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Slow River

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Slow River

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Author: Nicola Griffith
Publisher: Gollancz, 2013
Del Rey / Ballantine, 1995

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Near-Future
Climate Fiction (Cli-Fi)
Avg Member Rating:
(117 reads / 59 ratings)


She awoke in an alley to the splash of rain. She was naked, a foot-long gash in her back was still bleeding, and her identity implant was gone. Lore Van de Oest was the daughter of one of the world's most powerful families...and now she was nobody.

Then out of the rain walked Spanner, an expert data pirate who took her in, cared for her wounds, and gave her the freedom to reinvent herself again and again. No one could find Lore if she didn't want to be found: not the police, not her family, and not the kidnappers who had left her in that alley to die. She had escaped...but she paid for her newfound freedom in crime, deception, and degradation--over and over again.

Lore had a choice: She could stay in the shadows, stay with Spanner...and risk losing herself forever. Or she could leave Spanner and find herself again by becoming someone else: stealing the identity implant of a dead woman, taking over her life, and inventing her future.

But to start again, Lore required Spanner's talents--Spanner, who needed her and hated her, and who always had a price. And even as Lore agreed to play Spanner's games one final time, she found that there was still the price of being a Van de Oest to be paid. Only by confronting her past, her family, and her own demons could Lore meld together who she had once been, who she had become, and the person she intended to be....



At the heart of the city was a river. At four in the morning its cold, deep scent seeped through deserted streets and settled in the shadows between warehouses. I walked carefully, unwilling to disturb the quiet. The smell of the river thickened as I headed deeper into the warehouse district, the Old Town, where the street names changed: Dagger Lane, Silver Street, The Land of Green Ginger; the fifteenth century still echoing through the beginnings of the twenty-first.

Then there were no more buildings, no more alleys, only the river, sliding slow and wide under a bare sky. I stepped cautiously into the open, like a small mammal leaving the shelter of the trees for the exposed bank.

Rivers were the source of civilization, the scenes of all beginnings and endings in ancient times. Babies were carried to the banks to be washed, bodies were laid on biers and floated away. Births and deaths were usually communal affairs, but I was here alone.

I sat on the massive wharf timbers--black with age and slick with algae--and let my fingers trail in the water.

In the last two or three months I had come here often, usually after twilight, when the tourists no longer posed by ancient bale chains and the striped awnings of lunchtime bistros were furled for the night. At dusk the river was sleek and implacable, a black so deep it was almost purple. I watched it in silence. It had seen Romans, Vikings, and medieval kings. When I sat beside it, it didn't matter that I was alone. We sat companionably, the river and I, and watched the stars turn overhead.

I could see the stars because I had got into the habit of lifting the grating set discreetly in the pavement and cracking open the dark blue box that controlled the street lighting. It pleased me to turn off the deliberately old-fashioned wrought-iron lamps whose rich, orangy light pooled on the cobbles and turned six centuries of brutal history into a cozy fireside tale. So few people strolled this way at night that it was usually a couple of days, sometimes as many as ten, before the malfunction was reported, and another week or so before it was fixed. Then I left the lights on for some random length of time before killing them again. The High Street, the city workers had begun to whisper, was haunted.

And perhaps it was. Perhaps I was a ghost. There were those who thought I was dead, and my identity, when I had one, was constructed of that most modern of ectoplasms: electrons and photons that flitted silently across the data nets of the world.

The hand I had dipped in the river was drying. It itched. I rubbed the web between my thumb and forefinger, the scar there. Tomorrow, if all went well, if Ruth would help me one last time, a tadpole-sized implant would be placed under the scar. And I would become someone else. Again. Only this time I hoped it would be permanent. Next time I dipped my hand in the river it would be as someone legitimate, reborn three years after arriving naked and nameless in the city.

The first thing she thought when she woke naked on the cobbles was: Don't roll onto your back. She lay very still and tried to concentrate on the cold stones under hip and cheek, on the strange taste in her mouth. Drugs, they had given her drugs to make her stop struggling, after she had...

Don't think about it.

She could not afford to remember now. She would think about it later, when she was safe. The memory of what had happened shrank safely back into a tight bubble.

She raised her head, felt the great, open slash across her trapezoid muscles pull and stretch. Nausea forced her to breathe shallowly for a moment, but then she lifted her head again and looked about: night, in some strange city. And it was cold.

She was curled in a fetal position around some rubbish on a silent, cobbled street. More like an alley. Somewhere at the edge of her peripheral vision the colors of a newstank flashed silently. She closed her eyes again, trying to think. Lore. My name is Lore. A wind was blowing now, and paper, a news printout, flapped in her face. She pushed it away, then changed her mind and pulled it to her. Paper, she had read, had insulating qualities.

The odd, metallic taste in her mouth was fading, and her head cleared a little. She had to find somewhere to hide. And she had to get warm.

Rain fell on her lip and she licked it off automatically, feeling confused. Why should she hide? Surely there were people who would love her and care for her, tend her gently and clean her wounds, if she just let them know where she was. But Hide, said the voice from her crocodile brain, Hide!, and her muscles jumped and sweat started on her flanks, and the slick gray memory like a balloon in her head swelled and threatened to burst.

She crawled toward the newstank because its lurid colors, the series of news pictures flashing over and over in its endless cycle, imitated life. She sat on the road in the rain in the middle of the night, naked, and bathed in the colors as if they were filtered sunlight, warm and safe.

It took her a while to realize what she was seeing: herself. Herself sitting naked on a chair, blindfolded, begging her family to please, please pay what her kidnappers wanted.

The pictures were like a can opener, ripping open the bubble in her head, drenching her with images: the kidnap, the humiliation, the camera filming it all. "So your family will see we're serious," he had said. Day after day of it. An eighteenth birthday spent huddled naked in a tent in the middle of a room, with nothing but a plastic slop bucket for company. And here it was, in color: her naked and weeping, a man ranting at the camera, demanding more money. Her tied to a chair, begging for food. Begging...

And the whole world had seen this. The whole world had seen her naked, physically and mentally, while they ate their breakfast or took the passenger slide to work. Or maybe drinking coffee at home they had been caught by the cleverly put-together images and decided, What the hell, may as well pay to download the whole story. And she remembered her kidnappers, one who had always smelled of frying fish, half leading, half carrying her out into the barnyard because she was supposed to be dopey with the drugs she had palmed, the other one rolling new transparent plasthene out on the floor of the open van. She remembered the smell of rain on the farm implements rusting by a wall, and the panic. The panic as she thought, This is it. They're going to kill me. And the absolute determination to fight one last time, the way the metallic blanket had felt as it slid off her shoulders, how she pushed the man by her side, dropped the cold, thin spike of metal into her palm and turned. Remembered the look on his face as his eyes met hers, as he knew she was going to kill him, as she knew she was going to shove the sharp metal into his throat, and she did. She remembered the tight gurgle as he fell, pulling her with him, crashing into a pile of metal. The ancient plough blade opening her own back from shoulder to lumbar vertebrae. The shouting of the other man as he jumped from the van, stumbling on the cobbles, pulling her up, checking the man on the ground, shouting, "You killed him you stupid bitch, you killed him!" The way her body would not work, would not obey her urge to run; how he pushed her roughly into the van and slammed the doors. And her blood, dripping on the plasthene sheet; thinking, Oh, so that's what it's for. Remembered him telling the van where to go, the blood on his hands. The way he cursed her for a fool: hadn't she known they were letting her go? But she hadn't. She thoght they were going to kill her. And then the sad look, the way he shook his head and said: Sorry, but you've forced me to do this and at least you won't feel any pain... And the panic again; scrabbling blindly at the handle behind her; the door falling open. She remembered beginning the slow tumble backward, the simultaneous flooding sting of the nasal drug that should have been fatal...

But she was alive. Alive enough to sit in the rain, skin stained with pictures of herself, and remember everything.

A taxi hummed past.

She did not call out, but she was not sure if that was because she was too weak, or because she was afraid. The taxi driver might recognize her. He would know what they had done to her. He would have seen it. Everyone would have seen it. They would look at her and know. She could not call her family. They had all seen her suffer, too. Every time they looked at her they would see the pictures, and she would see them seeing it, and she would wonder why they had not paid her ransom.

Copyright © 1995 by Nicola Griffith


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