“The Promise of Iron” by Benjamin C. Kinney

Eszter pressed her forehead against the narrow window, watching the war-engines roll down the boulevard. The thirty railless cars progressed in perfect synchrony, shaking the tenement floorboards beneath her feet. She stared down at the stubby barrels of cannon, the smoked-glass lenses of eyes, and the mane of pistons emerging from each pressure engine. She wished the machines would pause there, beneath her window, where they seemed close enough to touch. But the automata continued their implacable roll southward, beyond her reach.

Her hand tightened on the shutters. Tateh would’ve drawn the shades and told her to stay out of sight, and she still wanted to obey her father’s wishes, two years after his disappearance. She was seventeen now, a year older than her brother, and responsible for their family of two.

Today she would’ve made Tateh proud. She hadn’t wasted a single minute experimenting with the automaton scraps she’d hidden in the basement. Instead, she had spent all morning scavenging, and traded a dud shell for a chicken and a handful of forint. She came straight home to stash the poultry and coins, which brought her in from the streets in time for this perfect moment. She shook her head. Food and money are a greater fortune than the sight of machines, she told herself.

The door creaked behind her. József said, “The French have crossed the Danube to the south, near Dunaújváros.”

“That can’t be! What about the rest of the Coalition? Aren’t the Ottomans guarding our south?” Eszter tore her gaze from the street. Her brother had grown thin these last five months, but so had everyone. He still wore his grey linen work smock beneath his black wool coat, but the Lord only knew why he was home at this hour.

“Not anymore. Didn’t you read the paper? They’ve been crumbling for days now.”

She gritted her teeth. When would she have time to read the paper? “I had a good find today, earned us a chicken. Why aren’t you at work?”

“River traffic’s cut off,” he said too quickly. “Besides, who could work out there? I watched one of our brigades march across the river. You should’ve seen them!” He grinned. “Let the frogs come; we’ll be ready for them.”

Soldiers. Tateh had feared them too much, but she couldn’t imagine watching them as József did, without a trickle of dread. In truth, the automata outside were no better; they were no golems of myth, come to protect the Erzsébetváros ghetto. The army had sent neither man nor machine to guard these streets last spring, when some absurd libel inspired a mob to ransack the synagogue, cut up the Torah scrolls, and kill three people.

Eszter fought the urge to slam the shutters. A piece of wood would not protect her family. “That attack’s coming soon—we need to know when. Don’t you have some friends in the army?”

“Sure, but they’re an hour away. A long walk just to hear them guess.”

“An hour? What, are you going to go all the way up north to the Prussian camp? You told me your friend Rikárd is stationed down at Sándor Plaza.” She hid her smile. Finally, an excuse to visit the Hungarian camp again.

He blinked, and then smiled. “Rikárd! Of course. I’ll go ask if he’s heard anything. Shouldn’t take long.”

Wait, she almost said. Forget what I asked. Go back to work, or stay off the streets. She knew better than to forbid what she couldn’t stop, but she was the woman of the household, and she had to keep him safe.

“I’ll come with you,” Eszter said. She tied her hair up into a kerchief and followed her brother after a last glance toward the departing iron.

* * *

Eszter and her brother slipped through cramped side streets, around the corner, and through the ghetto gate. The daytime crowd of women and old men had reclaimed Erszébet Boulevard, and she could find no sign of the automata’s passage, save for deeper ruts in the paving stones. The streets smelled of caged chickens and half-rotten vegetables, of smoke and sweat. József pulled his hat low and his collar high, blurring himself into another bundle of anonymous November black. Outside the ghetto, some people might question why a boy his age wasn’t in uniform.

A quarter hour later, they reached the clamor of Sándor Plaza, an open square packed with regimented grey tents. Eszter spotted a flash of iron and steel, a squadron of humanoid automata. Guilty joy spiked through her heart. I came here to keep an eye on József, not to see the machines, she told herself.

She glanced at the guard. A different guard from her last visit, calm and stocky in his white military greatcoat, and in no hurry to shoo her away. Perhaps she could get a little closer. Steam hissed faintly from idling engines, and midday light gleamed from silvery thaumic knotwork on iron carapaces. Did the goyim schools teach such mysteries? She reached out, unthinking, to touch the articulated join between arm and rifle.

“Hold on there, girl,” said a woman’s voice. The guard—but no, she had to be an engineer. After decades of war, there were never enough men to fight as soldiers, let alone fill support positions. Now that Eszter knew to look, she could see the woman’s shape wrapped beneath hat and coat. The engineer had a square and scowling face, paired with an accent from the rural hills of Transdanubia.

The engineer smiled, but it held no warmth. “Never seen one up close, have you?”

“Not really. But I found an arm and a foot once. No weapons, all the thaumics stripped.” Eszter made sure her voice didn’t slip into the Yiddish lilt she heard every day from her brother.

“Probably still worth a few forint, no?”

“I didn’t sell it,” Eszter said. “Haven’t sold it yet, at least.” How could she, when it allowed her to feel iron beneath her hands, and imagine herself an engineer?

“Sounds like you’re a curious one. I like curious.” The woman studied her like a potter considering a lump of clay. “Go on, girl, take a closer look. The thaumics are pretty, aren’t they?”

Pretty. Eszter hid her smirk. What earthly beauty could entice her more than the secrets of Talmud and machine?

A shout — a familiar voice, alarm and pain. József! What had happened? An accident, a fight, it didn’t matter. It was her fault. József was her responsibility. She ran from the engineer, followed the shout to a nearby barrack tent, and yanked the flap open. A guard blocked her way with the lowered barrel of a rifle, but she could see inside.

József sat on the ground, dazed, among soldiers in the white coats and blue breeches of Hungarian infantry. Half of them looked of an age with József and her. The soldiers had arms crossed, eyes wide, or brows furrowed. One boy stood between József and an older curly-haired soldier shaking out a sore fist.

“Eszter!” József said, “get out of here!”

The curly-haired soldier laughed. “That your girlfriend, Jew boy? She’s cute. Why’s she with a yid like you?” He offered Eszter a confident but oily smile. “Come to the camp to meet a real man, have you?”

Eszter stared, her heart pounding with helplessness, her mind fumbling for some word that might help. The boy in between said, “Leave off, Árpád. I’ve known József since he was ten. He’d be in uniform right here beside us if they’d let him.”

“It’s damned good they don’t let him! The Jews were all so happy to have Napoleon here during the first war. We ought to clear these rats out of Budapest before they bite us again.”

More voices rose in argument. Beneath them, József crawled to the edge of the tent, then stood up with a bowed head and a hand cradling his jaw. Eszter wished she were surprised, or disappointed, or even angry, but she felt nothing of the sort. Not at the soldiers, at least.

Outside the plaza, Eszter asked, “What in the Lord’s name happened in there? I thought these were your friends! And you didn’t even learn when the attack is coming, did you?”

József shook his head and cringed. “I know Rikárd and a couple of his mates, sure. But Árpád, I never met him before! They’re cramming his whole squad in with Rikárd’s now.”

“You know your accent stands out.” The words made her teeth hurt, the echo of a hundred jaw-clenched repetitions. “There’s a reason our nation keeps away from soldiers. If your stupid friends can’t protect you, you shouldn’t be in there!”

“You sound just like Tateh. Hide, hide, hide, that’s always your answer. What good did it do him?”

“József! Don’t you dare blame Tateh, we don’t know what happened to him. It could have been anything.” Eszter forced her voice back under control. A girl should never show anger, she told herself.

“You know exactly what must’ve happened. Whatever he did, whatever he didn’t do, it was goyim.” He jabbed his finger at her. “If you want to hide with your kerchief over your head, fine! But I’m not going to spend my whole life hunkered in a corner.”

Eszter followed half a block behind, allowing him his space as he stomped toward home. She had it lucky, at least for dealing with the goyim. Neither she nor József remembered their mother beyond an echo of a touch or a kiss, but Eszter had learned the Magyar language at Mamele’s knee. After she passed away, the family spoke only Yiddish at home, and rarely left the ghetto. Years later, when an aunt resumed their Magyar education, József had the Yiddish accent ingrained on his tongue. Eszter sounded like a native, but no matter how many languages József learned, he could never pass for a Magyar, the true-blooded people of Hungary.

* * *

József and Eszter barely talked over dinner, and neither of them mentioned their argument. The chicken was a better meal than they’d eaten in many days, and a passable apology.

The next day, Eszter had no luck scavenging. She considered begging some extra food from the rabbi, but they were not so desperate yet. The rabbi would find help for them, even if it came from his own table, but she had not spoken to him since he swore that only men could understand the Talmud.

No, she and József would manage on their own. They still had a few days’ worth of food, a handful of forint, and his job at the docks. Together, the two of them could keep pace with the prices of food and rent. If they grew desperate, she could always sell the buried pieces of her salvaged automaton.

That night, József didn’t return home.

* * *

Eszter awoke shivering, alone in the bed. Morning, and still no József. Fear and anger warred within her as she recited the morning’s modeh ani. He wouldn’t do this to me on purpose, he wouldn’t run off without a word, she told herself—but the alternative seemed even worse.

She walked to the Danube docks. The river was quiet, save for the bulky outlines of Coalition warships wallowing upriver and down like fat iron toads. Eszter found a dockworker she recognized, and waited for him to finish pushing a cart of coal onto an ironclad. He said József hadn’t shown up for work for almost a week.

The dockworker asked after József, but Eszter barely heard his words. What had József been doing these last few days? She quickened her pace, despite the weight of Tateh’s disappointment. She checked the coffee shops near the river, the threadbare cukrászda pastry shops near the ghetto, any place where she could tell herself József might turn up.

She imagined a battalion of automata aiding her search, mechanical angels sent forth at her command to find and protect her brother. But not even a dream of iron could sustain her spirits. Shopkeepers and gossips and factory workers told stories of foreign spies and soldiers, of scuffles over food hoarders, of the sounds of artillery outside the city. Nobody whispered about youths from the Erzsébetváros ghetto getting beaten, but worse things could happen to an Israelite these days, and some of those fates would leave no stories.

Eventually, Eszter could find no more excuses to stay away from Sándor Plaza. A guard opened the flap of the tent where József’s friends barracked. The curly-haired soldier glanced toward her. “Hey, it’s the Jew’s girlfriend! I knew you’d come back for me, sweetheart.”

Eszter’s eyes sought out Rikárd, the boy who had stood up for her brother last time. He shook his head and shrugged. No sign of József there, not lately. In that moment, Árpád swaggered toward the entrance. Eszter recoiled, but a hand wedged against her back, and she nearly lost her balance. She spun around and stepped aside, heart pounding at the thought of someone standing right behind her, spying on her search and Árpád’s crude flirtation.

It was the engineer, waiting with an oilskin-wrapped bundle in her arms and a cold smile on her lips. “I knew you’d be back.”

Eszter froze. This frightened her more than the men in the tent, but there she stood, trapped between them both. “Ah, I’m sorry, I was just here looking for—”

“Your man? I heard. Forget him. I have something better for you to think about.” The woman shoved the bundle into Eszter’s arms.

She started to refuse, but her breath caught when the stiff jointed shape settled in her hands. She fumbled away the wrappings and stared down at the automaton arm. It had the same shape as a human’s, but with a thick skin of engraved iron, and gears and pistons in place of joints and muscle.

The engineer drew Eszter into a smaller tent, packed with parts and tools instead of soldiers. “Call me Corporal Lujza. Now, show me what you learned from playing with your salvaged toy.” She tossed Eszter a belt of tools.

Eszter knew she should return to her search, but Lujza stood between her and the flap, and the tent smelled of oil and metal and temptation. Eszter sat down. First, she repeated the ways she had explored her broken scrap of treasure, but with intact machinery in her hands at last, she could learn so much more. She tested anew how this gear matched that one, and the next; she teased the descending hydraulics and watched them determine which gears engaged inside the elbow joint.

Eszter stopped. “Is this broken? The arm looks whole, but I don’t think it’d work. When I move this piston by hand, that gear slips a bit. It can’t possibly hold up to the force you’d get from hydraulics.”

“Not bad, for a street whore. You have a good eye and a basic sense of mechanics. But you haven’t even looked at the wiring. Do you know anything about thaumics, girl? Tell me.”

Eszter fixed her gaze downward and took a deep breath. Never show them anger, she told herself. It only makes things worse. She forced her attention back to the metal in front of her eyes. A plexus of delicate silver lines ran from the shoulder to the blunt terminus of a wrist.

Eszter shook her head. “Only from rumors. The new science, of course. After Napoleon’s deal with the devil in the first war, the Sixth Coalition nations developed thaumic science to stop him.”

“The first war? You poor ignorant thing.” Lujza paced around the tent, forcing Eszter to turn to follow her. “If Napoleon made a deal with the devil, he did it on Elba. The first automata appeared at Waterloo and broke Wellington and Blücher like paper. So of course, the Coalition stole the designs.” She stopped pacing and looked down at Eszter again. “Our captain says thaumic science is to magic as chemistry is to alchemy. The wonder of the modern age, and we’ve been using it to kill each other for forty years.”

Eszter wrapped her arms around her chest. “Why are you telling me all this?”

Lujza smiled, as sure as an overseer from ancient Egypt receiving a brand-new slave. “Because you show promise, girl. I could make a good engineer out of you.”

“I should go. I need to find my brother.” Eszter stood, her pulse racing like a starving mouse before a baited trap.

Lujza blocked the exit. “What’s your name, girl?” The engineer’s eyes were grey, a shade paler than her hair.

“Eszter Révay, of Práter Street,” Eszter lied, picking a name and address from outside the ghetto.

Lujza held her place, still blocking the exit. She licked her lips, and then stepped aside and let Eszter escape into the cold.

* * *

That evening was Friday night. In the empty apartment, Eszter retrieved two fresh paraffin candles and Tateh’s old pewter candlesticks. She had no family left to watch over, but this remained her responsibility as the woman of the household: to light the Shabbos candles and say the prayers for the day of rest.

She put match to candle, beckoned the light toward her body, and closed her eyes for a moment. A drop of thin wine, and a tiny piece of bread that could pass as challah. Each prayer lasted only a sentence, but the Hebrew’s archaic rhythm unrolled like the tiny scroll packed inside a mezuzah, dense with all the fragments of Torah and Talmud she had managed to learn. Yet after each blessing, no one remained to echo an amen.

She snuffed the candles. Forbidden by halacha, but she refused to waste the wax. Guilt rippled through her, but she knew what to tell herself: as the Talmud also says, you shall live by the laws, and not die by them.

* * *

In the middle of the night, Eszter awoke to thunder and earthquake. She whispered the modeh ani as she tugged on her shoes, her mind still rigid with the shock of her awakening. Firelight limned the skyline to the south, illuminating columns of thick black smoke and the ruins of the building across the street. Distant sounds echoed from across the rooftops, a repeated bass note. The incipient symphony acquired a rising whistle, a crack—and then another building erupted into smoke and cinders, a few blocks away. Eszter grabbed her coat and kerchief and ran for the stairs.

“Coming from the south. The attack’s begun.” Without József, she had to finish the thought on her own. The ghetto had no military targets, but thoroughfares and factories packed in close around it, so the shelling might never move away. She had to flee west to the river, to stay safe from fires.

On the narrow streets, the crowds rose and fell like a confused tide. She reached the ghetto’s edge, and the earth bucked and threw her onto her back. A cloud of dust billowed from the boulevard. Voices shouted in pain, Magyar and Yiddish, the sharp report of rifles. She scrambled back into an alleyway. I can find another route to the river, she told herself.

The sounds of artillery grew more distant as she crossed to the far side of the ghetto; not far, but in the wrong direction. She found the expanse of Andrássy Way, emptied of the living. A great wound gaped in the earth, a pit strewn with blood and brick and bodies. Eszter slunk along what remained of the street’s façade, but her gaze kept drifting toward the corpses. Wool coats and awkward arms, people who must have been doing late business on this busy street. A dozen soldiers lay fallen in a cluster, wearing Hungarian uniforms of white and blue and blood.

One of the soldiers had fallen over a girl’s body like a last and futile shield. Coincidence or sacrifice, Eszter could not know. Whether soldier had been a Rikárd or an Árpád, he would have protected a Budapester girl without checking whether she was Magyar, Roma, or Israelite.

Eszter’s stomach twisted, and she forced her gaze back to the girl’s face. It was Ráhel, the rabbi’s daughter. They hadn’t spoken since summer, when Ráhel’s father refused to tutor Eszter. Ráhel was missing half of her chest.

Eszter crouched against a fragment of a disemboweled shopfront and retched. When the nausea faded, stubborn anger remained beneath it. Despite everything, her nation suffered and died with the rest of Budapest, men and women alike.

A hint of motion caught her eye. She tugged a rifle from the fallen soldier’s hand. The man looked calm, his wounds hidden by the dim light of fire reflected off smoke. There—movement again, from a muscular corpse covered with brick dust. She poked the body with the barrel of her rifle, and it clunked. The sound of iron against iron.

She knelt beside the automaton. It was a humanoid Coalition design, the same kind she had seen in Sándor Plaza. Its only intact leg flexed in a slow senseless rhythm, and its right arm ended in a blackened twisted mess instead of a cannon. Eszter spit on a scrap of cloth and wiped dust from a head shaped like the helmet of some antique knight. Cracks spiderwebbed both glass eyes, but uninterrupted silvery wires traced across the metal skull, thaumic circuitry animating the machine like the word emet inscribed on the brow of the Golem of Chelm.

Eszter searched the uniforms until she found a belt of tools, the same kit Lujza had lent her. She located a disc of smoked glass, and unscrewed one of the machine’s broken eyes. She could barely make out the glass and rings beneath, but she could at least replace the outer lens. She braced her wrist with her other hand to keep herself from shaking as she tightened one screw, two screws, three screws, four— and the automaton grabbed her arm.

Iron fingers dug into her flesh. She bit down on her lip to keep herself from screaming. She tasted blood in her mouth, heard the screwdriver clatter onto stone. The automaton’s new eye focused on her. It released her arm, then rolled over onto its side and snatched her rifle. It tore away the trigger guard, braced the barrel on the stump of its damaged arm, and leveled the rifle down silent Andrássy Way.

She sat beside the machine, panting for breath. I did nothing wrong, she told herself; these machines know friend from foe. But what had she accomplished, beyond a few minutes playing with screwdrivers? The automaton had no cannon, no foot. It was as useless as she.

She leaned against its side. The automaton sat unmoving, but the heat of its mechanisms warmed her through iron and wool. She looked up at the rust-red sky. As the crow flies, she sat less than half a mile from the river, for what little good that did her. A few blocks away, cannons boomed in two different registers. The threat seemed as distant as the coming of the meshiakh.

Eszter frowned. The meshiakh waited on mankind, not the other way around. He sat chained before the Throne of Glory, and could only be freed by a saw whose teeth were the deeds of Israel. She had to play her part and act like a woman worthy of the world to come. She stood, patted the machine on the shoulder, and faced the ghetto. Three columns of smoke rose above the narrow streets. A dangerous place, but in the basement of her building, beneath a few inches of dirt, she could find a foot for her friend.

* * *

The machine—her friend, her golem—strode down Andrássy Way with a simpleton’s unerring focus. Eszter followed a few paces behind, watching his gait. The automaton had kept a few intact inches of ankle and shin, so she had only needed to unbolt it, disconnect the gears and pistons inside, and then reverse the process with her salvaged foot. Blessedly easy. Did Rabbi Elijah find his task so simple, when crafting the Golem of Chelm?

Rifles cracked in the intersection ahead. She peered around the golem’s shoulder as a dozen grey-coated soldiers entered the intersection, shouting in French. An automaton moved at their center, a machine with six wide legs and a triangular iron body rising half again as tall as a man. A digger, Eszter guessed, based on the pyramid’s drill-like tip. Two small cannons emerged from one of the machine’s faces, pointing toward the north. The massive automaton rocked back on its legs at the resonant boom of its cannon, and soldiers fired from the cover of its armored legs, aiming at some foe outside Eszter’s line of sight.

Her golem fired his rifle, and a man fell to the ground as the crack hit Eszter’s ears. The other French retreated behind their machine. The digger still aimed its weapon northward, but a few of the soldiers leveled their rifles at her. A volley clanged off the golem’s armor, and blue sparks flickered along the thaumic wires of his torso, close enough for Eszter to touch. The golem pushed a fresh cartridge into the breech.

Another sulfurous cloud of powder, more blue sparks, another shout of pain. The golem planted his feet, reloaded, and fired again. She stayed as close as she dared to his armored body, praying the soldiers wouldn’t abandon their own iron shelter. If they did, they could get a clear shot at her. The French digger began to turn, its feet stomping in a tight pattern as it rotated to face them.

Eszter’s heart curled up like a frightened worm. She banged her fist on the golem’s back. “You have to stop the digger! Do something!” She had no idea whether it heard her, but she had no other option. She couldn’t even flee now, not without leaving the meager shelter of her companion’s body. She had been seduced by the promise of iron, by her golem’s power; but she was no Master of the Divine Name like Rabbi Elijah of Chelm, and she could not control her creation.

The golem broke into a run. Eszter threw herself to the ground, her cheek against cold stone. Her guardian lifted his rifle like a javelin as he sprinted toward the cannons of the French digger.

The golem threw his rifle. It clattered into the bore of a cannon and jammed in place. Eszter almost shouted in joy—and then the other cannon fired.

The golem rang like a bell and disappeared beneath a shower of sparks. He lay sprawled on his back, his thaumic engravings aglow like a candelabrum. Eszter’s nose burned with the smell of hot metal and an acidic sizzle. The digger aimed down at the wounded golem and fired its second cannon.

The explosion shook her, body and bone. Her ears rang with the blast, but she could feel the clatter as metal shards struck the paving stones like rain. Something sliced into her coat and stung her shoulder.

She raised her head. Five blue-coated soldiers swept in from the north, the Frenchmens’ original foes, shooting the survivors staggering around the digger’s wreckage. Her golem rolled onto his side, bent his legs, began to stand. She rose and joined him.

The new soldiers wore blue coats, not blue breeches—not the uniform of Hungary after all. Eszter knew she ought to fear, but she felt as weightless and invulnerable as the breath of the Holy One. A soldier spoke in German: the tongue of Prussia and fallen Austria, pillars of the Coalition. The language of Hungary’s allies.

A blond soldier gripped Eszter’s arm and said something about spies and ghetto rats. She shook her head; her meager knowledge of German couldn’t pierce the dull roar in her ears. The soldier shouted, and another one hurried over to translate.

It was József.

* * *

His face passed through disbelief and awe to a stunned but joyful smile. “Eszter! What are you doing here?”

Saving you, of course. But not on purpose. Sometime in the night, she had forgotten entirely about following her brother. “This automaton is mine. I found it on the road, fixed it up.”

“You did? That’s—that’s amazing!” He repeated her words in German, and the Prussian soldier released her. József ran a hand through his hair, avoiding her eyes. “I’m so glad you’re safe. I know I should’ve left a note, I haven’t had the time to write you yet.”

She grabbed his hand. “József! What’s going on? What happened? How did you end up here?”

“I’m as confused as you are. I thought Parliament would never let foreign soldiers in the city, but at dusk they ordered us south, straight across town to the front lines. We were on our way when the shelling started! Then French machines climbed up from under the streets, and we got separated from our division.”

“But what about you?” She wasn’t sure whether that was the question she’d meant to ask in the first place. “Why, how, did you end up with these Prussians?”

He grinned like a child clutching a stolen toy. “They’re as eager for recruits as Hungary is. And they can’t tell one Magyar accent from another.”

A mustachioed Prussian waved a metal wand engraved with thaumic wires. The golem swiveled and lifted his rifle onto his shoulder, like a soldier ready to march. A coal of betrayal burned in Eszter’s chest, but she knew the machine had never been hers.

József said, “Come with us, Eszter! I’ll introduce you to our engineer. You could be his assistant, I bet.”

Eszter’s heart leapt into her throat. Wasn’t that what she wanted, to work with machines and keep her family safe? She needed more than an impromptu promise to carry tools for some foreign engineer, but her brother could talk to the Prussians and pin down a better offer before the squad took another step. It might work. Yet the more she planned, the more József’s offer repelled her like a missionary’s promises.

She couldn’t join a foreign army. No matter what the goyim said, she was a child of Budapest. The city could be a cruel mother, but she could not forsake it without abandoning the people of the ghetto as well. She refused to justify every soldier and scoundrel who said Israelites belonged to no nation but their own.

Her fists clenched. She would not leave, but József hadn’t hesitated. “You abandon me, you abandon Budapest, and you expect me to join you?”

He drew back. “Why not? I’ll help you with your German, don’t worry. And what do you mean, abandon? It’s the same side! And I told you, I’m sorry.”

She took a deep breath and banked her anger. She did not need fire, but it could give her tempered steel. “Budapest needs us.” She thought of her golem, striding down Andrássy Way on the foot she gave him. “It needs me.”

She squeezed his hand. I should feel proud, she told herself. He doesn’t need me anymore. And she, in turn, had more to protect now. “May you have strength and peace.” She walked backward a few steps, and then hurried away toward the river before he could try to stop her.

* * *

Dawn broke over Budapest, sunlight muffled by the haze of smoldering fires. By the time the first diluted rays illuminated Buda Castle on the far bank, the sounds of artillery had faded. Eszter stood among a crowd of survivors on the Danube’s east bank, a hundred forms quieted by cold and sleeplessness. She almost whispered the morning’s modeh ani, even though she’d recited it when she awoke, hours before. A responsible Israelite would say it again, just to make sure.

Eszter slipped away. She took a direct path into the ghetto, far from the zigzagging route she’d followed in the night. She offered a silent shehecheyanu: the prayer for special occasions, for festivals and rare pleasures. Taking breath this morning was as much blessing as she could expect.

The ghetto’s streets enclosed her, as cramped as ever despite the intermittent wide planes of sky where buildings once stood. The smell of smoke suffused the air, the dying breath of each missing wall. Eszter wondered whether her tenement house still stood. She tried to imagine how she could make the next month’s rent on her own, but her mind came up blank. Still, she knew where she could find the rabbi, and knew he would take her in to sit in Ráhel’s place at the table. Her future could still hold candles and chickens, a new home and a new family. It’s what Tateh would’ve wanted, she told herself. But she could not convince herself to care.

She stopped at Sándor Plaza. Platoons of soldiers marched in and out, enacting the cogwheels of redeployment. She circled the encampment until she found a familiar squad of humanoid automata. Once twelve, they now numbered nine, and five of those were under repair. Eszter’s pulse quickened. Budapest and the ghetto always needed more golems, and the people to build them.

Corporal Lujza bent over one of the automata, rewiring the delicate engravings of a thaumic mechanism. She pressed a silvery line into place, took off her gloves, and approached Eszter. She pitched her voice quiet enough that nobody else could overhear. “So the clever little Jew comes back.”

Eszter took a shaky breath. How long had Lujza known? But it didn’t matter. Lujza might lack the virtue of Rabbi Elijah of Chelm, but she could teach his knowledge, what little of it remained in the world.

Eszter swallowed, and found her voice. “Here I am.”

The engineer smiled. For the first time, it reached her eyes. “Of course you are.” She turned back toward the damaged machines and beckoned for Eszter to join her. “We’ll get you registered tonight. For now, stay with me and watch what I do. No questions while I’m working, but if you remember them I’ll answer them later.”

Hineni: here I am, Eszter told herself. The word of Abraham, when the Lord called. Ready to take part in whatever would come. Ready to be tested. She followed Lujza toward the machines and her work.

Benjamin C. Kinney is a SFF writer and neuroscientist of Hungarian Jewish background. He’s assistant editor of the science fiction podcast magazine Escape Pod, for which he’s been a finalist for the Hugo and Ignyte awards. His short stories have appeared in many fine magazines including Strange Horizons, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, Fantasy Magazine, and more. You can find him online at benjaminckinney.com or follow him on twitter @BenCKinney.