WINNER of the 2019 Manly Wade Wellman Award - presented to the Best Science Fiction & Fantasy Novel by a NC writer by the NC Speculative Fiction Foundation!
Soaring miles over the Earth, Autumn, the sole surviving flying city, is filled to the brim with the manifold forms of humankind: from Human Plus "floor models" to the oppressed and disfranchised underclasses doing their dirty work and every imaginable variation between.
Valerius Bakhoum is a washed-up private eye and street hustler scraping by in Autumn. Late on his rent, fetishized and reviled for his imperfect genetics, stuck in the quicksand of his own heritage, Valerius is trying desperately to wrap up his too-short life when a mythical relic of humanity's fog-shrouded past walks in and hires him to do one last job. What starts out as Valerius just taking a stranger's money quickly turns into the biggest and most dangerous mystery he's ever tried to crack – and Valerius is running out of time to solve it.
Now Autumn's abandoned history – and the monsters and heroes that adorn it – are emerging from the shadows to threaten the few remaining things Valerius holds dear. Can the burned-out detective navigate the labyrinth of lies and maze of blind faith around him to save the City of Autumn from its greatest myth and deadliest threat?
"It's hard to enumerate all the things I loved about this book without heading into spoiler territory ... suffice it to say, the characters were very human — problematic, troubled, trying to do the right thing but not always getting it right (even the characters who aren't quite human.) the setting is richly drawn and imaginative; I was sucked right into the book from the first page. There are a few books I read every year that leave a lasting impression, and as I crack this open to read it for a second time, I have to say, this is one. Definitely recommend!"– Rachel Brune
"Frank and frightening and full of bitter hope, this series is not to be missed."– Lucy Blue
"The basic story is great, just what I love most about sci-fi and suspense writing. The plot is full of twists and turns befitting a mystery, and spiced with enough futuristic ideas about humankind's survival to make it fascinating. The characters are interesting and engaging...the cynical-yet-engaging detective, Valerius Bakhoum and his unexpected client, Alejandro, who touches his hidden core. Each character is strangely heartwarming and believable to me, despite his clear difference from anything I might have thought I was going to see. Each is real and captivating, making me care about him and what happens to him, about what he's feeling, about how his story will end. The story is riveting and thrilling for all these reasons, as well as for the fast-paced storytelling, and gets four stars for keeping me interested and entertained."– The Book Wench
Walking into Down Preserves felt good, the way I imagine it feels to walk into church with a clean conscience. It also felt like—well, not like coming home, because this felt good—but I felt less out of place. For once, I wasn't the only natural thing around. Oh, there are always plenty of proteans around in Down Preserves, sure, but it's one of the few places in Autumn where wild things are allowed to grow. At the entrance, there are grasses—actual grasses, trimmed once they reach a certain height by real Sincerity monks with glinting silver scythes and the black cowls and the whole shebang. The land there slopes upward ever so slightly, enough to let you know you're going to work if you keep walking. There's real earth, rich and brown, tended into perfection by those same ascetic brothers, mute in their devotion to the perfect world they say came before the Rise. I love walking there when they've been working. The powerful scent of tilled soil, the bright green smell of that hand-mown grass, the thick perfume of heavy blossoms letting it all hang out, all come together to make a lurid cocktail of aromas reaching deep into the experience of our ancestors and reminding us we once always walked in such places. It's enough to get a city boy high for a week—or to remind a former country boy like me of the best features of a place I came to Autumn to forget.
I've always thought it weird to have the Sinceres in Autumn at all, given their position on modern society. But if my history teacher back in school taught me anything, it's that we—humanity, in all its manifold forms and branches—have spent forever telling ourselves life was better yesterday while looking forward to tomorrow. We're addicted to a past shrouded in the mist of fiction, one where we didn't have so many mouths to feed or decisions to make. The Sinceres—I've never thought about it until now while writing things down, but when you say it aloud, it sounds like "sin seers," which they probably think is pretty fucking clever of themselves—make hella bank on that. They sit around spinning tales of the wonders of humankind, of the time when we all looked more or less the same, before the Mannies, before the Plusses, before the whole human buffet.
Don't believe them. Their stories are self-evidently lies. My profession has taught me nothing is ever as simple as it seems, and nobody's pure, no matter how pretty they are. Usually quite the opposite, in fact.
Right after the ground rises a little, it levels out, and a gravel and sand trail emerges from the manually tended grass. The gravel is a mix of shades of beige and white and gray and red, all different kinds of rocks jumbling together, but slowly, like pixels in a painting shifting together to present a larger image. The rocks resolve into stones and then into small boulders, stepping stones, and bigger outcroppings as the crust itself rises out of the sand and soil. Down Preserves is way in the back end of Autumn, near the Inner Edge. The angle of elevation is partly to give us more natural space to run around in—useful when the City drives us too fucking nuts to stand each other another second longer—and partly to hide the massive exhaust and thrust portals. Instead of the sight of yet more machinery, no matter how vital it is to things like navigation or braking or whatever, Down Preserves gives us something like Terra Firma to look at out the windows of our homely hovels. It's a little bit below to remind ourselves what life is like in normal places, a corner of open green we can scurry to when we need it.
Walking into the woods on that slowly forming path, surrounded first by large ferns and the tropical flora of North America and the desert scrub of the Mediterranean, it's easy to feel like you're everywhere and nowhere: for all the Sincerity monks say they're keeping things "natural," it's as unnatural a mix as you can imagine. No geography in the world contains that botanical mix on its own. That's religion for you. Heading up the hiking trail, though, into the simulated higher elevations, you start to find deciduous forest and deer and Scratch Ivy, and the mosquitoes fall away: all the stuff you're used to if you were lucky enough to be born north of forty-five degrees. I like it in that part of Down Preserves.
It would have been easy to get lost in letting my mind wander, except I wasn't dressed for a hike—ratty slacks and the dress shoes I needed to replace a year ago, the ones with a hole in the sole right under the pad of my foot—and I was busy tracking a third of a ton of likely very angry meat. This whole case was starting to smell bad, too. I was supposed to be seeing whether Buttercup was visiting a milkmaid on weekends. If he was, she picked a hell of a place to ply her trade. If he wasn't, I was supposed to tell the client what he was doing. The rational part of my mind told me to turn around, go back and call off the case, give the client back her retainer and invite her to take a long walk to a different detective. Something about this didn't add up. The client didn't want pictures, and they always want pictures if they think there's actually a case. The cobwebs in my cupboard and the late rent notice in my mailbox urged me forward, though. If I was going to eat this week, I had to know what Buttercup was doing on Saturnday afternoons in Down Preserves. I could only hope it didn't involve giving one of his mittens a quick sniff.
Down Preserves is the largest open space in Autumn, but that doesn't mean it's actually very big. Designers modeled it on a place from ancient times. The Americans had a place called Golden Gate where they preserved a section of carefully tended nature in a large and largely artificial urban landscape. There's a whole thing in the visitor center about how they borrowed this and that from Golden Gate for the design of Down Preserves. This version is more extreme, though, and if you go high enough up the back, you make it into the Alpine zone. When Autumn travels to the right places for it, we'll get snow down in the City, but here, it's winter all the time with white-furred rabbits and the like to give it that touch of Mother Nature.
I climbed, breathing hard but not breathless, pulling my jacket around myself against the constant wind. It probably wasn't all that cold out, but the slightest breezes cut right through me these days. In the higher elevations of the park where you're above the Fore Barrier, you start to get a taste of real weather. For once, I was glad I quit smoking a few years ago: I could breathe, and I could smell the wet chill of some distant winter in the colder air blowing down the hill at me. It felt glorious, if only because I wanted to savor every sensation I could and this one was so starkly different from the uniform pleasantness of everywhere else in Autumn.
Back when I quit smoking, I pretended I did it for health reasons, but the truth was, I was tired of the stares it got me. Arties aren't supposed to do a lot of the fun stuff other people get to do. That's true for all kinds of things, of course, and normally the judgment of strangers doesn't bother me. Smoking was different, though. I gave it up after a Sister of Sincerity walked up to me on the bus, slapped the reef out of my mouth, and dragged me off the bus at the next stop. I decided maybe it would behoove me, if not entirely to respect some people's views on my status as a living historical artifact, at least not to aggravate them.
The trail through the middle elevations in Down Preserves is, of course, impossible to use for tracking: all gray rocks and brown mud. All that is covered in a uniform blanket of gold and brown and red leaves dropped from trees perpetually bursting with the colors of fall foliage. It would make a hell of a place to have to run away from someone: even at a walking pace, I had to step carefully and look where my feet were going rather than up ahead. I was hoping Buttercup would go as high as the snowline so I could find his prints there. The standard attire of a working detective wasn't exactly hiking boots, but having a trail to follow would be worth picking twigs out of my loafers for a week.
As I rounded a curve, a frigid gust came shooting down the path to greet me. Maybe this could happen according to plan! Maybe I would actually get to sneak up on him. Maybe I was not being led directly into a trap. Maybe I would get to close a case and get paid in full. Maybe today would be okay after all.
The snowline was right there, maybe thirty meters from me, then twenty-five, then twenty, then fifteen—and then Buttercup stepped out from behind a tree. He balled up one fist and rubbed his knuckles against the palm of the opposite hand like something out of bad theater.
"Okay, Buttercup." I held my hands out at my sides, clearly unarmed, clearly no match for his massive bovine strength. "So you made me. But please tell me you didn't lead me all the way here so you could teach me not to follow you around. You could have done that with a kind word—even an unkind word, maybe even a cruel one—way back in town, saved me a cab fare, saved you a bus ride or two. I mean, really, seriously, please do not beat me up and leave me to sleep it off."
"I'm not going to." Buttercup's voice scraped and banged, something heavy being dragged on stones. It suggested the shaking of ancient flanks in the golden light of a primitive morning from a simpler time. His eyebrows slowly inched closer, like each had an uncertain crush on the other at an old school dance. "Did you call me 'Buttercup'?"
I shrugged at him. "It seemed to fit somehow. No offense intended, of course. I'm glad to hear we can talk this out. You're my last job. I'd like to conclude this as tidily as possible."
His eyebrows finally got together, and he shook his massive head. "Not gonna talk, neither."
"Okay, but that doesn't leave us a lot of options and, to be honest, I'm a pretty lousy dancer." I was simply producing words, trying to keep him occupied. Something was about to happen, and I was pretty sure it wouldn't be good.
I was right.
Fingers—talons—tapped me on the shoulder from behind, and when I looked back, it was the client. She hissed at me. "He's not going to beat you up. I am."
That was the last thing I remembered for a while.
It didn't matter. Nobody in particular needed me awake.
While I took a long nap on the side of an artificial mountain at the back of a sculpted landscape, Autumn flew on through the daylight toward a zone of night. As I write this, it's sometimes hard to recall the fine details, but if I remember correctly, we were moving from South American highlands toward Africa. I always enjoyed it when we went to Africa: lots of fresh food and a few new faces around town. Things would be looking pretty good on the dinner front for the next few weeks.
The next thing I knew, the golem shook me gently awake. He had a little snow in his hair, having blown in from above the snowline a few meters away, but my vision still blurred a little when I tried to open my eyes, so the rest of the details were hazy. My head ached and my face felt like Buttercup danced on it, which was not necessarily outside the realm of the possible. More than anything, though, I was surprised to see a golem: one of the actual Living Metal themselves, with dark hair and artificial skin and all the complex mechanisms of the face that let golems toe the rim of the forbidden Uncanny Valley of Lore.
"Are you alright?" The golem asked it in that gentle voice they all have—the tones I once read were selected to make them seem trustworthy.
"I don't know," I mumbled. "I don't suppose you've seen a bird and a bull pass that way, laughing up each other's sleeves, have you?" It had started to get dark, which meant it had been a couple of hours at least. I was probably concussed, but I needed the rest, whatever the source.
"I'm afraid not." His eyes narrowed in mimicry of relaxation. "I'm glad I found you, though. You need medical attention."
"No," I groaned, trying to sit up. "I'm fine. I'm really fine." I got up on one hand, then the other, then managed to stand with his help. I dusted myself off and shook my head back and forth. "I guess I'm not getting paid for that one." I sighed it to myself, but the golem smiled a little. He started to say something pitying or placating, but I waved it off. "Never mind. Thanks for stopping when you saw me. It's more than most people would do."
The golem ducked his head and shrugged a little at me. "Sadly true."
I sighed a second time and looked around. "Worse places to get beaten up, I guess." I patted my pockets: my wallet was still there, which was something.
Of course, they hadn't robbed me. They wanted me to know it was something personal.
"True," the golem said. "It's going to be a beautiful day tomorrow, but I wanted to catch the forest today before the colors change."
"Oh?" I looked up. "Are they going to change?"
"Haven't you heard? We're going to have spring tomorrow." The golem smiled. "I appreciate it, but I'm not quite ready for everything to be green again for a while."
I nodded at him. That's life in Autumn for you: envy of the world, object of hate, and we complain about the weather being too predictable. I tipped my hat at him. He was beautiful, if a little too sincere, which is what you always hear about a golem after somebody gets a look at one up close: more human than you'd expect, maybe too human. I'd seen them before, from a distance, but I'd never met one in person like this. "Sorry to hear that." I rubbed my temples. "Thanks again."
He stopped me, holding out a hand to shake. "I'm Alejandro."
I took his hand and met his eyes. They clearly weren't human: the irises spun, concentric rings of flexible materials rotating in opposition to one another around pupils obviously Other in origin. They weren't from the right color palette, either, and in my memory of that moment—that pivotal moment, when a simple introduction eventually changed everything I understood about myself, about the grand flying City of Autumn, about the Empire, and about the world—his pupils glowed a faint electric blue from within, striking both in their obvious artificiality and their very human softness. Alejandro had eyes that said more to me of compassion, of understanding of the human condition, of hope and loss and regret and persistence, than any other set of eyes I'd seen in a long time.
So, of course, I walked away and forgot to give him my card or tell him my name or anything useful and didn't turn around when he called to me to ask if I needed help.