If you’ve ever tried to sleep in a grumbly old house with pipes that hiss and clank, floors that creak, walls that groan, windows that rattle, you’ve maybe a tenth of an idea what it’s like to try sleeping on a ship like the Monetta’s Mourn. If it wasn’t the restless noises of the ship it was someone barking out an instruction, someone calling the hour of a watch, or a mad woman screaming while bound to a bed.
Just when I might have managed to sleep for half an hour, there was a soft knock, and then Mattice drew aside the curtain that shielded our quarters, making enough of a gap for his big beardy face to loom into my vision and say: ‘Morning watch. There’s hot tea in the galley, hot water in the washroom. You’ll feel like death now but we’ve all had our first night on a ship and it gets better.’
‘How many nights does it take?’ Adrana asked.
‘Oh, not many. Sometimes as few as twenty.’
‘Thank you, Mattice,’ I said, shivering despite all the layers I’d pulled around myself in the night.
‘Take your time. But not too much of it if you want to see the sails run out. Hirtshal’s already begun.’
Running out the sails got everyone twitchy. Hirtshal was the master of sail, the man in charge of them, but if something went badly wrong at this stage, half the crew would need to go out in suits to untangle the mess.
‘We run a tight crew,’ Rackamore told me, while we were gathered at the hemispherical window, watching the sail-control gear swing out from the hull. ‘That’s not just because a light ship is a fast ship. It means we don’t have to split our profits too many ways.’
‘I want to learn what I can,’ I said.
He nodded. ‘That’s a fine attitude. And you will – within reason. Knowing how to wear a suit, operate an airlock, find your way around the outside of the ship – that’s basic survival ability. And some knowledge of the other areas of expertise is always useful. You’ll want to know a little about baubles, a little about relics, and so on, if only because it’ll give you a healthy respect for what you don’t know.’ His jaw tensed. ‘But I have to draw a different line with my Bone Readers. You’re scarce . . . too scarce to expose to the risks that the other crewmembers naturally accept.’
Prozor, next to us, said: ‘What he means is, girlies, you’re goin’ to be pampered, so get used to it.’
Beyond the glass, the barbs that had been folded along the Monetta’s hull were angling out, just as if that bad-tempered fish were stiffening its spines in some defensive reaction. These were the anchor-points for the rigging, the whiskery filaments which linked the ship to her sails. Under Hirtshal’s supervision, they’d be tugged and released all the while, making up for tiny shifts in the solar flux and accommodating the changes in our course that Rackamore had in mind.
‘We don’t run out the main sails all in one go,’ he was saying. ‘They’d snag and rip. Hirtshal uses the drogue sails first. Do you see them, unfurling about a league away from us? They’ll take up the slack in the lines, get them handsomely taut and aligned, and then we run out the main sails, a thousand square leagues of reflective area.’
He had a way of saying ‘main sails’ that sounded as if the two words were running together.
‘It might seem simple,’ he went on. ‘It’s anything but. The sails are as tricky as they’re delicate.’
Hirtshal was already outside, standing with magnetic boots on the back of the Monetta, using controls that came out through her hull for exactly this sort of operation. If something jammed or tangled, he could sort it out before it got too bad. The launch was ready as well, just in case something got snarled up tens of leagues beyond the ship.
But all was going well. The drogues snapped open, blossoming like sudden chrome flowers, and they in turn helped the unfolding of the main sails, intricate, interlaced arrays of them. I don’t mind saying: it was properly marvellous, the way they gradually opened out, planing apart along seams we’d never have known were there, layer after layer of them, snapping wider all the time. It was like a conjuring trick, something a cove would do in Neural Alley, with cards and a sly gleam in his eye. The sails blazed back at us, each glittering facet silver tinged with red and purple, reflecting the world-filtered light of the Old Sun. The rigging was invisible, but already it was straining to move the ship. In response, Monetta’s creaks and groans had a different sort of music to them. An eagerness, now. The ship was straining, wanting to catch the photon winds.
And so we sailed. Monetta’s Mourn no longer had to slink around on ion thrust, or cower from the gravity well of a swallower. She’d become the thing she was always meant to be: a vessel of the deep void, a creature of the Empty.
That ship of ours was a sunjammer.
Excerpt from REVENGER, copyright Alastair Reynolds 2016, due to be published in September.