What I'm Up To: an excerpt from "The Machine God"
I'm currently working on the History book 3, the related story collection Whithorse and the collaboration The Machine God, part of a set of novels we're calling The Drifting Isle Chronicles. I'm going to share with you a bit of The Machine God. As things stand, this is the opening of the book. I'm really excited about it, and I hope you'll get a little idea of what the book's going to be like.
April 2nd, Before
Professor Oladel Adewole put his cup down on the coffeehouse table. Thin, insipid, badly roasted, outrageously expensive. This was what Eisenstadters called coffee? At least the day was reasonably warm, warm enough to sit outside; still, scudding clouds just touched the enormous island of Inselmond, floating in the east above the city. He drummed his long brown fingers on the table and resumed nibbling on the sugared biscuit he'd gotten to wash the coffee down. At least these people knew how to make decent pastry.
A tiny rustling brought his attention toward his feet; a flock of small birds were searching the cobblestones for crumbs. They were something like the tiny yellow sparrows back home in Jero, but dun-colored and drab--rather a good comparison between Jero and Eisenstadt. A little brown sparrow hopped out of the clump toward him. "Tsee! Tsee-tsee-tsee-tsee-Hi! You finishing that? Tsee? Tsee?"
The tiny yellow sparrows of Jero did not accost coffeehouse patrons. "Pardon?" said Adewole.
"Tsee-tsee-tseeee simple question!" said another sparrow.
"Tsee? Tsee? Share? Yes? Tsee?" chirped the little birds, hopping by cautious, hopeful degrees toward the astonished man. Adewole crumbled up a corner of the biscuit and scattered it onto the pavement; the birds settled down to business, hurrying from crumb to crumb until one of them let out a shriek. "Cat! Cat!" The sparrows united into a flock and streaked to an overhead wire, where they began abusing a disappointed orange tom standing where the birds had lately been. "Tsee-tsee-tsee Bad kitty! Bad kitty!"
Adewole wondered which would be harder for him to accept: Eisenstadt's aggressively sentient birds or the coffee. No, hardest to accept would be the loss that had led him to this backwater. Definitely that.
The sky began to darken, and the temperature dropped; Inselmond's shadow was approaching the coffeehouse as it did this time every morning. Time to go. He paid his bill, adjusted the bright purple-striped wool kikoi cloth draped across his suit-clad shoulders, and headed toward his lodgings. Perhaps his trunks had finally caught up with him.
When he'd first told his colleagues in Jero he was accepting a visiting professorship at Eisenstadt, they'd peppered him with advice:
"Wear the dark pants and jackets the locals do, but bring kikois to wear over them--wool or silk, not cotton. It's cold even in the summer!"
"You can find real adeesah in the city--when the other expatriates trust you, they'll point you to which Jerian restaurants have black market chicken suppliers. The others serve rabbit stew with red pepper and garlic waved over the top, slop it over the wrong kind of rice and call it adeesah. All the birds talk there, even the chickens, the stupid things! And bring plenty of dried red pepper. Those people do not believe in food with flavor."
"Also fill one of your trunks with green coffee beans and bring a stovetop roaster with you. Not that trunk. The big one. The locals don't believe in coffee, either, and those beans will be worth their weight in gold with the Jerians there--get you introduced into all kinds of society."
And the piece of advice he heard the most often: "Don't live near the Drift. It's cold and it's dangerous." Adewole glanced again at the approaching shadow of the island above the city, the shadow the locals called the Drift. The University had arranged his lodgings before his arrival. They'd given him a wide range of possibilities, but unlike some academics he was not a man of independent means and lived only on his salary; he'd had to settle for a neighborhood in the penumbra. The street lights didn't come on in the day as they did in the full Drift, but he would have preferred lodgings altogether outside the shadow's path.
As he walked, the streets darkened around him, and he realized he'd taken a wrong turn; he was walking straight into the Drift. He cast about for an idea of where the penumbra was, but the rows of houses made it difficult. Timers inside the street lamps ticked and tocked; the lamps flickered into life. Adewole paused, trying to regain his bearings.
"Hey, bean pole," said a nasal voice behind him. Something sharp poked him in the ribs. "Don't screw around. Put yer hands up and let Artur here in yer pockets." A short Eisenstadter who must have been Artur appeared; he couldn't have been more than sixteen. Adewole towered over him. A dirty bandana covered his round face so that only squinting eyes appeared beneath the brim of a ragged cloth cap.
"Are you mugging me?" said Adewole.
The something-sharp poked him again, harder. "Shaddup, hands up, let's get this over with, bird-eater!" Adewole shrugged and raised his hands above his head. He had almost nothing in his pockets, what did it matter if he lost a few coppers?
A whistle shrilled. "Hoi! Stop! Hoi!" a man shouted. The something-sharp retreated. Artur and his accomplice took off running, away from the street lamps and deeper into the dark of the Drift. "Hoi!" yelled the man again. "They went that way!" Three sturdy young men in policeman's uniforms ran after the muggers, arms and legs pumping. They were faster, but those boys were probably trickier, thought Adewole. The whistle-blower came to a stop beside him. "ARE…YOU…HURT……SIR?" he bellowed up at Adewole.
"No, nor I am not deaf, officer," winced the tall Jerian. "But I am new to your city and would appreciate directions back to my lodgings."
"Begging pardon, sir, not everyone who comes from elsewhere speaks the lingo," smiled the police officer.
As he followed the policeman's directions back to his flat, Adewole pondered the years he'd spent learning "the lingo." Whose lingo, he'd never been overly fussy about; he'd always been a natural polyglot. He spoke not only his mother tongue Jerian and the five major languages of the rest of his native Kishwahan continent to the south, but also the Rhendalian spoken here in Eisenstadt and the other two languages of Allendere, this small northern continent to which he'd exiled himself. He had a fair grasp of both dialects of Shuchunese and enough of the three other languages spoken in the Eastern Sea Islands to get along. And then there were the ancient variants of the languages--and the symbols. Pictographs, hieroglyphs, talismans, symbols of all kinds fascinated him, especially the many that appeared across cultures.
Adewole glanced at Inselmond, floating silently in the sky to the east. The island wasn't one of the world's marvels, it was the very marvel itself. Whatever event had thrown it into the air reverberated through every culture. Everywhere were stories about the island, even in far-away Shuchun. All speculated on how the island came to be and what was up there; most of the stories involved an angry god, a concept that agnostics like Adewole himself found hard to grasp but fascinating all the same. So many stories around the world--and not just those about the mysterious island in the sky--seemed woven of the same stuff, and Adewole had made it his life's work to trace the threads. He'd always intended to trace this thread to Eisenstadt, but on his own terms, not like this.
He came to the steps of his accommodations, a shabby-genteel three-story building of brick stucco'ed over with faded yellow plaster. Struggling coral-red geraniums drooped in the planter boxes below each window, the Drift's penumbra starving them of just enough light that they would never thrive but not so much that they would die. "Little flower," he murmured, gently flicking a petal, "I know just how you feel." He climbed the steps and went inside.