Every day was the same. The Engineer’s dormitory was fifth shift, code orange-three in this part of the City. They woke to the sound of their bell-pattern, shuffled to showers and mess, in order of employee ID. (For her, it was breakfast hot, showers cold, but at least there was a flask of hot coffee after.) Then she made her way to her post in the Hangars.
Every day, she worked in the bowels of the great Airships. They were maintained by a multitude of people, but she rarely saw anyone. She had her closet of tools, and each day she took the mechanism that she was slated to tune up and returned it to the ship at the end of the day.
Her watch reminded her of lunch, which she ate where she sat in her amber-lit closet among the machines. Bells signaled shift end, and supper was with her dorm again, and a few hours leisure before their curfew bell tolled and it was back into bed to do it again.
Wednesdays were her free days, but held little more free time. That was the day she did her laundry, checked her accounts at the city’s great Bank, bought the personal items she needed and, if time permitted, perhaps she did take an hour or two for herself, walking in the park, perhaps, or sometimes even seeing a film. She tried not to spend much, however. Time was money, and money was precious. Every day’s wages were saved and carefully kept track of. Every day was a step closer to her dream:
Someday, she would get out of the City, take an airship away and never look back. Someday, she would go live somewhere green and beautiful, in a little house that was only hers, with real forests and mountains and streams, where the sun shone down from a clear sky and the snow fell pure and white, not gray with soot before it even hit the ground.
Often, she imagined as she reinstalled some timing mechanism or another back into the ship it came from, that it had been outside and seen those things. Often, she imagined how easy it might be to smuggle herself onto one of those airships, to just go wherever it was going and not look back, to take whatever consequences came, but take them, at least, in a new world.
That was what she thought of when she lay in her bunk, drifting off to sleep with the sound of the great engines in her ears, and sometimes when she was lucky, she woke with the feeling of sun on her face.
But in the end, she always came home at the end of her shift. And she always woke up from her dreams.
One Wednesday, everything changed. She was waiting at the tinker’s shop, a dim place crowded with racks of broken machinery and odds and ends, where even a junior mechanic of her level could afford to have her tools sharpened and repaired. The tinker himself had disappeared into the back to fetch her order, leaving her to browse the shelves.
And that was when she saw it—a pale white hand hanging out of a sack on the wall. Shocked and curious, the Engineer crept closer, and opened the bag.
A woman slept folded within. At least, that was the first impression, for the face that lay against the dark cloth was too peaceful to be dead. But then, looking carefully, she saw the pattern of cracks against the smooth white skin. She reached out to touch the face—cold, like porcelain.
Losing track of where she was entirely, the Engineer unhooked the sack and brought her down, carefully unfolding what she found inside on the cramped floor. This is what she saw:
A doll—no—an automaton, it must be—of incredible beauty. Her outside was smooth, nearly skin, but as the Engineer ran her fingers over that surface, she could feel the firm structure beneath, the delicate articulation of her joints, even her face. That skin was pale and perfect, her lips pale pink, her hair—was it real hair?—a warm auburn, a bit tangled, but still caught into the bun that she had last worn.
Everywhere along her skin was faint cracks, as if the surface was something hard painted onto cloth, but then something had happened. She was dropped, broken—beaten? That seemed likely, but who would ruin such a masterpiece?
“Ah, yes.” The tinker’s voice interrupted her thoughts, and the Engineer jumped. “You see the Dancer. Broken. One of a kind, and the maker not around to fix. I would sell for parts, but who will take parts from that?”
The Engineer rested her hand on the automaton’s cheek, and felt the way she felt when she dreamed of sunlight.
“I’ll take her,” she said. “How much?”
The tinker raised his eyebrows. “Different from your clocks. You need more tools.”
“How much?” the Engineer repeated.
“Eighty,” the tinker hazarded. It was almost two weeks’ pay.
“Fifty,” the Engineer offered. It was more than she had ever meant to pay, but what else did she have to spend it on? Dreams of green fields? A possible someday? She didn’t even know if there was any green in the world anymore.
“Sixty,” the Engineer said. She couldn’t go higher. Her heart was pounding in her chest. More, and she’d have to go and get a special writ from the Bank.
“Done,” the tinker said. “Yours.”
The Engineer exhaled a breath she hadn’t known she was holding.
“You want wrapped up?”
“Yes,” she said, “but do it now. I’m taking her tonight.”
She kept the Dancer in her closet of a workroom, there at her table amongst the tools, there in the one little place where she could lock everyone else away and concentrate. There, that first night, as she undressed the dancer from her lacy white dress and laid her out on the table, she found strange thoughts in her head indeed.
For whoever had made the automaton had made her with incredible attention to detail, life replicated in cloth and clay down to the smallest bits. And as the Engineer lay her out and ran her fingers over the Dancer’s artificial skin, she found her blood quickening with more than a craftsman’s interest. She was so beautiful and perfect, her sleeping face longing and sad…
She dressed the automaton again, quickly, and left her that way. But that night in the dorms when her loins ached, it was the dancer’s flesh she thought of, and she had sweeter dreams than her thoughts of green hills had ever been.
Once she had the gist of it, working on the Dancer wasn’t so different from her other repairs at all. She was still brass and steel, for the most part, still gears and struts and hydraulics. Whoever had created her had been a genius, and part of that genius was in simplicity and clarity of design. Each day, she came and she found more repairs to make. Bent and broken pieces were replaced, dislodged parts returned, liquids refreshed. Some days, they were parts that she could find or purchase. Other times, they were parts she had to steal. But nothing else seemed to matter, anymore.
It seemed that when running, the Dancer had been a self-winding clockwork of sorts, powered by the forces she would experience in the world, and her own motion against those forces. Each day, it seemed more possible that she might actually run again.
Then things began to grow more complicated. While most of the design was simple, the automaton’s central systems, the heart, the head… these were black boxes that the Engineer couldn’t figure out. She hoped that they were still functional, hoped that once she had everything else repaired they would function, but she had no way to know.
Until the moment of truth came. One night, she realized that everything else was, for the most part, done. She had a key that should wind the main mechanism, but had no real idea what would happen when she did so. So she waited until she had hours to herself, set the Dancer up on the table, and turned the key.
Once, twice, three times.. She turned the key nine times and it would turn no further. She pulled the key out, stepped back…
For a long moment, nothing happened.
Then the Dancer opened her eyes, dark glass eyes as deep as oceans. And her gaze met the Engineer’s.
“Thank you,” she said, “for fixing me.”
Through that night, and the next, and the next, the Engineer drew out her story: she was created by one of the master artificers of the City, one of the men who had practically created the place they lived and all of its wonders. She was given as a gift from his son to his grandson, a young man of about the Engineer’s age, and it had been a perfect gift. The boy had loved her. The problem was, he had loved her more than the flesh-and-blood woman that he was set to marry. In order to prevent further problems, she had been taken from him and broken, dumped into the rubbish heap. Unbeknownst to her upper-class owners, their rubbish was sorted through and sold to others beneath them, and very little of value ever got away.
The Engineer listened as she spoke, and filled in her side of the story. Apparently the Dancer had a dim awareness even of what occurred when she was not wound, even broken as she had been, so she had appreciated the Engineer’s ministrations in truth.
The Engineer told her of her life in the dormitories, of her dreams of another place, outside of the city, and the Dancer loved these dreams too.
The Engineer spent every hour at the Dancer’s side. The problem was that as independent as she was in her work, her supervisors did notice. So there came to be a day that she was called before her manager and given the news: As she could no longer be trusted to complete her duties in the Hangars, she would be transferred at once to work within the City’s timing mechanisms, a night-shift job deep within the bowels of the City-machine. She would pack up her things and be ready to report on Thursday. She had the afternoon to clean up.
She rushed back to her workroom, and the Dancer, in tears, and the Dancer stroked her hair.
“You spoke once of your dream that you could just flee on one of the airships,” the Dancer said, “Why do you not go now? You can’t know where it will take you, but surely it is better than this.”
The Engineer looked deep into her deep glass eyes, and took her cracked but beautiful hands in her rough hands of flesh.
“Will you go with me?”
“It would be safer if you go alone, and you will not have the means to repair me if I break.”
“We can’t know that, and if I lived without you, even in paradise, it would be as bad as the most dismal servitude. Please.”
So the Engineer and Dancer took all that they could carry, and when the Engineer’s last mechanism was installed into her last Airship, the Engineer smuggled them aboard, hid within the cargo.
And as they set off for a new unknown horizon, they huddled together and hoped for somewhere green.