The Waking Engine(9)

By: David Edison

The colorless man closed his eyes and took a breath. “There are sicknesses. Living is not one of them.” He fixed Cooper with a tight-jawed expression. Asher’s false levity had fled.

Cooper stood up, wiped his eyes and crossed his arms like an obstinate child. Despite the death and deathlessness, despite the bloodslut’s impermanent murder, he found himself. Despite the background noise of fears murmuring in his head as people passed. “Explain. Now. I can deal, if I know.” Cooper leaned against a wall so ancient its bricks had crumbled into little pockets for weeds and moss. “Am I really dead or only dreaming? I feel awake, but . . . Am I in a coma? Is this some kind of fucked up comaland? Sesstri says I’m dead. Are you dead? What’s with the urban purgatory? What’s with the—”

“Okay, okay.” Asher held up his hands in defeat as a meatmonger glared at them, two jackadays blocking her passage through the narrow lane. “Walk with me, and let this nice woman get on with her deliveries.” Cooper thought Asher wanted to flee.

A cart filled with wrapped bundles dripped watery blood as it trundled past. Its minder cleared her throat in disapproval. He looked at the butchered meat and considered his body, lifeless and cold somewhere so far away that distance wasn’t even the proper metric.

“On . . . on Earth we don’t . . . we don’t wake up after we die.” It sounded so stupid, so utterly unhelpful.

“Earth?” Asher crowed. “You named your home after dirt?”

“Hey, fuck you.” Cooper frowned. “You’re supposed to be filling me in, not attacking my cultural heritage. The afterlife is hard enough as it is.”

“What’s after life?” Asher asked, sincerely, indicating a trio of passing shoppers laden with brightly colored bags, who turned up their noses. “There’s only life.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” said Cooper, his bewilderment starting to burn into anger. That was good— anger he could handle, anger was familiar. “If I lived, and I died, then this place—whatever it is—must be the afterlife. It’s after my life, isn’t it?”

“No! Blessed batshit bells, it’s just the beginning; that’s what I’m trying to show you.” Asher screwed up his face as if choosing his next words carefully. “You live and you live and you live, and one day, maybe, if you’re lucky, you get to stop.”

“I just don’t believe it. I can’t. You and Sesstri, you say that whenever someone dies, they just . . . wake up somewhere else?” Cooper grimaced and imagined a hundred wakings like he’d had today. A thousand. “Are . . . are you dead too?”

Asher scoffed. “I’m older than dirt.”

How could Asher be so cavalier about something so revelatory, Cooper tried to understand. Then again, if what he said was true, who wouldn’t be jaded by a thousand thousand weekdays?

“And then they die again and wake up somewhere new, again and again and again?”

“Most of ’em. Most of the time.” Asher’s face flickered with a frown before his mask of gray cool reassembled itself. He held his arms against his ribs in an uncomfortable-looking way for just a moment longer, taking deep breaths. Cooper realized that this was hard for him, too.

“Right.” Cooper scrubbed his face with his palms. “Except the bloodslut, she stays here.”

Asher nodded. “Correct.”

The dam burst and Cooper’s questions erupted without pause: “Do we all go to the same places? What happens if we don’t want to start all over again? Why did I wake up with my clothes on? Do people just . . . wake up on hillsides like that? Where do our new bodies come from? How did you know to find me there? Are you some kind of social worker? And why me, why are you helping me, when millions of people must be—”

“Breathe.” Asher put his hands on Cooper’s shoulders, but the instructions were useless.

Cooper’s mind had initiated a kind of cascade of possible weirdnesses: accepting that he wasn’t dreaming or comatose and that he most definitely was strolling down a cobbled road where a prostitute had just been murdered as part of a routine transaction, was holding the arm of a madman, was hearing whispers inside his head—what possible flavors of the bizarre should he be preparing for? Dragons? Zombies? Dark Lords or Evil Empires? Mind control? Trickster gods or elaborately plotting aliens? The options fell away one by one, rendered inadequate by the chrome- colored clouds and the spirit of the bloodslut still shuddering inside her body. Cooper realized that despite his lifetime of escapist education, a tacit understanding of his own ignorance would be the only benefit for which he could possibly hope.

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