The soot and heat of the glassium forge seared my arms as I pulled the metal out onto the bench. Of course I could have used a millicompressor and had it mold the metal straight into the joint, but in all honesty I preferred to do things ‘old fashioned’. I didn’t mind taking my time to make sure the metal rivet wouldn’t slip again. Riald often grumbled about how long I took on each project, but when it came to having a working thorium engine I had proven time and again that I knew what I was doing.
‘In you go.’ I couldn’t keep the smug grin off my face as the rivet fitted perfectly into the engine casing. ‘What’s done is done, let no one come behind and muck it up.’
The invocation of the old stellar engineers blessing instantly brought Riald over to my work bench.
‘You finally finished with this thing yet?’ His looming mass wasn’t intimidating. I was used to Riald’s ways.
‘Just now, want to be the first one to test it?’ I held out the starter key in the palm of my hand to tempt him.
Riald jumped back and raised his hands defensively towards me. ‘You do it.’
I chuckled remembering it had only been the once that Riald had started up an engine I thought I’d fixed. It blew the workshop apart spectacularly. We were lucky the force shield held when it went or none of us would be around today.
I pressed the appropriate code into the data film and the engine roared into life with rotating lights signaling the movement of the thorium atoms throughout the casing. I crossed my arms and leaned against the bench behind me.
‘Think you’re so smart.’ Riald said. His voice betrayed the glee at having a working thorium engine to sell.
‘Yes you know I am.’ I smiled when he gave me a satisfied nod in agreement.
I was always given the jobs that no one else could fix. I suppose Riald was right when he said I was a natural at thorium engines and stellar drives, but the factory bosses didn’t know I was here. Riald had taken me on as an apprentice to help my mother and so anything I repaired he would keep and sell. Of course he gave me a tiny fraction of the profits so that I wouldn’t leave and find another job. It was hardly worth it, I loved what I did and if it wasn’t for the fact that food and shelter were soo hard to come by I might have even done it for free. I wanted to work with as many different engine systems as I could.
One day I would leave and travel to the inner worlds to see the great merchant fleets and perhaps join a crew to travel the space lanes.
Of course it was all pie in the sky thinking I knew that dumbolds from the outer worlds were never allowed the honour of joining merchant ships. In the long history of the planetary systems very few had gone off planet and those that had never came back to talk about it. Even the girls picked for The Farm never came back and all they did was produce oocytes for the fertile labs of the inner worlds. Probably knew better than to come back to this dump of a planet.
The whistle blew signaling the end of the shift. I had to bolt over to the women’s section before any of the subalterns came past to lock up the sheds. Women were not allowed to fraternize with the men in this factory, there were rules about it all. The owners were paranoid that there would be full scale riotous behaviour if men and women mixed at work.
Luckily my short hair and boyish body kept me from being spotted. When I snuck through the barrier separating men and women I had to shove the hat into my pocket and pull out a grey scarf to cover my head instead. Another rule, women couldn’t wear men’s headgear and vice versa. The whole thing stunk but as these people were paying Mum and keeping us alive I never bothered to argue. It was easier to slip through the cracks in the system than to confront the system itself. The insurgent Wing Zee would be proud.
‘Lenni over here.’ My mother waved a scared hand at me through the bustle of closing time.
I slipped quickly past several older women bent over from years of working the factory floor. That was another thing about working there, you ended up aging quickly, most never survived past fifty rotations of Qual. I could see the lines that had formed on Mum’s face as I came closer to her. No one knew how long they would live, but I knew one thing I wasn’t going to spend my life energies here.
‘I fixed another engine today.’ I whispered into Mum’s ear.
She gave me a small nod and held my wrist as we were thrust into the main crush of bodies exiting the factory. Standard procedure was to scan each worker before they left to ensure no one was making money on the side. Riald had a secret way out of the factory so the bosses never cottoned on to why so many engines that had come in for possible recycling were deemed for the slag heap.
People didn’t talk as they left the factory. It was as if they were trying desperately to forget the misery of life inside the dark doors as they pushed those in front of them through the doors to the outside world.
The scenery wasn’t much better outside the factory as it was in. This whole area had been set up by the one conglomerate, the houses were attached to the factory and kept the workers in line and any subversive activity was quickly picked up on, the family would be evicted instantly to the outlands. A new family would take residence almost before the lights could deglow in the boxy compartments.
We lived further out than most. Our fortunes had changed the day Dad and Jessem died. The factory blamed my father for the accident and we were left to pay them damages. It took everything we had and even then we were almost bound to slavery for them until the balance was paid in full.
When you’re just part of the numberless horde you tend to forget that there are things worth living for. Mum had slipped into that state of mind a long time ago but I wouldn’t let them get me. I couldn’t. If I did then they would win and all the effort we had made would be for nothing.
Sometimes I wished that someone like Wing Zee would rise up here and free the people. But that was over a hundred rotations ago, most people wouldn’t even know who Wing was. The Inner Consortium had made sure that most records of the revolution had disappeared along with anyone who was found to have Wing Zee’s life work. The little blue book was still out there, the authorities couldn’t stop it entirely. The disappearances had led those who professed to follow Wing Zee’s way to go underground.
Our apartment was small and boxy like everyone else’s in that part of town. We had three rooms, one where we could eat and talk, another where we could take care of ablutions and so on, and the third where our bedrolls were. The walls were made of thin dura-iron, a polymer hybrid of scrap metal and plastrons. It was durable, hence the name, but because it was so thin you could hear most of what went on in the apartment next door. The dura-iron was a sickly off yellow colour, it reminded me of puke and it was uniform throughout the entire neighbourhood. I guess that’s part of the reason why people were so downtrodden, they lived in a puke coloured habitat which leeched out positivity.
The lights came on automatically as we entered and the viewscreen showed a grassy hillside with small purple flowers dotting the landscape. It was supposed to be how the inner worlds were, the vegetation alive and the sky blue. I couldn’t help but wonder which planet this vid was from, I’d like to take Mum there one day so she could lie down on the grass and feel that breeze flow over her.
Mum didn’t even look at the screen anymore, she trod over to the food preparation bench and opened up two of the silver foiled packages which all our food came in. Part of the Factory’s way of cutting out the middle man, they bought this stuff in bulk and then sold it to us at an exorbitant price. We couldn’t not buy it. There were no grassy hillsides here and in fact I don’t think in all my years I had ever once held a plant that wasn’t hydrosynthically created in a bacterial tank.
‘Food’s ready.’ Mum said.
‘Oh look bean paste and beads again.’ I mumbled.
‘That’s supposed to be rice, close your eyes if it helps.’ Mum handed me a fork and sat on her chair closest to the view screen.
‘Beggars can’t be chosers huh?’ I said.
Mum closed her eyes and chewed her food ignoring my comment.
She hadn’t always been this way. There was a time not too long ago when she was vibrant and full of energy. She believed me when I said I would one day travel through the stars and nebulas. Mum had even encouraged me to study the engine designs Dad had been working on so I could get a head start in life. But that was then. Today as she sat in front of me her skin had a grayish tone, her hair pulled back in a severe bun, and her eyes were hollow.
She hadn’t asked for this life, none of us had. It was what we had to make do with until something better came along. If it ever did. Perhaps I shouldn’t have thought like that but I harboured a fear that my dreams might never come to fruition and that doubt niggled in my stomach each and every day.
The view screen flickered and changed to a night time scene in some vast swampland with tiny firebugs flittering through the reeds. That type of darkness was foreign to us. The fluorescent glow of the factory reflected back from the cloud cover so that the sky was in a constant brown twilight. A brownish stain had settled over everything as if the world was weeping for the destruction the people of our planet had caused.
I poked my fork into the food with half hearted resolve but my fight to swallow was interrupted by the door chime.
‘I’ll get it.’ I bounded over to the entranceway and palmed the door open.
‘Have you heard?’ Gerri almost yelled in my face.
I sighed and shook my head. High drama followed Gerri everywhere she went as if she was a magnet.
‘You and I have made it.’ She twirled around excitedly.
‘What have we done?’ I shut the door and came back into the middle of the room.
There was a look of pure ecstacy on her face as she said, ‘we’ve been drafted, you and me both.’
I almost vomited on the spot. The draft was supposedly a random draw of all eligible females aged seventeen to fulfil their spot in The Farm as egg donors.
‘I know you’re stunned, I was too. I mean me? Going off world.’ She said it with such awe that I didn’t know how to respond.
‘They’ve got you.’ Mum whispered from her chair.
I turned to Mum who looked at me with utter despair. ‘What can I do?’
‘What do you mean, what can you do?’ Gerri was almost laughing. ‘You can celebrate Lenni, finally we get out of this place and after our term is up we can travel anywhere we want, maybe even go to the inner worlds.’
I swallowed the bile that had risen in my throat. ‘I don’t want to go.’
Gerri gave me a look of incredulity. ‘What do you mean? How could you not want to leave this hell hole, come on Lenni it’s all we ever talked about since we were young.’
I clenched my hands in front of my body and turned back to look at Mum. ‘I don’t want to go.’
I thought I saw a tear form in the corner of Mum’s eye but she turned away from me before it fell.
‘Why? What’s here for you? You’ll just end up a slave like the rest. Didn’t that Zee Ying say something like take opportunity when you can?’
‘Wing Zee,’ I corrected her without thinking it was a habit we had fallen into years before. ‘Gerri, I can’t go. I’ve heard what happens up there.’
‘It’s two years in stasis. You don’t even know you’re being harvested and when you wake up you have money and a place to go.’ Her smile had returned. ‘What could go wrong?’
She had uttered those fateful words and I wish I had had the courage then to tell her everything Riald and the others had told me. That you didn’t come back, most didn’t survive the treatment. It was just another way of enslaving the masses here with the thought that their daughters were living a better life somewhere else.
Gerri reached across to me and rubbed my arm. ‘Cheer up Lenni, we’ll go together and travel the space lanes together.’
I gave her a reluctant smile. ‘You’re right, it’ll be fun.’
‘That’s my girl.’ She almost jumped up and down in her excitement. ‘I have to go let the others know, they’ll be coming for us tomorrow evening, pack light.’
With that Gerri fluttered out of my life. The next time I saw her regret would almost overwhelm me.
The door slid shut with a familiar whoosh and an uncomfortable silence ensued. I sat heavily on the floor it felt as if the whole world had just crashed down on top of me. Gerri and I had always talked of getting off world, but not this way. I did not want to be hooked up to some machine in stasis as my body produced eggs for infertile inner world couples like some caged animal.
‘We can run away.’ Mum’s soft voice echoed across the empty room.
I looked up at her as she knelt down to cradle me I her arms. ‘We can’t they’ll find us and then we’ll be sold into slavery.’
‘We already are slaves here Lenni, or just about. We’ll hide on a freighter and go to another world, start again.’
‘They’d jettison us into space if we did that.’
‘There must be some way out of the draft.’ She said.
‘The only way out is to die, once your name is down you have to go.’ The resignation in my voice shocked even me.
Mum was quiet for a moment then said. ‘Why not die then?’
‘If you died they couldn’t take you.’ Her face was calm as she spoke. ‘Riald will know how to do that.’
Mum what are you saying?’
‘They will hunt you down if you don’t die, no matter where you run, they’ll find you. So the answer is to die.’
I had a sick feeling that Mum was right, The Farm would send someone to find me if I did try to run away, but how could she consider my death?