Cast of Wonders 374: Take Heart (Part 2 of 2)

Take Heart (continued)

by Claire Eliza Bartlett

The break had been clean and would heal up nicely. That was the good news.

The bad news was, well, everything else. Julia entered the factory hospital an hour after Magdalena had been patched up, wearing a storm cloud face. She flopped into one of the cheap metal folding chairs, making it scrape across the floor.

Neither of them spoke for long moments. Magdalena wanted to muster the courage to apologize, but shame choked her whenever she tried to speak. She’d tried to be cleverer than Julia. Now she was more useless than ever.

“Rumor is that the front is creeping this way,” Julia said, carefully polite. She kept her gaze fixed to the floor.

Magdalena blinked. “Okay.” She’d expected Julia to say any number of things, but not that.

“It means we’ll be seeing more palanquins like that one. Where the anger’s still fresh. Enemy palanquins, too.” Because resources were too scarce to waste.

Conversation lapsed again. Julia worked her jaw. Finally she said, “I can’t believe you.”

“I’m sorry,” Magdalena began.

“I don’t need you to be sorry, I need you to understand.” She pointed to Magdalena’s cast. “Do you know what happened to the breaker you replaced?”

Magdalena was pretty sure she didn’t want to know.

“She lost a hand. Lost it. A palanquin fell on her arm and they amputated up to the elbow.” Her voice cracked. “When I tell you to stop, you stop. Did you forget?”

“No.” Magdalena looked down at her arm. She’d been swept up in her own cleverness. She’d wanted to prove that she could do something.

Julia propped her head in her hands. Her red hair flopped down over one eye. “Maybe you’re not cut out to be a breaker,” she said.

Panic flipped Magdalena’s stomach. “I can do it,” she said, too desperately. Julia looked up at her, raising an eyebrow. “I swear. I can follow orders and do everything you tell me. I’ll work on the scrap until I can lift the hammer. I’ll write your reports. Anything that doesn’t need two arms.”

Julia’s skeptical look softened, turned to pity. “You really need this, don’t you?”

She did. She needed to be useful. She might not have the money to get a train home, but more than that, she didn’t have the courage to face her family. Or Mrs. Uchenka. Or anyone who’d believed in her. There had to be someone on this earth whose faith in her wouldn’t be misplaced. “Please,” she said.

Julia sighed. “I’ll tell Mrs. Vorona not to fire you. But if you do it again, you’re on your own.”

Take heart, Magdalena thought. She’d begged her way into a second chance.

She was going to hold on to it, no matter what.

Magdalena went back to work the next day. Her arm was tender and sore, and it made her even less useful than normal. She held chains and made tea. The other girls tiptoed around her blunder and looked at her like her broken arm wasn’t there.

Her brain went over her every move, dissecting. If she’d studied the palanquin more, would she have been able to avoid the break? To hook the chain through its top? It wasn’t alive, after all, for all it was called living metal. It merely used residual spark energy, amplifying the last emotion its driver felt. Its actions and reactions should be easy to predict.

And when she wasn’t thinking about her broken arm, she was thinking about…everything else. About palanquin design, about how to make them smaller, or lighter, or use less living metal. About how to make lamps that could be used during blackout hours. About how to make a machine that could go rogue on purpose when pointed towards the enemy. Her brain never turned off, never shut down. And it would never go anywhere.

I still have this, she kept reminding herself. I still need this.

Jaakuta bounced up to her one evening as they came off shift. “Why don’t we ever walk home together?”

“I don’t know,” Magdalena answered truthfully. She never even saw Jaakuta leave after work.

“Well, we both live on the green side. We can go at least part of the way.”

So they did. Jaakuta led Magdalena through an alley and onto a little side street Magdalena had never seen before, where the houses were neat brick boxes and a few flowers pushed up through the dirt out front.

They walked in silence for a while. Then Jaakuta said, “You seem depressed.”

“I’m fine,” Magdalena replied. She had to be fine, so she would be.

“It’s okay, you know. What you did with the palanquin was stupid and dangerous, but it was a mistake. And you learned from it.” She shot Magdalena a look, as if to say, Didn’t you? “Everyone makes mistakes.”

“I don’t.” She’d always checked her work at school and corrected that of her peers. And now, it just seemed that she did things right and they always turned out utterly, utterly wrong. “I just…finally thought I’d be good at something. I thought I couldn’t mess it up.” And she told Jaakuta about the university, and her failure.

“I can’t believe they did that to you,” Jaakuta said.

“I did it to myself. I never should have applied.” She never should have assumed she could be bigger than she was.

“Ridiculous. Of course you should have applied. You should apply again. This year, and next year, and every year. They can’t tell you what your worth is. You can.” She put a hand on Magdalena’s arm. “And you can make mistakes, and still be worthwhile.” She gave Magdalena a half smile. “Did I ever tell you my story about the ice bear?”

She told it. Magdalena laughed all the way home.

Magdalena arrived the next morning to find the factory doors closed, the girls crowded out front. She was surrounded by a sea of pale faces and wet cheeks. One girl bled from a gash in her head. Mrs. Vorona moved among them, shouting orders that had little effect. “Be calm,” she called. “The police are on their way.”

Magdalena stopped the bleeding girl. “What happened?”

“Returned palanquin,” the girl whispered. “It’s gone utterly mad.”

Magdalena’s stomach sank. It must have attacked the breaker room first. Which meant—

She pushed through the crowd until she found Doro and Alya. “Where are the others?”

Doro grabbed her hand. “Jaakuta’s not here yet. Laluta’s patching girls up. Julia…”

“We don’t know,” said Alya. “But we can guess.”

Something inside the factory crashed. Girls recoiled in a wave. “Did she go in there by herself?” Magdalena asked. Doro shrugged.

If the whole factory had evacuated, this rogue palanquin must be worse than the last. If it destroyed the factory, it destroyed the livelihood of four hundred girls. Not to mention Julia’s actual life.

This might be a mistake. But leaving Julia alone in there would be unthinkable. “Take heart,” she whispered, and pushed on the door.

The emergency generator had kicked in and around half the lights on the factory floor flickered. A crane lay on its side on the ground in front of her. Chairs had been tossed through the room like marbles. Magdalena spotted a shredded conveyor belt. Loose parts littered the assembly room floor, shivering. The steady pound, the factory’s heartbeat, was silent.

The door creaked as the other breakers came in behind her. Stepping lightly, they made their way towards the back of the hall. Anger prickled at Magdalena, so strong it made her flinch. She stopped, focused. Put a hand on a cold pillar. She couldn’t let herself succumb this time. Not if she wanted to help Julia. She cleared her mind and moved forward. It felt like the very air pushed against her, but she couldn’t give up. The ground shuddered with an impact.

The breaker room was a disaster. The ceiling chain had snapped. The rack of hammers and breaker equipment had been overturned, its contents strewn across the floor. And at the far end of the room—

“Julia,” Magdalena groaned. Julia lay on her side, unmoving, a crowbar still clenched in her fist.

The palanquin was on the far side of the hall, slamming itself against a concrete wall. Its rage sucked the air from her. But as long as it didn’t have a target, she had time to think things through, to be careful.

Behind her, Alya let out a strangled cry and leapt towards Julia. Her foot came down hard on the floor. “No—” Magdalena began.

The palanquin pivoted. It was a machine built for speeding over land, and it covered the breaker room floor in the breath between Alya’s first step and her next.. It struck. Alya barely had time to dodge.

The front end of the palanquin was a concave mess. Magdalena winced at the thought of what—who—lay inside, for someone had to be connected to the lifeline, to produce a residual energy this strong. It moved like a machine in war and showed no signs of slowing.

“We have to help.” Doro took a few steps towards the fallen equipment, but the palanquin reared toward her, putting her on the defensive.

There was something odd to its maneuverings—the way it flicked its legs before setting them down, touching one of them to its underside, almost too fast to spot. It was touching the spot just beneath where the wrecked driver’s chair would be, Magdalena realized. As though it were protecting something.

Its lifeline. Its heart.

The more she watched, the more certain she was. There was an open seam, and the palanquin always brushed it before moving. Usually with the front right leg. Which meant that if she wanted to pull out the lifeline, she’d have to get around that leg somehow. With whatever tool she could pick up off the floor.

And she had to do it fast, before it killed the rest of her team.

Alya ran behind a pillar. The palanquin struck it hard,but seemed to lose interest when she didn’t move again. She cast Magdalena a desperate look.

Across the hall, Julia raised her head. In the dim light Magdalena saw her bring her finger up to her lips.

She was alive. She was conscious. That changed things.

And from the way Julia swung her head around, biting her lip, Magdalena hazarded she didn’t have a plan.

Magdalena should wait. Julia was in charge, Julia knew what to do. The last time Magdalena had doubted her, she’d jeopardized the crew and injured herself. If she failed now, things would be even worse. Did she really think she was better than her supervisor?

You don’t have to be better than her, Magdalena thought. You just have to be smarter than that. As the palanquin lunged for Doro, Magdalena saw it again—that little flick, checking its lifeline—and her brain began to work.

“I’m five minutes late, and you manage all this?” Jaakuta said from behind her.

“You’re hilarious,” called Alya. “Do something, won’t you?”

Magdalena took a length of chain. It still had a hook on it. Even broken, it should do what she needed. “When I say, pull,” she said. Jaakuta took the other end, nodding. “Throw the crowbar,” she called to Julia.

“Where?” Julia’s voice was weak.

“Towards me.”

Julia hesitated. Then she threw the crowbar.

It clattered on the hard floor. The palanquin whirled. Magdalena launched herself forward. By the time the palanquin had changed course for her, she was already down on her knees, sliding towards the crowbar.

She grabbed it. Her bad arm flared with pain. The palanquin’s leg came up, following her calculated trajectory and slipping right into the upheld hook. “Pull!” she screamed. Then she dug the crowbar up, into the open seam of the crumpled undercarriage.

The palanquin jerked back, taking her with it. The crowbar was flung out of her bad hand. One of the girls shrieked. She wouldn’t get another shot at this. Magdalena shoved her good arm through the seam, into the palanquin’s heart.

Her fingers felt something squishy and wet and warm. She didn’t think about what she was touching. She didn’t think about the vivid rage that beat against her. She focused on her fingers, leaning in until she was up to her elbow, until her fingers found the slim mesh of wire that made up a lifeline. Take heart. She pulled.

The lifeline stretched. Something dug into her shoulder, piercing the skin and making her gasp. She pulled. The machine scrambled, and her feet left the ground. She pulled, and braced her shoulder against a shuddering limb, and pulled, and felt the rip in her good arm, and closed her eyes and pulled. She was good enough for this. She was good enough, and nobody had to understand that except for her.

Something popped. For a moment she wasn’t sure whether it was her arm, or the palanquin. Then she fell free, and the lifeline slithered past her to the floor. The palanquin staggered away, disengaging from her shoulder with a wet sucking noise.

She didn’t realize she was on the floor until she saw the boots gathering around her. Her whole upper body was fire. Her brain clouded, not with infected rage, but confusion. Fatigue.

Hands gripped her at the waist and shoulders. Sharp pain bloomed, again and again as they hauled her to her feet. Faces swam in and out of her vision.

“Is it lunchtime already?” she mumbled. Then she passed out.

Two visits to the hospital during her probationary period might be a new record. Magdalena had been given a stern lecture by the doctor, not to mention enough gauze wrapped around her arms to make her a new uniform. No doubt she’d already been dismissed as a liability. Magdalena Chuikova, the girl who couldn’t use her brain or her brawn.

Well, she wasn’t going home. If she got thrown out of this factory, she’d walk next door, and she’d get a job there. She’d start over until her name was no longer synonymous with failure.

Julia came through the door. She leaned on a cane, and Magdalena could see the edge of a long bruise starting near her shoulder. “You really shouldn’t run after rogue palanquins by yourself,” she said.

“I’m sorry,” Magdalena said.

“Well, you might have saved my life. You saved the factory tons in damages. So I sort of hope you aren’t.” Julia’s smile twisted at one end, turning bittersweet. “But I’m still not sure you’re cut out to be a breaker.”

Magdalena’s heart skipped. She’d known she’d be fired for this. You are enough, she reminded her big hands, her thick arms. Her shoulders were too broad for conventional beauty, but what did that matter when she could solve equations faster than her professors could write them on the board?

“I think you should ask Mrs. Vorona for a different post. Making the palanquins faster, or stronger, or something. I think I’ve made it clear to her how smart you are,” Julia said.

“She saw my test scores,” Magdalena pointed out.

Julia shrugged. “Plenty of us have high test scores. But you worked it out as you watched, didn’t you? Where the lifeline was, how the palanquin tried to protect it.”

“It wasn’t so hard,” Magdalena said, more because she was embarrassed than because she believed it.

Julia touched her cast gently. “Of course it was. Own it. Everyone else will try to discredit you, you don’t have to help them. You saved the factory, you helped the team, you kept the police from risking their lives. You did something great.”

Magdalena felt her blush run down her neck. But she tilted her head up instead of trying to hide. She’d done something great. She’d done something right.

Julia had a concussion and a twisted ankle, which she propped on the chair until Mrs. Vorona came in with two cups of tea. Mrs. Vorona’s face was pinched up, worried, and fear trilled through Magdalena again.

But Mrs. Vorona just sat. “That was the strangest palanquin I’ve ever seen,” she said, offering Magdalena a cup of tea. “I don’t understand how it happened.”

Magdalena could guess. She pressed her lips together, trying to remember to be the good girl, but Julia put a hand on her arm, nodding. “I – think it was a feedback loop,” she said. Mrs. Vorona’s arched eyebrow told Magdalena that she was skeptical, but she was listening. “Not on the machine’s power, but on its lifeline. When the driver died, he fired his fear into the lifeline, so the palanquin got scared, which made the fear worse, so the palanquin got more scared, and because he was still…attached…it just kept going. It would have run itself down eventually.” She couldn’t say when. But she might be able to work it out, with enough time and confirmed variables.

“That’s as good a theory as any.” Mrs. Vorona sipped from her own cup.

They fell silent again. Magdalena knew this was her chance. Take heart. What was the worst Mrs. Vorona could do, besides say no? “I don’t want to be a breaker,” she said.

It wasn’t an office of her own—it wasn’t even a table of her own. But as Magdalena took a seat, it was as much of a triumph as taking a top floor office in a fancy building in the capital. Mrs. Vorona had agreed to give her a trial as an engineer. If she could adjust designs based on the failures that came in to the breaker’s room, she could stay. And after the war, who knew? Maybe she didn’t need the University to go on to bigger things.

She still had an application, though, sitting off to the side. She’d fill it out when she had a spare minute. And again, when they rejected her. And again.

Magdalena took a sip of bitter factory tea, and the questions unfurled in her mind. She picked up her pen.

About the Author

Claire Eliza Bartlett

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.

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About the Narrator

Ibba Armancas

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.

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About the Artist

Alexis Goble

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, 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.

Find more by Alexis Goble