by Claire Eliza Bartlett
Magdalena perched on the edge of a flimsy folding chair, fingers knotted. The overseer’s office reverberated with the movement of the factory: a steady, pounding rhythm that made up the heartbeat of the city of Tammin. She focused on the way the inkwell trembled, rather than on the overseer behind the desk. The woman who held Magdalena’s past—and immediate future—in her hands.
The overseer wore a severe blonde bun, a high-collared dress, and a frown. She leaned over and lit a gas lamp on the desk with a flash of spark magic from her fingers, pushed aside the little sign that said Mrs. Vorona, and held Magdalena’s papers up to the light.
“I see why Mrs. Uchenka recommended you,” Mrs. Vorona said at last.
Magdalena saw why, too. Her examination scores were the highest of her year. They were the highest the technical school had seen in the last seven years, one point off from perfect. “Mrs. Uchenka also told me you were rejected from the University.” Mrs. Vorona set the papers down and folded her hands. “Why did you apply?”
Because I could have gone. Because I should have gone. Magdalena swallowed. “I like challenging myself.” She hoped that Mrs. Vorona took the softness in her voice for shyness, and not for shame. The University didn’t take girls, everybody knew that—but she’d hoped. She was so good at hoping.
Apparently hope and good scores didn’t count as much as being a boy.
Mrs. Vorona’s gaze swept over her again, assessing. “We don’t usually take on new hires without a process, but Mrs. Uchenka was glowing in her recommendation, and you’re…tall enough for the job.” Tall was what polite women said when they meant big. Magdalena was the tallest girl she knew, true; she also had broad shoulders, wide hips, large hands. “The breakers are down one, and I think you’d be well suited. What do you say to a trial shift?”
“Thank you.” Magdalena couldn’t say no. Her parents had given her enough money for the train to take her from the capital to Tammin, and to lodge for a week at the all-girls boarding house. They’d known she’d get a job at one of the factories, and she couldn’t let them down.
Perhaps some of her defeat showed in her face, for Mrs. Vorona leaned over the desk and patted her arm. “Take heart, my dear. The University’s full of backwards theoreticians. Here you’re going to make a real difference. The war needs people like you.”
The war needed new machines and big ideas. So Magdalena had thought when she submitted her university application. But maybe Mrs. Vorona was right, and what the war really needed was hard labor. So she nodded, and Mrs. Vorona surprised her with a smile. “Let’s get you started, then.”
She led Magdalena out onto the factory floor. Conveyor belts ran with fresh war beetle and palanquin parts that quivered and twitched. Girls inspected the parts with spark-flushed hands. Above them, machines slotted joints to carapaces. “You’re not allowed in the smithing rooms,” said Mrs. Vorona. “But the finished parts come here, then drop on the belt. If they pass inspection, they’re sent to the assembly floor.”
Half a palanquin stood on the assembly floor, little more than six legs and the undercarriage. Magdalena built up the rest of it in her mind, glancing over the slot where the lifeline would fit, checking the hinges that would attach to the roof. It was one of the early Presnilov models, used for light troop and goods transport. She’d redesigned the body to hold more cubic meters of space as an early project at the technical school. Somehow, she didn’t think that would impress Mrs. Vorona.
“And the breaker room is this way. Don’t dawdle, dear, there’s a war going on.”
Magdalena tore her eyes away from the assembly floor and followed Mrs. Vorona to the back of the factory hall, past sheet presses and cranes, and girls who looked at her with mild curiosity.
The breaker room was a square open space at the back of the factory. Two long doors at the end of the room could be opened for delivery, and a little war beetle hung from a hook in the ceiling. Five girls stood around it. They looked up and a redhead detached from the group, swinging her long-handled hammer up to her shoulder as she approached.
At 183 centimeters, Magdalena was used to being the tallest girl around, but this girl was taller, and her biceps were around the size of Magdalena’s head. The girl bounced the hammer on her shoulder as Mrs. Vorona introduced her.
“This is Julia, the senior breaker and your supervisor. Julia, Magdalena is your newest recruit.”
“Welcome.” Julia had a husky voice, low and pleasant, and a handshake that could crush rocks. Magdalena put her hands behind her back, trying to surreptitiously massage her fingers back into their proper shape.
“When you’re on the floor, Julia’s in charge. Any further questions or problems are referred to me.” Mrs. Vorona nodded to the war beetle. “I’ll leave you to the rest of it.”
Julia nodded. Mrs. Vorona patted Magdalena’s arm, smiling at her one last time. Then she swept back across the floor towards her office.
“She picked you because you were big, didn’t she?” Julia said. Her smile didn’t seem challenging or angry. “Mrs. Vorona lacks imagination. Big girl equals big muscles. We’ll start you off with the small hammer and work up from there.”
She didn’t mean anything by it, Magdalena told herself as she followed Julia to the little kitchen on the side of the breaker room. All the same, it was hard not to feel like a failure already. She couldn’t think her way into the University, and she couldn’t swing a big hammer with the rest of the girls.
“Since everyone stopped for tea, I’ll introduce you. That’s Alya.” Julia pointed to a short girl who had more muscles in one arm than Magdalena had on her entire back.
Alya managed a muffled, “hello,” around a mouthful of biscuit.
Julia pointed again. “This is Jaakuta. She has a really interesting story about ice bears.”
Jaakuta had bronze skin and dark brown eyes that she narrowed at Julia. “It is really interesting.” The others snorted. Jaakuta stuck a cigarette in her mouth and ignited it with a flash of spark from the end of her finger.
“Yeah, the first ten times. And here we have the Twins, Laluta and Doro.” Laluta was slim and tan, with long-lashed eyes and a black braid that swung to her waist. Doro, by contrast, was pale, nearly as tall as Magdalena, and had dark blond hair cropped just above her chin in the current style. The Twins nodded with the same curt dip of a chin.
Julia poured Magdalena a cup of tea from a teapot that sat on a little iron stove. “The rules here are simple. If you get tired or thirsty, come in and get a drink. If we’re on the floor and a girl shouts stop, you stop. Don’t shout stop unless you have something to shout about. And remember we have a quota.”
“Slow down, she looks a bit overwhelmed,” Laluta said.
“I’m confused, actually. I’m not entirely sure what my job is,” Magdalena confessed.
Julia smiled. “Get a crowbar. I’ll show you.”
It turned out that breakers broke things – specifically, palanquins and war beetles. Ruined ones came in from the front and the scrap was sent back to the forge. They got the occasional plough, but most of their projects were hauled from the aftermath of a battle. It could be dangerous work, Julia warned as she took Magdalena through their various equipment. Living metal retained and absorbed emotion, and the high trauma of war sometimes pushed it beyond repair. War machines were powered by spark magic, and sometimes held on to their user’s fears long after the human involved had died. At the technical school, Magdalena had heard stories of war machines that could move on their own and lash out with residual anger. But the war beetle that hung in front of her now was motionless, as harmless as a one-ton living metal machine could get.
Magdalena shadowed Julia, using her crowbar to pry up pieces of the hull and get into the heart of the war beetle. The other girls shouted back and forth as they worked.
“I saw Janna messing in the coffee jar this morning at the boarding house,” Doro said.
“She’s not stealing coffee.” Alya replied. A torn chunk of carapace clanged on the floor.
“She’s definitely stealing coffee,” Laluta said. “She’s happier than I’ve ever seen her in her entire life. Who gets that happy without coffee?”
“Besides, we tasted extra chicory in it this morning,” Doro added.
“The two of you love conspiracy.” Julia indicated where she wanted Magdalena to pry. “Where are you staying, Magdalena?”
“The Noreva Grand Hotel.”
“That’s on the green side, isn’t it? By the farmland,” Alya said.
“Yeah.” The one nice thing about having to walk up five flights of stairs was that she had a view of the apple farms from her window. They were the only pretty things she’d seen in Tammin so far, blossoming pink and white in the brown and gray factory town.
“I live on the green side,” Jaakuta said. “I used to walk in the orchards with my boy. Before he got conscripted. I’ll show you the shortcut to the apple orchard sometime.”
They worked for an hour before Julia called a break. “How are you feeling?” she asked Magdalena.
“Fine,” Magdalena panted, realizing how out of breath she was.
Julia shook her head. “Remember: you get tired, you take a break. Because if you don’t, you’ll end up smashing a hammer on your foot.”
“Or worse, my foot,” Alya called.
The routine was repetitive and rhythmic, just like everything in Tammin. They worked, they drank tea, they worked some more. They ate lunch in the canteen with the other factory girls. Magdalena had to admit, there was some peace in being a breaker. She aimed, she moved the crowbar or the hammer. She smiled at the crunch it made as metal flew apart beneath her. But at the end of the day, it was boring. Whenever she stopped to take a break, thoughts crowded her mind. The exact angle of an optimal swing. The force needed to break a leg or a carapace or an axle. How to make a machine to smash it all for them, how to put the pieces back together again. How to build a better knee joint for a war beetle. How to, how to, how to. Her hands itched for paper and a pen. But what would she do with them?
Her comrades were nice. No one sat around arguing thermodynamics or trying to see how many legs they could fit into a palanquin design before their instructor told them off, but they never insulted her or tried to make her feel inadequate. It wasn’t the competitive atmosphere of the school.
Magdalena wouldn’t admit it to the girls, but she wished she were back there.
The breakers got their first big problem in the middle of Magdalena’s second week. The small combat palanquin seemed unharmed except for the driver’s box, which had folded outward. A dark blast pattern said grenade. The box was stained in ways Magdalena didn’t want to contemplate. The edge of the torn lifeline dug deep into the heart of the palanquin and still pulsed with residual spark.
Julia crossed her arms as the delivery boys slid it from their flat-backed transport palanquins onto the factory floor. “We don’t deal with rogue ones,” she said.
“We’ve got our orders,” the driver replied. He was the first boy Magdalena had seen since coming to Tammin.
“That shouldn’t make it my problem,” Julia argued.
He laughed. “Come on. We mess up the transport, you fix it. Would you rather do my job?”
She watched him leave with her arms crossed and her jaw working.
The palanquin vibrated with rage. Joints twitched, and its steel feet clicked on the floor. Magdalena felt hot and irritated when she neared it, like her skin was two sizes too small.
“We could wait until it’s calmer,” Doro suggested, but she sounded unsure.
There must be some equation for the time it took the energy to dissipate. If Magdalena knew the amount of spark that had churned through the engine, combined with the engine’s efficiency and tendency to hoard latent spark…
Julia was less scientific. “It’ll take ages. We don’t meet quota by sitting around. We’ll chain it like the others.” Laluta and Doro groaned in tandem. “Stop moaning and go get them.”
Julia used a long pole to haul on the ceiling hook until it brushed the ground. The rest of the girls looped chains through iron eyes set in the concrete floor. Magdalena followed their lead, hefting a chain with links the size of her hand. Julia fixed hooks to the end of each chain. “When I say, pull. Hard,” she instructed.
Julia approached the palanquin like it was an injured bear, but it didn’t move. She slid the first hook around a leg and when the palanquin didn’t respond, she let out a sigh. Magdalena found herself following suit. This wouldn’t be so bad.
Julia was on the fourth leg when the palanquin swiped at her. Anger surged from it, hitting them all in a wave. Julia dodged. “Pull!” she yelled, and Magdalena barely had time to tighten her grip before the palanquin yanked her forward. She planted her feet and pulled until her shoulders burned. The palanquin twisted, legs scrabbling. She could imagine its snarl.
Julia tried to catch the leg with swift, jabbing motions, but it soon became apparent the palanquin was too quick for her. “How is this possible?” she puffed as her hook scraped along a leg.
Magdalena’s technical brain took over. “It detects the vibrations of your feet.”
“I know that.” Even though she couldn’t see Julia, Magdalena suspected her supervisor was rolling her eyes.
“Maybe if we move differently somehow, or surprise it—” Magdalena hauled on the chain. The palanquin slid a good meter before it managed to pull back. When she loosened her grip, it turned its attention back to Julia.
It only focused on one person at a time. Adrenaline hit her as her brain began to whir. “Pull the chains,” she called. “Keep it occupied. I can grab the top hook.”
“It’s not secure enough,” Julia argued. “We’ll take care of the legs first.”
But they couldn’t. The palanquin was too sharp, quickened by an anger that cut against the rest of them. Another leg slid free as Doro tried to re-secure her hook. She cursed and ducked.
“I can do it,” Magdalena said.
“No, you can’t,” Julia replied.
Was this what the rest of her life would be? Someone who didn’t really know her, informing her of all the things she could and couldn’t do? Was she supposed to fall in line, the way she’d been told to when the University denied her entrance?
If no one thought her capable now, she’d have to prove she was. She gave one last pull on her chain, then moved forward with sliding steps.
“What are you doing?” Julia shouted.
Magdalena took a deep breath. The palanquin was quick, yes, but it only came up to her shoulder. Fixing the hook should be quick work.
She grabbed the torn rail on the edge of the driver’s box. The metal bit into her hands, seared her fingers. Her stomach roiled. She heard Julia scream, “Magda, stop.” But she was here now, and surely the hard part was done. She clambered up.
A haze of rage descended on her. She hated this place. She shouldn’t be here, she didn’t know how to be here. This was a waste of everything she’d worked so hard to learn—
The palanquin bucked, and the haze lifted for a moment. All Magdalena could think was that something was wrong. Then her feet left the driver’s box. The palanquin tossed again, and she swung around. Her arm caught in the railing and cracked. Her fingers loosened without her permission, and she fell.
Someone screamed distantly. Jaakuta and Alya grabbed her by an arm each, and she gasped at the pain. The anger receded in a wave, leaving her muddled and feeling sick. Her left arm hung strangely, as though it had one more bend than it needed.
Julia and the twins backed away. The palanquin thrashed a few moments more, but with no one in range it seemed to quiet, pulling back in on itself. Julia turned, pale and tight lipped.
Unease filled Magdalena, mixing with nausea. “I’m okay,” she lied, trying not to vomit. “We can try again.”
“Take her to the hospital,” Julia said.
Join us next episode for the conclusion.
About the Author
Claire Eliza Bartlett is an author and tour guide in Copenhagen, where she lives in an enchanted forest apartment with one husband and two cats. If you enjoyed Magdalena’s story, you can follow her adventures in WE RULE THE NIGHT, available now from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.
About the Narrator
Raised by swordfighters and eastern European freedom fighters, Ibba Armancas is a writer-director currently based in Los Angeles. Her darkly comedic genre sensibilities are showcased in two webseries and a feature film forthcoming later this year. One day she will find time to make a website, but in the mean time you can follow her projects and adventures on Twitter or Instagram.
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.