kind of getting away: 16

May I illustrate? I will illustrate.

The eye passes over you. This is what is terrifying. It does not look through you. It passes over. It passes over as if your outline is a blankness in the world, a silhouette cutout propped against the ether. The eye moves and at the exact moment it encounters you nothing changes in it, and as the gaze leaves you also nothing changes. It looks at you like it looks at everything else. Blankness, fullness, whatever.

Visitation: 2

Beneath the Wrecked Church there was a single Hasp. Its name was not known. The consensus among those in the SM faculty was that it was not of the usual order of Hasps; no. It was a Category I, expressed in Form II. And it was the last line of defence, for nothing could stand against a naked Haccieter, against the final idea of a basic force. Why The Defence was where it was no one knew. The Wrecked Church was around 12,000 years old, and as far back as records went it had always contained the Hasp. In that ancient past some deal must have been struck, a trade of some still-incomprehensible value. What was in it? Friendship? That surely was a heresy. It was impossible to imagine.

In any case the Hasp could not be moved. Of course it had been tried. But it could not be done. It was fixed relative to the gravitational centre of Stize. There was also the problem that anything that came within a metre of it (99.2 cm, said the notices at the entrance) would disintegrate as a result of absurd tidal forces. Outside that radius, however, those gravitational forces simply disappeared. They did not tail off; they simply did not extend there.

They could see the Wrecked Church now, the shattered spire of six metal plates, most of the top half entirely gone except for where two of the triangular sheets stretched skyward, nearly touching before cleanly cut off as if by some unnoticed catastrophe, some antiseptic violence that had come tumbling from above. Copper green with intimations of wisdom, flying buttresses broken and left clawing at vaulted notes the hearing of which was like a musical gesture in the middle of its enactment, like a sign paid out in instalments, the long spinal nave of stone and its interdenominate vertebrae locked in place, the high holy orifices of the windows agape, unprepared after all this time—

“It looks pretty good for a ruin,” Garf said, sweating a bit now. “I know it’s a stupid thing to say but it doesn’t look very – ruinlike – doesn’t it?”

They stopped to look.

Bizzo leaned back and shaded his eyes. He said nothing.

“It’s a bit like that Cubist stuff. Not really Cubist, I mean, but like that – who was it – Worthow, I think.”

“Ah,” Sal said.

Garfield drew a hand across her forehead. “I wonder why I never noticed before.” She took two steps back and stretched out her hands in the direction of the structure, moved them mechanically up and down as if measuring something. “You really get a sense of its size, hm? Standing here. I suppose that’s it.”

“In Canon II there is a section on the influence of prehistoric art,” Sal said. Canon was the vast university library.“I think Worthow is mentioned. There’s a book called The Lineage of Art from Before Time. Brewer and Fentiman. It’s good.”

“It isn’t really a church, is it?” Bizzo said. He coughed. “All the later ones that were copies of these two, those were churches. But we’ve not got any idea what this was for.”

“No,” Sal said. “Although there are many theories.”

“Why isn’t there anyone around?” Garf said.

Sal went up to the door and pushed it open.

Above the long darkness of the nave light seeped from the clerestory, touching nothing. At the end a great flood from broken spire.

“I spoke to QC,” Sal said. He grinned.

Garf took in a deep breath of cold air. “And it didn’t let anyone in today.”

“It re-arranged things,” Sal said. “So there would be an empty window.”

Bizzo stood just inside the door, his hands in his pockets. “There’s something, you know, oppressive about this. This place.”

Outside was the human noise, the human suffering.

The very thought.

Garf opened her mouth to say something but Sal said, mildly, “No. No. I understand.”

They walked over in silence to the crossing. The North Transept was ruined and from where they were they could look out at the sun pluming outside, the trees, the rolling air. In the middle of the crossing  there was a shallow bowl worn out of the basalt floor and at its bottom there was, incongruously, a lift, a large steel box.It looked like it could take ten or so people at once.

They got in and the doors hissed shut and they immediately began to descend.

Down hypodermically through rock. This is the song of an unassailable people.

They did not stop for a while.

“What the fuck?” Bizzo said when the doors opened.

They were at the edge of a vast rectangular chamber tiled entirely with what looked like white ceramic. The scene was a study in perspective; the dark lines of rock which showed between the tiles ran from where they stood to the opposite wall nearly a kilometre away, across the floor, walls, ceiling.

The light came from everywhere and nowhere and was painful.

Near the far end of the chamber there was a black square, so dark it looked nearly unreal, like something projected into vision: a perfect cube ten metres in height. Around it the neat lines formed by the tiles appeared to bend, to warp and wrap in on themselves again and again.  A space around where light congregated endlessly, fawned without end.

“So that’s the casket,” Garf said. “Trippy.”

“Is that lensing?” Bizzo said.

“Yes,” Sal said.

“Hmm,” Garf said.

“This shouldn’t be that surprising. What do you know about The Defence?” Sal said.

“It’s Type I,” Bizzo said.

“If you go to the SM faculty page you can find a list of well-defined Hasps and their properties. One standard way of classifying Hasps involves a Reissner-Nordström transform. You express properties about the Hasp by treating its derived properties as if it was a charged spinning black hole. Once you figure out a Hasp’s effective implied charge you can give it a certain mass. It’s not an actual mass, but you can treat it for certain calculations as if it has one. Basically you can figure out what Hasp in Form III would look like. The Defence is in Form II. But its inferred Form III mass – and it’s probably the only Hasp whose Form III mass has been precisely calculated, for obvious reasons – is approximately 4 billion solar masses.”

“Urk,” Bizzo said.

“That’s a big number,” Garf said.

“If you rank the well-defined Hasps by mass it’s pretty high up.”

“That is frightening,” Bizzo said.

Sal said nothing. He looked at the dark cube and said nothing.

The stuttered world made fiduciary to this.

“Is that number a limit?” Garf said. “What does it actually tell us about what this can do?”

“It’s not a limit,” Sal said. “That’s not what a Hasp contains. It’s an expression of actual gravitational potential, not potential gravitational potential.”

“I don’t –” Garf began.

“Garf,” Sal said, voice clear, cordial, knowing, “Don’t worry about it.”

Bizzo was staring. “We can’t go near that,” Bizzo said. “If the gravity is strong enough to bend light like that there’s no way we can go near that.”

“If it was a gravitational field, we’d be dead by now.”

“Terrorist!” Garf said, but put no heart into it.

“What is it? It not a gravitational field why’s the light fucked up like that?”

“I can’t get QC,” Garf said. She turned to Sal. “I just tried to make a query and got nothing.”

“There’s also no Composite Dust in the air,” Sal said.

“What is it?” Bizzo said.

“It’s a field,” Sal said. “It’s complicated.” He grinned like he had made a joke. “It only affects massless particles – photons – the way gravity does.”

“Okay.”

“It’s safe,” Sal said. “Let’s go.”

Garf looked hesitant. “Is The Defence doing that?”

“Of course.”

“And what’s that?” Garf pointed to the long gash in the floor where the tiles had been crushed in an arcing path that ended with the casket.

“Continental drift. The casket moves a tiny bit each year as Wassea drifts underearth it. Let’s go.”

As they walked the lines around the casket slipped and dilated like liquid. They came to the door in the side of the casket.

“We’re standing right here but I can see you just fine,” Bizzo said.

“Yes,” Sal said.

“I shouldn’t be able to,” Bizzo said. “Not if this was bending the light.”

“It’s strange that the door’s just like that,” Garf said. “I’d expected something more impressive.”

“Security?” Sal said.

“Yeah.”

“It would make no sense trying to keep the Hasp in. And it can’t be damaged or moved, so there’s no sense keeping anything out.”

The door was visible only as a faint outline in the smooth black surface. A handle was set into it; Sal took it and pulled and the door hinged open smoothly.

Inside the light was dimmer.

It was on a small plinth and it was black.

“There’s a smell” Bizzo said. “It’s like the smell you get when you get into the car in the morning and the air-conditioners come on. But it’s sweeter than that.”

Garf went up to it. There was a circle inscribed into the floor: come no closer. She stopped a metre away.

How to stare this cruelty away?

A monument like the word if and just as improbable.

“It’s sort of muscly,” she said, “Very lean, like you can see through the skin to the muscle underneath. Is it crouching?”

“It’s like you took a military jet and made it into an animal,” Bizzo said. “You know what I mean?”

“It’s crouching,” Sal said. “It has its head between its knees. It’s digitigrade – you can see how the legs fold beneath it. It looks like it has an extra joint there. If it stood up in this form it’d be well over two metres tall.”

Anatomy. How to embroider a wound.

Teeth do not rot in the grave.

Garf shook her head. “It’s black.”

“Yes.”

“I can’t make out the – the contours of the limbs. Those are the arms wrapped around its – knees –  that is the neck, the neck, going down between them. It doesn’t look alive.”

“It’s not alive,” Sal said.

“Why would anyone want to come so close to something like this?” Bizzo said.

“If you look inside the circle,” Sal said, “You can see – although it’s hard to make out since the floor is so dark – you can see human remains.”

Garf brought one hand to her face, rubbing, checking.

“Those smudges?” Bizzo said.

“Yes,” Sal said.

“Oh,” Garf said.

“This is such a strange place,” Bizzo said.

“I can’t get a feel of it,” Garf said. “It’s not – you know – threatening, now that we’re here. But it doesn’t have a present the way a sculpture has presence. It’s a gap. Do you know what I mean? I’m not sure if I’m putting this across. I feel sad for it. I know this makes no fucking sense at all but it looks sort of sad. Not to move after all this time. It’s so fantastic it’s beyond fascination. I can’t even describe it properly. Seriously. If I go back out and someone asks me, ‘What was it like,’ I’m pretty sure I’ll say ‘I don’t know,’ and it’ll be really honest. And if they person says ‘What did it look like?’ I’ll say, ‘It was dark and crouching and made the light funny and smelt strange,’ and that sounds ridiculous.”

Garf looked at Sal. Sal looked at the Hasp and did not say anything for some time. Then he said, “Look at this. After all this time this is what we rely on.” His hands had been pressed together but he spread them apart now, raised them. “Look at this.”

A child before the blackness, hands raised, wrists loose, lost already in ritual.

“Uhm,” Bizzo said. There was a look on Sal’s face that he had no seen before, the look of something caged and now finding its larger intention, the latch in its trammel. It was not a rapturous look. It was slightly sorrowful.

“Rely on?” Garf said. “We’ve never used it in any way.”

Sal turned to Garf.  Then he turned to Bizzo.

“I wouldn’t know,” Bizzo said.

“This is the basic threat.” Sal pointed at the Hasp. “This is under everything. Isn’t it absurd? Isn’t it obscene? It is a threat so powerful it cannot be used. It is the basic violence under our structure. Do you know how other nations see us? To them we are already a Kingdom of totems. Providence picked bare. They don’t even contemplate conflict with us. And then they see this, our Defence. And what do you think they think? And we use that. I use that. Its hint is in everything I do: you cannot overcome us. Even if I did not want to I would be forced to.” He stopped and looked thoughtful and nodded, or maybe that movement was only imagined. “Look at this thing. I am the same as it. Don’t you think?”

Bizzo and Garf stood and looked at him and did not say anything. There was a light in his eyes and a deadly calm.

“Don’t you think?” Sal said. He held out his wrists. He smiled and there was nothing in it that was not genuine and warm. “Come on. Do not believe that I am something else. Under my skin there is a violence. There is a violence. Don’t look at me that way, Garf. It’s the most basic eloquence and it’s all here, all inside me. Hm?”

A wild and profligate gesture.

Him receding now, just like this, taken by therapeutic quantities of darkness.

“That’s not – a problem,” Bizzo offered. “It’s not easy, being the Leviathan, but it’s not a bad thing, I guess.”

Sal looked up and titled his head and looked at them out of the corners of his eyes, as if puzzled, thinking. “Oh, Bizzo, I’m not complaining.” It was a terrifying look, alien, suddenly, maybe cold, haughty. “But this encroaches on me,” he said. “Come now. You must know this. This is easy to see.”

Garf said, “But the Defence has never done anything. It’s not doing anything now.”

“Garf,” Sal said, “I am not an alternative. Do you understand? What’s – I don’t know, choose what you want – what’s truth to violence? What’s violence to greater violence? What’s me to a God?”

“You are saying you can’t control this,” Bizzo said. Sal looked at him blankly.

“It’s The Defence, Sal,” Garf said. “It’s not doing anything bad. It’s just a defence.”

“Do you think that this must be a defence? Do you really think that?”

Bizzo said, “What else could it be?”

“Suicide.”

“Suicide.”

“Yes.”

“Something to kill everyone?”

“Well, think about it. This whole world is already impossible to attack. There are too many forces conspiring against it. QC. Gates. Gatekeepers. Compydust. College AIs, if necessary. Armouries. But if we were all to die it would be through this.”

Garf said, “So this is about controlling it.”

“I’m not complaining about anything,” Sal said, “I’m just saying this is the way things are. I’m pretty okay with it.”

“I’m pretty sure you could stop that from happening” Bizzo said. “I’m sure there are ways to do it.”

“Why would I prevent it?”

“What?”

“Why would it not be me making that order?”

“What is this about?” Garf said. She had her hands in her pockets, her body tight against itself.

In a different world trees stood shocked in the sun, canopies small spaces and worlds apart.

“Kasakadei has written little thing. A monograph. Have you heard about it?”

“The ethics majors in Hakon mentioned –” Bizzo said.

Evitable and Inevitable Duties of Non-Existence. It’s what you would expect from Kasakadei. A tight airless thing. The arguments in it are not new – they are clarifications of some very ancient claims. Dusted off, restated to avoid some obvious attacks.”

“What is this?” Garf said.

“If it is not a moral evil to fail to create a utility-positive life,” Sal said, “then it follows.”

“What follows?”

“That it might be good that we all die. Isn’t strange that such a small concession, something look inconsequential, almost, could lead to this? Small things have big consequences.”

“When you say we you mean, all, as in all of us?”

“You see now why a Hasp is useful for this purpose.”

“What is this argument? I don’t see how anything follows.”

“It’s about an asymmetry. We all agree that it is wrong to create a life if it would be one of suffering. To cause the existence of such a life would be a moral evil. We therefore have a duty not to create such a life. But it is not clear that we must think that the flipside is true – that we have a duty to create a happy life, given the chance. But if there is no positive duty to create a life where that life would be a happy one – if that is not a moral good, then we are left with a conclusion that the happiness that a non-existent life passes over is not a morally relevant loss, while the pain and suffering that is passed over is a morally relevant gain. Do you see? This asymmetry means that we have a duty to create not life at all. An inevitable duty of non-existence obtains. No matter how gloriously happy the life we create is, as long as that life contains some sort of suffering, no matter how slight, that pain could have been avoided by not creating that life in the first place. Yes, no happiness would have been experienced, but if you think that failing to bring a utility-positive life into existence is not a moral wrong, then all this follows. The Inevitable Duty of Non-Existence.”

Bizzo was quiet. Garf was thinking.

Horror could be thus held purely by its skin.

Garf said, “This is an argument about why it is wrong to cause life to come into existence. It does not say that once life is created we should end it.”

Sal laughed. “Yes! Yes. But one does rather imply the other. And if the killing is quick there is little harm done.”

Bizzo said, “You don’t believe any of this.” He ran his tongue over his front teeth like an animal. “You don’t believe any of this.”

“Bizzo, darling, why do you ask me? Think about it. Any answer I give to these sorts of questions will not be motivated by my desire to tell you the truth but by the necessities of my position.”

“We’re clearly not dead,” Bizzo said. “So you don’t believe that.”

“No,” Sal said. “There you go, I guess.” He laughed.

“Shall we head?” Garf said. “We’re having lunch at Porales.”

“No,” Sal said.

“Come on, let’s go,” Garf said. She started moving toward the doorway.

Sal looked at her. “No,” he said smoothly, without any gap between Garf’s exclamation and his denial.

Garf stood as if paralyzed.

“You should know about the other argument,” Sal said. “Don’t you think? Evitable duties of non-existence. You should find out.”

“Why are we discussing philosophy?” Garf said.

“We’re not discussing philosophy at all,” Sal said, sounding surprised. “We’re discussing why I should not be minded to kill everyone.”

“Okay,” Garf said. She grasped her face and ran her hand down it, pressing into her cheeks. “Must we do it here?”

“The arguments are made rather sharper here, aren’t they?”

“Go on, then. Explain.”

“It’s not complicated. It’s an old argument, an ancient argument, really, that Zapffe Ipcress articulated fully in Grief and Sublimation. It’s an argument for an evitable duty because this duty is sensitive to the value of existent life itself; it matters how that life is to be lived. The claim is that happiness is not real. That is to say, it does not exist independently. Suffering is what exists independently, as the groundnorm. There is nothing intrinsic about the satisfaction of fulfilling desire because desire multiplies – and desire is only a kind of pain evolution has forced us to clutch at, reflexively, a lie of value that we must hum to ourselves over and over again. Ipcress’ words. Do you know what Ipcress writes in the second annex to Four Meditations? I can recite it for you. It slips into the mind quite easily:

“‘Conscious life, although nothing on the scale of cosmic time, is laden with suffering. This suffering is directed towards no other end but its own perpetuation. This is to be expected. All suffering directed elsewhere, which is to say all honest suffering, has long since ended. It is lost to us. What exists is that suffering which, by making a terror of everything, threads the barren and yawning needle of mere survival. We feel, deeply but pointlessly, that life nonetheless has some meaning, or at least some pattern-of-value. We feel that because we hold in ourselves an argument that, even if unarticulated, is as powerful as it is false. What is this secret argument? (1) To say an interest is morally relevant is to say that it matters morally; (2) If it matters morally, it must matter to the entity whose interest it is; (3) For an entity’s interest to matter to it, there must be something that it is like – that it feels like – to be that entity; (4) That feeling-of-being this entity possesses must be indicative of the relation of its interest to its being; (5) The relevant part of this feeling-of-being is desire; and hence (6) Desire must, if not identify precisely, at least indicate those interests that are morally relevant, and thus stake out within each life a space for meaning to develop. At each stage this argument proposes an erasure of suffering and its replacement with meaning, or something like it. Call it truth. Call it light. Call it nobility. Call it honesty. Call it freedom. Call it dignity. But it never shows its true face. That true face is that it is correct in one place only, and it locates a truth. Life is morally relevant – that is to say, it matters, but only because it is an evil. It needs to end.’”

Bizzo coughed. Garf was staring at Sal.

“Well,” Garf said.

“Do you agree?” Sal asked.

Do I agree?

“No. No, I fucking love my life, Sal. I would never give it up.”

Sal laughed. He looked at Garf and then at Bizzo. He. shrugged apologetically. “I think people should know about that argument. It is eight centuries old. It shouldn’t have taken Kasakedei to resurrect it, to put it in so-called analytic terms. It is worth hearing.”

“Sometimes I am terrified of you,” Garf said. “I mean that. Sometimes I am.”

“Sorry,” Sal said. He turned his palms up and that hint of good-willed gangliness came back.

“You didn’t bring us here to do – that, did you?”

Sal made a face of pretend-woundedness. Then he laughed and shook his head. “No, no. I came because I thought it would be interesting to see The Defence.”

“You don’t believe in that argument.”

“What can I say?”

“No, you don’t.”

“Well, I don’t believe in it. Crane has some sharp things to say about it.” He looked at them, gauging if this was enough. “I told you it’s not useful, asking me these things. Let’s go.”

“Fuck me,” Garf said. “I am suddenly famished.”

Sal looked at The Defence. He spoke to it. “You’ll be here, won’t you?” Lightly again. “This luminous grave. It must be good. Oh well.” He turned to Bizzo and Garf. “Let’s go.”

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.

death on a plane

There are two sounds that are hard to differentiate but can be differentiated. The first comes from the generators, X supposes, those big things chumping away, and the second comes from wherever. Turbines? Who knows, who knows. Big complicated things with small complicated noises. X realises that the reason why the sounds are hard to separate is due not only to the fact that they are both so soft, but also because one pulses in groups of three and the other in groups of two, so that a odd polyrhythm arises. Odd because actually the pulse does not follow a strict 2:3 ratio but something more like maybe 10:14 or 8:11, so that the two sounds gently phase in and out of sync every minute or so. X leans back in the seat and pays attention. She wipes her face using the scented Spangles and attempts a nap. The seat is like everything else exquisite. There is so much space here, space everywhere, and glossiness. She tries to stop paying attention to the sounds and finds that she cannot. The sounds drone on agnostic to her suffering. They together take the form of a non-rhotic insult gangling on just beneath notice and therefore screamingly within it. To try to not listen X instead focuses on conversation. Not, to be clear, conversation that she is about to initiate or engage in but just conversation generally as a social phenomenon. This kind of observation is in fact quite difficult to pull off in the desired fashion, because of course the problem is that if she becomes absorbed in the conversation, that is to say in its meaning, then she becomes a partaker of it, a vivid but unmoving player, and sleep becomes impossible. The trick is to be aware of the sound first and foremost, that babble for which there is no real name, and to hold the meaning at a distance, it being of course impossible to ignore wholesale.  Two rows behind X in row F, probably, someone is saying that he cannot believe that the two people sitting beside him are not together, together here being used to denote presumably not the physical proximity of said couple (this X simply assumes) but some kind of relationship that has progressed beyond fucking to deep mutual understanding + appreciation and that tyrannical soul-entwining lethargy from which tragedy and myth is spun. It was very nice of you, A (the non-believing one) says, and B says, no, I’m happy to help, a hint of annoyance maybe there, maybe just the faintest hints of that, or maybe bemusement. A: and you too, that was very kind; C: no problem at all. Are you two together, goes A. That’s so very quaint. Oh no, C says, we just both happened to be there. But you’re both so nice, A says, and B+C both murmur what sound like impressively sincere notes of self-deprecation, both of them possibly looking at each other now, X imagines, a infinitesimal flash of shared understanding: what is this person about, you know what I mean? Are you sure you are not together, says A, insistent, using a tone that possesses no irony or teasing in it, only a kind of charmed wondrousness that must be unimaginably practiced. X senses something that is perhaps a kind of prank. B goes, well, maybe eventually, you never know, and laughs, and C laughs too. They both laugh and they both look straight ahead with the same expression on their faces. X does not see this but her idle brain nonetheless spits out the image with infallible clarity and truth. Both so nice, A goes, and C goes, you know it’s not always similarity that brings people together, not necessarily. A: it helps a lot, you know. B: yes, it does. But you know there are so many things. A: you are not making fun of me are you. X’s whole being goes taut at this, at this momentous turn, this flipping of the table, for actually A manages to strike a dangerously plaintive note there, so that B+C do not respond for a moment, as they are not sure if the tone indicates that (1) A believes that B+C do not generally take A seriously because they believe A is rather intrusive or because they believe (2) A is a bit odd, whicho oddness lies somewhere around the not-so-endearing end of the relevant spectrum, or (3) that A believes that B+C are trying to imply (with flabbergasting coyness) via denial that they are in fact in some sort of relationship. (Aside: who, X asks herself, even thinks in those terms these long golden liberated days?) B+C both start speaking at the same time but C (who seems to be the one with the faster reflexes overall) stops immediately and B is left carrying the fire, and says, no, no, it’s just the way things work, you know, it’s never as simple just – what you say it is, although of course we’d all like for it to be that way, and is fortunate enough to attain a rare note of equal parts lightheartedness and minimalist profundity that seems like the sort of thing generally that might sate A and his dangerous goodwill, although what  occurs now is that A actually leans back (X imagines) and says, yes, you do have a point there. X has one really big problem with flights, and it is not about sound. It is about distance, space, parameterization, etc. Which is this: X knows that the plane she is on moves at approx. 3200 km/h. This means approx. 0.9 km/s. But when she looks out she realises that the plane cannot possibly be moving that fast. She places a finger on the pane and counts some arbitrary number of seconds and notes the tiny expanse of cloud that has disappeared under the suddenly gigantic pink of the finger. Surely, she tells herself, that wisp of cloud was not – what? 4 km? That would be absurd. In fact X is wildly disoriented when she sees clouds that look really close to the plane, that look as if they are right under it, drift by lazily, because the implication is that these clouds that are so fanatically detailed must be some huge distance away, posturing fatly through all that air. X supposes that the answer lies in the self-similarity of fractal structures at different scales, which maybe explains why this particular visual effect applies to those long wispy + bouncily flocculent clouds called Extremely High Cirriform + Something Else respectively. The large stormy ones look exactly as near or far as they are, dark and threatening and not at all coy. On this particular flight X has not looked out of the window to wonder at this visual paradox not because she does not enjoy this (in fact the slightly unsettling effect is something she generally appreciates) but because (1) she does not have the window seat (she had not asked Intemper, which knew about her preference of course but gave priority to those who asked) and (2) there is this guy sitting beside the window closest to her and he keeps leaning over to look out. Said Guy is fascinating. He has short taffy hair whose colour varies drastically with the light (watch for it as the plane banks!) between bright blonde/brown and is wearing a hopelessly purple T-shirt that is just slightly too small, not grippingly tight per se, just enough to grip the biceps although he is not what one call muscular just skinny but well-built or something, with the words MONGLOID PORN INFERNO boldly printed on in black sans serif. Grey eyes or green eyes or blue eyes or whatever, it all depends on the angle and the timbre of the light anyway. He chuckles. This is important because X, while familiar with the idea, has rarely if ever seen anyone who actually chuckles. It is an action far easier to imagine than observe but SG has apparently developed the capacity and intellectual fearlessness to actually do it. He looks out of the window, smiles infectiously, shakes his head, and chuckles, not in a self-satisfied manner but in the manner of someone who knows a very good joke and is running it over and over again and still finding it funny and finding the fact that he finds it funny itself funny – and so on, piling up onwards to infinity. SG shows his teeth when he chuckles and his incisors are normally shaped but unusually prominent, perhaps because of the way he opens his mouth. His eyes appear heterotropic. It is the right one that appears to be lazy, although only very slightly so if at all. To be honest X only notices it because she tells herself that there is something abnormal about someone in his mid-30s to look somehow so childishly naïve, although naïve is the wrong word isn’t it, maybe playful is really the word even though even that seems rather simplistic, maybe more enthusiastic, or easily amused. Definitely not naïve in any case, more like a person who sees lots of funny stuff that no-one else notices and totally good-naturedly does not talk about it for fear of seeming cynical. SG notices X watching and X asks, what are you looking at, partly because she wants to know what X is looking at and partly because it is one of those glances that sort of makes eye contact and if the other person looks away without you saying anything the situation becomes awkward in a fashion that gathers static all through the day, so one really might as well say something and make it look as if one was attempting in the first place to get the other person’s attention. So X asks, what are you looking at, and SG says earnestly, well, I don’t know, don’t you think flights are boring? The plane shudders a little, a metal myoclonus, and X says, battered veteran that she is, yeah, totally, no matter how good they get somehow I just can’t enjoy any of the usual things if I’m on a plane. I try watching movies and you know what? it just ruins them for me, even if I do immersion or whatever. SG: you like movies in general? X: yeah, pretty fond. A: cool, you’ll like this, and smiles, not infectious come to think of it, more like positively bubonic. X shuffles across and leans over SG and looks out into an expanse of disappointingly fluffy whiteness. I can’t see anything she says, and X immediately says, well the thing is that the Wrecked Church is down there, just over there. It’s– and X says, rolling her eyes, yes, I know what it is, but how do you know it’s there? Well I can just feel it, you know, SG goes, and adds immediately after, I’m sorry, which utterance would have been embarrassed if not for the strange undissembled cheerfulness of it. X decides to play the game, knowing of course that SG just asked QC or whoever and says, that’s not that interesting is it. I mean I can’t even see it from up here. SG nods and says, well not so interesting by itself  — he messes with his hair here – but the thing is that I’m going to put this snouty thing right into it and see what happens and that will be fun, you know, because of The Defence. X: you mean the plane? SG: yeah, I mean this plane. X laughs and says, you know, you really need to get yourself a better imagination. SG looks thoughtful for a while or maybe a little worried in a smiling sort of way ans says and says at last, well – nods subtly to himself, confirming something – truthfully I have a bigger problem. X waits for him to continue but he looks out of the window, undecided, and she says, what? SG: oh, I don’t want to talk about it. But X presses. SG: it’s a bit weird. X: what? SG: I don’t know if it’s really the kind of thing – well, it’s about, you know, fucking. X is surprised, but also happy, in a strange way, she is back to these well-worn eccentricities.  Ah, but we all have our problems with fucking, no? SG: it’s not really in the same order, reallyX: what, what, say it! SG: oh wellX: do you like need some right now? Because there were like five of them going at it back there, so really – SG: well the main thing is that when I fuck people, and I really like fucking actually, although that’s normal, who does not like fucking, but my problem, main problem I guess is that when I fuck people, specifically people, I get really carried away and kill them. Not actually that I want to kill them, not at all, or that I have some fetish or something, but that I just get carried away, as in physically. I go on top of them and then I get excited and pull whoever to pieces, you know, they just come apart like that. X (after pondering this appropriately): are you an artist or something? That sounds very artistic. SG: maybe, maybe, but it sounds more like a social dysfunction than a conscious artistic endeavour really doesn’t it? And then he turns to look out of the window. Oh well. I can’t help me. And now it’s time to test The Defence. X: why do something like that, now something does indeed seem to be wrong, because this joke does not hold together too well, and anyone with functioning social antennae would have ended it by now, and The Defence is not too often the subject of jokes. Well because I thought it would be totally cool. You’ll always need to talk to old friends, you know, find a way to see them, say hi. Plus the explosion will be epic! There is a loud crack as the armrest cracks under SG’s grip. He shrugs guiltily and shakes his head says, shit, look, I’ve gotten all excited talking about this. X now knows that something is distinctly wrong, and besides those armrests are very stout, and manages to say, what? And SG says: I’m sorry, sorry. But if I got all the people out it would be fake, and fake—you know, it’s not bad, but I really need people here for these purposes. X is a little angry now, maybe scared, and says, the plane is tethered. And SG points, reasonably, that if you overcome (1) the fields, (2) the tethers, and/or (3) the thing the plane is tethered to then the fact that the plane is tethered does not make that much of a difference does it? X says, there is also the Gatekeeper, although she of course does not believe for a second that SG is in fact capable of doing what he says. SG looks pained for a moment, like genuinely sincerely regretful, and despite herself X feels a pang of absurd sympathy. Well, SG says, recently they changed the Gatekeeper, you know. This one was extremely good. What a fucking monster it was. The pity of it was that if it had been weaker or just a bit less I suppose stubborn I would not have need to kill it but as things stood I had to kill it, which really was a mythic waste. At this point the sheer honesty and genuineness SG is displaying is inspiring in X a wave of disembodied horror, and she stares at him and says, you can’t kill a Gatekeeper. You bloody liar. Her hope is that he will grin and laugh and say, I really got you there didn’t I. But he says, well, and pauses, and then X and the rest of the passengers are falling towards the ceiling of the plane with vulgar force, there is a loud metallic shriek, a coarse rising wheeeeeewheeeeeuuu with umlauts everywhere, a sudden emergency alarm goes off spastically, and generally things are a total mess though SG remains in his seat and stares wistfully out of the window. It is unclear if the plane has actually flipped over or if something more surreal is taking place, and then things reverse – and people fall back into/on/over their seats/other people/serving trays/cups of FruitFresh/Zappa. X collapses helplessly into SG’s lap with hair in her mouth and scrambles off saying, oh my god you, you, you, what did you do? and tries to call QC as no doubt everyone else on the plane is doing and gets graceless blankness sounding in her ears. Sorry, SG says yet again. But yeah this is the sort of thing I do. Or can do. Otherwise flights would be so boring, and fuck that, you know what I mean? I hope you don’t think I’m being self-centered or anything. And to put things in context, please just let me say this, actually this isn’t that much worse than the thing with the train, so if you care about that sort of thing – not necessarily that awful, if you put things in perspective. SG says this with utter sincerity, he is pleading for X to put herself in his place, from whence he seems to think that everything will be made clear. X knows what SG is referring to now, possibly she even has an idea of what SG actually is, and stands up in the aisle and shouts, oh shit, kill this guy, he’s doing it, kill him kill him kill him. The other passengers, rattled no doubt by their inability to get QC + the weirdness of the whole unceremonious flipping-over thing + that piercing whine, nonetheless only stare blankly at her, and X can see A actually beginning to shake his condescending shitty head, what a total wanker that guy is, she thinks like a stab of clarity through the panic. I swear he did it, she says, lamely even to her own ears. SG stands up, having to dip his head a little because he’s not in the aisle, and helpfully offers, hi everyone. She’s actually correct, you know. There are murmurs of what’s this guy saying? So SG says, well if you look out of your windows, folks on the left here, I’ll make the second generator come off about now. People look out and indeed the thing twists itself off and plummets. Then the general screaming starts, and someone actually leaps right at SG, and he says, oh please no violence, and steps aside and as the person stumbles past SG grabs his arm and takes it off. There is a gunshot, two gunshots, and SG grins brilliantly and says, now who did that, and chuckles with joy at the game. You did that didn’t you. He goes over to a shaking guy and tells him, stand up, come on, stand up now, coaxingly, like he has a lot of good experience with small children doing bad things or something. The man stands up and SG says, do you have your cell on you? Man passes SG his phone and SG says, selfie! He holds the phone out with his right arm and his left goes around the shoulders of the other the sobbing shaking guy, clutching him tight, and he presses his face against the man’s and says, smile! The man actually tries to smile thorough his terror and snot and all of a sudden X recognises C. SG pulls a silly cross-eyed look and there is a dainty bing as the shot is taken and then SG clutches the other guy suddenly very hard indeed and there is a neat crunch and he sort of dissolves into a generic red mess from the torso up. Something weird: the big impossible splat in the air itself seems to move outward slowly, gooishly, although everything else is in normal time, that is to say, total chaos. X is screaming, or maybe not, it’s all quite vague. But SG turns around and says to X, yeah, I’m totally sorry about this, looking sad. The high metallic whine stops and the plane pitches downward sharply. Here we go, SG says. X stupidly says, the generators are still running, even though that fact does not to her mind pose a conceptual problem of any sort, and in any case there must be more urgent things to be said at this point. SG apologetically replies, yeah, the ones left, but they’re not so relevant. X: so we’re all gonna die; SG: well I’ll be okay.

Menacce: 2

“Howza,” Garf said, appearing at the table. She sat down and looked around. “Shit, Sal. I never thought I’d ever be able to come here.”

“Mira was very obliging.”

“As was QC, I’d expect.”

“Oh yeah.”

“Bizzo will be here in a mo. And, by the way, that’s sort of freaky.”

Sal took his napkin and unfolded it. “You mean about QC?”

“You don’t push QC around, you know. You ask it for stuff. But the stuff you get away with is extraordinary.”

“It’s always been like that. I don’t abuse QC or anything. This is the first time I’ve had QC do something special for me.”

“Sorry ’bout the time,” Bizzo said, appearing and sitting down. “What a party. Congratulations, Garf.”

“Thanks.”

“Congrats,” Sal said. “I meant to say earlier.”

“There goes my life,” Garf said. “I’m not sure if it will be much fun, to be honest. Imagine all the crap I’ll have to read.” Garf had, in a move that had been expected if never much discussed, been elected Assistant Editor of the Journal of Studies of The Trove.

“What do you specialise in?” Sal said.

“Large-scale sonata structure and counterpoint. Isn’t my jargon all nice and shiny.”

“You wrote that thing on the 1st and 3rd ballades,” Bizzo said. “If I remember.”

“Do you know what? If you go by citation count turns out I’m Stize’s 2nd- or 3rd-greatest authority on the ballades. Surreal.”

“What’s this?” Sal said.

“How do we order?” Garf said. “I’m still not used to places like this actually run by people.”

“I’ve settled that,” Sal said, still looking at Garf. “What’s this about the ballades?”

“Oh, the ballades? When we say the ballades we’re usually referring to a set of four pieces written by some C—. We’re pretty sure they’re all written by one person, and we also have a good guess at their order. I wrote a thing on the role of the minor ninth in the 1st. Apparently no-one had noticed the minor ninths before, so hooray. And there was a more boring long article I wrote about transitional passages in the 1st and 3rd. That one took some time to get noticed but it’s on loads of reading lists now.”

Ballade?”

Bizzo laughed and then coughed. Garf made a face. “It’s quite complex.”

Levvi-aaathan,” Bizzo observed, pointing at Sal.

“I’m not particularly attracted to complexity,” Sal said, and then, “Hm.”

“You can’t read that fast,” Garf protested.

“I sort of skimmed through it.”

“Fuck me,” Garf said.

“It’s a practice thing,” Sal said. “Plus my uplink is good. And QC gives me priority.”

“I wish you’d read my stuff,” Bizzo said, wistfully.

“As if you’ve written anything of note,” Garf said. “What’s the biggest thing you’ve done?”

“I figured out why, if a droplet of fluid falls into a flat surface in a vacuum, it is unlikely to make a splash. And then there was a somethingaper on turbulent pipe flow.”

Sal made an interested noise and Garf rolled her eyes.

Sal looked around. Then he looked through the window at the small lake. “Yes …” Sal said, “No. Well. I hope you enjoy yourself, Garf. All very impressive stuff. I might do a course on The Trove if I get the time.”

Garf noticed that when Sal was thinking hard he would do that. He would say yes, trailing off, and then say, no. “Question,” she said.

“Hm?” Sal said.

“Do you where The Trove came from?”

Boom,” Bizzo said. “Also wow.”

There was a pause. “Yes,” Sal said. “If you mean to ask if I know which one passed it to us. But I can’t say.” He stopped again. “Well, I can, but you know.”

“Fair enough,” Garf said. “It was worth a try.”

Sal shrugged. “It doesn’t make the music any worse.”

“How’s your supervisions?” Bizzo said. He took an aggressive gulp from his glass of water.

“Fairly interesting. We’ve hit the ground running with Crane. Kramnik has been going through some introductory stuff. I’ve yet to see the Monster. Didn’t you take a half-course in logic at some point?”

“No me,” Bizzo said. “Garf.”

“I got saddled with Hale,” Garf said.

“Wasn’t she any good?” Sal said.

“She was good, but I just didn’t have the intuition for it. I was a total fuckwit. Maybe everyone else felt that way too but I couldn’t really take it. There was this time I wrote an essay on the analytic-synthetic distinction which I thought was pretty decent. And when I got it back she had written all these really encouraging comments in the margins, you know? Decent mark, but she was poking these holes everywhere. She was nice about it. And then afterwards I found out she had the year before presented a paper which had just torn my position apart, a really nasty brutal little thing. Never felt that embarrassed. It was a good paper. I felt really, really, stupid. Better to stick to work on The Trove. There’s not enough well-established positions there for me to careen into.”

“I would have stuck at it,” Bizzo said. “Hale’s a pretty big name.”

“Yeah, with all that stuff about – what was it called?”

“OTSOCQ,” Sal offered.

“That thing’s ridiculous.”

Sal smiled. “I’m wondering,” he said.

“Hm?” Garf said.

“I’m thinking of playing in the First League. Should I try it?”

“I didn’t know you liked board games.”

“Well, you first met me when I was watching the World Championship.”

“Yeah, but that’s just a sort of thing everyone in Way does.”

“I’ve not played yet, but I’ll put my name in for the College trials, I think.”

“You’ve not played?”

Bizzo said, “I don’t think he’ll have a problem with that.”

“You’re going to make some people very excited,” Garf said. She frowned.

Mira arrived. “Good evening, peeps. Congratulations, Garfield.”

“Oh, shit,” Garf said, turning around. “Hey, nice to meet you. Thanks, thanks a lot. Hope Sal wasn’t any trouble.”

“It’s okay,” Mira said. “Starter. Four more coming.”

It was a powdered grassy bauble like a polyp in a profound expanse of plate.

Bizzo examined it. “It’s like something I snorted once.”

“Well,” Mira said, “You put it in your face.”

“Can I get a glass of juice?” Bizzo said.

“If you want to taste fuck all,” Mira said, walking off.

“Oh well,” Bizzo said. He picked up the lush spheroid, leaned back, and dropped it into his mouth with the skill of one used to consuming dangerous substances in this ritualised mode. He frowned and blinked and coughed. A plume of powder fountained into the air, falling like Kelvin-Hemholtz snow. Bizzo’s eyes widened and he tipped back further and fell off his seat. Garf picked him up.

“It’s gone,” he said, chin verdant, gesturing frantically Sal’s plate, “It’s gone. Why do they only give us one of these? Hm?” He looked around as if more were coming. He opened his mouth and pointed. “Gone.”

“Is it good?” Sal said.

“Oh yes,” Bizzo said, blearily.

“What is it like?” Garf said.

“Limey hot marrow air.”

“Limey hot marrow air.”

“It does disappear,” Sal said. “Try it.”

“Gosh,” Garf said, staring.

“The next one’s coming,” Sal said. From kitchen there approached something luminous with copper light, and ahead of it the unaccountable aroma of anise and sawdust, maybe even petrol… “I think it’s a squid thing. Eat your little green thing already.”

Squid,” Garf said. “I’m eating living things.”

“You hideous brute,” Sal said.

Two hours later they emerged, Sal and Garf laughing, Bizzo dazed. The lake shone like metal. Garf covered her eyes.

“We have to bring you around,” she said. “I’m feeling bad.”

“I’m pretty busy for now,” Sal said.

“That was amazing.”

“It was.”

“Have you been to the Wrecked Church?”

“I was planning to go. But things keep happening.”

“We need to go sometime.”

“Ugh,” Bizzo said. “Weird place.”

“Think of it as my official visit,” Sal said. “And you’ll get to come along.”

“I’m too full,” Bizzo said.

“We’re not going now,” Garf said.

“No,” Bizzo said. “I’m too full, I’m too full!” His voice rose in glorious and sickly fashion.

Bizzo started to move away from them, lumbering with one hand on his midsection because he was too full. “Help,” he cried, without turning around, raising his head to the sky, “Help.”

Diesel was Menacce’s resident swan. Sal and Garf saw him now and understood. He approached from the lake, bristling with inchoate passions, silent and deadly.

“I’m too full,” Bizzo said again, falling very slowly to the ground. “Help, I cannot move, oh, I cannot –” He tried to get up but Diesel bore down. It flapped at Bizzo, who raised his hands in a gesture of abject submission. He made high baby noises and then tried to crawl away. Diesel leapt onto Bizzo, took a clump of hair in its beak, and started vigorously fucking him.

“What an angry swan,” Garf said.

“I don’t think it’s angry,” Sal said.

“Stop grovelling, Bizzo,” Garf yelled.

“He was a good terrorist,” Sal said, vaguely.

“Absolutely superb.”

“It’s impressive,” Sal said, struggling to get the words out.

Arrival

Leviathan arrived on Stizostedion, as he (a he this time, it was well known) always had, with moderate fanfare indicating the confluence of huge excitement and a population too sophisticated (intimidated?) to attempt a proper expression of it. This was news passed in peristaltic fashion through long conversations had for the most part in the eternally dishevelled air that gyrated outside butteries – conversations self-aware enough to vigorously acknowledge their own speculative nature and rapidly divert themselves to the unsung mysteries of digestion—

Such were things on Stize. There were oddities reasonably to be expected of a University older than most civilisations and that had managed to swallow an entire planet. Even with the inconvenience occasioned by the intermittent closing of border crossings caused by deep methodological disputes among departments, university life built up around itself a thick plaque, a jus of joys mostly intimated, epileptic compilations that colluded to a rich mucilage without rote or indeed fantasy, a brew in which oddities accreted into institutions, into certain forms of assault . Stizostedion, so formally called, was under the good watch of Quistclose, an endlessly helpful, considerate, compassionate, murderous AI that (some argued, mostly keeping Petromyzon in mind, but of course everything was argued here, was it not? was this not essential in the specification?) was the most powerful (contested term) in the Kingdom, the most magical and hieroglyphic, the most known and unknown, the one with colour. It had loaded Stize’s fat skies with a sheen of Compydust (a tragic name of QC’s own making) soupy enough to instantaneously dissolve all unpermitted peoples into a sanguinated cloud, a halo of florid light, and to send any ships unfortunate enough to have Breached Two Tiers (of Protocol eith Notice and Without Due Consideration) hulking aflame into the sea, or if that was not possible/desirable to grind them into a metallic mash deposited as exquisite spangly powders over the spires and buttresses of the 322 colleges. QC’s favourite phrase, which was a much-checked fact on public record, was “—terribly sorry.”

Upon arrival Leviathan was admitted promptly into Way-on-Hill, starry tabernacle of the academic firmament, and before the month had passed during which people were meant to get acquainted with the air of essential shabbiness fundamental to academic life was saddled with a devastating trinity of tutors: Kramnik, from the SM Faculty, sexless, urbane, endlessly mild-mannered, vague and brilliant as cheesecloth, sometime contributor to the fabled Field Guide to the Stray Shopping Carts of the Western Paleartic (also, everyone noted, rumoured to have been once involved in a near-fatal smiling accident); Crane, sweating, massive, dewlapped, tumescently brainy, orbiculate body barely keeping viable a head in which arguments mated noisily, bred, and died; proof-annihilator, brash, antiprolix, wearyingly acute, famed amicus to the great Erskine judgment, a colossus rudely – nakedly – triumphantly!— bestride the Ethics Faculty; and the one they called Tehayanianatu, lodged nominally in the Logic Faculty, the only metavirus in stable human residence, the only tutor on Stize no-one had heard physically speaking, unknowable and brooding and black in its ancient chambers, absent at all Formals to no inconsiderable relief of most fellows of Way-on-Hill, devourer of (at latest count) three undergraduates, one colleague, and a small loop of QC itself (the furore was immense; one could have built civilisations off it), controversially described by the worshipful who braved its supervisions as speaking – speaking, despite the common knowledge! –  in a manner soft and kind and toneless and terrifying as it hung down from the dark spaces in its rooms, hierophant to infinitary logics, dripping, redolent of blood, and loose – far too loose, oh! how very loose, do not laugh – with the forest of teeth serrated and secreted in its blind head.

Meeting Leviathan

“So what exactly do I call you? Am I supposed to go, like, yo, Leviathan, or do I kneel and go O Leviathan, or do I just go hey dude or what?”

Late Heavy Bombardment was pretty crowded. Way-on-Hill did not have a surplus of good bars and LHB was much treasured among the studentry. The World Championship was going on, so people had slowly pooled over the course of the evening to watch. No-one was using an engine; those were for later.

Leviathan was not sitting with anyone. He was alone at his table. He looked up at the screen and frowned slightly. He was young, maybe around 16 or so, and kind of thin but in an athletic way. He was wearing jeans, sort-of-sneakers, a plain ochre T-shirt. Not one of those loose-collared things so common in the current heat. His hair was short, brownish, maybe messy, with a tuft over the forehead and at the nape of the neck. He was both very good-looking and very nondescript. He hooked one heel over the other foot and leaned back in his chair and put the knuckle of his thumb up to one eye, rubbing.

When he heard Garfield he turned around quickly. He moved with a gangly kerfufflement that appeared to broadcast what were more or less good intentions.

“Hey,” he said. “Uhm. My name’s actually Salix. I guess you’d call me that.” He extended his hand.

“Salix,” Garfield said. She extended her hand; he shook it. She dragged a chair over and dropped into it. “Salix. As in, line?”

“As in line.”

“Hmm.” She rocked the chair backwards. “You should get something to drink. Do you drink?”

Salix shrugged; Garfield left and came back with a small shot glass of what looked like water.

“What’s that?” he said, eyeing it warily.

“What I’m wondering,” Garfield said, “is where all the descendants are. Shouldn’t there be a ton of them just sort of hovering around?”

“I’m not really attackable here on Stize, I think.” Smiling slightly.

“Fair enough. That’s Sudden Acute Paralysis, by the way.”

Salix looked at the shot glass. “So what’s this about, really?”

“Bet.”

“What do you get?”

“I can’t really tell.” Garfield gestured at the glass. “They say it’s good if you want to think. After – you know – after the paralysis wears off, obviously.”

“Fair enough,” Salix said. He downed the clear fluid and winced. “You’re not going to get –aack – anything more than this, I’m afraid. Aack.” He shrugged.

Garfield looked disappointed. “Well. It’s still a bet won. Must say I was hoping for a little more, though.”

“Sorry,” Salix said. “None of this stuff works on me.”

“Is it a design thing?”

“It’s a design thing. Poison etc.”

“It’s not poison.”

“Well, it impairs judgment.”

Garfield looked at Salix, aghast. “This is a university,” she said.

He toyed with the shot glass. “If you were in my position –”

“Yes, yes,” Garfield said. “Some blood factor?”

“Something like that, yeah,” Salix said.

“Let me see,” Garfield said, and grabbed Salix’s right hand. It was a tight and wiry thing. She peered at the veins. “Looks like the usual colour, though. I got told it was sort of greyish.”

“It’s not the usual,” Salix said. “I’m red all the way through.”

“Ahh,” Garfield said. “And your token?”

“Token?”

“You know, the –”

“Oh, you mean this.” Salix spread out the index and middle fingers on his left hand, exposing the little web of skin in between.

“There you go,” Garfield said. “The mark of the beast.”

“It’s a semicolon,” Salix said.

“It does look like one, doesn’t it?”

“I’ve got a little semicolon printed on me.”

“Can I ask you a slightly macabre question?”

“Um, yeah. Sure.”

“So you have this blood factor and it’s not the usual protective suite.”

“Yes.”

“So say that we were not on Stize, say that there was no CompyDust around, say there were no descendants either –”

“Oh dear,” Salix said. “No, or maybe yes if you went to great lengths.”

“So what exactly would happen if I stabbed you? Or shot you? And say you didn’t expect any of this.”

“It would hurt. A lot. From a close enough distance at least. I’d be pissed,” Salix said. He stopped and thought. “Probably really pissed.”

“Not death.”

“It’s all probabilistic, but yeah.”

“That’s very cool.”

Salix raised his eyebrows. “I’m sort of valuable, you know.”

Garfield stared and started laughing. Then she said, “Do you know what’s so strange? There’s all these people going at you edgewise because they’re so scared and it turns out you’re just like this.”

“Like what?”

“Bizzo!” Garfield yelled. People turned to look. Ordinarily people might have shushed them (Game 5 had started as a Greenfield and descended rapidly into a subtle and murderous tactical slugfest; the analysis was not easy even with the mind-clearing aftereffects of Sudden Acute Paralysis) but at this particular point in time they chose not to.

Bizzo was a person. He came over, coughing, shoulders inbent as a hierophant’s, greenly painful hair without conceivable symmetry or function under a polypoid flat cap, eyes dead.

“Hello, Garfield,” he said. His voice was oddly mild. It was nasal and soft-vowelled and sounded like it came through an ancient radio. Rhotic Rs. He was missing several teeth. “I thought you’d be here.” Bizzo had odd breathy Ts and his Is were more like OIs.

“Garfield,” Salix said. “You didn’t tell me your name.”

“I must have,” Garfield said, “Didn’t I?”

“Never mind,” Salix said. “Hi, Bizzo.”

“Bizzo, meet Salix, Leviathan, soon of the House of Leaves, the Latter Circuit, etc. Salix, meet Bizzard, singer-songwriter, fluid dynamicist, environmental terrorist.”

“Ex-environmental terrorist,” Bizzo said. Salix and Garfield waited as a curiously regurgitative cough intervened. “Nice to meet you.”

“Are you unwell?” Salix said.

“No,” Garfield said.

“Yes,” Bizzo said, “But I like it this way.”

“He’s from Hakon,” Garfield said.

“What about Hakon?” Salix said.

“We talk strange,” Bizzo said.

“They’re positively freakish,” Garfield said, with enthusiasm.

Bizzo coughed in protest or just coughed. “QC let me have the drugs,” Bizzo said.

“Was this in return for the terrorism?” Salix said.

“He was very good at it,” Garfield said.

“Did you do ecoterrorism for your Justification, then?” Salix said.

Bizzo scratched idly behind one ear. “On Ditarod, after Habermas,” he said, wistfully. “Those were damn good times.”

“I considered going there,” Garfield said, “But eventually I settled for the Undercover Infrastructure programme on Domis. Nothing as vivacious as terrorism.” She looked sad.

“It wasn’t that bad,” Bizzo offered. “You did a deep insertion.”

“It’s not like anyone actually died, though,” Garfield said.

“It’s not that great.” Bizzo said.

“Still.”

“Question,” Bizzo coughed, looking at Salix.

“Hmm?”

“Well – hrrm –not really a question.”

“Yeah, sure, go ahead.”

“More like a directive, really.”

“Okay.”

“You know, it’s a bit weird, you being Leviathan – you know what I mean.”

“I don’t mind at all, really I don’t.”

“Well, you’d better solve Ditarod soon. That’s it. You really have to solve that place.”

“I will,” Salix said.

“He’s got strong feelings about this,” Garfield said.

“I can tell,” Salix said.

Bizzo coughed again. “Salix, you could kill half of the people on Ditarod and it wouldn’t make a difference. I tell you the place is a total horror for the people. They have jobs, it’s unimaginable. All the days, again and again, they can’t choose, they don’t even have any time. I was thinking about what it would be like. You just sit there and your life is parcelled out and monetized away and when you get home you are so tired nothing can be done about it anymore. And then you realise you need to get your own food, or whatever, you need to get out and do more things – and the thing is you’re doing all this just to stay alive. They tie themselves to some office, it’s a really tiny space, can barely move, can’t talk, all that just so that they can pay for having a house. You know? It goes on like this for years and years. They’re so fucked-up – so many of them are so fucked-up – they’re better off dead. They don’t know that, of course.”

“Rant,” Garfield nodded. “Truth.”

“Sorry about that,” Bizzo said. “I must have sounded really condescending.”

Salix shook his head. “You should get a seat,” he said. “You can’t stand all night.”

Bizzo delicately angled himself into a chair and leaned back, eyes filmed with exhaustion. “Aaah,” he said.

“All those recreational drugs,” Garfield said. “Mainly I disapprove of the green hair.”

“How long was he on Ditarod?”

“Two years or so.”

Salix sighed. “He’s right, he’s right, but there are other ways to go about it.”

“Ask her about K8,” Bizzo wheezed enigmatically. Now his voice was so soft it was hard to catch what he was saying.

“Does he know what’s going on?” Salix asked.

“He’s perfectly fine, this comes and goes.”

“So what about K8?”

“Oh, she’s talking about K8 again,” Bizzo murmured.

“He looks properly blissed out,” Salix said.

“It comes and goes,” Garfield said.

“So what about K8?”

“I went all the way up it, in a bike.”

“Just a bike?”

“A mechanical mountain bike. It was a very good one, though.”

“No oxygen.”

“Just standard-body. Lost most of the fingers on my left hand on the way down but it got replaced. It was really weird.”

Salix stared. “You went up Stize’s fourth-highest mountain in a bike.”

“There was a lot of hopping around involved. I carried it sometimes when it got really steep.”

“That is ridiculous.”

“It sort of makes up for my not being a terrorist. And the training was awful. ”

“Wow,” Salix said.

“You’re not going to ask me why I did it, I suppose.”

“It’s not that hard to understand.”

Garfield went quiet and looked thoughtful.

Salix waited.

“You know,” Garfield said, “I went up K8 alone.”

“Well – ”

“I told QC that I didn’t want any help.”

“Okay,” Salix said.

“Actually this reminds me of something I was hoping to ask you.”

“Go ahead,” Salix said.

“This was when I was nearly at the top. It was very cold, still a little dark. You would expect all of that. And then when the sun came up it was so bright it was difficult to see. But just beneath the summit there was a dead person. Not all of it, I didn’t see the whole body. But there is this small overhang on the East Face, and these two rocks come together like a V, and there was – is, probably – someone crouched there. Sheltering from the cold, obviously. One hand stretched all the way out. That’s the first thing I noticed, actually. There was a stiff hand all wrapped up in a heavy jacket, orange, the normal colour.”

“I see,” Salix said. Abruptly there was something about him that was very observant.

“I’ve always wondered about that,” Garfield said.

“QC.”

“Why did QC let the climber die?”

“Have you asked QC?”

Garfield stared at Salix as if he was some kind of strange object. “I want to know,” she said, “what you think.”

“Whoever it was probably asked to be left there.”

“Do you think someone would do that?”

“Yes.”

“Why would someone do that?”

Salix put his head on the table. It was a strangely childlike thing for him to do. “I really cannot say.”

“You don’t think QC let it happen just because it could.”

“Just because it could.”

Garfield did not know how she ought to elaborate. “Just because it could.”

“I don’t know. What does that mean?”

“Was QC responsible? Did it do it?”

“The climber asked QC to stay away. I think that’s what happened.”

“I suppose,” Garfield said.

A little time passed. Around them on other tables pieces clacked softly on the analysis boards.

Salix cocked his head. “What?” he said.

He could imagine it, a hand out there, bright in the ice and the air, nearly all the oxygen gone.

“Nothing,” Garfield said. “I’m going to get some Sudden Acute Paralysis. Do you want some more?”

“It doesn’t work on me,” Salix said.

“Could you turn it off?”

“As in, my blood?”

“No, obviously. Just the immunity.”

Salix spread his hands in a gesture meant apparently to convey some sense of futility. “Oh well,” he said.