The Martian: Thoughts

Sometimes I have thoughts about movies I’ve watched. Sometimes, I’ve decided, I’ll put those thoughts here, incoherent as they may be. It’s a good writing exercise. In any case:

What a lovely film The Martian was.

I’m not sure I can remember when I last watched a film that was so deeply humane and intelligent – and, for that matter, positive about humanity’s ability to do big, complicated things well. For some reason most films about technology today are exhaustingly and spiritlessly negative– they’re “dark” and “gritty” and “profound”, they’re “warnings” or “reminders” or something vaguely patronising like that. (Why would anyone pay money to watch a warning?) What’s kind of extraordinary about TM is that its premise is *perfect* for that Nolanesque trick of trading in profoundities that are not just incoherent (because incoherent can be interesting) but just flat-out banal & boring. It’s one person, stranded on a planet, facing the real possibility of his death. There’s like a billion heady opportunities for philosophizing. But TM’s got none of that. The film is not a comedy, but it’s very funny, and all the characters are decent, niceish people you really, really, really root for. The characterisation is near-perfect. The main character must be one of the most likable and decent ever to be put on film.

Another thing: this is probably the first film I’ve ever seen which portrays intelligence persuasively. There’s actually a very big problem filmwise when you want to point out that a character is smart, because often real intelligence is kind of invisible. I mean, the stuff really clever people do tends only to be understandable by other really clever people. Most films just resort to trite gimmicks (epsilons, deltas, phis + integral functions (Always integrals! Why?) swimming about some genius-character’s person as his face contorts in some bizarre fetishistic paroxysm of revelation – or CHALKBOARDS! – or characters saying SO SMART WAUW, etc.), and when you watch a film about a Really Clever Person, you learn next to nothing about what the thing they’ve applied their intelligence to means (see: all big-budget films about White Male Genuises, some of which I’m OK with, but none of which I actually like).

TM has a really nice (and, to my mind, realistic) way of dealing with intelligence. All the main character does is break down one big problem into other smaller problems, and then smaller problems again, and he works on them one at a time. The solutions to the problems are played out on-screen, and we kind of understand what they actually are. They’re practical and elegant and clever. No paroxysms. Has any film ever bothered with this kind of intelligence – mental discipline, planning carefully, working stepwise? Probably. I’ve not heard of it, though. Engineers (OK, and botanists) don’t get anywhere near enough love in today’s culture.

Plus the science is really good. It doesn’t all leap over some chasm called SUSPEND DISBELIEF to eventually become stupid new-age mush, Interstellar-style. It all works, with the exception of the storm at the beginning, which probably never gets bad enough in Martian atmosphere (100X thinner than Earth’s) to tip the thing over. But that’s it. Everything else is just basic chemistry and Newtonian mechanics (Einstein for the slingshot? I’ve actually got no idea if Newton is enough for that. Eh, given the distances and accuracy needed, probably not.) The film doesn’t actually feel like sci-fi, though it’s obviously fiction in which science plays a large part.

Plus intelligence is not something concentrated in one character. There’s a lot of people working together in this, in a lot of different institutions (which institutions are given a pleasingly prominent role) and they’re all very capable and smart. That’s probably a much better representation of what doing stuff in science today is like, and it makes for very good drama.

Very Good Drama. I’m quite serious: when the main character gets rescued, after a lot of people have done something which is very brave, very ridiculous, and very clever, I swear I’ve never wanted to leap up in my seat and whoop as much as I did.

Couple more things.

A. Maybe things in space don’t need long tracking shots (Cuaron) or grandiose soundtracks (2001: ASO & nearly everything after, but I’m looking at you, Interstellar) to be amazing. Maybe things in space look kind of amazing and cool because they just are that way. The bigness of it, and the austere, crystalline weirdness of seeing physics that’s often just smudged out by friction and gravity on Earth play itself out in full: all that might actually be all we need. (Also, Mars looks great.)

B. Since both GotG and TM have done this with great success, it might be time to edit the list of things that make great auditory accompaniments to space (currently reads: Richard + Johann Strauss, Ligeti, Zbigniew Preisner, and uh no-one else) to include: a lot of 70’s disco. (Seriously: who thought that the final drive set to ABBA’s Waterloo would work so well? Cf the Blue Swede in GotG’s opening.)

C. A female character does (many) smart, brave things, a black character figures out the main outline of the relevant plan, and the Chinese are not evil (in fact, they’re quite helpful).

D. In-jokes about LotR (hardcore ones, that require knowledge of the Silmarillion – and Sean Bean) + the Pathfinder probe.

Visitation: 2

Beneath the Wrecked Church there was a single Hasp. Its name was not known. The consensus among those in the SM faculty was that it was not of the usual order of Hasps; no. It was a Category I, expressed in Form II. And it was the last line of defence, for nothing could stand against a naked Haccieter, against the final idea of a basic force. Why The Defence was where it was no one knew. The Wrecked Church was around 12,000 years old, and as far back as records went it had always contained the Hasp. In that ancient past some deal must have been struck, a trade of some still-incomprehensible value. What was in it? Friendship? That surely was a heresy. It was impossible to imagine.

In any case the Hasp could not be moved. Of course it had been tried. But it could not be done. It was fixed relative to the gravitational centre of Stize. There was also the problem that anything that came within a metre of it (99.2 cm, said the notices at the entrance) would disintegrate as a result of absurd tidal forces. Outside that radius, however, those gravitational forces simply disappeared. They did not tail off; they simply did not extend there.

They could see the Wrecked Church now, the shattered spire of six metal plates, most of the top half entirely gone except for where two of the triangular sheets stretched skyward, nearly touching before cleanly cut off as if by some unnoticed catastrophe, some antiseptic violence that had come tumbling from above. Copper green with intimations of wisdom, flying buttresses broken and left clawing at vaulted notes the hearing of which was like a musical gesture in the middle of its enactment, like a sign paid out in instalments, the long spinal nave of stone and its interdenominate vertebrae locked in place, the high holy orifices of the windows agape, unprepared after all this time—

“It looks pretty good for a ruin,” Garf said, sweating a bit now. “I know it’s a stupid thing to say but it doesn’t look very – ruinlike – doesn’t it?”

They stopped to look.

Bizzo leaned back and shaded his eyes. He said nothing.

“It’s a bit like that Cubist stuff. Not really Cubist, I mean, but like that – who was it – Worthow, I think.”

“Ah,” Sal said.

Garfield drew a hand across her forehead. “I wonder why I never noticed before.” She took two steps back and stretched out her hands in the direction of the structure, moved them mechanically up and down as if measuring something. “You really get a sense of its size, hm? Standing here. I suppose that’s it.”

“In Canon II there is a section on the influence of prehistoric art,” Sal said. Canon was the vast university library.“I think Worthow is mentioned. There’s a book called The Lineage of Art from Before Time. Brewer and Fentiman. It’s good.”

“It isn’t really a church, is it?” Bizzo said. He coughed. “All the later ones that were copies of these two, those were churches. But we’ve not got any idea what this was for.”

“No,” Sal said. “Although there are many theories.”

“Why isn’t there anyone around?” Garf said.

Sal went up to the door and pushed it open.

Above the long darkness of the nave light seeped from the clerestory, touching nothing. At the end a great flood from broken spire.

“I spoke to QC,” Sal said. He grinned.

Garf took in a deep breath of cold air. “And it didn’t let anyone in today.”

“It re-arranged things,” Sal said. “So there would be an empty window.”

Bizzo stood just inside the door, his hands in his pockets. “There’s something, you know, oppressive about this. This place.”

Outside was the human noise, the human suffering.

The very thought.

Garf opened her mouth to say something but Sal said, mildly, “No. No. I understand.”

They walked over in silence to the crossing. The North Transept was ruined and from where they were they could look out at the sun pluming outside, the trees, the rolling air. In the middle of the crossing  there was a shallow bowl worn out of the basalt floor and at its bottom there was, incongruously, a lift, a large steel box.It looked like it could take ten or so people at once.

They got in and the doors hissed shut and they immediately began to descend.

Down hypodermically through rock. This is the song of an unassailable people.

They did not stop for a while.

“What the fuck?” Bizzo said when the doors opened.

They were at the edge of a vast rectangular chamber tiled entirely with what looked like white ceramic. The scene was a study in perspective; the dark lines of rock which showed between the tiles ran from where they stood to the opposite wall nearly a kilometre away, across the floor, walls, ceiling.

The light came from everywhere and nowhere and was painful.

Near the far end of the chamber there was a black square, so dark it looked nearly unreal, like something projected into vision: a perfect cube ten metres in height. Around it the neat lines formed by the tiles appeared to bend, to warp and wrap in on themselves again and again.  A space around where light congregated endlessly, fawned without end.

“So that’s the casket,” Garf said. “Trippy.”

“Is that lensing?” Bizzo said.

“Yes,” Sal said.

“Hmm,” Garf said.

“This shouldn’t be that surprising. What do you know about The Defence?” Sal said.

“It’s Type I,” Bizzo said.

“If you go to the SM faculty page you can find a list of well-defined Hasps and their properties. One standard way of classifying Hasps involves a Reissner-Nordström transform. You express properties about the Hasp by treating its derived properties as if it was a charged spinning black hole. Once you figure out a Hasp’s effective implied charge you can give it a certain mass. It’s not an actual mass, but you can treat it for certain calculations as if it has one. Basically you can figure out what Hasp in Form III would look like. The Defence is in Form II. But its inferred Form III mass – and it’s probably the only Hasp whose Form III mass has been precisely calculated, for obvious reasons – is approximately 4 billion solar masses.”

“Urk,” Bizzo said.

“That’s a big number,” Garf said.

“If you rank the well-defined Hasps by mass it’s pretty high up.”

“That is frightening,” Bizzo said.

Sal said nothing. He looked at the dark cube and said nothing.

The stuttered world made fiduciary to this.

“Is that number a limit?” Garf said. “What does it actually tell us about what this can do?”

“It’s not a limit,” Sal said. “That’s not what a Hasp contains. It’s an expression of actual gravitational potential, not potential gravitational potential.”

“I don’t –” Garf began.

“Garf,” Sal said, voice clear, cordial, knowing, “Don’t worry about it.”

Bizzo was staring. “We can’t go near that,” Bizzo said. “If the gravity is strong enough to bend light like that there’s no way we can go near that.”

“If it was a gravitational field, we’d be dead by now.”

“Terrorist!” Garf said, but put no heart into it.

“What is it? It not a gravitational field why’s the light fucked up like that?”

“I can’t get QC,” Garf said. She turned to Sal. “I just tried to make a query and got nothing.”

“There’s also no Composite Dust in the air,” Sal said.

“What is it?” Bizzo said.

“It’s a field,” Sal said. “It’s complicated.” He grinned like he had made a joke. “It only affects massless particles – photons – the way gravity does.”

“Okay.”

“It’s safe,” Sal said. “Let’s go.”

Garf looked hesitant. “Is The Defence doing that?”

“Of course.”

“And what’s that?” Garf pointed to the long gash in the floor where the tiles had been crushed in an arcing path that ended with the casket.

“Continental drift. The casket moves a tiny bit each year as Wassea drifts underearth it. Let’s go.”

As they walked the lines around the casket slipped and dilated like liquid. They came to the door in the side of the casket.

“We’re standing right here but I can see you just fine,” Bizzo said.

“Yes,” Sal said.

“I shouldn’t be able to,” Bizzo said. “Not if this was bending the light.”

“It’s strange that the door’s just like that,” Garf said. “I’d expected something more impressive.”

“Security?” Sal said.

“Yeah.”

“It would make no sense trying to keep the Hasp in. And it can’t be damaged or moved, so there’s no sense keeping anything out.”

The door was visible only as a faint outline in the smooth black surface. A handle was set into it; Sal took it and pulled and the door hinged open smoothly.

Inside the light was dimmer.

It was on a small plinth and it was black.

“There’s a smell” Bizzo said. “It’s like the smell you get when you get into the car in the morning and the air-conditioners come on. But it’s sweeter than that.”

Garf went up to it. There was a circle inscribed into the floor: come no closer. She stopped a metre away.

How to stare this cruelty away?

A monument like the word if and just as improbable.

“It’s sort of muscly,” she said, “Very lean, like you can see through the skin to the muscle underneath. Is it crouching?”

“It’s like you took a military jet and made it into an animal,” Bizzo said. “You know what I mean?”

“It’s crouching,” Sal said. “It has its head between its knees. It’s digitigrade – you can see how the legs fold beneath it. It looks like it has an extra joint there. If it stood up in this form it’d be well over two metres tall.”

Anatomy. How to embroider a wound.

Teeth do not rot in the grave.

Garf shook her head. “It’s black.”

“Yes.”

“I can’t make out the – the contours of the limbs. Those are the arms wrapped around its – knees –  that is the neck, the neck, going down between them. It doesn’t look alive.”

“It’s not alive,” Sal said.

“Why would anyone want to come so close to something like this?” Bizzo said.

“If you look inside the circle,” Sal said, “You can see – although it’s hard to make out since the floor is so dark – you can see human remains.”

Garf brought one hand to her face, rubbing, checking.

“Those smudges?” Bizzo said.

“Yes,” Sal said.

“Oh,” Garf said.

“This is such a strange place,” Bizzo said.

“I can’t get a feel of it,” Garf said. “It’s not – you know – threatening, now that we’re here. But it doesn’t have a present the way a sculpture has presence. It’s a gap. Do you know what I mean? I’m not sure if I’m putting this across. I feel sad for it. I know this makes no fucking sense at all but it looks sort of sad. Not to move after all this time. It’s so fantastic it’s beyond fascination. I can’t even describe it properly. Seriously. If I go back out and someone asks me, ‘What was it like,’ I’m pretty sure I’ll say ‘I don’t know,’ and it’ll be really honest. And if they person says ‘What did it look like?’ I’ll say, ‘It was dark and crouching and made the light funny and smelt strange,’ and that sounds ridiculous.”

Garf looked at Sal. Sal looked at the Hasp and did not say anything for some time. Then he said, “Look at this. After all this time this is what we rely on.” His hands had been pressed together but he spread them apart now, raised them. “Look at this.”

A child before the blackness, hands raised, wrists loose, lost already in ritual.

“Uhm,” Bizzo said. There was a look on Sal’s face that he had no seen before, the look of something caged and now finding its larger intention, the latch in its trammel. It was not a rapturous look. It was slightly sorrowful.

“Rely on?” Garf said. “We’ve never used it in any way.”

Sal turned to Garf.  Then he turned to Bizzo.

“I wouldn’t know,” Bizzo said.

“This is the basic threat.” Sal pointed at the Hasp. “This is under everything. Isn’t it absurd? Isn’t it obscene? It is a threat so powerful it cannot be used. It is the basic violence under our structure. Do you know how other nations see us? To them we are already a Kingdom of totems. Providence picked bare. They don’t even contemplate conflict with us. And then they see this, our Defence. And what do you think they think? And we use that. I use that. Its hint is in everything I do: you cannot overcome us. Even if I did not want to I would be forced to.” He stopped and looked thoughtful and nodded, or maybe that movement was only imagined. “Look at this thing. I am the same as it. Don’t you think?”

Bizzo and Garf stood and looked at him and did not say anything. There was a light in his eyes and a deadly calm.

“Don’t you think?” Sal said. He held out his wrists. He smiled and there was nothing in it that was not genuine and warm. “Come on. Do not believe that I am something else. Under my skin there is a violence. There is a violence. Don’t look at me that way, Garf. It’s the most basic eloquence and it’s all here, all inside me. Hm?”

A wild and profligate gesture.

Him receding now, just like this, taken by therapeutic quantities of darkness.

“That’s not – a problem,” Bizzo offered. “It’s not easy, being the Leviathan, but it’s not a bad thing, I guess.”

Sal looked up and titled his head and looked at them out of the corners of his eyes, as if puzzled, thinking. “Oh, Bizzo, I’m not complaining.” It was a terrifying look, alien, suddenly, maybe cold, haughty. “But this encroaches on me,” he said. “Come now. You must know this. This is easy to see.”

Garf said, “But the Defence has never done anything. It’s not doing anything now.”

“Garf,” Sal said, “I am not an alternative. Do you understand? What’s – I don’t know, choose what you want – what’s truth to violence? What’s violence to greater violence? What’s me to a God?”

“You are saying you can’t control this,” Bizzo said. Sal looked at him blankly.

“It’s The Defence, Sal,” Garf said. “It’s not doing anything bad. It’s just a defence.”

“Do you think that this must be a defence? Do you really think that?”

Bizzo said, “What else could it be?”

“Suicide.”

“Suicide.”

“Yes.”

“Something to kill everyone?”

“Well, think about it. This whole world is already impossible to attack. There are too many forces conspiring against it. QC. Gates. Gatekeepers. Compydust. College AIs, if necessary. Armouries. But if we were all to die it would be through this.”

Garf said, “So this is about controlling it.”

“I’m not complaining about anything,” Sal said, “I’m just saying this is the way things are. I’m pretty okay with it.”

“I’m pretty sure you could stop that from happening” Bizzo said. “I’m sure there are ways to do it.”

“Why would I prevent it?”

“What?”

“Why would it not be me making that order?”

“What is this about?” Garf said. She had her hands in her pockets, her body tight against itself.

In a different world trees stood shocked in the sun, canopies small spaces and worlds apart.

“Kasakadei has written little thing. A monograph. Have you heard about it?”

“The ethics majors in Hakon mentioned –” Bizzo said.

Evitable and Inevitable Duties of Non-Existence. It’s what you would expect from Kasakadei. A tight airless thing. The arguments in it are not new – they are clarifications of some very ancient claims. Dusted off, restated to avoid some obvious attacks.”

“What is this?” Garf said.

“If it is not a moral evil to fail to create a utility-positive life,” Sal said, “then it follows.”

“What follows?”

“That it might be good that we all die. Isn’t strange that such a small concession, something look inconsequential, almost, could lead to this? Small things have big consequences.”

“When you say we you mean, all, as in all of us?”

“You see now why a Hasp is useful for this purpose.”

“What is this argument? I don’t see how anything follows.”

“It’s about an asymmetry. We all agree that it is wrong to create a life if it would be one of suffering. To cause the existence of such a life would be a moral evil. We therefore have a duty not to create such a life. But it is not clear that we must think that the flipside is true – that we have a duty to create a happy life, given the chance. But if there is no positive duty to create a life where that life would be a happy one – if that is not a moral good, then we are left with a conclusion that the happiness that a non-existent life passes over is not a morally relevant loss, while the pain and suffering that is passed over is a morally relevant gain. Do you see? This asymmetry means that we have a duty to create not life at all. An inevitable duty of non-existence obtains. No matter how gloriously happy the life we create is, as long as that life contains some sort of suffering, no matter how slight, that pain could have been avoided by not creating that life in the first place. Yes, no happiness would have been experienced, but if you think that failing to bring a utility-positive life into existence is not a moral wrong, then all this follows. The Inevitable Duty of Non-Existence.”

Bizzo was quiet. Garf was thinking.

Horror could be thus held purely by its skin.

Garf said, “This is an argument about why it is wrong to cause life to come into existence. It does not say that once life is created we should end it.”

Sal laughed. “Yes! Yes. But one does rather imply the other. And if the killing is quick there is little harm done.”

Bizzo said, “You don’t believe any of this.” He ran his tongue over his front teeth like an animal. “You don’t believe any of this.”

“Bizzo, darling, why do you ask me? Think about it. Any answer I give to these sorts of questions will not be motivated by my desire to tell you the truth but by the necessities of my position.”

“We’re clearly not dead,” Bizzo said. “So you don’t believe that.”

“No,” Sal said. “There you go, I guess.” He laughed.

“Shall we head?” Garf said. “We’re having lunch at Porales.”

“No,” Sal said.

“Come on, let’s go,” Garf said. She started moving toward the doorway.

Sal looked at her. “No,” he said smoothly, without any gap between Garf’s exclamation and his denial.

Garf stood as if paralyzed.

“You should know about the other argument,” Sal said. “Don’t you think? Evitable duties of non-existence. You should find out.”

“Why are we discussing philosophy?” Garf said.

“We’re not discussing philosophy at all,” Sal said, sounding surprised. “We’re discussing why I should not be minded to kill everyone.”

“Okay,” Garf said. She grasped her face and ran her hand down it, pressing into her cheeks. “Must we do it here?”

“The arguments are made rather sharper here, aren’t they?”

“Go on, then. Explain.”

“It’s not complicated. It’s an old argument, an ancient argument, really, that Zapffe Ipcress articulated fully in Grief and Sublimation. It’s an argument for an evitable duty because this duty is sensitive to the value of existent life itself; it matters how that life is to be lived. The claim is that happiness is not real. That is to say, it does not exist independently. Suffering is what exists independently, as the groundnorm. There is nothing intrinsic about the satisfaction of fulfilling desire because desire multiplies – and desire is only a kind of pain evolution has forced us to clutch at, reflexively, a lie of value that we must hum to ourselves over and over again. Ipcress’ words. Do you know what Ipcress writes in the second annex to Four Meditations? I can recite it for you. It slips into the mind quite easily:

“‘Conscious life, although nothing on the scale of cosmic time, is laden with suffering. This suffering is directed towards no other end but its own perpetuation. This is to be expected. All suffering directed elsewhere, which is to say all honest suffering, has long since ended. It is lost to us. What exists is that suffering which, by making a terror of everything, threads the barren and yawning needle of mere survival. We feel, deeply but pointlessly, that life nonetheless has some meaning, or at least some pattern-of-value. We feel that because we hold in ourselves an argument that, even if unarticulated, is as powerful as it is false. What is this secret argument? (1) To say an interest is morally relevant is to say that it matters morally; (2) If it matters morally, it must matter to the entity whose interest it is; (3) For an entity’s interest to matter to it, there must be something that it is like – that it feels like – to be that entity; (4) That feeling-of-being this entity possesses must be indicative of the relation of its interest to its being; (5) The relevant part of this feeling-of-being is desire; and hence (6) Desire must, if not identify precisely, at least indicate those interests that are morally relevant, and thus stake out within each life a space for meaning to develop. At each stage this argument proposes an erasure of suffering and its replacement with meaning, or something like it. Call it truth. Call it light. Call it nobility. Call it honesty. Call it freedom. Call it dignity. But it never shows its true face. That true face is that it is correct in one place only, and it locates a truth. Life is morally relevant – that is to say, it matters, but only because it is an evil. It needs to end.’”

Bizzo coughed. Garf was staring at Sal.

“Well,” Garf said.

“Do you agree?” Sal asked.

Do I agree?

“No. No, I fucking love my life, Sal. I would never give it up.”

Sal laughed. He looked at Garf and then at Bizzo. He. shrugged apologetically. “I think people should know about that argument. It is eight centuries old. It shouldn’t have taken Kasakedei to resurrect it, to put it in so-called analytic terms. It is worth hearing.”

“Sometimes I am terrified of you,” Garf said. “I mean that. Sometimes I am.”

“Sorry,” Sal said. He turned his palms up and that hint of good-willed gangliness came back.

“You didn’t bring us here to do – that, did you?”

Sal made a face of pretend-woundedness. Then he laughed and shook his head. “No, no. I came because I thought it would be interesting to see The Defence.”

“You don’t believe in that argument.”

“What can I say?”

“No, you don’t.”

“Well, I don’t believe in it. Crane has some sharp things to say about it.” He looked at them, gauging if this was enough. “I told you it’s not useful, asking me these things. Let’s go.”

“Fuck me,” Garf said. “I am suddenly famished.”

Sal looked at The Defence. He spoke to it. “You’ll be here, won’t you?” Lightly again. “This luminous grave. It must be good. Oh well.” He turned to Bizzo and Garf. “Let’s go.”

Kind of getting away: 14

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

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

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

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

Oh well. I’m out of this area now.

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

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

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

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

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

“What noise?” I asked.

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

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

“We should fish or something,” she said.

“Yeah,” I said.

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

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

“No,” Boiler said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And she left.

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

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

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

“I see,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

I looked around.

“Isn’t it fucking amazing?” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Needle,” he said. “Right hip.”

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

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

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

We had just treated ourselves to baked beans.

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

“We’re going pretty well,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said.

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

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

“We’re fucking boss,” I said.

“Wait for the Big Three,” he said.

“I’ll read the news,” I said.

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

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

“I won’t wake you,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

[3] Bichirality responsible again? Possibly.

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

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 Dry Land: Excerpt

The Dry Land

The Dry Land is a Full Experience Heightened Reality Indefinite Utility-Positive Game, classed as a Massively Multiplayer Shareworld Direct Substitution Role-Playing Game in the Dark Fantasy genre. It is one of the 5 open-world games currently hosted on Bombe. It is generally accepted that Bombe created the game, although it has been suggested that Emprinten and Nocrus played a part in its development, given the complexity of The Dry Land’s world. More radical suggestions that Way-on-Hill or Messier advised in its development are now nearly universally rejected.

The Dry Land was released on December 11 2966 worldwide on Stizostedion and was released on Naze on July 34 2970. It is accessible via a TSD blacktile-64 nullport, freely provided by Quistclose and Petromyzon, with two upgrades available from the Bombe/Nocrus platform. No official world additions have ever been released, though users (mostly Inhabiters, but also some itinerant Players) have noted that some aspects of the gameworld appear to have been modified since The Dry Land was first released[1].

The Dry Land takes place in an alternate universe based closely on the Kingdom, centered on Stizostedion; many colleges are replicated in The Dry Land. As is typical of Bombe’s games, the backstory and mythology of the The Dry Land is extremely difficult to piece together, although it is generally accepted that a Decontextual Happening features heavily in the relatively recent past of The Dry Land[2]. The physical laws of The Dry Land generally follow the Canon Set, although there are certain marked divergences which have not been properly catalogued.  The most well-understood divergence is the The Dry Land’s setting in a Weakless universe[3]. Ingame observations from the EMpScI observatory on Naze confirm that the universe of The Dry Land is also relatively young, being about 6 billion years old[4]. Many other divergences have been observed, although these are poorly understood. For example, users have reported that in certain situations angular momentum appears to operate according to a left-hand rule[5], which would imply a fundamental asymmetry in Neurath’s laws. Bombe has refused to comment on the game’s G-set. Certain commentators have also classed The Dry Land’s (apparent) portrayal of naked Haccieters as a modification of the Canon Set.

The Dry Land does not contain, as the Kingdom does, Allocative AIs, and the allocation of resources operates on basic anarchic-capitalist principles. Users are thus given an unusual degree of freedom in the game .The Dry Land has been of considerable interest to academics as a model for both capitalist markets and for the spread of diseases in primitive societies [see: FEHR modelling].

There is no mission-set specified for users in The Dry Land: they are free to act, subject only to ingame physics and the actions of other users. Consistent with other games Bombe has created, users cannot extend the gameworld.

The release of The Dry Land was met with both critical acclaim and, over time, increasing controversy. Game reviewers praised the extreme difficulty of the game, in particular its unforgiving attitude towards pain, and noted that despite having no mission-sets, “…The Dry Land feels entirely if menacingly purposeful. Staying alive is no easy task. But it is impossible to enter The Dry Land and want to only survive. The thrill comes from the need, invariably and keenly felt, to explore – and that is where the vastest and strangest encounters lie. It’s ur-surreal, and, as my partner pointed out, ur-real. ”[6] A particularly glowing review in the New Journal for Massive Games noted that “while The Dry Land makes you suffer, and there were moments where the sheer what-the-fuckery of it made me regret ever having entered, it brings you into contact with beings so awe-inspiring and so strange that when the payoffs arrive you genuinely feel like you are taking part in the making of a myth. The number of impossible missions you can construct for yourself in The Dry Land is quite remarkable. I joined the Assault on Messier on my second day in. I could not help it. It’s is hard to imagine a spontaneous coordination of frankly sick aggression developing in any other gameworld. For six hours I watched people pour atomic fire onto the Lock until, of course, the thing-that-is-not-a-Hasp came out and killed us all…”[7]

In what proved to be a prophetic review, IGV wrote in its one-month report that “… it is hard to believe this game is utility-positive. The play is deep, the atmosphere unrelentingly dark, the mythopoeia haunting, and the moments of rest utterly sublime. But the rest? Who knows. Who knows indeed. There is a lot of suffering to go through. There is a lot of it and this game might not turn out to be utility-positive but here’s the kicker: now that I’ve stopped, I keep thinking about it. And I can’t remind myself of anything but the fact that I want to enter The Dry Land, again and again. Bombe has another disturbing masterpiece. But whisper that fact.”[8]

Controversy

The Dry Land proved to be the most controversial Bombe release. It was noted from the moment Inhabitation was allowed that a surprisingly large number of individuals requested this option, despite the harsh nature of The Dry Land. The vast majority were denied by Quistclose, which expressed alarm at the number of Inhabitation requests[9]. It was also noted by Quistclose that even Players who had spent a short amount of time in The Dry Land suffered from Expanded Personality Syndrome, although it took no rectificatory action, continuing in its longstanding policy of not interfering in FEHR games. Quistclose has also noted marked suicidal tendencies in Players who are barred from entering The Dry Land, although these are considered easily treatable and at best a trivial harm.

The Dry Land also contains a high number of Experience Gutters, most of which pertain to situations where a user is dying or in pain. Users at first complained about the fact that when wounded they did not have the ability to log out, but rapidly developed aversion tactics  or purchased ingame painkilling equipment. Most experienced users of The Dry Land aggressively defend this aspect of the game, pointing out that much of the attraction of playing in The Dry Land comes from being forced to avoid Experience Gutters[10].

The Dry Land is also controversial for its depiction of Haccieters, which many users have criticised as unnecessary, confusing, and “even by TDR standards, needlessly horrific”[11], as well as its modification of important sites on Stizostedion and Naze. The latter has occasionally led to frustrating gameplay – Messier, for instance, is completely inaccessible, and users who attempt to enter are immediately killed. Since the complete death of 7 Inhabiters (and many more Players) in the ill-fated Operation Doppler [see: Operation Doppler], few players now attempt to enter Messier. Similarly, any user entering the Blueshore area on Naze is confronted by (apparently) the Lama Sabachthani and immediately killed. Nonetheless, not all modifications are extreme (e.g., the Ambassador), and some areas, most notably the Memorial for the Nameless Dead, have been left substantially unchanged.

The Dry Land also broke the longstanding tradition that Descendants and the two unclassified were not portrayed directly in art. A general feature of The Dry Land is the corruption of AIs. College AIs, for example, are rarely benevolent. However, the extension of this theme to ingame Descendants was viewed by some commentators as “crossing the line that separates punishing from hair-tearingly unfair.”[12]

The most controversial feature of The Dry Land is its MDEs. While mass death is not unheard of in other FEHR games, it is exceptionally rare, and is either non-guttered or relatively quick and painless. A minor MDE occurred in the very first week of The Dry Land’s release, during the First Siege of Messier. However, there were no permanent deaths, and the deaths that did occur were relatively painless.

November 3rd 2971 – the “Temper-Being IMDE”: “… watching us fizz.”

On November 3rd 2971, the first controversial MDE occurred when the Temper-Being ventured beyond its usual territory and burnt to death 700,000 users of whom 114 were Inhabiters, all of whom were – unusually –deemed unretrievable. This MDE combined had several strange features, each of which would have been shocking to users on its own. Firstly, the entire sequence was guttered, and users had the experience being burnt to death. Secondly, unlike all previous MDEs, this MDE was completely unpredictable and apparently not linked to user action. Thirdly, this MDE was non-discriminatory: hunkers (users who had invested huge quantities of money into protective equipment) were killed just as easily as fleeters (completely unprotected users). The Temper-Being was the tongue-in-cheek name given to the ingame guard of the Wrecked and Full Churches. Until 2971 both Churches were inaccessible to users as the guard would stop all attempts to enter, prompting joking speculation that Bombe had not completed the Churches (they were being “Tempered”). Since logspeak for “temper” often used the flame symbol, the guard was called the “Temper-Being” due to its similarity to an open flame when viewed from a distance. The actions of the Temper-Being are not currently well-understood: Players gave fragmentary and “extravagant”[13] accounts of what happened. Jonze’s description of the first MDE is now famous: “What happened is that Bombe made a monster. Then it sent the monster after us and the monster put Big Bangs inside each of us and watched us fizz.”[14] The event of November 3rd 2971was classed as an Inordinate MDE or IMDE, although they are usually referred to as “burnings”, in reference to the Temper-Being event.

The causes of the 1st IMDE are not well-understood; Bombe has, as always, remained completely silent on the issue. The Temper-Being has never again appeared after the November 3rd event, and both Churches are now open. The Full Church is unaltered, but The Defence is missing from the Wrecked Church[15] [see: The Wrecked Church (representations)]. It has been suggested[16] that the 1st IMDE was a result of an attempt to model Alle, the second Haccieter although this suggestion has not been widely accepted[17]. In the aftermath of the IMDE, intense scepticism of the utility-positivity of The Dry Land forced Quistclose to divulge for the first time its EUF (estimated utility function) for the game [see: The 2972 Bombe Revelation], which itself led to a sudden explosion of activity in the study of Deep Law [see: the Bezoar Mechanism or: the Double-Counting Dispute]. Close scrutiny of the EUF has led to a tentative consensus  that Quistclose’s assessment of The Dry Land as utility-positive is correct, although challenges to this consensus are frequent[18].

April 24th 2979 – the “Dusty IMDE”

The 2nd IMDE occurred on April 24th 2979, when many users had come to believe that the 1st IMDE was a freak one-off experiment that Bombe was unlikely to repeat. User numbers, after dipping after the first IMDE, had more than recovered by this time; indeed, participation rates had nearly doubled.

[end excerpt]

[1] P. Ampiere and D. Green, “Bombe Does Not Lie, But…”, Northern Link Herald, January 20 2983.

[2] J. Fuern, “Imagining The Dry Land: A New Way In”, Journal of Alternate History 2993, vol.2, p.404.

[3] T. Hasegawa, H. Lemmerl, J. Tulkser, R. Dove, “The G-Set of The Dry Land”, World Studies 2969 vol.1 p.78.

[4] Above.

[5] F. Katye, “Problematic Observations”, General Exploration in Hypothetical Models, Issue 82

[6] D. Bromley, “Review: The Dry Land”, New Gaming, Issue 347, p.3

[7] Anon., “Something Altogether Different”, New Journal for Massive Games, Issue 99

[8] “One Month In: The Dry Land”, IGV 4288, p.25

[9] Log: D/D/TDR/InHb/2230

[10] The Dry Land Forum, threat: “Guttering and Glory”

[11] F. Kinn and R. Cope, “Gameworld Leakage: An Overview,” World Studies 2893 vol.3, p.11

[12] T. Andrew, “The Idea of Reward,” Play, Issue 230, p.4

[13] H. Hiber, “Memory Modification by Bombe”, Journal for Massive Games, Issue 141, p.30

[14] “Unstoppable” Inquirer, published November 5 2971

[15] A thorough discussion of the significance of this can be found in: R. Setzer, “The Defence”, Emblematicisms and Action 2972, vol.4, p. 183.

[16] See e.g.: P. Somas and R. Setzer, “Fear and Trembling in The Dry Land”, Player Investigations 2973 vol.1, p. 78, D. Hefstomerk, “How To Burn”, New Journal for Massive Games, Issue 150, pp. 2-8, and D. Tridimas, “Eyewitness Accounts of the 1st IMDE: A Systematic Review”, Journal for Massive Games, Issue 259, pp. 65-123.

[17] See among many others D. Seller, H. Turner and V. Kramnik (eds), “Explaining The Dry Land,” Full Patent and Fence of Inkper College, 2999, S. Drake, “Modelling the Temper-Being,” Investigations Into Rules 2977, vol. 5, p.1, V. Kramnik, “A Response to Somas: Removing H2”, The Standard Model 2973 vol.3, p. 44, E. Fry, “Records of Peculiar Electromagnetic Interactions in The Dry Land”, General Empirical Studies of Basic Forces 2984, vol.1, p.4

[18]See among many others F. Helfgott, “The Dry Land is Not Utility-Positive”, Welfare and Social Design 2974, vol.2, p.34, G. E. Itirades, “Double-Counting Yet Again,” Journal of Economic Studies 2975, vol.3, p.1, A. Lomer, “Unbalanced Weighting in The Dry Land’s Utility Counting Functions: Implications for Intermediate EUF Derivatives”, Making Utility Work Issue 21839, p.64, A. Pinker, C. Radosch, and P. Urdos (eds) “The Measure of The Dry Land”, Full Patent and Fence of the Faculty for Welfare Studies, 2984.

Kind of getting away: 11

Today the sky looked capable of any enormity.

Helper and I went down to the bridge to look. We found nothing there.

“Well,” Helper said, after a while. “I’m sorry.”

But of course there was something there. Nothing is made deciduous but the thought of it.

“Sorry,” Helper said.

A big sound came through the air like a foghorn. I looked up and then I looked at Helper.

“Is something wrong?” Helper said.

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.

And The Days Are Not Long Enough: 4

Part 3

He is in a house, in a home, in his home. There is something scratching at the door. It wants to come in. There is a window and outside there is a dim landscape with rain. There is nothing else. Outside it just goes on and on.

It wants shelter from the rain so he goes to the door and takes the handle and turns, and the door opens.

It comes in slowly into the light.

Water goes on the floor and then he closes the door.

The sound goes away.

It looks up at him and blinks, even though it has no eyes.

“After all this time, still all this water,” it says.

It goes into the kitchen and lies there. It shakes its head like it is disappointed or curious at itself.

He follows it and looks at it. He stands in the doorway.

He stands in the doorway and looks at it.

There is no rain outside. When did it last rain? It is hard to remember.

Maybe there never was any rain outside.

That is a possibility.

“How long will you be here?” he says.

“Don’t worry,” it says.

What is there to worry about? Except for the rain, perhaps.

It will make it difficult to go outside.

“I’ll watch,” it says, finally.

A canopy opens above, a dark pupil dilating down. The wood floor shines.

The superbunk was a big building and it took Hath ten minutes to find Ary’s bunk. Room 4364 was empty and Ary was in the lower bed right beside the window. He was curled up with the thin blanket all around him and was visibly shivering.

She stood there, unsure of what to say. “You should get food.”

“Hey,” Ary said. “Don’t, worry, I’m fine.”

Hath stared. She found herself doing that a lot around this boy.

“Its just the, shivering. No idea, no idea, why. Stupid.”

“I’ll get something from downstairs. It’s not too bad.”

He pulled the blanket back and sat up. He waited and then he said, “I’m fine.” He drummed his fingers against the bedframe.

“We could both go down,” she said. “If you are fine.”

“A drink would, be good, actually.” Ary said. “I’m not sure if, I can walk yet. Properly.” He put his hand out in front of him and stared at it. “This is not, not really, stopping, is it.”

“I’ll get something.” Hath said. She sat down on the bed opposite Ary’s. “Hynder’s not treating you too well, huh.”

All this for a little blinking green square. Ary could not understand it. But he must have understood it because he had made the decision. “Twenty,” he said, meaning minutes, meaning how long he had sat there while it happened. “Not bad. Not, bad, what do you think, hmm?”

“Do you smoke?” Hath said.

“Aah,” Ary said, looking pained and then thoughtful. “Expensive.”

“The thing is, I don’t smoke. But I feel I should get one now. You should think of trying it, you know. It might be good for you.”

“I think, what I need is just, a drink, really.”

“Okay. But I think you should try it.” Hath stood up to go and then she sat down again.

“Do you think it would be mad if I got Hynder? Do you think so?”

The blanket was a mess. Ary kept want to pull it over himself but he resisted the urge. “Don’t know,” he said.

“Hm?” Hath said, missing it, and Ary shrugged forcefully.

There was a roar. They looked at the window and saw one of the Big Reds rise on a column of blue flame.

“The amazing thing is, and I learnt a bit about this at uni, was that you hear none of that if you are inside,” Hath said.

“If they could make, that, they could get, me better blankets.”

“You are not trying to be funny, are you?”

Ary shrugged again, but he was smiling.

“You’re lucky I was there.”

“Yes.” Ary was looking at the Big Red. He frowned. It was very high now, going straight into the sun. The line of smoke threw a faint slanting shadow in the air behind it. Waves and ripples. “I wonder how many, can, can go in there.”

“Lots,” Hath said.  “We’re all due the day after tomorrow.” She went over and looked out. “It’s something, isn’t it. Just imagine.”

Ary didn’t say anything because he was imagining it. It was not at all easy. “Yes,” he said. “I can’t wait.”

Hath stood up suddenly, as if she was offended. But she was not offended. “Are you serious?” Ary did not say anything.“You’ll have to learn to walk all over again before you start talking like that.”

Ary was quiet again, looking out. “Not CM, not all, just being, on the Big Red,” he said. He voice was getting steadier now and he thought about going down for the drink. “I’ll come down for the drink,” he said. “Thirsty.”

“Have you ever wondered,” Hath said, “Why it’s a cube? I know it’s not really a cube but it sort of looks like one. Isn’t there a better way to make it?”

“I don’t know about these things,” Ary said. “It looks, good, you know, bold. I don’t know.”

“I don’t know how you’re still alive after that,” Hath said. “Gosh you know I could really use a smoke right now. Isn’t it awful?”

“Let’s go,” Ary said.

“I think I’ve got a cig on me somewhere but I have no idea where.”

“I’ll go down,” Ary said. He put his feet down and tried to stand up.

The door opened and a young man came in. “Hath,” he said. “I’m going to get us dinner, put us on the Big Red.”

Hath’s face changed and it was not good. She looked at Ary. “Hey, Gryzhas,” she said, “This is Ary.”

Gryzhas had a slanting look about him. He looked at Ary, at the shaking boy without compassion or hate.

“Is this the undocced guy?” he said, lightly. His voice was soft. His smile was dry. It was not cruel or smug or anything. Not even curious.  It was just dry.

“Yeah,” Hath said, “Don’t be an asshole about it.”

“I’m not an asshole about it,” Gryzhas said, and laughed. He had a soft voice but a laugh that was too big. He had one of those laughs that was big but controlled.

“Was at uni with me,” Hath said to Ary. Ary nodded and looked at Gryzhas as if he was afraid.

“He’s scared of you already,” Hath said to Gryzhas.

“No,” Ary said, looking away.

“Why would he care?” Gryzhas said.

Hath looked at Gryzhas and said, “You must give a speech, go on, give it.”

“A speech?” Gryzhas said. He spoke very softly almost all the time, it seemed.

“Tell him what you think.”

“What I think. Why should I tell him what I think?” Smiling now.

“It’s now or later, up there.  Better now, probably. Look, the thing is – that there are lots of people like you up there and he needs to know.”

“He already knows that. They all don’t like undoccs in this city. I am sure he has lived long enough to know. Nothing more I can do.”

“You know the speech you gave me? After the rally. We were out on the balcony and you said those things.”

“I can remember a bit of it but not all of it. Did you care so much about it?”

Gryzhas came over and sat on Ary’s bed, still looking only at Hath. Ary felt his weight on the bed, feel the frame move.

“You care so much, Hath,” he said. Ary realised he was not mocking.

“It must be a real relief for you, I think. Getting out of university, all these people and all their caring. Hm?”

Gryzhas shrugged. He turned to Ary. “You’re undocced,” he said. Ary nodded.

Gryzhas came very close. It was the wrong kind of intimacy. Ary tried to look at Gryzhas but could not. He spoke in undertone. The voice was silky and immovable. He paused a lot. “You should not be here,” Gryzhas said. “You are here but you should not be here. I’m not saying that I hate you. I don’t know you, don’t know anything about you apart from what Hath says, which is that you’re undocced. She lets things slip. But I don’t hate you. It is only that the idea of you, here, in this place, that is wrong, don’t you see? It’s tremendously simple. The amnesty was wrong. It was an easy solution, it was a way to get rid of you. It was wrong. People like you will come in, come here because they want to leave, because they want the money. But will you consider dying in this war? No. There is nothing about you that is about duty. I am so trite, I suppose, I am so old-fashioned. But these things are all true. I know you can see where I am coming from. CM is not an escape valve. It is not a tool of convenience. Most certainly it is not a tool to help the undocced. You only take. That is the problem. You take and take and give nothing back. If the undoccs knew better they would walk to the police, they would turn themselves in, they would go to prison and die there, or live and come out as new people. They could become citizens and they could work and help us all here, together. But that does not happen. And CM takes you in, helps you, and then says, come here, save us, save this society. Isn’t that absurd? How are you to fight to help us? How are we to work together? But now you are here. Not you, I mean. I do not mean this personally, any of it. But now that the undoccs are going to stream into CM we must learn to work together. That is difficult. That will waste time. That will make cohesion difficult. So the idea of you is wrong. I have nothing against you but the undoccs should be been gotten rid of. Do you know what I mean? Was that a good speech?” He smiled and turned to Hath, who was looking at Ary.

“You’re not like that at all,” she said, to Ary, or maybe it was directed at Gryzhas. “That was a good speech,” she said, now talking to Gryzhas.

“I knew all of that,” Ary said.

“Where are your parents?” Gryzhas said.

Ary was silent.

“Gryz,” Hath said.

“Wait,” Gryzhas said.

“Not here,” Ary said.

“Did they work?” Gryzhas asked, without malice, again.

Ary looked lost. He looked at Hath and looked at Gryz. “My – mother, she, she worked.”

“Really? How? Where?”

“Gryz,” Hath said.

“At the docks.”  Ary looked at Gryzhas. “Canner. She put things in cans. She put fish in cans.”

“I think you are lying,” Gryzhas said.

“No,” Ary said.

“Gryz,” Hath said.

“It’s all machines,” Gryzhas said. “Why would anyone need canners?”

Ary said, “They couldn’t buy anything. It was cheaper. I don’t know. I think that was it.”

Hath said, “Gryz, there’s no need to bully him, you asshole.”

Gryzhas put his hand on Ary’s head. “I just wanted to know. He’s not so bad.”

“He’s got Hynder in him, do you know that? He’s braver than you.”

“Oh? That’s not bravery. That’s fear.” But Gryzhas had stopped for a moment before he said that. “You’ve giving it away to the machine. It will make the decision for you to abandon the war. That’s not bravery.”

Hath said, “Gryz, get out.”

He stood. “I’ll wait for you outside,” he said, mildly. “Do you want a drink?”

“Not now, Gryz,” Hath said, as Ary said, “Yes.”

“I’ll get you something,” Gryz said to Ary.

“We’ll go down,” Hath said to Gryzhas.

“I’ll come along,” Gryzhas said. “It won’t be that bad again.” Hath looked like she was about to say something but he went out and the door hissed shut.

Ary sat there like something stricken. Hath had thought that it would be much worse but he looked like he was trying to understand something.

“He’s not that bad,” Hath said.

And was surprised when Ary said, “I know.”

“He’s really committed to these things. His view was very unpopular in uni, you know. But he would write these long articles, explaining himself. They will be more, many more like him offworld. He really believes it, that stupid stuff about duties. He presses it way too far sometimes.”

“Aren’t you all supposed to believe it?” Ary said.

“If we knew no better, yes. But we were at a university. Yet he thinks he knows better than all of us. Sometimes I feel so close, really, so close, to hitting him. But he’s not all bad. We were in the same classes and he was pretty fun – after a while – and he helped me a lot with my work. Made some ridiculous sacrifices, if I’m honest. I think he felt obliged to do that.”

“I really need that drink.”

“He’s still outside.”

“Let’s all go down.”

They did.

Ary spent two more days in the superbunk before they all went on the evening Big Red to Anchor. It was not an unhappy time. The superbunk had been provided by CM as a gesture at something like generosity. CM had little to give except money offworld. It needed something onworld to make it seem right, make it seem kind in a way it could not be. So the superbunk was a nice place. The blankets where thin. But the food was free. It wasn’t bad, Hath said, and Ary thought it was very good. There was a theatre for movies. Hath took Ary once, for the first time in his life. He was so happy – “Like a fucking four-year old,” Hath had said, laughing, looking at him about the hour mark as he sat grabbing the seat in a paroxysm of sensation – he did not know what to say afterwards. He wanted to go again but as things turned out they only went once. There was a gym which many people went too, but Hath only mentioned it and never suggested going. There was too much of that coming for them, and there were too many people there who would look. Instead they ended up watching the Big Reds. Ary was hypnotised by them in a way Hath could not understand. “I don’t know,” he said, when Hath asked about it.

The afternoon when they were due to leave he asked Hath when her parents would come to send her off and was surprised when Hath said, “They’re not coming.”

“Okay,” Ary said, and did not dare to say more. There was too much grief that was shared. The sameness of it confused him.

But Hath had fallen back in her bunk and talked to the ceiling.

She said that her parents had their own problems. When she was young she remembered them being in love with one another, really being in it, or maybe at that age it only seemed that way to her and could not have seemed like anything else to her because there was nothing else that she could tell. But at some point it had just went. There were bills, many bills, and arguments over them, and many birthdays and arguments over them too, but these arguments were not in the living room but in the kitchen and the involved claims of ownership, of commitment, of truth, and of caring, and of daring – how could anyone possibly – but daring to use the children this way, to say these things about each other… And there were issues of money that Hath said she even now could not understand because they did not lack money, really, there was no problem over the money. She and her brother had listened, sometimes, and she knew there must have been a lot there that they did not see, and they had both wondered about what else was happening. There was violence too, violence once she had seen when her father had returned drunk or drugged for the third time in a week and her mother had stood in the doorway like a guard and said get out, get out, don’t you dare come in like this, in front of the children, but he had come in anyway, and when her mother had tried calling someone he had taken the console and hit her hard across the face with it, maybe broken the nose, and she had went down saying you don’t deserve the children, you bastard, you bastard, and even after that had refused to make it a police issue while the father had let the guilt metastasize into other things, even those same things that started it all, a desolate line bent back on itself again and again, and the mother had been silent because who knew the pathways of guilt and its weight, who knew how to tie off the arteries this way, and what with, one could ask, what with? for past a point remorse was no longer enough, fidelity neither, no appeal to the lie of love without injury, and the courts had come and put them apart, and the children were now also apart, and later the parents would not come because they would then have to be together, and because, even if she could never know if this was true, Hath thought that they thought that their own flesh was fleeing them and how could they bear in good conscience – that was the wrong word but one simply had to bear it – to come and celebrate, after years of silence that university had bought, their departure, stepwise, one at a time like a bleeding, how could they celebrate their children’s departure and death, likely death – why should she hide it – of their two children, in fact could there be any more cruel way to close a relationship whose internal life was all pain and mystery to everyone else outside it, and even to people within it, caught within it, insects in amber and all the things coming through and going out again, all the seams falling rather than coming apart, a tangle of gestures too chaotic for meaning and too horrifying to pull apart?

After Hath had said all of this she closed her eyes for a while. “I don’t mind telling,” she said.

This is what it’s all about, Ary thought.

“I don’t mind telling. But the other time I’ve told, the other times, I’ve said, ‘So you know why I’m so fucked up,’ which I always thought showed that maybe I was not in fact fucked up inside, or even forced people to think that because who wouldn’t pity me from that height, but I can’t say that to you, can I?”

Ary felt it like it was a fire. But he had never consoled before, because there had been no chance before now. He said, “You don’t know. I think you can.”

And then Hath had cried. Then she called herself an idiot for running away like this. But who knew if it was running away? Maybe she was going to her brother after all, the other person who knew all this like she knew all this.

“I’m sorry,” Ary said, and Hath said, “You know I don’t know what that means,” but tried to smile anyway.

They took their numbers and went in the evening to the Big Red. There were many people around them. Relatively few people chose to stay in the superbunk before the left; and Ary knew why Hath had chosen to do so. They all walked over to the gate in a ragged line, out on the cooling tarmac. There were people standing around, people who looked very formal in CM attire. They were not doing anything, since the computers did all the scanning and checking off names. But Ary thought that the people were here because this had to represent something, had to be made to represent some kind of rite. These CM people did not speak, except to each other, and only occasionally, and they did not smile. There were not like the people back at the recruitment tent. Crane had said that they were the nice ones.

People kept to their small groups. There was little taking and many tight smiles or still faces. Some people were alone after they left their parents and friends at the port and tried to make friends with one another, those small tight friendships that sprung up in unfamiliar and dangerous places for a short while and then either disappeared or lasted forever. The shadows of people were conveyed over the tarmac and were long.

Ary and Hath and Gryzhas did not talk. Gryzhas had been friendly in his distant way since that first meeting. Ary did not understand. He had not told anyone about Ary being an undocced. He seemed in a strange way no longer to care.

The Big Red was the final luxury before Anchor. They had two days before they arrived and there was little to do. There was a briefing that had to attend right before landing, but little else that was compulsory. Most people went straight to their rooms, went to sleep or fuck to not think too much about what was coming.

An announcement came saying that those who wanted to could watch from the viewing areas as they left. Some people went to watch. A surprising number did not. Gryzhas had gone to his own room, as had thousands more. Ary and Hath went to Bay 23 and after idling down a long curving bulkhead had come to a vast wall which showed the view, straight down. It was not the real view, Hath said, but Ary thought it looked real, completely real in a way that stopped him.

There was a slight rumble but there was no feeling of acceleration at all. For a moment a tremor of smoke obscured the view and then they were rising. The view shook slightly. The city in the evening shrank and the lakes became splashes of white fire. It shrank even more and became like skin, details alive but invisible, and then a wall of asperatus was between them and the only place Ary had known, and another wall of cloud, layers building up in the vastness of blue and orange air, and Ary could see in one corner a white pillar of white, its own faint shadow, marking their ascent. It was terrifyingly fast. At some point the curve emerged, the bulge of the world, and a line signifying where the air had finally ended, just there, and just like that. After that the lines became sharper, became geometry and colour, and the grey line, the terminator separating day from night, that became clear too. It was a strange thought to think that in that line all evenings had their existence.

And then of course the whole thing was before them, irrefutable, a world whole and entire. Ary was shocked and he did not exactly know why.  It was not that it was small. It was not that it was huge either, though both were true. It was the starkness of it, the sense of everything pared down, the sense of a fact, that sense that this was really it. It was not a sense of majesty and it was not a sense of severity and it was not a sense of beauty but it was a sense of form and symmetry which spoke  though necessarily dumb and silent, spoke to a revelation of things unsupported, a communion to some engram beslumbered in the devoid grindings of the brain, and the more he pictured it he more he could imagine it coming all apart just like that in the manner of all things not held but suspended whose lines furrowed through the night even now are a body problem whose collapse may come just here, just so, and all it would take is some surfeit of pity or contempt to unfurl things all the way down to the very quick and meter. The strange compassion inherent in purely ballistic objects. There was no reason for it, no reason at all. But there it was. There it was and what was to be done about it.

So much compassion and nothing upon which to spend it. It was a trite thought and Ary knew it but he felt it, he felt it right there.

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

And The Days Are Not Full Enough: 1

Nothing moved, even though this was not true. Something moved. In cities something always moved. You could look at a scene and even though its entire frame and posture was quiet something would be moving. The Rail, for instance. The small tight glow of a car on the Eastbound. Signs blinking. Windows. Small functions of light blunted by distance.

The boy looked at the city and waited for the sun to come up. This is what he was thinking; that something always moved. Sometimes when he looked at a scene that was perfectly still and saw something moving at last he found it strangely heartbreaking. It was like looking at a person sleeping; like looking at this person breathe. Modest and necessary actions.

War had not changed the city. There was, in some way, a tightening of things. Prices gestured in faintly dangerous directions, as they always did. Until the war came, actually came, to the city, it would not change. That was the thing about cities. They grew voraciously and then at some point having received some sign or signal they stopped and started falling apart. It was decay but it was gentle, untamed but idle, and reassuring. It gave resilience. So even though war had taken people and money the city did not notice.

People would come back from the war, alive and therefore unmourned, but people forgot to celebrate. But the boy thought that in any case there was no need to celebrate. Things were always moving, even moving on.

The Recruitment and Transfer tent was in the shadow of one of the larger buildings. In an hour or so it would open.  The boy had watched military take people for several weeks. They took people; yes. They told people the truth; they forced no-one; they followed procedure; they kept you informed; they accepted only the consenting; and they took people. The process was immaculate and venomous. It was hard to say what was wrong with it and in any case the boy thought, in a way that few people his age realised, that the military did something very good. Alchemising pain into something more soluble. Even if people died, which they did, there appeared something in that function that was not easy to dismiss.  The boy had watched people return from the war. Their faces were blank. They came to the offworld terminal and walked out of the tent with blank faces and put their bags down just outside the entrance. They talked to people. They bitched about the military, sometimes, and laughed. Some of it sounded very genuine. The voices were blank and relieved. Sometimes they did not talk to people and just sat and cried. Some of them held papers in their hands and looked at them for a long while. Some of them put their hands on the shoulders of other people. The hands were big or small or dark or pale and they clutched or were loose. The thing was that the military did not attempt to hide this. You signed up for the military while you watched people return. There was nothing to hide. It was a trick made unassailable by its honesty. Tell people about the duty and the glory of it; tell them about the death. And then say: but there is money, and this a death you are allowed breathe about. In an incalculable way it was, as they said, worth it. They never said what it was because there was no need or because any need had long since bled away.

The boy stood on the hill and watched the sun come up. A train rumbled in its slow inertial flight past the Old Interbank building. Metal shone. Even concrete has its inflections of loss and grief. The boy thought this, or came close to thinking this, in a way he might not have been aware of. He went down.

The inside of the tent smelled of paper. There was a lot of it around. The boy stared for a while; paper was very expensive. But information on paper could only be stolen if you took the paper. In the war that had turned out to be important.

How did you fight the Kingdom? They had their Descendants; they had their Leviathan. These things people knew about and spoke about. Then there were other things people knew about but did not really understand or did not want to understand and these things people rarely spoke about.

It was not now relevant. The soft bustle inside the tent moved around they boy. Dates were mentioned; someone asked for the PT Forms to be passed over please before lunch this time; a sentence that ended with “…total fucking dickhead, that’s why…” – and then laughter; more faintly: “Well I mean yes but you know…” There were no queues at this hour. Some people stared at the boy. They knew what he was here to do. Maybe they pitied him. The boy did not know what to feel about that. Maybe it was not so much that he did not know what to feel about it as much as the fact that he did not feel anything about it in the first place.

A sign said: UNDOCUMENTED ENLISTMENT. The corporal at the desk leaned over to look at the boy. He saw a slender wounded thing that was grey everywhere. Grey eyes, grey hair, hands that came together in nervousness.

Part 2