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The Skinner

extracts from the novel

by Neal Asher

The Skinner by Neal AsherIn 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 lunch-boxes, 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 swum 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, 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 as a 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 realised 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 for disgust. 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 hardwearing 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's one 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 chords 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 onto 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


"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.


The others, clustering like sheep on the small islet, fed by leaping into the sea and sinking through passing shoals of boxies, snapping up one or two of the creatures during the descent, but that was not enough for this particular whelk. Perhaps more intelligent and adventurous than its fellows, it had found an excellent feeding-ground some distance from the islet. Here opposing faces of rock walled a passage through an undersea ridge, and the whelk had learnt that at certain times this passage swarmed with shoals of boxies. It did not know anything about tides or how that, when the moon was not in the sky, the apex of the ridge broke the surface so it acted as a barrier to the eternal migration of the strange little fish. Nor did it understand that the passage was the only way through the ridge. All it did know was that if it waited for long enough on one of the rock faces, there would be a cornucopia of mobile dinners just about when it was beginning to feel hungry again. It also found that by leaping from face to face through passing shoals, it could gobble up many more boxies -- before it reached the bottom -- than by simply falling through a shoal. Of course there is no such thing as a free lunch -- someone is keeping a tab. The whelk grew faster than its own shell, and soon its tender pink body was bulging out around the lid-like clypeus that had otherwise kept it safe. A small leech, which had also discovered the bounty of the passing boxy shoals, eventually dropped onto the dispeptic whelk, wound around its shell and, extruding mouthparts like the head of a rock drill, reamed in through tender flesh and fed.

Ambel had nightmares of a sea of shifting leeches, and dreams of a thousand years of better days. The wind from Deep-sea bulged the sail, and the sail was content with the lumps of rhinoworm it had eaten that evening. Dawn's green light threw those lumps into silhouette, where they were being digested in the sail's transparent gut, and it brought Peck hammering at Ambel's door.

"There's turbul coming under! Turbul coming under!"

Ambel sat upright and distinguished the distinctive thumping coming from the hull, as the shoal of turbul passed under, from the usual ratchet and clack of the ship's mechanisms. In something of a daze, he gazed around his cabin and inspected the meagre requisites of his existence. His blunderbuss was secured with hide straps in one corner, next to the cupboard containing powder, shot, and the extensive toolkit for its maintenance. A narrow wardrobe contained his plasmesh shirts, trousers, and reinforced boots -- the only clothing that satisfied his requirements of durability. Below the oval, brass-rimmed portal was a shelf on which he had stuck a few ornaments with clam glue: an ancient piece of re-entry screen polished like a gem, a miniature human skull of facetted flint, and a cut slave collar. His gaze slid across his desk strewn with maps held down with a satlink position-finder fashioned in the shape of a preruncible calculator, and came to rest on his sea-chest. So easy to accumulate so much in the course of a long life. He stared long and hard at the chest then gave a half-shrug as he tossed his covers back.

"Turbul!" shouted Peck again. "Turbul!"

"One moment," Ambel replied.

He put his feet over the side of his bunk, stood and walked to the wardrobe to take out his neatly folded clothing. Back at the bed, he dressed, then sat down and carefully pulled on and laced up his boots. Standing once again, he walked to the door and carefully opened it. He had to do everything carefully, did Ambel. A moment's inattention could have him inadvertently ripping off someone's arm or putting his elbow through the ship's hull.

Peck was hopping from foot to foot in his excitement to get back to the lines. He had a piece of rhinoworm in one hand and bait-plug cutter in the other. Purple blood was dribbling from the meat and in his agitation he was spattering his long hide coat, canvas trousers, and the surrounding woodwork. Ambel gestured for him to get on. Peck eagerly nodded his bald head, a crazy look in his greenish eyes, and then he turned back to his fellow crewmen on the deck. Here there was much yelling and swearing, and there were many heavy wet creatures thrashing about. Ambel looked past Peck just as Pland hauled in a turbul the size of a canoe and leapt on top of it to stop it from flicking itself over the side again. The turbul was much the shape of a canoe, in fact. Its head was the head of a caiman, and all around its dark green body, bright blue fins seemed to have been scattered at random. Its tail was a whip ending in a fin that resembled a hatchet.

"Yahoo!" yelled Pland as the turbul bucked underneath him and tried to throw him off, then, "Keep still yer bugger." He was indifferent to the wide gash the turbul had opened in his back with the lashing of its tail. Ambel stepped over and caught hold of the turbul's snapping jaws in one hand, then with his other hand reached over and flicked it firmly between the eyes with his forefinger. There was a dull thud as of an iron bar hitting a log. The turbul's eyes crossed and its body went limp.

"Thank you, Captain," said Pland as he dismounted. "Reckon you can pull this'n. He's a bit big for me."

Ambel shrugged, took a firmer grip on the turbul's jaws with his right hand and put his left hand on the flesh behind its head. He pulled, and with a ripping sound the head pulled out of its socket with the spine following. As he continued to pull, the tail and fins drew into the turbul's body, finally to disappear. When Ambel repositioned his grip halfway down the turbul's spine for one last heave, the creature's flesh came off like an old sock, leaving him holding a straggly mess of head, spine, a baggy sack of internal organs, and the fins and tail -- all still joined. He held this up in front of himself for a moment and gave it a couple of shakes. The eyes uncrossed and the spine, fins and tail began to writhe. The end of the tail whipped at Ambel's face but he easily caught it.

"Naughty," he said, then tossed the turbul over the side. In the water the skeletal creature swam around for a moment before sticking its head out above the surface and issuing a noisy, snorting neighing. It then dived and swam onwards with the rest of its shoal.

"Remember, lads, we only need enough for fifty pickle barrels!" Ambel shouted to the rest of his crew as they hauled in smaller turbul and pulled them similarly. One after another, stripped turbul swam away making those indignant snorting noises. Soon the deck was scattered with slippery tubes of meat sliding about on the acrid turbul chyme. While baiting a gleaming hook Ambel contemplated how so very slowly Polity technology was filtering into their lives. Ceramal hooks that never seemed to get blunt, now, when he could remember the days of carving them out of bone. At least the bladder floats were still the same. Stepping back a little so that he had room to cast his line out, he nearly tripped over on a sliding turbul body.

"Anne! Barrels and vinegar!" he bellowed -- but not too annoyed as he knew his crew tended to get distracted at moments like this.

Anne shot him an irritated look, reeled in her line and hung it on a hook fixed to the rail, then called a few of the junior crew to join her. Hopping over turbul bodies, she led them to the hatch leading to the rear hold, slid it aside then swiftly climbed down. Two others followed her down into the hold, and two remained on deck to swing across a winch arm and feed the rope down.

"Reckon that's it," said Pland, holding up his latest catch. This turbul was long and thin, its body pocked with leech holes. The thumping against the hull of the ship was abating now and becoming difficult to distinguish from the clunking of the mast chains. Ambel pulled up his own latest catch, inspected it for a moment, then unhooked it and tossed it back.

"End of the main shoal now," he said. "Just the leech-hit."

Peck reluctantly pulled in his own line and coiled it, then, from a locker below the rail where most of the ship's hunting gear was stored, he removed a long and lethally sharp panga. Ambel moved over to join the juniors and help them swing across the barrels Anne and the others had loaded into a cargo net. Once the net was on the deck, they rolled the empties to one side. Ambel then broke open a sealed barrel and the rich smell of spiced vinegar wafted out, almost drowning the acrid smell of turbul. Meanwhile, Peck had started cutting the turbul tubes into neat rings of flesh.

"Good run," he said, sawing away enthusiastically.

"Good run," agreed Ambel, taking up the lacework of rhinoworm steak, which was all that remained of their bait, and heading towards his cabin. Peck watched him go, his knuckles whitening around the handle of the panga. When he returned his attention to the turbul meat, he hacked at it savagely.


In emerald depths the frog whelk, crippled by the leech that had wormed inside its shell to feed upon it, had lost all its survival instincts as it crawled painfully along the stony bottom, through forests of sea-cane and prill-peppered waters. Said instinct being the minimum requirement for plain existence in this savage sea, it did not last long, of course. Crawling into a what it thought was a flock of its fellows, it sank down like a weary pensioner and uncoiled its eye-stalks. Only when it observed the patterns of those shells surrounding it, and sensed the vibration thrumming through the seabed, did it realise its fatal mistake: the whelks surrounding it were hammer whelks. Panicking, it thrust down its foot and tried to leap away, but such was the damage done to it by the leech that all it managed to do was tip itself over. The hammer whelks closed in on this unexpected bounty extruding feet like brick-hammers to pound their victim's shell. Soon the water clouded with chyme, small fragments of flesh, nacreous glitters of shell and one slowly turning eye-stalk, like a discarded match -- which was snapped up by a passing turbul.


© Neal Asher 2002, 2005.
The Skinner was published in the UK by Tor UK in March 2002. A non-fiction feature, The Skinner: The Art of Plausible Aliens, is available elsewhere on this site.

The Skinner

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