Authors: Simon Kewin
An old man’s voice, creaking like a machine in need of oiling. Finn walked into the centre of the circle. The floor was blood-red tiles, worn and scuffed, a yellow circle in the very middle like the pupil of an eye. Finn stood there and waited, trying desperately to think what he should say. His mind had gone blank.
Another of the masters spoke, off to his right.
‘So, Finn Smithson. You decided to try and destroy the blueprints in the Vault and so prevent any further work taking place on the machinery. Is this correct? You intended to destroy Engn?’
Alarm hammered into his stomach like a physical blow. He didn’t know what to say. They knew everything. But he couldn’t bring himself to admit to them what he had done. He managed only to stutter out a stream of confused words.
‘No. I didn’t … I mean, it wasn’t like that. I was in the Vault, but not to destroy it. There was a fire and …’
He stopped, knowing he was convincing no-one. If only he knew what Connor told them.
‘Let me tell you what is really going on here,’ another master said from the shadows of another of the thrones. ‘Just so you aren’t left wondering what is to come. Thousands of people come to Engn each year, from all over the lands. Some are strong, some are skilful, some clever. All have a part to play in the great construction. But how do we know who is best suited for each task? And how do we know who we can trust and who, secretly, isn’t harbouring some lunatic desire to destroy what has been built? Hmm?’
‘I … I don’t know.’
‘No. Well, we test them. We set them to work and we see what they’re good at, see what they can work out, what they do.’
‘You mean the valves?’ He regretted saying it immediately. But surely these masters, the Inner Wheel, would know that particular truth.
‘The valves, yes. That and other things. Some people need to be merely occupied, you see, made to feel important. Places like the Valve Hall serve a purpose, creating a little world into which newcomers can be placed. Some never leave that. Others we have higher hopes for and we give them other opportunities, to test them out. People, you see, are just like machines. You have to test out a new engine to discover how powerful it is, whether it runs true.’
Finn swallowed and said nothing. He wondered how much they knew.
‘Now, you we weren’t sure about. Clever, undoubtedly, skilful, resourceful. But where did your heart really lie? Were you secretly working on some scheme to destroy us? You could have been a master but were you really a wrecker? We had to know. And now, clearly we do. You have been scheming to destroy Engn all along.’
‘No,’ said Finn. ‘No. I wasn’t. I’m not.’
‘Perhaps you think you’re the first?’ another voice continued, slow and hollow with age. ‘Perhaps you think no-one else has ever come here harbouring such dark intentions. I can assure you you’re not. Your little rebellion is only the latest in a long line. There have been hundreds of them over the years. We let them happen so we can judge people’s true mettle. Most get no further than your petty act of vandalism. Occasionally a larger uprising flares up, but Engn is never threatened.’
Finn wondered if they knew about Maeve, knew who she really was. Did the masters and the wreckers secretly work together? Perhaps. But what about Ciara? He was sure
at least was a true wrecker. He didn’t care what happened to Maeve, but the thought of Ciara and Aelth being blamed for what he’d done was suddenly unbearable.
‘I acted alone,’ said Finn. ‘No-one else had anything to do with it, I swear. You must believe me.’
There was another pause as the masters considered his words. Finn wondered, briefly, whether even this was a test. Whether they were aware of everything that had happened and were simply trying to get him to admit it. He didn’t know, couldn’t know. Perhaps by admitting his guilt he was damning Connor too; perhaps Connor had invented some unlikely story to explain Finn’s actions. But what could he do?
‘Yes, we accept that,’ the first master said. ‘There
others in the Vault who are being watched, but in this rather pathetic act of destruction it is clear you were acting alone.’
That was something, some weight off his shoulders. He let out a deep breath that he appeared to have been holding in for some time.
‘What happens to me?’ he asked, his words catching in his parched mouth.
Another master spoke, leaning forwards into the light so that his lined face, leathery skin stretched across a skull, became visible.
‘How many people would have been injured or killed if you’d succeeded do you think? How many years of toil would have been destroyed?’
‘I don’t know. I mean, I didn’t want to harm anyone.’
‘And what made you think you had the right to even try? To destroy all this?’ The master sounded genuinely puzzled.
‘I … I hate this place,’ said Finn, mumbling over his words.
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘I said, I hate this place. Don’t you understand? I hate it. Every one here hates it. Don’t you know?’ It didn’t matter what he said now. He had no hope of being rescued.
The master looked amazed now, his brow furrowed as if he was trying to understand some difficult idea.
‘Because … because you took my sister. And then you took my friends. Because you take everyone. And the people you bring here you change into something else, something
any more. I wish I had succeeded in destroying the blueprints. And one day, someone will.’
The master looked sad now, disbelieving, as if Finn was to be pitied. He sighed. ‘Finn Smithson, you have been tested and you have failed. You could have been a master, could perhaps have joined the Inner Wheel one day. But instead you have rejected us and everything we have offered you. You are to be sent to the mines immediately to work out the rest of your days.’
The master sat back, his face disappearing back into the shadows. Finn looked around for someone, anyone to help him.
The masters of the Inner Wheel of Engn spoke no more. Finn’s arms were seized, a Silverclad soldier on each, and he was half-dragged, half-lifted out of the stone circle, out of the chamber.
He was taken through another metal door and down into a cramped little room somewhere beneath the masters’ chamber, bare except for a large circular hole in the ground, like a well. A well or a mine shaft. The Silverclads thrust him towards it. Finn struggled, but it was no use.
He peered into the hole. The lights in the room illuminated a sloping chute that led steeply down into the darkness. He felt heat blasting up at him from somewhere down there, as if the chute was used to tip coal into some deep furnace. Distantly he could hear sounds, clanks and bangs, the thin wordless shouts of people from far below him.
He struggled again but the Silverclads were too strong. They pushed him forward and Finn found himself half-falling, half-sliding, spinning and crashing, down into the darkness of the mines of Engn.
Mrs. Megrim stopped to lean on the stone wall of the blacksmith’s cottage. Her hips always ached first thing in the morning. They hadn’t been the same since her fall. The day Finn had left. Maybe she’d cracked some bone and it had healed askew. Still, it hardly mattered now.
While her breathing slowed she studied the garden in front of her. They’d only been gone six months, Ida and Dan, but with the summer riot of growth and colour left unchecked, the garden was now a tangled mass of greenery. She doubted the two of them would ever return. They’d wait there forever outside the walls of Engn, hoping for some glimpse or mention of Finn or Shireen. Not that she blamed them. She’d thought about doing the same when Tom and Rory had been taken. But in the end she’d decided she’d be more use back here, running the line-of-sight.
She sighed and, leaning heavily on her stick, set off up the lane. As it curved round a bend, she half-expected Finn to come careering round into her. She smiled to herself at the memory of that day, Finn so wide-eyed and out of breath, terrified at the sight of her. She felt the familiar pang of loss. She missed the boy almost as much as her own children. Was he dead by now? It was possible. The messages back from the wreckers were so scarce. Years could go by without a reply, and even when she did hear something, it was some unimportant scrap of information about someone she didn’t know. Still, they kept each other informed, all the line-of-sight operators. All those they trusted. And just occasionally, a scrap of useful information got through, and someone somewhere in the valley would learn the fate of a loved one. They were still alive; they were dead. People were grateful for the news either way.
She had never heard a whisper about either of her own children. It was a cruel fact, especially when people accused her of knowing everything that went on. She’d had a few mentions of Finn in the year he’d been gone. Sightings, reports of him making his way in Engn. Then it had all cut off. Six months ago, at about the time his parents had left. There was some talk of a sabotage attempt, a fire, then nothing. He’d disappeared. She sighed again. She’d tried everything to protect him, but she’d failed, just as she’d failed to protect her own children. Maybe she should go and camp outside the walls along with all the others after all. She wasn’t achieving anything back here, was she? A few secret messages. They were hardly going to bring Engn crashing down.
The first few workers were already out in the Baron’s fields, wading through the early-morning mist, scythes over their shoulders, to begin the day’s harvesting. She hadn’t protected Connor, either, had she? Still, she’d always had doubts about that one. Could never tell if he was his father’s son or his mother’s. A strange pairing, those two, but love was love. They’d stayed together, despite all the doubts. The Baron who despised Engn and whose family had a long history of sympathy for the wreckers. His wife from a family with ancient connections to the original builders of Engn. And where did that leave Connor? Which side was he on? Finn had trusted him completely. She just hoped the boy hadn’t been misguided. Connor had done well in Engn, by all accounts, risen rapidly through the ranks in part because of his mother and her family. But what his real attitude towards Engn was, she had no idea.
She could only imagine what an open sore Connor’s loss must be between his parents. Still, it was none of her business.
The autumn sun was peering out over the mountain-tops now. She welcomed the first rays of warmth on her face. Her bones gave her less trouble in the summer heat; it was the long, cold winters she dreaded. Some nights she stayed at the Switch House, sleeping up there on a makeshift cot, rather than facing the morning walk through ice and snow. Flane kept the roads in good order now, to be sure, but she didn’t trust her own limbs any more. She couldn’t heat the Switch House for fear of warping the lenses, but enough layers and she could keep warm enough. And she wasn’t the first to camp up there. Shireen had loved to do that when she’d first helped out, thinking herself so important guarding the Switch House overnight. Mrs. Megrim smiled at that memory, too.
Of all those who had been taken, only Shireen was still alive, so far as she knew. News she’d only just heard. It had been such a stroke of luck for her, being taken directly into the Directory. It happened, sometimes. A clever girl, of course, just like her brother. It was just a shame Finn had ended up among the masters and their ridiculous games. But maybe Connor would be able to look out for him. Maybe.
She began to shuffle her way up the spiral path to the Switch House. The poplar trees at the edge of the fields cast vast shadows right across the hill and the hut. It looked like being a sunny day at least. Something to be grateful for. At the top, she unlocked the door and stepped inside. She glanced around the familiar, gloomy interior, checking everything was in order. Then she set about opening the view ports and lining up the ‘scopes, ready for the day.
The first message came through from Engn almost immediately. As happened every day, she felt a thrill of combined anticipation and dread. Perhaps, today, she’d hear something. News about Rory or Tom. Or Finn. But, as ever, it was just the automatic timing message, the one broadcast to all Switch Houses so that everyone across the land operated on master Engn time.
She adjusted the wheels of the little clock on her desk, then sat and waited for the first calls to route. Within minutes, they started to come through. The familiar, humdrum messages about the weather, and the harvest, and who in the valley had been seen walking out with whom, and who had fallen out with whom.
She worked dutifully away all day, making sure each message reached its intended recipient.
‘Get up. Get up and dig.’
The Ironclad whipped his cane down onto Finn’s bare back. Finn grunted but barely moved as he lay there in the dust, one eye to the ground. The pain was sharp, his back red raw, but one more cut made little difference. In any case, he was too exhausted, too sick. His body cried out for him to rest, sleep, but the Ironclad wasn’t going to let him. They couldn’t stop working just because they were ill, nor because they were injured or starving. They had to dig and dig and if they stopped they were beaten until they started again or died from the injuries inflicted on them.
With a raw grunt of effort, teeth clenched, Finn rocked over onto his knees and, eyes still shut, lifted his hand-axe to hew at the rock-face in front of him. He had no strength; the metal axe-head skittered off the rock and down uselessly to the ground.
‘Harder! Fill the trolley with ore.’
Another stinging crack across his back. Finn didn’t respond, didn’t look up. He heaved up his axe again and threw all his strength into hacking at the rock in front of him. This time it gave way, a small landslide of dust and stones tumbling down to engulf his knees. Despite the filthy rag around his face he tasted rock dust, parching his mouth even more. He sometimes thought the dust would dry him out completely, leaving him a desiccated husk of bones on the cavern floor.