all prestigious enough to be what you call titled, which means that if you win one of those you carry around the name of the tournament and it replaces your usual title. So Alfen is the Noa. Not a GM, the Noa.”

“There is a World Championship, though. I keep hearing about it. Where does the World Championship fit in?”

“It’s the Estuary title. It’s called the World Championship because of the format: you get a Candidates Tournament where all the six other titleholders and four other GMs (selected based on global ranking, I think) duke it out to play a long match against the current Estuary.”

“Murderous tournament,” Alfen said. “Ouch.”

“The current number one holds four titles,” Sal said. “The two most difficult tournaments are Estuary and Ancient. He holds both of those titles, the Great Pair, and is also the Learnt and Intemper. It’s a nice full title, isn’t it? Estuary-Ancient-Learnt-Intemper Saracen.”

“Being called the Ancient is pretty cool,” Garf said.

“It’s a quadruple round-robin,” Alfen said. “It’s quite exhausting.”

“What were we talking about?” Sal said.

Garf knew he never actually forgot what they were talking about. She wondered when she would stop noticing when he did things like that. “Alfen was saying something about doing well when she first got into the FL.”

“Ah,” Sal said.

“She was saying that doing well was not typical for newcomers. Implying, I think we can agree, that you are a moron.”

Alfen was gripped by what looked like genuine panic. “I—”

“I don’t think I’m typical,” Sal said, smiling. He didn’t say it differently but they were all silent for a moment.

“No,” Alfen said. “Of course not.” She looked aghast. She looked from Garf to to Sal and back again. “I did not—”

“Stop it,” Garf said, looking at Sal. “Don’t encourage him.”

“I am truly sorry, Leviathan,” Alfen said, looking like she could not live with herself.

Alfen never used Sal’s name; she always called him Leviathan. Sal did not mind; Garf did, it seemed, but did not say much about it.

Sal leaned back in his chair and put his legs on the table.“It does not matter,” he said. “I’m not particularly fussed by these things. I want to know what it was like. Tell me about theory. Did you have to learn a lot of theory?”

“Theory is really useful. I was not really an opening expert what I first entered but I had to learn quite a lot to keep up.”

Theory referred to positions that were well-analysed and well-known. Most theory was about the opening; there were over 1600 named openings and variants, many analysed to over 20 moves deep. There was far too much opening theory to memorize; most GMs specialised in a few select openings; a few adventurous ones experimented. Some theory was about certain types of endgames: the Lucena and Vancura positions in rook-and-pawn endgames, the Diagonal Technique for winning with knight and bishop against king – it went on. Most high-level games, and nearly all played in the seven titled tournaments, became theory; these games were memorized to be regurgitated as was necessary. Why waste time finding your own good moves OTB when you could play moves that better players had already determined to be good?

“How long does it take to get up to speed on modern theory?” Sal said.

“Uhm,” Alfen said.

“Tell him how long you took,” Garf said, “And he’ll work it out.”

Alfen shrugged. The gesture was comically exaggerated by the way she sat: hunchbacked, peaked shoulders framing her head like the folded wings of a bird of prey. A lump in her throat moved up and down with unreal vigour, like a piston. “It depends on how much of a theoretician you want to be. I know a decent amount but my gift’s not really there.  I find wading through theoretical minefields tiring. It took me about five years to get book-up enough to not worry about openings in the FL. But I’ve always preferred sidelines. I think I can bring out a drawing variation if I need it – the Berlin, the Marshall Gambit, but that’s not the usual thing. Those two took me –” her eyes flicked over Sal “—the better part of a year to get down.”

Sal looked thoughtful.

“Could I make a suggestion?” Alfen said.

“Please.”

“If you want to get booked-up fast I’d recommend covering all the basic openings and defences with d4 and e4, nothing fantastically deep unless you really like it, and then move on to largely non-theoretical lines. It’s not, uhm, that great, really, fighting theoreticians on their own ground. It’s better to get them out of book and then force them to find good moves OTB. Force them to actually play a game, to figure things out there and then.”

“Alfen,” Garf said, with viciously calibrated emphasis, “Sal has never played a game before. Not even one.”

Alfen looked surprised. “Well,” she said, is if this was clear and beyond contestation, “You do think he’s going to be the Estuary at some point, don’t you?”

“World Champion?” Garf said, suddenly realising something.

“To begin with,” Alfen said, looking at Garf.

Sal’s expression did not change but there was a shift in it, a new sheen to the smile, a different shade that had come over it and remained there.

Garf looked Sal and Alfen and did not know what to say.

“You’re not dumbfounded very often, you know,” Sal said, very lightly and precisely. His smile grew.

“But the risk,” Garf said. “If you lose, and everyone knows about it – if everyone sees the Leviathan losing – I mean, seriously, why – is it necessary to take this sort of risk? You know what role you play, you know how people will see it. Why would you do it?”

“Pleasure,” Sal and Alfen said, at the same time. But Sal was not smiling as he said this. He was looking straight at Garf and he looked, in a way, Garf thought, possessed, held by something.

“Yes,” Garf said. Her mouth felt dry. “Pleasure.” She saw then how Sal was different but could not put it into words. She looked at Sal. She felt studied. There was a test and she did not know what it was. “Okay. Okay. You know what? I’ll just not say anything about this. You two go on. You know what I think but you probably know better.” She was staring but she was not angry.

Sal laughed. “It’s just a bit of fun, Garf. That’s all. That’s where the challenge is.”

“As long as you don’t get too bogged down in theory,” Alfen offered, helpfully.

Sal was still looking at Garf. “O Garfield Keynes Hunter, you lack faith in your hyperbred superintelligent unkillable God-King.”

“Not so unkillable, I hope,” Garf muttered darkly.

There was a sharp intake of breath from Alfen. Sal raised his eyebrows and then he and Garf grinned.

“So,” Sal said at last, “So.” He turned to Alfen, who was vigorously biting her lower lip, looking a little mortified. “What were you saying? Oh yes. Well. I’d play to play some novelties, you know. It’d be nice for me to add something to theory.”

At the highest level novelties were some of the deadliest weapons available to GMs. A novelty was simply a new move; something in the opening unknown to theory. When one was played in a game for the first time the opponent would be suddenly be left bereft of theoretical lines, and would have to tread water and think as the position risked falling away from them, while the player who had prepared the novelty would sit there in the iron fortress of their preparation, playing every move instantly while vast agonies of thought and uncertainty went through the opponent. GMs agreed that one of the worst moments in a game was when the opponent banged out a new move and then walked off, and the realisation came that one was facing this new position alone, while the opponent came to it with hundreds of hours of glinting engine analysis. Of course not all novelties were devastating. As theory grew it naturally shut out novelties and congregated around the very sharpest opening lines.  Most novelties were quiet, subtle moves – moves to which many possible responses existed, or deliberately suboptimal moves not considered part of theory, designed purely to get the opponent out of book.

“I’ve never caught one of the top five in my prep before,” Alfen said. “You’d need dozens of novelties prepared before you have a realistic chance of catching anyone in prep. Too much theory. I’m not saying that you can’t do this, not at all – it’s just, you know, from the perspective of, uhm, efficiency –”

“Yes,” Sal said. “No, you’re making perfect sense.”

Alfen paused. “I still can’t really believe it.”

“Hm?”

“That the Leviathan would ask me to tell him about chess.”

“Garf knew you, so it seemed the natural thing to do.”

“We only met in first year, really. As you can tell I’m not overfamiliar with the game.”

“It’s still a bit overwhelming. Meeting the Leviathan and giving, uhm, advice.”

“Oh, Alfen,” Sal said. He put an arm around her, even though he could barely reach around her shoulders. Alfen shrank a little. “It’s very nice of you. Get used to it. I’ll probably be asking you stuff quite often. How are the players?”

“Uhm, in the FL? Or generally?”

“In the FL.”

“Well, they come in all flavours, really. When I started out they were mostly lovely people. But I got to know some who were really single-minded, very competitive.”

“Total towering cockwombles,” Garf translated. “Dickporpoises. It’s Alfen-speak you’re dealing with here.”

“Near the very top it’s all very professional. After a bad game against me they could get a bit, hm, cold, maybe—”

“They fucking detest your face,” Sal said. “They have passionate dreams about you dying in a tragic wanking accident. They hate you with all the metaphysical force they can muster.”

“—but they get over it really fast, and are usually really pleasant to have around. I really wouldn’t use the word ‘hate’, Garf. That’s a bit inappropriate. There’s some – ah – trash-talking, you know? Sometimes, not often. It’s just a way for people to get into the feel of things.”

“They convince themselves you’re shit to get themselves psyched up because the presence of a planet-sized ego sometimes does not get you that extra oomph, you know what I mean?

“Oh, no, no.” Alfen looked nervous, maybe a bit grieved at having to contradict someone so consistently. “We all really respect each other’s strengths. We’ve played each other to many times now, followed each other from one league to the next.”

“It’s all an awful morass of hateful, vindictive bile.”

Sal took Garf’s hand in his own. She thought of how much like a child he looked. “Garf,” he said, grinning, “You’ve really given up trying to persuade me not to do this, haven’t you?”

“Fuck fuckitty fuck fucking fuckery fuck,” Garf said, primly. “Fucks all around for everyone. Great.”

The Magician winced again.

Citation

The glow had long gone down behind the serrated edge of the mountains. It was late.

The order had not come in yet. Earlier Ary had asked Major Kenner if he and John could take the patrol of the outer encamp.

(“Why?” Major Kenner said.

“Everyone’s tired,” Ary said. “We thought since we’ve got no orders yet that we could take things off C-2, sir.”

Major Kenner was one of those people who was always calm. He stopped writing and looked up at Ary.

“They got hit three days ago,” he had said. “Three deaths.  They need something to do.”

From another person that might have been cruel. But Major Kenner was not like that. He leaned back in his chair and gave Ary a look that said, go on, say what you think.

Ary only said, “I understand, sir.”

“No,” Kenner had said. “You are right. I can’t unfuck this situation for C-2. Hope they get through this.”

“Have they been to Combat Stress?”

“Do you know what C-2 is like? They were teasing Danks all the way through because he’d not got his first kill. He was the loader, of course he hadn’t done it. They said he needed to do it so that they’d be a hundred percent. They will not go to Combat Stress. I can’t make them.” He stopped. “Well, I could. But it wouldn’t work if I made them do it. I need not to be the asshole here for a while.” Kenner grinned and looked tired. He did that. Ary was not used to it. He never did it if there was a Lance Corporal around but if he was with anyone from O2 onwards he sometimes came across like the rugged, fundamentally decent guy, the guy just a bit tired of it all, the guy that he must have been when he was a Corporal.

“No-one thinks you’re the asshole, sir.”

He shook his head. “Do Perries do platitudes now?”

Ary was about to say that he had meant it something but Kenner waved it away.

Kenner called Sergeant Friend and said, “Leave C-2 off it tonight.”

“Yes, sir.” Surprise.

“The Perries will be doing the patrol. Tell C-2 to rest for tomorrow.”

“Yes, sir.”

Kenner turned to Ary and said, “Thanks, I guess.” Not like an O5 at all.

“No problem, sir.”)

The night was still. Ary walked but was not thinking of anything in particular. In the distance the grinding gears of the terrainers and the Big Ts moving. It was strange how even in the most urgent of times everything seemed to move slowly. There was something good about the patrol. The stillness came from outside and went into him. Vague tonnage of exhaustion coming away, one small weight off his shoulders. There were not many times when he could feel this way.

He noticed the soldier because he was holding a cigarette and he could see the light a long way off. He was standing against the perimeter and smoking. After some time the guy put the cig out and then stood there, not moving, looking out. He held his rifle to his chest with one arm and did not move.

When Ary was close and coming around the corner he made a noise with his step so that the soldier would know.

The soldier turned and started violently. There was panic and sudden terror on his face. He jerked around and fumbled nearly unconsciously let the handguard tip from his right hand into the palm of his left and before he knew it the muzzle of his AR was pointed straight at Ary. Then he realised what he had done.

“Oh, shit. Shit. Fuck. Sir, I’m sorry sir, I didn’t mean to do that. I just—”

Ary saw the name stitched onto the sleeve of the soldier’s BCO: Hasse.

He did not recognise the name but he thought he recognised the face. Hasse was in C-2. He was a big guy but there was a tilt to his eyebrows that always made him look a little sad even when he was laughing.  Ary had seen him with the others neatly painting letters onto one of the FOB terrainers: FUFB. Fuck you FOBbits. Someone might have called him Doleface.

Hasse backed away and slung his rifle. “I’m sorry, sir. I’ll go back now, I just needed to get out for a while, you know, for – for –” He stopped. “I’ll go back now, sir, if you let me.”

Ary did not say anything. He knew how Hasse felt, the shock of seeing something alien come out from the dark like that.

“Muzzle discipline,” he said. He nearly said Corporal but did not. “You’ve let it go to shit.”

There was a moment of hesitation where Hasse did not know if he was looking at an Officer (Spec) or just another human.

“Why are you here?” Ary said.

People did not know how to speak to Peregrines. You could see the way their eyes moved, looking for a mouth or the eyes in the mechanical head, shuttling, searching. Most people looked away after a while. They talked normally but they looked away. Hesse looked right at Ary. He hesitated and said, “I was looking for you, sir.” Then he leaned against the wall and slumped against, let himself be pulled down until he was sitting with his back against the perimeter, rifle between his knees. He put his forehead on the butt and let out a long shuddering breath.

“Things have gotten so fucking—” He put both hands out in front of him and clenched them hard. “I needed to get out, talk to someone outside, you know, not outside, but not part of the whole – this whole –”

“Have you been to Combat Stress?” Ary said. It felt stupid as it came out of his mouth and he knew how Hesse would read it; an inquisition, a command.

“I can’t,” Hesse said. “I don’t have a problem. It’s about Tom. The care packages came in earlier today, do you know? I stood in the line and got Tom’s because he was my best friend. I didn’t think he would wake up, I didn’t know, so I opened it.” He shook his head and held the AR very tightly. “Look at this,” he said, “Isn’t this pathetic? Me, here, bitching to a fucking Peregrine.” He hit himself on the side of his head, lightly, twice. “I’ll go back in. Sir. I’m sorry.”

“If you need to talk,” Ary said, “You should talk.” He did not know what else he could do.

Hesse was silent for some time. “I don’t know how you deal with it,” Hesse said. “How did you deal with it?”

“I didn’t,” Ary said. “It’s not something you deal with. That’s not what they usually say, I think. But that’s all I’ve got.”

“I got his care package and inside there was only a bar of soap. It was so fucking ridiculous. Why would Tom need a bar of soap? There’s so many other things you need out here. Photos, food from home. But all that Tom got was a bar of soap. Maybe his family was poor. I never asked and he never said. I don’t know, when I saw it I just broke inside and I stood there suddenly realising I wanted to collapse and cry but you can’t let them see you like that. So I didn’t do it, I smiled and made a joke. I said, well this is good isn’t it, because I don’t care what heroic shit he’s done, he’s a holy stinker, and I laughed. But then I had to go to the showers and cry like a baby for an hour.”

“When I started out,” Ary said, “I had a friend who was religious.”

Hesse stopped for a moment and then said, “What, like he prayed and all that shit?”

“Yes.”

“What happened to him?”

“He was the first one to die on our first Drop.”

“Didn’t help him, did it?”

“I’m sure it did. But it can’t stop you dying.”

“That fucked you real bad, huh? Sir.”

“When they read his Personal Effects Statement it turned out he left me his personal music player. He’d got an electric one, one of the old ones, just because he would never Woodpecker stop him listening to whatever he wanted, he said. I couldn’t use the player at first. I would look at it and it would be too much. One time I tried it and it wrecked me. But it helped. The loss became real and became possible to actually take, to grasp. The track at the top of the frequently played list was something from the Trove. It’s hard to imagine but there it was. From what is now our enemy. Sheep May Safely Graze.”

“Have you heard what happened to Tom? Sir.”

“It’s strange for someone to keep calling me sir. I went straight to this from sergeant. I’ve never been called sir before. And I don’t talk to people in the company very much. It’s strange.”

“Okay.”

Ary could see the way Hesse was holding the rifle, upright against the ground, both hands on the barrel. The barrel had been painted ochre but some of the paint had flaked off and the dark metal shone from beneath, small irregular patches. He felt a sudden surge of sympathy for Hesse, for the anguished thing seeing now the whole world that had been circling around finally closing in, bereavement  shrunk to a brute knowable fact.

“What happened to Tom?”

“We were clearing a street in Otley, the usual thing. We were in the APV.”

Ary had seen it. The C-2 APV, like many others, had had a message written on the inside of the driver door. Those who survived mines in anti-ambush vehicles felt the need to do these sorts of things: This truck saved the life of my friends and I four of us on Apr 02 04 Kilnet at 1700.

“It was all normal and then it went off right underneath us, lifted the entire APV up. It wasn’t a small thing. It was an EFMP, it went right through the front and killed Rewes, straightaway, cut him nearly in half. The change in pressure or something left Zima and Watters unconscious, bleeding from the eyes, the ears. The rest of us got sprayed with molten metal. When Tom and I came out of the back it was a complete fucking mess. We had been completely cornered. We got told at first that one of the worst things you could get caught in was a firefight. We didn’t believe it at the time but it is true We ran to Sergeant Savidge but she had been hit under the arm and twice in the chest. It was fucked-up. The flak stopped the two to the chest but the one under the arm was bleeding like skippy.

Tom looked down the alley and saw everyone pinned and he took the Handle from Savidge and he did the suppressive fire, he organised it by himself, and then he said he wanted to run down the front of the alley and get Odell and Wyer. I told Tom, no, don’t do it, but he just said no. I think he heard me. When he disagreed he never had a fight out of it. He just did his own thing. He thought about what you said and if he didn’t agree he would do his own thing, you know? So I gave him cover and he ran down and got struck immediately in the knee, I saw it ricochet off the guard and his leg fold in a bit so that he nearly kneeled, and although that sort of shot hurts like hell, he went on and took Odell and Wyer by their vests and hauled them back. I think he was hit again, twice, I don’t remember where. But it was when he turned to go back even though I was fucking screaming at him from behind the APV that he got hit in the face. I was crouching there and then Tom’s blood was all over me and he spun a little bit and fell like he was already dead. He was just lying there in the middle of all the scattered bearings from the APV. I think I lost my mind a little, you know? I didn’t imagine this sort of thing. I lost my shit. I screamed and ran – this is what they told me – I ran out to him and got him to the 9-ton, I must have done it. The thing I remember is that the round that got him was not the ordinary thing. It splashed something over his flak and the ARA had melted. Do you know what I remember? It was strange because it’s a smell I know from home. I was pulling him back and I smelt the barbecue and it was him, Tom, Tom was burning in my hands as I dragged him. It was in my nose. Didn’t go away until long after.

“Look, man, I know there are no heroes in the military. It’s all a lie. I’m as fucking – I don’t know – as fucking cynical as anyone else, but Tom was that sort of thing, he was very close to the real thing. That one time he got shot in the neck in Lome-I. He came around to us with his hand on the side of his head like that, the sick bastard, blinking like he knew it was the end, trying not to scream or shout, he just said, hey, I’ve been hit, what does it look like. And it looked like there was just a fuckload of blood coming out of the side of his neck, and I seriously thought he was a dead man. And Tom just looked at me and said, you’d better be scared shitless because I’m going to steal all your pussy now.”

Hesse stopped and breathed. “I looked at him in TRR. He’s not got half his face. Can’t imagine all that pussy he’s going to get now, huh?” He tried to make his voice sound playful but there was much more in it, uncertainty and much more. “All those pity fucks.”

“You’ve been lucky,” Ary said. “To know Tom.”

Hesse tried and failed to avoid crying.

His shoulders moved a bit.

“I thought when I came in I’d just try to do the good thing, get a little respect, try to do the correct thing, but look at this. I think he was keeping me alive and now. I don’t know. Maybe I’m broken. Maybe I’m not. I’m okay with explosions, I don’t flinch or anything. I can get back in the APV. But I’m – I’m fucking diminished, you know what I mean. Suddenly it’s all gone from under me.”

Ary remembered the look of sudden terror on Hesse’s face when he had seen Ary appear, that reaction that without any words or thought had spoken: kill, kill, kill.

In the distance there was a loud blare from a terrainer backing up, probably involved in some delicate negotiation with the Big Ts. “Grief is the correct thing,” Ary said. “It’s not a problem. It’s the necessary thing. It says something. This is what it’s about, really. You know it and it is not a bad thing.”

“I feel,” Hesse said, almost drowsily. “I feel—”

“Yes,” Ary said. “Me too.”

Hesse got out another cigarette and tried to light it but could not and threw it away. “They came to me, just earlier today. They’re starting to work on Tom’s Full Citation for valour because they think he’s going to die. I knew what they wanted me to say so I said he was selfless, you know? I said he didn’t care at all about himself, he cared for my squad. That was what it took, to run out into the fire like that. He probably wasn’t even thinking about it. Selfless. It was easy to say because it was all true. And I got so fucking angry then. I felt like reaching out and hitting them. So much violence you might as well call it grief, call it trauma, CSR, call it what you want to. Because I thought, if only the fucker had been less selfless, if only he had been a bit more of a fucking coward and come back when I called. I wanted to tell them about how he was a great guy, like where the real value in him was, that it had nothing to do with the fact that he was a fucking idiot—” Hesse stopped to pull the sleeve of the BCO over his face. “—fucking idiot who ran out into, into fucking intense fire, nothing to do with all that shit, it was just that he knew but to make tired people happy, he made people feel like they could not die, he knew when not to talk and when to talk. But they don’t give a shit. I looked up what citations before I entered. I thought it was cool to get one of those. They were all the same: ‘complete disregard for personal safety’, ‘extraordinary calm and presence of mind under intense pressure’. How could Tom be that? Was he calm? Who the fuck knows? Was he disregarding his safety? We were his safety and he was mine. He’s not just like everyone else. Fuck, this is – this is – just –”

Ary did something he had seen someone in Combat Stress do once. “What’s your name, Corporal?” he said.

“James,” Hesse said.

“James,” Ary said. That was all he knew.

Three kinds of fire support: suppression; neutralisation; destruction. Discourage or maim or kill. And Ary knew that these were not just things to be done by one army to another but things that each army did to itself, to each single thing in it, when the promises of departure began to dim, and maybe even well before that, when all the lives crowded themselves out, all perfect and all past repair, and forgot about all the time that had to steal by before they could say it and not have as a lie: all is well. All is well.

“I can’t believe it,” Hesse said. “How did I not imagine it?” He took in a long breath and as he let it out he tried not to let it shudder. He stood up.

“James,” Ary said. “I don’t think anyone imagines it.”

“If there were proper war films people would never go. The honest film would not be a story. It would be someone smiling and coming towards the camera, laughing down a street, and then a round comes screaming and it all ends. Thirty seconds and that would be all. Or someone burning up ten thousand metres above the ground when the world below is still a turning marble. Or someone dragging themselves out of the hatch in a sub and then getting stuck and drowning in foam, in the surf.  I watched all the movies, you know? Even the ones that were about the horrors of war. All lies. All lies. All of them were beautiful. They had images that stayed with you because they were so well put together. In this war nothing has been put together like that. Everything stays with you because you were there. That’s all there is to it. The only good thing about it is when you are about to fight and there is a thrill. It’s not joy, it’s a kind of yearning. You want to get the hundred percent. But you only get that if you want to kill and no film does that. It cannot make you want to kill. ”

Ary saw how Hesse’s hands were shaking.

“Do you get caffeine at the DFAC?” he said.

“Yes,” Hesse said. “They let me.”

“Sepaneurone?”

“Yes.”

“Don’t do it,” Ary said. “It does not help.”

“Yeah.”

“Go see Tom.”

“Yeah.”

“Ask the medics how he is. If you want to sit there for a while. I’ll tell them to let you.”

Hesse shook his head. He pulled at his hair, not violently but with force.

Ary waited for a while and then said, “You need to get some sleep, James.”

“Yeah.” Hesse sounded like he wanted to say something more but had stopped himself. “Do you know – do you know what I wanted out of this? I wanted people to respect me. When Tom was around I could really believe it. That’s what I wanted at first. People will always respect you. You can do these amazing things, you know? You’ve proved yourself. Me, myself, I’ve got nothing to prove. I mean – there is nothing I can prove. I hope people respect me because of what I’ve been through.”

Ary wanted to say that was not what it was about. But he did not say it. “I don’t deserve to be here,” he said. “Nobody deserves what they get whether or not it is good or bad. When I got into my first Carcass in the Peregrines I realised they were all broken too. It’s okay.”

Hesse was quiet for a while.

“What’s it like, out there? Sir.”

“Doing Wanderers?”

“Yeah, the Wanderers. Can you – are you allowed to say?”

Ary looked out. Now nothing was moving. Things had moved out of sight. “It’s lonely,” he said, “but in a good way. I have my partner.” He realised his mistake as soon as he’d said it.

But Hesse said, “That’s what I’d thought. Just imagine what it is like to be invincible, to be like that.”

Again Ary wanted to say, no, that was not it, but instead he looked at Hesse. There was nothing left in Hesse anymore, like he was empty, unspooled too fast, dissolved from the heat of friction.

“Let’s go in,” Ary said.

“I can’t even know your name,” Hesse said. He looked at Ary. He was young but his face was lined everywhere with anguish big enough to be invisible, all but invisible. “Thank you.”

“Let’s go in,” Ary said.

“Sergeant Friend will see us.”

“I was asking you about the patrol. Don’t worry about it.”

On the way in Ary realised that he did not know who Tom was, at all. He looked up the TRR (Critical) list. It took sometime time because only the surnames were listed alphabetically. But eventually he someone with the correct brief. Lance Corporal Thomas Eely was not expected to survive another 48 hours.

“Get some rest,” he told Hesse. The big shoulders were slumped but tight.  A note forever wrapped inside its own bell. “There are things to be done tomorrow.”

He watched Hesse disappear inside and then went back out to the encamp, hoping that nothing had managed to come through while he had been with Hesse.

Visitation: 1

“—and the weirdest thing that happened, by which I mean not necessarily the funniest but certainly the most surreal and I suppose if you think about it maybe even instructive, was something that happened just after the Khorsan Shit-Surge –”

“Khorsan Shit-Surge? You mean the bombing of the waste processing—”

“The Khorsan Shit-Surge is its proper name, proper meaning the name we, the perpetrators, gave it, of course. But as I was saying, what happened was that L. broke his penis. I see you sceptical faces but allow me to elaborate and make more plausible what I know sounds to be an implausibly farcical situation. What happened was that L. decided to celebrate the KSS by fucking some native guy, having grown rather overfamiliar with us, and so booked a hotel room with two single beds for the act. And it was by all accounts, by which I mean his account, going very well, since if I remember correctly this guy had unconscionable stamina. And so L. is fucking this darling cumlet (his words) up the arse, in the very throes of high passion, when he withdraws his penis to attempt a truly heroic thrust, to really skewer this fine fellow, and because they had taken the two single beds and joined them together by the primitive expedient of shoving them together and covering them with a blanket, (a room with a double bed had been considered and rejected by L. since Ditarod society is highly suspicious of homosexuals, feeling perhaps collectively threatened by their collective sexual vigour and exuberance, and one room with a double bed for two men crossed a certain threshold of apparent suspiciousness in L.’s generally highly accurate estimation) some combination of action and reaction occasioned by L.’s rearing, tensing of the fleshy and tendinous fasciculi of the lower back to arch the spine and bare the cock in prelude to the rigid muscular thrust that was to follow, and the backwards force exerted on one of beds and the complex trusswork of springs and struts maintaining the bed’s taut yet smooth and pliable surface, causes the beds to slip ever so slightly apart and one of them to fold inward in a subtle way, with the result that L.’s cock, previously so precisely honed in on the other guy’s anus, veers off course and ploughs with still-unchecked force into the otherwise pleasingly well-developed gluteus maximus of the other guy’s left butt-cheek. The guy yelps and gets a bruise that swells, passes through a phantasmagoric array of colours, and eventually dissolves, over the course of a week or so, but poor L. – and he has a penis which, I can assure you, when in the full fastness of complete tumescence is very rigid indeed – takes the full brunt of that vehement thrust on his penis, which has a much smaller cross-sectional area than his partner’s gluteus maximus, and so breaks. That is not the formal term, of course, there being no bone in the penis, (which after all needs to change size and posture quite often and so would not benefit, evolutionarily speaking, from the scaffolding of a rigid bone) but that is the term all the relevant people deployed, relevant of course referring to us eco-terrorists, for something in the penis had in fact broken, some sliver or vital spirit or anima had snapped, had been cleft in twain as I believe L. had said.

“L. proceeded with haste to the local hospital where an operation was performed of which he had little direct experience since he was anaesthetized, anaesthetic being necessary since no self-aware creature has developed the poise of constitution necessary to withstand one’s member being hemmed and hawed over by a group of strangers with whom one does not plan to have intercourse with in the short-to-middle term. The long and short of it was that while L.’s penis was sort of repaired the inconvenience which the penis-breaking occasioned had only begun. L. had to take a flight back to meet us but had been told by his doctors that every hour his penis had to be thoroughly iced in order to reduce (unwanted) swelling and to minimize post-operational discomfort. There is I think an interesting observation to be made here about the general state of medical technology on Ditarod, which is that even though in a high-functioning if deeply pathological capitalist society people should in general be willing to pay through the nose to demand the best possible services to repair damaged genitals, genitals being so important in general social joshing and occupying something of a totemic pride of place re conceptions of self-worth, dignity etc. as far as bodily appendages are concerned, genital repair services on Ditarod were so primitive that a waddling and tragically un-reinterpretable gait and timely icing were necessitated by even the most sophisticated operational procedures. But the main thing was that this particular icing requirement caused L. quite some embarrassment on the flight back to meet us, since every hour he had the raise his hand to catch the eye of the air stewardess and ask for ice – no, not ice in a drink, or even in a cup, just a bag of ice, please, and no, thanks for the concern, but he was most certainly not feverish at that moment – and while people stared (he got an aisle seat) he would put the ice on his trousers over where his penis approximately was and the ice would slowly melt leaving him with a form-hugging little bag of cold water and condensation would collect on it and soak his trousers so that he looked as if he was incontinent, rather than having merely a broken cock – and then an hour later, which was before the damp had left his trousers even in the very dry air of the cabin, he would have to very discreetly get the attention of the air stewardess again, and say, could I – until of course she was finishing his sentences while her look metamorphosed from one of bemusement to unbearable pity and compassion. The whole situation was so excruciating that that once or twice L. resorted to taking the ice with him into the toilet and dunking his penis into the bag, eventually stopping this experimental practice because it was a hassle plus he could not use the toilet if it was occupied or when there was turbulence and, if he thought about it, the implications of his proceeding to the toilet for long periods with a bag of ice were at least just as disturbing (if more puzzling) as him sitting there while a patch of velvety blue metastized across his groin, besides dunking his cock in ice cubes resulted in painfully uneven cooling, and if he waited and tolerated it until the ice had melted somewhat the pain went away but only because his penis was turning a deathly shade of maroon.

“But the worst thing, and this, if you know L. (which you do not, so make my word for it) really was the worst thing, was the fact that the doctors had told him that under no circumstances whatsoever was he to let himself get an erection. If L. had been in the company of a loving and supportive group of friends and colleagues I suppose they would have escorted him from one sexless public space to another, turning aside each erogenous object, fastidiously avoiding beautiful people and paring down their vocabulary to the most blandly functional, but instead L. was trapped for the next month with us, and we were all of us fascinated to see what a broken (or only recently un-broken) penis would look like if erect – like a punctured blimp attempting lift-off, Cortanse speculated, or two slugs very tightly entwined in a pink mating-dance – and we would burst into his room naked, all us beautiful men and women, a posse of irresistible eco-terrorists, and we would dance with our penises and breasts flopping around as if possessed while poor L. screamed and cowered in his bed and used his blanket (on which, in a show of unspeakable venality, we had inked all over with minute and cleverly tessellating penises) to cover his eyes in an attempt to ward off our limbic onslaught, until he nearly passed out from sobbing with self-control, from the sheer effort his will expended while swathed in a halo of venereal glory.”

“That all sounds very cruel.”

“Being a terrorist demands a certain steeliness, a viciousness of temperament.”

“still—”

“You could never be a terrorist, Garf, and I cannot expect you to understand. I am not angry. It was too much to expect.”

“Well, you can just – are you laughing, Sal?”

“I can tell you that L.’s torment did not end there. We sent him messages marked URGENT: RESP IMM containing only images of the most crushingly well-formed men. We scoured the pornographic stashes online (our AI, good old Semirhange, must have downloaded a fifth of the internet) for the most vivid and hallucinatory –”

“What happened in the end?”

“In the end?”

“You know, after.”

“In the end L. came back one day in a total paroxysm of joy because he had accidentally had an erection – one of our messages had triggered it, at last – and it had been fine. The thing had not erupted into a geyser of blood or deflated terribly like a balloon, no, it had just been fine. L. was so happy that he lay on the floor in the foetal position and sobbed like a child, a large and horny child, I grant, but with innocence nonetheless. We could all understand. It had not been a good time for him. When he tried to confront us we would run at him with high-quality glossy porno printouts and he had no choice but to weep and flee.”

“When he recovered I hope he beat the shit out of you.”

“Of course not.”

“What did he do.”

“He fucked us.”

“Oh.”

“We’re here,” Sal said, and stood up. He looked at Bizzo. “It’s fine, Bizzo. Let’s go.”

“Of course it’s fine,” Bizzo said. He blinked. “Why wouldn’t it be fine?”

“You get talkative when you’re nervous,” Sal said.

“What?”

“You’re excellent when you’re talkative,” Sal said. They got out of the train carriage. It was nearly empty. “I wouldn’t have expected it.”

The exit took them to the edge of a large field. The sign said: Malament; Wrecked Church & Old Park.

“It’s okay, Bizzo,” Garf said. “Seriously. It’s not like The Defence is going to eat you or anything.”

“It has —” Bizzo protested, but there was little energy in it to match his sincerity. He coughed and made a face.

Garf went down the steps. “Gorgeous day,” she said.

And indeed it was. All of Old Park lay tremulous and dazed in the sun. Birds lodged in trees panted, struck speechless by the heat, rare calls like faults in the air, shrink-wrapped eroticisms hurled and taken aloft…

Stizostedion was an overprotected world. The Kingdom made no pretence about its value, and things had been done to the place, things discussed in other quarters with fear and trembling, with fury and appreciation approaching extremes that might be termed aesthetic, with a film of despair, even, and envy… There were the great armouries on all the Gates that led to Stize. There were the onworld Gatekeepers; a ludicrous 228 of them, when Naze, the capital, had only 24. And then, and then…ah, there was QC with its Composite Dust, Drizzle to End All Days, two grams of which had been sufficient in wilder days to raze three cities on Moheger and transform the Union’s 5th Battle Group (Mixed) into a mere commixture of essential dusts then pressed into a boule of machine essence and expelled just before noon onto the plains of Saracen, an ingot of ambitions too tragic to even speak about…and yet on Stize CD was the very air itself, and the even the light that came through it was a membrane plucked clean by force, that carried the basic grace that came from having asked permission,  amniotic rigging strung through the air as mucosae sticky with predatory intent, ardour made manifest in a trillion trillion shudders and gasps, a twining together of motes, of unnumbered urges, aches, infatuations, eggings – into a coil of awareness bent upon itself, bent upon the entire world, a chrysalis that invited, a veil that was all voraciousness, oh come, oh come indeed all ye faithful…

But that was not enough. What if there was a rent somewhere? What then? What if the ravenous panoply fails? What then? And so one arrives at The Defence.

Beneath the Wrecked Church there was a single Hasp.

The Theory of Names

“I have this thought that keeps coming back,” Ary said.

John looked at him. Then he went back to the scope. He looked into the breathing night. Ary could see even at night the light glinting off the metal ring.

“It’s this image,” Ary said. His voice was low and if they had not been so close together John would not have heard it. John did not look at him this time and was still.

At last he said, “What is it?” He could hear Ary breathing.

“You’ll think it’s very stupid.”

“Say it.” Sidelong, without moving his head.

Ary adjusted himself, raised himself up very slightly on his elbows.

“Something – someone has come, has arrived with a gift to give. A very small but very bright light. This person is looking for some creature to whom the gift may be passed and it has looked for a long time. But at last this person finds one creature, one out of many like it. It takes pity on this one creature because it is wounded, or maybe this creature is – well, maybe it is noble, or brave, contains something that might deserve to be enlarged. The creature does not understand why it has been picked. But now that the giver has chosen the creature it realises that it faces a problem and that problem appears insurmountable. This creature, its entire kind, has been living forever in the dark. In this place from which it comes nothing shines and it has long since lost its eyes. How does the giver explain to this creature the gift it carries? How does it communicate the meaning of this – this power, even, this honour, how important and valuable it is? How can it explain light to something blind? The creature is shut inside itself, inside a world where even blackness has no meaning. It can hear the giver’s voice and so it goes up toward it, toward the light, treading gingerly, but it cannot see the giver and the giver says again and again the word ‘light’ but the creature cannot begin to understand it. And then the giver realises that the gift it has been carrying so long, so long that it has become a part of it, is lost, and does not know what to do.”

Ary had not spoken so much in a long time. John was looking straight at Ary and Ary looked back and his voice faltered and stopped. Everything had come out all at once. Words long thought about but only spoken once.

John went back again to the scope. He moved his neck. Then he put a hand on his neck. He looked back.

“This gift,” he said. “Why do you want to give it away? What is this creature you have found?” He pushed himself up, taking out a portion of the sky, and rested his hand on top of the rifle.

“No,” Ary said. He moved backwards a little, as if something had threatened to strike him. “No, I think I am the creature.”

He sounded like he had not used his voice in a long time.

a line of rain

“This house is not the refuge,” it says, “I am the refuge.”

That much has been clear.

That is to say, he has had some clear intimation of this before.

It is looking at him.

The house is wet.

It is not difficult to tell as there is water running down the windows.

“Well,” it continues, “make of that what you will.”

It is not obvious if it is referring to the water going down the house or what it has just said.

It occurs to him that that it is trying to help.

Make of that what you will.

His heart feels like it is going to burst.

It is painful, even.

Outside it is not stormy for once.

Indeed things are perfectly still.

Against this context the house has taken on a new patter of feeling.

Looking out at the sun and the way the light moves over things, at the objects it touches, he feels a huge and sudden loneliness.

He has something important to say.

“In the end,” he says.

It is not clear if he is starting a sentence or ending one.

In fact he is not sure what he intended to say in the first place.

Nonetheless it appears to have caught something of his intent.

“In the last,” it says, looking out, at the water going away.

He thinks about this.

“I don’t know,” he says, because this is true. “I don’t understand.”

“You knew that people would go,” it says.

It says this without malice, without condescension, without any gesture of counsel, perhaps with concern.

He fumbles with the latch on the window and it opens, letting in air.

“I was thinking,” he says, and stops.

It has appeared to become a sudden habit, this stopping.

It waits.

It is very good at that.

Unless he is misreading things, of course.

He used to worry about that possibility a lot but now it does not trouble him.

“I was thinking that this place can house more than two,” he decides, at last.

“Yes,” it says.

There might be something in how immediate the reply is.

In an absurd way, in an animal way, he feels sympathy for it.

That much cannot be denied.

It is grief-stricken.

What does one do in such a situation? What does one summon?

No rituals yet devised.

No rules that might speak clearly.

“I could open the door,” he says, “and see what comes in.”

It shakes its head.

Again he is at a loss.

Two crippled things.

“It is good,” he says finally, “to know that you are here. To know that you will abide.”

It is neither large or small.

It comes up to him and he puts a hand against its body, which is a fixed thing.

Its body is not warm or cold.

Instead it is like an extension of his own flesh, sharing an identical heat.

That is all that can be honestly said.

“I am with you,” it says, and it puts down its eyeless head.

He is silent.

“I am with you always,” it repeats. “Even unto the end of the world.”

It turns its head to him as if expecting some recognition.

“All worlds,” he says.

“Yes,” it says. “All worlds.”

He holds it.

This is not something he remembers doing.

Although maybe he has done this before.

That is only a passing thought.

He holds it and does not move.

Again a sudden sadness.

It is too much to demand that every lament have a cause and structure.

That thought occurs very clearly and brightly to him.

“You should know where my strength is,” it says.

The meaning of this is not entirely clear.

“You should know where my strength is,” it says.  “I should tell you so that you will know.”

He says nothing.

“Small things,” it says, “breakable things.”

He is beginning to understand, in a dim way.

“It is when others look in and say, see how weak this thing is, see how easily it can be destroyed.”

A quiver, a line of rain moving the light.

“And it is there that things change,” he says. “Are made known to be different.”

It looks at him.

“Because there is no weakness there. You cannot be destroyed.”

He stops and speaks again: “Deception.”

“Hiding,” it says.

“It is true then, what I say about you.”

It looks at him and the thought occurs to him that maybe it is the one that is uncomprehending.

It gets up and goes to the window and looks out.

There is no storm today.

In fact outside a glinting spreads unheeded.

It looks back in, twisting around to do so.

“The truth of it does not matter,” it says.

[Ref: Carrier; All That Air Outside]

Toha’s End

[TW: rape]

Toha lay in his bunk. Outside he could hear people moving. He could hear people talking. He was relieved at that; after what had happened over the last week he wanted his troops to feel like they could go on. He could see that some of them hated it; and how could he blame them? Things had turned out very different from what they had thought. It was not just the Woodpecker, although that had been a real problem. It was the fact that they were seeing so many dead people, and that when people failed now there were real costs to be borne. Some of the other sergeants thought he was too soft. Lehane had told him that, Scolia too, in the mess. You need to remind them what is at stake, they said. Toha thought that this was very strange. At first he had understood but the more and more he thought about it the more he realised it was wrong to do things this way. How could anyone really understand what was at stake, really? People would fight and die for friends, probably, and maybe not even that. But these soldiers who had chosen to leave Tyne, had chosen to leave all their homes, they were either fools or cowards. Toha did not blame them. If they wanted to come because they thought it was a duty they were fools but all peoples needed fools like that to keep their civilisations running. It was not, he realised sooner or later, a pull of duty that people felt. It was hatred of the enemy. Toha thought of the Everent kid; he was angry, wasn’t he? He was frozen like a spasm of rage. And yet over here the enemy was as unknowable as its methods. How could you properly hate them? And then there were fools. People who were running away. Toha knew he was one of these fools and so he could not bear to think ill of them.

But he was a sergeant and he felt pride in that. He let him admit this to himself. He thought that he was a good sergeant. Dimly he thought that his methods were better than the methods of the other sergeants and that they would come round to seeing his point eventually.

(“If we survive this,” he said to himself, softly, in his bunker, surprising himself. He thought for a while about how strange it had felt to break the small black silence. )

But that was true, wasn’t it? His section performed exceptionally well. His men and women had not slept for fifty hours now but earlier they had gotten their job done. They had all come back from the recon together. It was impossible to deny their performance. And it was not true – now everyone knew this – it was not true that he was always soft, that was a one-tone sergeant. He had humiliated Teller. That one was a bastard. He was like Everent but his hate was indiscriminate. At least Toha knew that it extended with particular vehemence towards his superiors. He was always smirking or glaring and he lazed off all the time. When he lost his rifle Toha had seen a chance and he had taken it. Toha remembered that even while he was speaking to Teller he had felt a strange undercurrent of exultation inside him, how he had felt his hands start to shake inside his pockets, and how his awareness had grown strangely in that moment so that he knew that the rest of the platoon was looking at him, that they were thinking that he was not capable of this and yet there he was doing it. Toha  knew Teller was mad. He knew that seething look. He ignored it because he trusted Teller to grow out of it and because, when it came down to it, he knew that Teller knew that Toha was a better sergeant for him than Lehane or Scolia or Dermid.

Toha could not sleep. There was another thing that was making him think, another thing that gave him a dull thrill that he could not shake off, and that was what had happened to Scolia. He was going to be discharged, after what he did to that guy – what was his name? – that guy who talked back. Toha did not dislike Scolia at all, not at all, but a part of him he was still quite new to thought that what Scolia did reflected the essential correctness of his, Toha’s, method. Toha would never have done something like that. He was too sensitive to his people, too attuned to their inside struggles. Well, no, that was flattering himself. But he knew that his disposition never tended towards cruelty and that he could not have attacked one of his own men or women that way.

But nonetheless. Things were looking good for him. His people looked at him differently now. Was respect the word? Maybe it was respect.

Maybe Toha would actually start fucking someone soon, as a sort of vague self-celebratory gesture. He would get someone to show him. What a stupid thought, he told himself. There was no time to celebrate now. He slept in the darkness.

When Toha awoke it was still completely black and then he realised that his eyes were open and something was over his head. Someone was playing around. But then when he was on his back and someone had pinned his arm above his head and his knee in the crook of an arm he started to realise what this sick mimicry of power was, he started to get confused, he shook off the joke. He tried to open his mouth to say, hey, what’s going on here, and when he realised that he could not open his mouth he tried to shout or scream and then he realised that he could not do that either. Someone said in his ear “You will not make a noise.” The tone and timbre of it put him in a sudden horror. He tried to access Interface and got nothing but buzzing in his head.

Toha was dragged out of his bunk by his ear. He heard someone say, “You are going to like this.” He tried to twist around but when his flailing arms connected with someone a hand grabbed his fingers and did something to them very painful. “Stand,” the voice said. But Toha couldn’t stand and he threw up inside his bag. Then he was bodily dragged down steps, since he did not stand, and he felt the concrete edges bite all over his head and back. He heard the voice ask, “You turned the Watch off, yeah?” and then someone said, “Yes,” and someone else, “Don’t worry.”

Emm was in it, she was in it too. And Kripke. But they were not even in his section. He tried desperately to speak. He thought that if only he could speak to either of them, if they heard his voice, they would call this off, but his mouth could not move. He did not stop kicking until he felt through the fabric the nose of a Botze pressing against a kneecap and a stun round was discharged. He did make a sound them, a high “Heeeeeee….” that was shockingly soft. Someone hit him in the side of his head.

Because the rest of him was numb Toha listened to sounds of boots on metal. It echoed. Why had he not noticed that? It echoed and he could feel the vibrations through this skin.

The floor changed. It was dusty. The thing covering Toha’s head came off and he looked at the behemoths. They towered. The light was a white as the faces and the faces were fixed and eternal. Toha started blubbering when he saw them. “Look at the fucker,” the voice said from on high. “I swear he enjoys crying. Get up.” Toha got up and stared, wild-eyed. “Look at this. This is a sergeant. Take off your clothes.”

They made him lie down and they sat on him so he could not move. “Get the broom over there by the stall,” the voice said. “What?” someone said, and then the voice said, “I’m not going to fuck him.” Toha could not hear the next words clearly but the sentence ended with “…disgusting. Get me the fucking broom.”

“Please,” Toha said. He said it in what he thought was a pleading way but it come out flat, drained of all passion and feeling. And then he knew that it was all over.

He kept coming in and out of consciousness but he heard someone saying, “This is a bit much for a lesson.”

Afterwards Toha went to the bathroom and hid there. He hid there until he could tolerate the panic and the pain. He tried to think thoughts that began with if only but he only cried. Eventually he looked for serious injuries. There were none: blood was a good lubricant. He felt a sick relief. He could hide this.