Ink: The Book of All Hoursby Hal Duncan
INK: The Book of All
With his stunning debut novel, Vellum, Hal Duncan shattered the boundaries between genres. Fantasy, or science fiction, Vellum shocked with the boldness of its ideas, seduced with the sensual beauty of its prose, and astonished with its imaginative sweep. Now Duncan returns with another epic tour de force that surpasses all expectations.
INK: The Book of All Hours
Once, in the depths of prehistory, they were human. But in a moment of brutal transfiguration, they became unkin, beings who possessed the power to alter reality by accessing the Vellum: a realm of eternity containing every possibility, every paradox, every heaven . . . and every hell. The Vellum became a battleground where forces of order and chaos fought across time and space. The ultimate weapon in that bloody war spanning through history and myth, dreams and memory, was The Book of All Hours, a legendary tome within which the blueprint for all reality is inscribed, a volume long lost amid the infinite folds of the Vellum.
Until, in 2017, it was found by Reynard Carter, a young man with the blood of unkin in his veins.
Until Phreedom Messenger and her brother, Thomas, were swept up in an archetypal dance of death and rebirth.
Until a hermit named Seamus Finnan found the courage to re-forge his broken soul, and a self-proclaimed angel called Metatron unleashed a plague of AI bitmites.
Now, in the aftermath of the apocalypse, several survivors search desperately for the remnants of themselves scattered across the Vellum like torn pages, determined to use the blood of the unkin to rewrite The Book of All Hours, and to forge a new destiny for themselves and all humanity. Reality will never be the same.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
“Readers who enjoy the likes of Jeff VanderMeer, Theodore Sturgeon and Neil Gaiman will appreciate the burning energy and imaginative prose.”
“A revelation–the opening gambit in the career of a mind-blowing colossal talent whose impact will be felt for decades.”
–Jeff VanderMeer, author of Shriek: An Afterword
“Very impressive, very moving book. I’ll be looking for . . . the second volume.”
–The San Diego Union-Tribune
“A mind-blowing read.”
–SFX (five-star “Must-Read” review)
“Vellum is more than a novel; it’s a vision.”
–Jeffrey Ford, author of The Girl in the Glass
“Like nothing you’ve ever read before.”
“Duncan’s sprawling masterpiece is essentially . . . an inspirational guide . . . in the tradition of William Burroughs’s The Ticket That Exploded, Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles, and John Twelve Hawk’s The Traveler–only better. . . . It’s exhilarating as hell.”
“It’s been a long time since I’ve come across a book like Vellum, the astonishing first novel by Hal Duncan. Actually, I don’t think there is a book like it.”
–The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
- Random House Publishing Group
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InkThe Book of All Hours
By Hal Duncan
Del ReyCopyright © 2007 Hal Duncan
All right reserved.
Harlequin In Hell
A tantric tarantula.
Doom. That one's for King Finn, I think as the smoked-glass windows of the brown-brick 1960s monster of a multistory shatter in a bloom of black smoke and green flame, and I almost flinch--but only almost--as the shock wave blasts across my back, billowing my armored longcoat out in front of me. The reflection in the mirror steel of the Zippo, inscribed with the circle-A of Anarchy, is a peachy sight in the rush-hour night of winter Kentigern, my very own fireworks display. The building was asking for it anyway, I reckon; the only thing the fascists do worse than politics is architecture, and in the Little Black Book of Jack Flash tattooed on my skin, well, bad taste is a fine reason for revolution. I click the lighter open, snik it lit and suck a hash cheroot into a fwoosh of life, then clunk the silvery lighter shut and turn, wait.
One elephant. Two elephants. Three elephants.
And that's for Anaesthesia.
Militiamen, their chakras acrackle with the blue-green fire of orgone-fusion chain reactions, come streaming from the building, fleeing, jostling through doorways, diving from windows. I watch them from my magic circle of melted tarmac, square in the center of a business-district crossroads where traffic signals cycle red and green and orange, like lights on a cheap mobile disco. Beams of headlights scythethe halogen-orange sky as aircars veer and buck to avoid me, spinning like ice skaters on their float-rays and crumping into sandstone and brick, Victorian, Georgian, Modern edifices shedding chips, sparks, shards and fireballs. Horns blare like it's the End of Days and Gabriel has a backing section. Ornithopters rise from the rooftop landing pad of Pitt Street pigyard, unbalanced by the panicked blackshirts clinging to their landing gear and to each other, dangling like daisy chains. I flick the flap of my longcoat back and draw my Curzon-Youngblood Mark I chi-gun--favored weapon of the gaijin ninjas--and slowly, methodically, start to pick them off.
Call it kundalini, call it chi, or call it orgone energy. Call it the mystic life force of the universe, if you want. Me, I leave it to the Cavors and the Reichs to do the blackboard metamaths and pop parapsychology. All I know is that I got the original sex pistol in my hand, charged with the full-on power of all the sex-death lust-terror that just reeks in every fiber of my body. Sex is a weapon, and tonight, baby, I'm hornier than a whore in heat. Hell, you can smell my aura even over the ozone and jism stinkbomb that used to be Pitt Street Militia Station.
A blackshirt falls at my feet, doubled over in an agony of ecstasy and lost in his own moans and gasps, his deepest dread desires unleashed. All around me, in the desperate frenzy of the street, the fascists shed their inhibitions as they strip, insane with lust and clutching at themselves, each other, anything. I like to think I've given the phrase orgy of violence a whole new meaning.
"Fuck me," the voice at my feet says. "Suck me."
The blackshirt wraps himself around my leg, humping it like a dog, and for a second I'm tempted, I admit--I do like a man in uniform--but, baby, I just got here and I need to get my socks on, not my rocks off, cause the Fox is waiting for me. I peel the blackshirt gently from my leg and point him at another partner, smile benevolently as they start to go at it like bonobos. All around, up Pitt Street and along the stretch of Bath Street, aircars are jammed and crammed, and passersby are scrambling out of them, running from the naked madmen. I smile: I do like a man in uniform, but I like him out of uniform even more.
Sir, yes, sir. I got Shiva on one side, Shakti on the other. I'm a tantric tarantula with a bite of bliss, and there's no cure for the karma I got loaded in my gun. I step back from the carnal carnage, mutter a quick prayer to Kali, holster my Curzon-Youngblood in its leather sheath, and turn, coat furling smoke around me in chaotic involutions.
Jack Flash is back. How's that? I hear you ask. OK, my friends . . .
Twenty Years Wide
Blood dust billows, charcoal black and ash white in the Hinter, swirls of fuzz and hiss, like all the TV sets in the world have spilled their white noise out into the air. The landscape is a rough shape in the storm of bitmites, a corpse riddled with maggots, buried in bluebottles, only here and there a form emerging from the swarming gray: angel armor on disrupters like the skulls of enemies on sticks; charred gods hanging from gibbets; gryphons crunching on the bones of demons; a sylph.
Metaphysiqued in sulcate flesh of unskinned musculature and tendons like an anatomical model, golden sun for one eye, silver moon for the other, it gazes impiteous as a shabti shambles past. It studies the clay creature with the blind face, eyeholes made with jabs of fingers, leathery skin painted with ocher. Kin of sorts they are, flesh of the bitmites' word, soulstuff made solid in the Vellum . . . or once kin, rather. Unkin.
The sylph turns back to its destination, to the Haven. To Kentigern.
Footsteps echo on asphalt and concrete as it starts down into the slumscape. It cocks its head--sounds of glass being raked from windows, wood splintered from frames and bricks unmortared by hammer and screwdriver, ax and crowbar; the noises are distant, the shabtis sparse and solitary in their ghetto half-life. As the sylph heads farther in, the wild of Hinter dies off to a flurry, and the hollow house shells come clearer, all bracken plaster, bare-brick rumbled out of square-shape, polythene in windows where there should be glass. Twenty years wide, the postwar zone of tower block and bunker bungalows is what they call a novagrad, in the creole lingischt of the afterworld. A new city schemed with villas and verges, sapling trees and car parks, all arranged in an artifice of neighborhoods by planners doodling on acid. Streets flow aimless into dead-end curlicues, organic whorls. Not the grid system of a far-ago city but something drawn in crayons held between a madman's teeth, inhabited by clay mock-ups of humanity.
It is 2037, two decades after the apocalypse.
The sylph begins to run. There's risk here. Paths wind, roads branch and spiral as a mazing of vodoun veves. Here the deep dead lose themselves in intricacies of what might have been, entranced in an eternal mundane moment: a child caught pissing in the bushes outside an angry neighbor's house; a drunk forever trying to get his key into the front door lock. The Havens aren't meant for shades, for strands of skandas, sylphs and shabtis; New Amsterdam, St. Leninsburg, Instantinople . . . Kentigern, each has its novagrad to trap the ghosts that gather round its gates. But the sylph moves fast, stays focused on its destination and ignores the echoes of others' footsteps, till--
The floodlights of the Way Station burn furious white. They strobe, seen through the rails of the perimeter fence as the sylph lopes lupine alongside it. Barbed wire on the roof, with streamers of shredded plastic bags caught in it, steel shutters graved with graffiti, Roman, Cyrillic--the place is entrenched, still defending against a kind of war that ended a world ago, back when this was the place where the convoys came in with the truckloads of food for us, thank God, we're starving here, but there's less of them this time and there wasn't enough to go round the last time, God, why is this all they're doing, doesn't it mean anything to them that we're dying here, doesn't it mean anything, God help us, oh, God help us.
The sylph throws back its head, and echoes of the dead roar from its mouth.
Harlequin in Rags of Skin
Monsieur Reynard walks out onto the stage and makes a flourish with his feathered hat, the King of Players, bowing as he twirls his fake mustache.
"Behold," he says, "our hero, Harlequin in rags of skin, a fool, a clown, a wandering wastrel newly arrived in town."
And as our comedy's Reynard the Fox, the King of Thieves, the Scaramouche, he smiles most charmingly as Jack leaps with a somersault onto the boards, to land down on one knee before the lords and ladies of this little corner of eternity. Guy strolls and shrugs, immune to all their gasps at Jack's jaguar agility. But, then, who better to narrate this tale of Harlequin, the Jack of Hearts, the Joker in the pack, with all the requisite insouciance? Who else is there who can outstrut the cock?
"Our hero's story, sad to say," glooms Guy, holding his hat over his heart, "is like the clothes he wears, a patchwork motley born of poverty. See how his nursemaid clothed the bastard boy in scraps . . ."
Our Harlequin wears a more ancient costume than the multicolored diamonds of more cultured stages. Umbers and ambers, browns and blacks and reds, the tight-stretched leather of the cat suit, faun and beige, a hundred different shades of hide, of cow and kid, of horse and deer, of pig and snake, of antelope and lion, unicorn and king, smooth to his supple frame as flippant, flighty Jack bounces and flounces, backflips, pirouettes and cartwheels on the stage.
"Fucking show-off," mutters Joey as he lets the curtain drop back into place.
"Jealous," I say.
Jack struts the boards, looks back at me offstage and winks. It's all for me, I think. Jack doesn't give a fuck for them; the only thing he really cares for is his Puck. He treats this audience of fine impostures with a rock star's pouting scorn, the Duke, the Princess and their courtiers idling out there on their thrones and cushions while the flunkies pour wine into goblets for them, tugging their forelocks at these self-proclaimed highborn.
"And here a king," says Guy. "We'll call him Pierrot, for he's a king of tears, of tears that flow like wine for what he's lost in Columbine."
Joey in black suit and tie, white shirt and whiteface, black eyeliner painting tears beneath his eyes, stalks on stage left, a Mafioso Pierrot. A hiss of dry ice swirls gray mist around him out into the hall. He twirls a hand in cold, contemptuous voilà, ever the villain.
"Then there is Pantaloon," says Guy, and Don walks on to bow with pomp and grandeur, bowing so low his long gray beard gets underfoot and trips him, staggering forward almost off the stage and into the laughing audience. "Grandfather of the king," says Guy, "and father of Columbine who we'll meet presently. You'll see. I ask you only to have trust in me. But who am I? Why, I am Scaramouche, a man of wisdom, cunning even in so many ways, but in some other ways" [he taps his roguish eye patch] "blind, but" [and he flicks the eye patch up to show a wink and drops it down again] "not quite so blind as you might think.
"But we are mere supporting players in this show, we Scaramouches and Pantaloons. This is a tale of Pierrot and Harlequin."
"I hear you ask," he says, "who is this Harlequin? Where is he from, you ask. Where has he been? Who is this Harlequin behind the mask, his face unseen? We'll tell you this: He's left behind him in his ludic path a million friezes and gardens engraved in gold. Over the sun-scorched plains of prose, through snowstorm media, past walled towns of factory art, he's wandered through the whole harem, the length and breadth of all the Orient, that promised land where city-states stretch out along the salt sea and the peoples of the West and East meet, mix and marry. This is the first city of the hellions that he's reached, an ancient city known as Themes."
Guy waves his arm around him in a way encompassing both the backdrop of our wagon and the audience of watching faces; the whole pseudo-medieval Haven of the hall, the gargoyled columns of the walls, the podium directly facing us across the floor, all seem just as theatrical, as artificial, as our mummer's wagon with its drop-down stage and metal scaffolding of rigging, spotlights, speakers and the complex engineering of Don's special effects. But the Duke's absurd theater has its differences from ours, our stage constructed in the aim of entertainment, his designed in the pursuit of power.
"All we can do," says Guy, "is picture all the dances that this Harlequin's decreed along the way, the rites he's wrought in revelations of his spirit to humanity; those wonders are behind him now. But here, my friends, we see our Harlequin in kidskin, with his staff, his green-veined wand in hand, in the first city of the hellions to ever ring with the strange hallelujahs that he sings. My friends, the Harlequin has come home."
The Dereliction of a Hundred Suburbias
The sylph shakes the skanda strands from its head with a growl, but the scent of dead souls drifting fills its nostrils still, the smell of cigarette smoke snatched as someone passes you in the street, the smells of public transport, smells of old and young, male and female, stale fart and aftershave, curry and spearmint, shower gel and sweat. Mingled memories of parents in people carriers lifting children out to hand to ragged refugees who grab the food parcels out of the soldiers' hands and rip the wrappers off the bars of chocolate, crumple them and drop the can and kick it and turn and dribble past the fat boy to shoot at the fire door where the man in the clean suit nails the notice . . .
The echoes might have belonged to anyone. They might even have belonged to the sylph, if it was human once. It might have come here, refugee or villager, in some broken bit of city--houses, streets and schemes of them, all turning, tilting in the storm of Evenfall like furniture detritus tumbling in floodwaters--when the bitmites broke loose. It might have come here seeking shelter in the drifting terror of the Evenfall, but failing to find it. It's hard to tell anymore. The sylph has been out in the Hinter for so long that it is the Hinter, bitmites for its blood and body.
"Halz! Qua entre resirken?"
The guard wears the nightshades and the sky-blue helmet of a peacekeeper, but his uniform is a mix of gear from many armies, over it a bulky duffel coat with its collar turned up against the cold, fluorescent plastic patches on the shoulders as a poor man's epaulets. A cut scars down his face, the stitches still in, but where the scab should be the skin is clean and bloodless, more like a fabric that's been hastily mended than a living wound still healing. He smokes the roach of a skinny joint, his disrupter pointed straight at the sylph's head. Behind him, the Way Station looks as dead as the rest of the dreamtime scheme, but more stable in its squat single story, fenced off and guarded.
The sylph is unconcerned. Steel and concrete, guards and guns, might have kept the Haven safe once from the riots of the dislocated when the world was still as firm as flesh and survivors huddled behind barricades, shooting shambling things that came at them out of the cracks in reality. But it's different now; now the shadows and reflections released by the bitmites, creatures like the sylph given strange fluid substance by the angel dust, come as inscrutable supplicants that simply cannot be refused. They slide in through the niches in the back of someone's mind, in the highlights in a person's eye, and even scattered by disrupters they fall, flow and re-form. The only real defense the enclaves of reality and order have against such things is to invite them in.
The sentry studies the sylph for a second and it feels itself solidify under his gaze.
"Lingischt?" says the sentry. "Italiano? Françaiz? Deutschen?"
The sylph's perspective snaps, a cut to close-up.
"Angelish," we say.
We growl, shake our head, force the word out right.
"English," we say.
He seems to relax a little at this. One of his own, he thinks; we smell corned beef on him, chip shops and lager, kebabs and curry. A spiderweb tattoo is just visible on his neck. Football chants curl in the smoke that rises from his spliff, and the steam of his breath. He misses the lads more than the missus or his ma and da, and he's not cut out for this malarkey, so he's not, you know; all lost in the Evenfall they are, as he was when the militiamen found him, lost in the diasporas and disappearances of where did all the people and the places that he used to know go into that's a no-go area of rubble and smoke and--
"Got any papers?" he says.
"No," we say. "No identity, no papers."
"I mean cigarette papers. Skins. You got any cigarette papers?"
We hold our hands out, palms up.
"Worth a try," he shrugs. "On you go, mate."
"Don't you want to know our name?"
"If you had a name, you wouldn't be here."
We sniff at him as we pull open the unlocked gate. His disrupter is switched off--no telltale odor of ozone and cum, just blackcurrant, petrol and apathy. The filth of four weeks living in a corner shop without a toilet, raiding its shelves for tinned food, as the Evenfall raged outside. The fish-oil smell of fear when he came out into the still black night, and the city was gone and he was in the Hinter, ash falling like snow across the dereliction of a hundred suburbias. He was lucky that the search party found him or he'd never have known that this slumscape of houses torn from their original moorings is accreted into a barricade around an entry point, a Way Station.
A Way Station. The low-bulked building doesn't look like it could hold a city within its walls, but that's how the Havens are. Hidden among a twenty-years-wide novagrad, buried decades, sometimes centuries, down beneath the ruin, just a door or window showing here or there, through which they can be entered. Time is wide in the Hinter, wide and deep.
We walk across the yard of hopscotch chalk marks, up the steps, into the bunker that will take us home.
A Grandiose Ruin of Gray Stone
"So here I am, back in grand Themes," says our Iacchus Bacchus. "Jack is back, the son of Sooth and Simile, born in a flash of lightning, out of the east. I've shed the spiritskin, and taken human shape to show myself at Hinter springs and Sumer's falls."
The painted backdrop of the wagon's fold-down stage portrays a grandiose ruin of gray stone obscured and overgrown by green. Don, Guy and Joey melt back into it as Harlequin commands the stage. Jack's in the spotlight. Out in the hall, the audience are shades.
"And here I stand," says Jack as Harlequin, "before my mother's monument, here where the bolt blasted her house, the ruins of it smoking still. And I can feel the fire from the spirit blaze beneath, the fury visited upon my mother. I have to praise old Pantaloon; he keeps this spot so . . . sanctified, so sacred in his daughter's name, it seems no hands have touched it barring mine. See how it's wild with the thick foliage, the choking vines."
The Duke upon his throne across the hall, where all the lords and courtiers like children sit cross-legged on the ground, leans to one side to whisper in his consul's ear, looking from Jack to Joey and to Guy . . . and back to Jack, who leaps from top of prop to top of prop, to crouch as if to pounce; there's just that little bite of something else there, added to the bounce and flounce.
"This seems," the Duke says, "rather serious for a Harlequin play. Dead mothers and suchlike. I do believe I stressed the word diversion."
The Princess seated on his other side just rolls her eyes, quite clearly tired of her gray-bearded, scar-faced guardian and his stern insistence on frivolity. She looks like a child beside him, haughty and imperious, yet with a flash of trash in the way she sits itching and twitching in green riding dress, her dark-red hair pinned up and back. The anachronisms of this place are not entirely consistent; the heraldry hints more of Ruritanian pageantry than the authentic pomp of days of yore. The Duke wears gray, of course, his garb, the hall itself, all an extension of his stone demeanor; even the torches on the wall can't light his gloom. This is his world, I think, and she's not at home here.
On the stage, the Harlequin sits down upon his mother's tomb.
"M'sire, the Troupe d'Reynard do come highly recommended," says the consul, smiling like a nervous dog. "Avant-garde perhaps," he says, "but if m'sire doesn't like it, we can always have them executed afterward."
Backstage, I skulk into the shadows of the folds of curtains and billowing backgrounds. The threat of death's an occupational hazard of a mummer's life, here in this wasted land of mad gods and ghost megalomaniacs, the many kingdoms of the Hinter; life is cheap to those convinced of their authority over reality itself.
"Shh," whispers the Princess as she shakes her head. "He's talking again."
"So my dear mother's ugly sisters, of all people, call me bastard," Jack says, "born from some secret lover's shame, born to a slut, a slag. They might as well have called my dear old mum a toothless, bearded hag. And they deny all claims that the divine might have a hand in it. I can't think why. Is it not obvious that I'm descended from on high, from mighty Sooth?"
With his dark mask on you can't see the arching eyebrow, but I know that tone of mischief in his voice, the Who? Me? Would I lie to you?
"But no! They say that Pantaloon, shifting the blame, invented the whole thing . . . that no one knows my roving father's name."
Jack flashes from naïve mock indignation, instantly, to something darker.
"Hah! With one whisper of that word upon the wind, I've seen them driven into a frenzy, driven from their homes into the hills, out of their minds, raving and answering another's will. I've got them dressed for orgies, each and every one of these smug daughters of old Pantaloon, up on the open rocks beneath the towering green pines, lying with all the sons of Columbine."
Jack walks the boards. A slow turn of the head to speak directly to the Duke.
"This town," he says, "however ignorant it is of mystery and loath to learn, will see. I'll happily take up my mother's case, and wear a crown to show these mortal fools her child, the son of Sooth, born in the death of a lost divinity, to give them truth."
The Duke opens his mouth again to speak but Guy is suddenly beside him, elbow leaning on the throne. A shrug, a disingenuous smile, a wait-let-me-explain!
"Now, Pantaloon," says Guy, "the onetime poobah of these palaces and plazas, has long since passed his place and all its privileges to Pierrot, son of his daughter Columbine--"
"Aye, Pierrot," says Jack. "He wages war against my wine, pushing the daimon drink away and pouring no libations, making no mention of poor me in all his muttered prayers. It's not fair! This King of Tears . . . I'll show him and his people the divine; I'll show him the full glory of the vine. Then, once I've set his house in order, I can go somewhere more green, and show my spirit there."
He holds a finger up.
"But if the town should take up arms--lift up their fists in anger--if they think that they can drive my followers down from the heights of ecstasy, we'll face them down and, at the head of a mad mob, I'll show them rout and riot. Why else do I wear this mortal skin, this flesh and bone, and step down from my throne to take man's form, if not to cause a royal ruckus?"
The Duke looks ponderous, face seeming graved from silent stone like he's just one more sculpture in this hall built out of dreams of chivalry. I'm not impressed. His artifice is more elaborate than our own, but made of ideas that are long since stale, a pulpy paperback heroic fantasy. He probably has knights somewhere, off hunting for the Holy Grail. Well, fuck that shit, as Jack would say. Nobody ever asks the serfs if they are happy living in the fairy tale.
Happy Families and War Crimes
Once upon a time. Once upon a time there were three little pigs, a wolf and seven little kids, three billy goats gruff, and trolls under bridges, and giants in the sky, and thirty little children with Ladybird books and poster paints, and tubes of glitter and sticks of glue, and a boy called Jack.
Once upon a time, the Way Station was a school, and faded finger-paintings still decorate the walls--dinosaurs and ruined cities, happy families and war crimes. Pages of arithmetic textbooks, times tables and alphabet readers litter the floor, ground into pulp by countless feet. The open-plan classrooms are cluttered with overturned desks and chairs all scaled for preteen occupants.
Signs in white paint on eggshell yellow lead us to the gym, where filing cabinets and lockers have been gathered against the back wall of a small stage, and where an old man sits behind a desk half buried in paperwork. Military uniform, British Raj–period general. He looks up only when the door creaks and crashes shut behind us; a tattoo circles one eye, the graving of a monocle, just a little absurd like he's been inked by a joke telescope. The dull thunder of children's feet fills the room, together with the muted hiss of a radio playing an eightsome reel far-ago in the past. The Way Station is haunted with the ghosts of all those who didn't make it, shreds of spirit matting the entry point like hair clogging a plughole.
He nods to himself and waves his hand for us to come close. We jump up onto the stage and sit down on a chair facing his desk, sniffing the dust and musk and mildewed paper in the air. For a while we just study each other: a thousand shadows could be hidden in the wrinkles of his ridden face, the jowls and baggy eyes, a face once solid, long gone soft. He peers at me through his nightshades.
"So . . ." he says eventually.
His quiet voice is amplified by the emptiness of the hall.
"You want sanctuary. You want come in Kentigern, play pip pip best of Britain, old boy? You no jolly happy in Hinter?"
His accent is so thick that it's grotesque, as if the farthest reaches of the British Empire collaborated on creating the ultimate offense to the language of their colonialist masters.
"We want humanity," we say.
He laughs and coughs, gasps for air, and laughs again. He has the emphysema wheeze of a forty-a-day smoker but it doesn't stop him from reaching into his breast pocket to bring out a silver cigarette case. He clicks it open, takes a Russian black out, taps it on the table. Snaps the case shut. Puts the cigarette in his mouth.
"Crazy thing! You have one idea what is humanity? Eh, crazy thing?"
"We can learn."
The unlit cigarette dangles from his bottom lip, bouncing as he speaks.
"Hah . . . You learn to ride bicycle. You learn to speak lingischt. You no learn to be human being. No, you are what you are, and you--hah--"
He takes the cigarette out and points it at us.
"You are a monster. Crazy thing. Big scary monster. Not a human being. Dust with legs."
We pick our teeth and glower at him.
"We want to change," we say.
"Dust with legs. We give you skin, you be chipper chap?"
He sucks on the cigarette and we sniff the air. There are deeper scents than echoes here, dead things with more flesh. In the lockers, we think. Not just echoes. Shadows and reflections too. A fireman pulling bodies from a burning plane wreck, going in again one time too many. A soldier fighting for freedom, or for oil fields belching smoke out in the desert. A shopkeeper reaching for the alarm under the desk holding an open cash register. A little girl running out onto a road toward an ice cream van, naked, skin blistered and burning from the napalm, dropping as the bullets spray her back.
"We can walk on from someone else's steps," we say. "We want . . . a past."
We wait for the serious questions to begin, the forms to fill out, citizenship pledges. In the echoes that we traced here through the wild black storms of Hinter, we found passports and papers, immigration visas and ID cards, biometric data, holograms and thumb chips. We expect this.
Instead he simply flicks through a sheaf of papers and pulls out a yellowed page. His chair scrapes noisily on the wooden floorboards of the stage as he pushes it back, stands up and leads us over to the filing cabinets and lockers, the keys on his belt jangling as he walks. More like a janitor than a general, we think. He fumbles the right key into the right lock and clanks the locker door open.
"Crazy thing," he says. "Here. Take. Through door, go uphill."
The skinsuit hangs on the hook like a wet raincoat, thin and pale pink with the gravings of a dead man's soul across its chest. Shabby and pathetic, giving only the limp impression of a shape, we still feel a pang of longing as we look at it, to live and breathe, to have hopes and fears rather than to be them. A dark Pinocchio, carved out of thought instead of wood, we want to be a real boy. We reach out to touch it, stroke it, hold its glove of skin against our hand, palm to palm. If we kissed that slack mask, could we wake it into life with a breath?
He holds the yellow page of someone else's life at arm's length, squeezing his eyes to read it.
"We call you Jack now, crazy thing. Jack Carter, dead man, no need name no more."
He doesn't know, we realize, that we are all dead men, dead women, dead children, even a little animal perhaps, dressed in our suits of skin to walk again as we once did when we were flesh. We slide the skinsuit on, smooth skin around our arms and legs, and feel it form us, firm us. Will we also now forget, like him, in payment for this dreamtime, an exchange of memories of death for memories of life?
"Through door, go uphill," he repeats. "Remember, up. You go to Circus. Pipe up name with a salute. They give you past and future. All you want, crazy thing."
He hacks and rasps again as he hobbles to a fire-exit door, clatters the bar of a handle down and swings it open.
Outside, inside or just beyond, the Haven waits for us, no novagrad of dust where shabtis scuff their feet through windblown echoes of humanity, but the real thing. Kentigern waits for us, a city sunken in the overgrowth of ruined reality. We see a park of darkness. Buildings glimpsed through a rustle of leaves. A world lying in state, it waits. We hesitate.
"Go, crazy thing," he says behind us. "Go, Jack Carter. Go home."
We step out into the dark of parkness, rich earth flowering with the scent of memory. The door swings closed behind us.
The Castle and the City
It seems to go up forever.
"Now that," says Guy, "is what I call grandiose."
"Peachy," says Jack. "Want one."
The Duke's Keep rises over the city as a giant among ants, skyscrapers for its buttresses, all mirrored glass, its walls drab slabs of concrete dam stretching between them, a perversion of a Gothic cathedral. It is as if somebody took New York and rearranged the skyline, placing this tower here and that tower there, finding the symmetries and complementing shapes and heights and, having done so, they then built a wall of concrete joining tower block to tower block, mute gray between the glittering glass, and built it higher, higher, just to prove that commerce's great spectacle of a city was only the building blocks of their great scheme. The wall of it rises into low cloud but you can make out the crenulations of the buildings bridged with blocky iron towers, topped by domes or spires, a more ancient architecture perched up on the precipice's tip, like gulls' nests on a cliff. Yes, grandiose is one word to describe it.
We trundle on toward it, through a city which is nothing if not humble in comparison. Here two or three stories are the norm and most of these squat concrete, sometimes painted in sun yellows or sky blues or peach, with fading adverts on their sides, for washing powder or some other product of that old forgotten and fantastic world we used to call reality--so many look unfinished, half built, with spirally steel reinforcing rods sprouting from their flat roofs like reeds, rust-color stalks stuck in a vase. Small shacks, plant pots and chairs and washing lines among them, speak of these roofs being used as gardens. Here and there one of the houses has three walls of a new level still being built, brick and wet plaster. It's as if all the houses are expanding upward, just taking their time about it.
I point this out and Joey, dismissive as ever, says it's just a tax dodge.
"Once the house is finished," he says, "they'll have to start paying tax on it. So if the house is never actually finished . . ."
"How do you know?"
"Seen it before."
Excerpted from Ink by Hal Duncan Copyright © 2007 by Hal Duncan. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Hal Duncan is the author of Vellum, which was a finalist for both the William H. Crawford Award and the Locus Award for Best First Novel. He is a member of the Glasgow SF Writers’ Circle. He lives in the West End of Glasgow.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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