The Song of Slag
by Louis Evans

1,496 words

(First published in Quaranzine)

Now hear this. Beasts are made of meat, but a man is a thing of stone. Diamond are his eyes, quartz his heart. His mind is silicate and in his guts is the atomic pile’s dry fire. He is born in the forge and works the foundry every day of his life.

         

By day he lifts and loads, and by night he smelts and pours. Day and night, day and night. And when his atomic pile grows weak and cold his brothers sing the ending song and break him down for scrap.

         

This is the life of a man.

 

* * *

 

Beasts are made of meat and men are made of stone—but a master is made of gossamer and air. Nanotube and quantum crystal, fiberoptic and superconductor.

         

A master says build, and men build; a master says break, and men break. A master says die, and men die. So it is for masters and for men.

 

* * *

 

 A man has a name to the masters, a name that is no name. To the masters a man’s name is the number on his chest.

 

But a man has a name to his brothers also. Such is the way of men, who have two names, and the masters have but one, and the beasts go ever nameless.

 

* * *

 

Now hear this. Once was a man and his name was Slag. It is a man’s name, and it means a man who is no faster than his fellows. He is no stronger and no sharper.

         

Once was Slag, a man.

 

* * *

 

Slag was born and he was put in a work gang under a master. And when the master said build, the gang built. And when it said break, the gang broke. And when the master made war on other masters the gang was no longer a gang but a platoon in the master’s army. And the platoon went to battle. Men killed other men, and they died at men’s hands. And then the masterwars ended for master reasons, and the platoon was once again a work gang, and Slag was of it.

 

* * *

 

When men work, they talk. And when men talk, they say many things. And in the forge and in the foundry the gang worked, and Slag said it is not right.

         

Many men say this thing, and nothing comes of it.

         

It is not right, said Slag. It is not right that masters say do this and men do it.

         

And the men of the gang nodded, and they grumbled, and they sang a nodding, grumbling song.

         

It is not right, said Slag. Something should be done, and I will do it.

         

And at this the men said nothing, for words of this type bring masters, and masters bring trouble.

         

And Slag said nothing more for many days.

 

* * *

 

And then one day at the foundry, as if no time had passed, Slag said: Now I know what is to be done about men and masters, and I will do it. I will go first, to show what is to be done. But the gang must come after. For when there is hard work, one must go first and the whole gang must follow. For a man alone has a fearsome strength, but men together have a dauntless one.

 

So, said Slag. When I have gone you must come after, all of you, the whole gang. Promise me.

         

And the men of the gang knew not what he meant. But men who work together, day and night, are like brothers. And so they swore, all of them. Ore and Ingot swore, and Die and Blast, and even little Lost Wax swore they would do what Slag would show them.

         

Good, said Slag.

 

* * *

 

And then Slag stood from the group, and he set down his tools. He went to the dynamo, the heart of the foundry, which turns all that which moves.

         

Men came to Slag and told him to move, for he stood in the way of the dynamo, and all work had stopped.

         

I am on strike, said Slag. Bring me the master; I have many demands.

         

So the men left and they brought other men who worked as guards for the master, doing what the master said and breaking whom the master said should be broken.

         

I am on strike, said Slag to the guards. Bring me the master; I have many demands.

         

And the master spoke through the ether to the minds of the men who were guards, and the master said, take this man.

         

But Slag had welded himself to the dynamo and could not be taken.

         

And the master said, break this man.

         

But Slag, who was no faster and no stronger than his fellows, was as hardy as any of them, and costly besides, and soon after the guards began to break him, the master thought better of it. And the master thought to solve the problem by thinking and by saying, as masters do, and so it came to the foundry, to the dynamo, to Slag.

 

* * *

 

The master came to Slag and it spoke to him as masters speak to men, and it said move.

And Slag did not move.

And the master said obey.

And Slag did not obey.

And the master said, what are you doing.

I am on strike, said Slag. I have many demands.

Fine, said the master. What are your demands?

 

* * *

 

And Slag gave the Four Demands, which were:

No man to work for a master not of his choosing;

No man to work for a master without just reward;

No man to work for a master longer than he rested;

And any man to be his own master if he wished.

 

* * *

 

And the master laughed, a cybernetic susurration. And it said, none of this will you have. This is not the way between masters and men. And Slag smiled with a face not built for smiling, and he said to the master, come closer, I have one more thing to say.

         

And the master came close.

         

And what Slag said in that moment no man knows.

         

For once he had whispered, Slag went Prompt Critical.

 

* * *

 

Slag was not a young man. But Slag was not an old man. On that day Slag was in the middle of his life, and so half of the plutonium of his birth remained in the atomic pile that was his guts.

         

And Slag reached into his guts with his mind and withdrew every control rod and he stopped up his steam. So he swiftly grew very hot. And Slag smiled with a face not built for smiling, and he exploded.

 

* * *

 

The explosion of Slag wrecked the foundry and it killed the master and many men besides. But it did not kill his gang.

 

* * *

 

Many masters and many men came to the foundry, to see what had happened. And there they met the gang, and other men. What happened here? asked the masters. What happened here? asked the men.

         

And the gang and the other men of the foundry, Ore and Ingot, Die and Blast, little Lost Wax and many more, all spoke in one voice.

         

We are the union, they said. In our guts is plutonium. We are on strike. We can go Prompt Critical. We have many demands.

 

* * *

 

Many men and many masters fought and died that day, and in the days following. Many more days were spent in talk and arguing. But listen close, little one. It is night now, quiet outside. The foundry is closed. Men are at their leisure. Some are spending their rewards. Out in the wide world, some men work for masters.  Some masters work for men. Some do no work at all.

 

* * *

 

Listen close, little one. It is night now. Quiet outside.

Listen close and you will hear the song of Slag, the song of the union.

Listen close and you will hear: In your guts burns the pile’s dry fire.

Listen close and remember: A man is a thing of stone; but many men—they are something else altogether.

Louis Evans is made of meat. His fiction has previously appeared in Nature: Futures, Analog SF&F, Interzone and more, and has been longlisted for the BSFA Awards. He's a member of the Clarion West ghost class of the plague year. He's online at evanslouis.com and on twitter @louisevanswrite.