Fantasy girl power clockpunk

Silverbird Rising

By Rebecca Birch
May 10, 2020 · 5,927 words · 22 minutes

Saville Dam minutes before the storm

Photo by Derek Story via Unsplash.

From the author: Madeline Rowe has one goal--to invent clockwork technologies to bolster mine safety. When her work is sabotaged, and her best friend endangered, Madeline must work together with her rival in a desperate attempt to save her friend's life.


Madeline Rowe stood on the parapets of Hinderly University beneath scarlet and gold banners snapping in the stiff breeze. She clung to her hat with one hand and set her woven basket on the flagstones. In the lee of the stone wall, Madeline readjusted her hatpins, opened the basket's lid, and extracted one of the three clockwork birds. Its silver wings felt like ice against her palm.

Estella Peron, the university's only other female student, shivered and pulled her short cape close. Loosened tendrils of her dark hair lashed across her face. "Madeline, do you really think we ought to try it now? There's so much wind," she squinted into the distance, "and it looks like rain."

Once a castle, the university perched on Hinderly Hill's summit like a mother hawk protecting her eggs. On a good day, the view stretched clear to the horizon, but today, the mountains were hidden behind shifting curtains of turbulent clouds.

Madeline turned the bird over to check the winding mechanism. The faint, bitter smell of oil touched her nostrils when she opened the bird's breastplate. Everything was in its proper place, the coils, gears, and springs new and gleaming. Satisfied, she released the tiny rod holding the gears motionless and closed the flap. The little body hummed with energy.

"If a little wind is enough to ground a silverbird," Madeline said, "we haven't done our job properly. Hold this."

Estella accepted the rod in a gloved hand and slipped it into a pocket of her waistcoat. "Daniel says it'll never work." Her voice took on an nasal tone and she held up an imaginary monocle. "Silverbirds are pretty diversions, not bats."

A strong whiff of smoke tinged with a whisper of blasting powder blew past. Madeline wrinkled her nose. "The Daniels of the world won't ever have to risk the mines. He doesn't understand how important this is. Did you place the lure?"

"It's ready."

"Well then," Madeline said and lifted her arm, the swiftly warming body gripped tight. "Sightless silverbird test flight number one--"

"Did I miss the festivities?"

Madeline's muscles tensed and her shoulders rose toward her ears. There was no mistaking that voice, no matter how out of breath.

The silverbird's wings strained against her hand.

"Daniel!" Estella exclaimed. "What are you doing here?"

Madeline looked back at Daniel. His pea-green suit hung from his lanky frame as if it had been made for a much sturdier man. The cravat at his neck was loose, and his face, usually as pale as linen, flushed the startlingly ruddy shade of a man who had climbed to the Hinderly parapets far faster than he ought.

He pulled a notepad from his pocket and fanned himself, though the wind still buffeted the heights. "Couldn't miss what might be a first for science, now could I?" he said, a disbelieving tone to his voice. "A sightless silverbird? When Miss Peron told me, I couldn't believe you'd be rash enough to follow through. Waste of spring-iron, when there's hardly enough to supply legitimate needs. I'd think you of all people would understand that."

Madeline bit down on the inside of her cheek to keep from rising to his bait. It was true--spring-iron was painfully rare--and as demand for the ore rose, the mines had grown increasingly dangerous, with shoddy safeguards and foremen who looked the other way to ensure faster production. Madeline's brother, Colin, had been a victim, killed along with his entire team when an improperly fortified gallery collapsed. Adding insult to the tragedy, when the rubble had been cleared and the bodies recovered, not an ounce of spring-iron had been found.

"Lady Casterby commissioned this research," Madeline replied. "If you have a problem with it, I suggest you take it up with her. You can stay and watch, if you can keep quiet. Otherwise, I'll thank you to leave us in peace."

Daniel raised his hands in a gesture of surrender then swept an upraised finger in front of his lips.

If only Estella had kept their work to herself! Madeline exhaled slowly. As well to wish away the need for spring-iron as to hope for discretion from her disturbingly trusting friend.

Well and fine. Let Daniel see. If the silverbird worked as hoped, he'd find out soon enough anyway.

"Sightless silverbird test flight number one," Madeline repeated. "Go."

She released the tiny bird, now nearly too hot to hold. Its metal wings beat wildly and it lifted over the parapet. The tiny crystals lining its wings glowed faintly.

Estella rushed forward, rising on her tiptoes to lean out over the stone wall. Madeline peered over her shoulder. Wind gusts caught the little bird, pitching and tossing it like a skiff in a storm, but it fluttered bravely on, circling upward. The magnet lodged in its breast cavity should be seeking the lure Estella had hidden earlier--a lump of precious spring-iron.

Estella clung to the parapet's edge so hard her knuckles went white. The magnet had been her idea, along with the aural sensors that should keep the bird from collisions. "It shouldn't be taking so long to find the lure."

Madeline gnawed on her lip. Estella was right. Such a concentration of spring-iron should have easily caught the bird's attention.

She felt Daniel looming behind her, but true to his promise he didn't say a word. Probably for the best. If a snide word left his lips Madeline worried she'd give him a sharp elbow to the kidneys, and assault on a fellow student was grounds for dismissal. She'd worked too hard for her admittance to risk it.

The silverbird made one more sweeping turn, then plunged back toward the parapet, aiming straight for the wall. Madeline’s mouth went dry and Estella cried out. At the last moment the bird swept upward, clearing the stone by a wing’s breadth.

Daniel reached out and captured the silverbird in his long hands. No one spoke.

The threatened rain began to fall, transforming in moments from a thin drizzle into a deluge.

Estella, her color fled, dug the holding pin from her pocket and gave it to Madeline. Her lips trembled. "I... I'll go retrieve the lure," she stammered, then hurried away, hugging her cape tightly.

Seemingly oblivious to the downpour, Daniel watched her go. A muscle twitched in the corner of his jaw. "You shouldn't involve Miss Peron in your schemes," he said, passing Madeline the silverbird. "She doesn't cope well with failure. You do her an unkindness."

"Estella will be fine."

Madeline flipped the silverbird's breastplate open and slipped the holding rod back into place. The hum ceased and the wings stopped trying to flap against her palm. Daniel shielded the opening with his notepad and leaned close, peering into the bird's interior through his monocle.

As much as Madeline longed to study the mechanisms to figure out what had gone wrong, she didn't want Daniel poking about in her work. She flipped the breastplate closed and placed the bird back in its basket beside the others, rain dripping from her hat brim.

"It shouldn't have failed," she said. "We tested the mechanisms so many times in the laboratory."

"A laboratory isn't the same as the field. You know that as well as I, Miss Rowe." He returned the splotched monocle to his pocket. "A pity you'll have to report a failure to Lady Casterby."

"You needn't sound so pleased." Madeline strode to the tower door. "She's invested a great deal--" She spun around abruptly, nearly colliding with Daniel. "Did Estella tell you what we were using as lure? Where she was hiding it?"

He leapt backward, hands raised. "Of course she told me. She asked my opinion and I gave it."

Madeline squeezed the basket handle hard enough to embed the twined branches into her skin. "If you've taken that spring-iron, I'll--"

"Miss Rowe," Daniel interrupted, "I assure you Miss Peron will find her lure exactly where she left it. Now, I'm going indoors, if you'd be so good as to let me pass. If you wish to stay and enjoy the drenching, I leave you to your pleasure."

Daniel pressed past her, so close Madeline was forced to give way or be swept aside. He swiftly vanished down the tower stairs.

Madeline sputtered a few curses then followed after, slamming the door behind her.

Back in the laboratory, Madeline wasted no time in beginning the dissection. The basic mechanisms were simple enough, but the complex parts that controlled the bird's responses to the magnet and aural sensors were minuscule. She worked under a magnifying glass with specialized screwdrivers, wrenches, and a pair of finely sanded tweezers.

Estella was the genius behind the concept, but Madeline's were the skilled hands needed to see the ideas to fruition. Admitted to Hinderly's Clockwork Arts program, where women were at least barely tolerated, she'd quickly tired of simple fripperies and novelty pieces like the original silverbirds. She ached for the opportunity for real advancement, but the Arts program worked without spring-iron, which was reserved for scientific and military endeavors. Lady Casterby's patronage was the only thing allowing Madeline to pursue her goals, and now she would have to disappoint her.

Madeline ground her teeth and pressed on with the work. An hour later, the silverbird lay in sorted pieces on the workbench and there was still no sign of Estella. Madeline couldn't think what was keeping her. The lure had been within easy distance of the tower.

Finally, the laboratory door's creak announced Estella's return. Madeline glanced her way. "Was it still there?"

Estella nodded. "Just where I left it." She returned the spring-iron to the valuables safe, drew a deep breath, and turned toward the workbench. Her eyes were swollen and bloodshot. "Have you found anything?"

Madeline lowered her magnifying glass. "Are you all right?"

Estella's voice caught and she cleared her throat. “I’m…fine.”

"Are you sure?" Madeline's stomach went cold. Had Daniel been right? Was she pushing Estella too hard?

"Perfectly fine," Estella insisted and curved her mouth into a smile Madeline didn't believe. "Did you find anything wrong in the mechanisms?"

"Not a thing. No faulty connections. No misaligned gears." Madeline picked up the magnet. "This is pulling toward the spring-iron, even through the safe."

"Perhaps it was the distance? I should have thought of that."

"Then we'd need a bigger lure to make up the difference. I don't see how we could even test the theory. Lady Casterby's expecting our report, and I can't think that she'll be willing to invest more for a larger lure when we can't show any results. I'm afraid we may be scuppered."

Estella dabbed at her eyes with a kerchief. "Give me a few minutes and I'll be ready to go with you."

"No," Madeline said. "Lady Casterby made the commission to me. You don't need to be there, though I appreciate the offer. Take the evening off. Get some rest."

"Are you certain?"

"Quite. Go."

"All right." She headed for the door.

"And, Estella--"

The dark-haired girl paused.

"It wasn't your fault."

Estella left without looking back.

Stormy evenings filled the East Gate pub to overflowing with university men seeking distraction from their studies and the old castle's gloom. Usually, their presence would be more than enough to keep Madeline away, but after her meeting with Lady Casterby, her need for an ale overwhelmed her antipathy. She ducked into the room and shook the rain off her deep-hooded cloak. Voices droned like a hurdy-gurdy band.

Madeline pressed her way to the bar and placed her order, then leaned her aching head into her hands.

"Miss Rowe?"

Daniel. Of course. This day had already proven that anything that could go wrong, would go wrong. "Would you please go away?"

"Nothing would give me more pleasure, but--" he hesitated, "--have you seen Miss Peron?"

"Not since this afternoon. She was going to go to bed early."

Daniel rested his forearms on the bar and looked down at his clenched hands. One thumb drew restless circles in the air. "I'm afraid that may not be the case."

The barman set Madeline's ale in front of her. "What do you mean?"

Daniel tapped his fists on the bar. "I saw her here this afternoon. She was... agitated.  More than I expected, after the experiment failed. I knew she wouldn't take it well, but the way she was talking, I think she blames herself."

"I told her it wasn't her fault."

"No, it wasn't. Miss Rowe, I'm afraid the fault was mine."

Madeline's hand tightened around her tankard. The hurdy-gurdy drone of voices seemed to fade into nothingness. "Speak plainly."

Daniel reached into a pocket. "There was nothing wrong with your silverbird, Miss Rowe. It found its goal." He placed his hand on the bar and opened his fingers, revealing a spring-iron lump easily twice the size of the one provided by Lady Casterby. "The bird didn't return by accident. It was coming to this."

Madeline lifted her ale and swallowed it in one long pull, slammed down the tankard, and forced her way to the door and out onto the dark road without pausing to raise her hood. Rain drenched her, rolling down her face in thick runnels. The lanterns flickered weakly, their flames barely illuminating the cobblestones.

She turned off the gently sloping road and onto a steep stairway--a shortcut that sliced between shops and up the edge of a precipitous rock face--eager for the toil. Anything to distract her from the overwhelming need to throw stones or scream or gouge out Daniel Pentergast's eye with his own monocle.

"Miss Rowe, wait!" he shouted after her.

Madeline lifted her skirts and ran up the shadowy stairs, heedless of the slippery treads.

"Miss Rowe, please!" Daniel's footsteps splashed up the hill behind her. "I'm worried about Miss Peron. I'm afraid she's done something rash."

Nothing else could have stopped her. Madeline turned and waited, breathing hard and clenching the iron banister.

Daniel staggered upward, stopping inches out of striking range. "You're angry, I know. You've every right--"

"Of course, I've the right! How could you? I'll report you to the university president! Interfering with another student's commissioned research--"

"Miss Rowe, when you've heard me out, you may berate me to your heart's content, but for God's sake stop talking and listen." He grabbed Madeline's hand and pressed a folded paper into it.

She yanked her hand free.

"When I met Miss Peron I was worried, but I had to leave for an appointment. She agreed to wait for me. That was over two hours ago. When I came back just now, she was gone. I spoke to the barman," Daniel continued, "and he gave me this note she'd left with him not long after I'd departed. It says she intends to make up for the silverbird's failure by acquiring a larger sample of spring-iron."

"How could she possibly do that? She hasn't the money, nor any patrons wealthy enough to fund such a thing."

Daniel shook his head, sending raindrops flying like a wet dog. "No, she doesn't. But there is something she'd think to try. In the university's long history, there've been plenty of men who needed more spring-iron than their allotted share, and they found a way to get it. Hinderly Hill itself is one of the richest sources of spring-iron."

"But it's unstable," Madeline replied. "That's why the miners haven't utilized it. Too much danger to the city."

"True. But those students long ago apparently concluded that such a small excavation as they had in mind couldn't be too risky. Little forays now and then--" He caught Madeline's gaze, his dark eyes reflecting a nearby lantern's flame. "Nobody goes there anymore. There've been too many accidents, many fatal. But the entry still remains."

Madeline blinked, her lashes heavy with rain. "And Estella knows about this?"

"I told her myself. A bit of trivia about the castle. Something to keep her interest long enough to pass a few hours with me. I never thought she'd be foolish enough to risk it, but the note said that if she wasn't back to meet me, something may have gone wrong."

Madeline's innards curdled. "You know the way?"

"The door's in the old dungeons."

After Colin's death, Madeline had wanted nothing more than to make the mines safe. The silverbirds were a part of the plan. A simple mechanical to locate the elusive ore. No more sending men into newly blasted galleries without knowing if there was anything to find. Greater precision to allow the master-miners to focus their fortifications.

But no one wanted to hear ideas like that from a woman. Lady Casterby herself wouldn't have agreed to fund the research had she not lost her own son, who'd been overseeing the venture into the new gallery when the cave-in killed Colin and his crew.

And now Estella had gone into an excavation undertaken by untrained students...

"Show me the way," Madeline said. "I'm going after her."

"Not by yourself. I got her into this. I'll see her out."

Much as Madeline detested Daniel Pentergast, her worry for Estella overruled her objections. "Fine."

Daniel pushed past her and sped up the stairway.

Madeline's thoughts raced ahead. "We had two more silverbirds in the laboratory," she said. "Estella probably brought one with her. Even though the first didn't perform in the field, we've had enough experimental successes she might've hoped one would function in the mine." Her lungs burned. "If one's missing, we'll take the other. It may help us find her."

They reached the university's side entry and hurried inside and through the corridors to the lower floor laboratories. Inside her own, Madeline raced to the basket and raised the lid. Only one silverbird nestled at the bottom of the basket. She scooped it up. "Estella's been here. Let's go."

"One stop first," Daniel said, trotting further down the hallway. "If there's been an accident, I've been working on something that might help."

Madeline followed after him. "Let me understand something," she said. "You care for Estella."

"More than is healthy, I expect."

"And to show this affection, you sabotage her work?"

Daniel entered his laboratory, much larger than Madeline's, and with windows to let in daylight. He stowed the spring-iron in his safe and slammed it closed. "Miss Peron is utterly devoted to you,” he said. He went to the workbench and shoved several large metal bars with gears along their edges into a satchel. “What little time she gives me is grudging, because she's so eager to be back at your side. I thought that maybe, if the experiments failed, she might pull back. Might turn to me."

"I'd always suspected," Madeline said, "but now I'm certain. You are the stupidest man I've ever known."

"You're right, of course. I underestimated how much she cares. I should've anticipated this would only make her try the harder." He added two reinforced hats to the satchel and slung it over his shoulder.

They raced to the far end of the hall until they reached an oaken door, much older than those they'd passed on the way.

A rack on the wall held a single unlit torch, which Daniel set aflame and raised high, illuminating the stairway. "Down here."

The dungeons had long ago been converted to archives and the smell of musty parchment was overwhelming. A set of small booted footprints traced over the dusty floor.

"She went in," Madeline said, "and she hasn't been back out."

The footprints led past cells filled with shelving and down a secondary spiral staircase to an open trapdoor. "This was the oubliette," Daniel said. "Here, take the torch."

Madeline held out the flaming brand and leaned over the hole. The torch raised steam from her sodden hair.

Daniel clambered down a ladder that looked near to rotting through. "Go ahead and toss the torch," he said. "The floor is stone."

Madeline did as he asked, then cautiously eased her way onto the ladder. Her feet tangled in her skirts and she clung to the rough wood. She felt Daniel's hand steadying her calf and for once felt no anger for his lack of propriety.

Guilt gnawed at Madeline's gut. She should've better hidden how important this project was to her. Should've kept up the prickly front she wore in front of the men to hide her many fears--failure, powerlessness, and, worst of all, the crushing dread that Colin's death would change nothing.

Once her feet were safely on the ground, Madeline looked around. A dark hole gaped in one of the oubliette's walls. The torch barely illuminated its edges. Despite all her work related to the mines, Madeline had never been inside one. Shivers raced through her body. Colin had said the mines were where dreams went to die. She hadn't truly understood until that moment. Her mind recoiled from the thought of entering that looming darkness.

"Here," Daniel said, and handed her one of the reinforced hats.

Madeline shook herself. No matter the danger, Estella was in there.

She settled the hat into place. Its hard shape pressed her coiled braids into her skull. "Well," she said, "are we going in or not?"

Daniel's eyes glinted, dark and determined. "In."

He was too tall to fit into the gallery, so he bent low and stepped through. Madeline kept close behind. The flame only made the darkness press closer around her and she desperately wished there had been a second torch to hand.

"Estella?" she shouted. Her voice echoed back to her from all directions. "How many galleries are down here?" Madeline asked.

"They say it's honeycombed." Daniel held up his monocle and peered at the ground. "No footprints here. We won't be able to trace her that way. Miss Peron!" he called. "Miss Peron can you hear me?"

Still nothing.

"We'll have to use the silverbird," Madeline said, "and hope it follows the same path as the other."

"They were made by your hand," Daniel replied. "I have every confidence."

"After all the times you've denigrated my work?"

Still hunched over, he glanced back at her. "Miss Rowe, I have never doubted your abilities. I only envied your friendship with Miss Peron and lashed out in the only way I knew how."

"Why are you telling me this?"

"Because her life may be at stake. It puts many things in perspective."

Madeline pulled the silverbird from where she'd stashed it in a pocket. "Hold the torch close. The light will kindle the luminescent crystals along the wing edges." She shifted her weight from foot to foot while the torchlight gleamed off the silverbird's plumage, impatient to be off. "We'll have to move fast to follow it. Won't be easy in the dark. Blast, I should have installed a way to drop breadcrumbs."

"You'll remember on the next iteration. Don't worry. I'll keep up with it."

When the crystals emanated a steady bluish glow, Madeline opened the silverbird's breastplate and pulled out the holding pin. "Ready?"

"Ready."

The silverbird's wings strained against her hand. She held it to her lips. "Find her," Madeline whispered.

She released her grip and the silverbird raced ahead, a fluttering blue blur. Daniel plunged after it, the torch bobbing in the blackness. Madeline held up her skirts with one hand and ran, staggering half-blind over scattered rubble. The silverbird veered left, right, up and down, deftly avoiding the walls that loomed invisibly around them. Daniel pulled farther ahead, and Madeline increased her pace, praying not to turn her ankle on an unseen stone.

Daniel gave a warning shout. Madeline halted only two steps before she would have crashed into him. A wall of collapsed earth blocked the passage.

"This smells fresh," Daniel said.

Madeline's legs gave way and she dropped to her knees beside the stones. Were they too late? Had her selfish single-mindedness cost Estella her life?

The silverbird perched on an exposed rock, the glow of its crystals illuminating a small hole. Desperately, Madeline dug her hands into the edges, clawing at the pile.

Daniel slapped his hand against the wall and shouted, "Miss Peron?"

"Daniel?" came a weak voice from the other side.

Madeline pressed a fist to her lips to hold back a sob. Estella wasn't dead. She wasn't another Colin. At least not yet.

"I'm here, Miss Peron," Daniel called. "Are you hurt?"

"My foot," she replied. "And the torch is gone. Daniel, I'm frightened."

"It's all right. We're going to get you out."

"We?"

"Estella, it's Madeline."

The earth groaned and a stream of dirt rained from the ceiling, pebbles pinging off of Madeline's hat. "Daniel," she whispered, hoping Estella wouldn't hear, "this gallery isn't stable."

"Hold the torch."

Madeline took the haft with trembling hands while Daniel pulled the geared bars from his satchel and set them at intervals along the front edge of the rockfall.

A quiet whimper emanated from behind the wall.

"Estella, talk to me," Madeline said.

"I'm so sorry," Estella replied, her voice hitching. "I thought I could fix things. I know how you needed this to work. For Colin."

"Oh, my sweet girl," Madeline said. "Colin is gone, and there's no getting him back. How could I go on if I lost you, too?"

Daniel flipped a lever on the first bar and gears hummed to life, splitting the bar in two and raising the top half toward the ceiling. He released the rest in short succession. "Estella, I'm setting up braces and then we're going to get you out."

He moved to stand beside Madeline and lowered his voice to a whisper. "It's not the best solution--I still haven't manufactured a connecting roof--but with luck they'll hold for long enough to get Estella free. You don't have to stay, Miss Rowe. We don't need to risk all of us."

"I'm not leaving."

When the bars contacted the top of the gallery they bent and warped to match the contours of the rock. Madeline's eyebrows raised.

"The alloy's infused with spring-iron," Daniel explained. "Not much. Just enough to make it pliant, but still strong. The roof will be of the same stuff. Best safety shield ever made."

"I didn't know you were working on mine safety."

He watched the last bar press into place. "You never asked." The gears ground to a halt. "All right, to work. Estella, if you can, I want you to move away from the wall."

"I'm as far as I can go."

"Good. Do you have a mine hat?"

"No."

"Then put your arms over your head."

Madeline set the torch on a projecting ledge, just close enough to illuminate the rockfall. She pointed to a spot on the wall as pocked as holey cheese. "I think there are stones here that aren't load-bearing. See the arch over the top there?"

"Good eye."

Together, Madeline and Daniel struggled to shift the stones. Madeline could never have moved some of them on her own, but with Daniel's added strength, the gap began to widen. The ceiling grumbled ominously and more earth sprinkled down near the side wall.

Madeline pressed close to Daniel to avoid the downfall. "I don't think any of the rest of these can be moved," she said. "Estella, can you fit?"

"I'll try."

"Wait," Daniel said. He took off his hat and extended it through the hole. "Take this."

In a moment, Estella's face appeared in the opening, her dark eyes wide and frightened. "I don't think I'm small enough."

A tremor shook the gallery, sending small stones flying. Daniel flinched, blood welling on his brow and seeping toward his eye.

"There's no time," Madeline urged. "Hurry."

Was this what it had been like for Colin? Shivers raced through Madeline with each new rain of pebbles. Her stomach rose into her throat and she tried to make herself smaller, as if she could fit all of herself beneath the little bit of protection offered by the reinforced hat.

Estella reached through the opening, wriggling her head and shoulders through, then abruptly stopped short. "I'm stuck," she squeaked.

Madeline knelt and took Estella's hand. "Pull."

Estella was small and the strength of her tug took Madeline by surprise. She lurched forward, then managed to brace herself and pull back. Estella gave a pained groan. "My hips won't fit. You'll have to get help."

"No time," Daniel replied, running a worried hand through his hair. "I'll have to shift a brace. Estella, back up for a moment."

"It'll be all right," Madeline said, catching Estella's worried eyes. "Daniel knows what he's doing."

Estella nodded and vanished back through the hole.

"We'll move a brace from the far wall. Miss Rowe, when I give the word, I'll pull out this rock on the side. You'll have to release the gears then slide the brace in the moment there's space. If the timing's off... "

"I understand."

Daniel studied the ceiling before choosing which brace to move. "None of these are good," he said, "but this one's the best chance."

He turned the gear reverse and the bars retreated. The ceiling made a popping sound. Madeline flinched.

The bar slid shut and Daniel handed it to Madeline. "Here's the release. Ready?"

Madeline shifted until she was kneeling beside the stone. Having something to focus on helped her to push back the fear that washed over her in waves.  "Ready."

"Now!"

Madeline set the gears in motion and Daniel yanked back on the rock. It resisted his pull and he groaned aloud. "It won't move."

"I'll help," came Estella's voice from the far side, and suddenly the stone burst free.

Madeline slipped the brace into place near the far edge of the displaced rock, only a moment before the bars reached the apex of the empty space. In that moment, the entire fall shifted with a grating roar. The brace shivered with strain.

"Estella, hurry!" Madeline shouted.

Estella slithered through the opening. Madeline pulled her upright, but Estella collapsed against her, groaning. "My foot--"

Daniel shoved the torch into Madeline's hand and lifted Estella in his arms. A brace shattered in a spray of metal shards. "Go!" he shouted.

Madeline raced down the gallery through a hail of debris. Something large bounced off her mine hat. She staggered, choking on dust. The torchlight lurched and stuttered. Behind them, boulders rumbled into the empty tunnel.

Finally, the rain of pebbles and dirt ended and the sounds of destruction dimmed into silence. Madeline slowed to a halt, gasping for breath. Daniel set Estella down gently. She leaned against the wall for support.

In the circle of orange light, the only sounds were their breathing and the crackle of the flames. The mouths of four darkened tunnels loomed on either side.

Estella hugged herself, shivering, and her voice came out as insubstantial as cheesecloth. "How will we find the way out?"

Madeline extended the torch. "Daniel and I raced in from the rain. Look at the ground." Damp splotches on the uneven floor disappeared into one of the tunnels. "We'll follow the trail."

With Estella's injury slowing them, the return to the oubliette felt interminable. Madeline's nerves jangled. The slightest sound set her heart racing as fast as the beat of a silverbird's wings. They had been lucky, far luckier than they deserved. Madeline wouldn't feel safe again until the surface air kissed her skin.

Finally, as the last of the damp splotches were vanishing, they reached the oubliette. Madeline went up the ladder first and dragged in sweet breaths of musty air before turning to assist Estella. Now that the danger was past, her legs were weak and achy, and it took all her resolve to hide her tremors from the others.

Together, Madeline and Daniel helped Estella to the girls' shared room. By the time they reached the entrance, Madeline's heart had finally stopped fluttering.

At the door, Daniel paused. Dust coated his pea-green suit and the cravat hung half-undone from his neck. Blood seeped from an injury on his head, running over the corner of his eyebrow toward his collar.

He cleared his throat. "Miss Peron," he said, "I owe you an apology. I sabotaged the silverbird's test flight. There was spring-iron hidden in my pocket... "

Estella sagged against the doorframe and closed her eyes. "Oh, Daniel."

Madeline rested her hand on the back of Estella's shoulder.

Daniel looked down at his feet. "There's no excuse for my actions. I'm ashamed of myself and more sorry than I can say."

After a moment, Estella straightened and lifted her gaze. Her eyes gleamed with unshed tears.

Silently, Daniel offered her a handkerchief. She dabbed her eyes, sniffled, then gingerly pressed the kerchief against the wound on Daniel's head. "I forgive you."

His eyes slipped shut and he released a shuddering breath.

Madeline squeezed Estella's shoulder. "You should go and get changed."

Estella smiled weakly and limped through the door into the room. Madeline turned to follow her.

"Miss Rowe?" Daniel said.

Madeline glanced back him. "You should go tend to your wound," she said. "I can see to Estella from here."

"I know," Daniel replied, "but I wanted to give you the opportunity to berate me. I promised to give you the chance."

Madeline's shoulders slumped. "I don't much feel like berating you now. I wish I did, but after what we've been through... "

"I'm glad to hear it," he said, rubbing his monocle against his sleeve, "though the offer still stands."

Madeline gazed at him consideringly. Daniel's work with infused metal--the braces and safety shield--was a true innovation that could save lives. Had already saved a life. And despite his questionable behavior, he had demonstrated both bravery and selflessness.

Perhaps she had misjudged him.

"I know a way you can make amends," she said.

Daniel's eyes brightened. "What do you propose?"

"Petition the university to admit Estella and me to the Clockwork Sciences college."

"Gladly," he said. "Your silverbirds are ingenious and should have the full backing of this institution. You'd be assets to the program."

A sad half-smile tugged at Madeline's lips. "I don't expect you to succeed," she said. "Estella and I have both tried before, but the deans wouldn't even entertain the notion. Still, the effort would go a long way toward making things right."

"I have more influence than you may realize, Miss Rowe, and I'll sing your praises from the parapets if that's what it takes. I want to see your silverbirds rise."

Estella appeared beside Madeline, leaning heavily against the doorframe. "Do you really think it will work? And would you share your research on the spring-iron alloy?"

"That's what colleagues do," he replied. "I'd be honored to work with you both."

A shy smile slid across Estella's face. "Then I have something to add to the collaboration," she said. She held out her hand. A lump of spring-iron sat on her palm, still crusted in dirt, and nearly the size of a ripe peach. "The silverbird found this down there."

"Estella!" Madeline exclaimed.

"At least we didn't come away empty-handed."

Daniel blanched. "If you ever think of going back in there... " A shudder ran through his lanky frame.

"If your petition's successful, I won't need to."

"Then I'll argue more eloquently than the philosophers of old. The university will come round."

"I'll drink to that," Estella said.

"We'll all drink to that," Madeline replied, sure that somewhere, somehow, Colin was smiling. "And then we'll change the world."

This story originally appeared in Orson Scott Card's Intergalactic Medicine Show.