EXCLUSIVE: The Wounded (Teaser)

I’ve managed to have a teaser section for The Wounded, a 60,000-word novella by David Wingrove, fall right into my lap. Although not part of the Chung Kuo universe, I know some of us  have been looking for stuff to read between novels. This teaser is the first scene of the story, which I understand might be a part of something bigger in the future. Enjoy! Full text of the teaser after the break…


The Wounded
By David Wingrove

He’s always there, in the shadowed corner of that crowded, smoke-filled room, the black-veined, blood red marble of the wall behind him; alone at his table, aloof one might almost say, except that such solitude has nothing to do with pride. He’s hurting – I can see it, every time I look at him – but no one knows why.

Ellemi Three in Spring is no place to be. And if I say that as one who has never been anywhere else, I have uncles who have travelled the galaxy, and they tell me that it’s so. Ellemi Three, they maintain, is a piss-hole, a real backwater planet. Only this is my home. This small, slow-spinning world among a galaxy of spinning worlds. Specifically, this inn, The Carapace, perched on the very shoulder of the High Ledge, to the south of the great city on the bay, not a mile from the spaceport.

Which is maybe why he’s here. My stranger. My fallen angel.

My father calls to me from behind the long, polished counter. “Vasa! Stop day- dreaming! Get those tables cleared!”

I am not day-dreaming, though it may seem so to my father. I am thinking. Wondering, as ever, what it’s like to be the stranger. Wondering about his hurt, about the pain in those deep, blue, beautiful eyes of his.

A fallen angel, I call him, but so he seems. He must be twice my height and twice my width at the shoulders, his long, curling golden hair falling almost to his waist. A giant of a man, so gentle and so beautiful. And yet… I have seen his rages. I have seen him lift and throw a man across the room for daring to venture too close, as if to maintain the absolute vacuum that seems always to surround him.

Day after day I take him drinks and he never looks up. Never once says thank you or in any way acknowledges my presence there. As if he were blind. Or as if nothing else existed but his pain. A pain so deep the mind falters in trying to imagine it.

Each night, as the inn clears, the men come to help my father carry him to his bed, in the room that was once my mother’s; four of them, my father included, struggling with his dead weight, gripping a perfectly formed limb each as they stagger down the dimly- lit passageway.

How many nights have I watched that spectacle, wondering when it will end; whether he’ll die here, or whether they’ll finally come and take him?

The same they who pay his bills without question.

I do as my father says and begin to clear the tables, gathering up the scarabs, piling them on the oval tray until there’s no more room, and then out, past the counter where my father’s busy serving, and into the kitchen area, where Bir’bi and Hasu are, at the great trough-like sinks, their long, thin backs to me.

“About time,” says Bir’bi, as I set the tray down beside him. “Day-dreaming again?” And he turns and gives me a pleasant smile, to let me know he’s only teasing.

Bir’bi is ten years my elder, Hasu twenty. Both have been here as long as I can recall. Orphans, both of them, taken in by my mother when she was yet alive. Off- worlders. Hence their tall, wiry frames, unlike us natives who are short and squat; built, some offworlder once commented, like the giant beetles that dominate this world.

I gaze for a moment at the small mound of scarabs that are piled at Bir’bi’s side, waiting to be washed. There’s a real beauty to the patterns on those shells. Or was, for many of them are chipped now, their colourful whorls and swirls faded and water- stained, their once-brilliance dulled by constant use. But it’s not long now – a few weeks at most – and we can replace them.

I make to speak, then sense a new tension in the air. The faintest of vibrations. Bir’bi looks to me, and even Hasu glances round, his eyes looking up towards the ceiling, his face expectant. And as the vibration grows, making the shells tremble, so Bir’bi’s features form into a grin.

“A ship! It’s a ship!”

We hurry out, onto the wide, stone balcony, staring out from our high vantage point across the orange-red sprawl of the southern city towards the spaceport, just three of many who now crowd the balconies all along the sloping shelf of the High Ledge, our necks craning upwards, hands shielding eyes, trying to see the ship against the brightness of the sky. It’s impossible at first, but as the noise grows, subsonics rattling buildings, making the sunlit surface of the Paa’rtsu Canal – midway between us and the tall spires of the palace – quiver, the shell-shaped boats rise and fall, so a bright point of light seems to appear suddenly, high up; so high it seems a star is falling straight to earth.
It’s an astonishing sight. No more astonishing for having been seen a hundred times and more. Only it’s late in the season for a ship to come. There must be urgent reasons for it, and as my father joins us, his arm slipping about my shoulders, his neck tilted up, watching the ship come down, so I ask him what he thinks.

“It’s the War,” he says ominously. “There have been rumours. Things aren’t going well. And the alliance…”

His voice trails off, as if he need say no more, but Bir’bi half turns and glares at him.

“Without the alliance we would all have been dead long ago.”

“That’s what the politicians tell us.”

“No. It’s the truth. You think the enemy would have listened to reason? Not for a second. It’s only force – our combined power – that’s stopped them.”
I close my eyes a moment, hoping it won’t develop into one of their rows. Bir-bi’s world was taken by the enemy, his people killed. But I’ve heard it all before; too many times, if the truth be said: the pros and the cons, the cynicism and the blind devotion to the cause. Every shade of opinion, and not one bit of it formulated by experience. I mean, what do we know of the great battle between the worlds – we who live here in Ellemi Three? Nothing. Or close to. Only what we hear from passing strangers. Visitors on their way elsewhere.

But now a ship has come, late in the season, and there has to be a reason. Because it will be three months or more before they can leave again. As Ellemi Three slips closer to the sun, it will be impossible, even for one of their most powerful ships, to climb out of the gravity well. Not until the sun releases us, and we swing back out into the darkness once again.

As the ship descends the noise grows and grows, until we are all covering our ears, grimacing against the sound, the whole city shaking under that fierce sonic assault. On other planets, I’m told, they position their spaceports a long, long way from the major centres of habitation, but we’ve not the luxury of that here on Ellemi Three. There are few enough habitable places on this planet. And besides, what could a ship do that the seasons haven’t already? Our city is built to last, the brutal beauty of its architecture fashioned by the elements.

With a sudden pop, the high-pitched noise descends three octaves. There’s a great rumble that seems to roll off into the distant countryside, and then the ship – a vast metallic seed until that moment – opens up, unfolding, vast metallic vanes blossoming, the whole thing juddering as it slows its descent, retros firing now, faint filaments of blue and burning violet playing between its wing tips like an electric storm as its shadow finally falls over the great bowl of the space-port, slowing by the second, until it seems impossible that so large a ship could descend so slowly, so gracefully, gliding now, almost silent but for the brief adjusting burns of its retro engines.

I lean over the balcony, seeing how, along the entire face of the High Ledge, people are clustered on their balconies or at windows, watching the final few moments of the ship’s descent; a whole city pausing from its routines to stand and stare.

My father turns, looking from one of us to another. “Well? What are you gawping at? There’s work to be done!”

And thus it’s over. Or almost so. For, returning to the bar, I see him there again, alone, untouched by the general clamour, staring down into his drink, pure misery in his eyes. I have seen him cry a thousand times, and yet each time it moves me. And how could it not? To see an angel cry…

I walk across and stand there, watching him, yet I might as well be invisible. His eyes are focused on some distant past and as I watch he winces and his mouth forms into a simple oh of pain; such an exquisite, delicate agony that I feel the hairs at my neck stand on end, witnessing it. What does he see? What in God’s name does he see?

The doors at the far end are pushed open. There’s a buzz of animated talk as the crowd make their way back inside, returning to their tables, speculating on the ship and its purpose here. But my angel is deaf to it all. Lifting the shell to his mouth he drinks deeply, as if to erase what he’s seen, draining the shell, the muscles of his throat flexing and unflexing until the shell falls from his hand, empty, and I place another there.
And still he stares. Blind. Deaf. My fallen angel.

* * *

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