LUCY turns the slippery brass valve as fast as she can. It is slick and hard to crank with its monstrous size and the sultry water vapor all over it. She sweats in the heat of the factory, which is sweltering, even at night, with the humming amber electric lamps hanging overhead like false stars against the black-as-pitch ceiling windows above. The greedy glass holds the curling acrid smoke and burning vapors that rise from the machines. They, like the workers, are trapped in this infernal greenhouse, where dead cotton textiles are the only things that grow.
It bears down on her and it is all she can do, in fact, not to swoon.
To do so would be disastrous, she knows. So she focuses all her will on keeping herself in the here and now. But how tempting, in the listless stupor of the factory, to simply float off into the freedom of nothingness like the stray cotton strands that sometimes break free off the belts. The airy threads drift on the heated updrafts, soaring lazily, until they get too close to the fires in the massive burners that drive the machines or the arching lights above, then burn in a flash, and are gone. She shudders, closes her eyes, and redoubles her efforts to turn the hated wheel.
A burst of steam is the reward for her success. It almost scalds her face, but she drops her mousy brown head to the side just in time. A passing bobbin girl, five if she’s a day, screams as it blasts just above her tiny self, then turns and runs away.
Lucy stands in place for a single shaking second. That’s all the reprieve she gets, before the Agent sees her. He rolls over yelling at her to get going again. His too-perfect handlebar mustache hangs below his pointed rat-shaped nose and beady black eyes. His metallic voice reverberates like a struck tin drum as he cusses her out for laziness. She just blinks at him, lost in exhaustion and the absurdity of the bellows-driven squeak that powers his voice. She almost giggles, and maybe she would, but she can’t quite remember how.
The Night Bell rings, tolling out the death of another work day. The Agent cocks his head sideways as if hearing it for the first time. Then he turns and rolls off on his one, hard rubber tire, as stiff and regular as the clockwork that powers him. Forgetting that she exists as the shift ends, so single-minded is his existence. Lucy wipes her brow with her dirty green shirtwaist sleeve, shakes her head and sighs.
A heart’s beat of bliss (or maybe it’s a watch tick, she can hardly tell the difference between herself and the mechanical Agent anymore) as she walks out of this nightmare and into the night.
The air outside is only slightly less burdensome, but she can see the stars as she looks into the summer sky. Sirius the dog-star winks at her, teasing, and she remembers how to giggle. Tomorrow is Sunday. She’ll trade the wearying work and tyrannical heat for a hard wooden church bench and stifling boredom. Maybe there will be an airship race in the afternoon and a precious few hours of lazing in a green park near one of the canals. If she’s very lucky there will be iced tea made at the frost block factory on Dutton Street. A good supper, the sweet oblivion of sleep and then Monday, when the whole cycle of hell begins again.