The old clock tower in the center of the city rang out eight times, and that meant the last ship to the mainland was leaving for the winter. Diego lit a cigarette to commemorate the occasion.
Out on the balcony, Eliana leaned over the railing and screamed out the hours with a mad sort of desperation. So did everyone else in the smokestack district, their voices drowning out the clock tower’s distant gongs. When the crowd roared “eight” and the clock tower fell silent, fires erupted out of the metal barrels lining the curb, the band struck their first note, and people poured out of the tenement housing onto the narrow, winding streets.
Last Night had begun.
Eliana dropped away from the railing, picked up her beer bottle, spun in place in a lazy cumbia. Her wavy dark hair skimmed across the top of her shoulders. Diego dragged on his cigarette and watched her, the light from the fires catching on the sparkles in her dress.
“You didn’t count,” Eliana said, shuffling up to him. The desperation was gone; now sadness tinged the edge of her voice, nothing more.
“I never count.” Diego swigged from his beer bottle. “Don’t see the point.”
She stopped dancing. Her skin was already dewed with sweat—they always turned the heat up on Last Night, one final indulgence before the winter. Diego wanted to lick that sweat away. He’d spend the whole night on this balcony with just her if he thought he could convince her to stay, no parties or parades or any of that bullshit. But Eliana had always wanted to see the mainland. It was one of the first things he’d learned about her. And he knew she was exactly the sort of person Last Night was for. It wasn’t a celebration; it was a wake. Another year gone by, and she was still stuck in the domes, still stuck in the ice.
“You want to go down to the street?” Eliana asked.
No, thought Diego, but he knew that wasn’t what she wanted to hear. “Sure.” He grinned. “They’ve got the fires going, and I want to get you out of those clothes sooner rather than later.”
“I’m hardly wearing anything right now!”
Eliana laughed, covering up her sadness. Diego grabbed her by the hand and pulled her close, wrapping his arms around her shoulders. She pressed her cheek against his chest, and for a moment they swayed together, out of time to the music floating up from the street.
“You want to follow the parade this year?” he asked into her hair, already knowing the answer.
“I told Maria and Essie I’d meet them at Julio’s.”
“Oh, hell.” He’d forgotten about those two. Figures she’d make plans without him.
Eliana smacked him on the arm. “I didn’t know if you were going to show up tonight or not.”
“I wouldn’t miss Last Night, baby.” He kissed her, slow and lingering, trying to forget that he hadn’t seen her for three weeks. “Besides, I figured you’d changed your mind about seeing me, you being a cop and all.”
“I told you, I’m not a cop.”
“Hey, you’re the one with the license.”
“That license doesn’t make me a cop.”
He kissed her again. They left her balcony, Eliana dragging him through her shabby little apartment and down the stairwell and out onto the street. It was brighter there, from the fires, and hotter, too. Women had peeled off their sweaters and coats to reveal bare skin spangled with glitter.
Diego threw his arm over Eliana’s shoulder as they stumbled along the street, dodging dancers and sparks from the handheld fireworks. The fireworks had been banned for years, but you could still buy them a few days before Last Night. Tradition.
Julio’s, that tiny hole-in-the-wall bar Eliana liked, was only three streets over, but the walk took a long time in the crush of bodies. Diego slipped his hand under Eliana’s thin dress, along the bare damp skin of her back, and pressed his mouth against her neck while she wound through the streets, giggling and leaning into him. Glitter showered down from the tenement balconies, sticking to his bare arms and alighting in Eliana’s hair. This shit-hole neighborhood was transformed during Last Night into someplace where you might actually want to live. The whole city was. They might call it Last Night, but it was as bright as day. Light was everywhere. From the fires, from the glitter, from the floodlamps affixed to the underside of the dome, that one glass shield between Hope City and the winds of Antarctica. The city never turned the floodlamps off during Last Night, and so the day never ended.
You didn’t get true sunlight in Hope City.
Julio’s was crowded, people spilling out into the street, holding their glasses aloft. Not exactly Diego’s scene, but he let Eliana push their way inside, shedding glitter and kissing and laughing. It was quieter inside than out, and darker, although just as warm.
“Eliana! Over here!”
Diego recognized Maria’s voice immediately. Hard to miss something that shrill. Still, Eliana had pulled away from him and was spinning in place, scanning for Maria in the shadows. She let out a shout when she found her friend, then grabbed Diego’s hand and pulled him over to the table where Maria was sitting. She was dressed for the parade: tight dress, hair teased high in that stupid way the girls were doing, too much color around her eyes.
Diego wished to hell he’d called Eliana sooner.
“My God, I didn’t think you were going to make it.” Maria leaned over the table and pushed out a pair of wobbling chairs. “I bought you an El Pato.” She slid it across the table.
“So where’s Essie?” Eliana asked, sliding into her seat. Diego sat down beside her.
“She decided to go out with that stupid artist friend of hers, down in the warehouse district.” Maria rolled her eyes.
“Which artist friend?”
“The Independence-minded one.”
“That’s all of her artist friends.” Eliana sipped her drink.
Maria laughed. “True enough. This is the one I think is a terrorist.”
Diego managed to suppress a laugh at the thought of any of Eliana’s friends hanging around the AFF.
“She tried to convince me to go with her,” Maria went on. “She gave me all the usual lines about how we shouldn’t even be thinking about the mainland and such. But I told her I was meeting you.” Maria glanced at Diego. “Sorry I didn’t get you anything, Diego. Didn’t know you were going to show.”
“Everyone keeps saying that.” Diego grinned, trying to scare her. “It’s almost like you don’t trust me.”
Beneath the bright mask of her makeup Maria gave him a dark look that suggested that was exactly what she thought.
“Share mine,” Eliana said, handing Diego her El Pato and then leaning over to kiss him on the mouth. It reminded him why he put up with her idiot friends.
“You two are awful,” Maria said.
“Not any more awful than what’s going on out there.” Diego took a sip. He hadn’t had one of these in a long time, even though Sebastian always drank them when they were down at the Florencia.
Maria patted her hair coquettishly. “I wouldn’t know. I’ve been waiting in here for the last forty-five minutes. They showed the departure.” She nodded at the television set sitting on the edge of the bar. It cast an arc of blue light across the floor. Black-and-white footage of the party at the docks flashed across the screen.
“How was it?” Eliana asked.
“Same as last year.” Maria tossed back the last of her drink. “I’m ready for the parade.”
“You’re always ready for the parade,” Diego said. He couldn’t help himself.
Maria scowled at him. He laughed, took another drink. Then Eliana leaned across the table and started giggling with Maria over something or other, and Diego turned to the television. He’d gone down to the docks on Last Night a couple years back with a girl who’d since found a way to the mainland. He remembered handing her his coat as the dock gate groaned open and the ship slid away from Hope City, billowing steam and cold late-autumn air. It was an old cruise ship left over from when Hope City was an amusement park, and it had all the stupid ornamentation of anything associated with the park, the brass detailing and the word “Welcome!” carved into the side in looping, old-fashioned script.
Funny how nobody in Hope City ever welcomed that ship home.
“Hey, we’re going out to the parade.” Eliana brushed her fingers over Diego’s shoulder. He looked up at her, and with the glitter and the television light she seemed to glow.
“Ready if you are,” Diego said.
The three of them stepped out into the street.
The fires had climbed higher out of the barrels, licking at the brilliant, steaming night. The parade flowed past. Bodies danced and undulated in the waterfall of glitter.
Maria pulled a package of fireworks out of her purse. “Managed to get some this year,” she said.
“Don’t tell Eliana,” Diego said. “She’ll rat you out.”
“I told you, I’m not a cop!”
Diego laughed. Maria handed them each a bundle of fireworks. For most people, anything larger than the handheld kind was impossible to get, although Diego could probably scrounge some up if he wanted. Working for Mr. Cabrera, being taken under his wing the way Diego had, it definitely had its perks.
The city kept some fireworks tucked away, though, since they usually shot them off from the bow of the ship during its departure. That was part of the festival, the display erupting over the open ocean, color and light blossoming against the black of the night sky.
Inside a domed city, fireworks were just explosives. It didn’t matter how much they lit up the night. The handheld ones couldn’t do any damage unless you got too many too close to one of the fires, and even then the fireworks really only sparked and flared and maybe burned your hand. But that hint of danger was still there, which was why people like Maria went looking for them as Last Night approached.
Maria struck a match, and her fireworks flared all at once in a dazzling burst of light. She held them aloft, sparks trailing along the ground, and sang along to the music pouring out of the speakers fixed to the telephone poles. The city had switched over to British bands now, the Rolling Stones and the Animals and the Beatles. By the time Maria’s fireworks had burned away, she’d been swept into the crush of the parade. Thank God.
“We’re not seeing her again,” Diego said. “Not until sometime tomorrow, anyway.”
Eliana laughed. “She’ll be fine. You should be nicer to her, though. She’s had a hard year.”
“I’ll be nicer to her when she’s nicer to me.”
Eliana looped her arm in his. “She doesn’t approve of you.”
“Tough shit.” Diego kissed the top of Eliana’s head. “Come on. Let’s go find a place to light these.” Diego grabbed Eliana’s hand and pulled her up close to the buildings, a safe distance from the parade coursing through the streets. They skittered along the dirty sidewalk, dodging bystanders and drunks and amorous couples, their hands always linked. Diego felt a creep of Last Night giddiness, as much as he didn’t want to admit it. When he glanced back at Eliana, his body lurched with desire. Her skin was sheened with sweat in the balmy heat, her hair curled into wild ringlets.
This was how he used to imagine the mainland, this heat.
They spilled into one of the narrow gaps between two tenement buildings. Someone had stretched strings of electric bulbs between the windows, and they dotted overhead like stars, which Diego had only seen a handful of times in real life, during rare autumn trips out on the shipping boats for Mr. Cabrera. He wondered if Eliana had seen the stars at all. Maybe someday he’d show them to her. It might be nice, taking her out on a spring boat in the early morning. Romantic, you know. A chance at a normal life.
Diego pulled out his lighter and touched the flame to the end of their fireworks. A flare of sulfur, a flash of white light, a trail of sparks. He lunged at Eliana, and she leapt back, shrieking. He handed her a pair of her own fireworks, and they chased each other up and down the alley like children until the light sputtered out, and then they were back on the street, swept up in the tide of the parade. Diego didn’t try to crawl out this time. The heat and the light and Eliana had gone to his head.
The parade didn’t follow a specific path, only flowed through the smokestack district, picking up momentum as the night wore on. People threw paper flowers and scraps of brightly colored cloth from the balconies—and glitter, of course, that constant cascade of glitter. The parade twisted and curved at random intervals until it came to the edge of the amusement park, the old center of the city, where it turned sharply, veering off in the direction of the docks. The clock tower bonged twelve times, the sound vibrating deep in Diego’s bones. He grabbed hold of Eliana’s hand, their palms both slippery with sweat. She nuzzled against him. She smelled of vermouth and unwashed skin and the mingled scents of a hundred different perfumes, and Diego wanted to fall into her and forget about the city and about Mr. Cabrera and about his stupid fucking job.
And then the floodlights went out.
It was instantaneous, not the gradual darkening that fell across the city at around seven thirty every night except tonight, Last Night, when the lights were never turned off. The parade halted and became a group of people, drunk and confused. Voices rose up in an unintelligible murmur.
“What’s going on?” Eliana said. Her voice was nearby. Diego thought he heard a tinge of fear. He drew her in close, pressing his arm across her chest.
“I don’t know,” he answered, scanning the crowd. He realized he was looking for spots of danger: a glint of a knife, a flare of fire, the dull flat metal of an illegal gun. A word bounced around inside his head, an old word, one he’d heard mentioned when he was a kid but had only understood theoretically—blackout.
Every single electric light in the city was out. Not just the dome lights. The streetlamps, too, and the lights in the windows. The fires were still burning, though. Long, liquid shadows moved across the crowd. Firelight caught in the windows of the nearby buildings.
“Holy shit,” he said. “The power’s out.”
“What?” Eliana turned toward him, a faint silhouette in the murky light. “That’s impossible. Aren’t the generators supposed to kick in? Or the atomic power plants—the city was supposed to set them up as backup, right? Remember? They got permission from the mainland.”
“It’s not impossible.” Diego pulled her closer. “It just happened.”
The murmuring from the crowd was louder, more panicked. People were starting to realize what Diego and Eliana just had—a blackout had happened. An old fragment of a nightmare from their youths. It was real.
“We have to get away from this crowd,” Eliana said.
That right there, that was why Diego loved Eliana so much. She wasn’t an idiot.
He gripped her hand tight, squeezing her fingers together. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his knife. He never brought his gun when he came to see Eliana, but the knife was better than nothing. He pulled her toward the edge of the crowd. “Get the fuck out of the way!” he shouted. Someone shouted back. The crowd jostled, surged, and a violent ripple cascaded down from the direction of the smokestack district.
Eliana screamed. Her hand slipped away.
For the span of a heartbeat Diego was paralyzed with fear. But you couldn’t let that happen in his line of work, and so he dove into the crowd in the direction where she’d been pulled. He caught the flash of her dress, orange in the firelight, and grabbed her upper arm.
“Got you,” he said, pressing his mouth against her ear. His heart was pounding. “You’re right, we’ve got to get out of here. Come on.”
They pushed on. The knife was enough to get people to move out of the way. Most of them were terrified, their panic poisoning the darkness. Another surge of the crowd. Eliana slipped, but she grabbed on to Diego and stopped herself just in time. Smart girl.
And then they were out.
Eliana pressed close to him, and her frantic breath warmed a spot on his neck. They slammed against a wall of cold hard brick. Bodies flowed past them, but they were, for the moment, in an untouchable bubble. Diego let out a long sigh of relief.
In his arms, Eliana shivered. It was a tiny movement, but it reminded him of their precarious position here in the dark.
A blackout meant no electricity.
No electricity meant no heat.
No heat meant the city would ice over in—Diego had no idea how long. This had never happened before, not in his lifetime.
No. He forced himself to focus. He glanced at Eliana, and she was staring at the surging crowd, her body almost entirely subsumed by shadows, the only visible part of her the left side of her face. It looked carved out of molten stone in the orange firelight.
“This is bad,” Eliana said.
“No shit.” He pressed his back flat against the wall, squeezed Eliana’s hand. They needed to get inside, away from people. People turned to monsters in situations like this. Diego had seen it.
“Maria!” Eliana shouted suddenly, turning toward him. “We have to find Maria!”
Damn it. “Sorry, babe. That ain’t happening. We need to get inside.”
He pulled her again, skittering up against the wall. He could feel the start of a riot crackling around him, the air tightening like a wire.
“Something’s going to happen to her!” she shouted.
“Something’s going to happen to you,” Diego snarled. “Come the fuck on.”
Eliana seemed to shrink in on herself, and Diego felt a twist of guilt that he pushed aside. Time for that later.
The building’s door was only a few meters away. If it was locked, he could pick it. If it was barricaded—
He’d figure something out.
Somewhere to the left a fire flared.
A woman screamed.
Eliana muttered a string of frightened profanity.
And then the lights came back on.
They were at full power, daytime power, noon power. Diego’s eyes burned at the sudden brightness, little dots of darkness spotting his vision. Eliana threw her arm over her face. Diego stopped dragging her. The crowd had frozen in place, a garish cacophony of color.
A fire licked at one of the tenement buildings. Eliana dropped her arm away, and she stared at the fire like she’d never seen one before.
Diego’s adrenaline was still pumping through his body. He kept anticipating violence, but the tension of the riot was gone, and he shook his head, trying to clear out his brain. Eliana leaned against him and kissed his chest. She was shaking. Not from the cold. It hadn’t been long enough to get cold.
Distantly, an alarm rang out. Water poured down from the dome, falling across the crowd, across the burning tenement building. Diego looked up, squinting past the glare of the floodlights. A dark shape moved across the underside of the dome. A robot, a maintenance drone, tending to the fire.
“Everything’s back to normal,” Eliana said, although she didn’t sound like she believed it.
Diego certainly didn’t.
After all, he’d lived in Hope City for twenty-nine years—his entire life.
His entire life, and not once had the power ever gone out.
Our Lady of the Ice
In Argentine Antarctica, Eliana Gomez is the only female PI in Hope City—a domed colony dependent on electricity (and maintenance robots) for heat, light, and survival in the icy deserts of the continent. At the center is an old amusement park—now home only to the androids once programmed to entertain—but Hope City’s days as a tourist destination are long over. Now the City produces atomic power for the mainland while local factions agitate for independence and a local mobster, Ignacio Cabrera, runs a brisk black-market trade in illegally imported food.
Eliana doesn’t care about politics. She doesn’t even care much that her boyfriend, Diego, works as muscle for Cabrera. She just wants to save enough money to escape Hope City. But when an aristocrat hires Eliana to protect an explosive personal secret, Eliana finds herself caught up in the political tensions threatening to tear Hope City apart. In the clash of backstabbing politicians, violent freedom fighters, a gangster who will stop at nothing to protect his interests, and a newly sentient robot underclass intent on a very different independence, Eliana finds her job coming into deadly conflict with Diego’s—just as the electricity keeping Hope City from freezing begins to fail…
With the inner workings of the mob combined with the story of a revolution, “Clarke brings novelty and delight to steampunk Antarctica in this complex and lovely mystery” (Publishers Weekly, starred review). Our Lady of the Ice questions what it means to be human, what it means to be free, and whether we’re ever able to transcend our pasts and our programming to find true independence.
- Saga Press |
- 448 pages |
- ISBN 9781481444279 |
- October 2016