Blind Faith

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Being an expert on a particular machine ensured that Tarn could work it to its maximum capacity, keeping everything running fluidly. That made the guards very happy.

It also meant he knew exactly how to break it.

More importantly, he could do it in such a way that it would take a long time for anybody to realise he’d done it deliberately.

After he’d given up the fight they’d beaten him; dragged him to the centre of the chalk circle and all had a go, with feet, hands, sticks and anything else they could find. Then one of the guards had stopped it, and told them to ease off before they gave everyone a problem. That guard had pulled Tarn back up on his feet and marched him out of the fighting room. There was a time when Tarn would have thought that meant he had a friend but now he knew it was because if he was injured he’d be unable to operate the machines properly. They couldn't afford the downtime.

Through the bruises and the cuts and pain, Tarn could feel his world becoming a little clearer, like on the days when the machine rooms would start off full of steam, making it hard to see, and then slowly become visible as the vapours disappeared and drifted away.

His next shift was difficult, as his body ached from head to toe and pressing the right buttons at the right time required more concentration than usual. He did his best, so that the guards didn’t punish him further, and while he worked he continued to think about the pipes, and the ceiling of the machine rooms, and what could be hiding above.

Strongest of all was the desire to leave. Strange that he’d never thought about it before, as if the idea had always been just out of view and he’d only now turned his gaze towards it. As he carried on working, in his mind he started to run through an alternate sequence of working through the machine, changing the pattern of cranks and levers and wheels to a very different purpose. A plan started to form.

Three shifts later he had mostly recovered from the beating in the fight room. There seemed little point in delaying any longer. Each day spent with the machines was another day to be involved in an accident and lose an arm or a leg.

Changing how he was manipulating the machine’s controls wasn’t difficult, or even risky. None of the guards understood how anything worked down here, while all the other boys would be focused on their own jobs. Besides, nobody here deliberately caused problems - mistakes happened regularly, but nobody would dare risk sabotage. He pressed his buttons and pulled his levers.

The first consequence was a vibration in the metal gratings on the floor, fast and light at first then building to an irregular, hard knocking that was felt throughout the room. The machines starting venting far faster than normal, then the huge wheels slowed and ground to a halt, pistons falling silent. He hadn’t caused any real damage - he knew that would only cause difficulties for the other boys after he was gone - but the entire room was shut down and would remain so for some time.

It occurred to Tarn that the workers held all the real power down here. They tended the machines and kept them running, while the guards had no knowledge or understanding of their complexities. Their only skill was in punishment and discipline. If all the workers refused to work at the same time, what would the guards truly be able to do?

Putting the thought to the back of his mind, Tarn focused on the immediate situation. The other boys were looking around in silent confusion, some of them examining their machines in attempts to identify the problem, while guards were shouting at each other with increasing panic in their voices. One guard ran down a ramp in Tarn’s direction. Smiling helpfully, Tarn said “Fix?” as he passed.

The guard stopped and turned. “You know how to fix this?” he asked, sceptical.

Tarn nodded, then pointed at the pipe - the same one he’d been in before. The guard followed the direction of his finger and sighed. “Follow me,” he said, and led Tarn up to the higher gantry. Pulling the key from his pocket, the guard did the customary check then swung open the hatch. Some steam hissed out but the pipe was quiet and inactive. Tarn hid his relief - he hadn’t been sure his plan would work.

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