The noise was constant. The screech of metal on metal. The splashes of molten steel being pored into it's mold. The hiss of steam as water met fire. The bang of boots on iron catwalks. The constant clank of the assembly line. One-thousand people produced one-thousand sounds. There was no order or pattern to it. It was simply a mass of endless noise.
Derek was used to the noise. He'd been used to it sense he was five years old. That was the first time he'd entered The Great Foundry. The Great Foundry had always been the center of his life, ever sense his father took him here the first time. He must have been back huhndreds of times, until he knew every nook and cranny. However, this visit would promise to be very different.
“I'm here as replacement for worker four-hundred seventy-nine,” he told the manager, shouting to be heard over the noise. The manager of this sector had a tiny desk tucked away on the second level. It was exposed to the harsh noise, but otherwise isolated from the main floor.
The manager nodded, and opened up his file cabinet, leafing through the papers. He finally found the one he was searching for. “You're replacing Donovan Wheeler, right?”
Derek nodded. “Yea, that's him, I'm Derek Wheeler, his son.”
“He was a good man, a good worker. Pity we lost him.”
Derek kept nodding. He was tired of people's pity. His father had been killed three days ago, gutted by a machine part that had broken from the assembly line. His remains were virtually unrecognizable. They had told a bunch of lies at his funeral about what a great man he had been, then gotten the usual three day mourning period before it was back to work.
When he realized that Derek wasn't going to say anything else, the manager continued. “You'll just need to sign some papers, and we can get you set up with your equipment.” He placed a contract on his desk and handed Derek a pen.
Derek read over the contract. He had seen his father's every day, but he just wanted to make sure nothing had changed. Nothing had. He signed his name, and legally binded himself to work in The Great Foundry until he was physically incapable of doing so. Of course, the most common way to get out of the contract was to die, like his father had.
“You're a bit young aren't you?” the manager asked.
“I'm sixteen, that's well within working standards. I've got two sisters to support, so I need work now,” Derek responded snappishly. On his way to The Great Foundry he had gotten several remarks about his age and was ready to argue.
“All right, all right. I get it. Take your contract and go to the equipment room. You'll be working at station D15. If you need directions ask anyone but me,” the manager responded calmly, and pointed down the catwalk to the storage room where all staff equipment was stored.
Derek nodded in thanks, picked up his contract and stuffed it in his pocket, and started toward the room.
The Great Foundry was a massive factory complex with twenty-seven levels. The bottom four levels mined iron ore from the ground, and the next seven levels melted down the ore to get iron from it. They passed it up to the twelfth level, which removed imperfections in the metal, and passed it up to the next two levels which melted it down to be poured into enormous molds on the next four levels. The last nine levels were assembly lines that produced everything the army needed, from rifles to armor plating to frying pans. It was an efficient system. Raw ore in the ground could be transformed into a killing machine in less then a day. Yet even the one-hundred thousand workers of The Great Foundry struggled to meet the ever growing demands of the army.
There was not a single organic thing within The Great Foundry's boundaries, save the human workers. The entire place was filled with a maze of catwalks, connecting the sides of the cylindrical foundry with one another. A constant controlled chaos filled those catwalks, as new shifts of men took their places and materials and messages were hurried across.
The heat of The Great Foundry was like a punch in the face. Roaring fires, overworked machines, and lack of any window or outlet produced a heat that no desert could hope to match. There were stories of men simply falling over dead when the first entered. Most considered the stories rumors, but when he was eleven Derek had seen it happen. He knew the power of The Great Foundry's heat.
As he crossed from one catwalk to another, Derek came to a spot that had always been his playground as a child. The propaganda posters. There were three, angled so that you could be anywhere on the level and get a good look at them.
The first had always been his favorite. It said: “Every bullet you make can stop one of them.” The word “them” was larger then the others, and trails of blood dripped down from the word. Below the writing was a picture of a savage, dressed in a heavy coat of sewn together human flesh. He had a tomahawk raised above his head, ready to bring it down on the head of a young woman, who was pleading for her life. The poster had inspired many games of “army vs. savages” with his friends.
The second poster was less violent. It had a picture of a happy family living in a residence pod. There was a strong, hardworking father, wearing a Great Foundry uniform and hard-hat. There was a loving, caring mother who had a laughing baby in her arms. Two children, a boy and a girl, played with trucks and crayons on the floor. Under the picture it read: “Be sure to thank The Defender for your happy life in The Sphere.” Derek had often wondered if that was what a normal family was like.
The third poster was the only one that was placed recently. Derek remembered the day it was put up, when he was thirteen. It said, in great bold letters: “Defend civilization! Stop The White Fleet!” Under the writing was a picture of a fleet of bright white ships steaming towards a gigantic metal ball resting on the ocean, held up by long metal stilts, as army solders shot giant cannons at them. Derek knew little about The White Fleet, only that they were pure evil and came to destroy all The Defender and the people of The Sphere had built. On the radio in his family's residence pod they occasionally had news about the war with The White Fleet. Usually it was about the army's victories or The White Fleet's atrocities. The only interest the poster held for Derek was it was the only time he saw The Sphere from the outside. Disappointingly, he couldn't see The Great Foundry, which apparently was a thick shaft at the bottom of The Sphere.
Derek glanced at the posters but kept on walking. He'd seen them plenty of times. He was not a child anymore.
He pushed his way past a new shift of workers and into the equipment room. It was dark, with minimal lighting to conserve electricity. A desk embedded in the wall and protected from theft by wire screen. A small, seedy man eyed Derek from behind the wire.
“May I see your contract?” he asked, somehow making himself heard without shouting.
Derek nodded, not bothering to shout an answer over the noise. He slid the paper underneath the screen.
The man quickly read over the contract, as if he didn't see them every day. It seemed to take an eternity. He finally looked up and said, “You are entitled by this contract to a standard size Great Foundry uniform...” He slid the tan pants and jacket through the opening at the bottom of the screen. “...a pair of regulation work gloves and boots...” The sturdy, tough work gloves and the boots that could withstand molten steel joined the uniform. “...one regulation hard hat...” The shock resistant helmet's non-stick surface was colored bone white. “...and one third class residence card.” The man handed Derek a plastic card that had the words Third Class Citizen written on it in big bronze letters.
Derek changed into his uniform in the bathroom. It felt odd putting on the same uniform that he'd seen his father in every day. It felt right, like it was what he was supposed to wear. Although the jacket was a bit to small. He slipped his residence card and his contract into his pocket. He realized it was his first residence card ever. Maybe I should frame it, he thought with a smile.
He walked to the rickety iron elevator and pressed the button for the fifteenth level. It stopped several times along the way to take on new passengers and let old ones out. After an eternity, the level fifteen light flashed, and the doors opened.
Derek had been to level fifteen more times then all the others combined. It was one of the four levels responsible for pouring molten steel from the lower levels into molds. The molds ranged from massive to tiny. Each one made was a component element of a final product. These elements would pass to the upper nine levels for assembly. Massive vats of molten steel were lifted on giant cranes and carefully poured into the larger molds. Smaller vats were taken to the smaller molds by hand.
Derek quickly moved to station D, where his father had worked and where he now worked. His job was to operate the mold for artillery shell casings.
“Hey Derek!” a man already working there shouted as Derek approached the station. It was Robert Anson, his father's former partner. He had been one of the few people at the funeral. “Nice to see you kid! Looks like my vouching got you out of training huh?”
Derek felt a tinge of defensiveness when he heard “kid” but he remembered that “kid” was foundry jargon for new workers. It had nothing to do with his age. “Thanks for that by the way!” he shouted back as he approached.
“I got complete faith in you kid!” Robert answered back, lowering his voice slightly as Derek walked up and grasped his open hand. He was still shouting to be heard over the noise. “You've known these machines longer then I have! It wouldn't feel the same not to have a Wheeler beside me!”
“Thanks for the confidence! Now let's get to work!” Derek said with a smile, eager to start his first official casting.
“We got twenty seconds before the magma comes along! Let's catch up!” Robert responded. “Magma” was more foundry jargon for molten steel. “How are your sisters?”
“They lost their education privileges when dad died! They've been driving me to hell for the last three days! All they have to do all day in our residence pod is draw and listen to the radio!”
Robert chuckled. “How old is Maggie now?”
“That's just the age when they get really bad!” Robert said with a laugh.
A transport cart rolled off the freight elevator. Derek and Robert easily plucked two vats of molten steel off of it, without the driver even having to slow down. They then went over to the couch sized mold and opened two hatches in which they poured the metal. They then shut the hatches and Robert cranked the lever to activate the auto-cooling system. No one knew exactly how the auto-cooling worked, not even The Defender himself. It was technology of The Ancient World, it's exact workings unknown. Never the less, ten seconds after the magma when in, the mold beeped to let them know there was a new shell casing ready to be moved inside. They opened a side hatch and carefully slid the large casing out, caring it like a stretcher to the freight elevator, and dumping it in.
They went back to D station and repeated the process. And then again. And again. Derek felt his body and mind fall into a steady pattern. The transport would arrive. The heat would rise from the super-hot metal. The mold would beep. The casing would be carried. And then it would happen again. Derek's face became covered in grime and his back was covered in sweat. His muscles hardened and his mind emptied. The hours crawled by.
After about three hours working, the harsh clang of the break bell echoed through The Great Foundry, signaling for a universal five minute break.
Derek hadn't realized how tired he was. Working was nothing like the few times he had poured the mold before. He felt muscles he had never used before hardening. He had always considered himself to be strong, but he now knew his strength was only a fraction of what was needed. He wasn't worried, over time he was sure he would become strong enough for the job.
“Tougher then you thought it would be huh?” Roger asked. “You look wiped out. We still have another five hours in our shift.”
“I can't believe my dad did this every day. But I can do it just fine,” Derek said with a pained face.
“He was a good man,” Roger said. “And he was a fanatical worker. After your mother disappeared work was all he had. Aside from you of course.”
Derek laughed. “I don't think he ever thought I would amount to anything.”
“Oh he did,” Robert responded quickly. “He wanted you to be a manager of the foundry. He wanted you to be a first class citizen. The reason he worked so hard was because he needed to keep your education privileges intact.”
“Wow, I never realized that,” Derek said, feeling like a jerk after his previous statement.
“He didn't want you to know. He wanted to make you hard, so you could withstand pain. I think he succeeded actually,” Robert smiled.
They both relaxed for a bit, letting their bodies recuperate for the next round of work. Derek found himself thinking more about his father as a dad, as opposed to some drunk who yelled at him. His father had taken up drinking after his mother's strange disappearance. She had been a first class citizen, and she had been apparently very important. She had always gotten flack for marrying a third class worker, but she was important enough that she got away with it. She disappeared shortly after Susan was born, when Derek was twelve. If possible Derek hated her even more then he hated his father. He had barely known her when she was still around, and she had always found his worse qualities and focused on them. Nothing he ever did was ever good enough. And he certainly didn't remember her ever saying “I love you.”
“You want some?” Robert said pressingly. Derek realized that he was being offered some bread. He hadn't eaten sense his light breakfast.
“Thanks,” he said, taking some. Then a question occurred to him. “What did you know about my mom?”
“Less then you do,” Robert began. “She was a first class citizen, your father loved her for god knows what reason, and she disappeared, with every chance of her being dead.”
Derek sighed. He'd hoped Robert would know something he didn't. It seemed foolish to have thought that now.
The bell rang again, signaling for them to get back to work. As they did, Derek noticed something out of the corner of his eye. “Who ever's using that crane doesn't know how to handle it properly.”
One of the great cranes that lifted huge vats of magma into the mold was carrying it to fast, well above regulation speed. Whenever it stopped magma would splash out. Even though the catwalks were reinforced against magma, they certainly couldn't take direct exposure to the boiling metal. Plus any person that happened to be under it would be burned, even killed.
“You're right, we need to stop that,” Robert agreed. He went over to the station phone and dialed the crane. “Hey, we just noticed that you're moving that vat a little to fast buddy. You need to slow it down or you'll splash somebody.” He was silent for a few moments as the person on the other end talked to him. His eyes became wide. The rapidly hung up the phone and whipped around. “There's an out of control crane! Everyone evacuate this level!”
“What?” Derek yelled as everyone abandoned their stations and ran for the elevators.
“He said the crane isn't responding to his commands. It's just moving wherever it likes at whatever speed! Come on! We gotta get out of here!” Robert yelled back.
Derek imagined the crane abruptly stopping, throwing it's deadly contents onto the walkways. He imagined it melting through the catwalks and sending them crashing down on level fourteen, killing dozens of people and sending the hot metal processed there flying, causing even more damage. And then he remembered a time when he was eight years old that the same thing had almost happened. He remembered it was caused by a small glitch in the system that was fairly easy to sort out. Not many people had been working at the foundry that long. Most people didn't realize what the problem was. But Derek did.
He wasted no time explaining to Robert. He bolted across the level, heading for the cockpit at the base of the crane, where the pilot was. He pushed past men hurrying to escape, and even got knocked to the ground twice. But he fought his way there in about two minutes. He hoped it was fast enough.
He rushed up the stepladder leading to the door of the cockpit, and sped into the control room. He saw the pilot at the controls, trying to control the crane.
“I think I know what the problem is!” he shouted.
The pilot never answered back. Instead, the entire cockpit exploded.