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In his novel Mainspring, Lake created an enormous canvas for storytelling with his hundred mile high Equatorial Wall that holds up the great Gears of the Earth. Now in Escapement, he explores more of that territory.
Paolina Barthes is a young woman of remarkable intellectual ability – a genius on the level of Isaac Newton. But she has grown up in isolation, in a small village of shipwreck survivors, on the Wall in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. She knows little of the world, but she knows that England rules it, and must be the home of people who possess the learning that she so desperately wants. And so she sets off to make her way off the Wall, not knowing that she will bring her astounding, unschooled talent for sorcery to the attention of those deadly factions who would use or kill her for it.
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Jay Lake lives and works in Portland, Oregon. He is the author of over two hundred short stories, four collections, and a chapbook, along with several novels. In 2004, Jay won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
P A O L I N A
The boats had been drawn up in the harbor at Praia Nova when the great waves came two years past. The men of the village generally thought this a blessing, for that circumstance had spared their lives. The women generally thought this a curse for much the same reason. A Muralha remained silent and unforgiving as ever, a massive rampart of stone, soil, and strangeness soaring 150 miles high to separate Northern Earth from Southern Earth. In the shadow of the Wall, there was less food than ever until boats could be rebuilt and nets rewoven, but no self- respecting man would go without dinner. So the women quietly starved themselves and their babies to keep the drunken beatings away.
No one starved Paolina Barthes, though. Demon- haunted or touched by God, in either case she had saved Praia Nova after the waves. Still, she was boy-thin and narrow- shouldered, not yet to her monthlies though she wore the black linen dress that all the grown women favored.
The fidalgos spent every Friday night in the great hall at the edge of Praia Nova. The building had been erected in an absolute absence of architects or—at least prior to Paolina—engineers, but instead with the dogged determination of the fidalgos that they knew best. Generations of pigheadedness had raised a monstrosity of coral cut from the reefs at the foot of a Muralha, granite chipped with slow, steady pain from the bones of the Wall itself, marble salvaged in furtive, fearful expeditions to the cities of the enkidus higher up. This resulted in something like a cross between a cathedral and a toolshed. Still, it had survived the quakes that came with the waves, where many of the traditional adôbe houses had not.
It was a harlequin of a building as well. The mix of materials and styles across the years made the thing a patchwork, a Josephan coat to shelter the guiding lights of Praia Nova in their wise deliberations.
This night, they were drunk and afraid.
Paolina knew this the way she knew most things. It was obvious from the scents in the air, the rhythm of the glasses pounding the table, the fact that another of Fra Bellico’s children had been buried that day in the hard, thin soil on which Praia Nova huddled, 317 steps above the coral jetty and the unforgiving sea.
She walked toward the great hall on the path they called Rua do Rei— the King’s Street. In truth only four men and one woman in Praia Nova had ever seen a street, and they had no king save the Lord God Almighty. Rua do Rei was just wide enough for two goats to pass, and had a rope strung to provide a grip during one of the great Wall storms off the Atlantic. One side opened into a ravine where the villagers threw what little garbage they were not able to intensively and obsessively reuse. The other passed close to a knee of a Muralha.
Juan and Portis Mendes had found a boy, but no one had brought him to her. Instead the fools had taken their prize to the fidalgos.
He was English, she’d heard, and had not come from the sea like every Praia Novado. Not from the sea at all, but down the eastern path through the countries and kingdoms of a Muralha toward mythic Africa.
Paolina hated, hated, hated being told things. All they had to do was let her see and she would find a way. When the earthquakes dried the springs that watered Praia Nova, she’d built the pedal- powered pump to raise water from the Westerly Creek down near sea level. When Jorg Penoyer got his leg trapped up on the coal face, she’d figured out the pressure points in the rock and set rope-and-tackle rig to get him out without an amputation. She understood the world, and when the fidalgos managed to forget Paolina was a girl, they remembered that.
Even more she hated being told she was merely a girl. Not even a woman yet. God had not put her on this Northern Earth to squeeze out some lout’s get like a she- goat every nine months after being topped. Women lived only to serve, while the pilas of the men made them Lords of Creation.
To hell with that, Paolina thought.
She stopped outside the great hall and stared up at the sky. The earth’s track gleamed, tracing a brass- bright line across the hemi sphere of the heavens, that barely bowed outward from a Muralha. The Wall itself remained mighty as ever, the world’s stone muscle, greater than any imagination could encompass.
Paolina smiled in the evening darkness. God could set His little traps. She would find her way out.
The rising blare of voices called her onward. She marched toward the doors of the great hall, closed now against evening’s chill and the untoward attentions of people like her. Inside, the men did what they usually did, which was pretend not to notice her. Dom Alvaro, Dom Pietro, Fra Bellico, Benni Penoyer, and Dom Mendes were pulled close around a plank table in the main hall, a bottle of bagaceira between them drained down to eye- watering vapors and bubbled glass.
The English boy—a young man, really—sat on a bench against the west wall. Half a leering face, broken off some great enkidu carving, was jammed into the stone above him. He was sallow and burned by the sun, with greasy, pale hair and a tired look in his eyes. Their gazes met a moment. There was no spark of recognition, no sense of a kindred spirit close to hand.
Just another man, then, in love with his own pila, to whom she was nothing more than furniture.
Still, Paolina wished she’d gotten to him first, before the stranger witnessed the drunken anger of the fidalgos. He would think them nothing more than a village of fools. This boy, who must have seen London or Camelot once, now knew her people to be little more than asses braying in an unswept stable at the very edge of the world.
Paolina felt her anger rising again.
“We cannot afford him,” shouted Dom Mendes. He was haggard, dusty to the elbows with the work of building new boats. Oh, they had not liked her opinion of that effort. “That old fool who lived among us before the waves came was bad enough, and we dwelt amid plenty then. There are too many mouths now.”
“One less today,” blubbered Fra Bellico, who had not missed a meal yet though he kept his Bible always close to hand.
“My boys hunt,” Mendes hissed.
Penoyer snorted. “Yes, and bring back more mouths.” No fidalgo he, his grandfather having come off an English boat by way of unsuccessful mutiny. Only quality took the titles of respect in Praia Nova.
Caught between anger and embarrassment, Paolina finally stepped up to their table. She shoved herself between Mendes and Pietro. “Do you suppose he might understand Portuguese?”
Bellico waved a pudgy hand. “He is English. The roast beefs never speak anyone else’s tongue, only their own barbarous barf.”
“Then I shall speak to him in English,” she announced. “Perhaps he brings knowledge or tools with which to feed himself and others.”
Penoyer, pale as a grub with hair the color of fireweed flowers, shot her a glare before answering in that language, “No good will come of it, girl.”
The boy perked up a bit, then slumped down as the words sank in.
“It can’t possibly get any worse,” she snapped, also in English.
Let Penoyer explain it to the fidalgos.
Paolina stepped around to the boy. “Come with me,” she told him, in his language.
He stood and followed her out, without a backward glance. Nothing lost there, she realized. Outside she turned to him. “I am sorry.” She paused to frame her next words.
“Não faz mal,” he replied, surprising her. It doesn’t matter.
Despite herself, Paolina giggled. “You understood everything they said?”
“Most of it.” English again.
“My mother has bread.” It was the kindest thing she knew to do for the boy. She took his hand and tugged him along the path that was King Street, back to the houses of Praia Nova and their quiet, hungry women. To save the expense of the candle, they ate on the back step of the hut. Paolina’s mother washed and swept the stone daily. She’d been sitting quietly, staring out at the moonlit Atlantic when Paolina came for the bread, and did not stir.
So it had been in the years since Paolina’s father’s boat came back without him. Marc Penoyer had been captain. He and his two brothers had sworn a tale so alike it had to be concocted—even at six, Paolina had known no two people perfectly agreed on anything. People didn’t see what was in front of them. They saw only what was dear to their hearts.
After that, her mother worked her days and dreamt away the nights. Sometimes she spoke, sometimes she didn’t, but Paolina always had at least one dress. She’d never gone an entire day without eating something.
It was the bargain of childhood, she’d supposed. As her cleverness had begun to count for something extra, Paolina had made sure there was always a little flour from the sorry mill above town, always a little dried meat from the line- caught fish the idled boatmen brought in.
The boy asked no questions about her mother, merely gnawing the crust with a gusto that betrayed how long it had been since he’d eaten decently. She’d spared him only two chunks torn from the loaf, and a handful of dried sardinella, but Paolina knew that offering food made her civilized.
He’d seen London, a voice within her cried. London. Even Dr. Minor had not been there.
In that moment, she hated a Muralha, Praia Nova, and everything else about her life. She stared up at the brass in the sky, wondering how to break it and set free the earth, and herself.
“Thank you,” the boy said.
“Hmm?” She swallowed the harder words which lay too close to her tongue.
“Thank you. They were going to throw me out of the village, weren’t they?”
“Of course.” Despite her anger, Paolina laughed. “You might say or do something dangerous. News of the world helps no one, serving only to make us doubt our traditions. Besides, we are starving.”
“So am I.”
She looked over at him. The boy wore a leather wrap, something that had been tailored in a sense, but as if sewn by cats who had only seen paintings of real clothing. He had a grubby, torn shirt beneath that, and a pair of canvas trousers that must have once been white. Bare feet, which made her wince.
“Sure you did not walk here along the Wall?” she asked him.
“I fell from a ship.”
She resisted the urge to glance toward the ocean far below, but there must have been something in her face. He raised one hand in defense. “An airship. I fell from one of Her Imperial Majesty’s airships.”
Despite herself, Paolina was impressed. “You look well enough for a man who fell to earth.”
“I had a parachute.”
She didn’t know the word, but she was not going to ask him to explain. It obviously referred to a device for retarding the rate of fall. Cloth or ribbons could do that, though with his weight, it would need a wide spread to provide sufficient surface area for braking. In the back of her mind, she began to work out the formula for the relationship between the size of the cloth and the weight of the load.
“I am Paolina Barthes,” she said. “This paradise on Northern Earth is Praia Nova.”
He stood and bowed awkwardly. “Clarence Davies, late the loblolly boy aboard Her Imperial Majesty’s airship Bassett.” After a moment he added, “Very late, for it has been two years since I fell overboard and began my walk along the Wall.”
Now she was very impressed. “You survived two years on your own?”
He nodded, still looking both hungry and hunted. It could not have been easy—Praia Nova barely clung to life, and that was with several hundred people who at least theoretically could coordinate defenses and share what they had.
“You must know how to live out there, then,” she said.
“Knew how to live aboard Bassett.” His head drooped lower. “Stay out of Captain Smallwood’s way, listen to what ever the doctor mumbles when he ain’t drinking, watch out for the clever dicks like Malgus and that boy of his.”
“You’re not a— clever?” She was disappointed. He was English. They were the genius sorcerers who ran the world. Dr. Minor had taught her that, before he’d fled into the wilderness.
She’d learned so much from the old Englishman.
“Just a boy, me,” Clarence said. “The officers and the chiefs, they know their business. Al- Wazir, he was a magician, could make a man do anything. Need to, I guess, to work the ropes.”
The power of compulsion. That explained a great deal about the British Empire.
The boy went on. “Smallwood, too. The gas division. They walk in poison, you know.”
“This Bassett was a magnificent ship?”
For the first time, Clarence Davies smiled. “The greatest. Soaring through the clouds on a summer day, looking down on them whales and sharks and fuzzy wuzzies . . .” His head dropped again. “I want to go back to England, though. But ’tis too far to walk.”
“You flew through the air to come here, and now you cannot find your way home.” Something in Paolina’s heart melted, that she had not known was frozen. “They’ll grumble for a month, the fidalgos, and never come to a decision. So I decide now. I invite you in my mother’s name. We will find a boy’s family for you to stay with, and I will make sure there is a bit more food.”
“I . . . I . . . have nothing to give.”
“Nothing is required. Help where you can, lend your muscles, speak to me in English.” She smiled, trying to coax another flash of bright teeth out of this Clarence. “There are few enough safe places on a Muralha. Stay here a while.”
“Thank you.” He came to some visible decision, a flash of relief and recognition in his face, then dug deep into an inner pocket of his leather wrap. Clarence shoved a little bag at her. “Here. I don’t need this. Ain’t wound it in months. Smart, clever girl like you maybe could use it.”
The thing was heavy, a hunk of metal or glass. She pulled it out and corrected herself. A hunk of metal and glass. Round face, with hours on it like a sundial and a heavy metal rim containing more weight. The face was topped by three metal arrows. There were tinier faces within, with their own calibrations, and a little cutaway showing something behind the face.
She peered close and saw Heaven.
It was God’s gearing, the mechanisms of the earth and sky captured in the palm of her hand. Light flooded her head for a moment, the dawn of a new awareness. Paolina’s stomach knotted in something between fear and fascination. She’d had no idea that a person could fashion a model of the world to carry with him.
“It counts the hours,” she whispered, her voice and hands trembling in awe.
“Yes.” He touched a little cap extending from one end. “See? It’s a stemwinder. A Dent marine chronometer that needs no key.”
Her fingers lay on the knurls of the cap. At his nod, Paolina very gently twisted it.
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