The corpse-jumping body mercenary Nev is used to filling other people's shoes. When his assistant Tera recognizes the most recent waterlogged cadaver they bought off the street, though, he finds that his new body is carrying more trouble than he bargained for.
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.
About the Author
Kameron Hurley is the author of the novels God's War, Infidel, and Rapture a science-fantasy noir series which earned her the Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer and the Kitschies Award for Best Debut Novel. She has won the Hugo Award (twice), and been a finalist for the Nebula Award, the Clarke Award, the Locus Award, and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her most recent novel is the epic fantasy The Mirror Empire. The sequel, Empire Ascendant, will be out in October 2015. She writes regularly for Locus Magazine.
Read an Excerpt
Elephants and Corpses
By Kameron Hurley, Jon Foster
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2015 Kameron Hurley
All rights reserved.
Bodies are only beautiful when they aren't yours. It's why Nev had fallen in love with bodies in the first place. When you spent time with the dead you could be anyone you wanted to be. They didn't know any better. They didn't want to have long conversations about it. They were vehicles. Transport. Tools. They were yours in a way that no living thing ever could be.
Nev stood at the end of the lower city's smallest pier with Tera, his body manager, while she snuffled and snorted with some airborne contagion meant to make her smarter. She was learning to talk to the dead, she said, and you only picked up a skill like that if you went to some viral wizard who soaked your head in sputum and said a prayer to the great glowing wheel of God's eye that rode the eastern horizon. Even now, the boiling mass of stars that made up the God's eye nebula was so bright Nev could see it in broad daylight. It was getting closer, the priests all said. Going to gobble them up like some cancer.
Why Tera needed to talk to the dead when Nev did just fine with them as they were was a mystery. But it was her own body, her slice of the final take to spend, and he wasn't going to argue about what she did with it.
"You buying these bodies or not?" said the old woman in the pirogue. She'd hooked the little boat to the snarling amber head of a long-mummified sea serpent fixed to the pier. In Nev's fascination with the dead body, he'd forgotten about the live one trying to sell it to him.
"Too rotten," Tera said.
"Not if we prepare it by day's end," Nev said. "Just the big one, though. The kid, I can't do anything with."
He pulled out a hexagonal coin stamped with the head of some long-dead upstart; a senator, maybe, or a juris priest. The old folks in charge called themselves all sorts of things over the years, but their money spent the same. He wondered for a minute if the bodies were related; kid and her secondary father, or kid and prime uncle. They were both beginning to turn, now, the bodies slightly bloated, overfull, but he could see the humanity, still; paintings in need of restoration.
"Some body merc you are!" the old woman said. "Underpaying for prime flesh. This is good flesh, here." She rubbed her hands suggestively over the body's nearly hairless pate.
Nev jabbed a finger at the empty pier behind him; she arrived with her bodies too late—the fish mongers had long since run out of stock, and the early risers had gone home. "Isn't exactly a crowd, is there?" He pushed his coat out of the way, revealing the curved hilt of his scimitar.
She snarled at him. It was such a funny expression, Nev almost laughed. He flipped her the coin and told Tera to bring up the cart. Tera grumbled and snuffled about it, but within a few minutes the body was loaded. Tera took hold of the lead on their trumpeting miniature elephant, Falid, and they followed the slippery boardwalk of the humid lower city into the tiers of the workhouses and machinery shops of the first circle. While they walked, Falid gripped Nev's hand with his trunk. Nev rubbed Falid's head with his other hand. Falid had been with him longer than Tera; he'd found the little elephant partly skinned and left to rot in an irrigation ditch ten years before. He'd nursed him back to health on cabbage and mango slices, back when he could afford mangos.
Tera roped Falid to his metal stake in the cramped courtyard of the workshop. Nev fed Falid a wormy apple from the bin—the best they had right now—and helped Tera haul the body inside. They rolled it onto the great stone slab at the center of the lower level.
Nev shrugged off his light coat, set aside his scimitar, and tied on an apron. He needed to inspect and preserve the body before they stored it in the ice cellar. Behind him rose the instruments of his trade: jars of preserved organs, coagulated blood, and personal preservation and hydrating concoctions he'd learned to make from the Body Mercenary Guild before they'd chucked him out for not paying dues. Since the end of the war, business for body mercs had been bad, and the guild shed specialist mercenaries like him by the thousands. On a lucky day, he was hired on as a cheap party trick, or by a grieving spouse who wanted one last moment with a deceased lover. That skirted a little too closely to deceptive sexual congress for his moral compass. Killing people while wearing someone else's skin was one thing: fucking while you pretended to be someone they knew was another.
Tera helped him strip the sodden coat and trousers from the body. What came out of the water around the pier was never savory, but this body seemed especially torn up. It was why he didn't note the lack of external genitals, at first. Cocks got cut off or eaten up all the time, on floaters like this one. But the look on Tera's face made him reconsider.
"Funny," Tera said, sucking her teeth. She had a giant skewer in one hand, ready to stab the corpse to start pumping in the fluids that reduced the bloat. She pulled up the tattered tunic—also cut in a men's style, like the trousers—and clucked over what appeared to be a bound chest.
"Woman going about as a man?" Nev said. Dressing up as a man was an odd thing for a woman to do in this city, when men couldn't even own property. Tera owned Nev's workshop, when people asked. Nev had actually bought it under an old name some years before; he told the city people it was his sister's name, but of course it was his real one, from many bodies back. He and Tera had been going about their business here for nearly five years, since the end of the war, when body mercenaries weren't as in demand and old grunts like Tera got kicked out into a depressed civilian world that wanted no reminder of war. When he met her, she'd been working at a government school as a janitor. Not that Nat's decision regarding the body he wore was any saner.
"You think she's from the third sex quarter?" Nev said, "or is it a straight disguise?"
"Maybe she floated down from there," Tera said, but her brow was still furrowed. "Priests go about in funny clothes sometimes," she said. "Religious thing."
"What are you thinking?"
"I'm thinking how much you hate going about in women's bodies," Tera said.
"I like women well enough," Nev said, "I just don't have the spirit of one."
"And a pity that is."
"She cost money. I might need her. What I prefer and what I need aren't always the same thing. Let's clean her up and put her in the cellar with the others."
A body mercenary without a good stash of bodies was a dead body mercenary. He knew it as well as anyone. He'd found himself bleeding out alone in a field without a crop of bodies to jump to before, and he didn't want to do it again. Every body merc's worst nightmare: death with no possibility of rebirth.
Tera cut off the breast binding. When she yanked off the bandages, Nev saw a great red tattoo at the center of the woman's chest. It was a stylized version of the God's eye nebula, one he saw on the foreheads of priests gathering up flocks in the street for prayer, pushing and shoving and shouting for worshippers among the four hundred other religious temples, cults, and sects who had people out doing the same.
Tera gave a little hiss when she saw the tattoo, and made a warding gesture over her left breast. "Mother's tits."
"Wrap her up and—"
The door rattled.
Nev reached for his scimitar. He slipped on the wet floor and caught himself on the slab just as the door burst open.
A woman dressed in violet and black lunged forward. She wielded a shimmering straight sword with crimson tassels, like something a general on the field would carry.
"Grab the body," the woman said. Her eyes were hard and black. There were two armed women behind her, and a spotty boy about twelve with a crossbow.
Nev held up his hands. Sometimes his tongue was faster than his reflexes, and with the face he had on this particular form, it had been known to work wonders. "I'm happy to sell it to you. Paid a warthing for it, though. I'd appreciate—"
"Kill these other two," she said.
"Now, that's not—" Nev began, but the women were advancing. He really did hate it when he couldn't talk his way out. Killing was work, and he didn't like doing work he wasn't paid for.
He backed up against the far wall with Tera as the gang came at them. Tera, too, was unarmed. She shifted into a brawler's stance. He was all right at unarmed combat, but surviving it required a fairer fight than this one. Four trained fighters with weapons against two without only ended in the unarmed's favor in carnival theater and quarter-warthing stories.
Nev looked for a weapon in reach—a hack saw, a fluid needle, anything—and came up empty. His scimitar was halfway across the room.
If they wanted the body, then, he'd give it to them.
He whistled at Tera. She glanced over at him, grimaced, tightened her fists.
Nev pulled the utility dagger at his belt and sliced his own forearm from wrist to elbow. Blood gushed. He said a little prayer to God's eye, more out of tradition than necessity, and abandoned his mortally wounded body.
There was a blink of darkness. Softness at the edges of his consciousness.
Then a burst of awareness.
Nev came awake inside the body on the slab. He couldn't breathe. He rolled off the slab and hit the floor hard, vomiting bloody water, a small fish, and something that looked like a cork. His limbs were sluggish. His bowels let loose, covering the floor in bloody shit, piss, and something ranker, darker: death.
He gripped the edge of the slab and pulled himself up. His limbs felt like sodden bread. Putting on a new, dead skin of the wrong gender often resulted in a profound dysphoria, long-term. But he didn't intend to stay here long.
The attackers were yelling. The kid got down on his knees and started babbling a prayer to the Helix Sun god. Nev had his bearings now. He flailed his arms at them and roared, "Catch me, then!" but it came out a mush in the ruined mouth of the dead woman whose body he now occupied.
He waited until he saw Tera kick open the latch to the safe room and drag his bleeding former body into it. The one with such a pretty face. Then he turned and stumbled into the courtyard.
A dozen steps. He just needed to make it a dozen steps, until his spirit had full control of the body. Second wind, second wind—it was coming. Hopefully before he lost his head. If he didn't get them out far enough, they'd just run back in and finish off Tera and what was left of his old body. He really liked that body. He didn't want to lose it.
The gang scrambled after him. He felt a heavy thump and blaring pain in his left shoulder. Someone had struck him with an ax. He stumbled forward. Falid trumpeted as he slipped past. He considered putting Falid between him and the attackers—maybe some better body merc would have—but his heart clenched at the idea. He loved that stupid elephant.
He felt hot blood on his shoulder. A good sign. It meant the blood was flowing again. Second wind, second wind ...
Nev burst out of the courtyard and into the street. The piercing light of the setting suns blinded him. He gasped. His body filled with cramping, searing pain, like birth. He'd been reborn a thousand times in just this way; a mercenary who could never die, leaping from host to host as long as there were bodies on the battlefield. He could run and fight forever, right up until there were no more bodies he'd touched. He could fight until he was the last body on the field.
He pivoted, changing directions. The burst of new life caused his skin to flake. He was going to be powerfully thirsty and hungry in a quarter hour. But that was more than enough time to do what needed doing.
Nev picked up speed. The body's legs responded, stronger and fitter than they'd been for their former inhabitant. He coughed out one final wet muck of matter and took a deep, clear breath. He glanced back, ensured the gang was still chasing him, and turned down a side alley.
They barreled after him, all four of them, which told him they were amateurs more than anything else thus far. You didn't all bumble into a blind alley after a mark unless you were very, very sure of yourselves.
He knew the alley well. Hairy chickens as tall as his knee hissed and scattered as he passed. He rounded the end of the alley and jumped – the leap across the sunken alley here was six feet. Not easy, but not impossible. The street had caved during the last rainstorm. Knowing to jump should have saved him.
But he came up short.
He missed the other side by inches, threw his arms forward, tried to scramble for purchase.
Nev, the body that housed Nev, fell.
His legs snapped beneath him. Pain registered: dull, still, with the nerves not yet fully restored. He cracked his head against broken paving stones at the bottom of the sinkhole. A black void sputtered across his vision.
"Shit," the woman with the dark eyes said. She peered down at him; her mane of black hair had come loose, and with the double helix of the suns behind her, she looked like a massive lion. "Finish killing it. Take it with us. Body's barely fit for Corez now."
"He's a body merc," one of the others said, behind her. "He's just going to jump again."
"Then go back and burn his house down, too."
The boy came up behind her, levelled a crossbow with a violet plume at the end, and shot Nev in the chest.
It took two more to kill him.
Dying hurt every time.
* * *
Nev gasped. Sputtered, wheezed, "Where are we?"
It was dead dark.
"Lie flat, fool. We're under the floor of the warehouse."
He gasped for air and reached instinctively for his cut wrist. Tera had bound it with clean linen and salve that stank nearly as bad as the corpse they'd hauled from the pier.
"They're going to burn the workshop."
"You're lucky we aren't burning in there too. You only lasted five minutes."
"More than long enough, for some."
"Easy to please, were they?"
"My favorite sort."
She snorted. Sneezed. Hacked something up and spit into the dusty space. "They didn't know what you were until you jumped. Seemed right surprised."
"Wouldn't be the first time we pulled a body that should have stayed buried."
Nev smelled smoke. His workshop, burning. If they didn't leave soon it would catch the warehouse they were squatting under, too. Years they worked to build up that workshop. If he was lucky, some of the bodies on ice in the cellar might keep, but probably not. All those lovely bodies lost ... He shivered and clutched at his wrist again.
"Anything they say give you an idea what they wanted with the body?" Tera asked.
"Only used one name. Said the body wasn't fit for ... Corez?"
Tera muttered something.
The smell of smoke got stronger. "You knew that tattoo," he said. "It's like the one on those priests. The new Gods' eye cult. The real liberal ones with the habit of burning effigies in the park."
"Not just the tattoo," Tera said. "I knew the woman."
"Who was she?"
"My sister," Tera said, "and Corez is the piece of shit that runs that cult temple she ran off to twenty years ago."
* * *
The fire had seared a scar clean through the workshop and into the warehouse behind it. The billowing flames destroyed three buildings before the fire brigade pumped in water from the ocean. One of the buildings was a factory where children put together beautifully patterned tunics. The children still milled about on the street opposite, faces smeared in char, hacking smoke.
Nev crunched across the floor of the ruined workshop, kicking aside broken glass and the twisted implements of his trade, all swirling with sea water. The cellar had caved in, barring the way to the bodies below. The intense heat would have melted all the ice blocks he packed down there in straw anyway, and ruined his collection. If someone shot him in the heart now, he'd have nowhere to jump.
He saw Tera standing over a heaped form in the courtyard, and walked over to her. She frowned at the crumpled body of Falid the elephant, shot six times with what was likely a crossbow. They'd removed the bolts. Falid's tongue lolled out. His tiny black eyes were dull.
Nev knelt before the little elephant and stroked his fat flank. "This was unnecessary," he said.
"So was the factory," Tera said.
Nev's eyes filled. He wiped his face. "No. That was collateral damage. This. ... This was unnecessary."
Excerpted from Elephants and Corpses by Kameron Hurley, Jon Foster. Copyright © 2015 Kameron Hurley. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Funny. I had just finished reading a 400 page book and concluded I cared about none of the characters and in 20 or so this author made me care.
I really Liked God's War from Kameron Hurley. I lost track of her though and missed the other two books in the series and picked up Mirror Empire from her and started to read it. Both books are complicated, she doesn't explain the social structures, you encounter them as the characters do. They know some things and not others, you, the reader, know some more because you encounter different characters along the way. This short story is good. It feels like it's part of a larger story, but there is a beginning, a middle and an end. I would like to know more about the skill the main character has, but I am satisfied with the ending.