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.

And The Days Are Not Long Enough: 3

Part 2

Ary took the bus from the CM tent to the medical centre. It wasn’t very far away. On the way there he looked at the big generators. They hummed distantly. They were huge; Ary had never looked at them properly before. They were big and grey and had angles everywhere.

They had given him a pass for the superbunk until he took the Big Red up, since he had no legal home. He had also gotten clothes wrapped in plastic. They had had a bit of trouble finding a set his size but they had dug up something eventually. It was all greenish military stuff but Ary had weighed the parcel in his hands and tried to feel the fabric through the plastic. He thought that those clothes would be warm. It was a large parcel and he couldn’t squeeze it under one arm so he held it with both hands instead.

At the centre there was a sign that said: IMPLANTS/INTERFACE – COMBINED MILITARY ONLY and Ary went where it pointed. The corridors where long and white. No-one looked at him this time, and he liked that. He had never been a place like this before. There was a desk outside the waiting room and there was a man at the desk with narrow eyes who said nothing and just looked as Ary when he walked up.

“I’m getting my Implant today,” Ary said. He stopped, uncertain. “Am I supposed to be here?” He did know know what to say in this kind of situation.

“If you are getting your implant today,” the man said. His voice was completely flat and he looked straight at Ary. Ary did not like the look.

“I was told I was getting it today. The – Lieutenant Crane –”

“Yes, yes. Touch this please.” The man pushed a flat black rectangle to Ary and looked back at his desk. “Go on,” he said, not looking up.

It was warm and metallic.

“Ary,” the man said.

It was a shock, to hear this name said by someone else, in that manner. “Yes?” Ary said, thinking something had gone wrong.

“Is that your name – is your name Ary?” the man said.

“Yes,” Ary replied.

“Take a seat. We’ll come and get you. Don’t be away for too long.”

Ary went over to the waiting room. He looked through the glass and saw that it was full. There was another waiting room just a bit further down the corridor and that one was nearly empty. He went back to the desk. The man there was talking to someone else from the centre; Ary stood and waited. The man frowned a lot and shook his head. He moved his hands as if he was dismissing something. When the friend left Ary walked back up and said, “Sorry. I was thinking, how long will this be?”

“I don’t know. You should get a seat.”

“Okay. Thanks.” Ary went back.

The man said, “It depends. It really depends on how the doctors are doing.”

Ary stood there. “Oh,” he said.

“Everyone’s a bit different, you know? Sometimes it takes very long and some people are out almost immediately.”

“Okay,” Ary said. He went to the second waiting room and sat down. He looked at the people walking past the waiting room. They all looked very busy. Sometimes a pair would come in coats, talking to each other. There was a heightened sense of attention that places like this generated.

There was nothing to tell Ary when he would be called.  He kept thinking that this particular person would come in and call his name, kept thinking that this particular person looked like the one who would do something like that, but this never happened . The place smelt very clean and there was a chemical lilt to the air.

There was a small table in the room with magazines on it.

The guy opposite Ary was asleep but the young woman beside him was not. She had a sharp look. She was one of these people that always looked alert in a tired sort of way. She had her hair back in a messy bun and she fiddled with it. She held a small cup with pills. She kept taking out her phone and looking at it. She would flip the phone around, flip it again, absentmindedly, light the screen, glance and it, and then look at something else. She tried to project a movie for a while for she didn’t really seem to be watching it because she looked right through it to the wall, or so it seemed to Ary. Eventually she turned the movie off and then looked through the glass at the people walking past. She didn’t look like a person who would want to join CM, Ary thought. Then he wondered why he had an idea of what the kind of person who would join CM in the first place would look like.

The young woman picked up a magazine and started reading it. She riffled through the pages one way, stopped, and went a couple of pages back. She leaned over the page like she was reading it but she stayed on the page for a very long time. Ary tried to see what she was reading. It was one of those sleek things that CM put out. He tried to notice the page she was stuck at. It was something about pilots. There was a column of small text about pay and big images of aircraft, spacecraft. Things that looked restless and deadly. The young woman stayed on that page for so long that Ary was convinced she was not reading anything.

Then she leaned back and closed her eyes and it seemed as if she was going to sleep. Then she said, “Why don’t you take another copy? There’s lots over there.” She gestured at the table without opening her eyes.

Ary didn’t know what to say. “Were you reading that?” he said. “The magazine.”

“No, I was looking at the pictures.” The young woman sighed. “Take it,” she said, pushing the magazine over and opening her eyes.

“Thanks.”

“Don’t stare at people that way in the future. If you want something just ask.” The young woman smiled. It was a strange smile on her; there was something aggressive to it.

Ary held the magazine in his hands but he did not turn it on. “Sorry,” he said.

“You’re undocced, yes?”

Something clenched in Ary and was held there.

“You should take off the sticker.” The young woman gestured at Ary’s hand. “I’m Hatherance but call me Hath. Take it off, go on. No point broadcasting it.”

“Are you okay with undoccs?”

“Hmm. I don’t have a problem with them. This wait is killing me.” Hatherance went out and came back with coffee and took the pills. “They could have at least put up some movies,” she said. “Why are you in this?”

“I’m getting my Interface – ”

“I know, I know. I mean why join CM.”

“I thought it would be good to leave.”

“Figures,” Hatherance said, even though she looked at Ary curiously. She looked at people sideways, like a bird.

Ary was so relieved that he surprised himself by saying, “Why are you joining?”

“Well,” Hatherance said, and pushed herself back into her seat like she was going to say something important. Then she shrugged. “It’s awful out there, you know.”

Ary did know if she was talking about the war or about the things that were happening to the people they were meant to protect. “Is that a reason?” he asked.

“Well if it helps the people on Ebannen, Essen – I know this sounds naïve, and it is a little I suppose – we probably should sign up. At least think about it. You know what I mean. You know what I mean?”

“Is that it?” Ary asked, testing how far he could go.

She leaned back and said, “No. That’s the bullshitty part. The main thing is that two years back my brother signed up. Didn’t go to university. He always wanted to go, always watched all the movies and stuff. I didn’t have a problem with him going – your life, your choice, all that. We had lunch at Cozo’s and he said stupid jokes and then he took the Big Red the next morning.”

“How is he?” Ary asked. “What is it like. Out there, I mean.”

“He didn’t write back much. He told me about basic training but then after than they took the Gate to Ebannen.”

“Oh,” Ary said.

“Yeah, so I haven’t heard back from him since. I thought I would be okay with it, and I sort of am, but it would be good to find out how he is. See him again. I keep thinking about lunch at Cozo’s. I think I got every single word from that time memorised. I think I’m going crazy or something. Do I sound crazy?”

Ary smiled, “No,” he said, “I know the feeling.” He put his hands on the edge of his seat and leaned forward and kicked his legs.

“Yeah, lots of undocced – you know, at the university there were a lot of people who were unhappy with the way undoccs were treated. There were rallies and stuff, invites to talks. I never really went but I ended up kind of absorbing all that, just by being there. Osmosis.”

“They didn’t get much done,” Ary said.

“No,” Hatherance said.

“But it’s nice knowing some people care.”

“It kind of stays inside the university.”

“It’s still good.”

“They got the amnesty, so they managed to get you here, at least.” Hatherance stopped and thought. “Although it’s good that you don’t look too happy about it.”

“I’m getting my calibration done tomorrow. For Hynder.”

Hatherance stared at Ary. She was looking for a word. “Idiot,” she breathed.

“Should I say no? I thought it made sense.  Just now I thought it made sense but I am – I am really unsure now.”

“I mean it’s no wonder you look like you’re about to cry all the time.”

“Should I say no?” Ary asked.

“I mean – well – why did you say yes?”

“Everyone on Ebannen got it, I was told.”

That made Hatherance think for a while. “You are very, very, brave,” she said, making it sound like a warning.

“I am very, very, scared — is more like it,” Ary said. The words came out just before he thought about stopping them.

“Is someone going with you?”

“It’s just me.”

“You know people are wrecked when they come out, you know. They can’t walk, can’t talk, it’s screwed up.”

Ary said, “You know, it’s funny that both of us don’t really want to join but we’re here.”

“No,” Hatherance said, “We both want to join. We just don’t have the proper reasons. But I want to talk about this Hynder thing you are doing. Are you going to do it?”

“I think so,” Ary said, “But I don’t know.” He adjusted the bundle of clothes on his lap.

“If you want to say no you should tell them tomorrow morning. Do you have a phone?”

“No.”

“Go back to the tent.”

“Okay. I might go back.” The plastic bundle made gentle crackling noises.

“I think you’re mad.”

“Okay.”

“When is your appointment tomorrow? For the calibration.”

“It’s here, at 4.15”

“If you’re doing it I’ll be here.”

“What?”

“What’s your name?”

“Ary.”

“Is that it?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll come by at 4. If you aren’t around I’ll assume you did the sane thing. Otherwise I’ll ensure you’re still alive after the procedure.”

“Thank you.” Ary was so grateful he felt it like a kind of pain. “Thank you very much.”

The door opened up and the doctor said, “Ms Soreha.”

“I’m here,” Hatherance said. “I’m coming.” She took her bag and got up.

“Please follow me,” the doctor said.

“See you, Ary,” Hatherance said. “Or hopefully not.”

After she left there was nothing to do so Ary looked through the magazines. He turned them over and over in his hands.

Then another doctor opened the door and said, “Ary.”

Ary stood up. “Yes,” he said.

Then someone else came to the door and said something to the doctor. She listened expressionlessly and nodded then the closed the door and left. She came back in right after that and passed him the cup with pills in it before she left again. She’d forgotten. “Take these.” Ary took them and sat down.  Now that Hatherance had left he felt unsure about everything. He looked at the pills. They were absurdly coloured, like baubles. He went out and found a dispenser and got some water took the pills. The water was very cold and it felt good. It had a clearing effect. Ary went back to the waiting room and looked at the huge luminous pictures in the magazines. There were soldiers sitting together and smiling in full gear even though their faces were covered with dust and grime. Some of them lay prone in grass, some of them stood weary but happy on sunlit outcrops. There were diagrams explaining weapons technology. There were pictures of orbital snipers silhouetted against the vast curve of some world smiling up at you from their cribs and looking extremely smart with their long rifles and pointscreens. There was a page or two about medics and what they did; Ary dwelled on that bit. And there was a thick section, with no pictures, about Peregrines, and long lists of what a Peregrine could do, and all the benefits they got.

The doctor came back. “Ary,” she said. “Thanks for waiting. Come with me.”

He followed her. She walked very fast and he hurried to keep up. They came to a small white room which was very clean and had a strange chair in it.

“Take a seat, Ary,” the doctor said. “It might be a bit too large for you but it should be alright.”

“Where do I put this?” Ary said, said, raising his parcel of clothes.

“I’ll take those.” The doctor put them in a cupboard.

Ary sat in the chair and the back went down until he was nearly lying down. There was a metal structure which held the back of his head. When he first touched the metal there was a sensation that for a moment Ary could not distinguish as hot or cold.

“I’m not going to do very much,” the doctor said. “But I want you to stay calm and if at any point you feel like you cannot breathe tell me and I’ll stop things. Are you comfortable?”

Ary nodded but the doctor didn’t see as she was looking at the screen.

“You’re getting Hynder calibrated tomorrow,” she said.

“I don’t know,” Ary said. “I said yes earlier.” He felt an intense urge to discuss this with someone. He felt without warning as if this was the last time he would be able to think about it and he desperately needed to know something but he didn’t know what it was he needed to know.

“Brave,” the doctor, said, looking properly at Ary.

“Should I say yes?”

“There are good reasons to say yes,” the doctor said. “But the trick is not to think too much about it. Lean back, please.”

Ary leaned back.

The doctor was back to the screen. “Now I’m just going to take a thin layer of skin off the back the back of your neck, around here. This shouldn’t hurt.”

Something pressed against the back of Ary’s neck and it felt wet. There was a sound like a gentle snap and that was it. Ary barely felt anything.

“There’s a bit of anaesthetic I’m going to put in. It will stop you feeling the insertion.”

“Does it stop all the pain?” Ary said.

“Just the insertion. There’s nothing to be done about the actual embedding, I’m afraid. Don’t think about it.”

Now a cold feeling. It was as if something was growing in Ary’s neck. It felt like it was enlarging, somehow, but that was it. It was strange but not painful.

The doctor turned back to Ary. “I’m going to do the insertion now, and the machine does the embedding automatically after. It will take a minute or two for the initial connections to grow in. It will be bad at first but it will be better very quickly. Do you want restraints? Usually it’s not necessary. You can just hold on to chair here. Grip tight, put your thumb on top like this.”

Ary did not know very much about how the Implant and Interface worked. There were millions of little needles that went up the brainstem, he knew. They put something in there that grew. That was it.

“Okay,” he said. “I’ll just hold on.”

“If you start to feel like you cannot breathe tell me immediately. This is very safe but it’s happened before.”

“What happened?”

“Don’t worry about it. I’m going to start insertion in 5 seconds.”

“Okay,” Ary said, feeling very stupid for still speaking.

There was a scraping sensation. Then it felt like something was pulling at the skin on the back of his neck. Ary thought he felt fluid going down the back of his neck but he did not say anything. Then there was another feeling, a pale transparent feeling. Then it bulbed up into his head and burst into something else entirely. It was incandescent. Ary felt air coming out of his lungs and he made an involuntary sound that he did not hear.

“You’re doing good,” he heard the doctor say. The sick thought arose in Ary that this was impossible.

He tried to breathe. He concentrated so hard on his breathing it was like fire. He really felt himself breathing, the air going into him and then coming out again. For a moment his vision went. It did not become blur or fade. It simply went and then it was back. The thing inside his head was pushing out, he could feel it pushing out. Tightness grew everywhere over his body. His hands reflexively left the handles and immediately grabbed them again.

“No, no,” Ary said.

It went on for some time. Then it went away.

“Very good,” the doctor said. “You handled it very well. Don’t move.”

“It hurts,” Ary said.

“Yes,” the doctor said. “But now it’s over and done with. I want you to close your eyes.”

Ary did so.

“Open your eyes,” the doctor said. She was holding a piece of paper with a long string of numbers and letters on it, right in front of Ary’s face. She waited several seconds and then said, “I want you to read this out.”

Ary did so. Immediately after he did so he felt something open up in his head. It felt as if something was echoing in his head. Something was different about what he was seeing.

“Ary. Do you see a little red square there, at the bottom right? Is it red?”

Ary did not understand. Then he saw something in his field of vision. It was just there. It was disembodied. He could not look directly at it but it was there.

“Yes.”

“That red square indicates that Hynder is not activated. After tomorrow that should be green. Say ‘Point Test Confirm Link 1’, please.”

Ary did so and something that felt like YES flashed across his vision.

“Wow,” he said.

“It does a lot more. You’ll learn offworld. I’m going through some basic things now to ensure it’s gone in correctly. It’s not hurting anymore, I assume?”

There was a dull ache but that was it. “No,” Ary said.

“Let’s move on. Say ‘Point Test Confirm Link 2.’  You should see the red outline of a rectangle, dead centre of wherever you look.”

“I see it,” Ary said.

“I know”, the doctor said. “Now want you to picture something simple. No colours, just a black or white shape.”

After the tests were over Ary went back out and asked the man at the counter where the showers were. When he got to the showers he spent several minutes spitting into the sink and shaking his head. He had been told that his sense of taste might change for a while but he was not used to it. He looked at himself in the mirror. He was never used to the way he looked. He always found himself looking far too observant. He did not like the way he looked at himself.

He felt very alone now. There was no-one else around.

He went into the shower. The water was warm. He cried listlessly in the water. At least he sniffled a little, without knowing why. He thought it was easier to cry this way, when he was in the water. When he heard someone else come into the showers he instinctively turned his own showerhead off and listened. He realised what he was doing and he stood there feeling stupid again. He didn’t know anything and yet here he was. He stood in the water for a long time.

When he realised blood was pouring from the back of his neck he put the towel around himself and ran in a blind panic up to the counter, where a doctor promptly appeared and told him as he dripped that this was normal, this sometimes happened, it was nothing to worry about.

Later that evening Ary went to his home. Not the superbunk; he would go there soon enough. He thought the door would not open but his key still worked. He stood in the doorway and kicked mud off his shoes before he went in.

It was empty. The living room, what had always been called the living room, was still and quiet. The evening light made it look  better than it actually was.

Ary boy stood there, lost. He had no idea why he was here. He did not know what he had to do. He went to the refrigerator and opened the freezer. He had been afraid that the power might have gone but it had not. He opened a cupboard and took out a glass from where it stood with two other glasses. He put some ice in the glass and brought it to the dining table. He put it there and he just watched it melt. The cubes cracked and then they slipped and collapsed into each other. A ring of condensation grew on the table. He sat in the chair and watched.

He went out of the house and came back a while later with a box. There were only two other rooms apart from the living room and kitchen and one of them was neater than the other. The boy went into the neat room and he started taking things and putting them into the box. He folded the clothes. The books he put at the very bottom. They were mother’s but he had read all of them. He was careful to stack them. There was a small container of medicines that he held for a while and then threw into the rubbish. While he was clearing up the things in the room he started crying again. He tried to feel angry at himself for this but it simply was not possible. Then he thought that since it was the last time he would indulge himself and not feel anything more after this.

He dragged the box out into the living room. He sat on the floor held it in his arms and he thought, this is what it’s all about, this is the reason we do this, any of it.

Outside people moved past, doing their daily things.

After a while Ary got up and got a drink from the tap, even though he had always been told that he was not supposed to. Then he left.

Hath came to the Medical Centre at 4, like she had said. She told the man at the counter that she was seeing Ary and he brought her to the waiting room. Hath was surprised at how many people were waiting there and for a moment she thought that Ary had not come after all. Then she saw him.

“If you did not come I was not going to go in,” he said.

“You should not go in,” she said.

“I know,” he said.

After a while the doctor came and called Ary to the room. Hath went with him and the doctor did not ask any questions. Ary thought as they walked into the room that both he and Hath shared something which was the common anticipation of pain and to Ary it seemed that that was world enough.

Part 4