Chasm City


By Alastair Reynolds

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Return to the dazzling world of Revelation Space with this British Science Fiction Award-winning space opera about a young man hell-bent on revenge on the surface of a twisted, disease-corrupted planet.

The once-utopian Chasm City — a domed human settlement on an otherwise inhospitable planet — has been overrun by a virus known as the Melding Plague, capable of infecting any body, organic or computerized. Now, with the entire city corrupted — from the people to the very buildings they inhabit — only the most wretched sort of existence remains. For security operative Tanner Mirabel, it is the landscape of nightmares through which he searches for a lowlife postmortal killer. But the stakes are raised when his search brings him face to face with a centuries-old atrocity that history would rather forget.

One of Locus and Science Fiction Chronicle‘s “Best SF Novels of the Year”


Dear Newcomer,

Welcome to the Epsilon Eridani system.

Despite all that has happened, we hope your stay here will be a pleasant one. For your information we have compiled this document to explain some of the key events in our recent history. It is intended that this information will ease your transition into a culture which may be markedly different from the one you were expecting to find when you embarked at your point of origin. It is important that you realise that others have come before you. Their experiences have helped us shape this document in a manner designed to minimise the shock of cultural adjustment. We have found that attempts to gloss over or understate the truth of what happened—of what continues to happen—are ultimately harmful; that the best approach—based on a statistical study of cases such as yours—is to present the facts in as open and honest manner as possible.

We are fully aware that your initial response is likely disbelief, quickly followed by anger and then a state of protracted denial.

It is important to grasp that these are normal reactions.

It is equally important to grasp—even at this early stage—that there will come a time when you will adjust to and accept the truth. It might be days from now; it might even be weeks or months, but in all but a minority of cases it will happen. You might even look back upon this time and wish that you could have willed yourself to make the transition to acceptance quicker than you did. You will know that it is only when that process is accomplished that anything resembling happiness becomes possible.

Let us therefore begin the process of adjustment.

Due to the fundamental lightspeed limit for communication within the sphere of colonised space, news from other solar systems is inevitably out of date; often by decades or more. Your perceptions of our system’s main world, Yellowstone, are almost certainly based on outdated information.

It is certainly the case that for more than two centuries—until, in fact, the very recent past—Yellowstone was in thrall to what most contemporary observers chose to term the Belle Epoque. It was an unprecedented social and technological golden age; our ideological template seen by all to be an almost perfect system of governance.

Numerous successful ventures were launched from Yellowstone, including daughter colonies in other solar systems, as well as ambitious scientific expeditions to the edge of human space. Visionary social experiments were conducted within Yellowstone and its Glitter Band, including the controversial but pioneering work of Calvin Sylveste and his disciples. Great artists, philosophers and scientists flourished in Yellowstone’s atmosphere of hothouse innovation. Techniques of neural augmentation were pursued fearlessly. Other human cultures chose to treat the Conjoiners with suspicion, but we Demarchists—unafraid of the positive aspects of mind enhancement methods—established lines of rapport with the Conjoiners which enabled us to exploit their technologies to the full. Their starship drives allowed us to settle many more systems than cultures subscribing to inferior social models.

In truth, it was a glorious time. It was also the likely state of affairs which you were expecting upon your arrival.

This is unfortunately not the case.

Seven years ago something happened to our system. The exact transmission vector remains unclear even now, but it is almost certain that the plague arrived aboard a ship, perhaps in dormant form and unknown to the crew who carried it. It might even have arrived years earlier. It seems unlikely now that the truth will ever be known; too much has been destroyed or forgotten. Vast swathes of our digitally stored planetary history were erased or corrupted by the plague. In many cases only human memory remains intact… and human memory is not without its fallibilities.

The Melding Plague attacked our society at the core.

It was not quite a biological virus, not quite a software virus, but a strange and shifting chimera of the two. No pure strain of the plague has ever been isolated, but in its pure form it must resemble a kind of nano-machinery, analogous to the molecular-scale assemblers of our own medichine technology. That it must be of alien origin seems beyond doubt. Equally clear is the fact that nothing we have thrown against the plague has done more than slow it. More often than not, our interventions have only made things worse. The plague adapts to our attacks; it perverts our weapons and turns them against us. Some kind of buried intelligence seems to guide it. We don’t know whether the plague was directed toward humanity—or whether we have just been terribly unlucky.

At this point, based on our prior experiences, your most likely reaction is to assume that this document is a hoax. Our experience has also shown that our denying this will accelerate the process of adjustment by a small but statistically significant factor.

This document is not a hoax.

The Melding Plague actually happened, and its effects were far worse than you are currently capable of imagining. At the time of the plague’s manifestation our society was supersaturated by trillions of tiny machines. They were our unthinking, uncomplaining servants, givers of life and shapers of matter, and yet we barely gave them a moment’s thought. They swarmed tirelessly through our blood. They toiled ceaselessly in our cells. They clotted our brains, linking us all into the Demarchy’s web of near-instantaneous decision-making. We moved through virtual environments woven by direct manipulation of the brain’s sensory mechanisms, or scanned and uploaded our minds into lightning-fast computer systems. We forged and sculpted matter on the scale of mountains; wrote symphonies out of matter; caused it to dance to our whims like tamed fire. Only the Conjoiners had taken a step closer to Godhead… and some said we were not far behind them.

Machines grew our orbiting city-states from raw rock and ice, and then bootstrapped inert matter towards life within their biomes. Thinking machines ran those city-states, shepherding the ten thousand habitats of the Glitter Band as they processed around Yellowstone. Machines made Chasm City what it was; shaping its amorphous architecture towards a fabulous and phantasmagoric beauty.

All that is gone.

It was worse than you are thinking. If the plague had only killed our machines, millions would still have died, but that would have been a manageable catastrophe, something from which we could have recovered. But the plague went beyond mere destruction, into a realm much closer to artistry, albeit an artistry of a uniquely perverted and sadistic kind. It caused our machines to evolve uncontrollably—out of our control, at least—seeking bizarre new symbioses. Our buildings turned into Gothic nightmares, trapping us before we could escape their lethal transfigurations. The machines in our cells, in our blood, in our heads, began to break their shackles—blurring into us, corrupting living matter. We became glistening, larval fusions of flesh and machine. When we buried the dead they kept growing, spreading together, fusing with the city’s architecture.

It was a time of horror.

It is not yet over.

And yet, like any truly efficient plague, our parasite was careful not to kill its host population entirely. Tens of millions died—but tens of millions more reached some kind of sanctuary, hiding within hermetically sealed enclaves in the city or orbit. Their medichines were given emergency destruct orders, converting themselves to dust which was flushed harmlessly out of the body. Surgeons worked furiously to tear implants from heads before traces of the plague reached them. Other citizens, too strongly wedded to their machines to give them up, sought a kind of escape in reefersleep. They elected to be buried in sealed community cryocrypts… or to leave the system entirely. Meanwhile, tens of millions more poured into Chasm City from orbit, fleeing the destruction of the Glitter Band. Some of those people had been amongst the wealthiest in the system, yet now they were as poor as any historical refugees. What they found in Chasm City could hardly have comforted them…

—Excerpt from an introductory document for newcomers, freely available in circum-Yellowstone space, 2517


Darkness was falling as Dieterling and I arrived at the base of the bridge.

“There’s one thing you need to know about Red Hand Vasquez,” Dieterling said. “Don’t ever call him that to his face.”

“Why not?”

“Because it pisses him off.”

“And that’s a problem?” I brought our wheeler to near-halt, then parked it amongst a motley row of vehicles lining one side of the street. I dropped the stabilisers, the overheated turbine smelling like a hot gun barrel. “It’s not like we usually worry about the feelings of low-lives,” I said.

“No, but this time it might be best to err on the side of caution. Vasquez may not be the brightest star in the criminal firmament, but he’s got friends and a nice little line in extreme sadism. So be on your best behaviour.”

“I’ll give it my best shot.”

“Yeah—and do your best not to leave too much blood on the floor in the process, will you?”

We got out of the wheeler, both of us craning our necks to take in the bridge. I’d never seen it before today—this was my first time in the Demilitarised Zone, let alone Nueva Valparaiso—and it had looked absurdly large even when we’d been fifteen or twenty kilometres out of town. Swan had been sinking towards the horizon, bloated and red except for the hot glint near its heart, but there’d still been enough light to catch the bridge’s thread and occasionally pick out the tiny ascending and descending beads of elevators riding it to and from space. Even then I’d wondered if we were too late—if Reivich had already made it aboard one of the elevators—but Vasquez had assured us that the man we were hunting was still in town, simplifying his web of assets on Sky’s Edge and moving funds into long-term accounts.

Dieterling strolled round to the back of our wheeler—with its overlapping armour segments the mono-wheeled car looked like a rolled-up armadillo—and popped open a tiny luggage compartment.

“Shit. Almost forgot the coats, bro.”

“Actually, I was sort of hoping you would.”

He threw me one. “Put it on and stop complaining.”

I slipped on the coat, easing it over the layers of clothing I already wore. The coat hems skimmed the street’s puddles of muddy rainwater, but that was the way aristocrats liked to wear them, as if daring others to tread on their coat-tails. Dieterling shrugged on his own coat and began tapping through the patterning options embossed around the sleeve, frowning in distaste at each sartorial offering. “No. No… No. Christ no. No again. And this won’t do either.”

I reached over and thumbed one of the tabs. “There. You look stunning. Now shut up and pass me the gun.”

I’d already selected a shade of pearl for my own coat, a colour which I hoped would provide a low-contrast background for the gun. Dieterling retrieved the little weapon from a jacket pocket and offered it to me, just as if he were passing me a packet of cigarettes.

The gun was tiny and semi-translucent, a haze of tiny components visible beneath its smooth, lucite surfaces.

It was a clockwork gun. It was made completely out of carbon—diamond, mostly—but with some fullerenes for lubrication and energy-storage. There were no metals or explosives in it; no circuitry. Only intricate levers and ratchets, greased by fullerene spheres. It fired spin-stabilised diamond flèchettes, drawing its power from the relaxation of fullerene springs coiled almost to breaking point. You wound it up with a key, like a clockwork mouse. There were no aiming devices, stabilising systems or target acquisition aids.

None of which would matter.

I slipped the gun into my coat pocket, certain that none of the pedestrians had witnessed the handover.

“I told you I’d sort you out with something tasty,” Dieterling said.

“It’ll do.”

“Do? Tanner; you disappoint me. It’s a thing of intense, evil beauty. I’m even thinking it might have distinct hunting possibilities.”

Typical Miguel Dieterling, I thought; always seeing the hunting angle in any given situation.

I made an effort at smiling. “I’ll give it back to you in one piece. Failing that, I know what to get you for Christmas.”

We started walking towards the bridge. Neither of us had been in Nueva Valparaiso before, but that didn’t matter. Like a good many of the larger towns on the planet, there was something deeply familiar about its basic layout, even down to the street names. Most of our settlements were organised around a deltoid street pattern, with three main thoroughfares stretching away from the apexes of a central triangle about one hundred metres along each side. Surrounding that core would typically be a series of successively larger triangles, until the geometric order was eroded in a tangle of random suburbs and redeveloped zones. What they did with the central triangle was up to the settlement in question, and usually depended on how many times the town had been occupied or bombed during the war. Only very rarely would there be any trace of the delta-winged shuttle around which the settlement had sprung.

Nueva Valparaiso had started out like that, and it had all the usual street names: Omdurman, Norquinco, Armesto and so on—but the central triangle was smothered beneath the terminal structure of the bridge, which had managed to be enough of an asset to both sides to have survived unscathed. Three hundred metres along each side, it rose sheer and black like the hull of a ship, but encrusted and scabbed along its lower levels by hotels, restaurants, casinos and brothels. But even if the bridge hadn’t been visible, it was obvious from the street itself that we were in an old neighbourhood, close to the landing site. Some of the buildings had been made by stacking freight pods on top of each other, each pod punctured with windows and doors and then filigreed by two and a half centuries of architectural whimsy.

“Hey,” a voice said. “Tanner fucking Mirabel.”

He was leaning in a shadowed portico like someone with nothing better to do than watch insects crawl by. I’d only dealt with him via telephone or video before—keeping our conversations as brief as possible—and I’d been expecting someone a lot taller and a lot less ratlike. His coat was as heavy as the one I was wearing, but his looked like it was constantly on the point of slipping off his shoulders. He had ochre teeth which he had filed into points, a sharp face full of uneven stubble and long black hair which he wore combed back from a minimalist forehead. In his left hand was a cigarette which he periodically pushed to his lips, while his other hand—the right one—vanished into the side pocket of his coat and showed no sign of emerging.

“Vasquez,” I said, showing no surprise that he had trailed Dieterling and me. “I take it you’ve got our man under surveillance?”

“Hey, chill out, Mirabel. That guy doesn’t take a leak without me knowing it.”

“He’s still settling his affairs?”

“Yeah. You know what these rich kids are like. Gotta take care of business, man. Me, I’d be up that bridge like shit on wheels.” He jabbed his cigarette in Dieterling’s direction. “The snake guy, right?”

Dieterling shrugged. “If you say so.”

“That’s some cool shit; hunting snakes.” With his cigarette hand he mimed aiming and firing a gun, doubtless drawing a bead on an imaginary hamadryad. “Think you can squeeze me in on your next hunting trip?”

“I don’t know,” Dieterling said. “We tend not to use live bait. But I’ll talk to the boss and see what we can arrange.”

Red Hand Vasquez flashed his pointed teeth at us. “Funny guy. I like you, Snake. But then again you work for Cahuella, I gotta like you. How is he anyway? I heard Cahuella got it just as badly as you did, Mirabel. In fact I’m even hearing some vicious rumours to the effect that he didn’t make it.”

Cahuella’s death wasn’t something we were planning on announcing right now; not until we had given some thought to its ramifications—but news had evidently reached Nueva Valparaiso ahead of us.

“I did my best for him,” I said.

Vasquez nodded slowly and wisely, as if some sacred belief of his had just been proved valid.

“Yeah, that’s what I heard.” He put his left hand on my shoulder, keeping his cigarette away from the coat’s pearl-coloured fabric. “I heard you drove halfway across the planet with a missing leg, just so you could bring Cahuella and his bitch home. That’s some heroic shit, man, even for a white-eye. You can tell me all about it over some pisco sours, and Snake can pencil me in for his next field trip. Right, Snake?”

We continued walking in the general direction of the bridge. “I don’t think there’s time for that,” I said. “Drinks, I mean.”

“Like I said, chill.” Vasquez strolled ahead of us, still with one hand in his pocket. “I don’t get you guys. All it would take is a word from you, and Reivich wouldn’t even be a problem any more, just a stain on the floor. The offer’s still open, Mirabel.”

“I have to finish him myself, Vasquez.”

“Yeah. That’s what I heard. Like some kind of vendetta deal. You had something going with Cahuella’s bitch, didn’t you?”

“Subtlety’s not your strong point, is it, Red?”

I saw Dieterling wince. We walked on in silence for a few more paces before Vasquez stopped and turned to face me.

“What did you say?”

“I heard they call you Red Hand Vasquez behind your back.”

“And what the fuck business of yours would it be if they did?”

I shrugged. “I don’t know. On the other hand, what business is it of yours what went on between me and Gitta?”

“All right, Mirabel.” He took a longer than usual drag on his cigarette. “I think we understand each other. There are things I don’t like people asking about, and there are things you don’t like people asking about. Maybe you were fucking Gitta, I don’t know, man.” He watched as I bridled. “But like you said, it wouldn’t be my business. I won’t ask again. I won’t even think about it again. But do me a favour, right? Don’t call me Red Hand. I know that Reivich did something pretty bad to you out in the jungle. I hear it wasn’t much fun and you nearly died. But get one thing clear, all right? You’re outnumbered here. My people are watching you all the time. That means you don’t want to upset me. And if you do upset me, I can arrange for shit to happen to you that makes what Reivich did seem like a fucking teddy bears’ picnic.”

“I think,” Dieterling said, “that we should take the gentleman at his word. Right, Tanner?”

“Let’s just say we both touched a nerve,” I said, after a long hard silence.

“Yeah,” Vasquez said. “I like that. Me and Mirabel, we’re hair-trigger guys and we gotta have some respect for each other’s sensibilities. Copacetic. So let’s go drink some pisco sours while we wait for Reivich to make a move.”

“I don’t want to get too far from the bridge.”

“That won’t be a problem.”

Vasquez cleaved a path before us, pushing through the evening strollers with insouciant ease. Accordion music ground out of the lowest floor of one of the freight pod buildings, slow and stately as a dirge. There were couples out walking—locals rather than aristocrats, for the most part, but dressed as well as their means allowed: genuinely at ease, good-looking young people with smiles on their faces as they looked for somewhere to eat or gamble or listen to music. The war had probably touched their lives in some tangible way; they might have lost friends or loved ones, but Nueva Valparaiso was sufficiently far from the killing fronts that the war did not have to be uppermost in their thoughts. It was hard not to envy them; hard not to wish that Dieterling and I could walk into a bar and drink ourselves into oblivion; forgetting the clockwork gun; forgetting Reivich; forgetting the reason I had come to the bridge.

There were, of course, other people out tonight. There were soldiers on furlough, dressed in civilian clothes but instantly recognisable, with their aggressively cropped hair, galvanically boosted muscles, colour-shifting chameleoflage tattoos on their arms, and the odd asymmetric way their faces were tanned, with a patch of pale flesh around one eye where they normally peered through a helmet-mounted targeting monocle. There were soldiers from all sides in the conflict mingling more or less freely, kept out of trouble by wandering DMZ militia. The militia were the only agency allowed to carry weapons within the DMZ, and they brandished their guns in starched white gloves. They weren’t going to touch Vasquez, and even if we hadn’t been walking with him, they wouldn’t have bothered Dieterling and me. We might have looked like gorillas stuffed into suits, but it would be hard to mistake us for active soldiers. We both looked too old, for a start; both of us pushing middle age. On Sky’s Edge that meant essentially what it had meant for most of human history: two to three-score years.

Not much for half a human life.

Dieterling and I had both kept in shape, but not to the extent that would have marked us as active soldiers. Soldier musculature never looked exactly human to begin with, but it had definitely become more extreme since I was a white-eye. Back then you could just about argue that you needed boosted muscles to carry around your weapons. The equipment had improved since then, but the soldiers on the street tonight had bodies that looked as if they had been sketched in by a cartoonist with an eye for absurd exaggeration. In the field the effect would be heightened by the lightweight weapons which were now in vogue: all those muscles to carry guns a child could have held.

“In here,” Vasquez said.

His place was one of the structures festering around the base of the bridge itself. He steered us into a short, dark alley and then through an unmarked door flanked by snake holograms. The room inside was an industrial-scale kitchen filled with billowing steam. I squinted and wiped perspiration from my face, ducking under an array of vicious cooking utensils. I wondered if Vasquez had ever used them in any extra-culinary activities.

I whispered to Dieterling, “Why is he so touchy about being called Red Hand anyway?”

“It’s a long story,” Dieterling said, “and it isn’t just the hand.”

Now and then a bare-chested cook would emerge from the steam on some errand, face half-concealed behind a plastic breathing mask. Vasquez spoke to two of them while Dieterling picked up something from a pan—dipping his fingers nimbly into the boiling water—and nibbled it experimentally.

“This is Tanner Mirabel, a friend of mine,” Vasquez said to the senior cook. “Guy used to be a white-eye, so don’t fuck with him. We’ll be here for a while. Bring us something to drink. Pisco sours. Mirabel, you hungry?”

“Not really. And I think Miguel’s already helping himself.”

“Good. But I think the rat’s a touch off tonight, Snake.”

Dieterling shrugged. “I’ve tasted a lot worse, believe me.” He popped another morsel into his mouth. “Mm. Pretty good rat, actually. Norvegicus, right?”

Vasquez led us beyond the kitchen into an empty gambling parlour. At first I thought we had the place to ourselves. Discreetly lit, the room was sumptuously outfitted in green velvet, with burbling hookahs situated on strategic pedestals. The walls were covered in paintings all done in shades of brown—except that when I looked closer I realised they were not paintings at all, but pictures made of different pieces of wood, carefully cut and glued together. Some of the pieces even had the slight shimmer which showed that they had been cut from the bark of a hamadryad tree. The pictures were all on a common theme: scenes from the life of Sky Haussmann. There were the five ships of the Flotilla crossing space from Earth’s system to ours. There was Titus Haussmann, torch in hand, finding his son alone and in the darkness after the great blackout. There was Sky visiting his father in the infirmary aboard the ship, before Titus died of the injuries he had sustained defending the Santiago against the saboteur. There, also rendered exquisitely, was Sky Haussmann’s crime and glory; the thing he had done to ensure that the Santiago reached this world ahead of the other ships in the Flotilla, the ship’s sleeper modules falling away like dandelion seeds. And, in the last picture of all, was the punishment the people had wrought on Sky: crucifixion.

Dimly I remembered that it had happened near here.

But the room was more than simply a shrine to Haussmann. Alcoves spaced around the room’s perimeter contained conventional gambling machines, and there were half-a-dozen tables where games would obviously take place later that night, although no one was actually playing at the moment. All I heard was the scurrying of rats somewhere in the shadows.

But the room’s centrepiece was a hemispherical dome, perfectly black and at least five metres wide, surrounded by padded chairs mounted on complicated telescopic plinths, elevated three metres above the floor. Each chair had an arm inset with gambling controls, while the other held a battery of intravenous devices. About half the chairs were occupied, but by figures so perfectly still and deathlike that I hadn’t even registered them when I entered the room. They were slumped back in their seats, their faces slack and their eyes closed. They all bore that indefinable aristocrat glaze: an aura of wealth and untouchability.

“What happened?” I said. “Forgot to throw them out after you locked up this morning?”

“No. They’re pretty much a permanent fixture, Mirabel. They’re playing a game that lasts months; betting on the long-term outcome of ground campaigns. It’s quiet now due to the rains. Almost like there isn’t a war after all. But you should see it when the shit starts flying around.”

There was something about the place I didn’t like. It wasn’t just the display of Sky Haussmann’s story, though that was a significant part of it.

“Maybe we should be moving on, Vasquez.”

“And miss your drinks?”

Before I had decided what to say the head cook came in, still breathing noisily through his plastic mask. He propelled a little trolley loaded with drinks. I shrugged and helped myself to a pisco sour, then nodded at the décor.

“Sky Haussmann’s a big deal round here, isn’t he?”

“More than you realise, man.”

Vasquez did something and the hemisphere flicked into life, suddenly no longer fully dark but an infinitely detailed view of one half of Sky’s Edge, with an edge of black rising from the floor like a lizard’s nictitating membrane. Nueva Valparaiso was a sparkle of lights on the Peninsula’s western coastline, visible through a crack in the clouds.



  • "Deep, complex and always more than [it] seems. Reynolds succeeds in the hardest task of good science fiction, creating a new world full of wonder."—The Denver Post
  • "A tightly written story that spirals inevitably inwards toward its powerful conclusion. [Chasm City] confirms Reynolds as the most exciting space opera writer working today."—Locus
  • "A worth follow-up to Revelation Space. Reynolds transmutes space opera into a nourish, baroque, picaresque mystery tale. Inventiveness and tone are Reynolds' strong points...the novel's details are consistently startling but convincing in context. Reynolds remains one of the hottest new SF writers around."—Publishers Weekly
  • "Successfully combines SF noir with technothriller in a dark vision of the future."—Library Journal
  • "An impressive book. Another step toward what could become a very significant 21st century hard SF career."—SF Site

On Sale
Aug 4, 2020
Page Count
608 pages

Alastair Reynolds

About the Author

Alastair Reynolds was born in Barry, South Wales, in 1966. He studied at Newcastle and St. Andrews Universities and has a Ph.D. in astronomy. He stopped working as an astrophysicist for the European Space Agency to become a full-time writer. Revelation Space and Pushing Ice were shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award; Revelation Space, Absolution Gap, Diamond Dogs, and CenturyRain were shortlisted for the British Science Fiction Award, and Chasm City won the British Science Fiction Award.

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