Animal Tendency: Or, Why Zootopia is Miraculous

Is Judy Hopps a woman?

Well, duh, no. She is a rabbit. She has a Sylvaligic tail and an expressively Lagomorphic nose and when she’s frustrated she drums one foot against the ground Thumper-style.

No but really: is Judy Hopps a woman? I mean: is she just a metaphor for womanhood or is she actually a woman? Is there the idea of womanhood, even, in the world of Zootopia? It’s a bit fucked-up, having to figure all this out, but it’s all very tangled.

I’m getting ahead of myself.

So basically what I’m going to argue is that Zootopia is a kind of crazy intellectual + artistic triumph[1] of the kind that you wouldn’t really expect to come from Disney.[2] Zootopia is a Great Bit Of Art. Like up there with the Appassionata & Las Meninas – that kind of a GBOA.

Actually there’s one particular thing about Zootopia is which makes me think it’s a GBOA, and that’s that it’s by far and away the most eloquent, moving, rich, warmly imagined, and ferociously intelligent argument for liberalism[3] I’m ever come across.

Well. Since I’ve committed myself to the claim that Zootopia is a GBOA, I’ll have to mention the many other things that Zootopia does perfectly or near-:[4]  the animation is gorgeous,[5] the world construction faultless,[6] the score bright and finely delineated,[7] the humour consistently on-point,[8] the characters well-defined and incredibly sympathetic,[9] plus the plot takes some vertiginous lurches that all make sense and the film runs roughshod over genre boundaries with improbable swagger.[10]

But let’s talk about Zootopia and liberalism.

Context: we don’t live in a good time for liberalism. It’s not surprising. Liberalism is lame.[11] In its political guise it constantly looks like it’s underpinned by a basic intellectual cowardice and/or incoherence.  We don’t know what’s right but it’s definitely right for to let people discuss what is right + We don’t know what forms of life are good but it’s definitely good to let people pursue which forms of life they think to be good. Liberalism is political philosophy for People Who’d Much Rather Skip The Vote On This One, Sorry.[12]  Which is why political liberalism’s commitment to pluralism on the basis of all human beings being free and equal[13] is so easily attacked the moment something real, tangible, urgent – like fear or terrorism or illegal immigration or whatever – pops up. Liberalism runs against the grain of our animal tendency. Also does not help that freedom and equality are, at first blush, wildly contradictory and counterintuitive[14] premises to adopt, but there you go.

And if political liberalism looks like weak pansy-ass nonsense social liberalism looks to the non-liberal dangerously totalitarian, having answered the old chestnut re What We Should Do About the Non-Liberals In Liberal Society? with a solid ah, fuck ’em. And it’s spun out a weirdly alienating discourse using words like “decolonise”, “trigger”, and “space space”, which words are applied so flexibly and indiscriminately that they’re now drained of real argumentative force. Liberalism in its social guise seems to have lost its ability to be happy about anything, even an imagined vision of its ideal future.

So it’s against this backdrop that Zootopia makes its case for one of the (not-so-many) things which political and social liberalism agree on: we should be good to people who are different from us. And it does this, incredibly, by performing an argument for liberalism[15] whose texture is consistent with the outcome it advocates.

Maybe you don’t quite get what that last sentence meant. Never mind.

Let’s talk about Judy Hopps, the rabbit.

Do you notice that she’s a woman? I mean, sure, the film makes a lot out of the fact that Judy’s a rabbit, but what about the fact that she’s also a woman?

Let’s tease this out. There are some facts about Judy that are not directly drawn from aspects of womanhood, and better interpreted as facts about rabbit-hood. The fact that she’s seen as a token bunny in the Z.P.D., or the fact that she resents being called Carrots. The bit where she tells Clawhauser that it’s OK for bunnies to call other bunnies cute, but not for other species to do so. Those things are interesting commentaries on affirmative action, casual slurs, and the delicate mechanics of word reclamation,[16] but are not really parallels to womanhood in specific.

Then there those things Judy is told that directly mirror things which are said to women in this world. Judy is told (among other things) that she “throws like a bunny”, and is asked if “all bunnies drive badly.”[17] These are stereotypes in our world about women. If you can’t throw well, you throw like a girl, and if someone takes a long time to park it’s gotta be a woman – which makes it really tempting to believe that rabbit-hood is an analogy for womanhood, and so of course Judy is not actually a woman. She doesn’t need to be, for Zootopia to get its point across. Rabbit-hood covers all the (analogical) terrain of womanhood.

Except nope. Nope nope nope. It’s part of the genius of Zootopia that – almost without you noticing – it construes Judy as Woman in the world of the film. By which I mean – as a woman, in Zootopia, she is discriminated against. She is given a little (pink) spray canister of fox repellent to protect her from foxes.[18] Can this be explained by bunny-protection-logic, as opposed to woman-protection-logic? Sure. But we’re starting to slip away from pure rabbit-ness here. And sometimes Zootopia is quite explicit: her father calls her (once during MuzzleTime, and once after she returns to Bunnyburrow in shame) Jude the Dude, which is a pretty explicit way of saying that Judy has transgressed lines of both rabbit-hood and womanhood by becoming a cop. And it also seems kind of significant that so many animals refer to Judy as meter-maid with such dismissiveness. And that she’s put off by the aggrieved masculinity she encounters from the rest of the (male) Z.P.D. police officers in the bullpen. Rabbit-hood is not an analogy to womanhood, it’s the product of a different kind of discrimination that happens to intersect with womanhood.

Here’s another idea: if rabbit-ness is (even a partial) substitute for womanhood, then why is Judy Hopps female? One possibility: because it is easier for us, as an audience, to accept and therefore believe an oppressed character who is female.

This is Part One of how Zootopia makes the case for liberal pluralism so well: it’s subtle. It takes an idea from academic intersectional theory, recognises what is clean and compelling about it (we are defined by more than one feature about us – we are an intersection of traits, as it were), and twines that so delicately into the analogy it is drawing that the idea remains both discrete and just beneath conscious awareness. Judy is oppressed: both as rabbit, and as female.

And this is all so playful: Zootopia gives you an obvious analogy (rabbit=woman), and then turns around and reminds you that Zootopia is its own world, with a real existence totally independent of analogy, but the proof of that independent existence turns out to be an idea which anchors so much of our social experience. The rabbit-metaphor really says something like this: no oppression is a metaphor for another kind of oppression. Which is true, probably, and complex, and somehow expressed in a film nominally meant for kids. (It’s important that Judy’s constructed as female in the film, by the way, precisely because she’s whip-smart & brave & determined & compassionate, a not-at-all-half-baked S.F.C., and you can’t have her be a role model for girls unless she’s actually female.)

Anyway: you see it all through the film, this commitment to the complexity of oppression. You are first introduced to Judy Hopps as victim (of a fox  + the general expectation that she cannot be who she wants to be). Then she encounters Nick Wilde the fox when he’s being refused service in an ice-cream shop, in a scene so replete with segregationist-era subtext that you expect the sign the elephant references to read: WE SERVE WHITES ONLY. So fox=victim, fine. Then it turns out that Judy, because essentially kind and good, has herself become the victim of that fox’s machinations, but not before she calls Nick “an articulate fella”.[19] And then later on it turns out that Judy is also (because naive) the oppressor: her disastrous press conference sparks calls for the mandatory quarantine of predator species[20] and initiates the sort of microaggressions against predators which almost any racial minority will find eerily familiar.

Here’s another bit of complexity: there’s a moment when Chief Bogo (initially introduced as something of a bigot) disdainfully tells Judy, when she insists that a black panther has “gone savage”, that “maybe to you rabbits every predator looks savage”. Which sounds unutterably mean, until you realise that actually that’s quite an accurate description of the views which Judy’s parents hold (there’s a scene near the beginning of the movie which outlines beautifully a racist-parent & embarrassed-kid dynamic going on between them). Which in turns suggests that Bogo’s is racist/speciesist precisely because he stereotypes rabbits as racist/speciesist. The real-world equivalent of this would be assuming that, say, every Southern Republican is racist. Now this is trivially true, but the actual emotional weight of this wrongness is almost impossible to feel – except that Zootopia makes you feel it.

Part Two of Zootopia’s genius is this: it’s racist.

By which I mean: a racist could watch the film and walk out with all of their views affirmed. I mean, the film does rely on stereotypes about animals for a lot of its humour. Sloths are slow, rabbits breed fast. It’s no defence to point out that many animals don’t fit their stereotypes in the film; it’s precisely because of the stereotype that the relevant jokes are funny: Mr. Big, lord of the criminal underground, is a tiny arctic shrew, and Clawhauser the cheetah is terrifically unfit.[21]

But this is how the real world works. Racists and non- look at roughly[22] the same set of facts and derive radically different conclusions. Remember how I said above that Zootopia is an argument for liberalism whose texture is consistent with the outcome it advocates? Well, here’s one thing: as an argument, it does not compel.[23] The film offers a refutation of intolerant social liberalism by inviting the audience to participate in stereotypes, to revel in them even. You are clever, the film says, but you’re probably not wise.

And it’s the possibility of racist interpretations (because Zootopia relies on stereotypes) that also lets Zootopia offer a refutation of political liberalism – at least, as it’s often understood today. If political liberalism is committed to the factual claim that all people are actually equal then it is horrifically weak. Will it have space for those who are less mentally or physically able, for those who need our aid, for those who decide not to contribute to our social project?  Zootopia says: why give a fuck if people are actually unequal? Work from the moral premise, not the factual one. Hence: Clawhauser and Flash, let alone Judy and Nick, are fully realised characters that we like, independent of whether or not they conform to stereotypes about their species. Zootopia offers as a remedy to worries about whether or not stereotypes are true or not a robust empathy: what matters is that these other people are fully alive, not that they are alive in certain ways.

Zootopia underscores this point pretty effectively, I think. So Judy (who’s more or less a perfect analogue of the university-educated, uber-socially-aware twenty-something) is revealed by Nick to be naïve in her refusal to accept any stereotypes at all, as when Nick teasingly asks her when she realizes that all the workers in the D.M.V. are sloths: “Are you saying that because he’s a sloth he can’t be fast?” And then think of the moment when Nick is confronting Judy after her press conference: think of the blind fury and sense of betrayal with which he repeats (snarls, more like) after Judy, “Primitive, savage, instincts? A biological component?” Judy is naïve, Zootopia says, because she both refuses to accept that some stereotypes can be true (sloths are slow), and because she applies some stereotypes where they shouldn’t be (foxes are dangerous). She says to Nick: you’re not that kind of predator, and you’re not like the others. But Nick knows already he has been absorbed into that other, and recognises what’s wrong in saying, you’re my friend, and not like the other [black people]. 

Another last problem with the Zootopia-as-racist idea is that Zootopia does suggest that stereotypes are self-fulfilling. Nick is sly and untrustworthy because his attempt to be something other than his stereotype was rebuffed, and he recoils into the stereotype (as he admits) for protection and stability. This is the least sexy (because least subversive) of all the responses to the Zootopia-as-racist accusation, but might just be the most important: it is probably the case that our essentialist generalizations are consequences of functions of the way people are brought up, of the cultures we imbibe, of the different pressures of living we are subject to.

It’s crucial to all the stuff above working that Zootopia’s world is gorgeously imagined, that the details are so exquisitely rendered, that the characters are so expressive, and that their forms of life so closely mirror our own, down to the smartphones and iPads and all the absurdly exuberant puns about Bearberry + Zuber + Fur Fighters. It’s a world that is fully alive. The argument being performed is an optimistic one, and therefore a persuasive one: this is what pluralism looks like, Zootopia says, and it looks like a good world. It draws out an intuition that is hard to articulate well about how we value difference in the people close to us: think of how you value your friends because they are not who you are.

Of course it’s possible to see in Zootopia an endorsement of essentialism, since it concedes that in the distant past predator & prey used to fear each other, and it even insists on applying the terms predator and prey to its present. But it’s kind of silly to expect a metaphor not to break down. If a metaphor didn’t break down at any point it wouldn’t be a metaphor, it’d just be this world. The point is that a good metaphor breaks down interestingly. And this metaphor does just that: Bellwether exploits precisely the predator-prey binary to stir up speciesist animus in Zootopia,[24] so that the film eventually offers a critique of its own language. Plus it’s probably true that we’re all racist by default. Any creature[25] not preprogrammed with a basic aversion[26] to living things which look different from it probably didn’t get to travel too far down the evolutionary tree. Liberal pluralism might well be right, but it sure as heck isn’t natural, just as Zootopia, eminently and gloriously, isn’t natural.

There’s another potential problem with Zootopia, and that’s the idea that in its eagerness to point out the complexity of the idea of oppression it buys into the cheap trope peddled by Avenue Q – that oppression is function not of systems and architectures but of individuals: Everyone’s A Little Bit Racist. But racism, the argument goes, is prejudice plus power. A film can’t discuss The Other if everyone in the film is The Other. The central message of Shakira’s Try Everything, the public callsign of the film’s marketing campaign, is really a placatory lie: you cannot succeed if you just try, because the world might be arrayed against you.

So is Zootopia some neoliberal shitshow – all individual, no system?

Well, no. For a start, Zootopia is pretty aware of problematic social structures: there’s a reason that it’s the lemmings that work in the banks.[27] And there are structures of oppressive power that the film introduces and does not resolve. Take the office of the Zootopia Mayor. Is it entirely a coincidence that it’s occupied by a lion? Or that Lionheart treats the Assistant Mayor, Bellweather, like crap, having put her in her position purely to get the sheep vote? Isn’t it disturbing that at the end of the film the pandering asshole Lionheart looks like he’s well on the way back to power, despite having placed predators in need of medical treatment under custody to further his political ends, and that Bellweather, who has suffered so much under Lionheart, remains imprisoned? Well, OK, maybe. I find it hard not to detect in Zootopia the suggestion that certain types of animals have an advantage when it comes to political office. It’s definitely true that Zootopia is well aware of the dangers of identity politics, however, and that’s why even if it does not go out of its way to talk about structural racism I’m not particularly bothered; Zootopia’s discussion of structural racism happens on the analogical level.[28] The point is that in this world, many structures of oppression are buttressed by appeals (from politicians like Lionheart & Bellweather) to our prejudices, our animal tendency. This is kind of obvious, but there could not be a more important time for Zootopia to be released.[29] Liberal pluralism is a good thing, Zootopia says, look at it.[30] It’s seriously moral without being condescending, and there’s little criticism that you can throw at it that it doesn’t immediately and joyfully subvert. It’s a GBOA,[31] all right. And – bless it – it’s out to save us all.

 

[1] I should clarify: everything I’m writing here is based purely on my memory of what I saw in the cinema, since it’s obviously impossible to buy Zootopia as of the time of writing. I’ve probably misremembered some things, but there shouldn’t be anything major.

[2] Indie-ish filmmakers have produced animated masterpieces (Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr Fox), as have Japanese animators (Mamoru Hosoda’s Wolf Children), but I don’t think a true capital-G Great animated film has emerged from the main current of Western animation until Zootopia. Plus a lot of Disney’s stuff is pretty dismal: both Frozen and Inside Out are either mediocre or terrible, depending on my mood.

[3] Well, a specific bit of it.

[4] GBOAs aren’t just good at one thing or another, after all.

[5] If you think about it, it’s kind of obvious that film is just the greatest art form out there, at least in the (vaguely defined) sense that the Best Possible Film must be greater than the Best Possible (e.g.) Novel/Symphony/Photograph/Painting. I mean, the BPF has got to contain everything good about the best possible Novel/Symphony/Photograph/Painting. The BPF has got certain words in a certain order – so that’s the Novel covered; it’s got a score – that’s the Symphony; it’s got a camera placed at a certain angles capturing certain objects designed in a certain way [what colour?  shape? texture?] and positioned in a certain way – and that covers [lots of stuff]. And then there’s lots of things specific to the filmic medium, like camera movement and kinetic mise-en-scène and obviously the coordination of all the previously mentioned things into a single experience. Which is why a film isn’t really a kind of over-there art but more a re-experienced world. I mention all of this not to say that most films are great, because they aren’t: more opportunities for artistic exploration also equals more opportunities for artistic failure, and for a film to succeed on all the dozen+ levels it inevitably operates on is more or less a miracle. I mention this to highlight that the animated film really ought to be the pinnacle of the medium because of the sheer control it offers. You can engage in wholesale world-creation without getting bogged down by lousy real-world constraints like physics or having a certain set of actors you can choose from or needing to render useless whole chunks of Manhattan to film a car chase or whatever. You can decide, quite literally, how many hairs you want to have on a character’s head. The only real limitations the animated medium have now are purely technical, and mostly stem from the fact (1) rendering (texturing and lighting, mostly) is really computationally intensive, and (2) the human brain is stupidly good at face-recognition, and so any tiny anomaly in a non-stylised CGI face is picked up and blown into monstrous proportions by our temporal lobe – which means that, for now, we still need real actors and can’t do everything on a computer. It’ll be an awesome day when all actors are replaced by CGI models, though: no more bad acting.

[6] If your heart didn’t quicken at least a little during that bit in the end of the first act where Judy takes the Zootopia Express and the virtual camera does these long arcing swoops over the different precincts then you’re not human. Actually this seems to be one of the things which animated films are quite good at: sequences which elicit pure joy. HTTYD was dense with those flight scenes, Wall.E had the bit with the fire extinguisher, The Lion King has that opening, and so on.

[7] It’s a proper score: Nick and Judy have their own themes, as do some of the more emotionally resonant sort-of-recurring motifs. None of this Zimmerian rubbish where a score is written before the film’s done and all you get is aural mush (if you see the word minimalist, run) and abused church organs. Some bits of Zootopia’s score are also quite interesting: Nick’s theme is a surprisingly Latinate, woody thing in the G Aeolian, and another theme (heard only glancingly until the credits) features lots of passing Neapolitan harmony and borrowed IV chords from the parallel minor – which is quite typical for big action blockbusters, actually, but not animated films. (There’s a twist in that the borrowed IV chord resolves upward, into the major IV, which works better than you’d think, and is nicely in keeping with the film’s upbeat tone.)

[8] There’s an extended parody of Marlon Brando that’s coruscatingly brilliant, and a bunch of sleeker-than-usual pop-cultural references (it’s the execution that prevents Zootopia from descending into the vapid cocked-eyebrow faddishness of The Lego Movie, which is enjoyable but not great), but a lot of the humour is also quite subtle. E.g.: at one point Nick tells Judy that the way to deal with questions at press conferences is to respond by asking your own question and then answering it; after that you start to notice that some of the more high-profile denizens of Zootopia consistently answer questions this way. (As in when the Mayor goes: “Did I imprison those animals? Yes, yes I did.”) And riiight at the very end of the movie, Judy says to Nick (platonically!): “Do I love you? Yes. Yes I do.”

[9] In part due to some bold-ish decisions by Howard/Moore/Bush. The scene where a young Nick is muzzled when an initiation to the Junior Ranger Scouts takes a very bad turn is one of pure Murnauesque horror, all darkness and Expressivist shadow. There’s a moment when the [beaver?] play-interrogating Nick suddenly asks Nick, right after he’s repeated the oath (about promising to be good, and kind, and brave etc.): “Even though you’re a fox?” You’d expect, given that Nick likes his friends in the Junior Rangers, to laugh, maybe nervously, and say of course, maybe add on, what’s going on, guys? But the face staring into the flashlight is stunned, shocked, speechless: and then the muzzle comes on. And this is how you realize that Nick, as a child, does not yet understand what it means to be despised – how does not know how to react to the fact of discrimination because at that moment it’s something totally alien to him.

[10] Wikipedia, with the stoic unselfawareness that makes it so endearing, describes the film as a “computer-animated action buddy comedy-drama neo-noir adventure film”.

[11] And this is a judgment completely separate from the issue of whether or not liberalism is correct.

[12] Rawls explicitly premises most of ToJ on ethical philistinism, which he disguises by insisting that there’s a difference between the right and the good and that he only wants to talk about the former.

[13] I’m adopting the Rawlsian axiomatization here, since it’s the most influential.

[14] Because, as a matter of fact, people are obviously not equal in most respects, and they are obviously unfree in many respects.

[15] Covering, inter alia, essentialism, affirmative action, childhood bullying, racial segregation, racial profiling, word reclamation, microaggression, sexism, workplace harassment, police brutality, and the politics (+ media) of identity (+ fear).

[16] It’s OK for a black person to call another black person nigger, but not for a white person to do so.

[17] Although many of these quips, especially those towards the end of the film, are spoken by Nick with genuine affection and irony. This is quite typical for a film that strenuously resists easy characterization of anything, even a word as simple as “Carrots”.

[18] The parallels with pepper spray and sexual predators are obvious, and chilling. But in this case it’s not so much a parallel, really, as much as an intermixture.

[19] This joke came from the mother of one of the (white) writers for Zootopia, who often applied the word to nonwhite people she admired.

[20] Actually the way the film deals with press-induced panics is quite elegant. After a heartwrenching scene where Nick confronts Judy over what she said (itself an amazing study in animated facial expression and the struggle between Nick’s tribal (fox) identity and the fact that Judy had only acted in goodwill), the press crowds around. “Were you just threatened by that fox?” they ask? “No,” Judy says, frantic. “He was[is?] my friend!” “Can we not trust our friends now?” the media scrum cries. “Are we safe?” The scene is fucking William Golding-levels of depressing and accurate, that’s what it is.

[21] Think of how crazily offensive a joke whose punchline was “a smart black man” would be. Now how about “fast sloth”? You get the point.

[22] Of course there’s a lot of divergence in the specifics, what with the political siloization of different media outlets, but it’s also true that a lot of disagreement re (e.g.) illegal immigrants don’t really stem from a different understanding of the facts: they stem from a different understanding of where our obligations to non-citizens come from.

[23] In this way the film succeeds where Animal Farm fails, in that Orwell, while presumably writing about the dangers about brainwashing, himself ends up creating work which is aimed at precisely that: creating a world so devoid of moral complexity that it subverts your ability to think for yourself by burying actual thought under a outraged moral smugness: think of how unbelievably stupid Orwell must make the farm animals for the allegory to work, or how much time you spend inchoately thinking goshNapoleon’s such a bastard.

[24] Think of Trump on Mexican rapists and Hillary on “superpredators”.

[25] Not living on an isolated island without large predators, I should clarify.

[26] And note that this aversion just needs to almost immeasurably slight when it comes to atomized interactions for it to have extremely large society-wide effects.

[27] Lemming Brothers. You’re welcome.

[28] Also probably true that if Zootopia got more explicit than it already is it would significantly undermine its persuasive power vis-à-vis those people who most need to be persuaded of the benefits of liberal pluralism.

[29] Not entirely a coincidence; the plot of Zootopia was drastically revised in the last 17 months of production. Originally, Nick Wilde was the protagonist, and Zootopia was some kind of dystopian hell where all predators were fitted with collars to shock them into submission should any of their predatory instincts emerge. It’s stunning to think how something as amazing as Zootopia nearly succumbed to the banality that infects every dystopian film being made nowadays.

[30] The idea that the film is an extended fuck-you to Trump & Co. is lent a lot of weight by the fact that, in the film’s credits, Gazelle cheers her adoring crowd on in Spanish. Plus Bellwether’s rant really might as well serve as the executive summary of the Trump playbook.

[31]Afterword: two slightly odd issues which Zootopia (inevitably, but probably unintentionally) raises.

First: remember how I said earlier that to premise liberal pluralism on the factual equality of all people is dangerous, and we should not care that some stereotypes might be true? You might find that outrageous. In which case: what about animals? They are not the equals of humans, in many ways. In many ways they are weak and stupid. In many ways they don’t contribute to your society. Still kind of seems to me that they deserve our moral caring (at least, if they know they exist, and if they can suffer.) In which case one question we must confront is this: how do we deal, morally, with real predator-prey relationships? Hah.

Second: Furries. I mean, somehow, weirdly, despite all our concern re not despising people for who they are, it’s kind of OK to mock them, isn’t it? The number of misconceptions people still hold about them is pretty incredible. If you read the comments underneath the trailers for Zootopia you’ll see some quite disparaging stuff being said about furries. I just thought this should be mentioned, as the irony of people watching Zootopia, a film about accepting difference, complaining about or mocking furries is rather painful.

 

Consultation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Title?” Garf said. “Noa?”

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

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

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

Sal laughed.

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

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

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

“Hm?” Sal said.

“Please,” Alfen said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What were we talking about?” Sal said.

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

“Ah,” Sal said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Uhm,” Alfen said.

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

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

Sal looked thoughtful.

“Could I make a suggestion?” Alfen said.

“Please.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Hm?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Uhm, in the FL? Or generally?”

“In the FL.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Magician winced again.

Visitation: 1

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

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

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

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

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

“That all sounds very cruel.”

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

“still—”

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

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

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

“What happened in the end?”

“In the end?”

“You know, after.”

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

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

“Of course not.”

“What did he do.”

“He fucked us.”

“Oh.”

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beneath the Wrecked Church there was a single Hasp.

death on a plane

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

Menacce: 2

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

“Mira was very obliging.”

“As was QC, I’d expect.”

“Oh yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Thanks.”

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

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

“What do you specialise in?” Sal said.

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

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

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

“What’s this?” Sal said.

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

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

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

Ballade?”

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

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

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

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

“I sort of skimmed through it.”

“Fuck me,” Garf said.

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

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

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

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

Sal made an interested noise and Garf rolled her eyes.

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

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

“Hm?” Sal said.

“Do you where The Trove came from?”

Boom,” Bizzo said. “Also wow.”

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

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

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

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

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

“No me,” Bizzo said. “Garf.”

“I got saddled with Hale,” Garf said.

“Wasn’t she any good?” Sal said.

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

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

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

“OTSOCQ,” Sal offered.

“That thing’s ridiculous.”

Sal smiled. “I’m wondering,” he said.

“Hm?” Garf said.

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ve not played?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is it good?” Sal said.

“Oh yes,” Bizzo said, blearily.

“What is it like?” Garf said.

“Limey hot marrow air.”

“Limey hot marrow air.”

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

“Gosh,” Garf said, staring.

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

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

“You hideous brute,” Sal said.

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

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

“I’m pretty busy for now,” Sal said.

“That was amazing.”

“It was.”

“Have you been to the Wrecked Church?”

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

“We need to go sometime.”

“Ugh,” Bizzo said. “Weird place.”

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

“I’m too full,” Bizzo said.

“We’re not going now,” Garf said.

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

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

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

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

“What an angry swan,” Garf said.

“I don’t think it’s angry,” Sal said.

“Stop grovelling, Bizzo,” Garf yelled.

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

“Absolutely superb.”

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

Kind of getting away: 10

I ought to say a thing or two about Helper. There are not so many immarginable objects in my life.

I met it while I was back at Summerlock, just before I left to come here. The usual thing is for to meet our helpers before we leave. Just to get used to each other. It’s a good idea. I had some role to play in getting Helper assigned to me but it was not anything huge.

Helper is not like the rest. It was not made a helper. It was a HKd – Hunter-Killer drone – made for Millan/Tofael. It’s as high up as you can go without being a Descendant. At  least that’s what I think. But something was wrong with Helper because once it got to Millan it became clear that it wasn’t so much into the hunting and killing. It had not fucked up. But it had not been quite as into it as a HKd might have been. When I first met it it had the designation of GHKd – Guard-Hunter-Killer drone. It was a designation made up for its personality type. I had asked it about that designation because I had not seen it before. It told me that there were only three others like it that it knew.

“We’re problematic,” it had said.

“What was it like?” I had asked.

“Being of my type?” it had said.

“Yes.”

“Nothing much happened.”

I don’t think Millan/Torfael was the kind of campaign where nothing much happened but I’ve not asked again. Maybe that all that happened to Helper was that it got a boring observation post and was made to stay out of the way.

Helper had figured something out during Millan/Torfael and after it ended it asked Petr. if a civilian role was possible, and Petr. spoke to QC, and QC asked Summerlock[1], and Summerlock said it knew of a research role where it would be useful, and I went to meet it, and shortly after that Helper stopped being GHKd and became a helper – and then Helper.

Helper shows its military heritage. It’s not pretty. Or it is, but not in that way. You could say it’s elegant. You take time to get familiar with it and then you can see what it is about. It’s a flat metal rectangle about half my height. It is usually featureless and dully reflective but there’s a small notch in one of its corners that it never got repaired. (“No need,” it said, when I asked about why it had not asked for one[2].)

Once I described Helper as “minimalist” and it had overheard. I suppose an ex-GHKd overhears a lot. It told me it preferred to be described as “intimately brutalist”. It’s got a sense of humour. It’s not always up here, but it’s usually there somewhere[3].

But it’s a good description. Helper has taken on civilian trappings well. Helper does not, properly speaking, have a front or a back – or a up, or a down. But when it’s speaking it turns around to face you. The little notch is on the upper left of its front side. That’s how I think of it now. Front. As far as I can tell that is how Helper thinks of it too.

I just mentioned Helper talking. It told me once that when it was a GHKd it had never spoken once. But now it’s dealing with people and it must have needed at some point to choose a voice. I’ve met people from outside the Kingdom and what they always say is that they don’t expect AIs to sound they way they do. All AIs sound like us. They sound like perfectly normal human beings. If you didn’t look at one you couldn’t tell. Obviously a voice with little inflection is easier to synthesise, and an AI could choose that kind of voice. But none of them do. Why would they do that? That would be entirely beside the point of a voice. Helper has a male voice. O. once (accidentally, I think) referred to Helper as he and Helper did not seem to mind. It’s one of those low but sharp voices. It’s businesslike but you can hear each individual vibration in the words sometimes, like Helper is speaking in undertone to someone nearby.

None of which is to say Helper is just a helper. Its field capacity is clearly well beyond what is needed for tracking + tagging + rescuing me if things go wrong. I don’t think there are any threats on Tokata that require handling by a GHKd. While most helpers use fields + AG to get around Helper can move around very fast without them[4]. It dissembles into articulated blocks and can pendulate or amble or cartwheel around. It’s very shocking to see actually happening. The entire thing looks like maths made real. But of course most of the time I see Helper it’s asleep in one corner. I’ve grown used to that sense of mass in my study.

Thought: QC + Petr. must have considered just killing Helper after M/T. It wouldn’t have minded. Not good to have something that dangerous zipping around where it might be caught and used. But I suppose it appeared unlikely that Helper and I would try to conquer some country somewhere outside the Kingdom. Helper carries no more missiles etc but it hasn’t been fully stripped out. Not properly defanged. Neither did it ask to have its personality changed.

I’m thinking of helper because today something happened with Helper. Everyday things happen with Helper but this can be put apart. It returned in the morning having spent the night over the Berents. It went and put the samples in the Store and then came back in.

Helper does not start conversations. But Helper said, “Would you actually stay?”

I did not know for a moment what Helper was talking about. But then I remembered that I might have told Helper about what O. had said.

“You mean – if Ogford decided to stay?”

“Yeah. Would you wait for the next party? Or would you want to be here forever?”

“I don’t think I would stay. We’ve not been here long, you know. We ought to wait.”

“Do you think things will be very much different from this? What we’re doing now?”

“We’ve not started on the Excursions yet.”

“Yes, but you know what I mean.”

I was getting surprised. Helper was really going at it.

“I don’t know, Helper. Are you worried about something?”

“I’m not worried.”

“You must have gotten used to spending long periods more or less alone, surely. All that time on Miller/Torfaen –”

And then Helper interrupted me. This was very strange. It’s very patient with me, usually. Which is not to say that it interrupted me in an impatient manner or anything like that. But I got the sense that it needed to say something. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen Helper act like it needed to say something.

“If you decide to stay, you need to know that I’ll be staying with you.”

That was obvious, I thought. I couldn’t get another helper, surely.

“Obviously,” I said.

It did not say anything and went out again. Then after an hour or so it came back in and it said, “You’d be quite useless without me, I’d have you know.”

I laughed.

“—and Skeffie does not even like going out. So I’m staying.”

“I’d love for you to stay,” I said. “I didn’t expect anything else.”

“Good.”

“You’re a bit paranoid about this, you know.”

Helper sighed. “Mock the ex-guard-hunter-killer. Mock the sad old slab.”

I laughed again and slapped Helper on the side. It tilted over to mime looking at where I had hit it.

“There was something at the bridge,” it said.

“What?” I said.

“Something came up the road all the way to the bridge.”

It is not at all like Helper for it to be vague.

“Was someone coming to visit? They should have told me.”

“No.”

“What was it?”

“I couldn’t tell. I was far off.”

“Far off.”

“That might have been the issue. I could not see it properly. But something was there.”

“You could not see it properly?”

“It might be a malfunction.” I was not sure if Helper was joking.

“What was it like?”

Helper stopped for a while here. “Well, it was alive and moving. It was dark. It came up to the bridge and stopped there. I’ll show you.”

It wasn’t lying. It was a dark blur thing, a longish thing. It seemed to see Helper coming and craned its neck to look up. Then it leapt up into the air and was gone.

“I should go and take a look,” I said.

“I already did,” Helper said. “There is nothing there.”

“Nonetheless,” I said.

Helper waited again. “I’ll go with you,” Helper said. “We can leave tomorrow morning.”

Right now I have about 9 hours or so before I’ll have to leave. But I’m mostly thinking about Helper. I know that Helper is broken, in way. It is not a Descendant. It was made with a purpose. It was made with a set of desires and it was complete at that moment. It cannot escape that. But something has changed, hasn’t it? I can’t lie to myself about it. From here I can see Helper naked and the sum of all its wants has become something with a growing edge to it, something dangerous.

That’s the word I ought to use, isn’t it? Look at it. It’s pathetic, really: dangerous. Sooner or later I will have to tell Helper what I have done to it. What I have done is a kindness.

Well. I do not have to tell Helper. But I’d feel awful about it otherwise.

[1] Of all the colleges Summerlock produces the largest number of field researchers.

[2] So HKds are more or less indestructible. Must have been something pretty awful that gave it that notch.

[3] I’ve noticed that when Helper is feeling pleased (because it’s gotten a lot of work done, for example) it refers to itself as slab, as in: “Slab on way back”; “Slab 2ks South”; “I don’t know what you’d ever do without your Slab.”

[4] Typical redundancy for its type, I would presume. All kinds of things in war might make AG fail.

Arrival

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

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

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