An Excerpt from Beyond the Burn Line

Read the opening of the new Paul McAuley novel

IZ Digital is very happy to present an exclusive excerpt from Beyond the Burn Line (Gollancz, 2022), the latest science fiction novel by the great Paul McAuley.

From the novel’s blurb:

In the deep future beyond the burn line of the Anthropocene and the extinction of humanity, the city states of an intelligent species of bear have fallen to a mind-wrecking plague. The bears’ former slaves, a peaceable, industrious and endlessly curious people, believe that they have inherited the bounty and beauty of their beloved Mother Earth. But are they alone?

Here on IZ Digital you can also read a fantastic conversation between Paul McAuley and Simon Morden.

Without further ado, the excerpt from Beyond the Burn Line

Three days after Master Able’s body was committed to the Mother, a notary appointed by the Office of Last Things met with the old scholar’s secretary. Settlement of the estate was in hand; it was time to discuss disbursements and distributions.

‘My master’s kin gave me a letter setting out terms at the committal,’ the secretary, Pilgrim Saltmire, said. ‘Including a demand that I quit the house without delay, since my services are no longer required.’

‘They should not have approached you directly,’ the notary said, with a grimace of professional displeasure. ‘So I told Master Able’s brother after he admitted to it. As for the quit notice, I may be able to allow you a few days’ grace. An inventory must be made and approved, and I can see that it will be no small task.’

They were talking in Master Able’s study. A small oval room like a chamber of a stilled heart, lined with specimen cases and book racks, and lit by a single pole lantern draped with a red silk scarf. The notary, a stout, middle-aged person with a precise, patient manner, was perched on the edge of the couch where Master Able had taken his customary afternoon nap. Pilgrim stood before him like a supplicant, leaning on his cane and dressed in the long white shirt, carefully ripped in several places, that signified bereavement and mourning.

‘And what about my master’s work? The work that is still unfinished?’ he said, gesturing towards the low table that squatted in the centre of the room, covered with stacks of books and monographs, letters and loose papers. A fossil coilshell held open the pages of a weighty volume. A saucer caked with dried green ink sat next to a half-empty box of inkstones and a translucent horn cylinder packed with drip pens. It was hard for Pilgrim to think that only he now knew the secret order and significance of this shrine and storehouse, these accoutrements and extensions of his master’s marvellous mind. The magnifying lens with which he had scrutinised specimens; the case of measuring callipers; his hand abacus, its black and white stones arranged in his last calculation. A faint ghost of his musty scent haunted the air and the goatskin hassock beside the table was still indented by the weight and shape of his body. Pilgrim had found him sprawled next to it after he had been struck by the thunderbolt to his brain, his breathing harsh and irregular, his eyes open and glassy, pupils different sizes, a book splayed like a broken bird by his head.

‘The terms of the settlement are quite straightforward,’ the notary was saying. ‘Certain books and specimens are to be gifted to the Library of All People. Perhaps you would help me to find them. The rest of his material possessions, including manuscripts, notes and other personal papers, will pass to his brother and his sisters.’

Pilgrim had anticipated this moment. He pulled a folded sheet of paper from his wallet and said, ‘According to this, it may not be quite as straightforward as you think.’

‘It’s far too late to raise an objection to the settlement,’ the notary said. ‘Especially by someone not related to the deceased.’

‘It’s a short note my master wrote on his death bed. He was insensible for most of the time, but rallied in his last hours and was able to set down a request that I should be given every- thing I need to finish his work. His handwriting was affected by the injury to his brain,’ Pilgrim said, his heart beating quick and high as he watched the notary unfold the sheet of paper. ‘But he signed and dated it, and embossed it with his stamp.’ The notary pinched a pair of spectacles over his snout and read the note carefully, holding it close to his face in the dim red light, then sat back and studied Pilgrim for a moment. ‘Its intent is clear. Unfortunately, since it lacks a countersignature by an independent witness, it has no standing in law.’

‘It was my master’s last wish,’ Pilgrim said. ‘And I will need very little to carry it out. A small allowance to support me. Travelling expenses for research. No more than a year’s salary, all told. And access to the relevant books and papers, of course. I have made a list.’

‘Apart from you, was anyone else present when this note was written?’ the notary said.

‘My master’s physic visited several times. A few of his friends and colleagues paid their respects, but did not stay long. The rest of the time I cared for him as best I could, helped by his homekeeper. But she was out on an errand when my master woke, and made signs asking for pen and paper.’ The notary took off his spectacles and refolded the note and set it on top of the sheaf of papers beside him. ‘Since there was no independent witness, I cannot accept this as a varia- tion of the terms of the settlement. The best I can do is pass it to his kin and ask if they wish to honour it.’

There had been just two representatives from Master Able’s family at the committal on the bare hilltop at the edge of the city. Able’s eldest brother and one of his nephews, dressed in mourning shirts of much finer quality than Pilgrim’s, standing a little way apart from the sparse gathering of friends and colleagues, and like them holding smouldering sweetwood branches and chanting the ancient prayers while two knife- workers prepared the body for the carrion birds. Afterwards, Able’s brother had watched while the nephew had given Pilgrim the notice to quit, and both had left immediately afterwards, without a word to anyone else.

‘Given the circumstances, I would think that honouring the spirit of the note is more important than any law,’ Pilgrim said. ‘I wish I could help you,’ the notary said. ‘But the regulations of my office make no allowance for that kind of flexibility.’

Pilgrim knew that it was not the notary’s fault, but for a moment his anger and disappointment poked through.

‘The opinion of my master’s kin and tribe is worthless. They were happy to bask in the glow of his reputation in earlier days, but quick to join the chorus of naysayers and jealous rivals who mocked him.’

‘Because of this business of the visitors,’ the notary said. ‘I suppose his brother told you about it.’

‘I find it helps to know a little about the deceased.’

‘His kin claimed that his work on the visitors had made him a laughing stock and sullied their own standing, and when he refused to give it up they cut off his stipend, out of spite. He wanted me to have the means to finish it. To prove them wrong. To find out what the visitors are, if they are real. To consider what it says about us if they turn out to be some kind of common delusion.’

‘How long did you serve as Master Able’s secretary?’

Pilgrim touched the pendant that rested on the laces of his white shirt. Inside its amber teardrop a large black ant curled amongst a swirl of tiny bubbles, perfectly preserved by the resin which, seeping from a wound in the bark of a pine tree, had trapped it millions of years ago.

‘He gave me this last summer’s end, to commemorate five years’ service.’

‘You were close to him.’

‘He could be difficult,’ Pilgrim said. ‘Obstinate, irascible, obsessed with his work. But he was also a brilliant scholar. The cleverest person I ever knew.’

The notary pressed the flat of his hand over the note. ‘When I present this to his kin, I will have to explain that it has no legal standing. But I can also point out the unusual circumstances in which it was written, and ask them to take that into consideration.’

‘They will be interested only in its legality.’

‘Sometimes the jolt of a death prompts people to reassess their relationship with the deceased,’ the notary said. ‘So don’t give up hope just yet.’

Paul James McAuley was born in Gloucestershire on St George’s Day, 1955. He has a Ph.D in Botany and worked as a researcher in biology at various universities, including Oxford and UCLA, and for six years was a lecturer in botany at St Andrews University, before leaving academia to write full time. He started publishing science fiction with the short story ‘Wagon, Passing’ for Asimov’s Science Fiction in 1984. His first novel, 400 Billion Stars won the Philip K. Dick Award in 1988, and 1995’s Fairyland won the Arthur C. Clarke and John W. Campbell Awards. He has also won the British Fantasy, Sidewise and Theodore Sturgeon Awards. He lives in London.

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