Sample

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Chapter 1: I Wake Up

I’m awake, but my eyes are closed. Around me are the familiar curves of the couch in the library basement. The sanitized odor of scientific equipment reaches my nose more pungent than I remember. I am stiff, locked into position.

After measuring a few breaths, I open my eyes to the sight of my friend Jack Beasley’s secret laboratory. This room has been my second home for years, ever since I first met the aspiring scientist when I was a schoolgirl at the Los Angeles Academy for Young Women.

Jack is here too. In my face. He’s leaning over me and gawking through his multi-layered scientific glasses as if expecting me to sprout horns.

“You creep,” I say as I pull myself upright. Then I look around more carefully. Everything looks off-balance. The colors are brighter, and the textures pop out at me. “What happened?”

“You’re—you’re awake, then,” says Jack, blushing and jumping back. He paces to his desk against the wall and rubs his hands together frenetically. “I’m sorry if I startled you, Ada. I didn’t mean to lean over like that.”

“How long was I asleep?” I ask. “Did you redecorate this place?” I can’t pick out what’s different, but something has changed since I fell asleep. If this room were any brighter I’d have to squint.

“I shouldn’t have let you sleep in so late,” he stutters. “I’m sorry about that. But it’s morning now. Thursday morning. If that means anything. And no, I don’t think anything here has changed. Still the same old room under the library.”

“Thursday?” I echo in a weak voice, processing his words in displaced chunks. Something’s wrong with me. I’m sick. I shouldn’t be waking up here—I shouldn’t have been asleep to begin with. Why did I sleep here? I’m starting to grow disoriented, dizzy, even. My own thoughts come to me in sequences of words and ideas that I can hardly claim as my own. I don’t remember a thing about the last few days. I blink. Do I have classes today? I’ve always been a diligent student with a spotless record. I’ve never been sick, never been late for any of my classes.

“Are you all right?” asks Jack. “I mean, you mentioned you were sick last night. That’s why you stayed here. You didn’t look good.”

“I’m just disoriented,” I reply, fighting the panic building in my muscles. “I don’t know how I feel. And I don’t think I remember anything about last night. How sick was I?”

Jack grimaces and shrugs, ears turning red at the ends. Why does he have to be so shy? Is he embarrassed? I need to roll the ball myself with him.

“I have to leave; I need to get to class.” I rise from the couch and stand before the mirror, brushing my dusky red skirt straight before leaving. I’d never noticed how bright of a red it was. I look better than I should after a night ill on the couch. I feel better too. There’s no trace of nausea or faintness. My hair is tied in a neat bun without a single strand out of place, my lips are full and red and my skin flawless. I brush the back of my hand against my cheek. I don’t remember it being so smooth before, or so silky. My teeth feel strange, and my eyes look darker than usual and have a metallic sheen. I feel fine though. And I don’t have morning breath.

“Maybe you should stay here for the day,” Jack suggests. “I mean, there was a bad storm last night. Might be ice on the road.”

“There can’t be that much ice. We’re in the valley,” I say, though as disoriented as I am, I want to agree about not going. Would it be so horrible if I skip a day of class? Possibly. It would tarnish my perfect record. Rumors might spread about me and Jack.

I grit my teeth together. They don’t feel like my teeth. I can’t tell why, but it’s as if someone else’s jaw were transplanted in me while I was asleep.

“Yes. A lot of ice,” Jack says, bringing me out of my thoughts. “The library upstairs might not open today at all.”

“Well, I should at least try,” I say. I button up my coat and begin to walk to the stairs. Jack holds me back.

“Don’t go,” he says. “You can’t go.” He wants to tell me something.

“Why not?” I ask. I’m starting to hope he can give me a good enough reason. When I pause, my limbs lock in place like cogs from an old clock.

Jack removes his glasses, and for the first time I recognize the concern in his eyes. “Ada, there’s something I need to tell you before you leave this place.”

“What?” I ask. My stomach is queasy now. I want to return to the couch. I glance around the room and study the equipment on the work desk. “Were you experimenting on me?”

“You might want to sit down,” says Jack, himself pulling over a stool and collapsing on it. He runs a hand through his greasy brown hair.

I sit on the sofa, my corset forcing me into a tense and upright position. “What is it?” I ask.

He stares at me for a moment. “Damn,” he begins. “Damn, Ada, why can’t I tell you this to your face? I practiced this moment a hundred times, and now that you’re here and I’m looking right at you . . .”

“I can turn around,” I suggest.

“That won’t do any good. You’re still here. You’re still . . .” His voice trails off in what appears to be amazement. He holds his left hand to me and waves it up and down as if he were trying to communicate something to me through gestures.

“Is there any way I can help?” I ask.

“Your voice isn’t helping things either,” he snaps, accenting his “eye” pronunciation of “either.” I think he got that way of speaking from his British mother. “How about you close your eyes and lie back and pretend to be a doll. Go limp. That might make it easier.”

I laugh at the absurdity of the request but do as he asked, making myself at home on the soft surface underneath me.

“You are not Ada Stirling,” he blurts.

I slit my eyes open to steal a glance at him. He’s staring at me as he speaks, but doesn’t notice my gaze.

“Ada Stirling—well—she died in a tragic and unforeseen accident a few weeks ago, and I was commissioned to, well, rebuild her,” explains Jack. “Using cloning technology and advanced clockwork. Damn. That sounds almost as bad as it is.”

I don’t even try to hide my bewilderment now, but tilt my head up and look him full on. This is too crazy to believe. “What?”

“You’re dead, Ada. You’re not real. You’re just a series of memories and algorithms programmed into an automaton that is covered with cloned skin and hair. And fingernails,” says Jack. “I don’t know how else to put it, Ada. You’re a walking ghost, and I just created you. Damn, I’m horrible!”

“You’re not horrible,” I say. I feel like he has to be joking, but he’s never joked like this. He’s pale and frustrated. He’s as uncomfortable as I am. I try to cheer him out of a hopeful compulsion. “You are joking, right?”

“I wish,” Jack says.

“Who else knows?” I straighten my skirt for lack of anything to do.

“Of course, we’ve already told everyone that you know about what happened to you. About your demise. Your father, your teachers, your classmates, they all know about it.”

“But . . .” My voice disappears before it reaches my mouth.

He holds his hand toward me to silence me. “Hear me out, Ada. Don’t speak. I don’t know what this is about any more than you do. No one’s told me much, only what I needed to make you. I don’t know why we couldn’t just let you rest in peace and let everyone else grieve and move on, but these are no ordinary days. There’s a war on in Europe, and technology is improving so rapidly here in the Republic of Los Angeles that it’s getting hard for anyone to keep up with it.”

“The war is common news,” I say. “But what does it have to do with me?” I rise and pace to the far end of the room. Nervous energy is building in me at a pace I can’t contain.

“I don’t know,” says Jack. “Maybe nothing. Maybe they just wanted to know if they could bring people back if they needed to.”

“Doesn’t that bother you?” I ask. “I don’t want to scare you, but what you’re saying sounds like it could be a precursor to super-soldiers or something. If it were true.” But I still can’t decide if I want to believe him. I think back and try to remember something, anything, about the last few days. About being sick earlier. Talking. Anything. I’m not a super soldier.

“I know . . .” Jack begins, too pained to speak further.

I nod, still uncomfortably alien to myself and my own body. I run my tongue over my teeth again, examining every ridge and crevice. “So, you say it’s been several weeks?” I ask. “What happened? How did I die?” I can be morbid with curiosity sometimes.

“They say you tripped on the stairs to the tavern cellar while getting some beer for some of your father’s patrons while visiting your home, on a vacation from your school,” says Jack.

“I always turn on the lights,” I say, wrapping my arms around myself. I’m not even cold. Just very uncomfortable. “And I always watch my step.”

“Well, this time you didn’t, and the result was . . . the result was awful,” says Jack. His voice cracks like he’s about to cry. “Some men from the Leona Scientific Observatory came to see me that evening. They said to reconstruct you as well as I could with all of their gadgets and technology at my disposal.”

“I can’t believe that you even did it,” I say.

“Hear me out,” Jack protests, again silencing me with his hands. “I refused, at first, but Ada, those men aren’t ordinary people. They didn’t give me a chance to think. I worked day and night for three weeks. And then finally, well, I finished you this morning.”

“But . . .” I don’t have words. What he’s telling me is too incredible and bizarre to believe, but something is definitely wrong with me. My movements are too perfect and my senses are too sharp to be natural. I blink slowly. How is that even possible?

“I am sorry there’s no better way I could tell you.” Jack turns away from me, penitent but still not entirely regretful.

“How do you expect me to believe you?” I ask.

“We’ve been friends for years,” says Jack. “I know what I’m telling you is incredible, but you can cut yourself open if you want. You can see that your bones are all metal pipes and that your organs are covered with gears.” He tosses me a sharp knife that lands neatly on my lap, but he still doesn’t look at me.

I have to do it. I take the knife in my right hand and cut my finger at the tip. It stings, but not as much as I would have thought. I keep cutting, forcing the blade as far as I can until it reaches the middle. There is no sensation in the bone at all.

“Do you want to see the grave?” asks Jack. “I went only once, after the funeral, which I was too busy to attend. I will warn you, it’s modest.”

“No . . .” I reply. I press hard on the wound on my finger. I can’t quite comprehend the idea of having a grave. Visiting it would be wrong in a deep and abstract sense. “Something tells me that if I’m dead, I don’t really care. Just tell me what it says on the stone.”

“It was simple. Just a verse from Psalms,” says Jack. “ ‘Yea though I walk from the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.’ Because you were so young.”

“I know why,” I say. I try to hide my fear at the words. I’d never understood that verse, and now it seemed to stare at me with a human eye. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Death. I’m seventeen. I shouldn’t have anything to do with death.

“Are you all right?” asks Jack. His voice is tense, frightened.

“It’s a lie,” I say, returning to our earlier conversation.

“A lie?”

“I’m not clumsy,” I respond. “I wouldn’t slip and fall down a staircase. I grew up in my father’s tavern, Jack. I can accept that I died, I guess. But there’s more to the story than you’re telling me.” I blink back a hot tear. Why am I crying? I’m still here. I didn’t die. I’m alive in every way.

Jack walks toward me and puts a large hand on my shoulder. He’s only a few inches taller than I am. “I know,” he says in a voice so low it’s a borderline whisper. “What I told you how you died, I don’t think that’s the truth. It’s just the official story.”

“What do you mean?” I ask. I wipe away the tear. I don’t care if I’m crying at this point. I’m too confused to care. “What happened?”

“You might be safer if I don’t tell you,” Jack whispers. “I don’t know for sure. I think there’s something dark to this, though.”

Dark? “Tell me,” I command. I can feel another tear falling down my cheek, but I don’t bother to brush it away this time.

“I think you were killed,” he says, his voice cracking again. “You got involved in something. You knew something, and you never told me what. I think they killed you over it.”

“What was it?” I ask, fitting my teeth together. I don’t remember knowing anything strange.

“I don’t know!” he says. “That’s what I’m saying. I don’t know anything for sure. All I can say is that you were hiding something from me one day, and the next you were dead. There was no way for me to program you with that information because I don’t know what it was.”

“If you don’t know, you’re going to help me figure it out,” I say. I can’t stand this.

“I can help,” says Jack. “It should be a lot easier now that I have you right here.”

Why would anyone kill me? I deserve to know what I was involved in and why I was brought back without any knowledge of it.

Jack turns to the coat rack by the stairs, and it rattles slightly when he pulls off his coat and scarf. “We can go whenever you’re ready.”

“Where will we start?” I ask.

“Anywhere you want,” he says as he fits on his hat and oversized driving goggles. “We could go to your home or to the academy. Or to your grave if you want to see it.”

“I’m not ready for that yet,” I say, but my father’s tavern appears to be a good place to start. “Let’s go to my home.” Then I pause. I’ve lived alone with my father ever since my mother died of a fever when I was young. How would he react to finding his dead daughter tromping through our home as an automaton? “What does my father know about this?”

“He knows,” says Jack. “Though he was against it. I won’t go in with you. If he sees me . . .”

“Then what will he do when he sees me?” I ask. My voice sounds small and weak all of the sudden. “What did he say?”

“Well, for one thing he said that it was unholy and a disservice to you—to Ada,” says Jack. “Then he threw a vase at me and told me that if I entered his home again I’d never leave.” He scratches the back of his neck. “But he has to accept you sooner or later.”

“Let’s not go to him just yet, then,” I decide.

Then Jack opens a drawer of his desk and pulls out a small hat woven of sheer black fabric with a light veil hanging over the top. He offers it to me. “I couldn’t get your eyes just right. I’m sorry about that. I thought you might want to wear this in public to avoid suspicion.”

“Thanks,” I say, accepting it and placing it on my head. I study my reflection in the mirror. Who am I?

“It looks beautiful,” says Jack, stepping back a pace. But his smile is sad. His lips are pinched together and trembling. He misses her, the real Ada Stirling.

I offer a shy smile. “We’ll get through this together, all right?”

He nods, meeting my gaze for a moment before breaking it. “There’s one more thing that I haven’t told you.”

“What’s that?” I ask, removing the hat. I’m not used to wearing veils, even if they are coming into fashion.

“The Leona Scientific Observatory has offered me a full-time commission,” he squeaks.

“That’s wonderful,” I say. First good news of the morning. “Why aren’t you smiling?”

“I’m not sure I want the position,” he continues. “No, I am sure. I don’t want it. I want to leave this town forever as soon as I can.”

“Why?” I ask with a light laugh. “Isn’t that exactly what you’ve been wanting all these years?”

“I don’t know,” says Jack. “Maybe I should take you in so that you can see what I’ve been working on for myself. But I’ve learned things about these people that bother me. Things you won’t like.”

 

End of sample. To read more, please check out Automaton at one of these sites!

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