The Plastic Magician
Wall Street Journal bestselling author Charlie N. Holmberg returns to the enchanting world of The Paper Magician.
Alvie Brechenmacher has arrived in London to begin her training in Polymaking—the magical discipline of bespelling plastic. Polymaking is the newest form of magic, and in a field where there is so much left to learn, every Polymaker dreams of making the next big discovery.
Even though she is only an apprentice, Alvie is an inventor at heart, and she is determined to make as many discoveries—in as short a time frame—as she can. Luckily for her, she's studying under the world-renowned magician Marion Praff, who is just as dedicated as Alvie is.
Alvie's enthusiasm reinvigorates her mentor's work, and together they create a device that could forever change Polymaking—and the world. But when a rival learns of their plans, he conspires to steal their invention and take the credit for it himself.
To thwart him, Alvie will need to think one step ahead. For in the high-stakes world of magical discovery, not everyone plays fair…
Release date: May 15, 2018
Print pages: 233
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The Plastic Magician
Charlie N Holmberg
While Alvie was rather excited to be receiving her diploma, she could not stop staring at Mg. Jefferson’s mustache. He hadn’t sported a mustache the last time she’d seen him, and that had been only two months ago. What made a man, especially a man of Mg. Jefferson’s age, decide to up and start a mustache?
It was a thick and dark mustache, well groomed. A good German mustache, her pater would say. Which left Alvie wondering if Mg. Jefferson had German heritage, too. Was it odd for her to ask after his lineage during an exit interview?
Two months. The mustache had to be at least a centimeter long. Ten millimeters. At roughly sixty days of growth, presuming the length of the hairs had not been trimmed . . . that was a growth rate of 167 micrometers per day—
Mg. Jefferson cleared his throat rather violently, the noise of which broke apart all the numbers piling up in Alvie’s head. She blinked, coming back to herself, and lifted her gaze from Mg. Jefferson’s mustache to his eyes.
“Are you listening, Miss Brechenmacher?” he asked.
She stiffened in her seat, back straight, and quickly swept a piece of too-wavy chestnut hair behind the thick rim of her glasses. “Yes, sir. I mean, mostly.” Focus, Alvie. The class of 1905 had been the largest yet, which meant Mg. Jefferson’s schedule was chock-full of meetings with graduates, and Alvie should not take up more of his time than was absolutely necessary. She was about to find out the details of her apprenticeship—where she’d be spending the next two to six years of her life and, more importantly, with whom.
Mg. Jefferson breathed deeply through his nose and wove his fingers together on the desk in front of him. “As I was saying, I’m intrigued to see you listed Polymaking as your first choice of magic disciplines. Any reason plastic has caught your eye?”
Alvie smiled. “It’s a new and exciting venture, isn’t it?” Very new—the newest of the seven known man-made materials that could be used as a medium for magic, six of which were actually legal. Polymaking, or the magical discipline of plastic, had only been discovered thirty years ago. That was the point of the last two years of vigorous study at the Jefferson School of Material Mechanics: Alvie hoped to win an apprenticeship under a magician and, after two to six years, become a magician herself—a Polymaker. The Jefferson School set a rigorous schedule and was expensive to boot. If students couldn’t learn all they needed to in order to become responsible, ethical, and well-rounded apprentices within three years, they were cut from the program altogether.
“There’s so much to discover, and so much to learn,” she continued. “I want to know the secrets of Polymaking.”
Her next choice was Siping, or rubber-based magic. It had been a Siper who first discovered plastic, after all. A sensible second pick.
Mg. Jefferson nodded, looking over some papers on his desk—her grades, perhaps? “You certainly have the mind for it. An emphasis in math and science in secondary school, and very good grades in your measurements for magic and fiscal-responsibility classes here. I’d expect nothing less from the daughter of Gunter Brechenmacher.”
Gunter Brechenmacher, inventor, cocreator of the light bulb. That little confection of filament and glass was the reason Alvie’s family had been able to afford the steep tuition at the Jefferson School. The bulk of the praise—and the money—had gone to Mr. Edison, of course, but her father had been granted a large sum for agreeing to let his more experienced partner file the patent.
Mg. Jefferson turned a paper over, then lifted a finger to stroke his mustache. Alvie forced herself not to look at it. “I am required to tell you of the advantages of Folding.”
Folding, or paper-based magic. The least popular discipline. So much so that Alvie could almost count the number of active Folders on her hands. She’d heard that across the pond in England, they actually forced students to study it.
She shuddered at the thought. Folding was number five on her list, second to last, just before Pyring, or fire-based magic. Throwing fire was far too basic—and terrifying—for her.
“I’d rather not.” Alvie adjusted her glasses, which had begun to slide down her nose. She absently rubbed the top of one of her ears. Her frames were so terribly heavy; they always made her ears ache by midday.
“No surprise there,” Mg. Jefferson agreed with the hint of a smile. He was a Smelter, or a magician of metal alloys. Number three on Alvie’s list. “Well, I’m happy to inform you that your application was reviewed by the board and accepted. You mentioned your willingness to study abroad . . .”
Needles of eagerness pricked Alvie’s torso. Abroad? Were they actually sending her abroad? “I . . . y-yes, sir.”
“The good news continues. You know of our sister school in England, the Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined, yes?”
Alvie nodded, making her glasses slide down her nose again.
“It just so happens that the nephew of its founder had his last apprentice recently move on. He’s agreed to tutor you. His name is Magician Marion Praff.”
Alvie’s jaw went slack. “The Magician Marion Praff? The creator of the Imagidome?”
“The very one.”
Alvie could barely sit still in her chair. So much excitement flashed through her she was surprised it didn’t spill from her like water. Mg. Marion Praff was one of the most prestigious and esteemed Polymakers in the world. He was constantly featured in Superior Technology and Magicians Today, both magazines to which her father subscribed.
She shook herself. “That’s . . . fantastic. Wonderful. I couldn’t . . . I couldn’t have asked for better.”
He smiled. “Excellent. Everything has been scheduled for you.” He reached under his papers and pulled out a thick envelope with Alvie’s name scrawled across it. She took it in shaky fingers. Her diploma, lists of what she would need to acquire for her apprenticeship, and a reservation for mirror-transport to Dover, Delaware.
“Dover?” she asked.
“If the itinerary is agreeable, we’ll go forward with the purchase.” Mg. Jefferson clasped his hands before him on the desk. “Departure is in three days. From Dover you will mirror-transport to Hamburg, Germany, and then take a ship to England, followed by a train to London. I apologize for the indirectness of it all, but you know how the United Kingdom is with magicked public transport, and France requires a special passport. Even if you applied for it now, we’d be lucky to get you settled in by Christmas.”
Alvie nodded. Transportation laws in the United Kingdom were notoriously strict. Only Gaffers, or glass magicians, could travel via mirrors. Alvie understood the laws, of course—a magician could get trapped indefinitely inside a scratched or broken mirror. But if Americans hadn’t taken such risks, the West never would have been settled.
At least this way she would get to see Germany, if only for a short time. She hadn’t been to her parents’ homeland since she was seventeen, three years ago.
Clutching the envelope in her hands, she said, “Thank you, Magician Jefferson. Truly. This is a dream come true.”
His mustache smiled. “I’m very glad to hear it.” He extended his hand across the desk, and Alvie shook it firmly, as her pater had taught her. “Send a telegram when you arrive so we know you’re safe and sound. We’ll be checking up on you, Miss Brechenmacher. Do us proud.”
“Mater!” Alvie called as she burst through the front door of her family’s modest home. “Mater, I got it!”
Her mother, dark curls pinned up atop her head, popped out of the kitchen. “The Polymaking?” Her thick German accent weighed down her words, yet somehow refined them, too. Alvie could mimic the accent perfectly—she’d grown up around it, after all—but she’d been born in Ohio, and all her years of public schooling had made her sound like any other midwestern American.
Alvie tripped over her feet, trying to get her shoes off. She ran to her mater and grasped her elbows. “With Magician Marion Praff!”
Alvie pulled back and pushed up her glasses. “He invented the Imagidome! Nephew of Tagis Praff?”
Her mater’s smile faded. “Du gehst nach England?” she asked, speaking German. You’re going to England?
Alvie grinned. “Be happy for me, Mater. I’m going to pass through Hamburg on my way there. And I’m sure I’ll be let loose for Christmas. We’ll get you a new chatting mirror, and we’ll talk every week.”
Her mater sighed, but the smile managed to return. “I knew you would make it, Alvie. We moved here to achieve our aspirations. Your pater will be home soon. He’ll be happy to hear the news.”
Grinning, and feeling like electricity fueled her limbs, Alvie bounded upstairs to her room. Two large bookshelves were crammed into one corner, and a clock she and her pater had rebuilt hung over the bed, its face replaced with glass to show the working of the gears beneath. Her wardrobe was small and worn, an antique that had come across the ocean with her mother some twenty-two years past. A round woven rug took up the floor, and her simple bed had a down mattress she had received two Christmases ago. Despite the sunlight streaming through the gossamer curtains, she flipped a switch on the wall, sending electricity to the four bulbs hanging from the ceiling, a reminder of her pater’s greatest achievement. She, too, would achieve great things, in her apprenticeship and beyond.
Alvie popped the button on the waistband of her skirt and yanked it off as she went to the wardrobe, letting the fabric pool onto the rug. She loathed skirts, how they tangled up between her knees, or let dust or cold air puff up her legs. A person could only sit in so many positions wearing a skirt, and Alvie couldn’t tolerate being inhibited. Unfortunately, important people tended to prefer women in skirts. Actually, most people preferred women in skirts.
She pulled a pair of slacks from the drawer at the base of her wardrobe and tugged them on, sighing in relief. Slacks were becoming more popular—if seeing one other woman wearing them in the last year counted as “more popular.” This was Ohio, though. Perhaps on the coast they were more common. Slacks for women were hard to come by in stores—her mater had sewn these for her, giving them a little extra body in a weak imitation of a skirt. Alvie only owned two skirts, and they were both in pristine condition from lack of being worn.
Alvie turned around, eager to read the contents of the envelope Mg. Jefferson had given her, and noticed a parcel at the foot of her bed. She grabbed her pocketknife off her nightstand and cut open the package, eyes bugging when she pulled free the red apron and black top hat that would mark her as an apprentice magician. She had assumed Mg. Praff would give her the uniform when she arrived in London, but she would happily don the clothing now.
She tried it on, pulling the strings of the apron tight, fitting the top hat over her frizzy hair. She glanced in the small mirror on her wall. The hat made her look a bit clownish, her hair sticking out like old broom bristles beneath its brim. She took off her glasses—the room blurring into mottled colors as she did so—and wiped the thick lenses on the corner of the apron. Slipped them back on. Yes, better without the hat. Fortunately, she’d only have to wear it for formal occasions. Still, the hat and apron were the mark of an apprentice in material magics—a uniform recognized worldwide. Alvie admired the mark of her achievement a little longer before removing the hat and untying the knots of the apron, which she reverently folded and set at the foot of her bed. A Polymaker. Her. It was really happening, wasn’t it?
Pulling her gaze from the apron, Alvie turned and studied her room. So little time to prepare, to pack. She should visit Abigail and Lucy, her closest friends, tomorrow and let them know the news. They lived nearby, so a magicked mail bird wasn’t necessary. Would her mater want to mirror-communicate with her Oma? Alvie would be in England by the time any posted letter reached Germany.
Worrying her lips, she retrieved her suitcases from the topmost shelf of her wardrobe. What to bring, what to bring? She built a list of items in her mind, then started calculating the weight for each. When one carried two suitcases, it was best to pack them so they weighed evenly. It didn’t make sense to do otherwise.
The front door shut downstairs, and Alvie heard the heavy steps of her pater followed by his asking what was for dinner. Alvie dropped her suitcases and fled from her room to tell him the good news, leaving the electric bulbs buzzing in her absence.
Alvie and her parents stood in the wallpapered foyer of the Columbus Mirror-Transit Station, terminal four, waiting for the conducting Gaffer to call her name. He was likely a Gaffing apprentice who had failed his magician’s test, or perhaps dropped out before the conclusion of his apprenticeship, since no one would spend up to nine years training to be a glass magician only to use that education shuffling people in and out of mirrors. Gaffing was one of the only magical disciplines that offered work for those without a magician’s license. As far as Alvie knew, Polymaking did not, nor did Folding, though many firefighters were bonded to flame. She watched the conductor, wondering. He wasn’t terribly old, maybe six or seven years her senior. How long had he worked this job? Was he happy?
Alvie twisted the toe of her shoe against the tiled floor. What would happen to her if she didn’t make it? She couldn’t think of any jobs available for flunked Polymakers. Taking a deep breath, Alvie set her jaw. Doesn’t matter, she told herself. I’m going to pass.
It was hard to fail at something you loved. At least, she was fairly certain she would love it. She’d studied theory for all six standard disciplines at the preparatory school, and Polymaking had been vastly more interesting than the others.
“It’s not too late to request something closer to home,” her pater murmured under his breath beside her. His large hand clasped her shoulder.
Alvie leaned in to him. “I think the closest availability is in Maryland, anyway. That’s far enough that it might as well be in England.” Her mind spun. The Atlantic Ocean was about 3,700 miles across, if she remembered her geography right. It was 535 miles from here to New York City—that was the path the family had taken for their last trip to Germany. Assuming London was, oh, maybe a hundred miles in from England’s west coast, that would put London roughly 4,335 miles away, which was about eight times farther than Maryland.
She opened her mouth to tell her pater of her error, but she closed it again as the numbers settled. Eight times farther than Maryland? She certainly was going far away from home. How much of that distance could magic and technology fill for her?
Alvie’s heart began to ache, and she hadn’t even left the station yet. But the adventure of it all, she reminded herself. She couldn’t even fathom the journey that awaited her on the other side of that mirror.
“Alvie Bre—” the conductor called, and he stared at the clipboard in his hand. “Breckenmatcher?”
Unless she married someone with a simple last name, Alvie expected she’d be hearing her surname butchered for the rest of her life.
She turned to her parents, embraced both of them, and blinked rapidly to shore up her tears. She’d be home before she knew it, and she didn’t want wet eyelashes smearing her lenses. “Love you,” she whispered.
“Gute Reise,” her mater whispered. Her pater kissed the top of her head.
Alvie drew in a deep breath, straightened her shoulders, and smoothed her apprentice’s apron. She didn’t have to wear it yet, but it lent her courage, and reminded her of her goals. Smiling at her parents, she picked up her suitcases and called, “Here!”
“Come along, come along,” the conductor urged her, waving her toward the large coppery frame that housed a flawless silver mirror. If it was made of the same glass as the mirror in her room, it would have to weigh—
Alvie shook the equation from her head. It didn’t matter, did it?
The conductor touched his hand to the mirror, and Alvie’s reflection swirled into a vortex of silver. Alvie handed him her ticket, which he marked with a pen before passing it back.
“To Dover. Step quickly now.” The conductor gestured her forward.
Alvie glanced back at her parents one more time, waved as best she could while holding two suitcases, and stepped through the mirror to her future.
Alvie had mirror-transported dozens of times in her life, but the coldness of the magic still shocked her. It was as though she passed through chilled mercury, and no part of her was safe from its icy bite. It seeped through her clothes and whispered through her hair, sending long lines of gooseflesh down her back and arms.
New light hit her eyes; the pale-orange glow of glass-encased Pyre lights and the white blast of electric bulbs. The sounds of too many bodies and conversations rushed around her, mingled with the distant honking and roaring of automobiles and the bell of a trolley beyond the walls of the station. Alvie blinked, the gooseflesh slow to leave her skin. She’d never been to Dover before. Its mirror-transporting station was larger than the one in Columbus, and far busier.
“Move along, make room,” called another conductor, this one much older, his hair and beard nearly white. He gestured impatiently. Gripping the handles of her two suitcases, Alvie picked up her feet and hurried from the mirror, trying to find an open bench to set her things down so she could orient herself. Every sitting place she saw was occupied: a couple with a baby, a group of men all speaking what sounded like French, a school class all dressed in plaid uniforms. A few eyes lingered on her as she walked past—or, more so, on her red apprentice’s apron. Perhaps her slacks, but she saw one other woman wearing something similar, so she wasn’t a complete anomaly in that sense.
She nervously scoured the terminals—so many mirrors!—and did the math in her head. Point-zero-one percent of the women here wore slacks. Alvie usually wore a skirt when she needed to impress, but she hated traveling in them, and Mg. Praff had already agreed to the apprenticeship, hadn’t he? Besides, this was her nicest pair of slacks.
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