Empress of the Sun by Ian McDonald – Extract

Empress of the Sun

1

A dot of brilliant light. In an instant the dot exploded into a disc. The disc of light turned to a circle of blackness: a night sky. Out of the perfect circle of night sky came the airship, slow, huge, magnificent. Impeller engines hummed. The Heisenberg Gate flickered and closed behind it.

‘Voom,’ Everett Singh whispered, blinking in the daylight of a new Earth. He lifted his finger from the Infundibulum’s touchscreen. Another Heisenberg Jump, another universe.

The bridge of the airship Everness shrieked with alarms. Yellow lights flashed. Horns blared. Balls rang, klaxons shrieked. Impact warning, impact warning, thundered a mechanical voice. Everett’s vision cleared at the same instant as that of the rest of the crew. He saw . . .

‘Atlanta, Dundee and sweet Saint Pio,’ whispered Miles O’Rahilly Lafayette Sharkey, the airship’s weighmaster. The Bible, particularly the Old Testament, was his usual source of quotes. He had a verse for every occasion. When he called on the saints of his old Confederation home, it was serious.

. . . trees. Trees before them. Trees beneath them. Trees in their faces. Trees reaching their deadly, killing branches towards them. Trees everywhere. And Everness powering nose down into them.

‘This is . . . This shouldn’t be happening,’ Everett said, paralysed with shock at his station on the bridge. ‘The jump . . . I calculated . . .’

‘Sen!’ Captain Anastasia Sixsmyth bellowed. One moment she had been at the great window, striking her customary pose, in her riding breeches and boots, her blouse with the collar turned up, her hands clasped behind her back, above her the soft velvet stars of Earth 1. The next, staring airshipwreck full in the face. ‘Take us up!’

‘I’s on it,’ her adopted daughter shouted. Sen Sixsmyth was as slight as a whippet, pale as a blizzard, but she was pilot of the airship Everness and she threw every gram of her small weight on the thrust levers. Everett felt Everness shudder as the impeller pods swivelled into vertical lift. But airships are big and long and lumbering and it takes time, a lot of time, too much time, to make them change their courses. ‘Come on, my dilly dorcas . . . come on, my lover . . .’

Impact warning, impact warning, the alarm shouted. It had a Hackney Airish accent.

‘Belay that racket!’ Captain Anastasia thundered. Sharkey killed the alarms, but the warning lights still filled the bridge with flashing yellow madness.

We’re not going to make it, Everett thought. We’re not going to make it. Strange how he felt so calm about it. When it’s inevitable, you stop fighting and accept it.

‘Ma’am . . . Ma . . . I can’t get her head up,’ Sen shouted. Captain Anastasia turned to Everett Singh. The great window was green, red. A universe of red-green.

‘Mr Singh, Heisenberg Jump.’

Everett tore his eyes from the hypnotic, killing green outside the window to the jump-control display on Dr Quantum, his iPad. The figures made no sense. No sense. He was frozen. IQ the size of a planet, as his dad had once said, and he didn’t know what to do. Scared and unable to do anything about it.

‘I . . . I . . . need to calculate—’

‘No time, Mr Singh.’

‘A random jump could take us anywhere!’

‘Get us out of here!’

Sharkey glanced up at the monitors.

‘Captain, we’re grounding.’

The bridge shook as if shaken by the hand of a god. Everett clung to the jump-station. Captain Anastasia reeled hard into a bulkhead. She went down, winded. Sen clung to the steering yoke like a drowning rat to driftwood. Everness screamed, her nanocarbon skeleton twisted to its limits.

Shipskin tore with ripping shrieks. Everett heard spars snap one by one, like bones. Tree branches shattered in small explosions. The hull shuddered to a crashing boom.

‘We’ve lost an engine,’ Sharkey shouted, hanging on to his monitor screens. He sounded as if he had lost his own arm.

Everness drove into the thousand branches of the forest canopy. Green loomed in the great window. The glass exploded. Branches speared into the bridge. Captain Anastasia rolled away as a splintered shaft of wood stabbed towards her. Sen ducked under a branch ramming straight for her head. The bridge was filled with twigs and leaves.

‘I’m giving her reverse thrust!’ Sen yelled. Everett grabbed hold of the wooden rail of his jump-station as Everness shuddered right down to her spine. There was an enormous wrenching, grating groan. The impaling branches shifted a metre, no more. The vibration shook Everett to the fillings in his teeth.

‘I can’t move her!’ Sen shouted.

‘Leave her – you’ll burn out the impellers!’ Captain Anastasia cried.

‘If we have any left,’ Sharkey said.

Captain Anastasia relieved her daughter at the helm. ‘Mr Singh, take us back to Earth 1. On my word. Everyone else, stand by. This will either cure or kill.’

‘No!’ Sen yelled as she saw her mother’s hand raised above the flush-ballast button.

‘Come on, you high and shining ones,’ Captain Anastasia whispered. ‘Just once.’ She brought her hand down hard on the red button. Everness lurched as hundreds of tons of ballast water jetted from scupper valves. The airship strained. Her skeleton groaned like a living thing. Tree branches bent and snapped. A jolt upwards. Everett could hear the water thundering from the valves. It must look like a dozen waterfalls. Everness gave a massive creak and lurched upwards again. The branches tore free from the bridge in a shower of leaves. The airship was lifting. There was a crunching shriek of metal strained beyond its limits. Everness rolled to one side, then righted. All the power went dead. Screens, monitors, controls, lights, navigation, helm, communications. Dr Quantum flickered and went dark.

Captain Anastasia took her hand off the flush button. The water jets closed. The silence was total and eerie.

‘“And, behold, there came a great wind from the wilderness, and smote the four corners of the house . . . and I only am escaped alone to tell thee,”’ Sharkey quoted.

‘I’d prefer a report on our status, Mr Sharkey,’ Captain Anastasia said.

‘Status?’ a voice bellowed from the spiral staircase outside. ‘I’ll give you our status!’ Mchynlyth, ship’s engineer, burst on to the bridge. His brown face was flushed with emotion. ‘We’re buggered. You know those big munchety-crunchety noises? Well, those were our engines coming off. That’s why we’ve nae power. Circuit-breakers cut in. And I near got half a tree up my jaxy. I’m sitting there down there looking down at dead air in six different places. Our status, Captain? How about buggered, bolloxed and utterly banjaxed?’

Everness creaked, dropped two metres and came to a final rest. Brilliant rainbow birds clattered up from roosts. They weren’t birds, Everett realised. Those bright colours weren’t feathers.

‘Where are we?’ he said.

Captain Anastasia whirled. Her black face was dark with anger. Her eyes shone hard. She flared her nostrils, chewed her lip. Waiting for the anger to subside enough to be able to speak civilly.

‘I thought you knew, Mr Singh. I thought you knew everything.’

Everett’s face burned with shame. He felt tight, choked, sick in his stomach. Burning behind his eyes, in his head, in his ears. Shame, but anger too. This was not fair. It hadn’t been his fault. He had calculated perfectly. Perfectly. He didn’t make mistakes like that. He didn’t make mistakes. There was something wrong with this world. That was the only explanation. He wanted to shout back at her that he didn’t make mistakes, that she was as much to blame. He shook with anger. The words burned hot and hard in him. Captain Anastasia turned away to the rest of her crew.

‘Let’s get her lashed down and back to airship-shape and Hackney-fashion.’

2

The crew harnessed up in the cargo hold. Captain Anastasia tugged Everett’s harness, checked the fastenings and buckles. Everett couldn’t meet her eye. The damage was all around them. The skin had been pierced in half a dozen places, splintered branches like wooden spears. There was an entire crown of a tree in Mchynlyth’s engineering bay, a giant Christmas tree rammed up through the hull. Except the leaves were red, and smelled of something spicy, rich, that Everett knew but could not place. He could see ground through the hole. It was a very long way down. Everness’s nanocarbon skeleton was mighty, but even it could not take such an impact unharmed. Struts had shattered, spars cracked and flaked layers of nanocarbon; an entire cross-member had sheared through and creaked ominously above Everett’s head. The spine was intact. If the ship had broken her back, there would have been no option but to abandon her.

Everness had lost three of her six impellers in the impact. Engine struts had snapped, command lines and power cables ripped like severed nerves. Number-two impeller had torn free, pylon and all, leaving a hideous wound in the ship’s skin. Everness’s mad descent through the treetops had strewn the engine pods across several kilometres of deep, alien forest. Captain Anastasia was mounting a search-andrecovery mission to the forest floor, three hundred metres below. The trees were taller, and his feet felt less firmly glued to this world than on any Earth Everett had visited. Weaker gravity? How did that work? And then there was the sun. It wasn’t moving right . . .

‘Sen!’ Captain Anastasia bellowed.

Sen’s voice came from above. ‘Just getting some togs on.’ She rode the drop-line down from the spine walkway to the hold floor. That’s an entrance, Everett thought. Everness had jumped from Earth 1 Oxford winter to tropical warmth and humidity and everyone had dressed appropriately: Mchynlyth had peeled off the top of his orange coveralls and tied the arms round his waist. His singlet showed impressive abs and a lot of pink scars on his brown skin. Sharkey had ditched his coat for a sleeveless white shirt. He wore the twin shotguns in holsters across his back. Captain Anastasia was lean and muscular in capri tights and a tank top. Everett remained smothered in winter layers. They covered up his guilt. He had no right to show his body, expose his skin to the sun.

Sen’s warm-weather togs were as little as she could get away with. Grippy-sole ship boots, rugby socks, work gloves, gold short-shorts, a boob tube and a headband to keep her wild white afro under control.

‘Go and put some clothes on!’ Captain Anastasia bellowed. Sen sashayed past her adoptive mother with a defiant flick of her head. Mchynlyth was chewing his face from the inside out, trying to keep the laughter in. As Sen strapped into her harness she flashed the briefest smile at Everett. It was sun on his face. It said, I’s all right, you’s all right, omi, friends forever.

‘So, we get these engines or what?’ Then Sen stepped off the edge of the loading bay, hit the lift control on her wrist and vanished with a whoop into the deep red foliage below. ‘Sen, we don’t know . . .’ Captain Anastasia roared. ‘Bloody girl.’ She leaped after her daughter. Mchynlyth, then Sharkey, followed, winch reels screaming. Everett watched them drop down through the branches until he could no longer see them through the foliage. It would be all right. That was what Sen’s little private smile to him had said. Everett stepped off the platform and felt the sudden tug as the winches took the strain.

Red leaves and a chaos of branches beneath him. Above him, the hulk of Everness. Everett let out a small cry of pain and shame. When he was a kid he had seen an old film of a whale, hunted, killed, dragged on to a factory ship and peeled of its blubber. He had cried himself to sleep and cried himself awake again. His mum had talked him through it, told him it was an old, old film; no one did that kind of thing any more. The great whales were safe. Everness was like that whale: a beautiful thing hauled out of its natural element, speared and harpooned and spiked, tied down, its skin ripped open. Hunted, helpless. Hideously wounded.

Everett knocked painfully into a branch. Look where you’re going. He hadn’t, that was the problem. Every Heisenberg Jump was calculated guesswork. He made assumptions. But for some reason there was a forest where there shouldn’t have been. How? Why? He’d plotted a straight point-to-point jump, from one set of coordinates on Earth 1 to a set on the world where the Panopticon had recorded a jumpgun trace. Simple spherical geometry. Simple for him. The only way it could be different. Was. If. The . . . geometry of the world was different.

‘No,’ Everett whispered. Then, through the leaves beneath his feet, he spotted the crew clustered around a massive, strange cylindrical object wedged in a fork of a tree. Torn branches, splintered limbs: it took Everett a moment to identify what he was seeing – one of Everness’s impeller pods, come to rest a hundred metres above the ground.

Leaves brushed his face, and now he knew the musky, rich perfume. Hash. Resin. The forest smelled like the mother of all sixteen-year-olds’ parties.

‘Tharbyloo!’ came the voice from up among the branches. Moments later the forest rang to a splintering crack and a branch pierced the dapple of deep red foliage, aimed straight at Sharkey’s chest. At the last second he stepped to one side. The branch drove deep into the soft, fragrant forest leaf mould. Sharkey nonchalantly adjusted the trim of his hat.

Power tools shrieked, chainsaws screamed up in the canopy. Sawdust and woodchips fell on the anxious crew.

‘I got her!’

Once the ground base was set up, Sen had been sent up on a line with chainsaws, nanofilament cutting lines, prybars and lube-gun to free number-three impeller. Everett had questioned the wisdom but Mchynlyth had quickly put him in his place. Sen was small, agile and could get into tight places no adult could.

He wished she was down on the ground. The forest floor was sweltering and steamy but the atmosphere was frigid. Sharkey would not speak to him. Mchynlyth had let him know that it would be a long time – a very long time – before he forgave Everett for what he had done. Captain Anastasia gave off such an air of personal hurt that Everett could not bear even to look at her.

‘Lowering!’ Sen shouted, a voice among the leaves.

Mchynlyth hit a button on his wrist control. The groaning creak was so loud Everett feared the whole tree was coming down on top of him, all three hundred metres of it. Then the rounded belly of the impeller pod pushed the leaves and smaller branches apart. Down it came, in a web of lines. Sen rode it like a bronco.

‘Mah baby, mah poor baby!’ Mchynlyth embraced the engine like a friend. ‘What have they done to ye?’ Clever tools opened panels. Mchynlyth and Captain Anastasia were bent over the hatch. Everett ached with guilt.

‘Is there something I can do . . . ?’

Mchynlyth and Captain Anastasia turned at the same time. The looks on their faces froze him solid. He died, there, then, in a clearing in an alien rainforest in a world that didn’t make sense in a parallel universe. Died in his heart. He stepped back.

He had never been hated before. It was an emotion as strong and pure as love, and as rare. It was the opposite of everything love felt, except the passion. He wanted to die. ‘By your leave, ma’am, I’ve never had a skill for fixin’,’ Sharkey shouted. ‘“Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith,” as the word of the Dear teaches, but sometimes a man hunkers for a chunk of stalled ox. I’m going to see what our neighbourhood offers the aggressive carnivore.’

‘I’ll . . .’ Everett began, but Sharkey whirled away, whipped the shotguns from his holsters and stalked out of the clearing into the hooting, whistling, chirruping, singing forest shadows.

‘Sen . . .’

She had tied her hair back and pulled her goggles down. She was steampunk funk queen and Everett’s heart broke looking at her at work in the hatch, skinny as a whippet, sweaty, grease-smudged, totally absorbed in repairing her ship, her home. Her family.

He had never felt so alone, not even when he had hijacked Paul McCabe’s Heisenberg Gate and sent himself to Earth 3. There he was an adventurer. Here he was a survivor. There he had a plan. Here all his plans were impaled upon tree branches. And everyone hated him.

Everett tried to think of the people who loved him, his friends, his family. He froze when he realised he couldn’t see his mum’s face any more. He could see her hands, her clothes, her shoes, but not her face. He couldn’t see VictoryRose either, or Bebe Ajeet, or his many Punjabi aunts and uncles; he could hardly remember friends like Ryun and Colette. All that remained of her were her Doc Marten boots and hair –both shocking pink. He had only been away from them for a few weeks, but so many worlds and people and so much fear and excitement and strangeness had come between Everett and the people he loved that it was a screen like frosted glass, that showed shapes and outlines but hid details. The only face he could see was his dad’s, in that moment on the twenty-second floor of the Tyrone Tower when Charlotte Villiers turned the jumpgun on him. He saw that too clearly. It was as if the sharpness and brightness of that final glance washed out all the other faces.

He had never felt more alone.

He couldn’t stop tears. They were the simple and most natural and right thing to come, but he would die rather than let the people working on the engine see them. He turned and ran into the jungle.

The river stopped Everett. The trees ended abruptly and the bank gave way so suddenly and steeply he went skidding down between boulders and exposed tree roots. He had let his body carry him without any conscious thought. Just running. Just hurdling branches and huge tree roots. He could have run on and on until he couldn’t find his way back. Here, at the river’s edge, he could faintly hear the sound of Airish power tools and lifting tackle. There was a way back. There was always a way back.

Trees taller and grander than any on Earth soared above Everett. He could see the sky. A small fall of water between two boulders had hollowed out a pool. The water was deep and clear, cool and calling. Sun and water touched the hurt and guilt and loneliness. In a moment he was kicking off boots, wriggling out of ship togs. He splashed into the pool, lolled back. Cool deep water rose up over his chest. Everett took his feet off the bottom, kept himself upright with tiny movements of his hands and feet.

The water blessed him. He was alone, but not lonely. He had never been skinny-dipping before. He loved the sensual feel of wild water touching every part of his body. I have swum like this before, he realised, before I was born, naked, in the waters inside my mum.

It was a bit of a freaky thought.

Everett paddled round to where a ray of sunlight shone through a gap in the canopy of red leaves. Sun fell on his face. He closed his eyes. Opened them with a shock.

The sun.

There was something wrong with the sun. It was still full in his face. It shouldn’t be. It should have moved across the sky. It hadn’t. It was lower, closer to the lower edge of the gap in the branches, but still full in his face. The sun didn’t move on an arc from east to west. It was moving straight up and down.

His calculations. He had calculated for a jump from a spherical planet to another spherical planet. The geometry of the world . . .

‘No way!’ Everett shouted, surging straight up out of the water. Winged things burst upwards in panic from the trees. ‘No! This is insane.’ But the numbers were running in his head, connecting with other numbers, with theories and physical laws, painting a picture of the world that fitted – that was the only explanation – with the facts at hand.

He had to get back to the crew. They would listen to him when he told them what he had worked out about this world. They had to listen to him. He waded to the riverbank.

His clothes. Where were his clothes? He’d left them on this rock, neatly folded, weighted down with his boots in case the wind got up.

Everett heard a noise. There, behind that root buttress. A rustle. A movement. A . . . giggle? Everett cupped his hands over his groin. Water streamed from him.

‘Sen?’

It was a giggle.

‘Sen! Have you got my togs?’

No answer. No movement.

‘Don’t mess around! There’s something important you need to know. Mega.’

‘Come and get them!’

‘Sen!’

She could wait all day for him to come out of the water. ‘Okay then, since you think it’s so funny . . .’ Everett waded out of the river. He let go his covering hands. He heard a whoop from behind the tree root. Everett imagined himself from Sen’s point of view. He looked okay. Better than okay; he looked pretty good.

‘Remember I dressed you at Bona Togs?’ Sen shouted. ‘Well, I’s going to dress you again.’ A hand draped two socks over the sloping root. ‘Come and get ’em!’

‘I will,’ said Everett Singh. He heard a squealing shriek of delight and laughter, then a flurry of moving foliage. He pulled on the socks: heavy knit, thick rib top, like the ones Sen wore. He felt dumb in just socks.

‘Come on!’ Sen shouted from behind a brake of silvery cane. She waved his boots at him, one on each hand.

‘Sen, this is important. This world – it’s . . .’

‘That scar’s really healing up good,’ Sen called from deeper in the forest.

Everett had almost forgotten about the scar his alter’s laser had scorched across his side at the Battle of Abney Park Cemetery. Sen’s careless comment knocked him back into the pain and humiliation. He had been badly beaten. He would wear the mark of his enemy for the rest of his life. Everett had unfinished business with alter-Everett.

Now Sen hung his ship shorts from a low branch.

‘Sen! Don’t mess around!’ Everett shouted as he struggled to get feet through legs.

‘You wear too many clothes!’ Sen called from a new hiding place. ‘It’s bad for you.’ She draped his T-shirt over a spiny shrub. She had cut the sleeves off and shortened it. It was not quite her crop-top level, but shorter than any straight E10 omi would be seen in. Bare-chested, Everett strode to retrieve it.

Something splintered softly under his left boot, and his ankle went deep into something soft and wet and sticky. A waft of rot and sickness wafted up. Everett looked down. His heart jolted, he almost puked in shock. His left foot was embedded in the ribs of a mouldering human corpse.

Empty eye sockets stared up at him from a skull clothed with rags of skin. Vile liquids and rotting organs leaked from the blackened, burst skin. Everett tried to extricate his foot. Decaying things glooped and sucked.

‘Sen!’ he yelled. ‘Sen!’

‘Uh-uh, Everett Singh, you come and get it.’

‘Sen!’ His voice said, No jokes any more.

She came running, hurdling lightly over roots and fallen branches.

‘Everett, what is it? Oh the Dear.’

Everett had followed the trace truly and accurately. Someone had been banished to this world by the jumpgun.

Sen held two hands out to Everett.

‘I’s got you, omi. Walk towards me. Come on, Everett Singh.’

He took her hands and pulled his foot out of the dead thing. He could feel gross corpse stuff on his skin. He would never be able to get it clean again. But that was not the true horror. The horrible, terrible, all-devouring fear was who that corpse might be.

‘Sen, can you look at it? Is it?’

Sen understood at once. ‘It’s not him. Do you hear me? It’s not him.’

Everett shook with released tension. He thought he might throw up now, not from the vile rotting nausea of the corpse, but from relief at who the corpse was not. His dad. He heard Sen mumble something in Palari. He knew it pretty well now, but Sen spoke so low and fast, with so many dialect words, he could not make her out.

‘Sen, what is it?’

‘He’s dressed Airish style. I think I knows it. I think it’s ’Appening Ed.’

At first Everett could not place the name, then he remembered. Charlotte Villiers had led her Sharpies into Hackney Great Port to try to seize the Infundibulum by force. She had been met by a mob of roused, anarchic Airish, who had no truck with police on their territory. They had been led by a short, angry man – ’Appening Ed. Charlotte Villiers had pulled a gun and made him disappear. It had been the first time Everett had seen what a jumpgun could do. So this was where he had been sent. And something in this red rainforest had killed him. This red rainforest, in this world where the sun didn’t obey normal physics, and even the world didn’t obey proper, spherical geometry.

‘Sen, we need to get back to the crew. There’s something you need to know about this world. Something really important.’


Excerpted from Empress of the Sun by Ian McDonald. Copyright © 2014 by Ian McDonald.
First published in Great Britain in 2014 by Jo Fletcher Books, an imprint of Quercus Editions Ltd., 55 Baker Street, 7th Floor, South Block, London, W1U 8EW.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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