Prologue – Rats in the Walls

“There are rats in the walls,” the landlord had said. “Big ones.”

He wasn’t wrong. The buggers were big. And mean. Meaner than the ratcatcher was used to; but it mattered little when they wandered into the spring loaded traps or within range of his cudgel. The cruelty of rodents could not compare to that of Mr. Tenfinger.

Through the smoke of a damp cigar and by the light of a cracked torch, he sidled through the tight space concealed behind the stone wall, fighting through tangles of corroded wiring and piping. He was looking for nests. He had already encountered three, and seen them cleared away with maximum prejudice. These old town houses, left abandoned for decades, were the perfect breeding ground his perpetual adversaries. The rat. He bore them no ill will, but a man had to eat, and drink, and smoke.

His cigar died as he caught movement ahead. A bloated white thing with sparse hair, corded muscle and a tail that had been gnawed down to the bone. The stench of animal filth reached his nostrils, and in anticipation for what lurked in the gloom ahead he adjusted the grip on his home-made rat smasher and hoped the poison bread he had scattered days before would give a fat old man like him an advantage. It usually did, and if not, he’d yet to see a rat get through his thick leather jacket.

The darkness receded, and his footfalls crunched down on dry matter. Wire, straw, twigs and the bones of birds that had found their unlucky demise in this place. He extinguished the torch, but noticed a narrow beam of light infiltrating its way in from above. Tiny motes of ash rained downwards, reminding him of where he was, of where he desperately did not want to be. Iuda. A graveyard save for the few lunatics like this landlord and the chronic infestation of rats.

The creature must have sensed his distraction, for it chose its moment to strike. A hateful scream alerted Tenfinger to the danger, and in his shock his weapon scraped against the wall as he swung it wide. It dropped, and the rat was on him, its teeth and claws burying themselves in the thick hide protecting his left arm. He cursed loudly, and slammed his shoulder hard into the wall, hearing the clatter of ornaments falling on the other side. He slammed again and the rat detached, falling neatly to the ground and slithering through the dust.

But Tenfinger was faster. With practised aim, his boot found the creature’s neck. And without remorse or celebration, the rat was dead.

He emerged plastered in pale dust and dark blood. The room beyond was a grand affair with a high ceiling, wrought iron furnishings and tall windows that allowed in the baking heat. He brought the giant rat with him, to dispose of with the others. It was truly a monster. Fitting for a place with a reputation like Iuda. It was the size of a large cat, its skin marked with cancerous growths likely caused from the intense sunlight that beat down on the building. It’s eyes were albino red and clouded with blood, and it’s teeth, now cracked, had been sharp enough to slice through Tenfinger’s jacket and into his flabby arm.

The landlord regarded him and his prize grimly.

“Nasty fucking business,” he said.

Tenfinger spat his spent cigar onto the floor and stamped it into a black smear. He threw the rat down next to it, and fumbled for another smoke. It flared to life, and he breathed easily. “It is what it is,” he said. “Poison, traps, dogs. No nice way to do it. But out here, what can you expect?”

That earned him a suspicious look. He was an outsider here. The landlord wore a stained purple sash that could have been mistaken for a wine soaked rag. That tied him to this district, to this building. It declared him a willing renegade. It was stupid. Tenfinger was uneasy about men who wore their allegiance so openly. He hid his behind rugged leather and a sweat stained shirt.

“I got some mail,” the landlord said, furrowing his brow. “Private courier. A frightened bastard from the Capitol. He had no right to be here.” He produced a crisp, folded square of paper and squeezed it between his thumb and forefinger. “I never asked your name ratcatcher. But I assume you are a Mr. Tenfinger. I thought I made it clear how important my privacy is.”

Tenfinger shifted the cigar in his mouth. “I’m Tenfinger all right. But I told no one I was here. Having unsolicited mail is just annoying to me as it is to you. I did not know.”

“And ‘Tenfinger’? Is that some criminal alias? Who are you really?”

The ratcatcher removed his gloves. Years of rough work had left his right hand a leathery mess of six fingers. His left bore three crooked fingers and a chubby thumb. “Born with twelve, y’see. Rat took one. The other is a secret. Unfortunately, the name’s stuck.”

The landlord nodded, but did not look satisfied. He handed over the square of paper.

It was an odd thing to receive. Paper and literacy were rare commodities in the city of Ark. He unfolded it and stared for some time at its contents. A single word that had been snapped out by a typewriter. The smell of dead rats, their dung and their rotten homes had not made him nauseous, but this message did. Hurriedly, he slipped it into his jacket pocket, his fingers brushing against the heavy weight of the Gaussian pistol at his side.

“What does it mean?” asked the landlord. “Geist?”

Ash dribbled from Tenfinger’s cigar.

“You read it?”

“I certainly did. I can’t be too careful out here. You could be from the Undercity, the Watch, the Inquisition…”

Tenfinger lifted his pistol from his jacket, and with his stubby thumb, slid back the block that primed the magnetic coils. “Worse,” he said, through a puff of smoke. “There are rats in the walls. And it’s time they were flushed out.”

Chapter 21 – Sample

The enclosed space of the hallway opened dramatically into a black void spanned by a narrow walkway. Glass lamps had been worked into the thin strip of stone, stretching like an ivory needle into nothingness. Matheau’s claustrophobia was immediately replaced by dizzying vertigo. As he stepped onto the bridge he felt as if the darkness was drawing him down, sucking at his feet, which he struggled to keep firmly in the centre of the path. The followed it without hesitation, all sight of the service hall soon disappearing behind them, leaving them suspended on a tightrope stretched between nothingness.

 

“There it is,” Cloy said, pointing to a small island of light that winked from the distance. Lit from beneath by the lamps the old man had become a spectre, a being half of shadow, half of pale mist. His beard was a tangle of iron wire, his eyes holes bored through his stony head. Matheau followed his finger, to see their destination. He had to squint, for all he saw was a shadow amidst a soft white glow. A few steps later and the shadow became clearer. He faltered, taking a step back in shock, nearly walking straight off the edge of the walkway.

 

“Careful!” cried Bentham, grabbing at Matheau. For one sickening moment they wobbled together, Matheau’s head spinning long after he was righted. He turned to the young priest thankfully, but what stared back was little more than a skull in the poor light.

 

“There’s someone over there,” he said, reaching for his rifle. “Standing there, watching us.”

 

“That’ll be Old Bart,” said Cloy. “Don’t worry, he’s harmless.”

 

As they stepped onto the wide platform, and Matheau saw it to be true. The figure had been a statue, but an incredibly life like one. A bald, thin man looked down on them, naked save for a cloak draped over his shoulders and pulled across his front for modesty. His brow was furrowed, and his stone eyes held such sadness that Matheau would not be surprised if a tear dribbled down the hollow cheek. In it’s left hand, the statue held a book, casually resting against the muscular leg. There was something strange about it, the way surface was lumpen and striated, the obvious veins painstakingly highlighted by the sculptor, the tendons in the hands and the feet, and the cloak itself – the way it fell irregularly down the figure’s back.

 

Matheau stared for minutes before the sick realisation occurred to him. This was a statue of a flayed man. The muscle was on display, and the cloak – it was the man’s skin pulled off in one complete sheet. On closer inspection he could see the glove like hands hanging from empty arms and as he moved behind he saw the statue’s true face, a flaccid mask complete with curly hair and beard. It was revolting and beautiful simultaneously. The macabre attention to detail both inspiring him with fascination and nausea.

 

“How old is this?” he asked.

 

“Centuries,” Bentham guessed as he knelt before the statue.

 

“Older,” said Cloy. “This was made before we came to Ark.”

 

Such age was almost unthinkable. If true, this stone was made from a fragment of Eden. It would have felt the kiss of the unfiltered sun as it was quarried raw from the earth, with an infinite sky above it. Despite his scepticism, Matheau felt something inherently spiritual about it, almost magical, as if the ancient stone might start breathing at any moment.

 

“The shrine is that way,” Cloy indicated to an ornate door cut into the bare wall that rose up from the platform. “It is a desecrated place, so I’ll leave you to your own devices. I need to commune with my deity.” He took a swig from the flask and took a seat next to the meditating Bentham, gazing up a his beloved saint.

 

Matheau walked towards the metal door and tested the latch. Rust has eaten away at the lock, and the mechanism crumbled as he pushed, the door squealing open. An awful stench assaulted him, the smell of burnt steel and scorched stone. The room beyond was blackened, a hollowed out shell filled with the carcasses of benches and a shattered altar. Above, a light flickered and spasmed, sending shadows dancing across the ruination. He unslung his rifle, taking its entire weight with his right arm, interlocking his fingers with the trigger. There was a door behind the altar, burnt against the blistering paint. He nudged it open with his foot and scanned the hallway beyond with the muzzle of his weapon. Nothing moved, and the only sound was the constant thumping of the nearby reactors.

 

This place was burned too, but it seemed newer than the shrine itself, the walls roughly hewn from the stone, the ground irregular. An addition, it seemed, added some centuries after the shrine had been constructed to venerate the statue. He entered the hall and pushed open a side door. Beyond, though destroyed by fire, was what was unmistakably once an operating room; a metal bed and trays for instruments deformed by heat, but still recognisable. Opposite this, he found something similar, and indeed as he worked his way through the corridor he found many such rooms. It was all eerily reminiscent of his time trapped beneath the fountain. Though in this case the rooms had been stripped of anything incriminating. There were no samples, no chemicals and no records, just the burnt remains of the equipment that was too heavy to flee with. Further down he found a bank of prison cells, and further still, bedrooms that must have been occupied by the staff. It was here, it seemed, the fire had started, the beds little more than twisted nets of metal, the bookcases and desks burned away to just the iron fittings.

 

On the last door in the hall, a small brass plate made brown with ash teased Matheau with the words ‘Geist Project, Main Office’. His hopes were raised, but as he pushed the door open they rapidly fell. He was greeted by more devastation, the cabinets thrown open and a microfilm reader shattered upon a warped desk. Someone had purged this place, but he had no idea when. A week? A month? A year? He had come all the way down here for answers, to find out what the Geist project was all about, but someone had beaten him. Whoever had left this place had anticipated that it would be one day found, but the question remained, why did they leave?

 

Still there might be something left – something they missed. After several minutes of sifting through ash, he was rewarded. Behind one of the cabinets he saw something glint – a piece of broken glass. He lent his rifle against the wall and reached down, sweeping away the soot. There were more shards, as he followed the trail it let to a metal frame that must have slipped down off the wall and behind a cabinet. He pulled it out, sending a cascade of ash tumbling from its surface. It was a framed photograph; beneath a banner bearing the Tunguska trefoil, a group of well dressed people stood beneath the statue of Bartholomew. Some wore white coats, while others tailored suits. Beneath was a list of names, and Matheau recognised them immediately. The victims of the killer, here, with their skin on and their lively eyes staring up at him. A brief tally of the names placed them all there, all part of the same organisation – this Geist Project. He squinted at the grainy image. The picture must have been decades old, Dr Ellis hardly looked like he had escaped his mid twenties. Whatever this place was, it had history, and to keep it secret so long required serious investment. But what was the objective, what were they doing? Human testing – that stunk of the amoral science of the Tunguksa, but also the Junketsu. They both had ties to the asylum, and no doubt the insane made for convenient test subjects, answers to whatever questions they were posing down here in the dark. That purpose was still unclear.

 

But something more pressing bothered him, something that didn’t make sense. The Potentate was not in the picture, for one. Nor was he named, not even as Theophilus Tenumbra. He was missing. Otherwise, this picture was a perfect schematic of the murderer’s actions.

 

There was more. One name stuck out, one that he did not recognise. For a moment his stomach jumped, realising that there might be a chance that there was one survivor left, someone he could question. But then a dark thought slid across his brain. If there was one left, perhaps that could be the killer? That made sense. Quickly he scanned the faces, matching up the names, trying to find the mysterious figure. He found them front and centre, but immediately despaired. The photograph had been damaged, someone had obscured the face, scrubbed it away until only a white circle remained above a smartly tailored suit. That was suspicious enough to prove it for Matheau. Though the fact that the photograph had been missed implied that the killer’s face had been obscured long before the place had been fed to the torch. It was puzzling. He slid the photograph from the frame, folded it and placing it into his jacket pocket, content with the name alone. He knew who the killer was.

 

And his name was E. Needleman.

Synopsis Redux

I thought the synopsis I had posted previously was a little long. It also tackled each character’s arc as a different narrative. In recent times I’ve made it shorter and leaner. This is what I’m going with now:

 

The Final City is just that, Ark, a deco-punk metropolis suspended in space. The last refuge of humanity, and a claustrophobic mix of political ideologies. An arson at the city Asylum inflames tensions, and from that one event two journeys begin.

After her father’s murder, nine year old Lily flees, only to finds something dark beneath the city. It calls itself an angel, and by saving her life, it awakens within her an ability to peer into the minds of others. An ancient Machiavellian Contessa takes her under her wing, and Lily must make a choice between the comfort of her past life or becoming a killer herself.

Isador Iuda, an opioid dependent prisoner finds his sudden freedom is fraught with danger. His family name makes him valuable to the city elite, and the brutal kinetic powers he manifests fuels rumours of a curse that once brought tragedy to his people. Is his struggle for freedom worth the price in blood he is forced to pay, or should he become as his enemies see him, a monster?

What links these two characters are their powers and the shadowy conspiracy behind them. The Geist Project, a secret that taints the machinations of all those around them, and appears to be the catalyst of all their hardship. Though eventually both find some semblance of peace and resolution, many questions still linger. Their lives have been tainted, and their futures promise both power and misery.

Wordcount

Two notable things have happened recently. The first was that I completed my manuscript and began soliciting agents. After months of mercenary editimg, the final wordcount was still a cumbersome 165,000. It got to a point where grinding away with my red pen had become almost futile, and in parts, my editing was adding extra words. This suggested a certain equilibrium had been reached, that Fear of a Final City had to be that long.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I got my first real publication. A peice of Flash Fiction in Seizure magazine, LCD Butterfly. I’ve been working on a number of submissions, but apart from my novel, Flash Fiction has been the only one I have really gotten into. This confuses me, as I struggle to deleted words in one realm, I thrive on less than 500 in others.

It’s been bothering me a lot, and I can’t explain the bipolar nature of my writing. I’ve been trying to write a 5,000 word horror story about a Cuckoo, as well as planning out something 60,000+ for the Australian publishing company Fantastica. Both have been difficult.

My theory is that it has to do with restriction. For my novel I had to twist every scene into the web of criss crossing narratives I had established, while with Flash every word is a resource. For the “middle ground” I guess there’s an open endedness I’m uncomfortable with. Not enough room to get complicated, but too much to lean on simplicity.

Editing

I’ve been editing for months now.

I knew it would be hard, in fact I had been dreading it the whole time. At first, i’d imagined the words as a chuck of raw stone, and that editing would be the chisel to form the sculpture.

It’s not like that, not at first anyway. The most problematic thing with the story as it is currently is the complexity. Keeping characterisation up to speed while the plot unfolds has been tricky, and so far the majority of editing has been ADDING text to fix these problems. I guess to continue with the analogy, the raw stone had fissures, and I’ve been filling them with spackle.

And now I’ve generated a huge amount of words, and slowly I’ve begun to reshape it. In some parts this is easy, and even therapeutic to purge horrible parts so that no one will even be forced to endure them. The problem I guess comes from my paternal instincts to protect my work. A stranger would be much more ruthless, and would likely more easily see the horrible parts.

To try and combat my own blinkered view, I’ve been reading the entire thing out loud from start to finish with my girlfriend. She’s terrible at doing the character voices, which diminishes it quite a bit, but otherwise this has proved a useful technique for judging how well things flow, both in a grammatical and narrative sense.

I’m over 80% through at present, and when done I will be attempting to find an agent. Hopefully my amateurish attempts to fix the text will be enough to get their attention, so that the professionals can take over.

Blurb

Ark, the Final City, a glass dome drifting in space. For centuries the remnants of humanity have fought over the scraps of the city using the mask of civilisation to obscure brutal ambition. All this under the watchful gaze of the Potentate – a mortal god.

This is but one episode in the history of Ark. It starts with a fire at the city Asylum. From this event ripples the consequences that shake the city and change humanity. We follow five characters.

Isador, an escapee from the Asylum is convinced he is heir to a cursed family – Iuda. Years of chemical restraint have made him a drug addict prone to vivid hallucinations. The Iuda district – a wasteland – is his inheritance, and it is his duty to save it for the desperate people that flock to him by proving his legitimacy and defending his claim.

Anna Veleno, a wheelchair bound noble well past her first century finds herself thrust back into the arena of politics. She becomes the new Veleno Contessa and quickly discovers why her House is failing. Family are as good as enemies, and her rule must be tempered with both compromise and terror. All of this is complicated when a strange girl is delivered to her.

Lily is that girl. The nine year old daughter of the Asylum Warden, Dr Ellis. Her father is flayed as the horizon burns and Lily sees the killer – a man with the head of a raven. Lily runs, but does not escape the violence – her face is torn and in her escape she meets something more horrible than the Raven or her attackers. A creature that calls itself an Angel. Taken in by Anna, Lily refuses to accept her loss, and ensures she has her vengeance.

Matheau, a Watch Inspector is investigating the death of Dr. Ellis. A crippled man working for his freedom, he finds himself overwhelmed by the influence of nobility and family politics in the city. He finds a wary ally in the form of his highborn partner, though once he is removed from the case, he is unsure who he can really trust. He strikes out independently, and finds more than he bargains for, ultimately leading to a confrontation, a final battle in a war he did not want.

Zacharius, Master of Lamps. A high councillor of a weak House. Zacharius is privy to the political cogs grinding behind the façade of civil society. As a rule, he does not play the game, but is forced to in order to keep his position, and his life. To save the city, he must help the Mad Duke Isador, and make a deal that he knows will destroy him in one way or another.

The book finishes as it begins, with fire. Momentarily, the city is still. But this will not last long. Already the pieces are being set for the larger game. There is more to uncover, and one last question remains unanswered:

“Who is E. Needleman?”

Welcome to Ark

My name is Sam Swinburn. For the past year I have been working on a horror/sci-fi novel which will be the first in a planned trilogy. The novel is complete, and for some time I have been editing, but there is much work still to do. This blog will record my milestones as I work towards completion and publication. I hope to use it as a tool to track my progress and post details about the book. I hope anyone that passes by enjoys what they see.