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.

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]

The Thing About Something More Or Less Ending

There is a weird thing about having to do emotional backpedalling. As in having to go very fast from really quite wanting something pretty hard to not-really-caring-that-much-after-all. It’s quite physical. That’s the thing. It feels like a part of you has become oddly distended, some organ you’re not quite sure you had, and you’re looking at it from a distance, going, hmm, does it in fact feel that way?

Which, of course, it does. It’s a sense of something moving at great speed, a surreal sidelong movement never quite believed in in the first place, that comes to a halt that surely can’t happen just like that, because it’s not allowed. And the feeling isn’t really there. It’s held at some kind of remove, it’s something that has been pinned down and opened up and put apart.

Is this sort of backpedalling dishonest? Well, yes. Yes yes yes. It’s probably just the decent thing to do, though, and I’m really good at it. Disappointment just makes you weigh things up. Stuff falls into place. I really hope this does not sound deliberate, because this is just the kind of thing that just happens. The brain stutters and reels and clutches eventually at undeserved profundities. Does that sound sort of cool and sexy? A bit, but it’s not. It’s just there, remember. There is a feeling of is-ness about the entire thing.

I can think of people interesting-er than me, cleverer than me, fun-er and cooler than me, and I suppose it’s the same for them all: a litany of gentle failures, disappointments not spoken of, doubts made holdable and put aside to be unfolded and parsed a long time later, stuff strung together by a frail coil of will, a thing not really there, and memories like standing wrecks, vivid and inert and eventually unsettling in the best sense.

That’s the first thing. We’re all here and nothing much happens, and that’s probably okay.

I mean it: it’s probably okay.

And then the other thing is that competition is weird, isn’t it? I mean the very idea of it. Take people and design them to essentially dislike each other (where it matters) for a period of time, or to at least see each others as things to be overcome, and expect some great good to drop out of it sphincterwise. I mean, it’s great. There’s something huge and lithe and atavistic about competition. The predatory opera of it. The compression of so much envy + anger + joy + relief + shock into spaces that, come to think of it, should not be able at all to hold any of that. But it all happens and it all happens at the same time and it’s impressive like a disaster is impressive. I’m not saying it’s a disaster. I’m saying it’s impressive in the same way. I’m saying it’s sublime, which is to say, not beautiful at all, and a bit beyond it.

It’s pretty great.

Hey, I like competition. The ambitious be damned with mute wisdom and the unambitious be damned more with happiness. At least I can lie to myself fast enough and be honest about it. We all need to learn to brake hard, I think.

The real surprise comes from knowing that in the big fat zero-sum churning of it all there are some things that remain steadfastly not like that. I think that’s fairly awesome. In this competition I am in a team with one other person and he’s put amounts of effort into this thing that are fairly terrifying. I am pretty lazy. I’m good at this thing I do because I’ve been at it for a decent time. He hasn’t been at it for a decent time. He has worked his holy arse off. And I realise now in a non-distended, quite blunt way, that I feel more or less really fucking awful about the fact that all that stuff that he has done has in one sense been wasted and I he must feel really fucking awful about it. And that makes me realise that I seem to be caring more about how he feels about this thing a bit more than I care about this thing. Which is not because I am peculiarly empathetic or anything or that sort, but I think is a good measure of what a very good person he has been to me over a really quite long period of time. I don’t think I have deserved much of his niceness. It’s been secreted more or less out of nowhere. It’s strange and unexplainable but that strangeness and unexplainableness is good.

Well no of course it’s not unexplainable. We’re partners in a competition so of course we have every reason to be nice to each other, to instrumentalise, hm? But it’s over, right now, at this very moment, see, and it’s still happening. So what went wrong? It began when we found we both liked maths (he in a more proper way than I did), LoTR, and logic puzzles. Etc. Etc.

There are many more people. They are not good people or bad people. It’s fairly stupid to think that there are ever good or bad people. But there are many more people who have been light enough and comfort along the way. Many have been kind in ways that even now I find shocking. Some I can say pretty safely are the sorts of people I will remember for life. I do not have it in me to give so many people their due. If I try I’d dissolve into a haze of obligations and reverences and the thought exhausts in quite a metaphysical way. Well. That sounds incredibly selfish. The main thing is that it’s late and my typing is getting pretty dismal.

Is there a question of justice here? Well, it feels like there ought to be. This kind of disappointment demands satiation by reference to some kind of gilded moral rule. But – and read the following words more pensively than you might be used to – fuck that. There is no question of justice here. I play a game and the game spits out results and I just look at them. Even if someone did do something wrong to cause this disappointment – and I cannot tell – I will undoubtedly do many more things in my life that will fuck over more people in far more severe ways than this person or persons did, and it is likely that I will never hear of these people I have screwed over and will continue to fill the same rather bare space in the world unmoved by tragedies made invisible by plenitude. People have many things to do with their lives and this game I play should only be a small part of it, and these people have their own lives and ambitions and private joys + griefs and things to worry about and get on with to cauterise some meaning etc. out of the world and its dullness. I wish them well. I wish everyone well.

And then there’s the final thing and that is regret. It’s not necessarily a bad feeling. The Germans have a word: torschlusspanik, which means, I think, gate-closing panic. The idea that time is running out to get something done. I’ll not have much more time left to do this thing I like, to let this game play itself out. I’ve had a lot of fun and the people have been great, but faintly out there you can hear the gates falling shut: boom, boom, boom. And it goes on, gargantuan dominoes, going on deep into the bore.

That was melodramatic.

Nonetheless.

Do you remember X-Men: Days of Future Past? Don’t worry: I don’t really like it that much, but there’s that funny scene, and during that scene Jim Croce’s Time in a Bottle plays, and in it there’s the lines:

But there never seems to be enough time /To do the things you want to do, once you find them

and you know what? I listen and I think: hmm, well, yeah, fair enough.

Kind of getting away: 12

Yesterday was pretty good. I finished compiling the migration/feeding report for Bathophores + sent off the first draft my my spec report to Stumpf[1] so that she can tell me if I’ve got the more complicated bits correct. So today I rewarded myself and headed down to O.’s. There were Fallwhales out in the Berents today, columns of pleated grey and white standing vertically in the water. We’ve really got no idea why they do that. They keep doing that for hours at a time, though it must be pretty exhausting, especially in something as unruly as the Berents. I listened to Trove on the way there. It’s now the big thing back on Stize and I might just about see why, actually. It’s not bad: Dance 7 from Suite 5 in G. Lots of stuff from Trove is named like that: the academics gave each piece a catalogue name and rather than come with something a bit more evocative everyone has just sort of borrowed these for common use.  It’s strange how ruthlessly everyone just goes along with it. Why G? Such an arbitrary thing, really. I don’t even know what it means. O. and I talked about random stuff. He asked me what I was planning to do for the Excursion. I said I was mostly planning to tag Dromeodids[2] and he looked worried.

“You know I can’t let Helper do all this stuff on its own,” I said. Helper’s a programmed ex-GHKd. It’s made to notice certain things and not to notice others[3]. I can’t use its results on their own unless I’m around to ensure it’s doing things correctly – or fanatically micromanage its routines, but I’m not going to do. “Plus I’m pretty sure I’ll be safe.”

“Safe,” he said, looking up and scratching his chin. “Yes.”

I had missed lunch because I arrived late. But I ate anyway because I was getting hungry. I read one of his books.

“Do you think Helper should get a degree?” he said. Skeffie had done something in microconducting chemistry, I think.

“I’ve asked QC. There was no time before we left.”

But O. didn’t look too happy. I think he was thinking about what that implied. I would be going back.

“You’ll be safe,” he said.

I laughed. “Yes,” I said. “I’m the one with the Hunter-Killer.”

He didn’t say anything and so I said, “Look, I’ll draw stuff if I have the time. You can keep all of it. Tell stories to the kids.”

He put on some music. Blue Heron Amphetamine, pretty old stuff. “You know what? They’re not too interested in all this. They don’t mind but they’re not really into it. Can you imagine?” He sounded exasperated. But he was happy and I could see that.

“Look at you,” I said. “Complaining about being allowed to have kids.”

“It’s not something you can predict,” he said.

“No,” I said. “Although how would I know?”

“What a strange place,” he said, at last.

“Hm. What is this about?”

“This place,” he said. “Tokata. It’s cool, obviously, but it’s strange.”

“I like it,” I said. “Desolate, but that’s the way it was always going to be, really.”

“No, I don’t mean that,” he said. He got a notice and looked it up and came back. “Heller,” he said. “Have you been reading the updates from the rest?”

“You know how I am about those.”

“Lots of problems. Basically nothing is fitting together properly. Maybe we’ve just sequenced things wrongly in one or two places. It’s probably something basic and embarrassing like that.”

“I’m not too concerned,” I said. “Teething problems.” I wasn’t in the mood, really, to talk about the technical details. I could imagine how hard K. was pushing the evol/bio people.  I’m working more or less on the fringes, in a mostly data-gathering role, so I’m spared. “I mean, to be honest, at this point I’m mostly thinking about the Excursion. I’m quite excited.”

“I like going out,” he said, “But not for weeks at a time. I went out a couple of days ago, on the coast. Looked at some caves. But I can’t imagine staying out for so long.”

“Migration scientist,” I said, “We come in mostly one flavour.”

We watched most of a movie. He talked about his kids.

Then he said, “There was this strange thing.” The thing was the way he said it. He didn’t say it like it was a problem he was working on, or something to be solved. I was full and feeling lazy and anyway he has this devastating sofa. But I listened.

“Hm?” I said.

“You know this morning there was this huge sound. Did you hear it?”

“No,” I said. “What was it like?”

He looked out and did a very O. thing. He put his hands out and said, “It was very loud. A sort of flat sound that went on and on. Really –” he curled his fingers “—shattering.”

Of course I could recognise this. Well. I could imagine it, at least. “Huh.” I said. “Huh.”

“Like a signal. If you heard it you would know, it sounded familiar. Sort of explosive –”

“Foghorn,” I said.

“Ahh. Yes. Yes, maybe that was it,” he said.

This was all extremely dangerous, of course. I saw it outside, from the window, at that moment.

It was huger than I imagined. Was it resting on the sand, on the Wash? I’m not sure. The window was placed such that I was not looking down towards the sea. What I saw was just the long sloping line of the deck, floating there. That old metal, that follower. Taking up all that space.

“Where did it come from?” I said.

He went out to show me. He pointed straight out over the water, at the ship. “There,” he said, “Somewhere over there.”

On the way back something else again. The Volkie was coming up to the bridge when I felt the weight of that benevolence and I stopped it and got out. Over the bridge, large as a mountain, the old thing like a spider, two legs straddling the bridge, the others disappearing far off, the body kilometres up in the sky. I got out and I said it. I said Maman.

I had to crane my neck painfully to look at where its body should be, that face on the bottom with all its unblinking eyes. But it’s lost in cloud, as happens sometimes. “Is something happening?” I said. “I’m fine here.” Sudden mad rush of – power, I think, that thrill coming over me. Something moved it me and it had everything to do with death. The massive legs moved and it started walking out to sea, very slowly, footfalls like tremors, steps so big it should topple, it should topple off the edge of the world in all its greyness. But delicately and hugely it moved, perfectly, taking in its own dominion.

What it told me. What indeed.

In any case I’ve just come back and I’ve sent off a message to the good peeps at Anh:

I’ve been thinking it over and I think I’m going to try to build an ultralight. It will be efficient than my Volkie’s module for Excursions – basic AG will do – and if Helper comes along safety should not be an issue. Basic camos should satisfy PMI[1]. Wondering if you could send over some materials for the Turer when I get back. Might finish things in time to use it on my second Excursion.

Understand if not possible, but hoping things work out on your side. Regos OK, I hope? Tell me what you think.

Erth

I think it’s a pretty good idea. It also means I get a chance to do some recreational flying, if the conditions are right. I’m pretty sure I can learn fast. It’d be pretty lame having to get Helper to tow me up every time.

[1] Principle of Minimum Interference. Don’t want to scare the wildlife away.

I think it’s a pretty good idea. It also means I get a chance to do some recreational flying, if the conditions are right. I’m pretty sure I can learn fast. It’d be pretty lame having to get Helper to tow me up every time.

I’m going to aim for a boat next. I’ll see how far I can push things. No harm done, in any case.

[1] Migration science is pretty long-term thing: you need to wait for several full migration cycles to complete before you can firm up anything. Which means I get to do a lot of spec papers.  I suggested that it would be good to see if thermorhodopsin/JPCRs + tk-cryptochromes in aviformes generate fast triplet reactions that are responsible for magnetoreception. Th-rhod I suggested because I think for Chondrodatus spp. temperature does affect migration. Chemical compasses are well-understood, but nonetheless this is quite interesting, I think. Stumpy is stationed at the point on Tokata that’s just about antipodal from where I am, but she’s also a migration scientist and did some work on entanglement when she was in Inkper, so she can check to make sure my speculations are at least mathematically plausible. If it works the spec paper will be sent off to Anh. and they’ll start putting together the Emlens + capturing stuff. Assuming they actually do give a shit, which I hope they do. Obviously at this stage most of the science on Tokata is focused on the very basic things. (Look, ma, no ATP! + evol. taxonomy, where the lack of Hoxes in tk-chordates is super weird + some cool standout things like the influence of bichirality on the evolution of symbiotic partnerships + digestive tracts.)

[2] They look like reptiles. The insides are completely different, though + they are all warm-blooded.

[3] Program Designate Bias. There is a lot written about this but that’s the basic idea.

[4] Principle of Minimum Interference. Don’t want to scare the wildlife away.

Kind of getting away: 13

Day two and I think of my close my life is – all the ways in which it could have been – can be – perfect.

Dusk comes and takes up the places between the trees. Mild and serum light settling down. The kind of light that brings colour to the sky but exhausts its purpose there and so can only turn everything else into silhouette. Really it is unspeakable. I imagine how my face looks now, a blue totem in a blue hour.

It is good to be out, here, in the tent. There is sincerity in the idea of shelter. Just shelter, not the idea of a home. Something far more basic, far more inherent, something far more in this sense like a silhouette. A space in which to put up a little light, to coax forth a little warmth and tender it for nothing. Feel its smallness. Shelter is the basic condition, I think. I mean, just – what does it say? It says: everything is out there, and I am in here, I am apart. Look at this tent, this little yellow thing. What is it really? What can it offer? So much a function of its shape and how it is seen rather than what it really is. Why should I have any affection for it at all?

But I am happy. I think of the evening. I think of the tent and the migration report I have to write. I think of the coming gestures of the night. I think of Helper’s patience.

That is important, actually. The thing is that when I am around other people I find that they have modes, vibrations, certain harmonics of being, certain methods of calling up from inside themselves some unfounded coherence.  So often with people you need modes. I remember friends who are always cynical, so afraid of the idea of sincerity because that would mean nailing themselves down and letting the light touch them and no fucking thanks. They drag me that way. We speak and our words are rushing sibilances, sly and shining extraterrestrial missiles that glance off everything but trade in nothing. Sometimes with a friend I am forced to be a conspirator standing against the world: look at all the idiots around us, look at their irreversible cobalt eyes, rancid lips glued shut with sperm. Sometimes I need to enter a tottering skit, a looping pathology of gastric funniness, ha-ha, ha-ha, parasite living off amphetamines that are not in me. This is why Helper is important. The good thing about Helper is that it does not need any acting. There is no panic like a glassy undertow. I don’t have a mode. I don’t need a mode and it’s just such a relief.

Just before I left I went out onto the Wash again. To prepare myself for this? Well, not really. I stood there in the mud and left myself be held by the thought that all the water has been here for millions of years. This vast flat expanse and its slow shallow pulse a pattern completely unrequired of time and completely ignorant of it. A grey heart gurgling from wimples of sand, going on just like that, without shame. All of this is all of a piece. But something had changed. Something was different this time. I held some mud in my hand and it was just mud. Could not be squeezed dry. Could not be made still. It dribbled all the way down my arm. The weather was very cold and the mud was cold too. This is the only way mud can be: on a plain, under a hanging sky, holding under it the curve of the world. Not offering it protection, not eating at it, not hiding it, just holding it, touching it at every point, without anything more.

I was standing there for I don’t know how long, trying to pinpoint it, when I heard Helper coming over. Helper makes no noise when it moves, but it’s figured out that it’s general social niceness to do something unintrusive to let a deaf little human know you’re coming. So there’s this soft whirring sound.

“I’ve got your Allweather,” it said, offering it.

“Thanks,” I said. It was very cold and I was shivering.

“We can go tomorrow if you’d rather that,” Helper said.

“No,” I said. “I’ll get one last shower and then we’ll go.”

“I’ll get your stuff.”

“Uh, don’t worry about it. It’s better if I pack anyway.”

I headed back to the house. I’d only gone about a kilometre out and so it didn’t take long. When I got there I looked back and Helper was still there on the Wash, one kind of grey set against another, looking out, or maybe looking at where I had stood, that small sandy dimple and the curls of mud the only blemish on that expanse.

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.

Menacce: 1

You could make a booking at Menacce (pronounced Menace) but the wait was long. It could be half a year before you found your table and sat down and beautiful dead things were wheeled over so that you could pick them up with your hands and put them in your mouth where they would explode. There were things that had come through the Gates from Naze; from Otoshk, from Nurkena and Nabilis, and then glossy things from this world, from everywhere: Atoll-Vida, Lorano, Lessing, Owens, Tularo, Anumcerrada, Ancient, Ivicara, Lakes Greater and Inferior, the long slopes of Gander, fumaroles of Klynod and its crushing black depths, nurseries of Neumangel and its famed mossbeds in the glaciers, loping plains of Habarinoye – things sometimes bred in luxuries nature had left undreamt of, sometimes merely found or foraged, all not harvested but chosen and then killed so quickly they never knew it happened even if they could have understood the brute fact of death, only knew it coming like a waver of darkness shuttling suddenly across, and then the bodies were borne immolate over great expanses by plane or watership or by mutilations performed to space/time to the twitching kitchens where hunger and craftsmanship pouncily waited, tableware gaped—

Sal had arrived early. He had not made a booking. Six days ago he had spoken to QC and then he had spoken to Mira, apologising, and she had let him have a table. Normally Menacce did not take too kindly to people arriving before their allotted time but when Sal had walked in they had let him had a table and there had not been a word of complaint. Sal knew how people reacted to him and he took advantage of it without malice. It was a fact and he would not be inconvenienced by it. He apologised again and people only smiled at him. But he did not feel sorry because there was nothing to feel sorry about. He thought that now was a good time for him to enjoy himself.

He sat and waited and thought. Earlier today he had had his first supervision with Crane. Crane was vast but his being was sleek. Whenever anyone spoke he would turn to look at them and his look was always one of concern. The eyes did not move but the face moved and it always seemed to be saying I love you more than you understand and you break my heart. The first supervision had been a simple affair. They’d arrived, four of them, having read chapters 1, 2, and 4 of Ethical Method and Borsau’s introduction to Normativity and Desire, and carrying the surprisingly thin Index of Moral Intuitions, a pamphlet that had begun as a half-joke circulated by the grads at the Ethics Faculty but then expanded –rapidly at first, and then very slowly as classificatory debates sprung into being – to become a document of hotly contested significance, these days trailing a long appendix of the relevant regressions run.

Crane had sat and started to speak. There are eleven reasons, he said, to believe that my theory is wrong. They listened and he spoke for some time. He did not move when he spoke. He stared at them and the hole in his face opened and out through the flesh air was pressed – out squirted sounds. Then Crane had asked them to defend his theory. Why am I wrong? Why am I wrong? Then Crane in response to everything said had proceeded to accuse everyone who spoke of uttering incoherences. Explain, Crane would say, looking concerned, solicitous. Go on, he would say. Is this what you mean, he would say. If not this, then this, surely? Surely you cannot mean either for no value accrues from your description of each? And if you mean neither surely you are saying nothing at all or uttering something the meaning of which refutes itself? It had gone on like this for some time, this tethered falling into a starless mouth, bright bony confusions the only hard points to claw at. Someone had asked, tentatively, what exactly they were supposed to do, and Crane had looked at that someone and suggested that they all consider if he was not himself merely uttering incoherences. I am wrong, he said. Remember that. Sal spoke. Sal said Crane had been using the word “claim” to mean one of four different things, and the resultant bait-and-switching was the root of the conceptual confusions upon which Crane’s claims had been trading. Sal had not spoken before that point. If he spoke first no-one would speak after him and he knew that there were few people who would think of being pressed between the Leviathan and the author of On Liberty as an enjoyable experience.

In any case Crane had said simply, “Yes,”, sounding perhaps disappointed, perhaps because he had expected more, and perhaps less, and then he had asked everyone if there were any questions on the given reading and after he had answered or dismissed them it had ended.

Then someone had asked about Hyrum Kasakadei.

“Hyrum?” Crane said, his entire body seeming to vibrate.

“Should we read him?”

“He writes well,” Crane said. “You should read him.” His eyes were black bores.

“I was referring to extreme quietism –”

“Should you read Devorare?

“Yes.”

On the Silence of Certain Questions?” It was the same book.

“Yes. I was thinking it might be—”

“I have not read it.”

Hyrum Kasakadei was a name and that name was held by a person who had become belittled into myth. The myth was there because Hyrum Kasakadei had produced a piece of work, which work was a single object, only a single object, prior, indivisible, uninterruptable, uninterpretable, rolling outside aethers of abstraction, shining no light and taking none either, merely being, undefended, unaltered, unqualified, untaught, all of a throe, all of a certain misery, all of a certain resignation that must be worked for, all of a violence of thought so great it must drop out underneath to a new space where great truths are cauterised –

What had happened? There was a story and it was a true story. Hyrum Kasakadei had come to Way-on-Hill 52 years earlier. He was a small thing and he did not speak in supervisions. He did his work well. Uncannily well in some respects. He did not say anything brilliant. He had no new insights. He created nothing and destroyed nothing. Crane’s termly reports said nothing extraordinary about Hyrum. But those who studied with Hyrum knew he had an ability and it was one of organisation. The uncanny thing in his work was its clarity. He could say things again and when he said them again they were tight knots of understanding. Whatever Hyrum read he understood and whatever of Hyrum’s the other students read they understood immediately. It was a magic. In two lines Hyrum would catch objects that chapters could not outline, without simplification, without any penumbra that was not itself expressed and drawn tight.  In supervisions Crane would hand back the ragged remains of essays and he would say, you might want to learn to write like Hyrum, and he would look at Hyrum and say, you might want to learn to write.

What had Crane written about Hryum in those termly reports? Hyrum’s mind is a bleak and gray place. Nothing much seems to move in it. Everything there appears to have already found its place and everything appears to have already died exactly there in the place it was first put. He has skill at the preservation and the presentation of ideas. If Hyrum finds one fertile place in his mind he will be a great thinker.

At the end of the ethics course Hyrum took the Great Examination (called, inevitably and outrageously, the Grexam by students who in desperation sought to defang the idea of the exam with only a new name) and achieved what was then the highest global score recorded in the ethics course. He had then applied for a position in the faculty and expressed a preference to be placed in Summerlock, a college that had neither a reputation or history of excellence in moral philosophy, although it had in Pires Gebarre produced one great philosopher of science. The faculty requested at least one reference and a body of work of representative quality before it appointed him as lecturer. So Hyrum stayed at Way-on-Hill and started writing. Thus began his Early Period. What changed? Nothing changed. Most people called him an ordinary language philosopher but he wrote on many things. There was a pattern. A groundbreaking article would emerge, something new and wild and fiery or something setting the parameters for a new logic or language, and Hyrum would write an article neither agreeing nor disagreeing with the first, but suggesting a new expression, a reformulation, the elimination of an unnecessary or confusing term, pointing out a relation, offering a summary, an article making things clear: Comment on Paraconsistent Expression; Comment on P-adic Rules; Comment on Modal Egalitarianism; Comment on the Necessity of Necessity; Comment on Noneism; Comment on Lowesian Logic; Comment on New Utility. There was a pattern. The second major article in any new field or on any new theory was almost always Hyrum’s. Reading lists began with: Read X’s article, or, alternatively, the article by Hyrum Kasakadei. And Kasakadei’s was the article everyone read, because in it things were clear, these were the ones you went to, these were the foundational articles, and in them lines of attack and defence were made naked nearly to the edge of sight even if Hyrum only stood at the gate, saying, see—

Some people had expressed alarm at this. There was no interpretative neutrality, they said, but Hyrum Kasakadei appeared to have found it. There must have been lies, things must have dropped out, things must have changed, there must have been a wind moving things thus and thus, something must have come through and gone out, something must have passed by, but very quietly, clad in openness and the wraith of pure rigour, something must have been lost. But these people were rarely listened to and they felt themselves struggling to speak of something that was not quite there and so became quiet.

All this was done in three years. During those three years Hyrum asked Crane, twice, if he might be allowed to teach, and Crane had said no. At the end of the three years Hyrum submitted six articles to the faculty, and asked Crane for a reference. Crane had written only: He creates nothing. But he is clear, and maybe that is more important. Hyrum had seen the reference and he had had no complaint. The faculty appointed him to a professorship in Summerlock and a 75-year life extension which raised eyebrows and which Hyrum never sounded anything but guilty about.

Hyrum had been an excellent teacher. He was what they called, for a time as least, hot property. He was young and he taught without any grandiosity or pretension and appeared to have no final views or any great theory of language or truth or morality. He was always trying to make things simple. His comments on essays urged clarity, pointed out confusions, and recommended possible avenues for exploration. Where Robert Crane used a flaw to unravel an entire argument and deliver a marksheet of pure evisceration  Hyrum Kasakadei would suggest a patch, a bypass to the same conclusion, a new tentative distinction that might carry some of the required argumentative burden, and would then point of problems with what he had suggested, and then suggest possible solutions – and take no view himself. His output slowed in this period. His students took top marks in the Grexam in three out of eight years. This was unheard of.

For eight years Hyrum Kasakadei had been working on something. It was this one work that would define his Middle Period. He had trouble publishing it at first. The first indication that something was wrong with what he had done was when QC, having received the manuscript, expressed nothing but a rare and total confusion at what it contained. The manuscript had been sent to the faculty, which was shocked that Hyrum Kasakadei would produce something of such exquisite incomprehensibility. What was this treatise? What was its subject and argument? What was its relation to the literature? Hyrum Kasakadei had not answered any of these questions. I cannot say anything about the work, he said. I cannot accurately describe its contents. And then in response again the questions: I cannot describe it. And then yet again in response: It is itself complete.

Word had spread. Hyrum Kasakadei had produced a monster, people said. Students joked about how their professor had accidentally broken philosophy in a manner that suggested that the humour did not run all the way through, it did not go all the way down. But of course they themselves had only heard rumours of a manuscript that Kasakadei was trying to publish and knew nothing about it. The Review Board at the faculty refused to say anything despite being flooded with questions. QC suggested to Kasakadei that it might be some time before the faculty allowed the script to be published under it and suggested that Kasakadei disseminated it freely online. Summerlock in typically generous fashion offered to produce its own limited print run and QC had not objected. The copies of this first printing (there was only ever one edition) were to become objects that entire colleges would fight over for possession.

When the work went out everyone obtained a copy of it. Hyrum Kasakadei without wanting or expecting it had become a cultural icon of the type that only Stize could generate, a token of brilliance that had to be publicly worn, an abstract point that looked increasingly capable of any enormity, a maker of objects whose weight could be felt but not parsed. The man had abandoned his gift entirely, had walked right against it, against the grain of his entire world, and he had said, I cannot accurately describe its contents. There were only two parts of his new work that could be understood. The first was the title: Devorare. On the inside of the cover it appeared to continue: On the Silence of Certain Questions. And the second was the only line of language that was properly speaking part of the book: the epigraph, a quote from Kayser’s Sixth Satire: “… should light bear down …

And the rest. That was the problem and the glory of it. Was it symbolic? It could not be told. There was no pattern. It was a book of essentially benthic mode. It was a continuous falling-off. The ethics and logic faculties asked the Way and Atoll AIs, the two greatest nongoverning calculators known to man, to undertake a formal brute analysis. Nothing was found. Billions of lifetimes of human thought were spent by the Way and Atoll AIs for every second they dedicated to Devorare, oracles and architectures and hypercomputations descending upon each golden thread, each a single logic run with sudden ferocity through the book even as it was found only to be a vapour, a fact without a meaning, a description that was not a conclusion, a fat black thing fallen from the first orifice of randomness. But the book was still there. The lines went on and on without pause. What did people know? They knew which symbols occurred most often; they knew which symbols occurred only once. This was easy. You could draw plots and distributions. Neat classical shapes. But that word. Symbols. That was not correct. That was not correct at all. Pictures, pictures. Yes, maybe that. But what of? In what hierarchy or relation did they find a home? Imagine an analysand putting back each question not by force but by the logical hygiene of being inert to inquiry. Suggestions made over and over again. The calm of objects in lines progressing inevitably from one to the other. The smell of pages. Cellulose made never to degrade. Pictures, sketches, wildnesses without name or clade. 174 pages; hardback; font: Umbra Classic (Modified + New); notes and references: none; academic reviews: none; author: Adderlis Professor of Moral Philosophy and Philosophy of Language and fellow of Summerlock College and Way-on-Hill College Hyrum Kasakadei; published 2971 under Full Patent and Fence of Summerlock College, University of Stizostedion; awaiting acceptance by the Faculty of Ethics of the University of Stizostedion; open distribution within University of Stizostedion only. So much certainly about so much and so little understanding of the only relevant things.

The suggestion was, of course, that this was a joke, or that Hyrum Kasakadei had gone mad. The latter was quite seriously tendered by students of the natural sciences (the Standard Model Theorists were too busy being dazzled by their new field to care much about anything else and hence said nothing on the matter) but anyone who had read any of Kasakadei’s earlier work found that impossible to believe. A mind so much in love with clarity, that had produced so many fine distinctions, that tried so hard to know how one thing related to another – such a mind could not simply descend into madness. And Hyrum Kasakadei was not mad. He went about his weekly lectures unaffected by Devorare. A year after he finished writing Devorare his third period began with the publishing of Some Relations Between Utility and Certain Conceptions of Freedom, which was received with acclaim so hysterical it seemed indicative of a certain measure of relief, and was only considered for two days by the ethics faculty before being accepted for publication.

Which was not to say the problem of Devorare went away. If anything it became more urgent, for now everyone knew for certain that Kasakadei had written it in dead seriousness. The questions about the book never stopped and Kasakadei answered none of them. The University’s biggest paper, the Inquirer, ran a cover story entitled Cracking Kasakadei. The phrase caught: everyone wanted, it was said, to crack Kasakadei.

In the middle of July 2973 world went around that it had indeed happened. Jane Hale was an assistant lecturer in logic at Hakon and Malament. Like Kasakadei had been at first she was flooded with questions. She was silent and did not answer them apart from saying, like Kasakadei had, that she could not say anything honest about Devorare. The Inquirer after four months of persistent and gentle pressure eventually got her to speak.

The interview was now famous. It wasn’t particularly dramatic. But it had become famous because it was one of the few points from which one might attempt to deduce what Devorare said. It was a fixed point. It had started with Hale first talking about how she had heard about Devorare and then pointing out that she did not know what to say. It was best, she said, to just read the thing “from front to cover. That’s almost certainly the correct order.”

“Now you know that Way and Atoll have themselves been this great – this big problem that the book represents, and they’ve come up short. So you won’t be surprised if we ask you if there’s a special technique you used to solve this problem. Is there some way in?”

Hale was very still. She nodded slightly, in a sympathetic manner. “There is a way in but it does not, I don’t think, involve a special method. The book says what it means in quite a direct way.”

“Direct? That’s a pretty radical claim, wouldn’t you say?”

“Look. There is nothing I can say about the book that is true. But that’s the only way to approach it, I think. The wrongness of what I am saying might be helpful. Put it this way – if Hyrum didn’t find any other way to express his thoughts apart from writing the book itself it’s unlikely I will find a way to speak about it while sitting here. Does that sound hostile?” She laughed. “That’s not very satisfying, is it?”

“Well, I’m not really trained in the field – ”

“Oh, I don’t think that’s the problem –”

“—but it does sound fascinating.” The interviewer had glasses.  “So on to the big issue then: what does the book say? I mean, you have done the very correct academic thing of having all these caveats, but you can’t really avoid it, can you?”

“I can say a large number of incorrect things.”

“Go on.”

“The idea is that language is a problem. The idea is that the relations between one thing and other cannot in fact be explained. They are brute facts. But this idea – the thing that is not this idea – cannot be made clear using representation, so there is some other way. Hyrum is trying to make that way clear. Or to be more precise – he is trying to make clear the way in which that cannot be made clear.”

“So the idea that this book is incommunicable – what lots of people are saying – is this correct?”

“Well.” Hale tilted her head and looked up at nothing in particular, thinking. “No, not at all. It is very easy to convey, but not like this.”

“So – is that – what you were just talking about – is that really, for us, the key point of the book?”

“There is a huge amount in it. What I have just talked about is not even the beginning of the beginning, actually. There is in it – oh. You know, this one I don’t even know how to be wrong about in an interesting way. I did tell you this interview would be problematic.”

“No, no, this is very interesting. Can you find some way to –”

“It’s about – certain objects. Summaries of other things. It’s not a series of symbols, you know – the book. It’s a single thing. No. That’s not the right way to approach it. This is the toughest thing I’ve done, you know, trying to be meaningfully wrong in this manner. Okay. What I will say is that the book has relations to certain things that are possible to think of coherently as lacking purpose or a fixed and distinct identity. They are in a sense alive, you know. Free in the sense of untethered.”

“I’m not sure I follow.”

Hale laughed again. “I’m relieved to hear that.” She shook her head. “Well. I’m not being helpful again. Okay. I’ll try to get at it more obliquely. Here’s an idea that is loosely borrowed from Hyrum’s early work – I’m going to take some time for this, is that okay? This is stuff I am relatively familiar with, so I’ll be clearer.”

“Fine, fine, go ahead.”

“There is a perfectly intuitive and commonsense idea that we associate mental impressions with words. This explains how we use words. I tell you to pick the blue flower. You go into the garden and pick the blue flower. You got a mental image of blue when you heard my instruction and you looked for the flower that corresponded to this mental impression. No problems so far. Now I ask you merely to imagine a blue flower. Clearly you didn’t imagine going into the garden and picking a blue flower to imagine this blue flower. But you can obey my command and imagine this blue flower. So you have obeyed an order without, apparently, a mental intermediary. And so the idea that some inner mental process guides the outer behavioural one loses all its meaning. We can extrapolate from this basic idea.  There are two ways by which you can tell what you mean by a word: one of them is what occurs to your conscious awareness when you hear the word; the other is how you go on to use that word in the everyday speech, writing, following instructions, and so on. The problem is that these two methods can diverge on meaning. So let’s say we have a person who, when he hears of a ‘cube’, does imagine a cube in his head, but projects this idea onto reality in a certain way such that he applies the word ‘cube’ only to spheres. Several things appear to follow. One: we cannot say whether or not this being understands the word ‘cube’ in the way we do. Our idea of words is simply not well-developed enough to account for this. Two: our understandings might be based on contingent regularities that do not obtain. Three (and this is the main thing): the idea of a word does not govern its use. It just stands there inertly, doing nothing. Is that all pretty clear?”

“It’s quite clever, isn’t it?” There was a certain glassiness coming into the interviewer’s eyes.

“It’s disturbing. It’s very disturbing. Can I give you one more example? This one is very directly lifted from Hyrum’s Necessity of Necessity. I’ll briefly outline the idea, which is designed to show that no action is determined by a rule because there is a way of seeing all actions as following a particular rule. Say in your life you’ve only added numbers below 1000, and you always get what we call the correct result.  One day you add 1000 and 1001 and you get 5. Now: did you break the rule of addition? Who knows? Maybe the plus sign means something like ‘if you have two numbers smaller than 1000, then add then. In every other case, 5 obtains.’ The response is to say: but addition has a fixed meaning. It is an algorithm. But the problem is that your rule of interpretation is itself subject to interpretation, which is subject to the same cunning little manipulation I just outlined. So interpretations are flat: they congregate on the same level as the things they interpret. If I have two people who add 1000 and 1001 and one gives me 5 and the other 2001, I cannot say that there is something different about these two people that explains their different answers. This is again disturbing. It suggests a refutation of the idea of meaning. We would all like to think that words constrain us in two ways. One: it makes some things we say true or false; two: we use our understanding of words to use words in certain ways and not others. But it looks like nothing can put is in this place – there’s a nice phrase that is used to capture these two conditions: gist-trammel, do you know? We cannot construct a gist-trammel.”

“So Devorare is about constructing a gist-trammel.”

“No, no, that has been well-explored elsewhere. But one way of getting to Devorare is to apply the arguments above to themselves, although it’s not quite that. Take the central idea and extend it and see that it goes the wrong way. And the right way implies certain things that are alive.”

“Is it a kind of elaborate joke, then? Is Kasakadei just saying that all expression is rubbish anyway?”

“Wow! Wow. Do people think that? That cannot be correct.”

“It does look that way, you know, for people on the – outside.”

“It cannot be a joke. I know it cannot be correct because if I took away just one line from the book it would change its point entirely. It carries something. It’s something like the idea that philosophy is a disease, really, and it should be put down. But it’s going – further? – than that. It’s not designed at all to be explained.”

Sal had watched the interview several times. He had looked at Hale and he had felt a great sympathy for her. He had not read Devorare. There was a little more time before Bizzo and Garfield arrived and he was thinking. The interview with Hale had been sifted through by generations of students who had tried to understand Devorare. People did not even call it Devorare anymore. They abbreviated On the Silence of Certain Questions to OTSOCQ, pronounced ot-sock. They tried to make it a thing for themselves. But only a handful of people – six, so far – had ever claimed to understand OTSOCQ and when asked about it they had all responded more or less as Kasakadei had. There was the problem that it was simply impossible to verify if a person who claimed to understand OTSOCQ had in fact done so. But it was also the case that Kasakadei, when asked if Jane Hale had understood OTSOCQ, had said (ambushed and looking a little surprised on the steps leading to Summerlock’s second lecture hall): “Jane? Oh yes, yes. I cannot tell you how relieved I am.” “How do you know?” the reporter had asked. “She was wrong about almost everything, but in the way I am also wrong,” Hyrum Kasakadei had said, starting now to look a little sad. “I’ve got to go now.”

The Game: 2

“I keep reading about this Dragon.”

“A dragon.”

“Yes, a dragon.”

“Okay.” Sal’s voice was flat but he sounded like he was trying not to reveal something, or maybe he was trying not to smile.

“Don’t look at me like that.”

“I’m not looking at you like – that.

“What’s this about?”

“You’ve been reading about my First League games, haven’t you?”

“I was going to do it sooner or later.”

“Why are you wondering about the Dragon?”

“Well, they keep calling that game against Auerbach a miracle, and it’s got all these names, you know.”

He was up in the chair against the window and his head was back against the glass and his eyes were closed. He always did that when she brought up the games. “They’re terrible names.”

The Taming of the Dragon. Don’t wince. You like it, don’t you.”

“The game’s not that great. No, really. It’s not that great.”

“So what is this Dragon?”

“It’s theory. It’s the name of the opening.”

“But why is it called that, the Dragon?”

“That game really gets too much attention.”

“I want to talk about the name. You were supposed to lose, you know, everything I read says that.”

“Well, no, what happened is that Auerbach prepared a new move against me and I blundered in response to it. It was a good novelty.”

“But you were supposed to lose after you played that awful move, weren’t you? Wasn’t everyone saying your position was a wreck, or something like that?”

“My position was horrific but sometimes bad positions are easier to play. Every move lost more or less immediately except for one. So I played that one.”

“You played that one saving move in the position for fifteen or so moves in a row.”

“It was not that hard.”

“The commentary says that positions like these are impossible for humans to play.”

“You can just ask me directly.” Sal was looking straight at her now. “You can just ask, you know.” It was not pity but it was something like it.

Garf was never sure what to do in situations like this. She shook her head and looked as if she was about to say something but did not say anything. She looked at the computer and started reading something. Then she said, “I just want to know how you do it. Fuck’s sake, that’s all. They all say humans don’t survive positions like that.”

“Well. No, you want to know if I’m a Carrier. You want to know if I’m the carrier for Erkenne.”

When he said the name she stiffened despite herself. It was such a rare thing to heard said. She thought Sal was angry but he was not. Instead he was daring her to say a certain something and she was sure that she would not say it. He looked at her with an open look, one that said – you can go on. “All I want to know is how you do it. That’s all.”

“Calculation. That’s all there is to it.”

“Was that all there was to that game against Auerbach?”

“You know how the reports exaggerate. There have been similar games played in the past.” Sal turned around and let his breath fog the glass. It was pretty warm so only a tiny frosting of white appeared.  “There’s nothing more to it. It’s not that special.”

“Why the Dragon, though? I don’t understand the name.”

“Back to that. Well. The reasons are all quite stupid.”

“I’d still like to know.”

“Well, for a start, it’s one of the sharpest known openings. Hyper-sharp.”

“That’s another thing I don’t understand. Sharp?”

“Hmm. Aggressive. Slightly more precise that that – it means that the positions are relatively tactical, you know, very knife-edgy. One slip and you are mated. Lots of sacrifices looming, big swooping moves – there are other openings related to the Dragon, did you know that? There’s an Accelerated Dragon and a Hyperaccelerated Dragon and the odd thing is you would think from the names that these are even sharper than the Dragon but they tend to lead to quiet positions. Long positional games with lots of moves implied and only a few played.”

“So that’s not the reason for the name, presumably, the aggression.”

“Well, not the whole reason.” Sal smiled suddenly like he had been trying hard not to smile but was not bothering anymore. It was strange how he went from being so perfectly still to something jaggedly childish. “I know why you’re looking at me that way. You’re intelligent so I know what you are thinking. It’s such a relief sometimes. Really it is.”

“Do you always do this?”

He laughed. “I don’t talk about it, so that’s good enough.”

“Go on.”

“You think I’m being very unstrategic. Very naive, playing the Dragon.”

“I don’t very much about the game, so it’d be silly for me to say it.”

“But you do think it.”

Careless, really, was the word I had in mind.”

“No, no, you’re correct. A novice like me –”

“Hah.”

“What was that about?”

“ ‘Novice like me.’ Really.”

“Really!”

“Hah.”

“I’m still new to this, you know.”

“You’re in the First League.”

“I don’t want to argue over this. Must we argue over this?”

“We were talking about why it’s a dumb move to play the Dragon.”

“Because a novice like me should not be playing sharp openings and walking right out of theory into sharp novelties. A beginner should play nice, tame, quiet stuff. Stay solid. Aim for a draw.”

“When you say it this way it sounds even stupider, what you did.”

“I wasn’t just wanting to win, you know. I wanted to play something fun.”

“And you nearly lost.”

“Nearly.”

“And the game wasn’t that great anyway, as you say.”

He stared in mock horror. “You – really – well – it was decent, at least. Haven’t you seen all the names it’s been given?”

“Why am I discussing your idiocy with you? I want you to tell me about the name.”

“So for a start, it’s a very sharp opening.”

Yes. We just –  

“And the pawn structure on the kingside looks a bit like that constellation – ”

“Ah, yes, I see. What a very odd coincidence.”

“And then there’s the DSB – ”

“Look, Sal –”

“Dark-squared bishop. DSB.”

“Ah, okay.”

“The DSB on g7 is really important to the black player because white often castles queenside – that means the king is on c1 or b1 – and the DSB in that little corner rakes down the board, this diagonal  from a1 to h8 that is the books call the line of fire, something along those lines. People talk about ‘that fire-breathing bishop’, you know. So I guess if you think hard you can sort of see the idea of a Dragon sitting there, breathing fire.”

“It’s all very melodramatic.  More broadly I can say that I have no idea what you were just talking about.”

“It is melodramatic, it really, is, but if you think about it it’s also quite appropriate coming from a group of people who sit in front of a board torturing themselves for hours. That bishop on g7 can give you an entire universe of pain. It’s a real monster.”

Kind of getting away: 6

Sometimes I cannot remember the people with whom I came. It’s strange. I just cannot remember them. I can remember the names, of course. Those are not difficult. But no image attaches itself to the names. A side effect of living like this, I suppose. But Helper is almost always company enough.

Today I went to see O. I don’t forget him. This is mostly because he’s the only person I see. This is not purely coincidental. We agreed on Scafell that we were going to be the two stationed furthest away from the Main Building. I made that happen.

The main thing about O. is that he’s just a fundamentally decent guy all the way down. He talks more than I do but does not talk much. His field is evolutionary bio, so he’s horrifically busy now[1]. He often talks about his work, and it’s very interesting.

I took the road to his place. I got the Volkie all the way down to the bridge where the road began. The road is a dark resin. It is inert. It glints. I stood there for some time and looked at it. The bridge, I mean. I looked at the place where it came out of the earth. Somehow it not easy to put together. You would expect a joint somewhere. But there is none.

This bridge is a truss bridge. It makes a virtual tunnel of latticework. When I looked down its length I could see the road going on for a little bit more and then it curved out of sight around the coast. I don’t know very much about bridges. I know that they are subject to certain forces – tension, compression, bending, torsion, shear – but I barely know what a bridge does to negotiate among these. And there are so many different types of bridges. Bridges are not, as it were, alive to me.

The drive there was strange. When I lived on Dyhaus there were many times when I had to make long trips and this felt like being there again even though it was not the same at all. I kept looking into the little empty spaces beside the road, expecting to see hitchhikers, browned from the sun. I used to pick them up on Dyhaus. They were never the same. I usually listened to them talk as they sat beside me. Many didn’t talk but some did. When they did talk I listened to find some commonality among all their experience. Some way in. I tried to build them into patterns. There weren’t any, I think. There were some small things, but those were trivial, tight bundles that didn’t unravel. Some kind of unease at the idea of steadiness. A preference for tragedies of goodwill over just letting the hours roll on one way or another. But none of this was interesting. Apart from this there was nothing more. Some of them were like characters from a movie. They were mad or nearly it. They asked for permission to masturbate. Some had thought very clearly and painfully about the things happening to them and were embarrassed when they asked if I could stop to let them piss. Some didn’t know what they were doing at all, and were utterly at home with that. Some had a plan, and this was just a part of it. Some preached doctrines about the end of the world, big fluorescent ideologies, carried Do Not Fear The End badges, and ranted about sex and neon and the transcendental urges that addictions shat in their heads. Two had insisted – these ones stand out – that they were Carriers, or something close enough, that they had met Haccieters, were destined for some grotesque fate. One hitchhiker had climbed on nearly catatonic and asked for alcohol. I kept some in the boot in Dyhaus and he hit off it really hard while I watched and said nothing and then tried, I think, to kill me.

It is a little odd that I should think of Dyhaus while on this road, in this place, but there you go. It happens. It’s all strange now. There are many strange things. This road. Built with so much thought for this place. No passing through sensitive spots, no destruction of breeding sides, no interruption of migratory routes. C.D.s working from so many intricate manuals only they are familiar with. So many things to take note of, making this tiny winding thing, and I am driving over it just like that. I put my arms out of car and felt the air move past me. I clawed my fingers and could actually hold it, plump and struggling. Doing this always gives me a kind of buzz. A little undeserved rush. It’s good. I realised today that I’ve stopped thinking the air here has a smell. It’s gone. Can’t detect it anymore, even if I try.

Why did I keep picking up those hitchhikers? I can sort of guess at an answer now. I keep noticing things when I write. I like migratory things. It’s what I specialise in. Terns. Whales. All that stuff I wrote on the Littorian displacements on Stize. Things that never arrive at any place and which are only possible to understand as being about to depart.

Wasn’t I talking about O.? But the drive there was very interesting. It was just like autumn. In fact it is now what you might call the height of summer. It’s a long summer[2]. Today it was not exactly warm, I guess, but it was about as warm as it gets. It was so warm I put on the radio[3] because it felt correct.

The road led straight to O.’s. It’s a coastal house, like mine. He knew I was coming and was waiting for me in the doorway[4]. He’s a big guy. He likes to look down when he talks. There’s this demure physicality about him which is really quite unexpected. Now, of course, I am familiar with it. But the first time that was unexpected. Also unexpected, even now, is how excited he can suddenly get over the littlest things.

“I’ve got lunch,” he said, when I walked up.

“I’m starving,” I said, even though I wasn’t that hungry. O. cooks. When he was on Stize his college was Inkper and he picked up some very Inkper things[5]. So he cooks. I don’t know enough people who actually cook to tell if he cooks well. But it’s never worse than the rations we have, and our rations are quite good. And there is something else. Just looking at someone else working on something, making something – that’s nice. O. keeps telling me that when the people back at Anhedonia – yes, I’ll use the name – decide for certain what things on Tokata we are or are not allowed to eat he’ll try his hand there[6].

Will he ask me to kill stuff for him? That’s a thought. I’m not sure I could – hunt, that’s the word, I guess – on this world. And there would be amazing amounts of admin to settle if I killed things for NR purposes.

I recall thinking this when Skeffie came in and said, “He’ll be asking you to kill things for him, you know,” and O. immediately said no, he couldn’t possibly.

O. calls his helper Skeffie. Skeffie is not very much like Helper[7]. Helper likes going outside. Skeffie does not mind but likes the lab and compiles reports with frightening skill. Skeffie is also incredibly cynical, sometimes. O. never seems to mind, though.

When O. said, I’ve got lunch, he had not meant that he had already prepared lunch. He meant to say that he was going to cook lunch. So I sat and looked out of the window while he cooked. He’s rigged an oven in his place and actually uses it, so he’s got bread. He started talking halfway through about his work on tk-chlorocuorin. I listened. There is a strange quality to this sort of conversation. He talks; I idly listen, understanding quite a lot but not all of what he is talking about; I ask questions; he stops and backtracks and sometimes leans against the kitchen counter and thinks, nodding to himself, thinking yes, I did not put that well, looking at the floor. After a while when the entire place smelt of butter he started talking instead about the problems they’re having with Hox genes: they can’t find any. He thinks that maybe they’re just got the gene sequencing technology botched up. Or maybe there are – and this is truly interesting, he says – too many sets of Hox genes, and we’re staring at them without realising that there is no single basic structure for many apparently closely related species.

Today he was pretty measured. He’s not always like that. The second time I visited me he ran out, yelling slip sequences. It wasn’t even anything very spectacular; it had just been that they’d discovered that the t/DNA[8] on Tokata contains very large concentrations of apparent slip sequences.

When we were just about done when he said, “You know, I could stay here for a long time.”

“I think most of us would stay here for a long time,” I said. “It’s it strange how it always feels like autumn?” I got the plates out.

During the meal we talked mostly about my Excursion. It wasn’t going to happen until another two weeks, but that time would past fast. Will pass fast. And then he said, “I really could stay here.” His big hands moved and he ate. He ate as if he was very hungry. I wondered if he always cooked. Does it matter? Nonetheless I was seized by the thought, at the time.

“Wait for the winter,” I said. “We’ve not been here that long.”

“I don’t think it matters. I don’t go out that much.” He spooned something into his mouth. “I’ll be busy most of the time. Are you done?”

“It’s a lot of food,” I said.

He took the dishes to the sink. He never gets Skeffie to do any of this stuff. I wondered if he was always this hungry.

“If Winnfield and the rest go I would still want to stay,” he said. He didn’t say exactly this, but this was what he meant, I remember. I think what he actually said was less terse and precise than that.

“All alone?” I said. There is a little vane anemometer, a windmeter, outside O.’s place, a little way down from the house. The little turbine was going fast. The thing flicked one way and then another. The wind was coming up. I could even see, from here, the dimples and the white furrows it made in the water. This is a bad habit of mine. I do this when things become important and I’m not ready.

“Maybe,” he said. “You know, the main thing now is the place.”

I knew what he meant. “You liked your time on Inkper,” I said.

“Yes. Is it the same thing, though? I don’t think it’s the same thing.”

I’m very familiar with O.’s house. I know where the tables are, exactly, where he likes to position the chairs, and I also know what he keeps in each every drawer in every cupboard and table. My home is large; it extends all the way from my house to this place, a hundred and thirty ks in total. I know how O. places the screens for his computer on this workdesk. I know where he keeps the paper and the pencils he waited for two months to get[9]. There a notice board above his desk. It’s an old thing with photographs, the printed type, and things he writes to remind himself. On one corner of the board he keeps the drawings. I used to draw a lot when I was studying. I was attracted to it because it was something people did in the past, when there were no pictures. They went out and what they saw they drew. I like the idea of being perched on that past, gripping it just so. A couple of times since I’ve arrived I’ve drawn things. The second time Helper and I went into the woods I saw a Gosser and I let Helper go ahead and I got a sketch, nothing more than lines, a contour, some inkling/suspicion of its bearing, that kind of compressed aggression. I got a few more detailed things done, but that was the first one I drew, and even though it had been a silly impulse it set something going. O. likes talking about his children. They’re very young. QC had given him permission seven years ago and he gets a little breathless talking about them. Not breathless, but he talks like he is, the sentences come out tapered. You cannot imagine, he says, its not just like you’ve made – its growing in you, like you’ve become bigger and its taking away but also giving – but suddenly you’re given this, and you are holding it feeling, you know, I don’t know, miraculous. So the first time I visited I got my drawings out and said, you could bring this back for them. He had taken them and said, looking down again, thanks, thanks a lot. He knew they were not good drawings. He hadn’t even looked at them properly, which I suppose was a relief for me. But the next time I came he had put them up beside the photos of his kids on the notice board and there was a note saying Keep!

So I was looking at the drawings, thinking how I’d forgotten everything I’d taught myself about varying line thickness, when I said, “Give it time.”

He said, “I’ve given it time. I’ve given it too much time, probably,” and winced. He looked nervous. He always looks nervous, a bit surprised at his own big body, but this wasn’t that kind of nervous.

“I understand where you’re coming from,” I said. There was a cup of something warm between my hands and I only noticed it then and remembered when he had put it down. I drank a bit of it. “Sometimes I think of that myself. But I have not thought properly about it. There will be a lot of things to do if we want to stay, you know. Who knows when the next research group will come.” Something occurred to me. “Can you imagine how many people there would be?  All waiting to use the road? I wouldn’t be the last house in the line anymore. The construction drones would come up and make it come from the bridge all the way up to my place.”

“Doesn’t it go to your place?” he said.

I hadn’t told him. “You can walk,” I said. “The bridge is there, but then it stops. You can walk, or just fly the Volkie.”

“What difference does it make, the road stopping there?” he said.

“I don’t know. But the idea of a road coming all the way to my place – I’m not sure how I’d sleep with that.”

“I understand where you’re coming from,” he said. It was funny, the way he said he it. He can make something like that sound like a joke. That makes it sound like he’s never funny. Oh well. That’s not true, but it’s not something I can put across like this.

(You see the way we both are? This kind of sameness must be unhealthy. It’s all on some level I can’t detect but it’s probably there. )

Skeffie came in again and said, “If Ogford wants to stay that’s all fine and good but you know it hurts me very much when I’ve not asked about these things.”

Skeffie is like that. We both know it would choose to stay without a second thought if O. stayed. But it will say these things. “We couldn’t possibly doubt you,” I said.

“I like it when you say that,” Skeffie said. I laughed.

[1] The ecology of Tokata is quite conventional in many respects – I’d place it somewhere near the middle of a Bridger-Green diagram (I think Bridger-Green diagrams are actually useful, which puts me in a rapidly shrinking majority). But there are some very striking things, the sorts of things that evolutionary biologists get very excited about. The most obvious thing is the fact that the biology of Tokata does not exhibit amino acid homochirality. Approx. 44% of the chordates here are use right-handed amino acids, 56% left-handed. This makes Tokata one of the only two planets so far known that does not exhibit biological homochirality, and the only known world where non-homochirality extends into multicellular creatures. Cue major puzzlement/excitement from the molecular+evo. biologists.

[2] It’s not a summer generated by axial tilt. Blame Tokata’s elliptical orbit.

[3] Have I mentioned this? Well, we have radio. Radio! The people back at the Main Building had been discussing this for some time. There were worries about how it might affect the environment, but eventually the consensus formed that it was probably alright if we used tropospheric tightbeam. So now we all have radio. We have three channels. One is basically a cycling update of discoveries, papers, possible new lines of research – functional but interesting stuff; one is devoted entirely to music from the Trove (I suspect Max was responsible for that – he’s attracted to obscurity); and one plays the popular stuff from Stize+Naze – what was popular when we left, I mean. Today I got Coyly If Anything She Comes and Torrential Train. Me, on the new road, on a new world, listening to Torrential Train. I must remember this.

[4] Volkies are great vehicles. You can’t tell if one is coming unless you’ve been told. They’re absolutely silent and nearly invisible.

[5] On his desk he always keeps a copy of Hyrum Kasakadei’s The Silence of Certain Questions. I tried to ask him about Extreme Quietism once and he told me immediately that he did not understand, quite literally, a single line in SCQ. Why had he bothered to obtain a physical copy of the monster then? He found it comforting, he said, and he didn’t know why.

[6] Ordinarily we can’t eat anything that’s right-handed; us poor left-handed biologicals can’t use right-handed amino acids to build proteins. We’d probably be able to digest a little, but most enzymatic processes would be so retarded as to be useless. But they’ve thought of that, of course. We’ve been packed full of artificial gut flora to do the digestion for us. Nonetheless can’t be too careful re these things I suppose.

[7] I’m not good with names. So my helper is called Helper. It does not seem to mind at all, and I’ve asked.

[8] The phosphate backbone is oddly constructed. I’ve not read up on the details yet. Also: 5 base pairs. Very inefficient, but maybe that has something to do with the fact that only about 85% of the t/DNA in large organisms here is non-coding.

[9] He has no need for pencils. But this is, yet again, an Inkper thing. I go out far more often than he does and I don’t think I have any pencils.