There are times when Captain Nicolas Harwen feels he must want for nothing. He is clean, well-fed, and his flesh is mostly free from parasites. By day his nest, tucked within the belly of the ship, is warm and secure. But then comes the dusk, with its bloodshot skies and grey foliage. Then comes the unknown figure that creeps through the trees above the shoreline.
Three times he has seen it now, a spindle-limbed silhouette. In its general shape, it resembles his own appendage—it has two arms, two legs and one head—but there is something deeply unnatural about the way it moves. Each time Harwen pursued it, the creature vanished into the scrub. He fears it is an omen; a signal that his calm existence cannot last forever.
His appendage stands now at the cargo doors of the bayship, CS Valearic. Outside is the mustard-coloured beach, drenched in the feverish air of a foreign land. Inside is the nest where he and his crew reside—their true bodies, not their appendages.
Including Harwen, the crew numbers five. Each one is a slablike mound of meat, seven or eight feet tall at the summit, with rolls of pinkish-grey flesh drooping down their flanks. Each has three puckered, lipless mouths through which they eat and excrete. It is a strange fact of Harwen’s and his kind’s existence that they cannot see or hear with their true bodies, only with their ambulant appendages. The appendage has eyes, ears, a nose and so on. The real body has no such organs, nor does it feel sensations on its skin. Harwen is not sure why this should be so, but he does not cogitate upon the question. He is a simple man. All he needs to know in life is that he is Nicolas William Harwen, a captain of the Scar Bay Trading Company, a husband and father, and a well-fed lump of flesh with three oroanal apertures.
The rest of the crew are using their own appendages to tend to themselves. Navigator Osander’s appendage is shoving handfuls of dry tussock-grass into her body’s mouth. First Mate Parseny’s appendage is wiping sputum from the floor. Ensign Jeon is de-lousing himself: he reaches his appendage’s arm in between two folds of his flesh, and it comes out holding a crablike parasite, its hand nipped and bloodied by the little crustacean’s claws.
Looking at his crew, Harwen feels a warm upwelling of paternal affection. All is as it should be. But out beyond the cargo doors, he senses eyes among the trees. This is an uncharted world; he and his crew have travelled here across the thundering gulfs of the Linear Sea. It is a place of hot evenings and damp nights, of fleshy red leaves and screaming cicadas. He must go out there soon, or rather his appendage must, and he dreads it.
His appendage is not well. During the day the Valearic’s steel hull traps the sunlight and becomes intensely hot. This suits Harwen’s constitution, but his appendage suffers for it. That afternoon he removed the last of the clothes it had been wearing. He cannot recall now why it had worn so many—the breeches, shirt, cravat and so forth. It moves much more freely now that it is naked, but its mouth is still dry and its head is still aching. When it defecates, the faeces come out yellow and watery. He should take better care of it: find cleaner water for it to drink, and perhaps wash the parasite bites on its hands. But, inevitably, most of his energy is spent tending to himself.
It would be easier to rest until morning; but he is the captain, and the crew’s safety is his responsibility. This unknown interloper could be a threat to the nest. So, once again, he sets out into the dusk.
Leaving the Valearic, he passes a troop of small creatures heading into the ship. These are his ‘helpmates’: insects, rodents, winged reptiles and other vermin, all of which wait upon Harwen and his crew. Here they are carrying tiny bushels of grass in their claws or mandibles. One small marsupial staggers and collapses from exhaustion; the others pause briefly to eat it and then go on.
Harwen leaves them and the Valearic behind. Ahead is the scrub: a tangled maze of dry grass and thorny trees. His body used to be somewhere out here, before he came to the ship. Earlier—perhaps two or three days ago?—he and the crew had been out in the open, in a glade surrounded by their helpmates. After they found their appendages, they had dragged themselves into the Valearic for shelter and warmth. Yes, here are the marks they left in the sand.
Harwen feels a chill. There are other marks in the sand as well: fresh bootprints. The interloper has been here.
The tracks lead deeper into the bush. Harwen follows them, although taking his appendage so far from his body makes his neck prickle with anxiety. The sun has gone down now; the scrub trees are tangled silhouettes against a florid pink sky. On this branch of the Linear Sea the worlds have no moon, so once the dusk-light fades it will be very dark.
Ahead of him is a sandy clearing. He steps into it and sees the strange figure waiting there; it sees him at the same time, and they both freeze.
The figure is an appendage, much like his own, but fully clothed. It has a frock coat, a shirt, and a seaman’s bonnet. There is a strange smear of yellow-brown paste around its mouth and beard. It opens that mouth, that orifice, and says:
Everything about this creature is wrong. Its voice, its movements—they remind him of a Capitulo puppet he once saw as a boy, all limbs and strings, grotesquely close to the border of humanity. The memory carries with it a feeling of primordial fear. And hatred. This is a thing that begs to be destroyed.
“Sancta Vidol,” it says. “You smell like—eugh. Can you even hear me?”
The thing’s voice is like fingernails on slate. Harwen bares his teeth in a grimace of rage and charges, his heels throwing up gouts of sand. The puppet-man stumbles back and raises a long wooden tube to its lips. There is a wet thump of air being expelled, and something splatters into Harwen’s face. A suffocating smell fills his nostrils, all the way to the back of his skull—a sweet acrid stench that blots out all others.
“I did it!” says the puppet-man. “Nicolas, I did it! Are you there?”
Harwen tries to wrap his hands around the creature’s neck, but his appendage feels far away and will not move as he wishes it to. He sees the puppet-man peering down at him and realises he is lying flat on his back.
“Saints’ blood, I’m so sorry,” the figure says. “I wish there were an easier way...”
It reaches down and pushes the wet sweetness up into the tunnels of his nose. He inhales, and the scene dissolves away into the air.
Harwen drifts on a slick sea of awareness. Sometimes he sleeps and dreams of his wedding day: midsummer’s eve in the garden of Sancta Cristobel. Anna stands before the altar, ready to receive his ring. His huge body looms over her like a mountain about to fall. Insects crawl up his flanks to feed him while the priest is reading the marriage rite.
Something about the scene is not right. Either Harwen or Anna is not right, but he cannot tell which.
When he wakes, someone is dragging him across the sand. His hands and feet are bound tight with rope. The awful smell is still pressed against his nose, inescapable. He thrashes and throws up bile, but he cannot get away from it.
“Please, Nicolas, try not to resist it,” says Viltrand. “The worst should pass before too long.”
Viltrand? Harwen looks around, thinking he is blind, but it is only the deep darkness of midnight on this moonless shore. Where is this? Where is his real body? He is in danger. He feels that he is sinking into a black sandy pit, reaching up to grasp himself, choking, being swallowed up.
When he wakes again, it is dawn. He is lying on the shore of a grey lake fringed with reeds. A fire is sputtering on the stones nearby. Viltrand hunches over it with a tin of tea in his hands.
The acrid smell from the night before is still thick in Harwen’s nostrils. His wrists and ankles are still tied tight, and his body is naked save for Viltrand’s coat thrown over him as a blanket. His hands throb with heat, and he knows if he looks at them he will see dozens of festering cuts, oozing dark blood and yellow pus. A shudder of revulsion runs through him.
“Nicolas. You’re awake.” Viltrand hurries over and holds the tea to Harwen’s lips. It is bitter and lukewarm, but Harwen sucks it down greedily. When he is done, he looks up at Viltrand and really sees him for the first time: the mousy hair plastered to his forehead, the ochre sweat-stains in the armpits of his shirt.
“Nicolas, er, Captain, I should say. Are you really... there?”
Harwen nods. His voice comes out halting and scratchy. “I am.”
“I’m glad—I’m very, very glad. The truth is, Nicolas, I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t... well, it has been a very long three days.”
Has it really been only three days? The thought sends a thrill of panic through Harwen. Three days since... but he cannot follow that thought any further.
Viltrand sees the alarm in Harwen’s face. He grasps his captain’s hand with two of his own. “You are going to be alright,” he says. “You are going to be quite well.” But the words break mid-sentence from a statement into a question. Viltrand’s face is ruddy with sunburn, and his soft hands are pitted with blisters. It must have taken all of his strength to survive this long, and now he is begging Harwen to be the one in charge.
“Yes,” says Harwen. “Everything will be fine now.”
Viltrand’s cracked lips break into a smile. He slips his arms around Harwen’s body and rests his face in the crook of Harwen’s neck. “I’m glad,” he keeps repeating.
Harwen knows that if he wishes, now, he could lift Viltrand’s chin and kiss his lips. He could take that comfort, as he has done before, in his cabin aboard the Valearic while they tarried in some humid colonial port. He could—but out here, he feels exposed before the open sky. Anna’s eyes seem to look down at him from above. He slides gently out of Viltrand’s embrace. “My hands...” he mutters.
“Of course,” says Viltrand, blushing. He has never taken rejection lightly. Harwen would like to say something else, to soften the blow, but he cannot think of anything.
Viltrand cleans Harwen’s hands with water and jenever. Then he busies himself with other tasks around the camp. Harwen sits up and draws the coat around himself. He wishes he could escape back into sleep, but he cannot. He is a captain of Scar Bay; the Valearic and its crew are his responsibility. He must put himself back together.
He begins with his memories of home: the smell of brine, the horns of tugboats in the fog. That was how this all began, with the launch of the Valearic. It was his first voyage as captain after many years an officer. It had been a rare day of sunshine when they set sail; he remembers the light on Anna’s parasol as she waved to him from the wharf.
After Scar Bay come the memories of the Linear Sea—that rift that runs between the worlds. He spent many long hours inside the bayship, listening to the Sea’s thunder against the hull, watching the red light flicker across the portholes. As a younger man he had been awed by the Sea, with its solid clouds that could crush to a pulp anything softer than steel. Now he feels it only as a necessary inconvenience, a gruelling passage from one world to the next.
His mandate as captain had been to trade, to explore, and to seek new sites for colonial enterprise. They had visited many worlds in their nine-month voyage. Some were inhabited, others barren. In New Swain they had filled the hold with barrels of blue dye, which would turn a handsome profit back in Scar Bay. Before returning, though, they needed to plant the empire’s flag on at least one uncharted world. And so they had arrived here... and then...
His mind recoils from the next thought, as though he has touched the edge of a gaping wound. With a shudder he returns.
Viltrand has cooked a meal of smoky-tasting red fruits. After they eat, he takes out a clay pot full of brown paste and smears some under his nose. It is the same stuff that Harwen smelled the night before. When Viltrand tries to put some more on him, he flinches away.
“Captain,” says Viltrand, “we need to reapply this regularly. It keeps the, ah... the influence at bay. It is quite necessary to survival here; it was given me by the locals.”
“Yes. The ones you shot at?”
Now he remembers. On the day they arrived here, a party of natives had rushed down the shore toward the bayship, shouting and waving embroidered flags. He had ordered the crew to fire a volley over their heads, perfectly harmless, just to put them on the back foot. But the sound startled the crowd so much they melted away into the bush.
Viltrand points out at the lake. “You might be able to see their boats, if you squint. They fish during the day, and often check on me at dusk or dawn.”
Harwen looks into the glimmering horizon. He cannot tell if the dark smudges he sees are boats or merely artefacts of heat-haze. It only makes sense that the natives would have a way to protect themselves from the creatures. No doubt they are also the source of the blowgun Viltrand used last night.
Viltrand daubs the antidote paste all around Harwen’s mouth, as though he were a painted clown. “It’s quite safe. Apparently they distil it from the bodies of some sort of crustacean.”
“The parasites,” says Harwen. “The parasites are immune to... the influence.”
“I see.” Viltrand hesitates. “Then, you remember the fugue state quite well?”
Harwen nods. He is grateful for that phrase: fugue state. An altered consciousness. Another self. The thought allows him to excise the last few days from his memory, to put it in a chamber where it can be contained: that was not me!
Viltrand continues talking, spilling out a jumbled tale of how he came to be here. Harwen remembers him going off alone on the first day to make sketches of the local flora. Meanwhile Harwen had taken the crew inland, to the dusty scrub, where they had found...
“Pheromones,” says Viltrand. “That must be what it is. Something in the air, like a pollen, and when you inhale it—then they have you.”
The nightmare scene in the heat of the day: the fouled clearing, demonic mounds of quivering flesh, their thousand-and-one attendant creatures swarming about them. A carpet of insects that crunched underfoot. The initial disgust giving way to a subtle daze, a pungent sting at the back of the throat, and then an overwhelming urge that pulled him deep into the morbid circle. The crew beside him, all stumbling, falling to their knees in the sand. Pressing their tongues to the creatures’ flesh, breathing in the stinging smell.
Then they have you.
Harwen feels sick. Viltrand is still talking, pursuing the conversation with that naturalist’s curiosity that compels him to look under every rock and fallen log. “But what I can’t understand is how the creatures communicate. While you were in the fugue state, how did they... well, make their wishes known?”
Harwen shakes his head. “Those things do not communicate. I don’t think they have minds at all. If you were to cut one open, you would probably find no brain stem, not even a nervous system.”
“But then, how...”
“There’s no mind there but your own. They don’t control you, they only make you think...”
His words vanish ahead of him. It is almost impossible to explain it, even to himself. He remembers a magic show he went to with Anna, all dim gaslamps and heavy drapes in an uptown apartment. The illusionist had taken a woman from the audience and, using his misdirection, encouraged her to feel that her hand was one and the same with a rubber hand that lay on the table before her. Once this impression was firmly set, the magician had struck the false hand with a poker, eliciting genuine pain from the woman. Because she identified with the hand. That was the word: Harwen had wholly and unwillingly identified himself with that hideous creature.
With that thought comes a kind of folding away inside him. He understands what has happened, as well as he will ever understand it. It gives him no comfort, though, because he knows what must come next. The rest of his crew are still there in the Valearic. There is nobody but him to get them out.
And he sees, in his mind’s eye, the little helpmates stopping to devour one of their own.
The natives come to shore at dawn the next day. Their broad, flat-bottomed boats emerge out of the fog and slide up to the water’s edge. Harwen cannot understand a word of their rapid, nasal speech, but Viltrand is able to do a little better. He claims their language has some similarity to the indigenous tongue of New Swain, which he studied in his youth. This, combined with much gesturing and pointing, allows him to make himself understood.
Viltrand stands on the shore and speaks for several minutes. When he points at Harwen, the natives look over and make cutting gestures across their foreheads.
“I believe that is a sign of respect,” says Viltrand. “For one who has entered the fugue and returned.”
A man in an embroidered smock steps to the edge of his boat and says something to Harwen. He points rapidly at others on the boat, young men and old.
“He says that you are now a man. That, er... among his people, every boy must go through the fugue to become a man.”
Harwen does his best to suppress a shudder. “Tell him I am—honoured. And then ask if he has any meat to trade.”
There is more laborious conversation. The natives seem to take pity on Viltrand. They do not accept anything in trade but freely hand over a fresh carcass—some winged marsupial about the size of a dog. Then, with more cutting-forehead gestures to Harwen, they pole their boats away.
Viltrand brings the carcass over to their campfire. Harwen calls him back. “It isn’t for eating,” he says. “Make ready to leave and I will tell you what we are going to do.”
When they set out, in the late morning, the sand is already hot to touch. Viltrand gives Harwen his boots and covers his own feet with bindings of tree bark. Soon the lake has disappeared behind them and the ocean lies ahead: a silvery bar on the opposite horizon that cuts their eyes with its glare.
The dead beast lies slack against Harwen’s shoulder. Its coagulated blood sticks to his back. As they draw near the ocean shore he becomes alert to every unexpected sensation, every strange thought. Each one he fears is the first sign of the fugue’s return. But the natives’ antidote is strong. He remains in his right mind, and soon the Valearic comes into sight.
It is a bitter reunion. She is fetched up on the sand like a beached whale, cargo doors hanging open. The mighty sea-cage over her upper deck looks like the ribs of an iron skeleton. She is his ship, his greatest pride: five hundred tons of Scar Bay steel, built to withstand the crushing pressures of the Linear Sea. Now she is brought low, choked with filth, a nest for abominations.
As he and Viltrand crouch in the scrub, a troop of helpmates goes by. They both freeze, but the little creatures pay them no attention.
“It’s as you said,” Viltrand murmurs. “They don’t distinguish friend from foe. But will the crew really—”
He stops, evidently seeing the tightness of Harwen’s jaw. Whether they will or not, Harwen is set upon this course now. “God be with you,” says Viltrand.
A part of Harwen would like to touch Viltrand’s arm and tell him not to be afraid. A part would like to kiss him—to take one last ounce of pleasure on what may be his last day alive. But he cannot. He is a husband and a father, after all. So he merely nods once and makes for the shore.
In the night, Harwen had considered many strategies to retake the Valearic. He could have poisoned the crew’s water source fairly easily, or smoked them out with fire, or simply ambushed them one by one. While he was in the fugue he had not thought clearly; he had been aware of the present moment but unable to reflect on the past or future. This, he believes, must be the necessary result of a human mind forced into a state of such blatant contradiction.
In other words: his crew has been made dull. It would not be hard to outwit them. But to do so without harming them is another matter.
Harwen strips naked under the burning sun. He slings the animal carcass over his shoulder again and begins to walk. He is out of the scrub now and crossing the beach toward the cargo doors. Any moment now the other appendages—his crew—will spot him, and he will learn at once if the ruse has succeeded.
Someone stirs in the shadows. Harwen forces his face into a slack expression and keeps walking.
He studied his reflection in the lake water for a long time, trying to replicate the look he remembers on the faces of his crew. It is not a dazed or drugged look; it is alert, but slightly abstracted, the face of a man whose mind is focused on some necessary but repetitious work. He thinks he has mastered it.
Stepping into the cargo bay, he is assailed by the smells of unwashed bodies, human feces, and the milky odour that issues from the creatures’ stomachs. The change in light blinds him momentarily. When he adjusts, he sees the crew all looking at him. Three are lying on the straw and one, Osander, is standing up. They are all in a terrible condition. Their thighs are streaked with shit and their hair hangs lank across their faces. Harwen wishes he could go to them, give them some kind of comfort, but he remains resolute.
As he draws closer, they begin to frown at him. He realises what he is doing wrong: he must orient himself toward his “real body”. Wherever the appendages turn, they always keep one eye on the creature with whom they identify.
Harwen faces toward himself and suppresses a shudder. In this dim light the creatures are like enormous jellies, tinged red and grey, with wound-slit mouths that open and close in a breathing rhythm. Each of them looks alike, yet Harwen knows which one is “him” at once. It is like looking into an awful mirror.
He is filled with a profound sense of disgust. It takes all of his resolve not to throw down the carcass and rush the creature at once, tear into it with his bare hands. The other creatures, the crew, the bodily indignities he has suffered—these are all minor things compared to his loathing for this thing that is and is not himself.
He masters himself, because he must. Still watching his creature, he walks across the cargo bay. Just as he had hoped, the appendages become fixated on the carcass. Their eyes shine and they lick their bleeding lips. To go out and catch prey for themselves might be too much effort, but a meal brought right to the nest is another matter. The ones who had been sleeping—Parseny, Jeon, and Ruskin—stand up and follow him. Osander remains, pulling parasites from her creature’s flesh. The creatures show no reaction; they see nothing, feel nothing, know nothing.
At the back of the hold, half-hidden behind barrels of blue dye, is the cargo cage. This is an area directly below the stairs, divided from the main hold by a chainlink fence. It was built to store live animals, a popular import from the colonies, although on this voyage they have used it only as an oversized closet. The cage door hangs open now.
Harwen steps inside and puts the carcass on the floor. Close to hand is a metal trowel, normally used to scrape mould off the ship’s walls. He takes it and slices open the animal’s belly. The smell of blood rises faintly through the antidote paste. Jeon, Ruskin and Parseny gather around, dig their hands into the creature’s guts, and begin to eat.
Harwen waits for a few seconds, hands coated in blood. None of the crew look at him. They are engrossed in their meal. He stands up, walks calmly out of the cage, and bolts the door behind him.
Jeon notices first. He catches Harwen’s eye and sees something there that reveals everything to him. He gives a hideous, pre-verbal cry, like the sound an infant would make if it could feel hate. He leaps up and grabs the wire mesh, shoving his fingers between the links. The other two join him, all three of them thrashing the fence now, their eyes wide and bloodshot.
Harwen is so transfixed by them that he nearly forgets about Osander. He hears her footsteps and turns as she barrels into him. She hits him in a whirl of teeth and fists, biting his shoulder, kicking at his crotch. But Harwen is much bigger than her. He grabs her by the hair and then—he is horrified at himself even as he does this—he strikes her in the nose so hard that she goes down, stunned, blood flowing freely over her mouth and chin.
It feels like hours before Viltrand appears, though it must really be less than a minute. He looks around the soiled cargo hold with wide eyes, but keeps his head enough to throw the coat over Harwen’s shoulders.
“Give me some paste,” says Harwen. He cradles Osander’s head in one hand and uses the other to smear antidote across her bloody nostrils. Her eyelids flicker and her body slowly drains of tension. “Don’t worry,” he tells her. “This will be over soon.”
The others are still clawing at the fence, cutting deep grooves into their fingers. Their faces have changed from anger to panic, the desperate grimaces of men facing imminent death. As Harwen watches, Ruskin opens his mouth and begins to gnaw on the chainlink.
“Damn it. They’re going to kill themselves like this. Use the blowgun. Quickly!”
Viltrand obeys. He fills the blowgun with a plug of brown paste and saliva, then raises it to his lips. At this range it is not possible for him to miss. As he shoots a plug into each of the crew’s faces, they reel back, stagger around the cage and collapse in a sort of seizure. It is horrible to watch, but at least they cannot hurt themselves any further.
Harwen allows himself a moment to breathe. His gaze drifts back to the nest, and his body.
As soon as he catches himself thinking of it that way—his real body—he feels soiled, disgusted with himself, as though the fugue has left a stain he cannot remove. He feels that Viltrand can see this stain upon him, and he resents that. He wants to be alone.
“Listen carefully,” he says. “Take Osander upstairs and put her somewhere safe. Go to the bridge and close the cargo doors. Then start the engine and begin the launch sequence.”
“Are you sure? What about the—” Viltrand glances toward the creatures in their nest.
“I will deal with that now. You must go.”
Still Viltrand hesitates.
“That’s an order, Mr. Viltrand.”
Viltrand gives a reluctant nod. Dragging Osander by her armpits, he makes his way up the stairs to upper decks.
At last, Harwen is alone with the creatures. But it is toward his creature, his “true body”, that his attention inevitably turns. That one must be the first to go.
In the emergency locker by the stairs there is a fire axe. Harwen takes it out, feels its solidness in his hands. At the same time the cargo doors begin to close. The square of sunlit beach grows narrower and the shadows inside the hold deepen. Harwen takes a few steps forward, then retreats again. He will wait until the doors are closed so that no more helpmates can get inside. Then will be the time to strike.
But the doors come to a halt prematurely, with a good six feet of sky still left between them. Something must be wedged in the mechanism—most likely a bird or flying reptile that crawled in there to die.
“Viltrand!” Harwen yells. “The doors are jammed!”
But Viltrand cannot hear him. A moment later a deep hum runs through the ship, signalling that the engine has begun to spin.
Outside, the view of the beach becomes distorted, like an image projected onto a wrinkled sheet. The bay engine is warping space around the Valearic. For now the deformations are small, but they will build up over the next few minutes until they are large enough to punch a hole through to the Linear Sea.
Harwen can wait no longer. He steps out from behind the barrels and stands before his “true body”. The creature lies insensate, waiting to be fed, unaware that anything has changed around it. Dozens of helpmates are still crawling across its skin. They watch Harwen intently, growing more agitated as he advances.
The Valearic gives a mighty lurch. The distortions are causing the ship to slide backward into the sea. Water starts flowing through the cargo doors and across the floor. Within moments Harwen’s feet are submerged and the straw from the nest is being swept away.
He takes another step. All at once, the helpmates recognise him as a threat. Suddenly there are stinging insects flying in his face, rodents gnawing at his ankles, tiny tube-things splashing in the water around his bare feet. He swats them aside and keeps going. The creature is right in front of him now. He lifts the axe high above his head.
He cannot do it. It is as though he were trying to cut off his own hand.
He slumps to his knees in the water. “You damned thing,” he says, pressing his palm against the creature’s loathsome flank. It is warm, rubbery, a little damp.
Viltrand is at the top of the stairs, calling down to him.
“Nicolas, get away from there! It’s in the water! The pheromones—”
Another wave bursts through the cargo doors and hits Harwen in the chest. He tumbles backward. The water covers his mouth, his nose, his eyes.
Harwen comes up gasping for air, his head whirling. Everything is in flux; the only solid thing he can see is the bulk of his true body before him. He leans in to press his tongue against its wet skin, and a cloud of confusion lifts from his mind.
He has been in a fugue—in a kind of fugue. He has been suffering from a suicidal mania during which he—what is the word?—identified himself with his appendage. A shudder of latent terror runs through him: he was going to kill himself with an axe! Saints’ teeth, how close he came! Yet, by divine providence, he is himself again.
He looks up. A figure is standing on the balcony overlooking the cargo bay. It is the Capitulo puppet, the un-thing that calls itself ‘Viltrand’.
Now Harwen understands. This is an appendage of a creature like himself. It is suffering from the same delusion that he so recently escaped. And in a flash of insight he understands that there are a hundred thousand more just like it: empty appendages, limbs cut loose from their bodies. There are whole cities of them, moving about of their own volition, uttering cries in mimicry of human speech. And it is toward these nightmare cities that Harwen and his crew will be bound if he allows the Valearic to launch.
He gets to his feet. The axe is still in his hand.
“Oh no, Nicolas,” says the Viltrand-appendage. “No, no, no...”
Harwen makes a dash for the stairs. The Viltrand turns and flees deeper into the ship.
Even with the noise of the engine, Harwen can still hear the Viltrand’s footfalls as they echo on the iron floors. He chases it down the narrow corridors of the orlop deck, past the crew’s quarters and the galley. Up ahead there is a shaft of sunlight. The hatch to the upper deck is open. The Viltrand glances back desperately, grabs the ladder and begins to climb.
Harwen is only a few seconds behind it now. He scales the ladder one-handed, holding the axe in his left. The Viltrand is making rapid sobbing noises, a convincing imitation of human fear. When it reaches the hatch it scrambles through, turns, and tries to slam it shut, but Harwen reaches up with the axehead and chocks it open. The clang of metal on metal makes the Viltrand yelp and stumble away.
Harwen emerges onto the upper deck. For a moment he is blinded by the sunlight. All he can see is the shadow of the huge steel ribs that stretch overhead, forming a cage to protect the deck from the Linear Sea. Then his eyes adjust and he stares about himself in dismay. The ship is surging away from the shore, sliding backward into a deep trench in the water’s surface. The world outside is becoming more deformed with every passing second. Land, sea and sky tangle together as though crumpled in a giant fist. Then it all tears away like strips of wet paper, and they drop through into the Linear Sea.
A bruise-coloured light suffuses the deck of the Valearic. There are clouds in every direction—fore and aft, port and starboard, above and below. They are blood-red, burgundy, grey, purple. They boil and surge with the fury of a ceaseless storm. And they are solid; in every moment they crash against the bayship’s hull with the force of gigantic sledgehammers. The sound of thunder begins at once and never, ever stops.
Harwen screams, but his voice is lost in the din. What can he do now? His only hope is to kill the Viltrand and then, somehow, steer the Valearic back to shore.
The Viltrand has run over to the prow and grabbed hold of a panel of control levers. Now it turns back to Harwen with a hideous expression on its face.
“Nicolas! For God’s sake, tell me you know me!”
Harwen staggers across the bucking deck, gripping his axe in both hands.
The Viltrand lets out a strangled cry and pulls one of the levers on the panel. There is a clatter of chains paying out and a grinding of metal. The cargo doors are opening.
Terror floods through Harwen’s body. He runs to the forward rail and looks down. The great iron doors swing wide, opening the Valearic’s mouth to the pitiless sea.
“NO!” he screams. He tries to think—there must be something he can do, there must be, Saints please there must be, but there is nothing. The ship tilts, and everything tumbles out: water, filth, helpmates, and fifty barrels of ultramarine dye.
And Harwen himself—his true body, helpless and alone.
For a moment he hangs in midair, turning slowly, his three mouths gaping blindly. All he can think is: That’s me. Then two mighty fists of cloud slam together and pop him like a grape.
Long nights. Thunderous days. Nearly a week on the Linear Sea. A fever suffuses his appendage’s whole body, dragging it in and out of consciousness. The crew speak in hushed voices in the corridor, thinking his appendage cannot hear. Its hands swell up, ooze with pus, then finally shrink back down.
The memory of that moment, of his body tumbling from the cargo bay, is superimposed over everything, burned into the space behind his appendage’s eyelids.
The Valearic drops anchor in a rain-soaked colonial harbour. Viltrand comes to see Harwen each day, mops his appendage’s brow, feeds it with a spoon. “We will stay here as long as you need,” he says. “You are recovering from a great shock, Nicolas, that is all.”
His appendage’s body feels shattered from within. It can barely lift a knife and fork without its hands shaking. One day, with great difficulty, the crew helps it climb to the deck and look out over a grey-green sea. It stares into the rain-soaked horizon; but even if it could stare through all the worlds, it would not find him. He is gone.
A month passes, and they come home to Scar Bay. A pair of tugboats tow the Valearic into the port. All the old sounds come floating through the fog, memories from someone else: the ringing of the ironworks, the cry of gulls, the clang of the lightermen’s bells. Viltrand goes ashore and fetches a wheelchair from the Medical Academy. He helps Harwen’s appendage into it, one leg at a time, and rolls it down the gangplank onto the wharf.
There is a woman waiting there in a bonnet and a red dress. When she sees them approaching, her hand goes to her mouth, and tears threaten to form at the corners of her dark eyes.
The appendage of Captain Nicolas Harwen gives her a small, sad smile.
“Mrs. Harwen,” it says. “I am so very sorry for your loss.”