Goddess of the Barricades
By Andrew Knighton
Benoit was at the barricades when the police arrived, snarling beneath their peaked caps, shields of corrugated iron held out before them. Five days of protest had given the Merchant Council time to deputise other reactionaries, and behind the career constables came a mob of petty merchants and paid skinheads wielding broomsticks and shovel handles.
'The proletariat have spoken!' Benoit scrambled up a mound of cobbles, hair streaming out behind him like a hero from classical myth. He struck his finest oratorical pose and addressed the forces of counter-revolution. 'Your hegemony is at an end. With the throbbing muscle of the unions and the fiery soul of the student body combined, we cannot be moved. We stand united for equality, for freedom, for-'
The ground shook beneath him, cobbles rattling down to the road, and he sank to his knees. To his left, a shop front trembled and started to grind back along the road. The terrace to the right was moving as well, threatening to leave the barricade exposed in the middle of a crossroads, with reactionaries closing in on three sides.
Benoit cursed. His fellow students, mostly philosophers and poets like himself, milled nervously around. They had no idea how the city worked, how this part had been made to stand still since the protest began. They were men and women of words, fine words, logical words, motivational words. But in the city's ancient mechanisms left them as lost as leaves on the ocean.
It was then that he saw her, striding out of the crowd with sledgehammer in her hand. She was tall and athletic, a coffee-skinned goddess. The scars down the left side of her face accentuated her fierce beauty. Benoit's soul rushed forth in a deep, stricken sigh.
She strode to the end of the barricade where the shops were making their slow retreat. She bent, stuck a foot-long iron spike in the ground, and stood back. Her hammer fell in a strong, stately arc, driving the spike down in a single blow.
The shops stood shuddering, shutters rattling, as gears strained in their tracks. Before they could break free other labourers swarmed forward, hammering their own pinions into place, halting the buildings on both sides of the street.
Benoit slid down to the cobbles, bruising his backside in his hurry to meet her.
'That was incredible!' He rushed towards her, hand outstretched in solidarity. 'You have frozen the counter-revolution in its tracks.'
'Gives us another day.' She shouldered her sledgehammer but ignored his hand. 'Coppers are still here.'
Yelling voices, crashing stones and smashing glass announced the arrival of the police at the barricade, and the protesters' traditional response. She started to climb the defences, to join in the action. As she did so Benoit heard a hiss of steam, caught a glimpse of metal between the top of her boot and the end of her boiler suit. This woman had suffered for her labours, lost a leg to the cruelty of the bourgeoisie. He wondered where the piston-powered replacement ended, where her flesh began.
'I'm with you, comrade!' He scrambled after her, slipped and smacked his chin as a cobblestone rolled away beneath his hand. At last he reached the pinnacle of the revolutionary defences, face throbbing but heart filled with pride. Below, the police had pulled back, while armoured science soldiers dragged a squat brass mortar up in their midst.
Seized by a fit of passion, he began singing the Hymn of the Masses, and soon his student brethren were joining him in song. He glanced over at her, expecting to enjoy their shared fervour. But she was ignoring him, ignoring the whole ragged choir, busy leading her labouring comrades in reinforcing the end of the barricade.
Benoit's voice faltered with embarrassment, the Hymn dying on his lips.
'Brothers and sisters!' He raised his arms, addressing the socialists, anarchists and motley idealists who formed the student mob. 'Let us aid our working allies in their labours. Together we will stand stronger against the capitalists!'
Cheering enthusiastically, the students headed towards the labourers assembling their improvised buttresses. But as they approached, Benoit's goddess of the barricades turned and held out her hands in rejection.
'Stay back,' she said. 'This is real work.'
'Comrade, we're here to help.' Benoit flung his arms wide, smiling broadly.
'Don't comrade me,' she said. 'I've seen your sort of help.'
'What do you mean?' Benoit slumped. There was steel in her voice, an antagonism he expected to see against the Merchant Council, not fellow revolutionaries.
'Pamphlets. Posters. Manifestos.' She counted them off on leather-gloved fingers. 'All in our names. All riling the Council against us.'
'We must raise the banner of change, offer the possibility of a better world.'
'We must eat. We were hours from a settlement, from better wages, when you turned the strike into this.'
Benoit hung his head. He'd always taken for granted his role as a voice of the working poor, articulating an outrage that they could not. No other view had occurred to him.
'Why are you still here then?' he asked.
'It is what it is.' The mortar let out a low 'whump' and a smoke bomb sailed over her head. 'We give in now, we get nothing. Can't let that be.'
'Surely we can help . Just tell us what to do.'
'I'm a turbine yard foreman.' She pointed to the people working on the barricade, straining like the muscles of a single body. Ropes and levers, pulleys and pickaxes joined in one smooth movement. 'Those are navvies, brick-layers, bridge builders. You think they learnt this work in a day? You'd be more risk than help.'
She must have seen the disappointment in Benoit's face, the agitation of the others behind him. She laid a heavy hand on his shoulder, gazed at him with big, brown eyes that made his heart pound like a piston. It was not the sort of touch he wanted from her, but it was a start.
'Keep the police busy,' she said. 'It's the best you can do.'
Benoit grinned, pulled a red flag from his waistcoat pocket.
'Prepare to be dazzled!'
Her name was Amina. Benoit squeezed the information from her in a single grudging conversation while they paused for water.
By then they were all wearing improvised masks, pocket handkerchiefs or torn corners of shirts soaked in water to hinder the choking smoke launched into their midst. Benoit and his compatriots played the theatrical fool, that tangling of simpleton and genius, for an un-paying, uniformed crowd. They spouted rhetoric, bounced between barricades and buildings, flung as many flowers as they did stones. The forces of authority, police constables and science soldiers alike, stood erect but uncertain before their ever-shifting antics. Those uniformed men watched, flung smoke bombs, clubbed any student who came into reach. There were bloodied faces and a handful of arrests, but the protesters held them back long enough at every turn for Amina's crew to reinforce the barricades, raise them higher, fix buildings that threatened to stir on their rails.
The faces of the science soldiers were hidden by gas masks, but the police looked increasingly frustrated, and it couldn't be long before they launched a full-on attack.
As dusk fell, Benoit sat on the top of the Bank Avenue barricade, left leg dangling out into enemy territory. This was one of the quieter spots, but a steady stream of smoke bombs still sailed over his head, while bottles, stones and curses were flung back the other way. With one hand he waved his red flag at the faceless bulls down the street. With the other he sipped from a quart of gin.
Heavy footfalls and a light piston hiss announced that Amina was joining him. She flung one leg over the barricade, a heavy, steel-toed boot hanging an inch from his scuffed town shoe.
'Seems you're not all useless,' she said with a warm smile.
'I try.' He passed her the bottle and she took a deep, satisfied gulp. A tiny trickle of gin escaped her lips and ran down her throat, glinting in the torchlight.
'You really believe in all this?' She passed the bottle back. He tingled as their fingers touched. 'Liberty, democracy, a fair share for all?'
'Of course!' He tossed his hair indignantly. 'Would I risk life and limb, not to mention my career prospects, for hollow rhetoric and a chance to scream at policemen? If that was all I wanted I'd become a lawyer.'
'How many workers do you know?'
He hesitated. He had some snappy answers to this, ways to win a debate, to impress the impressionable with his knowledge of mankind. He suspected they would find no traction with her.
'As of now, just you.' He said hesitated, worried at how she would respond. 'But I'm very impressed.'
'Why believe in us then?'
'A priest need not meet God to know that he is great. I can but hear a dog in the night and feel for its suffering. Our city teems with a writhing mass of the oppressed, those whose work buoys us all up but who suffer every day beneath a crushing system. How could I not believe in them?'
She held out her hand, shook his with a grip like iron.
'You're not bad, Benoit.' She leaned forward, looked him in the eye. 'Not bad at all.'
'Yet nowhere near as good as you.' He leaned forward too, pulse racing as he moved towards a kiss.
She jerked back.
'We're in a riot,' she said. 'Don't you have any sense of what matters?'
A whistle blew behind the police lines. Science soldiers came rushing towards the barricade, tesla guns sparking in their hands, electricity blasting the barricade.
Benoit yelped as man-made lightning struck his leg, sending his knee into spasm. He flung himself back behind the barricade, bruising his chest in the process.
Amina was on her feet, sledgehammer raised, ducking as tesla fire crackled past.
'Get up here, all of you,' she yelled, and dozens rushed to join her. She pointed down at the approaching soldiers. 'This is it!'
Benoit tried to raise himself from the street on aching limbs. As he did so, a manhole cover slid open and the peak of a policeman's cap emerged.
'No, that is it!' Benoit pointed in panic at the blue-clad figures scrambling out of the manhole.
The Council must have spent all day rearranging pipes beneath this street, manoeuvring sewer lines through the cables and gears that kept the city moving. Arranged them so slowly that no-one heard a hint of what was to come.
It had worked. The police were past the barricades, ready to run riot among the protesters.
Benoit's stomach heaved in terror as they bore down on him, truncheons raised, grinning like beasts from the pit.
Then came a piston hiss, a pounding of heavy boots. He was lifted from the ground and flung over a muscled shoulder. The world became a jumble of images as his face bounced against Amina's back. He saw police scattering before her hammer, protesters running and fighting, the whole mass receding between rubble and buildings as she raced down the street, faster than any constable on her steam-powered legs.
They reached an alley, out of sight of the violence on the avenue, and she flung him to the ground. His head thudded on the wall, as bruised and aching at back as at front. A terrible dampness seeped from the gutter into his trousers, but at least he was safe.
He looked up at his saviour, this fantastic mechanised Amazon, and she looked back down at him.
'Are you alright?' Her voice held an unfamiliar softness.
'Of course.' He tried not to wince as he rose unsteadily to his feet. He was trembling as much as the wall behind him, the street straining in its stopped tracks, caught between the machines that would drive it onward and the steel spikes that held it in place. He wanted to be like that building, firm despite the strain, to show her that he was made of strong stuff.
'Well you shouldn't be.' She slammed him back against the wall, and he realised that she too was trembling, though with frustration rather than pain. 'We've failed. We'll lose our jobs, our homes, our future. We'll all end up beaten and flung in jail, if we even survive. You and your smart talking friends, you led us down this path, but weren't smart enough to beat the police. We weren't strong enough to hold out. It's all lost.'
They were so close that, even in the darkness of the alley at nightfall, he could see tears shimmering in the corners of her eyes, diamonds of passion gleaming on rough ground. Was that pain or fear or loss? He couldn't tell, but he longed to fix it.
He should have been scared, trapped by a furious mass of muscle and machine. But he knew there was nothing to fear. He believed in Amina - as a woman, as a worker, as a leader of her cause. He would trust her no matter what.
He had to show that she too could believe in him.
'I have a plan.' He lowered a hand to her waist, took a crowbar from her tool belt and slid out of her grasp.
Praying for time from a god he didn't believe in, he strode out into the street. Gas lamps were flickering into life, their supply reconnected to guide the oppressors. But by the same light he was able to examine the bases of the buildings, the places where their walls gave way to tracks, his best hope for liberty.
There it was. A steel spike.
Benoit thrust the crowbar beneath the head of the spike. Applying the science of mechanics and all the strength left in his weary muscles, he levered it free.
The building shook as the spike clunked out. A tile slid loose and crashed down in the street.
'What are you doing?' Amina stood behind him, another crowbar in hand. 'I put those in.'
'Now take them out.' Benoit moved to the next spike, wriggled his crowbar in next to it. 'You have nothing to lose but your chains!'
'I don't have any chains,' Amina said, but she was bending to the work, flipping the spikes free with unnerving ease.
The road shook, a terrace jumping a foot down its track. In the distance, the top of a barricade slid away, blocking a pair of science soldiers as they chased protesters down the street.
'Of course!' Amina exclaimed, and set to the work with renewed energy.
A policeman yelled. Heavy footfalls headed their way, gaining speed as they grew closer.
Benoit finished yanking out a spike, grabbed Amina's arm and headed into the alleyway. He ran hell for leather, barely able to keep up with her though she paused every twenty feet to lever out a spike. Each time she grinned back at him, waiting till he caught up before releasing the next set of gears.
The police entered the alleyway just before it moved. With a sound like a rifle volley the last spikes shot free and the buildings rushed forward. Normally they might have moved thirty feet in an hour, but a day's worth of trapped energy drove them. They whipped the caps from the policemen's heads in the wind of their passage.
Benoit and Amina kept running, pursued by yells and whistles. With a grinding crunch another building broke free, knocking two of the policemen from their feet. All around them buildings were moving in, a chain reaction that sent spikes spinning free all over the district.
They ran into a warehouse just before it was closed off by a passing factory. By the time they reached the end of the building their pursuers were lost. Ahead was a frenzy of moving walls, running protesters and bewildered police.
'I'd like to see them arrest us all now,' Benoit said.
'And the protest?' Amina's eyes sparkled. She knew the answer, he could tell. But like him she needed to hear it out loud.
'As long as we're free, the protest goes on. This is our freedom - all equally lost in the spinning city.'
She grabbed his hand, pulled him close to her.
'Don't you have a sense of what matters?' he asked.
'No,' she said, moving in for the kiss. 'But I believe in you.'
About the Author
Andrew is a freelance writer based in Stockport, England, where the grey skies provide a good motive to stay inside at the word processor. He's had over forty stories published in places such as Daily Science Fiction, Wily Writers and Ann VanderMeer’s Steamunk anthologies. You can find out more about his writing at andrewknighton.wordpress.com and follow him on Twitter @gibbondemon .