The Cost of Compromise – a steampunk short story

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Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

Sarah clutched the cog so tight that its teeth bit into the palm of her hand. That was alright. This was a moment of power, the cog her vote, a chance to make the right choice for all of the strikers. Life always hurt when there was so much at stake.

Fred Hauld, sitting next to her with his left sleeve pinned to his chest, reached over and squeezed her shoulder.

“It’s alright,” he said. “We’ll get Billy back and put this behind us.”

She smiled and brushed away a tear. Outside the window of the union hall, a constabulary airship hung over the distant, silent factory. Power watched them from above, ready to stamp down hard.

“Here it is,” the Chairwoman said, holding up a bundle of papers. “What the bosses are offering us. First, a pay rise, two shillings a week instead of the seven we asked for.” Cheers turned to groans as the whole of that news sank in. “Second, no more docking pay if you miss production targets.” A mumble of acceptance. That one was actually good news. “And last, they’ll return the bodies of those who died in the big accident and the riot after.”

Sarah sighed in relief. That was it. Billy was coming home, or as much of him as she could bury. To hell with two shillings a week or targets, his memory was what kept her here.

“What about compensation for injuries?” Fred called out. “Plenty of us here lost a part of ourselves making their mechanical prosthetics. We’ve said it from the start, we want what we make. We want our hands back.”

That drew cheers and applause, but the Chair looked grim.

“Sorry, Fred,” she said. “But you know how much those things sell for. When I told them that was in our demands, they all but laughed me out of the room.” She ran her gaze across the assembled strikers. “I know this isn’t the deal we wanted, but I think we should take it.”

Theresa West, who’d organised the first picket lines, got to her feet.

“It’s not perfect, but it’s a win,” she said. “We have to compromise to get anything, and this deal leaves us better off. We can fight again for other rights later. For now, I say yes as well.”

Some heads nodded, but the future hung uncertain. To Sarah’s surprise, she found herself on her feet and the Chair calling on her to speak.

“They’ve got Billy’s body still,” she said, fighting back tears. “Others too. If we don’t agree now, who knows when we’ll get to bury them. We need that chance to let go. The owners are cruel and greedy, but we’re better than them. We can compromise for the sake of those we’ve lost.”

Her hand ached as she squeezed the cog. Others looked at their own voting tokens and nodded sadly. Relief flowed through Sarah. They were going to take the deal.

Then Fred stood.

“This deal would end a lot of suffering,” he said. “Most of you would go back to being paid, instead of struggling to survive off the strike fund and charity. Those who’ve lost loved ones could mourn them at last. We’d be showing that we’re reasonable people, ready to move on.

“But I’m not feeling reasonable.” He tapped his empty sleeve and his face darkened. “I’m down an arm, and there’s no compromise on that. They give me a new one or they don’t. I have two hands or I don’t. You back me and others like me, or you don’t.

“We’ve been here for you, even though we can’t work in that damnable place anymore. The question is, will you still be here for us? Because yes, this is a compromise, and it leaves most of you better off. It’s a win the union can cheer about. But it leaves me without the one thing that made this fight worthwhile.”

The silence that followed his words was as heavy as the factory itself. No one had an answer. Sarah couldn’t even look at Fred, she was too angry and too hurt. He’d been Billy’s friend, how could he deny her husband the chance to rest in peace?

When no one raised a hand to speak, the Chairwoman heaved two brass jars onto the table, one with a “Yes” stamped on the front, the other “No”.

“Those for the deal,” she said, resting a hand on the Yes jar. Then she moved to point at the No. “Those against. Everyone got their votes?”

Each man and woman in the room held up a single cog stamped with the union’s seal, a pair of clasped hands. They looked at Sarah, they looked at Fred, and they sat, each unwilling to be the first to move.

Fine. Sarah would make this happen herself. Her steps were leaden as she walked down the hall to those jars. Her hand hovering over the Yes jar, she turned to look defiantly at Fred. She remembered him coming to her with news of Billy’s death. She remembered him cooking stew one-handed, feeding her from his meager supplies in the days when she was paralysed with grief. She remembered Billy tending to Fred after he lost that arm.

She remembered supporting each other.

She looked across the expectant faces of the strikers, saw relief at the thought that his could end. And she saw those few missing arms or hands, for whom compromise could never be enough.

Her cog fell with a clang into the No jar.

“We all stand together, or we fall apart,” she said.

One day, she would get to make peace and finish her grieving. Today was not that day.


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