Someone suggested I start posting excerpts from what I’m writing at the moment, so I’m throwing this out there. Does it sound to you like a good idea that I post what I just wrote – literally the last few paragraphs of the draft I’m currently drafting – every month or every two weeks or so? Please let me know via the usual means!
In the meantime, what I’m currently drafting is a science fiction novel titled A Fall in Autumn. It’s a detective story in a far-future flying city. The future is sufficiently remote that our culture is, essentially, their Atlantis. They know we existed but they aren’t quite sure we achieved things like adding machines and heavier-than-air flight or whether maybe that’s just mythology we took too seriously. They’re absolutely positive we never had more than, say, a billion people. They can’t imagine there being an ecology capable of supporting more than that. Their culture is also obsessed with its own myth of “avenging angels,” monsters who ruthlessly attack outposts of civilization in the stories told about them.
The story is set in Autumn, the last of the great flying cities of the Empire. There used to be several flying cities but one by one the others have all suffered disasters. The most recent was the city of Splendor. It crashed in a desert a dozen years ago, killing hundreds of thousands of people.
In this chapter, the detective Valerius Bakhoum is on his way to a place where a guy knows a thing, and that guy probably doesn’t feel like telling it. Valerius has to navigate some rough territory to get to him, too, and it’s also probably his favorite part of the city of Autumn.
It’s worth noting this is a raw first draft. I didn’t even read it while I went through and fixed the formatting issues from pasting it into WordPress from my word processor. If there are obvious contradictions, misspellings (though I think I referred to “Saturnday” in it, which is not a misspelling), typos, etc., I’m just going to have to ask the charity of your forgiveness.
Years ago, before my time and worries all got eaten up by the business of other people’s trouble, I was in the habit of going to the Ark on Saturndays. I would sit around on Second, which is reserved for books about Autumn herself, reading whatever histories had a spine sufficiently interesting to make me reach out and grab them. I learned a lot about the establishment of Autumn, the deals the Imperial Senate struck to fund them, the crazy ideas behind the first residential hovers launched. A lot of the first people to take to the skies were religious types – the old religions, the ones you only hear about in textbooks anymore. They were doing what true believers always do: convincing themselves salvation would be easier on different real estate. It’s always easier to go somewhere else than to become someone else. It’s been true since ancient times and, I imagine, since before them, in the times too far gone, too faded, for anyone know even happened. As long as there have been gods, we’ve been convincing ourselves we’d be a little closer to them over the next hill.
Each of the other flying cities was built as a sort of homage to one of the terrestrial places people always loved: Rome, London, Tokyo, Rio, Chicago, New York, Old Cairo, Moscow, New Delhi. When Autumn was being planned, it was already known it would be the last to be constructed. Rather than base it on one place, they based it on all the cities they wanted to use but hadn’t gotten to just yet. Apparently a lot of it is based on Sanfro, some of it on Deecee, some of it on Sydney. A lot of those places of course they had to work from old flats or even paintings. I’ll never know for myself, but my understanding is they did a pretty good job with most of them. Splendor, the one where Alejandro claimed to have seen – no, it was time to stop talking like that, the one where Alejandro saw an avenging angel – was based on Paris. In some of the video I’ve seen, Splendor looks like a second moon in the night sky: all lights and grace and ghostly significance. Gone now itself, it’s an echo of what we’re told that Paris place looked like in ancient days. I don’t know if Splendor was an accurate representation but in the images we have of it, it was certainly very beautiful.
Lower Market is one of the parts based on Sanfro. It has the look of an ancient city: lots of tall stuff all around it, some of it real buildings and some of it façade that never was developed into anything. The idea was to create a high-end neighborhood from the get go but the result was to create a region of near-permanent shadow. At the center of it is Lotta’s Gift, which in theory is a fountain memorializing Imperial forces lost in wars against the Eastern Expanse, but in practice is where everyone goes to honor the dead they mourn. The fountain isn’t what that word normally makes people think: a big pool of water with a source in the middle. Instead, it’s a tall, iron spire, nearly eight meters high at its top. Around its four sides are sculpted mouths of ancient beasts of myth: giant cats, with water shooting out of spouts to be collected in their lower jaws. I’ve read the ancients used to throw pennies into fountains to commemorate the dead but at Lotta’s we drink from the water rather than throw something in. The story goes that by drinking from that water we quench the thirst of the departed for the pleasures of the quick. The water has always tasted better to me there than anywhere else in Autumn, and Autumn is a city with very good water.
Almost immediately upon its dedication, an open-air market sprang up in the square around the fountain. The city cops tried to run them off and clean it out a few times before deciding it wasn’t worth it anymore. That was in the first year since Autumn’s launch, which was decades ago. Now it’s the unofficial business district of the city for anyone who wants anything seedy or hard to find. If you can find something in a store, you might be able to find it at the Lower Market Market but it more often than not will be a little hot or a lot counterfeit. If you can’t find it in a store – because it’s as immaterial as a favor or as tangible as a kiss – you can definitely find it in Lower Market Market.
One of the unspoken conditions of the city’s détente with the first entrepreneurs is to use no permanent structures. I think the Council imagined a group of ware hawkers waddling into the square every day with their inventory on their backs. What they got was a highly localized cottage industry on shanty construction. Vendors set up shelves with baking but no walls. They give each other just a little space between – not a lot – and find someone else has moved into the gap between and is using the backs of those shelves as a wall on which to display their art or their porno or their porno art.
Because it’s always dark there – except for times the sun bursts through the clouds at exactly the right angle – the vendors have a lot of glows. Every color outside of nature declares this or that on special, and this or that can be as broadly interpreted as you like. Some of them are euphemistic – Body Work – and some are as brazen as it gets. I love it there. It’s as different from where I grew up as anywhere I can ever imagine. It’s also a place that eats people, though. There are souls who walk into Lower Market Market to make a little scratch and are never seen again. They aren’t murdered fast: that would be too easy. They’re eaten up slow, one organ at a time, sometimes from the inside out. They don’t disappear in a wink, they fade from view, sometimes so slow nobody even realizes it’s happening.
There are also literal disappearances. People get too fucked up in the head and become prey for others who trade in flesh and sometimes organs. There are stories about what happens to them, of women turned into baby factories, of people whose emptied ribcages and vacant skulls wash up against the grills of Used Water Dispensation. I have a friend who works in Cistern Conditioning who says the sewers under Lower Market Market are red with the blood of decades of innocent victims.
I told him that was ridiculous. Everyone knows there isn’t an innocent soul anywhere near Lower Market Market.
The “address” Yuri gave me was a stall – there are ways you get to recognize this or that about how a place is described. That meant it was enough of a going concern to have a permanent space and possibly a rain cover. That was really pushing the “no permanent structures” rule, but the vendors in the LMM have gotten really good at knowing just how far the can go. The ones with real money just bribe a few cops or inspectors and install one wall that could, if need be, collapse out of sight on one or the other side. It gets them inside the letter of the law but they don’t have to take down all the shelves every day. The other thing that tipped me to what sort of place to expect, of course, was Yuri being able to give me directions to the place. They indicated persistence, at least, if not technical permanence.
I turned at the old clock post, then again at the hay bale art stand. A few old tricks and/or former colleagues were hanging around on Yuri’s corner. They probably didn’t know where he was or what he was planning, and they didn’t care. Yuri had been at it long enough to work up to a good corner and the absence of one good gigolo, no matter how brief, meant an opportunity for a bunch of lousy ones. I’d been with most of them, of course, and the ones I hadn’t been with had been in the trenches with me when I was up to the same game. They tried to slow me down but I didn’t let them, spinning a three-sixty as I winked and nodded and smiled at a few on my way past. A chorus of greetings: oh Valerius, it’s too long, and other examples of the usual soft-pitch patter, the old game of getting a mark to stop and talk to you and you’re already halfway home; there were fewer goodbyes as they moved on to getting the attention of other men when they realized I hadn’t taken the bait.
At Henry’s Den, which is where you go if you need a pinprick but the more reputable ones – just chew on that for a second – won’t take you anymore, I swung another right and found myself on cobblestones, which meant I was nearing Lotta’s Gift. I had to go past it, and right around it is some of the cheapest real estate so it’s the sketchiest stalls and hawkers and mongers in the whole Ell Em Em. You might think that would be the high-rent district, but it’s the worst of the lot. The people who go in search of Lotta’s Gift are not usually in the mood to buy something nice from someone who smiles. They’re sad or they’re angry or they’re simply contemplative, which means only the sharpest pang for the worst the city has to offer stands a chance to break through. Everybody knows it’s for the best that way. Someone who’s come to drink for the very first time is so swallowed up in pain they want to find the worst distraction the city can offer and lose themselves in it for a time.
I did pause as I walked into the circle surrounding the fountain, even though little kids trying to find a pocket to pick assaulted me on all sides. They fell away when I telegraphed I was there to take a sip. The hawkers and mongers shouting and grumbling their lists of wares and questionable enticements ignored me out of respect. The fountain draws the very worst of the Market to it, yes, and the very worst of the Market respects the fountain for it. The moment I was done, they would be right back to trying to sell me the kidney they’d be all too happy to cut out of me themselves. They had to give me my moment with the fountain, though, or I’d never be primed for the worst they had to offer.
I wondered whom I would remember and decided the list was too long to get specific. You’re supposed to say someone’s name before you drink, and it felt weird to walk up without one, but I didn’t have anyone in particular in mind as I stood, staring into the water in one of the mythical lions’ mouths. To pick one person out of the long list I’d seen eaten alive by time and other monsters seemed too much. Abruptly weak – whether from sickness or memory – I leaned forward, bracing myself against the fountain with one hand held out before me. Then, without thinking, I said the name of the dead thing I wanted to remember.
“Splendor,” I murmured. “I drink for the city of Splendor.”
The water was cool and fresh and it tasted of the flowers of whatever place we’d flown through to collect it.
So there you go! Let me know if this sort of thing is of interest or is, in fact, distinctly not of interest.