The sun was red the day Slicker died. She watched him fall a hundred levels, to shatter against a fat, reinforced gas pipe, shards of him breaking across archways and supports and cables, plummeting into the foggy void below. His blud drenched a cluster of backup valves. It dripped from the nozzles, thick and syrupy.
Slicker was unsticking the gears on the Bigtime, with such focus that he paid no attention to the approach of the Quickhand, making its minute-long journey around the Bigtime's face. He had clamped safety cables to the supports, but was careless. The Quickhand caught a support line, and dragged him off the gears, sending him plummeting. The Bigtime was in such poor repair that the other clamps had torn free, sending scraps of rusted steel along with Slicker to his death.
Shine had tried to shout a warning, but Slicker couldn't hear. Or wouldn't. Slicker loved his work, loved the way things ran smoothly when he was finished. Mostly, he loved it when things worked, as they frequently did not here.
The Quickhand had worked well enough. It had killed him. The others stared after him for almost a full rotation, and then returned to their duties. Not Shine. She watched the blud drip from the valves, and remembered Slicker's voice. He used to sing for her. She loved that. She returned to the the Bigtime's face, and began to wipe away a bit of scum, and tried to remember one of Slicker's tunes. The memory of the shards of Slicker's body, so vivid in the morning light as they broke across the steel below, faded as quickly as the morning damp, and the scum beneath Shine's brushes.
Shine caught up with Turner in the food line. The red sun was high in the sky, an angry eye behind the clouds. A lazy drizzle of thick, oily rain fell, and erupted in steam from the hot rust that surrounded them. Everywhere, the speakers rumbled from their precarious sconces in the pipes, superstructures and catwalks that threaded throughout their world.
From the speakers came the voice of Auntie. All the children knew Auntie. She warned them against danger, and against misbehavior. She told them when to eat, and when to sleep. She was telling them to eat now, her static-flecked voice banging against the layers of pipes and rails, changing pitch with each echo.
Turner turned toward Shine. Raindrops skittered across his features, beading against his shell. His eyes moved. They always moved. Shine liked how Turner always looked around at everything.
"What's new?" she said.
"Nothing," he answered, as he always did. She was the one who always brought the news when there was news.
His eyes darted left and right, but then settled on her. She liked that. "How did that happen?"
"We were working on the the Bigtime. He didn't notice the Quickhand. It knocked him off, and he fell."
Turner looked at the ground. Slicker had been his friend. "Did he break his skin?"
Shine nodded. "All over."
He nodded. "I liked how he sang."
Shine nodded. "I did, too."
"I'll miss him."
Shine looked around, suddenly worried. The Maulers wouldn't like it if they heard them talking. There was one now, walking past on all fours, his arms and legs ending in huge, metal-studded hammers that rang across the steel of the city as he moved. He peered around with tiny, black eyes set deep into a boy's face, with breathing tubes sprouting from where his mouth should be, coiling into the regurgitation machine riding his back, his whole body hissing angrily with steam.
"I will, too." she whispered.
Then they both turned to face the food line. Ahead, there was the Mamabrd. A hulking, teardrop-shaped hunk of metal bristling with hoses that ended in sharp, metal beaks. One by one, the children queued up beneath the beaks, and waited.
It was Turner's turn. He stood beneath the nearest beak. It lowered toward him, and the beak opened with a groan. A thick, pasty, red gruel issued forth to drench Turner, who stood beneath with his face raised high and his mouth open.
He ate his fill, just as they all did. Shine would have her turn. Then, they would clean off and sleep.
Shine wondered if she would dream. Sometimes she dreamed of green.
Turner pulled his largest wrench from his backbelt and clamped it to the bolt. He pulled with all his might, until he was afraid he would crack his skin, but eventually, the bolt began to turn. He could hear the satisfying rush he had just freed, flowing through the huge metal pipe toward the Weldingworks, rising black and smoking in the distance, and flanked by the craggy Scraphills huddling on all sides of it.
"What's new?" Shine had been watching him turn the bolt, "Didn't need me after all, I guess."
"I might have needed you, If I'd known you were there."
"But you didn't know," she said, "and you didn't need me."
They stayed together the rest of the day. They freed gears, unstuck hinges, and loosened nuts. Shine cleaned the scum with her chemicals and brushes, and Turner pulled the hardware free. They worked like this often, had done so as long as they could remember.
They didn't talk about Slicker again. No one did.
This time, Turner let Shine go before him in line for the Mamabrd. He was quiet. He was always quiet, but even more so today. He wasn't even looking around at things. Instead, his glassy eyes focused on the steel grate under their feet.
"What's new?" she asked him.
"Nothing." But he was lying. That in itself was new. Turner never lied.
She looked down, to see a thick strip of cord wrapped around one of his hands. Blud oozed from between the coils.
He had broken his skin. She was about to ask him about it, but then there was the clangk-clangk-clangk of the Maulers, hissing and lurching down the ramp from behind the Mamabrd, from the tower of grinding pistons where Auntie was said to live. Turner, Shine and the others scattered out of the way, because no one got in the Maulers' way, even by accident.
They had their goggles flipped down over their eyes. Bright beams of light shot from the lenses, sweeping across everyone huddled against the rusting walls surrounding the Mamabrd. The only sound was the hiss and thud of the Maulers' engines and joints, and the oozing drip of the paste from the Mamabrd's beaks.
The beams focused on each of them, until they all came to rest on Bender, across the platform from Shine and Turner. Bender looked about helplessly, but everyone else moved away from him. It was not good to have the Maulers' attention.
The loudspeakers crackled to life. "STAY WHERE YOU ARE," said Auntie. "STAY WHERE YOU ARE." Her voice was as it always was. Urgent. Stern.
Bender was alone, with his back pressed against a boiler. He shook so violently that his shell rattled against the corroded steel behind him. The beams from the Maulers' goggles focused upon him as they clangked closer, surrounding him, pinning him to the boiler with their presence.
He slid down and curled up under the bright lights. "I didn't do nothing, Auntie. Didn't do nothing'!"
"GOOD CHILDREN STAY INSIDE THE WALLS. BAD CHILDREN DO NOT."
"I didn't do nothing! I just wanted to see the Green, Auntie! I wasn't goin' nowhere, I wasn't goin' nowhere..."
The Maulers reared back, and brought their arm-sledges down on him, their joints bubbling with steam and lubricant. Bender's skin shattered, bits of it skittered across the floor grate. Blud oozed from his pulverized body, to flow and drip through the grate, raining down on the levels underneath.
The Maulers hissed and thudded away, back up the ramp to Auntie's tower. All eyes rested on where Bender was, where the blud ran in thick rivulets down the side of the boiler, and on a bowl-shaped chunk of his skin, wobbling back and forth.
The food line re-formed again, except for Scrub, who picked up Bender's pieces and mopped up the blud. Turner and Shine found their places again, keeping their eyes to the floor, lest the Maulers decide to create another example.
"GOOD CHILDREN STAY INSIDE THE WALLS. BAD CHILDREN DO NOT." Auntie's voice screeched across the city, as the Maulers glowered at the lines of children awaiting their dose of paste.
Shine felt Turner's whisper in her ear more than she heard it over the din of steam, and clangking, and Auntie's shrill warnings.
"I got something to show you."
The door was hidden in shadow, half-blocked by a load of rusted pipes, springs, gears and casings, probably thrown down here by Loader and Drag. They never put things where they belonged.
"Where does that lead?" Shine asked.
Turner shrugged. "I don't know. Nobody knows. I just found it a couple days ago."
They stood at the bottom of a cavern of steel. Red sunlight peered in through holes in the forest of pipes and valve stoppers. Everything was covered in a thick patina of green corrosion.
"How did you find it?"
"I dropped a wrench down here, one of my big ones that I can't do without. Climbed down here and found this place." He was staring at the door. Shine looked over the debris that blocked it. Some of it was strewn about.
"You tried to move all that by yourself, didn't you?"
"I wonder what's in there, Shine? I mean, look at the hinges. It hasn't been opened for...for..."
He didn't know how to say how long, but Shine understood. She also understood the way his fingers played about the wrenches and pliers on his belt. He wanted to open that door. His face was the same as always, but his eyes shone as if they'd been polished. She wished she had been the one to polish them.
"We should leave it be, Turner."
"Anything could be in there."
"No!" Shine hadn't meant to shout, and her voice carried among the corroded webwork of dripping pipelines. "Bender didn't do what he was told, and you saw what happened to him."
"Auntie doesn't have eyes down here."
"How do you know that?"
Turner nodded at the debris. "You think Loader and Drag would dare dump their loads down here if Auntie could see?"
Shine sighed. Turner had a point. Sloppiness in one's work would get you a visit from the Maulers if you were caught. Shine looked at the debris in a new light. "Brave boys, those two."
"Nobody's going to find out, Shine."
"Why do you want to do this? Why even risk it?"
Turner thought about that. His arms fell to his sides, and he looked right at Shine. "Everything we do, it's for Auntie and the City. That door is mine, it's for me. I want to open it, because I want to open it."
She looked at his eyes again. They still shone, and she could see herself mirrored in them. He needed her. If he could have opened the door with only his strength and his wrenches, it would already be open. She looked again at his bluddy hand, wrapped up in cords. He had tried, and failed.
If she left, she would be safe. She could pretend she'd never seen the door. But Turner would stay. He'd keep trying, and eventually the Maulers would find him, or he'd shatter himself in the effort.
She remembered that bowl-shaped piece of Bender's skull, spattered and dripping.
"Help me clear this stuff out," she said, "we need to be quick."
His eyes widened as wide as they could widen, though his face stayed the same. Together, they shifted the pile of pipes and scrap just enough to expose the hinges, and Shine went to work. She covered them in her chemicals, waited for the thick suds to foam up, and then scrubbed. Slowly, the metal brightened into a shiny, clean copper under her care. Next, she treated the rotary locking bolt that held the door sealed. She ignored Turner as he rocked back and forth on his heels and toes, agitated and impatient. Satisfied, she looked back at him.
He affixed his largest wrench to the thick screw behind the locking bolt wheel to give himself leverage, and pulled. He pulled hard, so hard that Shine saw tiny, hairline cracks start to form in his skin. "Stop!" she said.
She nudged him aside, and grabbed the wrench, her hands mingling with his. They both pulled. Too slowly, the locking bolt turned, and the door sang a dirge of metal sliding on metal, echoing about the chamber.
The bolt finally turned free, and Turner grabbed the wheel in both hands, yanking it counter to the clock until it spun as if newly made.
Shine had to wipe down the rim of the door then, as it was rusted shut. They both combined hands on the bolt wheel, braced their feet against the wall, and pulled.
With a groan and a rush of air, the door came away, yawning into darkness beyond. They managed to open it about a foot until the debris pile stopped them.
Shine looked down to see droplets of blud appear in the cracks in Turner's arms, but he paid it no mind. He stared at the open portal before them. "We'll need light."
"Do you have a torch?"
Neither did, and Lighter, Blaze and Glow would be deep in the sewers right now, helping the crews declog the arteries feeding the Mamabrd. Nothing was more important than that. "Come back tomorrow," Shine said, "The door will be here then."
Turner was getting frustrated. "We can't wait 'til tomorrow. I could be working the other side of the City then! Who knows when I'll get back here?"
Shine stepped back from him. She had never seen him agitated like this. She felt something then, while she watched his fingers flex open and closed, his eyes dart helplessly as he searched for anything to light his way into the black maw before them. Even though they could be killed for it, she wanted to help him. She couldn't have told him why if he'd asked.
She looked around. "Here," she said, "Help me." She grabbed hold of a large, oblong sheet of scuffed steel from the debris pile. Curious, Turner grabbed the other end, and helped her haul it from the junk. She crouched, sprayed the thing with chemicals, and scrubbed until there was a perfect reflection of her in the metal. She pointed toward the back of the chamber, where a red sunbeam struck the pipe-strewn floor. "Use this to catch the light, and angle it toward the door.
He did as she bade, and was amazed when the sunbeam bounced from the steel and bathed the darkness beyond the door with red light. She nodded, and he fixed the steel to a girder with one of the clamps he always carried.
"The sun moves, so we have maybe an hour," Shine said. He nodded, and together they heaved the debris aside and opened the door as far as they could to admit all light.
They crossed the threshold of the hidden door, and entered a room bathed in dim red and black shadow, their own shadows dancing ahead of them. It was moist in here, and their feet sloshed through an inch or two of liquid.
"What is this?" Turner's voice echoed in the chamber. Shine said nothing. She always grew quiet when frightened.
Their eyes adjusted to the dim, red light, enough that Turner began to run his hands over the the metal protrusions that projected from the walls, floor and cieling. "Valves!" he yelped. "Each of these opens."
"Turner, wait!" she said, as she saw what he was about to do, but it was too late. He had already gripped a lock wheel in both hands, and turned it. It spun easily, as if lubricated. In fact, the whole chamber smelled immaculate, without a trace of rust or mildew. She ran a finger across the metal of the chamber in amazement. This was the cleanest place Shine had ever been.
Turner spun the wheel for a dozen revolutions, and then stepped back. "Nothing," he said with a sigh. "I thought something would..."
Something did. A low rush began somewhere deep in the pipes, and rose to a high pitch, a climbing note that wasn't so much a grinding of metal or the flow of fluid, but a song. It sounded like a voice carrying through the steel, released by Turner and the valve.
"It's beautiful," Shine heard herself say. Beautiful? When had she ever used that word? Even her best cleaning job had been only "satisfactory," never beautiful. She had never heard the word used by the others.
Shine had no idea where she had learned it.
"There are more!" Turner began to dart from valve to valve, spinning each lock wheel with such feverish abandon that Shine grew scared again.
"Turner? Turner! We shouldn't be doing this!" She wrapped her arms around herself.
There were more sounds. Each valve Turner turned released a new song, a new rising and falling of notes. They combined with the sounds from the other valves, until the air was filled with them, like Turner and Shine were eavesdropping on a conversation echoing across their steel world. Turner's mouth was agape, his eyes shining, glinting red from the reflected sunlight.
After a time, the music fell to a slow, methodical rhythm. It pulsed through the pipes. Slow, then fast, then slow and fast again. It was familiar, yet nothing that Turner nor Shine had ever heard before.
They stayed as long as they could, sitting there on the flooded floor, listening to the pulse and rhythm of the pipes. As the sunlight began to fade, Shine turned to Turner, "We'd better go."
He nodded, and stood, and it was then that they realized they'd been holding each other's hand.
They were late to the food line the next morning, so they were near the back when it happened. Mamabrd belched and churned and her beaks trembled with effort. When they opened, it wasn't the red paste that coughed forth in thick gobs. It was clear, and came out in a rush.
It sloshed over the front of the line with force, drenching Knotty and Binder. Knotty had her mouth open, as usual, since she rarely stopped talking, but she stopped talking now. Instead, she threw her head back and drank deeply of the clear, crystalline fluid.
The others shifted about, unsure. Some few stepped forward. Beater. Folds. Caller. Cool. Even Breaker, the strongest coward Shine had ever seen, dropped his tools and timidly held out his mammoth hands to the stream.
Then, something happened. Shine had never seen it happen before. She caught it in a glimpse, as Breaker sloshed the clear liquid on his face, and let it pour over him.
He did something then, with his face. His mouth twisted, pulled tight, toward either end. She could see his teeth. Then, he laughed.
The others gasped. Some pointed. "Breaker's mouth!" one said, "What happened to it? Where are his joints?"
Shine stared. It was true. The hinges on his mouth were gone. His skin shone, and not like the shell that all of them had, but like something else. He stood there, staring at himself, turning his hands over as the clear fluid rained down over him. Then, he looked across the feeding plaza, right at Shine.
She stared back, not breathing. Breaker's face had changed. Changed! His forehead drooped and rose, his mouth flexed and twisted, his eyes widened and his tongue lolled about his lips, tasting the rain.
"CHILDREN. MOVE AWAY FROM THE MAMABRD." Auntie's call ripped through the scene on a wave of static. Shine looked up to see the Maulers descending from Auntie's tower, steaming and belching and clangk, clangk, clangking as they marched.
The others began to shrink away. Some even fled. Not Breaker. He stood there in the crystal rain, the look on his face alien to Shine, yet the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. There was that word again.
They fell upon him, smashing with their hammers, and Breaker crumpled.
He did not shatter, but he died all the same.
Someone pulled Shine away, and she barely realized she was screaming. She barely noticed as she was dragged across dark access grids and precarious catwalks held aloft by rusted cables, deep into the heart of the city. At some point, she screamed herself into exhaustion, and fell asleep.
She smelled the clean again. There was light, this time, as she opened her eyes. There was Turner, and nearby was a lantern, hanging from a nozzle in the wall. "You brought me here? Was I asleep?"
"You passed out at the Mamabrd. I didn't know where else to bring you." Turner looked the same as always, but his eyes reflected the lantern light. His voice was low, almost a whisper.
"Where did you get the lantern? Is that Blaze's?"
He looked at it, then back at her. "She let me borrow it."
A second lie. "Blaze would never do that. She loves her lanterns, and the Maulers would pulverize her if they found out she..."
"I took it."
Shine sat up. "You what?"
"I know, I'm sorry. I'll give it back, but I needed light to bring you here, and," he trailed off for a moment, his eyes searching the chamber, "I didn't know where to go, after what they did to Breaker, after what happened to him. Shine, it's our fault, isn't it?"
She stood, and Turner helped her. She looked at the valves, and the pipes and the cieling.
"Can you turn them on again?"
"What? Shine, you saw what happened..."
"Turner," she said, gently putting her fingers over his mouth. "Shut up, and turn them on again."
He fell quiet, and after a few moments of thought, he grabbed hold of the nearest valve lock and turned. Then, another. And another. The song began again. It pulsed and drummed and thrummed and sang around them. Loud.
So loud, they didn't notice the clangking.
"There they are!" Both Turner and Shine turned to face the chamber door. There was Blaze, holding her other lantern, and behind her were two Maulers, steam belching from their backs to curl amongst the singing pipes above them. "Those are the ones what stole my lantern!"
No use protesting, the lantern in question still hung from the nozzle overhead.
"I want my lantern!" Blaze's voice was shrill against the pulsing rhythm of the pipes. The Maulers moved forward, their boyish faces set in grimaces under their heavy goggles, their tubes swaying back and forth, into and out of their swollen, powerful limbs.
Turner and Shine grabbed hold of each other. They couldn't fight the Maulers. No one ever had. They would be crushed here, their skins shattered amongst the music of the pipes. "Turner, Turner, I'm sorry," Shine began.
He turned toward her in time to see it. From her eye, a single drop of fluid. "I'm sorry," she repeated.
One Mauler noticed it. He stared at Shine, and paused.
The second did not. He clangked forward, belching steam, and raised his hammers above Turner and Shine, who held on to each other, waiting to be shattered.
Then, a sickening crunch, and the hiss of steam, and a scream of pain. Shine opened one eye, then the other, and saw one Mauler standing over the other, his hammers dripping with blud, the same blud that rushed and pooled around the head of his fallen brother.
"You did this?" The Mauler's voice was childish, high and whiny. He gazed at the room in wonder. "You made the stuff come out of Mamabrd, that made the boy soft-skinned?"
Turner and Shine still held on to one another, unmoving, but the Mauler would not be denied.
"Is it here? Is the stuff here, in pipes?" The Mauler sloshed forward on all fours, clangking around on his hammerhands and hammerfeet. "In HERE?" he yelled, and he rose up on his hind legs and slammed his hammers into a pipe, bursting the fitting and spraying clear liquid throughout the chamber.
Everyone was drenched. Blaze ran screaming from the chamber. The dead Mauler disappeared under the rush of liquid, colored red by the blud seeping from his shattered head.
But neither Turner nor Shine noticed them, so fixated were they upon the Mauler who still stood, bathing in the fluid from the broken pipe, and laughing louder than the roar of the pipes. The Mauler doubled over, his arms hanging at bizarre angles from elongating joints.
Then, the laughing stopped. Blud started to flow from the Mauler's joints where the machines had been bolted to his hard shell now made soft by the crystalline rain. "No!" he shrieked, as the hammers tore away and fell into the red fluid below, as he looked down at himself in terror, watching as his body fell apart underneath him. He crumpled, shrieking in pain, little more than a torso and a head now, bobbing helplessly in the rising flood.
Turner tore himself from Shine's grasp, and grabbed what was left of the Mauler, turning him over. The Mauler's goggles had come free, taking his eyes with them, and his face was a hideous wreckage. But he was no longer screaming. His eyes were gone, but his mouth was twisted the same way Breaker's had been. He was smiling, and he was dead.
Turner stood, looking down at the dead Mauler as the rain fell upon him, and he felt a hand slide into his. Shine was there, at least he thought it was Shine. Her face was no longer seperated into plates and hinges. Her arms and hands were whole, and her neck turned smoothly. Her shell was no longer a shell, but soft, pliable.
Her other hand came up to meet his face, and he felt her fingers along his cheek, tracing his mouth. He was entranced by her eyes. How they shifted, following her fingers, darting up to meet his gaze, and down again in modesty as his own hand came up to her skin, her lips, and then their lips met, there in the rain, in the midst of the red pool. He felt her smile, and felt other things, too. Stirrings where there had been none before, flooding with feeling and chills and warmth and tension and softness. He could have lost himself then, and she along with him.
The sound tore through their reverie. A metallic groan, from pipes carrying pressures so long denied them, and rivets coming free, bolts loosening, and steel warping to give way to the deluge struggling to get out.
Shine grabbed his hand. "Turner! We need to get out of here!" Even her voice was different, carrying candences and urgencies he had never heard, but had always wished for. They pulled each other through the maelstrom, using the valves and nozzles and potrusions as handholds even as the swirling fluid grew ever deeper around them, threatening to pull them back toward the chamber. They swam, clumsily and desperately, sloshing through the red pool, up the shaft to the catwalks over the secret door, as the tide rose beneath them.
Auntie's voice screamed over the city. "REMAIN CALM. REMAIN CALM. REMAIN CALM." Never before had so many paid so little attention, as the pipes burst overhead, and every duct and groove filled with the strange, clear, cool liquid that softened their skins and made them feel.
The Maulers met the fate of their brother. Shine and Turner stumbled past dozens of them, screaming in horror and pain and a queer, newly-found ecstasy as they felt their hybrid bodies tear and fall asunder.
"The gates!" Turner and Shine bolted for the walls of city, so long forbidden, and the gates to the Green that had spelled death for as long as they could remember. Shine remembered Slicker, falling to his death in the course of his duty, and Bender's skull, dripping Blud, his price paid for defiance.
They reached the gate along with many others, all children who had abandoned the tools of their trades, so that Shine no longer knew their names. Was that Candle? Could the one with the lopsided smile be Joiner? She didn't know, they didn't know, and none of them cared now but for escaping the city that had been their prison, as it flooded with the crystalline tide that had given them feeling, and hope, and fear. But the Gate was solid, and screwed shut.
"Help me!" Turner still had his backbelt, and still had his wrenches. Together, the children of Auntie turned the bolts as the flood rose. They tore thier hands, and bled, and screamed in pain, but still they worked and pulled and shoved and clawed and twisted.
Several drowned, filling soft lungs with rust. More lived, and fought. The Gate was opened, and the flood ran free into the Green beyond.
The rust was behind them, now. They stood there on a hill, watching the red sun dawn anew over a place without steel, or rust, or Auntie's crackle. The river flowed silvery beneath them, and they could almost see in the early, faint light how it flowed into the city that had been their entire world for so long. They heard laughter, and watched the children enjoy their soft skins in the green moistness and the clear flow of the river, exploring each other and themselves even as they stared at the others who did the same.
Turner felt Shine's hand slide into his, and her voice warm upon his neck. He felt the prickle of tiny hairs on his skin, and could not blame the chill of morning air for the sensation.
"What's new?" she asked.