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The Engineer's Daughter


The dream ended abruptly when the automatic lights flashed on. This was followed a few seconds later by the jarring and unmistakable sound of her father’s yelling.

“Myra, wake up!” he bellowed from the kitchen.

Myra groaned once, then a second time, flipped over, and buried her head under the scratchy blanket with the big hole in it. The hole was already there when she claimed the blanket from the Com Store on her last shopping trip. It also smelled funny, like it clung to the memory of its past claimants even now, long after their bodies had been given to the Holy Sea. The light leaked through the fraying fibers, cajoling her tired brain into wakefulness. This made her groan for a third time.

She’d meant to patch it up—really, she had, as the Oracle was her witness. But somehow, she’d never quite gotten around to it. There are just too many things that need fixing around here, she decided, and not enough time to mend them all.

Despite her many complaints (according to her father, complaining, loudly if necessary, about any given object or situation was synonymous with being sixteen years old), Myra had grown fond of that blanket, gaping hole and all. It was a raggedy and partially useless thing. Hence, it reminded her an awful lot of herself.

Not willing to surrender to waking yet, she squeezed her eyes shut and tried to recall her dream, which had already dissolved into smoke under the harsh glare of the lights.

Was it the mermaid one again?

She knew that she should have outgrown such childish dreams by now, and she had tried to harden her heart against them, for it seemed like that was what you did when you grew up. But every night, her mind rebelled against her and conjured up vivid fantasies that contrasted starkly with the drabness of her world. In the clutches of her sleep, she could be anything.

Some nights, she dreamed that she was a mermaid who could swim through the saltwater, immune to the crushing pressure and the lack of oxygen, like in the fairytales of old that her mother used to tell her before bed. The stories always began the same way.

“Far out in the ocean,” her mother would recite, as she lay curled up next to her daughter on the narrow bunk, weaving adventures like delicate threads out of thin air, “where the water is as blue as the prettiest cornflower and as clear as crystal, it is very, very, very deep.”

“How blue is a cornflower?” Myra would ask.

Her mother would shake her head with a sad smile.

“I don’t know, honey. Just picture the bluest blue you can possibly imagine.” And that’s what Myra would do, although she always suspected it paled in comparison to the real thing.

But in her favorite dream, she wasn’t anything except Myra Jackson—a scrawny girl with a pale face dotted by freckles and crowned with a heap of russet hair.

In this dream, it wasn’t her that was different.

It was everything else.

She would wake to the automatic lights the same as always, but instead of her father yelling for her to wake up, it was her mother, though Myra could scarcely remember what her voice sounded like anymore. Its exact tenor had been swallowed up by the years that had passed, one of the many things that had been stolen from her prematurely. Her mother had died while birthing her little brother.

Myra knew that it wasn’t his fault. It was nobody’s fault. At least, that’s what her father always told her. But no matter how many times she repeated that mantra, sometimes the sight of her brother still brought back the memory of his arrival into this world, when he’d emerged from their mother’s womb redfaced, squalling, and baptized in a river of blood, and of how much they’d both lost right then.

But the truth of the dream didn’t matter at all. In her imaginings, her mother’s voice was the sweetest sound that she’d ever heard—light and sonorous and full of love. Myyyrrrraaaaaa! Her mother had chosen Myra’s name, and it only sounded right when it rolled off her lips, but that hadn’t happened for going on eight years now—

“Myra Jackson, wake up this instant!” her father yelled. There was an edge to his voice now. And he had used her full name, which was never a good sign. “You’re going to be late . . . again!”

Resistance was futile.

Myra heaved off the blanket and struggled from her bunk. She glanced across the tiny room, even though she already knew what to expect. The other bunk was empty and the blanket, which also sported a few sizable holes, was tucked under the mattress flawlessly.  Tinker always got up as soon as the lights came on. Of course, Tinker wasn’t her brother’s real name. His given name was Jonah, the same as their father. But long before he could speak, when he was still in swaddling clothes, he would take apart and reassemble anything that he could get his grubby little hands on—furniture, light fixtures, appliances, tools. He was always tinkering, and so the nickname stuck.

But despite his many oddities, or perhaps because of them, Myra loved him more than anything in this world. They’d both suffered from losing their mother, and that suffering had bound  them together. 

Myra fished a rough-spun dress and hempen sandals out of her trunk, slipped them over her head and onto her feet, respectively, and raked one hand through her hair. It got stuck in a tangle, and she ended up wrenching out a clump of curls when she yanked it free. She considered brushing her hair out, but nobody in the Engineering Room cared what her hair looked like, and besides, it would probably be soot-covered, grease-smeared, or worse by the end of the day.

After splashing some cold water on her face, Myra padded into the living space. Their assigned compartment was identical to all of the others, even down to the Synod-issued furniture, which had been patched up more times than she could count. Her father always had to repair something that had broken, but resources were scarce and everything was precious.

There was the main living area—an austere room with a low ceiling, pipes jutting out of the concrete walls, and an ever-present chill in the air. A washroom with a composting toilet and a water-recycling shower, which never got quite warm enough for Myra’s taste. Two tiny bedrooms— her father’s and the one that she shared with Tinker. And a cramped kitchen with a rusty two-burner stove, a shallow basin, an icebox, and tarnished countertops that never seemed to come clean, no matter how many times she scrubbed them. They were ancient like everything else in the compartment.

Her father and brother were already well into breaking their fast at the kitchen table. Blueprints covered every square inch of space not taken up by breakfast, but this was nothing new. Tinker was tapping away on his computer. This also was nothing new. They didn’t notice her enter the room. Also nothing new, she thought.

Myra sat on a wobbly chair at the kitchen table. She helped herself to a bowl of creamy rice porridge, ladling it from a crusty pot on the table into a chipped, earthen bowl. She topped it with a sprinkling of nori, a type of dried seaweed, to please her father, and a generous dollop of rice syrup to please herself. She had a serious sweet tooth. She started eating, relishing the sugary taste.

“You passed,” her father said. He didn’t look up from his blueprints, nor did he express any feeling about the matter. He also didn’t elaborate. He just stated the facts.

“I know,” Myra said through a mouthful of porridge. “Royston told me yesterday.”

Her father had come home late last night, so they hadn’t had a chance to discuss the results of her Apprentice Exam. As the Head Engineer, he worked around the clock, and when he did eventually stumble home, his work always seemed to follow him there, too.

Last week, Myra took the test with a group of five other pledges. Royston Chambers, the Engineering Pledge Master, administered it in a dank, smelly corner of the Engineering Room. The test took over six hours and involved both written and practical problems. She’d spent the better part of the last two years preparing for it, and now their scores, which would determine their futures, were finally in.

Yesterday, Royston took each pledge aside to inform them of their results. Though she had felt confident after taking the test— perhaps overly so—as more days had passed, that confidence had eroded into insecurity, and then worry, and finally downright panic. It was a relief to learn that she’d passed. The same wasn’t true for all the pledges. Those who failed became Hockers,  cast out of their chosen trade and forced to fend for themselves.  “You start as an apprentice next week,” her father said.

“Royston told me that, too,” she replied. It came out a bit snarky, but it got his attention, which she supposed had been the point. Her father looked up from his blueprints. It took a moment for his dazed expression to wear off.

“Myra, listen to me. You’re the youngest person that’s ever taken the test.”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” she muttered, tossing her hair back and looking away. She hated being reminded of her age—and worse yet, the reason that she wasn’t still  in school.

“Fine, you got a perfect score. You’re the first to do that, too.”

Myra stopped chewing and nearly choked on her porridge. “Holy Sea, really? Swear it on the Oracle?”

Even Tinker was paying attention now. He looked up from his computer and punched his thick glasses up the bridge of his nose.
 “On the Oracle and the Holy Sea,” her father said. “Even I missed a few questions, though that was ages ago.”

While his voice still contained no emotional inflection, a hint of pride played across his features. It was brief—like a light bulb that flickers on only to burn out a split second later, but Myra detected it. It wasn’t much in the way of paternal affection, but she’d take it. She was tempted to add that she hadn’t studied, that for her the test had been easy, but she didn’t want to brag. Besides, her father probably already knew that, too. Nothing went on in the Engineering Room without him knowing about it.

“But remember,” her father cautioned, lowering his voice. “You can’t tell anybody your score, not even your friends. This has to stay inside our family.” “Papa, I know,” Myra said with an exaggerated sigh. “I can only say if I passed or failed,” she added to satisfy him, though everybody knew about the Synod’s decree.

It worked—her father went back to his blueprints and Tinker went back to his computer. She took another bite of porridge and frowned at the bland taste. She dumped in more syrup. You start as an apprentice next week. Those were her father’s words. They ran through her head again, thrilling and terrifying her at the same time.

It didn’t quite seem real to her yet.

Most kids didn’t pledge to a trade until after they turned sixteen and graduated from the Academy, but since Myra was expelled two years ago (she preferred not to think about the Trial, as it had become known), she was forced to pledge to her father’s trade early. She loved Engineering—the puzzles of the moving pieces; the grime, the rust, and the grease that found their way onto her clothes and under her fingernails; the feel of a wrench in her hand; and the satisfaction of completing a repair to a vital system.

She knew that what she did every day kept her little world humming along without a hitch, unlike when she attended the Academy of the Oracle of the Sea, where she’d never understood what the lessons she memorized had to do with her actual life. Her classes had always seemed so pointless. She loved the certainty of being an Engineer.

And she had a knack for it, too. It could have been in her genes all along. As far back as she could trace that side of her family—the Jackson side—they had all been pledged to Engineering. Probably even dating back to the Founders, though most of that history had been destroyed in the Great Purging. But that wasn’t an issue, because nobody much cared about history anymore. The subject wasn’t even taught at the Academy.

And now, Myra Jackson—the daughter of Jonah and Tessa Jackson—was going to be the youngest Engineering apprentice ever. She liked the sound of that.

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