Neal Asher, whom Tor introduced to the American audience with Gridlinked, takes us deeper into his unique universe with an even more remarkable second novel, The Skinner.
On the planet Spatterjay arrive three travelers: Janer, acting as the eyes of the hornet Hive mind, on a mission not yet revealed to him; Erlin, searching for Ambel -- the ancient sea captain who can teach her how to live; and Sable Keech, on a vendetta he cannot abandon, though he himself has been dead for 700 years. This remote world is mostly ocean, and it is a rare visitor who ventures beyond the safety of the island Dome. Outside it, only the native Hoopers dare risk the voracious appetites of the planet's wildlife. But somewhere out there is Spatterjay Hoop -- and Keech will not rest until he brings this legendary renegade to justice for hideous crimes committed centuries ago during the Prador Wars.
While Keech is discovering that Hoop is now a monster -- his body and head living apart from each other -- Janer is bewildered by a place where the native inhabitants just will not die and angry when he finally learns the Hive mind's intentions for him. Meanwhile, Erlin thinks she has plenty of time to find the answers she seeks, but could not be more wrong. For one of the most brutal of the alien Prador is about to pay the planet a surreptitious visit, intent on exterminating all remaining witnesses to his wartime atrocities. As the visitors' paths converge, major hell is about to erupt in a chaotic waterscape where minor hell is already a remorseless fact of everyday life . . . and death.
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Neal Asher lives in Chelmsord, Essex, UK.. This is his second novel.
1In any living sea on any world there are always creatures whose fate is integral to the gastronomic delight of other ... creatures. Boxies might more correctly be described as lunchboxes, such was the purpose they served in the sea--and they knew it. Feeding upon occasional shoals of vicious plankton--which would make the experience of swimming for a human akin to bathing in ground glass--and the dispersing remains of those many other creatures which, at some point, always served as an entrée, the boxies swam at high speed and with a kind of nervous determination. Only by keeping moving like this could they reduce the frequency of leech attacks on their nerveless outer bodies. Only swift movement kept them from the sickle-legs of prill and the serrated claws of glisters, or from the mouths of larger leeches, which would swallow them down whole. However, a successful survival strategy for a species was not always so successful for all of its individuals: a boxy shoal increased with each addition of fry from each hatching of eggs laid on the stalks of sea-cane and decreased with each attack upon it by a hungry predator, and therefore old age was not a common cause of death in it.The reif sipped at his clear drink through a glass straw and seemed to have his attention focused beyond his companion, at somewhere in the middle of the opposite wall. Erlin supposed he must be drinking one of the many chemical preservatives he used to prevent his flesh falling from his bones. The man who had just joined the reif sat with his back to Erlin, who now noticed that he had something on his shoulder. When this something took off to do a circuit of the room, she was fascinated. It was an insect as large asa severed thumb and the drone of its wings was loud in the subdued atmosphere of the shuttle lounge. The man was obviously indentured to a Hive mind, for the flying creature had to be a hornet from Earth--the eyes of a Hive mind. What the hell could bring a reif and such a man here, together? Erlin picked up her coffee and began walking across to them, till a thickening of the air and a vague feeling of disorientation made her pause.From taking one step to another, Erlin realized that the safety field had tripped: a rough entry into atmosphere. But then, in her experience, things got steadily rougher from now on. She glanced to the windows that slanted out at forty-five degrees from the outer edge of the lounge. The shuttle was now circling above the honeycomb which was the Polity base on the island of Chel, and she observed how the sea surrounded the island in concentric rings of varying shades of green, as of split agate. The sea was calm down there, so what had tripped the safety field must be one of the many storms that ripped through the thick upper layers of cloud. Finally reaching their table, she turned her attention fully on the seated pair.'Mind if I join you?' she asked.There was little discernible reaction from the reif, but the man grinned at her and gestured to an empty seat. He wasn't bad-looking, Erlin thought, and his manner was pleasant, but he was not the man. Her man was somewhere down on the sea below. She placed her coffee on the table, then pulled out the seat, turned it, and sat astride it with her forearms resting across its back.'I'm curious to know why a reification should want to come here, and why someone indentured to a Hive mind,' Erlin noticed the man frown, 'should come here also.' She looked with interest at each of them in turn, then glanced at the other passengers occupying the lander's lounge. It was clear that fear or disgust had cleared a wide space around the reif and his companion, and embarrassment had cast a pall over general conversation. Many of them were now trying very hard to appear not to be listening. Erlin shook her head as she focused her attention on the reif. He was no cause fordisgust. He didn't stink, as reifs were popularly believed to, nor was he any cause for fear--some of the augmented types here in the lander could have torn him limb from limb. But to Erlin he was a source of almost painful interest. What purpose had driven this man to want to continue functioning after his own death?'I am not indentured,' said the reif's companion, then took up his drink from the table before him and sipped.Erlin turned to study him. 'What?' she asked'I'm not indentured,' he repeated succinctly, putting down his drink.'Oh, I see,' said Erlin, inspecting him.He wore jeans tucked into the hard-wearing boots of an environment suit, and a loose cloth shirt, which was open at the neck to expose a Maori tiki charm. There was no visible sign of augmentation on him, but that did not mean he was without it. Below unruly blond hair, his features were handsome and hawkish, and Erlin thought it likely he'd had his face restructured in the past, but long in the past, because character now showed through and had softened the aseptic beauty of the cosmetic job. In his left ear, he wore a single diamond stud--which was probably his Hive link transponder.'Were you indentured?' she asked him.'Two years,' he replied. 'And those ended about twenty years ago.''Two years ... that's the usual sentence for killing a hornet, isn't it?' said Erlin.The man nodded and grinned, before reaching for his drink again. Erlin observed him for a moment longer, then curiosity drew her attention back to the man's companion.The reification was clad in a utile monofilament overall of bland grey, and he had a smooth lozenge of metal hanging from a chain around his neck. He had obviously been a heavy-worlder when alive. Now his muscles were stringy on his thick skeleton, his hands bony claws, and what was visible of his face, under a half-helmet augmentation, was that of a grey mummy. Erlin next studied the aug: it was golden, had a cartouche inset into its surface, and had, extending from the inner side of it and curving round under the reif'sone visible eye, an irrigator fashioned in the shape of a cobra with its hood spread. The reif's eye was blue, and it seemed to be the only part of him that was remotely alive.Of course, she could see now what might have brought these two people together: the fear and disgust of the others here. Most people had yet to dispel their atavistic fear of large stinging insects, and most did not like to share the company of corpses, no matter how interesting the conversation might prove to be. More than anything else in any world, Erlin wanted something to maintain her interest. She wondered just what stories there might be here.The reif dropped his glass straw back into his drink and, with slow precision, he leant back. As he turned his blue eye upon her now, Erlin imagined she could hear the creaking of his neck. There came a clicking gulp from deep in his throat, then he spoke in a surprisingly mild baritone, his words slightly out of sync with the movement of his mouth. But then, Erlin thought it unlikely that his vocal cords actually generated his voice.'Many would seek immortality here,' he said, and deliberately tilted his head to peer at the circular blue scar on Erlin's forearm. It was an easy conversational gambit to turn attention away from himself. Erlin pretended no reaction to his words, but suddenly felt very hot and uncomfortable. The secret of Spatterjay had been out for many years, and immortality was a commodity in a buyer's market. Why did she feel guilty?'Many would find it and wish they hadn't,' said Erlin. Just then, the hornet droned back from across the room and Erlin could not help but notice how the other passengers flinched away from it, then tried to appear as if they had not. There was much nervous laughter in its wake. As it settled again on the man's shoulder he merely glanced at it, then reached into the top pocket of his shirt and removed a small vial. From this he tipped a puddle of syrup on to the tabletop. The insect launched from his shoulder to the table, where it landed with a noticeable rattle, then it walked stiff-legged to the puddle to sip. Erlin saw that the creature's thorax was painted with luminous intricate lines, as of a circuit diagram.They must mean something to someone--but not necessarily anyone human. On the table also lay a shoulder carry-case for hornets. Inside the case was another hornet, still as if sealed in clear liquid plastic.After a brief silence the man said, 'There's a place, you know, where people live in the bodies of giant snails which float in the sky suspended from gas-filled shells.'Erlin absorbed the comment with almost a feeling of delight. At the sound of the next clicking gulp, she turned back to the reification.The reif said, 'On Tornos Nine, people live under the sea in giant mechanical lobsters. It's all for tourism, really. Every lobster contains its own hotel and restaurant. There are few private lobsters.'The man laughed. Erlin switched her gaze between the two of them. She wondered if the reif would have smiled, if he could. She replied, 'On the ships here you have to wait for your mainsail to fly to you and take the mainmast. Through the mechanisms of the ship, it controls the fore and aft sails, and all you have to do is feed it. Every sail has the same name.'The reif finally lifted the gaze of his one watery eye from its study of her scar.'What name is that?' he asked.'Windcatcher.''You have been here before,' he said. It wasn't a question.'You know that.''So have I, a very long time ago.'With a deprecatory grin the man said, 'I've never been here before.' He held out his hand. 'Janer.'Erlin clasped the hand he offered.'Erlin,' she said.Janer nodded and smiled, and only reluctantly released her hand.'You'll have to excuse me for a moment. I just want to see this.'He stood and moved over to the slanting window, to watch as the shuttle finally came in to land. Erlin turned expectantly to the reif.There was no clicking gulp this time before he spoke. 'Keech,' he said, and did not offer his hand, which, considering his condition, Erlin felt was only polite.The hornet watched and listened.
'Land is at a premium here,' said Erlin as the three of them later walked down the shuttle ramp to a curved walkway running parallel to a parking area around the edge of the landing pad. She felt buoyant now, though that was probably due to the higher oxygen content in the air and the lower gravity she had felt immediately on stepping from the shuttle's gravplates. She scanned these distantly familiar surroundings. The sea made a continual sucking hiss underneath the huge floating structure upon which the gun-metal wing of the shuttle had settled, and the air was thick with the smells of cooling metal, decaying seaweed, and of virulent aquatic life.'Just islands and atolls, no continents, and no island bigger than, say, the Galapagos islands on Earth,' said Janer.'Yes,' said Erlin, 'and there are other similarities too, though you'll find the wildlife here somewhat ... wilder.''Wilder?' Janer echoed.Erlin grimaced. 'Well, it's not so bad on the islands,' she admitted.'But bad in the sea?''Look at it this way: most Hoopers are sailors, but few of them can swim.''Right,' said Janer.Rank upon rank of aircabs were parked here along the edge. Beyond them, the sea was heaving but not breaking, and underneath that surface Erlin knew the water would be writhing with leeches, hammer whelks and turbul, glisters and prill. And all of them would be hungry. She gazed up at the misty green sky and wondered at her foolishness in returning here, then she followed her two companions off the ramps, her obedient hover luggage trailing along behind.Keech was intent on getting to the first cab before all the other passengers swarmed off the shuttle. When there came a hissing crack, followed by a stuttering as of an air compressorstarting, Erlin noted how the reif snapped his head round and moved his hand to one of the many pockets of his overalls, and how Janer dropped into a semi-crouch. She studied them for a moment longer as they warily surveyed their surroundings, then they slowly relaxed.'Over here,' she said, and led them to the rail along the seaward side of the parking area. Below this rail, the foamed-plascrete edge of the floating structure sloped steeply down into the sea. Erlin pointed to an object like a metre-long chrome mosquito that was walking along the plascrete, just above the waterline. She then pointed to a disturbance out in the water. Pieces of shell and gobbets of flesh were being pulled at and rabidly denuded by dark, unclearly seen, anguine shapes in the water.'Autogun,' explained Keech. 'What did it hit?''Well, out there, probably a prill or a glister. Most of the large lethal molluscs here are not swimmers,' Erlin replied.'Charming,' said Janer.Keech stared for an interminable moment, but offered no further comment. Instead he turned and continued on towards the nearest aircab.The vehicle was an old Skyrover Macrojet with a ridiculous and unnecessary airfoil attached, and its pilot was all Hooper in attitude and appearance.'The three of yah?' he asked. He remained inside his cab as he cleaned his fingernails with a long narrow knife that Erlin recognized as a skinning knife, and she tried not to inspect too closely the memories that evoked.The Hooper's skin was pale, and the circular scars on his arms and down the sides of his face were only just visible. She supposed that, like all Hoopers on the Polity base, he was on one of the Intertox family of drugs to keep the fibres of the Spatterjay virus in abeyance. Usually it was the bite of a leech that caused infection but, even though the virus could not survive for a long time outside of a body, no one was taking any chances. Polity scientists felt that, despite the so-fardiscovered huge benefits of the virus, it might still be some kind of Trojan. Erlin herself had not been infected by the bite on her forearm. Like many other viruses, the Spatterjayvirus could be transmitted by bodily fluids, and she knew precisely when she had contracted it.'All three,' replied Keech to the Hooper.The Hooper looked askance at him, then stabbed the knife into the dash of his vehicle. After a moment he transferred his attention to Janer, then to the hornets in the transparent box on Janer's shoulder.'Can they get out?' he asked.'Only if they want to,' said Janer.'Look like nasty buggers.'Erlin bit down on a burst of laughter. That from a Hooper on a world where just about every creature was a nasty bugger out for its plug of flesh.'I assure you they are harmless unless forced to defend themselves,' said Janer.The Hooper studied the hornets more closely. 'They got brains then?'How's he going to explain the hive mind? Erlin wondered.'They are the eyes of the hive,' said Janer.'Oh, them ... hornets, ain't they?''Yes.''OK, stick y' luggage in the back and climb in. Y'want the Dome?''Please,' said Erlin as she stood aside to allow Keech to take his hover trunk around to the back of the cab. As he moved past, she caught a slight whiff of corruption. He glanced round at her, and perha...
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