It's 2017 and the end days are coming, beings that were once human gathering to fight in one last great war for control of the Vellum - the vast realm of eternity on which our world is just a scratch. But to a draft-dodging Irish angel and a trailer-trash tomboy called Phreedom, it's about to become brutally clear that there's no great divine or diabolic plan at play here, just a vicious battle between the hawks of Heaven and Hell, with humanity stuck in the middle, and where the easy rhetoric of Good and Evil, Order versus Chaos just doesn't apply. Here there are no heroes, no darlings of destiny struggling to save the day, and there are no villains, no dark lords of evil out to destroy the world. Or at least if there are, it's not quite clear which is which. Here, the most ancient gods and the most modern humans are equally fate's fools, victims of their own hubris, struggling to save their own skins, their own souls, but sometimes...just sometimes...sacrificing everything in the name of humanity.
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Hal Duncan lives in Glasgow, and this is his first full-length novel.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
One - A Door Out of Reality
From the Great Beyond
From the Great Beyond she heard it, coming from the Deep Within. From the Great Beyond the goddess heard it, coming from the Deep Within. From the Great Beyond Inanna heard it, coming from the Deep Within.
She gave up heaven and earth, to journey down into the underworld, Inanna did, gave up her role as queen of heavens, holy priestess of the earth, to journey down into the underworld. In Uruk and in Badtibira, in Zabalam and Nippur, in Kish and in Akkad, she abandoned all her temples to descend into the Kur.
She gathered up the seven me into her hands, and with them in her hands, in her possession, she began her preparations.
Her lashes painted black with kohl, she laid the sugurra, crown of the steppe, upon her head, and fingered locks of fine, dark hair that fell across her forehead, touched them into place. She fastened tiny lapis beads around her neck and let a double strand of beads fall to her breast. Around her chest, she bound a golden breastplate that called quietly to men and youths, come to me, come, with warm, metallic grace. She slipped a golden bracelet over her soft hand, onto her slender wrist, and took a lapis rod and line in hand.
And finally, she furled her royal robe around her body.
Inanna set out for the Kur, her faithful servant, Lady Shubur, with her.
“Lady Shubur,” said Inanna, “my sukkal who gives wise consul, my steadfast support, the warrior who guards my flank, I am descending to the Kur, the underworld. If I do not return then sound a lamentation for me in the ruins. Pound the drum for me in the assemblies where the unkin gather and around the houses of the gods. Tear at your eyes, your mouth, your thighs. Wearing the beggar’s single robe of soiled sackcloth, then, go to the temple of the Lord Ilil in Nippur. Enter his sacred shrine and cry to him. Say these words:
“O father Lord Ilil, do not leave your daughter to death and damnation. Will you let your shining silver lie buried forever in the dust? Will you see your precious lapis shattered into shards of stone for the stoneworker, your aromatic cedar cut up into wood for the woodworker? Do not let the queen of heaven, holy priestess of the earth, be slaughtered in the Kur.
“If Lord Ilil will not assist you,” she said, “go to Ur, to the temple of Sin, and weep before my father. If he will not assist you, go to Eridu, to Enki’s temple, weep before the god of wisdom. Enki knows the food of life; he knows the water of life; he knows the secrets. I am sure he will not let me die.”
Thick with Trees and Thunderstorms
North Carolina, where the old 70 that runs from Hickory to Asheville cuts across the 225 running up from the south, from Spartanburg and beyond, up through the Blue Ridge Mountains and a land that’s thick with trees and thunderstorms. It’s on the map, but it’s a small town, or at least it looks it, hidden from the freeway, until you cut down past the sign that says Welcome to Marion, a Progressive Town, and gun your bike slow through the streets of the town center with its thrift stores and pharmacy, fire department, town hall, the odd music store or specialist shop that’s yet to lose its market to the Wal-Mart just a short drive down the road.
She rides past the calm, brick-fronted architecture that’s still somewhere in the 1950s, sleeping, waiting for a future that’s never going to happen, dreaming of a past that never really went away, out of the small town center and on to a commercial strip of fast-food restaurants and diners, a steak house and a Japanese, a derelict cinema sitting lonely in the middle of its own car park—all of these buildings just strung along the road like cheap plastic beads on a ragged necklace. She pulls off the road into a Hardee’s, switches off the engine and kicks down the bike-stand.
The burger tastes good—real meat in a thick, rough-shapen hunk, not some thin bland patty of processed gristle and fat—and she washes it down with deep sucking slurps of Mountain Dew, and twirls the straw in the cardboard bucket of a cup to rattle the ice as she looks out the window at the road, hot in the summer sun, humid and heavy. The sky is a brilliant blue, the blue of a Madonna’s robes, stretching up into forever, stretching—
—and she stands in front of the mirror in the washroom, leaning on the sink a second, dizzy with a sudden buzz, a hum, a song that ripples through her body like the air over a hot road shimmers in the sun. The Cant. Shit, she thinks. She must be getting close. She looks at the watch sitting up on top of the hand-dryer. The second hand flicks back and forth, random, sporadic, like one of those airplane instruments in a movie where the plane is going down in an electrical storm.
It’s August 4th, 2017. Sort of.
Steady again, she studies her eyes, black with mascara and with lack of sleep, and pushes her dark red hair back from her forehead. Even splashing more water on her face she still feels like a fucking zombie. Fucking zombie retro biker chick, she thinks. Beads in her hair, a beaded choker round her neck, a chicken-bone charm necklace over a gold circuit-patterned T-shirt. Shit, she looks like her fucking techno-hippy mother.
She picks up her watch and slips it over her wrist, reels out the earphones from the stick clipped to her belt and puts them in, clipping them into the booster sockets in her earrings so her lenses can pick up the video signals. The Sony VR5 logo flickers briefly across her vision as she shoulders her way out through the door, tapping at the datastick to switch it onto audio-only. She doesn’t need a heads-up weather forecast with ghost images of clouds or sunbursts, or a Routefinder sprite floating at every turnoff to point her this way or that. Not today.
She grabs her helmet from the handlebar of the bike and puts it on as she swings her leg up over the seat, flicks up the stand, zips up her leather biker jacket, kicks the engine into life.
The antique creature of steel and chrome growls between her legs, and another antique creature—one of leather and vinyl—screams in her ears.
“Looooooooooooooord!” howls Iggy Pop, and the murderous guitar of the Stooges’ TV Eye kicks in, as Phreedom Messenger opens up the throttle on the bike and roars out of her pit stop on the way to hell.
whore of babylon, queen of heaven
And Inanna continued on her way toward the underworld. She journeyed from ancient Sumer up the land between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, through the whole of Babylon and into Hittite Haran. She traveled into Canaan with the Habiru who called her Ishtar. She went with them into Egypt and they called her Ashtaroth when she returned, leaving behind only a memory, the myth of Isis. She saw god-kings and city-states rise and fall, patriarchs murdered by sons who took their places and their names, armies and wars of territory and dominion. She traveled with the armies, with the whores and the musicians and the eunuch priests, offering solace in their tents, in tabernacles of sex and salvation. She had bastard sons by kings. She washed the feet of gods amongst men.
She saw villages burned and statues toppled. She saw kingdoms become federations, federations become empires. She saw whole dynasties of deities overthrown, their names and faces obliterated from the monuments they’d built, so, unlike them, she took new names, new faces. Times changed and she changed with them. She never accepted the new order that was tearing down the old around her, but she knew better than to fight it, watching the others stripped of honor, stripped of reverence, stripped of godhood, still calling themselves Sovereigns even as the Covenant shattered every idol in their temples. So she traveled as supplicant, as refugee, with mystery as her protector rather than force, cults rather than armies. She saw the seeds she dropped behind her take root in the earth and grow only to be crushed by military boots. She traveled with slaves and criminals.
She went from Israel, to Byzantium and Rome, this Queen of Heaven, Blessed Mother, full of grace, her new name and old titles echoing amongst the vaults of stone cathedrals, spaces as vast and hollow as the temples left long empty in Uruk and Badtibira, Zabalam and Nippur, Kish and Akkad.
She traveled in statues and pietàs, painted in indigo and gold in old Renaissance frescoes, Russian icons; traveled to the New World with conquistadors and missionaries, to plantations where the slaves danced round the fires at night, possessed by gods, by saints, by loas and orishas; journeyed across time to a New Age of carnival mythologies and stars worshipped in glossy parchments sold at newsstands, of rosaries and Tarot cards and television earth mothers fussing over the broken hearts and wounded prides of soft, spoiled inner children.
She journeyed on the road of no return, to the dark mansion of the god of death, the house where those who enter never leave, where those who enter lose all light, and feed on dust, clay for their bread. They see no sun; they dwell in night, clothed in black feathers of the carrion crow. Over the door and the bolt of the dark house, dust settles, moss and mildew grow.
She stopped, this Whore of Babylon, this Queen of Heaven. Inanna stopped before the entrance to the underworld, and turned to look back at her servant who had followed her down through the centuries, the millennia.
“Go now, Lady Shubur,” she said. “Do not forget my words.”
“My Queen,” says Lady Shubur.
A Sculpture of Time and Space
She shifts the engine to a lower gear, a lower growl, swings low and wide around the corners, slower as the bike climbs the steep, winding road into the mountains. White wooden churches stand with bible quotes lettered on hoardings at the side of the road, and shabby prefab houses perch in their little plots with leaning porches and pots of dying flowers in hanging baskets. They nestle in amongst the deep trees of bear and deer; this is hunting territory, a place of pickup trucks and men in armored vests with high-powered rifles and coolers filled with beer. Stars and Stripes on every house. On a dirt track coming off the road at her right-hand side a rustbucket of a car sits up on bricks, the legend #1 Dawg scrawled in paint across the battered panels of its side.
The bike swings left and right in wide curves round the tight corners and she leans down into them, following the flow, the rhythm of the constant turns and twists. The road snakes on right up into the hills and she snakes with it, like a cobra reared up ready to strike but swaying side to side, charmed by the music in its contours, switching gears, from growl to roar and back again. Slow and wide. Fast and tight. Left. Right. Left. Right. Sunlight flickers blinding white through the canopy of trees like the end of an old celluloid film rattling through a projector.
The road cuts deep into the sharp-carved shadows of tall trees for a second, slices between dark juts of moss-slicked rock and through a concrete underpass; and she takes the circling slip road off to the right and turns and turns, and then she’s up and out and on the Blue Ridge Parkway, riding the wide road that runs from mountain spine to mountain spine along the length of the whole range. And the sun is hot but the air is clear and crisp as a cool spring and she can look out to her left and to her right and see the world on either side, the hills in the beyond, the valleys in between, the vast, green, rough, soft sculpture of time and space, of earth and sky.
It’s places like this that you can’t tell where the world ends and the Vellum begins, she thinks. For all its asphalt artifice, for all the wooden mileage signposts scattered along its way, for all that you can look down into the valleys and still see the houses and churches, schools and factories of small towns cradled in the folds, up here reality, like the air, is thinner. The road is just a scratch on the skin of a god; if you came off it, she thinks, if you smashed straight through one of the low wooden fences and shot out into the air, you might crash right out of this world and into another, into a world empty of human life or filled with animal ghosts.
But those aren’t the kind of world she’s looking for, not by a long shot.
Inanna at the Gates of Hell
“Gatekeeper, open up your gate for me,” Inanna called. “If you refuse, I’ll smash this door, shatter the bolt, splinter the post. I’ll tear these doors down and raise up the dead to feast upon the living, until there are more dead souls walking in the world than are alive.”
Inanna stood before the outer gates of Kur, and she knocked loudly.
“Open the doors, you keeper of the gate,” she cried, her voice fierce. “Open up the doors, Neti! I come alone and ask for entry.”
“And who are you?” asked Neti, surly chief gatekeeper of the Kur.
“I am Inanna, Queen of Heavens, on my way into the West.”
“If you are really Queen of Heavens,” Neti said, “and on your way into the West, Inanna, why, why has your heart made you a traveler on the road of no return?”
“My sister, Eresh of the Greater Earth,” Inanna answered, “is the reason. I have come to see the funeral rites of Gugalanna, Bull of Heaven, her dead husband. I have come to see the rites, the funeral beer of his libations poured into the cup. Now open up.”
“Wait here, Inanna,” Neti said, “and I will give your message to my queen.”
And Neti, chief keeper of the gates of Kur, turned and entered the palace of Eresh, the Queen of the Underworld, of the Greater Earth.
Mary or Anna, Esther or Diana, Phreedom flicks through the many cards she carries in her wallet, all the identities she travels in. She picks one out almost at random—an Anna, this time—hands it to the clerk behind the counter. He smiles at her and she can’t help herself from thinking of the cheap motels she’s stayed in where the clerks are all sim sprites, electronic ghosts with just enough AI behind them to take care of check-ins and check-outs. Sim answerers are the cheaper option, now, than the old service sector wage slaves of the past; she’s kind of surprised that this place has a flesh receptionist. But maybe they just haven’t caught up with the times.
Another town, another Comfort Inn, she thinks. This time it’s Marion, but it could be anywhere. She watches as the clerk slashes the card through the machine and turns to watch the screen, waiting for confirmation. And she pauses, pen poised in her hand over the book, flicks her eyes up to the clock on the back wall and sees the second hand tick round, once, twice, then stop. The clerk is still, stopped in his stoop, one hand laid on the monitor, his drumming fingers caught between the beats. She flicks backward through the pages of the book, scanning the names for one that has a different look. She’s no idea what name he might have used here, but she knows she’ll know it when she sees it, by the little signs, not in the handwriting, in the snake of an s, the round mounds of an m, but in the imprints that it makes, not in the paper but in reality itself. The unkin can wear whatever names they want, whatever guises, but they still wear their nature in their attitude, in their actions. They leave traces.
And as it turns out, he hasn’t even bothered to use a false...
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