The fires of hell roared around her, a great serpentine hiss harrowed her ears, her nose was full of smoke and the sickeningly sweet smell of slowly roasting human meat, yet nothing could thaw the cold aching abyss in her gut. A monster, more frog than man, stormed over to her; the sweat beads flicked off his sagging additional chin as his base bellows bombarded her. Behind the metal strapped to her face, she could hear little. Normally she would have tried to pay heed, desperate for approval, but the darkness in her heart had devoured her and she was deaf to all but her own misery.
What did it matter now anyway? It was her last day trapped in this living inferno. Friendships had been forged in the great industrial labyrinth, it’s true, but then they had been swallowed whole in the ever hungry maw of progress. She would always remember the haggard features of the old man who had given her half of his pasty when she had first started. She hadn’t had enough money to bring her own lunch in the early weeks and had near collapsed on the canteen table as the factory sweated the life from her. One day, the man - she never knew his name - had approached her and offered the sweet morsel. His face was cracked like dried-out clay, sweat dripped from his scruffy moustache and lust filled his eyes, but for her they were the features of an angel. She could still remember his screams now, when she closed her eyes, as his sleeve had pulled his arm into the great cogs. It was the sick pop of his arm being pulled from its socket that had saved him, she knew: without that he would have been crushed instantly, ground like flour. The pasty had returned to haunt her when she was forced to remove the gore from the machine, but she refused to give up the kindness and had swallowed the burning vomit again.
Somehow Fran’s heart sank further as she thought about what cruel fate had befallen him after narrowly escaping with his life. With his arm he had lost his job and was cast from the fires and onto the cold hard streets. One day on her way to work she had seen him, half hidden in the shadow and slush of an alleyway. She had resolved to come back the next day with a pasty - it was the least she could do and she could surely afford to go hungry for one day? When she had returned though, all she found was a corpse. A black taint had spread from his shoulder, and she fled. She could not afford to get infected, for Philip’s sake.
Is that what would happen to her, she wondered? Would she end up dead and unnoticed in some dank alley? Would her open grave on the street be the last memorial for her endless toil to build the foundations of the new world? It was then that her inner sorrow twisted into a hard lance of hatred. Each of these iron ingots was amassing to crush her under the weight of her own labour. How could she be replaced so casually by what she had brought into this world? Her suffering had made these machines, and from the fire had emerged these cold, heartless monsters that crushed her hope. She had made herself obsolete. Together this swarm of people had constructed their own doom.
The bell tolls. The signal ends the last shift.
The bustle of workers returning to their families is more akin to the macabre shamble of the living dead. No one hurries to abandon their posts. Can they just cling on for another moment? Maybe if they work a bit longer, a bit harder, they would get that little bit more pay to keep their family going for a few more days. She stares at the scrip clutched in her bony fingers, thrust into her hands as she is expelled into the cold winter evening. At least tonight her Philip would eat. Her heart sings with joy as she envisions the twinkle of his eyes. Almost running, she makes her way to the baker. Behind his chubby cheeks and waxy moustache the baker smiles, his eyes of sadness giving her a little something extra to go with her last meal. Tears spring from her eyes as she coughs a heartfelt thanks.
Philip’s eyes shine like the stars of old Earth, devouring the cherry tart. Small hands break the delight in half and thrust it into their mother’s face. Her stomach leaps, just one more bite? Perhaps a little nibble? She wraps her skeletal fingers around the boy’s own, his digits lightly pressing into the sticky morsel, the baked wonder pushed back towards his chest. Eyes, like dinner plates in the small boy’s head, reflect the sorrow in his mother’s tears. Her heart dances a little in pride. Philip’s a smart boy, he knows something is wrong. Philip gives his mother the greatest gift a child can give. She is hugging him so tight he is running out of breath, but, once released he smirks with small boyish charm. Even at his age he says exactly the right thing. His mother tells him she loves him too.
In the dark of night they share the stained mattress and grubby sheets, as they always had. They huddle up with the futile notion of keeping warm in the dank, damp ridden, wooden apartment. She trembles, holding back the tears, realising that it is only going to get colder and harder for her darling. She clutches her son tightly for strength.
The sun has already burned off most of the smog when she rises. It is still early, but she leaves for work as she always has. Without the promised heat of the furnace, she dons all the clothes she owns to brave the unrelenting winter winds. Philip shivers in his sleep and she surrenders her shawl, tucking it around the boy. The great cast iron gates of the factory are closed; even without them she doubts she could make it past the mob of desperate, angry workers or the large automatons guarding their master. The lean businessman mounts a crate to look down on his former employees.
‘Good people, please return to your homes, there is no work for you here.’ The icy cold courtesy is like a dagger to her heart: did he not realise they had no homes to go to?
‘There’d be work if you’d send dose’ ‘bots home!’ An unknown voice calls from the crowds and a great jeer of agreement erupts from the mob.
‘You people disgust me.’ Spits the aristocrat, face twisted in spite, ‘here, on the eve of this glorious epoch, you cast down the labours we all worked so hard to achieve. These machines are the future, can you not see? They will make the new world a better place. The future will wait for no man.’
At that moment she thinks of Philip, thinks of his future, tucked into rags and shivering in their home. Her own shivers turn to trembles of uncontrolled rage as she imagines the man’s expensive thigh high boots pushing her son’s face into the snow.
She doesn’t know where the rock came from, but the hatred inside her channels into the stone like a raging torrent. Her scream feral, she launches the stone with all her might towards the smug entrepreneur. The crowd is silenced in horror. The rock collides with the man’s face, spilling blood onto his immaculate shirt collar and almost knocking him from his podium.
Her breath is in her mouth as she is thrown back violently. She looks down to see a large harpoon piercing her abdomen, though it could not possibly be real. The metal is cold and stings her fingers as she wraps her hands around it. It seems real enough, so why can she not feel it in her stomach? Where did it come from? She wishes she hadn’t asked herself as she is lurched off her feet and dragged across the cobblestone. Her left cheek spreads like butter along the floor, gravel embedding in her face. Could that much blood really have come from her?
‘This ‘wabble ‘wowser will be an example to all of you!’ the businessman spits in incoherent rage, a lisp escaping his well taught eloquence.
A shadow engulfs the woman on the cobblestone as the peacekeeper lifts its large metal hoof for the finishing blow. ‘Philip’ whispers from the savage remains of her lips. Life is instantly crushed from her.
‘If this is the pwice’ of pwogwess, so be it! Now weturn home or face the consequences!’
The spirit of the mob dies with the woman, eyes not daring to look upon the gore under the behemoth. The remaining workers slowly filter away, yet more unnamed casualties of the annals of history.