Sins of the Angels is out on 30 October 2020. Read on for the next sample chapter, and if you like what you read then pre-order the e-book via the Universal Book Link. (From 30 October, the same link will also allow you to purchase hardcover and paperback editions.)
The Coil was the tallest building in Nellh, its central turret reaching eight hundred and fifty metres high. Two smaller wings branched out from opposite ends of the building, spiralling around the main tower as they rose, giving the building the look of a drill bit biting up into the sky. There were chairs and tables set out in the middle of the roof, arranged around a small, covered stand and bolted to the floor. Robots moved about to serve food and drinks to the handful of people sat there.
A railing ran around the edge of the roof, cold to the touch as Piralael and her friends leaned on it, watching the sun come up. The morning air was cold and crisp, biting at her cheeks and sending shivers down her back and up her wings. Each wing was an extension of her shoulder blade, the protruding bones in the shape of an arm with four elongated ‘fingers’ and a thick layer of white feathers covering the membrane of skin which stretched over the bones to form the wing shape. They reached up to half a metre above her head and down level with the back of her knees. She spread them wide as a buffer against the wind at her back and folded her arms tight across her chest. It didn’t help much, but with luck the rising sun would soon warm everything up anyway.
A ribbon of red and orange light covered the horizon, reflected in the sea and lightening the clear sky as it expanded. Spread across thirty kilometres of coastline, the port was just beginning to come into life. Hovering drones with heavy duty magnetic clamps on their front lifted and loaded shipping containers onto freight vessels. A large crowd of people, visible from this high up only as a tiny, shifting blob of colour, queued to get onto cruise ships. Further along, a small passenger aircraft rolled out of its hangar before rising vertically off the ground, whereupon it rotated until it was at the correct heading and shot away with a barely audible whoom. At the farthest end of the port a crowd was just beginning to gather, but so far there was nothing to see but open, empty space.
“See? I told you we’d have a much better view from up here.” Piralael said. The curve of her lips meant that there always seemed the hint of a smile on her face, but now it was wide and reflected in her dark green eyes.
“A better view of what?” Nichan asked, all the while chewing on a roll of sweet bread. “There’s nothing to see.”
“Not yet. Be patient.” Though even as she said that, she knew the trembling up her arms wasn’t entirely down to the cold. Her blood was pumping fast, and it was hard to contain herself even though nothing was happening as of yet.
“I could if we were waiting for something really exciting.”
“I bet if you took a run up on here you could get airborne.” Kessimh said.
“Don’t start with that again, Kess.” Piralael said as she looked over the side of the railings. As she did, the wind blew her hair into her face. She wore it in a short bob, a blue and gold which contrasted sharply with her olive skin and which despite appearances was entirely natural. The blue was dark at her scalp and got lighter as it ran to the tips of her hair, the gold spotted through it so that it seemed to shimmer when she moved.
The Coil stood at the centre of the city, surrounded by a cluster of skyscrapers which were at most half as tall. Beyond them the city spread out in an ellipsis, the roads radiating outwards from an epicentre in neat curves and lines. The majority of the buildings that sat along those roads were built low, houses generally two or three storeys high and public buildings sometimes pushing to four, routinely interspersed by open green spaces.
Seeing it all spread out before her made her head spin and she swallowed down the urge to vomit before taking a step back. “The only thing that would happen if I tried is me going splat eight hundred metres down. Not my idea of fun.”
“Yeah, it’s up there with having to wake up before the sun’s even up.” Nichan said.
“Getting up before noon is a chore for you, Nick.” Kessimh said.
Nichan shook his head as they laughed at him, then pulled another roll of sweet bread out of his bag. “I just don’t get what’s so fascinating, Pear. It’s not like nobody’s ever seen a spaceship take off before, is it?” He was tall and lean, dark skinned, with a handsome face framed by mid-length copper hair.
“It’s not just about seeing it take off! It’s about where it’s going and what it’ll find when it gets there!” Piralael said, becoming animated now. “I mean, hardly anybody bothers to watch aircraft or sea-ships launching, do they? Even a lot of spaceships don’t attract this sort of attention, because all they’re doing is ferrying people or freight to places we can all go if we want to. There’s no mystery. Nothing to discover.”
“Maybe not, but there’s at least something at the other end. All the Pathfinder is going to discover is that space is big and empty, just like the Intrepid, the Pioneer, the Beyond, and all the others before them. Probably like the sleeper ships and generation ships launched in the pre-revolution era that were never heard from again, too.”
“You certainly know your subject, considering this all bores you.” Kessimh pointed out, looking at Piralael with one eyebrow raised. She was short and lithe, with deep brown eyes and dark brown hair tied up in a braid that reached halfway down her back.
Nichan shrugged. “When I was ten, I was fascinated by it all. I read everything I could about space travel, from histories of deep space exploration to science fiction novels from six hundred years ago. But once you’ve read a few hundred of those stories you begin to realise how they’re all essentially the same stories we’ve always told but now set in space, and despite us now being able to travel faster than light the reality couldn’t even live up to that.”
“So you really don’t think there’s anything out there?” Piralael asked.
“Of course there’s stuff out there. But there are humans on earth and all those other worlds because they came from here, and any other worlds where there are intelligent civilisations – what are the odds that we’ll ever come into contact with them? There’s masses and masses of empty space between solar systems just in this galaxy, and there are lots of solar systems, the majority of which won’t have intelligent life in them. That’s not to mention the vast empty chasm between galaxies and then all the solar systems in all those other galaxies. The odds of there not being life out there are very long; just as long as the odds of us ever coming across any of them.”
“Yeah, but that’s the adventure, isn’t it? Imagine it, all those worlds to explore and the possibilities they hold! There’s a lot of solar systems and a lot of planets, sure, but they’re not infinite, and if they’re even remotely advanced enough to be looking outward themselves, then those empty spaces become all that much smaller, don’t they?”
Nichan only gave her an incredulous look and shook his head.
“Aw, Nick, you’re too young to be so cynical.” Kessimh said as she put an arm around him and squeezed him. “Besides, as fascinating as this debate is, we’re going to miss the show.”
She pointed to the port, where the crowd was now three or four times larger than it had been, big enough now that the noise of it carried up on the wind. Eight hundred metres up and half the city away it came through as a low murmur, so in the thick of the press it must have been deafening. Even up on the roof, as she looked about, she noticed that almost all of those who had been seated were now stood and closer to or leaning on the railing. There also appeared to be more people up here than she remembered.
Down in the port, the ground was opening up. The hangar doors slid neatly back to reveal a hole at least as long as The Coil was tall and half as wide. They couldn’t see what was in there, but they didn’t have to guess as shortly it rose out of the ground to hover fifty metres off the ground.
The Pathfinder was a “Dark Eye” class heavy cruiser, built to travel the distance of the galaxy but also to defend itself in a fight if it had to. Its hull was green so deep that it was almost black, edged with red, and it shone as the sun hit it. It was at least thirty stories high, the front half of the vessel a semi-ellipse lined with lights that looked like windows, a small but distinct gun turret on both the top and underside. The rear split into two prongs which pointed inwards like pincers. In between, a pair of short, square-ended wings bore two more pairs of gun turrets top and bottom while two thrusters jutted from both front and rear of each wing, currently inert.
Piralael could hear the crowd down at the port cheering for the Pathfinder. The ship rotated slowly where it hovered, to give the spectators a good view. Piralael leaned forward and watched eagerly, trying to commit the image of the ship to memory. Not the biggest one she had ever seen launch, that accolade went to the Stalwart space station, which once all of the various sections had risen up and joined together had been as big as half of Nellh. But Pathfinder was far more advanced, and far more appealing to her imagination.
Finally, the ship rose higher in the air and then tilted so that it was pointed upwards at an angle. Everything went silent, as though those watching both up atop The Coil and down at the port were all holding their breaths. The seconds stretched out, anticipation building, as everyone waited.
Then, all at once, the air was split apart by a thunderous wah-DOOM. Blue lights erupted from the rear thrusters, looking like flame but not. The Pathfinder moved, picking up speed so rapidly that it was out of sight within a couple of seconds, leaving behind a trail of slowly fading neon lines through the sky and a BOOM only slightly quieter than the sound of its launch as it shattered the sound barrier.
Now Piralael found herself cheering and applauding, along with everyone else on the roof of The Coil. Even Nichan had a grin on his face and was clapping his hands together excitedly. She caught his eye, grinning, and he shook his head.
“Okay, so that was exciting.” He admitted, having to lean in close and shout to be heard with the noise around them. “But it doesn’t mean they’ll find anything out in the vast emptiness of space.”
“We’ll see.” She retorted.
“Now that we’ve seen the show, should we maybe go and find somewhere a bit quieter to hang out?” Kessimh suggested.
Piralael shrugged. “Why not.”
“We should go and get breakfast.” Nichan suggested. He pulled a third roll of sweet bread from his bag. “I’m hungry.”
“You’re always hungry.” Kessimh pointed out. “And I don’t think you can call it ‘breakfast’ if it works out as your second or third meal of the morning.”
They laughed, and in response Nichan pulled a face, which only set them laughing harder.
They left The Coil and made their way to a café several streets over. With the sun now fully up and not a cloud in the sky, you could see Oretana clearly to the south; a pinkish-blue sphere which appeared about the size of a human head, its surface mostly obscured by clouds. When they had arrived in the darkness there had been very few people about, the occasional runner and a couple of people taking their pets for a walk. Now there were people everywhere, and with them a general din which stripped away the quiet serenity of the pre-dawn. Cars rushed by silently on the roads, though by contrast to the pedestrians they weren’t many, and they were outnumbered by cyclists and shuttle buses.
Piralael drew stares from passers-by as they walked, though this was nothing unusual. Up until the age of nine, all she had to show for her heritage were two bumps on her back, easily covered up and nothing to worry about. But when she had gotten her period, which had itself come early, they had started to grow. The cramps and bloating that she got once a month when she bled had been bad enough to come to terms with, but on top of it the ache in her shoulders had been near constant, punctuated at irregular intervals over the course of a year by bursts of agonising pain. Until finally she had a fully grown pair of wings on her back. Now sixteen, the staring had long been a part of her life, though it still irked her when she noticed it.
“Yes?” She snapped at a middle-aged man whose eyes lingered on her a little too long. He at least had the decency to look away, shamefaced.
They arrived at a café called The Hot Lunch and slid quickly into a booth by the window. The place was empty but for an elderly couple sat towards the back of the café. As they sat down, Kessimh waved her hand over the middle of the table and a holographic display appeared. She very quickly flicked through the options and chose the same few songs they always chose. Shortly, fast and bouncy music filled the room.
A robot appeared at their table, smiling broadly. “Hi there, what can I get you?” It asked. Its voice, like its features, was so close to that of a human being as to be almost indistinguishable. But that ‘almost’ was important. It was hard to define; the occasional slightly-too-long pause between words, the overly smooth texture of the skin, the fraction-too-straight-and-even hair. Somehow, because of rather than despite how close to reality they were, it was always possible to tell that you were looking at a robot rather than a person.
“I’ll have a fried fruit pan with scrambled caraw eggs and a savoury flat bread. Extra syrup. Plus a sun-berry yoghurt drink.” Piralael said, feeling hungrier just for saying the words out loud.
“Um. Same, but with white-apple juice.” Kessimh said.
The robot looked at Nichan.
He rubbed his hands together. “I will have…a sileid egg omelette with cheese, blue melongene and sun-leaf, plus four sausages, beans, and a fried fruit pan. Oh, and a sweet flat bread, with syrup. White-apple juice to drink.”
Both Piralael and Kessimh stared at him, expressions caught between amusement and horror. But the robot only nodded and said, “Excellent. Thank you,” before walking away.
“What?” He said.
“I just don’t understand how you’re not as wide as you are tall.” Piralael said, shaking her head.
“If he was, he might be a better defender.” Kessimh said.
“You’re both just jealous of my finely-tuned athletic metabolism.” Nichan retorted, with a smirk.
“Sure.” Piralael said. “Anyway, are you both going to be with me today, on the form going to Novalis?” In two weeks’ time, Form Eleven of the District Twenty-Seven secondary school would be taking a trip. Today they would vote on where, and Piralael was determined to get a majority in favour of a relatively small, sparsely inhabited island on the other side of the world.
Kessimh nodded. “Of course we are, Pear. I don’t think you’ll have any real opposition anyway. You might have if earth was still an option, but there’s no reason for anybody to be against it. I haven’t heard any rival proposals put forward.”
“I’ve been reading up on the place.” Nichan said. “The fact that it only has a population of 300 works in its favour, cause you know I’m not all that keen on other people. But on the other hand, it’s all forests and ancient ruins. As somebody who likes the trappings of modern civilisation, that’s not all too appealing.”
Piralael let go an angry sigh. “Nick…”
“Relax, Pear. My suggestion that we take a midnight holiday in Welach never got anywhere, so I’m with you. I just wonder at how you can be equally fascinated by deep space and the distant past, when the only thing that they have in common is the ‘journey into the unknown.’” He affected a deep voice and wiggled his fingers at her as he said that last.
“My dad’s from another planet, my mum’s from a different plane of existence and they’re both thousands of years old. Am I supposed to not have an interest in that stuff?”
Nichan only shrugged.
The robot returned with their breakfasts on a tray, passing them first the plates and then their drinks. They thanked it and it nodded. It whistled in time with the song now playing as it walked away. Nichan’s plate was piled high, by contrast to Piralael’s and Kessimh’s, and he was lost to the conversation as he started eating.
“Are your mum and dad going to be coming on the trip this time?” Kessimh asked.
“I don’t think so.” Piralael replied. In truth, she had asked them not to come herself.
“Shame. Novalis would be the perfect environment for your dad to teach everyone all that living wild stuff.”
“Yeah.” That was part of the problem. The interest in her parents’ knowledge, from another time and another world, was interesting even to people who would never attempt to interact with Piralael otherwise, and only added to the feeling of her being a curiosity or an attraction rather than a person. “But they probably have someone out there who does demonstrations of that sort of thing.”
“No, I know. But they won’t have really done it, will they? I mean, not without being able to run back to modernity and technology if it ever got too rough.”
One thing Piralael liked about Kessimh was that she could read better than most people when it was time to change the subject. “You never told me how your date went.” Though now Piralael wished that she didn’t.
“You didn’t turn up?”
“I turned up. I had two drinks. I put up, heroically I think, with Mariel talking about nothing but himself for more than an hour. Then I left because I couldn’t take any more.”
“There are other ways to stop a man talking.”
“Yeah, but he didn’t exactly inspire that kind of mood in me.”
“Did you go on the date blindfolded?”
“Believe me, he isn’t so pretty once he opens his mouth. Speaking of which…”
She looked pointedly at Nichan, who had just finished eating. He had sauce and syrup around the edges of his mouth and as he looked up at them, he used his thumb to push a fleck of sausage that had stuck to his bottom lip into his mouth. Piralael and Kessimh both screwed their faces up in expressions of mock disgust, but then laughed.
“Carry on and I’ll vote against Novalis.” He said, sulkily.
Nellh’s twenty seventh district lay at the south-easternmost edge of the city, with several hundred hectares of farmland beyond. It was thirty kilometres from The Coil to the district’s secondary school, a ten-minute journey by shuttle bus. Not for the first time, Piralael wondered how long it would take if she could fly, but of course admitting that aloud would only encourage Kessimh.
The school sat on a large tract of land flanked by two housing estates. The main building was two storeys high, built to curve around the schoolyard so that from above it looked like a ‘U’ with an elongated bottom and stubby arms. It had neatly kept lawns and flowerbeds at the front and playing fields at the back. The three classes that made up form eleven, forty-five fifteen and sixteen-year-olds plus six teachers, were all sat on the grass in front of the school. Piralael was sat facing her classmates, who were gathered in a semi-circle with all eyes on her as she finished speaking.
She knew her subject and so had spoken confidently and eloquently. But nonetheless she could feel a trickle of sweat under her arms and her heart was racing. Tremors gripped her stomach and there was just the threat of dizziness, a soft weight somewhere behind her brow. This wasn’t an uncommon occurrence, however, and she opened a packet of salted corn chips from her bag, knowing that they’d soon make her feel right again.
“Thank you, Piralael.” Her history teacher, Cristephan, said. “Last year, there was a big debate over where we went, but as yours is the only proposal this time around I can’t see that being the case. Does anybody have anything to say about this before we take a vote?”
The students all exchanged glances, but then shook their heads.
“Okay then. All those in favour of Novalis as the location of our next trip?”
The vote was unanimous. Piralael looked around at Kessimh and Nichan and grinned, the tremors and fuzzy head already beginning to lessen.
Shortly, the bell rang to signal the end of the period. Everybody got to their feet, ready to move onto their next class. As Piralael stood up, Cristephan came up next to her and placed a hand on her shoulder. She hadn’t been looking in his direction when he did, and so she jumped.
“Sorry.” He laughed. He was only ten years older than her, with a handsome face defined by sharp features and long blond hair tied back in a ponytail. Fair skin was rare on Avetana, limited to a relatively small number of people who had descended from the Eurelins, a people and empire that were long since extinct. “Piralael, that was very well spoken, your case for Novalis.”
“Uh. Thanks.” She said.
“Tell me, though. You want to go there because you’re interested in the history of the island, in particular the role it played in the War of Twelve?”
“Is that the only reason?”
“Yeah.” She frowned at him, confused.
“Why? Is there something else I should be interested in?” He made a face that had the same effect as a shrug, though without moving his shoulders. “Well, I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise…”