Fermy and Feo
(a short fiction by patron request) A bead of sweat rolled off Fermy's nose, splashing outward in a way the mixture of water, salt, and carbon-coated iron silt shavings dampened into unusual patterns. She watched the splash, needing for a moment to take her visored eyes away from the cutting beam. Her training at the ironworks had practiced this motion until it was near automatic for Fermy, as it was for all the goblin workers in Hexagon Mill Ironworks, and though she had looked away from the cut out of habit, she had looked on at the splash with interest. The pattern it formed instantly burned into her creative mind; she would sketch it later, as soon as she could, lest another small inspiration be ground to powder like so many poorly-clamped parts beneath the grinding station. For that was the danger of the life Fermy lead, to be ground down and replaced as was the most common career course for mill workers. Some perished beneath an ogre taskmaster's lash. Some put their bodies into the machinery out of spite or curiosity. The particularly lucky or skilled would live long enough to fill their lungs with iron dust, and matriculate into duty as magnetic sappers. Fermy was far and away the longest-tenured mill worker, though the foreman's gaze was not particularly longsighted enough to find that fact odd, even when he was using his thinking head. She was far too intelligent to succumb to the ordinary dangers of the mill. A bespoked leather smock to shield her uncommonly delicate skin from sparks and burrs. A visor to protect her eyes from bright flashes and live shavings. A high collar with a muffler to keep iron dust out of her nose. And in addition to all of these, a canny mind to identify dangers and a creative soul to generate ideas for ways to mitigate them. Far more destructive than the mere physical perils the mill presented day after day to Fermy was the work itself. For any given week, her task would be to take a part from the previous station, clamp it in her station, lower the blaster, tuck her face away from the flashes that were too powerful for her visor to handle, then move the processed part to the out port so it could be shaped some other way further down the line. The start of the week was a fifteen minute overview of the task handed down by some stone-riddled human, which Fermy never needed more than the first five minutes of. Obtain. Clean. Clamp. Check. Blast. Unclamp. Clean. Pass. The job was an utter waste of her talents an the rhythm of it a steady, grinding annihilator. Time and thought disappeared into the tasks Fermy had to perform. Some days she would pass in a kind of stupor, thankful for the reverie the machine line brought her. More common were the days where she was working on the nugget of an idea, had a terrible block to try to overcome, or was suddenly set to thinking by some incidental inspiration like a bead of sweat mixing with fine iron dust on the ground and splashing in a unique way. On days like these, the rhythm was at its most menacing. She had to hold onto this vision while still performing her duties. Each flash of the blaster, every crunch and grind and scorch howled after the memory of that droplet in her mind, scraping at it, reaching for it. Fermy could not let herself lose hold of the idea. She retreated into her mind, letting the mindless work go on without her focus so she could expand that flash of inspiration into an idea for a dress. For some reason her mind brought her back to a chance encounter with an envoy from an elf clan whom she had shown around the mill. "You sure know your way around these machines," Sinna said, putting a leg slighly to one side to let the carefully burnished patinated copper bands of her daywear slide lightly into a more comfortable pose. "I've been here longer than anyone, I ought to," Fermy dodged. "It's more than that." Sinna tilted her head to a three-quarter with her torso, guiding an unneeded hand supported from the elbow by her other hand to barely not brush against her chin, clucking her tongue on the terminal sound. Fermy wiggled bashfully, "I'm just a blast station operator, the foreman probably asked his other head to flip a thumb for who was-" "Stop," Sinna interrupted, unfolding her arm to point at Fermy, shifting from the feet, hips, and neck to accomplish the snap without moving her torso, having the uncanny-looking effect of leaving her clothing just as it had been before but changing her pose, as if she were a clay model given life and snapped from one pose into the other. The effect did more to stun Fermy than the interruption had. Sinna continued, smiling, "I've never met a more intelligent goblin. What are you doing here? It must be hard for someone like you to get along with the others." Her tone had been joking, but Fermy didn't laugh. Sinna's smile left. "You don't wear self-pity any better than you wear ignorance, hon. Tell me you have a hobby at least." "I design." An unusual noise slammed Fermy out of her daydream and back to the blasting station. The physical dangers of the mill had rebuffed her attempt to relax her focus and a part had snagged in the clamp. She loosened the part to observe it: chafe marks on the side now left it not fully secured when placed again properly in the clamp. The warped part would go finger-tight at best and not tool-tight, which would pose her an unacceptable danger should she do what any other goblin in the mill would have done in her place and run the part back. Fermy's mind raced: she needed a shim. The ideal thing would be a small rectangle of sheet steel, but of course getting the ideal thing would take longer than Fermy had; the ceaseless rhythm of the mill demanded progress. She estimated she had less than three minutes to re-seat the part and start the blaster going again. She could hand the part off to the slag takers for it to be dumped with all the other mistakes, but in that case her pride and her hide would pay the price in lashings that the taskmaster dolled out for each. Fermy made a mental inventory of her person while she cast her eyes about for a close fit. What she found was a stray piece of pipe that had not been collected as slag or used for some misguided impromptu bazooka by one of the warriors. She clutched the pipe and weighed it in her hands: light enough. Not perfectly thin for her task, but it should do. Fermy placed the pipe in a flat part of the clamp and screwed it all the way, crushing it flat. She had her shim. Placing the warped part back in the clamp with her shim, she checked the fit. Tool-tight. Safe to blast. She patted her back, partly self-congratulation and partly reminder of the last time she had taken lashes over her mistakes. Her goblin coworkers as a rule had thicker hides and were more fond of pain. She ducked away from the blast in her practiced way. The shim held, the part made it through, but her idea! Fermy cast about for the design she had been thinking of. What was it? Why had she seen Sinna? No one Fermy had ever met had posed like Sinna. She was obviously a fashion model, or perhaps her gift for deportment was a blessing of the fabled fifth sun, freakishly good at posture. Her every move and gesture peeled forth into the world like a mercury waterfall turned sideways. To clothe such a model would be a fashion designer's fondest dream, and since their meeting, it had been Fermy's dream. As it turned out, Sinna led a double life as a self-assigned talent agent in an underground fashion ring. She had grown bored of what the current crop of designers called clothes and cast about in search of fresh blood. The ring itself was the spontaneous creation of like-minded folk from all walks of life on the metal world, surely, Sinna supposed, there must be others out there, just over the hexagonal horizon, beyond the fourth sunset, brimming with art. She found Fermy. They had repaired to Fermy's quarters, a sleepy nook of a sleepy warren toward the foothills of the Great Furnace. Fermy showed Sinna her sketchbooks, her garment racks, her overfull closets. Fermy was positively bouncing with enthusiasm at being able to share her creations with a sibling mind. Sinna had glanced down at Fermy then. "But you don't save any of it for yourself?" "I, I need functional clothes for the work, it's, it's no big deal." "Ugh, which would you rather wear, modesty, or an awesome dress?" "Well-" "Not well enough! Fermy, you have the gift. What you need is a look for yourself, and a name. Come to the next fashion show. I'll wear one of your dresses and when I turn everyone's heads, I'll turn them right to you. You'd just better be something to look at." And so she had. For years after, Fermy Bellows had wowed the underground crowd under the name Feo. If Fermy was an unremarkable, skittish cog mummified in leather, Feo was a visored demagogue: aloof, self-assured, superior. She never wore the same thing twice, and saw to it that neither did her models. Fermy's recalling Sinna finally made sense to her. It wasn't the pattern the splash had left behind that Fermy had wanted to capture. Such visions were for static media like painting or steelcraft. What she had to do, what she was a genius of, was capturing motion in a still form. Simply pasting a model into an airy nothing and watching the ribbons run was for rank amateurs. Fermy resolved to turn the motion of that splash, globular, viscous, momentary as it was into a dress that would move while it was still, freeze while it was in motion. Fresh from her resolution, Fermy realized the closing siren had already gone by. The slag takers passed her over, the taskmaster gave his double-nod, not needing to donate her any fresh lashes, and with that, Fermy was at liberty for the evening. She raced the third sun home, eager to get to work. Her creative mind raced faster, already planning lines and shapes and colors and materials. All of the models in her sketches that night resembled Sinna. Tired and accomplished, Fermy drew a little heart next to the last sketch. It would still be many nights more before Feo had a wearable prototype on her hands. She would have it ready in time for the next show, and she planned to ask Sinna herself to wear it out for her, begging if she had to. If Sinna refused to wear this one, Feo would be shamed and Fermy would just die. And if she did wear it, Fermy already knew, she would knock them dead.