Okay, so this is the fourth excerpt in the last little while. . .
Though I would love to have the opportunity to bring you more of these, the truth is that such sample chapters will appear more or less sporadically on the Hotlist. So enjoy them while they last!
Many thanks to both Alastair Reynolds and the folks at Subterranean Press for granting me permission to post this latest excerpt from the author's forthcoming novella, The Six Directions of Space (Canada, USA, Europe, and http://www.subterraneanpress.com/.)
From the Subpress website:
What if Genghis Khan got his wish, and brought the entire planet under the control of the Mongols? Where would he have gone next?
A thousand years after Khan's death, Yellow Dog is the codename of a female spy working for a vast Mongol-dominated galactic empire. When she learns of anomalous events happening on the edge of civilised space -- phantom ships appearing in the faster-than-light transit system which binds the empire together -- Yellow Dog puts herself forward for the most hazardous assignment of her career. In deep cover, she must penetrate the autonomous zone where the anomalies are most frequent, and determine whether the empire is really under attack, and if so by who or what. Yellow Dog's problems, however, are only just beginning. For the autonomous zone is under the heel of Qilian, a thuggish local tyrant with no love for central government and a reputation for extreme brutality. Qilian already knows more about the anomalies than Yellow Dog does. If she is going to learn more, she will have to earn his confidence -- even if that means working for him, rather than against him.
So begins a deadly game of subterfuge and double-cross -- while the anomalies increase...
We had been riding for two hours when I tugged sharply on the reins to bring my pony to a halt. Tenger, my escort, rode on for a few paces before glancing back irritatedly. He muttered something in annoyance—a phrase that contained the words “stupid” and “dyke”—before steering his horse back alongside mine.
“Another sight-seeing stop?” he asked, as the two mismatched animals chewed their bits, flared their nostrils, and flicked their heads up in mutual impatience.
I said nothing, damned if I was going to give him the pleasure of an excuse. I only wanted to take in the view: the deeply-shadowed valley below, the rising hills beyond (curving ever upwards, like a tidal wave formed from rock and soil and grass), and the little patch of light down in the darkness, the square formation of the still-moving caravan.
“If you really want to make that appointment…” Tenger continued.
Tenger sniffed, dug into a leather flap on his belt, and popped something into his mouth.
“On your own head be it, Yellow Dog. It certainly won’t be my neck on the line, keeping the old man waiting.”
I held both reins in one hand so that I could cup the other against my ear. I turned the side of my head in the direction of the caravan and closed my eyes. After a few moments, I convinced myself that I could hear it. It was a sound almost on the edge of audibility, but which would become thunderous, calamitous, world-destroying, as they drew nearer. The sound of thousands of riders, hundreds of wheeled tents, dozens of monstrous siege engines. A sound very much like the end of the world itself, it must have seemed, when the caravan approached.
“We can go now,” I told Tenger.
He dug his spurs in, almost drawing blood, his horse pounding away so quickly that it kicked dirt into my eyes. Goyo snorted and gave chase. We raced down into the valley, sending skylarks and snipe barrelling into the air.
“Just going by the rules, Yellow Dog,” the guard said, apologising for making me show him my passport. We were standing on the wheeled platform of the imperial ger. The guard wore a knee length blue sash-tied coat, long black hair cascading from the dome of his helmet. “We’re on high alert as it is. Three plausible threats in the last week.”
“Usual nut-jobs?” I said, casting a wary glance at Tenger, who was attending to Goyo with a bad-tempered expression. I had beaten him to the caravan and he did not like that.
“Two Islamist sects, one bunch of Nestorians,” the guard answered. “Not that I’m saying that the old man has anything to fear from you, of course, but we have to follow protocol.”
“I understand fully.”
“Frankly, we were beginning to wonder if you were ever coming back.” He looked at me solicitously. “Some of us were beginning to wonder if you’d been disavowed.”
I smiled. “Disavowed? I don’t think so.”
“Just saying, we’re all assuming you’ve got something suitably juicy, after all this time.”
I reached up to tie back my hair. “Juicy’s not exactly the word I’d use. But it’s definitely something he has to hear about.”
The guard touched a finger to the pearl on his collar.
“Better go inside, in that case.”
I did as I was invited.
My audience with the khan was neither as private nor as lengthy as I might have wished, but, in all other respects, it was a success. One of his wives was there, as well as Minister Chiledu, the national security adviser, and the khan was notoriously busy during this ceremonial restaging of the war caravan. I thought, not for the first time, of how old he looked: much older than the young man who had been elected to this office seven years earlier, brimming with plans and promises. Now he was greying and tired, worn down by disappointing polls and the pressures of managing an empire that was beginning to fray at the edges. The caravan was supposed to be an antidote to all that. In this, the nine hundred and ninety ninth year since the death of the Founder (we would celebrate this birthday, but no one knows when it happened), a special effort had been made to create the largest caravan in decades, with almost every local system commander in attendance.
As I stepped off the ger to collect Goyo and begin my mission, I felt something perilously close to elation. The data I had presented to the khan—the troubling signs I had detected concerning the functioning and security of the Infrastructure—had been taken seriously. The khan could have waved aside my concerns as an issue for his successor, but—to his credit, I think—he had not. I had been given license and funds to gather more information, even if that meant voyaging to the Kuchlug Special Administrative Volume and operating under the nose of Qilian, one of the men who had been making life difficult for the khan these last few years.
And yet my mood of elation was short lived.
I had no sooner set my feet on the ground than I spied Tenger. He was bullying Goyo, jerking hard on his bridle, kicking a boot against his hocks. He was so preoccupied with his business that he did not see me approaching from behind his back. I took hold of a good, thick clump of his hair and snapped his head back as far it would go. He released the bridle, staggering back under the pressure I was applying.
I whispered in his ear. “No one hurts my horse, you ignorant piece of shit.”
Then I spun him around, the hair tearing out in my fist, and kneed him hard in the groin, so that he coughed out a groan of pain and nausea and bent double, like a man about to vomit.
Some say that it is Heaven’s Mandate that we should have the stars, just as it was the will of Heaven that our armies should bring the squabbling lands of Greater Mongolia under one system of governance, a polity so civilised that a woman could ride naked from the western shores of Europe to the eastern edge of China without once being molested. I say that it is simply the case that we—call us Mongols, call us humans, it scarcely matters now—have always made the best of what we are given.
Take the nexus in Gansu system, for instance. It was a medium-sized moon that had been hollowed out nearly all the way to its middle, leaving a shell barely a hundred li thick, with a small round kernel buttressed to the shell by ninety nine golden spokes. Local traffic entered and departed the nexus via apertures at the northern and southern poles. Not that there was much local traffic to speak of: Gansu, with its miserly red sun—only just large enough to sustain fusion—and handful of desolate, volatile-poor, and radiation-lashed rocky worlds, was neither a financial nor military hub, nor a place that figured prominently in tourist itineraries. As was often the case, it was something of a puzzle why the wormlike khorkoi had built the nexus in such a miserable location to begin with.
Unpromising material, but in the five hundred years since we first reopened a portal into the Infrastructure, we had made a glittering bauble out of it. Five major trunk routes converged on Gansu, including a high-capacity branch of the Kherlen Corridor, the busiest path in the entire network. In addition, the moon offered portals to a dozen secondary routes, four of which had been rated stable enough to allow passage by juggernaut-class ships. Most of those secondary routes led to stellar population centres of some economic importance, including the Kiriltuk, Tatatunga, and Chilagun administrative volumes, each of which encompassed more than fifty settled systems and around a thousand habitable worlds. Even the routes which led to nowhere of particular importance were well-travelled by prospectors and adventurers, hoping to find khorkoi relics, or, that fever dream of all chancers, an unmapped nexus.
We did not know the function of the ninety nine spokes, or of the core they buttressed. No matter; the core made a useful foundation, a place upon which to build. From the vantage point of the rising shuttle, it was a scribble of luminous neon, packed tight as a migraine. I could not distinguish the lights of individual buildings, only the larger glowing demarkations of the precincts between city-sized districts. Pressurised horseways a whole li wide were thin, snaking scratches. The human presence had even begun to climb up the golden spokes, pushing tendrils of light out to the moon’s inner surface. Commercial slogans spelled themselves out in letters ten li high. On Founder’s Day, drink only Temujin Brand Airag. Sorkan-Shira rental ponies have low mileage, excellent stamina, and good temperament. Treat your favorite wife: buy her only Zarnuk Silks. During hunting season, safeguard your assets with New Far Samarkand Mutual Insurance. Think you’re a real man? Then you should be drinking Death Worm Airag: the one with a sting at both ends!
I had spent only one night in Gansu, arranging a eunuch and waiting for the smaller ship that would carry us the rest of the way to Kuchlug. Now Goyo, the eunuch, and I were being conveyed to the Burkhan Khaldun, a vessel that was even smaller than the Black Heart Mountain that had brought me to Gansu. The BK was only one li from end to end, less than a quarter of that across the bow. The hull was a multicoloured quilt of patch repairs, with many scratches, craters, and scorches yet to be attended to. The lateral stabilisation vanes had the slightly buckled look of something that had been badly bent and then hammered back into shape, while the yaw-dampeners appeared to have originated from a completely different ship, fixed on with silvery fillets of recent welding work. A whole line of windows had been plated over.
As old as the BK might have been, it had taken more than just age and neglect to bring her to that state. The Parvan Tract was a notoriously rough passage, quickly taking its toll on even a new ship. If the Kherlen Corridor was a wide, stately river which could almost be navigated blindfold, then the Tract was a series of narrow rapids whose treacherous properties varied from trip to trip, requiring not just expert input from the crew, but passengers with the constitution to tolerate a heavy crossing.
Once I had checked into my rooms and satisfied myself that Goyo was being taken care of, I made my way back to the passenger area. I bought a glass of Temujin airag and made my way to the forward viewing platform, with its wide sweep of curved window—scratched and scuffed in places, worryingly starred in others—and leaned hard against the protective railing. The last shuttle had already detached, and the BK was accelerating towards the portal, its great human-made doors irising open at the last possible moment, so that the interior of Gansu was protected from the Parvan Tract’s unpredictable energy surges. Even though the Infrastructure shaft stretched impossibly far into the distance, my mind kept insisting that we were about to punch through the thin skin of the moon.
The ship surged forward, the sluggish artificial gravity generators struggling to maintain the local vertical. We passed through the door, into the superluminal machinery of the Infrastructure. The tunnel walls were many li away, but they felt closer—as they raced by at increasing speed, velocity traced by the luminous squiggly patterns that had been inscribed on the wall for inscrutable reasons by the khorkoi builders, I had the impression that the shaft was constricting, tightening down on our fragile little ship. Yet nothing seemed to disconcert or even arouse the interest of my fellow passengers. In ones and twos, they drifted away from the gallery, leaving me alone with my eunuch, observing from a discreet distance. I drank the airag very slowly, looking down the racing shaft, wondering if it would be my fortune to see a phantom with my own eyes. Phantoms, after all, were what had brought me here.
Now all I had to do was poison the eunuch.