A few changes based on feedback. Trimmed slightly, made the opening paragraphs a bit more active, insinuated earlier that Billy was thinking of seeing things outside the factories, changed some dialogue at the end, fixed some grammar, stuff, etc, etuff. Hopefully it reads a bit better.
The taskmaster slapped at the children with the end of his cane, shunting them into groups. â€œAll you, ginger boys. Your name is now Jack. You, darkies. Youâ€™re all Jimmy. You three, blondies. Your name is Billy.â€
The smallest of the three held his chin up, defiant. â€œmâ€™names not Billy,â€ he said, and suddenly the cane cracked against his head. The world pinwheeled and he dropped to his knees, screaming as he tried to hold his skull together, and then the cane came down again against his neck and he couldnâ€™t scream any more.
â€œYour name is Billy,â€ the taskmaster said again. His cane vanished inside his cloak, he screwed down his topper and turned away. â€œSet them to the bellows.â€
The boy retched, yanked to his feet before his vision could clear. â€œKeep up, Billy,â€ said the boilerman, his overalls soot-stained to match his skin. His remaining teeth shone behind dark lips. â€œYou gunna grab a shovel, get you some muscles on you!â€
â€œYessir,â€ he said, keeping his head down. There was a lump rising above his ear that gave wetly when he pressed on it. â€œI never had a shovel â€˜fore, sir.â€
â€œYou dunna be calling me sir,â€ the man said. â€œIâ€™m just Jimmy.â€
He learned to keep on his toes when he shovelled. The furnaces had a habit of backdrafting, and the slower boys were sometimes caught in the face. He stayed nimble and alert, picked the best boilers to work on and kept his ears keen; the machines would speak, before they jammed or blew.
The taskmaster dragged him from the dorms one night and bartered him for two spinning girls and a cart of coal. They checked his arms and his eyes, and the man buying him clucked appreciatively when he counted the boys fingers and arrived at ten. His new master was dressed in bright yellow velvet, and when it brushed against his skin the boy shivered. He had never felt anything so smooth.
The master mumbled to himself in foreign tongue, and then turned to the boy. â€œName?â€
â€œBilly,â€ the boy replied.
He was twelve now, which was two hands and three. His left ring finger had been spat out the back end of a turbine a year earlier, torn off when a gear had jumped. He had taken the bandages off early and showed the stump to the other boys in his dorm, proud that he had earned his cuts; two days later, a ginger haired child called Smoke lost his whole arm to the same machine. He had shrieked for a while and then gone very quiet, and died before they were able to drag him off the factory floor. Billy didnâ€™t show off his stump after that, and hid it until he had been traded again to a fat gentleman who did not speak, only motioned and spat.
The fat manâ€™s factory made dirigibles to ferry the aristocracy between counties. Billy learned this from one of the older girls who threaded the silk balloons. â€œThey hang a little cart underneath, ya? Put big bands around the balloon, steel ones, rivets thick like your arm. They float off â€˜cross the country.â€
â€œYâ€™ canâ€™ make metal float,â€ Billy protested. â€œThatâ€™s stories.â€
â€œItâ€™s true!â€ the girl insisted. â€œIâ€™ve seen!â€
â€œLiar,â€ said Billy. â€œLiar, yâ€™ canâ€™t!â€ It hadnâ€™t mattered. A week later the girl was been traded, and Billy followed soon after. He never saw the dirigibles. He was always the boilerboy, and the boilerboys never got to see anything that wasnâ€™t coal, furnaces or boilers.
He handled a shovel well enough, with nine fingers. Others managed with fewer. He had lived in the same factory for half a year now, as best he could guess, and the furnaces didnâ€™t blow as long as you kept them clean. So he shovelled and primed and shovelled and tightened pipes and shovelled, and soon he forgot the sun.
A new group arrived every few weeks. Some of them huddled together in the dorms and cried at night; they were the freshies, sold by their parents or shunted on by orphanages running low on beds. Others, like Skins, were veterans, traded a half-dozen times or more. He had started in the coal mines, and his stories made Billy feel both blessed and envious of his adventures. Rattling carts, plucking stones from jammed gears as they strained and threatened to take off your hand, the constant threat of an explosion deep within the mine rolling and roaring up through the tunnelsâ€¦
â€œThings blow here though,â€ Skins protested. â€œAlla time!â€
â€œYeah, but thatâ€™s normal.â€
Skins was a lanky child, upturned freckled nose hiding beneath the soot. His eyes darted about as if he was always afraid of attack. He sat on an upturned coal cart, his work forgotten for the moment. Billy stood by his side, watching a set of new arrivals handle their shovels for the first time.
â€œThese skags arenâ€™t gunna last a week,â€ he spat. The new boys stood too close to the boilers when they swung, freezing up at every harmless pop.
â€œâ€™s cause they havenâ€™ seen a blow yet.â€ Billy picked something from his hair and crushed it between his fingernails. â€œOne good blow, theyâ€™ll know when to duck.â€
â€œWhichâ€™um gets a rest first?â€
Billy scanned the room, surveying faces by the light of the fires. â€œThat â€˜un. Skagger wiâ€™ the blue eyes.â€
â€œBluey boy?â€ The child couldnâ€™t have been older than nine. They watched him shuffle between the coal piles, soot stained and chubby cheeked. He always held an expression of quiet surprise, as if disbelieving where he was. His sky-blue eyes were puffy, as if he had been crying.
Skins nodded. â€œBet you a rat?â€
â€œI got rats. But I could always pop one.â€
A week later boiler eleven blew. Billy recognised the noises early and called out to duck. Blue-eyes either didnâ€™t hear or didnâ€™t understand, and debris neatly sheared off the left side of his face. It was the first death in nearly a month.
Skins paid up the next day. The rat was still squirming, biting at his knuckles. â€œStill gunna pop it?â€
â€œI got â€˜nuff for thâ€™ week. All gamey anyway.â€
He pried open the hatch on the closest furnace with a rail spike, took the rat from Skins and tossed it inside. It squealed, high pitched and keening, and then there was nothing as it blackened and crisped in the flames.
â€œHuh,â€ said Skins. He scratched his head. â€œNo pop.â€
â€œAll gamey,â€ Billy replied. â€œâ€™nuther bet?â€
â€œIâ€™ll go double. Who?â€
â€œBlondie with the joshy leg.â€
Morris was built like a brick wall, broad shouldered with biceps like football bladders. There were rumours that, in his younger years, he had taken a knife to the chest in a barfight. Instead of dying as men were supposed to, he killed both his attackers with the shards of a pint mug. His hair was thinning up top, but his beard was still full, a tawny bush trimmed short to keep it from catching in the machines. He hammered and folded blades in the foundry, a long stone chamber with vaulted ceilings leading to smoke stacks. Every fire was manned, conversation near drowned by the ringing of steel on steel.
Billy watched silently as Morris hammered out the first of his blades for the day. His forge roared and leaped, fed through pipes by children one level below. He shook sweat from his brow and it hissed in the fire.
â€˜This, son,â€ he said as he finished, â€œis going to make a fine sword. Shame.â€
â€œYâ€™ din like swords?â€
â€œOh no, son,â€ he said. â€œBut theyâ€™ll be ruining this with decoration and nonsense. Swords are best as swords.â€
He rested the blade in the fire, watching it heat. When he lifted it out it stood as tall as a man and almost a foot wide. Veins popped as he struggled with the weight.
â€œWhysum so big?â€
â€œItâ€™s a parade blade. For a captain to wave about when heâ€™s in battle armour. Make a show of it.â€ He cooled the blade in a trough. â€œMany types of blades. Ye got swords to kill men, swords to kill horses, swords to cut open other armour. Though the way they make them nowadays, best to just cave in the pipes with a rock. You should see a suit blow when its boiler gets blocked! Thatâ€™s a sight.â€
â€œYâ€™ seen that?â€ Billy sat wide-eyed and attentive.
â€œAye. Iâ€™ve seen.â€ He paused. â€œSeen some thingsâ€¦ armour wars are nasty wars, son. Not something anyone should see. Better when it was just men.â€
â€œI seen a kid, â€˜is â€˜ead was off,â€ said Billy proudly.
â€œSo ye have,â€ mused Morris. He took up his hammer once more. â€œShouldnâ€™t spend too long up here. Not good for ye. Make ye cough. Canâ€™t get a wife with hackthroat.â€
Billy brushed off his trousers. â€œWhereâ€™d I keep a wife anyway?â€
Morris nodded gravely, dipped the sword into the trough once more, vanishing in the steam.
â€œWhenâ€™s tâ€™ next war?â€
â€œThere are warâ€™s all the time, son.â€
â€œCould I be innit? Iâ€™d like tâ€™ see.â€
They ate twice a day in a long, dim hall. At morning meal, sun would break in through the windows, patchy and scattered by the filth that caked the glass. At supper there was no light at all, and they navigated by stubby candles set in along the tables. The benches were worn smooth and seated twelve if they pressed in tight. They ate from metal bowls pressed from scrap. Most had never seen cutlery.
Skins and Billy sat side by side, scooping out the remains of dinner with their fingers. It was potatoday, which was cause for excitement because it was usually (but not always) followed by meatday. They shovelled their meal, knowing that if they were not back by the boilers soon, there would be a beating to follow.
Skins belched as he finished. â€œEh Billy. Do yuh thinkâ€™ll ever get a baby?â€
â€œNuh. Yâ€™ need a whore for a baby, dinye?â€
â€œMe mamma werenâ€™t a whore. Me Pa thoughâ€¦ he was a man. Was him that sold me. Ma didnâ€™ want him to, but he said would make me a man too.â€
â€œI dinâ€™ have a Pa.â€
â€œYuh dunna have a Pa?â€
Billy set his bowl down, licked clean. â€œJust Ma. Never had a Pa.â€
â€œWas it herâ€™n sold you?â€
â€œI wasnâ€™ sold.â€
â€œI bet she did! Yer Ma sold you, I bet.â€
â€œI dinâ€™ remember.â€
He had been sent to deliver a message, and he had done so. Now he dawdled by where Morris hammered, mindful of the taskmaster and his cane.
â€œDo they give yâ€™ better vitâ€™s than us?â€ asked Billy, dribbling a piece of scrap back and forth across the floor.
â€œI donâ€™t work for food,â€ said Morris. The blade took shape under his hammer. â€œGot a wife to cook.â€
â€œDâ€™ye got a home?â€
â€œA small one.â€ The man smiled, flashing as many gaps as teeth. â€œBut itâ€™s mine.â€
â€œWhy din yâ€™ live with us? Dormâ€™s big enough.â€
â€œI donâ€™t think Iâ€™d do too well there, son. Iâ€™m the sort of man that needs his own space.â€
Billy launched a bolt, bouncing it between two upright stacks, which he regarded as a goal and worthy of celebration. â€œDâ€™ye think I could have me a house, some day?â€
The sword sizzled. â€œCourse ye can! I wonâ€™t lie to ye, sonâ€¦ itâ€™s not easy. Costs money and time! Yeâ€™ll be working everâ€™ day of yer life for it.â€
â€œâ€™m used to work.â€
â€œItâ€™s different, when youâ€™re older.â€
There was a piece of scrap on the floor shaped like a face, and Billy pocketed it for luck. â€œThey dinâ€™ pay me any for being boilerboy.â€
â€œYou wonâ€™t be doing boilerboy and running errands forever, you know.â€
â€œSkinâ€™s said Iâ€™m tâ€™ best boilerboy inna factory.â€
â€œStillâ€¦â€ Morris set his sword down. He stretched, cracked his knuckles, inspected the space between his fingers and picked out the grit. â€œA house and a wifeâ€¦ good things to have, one day.â€
â€œThereâ€™s girls workinâ€™ the Jenniesâ€¦â€
â€œDangerous, those. They say they have Jennies over in New England that spin themselves, would ye believe? Hands that move themselves, like the hands on armour suitsâ€¦ do ye fancy any of â€˜em?â€
Billy shook his head. â€œJesâ€™ girls. But I could â€˜ave one for mâ€™ wife.â€
â€œWhen ye grow up a bit, son. When youâ€™re out of here.â€
â€œWiâ€™ the dirigibles and the armour?â€
â€œAye. And the cities and clockwork parrots and all. Lot to see. One day.â€
â€œIâ€™d like tâ€™ see it.â€ Billy paused. â€œI dinâ€™ know I could leave.â€
â€œHmm.â€ Morris took up the blade once more. â€œDo ye even understand why yer here, son?â€
The boy flinched, ducking his head. â€œYessir,â€ he said in monotone. He spoke as if reciting a bible verse. â€œEveryone works for their keep. People what din work are lazy, they steal from hard workinâ€™ men, worseâ€™n deserters. â€˜m no deserter, no sir.â€
â€œNo,â€ said Morris quietly. â€œYer not.â€
Supper was done and the dorms had been locked. The boys crowded two to a bed, some sleeping, others talking by candlelight. They hushed when footsteps passed the dorm, hoping that it would not be an inspection, relaxing when the noises faded down the hall.
There was a jingle of keys, and the boys pulled one another out of bed in a tangled rush, kicking their chamberpots out of sight. The door creaked open and the taskmaster entered.
He was short and stocky, monocle screwed in tight and watch chain shining from his pocket, but what drew the boys attention most was his cane, polished oak tipped with bronze. No matter what the country, what the factory produced, or whether the taskmaster even spoke Billyâ€™s language, he would carry a cane. The crack of wood against his knees or spine spoke clearly enough.
He walked the length of the dorm, frowning over the state of the beds. â€œFilthy,â€ he said. â€œYou two. Fetch scrubbers.â€
The two boys rushed off as the taskmaster settled into a wooden chair. â€œHead boys. How many sick? Any off resting?â€
Billy watched as the three eldest children in the dorm went forward to give their reports. He stood straight backed, silent, waiting, hoping.
The taskmaster stood, leaning on his cane. â€œGood lads,â€ he said. â€œNow, quickly. Any other reports from you boys? Any questions?â€
It was this that Billy had been hoping for. It was rare that the taskmaster himself would undertake an inspection, but rarer still that he would answer their questions. Perhaps once a month or less would a boy be able to ask for a new shovel, a different bed to share. Sometimes these requests would even be fulfilled.
Two boys came up: Billy and a scruffy child who stank of grease. â€œSir, would I be allowed to write a letter home, to me maam, sir?â€
The taskmaster nodded slowly. â€œYou may. I will bring some paper, next time I visit. Do you know how to write?â€
The boy shook his head. â€œWell,â€ said the taskmaster, â€œyouâ€™ll have to find someone who can, to help you. And you?â€
â€œMâ€™ names Billy, sir.â€ His knees shook like a freshie skags. â€œSir, Iâ€™d like to go.â€
â€œYessir. Iâ€™d like tâ€™ see thâ€™ dirigibles, sir.â€
â€œWe donâ€™t make dirigibles.â€
â€œNossir. Other dirigibles. Iâ€™d like tâ€™ leave and get married.â€
The taskmaster chuckled, his lips curling into a grin. â€œYou canâ€™t get married, boy. You live here.â€
â€œYessir. Iâ€™d like to leave the factory, sir. Dinâ€™ wanâ€™ be a boiler boy anymore.â€
The taskmaster stopped laughing. He stood sharply, his grip tightening around his cane. â€œYou canâ€™t leave. You live here. You live here and work for me.â€
â€œSir.â€ The room had fallen silent, boys inching away from the taskmaster to stand by their beds and huddle. â€œIâ€™d like to go and buy a houseâ€¦â€
The cane swung down in a lazy arc and banged against Billyâ€™s collarbone. It was a warning smack. â€œQuiet. You are my ward and you cannot leave. You will work here until you are a man, and then you may find a house and I will pay you money instead of food, but until then you will not leave.â€
â€œWhenâ€™ll I be a man, sir?â€
â€œWhen you are sixteen. Old enough to join the His Majestyâ€™s Army, old enough to go.â€
â€œâ€™s too long, sir. Can I leave now?â€
The first blow landed above his temple and he dropped, his eyes rolling into his head. The second cracked across his teeth and he tasted blood. Something came loose and he swallowed it as the cane came down again, again, again. The taskmaster roared above him. â€œYou are my ward, you are mine! Be quiet! You will be quiet!â€
His eyelids filled with blood and he let himself drift into unconsciousness.
He dreamed for a while, waking fitfully and remembering nothing but screams. Soon he realised that there was screaming all about him even when he was awake, and by the third night he could no longer tell the difference between dreaming and reality.
On the fifth morning they ejected him from the sick ward with his arm in a sling and the four fingers of his left hand splinted tight. â€œLucky kid,â€ the matron barked at him as he left. â€œWe wanted to chop it off. Would have saved us a lot of time.â€ He said nothing, taking the stairs cautiously, keeping count until he reached the bottom. One hundred and twenty stairs put him back in the boiler room.
He shovelled as best he could until it felt as if his other arm were ready to break, and then hid in the dorms, shivering underneath a blanket. Skins found him there after supper.
â€œI was gunna bring yer bowl. They wouldnâ€™ let me.â€
â€œHe banged you up good, huh?â€
Billy nodded towards his hand. â€œWonâ€™t be tâ€™ best boilerboy no more.â€
â€œYou werenâ€™t really the best anyway. I jusâ€™ said that.â€
They sat together without speaking. Billy chewed on the edge of his blanket, watching how the boys would avert their eyes as they entered the room. He hid his face.
â€œTâ€™ master said I can leave when â€˜m sixteen. Thatâ€™s four year off.â€
â€œMorris says, need tâ€™ wait till â€˜m older to see things. Buâ€™ I wonâ€™t. Boilerâ€™ll catch me â€˜fore then. Take me â€˜ead off.â€
â€œBetterâ€™n the Jennies though.â€
Billy nodded, and paused to think. â€œYâ€™ din knowâ€¦â€ He coughed into his blanket. â€œâ€™m gonna run away.â€
Skins spasmed and grabbed Billyâ€™s wrist. â€œNo! Skag tried that once, they fixed â€˜m so they dunna run no more! Broke â€˜is knees and set â€˜im to oiling pins!â€
â€œâ€™m not scared.â€
â€œYer an idiot.â€
â€œNot staying here.â€
Skins stood, his eyes fearful. â€œTheyâ€™ll catch you and you wonâ€™ run again. I bet.â€
â€œI wonâ€™ get caught.â€
Skins took a step back. â€œYou dinâ€™ tell me nothinâ€™,â€ he said, and turned away. Billy watched him retreat, then curled in upon himself and waited for sleep.
Billy ate morning meal alone. He left his gruel half finished, his stomach turning tricks. He shovelled till the afternoon, noting how the skags avoided his gaze. He overheard two of them talking by the coalcarts; â€œIfâ€™n the master sees you talkinâ€™ wif Billy heâ€™ll have yer â€˜ead!â€ He burned with shame, wanting at that moment to throw himself into the furnace and be done. But then he would be dead without a chance to see what Morris had seen, and especially the chance to prove Skins wrongâ€¦
There was an adult voice shouting above the roar of the boilers â€“ a coalhand waving for attention. â€œMessageboy! Whoâ€™se the messageboy?â€
Billy threw down his shovel. â€œâ€™m the messageboy,â€ he said, and the coalhand dropped down to whisper in his ear.
â€œGet upstairs, tell the Shippingmaster that if he donâ€™t get a hundred carts of coal in here by tomorrow then the furnaces are off, and that wonâ€™t sit well with the Taskmaster. Got it?â€ The coalhand patted him on the shoulder. â€œGet to. Whatâ€™re you doing, working with an arm like that anyway? Kidsâ€¦â€
Billy ran, taking the stairs by twos and threes. On the upper level the men were at work banging armour plates from sheets of steel; he saw Morris silhouetted against a leaping flame and hid his face with his good hand. Then he was through the forge, sprinting down a wide corridor where sunlight stole in through peeling ceiling boards. The Shippingmasters door came up on his left; he couldnâ€™t read the inscription, but there was a cart carved into the wood that was clear enough. He slowed, reached up to knock and stopped.
He had been this far through the factory only twice before. Past the Shippingmasters office were the dumbwaiters that dropped coal carts down to the boilerrooms. Past that, he had never seen; no skag was allowed through the double doors at the end of the corridor. But he had been told that there were docks for the coal to arrive and armours to leave; a door out of the factory to wherever in the world he was. He looked around, checking that the hall was empty. There was no sound besides his breathing. He moved past the Shippingmasters office as quietly as he could and pushed through the doors.
The light was a knife in his eyes, brighter than he knew, far more brilliant than he ever remembered, a thousand furnaces in one. He covered his face, feeling tears run hot down his cheeks, and slowly focused. He looked up and gasped.
He stood in a long display chamber, white marble floor gleaming and stone serpents winding up columns to the vaulted glass ceiling, the sun reflected over and over in perfectly clear panes. Every facet of the chamber was polished to mirror finish, so vivid that he had to blink to know it was not a dream.
A raised platform ran the length of the hall. Upon it stood the armours in rows, each sprung wide with guts bared, bronze piping gleaming in the light. They each towered over his head, polished to mirror sheen, gauntleted fingers tensed as if ready to take up arms. The inside hatches were padded down, ready for a man to climb inside and take control of an intricate array of levers and faucets. Panels on the side of each leg had been left open; inside were a maze of springs and cogs, some no larger than his fingernails, oiled and slick.
He imagined the line of armours charging into battle, each with a soldier inside roaring and blood hungry, swords raised as the pistolshots of the enemy bounced away like insect bites. Armours are nasty wars, Morris had said, but he couldnâ€™t believe it. They were magnificent, the most fantastic and intricate boilers he had ever seen.
His face was reflected in the breastplate, and he examined his own features for the first time in many months. He had not changed. Thin faced and grubby, eyes puffy with lack of sleep. His hair had once been blonde, he thought, or maybe red, like the Scot boys. Now it was black through with coal and filth.
Billy spat. â€œSkags,â€ he said, and smeared over his reflection.
Footsteps behind him, quick and heavy, hobnailed boots on stone. Hands came down on his shoulders, squeezing his broken collarbone. He wailed as he was spun about, and suddenly he was looking Morris in the eyes.
â€œCaught ye, son,â€ the man said. â€œYe fool.â€
â€œLemme go! â€˜m running away!â€ Billy protested, slapping. Morris frowned and clamped down tight, and Billy screamed once more.
â€œThey saw ye run,â€ said Morris. â€œThe callâ€™s out to look fer a little escapee. Ye donâ€™t know the trouble yer in.â€
â€œWantedâ€¦ to seeâ€¦ dirigiblesâ€¦â€
â€œI got told.â€ The man sighed, relaxed his grip and stroked his beard. â€˜For what I told ye, Iâ€™m sorry. Put ideas in yer head you werenâ€™t old enough to have. Leave and get married, ye silly young fool?â€
â€œI filled ye with dreams. Iâ€™m sorry.â€
Billy burst into tears, and Morris watched dispassionately. â€œYer a runaway. So ye got a choice. I can let ye go to try yer luck. Donâ€™t fancy yer chances though, even though ye got close. Or I can turn ye in, and see what happens. It wonâ€™t go well, but better than one of them catches ye. They donâ€™t take kind to runaways.â€
â€œWill they kill me?â€
â€œThey wonâ€™t kill ye.â€ Morris wiped the boys eyes. â€œBut youâ€™ll wish for it.â€
â€œLet mâ€™ go.â€
Morris stepped back. â€œGood luck to ye then, son. But when they ask, ye didnâ€™ see me and I didnâ€™ see ye. Understand?â€
â€œI do.â€ Billy turned away. â€œYâ€™ just like Skins.â€
Morris grunted. â€œI din know any Skins.â€
â€œâ€™es a skag.â€
He ran past the armours, each looming and accusing. Deserter! Deserter! He held his hands over his ears and turned the corner. Morris waited until he vanished and then turned, walked away. There were two shouts, â€œHere!â€ and â€œGot â€˜im!â€ Then there were screams, desperate and scared, and then nothing.
Morris shook and bit his lip, but did not break his stride.