The Ladies of Horror
Picture-Prompt Writing Challenge!
by Michelle Joy Gallagher
Frank patrolled the machine on the graveyard shift for close to 20 years. He preferred the solitude and the stillness of working alone. The old rusty pipes and the whirring gears were close enough to company for his liking. Every night was the same. He wandered the long hall and inspected the various ports for any sign of strain or stress. The machine was old, and he vaguely remembered something about it being owned by the electric company. He was technically a security guard but had been granted special clearance to patrol the machine alone because of his experience as an engineer in the Navy. In a lot of ways, the hallway and the mechanism itself reminded him of the battleship engine rooms he spent his youth laboring in. The thing was, being an engineer, he thought after a time the machine would make sense to him. There was a certain kind of poetry in machines and if you spent enough time around them, their purpose became clear even with no foreknowledge of it. This one, however, had escaped being identified for the entire duration of his career there. There were familiar aspects to it: Steam ports, pistons and pipes that felt very much like parts of a huge engine, but there were far more mysteries than familiarity. Some parts, hand forged out of iron, had been stamped with the dates they were created. 1897 had been the earliest. And these ancient relics were intermixed with modern, shiny, newly installed parts with labels and signatures of the men who installed them. He was not tasked with diagnosing problems or physically altering or repairing broken parts. He was simply instructed to pick up the receiver of a red telephone at the far end of the hall and report the section number the machine needed repair in. Even though some parts were inexplicably aged, he never had to make a repair call. There was one gauge he was tasked with checking every half hour on the hour. It was an analogue gauge with a red needle that simply measured between 0 and “Ready.” For 20 years, through all its machinations and effort, the machine never budged from the black 0 on the left side of the gauge. The needle never even moved with the vibrations of the machine when it amped up to pull power every early morning around 3am. The same vibrations shook the walkway Frank used so much it set his teeth on edge. His patrol that night started like any other. He clocked in using a rusty punch card machine even though there were 3 locked doors he had to pass through from the street that required his thumb print on an electronic pad affixed to the door frame. After, he would set to walking up and back through the long building, surveying each section (12 in total) and noting the time on a security log. He checked the “Ready” meter and found it just as he had hundreds of times before, the red needle locked steadily on 0. He began to walk back to Section 1 when the machine started ramping up as it usually did far later in the evening. All lights in the building went out and a red light came on over the Red phone at the end of the hall. He stood in shock for a moment before remembering his Navy training and started to walk quickly but without panic to recheck the meter. The needle was now shaking violently and hovering over the word “Ready” with an intense urgency that felt almost sentient. A klaxon sounded. He headed toward the red phone with the now blinking red light over it, urged to a light jog and into a run from the blaring klaxon. For the first time in his 20 year employ, he reached for the receiver of the red phone and put it to his ear. A burst of static from the earpiece, and then a long tone, followed a deep voice.
“M2720– Gauge reading and time?”
“Uh… The gauge reads ready. 01:00” Frank reported.
The connection ended. He replaced the receiver. The klaxon halted its screaming and the lights came back to normal. He stood there winded and in a sort of shock. It had been a long time since his old body had moved that way.
The phone rang. He picked it up with a shaky hand but he managed to keep his voice steady.
“M2720- Section 3, lever counterclockwise. God love and keep you.”
Perplexed by the solemn tone, he replaced the receiver and walked the hall the few yards to Section 3. There was indeed a lever that was barely reachable from the walkway. He leaned over the railing and pushed it counterclockwise as instructed.
A flash of bright white light and a hole opened up in the ground below the machinery. The machinery started to collapse on itself, the walls too, and the walkway, shaking Frank violently from the post he’d served loyally for the majority of his adult life and sucked him down and in. The rest of the building joined him eventually. There was a cacophony of rumbling concrete, squealing metal and breaking glass for a very long time. Then nothing. Complete and absolute darkness. Silence. Stillness.
The length of that silence and stillness could not be recorded because time itself did not exist. Finally, and suddenly a massive explosion, with fire at a billion kelvin forcing neutron to combine with proton. Helium nuclei. Expansion. Quantum fluctuation. Inflation. Gravitational pull. Billions of years. Ready. Ready. Ready.
Fiction © Copyright Michelle Joy Gallagher
Image courtesy of Pixabay.com
More from author Michelle Joy Gallagher:
This collection of twelve stories and artwork by women is truly a collection of the macabre. Make a reservation for terror and get ready to delve into the deepest, darkest fears of some of the best writers and artists in the fiction game. Leah McNaughton Lederman has collected an anthology of the truly strange… a tome of the weird. Take a seat and order a cup, you’re dining at Café Macabre!