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Authors: David Edison

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The Waking Engine

BOOK: The Waking Engine
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THE WAKING ENGINE
David Edison

A TOM DOHERTY ASSOCIATES BOOK NEW YORK

This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
The Waking Engine
Copyright © 2014 by David Edison
All rights reserved.
A Tor Book
Published by Tom Doherty Associates, LLC 175 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10010
www.tor-forge.com
Tor
®
is a registered trademark of Tom Doherty Associates, LLC.
ISBN 978-0-7653-3486-2 (hardcover)
ISBN 978-1-4668-1677-0 (e-book)
Tor books may be purchased for educational, business, or promotional use. For information on bulk purchases, please contact Macmillan Corporate
and Premium Sales Department at 1-800-221-7945 extension 5442 or write [email protected].
First Edition: February 2014
Printed in the United States of America
0 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
For Marilyn Sue and Bunny, the lovely necromancers who raised me.
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS

There are more people to thank than there are pages for thanking. Every friend, every teacher, every obstacle, every encouragement: thank you.

In general, thanks to the patience and understanding of my family and friends, who let me be a gregarious hermit without (much) complaint.

In particular, I would not have written this book without the support of my agents, Loretta Barrett and Jennifer Didik, who signed a madman with three chapters and told him to come back when he’d written a book. Or without Paul Stevens, my editor at Tor, who bought, midwifed and championed the manuscript. Or without Christopher Michaud, who read so many versions of this book that he became a part of it. You are all partners.

Susan Grode and Nancy Cushing-Jones, thank you for connecting the dots that led to this wonderful career.

I reserve an enduring gratitude for the teachers in my life, and there are many: Bernard and Marilyn Edison, my first and best teachers; Carol Frericks, my second mother; Stacie Lents, dearest friend and first critic; Evelyn Pronko, who was right to tell me to pull myself together in fifth grade; Madelyn Gray, Carolyn “Lyn” Thomas, Charles Derleth (I didn’t forget) and Joanna Collins, alongside every other teacher at the John Burroughs School, the best high school in the galaxy; Lowry Marshall, who taught me to write on my feet; Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman, wise friends and fairy godmothers; and my beautiful Lena, who needs no words to teach.

Contents
PROLOGUE

The room was empty except for the smell of disuse and a small woman with a heart-shaped face and a cloud of flaming red hair. She wore a thin dress that had once been a color, and no shoes. Her bright brown eyes blinked at the knives of light that cut through the slatted windows. Alouette is as good a name for her as any of the others she’s used, and Alouette began to smile when she looked at the crumbled molding around the ceiling. Thick fluid had begun to seep from beneath the plaster and flow in dark curtains down the walls; she stifled a laugh. “Oh,” she said. “The walls are weeping. It must be Tuesday.”

Alouette paced the room, tracing its boundary with her toes in the dust that lay heavy on the floor; she tested the wall with a finger but was unsurprised when it came away dry.

“The tears like to run down, don’t they? But don’t stay to play. Would ruin the effect, I suppose.” Alouette sighed and ran bloodless fingers through her bloodred curls. “You are so pretentious,” she said to the gurgling walls.

She shivered, but not from cold, and looked down at the circle she had traced on the floor, its smooth curve marred only a little by her footprinted meanderings—she walked on the balls of her feet and her step was light and, besides, the circle was a thing she’d intended to make, which made it more real somehow. Where Alouette was concerned, intent was everything.

Except for Tuesdays.

“Oh, oh,” she said, pulling a demitasse from behind her back. A thimbleful of bright green tea steamed within. “I do not want to do this. I do not mean for this to happen, but it will, and so I must cause it. I have to make a thing, because the thing will be made. Oh, oh, everything runs wrong on days like this.” She tossed the tiny cup out the window, spilt tea catching the light like brilliant-cut citrine.

Alouette rubbed her bare arms, feeling their softness and noticing without pride or dismay the whiteness of her skin; like the dress, it too had probably held color, once upon a time. A poppy-red ribbon tied around one ankle caught her eye, and she lifted her foot off the dusty floorboards, admiring the curl of satin. It was the only brightness in the room.

Yes, she liked this shape, and the feel and look of it. She liked the skin and the light bones; loved the hair, but then she almost always wore red up there. Alouette nodded, letting a little vanity into the room— she was only delaying the inevitable, but a strict discipline had never really been her style. She nodded: yes, she liked this shape for many reasons, but mostly because it felt the truest. If she’d ever been a true woman, she might have looked like this.

Squaring her shoulders to bring herself to attention, Alouette let them slump again as she studied the circle of clean nothing drawn in the dust of dirty nothing. She wished she knew why it was that great things, beautiful or terrible or both, so often stepped out of nothing to shake the worlds and raze the heavens only to creep back into nothing at the end of their day.

“I’m so sorry,” she said to the circle as she embellished it with more empty spaces, twirling blank lines into the dust with her toes like a broken ballerina. “I am so sorry, stranger, to cause this thing to be done to you. You deserve a better Tuesday.”

And as she moved, the worlds moved; or rather, something moved through the worlds. The strings were invisible and the call inaudible but somewhere, somehow, a thing moved in an impossible way. Not a thing, Alouette reminded herself, deliberating on that descriptor; it’s a human being that moves. As Alouette spun almost drunkenly, someone moved from here to there. Someone ignorant and innocent and, now, someone lost.

The lost were Alouette’s specialty. They were province, her provenance, and on awful days like this—her creation. Her byproduct.

She held the lost things of the worlds closest to her heart: lost men and women, lost kingdoms, worlds, and civilizations—lost ribbons and empty rooms. She held back the tide of loss and losing that described the arc of the metaverse in all its tragic iterations, on tiny scales and on scopes for which only gods and powers could grieve. In the foreign sharpness of her mind, the being who called herself Alouette saw that this forgotten room cried ropes of snot and salt for her occasional betrayals. The walls wept for the circle she danced into the dusty emptiness. The walls bawled because she never, would never cause a thing to become lost. Loss was her defining hate, her passion, sacrifice, her ruin.

She never intended loss.

Except on Tuesday.

1
My braying heart continues in spite of itself: I am. I am. I am.

I do not know why I am here, but it is clearly not to Die. I see them, the Dying people, spiritually aged, faces bleached of all color by worlds of weekdays; I see them stumbling through the cathedral forest beneath the Dome. My God, I think they are like birds. Piloted by instinct.

I’ll spend hours birdwatching there, watching them Die—their bodies evaporate like smoke and the last look on their faces is peace, the first true peace they have known in dozens or hundreds or thousands of lives. Peace comes like a broken clock.

I hate them for that, the idiot birds who get to Die. If it were within my power to deny the Dying their Deaths, I would. Why should they find peace while I find none?

—Sylvia Plath,
Empty Skies & Dying Arts

Cooper opened his eyes to see a spirit shaped like a woman, who cradled his head in her hands, her hair a halo of pink light that fell over his face. Angel eyes the color of wet straw looked down on him, and she smelled of parchment and old leather. As his eyes adjusted to the light, he saw that her freckled skin was tan, nearly brown, and for a long moment Cooper waited for her to speak. This is heaven, she would say. You will find peace here, and oblivion. We will heal your hurts, friend. Welcome home, she would say. You have been away too long. Cooper would smile, and submit, and she would guide him somewhere radiant.

He did not expect the slap to his cheek. Nor the second that followed, stinging.

He did not expect the angel to drop his head onto the hard ground and declaim, “I can do nothing with this turd.”

“My friend was not wrong, Sesstri,” a man said, cursing. “That is what makes him my friend and not my dinner.”

The woman pulled away and light came pouring over Cooper’s eyes, almost as blinding as before. Struggling, he could see that it wasn’t the light of heaven needling through his pupils—the sky above was jaundiced and cloud-dappled, and he lay in the rain on an odd little hillock that bristled with yellow grass. Above him, the two strangers just stood there, glaring down at his body.

And suddenly his body was all Cooper could feel: lit up with pain, scalded. How had he thought himself dead, let alone at peace? His bones ached and his bowels shuddered, and an abrupt crack of lightning overhead seemed to pierce his skull and live there, screeching agony between his temples. He tried to sit up but couldn’t. He couldn’t even roll onto his side, and when Cooper opened his mouth no words came out—he jawed like a fish in air, and flopped as helplessly. Flocks of birds pinwheeled across the sky. Bells rang and rang.

What happened? Cooper scrambled inside his head to reassemble some kind of continuity of experience. The last thing he could recall was drifting through a borderless sleep into a half-dream of lightless depths. He recalled sensing bodies in motion, masses larger than planets drifting through the murk below his dream-self. He could not see them, but somehow—he knew them. And maybe then he had passed beyond shadows. Maybe then he’d seen a city. . . .

“Bells for the abiding dead, what a waste of my time!” The man standing above Cooper cursed again and raised his boot. Cooper had time to blink once before the crunch of boot-heel slammed him back into darkness.

When he next opened his eyes, Cooper could tell by the quality of the light that he’d been moved indoors. He heard voices, the same man and woman from earlier, still arguing. He’d been dropped onto something hard but covered in padding, and when the wood creaked beneath his weight and a pillow found his cheek, he realized it was a sofa. Something about creaking wood and narrow cushions felt instantly recognizable; for half a second, Cooper worried that he’d broken the furniture, an old, familiar thought. He closed his eyes before anyone could see he’d come around, playing detective with his senses as rapidly as his addled mind could muster. He smelled kitchen smells— soap and old food— and something pleasant, like flowers or potpourri. Peeking out from between his lashes, Cooper saw a blurry image of his saviors—captors?—the man and woman who’d taken him home.

“I’ve finished examining him, Asher. You can come back in.” The woman, who sounded annoyed, smoothed strawberry-blond hair so pale it fell past her shoulders like a bolt of pink silk. “I cannot help you with this. Anything your friend said you’d find on that hill is between you and the sheep guts, or whatever absurd claptrap he employs to disabuse you of your coin. I’m not going to rifle through every corpse that wakes up south of Displacement and Rind for you, anyway, so you’ll have to do the dirty work yourself.”

“Fine, forfeit your fee, Sesstri,” said Asher, and Cooper noticed that the tall man, broad-shouldered but gaunt, had skin and hair the pale gray of old bones or nearly pregnant clouds. “I’d pay you for examining his body, but since I carried him back to your house, I think we’re even.”

Cooper squeezed his eyes shut again and felt them approach, felt them hover over him.

“He’s as heavy as he looks,” said the gray man.

Sesstri made an unhappy noise. Cooper didn’t need eyes to feel her scrutiny.

He kept still when she jabbed his chest with her finger.

When she spoke, Cooper could tell that Sesstri had turned away. “He is just a person. He’s just like everyone else.” She hesitated. “A little green to wake up here, but nothing unheard of—I only died twice before I came here myself. Whoever he may have been, he is not the ‘something special’ you are looking for. He will heal no wounds, diagnose no conditions, and answer no questions.” She left the room, seeming more interested in the singing teakettle than the men defiling her home. “Muck up the place all you like,” she called out, “I haven’t seen the landlady since the day she handed me the keys.”

Asher knelt close and brushed Cooper’s face with his hand. “You can open your eyes now, friend. We don’t need her.” He whispered, tobacco on his breath, and Cooper peeked through his eyelids. The face so close to his own was a silver mask that smiled: “Welcome to the City Unspoken, where the dead come to Die. In my city, everything old is made new again, and anything new is devoured like sweet eel candy.”

Cooper looked at Asher’s ghostlike hair as he pulled away and turned to stir something at the sink beneath the window. Over his shoulder, the window showed a square of lemony sky and an unfamiliar, pale green sun. When Cooper sat up, head throbbing, Asher turned to him holding a tray piled with buttered toast and two steaming mugs. His gray skin was smooth and his eyes flickered like strange candles, red and blue and green together. He was handsome and repulsive at the same time, like a great beauty embalmed. Something wriggled inside Cooper’s head, an instinct trying to name itself. It didn’t come.

Nothing came, Cooper realized— no panic, no outrage, no bewilderment or dispossession at waking to find himself . . . well . . . wherever he’d found himself. Nothing came but fog in his mind and an emptyheaded sense of confusion.

Asher smirked when he saw Cooper awake, but said nothing, content to lean on his hip and observe the new arrival. The moment stretched. Then it snapped. “What . . .” Cooper blurted, then faltered, unable to pick one question from the dozens that crowded his tongue. “Why is the sun green?”

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.

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.

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