Authors: Nina D'Aleo
Tags: #Science Fiction
An intoxicating blend of noir crime, science fiction and fantasy,
The Last City
Perdido Street Station
Scorpia – the last city of Aquais – where the Ar Antarians rule, the machine-breeds serve and in-between a multitude of races and species eke out an existence somewhere between the ever-blazing city lights and the endless darkness of the underside.
As a spate of murders and abductions grip the city, new recruit Silho Brabel is sent to the Oscuri Trackers, an elite military squad commanded by the notorious Copernicus Kane. But Silho has a terrible secret and must fight to hide her strange abilities and monstrous heritage.
As the team delve deeper into Scorpia’s underworld, they discover a nightmare truth.
Hunted by demons, the Trackers must band together with a condemned fugitive, a rogue wraith and a gangster king and stake their lives against an all-powerful enemy to try to save their world and one another.
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.
— Dylan Thomas
neasy forms, made faceless by shadows and nameless by circumstance, drifted through the infinite blackness of Scorpia’s underside to Mortimer Road Marketplace, where clusters of dim street lamps lifted the dark to gloom. Silho pushed through the crowds, moving as fast as she could without running, alert to the danger of showing fear in Moris-Isles. She eyed the people around her, but at this hour they were mainly refugees, keeping their heads down and mouths shut, hoping, as she was, to blend with the walls and vanish.
A tremor shook the ground beneath her boots and she stumbled back as a clutch of hefty Tangelan Burrowers, subterraneans from the fallen city Mayhem, broke out through the concrete footpath with giant razor-clawed hands. They went to gather with others of their kind, passing time by betting on gutter-rat races and visiting the communities of shabby prostitute tents. The women for sale loitered around their territories, sizing up passers-by with eyes intent on picking flesh. The winding whistle of a gypsy busker’s flute drowned the sounds of unsavoury purchase. The spiralling tunes sent an enchanted stick puppet jigging in circles around market stalls where rainbow-skinned Ohini Fen morphed inanimate junk into useable wares. The Fen auctioned each piece, haggling with irascible, giant-fanged Twitchbaks, snarl-barking in the language of the sabre-breeds.
The musky scents of magics lingered everywhere. Silho checked the crowds for reptilian-faced palace enforcers but saw no red uniforms. In the years since the last purge of dark magics observation of the city’s lower levels had become lax, and the fear had faded enough for many people with natural skills to start using them again in public. Yet some still kept to the shadows.
Silho clenched her gloved hands to stop their trembling. A group of pale Androts, machine-breeds born, not made like their lesser robot relatives, brushed past her. Their black barcodes stood out bold on their necks. Silho watched them vanish into the marketplace, intent on doing their masters’ bidding and getting out before darkfall. She drew a shaky breath and forced herself to follow, navigating through the maze of stalls and barrage of sellers and beggars, finally breaking out on the other side, on the corner of Whitter Avenue, where a set of stairs disappeared into the black depth of a basement living block.
Pausing on the top step Silho re-checked the paper marked with her scrawled handwriting –
8 Whitter Ave
. Sweat crawled over her skin and she felt eyes on her back. She glanced behind her, but saw only shuttered windows and barred doors. Her boots slid off the first step to the second and then the third onwards until, halfway down, a putrescent stink, unmistakably of death, knocked her back. Swallowing down her fear Silho kept going until she arrived at a corridor drowned in utter darkness. Eyes that gleamed with a nocturnal sheen turned her way and a growling voice spoke in the shared language of Urigin. ‘Go back! This is a state crime scene.’
‘I’m an Investigator.’ Silho fumbled with her ID and dropped it on the ground. She bent to pick it up, and when she straightened the eyes were right in front of her, the heat of the guardian’s breath hot on her cheek.
She held up the folder and the man gave a grunt of surprise. ‘Oscuri Tracker . . . I haven’t seen you before.’
‘This is my first day,’ Silho admitted.
‘Ill-starred,’ he growled. ‘Follow me.’
The eyes vanished as the guardian turned away from her. Silho blinked into light-form vision and saw the man’s body-lights, weakest at the back of his neck, retreating down the corridor. She hurried after him until a glowing sliver appeared up ahead. She blinked back to normal sights. Her guide, a human-breed with the bloodline marks of bear and wolf curling up his arms, stood in front of a partially open door. He nodded and Silho slipped into the room.
A single pale globe, hanging from the ceiling, cast shadow-riddled light over a chaos of objects and flesh. The concrete walls told a horror story in splotches and streaks of blood dried black, a handprint here, a claw mark further up, drag lines and red stains saturating the ground where six corpses lay in varying states of mutilation. Silho noticed the person-sized cage in the shadows of one corner and a chill prickled her skin. A hologramographer stood beside the door capturing images of the scene, and clusters of investigators in grey uniforms took notes and murmured among themselves. Two Oscuri Trackers, with weapon belts like Silho’s around their waists, stood over the bodies in the centre of the room. One tracker was an Ohini Fen with golden star bloodline marks, and the other a silver-skinned Ar Antarian, wearing night-vision glasses. His arms and legs up to the elbow and knee were mixed-metal prosthetics and an arachnid-shaped robot perched on his shoulder.
The Fen spoke with a musical Ohini accent. ‘Cadavers are at a similar stage of bloating and putrefaction, but the infestation differs. The two in the centre haven’t been touched, whereas the others are crawling. It doesn’t make sense.’
‘And look at the way the stomach wounds of these two seem almost cauterised,’ the Ar Antarian pointed out, ‘as though the skin was burned to seal the haemorrhaging. With injuries like this, why would anyone bother?’
He looked upwards and Silho followed his line of sight to someone crouching upside down on the roof examining a blood-spatter pattern. After a moment, the man twisted around and dropped down. Silho stared, recognising him from holograms as the notorious Commander Copernicus Kane, a tall human-breed of viperous blood heritage, his eyes midnight black and deeply disturbed, scars marking his face like a life story written in his skin. He turned towards Silho and she froze, drawn into the darkness of his stare. After hearing other female soldiers talk about him and seeing his pictures for herself, she was aware her new boss was attractive, but she was completely unprepared for the surge of feelings that rushed through her at the sight of him. She’d never felt anything like it and couldn’t look away. Their eyes stayed locked until Silho finally realised that he was actually waiting for her to identify herself. Flushing with embarrassment, she hurried forward and held up her ID, but his eyes didn’t shift from her face.
‘I’m —’ she began.
‘Barely out of military school,’ the commander said. His voice gave away no thought or emotion, but his eyes said everything. He stepped past her and crouched down beside one of the corpses.
A sickness spiralled from Silho’s stomach to her knees, leaving them weak. The Academy Placement Officer had explained to her that Commander Kane had not requested any new recruits. He never did. He had only ever selected his own people from the highly experienced and elite. However, due to the growing number of unsolved homicides and abductions, the United Regiment had assigned her without his consent to the Oscuri Trackers, a special operations unit with the primary purpose of hunting the most dangerous serial killers. She hadn’t expected a friendly welcome, given her inexperience and age. At twenty-one she was the youngest of the trackers by several year cycles and younger than the commander by almost ten; still, she felt his animosity like a punch. Silho blinked stinging eyes and tried to focus on the other two trackers standing in front of her. The Ar Antarian shifted uncomfortably and cleared his throat, and she realised she was still holding up her ID. Sinking into humiliation, she lowered it.
The Ohini Fen smirked, contempt in her eyes. She pushed a bag of empty capped test tubes into Silho’s hands and said, ‘We need fluid samples – bagged, tagged and in your possession until we get back to Headquarters. Think you can handle it?’
‘Let’s hope so.’ The Fen shoved past her and began to speak with the hologramographer.
Silho immediately searched her weapon belt for any type of swab or scraping tool, but found nothing. Her face burned. ‘I didn’t know trackers took samples. I didn’t bring any instruments,’ she tried to explain to the Ar Antarian, who stood watching her from behind his night-vision glasses. The grey tint disguised the colour of his eyes.
‘Don’t worry,’ he said, an educated, upper-level accent edging his softly spoken words. He took a scalpel from his belt and handed it to her. ‘You’re right, we’re not supposed to collect evidence, but . . .’ he glanced over at the commander, engaged in a controlled argument with one of the forensic specialists, ‘the commander likes to run his own tests. He has his own way of doing things – everything – as you’ve no doubt heard.’
‘Yes,’ Silho said. The commander was a man with a million rumours chasing his name.
‘You’re Silho, right?’ the Ar Antarian asked. ‘I’m Jude. The Fen is Diega and this is SevenM.’ He pointed to the arachnid robot on his shoulder. Red lights gleamed behind his many mirrored eyes. ‘It’s good to have you on board. Let us know if you need a hand.’ He gave her a quick smile and walked across the room to join the commander.
Silho moved from one corpse to another taking samples and silently noting the condition of the bodies. Four were marked with signs of torture, hands bound behind their backs, with ropes cutting into the flesh. The other two in the centre were completely hollowed out, their insides missing. After collecting the final sample, Silho crouched in one corner, pretending to be organising the vials while trying to clear her mind and slow her heartbeat. During childhood and military training she had seen many dead bodies, but none so gruesome. She could almost hear the echo of their screams.
A powerful craving to touch the closest wall hit unexpectedly and threatened to overwhelm her. She closed her eyes and tried to fight it.
She couldn't believe this was happening – she'd taken her medication that morning. Yet the pull was relentless and she was helpless to stop it. Silho watched on, detached, as she flipped back the cap of one of her gloves and pressed a finger to the wall. Instantly, she felt a sensation of slipping underwater.
Through a mind not quite asleep, yet not awake, pictures, memories, flirted with focus, clear/unclear, teasing the senses. In this disquieting state of lukewarm awareness, the walls, darkened with shifting dusk-light shadows, became blending shapes, indistinct, unstable. They stirred, whispered, hesitant to show the secrets they stored behind thin paper faces. An image came clear. A concrete room, four people tied to chairs, two standing over them, the scream of the word ‘Morsmalus’. Time flickered into explosions of red and objects whirring around the room. Six lay dead and two gruesome creatures with sunken, baleful eyes fled the room, leaving a tall spectral-breed standing alone with blood on her hands. The grey figure staggered and fell to her knees, her hand coming down on something. She picked up the object and looked at it under the light – a ring. The sound of voices startled her and she dropped it. The golden band rolled into a fissure in the wall and the spectral contorted her body to vanish into the floor.
Silho resurfaced from the trance and felt immediately ill. She stared at the wall in front of her, terrified to turn around. She was sure everyone would have seen what she just did, that they’d be watching her, condemning her as unnatural. Bracing herself, she glanced over her shoulder. All the investigators were busy with their own work and Copernicus Kane and the two trackers stood on the other side of the room with their backs to her. Her eyes shifted from them to the place where the ring had rolled into the wall. Silho stood, leaving the bag of vials on the ground, and made a casual path towards it. Once there she crouched down and used the scalpel Jude had given her to drag out the band. It was a man’s ring inscribed with a horned Galley rhinoceros – the family crest of Christy Shawe, the human-breed King of the Gangland.
A shadow fell over her and Silho looked up into the commander’s face. His eyes were fixed on the ring. Before she could say anything he took it from her and examined it. Jude and Diega, standing beside him, exchanged a glance.
‘Where did you find this?’ the commander demanded, turning the metal band over in his hands.
‘In the wall,’ Silho responded, her voice barely a whisper.
‘How did you know it was there?’ Copernicus’ stare lifted from the object and locked onto Silho’s eyes.
She searched for something to say, but her thoughts stalled and blanked out. If the rumours were true, he always knew when someone was lying.
‘Caught the light, maybe?’ Jude suggested. The Ar Antarian checked his chronograph and said, ‘Almost darkfall in the upper levels . . .’
‘Shawe will be at the breakwall,’ Diega finished for him. The massive wall dividing the gangland from the rest of the city was a known hangout of the gangster king.
Copernicus slipped the ring into his pocket and moved with silent, seamless steps to the door. The other trackers hurried to follow. They grabbed up their equipment and left the room without a backward glance. Silho headed after them, but paused in the doorway to follow her training and take a final overall look at the scene. Before she could, a face with haunted grey eyes pressed out of the far wall – the spectral-breed from her vision. The second it appeared, it vanished. Silho stared, her nerves buzzing.
‘See something?’ a voice spoke beside her ear. She looked up into the yellow eyes of the hologramographer. After a moment, she shook her head. ‘No, nothing.’
Silho backed out and hurried through the corridor, past the gleaming gaze of the guardian and up the stairs. She came out onto the street as Diega took a silver coin from her pocket and threw it upwards. The Fen called the word
and the coin morphed, stretching wider and wider, shaping into an open-topped transflyer – the
. Diega climbed into the pilot’s seat, the commander beside her and Jude in the back. Silho slipped in with the Ar Antarian, noticing the engine bay at the rear of the craft was empty. Jude saw her expression and a faint smile touched his lips. He nodded to Diega and said wryly, ‘She’s an electrosmith of rare and frightening talent. Better strap yourself in.’
During training, Silho had learnt about the exceptionally skilled individuals that could channel power from the planet’s magnetic field through receptors in their hair and use it to animate anything electrical, but she’d never actually met one.