The moment the helium hissed from the airship’s hull, before the doomed crew could fear for their lives, America knew their fate. The airship Odyssey ignited above New Atlanta, a fire-breathing dragon fatally wounded.
America bolted outside, the explosion rattling the haberdashery’s windows.
America’s Constructor, Dr. Ezra Wiley, required facts. As his Construct, her purpose was to gather them. Precognition was a dubious manifestation in humans; for Constructs like herself, it had been nonexistent—until now.
With the detonation of Odyssey on this overcast winter day in 1890, America’s foresight was bearing out.
Metal smithereens pitched like spears from the burning airship as people surged from the shops onto the streets. A piece of debris struck America’s cheek, chipping the porcelain veneer, and tripping all her sensors. The trajectories of flying debris came to her—probabilities, grounded in physics. The knowledge was nothing as inexplicable as her foreboding of this disaster unfolding now.
Panic spread among the humans like the flames vaulting from rooftop to rooftop, the air thickening with smoke and choking their cries. Amid the chaos and danger, America would sustain little damage out here. But these humans, scattering like frightened quail flushed from the bush, were made of softer stuff. The wooden storefronts split under the heat, shattering glass and sending daggers at them. An agonized cry erupted as the projectiles made their marks.
America shouted in a clear voice, “Move west to safety, toward the Kenniston Hotel.” It was the first time she had spoken to any humans other than those who lived or visited Haven, Wiley’s home.
A well-dressed woman in the crowd stopped in the street and glared. “You,” she hissed. “I don’t know who God has cursed more, your kind or ours! You are the cause of this chaos. This disaster is your doing!”
Touching the chip in her veneer, America lowered her eyes.
A man repeated her instructions to move west, and this time the crowd listened, the woman lifting her nose and her skirts before following the rest of them.
Thick gray ash fell like snow, obscuring the afternoon sun. America looked up to see the last of the airship, the aft of its hull still clinging to the frame but giving way, crackling, curling backward, ejecting smoke and flames.
She started walking again, her slippered feet striking the street’s worn cobblestones. Though she could have made better time running, she resisted. Her skirts would not have hidden her lack of boots, and it was best not to draw more attention to herself.
Recently, she had notified Wiley of a possible malfunction in her mapping: glimpses she had of the fates of unknown humans—often mundane, sometimes celebratory, and sometimes tragic. She had delayed informing him, and he seemed intrigued by that as much as by her claims.
What began as a trickle of data within her circumvolution swelled to a torrent. It seemed the entire city’s tortuous desires, intentions, and sorrows were battering her consciousness like a Zeppelin half-slipped from its moorings.
And now the airship tragedy she had predicted was unraveling around her in stark detail.
Crossing Peachtree Street and walking down a side street, America turned her head for one last look at the devastation. The fires cast everything in a red light. She should keep moving, but instead, she stopped. She did not know why she paused, but the problem was not a mechanical one.
A Tidy-Sprite—a small, motorized sweeper—sputtered past her. The brushes that rimmed its brass base were burning, its two wooden wheels yet untouched. But the rubber pivoting arm that swept dirt into the Tidy-Sprite’s receptacle was melting, and the little machine whirled aimlessly, seeming to cry in pain.
America heard murmurs then, like wind rushing out of some hidden place, carrying thousands of indistinct voices—as if the whole city were speaking to her at once. Her temples vibrated, her visual sensors scrambling.
It was happening again.
Before her eyes, one Tidy-Sprite turned into many, separating into a series of them over time. And at the end of this long line of burning Tidy-Sprites, stretching a few seconds into the future, was the Tidy-Sprite’s destruction, fully engulfed in flames.
America realized she could move again.
She ran, events moving inexorably toward their end.
America shed her slippers long before she reached the tangle of pines and underbrush. She thought the worst would be left behind her in New Atlanta proper. Her carriage waited beyond the pine trees on an untraveled road.
Then she saw the girl, a small bundle heaped upon the clay. Kneeling, America pulled the child into her arms as she had seen parents do. The child whimpered and struggled to free herself, and America remembered the crack in her veneer.
America, unable to smile or frown, released the girl while speaking quietly. “Please do not be afraid. Shall I fetch your mother?”
The child nodded weakly and tried to speak. What came out of her was a gasp, followed by a choked gurgle as life left her, more quickly than America had expected.
America stared into the girl’s blue eyes, now as lifeless as her own. Uncertain of what to do, she gathered the small body close to her. The girl’s face was dirty except where wet stains displaced the soot.
America touched the girl’s cheek. “Tears,” she said, studying the wetness on her fingertips, but unable to feel it. Humans cry, in pain and in joy.
It was not obvious what had happened to the child. She had no burns, no wounds from falling debris. But she was unnaturally thin and dirty; she wore a faded smock, threadbare stockings, worn shoes, and no coat. She appeared to be one of the many unfortunate children who toiled in the grimy textile factories and tanneries or harvested crops beneath the relentless southern sun.
America sat holding the girl, aware there was no logic in her actions. This girl could not be repaired. “Humans die,” America said aloud to the trees. Carefully, she laid the child out and crossed her small hands as she had seen in a funeral tintype.
In the place where a human’s heart would beat, America’s gears whirled, the teeth of tiny orbs intersecting with precision in a labyrinth of wiring and currents. While she knew this heart afforded her no feeling, physical or emotional, a strange uncertainty hung about her processors now.
Standing and taking the bottom of her expensive pongee skirt in her hands, America ripped it easily, nearly half of the material giving way, the vibrant floral print in striking contrast to the starched white of her exposed petticoat.
She tucked the silky cloth around the girl’s body before covering her small face. “I do not know prayers, but I know the dead require words. You will not be alone long. The searchers will find you.” At a loss for how to proceed, America curtsied.
It was past time to go. The sun was moving past noon in a sky full of merging rainclouds. The rain came suddenly and fiercely. The road quickly puddled and slickened. Free to run, America raced, her heavy steps splashing the red Georgia clay.
The rain stopped by the time she emerged where her carriage waited with Captain, the coach driver, and Tiger-Son, an orphan Wiley had taken under his wing. They had been anxious when America insisted that they stay behind.
Close enough now to hear their voices, she unclenched her fists. Intrigued, she studied her hands. Was this relief, she wondered, like what Wiley felt after his use of laudanum?
From the driver’s seat, Captain spotted her. She knew he was scanning the area for the trouble he always anticipated. Whatever dire circumstances had befallen Captain, reducing him to the lowly rank of a carriage driver, remained secret. America was certain that only Wiley knew what had caused the proud man to quit the sea.
Until Captain, she had not considered that a man would die willingly for another. It was true of Captain; he would give his life to save Wiley and Tiger-Son.
America closed the distance as Captain relaxed and stroked the horses, his metallic forearm and fingers glinting, the copper bands that held this limb in place disappearing beneath his rolled sleeve. “Easy there, my beauties. Soon enough you’ll be in quiet pastures.” He turned to bark orders at the gangly young man at the rear of the carriage. “Tiger-Son, mind your business. The gentlewoman arrives!”
“Aye, Captain.” Tiger-Son leapt from the back of the carriage and made short work of lowering the steps. “You talk to those horses better than me.”
“They’re better behaved and a damned sight prettier.”
Tiger-Son laughed. “Might be, Captain, but you said my hair was pretty once.”
“I said those braids are comely for a girl,” Captain growled. He turned toward America with a serious expression and spoke softly. “Your dress, miss. Did someone lay hands on you?”
All at once, Tiger-Son rounded on them, dark eyes flaring, braids snapping in the air, young and ready for a fight.
“It is no cause for concern,” America said, smoothing down her ripped dress. “I came upon a dying child and covered her.”
Sadness tugged at the corners of Captain’s mouth. “Aye, nothing worse,” he said, glancing back in the direction of the city. “I wager too many died today.”
America hesitated, wanting to say more, but unsure.
Tiger-Son stood beside the opened carriage door. “What is it, miss? You look as if you just heard the Long Voice itself.”
“The Long Voice? I have no record of that phrase in my dictionaries. Please explain,” America said.
“Make haste,” Captain warned them. “Bad news travels fast. Wiley will worry.”
Tiger-Son put out his hand, seeming chastened. “Let me help you up, miss,” he said, and America, although still intrigued, decided to speak to him later. He flushed when she placed her cool hand in his, and she politely pretended not to notice.
She settled inside the carriage, smoothing what was left of her skirts, and Tiger-Son grinned up at her. “Your boots are there in the box, miss.” He shut the door and rapped on the side of the carriage.
Captain flicked the reins, and the carriage started down the road.
America removed her boots from the box and pulled them on. Wiley, who occasionally had egg on his cuff or mismatched socks, wanted America to keep up a ladylike appearance and insisted that she wear shoes. It was the one rule that she consistently challenged in his absence, donning slippers, or going barefooted as soon as she was out of Wiley’s sight. Tiger-Son and Captain kept up with her boots.
America finished lacing her boots and leaned against the open window, sighing as she had seen humans do. She secured the window curtain, tracing the scalloped edge with her fingertips. She understood the concepts of pressure, temperature, and force. This fabric was not hard or solid like the carriage seat. Once she had asked Wiley how it felt.
“Soft,” he’d answered, before explaining that living tissue was required to experience that sensation as humans did. “I’m afraid as yet there’s no real substitute, America.”
America released the fabric. The concept of soft still intrigued her.
Her attention was drawn to an airship quietly gliding across the horizon toward the aerodrome. New Atlanta’s aerodrome rivaled those of New York, Chicago, and London. In the twenty-five years since the war, the city had rebounded. Buildings reached higher and higher.
Wiley and others were fond of saying that like the Phoenix, New Atlanta was destined to rise from the ashes, stronger and more beautiful.
But today, New Atlanta burned once more, the rainfall not enough to stop the flames.
“You are the cause of this chaos,” the woman had accused.
How many humans think this way?
“Seeing what others did not could be the doom of anyone, even a saint,” Wiley had said.
Watching out the carriage window now, America wondered how Wiley would feel once he heard news of the Odyssey’s destruction.
She would be worried for her Constructor if she were capable.