Extract / Preview: Confluence The Trilogy by Paul McAuley (from Child of the River, Book 1)

CPP - PM - Confluence The Trilogy


The White Boat

The Constable of Aeolis was a shrewd, pragmatic man who did not believe in miracles. In his opinion, everything must have an explanation, and simple explanations were best of all. ‘The sharpest knife cuts cleanest,’ he often told his sons. And: ‘The more a man talks, the more likely it is he’s lying.’
But to the end of his days, he could not explain the affair of the white boat.
It happened one midsummer night, when the huge black sky above the Great River was punctuated only by a scattering of dim halo stars and the dull red swirl of the Eye of the Preservers, no bigger than a man’s hand and outshone by the heaped lights of the little city of Aeolis and the lights of the carracks riding at anchor outside the harbour entrance.

The summer heat was oppressive to the people of Aeolis. For most of the day they slept in the relative cool of their seeps and wallows, rising to begin work when the Rim Mountains clawed the setting sun, and retiring again when the sun rose, renewed, above the devouring peaks. In summer, stores and taverns and workshops stayed open from dusk until dawn, fishing boats set out at midnight to trawl the black river for shrimp and noctilucent jellyfish, and the streets of Aeolis were crowded and bustling beneath the flare of cressets and the orange glow of sodium-vapour lamps. On summer nights, the lights of Aeolis burned like a beacon in the midst of the dark shore.

That particular night, the Constable and his two eldest sons were rowing back to Aeolis in their skiff with two vagrant river traders who had been arrested while trying to run bales of cigarettes to the hill tribes of the wild shore downstream of Aeolis. Part of the traders’ contraband cargo, soft bales sealed in plastic wrap and oiled cloth, was stacked in the forward well of the skiff; the traders lay in the stern, trussed like shoats for the slaughter. The skiff’s powerful motor had been shot out in the brief skirmish, and the Constable’s sons, already as big as their father, sat side by side on the centre thwart, rowing steadily against the current. The Constable was perched on a leather cushion in the skiff’s high stern, steering for the lights of Aeolis.

The Constable was drinking steadily from a cruse of wine. He was a large man with loose grey skin and gross features, like a figure hastily moulded from clay and abandoned before completion. A pair of tusks protruded like daggers from his meaty upper lip. One, broken when the Constable had fought and killed his father, was capped with silver: silver chinked against the neck of the cruse every time he took a swig of wine.

He was not in a good temper. He would make a fair profit from his half of the captured cargo (the other half would go to the Aedile, if he could spare an hour from his excavations to pronounce sentence on the traders), but the arrest had not gone smoothly. The river traders had hired a pentad of ruffians as an escort, and they had put up a desperate fight before the Constable and his sons had managed to despatch them. The Constable had taken a bad cut to his shoulder, cleaved through blubber to the muscle beneath, and his back had been scorched by reflection of the pistol bolt that had damaged the skiff’s motor. Fortunately, the weapon, which probably predated the foundation of Aeolis, had misfired on the second shot and killed the man using it, but the Constable knew that he could not rely on good luck forever. He was getting old, was ponderous and bumbling when once he had been quick and strong. He knew that sooner or later one of his sons would challenge him, and he was worried that this night’s botched episode was a harbinger of his decline. Like all strong men, he feared his own weakness more than death, for strength was how he measured the worth of his life.

Now and then he turned and looked back at the pyre of the smugglers’ boat. It had burned to the waterline, a flickering dash of light riding  its own reflection far out across the river’s broad black plain. The Constable’s sons had run it aground on a mudbank so that it would not drift amongst the banyan islands which at this time of year spun in slow circles in the shallow sargasso of the Great River’s nearside shoals, tethered only by fine  nets of feeder roots.

One of the river traders lay as still as a sated cayman, resigned to his fate, but his partner, a tall, skinny old man naked but for a breechclout and an unravelling turban, was trying to convince the Constable to let him go. Yoked hand to foot so that his knees were drawn up to his chest, he stared up at the Constable from the well, his insincere smile like a rictus, his eyes so wide with fear that white showed clear around their slitted irises. At first he had tried to gain the Constable’s attention with flattery; now he was turning to threats.

‘I have many friends, captain, who would be unhappy to see me in your jail,’ he said. ‘There are no walls strong enough to withstand the force of their friendship, for I am a generous man. I am known for my generosity across the breadth of the river.’

The Constable rapped the top of the trader’s turban with the stock of his whip, and for the fourth or fifth time advised him to be quiet. It was clear from the arrowhead tattoos on the man’s fingers that he belonged to one of the street gangs that roved the wharves of Ys. Any friends he might have were a hundred leagues upriver, and by dusk tomorrow he and his companion would be dead.

The skinny trader babbled, ‘Last year, captain, I took it upon myself to sponsor the wedding of the son of one of my dear friends, who had been struck down in the prime of life. Bad fortune had left his widow with little more than a rented room and nine children to feed. The son was besotted, his bride’s family impatient. This poor lady had no one to turn to but myself. And I, captain, remembering the good company of my friend, his wisdom and his friendly laughter, took it upon myself to organise everything. Four hundred people ate and drank at the celebration, and I counted them all as my friends. Quails’ tongues in aspic we had, captain, washed down with yellow wine a century old. And mounds of oysters and fish roe, and elvers in parsley broth, and carpaccio of wild duck served with blood sauce and pickled reed heads, and baby goats whose flesh was as soft as the saffron butter they’d been seethed in.’

Perhaps there was a grain of truth in the story. Perhaps the man had been one of the guests at such a wedding, but he could not have sponsored it. No one desperate enough to try to smuggle cigarettes to the hill tribes could afford to lavish that kind of money on an act of charity.

The Constable rapped the skinny trader on the head again, told him that he was a dead man, and dead men had no friends. ‘Compose yourself. Our city might be a small place, but it has a shrine, and it was one of the last places along all the river’s shore where avatars talked with men, before the Insurrectionists silenced them. Pilgrims still come here, believing that the shrine’s avatars are still able to listen to confessions and petitions. We’ll let you speak your piece before the shrine after you’ve been sentenced, so you’d be better off thinking of how to account for your miserable life rather than wasting your breath by pleading for mercy you don’t deserve and won’t get.’

‘I can be as generous to you as I am to my friends, captain,’ the trader said. ‘If you need money I can get you money. If you have enemies, I know people who can make them disappear. A single word from me, and it will be as if they were never born. Or I could help you win promotion. I have friends in every department. Why risk your life protecting the ungrateful citizens of your mudhole of a city when you could live like a potentate in Ys?’

The boat rocked when the Constable stood. He stuck his coiled whip in his belt and drew his knife. His sons cursed wearily, and shipped their oars. The Constable planted a foot on the trader’s neck, bore down with his considerable weight. The man gasped and choked; the Constable thrust two fingers into his mouth, caught his tongue and sliced it off, and tossed the scrap of flesh  over the side of the  skiff.

As the trader gargled blood and thrashed like a landed fish, one of the Constable’s sons cried out. ‘Boat ahead! Leastways, I think it’s a boat.’

This was Urthank, a dull-witted brute grown as heavy and muscular as his father. The Constable knew that it would not be long before Urthank roared his challenge, and also knew that the boy would lose. Urthank was too stupid to wait for the right moment: it was not in his nature to suppress an impulse. No, Urthank would not defeat him. It would be one of the others. But Urthank’s challenge would be the beginning of the end.

The Constable searched the darkness. For a moment he thought he glimpsed a fugitive glimmer, but it could have been a mote floating in his eye, or a dim star glinting at the edge of the world’s level horizon.

‘You’re dreaming,’ he said. ‘Set to rowing or the sun will be up before we get back.’

‘I saw it,’ Urthank insisted.

The other son, Unthank, laughed.

‘There!’ Urthank said. ‘There it is again! Dead ahead, just like I told you.’

This time the Constable saw the flicker of light. His first thought was that perhaps the trader had not been boasting after all. He said quietly, ‘Go forward. Feathered oars.’

As the skiff glided against the current, the Constable fumbled a clamshell case from the pouch hung on the belt of his white linen kilt. The skinny trader was making wet, choking sounds. The Constable kicked him into silence before opening the case and lifting out the spectacles. Shaped like bladeless scissors, with thick lenses of smart glass, they were the most valuable heirloom of his family, passed from defeated father to victorious son for more than a hundred generations.

The Constable carefully unfolded them and pinched them over his bulbous nose. At once, the hull of the skiff and the bales of contraband cigarettes stacked in the forward well seemed to gain a luminous sheen; the bent backs of the Constable’s sons and the bodies of the two prisoners glowed with furnace light. The Constable scanned the river, ignoring flaws in the ancient glass which warped or smudged the amplified light, and saw, half a league from the skiff, a knot of tiny, intensely brilliant specks turning above the river’s surface.

‘Machines,’ the Constable said, and stepped between the prisoners and pointed out the place to his sons.

As the skiff drew closer, he saw that there were hundreds of them, a busy cloud of tiny machines swirling around an invisible pivot. He was used to seeing one or two flitting through the air above Aeolis on their inscrutable business, but had never before seen so many in one place.

Something knocked against the side of the skiff, and Urthank cursed and feathered his oar. It was a waterlogged coffin. Every day, thousands were launched from Ys. For a moment, a woman’s face gazed up at the Constable through a glaze of water, glowing greenly amidst a halo of rotting flowers. Then the coffin turned end for end and was borne away.

The skiff had turned in the current, too. Now it was broadside to the cloud of machines, and for the first  time the Constable saw what they attended.

A boat. A white boat riding high on the river’s slow current.

The Constable took off his spectacles, and discovered that the boat glimmered with its own spectral light. The water around it glowed too, as if it floated in the centre of one of the shoals of luminous plankton that sometimes rose to the surface of the river on a calm summer night. The glow spread around the skiff, and each stroke of the oars broke its pearly light into whirling interlocking spokes, as if the ghost of a gigantic machine hung just beneath the river’s skin.

The mutilated trader groaned and coughed; his partner raised himself up on his elbows to watch as the white boat turned on the river’s current, light as a leaf, a dancer barely touching the water.

The boat had a sharp, raised prow, and incurved sides that sealed it shut and swept back in a fan, like the tail of a dove. It made another turn, seemed to stretch like a cat, and then it was alongside the skiff, pressed right against it without even a bump, and the Constable and his sons were inside the cloud of machines. Each burned with ferocious white light; none were bigger than a rhinoceros beetle. Urthank tried to swat one that hung in front of his snout, and cursed when it stung him with a flare  of red light and a crisp sizzle.

‘Steady,’ the Constable said, and someone else said hoarsely, ‘Flee.’ Astonished, the Constable turned from his inspection of the glimmering boat.

‘Flee,’ the second trader said again. ‘Flee, you fools!’

Both of the Constable’s sons were leaning on their oars, looking at their father. They were waiting for his lead. All right. He could not show that he was afraid. He put away his spectacles and reached through the whirling lights of the machines and touched the white boat.

Its hull was as light and close woven as feathers, moving under the Constable’s fingers as the incurved sides peeled back with a sticky, crackling sound. As a boy, the Constable had been given to wandering the wild shore downriver of Aeolis, and he had once come across a blood orchid growing in the cloven root of a kapok tree. The orchid had made precisely the same noise when, sensing his body heat, it had spread its fleshy lobes to reveal the lubricious curves of its creamy pistil. He had fled in terror before its perfume could overwhelm him, and the ghost of that fear crept over him now.

The hull vibrated under his fingertips with a quick, eager pulse. Light poured  out  from the boat’s  interior,  rich  and  golden  and  filled  with floating  motes.  A  shadow  lay  deep inside  this  light,  the  shadow  of  a body, and at first the Constable thought that the boat was no more than a coffin set adrift on the river’s current. The coffin of some lord or lady no doubt, but in function no different from the shoddy cardboard coffins of the poor, or the painted wooden coffins of the artisans and traders.

And then a baby started to cry.

The Constable squinted through the light, leaned closer, reached out. For a moment he was at the incandescent heart of the machines’ intricate dance, and then they were gone, dispersing in flat trajectories into the darkness. The baby, a boy, pale and fat and hairless, squirmed in his hands.

The golden light was dying back inside the white boat. In moments, only traces remained, iridescent veins and dabs that fitfully illuminated the corpse on which the baby had been lying.

It was the corpse of a woman, naked, flat-breasted and starveling thin, and as hairless as the baby. She had been shot, once through the chest and once in the head, but there was no blood. One hand had three fingers of equal length, like the grabs of the cranes of Aeolis’s docks; the other was a monstrously swollen and bifurcate pincer, like a lobster’s claw. Her skin had a silvery-grey cast; her huge, blood-red eyes were divided into a honeycomb of cells, like the compound lenses of certain insects. Within each facet lived a flickering glint of golden light, and although the Constable knew that these were merely reflections of the white boat’s fading light, he had the strange feeling that something malevolent and watchful lived behind the dead woman’s strange eyes.

‘Heresy,’ the second trader said. He had got up on his knees somehow, and was staring wide-eyed at the white boat.

The Constable kicked the trader in the stomach and the man coughed and flopped back into the bilge water alongside his partner. He glared up at the Constable and said again, ‘Heresy. When they allowed the ship of the Ancients of Days to pass beyond Ys and sail downriver, our benevolent bureaucracies let heresy loose into the world.’

‘Let me kill him now,’ Urthank said.

‘He’s already a dead man,’ the Constable said.

‘Dead men don’t talk treason,’ Urthank said stubbornly. He was staring straight at his father.

‘Fools,’ the trader said. ‘You have all seen the argosies and carracks sailing downriver, towards the war. They are armed with cannons and siege engines, but there are more terrible weapons let loose in the world.’

‘Let me kill him,’ Urthank said again.

The baby caught at the Constable’s thumb and grimaced, as if trying to smile. The Constable gently disengaged the baby’s grip and set him on the button cushion at the stern. He moved carefully, as if through air packed with invisible boxes, aware of Urthank’s burning gaze at his back. ‘Let the man speak,’ he said. ‘He might know something.’

The trader said, ‘The bureaucrats are so frightened of heresy consuming our world that they will try anything to prevent it. Some say that they are even trying to wake the Hierarchs from their reveries.’

Unthank spat. ‘The Hierarchs are all ten thousand years dead. Every- one knows that. They were killed when the Insurrectionists threw down the temples and silenced the avatars.’

‘The Hierarchs tried to follow the Preservers,’ the trader said. ‘They rose higher than any other bloodline, but not so high that they cannot be called back.’

The Constable kicked the man and said, ‘Leave off the theology. What about the dead woman?’

‘Some say that the bureaucrats and mages are trying to create weapons using magic and forbidden science. Most likely she and the baby are fell creatures manufactured by some corrupt and unnatural process. You should destroy them both! Return the baby to the boat, and sink it!’

‘Why should I believe you?’

‘I’m a bad man. I admit it. I’d sell any one of my daughters if I could be sure of a good profit. But I studied for a clerkship when I was a boy, and I was taught well. I remember my lessons, and I know heresy when I see it.’

Unthank said slowly, ‘Heresy taints everyone it touches. Whatever these things are, we should leave them be. They aren’t any business of ours.’

‘All on the river within a day’s voyage upriver or down is my business,’ the Constable said.

‘You claim to know everything,’ Urthank said. ‘But you don’t.’

The Constable knew then that this was the moment poor Urthank had chosen. So did Unthank, who shifted on the thwart so that he was no longer shoulder to shoulder with his brother. The Constable put his hand on the stock of his whip and met Urthank’s stare and said, ‘Keep your place, boy.’

There was a moment when it seemed that Urthank would not attack. Then he inflated his chest and let out the air with a roar and, roaring, threw himself at his father.

The whip caught around Urthank’s neck with a sharp crack that echoed out across the black water. Urthank fell to his knees and grabbed hold of the whip as its loop tightened. The Constable gripped the whip with both hands and jerked it sideways as if he was holding a line which a  huge fish  had suddenly struck. The skiff tipped wildly and Urthank tumbled head first into the glowing water. But the boy did not let go of the whip. He was stupid, but he was also stubborn. The Constable staggered, dropped the whip – it hissed over the side like a snake – and fell overboard too.

The Constable shucked his loose, knee-high boots as he sank through the cold water, and kicked out towards the surface. Something grabbed the hem of his kilt, and then Urthank was trying to swarm up his body. Light exploded in the Constable’s eye as his son’s elbow struck his face. They thrashed through glowing water and burst into the air, separated by no more than an arm’s length.

The Constable spat out a mouthful of water. ‘You’re too quick to anger, son. That was always your weakness.’

He saw the shadow of Urthank’s arm sweep through the milky glow, countered the thrust with his own knife. The blades slid along each other, locking at their hilts. Urthank growled and pressed down. He was very strong. A terrific pain shot up the Constable’s arm as his knife was wrenched from his grasp and Urthank’s blade sliced his wrist. He kicked backwards in the water as Urthank slashed at his face: spray flew in a wide fan.

‘Old,’ Urthank said. ‘Old and slow.’

The Constable steadied himself with little circling kicks. He could feel his blood pulsing into the water. Urthank had caught a vein. There was a heaviness in his bones and the wound in his shoulder throbbed. He knew that Urthank was right, but he also knew that he was not prepared to die.

He said, ‘Come to me, son, and find out who is the strongest.’ Urthank’s grin freed his tusks from his lips. He threw himself forward, driving through the water with his knife held out straight, trying for a killing blow. But the water slowed him, and the Constable was able to kick sideways, always just out of reach, while Urthank stabbed wildly, sobbing curses and uselessly spending his strength. Father and son circled each other. In the periphery of his vision, the Constable was aware that the white boat had separated from the skiff, but could spare no thought for it as he avoided Urthank’s frantic onslaught.

At last, Urthank gave it up and kicked backwards, breathing hard. ‘You aren’t as strong as you thought, are you?’ the Constable said. ‘Surrender to me now and I’ll grant you a quick and honourable release.’

‘Surrender to me, old man, and I’ll give you an honourable burial on land. Or else I’ll kill you here and let the little fishes strip your bones.’

‘Your end will be neither quick nor honourable, then,’ the Constable said. ‘Because someone as weak and foolish as you can be no son of mine.’

Urthank lunged with sudden, desperate fury, and the Constable chopped at him with the side of his hand, striking his elbow at the point where the nerve travelled over bone. Urthank’s fingers opened in reflex; his knife fluttered down through the water. He dived for it without thinking, and the Constable bore down on him with all his strength and weight, enduring increasingly feeble blows to his chest and belly and legs. It took a long time, but at last he let go and Urthank’s body floated free, face down in the glowing water.

‘You were the strongest of my sons,’ the Constable said, when he  had his breath back. ‘And you were faithful, after your fashion. But you never had a good thought in your head, and couldn’t see more than five minutes into the future. Even if you had managed to defeat me, someone else would have killed you inside a year.’

Unthank paddled the skiff over, helped his father clamber aboard. The white boat floated several oar-lengths off, glimmering against the dark. The skinny trader whose tongue the Constable had cut out lay face down in the well of the skiff, drowned in his own blood. His partner was gone; Unthank said that he must have slipped over the side in the middle of all the excitement.

‘You should have brought him back,’ the Constable said. ‘He was bound hand and foot. He wouldn’t have given a big boy like you any trouble.’

Unthank returned the Constable’s gaze and said, ‘I was watching your victory, father.’

‘Watching how I did it, eh? So you’ll know what to do when your turn comes. You’re a subtle one, Unthank. Not at all like your brother.’

Unthank shrugged. ‘The prisoner probably drowned. Like you said, he was bound hand and foot.’

‘Help me with your brother.’

Together, father and son hauled Urthank’s dead weight into the skiff. The milky glow was fading from the water. After the Constable had settled Urthank’s body, he looked up and saw that the white boat had vanished. The skiff was alone on the wide dark river, under the black sky and the smudged red whorl of the Eye of the Preservers. On the leather pad by the skiff’s tiller, the baby grabbed at black air with pale starfish hands, chuckling at unguessable thoughts.



You can read more on CONFLUENCE on our Jul-Dec 15 Gollancz Books page or our August New Book Recommends. You can also read more about Paul McAuley on our Author Profile Page here!

And there’s more extracts from our pick of titles – you can see in order of most recent in our EXTRACTS ARTICLES CATEGORY  and below in order that we put them out…

SKY PIRATES – Liesel Schwarz
BLOOD RED CITY – Justin Richards
RADIANT STATE – Peter Higgins
THE SUMMONER – Taran Matharu
MARKED – Sue Tingey
BETE – Adam Roberts
STEEPLE – John Wallace
BENEATH LONDON – James Blaylock
CAUSAL ANGEL – Hannu Rajaniemi
FOXGLOVE SUMMER – Ben Aaronovitch
PATH OF GODS – Snorri Kristjansson
REGENERATION – Stephanie Saulter
IF/THEN – Matthew de Abaitua
THE SAND MEN – Christopher Fowler
MYTHMAKER – Marianne de Pierres
LIMIT – Frank Schatzing
DREAMLAND – Robert L Anderson
THE ARK – Patrick S Tomlinson