Saturday, January 22, 2011

Greased Gears Character Study 001 Rebecca/Hazel

Working on the character development and world building in my writing. Expect to see a character study every week or two. This one was supposed to be 500 word-ish but grew to 1,635.

Greased Gears Character Study 001: Rebecca/Hazel

Rebecca Williams woke up, the cotton swaddling her mind dissipated slowly, leaving a deep confusion behind. Nothing about the room that she found herself in was familiar. The colorless walls and gray floor tiles meant nothing to her. She tried to push herself up to a sitting position but there were wires and tubes attached to her body and impeding all movement. She blinked a few times to clear her eyes, the room resolved itself and she put the pieces together, identifying her location as the local hospital.

The door opens and admits an older woman in a pristine white uniform, a nurse. Rebecca tries to get the nurse’s attention but the woman pays her no heed. A needle slides into her left arm. The room slips away once again, into a white haze before fading fully to black.

The next time Rebecca wakes she isn’t alone. At her bedside is a pale, blonde young woman in a brown linen shirtwaist dress. The other girl smiles when she sees that Rebecca is awake.

“What am I doing here?” Rebecca asks the girl, Ellen; she finally puts a name to the face. They are coworkers at the munitions factory, Ellen works at the machine next to Rebecca.

“Rebecca,” Ellen says quietly, “there was an accident at the factory.”

“Oh no! Was anyone hurt? Killed?” Alarmed, Rebecca tries to sit up. There are fewer wires and tubes now but her progress is stopped by something else. Her right arm ends in a bloody bandaged stump just below the elbow. Rebecca slumps back again. Now that she has seen the wound, she can feel the edge of pain that even good medicines can’t block completely.

“Anyone besides me, that is?” She says with a quiet calm that she isn’t sure she feels.

“James is dead and a few other are injured. None as serious as you; just a few broken bones and nasty cuts.” Ellen answers grasping Rebecca’s remaining hand.

“What happened?”

“One of the machines on the main floor broke. The support frame collapsed completely, it came apart in sharp spears of metal. James was killed instantly and more were injured as the moving parts sprang loose.”

“What happened to me?” Rebecca demanded sharply.

“You were trying to organize the response and clean up when someone panicked and ran screaming from the floor. She bumped into you on her way and you reached out to steady yourself…” Ellen trailed off, tears streaming down her face.

“And I got my arm caught in the machine.” Rebecca finished for her friend. They all knew the dangers of the factory machines. Sometimes even being careful wasn’t enough to keep you safe. The silence became heavy between the two girls.

“Are you alright?” Ellen asked hesitantly after several minutes had passed.

“I will be. I think” Rebecca paused, “I think I need to be alone right now.”

“I understand. Please, remember that we are all praying for you.” Ellen said before giving Rebecca a quick, slightly awkward hug and leaving with one last glance at her friend.

The weeks following her injury were tough for Rebecca and the people around her. Slowly, one by one, her friends stopped visiting her and her days of recovery became filled with bitterness and loneliness. It wasn’t easy adjusting to her new disability and she had a hard time thinking about what would happen now that she wouldn’t be able to do factory work anymore. For that matter, there couldn’t be many job opportunities at all for a one armed woman even in this war-strained economy.

It came as a surprise to her when the nurse announced a visitor. The last of her friends had stopped coming by weeks ago. She quickly finger-combed her hair and wriggled into a straighter sitting position before telling the nurse to let the visitor in.

Into the room walked a tall dark haired man that Rebecca had never seen before. He thoughtfully extended his left hand in greeting, clearly aware of her injury.

“I’m Doctor Arthur Steele.”

“I already have too many Doctors.” Rebecca said even as she took the offered hand to shake.
Dr. Steele chuckled.

“I’m sure you do. I’m a different sort of doctor. I do have a medical degree but my area of specialty is in a more experimental field. Miss Williams, I think we can help each other.” Doctor Steele took the seat next to her bed.

“How? I don’t see how I could be of much help to anyone.”

“I’m doing research on mechanical prosthetics. You may have heard of the government funding promised to any inventor that can successfully create and attach enhanced prosthetics especially for prosthetics with military applications.”

“I don’t really see how that applies to me.” Rebecca says even though she might have a clue.

“Miss Smith, I need someone to test my methods on. I have designs that work well in the limited testing I’ve been able to do but they need to be tested on living individuals.”

“Ah, you want me to become your test subject.”

“I wouldn’t have put it so harshly but yes. I’ve seen your files and it appears that your nerves are intact which is an important qualification for my designs.”

“What’s in it for me?” Rebecca asked.

“I’ll cover your current medical bills and take over your medical care myself. While I’m am building and testing the arm for you, I’ll pay your living expenses and provide housing as well as a small stipend. If the experiment is successful, you’ll be able to walk away with two working arms.”

“And if it fails? What then? Does my body turn up in the lake? Do I owe you services for payment given?” Rebecca challenges.

“No! Nothing like that! If it fails, we try again until it succeeds. Without success, my work means nothing.”

“Alright then, you have a test subject.” Rebecca smiles, caught up in the scientist’s enthusiasm and prepares for her life to change again.

So it is that Rebecca joins Doctor Arthur Steele’s small collection of test subjects. Including her there are five test subjects in total. The provided housing is a small series of apartments in a building a block from the Doctor’s lab. The first person that she meets is a young man named Walter, who uses crutches to make up for a missing leg. They are briefly introduced as he is leaving the laboratory and she is entering for the initial measurements of her good arm and the stump of the other. It reassures her to see that another test subject looks mostly healthy and in good spirits and she feels more confident about her choice.

The first two prosthetics that Doctor Steele builds to fit her are exercises in failure. The Doctor assures her that he is learning a lot from the failures and he thinks that the next one will work. Rebecca isn’t as sure and she contemplates calling the whole thing off but the Doctor’s confidence is just as convincing as it was the day she met him in the hospital.

That doesn’t stop her from crying out her frustrations in the arms of Walter and Helen, who also is missing an arm. They too, know the sorrow of disappointment and failed experiments.

The Doctor is putting the finishing touches on prosthetics that he is sure will work when the War ends. With the end of the War comes the Clockwork Sanctions, the government’s attempts to atone for its failures in regulating the experiments of the Inventors. Not all of the Inventors followed the same moral code as Doctor Steele, many of them became known for creating the need for the prosthetics that they were testing and the deaths of their subjects often corresponded with the failure of their experiments.

Doctor Steele isn’t against the Clockwork Sanctions, in general but is surprised when they extend past the regulation of research practices and to the complete prohibition of mechanical prosthetics work.

When the Clockwork Sanctions fall into place, Doctor Steele begins preparations to move his laboratory to an Airship so that he can keep doing his work. He offers to let all of his subjects remain behind in compliance to the Clockwork Sanctions and to start fresh on his experiments. Some of his volunteers take the out offered but Rebecca, Walter and Helen decide to stay and trust that Doctor Steele is as close to a breakthrough as he thinks.

Helen suggests that he disguise the airship laboratory as a Pub, he can explain away the machine shop in back by putting the automatons that he has already built to work as novelty pieces. Doctor Steele gets excited about the process and modifies the automatons to do simple cleaning tasks. They set to work hiring a basic staff: a cook, a couple of servers and a piano player. The Greased Gear celebrates its opening night by successfully attaching Rebecca’s prosthetic arm.

It takes months for Rebecca to gain basic use of the arm but that success is followed by the successful implementation of the others’ prosthetics. Doctor Steele is ecstatic with his success even though he can’t tell the world about it. The success is followed by the realization that they will never be able to return to their old lives. Doctor Steele suggests that they probably shouldn’t continue using their former names.

The trio agrees, and slips further into the murky depths as each sheds their past life. This decision comes around shortly before the Prohibition is enacted and the Greased Gear decides to become an illicit tavern instead of transitioning into a more legal establishment. Rebecca Williams, the factory girl becomes Hazel, the Charleston dancer and she knows that life will never be the same again.

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