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  ‘Warning: This book may change your life!…The idea

  of everything will be thrown into doubt and profound

  uncertainty.’ Guardian

  ‘Sophisticated sci-fi that explores thorny issues in

  philosophy and science…Beckett presents a series of

  philosophical conundrums with lucid and penetrating

  intelligence, and weaves them into a bleak but compelling

  futuristic vision.’ Age

  ‘Beckett accelerates the pace and heightens the tension until

  his narrative reaches a conclusion so shocking, it’s like a

  blow to the head.’ Weekend Australian

  ‘Highly original…It gripped me like a vice.’

  Jonathan Stroud

  ‘Anaximanda is a brilliant creation.’ New Zealand Books

  ‘This is a story rich in resonance and more than a few good

  plot twists.’ Courier-Mail

  ‘An intricate enquiry into the nature of human

  consciousness and artificial intelligence.’ Financial Times

  Beckett raises enough philosophical questions to keep an

  intelligent reader thinking for weeks.’ Independent on Sunday

  Other titles by Bernard Beckett


  Red Cliff

  Jolt—finalist 2002 NZ Post Book Award

  No Alarms

  Home Boys

  Malcolm and Juliet—winner 2007 NZ Post Book Award, winner 2005 Esther Glen Award

  Deep Fried (with Clare Knighton)—finalist NZ Post Book Award

  Genesis—winner 2010 young adult category of the Prix Sorcières, France; winner 2007 Esther Glen Award; winner 2007 NZ Post Book Award

  Falling for Science: Asking the Big Questions

  Acid Song

  Bernard Beckett is a multi-award-winning author of books for adults and young adults and one of New Zealand’s most outstanding writers. He lives near Wellington with his wife and two sons.


  Bernard Beckett

  The paper in this book is manufactured only from wood grown in sustainable regrowth forests.

  The Text Publishing Company

  Swann House

  22 William Street

  Melbourne Victoria 3000


  Copyright © Bernard Beckett 2011

  All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright above, no part of this publication shall be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior permission of both the copyright owner and the publisher of this book.

  First published by The Text Publishing Company, 2011

  Cover design by WH Chong

  Page design by Susan Miller

  Typeset by J&M Typesetters

  Printed and bound in Australia by Griffin Press

  National Library of Australia

  Cataloguing-in-Publication entry

  Author: Beckett, Bernard, 1968–

  Title: August / Bernard Beckett.

  Edition: 1st ed.

  ISBN: 9781921758041 (pbk.)

  Dewey Number: NZ823.2

  For Clare, with love


  PART 1: The Fall

  Tristan’s Story

  Grace’s Story

  PART 2: The Temptation

  Tristan’s Story

  Grace’s Story

  PART 3: First Light

  Tristan and Grace’s Story

  PART 1

  The Fall

  For a moment the balance was uncertain. The headlights stabbed at the thick night. A rock loomed, smooth and impassive, then swung out of the frame. A stunted tree rushed at him, gnarled and prickly. The seat pushed hard, resisting his momentum. Road, rock again, grass, gravel. The forces resolved their differences and he was gliding, a dance of sorts, but he was deaf to its rhythm, just as he was deaf to her screams. Instinct fought the wheel, but the future drew them in.

  They were floating, tumbling together in a machine not made for tumbling, weightless and free. He considered the physics: gravity recast as acceleration. An odd thought to have, but what thought isn’t odd when death breathes close and sticky? The world slowed. He could not look at her.

  The dance broke with a dull thud and the roof above them crumpled. They bounced. The lights went out and collisions vibrated through him, dissolving the border between feeling and sound. His insides he supposed were acting out their own small version of this greater play. He had heard of it, hearts so determined in their trajectories that they ripped free from their moorings.

  With each thud the terrain absorbed momentum. That word again. All is physics. It ended with a shudder. His, hers, the car’s. They rocked but did not roll. There in the darkness on a disinterested slab of stone their stories settled into silence.

  She was no longer screaming. He was still alive. This was as far as his certainty extended. He considered the possibility he was upside down. Something, perhaps his seatbelt, was digging into his throat. Adrenaline fizzed through him.

  The humming untangled itself into distinct sounds. Steam hissed from a punctured pipe. He heard the grating of stressed metal and some part of the engine ticking as it cooled, counting down the seconds. A groan.

  Her breath was a warm whisper across his nose. We must be close now, he thought, her head and mine.

  He should have said something. It was the polite thing to do. St Augustine’s had carved the importance of politeness deep into its charges. There are no exceptions to this titanium rule. Manners first. Always.

  He was letting the old school down, then; he had thoughts only for himself. A warm stream of blood originating somewhere below his collar trickled up his neck and over his chin (so, definitely upside down). His mouth filled with the taste of salt and iron. A first awareness of pain pulsed through him. Perhaps I am dying, he thought. Certainly he was injured.

  He was to blame. She was here because he had brought her here; this point could not be denied. And so, as the rector would have insisted, she was his responsibility. He held his breath to focus on the sound of hers, leaning towards the point where he imagined the mouth might be. Her air came short and fast, shallow with fear. He could detect no bubbling; her lungs weren’t filling up. She will live, he decided. The evidence inadequate, the conclusion reassuring.

  He reached slowly towards his seatbelt buckle but searing pain beat him back, as sharp and precise as a cleaver.

  Something new. A whispering like wind but close, familiar. He stared intently at the blackness, as though the secret of the fragmented sounds was written there. She tried again.

  ‘I can hear you.’ Her words landed as spray on his face.

  ‘Sorry.’ His inadequate reply.

  She was slowly gaining control of her breathing. She swallowed noisily. ‘I just meant…you haven’t said anything.’

  ‘I was thinking,’ he said.

  ‘Thinking what?’

  ‘Wondering. Wondering if I was dying.’

  ‘Are you?’

  ‘I don’t know. My shoulder’s definitely broken.’

  ‘My head hurts.’

  ‘I think we must be upside down.’

  ‘You don’t want to know how it hurts?’ she asked.

  ‘I’m not a doctor.’


  ‘What do you want, a diagnosis?’ The words disturbed his breathing and he ended with a desperate cough.

  ‘I’d settle for an escape,’ she said.

  ‘Some say only death can provide that.’

  ‘Some say a lot of shit.’
  ‘How does your head hurt?’ he asked.

  It wasn’t meant to be like this. He’d planned every detail.

  ‘I’m Tristan,’ he said.

  ‘You want to know my name?’

  ‘You’ll only lie.’

  A long silence. Tristan wondered if she had passed out. ‘It was the ice. I lost control on the ice,’ he said.

  Still there was nothing. ‘I am sorry.’ This time his voice dented. If he could only have that moment back. But which moment? The last moment, before the future sets hard. The hiding place of the soul.

  The acrid stench of battery acid touched Tristan’s nose. He wondered how this would end, and panic rose in his throat. He spoke only as a way of denying his pain.

  ‘Are you still there?’

  ‘I’m not going anywhere.’

  Her voice hovered in the unseen spaces, unnaturally calm. He’d liked it better when she was screaming.

  It was wrong to have told her his name. Intimate though their position was, it was no excuse for assuming. This too the rector had explained to the boys. Social ethics was taught at meal time, with their dinner plates steaming before them. They ate only when the rector finished speaking, and he finished speaking only when he was satisfied they had listened. An inspector from the Holy Council visited once during such a lecture but nothing changed. The rector had a way with authority: the powerful lost their nerve around him.

  ‘Are you sure we’re upside down?’ she asked, out of the cold darkness. Somehow her presence surprised him. How easy, in this tenuous place, to imagine the world in and out of existence.

  ‘I think so. Why?’

  ‘I pissed myself.’

  ‘You shouldn’t tell me that.’

  She laughed until it threatened her breathing.

  ‘It’s not funny,’ Tristan insisted.

  ‘We should try to get out,’ she said.

  ‘I tried.’


  ‘It hurt too much.’

  ‘More than dying?’

  ‘Hard to say.’ He imagined her smiling. It strengthened him.

  But he did not move. The memory of pain was too fresh, and raw. He heard her wriggling beside him. Something, an elbow, he thought, pressed into his stomach. She grunted with the exertion. There was a hissing sound: air made hard through clenched teeth.

  The car lurched and he was thrown into her. She screamed out, a blood-curdling challenge to the silence.


  His pain had grown indistinct, moving silently through the body like water searching out its leak. She blew hot air into his face. He could feel her forehead hot and clammy against his cheek. The rector had not prepared him for this.


  ‘Door’s jammed.’



  Tristan pulled at his mind seeking the ends of a conversation, but it swelled smooth and indistinct with pain. He waited.

  ‘I smell bad,’ she said.

  ‘Doesn’t matter.’

  ‘It matters to me,’ she said.

  ‘There are better things to worry about.’



  ‘We just have to wait until it’s light,’ she said. ‘Then we’ll be able to see what we’re dealing with.’

  ‘Or someone will see us, from up on the road,’ Tristan added, as one adds kindling to a fire, hoping to draw out the blaze. They were close now, to talking.

  She rearranged herself so that the full weight of her head was against his cheek. As if they were on a date, wordlessly happy beneath a star-spattered sky. Beyond the piss and shit and blood and burning he found another smell. The smell of her, seeping through her pores, speaking to him. There was a way of making nothing else matter. The easterners had called it meditation, the schoolmen prayer. In the dormitories, where the boys whispered, its name was woman.

  She wriggled and her elbow found a broken rib. The pain of it emptied his bladder. Tristan felt the warm trickle running over his stomach. Soon it would reach her.

  ‘Tell me how you got here,’ she said.

  ‘The same way you got here. We skidded. The rest is physics.’

  ‘Before that,’ she pressed. ‘What were you doing out in a car looking for a prostitute?’

  It was impolite of her, to mention it. He had been prepared to pretend. For her sake as well as his.

  ‘Come on,’ she prompted. ‘It’s not like you’re going to shock me.’

  Tristan pressed his lips together, tasting blood again.

  ‘What do you want me to say?’ he asked. Ridiculous that a suffering body would find the resources to make him blush, but he felt the familiar heat.

  ‘Tell me what you were thinking. Tell me why tonight. Was it to learn? I think that’s it. You’ve fallen in love with a girl, and you want to appear experienced.’

  He was in love. Three years it had been. But she was wrong.

  ‘You wouldn’t understand.’

  ‘Explain it then.’ Her voice was gentler.

  ‘It’s a long story.’

  ‘The night will be longer.’

  ‘I hope you’re right.’

  There were things he would not tell her, that much he knew. Parts of his story once released into the world would never return, and without them he would be smaller. Five hours earlier that had not mattered to him.

  He would not tell her of five hours earlier. The cold sweat as he buckled in, fastening himself to the evening ahead. The drive out into the wastelands, to these very mountains. He would not tell her of the way he followed the illuminated side strip through the settling mist, lost in the trance of switchback on switchback, or of piercing the cloud and seeing, across the eerie white glow of the valley, the great statue rising up above the fog, dominating the City. The Saint: calm, severe, glowing white, Submission and Salvation inscribed in the plaque at its feet. He could remember the first time he had read those words for himself.

  Tristan would not speak of the way the cold seeped in beneath a stranger’s jacket as he stood at the lookout and contemplated his future, or of the way the heathen settlements hummed on the horizon, hot and hopeful.

  He wouldn’t tell her of the strange calm he felt, standing and stamping to return the circulation to his aching feet. Of how it felt to cruise the streets, the pressing excitement as he practised again the words that would undo him. What will tonight cost me? As if he didn’t know.

  He would not explain to her the way her scent filled the car, or that he could remember to the millimetre the point on her thigh where her dress ended, and how that point rose as she settled against the leather. How his throat went dry, or the way his knee locked as he fought to control the shaking in his leg. And that moment when everything he believed and everything he knew shook and shimmered, the animal within shifting its weight, preparing to pounce. He could not tell her of the fear, the perfect fear. That was his alone.

  Tristan felt a sharp stabbing behind his right eye, a pulsing of pain that jumped like static to the back of his skull and exploded in a flash of light. Then it was gone. He strained to take hold of his story, as a drowning man might take hold of a rope. He was determined to drag them both through the night.

  ‘I don’t know where to start,’ he said.

  ‘At the beginning.’

  ‘I was born.’

  ‘And then what?’

  ‘When I was three, my mother died.’

  He felt her head moving against his, as if she was making herself more comfortable for listening, or perhaps to empty her ear of liquid. She would not mention it and he would not ask; already rules were developing.

  ‘Were those events related?’ she asked.

  ‘They were to me. They said it was the toxins. We lived in the workers’ quarter.’

  ‘I can tell,’ she said.


  ‘The way you talk.’

  ‘I’ve spent ten years trying to hide it.’

>   ‘It’s not long enough. Come on, your story.’

  ‘You have to stop interrupting me.’


  ‘Because it hurts,’ he told her, and he was not lying. The words came so puny and sharp he needed all his strength to keep them flowing.

  Tristan’s Story

  By the age of six Tristan knew every dip and twist of the quarter’s broken streets. While his father worked at the water treatment plant beyond the swamplands Tristan ran errands for Father Carmichael, delivering the priest’s potions to the sick and dying. They paid in coins worn smooth with worry, and Tristan grew up with the smell of death never far from his nose. His father said the workers’ quarter had been that way since the war.

  Tristan danced down pock-marked streets, proud of the speed with which he could negotiate them. The roads in this part of the City of God weren’t worth fixing; there was only the occasional delivery truck to worry about and the procession of floats on the holy days. What little fuel there was, gained in secret negotiations with the outside world, was controlled by the Holy Council, and its drivers had no business to attend to here. It was like living in another century now, Tristan’s father said, and the words split his tongue, as if they were coated in acid. He thought he kept his pain hidden from the boy, but Tristan’s nature was watchful from the start.

  Tristan arrived breathless at the door of Madame Grey’s house and banged a rhythm with his fists. Madame Grey was known throughout the quarter; short, wide and regal, she rolled through the streets as if she owned them. She called her home a boarding house but hospice was a better word. There was a bed there for those who could find no other place to die.

  Somehow the diseases Madame Grey invited into her home found no quarrel with her. The other boys claimed she was magic, but then Tristan had claimed the same himself for the fun of it, so who knew where the truth lay? From the day of Tristan’s first delivery his father had warned him never to set foot inside her house. But the warmth of her hand, the yielding of her great soft bosom when she hugged him, the smell that he imagined other boys found in their mothers—there were days he had turned down her invitation with tears in his eyes.

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