Weeks of tracing diminishing residues and sending out probes into the underground paid off when Eggory was finally able to confirm he had discovered a weeper colony. With congratulations from the bunker staff, he switched on his team and dispatched himself to acquire the payload. The team found the weepers in a cavern, hard to reach, surrounded by reedy hairs that laughed as people passed them. Eggory pulled some from the dusty rock - the hairs found it hilarious - and stashed them in a pack to sell to the university for study.
At least thirty figures huddled in the far end of the cavern. A serious lode. Their skin was stretched and blackened, faces contorted in despair. Not cracking yet, still taut and rubbery. All good signs. Very little wasted, usually a sure sign of fool’s weepers, this many years after the blast. Eggory cut a strip of sponge and held it in the air. When he squeezed it a moment later, it oozed slightly with greasy lachryplasm that stuck in his fingerprints. The team celebrated, and set to loading the weepers into their palettes to bring to the surface.
There hadn’t been a find like this in years, and some years lately had been very long indeed. Early on, weepers could be rounded up by the thousands, often still ambulatory. At final count today’s find didn’t turn out to be quite thirty, but that still left it the largest in some time. The engine could keep up the field for months on these, with excess to power the city. Piled in the engine’s pod, they would waste away in their sadness, bodies dissipate, and constancy would hold a little longer.
Eggory headed home with a lightness in his head. The roads were crowded with people sitting outside to smoke, watching the sky, playing games. Someone called out the start of a poem and was audibly smacked. No one had patience for those games after the last summer.
The legs of a child being born ground-up harassed a bird in the middle of the street. Eggory shoved them away with one boot and they stamped indignantly. Those were the worst children, they got the most set in their ways before they grew a head you could talk to. Not that they could help it. Eggory kicked crumbled asphalt at the legs and they ran off. He collected the worried bird, both heads run bald by panic. It peered at him with that look of almost-understanding, tensed when he compared the weights of both its bodies. Neither seemed to have absorbed any mass from the other; so far so good. He glanced around accusingly to see why no one had stopped the child, to see that most people were not wearing their goggles. He would never understand that.
He carried the bird until it began to struggle, and released it along the last block before his building. The old brick edifice glowered at him until he made the proper obeisances, then accepted the penny he offered it to open.
The interior was just a staircase now, the rooms had caught the closing disease. That was happening to more and more buildings, no voyants knew why. Where there had been doors off the stairway were cracked concrete scabs, plastered with imitation posters and flyers the building thought looked like something someone might put up. Imaginary rock bands with names not written in any language, crude stats of original photomontages that had never existed, of live performances that had never happened, starring musicians who only looked human at first glance. All the real posters had been taken down and stored carefully in the sewer archives, but the building remembered them well enough to try and recreate them. Not that this building needed to fool anyone. There were no rooms to try and live in behind the graffitied new walls, just solid concrete. The old apartment was become a solemn, wary ziggurat.
The sixty-foot limit for the height of human presence meant the top floor was still theirs. Eggory’s, Phronoe’s, Grommet’s, And Dig’s. The floor was only six feet below the tops of the walls, before the blue-burning scar that sheared the rest of the old building away, but the four of them were small and didn’t need more, so long as they remembered not to raise their arms above their heads. It was still private enough, and they slept under the open sky every night. Grommet thought the floor was rising, but Grommet worried about everything.
The rug was different today, from the door off the stairwell into the den. Eggory thought it came from an animal this time. It was the end of the building’s reach, and the building didn’t know what to do with it. Eggory wiped his boots and found Phronoe at his writing desk.
“Oh, don’t do that,” he said, shaking his head and draping his arms over Phronoe’s shoulders. “Today was a good day, don’t ruin it.”
Phronoe smiled and dipped his pen in the air. Somewhere it found a thought to write with.
“You knew what you were getting into,” he said. He reshaped the pen’s thought and put it down to paper as one of his own.
“We found twenty-eight weepers,” Eggory said. “Twenty-eight.”
“It’s important work,” Phronoe said. He didn’t always think so, and Eggory knew it.
“I want to have a child,” Eggory said. The thought had been in his head ever since the weepers had been sealed into the pod. There was security. A child born now would definitely reach adulthood.
Phronoe set his pen down and put his hands on the ones that hung down to his desk.
“You’re sure?” He said. “You hate to –“
“I’ve been working on it. I have a tough job. I can do things like that now.”
Phronoe looked thoughtful. His heavy brow twitched and he brushed his long hair out of his face.
“I have ideas for people,” he said. “I don’t think they all came out of other people’s heads either.”
“Everyone loves the children you make.”
Awash, one of the lead sorcerers at the generator plant, was one of Phronoe’s children, and he alone was proof. Pleasant and urbane, competent and capable of both biting wit and jocular crassness.
“Fine,” Phronoe agreed. He stood and tensed his knuckles till they cracked. “Not my hands.”
Eggory agreed, and found the proper solutions in the cabinets. Phronoe mixed them - expertly, like always - and drew the circle on the floor. Eggory stood within it and settled into a wrestling stance. Phronoe shook his head and struck him with an elbow, styleless, “freeverse” as he liked to say. Hard, to the back of the head. Eggory countered by knocking Phronoe off his feet, pummeling him in the face when he hit the ground. The writer coughed blood and pushed him off, and there was a hammer in his hand. Eggory didn’t think it had been there a moment ago. The metal head came down in the bridge of his nose and broke it. Disoriented, he wrestled it away and brandished it at one end of the circle. Phronoe wiped blood from his nose and lips. It did little good, it already ran down his shirt and bloomed at his breast, crystalline.
“Grommet!” He called to their third partner. “Come get in on this.”
Grommet came from another room, head veiled with towels. He didn’t look interested.
“Come on,” Eggory goaded, and the shambling wizard reluctantly entered the circle, shedding his veils.
“Has anyone seen Dig?” someone asked. No one had. Dig would be left out of this child too, like the last one.
They tussled longer, Eggory laying about the others with the hammer, Phronoe with elbows and fists, and Grommet with teeth and nails. Eggory broke Phronoe’s hands, very deliberately, but the writer was only pained and annoyed. They were all a mess when they decided it had been enough and sat back to back in the circle, laughing. Eggory could not open one of his eyes.
Phronoe said the words and tapped on the floor, and the child was conceived.
“What will this one be like?” Eggory asked.
“Closed-mouthed,” Phronoe said. “Tormented. He’ll be at odds with the city all his life.”
“Another one of those?” Eggory complained. “You can make them any way, and you give us another moper.”
“That isn’t how it works,” Phronoe shrugged. “Inspiration for a child isn’t easy to control.”
He spread out his broken hands, starting already to set with the circle’s influence and some hushed words spoken by Grommet.
“I told you not to do this,” he said. “They’ll be swollen for weeks.”
“The city said I had to,” Eggory said, half truly. “People don’t like you writing.”
“Where’s our last child?” Phronoe asked.
“Searching the bog.”
“Whatever they all think is in the bog, I don’t know.”
There was movement in the air just above eye-level near where Eggory sat. He frowned. He shouldn’t have let Phronoe call Grommet into the fight.
“Look,” he pointed to it with his chin.
Just a disturbance in the air yet, something they could almost see but not quite. The child was coming in groin-out.
“That doesn’t mean anything,” Phronoe insisted.
Eggory put a hand over his mouth thoughtfully, chewed on the proximal joint. It had to be Grommet. He loved Grommet, but the wizard was well known to have been born wrong. Fully formed, but immaterial. Always sickly and forever a little stunted because his organs and other tissues were always catching bugs and airborne particles as they lurched toward solidity during the year of childhood. Obviously he did not want that for a child of his own, but he eventually had to agree with Phronoe.
“We’ll release it tomorrow,” Phronoe said. “Grommet, will you track it?”
Grommet grunted. He lifted a hand, two fingers down and two up, and the disturbance in the air shone slightly.
“In a year it will be just another coworker,” Phronoe said. “That’s what always happens.” He cracked his fingers.
Eggory smiled. It was still a good day.
In the morning, after the sun fires died down, they got a fireplace shovel under the scrap of growing flesh that hovered at waist level and explored their home, and tossed it out the window. It didn’t hit the pavement, but careened off and went exploring elsewhere. Eggory and Phronoe, swollen-faced and bruised from its creation but tired of waiting for the birthing circle to heal them, nodded to each other and kissed. Grommet looked on pensively. Spells moved around his hands.
Eggory ate and drank, meat stones and sweet juice pumped out of the reservoir below the city, all of it giving a cooling sensation to his bruises and easing his emotions in its peculiar way. He’d mined the meat himself, when he had had the spare time to sit in the calming presence of the meat quarry. His goggles only fit over one eye. Phronoe sat at his writing desk and took up his pen between swollen fingers.
“Hey,” Eggory remonstrated him with a look. “You’ll hurt yourself.”
“I’ll be fine,” the writer said. “It’s not me you’re worried about, anyway. But I use these thoughts better than they would.”
Between gasps, Phronoe dipped his pen into some distant person’s mind and drew a thought out to write with. Eggory shook his head. It was Phronoe he worried about. The city would find out he was still writing eventually, and wouldn’t stand for it. It was true, though. What Phronoe wrote was beautiful and profound. If there could only be so many thoughts, they were better in his pen than their owners’ heads.
“They need me at the bunker,” he knew suddenly.
“The bunker,” Phronoe acknowledged absently, jealously. Grommet made a noise.
The morning was warm and dry outside, people already sat in their doorsteps. With his swollen eye Eggory’s goggles were askew, and the people just barely visible. The leg child was there, kicking some toy in the dust. Eggory gave the legs a berth, annoyed. If he saw them harassing another bird he’d separate them one from the other, see how strong the bond was before the hips came in.
He thought of his newest child. It was still probably mostly invisible, just a leaf-shaped scrap of flesh somewhere that would in a few days prove to be a bladder or prostate or something. He hoped it did well. The last one had grown into a dread potionist named Parous, very good at his craft, definitely taking after Grommet in the healthiest ways. Terrorizing a few streets somewhere on the west side of town. But Parous had been born side-to-side, like normal. Like Eggory had. Even moreso; Eggory came in right to left instead of the more normal left to right. And his left arm had been reluctant. The last few months of his childhood had been cumbersome, his dominant hand not yet extant, the open gaping shoulder letting hot air and flies into the exposed meat. Then being functionally an adult for quite some time, but no complete left arm, just a hand that did not quite move like it should. He and Phronoe and Grommet and Dig were already an item by the day his left elbow had completely closed up. They’d had a party.
You had to leave a child alone after it was born, though. He could keep watch on it through Grommet’s magic, but if it weren’t born right, it would be his responsibility to stay away.
A Because Market was gathering in Deadpan Alley, a tangle of people all hawking wares that had appeared in their possession the last night. Nothing was ever sold in these, Eggory didn’t understand why they kept popping up. But they did, and they always kept him from where he was going.
Maybe unwisely, he took a side alley. Quietly, so the space wouldn’t hear him. He reached the fire escape before it detected him and began to narrow. The pavement below liquified to allow the walls to move just as he pulled himself up onto the ladder. He closed his eyes and climbed. The alley wouldn’t damage the fire escape, it was part of its shape. Only the human was a violation of its volume. It began to relax as he eased into the window at the top.
This building had a floor just below the sixty-foot mark, so he had to crawl on his belly until he found the stairs down. The blue burn singed his hair and his buttocks where they stuck up as high as the walls. Once on the stairs he shook his head in frustration and dusted himself off. That might be his home soon, if Grommet was right about the floor rising.
Down and around another alley, a friendlier one that did not hold the shape gods, he avoided the market. Soon he was on the bunker grounds. A park full of red-flowered bushes that gave off the smell of peace and warned of foul weather with clicking calls. No one much used the park. No one much liked being so near the lachryngine.
Eggory changed clothes inside, to colors less fashionable but safer to wear around the machinery. The bunker was a ridged clamshell in the shape of a face looking up to the sky, the rest of it a great sphere and trailing tendrils underground. Children said it was like a fish trying to squirm its way up above the earth. Eggory had always imagined it one day flying away, maybe reaching and puncturing the moon, though he knew now quite well that the tendrils were in fact anchors. They dug into a patch of shale that the original architects thought to be less affected by the inconstant. If contact with them could provide any security to this most important of buildings then any wasteful digging and pouring was important.
Wishell was the one who had drawn the knowing for today. He met Eggory in the corridors around the bridge of the nose.
“What is it?” Eggory asked.
Wishell brushed waist-length hair out of his face. He was unusually buxom and his safe-colored uniform didn’t quite fit today. Eggory could commiserate. He’d had a barrel chest for a few days last month, and it had stretched out all his shirts.
“It’s your payload,” Wishell said. “You’d better come with me.”
He took Eggory down the spiral staircase at the pupil of the left eye. Down into the catacombs they liked to call the sinuses, and then into the vaulted lung chamber.
“What could be wrong with them?” Eggory asked. “They were perfect. They weren’t fool’s weepers, I checked.” He showed his fingers, still stained with brown-black lachryplasm from the sponge.
Wishell stopped at the latest pod plugged into the great blank wall behind which the lachryngine worked endlessly to convert lachryplasm into the energy that generated the field. There were twenty-five pods in all currently. Each good for several months of constancy. Eased to the wall on tracks and then punched through to reach the liquid engine stuff held behind the thick plaster wall that bissected the lung chamber.
“Look inside,” Wishell said.
Nothing looked wrong in the window on the pod. The weepers had been lain down on their sides. To increase the surface area through which the sadness that comprised their bodies could reach the air directly. They were arranged in rows of seven, two on the floor and two on a wire shelf above. The walls were beginning to fog with lachryplasm.
“They look fine,” he said.
“They’re too robust,” Wishell said. “Weepers don’t hold poses like that.”
True, they still clutched motionlessly at their heads and bellies and the air around them, instead of languidly sprawling where they lay. Eggory drew his lips in between his teeth and considered that.
“Did the first ones?”
“I wasn’t alive for the first ones. Nobody in this city was.”
“What does it mean?”
Wishell blinked, knowing something.
“You can’t tell anyone,” he said.
“They aren’t weepers.”
“Of course they are.”
“Yesterday’s knower was Knack. He’s a worrier. He worried all day and then had a voyant look at them. They’re not sad, they’re angry.”
Eggory felt sick.
“How can that be?” He asked.
“I don’t know. I haven’t told anyone else yet. But it’s not lachryplasm they put off. It’s something else.”
Eggory looked at the stains on his fingers and thumb. His growing frustration resonated with the material that wasn’t lachryplasm and made it hot.
“Well,” he said. “We have to get the pod off the wall.”
“It’s already firmly attached. And it’s already punched through. If we cut it away, engine stuff will get out to this side of the wall.”
Eggory had seen what happened when engine stuff met air.
“As soon as the engine starts breathing from that pod,” Wishell said. “I don’t know. Something will happen.”
“Maybe anger works the same,” Eggory suggested. “Maybe it’ll make it more efficient.”
Wishell made a sound. He didn’t think so.
Eggory put the heel of his hand to his temple and turned away. If anyone saw him like that they would know to worry, but he wasn’t able to compose himself just yet. He’d just had a child. To celebrate keeping the field up long enough for one to live. His mind swam. He’d been to the edge of the field. He couldn’t be responsible for what was past it getting in.
“I’ll have to talk to some people about it,” he said. “Keep trying to find a way to back the pod off. My team won’t tell anyone. We’ve got wizards on retainer, different kinds, call them too if you need it. If the engine starts breathing it, put on the sirens, and I’ll come back right away.”
Wishell gave a defeated half shrug and nodded as Eggory handed over the box that contained his team. Somehow he’d hoped for a solution from Eggory already. Even when he was the knower, Wishell could be childish.
Eggory made his way up to the park, where in relative solitude he could clutch his hair and breathe freely. Dig would know what to do, but he hadn’t seen Dig in awhile. He couldn’t think how long. A list of wizards formed in his mind on whom he could call. Voyants would be more helpful, but he wasn’t able to know voyants. It was a serious disability and he had fought to keep it a secret at the bunker. Knack, yesterday’s knower. He would be out today, resting from knowing. Eggory trotted to the corner nearest him and thought of the route to Bats, where he had visited Knack before. The corner took him there in a few nauseating blinks.
Bats was right in the middle of the city, nice individual houses that didn’t gossip like the former high rises elsewhere. They only traded gables and porticos and occasionally infested one another with bees when the weather made them angry. A row of plates of sandwiches on the porch bannister marked Knack’s house. He always insisted it liked them, though it never seemed to take them. Eggory offered a penny to the door knocker, and the house let him in.
“Eggory?” Knack called from inside, a little residual knowing.
“Yeah,” Eggory acknowledged.
The house was closing up, just like his building. Concrete dripping down from the ceiling and up from the floor in the shapes of swarming animals. Furniture was being knocked aside in some places, overcome in others. From the front hall, Eggory could lay on his belly across the back of a concrete bear and just see Knack seated in the den on what was left of a couch being swallowed by the room.
“Put your goggles on, Knack,” Eggory said impatiently.
Knack did so and saw him. He gave a knowing smile when he saw the bruises.
“Sorry the place is like this,” he said. “I’ll be living on the roof soon.”
Eggory wasn’t feeling sympathetic at the moment.
“Do you remember what you knew last night?” He asked.
“Is something wrong?”
“Last night you knew that something is very wrong.”
“Oh.” He strained to search his memory. “Oh, shit.”
“Nobody else knows yet. Me, and Wishell. My team probably by now, maybe some office wizards. If the siren goes it means it started to breathe from that pod. What do you remember?”
Knack pinched the bridge of his nose and recalled facts, wincing as each one traveled back to his still-tender mind from the engine bunker.
“They break down slower than weepers,” he said. “That was what made me think something was wrong. We already had them in place but I got a sample off the walls before we shut them in. Do you need that?”
“I might.” If the stains on his fingers would suffice it would save him a trip back to the bunker.
“Wishell will know where it is today, I can’t find that right now. We had a voyant on staff that night, so I showed him, and he was the one who knew it wasn’t from a weeper.”
“What else did he say?”
“I don’t remember.”
“Who was it?”
Knack thought, and groaned.
“It was his last day, he doesn’t exist anymore.”
“Of course. Do you know any other voyants?”
“I can’t know voyants.” No point keeping it a secret today.
“Oh.” Knack thought. “Talk to Battery. He’s -”
“Don’t tell me, or I won’t know him.”
Knack nodded and flicked the knowledge of Battery’s address Eggory’s way.
“Do I need to come in today?” He asked.
“It would just mess with Wishell knowing.” Eggory pushed back up from the tight space between the bear on the floor and the leaping rabbits coming from the ceiling. “But if the siren goes off, you’d better.” Brushing himself off, “I don’t think your house likes sandwiches.”
“I know my house,” Knack dismissed him. Eggory could hear him set his goggles down on something hard, probably concrete.
Talking to a voyant. That was always a risk, but Eggory would have to take it today. He followed the directions he now knew to the Cay, not far. The wall of dogs let him in, sensing he had business. They didn’t always. Beyond them the fog set in and the ground became broken and wet. The buildings here were dead, beyond demanding payment or catching the closing disease. They dripped with mildew and their facades crumbled. The newest construction was a slapdash arch over the last stretch of what could be called street, already as blasted and discolored as the houses. A crack spread on it even as Eggory watched, as it absorbed some damage that should have occurred to an arch elsewhere in the city. He went around it.
He found Battery sitting atop his house, which was sunken up to its second floor in the bog, watching the sky and seeing something only a voyant would. He looked old, stringy hair and sagging breasts, and was naked but for his goggles. That might have been preferable in the fog and stifling heat. Eggory called up.
“I’m busy,” Battery said.
“It’s important. I work on the lachryngine.”
“I know,” Battery waved a hand. “In retrospect, I guess it’s talking to you that I’m busy with.”
“Do you know what I need?” Eggory asked.
The two cries of some bird became suddenly too loud, and they had to wait for it to be quiet.
“I know,” Battery said.
“Is this enough?” Eggory held up his hand, finger and thumb up.
Battery continued to look thoughtfully up at the sky.
“Wave your hand,” he said, “so I know which one to look at. I’m seeing a lot of hands right now.”
Eggory did so.
“Ah, that one. That’s better than the one I thought I was looking at. If that one had been your hand, we wouldn’t have much time. That’s anger there, on your fingers.”
“I know. What can you tell me about it?”
“Whatever you have in your pod, usually weepers knew the blast was coming just a little longer than these did. They’re mad about it. If they’d found out a second or two earlier, they would have been despairing by the time it hit. But these hadn’t lost that little bit of defiance.”
“What will it do to the engine?”
“I can’t know that. It looks very similar to what you usually put in there. I think a nonvoyant wouldn’t see the difference. It could even work the same in the engine.”
“I just said I can’t see that.”
“Do you have wizards on staff?”
“Small wizards. Mostly custodial and clerical.”
“Any you would trust to try and transmute the anger?”
“I don’t have a lot of time. Can you tell me if you think that would work?”
“A minute ago I thought everything was done for. Excuse me if I’m a little too giddy to see quite everything.”
“Everything could be done for.”
“No,” Battery lifted his goggles off his eyes. “It isn’t. That’s not what this is. I don’t want the engine to fail any more than you do, but the end of everything is not what we are looking at.”
Eggory grumbled to himself. Even the voyant didn’t understand the significance of the lachryngine. But he did have something now. He knew better the cause, and that couldn’t be discounted. Transmutation he doubted. But a strong wizard, maybe one who could insert an invaluable second into the past. That wasn’t unheard of, but anyone with that kind of skill was liable to be hard to find, prone to keeping scarce from society. And harder to convince to help. It was an idea to remember, at least. Eggory thanked Battery and moved back in the direction of the bunker.
He stopped and tried to remember why he was in the Cay. He must have had a reason or the dogs would not have let him pass. The fingers of his mind brushed at a conspicuous gap in his memory. He must have talked to a voyant. He sighed. It was good thinking, probably. In a minute he would remember the results of the meeting, if not the talk itself.
Back out of the Cay he tried to orient himself. The voyant being pulled out of his mind tugged at his senses, like a hook inside his skull being pulled in a direction he could not quite perceive. He couldn’t remember if it always felt this way.
Children played in the street. The oldest game, a group gathered and laughing as two six-month-olds growing in opposite directions leaned against one another to look like a whole adult, imitating adult actions. Walking and dancing; impossible to coordinate. Laughing awkwardly and slapping each other away when their organs touched. Eggory watched briefly, until he saw a figure approaching.
A small person with bedraggled hair and forlorn eyes. Eggory noticed his deliberate gait before him himself. It marked him as the city. He stepped through the crowd of children and stopped just a little too close to where Eggory stood on the curb. There were a million lives in his eyes. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Eggory knew he saw through those eyes too.
“Phronoe is still writing,” the city said.
“I know,” Eggory groaned. “I know. I’ve tried to stop him. I broke his hands yesterday and he kept writing.”
“In the birthing circle” the city said. “Those wounds heal quickly.”
“I won’t break his hands again. Why do you only come to me? Why haven’t you talked to him?”
“He never leaves the building. He is never in my range. He knows what he is doing.”
“Don’t paint him as villainous. I’ll talk to him again but it’s all I can do.”
“If you can’t stop him I’ll have to send someone else,” the city warned. “I can’t abide him stealing thoughts any longer. Go home and tell him.”
“Don’t you know what I’m -” Eggory stopped before he said too much. If only he and his team, and Wishell, Knack and presumably some voyant in the Cay knew, that wouldn’t be enough for the city to be aware. Telling the whole city might be a way to reach any wizards who could help, but the price would be some increase in anxiety in every single public mind, probably a degree of panic. He said, “Fine.”
The city disappeared from the person, who blinked and looked annoyed. Eggory had never been the city, but he had heard one’s mouth tasted strongly of copper afterwards. He gave a courteous nod and moved on.
The corners in this part of town were reticent and wouldn’t take him home. He sighed and struggled to summon the layout of the city to memory. Everything was hard to remember when something was trying to escape his head. He started to walk.
On a lonely corner, something knocked off his goggles. He froze and glanced uselessly around. It had to have been some kind of spell, a percussive sound given force and sent his way. He looked around and saw the crude blue circle on the sidewalk too late.
His assailant was upon him immediately. He struggled to fight back, but without his goggles the person was invisible. Long, thick arms. Hands that bunched in his hair and pressed against the bruised side of his face and drove him down to the ground. His face struck the sidewalk and pulled away bloodily, struck it again and then again. That eyesocket was caved in, and his skull crushed. Blood on the ground crystallized and then stabbed into his flesh with the next impact.
He didn’t have time for this. Not today. Not with the engine, and the city pushing him. Did this person not know who he was?
He got a hand around the attacker’s wrist. The stain of anger on his finger and thumb vibrated and burned, fueled by what emanated from within him. The smell of burning flesh, a tug as the powerful invisible assailant tried to pull away. Then Eggory’s hand was a fist. The other person’s hand came free of its wrist, and a voice bellowed. The hand became a geode when it hit the ground, crystal palm face up. The pained voice spoke the words to create a child, and the person fled.
Eggory snatched at his goggles from the ground and held a lens up to the eye he still had, which had been his bad one minutes before. He caught only a glimpse before the other disappeared around a corner. The most beautiful face he had ever seen. Paralyzingly stunning. He could not have hit that face if he had seen it. No one could.
He sighed, dizzy and aching, sat with his arms resting on his knees. The paint of the birthing circle was mixed inexpertly - not like the ones Phronoe drew, he made them so well - and its healing properties were slow. The smashed tissues in his face and head and brain grew back in a spongy lattice that the breeze whistled through. New blood vessels coughed bursts of already crystalline blood before closing up and working properly.
When his goggles fit on him again, he saw the elbow of the child form, collect from the air first as a mote of inexistence and then a chunk of flesh. He wondered what the beautiful attacker had had in mind for it. Probably made it to be servile, an uncomplaining laborer in a sweat shop somewhere. Or maybe he had been genuine, just wanted to create a life. Either way, the child existed now and was free. Eggory shooed it away and stared at the ground for longer than he could spare.
Now he had to go home. Engine be damned. He needed arms around him. Preferably Dig’s, but either of the others’ would do. He took the hand with him. Maybe the building would accept it as a gift.
When he made it home the five flights of stairs seemed impossibly tall, but mercifully the building accepted the hand and reduced them to three. The effort of climbing them still washed all the blood crystals off his face. Thoroughly exhausted, he opened his door.
Phronoe was at his writing desk. He smiled quizzically when Eggory approached, but frowned when the other pushed the desk over.
“You have to stop,” Eggory said.
“You know I can’t.”
“What do I have to do? Break your hands for real?” He held up his stained fingers. “I burned someone else’s off today.”
Phronoe’s brow fluttered. He put a hand, still swollen, on Eggory’s arm. Eggory closed his eyes and sat in the writer’s lap, rested his aching head in the other’s long hair.
“Where’s Dig?” He asked.
“I don’t know.”
“His body is different today and it’s making him sick, he’s laying down.”
Phronoe retrieved some of the scattered papers from the overturned desk. He handed them to Eggory, who carelessly got still-hot anger on them. What Phronoe had written was beautiful. Beautiful words, beautiful phrases, beautiful images, beautiful verses. Beautiful like the now one-handed stranger in the birthing circle. Unassailable.
“You’re right,” he said. “You can’t stop. I can’t stop you, it’d be wrong. The most wrong thing I’d have ever done. Just -”
He settled back into the hollow of Phronoe’s neck, knees drawn up a little. The evening sky was turning red above them.
“The city is on me. About you. I don’t have time for it. Something is wrong with the engine and I have to sort it out. Take a break for awhile, until I can, then we’ll see.”
Phronoe let out a long breath and looked away. His hands on Eggory became stiff, unfeeling.
“The lachryngine,” he said.
“You know I have to tend to it.”
“You know you have to tend to it. I don’t know anything.”
Eggory pursed his lips and stood.
“It’s the only reason we have constancy,” he said.
Phronoe rolled his eyes and stood his desk back up.
“Don’t do that,” Eggory protested.
Phronoe put his hands out in peace. He set his pen delicately between the ridges along the top of the desk.
“You worry about it so much,” he said. “You look terrible.”
“I may have ruined everything,” Eggory didn’t mention the attack. “I have to fix it.”
“Sit back down.”
Eggory looked away. They compromised by moving to the wall, squatting on their haunches side by side.
“Think about it,” Phronoe said. “When you were a child, what were dogs like?”
Eggory blinked. It was hard to bring that kind of detail to mind, especially after a day like today.
“Were they always stacked on top of one another? Did they always watch you all in unison?”
Eggory thought hard, and realized he didn’t think so. Memories emerged of individual dogs, rooted by their tails to the ground, sniffing curiously as he passed, always interested in the exposed innards of children. He shook his head.
“And bread,” Phronoe posited. “Was it always to be feared? Or did it used to be food?”
That sounded distantly familiar too. Eggory’s shoulders sank.
“We don’t really have constancy,” Phronoe said. “You think we do, the engine lets you think we do. But maybe constancy isn’t natural. Maybe it isn’t even good.”
Eggory ground his teeth and flexed his fingers. Phronoe took his hand and squeezed. The one that had held the sponge.
“I’m tired,” Eggory said. “By rights I should be out looking for wizards - not Grommet, a different kind - but this hasn’t been a day to be strong.”
Phronoe squeezed again. They went to bed, one on either side of Grommet, who looked a little odd, and who grumbled for an hour when they lay down, but took part in their embrace. If only Dig were there too.
Deep into the night, Eggory was awake. His mind was full of violent gorgeous ambushes, dogs and bread. By now someone else would have been selected to know at the bunker. He should go and talk to whoever it was, ease the very important transition and see if the change in perspectives had yielded anything new. There was no siren yet. Maybe his night of recuperation had been justified.
He eased out of bed and dressed and shook what seemed like months’ worth of bleariness out of his head. His hand was hot and he realized he was thinking about the birthing circle. He would have to tell the others eventually. He staved off the thought that there might not be time left for anything to be eventual. He looked up at the night sky, the perfect spiral of stars with their center point in the northeast. The temptation to reach his arms up and brush the blue burn was strong tonight, but he resisted. His arms would just fizzle right off at mid-biceps, and no one had found a way to get something back yet when it had been lost to the blue burn. Grommet was already missing part of a finger from an ill-timed yawn. The phosphorescent blue scar sometimes kept Eggory up at night.
When he got to the street, he looked toward the bunker for a long time. And then walked the other way. His breath in the summer night air tried frightfully to get back into his lungs, especially going west, ever so slightly uphill. There were other people out. He turned up his goggles. He didn’t want to see anyone right now.
It took most of an hour to reach the edge of the field. The night was cold, he thought. At the edge, he looked out. He didn’t know what he was seeing, but he looked at it for a long time. He inched forward.
Anger in the lachryngine. Eggory tried to hold that thought in mind. That, and that it was her fault. She should have seen. She should have been accustomed to danger. The memory came to her of growing up, of the wide fields of nipping grasses that surrounded her building. Other children rising from the ground and needing to be shown what was safe and what wasn’t, taught to speak the languages adults recognized, before hunters got to them with their lethal gazes. But that had been so long ago. A hundred and sixty years, she thought. She looked at her knuckles, bloody from fighting. She shouldn’t be fighting at her age. Her knuckles, all nine of them, oozed blood in a thick froth that took thoughts with it as it evaporated. No, seven. She couldn’t remember how she had lost the last two.
Maybe had had to donate them to plant a new crop of children. They should check the child gardens, maybe they could see which ones were growing out of their sacrificed body parts. But why did they think that? Children grew out of cysts on the shoulders of animals. They knew that, because they remembered all the years they could not free themselves from the squirrel until they outweighed it and it had to be cut away from them.
De wanted to be held. De hadn’t been touched in so long. But the risk was so great. De was sure de had just seen someone caress another’s cheek and lose the hand when it sank into the other’s face, boiling flesh melting and merging; if someone hadn’t been nearby with a knife both entire people would have been lost.
She lived in a face, she thought. Not that kind of face, the other kind. It could see her wherever it was and she was. Why did she feel like she needed its help right now? Something groaned in her mind like a beast trapped in stone. Her face shed the songs that comprised it when she tried to reach it from a distance, she couldn’t ask for help too often. She would have to hunt - oh how she hated hunting, the familiar voices of the animals - and extract the words from her prey to replace the stuff of her face. Upkeep was the law, after all, because as the face that was her home deteriorated, it took the one on someone’s head, somewhere in the city, with it.
Was it his? He felt his face, and wasn’t sure. He could have sworn a moment ago he knew what a face felt like. Solid but gelatinous, with a soft spot tight at the center that sometimes gave off feelings that his fingertips craved. Is that what he felt now? It was like his hands had forgotten how to feel. He stretched his mind to seek out the other time that now was happening, couldn’t find it. But he found the soft spot and plunged his hands into it.
Because there was everything. Somewhere a time. Bodies? Feeling with cilia, movement beyond the idea of movement. A night, several. Several at once. The look of nine sounds that a were had.
Sangle. Diridge if ever gottemb. Pommorays drap in the In. Recko golardess, yearning.
Vvvhh, hjjhf bnpff fhthhd vjvthtvff.
He somehow remembered the motions required to step back. He put his hands over his eyes and breathed long and slow. He thought he might be sick. He turned away from the edge of the field and stood a minute, rocking on his hips. There might as well not have been a world out there. What did Phronoe think was so acceptable about a world without constancy? And he had not even truly left the field.
As he started for the bunker, Eggory held off the bubbling distress that was trying to take him over. He felt like a weeper, alone and immobile, mind burnt out by sadness, reduced to a kind of emotive charcoal. The real trouble, the fist in his gut, was time. Given months, he could track down the strongest chronophore, empty the city’s savings into the wizard’s pockets and point to the moment he needed. He would donate the second out of his own life, to be transferred and slipped into the time that the twenty-eight refugees in the cavern knew the blast was coming, to give them time to feel their anger change into horror, horror into despair. If he had to give up a year to create that second, he would.
Another thought occurred to him distantly, like it waved a lantern at him from the far end of a tunnel. He considered it, and conceded that he could not discount it instantly. Meat stone. The calming drug. It eased emotions. Maybe, maybe enough of it would discharge the anger in the pod. Not permanently, but it could be the difference between hours and weeks to seek the proper wizard. He began to jog.
Half the distance from the edge to his building, a whistle erupted from the center of the city. Eggory stopped a moment, heart sinking. It was the siren. The enormous face whistled, then laughed, then babbled incoherently with a voice of stone and soil. The engine had begun to breathe from the new pod.
Eggory stopped at a corner and implored it to fold him over to the one nearest the bunker. It refused, of course, insisting that Eggory knew the way. He flexed his fists and hurried on.
He put his goggles down, and saw people leaning out of windows and doorways to look in the direction of the bunker. Its huge jaw was just visible over the horizon, lit by its own luminescence, working jovially as it babbled. Eggory ran. He stole a meat stone from a barrel along the way. It would take much more than that, but maybe he could begin the process while the day’s knower tried to acquire more.
He paused a moment when he saw his child. His and his partners’, not the one from tonight. It had already fallen in with several other children its age, a pack of elbows. Its bladder was coming along, it and some other organs and bones nestled in a hammock of perineal skin that jostled as the children played invisible late-night pranks. Some pleasant early days, before Phronoe’s plan for it set in and it became sad. Eggory wished it luck and moved on.
His sides ached then he reached the park around the bunker. And though his face looked healed, it still throbbed. The edifice around the entrance wobbled as the jaw moved. The siren was crushingly loud here, happy non-words that felt like he was being chewed by the giant concrete teeth. Fortunately, the building still let him inside. He brushed past the night staff that stiffly resisted panicking, calling for the knower, spun down the spiral stairs to the lower levels and the lung chamber.
Wishell was still knower, having accepted the mind-gnawing second day to maximize continuity. Eggory had to catch his breath before he could talk.
“It’s starting to breathe,” Wishell said. “But you know that. What did Knack say?”
Eggory motioned to give him a moment. Ultimately, unless the voyant had planted the answer in Eggory’s mind, Knack had not really been any help.
“We might still be able to ease it,” Eggory said. “I realized -”
He stopped. He could not remember the thought he had repeated to himself the entire run.
He felt the tip of a pen withdrawing from his mind.
Wishell stared at him expectantly, but he didn’t know why he had returned to the bunker. He looked at his hands. He had brought his breakfast with him, he could not think why. He looked back to Wishell, and then to the pod.
An exchange of gases was beginning to change the glaze on the pod’s ceramic coat from yellow to blue. Just a tiny puncture hole in the plaster, the iridescent blue glow of engine stuff showing brightly through it in the window. Feeling the air. Soon it would take the first deep breath. Maybe it would have no effect. Or maybe the entire field would collapse instantly. The hole crumpled inward, letting out more blue.