Agony Column Exclusive Fiction Excerpt


Now Available in the UK

Century Rain
An Excerpt From the New Novel
by Alastair Reynolds
© 2004 Alastair Reynolds

Verity Auger surveyed the underground scene from the safety of her environment suit, standing a dozen metres from the crippled wreckage of the crawler. The tarantula-like machine lay tilted to one side, two of its legs broken and another three jammed uselessly against the low ceiling of carved ice. The crawler was going nowhere – it couldn't even be dragged back to the surface; but at least its life-support bubble was still intact. Cassandra, the girl student, was still sitting inside the cabin, arms folded, watching the proceedings with a kind of haughty detachment. Sebastian, the boy, was lying about five metres from the crawler, his suit damaged but still capable of keeping him alive until the rescue squad arrived.

'Hang in there,' Auger told him on the suit-to-suit. 'They're breaking through. We'll be home and dry any moment now.'

The crackle and static accompanying the boy's response made him seem a million light-years away. 'I don't feel too good, miss.'

'What's wrong?'


'Just stay still. Those suit seals will do their job if you don't move.'

Auger stepped back as rescue crawlers from the Antiquities Board emerged from above, forcing ice aside with piston-driven claws and picks.

'That you, Auger?' came a voice in her helmet.

'Of course it's me. What took you so long? Thought you guys were never coming.'

'We came as fast as we could.' She recognised the voice of Mancuso, one of the recovery people she had dealt with in the past. 'Had trouble getting a fix on you this far down. The clouds seemed to be having some kind of argument tonight, lots of electromagnetic crap to see through. What exactly were you doing this deep?'

'My job,' she said tersely.

'The kid hurt?'

'His suit took a hit.' On her own faceplate monitor she could still see the diagnostic summary for Sebastian's suit, hatched with pulsing red hazard indicators near the right elbow joint. 'But it's nothing serious. I told him to lie down and keep still until rescue arrived.'

The lead crawler was already disgorging two members of the rescue squad, clad in the faintly comical suits of the extreme-hazards section. They moved like sumo warriors, in squatting strides.

Auger moved to Sebastian, kneeling down next to him. 'They're here. All you have to do is keep still and you'll be safe and sound.'

Sebastian made an unintelligible gurgle in reply. Auger raised a hand, signalling the nearer of the two suits to approach her. 'This is the boy, Mancuso. I think you should deal with him first.'

'That's already the plan,' another voice squawked in her helmet. 'Stand back, Auger.'

'Careful with him,' she warned. 'He's got a bad rip near the right—'

Mancuso's suit towered over the little boy. 'Easy, son,' she heard. 'Gonna have you fixed up in no time. You all right in there?'

'Hurt,' she heard Sebastian gasp.

'Think we need to move fast on this one,' Mancuso said, beckoning the second rescuer to him with a flick of one overmuscled arm. 'Can't risk moving him, not with the particle density as high as it is.'

'Recover in situ?' the second rescuer asked.

'Let's do it.'

Mancuso pointed his left arm at the boy. A hatch slid open in the armour and a spray nozzle popped out. Silvery-white matter gushed from the nozzle, solidifying instantly on impact. In a matter of seconds, Sebastian became a human-shaped cocoon wrapped in hard spittlelike strands.

'Careful with him,' Auger repeated.

A second team then set to work, cutting into the block of ice immediately underneath Sebastian with lasers. Steam blasted into the air from the cutting point. They paused now and again, signalling each other with tiny hand gestures before resuming. The first team returned with a wheeled, stretcherlike harness, pushing it between them. Thin metal claws lowered from the cradle, slipping into the ice around Sebastian. The cradle slowly hoisted the entire cocooned mass – including its foundation of ice – away from the ground. Auger watched them wheel Sebastian away and load him into the first recovery machine.

'It was just a scratch,' Auger said, when Mancuso returned to check on her. 'You don't have to act as if it's an emergency, scaring the kid to death.'

'It'll be an experience for him.'

'He's already had enough experience for one day.'

'Well, can't be too careful. Down here all accidents are emergencies. Thought you'd have known that by now, Auger.'

'You should check on the girl,' she said, indicating the crawler.

'She hurt?'


'Then she isn't a priority. Let's see what you risked these kids' lives for, shall we?'

Mancuso meant the newspaper.

'It's in the crawler's storage shelf,' Auger said, leading him over to the crippled machine. At the front of the crawler, tucked beneath sets of manipulator arms and tools, were a netting pouch and a hatch containing a compartmented storage tray. Auger released the manual catch and slid out the tray. 'Look,' she said, taking the newspaper out of its slot with great care.

'Whew!' Mancuso whistled, grudgingly impressed. 'Where'd you find it?'

She pointed to a sunken area just ahead of the wrecked machine. 'We found a car down there.'

'Anyone inside?'

'Empty. We smashed the sunroof and used the crawler's manipulators to extract the paper from the rear seat. We had to brace the crawler against the ceiling to prevent it from toppling over. Unfortunately, the ceiling wasn't structurally sound.'

'That's because this cavern hasn't been cleared for human operations yet,' Mancuso told her.

Auger chose her words carefully, mindful that anything she said now might be on the record. 'No harm was done. We lost a crawler, but the recovery of a newspaper easily outweighs that.'

'What happened to the boy?'

'He was helping me stabilise the crawler when he ripped his suit. I told him to lie still and wait for the cavalry.'

She put the newspaper back into the tray. The newsprint was still as sharp and legible as when she had retrieved it from the car. The act of picking up the paper – flexing it slightly – had even caused one of the animated adverts to come to life: a girl on a beach throwing a ball towards the camera.

'Pretty good, Auger. Looks like you lucked out this time.'

'Help me remove the tray,' she said, guessing that there was going to be no attempt to recover the entire crawler.

They extracted the sample tray, carried it to the nearest rescue crawler and slid it into a vacant slot.

'Now the film reels,' Mancuso said.

Auger walked around the leaning vehicle, throwing latches and sliding out the heavy black cartridges, clipping them together as she went for ease of transport. Once all twelve of them had been assembled, including those from the cabin monitors, she handed the bulky package to Mancuso. 'I want these shot straight to the lab,' she said.

'That's the lot?' he asked.

'That's the lot,' Auger replied. 'Now can we deal with Cassandra?'

But when she looked back into the glow of the cabin, she saw no sign of the girl. 'Cassandra?' she called, hoping that the channel to the crawler was still functioning.

'It's OK,' the girl said. 'I'm right behind you.'

Auger turned around to see Cassandra standing on the ice in the other child-sized environment suit.

'I told you to stay inside,' Auger said.

'It was time to leave,' Cassandra replied. She had, as far as Auger could tell, made an efficient and thorough job of donning her suit. Auger was impressed: it was difficult enough for an adult to put on an environment suit without assistance, let alone a child.

'Did you make sure—' Auger began.

'The suit is fine. I think it's time we were leaving, don't you? All this activity may have alerted the furies. We don't want to be here when they arrive.'

Mancuso touched Auger's shoulder with a power-amplified glove that could have crushed her in an eyeblink. 'Girl's right. Let's get the hell out of Paris. Place always gives me the jitters.'

©2004 Alastair Reynolds