It had begun as a distant glimmering dot; now it was unmistakably a world.
At the front of the rocket launch, from her control position behind the forward windows, Fura Ness tried to ﬂy exactly like any other prospective visitor. Too conﬁdent in her approach, and she would draw attention to herself. Too cautious, and she would look as if she had something to hide.
Which – of course – she did.
The sweep was bouncing range-location pings against the outer shell of Mulgracen. A dial showed their closing speed, now down to just six thousand spans per second.
‘That will do nicely,’ Lagganvor said, as he leant over her shoulder to study the instrument board.
Fura took her time answering. She ﬂipped a switch or two, worked a lever, tapped her nail against a sticky gauge.
‘This ain’t my ﬁrst approach, Lag.’
Lagganvor’s reﬂection smiled back from the burnished metal of the console.
Fura applied a little more counterthrust, dropping them to ﬁve thousand ﬁve hundred spans per second. They were threading through the orbits of other ships gathered around Mulgracen that ranged from little runabouts like their own to fully-rigged sailing vessels, albeit all close-hauled so near to the gravity well of a swallower.
‘All this way for a pile of bones,’ Prozor said, in a familiar complaining tone.
‘Bones we happen to need,’ Fura answered.
Prozor rubbed the dent in her head where a metal plate had been put in. ‘You need ’em, girlie. The rest of us is quite satisﬁed never goin’ near those horse-faced horrors.’
‘I share your reservations,’ Lagganvor said, directing a conﬁding smile at Prozor. ‘But I also appreciate the need for up-to-date intelligence. Without a viable skull, we’re operating blind.’
‘And this intelligence,’ Prozor said. ‘It wouldn’t have anything to do with gov’m’nt men turnin’ over every rock in the Congregation to look for us, would it? Gov’m’nt coves with ships and guns and undercover agents and plenty of intelligence of their own?’
Lagganvor scratched at his chin. ‘It might.’
‘Then why in all the worlds is we . . . goin’ anywhere near a world?’
‘We’ve been over this,’ Adrana Ness said, turning to face Prozor from the seat immediately behind her sister’s control position. ‘It’s all very well keeping to the margins, picking oﬀ other ships for essential supplies – that’s served us well enough since The Miser. But it’s not sustainable. We’ve only adopted piracy as a temporary measure, not a business for life.’
Prozor nodded at the forward windows, where Mulgracen was now large enough for surface details to be visible. ‘And offerin’ our necks on the choppin’ board by voluntarily going to a world – that’s meant to be an improvement?’
‘It has to be done,’ Fura said, sighing hard. ‘None of the skulls we’ve found on other ships were worth a spit by the time we got our hands on them. So we’ve no choice but to shop. But I ain’t taking silly risks. Mulgracen’s a long way out and there’s no likelihood that anyone will be expecting us. It won’t be like Wheel Strizzardy . . .’
‘The risk was supposed to be contained there as well,’ Prozor said.
‘It was,’ Fura answered through gritted teeth. ‘Just not contained enough.’
Mulgracen was a laceworld, orbiting the Old Sun in the Thirty-Fourth Processional. It was neither entirely hollow, like a shellworld, nor entirely solid, like a sphereworld. It was, instead, a sort of sugary confection, made up of many thin and brittle layers, each nested delicately within each other and inter-penetrated by voids, shafts and vaults through which a ship could move nearly as freely as in open space. The outer surface – from which the launch was bouncing its range-ﬁnding pulses – was only loosely spherical. There were gaps in it, some of which were whole leagues across. Between these absences were irregular plates of uninterrupted surface, some of them joined by thick necks of connecting material and some by only the narrowest, most perilous-looking of isthmuses. Nowhere was this surface layer more than a tenth of a league thick, and in places it was considerably thinner. Little domed communities, never more than a quarter of a league across, spangled against the firmer-looking bits of surface. Now and then a tiny train moved between them; a luminous worm hurrying through a glassed-over tube.
With their speed reduced to just ﬁve hundred spans per second, Fura dropped the launch down through one of the larger gaps. The thickness of the surface plate swept up past them, and then they were into what was technically the interior of Mulgracen. There was little sense of conﬁnement. In many directions it was still possible to see stars, as well as a dozen or so nearer worlds and the purple-ruby glimmer of the greater Congregation. Beneath them, about a league below, was a smaller broken surface, ornamented with domes and the ﬁne, glistening threads of railway lines. There were domes and lines above them as well, for there were communities attached to the underside of the outer shell, as well as to its outer surface. Only the thinnest of connecting structures bridged the two layers, and it seemed quite impossible that these feeble-looking columns and walls could support anything, let alone many square leagues of habitable ground.
But they did, and they had, and they would. Mulgracen was already millions of years old, and it been claimed and lost and re-claimed many times during the long cycles of civilisational collapse and rebirth that made up the recorded history of the Congregation.
Fura dropped their speed further still. Traﬃc was thick all the way into Mulgracen. Rocket launches were coming and going in all directions, with little regard for any sort of organised ﬂow. Cargo scows and rocket tugs growled by on their slow, ponderous business. For every ship about the size of their own launch, though, there must have been ten or twenty smaller craft that were only used for shuttling within and around the world, and these seemed even more cavalier about navigational etiquette. They were nosey about it, too, swerving close to the launch and only breaking oﬀ at the last second. The anti-collision alarm was going oﬀ so frequently that in the end Fura cuﬀed it into silence.
They went down another level. Only now was it getting hard to see any clear part of space, and the communities at these depths had to rely on artiﬁcial lights at all times of day. There were more of them, packed more closely together, and in places the towns had merged so thoroughly that they were now merely the districts of city-sized settlements, easily the rival of anything on the Ness sisters’ homeworld. The domed-over buildings were huge, multi-storied aﬀairs, and their windows so numerous that they seemed to emanate a soothing golden glow of comfort and prosperity. Carved animals reared up from roof-lines, picked out by spotlights; neon advertisements ﬂickered on the buildings’ sides, traﬃc lights threw red and green hues across pavements and intersections. People were still too small to see except as moving dots – even the trams and buses were like tiny gaming pieces – but it was not hard to imagine being down there, dressed for the season and strolling along lovely marbled boulevards lined with grand shop windows and no shortage of enticing places to dine and dance.
Fura looked at her sister, wondering if Adrana felt any pangs of homesickness at this spectacle of bustling civilisation.
‘I’d forgotten—’ Adrana began.
‘—how pretty things could be,’ Fura ﬁnished darkly, and her sister met her eyes and gave the merest nod of mutual understanding. ‘How nice decent society looks, from the outside. How pleasant and inviting. How ready to accommodate our every wish. How devious and deceitful! It’s a trap, sister, and we ain’t falling for it.’
‘I didn’t say I was about to.’
Fura slowed them again. They descended through the gap between two domes, then continued on down through the thickness of another layer, until they emerged beneath its underside. There was one more layer below, totally enveloped in a single glowing mass of buildings. That was the closest settlement to the swallower, which was somewhere deep inside that ﬁnal sphere. They didn’t need to go quite that deep, though, which pleased Fura as it meant a little less expenditure of fuel.
‘There,’ Lagganvor said, jabbing a ﬁnger at the windows. ‘The landing wheel.’
Fura had been forewarned about the arrangements, but that did not make her any less apprehensive as she brought them in for the ﬁnal approach. The landing structure was a very odd sort of amenity. It was like a carnival wheel, jutting down from a slot in the ceiling, so that only the lower two thirds of it was visible, turning sedately. There were platforms on the rim of this wheel, each large enough to hold a ship, and some cogs or counterweights kept them level even as the wheel rotated, lifting the ships up into the slot and the hidden part of their rotational cycle.
A third of the platforms were empty. Fura selected one and brought them in belly-ﬁrst, toggling down the launch’s under- carriage and cutting the jets at the last moment. She’d chosen the rising part of the wheel, and it did not take long for its rotation to take them into the slot and up to the apex, where ships moved through an enclosed reception area on their smoothly rising and descending platforms. Fura and her crew were not yet ready to leave the ship, and they were already descending by the time they had completed their suit preparations and gathered in the main lock.
‘Names and back-stories?’ Fura asked.
‘Drilled into us so hard I might be in danger of forgettin’ my actual name,’ Prozor answered. ‘Come to mention it . . . what is my actual name?’
‘Doesn’t matter, so long as you don’t slip up,’ Fura said. Prozor knelt to squeeze some oil into a knee-joint. ‘Anyone would think you wasn’t overly sympathetic, girlie.’
‘I’m not.’ Fura knuckled the chin-piece of her brass-coloured helmet. ‘I’m sympathetic to my neck, and to keeping it attached to something. And that means sticking to our roles.’
‘I think we are tolerably prepared,’ Lagganvor said. ‘Now, may we discuss the division of chores? I think I would be most eﬀective, and speedy, if I were permitted to operate independently. Obviously I can’t help with the procurement of a new set of bones, but the other items on our shopping list . . .’
‘The sisters can take care of the shivery stuﬀ,’ Prozor said. ‘You can stick tight by me, Lag, seeing as you know the terrain.’ ‘I have been here once, dear Proz; that hardly makes me qual-
iﬁed to write a tourist brochure.’
They made a last-minute inspection of each other’s suits. By then the platform was just coming back round to the apex. Fura opened the lock and they tramped down the access ramp with their luggage, onto the platform’s gridded metal surface. At the edge they waited for the platform to come into line with the ﬁxed surface of the reception chamber, and then stepped briskly from one to the other. It was a nimble operation, but no crew who had just come in from a string of bauble expeditions would be fazed by such a test. From there it was a short walk into a reception lock, after which it was possible to remove their helmets.
They found themselves at the back of a shuﬄing line of crews being questioned by immigration clerks and revenue men. The room was full of low murmuring, bored questioning, the occasional stamp of a document. Once or twice a clerk stuﬀed some papers into a pneumatic tube that took them further up the administrative hierarchy.
The line moved sluggishly. Fura and the others put down their luggage and nudged it along with their boots as another crew joined the line behind them, and then another.
It was brazen, just being here. They had avoided any contact with civilisation for months. Nor was Mulgracen some outlaw world, where a blind eye might be turned. It was prosperous, long-established, well-connected: unusually so, given its orbit within the Frost Margins. It did a lot of trade, and that was the crux of Fura’s gamble: she had been relieved, not disheartened, when she saw how many other ships were coming and going, and it pleased her now to be at the back of a grumbling, slow- moving queue.
From behind them a gruﬀ voice raised a complaint as one of the clerks abandoned their desk and left a ‘closed’ sign, forcing two lines to converge into one.
‘You did well,’ Fura whispered to Adrana.
Adrana dipped her nose, looking at Fura over the bridge of her spectacles. ‘High praise.’
‘For once I wasn’t the one making the choices. It’s good for you to show a little . . . initiative . . . now and then.’
‘Don’t think too highly of me. All I did was pick a world we could reach that wasn’t too far in and had a halfway decent selection of bone shops.’ She glanced back at the crew behind them, who were grumbling about the closed desk. ‘Any other beneﬁts are . . . incidental.’
‘Incidental or otherwise, they’ll serve us nicely.’ Fura dropped her voice. ‘I’d say “well done, sister”, but perhaps it’s about time we slipped into character.’
‘Whatever you say, Captain.’
The line moved in ﬁts and starts, and after about thirty minutes it was their turn to be questioned. Fura put their papers onto the table and stood with a hand on her hip, aﬀecting a look of mild but compliant impatience. She was still wearing her vacuum suit, and for once she had a full sleeve and glove over her artiﬁcial hand, instead of the pressure-tight cuﬀ she normally wore.
‘Captain . . . Tessily . . . Marance,’ said the clerk, a heavy-jowled man with a persistent low cough. ‘Captain Tessily Marance. Tessily Marance.’
‘Don’t wear it out,’ Fura said.
He held one of her papers, squinting as he compared the photograph with her face.
‘In from the Empty, are you?’ ‘No law against it.’
He licked his ﬁngertips, turning pages quickly. ‘Where was your ship registered?’
‘Indragol.’ ‘Describe it.’
‘It’s about four hundred spans long, with rooms inside and lots of sails and rigging.’
He looked at her with a stone-faced absence of humour. ‘The world, not the ship.’
‘Why, are you planning a holiday? All right, Indragol. It’s a cesspit down in the Twenty-Eighth. Tubeworld. Besides the Grey Lady, the only other good thing to come out of it was my father . . .’
‘Darjan. Darjan Marance.’
He shifted his gaze onto Adrana. ‘Who is she?’ ‘She can speak for herself,’ Fura said.
Adrana looked down her nose at him. ‘Tragen Imbery.’ ‘Occupation?’
‘Sympathetic.’ Adrana leaned in and added, in a near-whisper: ‘That’s a Bone Reader, you know.’
He held up a diﬀerent page. ‘Take oﬀ your spectacles.’ Adrana complied, staring at him with a ﬁerce, level gaze. He continued holding up the page, frowning slightly, and beckoned one of his colleagues over. The ﬁrst clerk handed the papers to the second, murmuring something in regard to Adrana. The second clerk sat down and began going through their papers with a heightened attentiveness, taking out a pocket magniﬁer and consulting a reference document, presumably looking for tiny ﬂaws in their forged credentials. Meanwhile, the ﬁrst clerk began asking Prozor and Lagganvor questions.
Oﬀ to one side of the desk, a small ﬂickerbox was showing successive grainy images of the faces of various felons and persons of interest.
Fura started to sweat. She had thought that being combative and surly might help her case, because it was the last thing anyone would expect if the actual Ness sisters were trying to sneak their way through immigration. Now she was starting to wonder if she had taken the wrong tack.
The second clerk leaned into the ﬁrst and cupped a hand to his mouth. The ﬁrst clerk scratched at a roll of jowl and reached for an empty pneumatic tube canister. He was beginning to curl some of Fura’s papers up, preparing to stuﬀ them into the tube. ‘Did you say Darjan Marance?’ asked the gruﬀ voice from
Fura turned around with an imperious lack of haste. ‘What if I did, cove?’
‘Darjan Marance took two hundred leagues of triple-ﬁlament yardage from us, down in Graubund. An’ he never came back with payment.’ The speaker – a tall, scar-cheeked, rough-voiced woman with a stiﬀ brush of green hair – shook her head in mocking disbelief. ‘I never believed this day would come. Been keeping eyes and ears out for Marance’s crew these last ten years in case we crossed paths, but I never thought you’d be so stupid as to use your own name, right in front of me.’ She pushed forward, interposing herself between Prozor and Lagganvor, and pointed at the clerks. ‘She’s a thief. I don’t care if it was her father stole that yardage, she inherits the crime – she and her whole scummy crew.’ She waggled her ﬁnger. ‘You don’t go letting ’em into Mulgracen. They’ll be out and away before I see them again. You get ’em locked up now, and I’ll ﬁll out any papers you need me to, laying out what she owes us.’
Lagganvor raised his hands, smiling hard. ‘My dear . . . Captain? Perhaps we might come to an . . . amicable settlement? If there has been some . . . entirely innocent confusion? I’m not reliably acquainted with the current rate for triple-ﬁlament yardage, but I should think six hundred bars might be not unfair recompense, for any grievous . . . misunderstanding?’
The green-haired woman gave a derisive snort. ‘Six hundred bars, cove? Is that some sort of joke? Have you any idea what six hundred bars’ll get you, nowadays?’
Lagganvor grinned desperately. ‘Presumably . . . not quite
enough to settle this matter?’
‘Arrest them, all of them,’ the green-haired captain said. ‘I’ll do whatever it takes. It’s not about the money, it’s the principle. I don’t mind if I have to take two hours or six setting down our side of the story . . .’
Behind her, her crew began to groan. Clearly they had other plans for the day.
The ﬁrst clerk looked from the green-haired captain to Adrana, then back to Fura. He leaned over and conﬁded something to his colleague. The second clerk shook his head ruefully, pinched at the corners of his eyes, then pushed himself up from the desk. The jowly clerk still had the semi-bundled papers, nearly ready to go into the canister. He hesitated for a second, then ﬂattened them out again, before reaching for his stamping tool and punching his way through each of their sets of personal documents. ‘You’re lucky, Captain Marance,’ he said, eyeing Fura. ‘Normally we take a very dim view of such allegations.’
Fura looked at the clock above the clerk’s position. It was only twenty minutes oﬀ noon, and more than likely that was the end of the clerk’s shift. Perhaps his colleague’s, as well. The last thing either of them wanted was to activate a process that involved additional checks, more paperwork, superiors, interview rooms and so on, all on the doubtful say-so of a crew whose past might be equally blemished.
‘She’s got the wrong Marance,’ Fura said, but with a touch more politeness than before. ‘I’m . . . grateful not to be delayed, all the same.’
‘Spend your quoins while you can,’ the clerk said, handing back their papers.
‘That was a good try, earlier on,’ Adrana said to Lagganvor, as they ascended to street level. They were alone in a cramped elevator car, squeezed in with their luggage around their legs, while Fura and Prozor took the next car along.
‘A good try?’
‘About it making sense to go oﬀ on your own.’
Lagganvor’s living eye gleamed with vain amusement. The other – the duller, glassier eye – stared through her with a supercilious indiﬀerence.
‘I was only thinking of making the best use of our time.’
She placed a hand on his shoulder, almost aﬀectionately, and allowed her ﬁngers to wander to his collar. They were not wearing vacuum suits now. They had taken them oﬀ, leaving them at an oﬃce on the same level as the immigration department, and changed into the ordinary clothes they had brought for their time in Mulgracen. Adrana’s knuckles brushed against the stubbled side of his cheek and Lagganvor smiled, but not without a certain wariness. Then she pushed her hand behind his neck, seized a thick clump of his shoulder-length hair, and twisted it hard.
‘Bringing you here was a risk,’ she said, as Lagganvor squirmed and grimaced. ‘But less of a risk than leaving you on the ship, where you could easily signal your masters.’
‘Signalling my masters,’ he said through gritted teeth, ‘is a thing I do for your beneﬁt, not my own. While they know I am alive and monitoring you, they are content and not attempting a long-range kill.’
‘That logic works while we’re out in space,’ Adrana said, still clutching his hair, and still twisting it. ‘But now we’re on a world, I thought you might start having other ideas. Like calling in the reinforcements to take us alive, while we’re preoccupied with shopping.’
‘I wouldn’t dream of it.’
‘Be sure you don’t. We’ll be sticking together like glue, Lag. Just you and me. And if you so much as raise an eyebrow in the wrong direction, never mind anything to do with that eye of yours, I’ll tell Fura exactly what you are.’
‘That . . . might not go down very well for either of us.’ ‘She’ll understand why I had to shelter you.’
‘I’m glad you have such faith in your sister’s continued capacity for reasonableness,’ Lagganvor said, reaching up to dislodge her hand. ‘Me, I might need a little more persuading.’ He sighed and looked her hard in the eyes. ‘You can trust me not to go against my word. I signalled them twenty days ago, feeding them an erroneous position and heading; they won’t be expecting another update until we’re long clear of Mulgracen. They have no knowledge of your whereabouts here, nor your plans beyond it.’ He caught his reﬂection in the elevator’s side and began to fuss with his fringe. ‘Incidentally . . . what are those plans?’
‘I think it would be for the best,’ Adrana said, ‘if those plans stayed between Fura and I. Just for now. Oh, and Brysca?’
He blinked, discomﬁted by the use of his real name. ‘Yes?’
‘You’re quite right; I wouldn’t take a chance with Fura. It’d be far less trouble to kill you myself.’
They met at the top of the elevator shafts, at the five-fold inter- section of Virmiry Square, which was itself near the centre of Strenzager City, one of the larger conurbations at this level of Mulgracen. Fura craned her neck back, taking her ﬁrst proper breath since she left Revenger. A city’s ﬂavours ﬁlled her lungs. Brake dust, pavement dirt, animal grease, monkey sweat, hot oil, electric fumes, kitchen smells, sewerage stink, the vinegar- tang of a drunk stumbling out of a nearby bar, the steam of an all-night laundry. It was a sort of poison, taken in extremis, but after months in space breathing nothing that had not been reprocessed through the vegetable membranes of lightvine, nothing that did not taste subtly, pervasively green and slightly stale, it was as ﬁne and thrilling to her senses as a perfumery or chocolatier. She had missed the smell of cities. She had missed the smell of worlds, of life.
She had better not start getting used to it.
‘One drink,’ she declared, ‘then we split up. Adrana and I will cover diﬀerent bone shops, since it’s far too risky to be seen together while being open about our talents. We’ll stay in touch by squawk and meet when we’ve got something to discuss. But I do need a drink, and—’
‘Something’s happening,’ Adrana said, nodding beyond the nearby bar.
A group of people were gathering at the corner of one of the intersections where the ﬁve main boulevards met Virmiry Square. They were pressing together, almost like a throng of theatre-goers waiting for the doors to open. Above them rose a grand ediﬁce with complicated ornamental stonework and numerous ﬂoors. It might have been a huge department store, or perhaps the head oﬃces of an insurance ﬁrm. At the back of the gathering a small child was hopping up and down to get a better look at whatever was going on.
Adrana stepped between trams and joined the rear of the gathering, Fura, Lagganvor and Prozor close behind. Adrana was craning to look up at something. There was a slow-rising scream, like some kind of siren starting up.
Fura looked up as well, tipping back the brim of her hat. She could see all the way up past the tops of the buildings, beyond the neon signs and the scissoring search-lights, out through the fine-fretted glass of the pressure dome over this part of the city, up and up through a league of vacuum, criss-crossed by the fast-moving motes of ships, all the way to the next interior layer of Mulgracen, where a pattern of inverted cities – whose buildings hung like pendants – lay strung across that broken surface like an imaginary constellation, made up of smeared and twinkling stars of every hue.
The scream – which was coming from a throat, not a ma- chine – had its origin only twenty or so stories up. There was an open window, a tall sash-window that faced out onto a preposterously narrow balcony, and a tiny pale form was trembling as it gripped the lower pane and stared down to the pavement and the gathering crowd, of which the Ness sisters were now on the periphery, clotting around whatever it was that had last come through that window.
A hand settled on Fura’s shoulder. Something cold and sharp touched the skin of her neck.
‘One good turn could be said to deserve another. Wouldn’t you agree, Captain Marance?’
Fura turned around slowly with the cold point still pressing against her skin.
Adrana, Prozor and Lagganvor were standing back with expressions of abashed helplessness. They had been caught off- guard. Lagganvor was the only one of them who had a weapon, but to reveal it – even without the actual use of violence – would have drawn exactly the sort of attention they were trying to avoid.
‘You never knew my father,’ Fura said.
The woman – the green-haired captain – gave a half laugh. ‘I’m not sure you did, either.’ She was out of her suit now, her hands ungloved. She scraped a black nail down one of her own scarred cheeks, leathery and wrinkled as an old book’s spine, cocking her head thoughtfully, but with some small amusement at Fura’s expense. ‘Was any part of that true?’
Fura thought for a second. ‘In fairness, Indragol is a cess-pit.’ ‘On that, at least, we can agree.’
Fura nodded back to the crowd, which had swollen by a third since their arrival. The people were so engrossed that a tense stand-oﬀ between two newly-arrived crews went totally unnoticed. Up above, the screaming person was still screaming. It seemed quite impossible that a single pair of lungs could pro- duce such a continuous, harrowing exclamation.
‘Do you know what that’s all about?’
‘A squelcher,’ the green-haired captain said. ‘It’s the new thing
– an employment initiative. All the rage across the Congregation. Or have you not been paying attention to the news?’
‘As I said, in from the Emptyside.’
The point moved away a little. ‘Then I’ll bring you up to date, a little. About six months ago, every quoin, everywhere in the Congregation – in every pocket, every purse, every safe and vault, every bank, every investment house, every chamber of commerce – every single quoin underwent a randomised re-setting of its intrinsic value.’
‘I heard something along those lines.’
‘Would’ve been hard not to. It’s the single biggest ﬁnancial upset to hit the Congregation since the start of the present Occupation. Makes every other slump or crash seem like a pleasant dream. The banks are calling it the Readjustment. Makes it seem distant, abstract – not something that aﬀects real people, real lives.’ The woman’s tone became wistful. ‘But then, I suppose they had to call it something.’
‘I suppose they did.’
‘The thing is – the curious thing . . .’ The woman shook her head. ‘Well, it’s silly. But there’s a rumour doing the rounds that two sisters had something to do with it.’
‘Two prim-and-proper little madams from Mazarile who ran away, got a ship – a very fast, dark ship – and poked their noses into something they oughtn’t have. Something that made this happen.’
‘I wouldn’t know about that,’ Fura said.
‘No,’ the woman said, appraising her. ‘I don’t suppose you would.’
There was a silence. Fura reached up and very gently deﬂected the tip of the blade.
‘If you knew about these sisters, would you turn ’em in?’ ‘That’d depend. There’s many that would. That Readjustment
has hit people hard, and not just those who could stand to lose a little money. It might be months since it happened, but the banks are still going through their accounts, telling their clients what they now have in their savings. It’d be bad enough if it was just a case of the quoins changing value; then it would just be a simple accounting exercise. But the truth is, no one’s sure what a single bar means now. Is a ten-bar quoin worth more now than a ten-bar quoin six months ago? Or less?’ She nodded out over the heads of the gathering. ‘You can be sure that fellow got some unwanted news.’
‘People lose fortunes all the time,’ Fura said.
‘Well, that’s true. Harsh, but undeniably true. And the fact is – even though the banks have put up a small fortune for the Ness sisters – not everyone thinks too fondly of those institutions to begin with. You know how it is when you desperately need a loan to keep your ship operating, and the institutions don’t oblige.’
Fura nodded tentatively. ‘I can’t say my family was treated too well by ’em.’
‘May I . . . intercede?’ Lagganvor asked gently. Very slowly he opened his coat, and with equal caution he dipped into an inner pocket and drew out a plump purse, jangling with quoins.
‘What’re you proposing, cove?’
‘A gesture for your kindness in digging us out of that hole at the immigration desk.’
‘Someone had to. Your captain’s mouth certainly wasn’t doing you any favours.’
Lagganvor bounced the purse on his palm, then oﬀered it to the other captain. ‘That ﬁgure I mentioned earlier, relating to the non-payment of the yardage? There’s about the same in here, maybe a little more. Does that suﬃce, as a token of our gratitude?’
She snatched the purse from him, stuﬃng it into a pocket of her own without once glancing at the contents.
‘Let’s say it does.’
‘Then we’re square,’ Fura said, dry-mouthed.
The woman’s blade retracted with a snap. It had vanished back into a tiny bird-like brooch, far smaller than the blade it contained, which she pinned back onto her collar.
‘We’re square. But two things before we part. The ﬁrst is that not every crew feels as ambivalent about that reward as we do, so the Ness sisters would do well to watch their backs. The second thing . . . there’s a message you might pass on to them, if your paths ever cross.’
Fura nodded earnestly. ‘And . . . what would that message be?’ ‘Tell them they’d better be damn sure they know what they’re
The white-whiskered man in the bone shop looked up from his bench, peering at Adrana over a pair of complicated spectacles set with many interchangeable lenses. She was taking her time, moving around his shelves, picking up and examining his wares. It was tourist tat for the most part: nothing that was of any practical use to a genuine Bone Reader. There were fist-sized skulls made out of bits of old rat, cat and dog, sutured together until they looked passably alien, and then stuﬀed with a few glinting threads of something that might, in a cooperative light, just about fool someone into thinking it was active twinkly. There were fragments of larger skulls that had, possibly, been alien at some point, but were now useless except as ballast.
‘I see you have an eye for the good pieces, my dear,’ the man said, as Adrana examined one of the larger faked-up skulls.
‘I have an eye for a con,’ Adrana answered levelly, before placing the skull back on its shelf. ‘To your credit, Mr . . .’ She picked up one of the neat little tags attached to one of the skulls, moving her lips as she read it: Darkly’s Bone Emporium, 62 Boskle Lane, Virmiry West, Strenzager City, Pellis Level, Mulgracen. ‘Mr Darkly . . . that is you, Mr Darkly? To your credit – your very minor credit – there’s nothing here’s actually labelled as being authentic; you are merely content to let the unwary make the assumption for themselves. Do you get many takers?’
Mr Darkly set down his tools. There was a skull on the bench before him, positioned on a padded cradle, and it was three times as large as any of the counterfeit pieces. If it was fake, it could only have come from a camel or a carthorse. If it was real – real and alien and ancient – then it was at the smaller end of the typical range of specimens. But she had seen smaller, in other emporia.
‘There’s no harm in servicing a demand for souvenirs. If tourists want a little skull to take back Sunwards with them, something to put over a ﬁreplace and remind them of a nice holiday in Mulgracen, why should I deny them that harmless little pleasure?’
‘It’s tricked-up junk,’ Adrana said, studying him through her own glasses. ‘Worthless scraps. I wonder where you get the bones from. Do you have a little deal going with the local veterinarian? Do you set traps in the back alleys, then boil the animals down?’
Darkly pulled his complicated spectacles oﬀ his large, red-veined nose and set them down on a half-folded newspaper next to the skull. He brushed crumbs from his bib. ‘Ask yourself a diﬀerent question: the tourists will have their souvenirs, and they’ll pay for them. Deep pockets, even now – anyone who can aﬀord to get here isn’t down to their last quoin. Would you rather they were sold a harmless replica, a perfectly nice and harmless trinket, or that a real, functioning skull went out of circulation, ending up locked away where no crew could ever beneﬁt from it?’
Adrana sniﬀed, disliking his logic even as she was persuaded by it.
‘I suppose that would depend on whether you actually have any real skulls to oﬀer me.’
‘I might,’ Darkly said, with a faintly salacious half-smile. He was a scrawny, liver-spotted man of advanced age, with two eruptions of white hair either side of a perfectly bald pate, the two ﬂanking tufts lovingly combed into up-sweeping swan’s wings, their eﬀect carefully augmented by nimbus-like growths of hair sprouting from his ears. ‘The question is, my dear, would you recognise them if I did? You don’t have the look of a sympathetic—’
‘There’s a look to us?’ Adrana asked with sharp surprise.
‘I would’ve said you’re past the age . . . or near the limit.’ He stopped himself, shaking his head once. ‘But you know your bones, it seems. There are . . . other wares in the back room. Some that I think may be a bit more attractive to you.’
‘Excellent, Mr Darkly. I should like to test one or two samples.’
A tram rumbled past the shop, and the smaller bones rattled on their glass shelves.
‘You are welcome to test any of our wares. I should warn you that we have a swallower near us, as well as all the disturbances of the city, so you mustn’t judge the skulls too harshly. They’ll all work much more reliably in open space. But . . . I imagine you knew that.’
Adrana reached into her jacket and took out a small pouch. ‘I brought my own neural crown. I trust that won’t be a problem? It eliminates a number of variables.’
‘You do what you must, my dear.’
Darkly was moving to the door to ﬂip the ‘open’ sign while he was engaged with Adrana in the back room when another customer came in, the bell over the door tinkling. It was a black- haired man, tall, broad-shouldered, and dressed very ﬁnely. He looked around the shelves and cabinets, hands in his pockets, swivelling on his heels, grinning like a boy who had found the secret door to a sweet shop.
‘Are these all real?’
Darkly nodded gravely. ‘They are indeed real bones, sir.’
The man ﬂicked back his dark fringe. He had slightly mis-matched eyes: one livelier and gleaming more than the other. ‘And these skulls . . . they’re old?’
‘The atoms in them, sir, are as old as the stars.’ ‘And . . . aliens used these?’
‘These bones have seen a great deal of employment, sir.’ Darkly turned the sign around and shut the door from inside, leaving the key in the lock. ‘May I . . . direct your attention to that shelf to your left? The topmost selection? Some of our ﬁner wares. They are not for everyone, but I see you are a man of taste and discernment . . . please, take your time, while I attend to another customer. We shan’t be too long.’
Adrana left Lagganvor front of shop while she went through a beaded curtain, along an unpromising corridor and into the rear of the premises. Although she kept her wits about her there was nothing too sinister about this arrangement. Most bone shops did their business in squalid, windowless back rooms, with customers who rightly disdained the trinkets in the window display. This was where the serious, proﬁtable stuﬀ was kept, and if her manner had been a little brusque, it had earned her the right to be treated with respect.
‘This way, please,’ Darkly said, opening a heavy metal door that led into a low-ceilinged room with many dusty cabinets, teetering piles of cardboard boxes and great wads of packing paper on the ﬂoor. He closed the door behind her, and all remaining sounds of the city were abruptly silenced. The room was acoustically sealed, and probably electrically isolated as well: not up to the level of insulation around a ship’s bone room, but as good as one could reasonably hope for on a world.
It was half testing chamber, half storeroom. A partly ﬁnished meal sat mouldering on a tray. A bucket of something unspeakable stood in one corner. In the middle of the space was an inclined chair with a padded head support, and next to it was a trolley stacked high with metal boxes. The boxes were electrical devices, connected together by cables and with glowing dials and screens on them. The ensemble gave oﬀ a faint, anticipatory hum. Somewhere else in the room some old plumbing gurgled to itself.
‘We don’t need to run an aptitude test on you, do we?’
‘You can if you wish,’ Adrana said, settling herself into the chair. ‘Or we could get on and test some bones.’ She took her neural crown out of its pouch and began to unfold the delicate, skeletal device.
Darkly slurped down whatever was left in a mug, then wheeled over another trolley. Instead of metal boxes, this one had a ﬂat platform on top. He took down one of the larger cardboard boxes, only just managing it on his own, and set it on the trolley. He folded back the box’s ﬂaps, partially exposing a medium-sized skull with a very strong mottled brown colouration. It had been extensively repaired, with zip-like suture marks and many metal staples driven into the weaker parts. One eye-socket was intact, the other partially collapsed, and the front part of the upper mandible was missing completely. Input sockets in various stages of corrosion knobbed the skull like metal warts. A damp, soil-like odour drifted out of the box. It was an ugly specimen, to be sure: not the sort of thing to tempt a magpie-eyed tourist into opening their purse. But almost certainly real, Adrana thought, unless she had greatly underestimated her own gullibility. Whether it would oblige, whether it would mesh with her talent, was a diﬀerent question. ‘Would you suggest an input point?’ she asked, drawing out the contact lline from her neural crown, now settled down over her freshly-trimmed hair.
‘Try that one there, on the cranial mid-line. I’ll dim the room and . . . give you some privacy. Try a few inputs. You’ll know before long if there’s anything to be had. Are you quite comfortable?’
Adrana wriggled in the chair. ‘Well enough.’
‘Good. I shan’t rush you – that other customer may have need of my attention – but there are two or three more I think you might try, if you don’t take to the ﬁrst.’
‘I’ll try as many as I’m able before making a decision,’ Adrana said, not adding that any really promising skulls would need to be tested by Fura as well, before any money changed hands: there was no point acquiring a skull that only suited one of them. She watched as Darkly turned oﬀ the main lights, leaving only dim red secondary illumination as he shut her into the testing room. She did not hear a lock being turned, but the heavy metal door was the only way in or out, so there was no chance of her stealing a skull, nor of making her escape if she damaged the wares. She had no intention of doing either thing: her identity might be subject to concealment, but she was here on honest business, and she believed she could aﬀord any skull on sale.
This one was viable, at least. The twinkly glimmered out of its sockets, like a play of faint, reﬂected carnival lights. That might be faked, but these emporia tended to draw a sharp line between the dubious goods front of house, and the real items in the back. Fleecing a few tourists was all right, but making enemies of crews was very bad for the long-term viability of a business.
She collected herself, took a few deep breaths, decided that her mind was as clear as it was going to get, and plugged in on the mid-line socket.
There was nothing.
It was as comprehensively, resoundingly dead as an unplugged telephone. She tried the next socket along and there was something, just possibly, at the absolute limit of her de- tection faculty. Though it might have been a carrier signal, or some stray noise coming through the circuits. She unplugged and tried again, in a site bored into the thin bone behind the damaged eyehole. There it was, a shade stronger than before. A faint, faint hint of a conversation going on, some interchange between two distant ships, somewhere out in the vast spaces of the Congregation and the Empty that surrounded it, but it was as if she had her ear pressed to a thick dividing wall between two houses, able to sense the presence of dialogue without once detecting a coherent word or phrase. It could have been in any language around the Old Sun. It might, ultimately, have been all in her imagination. But she was not too discouraged: if a skull worked at all this close to a swallower, it stood a good chance of working much better in the bone room of a ship. Adrana unplugged. There were still plenty of sockets she had yet to try, but she had an intuition about these things and felt it was worth testing a couple more skulls before she spent too much time on one candidate. She began to leave the chair; she could open a few boxes herself until the proprietor returned. He had not exactly forbidden it.
Darkly returned. Lagganvor was with him. ‘Turn on the lights,’ Lagganvor said.
Darkly did as he was instructed. He had little choice in that particular matter: Lagganvor was pinning his arm back ﬁrmly, while using his other hand to hold a small, sharp tool against the man’s neck.
‘Oh, must we,’ Adrana said, sighing as she took oﬀ the neural crown. It had been a calculation, having Lagganvor remain front of shop while she went back, but on this evidence she had been right to chance it. ‘He seemed almost helpful.’
‘I’m sure he was,’ Lagganvor said, grunting as he restrained the man. ‘So helpful that as soon as he was front of shop he was onto his telephone. There was a newspaper on his bench, next to that skull he was digging into. Turned to a snappy if sensationalist little column-ﬁller about the ongoing search for the Ness sisters, and with two admittedly not very clear images of said sisters.’
Adrana extricated herself from the chair and dipped her neural crown back into its padded pouch. ‘Did he make his telephone call, Lag?’
‘That’s lucky for us. I should have cut straight to the chase, I suppose, but it seemed rude not to show a little interest in his wares.’
‘Very rude,’ Lagganvor agreed. ‘Would you like to squawk our friends?’
‘Not just yet: I think we’ve got the matter agreeably in hand, for now. Put Mr Darkly in the chair, if you wouldn’t mind. There must be some string or rope in here somewhere.’
‘String will suﬃce,’ Lagganvor said, shoving Darkly into the chair she had just vacated.
‘Don’t hurt me,’ the whiskered man pleaded.
‘I’m not going to,’ Adrana said. ‘At least, not while you cooperate, which you can start doing right away.’
‘Take a skull. Take any skull. Take two skulls.’
‘I’ll be honest, Mr Darkly: this was never really about the bones. My sister’s out shopping, and she can take care of that bit of procurement well enough on her own.’
His jaw wobbled. ‘I was hoping . . . I was hoping you’d deny it.
I only thought you might be one of the sisters.’
‘And now that I’ve admitted it, now you’ve seen my face . . . you know there’s no hope for you?’ She shook her head at him, pityingly. ‘I don’t know what they printed about us in that rag, but I doubt even a tenth of it’s true. You help me, and no harm’ll come to you.’
‘She means it,’ Lagganvor added, rummaging through boxes while Darkly stayed in the chair.
Adrana took oﬀ her glasses, polishing them against her sleeve. ‘I have a minor confession . . . I didn’t just stumble into Darkly’s Bone Emporium, 62 Boskle Lane. I was after a well-connected man that might have useful connections, and my . . . information . . . suggested you were a very, very promising candidate. About three years ago – closer to four now, I suppose – Bosa Sennen sent a man to speak to you.’
Darkly swallowed hard. ‘Did she?’
‘Oh, don’t pretend you’ve forgotten. His name was . . . well, it’s complicated and confusing enough for me, so I won’t trouble you with that. But you’d remember him well enough. A very persuasive fellow, and if you saw him next to my companion here, in a dark alley, you might mistake one for the other.’
Darkly looked stricken and perplexed.
‘The point,’ Adrana continued cheerfully, ‘is that this man was sent to ask you about another individual, a gentleman called the Clacker. Now it seems – and I admit I can’t be too sure about this – but it seems Bosa’s man never quite got as far as meeting the Clacker; that there was some snag or interruption that prevented him from making the desired rendezvous. And what I’d like from you – no, strike that – what I’m going to get from you, is an introduction to this gentleman.’
‘I’ve never met the Clacker.’
Lagganvor was busy securing Darkly to the chair with some string he’d found. He glanced up from his work. ‘But you know of him?’
‘No . . . not until she mentioned the name.’
‘Mm.’ Lagganvor made a regretful grimace. ‘That’s not what our research tells us, Mr Darkly. The Clacker is one of your favoured bone brokers. An intermediary between you and the other aliens . . . a black-market go-between. And you must have his telephone number.’
‘You’ve got the wrong man. I don’t know this . . . Clacker. I don’t deal with aliens. Clackers, Crawlies . . . they’ve got their business, I’ve got mine.’
‘It’s come to this, hasn’t it?’ Lagganvor said. ‘I fear so,’ Adrana said.
Lagganvor popped out his eye and bounced it oﬀ his palm in slowly increasing parabolas, smiling like a street huckster until the eye’s apex took it level with Darkly’s face and it stopped, suspended with an iron stillness. Lagganvor stood back and the eye began to pulse with a soft pink glow. The glow intensiﬁed, the pulse quickening, the orb drifting nearer to Darkly, concentrating its cycling light on his own two eyes. Darkly made a small clicking sound in the back of his throat. Lagganvor’s eye clearly had some powerful paralysing inﬂuence on him: he could not blink, avert his vision, or twist his face away.
The clicking continued and a tremble spread down from his neck, his limbs quivering against their restraints. The chair creaked on its pedestal.
‘Enough,’ Adrana whispered.
‘Oh, just when we were starting to have fun.’ ‘Enough!’
Lagganvor lifted a ﬁnger and the eye backed oﬀ, the light dimming very slightly.
‘That can get worse, Mr Darkly,’ Lagganvor said. ‘Very much worse.’
Darkly was drooling. Adrana dabbed it away with the edge of his collar.
‘Give us the Clacker’s number, or better still his address. Once we’ve veriﬁed that the information’s accurate, we’ll return to set you free. Better still, persuade him to come here directly. That will end our involvement the soonest.’
‘I don’t . . .’ Darkly cleared his throat with a hacking wet cough, and Adrana dabbed at his mouth again. ‘I don’t need to persuade him to come to me.’
‘I think for your sake you do,’ Lagganvor said, ﬂicking a curtain of hair down over his enucleated eye-socket.
‘You misunderstand me,’ Darkly answered. ‘There’s no need to call or summon the Clacker. He’s already here.’