The Factory No Hands Built

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Kally woke on a lumpy mattress in the Ironguard Philanthropic Institute. Using her teeth, she fastened the leather belts that held a hook on the stump of her right wrist. That made it quicker and easier to secure the left-hand hook.

The doctor had told her it would take months to adjust. The Institute said that the room was hers as long as she wanted. But here she was, the scars still raw on her wrists, and already she had mastered the hooks.

She could do this.

In the Institute’s main hall, Kally shared watery porridge with the other inmates. Hundreds of poor wretches, all crippled by industrial machines. Sure, guilt-ridden industrialists funded the Institute, ensuring they would never starve. But Kally wanted more.

As the others headed into the therapeutic gardens, with their splendid view of the scrap yards, Kally went the other way, out into the street. The porter looked at her strangely, but he didn’t stop her. Inmates were allowed to leave the Institute. They just didn’t do it often.

Twenty minutes later, she was talking to the foreman at the iron works.

“Sorry, Kally,” he said. “But I can’t hire you.”

“Why not?” she asked. “I still know how the machines work.”

“What if those things slip on a lever,” he said, gesturing uncomfortably at her hooks.

“Put me on a machine without levers.”

“Sorry, but I need someone I know can do the job. Go back to the Institute, let them look after you.”

At the next factory, the conversation was the same, though without the sympathetic attitude of an old friend. At the third, they slammed the door in her face.

After a long morning of rejection, she slumped back into the Institute. The others were coming in from the garden.

“Told you they’d say no,” Tomma said, the breath rattling in his ruined throat. “This is our life now.”

“No,” Kally said. “I want to work.”

“But we’re fed here. We’ve got a roof and beds.”

“And that’s all you want?”

“It’s better than what happened before.”

Kally remembered when she was young and the cripples lay begging in the streets. By comparison, this wasn’t so bad. She had survived the accident. She had somewhere to live. Couldn’t that be enough?

Lunch was watery stew that tasted faintly of salt. She had never been rich, but her meals had never been this bad. They had never left her stomach feeling empty. And the thought of living forever like Tomma, her life limited to the Institute and its garden, doing nothing but watch the hours drift by, that left her heart empty too.

“No,” she said. “I’m going to find work.”

“How?” Tomma said. “Nobody’s going to hire a cripple.”

“I would,” she said. “I will.”

That afternoon, she caught a tram out of the factory district and into the heart of town. Well-dressed ladies turned their children away as the little darlings pointed at her hooks. She resisted the urge to roll her sleeves down and avoid the unwelcome attention. The hooks were part of her now. To hell with anyone who couldn’t accept that.

Mrs Chandler, the bank manager, was one of those who couldn’t accept it.

“You offered to lend me money before,” Kally said. “To start my own business.”

“I know,” Chandler said, leaning back in her leather chair. “But, to be blunt, that was when you were one of the most gifted machinists in Ironguard. Not…”

She waved her pen in Kally’s direction.

“Not Kally No Hands?” Kally said, rising angrily to her feet. “Not part of a person?”

“I wasn’t going to be that blunt,” Mrs Chandler said, putting her pen back in the inkwell. “But yes, that is what I mean.”

Kally stormed out.

She didn’t bother trying the other banks. It was all too futile.

She had felt so smart, finding her answer. Set up her own factory, even if it was just small. Employ the others from the Institute. Build machines to suit their bodies. Every one of them had been injured in the factories. Every one knew their craft. They knew how to repair and maintain machines. Theirs wouldn’t just be the best run factory, it would be the safest, because they understood the thousand ways things could go wrong.

But instead…

The tram carried her back out of town, the ticket costing one of her last pennies. The Institute gave them clothes and food, not money to fritter away on frivolities like drink, or like building their lives anew.

Dusk was approaching as she returned to the institute. Tomma listened to what she said. He was kind enough not to say “I told you so”.

“Shame,” he said instead. “All those broken machines going to waste, and you can’t afford the new ones you need.”

“What broken machines?” Kally asked.

“In the scrap yard,” Tomma said. “Come see.”

He led her out into the garden, which she had ignored for so long. Beyond the hedge at the bottom, she saw heaps of machinery gleaming in the light of the sinking sun. Every machine had some broken parts, but every one had some that were whole. Put them together, set them up in the old rail carriage abandoned at the side of the yard, and maybe…

“You want to help me build a factory?” she asked. “A factory made out of broken parts.”

Tomma hesitated.

“We cause trouble, we might get kicked out,” he said, looking back at the towering stone walls of the Institute.

“Wouldn’t you rather risk that?” Kally asked. “Try to build your own life, instead of what they give you?”

Tomma looked at her, at the Institute, and back at her again. Then he strode off down the garden.

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s build our factory.”

Kally followed, knocking her hooks together in applause.

* * *


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