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Sunshine on the Class by RJ Astruc and Kirsty Lock

The Class are silent now.

They stand like sparkling statues in the great palace courtyard, frozen in the act of revelry. At the base of the courtyard, two courtiers are posed in the act of walking up stairs, their arms touching at the elbow. Beyond them huddles a group of barrel-bodied ladies in long, gold and platinum dresses… and then there are the dancers, locked in step, their elbows raised so it’s possible to see the fine panels and circuitry of their inner-sides.

The Class come in all shapes and sizes, with all manner of curious additional-appendages, and all of them are beautiful. Their sun-plates gleam like highly polished obsidian, and their irregular bodies are smart and sheathed in plastics and glossy metal plates.

Looking at them is like staring at a painting, K377Y thinks, hugging her broom against her chest. A painting you could step into but never actually be a part of.

K377Y is a human, which also makes her a servant. Her service role is cleaning, which she does well, but never quite up to the high standards of the Class. Now she moves between her silent masters. Her broom swishes out before her in broad sweeps, gathering up metal shaving and flecks of rust. Smears of oil mark the tiles, crisscrossing, intersecting—the morning crew will have to clean those up later, with
their little brush-feet and steaming mouths.

Carefully K377Y flicks a bit of dirt from ‘round the high, metal boot of a lady-in-waiting. The lady is caught in mid-gesture, her jaw unhinged. Peering closer, K377Y sees that the lady has a tattoo on her shoulder plate. A lot of the Class have plates with funny words and symbols on them, like tattoos. The tattoos usually say odd things, things that make no sense, stuff like, Do not use near open flame and Solar power only and 100% environmentally sound

But the Class don’t like it when you look at their tattoos too closely.

(Sometimes K377Y wonders why the Class are all so oddly shaped, so like human and yet not like human… although that’s a silly way to think. What she should wonder is why humans are so like the Class.)

She blinks, and for a second K377Y imagines she sees the lady’s fingers flex… but it can’t be, it’s a trick of the light. The Class are all light-eaters: they only live when the sun is up, and fall into slumber as soon as is sets. For a second K377Y is tempted to touch the lady’s fingers. But she doesn’t. To touch the Class is the worst of crimes. K377Y has heard stories of a clumsy servant who’d scratched the finish on a noble’s hand.

The hand was replaced by the night crew, of course, but the servant himself was decommissioned—his meat-parts picked away until there was nothing left but white bone…

K377Y shudders and looks away from the lady. It’s only minutes to morning. Soon the palace—and indeed, the whole country—will be filled with the noise of their whirring and clanking, and the strange hissing they use when they aren’t speaking to a human.

Yawning, she takes a step back, raising one hand to her face… and as she does so, her foot comes down in something slick.

K377Y trips.

At first she thinks she’ll catch herself before she falls, that it’s not so bad, that she’s okay, and then suddenly her ankle goes and she drops her broom and stumbles sideways, her arms pinwheeling madly, and… CLANG.

Her flailing hand has struck a member of the Class, and even as she watches in horror, the man… falls over. He is a huge, pot-bellied man dressed in a tuxedo, with pearls gleaming at the cuffs of his bronze jacket. He hits the floor with a louder clang—the loudest noise K377Y has ever heard.

For about a minute K377Y waits for the night crew to rush in and drag her off to have her meat picked away.

But nothing happens.

K377Y breathes shallowly, unable to take her eyes off the fallen man. Maybe they won’t notice, she thinks. The Class often fall over if they get caught wrong-footed at dusk. If the night crew come, they’ll probably blame it on balance or gravity.

Except K377Y can’t find her broom.

Gingerly she walks around the man. The force of his fall has knocked open a back panel of his tuxedo, so she can see his innards, wires snarled and torn like fat threads.

Below the innards, caught in their spill, is the handle of her broom.

K377Y doesn’t know what to do.

Then she hears the noise of the night crew in the distance, the huff-huff scurry of their tiny, bladed legs. She grabs the broom and pulls, but nothing happens. She pulls harder, until she’s gasping, until bright white lights bounce before her vision, and nothing still happens, and the sun is going to come up in fifteen minutes, ten minutes

It’s going to be okay, she tells herself. Sweating. I’ll say I dropped the broom when the man began to fall. To avoid getting squashed. I’ll just put back the panel. I’ll make it look normal, so very normal, that no one will ask questions.

She grabs the panel. It’s heavy, the same size as her torso, and awkward to lift. Even harder to avoid scratching. She gets it on, sort of, but it doesn’t fit—the innards are spewing out, getting in the way. Without thinking K377Y reaches into the mess of wires and crams them back in, the whorls and slivers of metal cutting at her fingers. Then the back plate is in place, and K377Y scuttles away, breathing hard, as
sunshine begins to spill into the courtyard.

The tuxedo man twitches.

He stands up, slowly. He reaches down and picks up his broom. He looks at it, dumbly, his bright eyes clicking from green to red. He looks then at K377Y.

K377Y tries not to cry.

The man starts to sweep the floor. He flicks the broom forwards, catching a few stray bolts K377Y hadn’t noticed. He sweeps around his slowly yawning Class companions with deft, accurate movements. He sweeps like he was made to sweep, like he’s always been better at this than K377Y, like he was made to do this thing…

There’s a low whine from behind K377Y: the Class’s motors are starting up. Sunlight is leaking in ‘round the corners of the courtyard. In less than a minute the Class will be awake, liquid sunshine running through their wires. They will wake up, and they will notice him.

K377Y scuttles after the man. She needs that broom.

The pearls at his cuff dance in the halflight as he twists and flicks the broom around a woman’s leg. Dare she say something? No, K377Y decides. Best just take the broom and run. Anyway, when the day crew fixes him, he won’t remember a thing.

She leaps forward as the sunlight climbs up the courtyard stairs. She grasps the broom handle on her way through, and the man’s metal hand momentarily tightens on it—for a second she worries she’ll dislocate her shoulder, that he’ll yank her back, that he won’t let go… and then he does, and K377Y skids across the floor and then down the steps that lead to the servants underground quarters.

She slams the door just as the Class begin staggering to their feet, puffing smoke from their noses, their joints flooding with fresh oil.

Inside the servants quarters is small and cramped: just a hallway leading to dormitory rooms. Debris and broken relics lie everywhere. Here, an old desk. There, an abandoned pile of blankets. K377Y sinks to the ground, heart pounding.

She’s scared, sure. But she also can’t get the image of the broom wielding man—the man of the Class—out of her head. It was as if the man had regressed to a primitive, before-state. A state that seemed, in a weird way, to suit him

K377Y throws down her broom with a clatter: it bounces to a stop between a bucket and a heap of cast-away body plates. Maybe it means nothing, the man and the broom, and maybe everything will always be the same: she will sweep all night while the Class order her around.

Maybe.

Tonight, though, K377Y thinks the sun will set on a new world.

—————

RJ Astruc lives in New Zealand. Her fiction has appeared in like a bajillion magazines including Strange Horizons, Abyss & Apex, Aurealis and Midnight Echo. She has met Kirsty three times in Real Life, one of which she doesn’t remember. Her new novel is A Festival of Skeletons, which comes out in December.

RJ & Kirsty’s creative process largely consists of RJ yelling KEEP GOING and Kirsty yelling WHY THE HELL DON’T YOU DO SOMETHING WOMAN.

Kirsty Lock lives in Melbourne, surrounded by many other aspiring writers – it’s a bit crowded. She has met RJ three times in real life, and remembers all three occasions. This is her first prose publication.

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