The Last Days of New Paris

1941. In the chaos of wartime Marseille, American engineer—and occult disciple—Jack Parsons stumbles onto a clandestine anti-Nazi group, including Surrealist theorist André Breton. In the strange games of the dissident diplomats, exiled revolutionaries, and avant-garde artists, Parsons finds and channels hope. But what he unwittingly unleashes is the power of dreams and nightmares, changing the war and the world forever.

1950. A lone Surrealist fighter, Thibaut, walks a new, hallucinogenic Paris, where Nazis and the Resistance are trapped in unending conflict, and the streets are stalked by living images and texts—and by the forces of Hell. To escape the city, he must join forces with Sam, an American photographer intent on recording the ruins, and make common cause with a powerful, enigmatic figure of chance and rebellion: the exquisite corpse. But Sam is being hunted. And new secrets will emerge that will test all their loyalties—to each other, to Paris old and new, and to reality itself.

In The Last Days of New Paris, China Miéville entwines true historical events and people with his daring, uniquely imaginative brand of fiction, reconfiguring history and art into something new. Available August 9th from Del Rey!

 

 

Chapter One

1950

A street in lamplight. Beyond a wall of ripped-­up city, the Nazis were shooting.

Past the barricade and a line of tailors’ mannequins assembled in a crude and motionless cancan, Thibaut could see the khaki of scattering Wehrmacht men, gray dress uniforms, SS black, the blue of the Kriegsmarine, all lit up by the flares of weapons. Something sped along the rue de Paradis, weaving in a howl of rubber between bodies and ruins, coming straight at the Germans.

Two women on a tandem? They came very fast on big wheels.

The soldiers shot, reloaded, and ran because the rushing vehicle did not turn or fall under their onslaught. There was a whir of chains.

Only one woman rode, Thibaut made out. The other was a torso, jutted from the bicycle itself, its moving prow, a figurehead where handlebars should be. She was extruded from the metal. She pushed her arms backward and they curled at the ends like coral. She stretched her neck and widened her eyes.

Thibaut swallowed and tried to speak, and tried again, and screamed, “It’s the Vélo!”

At once his comrades came. They pressed against the big window and stared down into the city gloom.

The Amateur of Velocipedes. Lurching through Paris on her thick-­spoked wheels singing a song without words. My God, Thibaut thought, because a woman was riding her, and that absolutely should not happen. But there she was, gripping the Vélo’s wrist with one hand, pulling with the other on leather strapped tight around the cycle-­centaur’s throat.

The Vélo moved faster than any car or horse, any devil Thibaut had yet seen, swaying between the façades, dodging bullets. She tore through the last of the men and the line of figurines they’d arranged. She raised her front wheel and hit the barricade, mounted the meters of plaster, stone, bone, wood, and mortar that blocked the street.

She rose. She hurled into the air above the soldiers, arced up, seeming to pause, falling at last through the invisible boundary between the ninth and tenth arrondissements. She landed hard on the Surrealist side of the street.

The Vélo bounced and twisted on her tires, slid sideways. She came to a stop, looking up at the window of the Main à plume’s hideout, straight into Thibaut’s eyes.

 * * *

He was first out of the room and down the splintering steps, almost falling from the doorway out into the darkening street. His heart shook him.

The passenger was sprawled on the cobbles where her mount had bucked. The Vélo reared above her on her hind wheel like a fighting horse. She swayed.

She looked at Thibaut with pupil-­less eyes the same color as her skin. The manif flexed her thick arms and reached up to snap the cord around her neck and let it fall. She rocked in the wind.

Thibaut’s rifle dangled in his hands. At the edge of his vision he saw Élise lob a grenade over the barricade, in case the Germans were regrouping. The explosion made the ground and the barrier tremble, but Thibaut did not move.

The Vélo tipped forward, back onto both wheels. She accelerated toward him but he made himself stay still. She bore down and her wheels were a burr. Adrenaline took him with the certainty of impact, until on a final instant too quick to see she tilted and passed instead so close to him that Thibaut’s clothes were tugged in the rush of her air.

Tires singing, the cycle-­presence wove between the shattered buildings of the Cité de Trévise, into ruins and shadows, out of sight.

 * * *

Thibaut at last exhaled. When he could control his shaking, he turned to the passenger. He went to where she lay.

The woman was dying. She had been hammered by the German fire the Vélo had ignored. Some fleeting influence at that powerful intersection of streets meant all the holes in her flesh were dry and puckered, but blood spilled from her mouth as if insisting on one outlet. She coughed and tried to speak.

“Did you see?” Élise was shouting. Thibaut knelt and put his hand on the fallen woman’s forehead. The partisans gathered. “She was riding the Vélo!” Élise said. “What does that mean? How in hell did she control it?”

“Not well,” said Virginie.

The passenger’s dark dress was dirty and ripped. Her scarf spread out on the road and framed her face. She furrowed her brow as if thoughtful. As if considering a problem. She was not much older than Thibaut, he thought. She looked at him with urgent eyes.

“It’s . . . it’s . . .” she said.

“I think that’s English,” he said quietly.

Cédric stepped forward and tried to murmur prayers and Virginie shoved him sharply away.

The dying woman took Thibaut’s hand. “Here,” she whispered. “He came. Wolf. Gang.” She gasped out little bursts. Thibaut put his ear close to her mouth. “Gerhard,” she said. “The doctor. The priest.”

She was not looking at him any more, Thibaut realized, but past him, behind him. His skin itched in Paris’s attention. He turned.

Behind the windows of the nearest building, overlooking them, a slowly shifting universe of fetal globs and scratches unfolded. A morass of dark colors, vivid on a blacker dark. The shapes rattled. They tapped the glass. A manif storm had come from within the house to witness this woman’s death.

As everyone gathered watched the black virtue behind the windows, Thibaut felt the woman’s fingers on his own. He gripped hers in turn. But she did not want a moment’s last solicitude. She pried his hand open. She put something in it. Thibaut felt and knew instantly that it was a playing card.

When he turned back to her the woman was dead.

Thibaut was loyal Main à plume. He could not have said why he slipped the card into his pocket without letting his comrades see.

On the stones under the woman’s other hand she had written letters on the road with her index finger as a nib. Her nail was wet with black ink from somewhere, provided by the city in that final moment of her need. She had written two last words.

FALL ROT.

 * * *

Now it’s months later, and Thibaut huddles in a Paris doorway, his hand in his pocket to hold that card again. Over his own clothes he wears a woman’s blue-­and-­gold pajamas.

The sky is screaming. Two Messerschmitts come in below the clouds, chased by Hurricanes. Slates explode under British fire and the planes tear out of their dives. One of the German aircraft coils suddenly back in a virtuoso maneuver with weapons blazing and in a burning gust an RAF plane unfolds in the air, opening like hands, like a blown kiss, fire descending, turning an unseen house below to dust.

The other Messerschmitt veers toward the Seine. The roofs shake again, this time from below.

Something comes up from inside Paris.

A pale tree-­wide tendril, shaggy with bright foliage. It rises. Clutches of buds or fruit the size of human heads quiver. It blooms vastly above the skyline.

The German pilot flies straight at the vivid flowers, as if smitten, plant-­drunk. He plunges for the vegetation. It spreads trembling leaves. The great vine whips up one last house-­height and takes the plane in its coils. It yanks it down below the roofs, into the streets, out of sight.

There is no explosion. The snagged aircraft is just gone, into the deeps of the city.

The other planes frantically disperse. Thibaut waits while they go. He lets his heart slow. When he sets his face and steps out at last it is under a clean sky.

 * * *

Thibaut is twenty-­four, hard and thin and strong. His eyes move constantly as he keeps watch in all directions: he has the fretful aggression and the gritted teeth of the new Parisian. He keeps his hair and his nails short. He squints with more than just suspicion: he does not have the spectacles he suspects he might need. Beneath his bright woman’s nightclothes he wears a dirty darned white shirt, dark trousers and suspenders, worn black boots. It has been some days since Thibaut has shaved. He’s scabbed and stinking.

Those pilots were foolhardy. Paris’s air is full of reasons not to fly.

There are worse things than garden airplane traps like the one that took the Messerschmitt. The chimneys of Paris are buffeted by ecstatic avian storm clouds. Bones inflated like airships. Flocks of bat-­winged businessmen and ladies in outdated coats shout endless monologues of special offers and clog planes’ propellers with their own questionable meat. Thibaut has watched mono-­ and ­bi-­ and triplane geometries, winged spheres and huge ghastly spindles, a long black-­curtained window, all flying like animate dead over the tops of houses, pursuing an errant Heinkel Greif bomber, to negate it with an unliving touch.

Thibaut can mostly name the manifestations he sees, when they have names.

Before the war he had already committed to the movement which spawned them, which detractors had derided as passé, as powerless. “I don’t care about fashion!” is what he had told his amused mother, waving the publications he bought, sight-­unseen, from a sympathetic bookseller in rue Ruelle, who knew to put aside for him anything affiliated. “This is about liberation!” The dealer, Thibaut would come to realize, long after those days, would sometimes accept paltry payment from his enthusiastic and ignorant young customer, in exchange for rarities. The last package he sent reached Thibaut’s home two days before he left it for the last time.

When later he had watched the Germans march into the city, the sight of their columns by the Arc de Triomphe had looked to Thibaut like a grim collage, an agitprop warning.

Now he walks wide deserted streets of the sixteenth, a long way from his own arenas, his rifle raised and the gold trim of his skirts flapping. The sun bleaches the ruins. A miraculously uneaten cat races out from under a burnt-­out German tank to find another hole.

Weeds grow through old cars and the floors of newspaper kiosks. They cosset the skeletons of the fallen. Huge sunflowers root all over, and the grass underfoot is speckled with plants that did not exist until the blast: plants that make noise; plants that move. Lovers’ flowers, their petals elliptical eyes and throbbing cartoon hearts bunched alternately in the mouths of up-­thrust snakes that are their stems, that sway and stare as Thibaut warily passes.

Rubble and greenery fall away and the sky opens as he reaches the river. Thibaut watches for monsters.

In the shallows and the mud of the Île aux Cygnes, human hands crawl under spiral shells. A congregation of Seine sharks thrash up dirty froth below the Pont de Grenelle. Rolling and rising, they eye him as he approaches and bite at the bobbing corpse of a horse. In front of each dorsal fin, each shark is hollow-­backed, with a canoe seat.

Thibaut walks the bridge above them. Midway across he stops. He stands in plain sight. His soldier’s nerves itch for cover but he makes himself stand and look. He surveys the altered city.

Jags of ruin, a fallen outline. Framed against the flat bright sky to the north-­east, the Eiffel Tower looms. The tower’s steepling top half dangles where it has always been, where the Pont d’Iéna meets the Quai Branly, above ordered gardens, but halfway to the earth the metal ends. There’s nothing tethering it to the ground. It hangs, truncated. A flock of the brave remaining birds of Paris swoop below the stumps of its struts, forty storeys up. The half-­tower points with a long shadow.

Where are the cells of Main à plume now? How many have succumbed?

Months back, after the Vélo, Thibaut had been, you could perhaps say, called to action, insofar as anyone could be called to anything any more. An invitation reached him by the city’s networks. Word from old comrades.

“They told me you run things here,” the young scout had said. Thibaut did not like that. “Will you come?”

Thibaut remembers how heavy the card had been then in his pocket. Did someone know he had it? Was that for what they were calling?

On the card is a stylized pale woman. She stares twice in rotational symmetry. Her yellow hair becomes two big cats that swaddle her. Below each of her faces is a blue, profile, closed-­eyed other, unless they, too, are her. There is a black keyhole in the top right corner and the bottom left.

“Come on,” Thibaut had said to the messenger. “Why do they want me? I’m protecting the ninth.”

A while after he declined came word of a dramatic sortie, one that failed in a terrible way. Rumors of who had died: a roll-­call of his teachers.

Goodbye, he thinks at last, all these weeks later. His nightclothes snap in the wind.

 * * *

Thibaut was fifteen when the S-­Blast came.

A call like a far-­off siren, by the river, and a wave of shadow and silence racing out and leaving young Thibaut wheezing for breath and blinking with eyes gone momentarily unseeing, and the city poised and primed behind it, something emergent, something irrupting into and from its unconscious. A dream invaded from below. What had been the world’s prettiest city was now populated by its own unpretty imaginings, and by the ugliness of the pit.

Thibaut was not a natural guerilla, but, hating the invader and struggling not to die, he had learned to fight. Parisian, he had been sucked into an apocalypse; to which, he would quickly come to learn, to his conflicted shock, he was affiliated.

Those first days had been all made of madness, assaults by impossible figures and misremembered bones. Street-­fighting Nazis and Resistance had killed each other in panic as they tried to contain reveries of which they could not make sense. On the second night after the blast, terrified Wehrmacht, trying to secure a zone, had shepherded Thibaut and his family and all their neighbors into a barbed-­wire pen in the street. There they shuffled, clutching bags containing whatever they had managed to grab, while the soldiers yelled abuse and argued with each other.

There had come a massive howl, getting quickly closer. Already by then Thibaut recognized the voice of something manifested.

Everyone screamed at the sound. A panicking officer waved his weapon, aimed it at last, decisively, at the gathered civilians. He fired.

Some soldiers tried and failed to stop him doing it again, others joined in with him. Over the echoes of carnage the manif kept up its cry. Thibaut remembers how his father fell, and his mother, trying as she did to shield him, and how he fell himself after them, not knowing if his legs had given way or if he was playing dead to live. He had heard more shouts and the manif voice closer still and the sounds of new violence.

And then finally when all the screaming and the shots were done, Thibaut raised his head slowly from amid the dead, like a seal from the sea.

He was looking into a metal grille. The visor of a plumed knight’s helmet. It was vastly too big. It was centimeters from his own face.

The helmeted presence stared at him. He blinked and its metal trembled. He and it were all that moved. All the Germans were dead or gone. The manif lurched but Thi­baut was still. He waited for it to kill him and it held his gaze and let him be. It was the first of many manifs to do so.

The thing swayed up and back from the flesh and debris of the killing ground. It reared, seven, eight meters tall, an impossible composite of tower and human and a great shield, all out of scale and made one looming body, handless arms held almost dainty by its sides, its left thronging with horseflies. It declared itself mournfully, an echoing call of faceplate hinges. When that noise ebbed the huge thing stalked away at last on three limbs: one huge spurred man’s leg; a pair of women’s high-­heeled feet.

And there was quiet. And Thibaut, war’s boy, had crawled shivering at last through the hecatomb in a field of rubble, to where he found the corpses of his parents and wept.

He has often imagined a vengeful hunt for that officer who first fired, but Thibaut cannot remember what he looked like. Or for the man or men whose ammunition killed his parents, but he doesn’t know who they were. They were all probably among those shot by their own comrades in the chaos, in any case, or crushed by bricks when the manif toppled the façade.

 

From the book THE LAST DAYS OF NEW PARIS by China Miéville. Copyright © 2016 by China Miéville. Reprinted by arrangement with Del Rey, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.

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