Neal Asher Cowl

ISBN 13: 9781405001373

Cowl

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9781405001373: Cowl

In the far future, the Heliothane Dominion is triumphant in the solar system, after a bitter war with their Umbrathane progenitors. But some of the enemy have escaped into the past, intent on wreaking havoc across time. The worst of these is Cowl, an artificially forced advance in human evolution but one who is no longer human. Polly, desperate to obtain funds to support her habits, is unprepared for her involvement with Nandru Jurgens, a Taskforce soldier, and the killers pursuing him. Nor can she resist the the alien 'tor' which she feels impelled to attach to her arm. But she must learn fast, as she is dragged back through time, not least that to the denizens of some earlier eras, she is little more than a convenience food. Initially, the fragment of tor imbedded in Tack's wrist sums up his value to the Heliothane - a point brought home to him with bloody abruptness. But, as a vat-grown programmable killer employed by U-gov, he is no stranger to violence. His long journey into the lethal world of the Heliothane is only beginning, the extent of his mission just becoming apparent. Meanwhile, hunting throughout time and the alternates, Cowl's pet, the torbeast, grows vast and dangerous. And the beast continues to feed.

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About the Author:

Born and still living in Essex, Neal Asher started writing SF at the age of sixteen. Since then he has had numerous stories published in magazines and book form, most recently his full-length novels GRIDLINKED, THE SKINNER and THE LINE OF POLITY.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

  Cowl
1Engineer Goron:From what I have learnt 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: 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 arousing 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, his 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. Polly recognized the weapon as a favourite 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 was waving 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 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 program—and they’d been 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 realized 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 euthanized, Nandru had been out with Task Force, cauterizing 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 further 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 greasily 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? Different from the 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 her. ‘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 was holding 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 was 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.
 AT FIVE IN THE morning Polly woke on the sofa with post-euphoric depression, undressed and went to bed in a foetal coil round the pain in the top of her chest. She didn’t know what Nandru had done, but she could feel the metal lump bedded above her breastbone. She tried to get back to sleep, but as well as the pain everything else nagged at her: not only was Marjae’s brother back on the scene with some serious weaponry and a serious fuck-up in his head, but there were the prosaic and sordid facts of her everyday life.The rent was overdue, she’d used the last of her patches, her DSS card had been revoked because she’d been caught soliciting without a U-gov licence, and now the Revenue were after her for back taxes for the ‘public service’ she had provided. But she was determined they were not going to get her on any of the social projects, which was the usual way things went in this situation. She had friends who’d done that and who were classified bankrupt, the result of this being revocation of citizenship and full indenture to U-gov. The chains were plastic cards, location torcs, but nobody dared call it slavery.At seven Polly rolled out of bed and got herself moving. She kept herself busy to hold depression at bay. Without somagum she had no chance of sleep now. Anyway, the temperature was in the upper twenties already and the day looked likely to be a holezoner. Standing before her grimy mirror, she studied the ear stud Nandru must have inserted in her lobe while she was stoned. It looked a lot nicer than her usual topaz so she left it in place, before turning her attention to the teardrop of metal. With her hardened fingernail, she tried to lever it up from her skin, but it was stuck solid there. He must have used skin bond—the stuff comedians had put on public toilet seats before all the public toilets were closed down. No doubt she would see him again sometime when she wasn’t out of her skull and he wasn’t out of his, then she could demand an explanation. For now it could ride: there was the morning trade to catch and she had work to do.She dressed in absorbent knickers, loose vest and padded knee boots, then sat in front of her mirror and did her face. Her flat was squalid and her credit breadline, but she was proud of the fact that she could sling on any old charity-shop rag and, with a bit of eyeliner and li...

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