Albert was born too hungry, his mother always said: too small, too skinny, too smart to be anything but trouble. She worked and his father both worked in the factories, which was where they’d met, man and woman both lean and hard and barely able to scrape together anything soft between them. He certainly wasn’t anything like that, scraping in the dust and cobwebs in a forgotten corner, watching the way mechanical parts fit together and moved, taking apart old machines and rebuilding them into something new. In this, Albert’s size helped, because even as the foreman stalked up and down the rows of hunched-over workers, he never noticed the boy who watched with burning unblinking eyes.
What he always wanted was more: he licked his plates clean of grease not so much because he enjoyed the taste but because the knot in his belly still felt hollow and hungry; he stuffed his pockets full of dusty nuts and bolts and broken machine parts from his mother’s factory and polished them to a dull shine so that he could have something to fill the empty space of his windowsill. He stole books and tore off corners of paper to scribble his notes on–and when there was no more room he would sketch the curvature of mechanical arms and the elegant way gears fit together. Albert didn’t like empty spaces and he didn’t like messes, so he organized and dreamed and sold odd little welded bits to scrape together what he needed for school.
There he met Tom Light.
The other man was an oddity, a blip on a radar that had never acknowledged anyone else before. He had heavy dark brows that often beetled together when he was thinking, and he was easier to read than anyone else, but he was brilliant and he was earnest, and that made him an acceptable person to befriend. He spoke softly and with emotion and always with a vision of the big picture. He wanted to build a new world with a skeleton and nervous system of steel, and Albert was fascinated. He thought about the factories he’d grown up in and his mother’s pinched face and his father’s weathered bleeding hands. There had been little room for anything soft between them. It would change nothing–it would change everything.
“It’s hell in the mines,” Tom said, his plain earnest face so utterly serious. Albert liked that, liked how everything was a matter of grave importance to Tom; nothing was too small or petty for his brilliant mind to consider. “It’s inhuman, the hours they make them work, how dangerous the conditions are. Survival is the lowest standard. There are things that men cannot do, and yet they must do, unless you want to be cut loose, with nothing to feed your wife and son.” Then he looked abashed, because he always looked embarrassed when he allowed personal things to slip. It was charming in the way small soft things were charming. It was something that Tom would have to grow out of, someday, but for now, Albert indulged him.
“We’ll build miners, then,” Albert said instead. He could imagine them clearly: lovely clean lines of steel and sharp edges, cutting through all the places that muscle and bone could not. He thinks of an entire army of them, a thousand bodies policed by his one will, filling up the empty places within themselves by rights of strength and skill. “Stronger ones, bigger ones–ones that won’t suffer if the shaft collapses on them.”
Tom forgot his embarrassment long enough to smile. It wasn’t a bad one, as smiles went, but it could be more than it was; there could be more to it. Tom was a man who had all sorts of untapped potential that, in the right hands, could be made into something truly amazing. Albert smiled back and shook Tom’s hand with warm confidence. He said, “I think we’ll do amazing things, Tom.”
“We will,” said Tom and smiled again. “The world will remember our names forever.”
Albert tested the sound of that aloud later, the world will remember our names forever, and found he liked it, and very much.