There’s something fun about using images as inspiration for these stories. This one is inspired by Lunch Break at the Workshop by Erik Taberman over at ArtStation, which was picked in my most recent Weekly NerdArt Picks. I highly encourage you to go check out his work at https://www.artstation.com/artist/taberman.
Wally cranked hard on the bolt, sealing the front carapace panel on the work mech. He leaned back, inhaling the mixed smells of the grease and fresh bread. Dust motes, sparkling in the sunlight poking through the windows, drifted on the eddies of gentle air currents, giving the workshop an almost magical feel.
Behind him, Frida, Danel, Professor Fahsbender and Carn, the lunch delivery boy, roiled in laughter. Carn must have said something funny. He was always saying something funny. Wally supposed that was why the girls in town always found him so interesting.
Pride swelled in Wally. Even after three weeks, he still could not believe he was a free man apprenticing under The Professor. Out of all of the slaves in the Confederacy, The Professor had purchased him. Then, of all things, the man had given Wally his freedom and offered him an apprenticeship. As if Wally’s freedom was not his greatest dream, the Professor was considered the greatest mechanist in the country. Some even said none in Caeledonia or Albior could match his knowledge and skill at creating new and wondrous machines, to study under him more than Wally had ever thought possible.
He hopped down from the short step ladder and stepped over to grab a slice of the bread and a piece of fruit. Frida snatched the last banana out from under Wally’s fingers. If he’d been with his friends back home he would have protested, but here it was simply not his place to question or challenge any of the others.
Frida turned her head a little toward him and he saw a faint bit of a smile on her lips. She looked at him from the corner of her eye. “I’m sorry, did you want this?”
He shook his head. “No, Mistress Frida,” he said, his disappointment seeping into his voice.
Her shoulders slumped and she turned to him, shaking the banana in his face. “Dammit, Wally. I’ve told you, if you want something, say so. You’re not slave anymore. You have to learn to stand up for yourself a little.”
Wally nodded and put his hand out. “Can I have my banana?”
“You mean my banana.” She peeled back the banana’s skin and bit off a third of the pale fruit. “No.”
Wally’s heart sank and he protested. “But, you said…”
Frida stood and handed him what was left. “Well, we don’t want your head getting too big, now do we?” She clapped him on the shoulder and brought him into a one-armed side-hug. A deep laugh bellowed from her lungs.
“Waltem, are you finished with the prototype?” The Professor’s stern voice cut through the laughter. Most of the time he was happy and jovial, so when he sounded like this, Wally knew there was trouble.
Frida let Wally go and he cleared his throat. “Um, y-yessir, Professor Fahsbender sir. It’s all buttoned up, sir.”
“All. Buttoned. Up.” The Professor stepped closer to the table. As he spoke, his voice rose in pitch and volume. “Yes, I can see it’s all buttoned up, lad. But I asked if it was finished, which it clearly is not. You cannot be finished with the prototype until it has been taken out for today’s test.”
Sweat beaded on his forehead as he realized what he’d done wrong. “N-no sir. I’m sorry. I was just grabbing a bite to eat. I was going to ask Frida or Danel to test drive it as soon as—”
“Mister Pearlson!” The man’s face was a mask of calm, but his voice boomed in the small workshop. Carn and the other workers stared blankly. “Do you think, Mister Pearlson, that I pay you to push your work off on everyone else? Do you think that that is why I gave you your freedom? So you could become a layabout?”
Wally’s voice was barely a whisper. “Layabout?” His face drained of color. This was it, he was doomed. The Professor would sell him back into slavery. No, even worse, he was going to fire him, kick him out on his ear.
Then something his boss had said dawned on him. “M-m-me, sir?”
“Do you expect others to do your work for you, Mister Pearlson?” The corner of the Professor’s mouth twitched and there was a glint in his eye.
A new warmth filled Wally. He was being asked, no told to drive the prototype. It never occurred to him that he would ever get to drive a machine like this. He’d spent his whole life doing exactly as he was told, no more, no less. Now, he was being reprimanded, actually reprimanded, for not taking the slightest bit of initiative. His spine tingled and he straightened up. If he was going to be a free man, he needed to act like one.
“No sir.” His back felt stronger. A cloud of confusion that he hadn’t even known was there evaporated. “I’ll take care of it straight away.”
“See that you do, boy.” The corner of the Professor’s mouth twitched again.
Was that…a smile? Not wanting to push the older man any further, Wally snatched two slices of bread, a piece of the cured meat and a small wedge of cheese from the table then wrapped them in a napkin. With his bundle, he marched to the other side of the workshop and shouldered open the wide rolling doors.
Wally looked out across the open grassy plains. He was about to take the most advanced work mech in the world for a stroll across that open field. Glancing back over his shoulder at the Professor and the rest of the work crew. How much his life had changed in just three weeks, all because of this brilliant old man. Before, he had nothing, he was nothing, just a piece of someone else’s property. Now, he had food, a job, a little bit of money, and friends.
His life was different; bigger, wider and grander than he’d ever expected, and he was going to make the most of it as best he as he could.