Beyond the Wall
It had seemed a good idea at the time, no one was looking and it would get him beyond the wall where he lived as little more than a slave feeding the insatiable appetite of the furnaces where old iron was melted down to make new. There was more old iron than they could melt and each year the piles around them grew higher and the air became harder to breathe. The iron they produced disappeared into iron works, where most of the workers were completely deaf from a lifetime of the noise of riveting and banging metal into shape. Eventually huge machines like the one he was hiding inside now came out the other end where they were loaded onto huge wagons pulled by steam engines that ran on rails so far apart that you could lay four men head to toe between them and still not touch either rail. The rails disappeared into a tunnel through the wall, a tunnel that seemed to go on for ever because you couldn’t see the other end and it was forbidden for anyone other than the engine and its cargo to enter. He guessed it passed through the mountains that rose behind the wall, but where did it go from there? They had speculated around the tables in the pub where their lips were washed clean of the soot and grime of the day by the warm beer they drank. Some said there was just more of the same, more foundries, more iron works, and more desperation, while others talked in hushed tones of a paradise, where everything was clean and children spent their childhood playing and learning instead of carrying buckets of coal. But no one had ever left, or at least never left and returned to tell them so they really didn’t know. There was one occasion, not too long ago when sitting around the table in the pub someone had said they had a plan to leave. They had laughed at him and joked about him growing wings to fly away but when he didn’t arrive at work the next morning they took what he had said a little more seriously and were talking between themselves when the overseer asked for their attention.
"I am sorry to announce an accident,” he had said, going on to say that it was believed that one of our number had slipped into the molten iron crucible and that we should all be careful.
We didn’t have to ask who it was; it had to be the bird man from the night before. No one believed he had fallen into the molten iron though there would be no way of telling since it would have consumed him entirely not even leaving bones as evidence. We didn’t speak much of what was beyond the wall after that, though I know we secretly hoped he had got away which was less painful than what really might have happened.
The machine had been sitting on its wagon; workmen were making final adjustments and tying it down with heavy chains for its trip. The hatch had been open and at first he was just going to look inside, then he stepped inside and looked up at the gears and shafts and chains and girders running here and there supporting bearings and……….he had been overwhelmed, he had never seen anything like it before, it was so intricate yet so heavy and strong. He knew it was a war machine, and he knew the empire needed lots of them, which was the reason given for their hard work, but he had no idea they were so complex, or so beautiful until now. It was then that he realised the opportunity he had, no one had seen him, he was sure of that, maybe it was worth the risk. He swallowed heavily and climbed up between the girders finding one he could lie on which would mostly hide him from anyone checking before they closed the hatch. He hadn’t dared to even breathe when he heard workmen below as he lay there face down with the coldness of the iron seeping through his shirt. He closed his eyes and waited for the shout, but none came instead the hatch clanged shut leaving him in almost total darkness and within minutes he could feel the wagon moving and the darkness became more complete as they entered the tunnel. It was really happening, he was going to go where none of them had been before, beyond the wall!
Working by feel he slowly climbed back down and managed to find the hatch, at least he felt he was somewhere familiar and that was slightly comforting as the enormity of what he had done hit him. He felt in his pocket and found the chunks of bread and cheese which was his lunch, carefully wrapped in cloth that had once been white but like everything else in their world was now grey. He ate as the wagon rocked and clattered down the rails to the accompaniment of the chuffing of the engine. He could tell from the gradual change in sounds that they must be speeding up but soon he was used to the sound and the motion and with his stomach full he fell asleep.