The night after Kosonen shot the young elk, he tried to write a poem by the campfire.
It was late April and there was still snow on the ground. He had already taken to sitting outside in the evening, on a log by the fire, in the small clearing where his cabin stood. Otso was more comfortable outside, and he preferred the bear’s company to being alone. It snored loudly atop its pile of fir branches.
A wet smell that had traces of elk shit drifted from its drying fur.
He dug a soft-cover notebook and a pencil stub from his pocket. He leafed through it: most of the pages were empty. Words had become slippery, harder to catch than elk. Although not this one: careless and young. An old elk would never had let a man and a bear so close.
He scattered words on the first empty page, gripping the pencil hard.
Antlers. Sapphire antlers. No good. Frozen flames. Tree roots. Forked destinies. There had to be words that captured the moment when the crossbow kicked against his shoulder, the meaty sound of the arrow’s impact. But it was like trying to catch snowflakes in his palm. He could barely glimpse the crystal structure, and then they melted.
He closed the notebook and almost threw it into the fire, but thought better of it and put it back into his pocket. No point in wasting good paper. Besides, his last toilet roll in the outhouse would run out soon.
“Kosonen is thinking about words again,” Otso growled. “Kosonen should drink more booze. Don’t need words then. Just sleep.”
Kosonen looked at the bear. “You think you are smart, huh?” He tapped his crossbow. “Maybe it’s you who should be shooting elk.”
“Otso good at smelling. Kosonen at shooting. Both good at drinking.” Otso yawned luxuriously, revealing rows of yellow teeth. Then it rolled to its side and let out a satisfied heavy sigh. “Otso will have more booze soon.”
Maybe the bear was right. Maybe a drink was all he needed. No point in being a poet: They had already written all the poems in the world, up there, in the sky. They probably had poetry gardens. Or places where you could become words.
But that was not the point. The words needed to come from him, a dirty bearded man in the woods whose toilet was a hole in the ground. Bright words from dark matter, that’s what poetry was about.
When it worked.
There were things to do. The squirrels had almost picked the lock the previous night, bloody things. The cellar door needed reinforcing. But that could wait until tomorrow.
He was about to open a vodka bottle from Otso’s secret stash in the snow when Marja came down from the sky as rain.
The rain was sudden and cold like a bucket of water poured over your head in the sauna. But the droplets did not touch the ground, they floated around Kosonen. As he watched, they changed shape, joined together and made a woman, spindle-thin bones, mist-flesh and muscle. She looked like a glass sculpture. The small breasts were perfect hemispheres, her sex an equilateral silver triangle. But the face was familiar—small nose and high cheekbones, a sharp-tongued mouth.
Otso was up in an instant, by Kosonen’s side. “Bad smell, god-smell,” it growled. “Otso bites.” The rain-woman looked at it curiously.
“Otso,” Kosonen said sternly. He gripped the fur in the bear’s rough neck tightly, feeling its huge muscles tense. “Otso is Kosonen’s friend. Listen to Kosonen. Not time for biting. Time for sleeping. Kosonen will speak to god.” Then he set the vodka bottle in the snow right under its nose.
Otso sniffed the bottle and scraped the half-melted snow with its forepaw.
“Otso goes,” it finally said. “Kosonen shouts if the god bites. Then Otso comes.” It picked up the bottle in its mouth deftly and loped into the woods with a bear’s loose, shuffling gait.
“Hi,” the rain-woman said.
“Hello,” Kosonen said carefully. He wondered if she was real. The plague gods were crafty. One of them could have taken Marja’s image from his mind. He looked at the unstrung crossbow and tried to judge the odds: a diamond goddess versus an out-of-shape woodland poet. Not good.
“Your dog does not like me very much,” the Marja-thing said. She sat down on Kosonen’s log and swung her shimmering legs in the air, back and forth, just like Marja always did in the sauna. It had to be her, Kosonen decided, feeling something jagged in his throat.
He coughed. “Bear, not a dog. A dog would have barked. Otso just bites. Nothing personal, that’s just its nature. Paranoid and grumpy.”
“Sounds like someone I used to know.”
“I’m not paranoid.” Kosonen hunched down and tried to get the fire going again. “You learn to be careful, in the woods.”
Marja looked around. “I thought we gave you stayers more equipment. It looks a little … primitive here.”
“Yeah. We had plenty of gadgets,” Kosonen said. “But they weren’t plague-proof. I had a smartgun before I had this”—he tapped his crossbow—“but it got infected. I killed it with a big rock and threw it into the swamp. I’ve got my skis and some tools, and these.” Kosonen tapped his temple. “Has been enough so far. So cheers.”
He piled up some kindling under a triangle of small logs, and in a moment the flames sprung up again. Three years had been enough to learn about woodcraft at least. Marja’s skin looked almost human in the soft light of the fire, and he sat back on Otso’s fir branches, watching her. For a moment, neither of them spoke.
“So how are you, these days?” he asked. “Keeping busy?”
Marja smiled. “Your wife grew up. She’s a big girl now. You don’t want to know how big.”
“So… you are not her, then? Who am I talking to?”
“I am her, and I am not her. I’m a partial, but a faithful one. A translation. You wouldn’t understand.”
Kosonen put some snow in the coffee pot to melt. “All right, so I’m a caveman. Fair enough. But I understand you are here because you want something. So let’s get down to business, perkele,” he swore.
Marja took a deep breath. “We lost something. Something important. Something new. The spark, we called it. It fell into the city.”
“I thought you lot kept copies of everything.”
“Quantum information. That was a part of the new bit. You can’t copy it.”
A wrinkle appeared between Marja’s eyebrows. Kosonen remembered it from a thousand fights they had had, and swallowed.
“If that’s the tone you want to take, fine,” she said. “I thought you’d be glad to see me. I didn’t have to come: They could have sent Mickey Mouse. But I wanted to see you. The big Marja wanted to see you. So you have decided to live your life like this, as the tragic figure haunting the woods. That’s fine. But you could at least listen. You owe me that much.”
Kosonen said nothing.
“I see,” Marja said. “You still blame me for Esa.”
She was right. It had been her who got the first Santa Claus machine. The boy needs the best we can offer, she said. The world is changing. Can’t have him being left behind. Let’s make him into a little god, like the neighbor’s kid.
“I guess I shouldn’t be blaming you, “ Kosonen said. “You’re just a … partial. You weren’t there.”
“I was there,” Marja said quietly. “I remember. Better than you, now. I also forget better, and forgive. You never could. You just … wrote poems. The rest of us moved on, and saved the world.”
“Great job,” Kosonen said. He poked the fire with a stick, and a cloud of sparks flew up into the air with the smoke.
Marja got up. “That’s it,” she said. “I’m leaving. See you in a hundred years.” The air grew cold. A halo appeared around her, shimmering in the firelight.
Kosonen closed his eyes and squeezed his jaw shut tight. He waited for ten seconds. Then he opened his eyes. Marja was still there, staring at him, helpless. He could not help smiling. She could never leave without having the last word.
“I’m sorry,” Kosonen said. “It’s been a long time. I’ve been living in the woods with a bear. Doesn’t improve one’s temper much.”
“I didn’t really notice any difference.”
“All right,” Kosonen said. He tapped the fir branches next to him. “Sit down. Let’s start over. I’ll make some coffee.”
Marja sat down, bare shoulder touching his. She felt strangely warm, warmer than the fire almost.
“The firewall won’t let us into the city,” she said. “We don’t have anyone … human enough, not anymore. There was some talk about making one, but … the argument would last a century.” She sighed. “We like to argue, in the sky.”
Kosonen grinned. “I bet you fit right in.” He checked for the wrinkle before continuing. “So you need an errand boy.”
“We need help.”
Kosonen looked at the fire. The flames were dying now, licking at the blackened wood. There were always new colours in the embers. Or maybe he just always forgot.
He touched Marja’s hand. It felt like a soap bubble, barely solid. But she did not pull it away.
“All right,” he said. “But just so you know, it’s not just for old times’ sake.”
“Anything we can give you.”
“I’m cheap,” Kosonen said. “I just want words.”
The sun sparkled on the kantohanki: snow with a frozen surface, strong enough to carry a man on skis and a bear. Kosonen breathed hard. Even going downhill, keeping pace with Otso was not easy. But in weather like this, there was something glorious about skiing, sliding over blue shadows of trees almost without friction, the snow hissing underneath.
I’ve sat still too long, he thought. Should have gone somewhere just to go, not because someone asks.
In the afternoon, when the sun was already going down, they reached the railroad, a bare gash through the forest, two metal tracks on a bed of gravel. Kosonen removed his skis and stuck them in the snow.
“I’m sorry you can’t come along,” he told Otso. “But the city won’t let you in.”
“Otso not a city bear,” the bear said. “Otso waits for Kosonen. Kosonen gets sky-bug, comes back. Then we drink booze.”
He scratched the rough fur of its neck clumsily. The bear poked Kosonen in the stomach with its nose, so hard that he almost fell. Then it snorted, turned around and shuffled into the woods. Kosonen watched until it vanished among the snow-covered trees.
It took three painful attempts of sticking his fingers down his throat to get the nanoseed Marja gave him to come out. The gagging left a bitter taste in his mouth. Swallowing it had been the only way to protect the delicate thing from the plague. He wiped it in the snow: a transparent bauble the size of a walnut, slippery and warm. It reminded him of the toys you could get from vending machines in supermarkets when he was a child, plastic spheres with something secret inside.
He placed it on the rails carefully, wiped the remains of the vomit from his lips and rinsed his mouth with water. Then he looked at it. Marja knew he would never read instruction manuals, so she had not given him one.
“Make me a train,” he said.
Nothing happened. Maybe it can read my mind, he thought, and imagined a train, an old steam train, puffing along. Still nothing, just a reflection of the darkening sky on the seed’s clear surface. She always had to be subtle.Marja could never give a present without thinking about its meaning for days. Standing still let the spring winter chill through his wolf-pelt coat, and he hopped up and down, rubbing his hands together.
With the motion came an idea. He frowned, staring at the seed, and took the notebook from his pocket. Maybe it was time to try out Marja’s other gift—or advance payment, however you wanted to look at it. He had barely written the first lines, when the words leaped in his mind like animals woken from slumber. He closed the book, cleared his throat and spoke.
these rails were worn thin by wheels that wrote down the name of each passenger in steel and miles
it’s a good thing the years ate our flesh too made us thin and light so the rails are strong enough to carry us still to the city in our train of glass and words
Doggerel, he thought, but it didn’t matter. The joy of words filled his veins like vodka. Too bad it didn’t work—
The seed blurred. It exploded into a white-hot sphere. The waste heat washed across Kosonen’s face. Glowing tentacles squirmed past him, sucking carbon and metal from the rails and trees. They danced like a welder’s electric arcs, sketching lines and surfaces in the air.
And suddenly, the train was there.
It was transparent, with paper-thin walls and delicate wheels, as if it had been blown from glass, sketch of a cartoon steam engine with a single carriage, with spiderweb-like chairs inside, just the way he had imagined it.
He climbed in, expecting the delicate structure to sway under his weight, but it felt rock-solid. The nanoseed lay on the floor innocently, as if nothing had happened. He picked it up carefully, took it outside and buried it in the snow, leaving his skis and sticks as markers. Then he picked up his backpack, boarded the train again and sat down in one of the gossamer seats. Unbidden, the train lurched into motion smoothly. To Kosonen, it sounded like the rails beneath were whispering, but he could not hear the words.
He watched the darkening forest glide past. The day’s journey weighed heavily down on his limbs. The memory of the snow beneath his skis melted together with the train’s movement, and soon Kosonen was asleep.
When he woke up, it was dark. The amber light of the firewall glowed in the horizon, like a thundercloud.
The train had speeded up. The dark forest outside was a blur, and the whispering of the rails had become a quiet staccato song. Kosonen swallowed as the train covered the remaining distance in a matter of minutes. The firewall grew into a misty dome glowing with yellowish light from within. The city was an indistinct silhouette beneath it. The buildings seemed to be in motion, like a giant’s shadow puppets.
Then it was a flaming curtain directly in front of the train, an impenetrable wall made from twilight and amber crossing the tracks. Kosonen gripped the delicate frame of his seat, knuckles white. “Slow down!” he shouted, but the train did not hear. It crashed directly into the firewall with a bone-jarring impact. There was a burst of light, and then Kosonen was lifted from his seat.
It was like drowning, except that he was floating in an infinite sea of amber light rather than water. Apart from the light, there was just emptiness. His skin tickled. It took him a moment to realise that he was not breathing.
And then a stern voice spoke.
This is not a place for men, it said. Closed. Forbidden. Go back.
“I have a mission,” said Kosonen. His voice had no echo in the light. “From your makers. They command you to let me in.”
He closed his eyes, and Marja’s third gift floated in front of him, not words but a number. He had always been poor at memorising things, but Marja’s touch had been a pen with acid ink, burning it in his mind. He read off the endless digits, one by one.
You may enter, said the firewall. But only that which is human will leave.
The train and the speed came back, sharp and real like a paper cut. The twilight glow of the firewall was still there, but instead of the forest, dark buildings loomed around the railway, blank windows staring at him.
Kosonen’s hands tickled. They were clean, as were his clothes: Every speck of dirt was gone. His felt was tender and red, like he had just been to the sauna.
The train slowed down at last, coming to a stop in the dark mouth of the station, and Kosonen was in the city.
The city was a forest of metal and concrete and metal that breathed and hummed. The air smelled of ozone. The facades of the buildings around the railway station square looked almost like he remembered them, only subtly wrong. From the corner of his eye he could glimpse them moving, shifting in their sleep like stone-skinned animals. There were no signs of life, apart from a cluster of pigeons, hopping back and forth on the stairs, looking at him. They had sapphire eyes.
A bus stopped, full of faceless people who looked like crash test dummies, sitting unnaturally still. Kosonen decided not to get in and started to head across the square, towards the main shopping street: he had to start the search for the spark somewhere. It will glow, Marja had said. You can’t miss it.
There was what looked like a car wreck in the parking lot, lying on its side, hood crumpled like a discarded beer can, covered in white pigeon droppings. But when Kosonen walked past it, its engine roared, and the hood popped open. A hissing bundle of tentacles snapped out, reaching for him.
He managed to gain some speed before the car-beast rolled onto its four wheels. There were narrow streets on the other side of the square, too narrow for it to follow. He ran, cold weight in his stomach, legs pumping.
The crossbow beat painfully at his back in its strap, and he struggled to get it over his head.
The beast passed him arrogantly, and turned around. Then it came straight at him. The tentacles spread out from its glowing engine mouth into a fan of serpents.
Kosonen fumbled with a bolt, then loosed it at the thing. The crossbow kicked, but the arrow glanced off its windshield. It seemed to confuse it enough for Kosonen to jump aside. He dove, hit the pavement with a painful thump, and rolled.
“Somebody help perkele,” he swore with impotent rage, and got up, panting, just as the beast backed off slowly, engine growling. He smelled burning rubber, mixed with ozone. Maybe I can wrestle it, he thought like a madman, spreading his arms, refusing to run again. One last poem in it—
Something landed in front of the beast, wings fluttering. A pigeon. Both Kosonen and the car-creature stared at it. It made a cooing sound. Then it exploded.
The blast tore at his eardrums, and the white fireball turned the world black for a second. Kosonen found himself on the ground again, ears ringing, lying painfully on top of his backpack. The car-beast was a burning wreck ten meters away, twisted beyond all recognition.
There was another pigeon next to him, picking at what looked like bits of metal. It lifted its head and looked at him, flames reflecting from the tiny sapphire eyes. Then it took flight, leaving a tiny white dropping behind.
The main shopping street was empty. Kosonen moved carefully in case there were more of the car creatures around, staying close to narrow alleys and doorways. The firewall light was dimmer between the buildings, and strange lights danced in the windows.
Kosonen realised he was starving: He had not eaten since noon, and the journey and the fight had taken their toll. He found an empty cafe in a street corner that seemed safe, set up his small travel cooker on a table and boiled some water. The supplies he had been able to bring consisted mainly of canned soup and dried elk meat, but his growling stomach was not fussy. The smell of food made him careless.
“This is my place,” said a voice. Kosonen leapt up, startled, reaching for the crossbow.
There was a stooped, trollish figure at the door, dressed in rags. His face shone with sweat and dirt, framed by matted hair and beard. His porous skin was full of tiny sapphire growths, like pockmarks. Kosonen had thought living in the woods had made him immune to human odours, but the stranger carried a bitter stench of sweat and stale booze that made him want to retch.
The stranger walked in and sat down at a table opposite Kosonen. “But that’s all right,” he said amicably. “Don’t get many visitors these days. Have to be neighbourly. Saatana, is that Blaband soup that you’ve got?”
“You’re welcome to some,” Kosonen said warily. He had met some of the other stayers over the years, but usually avoided them—they all had their own reasons for not going up, and not much in common.
“Thanks. That’s neighbourly indeed. I’m Pera, by the way.” The troll held out his hand.
Kosonen shook it gingerly, feeling strange jagged things under Pera’s skin. It was like squeezing a glove filled with powdered glass. “Kosonen. So you live here?”
“Oh, not here, not in the center. I come here to steal from the buildings. But they’ve become really smart, and stingy. Can’t even find soup anymore. The Stockmann department store almost ate me, yesterday. It’s not easy life here.” Pera shook his head. “But better than outside.” There was a sly look in his eyes. Are you staying because you want to, wondered Kosonen,or because the firewall won’t let you out anymore?
“Not afraid of the plague gods, then?” he asked aloud. He passed Pera one of the heated soup tins. The city stayer slurped it down with one gulp, smell of minestrone mingling with the other odours.
“Oh, you don’t have to be afraid of them anymore. They’re all dead.”
Kosonen looked at Pera, startled. “How do you know?”
“The pigeons told me.”
Pera took something from the pocket of his ragged coat carefully. It was a pigeon. It had a sapphire beak and eyes, and a trace of blue in its feathers. It struggled in Pera’s grip, wings fluttering.
“My little buddies,” Pera said. “I think you’ve already met them.”
“Yes,” Kosonen said. “Did you send the one that blew up that car thing?”
“You have to help a neighbour out, don’t you? Don’t mention it. The soup was good.”
“What did they say about the plague gods?”
Pera grinned a gap-toothed grin. “When the gods got locked up here, they started fighting. Not enough power to go around, you see. So one of them had to be the top dog, like in Highlander. The pigeons show me pictures, sometimes. Bloody stuff. Explosions. Nanites eating men. But finally they were all gone, every last one. My playground now.”
So Esa is gone, too. Kosonen was surprised how sharp the feeling of loss was, even now. Better like this. He swallowed. Let’s get the job done first. No time to mourn. Let’s think about it when we get home. Write a poem about it. And tell Marja.
“All right,” Kosonen said. “I’m hunting too. Do you think your … buddies could find it? Something that glows. If you help me, I’ll give you all the soup I’ve got. And elk meat. And I’ll bring more later. How does that sound?”
“Pigeons can find anything,” said Pera, licking his lips.
The pigeon-man walked through the city labyrinth like his living room, accompanied by a cloud of the chimera birds. Every now and then, one of them would land on his shoulder and touch his ear with his beak, as if to whisper.
“Better hurry,” Pera said. “At night, it’s not too bad, but during the day the houses get younger and start thinking.”
Kosonen had lost all sense of direction. The map of the city was different from the last time he had been here, in the old human days. His best guess was that they were getting somewhere close to the cathedral in the old town, but he couldn’t be sure. Navigating the changed streets felt like walking through the veins of some giant animal, convoluted and labyrinthine. Some buildings were enclosed in what looked like black film, rippling like oil. Some had grown together, organic-looking structures of brick and concrete, blocking streets and making the ground uneven.
“We’re not far,” Pera said. “They’ve seen it. Glowing like a pumpkin lantern, they say.” He giggled. The amber light of the firewall grew brighter as they walked. It was hotter, too, and Kosonen was forced to discard his old Pohjanmaa sweater.
They passed an office building that had become a sleeping face, a genderless Easter Island countenance. There was more life in this part of the town too, sapphire-eyed animals, sleek cats looking at them from windowsills. Kosonen saw a fox crossing the street: It gave them one bright look and vanished down a sewer hole.
Then they turned a corner where faceless men wearing fashion from ten years ago danced together in a shop window, and saw the cathedral.
It had grown to gargantuan size, dwarfing every other building around it. It was an anthill of dark-red brick and hexagonal doorways. It buzzed with life. Cats with sapphire claws clung to its walls like sleek gargoyles. Thick pigeon flocks fluttered around its towers. Packs of azure-tailed rats ran in and out of open, massive doors like armies on a mission. And there were insects everywhere, filling the air with a drill-like buzzing sound, moving in dense black clouds like a giant’s black breath.
“Oh, jumalauta, “ Kosonen said. “That’s where it fell?”
“Actually, no. I was just supposed to bring you here,” Pera said.
“Sorry. I lied. It was like in Highlander: There is one of them left. And he wants to meet you.”
Kosonen stared at Pera, dumbfounded. The pigeons landed on the other man’s shoulders and arms like a grey fluttering cloak. They seized his rags and hair and skin with sharp claws, wings started beating furiously. As Kosonen stared, Pera rose to the air.
“No hard feelings, I just had a better deal from him. Thanks for the soup,” he shouted. In a moment, Pera was a black scrap of cloth in the sky.
The earth shook. Kosonen fell to his knees. The window eyes that lined the street lit up, full of bright, malevolent light.
He tried to run. He did not make it far before they came, the fingers of the city: the pigeons, the insects, a buzzing swarm that covered him. A dozen chimera rats clung to his skull, and he could felt the humming of their flywheel hearts. Something sharp bit through the bone. The pain grew like a forest fire, and Kosonen screamed.
The city spoke. Its voice was a thunderstorm, words made from shaking of the earth and the sighs of buildings. Slow words, squeezed from stone.
Dad, the city said.
The pain was gone. Kosonen heard the gentle sound of waves, and felt a warm wind on his face. He opened his eyes.
“Hi, dad,” Esa said.
They sat on the summerhouse pier, wrapped in towels, skin flushed from the sauna. It was evening, with a hint of chill in the air, Finnish summer’s gentle reminder that things were not forever. The sun hovered above the blue-tinted treetops. The lake surface was calm, full of liquid reflections.
“I thought,” Esa said, “that you’d like it here.”
Esa was just like Kosonen remembered him, a pale skinny kid, ribs showing, long arms folded across his knees, stringy wet hair hanging on his forehead. But his eyes were the eyes of a city, dark orbs of metal and stone.
“I do,” Kosonen said. “But I can’t stay.”
“There is something I need to do.”
“We haven’t seen each other in ages. The sauna is warm. I’ve got some beer cooling in the lake. Why the rush?”
“I should be afraid of you,” Kosonen said. “You killed people. Before they put you here.”
“You don’t know what it’s like,” Esa said. “The plague does everything you want. It gives you things you don’t even know you want. It turns the world soft. And sometimes it tears it apart for you. You think a thought, and things break. You can’t help it.”
The boy closed his eyes. “You want things too. I know you do. That’s why you are here, isn’t it? You want your precious words back.”
Kosonen said nothing.
“Mom’s errand boy, vittu. So they fixed your brain, flushed the booze out. So you can write again. Does it feel good? For a moment there I thought you came here for me. But that’s not the way it ever worked, was it?”
“I didn’t know—“
“I can see the inside of your head, you know,” Esa said. “I’ve got my fingers inside your skull. One thought, and my bugs will eat you, bring you here for good. Quality time forever. What do you say to that?”
And there it was, the old guilt. “We worried about you, every second, after you were born,” Kosonen said. “We only wanted the best for you.”
It had seemed so natural. How the boy played with his machine that made other machines. How things started changing shape when you thought at them. How Esa smiled when he showed Kosonen the talking starfish that the machine had made.
“And then I had one bad day.”
“I remember,” Kosonen said. He had been home late, as usual. Esa had been a diamond tree, growing in his room. There were starfish everywhere, eating the walls and the floor, making more of themselves. And that was only the beginning.
“So go ahead. Bring me here. It’s your turn to make me into what you want. Or end it all. I deserve it.”
Esa laughed softly. “And why would I do that, to an old man?” He sighed. “You know, I’m old too now. Let me show you.” He touched Kosonen’s shoulder gently and
Kosonen was the city. His skin was stone of and concrete, pores full of the godplague. The streets and buildings were his face, changing and shifting with every thought and emotion. His nervous system was diamond and optic fibre. His hands were chimera animals.
The firewall was all around him, in the sky and in the cold bedrock, insubstantial but adamantine, squeezing from every side, cutting off energy, making sure he could not think fast. But he could still dream, weave words and images into threads, make worlds out of the memories he had and the memories of the smaller gods he had eaten to become the city. He sang his dreams in radio waves, not caring if the firewall let them through or not, louder and louder—
“Here,” Esa said from far away. “Have a beer.”
Kosonen felt a chilly bottle in his hand, and drank. The dream-beer was strong and real. The malt taste brought him back. He took a deep breath, letting the fake summer evening wash away the city.
“Is that why you brought me here? To show me that?” He asked.
“Well, no,” Esa said, laughing. His stone eyes looked young, suddenly. “I just wanted you to meet my girlfriend.”
The quantum girl had golden hair and eyes of light. She wore many faces at once, like a Hindu goddess. She walked to the pier with dainty steps. Esa’s summerland showed its cracks around her: There were fracture lines in her skin, with otherworldly colours peeking out.
“This is Säde,” Esa said.
She looked at Kosonen, and spoke, a bubble of words, a superposition, all possible greetings at once.
“Nice to meet you,” Kosonen said.
“They did something right when they made her, up there,” said Esa. “She lives in many worlds at once, thinks in qubits. And this is the world where she wants to be. With me.” He touched her shoulder gently. “She heard my songs and ran away.”
“Marja said she fell,” Kosonen said. “That something was broken.”
“She said what they wanted her to say. They don’t like it when things don’t go according to plan.”
Säde made a sound, like the chime of a glass bell.
“The firewall keeps squeezing us,” Esa said. “That’s how it was made. Make things go slower and slower here, until we die. Säde doesn’t fit in here, this place is too small. So you will take her back home, before it’s too late.” He smiled. “I’d rather you do it than anyone else.”
“That’s not fair,” Kosonen said. He squinted at Säde. She was too bright to look at. But what can I do? I’m just a slab of meat. Meat and words.
The thought was like a pine cone, rough in his grip, but with a seed of something in it.
“I think there is a poem in you two,” he said.
Kosonen sat on the train again, watching the city stream past. It was early morning. The sunrise gave the city new hues: purple shadows and gold, ember colours. Fatigue pulsed in his temples. His body ached. The words of a poem weighed down on his mind.
Above the dome of the firewall he could see a giant diamond starfish, a drone of the sky people, watching, like an outstretched hand.
They came to see what happened, he thought. They’ll find out.
This time, he embraced the firewall like a friend, and its tingling brightness washed over him. And deep within, the stern-voiced watchman came again. It said nothing this time, but he could feel its presence, scrutinising, seeking things that did not belong in the outside world.
Kosonen gave it everything.
The first moment when he knew he had put something real on paper. The disappointment when he realised that a poet was not much in a small country, piles of cheaply printed copies of his first collection, gathering dust in little bookshops. The jealousy he had felt when Marja gave birth to Esa, what a pale shadow of that giving birth to words was. The tracks of the elk in the snow and the look in its eyes when it died.
He felt the watchman step aside, satisfied.
Then he was through. The train emerged into the real, undiluted dawn. He looked back at the city, and saw fire raining from the starfish. Pillars of light cut through the city in geometric patterns, too bright to look at, leaving only white-hot plasma in their wake.
Kosonen closed his eyes and held on to the poem as the city burned.
Kosonen planted the nanoseed in the woods. He dug a deep hole in the half-frozen peat with his bare hands, under an old tree stump. He sat down, took off his cap, dug out his notebook, and started reading. The pencil-scrawled words glowed bright in his mind, and after a while he didn’t need to look at them anymore.
The poem rose from the words like a titanic creature from an ocean, first showing just a small extremity but then soaring upwards in a spray of glossolalia, mountain-like. It was a stream of hissing words and phonemes, an endless spell that tore at his throat. And with it came the quantum information from the microtubules of his neurons, where the bright-eyed girl now lived, and jagged impulses from synapses where his son was hiding.
The poem swelled into a roar. He continued until his voice was a hiss. Only the nanoseed could hear, but that was enough. Something stirred under the peat.
When the poem finally ended, it was evening. Kosonen opened his eyes. The first things he saw were the sapphire antlers, sparkling in the last rays of the sun.
Two young elk looked at him. One was smaller, more delicate, and its large brown eyes held a hint of sunlight. The other was young and skinny, but wore its budding antlers with pride. It held Kosonen’s gaze, and in its eyes he saw shadows of the city. Or reflections in a summer lake, perhaps.
They turned around and ran into the woods, silent, fleet-footed and free.
Kosonen was opening the cellar door when the rain came back. It was barely a shower this time: The droplets formed Marja’s face in the air. For a moment he thought he saw her wink. Then the rain became a mist, and was gone. He propped the door open.
The squirrels stared at him from the trees curiously.
“All yours, gentlemen,” Kosonen said. “Should be enough for next winter. I don’t need it anymore.”
Otso and Kosonen left at noon, heading north. Kosonen’s skis slid along easily in the thinning snow. The bear pulled a sledge loaded with equipment. When they were well away from the cabin, it stopped to sniff at a fresh trail.
“Elk,” it growled. “Otso is hungry. Kosonen shoot an elk. Need meat for the journey. Kosonen did not bring enough booze.”
Kosonen shook his head.
“I think I’m going to learn to fish,” he said.