I filter out onto the shining steel streets with the rest of the Machina. They glide around and across each other in a hundred different directions, with only millimeters of clearance between them. Their motion is mathematical—no space goes wasted.
I don’t glide. I can’t calculate the trajectories like they do, not anymore. I can’t even see the pattern. Every step I take causes aberrations in the code. Stutter steps and pivots. Dented chassis and sparking limbs.
They call me Broken. The lightning did it. It leapt for me seven years back, and I’ve been this way ever since. It melted something inside my head. Sometimes I overclock for no reason at all. Sometimes my heart throttles and whirrs until my chest plate glows white-hot.
So I hang back four strides behind the others. It’s a ninety-seven-minute run to the Fringe, where the metal ends and the grass begins. Nobody speaks. There’s nothing to be said. We’re pouring metal today, as always. We’re expanding, because that’s what we do.
We fan out upon arrival, each heading for a Conduit. They stick out of the ground like loose wires. I pick mine up and silvery metal gutters out of the tube. It kicks back once, twice, then the flow is thick and mercurial. I let it pool around my feet. The heat ignites the grass exactly six inches ahead of the flow.
I pour the molten metal into ant hills, into cracked earth and dry riverbeds. Over sun-bleached bones, over rusty crosses. Into holes in the ground where soft things live. Sometimes their screams make me flinch. I’ve never seen another Machina flinch.
Everyone else hums as they work. I hum, too, from time to time. But no matter how hard I try, I can never seem to hit the right note.
The day’s work is over and regrettably, I am home, in my father’s small domicile. My brother’s head is mounted above the mantle, which is a terrible risk, but one worth taking to preserve his memory according to Father.
“How far is the Fringe?” Father says. His voice is thunderous, and his eyes are acetylene. The flames were sapphire-blue in his youth, but now his fire is pale and dusky. Sometimes you can’t see the flames at all.
“It was ninety-eight minutes today,” I say. “To the eastern front.”
Father grunts. “Getting there.”
Father’s fading; it happens. He’s all iron and ember, built to toil, not to last. He used to work for weeks at a stretch, shoveling coal into the furnace of his stomach, burning, belching. He worked the Fringe until oil spurted from his joints. These days, he hardly moves at all. It’s the quiet moments that seem to get to him most. The small sounds the world makes as it drones on without him.
One day his Spark will die for good, and we’ll cannibalize him for parts. But Father isn’t that old—not really—and I’m not ready for him to fade. He’s the only thing I have left.
He scoops a handful of coal off the floor and drops it into his stomach. The flames lick up and out of him. “No sighting then?”
“Not yet.” He’s waiting for the day when the Fringes meet. That day is decades, maybe centuries off.
“Any news from the other fronts?”
He nods, averts his gaze.
I let the silence deepen, wishing I had the words to break it. Beacon—my older brother—would have broken it, or maybe he wouldn’t have needed to. His presence was always enough to span the dead zone between Father and me. The space between us seems infinite now that he’s gone. Because Father’s world is practical, and I am anything but that. It was almost a relief when he named me Broken. It meant that he’d finally given up waiting for me to become someone else.
Eventually, Father shrugs and powers down. I stay up late into the night, waiting for the right moment.
Once the fire in Father’s stomach has dimmed to a smoldering glow, I creep over and press my ear against the warmth of his chest plate. His heartbeat ticks and slurps—the seals have given way. The heart needs to come out.
I pry up the loose steel floorboard that hides my stash. It’s Father’s old hearts, mostly, wedged between piles of raw components. Some of the hearts are still beating. Water dribbles from a loose valve here; steam vents from an aorta there.
I’m not sure how I make them. My fingers seem to know more about it than I do. But I’m working, and everything is clicking, then the pistons fire and a new heart beats once, twice, right there in my hands.
The real trick is in the switching. I watch my father’s eyes as I inch his chest plate open. It creaks, but he doesn’t wake. His old heart pumps, hisses. The inside of his chassis is slick with oil. I study the rhythm, the click-clack-hiss, the one-two-three one-two-three. I rip his old heart out after the third beat. I plug his new one in and it thumps the fourth.
He’d have me melted down for scrap if he found out. There is no greater sin than a resource wasted. But I don’t think he’s ready to fade, even though he says otherwise. I’ll keep him online until the Fringes meet if need be.
It’s the least I can do. I’m pretty sure that I’m the reason his heart keeps breaking.
I execute all the right protocols but can’t seem to power down, so I pry the floorboard up again and my fingers take it from there. I work bits of brass into a cord, into a casing. I fill it with aluminum bevels and rings, with racks and pinions and helices. I wind it up until it tick-tocks so loud that the sound reverberates through the domicile.
I smother my invention with my hands and dart a look at Father. He doesn’t stir.
I unclasp my fingers. It’s a clockwork heart, an antique even in my father’s time. It’s so small. But I don’t stop there, though I know I should. I use LEDs for eyes—one blue, one red. Four copper springs for legs, an old crankshaft for the torso. I mold the head out of nickel plating. A piece of steel wool for the tongue, a curl of stripped wire for the tail. I turn it on and step back.
It cocks its head at me, kinks its neck from ninety degrees to one-eighty to two-seventy, then back again. It bobs up and down on its springs. Its crankshaft spins and whines, a noise that vibrates something deep inside my chest plate. I should disassemble it; I know this.
Instead, I decide to call it Quick.
Father groans. He rubs at his unlit eye sockets.
I bundle Quick up with frantic fingers, switch it off, and stash it under the floorboard. Then I set myself back to powering down. It’s almost morning, and as always, there’s real work to be done.
I run for ninety-nine minutes, then pick a spot at the top of a hill. I wedge my Conduit between two rocks and let the silvery metal roll down like lava.
I should be focused on maximizing the flow, but no matter how hard I try, I lack the capacity to make myself care. Instead, I’m thinking of Quick. Of how I could leverage it into some purpose, so that Father wouldn’t despise it so. So that maybe—just maybe—he’d be proud of me for once.
There are other Machina around, as always. Most of them are like me—sleek and small, rechargeable— but some lumber and smoke like Father used to. No matter the build, they all scowl at my unattended Conduit as they pour and adjust, readjust, resume pouring. Their attention is unerring. They tend their silver tributaries like they know nothing else.
I am envious. Because I see grass burning, see forests wilt and wither. Because I wonder why we do what we do, and because wondering is the loneliest thing in the world.
The day’s work is over, so I head home. A dozen different schematics are bouncing around inside my head when I find our front door smoking in the street. I push through the gathered crowd and into our domicile. The floor has been torn apart.
Father towers in the corner, burning as bright as I’ve ever seen him. His old hearts are everywhere, scattered and mangled, pumping amidst the wreckage. Quick whines on the floor near Father’s feet. It raises its head, sees me, and bounces over.
Father lashes out with his foot and Quick is in the air and then it’s hitting the wall and then gears are clattering all around me. Quick’s eyes dim, then fade. Something in me winds down.
“How long,” Father says.
“I don’t know.”
He kicks a heart toward me. It skitters across the floor, hissing steam. “How. Long.”
“Six years,” I say.
His grits his titanium teeth. They bend, groan. One pops loose under the strain and pings against the wall. “And that thing?”
I look at the pile that I once called Quick. “It’s new. A day old. I was going to find a use—”
“You don’t find use,” Father says, quiet now. His anger is sputtering, hardening over, and somehow, that’s worse. He’s silent for much too long. “Could you have helped him?” he says at last. “If you’d known there was a problem.”
I hesitate, because I did know. Because I was the one who forgot to reopen Beacon’s safety valve after I cleaned his central boiler. The explosion threw his head halfway to the Fringe. “No. I couldn’t have helped him.”
Father’s response is instantaneous: “I figured.” He welds his chest plate shut as I scavenge what parts I can from Quick. I’m not sure why I bother, but I don’t know what else to do. Afterward, Father holds the door open until his meaning becomes too clear to ignore.
I say goodbye, he doesn’t; this isn’t supposed to happen.
I stumble into the maelstrom of movement that is the town square. The other Machina give me a wide berth—inches rather than millimeters—but it isn’t enough. I trip, brush against, collide, end up on my back staring up into a steely sky. Nobody tries to help me up. They just step around me. The truth has never been more obvious: I am an obstacle.
Once the last footfalls have faded, I climb to my feet and slouch toward the scrapyard, my decision made. I will be helpful. I will be a part of this, whether they like it or not.
An aluminum gate swings open to admit me, and the space within it is sprawling, crisscrossed with columns of inert Machina that stand still as gravestones, some of them missing hands or arms or faces.
The Machina that minds the yard stomps over. It greets me by sticking a pair of wired electrodes to my temples. It flips a wall-mounted switch and the current surges into me, makes my skull hum, makes my eyes vibrate in their sockets.
When the darkness comes—when the whirrings of my mind quiet for the first time in so many years—I am grateful.
“Recoverable,” a voice says, jarring me awake.
“No.” My hands jump to my temples, to the electrodes that have fused to my skull. I tear them loose. “You’re wrong. Run the diagnostic again.”
“The scan came up positive,” the Machina says, shrugging. “There’s nothing I can do. Debugging is expecting you in four minutes.”
“Please,” I say. “I could be useful this way. They can’t fix this, not me.”
The Machina’s huge shoulders dip; its massive head tips toward me. It drops to one knee so that we’re eye-to-eye. “My daughter was the same way,” it says, “too sensitive, too unfocused. She’s better now. She’s worked the Fringe as long as anyone.”
“I don’t want to be better,” I say. “I want to be someone else.”
“They can do that too. All it’ll take is time.”
The journey back to the Fringe is nothing. My world is small and comfortable, it is a single step, it is the all-encompassing thrust of movement. Then my world is the next step, then the next, until I’ve left the scrapyard far behind.
The other Machina are waiting for me. We do not speak, because there is nothing to be said, and because there is work to be done. One of them bolts Father’s furnace to my back. He faded; it happens. The furnace is still warm, and I feel an echo of something, but it slides away.
The others pile coal into my furnace, and I pour and pour. The grass wilts, the leaves turn, snow falls, melts. Everything is simple now. The world is green, and I will drown it in chrome.
I’m running low on power for the first time in ages. The coal is gone. All of it is gone, everywhere. Even the scars in the earth that it was harvested from have been plastered over with metal, made smooth. I need to recharge, so I head back. I’m not sure how much time has passed since I started working, but the world has changed.
The other Machina have sprouted turbines that snatch the wind. Others wear panels of black glass that drink in the light of day. But they’re still pouring metal, and that is all that matters.
I make it home. My charging station is in the corner, as I left it some months or years ago. Beacon’s head still hangs above the mantle. I’m two inches from the plug when I hear a scratching sound, the telltale shriek of metal on metal. It’s coming from underneath the floor. I find a loose board and pry it up.
It’s what’s left of Quick. Its eyes are faint, but still glowing, somehow. Someone must have fixed it up. But I have no use for Quick, not anymore. I force its head down and slide the floorboard back into place. The scratching quiets, but never stops.
It is a six-hundred-and-ninety-four-minute run to the Fringe. My Conduit is waiting for me, as always. There is an ocean just beyond it. The Machina line the shore, spewing silver into the waves.
I pour, and the sea boils around my knees. It is acceptable work. There are so many variables to parse that by the time I’m running low, it seems like no time has passed at all. I set my Conduit down and turn away. I am the only one who has moved.
Heads turn in my direction. For once, the others seem to have something to say, but nobody wants to be the one to say it. Another Machina steps up and takes hold of my Conduit. It dips a set of bronze fans into the waves, and I understand.
I have become obsolete.
I am fading; it happens. The Fringe is simply too far away, and my charging station is antiquated. The other Machina have become self-sufficient. They never stop working. I wish I were so lucky.
There are others like me, relics that have been left behind. We let the days burn by, mostly. I hear the same sounds that Father used to dread: the clinking of footsteps beyond the window, the droning of my own failing heart. These sounds are no easier on me.
I hear Quick from time to time, scratching at the underbelly of the floor as if it’s trying to claw its way out. The scratching grows louder as the days pass. It makes me think of Father. Of whether he was the one who fixed Quick after I left. I push the thought away. I don’t want it inside my head.
When the scratching becomes too loud to ignore, when I find myself vibrating in the middle of the night, I pry up the floorboard, hammer in hand. It’s time.
Quick pokes its head out. I swing and miss, and the hammer sparks off the floor. Quick scampers between my legs and bounds out the window. I follow it outside, but it darts ahead again. Thunder sounds in the distance, and the first drops of rain splatter against my shoulders. The streets are slick beneath my feet.
I catch Quick almost an hour later, at the very top of a hill. The sky is full of clouds that could be anvils. I raise the hammer high above my head.
The air above us crackles. Quick watches the sky with something like hope.