Authors: E. J. Swift
Tags: #Science Fiction, #General, #Fiction
50 ¦ ADELAIDE
n the night, the bodies that they found were piled onto rafts. They stiffened and frosted. The flames would unglue them. The mourners gathered in boats and wept, but no words, no tears passed Adelaide’s lips or eyes. She watched as a woman with long grey hair was ferried from raft to raft. The woman drew a line of salt on their foreheads and then she poured oil onto the human pyres.
The mourners threw burning torches through the air. Flames leapt from the oil; embraced the hands and feet and faces of the dead. They wore no shoes. Their shoes had been taken for others to use. Her rescuers said they would not mind.
The fires crackled and spat. She watched the flames unravelling vessels that had held running blood, flickering consciousness; returning matter to the ashes and salt it had once been. The bodies, none of which she had recognized as his, were swarmed by smoke.
Austral lights glimmered overhead. In another week it would be midwinter night. Four boats towed the pyres away. They glided on their final journeys, the cradles of fire dimmer and dimmer, out to the ring-net. She wanted to call out—stop! Don’t take them! Don’t exile them. Just in case he was there. In case he could not get back in.
Now a soft keening filled the air. It was a sound like none Adelaide had heard before, neither crying nor song. The wind was in it, the waves. The ghosts, too.
She imagined Vikram’s ghost was standing beside her, seeing what she saw, hearing what she heard. He asked, “What do you want to do?”
She looked at the tiny lights on the ocean surface.
“I have to get into the Silk Vault. There’s something there that I need to see.”
“I want to disappear.”
flock of birds rose, circling. The ships creaked in the derelict harbour. Beyond them, a salmagundi of floating crafts lined the ocean, crammed with spectators. Boats nudged against rafts; coracles skidded between barges. Early spring was still cold, but the sun turned the water silvery gold and the illusion of warmth almost convinced the crowds that a fabled summer was here. On the sixth clear morning of that month, the first expedition boat in fifty years prepared for departure.
Dignitaries stood upon the pier, Councillors in purple surcoats, founding families; the Rechnov family, amongst others. They were still in mourning. Earlier that week, Sanjay Hanif had formally closed the investigations into the twins’ disappearances. Adelaide and Axel Rechnov had been pronounced missing, believed dead.
Feodor gave no speech today. The Rechnovs were quiet, and others did the talking. Eyes watching closely might have observed that the Architect stood a little way apart from the rest. It was said that the loss of his grandchildren, the boy to a terrible accident and the girl to the hands of western extremists, had broken the old man’s heart.
The expedition boat rested by the end of the pier, at the mouth of a corridor leading out to sea. The corridor was lined with bunting. On either side, well-wishers waved bright squares of cloth. The expedition crew could be seen making last minute adjustments, checking equipment and saying farewells to family, or simply standing on deck, looking back at the city. On the far side, a man emerged from the hatch and climbed up onto deck. He raised his hand to his brow, scanning the crowds.
Vikram did not expect to see anyone he knew; nor did he intend to be seen. He glanced up at the burnished skyscrapers that rose beyond the rusting ships, the waving banners, the cheering crowd. There was nothing left for him here. He owned nothing but the unknown future, or perhaps it already owned him.
As people strained to see, there was a small commotion to the left of the corridor, and the boats surged forward in a tidal wave.
In one of the jostling crafts of the western section, Adelaide steadied herself as the boat rocked. She pulled her hood back up over her shorn hair. She was no one now, just a girl called Ata, her drab clothes inconspicuous in the crowd. Rows of boats ahead, the crew of the expedition boat moved over the deck like ants, making their goodbyes. Her heart ached. For the crew, about to discover that distance. For all of her own denied farewells.
From somewhere deep in the crowd, a drum roll began. The crowd took up the beat with feet and hands. Adelaide stamped with the rest.
The ceremonies were done. The boat edged away from the pier. Cheers followed it all the way down the water corridor. It glided past Adelaide. People threw things on the deck, flowers, messages. A single rose. When it reached the gateway to the open water the boat seemed to hover. It was beyond the reach of an outstretched arm. Then it was beyond the thrown flight of a flower.
The sky, blank and blue. The sea, infinite.
Don’t look back
, he thought.
Never look back.
Even if he had, he would not have seen the girl far back in the crowd, her arm stretched overhead as she waved frantically, and she would not have seen him.
Osiris fell silent.
Adelaide pressed her hands tightly to her chest. She watched the boat diminish. It carried ambassadors, wishes and dreams, the memories of the dead.
The craft became the size of a balloon, then the size of a human eye. It grew smaller and smaller on the bed of the waves until finally, it bled into the wash of the horizon and vanished.
has been a part of my life for a long time, and inevitably those around me have shared in both the joys and struggles of its creation. There are many friends without whose wisdom and support it would have been so much harder. It is impossible to thank everyone here, but in particular I would like to mention the following:
Kim, my sister, who reads everything first. My fabulous housemate M-P, for among many other things sitting up with me late into the nights to help work through seemingly impossible manuscript problems. The lovely and talented Clare, for taking the time to read and offer advice on early drafts of this and other works, and surely more to come. The inestimable Millcat, without whom there would be no Emcat. Björn Wärmedal, for being a joy to write with upon my first forays into science fiction. Fellow writers and friends David Bausor, Christabel Cooper, Jacqui Hazell, Dominique Jackson, Kyo Louis, Suzanne Ramadan, and Colin Tucker, for their invaluable criticism, support, and much consumption of red wine over the past five years. Bobby Williams, for always listening, and for making me the most beautiful piece of film any novelist could wish for. Alexa Brown and James Harris for giving their time and talent to film it. Mau to you all!
I want to thank my wonderful agent John Berlyne, who has believed in the book from the start and refused to give up on it even when I almost had myself. I want to thank Jeremy Lassen and all the folk at Night Shade Books for giving
a home, and welcoming me so warmly into the fold.
Last but most importantly: thank you to my family, the often madhouse of Swifts, for encouraging me to follow my dreams; for being there all the way and always.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
E. J. SWIFT
is a writer and novelist based in London. She studied in Manchester and at Royal Holloway in London, where she completed the MA in Creative Writing. Her short fiction has appeared in
magazine. When not writing, Emma can usually be found festooned with cats or practicing aerial circus skills.
is her first novel.