Grease and oil permeated every pore of Tarn's skin. Where skin wrinkled around his knuckles there was caked dirt, or perhaps old blood, while his nails were rough and cracked and ragged. Stench clung to him, lingering around his body hair, between his toes, behind his ears. They were permitted to wash only once every two weeks, and even then only for the briefest time. His head was nearly bald, shaved unevenly down to the scalp, with dried cuts and scars testament to the lack of care.
Tarn wasn't his name. His given name was Fiffdeewun, but he didn't understand what that meant and didn't like the way it sounded. Everyone here had a given name, one which was used to summon them, to punish them, to instill fear. If he heard his name, it meant pain. He would be called awake by his name, woken in his cramped, scraped-out hole. He'd descend with all the others and line up on the red, sandy floor as the guards inspected them and spoke their names, one after another. Fordeyate, Fordeynayn, Fiffdee. He didn't know why Fiffdee had a shorter name, or why it sounded like his own. The guard would shout his name and stand too close, almost touching noses, and would stare into his eyes. Later, at the machines, if he slowed his pace he'd hear his given name ring out through the chamber. "Fiffdeewun!" That would mean lashes. If he let the machine get too hot or made a mistake, the shout would come again. If it was a bad mistake it could mean going in the pit.
He didn't like his given name. He didn't like that it sounded like Fiffdee's name, even though Fiffdee was his friend. That's why he'd made up a new name and given it all to himself. The name 'Tarn' had come to him in a dream one night and he'd liked it. He didn't know what it meant and he'd never told anyone else about it. But he liked it. The name helped him feel calm and relaxed, even in this place. Nobody could take it away.
Each time as they stood in a line at the base of the sleeping wall, another set of workers would arrive and spread out along it, before clambering up the wobbly wooden ladders and into the narrow holes, each only slightly deeper than a man's height. The same boy always slept in Tarn's space. Tarn didn't like that someone else used his sleeping place but he had no choice in the matter, and at least the other boy would make sure the hole was looked after until he got back. He'd never met the other boy and didn't even know his name but it would stop anyone from stealing the hole.
Fiffdee was Tarn's friend. They stood next to each other when they were in the line and they'd often work on the same machines. He was a good friend. When they worked together they got the job done faster which the guards seemed to like. Whenever Tarn worked fast he didn't get a beating, so he always tried to be quick and efficient. It didn't seem very fair, as when he was slower it wasn't usually his fault. There was nothing you could do if a machine broke and stopped moving, as you'd have to wait for someone to come and try to fix it.
Once a boy had tried to fix Tarn's machine by climbing inside it to see what was wrong. All the pistons and wheels had got stuck, which meant Tarn wasn't able to do his work and it was causing problems for everyone else. Tarn didn't know how to fix this machine, so the guards had sent in this other boy. Tarn thought that perhaps he'd pulled the wrong lever or turned a dial too fast, which might have caused it to get stuck, but he didn't tell anyone because he didn't want to get a beating.
Clattering noises emerged from inside the machine as the other boy worked. It sounded like he was moving parts around and maybe replacing something. He got the machine working again, because he was one of the best at doing that, and the wheels started going around again and the pistons pumped and cogs clacked and clicked but the boy was still inside and there was a scream and then blood started seeping out of all the gaps in the machine. As the valves opened they squirted blood into the air, covering Tarn's face where he stood.
"Machine's up and running!" a guard shouted, ignoring the red. "Fiffdeewun - stop standing there and get back to work now."
That day was messy and Tarn got covered in lots of blood as he worked but he got the work done, faster than ever, as all the dials went all the way over into the orange area but without tipping into the dangerous part.
YOU ARE READING
The Mechanical CrownFantasy
An explorer, a princess, a slave and a sword. A belief that the world can be better. The Mechanical Crown is an epic adventure full of intrigue, mystery and romance. When Tranton Seldon becomes the first to cross the mountains in hundreds of years...