Cry of the worker

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Tarn had been assigned a different task, one he hadn't done before. This was strange, as he always did the same job: operating the machine down on the ground floor, next to Fiffdee, turning the wheels to open and close the vents when signalled, monitoring the dials to make sure they stayed in the green area, and notifying a guard if anything unusual happened. He was good at that job and enjoyed it - it was a lot better than his old one, which had been to stock the furnaces and keep the machines up to full strength. That had been a dirty job, leaving him covered head to toe in dust and soot. All the jobs in the machine rooms were dirty and sweaty and uncomfortable, but that one had been hotter and dirtier than most.

Reluctantly, he'd left his post and followed the guard up the steps carved roughly into the rock, before climbing onto the metal staircase which wound its way up to a gantry which overlooked the entire chamber. He'd never been so high before and it made his head spin a little, as if he was going to fall or dive over the edge. Up here they were close to the thick pipes that snaked up out of the machines and disappeared into the roof of the cavern. He'd never really looked up before, he realised, but now found himself wondering where those pipes went. They had to go somewhere, otherwise it wouldn't make sense to keep the machines going all the time. He knew that some boys were sent down and away, marched off into the deep, twisting tunnels, to return with barrels and barrows of the special rocks, but he'd never really considered what could be above the roof of the machine rooms, having always assumed that the sleeping wall was as high as the world could get.

He considered asking the guard, then thought better of it. They didn't like it when any of the boys talked. It seemed to make them nervous.

A couple of the thicker pipes, wider even than a person, rose up directly next to the high walkway. In the side of one of the pipes was a metal hatch, round and studded with rivets. It was large enough for someone to crawl into.

"We've been having problems with some of the extraction tubes," said the guard. Tarn didn't know what extraction meant but it sounded serious. "Some kind of blockage, the boss reckons. It's holding us up, so if we don't get it fixed we'll all be in for it." The guard leaned over the edge of the gantry and shouted down to one of his friends. "How we doing?"

The other guard, far below, shouted back. "We're capped off! Good to go."

"Right," the guard said, pulling a chunky key from his pocket and inserting it into an opening on the side of the pipe. He put the back of his hand against the metal surface for a moment, considered it, then after seeming satisfied took hold of the key and twisted. He tugged at the side of the hatch, swinging it open with a loud creak. As he did so there was a sharp hiss and steam erupted out, forcing the guard to jump backwards. He dodged to the side, pushing Tarn clear of the venting steam. "Capped off, are we?" he shouted back down. "If this tube wasn't half-blocked that would've taken my face off!"

The guard below sent up an apology and strode over to one of the boys working the machines. Tarn, leaning for a better view, didn't recognise who it was. The guard pulled out his whip and cracked it against the back of the boy's head. There was an exchange between them and the boy operated some controls on the machine, and a moment later the steam stopped and dissipated into the air.

"Forget about what just happened," the guard on the walkway said. Tarn wondered whether the guards had proper names, or whether they were all called Guard. "I need you to get in there, figure out what the blockage is, and get back here. You've got ten minutes tops, then we've got to turn everything back on, whether you're out or not. You understand?"

Tarn nodded. He didn't really understand how long ten minutes was, but he had a feeling it wasn't very long. He stepped over to the pipe and gingerly stuck his head inside the hatch. The pipe went up and down and had a ladder of sorts built into its inside wall.

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