The clocks were striking the Hour of Wheels.
Charaz took his habitual left turn down Bezir Avenue, passing the accoutrements shop — where his coveted wind-up duck was sold — in a hurry, without daring to look in the green-tinted window. He crossed Tramazoplatz, with its whip-fast traffic, made his way up the hill through the alleys lined with oil carts and mechanics, and arrived at the prospect of his nine-hundred-and-ninetieth-floor walkup.
His mother was at the top of the stairs. She was dusting the hallway windowsills. A small bag of dust dangled from her waist.
Charaz noticed his mother’s beauty absentmindedly as he brushed past her. Most people who met Maraira to Ko noticed this perfection of form and aspect and commented audibly. She chose not to buckle on clothes but to go about nude, the better to show off her slender legs, bell-shaped chest and blinding skin. Her eyes were large and set well apart, her shoulders shone as though polished vigorously, and when she moved her joints purred, her gauges swung alluringly, her sockets irised and beckoned. Her husband had been dead some six hundred years and in all that time she had never taken another, although there were always suitors.
“Oz, I was almost about to inquire with the gendarmerie. What gets into you, kid? Where’ve you been? It’s almost nighttime.”
“I was at the track. There was this race, you couldn’t believe it, Ma. Hell on skis, that’s what Trantran was today. Came off the fifth turn by the mousetrap and just iced the Beekeeper and that whey-cart he likes to call a racer.”
“You’d better sit down, Charioteer,” said Maraira. “I’ve got news for you that…well, you might or might not like it.”
Mother and son entered the ovoid vitabule. Charaz sat on a chaise opposite the sitting-room’s largest window. Clouds wafted around the building, green and orange in the early evening sun-set.
“I have something to say about your father,” said Maraira to Ko.
“Father was lost in the War,” said Charaz. “You told me this. He was destroyed in the Harrowing”
“Something I didn’t tell you about your father. He wasn’t a civilian victim. No falling girders or Pistonfire claimed him.”
Charaz said nothing.
“He was in the War. He was a combatant. A retrofit.”
“Zounds, Ma. You never told me.”
“You used to know. I stopped reminding you four or five hundred years ago. When the Umpires called for the clang of saws and the arcs of flame, for the tread of steel and Worm-Und-Drang, your father answered the call joined the roaring boys and bully-bashers at the Werx. He came out the other side of the Werx utterly changed. They took away his legs, gave him treads, fitted him with truncheon and arquebus.And he went forth ready to sow death and to reap it.”
“He died in combat, then.”
“So we were told.”
“And we believed.”
“But we have heard. Your father isn’t dead.” said Maraira to Ko. “Never was dead at all, as it turns out.”
Charaz once more said nothing.
“So not-dead, in fact,” said Maraira, and paused, and took a breath. “…that he’s coming home again.”
Maraira rolled her chair over to the window and looked out, away from Charaz. “That battle…at the Gap…there were so many limbs and heads around, they just assumed some were your father’s. They didn’t think there were any survivors. But your father had gotten lodged under a strut at the Ninth Bridge. He’s been there this whole time. Some sweepers found him two nights ago.”
She turned to face her son. Her eyes were luminous and blue in the fading light. “He’s coming home.”
“Our lives end here, then.”
“Not yours. Mine. Better to say, it begins again.”
Mother and son could not find anything to say to each other for several minutes. The room was quiet but for muted clicks and whirrs, the sound of life in Phlogiston.