If someone has eight eyes, how are you supposed to know which one to focus on?
I had to figure this out fast, because the end of the alley was blocked by a big ball of what looked like electrical wires, standing on eight long plastic legs, and it had eight binocular lenses arranged across its front.
It didn't look quite like the spiders that had chased me and Jo beforehand...but then, this was a city, and they did things differently here.
For example, unlike the catwalks I had gotten used to, the alleys here didn't let you stop. The floors were the kind of moving surface you see at baggage claims, the ones where the belt goes around and around the carousel, and as you stand there waiting for your bag, which will always be near the end of the line, because you got to the airport and checked your bag early like you were supposed to -- you look at the way the plates on the conveyor shift around each other to go around the curves of the carousel.
In the twisting alley, this was the only surface to stand on. No sidewalks here, just conveyor, speedily bringing everything and everyone closer to the pale green light that shone beyond the tops of the tenements and shops. All people, all trash, towards the tree. One wonders what the tree did with it.
Marvelous for traffic, I suppose, but I didn't want to get close to the tree, not before I found my Mother. And I didn't want to get any closer to the spider.
Who had absolutely NO trouble holding his light little body above the conveyor by pressing his legs against the siides of the narrow alley. I felt heavy and clumsy in comparison. I was heading at top speed towards a massive spider who had more mobility in this situation than me, and whose motives were unknown.
But then the spider did a curious thing. It removed one leg from the wall and bent it downward, then struck the wall sharply. Light spilled into the alley as a door swung open.
As I sped beneth the spider, it grabed me right off the conveyor and threw me through the open door.
Inside, a cheap old flourescent light hung from a low wooden ceiling that was mostly exposed beams and pipes beneath the boards of the floor above.
And there before me was my darling, changeling sister. With her backpack.
"Alright," I said, "spill. How did you find this place? Why are you here?"
Marina wasn't smirking like she usually did. In fact, she was almost scowling. "Big Chief gave me an EZ-pass to this city," she said, looking me dead in the eye. "He asked who was willing to go find you, and I volunteered."
"You jumped feet-first into something again." I sighed. "I told you not to --”
"And what about you? You've been galavanting off with Jo to this place and that place, sometimes telling Mom where you were going, sometimes not. Don't you dare tell me not to jump feet-first into something when all I'm doing is trying to follow you! You get away with it, why can't I?"
"Okay, so maybe I've been setting a bad example. Why did Big Chief send you here? I didn't think he knew of this place."
"It started when the massive stones appeared in the sky. They were headed right down to the city, but then they vanished. So I got a call from Big Chief. He told me and Martin and the others to come to his office. When we got there, all he said was 'Something's gone down in Up New York. I need my favorite shaman-in-training. She ain't here. Who wants an EZ-pass to where I think she's gone?' And he threw in an offer of Vermont-made maple syrup, so I could hardly resist. So...this is a city, right? Where are we?" She frowned. "You told me about the Left city, the Right city, Forward, Back, and Down, and...this isn't Up City, is it? No, it can't be, it doesn't have big chunks missing. So where are..." Her eyes widened and her pupils dilated, as they did when she was about to cast a spell. "If this isn't the Center City, then it's..."
"Bingo," I said. "Jo wanted to see the Heart of New York, and here it is."
Marina frowned. "But it's got a massive tree in the center!"
"True, and the streets here are a massive conveyor belt, and we're in a room that looks like anything between 1930s and 1970s bare-bones drab. This city keeps changing, but it can never erase the old traces completely. And the oldest trace is the one it can never erase: its own will. At its heart the city is alive, growing, and ever hungry."
"I'm sure the mayor would love you to write his speeches for him", said Marina. "By the way, I'd like you to meet an associate of mine." She clapped twice.
An iron person came down the stairs, thumping loudly with each step.
"Hello", said a woman's monotone from the iron person. "My name is Feryal."
She had a mouth. It was not there when she was silent. When she spoke, it moved, not in sync with her voice.
"Marina here gave me a voice", said Feryal, in the same monotone. "You are staring at my face. Is something wrong."
"No!" I said, waving my hands. "Nothing! Nothing at all! Never mind! Nice to meet you, Feryal. Is this your house? I'm sorry to have intruded, but the spider opened the door and I took a chance that --”
"The spider", said Feryal, as her hands signed expressions of frustration. "The spiders. Only they can move easily now." Her hands clenched into fists. "Only they can avoid the moving streets that sweep us all to the tree. Only they can avoid being...ADDED to the tree. The rest of us are forced to hide inside. Business has ground to a halt. We have no bridges over the streets and no easy way of reaching each other, and every now and then, someone who falls onto the tracks is swept away. Maybe they can grab onto a post. Maybe there's nothing to grab onto. The main thouroughfares are so wide that it's hard to reach the opposite side of the conveyor before you hit the tree and...basically, we're all being shuffled closer to the center. Some of us can make it to the outer edges again, but until we figure out how to tunnel beneath the streets without injuring the Machine, we're being lost one by one." She made the sign for "grieve."
"We are made of iron. We are useful to the tree. We feed the tree. I escaped. I will not describe what I saw. But will you save those of us you can. Please. The Machine wants to be rid of us so she can sweep all away and build anew. Stop her."
"I, uh..." Boy, I'd made a rash bargain, hadn't I? Swearing non-interference is all fine and dandy when you don't have to watch good people die. "Look, just as a hypothetical, supposing that you were to decide that the situation was intolerable and the tree needed to be stopped, how might you go about stopping it? What's the thing closest to your position that's causing all the trouble?"
"And what does the tree add to itself?"
"What kind of people?"
"Iron. Where are you going with this."
"Do you think the tree would like it if something else reached its center?"
"No...I mean, the streets swept up all the debris, but I don't know where that went. What other material do we have besides our buildings...wait, are you suggesting we clog up the thing with stone from our own structures."
"Well, I...yeah, I mean, you could pry stuff off the roof and throw it, see if that --"
"I've got a better idea," said Feryal, and she dashed up the stairs as quickly as an iron body could manage.
I turned to Marina. "What's she thinking of doing?"
"Well, this house used to belong to her father, so -- "
"I take you mean her late father?"
"Unfortunately. Yes. So I can't imagine she'd be willing to do much to it, but...who knows. Why don't we sit in the adjoing room while we wait for her to come up with her plans?"
"Fine by me."
"Alright," I said, sitting across the table from Marina, "First of all, I'm genuinely impressed that you managed to give Feryal a voice. That's high-level wizardry."
"Oh?" said Marina. "consider my...heritage. You really think I'm working with levels and ranks here?"
"I figured that had something to do with the results of your work. But it's still a powerful enchantment...even though literally none of her people can hear her voice."
"Well, that's just my nature, to make semi-helpful-- ”
I slapped my palm on the table. "No," I said. " None of this 'oh it's just a part of who I am' crap. You're not a total fairy. You are just as much a human being, and that gives you the ability to to act against your nature, and examine your own behavior if you choose. You had a reason for giving Feryal a voice. What was it?"
"I... figured she would want to meet you at some point," said Marina, sitting up more stiffly. "And she could only do sign language. Do you know sign language? I have no idea. I just wanted to make things easier for you when you met her. And now she's multilingual, so I'd say my work benefitted her."
"Did you ask her before you set to work?"
"Well, you know how fairies -- "
"I mean, no, i didn't. I guess I was being hasty again." She slumped in her seat. "You're right. I do these things without thinking, don't I? Maybe Big Chief knew I'd be the first to volunteer for this mission. Maybe he set me up!"
"You're my sister," I said. "You volunteered because I'm family. I assume."
"Well, yes. Plus Maple Syrup. But what about Martin? Isn't he...I mean, wasn't he..."
"Neither of us knew what we were. Since we parted, Martin's become a rather shadowy figure. Did he come to Big Chief's call?"
Just then, the building shook heavily. Cracks appeared in the walls. Window panes cracked and fell from their frames.
"Damn," I said, "The Machine must think I'm interfereing with her plans. I should probably go up to the roof and have a chat with her." I rose from my seat and headed for the stairs.
"I've never met this Machine", said Marina. "I'm coming with you."
We reached the roof, lit by the green glow of the tree. The city of low stone buildings stretched before us, almost none of the structures taller than where we stood, save for the odd stone tower in the distance. An iron figure stood on a roof, a couple buildings away from us, and another one emerged from a rooftop door closer to us. Perhaps to see where the heavy vibration was coming from. It was not the machine -- it was Feryal, jumping up and down. Each time she landed, the building shook.
"Clarify soemthing for me," said Marina. "You thought the Machine would be angry that you were helping Feryal. Why?"
"And speaking of which", said Feryal, turning to me, "You were pretty equivocal when you gave me advice. What's your deal? Why couldn't you have just told me what to do?"
"I, uh...um...I kind of promised the Machine I wouldn't interfere," I said. "Because I contacted her in the hopes she could help me find my friend, and I had to promise that if I didn't interfere with her plans for Jo, then she'd let me go, and...it sounds really bad, I know, but I had to get out of that conversation somehow, and I figured I could -- "
"Figured, nothing," said Marina, "you were desperate to get away from the gaze of a god. What kind of contract is that? I wouldn't blame you if you broke it. Heck, promising that you won't intercede on behalf of a friend is a promise you shouldn't uphold anyway. Why would you even think of making that kind of promise? Why did you even contact a malevolent god?"
I told Feryal and Marina the story of Up New York, and what I had offered the Iron People.
Marina hissed through her teeth. "That explains a lot. I'll have a fair amount to tell Big Chief when I see him."
"Sounds like you're in a bind", said Feryal. "Have a god give life to a group of people who were lost partly because of your mistake...or get you and your friend home. My, my, my, what a rash promise indeed."
"I kind of figured I could get out of the deal somehow. You know, get the wizards down from the tree, get Jo home and the wax people living again so the Iron People would be on my side, and -- ”
OH, DID YOU? said a voice from above.
MY GODDAMN LIFE STARTED WITH A BETRAYAL, I'LL HAVE YOU KNOW. SNATCHED RIGHT OUT OF MY CRADLE BY SOMEONE MY PARENTS TRUSTED, AND MADE TO HOLD UP THIS WORLD SO THE GIANTS COULD STAND ON IT AND HOLD UP THE FANCY CITY IN THE SKY, FOR THE WHIM OF A MAN WHO WANTED TO BUILD SOMETHING AMUSING. ISN'T THAT JUST THE HEART OF NEW YORK CITY? ALL THE FANCY PEOPLE LIVING HIGH IN THE SKY ON THE OPPORTUNITY THEY STOLE FROM ME. AND YOU DARE TO MAKE A BARGAIN WITH ME THAT YOU HAVE NO INTENTION OF UPHOLDING? YOU'RE NO DIFFERENT THAN THE REST OF THE HIGH-AND-MIGHTY.
A massive blob of wax fell a few feet from me, and slowly rose into the shape of a human being.
I'LL GIVE YOU YOUR DAMN WAX PEOPLE, HOW'S THAT? HAVE ALL OF THEM. HAVE ALL THE WAX YOU CAN STAND.
More blobs began to fall, here and there, on this rooftop and that rooftop. But mostly on this one. They lurched towards me and Marina. Feryal, who had been some distance from us, was cut off by the sudden crowd of wax people.
"Wait, lady Machine! I think this is all an unfortunate circumstance that we ought to discuss, one living being to another. I never really meant you harm, after all, and -- ”
WHO CARES WHAT YOU MEANT? YOU'RE JUST ANOTHER DECIEVER.
"Get ready to run and jump," whispered Marina. "You've got to go and tell the others about breaking down their homes." She passed me her backpack. Just as heavy as before. "This will help. Open it once you get clear."
"Break my promise after all? Fine. Lady Machine here broke it first. How am I supposed to get across the gap, though?"
"Think Fairy. Think Peter Pan. How did he do it? You do the same."
"Fine. Just hang on. I've got one more question to ask the Machine." I held out my hands, like I was a traffic cop, and the wax people halted. I called to the metal sky. "I'm not finished trying to reason with you, Lady Machine. Tell me of your past. Who were you snatched from?"
WHY DON'T YOU ASK YOUR MOTHER? SHE'S IN THIS CITY SOMEWHERE.
"Wait, does that mean -- ”
I turned and dashed to the edge of the roof, and jumped.