Monday, July 8, 2013

Sketch: Out of Nowhere

                The phone rang at 7:30, a half hour past full dark. He wished he hadn’t heard the noise of the slim device vibrating against his desk, but he knew who it was, not only who but where they were calling from.
                “Yeah?” he asked.
                “Oh thank god, I thought you weren’t gone pick up,”
                “What’s the problem, Doug?”
                “It’s tank four. Something’s off with the mixtures, it’s,”
                “The pink foam?”
                “Right, yeah, the pink foam,” and the conversation went on like that, back and forth, for minutes. He just wasn’t listening. Chat text was flying by on his monitor. People half a world away wanted to know what he was doing. Doug wanted to know if he was coming in to fix the problem or not.
                “I’ll be right there, Doug.” He logged off, stabbing the keyboard with a middle finger. Of course he was going in to fix the problem. That’s why he made the ‘big bucks.’
                The drive from his rented townhome to the plant on the edge of the little town was done in silence and in darkness. The facility was the newest thing in the entire zip code by decades. Everything in the place survived because of its existence. People who grew up in or near the town worked jobs that facilitated it in some way, worked shifts on the floor, provided goods and services to the employees, and cared for the children of those families. If anything went wrong with the plant, it would kill practically every man, woman and child in miles of its vicinity. If anything serious went wrong, it would do so much more rapidly.
                The man at the gate didn’t bother stopping his vehicle. His dirty SUV was known, because he was known. He was one of the few engineers that worked at the facility, brought from out of state with fancy degrees. People called him Shaw because of the name on his Masters. Everyone in town knew the name, and knew where he was going before he arrived. Doug was waiting, dry washing his hands near Shaw’s parking space, by the side door that he failed to slip out of every Friday. The door that he sometimes came back in through during the dead of night when something or other went wrong.
                “Hey there, guy,” he said, shutting his door and looking at their work boots. “You didn’t have to wait out here,” and he started walking. He stopped when he realized he was going off alone.
                “Uh, Doug, there something else wrong?” Doug was a broad man that had only most of his fingers. He also had chemicals burns of some variety from multiple incidents. He wasn’t the skittish type.
                “There was something else,” Doug started. His upper lip, covered in a bush of hair, looked odd quivering. “I didn’t want to say it over the phone.” He broke eye contact. “I saw Hank,” and he stepped forward to break into explanation, “but it wasn’t just me. We all seen him,” however he was speaking to Shaw’s back.
                Hank was a cautionary tale, more like a legend of the facility. Most safety codes were put in place after a precedent. Some things are common sense, but sometimes it takes a person mixing two items together and exploding before warning labels are slapped onto bottles. Hank was the unfortunate victim of one of those precedents. Sometimes, only during the late shift, people would claim that they saw him about. It made sense to the locals because Hank had worked the late shift, too.
                Shaw didn’t have time for ghost stories. He was hearing his online friends as he went through the procedures, donning his helmet and mask and gloves, before approaching the tank. He grimaced at the distance growing between him and his old life, and at some of the goop starting to drip onto the floor from in between soldered plates. Shaw shut down the system, looking around for a moment for Doug. The man was supposed to have at least done that. As he looked around, the machines within the tank shook and jostled. Intermingled with the sound were footsteps. At the end of a hallway formed by several more of the huge machines, he thought he spied movement.
                “Doug,” he called. “Doug come on, you know you have to shut it down as soon as you notice the mixture’s off,” then he went back to what he was doing. He exhaled loudly. The entire system needed ten minutes rest before the container could be opened. Shaw wiped futilely at the glass pane that looked into the mixing tub. Another wasted evening. “Dammit,” he said, looking left, and then right. He activated the drain. Inside, the pink mixture, which was supposed to be a dark green, swirled and swirled. Shaw did some mental math. If could be get back in time…
                Every light in the vicinity flickered. One, at the end of the hallway of machines stayed off. Shaw stared for a moment, then went back to the drain. It was finally emptying. He rechecked his safety gear then opened the system. He waved a gloved hand as if that would help with the aerating. He eyeballed the inside of the machine, paying close attention to the fine grating of the drain. Normally the contaminate was visible. He leaned in, squinting, then he stopped. Could he just turn it back on? Shaw thought about having to drive back across town twice in the same evening. He sighed and stepped forward, bending his knees. Replacing the drain completely would be a surer way of fixing the problem. It was a $5,000 piece of equipment, but it wasn’t his money. Or he could just suggest the unit not be used for a day. As he knelt, he wondered how much money that would cost.
                When the system closed behind him, he stopped wondering about everything. He turned, slipping awkwardly. He jumped to his feet, pressed his face against the glass. Then, he moved his face backwards slowly.
                When the machine activated, began filling again with the mixture that was supposed to eventually turn green, he looked down at his situation and froze. Shaw had a million thoughts, and not one was primed for action. He was going to die. He was going to die in a horrible, stupid, unexplainable accident. And that was it. Dense liquid pushed his boots tight around his feet and ankles. First, he beat his fist against the glass slowly, then the action became fast, and more frantic. His pants clung to his calves. Then there were the very slight pin pricks of acidic burns. Shaw screamed. The fumes were oppressive, but he knew he couldn’t pass out, couldn’t fall backwards. Hanging on seemed like the natural thing to do.
                Someone activated the drain after what felt like ten minutes, though it was only up around his knees. The mechanism opened a moment later and Shaw jumped out of the machine, falling as he went. Someone caught him, and he looked up into Doug’s face. Shaw was happy to be alive, but Doug was dragging him to the nearby emergency wash. He’d be the reason Shaw would survive with only mild burns. Later, the safety board would decide that Doug was the reason an engineer was trapped in one of the facility machines about to die. Shaw wondered himself, at what he saw outside the tank before he knew he would die. He wondered if his testimony could’ve helped Doug and his family, if a lie would’ve been more valuable than the truth.
                Even though his job was saved, he never went back to the facility, not for months. What clinched it was an older woman with a southern drawl and a shot gun. Shaw had been expecting friends from the next town over that evening, and she didn’t look like she played online games. She wanted to hear what Shaw had to say, and she believed him when he described what he had seen.
                “You get the sickness, yet?” she asked, “the headache?”
                “What? No,” Shaw said. He had no idea what she was even talking about.
                “You will.”

                I figured since I had covered one of the hunter trio Nick meets in the second Where Shadows Lie book, I might as well talk about them all. Shaw is a chemist and computer expert. He doesn’t have Claus’ combat experience or skill with weapons, but his talents are just as valuable to the group. Knowledge is power after all, and Shaw is a voracious learner. And maybe because of that, Shaw has a somewhat dangerous edge to him, unlike Claus. He wouldn’t call himself an addict, but he does have access to a lab and the wherewithal to self medicate. He would say he has a drug problem, but I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree on that one.


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