Read an excerpt from my new book, Nightfall


Nightfall by Eliza Victoria (Visprint, 2018): Vanessa stumbles upon something unexpected in an apartment hundreds of floors above the ground: a dead body next to a single beeping monitor. In another part of the city, Criselda mulls preemptive violence after her Mod shuts down to show her a boy, a bird, a window. Is her Mod malfunctioning, or is she being manipulated? Set in a city of towers, where residents undergo biomodification in order to work more hours and earn more money, where living in the Upper Floors is the ultimate dream, Nightfall unfolds in a series of interconnected stories, exploring the lives of characters whose fates intersect and intertwine, revealing the paths they have taken to bring them to this dark night. This book will be available on October 27, 2018 at Fully Booked High Street. It will be available afterwards at Shopee, Lazada, National Bookstore, Powerbooks and other Fully Booked branches. SRP: ₱310

Dearest friends,

Oh wow did this book take a long time to get here. 

When I first wrote about a crime gone wrong set in a future Manila in 2014/early 2015, I thought I just had a short story on my hands. But the characters felt like they had more to tell, and so I wrote another story, and another, and another, until I realized I'm writing a novel-in-stories. I presented and discussed a portion of the manuscript in the UP National Writers Workshop (you can read about the experience here and my poetics essay here: “The City’s Bad Enough As It Is”: What I Write, How, and Why). In my poetics essay, 2015 me said:

I have written in different genres with different settings, but I return to these things, again and again: alienation, displacement, world-weariness, crime, tragedy, horror, the city, the city, the city.

I explore the same themes and subjects in this new work, tentatively titled Nightfall, envisioned to consist of several interconnected stories.

The idea came to me while commuting, while stuck in traffic, while watching new buildings rise and suffocate the landscape: What if the city consisted of towers so high they block out the sun? In this bizarre, far-future setting I plan to write about our contemporary agonies: traffic jams, violence, corruption in the police force, loneliness.

It is my hope that the multi-story format will help me make the dark, nameless City come to life, and at the same time help me improve my craft and bring something new, exciting, entertaining, and thought-provoking to readers.

I think that still stands.

So I gave the manuscript to Visprint, pulled it out, went through several revisions (some of them major, like burn-it-down-and-build-it-up-again major), set it aside. There was a time when I was convinced this manuscript will never see the light of day. I gave it to Visprint again, and here we are. 

Very early versions of two story-chapters ("The Target" and "At the Diazes'") have appeared elsewhere (they have since changed dramatically in the final manuscript), and I read "Exeunt" in Visprint's small Sabado del Libro event

The revisions I made to this book were draining, and eye-opening, and rewarding--I have never wrestled this much with a story before. And I think this is my angriest book. Yes. Maybe. Yes.

This, I believe, is the best version of this story I can ever deliver.

I hope you'll enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. Here's an excerpt!

But first:

Quick Rundown of Writing-Related News:
1. You can read my story in The Dark magazine, "A Prayer to the Many-Eyed Mother".
2. I won in Dark Regions Press's Stranded writing contest, and my short short story "Ayani" is included in the anthology. The anthology is one of three books included in their 2018 Halloween Grab Bag. You can check out the project here.
3. The Apex Book of World SF Volume 5 has reprinted my story "The Seventh". Buy a copy!

4. The Best Asian Speculative Fiction 2018 published by Kitaab contains my story "Web". It will be released at the Singapore Writers Festival on November 9. Check out the program details here.






Excerpt from Nightfall

Nightfall

By Eliza Victoria



CONTENTS


Nightfall (I)
The Target
At the Diazes’

Interlude: Exeunt Left, or A Brief Tour of the City

The Interview
Dark Star
The Puppeteer
The Midnight Party
Dinner Talk
Nightfall (II)

Nightfall (I)

I.
Minutes before she found the body, Vanessa lay with her nose pressed against the glass of their suite’s glass-bottom balcony. She was on the 200th Floor penthouse suite in Diamond Pacific Tower, the highest residence in the city, 3,000 feet above the ground. She looked down at the network of air cars, skytrains, and walkways connecting the five Towers, twinkling and pulsing like radioactive tentacles. On the right side of her vision, her Integra Mod listed the city’s vitals: 30 deg C, RealFeel 41 deg C, Humidity 87 percent, Cloud cover 99 percent.

A body weighing 110 pounds falling from this height would hit the ground in 13.67 seconds, at the speed of around 130 miles per second. The sudden drop could cause you to suffocate, make you unconscious before you even hit the ground. Thirteen seconds from here to there, slower than a turn of the head as you pass by someone in a corridor, faster than familiarity. 

“Are you there?” she told the voice in her head.

Two weeks ago, she used a fake name to start using the Hopper’s services. The Hopper didn’t even give her a name. 

“Yes,” the Hopper said.

Vanessa sat up, and she could almost feel the apartment’s gleaming, beeping, blinking screens and Hover cameras adjusting their sightlines.

“May I ask,” the Hopper said, “why you requested for this demo? You have been using the service for a couple of weeks now. Is there something wrong?”

She lay facedown on the balcony again and pinpointed the Towers like a child connecting the dots, or a teacher pointing out constellations, leaving blurred fingerprints all over the glass. Diamond Pacific to Emerald Garcia-Tomás to Dimasalang-Washington Opal to Ruby Paragon to Sapphire Yu-Ang-Jimenez. 

“I just want to know what it feels like to be Mod-Hopped,” she replied, her eyes filling with tears. 

“You are not supposed to feel anything,” he said. 

If only. “Tell me how it works,” Vanessa said. “Let’s say I’m a target.”

“If you are new to the city, I can control your navigation system and direct you to where the client wants you to go.” 

“And if I know the city?” Vanessa asked. “If I don’t use the navigation system?”

“I can give your location to the client so the client can approach you.” He paused. “That’s it. It’s perfectly safe.”

“Perfectly safe,” Vanessa echoed. 

“If you were truly Mod-Hopped you wouldn’t even know that your Mod has been compromised.” He paused. “Some Hoppers leave a signature.”

“A signature?”

“A message when a Hop is concluded, like a signature. A feeling, a smell, a sound, a burst of memory.”

Her eyesight narrowed to a pinpoint of white light, like a tabletop screen that had suddenly shut down. She almost screamed.

“Relax,” the Hopper said. “This is still me.”

The pinpoint widened to a window of bright sunlight, and Vanessa could see feathers, wings, something fluttering against a lace curtain, a small brown bird caught in the flimsy fabric. 

Unable to tell now whether she was awake or dreaming, she took a step forward and pushed the curtain aside. The bird, ecstatic, flew around her, and Vanessa, turning her head to follow the bird's flight, found that she was in a room with white walls, blue trim. She opened the window, not knowing what else to do, and she felt the breeze on her face and the lace curtains on the skin of her arms, and the bird zoomed past her head into the white blaze beyond.

She felt—she didn't know what to name it. Comfort? Something she had not felt in a long, long while. 

She blinked, and found herself in her room again. Only then did she realize that she had not only lost her sight for a moment, but also her other senses, as the heady Dusk Rose scent that permeated the suite once again attacked her nostrils. 

“You created that Experience?” she asked. “It’s amazing.” 

“Some Hoppers use signatures like that to test if their infiltration is complete.”

“You use this?” 

The Hopper didn’t respond for a moment.

“I used to,” he said.

“You don’t anymore?”

“I think,” he said, slowly, “I think it’s better to remain invisible.”

“Has anyone ever died through Mod Hopping?”

“Why would you ask that?” the Hopper said. “Did something happen?”

It was Vanessa’s turn to fall silent.

“Would you like to proceed?” the Hopper asked. In one corner of her vision, a notification glowed: Subjects # 8-10. Three headshots. All smiles.

“No,” Vanessa said. She felt sick to her stomach. “No. Not now. I need to step out for a minute.

End call? asked the letters in the field of her vision. 

“Well,” the Hopper said, “If you need any—“

“End call and stop,” Vanessa said.

Outside her room, the suite was incredibly bright. When her mother was still alive and they lived several hundred Floors down, their home had a dark interior, stuffed with sofas and rugs and framed imitation paintings and indoor plants. Her mother died, they moved up, and now the suite was all cream leather and blonde wood and glass, with too-tiny chairs and too-large lamps bending over her like interrogators. 

Access Failure, flashed the letters in front of her eyes. The House once again trying to get its tendrils into her brain, and encountering resistance. Her Integra Mod was relatively new; she had not set it up yet to interface with the House system. Set it up now? 

She didn’t want another voice inside her head. “No”, she replied. The message disappeared.

“Good evening, Vanessa,” the House said, the voice reverberating inside the living room. “Would you like to have dinner?” 

“Where is my father?” 

The gilded mirror next to her turned into a screen. On it was her father’s schedule for the night. Dinner. Business meeting.

“So no one’s here?” 

“Randy and Eric are outside.” 

Vanessa put on her shoes and a sweater, and stepped out of the apartment to meet them. She found Randy and Eric, who looked like millennia-old boulders, standing with their arms at their sides, careful not to wrinkle their crisp barong Tagalog. 

“I’m heading out,” she said. “You don’t have to come with me.”

Still, they followed her without a word. When her father stationed them there after what happened with Berenice, she remarked that even the House was more talkative than the bodyguards.

She didn’t know where she was going. She just wanted to be rid of the glass-bottom balcony, the House’s pleasant monotone. When the elevator dinged and a bejeweled old woman was getting ready to step in, she pushed past her and ran down a corridor. She didn’t know what floor it was. Enable Apertus? “Yes!” she shouted, and placed her wrist next to each door she passed. She used to do this when she was a child, when she was first injected the door pass to their apartment, hoping against hope that there would be a glitch and one of the other doors would open up, that another family would welcome her home.

Each time, the small square above the doorknob turned red with a beep, like a voice scolding her. No. No. No. No.

When she reached the end of the corridor, the light on the last door turned green. 

“Miss!” Randy or Eric shouted. “Stop!” 

Before she could think things through, she pushed the door open and slammed it shut. Default code used to lock, the door said in blue letters. Use new code? She pressed Yes and placed her palm on the door. The door scanned it. DOOR LOCKED SUCCESSFULLY.

“Miss!” the bodyguards shouted, knocking on the door. 

“I’m fine!” she shouted back. 

“But you can’t stay in there. Your father—“

“I’m fine!” I’m fine! I’m fine! I’m fine! “I just want to be alone for a moment.”

“But this isn’t your apartment!”

She felt like screaming. She just overrode a door code, a major breach in security and a serious offense in the Towers. Why would a secure door let her in? Was it a showroom that a real estate agent forgot to lock? Was it an apartment recently vacated? Was the House system interfaced with the apartment owner’s Integra, and the owner had—

She walked out of the narrow vestibule and found herself in a large room wrapped by floor-to-ceiling windows. From the view and the lack of Floating Market pagodas and aircabs in the bumper-to-bumper air traffic, Vanessa could tell they were still pretty high up, perhaps only a hundred floors below their penthouse, somewhere in the 50s. Excellent escape, Vanessa, she thought with dismay. Why did I jump out of that elevator so early?

There was a bed in the middle of the vast floor, the bed surrounded by monitors, by blinking and beeping hospital equipment. With the cityscape as its bright background, the bed in the foreground was nothing but a silhouette. The shadows and the silence reminded Vanessa of the Catholic masses she and her mother used to attend years ago in Sapphire Tower. She walked closer, slowly, like a penitent approaching an altar. 

There were two forms bent over the bed. Two women. One of them lifted a hand toward the windows, and the windows turned opaque, erasing the air cars and the buildings. Lights came on in the ceiling, throwing a circle of light over the bed, over the two forms there that turned out to be nurses in powder-blue scrubs cleaning up their patient, stripping her of her clothes as roughly as they stripped her bed of its sheets, wiping away the dribble of feces from her anus, the spray of vomit from her mouth, sponging her skin until she was clean again, until they could turn her on her side again, precisely, just so, no longer a person but a mannequin, an artifact under museum lights.

Vanessa stood just three feet away from the bed, so close that she could smell the isopropyl alcohol and the floral scent of cologne. None of the nurses acknowledged her, or told her to go away. She looked up at the monitors surrounding the bed. Only one of them, she discovered, was lit and beeping. All of the other monitors were silent. 

She moved another foot closer. The woman on the bed had shoulder-length black hair that one of the nurses was tying into a ponytail. Light-brown skin. Almond-shaped eyes, open and unblinking, even when stray strands of her hair fell over them. Gray lips.

“She’s dead,” Vanessa said in shock.

The nurses stopped moving and looked at her. Vanessa felt a chill, until she realized that their eyes were unblinking too. 

“Good evening, miss,” they said in unison, and went back to tending to their patient.

The nurses’ scrub uniforms had a silver stylized A on the left sleeve—Arcadia, Vanessa’s father’s company. The dead woman must have integrated the robots and the House system with her Integra Mod, but didn’t have an Emergency Setting in place. Now everything had reverted to Default. 

“Would you like to have a glass of water?” one of the nurses asked, placing a blanket over the dead woman, tucking her in. The other was kneeling on the floor, folding the soiled sheets and garments.

“She’s dead,” Vanessa said, pointing.

The nurse looked down to glance at the dead woman, and turned to her again. “Would you like to have a glass of water?” 

Vanessa stared at her. “No,” she said. “Thank you.”

The other nurse finished folding. They straightened up and walked out of the room.

Vanessa walked away from the bed and found herself in the vestibule again. “Miss?” she heard Randy or Eric say from the other side of the locked door.

“I’m here,” she said. After a long pause, she added, “I’m just visiting a friend.”

“A friend, miss?” 

“Yes. She lives here.” 

Why would the robots think the woman on the bed was still alive? 

Vanessa clenched and unclenched her fists, thinking it through.

Even if they reverted to Default they would still be attuned to their patient’s needs. Why couldn’t they tell that the woman no longer had a heartbeat?

Unless—

Vanessa walked back to the spot-lit bed and stood right next to it, breathing hard. Scanning. Hovering over the woman’s waist were the words Heart Rate: 0, Body Temperature: 37 deg C. Body temperature falls by 1.5 degree Celsius every hour after the hour of death. 

She placed two fingers on her own neck, her own wrist. So that’s what a pulse feels like. So that’s what living feels like. Remember. She placed her fingers on the side of the woman’s neck and was surprised and alarmed to feel warm, supple skin.

But there was no pulse. 

“Why are you alone?” she asked the body, and gestured to the monitors, to the one beeping machine. “Why didn’t you key in your Emergency Settings? Why didn’t you plan for this?”

Vanessa sat on the edge of the bed. “I’m sorry.” She was surprised to find herself in tears again. She took off her shoes and lay on the bed next to the dead woman. She turned on her side and lightly touched the dead woman’s hair. “I’m sorry,” she whispered, as though to a child about to sleep.  

What the hell am I doing here? She flipped to her other side and found herself facing the last remaining monitor that still beeped. Like the nurses, it also had an Arcadia logo on its thin silver bezel. The screen five inches across, as large as a Hover. She watched the light go on and off and wondered if it was indeed a Hover, if she would be arrested. How could she atone for her sins? I think I killed someone. No. “I killed someone,” she whispered.

“Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts,” the monitor said.

“What?” Vanessa said.

A long silence.

“Why are you lying next to me?” said the monitor.

Vanessa sat up and screamed.
II.
Criselda was sitting in the garden inside Emerald Garcia-Tomás Tower when her black market Integra shut down and showed her curtains, a bird, a window.

The domed garden was on the topmost floor of Emerald, 136 Floors above the ground, far away from the fumes and the noise of the city. A client gave her special access to the floor for five hours a week. She spent the time working, people-watching, inhaling the heady smell of purple Dusk Rose, a flower genetically modified to have long-lasting fragrance that could cling to fabric and skin for days. It was currently all the rage in the Upper Floors. 

A week ago she was even able to catch a meteor shower while inside the garden. She was so busy with work she had completely missed the news, but fortunately was in the right place at the right time. The Tower management turned off the lights to lessen the light pollution, so they could see the white streaks more clearly. “Space dirt,” Carlos had said when she told him this story. “Beautiful space dirt,” she said. 

She didn’t know how to explain, how to tell him, that the fragrance, the meteor shower, drowned the soft whirs and pings of the Hovers making their rounds inside the garden, the news headlines crawling at the bottom of the windows, her workload, this city she could hardly afford. 

She sat by the massive fountain in the middle of the garden and began to work. No meteor shower to cheer her up this time. She was editing two company logos, cleaning up her Inbox, and streaming her sixth module on Corporate Data Analytics when her eyesight narrowed to a pinpoint of white light, like a tabletop screen that suddenly shut down. She almost screamed. Oh this is it, she thought, This is what I get for being a cheapskate, and now she was going to be blind, blind, blind! for the rest of her life. 

Then the pinpoint widened to a window of bright sunlight, and Criselda could see tiny, furiously beating wings, a small brown bird trapped in a curtain. 

She blinked, and found herself in the garden again. 

"What the hell was that?" she said out loud, but she was surrounded by Modded Tower residents, happy in their own little worlds, and not one of them turned to look at her.
III.
“Search for Integra, malfunction,” Criselda subvocalized while washing the dishes. She was back in her studio apartment in a building just a kilometer away from Emerald Tower. From the picture window on the east side of the apartment, the Tower’s dazzling, imposing façade taunted her every night. But from the window above the sink, Criselda’s only view was the rows of rusty roofs of neighboring houses and buildings. 

There was a Mod support forum online, ran by moderators from Arcadia.  Criselda spent a couple of hours reading through the comments, as she tried, once again, to rearrange her clothes and shoes and toiletries in her plastic modular containers in an effort to clear more space so she could dump more stuff in them. “Why won’t you just get a closet?” Carlos had asked when he first visited her there. She had thought about it. It would look prettier, make the place look less of a dump, make her look more adult. But dust coated the containers, the floor, the dish rack, the coffee table. There was always dust, everywhere. And if she brought in a closet, other than suffocating the small apartment, it would just add more surfaces that she would neglect to clean. 

She spotted around ten commenters saying something about their Integra shutting down and restarting in the middle of a task. Nothing about seeing a bird. 

The unmoderated forums, filled with questions from those who went to the black market, sprang organically and informally in blog comments and community forums, long threads that began from someone asking, So has anyone here ever tried getting black market Integra installed?  

One forum subject screamed: MOD HOPPING???

Heard it from this clinic I went to. The tech said I should be extra careful about info I share through the Mod. He said Mod Hopping is like hacking, but didn’t really elaborate. 

Users who replied to the original poster said more or less the same. 

Criselda created an account and posted:

How would you know if you were a victim?

and told them about the sudden darkness, the pinprick of light. The curtains, the bird.

A message popped up in front of her right eye. Incoming call. Selena.

“Accept,” she said. 

“Just checking in,” Selena said. 

“You’ll have the product write-ups within the hour.”

Before Criselda had herself Modded, she worked with Selena as a freelance graphic artist and writer using a laptop, two tablets, the tabletop at home, and three phones. Later she ditched the phones and established a strict email-only policy with her clients as the steady stream of texts and calls became too intrusive and distracting. She would start her day with the tabletop computer, placing her coffee mug the size of a fishbowl next to a project window, move to the laptop when her back started to ache, and end the day seventeen hours later in bed with the tablets, plotting tomorrow's action plan. Tech fatigue deepened the circles under her eyes, gave her migraines, bent her spine, knotted the muscles in her lower back. 

Even with all of her jobs she couldn't afford to be Modded. A simple Apertus Mod could set her back tens of thousands in pesos, an amount she would rather add to her savings. She heard about black market Mods that cost a fraction of the price of original Arcadia Mods, but she didn’t want to put a knock-off Integra in her head. Then she started dating Steve, and she learned how much work a Modded person can do in a day. A week after talking to him about the procedure, she was sitting in a retrofitted dentist’s chair in a black market Mod shop, reciting her medical history to an unusually cheerful woman wearing a white lab coat. Was she even a real doctor? Criselda couldn’t now tell for sure. 

She eventually got rid of Steve, but kept the Mod. If she continued to live modestly, she figured, she would be able to save enough money to move into one of the Towers by the end of the year. The rest she could just loan from the bank.

And then this setback. “I think my Mod’s malfunctioning,” Criselda said.

After she finished telling her about what happened, Selena said, “It sounds like an embedded Experience. Maybe you just opened an ad by mistake.”

That sounded plausible. “I hope so. I’ll go see a doctor.”

“Go to someone good, for God’s sake. You already scrimped on the tech. Don’t scrimp on the after-service.”

“Yes, Mother.”

Selena fell silent. “I’m thinking of getting one, actually.”

“Oh, yes?”

“What’s it like? Isn’t it scary the first time you use it?”

“The deep sleep phase was frightening,” Criselda said, “and the initial training was exhausting. Like how to focus, how to subvocalize, how not to trigger other commands by accidentally blinking. Sometimes you’ll miss the tactile feel of keyboards and screens, but you’ll get used to it.” As you get used to anything, she thought. “It helps you multi-task. More work done per hour.”

Criselda overturned a shoebox and jumped back when a rain of cockroaches fell and scurried away. 

“More money,” Selena said.

“Sure,” Criselda said, watching with weary fascination as some of the cockroaches entered her shoes, her faux leather bags already beginning to shed their color. “More money.”

As she sat in the sticky, dusty heat, looking at Emerald Tower through the picture window, Criselda was hit once again by a weariness that had been hounding her for the past years, lifted only momentarily when Carlos strayed into her life. But here it was again, her constant companion. I’m so tired of living like this. 

“Selena, I have to go,” she said. 

“Maybe once I get mine fitted we can go to one of those fancy Integra Mod-wearers-only bars,” Selena said. “There’s only peeling white walls and a single folding chair, but I hear the Custom Overlay is amazing.”
IV.
Criselda’s post in the forum was getting several replies. I experienced this, too!!! one commenter said, followed by several others. Holy shit, that is weird.

“You saw the same thing?” Criselda subvocalized. “Like an Experience?”

One commenter said: Bird, open window, curtain. Maybe it’s an ad?

Someone named Tropicalmaria had replied to the post: That’s not an ad. That’s a signature.

What do you mean? Criselda asked.

Tropicalmaria’s next reply was a private message. I think we need to talk.
End of Excerpt

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