Down to the Bone (Quantum Gravity Series #5)

Down to the Bone (Quantum Gravity Series #5)

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by Justina Robson

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Lila Black is now a shapeshifting machine plugged into the Signal—the total dataset of all events in the known universe and all potential events: Zal, the elf rock star with a demon soul, is now a shadowform animated and given material actualization by firelight; Teazle the demon has taken up the swords of Death and is on the way to becoming an angel. To say… See more details below


Lila Black is now a shapeshifting machine plugged into the Signal—the total dataset of all events in the known universe and all potential events: Zal, the elf rock star with a demon soul, is now a shadowform animated and given material actualization by firelight; Teazle the demon has taken up the swords of Death and is on the way to becoming an angel. To say this puts some pressure on their three-way marriage is an understatement.

Meanwhile the human world is seeing an inexplicable influx of the returning dead, and they’re not the only ones. Many old evils are returning to haunt the living following three harbingers of destruction created in the ancient past. What seems epic is revealed as personal to all concerned as events unfold and that which cannot be escaped must be faced.

Heroic destinies unravel as greater powers reveal themselves the true masters of the game and survival may be the only winning hand.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for the Quantum Gravity series:

"An immensely entertaining mixture of rock and roll, introspection, and action."

"For Fans of...Tolkien, had he gone electric, dropped acid, and discovered tantric sex..."
–Entertainment Weekly

"Skillfully builds a seamless connection between sf and fantasy…featuring a strong, action-oriented heroine and a unique world setting. With appeal to fans of contemporary culture and mature YAs..."
–Library Journal

"Fast-paced techno-fantasy [that] will delight fans of manga-influenced action and violence."
–Publishers Weekly

Product Details

Prometheus Books
Publication date:
Quantum Gravity Series , #5
Sold by:
Barnes & Noble
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File size:
1 MB

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Prometheus Books

Copyright © 2011 Justina Robson
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-61614-379-4

Chapter One

Zal woke to the strobing flicker of orange light. It shattered the pitch darkness of the night, accompanied by the sudden whining scream of metal grinding on metal. His ears flicked with hurt at the offence and the hot chemical stink of burning bit his nostrils, sharp and fresh even though he'd been in the room for hours. He pulled his noise-cancelling headphones off the useless place they'd slid to on his neck and sat up silently to resume his spying.

Sparks jetted in the shape of a small firework flare and lit the unprotected face of his wife as she bent to her task. They leapt into her cropped black hair and briefly illuminated its scarlet streak as it consumed them. They showered onto her pale skin and finished their brief, brilliant lives there before falling away as motes of black dust; all passion spent in that single gesture. Well spent. He saw one dart straight into the liquid surface of her eye as if it were trying to give her an artist's impression of a wicked glint against the stormy blue iris and its peculiar lilac ring. She blinked and it was gone. Where they cascaded into the front of her short floral sundress they vanished entire and whole. The hem of the dress shed soot onto the raw concrete beside her knees.

Her arms, slender and muscular, were vibrating with effort. In place of one hand was a large steel vice and in place of the other a spinning borer. The vice held the blunt mass of the engine block she was working on. She had it braced against the floor at a precise angle as she redrilled the cylinders with her other hand. Under her persuasion the antique thing had a resonance that made his inner ears vibrate to tones he hadn't heard in half a century. Elves were sensitive to sound and ultrasound, and he was particularly good with harmonics. His body told him that whatever care she put into her labour she was still as likely to break the old Ducati block as mend it. It was old, old metal that had endured years of use and huge temperature swings and its matrices were close to shot. She would know that herself of course—her machine-perfected hearing bettered his—but it made no difference to her. She had to try and she had to do it the right way, which meant attacking it with the antique brutality of metal tools and risk destruction when she could have plasma-gunned or light-cut it without any trouble or danger in a fraction of the time. The sound made him shiver with old remembered joy.

Zal waited for a pause, enjoying his admiration of her, and darkness returned. The yellow and orange spark fountain was replaced by a blue and green afterflare in his mind's eye. Against it her hands and face became a lime silhouette, the dress a yellow tatter whose vines and roses suddenly twisted into a face of its own—wickedly grinning. The dress smiled at him and winked and he didn't know if it was the faery's equivalent of "hello, darling" or "fuck you." He'd met too many faeries. There was no way to know the answer and they'd never tell. Like the elves, they liked their games too much to give anything away.

In the sudden silence he found his amusement at playing his own game had worn thin. He took an audible breath and spoke into the darkness, "Can't sleep?"

He heard a sigh. The drill briefly whirred and went quiet again in a blurt of annoyance.

"Darn, I didn't even know you were there." She spoke with the gritty burr of someone who hasn't used their voice in many hours and added a snort of disgust. "There goes my theory of a soul-link between us through which I'd know your every move. How long've you been here?"

"Since you started taking it apart." Zal was referring to the latest motorbike carcase she had bought, one of several whole relics that she'd collected over the last month. Their dismembered parts lay all around in mute explanation of her mysterious absences. He hadn't known what had caused her to spend so much time away until tonight. He'd wondered, until that had lost its "poor me" tang. When he'd asked she said Agency business, but he talked to her agent partner, Malachi, too often and knew she wasn't there. Not that sitting on the premises was important to the work she did for them, but he still thought she was lying. His demon heart knew these things. Now satisfying his curiosity by following her and exposing her secret was pretty low, he had to admit, but after all they'd been through he wasn't about to let her get away without a fight. He'd rather face her anger.

She sat for a moment but "I see," was all she said in the end.

He heard the engine block meet the concrete floor as she put it down, and then the whirr and click whispering of precision engineering tools putting themselves away. The sounds were hollow and tinny in the old garage's bare space. A faint line above the rollup door glowed in waxy grey, like the end of the last candle, providing the only light in the entire place. It illuminated nothing, but neither of them needed visible light. Lila could see on every part of the spectrum if she chose to, and he was finally the creature of darkness that his enemies had always claimed him to be, although they'd been talking about his soul and not his body. Left without light or heat long enough Zal knew he could dissipate entirely into shadow, even in Otopia where all aetheric processes were reduced to fractions of their otherworldly power. He hadn't been sure that he could fool Lila by shedding as much material form as possible and cloaking what remained of his physical self in his aetheric body, but it seemed he'd done a good job.

He felt the cool touch of her hand on his cheek, long fingers and delicate skin where the vice had been a moment ago. Her voice was soft, close to his face, her breath kissing him.

"I don't understand how you can exist without giving off any wavelengths at all. I don't get how shadow can be anything. Darkness isn't a thing, it's an absence of light."

It used to be the case that Zal didn't have an answer that would satisfy her scientific curiosity. He hadn't even known the technicalities of why he was invisible, though he'd made an effort to be so and intention was required. The scientific analysis of aether was a demon pastime and a human obsession. He was only a demon in nature but not in the particulars. Lila was the opposite. She knew the particulars about everything but she wasn't a demon at heart. She was human to the core.

Zal released all intention to be invisible now and saw her start back slightly as the last of his cloaking aura vanished beneath the surface of his skin and revealed his Cheshire cat expression. "Humans never used to see my aura at all, even when it was the old me and nothing more."

"They felt it," she said, the expression of mixed annoyance and softness in her face convincing him that she was remembering their first meeting. She put her hand up to cup his jaw and tilt his head towards her.

At the time, being a smug bastard full of inflated rock-star importance, he'd used her ignorance against her, to score a cheap point and had felt her up using just his aura. He grinned at the memory himself. She snorted with laughter this time as her fingers against his lips felt his smile. "And I doubt they'll see this one unless you choose to make it visible." Her eyes narrowed fractionally—a movement he'd learned was a sign that she was listening to the Signal; the constant background hiss she was able to hear that comprised the world of machines, the full data record of everything that had ever happened and what was possible. It wasn't a world like this one, or Alfheim or Demonia. He didn't know if world was the right idea. It was more like an idea than a thing, and less like either than suited his grasp of cosmology.

He let a few seconds pass, hours to Lila, and then saw the blink of her fugue state ending. She jumped up to sit beside him on the emptied crates and their lid of folded tarps that he'd been using as a bed. Her body was as warm and vibrant as any living human woman's, no heavier and no stranger. Her bare legs and arms were girlishly smooth. There were no clues as to where the machine structure had once fitted its bulky robotic prostheses to what remained of her human body, and no trace in her easy movements of the pain they used to cause her. They were long changed.

Since the two of them had been through the cauldron of Faery, she had been flawlessly combined, a machine of living structures that were able to replicate any material. What vulnerability she had ended on the inside now and was hers to share or conceal—her physical form was as close to invulnerable as anything he could imagine.

But he remembered the first time he'd seen her through the toughened glass of a recording-studio window in her security agency girl's suit, trousers burst at a seam, a streak of dust across her white collar. Her poppy-red lipstick had cut a streak of rich, contemptuous disapproval straight at him like a laser beam. She came, she saw, she on the spot couldn't stand him, so much so that he'd felt the roots of his hair ache with the surprise of it. Then his heart had shivered with the citrus zing of that ancient demon pleasure in opposites attracting and the simultaneous ancient call of what, if he were drunk, he'd've called destiny. He fell in love on the spot and so did she, and hell, did she hate it. And so their game of seduction cat and mouse was begun, dishonestly, deliciously, and under illusions. Since that moment his life had exploded from mere celebrity and notoriety into the realms of the truly madly dangerous. Zal had died and been lost but even that wasn't enough to keep him away. There were no words for how much he loved her and he used to be good with those.

He leaned in towards her and kissed her gently. Her mouth was firm under his. She was still thoughtful. It took her time to come down from being with the machines as though she had to find her way back to human through a difficult maze. He sat back. "I don't feel the metal in you anymore. Only the signature of the elementals bound into it, like they're all that's left."

She murmured her reply with amusement and affection. "You would, if I were in my battle gear."

"Maybe." He leaned into her touch, resting his cheek in her hand. "I hope not." Elf senses and aetheric powers didn't operate well around metals.

"I've refined myself," she said, smiling as she looked at him, not into his eyes but over his cheeks, his mouth, tracing their contours with one delicate fingertip. "There are alloys that wouldn't bother you now. Permeable matrices, tunable to the frequencies of any aether. They vibrate to the same harmonies as a charm. You could play me, like a musical instrument."

"I like the sound of that."

He hesitated, watching her watching him, content in the lull of her attention. This dancing around their changed ways felt delicate and uncertain, a charm in itself, although for himself he hadn't changed at all, he was still Zal, only a few particulars were different and what did they count for? He felt he ought to correct an important point however. "Shadow isn't darkness though. Shadow is a frequency of aether. Better think of it as a kind of black light. All living things have it, and some not living ones. It is as real as any other form of energy. It just happens that it's of a kind not visible."

She was not entirely impressed. "Energy, spirits, souls if they exist ... I can't fit them together. I don't see them properly. It's like there's a missing piece in the picture. Is it because they don't emit radiant signals? And then there's all these priestly types talking on and on about the light. Another metaphor and nothing but? I wish I could talk to Tath. He'd know."

Zal wasn't sure that Tath would know or if he did that his revelations would satisfy Lila's incomplete pattern of the universe.

Tath's own personal bargain with Jack the Giantkiller had transformed him from a relatively simple, if slippery, necromancer into the speaker for the dead. This position, whilst not Death itself, gave him dominion over the half-tangible regions of transition through which the spirits of the newly dead passed on their way to their ineffable final destination, itself a place Tath could not enter. This was a zone that bordered on the fey, but also the elemental. Zal knew next to nothing about it even though he had passed through it himself on his way back from the brink of creation. Death herself had brought him most of the way. It hadn't inspired any fervour in him. Things lurked there in the grim darkness that were hungry and forsaken; needful things without the means to grasp what they must have. Bodiless hunters. Vampires and their like, or the things that would be vampires if they ever got the chance. They were spirits of a kind, mindless, raw. Necromancers knew to stay away from them. He didn't like the idea of Lila going on some hunt to find out what they were, either in the region of the near dead or by other means.

She was talking to herself again, so gripped by the whisper of the Signal and her own need to fit everything into a coherent whole that he could sit with her, even kiss her, even make love with her and know himself quite alone while she spun away into the strange infinities of her mind. He feared for her in that inner space, where neither he nor anything else could go, where she could get lost forever in the twists and turns.

"How about the bike?" The bike was a great sign. The bike was creative, important. The bike was sacred. The bike was something that existed in all her worlds, something he could ride to get in. "Is that fitting together?"

She smiled. "It's just a matter of time."

He saw parts he thought he recognised as old Harley Davidsons but there were other lost beasts in there too, laid out all over the floor in precise patterns with Lila-sized pathways left between their ranks. "What are you going to run it on? Looks kinda petrochemical."

"I'm not sure yet," she said. "Might have to be petrol. Depends on whether anything else makes the right sound. Anyway, has to be if I use genuine parts. They aren't up to anything else."

He didn't mention that there was no petrol industry anymore. She knew that. She'd figure something out. He wouldn't even have been surprised if she could drink beer and piss petrol but although that might be a hell's angel dream and he fancied himself one of those it wasn't a particularly erotic fantasy of his so he let it go and coughed, perfectly mimicking the sound of a carburetor choking to death. "Care to run a diagnostic on me?"

Now she turned and poked him in the chest gently, making him sway back on the crates. A flickering rush of thrills ran through him as her ultrasound frequencies penetrated his clothing and skin to the energy centres beneath making him gasp and fall backwards. He caught himself in time. She snickered.

"C'mon," he said, opening his arms and giving her a smouldering stare. "My nuts are rusted. I need an oil change."

He could see her eyes, their faery-enchanted human irises glowing with lilac as they narrowed. In a flash she was on him, the tatters of the summer minidress flaring up in a nonexistent breeze as the pile of crates wobbled precariously. There was a distinct cracking and splitting noise from the wood as they swayed. Zal got a hand out to the wall behind him but it was a long way away. Lila's knees gripped the outside of his thighs as she went for the pinning move and then he felt her fingers tug the lace knots of his jerkin. She got fed up after a second and he felt them part under a blade. Then her hands were inside his shirt, emitting faint pulses of deep low-frequency sound as she ran them across his chest and shoulders. The crates leaned and he had to keep his hand on the wall or crash to the floor as his body arched in pleasure involuntarily.

"That demon was a good teacher," he muttered through closed jaws as she bent close to him and he felt her lips on his neck. He meant Teazle, their pureblood demon husband, who had been with her in her fall through Faery and after. "Fifty year—"


Excerpted from DOWN TO THE BONE by JUSTINA ROBSON Copyright © 2011 by Justina Robson. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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