Welcome to the City Unspoken, where Gods and Mortals come to die.
Contrary to popular wisdom, death is not the end, nor is it a passage to some transcendent afterlife. Those who die merely awake as themselves on one of a million worlds, where they are fated to live until they die again, and wake up somewhere new. All are born only once, but die many times . . . until they come at last to the City Unspoken, where the gateway to True Death can be found.
Wayfarers and pilgrims are drawn to the City, which is home to murderous aristocrats, disguised gods and goddesses, a sadistic faerie princess, immortal prostitutes and queens, a captive angel, gangs of feral Death Boys and Charnel Girls . . . and one very confused New Yorker.
Late of Manhattan, Cooper finds himself in a City that is not what it once was. The gateway to True Death is failing, so that the City is becoming overrun by the Dying, who clot its byzantine streets and alleys . . . and a spreading madness threatens to engulf the entire metaverse.
Richly imaginative, David Edison's The Waking Engine is a stunning debut by a major new talent.
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DAVID EDISON divides his time between New York City and San Francisco. The Waking Engine is his first novel.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
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 empty-headed 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 arched 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 fl...
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