REVENGER will appear in a little under six weeks, so I thought I'd post another excerpt and a couple of sketches from my working notebook.
In the extract, the two recently hired sisters - Fura and Adrana Ness - are getting their first taste of working in the Bone Room of the sunjammer Monetta's Mourn.
Cazaray spun the wheel that opened the door to the bone room.
‘Go in,’ he said quietly. ‘Just don’t touch anything – for now.’
Adrana went in first. I followed on her heels, taking care never to lose my hold on the wall. Cazaray came after us, then closed the door, turning the inner wheel so that it latched itself tight against the frame.
It was quiet in there. I couldn’t hear anything of the life-support system, nothing of the sail-control gear – the occasional whirr and whine of its winches and pulleys had become familiar since the sails were run out – nothing of the usual clamour and chatter of the crew.
The room was a sphere, about fifteen spans across, and the skull was floating in the middle of it like the main exhibit in an art gallery. It was trussed up in a kind of bridle, a frame made up of metal bars and struts, and this bridle was fixed onto the walls by dozens of springs.
‘Quieter and stiller we hold her, the better,’ Cazaray said. ‘Trig’s damped the ions, and that helps, but it would only take a jolt to rattle something loose.’
From end to end the skull was about as long as my sister was tall – about eight spans. It was the colour of a bad tooth, rotten to the root. It wasn’t anything like a monkey skull. It was stretched out, all snout and jaw, more as if it had belonged to some giant horse than a person. It was made up of lots of parts, joined together like a sort of puzzle. A dark fissure ran across it, stitched together with a ladder of little metal sutures. Whoever had done that had worked a long time ago, and with care.
The skull had also been drilled and tapped in many places. Slender probes and wires had been pushed through the bone into the not-quite-emptiness within.
‘Tell me what you know,’ Cazaray said, never raising his voice above a murmur.
‘It’s old,’ I answered.
‘No one knows,’ Adrana said.
‘Good answer. And it’s the truth, too. They were finding skulls in the Sixth and Seventh Occupations, but whoever left them must have been through these parts a lot earlier than that. They don’t fit the morphology of any of the aliens we know about today, not the Crawlies nor the Stingtails or the Tuskers. Some people who ought to know better think they come from dead Bonies or Bug-Eyes, but I’ve seen enough of them to know that can’t be true. My guess is that the coves who used to own these bones died long before people got going. It was some other aliens who left the skulls here, and they used them just the way we do, like a kind of squawk.’
From opposite sides we peered into its mysteries.
‘It’s not empty,’ Adrana said. ‘There are little lights, flickering on and off.’
‘Whatever mind was in that skull,’ Cazaray said, ‘it’s long gone. There’s no grey, no brain tissue. If ever there was. But the machinery that was in that brain, it’s still there. That twinkly stuff still twinkles. Still doing something. What, we don’t know. Trying to regain contact with others of its kind? Trying to send signals back home, to whatever part of the Swirly they came from? Singing an endless song of death? No idea, and best not to dwell on it. What matters is what we can do with those patterns. We can imprint our own messages on them, treat them like carrier signals.’ He nodded at the equipment racked around the walls, all neat and clean and organised. ‘That’s what all this hardware is for. And it’s a Bone Reader’s job to send and receive those imprinted messages. The skull won’t work for everyone. Doesn’t even work for me some days. But you have the lamps for it, I think. Ready to try?’
I was about to answer, but Adrana said the word first. ‘Yes.’
‘Behind you. That apparatus hooked onto the wall. Slip it over your head.’
It was a bony metal contraption, halfway between a crown and a torture device. She settled it over her scalp, pushing hair out of the way. A pair of metal muffs folded down over her ears, and there was also a kind of visor that could be pulled down over her eyes.
‘You too, Arafura,’ Cazaray said.
I unhooked my own apparatus and fiddled it onto my head, not as prettily as Adrana had done.
‘That’s the neural bridge. None of this works without the bridge. To speak to the skull you have to mesh with its expectations. The messages come through almost subliminally – it’s like catching a whisper on the wind. The bridge is the focusing device, the amplifier.’
‘I don’t feel anything,’ I said.
‘You’re not plugged in yet. Draw the contact wire from the bridge. Reel it out, all the way.’
The wire was an insulated spool, running into the left side of the bridge. It ended in a little nub.
‘You can hook the wire into any of those probes on the skull, or you can splice onto one of those wires. Gently does it. Normally one connection is sufficient, but you can hook into multiple contact sites if you’re chasing a weak signal. There’s a splitter on the wall.’
Adrana was bolder than I, but even she hesitated to make the final connection. I shared her misgivings. I could not help but feel there was going to be some kind of psychic jolt, like an electrical shock, as soon as the contact was made.
I thought of Garval, tied to her bed.
‘It’s all right,’ Cazaray said gently. ‘Just do it. No one gets the full rush the first time. What happened with Garval . . .’ He shook his head, clearing the thought. ‘You’ll be lucky to pick up anything, even if you’ve got the talent.’
I picked a probe near the open eye socket and clicked the wire home. Not caring to be second, Adrana made her own connection almost simultaneously. The skull bounced lightly on its springs for a few seconds, before the motion ebbed away.
We looked at each other across the skull, daring each to feel the first twinge of contact.
‘When we’ve had a little more experience, when you know where the probes lie, you’ll prefer to work in darkness. Now, empty your minds. Let your senses drift. I’ll be silent.’
There was nothing.
I guessed there wouldn’t be any sense in holding my breath – I couldn’t have kept that up for long – but still I tried to become quiet in my head, ridding my mind of everything, becoming a room with an open door.
I did the only thing I could think of, which was to wait.
Adrana was waiting as well. Our eyes were averted, looking down, but every now and then one of us couldn’t resist glancing at the other, to see how they were doing. Once or twice our eyes met, and the silliness of that moment made us glance quickly away, until the impulse to look built up again and we ended up doing exactly the same thing.
After a couple of minutes of that, I resolved to jam shut my eyes, and not care whether Adrana followed suit.
Cazaray was present, but he made no sound, no observation. Still there was nothing, no whisper on the wind, not even a hint of that wind. Just silence, and the absurd, slowly forming idea that this could and would never work.
I do not know how long it was before Cazaray spoke.
‘Disconnect. Try different probes, a little closer to the base.’
We did as he suggested, this time disturbing the skull much less as the probes went out and in.
I still felt nothing. But for the sake of showing my determination, I floated with my eyes closed, willing something – anything – to enter my head.
‘I think . . .’ Adrana began.
But she fell silent.
‘You felt a contact?’ Cazaray asked.
‘I don’t know. Maybe it wasn’t anything. It came and went, like someone standing behind me for a second. A cold presence.’
‘It’s best not to read too much into the first session. The more you want that contact, the more you’re likely to imagine it.’
Despondent, I eased the neural bridge from my scalp, messing my hair back into shape where it had been pressed down. ‘Maybe she was wrong about us, Cazaray.’
‘When I began, I was in here three weeks before I got so much as a twitch out of it. The skull has its moods. It had to get used to me before it was willing to talk.’
Adrana relieved herself of the neural bridge. We uncoupled from the skull and hooked the bridges back onto the wall.
‘Better luck next time, I suppose,’ I said.
‘Luck has nothing to do with it,’ Cazaray answered. ‘What you have is in your lamps, and there’s no mistaking that. You’ll come through, and those bones will talk.’ Then he moved to the wall and retrieved one of the bridges for himself. ‘Normally it’s best to work alone. But you can watch, if you like.’
‘I thought it was getting harder for you,’ Adrana said.
Cazaray put on the bridge, adjusting it until it was a tight fit over his blond locks, then spooled out the contact wire and slipped it into several probes in succession, concentration making a mask of his face until something eased and he gave the slightest of nods, followed by a half-voiced: ‘I have it. It’s faint today, so you shouldn’t worry about not feeling anything.’ Then he started babbling. His eyes were open, but they had begun to roll up under his lids. We caught words, phrases, but never the whole of it. ‘Down to the Sunward processionals . . . two orbits beyond the Dargan Gap. Opening auguries for the Jewel of Sundabar. Fire Witch, dropping sail at Auzar – assistance required. Wedza’s Eye will close in eight days, eight hours.’
More of that. He stayed in that babbling state for two or three minutes, before his eyes snapped back into focus and, like a man waking from a restful sleep, he at last moved his hands to the neural bridge.
‘Did you hear me?’
‘Yes,’ we answered.
‘I don’t always remember all of it. And a lot of it isn’t worth remembering – it’s just noise, certainly nothing Captain Rackamore needs to hear.’
‘And this time?’ I asked.
‘Did you hear me speak of auguries? That’s useful knowledge. Intelligence. Someone else’s idea of where and when baubles will open, and for how long. Knowledge like that can make or break an expedition.’
‘Then why would anyone share it?’ Adrana asked.
‘They don’t mean to.’ Cazaray unplugged from the skull and hung up the neural bridge. ‘We operate alone, for the most part, but there are other ships that we’ll occasionally help out, if they’ve done the captain a favour in the past. Some of the other ships, though, operate together all the time. They’re run by governments, or the private combines. And they have to communicate, to coordinate their efforts. Squawking’s all right – but it’s slow, easily intercepted, and signals don’t always get all the way through the Congregation, especially if the Old Sun’s putting out a storm. The superloom – that’s what we call the system of the skulls – is much, much faster, it’s hard to jam it, and there’s not much signal attenuation.’
‘But you’ve just listened in,’ I said.
‘They take matched skulls, matched pairs of readers, and put them on different ships. But if you’re good – if you’re experienced, and you’ve got a skull that’s especially sensitive in its own right – like this one – then you can catch a rumour of a rumour.’ Cazaray gave a self-deprecating shrug. ‘I make it sound easy.’
I smiled. ‘You don’t.’
‘You said it was hard to jam,’ Adrana said. ‘But you didn’t say it was impossible. What would it take to do that to a skull?’
Her question had been innocent enough. But something clouded his face when Cazaray answered us.
‘Nothing you’ll ever need worry about.’