Every time she moved the bangles on her wrist clicked together. She reached across him for the cigarettes on the bedside table and sat up. He watched her light two at once, lean over and press one between his lips.
“Thanks,” he said, the cigarette bobbing.
She nodded, blowing out thin a line of smoke, and sat gently turning the bangles with her little finger. She always toyed with them when she was thinking.
“What’s it like up there?” she said after a moment.
“Where?” he traced a finger over the proud muscle of her thigh.
“Up there,” she raised her eyebrow to the ceiling, “working on the Dynamo. What’s it like?” He shrugged. “I always wondered. If I look up you’re just like, this spec, smaller than a fly, just a spot on my eye. What do we all look like, from up there? It must be… like being a god or something, looking down on everyone.”
He laughed aloud, “Don’t know about a god… Gods don’t spend their days with grease all over their hands, do they?” He spread his dark fingers over her pale skin. He’d tried everything to get the oil out but it was his natural skin colour now – worn leather up to his wrist.
“Or a bird,” she continued, “Like you’re flying. Must be kind of… liberating, I suppose. You don’t just have to file in and do the same brainless thing every day, like the rest of us. Over and over and… Or do you get scared, that high up?”
“I don’t know… It’s just work.”
“Ah, come on, you must look down, you must think about it. When I look up and see you all flying around on those wires I wonder if you’re scared or excited. Or both.”
“It’s not like we’re just messing about.”
“Alright, alright… But you never just stop and… look?”
“I don’t know, I never really thought about it,” he saw her lips compress and heard a small sound of annoyance. He pushed himself up a little, scratching his forehead.
He did know. He had thought about it. He’d thought about it nearly every day. “It’s like…” he stopped, thought, and started again, “You look down through the grid lights hanging below and all the way out to the horizon until they’re just this flat line that gets lost somewhere you can’t quite make out. And all the bikes and all the pedallists powering them, they start out like… kind of like grass, tall wheat grass on the plains or something, swaying like there’s a wind but really it’s just the motion of you pedalling.” She shuffled down a little, leaning her head against his chest, brushing away a spot of ash that had fallen from her cigarette onto his stomach. “And the Dynamo, it’s just there, so big you can’t imagine, like a mountain suspended in mid-air, turning. Sometimes I wonder how they got it up there, you know? How did they do that? How did they start it turning? It’s insane. People did that. People like us… How were they able to do that?” He contemplated it for a moment but it made his brain hurt so he carried on talking, “You can feel the wind off it, when it turns. And you know that people have died because of that wind, caught off balance, off guard.”
Her hair felt so soft against his skin it could have been his imagination. “Wish I could go up there with you,” she said.
“You can, if you apply and you study…”
He jumped when she laughed, it was so abrupt and loud and unexpected. She didn’t laugh often. “Yeah. Right,” she said when she’d got her breath back.
“What?” he said, smiling without knowing why, “What? What’s funny about that? If you train for it, anyone can do it.”
She pushed herself off him and turned to watch him answer this question, “You really believe that?”
“Of course. Anyone can get promoted if they want. I could be a foreman if I wanted, so could you, eventually.”
She raised an eyebrow, “Really? Who do you know who’s worked their way up? Did you?”
No, he hadn’t. His father had been a mechanic too. His mother had worked in Administration. Both second tier workers. No pedallists in the family, not that he knew of anyway. No foremen either.
“Uh-huh,” she said, settling back down against him. She held up the butt of her cigarette. He took it and dumped it in a stagnant cup of coffee, twisting his hand awkwardly to reach. They lay in silence for a long time. He was nearly asleep again when she stuck her finger in his belly button and said, “I was surprised you even spoke to me that night.”
He blinked, her words filtering through his drowsiness. Then he yawned, “Why, you were beautiful. Are beautiful.”
“Yeah, and you were drunk. You enjoy slumming it, or something?”
“Think if I’d been slumming it I wouldn’t have hung around this long to get in your pants?”
“Suppose we’ll find out now, won’t we?”
“I’m not like that,” he said. She looked up with her eyebrow raised again. He laughed, “What? What’s that look for?”
“Right, nothing,” he said, still smiling.
She smiled too and kissed him before going back to turning her bangles, “What do your friends say about me?”
“It’s none of their business. Nothing illegal about it, is there.”
She muttered something. He made out, “…different kinds of illegal…”
“I don’t care,” he said, kissing her hair. He looked at the clock, sighed and shifted, “I’m going to make some coffee.” she let him up. “Want some?”
“Yeah, alright. Please,” she added with a smile, “Thanks, Guy.” She turned over on her stomach, hands under her chin, and watched him pull on his pants.
When he got back she’d put on one of his t-shirts, a picture of the sun on the front. He handed her a mug and lowered himself carefully onto the bed, sipping from his own. A moment’s awkward rearranging and a spilt drop or two and they were sitting, backs against the headboard, side by side. She slipped a leg over his, rubbing his foot with hers.
“You ever wonder what would happen if it stopped?”
“The Dynamo. You ever wondered?”
He looked at her, frowning. He had never wondered for the simple reason that, as he said, “We know exactly what would happen.”
“We only know what they tell us.”
“Come on, Flick.”
“I’m just wondering. Don’t you ever wonder?”
“No. I don’t want to.”
She tutted, “I’m just talking, Guy, I’m allowed to talk.”
“Depends who you’re talking to.”
“I can talk to you, can’t I?” she moved her face close to his, their noses almost touching, and waited for his answer.
He closed his eyes, sitting high above the Plant floor, his legs hanging through a trap-door in the Axle. He felt the memory warming him, her eyelashes flickering, her breath, her lips, even as the steady, heaving thump of the Dynamo sounded in his ears.
This is how people fall, he thought, opening his eyes and taking a bite of his sandwich, daydreaming. The sandwich tasted of engine oil, as usual. The swarming sound of a million bicycle chains turning below rose up around him for a moment, to be blown away again in the next turn of the Dynamo. She’s down there somewhere. The buzzer sounded and he watched a fresh shift filing in alongside a row just off to his left. From where he sat it looked like a fine pencil line drawing itself. A second line appeared as the shift that was coming to its end dismounted, and then the first vanished as they took their seats in the saddle. Finally, the new line erased itself as the eight-hours-tired pedallists filed out to the showers, the changing rooms, and home.
Which was her row, he wondered — 31,026, column 152,003 she’d said. The buzzer went again. He watched the same process in a row just below him this time. It couldn’t be that one anyway. Their shifts finished around the same time today so she was still down there somewhere, pedalling.
“You got any disavowed in your family?” she’d asked him later that night when it was starting to get bright outside.
“My cousin. You?”
She turned the bangles for a moment before she spoke, “My dad. Then my mum.”
He choked a little on his breath, surprise trilling through him. He cleared his throat, “What happened to them?”
“Don’t know. Some men took me away and I never saw either of them again. What happened to your cousin?”
He shrugged, “We weren’t close.”
“No one’s close these days,” she said.
He closed his eyes again, feet dangling, and felt her kiss.
“What about your parents,” she asked, then, seeing his expression, “Sorry, I didn’t mean to pry.”
“It’s alright. They took them when I was young.”
“Wasn’t your fault.” Another kiss.
It was dangerous to daydream. Only the week before Saido had slipped and been turned into a smear on the side of the Axle. It was tricky cleaning those. It wasn’t even really "cleaning" as such, just oil it and send someone down into the heart of the Dynamo to clean out anything that turned up that wasn’t fluid as paint, make sure there wasn’t any grit in the bearings. There wasn’t really anything else to do about it. They’d have had to stop the Dynamo to really clean it, but that was like switching off your heart to clean your teeth.
Guy wasn’t even sure it was possible to stop it. Even if the legions below gave up pedalling all at once he imagined the Dynamo would just keep going, swatting away anyone who tried anything more direct. How big would the stick have to be to jam it? Maybe one of those giant trees you read about in the Myths would do it, but most likely it would just get turned to splinters. Sometimes he wondered if anything they did really have any effect on it. Maybe it was just an illusion, that they were caring for it, maintaining it. Maybe it didn’t need them like they hoped it did, like they needed it.
Someone slapped him on the back of the head, “Wake up, Rossenter, you tool. Cleaned enough guts out the bearings this week.”
Owen, his wire partner, was a scrawny guy. He almost looked anorexic, but was somehow, at the same time stronger than anyone else Guy knew. Which was good. Not being strong wasn’t an option when you spent half your day hanging ten thousand feet above the earth. “Know what, mate,” said Guy, slipping the last of his sandwich into his cheek, “sometimes I’m not even sure I like you.”
“That’s okay, mate, I’ve got enough love for the both of us.” He pulled Guy to his feet and bent to lock the trapdoor under him, “Pint later?”
“Can’t, mate, got a date.”
They walked along the gangway, the metal of the Axle turning slowly around them, lit silver by the lights from their helmets, their footsteps echoing with a tang.
“Not that little spoke you’ve been banging again?”
They arrived at the cart, Guy holding the door open for his friend, “Course not, mate, you know that’s -”
“Frowned upon?” he had to shout to be heard over the rattling of the cart. “It’s alright, mate, we’ve all had a go on one or two. Just don’t go falling in love, alright? I know what you’re like.” He took off his helmet and wiped at the sweat in the grease on his forehead. “I’m dying for a drink.”
“Forget your water again?” said Guy, holding out his own bottle.
“Didn’t forget it — you always bring my water for me.”
Guy snatched the bottle back, water spilling over Owen’s front, “Last time, my friend.”
“Alright, alright.” The cart slowed rapidly and came to an uncomfortable halt, Owen’s head snapping back hard against the side, “Ow. Come on!” he shouted, turning to punch the offending metal, only just catching himself in time to give it a pat instead of breaking his knuckles.
Guy laughed, rapping his own helmet with his knuckles and stepping over his friend, out through the hatch into the Axle Room. They hung their overalls and helmets on their pegs and went out into the corridor.
“I’m sick of these bloody meetings,” said Owen, still rubbing his head, “What’s the point? We have a meeting before work, they tell us what to do, even though we know anyway, then we go do it, same as every day, then we have another meeting afterwards where we tell them what we did, which is what they told us to do anyway, so why do they need us to tell them that we did what they told us to do?”
“Shut up, Owen.”
They met down an alley on the Shade-Side of the Plant, the last of the sun draining from the clouds above them. He tried not to smile when he saw her, but the muscles in his cheeks weren’t having any of it.
“What’s the plan, then?” he said, after a minute kissing, “Back to mine?”
“I want to go out,” she said, slipping her bangled wrist through his arm. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been Shade-Side. He’d been a kid, he knew that much, they’d been able to get things there, things that weren’t so easy to lay hands on Sun-Side.
“Where do you want to go?”
“I know a place.”
She led him to the very cusp of the colony, further than he’d ever dared to go before. There the tiny streets were crumbling. No voices came from the dark houses, no music, no lights, no smells of cooking or sounds of appliances. Nothing.
“It’s alright,” she said. He’d tensed without realising it, seeking the source of every tiny sound in the shadows. “There’s nothing to be scared of.”
He was happy to find he believed her without a second thought. He smiled, putting his arm around her, “I’m not scared. This is kind of romantic. Where are we going?”
“It’s just around the corner.”
They stopped outside a house that looked as abandoned as all the others. It took both of them to force the broken door open. Inside was dark and the air had the texture of damp and rotted wood.
“Wait,” she said, beckoning to him, “Help me close it again.”
“Just… Give us a hand.”
The door shut, she took him by the hand and led him deep into the house, down corridors and through rooms until he couldn’t see her in front of him in the darkness. Then he heard something and saw a faint light under a door. She opened it and turned to look at him. In the gloom, he thought she looked anxious. Coming close to him, she stood on tip toes, wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him. Then she took his hand again and led him down creaking steps into a murmur of smoke lit sporadically by a nervous cough, a basement room, the pavement level windows boarded up, tables and chairs, the forms of people drinking and smoking and talking quietly and seriously. The place fell silent, everyone peering at them when they stepped through the door. Then the talking resumed and Flick and Guy were forgotten.
She took him to an empty table, one of the last, and ordered two pints. “You’ve never been anywhere like this before, have you?” she said while they waited for the proprietor, a large woman with gleaming skin, to bring their drinks. Pedallists weren’t supposed to smoke, or drink — it limited their power. But the overseers never come this far out into the fringes, anyway. They didn’t know there was anyone there.
Guy was conscious of glances in his direction and wondered what gave him away. It was too dark to see his stained hands. “Do I smell?”
“Nothing. That guy over there looks like he wants to kick my head in.”
“Don’t be silly. They know you’re with me anyway.” He knew she meant it to make him feel safer but it had the opposite effect.
“I don’t know, Flick, let’s just…”
A silence drifted over on the smoke, creeping up on him until he realised he was the only person talking and stopped, unnerved, as if he’d been bad mouthing someone and realised they were standing behind him.