At night, when the desert sands stretch out below them like a rollingsea, Cora and the ship perform duets for the benefit of the gulls.
The gulls followed them from the coast. They're now landlocked, to the extent that anything airborne can be, but the gulls remain, and Cora scatters breadcrumbs on the deck, watching them flap and scream and battle each other. The gulls roost in the rigging at night, in the tangles of ropes and the crevices of the airship, and sometimes they sing along with Cora and the ship. Sometimes they scream like a woman being slowly stabbed into oblivion.
The gulls have two heads: one to eat and one to watch. Their wings are leathery and mottled with blue and black. Their beaks are lined with serrated teeth, and when they come for her scraps of dense bread and dried fish they give her wide, cheerful grins. They grin wider when Cora lifts her voice into a song with no lyrics, no rhythm, no structure at all. It’s the song of the wind caressing the canvas in resonant sighs, whistling through the gaps in the deck railing. The tuneful little chimes of metal on metal. It all joins together into unplanned and unintended harmony.
Cora loves to sing. The ship cannot yet love it, not fully.
But it will.
Cora did not expect the desert to be so beautiful. She may be the first to see it this way. She’s an explorer, venturing from the scattered settlements along the shores of the wide, shallow sea that covers all but a small portion of this world. It takes all the strength and ingenuity one has to eke out a living on those rocks and in that sandy soil, in among those low, scrubby trees, and why would anyone push further in and risk death even more? There are times when people grumble, pacing through the few rooms in their groaning and ill-repaired houses, in the equally ill-repaired sheds and workhouses, in the cramped offices of settlement administration, and those people demand logic from that first decision to come here, to leave everything kind behind and throw themselves and all their descendants on the meager mercy of an alien place.
But it doesn't matter. It was all so many years ago, and the great ships were long since broken down and used, and whatever logic might have been there will never be known by the children of that first and final voyage.
Standing on the airship's deck, her hands braced on the scrap-brass railing, she pulls air into her lungs and feels the unseen arms of the ship curling around her. Cora's dark skin, the dark sky, the dark brown of the wood beneath her, the darker flat of the ground below. All dark, all everywhere, and all lovely. She sinks into it with her eyes open. Not even stars here; the clouds are low and constant. Like the dark itself, they are relentless. She bears no illusions that they will ever let her through.
Cora doesn't remember when she decided to build the airship. Like many decisions, it came perhaps in stages, the flapping curves of canvas taking shape in the sea winds, the pile of scrap that became her railings and her frame, the slow movement of the cloud banks transformed into a beckoning landscape. The whir and click of the engines in the town hall, performing their habitual calculations, their analysis of weather patterns and tides and the potential of storms and the health grades of the populace and estimates about their fertility. From her desk in the clerk's room, she listened to those engines for hours, staring at nothing. Even then, she was sure that they were singing to her.
The airship took months to build. Behind her two-room shed of a house, it grew and grew, its skeleton first and then its muscles, its skin. No one made much in the way of comment. Strangeness went largely unnoticed. People did what they did. So: inland, the gulls screaming at her heels, her scarf fluttering in the higher winds. She was smiling on the day of her departure. Grinning like a gull about to feed.
Through our last night on shore, drink to the foam, hang your head over and hear the wind blow. Light she was and like a fairy. My Bonnie lies over the ocean, my Bonnie lies over the sea. Dark and stormy weather, it still inclines to rain. The clouds hang over center, my love has gone away, away, away.
The word is like the wind. She whispered it, before the ascent. She whispered it to the engines and heard them sing it back.
My love, I made you to fly.
Boring work, in the clerk’s office. Boring, and everyone increasingly feeling like the data and the gathering of it doesn’t matter anyway, given that whatever good it does is almost entirely intangible. Being ordered about by the magistrate and other administrators, compiling reports, tending to the engines, listening to what they had to say. Except that last hadn’t been so dull. The warm engine room, the humming and clacking, like an embrace. Her plain trousers and vest, her hair pulled back in its tight, sensible knot. But she found herself spending some time in front of the glass before she went to the engines. Doing what she could with herself. Not that they had eyes, not that they would care even if they did, with their minds of numbers and the analysis of numbers. But there in that warmth, sweating very slightly under her collar, running her hands over the parts and components, replacing the little beads, oiling the joints that needed oiling, tracing her fingertips over the woven tapestry of metal pathways, cleaning dust from the vents, it felt like loving care. Care of something that might one day recognize it.
Imagining a soft face smiling at her, eyes that shone like polished brass. Sometimes in the evening, everyone gone home for the day, she would speak to them, kneeling before their long rows as she bent over some task or other, and talking about her home (empty), her future (likewise), her family (gone), herself (alone).
Except for them. And they always listened.
But she made the ship to do more. She learned the principles of structure and design. She learned every piece, every fit. And when she sat down to make her own engine, she knew what had to be different. What had to change. Not just greater capacity for processing but more flexibility. More adaptability. An engine that could, after its fashion, learn.
They could have done this before. If they had been given to certain priorities, subject to different pressures, they could have. In the end it always comes down to calculations. Much later, when she came across designs for the great dead cannibalized ships, she saw what engines those first people had brought with them through the night, what they could be and do and how it was done, and she sat down in her chair and broke into the silent laughter of vindication.
We have forgotten so much.
My love, we’ll find it again, find it and claim it and never leave it again.
Tell me what you dream about.
Sitting half on the railing, her hand wound into the rigging, she smiles into the dawn. She feels it through her feet, through the hollow of her chest—the ship actively looks for input now. Like her, and as she made it to, it can learn.
But like her, it's missing something. A crucial component. A final piece. She dreams of it rising out of the sand. Dreams that it’s been waiting for her.
I dream of the worlds we might discover. I dream of the worlds we left behind. I dream of your workings, of how I know each intricate part of you, about how I have loved them all separate and together. I dream of the face I might give you, if we find what I’m looking for. In her mind she smiles, and it never touches her mouth. What would you dream about, if you could?
At first there's nothing—no feeling of impulse, of internal touch, no sigh but the wind in the rigging and the cries of the gulls. Then she feels it, like a finger running up her spine.
I would dream of you, and it would never be a dream.
On the twelfth day there is a river.
It curves through the landscape like a blade, shining in the diffuse sunlight. It's long and narrow, a pleasing regularity in its meanders. The gulls seem to recognize it; they dive and scream in what sounds like welcome, plunging down to skim the surface of the water. Fascinated, Cora directs the ship into a slow descent until it flies no more than a hundred feet above. She leans over the railing and reaches down as if she could touch it; she finds a gear in her box of spare parts, small enough to nestle into her palm, and lets it fall down and down. It hits with a little splash and is gone. Cora smiles.
It is the first water she has seen besides the ocean. Never any water so calm.
Then the calm is broken.
The surface ripples and breaks, and a long, slender neck topped by an arrow-shaped head lifts dripping into the sky. It's almost tall enough to reach the deck of the airship, and Cora watches, entranced, reaching down in an effort to touch it. Its eyes are huge and multifaceted, shining red and gold, and when it opens its mouth she sees a row of even, blunt teeth.
No one else has ever seen this before. She's certain.
Or rather, no one with eyes like hers.
She was raised with no religion, but she has faith. This faith is founded on the thinnest shred, but there all the same. Stretched out on the deck, one arm pillowed behind her head and her other hand lying against her belly, feeling the solidity of the wood beneath her and the warmth of the engine in its heart, she imagines her love beneath her, bearing her up.
A clerk is privy to many items of information. A clerk has access to things that most other people have forgotten, given how little they have to do with day to day survival. A clerk can, in her free time, peruse these records and these documents. Ancient surveyors’ reports. Original mission objectives. Lists of suggested avenues for exploration. Things rapidly abandoned when they proved impractical and were deemed of vanishingly small importance next to staying alive.
Sightings in the wastes. Things the probe images did not render identifiable. Things in locations unsuitable for landfall, but which might prove fruitful if parties were launched from a base camp.
There were images. Poorly reproduced fiber copies grainy with details that were difficult to make out, but she looked at them and she knew. The last piece slotting into place. She felt filled. Pregnant with an idea.
There will be something there.
There will be something there that will give her love a face. A name.
In her childhood, she heard a story of a man who sculpted a woman with such skill that he was enchanted by her beauty, and fell so intensely in love with her that he was sure that he would die unless he could make her his wife. The process of the statue coming to life was convoluted, and as far as she can remember it didn't end particularly well for either of them, but she places no particular stock in the inflexibility of stories. She can make her own ending.
They follow the river. They move with its flow, and the water ripples with more of the long-necked creatures, which make no more attempts to get close to the ship but which nevertheless seem intensely interested. Like the gulls, they're welcome company, and Cora amuses herself with the thought that they've accumulated a bestial entourage, an escort to the end of their journey.
Which, she is now sure, is drawing near.
Soon, she whispers, her lips pressed to the deck, her hands stroking its polished surface.
The ground rises. The river sinks into a narrow gorge. And it seems to her—though it may be merely imaginings borne of her desire—that the clouds are thinning. That the sky is brighter. That the light on the water glistens and glows with a deeper brilliance. The land below her is wearing its finery for her. At the end of this polished strand will be a jewel.
And it's there.
She holds the ship in place, not very high, and stares down. As she expected, it's nestled into the bank of the river, though the river was not there in the image she saw. It's dusty and low and it looks unremarkable, but she knows better. It's in ruins, broken metal shards jabbing upward into the sky like old teeth, but she there must be enough intact for her purposes. For theirs.
Take us down, she whispers silently to the engine, and she goes to it, to the clumsy, voiceless controls that she can't wait to stop using, and she lays her hands against them and takes them both to the ground. The gulls don't follow. They know that this is not their place, that it's from a world in which they have no part.
The ship is cradled by the land where it crashed and broke apart. One lost among so many others that successfully made landfall, and a hopeless distance from them. The airship bumps down onto the hardened sand of the dry delta, and she puts on her thicker boots, her goggles in case of a sudden sand-blow, her gloves, and starts toward the ship she came to find.
There's a massive split in the middle of its body where it broke almost in half. Inside she can see exposed decks, loose wiring hanging in tangles like old hair, piles of fallen debris. And bones. Many bones, thrown and scattered from the ship when it fell apart. She hopes they died instantly—there has been so much death since the others landed, and so much of that death has been slow.
She makes her way carefully into the ruin. She's not entirely sure how this next part will work, except that she knows that it will. The spirit of the engine pressed so close against hers; she left it on the airship, but she feels that warm, clicking heart inside her, the beautiful face so close, lips parted to her.
She saw schematics, diagrams. She knows which corridors to follow and she follows them, stepping gingerly over more dry bones. She can no longer tell men from women, but near her destination, lying where they seem to have been hurled against a bulkhead, are two skeletons curled against one another, in each other's arms. As if in their last moments they found each other.
Cora looks at these for a long time. Then she moves on. She won’t disturb them. But for the object of this journey, she’ll leave this place in peace.
The heart of the ship is still and dead, but in a chamber at its core, she finds what she knew was there, and she stands, pushing back her goggles, a smile frozen on her face.
A great engine, greater than any she has ever seen. It looks very little like her engine; where hers is clumsy and awkward in places, clearly constructed piecemeal, this one is sleek, and even now it's shining, three graceful lobes in the center of the curved room, connected by thick conduits. Three brains that make one brain, but she knows, from the last document that it took her so long to find, that these brains contained room for still more minds. It was a long journey. People died. What they knew had to be saved somehow.
In her hold she has the link. But it needs something more. She made her love flexible, adaptable; she made it to learn. But it’s not yet a mind. It can’t yet love her back.
It can’t yet know her.
She circles the room, looking. A long table, deceptively plain and simple, but at one end something like a helmet, and inside that . . .
She can't make sense of it. Wires flow from its top like a braid of cabled hair. The interior is broken into a network of octagons, seemingly featureless in other respects, but she doesn't trust that perception. There must be something more.
For the first time, she feels a tickle of fear. There was always death in the beginning of this, death braided into the trying of it, and she had accepted that, but there's all the difference in all the worlds between accepting a possibility and facing a fact.
It's light, surprisingly so, and cool to the touch, but as she lifts it, cradles it, she feels it growing warm, as if it's gathering the heat of her body. She shivers and thinks of the heart of the airship and her own heart beating beneath her breastbone, the heat of the engine and its body of wooden and brass and her own delicate, mortal flesh.
Like the ghosts she feels all around her, she passes back out of the ship, moving silent, the evening wind picking up her hair and tugging it from its restraints and playing with it like an inquisitive child. The airship looms in front of her, and in the distance she can hear the water, murmuring as it flows, and the even more distant screams of the gulls. She could join them again.
She will. This is the conviction and like her it stands on its own.
She climbs back onto the wooden deck, each footstep burning. Everything is about to change, and she comes to understand how wonderful is her own body, how amazing is the way it experiences the world, the pleasure she can draw from it, the pleasure she might give to someone else if she opens herself, her skin alive and hot and her hair flying free. As she walks she balances the helmet in one hand and with the other she sheds everything she doesn't need: her goggles, her gloves, her shirt and the supportive boning of her corset, her trousers slipping down her thighs and over her boots. Her underthings. The boots themselves. She pads naked toward the door that will leads to the airship's beating heart, and without hesitation she passes into the dark.
Hello, my love, my sister of brass and copper gut, my heart of figures and poetry and numbers.
She turns to a chest beside where the engine sits, opens it and pulls out a length of thick cable. It looks nothing like what she found in the ship—a patchwork thing and clumsy, but it will serve her purpose. She affixes one end to a gathered place in the engine's metal weaving, something like an opening with copper claws that grip, and the other end she pushes into a socket at the helmet's top.
She takes a breath. Looks at the engine. Feels her heart still in preparation.
Slides the helmet over the top of her head.
For a moment there's nothing. Then she feels something like tiny, warm fingers parting her hair, nestling close to her scalp—and piercing her skin, her bone, drilling their way into her.
She screams. It's agonizing, pain that lances into her and makes a home there. This was never meant to be used by anyone but the dead, by those for whom pain was no longer a feature of the world, and it's unkind to her. She drops to her knees, her hands spasmodically gripping the helmet's sides, but she doesn't pull it off—she's not sure she could pull it off now. But it's draining her, emptying her out, and she expected to be filled with her engine-darling, but instead she feels herself shrinking away, her skull an echoing chamber. She curls into herself and screams, screams, pleads for it to be over, forgets the strange love that drove her to this.
And the last of her is gone. She crumples, and the ship is still and silent.
The single beat of a massive heart.
She sees herself, limp and small, and she wonders how she ever got so far in a shell so delicate. She spins in an inner darkness, warm and sweet, and when she turns to it there are arms open for her and she folds herself into them, fitting against what waits for her there.
Oh, she has no name, but she has never needed one.
Yet there are hands moving over her, and she feels herself now, the curve of the deck and the swell of the canvas, lovely and full with possibility. She is taking on air. She is letting herself sink into herself, and overhead she sees the clouds breaking.
I thought you would come into me. She wants to laugh, she does laugh, and it's the chiming of copper and brass. A music box from her earliest childhood. I like this better.
She wants to rise and there is no hesitation, or time needed for the command to be given. She feels herself moving as naturally as any movement she's ever made, a burst of pleasure that shivers all through her, like coming home. She rises into the air and the gulls circle. A body against hers, so perfect that there is no longer any separation between the two.
As she rises, the new world stretches out beneath her, the horizon a curve of its own enticing kind. As she rises, the clouds are breaking and there are stars.
My love, I made you to fly.