Excerpt: Iron Gods by Andrew Bannister

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In the depths of space, a beacon has awakened. And an ancient technology has begun to stir. As its memory returns, with it comes a terrifying knowledge—a grave warning about the future of the Spin that has been concealed for ten thousand years.

Ten thousand years after the events of Creation Machine, the Spin is in decline and the beleaguered slave economy of the Inside is surrounded by rebel civilizations. A group of escapees from the vast forced-labor unit known as the Hive have stolen the last of the Inside’s ancient warships and woken it from an enforced trance that had lasted for millennia. And someone has destroyed a planet that didn’t exist, and halfway across the Spin, something has gone wrong with the sky.

Iron Gods by Andrew Bannister is available on July 30. Please enjoy the following excerpt!

Three Quarter Circle Harbour

When Belbis had first made the Long Walk he had been eleven years old. It had taken him almost three greater moons, and for the first twenty days his legs had trembled and ached from rise to set. Seven years later he was far stronger. It should take him little more than a greater moon – but he would still be tired when he got there.

He walked steadily, using the terse economical stride that all his people were taught from their very first steps. Walking was important and it had to be done properly. When Belbis was younger he had taken this so seriously that he had driven his teachers to the edge of madness.

But then Belbis took everything very seriously. Otherwise, what was the point? Things were there to be taken seriously. How else should he take them? Most people seemed not to understand that, but Belbis didn’t mind because he knew very well that he didn’t understand most people. On that at least, he and his teachers had agreed. He had therefore taken the only obvious route in life, and everyone including him had been relieved. Besides, the Circle’s last Painter had died the winter before, and the Predigers were sternly certain that there was only a limited period of grace allowed to find another, so Belbis the Odd had become Belbis the Painter quickly and smoothly.

He took on the grey robe of the Novice – the lowest rank of the Order, but the highest a Painter was allowed – almost with relief. Simple certainties suited Belbis.

The route of the Long Walk was not complex. By tradition it began at the furthest point out to sea of the longest dock at Circle Harbour. From there it plodded on to dry land, past the slipways with their vivid smells of tar and human waste, past the rope walks and oil stores, and past the flensing yards where the great, prized bull-fins were sliced apart with razor-edged spades, leaving the remains to flow back down the glistening gut-ramps and into the back harbour where lesser creatures waited, their mouths open. The lesser creatures were themselves the prey of creatures in some ways even lower, as far as society was concerned: the starving, the ill and the old, who waited above them with clubs and sticks, watching for a chance. When you were too old or too ill to fish, Circle Harbour had no use for you, and no food either.

Belbis didn’t like strong smells. He hastened through the first part of the Walk with his eyes fixed on the ground and his throat tensed, in case he should commit the blasphemy of retching.

After the flensing yards the route jinked round the Quay Sergeant’s hut, with its own particular smells of fried food and tube smoke and stump brew, and became more agreeable. Or mostly more agreeable; Belbis didn’t like the part when he passed the big dwellings at the upper end of Founders’ Green. This was where the wealthy had their town-houses, great halls built with massive timbers resting on low walls of mortared schist. The wealthiest had roofs of schist, too, instead of thatch or turf, and the smoke from their chimneys smelled not of dried seaweed but of scented wood. Sweet-smelling or not, Belbis had observed the unsayable fact that the wealthier the family, the more agnostic they became. Never overtly atheist, of course, that would have been suicidal, but even so Belbis never lost his astonishment at how much doubt one could entertain without actually being a formal unbeliever. Especially if one was rich.

His astonishment didn’t protect him from the taunts and the occasional flung stone. He could ignore them. Such things had always been part of his life. He supposed they always would be. The Order was unpopular – he had been told that one of the main functions of a priesthood was to be resented, especially in times when the fishing was poor. Not that any of the Predigers ever went fishing.

After Founders’ Green the Long Walk passed the great public park of Founders’ Fields, kinking inwards as the park narrowed at the upper end to skirt the Ending Place, where a few people every week met their end on the edge of the Dispatcher’s axe: criminals, certainly, and traitors, and also those who were possibly less doubting than the residents of the big houses of Founders’ Green but also less rich.

The Dispatcher wore the darkest black robes, indicating seniority over all but the ten highest Klerikers. Belbis had heard townspeople whisper that black didn’t show bloodstains, but that wasn’t the real reason. The Dispatcher had people to deal with blood, on robes or elsewhere.

The channel from the Ending Place wound its way down the town, avoiding the wealthiest neighbourhoods, until it joined the gut-ramps near the harbour. Belbis had heard that things were added to the blood to keep it fluid. He didn’t know for sure, but it seemed reasonable. These things could be done, as he knew very well from his own profession, and after all you wouldn’t want the channels to block.

The Ending Place marked the outskirts of the town. After that the Walk wandered out through private estates and farmland until it had climbed off the coastal platforms that nurtured the town and the harbour and was heading for the mountains. Day by day the landscape drew in around him as broad valleys became narrow rocky slots, often with cold rivers hissing down them. Night by night he slept as he had been taught, sprawled under his cloak with his cheek resting on his arm and his eyes turned away from the stars. He would not see the stars until his journey was over. No Painter ever did.

Towards the end of the Walk he always became very hungry. Down on the plains there had been berries and a few larger fruits. By tradition the Painter could forage only within ten paces to either side of the Walk, and some of the older farming folk planted bushes within reach, and watched and nodded as the Painter took the food. But as he climbed away from the fertile lands the food thinned out and he had to rely on the baked ration from his little pack. It was not enough, but then it wasn’t meant to be. The Painter should arrive at the Watch House with his eyes large and his blood thin, people said.

Belbis reached the Watch House on the evening of the third day before the full dark of the last greater moon of the year. It was an auspicious time. The skies were clear and black with frost and bright with stars.

The Watch House perched on the top of a narrow peak at the highest point in the Spine Range, so called because it crossed the continent in a shallow S-curve that looked like deformity. The House was wooden, a battered castle of a place wedged and propped off the top of the mountain on great rough trunks socketed into the grey rock. There was only one entrance, a swaying unguarded timber walkway that sprang off the end of a shelf of rock just big enough for a man to stand on, if he pressed himself back against the rock wall behind him.

The walkway – a spiritual challenge in itself – was twenty paces long. At its other end the three Housekeepers stood waiting, faint and grey in the starlight. They carried no lanterns; in deference to the needs of the Painter, the Watch House at night was kept in complete darkness, and so were its keepers. As Belbis came nearer he could see their empty eye sockets, blacker shadows in the grey. He had shuddered when he first saw them.

Painters were chosen young, but Keepers were selected at birth.

He bowed to the Housekeepers as he had done for the last seven years. With the enhanced senses of the lifelong sightless they somehow registered his bow – he always wondered how; air currents? The rustle of his robe? – and bowed in return. Then they stood aside and gestured him into the Watch House.

His feet knew the way. He walked up steps, and then up narrower steps, to the Painters’ loft. The bench was empty except for the two shallow antimony bowls, as wide as the palm of his hand. The rest of the tools were his. He opened his pack, took out the leather roll and unrolled it on the bench between the bowls. The tools came into view one by one: the pens with their different-sized nibs, from thin to bulky. The brushes, and then the other tools. And the dressings.

He thought for a moment before selecting one of the glass shards. He took it between finger and thumb, lifted aside his robe to expose the top of his thigh, and made a quick slicing movement.

Blood welled in dark berry drops. He put the shard back on the leather, picked up a bowl and pressed its edge into his thigh just below the cut. A slow trickle collected in the bottom of the bowl.

Belbis waited until he had a pool two fingers across. Then he put the bowl on the table and pressed a dressing against his cut, shutting his eyes against the sting and counting to ten to give the astringent time to seal his flesh. Then he picked up a fine outline pen, dipped it in the bowl and poised it above the sheet of paper. Only then did he reach up with his other hand to pull the cord which opened the moon shutters.

For a moment he stared, wide eyed. Then he screamed.

For the first time in his life, for the first time in five hundred lives, the sky held the wrong number of Gods.

His scream brought the Housekeepers. At first he babbled and pointed at the patch of sky between the moon shutters but they shook their heads and gestured at their empty sockets. So then he told them.

The old men conferred. Then, looking grim, they waved Belbis to follow them. They led him down flights and flights of stairs he had barely noticed to a part of the Watch House he had never visited before: a chamber that must have been carved out of the peak of the mountain itself because unlike everything else in the Watch House it was made not of wood but of stone, as dry and dusty as ancient death. In the middle of the chamber there was a single black waist-high pillar that looked like a cannon, mounted vertically with its blank mouth gaping upwards.

The oldest of the Housekeepers passed his hand over the mouth of the thing just once. Then he stood back.

For a moment nothing happened. Then Belbis jumped. A quiet voice had spoken out of nowhere. The accent was outlandish but the words were clear. ‘Ignition active,’ it said. ‘Please vacate the area.’

Belbis looked at the Housekeepers. They had linked hands to form a circle round the pillar. ‘The thing said to go,’ he said. ‘Where should we go?’

The oldest spoke, without turning his face towards Belbis. ‘Go as far as you can.’ Then he clamped his lips firmly closed.

Belbis turned and ran. He had reached the outer walkway when the light exploded soundlessly behind him.

Down on the plains, people looked up and wondered at the fierce green beam that pierced the sky.

Copyright © 2019 by Andrew Bannister

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