In the cultured and conflicted 25th century, a mysterious figurine is found on a body in the Bay of Naples, a carving of the dead Christ in His winding sheet in the style of a vanished sect. Each of His wounds is an open eye, inset with a rare jewel of mysterious properties.
Two intelligence agents who are also art connoisseurs set out to find out the carving's origins, a pursuit that goes from secretive organizations on Earth to boar hunts on the Moon and then out to a violent confrontation in the asteroids, to solve its mystery before war explodes with the outer satellites.
Carve the Sky by Alexander Jablokov is that rare combination: a taut mystery that's also a leisurely walk through an opulent museum. Carve the Sky (as well as its sibling, River of Dust) uses a rich, vivid palette to depict our solar system with all its planets inhabited, each with diverging physiologies and cultures. The two power coalitions—inner versus outer planets—have conflicting interests and goals. In this intricately choreographed adventure in art, religion, espionage and looming interplanetary war, both sides are racing to retrieve an eccentric sculptor's lost masterpiece, sacred to a secretive sect and made of a rare element found only in the asteroid belt, that may hold the key to long-distance star travel. – Athena Andreadis
Combines the virtues of what-if? Extrapolation with the messiness of real life...The influences of this fine first novel range from Albert Bester to Umberto Eco, but Mr. Jablokov has his own way with words...– New York Times (Notable Book of the Year)
"Told with economy and discipline, intelligently and consistently inventive, and inhabited by life-sized characters: splendid, absorbing science fiction, with range, depth, and charm."– Kirkus Reviews
"Has everything a good science fiction novel should contain—memorable characters, a well-realized future milieu, a very good idea, clever plotting, appropriate pacing. I loved every minute of it."– Roger Zelazny
"Jablokov's characters are absorbing, his plotting as balanced and well timed as a classical ballet, and his style a delight."– Publisher’s Weekly
Vanessa awoke when Theonave ran his fingertips delicately up her naked back and stroked the nape of her neck. She shivered and arched her back against his touch. Usually braided and controlled, her hair now lay unruly across the cool pillows and the tangled sheets. Theonave knelt and leaned over Vanessa, the weight of his left hand capturing a thick strand of her hair. The sleep after love was always the softest, she thought as she stretched. She was surprised by how rested she was, since she only allowed herself an hour.
She opened her eyes suddenly and sat up with a gasp, pulling her hair painfully from under his hand. The window glowed with the soft color of late twilight. The bright star of Venus was no longer alone in the sky. A breeze from the Bay of Naples stirred the curtains, bringing with it the crockery clatter and the oil and garlic smell of the dinner hour from the city below.
"For God's sake, Theo, what time is it?" she demanded. "What happened to the alarm?" Her clothes hung neatly on the chair near the bed, as if in preparation for a fire drill, and she pulled them on with quick efficiency even as she wished for clean ones from the bureau drawer. And a shower. She had planned on a shower.
Theonave de Borgra, a large man with heavy features and thick, bushy eyebrows, settled down in the hotel room's other chair and pulled his bathrobe around him. "Oh, I don't know," he said with deliberate airiness. He looked out at the gathering darkness that held the glowing windows of the tightly packed buildings of Naples. "I can't tell time by the sun. Remember, I grew up in the corridors of Ganymede and we do things differently there." He yawned and blinked at her. The silver crystals in his irises shone in the half darkness. "I didn't see the naked face of Jupiter until I was ten. An event not without interest, incidentally."
"I'd like to hear the story, but—" Vanessa Karageorge looked at the ornate metal hands of the clock on the writing desk at the other end of the room. They told her that it was four o'clock, about the time she and Theonave had finished making love and she had gone to sleep.
"You looked so lovely lying there, still dewy with sweat. It seemed a pity to disturb you, so I turned the clock off."
"Dewy with sweat." It was just the sort of thing he liked to say. "Dammit, you knew that I have things to do. " She pulled on the lemon-colored dress she had worn that morning for their excursion to the vineyards at the base of Mt. Vesuvius. It was completely inappropriate for a cool evening. She was a slender woman with large, dark eyes and wide shoulders. Her brush stuck in her dense, wavy black hair and she swore. It would take more time than she had in order to untangle it.
"Yes," he said, petulant. "But I don't know what those things are. Running around, nocturnal engagements. You never tell me anything important."
"There wouldn't be anything nocturnal about it if you'd have left damn well enough alone!" she shouted, suddenly angry. She was supposed to meet a messenger at a rendezvous point and recover a figurine from him, an important work of art. Her job was supposed to be authentication. Was the figurine, or was it not, an original work of Karl Ozaki? Much depended on her judgment. It was her first really important task for the Academia Sapientiae and it looked as if it would be a disaster, a ludicrous disaster, the side effect of an innocent afternoon of love.
He didn't react, but looked at her, testing. The Ganymedean seemed like an uncomplicated man, as unsubtle as a bull. That was why Vanessa liked him. She now found herself wondering if she had completely misunderstood him. .
A long, embroidered night cloak with a hood, suitably mysterious Neapolitan evening wear, hung in the closet. Theonave had bought it for her. She grabbed it and swung into the bathroom with her overnight bag, closing the door behind her.
"Do you need any help, love?" Theonave said, suddenly solicitous. "I'm sorry if I screwed anything up." He rattled the doorknob but she'd managed to lock it.
Water poured out of the dolphin-shaped spout and splashed into the sink, loudly enough that she had to raise her voice to talk, and loudly enough to hide her preparations. "That's all right, Theo. I'm just tense." She pulled out the stiletto she had bought in the flea market the previous day, when Theonave was off on some business of his own, and strapped its leather sheath to her thigh. The stiletto was a weapon rich with associations to Naples and if violence proved necessary she, as a member of the Academia Sapientiae, would prefer it be historically allusive. A length of monofiber line fit into the loose sleeve of the cloak, as well as the bag for the figurine she was supposed to recover. The other sleeve could hold her dress shoes, which she did not intend to wear through the rough night streets of Naples. She began to appreciate Neapolitan nocturnal fashions. There was room for an entire armory in that cloak.
When she came out, cloak on and hood up, concealing her hair, he took her in his arms. As he kissed her Theonave ran his hands up and down, feeling her body through the soft material. His lips were soft and she relaxed against him for an instant before twisting away. His hands had always been wonderfully perceptive, moving across her skin like butterfly's wings. What were they perceiving now?
By the time Vanessa Karageorge arrived at the solemn bulk of the building appointed for the meeting, night had filled the streets. It took her a few moments to find the small and dark front door, the sole gap in the seventeenth- century defenses of the ground floor's heavy, windowless stone. As she entered, two men with an intent grimness inappropriate to the hour brushed past her and ran silently off into the darkness.
She walked through the discreet silence of the lobby, where Ionic pilasters of dark green marble shone like the backs of dragons, pulled open the door to the main hall, releasing a thunder of voices, and stepped through.
The noise inside was deafening, as if to make up for the silence of the dark streets outside. The main hall was large and well lit, with an arched ceiling forty feet high and walls covered with frescoes depicting the magical feats of Virgil Magus. It was packed with a laughing, singing, shouting crowd, mostly male. The larger tables were crowded with red-faced men, fishermen and artisans, while the smaller ones, near the walls, were occupied by discrete groups with interesting business to discuss beneath the clamor of dishes and shouts for more wine. Though most of the musicians who worked the area knew better, a guitar and violin combo was playing at one end. No one could hear them. There was a fair amount of money in the violin case in front of them, the result of the natural human desire to respect artists while not feeling obliged to pay attention to them.
Vanessa stood at the top of the stairs that led down from street level to the main hall and looked for her man amid the busy crowd. Male eyes scanned her appraisingly, though there was little enough to be seen through the cloak she wore. She waited for a pair to linger on her for longer than a casual gawk, but none did. The habitues of this place seemed to have a sense of rough decency.
She found a waitress cleaning off a length of table with several empty places on either side of it. Most of the other seats were filled. She was a strong-armed woman, hair tied back under a kerchief. She picked up a coin and muttered under her breath.
"I was supposed to meet a friend here," Vanessa said, shouting over the din. "I'm late."
The waitress eyed her suspiciously. Neapolitan ladies of quality did not wear their hoods indoors, but Vanessa was not about to lower her status further by revealing her rat's-nest hair. "I can't pay attention to all of these cheapskates," the waitress growled. "Sooner pull one tuna out of a school." She crossed her arms.
Ladies of quality didn't bribe either, but Vanessa was in a hurry. She rang several silver rubles on the table and the waitress added them expressionlessly to the evening's inadequate tips. Vanessa had learned that southern Italians preferred hard coin to bills, notes of account, or digital credit transactions. They retained a sense of the physical, which she appreciated.
"A soft, heavy man, flat face like clay cut with twine," the waitress said. "Not a friend of yours, regardless of what you say. He was waiting for you, but he didn't know what you looked like, because he followed each new person with his eyes. And you are late. He'd been here since before six. From the Asteroid Belt, is my guess."
Vanessa was startled. "What makes you say that?"
The waitress shrugged. "Not from Earth, obviously. Trouble with the gravity. Not from the Moon, because he paid with Terran rubles, not Lunar dollars, and you know how Lunies are about our cheap currency." She snorted. "Little enough of it from him anyway. He didn't have the tight-assed look of a Martian or that self-satisfied, arrogant sneer of someone from Ganymede or one of those other moons of the Technic Alliance, and what does that leave? The Belt. Can't get more specific than that, there're dozens of places he could be from. You'd better go after him, though, or your Belter'll be dead when you find him."
"Mocenigo and Rizzoli, the two sitting here," she said, pointing at two empty spots. "They watched him all evening while he waited for you. He's not such a bright guy, you know. He had something that he wore around his neck, like someone who thinks he's found a clever hiding place. He wore his money purse there too, so you could see the thing glitter whenever he paid for another grappa. A figurine of some sort, ivory and gems. Real pretty. You could tell. It had the quality. Mocenigo and Rizzoli know their quality because it brings them money. They watched it like a cat staring at a piece of string in a breeze. They've got claws, lady. They'll jump when it's right."
Vanessa remembered the two intent men who had passed her as she entered the doorway. She tossed the waitress another coin and ran up the stairs, tripping over her cloak. Several people hooted laughter behind her. The dining-hall door shut and lowered silence over them. She sped through the lobby, almost knocking over several well-dressed couples who were preparing to go up to the finer restaurant upstairs, and leaped out into the street.
The two footpads, she remembered, had gone in the direction of the waterfront. Lacking any better information, she also headed that way. She moved quickly and soundlessly. Her heart beat with excited tension. The Moon had just risen, half full, and rested on wisps of glowing cloud, like a carving freshly uncrated and still in its packing material. Some of its light made it down into the narrow street. Somewhere over her head, behind a shuttered window, a mother sang a lullaby to a fretful child, her own voice sleepy. Alone in the silvery dimness, she moved as if underwater.
After a few kinks in the street she saw the two footpads, Mocenigo and Rizzoli, black on black. They turned a comer and became dark against light. They had the hunched, careful postures of hunters, so had not yet reached their quarry.
Vanessa decided that they had counted on jumping their, victim in the passages immediately around the Benvenuto Cellini and making a quick job of it, but had failed. The streets here were too open, too exposed. Vanessa had no idea where her man might be, so was constrained to follow the two robbers as they strolled, reluctantly, across the busy, gaslit Via Chiatomone with its streetcars and roller skaters and down the seaside promenade of the Via Partenope. It was crowded enough that she could walk right up next to them. They were too intent on pursuing to note that they were in turn being pursued. She searched ahead, but could not spot the off- worlder with the figurine that had suddenly attracted so much interest.
She stole a glance at Mocenigo and Rizzoli, and almost laughed. They were glum now, as if watching the train they had just missed pulling out of the station while they stood on the platform with their luggage. They scowled at the courting couples on the promenade, who probably thought them sober church elders or fathers seeking erring daughters. Soon their quarry would turn into his hotel, probably one of the smaller ones amid the gardens of the Amadeo district, where she and Theonave de Bor- gra were themselves staying.
Suddenly their faces lit up, they exchanged a look, and they began to move more quickly. Up ahead a dark figure was just vanishing over the high arched bridge to the island of Castel dell'Ovo. Unready for bed, the unfortunate man had decided to take a stroll in the dense gardens beneath the crenellated bastions of the medieval fortress. Unless Vanessa could do something, it might be the last walk he ever took.
The flagstone paths through the gardens of Castel dell'Ovo were twisted, intended for contemplation rather than directed movement. Mocenigo and Rizzoli had a brief whispered conference and, having agreed upon a tactical plan, split up. Vanessa paused and thought about the touristic impulse. If the victim wanted a view of the city, he would have to go to the seaside terrace beneath the castle. She and de Borgra had taken a walk in these gardens a few days before. Efficiency hadn't been on their minds, so they had wandered at random, but the pattern of paths floated in front of her eyes and she could see that if she went left at the first fork, around the little statue of a frantically running Mercury, and took two rights, she would be at the terrace. She ran, wraithlike, her cloak billowing out behind her. Barely enough moonlight penetrated the trees for her to see. She felt pleased with herself for having mastered the art of running in the cloak without tripping over it.
A shout in the darkness signaled a failure in the footpads' plan. The off-worlder, not familiar with the paths in the garden, had obviously not behaved in a predictable manner, and had run into one of his pursuers. Vanessa tried to place the direction of the cry as she ran, but it was impossible to tell.
The trees vanished on either side and she emerged on the terrace, which was checkered like a chess board. Its edge was marked by a marble balustrade, beyond which were the sea, the city, and the starry vault of the sky. Vanessa stopped at the edge of the growth and breathed slowly through her wide-open mouth, ignoring her body's desperate demands for oxygen. The dark figure of one of the Neapolitan footpads rested casually against the balustrade, silhouetted against the warm lights of the city that curved on the other side of the water.
The Belter emerged onto the terrace, gasping and stumbling in the unaccustomed gravity. The man at the balustrade produced a knife with a slightly back-curved blade that glinted menacingly in the moonlight. It was obviously a weapon he was rather proud of. The man with the figurine stopped, tried to turn, and was confronted by the other footpad, the one he had run into in the darkness. For an instant the three of them stood in tableau, a heavy, slumped man in a rumpled tunic, his face impassive, and two young thugs, their hair slicked back and teeth showing in gleeful success. Vanessa pulled the stiletto out of the sheath on her thigh, then removed her cloak and bundled it tightly around her left arm.
The one behind moved and put his knife against the victim's back. "Mocenigo," he said to the one who had been waiting at the balustrade. "I'll hold him. Reach into his shirt and pull out the figurine. Then we can—"
The Belter turned quickly and jammed his heel viciously against the inside of Rizzoli's knee. Vanessa winced in sympathy. Rizzoli's knife grazed a wound across the stranger's back, but then he shrieked, dropped the knife, and grabbed for his injured leg.
Mocenigo was then borne back by the sudden assault, until he was beht backward over the balustrade. He slashed at his unexpectedly violent victim. "Help me, Rizzoli," he yelled. "Get on your feet, goddammit." He twisted his arm and managed to push his knife into flesh. The stranger did not cry out, but grunted softly, the sound a man makes when he has just remembered something. He stepped back, then drove his knuckles against Mocenigo's throat. Mocenigo choked, but his knife flashed again.
Vanessa ran past Rizzoli, who had just managed'to get up onto his good leg, and knocked him back to the ground mercilessly. He screamed in pain. Mocenigo pushed the stranger up onto the balustrade itself, so that he balanced over the rocks, his side now dark with blood.
Mocenigo turned briefly away from his victim to see what had happened to Rizzoli and found himself confronting a wild-haired woman in a lemon-colored dress. His eyes widened in shock. That was all he had time for. Vanessa felt the stiletto push its way between his ribs with a dreadful smoothness. Blood bubbled on his lips and he fell heavily against the balustrade.
Vanessa stared down at him, shaking. Her hand was suddenly slippery on the grip of the stiletto and she realized that it was wet with a man's blood. She had helped a friend in school once who had cut her forehead by falling down some granite stairs, and she remembered how she had been sickened and terrified by the amount of blood on the stairs, on her hands, on the new dress that she was wearing, all that from one tiny, frightened little girl. She drew in a slow breath.
"You're late," the bloody man on the balustrade said. "I waited for you. We need Nehushtan." He tried to reach into his shirt to pull out the figurine that she could see pushing out against his tunic.
She sensed rather than heard Rizzoli behind her. She stepped back and his one-legged rush carried him past her. He slammed against the balustrade but pushed himself off like a swimmer hitting the end of a lap and swung his knife at her. She caught it in the cloak bundled around her arm. When she pulled, he was yanked off balance and, trying to put weight on his wounded leg, yelped and fell to the ground. Vanessa kicked him behind the ear, and thought that she could feel the delicate bones there shatter. It was her imagination, of course. It had to be. She stood, gasping for breath, the bodies of two men on either side of her.
The balustrade was empty save for a pool of blood. She ran up to it and looked over.
The cliff fell down sheer before her, too steep to climb. At its base the black, shiny swelling of the waves foamed over the rocks broken from its face in ages past. The stranger's body lay sprawled on its back on one of those rocks, its arms and legs moving gently in the ocean. Rizzoli's rush had knocked him over.
A dolphin's head emerged from the water and nuzzled one of the corpse's arms. In the darkness it looked almost as if the stranger patted it on the snout. The dolphin swam fitfully around the rock for a moment, then lowered its head below the water. Even where Vanessa stood, she could hear the deep thrumming of the distress signal, which would be audible to aquatic listeners clear out to Capri.