By Tom Foster
“You need to get off the computer, right, now.”
The seriousness in the speaker’s tone was hard to miss, but at that moment Brad Caldell couldn’t really comply, no matter how much he wanted to. Why didn’t they see what he did?
“I, I can’t, I mean, I..”
A sudden flashing on the computer screen in front of him caught Brad’s attention as he focused in on it, seeing one of the file folders, one marked INTRO TO PROD, flashing as though it was being clicked on and off repeatedly. He couldn’t explain this, couldn’t even begin to understand how it was possible, but as he saw the heading beneath the yellow colored desktop folder suddenly go blank, his heart continued to race as it had been for the past hour.
* * *
Three hours earlier…
Sounds of people shrugging into their loose-fitting body suits reached his ears much as it did every morning, the mild groans and grunts of those who weren’t yet awake a common occurrence in the chilly gowning room. Separate racks for the rows of suits adorned two of the four walls in the rectangular space, offering only enough room to walk around the three long, stainless steel benches that had been bolted into the floor. Between the wall mounted containers for gloves, hair nets, and the cubbies for shoes and the like, it was hard to believe that this room had been almost completely empty only a year and a half ago.
God, had he been here that long now, that he could recall when things had been different?
Shrugging into his own suit he sighed as he tried to mentally prepare himself for the day ahead. It wasn’t going to be easy, that much was for certain, especially considering that in three months of looking he had yet to find a suitable job to leave this place for. He’d been trying, lord knew he’d been trying, but half the jobs he’d looked into had either been scams or Ponzi schemes, and the other half had been part-time and not worth the second look he’d given them. Some days he just figured that this was penance for something he’d done in the past. Now if only he could find out what the hell that was and apologize, things might get better.
“Just one more day, then the weekend.”
The soft, quiet voice behind him was that of his wife of two years, the only woman he wanted and the only woman that could possibly understand just how he felt about this place. She’d been through a lot with him thus far, and didn’t seem inclined to step away yet, so perhaps she had a point when she said such things. After all, they were looking at another four-day weekend, which was almost like a vacation in itself. Of course they always had to come back. With two children already and a baby on the way they couldn’t afford to do anything else.
“Yeah,” he said, let’s get it over with.”
With that said he shrugged into his suit fully, sliding the zipper up until the front was closed. Grabbing hold of a thin, see-through hair net he then slipped it on his head as he made his way into the fab, reminding himself just how much he hated this place yet again. Oh well, it was like his wife had said, one more day. Even as the noise of the vast, tool-filled room beyond overwhelmed him for a moment however, he found it difficult to move forward.
* * *
Brad grimaced in distaste as a wad of gummy, silvery paste fell from the screen above him, landing squarely on his chest as he continued to look for the hole in the blue field that held two wafers at a time to be printed. The catcher at the end of the line had called out a hole on the backside print only a few minutes ago, but the person checking station two hadn’t been able to find anything. He wasn’t having any more luck.
“Find it yet?” asked a female voice from directly in front of him. He looked down his body, seeing the withered, craggy face of one of his co-workers, a chain-smoking divorcee by the name of Hannah Faibles. She might have been pretty if not for the deep lines in her face and her perpetually foul breath. The woman smelled like an ashtray that had never been cleaned, or even emptied for that matter.
“Nope,” he said, offering his traditional one-word answer as he continued to look for the pinprick in the blue field, cursing the day he’d ever come to this place. As jobs went, DayStar wasn’t the worst in the bunch, but it was far from the best. If not for the fact that he needed a steady paycheck, and that he’d already been told by his wife and her father that if all he needed was to chill out, he might have been gone already. Hell, he’d tried a few times, but every opportunity he’d thought shone with gold had turned out to be a sham.
“It should be somewhere like, right, here.” Hannah reached her hand in, coming far too close to him for his liking as he could smell the fruity wafting of her breath as it washed over him in a sickening, cloying wave of scent. She’d taken to chewing fruit gum after smoking only a few months back, and every time she did it smelled as though she’d had to chew an entire pack just to partially mask the smell of smoke. What had once gagged him for smelling so foul now did the same for smelling so horribly sweet. He endured however, just as he had for the past three and a half years, he endured because this was what he needed. Right now though he felt like he needed a couple beers far more.
* * *
Two hours later…
Time spent on the company computer usually came at a high premium, and a mild risk if one spent too much of their working hours seated in front of the flat screen monitor. The internet capability had been added and taken away multiple times on the current system, and was a bit of a detractor at times from what needed to be done, so long as the leads and the supervisor didn’t notice. On days like today however, when the work was few and far between, Brad managed to find time to park his butt in front of the computer and catch up on entertainment news and the burning questions that only seemed to enter his mind during the lulls in the day. Like the current one, when one of his new favorite series was coming out with the next season. It wasn’t important in the grand scheme of things, but it was a distraction, and it was a great deal better than staring at an empty tool all day or bs-ing with the other workers.
His lead was sitting to his right, a grizzled old man named Jamal Kerney, crunching numbers and looking up pertinent information concerning just when they would be getting more work through the line. The graphs, flowcharts, and messages that Jamal had to look at each day were tiring to even think of, and were one of the many aspects that had decided Brad against ever trying to become a lead. Someone else could have that particular headache.
Clicking on the mouse he navigated away from the current site, yet another data-filled location he’d accessed through Google, when he noticed a sudden line of static that stretched from one side of the computer screen to the other. It didn’t last long, but he’d seen it, that much he was certain of.
“What the hell was that?”
Jamal didn’t even acknowledge his words, but that was pretty natural. The aging lead usually didn’t budge except when he happened to notice that someone was speaking directly to him. For a moment Brad debated telling his lead what had just happened, but as he looked back to the screen, it appeared just as it had before, the lines of the website clear, clean, and as they should have been. Shaking his head slightly he continued to navigate from one page to another, accessing his email account next as he quickly clicked on the icon that would open his inbox.
Seeing a virtual plethora of junk mail wasn’t unusual, and as he saw the normal bric a brac of garbage such as ads, so-called important news and personal ads that led only either to dating or porn sites, he prepared to delete them all, exhaling through his nostrils as he manipulated the mouse with his right hand. As he began to highlight each piece of mail his eyes finally fell on a single line, one that should have gone as unnoticed as the rest of the junk. Something about this one however, something that he read in the heading and the title just made him pause.
It wasn’t all that creative, simply saying: YOU MUST READ THIS, with nothing else behind it. The sender was listed only as firstname.lastname@example.org, as unoriginal as could be. Normally he wouldn’t have thought twice about deleting the strange bit of mail, but he couldn’t help but stare at it for several moments, debating as to whether or not he would just get rid of it out of hand. Without knowing why, he clicked on it instead, negating the highlighting he had done to the other emails as the one he’d selected opened. The tiny circle of lines that flashed in sequence as the computer “thought” about opening the file flashed for several seconds as he waited patiently, wondering just what he might find inside.
He had no doubt it was another scheme to get his attention, something like an ad for a porn site, or a weight loss program, or something equally as ridiculous. Blinking slowly he leaned back, his hand ready on the mouse to hit the DELETE button. But as the email opened, he saw no highlighted website, no html images, not even an ad of any sort. It looked, for all intents and purposes, like a regular email. It read:
There is no time to waste here, and you are not worth the time so I’ll be brief and blunt. We have your children, their sitters, and are en route to gather up you and your wife’s respective families. You are currently being monitored as we speak, and will decide the fate of your and your wife’s kin if you so much as lift an ass cheek from your chair.
It’s time to play a game Brad, and one that we are very well versed in. You see, your name was selected, and the way you are going to die is going to be, well, quite unique. But it won’t be quick, and it won’t be alone. If you move from your chair, you die, if you attempt to tell any of this to anyone, you AND your family will die. Well, you’re all going to die anyway, but the manner in which it occurs is up to you.
You will access your bank account, and your wife’s, and make a request. We know very well how much you and your wife have in Chase and Bank of America, and will not hesitate to move quickly once the transaction is ended. In case you’ve not understood me, you are giving oral and written permission for us to clear out your accounts. Now we do understand that this is not possible without your signature and some other form of verification, which you will give. You let us worry about the rest.
Keep in mind your family, and that of your wife. The more you stall, the less you work
with us, the worse it will be for all of you. If you don’t believe me, attempt to log off now. You
will find it much more difficult than you believe, and the results will not be pleasant.
Get to work Brad, and remember that we have the control, not you.
To be honest it was very difficult to know whether or not he was being put on, but looking around only afforded him the same view he always saw. To the front were the back end unloaders for each of the print lines, the paste-coated wafers slipping out along their tracks into the collection bins for the catcher at the end of the line to sort through and place in their Styrofoam boxes behind them. To the left were the banks of control panels that were responsible for feeding power and the programming necessary to run the massive, hundred-yard long tools that he and several others were responsible for running. To the right the metal flooring stretched away for nearly as long as the tools that stood upon it, the expanse broken up only by the outdated tool used to cut the rubber squeegees that were so important for the print line’s operation.
Behind him the fab stretched on towards the far wall, offering him only a partial view as it was largely blocked by two print lines, a CTS tool, and the ASYS print line on the other side of the fab. No one was standing there watching him, no mysterious figure was paying too much attention to his actions at that moment, and in truth he couldn’t think of who in this place would even give him a second thought apart from his wife.
“Alright Brad, you should probably think about getting off the computer for a while,” Jamal said, “Even if we aren’t that busy we’ve got to look like it if one of the suits comes walking in.”
Jamal uttered a small chuckle as he said this, obviously expecting Brad to do the same and perhaps even agree. Instead he only nodded, thinking that someone was playing a damned nasty prank, and that it wasn’t in the least bit funny. Jamal got to his feet and moved away as he went to log off, presumably to check on the lines or perhaps go find someone to bullshit with. That was a large part of the job on days like this, the act of seeking out a way to simply wile away the hours until quitting time. It wasn’t how Brad liked to do things, he preferred to stay busy, but that was just how this job was. If you had enough to do you could spend all day without looking at the clock. But if there was no work and you’d done all the odd jobs that were always cropping up, then you were just stuck doing absolutely nothing.
As he went to log off though the screen flashed again, and a black and white dialogue box he recognized popped up, letters scrolling across the white field with such rapidity that he could only imagine the frantic energy of the person on the other end.
Don’t leave this terminal Brad, I’m warning you for the last time.
He sat down firmly again, his arms hanging at his sides as he watched the cursor blink next to the words, almost expecting another vehement outburst from the unseen typist. Instead the words glared at him from the monitor, as though accusing him of daring to follow the advice of his lead. After another moment and a brief chance to look around Brad scooted a little closer to the computer, his palms resting upon the table for just a moment before his fingers started typing.
Who are you?
The cursor flashed for several seconds before an answer came.
The last person you want to screw with Mr. Caldell. Now get working.
He felt somewhat foolish daring someone who he couldn’t see and didn’t believe was really capable of their empty threats, but he also couldn’t take his eyes off of the screen at that moment either.
Pay close attention to the fast fire Brad.
He didn’t know what to think until the sudden WHUMP of something imploding, or exploding, from deep within the print line behind him sounded. The sound was so deep and impactful that he felt it in his teeth. It actually set his ears to ringing as he looked over to find that the metal surrounding the final stage of the print line, the fast fire as it was known, had bowed out and was now belching forth black smoke that poured in thick, curling ribbons from within the metal casing.
That was when the alarms started, and Brad felt his pulse quicken ever so slightly.
Now you’ll have to hide for a moment Brad.
He barely had time to process this as the words came racing across the screen. There was motion behind and all around him as he tried to sort out what had just happened.
Do it Brad, or another machine goes up in smoke. I promise this one will be much, much louder.
Still he didn’t move, and as the overhead sprinkler system began to react to the thick smoke he felt the moisture raining down on him as people began to emerge from the print lines, hollering at him to move, to get up and get going. Brad was about to do just that when the screen flashed again, and new words rolled across the white field.
Boom Brad, watch your ears.
He had just barely put his hands over his ears when a horrible explosion, far louder than the first one, nearly blew apart the fast fire just across the walkway from the first tool. The screams of those caught within range of the blast were just as horrid as the infernal heat itself that now boiled from across the way, and still the words came up on the screen, as though the typist was somehow pleased with themselves.
Now go hide. Once they are all gone you will return and finish what we’ve started. If not, I will continue the hit parade until your entire workplace is slag.
He couldn’t think straight he was so scared, but on instinct perhaps he got up, still soaked, and made his way quickly to the only hiding place he could think of, against the far corner of the wall just straight and left. There was a large wash basin located there that he could hide in as he quickly stepped in, feeling it shift slightly beneath him as the metal tub accommodated his weight. He was effectively hidden from view by a large duct that rose from the floor and rose all the way to the ceiling before creating an L that ran almost the length of the fab before it was split by several smaller pipes and ducts.
The sprinklers were still on full bore, but as he peeked around the edge of the silver duct he could see people filing out as they should have, making for the gowning room without hesitating. Their escape routes in case of fire or chemical spill were well mapped out and were followed without question, but he also knew that the EMT’s, men and women selected to serve in the capacity of making certain everyone was out, would be on the prowl soon. They would find him here without much trouble, they were trained to be thorough. He needed another spot, but he also need to get back to the computer he felt.
Or had the mystery person thought of this? More and more as he thought about this matter it seemed as though the individual behind this knew far too much. Was it someone inside doing this, another employee that knew the ins and outs of the fab? That seemed a stretch, but then this entire situation seemed damned crazy.
As he stole another peek around the duct he saw that the EMT’s had started roaming, and would no doubt be headed this way next. He needed a way out, a place to hide, and he could think of only one spot that might afford him any chance of success. The problem was that he needed a key.
“Get that fire out!” he heard a voice yell, “Don’t move them, don’t move them! The fire department’s on its way!”
There were two EMT’s that he could hear at that moment, though he knew there at least a half dozen in this area of the fab that would be out searching for any stragglers. He wondered in the mystery typist would be getting impatient now or had figured on what would happen. It seemed that he was taking a terrible gamble after everything that had already happened, but Brad couldn’t think past the threat against his family and his wife’s, and the fact that the typist had in fact predicted each explosion perfectly. The fact that the typist had caused these explosions was beyond reproach, but the why, how, and when whatever devices they’d used had been placed
were still looming on the far horizon of his mind, patiently waiting to take their turn in the mental queue.
Even as he was trying to think his left hip pocket started buzzing, starling him in such a way that he almost banged his right knee against the hollow metal duct next to him. If nothing else had done it that surely would have alerted the EMT’s to where he was. Even mild glance upon the duct could send a dull bonging sound resonating through the back half of the fab.
His reaction was immediate as he unzipped his suit and pulled his phone out, reading quickly on the front display the single word RESTRICTED. Whoever was calling, and his mind had already made its own deduction, didn’t want to be known. He hesitated for only a half second before swiping the green arrow that would take the call, placing it to his ear as he spoke.
“Who is this?”
“The one holding your life and your family’s in his hand,” said a robotic voice on the other end. There was no doubt that it was modulated somehow, much as was done in cinema to hide a person’s identity. “I’m also someone who knows how much you’re worth Mr. Caldell, and can make life very difficult for you unless you decide to play by my rules. Now, the EMT’s should be finishing up shortly, which means you have almost no time to find a suitable hiding place and evade them until they arrive on the outside of the building. At this time the fire department will already be en route and you will have only a handful of minutes to do as I ask.
“If you continue to play games with me Mr. Caldell I will bring the entire fab down around your ears and leave you alive to contemplate what will become of your family and all those you care for. And I assure you I will still get what I want.”
“I don’t understand,” he whispered harshly into the phone, wary of the EMT’s drawing ever closer. He couldn’t even dart from cover any longer as he could hear their footsteps squishing this way. There was at least one of them, that was for certain, and they would be checking everywhere to insure that no one had been left behind. Few people would ever bother staying in a situation such as this, but it was still their job to be thorough.
“That’s not my problem,” the voice said in its flat monotone, emotionless and without remorse, “Your responsibility is to be back on your terminal in the next five minutes or another machine will join the first two in metal heaven, and I will continue to detonate each one until you have concluded the transaction or you are no longer able, in which case I will move on to the next participant.”
Right now his stomach felt like a lead ball in his body and his balls felt as though they had shrunk to the size of peas. He knew what the stranger was talking about, but five minutes wasn’t nearly long enough. After only a few weeks of relatively good luck he finally found it necessary to curse his brother in law again for a moment that might have gone largely unnoticed if not for James’ need to open his damned mouth all the time.
He had bigger problems at the moment though as he heard the EMT stomping his or her way closer, closer, until they were right on top of his hiding place as he pressed himself into the corner as much as possible. The phone went dark in his hand, and Brad expected at any moment to be caught, and after that it was anyone’s guess as to what would happen. As he stood shaking in the wash basin, his only company the few bits and pieces of this or that tool that had been dismantled to figure out why it was not working properly, he could just imagine how loud it would soon get in here.
But then the footsteps receded, and he was left staring in shock at the empty space in front of him that held no one looking at him strangely, ready to yank him down for disobeying the fire alarm. The EMT had not even looked in this direction, hadn’t even bothered to come around the duct and see if anyone was in the corner. It was a breach of protocol, but one he was glad for as the footsteps continued to recede.
“Anyone over there?” called a voice from near the door leading into the gowning room.
“Nope, everyone’s out,” came the answer, and then the faint sound of the door opening, and then closing. He was alone, all by himself as the sprinklers continued to spray for a few seconds more before shutting off, their sensors finally having recognized that the job was done.
Brad looked down at his phone, half-expecting it to buzz again and to see RESTRICTED flashing across the screen again. Instead, as he thumbed the screen to life he saw that he had a text, again from the restricted number.
You have 1 minute to get back online, it read, Get going.
Brad took the time to look just once to see if anyone had stayed behind, knowing full well that EMT’s were expected to remain on the scene until the fire department arrived. No one was in his sight line though, meaning that he had full access to the computer and would hopefully not be bothered for a few minutes. He couldn’t even fathom how the caller wanted him to transfer so much in so little time however, but he would do his damndest to find out.
He almost slipped getting to the computer he went so fast, finding the seat and planting his butt without hesitation as he dragged and clicked to get to where he needed to go.
* * *
“You need to get off that thing, now!” came the shout from behind him as strong arms took hold of Brad from behind, all but yanking him out of his seat as he stubbornly refused, somehow finding the strength to resist as he held onto the table with one hand. The fab was swiftly coming down around them, one machine blowing for every minute that he failed to transfer the needed funds. The last message had come in the form of an account number typed into the heading of a file folder, and he had done what he could to get the transfer moving, but then the inevitable had happened. The fire crew had arrived, and as he had thought the bank would not transfer the funds as it was too much to move without a signature and photo ID.
The first explosion had come from the CTS tools only a short distance away as one and then another had gone in succession, each tool shaking and bucking against their moorings. One explosion had been forceful enough to warp and even bow the metal flooring beneath it. And still the explosions were going, causing the sprinkler system to continue pouring down upon them all as Brad held on for dear life and the firefighters finally had to pry his fingers from the tabletop. He was yelling out his denials even as the last fast fire blew, effectively erasing every sense he had as he and those around him were engulfed in noise and smoke, the concussion from the blast sending them all crashing to the floor.
* * *
His mouth was dry as he allowed his phone to hang by his side, his heart hammering away in his chest as he looked to the entrance. Black smoke was billowing out from the front doors with such frequency that soon enough the white exterior of the building around and above the doors had been stained with several layers of dark soot. He’d had a chance to stop this, somehow, and had done nothing. He’d thought it was a prank, just a joke in extremely poor taste that he could ignore. As he allowed his phone to dangle in his hand still he looked down, still able to read the last message he’d received, the bold black letters mocking him as he cast his gaze back towards the front doors.
Too late Jamal. You should have made him stop.