Tachyon 2015 preview: SLOW BULLETS by Alastair Reynolds
For the rest of the week, we’re showcasing what to expect in the first half of 2015 from Tachyon Publications.
Coming June 9, 2015:
by Alastair Reynolds
Cover art by Thomas Canty
Design by Elizabeth Story
From the author of the Revelation Space series comes an interstellar adventure of war, identity, betrayal, and the preservation of civilization itself.
A vast conflict, one that has encompassed hundreds of worlds and solar systems, appears to be finally at an end. A conscripted soldier is beginning to consider her life after the war and the family she has left behind. But for Scur—and for humanity—peace is not to be.
On the brink of the ceasefire, Scur is captured by a renegade war criminal, and left for dead in the ruins of a bunker. She revives aboard a prisoner transport vessel. Something has gone terribly wrong with the ship.
Passengers—combatants from both sides of the war—are waking up from hibernation far too soon. Their memories, embedded in bullets, are the only links to a world which is no longer recognizable. And Scur will be reacquainted with her old enemy, but with much higher stakes than just her own life.
My mother had a fondness for poetry. When my sister died, but before the news of my own conscription, mother showed me passages from a work by Giresun. It was a poem called “Morning Flowers.”
This was an illegal act.
Giresun was the official war poet for the Central Worlds. Her works were banned in the Peripheral Systems, considered propaganda. But Giresun had been famous before the war, and my mother had collected several of her anthologies. She was supposed to have handed these books in during one of the amnesties. My mother could not do that.
One of them had been a gift from Vavarel, with an inscription in Vavarel’s beautiful flowing hand.
My sister had always had better handwriting than me.
“Morning Flowers” was about death and remembrance. It was about accepting the death of a loved one while holding onto the bright thread of their life.
Giresun was a great comfort to me during that time. But I could never speak of her work beyond our home, and after my conscription I had no way of taking her poem with me. I tried to remember it, but even the few short versus of “Morning Flowers” were too much for me.
Anyway, a ceasefire was eventually declared.
Many ships skipped into orbit around a neutral planet called Wembere. The military and political leaders agreed to their complicated and contentious terms. Before solemn witnesses they used things called pens to make markings on a thin, skinlike substance called paper, using a material called ink. They had been ending wars this way for thousands of years.
You will have to take my word about these things.
There was a problem, though. The skipships were the only way to send messages at faster than light speeds, so it took time for the news to spread. To begin with, not everyone believed that the ceasefire was real. Even when neutral peacekeepers came in to our system, the fighting continued.
Near the end of things I was on one of these patrols when I ended up separated from my unit. I was trying to re-establish communications and work out how to get back into our sector when I ran into an enemy sweep squad.
There were four of them: Orvin and three of his soldiers.
I knew a little about Orvin, even then. I had heard stories about this man who operated under the enemy’s flag but broke even their rules of war. It was said that when the ceasefire came, both sides would be lining up to put him to trial. He caught me, and took me to the bunker. It was a low, armoured building that had been blasted and abandoned. It was cold and full of rubble, there was no glass in the windows. A mottling of dark red blood on the walls and floor showed where Orvin had already killed people.
His three soldiers held me down on a metal-framed bed that smelled of piss and death. Orvin used a knife to cut a gash in my trousers, running from the knee to the upper thigh. I tried to thrash and kick, but the soldiers were much too strong.
“Hold her down,” Orvin said.
He was a big man, taller and broader than any soldier in my unit. His skin was the colour and texture of meat. His face also seemed too small for his head. It was as if his eyes and nose and mouth were not quite in proportion to the rest of him, a too-small mask. He had white hair, cropped close to his scalp, and white eyebrows. The hair and eyebrows stood out strongly against the meat-colour of his skin.
He had a trolley next to him. Very delicately he put the knife down onto the trolley. He had huge pink hands. His nail-less fingers were so thick and stubby that it made his hands seem babyish.
“Haven’t you heard?” I asked, feeling the urge to say something. “It’s over. Peacekeepers are here. We’re not enemies now.”
He produced from a lower shelf of the trolley a copy of the Book. It was a black rectangle, full of sheets of material like the paper I mentioned earlier, only much thinner.
They had been marked with ink, but done using a machine rather than a pen. From the scuffed cover, I recognised the Book as the one that had been issued to me.
“Do you believe this?” Orvin asked.
“They say all you Peripherals read the Book.” He paged through the Book, having trouble turning the pages with his thick fingers. “We have our own Book, too. For the most part our people are too educated to attach any significance to its contents.”
“Not what I heard.”
It was a risk, arguing with this man. But agreeing with him would have brought no favours.
Orvin began to tear pages out of the Book. They detached too easily, the way wings come off an insect. He crushed them up between his fingers and dropped them to the floor. He moved his leg as if mashing his boot on the pages.
“It won’t work,” I said. “You can’t provoke me like that. I’m not a believer.”
“Then we’ve that much in common,” Orvin conceded, allowing the Book to drop from his baby fingers, onto the rubble.
He returned his attention to the trolley, moving his hand through different items. I thought for a moment he was going to pick up the knife again, but instead he came up with a thing shaped like a gun. It was made of white-coloured metal and seemed heavy in his hands.
It had a large trigger, with a hose running to a pressurised reservoir.
Orvin ran his hand along the barrel of the thing.
“You know what this is?”
“I know your name is Scurelya Timsuk Shunde,” Orvin went on. “I pulled your data from your slow bullet. Where you were born. Your family. That odd business with your conscription. Your subsequent military history. The skips that brought you to this system. The times you were hurt.”
“Then you don’t need me to say anything.”
Orvin smiled tightly. “Do you remember when they put the bullet into you?”
“I’m a soldier. Who doesn’t remember?”
He gave a little nod of sympathy. “Yes, we used them on our side as well, or a virtually identical technology.” He made sure I got a good look at the gun-shaped thing.
“There’s a slow bullet in this injector, programmed and ready for insertion.”
“Thanks, but I already have one.”
“I know that.”
“Then you should also know about the transponder signal. My side will be zeroing in on it as we speak.”
“I could always cut the bullet out before they get here,” Orvin said.
“And kill me in the process.”
“That’s true. And you’re right—there wouldn’t be any point putting a second slow bullet into you. This one’s had a few alterations, though. Shall I tell you what they are?”
“Go fuck yourself.”
“Normally there’s not much pain. The medics military use a topical anaesthetic to numb the entry area, and the slow bullet puts out another type of drug as it travels through your insides. It goes very slowly, too—or at least it’s meant to. Hence the name, of course. And it avoids damaging any vital organs or circulatory structures as it progresses to its destination, deep enough inside your chest that it can’t be removed without complicated surgery. But this one’s different. It’s going to hurt like the worst thing you’ve ever known and it’s going to keep burrowing through you until it reaches your heart.”
Orvin let out a little laugh. “Why not?”
I tried to fight—I had no control over that—but I always knew it was useless. The soldiers had me held down too well. Orvin leaned in and pressed the nozzle of the injector against the skin of my thigh where he had already cut away my trousers. I watched his hand tighten on the trigger, and heard a sound like a single whip crack. It was the air going through the gun.
The bullet entered me. It felt like a hammer blow. The gun made a sort of slow, satisfied sigh as the air went out of it.
For a second, maybe less, the pain was less than I had feared. Then it hit, and I screamed. It was what they had been wanting, and I hated myself for it, but there was nothing I could do about that.
“Can you feel it in you?”
Orvin pulled the injector away and cleaned the end of it on a scrap of rag. He put the gun down on the trolley.
“Fuck you.” I said.
“This is just the start, Scurelya. In an hour or two it’ll hurt much more than this. By then, you’ll be begging for me to make the bullet explode, so that it kills you instantly.”
“They’ll find out,” I said, fighting hard to get the words out. “They’ll find out and find you.”
“Oh, I don’t think so. It’s a big universe out there. Lots of systems, lots of chaos and confusion. I have my plans.”
Where the bullet had gone in was a small hole, no wider than my little finger. I could feel the bullet moving itself, contracting and extending like a mechanical maggot.
A little bump in my skin signalled where the bullet was pushing through underneath.
I was certain as I could be that I was going to die in that place. It would either happen when the bullet reached my heart (or some other vital part of me) or when I managed to persuade Orvin to make the bullet explode, as all the bullets were capable of doing. If it blew up now, it would probably take my leg off and leave the rest of me alive, at least for a while.
Obviously I did not die in the bunker.