It’s hard to find love in a world of polluted air cities, homicidal automata, and mandated mating… but Exa Massey finds it, anyway.
Part One: Things Still Alive
“…tallying traits and probabilities as if she and he and everyone are just variables in an algorithm.”
Steampunk City, by Nathan Barnes.
Some people just shouldn’t be allowed to have children.
Exa’s jaw clenches. She’s supposed to be clocking out and preparing for the Centennial Ball right now; there’s no time for a political debate.
Pierot waits patiently for her time card as the spokes of his irises churn back and forth. Pierot is a wind-up office assistant without the modesty of a porcelain coating. His machinations are fully visible, from the pulleys along his spine to the gears in his jaw. His copper ligaments gleam with grease. State-of-the-art. Government funded.
Her time card hangs in the air, never quite making it to the slot in his chest.
Exa glances over her shoulder. She recognizes the man speaking. He’s always bringing work orders to Cook’s Glass and Metal Fusion, which means he must work for the city. Middle-aged with slick, shaggy black hair and a hooked nose, he wears midnight blue spats and a matching top hat. An aristocrat.
It’s none of your business, she reminds herself stiffly. He can think whatever he wants to think. He works for the government; of course he supports the Companion laws. Just. Clock. Out.
“Groundtown residents should get special consideration for sterilization, too.” He chuckles pleasantly, and Ferguson Cook, Exa’s boss, joins in. Her heart pounds in her ears. “A crack on the day of the centennial! Have they no shame?”
“The labs don’t test for shame,” Exa hears her own voice rise. She doesn’t turn to face the men. “They don’t test for spinelessness, or hypocrisy, or—”
“Exa,” Ferguson mutters in a warning tone.
“That’s the beauty of the formula, isn’t it?” She places her time card on Pierot’s desk like it might shatter. “We’re boiled down to our tiniest degree.”
Automaton Girl, by Ian Daniels.
The gentleman smiles uncomfortably. “I doubt you have anything to worry about,” he soothes. “You’re very pretty, in your own way.”
“I don’t have anything to worry about? I don’t have anything to worry about?”
Exa advances toward the gentleman, but Ferguson is already moving to intercept her. He crowds her out of the foyer and into the back of the workshop.
“Finish up,” he growls, pointing hastily toward her current project.
Exa’s brow knits. “But the centennial—”
“I changed my mind! You’re staying!” Ferguson barks, slamming the door behind himself and leaving her stranded in the back.
“I’m not worried, sir! I’m furious!” she yells through the closed door, standing on the tips of her toes to make eye contact with the gentleman, still staring at her through the glass like a dodo bird.
One hour later, Exa Massey’s soft-faced mallet rises and falls in a pleasant rhythm, clinking against a leaf of brass.
Work always calms her down.
This is nice.
I don’t need anything else.
I’ve already found the love of my life.
Finding something like Mom and Dad have.
It’s next to impossible.
They just got lucky.
Nobody lives like that!
Nobody is happy!
Exa’s glove travels up to her welding mask. The bolts whine as the visor flips from her dark gold eyes, and she paws the leaf into her mitt for examination.
She cracked it.
Exa grimaces. This piece, albeit tiny, is the thirty-second she’s shattered. The project is three hundred parts in total. When it’s complete, it will comprise one clockwork tree.
“‘Ey Exa, git yer shit shelved,” Ferguson calls from the other side of the door. “Need ya at da Groundtown docks fer dat crack.”
“Oh, yeah?” Exa wonders, dropping the ruined leaf onto the floor with all the other scrap. She pries off her helmet and shakes out her silver-white dreadlocks. “I figured I’d be your last choice.”
With traffic on the narrow city streets too dense for a taxicab, Exa forces herself to run with her gear shoved under her arm. Groundtown stands out on the horizon like a scab, its buildings flaking with rust.
Icarus only has the illusion of square footage. Within ten minutes, she’s there.
Exa steps warily past the windows of The Electric Palace. Sleek, porcelain automata coo at her, winking and blowing kisses. They’re triggered by any motion at all; they’d wink and blow kisses at a butterfly, if there still were such things. One automaton is dressed like a maid in a frothy skirt that only hits upper-thigh. She bends at the waist, a movement that always seems severe and alarming on the ball-jointed models, and Exa can see the large brass key turning soundlessly in her back.
Wind-Up Gynoid, by Scott Miron.
The outlet to the Groundtown aerial dock is in the back alley behind this place. Exa arrives at the locked gate and lets herself through with a key. There are normally sentries and a litany of questions to answer and documents to show, but no one guards the Groundtown exit. No one here can afford an airship; the aerial dock only exists for repairs to the south-eastern side of the dome. And, if you so like, for suicides.
Exa steps onto the aerial dock and the whole world changes. It opens up…