Excerpts

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Prologue
Resteth Construction Site
(1.17, Year Zero, oA)

Shane was busy falling in love the day all the babies appeared.

Years later, she would remember every detail of the site: the blinding day-heat and clanging of hammers, the nervous hand of Laurence. She would recall the skeleton of the half-built Tower, its shadow at their feet like a maze; and she would watch the forms of workers, who flicked beam-to-beam overhead.

She and Laurence often walked there and fought the urge to kiss each other. But this day, there had been smoke in the air, and the heavy breath of a burial chamber circled about like a carrion bird.

“Are you alright?” Laurence asked her.

“Just thinking of my mother,” she said.

A year later, it still pained her; Lisbeth, her mother, had died in battle, crushed to death by a giant. A day never passed where Shane didn’t think of it, of the god Omnis and the coming of rain.

“Let’s stop for a second,” Laurence said, and pulled her behind a stack of steel bars. In the shade, out of sight of the workers, her attention drew back from the war.

Laurence was seventeen, confident, full of answers; but now he stood in the dimness, unsure. He raised his pepper eyes to hers.

“I want to kiss you,” he said.

She felt heat burbling into her cheeks; her throat closed; she looked away. For days, even weeks, she had thought about this. But now? And here?

The snake.

She launched herself back when she saw it, curled up at the base of the pile. She found herself pressed into Laurence, and he grappled to keep them both standing.

“It—it’s a spitter—” she croaked.

Laurence tucked her head against his throat, his hand on the back of her hair. He stepped back, drawing her with him. She could sense his eyes scouting the ground—

“It’s dead,” he said, and they both relaxed. His words vibrated onto her forehead.  “It’s the stripe on its back,” he told her. “It should be orange, but it faded to red.”

For a moment she said nothing. Feeling stupid, she said “Oh—”

She stopped speaking as, in one instant, they both realized how close they were. Laurence sprung away from her as if he had been zapped.

“Um,” he stammered.

“Um,” she said.

Both their gazes found the snake.

She could see now that it was shriveled; a loose bar had fallen on it. She cursed herself for panicking. Her father would not approve.

“Well,” Laurence said, and straightened his tunic, “Let’s have a look then, shall we?”

Shane watched him kneel before the bar and wrestled with her heartbeat. His dark brown cheeks were tinged with red; he must feel the same.

He pushed his glasses up his nose. “It’s been dead for days.” He grinned. Mischief glinted in his eyes, and her stomach turned to silk.

“I know that look,” she told him.

“Do you have that handkerchief?” he said.

It took a moment to process this. “You mean the one Dead gave me?”

Laurence nodded. Deadalus was a friend of theirs—if he could be called a friend. Most people called him“Dead” instead. It stuck a little better.

She fished for the handkerchief in her pockets. “I was going to toss it.” She pulled it out. “But I wanted to show it to Pen.”

Laurence reached for the horrible thing. “Convince her that Dead has poor taste?”

She nodded, handing it over; the coarse cotton was littered with bare female bodies, privates covered by a tangle of vines.

Deadalus had bragged he had sewn it himself. Shane shivered as the thing left her hands.

“You’re picking it up?” she asked him.

Laurence curled the fabric over the corpse. “Of course. Could you lift that bar?”

Shane moved to his side and raised the bar from its place at the base of the pile. It was heavy, but it came up with ease. Ever since the blacksteel had begun mass production, her father, the main Tower architect, had insisted she haul it about.

“What can we do with a dead snake?” she said.

“It could give Willder a good scare, don’t you think?”

Shane smiled as Laurence pulled the snake away. He was the very picture of a young academic—tall and gangly, with his glasses glinting, usually behind book covers and his notes—but he had a beautiful penchant for pranks, and she dearly loved him for it.

“Okay, but let’s hide it somewhere safe,” she said, as Laurence tied a knot in the handkerchief. “We wouldn’t want someone to get scared and fall off an upper Level.”

“’Course not,” Laurence said, standing. “I was thinking maybe that room in the basement. The one with the weird machine.”

Shane let the bar clunk back to the earth, raising a red cloud of dust. “You want to try and break in again?”

Laurence smiled and tilted his head toward the sky. She followed his gaze up through the Tower, where its bars broke the clouds into pieces like an overlarge frame of stained glass.

She never tired of seeing the structure. Omnis himself had commissioned her father, and given him the power to name it. He had selected the name “Resteth” after her mother and the Region of Rest.

Laurence took her fingers into his while his other hand held the snake. “It’s really something, isn’t it?” he said. He understood her pride.

She nodded. The Tower was like nothing humans had ever created before: It was an intricate skeleton, even where the work was complete. As a skeleton, it had few walls, and opted instead for lines of vertical bars not unlike a prison cell’s. It was meant to work alongside the heated earth, rather than against it; the warm days and fresh breeze would flow through the cage, while the lectrics offered protection from insects and beasts. As for weather, there wasn’t much to account for; according to Laurence’s mother, a scientist, this Region was not privy to sandstorms. And of course, it had never rained here.

Still, Shane had her doubts about the nighttime. This Region was known for its coolness at night, and temperatures in the fifties brought illness. Without warmth, people could not survive here. But her father claimed a plan for this, too—a secret he hid in the basement, behind a huge locked door.

“You want to know what he’s hiding,” Laurence said. “You’re curious. I can tell.”

Shane knew she was blushing; of course she wanted to know. Laurence slipped his free hand into hers. They began to walk again, and Shane lost herself in him: he was so lean, his skin so smooth, and his movements all so sure. In her head she cursed the snake for stealing their first kiss.

Shane was still dreaming of his lips when her head slipped off his shoulder. He had stopped before a Tower entrance. She looked up. He was no longer smiling.

“What is it?” she asked him.

He turned his serious eyes on her. “Do you hear that?” he said.

She tilted her gaze up to the entryway, to the tangle of metal where he had been looking. She listened, but there was nothing—except the distant shouts of men.

But—where was the hammering? The sounds of work? The shouts in the distance became uniform, morphing from individual words into cheers.

She could see no one above, in the scaffolding. Everyone had left.

He pulled on her, stepping into the entryway. “I think it’s news,” he said.

And together they ran, up the blacksteel steps, through a hall of spaced steel bars. Below them, she could see the foundational maw, a hole where her father and Willder had built the water pumps and Gens.

She was not afraid of the blackness, not now. If the news was good—

“Shane!”

The two of them stopped and spun around; behind them was Laurence’s geologist mother, running up to them in a bathrobe. Shane and Laurence both stood stunned; neither of them had ever seen her without her slacks and canvas shirt.

As she neared them, Shane saw the glisten of water on her ebony hair and legs. The woman stopped to lean on her knees, and beneath the robe, she wore nothing.

Laurence turned away sharply, and Shane felt her cheeks go pink.

“I found you,” she said, “thank goodness.” The woman straightened and retied her belt. “I thought you might be back here. Shane, we are needed upstairs.”

Laurence tightened his grip on her hand. “What’s going on?” he said.

His mother flashed her dark eyes at him. “The war’s over,” she said, but her voice was flat. She turned back to Shane. “I’m sorry, but we have to go. There aren’t enough women here.”

“Women?” Laurence said. “But it’s empty up there—”

“Not anymore,” she said.

The woman took Shane by the arm and pulled, and Shane looked back just as she and Laurence broke apart. Their eyes met, his speckled gaze looking lost. After a few seconds of rushing and turning, the layers of bars between them had almost cut Laurence from view; but just before he vanished, Shane caught a glimpse of the handkerchief.

It hung forgotten against his leg; she could still see the curve of the snake.

Shane looked back to his mother. “What’s happening?” she said. And even more pressing, “Why women?”

Laurence’s mother did not lose her pace. “Because the children are all female,” she said.

And that was when Shane heard it—the sound of babies crying. The sound had been hidden beneath the shouts, but now it burst through the layer of excitement, a cacophony in the blackness around them. As they ascended, taking steps two and three at a time, the noise grew more discordant, unfettered. They were the cries of infant children and toddlers; there had to be dozens of them.

It occurred to Shane that if she had gone mad, this was what madness would sound like.

But what are they doing here? she thought. No children are allowed—

And then, above all, a desperate scream: “Mother!” A child’s voice. “Mother!”

The screeching cry was joined by others, children who could not have been older than three. Mother! Mother!—the chant rose like flame, overriding the babies’ wails. Mother! they cried, and tripled, redoubled—Mother! Mother! Mother!—until it felt like the earth itself were crying, as if long-forgotten shards of rain had cut the sun from the sky.

And then, for a moment, there was quiet, and only that first voice.

“Mother! Mother…” The voice cracked. “Mother….”

When the voice caved in upon itself, Shane could feel it ending. It echoed out and died between the bars, as if trapped in them, forever.

I didn’t kiss Laurence, Shane thought to herself.

I didn’t kiss Laurence. I should have.

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