The Waking Engine(4)

By: David Edison

The last thing Cooper remembered was lying down fully clothed on his own bed after another long day of work and text messages. But these weren’t his friends, this wasn’t his apartment, and he certainly hadn’t been sending texts to any ash-skinned thugs. All he knew for certain— this was no dream. It hurt too much, and the logic didn’t follow itself moment-to-moment as in a dream.

“Welcome to the waking,” Asher said with a smile. “Drink this.” His long-fingered hands were huge.

“Sesstri’s taking notes.” He handed Cooper a mug steaming with the scent of jasmine and spice. “I left the room while she strip-searched you, though, if that spares your ego any.”

Cooper looked down at the mug shaking in his hands and fought the urge to throw it in the stranger’s face. His gut, as always, told him to say “fuck you,” and, as always, he said nothing. He grimaced, though the tea and buttered bread smelled like heaven.

“Drink it,” Asher commanded.

Jasmine and pepper filled his mouth, hot and real. And it did bring Cooper back, clearing some of the fog from his head. He began looking at his surroundings in earnest while rolling sips of tea across his dry tongue. They sat alone in a room, the wallpaper calligraphed with unfamiliar symbols. On a wooden table against one wall spun an odd looking Victrola, its mouthpiece carved from a huge spiral horn, and a low table piled with books. In fact, every available surface seemed piled with books. Asher handed him a plate and this time Cooper accepted it eagerly.

“This is a living room,” Cooper said before filling his mouth with toast. It was bliss.

“Ah, yes. It is. I’m Asher.” The gray stranger introduced himself, nodding.

Cooper reciprocated through a mouthful of buttery ecstasy. “Maybe you could . . . tell me . . . where I am?” he added.

Asher watched Cooper scarf down the toast and drain the spicy tea, then held out a hand. “Can you stand? Come upstairs with me, and I will show you.”

Of course I can stand, Cooper thought before trying— and falling back onto the couch. He frowned and grabbed another slice of toast as Asher lugged him to his feet, but a few steps later his legs weren’t so wobbly after all.

He followed Asher up a narrow stairway that turned at odd angles and led higher than Cooper felt it ought to. At one pinched landing stood an end table where an armful of foxglove shoots wilted from a china vase. “She can’t be bothered with flowers . . . ,” Asher half muttered, shaking his head.

At the top of the stairs, the gray man opened a splintered door with a kind of reverence. Sweeping one smoky hand, he ushered Cooper through the portal.

As he stepped out onto the wooden widow’s walk nailed to the roof, a chill passed through Cooper’s body. A city lay spread out before him. More than a city— a comment on a city, on all cities, a sprawling orgy of architectural imagination and urban decay. Buildings and blocks stretched to the horizon, and Cooper’s head reeled to take it in, from the spired heights that pierced the distance to the crusts of abandoned blocks, smoldering and dark where they lay. He turned and turned, but the city was all he could see, opening itself to him. There were wards that seemed to bustle with life, but there were also dead zones—whole precincts left to rot within the girding chaos. What he saw seemed to be the very idea of a city, barnacled and thick with itself.

Veils of fog hung at various altitudes within the air, draped over the city in colors of rock crystal—smoky quartz, amethyst, and citrine. The wind was strangely warm, and Cooper smelled a dozen different flavors of incense on its shifting gusts. A song of competing bells tolled point and counterpoint across the metropolis, sending flocks of birds wheeling into the air at intervals.

And competing skies. The pale yellow sky that Cooper had seen through the window downstairs seemed to have slid off to one side of the heavens, following its tiny green star. In the east, heavy clouds played peekaboo with a bluer firmament, and a yellow sun seemed to emerge, fading into and out of existence as he watched.

The skies, he marveled, watching them change.

Asher led Cooper, dumbfounded, to a weathered spyglass mounted upon a pipe at the edge of the walkway. Cooper hesitated—did he want to see? Did he want to accept the reality of this fever-dream? But he put his face to the glass and opened his eye to the city, despite suspecting that once he saw the details of this nightmare, once he knew its shape and aspect, it would be irreversibly real. The city would be real and he would be well and truly lost within it, unhinged, a ghost among ghost-men.

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