The Serialized Novel, Bit 4

Who are these strange metal manikins of Phlogiston? Do they know what human beings know: childhood, aging, copulation, infirmity, death? Do they eat? sleep? sing? laugh? fight? kill?

They do know these things and they do not. Not in the way we know them. They are not born, neither do they age. They are as they have been from the

beginning; mothers are mothers always, sons are sons always, fathers are fathers always. There are no daughters. They do not change stations as men and women do. Only the Fathers and Sons may choose to be retrofitted — into ploughing, steaming, shouting engines of war.

They do not die, unless they put themselves in harm’s way. Calamity and heartbreak claim them seldom, age and illness never. Neither do they grow old or change in any way, save through retrofitting. Centuries pass, and turn into uncrossable oceans of time. Their memories are not good and perhaps this saves them. Friends and spouses are forgotten by all parties involved, new ones replace them, and the old might never have happened at all. They are not good about saving keepsakes, either.

They seldom die, but the periodic wars that sweep Phlogiston claim the lives of thousands. Many more fall in the fights and races. There are many fewer than there used to be.

They do not consume, save for pleasure. They do not sleep. They do copulate, but the less said about this the better. Only say this; Phlogiston is a world ruled by the males; the sexual act, as it occurs in Phlogiston, undoes the women utterly.

They live solely for the pleasure to be gotten from sport and murder. They like it best when the two are combined.

 

Observe one Charaz Modalpha, returning from his afternoon of blood sport and death in the orange light of the evening sun. Once there were three in Charaz’s little family in Phlogiston. Then there were two, and now there are three again.

Charaz breaks into a run where Trolleystrasse meets the red tents of the Revolving City. He ducks past the Horologe as it strikes the Hour of Spines and darts into the dark corridor of an alley. There are discarded hats and whey pouches, and bits of metal recovered from races gone awry, discarded when the absurdity of the souvenir became evident to its scavenger. From a window miles above he can hear gasps and rending metal; the sounds of sex.

“A whey-besotted pistonero,” says a voice in a babble of voices around a corner, “a pitted, pocked, creaky gallows- timer, a crescent-eyed reeler out of Scraps. Who’d hold him, who’d wind his frottage, who’d give him the awls from a pile of rusted bezirs? His squeals have come to whoreaway, and many hard zounds.” The voices pass into another alley, without Charaz having got a look at them.

He emerges at the south side of Mezzanine Circus, where the nine-channel chariot tracks meet in a mile-square of blooming, buzzing confusion, crowds of duck-drawn carriages vying for the right to pass, and asserting that right at hellbending speed. He dances across the channels, here dodging an omnibus, as gleaming yellow faces gawk out its green-tinted portholes, there narrowly missing a one-duck, and there again incurring the ire of a trio of mothers returning from the oilery, three mothers perched in a row on the back of a tin wagon, waving rattles at Charaz and shouting weak depredations.

Behind him, two mothers chittering. “Land sakes, no need for jangoleroes or rum. Every eve at the Spigots, every morn at the Werx. That man has no time for family nor freedom for friskiness. Whey-brained or work-strained, there’s no calling him home.”

The other mother replied: “La, my son’s on with his Scraps when the sun wakes and long after the moons sleep. Hied himself to the Werx and came home with pistonero fists and spiked chest-greaves. All gone for the fights, never a day for ducks or lather. My horrid little brawling baby. Has Faize heard from that boy of hers?”

Mother number one: “Faize? She’s clean again, no memory for friends nor foes, nor where the good shops are, nor shows. That man of hers, frisky as they come, ha ha! Always diddling in her diaphragm, knocking at her locks!”

Laughter from the mothers. Charaz leaps off in front of a bulbous bronze wigwam. Its entrance represents the upper half of a head, eyes staring downward, door-mouth gaping to swallow patrons. Charaz pauses a moment, and darts into the fetid chambers of the Spigots.

Inside, his eyes iris to twice their accustomed diameter. The light is dim, and the stench is overpowering. Not everyone in Phlogiston can smell. It is a talent restricted to a few, one of whom is Charaz. In a place like the Spigots, he regrets his peculiar third sense.

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