I glance at the ghostly light flickering within Vella’s abdomen, then pull another stool up next to mine. “Come, sit. I’ve got a surprise for you.”
She joins me. “But isn’t—”
“He’s still a little ways out. We’ve got time.” Seventeen minutes to be exact, I think, but never say. “Close your eyes.”
Vella clinks her brass eyelids shut.
“No peeking,” I say, though my daughter has never peeked, not once in these six-and-a-half centuries. I pause in the interest of consistency, then reach under my workbench and flip a switch. Electricity arcs through the coils overhead, branches across the ceiling and leaps into the automaton I stashed behind a transformer some hours earlier. It sits up, stands, clomps over. “Okay. You can look.”
She cocks her head. “It’s…it’s me?”
“Almost,” I say.
“I don’t understand.”
I smile. Of the many moments we share time and time again, this one is my favorite, because she will never love me more than she will in this instant. “You’ve always wanted a little sister, right Vella?”
She jumps to her feet and her stool clatters to the floor behind her. “You mean…”
“I do. You can even pick her soul out yourself if you’d like. I doubt the Duke will miss just one.”
She throws her arms around me, buries her face in my aluminum chest. “I actually get to go inside?” she says. “Oh, Father! Thank you! Thank you thank you thank you.”
I squeeze her so tightly that her porcelain skin cracks beneath my fingers. My heart revs, winds down; this will be the last time she hugs me.
I boot up my viewing screens and fiddle with the dials until Vella comes into focus, click-clacking across the wasteland with an empty jar cradled to her chest as if it’s already precious.
Off in the desolation behind her, the city’s clock towers loom like the teeth of some giant, half-buried gear. The Duke’s dirigible bobs above them, smoking, a bloated fly that seems to swell with each breath I take.
Vella opens the outer hatch to the Soularium and gags at the stench that seeps out—as she always does—then slips inside.
I flip a toggle, and the stream jumps to the glass dome, where 144 humans dangle from ceiling-mounted chains in twelve orderly rows.
Solar panels jut wing-like from each of their backs, and hydration tubes snake down their throats. Simulators cover their eyes and ears and noses and mouths.
I tap the intercom. “Can you hear me?”
Vella’s voice crackles back: “Father, what is this?”
“This is how souls are made, Vella.”
“Suffering? Of course they are. You can’t forge a soul without pain. We’ve talked about this.”
“But this is different, seeing them. This is so much worse than I thought it’d be.”
“I know, sweetheart. I know. But best be quick. The Duke’s almost here.”
She stares down at her feet. “How do I know which soul to pick?”
“There’s always some guesswork involved,” I say, “but as far as people are concerned, the eyes are your best shot. Remember: the sharper the pain, the greater the sacrifice, the grander the soul.”
“You’ll have to remove their visors to check.”
“Think of your sister. We’ll be a real family, Vella. That’s what you want, right?”
She nods and sets the jar on the floor with trembling hands. “Alright. Okay.” She steps up to a human and peels the simulator off his face. His bloodshot eyes find hers. He opens his mouth, but Vella slams the simulator back on before he has a chance to speak. “I can’t do this. This is, this is—”
“You can. Try another one. Just one more.”
Vella takes a shuddering breath and plucks another visor off a nearby human. This woman doesn’t beg, doesn’t scream. She doesn’t even twitch. She just stares straight ahead, glassy-eyed, hollowed out.
As if on cue, Vella’s hands curl into fists. She looks up into the camera, at me, with hardening eyes. “What do they see?”
“Whatever it is that they need to see.”
“That’s not enough,” she says. “That’s not even close to enough.” She places the simulator to her own face.
This time, I remember to cut the audio a split-second before Vella screams. She drops to her knees, heaving, oil gushing out of her throat. I reconnect the audio.
The human looks on, unblinking, a scarecrow wrapped in sallow flesh.
Vella wipes the back of her hand across her oil-slicked lips. “Father, this isn’t okay.”
“No, but it’s necessary. Please, Vella, take the soul—he’s here.”
Vella glances up through the glass ceiling, where the underbelly of the Duke’s hulking dirigible is blotting out half the sky. “Does it ever stop?” she says.
“Does what stop?”
“After he harvests them. Does it stop? The pain.”
“No,” I say, the lie slipping smoothly off my tongue. “It never stops. But we need souls, Vella. Or there’d be no sisters, no children, nothing. We’d all be statues, shells.”
Her eyes flick to the pyrolysis lever that’s oh-so-conveniently mounted on the wall beside her.
I zoom in and watch her face. As always, I’m looking for aberrations, for some blessed malfunction in her code to base my hopes on. For a sign, however insignificant, that things aren’t about to play out the way they always do. Because if Vella were defective, I might be able to justify keeping her. But once again, she’s perfect.
“I know what you’re thinking,” I say, “but this is ten years’ worth of work. Enough souls to populate a city. We’re worth it, aren’t we?”
“No,” she says, and there is steel in her voice. “We aren’t. Nothing should have to suffer like this.” She wraps her delicate fingers around the lever.
“Please don’t leave me,” I say. Then, quieter: “not again.”
Of the many moments we share, this is the one I despise most: the moment where—for the sixty-seventh time—Vella recognizes me for one infinitesimal part of the monster I really am.
“I still love you,” she says, but she’s always been a terrible liar. She squeezes her eyes shut and flips the switch.
Fire fills the dome. And just like that, it’s over. What’s left of the humans dusts the floor; their now-empty shackles swing freely from the ceiling; their souls scatter like cinders, reddening the glass where they flutter up against it.
But Vella still stands, glowing white-hot, her molten skin trickling down her frame and pooling around her feet.
And burning brighter than all of that—brighter than the flames, than the Duke’s halogens, than even the stars themselves—is Vella’s soul, a ball of liquid light that’s illuminating her from the inside out.
“Father?” she says. “Why am I fireproof?”
“I’m sorry,” she says again, as the Duke’s ship touches down.
“You did the right thing,” I say. “You always do the right thing.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Every single time. I so wish you’d do the wrong thing, just once. Maybe then we’d have the sort of life we’ve always dreamed of. A real one.”
“What do you mean, real?”
The cabin opens up and a ramp drops into the dirt. The Duke clatters towards us, just a head and torso mounted on eight spidery legs. Two of his automatons follow in his skittering wake.
“Is the girl ready for harvest?” the automatons say as one.
“She is,” I say.
Vella presses a hand to her exposed abdomen. “You mean—it’s my soul he’s after? But—”
The automatons stomp towards her in lockstep.
“But I said I was sorry,” Vella says. “Father, please! You still love me, don’t you?”
“You served your purpose well,” I say.
The automatons grab her by her arms and haul her away. I force myself to meet Vella’s eyes. To watch her reevaluate the lie of a life I gave her. To watch her learn to hate me. The look on her face eviscerates what’s left of my heart, just like it’s supposed to.
A door seals shut behind her, and I know I’ll never see that iteration of her again. The automatons will dispose of her body along with her soul; it, too, is much too weak for the Duke.
“Thank you, brother,” the Duke says.
“I’m not doing this for you,” I say, yet again, because it reminds me of what’s at stake.
“I know,” he says. “But I’m still sorry, for what it’s worth.”
I shrug and wipe my eyes, out of habit rather than necessity. I have no tears left to shed.
“I can’t imagine reliving these same ten years,” my brother says, “knowing this day will come.” He presses a leg to my shoulder. “You’re a hero back home, truly. Father would be proud.”
I shake him off.
“Do you need a moment?” he says.
He nods. “Business then. I assume we’re still on schedule?”
“We are.” I pry my chest plate open and the Duke flinches away from the searing light that flares from me. My incandescence makes the dusky glow of his own failing soul seem utterly insubstantial; he has only eight-hundred years left at most.
“We must be getting close,” he says, shielding his eyes with a thin pair of legs. “How many more loops before the donor soul’s complete?”
“Twenty-two,” I say, and the number leaves me leaden.
Twenty-two more Vellas; twenty-two more final hugs; twenty-two more I still love yous, all to delay my brother’s death.
No—to prolong his rule. Because merciless as he might be, the Duke’s hand is steady, and these last two millennia have been the most peaceful our clockwork city has ever known.
And because even after so many centuries, I can still picture Vella—the real, original Vella—crumpled on the sidewalk, her once-bright soul guttering around the fragments of her shattered chest. Vella, whose only crime was proximity to a riot she had no hand in.
I suck a breath through my aching throat. “How are things back home?”
“Tenuous,” he says, “but manageable. Word’s just gotten out that I won’t be expiring as everyone expected—so the more ambitious factions are threatening revolution—but I’ve got it under control.” He folds his legs underneath him and lowers himself to my level. “You’ll come back with me once we’re done here, won’t you?”
“I should get the next loop going,” I say.
He sighs, shakes his head. “As you wish. But tell me, brother: how do you do it?”
“Because when I do bring Vella back for good, I want there to be a world left for her to return to. Her future is worth the price.”
“That’s not what I meant. I founded nine new farms at the turn of this century, but none of them have yet to produce soul that’s lasted beyond two decades.”
“Sounds like the farmers aren’t taking to their offspring.”
“Likely so. But how do you do it? How do you make yourself love them?”
“I’ve never had to try.”
There is no laughter to be heard in my workshop now, no exaggerated sighs, no tapping of restless feet. Just a silence that feels not only smothering, but deserved.
I busy myself with the incinerator, starting with the belongings Vella left behind. Her decorative panels, her dolls, her colored irises. The clockwork dog I’ve always promised to bring to life but never have.
I’m about to burn her notebook when its weight gives me pause; it’s heavier than ever before. I crack it open and flip through one familiar drawing after the next until I find the culprit: a piece of loose-leaf jammed between two pages. A new picture. The first ever aberration in the pattern since the Duke and I first set to harvesting my heartbreak almost seven-hundred years ago.
In her drawing, Vella and I are standing just outside the Soularium, and the Duke’s dirigible floats a few feet off the ground. She and I are holding hands, and it is impossible to say whether the ship is landing or leaving.
The aberration is almost certainly nothing. It could just be a residual memory, a product of generational transference, some small corruption in the coding of her latest departed soul.
Regardless, I smooth the picture out and slip it into the drawer of my workbench. I’ve already decided that the dirigible she drew is taking off.
I snatch a copy of Vella’s soul off the mantle and slot it into the automaton’s abdomen. I dash back to my workbench and begin a diagnostic of her vital parameters, I test the articulation of her joints, calibrate her empathy levels until they’re exactly where we need them.
I perform a surface-level debugging, but only that; I’m rushing things, and I know it. But I can’t help myself. I flip a wall-mounted switch and electricity pours into Vella’s doppelganger. It gasps and sputters to life.
“Hello, Vella,” I say.