The City

This much was true: the City kept perfect time.

There was a clocktower in the City. It was small, distant, yet Oliver heard its deafening chime every day. He had tried to walk to it, but it never seemed to grow any nearer. It stood high over the other buildings, staring out through its pale face. He could not help but think of that clocktower as the true Xoth. He could not help but want to destroy it.

“Hello, Oliver. What are you reading?”

Today the voice came from a stone pigeon, carved to look like it was playing in the fountain Oliver sat with his back against. The fountain, of course, was dry. Oliver turned another page. “‘The Fate of the River.’”

The pigeon was on the edge of the fountain, now. He had not seen it move. He never seemed to see Xoth move. “Is it very good?”

“Passable.”

He wouldn’t explain further, he decided. He hated the silence that the City dwelled in, hated it so deeply that he wanted to carve his own skin off if only to have his screaming back the quiet, but he hated relying on Xoth more. Too often he found himself talking to them as if they were another person—

Oh, damn it, he’d already begun. “A captain’s account of his ship,” he was saying. “The ship travels from planet to planet, though I haven’t quite figured out why. It may be allegorical.”

“That sounds interesting.”

That sounds interesting. He had heard Xoth say that so many times and in so many places that these days his eye twitched whenever he heard it. Read it yourself if you’re so damn interested, he’d thought over and over, it’s not like you haven’t got enough time. Patronizing monster. Maniacal automaton.

“They call the ship a ‘rocket,’” Oliver added. “Seems like it runs on some kind of magical engine. They need special suits to go on the planets, or something in the air could kill them.” Shut up. Stop talking to them. Shut up. “Most of the planets are uninhabited. It’s a lonely sort of book.” He turned another page. Shut up. Shut up. “They keep getting further and further from their home planet.”

Shut up!

The pigeon was on the ground, now. “Why are they going so far away?”

“They’re explorers, I suppose.”

For a split second there was a kind of change in the air, a drawing-in, like the City itself was breathing. Oliver knew this change, and he hated it too, and in the same moment he awaited it every day. It was his bearings in a directionless world. The City exhaled, and the clocktower boomed out the same as it always did: thirteen strikes of the bell. Thirteen ear-splitting echoes.

Around them, around this city square he had found himself in today, the Dead were in motion. They were always in motion. The clocktower never stayed them, which part of him found curious. Part of him wanted to ask Xoth about it. Part of him wanted to try ripping one of the Dead open to see what was inside. See how they ticked.

Ticked. Clockwork. Siobhan always liked his jokes, he thought dully, and turned another page. “But,” he went on, after the last reverberation had vanished into the swallowing silence, “maybe they’re just trying to escape.”

“That’s very interesting,” said the pigeon.