Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

Prayers of Forges and Furnaces

The stranger came at dawn, walking out of the barren land like a mirage—gradually shimmering into existence beside the bronze line of the rails: a wide-brimmed hat, a long cloak, the glint that might have been a rifle or an obsidian-studded sword.

Xochipil, who had been scavenging for tech at the mouth of Mictlan’s Well, caught that glint in her eyes—and stopped, watching the stranger approach, a growing hollow in her stomach. Beneath her were the vibrations of the Well, like a calm, steady heartbeat running through the ground: the voice of the rails that coiled around the shaft of the Well, bearing their burden of copper and bronze ever downwards.

The stranger stopped when he came up to her. They stared wordlessly at each other. He was tall, a good two heads taller than Xochipil; he held himself straight, like an axle or a rod that wouldn’t break. The glint wasn’t a sword or a rifle, after all—but simply that of a dozen obsidian amulets, spread equally around his belt, shining with a cold, black light that wasn’t copper or bronze or steel, but something far more ancient, from the old, cruel days before the Change.

Xochipil’s heart contracted. Perhaps it wasn’t too late to run away. But he’d catch up with her easily, with those big legs of his. She’d never been a fast runner, not with her right leg trailing behind her, permanently out of shape. Before the Change, cripples such as her would have been killed: sacrificed to the old gods to bring the harvest or the sunlight.

The stranger’s eyes rested on her leg, but showed no change of expression. “This would be Mictlan’s Well?”

Xochipil, not trusting her voice, nodded.

“I see.” The stranger’s eyes were brown, almost without pupils. “My name is Tezoca. I’m told there is an inn here, for travellers?”

Xochipil nodded again. She stared at him, trying to decide what he was; but he didn’t appear fazed by her appearance, or aggressive. “But you need a travel licence. Or the will to serve the community and bind yourself to the workers, in this age and the next and the next,” she said. The words of the Well’s oath of loyalty came irrepressibly out of her mouth.

The words fell in the silence between both of them. Under her feet, the earth was quiescent, as if the rails themselves waited for Tezoca’s answer.

“I see.” He smiled; his teeth were dark, stained with soot, or coal-dust. “I see. What makes you think I don’t have a permit, little one?”

“Don’t call me ‘little one,’” Xochipil snapped, annoyed that he’d used the same condescending name for her as the townspeople did. “My name is Xochipil.”

Tezoca spread his hands. “My apologies. What makes you think I don’t have a travel permit, Xochipil?”

Wordlessly, she pointed at the dangling amulets on his belt.

“This?” he asked, lifting one of them. In the rising sunlight, it shone as red as blood—and it wasn’t an amulet after all, she saw, but a shard with a sharp edge, barely reworked to make it seem innocuous. In its depths was an odd, cold light, a beat quite unlike the voice of the rails, speaking of a forgotten time, of altars slick with blood and the smoke of incense rising against the pristine blue of the skies, above a city that wasn’t steel and bronze, but simple adobe . . .

A hot, sharp pain burst across her cheek; startled, she realized Tezoca had just struck her. Warmth spread from the blow, to her face, to her bones. It wasn’t an unfamiliar feeling—Uncle Atl had been fond of calling her to order when she failed to be grateful for anything—but it was the first time a complete stranger had struck her, at all. And he wasn’t getting away with none of it, never mind that he was taller or bigger than her.

“Apologies,” Tezoca said, his gaze still on her, as if he could read her thoughts. “I had to tear you away from that.” He didn’t sound angry, or sad—just thoughtful, and perhaps a little proud, though she wasn’t sure why.

That didn’t do anything to lessen the pain. “From what?” Xochipil asked, defiantly.

He’d lowered his hands, and was now busy tucking all the shards into the folds of his cloak—hiding them from view. “I scavenged them from the desert,” he said. “They’re broken, and broken things are often more dangerous than when they’re whole.”

“I don’t understand,” Xochipil said.

“You don’t need to, believe me.” Tezoca gazed behind her, at the depths of the Well—the thrum of the steam-cars, the hubbub of workers jostling each other on the footpaths, the slow, inevitable beat coursing along the rails and resonating through the earth.

“Have they reached the bottom?” he asked.

Down, down, went the rails, vanishing into the depths of the shaft—linking Mictlan’s Well to the distant capital, and the god-machine ensconced in its palace.

“Two days ago,” Xochipil said. It had been the talk of the Well.

Tezoca smiled. “I thought so,” he said. “I felt it.”

She’d felt it, too—the deeper resonance in the rails, the richer beat that coursed along their bronze rods. Whatever it was that the god-machine was looking for, it had found it. “You’re an engineer, then?”

“No, not quite,” Tezoca said. He looked at her again, thoughtfully. “Tell me, Xochipil . . . if I wanted to stay somewhere that’s not the inn, where would I go?”

“So you don’t have a travel permit,” she said, with a touch of satisfaction.

“Of course not,” Tezoca replied, airily.

“And why would I help you?” she asked carefully. “The penalties for aiding fugitives aren’t light.”

Tezoca smiled. “I’m not a fugitive. And I could offer you money, but I doubt that’s what you really want, is it? Very well.” He pulled out one of the obsidian shards, and rubbed it absentmindedly. “Do you like the god-machine, Xochipil?”

Even the question was sacrilege—her hands reached out, sketched the Sign of the Sacred Cog, to ward against the wrath of the machine. “What kind of question is that?” she asked.

Tezoca hadn’t moved. “Humour me.”

“Do I like the god-machine? Why would I have to? It sees everything and punishes everything. It is, was, and will ever be, throughout the ages of the world.”

“It wasn’t always,” Tezoca said, very softly.

Xochipil glanced around, suddenly frightened. A fugitive was one thing; a heretic quite another. The townspeople tolerated her, but this would be going too far. “The Change was so long ago we don’t remember it,” she said. “What does it change, if the machine wasn’t always?”

“Things that are born can die,” Tezoca said, with a quick nod of his head. “Let me ask you the question again. Do you like the engineers, the technicians, the soldiers? Do they treat you well?”

Xochipil shook her head—once, twice. What right had he, to come here in the midst of her life, and question everything? “You know what the leg would have meant, before the Change. I have a life, under the god-machine.”

“So do caged birds. Answer the question.”

“Machine break you,” she whispered. “You know the answer, don’t you?” That she was lame, and thus had no place on any of the work crews; that she’d survived on the “kindness” of relatives until they grew bored and left her to fend for herself; that she scavenged for broken tech at the edge of the Well, the small, useless artefacts that passing steam-cars thoughtlessly discarded—and sold them, day after day, barely eking out her living.

“Perhaps I do know the answer. But I’d want it from your own mouth.”

“No,” she said, low and savage, the word out of her lips before she could take it back. She waited for him to laugh, to throw back his cloak and reveal himself as a servant of the machine, to take her away for heresy. But he did nothing. He merely watched her.

At length Tezoca nodded. “You have a fiery heart,” he said, his hand rubbing the shard, again and again, as if he could wear it down to nothing.

“And you’re a madman.”

Tezoca smiled. “That’s often been said. But you haven’t answered my question.”

The earlier one, the one about lodgings and food. Still shaking inwardly—remembering the shock of his question, the shock of her answer—that she, Xochipil, the daughter of workers, should question the god-machine, that she should imply she’d gladly see it stop functioning . . .

She shook her head angrily. Why not, after all? It had never been much of a life. “I have a room. It’s not much—upper levels, not much surface—but it could stretch to two people.”

Again, that quick smile of his, daring and reckless, revealing the darkness of his teeth. “That will do nicely, I think.”

Luckily, they didn’t have to go far: Xochipil’s assigned room was one of the dingiest ones, just under the mouth of the Well. The best rooms were near the bottom, as close as possible to the edge of the rails and the source of the endless thrumming. That was where the supervisors lived; and the governor, and all his staff of master engineers and elite soldiers.

She left Tezoca there to unfold his belongings in the cramped room, its wrought ceiling so low he had to bend to stand under it, its shelves covered in scraps of metal and empty vials in addition to her clothes and tools.

She had no doubt he’d wander around, but she had other things to do: It was almost time for the noon pause, and Malli would be ready to do business. Hastily wrapping some of her better findings in her bag, she hurried onto the filigreed walkway that led back to the main path—and then down along the footpaths.

Above and below her pulsed the rails, plunging into the dizzying darkness below the surface. Steam-cars loaded with tools and bags of excavated soil slid past, with a whine like air through a cut throat. Further down were the subsidiaries of the machine scooping out the earth, and the men and women toiling to lay down the bronze rods for the new rails.

A faint light oozed from the bottom of the shaft—a shimmering, pulsing radiance that was achingly comforting—and the beat of the rails was stronger, richer, echoing in her lame leg and in her chest, squeezing around her heart until it seemed to be one with her.

She wondered what they’d found, down there; what Tezoca was really looking for.

She found Malli on the twenty-fifth level, sitting a little apart from her work cadre. The rotund woman barely raised her eyes when Xochipil slid next to her, onto the warm metal of the bench. “What have you got?” she asked, without preamble.

Xochipil unpacked her things, laid them out on her knees. Malli scrutinised them for a while. Xochipil tensed, expecting the usual session of bargaining, but Malli merely pointed to two of the less broken artefacts, a filigreed hummingbird and a rusty cog.

“Those two. Three tlazos.”

Xochipil, surprised, pocketed the money without showing what she felt. Malli wrapped the artefacts in her own shirt, finished her crushed maize and amaranth, and got up. “Do you have urgent business?” Xochipil asked.

Malli tossed her head disdainfully. “There’s a hierarch there, Xochipil. From the god-machine itself.” Her eyes shone with excitement; and clearly she wouldn’t understand why Xochipil didn’t rejoice.

Mictlan’s Well was not so big or so important to warrant regular visits from the capital. “What does he want?” Xochipil asked. She thought, with a sinking in her stomach, of Tezoca methodically unpacking his things in her room. But a hierarch wouldn’t visit that high: They’d be lodging with the governor’s staff at the bottom, near the heart of the Well.

“Are you daft?” Malli asked. “We’ve reached the bottom, girl! Of course he’d want to see what’s there.”

“You too?” Xochipil asked.

Malli looked at Xochipil as if she’d just offered to worship the old gods. “He’s a hierarch! Of course he’s holding a grand procession, and a remembering.”

And of course, everyone would want to attend it, to be touched by the god-machine’s essence—to feel the unending communion with the rest of the Commonwealth: with the network of towns and mines and wells connected by the beat of the rails and the whine of steam-cars, and with the thousand cadres of workers toiling away in the bowels of the machine’s subsidiaries, ceaselessly raising bronze and copper and chrome to its undying glory.

Xochipil realized with a shock that Malli was waiting for her—caring little about her outcast status—and there was no way she could refuse, not without both vexing Malli and raising suspicions she couldn’t afford to raise.

“All right,” she said. “Let’s go.”

Xochipil had never been to the lower floors, but somehow she wasn’t surprised to find them made of chrome and steel: white and shining in the harsh light from sunspheres, still thrumming with the beat of the rails, an echo so strong it was almost paralyzing.

She kept her head high, ignoring the odd looks the various work crews threw at her—a cripple, here in the centre of the Well, an unthinkable thing if ever there was one—and walked slightly behind Malli, unwilling to draw closer. Malli herself hadn’t shown any desire for friendship; just a wish for her to join with the god-machine.

They were almost at the bottom of the Well now. The reverberation shook Xochipil’s bones and her muscles, echoed in her ribcage like a second heartbeat. They wouldn’t be going all the way down, though: Xochipil was sure that the hierarch wouldn’t show the workers what lay on the last floor. It was the supervisors who had dug the last pit, and the governor himself who had broken the last seal and connected the last rails.

On the vast platform that filled most of the shaft at the Eightieth Level, a dizzying array of cadres had gathered. Every one of them wore their own colours and badges of allegiance, a dizzying sea of drab cotton and maguey-fibre clothes. The platform near the centre held a steel altar with the Sacred Symbols: the Cog, the Chain, the Bolt, the Wires, and the Vial.

On the platform stood the hierarch.

He was alone: a tall, unprepossessing silhouette in flowing robes of stark whiteness, bearing a symbol Xochipil couldn’t make out. But even standing away from the platform, even wedged between the resentful members of Malli’s cadre on the narrow footpath, she could feel the strength of his presence, the aura that somehow was the pulsing of every city of the Commonwealth—and the mind of the god-machine, straining towards the bottom of the Well, extending itself along the length of the rails to be with them in this moment of great glory.

The hierarch raised his head, and silence spread across the cavern. His skin was gleaming copper—and his hands extended towards them all, the hands of the god-machine, which was, had been, and would be, forever and ever in this age of the world and the next and the next.

“Behold,” the hierarch whispered, a single word that echoed against the walls of the shaft, quivering in the rails themselves, twisting in Xochipil’s chest until her heart ached with need. “The Age of Wonders has come. Let the old gods remain dead, let the altars be of pristine steel, let the blood and the breath remain in our bodies . . .” A litany, whispered over and over—and abruptly Xochipil realized the rumble was the sound of thousands of voices joining it—of her own voice, raised in praise of the god-machine and the Commonwealth, but she couldn’t stop, she was as much a part of it as Malli, as the hierarch . . .

“Let the sun remain silent, let our prayers be made with forges and furnaces, let the blood and the breath remain in our bodies . . .”

The words were said, over and over, thousands of voices filling the Well to bursting—and even the memory of Tezoca was very far away, words that made no sense, for how could he ever hope to challenge such power as this—how could he put an end to what was, would be and had ever been?

“Let the pyramids remain broken, let our labour be our worship, let the blood and the breath remain in our bodies . . .”

Pyramids. Tezoca had said—

He—

Abruptly, her mind torn from the communion, she saw Tezoca. He was standing on the edge of the crowd on one of the neighbouring footpaths, dressed in the colours of the Fifty-Fourth Hummingbird Cadre. He held a dark-skinned woman in his embrace, kissing her lips, her forehead, her earlobes—and the voice of the god-machine was receding in the distance, replaced by Tezoca’s mocking words.

It wasn’t always. Things that are born can die.

Tezoca raised his gaze to Xochipil, pulling away from the woman; and in the split moment before he did, she saw, very clearly, the blood still clinging to his lips, the blood still flowing from the woman’s earlobes, wounds that sealed themselves even as she watched.

Blood. He’d been . . . drinking blood, and using it to work against the machine’s communion. But only one kind of being had ever fed on blood, and only one kind of being had ever drawn power from it.

The old gods—who were all dead, bested by the machine, their remains scattered over the desert like ashes.

When she came back to her room, exhausted from the strain of the communion, she found Tezoca already there. He had made himself at home, as neatly as a soldier on the move: He’d managed to unfold his things in a small patch of free space amidst the clutter on the ground, and he’d wedged his lanky body between the cooking-stove and the pallet. Even cramped as he was, he looked ludicrously at ease.

“It’s an interesting town,” he said. His face was expressionless; his lips thin, the colour of bronze—no blood anywhere, not anymore.

But Xochipil was too tired and too frightened to pretend she hadn’t seen anything. “What in the machine’s name are you?” she asked. “What game do you think you’re playing?”

Tezoca’s face did not move. “You can’t say I didn’t warn you.”

“Not—” of what you were, she wanted to say, but the words wouldn’t come out of her mouth. She tried again, but the enormity of what she was about to say dwarfed her. “You’re dead,” she whispered finally, because it was the only thing that her mind could hold onto—hoping he would deny it, that he would laugh at what she suggested. “All the old gods are dead.”

“Some things,” Tezoca said darkly, “are hard to kill.”

“The machine?” she asked, because it was the only thing that came into her mind. A god, she was standing there facing a god . . .

“That too.” For once, he didn’t look amused. He unfolded himself, gradually, standing bent under the ceiling, his hair almost tangling with the iron filigrees. His eyes held her, quiet, thoughtful; and in their depths she saw the blue of the sky, smelled the reek of copal incense rising into the heavens, and the rankness of blood pooling down the altar grooves, watering the earth, mingling with the rivers and with the lakes.

It would have been her, in the old days: her they held onto the altar, her they split open with obsidian blades, her heart they held aloft to the glory of the sun or of the rain. Her blood. He’d have drunk it all, as he’d drunk the blood of the woman—and with no more pity than he had shown her.

Something, long kept at bay, finally snapped. “How dare you—how dare you come here, how dare you work your foul magic and your blood sacrifices in full sight of the hierarch? How dare you—” She quelled the shaking of her hands, and went on, “Do you have any idea of what they do to those they catch still practising the old rites?”

“I guess it doesn’t happen very often.”

“We still remember the last one. They can make the dismantling last for days.” She couldn’t suppress a shiver, remembering the screams that had rent the Well from top to bottom, drowning even the beat of the rails.

“Well,” Tezoca said lightly, “that won’t happen here.”

“How can you be so sure?” Hadn’t he seen the god-machine, hadn’t he felt the communion? Even with his blood-magic, all he had done was tear one mind, for a small time. That was pitifully slight.

His voice was light, arrogant. “The histories are right: I’m cruel, and twisted, and vicious. But I take care of my own.”

“Your own?” So much like one of the old gods, to see the world in terms of ownership, and to take everything for themselves. The histories were right.

Tezoca pulled out one of the obsidian shards, stared at it for a while. “You’ve forgotten, haven’t you? What a sacrifice truly was. You don’t remember anything.”

“I remember enough.” Bodies tumbling down the altars, so many hearts that they rotted in the sacred vessels, so much blood that the grooves overflowed, skins, casually flayed and worn like costumes—and the old gods, laughing at them from the heavens, seeing nothing in mankind but veins and arteries, nothing but beating hearts, waiting to be gobbled whole . . .

Why had she ever thought it was a good idea to welcome him into her room? Why had she believed he’d make her life better? The days he’d bring back weren’t days she could desire, not under any age of the world.

“Get out,” she said, fighting not to strike him across the face. “Get out of this room now, and don’t come back.”

Anger leapt into Tezoca’s eyes. She expected him to strike her again, or worse, to do to her what he’d done to the woman—but he did none of that. Simply stood, tall, unmoving, waiting for her fury to spend itself.

When it did, and she still hadn’t said another word, Tezoca said, “Very well.” And he picked up his things, one by one, and left.

She watched him go, her heart more at ease than it had been for a long, long while.

Xochipil woke up the following morning and instantly knew that something was wrong. The beat of the rails was so strong it was shaking her room, making the tech on the shelves ring against each other—the deep, resonant sound of glass against copper, of bronze against crystal—and the fundamental wrongness at the heart of the Well, so strong it was splitting her apart.

“Attend,” a voice said, resonating within the confines of her room. The hierarch’s voice, as deep and far-reaching as it had been on the previous day. “Workers of Mictlan’s Well. There has been a violation of the Commonwealth. Stand on your thresholds and wait for the inspection.”

A violation? Tezoca. Machine break him, what had he done? What had he done to set the Well afire in such a way?

Time to see later. Right now, what she needed to do was survive the inspection—with blood-magic still clinging to her, a stink that couldn’t be washed off.

The inspection started at the bottom. Xochipil stood on her threshold for what seemed like ages and ages, feeling the rising beat in her chest, in her lame leg—tearing her apart, slowly grinding her bones to dust, turning her muscles to mush.

From the corner of her eye, she saw the procession approach: the hierarch in his robes so white they hurt the eye, the governor and the supervisors in muted turquoise all servile behind him.

He stopped by each worker, asked them a few questions, looked at them for a while, and then moved on. Ten workers left before he reached her—nine, eight . . .

He’d be a poor hierarch indeed, if he couldn’t see what she’d done. But there wasn’t anything she could do, other than stand straight, and hope against all hope that he wouldn’t see, that he’d move on without a second glance.

And then the hierarch was standing before her—his skin gleaming in the dim light, his verdigris gaze boring into her eyes—quivering in her vision, blurred by the throbbing of the rails. “Your name?” he asked.

“Xochipil,” she said. “Worker 18861 of Mictlan’s Well.”

He was silent for a while, looking at her as if something bothered him. Please, please . . .

“Daughter of Huexocanauhtli and Camahuac,” the hierarch said, finally.

“Yes.”

“Do you know why I’m here, Xochipil?” His eyes were a wide, shining green: a many-layered patina over the perfect, pristine metal of his skin—wide, compassionate, it would be so easy to tell him, to throw herself on his mercy before he discovered the truth . . .

“No,” she whispered. “No.”

The hierarch’s gaze held her, weighed her. “Is that really the truth, Xochipil?” He put a peculiar stress on her name—lingering on it, like a lover, like a mother, caring for her, for the communion she had with the machine and everything it meant to her.

No. It wasn’t the truth. Of course it wasn’t. She had only to confess—

Machine break him, she wasn’t going to give in so easily. “Yes,” she said, and words came pouring out of her mouth almost faster than she could think them. “Every word the truth, by my will to serve, by my bond to the god-machine, in this age and the next and the next.”

The hierarch’s hand reached out, brushed her hair. His touch left a tingling, a slighter beat to counter the excruciating one of the rails. “I see,” he said. “Thank you, Xochipil.”

And then he was gone, and it was as if someone had cut tight bands of copper from Xochipil’s chest. She stood, breathing in the beat of the rails, the throbbing within her, knowing she’d won, for now.

It was only after the inspection was over that it occurred to her that everything had gone far too smoothly. The taint of blood-magic wouldn’t have been so easily removed; and the hierarch should have seen it.

Unless . . .

It took her half an hour to find it. By then, the beat of the rails was so strong it watered her eyes, and she could barely focus on what she was doing—could barely keep her thoughts straight enough to act.

But it was there, all right: a small, barely visible glyph inked in blood, and its twin on the other side of the threshold, forming the word for “protection”. They throbbed, too, beneath her fingers—not like the rails, but like a living heart.

Tezoca, it seemed, had left her a farewell gift.

Xochipil went down, knowing that whatever had happened would be at the bottom of the Well, where the power was stronger—where whatever Tezoca had been looking for doubtless resided.

Work had resumed, and the crews had little patience for a crippled girl. Even Malli threw Xochipil a warning look as she descended the footpath. Xochipil retreated instead: going down again, on the paths that coiled around the shaft of the Well. All the while, the intensity of the beat increased, and there came a growing sense of anger, of outrage from the rails.

Down, down, past the sunspheres and the stark whiteness of steel and chrome—fewer workers now, and the fevered beat was so strong she could barely walk, could barely hold on to the thought that she had to put one foot before the other, that she had to . . .

She realized that for the past moments she’d been standing absolutely still—and started walking again.

The rails were above and below her. They had narrowed, becoming close enough to reach, with the steam-cars steadily going up and down, and Xochipil was standing alone between them, staring at the white steel of the walls. The beat was too strong—in her bones and in her heart, growing until it was all she could do not to fall to her knees.

She couldn’t go further down—not to the platform where the hierarch had stood, not to the very bottom and whatever had gone wrong.

Turn back, she had to—it was folly to come here, folly to seek Tezoca. Everything was fiery pain, a pain she couldn’t bear, not for this long . . .

Machine break her, she wasn’t made of such pliable stuff.

She reached out and touched the rails.

Pain unfolded a thousandfold within her: The beat coursed up her arm, squeezed around her heart, spread in her chest like a starburst of knives—and her hand was welded to the rails, she couldn’t take it away—

She was falling, down, down, into a chasm that had no end, the earth opening itself to receive her, and the beat pounding in every fibre of her body was the beat of a huge, glistening heart, buried under the soil of the desert—a heart that was the only thing of flesh amidst the entombed human bones.

Over and over it beat within her, booming, overflowing in her ears, the liquid sound of blood in an organ so vast she could barely apprehend it—over and over . . .

At last, at long last, it ended, and she fell to her knees, gasping, with the beat still coursing in her—muted now, the pain almost bearable, almost, like rubbed salt instead of knives . . .

But the beat was a voice now, and it whispered, over and over, brother, brother . . .

A god. There was a god down there, buried beneath Mictlan’s Well. The power Tezoca had been seeking, the power the god-machine was finally ferrying back to itself—a god’s heart, a god’s magic, setting the earth atremble, energizing the rails.

That was . . . impossible.

Why would it be? Was it such a great leap of imagination, once you accepted that gods were as hard to kill as the machine?

Brother, whispered the rails—and they were angry, so angry because he was dead, or going to die—it wasn’t clear, just a jumble of impressions, a hodgepodge of words she couldn’t untangle. And, in the distance, steadily rising, was the voice of the machine, seeking to subsume the god in its midst—a persistent ache, a darkness slowly rising to smother everything.

Dare she—?

There was no other choice.

Xochipil reached out and touched the rails again.

The pain was the same, arcing straight to her heart, the beat that was so much stronger than her. Through gritted teeth she fought to get the words out, to ask her question . . .

Where is he?

Where is Tezoca?

Brother, whispered the rails.

Where . . . is . . . he?

The machine’s voice was rising, blindly questing for whoever had the audacity to touch the rails, to meddle in the link it was establishing between Mictlan’s Well and itself . . .

She had to let go; but if she did so, she wouldn’t know what had happened. Still she kept her hands on the rails, asking them over and over about Tezoca.

“You won’t find him there,” a voice said, far behind her.

Startled, Xochipil withdrew her hands from the rails—and the pressure in her body and in her mind diminished, faded to a dull, throbbing ache.

Behind her, on the floor of steel and chrome, stood a woman. Her hair was the black of congealed blood, her skin the colour of dulled copper and her face was achingly familiar.

“What do you mean?” Xochipil asked.

“You shouldn’t be here,” the woman said, shaking her head.

Xochipil suddenly realized that this was the woman Tezoca had used to cast his blood-magic, and who now stood beside the rails as if they were a minor discomfort. “What would you know?” she asked.

The woman smiled, and raised her hands. Thin red lines ran along the tips of her fingers; and there were scabs on her arms, too.

Blood-magic. Blood-offerings. But the age of gods was past, the Change had come upon them—there was no longer need . . .

“He forced this on you,” Xochipil whispered—move, move, they had to move, for the hierarch would soon come, attracted by her touch on the rails . . . “He bewitched you, tricked you into making your offerings . . .”

The woman smiled again. “I make my own choices. And so should you.” Then, without preamble, “They cast his broken body into the desert, to be devoured by carrion birds and scavengers.”

“Tezoca?” Xochipil asked, though she knew the answer. “Then he failed.”

The woman said nothing, but the dullness in her eyes was answer enough. “The god-machine is strong,” she whispered, raising her bloodied hands as if to ward off a blow. “Very strong.”

There was movement, at the edge of Xochipil’s field of vision—workers, and a flash of white robes from downwards—and the voice of the hierarch echoing all around them: “Attend. There has been a violation of the Commonwealth—”

The compulsion was overwhelming; as before, there was nothing Xochipil could do to resist, she could do nothing but to abase herself and beg the forgiveness of the machine for interfering . . .

Hands, holding her—tracing something on the nape of her neck, warm and pulsing—a push in her back, sending her sprawling, out of the path of the advancing hierarch. “Run!”

And Xochipil was up, before she could think, slipping away from them—up, up, with barely any memory of being lame—away from the pressure of the rails and the voice of the hierarch, the instinct for survival stronger than anything.

It was only when she reached the twentieth floor that she stopped, the pain and weariness she’d kept at bay slamming into her, seeing, again and again, the face of the woman, transfigured as she stood awaiting the hierarch; feeling, again and again, the touch of the blood-magic on her, sharpening her mind around the single thought of saving herself.

“Why?” she whispered, but the woman, after all, had already answered her.

I make my own choices. And so should you.

Outside, the sun shone bright and unbearable, its warm light bleaching the desert sands, shimmering over the throbbing rails. Xochipil walked, her lame leg trailing behind her, the blistering heat shrivelling her skin, her lips, her eyes.

She’d had no choice but to leave the Well, for the alarm would be raised by now; and this time the hierarch would know her, take her as his own, break her into her smallest parts and remould her into the service of the machine . . .

Rocks tumbled under her feet. It was only after a while that she realized she was looking at the sky: for the sound of beating wings, the gathering of vultures overhead.

They cast his broken body into the desert, to be devoured by carrion birds and scavengers.

Tezoca . . .

She followed the rails, feeling the distant rumble in her body, weak and watered down—the beat of the god, the beat of the machine, all one and the same for this age of the world, and the next, and the next.

After a while, there was nothing but the merciless sun, nothing but the light swathing the rocks and the boulders, and the bronze of the rails. The flask of water by her side was heavy, but she mustn’t drink, mustn’t empty it so soon . . .

Let the sun remain silent, the machine whispered, its voice coursing along the rails, mingling with the voice of the buried god, rising to silence it forever. Let the altars be made of pristine steel, let the blood and the breath remain in our bodies . . .

Let the sun remain silent . . .

After a few hours—an afternoon—an eternity—she saw in the sky the first vultures, circling over her.

“Not dead,” she whispered, stumbling on. “Not dead.”

But really, what was the point?

“Not . . . dead . . .”

When the vultures became a crowd, she walked on, towards the shrieking column of birds, away from the familiar beat of the rails—away from the god-machine and the hierarch and the heart buried in the soil, towards a mound at the base of a hill, a tangle of blood and broken limbs, wrapped in a torn cloak.

She threw rocks at the birds, and screamed until her voice was hoarse. They hopped away, watching her warily—waiting for her, too, to tumble and fall, to become carrion.

Then, in silence, she knelt by Tezoca’s side.

The skin of his face was torn and bloodied, the limbs slack under her touch. Broken bones shifted within the mass of glistening flesh.

She reached out to take the voice of the heart—and stopped herself inches from the bloody mass of the wrist. That would have been pointless. He was dead, clearly dead, his promises and goals meaningless.

Machine break you, she’d wished on Tezoca; and the machine had, indeed, broken him so thoroughly that nothing was left.

A hiss startled her. One of the birds, coming back? But no, it came from the body—a last exhalation of breath from shattered lungs, a last oozing from some mangled organ.

Tezoca’s eyes were open, and staring straight at her.

The shock of that sight travelled up her arm, devolved into the frantic beat of her heart.

“You’re dead,” she whispered, and remembered what he had told her, back in the Well.

Some things are hard to kill.

Again, the same hiss: words, whispered through crushed lips. Asking for her help?

“I wasn’t able to help myself,” she said bitterly. She hadn’t even been able to help the woman. Nevertheless, she tipped the last of the water within her flask—a few sips, nothing more—past his wasted lips.

His throat contracted, swallowing the water; then he convulsed, and the water came rushing back out in a spurt that splattered on the rocks.

The hiss again, and his eyes, boring into hers—not angry, not amused, but pleading.

She knew, of course, the only thing which would sustain him. The mere thought was revolting.

But here they were, both of them, both broken and dying in the desert; and he had given her his protection, in the cruel, desultory way of the old gods—but it was still more than the god-machine had ever given her.

“All right,” Xochipil said. She reached out and foraged in the cloak, spreading out the obsidian shards as she found them. They glimmered in the sunlight, with the remembrance of a dead age.

She picked what looked like the sharpest one, and held it for a while in her hand. “It’s not because I worship you,” she said. His eyes watched her, unblinking, unwavering. “It’s not because I fear your anger, or that the sun will tumble from the sky if you’re not properly honoured. But you watched out for me, and I’d be sorry to see you go.”

Then, as smoothly, as effortlessly as if she’d done it all her life, she brought the edge of the obsidian against her wrist, and before she could think, sliced through her veins. Blood spurted up in an obscene fountain—much, much faster than she’d expected, a stream of red falling like rain upon the dried earth.

Pain spread, too—lines of fire radiating from the slit, pulsing in her arm like a red-hot axle. Her hand wouldn’t stop opening and closing, her fingers clenching like claws; she couldn’t control its movements. She had to use her other hand to guide the wound over Tezoca’s mouth, and watched him swallow and not spit anything out, his wasted throat muscles greedily contracting.

Something was flowing, a shadow across the desert floor, an invisible wind. The air shivered as if in a storm, and dust rose, billowing like yellow sheets unfolding. Grains of dust skittered across the obsidian shards, making a noise like nails on copper, skittering across the body of Tezoca until his skin seemed to shift in the wind, until the colour of the desert had sunk into his bones and covered the red sheen of his muscles.

His hands reached up, iron coils, and drew Xochipil’s slit wrist against his mouth. His lips closed around the wound, hungrily sucking at the flowing blood like a child at his mother’s breast.

And he didn’t stop. The wound didn’t close, and still he drank, making quiet, sickening suckling sounds. Pain knifed her with each sip he took—repeated stabs with obsidian blades.

Xochipil’s thoughts were scattering, growing hazier and hazier—how much like an old god, to take everything that was given; how naïve had she been, to slit her wrist and expect it to heal, to feed a god and hope he would stop . . .

The shadows were growing, pooling under the obsidian shards—and then, in a flash of dazzling light, the shards leapt towards each other and vanished.

“Enough,” Tezoca said, his voice echoing like the anger of the storm. “Enough!” He pushed her away—sent her stumbling, fighting to hold herself upright, her fingers fumbling to close the wound in her wrist.

The ground would not stop shaking under her. Through hazy eyes she saw her blood spattered among the rocks, encircling the place where Tezoca now stood.

He was tall, and his face was streaked with black and yellow; and the stars shone in the curls of his hair; and his eyes glimmered like water in underground caves. In his hand, something shone: an obsidian mirror, in which she could still guess at the faint line of cracks. It reflected nothing but smoke; but even from where she was she could feel its heat, and the power within, the beat as strong as that of the rails.

And he was walking—flowing across the sand, reaching out to her—and in a single gesture pinching shut the wound in her wrist. Xochipil stood, shaking, trying to hold herself up, falling to one knee, and then face down on the ground, until oblivion swallowed her whole.

She dreamt that he carried her in his arms, under the shelter of a large rock, and carefully laid her on the ground like a sick child. She dreamt that he was sitting by her side, staring at the skies, weeping tears of blood for all the old gods who had fallen—for his brother Quetzalcoatl, who had once been his friend, who had once been his enemy, and who was now subsumed into the machine, in this age and the next and the next.

She dreamt that he gathered rocks and scraggly bushes and turned his smoke-filled mirror towards them—that they burst into flickering, warm flames—and that he stood outlined by the fire, watching her sleep.

Now you understand about sacrifices, he whispered.

And she didn’t, and he must have seen something of that, because he said, his voice booming like the wrath of the heavens, Not out of fear or of greed or because the sun will tumble from the sky, but because you cared.

I was sorry for you, Xochipil thought, thrashing, trying to reach him through a pane of glass—but he wouldn’t answer.

When she woke up in the dim light of the rising sun, she was alone, and the air still smelled like ashes.

He had left her his wide-brimmed hat, and some food; and had refilled her water-flask. Her hands throbbed: He had traced the glyphs for “safe journey” and “water” on their backs—all the favour he would grant her, all the thanks he would ever condescend to give.

Rising, she walked away from the ashes. In the distance was the familiar line of the rails, pulsing on the rhythm of the god-machine; and, still further away, growing fainter and fainter, a figure walking, with the stars in his hair and the glimmer of obsidian in his hands.

She could still hear his voice in her mind, lightly amused.

All gods are cruel, Xochipil. What else did you expect?

He would make his way to the capital, as aloof and as lonely as he had always been, bearing alone the burden of his struggle against the machine, never allowing his devotees to offer more than a little aid, a transitory comfort. And in the end, he would stand in the huge palace of bronze and copper: alone against the machine and its endless might, so pitifully small and defenceless, as easily crushed and broken as his obsidian mirror.

Pity closed like a fist around her heart. “Please be safe,” Xochipil whispered to the silent desert. “Please come back. Please.”

And her words, rising under a sky as red as blood, had the intensity of a prayer.

Aliette de Bodard

Aliette de Bodard by Lou Abercrombie

Aliette de Bodard lives and works in Paris, where she has a day job as a System Engineer. She studied Computer Science and Applied Mathematics, but moonlights as a writer of speculative fiction. She is the author of the critically acclaimed Obsidian and Blood trilogy of Aztec noir fantasies, as well as numerous short stories, which garnered her two Nebula Awards, a Locus Award, and two British Science Fiction Association Awards. Her space opera books include The Citadel of Weeping Pearls, a book set in the same universe as her Vietnamese science fiction novella, On a Red Station Drifting. Recent works include the Dominion of the Fallen series, set in a turn-of-the-century Paris devastated by a magical war, which comprises The House of Shattered Wings (Roc/Gollancz, 2015 British Science Fiction Association Award, Locus Award finalist), and its standalone sequel The House of Binding Thorns (Ace/Gollancz)She lives in Paris with her family, in a flat with more computers than warm bodies, and a set of Lovecraftian tentacled plants intent on taking over the place.