A child walked slowly, their feet scraping the ground with exhaustion, their body incapable of pulling them up from the curb. Their skin had been stained black with grease, their hair was slick and stuck together in large clumps. Their eyes showed the death that their mind and body felt. Looking ahead, they saw smoke pillars reaching into the sky; the faint red glow of the furnaces tinted the black columns with a hint of dynamic oranges and reds. A person walked past them with a particularly strong perfume which agitated the child’s nose, causing them to sneeze a black goo onto the sidewalk.
“Urgh, filthy urchin.” The woman called out as she gave the child a wide berth.
The child did not notice; she barely heard the calls of anyone anymore with the ringing in her ears. Her eyes were bloodshot and ached from the previous day’s work; the caustic chemicals in the air of the factories felt as if they rested on her eyes, slowly eating layers of her eyes, even when she was home. She looked down at a well-worn watch on her left wrist, and for the first time in the morning, her face showed an expression of fear.
She started to run towards the factory, down the steep city streets, the concrete getting blacker the closer she was, and more slick. She tripped several times on the way down, her knees scrapped in the process, but once again, there was no notice as she sprinted as fast as she could through the large iron doors of the refinery. She threw her metal toolbox into a cubby hole and moved her way through the factory floor; clocking in on the time machine next to the main office, she checked her watch again; there was a sigh of relief as the second’s hand still had a few ticks before the hour started. With a brisk walk, she made her way to a conveyer belt that she was to work on; she took a small tool belt and a hand-powered mechanical claw. She scrambled onto the conveyer belt where she was just one among many, examining the products that scrolled past, handling the bad products from the line, and dumping them down one of the many shoots that followed the production line; she had to walk constantly to avoid being taken away by the endless movement of the belt.
Embers and smoke filled the room that she and all her fellow workers worked in. Approaching lunchtime, she was starting to falter, her head started to become light, and her feet felt as if they were lead. Despite being worked to the bone, she was starting to fall asleep on her feet; between each drawn-out blink, the ladder to leave the conveyer belt got further away until it faded from her vision as she fell backward, seeing the walkways, and the ceiling, then darkness.
When she awoke, she was stuck in a mountain of stage one refined metals; each time she moved, she would slide as the loose product was dislodged, allowing the girl and the goods to slide further down the mountain. She eventually found herself at the bottom, too tired to move. She just watched as more metals would be slowly making their way to her by way of sliding down the gentle slope of the mountain of goods. She would have cried if she had the hydration, but the heat of the factory was nearly so bad that even sweat would sometimes evaporate before it could do anything other than sizzle on her skin. The factory had a rhythm to it, everything happened just when it should, and it did that for twenty-four hours a day. The only inconsistencies were the heavy footsteps of the fat men that ran the floors, footsteps that felt like they were capable of disrupting even the girl’s heart as she could feel the man approaching. His looming figure leaned over her, sweat flowing from his bulbous form, his pocked skin was flushed from the heat, and his hair receded from the chemicals that floated through the air. He snorted as he poked the girl with a stick; he looked over his shoulder and then strained to lean down, grabbing the girl by the cuff of her ankle. He dragged her from her lying position and back the way he came from. He took no care to avoid anything that was on the floor, his mouth curving upwards each time he felt the girl’s body catch on any of the plethora of tools that he had left on the ground. All around them, there were other children running around. They did their best to clean the shop floor that the man dragging the girl dirtied like it was his actual job. Going past the coal pits, he approached the furnace; the open doors roared with enough heat to dry the man’s face and make it redder. He squinted as he looked into the flames, and with little effort, he swung the girl with one smooth action.
The heat was intense, so intense that it was over before she even had time to think that the flames felt like they were getting hotter. The man backed away, nearly stepping on several other children who had gathered to pay their respects for the girl, and in return they nearly joined her. The man took his discordant rhythm with him as he left, slowly fading away until the children could not feel the vibrations from his movements, nor could they hear the stomping of his feet. They looked to one another for the shortest time possible before they turned back to their work, their hands bound with what used to be white bandages, now coal black.
The children all took their place back where they were expected to be; the girl’s little brother was crying as he did what he was told.
“You!” Called a voice that dripped with age, “if you keep that up, you will join your sister. Your incessant sobbing is slowing you down; sort out your emotions, and be a man.”
The little boy paused for just a second before taking in one big sniff, sucking up all the snot that was dripping from his nose. His eyes seemed to dry almost instantly, but the whites were scarred with red lines. He went back to work, making sure to keep a good pace for his employer, to keep himself out of the fire of the furnaces.
The hours ticked by, and soon enough, it was time for a shift switch; the next group of workers coming through the doors stopped in their tracts. It was as if time had slowed down, they watched as the employers struggled to chase after their children workers, doing their best to stop them from leaping head-first into the furnaces, their faces filled with a solitary moment of peace right before the heat claimed them, turning them to ash. It didn’t take long before the already drained kids from the shift switch started to run into the chaos, they took the opportunity, and they fought back in the only way they could, by dying. There was hope in some of them that this would be the end of everything, not just their suffering, but that this would cause the factory to shut down, saving all the other children out there the dread of being enslaved by the refineries, but under their hope was a nugget of realism that knew that was a foolish dream.
Some of the employers tried shutting down the factory, but they found that either the emergency stop buttons did not work or that it did not matter that they stopped the machines; they couldn’t just turn off the fires, there was not enough water in the town, let alone this building to stop fires of such magnitude. The Foreman ran up a series of winding stairs until they reached a large dark wood set of double doors that she slammed through.
“Sir, they are dying.” She said with a panic.
“Yes, they tend to do that; they are frustratingly weak in this batch.” The man answered calmly.
“No sir, they are killing themselves. We have lost over half the workforce already.”
The man snapped the pencil in their hand, and their eyes stayed focused on the paper he was working on. The Foreman could hear the man’s breathing increase to a quiet roar. While keeping his head steady, he closed his eyes, just to open them, already focused on the Foreman.
“Then why are you up here telling me this and not down there fishing those children back to their cages?”
The Foreman stammered over herself as she gestured down to the working floor, the chaos that was happening below.
“There is nothing I can do, sir. There are too many, and they know the platforms better than any of us.”
The owner of the company looked down from their window view of his factory; he watched as the adults stumbled over themselves as the children were vaulting the dangerous conveyor belts, and they ended everything by leaping head first into the instant incineration of the immense fires. The owner of the company’s face twitched as he watched his workforce go up in flames. His eye twitched, and beads of sweat started to form as he began to understand the situation that he was in. The foreman looked to her boss with expectation, but when he did not move from the window, she knew she had her answer. She backed out of the door and stumbled her way to the outside world, her body shaking as she tried her best to calm her breathing. Shakily she got her keys out, climbed into her car, and left the factory in her rearview mirror.
The owner of the factory calmly walked to his doors, closing them and securing them with the many locks he had installed. He breathed out purposefully as he made his way back to his desk, where he said carefully, ensuring his back was straight and his attire was uniform. He placed his hand delicately on the receiver of his phone; lifting it off, he pressed the touchpad on the holder, cycling through the menus until he found his way to a number that was labeled ‘Investor.’
The connection tone inspired more sweat and a dry throat as he awaited the inevitable silence that would be followed by the voice of the woman he was contacting.
There was a click, then silence.
“Well, out with it.” The voice said from the other end of the line.
“The, umm, workforce.” The man choked on his own saliva, clearing his throat. He continued. “The Workforce…”
“Yes, you have said that one. You are wasting my time.”
“Gone, it is all gone.”
There was a short silence . The owner felt as if minutes had passed.
“You will need to elaborate. Because I have invested a large sum into your company, and by the sounds of things, I am going to be waiting longer for the returns you promised.”
“They… They killed themselves, they jumped into the furnaces, all their wranglers are various degrees of injured from trying to, well, wrangle them.”
There was another click, and the line went dead.
The owner of the company put the receiver down, resetting its connection before picking it up again and connecting to another number.
“Honey, it is rare that I hear from you at work. How is your day going?” A sweet voice called from the other end.
“Hey beautiful, I just wanted to say that I am having some issues at work; it may be a late one.” His voice was warbling on every second word.
“That is fine; I knew that this was going to consume our lives when you decided to take on the venture. I believe in you, honey; we are a team, we will get through this together, and when we get out the other side, we will have the money to give our children the opportunities that we never had.”
“Yeah, I really hope so. Some days it just feels like I am spinning my wheels, putting in all this effort, wearing myself down, but not getting anywhere.”
“I know, my handsome man, but don’t forget that we can’t get anything if we don’t push ourselves to break. We, unfortunately, don’t have the privilege that those above us have. But maybe if we work hard, we can give that privilege to our children.”
The man was fully crying, the mouthpiece held away from him as he left the earpiece pressed against his ear.
“Shush, you don’t need to cry; we will get through this; I have just been given a job that should get us all the money our kids will need. The pay is crazy; we will be okay; maybe you could even take a break.”
The man dropped the receiver as he let out his tears, a wild torrent of mucus, and screams as he slammed the desk and threw the contents to the ground. His wife heard the commotion from her end, and with tears in her eyes, she spoke softly.
“I love you, honey; our kids have their future.”
The wife angled the joystick she was holding, the camera on her screen changing angle as a feminine hand on her shoulder held tight.
The foreman drove in a mad rush, but even at speed, she could hear the roar of engines and the sudden sound of air breaking as a vehicle flew overhead, releasing a torrent of missiles as the factory crumbled to the ground.