The Waking Engine(6)

By: David Edison



Sesstri rested her palms on her knees and made an obvious show of being patient. “Let me say this as plainly as possible. There are a nearly uncountable number of universes—universes; mind you, when we speak of ‘the worlds’ we speak of whole realities—most of which are populated to a greater or lesser extent with people. Universes with planets that are round, or flat, or toroid—and others with space that conforms to no geometry or cosmology you or I would recognize from home. On most of these worlds, people are born, and live, and die. When we die, we don’t cease to exist or turn into shimmering motes of ectoplasm or purple angels or anything else you may have been brought up to believe. We just . . . go on living. Someplace else.”

“People call it the ‘dance of lives,’ ” Asher interjected, miming a jig.

Sesstri cocked her head for a moment as if tucking away a fact, then widened her eyes to ask if Cooper followed her so far. He nodded, hungry for Sesstri to continue even though he had already swallowed a bellyful of follow-up questions. Toroid? Which was it, worlds or universes—or was that distinction itself subject to variation? She was a much better instructor than Asher, and Cooper’s only option was to learn.

“There’s little logic behind where we go, although a great many thinkers have spent a great deal of time failing to prove otherwise. I might have succeeded. We live and die, then wake somewhere new. We live on, die again, then wake once more. In a sense you’re right—it is a kind of prison sentence, and life will exhaust you at every opportunity. It’s a slow and painful way to travel, but that’s life: painful and slow. And very, very long.” When she finished, she looked at Cooper with a mixture of doubt and expectancy, waiting for the inevitable reaction of shock and confusion, but it did not come.

“Welcome to the Guiselaine!” Asher sang out, his arms spread wide. “The best worst district in the whole nameless sprawl.” He and Cooper stood atop a brick bridge that straddled a foaming brown canal. Foot traffic, rickshaws, and carts of every design pushed past them toward the warren of crooked alleys and side streets that comprised the Guiselaine, and Asher grabbed Cooper’s wrist, pulling them into the crush. Cooper resisted, but Asher dragged him along anyway; the man was strong. The crowd eddied around a small fountain square at the far side of the bridge before swarming into a tangle of shadowy lanes where the walls tilted overhead, hiding the sky behind half-tunnels of stone and wood and daub.

The two men waded through a river of dirty faces, citizens of a dozen flavors—the rich mixed with the poor mingled with the alien, all distracted by conversation or the challenge of a swarming market at noon. Asher steered through the crowd expertly, his gray face and white- crowned head breaking above the rabble like the prow of a ghost ship, fey and proud—a ship of bones, a ship of doves.

“The City Unspoken has many quarters, but for my money, the Guiselaine is the one to see,” Asher confided to Cooper as they ducked onto one of the broader thoroughfares. “A most deplorable gem of a borough.” He waved a gray hello to friendly faces Cooper was too distracted to make out. “All tangled streets and hidden treasures. Harmless fun during the day, quite another story after dark. Which is, of course, when I like it most.” Asher spread his hands in a mock- spooky gesture, and Cooper grinned in spite of himself. He took Asher’s hand and gripped it tightly as they darted through the busy world. Whatever had happened to him had dispossessed him wholly, and Cooper found his head full of odd whispers. The crowd didn’t seem to help.

They stopped to stare into the window of a shop that displayed an array of the strangest stemware Cooper had ever seen: scrimshawed goblets carved from human skulls, pale leather wineskins that bore the sewn-up eyes and mouths of human faces, and a ghastly masterpiece that dominated the display—a silver decanter set within the corpse of a toddler boy, plasticized by some grim process, whose split skull and abdomen cradled the silver vial while shining filigree slithered around its chubby limbs. It looked like some metal parasite had emerged to gorge itself upon the child, slipping silver tentacles around every spare feature of flesh. Looking at the decanter, Cooper felt detached from the horror, somehow, his head running a line of practical questions. How do you cleave a child so cleanly from crown to belly? How do you work silver so intricately, without burning the flesh or ruining the composition? How do you get a child to make such a beatific expression as you bisect the front of his face? There was no life here to sense, no sensitivity. Just art, artifice, and commerce.

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