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Guy sat watching the foreman’s sweat-lined lips moving, not hearing a word. Something about birds nesting in the coil. He’d never liked the foreman, a fat man, aggressive, whose tiny amount of power had gone to his head. He could hear the restlessness of the crew all around him — this was eating into their lunch break. He listened for the buzzer.
Owen leaned over to mutter, “The bloody job more or less dictates itself but this idiot just has to pretend he’s doing something important.” Guy smiled unconvincingly in response, then checked his watch. His knee jerked furiously, heel tapping quietly on the floor.
He heard the buzzer and checked his watch again. Two more buzzers and it would be time. The window of opportunity was small, barely twenty minutes.
The idiot clapped his hands and made some comment about coming back ready to "go get them" with "all hands on deck." Guy was the first to his feet, pushing his way to the door. Finally, he was in the quiet of the corridor and set off, hearing voices spill out as the door opened behind him again.
He kept walking.
“Oi, Guy!” he heard Owen hurrying to catch up and slowed, swearing silently. “Where you rushing off to, mate? Another hot date or something?”
“You what?” he looked at his watch again.
“It’s a minute later than the last time you checked,” Owen laughed, “Tell me about it, felt like he wasn’t never going to shut up.”
“You going to hold it for me, or something?” he stopped, his hand on the door of the toilets.
“You got a monopoly on urinals? I’ve got needs too, mate,” Owen followed him in.
Guy didn’t need to piss but he stood in front of the urinal and listened while Owen did.
“She got any friends, your girl?”
“What do you mean, friends? She hasn’t got any friends.”
“Alright, alright, calm down,” Owen grunted a little, zipped himself up and headed for the door.
“Hey,” he stopped, halfway through, “Best get her out of your system now, right? Whatever it is — love, heartbreak, lust, whatever, get over it, alright? Don’t want you getting all misty eyed while you’re holding the wire up there.”
Guy heard the buzzer sound again as the door swung shut. He checked his watch. Nearly time. He found he did need the toilet.
Finished, he went and stood by the door, listening. A few seconds later, on time, the footsteps of the overseer. A second or two later again, he judged it to be safe and slipped out, walking half backward, eyes on the retreating back.
The buzzer went again. Somewhere below a shift filing in, another filing out. Five minutes. He hurried his steps.
"Emergency Exit." He stopped, his hand resting on the push-bar, and pressed his ear to the door. There was an alarm at the corner of the corridor, someone just had to see them coming through the door, pull it and that would be that. There’d be no questions. He pressed his ear harder against the door.
Something must have gone wrong. They should have been there already. Were those footsteps on the other side of the door or this side? Maybe they were waiting for an overseer to get out of the way.
The footsteps were definitely on his side but still some distance away. He could only just hear them over the beating of his heart.
It nearly stopped beating entirely when someone tapped on the door. He pulled it open, grabbed a sleeve and pulled. Flick almost fell through. Kaspin and Balter followed, Balter holding a large kit bag.
He shut the door and hissed, “Go!” waving them forward, away from the footsteps. All four moved as fast as walking quietly would allow, the footsteps following behind. “Left! Left! The elevator,” he pointed.
Balter pressed the button. They waited. Guy looked at Flick. She was staring at the descending numbers lighting up above the door — 56… 55… 54... Kaspin stood at the corner, back against the wall, listening to the approaching footsteps. A metal rod had appeared in his hand, ready for whoever was coming.
Guy stared at the descending numbers, his hands twisting the fabric of his trousers.
The lift arrived and lingered for an interminable moment with its doors closed. The footsteps grew louder. Balter pressed the button again, holding it down.
The doors opened. They tumbled in, Kaspin almost skipping in his haste.
The doors stayed open. Guy pushed the button to close them. Nothing happened. The footsteps were deafening like they were stepping through his cranium. He pressed the button again.
The doors started closing, slowly, the footsteps racing them. A foot. Twenty centimetres. Ten. An inch. A centimetre. Closed. The air flooded into his lungs. He felt faint.
They stood in silence, listening to the mechanisms lifting them higher. Towards the Dynamo. He looked around at the others. Flick was staring at the numbers ascending now. Balter stared at his shoes. Kaspin was staring at the ceiling, a tendon stiffening and relaxing in his cheek while he chewed on his teeth.
They had been ascending for nearly five minutes. Guy wiped his sweating forehead. No one spoke, only his heart beat faster and louder. He felt like the Dynamo could hear it, and knew they were coming.
Flick leaned up against him, barely touching, deniable, but she was leaning against him. The lift stopped. Guy pushed the doors apart as soon as a gap appeared, holding out a hand to keep the others back. He poked his head out and looked down the corridor. There was an overseer leaning against the wall further down, yawning. Turning back, he mouthed, ‘wait’, and stepped out.
The overseer covered his yawn with a hand when he saw Guy approaching. Guy recognised him. They’d been at training school together. Ross — he’d been in the year above. Guy remembered him as a bully, but that was a long time ago. Since then they’d crossed paths occasionally, even had a few drinks together after work.
“Hey, Guy, how’s things?”
“I’m good, thanks. How about you?” He spoke as loudly as he dared so the others in the lift could hear him.
“Oh, you know… things keep turning, as they say,” he yawned again, “Excuse me. It’s… So bored.”
“Why don’t you read a book?”
He pulled a book out of his back pocket, “Sends me to sleep. Just can’t keep my eyes open when I’m reading. Keel over standing up, I would.”
Guy tried to laugh, “Fair enough. Well, at least you don’t spend your days covered in grease,” he held out his hands to prove it, “Speaking of which,” he nodded at the door to the Axle Room, “I’m on.”
“You’ll have to wait, a bit mate — don’t have the key.”
“Who’s got it?” said Guy, but then he saw the overseer’s eyes drift over his shoulder, heard quick footsteps and knew they’d come out of the lift behind him. Ross’s mouth formed to shout but Guy punched him hard in the chest. He caught him as he fell and, with an arm around his neck, put him to sleep.
The others slowed as they drew near. He saw the surprise on their faces. Balter blinked, then nodded, “Good…” he held out his hand, “The keys?”
“If you’d stayed put I might’ve got hold of them…”
“We haven’t got time,” Flick cut off the other’s retort before an argument could start. Kaspin took his metal bar and set to work on the door. They stood fanned around him, looking up and down the corridor, gritting their teeth, urging him to hurry with every particle of their beings. Guy felt like his muscles were going to snap.
“Got it,” said Kaspin, the door opening with a sound like a gunshot.
“Flick,” Guy reached out a hand, like a falling man reaching for a last hand hold.
“Wait here,” she said, pointing at Guy and then to where he should look, “Keep watch.”
He did as he was told, looking right, left, right again, but the scene inside the room inexorably drew his attention. On the far side, the hatch leading into the core of the Axle was already open. Through it he could see the sides revolving, glimmers of light in the gloom. At its entrance Balter crouched over his kit bag, open now, twisting wires with his thick hands.
He blinked and looked away and then across the hall at the alarm on the wall. He stared at it for a time. He cast a glance back into the Axle room. Flick was helping Balter lift the bag back over his shoulder. She was very beautiful.
He realised Kaspin was looking right back at him, his eyes narrowed. Seeing Guy looking at him, he shifted a little and uncrossed his arms.
Before he realised he had moved, Guy had smashed the alarm and Kaspin’s hands were around his neck, the man screaming, his face stretching in fury. Guy headbutted him, kneed him in the testicles, leaving him gasping on the floor, and found himself running back towards the lift.
Overseers appeared at the end of the corridor. He shouted, pointing, “They have a bomb! A bomb!” He could see the fresh fear on their faces. The first fell on Kaspin, screaming and spitting on the floor, the others running on into the Axle Room.
Guy stopped and leaned against the corridor wall, panting. The tightness that had grown inside with the rapid beating of his heart began to ease.
His relief disintegrated in the explosion. Instinctively his arm rose to shield his face but the blast didn’t touch him, the damage in the corridor confined to black smoke bursting through the doorway and tumbling across the ceiling. Then the smoke slowed and a ringing started in Guy’s ears.
An overseer stumbled out, wiping at the blood flowing into his eyes from a gash on his brow. Guy stood up slowly, mouth hanging open. They had done it. Stepping over Kaspin and the overseer frozen together on the floor, mouths open, he approached the wounded man, one hand outstretched to help him, the other covering his mouth against the smoke.
He forgot him when he saw the carnage inside the Axle Room – the contorted body-parts, the cracked and pitted floor, chunks still falling from the walls, the light flickering and going out and coming on again, hanging and swinging from its fitting, casting shadows of the twisted ironwork jutting exposed from the ceiling.
Through it, by the breaking light, he could see the glimmer of the Axle’s turning sides.
“Why didn’t you warn us earlier?” the Honourable Redman shook his head, puffing his cheeks out, “This was… close.”
He wasn’t quite an old man yet, but he was getting there, his posture starting to go, his head starting to drag on his neck. Despite this he was still tall, still imposing. He had the demeanour of a man who knew he had power, power that came from his personality rather than any bestowed by a position or actions in his past. He knew others saw his power as well, so he had never had to use it. It fulfilled its own prophecy.
“I did what I had to, Sir,” said Guy, standing to attention in front of a large desk, “They did not give me enough information. I decided it was better like this anyway. The people see it’s real, now. And I was sure their materials would have no effect.”
Redman looked at him shrewdly, analysing Guy’s expression for a moment, before he said, “Maybe you’re right. Perhaps it is better this way. More real.” He sighed, shaking his head again, “Still, it was very nearly too late, Guy. You cut it beyond fine. They very nearly succeeded. Can you imagine if they had?” He shuddered a little, turning to look out through the window onto the Plant floor below. Staring down at the pedallists, he shook his head, and it carried on shaking for a time, as if he had forgotten to stop it. He turned and looked at Guy, ducking a little to look up into the younger man’s eyes. He smiled.
“You know, even the most fervent of us have fallen to love, Guy… Love can unsettle the most faithful, the smartest, the best. Even without love it’s natural to have doubts, you understand? Everyone has had them. I’ve had them. But we can’t let these… these…” he failed to find a word strong enough, “We can’t let them destroy the world, Guy, kill our loved ones, take everything we have from us because of their insane beliefs. They want to destroy our society, our culture, our history. Us. Even themselves! They want to destroy the very thing that holds our civilization together, they want to destroy it! And for what?”
He held his hands out, eyebrows raised, “Some half-crazed delusion that we’re keeping them from paradise?” He drew a calming breath before he continued, “You believe, don’t you, Guy? You cherish this world, our world, as much as I do, don’t you?”
“I have proved it many times over, Sir. All my life.”
Redman sat down, watching him all the while. He nodded, “Yes. Yes, you have, haven’t you? We won’t ever forget that, that I can promise you. Relax, Guy, take a seat. Have a drink,” he opened a drawer, pulled out a bottle and two glasses. Pouring, he said, “Still, there’s a difference between love for family and love for a woman… Although, apparently not for you, eh, Guy? You shed them all like a snake sheds skin.”
Guy looked at the old man directly for the first time, “My love for the Dynamo is greater than everything.”
The Honourable Redman smiled and nodded. He swiveled in his chair and looked through the window again, upwards this time, at the mechanics swarming around the Axle, checking for even the smallest crack. He shivered, his eyes widening, “Imagine if they had succeeded.”
Guy sat with his feet dangling through the trap door, staring down at the multitude below, shifts filing in and filing out, the swaying, the buzz of the chains rising lazily through the air, the turn of the Dynamo knocking it back again. It was an eternal battle, the buzz trying to rise, the thump keeping it in its place. Neither could defeat the other — without one, the other wouldn’t exist.
He took a bite from the sandwich in his hand, but it tasted dry and he struggled to chew. He spat it out and watched the morsels until vanished as a dot above a column to changing shift.
He found himself trying to figure out her row, her column, and shook his head sharply. It was impossible to do anyway — from the height of the Dynamo, the pedallists were indistinguishable. He knew they were there in the same way he knew there were cells in his body. The cells changed, the body carried on.
Guy rubbed his eyes hard with finger and thumb. He took a deep breath, letting it out slowly, then looked at the sandwich in his hand, the bite he’d taken out of it. He let it fall.
It tumbled through the air as a whole for a time, then gradually split into its constituent parts, some landing on the lights, the rest carrying on down, spots falling like rain on a few pedallists below. They barely noticed, their minds elsewhere, busy ignoring the aches in their body.