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Chapter 1: The Very Last One

As a freelance listener, Eolh had three unbreakable rules. This was the only way to get by in a place as lawless as Lowtown.

The first rule was practical: Eolh never took a job unless he got to choose the listener’s roost. You have to be the master of your own self-preservation. That’s just the way it was.

Number two: No blood contracts. This rule was born of hard-earned experience. People who hire assassins always fall into one of two groups: either they have no money, or they have no qualms about murdering said assassin once the job was done.

Besides, he hated wet work.

Number three: Eolh only did his share, no less and never more, because nobody ever got paid extra for overachieving. And if a job went south, as they frequently did, he wanted the least amount of blame possible.

Horace knew about Eolh’s three rules. He also knew that Eolh never broke his rules, and once a job began, Eolh always did his part.

“That’s why we need you, Eolh,” Horace said. Horace was the boss of the Blackfeather gang. A huge corvani who only seemed to grow larger with age, Horace never started a fight he didn’t intend to finish. He was sitting on a stool, one winged elbow on the high-top bar. A copper pitcher of ale, sweating and half-empty, sat between them.

“This job is different,” Horace said. “I need someone who will see it through, no matter what.”

“Why not one of your own? Or one of the new beaks?” Eolh asked. “They’d be cheaper.”

“Money isn’t the problem.”

“Money is always the problem.”

“Not on this job. Listen, Eolh,” the old boss said, leaning closer, “I need you on this one. It’s too important. Too big. You’re the best in Lowtown. In the whole city. We both know it’s true.”

The Blackfeather boss reached out a feathered hand, and if Eolh had been sitting any closer, Horace might’ve clapped him on the shoulder. But Eolh never let anyone get that close anymore.

“And,” Horace leaned over the table, almost knocking over his own mug as he did, his breath ripe with ale, “all you have to do is follow and listen.”

“And if something goes wrong?”

“Extra pay, depending on the situation.”

“How much scrap?”

“You? Ha. You’re too old for that. Besides, I’ve got plenty of muscle already.”

Eolh narrowed his eyes. “Who?”

“Eolh, my old friend. You know I can’t name them.”

Who?

Horace sighed, a huge, cawing sound rattling through his old beak. “Sanvosh is in, of course. Bozmeer, too.”

Eolh made a croaking sound in the back of his throat. Not because he was refusing the job, but because he hated working with bruisers like Bozmeer. Bozmeer fancied himself a bloodwing, though he was too stupid to strike out on his own. No tact. Too stupid and too proud.

“I don’t trust Bozmeer,” Eolh said.

“Who does?” Horace squawked out a laugh. “Not paying you to trust him. As I said, he’s muscle. Nothing else.”

Eolh absently traced lines on the bar, feeling the old, ale-soaked wood under his feathered finger. Horace must’ve felt like he was losing him, because the Blackfeather boss threw his hands up and said, “All right, fine. Double rate, that’s what I’m willing to pay you. Come on, Eolh. It’s one night, one job. A quick in and a quick out, and I promise you’ll be set for months. Years, maybe.”

That was the first sign that Eolh should have backed out. Horace never negotiated, especially not with himself.

Eolh could sense it. He could hear it in the way Horace spoke. The old boss rarely took no for an answer, but today he was hungry. Horace was leaning forward, and even his black crest feathers—normally smooth even under the tensest situations—were pricked up along the back of his skull.

Yes, Eolh thought, there’s something very different about this job.

“It’s an artifact? OK. So, who found it?”

He’d already asked the question once, and Horace gave him the same answer now.

“You know my sources don’t like to be named. That’s why they’re mine. Eolh, this is a rare opportunity. I need someone dependable. Someone I’ve worked with before. Someone who knows how to stay easy in case the job gets hard.”

Eolh pulled away from Horace. He looked down the bar, where the barkeep was wiping down the counters carefully out of earshot. And then up, where two greasy chandeliers lit the bar with foggy light. Gas quietly hissed from the fixtures. The wall behind the counter was lined with glass bottles, most of them empty.

The truth was, Eolh had already made up his mind. It wasn’t every day an artifact showed up in the Cauldron, let alone in Lowtown. And when the imperials caught wind of it, they would take it before anyone else had a chance.

Eolh always wanted to see one firsthand. A relic from the old gods.

But Eolh wasn’t about to show his hand. That’s not how he played the game. Better to let the old Blackfeather boss think he was interested only in the money.

“Triple rate,” Eolh said, expecting Horace to balk.

But Horace shouted, “Deal!” with so much excitement that Eolh suddenly had the nagging sensation that he had just cheated himself.

This is bigger than I thought. He hadn’t agreed to anything yet. He could still back out . . .

Eolh held out his hand.

“Deal,” he said, and the Blackfeather boss shook it vigorously.

They drank until the morning light. And for one last night, it was just like old times.

***

On the evening everything changed, Eolh was listening to the music of aviankind. Brief snatches of song, the sleepy hoots and clucks and coos flitting from tower to tower, echoing through the streets of the Cauldron, a city nestled in the remains of a long-extinct caldera. Talons scraping on stone roosts, and wings fluttering into window-lit apartments high above the city’s narrow, winding streets. A lone rig, held aloft by an envelope filled with gas, sailed over the high roofs and reaching towers.

As the sun sank below the rim of the Cauldron, a mournful song rose and fell from the closest tower. Echoing in the alleys, calling the faithful to their evening prayer.

Eolh was five or six stories above the street, depending on how one counted the floors. The streets in Lowtown weren’t exactly level. Or planned. They weren’t even streets, in many cases. He sank his talons into the wooden beam of the apartment rooftop, holding his body steady so he could focus on watching. On catching every sound. The creaking of a door opening into a tavern, or the rustling of leaves from the vines climbing up the bricks. The swaying of sheets hung on a line.

And the three hooded figures turning into the alley.

Two of them were obviously imperials. They strutted down the alleys as if they owned the place. Despite the cloaks covering their uniforms, Eolh could tell they were soldiers by the way their polished boots echoed on the cobblestones. One of them, the younger one, even had badges gleaming through the gap in the front of his cloak.

But it was the other figure that caught Eolh’s eye. At first, he didn’t recognize what she was for two reasons:

First, she had a humanoid shape. Constructs usually weren’t humanoid, which meant she was old tech. Specifically, an android. Older than the city itself.

Second, she carried a massive chest in her arms, which made her silhouette look awkward. The chest was a huge thing, made of hearty blackwood. It must’ve been heavy with coin because the construct was struggling under its weight, and her footsteps clanked loudly through the alleyways.

Foolish to carry something like that into Lowtown. Even the lowest cutpurse would come sniffing at this opportunity. Eolh scanned the nearby rooftops, checking for signs of other thieves. If anyone were following them, this could get ugly before it even began.

The imperials and their android didn’t seem to notice the noise they made—or they didn’t care. They thought they were untouchable.

Imperials weren’t stupid. Which means they’re armed. Heavily.

As they came under Eolh’s listening roost, he could hear them speaking in that posh, liquid tongue of theirs. He could even pick out the words.

“You think they know what they have?”

“The birds?” The other imperial chuckled. “Absolutely not. They have no idea what it’s worth.”

“Then why did we bring so much?”

“Extra grease. We’re going to pay them twice the asking price. Make them feel like they cheated us so they won’t ask any questions. You know how they are. Stupid birds see something shiny, and all they can think about is how to get their greedy little talons on it.”

The android interrupted them. Her voice was a polite, mechanical sound that seemed not to belong in this world. “I offer a suggestion. Lower your voices.”

The younger imperial’s spun around, his voice quavering with the indignant rage of his assumed superiority.

“Who told you to speak, machine?”

“Eyes are watching,” the android’s voice clicked. “Ears, listening.”

“You’re here to carry the money, not talk,” he said, shoving the blackwood chest hard enough to make any other construct tip over. Only this android didn’t. There was an odd precision to her stumbling, something Eolh had never seen before in a construct.

“Honestly,” the younger one sniffed, “why did they send this thing with us? A portofex or drudge would’ve done the same job without the back talk.”

The older imperial shrugged and said a single word. “Verification.”

“That’s ridiculous. Anybody can tell an artifact from a fake. I mean, it’s old tech. There’s nothing else like it.”

“You know what? If you ever get an audience with the Historians, you can ask them. They’re the ones who sent her.”

“Why do they get to make demands?”

“Because they’re Historians. Don’t ask me.” The older imperial stopped and motioned for his compatriot to stop with him.

Eolh held his breath. Did they see me? He held perfectly still.

They were both staring at the door in front of them. “I think this is the place.”

“All these run-down hovels look the same to me.”

A sign hung above the door, a simple chunk of wood with a beak carved into it and painted white. To any Lowtown resident, it was an advertisement as clear as the sunrise: the back door to the Bonebeaks’ tavern. The Blackfeathers and the Bonebeaks went way back, and not in a good way. Which was another reason Horace was so excited about this job. Stealing from the Bonebeaks and the imperials was a dream job. At this point, it almost wasn’t about the money.

Almost.

But Eolh wasn’t here to get caught up in Lowtown politics. He was only here to watch. To listen. So when the three figures knocked, and the door to the Bonebeaks’ tavern opened, Eolh moved back across the rooftop, slow as mist, over to the cast-iron gutter that wrapped all around the tavern. He rapped the gutter with the back of his talon, three short taps.

After a pause, two more taps answered his call: “Message received.” And just like that, Eolh earned the first half of his pay.

But the first half was the easy part, and nobody got paid until the job was done. His role—his vital responsibility—was to stay put and watch.

If the job went easy, well, then it went easy.

But if the job went south, then he was supposed to follow and listen for information.

Of course, Eolh was not just a listener. He was the best. And good listeners aren’t passive—they follow the story of the job. They think about where the job is headed, and they try to be there before anyone else.

Never do more than your part. And never less. That was one of his rules. But he always did the job right. So he wasn’t exactly breaking any of his rules when he slipped off his perch and hopped down to the cobbled street, pulling his talons up so they barely clicked against the uneven stones. And he wasn’t breaking any of his rules when he pressed his fingers against the tavern door and pushed it open.

That was just being a good listener.

The back room of the tavern was crowded. Mean-looking corvani and other passerine muscle stood around the walls, all their arms folded, all their beaks dusted with the same bone-white powder. Horace’s double agent was in the crowd, but Eolh couldn’t guess who it was.

The center of the room was dominated with a regal old oaken table. Once, it had been smooth and lacquered, fine enough to sit in the Highcity’s manors. For all Eolh knew, it had been stolen from one of those manors. Now, it was covered in blood and liquor stains. Not to mention the knife marks. The android dropped the blackwood chest on the table, making all the coins inside jingle at once. Not a single avian in the room was immune to that sound—not even Eolh.

Both of the imperials were already seated with the android standing quietly behind them, and the Bonebeak boss—a fat, old corvani with white feathers around his neck—was trying his hand at hospitality.

“Gentlemen!” He sounded jollier than a redenite tinker with a new set of tools. “Please, make yourselves easy. What can we get for you? Everything is on the house.”

Everything about the imperials’ posture suggested they were anything but comfortable. The younger one waved him off. “We are here on orders from the Magistrate. We are not here to drink. Show us what we came for.”

Imperials—cyrans, as they called themselves—were humanoid. Most of this one’s scales were blue in the lamplight, though Eolh could see glittering silver along his neck and cheeks and the ridged fins that ran down the back of his head.

“Gentlemen, please!” the Bonebeak boss protested. His old beak was chalked with white powder, except at the tip, where, presumably, the chalk had been wetted by ale. “A drink before every deal. It is our custom.”

“Then let it stay your custom,” the older imperial said. “We will make the deal. You can drink when we’re gone.” This imperial had one arm under the table. He was touching something inside his cloak, and his posture was rigid. Well, more rigid than usual for a pompous cyran.

“Yes, well. About the deal, then,” the Bonebeak crooned, the rolls of fat and muscle and feathers becoming more pronounced as he leaned forward. “My associates and I have come to a sudden revelation, you see. We think this package of ours might be worth more than we first thought.”

All the heads in the room turned to look at the two imperials.

“The Empire will give you full value for the trade. What is your number?”

All the heads returned to the Bonebeak boss.

“Ten thousand,” the boss said, and the corners of his beak crooked up in a sly, shit-eating grin.

“Ten thousand!” The young imperial shouted, but the older one put a hand on his shoulder, his face revealing nothing.

“Yes.”

“That’s fifty times what we agreed upon!”

“Like I said. We had a revelation.”

Even Eolh balked at the price. No way will they go for it. With that kind of money, one could buy an estate in the Highcity. Several estates, if it was spent wisely.

The younger imperial’s eyes bulged, his scalp ridges blushed a deep blue, and he looked like he wanted to jump across the table at the boss. Fortunately, the older imperial was still holding him down.

“I have the authority to make this deal,” the older imperial said. “That is, if we can prove the validity of the artifact.”

The Bonebeak boss leaned back from the table. A few of his companions detached from the wall and dipped their heads together. After a few moments of quiet cawing, they returned their attention to the table.

“It will cost you to look.”

This time, the young imperial did stand up. He thrust a scaled finger at the boss and shouted, “You feather-faced thief!”

The room bristled. Blades slid up their sheaths. Fists wrapped around clubs. Even Eolh’s heart was pounding, though he was on the other side of the door.

The older imperial grabbed the young one again and pulled him back into his seat. “Sit down!” he whispered harshly. “Please forgive my compatriot. He’s never been to Lowtown before. He has not yet learned how things work here.”

The boss’s black eyes flashed brightly in the dim tavern light. Laughing. His bruisers eased back against the wall but kept their hands on their weapons.

“How much?” the older imperial asked. “How much to look?”

The boss seemed to consider this for a moment, though Eolh was certain the Bonebeaks had planned all this ahead of time. The Bonebeaks never played a straight deal. For any other gang, that would cause problems. But the Bonebeaks had plenty of muscle and most of the Upper Wash in their pocket. This was their game, on their table, in their house.

“One thousand.”

One thousand? That was insane. Eolh couldn’t remember the last job he’d been on that had paid more than two fifty.

Sure, this was a human artifact. But what could possibly be so important that they could charge a thousand just for a look?

And for that matter, why did the imperials want to see it so badly?

The young imperial looked like he wanted to shove a bayonet into the boss’s face. He’s wound up, Eolh thought. Far too tight.

The whole room was tense while they waited for the answer.

“Android,” the older imperial turned his head without taking his eyes off the Bonebeak boss. “Count it out.”

Eolh had been sitting on a feeling, deep in his gut. He should’ve known it would happen from the moment Horace came to him. It had started in his talons and wriggled all the way up to the pit of his stomach.

This job was about to go south.

The android unlocked the chest with a twist of her hand. Her joints creaked as she lifted the massive wooden lid and let it fall open. Eolh was not sure what was brighter: the glow of all those coins or the twinkle in the boss’s eye.

She began to pull out piles of coins, the mechanisms in her limbs whispering as she moved. Eolh could see the smooth, contoured metal of her arms slipping out of their sleeves. Her metal almost looked like muscle, though dark orange stains of rust highlighted the cut of her joints. The android’s face was empty except for two machine eyes glowing in her eye sockets, casting their own weak light on the coins. No mouth, no nose. No features at all except for the hundreds of faint scratches that dulled the sheen of her mask.

At times, she moved as fluidly as a living thing. At others, her arms seemed to jerk and catch unnaturally. And when the coins were piled before her, the android’s metallic voice clicked strangely in the confined space of the back room. “One thousand centarem.”One thousand pristine imperial coins stacked into perfect towers.

The Bonebeak boss crowed with pleasure. Unable to tear his eyes off the piles of coins, he gestured at one of his guards. “Go get it.”

While they waited, the boss started counting the coins.

Eolh pulled away from the door and checked the street. Still empty. No sign of movement on the rooftops either. But the sky was dark, and he could have missed something.

The guard came back, hauling a small handcart filled with ice into the already-cramped back room. Half buried in the ice was a metal cylinder larger than the blackwood chest. Large enough to fit a young packdragon calf.

Why the ice? And where did they get so much of it, anyway?

The Bonebeaks looked impressed with themselves. Even the imperials were intrigued. They whispered to each other, nodding excitedly. Eolh paid special attention to their hands, the way they worked under the table. What weapons do they have?

Only the android was silent and unmoving, still standing over the coins and the chest. Despite the rust, her chassis gleamed in the candlelight.

With a few strained grunts, the Bonebeaks hoisted the huge cylinder onto the table, careful not to disturb the coins. It was dripping and left a pool of water that darkened the wood. Wisps of condensation still lifted off the metal.

But it was beautiful because it was undeniably human-made. That perfect contoured metal still glistened as if it had been forged yesterday. Its semichromatic surface was pristine, untouched except for the small nicks at the top, where someone had gouged the metal with a crowbar. Eolh almost couldn’t see the seam that ran down the side of the cylinder.

“Why did you freeze it?” the old imperial asked.

“You’ll see.” The boss’s grin deepened. “Go on, open it.”

Eolh’s heart was hammering in his chest. He could feel it thundering in his ears as he held his breath, watching a bruiser slowly—too slowly—dig his fingers into the gouged metal and pry open the egg-shaped container. A white vapor poured out, flooding the table, running through the coins, and falling down to the floor, where it pooled around their talons.

The older imperial sucked in his breath. The Bonebeak boss was nodding, his smug smile as wide as the ocean. The other imperial shook his head, his wet mouth hanging open, his gills opening and closing.

Even the avian bruisers leaned in to get a better look.

“This is impossible,” the young imperial said. “How can this be?”

“The Historians spoke of this.” The older one shook his head, his brow wrinkled in disbelief. “They said we would find a body. Where did you find this?”

Even Eolh wanted a better look, but that damned android was standing in the way. He ached to catch a glimpse. What is it? What did they find?

Eolh couldn’t help himself. He pushed the door open a little wider. One of the imperials pointed at a few glowing digits inside the container. “What are those numbers in there?”

The boss spoke first. “We have no idea—”

The android interrupted him, “Vital signs.”

“It’s alive?” the old imperial asked, looking around the room, directing the question at anyone who might answer. “It’s a living human?”

Before anyone could answer the question, three things happened.

One of the corvani bruisers—Horace’s agent?—smacked the back of another bruiser’s head, dropping him to the ground.

And the young imperial pulled his hands out from under the table, brandishing a firearm that was aimed at the corvani boss.

But before the imperial could shoot, the android extended her arm out in a quick, smooth movement. Her fist collided with the young imperial’s cheek, making a wet crunch as the imperial’s face caved inward. With her other hand, the android hooked the chest of coins and flipped it at the wall with such force that the wood smashed into pieces and scattered shining silver centarem around the room.

Before the coins could fall, the android turned to the old imperial. Wrapped her hand around the imperial’s chin.

No.”

One word. That was all the imperial uttered before the android snapped his neck.

The room erupted in feathers and clubs and gleaming metal shanks as the avians fell upon each other and the scattered coins. One of the hired muscles leapt for the table, clutching at the pile. A dagger seemed to sprout from his neck, and he died with a fortune under his wings. The others were heedless of the corpse, smashing and bucking each other as they clutched at the coins.

But Eolh had eyes only for the android. Amid the chaos, she dove into the cylinder—still leaking that white vapor—and scooped out a dark, limp body. Then, she was running toward the back door of the tavern.

Toward Eolh.

He flapped his wings, propelling himself back out into the street, and grabbed on to the roof just as the door burst open below him. The android vaulted out of the tavern, and a cacophony of shrieks and squawks and clashing metal erupted into the alley after her before the door swung shut.

The android looked to the left, then to the right, and seemed to make a decision. Eolh caught only a glimpse of the body in the android’s arms: it was fragile and thin and dripping wet. She darted down a narrow alleyway, far too fast for such an ancient construct.

The rules were clear. The job was not done.

What choice did Eolh have but to follow?

Chapter 2: Followed

That night, Eolh was not the only shadow on the rooftops. They gathered on the rooftops and balconies—hungry thieves and honest robbers and other lowborn. They came cautiously, at first. Scraggly feathers and scarred beaks, watching out for imperials. And when they saw none, the shadows grew brave.

The good people of Lowtown were opportunists, all of them. And right now, one of the loudest opportunities ever to come to the Cauldron was running through the alleys, her metal feet clanging like the mad bells of the Midcity priests. Despite the coppery rust eating at her joints, she was swift, much swifter than a construct of her age should be.

More than one feathered thief detached from some roost or hiding place up in the crooked eves and slanted spires of Lowtown. They began to trickle after the android in ones and twos. Curious avians, not yet ready to strike. Uncertain of the prey or its value. From up here, Eolh could only hope none of them understood what she carried.

Yet the android saw none of them. Perhaps her eyes were too old,like Mother Angsa, who runs one of the orphan clutches. Or perhaps the android simply doesn’t know about Lowtown.

The human was slung over her shoulders, its small, slender body still dripping with a slick liquid. Its head bounced with every step. The android needed no breath; she stopped only to catch her bearings, so she moved with great speed through the alleys.

But the shadows were born of Lowtown. They knew the streets better than her, and they could flutter over the rooftops. Fortunately, so could Eolh.

Every few steps, he thrust his wings back, launching himself over the dark alleys and the half paths between the stackhouses. He kept his body as low as his old joints would let him. If the other shadows saw him, if they knew how interested he was in this particular android, well, that would only fuel their interests too. Wouldn’t it?

The android stopped in front of a redenite machine shop squeezed between a cluster of tenement housing. The roof of the shop was haphazardly lined with smokestacks of every size, some of them pouring streams of smog into the night sky. Someone had hung their laundry from a line that wrapped around one of the smokestacks, trailing old, patchy sheets down to a window on the ground floor.

The android looked to her left, to her right. But not up. She ripped off a long piece of brown fabric from the line and used it to gently wipe the liquid from the human’s dark, slender frame.

Is that really what they look like? Smaller than I thought it would be. Like an overgrown fledgling. There was a cut on the thing’s head, a gouge of black-crusted blood.

The android wrapped the human in another torn sheet, covering its shivering body.

A sound. One of the rooftop shadows had come too close to the smokestacks and inhaled the greasy fumes. Whoever it was started coughing loud enough to wake the whole block.

The android threw the human over her shoulders and started sprinting even faster than before. Eolh counted five separate shadows from five separate buildings flapping after her.

Then, when he was sure no one was watching him, he followed. The android’s trail was an uneven line moving toward the Midcity ramps. Toward the gate?

Lights flickered on in her wake, and faces appeared in the windows.

A redenite, one of the rodent-faced creatures native to Gaiam, was standing under a balcony, tar smoke curling up its whiskers, when she stomped past. The redenite barely had time to step back before she smashed across the stones where he had been. And then she was gone.

Soon, the whole Cauldron would hear her coming. The trickle of shadows had turned into a stream. So how do I grab the human before anyone else? It wouldn’t be long before a fight broke out.

Up on the rooftops, Eolh could cut corners where the android could not. It gave him time to think.

Why is she running toward the gate, anyway? Even this late at night, the gate would be swarming with traders, crafters, nighthawks. Not to mention the Watch.

Maybe she has a safe house? But that didn’t seem likely. None of the gangs roosted so deep into the Midcity.Too many guards. Too many imperials.

Eolh thrust his wings down, pushing himself to the next perch in the shadow of a chimney stack, his black feathers disappearing into the darkness. The android was standing still. No, she was turning in circles. Searching the alley for something. She threw herself behind a heap of old ale barrels that had powdery-white mold growing up their sides.

A string of half-drunken redenites stumbled together down the alley, huddled together despite the humidity of the night. Masks and machinist goggles and sleeveless uniforms were covered in grime from the factories. They were followed by a two-legged chikroid, one of the smaller constructs found in the Cauldron. It had a white lamp on the front of its head and a red one shining out of the back.

The chikroid stopped and swiveled its hammer-shaped head. It pointed its front lamp at the ale barrels and chirped once.

One of the redenites barked. The chikroid did not move. Its lamp was growing brighter as it focused on the android’s hiding spot. The redenite barked again, and the chikroid tore itself away from the barrels and hopped after the redenites.

Eolh let out his breath. If the android kept this up, she was going to get caught before he had a chance to do something.

When the android emerged from the shadows of the barrels, her joints creaking as she stood straight, Eolh caught a glimpse of the human cradled in her arms. It was half as big as Eolh, but still the ancient construct carried it as though it were light as a hatchling. Old tech, he thought again. Eolh put no stake with the gods—it had been ages since he’d been in a temple—but the power of old tech was something else.

The human was making sounds, groaning or choking, he could not tell which, and the android was shushing it. And then the human’s body heaved, and Eolh heard a wet splattering sound.

“Let it out,” the android whispered to it. “It’s not good to keep it in after so long.”

Eolh was struck by her tone. So tender. Since when could constructs show such kindness? And when the human was finished emptying its guts, she hefted him back over her shoulders and jogged away, her clanging footsteps bouncing off the uneven walls of homes and crafthouses and run-down storefronts.

Eolh did not follow. Not yet. A notion tickled at the back of his mind. He spread his feathers, trying to cool his body in the humid Gaiam air.

And just when he was starting to doubt that notion, he saw movement on the rooftop across the street. A large shadow peeled itself away from a disused balcony. A big, gray shadow with blue and black feathers ringed around his neck. The shadow unfolded his wings and followed the android. So Eolh followed the shadow.

The android stopped at the mouth of the last alley on this side of the Lowroad—or, as the imperials called it, the Vium Cyruam.

To the right, the Lowroad split Lowtown in half, widening as it funneled out of the city through the cleft in the Cauldron’s mountain wall and wandered down to the old farms and new factories of the Wash.

But the android was looking the other way. Toward the Midcity. Toward the stone-hewn steps and steep cargo ramps that marked the steep passage up to the next tier.

Eolh hooked his talons into the brick of a chimney. From his vantage, he could see the arms of the gate: two semicircles of solid metal gleaming in the moonlight at the center of the Midcity. One semicircle floated—impossibly—several yards above the ground, with just enough space to slide over its twin.

This early in the night, it was still crawling with people: Midcitizens in their clean, colorful clothes and ragged Lowtowners hauling their wares home for the evening. Traders and crews and guards from the Watch. Imperial soldiers patrolled in twos and threes in all the Cauldron’s sweltering humidity, sweating in their half-kit blues and blacks.

The android paused, standing in the center of the alley. It was thinking.

Eolh’s stomach tightened. If the android tried to cross the Lowroad, she would be caught. If she tried to run up those steps, she would be caught. If she came anywhere near the gate . . .

There were far too many cyran soldiers. Eolh would lose any chance of claiming the human.

A patrol of imperials crossed in front of the alley’s mouth, their vicious-looking longstock rifles leaning against their shoulders, the bayonets daggering proudly at the starry sky.

The android backed away from the alley’s exit. She found another branch and started running that way.

That was a mistake.

This branch ended in a cul-de-sac, where a cluster of four- and five-story houses leaned over a small drinking well, roofs with missing tiles and thatch repairs. A tower, one of the gargantuan human relics, made a black shadow over the whole alley, blotting out the stars.

Eolh could see the android’s eyes—two orange-white lights. He could see her recognize her mistake as she came to the end of the cul-de-sac.

Well, he thought. This is my chance. He crouched, preparing to fling himself down into the alley.

But another shadow beat him to it. It dropped from the rooftops and landed heavily on its talons, blocking the android’s exit. Torchlights from the houses illuminated the shadow’s gray feathers, and when it rose to its full height, the shadow’s shoulder feathers brushed against the walls of the cramped buildings.

Eolh knew those feathers. One of Horace’s hired bruisers. Bozmeer.

But he was out of line. Bruisers were not meant to chase; they were supposed to stay near the boss. Which meant Bozmeer had gone off contract.

Can’t blame him, Eolh thought. The reward for cutting out on this contract was unimaginable. The only human being in existence . . . If he could sell it for even half its worth, Bozmeer would have more money than the Coward Queen herself. More money than all the nobles combined.

Bozmeer’s iron-coated talons scraped the cobbles as he approached the android. He was larger than most passerine. Like all avians, he was humanoid, except where the knees bent backward. Better for perching. Feathers covered every inch of his body, and his black beak was carved with a latticework of tattoos.

It was incredible how nimble such a huge, muscle-bound avian could be. Bozmeer had cornered the android, and even from above, Eolh could see the smile playing at the corner of his beak.

“Give me the cargo,” Bozmeer growled at the android, “and I’ll leave you alone.”

“Please reconsider,” the android’s voice clicked over the cobbles. “You may not understand the gravity of the situation.”

“I don’t think you do.” He had a small hammer in his hand, the kind meant for driving in roofing nails, and he was weighing it effortlessly in his hand. “The cargo is mine now. Drop it, or die. Either is fine by me.”

Bozmeer was grinning like a fool now. His muscles were tense. All his attention was focused on the android.

The air is full of mistakes tonight. Eolh let himself drop off the rooftop. In a single motion, he slipped his own weapon out—a long-bladed knife—and dove, knife first, into Bozmeer’s exposed back.

The blade plunged through feathers into flesh, striking against Bozmeer’s spine, and the larger avian crumpled to the ground with barely a squawk.

Eolh gripped Bozmeer’s torso with his talons as he pulled his knife free. He stood on top of the other avian’s corpse.

The android looked up at Eolh. Down at the corpse. And back at Eolh.

“What about you?” she asked. Her voice came out in mechanical tones, though Eolh saw no mouth on her smooth, metal face. “What do you want?”

“What he said”—Eolh pointed at Bozmeer’s corpse with the tip of his knife—“more or less.”

“Please, bird-thing. You do not understand the gravity of this situation.”

“I’m not a bird.”

“Please, witness him. Open your mind and see.” She was holding the human in both arms, its legs spilling out over her arm, its head lolling against her shoulder. Not yet an adult, but not a child either. At least, Eolh didn’t think so. The human’s skin was smooth and so black and shiny it almost looked violet in the torchlight, except where a nasty wound was carved into his hairline, still glistening with melted ice and blood.

“He is the future,” the android said, voice full of reverence. “He was foretold.”

The Cauldron was brimming with believers. Followers of the old ways and followers of the new. Some avians followed both. Strangely enough, when the imperials came, they only encouraged the priest castes. Eolh didn’t follow any religion, but from what he understood, the gods were worshipped on many worlds.

But an android? Since when did constructs believe in anything?

“Look, machine. The only thing I know is someone’s going to pay me for that thing. Don’t make me ask twice.”

“No,” the android cut him off, “You must listen to me. The human is dying.”

Eolh shrugged. “Dead or alive, I’m sure they’ll pay me all the same.”

“You don’t comprehend. This is the last one. It was written. There may never be another.”

“Even better.” He took a step forward, flexing his fingers over the blade. “Means I’ll get paid a lot.”

“By whom?” The android’s eyes flashed white. “Imperials will pay you, then kill you.”

Eolh hadn’t thought that far. He shifted uncomfortably. “I know a few chop shops.”

“A chop shop?” the android said. “You would pawn the last living human being off at a parts butcher?”

“Money is money.”

“The imperials will find out. They will find you. No matter where you turn, your results will be the same.”

She was right, though he hated to admit it. If the imperials had one thing, it was access to the resources necessary to turn the city upside down. They had done it before. And if this thing truly was a human, well, where would they stop?

It’s too hot, Eolh thought. Maybe he could take the thing and stash it somewhere. Sell it when things had cooled down.

As if reading his thoughts, the android said, “To hold the human is to be hunted. Anyone who touches the human will be hunted. What good is money when you are caught?”

If I’m caught,” he said. But the truth was heavy. It leaned on him like a crushing weight.

“They are imperials.They never stop.” The android squeezed the human to her chest. Its body was shivering, and it was so much smaller than Eolh thought it should be. From all the stories, all the myths, he thought it would be eight feet tall. Or more.

“If you attempt to take this human from me,” the android’s voice clicked mechanically, “it will cost you everything.”

One of the doors opened to Eolh’s right. A ruddy redenite face poked out, goggles flashing in the torchlight. It looked at the android. At Eolh. At the knife. And the door slammed shut. The light in the window went out.

Eolh took a careful step toward the android. He had never seen a humanoid construct this close. Unlike most constructs, androids were made only of the old tech. No modern tinkerer could replicate those complicated, near-organic movements. And all that human-made metal—not even the artisans could come close.

She looked so . . . alive.

The metal components of her wrist slid over each other as the android lifted her hand. Dull brown stained the shining steel of her wrist, and yet she moved with such grace. Not at all like the slow-moving drudges or the jerking movements of sentry constructs Eolh was used to. How strong is her arm, anyway? Back in the Bonebeak tavern, she had killed two imperial soldiers in seconds, but they were both caught unaware. Still . . .

Eolh lowered his knife. “Where are you taking it?”

The android hesitated. Her flashlight eyes dropped to the human, illuminating his face. Instead of a beak, he had lips—almost like imperials themselves—and they were starting to turn an ashen gray.

Eolh could almost see the android processing his question. Debating whether she should tell him. And who knows what else she’s thinking?

“To the gate. To Cyre.”

“But it’s Harvest. The gate doesn’t open for a few more days yet.”

“I will charter a rig. I will steal one if I have to.”

Eolh shook his head. “They’ll have guards all up and down the towers.”

She paused. Her eyes were two white coals burning deep in her featureless metal face. “Then what should I do?”

Eolh lifted his knife, using the tip to scratch the feathers on his brow. All the best routes would be watched. And even if they could find a place to hide in Lowtown, the Blackfeathers had ears all over. If they didn’t get to her first, it would be the Bonebeaks. Or the Stone Eaters. Or even the gear clans. Hells, with this much money at stake, everyone would be looking for her.

Shouts rang out in the alley behind them. Metal clashed on metal. Someone cawed loudly, followed by the unmistakable thunder of a gunshot.

“Please.” It was the android’s turn to step toward Eolh. The lights of her eyes narrowed, boring into Eolh’s. “Help me. Help him.”

“Why?” He took a step back. “What will I get out of it?”

This job was already ruined. If Horace had been honest—if he’d told him what the cargo was—Eolh never would have signed on. Or he would’ve been much more careful. Now, he would be lucky if he got away without the imperials catching his scent.

Would they burn it all down again?

“I was mistaken. You are the wrong one,” the android said. She almost sounded sad. Defeated, even. “Look at your hands. Feathers. Not metal. They said so, but it cannot be you.”

“What are you talking about? Who is ‘they’?”

“Nothing,” she said. “No one. I have nothing to give you.”

Eolh looked at his dagger. He looked down at the dead avian by his feet. What a waste of a night.

Eolh tensed his thighs and stretched out his arms, reaching his fingers and his feathers to the walls of the alley. He angled his beak toward the nearest rooftop, but before he could leap up, the android held out a hand to stop him.

“Wait,” she said. “Name a body part. It’s yours.”

Eolh cocked his head. “What?”

“You may not sell the human, but my parts are valuable.”

Eolh dragged his eyes along her arms, up the scratched, muscular metal of her shoulders. Pieces of her armor, her chassis, once forged by human hands—if the stories were true—all discolored with age.

But she was old tech. And old tech always fetched a price.

“A hand,” she said, her mechanical voice coming from somewhere behind the mask of her face. “An arm. An eye. Anything you wish. Please, help us flee.”

The fighting in the streets was growing louder. Eolh could see more than one shadow on the distant rooftops, though no wings or rigs circling overhead . . . not yet.

Last chance, he thought. Walk away from this night. Walk away clean, Eolh.

Nobody had to know he’d killed Bozmeer. Nobody had to know he’d left his post. And who knows? Maybe he could sell information on the android. Where she ran, what she’d taken with her . . .

Behind them and only a few alleys over, Eolh heard more shouting. He could just make out the marching of imperial boots. And gunshots. And a scream.

“The imperials want it that badly?” he asked.

“Nothing could be more valuable to them.”

Good. It had been a long time since anyone had crossed the imperials. A long time.

The human gave a pitiful, feverish cough.

“I know someone who can help,” Eolh said. “We’ll figure out my price when we get there.”

He held out his feathered hand, and the android took it.

Chapter 3: The Cranes of the Midcity

Nineteen years ago, the gate opened for the first time.

A narrow ribbon of light appeared in the center of the Cauldron, rising out of that ancient human artifact and extending all the way up to the stars. The avians, the redenites, and all the people living in the Cauldron believed the gods had finally returned.

Instead, the Cyran Empire poured into the city. The imperials, with their gunpowder weapons and their military discipline, had come to conquer their world. The Cauldron was unprepared for war.

They rolled effortlessly through the higher tiers of the city. Any Midcity militia or vocal naysayers were shot on sight. The nobles who refused to recognize the Everlord’s eternal sovereignty were publicly beheaded. The priest castes were quick to accept their new cyran masters and urged the faithful to do the same.

But when they came to Lowtown, it was the imperials who were unprepared. The narrow alleys, the high roosts and leaning stackhouses. Tenement blocks with collapsing roofs, slum gardens filled with ancient refuse, boroughs and nesting houses and vinehedges so overgrown it was nearly impossible to enter the deeper courts on foot, let alone conquer them.

Several ambushes deep, the imperials found not only that their advanced weaponry—fast-loading firearms and long-range rifles—were useless in the narrow alleyways but that the more soldiers they sent, the better equipped the avian rebels became.

The imperials finally brought their airships through the gate. Eight Fangs, black, wingless war machines that could hang impossibly in the air. Their hulls—twin cones curved around a spherical fuselage like a vicious claw trying to crack a black pearl—were made of that unparalleled human metal. No weapon could touch them.

And with the blistering light that sprang forth from their fanged tips, it took the imperials less than an hour to set the whole of Lowtown on fire.

But the resistance refused to let go. They limped along for three years until the Coward Queen rooted out the rebellious leaders and signed her people over to the Empire.

It was not possible, Eolh had learned, to defeat the imperials. Their resources were near limitless. They had old tech like nothing Eolh had ever seen. And most of all, they viewed war as a kind of transaction. Kill one of them, and they would kill ten of you.

After the war died, the imperials kept their prisoners alive and healthy—at great expense to the Cyran Empire. Sometimes, they were shoved from the tops of the towers with their wings bound. Other prisoners were chain-ganged, made to tear down the old crosses along the Lowroad and build new ones. And crucified on them.

How many begged for death? How many nights had Eolh sat on the half-ruined rooftops of Lowtown listening to their cries echo down the Cauldron slope? Each morning, when the sun rose over the Cauldron walls, they could be seen hanging. Wings outstretched, feathers molting. Not dead, but not moving.

Some said the Magistrate saw personally to these executions. Some said he liked to drag avians to the top of a tower, one of the seven impossible relics left by the humans that still stood proud over the Cauldron. There, he would bind their wings and personally shove them over the edge.

So when Eolh saw the imperial Fang floating above the city, those two black tusks against the dusk-ridden sky, his stomach clenched with old fear. These days, the imperials only brought out the Fangs for ceremonial purposes—on days when the gate opened.

And it was still the middle of Harvest.

Most of Lowtown would keep their heads down. Lock their doors, close the windows, hide everything precious to them as deep underground as they possibly could.

And here he was, sitting in an empty alley with an android and a living human.

“Change of plans,” Eolh said. “This place is crawling. We need to hide first. Get to my healer later.”

“No,” the construct clicked. “His medical need is immediate.”

“What’s more important, your life or his?”

The android answered without hesitation, “His.”

Eolh clicked his beak in frustration. He didn’t owe this android anything. The only thing that mattered was that he got paid, and then he could melt away into the night. The sooner, the better.

“Fine. But we can’t take the Lowroad.” Eolh looked her body up and down. She was shorter than Eolh by a few inches, but with that shapeless linen robe, he could only guess what her chassis looked like. “How much do you weigh?”

“Four hundred forty-five,” she said. Again, no hesitation.

Eolh whistled. Heavy, he thought. But some cranes were made to carry far more than that.

“Can you carry it a while longer?” Eolh nodded at the human, if that’s what it really was. How could anyone know for sure? Nobody had ever seen one alive. All the statues made them look huge, and this one was barely the size of a fledgling avian.

The joints in the android’s neck whispered as she lifted her chin. A proud show of defiance. “I will carry him until my limbs fall from my body and my core has gone dark.”

The human was a bundle of limbs in her arms, drowning in that makeshift cloak. He was small even by Gaiam’s standards. Maybe five feet, maybe less. The android seemed to carry it easily enough.

It hadn’t made a sound since they’d been standing here. I wonder if he can talk. Some species on Gaiam communicated only through silent means. Body signals, or scent language, or crude grunts and barks. He couldn’t remember what the priests said about the humans; it had been so long since he’d gone to a temple. His face was so smooth. No feather nor fur, except for the tight curls on the top of his skull.

The android squeezed the human to her chest. “He fades. If you want your payment, let us be on our way.”

Eolh shrugged. They started off through the back alleys, toward the sheer cliffs of the Midcity. They passed shuttered windows, dark doorways, and walls covered in dead vines. Eolh could hear patrols of imperials stomping through the alleys in their regimental boots. Making their sweeps.

A patrol of soldiers blocked one alley, their brass helmets gleaming. But their backs were turned, so Eolh and the android hid in the nook of a stone doorway and watched. An officer was shouting orders, and Eolh could hear the grunting, squeaking speech of a lone redenite caught in the street. The officer lifted his arm, and a crack of thunder erupted from his pistol.

Eolh held back the sickness rising in the back of his throat. He tapped the android’s shoulder and motioned that they should run back the other way. The squealing of that poor, dying redenite echoed after them.

The Cauldron was divided into three tiers, like the steps of some gargantuan staircase. Lowtown was on the bottom, and all the rainwater and filth that ran off the Midcity cliff collected down there before being swallowed by the gutters and sewer ways that drained into gods knew where.

The Midcity cliff towered over Lowtown, and other than the Lowroad, only a few hand-carved stairways zigzagged up the cliff. Too steep, and too long of a climb. Better to take the cranes.

Hundreds of lifts dotted the Midcity cliff, some small enough to be powered by clever hand cranks. Others were meant for serious cargo, and on any other night, crane operators would stand around, barking their prices at passersby.

But tonight, it was empty. The ragged edge of the cliff loomed above the alleyways and the clay roofs, a giant curtain of jagged stone. The ramshackle stackhouses crowded away from the cliffs because nobody wanted to live in that shadow. If something fell from above . . .

Eolh’s talons clicked on the cobbles, and the android’s footsteps clanked softly behind. They had passed dozens of elevators already, mostly broad wooden platforms with sturdy railings attached to wrought-iron cranes far above. He was looking for something small, something that wouldn’t attract attention, but many of those were frayed. When he grabbed at the ropes, he found the fibers too soft and rotted for his liking, or the cranks were disused and locked up when he tried to turn them.

They finally found one hidden in a crook in the cliff: a simple thatched basket that could fit the three of them if they pressed close together. Three ropes ascended up the cliff, and a simple hand crank connected them to the basket.

Rust covered the hand crank, and part of the basket looked like it had been sitting in a puddle for too long. Any other night, he would have turned his beak up at this crane, but a warbling cry caught his ear. Two more Fangs joined the first, and the trio hung suspended over the rooftops, their tusks angled down toward the city.

Eolh saw lights at the top of the northeastern tower. Spotlights, sliding over the rooftops.

Then, they began to move as one, strafing over Lowtown. Whatever was about to happen . . . had already begun.

Eolh tested the crank, grinding it against the rust that had built up in its gears. It was stuck.

“Help me with this,” Eolh said.

The android refused to put down the human, but she shifted him over her shoulder and tugged on the crank with her free hand. Her body was like the heavy armor that the falkyr warriors used to wear at the godful ceremonies. Before the Magistrate came. Even her legs were protected by smoothly interlocking plates of metal that almost moved like muscles exposed to the air. He had never seen a construct whose parts looked like that.

Eolh held the ropes in place while she pulled, and the metal screeched painfully. There was a dry crack, and then the crank started to turn easily, though it still scraped at every revolution.

This was how they made their ascent: the android pulling the crank, Eolh balancing against the basket handles with the cliff wall so close he could reach out and touch those slick, jagged rocks.

And despite the hot, humid warmth of the Cauldron, the human was shivering so hard Eolh thought he could hear its bones rattling.

The android was fixated on her task. And Eolh thought about it. He could swipe his knife across her spinal wiring, just like he used to do on the imperials’ war constructs. But what if she’d been built differently? What if her parts were different?

And now that he was this close to her, he couldn’t even see her wiring through all that shifting, sculpted metal. So many moving pieces, and not a single joint exposed. Old tech. Built by the gods themselves, so they said. Parts of her metal almost seemed to bend as she moved.

Eolh turned his gaze from the android to the shivering human. “You might want to put him down.”

“Why?”

“The wind is only going to get stronger the higher we go. The basket will keep him from the worst.”

She nodded, her glowing eyes bobbing in the darkness.

Eolh held the crank while she laid him gently at their feet and carefully tucked the rags over the human. What a small, slender thing for a god. Perhaps it was a fledgling. Or perhaps they were all that small. Nobody had ever seen a human before, except for the statues.

“Where are you taking us?” the android asked.

“There’s a doctor. He lives at the bottom of the leaning tower because nobody else will.” Eolh pointed behind the android, and she turned her head to follow his finger.

At the top of the cliff stood one of the massive, ancient towers that watched over the city. A column of that strange human-made metal, it leaned heavily over Lowtown, and the cliff bulged dangerously at its base.

“Don’t worry. It’s been like that for centuries.”

“You were born here?”

“I was. Back when it was still our city.” Eolh looked over the edge of the basket. Soldiers, imperials, and local guards, all lined up on the main roads. It looked like they were getting ready to sweep Lowtown.

“Do you miss it?”

Eolh stared at her. Constructs didn’t ask questions, except to clarify their orders.

“What kind of android are you?” he asked.

“I am called Laykis of Tython,” the android said. “What are you called?”

“You want my name?”

“Bird-thing, if we are to travel together, I must call you something.”

Eolh shook his head. “I’m getting you to the Doctor, and then you pay up. You don’t need my name.”

“Then I shall call you ‘bird-thing.’”

“I am not a bird. I am corvani.”

“Then I will call you ‘corvani.’” The android bowed her head as if he were one of the royal caste. “It is good to know you. I am in your debt.”

Yes, he thought. You certainly are.

They were halfway up the cliff when the hot winds started to push their basket around, knocking it against the cliff wall. Eolh used his hand to steady them as best he could, but the whole basket was shaking.

It was the human. Those bones in its mouth were chattering, and even with the cloak wrapped around its body, it was shivering like mad.

“What’s wrong with it?” Eolh asked.

“It is a ‘him,’ and . . .” The android shook her head grimly. “I don’t know.”

Eolh bent down to inspect the human, peeling the cloak away from its face. Blood stuck to the fabric. Everyone had seen the statues of the gods, up in the Midcity or lining the mother ridge, but they were carved of stone and marble. Even the metal statue that stood guard in front of the gate seemed lifeless.

His skin was so dark, almost as black as Eolh’s feathers, which made his mouth—full of bone-white teeth—almost glow in the dark. Though the human’s eyes were closed, Eolh could see them moving wildly underneath those lids. At least he’s quiet.

Eolh nudged him. The android, Laykis, tensed when he touched the human, but she did not tell him to stop.

His skin is soft. So vulnerable. Somehow, he expected the human to be firmer. Like marble or metal. But he was flesh and blood.

Eolh prodded the human’s cheek again. “Hey. Are you awake?”

The eyes shot open. They were glowing as bright as blue flame. The human’s mouth stretched wide, and a piercing scream echoed down the cliffs.

Eolh jumped back, making the basket bump and ride against the cliff. Laykis stopped cranking and bent down to touch the human to silence him, to keep him from screaming. But the human was writhing and thrashing and twisting in his makeshift cloak, and the whole basket was starting to tip.

“Help me!” Laykis said. She couldn’t leave the crank lest they plummet back to the ground.

“How do you shut this thing up?” Eolh said, not daring to touch his writhing form.

“Do something!”

Eolh knelt over the human and pinned him by the shoulders. “Stop it! Relax, gods damn you!”

The human’s eyes were like twin suns blazing with blue-white light. But his eyes were not the only lights in the city.

The leaning tower was ablaze with that same light, a kind of naked energy spiraling over the stonework like electrified serpents wrapped around the trunk of a tree.

And all over the city, a strange blue-white light began to glow. There was a rumbling sound like a distant avalanche beginning to flow. If Eolh had been on the ground, he might’ve felt the vibrations of ancient life in his talons.

The human thrashed again, making awful choking sounds in the back of his throat. Eolh grabbed the linen sheet, tightening it around the human as he cooed:

“Take it easy. You’re safe now. Go back to sleep.”

For a blind moment, the fledgling human seemed to hear him. Then, he gasped and threw his head back, and his eyes rolled up into his skull. His body was a sudden limp weight in all that linen.

The lights writhing up the leaning tower reversed their flow, disappearing back down below the ground. Suddenly, the whole city felt empty and dark.

“What the hells was that?”

“The human,” Laykis said simply.

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P. S. Hoffman
About P. S. Hoffman
P. S. Hoffman writes Science Fiction and Fantasy. He is obsessed with all things futuristic, primarily Artificial Intelligence and the transformation of societies. Here, he shows others how to sharpen their fiction-writing skills by dissecting the techniques used by the world's best authors.

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