‘I need some exercise,’ Finn said, laying down his trumpet. ‘A walk, Jesse?’
‘We could go for a run along the river, if you want to work up a sweat,’ Jesse said.
‘After eating?’ asked Finn in horror.
Sarah moved a piece. ‘Check,’ she said, a bit smugly. Jesse was teaching her to play.
Jesse shook his head without glancing at the board. ‘Have another look. I’ll let you replay the move, since it’s your first game. But only this time.’ He rose and stretched luxuriously, turned to Finn. ‘Let’s do the washing up, then I’ll go with you.’ A fleeting frown. Carefully offhand he asked Sarah, ‘OK with you?’
Sarah bit her lip and stared down at the game. And continued to stare till the silence threatened to attract Finn’s attention. ‘What about our game?’ she finally asked.
‘Have you moved?’
Sarah indicated the board. ‘Better?’
‘Leave it set up and we’ll go over it later. Mate in three moves.’
Sarah scowled at the chessmen.
‘Don’t let it discourage you, Sarah,’ Finn said. ‘I’ve been playing for years, and I haven’t got the better of him yet. He’s competition standard.’
‘And you’re bothering to play with me.’ When Jesse flashed his quirky smile, she added, ‘Aren’t there more rules? I thought chess was like maths, impossibly complicated.’
‘Give it a few more games,’ Jesse said. ‘Simplicity is the most complex of all.’
‘You’re a good influence on her,’ Finn said. ‘She’s always refused to go anywhere near the game.’ Finn winked, and Jesse looked away, reddening, while Sarah glared at her father.
Finn’s refusal to take Nubi had seemed odd; now his purposeful stride aroused Jesse’s suspicions even further. The late afternoon sun was still strong, the sky clear and bright. Jesse could feel residual midday heat radiating from the pavement. He had no trouble keeping up with Finn, despite the gruelling pace the older man set. When they came to an unobtrusive dark blue Vauxhall, parked before a row of small shops, Jesse wiped his brow and eyed Finn speculatively.
‘Where are we going?’ Jesse asked.
‘Get in,’ Finn said, opening the rear door and nodding to the driver. ‘Let it be a surprise.’
Half an hour later, they drew up at a small airfield just outside the city limits. Finn dismissed the driver and led Jesse towards a small squat structure set off a distance from the central cluster of hangars, buildings, and control tower.
‘Ever been in a helicopter?’ Finn asked.
‘No,’ Jesse replied. ‘Not even a plane.’ But he was certain that the half-dozen models perched on the tarmac like sleek metallic dragonflies were fully as up-to-date and powerful as they looked.
‘Wait here,’ Finn said, and went into the building.
He was gone for perhaps ten minutes. He returned with two bottles of mineral water and accompanied by a man wearing mirrored sunglasses and carrying a slim black briefcase and clipboard. Finn performed the introductions. Smile and handshake perfunctory, the pilot barely glanced at Jesse, who drank while the two men exchanged a few words in a foreign language – Dutch or Afrikaans, maybe. Not German.
‘You can board,’ the pilot said in English, indicating the nearest aircraft. ‘I’ve already preflighted.’
Finn and Jesse clambered into the helicopter, a CEO’s silver and white perk with navy racing stripes. It seated four, and Finn chose to ride next to Jesse in the rear of the cockpit. As they fastened their seatbelts, Jesse thought how small the interior was. The white leather seats were well padded and comfortable, elegant even, but they were sandwiched between the back wall, the pilot’s seat, and the bubble windows. It felt like a child’s toy. Was this thing really going to fly?
The pilot walked slowly around the helicopter, giving it an exterior checkover. He crouched and fiddled with a skid, then examined the tail rotor. One of the ground crew approached, and they spoke for a short while. Finally the pilot was satisfied, and he boarded. Before proceeding with his prestart checklist, he issued a few terse safety instructions – not that Jesse had any intention of opening the door mid-flight. The engine whined as the pilot paced it through its RPMs.
The helicopter lifted off, hovered while the pilot asked for clearance, and finally ascended. It was noisy, but not as noisy as Jesse had expected from the war films he’d seen. Within a short time they’d soared away from the airfield and were heading north, cutting across the satiny greygreen ribbon of the river, then veering westward so that it soon disappeared from sight. Jesse had never been in an airborne machine before, but his nervousness soon faded, and he began to enjoy watching the countryside unfold beneath his gaze. The pilot must have realised that Jesse was a novice flier, for as they approached a herd of cattle grazing somnolently, he swooped down close enough to ruffle the grass and their hides. Suddenly. Steeply. Jesse’s stomach plummeted. This was nothing like birdflight. The steer eyed the intruder with a bored and weary skepticism, not at all anxious to yield their ground. Jesse wondered if this was some sort of routine manoeuvre, so unmoved were the animals. The pilot glanced back at Jesse with a smile and a thumbs-up gesture. He hovered briefly over the spot, the lengthening shadow of the helicopter clearly visible below them, then climbed and resumed their flight.
After about forty minutes they touched down in a grassy area near a secluded stone farmhouse. The pilot was skilled, or it was easier to steer the craft than Jesse imagined, for they landed without the slightest shudder or jolt. Jesse could see nothing to distinguish the dwelling from ones they had already overflown. This part of the county was thinly settled, and a number of roads looked unpaved.
Finn and the pilot conversed in low tones as the rotors came to a halt, then the pilot swung open the door and sprang out. Finn and Jesse followed. The pilot headed off in the direction of an outbuilding, while Finn took Jesse’s arm and steered him towards the farmhouse. The property was heavily wooded, the shadows long, dense, and still. And yet Jesse felt sure that the dwelling wasn’t deserted, that they were even this moment being observed.
‘Now are you going to tell me what this is about?’ Jesse asked, only a little aggrieved because the pleasure of the helicopter flight still buoyed his mood.
Finn didn’t appear to hear him.
As they entered the building Thor himself couldn’t have struck a greater thunderbolt.
The interior of the farmhouse had been gutted and replaced with an electronic world as strange as anything Jesse had seen on the screen. Stranger, for being real. He suddenly knew how a stone-age shaman might feel if catapulted into the NASA mission control centre; or he himself, upon traversing a portal into another time, another universe.
‘Where are we?’ he asked, his voice hushed.
‘There’s someone who wants to meet you,’ Finn answered elliptically. ‘Don’t worry, you know I won’t let you come to any harm.’
They walked along a short corridor lined with a pearly material both translucent and reflective. A new kind of plastic? Jesse asked himself. No light fixtures were visible, but the passage was well lit with a cool, faintly bluish light. He heard no footsteps as they proceeded and in fact had the feeling that sound was being muffled in some way. At the end of the corridor they entered an airlock – at least, that was the only word Jesse could put to the device. When the doors closed on them, he realised that they might be in a lift, though he had no sensation of movement. The light changed abruptly to a deep purple, then faded again. Finn stepped up to a small panel in the wall and said something incomprehensible. The door opened in front of them, and they exited.
They stood on the threshold of a large room lined from floor to ceiling with what could only be bank upon bank of advanced electronic equipment. A woman in a perfectly normal pair of jeans and T-shirt was waiting for them. Tall and slender, she bore her decorative facial scars with pride. Jesse had never seen skin any darker.
‘Finn, it’s been a while,’ she said. Her English was perfect, unaccented.
‘Ayen, the pleasure is mine.’
‘And this is Jesse?’ she asked.
‘OK, enough’s enough,’ Jesse said. ‘Will someone please explain what’s going on?’
‘You haven’t told him?’ Ayen asked.
‘No, I thought he should have no preconceptions.’
‘Hello,’ Jesse said defiantly, ‘I’m right here.’
Ayen smiled. ‘Are you hungry? Thirsty? Some sandwiches or biscuits? A coke, perhaps?’
The strangeness was beginning to wear off, and trepidation was not truly in Jesse’s nature. ‘No, thank you. I don’t want a drink, but an explanation.’
Ayen gestured towards some chairs grouped round a low table. ‘Let’s sit down, and I’ll tell you about what we’re doing here.’
They took seats, and Jesse was relieved that the chairs didn’t perform any tricks like changing height or shape to accommodate him. Or speaking in tongues.
‘This facility is part of an international organisation,’ Ayen began straightaway, ‘answerable to no specific government. We have a range of different projects that needn’t concern you. Finn has brought you to our attention because of your unusual abilities.’
‘What abilities?’ Jesse asked.
‘Fire-starting, for one. We thought it might be interesting to run some tests.’
‘You told them about me? Without asking?’ Jesse addressed Finn hotly. ‘You had no right!’
‘I’m concerned about you,’ Finn replied.
‘About yourselves, more likely.’
‘Tell him,’ Ayen said.
‘Tell me what?’ Jesse asked.
Finn looked at him for a long while before answering. Finally he sighed. ‘You’ve told me about the fire that killed your family.’
‘And?’ Jesse’s voice was loud and angry.
‘And that no one survived the fire.’
‘How can you possibly think I need reminding? Get to the point.’
‘Jesse, no one survived the fire. We’ve checked the records. Not a single member of the household. Not even the boy.’
Jesse stared at Finn, the colour draining from his face as he took in the import of Finn’s words.
‘That’s impossible. There must be some mistake,’ Jesse said.
‘Not unless you gave us false information.’
‘I’m no liar!’
Ayen interposed in a tranquil tone. ‘There’s no error. We’ve seen copies of the coroner’s report, the police records, the death certificates. All records of Jesse Wright end with the fire – school, health, even church. Nor has social services ever heard of you.’
‘But –’ Jesse didn’t know how to finish his question. ‘But I remember – the hospital, the funeral, the foster families, school. And my back – the burn scars on my back.’
‘Think about it rationally,’ Ayen said. ‘If you’d been in hospital with severe burns, you could never possibly have attended a funeral. That’s an anomaly right there.’
‘All my memories … all of them …’ Liam …
‘Memory is a very interesting phenomenon,’ Ayen said.
Jesse closed his eyes. Rain like fine soft ashes. Late afternoon. Treetops grey-fingered and duskly swaying. They’re lowering the casket. His back is screaming.
‘Jesse?’ Finn asked gently, reaching out with a hand. Jesse tore his arm away. His skin was clammy, and he could smell his own sweat. What did they want with him? Wasn’t it enough that everything had been taken from him? Did they want to take his memories, his past as well?
Jesse’s voice shook. ‘If I’m not Jesse, then who am I?’
‘That’s what we hope to find out,’ Ayen said.
‘Why? What’s in it for you?’
Ayen’s smile was professional – Jesse had seen it too often not to recognise it. ‘We can help you.’
‘Yeah? Why should you care?’
‘I care,’ Finn said. ‘Meg, Sarah, and I care.’
‘So you can be sure you don’t have a – a what? An impostor, a delinquent – or worse – in your midst? A madman?’
‘We know that already,’ Finn said. ‘Whoever – whatever – you are, you’re not insane. Or twisted. Far from it.’
Jesse was silent for a moment. He would have liked a cigarette but was certain there’d be no smoking in this place.
‘Who are you?’ Jesse asked. ‘A policeman of some kind?’
‘Not exactly, but it will do to go on with,’ Finn said.
‘How do I know I can trust you?’
Finn leaned forward in his chair. ‘Look at me, directly at me, and ask me again.’
Jesse didn’t raise his eyes. Sarah was right. He was tired of running.
Ayen waited until Jesse nodded, stiffly as though he’d been sleeping rough again.
‘Will you tell me about what else you’re able to do?’ Ayen asked.
‘You still haven’t told me exactly what’s going on here.’ Jesse waved a hand at the array of equipment.
‘Research,’ Ayen said.
Finn and Ayen exchanged glances. This time it was Finn who nodded. A multilingual photographer who travelled extensively, Jesse thought, with a firearm. But what else? Jesse wondered if he’d ever know.
‘Artificial intelligence,’ Ayen said.
In the end, Jesse was curious enough to let them run their tests. Ayen seated him at a console surrounded by a clear shield much like the helicopter’s bubble window, within which fine, coloured patterns, possibly wires or circuits, were embedded. The shield surrounded his upper body completely without blocking external sound or other sensory input. He could move his hands freely while operating the computer terminal. A dark green monitor as large as a pool table stretched above him from eye-level. There was no keyboard, however, and he found out why as soon as the game began.
The computer responded directly to the movements of his hands and eyes, to his voice. And more. After a moment of sensory disorientation Jesse finds himself inside a small chamber whose walls are elastic, like the pulsating membrane of an amniotic sac. A voice speaks to him, sounding familiar. A woman’s voice. She tells him that his first task is to escape from the room. She asks him what he’ll need, she’d furnish it. He reflects for a moment – why not his knife? She chuckles, and he realises that it’s his grandmother speaking. She walks up to him, barefoot in her faded twill trousers, toenails thickened and yellow, hands dirt-caked from gardening, and places the knife in his hand. Use it well, she tells him. She smiles and turns to leave. Don’t go, he cries. I’m always with you, she says.
Then he’s alone inside the room. For a moment he closes his eyes. The air is cool and tangy with woodsmoke, an autumn afternoon, someone burning leaves. Voices whisper sounds and sweet airs. These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits, and are melted into air, into thin air … He lays the blade against his wrist – is this the escape key? There is always a way to abort the program.
A strong scent of lavender. He shivers and drops his arm. Carefully, he examines his surroundings. Still no exit, the only way out through the wall. He approaches it reluctantly. He doesn’t like the way it quivers. Only a computer simulation, he reminds himself. Raising his knife, he takes a deep breath and plunges it into the fleshy surface. Blood spurts at him, and he gasps, steps back, drops the knife, screams.
Finn helped Jesse up from the seat. His knife lay on the floor, and his hands were splattered with blood. He was too stunned to speak. Finn accompanied him to a small lavatory where he washed his hands and face. Upon their return Ayen was on her hands and knees wiping the floor with a cloth, the water in the bucket pink. She’d placed his knife on the table, and it too had been wiped clean. A few small vials, obviously for testing. Jesse allowed himself to be propelled into a chair. He sat quietly, trying to gather his thoughts, trying not to shiver. Ayen left and after a while came back with a tray of tea and some biscuits, and a clean T-shirt. She’d discarded the disposable gloves.
‘Take some sugar,’ she said. ‘You need the energy.’
Jesse drank one cup, then a second.
‘What was that?’ he asked, by now composed enough to pose some questions.
‘A prototype of what we think may be the next generation of computers,’ Ayen said. ‘Well, if not the next, then somewhere not far down the line.’
‘But how –’ Jesse stopped to rephrase his question. ‘The computer didn’t just respond to verbal input. It culled my memory.’ He glanced at Finn. ‘My memory,’ he repeated bitterly. ‘How could a machine do that? How could anything do that?’
‘That’s one of the things we ourselves don’t quite understand,’ Ayen said. ‘The mathematics is extraordinarily complex, and only a very few people, highly unusual people, are involved in writing the software, which along with the hardware is still in the developmental stage – if hardware is the right term.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘The prototype is a hybrid system comprising traditional, if very advanced, electronics side by side with chips that our bio-engineers have designed. The basic chip is carbon rather than silicon-based. A biological chip of organic molecules. It’s grown rather than manufactured.’
Jesse stared at her. ‘You mean the computer is alive?’
‘It depends on how you define alive,’ she answered.
‘And it reads minds?’
‘I wouldn’t put it like that but, yes, in some cases, where the individual is particularly sensitive.’
‘Sensitive to what?’
‘In all cultures there have been people who can stretch the bonds of space and time, who can perceive beyond the normal limits of everyday experience.’
‘You’re talking about mystics, shamans. That stuff isn’t real,’ Jesse said, conscious of how ridiculous the protest sounded, coming from him. At least they didn’t know about the healing.
‘Isn’t it?’ Ayen asked.
They both looked at the knife lying in front of them on the table.
‘It’s a trick.’ Jesse turned to Finn. ‘It must be. You brought it with you for god-only-knows what reason. I have no idea what you think I am or can do, but I’m no magician.’
‘One person’s magic is another’s logic,’ Ayen said. ‘Have you ever seen the emaciated body of someone who has been instructed – unbeknownst to himself – to stop eating?’
Jesse shook his head, his eyes on the knife.
‘You Europeans,’ Ayen said. ‘That’s going to be our contribution – unifying science and the sacred.’ Though uttered with a smile, there was an edge to her words which reminded Jesse of certain schoolyard confrontations.
‘Look, Jesse, we all know research often yields unexpected results. And any ten-year-old can give you a list of accidents that became fabulous discoveries,’ Finn interjected adroitly. ‘No one expected this to happen, and no one really understands why, or how. I certainly don’t pretend to.’ He grinned. ‘I’m just a lowly photographer.’
‘Then why are you involved?’
‘I’m not, or only indirectly. When I saw what you could do with fire, I did a little checking on my end, got in touch with a few experts. Hence Ayen and her people. She requested an interview.’
‘Requested is good. I don’t recall anyone asking me.’
‘Would you have come? Would you have believed me if you hadn’t seen this place?’ Finn asked reasonably enough. ‘This computer?’
Jesse picked up the knife. He ran his fingers over the blade, examined the handle, and finally balanced its length across the palm of his hand, hefting it a little to test its weight. If it wasn’t his, it was a perfect replica.
By all rights, Finn should have reported him to the police as soon as he found out about the discrepancies in Jesse’s story, or at least thrown him out of the house.
‘You really didn’t bring my knife?’ Jesse asked Finn.
‘I didn’t even know you owned one.’
‘Jesse, no one wants to trick you,’ Ayen said. ‘What purpose would that serve? The knife is as much a surprise to me as to you.’
‘Then explain how it got here.’
‘I can’t, other than to assume, as a working hypothesis, that you were able to reproduce it, or fetch your own knife here.’
‘Fetch? As in teleport?’
‘I wouldn’t like to put a name to the phenomenon just yet.’ She smiled. ‘Quantum physicists – I’m not one – tell me that there are going to be some very interesting developments in the next twenty years.’
‘Quantum physics is often misunderstood,’ Jesse said. ‘It’s used as proof of subjectivity by lay people with a taste for mysticism. They’d like to believe that consciousness creates reality. People who have no clue about processes like superposition, decoherence, and entanglement.’
Ayen laughed. ‘I’ll let you loose on our physicists later on. You won’t find a mystic among them, I promise you.’
Jesse waved his knife in the direction of the computer console.
‘What did you see on the monitor?’ he asked.
‘Nothing,’ Finn said. ‘It remained blank.’
‘Why? Wasn’t it switched on?’
‘It’s a little more complicated than that,’ Ayen said.
Jesse frowned. He was beginning to want a cigarette rather badly. Instead, he leaned back and gnawed on the handle of the knife. When nobody contributed an explanation, he spit out a question.
‘Yeah? More complicated than mind-reading? Or materialising objects?’
‘The monitor doesn’t always respond.’ Ayen said. ‘And on occasion it shuts down. At first we thought it was a hardware problem, but now it’s beginning to look like a programming glitch. One of the things we need to deal with.’
‘No pattern you can find?’
‘None that we can detect. Entirely random.’ Ayen stressed the word random with a faint musical inflection, the first hint that English wasn’t her mother tongue.
‘All right. What else can it do?’
‘The prototype?’ Ayen said. ‘Everyone who’s been able to communicate with the computer – and thus far there haven’t been many – reports a similar experience – an intelligence that can access at least some portion of one’s memory.’
‘Anything else like the knife?’ Jesse asked.
‘No. You’re the first person to produce a physical manifestation – the blood, the knife.’ Ayen glanced at the console. ‘This is no longer a question of virtual reality,’ she added, leaning forward. ‘You have to let us try to find out what’s happening. We may be on the verge of an incredible breakthrough.’
‘There are things it might be better not to unleash.’
‘Every age has had its fearmongers, telling us not to explore, not to extend our knowledge. The earth is flat. People aren’t made to fly. Genetic manipulation is contrary to God’s will. I know all the arguments, have heard them a thousand times since childhood. Not all of my family supported my interest in science.’
‘And you’re not afraid?’
‘It’s never been possible to predict the long-term effects of our endeavours. Do you think the first person to poke a stick through the hole in that odd round flat stone could ever have imagined a car? Or whoever roasted the prehistoric haunch of meat over a fire, the power of a jet engine?’
‘Or a nuclear weapon,’ Jesse said.
‘I won’t deny there’s always the risk of misuse. But an interaction between a mind like yours and our computer could only be fruitful for both sides. Just think of what might be possible.’ Ayen’s voice remained perfectly even, but her dark eyes brightened like a stained glass window suddenly backlit by the sun.
Finn poured himself another cup of tea, then pushed his chair backwards a couple of centimetres and crossed his legs. He reached for a biscuit, bit off a piece, and wrinkled his nose. ‘Stale,’ he said, tossing it down.
Jesse felt some of the tension leave his neck and shoulders, his jaw. No, Finn wouldn’t let Ayen have it all her way. But she would try. It hadn’t escaped him that she’d deftly sidestepped his question about further capabilities of the computer. Jesse could see the headlines: Nobel Prize Awarded to Sudanese Neuroscientist. Science Cracks the Crystal Ball. If she were a neuroscientist. Perhaps he was being unfair, but he didn’t quite trust secret installations. And he didn’t care what anybody told him: this place reeked of power and money and a military agenda.
‘What do you want to do with me?’ Jesse asked.
‘First of all, a few simple diagnostic tests: a routine physical – bloodwork, urine, major organs, that sort of thing; then cranial CT scan, EEG, MRI. Nothing alarming, nothing invasive. We want to do some baseline mapping. Then the standard psychological tests: IQ, creativity, ESP. Possibly some disorder screening.’
‘Well, yes, they’re not exactly accepted by the scientific community, but they might point us in a useful direction. After that, we can move on to some tests of our own devising.’
‘You want to do all of this right now?’
Ayen smiled. ‘Hardly. We’ll start with one or two of the physical tests today, the rest in stages.’
‘More work with the prototype.’ She grinned. ‘Some of the lads have nicknamed it HAL. After Clarke’s –’
‘I know who HAL is,’ Jesse said. ‘Not exactly reassuring, wouldn’t you say?’
He looked over at the computer. It was quiescent – outwardly. But so was a volcano until eruption, or a star about to nova. He wouldn’t mind a few harmless tests – perhaps he’d learn something about his own memory – but there was no way he’d have anything more to do with that digital monster over there. Let them find some other ape to take the next evolutionary leap for them.
And yet, whispered something in his mind, imagine … Ayen and her lot would never have to know.
‘What is your part in all of this?’ he asked Ayen.
‘I’m a neurophysicist, among other things. And a medical doctor, so you needn’t worry about that side,’ Ayen said.
‘Who will conduct the tests? You’re not working alone here, are you?’ Jesse asked.
‘Of course not. You’ll meet some of the technicians in a little while. And after the routine tests, perhaps some of the scientists and researchers.’ She laughed, a throaty sound. ‘One software type would trade his mother and his girlfriend and his future progeny – plus the organ to produce them, I daresay – for a shot at you.’
‘I only trade in souls.’
Her eyes glinted. ‘It won’t come to that.’ Then she made a dismissive gesture with her hand. ‘Stop fretting. There’s nothing satanic about research.’
‘What if I refuse?’
Finn spoke up. ‘It’s entirely up to you, Jesse. There’s going to be no coercion.’
‘Can I withdraw at any point?’
‘The tests are costly and time-consuming,’ Ayen said, ‘so it would be better if you –’
‘Any time you wish,’ Finn intervened smoothly. ‘Nobody will hold it against you.’ He paused for a moment before continuing, ‘Nor will it affect your relationship with my family.’
‘Even if you don’t know who I am?’
‘We know enough. I’m not denying there may be some issues with the authorities, but I’m confident that Meg and I can handle them, ultimately.’
‘Aren’t you frightened of me?’
‘Your past doesn’t scare me. Whatever it might be.’
‘Not the past.’ Jesse dropped the knife onto the table with a loud clunk, the sound of schoolyard challenge, of pick-it-up-smartboy-it’s-time-to-see-who’s-got-balls.
But Finn wasn’t a schoolboy. And he’d learned long ago which games to play, which to disdain.
‘Of course I’m frightened. I’m bloody terrified! If you or Sarah or Meg had cancer, I’d be just as terrified. Do you think that I’d walk away from you then?’
Jesse fell silent and stared at his hands.
At their front door Finn remarked that he’d be away for a week, possibly ten days. He had an assignment in Vietnam.
Jesse raised his eyebrows. ‘Taking your camera?’ he asked a little too innocently.
‘Let’s go down to my office,’ Finn said. ‘I don’t suppose you feel like sleeping.’
While Finn made coffee, Jesse sat quietly with his head bowed. Finn felt a rush of tenderness at the sight of the thinly-disguised tendons, the shag of hair, the bony knobs of vertebrae. A child harshly used, a boy on the verge of manhood: what did it matter whose fingerprints he wore? His ravaged skin costumed a soul long flayed into retreat, and now just beginning to emerge. There was something wild and fierce and uncompromising in his spirit; something ancient, and imperious. Finn wondered, not for the first time, whether Jesse had Scandinavian ancestry – he had the colouring for it. Jesse would make a beautiful fiery dragon of a man someday. Finn resolved not to abandon him – especially now – before the metamorphosis was complete.
Finn placed his hands on either side of Jesse’s neck and gently massaged the tight muscles. At first Jesse tensed at the touch, his armour snapping into place along his shoulderblades, then bit by bit retracting as Finn’s strong thumbs travelled the ridges of his spine, the fissures and ropy pahoehoes of his flesh. Finn was patient, his fingers coaxing. Jesse relaxed and even let Finn reach beneath his T-shirt. Finn didn’t wonder at the knots and stiffness in Jesse’s back after such a day. He increased the pressure of his hands in increments, finding the tsubos that he’d learnt about in the East. The scar tissue softened and swelled under Finn’s fingertips like bread dough – yeasty, well kneaded, and rising in a warm corner.
When Finn’s hands tired, he rested them on Jesse’s shoulders. He tried to think of something to say, something that would reassure both of them. In the end it was Jesse who spoke.
‘Who am I, Finn?’
Finn moved round to face Jesse, then perched on the edge of his desk. ‘I’ve been wanting to show you something. A photograph.’
When Jesse nodded, Finn picked up a folder and extracted a dog-eared print which he’d been keeping for the right moment. Jesse glanced at it, unable to understand what Finn found interesting. It was a shot of Meg and Sarah sitting at the garden table among the remains of a meal. A nice family photo, vivid and natural, but nothing special. Then he looked closer. There was a vague outline of a third figure to their left – not blurred precisely, but more like an afterimage through which the lavender and rose bushes could be clearly seen.
‘Do you remember when I took some photographs at supper in order to fill up the roll?’ Finn asked. ‘They’re all the same.’
Jesse examined it carefully. He tapped the shadowy figure with a finger. ‘You mean that’s me?’
‘I don’t understand. What went wrong?’
‘I did my best. You’re not very photogenic.’
Jesse frowned at the photograph. ‘Some kind of mistake in developing?’
‘Impossible.’ Finn said. ‘Not like this.’
Finn shrugged. ‘I’ve no explanation, at least none that you’d like.’
Jesse thrust the sheet back at Finn.
‘Then you think I should go on with the tests?’ Jesse asked.
‘Have you got a better idea?’