Elissa pondered the Generator. It was a shuddering muscle of steam and steel, the beating heart of Belacqua, descending deep underground for dozens of meters, into the dark pits lined only by the reddish glow of its exhaust. Standing on the rail, she was so close her skin was covered in pearls of sweat and the white fabric of her robe stuck to her chest and arms, making it look like it was in the middle of a summer day and not in the dead of winter.
Generations of Augurs had been here before her. All of them must have looked at this monster of metal and tubes, flickering lights and pipelines like spreading veins, carrying heat through the entire town.
She held out a hand and touched the scalding surface of that thing. She had tried it once last year to check on its integrity an-
Her shriek, thanks the Spirits, was unnoticed amidst the din and tin of workers feeding the monster with timber and coal.
Panting hard, she looked at her palm, focusing her senses on her skin.
Something had hurt her.
No, it had been… different. Cold. And piercing. As if she put her hand on a frozen pan and had a whole layer of skin ripped off when she pulled away.
It felt like it was trying to rip her apart.
Some quality of the Generator itself, turning against her.
Trembling, her heart beating so fast it scraped against her ribcage, she put the other hand against it.
She felt the normal heat of the pipelines, the soft hum of the metal, the familiar presence of machinery.
Her other hand… it had turned red and blistery.
What was happening here?
Worst of all, how could something like that surprise her?
Why didn’t she foresee it?
She always did. Especially now that Verna was dead.
Sure, it was winter time and her powers would be diminished, but here she was in the heart of mankind’s domain, a place where she’d be protected by the influences of the forest.
And yet she got her hand freeze-burned.
She flexed her abused fingers and it felt like holding a bag of broken glass, splintering on her bones.
What was happening? How could this-
She started, whipping her head back to the man who had called her. One of the engineers who took care of the old engine’s moods, he looked at her quizzically. She felt the doubt ebbing and flowing from inside his brain, the possible futures oozing from his form.
Everything was normal.
Everything was under control.
She was just shaken. Shaken by the death of Verna and the fact Sadja, for some Spirit-forsaken reason, did not recognize her.
She was in a very bad mood. And that made her jittery. That was all.
“Yes. What do you want?” She asked, trying to keep her voice level, something she usually excelled at.
You’re making a fool of yourself.
“I have reports about the Generator’s heat pumps. Projections for the strain over winter.”
“I supposed you would just…” He gestured at a spot between his eyes.
“I feel like having a conversation.”
“Oh. That’s a first for me. It’s not often someone asks me about this beauty.” He chuckled, leaning over the rail as he looked down at the shuddering heart that powered the town and kept it safe from the Tide. “It’s an old thing. Built during the War, I reckon. There used to be all sort of similar power cells, scattered about. Most of them are gone, but we managed to hold onto a few. They are like our very own stars, holding back the night.”
“Very poetic,” she quipped.
“Sorry. It’s mainly coal and grease and sweat with this thing, but it’s true that they don’t make it like they used to.”
“What about stress? There has been an accident already, if I’m not mistaken?” She felt like touching the metal wall again. If only to show she could. That this thing, a remnant of the industrial civilization, was actually harmless to her. As it was supposed to be.
The man looked at her strangely. He did not frown, or seemed tense – his emotions flowed at the usual rhythm, but he did gave her a puzzled look.
“Sorry, Wise Mother,” he said shaking his head. “I’m just a little stunned. It feels good to see you actually care.”
“Monitoring the town’s heart is part of my duties.”
“It’s not that, I can see it. You do care. About the Generator, about its effects on the town. When it first failed it… well, you do know.” He popped open his blouse and showed a long pale scar running down from his neck all the way to his forearm. “I was the only survivor of my immediate family. I was lucky enough to get wounded when we still had stocks of holy water.”
“If you allow me to say so, between all the strange activity at the Temple, Mastra Verna rushing in for a visit weeks ago… and you almost never leaving it, I felt like you had somewhat forgotten about us. It really warm my heart to see you here.” He chuckled, drying the sweat off his brow. “Well, as you can see I’m warm all over, but it’s the thought that counts.”
She gripped the handrail even harder.
That ‘strange activity’ at the Temple had cost four of her attendants’ lives. They were now dust in the wind somewhere in the forest, claimed by the burst of empathic energy that took place when she connected her mind to…
The other ‘Heart’.
Her right hand pulsed.
Maybe she shouldn’t be so surprised touching the Generator had hurt her.
“We all still miss Lenora greatly,” the man continued, as if his words could have any actual sway over her heart, “but I feel like, in time, you might be just as beloved. Maybe more, in fact.”
Of course, as Spirits would have it, the only person whose affection she actually cared for ignored everything about her.
One problem at a time, she steeled herself.
“At any rate. We were talking about the stress. What about the chances of a failure? The winter is dire already and it will only get worse.”
“This old thing has a bit of fight in it yet.” He knocked on the closest pipeline and the echoes got lost amidst the tinkling and ringing of a thousand heat pumps tirelessly working. “But each year it gets worse. We patched it up, but we’d need to know where and how to act. Can’t you take a look and help us in that regard? Is that why you are here?”
She was not sure anymore. Maybe she came here because it was the farthest place from the Temple, the womb of the earth rather than her gilded cage above the town’s roofs.
Maybe because it felt familiar.
Verna would have liked this place.
“I’ll check what I can do.”
She licked her lips, tense.
Looking at the ancient machine, its heartbeat seemingly as steady as ever. An imposing construction that held in its heart the will and power of mankind, its defiance against the forest.
I’m still part of that, she reminded herself.
She was just weary.
That was all.
Pic by hiveworkshop.comAuthor’s Notes: fun chapter to write. I liked taking a look at Elissa’s thoughts. She’s not having the best of times, for sure. And there might be more problems looming at the horizon, hm? We’ll see how that goes. In the meantime, thanks for reading.