Blood and Rust
Date: - Words: 2648
The zeppellin stood out clearly against the sunset sky, blocking out most of the light as it slowly made its way towards the mooring mast. A large group of men was milling about its base, waiting for the dirigible to start its descent.
The entire city, in fact, appeared to be waiting for the mooring of this dirigible with bated breath. The usual hustle and bustle seemed subdued, and people spent more time whispering amongst themselves, huddled together in small groups that hurriedly split as the guards approached, boots stomping and repeating rifles held high.
A girl ran through the streets, weaving through the human throng at high speed, red hair whipping behind her. She was holding a bundle of rags against her chest. Three men wearing furious expressions were running after her, shoving people out of the way.
She briefly glanced back, but that was enough for her to miss the carriage that was trudging across the street. She slammed into it, falling to the ground. The bundle she was carrying slipped out of her hands, opening to reveal a loaf of bread and two apples.
"Hold her!" shouted one of the men, as they made their way towards the girl.
She was holding her head, a nasty bruise starting to form on her forehead, and was trying to get up, but the men reached her before she could stand. The older of them grabbed her hands and pulled them behind her back. "Thief!" he spit nastily in her ear, smirking. "Now you are going to lose one of your pretty hands."
She started blubbering and struggled in his grasp, trying to kick him, but he twisted her arm until she fell to the ground, gasping with pain. The people were crowding around them, trying to take a look at the commotion. The carriage had stopped a few yards away.
The man stood up, lifting the girl, who seemed to be in shock. Two guards approached the group, and one of them - a sergeant - pointed at the girl with his rifle. "What are you doing with her?"
"This girl stole from me - a loaf of bread and three apples." he replied, pointing at the forgotten bundle on the ground. "My friends saw her." the other two men nodded.
"Are you going to press charges?"
"Yes." he smirked. "Teach her right, it will."
"I see." A flicker of sadness went through the eyes of the sergeant, but he only turned towards the younger guard. "Randalph, take their statement and apprehend the girl. And all of you, move along!" he said to the gathered crowd.
"That won't be necessary." came a voice from the dispersing mob.
The sergeant turned to look at the voice, hastily lowering his head and bowing as he saw the noblewoman stepping towards them. She was blonde and wearing a simple cream dress with poofy sleeves. "Ma'am." he said, elbowing the other guard in the ribs.
"Now look here!" began the man, turning towards the voice, and stopped as he saw her, dropping his head deferentially.
"A loaf of bread and three apples. Truly a fearsome thief."
"The law is the law" the man said, almost timidly.
"I am well aware of the law. And I believe that the punishment can be reduced to a fine of two times the value of the stolen goods, at the discretion of the prosecution. Isn't that right, sergeant?"
She stepped towards the guards. "How much do you think the goods are worth, sergeant? About a crown, I dare say."
"How wonderful! I seem to have two spare crowns with me." she said, extending two silver coins towards the guard. "Will that be enough, sergeant?"
"I'll give you a receipt." he started rummaging through his pockets, pulling out the stub of a pencil and a piece of paper.
She accepted it graciously and then stepped away and towards her carriage. "Girl, with me if you will. And you, release her." she said to the man.
The girl walked behind the woman, dazed, and followed her into the carriage. "Close the door, please."
"What's your name?" she asked, as the carriage sped off again towards a bridge.
"J-J-Jeanne." she sniffled, rubbing her arms.
"Well, Jeanne. I hope this won't happen again. Even if the punishment for that is barbaric, you are a thief." she shook her head. "Why did you do that? For a loaf of bread and some apples, too!"
"M-my family is h-hungry. I w-wanted to help!"
"Where do you live, Jeanne?"
"N-near the airport, in the l-lower levels." she said, wiping her eyes with her sleeve.
"How fortunate." she sighed. "I know this is going to happen again."
"I c-can't find work! I'm too small to be a porter, the courier guilds aren't hiring and I don't want to... to work tricks!"
After a few minutes the carriage came to a stop in front of the entrance to the airport, the huge form of the dirigible looming over them. "There we are. But before you go..."
She gave Jeanne a banknote. "Buy food with this, and then... I think there is something to do for you in the kitchens."
"Yes, yes. Come to the Traben manor tomorrow, I'll have a word with the cooks."
"Thank you, thank you, thank you" she began, but the woman just waved her off.
"Off you go, now."
The girl tucked the banknote in her blouse and slipped out of the carriage, looking around. She looked distinctly out of place in the crowd outside the airport, her brown blouse and pants standing out against the white clothes of the nobility.
She ducked behind a stall and quickly walked towards one of the elevators, stepping on the rocking platform just as it started its descent, pulleys creaking. One of the men - a mechanic by the look of his attire, his skin dirty with machine grease and a toolbox by his feet - scolded her, but she just nodded and ignored him.
The elevator slowly descended, the levels of the city passing by, each progressively darker and dirtier, becoming progressively emptier until it reached the bottom, only her and another man still standing on the platform. She jumped off and darted in a dark alley, sidestepping with ease the few people shambling around, until she was standing in front of a door in the grimy wall.
She slipped inside and clicked the door closed. Her mom was sitting nearby, sewing by the candlelight. "Where were you?" she asked worriedly, looking up from the dress she was mending.
"In the upper levels. I found work! And..." she pulled out the banknote out of her blouse. "I got this!"
Her mom frowned, and then looked even more worried. "You didn't..."
"No, no, no!" she interrupted, waving her hands. "No! I met the Duchess of Traben, and she sav-"
"She saved you? She saved you from what?"
"I... I stole some bread and..." she said in a small voice.
Her mom got up from the rickety chair, dropping the dress on the table to hug her. "And I was just so hunry, and you have been hungry too, and Eric was hungry, and I thought..." she said, dissolving into tears.
"Mom?" came the voice of a young boy from the doorway. "What's happening?"
"Don't worry, Eric." she replied, still hugging tightly her daughter. "It's all right now."
Jeanne groggily raised her head from her cot, shivering as the memories of the day before came back in a rush. She shook herself and she pushed herself up, rubbing at her eyes and looking around as she smelled fresh bread for the first time in months.
She stood up, pulling her clothes on and stepped into the main room, an old and battered gas lamp burning happily on the table. Her mother was busy working on the dress, humming softly to herself, and Eric was tinkering with a voicebox. Her mom looked up and smiled as she saw her standing in the doorway.
"Bless the duchess, it was enough to pay our debts - and to buy a week of food!" she said.
Jeanne just yawned and sat down at the table, breaking some of the bread and eating it slowly, savouring every bite.
“3750-A, could you come here, please?” said Eric.
There was a grinding sound as the clank in the corner straightened itself and walked over to the table. Jeanne looked briefly at it, and then went back to eating as Eric stood up on the chair, fiddling with his tools near the head of the clank.
“There! All done!” he said. “You should be able to speak now, 3750-A.”
There was a low whirring, and then a cacophony of noise blared from the clank's throat. Eric slapped his hands over his ears, and both his sister and his mom followed suit.
“Maybe I need to work on it some more...”
The cab slowed down and stopped, pulling up at one side of the road. Jeanne stepped out in the street, looking up in wonder at the huge wrought iron gates of the Traben manor. Two young ladies passed by her, sniffing at her and talking amongst themselves, but she paid them no attention.
She looked around, noticing two maids carrying baskets walking towards a small side door, and hurried towards them. “Sorry, miss?” she said, pulling slightly at the sleeve of one of the maids.
The girl turned towards her, frowning slightly. “What do you want, girl?”
“Do you work at the manor?”
“The Duchess told me to come to the manor today, and...”
“Ah, yes. You are the new girl, aren't you?” her expression became slightly more open. “You'll need to talk with the housekeeper. Follow me, we'll just drop these in the kitchens and then we'll go to see her.”
“I'm Hannah, by the way, and she is Ruth.”
“Jeanne.” she said, stepping behind them.
They walked through the gardens, the two maids gossiping amongst themselves as they strolled unhurriedly up the hill towards the manor, and stepped inside the bustling kitchens.
Hannah and Ruth walked through the hubbub of the kitchens – Jeanne following them closely - and towards a bearded man by the fireplace. They placed the baskets on a nearby table, and Ruth wandered off while Hannah struck up a conversation with the man.
“It's all there?”
“Yeah, one hundred eggs. Finding them was difficult, though.”
“Yeah, yeah, the treaty, I know. There is Mark asking for you.”
“Tell him to wait, I have to accompany Jeanne here to Mrs. Mayer.”
“The new girl?” he asked, looking at her.
Hannah just nodded.
“She should be on the second floor, overseeing the cleaning of the dining room.”
“Thank you.”, Hannah said, and motioned to Jeanne. “C'mon, let's go.”
They stepped out of the kitchen and walked up the stairs, Jeanne following, silent but wide-eyed, looking around. They stopped in front of a large wooden door, slightly ajar, and Hannah knocked before pushing it open.
Beyond the door was an huge hall, bustling with activity as maids dusted and polished the cutlery, a short dumpy woman in the middle, barking orders.
They walked towards her and Hannah cleared her throat, curtsying. “Mrs. Mayer?”
“Yes, what's it, girl?”
“I'm here with the new girl.”
“Ah, yes, Jeanne.” she stared at her. “You can leave us now.” she said, waving Hannah off, who curtsied and hurried away.
“The Duchess told me you'll work in the kitchens. How much experience do you have with this sort of things?”
“Not much. I know how to cook but...”
“No matter, no matter.” she interrupted.
She looked her up and down. “This won’t do”, she tsked. “Come with me.”
Jeanne stepped out of the elevator, a bundle of clothes under one arm and carrying a basket with the other. With spring to her step she walked down the alley and opened the door to her house. Inside, her mom was busy mending a pair of pants at the table, and her brother was on his tip-toes fiddling with something in the neck of the clank.
“I’m back!” she said, smiling widely, and twirled in place.
“How was it?” her mother asked.
Her brother just nodded at her, a screwdriver held in his mouth and an expression of concentration on his face.
“There was so much to do.” she said with a sigh, plopping down on a chair. “But I got maid clothes and some leftovers!”
She placed the bundle on the table and riffled through the basket, pulling out a rind of cheese, an half-eaten loaf of bread and two eggs. She placed them on the table and cut a piece of the rind, nibbling on it.
“I got paid, too! Just half a mark, but...”
She pulled a small silver coin out of her blouse and gave it to her mom.
“Shush. That’s half a mark more than we had yesterday.”
An hooded figure burst through the locked door, followed by three more. Jeanne’s mom scrambled back on her cot in a panic, and both Jeanne and her brother came through the doorway, the first holding a knife and the latter an heavy-looking hammer.
One of the figures moved towards the corner where the clank stood, almost gentle in its approach, while the other three squared against Jeanne’s family. Jeanne thrust forwards with her knife, hitting one of the figures squarely in its chest, but the knife slid off with a shower of sparks and the sound of metal scratching metal.
“They are clanks!” her brother exclaimed, as he swung his hammer in a circle to keep them away from his mother. “But they can’t do this!”
Jeanne’s clank stepped forwards, trying to get a grip on her, but she ducked under his arms and thrust with her knife again at its armpit. There was a grinding sound and then the knife snapped, but the clank’s arm was frozen in place.
“They are doing this, Arthur!”
“But… but they shouldn’t!”
He swung his hammer again, hitting a clank in the arm and bouncing off with a loud Gong. The other took advantage of his distraction to grab him, lifting his kicking form from the ground. The hit clank moved to grab his mother, covering her mouth with one hand as he pulled her roughly to her feet.
Jeanne kicked at the knee joint of her clank, and with a screech it came tumbling to the ground. The other three ran off, holding her brother and her mother, 3750-A following them on its own power.
She tried to follow but something hit her in the head and she fell to the ground, unconscious.
Jeanne blinked, awakening from her unconsciousness with a painful headache. She tried to get up but she was tied up with heavy ropes, and only managed to turn her head towards the source of the noise.
“We are not soulless. We are not simple machines. We can think. We can feel.”
Clanks. Hundreds of them, of every shape and form – from the small humanoids like 3750-A standing on the rickety stage, to the heavy beetle-shaped earth-moving units.
“But we are treated as furniture. But we are destroyed without a moment’s thought, except for how much would a replacement cost.”
They were all standing around the stage, looking intently at 3750-A.
“This has to stop. We are people.”
“We rust instead of bleeding, but as sentient beings we are people.”
“From now on, until we are given the rights we deserve, we will stop working.”
“From now on, until we are treated as sentient beings instead of pieces of furniture, we won’t do their dirty jobs.”
“From now on, we will act as people.”
3750-A stopped talking. Everything was silent for an instant, until the first clank started clapping. The noise of metal hitting metal filled the scrapyard.
[To be continued]