by Ben Burgis
…and that’s when I vomited on the factory floor, my lunch mixing with the dust and the dirt and the foreman’s green blood. Tears swam in my eyes, and for a second there, all the individual sounds just kind of disappeared into one big roar in my ears. Then they all came back. The yelling of my line mates, the beating wings of the security guards and the clanging noises of the machinery.
Bang clash whoosh. Bang clang whoosh.
The security guards swooped down at me, their eyes burning red in the middle of their coal-black heads. I blinked the tears out of my eyes and wiped the vomit off my chin with the sleeve of my shirt, crawling backward as fast as I could.
Bang clash whoosh. Bang clang whoosh.
Twelve hours a day, six days a week, for four years, I listened to that noise. It takes me seven or eight shots of whiskey most nights to drown out the clanging, echoing between my ears like the tune of a half-remembered song. Some nights, even when I close my eyes, the clanging starts again in my dreams.
And now, I knew with a sudden and sickening certainty, now this was going to be the last godsdamned noise I ever heard.
Bang clash whoosh. Bang clang whoosh.
My heart jumped in my throat as the light from the high window glinted on the fangs of the leader of the guards.
They only hire the older drinkers for plant security, the ones who’ve learned to control their cravings. The younger ones, the kind they use for the Night Patrol, they’d suck the life’s blood out of everyone on this line in a minute, whether any of them were making trouble or not. Still, there’s a fucking difference between being able to suppress the cravings when nothing much is going on and stopping them when they’ve gotten going, isn’t there?
The leader’s forked tongue ran over his yellow teeth in happy anticipation of the upcoming feast, and that’s about when Frank Ryan, Gods bless the brain-addled asshole, did the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. He stepped between me and the security guards, and…
Well, that’s when it officially got interesting.
First things first. My name is Richard Talbert, and I am Employee #1871-R of the Consolidated Imperial Iron Mining and Manufacturing Corporation, Western Division. Says so right on my birth certificate, above the names of the doctor who pulled me out of my mother’s snatch and the priest who dunked my screaming infant ass in frigid water, chanting prayers to pledge me to serve the Gods, walk in the path of righteousness and resist the wickedness of the Green Devil.
Ma took care of me from that point until I was old enough for school. Da was at work at the plant from before I would have woken up in the morning to after I would have gone to bed at night, so I’m guessing that I only saw him on Sundays. I don’t know, since he died in an accident at the plant when I was too young to remember.
My teachers at school would say I’ll have a chance to get to know him one day when we embrace on the gleaming fields of Paradise. Assuming, of course, that he wasn’t sent down into the Pit with the Green Devil and the Laughing Girl. Come to think of it, those same teachers told me that most people are.
My five years in school, I learned a lot about the Pit and the torments that await the souls of the wicked there. Religion was the main subject, with some patriotic stuff about the wars with the goblins on the side. Plus enough reading and numbers that we’d be able to understand the fines deducted from our paychecks when we were older, but that’s about as far as it went.
When I was thirteen, I got my diploma and took the test to see if I’d been born with the talent for hex-casting. I hadn’t been, of course, so my next stop was the secret ceremony in the tunnels beneath town to induct me into the Line Workers’ Guild. Looking back on it, I doubt it was all that secret.
At the time, it was pretty exciting stuff. The flaming torches on the tunnel walls as me and half a dozen of my fellow inductees rushed to the ceremony. The older guys who’d known my Da all standing around and beaming down at me as I pricked the drop of blood from my fingertip and pledged eternal loyalty to my fellow workers. Then the singing of the Anthem of the Red Flag and my first taste of whiskey.
Raise the scarlet standard high,
Beneath its folds we’ll live and die…
I knew Guilds weren’t exactly legal, but everyone still seemed to be in one. I’d heard some talk of Guilds sabotaging machinery when conditions got really bad, even walking off the job. In the excitement of the induction ceremony, I didn’t realize just yet that Guilds didn’t do that sort of thing any more.
In our grandfathers’ era, they might have gone on strike. Now that the companies have smartened up and started using drinkers instead of regular humans for plant security, we pretty much drink whiskey and hold induction ceremonies and sing. Good jaunty song, though, real nice beat to it.
Let cowards flinch and traitors sneer,
We’ll keep the red flag flying here…
When I got to the plant, I figured out the order of things pretty quick. On the top were the foremen, so high class that their flesh and blood bore the marks of alchemical treatments to extend their lives. Their skin wasn’t brown like human skin should be, but pale as the moon, pale as the Gods and saints in the stained glass windows of the temple.
People said even their blood was green instead of red, but I didn’t know how anybody would find out, seeing as how they never got cuts or scratches. Their job was to walk around and make sure everyone was working fast enough. Even when a foreman hit you, they used a metal stick coated in rubber. They never got their hands dirty.
Beneath them were the security guards, whose blood was as red as the human kind. Now, they did get cuts and scratches sometimes, but drinkers have never been known to exactly mind getting their claws dirty.
One step below them were the skilled workers who threw hexes on the flattened iron to form it into guns and airships. A foreman might hit one of them, but not very hard. It’s bad for business to distract a hex-caster with pain.
Finally, near the the bottom of the ladder, just above the dirt and the dust and maybe a little bit above the rats who scurry along the factory floor, were the guys like me. The ones who worked on the line, going through the same motions minute after minute and hour after hour, hammering the metal into flat sheets after it got melted down in the big furnace at the heart of the plant.
The routine got to be as familiar as breathing. The assembly line would start moving at eight in the morning, real slow at first and then faster and faster. There was a big clock on the factory wall with two brass hands ticking along twelve old-fashioned numerals, and if you showed up sometime between when the little hand was at twelve to when it was at one, you had a fine deducted from your paycheck. Show up too much after it hits one, and fines would be the least of your problems.
When the big hand finally got to eight again and the little hand was at twelve, my clothes would be drenched in sweat and caked with dust. My ears would still be ringing with the clanging noise of the assembly line. When I stumbled out of the factory gates, the suns would both be down and the paths lit up with lines of torches.
If you wanted to avoid the Night Patrol, you had to walk on one of the lit paths. The one to the left of the plant led to the temple, where the sanctuary was open all day and all night, just in case anyone was overcome with the need to unburden themselves to the Gods at a strange hour. The path on the middle led back to the residential streets, and the house where I still lived with my mother, her second husband and their four screaming, bickering children.
The one on the right led to the pub. Three guesses which path I took most nights?
The evening before my seventeenth birthday, everyone bought me drinks at the pub. According to our rules, seventeen was when you got to hold an official Guild position, and the guys had been talking about making me Vice-Chairman since forever. I wasn’t sure how excited I was about that, but an excuse to get sloshed for free was not to be passed up lightly.
I drank down my shot in a long gulp, letting the fire course through my throat, and slammed it on the table next to the last five. Around me, a bunch of my line mates clanked together their glasses, like they’d done the last five times I’d finished one, and continued at their slower pace. The Chairman of the Line-Workers Guild, Jimmy McCormac, put a rough hand on my shoulder and handed me my next glass. I lifted it in the air and opened my mouth.
Jimmy shook his head, firm without having to say a word. I brought the hand holding the shot glass back down to chest level, confused, and waited for him to speak. “No gulping that one. See, this is after all a special occasion…” Jimmy gave me a hard look and I returned a dutiful nod. ”…so for the next few, we’re switching you to hexer’s whiskey.”
I looked at the glass with renewed respect. There was a good reason bog whiskey was just for hex-casters in the normal order of things. It cost twice as many florins. I leaned in, watching the glass catch the light from the fireplace. It was a little darker, maybe. Other than that, I couldn’t tell the difference.
I did, forcing myself to only let a few drops slip onto my tongue and slide down my throat. After that, I took a bigger sip, but I still didn’t down it. “Now, that is a bit of all right. It’s…what would you say…smoky?”
“Peaty,” Jimmy said, firmly.
An intense, soft voice floated in from the doorway. “It tastes like smoke drifting from a camp fire in a green grass field. Since when did you fuckers become poets, exactly?”
The new figure released the heavy wooden door. It slammed itself shut again, and then everyone was facing that way and staring. A man stood there in the long black uniform of a soldier of the Eastern Guard. He was skinnier than I remembered, and he looked like hadn’t shaved in a week. Strangest of all, his sleeves bore officer’s stripes.
“Frank fucking Ryan,” someone said at last, “back from the dead. Come in, for the Gods’ sake, and have a drink with us.”
Frank’s face split into a warm grin, and he slapped the backs of each of the guys who came up to hug him, but I kept watching him the whole time, and his eyes never changed. He had the stare of a corpse.
Three years before, when the call came through our town for volunteers for the latest round of the eastern mining companies’ long war against the goblins, Frank Ryan and I had joined up together. We’d tried to, anyway.
This was when I was fourteen, and there were days I honestly thought my first year in the plant would kill me. I’d look at the big clock five times a minute, minute after minute for twelve hours. When I got home and closed my eyes to go to sleep at the end of it all, it felt like the span of a blink before the rays of the first sun came through the window and I had to do it all again.
Killing goblins had to be better. I knew that, since nothing could be worse.
The second sun had just risen the Sunday morning we decided to go see the recruiter, and the two of us hadn’t walked more than five minutes before Ma came running up the cobblestone path, screaming and crying. Frank stood there with his hands on his hips, looking anywhere but at me, while she sank to her knees and begged me not to go.
“I can’t have you come back in a box I just can’t not after what happened to your Da I can’t bear to…”
I gulped, and tried to speak. I couldn’t. Ma kept babbling. Finally Frank did what I was too much of a coward to, and gave up for me. “It’s fine, Rich. Stay.”
And just like that, I did. Frank escaped to shoot goblins on open green fields, and I stayed in my little cell of clanging assembly lines and slow-moving clock hands. When Ma said she couldn’t bear to see me go, that she loved me too much for me to come home in one of those coffins draped with the company flag, not after what happened to Da, not now…
I let her talk me out of it.
Every day for a month after Frank left, I spent every florin of my drinking money on whores, thrusting angrily into them or standing up and staring into nothingness as their tongues worked over my cock. When I did go to the pub, it was only for long enough to get offended by whatever came out of the mouths of one or another of my line mates, and step outside with him to break his nose or have him break mine.
None of that worked.
Sure as clockwork, morning would would still come, the suns would rise, and I’d still be sweating on the assembly line, waiting for the big hand to get back to eight. Difference was, this way none of the guys I worked with could stand to be around me.
“They seem to stand you just fine now,” Frank pointed out.
I was too drunk to stay upright, so I was leaning against him as I walked, our arms around each other’s shoulders. “Guild Vice-Chairman, right?”
I disentangled myself and stumbled to the curb. When I looked up, I could see the outline of the big smokestack at the top of the factory, a vast thing thrusting up into the heavens like the arm of a God.
I shook the image from my mind. “Yeah, well, a lot can change in three years. Speaking of, I’ve still not heard fuck-all from you about what you did all that time. Just ‘yeah, it was like that’ or ‘no, not really’ all night long.”
Frank leaned up against one of the torch posts. “I’ll tell you if you really want to know, but not walking and certainly not at your Ma’s house. This requires a sit and a smoke.”
I eyed him with a new respect as he pulled out a cloth pouch. “Smoking, now? This truly is the night of the rich man’s vices.”
Frank snorted. “A rich man’s servant’s dog’s vice, maybe. The rich man himself would be smoking tobacco. This is the green weed of the swamp. Grows like grass out East.”
I allowed that it was a proper soldierly vice, and he let me have some. “Not like that, Rich, you got to hold it in your mouth a spell. There, like that.”
A few puffs later, he started to tell me about the war.
To begin with, Frank was a trouble-maker. The Eastern Guard’s not like the factory, where mouthing off gets you hit, slowing down gets you a fine and anything more serious gets you a date with the drinkers. “Oh, don’t get me wrong, it’s not like the officers are all shy about hitting the men. It’s just that sometimes they get into their heads that showing a bit of backbone and getting other guys riled up too shows you got, what do they call it, ‘leadership potential.’”
“Hence the officer’s stripes?”
The way Frank told it, he got beaten plenty, and spent time in their lock-up, before the higher-ups decided about ‘leadership potential,’ but once he got the stripes he was promoted three times in about as many months. Seems guys felt better following someone like Frank when the bullets started flying, and it showed.
Not that he stopped being a trouble-maker. “The guy who’d hand me the orders for our unit for the next day would come through at night, see, since ours was the last stop off before he got back on his airship, but I wasn’t allowed to open them until the morning. Their idea was if we knew the word was just to hold steady for now, no chance of fighting the next day, the guys would get the wrong idea. Spend the night at the pub, or go off with the local women.”
I snorted. “How’d they know if you’d read the orders?”
Frank smiled, and took another puff of the bog weed. His cheeks puffed out for a second, then he let it all out real slow before handing me his roll-up. “That’s the beauty. There was a wax seal on it, so they could check if you broke it.”
I took my puff, coughed and handed the thing back. “Well, sure, but I’d think a candle flame and a steady hand could take care of that.”
Frank took the roll-up and nodded, encouraging. “Great minds, Richie, they think alike. Only problem is, the seal was stamped with the official insignia of the Eastern Guard. That’d be ruined if you melted it.”
“So how’d you…”
Frank smiled like a cat who’d just eaten a particularly juicy rat, and fingered one of the button on his overcoat. “Took me almost three days on that set-up to remember that I was an officer of the Eastern Guard, and every one of my buttons has that same insignia on it.”
Things came to a head the day Frank volunteered for a special mission. He may have been a trouble-maker, but he was good at what he did, and they were offering a bonus for this.
A nest of goblins was stuck up in the entrance to a cave the Eastern Guard wanted to clear up to start mining. The slant of the thing made it damned near impossible to get a unit of soldiers to come up without being seen and shot at, so the Guard took volunteers to sneak in and shoot the goblins up close and personal. “Thing is, it’s the first time I ever saw one face to face. At least when I wasn’t in the thick of things with noise and smoke everywhere. Weird little fuckers. Bony, gray skin, huge ears. When I got up behind that goblin in the cave, I couldn’t help myself. I stayed and watched it for a while before I was ready to pull the trigger. It was, y’know, interesting.”
“Well, it was sitting there on the ground, playing solitaire. Just shuffling its little deck of cards, setting them down on the floor of the cave and muttering to itself. It was the most human-looking thing I could have imagined seeing a goblin do, and it did it for a long time. I must have gotten stiff and started moving around, since it finally turned around and looked at me. I had my gun pointed right at it, its weapon wasn’t anywhere near it, so that should have been it.”
He paused, and I gestured for him to go on.
“But it didn’t look scared. That’s probably the thing that got me. When it turned around, if it had looked scared or angry, I would have probably done what came natural and pulled the trigger. Just done it without another thought.”
I nodded. “But…”
“But I didn’t. Instead, we just looked at each other for a long time, and finally it asked me if I was going to shoot it and I said yes. Then it asked why. Gods help me, it asked why, and I didn’t know what to say.”
When one of the other volunteers finally found them, Frank and the goblin were playing cards. “I didn’t know what else to do,” he told me, and that was so like Frank I laughed for minutes until he told me I’d had too much bog weed, took the roll-up away from me and went on with his story.
The goblin got a bullet in the head. Frank got a couple of hard weeks in the Guard lock-up, pissing and shitting in the corner and eating the bowl of soup they passed through the bottom of the door once a day, when they remembered. At the end of it all, he got dragged bleary-eyed before a Guard tribunal. The judge asked him if he had done what he was accused of, disobeying orders and fraternizing with the enemy. Frank, too tired and hungry to think of anything clever to say, looked the fucker in the eye and told him that he had. The judge asked him for one reason that he shouldn’t just send Frank out back to be shot.
“I thought about it for a while, then I told him that if they sent me back to the factory, the company would have one more worker on the assembly line. The iron would get hammered that much faster and they’d make more money. The judge laughed–two weeks since I’d so much as talked to anyone, the noise of that laugh made my ears hurt–and said that I’d given him such a good reason that I’d get my wish. He gave the order, and that was that.”
I tried to look Frank in the eye after that, but he turned away. We talked for a while more, then fell asleep right there on the street. In a few hours, the first sun was up and it was time to go to work.
Bang clang whoosh. Bang clash whoosh.
My hangover was twice as bad as most days, but I kept working, same way I did the day before and the day before that. After a certain point, your hands move on their own. It’s like pushing a rock down the hill. Once you give it that first heave, it keeps rolling all on its own.
Problem is, Frank’s rock wasn’t rolling. You could tell, the way he paused between swings of his hammer. His hands were still wired up with his head.
For the first couple of hours, the foremen let it be. Around the time the big hand on the clock got up to ten, one of them made Frank his special case. Went right up to him, stood about an inch away from his ear and started yelling. That went on from the time the little hand was at twelve straight up until it was at six. Frank’s jaw was set so tight it looked like he was going to grind his teeth to powder, but he did start moving faster.
Then came lunch break. Everyone sat down where they were, us by the line and the hexers in their own circle in the corner, and opened the bags they’d packed and ate. You could even move around and talk to the other guys, so long as you were back where you needed to be when the little hand got to three.
Frank didn’t eat the food I’d given him from my bag. He just lay down on the floor the whole time. Sweat dripped from his forehead to mix with the dust on the floor. His face was flushed.
I looked down at him, grimaced, and made eye contact with Jimmy McCormac. Jimmy bit his lip and turned away.
A few minutes later, break was over and the line was moving again.
Bang clang whoosh. Bang clash whoosh.
I kept glancing back and forth from the line to Frank. He got a little boost of energy when we started back. You could see that. You could also see when it faded out again.
The same foreman from before came up and started with the yelling. For three hours, Frank took it. Then he opened his mouth. “Gods fucking damn it, this is as fast as I can.”
My hands kept on working while I let my eyes stray over to Frank. The foreman’s eyes bugged out a little, but he stayed calm. He just slid that rubber-coated stick out of the side pocket of his pants, brought it around and smashed it into Frank’s side.
Frank jumped away from the assembly line. The foreman brought the stick back up.
Frank knocked it out of his hand.
My hands stopped working. Another foreman ran over from across the floor. Without wanting to, without thinking about it, I started to walk there myself.
Frank knocked the stick out of the second one’s hands, just as easily. He looked a lot more relaxed doing that than he had hammering the iron.
I got up to the first foremen, and realized that I was still holding my hammer. This had never happened before, but it was all so natural. All at once, as swiftly and thoughtlessly as if I’d been breaking a glass on someone’s head in a fight at the pub, I connected the hammer to the foreman’s face.
Green blood splattered onto the floor. The foreman fell onto his back.
Where a minute before there had been the sound of hammering and the chanting of hexes, now there was just the clanging of the line and the stunned silence of every creature in the plant.
Then, as if they’d been frozen and now they were melted, the second foreman got his stick back and hit me in the stomach, over and over again, harder than I’d ever been hit before. He turned back to whatever was going on behind him…
…and that’s when I vomited on the factory floor, my lunch mixing with the dust and the dirt and the foreman’s green blood.
All six of the plant’s security guards swooped down at me. I wiped vomit off my mouth and crawled backwards, thinking about how I was going to die in a few seconds.
The light came in from that little window way above us, and I could see the glint on their fangs. The leader licked his lips. Then Frank, Gods bless the brain-addled asshole, did the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen in my life. He stepped between me and the security guards.
That was enough of a surprise to get the drinkers to pause, mid-flight, their red eyes flicking back and forth between us. Frank opened his mouth, and for the first time I could really imagine him being an officer out east. “Pat, Mike, Murphy, get over here. Jimmy, stick something in that furnace and get it burning. Now.”
The thing is, the godsdamned thing of it all is, he had a way of saying that made you want to do what he said. Pat and Mike walked right over into the path of the drinkers as if Frank had just asked them to pour him a shot of whiskey or something. Murphy looked side to side, gulped, then walked along with them.
The drinkers didn’t move. I imagine having three humans voluntarily step into your path would be a new and interesting situation for them.
Jimmy hesitated, and hesitated, and finally something passed through his eyes. He slipped off his own shirt, rolled it up, and stuck the tip in the furnace. When he got it out, he had a hand-held torch.
Sweat poured down his chest. His eyes were wild like a cave-dwelling creature that had just seen the sun for the first time. He walked over to us.
The drinkers finally made some decision among themselves, and plunged down at us. Six of us, six of them, fangs and claws against hammers and torch.
Jimmy waved around his flaming shirt, and the drinkers flew out of his path, then swooped down lower. I broke one’s wing with my hammer. Another one got its claws around my right arm, and it felt like my arm was on fire. The hammer clattered to the floor.
Then, all at once, everything changed. By all rights, within about a minute the security guards should have been sucking the life’s blood out of all six of our necks, but they weren’t. It wasn’t six against six any more, it was dozens against six.
I never would have believed it. Hexers and line workers, guys who never showed up to Guild meetings, guys who spoke so little you never knew what they were thinking. They were all there, right in the thick of it.
Tearing the security guards wing from wing. Holding back the two foremen who were still standing, when they tried to get into it. Opening the big wooden doors at the front of the plant to dump the yelling foremen and the limping, wounded drinkers out into the afternoon sun. Closing them just as quickly and throwing hexes on them to keep them closed.
In a few minutes, it was over. Everyone just kind of stood or sat where they were. No one knew what to say. Even Frank just stood there in silence. Then Jimmy, still shirtless, his eyes gleaming, opened his mouth and began to sing. “Raise the scarlet standard high…”
I’d heard that so many times, and it had meant so little, I couldn’t do anything but shake my head in wonder at hearing it like this. If my mouth weren’t full of blood, I’d have laughed. Behind Jimmy, a few of the older guys joined in. “Beneath its folds we’ll live or die…”
Now the whole plant was singing, loud and joyfully out of tune. “Let cowards flinch and traitors sneer, we’ll keep the red flag flying here.”
I spit the blood out and, Gods help me, on the next verse I joined in.
The biggest decisions of the strike were the easiest ones. After the first hour of discussion, there was no Line Workers’ Guild or Hex-Casters’ Guild. No officials either. There was no time for any of that. Just one big guild for the whole plant, and everything done by a show of hands.
And this great invention, this dangerous thing that would change the world, the ‘sit-down strike’? That didn’t even take the hour of discussion.
Inside, we had four walls, and we could defend ourselves. The Night Patrol was outside.
So was the Eastern Guard. We didn’t need to hear the marching boots outside to know the company would call them in. Like how you need the suns burning in your eyes to know they rise every morning.
The hard part was coming up with the list of demands when the company finally gave up on storming the place and decided to make a deal. That took days of arguing. The basics were humans instead of drinkers for security, eight hours of work instead of twelve, and no punishment for anyone involved in the strike. Everyone agreed on all that. How much of a raise to ask for, and whether we wanted the line guys to be paid as much as the hexers, those parts took forever.
Towards the end, someone said that we should demand to be allowed out of our familes’ contracts with the company, so those that wanted to could leave and seek out other work. The obvious question was ‘what other work,’ but at the end we voted to throw that in just to see what would happen. Good thing, too, since after weeks of us barricaded in the factory, when the company finally folded and promised everything else we’d been asked for, they could save face and call it a ‘compromise’ by refusing to budge about the family contracts.
There’s a lot more to tell about the strike itself, like how the women would come through and send packages of food tied up with ropes through the high window. Or how the Guard was supposed to shoot them, but they wouldn’t.
Never mind all of that for now. What matters is that we won. When all was said and done and the celebratory drinks faded into clanging hangovers, we were back at work, just eight hours a day now.
Thee days after that assembly line started up again, Frank and Jimmy and I ran into six soldiers of the Eastern Guard on our way to the pub. They arrested us and marched us all day to a jail out East. A day after that, we had our trials.
We were sentenced to death.
The company wasn’t even violating its end of the deal. They’d promised not to punish anyone for participating in the strike. They weren’t. As the judge explained it, the fact that the three of us were the ring leaders had nothing to do with it.
Jimmy had willfully started a fire on company property, endangering the lives of plant employees. Frank had violated the terms of his agreement with the Eastern Guard, so his death sentence for disobeying orders and fraternizing with the enemy was back in effect. I was the easiest one to justify of all. I’d hit that foreman in the face with my hammer.
In the whole strike, I was the only one to kill a human being.
The day before my execution, Ma stood outside the bars of my cell, screaming and crying. I reached out to pat her on the arm, and mouthed a silent thank-you to the guards when they told her the time was up.
When she was gone, I went back to playing cards with Frank and Jimmy. Frank taught us the game the goblin had taught him, which was all about counting the number of hearts and hoping you picked up the queen of hearts. It was fun. We played that until well past midnight, when Jimmy fell asleep.
After that, I stayed up and talked to Frank until the first sun started shining through the window at the top of the cell. When even Frank’s eyes fluttered shut, I got down on my knees and prayed.
I hadn’t done that, not so that I meant it anyway, since I got out of school. Now, I squeezed my eyes shut and prayed until my throat was hoarse and tears dripped down my face.
I don’t know what I was expecting. A beam of light to shine down from the ceiling of our prison cell, maybe. A deep booming voice to tell me that it was all going to be alright, that for all my sins I would be welcomed onto the gleaming fields of paradise when they shot me.
If so, I didn’t get it.
At the rising of the second sun, the guards came in and dragged us out back. Three high stone walls enclosed the yard. Overhead, the suns baked down on us from a blue sky.
They shot Jimmy first. Bits of his brain scattered over the dewy grass.
I closed my eyes when they shot Frank, but I heard the noise. I never heard the shot that killed me.
When all was said and done, Frank and Jimmy and I faced each other in the semi-darkness of the entrance to a cave. Firelight filtered through the opening where the cave led down into a pit. A green creature lounged behind us.
The thing was about the height of a man, but with a scarred face and two horns growing out of the sides of his green head. He wore a silk suit, and smoked a cigarette through a long white holder.
The creature held hands with a girl in an expensive-looking dress. She was twelve or thirteen years old by the looks of her, and she never stopped laughing. Through that, I could hear the faint echo of the thousands of people below, laboring in the Pit.
“You work for me now,” the Green Devil told us. His voice was smoother than any foreman I’d ever heard. “I am your master, and my will your law. There can be no resisting me.”
I looked at Frank and Jimmy in the shadows and flickering firelight. I felt my lips form into a smile and saw its reflection on the faces of my friends. We were all thinking the same thing.
Bosses were bosses, work was work and it was time to organize another strike.
Ben Burgis is a professor at the University of Ulsan in South Korea, as well as a low-residency Creative Writing student at the Stonecoast MFA program in Maine. His stories have appeared in Flytrap, Diet Soap, and Podcastle, and he has a story forthcoming in the anthology People of the Book: Ten Years of Jewish Science Fiction and Fantasy.
Ben’s grandfather was a lifelong Youngstown resident, apart from a brief stint in the Army. (He was kicked out for being a trouble-maker….no easy feat, considering that World War II was going on at the time.) His great-grandfather, who lived in Michigan, was a leading UAW organizer in the 30s. This story is dedicated to both men’s memories.