Spearpoint, the last human city, is an atmosphere-piercing spire of vast size. Clinging to its skin are the zones, a series of semi-autonomous city-states, each of which enjoys a different - and rigidly enforced - level of technology. Horsetown is pre-industrial; in Neon Heights they have television and electric trains ...Following an infiltration mission that went tragically wrong, Quillon has been living incognito, working as a pathologist in the district morgue. But when a near-dead angel drops onto his dissecting table, Quillon's world is wrenched apart one more time, for the angel is a winged posthuman from Spearpoint's Celestial Levels - and with the dying body comes bad news. If Quillon is to save his life, he must leave his home and journey into the cold and hostile lands beyond Spearpoint's base, starting an exile that will take him further than he could ever imagine. But there is far more at stake than just Quillon's own survival, for the limiting technologies of the zones are determined not by governments or police, but by the very nature of reality - and reality itself is showing worrying signs of instability ...
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Alastair Reynolds was born in Barry, South Wales, in 1966. He studied at Newcastle and St Andrews Universities and has a PhD in astronomy. He lived in the Netherlands whilst working as an astrophysicist for the European Space Agency, but is now a full-time writer living in Wales.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The call came in to the Department of Hygiene and Public Works just before five in the afternoon. Something messy down on the ledge, maybe a faller from one of the overhanging buildings up in Fourth, maybe all the way from Circuit City. The dispatcher turned to the wall map, surveyed the pin lights and found a clean-up van close enough to take the call. It was one of the older crews, men he knew. He lifted the black handset of his telephone and spun the dial, taking a drag on his cigarette while the switchboard clunked and whirred.
'Three oh seven.'
'Got a smear for you, CuI tel. Something out on the ledge, just west of the waterworks. Not much else out there so you should spot it easy enough. Take the service duct on Seventh and Electric and walk the rest of the way. Keys on the blue hook should get you through any municipal locks.'
'We're loaded here. And we're about a minute from coming off shift. Can't you pull in someone else?'
'Not at rush hour I can't. We wait for another van, smear's going to start attracting a crowd and smelling bad. Seagulls are already taking an interest. Sorry, CuI tel, but you're going to have to suck it up and earn some overtime.'
'Fine. But I was serious about being loaded. You'd better get another van to meet us, case we have to move some stiffs around.' 'I'll see what I can do. Call in when you've peeled it off the concrete;
we'll start the paperwork at this end.'
'Copy,' Cultel said.
'And watch your step out there, boys. It's a long way down, and I don't want to have to call Steamville and tell them they need to deal with a couple of smears of their own.'
In the clean-up van, CuI tel clicked off his handset and hung it back under the dashboard. He turned to his partner, Gerber, who was digging through a paper bag for the last doughnut. 'You get all that?'
'Another fucking ledge job. They know how much I love ledge jobs.'
'Like the man said, suck it up and earn some overtime.' Gerber bit into the doughnut and wiped the grease off his lip. 'Sounds good to me.' 'That's because you've got a sweet tooth and expensive girlfriends.' 'It's called having a life outside of scraping pancakes off pavement,
Cultel. You should try it sometime.'
Cultel, who always did the driving, grunted something derogatory, engaged the flywheel and powered the van back onto the pick-up slot. Traffic was indeed already thickening into rush hour, cars, taxis, buses and trucks moving sluggishly in one direction, almost nose to tail in the other. Being municipal, they could go off-slot when they needed to, but it still required expert knowledge of the streets and traffic flow not to get snarled up. Cultel always reckoned he could make more money driving taxis than a clean-up wagon, but the advantage of ferrying corpses around was that he mostly didn't need to make conversation. Gerber, who generally had his nose into a bag of doughnuts, didn't really count.
It took them twenty minutes to make it to Seventh and Electric. The service duct was accessed by a sloping ramp between two buildings, the ramp facing out from Spearpoint, an arched grillwork door at the bottom of it. Cultel disengaged the pick-up shoe and flywheeled down the slope, hoping he'd still have enough spin to get back up it when they had the smear loaded. No sign of the other van yet. He snatched the keyset from the blue tag, grabbed the equipment from behind his seat and left the corrugated-sided van, Gerber carrying a camera and a heavy police-style torch.
When Cultel was new in Hygiene and Works, the cops were always first on the scene at a faller, with the clean-up crew just there to go through the menial business of peel-off and hose-down. But the cops couldn't keep up lately, and so they were perfectly willing for Hygiene and Works to handle the smears, provided everything was documented and signed off properly. Anything that looked like foul play, the cops could always get involved down the line. Mostly, though, the fallers were just accident victims. Cultel had no reason to expect anything different this time.
They passed through the municipal gate and walked down the concrete-lined service duct, which was dark and dank, with bits of cladding peeling off every few spans. Rainwater run-off seeped through the cracks and formed into a slow-moving stream deep enough to soak through Cultel's shoes. It smelled a little bit of sewer. Beyond, at the far end of the service duct, was a half-circle of indigo sky. Cultel could already feel the cool evening wind picking up. Back from the ledge, with buildings all around, you didn't feel it much. But it was always colder towards the edges. Quieter, too: it didn't take much to absorb the hum of traffic, the rattle of commuter trains, the moaning of cop car sirens as they wound their way up and down the city's lazy spiral.
Beyond the duct, the concrete flooring gave way to Spearpoint's under¬lying fabric. No one had ever bothered giving the black stuff a name because it was as ubiquitous as air. The ledge began level and then took on a gradually steepening slope. Cultel watched his footing. The stuff was treacherous, everyone knew that. Felt firm as rock one second, slippery as ice the next.
Gerber waved the torch downslope. 'There's our baby.'
'I see it.'
They edged closer, walking sideways as the angle of slope increased, taking increasingly cautious footsteps. The faller had come down about thirty spans from the very edge. In the evening gloom CuI tel made out a head, two arms, two legs, all where they ought to have been. And something crumpled beneath the pale form, like a flimsy, translucent gown. You could never be too sure with fallers but it didn't look as though this one had come down very far. Dismemberment was com¬monplace: limbs, heads tended to pop off easily, either with the impact or from glancing collisions on the way down, as the faller bumped against the sides of buildings or the rising wall to the next ledge. But this jigsaw came with all the pieces.
Cultel looked up, over his shoulder, and lifted the rim of his hat to get a better view. No buildings or overhangs near enough for the faller to have come off. And even if they'd stepped off the next highest ledge, with the way the winds were working they'd have ended up at the base, back behind the rising tide of buildings. Should have been a lot more damage, too.
'Something's screwed up here,' Cultel said.
'Just starting to feel that way myself.' Gerber raised the camera to his eye singlehandedly and flashed off two exposures. They crept forwards some more, planting each footstep gently, hardly daring to breathe. Gerber directed the torch a bit more steadily. It was then that Cultel knew what they were dealing with.
Crushed beneath the form: that wasn't any gown. It was wings.
'It's-' Gerber started saying.
What they had was an angel. CuI tel looked up again, higher this time.
Not just to the nearest line of buildings, but all the way up. Up past the pastel flicker of Neon Heights, up past the hologram shimmer of Circuit City. Up past the pink plasma aura of the cybertowns. He could just see them circling around up there, leagues overhead, wheeling and gyring around Spearpoint's tapering needle like flies around an insect zapper.
And he thought to himself: How the fuck did one ofthem get down here? And why did it have to happen on my watch?
'Let's bag and tag,' Gerber said. 'Thing's creeping me out already.'
'You ever dealt with one of these?'
'First time. You?'
'Once when I was new on the job. Fell onto the third rail of the Green Line elevated. Fucking thing was toast by the time we pulled it off. Then again three, maybe four years back. That one was a lot more mashed up than this. Not a whole lot you could recognise at first glance.'
Gerber fired off another shot with the camera. In the after-flash CuI tel had the weird feeling that the corpse had twitched, shifting almost subliminally from one position to another. He crept up beside the fallen creature and knelt down with his equipment next to him. Overhead the seagulls really were taking an interest, mewling and squabbling in the evening air. CuI tel examined the creature, taking in its nearly naked form, the wings the only visibly broken part of it. It had come to rest with its head lolling to one side, looking at him with huge midnight¬blue eyes. It could have been alive, except there was nothing happening behind those eyes.
'Damn thing must have been alive almost all the way down,' he said. 'This was a controlled landing, not a crash.' 'What a way to go,' Gerber said. 'You think it was suicide, or did it just, you know, lose its way?'
'Maybe there was a fault with its pack,' CuI tel said, fingering the hard, alien alloy of the angel's propulsion harness. 'Hell, who knows? Cover all the angles, then we'll get it zipped up and into the van. Sooner this is off our hands the better.'
They got the angel bagged and tagged, taking care not to worsen the damage to the wings or break any of the creature's stick-thin limbs. Lifting the bag, Cultel could easily manage it on his own. It was like carrying a sack of bones and not much else. They didn't even need to hose down the ground. The angel hadn't shed a drop of whatever passed for blood in its veins.
The other van hadn't arrived when they called back to the dispatcher. 'Sorry, Cultel. Had to send them over to the boundary with Steam ¬had a report that the zone was shifting around again.'
'Well, you might want to rethink that. We got the smear.' He glanced at Gerber, grinning in the moment. 'You ready for this? It's an angeL' 'No reports of anything falling down from the Levels, three oh seven.'
'This one didn't fall. It must have flown almost all the way. Then died.'
'As they do.' He could hear the practised scepticism in the dispatcher's voice. Didn't much blame him, either. It wouldn't be the first time an angel corpse had been faked up for someone's twisted amusement. Might even be the kind of sick joke someone in Hygiene and Works would play on another clean-up crew, to see how gullible they were.
But Cui tel knew this was a real one.
'You want us to squeeze the angel in, we will. Might get a little crumpled in there, but we'll manage. Just so you understand, I'm not taking responsibility for any breakages. I take it you'd like us to ship this thing over to Third?'
'If you think it's the real deal.'
'I'll take the fall if it isn't.'
'Fine; stop by at Third. But remove anything technical. Bag them separately, and we'll box them over to Imports.' Cui tel hung up. 'Why Third? We never deal with Third,' Gerber said. They secured the angel, closed up the van and flywheeled back up the
access ramp. It was another twenty-minute drive to the Third District Morgue, dodging through short cuts and back alleys, winding their way a little further up the spiralling ledge. The building was an ash-grey slab with a flat roof and a frontage of small square windows, lower than any of the office and apartment blocks crowding in around it. They drove to the rear and backed the van up to the dock, where a white-coated receiving clerk was waiting for them.
'Dispatch phoned through,' the clerk said as Cultel unlocked the van's rear doors. 'Said you had something juicy for Quillon.' He scratched a pen against his nose. 'Been a while, you know. I think he was starting to wonder if you'd forgotten about the arrangement.'
'Like we'd forget,' Cultel said, countersigning the delivery form.
'What's this all about?' Gerber asked.
'Quillon likes to get first dibs on anything freaky,' the clerk explained. 'Kind of a hobby of his, I guess.' Gerber shrugged. 'Each to their own.' 'Suits everyone,' the clerk said. 'Quillon gets his kicks. The other
morgues don't have to wade through a ton of paperwork -and there's always a lot of triplicate when one of these things comes in.' He peered at the bagged form as Cultel and Gerber eased it onto a wheeled stretcher. 'Mind if I take a look?'
'Hey, be my guest,' Cultel said.
The clerk zipped the bag down half a span. Wrinkled his nose at the dead, pale, broken thing inside.
'They look so beautiful flying around up there, wings all lit up and glowing.'
'Cut him some slack.' Cultel zipped the bag tight. 'He's not been having the best of days.'
'You sure it's a he?'
'Now that you mention it-'
'Wheel it through to Quillon if you want,' the clerk said. 'Take the freight elevator to the third. He'll be up there someplace. Gatta wait down here to see in another delivery.'
'Busy week. They say the boundary's getting itchy feet again.'
'What I heard,' Cultel said. 'Guess we'd better batten down the hatches and get our watches wound.'
They pushed the wheeled stretcher into the building. It was all green walls, stark white tiles and the chlorine reek of industrial cleaning solution. The lights in the ceiling were turned down almost to brown. Most of the staff had gone home for the day, leaving the morgue to the night shift and the ghosts of former clients. Cui tel hated the place, as he hated all morgues. How could anyone work in a building where all they did was cut open bodies? At least being on the clean-up crew got him out into fresh air.
They took the freight elevator to the third floor, heaved open the heavy trelliswork door and rolled the stretcher out into the corridor. Quillon was waiting at the far end, flicking the butt of a cigarette into a wall-mounted ashtray. It had been three or four years but Cultel recog¬nised him straight away. Which wasn't to say that Quillon hadn't changed in all that time.
'When I heard there was a delivery coming in, I was hoping it was the new medicines,' Quillon said, in his slow, measured, slightly too-deep voice. 'Cupboards were any barer, we'd have to start turning away dead people.'
'We brought you a present,' Cultel said. 'Be nice.'
'Ups and downs, Quillon, ups and downs. But while there's a city and corpses, I guess you and I don't have to worry about gainful employment.'
Quillon had always been thin, always been gaunt, but now he looked as if he'd just opened his eyes and climbed off one of the dissection tables. A white surgical coat draped off his thin-ridged shoulders as if it was still on the hanger and a white cap covered his hairless skull. He wore glasses, tinted slightly even though the lights in the morgue were hardly on the bright side. Green surgical gloves that still made his fingers look too long and skeletal for comfort. There were deep shadows under his cheekbones and his skin looked colourless and waxy and not quite alive.
No getting away from it, Cui tel thought. The guy had picked the ideal place of employment.
'So what have you got for me?'
'Got you an angel, my friend. Came down on the ledge.'
Quillon's reaction was hard to judge behind the glasses. The rest of his face didn't move much, even when he spoke. 'All the way down from the Celestial Levels?' 'What we figured. Funny thing is, tho...
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