Authors: Stephen Palmer
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Post-Apocalyptic, #Cyberpunk
There is one city left, and soon that will be gone, for the streets of Kray are crumbling beneath a wave of exotic and lethal vegetation as it creeps south, threatening to wipe out the last traces of humanity. In the desperate struggle for survival most Krayans live from day to day, awaiting salvation from their goddesses or the government. Only a few believe that the future might lie in their own hands.
Zinina, having fled from the Citadel, determined to discover what secrets are buried beneath it...
Arrahaquen, daughter of a member of the all-powerful Red Brigade, whose privileged position makes her insurgency all the more dangerous...
Graaf-lin, channelling the prophecies of the Eastcity serpents and racing against time to infiltrate the city's computer networks before they collapse...
And a man, deKray, whose sudden appearance accompanies a startling sequence of events...
Set on a world both deadly and fascinating,
is a compelling first novel which heralds a powerful new voice in science fiction.
This ebook edition includes two short stories set in the same world as the novel.
flowers into a very convincing and entertaining first novel. The sense of location is particularly well realised, with the wretched overrun streets, the lost quarters of the city and the impinging ruin depicted particularly vividly... This attractive voice, coupled with a complex and fascinating plot and a simple but stylish book design, makes
a notable debut novel.” —
“The exotic horticulture is as inventive as anything in Aldiss’ classic
, and parallels with present environmental concerns aren’t bludgeoned home... Palmer is a find.” —
is a speculative novel of the distant future that extrapolates many of today’s environmental and New Age concerns into an enjoyable thriller about human survival against the odds. Stephen Palmer has concocted a beguiling adventure that draws on some of the best sf of recent years for its basic themes, yet also adds just as much to the genre’s melting-pot of ideas.” —
“Palmer’s imagination is fecund, and his city, inhabited by clashing tribes of women (men are confined to breeding houses), with exotic biotechnologies which enable computers and other machines to be grown from genetically engineered seeds, is vividly drawn... Despite the multiplication of plot threads, Palmer is meticulous in tying up the loose ends... a hectic but ultimately convincing debut.” —
“Stephen Palmer brilliantly explores a lot of the environmental and social issues of today as Kray, the last city left on Earth, is threatened by the approach of a fast-growing deadly vegetation. Palmer is most definitely a name to keep an eye on.” —
“Palmer submerges you in the customs, language and ways of Kray’s alien society but the novel’s strongest quality is its simple, cast-iron plot with an ending which delivers all it promises.” —
“Stephen Palmer has a powerful imagination and the scenes of urban collapse and encroaching jungle are vivid and compelling. In this respect he has created an intriguing dystopian ecological-catastrophe novel, diverging from the recent trend of socially-driven catastrophes in British sf.” —
“...the main characters come across strongly, and there is an interesting mix of the mystical and the scientific, with serpents, seeresses and goddesses, supercomputers and self-repairing robots, all in casual daily use.
is a promising debut.” —
“Just reading it is enough to give you hayfever...
is a promising debut. Palmer takes biotech to its farthest extreme, and beyond into entropy, yet he offers a flicker of hope.” —
is a great debut, whose central premise of a world strangled by vegetation is more affecting than you might believe...
is told with a real sense of belief.” —
Third F&SF Books @ Dillon’s
Published by infinity plus
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© Stephen Palmer 1996, 2013
Cover © Stephen Palmer
No portion of this book may be reproduced by any means, mechanical, electronic, or otherwise, without first obtaining the permission of the copyright holder.
The moral right of Stephen Palmer to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988.
Electronic Version by Baen Books
Books by Stephen Palmer
The Rat and The Serpent
Using sheets of corrugated iron to construct a barrier, Zinina was able to contain the expanse of poison-specked foliage as it tumbled down the stairs of the house.
Rain outside, thrumming on the collapsed roof and facade, spattering shattered bacteria tubes and making them sizzle, reminded her that she was but yards away from the street; the street hidden behind curtains of green. The cellar was her only means of escape. Zinina removed a lever from the kit on her belt, switched on a lamp attached to her wrist and began worrying the trapdoor until, with a vapid hiss, it came free.
Judging by the smell of rot, the cellar below was encased in fungi. It was warm, dark and damp – ideal conditions for spores. Some cellars in this quarter of the city were now invisible behind mounds of fungi, smooth and grey like velvet cushions, but deadly. Zinina wrapped a mask over her nose and mouth, checked her gloves, tightened the elasticated bands around the tops of her thigh boots, and lowered herself down.
She studied the walls, now angry that she had placed herself in such a situation. The house had seemed sound when she slipped in an hour ago, but it had collapsed. No doubt she had triggered that.
Two grilles on a wall seemed promising, and even through the mask Zinina could tell that one led to a sewer. This grille she tore down. Using a dead pyuter as a mount she pulled herself in and wriggled down until she was wholly within the shaft, checking the composition of the air with a scentstick before continuing. Warm brown liquid dripped on her as she squirmed down the shaft. Echoes of rippling slime reverberated back up to her.
Before she reached the sewer a vertical shaft appeared, a rusty ladder attached to its wall. Zinina pulled the lower rung. It crumbled in her hand. She tried the next, and the next, and these seemed firm. Squeezing herself around, then standing, she tested the ladder as far as she could. It was sound.
‘Te qara Rien Zir,’ she muttered as she climbed. She was nervous, not knowing where she might appear, her Citadel training a haze of memories smothered by fearful anticipation and the imagined barbs of flowers ready to pounce.
At the shaft top she lifted the cover and peered out. She had emerged into some sort of garden, perhaps once private. She clambered out and replaced the cover. Sullen around her, stems and stalks stood heavy, as though sleepy with the weight of the drugs and poisons in their shafts. Zinina removed her mask and breathed deeply, glancing at the sky to see bright stars shining through a rent in the storm clouds.
Then she saw the glistening leaves of a moonflower. The thing was almost touching her. She studied its hooks, and the bloated sacs which lay behind them. The plant looked like a cross between a spider and a honeysuckle.
She heard a sound, a humming as though made by a bowed string, and saw a silhouette against the silver illuminated clouds. Realising that it would cause a momentary occultation, she tensed her body, then sprang. She caught the shape of a hang-glider from the corner of her eye. Behind her, the moonflower jerked and hissed.
The garden was clearer than many. Although Kray had been surrounded west, north and east by temperate jungle, its southern boundary cliffs falling into the sea, it had not yet been breached by plants. Yet many places in the Green and Archaic Quarters were impassable. Zinina could see a few safe areas, but no path which would allow her to reach the gate in the street wall. Then she noticed steps leading into adjacent brickwork. An idea struck her.
Walking down the crumbling limestone steps, she examined the wall. Mortar had been consumed by moss and no brick retained a smooth face. Calm returned to her mind, and she checked her clothes and kit before preparing herself. Placing her hands on the wall, she straightened her back, tensed her thighs, and pushed. With a squelch the wall collapsed, and she clambered out on to the street.
Now she would have to hurry. Her contact would not wait forever and the Spired Inn was still some way north.
She passed by the Temple of Rien Zir. Only its wooden roof could be seen behind the protective screen of poison ferns, but Zinina knew that even at this late hour there would be people worshipping. As she walked by she thought she caught the siren wails and trance chants of some green ceremony. She walked on, humming an old sun song. Of course it would do no good. Tomorrow there would be rain.
She stopped. Nervously her hands fluttered about the kit hanging from her belt. What was that shadow moving amongst the piles of decaying waste?
A cat. Zinina extracted the needle rifle from her belt and fired. The cat slumped with a yowl.
She nudged the palpitating body with her boot. Cats were rare in Westcity – the Temple of Felis stood to the east of Eastcity. Maybe it was on reconnaissance.
Moving on, almost jogging, she entered Sphagnum Street and passed the Cowhorn Tower. Nearby, from the remains of electricity pylons, great tangles of blue algae hung, many of the suffocating species, and although it was difficult to be certain through the drizzle Zinina could make out the remains of unfortunate Krayans stuck to the glutinous masses. Her gaze turned to the cobbled street. She was walking uphill now, to her right the great cliffs splitting up the Gardens, that rotting green heart of Kray, to her left the stacks and spires of homes in the Carmine Quarter. Up ahead, where the gradient became too steep, there were rusty cablecars.
At the cablecar compound she entered a vehicle. The faulty, flickering pyuter display showed 0 :01:0 . One minute to go. By the light of the blue bacteria tubes Zinina’s skin seemed darker than ever.
Halfway up she saw again the hang-glider, a dark triangle with lamps glowing as bright as the sea, descending eastward as if out of control. She watched it fall out of sight. More than likely it was some independent trying to escape the city.
The cablecar halted. Some doors opened. Zinina strode along Crimson Street, noticing a priestess of Rien Zir making for the cablecar, her plaited blonde hair sheened green, her thigh boots covered in refuse. She was followed by a pair of defenders in red plastic coveralls, both apparently exhausted. Zinina turned right into Morte Street.
This was where the Cemetery lay. To the south and east it spread, a vast area too dangerous for anyone other than revellers. There were bodies lying in the street as she walked, soaking, rotting, limbs either half eaten or algae-green. The drizzle seemed to carry their odour through her nostrils and down into her stomach.
There were very few residents so close to the Cemetery, perhaps none, and algae bulges belched from empty house doors. Sticky leaves hung from the remains of windows and, from the edges of some, deadly yellow tendrils swayed. Streams eroded cobbles and paving slabs, churning up earth in some places, in others creating pools for thousands of orange worms; and as Zinina jumped over these she noticed the piles of discarded medical equipment that meant revellers had been active here. She sped on.
At last, through what was becoming a shower of foul-smelling rain, she saw the domed roof and aquamarine lamps of her goal, the Spired Inn. She ran up to it.
The Spired Inn was built from the remains of an old posthouse, a place originally meant to defend local residents from inhabitants of the Gardens, but now devoted to ale and chess. It was a circular building of five storeys, outer walls entirely hidden behind tangles of blue ivy, shattered slates on the ground where they had landed. Zinina knew it well. She turned the handle of the beech door and entered.
Heat seemed to cradle her as she stamped in the water tray of the hall’s green zone. They must have all three fires blazing inside. To two score cloaks, protectives and boots she added her own turquoise jurnpsuit, taking her pointy-toed slippers from her kit, inflating them, and slipping them on before entering the common room in just her underwear.
The inn was lit by sea-fat candles two yards high, and by the luminous tubes of sputtering anjiqs, yellow with age. The common room was a single area of black oak alcoves and tables, cobwebs and dead lampshades hanging from the ceiling.
A couple of rats wagged their tails at her as she made for the bar, but she ignored them. She had seen Dhow-lin, the aamlon innkeeper. ‘Tamina, Dhow-lin,’ she called. ‘Tamina!’
The ancient innkeeper turned and smiled. ‘Zinina, hello. It must be over a month since we saw you last. You made it through the last of the snow.’
Zinina smiled and nodded. Kray was now emerging from the worst winter ever experienced into its final year, the year in which the remains of humanity would be destroyed by green. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘And you didn’t charge me for staying overnight.’
‘You drank like an empty well that evening,’ Dhow-lin replied, continuing the customary banter. ‘Why should I need to charge? Now, then, your usual?’
Zinina nodded, lifting her kit to the penicillin-stained bar and opening its rear pockets. Dhow-lin, shuffling her dusty vests as if to dislodge fleas, turned to the array of tongs behind her and chose one. This she placed in the fire for a second, before using it to extract a tankard from the kiln. The tankard was allowed to cool in an anti-kiln before Zinina received her pint of dooch.
‘Watcha got?’ Dhow-lin asked, peering through a magnifying glass at the array of items that Zinina had arranged on the bar.
‘This one should cover my account for the night,’ Zinina replied. ‘It’s a spare pyuter processor for kilns.’
‘Got some,’ Dhow-lin replied. Zinina, who had not expected this reply, looked doubtfully at the scavenged items remaining. Dhow-lin poked at them with her forefinger.
‘This a pyuter memory?’ she asked.
‘Eighty exabytes. Want it?’
Dhow-lin accepted it. Zinina lifted her pint and took a sip. The dooch chlorophyll was not yet dissolved, still stringy in the alcohol, so she swirled it around while surveying Dhow-lin’s customers. Most were naked, and all of these she recognised, but a dozen at least were not local to this part of the Carmine Quarter, as evinced by their sweaty shirts and tabards. One of these she knew would be Erequen – the woman she must speak with. But which one?
She had an idea, and turned to Dhow-lin. ‘Hoy, is Aqa still here?’
Dhow-lin nodded. Zinina paused. ‘And do Praes-lin and Daes-lin still play chess here?’
‘They’re playing right now behind that screen,’ Dhow-lin replied. ‘Why, sly-girl?’
‘Oy, oy,’ Zinina murmured, using the local slang. ‘Do me a favour. Find Aqa and tell her I’ll pay for her to dance. I’ll just pop over and persuade the flute sisters to pause their board jousting.’
‘S’pose it is a bit dead this evening,’ Dhow-lin sniffed.
‘Why not spliff up some incense to clear those sinuses?’ Zinina said, giving a wicked grin.
Over behind the screen, the aamlon twins were indeed playing chess. They recognised Zinina and greeted her with hugs. Both were young, wearing cream underwear and the traditional aamlon neck-strings, red pearl in Praes-lin’s case, tiger’s eye for Daes-lin, and both were smoking pencil-thin tobacco cigarettes. Zinina noticed that Daes-lin had removed her once fashionable flower tattoo to leave a clean, simple scalp. Praes-lin’s bald head was decorated with intertwining bramble motifs. She scratched a line of flea bites along one arm.
‘Hoy, sisters,’ said Zinina, grabbing a stool and sitting. ‘How about some music?’ Aamlon were famed for their music. ‘But let’s go easy on the flutes. I want
‘You’ll buy?’ Daes-lin asked, nodding at her empty goblet.
Zinina touched her arm. ‘You owe me one, remember? Who rescued you from those frogs last year?’
‘But,’ Praes-lin countered, ‘you didn’t rescue
Zinina considered. ‘How long would you have played for me?’
‘Maybe an hour,’ Daes-lin replied.
Zinina stood up. ‘Give me half an hour, then, both of you, and we’re even. See you.’
Zinina walked over to a chair and waited. Soon the aamlon twins were playing an exotic, wild tune on hand drums and flute, and Zinina was delighted to see another aamlon girl join in with her tambourines and hand cymbals. With Aqa belly-dancing, the stage was set. Zinina had chosen her chair carefully, for from it she could see everyone who might be Erequen. She sipped her dooch. The piece soon became a trance, and Zinina knew it would continue well into the evening. The atmosphere, hazy with smoke and vibrating with music, was perfect.
There: that was Erequen. It could be none of the other women here.
Zinina walked over, confident that nobody would notice her. She sat down by the old woman’s side, noticing nasty bruises on her scalp and a green patina in her wrinkles, signs indicating great age, perhaps as many as fifty years. Mucus dribbled from both nostrils.
‘Erequen, I was looking for you.’
‘Good evening,’ the old woman said. Her voice was very quiet, like a creaking piece of furniture, and Zinina had to lean over to hear her. ‘Not too close. I’ve got the pestilence.’
Zinina leant back. Pestilence. Better not sit too close. Better clean the air, just in case. Zinina took an aerosol from her kit and sprayed.
‘Why are you late?’
Zinina hesitated before answering. ‘I am late, yeah. Sorry.’ She did not want Erequen to know too much, but neither did she want her riled. ‘Had an accident in a rickety house, that’s all.’
After a pause Erequen said, ‘So, you were looking out for me?’
Zinina shrugged. ‘You were the only one not tapping your feet to the rhythm. I knew it was you.’
‘Hmph. Well, anyhow, you want to find a seed?’
Erequen nodded. ‘It’s possible, yes.’
Zinina reached into her underwear. ‘This is a plastic biopad.’ She handed the translucent sheet over. ‘Payment. Take it, check it, it works. You’ll get a month’s food for that down the Mercantiles.’
Erequen sneezed into her shirt. ‘What use is a month’s food to me? I’ll be dead in a week. Take it back, child. This information is for free. I’m never going south again. I’m on my way over to the Green Quarter.’
‘Hoy, sure, sure,’ Zinina said, placating Erequen with motions of her hands. ‘Thanks.’