Table of Contents
Ace Books by Alastair Reynolds
DIAMOND DOGS, TURQUOISE DAYS
HOUSE OF SUNS
THE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUP
Published by the Penguin Group
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
Published by arrangement with the Orion Publishing Group.
Copyright © 2010 by Alastair Reynolds.
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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Reynolds, Alastair, 1966-
eISBN : 978-1-101-18807-1
‘And Earth is but a star, that once had shone.’
The Golden Journey to Samarkand,
James Elroy Flecker
The call came in to the Department of Hygiene and Public Works just before five in the afternoon. Something messy down on the ledge, maybe a faller from one of the overhanging buildings up in Fourth, maybe all the way from Circuit City. The dispatcher turned to the wall map, surveyed the pin lights and found a clean-up van close enough to take the call. It was one of the older crews, men he knew. He lifted the black handset of his telephone and spun the dial, taking a drag on his cigarette while the switchboard clunked and whirred.
‘Three oh seven.’
‘Got a smear for you, Cultel. Something out on the ledge, just west of the waterworks. Not much else out there so you should spot it easy enough. Take the service duct on Seventh and Electric and walk the rest of the way. Keys on the blue hook should get you through any municipal locks.’
‘We’re loaded here. And we’re about a minute from coming off shift. Can’t you pull in someone else?’
‘Not at rush hour I can’t. We wait for another van, smear’s going to start attracting a crowd and smelling bad. Seagulls are already taking an interest. Sorry, Cultel, but you’re going to have to suck it up and earn some overtime.’
‘Fine. But I was serious about being loaded. You’d better get another van to meet us, case we have to move some stiffs around.’
‘I’ll see what I can do. Call in when you’ve peeled it off the concrete; we’ll start the paperwork at this end.’
‘Copy,’ Cultel said.
‘And watch your step out there, boys. It’s a long way down, and I don’t want to have to call Steamville and tell them they need to deal with a couple of smears of their own.’
In the clean-up van, Cultel clicked off his handset and hung it back under the dashboard. He turned to his partner, Gerber, who was digging through a paper bag for the last doughnut. ‘You get all that?’
‘Another fucking ledge job. They know how much I love ledge jobs.’
‘Like the man said, suck it up and earn some overtime.’ Gerber bit into the doughnut and wiped the grease off his lip. ‘Sounds good to me.’
‘That’s because you’ve got a sweet tooth and expensive girlfriends.’
‘It’s called having a life outside of scraping pancakes off pavement, Cultel. You should try it sometime.’
Cultel, who always did the driving, grunted something derogatory, engaged the flywheel and powered the van back onto the pick-up slot. Traffic was indeed already thickening into rush hour, cars, taxis, buses and trucks moving sluggishly in one direction, almost nose to tail in the other. Being municipal, they could go off-slot when they needed to, but it still required expert knowledge of the streets and traffic flow not to get snarled up. Cultel always reckoned he could make more money driving taxis than a clean-up wagon, but the advantage of ferrying corpses around was that he mostly didn’t need to make conversation. Gerber, who generally had his nose into a bag of doughnuts, didn’t really count.
It took them twenty minutes to make it to Seventh and Electric. The service duct was accessed by a sloping ramp between two buildings, the ramp facing out from Spearpoint, an arched grillwork door at the bottom of it. Cultel disengaged the pick-up shoe and flywheeled down the slope, hoping he’d still have enough spin to get back up it when they had the smear loaded. No sign of the other van yet. He snatched the keyset from the blue tag, grabbed the equipment from behind his seat and left the corrugated-sided van, Gerber carrying a camera and a heavy police-style torch.
When Cultel was new in Hygiene and Works, the cops were always first on the scene at a faller, with the clean-up crew just there to go through the menial business of peel-off and hose-down. But the cops couldn’t keep up lately, and so they were perfectly willing for Hygiene and Works to handle the smears, provided everything was documented and signed off properly. Anything that looked like foul play, the cops could always get involved down the line. Mostly, though, the fallers were just accident victims. Cultel had no reason to expect anything different this time.
They passed through the municipal gate and walked down the concrete-lined service duct, which was dark and dank, with bits of cladding peeling off every few spans. Rainwater run-off seeped through the cracks and formed into a slow-moving stream deep enough to soak through Cultel’s shoes. It smelled a little bit of sewer. Beyond, at the far end of the service duct, was a half-circle of indigo sky. Cultel could already feel the cool evening wind picking up. Back from the ledge, with buildings all around, you didn’t feel it much. But it was always colder towards the edges. Quieter, too: it didn’t take much to absorb the hum of traffic, the rattle of commuter trains, the moaning of cop car sirens as they wound their way up and down the city’s lazy spiral.
Beyond the duct, the concrete flooring gave way to Spearpoint’s underlying fabric. No one had ever bothered giving the black stuff a name because it was as ubiquitous as air. The ledge began level and then took on a gradually steepening slope. Cultel watched his footing. The stuff was treacherous, everyone knew that. Felt firm as rock one second, slippery as ice the next.
Gerber waved the torch downslope. ‘There’s our baby.’
‘I see it.’
They edged closer, walking sideways as the angle of slope increased, taking increasingly cautious footsteps. The faller had come down about thirty spans from the very edge. In the evening gloom Cultel made out a head, two arms, two legs, all where they ought to have been. And something crumpled beneath the pale form, like a flimsy, translucent gown. You could never be too sure with fallers but it didn’t look as though this one had come down very far. Dismemberment was commonplace: limbs, heads tended to pop off easily, either with the impact or from glancing collisions on the way down, as the faller bumped against the sides of buildings or the rising wall to the next ledge. But this jigsaw came with all the pieces.
Cultel looked up, over his shoulder, and lifted the rim of his hat to get a better view. No buildings or overhangs near enough for the faller to have come off. And even if they’d stepped off the next highest ledge, with the way the winds were working they’d have ended up at the base, back behind the rising tide of buildings. Should have been a lot more damage, too.
‘Something’s screwed up here,’ Cultel said.
‘Just starting to feel that way myself.’ Gerber raised the camera to his eye singlehandedly and flashed off two exposures. They crept forwards some more, planting each footstep gently, hardly daring to breathe. Gerber directed the torch a bit more steadily. It was then that Cultel knew what they were dealing with.
Crushed beneath the form: that wasn’t any gown. It was wings.
‘It’s—’ Gerber started saying.
What they had was an angel. Cultel looked up again, higher this time.
Not just to the nearest line of buildings, but all the way up. Up past the pastel flicker of Neon Heights, up past the hologram shimmer of Circuit City. Up past the pink plasma aura of the cybertowns. He could just see them circling around up there, leagues overhead, wheeling and gyring around Spearpoint’s tapering needle like flies around an insect zapper.
And he thought to himself:
How the fuck did one of them get down here? And why did it have to happen on my watch?
‘Let’s bag and tag,’ Gerber said. ‘Thing’s creeping me out already.’
‘You ever dealt with one of these?’
‘First time. You?’
‘Once when I was new on the job. Fell onto the third rail of the Green Line elevated. Fucking thing was toast by the time we pulled it off. Then again three, maybe four years back. That one was a lot more mashed up than this. Not a whole lot you could recognise at first glance.’
Gerber fired off another shot with the camera. In the after-flash Cultel had the weird feeling that the corpse had twitched, shifting almost subliminally from one position to another. He crept up beside the fallen creature and knelt down with his equipment next to him. Overhead the seagulls really were taking an interest, mewling and squabbling in the evening air. Cultel examined the creature, taking in its nearly naked form, the wings the only visibly broken part of it. It had come to rest with its head lolling to one side, looking at him with huge midnight-blue eyes. It could have been alive, except there was nothing happening behind those eyes.