You should kill him, Silna says bluntly. He may never get used to the clear sound of a voice in his ears with no accompanying lip movement to produce it. He is only suffering. He knows he’s all wrong, even if he doesn’t yet express it. He is not the sort of man who wants to live all wrong. There will be trouble.
He frowns at her. He’s just the same as he’s always been. He glances at Tozer, who meets his eye evenly. He’s mine. I’m not going to kill him. There is a bright slash across his mind and a stab of pain in his forehead as Silna rifles through his memories without care. She is not a vindictive person, not a violent person. He knows that well. He can sense that bleeding out of her with her every move. But for him she will make an exception.
You’ve killed your own before. Billy Gibson’s face is thrust into his mind’s eye, Silna brandishing the image at him accusingly.
That was different. Billy was dying. I did him a favour. Like shooting a lame horse. He knew it was coming, he understood.
There is a croaking sound, real this time, startling in the air after all the talking done inside his skull. He looks at Silna and realises she is laughing at him. He was dying? Silna says, Your man here is already dead. Worse than dead. Dead would be a kindness, just like the other.
Tozer has no part in their conversation, can have no part. But he watches Hickey and Silna facing off, glaring at each other as their thoughts wind and tussle, and somehow Hickey wonders if he doesn’t know that they’re discussing him all the same.
Tozer had indeed been dead. That much had been instantly clear. Hickey had been half-blind with the pain in his mouth and his arm, but it had been difficult to miss the huge ragged gash in Tozer’s shoulder and upper arm, and the caved in back of his skull. Hickey had knelt and touched his hair, feeling the thick curls matted with blood.
I want him back, he had said to the creature, the Tuunbaq now filling his head like gas, trying to force out every other thought and will other than succumb. He would not let it push him out. He would not. I will still need him. Give him back.
The creature had glared at him with piercing, evil eyes. Blood had stained its teeth and claws, and the black pupils were entombed in bloodshot whites that had reminded Hickey of nothing so much as his own men falling to scurvy and lead poisoning.
It had bared its teeth -a smile?- and then something had issued from between the sharp points, some sort of smoke or haze drooling down its chin and sweeping across the shale to pool around the crumpled pile that was Sergeant Tozer. It had traced him for a moment and to Hickey’s eye it had prodded the corpse, inspected it, before soaking into him with a reluctance, as odd as it was to assign such a complex emotion to something like smoke.
Tozer had been dead. And then, he hadn’t been anymore.
It isn’t so difficult to come to terms with. After all, had Hickey himself not been reborn that day? Cornelius Hickey at the top of the world in all senses, finally managing what that other man hadn’t, master of civilisation and its others. When he had carved those initials into his trunk on Terror he had still been that other man, still thought he would go back to being that other man. Particularly after it seemed that Cornelius Hickey was failing to get ahead in the strange, rigid world of ships and men. But only Cornelius Hickey has ever successfully created his own new world from the frozen carcass of the old, only Cornelius Hickey has ever successfully brokered a deal with a god.
So why shouldn’t Solomon Tozer have come back to life? In comparison to what Hickey has done, it hardly merits a mention.
And now Tozer is walking beside him, as upright as he had ever been as a marine, rifle slung over his shoulder and his eyes cast on the horizon, alert and alive. If Hickey glances at him sideways he can still see the place where his skull is battered in, though his thick, curling hair hides the damage fairly well. Beneath Tozer’s slops Hickey knows too that his left shoulder is torn open with the bone and muscle exposed, though it does not bleed. That arm had been hanging oddly when Tozer had first stirred back to animation. One of the first things Tozer had done was grip his bicep from beneath with his right hand, and wrench the arm back into place. It had made a sickening grinding sound which Tozer had blinked at, but he’d made no indication of pain. “It doesn’t hurt,” he had said. The first words he’d uttered since moving again. “Cornelius,” he had continued, his second sentence, “where are we?”
Of course Hickey hadn’t been able to answer him. Tozer had grasped that fairly immediately. Answers from Cornelius Hickey were not going to be quick in coming. But it hadn’t seemed to matter much because Tozer had followed anyhow. He hadn’t even questioned the cold, stony presence of Silna, and the glimpses of the Tuunbaq lurching along the horizon had only been marked upon by the tilt of his crushed head and a small grunt. Tozer had been chatty, once. Hickey doesn’t know if it’s down to the silence of his companions or to some change wrought upon him while his soul had been in the belly of the bear, but he’s quieter now.
He still follows. And he still crawls into Hickey’s bag when they bed down in the evenings, on the open shale underneath pieces of the canvas tents salvaged from the boat.
Tozer had always been soft like that. He had always done whatever Hickey asked of him for nothing but the promise that Hickey would hold him in the night. And now he clings even closer.
“I’m still cold, Cornelius,” he says quietly, and presses against him. Hickey fights the urge to shudder. Tozer is indeed cold. Tozer had always been the type to touch, holding himself close and nudging his way into Hickey’s arms but at the very least he had used to run hot, a personal furnace for Hickey even when he was tired of indulging the man’s neediness. But now there is no heat behind that skin. Holding Tozer is like holding one of the slaughtered seals that the Tuunbaq brings them. He is cold and clammy and when Hickey presses his palm to Tozer’s breastbone, he has no heartbeat.
Are we going any place in particular? Hickey had asked Silna when they’d first started walking. I can only assume you are leading us some place. If not, I’ll just leave and take my man with me.
Silna had given him a scornful look not unlike that of an adult faced with the questions of an idiot child. Hickey wasn’t bothered. Her good opinion meant fairly little to him, and even if he had wanted it he doubted it was possible to gain. She had already seen his memory of the doctor, laid out on the rough table like an offering with his flesh cut open.
Going any place? You mean with people. With homes. You’re a fool. What people would take us? The Tuunbaq is still not bound securely enough to be safe. A failed shaman, a murderer, and a dead man. Oh yes, we’re quite the desirable addition to any family.
Then what are we doing?
And she wouldn’t answer his questions any further than that.
Hickey keeps going along with her because he is curious about this new act in the drama that is his life, and Silna, for all her brusqueness, is likely the best narrator he’ll be able to find for a time. Hickey’s never minded putting up with unfriendliness. And it means that he has plenty of time with his own thoughts as they make their way, seemingly directionless, across the ice and shale. Eventually, if they do come across other people, who can say what he’ll do then. It’s part of the reason he still wants Tozer about, for that unknown future date when Hickey will put wheels into motion. But for now he’s content to eat the game that the Tuunbaq brings them, and to follow Silna.
The first few days Silna had watched Tozer with wary eyes. Tozer had said nothing to her, but one morning he had taken up the reins of the sled and begun to haul it.
Silna had made a gesture, had frowned.
“I’ll take it,” Tozer had said. “I don’t mind. I don’t get tired.” He was already wearing the large pack of things he and Hickey had recovered from the sledged boat.
Could she understand English, Hickey had wondered, had she somehow breathed the language in from the surface of his mind? Or had Tozer’s tone and actions been enough to guess at his meaning? He doesn’t know what language they speak to each other inside their heads. It isn’t much like language at all. But either way Silna had nodded, and from then on she had looked at Tozer with less caution and more pity.
It’s the evening following that incident that she tells Hickey to kill him.
Tozer really doesn’t seem to tire anymore. When Hickey and Silna stop for the evening, he comes to a smart parade rest and doesn’t relax until they make it clear that they’re making camp to sleep.
He doesn’t question much either. Hickey does, however. Five days after she had come across Hickey and Tozer and the furious, half-dead half-bound Tuunbaq, Silna stops after only an hour of walking and indicates that they are to set down their burdens. Tozer just does so. Hickey is curious.
She doesn’t acknowledge the remark, and instead begins surveying the patch she has selected, mittened hands on her hips. She bends down and inspects the snow on the ground. After a moment she seems satisfied and nods to herself.
What are you doing? I thought we had more miles of rock to trek across. I was looking forward to it.
We’re going to stop here. We’re going to build.
She’s not in the mood to be forthcoming, and it’s only after Silna scrapes the wide circle on the ground and begins construction that Hickey realises what she’s doing. She’s building a snow house.
I am, and you’d better get started quickly if you want to follow along for your own. I won’t do it again for your benefit.
Oh, so we have to build our own now?
Or sleep outside if you’ve been enjoying it so much, I don’t care.
Aggravating. Surely she could make it large enough. Just because Solomon’s dead doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be allowed in.
I don’t mind if he stays with me, Silna tells him, industriously packing snow into bricks, it’s you I don’t want in my space.
Hickey feels rather offended.
He turns to see Tozer smirking, and once more there is that suspicion that Tozer somehow can hear their communication a lot better than he’s letting on. Are you hiding things from me, Sol? He thinks as loudly as he can in Tozer’s direction, but Tozer’s expression doesn’t even flicker. Silna laughs behind him.
Perhaps you are just not as inscrutable as you like to think.
Hickey rolls his eyes, and flashes Silna a rude gesture before pointing at Silna, then Tozer, then the ground, and miming shaping a brick of snow.
“Me?” Tozer says, raising an eyebrow. “Still shirking even now, Mr Hickey.” He sounds shockingly like his old self, the formerly, firmly alive Solomon Tozer who had joked and roughhoused and not been killed by an ancient spirit and then brought back to life by the same spirit.
He does start working, however, and watches Silna carefully. True to her word she makes no attempt to explain or even slow down in her course, and Tozer follows along with clumsy actions to match her smooth ones. Hickey does join in to help, although his arm still aches from where the Tuunbaq’s teeth had left deep bruises and some punctures in the flesh. He had thought the thing was about to tear the limb clear off for a moment after offering it his tongue.
Tozer hadn’t been so lucky. Hickey had seen him take two shots at the Tuunbaq, cool as you please in a steady crouch. Tozer had looked more calm and focused in those brief seconds than he had in the days leading up to the confrontation: the rifle on his shoulder and his eyes narrowed before that mighty claw had come down on him, dashing him against the rock.
It’s dark by the time they finish. The Tuunbaq has been lurking about the edges of their work all day, never coming too close but seeming to keep an eye on the proceedings. Hickey can feel it even when he can’t see it, like a tugging on the hairs at the back of his neck. It’s still a mysterious thing, how and to what extent he can control the creature. He’s seen Silna staring into its eyes as though having whole exchanges, but whenever he tries to tap into the harsh intelligence he can sense there in the corner of his mind all he gets is a turmoil of emotions and instincts, surface impressions of what he knows to be a complex consciousness.
He does it now, latching onto the swirling of the Tuunbaq and feeling the hunger clamping onto his belly, the cold in his fingers. Food, he thinks, food.
There’s a low rumble of acknowledgement in the back of his mind, and he senses the presence of the Tuunbaq moving a little further away.
Even that minor victory over the consciousness latched onto his brain is almost dizzying. The Tuunbaq is a mighty creature, worthy of his respect. It could snap him in half. But it will still bring food when he commands.
He’ll find a way of taking the reins entirely. He will. Silna is useful, of course, but Hickey has never been good at sharing.
Thinking of Silna he turns to see her regarding his and Tozer’s lopsided snow dome with a critical eye. A child could have done better, she informs him, but it probably won’t collapse and suffocate you.
How reassuring, Hickey thinks, not in Silna’s direction but she must hear it anyhow because she shrugs and replies.
If you want reassurance, your man likely wouldn’t die from just that, so he’ll be alright. Only you will suffocate.
And he’s the one who built most of it, so he’ll have killed me. How nice for him, Hickey sends back, and gives Tozer a spiteful look although the man isn’t a part of the conversation.
Tozer flicks two fingers at him in reaction to the expression, and Hickey wonders if he’s truly coming back to life, somehow. Little by little, bit by bit. He sends a questioning mental prod Silna’s way, but she ignores him. He doesn’t try again, because just then he also senses what’s distracted her, and then he sees it: the Tuunbaq cresting over the small rise they have settled by, the familiar sleek shape of a seal in its maw.
They are sitting about a small fire when Tozer speaks next. He doesn’t need to eat anymore but he does stay close to the flames, always seeking warmth. “Do you think,” he says apropos of nothing –though most things he says are apropos of nothing, because there’s never any conversation save for the harsh exchanges that go on in Hickey and Silna’s heads- “that I would be rotting, if it weren’t so cold?”
Hickey looks at him sharply, because it’s an extremely un-Tozerlike thing to wonder.
Tozer looks back at him, giving nothing away. He shrugs. “Just something that occurred to me.”
Silna has paused in her careful chewing and is watching the exchange with interest. I actually think he might be doing that on purpose, she thinks with mild amusement. Hickey gives her a withering look. She laughs at him.
Tozer doesn’t say anything else, just goes back to stirring the kettle they’re melting snow in, but Hickey detects a slight upward lilt of his cracked lip, and is irritated that Silna seems to have caught on correctly. That really isn’t something that Tozer would do. Oh, he had enjoyed making a nuisance of himself or making threats against Hickey’s general well-being, but always of a physical nature. “Don’t make me give you a knock” he’d say, or just clatter Hickey’s shoulder while brushing past. He’d never attempted to properly unsettle Hickey, Hickey thinks simply more because it wasn’t in his nature than because it wouldn’t have worked. And he’d especially never shown interest in the sort of unsettling that was based on his own person. Tozer has always been a sturdy sort, and assured in his own sturdiness, at least until the whole mess with Collins and the souls.
To draw attention to the wrongness of his own self, with the intention of playing tricks on Hickey’s mind and knocking him out of the careful focus of vision that showed him Solomon Tozer, Royal Marine and devoted dog, into one that revealed Solomon Tozer, dead man walking, is far from characteristic for Tozer because- well, because it’s precisely the sort of thing that Hickey himself would do.
He must be thinking too loudly or else Silna is specifically poking about in his head because she says, You never asked yourself what the Tuunbaq let back into that dead man.
If you’re trying to get in on the head games you can think again, Hickey tells her, annoyed.
I’m just putting forward a question you might want to consider. If psychic communication could contain false innocence, that message was dripping with it.
He chews a strip of seal meat and decides to ignore her. But Silna is more loquacious than usual, perhaps put in a good mood but Hickey’s rapidly souring one.
We are going to stay here for a time. The Tuunbaq must be properly bound. You already know that I don’t want you here, but there’s no choice. You’re a part of this now, so you will stay. It’s sometimes difficult to discern tone in the strange way they speak to one another but the command in Silna’s thoughts is impossible to miss. You will stay.
Hickey almost bristles at the presumption, but then again, it doesn’t matter what Silna tells him to do, and he will stay anyways for the Tuunbaq if for nothing else. So he only flattens his face into a bland smile, and bites into the meat with force.
They don’t stay out much longer than it takes to eat and to drink their fill of the snowmelt. Silna vanishes behind the seal pelt she’s used to cover her door and Hickey affixes a scrap of tent canvas over the opening to the amateur snow house into which he and Tozer have crawled.
It’s not too bad inside, with more tent canvas and their old furs spread across the packed floor. Despite Tozer not producing any body heat, and even seeming to suck the heat out of the air like a cold magnet, the small space grows warm enough to be comfortable. Warmer than their tents had been, and decidedly warmer than huddling on the ground under loose canvas as they had done the past days.
Tozer is watching him as Hickey pulls the furs aside. They haven’t been properly alone for a time now, not since the chaotic end to the mutineers’ camp. Not since Tozer had died.
That last point should probably be more off-putting than Hickey is actually finding it. If he ignores the cold skin and the mangled arm, and doesn’t make the mistake of forgetting himself and putting his hands through Tozer’s hair as he’d once liked to, Tozer is still the handsome man he’s always been. And he’s looking at Hickey now almost curiously, as if wondering what Hickey will do.
Does your cock still work, Solomon? Hickey thinks idly, and shifts in closer. Well, I suppose it doesn’t matter much.
Tozer’s lips are cold and dry, cracked but as unbleeding as the rest of him. If Hickey stabbed him, would he bleed even then? Irving had bled, Billy had bled, and Cornelius Hickey, the useless first owner of that name before Hickey had taken it and rightfully come into its possession, had bled, bled like a cow with its throat slit, toppling over heavily and with the same shocked brown eyes as a cow, looking like a right fool with his trousers down and his prick spent and limp against his pale thighs.
He licks into Hickey’s mouth and Hickey hisses as Tozer’s tongue swipes at the still tender stump of his own. He pinches the skin at Tozer’s neck hard in displeasure. Tozer just laughs against his teeth.
He fucks Tozer with the other man on his back, not wanting to see the caved in section of his skull or the worst of that torn shoulder. Oddly enough however, it’s not the fact that Tozer might actually be dead that bothers Hickey the most as he spits into his hand to slick his cock before pushing in, but rather that the man is so quiet. Hickey had always enjoyed how vocal Tozer was, how unashamed he had been of the sounds that Hickey could draw from him. But now he has nothing to say save a few appreciative sounds and the occasional encouraging ‘Cornelius’. It isn’t a question of arousal, because fascinatingly enough Tozer’s prick does still seem in full operation. It grows hard at Hickey’s touch and now stands at attention, leaking from the swollen head.
Maybe he ought to thank the Tuunbaq for that at least, Hickey thinks, and laughs so hard at the thought that Tozer gives him a strange look.
Tozer had made a sound of approval as Hickey had pushed him down to the furs and kissed him, had eagerly helped undo various buttons and belts. He had arched up into Hickey’s space and let himself be touched and fondled and warmed as much as he could be. Was that all Tozer wanted now, warmth? He had been cool when Hickey had entered him, cool to the point of unpleasantness, but he’s warm now, and still as tight and good as he’d ever been. But he’s changed in other ways. Tozer had been a solicitous and generous partner in bed. Even in the last days in the camp when he had been so clearly stewing in something, he had been willing and active whenever Hickey had deigned to return to the tent at night. Now he lies on the furs and greedily touches Hickey with his still-cold hands and lets himself be buggered without telling Hickey what feels good, or what he wants differently, or what he needs more.
It isn’t like Tozer. Something is off, and not just in the obvious ways. Hickey had assumed that whatever it was that the Tuunbaq spat back into Tozer had simply been the man’s soul. Now he isn’t so certain. He remembers the exchange from earlier and what Silna had hinted at, and strokes Tozer’s cheek, scratching his nails into the tangled beard.
Are you someone else in there? He wonders in Tozer’s direction. He thinks again about Tozer’s comment over their meal. Are you me, Solomon? Some part of me? If so, what part? And was it subsequently missing from Hickey? He feels complete enough, although perhaps he wouldn’t know.
He fucks Tozer anyway. The man is cold and dead and possibly a little bit of Hickey himself, but it’s still not the most narcissistic thing he’s ever done. Or the worst thing he’s ever fucked, at that.
Tozer insinuates himself into Hickey’s arms, afterwards. He had been almost hot for a minute, two minutes, but now his skin is rapidly cooling again. Hickey makes a noise of discomfort.
“I’ll probably always be cold now,” Tozer says, voice gravelly. “But it’s your fucking fault, so I won't be apologising to you for it.”
No one told you to go trying to fight the Tuunbaq, Hickey thinks irritably, though he keeps his arms around Tozer’s torso, you could have just run off. Had to play the hero, didn’t you, sergeant? I know you’d left me at the end there. Making plans. Talking to Armitage, talking to Crozier. And yet you’re still here, following me about like a dog been kicked by its master but with nowhere else to go. Pathetic.
He hopes Tozer can hear him. He hopes Tozer knows he’s only being kept because Hickey might have use of a marine who never grows tired, never grows hungry. He’s only being kept because he’ll haul the supplies and he’ll probably still suck Hickey’s cock as well, though his mouth will be as cold as the rest of him.
Tozer as always gives no indication that any of Hickey’s thoughts are making it through that poor, crushed skull of his. He just lies there curled into Hickey’s chest with his eyes closed as if sleeping, though maybe that’s another thing he doesn’t really do any more.
Hickey holds him close, and lets the cold sink into his bones.