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extracts from the novel

by Neal Asher

Cowl by Neal AsherEngineer Goron:

From what I have learned from the two survivors, we have to find another way to attack Cowl. The first of the group took with them a fusion and displacement generator to punch through into interspace to provide an energy tap. This was so subsequent travellers could arrive accurately at the same location -- the inaccuracy of time travel increasing proportionally to the temporal distance from a suitable energy source. In this they succeeded. But being able to transport only a few personnel and small amounts of equipment on each trip, it still took them too long to establish a base. The preterhuman detected the tap and sent his pet -- now grown into something titanic. It killed them on Earth, and in interspace as they fled. Ate them alive.

A storm was opening white-hot cracks in the basalt sky, and soon the rain would be etching all exposed metal. Polly knew she should get undercover, as such acidic downpours made all but synthetic clothing degrade to the strength of wet blotting paper, caused hair to fall out, and laid rashes across a person's scalp. After grinding out her cigarette, she pulled her rain-film from its cigar-sized cartridge, and suddenly felt a loneliness the vodka had failed to dispel. It was at times like this that she most missed Marjae: when they would have headed back to the flat to split a block of Moroccan, drink coffee, and jaw away the evening before setting out for the night trade.

When Polly had lost her virginity at the age of eleven, her mother, a Christian Scientist, spent the next year trying to beat the sin out of her. At the age of twelve Polly spent several months stealing all the money she could, without rousing suspicion, packed her rucksack with portable valuables, and left her mother lying on the repro lino with an antique stainless-steel vegetable knife in her groin, and the instruction to pray for stitches. As far as she was concerned she'd never really had a mother, and the only person she valued any more than herself had been Marjae. But now there was only shadow.

With her rain film belling out around her, and her hood up, Polly headed back through streets already turning slick with a cloudy drizzle. Every now and again, a gust of wind wafted the smell of sulphur dioxide from where the acid in the falling rain reacted with discarded coke cans or other garbage. In a few minutes she reached the door to her tenement, fumbled her keycard into its slot, then shouldered the door open. In the cold light cast by everlasting bulbs she climbed the stairs with her hand ready on the small taser in her handbag. She'd been rolled in here before and she wasn't going to let it happen again. Reaching the plastic door to her flat she checked behind her before using the card again and entering.

"Lights," she said, quickly closing the door behind her. The lights flickered on just in time to reveal the man in Task Force fatigues as he stepped up close to her and slammed her back against the door.

"Nandru!" She was more surprised than scared, but that soon changed.

"You touch it, you know, and it calls to you ... calls to you all the time," he hissed, his breath rank, eyes not tracking properly.

"Nandru ... what is it?"

His hair was filthy and there was a week's stubble on his chin. He looked out of it -- on something.

"But they are U-gov -- straight out of Brussels," he said. "Vat-grown, I'd bet."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Polly said.

"You know what it means to be hunted?" he snarled.

She shook her head.

He gestured with the gun as if for emphasis, but when he did so, Polly flinched. This wasn't his usual UN-issue stunner, nor was it hardware commonly found on the streets. But Polly did recognise the weapon as a favorite in the latest smash-em-up VR interactives: it was a MOG 5, a weapon that fired depleted uranium bullets, seeker rounds, and mini high-yield grenades capable of turning a house to pebble-sized rubble -- if the interactives, the ints, were to be believed.

"Do you know!" he yelled.

Polly stared at his bloodshot eyes and ravaged face, then lowered her gaze to the cluster of barrels he waved under her chin. She carefully reached out and pushed him away then, unhooking her handbag, stepped past him to the sofa, where she sat down. She found her lighter and cigarettes, lit up and blew a plume of smoke.

"Why don't you tell me," she said, slurring only a little despite the vodka she'd been downing all evening.

He gestured with the miniature Gatling barrels towards the window -- streaked now with neon-lit rain, the colours changing every second as the bar sign across the street went through its sequence. Walking over to the pane, he stood silhouetted against it for a moment.

"It's all shit," he said. "If it's hunting you, you're nothing -- you don't mean anything to the future. You're just a taste, a scrap of protein, and there's nothing you can do -- nothing. Christ we're just fucking morsels to it, and it can have us any time it likes. It's going to have me. It knows it. I know it. Just a game to it."

Still by the window, he leant his shoulder against the frame, the gun resting in the crook of his right arm. With his left hand he reached out and smeared the condensation on the glass -- it was hot in her flat -- and he sighed, suddenly looking very tired. This had to be about Marjae.

Because of their trade, she and Polly had received the World Health download for free. Polly had watched it during an evening taken off to allow the prescribed drugs she was taking to clear up her latest recurrence of herpes -- contracted before Marjae had finished training her in the hygiene discipline of their trade. The most recent and rugged HIV caused New Aids, the download had informed her. This particular bug could survive outside the human body for as long as an hour and could be passed on with the same ease as hepatitis A. Public toilets came under stringent health restrictions and, in some levels of society it was already fashionable to wear masks outside of the home. On the street, there was a rumour that the virus was able to survive in the proboscis of a mosquito, and that this information had been suppressed. It wasn't a new rumour. Marjae was found to be HIV positive during her monthly test a year after they'd laughed at that download -- presented by a supercilious doctor personality -- and been so certain that they were not stupid enough to end up infected. She died from one of the pneumonias a year after that. PS 24 probably, as that was the one rife at the time. It was Marjae, Polly remembered, who had observed, "The man said it's like the wars y'know? We're getting wise enough to number 'em."

Marjae: lying skeletal on a bed in the confinement hospital. One last little chat while she lay with the euthanizer in her lap, a finger poised over the button. Polly's replies muffled by the surgical mask she wore.

"It ain't easy any more. It'll kill you. Get out. Get out while you can."

Her finger rattled on the button until a little red light came on, and the killing drugs shot through the pipes to her catheter. Ten minutes later she was asleep, ten minutes after that she was dead and, Polly realised as she left the hospital, in another half hour Marjae would be in the incinerator. Those hospitals had a high turnover, and U-gov efficiency targets to meet.

When Marjae euthanised, Nandru had been out with Task Force, cauterising the latest haemorrhage of fanaticism spreading from oil wells run dry. He must blame her for his sister's death. Polly decided she needed something a little stronger to get her through whatever was coming. From the back of her cigarette packet she pulled her last H-patch, stripped off the backing, and pressed it into the crook of her arm.

"Look ... I'm sorry about Marjae," she said.

He turned from the window and stared at her in confused bewilderment, then his expression sharpened when he saw what she was doing.

"You stupid ignorant little bitch. You want to end up like my sister?" he sneered.

"Aids and Sep," she managed as she pressed the H-patch tighter against her skin and shuddered with expected pleasure. "She was jabbing. That's real dumb."

"So you're the sensible girl?" he hissed at her.

Irony, that was. Polly knew what irony was, even now. The hit from the patch was weak; it in fact seemed to sober her rather than take her anywhere pleasant. She needed to use the chaser -- the second patch -- but knew that to do so would probably further piss off Nandru. He moved close now, leaning over her.

"Well, sensible girl ... I've seen it, stretching farther than the eye can see: a hell of flesh and teeth and bone, and of course the scales. Just a glimpse, mind. Just a glimpse past the feeding mouth it used to take four binpots, then Leibnitz, Smith ... Patak."

Fucking insane.

She must have lost it for a moment then, because when she came back, Nandru was sitting on the arm of the sofa, the weapon resting greasy against one of her cushions. In his hand, he held an object that glittered

" ... too much of a literary reference don't you think?"

"What? What?"

He was staring at her again with that sick crazy look. "I haven't got time and you're too smashed to understand." He reached into the pocket of his fatigues, took out a roll of money, and showed it to her "You get this after you've followed my instructions I'd give it to you right now but I know you'd be useless to me if I did. Hopefully I can get this done before it gets me. You see, I'm a marked man -- I've been selected from the fat stock." He paused, suddenly looking very angry. "You know, they didn't give a fuck about the rest of us -- had us confined and wired so they could watch and learn while it took us. Well, I'll take them, you just watch me."

Polly stared at him in bewilderment. Some animal had killed his men and was hunting him. Who were they? Separate from that animal? What was he talking about? She eyed the money as he slipped it back into his pocket.

"I took it to our place, you see. You remember? Our party place before the two of you went shit out ... " He leaned closer and shook her hard. "Do you remember!"

"Yeah! Yeah I remember. Back off for fuck's sake!"

She'd sucked down a real interesting piece of blotting paper while camping out in the Anglia Reforest. Why it was called that, she had no idea, as there hadn't been forest there before the flood and the reclamation. East Anglia had been mega-fields and factory complexes stretching from the outskirts of London to the coast. Maybe the name referred to the far past; way back premillennial, before the European space station and the Big Heat, back when knights in armour charged after dinosaurs, and all that crap. Polly was hazy about the details.

Their camp had been next to a ruin that was little more than half-collapsed breeze-block and brick cavity walls, the cavities packed with estuary mud sprouting stinging nettles and thistles. This ruin had stood in the shadow of a thermal generating tower built there when the place had still been under water. The holiday had been Marjae's idea. They'd spent two days on bennies and disiacs, partying with Nandru and one of his comrades from the Task Force: screwing amid the rough grass and stinging nettles, stopping only when the chemicals ran out and they began to feel real sore.

"The old house under the tower," Nandru reminded. "I won't tell you exactly, in case they put a bend on you. I'll instruct you when you lead them there. You know, they didn't dare feed it ... kept it in Isolation while they studied it."

Polly accepted that there was some valuable object out there and that somehow she would be involved. She smelt money. She smelt danger. Now she turned her attention to the glittery thing he held.

"This is state, diamond state. They got some in Delta Force and maybe in the SAS. Like I said before, they're called Muses." He must have told her when she was out of it. She studied what he held out to her. In his palm rested a fancy ear stud and a teardrop of aluminium the size of a cigarette lighter. "It's AI: got about a hundred terabytes of reference, can fuck any idiot silicon within five metres." He caught her by the shoulder and pressed the teardrop into the hollow at the base of her throat. It hurt. It hurt a lot.

"What is it! What are you doing!"

He was at her handbag and in a moment had found what he wanted. He held up the second patch for her to see, and she nodded, choking as the pain spread from the base of her throat to the back of her neck, as if someone were slowly sawing off her head. Moving in front of her he parted her legs, then reached up to press the patch against her inner thigh, just hidden there by her leather pelmet. DP they called it: double patching. The second patch was an 'endorph gate naltraxone derivative' -- or a 'pearly', to those who used them. It reactivated over-backed neural receptors, brought the H-hit back on line; made it like it was. The pain faded and Polly lay back to stare at the pretty lights. Vaguely she heard a door open and close.

Consciousness returned ungently and Tack found he could not move. Staring up at dusty beams, he at first thought the assailant had broken his neck. But it wasn't the beating that had paralysed him. The familiar sensation of imperatives dissolving in his skull told him that he was connected, as did the raw pain at the back of his neck where his interface plug was located. It was apparent someone had done some home surgery, on this dusty floor he lay upon, to access this plug and connect him up. He was being reprogrammed, and there was nothing he could do about it.

Movement to his left, but he could not turn his head to look. Someone said something in a language he did not recognise, then went on with, "Ah, you took your time, but then I suppose that's to be expected. You AD humans are soft, and riddled with imprecise genes."

The face of the white-skinned man loomed above, expression contemptuous.

"You knew the fundamental laws of evolution and you ignored them. You bred strong diseases and weak humans, poisoned with a shitload of inherited idiot programming. You, Tack, have been doubly programmed. And your second program is about to be replaced."

The stranger liked to talk, that was evident. Tack listened as best he could, through the white noise in his brain, as imperatives were changed and new instructions melded into place.

"Normally we would have nothing to do with your type, but this opportunity to grow a viable tor we cannot miss."

The man's face hovered above Tack again for a moment, then went away. Tack was left with an impression of alienness, but not one easy for him to define.

"The tor is the device you were sent to retrieve in a future that does not exist, as of here and now. The piece broken off in your wrist, given the right nutrients and conditions, can be encouraged to grow into an entire new tor. And that would be one of which Cowl has no knowledge. Perhaps through you we can get to him at last."

"Cowl?" Tack managed, his voice grating dry in his throat.

"Ah, Cowl." A hiss now came into the man's tone. "Cowl is a step too far for a social species. He is the ultimate individual and, though I hate to admit it, the ultimate application of Darwin's laws. He kills every threat to him and would destroy humanity to save himself. Your existence is threatened, just as much as mine."

Tack just didn't get it -- it was all too much. But he did recognise someone far beyond him in the arts of violence, and he wondered about his captor's programming.

"You may sit up now."

Tack did as instructed and found himself on the floor of a barn, in a space walled around with straw bales like huge bricks. Sunlight stabbed through holes in the shiplap wall and illuminated motes of dust in the air. Nearby was an old grey tractor steadily being iced with bird droppings. Tack looked first at his captor, then at the cable snaking from the back of his own neck to a strange-looking portable console propped on some rusting farm implement. The console appeared to have been fashioned from glass, in a suitable shape, then again melted and allowed to distort and sag before cooling. Turning aside, he noticed a ploughshare only inches from his right hand, but he found he could not act on his initial intention, which was to pick up the lump of iron and cleave that white face with it.

"Pick up the console and stand."

Tack did precisely as instructed. His programming had changed, and he resented it. He suddenly resented all such control: he wanted to be himself. Was that urge part of his new programming?

"You may detach the cable now."

Tack obeyed, his fingers pulling the bloody optical plug free from the back of his neck. White-face took cable and console from him and placed them in a backpack. Returning, he reached around and pressed something against the wound in the back of Tack's neck. Tack could feel that object moving as it occupied the cavity there, and sealed it shut. The other man then pointed to the backpack.

"Pick that up and put it on."

Tack did as instructed.


There had never been questions when dealing with his DO. Tack asked anyhow.

"What do I call you?"

"You call me Traveller. It is a title in our time, and you do not have my permission to use my given name."

Tack absorbed our time and wondered just when this man was from.

"What do you want of me? I didn't understand you before."

"It's not really you we want, just what is imbedded in your wrist."

Traveller pointed at Tack's arm. Tack raised it and now saw that his wrist was enclosed in a transparent band filled with esoteric electronics and some sort of gelatinous fluid. Only just could he see the thing embedded in his wrist through all this -- it lay at the centre of an array of golden connections almost like an integrated circuit.

"What's a tor?" he finally asked

"Tors are complex organic time machines: portable and biased towards the past they are sent from. Our machines, unfortunately, must push from the future into that past, against all Cowl's traps and juggled alternates, and up the probability slope he's shoving us down."

"I still don't understand."

"Of course you don't. You think linear. What you must be is the ultimate existentialist: only what you perceive is real. If you travel into the past and kill your father before you were conceived, all that happens is you cause an alternate to sprout from that point in time. That act, though, would shove you far down the probability slope, and you would be unlikely to be able to travel ever again. You would become trapped in the alternate you created."

"Probability slope?" Tack felt as if he was trudging through treacle.

"The parallels are in the form of a wave, and the main line sits at the apex of this wave. The other parallels fall down from this apex in descending order of probability. The farther down that probability slope you are, the more energy you require to time-travel. Both our lines, from our perspective, are coming off the apex. Mine is farther down than yours."

Tack discovered humour. "Thank you for clearing that up for me," he said.

Traveller hit him and he spun and went down, overbalanced by the pack, blood spurting from his nose into the dirt. Traveller stooped over him, and yanked his head up by the hair. Tack found his hand on the butt of his seeker gun, but unable to draw it.

"When we're done with you," Traveller hissed. "I may yet kill you." He grabbed Tack's arm and held it up so that Tack could again see clearly the band around his wrist. "Understand that this is all that's keeping you alive at present, simply because the nutrients it is currently drawing from your body are keeping it alive." Traveller then hauled Tack to his feet, one-handed, with the ease of a man picking up a rag doll, and shoved him towards the double doors of the barn. "Now, get moving."

The double door opened onto a yard of compacted road scrapings, along the opposite side of which stood a Dutch barn sheltering a combine harvester, a tractor, and the tractor's various implements. Wiping blood from his face, Tack noticed a plough with its numerous shares polished bright by recent use, and wanted to throw Traveller at this tangle of iron and hear his bones break.

"Turn to the right," said Traveller, and Tack could do nothing but obey his new master. Glancing back he saw a farmhouse and wondered if this was the same one from which he had heard voices the night before, when he received his beating. Ahead lay a track leading out between fields of newly turned earth glistening like brown scales in the morning sun. It was cold, his breath steamed in the air, and he noticed frost sugaring the nettles and elder that grew in the shade of the outbuildings.

"Where are we going?" he asked, hoping this would not be a punishable question.

Traveller glanced at him. "Out to the sea wall along from where you came in. We got you located as soon as the torbearer broke away from you, but we didn't act on that for many years. We had the tor located in your original time, but the beast was there guarding it until it was taken up, as it always does."


Tack did not ask that question. He pursued his original query: "Why are we going there?"

"There we use the mantisal that brought me here. It is presently sitting out of phase underneath the slope," replied Traveller, impatience in his voice.


"Enough. I haven't the inclination now, and you haven't the intelligence."

Tack had realised the limit on how far he could push, so clamped his mouth shut as he tramped along beside Traveller. Evidently he was being dragged into a situation it would take him some effort to understand, but that there was a chance for him to understand it fully was an indulgence U-gov had never allowed him.

Between the fields they followed the track out and round to the left, where it finished against a gate and a thick blackthorn hedge. Beyond the gate was a field that had been left fallow long enough for brambles to take hold. After climbing over the gate they worked their way around the edge of the field to where a path had been beaten by frequent use through the vegetation. The far side of this field was bordered by a barbed-wire fence with a stile at one end. Climbing this they then crossed a grass area as wide as a motorway, and finally mounted the sea wall.

The sea did not come right up to the wall itself here, as between there lay an area of mud flats overgrown with sea sage and whitish grass, cut through with channels clogged with glossy mud and encroached by the marching growth of samphire. Traveller pointed out a wreck half sunk in the flats, its portals like blind eyes, and the mud all around stained with rust. Negotiating a course out to this, across tough grass on which crab carapaces seemed to be impaled, and avoiding the channels that might easily suck them down, they came at last to the edge of a muddy hollow containing the mass of black wood and corroding metal. Traveller stood there for a while with his eyes closed and his head tilted back, a salt breeze whipping loose strands of hair around his face.

Observing the man, Tack was struck by just how different he appeared. It was not so much the albinism, but the bone structure underneath. Traveller was elfin ... or demonic.

"When it comes, you climb inside and make yourself as comfortable as you can. While we shift, you must not extend any part of yourself outside of its structure, or that part will ablate in interspace." Traveller opened his eyes and gazed at Tack, and those eyes were now brighter, more intense. Tack saw that they were almost orange in colour, and could not understand why he had not noticed this before. He nodded dumbly, not really understanding.

Traveller gestured in the direction of the wreck and, in the empty air between them and it, something began to phase into existence. It was spherical, at least five metres across, a vaguely geodesic structure formed of glassy struts ranging in thickness from that of a human finger to a man's leg. As it slid closer to them, Tack saw that within the substance of this thing veins and capillaries pulsed, and that the thicker areas were occupied by half-seen complex structures that sometimes looked like living organs and sometimes tangled masses of circuitry. From the outer structure, curving members grew inwards to intersect below two smaller spheres that were only a little larger than human heads. The curve of these members left enough space for Tack and Traveller to occupy, overlooked by the two spheres. Only when he gripped what felt like warm glass and hauled himself up behind Traveller into the cavity, did Tack realise just what the twin spheres actually were. They were huge multifaceted eyes positioned above fused together glassy feeding mandibles, a spread-thin thorax, and the beginning of legs that blended into the curving outer members, and thence into the surrounding sphere. He had just climbed inside some insane glassmakers representation of a giant praying mantis turned inside out.

"It's alive," Tack observed.

"Where I come from," Traveller replied, "defining what life is has become a little problematic. Now be silent until I tell you that you may speak again."

Tack felt the power of this order operating through his new programming, and knew that were Traveller to abandon him right then, he would never be able to speak again unless reprogrammed. Inside the strange creation he found a place to jam the backpack, a ridge on which he could seat himself, and one of the internal struts to hang on to.

Traveller stood before the mantis head and reached out towards the eyes. His hands sank into them as if into syrup, and the surrounding structure took on the tint of molten glass. Then the world departed and Tack found himself weightless in a glass cage flying through a grey abyss over a sea of rolling darkness. In this he saw a vastness beyond comprehension, combined with an impossible lack of perspective, and in trying to comprehend both of these felt something straining to break away in his mind. After a moment he closed his eyes, and wished it would all go away.


© Neal Asher 2004, 2005.
Cowl was published in the UK by Tor UK in March 2004.


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