The sound of gunfire used to galvanize her into movement. Now, Eleanor didn’t jump each time a bomb shook the ground or the rattle of rifle fire split the still summer air. She used to flinch when the lightning guns from the giant metal men – cages for living ones – fired off the blue-white energy from their arms.
She didn’t like thunderstorms when forks of lightning streaked fingers down from the heavens or brightened the sky in a giant sheet. At first the energy guns of the war machines used to frighten her. But strangely, even though thunderstorms made her want to hide under her bed covers and pull the pillow over her head to block out the noise and light, she had gotten used to the light show that the weapons gave – causing their own storm which left dead or injured bodies instead of dead trees and grass in their wake. She wondered briefly as the sound of a soldier’s screams washed over her, a sound that she heard sometimes in her sleep when the comforting darkness blanketed her, if that made her a bad person. If she had become like the golems themselves. There were a few times when, due to staff shortages, she was called out into the field to the south of the city, to recover injured soldiers. A few times she’d been ordered, commanded by the head nurse, to remove damaged bodies from their damaged outer metal cases – the automatons that they drove much the same as a horse and carriage – with a series of pulleys and levers instead of reins, their legs and arms powered by steam, pistons moving up and down, driving the giant husks filled with humans forward, plowing almost blindly through scores of enemy soldiers, and sometimes even of their own.
They had to wear thick leather gloves to protect their hands from the hot metal, but it made it difficult to open the latches that sealed the drivers in their war machines – the latches that ran up the backs, that the men had to be helped into on the backs and shoulders of fellow soldiers.
She had released many golem drivers that had suffered bad steam burns and symptoms of overheating and stroke. People were being cooked alive in the giant moveable suits of armour, and Eleanor often wondered how useful they actually were – they seemed to injure more than save.
She woke in the night with a start, sweat soaking her hair and her favourite pale blue nightdress. She slid her bare feet onto the cold wood of the floor with the lightness of a cat. She saw the looks the other nurses gave her. She knew they thought she was too thin, and her colleagues often gave her some food from their lunch trays, or sacrificed their scone at tea to give to her.
She stared at herself, a pale ghost of a reflection, lit by the moon that shone through the narrow floor-to-ceiling window in her bedroom. Even in the dark she could make out the black circles that had made permanent homes under her eyes. She ran a hand through her hair. It was dry and brittle. It was an old persons hair and an old persons mouth, and lines at the corners of her eyes made her look almost double her age. She almost started crying looking at the double that stared back at her. She looked like someone who was half a century, rather than just a quarter. Mother, she thought. No, she shouldn’t blame her. But she did. It wasn’t her mother’s fault that she had gotten sick when Eleanor was just a child. A lot of people in their situation got sick just the same. It was the price you paid for growing up being raised just by your mother, who was trying to feed three children by working three different jobs just to keep living in the same small, cramped one bedroom house that sat so close to the cold, bitter winds that blew in from the harbour and that no fire ever seemed to fully warm.
She shivered, though she wasn’t sure if it was a memory of cold, or if it was a draft. She glanced at the stuffed draft excluder that blocked the light and any chill from the rest of the nurse’s dormitory. It was made in the shape of a giant purple lion. A gift, the head nurse had said, from the Emperor himself, as thanks for all their hard work saving the lives of his soldiers. She tore her eyes from the animal. It seemed to her to have a strange demeanour. She shook her head and laughed quietly out loud, aware it was late night or early morning and most of the other staff, besides maybe the surgeons, would be fast asleep – like she should have been.
Some noise had woken her from a light sleep and she struggled to remember what it was.
She stood listening, and all was silent. The moonlight was blocked for a moment by a passing airship and Eleanor wondered if it was one of the armoured airships equipped with guns or sentinels that kept an eye on the land for people breaking curfew.
With a shrug she climbed back into bed and pulled the covers up over her shoulders. For a moment she imagined her mother’s hand smoothing her hair down, before drifting back uneasily into sleep.