Preparation, No.1

The light comes now, unbanishable,

Missile through a high glass dome.

All around crashing, itself a kind of life.

No violence familiar enough for us.

 

Unless it is this, the turn which awakens the skin, the joints,

Innocent of nothing:

And what to do now

But bundle ourselves into it and wait?

 

It is like crossing roads —

 

On the other side, well into a dark which licks

The collarbone, still visible

A light like fire but not of it.

 

How pictorial.

 

I say now missilery is not enough, we are bleached,

Our caliber is unknown;

There is no vacancy in the nerve.

 

So we are drawn. Come here, be still:

And though you are this close, this close —

 

It is a wonder how one time can become another.

We are alone. Against the broad thrashing nothing left

But the weft,

The wow and flutter of the heart.

Last

Even now the house remains unchanged.

That is to say essentially the same even though of course there are small details one might talk about.

But outside –

Outside it appears that the rules do not apply.

Or perhaps once they applied everywhere but today they are confined here, to this place, to this house, with the fire.

Assuming that there were any rules in the first place, anything to constrain the house.

Perhaps it makes more sense to speak of tendencies rather than rules.

In any case he is downstairs now, and the fire is warm.

The house shakes softly.

Somehow he has never realised that even the house could shake.

For a long time he has not come here.

That might be mostly because there has simply been no need.

It is standing before the door.

It is entirely awake.

“Well, here we are,” he says.

“Yes,” it says.

“It you think about it this was always bound to happen,” he says.

“No,” it says, immediately.

“Well, here we are nonetheless,” he says.

It paces and goes round in one tight circle. It goes up to the window once, its old habit, and then it comes back.

It turns to the door and goes up to it and comes back and then does it again.

“Here we are,” he says, to himself.

“I can help you,” it says.

“You have given me so much,” he says.

“Yes,” it says, “but no matter.”

He goes to the window, the low window, the one that looks outward at all the water.

Suddenly he feels lonely.

No, that was not correct. He is anticipating it, not feeling it now.

Although it might as well be the same.

All these things are always very hard to disentangle.

Come to think of it, it has never been clear what exactly why this window was built right here.

An error, perhaps.

The point is that one can imagine this window being better placed elsewhere.

In any case he looks out of it now.

The thing about the ocean is that its size can only really be appreciated like this, in the flesh.

The water moves.

The water becomes big and comes without stopping.

This is the kind of sea which stops all ships from coming.

In fact the water is so big that it goes over the house and comes right over a long ridge of mountains.

Over the mountains there a place where there might be many homes, clustered together, on top of each other, lights intimated by each other, coming all together in this way, even though he has not thought there could ever be others here.

The water washes it all away.

It hugs the buildings with its bulk and dowses them over.

It pushes all the air aside. It is all very huge and very grey.

All this happens very slowly.

He is terrified. He is so scared he can hardly breathe.

“Can it come in another way?” he says.

“Yes,” it says.

It looks at him and then all the water is in the house.

It is simply there, without any fuss, and all of it at once, too.

“Oh,” he says, marvelling now at how small it seems. “Oh,” he says, again, realising.

It looks at him.

Light is coming from the windows, although it is pale as milk.

“I know you,” he says. “I saw you once, near the place where Erth was living. You had a name, didn’t you? You had a name. Went.”

“Went,” it says, “yes, Went.”

It comes to him and its forelimbs go on his shoulders.

There may be more limbs but the point is that it is on his shoulders and it is a great weight bearing him down.

It stares at him.

For a creature so often given to sleep it appears to be surprisingly alive.

Not alive. The word was awake, that was the word he was looking for.

“Thank you,” it says.

It is hard to hear.

This is mostly because of the fact that it speaks very softly.

Although it has always spoken rather softly, if one remembers correctly.

He recognises something strange about the way in which all of this is said, however.

That is, the creature appears utterly heartbroken.

It is very close to him. He can see all the way inside its mouth.

It has always taken care, he realises, not to draw attention to its mouth.

“I’ve done something wrong, haven’t I?” he says.

“Yes,” it says. “Thank you.”

He waits.

“I can help you,” it says.

The weight is unbearable.

It lets go of him for looks at him for a moment and moves to the door again.

He goes to the window and looks out.

His hand goes on the sill.

He pulls the window open.

He struggles for a moment with the rusted bolt but then the window is open.

Water comes in and goes on the floor. He closes his eyes.

He just stands there getting wet.

It is a strange thing, that the water at this time feels so warm.

It does not come over to the window, which is to say that it remains by the door.

This behaviour is uncharacteristic.

Although he cannot precisely remember what it has done before the impression is still given that this is not characteristic.

“You should come and see,” he says.

“I know,” it says.

Why had he ever tried to hide his purpose? It strikes him that sometimes he is very naive.

“I’ll be going” he says. “I’ll be going now, probably.”

“Do you want me to go with you?” it says.

He comes to the door.

“You like it more inside,” he says.

He has no particular reason to believe this but it is true enough.

“I can come with you,” it says.

He reaches out with his hand which drips with rain from the window which is still open and he pulls the door open.

It moves aside to let the door open fully, of course.

Its feet, which it uses sometimes, make noises against the floor.

He remembers how the floor shone when he first let it into the house.

He stands in the doorway looking out.

“I think perhaps you should stay here,” he says.

“It is only a house,” it says.

That is impossible to deny.

But there is much to be said in favour of a house.

“I can make it go,” it says.

He seems to understand that well enough.

“How?” he says.

That was not at all what he was trying to say.

“It’s more than just that,” he says. “It’s not just the one thing.”

The issue is that when he attempts to speak to it he ends up attempting to say things that cannot, properly speaking, be said.

“I can make it all go,” it says.

“All,” he says.

He considers this

It considers this, too.

It appears to be striving towards something.

“Since that appears to be the problem,” it says. “All –”

He stays there in the doorway for a long time, and it remains beside him, both of them becoming drenched.

He steps through the doorway and gasps at the water.

He takes several more steps. The ground is wet and the stones are slippery and they shine. But it is not impossible to walk. It is a challenge that is not wholly unwelcome.

“The rest of them?” he says. “What happens?”

It is standing in the doorway, or perhaps it is merely sitting, or perhaps it has moved away from the doorway. Most likely it is simply standing there.

“If it all goes,” it says, “the rest go too. I can do all of this.”

“Don’t,” he says, although he takes a shudder in the middle of the word, a thrill. “Just stay with the house.” He turns around and walks on, following the very edge, swaying despite his best efforts. The water is like a physical thing, there is so much of it. But its basic nature is harmless.

“I can destroy everything,” it says, pleading.

He is surprised, but only for a moment, that it would use that word, in that way, now. But then it seems entirely predictable, once he thinks about it.

“I can help you.”

But he does not look back. If he does he might just fall apart with gratitude and he is moving now, and he is outside the house.

“There might be nothing left,” it calls, from far way.

He goes on for some time.

Then he realises something. It is an awful thought, unthinkable, even. He runs back to the house. He slips once and goes in the wet soil but he gets up immediately. It is still there in the open doorway when he gets back.

“The last thing,” he says, panting. His clothes stick to his skin, which is warm.“You were not threatening me. Are you – ”

“No,” it says. “No, I would never – How could I? You know me.”

He leans against it and finally cries without a sound. “You understand why I am doing this,” he says eventually.

It is a small thing in the doorway. “No,” it says.

“Well – if –”

“What? Say it.”

“I am sorry too. Will there be someone after me?”

“I do not know.”

“There is no rule for determining it, then.”

“There are no rules for any of us.”

“But I am leaving now.”

“Yes.”

“And there is nothing that you can do.”

“It makes no difference. “

He looks up. “Maybe there are some rules, then.”

“Maybe. Be careful of all the water.”

And he goes again. He does not come back.

To Dream Even of Such Things

But he did know now, know in fact, that grief could not be shared. Joy could be shared. You could give it out among many people. It could multiply. But grief singled people out. There were names in his memory of places where his friends had died but these names meant nothing to people. If he said there was this place, or, this was the place, it would be imagined by other people to be different from the way it really was. So he did not say anything. Consecration. He made other people powerless. He had not chosen to be this way but that was how things were now. People would look at him and know that there was nothing to be done, they could not help.

He went out into the corridor. It was empty. He did not close the door but stood there for some time with his hand on the doorknob. It gradually turned warm from the heat of his hand. He turned and went back in. The room hummed.

In CM he had always paid attention to the Casualty Reports when they came in. There were often long delays. But they always did come and he would look at the names of those who had died. People he knew or barely did. There was a column that indicated the exact time when someone was declared dead.  That was important for him. He tried to think of what he had been doing at those times and he could never really remember. People found the blank spaces in his memory and went into those spaces to die. S—had died in a training accident when he left the safety off the amph-AR and two rounds had gone up through his chin and left socket into his brain. March 20, 1422 hrs. Ary thought about that. What had he been doing then? B—killed in a firefight on Anholt. That was how he thought about but it was wrong. B— had died 18 hours later in TRR. November 1 6003 hrs. But when B—was hit he imagined that she could see everything coming after. And yet he did not know what he had been doing then. How did they do this? He thought vaguely that he might have been pulling up a schedule for his platoon then but he did not know for sure. His mind was filled with anatomies of place and time, with duty and knowledge even, and yet the death of those he knew was set off against absolutely nothing. There was no context. As I walked out onto the parade ground my friend died, or, as John told me about the drop schedule my friend died, or, as I gave them the 72 and they cursed with joy and cheered and pissed in the wind my friend died. Nothing at all like that. It was strange how there was nothing to signal what was happening. Happening far away, yes, but things of such importance would leave some a mark, something faintly fired to land far away. Thump. But there was nothing there. Maybe it was not true that people found a way to be forgotten. Maybe it was simply that he was forgetting everything and it was going away because so much had happened. He thought about everyone else seeing the Reports. All of them spread out across so much space nonetheless feeling the same kind of disgrace. One transgression stoked by another, rolling on. Was he surprised? After all time moved on and they would lapse as people. It was to be expected.

Kind of getting away: 14

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

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

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

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

Oh well. I’m out of this area now.

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

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

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

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

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

“What noise?” I asked.

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

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

“We should fish or something,” she said.

“Yeah,” I said.

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

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

“No,” Boiler said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And she left.

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

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

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

“I see,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

I looked around.

“Isn’t it fucking amazing?” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Needle,” he said. “Right hip.”

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

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

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

We had just treated ourselves to baked beans.

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

“We’re going pretty well,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said.

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

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

“We’re fucking boss,” I said.

“Wait for the Big Three,” he said.

“I’ll read the news,” I said.

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

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

“I won’t wake you,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[3] Bichirality responsible again? Possibly.

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

Kind of getting away: 6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s a lot of food,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Letters, Rewritten: 1

Dear John,

I am not dead. We are all waiting and tense – scouts never came back – but I am alive. This is my first letter to you – isn’t it strange that we are forced to do this, to actually write on paper before they scan it all – and that we enjoy it – maybe it is the sentimentality of it – what Hatherance calls Old School – but I am not familiar with this, and so I think I must right away reassure you that I am alive and well because that is probably what you are thinking about now – at least I must hope so.

I know what you will be thinking – but do not doubt this. I am alive. It is true, what you are thinking – what I know you must be thinking, if I know you at all – there are others who have written dozens of letters, prepaid for all of them, and asked for them to be sent in staggered order, automatically – one every two, three weeks, or so – all this so that even if they die the letters from them will continue to be sent – I ask myself when their partners will discover this and what they will think and if this is a kind of compassion or cruelty. But this is a letter from me, alive.

Exactly four years ago we met. I intend for this to be a brief chronicle of things that have happened to us – that we did – a remembrance of what I am told I should call an anniversary, when I saw you standing there over the opponent in the Ring, looking flatly, coldly – that is how you look – up at me, the one from S1P5 who had shot the exercise drone by accident – of the night we first spent together, I terrified, you amused – even now I am not sure, you are unreadable – amused, or wondering – us at the graduation where I tasted Muscatel for the first time and was shocked at its brilliance, and where you had far too much and sat there perfectly still and only very slightly smiling when I slowly slipped and fell off the chair without realising – and even then everyone too afraid of you to laugh – how I woke with a blinding ache the day after finding that the commanders had been honest about not letting the nanos help with the alcohol for that night and realised that I had to be carried back to the bunk and put to bed – that you had done it, impossibly, and I wondered what people must have thought who saw it. The first paired mission in Afar – two of us, two very soaked sergeants of the CM in the night not saying anything, just leaning over over the stele-light, looking at the warmth between us like a miracle – night over the great plains and navigating by stars that were only just familiar enough since we had no Globenet – no easy task even for me, you said – and then I for the very first time knew that maybe you respected me, in a way – finding the abandoned convertible and learning to make it move – the picnic, or so we called it, of rations and terrible coffee – the tent of light and warmth we made in the space under the rusting hulk of a while we did the twonight recce – the  bootlegged music you brought that Gryzhas had taken off the Stize web – Emperor Concerto, you had written on the black chip, assuring me that was not its real name – us listening with the muffler around us in that space and me wondering where such music came from and how it had been discovered as it roared around us in that small flickering space. After the success of that and our return the dinner at the Auburn – the privilege of that and the people who stared because we were too young and unranked for such a thing – the mission call – promises made – and back again this time to Lamarck – two nights before the departure us, again a little drunk, spending all night in a cinema and falling asleep locked in each other’s arms – waking and the shock of it and realising that we had not been discovered – me actually laughing in relief and you looking annoyed. Hatherance wanted a meal before we left but we – without speaking – agreed it was better if no-one felt our leaving and so we left her request unreplied to.

On Lamarck again nights like a prayer all strung together and punctuated by the fighting that you longed to throw yourself into but which we were not supposed to be a part of – the mountain pass and the wards all along it that made my heart hammer and that you said would not hurt us – the firefight in the ruddy mountain dawn – you losing an arm and high-fiving a child you saw on the way back down with your remaining arm, high on the meds – the bunk we found buried there in the mountain – the flare I sent up – cold blue in that crow sky as we watched  – I know what you noticed. I know you noticed and you did not speak to me about it. There are things about me that are not necessary to know about but I tell you now because we might be together again that what you saw happen was not something I willed – was not something that was important to me – not a part of me – come back and ask me and I will tell, I can explain. It was only a light, John – it was only a light.

Back and still surprised at our survival – at least I was and that was all I could tell those who asked – you carried already the awe around you that suppressed questions – the first time we fucked in my bunk and the first time I asked  – just after you appeared at the door and again people stared. Us hoping that because we were lieutenants we would get more time – but two weeks and then the mission call came – the misery of realising that we could not go together – your anger – I know it was anger although you called it other names – the dangerousness that you carried with you – you hurt Gryz badly when he asked, do you not know? – and me standing at the seawall at Thysbe – we said goodbyes, you fonder than I ever remembered – me tearful and stupid – Hatherance calling you a bastard for not saying anything or telling me your departure hour – that did hurt – I wanted to tell her about your way of doing things but that too felt like a betrayal, and my stupidity can govern me. The last quick drive over the cliffmount to the perch you showed me where the ships leave – your great metal insect borne speckling into the light and a roar that came through the air long after.

I watched till I could no longer see your convoy and everyone though again that I was staring into nothing. There was a long contrail left that glowed after night fell, catching stray light.

Do you remember at Afar how I told you that – looking up at the deep sky – it was hard to imagine that there is not a kindness looming somewhere – and you told me how many of the people we knew were dead and I was a stupid dreamer – I must confess that is a large part of what remains with me, this looming kindness I postulate to myself in my head over and over again – what else is there? We come into this place, this world or rock or planet perpetually falling in whatever rut it is lodged in, we improvise, and then we leave, never having had a chance to practise. Everything turns out so thin. I want this war to end.

I hope I see you soon, my love – I will write messages from the field for there is no one here to talk to and you have quelled my tendency to silence.

Remember me,

Ary.