I don’t know why I started working in the factory.
I was walking past one day, keeping off my bad leg, through the strangely sweet smoke that drifts out of there. I saw the sign saying they were hiring. I could feel a single farthing in my pocket, and couldn’t remember any money at home. Seemed like that sign was made for me.
The recruiter was a proper gent, all dressed up in a tailcoat, top hat, and bow tie. His smile was as familiar as an old friend. He took my name and took me inside, past rows of shifting pistons, down corridors turning on platforms and stairs that moved by themselves. I felt out of place in all that amazing machinery, like I were too stupid to be doing with it. But he put me straight to work. No fuss, no papers, just there you go – crank the handle on this press until the shift bell rings.
It wasn’t exciting, but work never is. I took to it like I’d been doing it for years, the movement of the handle effortlessly familiar. The day became a haze of repetitive movement and that sweet smelling smoke.
I cranked that handle for hours, watching tin disks go in one side of the machine and little bowls come out the other. They rolled down the line, past other lads staring blank-faced at the machines in front of them. After a while, I found myself watching those lads, not thinking anything, mind drifting.
That was when I must have cranked the handle wrong. It got stuck in place, tin disks piling up while I tried furiously to pull it free.
“Here!” I called out, blinking to try and wake myself up. No-one looked over, and I reckoned they couldn’t hear me over the roar of the pistons – it were a mighty loud roar. I shouted louder. “Hey! Can someone help?”
No-one even looked up from their work. The next lad on the line kept turning the handle of the buffing wheel, even though the tin cups weren’t coming out of my machine to go into his.
I walked over to him, a little unsteady on my legs after so long stood still.
“Hey, mate.” I waved a hand in front of his face but he didn’t respond. I tried again, then just kept waving, staring in wonder at the movement of my own hand.
It was my bad leg that snapped me out of it. Too much weight and the old scar starts to tingle. By the time I noticed, it was fair screaming at me. I lurched back, shaking my head, trying to find my own good sense.
I didn’t know what was messing with my mind, whether it were the smoke or the rhythm of the pistons or something else. What I knew was I had to get out.
Breathing through my sleeve, I set off across the work floor, back out the way I’d come in.
Except it weren’t the same. The corridor had changed. Doors were in different places. There were stairs that I didn’t remember from before.
It didn’t matter whether it were real or my mind playing tricks – all I could do was try. So I ran, bad leg aching, to the far end of the corridor and up those stairs.
The stairs twisted as I went up, until they were pointing back down and I was going down with them. Then came a junction, and a corridor that seemed to go straight but just brought me back where I’d started. I was getting scared now. Numbness descended on my brain, the smoke and the pistons closing in, and I imagined myself as one more of those poor expressionless men on the assembly line.
I decided to go up. Up was air. Up was hope. Every time I saw stairs I went up them. Some turned back down and I had to start again, cursing my poor judgement and wasted effort. But floor by floor I made my way up through the factory. At last a hatch opened and I emerged into a fresh breeze.
I took deep, long lungfuls of clear air. My mind was starting to return. Leg aching, I hauled myself out of the hatch, found a drainpipe, and scrambled down into the cobbled yard. That sweet smoke was in the air again, but I didn’t run – I didn’t want to draw attention. Fast as I could walk, I hobbled to the front gate and out into the road.
The relief was overwhelming. I slowed down, letting my leg recover as I ambled through the factory district, trying to get my bearings. Soon the experience felt like nothing more than a bad dream, a hazy memory half-forgotten. Then I was just one more unemployed man walking through the factory district, only a farthing in my pocket, wondering where my next meal might come from. I half recalled something about men and machines, but the sweet smoke soothed and distracted me.
I passed a factory with a sign outside saying they were hiring. A gent were stood out front, all smiling and friendly in his top hat and tails.
I don’t know why I went in.
* * *
With my steampunk horror story “Steel and Steam” out this week in Ghosts, Gears & Grimoires, something steam-tinged and creepy seemed like the right tone. You can get Ghosts, Gears & Grimoires through Amazon or the Mocha Memoires Press site. And if you’d like to read more of my steampunk, check out the collection Riding the Mainspring, available through Amazon or free if you sign up to my mailing list.