Fixer, Worker, Singer
by Natalia Theodoridou
Fixer Turns on the Stars
The sky creaks as Fixer makes his way across the steel ramp that is suspended under the firmament. It’s time to turn on the stars. He pauses a few steps from where the switches and pulleys are located and looks down. He allows himself only one look down each day, just before sunset: at the rows of machines, untiring, ever-moving; at the Singer’s house with its loudspeakers, sitting in the middle of the world; at the steep, long ladder that connects the Fixer’s realm to everything below. He’s only gone down that ladder once, and it was enough. Fixer caresses the head of the hammer hanging from his belt. Then he walks to the mainboard and turns off the sun. The stars come on. He pulls on the ropes to wheel out the moon. There. Job well done.
Fixer senses the coil inside him uncoiling. He retrieves the key from the chest pocket of his coveralls and thumbs its engraving: Wind yourself in the Welder’s name. He inserts the key’s end in the hole at the side of his neck and winds himself up. In the Welder’s name.
The sky creaks.
Wound up and tense as a chord, Fixer sits on the ramp and rests his torso against the railing. He inspects the firmament under the light of the starbulbs. The paint is chipping—it will need redoing soon. He wonders whether it was the Welder himself who first painted the sky. It must have been him, no? Who else could have done it, before Fixer existed? Fixers, he corrects himself, and the coil tugs at him with what could be guilt, but is not. He imagines the Welder — just his hands; he can’t picture all of him, never has been able to — slathering on the blue paint, then carefully tracing the outlines of clouds.
Fixer pulls the wine flask out of the side pocket of his coveralls and takes a swig. It’s just stage booze, water colored red, can’t get drunk on it; he figured that out a long time ago, but he still likes to pretend, especially when the sky creaks the way it does tonight, when his coil is tense just so. What wouldn’t he give to feel things — what hasn’t he given — to be drunk, to be angry, to be excruciatingly joyful. But the world is so quiet now, quietly falling away, even emergencies are rare; and it’s lonely under the stars. He takes another swig from the flask. “Make-believe wine in honor of the Great Welder in the sky,” he says. Another swig. The coil eases some, his back slumps a little against the railing.
One of the stars didn’t come on, he notices; the bulb must have given out. Fixer gazes at the concrete shape of the moon haloed by the spotlight that’s reflected off its surface. There is rebar poking through at the sides, the back is crumbling. But that doesn’t matter. Only Fixer can see the back side. Things only have one good side, from which they are meant to be looked at.
Yes, the world is quiet now, but for the creaking of the sky. The hum of the machines below has stopped for the night. There used to be thunder beyond the firmament, but not anymore. There used to be singing from the Singer’s house and the Welder’s voice blasting through the pipes of the world. Now there’s only the Singer’s rusty voice spilling out of the loudspeakers in short, shallow bursts.
“Tap into this thing, this ugly feeling of despair,” the Singer’s voice croaks, as if she knows, actually knows what it’s like to stare at the back side of the moon.
Fixer glances at the blown starbulb again. The coil inside his chest wants to spring forth, find the spare lightbulbs in the dark, fix it. Fixer fixes the sky, and if he doesn’t, he’s no Fixer at all, is he?
But, instead, he takes another swig from the wine flask — watercolor communion with the Welder who fashioned the world. He closes his eyes.
“I’ll fix it tomorrow,” he says out loud.
Singer: His Voice in Fragments
Your metallic voice. The wind rushing through me.
I remember when we voiced this pipe organ together, every flue, every reed, so it could breathe with your truth. Now everything is rusty and old. Falling. And apart.
I haven’t seen you in so long.
Fragments of your voice run through me and into your organ, my organ, when I least expect it. When I manipulate the pipes, aching to make each one sound the way it used to, I cut my fingers on the rough edges and fake blood comes out, mixed with grease.
And I have all these foreign memories that you planted my body with, these fragments I cut myself on every day:
An old man tuning a pipe organ.
A .45 round nose bullet fired from a handgun, tunneling through a body — and did you know the machine gun was inspired by a seed-planting machine, way back? Of course you did.
And there’s also the voice of a very young poet made great only by his self-imposed death. Why did you deem this story important for me to know? Am I to sing about it? Every day, I think about the poet. Is it because the poet-boy worked at a factory? Was it much like this one? Is it true he fed himself to the machines?
You are not forthcoming with answers to my questions.
And I have enough self-awareness to know I am falling apart, but I do not know why or why not or why I should keep myself from doing so. Yours was always a practical project first and foremost, yet you never lacked in poetry. Why else would you have installed a Singer in the middle of it all?
And why did you leave me here, all alone? Fixer always had a partner, each the fail-safe of the other, keeping one another from thinking themselves more than they are, and Workers are many, because you needed many. But there has only ever been one Singer.
Was I your most successful feature? Or the least so?
I press the loudspeaker pipe open. “Tap into this thing,” I say, “this ugly feeling of despair,” and not even I am sure who I am talking to anymore.
Worker: Keep This Shop Like You Would Your Home
Pull, turn, press, says the coiled thing inside. So we pull, we turn, we press. The conveyor belt does not pause, and neither do we.
We work the line. We never blink. Our eyes close when the shift is over and only then. We never blink or we will miss the next beat. The next bullet. And the next.
Projectile, case, primer. The propellant container is empty, has been for some time, the great barrels that used to haul it in came empty for a while, then stopped coming in at all. Should we stop? Could we stop? We shouldn’t. We couldn’t. We didn’t. We don’t.
Pull, turn, press. Projectile, case, primer. No propellant. The bullets are lighter now. But the work doesn’t stop, the work doesn’t change. Handling the lighter bullets takes great care. Our hands are slowly accustoming to the new weight. Pull, turn, press. Don’t make a mess. We keep this shop like we would our home. Just as the sign on the wall says we should. We glance at it. Only glance. We never blink.
Our eyes are dry and our wrists hurt. They hurt so much we wish we could take them off, and the coil inside us slowly unwinds.
At night, when the moon comes out and our shift ends, we will close our eyes. We remind ourselves.
At night, when the moon comes out and the shift ends, we will wind ourselves up. One more time.
Then, a piece of the sky comes down with a thud.
We glance up.
Singer Sings of Holes in the Sky
There is a hole in the sky. Does this mean you’re coming back? Does this mean you’ve started dismantling the firmament on your way back to us?
I blow through a loose flue — disconnected from the organ like that, it reminds me of a long gun’s barrel, its speech as distinct as rifling, as fingerprints, as a person’s voice.
I hold my palms in front of my eyes.
Why did you make me without fingerprints?
I search my repertoire for answers, but I only come up with tidbits about wound ballistics instead:
Hollow-point bullets do not penetrate as deeply as round nose bullets, but they expand to almost twice their size within a person’s body, causing devastating damage to surrounding tissue.
Why did you want me to know all these things?
How can I still love you, knowing you made me so I would know all these things? Can I?
Are you coming back to me through the bullet wound in the sky?
Worker Prays to a Bullet
A piece of the sky came loose and fell to the ground and from inside us came the sound of a spring breaking.
Pull, turn, press. Projectile, case, primer. Something loose, above, inside. Pull, turn, press. We cannot look at the missing piece of the sky. We cannot look at the hole in the world. Instead we pull, we turn, we press. We don’t blink. Our wrists hurt. Tonight, when our shift ends we will close our eyes and we will step back from the conveyor belt and we will rub our wrists and we will hold our wrists close to the uncoiling thing inside. And we will feel it uncoil almost all the way and then we will wind ourselves up again. And we will look to the left, to the pile of all our other bodies rusting neatly one on top of the other. Did all our other wrists hurt like this before each of these other bodies of ours stopped working? Did we forget to wind all our other bodies up again before our coils unraveled all the way to their very end? This, we will wonder. One more time.
And we will sweep the floor around our other bodies, and we will polish every part of the machines, every piston, every cog. We will keep this shop like we would our home, and then we will look up and we will close our eyes and we will open our mouths and we will wait for the Singer’s voice to fill our insides, and it will be as if we have swallowed a piece of the sun with sharp, rusty edges that catch on our tongue, and even the rust will be good, and so we will praise the Great Welder in the sky who made the sun and the moon and the stars.
But thinking ahead to the end of the shift won’t do. Pull, turn, press. Our wrists hurt, something is loose, and we drop a bullet to the floor, scatter primers everywhere. We’ve made a mess. We should keep this shop like we would our home, even when there’s a hole in the sky. The coil inside strains as we pick the bullet up and hold it high above our head against the light of the sun and it is light and light and light. Its full metal jacket, its hollow point. We see it going into a person’s body. Inside the person’s body, the bullet blooms into a flower.
Who would think of such a thing, other than the Welder in the sky, who made the sun and the moon and the rust?
We look at the bullet and see it is a thing of beauty. The conveyor belt advances, the bullets unpulled, unpressed, unturned. Full metal flowers — do they dream of blooming?
Our wrists hurt. We think of praying. The words of the Singer’s song to the Great Welder in the sky flash in our head, as bright and comforting as the stars. The coil inside sings: O Welder, O Welder hallowed be thy name — but the words twist as the coil uncoils and the sky creaks and primers are at our feet and the conveyor belt conveys faster than our wrists can move and the bullet is beautiful today. O bullet, our coil sings, flying lead ricocheting off our tongue, O bullet, O bullet in the sky—
Fixer Looks for a Piece of the Sky
Fixer was changing the blown starbulb when the piece of the sky came loose, leaving a gaping hole in the firmament. The sound it made as it hit the ground sent a shiver down Fixer’s spine and caused his coil to tingle with tension.
But now he is calm, standing at the top of the ladder, looking down. The sky needs fixing and he is the only one to do it — and do it well. It might take a long time, looking for the piece, going all the way down and then back up again, it will throw the days and nights into chaos for sure, but what else can he do? There is no other Fixer to turn off the sun while he’s gone. Not any more. And so he sets out for the ground, to walk among the machines and the Workers and the noises of the world. It’s been a very long time since he’s last been to the ground. His hands feel like they might be trembling, but they are not. Is this excitement?
Off he goes. Down, down, down, for a long time.
His feet are steady on each step of the ladder, his arms are strong, but the coiled thing inside his chest is coming looser and looser as time passes, and he will soon need winding up again or he won’t make it. He’s almost to the last of his coil when he realizes he can see the sun from its good side. It is round and shiny and bright, despite the creeping rust at the edges of the metallic surface. It’s perfect.
The coil inside him creaks, and so does the sky. He takes out the key with unsteady hands — almost drops it, in fact, and then what would happen? What would happen to the world if he gave out and there was no one to move time along anymore? He inserts the key into his neckhole and twists and twists, his body tensing with every turn, and he knows deep in his core that now would be the time to switch off the sun and to wheel out the moon so the machines can stop and the Workers can wind themselves up again under the sound of the Singer’s song. But he’s not there to do that anymore, and it is still day even though it’s night. He wonders what an endless day might do to the world, what sights may be seen under this much unexpected light. He wonders if the other Fixer will be waiting for him on the ground, accusing, staring at his hammer, understanding nothing, stage blood coming out of his head.
Fixer chastises himself and speeds up his descent. It shouldn’t be long now.
And if the other Fixer is there, waiting, so what. Stage blood washes off easy.
When he finally gets to the ground, he lands amidst the loud, tireless machines producing garlands upon garlands of cartridges. It takes him a while to understand what the heap lying next to the ladder is. Then, he sees them, an arm here, a face there, the pile of Workers’ bodies stacked neatly one on top of the other. What has happened here? What has become of the world while he was up there taking care of the stars?
There is a single Worker tending to the conveyor belt. She moves slowly, unsteadily—she’s near the end of her coil, surely.
“Hey, you, Worker!” he shouts in order to be heard over the clamor of the machines.
She turns her head, only for an instant, but still her hands miss the next bullet, scattering primers all over the floor by her feet.
Fixer walks closer. “What happened to all the other Workers?” he asks.
“We’re all still here,” she says. “But not all of us talk and move any more.” She speaks slowly. She’s almost done, almost spent.
“You can stop working now,” Fixer says. “Your shift is over. Wind yourself, in the Welder’s name.”
“But it’s still day.”
“No, it’s not. It’s night.” He points at the hole in the firmament. “I just had to come down here, so there’s no one left to turn on the stars.”
Worker is still working, but she steals furtive glances at the sky. “But it’s not night,” she insists. Her voice quivers.
He approaches, his hammer swinging at his belt. He looks at this Worker, the tragedy of her existence, the completeness of her devotion. She will work herself to the end, and it’s all his fault. He gently takes her shoulders and pulls her away from the conveyor belt, letting the half-formed bullets fall off the end and clatter onto the ground. Her hands are still going through the motions, pulling, turning, pressing. He grabs them, steadies them. “It’s OK,” he says. “It’s night. You can stop now. It’s night.” He repeats this until she stops moving.
She holds her hands close to her chest and stares at the sky for a long time. Then she lets her body slump onto the floor.
Fixer sits on the ground next to her, his back against the unfaltering machinery of the world. He feels his coil uncoil slowly, looks over to the pile of Workers, and, for a moment, he wonders if this is it. If he should just sit here next to the last of the Workers, allow his coil to uncoil all the way to the end and stay there, let his body shut down, collecting dust under the relentless light of the sun.
But then his eye catches a glimpse of the hole in the sky and the coil inside strains because he needs to fix the flaw in the world. So he gets back up and goes look for the missing piece of the sky.
Before he starts climbing the ladder with the piece held tightly under his arm, he puts his key in the Worker’s neck and winds her up. For a moment, she looks confused. Then she’s on her feet again, pulling, turning, pressing, as if nothing has passed between them, or between her and the world. She doesn’t say a word.
Singer: His Voice Back Together Again
I thought the day’s length was a sign that you were coming back. I thought the hole in the sky was a sign that all of this was finally over — the constant fight against the rust with nothing but grease and a handful of facts that I no longer know how to assemble into songs.
But the hole is gone now and the sun no longer shines in the sky; the world is healed, restored, the creation you left behind intact, self-preserved.
The organ’s voicing is as complete and perfect as it is ever going to be without you. You made me well, but you did not make me to last forever, did you? Because, now, wouldn’t that be cruel?
Tonight, I will sing my best hymn to you. It has only one word, but it is the sweetest one I know, O Welder, O Welder in the sky, and the only one I know to be true.
Look, the moon is coming out.
Fixer Sleeps Under the Stars
Fixer’s limbs feel heavy and worn as he paints over the restored piece of the firmament under the faint shine of the moon. He could have looked through the hole in the sky, but he didn’t. The coil wouldn’t let him, he told himself; it jerked and strained at the mere thought. Besides, why would he? The world is fine as it is. Soon, everything will be as it was before, as if nothing ever happened.
As soon as he finishes the restoration, he turns on the stars, and each one comes alive, bright and familiar, their light soft and soothing.
The coil inside him is quiet now. The Singer’s voice spills out of the loudspeakers. Is it just him, Fixer wonders, or does it sound just as it used to when they first came into the world, before the rust, before the world started giving out, falling apart? She really does have the most beautiful voice, Singer.
“Welder, Welder, Welder,” she repeats, all night long, making everything okay.
Fixer decides to sleep in his ropes tonight, suspended under the stars, lulled by the Singer’s voice and the creaking of the sky.
In his dream, he’s carrying the piece of the sky under his arm. There is a great joy inside his chest. He takes a swig from his flask and it burns his throat as if it were no longer stage wine. It makes his coil vibrate with song.
“Could I sing?” he wonders. “Could a Fixer ever sing?”
Drunk on his joy and his wine, Fixer no longer thinks of the tired Worker below. He doesn’t think of the pile of bodies, or of the other Fixer’s head staring at what can no longer be fixed.
In his dream, Fixer runs his fingers over the surface of the sky. He traces its length, its chipping paint, the flat outlines of its clouds. Then he pulls his hammer from his tool belt and caresses its head while the coil inside loosens and loosens.
In Fixer’s dream, the flawed world creaks. Before nailing the fallen piece back in place, he peeks through the hole in the firmament, at the maddening beauty, at the stars beyond the stars.
About the Author
Natalia Theodoridou is a finalist for the 2018 World Fantasy Award for Short Fiction, an editor of sub-Q interactive fiction magazine, and a Clarion West graduate (class of 2018). Natalia’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Nightmare, Fireside, and elsewhere. For more, visit www.natalia-theodoridou.com or follow @natalia_theodor on Twitter.
About the Narrators
Tina Connolly is the author of the Ironskin trilogy from Tor Books, and the Seriously Wicked series from Tor Teen. Her novels have been finalists for the Nebula and the Norton. Her very first Escape Pod appearance was in #209, when “On the Eyeball Floor” was narrated by Norm Sherman, and she’s been providing narration for PodCastle since our miniature episode 23, about 8 months prior to her first publication with Escape Pod. Her stories are collected in On the Eyeball Floor and Other Stories, from Fairwood Press. She is one of the current co-hosts of Escape Pod, and her narrations have appeared all over.
She is extremely delighted to have had both her stories and her narrations featured on all four Escape Artists podcasts. Find her intermittent, Parsec-winning flash fiction podcast at Toasted Cake, or find her at tinaconnolly.com.
Jen Albert is an entomologist, writer, editor, narrator, game-player, cosplayer, streamer, reader of All the Things, and haver of far too many hobbies.
Jen somehow became co-editor of her favorite fantasy fiction podcast; she now wonders if she’s still allowed to call it her favorite. She works full-time as an editor at Toronto-based publisher ECW Press.