The Waking Engine(10)

By: David Edison

Asher seemed oblivious to Cooper’s internal cataclysm. “You’ll learn everything about it soon enough. No, we don’t all follow the same path of lives—we go where our spirits are drawn, so one life is rarely too different from the next. We are who we are, forever. Often we wake up younger, sometimes much younger, but also sometimes older. There’s a certain amount of chance to everything, Cooper.”

“What’s this ‘each life not too different from the next’ load?” Cooper pushed Asher away and threw his arms out wide. “I’d say this is pretty fucking different from what I’m used to!”

Asher paused. “With exceptions, obviously: the brave, ambitious, or”—here he gestured at Cooper—“the unlucky witless.” Then, changing the course of the conversation, “But there are other kinds of exceptions, like the body-bound, for instance, including the bloodsluts and most members of city government. They’re bound by contracts to this world, this city, and their own inescapable bodies.”

Cooper felt aghast and relieved at the same time— relief that the smalltown fictions of god and heaven from his childhood were as imaginary as the space ninjas and Japanese manga of his young adulthood, and aghast that not one single experience of his life before could possibly have prepared him for this day. Even his acid tongue was useless.

“And all this living, then, Sesstri said it wasn’t endless? That this city . . . that the City Unspoken is where people come to actually die, for real?”

“Yes.” Asher explained as kindly as he dared. “People live as long as they need to live, whether they want to or not. Toward the end, there is a . . . a kind of pilgrimage. There are different ways to end yourself, if that’s what you really want, but only True Death offers complete oblivion. And there are only a handful of places in the worlds where True Death is possible for those in need, although it can be a difficult blessing to obtain.” And then, “More so, lately.”

“Why?” Cooper felt his questions drying up in his throat. This was too much; he didn’t remember dying, and he couldn’t imagine . . . what he couldn’t imagine. The fears of others that murmured inside his head were drowned out by his own.

“True Death is only granted to the deserving few. You can’t just be suicidal, you have to have earned oblivion. And there are very few places where the gates to True Death are open. This city is one of those places. The oldest, if you believe the state propaganda, but certainly the most infamous. We are the crown jewel of ultimate obliteration.”

“Oh,” said Cooper, listening to his fears.

They walked in silence after that, and Cooper reassembled his self- possession by trying to orient himself geographically. He soon realized that tangled as the Guiselaine was, it had a certain logic to its construction. Each street seemed to be dedicated to one specific purpose—he and Asher darted down a lane lined with shops that sold only women’s shoes. Boots of every shape and condition were displayed below razortoed heels, beside fur-lined moccasins, rusted metal clogs, and slingback fantasies. The street after that held birds of all conceivable varieties perched on wire stands, bound by chains, or within cages. The air shimmered with clicks and caws and the cries of the falconers, swarthy brutes in leather greatcoats who held their most prized beasts on gloved wrists.

“How can you find your way through this termite’s nest?” Cooper broke the silence as they took another shortcut. They’d taken so many turns in such a short span that Cooper thought for certain they must have doubled back on their path at least half a dozen times, but he’d seen no repeated intersections or blocks he recognized.

“Sense of smell,” Asher answered, then reached into his pockets. “That reminds me. Take these.” He filled Cooper’s hand with octagonal coins of several sizes. “For later.” Cooper heard a finality in Asher’s voice that made him uneasy.

“Money. Thanks.”

“The big ones are dirty silvers, the smaller ones are nickeldimes. One dirty will get you a cheap meal. A nickeldime buys a rickshaw ride to just about anywhere. Don’t pay more than five dirties for a room or you’re being robbed blind.”

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