Four years in the army, and not once did I hear an order from anyone ranked above a Major(O4). Now I’ve been at the Dalton Power Station for two months, and I’ve already received three phone calls from James Mattis, the US Secretary of Defense.
It seemed like a mundane enough job, right? My stint in the army helped pay my way through a bachelor’s in power plant technology after I got out, and I was ready for a reliable income with good honest work. I spent a few years in equipment operations, then checking readouts, and on up to personnel supervisor. Nothing more exciting than a few power lines being blown over in a storm until I was promoted to Plant Operator in Dalton.
“You’re going to notice a few anomalies with this plant,” the old manager Nathan told me. He was retiring, although by the size of his waist-line and the dull glassy glaze over his eyes, I’d guess he retired about ten years ago and just hadn’t left yet.
“But I don’t want you to worry,” he added. “I worked here 20 years and nothing going on will interfere with your job.”
“Looks normal enough to me,” I replied. Was this some kind of test? “Single open cycle gas turbines, probably around 140 megawats right?”
If I was expecting praise for my perception, I didn’t get it. That was the first time I’ve ever seen a grown man spit on an office floor.
“Not about the output boy, I mean our client. We’re just supplying one building up in the hills. The rest of the city is handled by that hydroelectric station downtown.”
This had to be a test. It didn’t seem fair since they already offered me the job, but there wasn’t any harm in playing along.
“No sir, that’s impossible. This station should be able to supply around 140,000 homes.”
“Or one government building,” he grunted.
“Are we not producing at capacity?”
“We are. Hell, they’d take more if they could get it.”
“What are they doing up there? I don’t understand.”
Nathan clapped me on the back like I had just won an award. “And they like to keep it that way. So if you want to stick around like I have, then you’ll do what I did and keep your nose out of their business. Besides that, everything should run pretty smooth for you here.”
But Nathan was wrong.
Right from the start, nothing ran smoothly. First of all, the other plant workers acted mighty strange toward me. Every one of them kept their eyes locked on the floor, all wearing that same glassy eyed complacency I had seen in Nathan. They followed orders readily enough, but they did so without the slightest initiative or individuality.
I caught one guy, Robert, chewing his pencil for ten minutes straight in the break-room. I asked him what he was doing, and he mumbled that his schedule dictated a break every two hours. As soon as his ten minutes were up (to the damn second, I think), he stood up and left the room without another word.
And then there was Mattis calling every few weeks. Those were the most awkward, forced conversations I’ve ever had to sit through in my life.
“Acting Manager?” were always the first words out of his mouth.
“John Doe (not my real name) speaking.”
I’d give it to him, and then he invariably asked a string of the vaguest imaginable questions. It felt almost like he was being held hostage and had to speak in code to gather information. A few examples:
“Would you consider everything to be more or less ordinary than usual?”
“Have you had any unusual requests for output to anywhere besides that building?”
“In an emergency, how fast could you shut down power to everything if you had to?”
The financing is another thing that didn’t make sense to me. Usually a plant this size will have a couple dozen workers and need its own financing department to keep track of everything. Here we’ve just got Megan.
“There’s not much to do really,” she told me. “There’s no money coming in. I just prepare a folder every month with all our expenses, mail it to some office down in DC, and they take care of it. They’ve never denied anything before.”
Three days ago topped it all off when I received the strangest question yet from Mattis. He asked: “Have you noticed any of your employees trying to escape?” Then he coughed like he was trying to clear his head, not his throat. “I mean, any of them try to quit or just stop showing up?”
The mystery was unbearable to me, but I was trained to follow orders and despite everything I could have maybe still accepted the situation if it wasn’t for the black van which came by two days ago. “Shuttle service,” they called it, although it was only picking up Robert and another technician named Elijah. I watched the van take them up the dirt road winding into the hills.
Yesterday morning they were back at work and I asked them what happened, but they both just laughed and said they went out for a few drinks. Even the laugh felt wrong – like they weren’t doing it because they thought it was funny, but rather made the sound in the hopes that I would find it funny and move on.
First thing I learned about working in a power plant is that a pair of professional overalls and a condescending attitude can get you in just about anywhere. All I had to do was strip one of the underground cables leading to the building, file a report on the output fluctuation, schedule my own appointment, and show up. There was a guard post out front, but I showed them my diagnostics appointment and they let me inside (under escort) without complaint.
I called it a building before just because I’d only seen its location on a map. A mine shaft might describe the phenomenon more accurately, or perhaps a crater. The complex was clustered around an abyss located at the bottom of an enormous valley whose jagged slopes looked like the result of some cataclysmic primordial explosion, long since eroded and overgrown with spruce and pine. There was an unusual energy about the place, and I felt compelled to walk gently as though stepping atop a living creature. That was probably on account of the constant vibrations rippling through the ground as though something deep below the earth was stirring.
Most unsettling of all perhaps were the rows of black vans parked outside. Four of them were being loaded with long bags about the size and shape of a human body. I caught the eye of the guard accompanying me and noticed its glassy shine.
“Any power cuts have serious repercussions here. Please resolve the issue as quickly as humanly possible.”
Humanly. Maybe my discomfort had me imagining things, but somehow it seemed like he said that in the same way you or I might say ‘He’s pretty smart for a dog.’
The guard led me to a control station about a hundred feet away from the main complex. I couldn’t get a good enough angle on the abyss to glimpse what could be down there, but up close the vibrations resolved themselves into the distinct sound of drilling.
“I don’t suppose I’m allowed to ask -” I started.
“Won’t do you any good,” the guard answered promptly. “I don’t know any more than you, and that’s already more than enough.”
“Have you ever been inside?”
He shook his head, glancing around nervously. Then in a hushed whisper:
“I never seen anything, but sometimes I’ll hear things. Like something is down there that don’t want to be.”
I raised my eyebrow, hoping he’d continue. He opened his mouth like he was going to say more, then shook his head.
“None of my business, none of yours. How long is this gonna take?”
I didn’t push my luck by staying long. I traced the power restriction to the cable I striped and followed the line back away from the complex to the spot with the damage.
I’ve been keeping an especially close eye on Robert and Elijah all day today. I can’t shake the feeling that they’re not quite here. I caught Robert chewing his pencil again, but he was doing it so absent minded that by the end of his ten minute break he had eaten straight through the entire thing, graphite, eraser, and all.
Elijah was even worse. He was microwaving a cup of noodles in the break room, anxiously pacing back and forth like he was waiting for a bomb to go off. Then it beeped and he actually collapsed to the floor in shock. I retrieved his glasses for him and helped him to his feet, noticing his eyes were so pale as to be almost completely white. I’m positive they weren’t like that before he went into the building.
I searched through the computer databases for any unusual mentions of the two, and found this log written by Nathan dated two months before I arrived.
Robert and Elijah first pickup service today. Good for five rounds each before they’re used up. Current staff
Round 0: 3
Round 1: 5
Round 2: 11
Round 3: 4
Round 4: 2
Round 5: 1
I am the only one at round 5. Requesting replacement for myself in two months after my final round. Suggest replacement exempt from rounds to preserve his functionality. May God have mercy on our souls.
I scanned back further through his logs and saw a list of similar numbers. It seems like every week another pair of people are sent to the building and their “rounds” are increased by one. Elijah was currently a 4, while Robert was a 3.
There was also a schedule of future pickups. I scanned ahead a few pages and didn’t see my name anywhere. It was a relief at first, although the more I searched, the more unnerving it was to be the only one not on the list. Well, here goes nothing.
I edited the next week to switch my name with Megan’s (she was a round 1). It seemed like people were returning from whatever was going on there, and I know I’m not going to rest easy until I got a look inside. I don’t know what happens past round 5, but after trying to call Nathan’s personal number, I’m pretty sure that I don’t want to know.
I learned from his wife that he put a bullet in his brain the day he left the plant. If all goes well, I hope I’ll get to the bottom of this before I reach that point. And if not, well it’s as Nathan said.
May God have mercy on our souls.