The Waking Engine(8)

By: David Edison



Asher nodded. “Kill her, and whatever else they want to do to her. For money. Why else? Hurry up.” Asher nearly dragged Cooper down the street as bells began to toll in the distance. Bells and bells and bells, a city of them.

But Cooper’s thoughts were back in the alley with the woman who looked more . . . used than should have been possible. Here that seemed to be normal. What other nightmares were normal, here, that should be awful? Was hearing the fears of strangers as inconsequential as screaming inside, screaming for peace? He’d heard her, heard her panic inside his head. What did that make him? Deathlessness aside, Cooper couldn’t figure out what unnerved him more: the contents of her head, or the fact that he’d been exposed to them.

A few moments later came a brain-piercing scream that trailed off wetly. No one on the street seemed to notice. Asher saw Cooper’s discomfort, flashed his winning corpse smile, and pinched Cooper’s arm. “Don’t worry, really. A few hours from now her body will jerk upright, skin whole if not new—she’ll spit out her wad and be open for business again.”

“Oh.” Cooper’s stomach convulsed and he nearly tossed his toast. “No wonder she was screaming.” He smelled fried bread and crispy fish from a hawker they passed, and swallowed hard.

Asher gave him a funny look. “It’s just a little death, Cooper.”

“So death means absolutely nothing.” His body felt numb.

Asher shook his head. “No, that’s not at all what I—”

“—All my life, all everyone’s life, we’re so scared of—what, a travelogue? Death is a game, just part of the economy, and my life means— meant—means nothing?” Cooper bit out the words accusingly, like the City Unspoken and its deathlessness were all Asher’s fault.

Asher put his hand on Cooper’s chest and pressed him into the brick wall of the lane. His force was controlled and guided, just this side of dangerous. “Don’t say that. Don’t say that; death is the worst thing that can happen, so don’t ever say that.” This, too, passersby ignored; these were a people inured to every kind of disturbance. Had any of them been New Yorkers, once?

Cooper let that fuel his indignation. This metropolis was worlds worse than ignoring indigents and stealing taxis. “The worst thing that can happen is a nap and a brand new body, are you kidding me?”

Anger clouded Asher’s gray face. “Every time we die, a whole world dies. What do you think they’re saying about you right now, Cooper?” Asher shook his head in disbelief. “Is it ‘Oh, Cooper stepped off to another universe for a brief visit but we expect him to return shortly. Canapé?’ Or do you think there’s a funeral somewhere with your fucking name on it?” Asher was livid, but his skin showed not a pulse of blush. He let Cooper go, who doubled over at the thought of what his family and friends must be feeling.

Now came the fear and confusion that Sesstri had expected earlier. Cooper pictured his mother, obliterated by losing her only son. His father, cracked in half with grief. Life had been dull, but it had been. Cooper’s head reeled. How could I forget that? he screamed inside. How could I, for one single moment, doubt the totality of my death, back in the world where I lived?

“I apologize,” Asher nearly stammered, “I associate honesty with anger. It . . . explains a lot. Are you crying?”

Cooper couldn’t breathe. His family and friends—what nightmare must they be enduring? Sheila and Tammy would be screaming when they found his body in the apartment they shared. Mom would be turning in place, trying to put right something that could never be fixed and was the heart of her world. His dog, Astrid—would she sit by the door, waiting for him, wondering why he never came back to her? She wouldn’t understand, just ache. The same went for Cooper as for those he’d left behind. No understanding, just pain and loss and a false promise of peace at the end.

“This is sickness,” he choked from his knees, “how could they not be my first thought? This is sick, sick, sick.” He looked up at Asher, stringyhaired and chisel-faced, the piss-colored sky going blue behind him. Quicksilver clouds gathered, not minding the schizophrenic heavens above them. “Can’t you see how sick this is, or are you too dead to notice?”

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