A 22nd Century Gumshoe Makes a Grim Discovery in the First Peek at Sci-Fi Noir Midnight, Water City

A crop of the cover of Chris McKinney’s Midnight, Water City. See the full image below!
A crop of the cover of Chris McKinney’s Midnight, Water City. See the full image below!
Image: Soho Press

Hawaiian author Chris McKinney’s new sci-fi noir Water City Trilogy begins with Midnight, Water City. The book, set in an underwater world filled with keenly brutal crime, isn’t out until summer 2021, but today, io9 has an exclusive look at its neon-drenched cover, as well as a peek at the first chapter.

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To set the scene, here’s a description of the story:

In a future of underwater cities, artificially extended lifespans, and a wealth gap that has outlived a near-apocalypse, a world-weary detective investigates the murder of the enigmatic scientist who once saved the world.

Year 2142: Earth is thirty years past a near-collision with the asteroid Sessho-seki. Akira Kimura, the scientist responsible for eliminating the threat, has achieved heights of celebrity approaching deification. But now, Akira is being threatened, so after years without contact, she reaches out to her former head of security, who has since become a police detective.

When he arrives at her deep-sea home and finds Akira methodically dismembered, this detective will risk everything—his career, his family, even his own life—and delve back into his shared past with Akira to find her killer. With a rich, cinematic voice and a burning cynicism, Midnight, Water City is both a thrilling neo-noir procedural and a stunning exploration of research, class, climate change, the cult of personality, and the dark sacrifices we are willing to make in the name of progress.

Here’s the full cover in all its tech-noir glory; the illustration is by Vlado Krizan and the design is by Janine Agro.

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Image: Soho Press

Now, read on for an exciting and intriguing excerpt from the book’s first chapter!

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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.

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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.

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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 hydro-powered, 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. “Chamber malfunction?”

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“I told you, the lock. Besides, someone flooded this thing with nitro instead of AMP. And the chamber’s got controls on the inside.”

“Assisted suicide?”

“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Excerpt from Midnight, Water City courtesy of Soho Press and used by permission. Copyright © 2021 Chris McKinney.

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Midnight, Water City by Chris McKinney is out July 13, 2021, and you can pre-order a copy here.

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io9 News Editor, here since 2016. Previously SF Bay Guardian newspaper (RIP), SFSU (MA, Cinema Studies), member of the SF Bay Area Film Critics Circle, big fan of horror, metal, and verrry small dogs.

DISCUSSION

alroderick
Al Roderick

Near-future fiction/cyberpunk needs to venture into the water more often. There’s just so much overlap with the concepts. Alien horrors from the deep, desperate workers chasing high paychecks to hostile worlds not fit for human habitation, sea level rise, generically Tokyongkongapore eastern city states, opulence overlooking desperation, a brutal food chain, all to be found in the desperate dark mother that is the sea.