The Waking Engine(5)

By: David Edison

Through the telescope he saw snapshots of the whole: monuments and mausoleums pitted and scarred with age lay tilted, stone and gilt akimbo as the growth of the city slowly devoured them. Mansions hid behind walls that sheltered riotous gardens and skeletal gazebos. To the west, a sculpture of a weeping woman worked entirely in silver sat buried up to her massive head in newer stonework—a garland of exhaust pipes about her neck belched bruise-purple smoke into the air from below. Not far from that, an alabaster angel blew his shofar before a ramshackle square that brimmed with black oil, summoning a host that would clearly never come. And chains, everywhere chains—thick as houses, exposed by canals, or pulled up from belowground and winched like steeples over bridges and buildings, draped across districts, erupting from the tiled floors of public squares.

Panning, Cooper saw wide boulevards lined with sycamores, elms, and less familiar trees, avenues that glittered darkly or pulsed with traffic. The larger thoroughfares led from a shadowy axis that reminded him of an orb spider’s web. At the center of the web, near the horizon, a vast plaza yawned. The plaza itself must have been huge to be so visible from this distance, but what lay beyond was bigger still: was it a structure, or a mountain, or something still more bizarre?

Above the central space loomed a dome that would dwarf a hundred arenas, a hemisphere worked in copper and glass that looked like lacework but whose struts must have been the thickness of a city block. It commanded the horizon like a fallen moon, and was strung with banners and limned from within by a green-gold glow. The great dome sat at the heart of a cluster of smaller spheres, bubbles of stone and metal that adhered to the central structure, bristling with arced bridges and needle- thin towers.

“Who lives there?” Cooper asked, pointing to the dome that dwarfed everything.

“In the Dome?” Asher wrinkled his nose. “Fflaen the Fair— at least, he used to. The Prince.”

“Oh,” Cooper said.

“He rules here.” Asher bobbed his head and said no more, gaze lost in his city.

“Where is here?” Cooper asked at length, trying to keep the welling terror from his voice. The gray man didn’t answer his question. Instead, his eyes drifted to the distance. Fires flickered out there, in the towers of the city. Towers that burned but never fell.

That was a sight that made Cooper’s gut twist. Could he hear crying? He looked to his acquaintance. “Where is here?” he asked again.

Asher’s eyelashes were the color of smoke, and the silence stretched until it became an answer of its own.

Cooper made it back down to the living room in a blur, where Sesstri explained matters more thoroughly. “Listen to me very carefully. This may sound complicated, but it’s not: the life you lived, in the world you called home, was just the first step. A short step. Less than a step. It’s the walk from your house to the barn, and what you think of as death is nothing more than the leap up into the saddle of your trusty pony. When you die there, you wake up, well, not here usually—but someplace else. In your flesh, in your clothes, older or younger than you remember being, but you, always you.”

Cooper nodded because it was all he could do.

“There are a thousand thousand worlds, each more unlike your home than the last. Where you end up, or how you get there, nobody really knows. You just do. And you go on. Dying and living, sleeping and waking, resting and walking. That’s how living works. It’s a surprise for most of us, at first. We think our first years of life are all we’ll ever see.” She paused, her thoughts turning inward. “We are wrong.”

Cooper said nothing. He was dead and he was going to live forever?

Sesstri considered him and drew a long breath, raked her fingernails through her morning-colored hair. “Life is a very, very, very long journey. Sometimes you go by boat, sometimes by horse. Sometimes you walk for what seems like forever, until you find a place to rest.”

“So . . .” Cooper drawled, deliberately obtuse because humor seemed the only way he could go on breathing. “I have a pony?”

Asher chuckled. Sesstri didn’t.

“There is no pony!” she snapped. “The pony was a mere device. In the country of my origin, we smother our idiots and mongoloids at birth. You are fortunate to have been born into a more forgiving culture.” Asher’s chuckle grew into laughter.

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