The Seventh Series

by Justina Robson

''The secret of enlightenment is that there is no secret. Enlightenment only requires that you invite it to come, and then it will begin to appear. The question is, can you invite it with an open heart? I guess what I'm saying is -- do you really want to know? You have to surrender, give up your ideas. You have to accept what you find.''

Davey had invited enlightenment in some time before the yoga workshop he attended in London, so when the teacher in residence there sat and explained this fact to him he wasn't paying as much attention as he might have.

''The enlightened see things as they really are. It seems such a tiny thing, but when you stop to consider how we continually project ourselves out into the world without realising it, you can understand what a genuine shift of comprehension this may cause. Sometimes it's a surprise -- to stop thinking and just notice what's been right there all the time.''

Yadda, yadda. Davey felt impatient. He knew that he should be beyond impatience and this made him cross. He tried with all his might to let these feelings go, but they returned with the galumphing speed and enthusiasm of a wet Labrador puppy. He opened his eyes and gave up, stared at the floor and thought about work. In particular he thought about Katya, the heroine of the internet multiplayer game he was developing.

He planned her personality profile all through the rest of practice. When the time came to go he found himself standing in the hallway without knowing what he was waiting for.

Kate, the teacher, was shaking hands with her students, asking them about their health, talking with personal knowledge of all their problems. Davey had been her student for five years. She'd been much of the inspiration for Katya, although his need to keep their relationship on a proper footing made him keep that notion firmly at the back of his mind.

She shook his hand and looked him in the eye with gentle interest.

''I was wondering,'' he said, getting straight to what was on his mind, ''if you'd ever heard of a thing called The Seventh Series.''

Kate blinked in surprise and took a moment to brush a strand of hair from her face, tucking it behind her ear. ''I don't think so. There were six series of postures developed from the old text of the yoga korunta. Is that what you mean? Another one in that series?''

''I guess so,'' Davey ducked her gaze and then returned to it. She had a very friendly and attractive face, but he wasn't good at maintaining eye contact with her because of the guilt he felt at not practicing with full attention. And because he'd developed a habit of fantasising about going out with her. ''I've been working on a new game. I wanted to call it that. But you know, not in case it was already a real series or something.''

''A game based on yoga?'' She paused to wave goodbye to one of her friends and he printed the exact curve of her cheek on his memory as she smiled.

''Something like that,'' Davey said. ''Well, with yoga elements. Instead of karate and that. But like Tomb Raider as well. You know, a sort of search for the missing seventh series -- and then finding it would be the last level, but with a team of adventurers in a lost zone of the sub-continent.'' He paused, ''I searched around for it, but I haven't seen anything. Do you think it would be OK to make it up?''

''Oh, I'm sure,'' she said, smiling. ''It's only going to be a fantasy after all. I'd love to see it when it's done.''

Without realising he was going to he blurted, ''Um, would you help me make up some of it? The seventh series, I mean.''

''What, invent the poses?'' she pulled a quizzical face, thinking it through. ''All right. Why not?''

They ended up going out for a coffee to discuss it, and then met one day later in the week for lunch. Before he knew how he had done it Davey found himself asking her for a date, trying not to stare at his feet. She said yes. Davey blushed with boldness and pleasure and for two days could do no work at all.

As their relationship flowered the screen character of Katya Remington became more faulty, more interesting. Davey let her have a past life with some heartbreak. He let her have a dark side, now that he didn't need her to be so perfect. He gave her a devious streak and a talent for gamesmanship, a hard-bitten poker player's astuteness, before he posted her to his boss in the 'States. He watched the outline of an entire person disappear across the high bandwidth line in less seconds than it took to say her name.

Summer came and found him mooning over Kate alone in his study. She had gone to India, for her regular study months in Mysore with her yoga teacher, and they communicated via the internet cafés there. Davey clicked her last letter closed and saw he'd received an email from one of their mutual friends, Foyle Durant, an American yoga enthusiast. Foyle verged on yoga fandom. Davey had always thought he was prone to taking it all far too seriously.

You won't believe what I just saw in this bookstore downtown. I'm so wrapped I'm sending you the address along with this digi-to I took right there and then. You can get it on Visa. Best, F.

A JPEG was attached. It showed a poster advertising e-books and videos on various esoteric subjects. Unmistakably, with Foyle's finger pointing at it, there was a DVD called ''The Seventh Series: Yoga's ultimate masterclass, as never seen before, performed in New York City by the discoverers of Nathamuni's lost texts of the Yoga Rahasya. Specialist Order.''

Davey, surprised and confused, wondered if Kate had been wrong. Was there such a thing? But his game was now well underway and the artists were already hard at work preparing the visuals. The marketing was being produced. Anxious, he flicked back to his behavioural subroutines for Doctor Durant, who was a combination of bits he'd cobbled together from himself and Foyle but he couldn't concentrate. He didn't know what to think. How could it be real if Kate hadn't heard about it? What should he do? Buy it and include it, if he could somehow obtain copyright permission, if he needed permission. Then again, if some bastard had ripped him off?

Davey backed up his machine compulsively, as he did in moments of worry, and then put his head in his hands. A year's work he'd done on this project already. The whole team had.

He emailed the address that Foyle had given him from the poster. It was a small online company that specialised in rare occult books and esoterica for ''the discerning connoisseur''.

Shortly after this incident Davey was sitting in the advanced yoga class. They were closing their practice with the traditional chant of Aum, the sonic symbol of the life of the universe. In Davey's game of The Seventh Series this sound and the written symbol for Om told the careful player where hidden levels and secrets were to be found. He thought of this as he added his voice to the moment.

He was also thinking about when Kate may return and what she'd say when he showed her the video from the shop. He fretted that she'd be horrified by the figure of Katya Remington, adventurer. Katya was undergoing ''bootification'', a process where real artists took his rough sketches and personality profile and made her into a genuine three-dimensional living and breathing digital entity. Davey was slightly in love with Katya, even though he'd tried to make her less ideal. He worried about what was happening to her when she was out of his control. He felt guilty, as if the real woman would be jealous of the made-up one, or even vice versa.

Aa -- Davey said in the chant, joining the heartbeat of the galaxies in their turning, joining the mind of Shiva where it meditates and allows, by his attention, existence.

The artists in LA wanted to change Katya, from a cerebral, rather boyish girl with a ponytail and eyeglasses into a 36DD, 20-inch waisted minx -- keep the ponytail, glasses turned to shades. As a result of this, they'd argued and now Davey was on edge. He was tired of replicating clichéd old fantasies, and the original interest of finding a quirky new angle for the game had vanished in the exhaustion of defending it to people who didn't want to know. He envied the originators of any genuine Seventh Series their facility and wisdom. He envied Kate with all his heart; she didn't live most of her life tormented by fantasies of her own making.

Uu -- Davey came to the centre of life.

He thought he could go away for a time. Forget the game. Pursue real understanding, pursue all the series of yoga and master them. That would be a real achievement. He had the money -- developers weren't exactly poor in this avenue of the marketplace. Plus, he could escape from thinking of ways to create extra points rewards in the game for players following the romance between Katya Remington and Doctor Durant. He'd thought at first the tension between the two was good, a new angle to play for as you diced with death in the Kerala jungles. Now he thought it was an adolescent wank fantasy. Yeah. He had to escape this and find his own space.

Mmm -- the close of day, the blink of an eye, death.

I want to learn, he thought. I want to see. I want to go where Katya Remington was going to go, become the thing she was going to become, before they turned her into another Lara Croft clone. I want to become better than this.

When he got home there was an email waiting for him.

Dear Davey.

If it exists, we'll find it. If it has a price, we'll sell it. If it has no price, we'll think of one! Thanks for messaging The Lost Bookstore. We are presently having trouble with sourcing The Seventh Series DVD. Our suppliers have failed to deliver and we are beginning to suspect that we have been duped in this matter. (Occupational hazard). We have put one of our top researchers from our Rare Books section onto your case, since the DVD is based on a missing piece (alleged) of the Yoga Rahasya, which has been verified in a private collection -- but she'll find your DVD too. Her name is Loretta Haas and she has experience in obtaining antique and hard-to-find items in this market. She will put together monthly reports for you for the a regular payment of 70 per month inclusive of all taxes. To agree to this...

Blah blah.

70 was less than an hour's work. Davey paid it and began to work on the scene-by-scene scripts and layouts for The Seventh Series that needed to fit on top of the game proper, the picture of Katya he'd drawn himself still stuck to the wall, her diffuse, vague outline shadowed almost into a pure silhouette before the glowering intensity of a simmering Chennai sunset. Next to her the photograph of Kate Hannigan smiled at him. He wished he were with her.

Dear Davey,

I now have in my possession a copy of the original 7th series manuscript, which I obtained from my contacts in Mysore, who obtained it from a group of Calcuttan Shaivites, who are reportedly close to the owner who is a member of their particular sect. Whew! They claim the owner is the guy in the digital recording, which was made in New York when he was visiting there, though they don't have the files themselves. So, it looks like I was too hasty in thinking it a hoax, and this recording may still exist.

Three others have pursued stories of the Rahasya text to India. One -- Foyle Durant, your associate? -- has returned, broke. He claims to have been led a merry dance by the Shaivites. He's convinced the thing is a fake and has been saying so -- I'm sure you're aware of his opinions.

Sincerely, Loretta Haas, The Lost Bookstore.

Davey did know Foyle's view.

''It's a whole crock of utter shit,''n Foyle had raved to him over the phone. ''You stick with making it up. Man, at least you'll have something real in your hand at the end of the day.''

Dear Davey,

The original text of the Rahasya fragment is now on loan to the University of Calcutta and has been verified as to its age by carbon-dating. I have applied for my associate there (Professor S. Sinha, an expert on Vedic texts) to view it and verify its authenticity. They are unwilling to make any promises. The paper or whatever it's on is deteriorating, and must be kept in strict conditions.

Sincerely, Loretta.

Seventy bucks for this? Too much and not enough. Davey thought of giving up. He wrote a love letter to Kate. He missed her badly. The new cardboard cutout of lifesize Katya Remington watched him from the doorway, her lips in a sulky pout.

Dear Davey,

I offer you my condolences, if that's what's appropriate, on your guru's death at the school in India. Ninety-three is not a bad age, but it must have been a shock. My personal friend, Sara Forward, the journalist, attended the funeral since she was in India already, researching an article for Vanity Fair on the influences of the Mysore yogashala on local culture, economy and the remains of the caste system, which is why I know. She met Kate Hannigan out there, who sends you her love, by the way.

Meanwhile I have obtained some files from an unnamed person who lurks around the rare antique and occult sites on the web. These are supposed to be the original digital recordings of the Empire State video. They're awesome. I assume they must be CGI-ed unfortunately, but I attach them, at no charge, for you to see.

Best, Loretta.

Davey, tense and agitated, watched the badly shot photography of the Seventh Series video on his monitor.

A tall, very dark and athletic man of indeterminate age stood against the backdrop of night-time New York city, wearing nothing but a pair of black lycra cycling shorts. His hair was tied in a long club that hung down his back and his eyes were closed, his hands in namaste, the prayer position. The camera panned back to show that he was balanced on a beam no more than four inches wide which had been extended from the top of the Empire State building's viewing platform, like some event in a TV magic show. There was no net.

The sound quality of the files was appalling. Davey heard the breathing of the camera operator, the sharp blurt of the wind against the microphone.

The man, whoever he was, walked out to the end of the beam and set down his right hand on its end. Balanced on this hand he lifted his feet up lightly and extended his free arm to the side.

Davey caught his breath, recognising the move in disbelief, his body suddenly cold as he watched the man proceed through all twenty five poses of Davey and Kate's imaginary and impossible Seventh Series. Never faltering, always breathing, his torso, head legs and free arm revolved with the grace of pure oil as they twined in and out of each other.

Davey didn't know anyone who was doing sub-skin musculature with this much definition and precision in CGI, but he knew it was possible. There was no way to know if this was a smart fake with deliberate bad moments or a genuinely poor recording of a real event. But that was secondary to the creeping sensation on the back of his neck. I made this up!

It must be a fix.

After twenty minutes the yoga man put his feet back on the beam, changed hands, and did it all on the left arm, a mirror image of himself. Davey watched as hard as he could, but when he viewed the right-side beside the left-side during playback it didn't deviate one iota. Beneath the man's indefatigable, serene presence Manhattan shone continuously, the lights of the cars in the streets below two rivers, red and white, flowing against each other. Distant sirens wailed.

Davey flicked back, frozen except for his mouse hand, and watched again.

The first pose of the seventh series was a backbend in which the feet circled around behind the head and touched the supporting hand. Davey and Kate had giggled to devise this move, had checked it against a computerised learning tool for physiotherapists, and it was possible, in that it was within the bounds of known bio-mechanics. But after six months of trying he couldn't get near it -- it felt like his wrist would break -- and neither could she, even on an ordinary floor.

He didn't send Kate the files. He didn't know what to make of them. He tried to think if he had ever told anyone what they'd worked on for the conclusion of his game but he'd never mentioned what it was at all, afraid that if he had, it would be vetoed, like ordinary Katya, made into some travesty. He had sent the rough architecture for it to the art director for approval so the backdrops could be designed. But he'd used the company encryption.

He comforted himself by reading Kate's latest letters.

When the Rahasya fragment arrived on photocopied sheets it was handwritten in Telugu script and badly stained. He couldn't read it.

Dear Davey,

Sara got back today. She says that all reports of the 7th series

are now treated as apocrypha in Mysore, although the rumour mill is hot with it. Professor Sinha says he thinks the papers are genuine, but they are in such bad condition that the Calcuttans have withdrawn them from public access now.

I'm not surprised you can hardly make head or tail of the copy as it is Sanskrit! The Prof promises to deliver a translation soon.

Congratulations, if that's the thing, on completing the Fourth Series or whatever it is. You'll soon be running out of things to do! Since you've piqued my interest, specially by your comment on how it's important to confront the impossible -- and by confronting repeatedly, overcome, right? -- I tagged along to a Power Yoga (still not convinced you guys don't think of this as hopelessly corrupted by American values) session at the Y. And you do this for fun?

Best, Loretta.

Dear Davey,

I guess this is the end of our relationship, boo hoo. I've sent off the translations to you today. Sara sends her best wishes and thanks you for your kind words about the article. She saw Kate just before leaving India last week. They met in the airport. Sara showed her some of the video. She was thrilled with it and says she'll be in touch to congratulate you??? She assumed it must be CGI too. As there's no way to determine authenticity from digital files, we'll have to agree to differ.

The address of the MS owner attached. I hope you have a lovely time out there. Remember to keep your ear to the ground for me.

I'm still doing my classes at the Y. Each time I fall over, I think of you. I can't believe you even attempt the moves on the video. I assume you don't try it balanced at the end of a plank whilst hanging off the London Eye or anything, at least not yet:)

Do call us again if you need anything and be sure to stop by next time you're in town.

Love, Loretta.

Dear Davey

I don't know what to say about the enclosed video-tape as its arrival was a total surprise. I'll just pass it on to you. The owner of the manuscript sent it, when he heard from the Shaivites, who must have heard it at the Mysore mandiram, that you were intent on coming to see him.

I have also heard an unconfirmed report that the original script at the University has decayed beyond repair or deciphering inside its special environment, despite many efforts to save it. Calcutta U now denies that it possesses the thing and has removed all copies from the Library.

I know you don't want advice and if you're anything like my other clients you won't take it, but here it is anyway, because you're a good person and I think this has all been a big mistake. For which I'm sorry.

Don't go.

Love, Loretta.

PS. Translation enclosed.'

Davey opened the parcel and looked down at the tape. It was a battered VHS and looked like it had seen a lot of use. There was no note with it and no label. Not daring to trust it to the machine he rewound it by hand. He put the translation aside for later.

The Katya cutout, buxom and full-lipped, stood over him; a hardbody version of Jessica Rabbit. Doctor Durant grinned like a fiend from the other corner. This character, in whom Davey had once seen himself, was now a lantern-jawed ape in khakis whose kit bag held a cornucopia of pharmacological mayhem instead of life-saving medicines. Now his original storyline had been ''modified on advisory'' (i.e. fucked up by the company director sticking his finger in) so that anybody playing Katya or the Doctor had to kill each other on the final level or they weren't able to win.

Meanwhile the only problem with the long-awaited end of the game proper was that Davey didn't know what the prize was. Did you get treasure? Fame? Hidden knowledge? The build-up to the whole thing was tremendous and almost anything imaginable seemed insufficient to fulfil its promise.

Fear of failing the game itself, and of being given the push by the company, came and sat inside his chest as heavily as a lump of cold clay. He wanted the tape to be a joke, but a piece of him that had always desired bigger, better, faster, more, wanted it to be real.

As he rewound the tape he tried to contain the envy he felt for the people who were behind this -- they had more skill than he did, that was for sure.

He put the tape in the machine and switched it on.

A familiar figure confronted him immediately, silhouetted against early morning sunlight coming through trees. The man from the Empire State stood beside a cave mouth at the crest of a hill, his perfectly-honed outline seeming to shift as breezes blew the leaves and covered him in sun and shade. He walked backwards into absolute resolution of focus. The camera crouched in the cool shadow, watching.

In daylight Davey saw that this person was no older than he was, mid-thirties. His Asian skin was dark with a peculiar colour cast that he hadn't seen in the night-shoot, almost bluish or indigo as though stained with smoke. His hair was free and fell long around his shoulders in thick hanks. He wore the same lycra shorts as before, their Cannondale logo clearly visible. But then he bent down and stripped them off, letting them fall on the ground. The face held that identikit serenity Davey saw in Kate's long, straight back and the composure of her hands. The man looked into Davey's eyes and maintained the gaze without blinking. In the glade where he stood pieces of blue jacaranda blossom drifted down and stuck to his skin. There was no sound.

Davey didn't know what he was watching until he saw the first ripple of movement take place beneath the man's skin. Then, in the same way that an ordinary action moves muscle and bone, the muscle and bone of the whole figure was shifted between one slow blink and the next. When the dark eyes opened they were a subtly different shape. The jaw softened and slimmed, the forehead became rounder, the skin softer and more auburn. Hair seemed to disappear here and there, across the arms and legs it vanished as though evaporating. Beneath the tough chest, where the muscle had stuck out with every fibre defined, fat ran and smoothed itself into breasts. The small nipples darkened and spread wider. The man's penis withdrew and his testicles lifted like an indrawn breath.

A woman stood in the glade, her eyebrows arched in concentration, the eyes beneath watching Davey as they had watched him before, unchanged. She blinked slowly and bent down to pick up the cycle shorts which she put back on easily, her loose hair falling around her face until she swept it up and bound it back in a knot. She walked forwards and into the mouth of the cave where she became a silhouette, as tall as before but of a different shape now.

The tape cut off sharply with a static roll and suddenly Davey was watching the end of an old Bollywood film, the sloe-eyed heroine singing as she was pushed back and forth in a swing by the hero. It had obviously been watched many times; the tracking flickered and the audio track was suddenly loud and fuzzy, a kind of roaring mumble of voices.

Davey recorded the tape onto CD and watched every instant of it on pause, but he couldn't see the joins. And then he found himself grinning -- well, he could think of one thing to do with this.

As a way of getting his own back he scanned the figure into the game itself. Then he filled out a character profile, and attached him to the mapping files that would make him walk and talk. Davey did it methodically, an act of reclamation. He allowed him to cross-map to the Katya files to become female at random. He gave him a name that was supposed to signify his meaning, the game's end -- at least, how Davey wished it would end. Shantih: the peace of silence, the plea for blessing as all distinctions fade and are lost.

Yeah, and the company director can stick it up his ass if he doesn't like it. If you win you get eternal peace in your soul. And is that deliverable by playing a game? What does Shantih do for Katya, for Doctor Durant? Gives them back every life point and a one way ticket to Nirvana. Does the pneumatic vixen turn into the bespectacled librarian her soul longs to become? Why not. Will the Doctor cure himself of his terminal two-dimensionality? Yeah, maybe.

Davey sat on his mat until evening came but it wasn't enough. In the morning he called the travel agency and bought a ticket to Mysore.

He thought, as he flew out there, that if he could understand what had been sent to him in the video, faked or not, then the strange itch in his soul would go away.

Loretta had been accurate in her portrayal of the Shaivite sect as protective and fuelled by mysteries. As they must have done with a disillusioned Foyle, they led Davey from site to site. Each time he reached a predestined point ''the master'' had gone on ahead, or waited, or been there a day early, or was not yet arrived, or had made another plan which he hadn't been able to tell Davey about. So sorry.

During this time of travel practice was difficult. Davey spent his money on accommodation, train tickets, food and bribes to various people, even to the portly, thin-skinned University librarian in Calcutta, who eventually showed him through to a sealed glass box full of ashes for a full five minutes and then ushered him out rapidly through a side exit --

''Quickly, quickly, it is all most irregular!''

-- and abandoned him in the alley there without another word.

Davey considered all of this merely the necessary testing preliminaries that any true devotee must undergo before something of value is parted with. He expected that eventually, when his perseverance was clear, Shantih would see him.

He called Kate when he ran out of money and she sent him more.

''Davey,'' she said, sighing patiently. ''When are you coming back?''

The only thing that kept him going was her conviction that he would.

Finally he was summoned to the site of the address Loretta had provided -- a house in Calcutta with a garden walled off from the street in which he was set to wait by silent servants, none of whom would answer a single question. Nobody came. After five days, having caught a persistent fever, Davey left.

He reported to a doctor in the city who felt his pulse and looked at his tongue.

''You have malaria,'' the doctor said, peering through thick glasses which slid down her nose as she wrote out a prescription for some Indian medicine on one pad and for western drugs on another. ''Either of these but not both, hey? Come see me again in a month.''

Davey stared at both slips and took them to the chemist shop where they gave him a packet of pills and told him to drink bottled water. He reached into his pocket for his wallet, and it was gone. Vaguely he recalled a boy at his side in the surgery, sitting close, chewing some kind of bubblegum that smelled of bananas.

''I haven't got my wallet,'' he explained, and they took the pills back.

He stood outside and wondered what to do. His mind was slow to function, as though the disease had stolen his knowledge, but his feet returned him to the mandiram where he telephoned American Express.

''I'm sorry, sir, your name is?''

''David Cruickshank. C-r-u-'' he spelled it for them, lolling on the chair, his head buzzing with a sound like flies or a billion voices far away trying to talk at once.

''And you had what type of card?''


''Do you have your number?''

''No. It was stolen. My address is...''

''I'm sorry Mr Crookshank. We have no records of you as a customer. I can't help you.''

Davey floundered. Amex had talked to him a hundred times. Never any problem. He looked at the phone, as though it was at fault. ''But I'm in India. I have no money. Listen, you can call my employers, Eastwind Graphics of Los Angeles.''

''If you can call them and refer them to us, then I can authorise some temporary cheques.''

''I don't need cheques. I need cash. For medicine. Cash...''

But it was no use.

Confused he called Kate, but then remembered she was out of town, visiting some of her friends at their homes in the country. There was no mobile coverage out there. He didn't feel like asking for charity from a stranger at the mandiram. They all disapproved of the way he trailed over the country in pursuit of what they all knew was perfectly ridiculous. Some of them pitied him.

Davey felt stupid and thick-headed, embarrassed, a failure. He went outside and began walking, vaguely following a direction where the Shaivites had claimed the master might be found visiting a temple on certain days. He intended to find a cool place and rest and get his shit together and then, he'd sort it out and get the hell out of there. But first he had to sit down.

Days passed.

It was early one morning and he'd gone two days at least without food. Davey was sitting under a tree at the side of the road near a shrine to the horse-headed Lord Hayagriva. He was shivering furiously in one of the increasingly frequent bouts of fever when he saw Shantih come walking up the road, unmistakable in the Cannondales. Despite the extensive walk in the dust his feet were smooth and elegant. They seemed to carry no weight.

''David Cruickshank,'' the figure said in a deeply melodic voice, bending down to him. ''I'm surprised to see you here. You must have realised by now that I didn't want you to follow me.''

''Then why play this game with me?'' Davey felt too weak to stand, although he tried to.

Shantih put a hand on his arm to indicate he should remain sitting. ''To tell you what The Seventh Series means.''

''But I saw you. In the tape. It's not impossible, or, it is.'' Davey's head felt thick. He wished he were better, so he could make more of this encounter. He didn't think he understood what Shantih had said and felt he wasn't making sense. ''You did the poses. You're real. You did it.''

''Do you think you can change your sex, as though it were a kind of asana, a pose?'' Genuine surprise.

Davey shook his head, ''You did it, though. Or did you? Anyway. It's great to see you so -- alive. Real. Anyway, isn't it? A form of pose? Just a shape.''

Shantih nodded and squatted down opposite. ''You've tried The Seventh Series. You created it to be as close to impossible as it could be, but still, you try. You wanted to make something miraculous. Have you got far?''

''I can't do any of it. Not yet.'' Davey swallowed with difficulty. His mouth was dry. ''I did make it up. Did I?''

''But The Seventh Series is the easiest of all,'' Shantih said, frowning slightly. ''It's child's play. Can't you see?''

''I try all the time.'' Davey said, insistent. He wanted not to sound petulant, but felt that he must.

Shantih sighed. He seemed resigned, as though he were the failure and not Davey. ''What did you want to say to me?''

The world swam in front of Davey's eyes, dizzying, nauseating. ''I want to be your student. I want to solve the game. I wanted to know if you were real or my imagination. One of them has to be. Doesn't it?''

Shantih looked at him sternly.

''You have been my student since you were in London, Davey. You invited me to teach you, when you envied others what you thought was their peace of mind, and I have done so.''

He drew a circle in the dust with one of his strangely blue-toned fingers, the fingernails dyed with turmeric into a bright yellow. He glanced up from this apparently absorbing task and looked into Davey's eyes. ''You have let yourself get sick, wasted your money, forgotten your friends and your obligations at home. What makes you think this would endear you to me? I've answered your every wish for mystery a thousandfold, but you still want more. Where is the end, David? What will be enough?''

Davey faltered. ''If you didn't want me to come here why did you make me search so hard to get the files and the tape? Why did you put things in my way when I would just have made it all up otherwise? Why do anything at all if you wanted me to stay as I was?''

Shantih held up his hand and Davey made himself be quiet. He watched as the man stood and put his fingers to the centre of his chest. He stiffened them and struck them to his breastbone seven times. On the seventh time his fingers entered. He drew the wall of his ribs aside.

Inside their slippery shell Davey saw his lungs moving, his heart beating between them, the exposed bones bent impossibly without breaking. With his other hand Shantih pinched his arteries shut and took out his heart. It beat on his hand as he held it out to Davey. The lobes of it opened like a flower and a sweet scent filled the air.

Inside it Davey saw the intricate brass workings of an old pocket watch. The toothed cogs turned out of their timing and bit down on the heart muscle. A black liquid ran out and then the heart, hand and arm became fluid. Shantih's chest closed and his heart vanished, reabsorbed. He stood before Davey for a moment with the slithering, blunt definition of a tar baby, then was Shantih again.

''But,'' Davey said.

Shantih became a tiger. The tiger showed Davey its shining black teeth and the jacaranda lilac-blue of its large tongue. The tiger gouged Davey's foot with its claw and Davey cried out with the sharp injustice of the pain. It licked the wound and said sternly,

''This will cure your fever. You can return to the point where you last were saved.''

Davey said nothing. He watched the tiger become a snake, become Ananta, the thousand-headed who supports the Earth without effort on the smooth curve of his necks.

He watched an ordinary cobra slide and rustle through the dry grass near his feet and vanish into the bole of the tree beside him. He tried to stand up and called Shantih to return, but the road was empty and he was too dizzy. He fell into the dust.

The Mysore school was registering new students on the morning when Davey returned, filthy and dazed. He was so weak and tired that he didn't recognise any of them but the idea of one of them recognising him made him stagger away from their bright, questing glances. He sat down across the road in the shade of the baobab that grew there, the very image of a fat, digital tree drawn by a clumsy kid.

At first his plan had been to wait until they were processed and then go to find Kate, but lethargy and dizziness kept him pinned to the spot. He watched all day. Towards twilight Shantih came along and sat down beside him. She held his hand and they watched the last students leave their class as the day cooled. None of them were talking of the Seventh Series. They were heading for hostels and hotels, talking about dinner, talking about things they'd learned. He felt better.

Kate came out after them and peered across the broad road. She looked directly to his spot and called out quietly,

''David? Is that you?''

Davey looked to his side but Shantih was nowhere to be seen.

''Yes,'' he called back. He got up and went to her. She looked surprised, but not surprised, by the state of him.

''Honestly,'' she said, her first and only word of reproach. He squeezed her tightly in a hug and nodded. They stood in each other's arms.

She brought him some tea and fruit and sat with him while he ate it.

''A letter came for you,'' she said, as though everything was perfectly normal, forgiving him before he had time to say anything about it. ''It's here. I was going to burn it, but then...anyway, I didn't. From The Lost Bookstore.'' She handed it to him with a significant look that said it had better not be any more news about goose chases.

Davey sat down weakly on the veranda's edge, almost sick with nerves, and read aloud,

Davey, I hope this catches up with you at the mandiram or wherever it is. Lotty.

It contained an article from the New York Times:

Computer Generated Personalities In Dot Con Fraud Deny Charges.

A legal precedent was set today in New York, NY, when the first Computer Generated Personality (CGPs) was summoned as a witness in a fraud trial encompassing a series of so-called pranks thought to have originated with students working on the development of CGPs for use in films and advertising.

Extracurricular activities of the students included setting up bank accounts, ID and social security numbers for these ''non-official'' personalities and using them to get thousands of dollars of unsecured loans. They also bought holidays and cars and set up websites advertising a range of services from stockbroking to the sourcing of rare artworks and collectible books. Fakes recovered so far from the tracing of deals include two Mona Lisas, a Giacometti sculpture, a Bengal tiger and a series of documents purporting to be the missing piece from an ancient yogic text...

Dry-mouthed, Davey glanced at the picture on the left of the article.

It was Katya Remington. Not the Playmate beauty version, but the one from his own first sketch, awkward in the exposure of the public gaze, a bookish tomboy caught in a naughty prank. The caption beneath it read, ''Loretta Haas, one of the CGPs appearing in court today.''

The paper fluttered out of his hands and onto the dust.

''That's a picture of...'' Kate said as she went to pick it up.

''Don't say it,'' Davey said quickly.

''Oh my god,'' she said, her voice dropping to a whisper as she realised what it must mean. ''Davey. Your game.''

He nodded, staring foolishly at the ball of paper in his hand. ''They got me a good one. But look on the bright side. It's done now, and I didn't get killed or eaten by monsters or blown up or anything...nothing like what happens to them.''

''Not much like it,'' she said and put her arm around his shoulders. ''At least, not much.''

''Yeah.'' For the first time he became aware of how much his bones hurt just from sitting on the wooden steps, because he had so little flesh left. He felt light and hollow, like a drawing or a skeleton, utterly de-animated. He thought of the dark figure who had held his hand.

From inside the mandiram they both heard one of the teachers closing his practice.

''Om,'' sounded his voice, strong on the udgita, then quieter and more gentle as it whispered to the close of his prayer; three repeats of the benediction with the fourth silent because it was lost in the dance of Shiva. ''Shantih, shantih, shantih...''

LSFF:s hemsida