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The Inexplicables

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The Inexplicables

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Author: Cherie Priest
Publisher: Tor, 2012
Series: Clockwork Century: Book 4

0. Clementine
0. Jacaranda
1. Boneshaker
2. Dreadnought
3. Ganymede
4. The Inexplicables
5. Fiddlehead

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Steampunk
Alternate History (SF)
Avg Member Rating:
(21 reads / 12 ratings)


Rector "Wreck'em" Sherman was orphaned as a toddler in the Blight of 1863, but that was years ago. Wreck has grown up, and on his eighteenth birthday, he'll be cast out out of the orphanage.

Wreck's problems don't stop there. He's been breaking the cardinal rule of any good drug dealer and dipping into his own supply--and he's also pretty sure he's being haunted by the ghost of a kid he used to know. Zeke Wilkes almost certainly died six months ago inside the walled city of Seattle. And it was Wreck who sent him in there.

Maybe it's only a guilty conscience, but Wreck can't take it anymore. He sneaks inside the city.

The walled-off wasteland is every bit as bad as he'd heard, chock-full of the hungry undead and utterly choked by the poisonous, inescapable yellow gas. And then there are the monsters. Rector's confident that whatever attacked him was not at all human--and not a rotter, either. Arms far too long. Posture all strange. Eyes all wild and faintly glowing gold, and God help them all, it wasn't alone.

When the locals discuss the creatures, they do so in whispers. And they call them "The Inexplicables."



Rector "Wreck'em" Sherman was delivered to the Sisters of Loving Grace Home for Orphans the week it opened, on February 9, 1864. His precise age was undetermined, but estimated at approximately two years. He was filthy, hungry, and shoeless, wearing nothing on his feet except a pair of wool socks someone, somewhere, had lovingly knitted for him before the city went to hell. Whether she had been mother or nursemaid, governess or grandmother, no one knew and no one ever learned; but the child's vivid red hair, pearl white skin, and early suggestions of freckles implied rather strongly that he was no relation to the Duwamish woman who brought him to the shelter. She'd carried him there, along with another child who did not survive the month. Her own name was lost to history, or it was lost to incomplete records only sometimes kept in the wake of the Boneshaker catastrophe.

The little boy who lived, the one with hair the color of freshly cut carrots, was handed over to a nun with eyes too sad for someone so young and a habit too large for someone so small. The native woman who toted Rector told her only his name, and that "There is no one left to love him. I do not know this other boy, or what he is called. I found him in the bricks."

For a long time, Rector did not talk.

He did not babble or gesture or make any sound at all, except to cry. When he did, it was a strange cry--all the nuns agreed, and nodded their accord sadly, as though something ought to be done about it--a soft, hooting sob like the desolate summons of a baby owl. And when the dark-haired boy who'd been his circumstantial companion passed away from Blight poisoning, or typhoid, or cholera, or whatever else ravaged the surviving population that week... Rector stopped crying as well.

He grew into a pallid, gangly thing, skinny like most of the refugees. At first, people in the Outskirts had bartered for what they could and took ships and airships out into the Sound to fish; but within six months, Blight-poisoned rainwater meant that little would grow near the abandoned city. And many of the children--the ones like Rector, lost and recovered--were stunted by the taint of what had happened. They were halted, slowed, or twisted by the very air they'd breathed when they were still young enough to be shaped by such things.

All in all, Rector's teenage condition could've been worse.

He could've had legs of uneven lengths, or eyes without whites--only yellows. He might've become a young man without any hair, even eyebrows or lashes. He might've had far too many teeth, or none at all. His spine might have turned as his height overtook him, leaving him lame and coiled, walking with tremendous difficulty and sitting in pain.

But there was nothing wrong with him on the outside.

And therefore, able-bodied and quick-minded (if sometimes mean, and sometimes accused of petty criminal acts), he was expected to become a man and support himself. Either he could join the church and take up the ministry--which no one expected, or even, frankly, wanted--or he could trudge across the mud flats and take up a job in the new sawmill (if he was lucky) or at the waterworks plant (if he was not). Regardless, time had run out on Rector Sherman, specific age unknown, but certainly--by now--at least eighteen years.

And that meant he had to go.


Sometime after midnight and long before breakfast--the time at which he would be required to vacate the premises--Rector awoke as he usually did: confused and cold, and with an aching head, and absolutely everything hurting.

Everything often hurt, so he had taken to soothing the pain with the aid of sap, which would bring on another pain and call for a stronger dose. And when it had all cycled through him, when his blood was thick and sluggish, when there was nothing else to stimulate or sedate or propel him through his nightmares ... he woke up. And he wanted more.

It was all he could think about, usurping even the astonishing fact that he had no idea where he was going to sleep the next night, or how he was going to feed himself after breakfast.

He lay still for a full minute, listening to his heart surge, bang, slam, and settle.

This loop, this perpetual rolling hiccup of discomfort, was an old friend. His hours stuttered. They stammered, repeated themselves, and left him at the same place as always, back at the beginning. Reaching for more, even when there wasn't any.

Downstairs in the common room the great grandfather clock chimed two--so that was one mystery solved without lifting his head off the pillow. A minor victory, but one worth counting. It was two o'clock in the morning, so he had five hours left before the nuns would feed him and send him on his way.

Rector's thoughts moved as if they struggled through glue, but they gradually churned at a more ordinary pace as his body reluctantly pulled itself together. He listened over the thudding, dull bang of his heart and detected two sets of snores, one slumbering mumble, and the low, steady breaths of a deep, silent sleeper.

Five boys to a room. He was the oldest.

And he was the last one present who'd been orphaned by the Blight. Everyone else from that poisoned generation had grown up and moved on to something else by now--everyone but Rector, who had done his noble best to refuse adulthood or die before meeting it, whichever was easier.

He whispered to the ceiling, "One more thing I failed at for sure." Because, goddammit, he was still alive.

In the back of his mind, a shadow shook. It wavered across his vision, a flash of darkness shaped like someone familiar, someone gone. He blinked to banish it, but failed at that, too.

It hovered at the far edge of what he could see, as opposed to what he couldn't.

He breathed, "No," knowing that the word had no power. He added, "I know you're not really here." But that was a lie, and it was meaningless. He didn't know. He wasn't sure. Even with his eyes smashed shut like they were welded that way, he could see the figure outlined against the inside of his lids. It was skinny like him, and a little younger. Not much, but enough to make a difference in size. It moved with the furtive unhappiness of something that has often been mocked or kicked.

It shifted on featherlight feet between the boys' beds, like a feral cat ready to dodge a hurled shoe.

Rector huddled beneath his insufficient blankets and drew his feet against himself, knees up, panting under the covers and smelling his own stale breath. "Go away," he commanded aloud. "I don't know why you keep coming here."

Because you're here.

"I didn't hurt you."

You sent me someplace where you knew I'd get hurt.

"No, I only told you how to get there. Everything else was you. It was all your own doing. You're just looking for someone to blame. You're just mad about being dead."

You murdered me. The least you could do is bury me.

The ghost of Ezekiel Wilkes quivered. It came forward, mothlike, to the candle of Rector's guilt.

You left me there.

"And I told you, I'll come find you. I'll come fix it, if I can."

He waited until his heart had calmed, and he heard only the farts, sniffles, and sighs that made up the nighttime music of the orphans' home. He moved his legs slowly beneath the blanket until his feet dangled off the edge of the flat straw mattress.

The air on the other side of the blanket was cold, but no colder than usual; it seeped through the holes in his socks and stabbed at the soft places between his toes. He flexed them and shivered. His boots were positioned just right, so he could drop down into them without even looking. He did so, wriggling his ankles until he'd wedged his feet securely into the worn brown leather, and he did not bother to reach down and tie their laces. The boots flopped quietly against the floor as he extracted himself from the bedding and reached for the jacket he'd left over the footboard. He put it on and stood there shaking in the frigid morning darkness. He blew on his hands to briefly warm them, then took a deep breath that he held inside to stretch his chest and urge himself more fully awake.

He was already wearing gray wool pants and a dull flannel shirt. He slept in them, more often than not. It was entirely too cold in the orphan's home to sleep in more civilized, sleep-specific attire--even in what was considered summer almost anywhere else in the country.

In the Northwest, they called this time of year the June Gloom.

Until the end of July, the clouds always hung low and close and cold. Everything stayed damp even if it wasn't raining, and usually, it was. Most of the time it wasn't a hard rain, but a slow, persistent patter that never dried or went away. The days didn't warm, and at least once a week there was frost in the morning. People grumbled about how It's never usually like this, but as far as Rector could recall, it was never usually any different. So on the third of June in 1880, Rector's teeth chattered and he wished for something warmer to take with him.

Cobwebs stirred in the corners of Rector's mind, reminding him that something dead was prone to walking there. It kept its distance for now--maybe this was one of the benefits to being unwillingly sober and alert, but Rector didn't want to count on it. He knew too well how the thing came and went, how it hovered and accused, whether he was waking or sleeping.

And it was getting stronger.

Why was that? He had his theories.

The way Rector saw it, he was dying--killing himself slowly and nastily with sap, the potent, terrible drug made from the poisoned air...

Copyright © 2012 by Cherie Priest


The Inexplicables - Cherie Priest

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The Inexplicables

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