For my first ever cover reveal, I’m so excited to share with you the cover for Anya Ow’s Cradle and Grave, a biohorror science fiction novella coming out on April 5th from Neon Hemlock Press.
In the distant dystopian irradiated future of Cradle and Grave, Dar Lien is a professional scout for scavenger runs into the Scab, a ruined urban-zone badly infected by heavily mutagenic phenomena called the Change. When Yusuf and the mysterious Servertu employ her for an unorthodox run into the Scab, she finds herself embroiled in a conflict she didn’t expect.
Born in Singapore, Anya Ow moved to Melbourne to practice law, and now works in advertising. Her short stories have appeared in venues such as Strange Horizons, Uncanny, and Daily SF.
She can be found on Twitter @anyasy and otherwise at www.anyasy.com.
Are you ready?
Behold the cover with art by Y.C. Yang (website).
If you’re excited for more novellas, support Neon Hemlock’s 2020 novella series here on Kickstarter. In addition to Cradle and Grave, there’s Queens of Noise by Leigh Harlen also coming out in the spring. The fall line-up features Stone and Steel by Eboni Dunbar, Yellow Jessamine by Caitlin Starling.
Keep on reading below for a sneak peak of Cradle and Grave, a biohorror science fiction:
Dar Lien died when she was two years and three days old.
The memory wasn’t worth much this close to the Scab. To stay afloat, Lien kept her nose clean and served Changed and prefabs alike between supply runs. Tael was tael. It was hard enough eking out a decent living in Basa’at without worrying over whose skin was vat-grown. As such, when the prefab halfer trotted up under the tattered awning of her provision shop and pretended to inspect Lien’s selection of water containers, Lien smiled and uncurled her multi-jointed sets of legs from under her belly. She pulled herself off the cot behind her desk, picking her way past wire racks of gewgaws and trinkets.
“Genuine pre-tech. Found most of those myself. Out in the Scab.”
The halfer looked unimpressed by Lien’s sales pitch. Disappointing start. From the waist up, they looked fully humanoid. No visible blemishes. Sleek muscular torso and long arms, swaddled in a worn black bomber jacket buttoned over dull black shell armour. Recon gear, maybe from the Jinsha’an foundries. They wore heavy brass goggles, and the rest of their brown face was covered by a discoloured grey scarf and the wide brim of a straw hat. Holstered at their waist was a combat knife.
“You do sup runs?” the halfer asked in a low monotone. The halfer’s horselike half shifted their weight restlessly on plate-sized hooves, their charcoal grey pelt dusty and travel-stained. The tail had been cut into a bob, and it twitched as the halfer ambled closer. They towered two full hands above her.
“Sure. Three times a year, over into the Scab.” Her own knives were close at hand. Dangling in their scabbards by the door.
“No one’s that reckless unless they’re tired of living.”
“When’s the next run?”
“Three months, maybe. But I’ll tell you straight off, stranger. The only sup run worth going on is Raahi’s. And Raahi doesn’t like prefabs.”
The halfer tensed. “Fighting words.”
“You’ve tried to hide the fact that you’re a halfer with the spikes. People who got warped by Change don’t have mutations that regular. If I’ve noticed, other people ‘round these parts will too. Sooner or later. Basa’at’s none too prefab friendly. Buy what you can and shove off if you don’t want trouble.”
“I’d like to hire a guide. Into the Scab.” The halfer made a show of looking around the shop. “Deposit up front. Rest on return.”
Lien shook her head, folding both her front limbs and the jointed vestigial spines at her flank. “I’ll only go on a run if Raahi’s leading it. Are you gonna buy something or not?”
“Not yet,” the halfer said. They took a worn envelope from a pocket in their jacket, handing it over. “My employer and I have rooms in the Worker’s. You change your mind, look for me. We’ll be in town for another couple of days.”
“Don’t hold your breath,” Lien said, irritated by the presumption. The halfer tipped their straw hat and wheeled out of the shop. Steel-shod hooves thudded on the dirt road beyond, driving up small clouds of dust into her shop. Asshole.
Grumbling under her breath, Lien minced back to her cot and heaved herself onto it, the patched leather creaking under her weight. She considered tossing the envelope aside, turning it over and over in her translucent claws. Lien knew bait when she saw it, but her curiosity soon eked out a narrow win over her caution. She sliced it open with a flick of her nail.
Lien hadn’t known what to expect. A letter, perhaps. A bribe. Not a single photograph, an old colourstat. It was crinkled at the edges, the colours long faded and murky. Didn’t matter. Changer’s balls, the subject was clear enough. It’d only been thirty-five years since she’d died. The Room was the last—or the first—thing that Lien remembered.
The halfer didn’t react at all when Lien pulled herself up onto the stool opposite them in the paddock half of the Worker’s.
Lien scowled. “How did you get your hands on that photo?”
“What kind of resources?” Lien asked. The halfer stared at her. It wasn’t a friendly look. Lien pressed on. “You’re from out of town. There are better scouts out there.”
“Few as experienced with the Scab.”
“Don’t give me that ‘experienced’ shit. I’ve told you that I only do Raahi runs. Best-resourced, researched runs out there. Without him and his team, ‘experience’ counts for balls.”
The halfer glanced around, checking for listeners. The Worker’s was quiet this time of year off the trade season. They were the only people in the paddock. The indoor half had only a couple of people, tucked in a corner and nursing rotgut jugs. The halfer’s tail twitched as they lowered their voice. “We want to go to the City. Heard that you survived a return trip. Alone.”
Lien pursed her lips. “I didn’t go in by myself. If you heard that story, then you know that no one else came back but me.”
“We know the risk.”
“How many taels are we talking here?”
“Five thousand up front. Ten when we reach the City.”
Despite herself, Lien whistled low under her breath. “Fifteen thousand taels could buy you into a run led by Raahi himself. Even with his dislike of prefabs.”
“Raahi isn’t here.”
Lien hadn’t survived this long out on the edge of the Scab without being stupid, but damn the Changer, she was tempted. Five thousand taels could buy her way East into the Quarantined Cities. It could buy her the best surgery there was on any market. Swap out her Changed jointed legs, her insectile-jointed thorax and belly—her souvenirs from an early Scab run gone sour. Money like that could freeze the Change before it reached her brain with an Injunct. Five thousand taels would save her life.
And besides. The photograph. Even knowing that it was in her pocket sent a chill up her warped spine. “Okay. I’ll do it.”
The halfer stretched out a hand, the palm large enough to engulf the delicate claw of Lien’s right hand. “Yusuf. Pronouns are he/him.”
Lien hadn’t been able to place his accent. Now she tried to place his name. “I use she/her. Where are you from, Yusuf? Selangor?”
Yusuf ignored the question. “Gather what you need. Leave at first light.”
“I want my deposit now.”
Yusuf pushed his hand into the pouch bound at his waist and tossed a taelstick over to Lien. The charge was marked full on the slim silver tube, about as wide as her clawed thumb and just as long. The amount was printed along its flank in discreet numbers. “Satisfied?” Yusuf asked.
Lien pocketed the taelstick, trying not to let her breathing hitch in excitement. This was legit, then. This wasn’t a dream. “You’re going to need water purif pills,” Lien said briskly. “Preferably two or three per day, per person. Bring three weeks’ worth. I’ve got my own. There’s plenty of water in the Scab, but none of it’s drinkable as is. As to food, there’s a fair chance that there’s nothing edible out in the Scab at this time of year. Nothing safe. I’ll bring my own rations. You two bring yours.”
“Don’t worry about us.”
“I’m serious. This is going to be nothing like you’ve ever been through before. Scab’s ground zero for the Change. You think going through the Scablands was bad? Compared to the Scab, it’s light exercise. You’re paying me to guide you to the City. I’m not going to babysit you or your ‘employer’.”
“Don’t worry about us,” Yusuf repeated, tipping his hat. “See you in the morning. At your provision shop.”
A veteran of Scab runs, Lien packed from habit. She triple-checked her supplies, closed down the shop, then rested, trying not to think on the trip ahead. She’d need the sleep.
The sound of hooves woke her up just before first light. Lien stumbled a little blearily out of her provision shop, just in time to see Yusuf come to a stop. Someone was seated on Yusuf’s back. The worn saddle was notched between two of his spines, cinched neatly under his belly. The horse blanket was dusty but well-made, patterned intricately under the dirt. A bedroll was strapped down over heavy-looking saddlebags.
Lien had never seen anyone saddle a halfer before. She gawped. Yusuf stared at her, expressionless. “Morning,” he said.
“Morning,” Lien echoed. Yusuf’s rider was wrapped tight in shapeless robes and cloaks. They made no greeting. “I was just about to have a cuppa. Oolong powder. Want some?”
Yusuf shook his head. “Finish up. We’ll wait here.”
Self-conscious, Lien hurried through breakfast. When she re-emerged, she saw that Yusuf hadn’t moved, nor had his rider dismounted. “You’re just going to carry your friend through the Scab?”
“My business. Ready?”
“Do I get a name?” Lien gestured at the rider. Yusuf ignored her, starting on a brisk trot towards Basa’at’s perimeter.
Lien had to scuttle to keep up. This early in the morning, Basa’at was a ghost town. For once Lien was glad of it. The night’s sleep had made her wary of the deal she had signed up on, even though the taelstick had checked out legit. What was she doing? Not even Raahi dared the Scab with anything less than a full dozen crew: spotters, muscle, snifters, techs. A three-person walk wasn’t going to cut it.
“Look,” Lien said, when she caught up. “I was thinking maybe we should pick up more crew. Three people isn’t a good number for the Scab. You clearly have the creds to hire more.”
“You made it back through the Scab alone before.”
Lien narrowed her eyes, but Yusuf wasn’t even looking at her. “I can tell you straight off,” she said, with a bitter laugh, “that I did it by following the Rinse to its mouth, where the Change runs so hot that not even the monsters come close, and I paid my due for it, I did.”
“Don’t worry about the Change,” Yusuf said. His confidence shook Lien. She stared hard at Yusuf’s silent rider, then at the saddlebags, trying to glean some sort of clue.
Some sort of secret Jinsha’an tech, perhaps? Or a vaccine? The thought of either made her pulse quicken as they stepped past the concrete post that marked the end of Basa’at. The border town of Basa’at perched on a vast intact spur of concrete and metal, a highway ruin that arched over weed-choked roads. Other highway ruins crumbled around them into the Hundred Teeth, smashed out around Basa’at’s ridge into long bars of ruined concrete and metal that stretched through barren lands in all directions. A fragment-memory of the world during the Last Summer, before the Change. The sticky air was thick with low-hanging clouds. Wasn’t the rainy season, but it rained every week or so in these parts.
Nothing lived in the Hundred Teeth but insects and rats. Lien still peered up now and then into the grey-cloaked sky, with its perpetual dull haze of ash. She was instinctively searching for a hint of great shadows. Scab’s Sight, veterans called it. After the Scab, the open sky never felt safe again.
Multi-jointed legs were good for picking her way through the scree. Lien was concerned about Yusuf at first, but he was sure-footed despite his size. He kept silent until they cleared the Hundred Teeth to the cracked ground that made up the Western Scablands. This outlying sector was a series of canals of oily water and the jagged brick corpses of shophouses, washing up against the walls of refuse in the distance that marked the boundary of the Scab.
“Leads into the Scab,” Yusuf said. It wasn’t a question.
Lien wasn’t sure whether he was talking to her or to his rider. “We’ll reach the fringe of the Western Scablands close to the evening. Best make camp on the outskirts and make the crossing in the morning. The Vault’s not a kind place in the dark.”
“What’s the Vault?”
“Underground tunnels. Sewer or storm drains.”
“I won’t be able to fit. Or climb out if I have to.”
“That’s the way I’m used to going into the Scab. We’ll use the canals that are large enough for sup carts. It’ll lead out close to the Mall. Decent rest stop there.”
“We go overland,” Yusuf said.
“Everything between the Fringe through to the Lake District is psychon territory. We won’t make it. They’ll probably kill me and your friend. Slowly. You? They’ll yoke you to one of their drafts, work you till you’re nearly dead. Then they’ll eat the four-legged part of you. Cut you into horsey steak.”
“Not worried about psychons,” Yusuf said. His rider reached over and patted his flank with a heavy glove. Yusuf twisted to glance behind his shoulder. Whatever Yusuf saw under the rider’s hood made him scowl. “Fine. Sewers it is.”
Lien stared at the rider with renewed interest, but Yusuf had picked up his pace. She had to take longer strides to keep up, to her irritation. They took a break at midday in the hulk of an old building so worn by the dust and weather that Lien couldn’t quite pick out its original purpose. Over the years, Raahi and the crew had taken to patching it up until it was now fairly usable as a stopover between outposts. It wasn’t stocked with caches, but at least it was out of the sun.
Lien sat down by a brick wall to take a measure of water. She folded her legs carefully under her belly and tried not to stare as Yusuf passed a waterskin to the rider. The rider drank with the hood down. Lien could still get no measure of her silent companion. It worried her, but five thousand taels were five thousand reasons to keep her peace. At least for now.
“You look like you’re from the Pyriat,” Lien told Yusuf instead, to pass the time as they rested. “Your accent.” Yusuf inclined his head. “Which part?”
“Yaran,” Yusuf said, naming a town—or city—that Lien had never heard of.
“That where you got the work done?”
“Not all of it,” Yusuf said, guarded again.
“It’s good work.” Lien kept her voice idle. “Might be interested in a bit of a fix myself from a clinic like that.”
Yusuf’s stare flicked briefly over her, though she couldn’t see past his goggles. “Wouldn’t do it there. Jinsha’an will have what you need.”
“How do you know what I need?”
“You’re three-quarters Changed. At least. Need a very thorough Injunct. Maybe a full prefab of the rest. All you can get. In the time you’ve got.”
Lien scowled to cover her unease. She never liked being reminded of how far she was into the Change. Especially by prefabs. “I’ve got years left yet, halfer.”
“Sure,” Yusuf said, unimpressed. “It’s your life.”
This was going to be such an entertaining trip. Lien ate her rations in silence. Yusuf and his rider ate what looked like a couple of small energy bars. Jinsha’an make, by their stamps. Raahi had brought a stash during the last Scab run, but it had been unpopular. The bars gave you energy, but they were hardly filling. Worse, they tasted like mouldy cardboard. Lien preferred dried rations any day of the week.
Judging from how slowly the rider was eating, Lien guessed that they weren’t enjoying the bars either. On an impulse, she dug into her bag and tossed over a ration pack. “Here. Try this instead.”
Lien hadn’t expected the rider to startle and flinch. Yusuf snatched the pack out of the air inches before it would have smacked into the rider’s shoulder. Too late. The rider had brought up their hands instinctively, causing the heavy cloak to draw back from their frame. Under the cloak, the rider wore a grey leather vest, breeches, and heavy boots. They looked absolutely Unchanged. No lumps under the form-fitting vest. No spurs or strange folds in the breeches, no hint of scales or fur on their bared skin.
“How…?” Lien breathed. Yusuf tensed up and backed a couple of steps, already on the defensive. The rider touched Yusuf lightly on the flank and Yusuf came to a stop, though his weight shifted uneasily between his hooves.
“I suppose this is as good a time as any,” the rider said. Their voice was fussy and soft. They drew their hood back to reveal a middle-aged brown face. The rider was clean-shaven, their bright eyes darting a little nervously between Lien and Yusuf. They wore wire-framed lenses over their sharp nose, their small mouth drawn into a thin downward curve. “My apologies for not introducing myself earlier, Miss Dar Lien. I am the one known as Servertu.”
It was a strange turn of phrase. “Pleased,” Lien said. Servertu’s mouth ticked upwards briefly into a mirthless smile at Lien’s open insincerity. Yusuf sniffed.
“I use he/him pronouns. What about you?”
“She/her,” Lien said. “Call me Lien.”
“As to the ‘how’ of it… you’ve been engaged to guide us to the City, not ask questions,” Servertu said. He pulled his hood over his face again, clouding it in shadow. “I trust that we’re paying you enough for your discretion.”
It wasn’t too late to turn back. But the taels. The Gods-damned Change, so close to destroying her brain. “Guess you are. Five minutes. Then we should get moving.”