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.

Citation

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

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

(“Why?” Major Kenner said.

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

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

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

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

Ary only said, “I understand, sir.”

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

“Have they been to Combat Stress?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, sir.” Surprise.

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

“Yes, sir.”

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

“No problem, sir.”)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Why are you here?” Ary said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes.”

“What happened to him?”

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

“Didn’t help him, did it?”

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

“That fucked you real bad, huh? Sir.”

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

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

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

“Okay.”

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

“What happened to Tom?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hesse tried and failed to avoid crying.

His shoulders moved a bit.

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” Ary said. “Me too.”

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

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

“James,” Hesse said.

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

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

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

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

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

Ary saw how Hesse’s hands were shaking.

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

“Yes,” Hesse said. “They let me.”

“Sepaneurone?”

“Yes.”

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

“Yeah.”

“Go see Tom.”

“Yeah.”

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

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

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

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

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

Hesse was quiet for a while.

“What’s it like, out there? Sir.”

“Doing Wanderers?”

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

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

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

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

“Let’s go in,” Ary said.

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

“Let’s go in,” Ary said.

“Sergeant Friend will see us.”

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

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

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

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

The Theory of Names

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

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

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

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

“You’ll think it’s very stupid.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toha’s End

[TW: rape]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

to speak even of such things

What sustained him. To speak even of such things. Coming out of the trench, covered in dust, on E–, the look of sudden familiarity. Light coming over the broken place. Wind coming like a prophet through the grass, like a prophet bringing rain. How many unaccountable accidents of history to make just this, here. What sustained him. It was a love that he knew like the memory of holiness, that made one hold the hands of the other even when only one of them would ever know or remember. Overwhelming. How to make yourself invulnerable then ultimately vulnerable to another. Water moving one way or another, not speaking of the places from which it was borrowed or will return. A circle of warmth on the bleating plain. One pool.  On A–, the inescapable mountains rising. Staggering how beautiful. Against the complete blackness something rising like a perfect white cut-out, a live space without feature. So many things standing against the word, so many things designed against it. Under language and out of grasp. Basic needs. Nothing for which any apology can be made. Overwhelming.

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.

Predicate

“Wycliffe,Wycliffe, someone’s dead. How can we be talking about this when someone has just died? Can we please stop talking about this? Shit. Shit.”

“You killed him,” Wycliffe said, accusatorily, but without an excess of passion.

“You don’t have to tell me that, Wycliffe. You’re so obvious sometimes…” Real anxiety now, real distress.

What had happened was that Capt. Samuel Wycliffe, sometime commander of C Company, 2nd Battlegroup of the Heavy Transporter Dropsy, had proposed one of the secure meeting rooms as the place in which to see Sigmund, and forgotten to lock the door. Pt. Tsigalkis had opened the door and said: “Um, oh. Good afternoon, sir.” And Capt. Wycliffe had said, “Could you close the door, please?” And Tsigalkis had closed the door behind him. Then he had seen Sigmund, who said “Aaaah,” and Tsigalkis’ jaw had dropped. It dropped to the floor and he made a slight moaning noise with his mouth (because no tongue) and he fell down dead.

“Isn’t this what you were meant for, hmm?” Wycliffe said, loudly, to get past Sigmund’s grief. He was fascinated. It was a quality inherent in him, that he was always interested in learning, in observing. He was not intrinsically a soldier, see, but he could put two and two together just like that, and that was helpful – Major Head had said so herself, affirmed it, so she said, in no uncertain terms.

“Shit, shit,” Sigmund said.

“It’s just one person,” Wycliffe screamed. “Aren’t you made for this?” He needed to get Sigmund to focus, to come to the issue at hand.

Sigmund turned this way and that, bobbed up and down, “Please, Wycliffe. You know better, why must you do this now… Descendants aren’t made for anything. That’s the entire point of it, that’s the whole reason…”

Wycliffe was relentless, “But why,” he said, “Why are you so upset? This is a war, you know, death is in the bond, it’s the interest.”

“Oh, Wycliffe, I need time, I need time. This is so affecting.”

Wycliffe allowed himself to feel some pity, secreted a small drop of it and held it there, poised, a tingling between his nipples. He reached out to Sigmund, who flinched, he imagined, jerked in the air a little, and ran his finger across the bottom the little black sphere, a gesture intended to comfort. Sigmund liked that, he knew, has an animal indenture in – him? her? it? – that had not been shaken off, and he could thread that needle…

“Thank you, thank you,” Sigmund said. Its voice quavered. “You don’t know, you really don’t know how much this helps, this human contact, these small acts of kindness, you really don’t know.”

“It was my fault,” Wycliffe said, reasonably.

“It was,” Sigmund says, “Wasn’t it absolutely? I told you, didn’t I? I told you. I said if we used these rooms I couldn’t tell if someone was coming…”

“You could,” Wycliffe said, now stung, convolute movements of the finger almost now stopping, poised … “Surely it must be an easy thing for you.”

Sigmund was in a real state. The poor thing had killed someone –“How can you demand this of me? I tell you now as I told you then, I tell you, it takes effort, it would have been a waste, people might have detected it, oh, Wycliffe, there are all these reasons –

“So killing him was a right thing to do, then,” Wycliffe ventured, cooingly.

“That is not it. That is not it! It was so unnecessary, Wycliffe, I hate it, this loss of life. It’s fucking awful.” Sigmund floated off, a little higher, beyond the sympathetic writhings of Wycliffe’s finger. It fixed Wycliffe with a look, it turned and made sure that the little eye spot, what appeared to be an eye spot, had Wycliffe squarely in its gaze. The deep dispensaries in Wycliffe consulted manuals … generated, even now, after so many shared moments, moments of love, almost, and confidentiality, a recipe for fear–

“Do you think I am not being serious?” Sigmund asked.

Wycliffe merely observed. His sphincters were tight, quiet, expectant.

“I am being serious, Wycliffe, I am trying to be as honest as possible. I hate killing people. Now poor Tsigalkis is dead, and what can I do? I didn’t have to do so, something else was possible, maybe I could have done something with the memory… it was all an accident, you must believe me when I say this will come with me to the grave, I acted without thinking –”

Wycliffe drew himself up, put down his terrors. This was the moment. He must intervene. “There will be no grave,” he verily shouted, “There will be no grave because we will succeed. Am I not my brother’s keeper?” Wycliffe knew that Sigmund could not die; it was the tragedy of its nature. But the gesture counted, surely, in this war that was a tissue of gestures, what harm could one more do, but also what good, what good indeed…

“Yes,” Sigmund said, still hovering slightly out of reach. “Yes, I am sure we will succeed.”

“What about the body?” Wycliffe said.

“That’s the thing.”

“I am sorry.”

“All this effort …” Sigmund said. “I’ll put a lie in the computers. Do not worry about it.”

“When they ask me, where has he gone? I will have to say something…”

Something will do, you must trust me on this, doesn’t something always do? Don’t make me dwell on this any longer than I have to, Wycliffe, this is cruelty. This is the basest kind of cruelty. Now we must be about the business at hand.”

“I have noticed things, you know,” Wycliffe said. “There are signs, there are signals. It must be your work.”

“What signals, Wycliffe? If you see things you must tell me, we must discuss them together. This is an enterprise, I’m sure you know that…”

The swerve of the conversation was much to Wycliffe’s liking, and he enjoyed the power. He had made the title of observer into a high exalted thing, an object of envy. He expanded. Was he an anarchist or a humanist? He did not know. But he was moving somewhere, he was gravitating, that he did know, with clear and terrible certainty.

Wycliffe paced in a manner that be believed to be stately, hands moving, always moving. “I was reading the reports on Ebannen, you know. Every big installation there has been destroyed. All of it, utterly reduced to rubble, a real tragedy. Except of course for the train station at Fahrer, the network there has been untouched.”

“I know that,” Sigmund said.

There are no E carriages.”

Sigmund reeled back like it had been physically hit (although it might have been the case that in its entire existence it had never once been physically hit…) Then it said, still frozen in that position, “I am afraid, Wycliffe, that once again you have gone in a direction that is beyond me. You must explain, you must explain, my state is so fragile, you see. Help me out here.”

“You see – on the North Line, and the Southwest, and the Circle, the trains all have E carriages. A, B, C, D, E, F, and so on. But on the Crossline, on the Crossline, I was looking this up, this is the line we often use if we have slow-carry weapons we need to bring to Borundum, on the Crossline, there are no E carriages. They have gone. The Es are gone. Maybe they are still there but they are called by a different name. Do you know what I am saying? Do you sense the weight of it?” His voice rose, trembled. “There is a pattern, something was changed before we came…”

“Fascinating.” Wycliffe had rarely seen Sigmund like this. He could sense the thoughts in Sigmund, could feel odorous layers of them coming off it.

“I can read you like a book, Sigmund.” Reckless. Triumphant. (In fact Wycliffe also knew that Sigmund smelt like a book, like old heirs of lignin and cellulose, ancient admixtures of benzaldehyde, ethyl benzene, 2-ethyl hexanol, akyl ketene dimer, furfural, acetic acid, tolulene, all the assorted halituous products of lipid peroxidation … even vanillin, yes, even that, Wycliffe could detect it entombed beneath all those aromatic strata, rudely agamic perfume that reminded of cream, of cake, strangely generated by this thing made purely, he was told, of metal, and nothing else, not even a soul with which to guilt it…)

“I am not a book,” Sigmund said. “Why would you read me like a book?”

Wycliffe was shocked by this rudeness, this kind of naiveté, he was actually staggered by it.

“Tsigalkis!” Sigmund cried, shrilly. “Don’t step on Tsigalkis!”

Wycliffe was annoyed at his boots getting dirtied that way. For a moment he was about to say something vehement, something about Tsigalkis and Sigmund going around like that, killing people on instinct, the inhuman bastard… But he seized himself. He was above that.

“I can read you,” he said, coldly, “And I tell you there are no E carriages.”

“There is a solution,” Sigmund said.

Wycliffe beamed.  He was not offended, not offended at all – this was part of the frolic, it was how they played it, the quodlibet (the whole bloody thing was one, you know?), it was how they had to move, not stepwise but sliding

“There is a solution. Right before the attack, the Crossline – it got sold to Massive Transit Operations, a company that offered services, that made the trains move… but it was flawed. The divination of its monies said that the way to make the trains work well on the Crossline would be to switch the carriages around; a flexible-coupling arrangement. They would move. They would mix and form new trains, strange and wonderful new combinations constantly pulling in – can you imagine coming into one of these, stepping into a permutation that is actually unfamiliar, actually new? All the others, all the other lines, had fixed combinations. Do you see? And it was decided that E had to go. It would be too confusing otherwise. Just imagine the sounds! Bee, Cee, Dee, Eee… Do you see how a reasonable person might find it too much, if a train was all eee sounds in the wrong order? Dee, Cee, Eee, Bee. Hellish!” And Sigmund looked sad at this. “So E had to go. No E carriages. A, B, C, D, F. It was called for. A fundamental reordering, all so that passengers would experience the very minimum of confusion on the system, and travel in maximum comfort and relaxation. There would be no compromise.”

“I was meant for this,” Wycliffe breathed. “These deep things. It is hard for me to speak about such things, sometimes, it can be so hard to find the words, but it is good that you are around. You resonate.”

“Aah. Aah. ‘What could the world have to be like for language to be possible?’”

Wycliffe was on the very verge of seeing the connection, he could feel it against his skin like underwear, it lay just beneath open statement, just beneath the level of explicit feeling… but it was gone.

“What?” he said, his anguish suddenly apparent.

Sigmund was being carried away. “This is important,” it said, “This might be crucial for what happens on Ebannen. You have led me here, you have a hand in this too. ‘What would the world have to be like—’

Wycliffe snapped. “Well,” he huffed, “Well,” he swelled, “Well, it would have to be like this –” (he stamped his foot; a little of Tsigalkis’s blood jumped into the air) “It would have to be like this, the one we’re in right now, wouldn’t it?”

“But why, Wycliffe, why, we must be rigorous in such fundamental inquiries…”

“We’re using it now, you traitor, we are talking –”

“Are we?”

“What do you mean?”

“What if this, all this, is a wilderness of coincidences—”

“Are you saying that all this time, we have not been talking, hm? We have not been –communicating? Has something gone wrong inside you?” One could not simply throw a relationship like that aside. “I will not help you anymore, if you insist on this, and then you will have to kill everyone on this ship yourself. There, and there.”

Sigmund was so appalled that he immediately recognised this as the petulant joke that it was. “Wycliffe! Wycliffe, you could not, this is not in my brief, I could not possibly contemplate such a moral horror. Tsigalkis alone, Tsigalkis – I need you to help me, this is important. We want the mission to succeed, yes we want it do, very dearly so, don’t we? So you must help me, we must guide each other along…”

“Yes,” Wycliffe, says, “Yes. But you must say different things now.”

“You led me here, Wycliffe, and I am profoundly grateful. After this –”

“On with it, on with it.” Shrieking, beating the air with his fists in gratitude.

Eventually Sigmund came within reach again, so that Wycliffe could stroke it sullenly.

“What I want to know,” Sigmund enunciated carefully, delicately, a dark sheen in Wycliffe’s hand – (Wycliffe imagined playing tennis with Sigmund, not against, but with – tha-whoosh, and a 250 km/h screamer that smears over the net, Sigmud screaming in the panic of it and letting it all go so that the spectators bubble and topple like dominoes…) “What I want to know is, what we should figure out is, does a nonexistent object have properties?”

“No,” said Wycliffe with finality.

“Ah,” said Sigmund.

Wycliffe knew that he had to be patient. “What?”

Sigmund was silent.

“The thing is,” Wycliffe said, carefully, “The thing is, that if it does not exist, then there’s nothing to it, is there?”

“But if you know – but surely if you know that something does not exist it is because of something that has been ascribed to it that allows you to say it does not exist? Things in the stories? Fictions? Hmm? I need your assistance in this, Wycliffe.”

Wycliffe thought hard. Little torpedoes behind his eyeballs, exploding, bright things of sputum—

It struck him like a thunderclap, and he held Sigmund at arm’s length, goggling with revelation. “No… I know what it is, what it is – it is this – are there nonexistent things? I have it, Sigmund.”

Sigmund looked exactly the same, but it was a look of awe, Wycliffe knew.

“You must see where I am coming from, Sigmund – you cannot think of something – you cannot say anything about something, not even that it does not exist, without first thinking of it existing.” Words like a flood, today Wycliffe was inspired, he was in a different place altogether, the phantasmagory rising between his legs, in his telencephalon – “‘There is’ and ‘There exists’, they’re not the same – look! If only things with meanings can be true and I say – ” Wycliffe pointed at Sigmund and said, “You have no mother, surely you have no mother.”

“I do not,” Sigmund affirmed.

“A name, I need a name!”

“Maman,” Sigmund offered.

“If I say – Maman, your mother, does not exist, then surely if this is true then this statement must mean something – but then each part of it must mean something – and if Maman must mean something – ” Wycliffe was flushed with the intensity of this exhalation. “Do you see what I am saying, Sigmund? There is a contradiction here because ‘Maman does not exist’ – for that to make sense, if we are to put our hands together and say this is true then Maman must denote something, and therefore exist…”

Sigmund was contemplating Tsigalkis’ jaw. “There is a way out,” it said, at last. “I must puncture your rapture, Wycliffe, although it is something to behold, quite, quite extraordinary … Let me say this. Let me describe, let us not use the name – names, they are so devious, they lie, you know, I have experience … Let me say, instead of ‘Maman does not exist’, let me say ‘It is not the case that there is exactly one Thing, which is my mother.’ My terms are general, they are uniqueness terms, there is no problem –”

Wycliffe chewed his lip with ferocity. “You said this was important for the war.”

“It is crucial.” Solemn now, in its unpinnable way.

“Well then,” hands together, numbness in his skull, violence all wrapped under skin, MIRVs poking from his teeth, “Well then! Then I say to you you are naive – for we do not – aaaahh – there is no need, if you look at what we do – we do not need these definite descriptions, sometimes our idea if what something is is not a unique thing at all even if we think it is – all I know about Leviathan is that he rules the Kingdom, but there have been many rulers of the Kingdom … or my identification of him might be wrong, the correspondence might not be clean – ahh, this is deep, Sigmund, this is what I like about you…”

“Solution!” Sigmund egged. “You stand on the abyss now, you daring – you, mad little cumlet—”

“I have said it, I just said it – do you not listen to me, Sigmund? After all this time? Never mind, I forgive, I am always forgiving, anything for victory, you say… The solution is that these things are different – ‘There is’ and ‘There exists’, there is altogether no relation between them whatsoever.

Sigmund was testing this idea. Wycliffe felt it like cancer in his marrow, like hot lead. He dabbed at his trembling lip. “So if I say there is a round square –”

Trivial. Wycliffe batted something away. “No, no, it is impossible, it is not in this world. In this world, in this possible world, it cannot be – it is a contradiction. But in all the other impossible worlds – I have no right to divine, who can say what things lurk there? All our nonexistent Things have all their properties. But they’d better damn well stay in their worlds…”

“It’s a jungle out there,” Sigmund offers. “All these worlds, these repositories of nonexistent things, this concrete theatre…”

“A big jungle, you are damn right it is a jungle.”

“And all these things hiding in there.”

“Bright spangly fish, little darting things.”

“Empty names. Monsters. Big things with teeth.”

Wycliffe was suspicious of Sigmund when it spoke like that, like it had been expecting the answer from the very beginning. He had an ear for these things (even though he did not know it; and Wycliffe was a person unusually aware of his own talents). A wild suspicion took hold of him and he felt like reaching out and grabbing Sigmund, thought what it needed was a good shake through and through – but he was magnanimous; he could give Sigmund this small taste of victory. The heavy lifting had been his and a sense of sickening robustness gripped him with ferocity. “And now on to Ebannen,” he proclaimed, “who can say what lies there?”

“This was important,” Sigmund said, “Merely speaking about this, conjuring – I tell you this will have effects – ”

Wycliffe moved towards the door. “There is no more time,” he said. “They will be looking for me now.”

“Yes,” Sigmund said, “Yes, you should go now.” It turned wearily to the body.

Wycliffe was nearly at the Officers’ Mess when he realised that he and Sigmund had never got around to discussing that matter at hand. But he was too joyful to care. He breathed in, he breathed in so many smells.