The day was sliding into the night when Dint tightened the last rivet, swiveling her wrist until that final washer squealed against the wood. By the time the stars flickered on, she had replaced her tools in their storage tins, locked the hangar doors, and tucked Father’s key into the notch above her elbow, where her skin had worn thin and glassy.
Now she stood for a long moment, with her heart ticking steadily, while the breeze swept dust from the gears lining her throat. Her skirt smelled of solvents, and her corset had rust blooming on its side. The paint on her legs had rubbed away, too, exposing the whalebone shells that formed her kneecaps, their corked edges crusted with salt.
Father would’ve insisted she bathe, of course, using the solution he’d made just for her.
But Father wasn’t here anymore.
So she settled for that cleansing bite of the wind instead, while the evening tugged on her joints. Then she studied the hangar’s oversized window.
Through it, she could faintly see the dirigible she’d just completed.
She’d followed Father’s schematics to the millimeter, leaving nothing to chance. The result was a bulbous cluster of wood, metal, glass, leather, and enough HelioGas to fuel a small bomb.
Yes, the ship was beautiful. An ambitious, awkward contraption that only a human mind could create. Father would’ve been proud.
She’d made good time, too: nine hundred and eleven days. One less than expected.
Which meant she’d miscalculated by one-tenth of a percent.
The error was strange and unexplainable, and it pulled her corded lips into a frown. With no further tasks, she was left to wonder: what was she to do with an extra day?
* * *
She spent the first hour pacing the field behind the hangar, where the grass dipped into a stream. Tiny animals skittered away as she moved—creatures with glistening skin and appendages for which she had no names. Their strangeness filled her with a giddy sort of pressure.
By the hour’s end, her skirt was sopping with mud and algae, and for once, she was grateful that Father wasn’t around to clean up—she rather enjoyed the mess.
* * *
The next hours were spent testing her ceramic limbs. She climbed a tree with prickly branches, and didn’t flinch when a twig ripped the eyelets of her blouse.
She scaled a rocky hillside, gazed at the stars, and gave names to every constellation Father hadn’t wired into her head.
She watched a moth flutter toward the moon, too, and stroked the wing of a stilled bird. She even scribbled her name in the dirt with her brass-plated fingertips.
At one point, a far-off animal howled—a mournful bellow that filled Dint with a strange sense of longing.
What sound would she make, if she could do more than speak? And who would she cry out to?
By the time the sky flushed with pink, her heart began to slow. She reached back, grasped the crank between her shoulder blades, and gave herself one last winding.
Nine hundred and twelve.
Something trembled in her chest. A moment later, Father’s voice echoed from a chamber beneath her sternum. His words sounded grainy, distorted by whatever technology he had used to record himself. “Congratulations, my Dint,” Father said. “You’ve reached the end of your allotted time. Is my airship as lovely as I imagine?”
Dint parted her lips, but before she could respond, Father’s voice continued. “Please don’t feel dismayed by any miscalculations. Those were . . . intentional, on my part. It pains me to remind you, but you’re obligated to report to the registry today, to be assigned for termination. I trust that, when the time comes, you’ll meet your end with poise and grace.”
The recording stopped abruptly, and the mechanism that controlled it shuddered, then stilled.
Dint had no words for the feeling inside her, so she merely curled herself around the trunk of a withered tree. When her mind finally slipped into standby mode, it felt like she was tumbling off a cliff.
* * *
By the time Dint reactivated, the clock in her mind had shifted by two full hours. It was a long time to spend in standby, even for her.
She watched the pink-orange sun crest the distant hills. Then she brushed the muck off her skirt and trudged back to Father’s hangar, dragging her heels all the way.
* * *
Father had been wrong: she didn’t need to report to the registry—an automaton was already waiting beside the hangar.
The thing looked like her, mostly: female in appearance, clad in heavy skirts, with a head draped in auburn hair.
Dint did not.
“You’re aware of my purpose here?” the automaton asked.
“I am,” Dint replied.
The automaton nodded. “Shall we begin, then?”
Dint hesitated, her mind a sudden cloud of noise. “May I have a moment to . . . look over my creation?”
The automaton’s eyes twitched. Then it nodded slowly.
So Dint unlocked the hangar and quietly stepped into the dusty space.
“I am allotting you ten minutes,” the automaton said. “Spend them wisely.”
Dint said nothing back. She was too busy peering up at something brassy—a placard that she’d bolted onto the airship, back when she’d begun construction. At the time, she’d paid little attention to the thing, aside from fixing it in place.
Now she read it carefully, while Father’s voice echoed in her head.
I trust that, when the time comes, you’ll meet your end with poise and grace.
Dint’s lips curled into a smirk.
“Poise and Grace,” she whispered, eyeing the etched words.
Father had named his airship well.
Dint glanced at the open hangar doors. The automaton was still there, looking away, its head angled toward the clouds.
According to the clock inside her, Dint had five hundred and nine seconds left, before the automaton completed its task. It was plenty of time to get the Poise and Grace up and flying.
After all, Dint had built the craft. Who knew it better than she?
© 2020 Kyle Richardson