Read an excerpt from Midnight, Water City
Forty years ago, in the year 2102, the asteroid Sessho-seki hurled toward Earth at nineteen miles per second. Only one person could spot it: Akira Kimura. Scientist, savior, hero of the goddamn human race. She did so with the largest telescope ever built, atop the tallest mountain on Earth, to map its trajectory and engineer a weapon to counter it: Ascalon, the cosmic ray that saved the world. It fired with so much energy that its path remains visible, a permanent slash across the sky. People call it Ascalon’s Scar.
One in every four girls born in the last decade is named Ascalon, including my youngest daughter, who’s nearing eighteen months. Irritating, but my wife insisted. At least the name’s popularity is down from one in two, which it was after those world-saving events. I’d guess that by now, only half of the population can recall the name Sessho-seki—The Killing Rock—but everybody remembers Ascalon. Probably doesn’t help that they gave the asteroid a Japanese name. But being Japanese is coming to mean less and less anyway. Being white, Black, Latino, too.
One hundred and seventy-seven atmospheres below sea level in Volcano Vista, the world’s largest seascraper, is where I’m heading. That used to be the crush depth of a super-sub, but we beat crush depth like we beat global warming, Sessho-seki, and sixty being old. I’m eighty now, finally the right age to collect Social Security, but I'll need to grind away
another five to ten years. I’m on my fourth marriage and quite a few kids, but Ascalon is the most like me—can’t sit still, never sleeps, loves to walk backward. It’s probably deluded and egomaniacal to like that she takes after me. I’m basically old enough to be her ancestor.
The older I get, the more I care about numbers. I think about them too damn much, which is funny because I’m getting worse at running calculations in my head. At least my iE can do that for me.
The elevator opens, and a boy, maybe sixteen and completely tat-dyed blue, steps out. He’s got the indifferent swagger of a teenager and androgynous pink hair draped over the right half of his face. He’s trying hard to look like a cartoon. Maybe that’s all we ever wanted from the beginning, to look like cartoons. Well, we’re certainly succeeding. We all wear the same snug, temp-controlled foam fits spun from synthetic yarn coated with conductive metal. It’s like an old-school wetsuit, except it’s got a scaly metallic sheen to it that can change pattern and color. Some people, like my wife, like to wear a thin overcoat over theirs. Kids nowadays, they like to retract the sleeves and midriffs, while us older folk constrict it to take advantage of its girdling abilities. Either way, adjust the temp with your iE, and you’re good to go for rain, shine, or a frolic in the ocean. This boy, he’s wearing one, too, of course. He scratches his mechanical blue tail with an unusually long pinky finger as he walks past me, diving into his uncanny valley, a synthetic form of natural reality that looks plain creepy. Maybe fake tails, like the slang “hemo” and “semi,” are in with the kids now? Who knows or even wants to. A weary-looking couple steps into the elevator with me, the woman fighting to re-convert her umbrella-style skirt back into a stiff, conical one. The skirt’s clearly winning, and I get it. As the door closes, I look in its mirrored surface at my own reflection. I’m fighting age so hard, I look like a ventriloquist’s doll.
This couple has the look of twelve-volt-intellect renters who could never really afford this place. Working their hardest the last decade but not breaking even. They get off at atmosphere five, and I’m alone in the gorilla-glass tube as I continue down. I look out onto a Volcano Vista feed observation platform. A cloud of plankton, freshly released. A school of fish swoops in, mouths wide open, constantly moving, constantly feeding. Then marlin and sharks come for the small fish to keep the food chain spectacle going. Down deeper still, darkness. The sprinkle of marine snow. Bioluminescent jellyfish and creatures that drip instead of swim. I find myself half-wishing the glass would web and shatter, killing this old man by drowning or water pressure imploding my skull. I feel like I’m drowning anyway, and everyone around me is trying to throw me anchors.
This building I’m descending is in essence a buoy, and the life drawn to it gets weirder and weirder-looking as I go. At atmosphere ninety-nine, a vampire squid with glowing blue eyes swims by slowly. Always slowly—the absence of heat and light from the sun forces them to conserve energy. This species is older than dinosaurs. The creature turns itself inside out. Something must be coming for it. Ah, no, it’s just spooked by the giant cubes of trash being parachuted up by massive, billowing mechanical jellyfish. Now we’re getting close to where The Money lives. The deeper you go, the more primo the real estate.
At 177 atmospheres, the bottom of the ocean, the elevator slows to a stop. Outside are black volcanic chimneys, one source of our geothermal energy. Zombie worms also live out there, grinding whale bones to dust. I spot the hull of a passenger jet from that day, decades ago, that the Great Sun Storm knocked all the planes out of the sky. Oh, and a cannonball from an old pirate ship—there’s no way that’s the same one I dropped from above the surface all those years ago?
The elevator beeps, and I pivot back toward my reflection. Behind this door is the woman who’s supposed to help me. My oldest and perhaps dearest friend. Years ago, before she became a deity among us, she used to tell me I was her best friend, too. People have told me this often. It used to make me feel good, until I realized I was surrounded by people without friends. There was a reason no one else could stand these motherfuckers. And for Akira Kimura, that reason was probably that it’s tough to put up with the smartest person on Earth.
Akira has called me to moonlight as personal security for her, just like in the old days. She says she’s been getting the weird sense that she’s in danger. A vision. A halo. And once again, a woman who says she trusts only me. But she’s always been a little paranoid. She’s offered to pay me well, more than enough to get myself out from under. That’s the funny thing about The Money. They’ll gift each other artifact and libation equal to most people’s annual income. But anyone who ain’t them’s gotta work for it. I’ll give you this, but you’ve gotta do something for me. Because they know a gift to the Less Than is truly a gift, not a trade. And rich or poor, no one wants to give away a thing for free.
I look into the elevator’s facial recognition scan. I have clearance, just like she said. Right before the door slides open, my wife pings me on my iE. It zooms to a halt in front of my face to emphasize the importance of the message. Sabrina’s got this psychic power for pinging me at the worst times. But if I’m being honest with myself, it’s not that hard for her to figure out. I’m not in love anymore, so they’re all the worst times. I pluck my iE out of the air and tuck it into my shoulder pocket before stepping into the penthouse.
The place is half furnished. This is a woman who lives at work, at her telescope, so the lack of armchairs isn’t surprising. I’m way too early. Around thirty minutes, so I poke
around. Doesn’t look like she’s home. Odd—she’s more pathological about punctuality than me. I peep through her ocean telescope and look up through the atmospheres. All this modern underwater architecture, lit up with bioluminescence. Condos, aqua resorts, plazas, lighted vac tubes connecting them all. Like a twenty-first century skyline flipped upside down and dropped into the ocean. Refuse drones designed to look like yeti crabs claw out of septic cubes and scurry to the surface, flexing their mechanical limbs. Everything is hydropowered, motion-powered, geo-powered. Sewage, heated and pressurized into biodiesel. Holographic ads circle their gilded prey, telling people they can somehow live forever while looking like a million bucks. The underwater city is always on, data-scavenging all our habits and using the info to create a more efficient place. An underwater panoramic, lubricated by the grease of America.
And that’s when I see red. A small wisp of it, weaving its way under Akira’s bedroom door, its scent an ambergris perfume.
I step inside and look around closely. Nothing out of the ordinary. The only pieces inside are a dresser, a Japanese tea table with two black cushions, and a bullet-shaped AMP
hibernation chamber, a grade people would kill to own. I smell death. I can hear it like an off-key strum. But I don’t see blood. Even though I’m colorblind, I know what it looks like, and there isn’t any.
But the perfume is overpowering in here. The wafts start coming at me. Other people can’t sense them. You can’t recreate them through canvas or theater. I’ve tried to paint them
hundreds of times myself and never gotten it right. Death has a smell like pure ambergris, and I’m the only one who knows it. Death is red, murder green.
I finally see them more distinctly. The faintest red circling the AMP chamber, its seal lined in green. The way that thing is constructed, nothing can seep out. So I know murder’s been
locked in there.
I step over to open it. It won’t budge. An old-school padlock is holding the machine’s opening handles tightly together. I take out my knife and crank the heat up on its blade, then cut through the clunky shank. The lock clanks on the floor as I open the hatch. Mist puffs out of the chamber. I swat the freezing cold puffs away. A solid, cloudy chunk glows from within the chamber. There’s a frozen body in all that nitrogen, but except for a pair of hands flexed, pressing upward, it’s tough to make out a face. I pull out my knife and start chipping away at the solid nitro. It’s harder than ice. I turn the heat up even higher on my blade and stab at it again and again. A chunk breaks off. My iE alerts me that my blood pressure is rising quickly, that my pulse is racing. I silence it and turn my blade to where the head is.
I’m desperate now. I need to see if it’s her. I thrust the blade into the block with everything I’ve got. Again and again. The smell gets stronger and stronger the closer I get to the face. The green wafts are making me tear up, but I’ve gotta know. It could be Akira in there. I cut and twist. A small chunk flies out of the chamber and skids across the room. I look down. An eye. Open. Always open, always seeing. The pupil is cloudy. Barely perceptible green curls up from them. Akira Kimura, one of the greatest minds to ever exist, has been reduced to breathless ice.
I stand up. Close my eyes. The smell is giving me a ferocious headache. The lock means she was trapped in there. And the green . . . This was murder, not suicide. I think for a moment, but it’s tough to hang onto the flotsam of each detail in this mental flood. Procedure, I tell myself. You’re a detective. Stuff the personal. Procedure. But I look at the broken lock and melting chunks of nitro on the floor and know I’ve already crossed that line.
I ping the chief and call it in. At first, he thinks I’m messing with him. He’s never liked me, and the feeling is mutual. “The most brilliant scientist in the world, dead? Really,” he says.
Who the fuck talks like that? “Yes,” I say.
“No jokes, please,” he says.
It’s tough to convince someone of the death of a demigod, especially the kind of guy who goes through life like he’s playing an efficiency simulator. Gods don’t die, no matter how many sims you run through the quantum. My voice is shaking as I tell him about the lock, the chamber, the arms locked in an outward push. The clouded eyes. And when he realizes I’m not joking, he finally asks real questions.
“I told you, the lock. Besides, someone flooded this thing with nitro instead of AMP. And the chamber’s got controls on the inside.”
“No way,” I say. “What’s the point of sleeping in an AMP chamber every night if you aren’t trying to live forever?” I don’t tell him about the green. I never tell anyone about it. And I certainly don’t tell him that if Akira Kimura were to ask anyone to help her kill herself, it would probably be me.
He gasps, then asks the obvious question. “Why would anyone want to kill her?”
I have no answer. The chief wants me to sit tight until he gets here. We have to secure the area and confirm it’s her; we have to avoid a media shitstorm. Procedure. Then he asks
what the hell I was doing there. I tell him the truth. She’s an old friend who feared for her safety and offered me a job. Her iE? he asks. She never had one. Not even when she was busy saving the world. Can she be saved? the chief asks. Unlike every other member of The Money, Akira never kept a stockpile of farmed organs. She was old-fashioned through and through. He tells me again to sit tight. But I can’t stay here anymore. My headache is now a full-blown migraine, the smell choking me. I need to leave. But I can’t. I’m missing something.
I step to the chamber and press the heat button, which I would’ve done in the first place if I’d been thinking clearly. I tell myself to stop. Think. Wait. Procedure.
As the nitro melts, the chamber vents seep up the liquid. First, it’s the hands, then the arms. The ones that were pushing up slide off at the shoulders and drop beside her.
I take a step back. Next are the feet. Then the legs. They separate in half at the knees. I see her eyes, even after death, aimed upward as usual. Looking, always looking, just like I’m looking at her now. Then her head slides off, spins face down, and bobs in the remaining liquid nitro.
Someone locked the chamber and cranked up the AMP. Maybe Akira was startled and put her hands up. But it was too late. So much AMP flooded her liver that it put her into instant hibernation. Then whoever it was cut her to pieces. With such precision that the body didn’t fall apart, and Akira slept through the whole thing.
Then that someone cranked up the nitro to put her on ice. Why put the lock back on after all this? I know the answer to that one: this was Akira Kimura. Whoever did this probably
thought there was a chance she could somehow reassemble herself and get out. These are the thoughts that go through someone’s head when they try to kill a living god.
I close my eyes and take a breath before looking again. The cuts are surgical. Her torso cracks in half, diagonal, from clavicle to hip bone. I turn away. Kick the cut lock across the
room, put my hands on my face, and squat in frustration.
For some reason, I find myself telling the chief that at least she lived well. That she succeeded, then had a good, long life. An inappropriate sentiment made by a man needing to get out of the room. The chief tells me again to stay put, but the green wafts have now formed a narrow stream that juts outside the bedroom. I see them floating to the elevator. I cannot bear to look at Akira like this. And I cannot let the trail go cold.
I get into the elevator and am finally able to take a breath. I try to rev down. The chief tells me to relax. He tells me, Calm down, old man, you’re gonna have a heart attack. And I don’t know why, but I say again: At least she succeeded. At least she lived well. The chief says, Stop saying that, then pauses. He says the grass is always greener. I wouldn’t know. Murder is the only time I can see green.