The Waking Engine(7)

By: David Edison

Those were things he could understand, at least. He’d spent most of his life thus far as a consumer—why should life change, wherever it went? Wasn’t that the gist of Sesstri’s lecture?

“Come on, Cooper,” Asher complained, tugging at the newcomer’s wrist. “Bells, but you’re slow.”

A man with black skin—not brown, black—knelt over the body of a child, a boy, who stared at the sky with an uncomfortable intensity. ComeOnSabbiComeOn, the man said, except he didn’t. Cooper wasn’t close enough to hear and, in any event, the man hadn’t moved his lips. SabbiSabbiLookAtDaddy, Cooper heard again as they neared—the man felt terrified.

How do I know what that man feels? Cooper asked himself. But he did.

Cooper looked to Asher to see if he’d heard, too, but Asher appeared oblivious. Cooper looked to the black man as they passed him, but the man did not even see them, cupping his son’s cheeks in his carbon-dark skin. SabbiComeBackAround! DaddyNeedsYou!

The passersby did not hear, either. Cooper thought he would have known if they heard the man but ignored his suffering, because he saw that every day in New York. No, he’d heard words that hadn’t been spoken. Him, and only him.

“Asher,” Cooper began, beginning to freak out as they turned a corner into a ramshackle courtyard where a dusk- skinned woman in a tattered dress leaned against the wall by an alleyway, pressed by a rat-faced man with bulging eyes and shaky hands. Her hair was curled and coiled atop her head but was caked with dust—like a wig left out of its box for a decade or two.

Something stopped Cooper in his tracks. Asher looked back, impatient, but Cooper stared in horror at the woman and her accoster, distracted from his own thoughts.

She had a sad face painted brightly to obscure the truth, and she laughed like a schoolgirl every time the small man spoke, flashing a smile that never touched her eyes. He cupped a hand to her breast and she held it there, whispering encouragement. He drew a lazy line across her throat with one finger and dripped words into her ear. She licked her lips and pressed against him, but inside she was screaming. Cooper knew, because he could hear it.

NoNoPleaseNotAgain. He could hear it. Words that weren’t spoken. Fear.

NoNoNeverICan’tBreathe ICan’tBreatheKillMePleaseKillMe, KillMe- DeadAndMakeItStickThisTime, MakeItStickThisTimeICan’tBearToWakeUpAgain.

“Stop it!” Cooper yelled, dashing forward. “Stop! Asher, help, he’s going to kill her!”

Asher barked a laugh, and caught Cooper’s arm as he shot by. “Of course he is, Cooper.” He waved an apology to the woman and the ratfaced little man. “Apologies, do carry on.” They did.

Asher pulled Cooper close and growled, “Please don’t do that. You neither know our customs nor have the moral authority to intervene. And you make me look bad.”

“What is she?” Cooper asked, aghast, as the woman and her paramour withdrew into the gloom of the alley.

“She’s a bloodslut,” Asher said coldly, but his eyes were downcast. “A life-whore. A stupid girl who signed the wrong contract somewhere along the way, and now she’s stuck here. She can’t die, so she sells her body and life to any jack with two dirties to rub together. He ruts her, guts her, then fills her mouth with coins.”

“Wait, what?” Cooper’s brain couldn’t quite gear itself up for the question of death. That poor woman didn’t seem dead, merely exhausted. But her thoughts, if that’s what he had heard . . . her fears . . .

“She can’t die,” Asher said, pointing to a pair of figures picking each other up from the dirt. One kept her gaze low, the other leaned against the bricks trying to catch his breath. Both looked too thin, too worn. “Not properly, anyway.”

“That’s horrible.” Cooper was shivering. “Her job is to let dirty little men kill her for money?” He couldn’t keep the disgust from his voice— what pathetic creature could survive that way, let alone turn a profit? Then again, if she couldn’t die, he supposed she had no choice but to survive. If that were the case, maybe it was no wonder her brutalized thoughts scraped the inside of his head.

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