Short Story: Children of the Iron Sunset
You come and sit here every day. The cast-iron sunset stands tall in the middle of nothing. It separates you from the horizon. They say it’s for your safety, which you do not doubt. You have wanted to explore that side for a while, watching each shuffling minute pass behind it, but they have told you to be afraid, so you remain still. You considered being one of them, a long time ago, when your bones didn’t crack when you stood up – but you changed your mind when you heard about the training. You had offered yourself to one war before, you did not need another. The curiosity overwhelmed you, and when your factory closed, you sat out there every day – dawn till dusk. The storybooks always told of a great gate which kept you safe, in your little corner of the world, but it never said what lay beyond. It said that whatever approached would be dealt with but they never said what came. That, you always wanted to know. There wasn’t always much to see, and you had often debated whether you were sitting at the right end of the gate. You wondered whether the great sunset was just a landmark in time and that there was nothing to fear on the other side.
You remember the day it was put up. A beacon of strength and solidarity within the state. Best of all, however, was how much work your factory received. They promised you all jobs, and making that, it was an honour. Perhaps, part of the reason you would come here was to admire your handiwork. You remembered the faces of all the workers beside you. You remembered those faces the day of the first pay-check, and the day of the last. Once it was built, that was it. All word was complete. No more gate work, no more expanding cities to create. You remember the notice, an iron plaque, pressed against the doors of the factory – STATE IS COMPLETE. WORK IS COMPLETE.
Ironic, you remember making it, never considering it was for you.
Life was hard for you after that, barely finding work. But you were one of the lucky ones. Many workers fell harder than you. Their hands became tied by poverty, their mouths empty and when they spoke, nothing but air escaped. You, however, had climbed the ladder you built. You found your route and rubbed hands with those higher up. So, while you sit and stare at the sunset, they became the war you were so afraid to join.
They pace with unmoving faces, on the opposite side of the gate, balancing the guns beneath their arms. The brave who, standing close to the sun, doesn’t get burnt. They have practised the routine many times over, and you have watched. Them dragging their heels in the dust, yours firmly planted. You remove their faces in your mind, forcing a blur to cover their features, hoping that if they were to continue their parole, you would be able to carry on with your curiosity without the guilt overcoming you. Perhaps they were machines, iron-cast to perform a duty of the state. After having seen the training programs required to be given such a role, you knew there was not any emotion left within them. The state had come a long way since your childhood “Bert’s duck and cover” training. The same training is in place but it is no longer filtered through the humour of an animated turtle. You considered the sunset’s role in it. It kept you safe from the beyond, from them, but as with any change in lighting, it hid other dangers in its own shadow. Those that belonged to your own side, that sat beside you, that fell into the rhythm of day and night that the border had set. The state hid that. It was always “a rogue worker, duly dealt with”. There was no more to know and nothing to ask once the statement was released.
Movement catches your attention as they walk towards the gate. You rise as someone approaches from the other side. This is the first time you have seen anything that resembles a human belonging to that side. You had assumed, since it was placed, that only wildlife lived beyond. Stopping ten metres away and balancing on their heels, they stand looking towards you. Men, women and children. A community of others facing the guards before you. You feel yourself curling up in the shadow of the guard ahead of you. A small child smiles gently towards you and you smile back, raising a hand in the air. You wave in their direction but no one moves. A harsh voice crawls from the speakers – WOMEN AND CHILDREN FIRST. A couple of them move forward, their eyes remaining on the guards. They stop three metres away. The workers do not pay attention but rather remain looking past their heads. You watch as the speaker vibrated with sound, the voice commanding them to move forward. You thought they may have come to join the state, and they seemed willing enough to approach the sunset.
A worker glances back at you. In the time you’ve been visiting this place, they have never paid attention to you. You shuffle uncomfortably at their stare. It is cold and hard as if calculating some formula within their minds. You wave a hand at them and they snap their head back. Reaching down, they grab a small stone beside their heel. Their heads remain level as he stares at the crowd – not even looking down to find where the stone is. The air begins to feel heavy around you as you become aware of your chest rising and falling harder than usual. It fills and empties with such velocity that the muscles surrounding your ribs begin to cramp. The stone flies at the crowd, they remain unmoved, except the child who had smiled at you, they flinch as the stone lands at their feet.
The guards shoot.
The sound echoes and you’d swear the gate became a darker shade of red. You stare as the sunset begins to fill with smoke. The gasps and tears manufactured from your old factory, the canisters brandishing FACTORY FORCE 9-3. They run back, trying to find air. They continue to shoot into the mist. The bass of bullets sends ripples beneath your feet. The rust-coloured metal illuminates the smoke and blocks your vision. Your curiosity begs you to see what is happening. You’d not seen such scenes since your history books. Approaching the gate, the screams get louder. You place your hand against the metal and a sharp shock scorches your skin. Through the smoke, you spot one child. They’re not running, but standing in front of the worker. Perhaps, they had training, too. They were taught to not flinch, not move, not react to the workers and instead remain silent. He bit down on his lip and stared at the gun in the worker’s hand. You remember making those guns, a mass production line of Keynesian influence. You can’t help but feel somewhat responsible for what is happening. You consider what would have happened if your factory hadn’t made the weapons, the gate, the workers.
The smoke clears and you look for the child. He stands in the same spot as before but now his body is crumbled. The gun of the worker is dug into the ground behind him, with the barrel buried deep inside the cavity of his skull. The workers emerge from the horizon and begin to kick stones through the gate. A provoked execution. That is what they are painting it as.
WORK IS COMPLETE.
The workers were replaced with new, almost identical ones. You bend down and grab the stone near your shoe, head level, not taking your eyes off the new guards. The edges are rough and blood smears your hand. You throw it high into the air, above the sunset. It arches over and lands on the head of one worker. In unison they turn, copper barrels aimed. You do not flinch. You do not move. You do not react. One worker grabs your arm and presses you against the gate. It burns into your skin, a lattice formed across your face. They pull you back and sit you on your bench again. You are marked, but alive. As they return to their post you reach for another stone. You lean back and throw the stone high. It hits against the rusting iron, it crackles. They do not react. So you reach for another, and another. You throw them into the sunset again and again until one hits the back of another worker. They hesitate for a moment before snapping their attention to you. You grab another and aim for them. Walking forward, with pockets weighed down with stones, you assault the worker. They seem confused, unsure how to react, as if their encoding only permitted a reaction to those on the other side, to retreat. You scream and throw more. Each throw getting harder than the last until one dents the cheekbone of the worker ahead of you. They press themselves against the gate, their body phasing through the metal as it vibrates with the force. A cracking sound clapping through the air. You consider the logistics of the transition. It should not be possible, the metal bending around the worker, as if a passage had appeared. But even during its creation, you had noticed the lack of entrances. You had assumed that they were to live on that side of the gate, and you, the other. That it was part of the job description. But here they were, stood before you, on the same side of the sunset. Their body having melted through the light and metal, appearing unphased.
The worker stood towering over you, barrel to your forehead. You notice the darkness in their eyes, the whites stripped of anything human. You do not flinch as the cold metal warms against your skin. Instead, you reach for the final stone, digging the jagged edges into the palm of your hand before driving it into the ribs of the worker. The guard smiles and with that, you no longer move. You no longer can react. The worker caught you against the end of his barrel as your body crumple backwards. A scarecrow against the skyline, watching the sun set for another night.
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