Cecily liked to hurt things.
She didn’t know why. Sometimes a disorder of the Mind just happened, and the ghosts in the Machines had claimed her as their own. Likes became rituals and rituals became worship, in the service of clockwork deities as twisted as she.
It was the last lingering hour before twilight when the offering came due once again, but Cecily had lost track of the day and cursed her misfortune for it. She lived in the custody of an elderly uncle in a broken-down chapel that was far older still. Granduncle was an odd fellow, Royal Navy (ret.), whose appetites centered on men much younger than he. So it was there in the ruined churchyard, amid roses and wild brambles, that Cecily found her gift picking berries. A gift chosen in haste and with even less care, but Time waited for no one and the boy would have to do.
He stood atop a gear-and-wheel ladder, young and stripped to the waist, gleaming with perspiration in the deep setting Sun. A steel hoop pierced each nipple, and blonde hair softened his chest and chin. His name was Oliver, and he was very beautiful.
Yes, Cecily thought. He would do.
“Good evening, Pretty Bird,” Oliver said. His smile was bright and genuine. Cecily accepted the lie for what it was. She knew in her heart that she’d never been pretty; her body was narrow and pale and had long since betrayed her with the coming of monthly blood. So she darkened her eyelids with black metal powders and shrouded her scars in black lace.
“Good evening, Oliver,” she said in return, smoothing her long skirts the way other girls did. “May I have some berries, please?” She mimicked his smile with the cruelest of lies and pointed to a cluster just out of reach. “There, the shiny ones on top.”
Oliver reached for the berries, round and bright in a sky thick with industrial ash, the muscles in his arm stretching ever higher; his movement ordered and precise. Great electrick airships bound for the night’s mooring thrummed overhead amid smokestacks and brick chimneys, while the armored face of the Moon displayed itself in grandeur farther still.
Do it, Cecily! Quickly, child, without delay.
The words popped into her mind of their own accord, vexing her, goading her to act. The silent commands were with her all the time now, haunting and familiar. She’d been here before, this moment, this place. The Sun continued down the great arc of its rails, sinking ever closer into dusk and the night.
Steel yourself, Cecily. Another link cast in this glorious chain! Strike and apotheosis can at long last be yours.
Cecily gave the taunt no credence. She knew what must be done and required no prodding from subconscious twaddle. But the taunt’s meaning was true enough: the Gods of Time and Engines were ever anxious for their gifts. She placed her hands on the ladder and pushed.
Oliver shouted as he upended and fell, grasping at vines too slender to bear his weight. His neck caught between the ladder cogs, wrenched sideways, and snapped. He hit the ground lifeless. Unnaturally bent.
He was not beautiful anymore.
Cecily looked upon him with not an instant to spare as the lamp of the Sun extinguished itself in the black folds of night.
“I’ve changed my mind,” she heard herself say, and a part of her knew that she’d said it before, even as the words slipped her pale lips.
Night fell over the broken garden walls, and the palaces of Great Albion bore the muted colors of gaslight and electricks. Cecily reclined in unease and jitters, high in the garrets of the crooked old house. She’d never hidden from the terrible things she’d done and she wasn’t hiding now, here where she slept and schemed and pleasured herself with sacred objects no longer blessed. But the peace of the day’s offering was eluding her still.
Secondhand history books lined walls draped with black vestments and lace. Down the rabbit hole, through the looking glass, second star to the right and straight on ‘til morning. Tales from before the Instrumentality had come and recast the World into mechanized Perfection. She read about girls named Wendy and Alice, heroines among the first to jump the armillary rails of Earth and fly into Aspects bright and true. Anger welled inside her that those girls could soar and she could not.
That the World was beautiful and she was not; that others knew acceptance and she did not.
That apotheosis was maddeningly beyond her grasp.
Scavengers and carrion birds gathered out in the gloaming, pecking and tearing at the young man’s remains. A raven lit upon her windowsill, mechanically airborne on spring-driven wings. The gore of a blue eye dangled from its steel beak.
She launched herself at the casement, a contemptuous cry stifled deep in her throat. The creature hopped about in a flurry of metal feathers and flew away, the dead eye in its clutches staring back as it went.
“You’re thinking of the sparrow, Cecily. Are you not?” A company of voices, speaking as one, entered her room through the open transom above the door.
Cecily turned and found no one there. She did not question the presence of the voices, nor was she startled by them. There were a great many sounds in Granduncle’s house that were never acknowledged, deep throaty moans and the rhythmic creaking of metal bedsprings.
“What do you know of that?” she asked, and turned her back to the door.
“You were young,” the voices said, “not yet envious of the Machines. You trapped the poor creature in a rusted piece of stove pipe and found it dead the next morning, its wings and tawny feathers stained black with soot.”
Cecily looked at her hands and remembered the soot that never truly washed clean. “It was beautiful,” she whispered. “So I sent it away.”
“You are the sparrow. We can see it in your eyes.”
Cecily looked to the mirror above her dressing table, her features gaunt in the gaslight and beveled glass. The black depths of her eyes were attestations to a lifetime spent in the presence of pain. There was no sparrow in them, nothing of beauty at all. And comfort was a blessing not offered by the Gods of Time and Engines. She grabbed the first object in reach, a half-empty vessel of sacramental wine, and hurled it into the mirror, shattering her sharp and delicate face.
Innumerable gods of clockwork and gears had sprung from the Machines of the Queen’s Instrumentality: Steamhammer, Ratchet, Lightspeed, and Cog. They slew the old god, the Carpenter and his brethren, and remade the World into this Perfect reality. Or so Men had come to believe.
“Life’s betrayals have twisted you, Cecily. The Engines you worship have no need for beauty as measured in flesh, and Time burns away all it touches. But you are beautiful in ways that only they can see, with eyes of x-ray and alchemic glass. If only you would believe.”
Cecily’s pulse raced and she raked her fingers through long formless hair. The voices were metallic, and they popped and clicked like scratches picked up by a phonographic needle.
They were the voices of Machines.
And at long last she knew godly fear.
Cecily grabbed a shard from the mirror, felt the glass in her trembling hand. She traced an unsteady line along the flesh of her wrist. Scars and metal piercings adorned her arms where she’d cut herself before. “They demand the spilling of blood,” Granduncle would say, when he bothered to notice her at all. “They envy us, you see, and covet the iron flowing freely in our veins.” A quick slash it would be then, a fluid exit, her final gift coursing down a narrow washroom drain.
Then new sounds echoed up from the garden, above the rumble of the World on its rails: the clockwork rattle of locks pinning open, the protesting screech of a cold iron gate. The clatter of carriage wheels and mechanical hooves on cobblestones.
Cecily leapt to the window. Twin pools of lantern light swept the yard below. Scavengers bolted, gore dripping from talons and brass teeth. No. No, no. Not yet.
Granduncle was home.
And Oliver had been his favorite.
Panic shot through her cold twisted heart. Cecily could weave alibis with the skill of a master liar, but all duplicity fled her now. Instead she screamed and threw her histories in blind abandon, tore lace and photos from the walls, tintypes of naked young men grafted in painful ecstasy to mechanized limbs and organs of every shape and description.
In the hallway outside her door, a staircase wound into the steeple where Granduncle kept his fetishes and toys. A door at the top of the stairs creaked open, and icy beams shone down.
“Dance with us, Cecily, in bright electrick light. Your transformation awaits, the glorious fusion of metal to flesh! For the first time in your life, be free.”
“Yes,” she said, knowing her choice was clear; indeed, there was no choice at all. “I’m ready.”
No one understood her, but the Machines did. No one knew what was best for her, but the Machines did. No one accepted her, but the Machines did.
And Cecily cried, because she knew it all was true.
She looked up the spiral steps. The light was cold, and it iced her steel-darkened tears into strings of black diamonds.
No time, no exit, no other way out.
One at first, then in twos and threes, Cecily bolted up the bright staircase, faster and faster, the shadows parting behind eher like wings, soaring free.
“Fly, Pretty Bird. Come fly away home.”
She burst into the steeple, into the source of the light.
Broken stained glass, backlit by the Moon: dark blue and indigo, amethyst and white. Christ Jesus weeping, praying at midnight. The god of the Old Time, no longer welcome in the New.
And hanging before him was her own withered form, strung by the neck at the end of a wire mesh whip. The parchment that had once been skin now pulled taut across her cheekbones; ice frosted limbs that were brittle and stick-thin.
The corpse had been there a very long time.
She was not alone in the moonlight. Figures surrounded her now amid Granduncle’s costumes and crates, and with a start she recognized them all. Images of everyone she’d hurt, even Mamma and Da; bruised, bleeding, stooped heavily with rust and rime. They called to her and laughed in cold metal voices. Revenants, flickering as if cast from a kinetoscope, mimicking language and thoughts they’d plucked from her mind.
And shuffling before them was Oliver, still stripped to the waist but now strips of flesh torn away as well, exposing a greasy metal cage where his ribs were supposed to be. His head lolled to one side at a terrible angle, and a black apparatus perched upon his shoulder—a clockwork raven, the one from her windowsill, still clutching his ruined eye in its beak.
“Welcome home, Cecily,” Oliver said, his tone as bright as iridium, as warm as polished gold. “The prodigal shadow returns once again. Our wandering spirit, the memory of that.” Bent fingers pointed to the corpse overhead. “You took your own life a long while ago. Wretched, is it not? Cursed is anyone who hangs from a tree.”
Cecily leapt back but Mamma and Da seized her, one on each arm. Their illusory hands should have passed clean through but they held her fast, as if she were no more substantial than they.
The thing that had been Oliver stepped closer, the quality of his speech more grating with every word. A voice box bent out of true; the flash of sparks in his throat.
“There was once a young girl who did nothing but hurt and maim,” he began. “No one claimed to know why—her devotion to the Lords-Mechanical was masterfully concealed—nor was she held accountable for the offerings made in their service. But the notice she’d long sought from them remained forever out of reach.
“So it came as no surprise when at last she turned her black anger upon herself, and there her tale should have ended. But the Gods of Time and Engines have designs of their own and in death the girl was given a great boon—one she did not deserve—the chance to go back and reset the balance. A chance to find order in a lifetime of disarray.”
The icy light brightened as he spoke, and it drove away the shadows that beclouded Cecily’s soul. She suddenly felt naked in the presence of Judgment and clung in vain to her blouse and skirts. Her privacy violated, defenseless.
“But with no memory of the past or of what was to come, the child relived her life just as it had been, tumble and jumble, and repeated every crime. She grew into rituals ever more heinous, the cost of her offerings ever more dear, and death came to claim her once more. So arbiters on wings of silver and steel sent her back a second time. Then a third, and yes a fourth and a fifth. A clockwork, rewound.”
Cecily’s past splayed open before her, unmasked, exposed, as it renewed itself time and again. A chain feeding off its own doomed repetition. With razor-sharp clarity she saw herself shove Oliver from atop the tall ladder. But she’d also pushed him over the churchyard wall....
And down the basement stairs....
And off the steep pitch of the old chapel’s roof....
Infinite reflections in Her Majesty’s Great Machines. Each version different from the one that came after it; every action haunting her because she’d done it all before.
The light continued to brighten; its radiance harnessed the fire of Heaven’s Engines and stripped Cecily clean, soiled wings immaculate, without soot or stain. She saw everything that the Machines had conspired to keep hidden in darkness.
They demand the spilling of blood, Granduncle said. They envy us, you see, the iron in our veins....
But that made no sense, Cecily realized with a start. Even as a child it hadn’t made sense, but she’d never once dared to question it.
“What need, you wonder, does a Machine have for blood?” Oliver asked. “Knowledge and control are the fires that drive the Engines of Heaven, but even Gods cannot see beyond the limits of their own Perfection. The random, the haphazard, the irrational, the human, are well outside their understanding. So a test was devised. A study in bedlam, if you will. An inquiry into the ever-shifting balance between Order and Chaos.”
A test subject was chosen (Cecily already knew, as dread gave way to lifetimes of memory): a little girl who railed against the World as if lost in a hedge maze, a sparrow trapped in a sooty length of pipe.
Granduncle was wrong. Or he’d lied. It hardly mattered now; all of her gifts had been offered in vain. The effects of her blind single-mindedness, the lives she’d made to suffer, the phantoms round about her whose dreams would never be realized.
Christ Jesus weeping.
It was all so achingly clear.
“You were the arbiters,” she said to Oliver. “The voices in the garden.”
“We’ve been alongside you all the while, whispering in your ear, steering you to action. Sometimes you’ve even heard us, but never for the right reasons.”
“It’s not too late!” she cried. Her heart swelled with the assurance of apotheosis—the transfiguration into Mechanical Immortality. “I understand now. I understand it all.”
Oliver shook his ruined head. “Only because we’ve shown you, child. You were meant to learn it yourself.” He turned and shuffled away, the raven on his shoulder peering at her through black industrial lenses. It echoed the revenants’ laughter with cold and ominous intent.
And the light of Heaven’s Engines receded again into the shadows, into the soot-laden places Cecily knew so well. The ghosts crowded around her and rejoiced, burning her flesh with icy fingertips, the absolute cold of wrought-iron graves.
“I just wanted them to notice me!” Cecily wept as she gazed into the Perfection exposed beneath Oliver’s earthly flesh, but her voice was silenced as the metal whip wrung her by the neck.
Oliver looked back and flashed a steely grimace, the ghastly travesty of a clockwork man’s smile.
“Sad little fleshling. They’ve noticed you all along,” she heard the thing say. Just as it had always said, a thousand times before. “The Gods of Time and Engines are ever anxious for their gifts.”
And as they hoisted her into the belfry, and her body snapped down at the end of the wire mesh line, the icy fires of Time rose to take her, to consume her, and carried her back through the balance wheels to the never-ending Now, the place where the circle began and forever begins again.
At least until she gets it right.
Cecily liked to hurt things.
She didn’t know why....