The UPS: 1999 (continued) • The Skudder
Note: This story is being pubbed in serial form. You should probably start with EPISODE 1.
The UPS: 1999 (continued)
“Where’s he going?” Marissa asks Meredith, easily matching Meredith’s desperate pace as their feet pound the sloping corridor curving down toward the ground floor.
“To call our supplier for an emergency replacement skudder,” Meredith pants. “You can’t come down here, go back and help with the bots.”
Ignoring him, Marissa presses: “What’s a skudder?”
“The skudder coil. The source of the magic in the Jukebox.” He mutters, as if to himself: “Be a miracle if they can get another one here before we’re all blown to shit.” The corridor winds downward, opening at last upon the warehouse, its long aisles of empty glass coffins stretching away into the gloom. “Now, stay out of the way.” To the others: “The crank room! Wands ready!” Meredith and his crew make a hard right, racing into a circular room off the side of the warehouse. Down here, the walls are vibrating, and a poisonous green light is pulsing from beyond the entryway.
As Marissa follows them into the crank room, she is blasted with heat, strobes of green light leaving bright streaks across her retinas. Shielding her eyes, she sees Meredith and his team bracing in a rough circle, wearing black goggles, aiming thick, pipe-like wands upward at a huge, armor-plated vault, above which towers a dizzying progression of gigantic springs, greasy pulleys, many-jointed levers, great square-toothed gears the size of kitchen tables. The bizarre structure twists its way up through the ceiling, disappearing into the factory like a monstrous, disjointed spine, lurching ominously and throwing off great, fizzling sparks. This, then, is the heart of the Jukebox, the driving power behind its mind-bending music—or would be, were it running as intended instead of going haywire, giant cogs battering each other with the force of whatever has happened within the vault.
“Keep her stable ’til the new skudder arrives. In three…two…one—”
From the valve-like apertures at the end of each wand stream arcs of pure white, wreathing the pulsating vault like clouds ringing a planet. Gradually, the tremors begin to subside, as do the hellish green light and baking heat. There is, however, no sign of relief on the faces of Meredith and his people, who have not lowered their wands. They are already beginning to sweat with effort.
There is a sudden snap, and Meredith cries out, gripping his right hand with his left. At his feet lie the broken halves of his wand, the aperture blackened and smoldering. The temperature of the crank room instantly increases several degrees, and the walls of the vault bulge outward. Meredith whirls toward a tool rack, desperately searching, stopping short as a fresh wand is placed in his hand. He looks up at Marissa in surprise, then quickly turns and aims.
Many are gripping their heavy wands with both hands now. Marissa rifles through the rolling tool box where she found the first wand, coming up with the battered shaft of one, then another, threads rough and corroded. After more hunting, she digs up two knobby end pieces, one slightly charred, the other scored along its shank but still serviceable. She screws the pieces together, forcing the rusty threads past one another. Then she returns to Meredith’s side. “Let me.”
Gasping with effort, Meredith shakes his head. “You can’t use a wand without training and special conditioning. It could make things worse.”
“Why? What’s going on inside there, anyway?”
“The cooling spell has to be renewed every day,” Meredith says, sweat pouring down his face. “Otherwise the skudder coil will overheat. With all the other work going on, we—I—didn’t think to renew the spell before restarting the Jukebox. The coil overheated and blew up, and now the vault’s flooded with radical magic. If we can’t keep it stable before a replacement coil is delivered, the reaction will likely gut this factory.” He has clearly lost much hope of this happening. A phone on the wall jangles. “Get that!”
Marissa grabs the phone. “Yeah?”
“What the—what’re you doing down there?” Tyler demands. “Where’s Meredith?”
“He can’t talk, so you’ve got me instead. What do you want?”
“Tell Meredith there’s an emergency replacement on the way. No one’s answering my calls in Shipping and Receiving, and everyone else is trying to contain the situation up here—” As if to emphasize his point, there is a crash in the background, followed by faint screams. “Meredith’s got to send someone up to take the delivery—” There is some kind of explosion and the line goes dead.
“Is it here?” Meredith asks desperately.
“It’s on the way. But no one’s picking up the phone in Shipping and Receiving, and Tyler can’t spare anyone. He says you’ve got to send someone.”
“What? I can’t spare anyone, either! Call him back!”
“Can’t. Phone blew up.” Meredith slowly turns his head to look at her with despairing eyes. Marissa nods. “Point me in the right direction, boss.”
“Elevator.” He jerks his head in the direction of the warehouse. “Thirtieth floor.” Without another word, Marissa rushes out through the silent warehouse, arriving at the wide, horizontal doors of a freight elevator.
On the way to Thirty, the narrow, crusty window on the inner door affords glimpses of the other floors sliding past. Out in the wide corridors and work areas, the plant is in various states of dysfunction, whitecoats rushing here and there, desperately casting spells, roping mindless bots, extinguishing fires, hauling away the injured. At last, the doors trundle open upon a cavernous room with aisles of metal shelving and pallets laden with barrels and crates of raw materials, or boxes of product ready to ship to Nebraska.
Along the far wall are three wide, scrolling doors labeled 1, 2, and 3. Between 2 and 3, a yellow light goes on above a small utility door, accompanied by the sound of a buzzer. Marissa hurries to this door and yanks it open.
A stocky, uniformed figure is standing outside, just beyond the square of light from the doorway. A black-gloved hand extends toward Marissa, holding up a clipboard. For a second or two, Marissa is unable to move. In the shadows at the end of the loading dock sits a hulking, boxlike shape that makes a low, constant rumbling Marissa would have recognized anywhere, even here in the pit of hell. At the top of the release form on the clipboard is a brown and gold shield bearing the letters: UPS.
“Ma’am?” says a gravelly, female voice, and the hand gives the clipboard a little shake. What Marissa can see of the driver’s arm is covered in fine, rust-colored hair. She takes the clipboard, barely looking down at the form as she scribbles her name, then hands it back.
The woman hesitates, looking down at the signature. “You got a name. ‘Stead of just an X…” She falls silent. After a second, she makes a Hm! sound, and when Marissa doesn’t move, she leans past her, through the doorway to flip a switch. As she does so, the light falls briefly across a face that may or may not be covered in the same silken hair as her arms; a thick, silver braid swings forward, then back as she straightens. The metal overhead door scrolls up.
The driver strides back to her truck, opens the rear doors, steps into the cargo hold. Seconds later, a heavy drum bearing the red label SAME DAY DELIVERY has been wheeled out and deposited just inside, the dock door is closing again, and the driver is descending the stone steps of the dock, headed for the truck cab.
“Thanks,” Marissa calls after her, but the woman does not pause. Something desperate inside Marissa makes her run to the end of the dock, just as the driver is climbing up into her seat. “Hey, can I talk to you?”
The driver pauses, her brawny outline just visible against the lights of the truck console, one hand gripping the steering wheel. “’Bout peeled the paint off my truck getting here from Darphina with that.” Though gruff, there is something darkly lyrical in that voice. “Better take it where it needs to go.” She slides behind the wheel, throws the truck into gear, and speeds away into the darkness, motoring down a long promontory that extends out, thirty stories above Robadu. Marissa stands there on the dock, holding her breath as the truck accelerates away from her, taillights dwindling with distance. When it reaches the end of the promontory, it keeps going—flying straight off the drop and out over the city like a big, square bumblebee.
“Hey! What’re you doing?” She jumps, turning to see a guy in white uniform striding toward the utility door, clearly the Supervisor on duty. “Did you just sign for this package? You’re not authorized!” His left nostril is ringed with faintly glowing pink powder. Behind her, a faint boom echoes, and she looks back once more. The truck has disappeared. Nothing to see but the far-off twinkle of city lights in the eternal night.
She walks back into Shipping and Receiving. Despite the fact that she herself is now dressed in Factory-white, something in her bristles at the sight of this whitecoat—or perhaps it’s his tone. “We’ve got an emergency here.” She stops directly in front of the Supervisor and looks him in the eye. “Or haven’t you heard?”
His expression hardens. “I’ve been—on lunch break.” He wipes at his nose. “There weren’t supposed to be any deliveries ’til tomorrow afternoon!” He sounds almost defensive. “Who the hell are you, anyway?”
Marissa grabs a floor jack and shoves it under the drum. “Kinda busy here.” She cranks up the jack and begins hauling it over to the freight elevator.
“What—” The Supervisor notices the carbon copy of the release form, picks it up, and stiffens. Marissa hits the green button on the wall, and the mouth of the freight elevator rumbles open. “Hey, you’re that bot that got loose and put all our jobs on the line!” He is waving the sheet accusingly.
From the elevator as the doors are closing, Marissa gives him a little wave. “By all means, keep that as a souvenir.”
The gate rattles shut and with a groan, the freight elevator begins its cumbersome journey back down to the warehouse. The solitary light globe hovering near the ceiling is small and faint, but now a thin circlet of brilliant light has begun to wink around the lid of the drum. Marissa’s hand settles there, sensing the tremendous energy of the thing inside…its deadly potential.
At last, the doors trundle open. From across the warehouse floor come shouts and cries of despair. Marissa yanks the floor jack and its burden out of the elevator and hauls up the length of the aisle, steadying the drum with one hand to keep it from tumbling off. She skids to a halt inside the crank room, where it’s apparent the magic inside the vault is escaping the workers’ control. One woman is collapsed on the floor, writhing in pain. Her right hand is frozen into a claw shape. Her wand lies nearby, crumbled and blackened.
“Over here!” Meredith gasps, almost sobbing. Marissa wastes no time getting the drum into position beneath the chamber’s spiral hatch. His mouth falls open. “You’ve been touching it?”
“Just the container,” Marissa says, her hand still on the lid. “I didn’t want it to fall off.”
His face ashen, Meredith yanks another pair of heavy gloves from his pocket. “I forgot to warn you.” He tosses them at Marissa. “Touching anything touching it should’ve killed you by now!”
Every sweating face is turned toward Marissa. She pulls the gloves on, shrugging. “Guess not. Now what?”
Meredith swallows hard. “Please.” Barely audible. “Don’t tell her.” More loudly: “Help Stedman out of the way, put on her goggles. Then get that lid off and get far away. Even with the goggles on, don’t look at it.” To the others: “When I give the word, use all the power you’ve got left to get that hatch open. With no one holding the machinery at bay—” He nods at the bulging hulk of the vault, which is giving off blinding green flashes and radiating blazing heat— “We’ll only have a couple minutes to get the new skudder installed.”
Marissa, her eyes now protected by Stedman’s solid-black goggles, releases the locking lever on the top half of the drum, flips back the lid, then backs away, shielding her face. Even with the goggles in place, the golden light blazing out of the opening and bouncing off the chamber’s hatch is impossible to look at. “Get ready!” Meredith yells. Arms are bracing, wands trembling with the strain. “Now!”
All the workers, whose wands have been concentrated on stabilizing the great vault, now aim at a different point, directly overhead: the spiral shutter at the base, which after a moment begins to creak laboriously counterclockwise. Immediately, the chamber appears to take a great, shuddering breath, its sides expanding. “Faster!” Meredith shouts. Some of the workers are now crying in fear, straining desperately at the gradually widening aperture, wands practically juddering out of their grasp. All around them, the walls of the crank room have begun to throb along with the chamber, the crazy spinning of the giant gears and pulleys of the Jukebox becoming even more frenetic.
After what feels like an eternity, the metal fins of the hatch are fully open. “The coil! The coil!” The poor, weakened workers turn their wands upon the pulsing drum. A brilliant object twists upward like a giant strand of DNA, flashing just above the opening…then sinks again. “Up and out!” Meredith cries. “Up, up and out!” But first one worker, then another, falls to their knees with a cry, wands smoking, hands paralyzed.
Marissa walks into their midst, grabs the two spare wands, one in each hand. An immense power rushes up her arms as she raises them. And the light of a hundred suns spills out of the drum in every direction. Voices are shouting, but for her this is background noise. A small smile plays upon her lips. “Pleased to meet you,” she whispers as the radiance of the skudder erases all else. “One way or another, in the end you and I are gonna be the life of this party.” Summoning all her strength, she lifts both wands high above her head, and the skudder ascends, rotating clockwise, then counter, and turning end over end like the spoke of some great wheel.
As the coil at last enters the circular opening at the base of the Jukebox, the rattling of the vault gradually stills.
The spiral fins of the hatch spin lazily clockwise, sealing the chamber. The energy running rampant within the vault is slowly absorbed by the new coil, allowing itself to be regulated once more. The walls of the crank room cease their quaking and are still. She raises one wand, imitating the earlier motions of the crew, and the vault is once more wreathed in the white, vaporous rings of the cooling spell.
Marissa sinks back against the wall beside Meredith, her breath slowing. She says, quietly, “What’s Darphina?”
Meredith has been mopping his face. Now he looks at her, unanswering, eyes unreadable.
“Is it where the UPS driver came from?”
“Bang-up job, guys and gals!” Marissa turns to see Kelley strolling toward them, Tyler at her side. Meredith scrambles to his feet. Tyler’s right cheek has a burn mark, and his white blazer and pants are scorched. One sleeve is spattered with someone’s blood. “You’ve rescued the heart of our industry, not to mention several hundred lives.” Standing in their midst, Kelley smiles down at the exhausted team, several of whom are nursing scorched and paralyzed hands.
Tyler is staring straight at Marissa. She gives him a cheerful smile, until he turns his gaze away to his precious vault, which is humming smoothly now.
A single, unrepeatable word, spoken in a black, guttural voice, draws her attention back to Kelley, who is now walking from one worker to the next, her lituus dangling from one hand, strange colors sparking from the dull crystals in its surface. As the lituus passes over their ruined hands, one by one, their clawlike fingers relax, normal color returns, and the agony ebbs from their haggard faces.
Idly kicking aside one half of Meredith’s broken wand, Kelley comes at last to stand in front of him. “Nice job, man. If it weren’t for your leadership, we woulda crashed and burned.”
“Th-thanks.” Meredith’s face is somber as he looks back at her, not quite able to meet the heat of her gaze.
She tilts her head, pouting. “Aw, why so glum, chum?” When he doesn’t answer, she answers for him. “Could it be…the fact that you sent our resident Organic out to take delivery of the skudder coil—alone?” Meredith drops his eyes, swallowing hard. “Without instruction?”
“P-please, Miss R—”
“Without protection?” Her smile is still sugary, but her eyes hold blue fire.
“She—” he whispers, barely audible. “She was our only chance.”
Kelley nods sympathetically. “And in light of that, I’ll give you a break. What are you—thirty? Looking good for your age. Strong and healthy. Instead of burning you alive, let’s give you a new job…in the chymistry lab.”
Meredith stiffens, barely breathing. “I’m not going to be one of your…things.” Then, a tired smile appears on his face. “Been doing a bit of reading,” he says, inexplicably. “There’s something called a college science program in World Two. Yeah, I know what those things are: college and science. You know, I am thirty-two years old. An old man, by this world’s standard. But over there, people can live more than twice as long. Can you imagine?” His right hand has been fiddling with something. He turns his head to the side. Presses thumb and forefinger firmly into the vertical groove along his neck. “Say, do you know where the jugular’s located?” Before anyone can react, Meredith has rammed the sharp end of his broken wand into the vein. His blood fountains, instantly drenching his white overalls as he falls to his knees, then rolls onto his back, gazing up into the mechanical maze of the Jukebox.
Meredith’s team stares, frozen. “Who’s got seniority around here?” Kelley says without missing a beat. “Stedman? You’re crank room Supervisor now. Your first job is to clean all this up.” She waves a hand, turning to Marissa with a shrug. “So,” she sighs, “What’ve we learned today?”
Marissa is looking down at the man she was talking to only moments ago, now dying before her eyes, his tired face at last serene. Bugs is the super-strong one. He’s afraid of bananas. Willing herself to see only Kelley and not the terrible thing that has just happened, she replies: “Apparently, being a chymistry lab test subject isn’t fun.” Kelley chuckles, clearly pleased at Marissa’s lack of sensitivity. Now is the time to gain her trust. “Also, don’t try to rebuild a business without a solid strategy to keep finances on-keel.”
“We already have that,” Tyler says. “I’ve been handling—”
“Sweetie, you’re my Chief Operating Officer,” Kelley reminds him. “I appreciate that you’ve been handling this stuff, but let’s hear what our new employee has to say.” The three of them stand there amid the shocked workers who are, under Stedman’s shaky orders, removing Meredith’s body and cleaning up the blood on the floor. Some weep quietly as they work. “Well? Let’s have some fresh ideas for this place!” Kelley’s eyes are riveted on Marissa.
P.T. is cool. He’s the one with the big nose. With cold resolve, Marissa says: “First, figure out how many good bots you’ve still got, and how many more it’ll take to get back up to full operation. Until then, what products can we still make with our limited capabilities? Pick the biggest money-makers in the short term. Communicate all of this to the NFMA and the rest of our customers, reassure them this is only temporary.”
“I’ve already got those things figured out—” Tyler begins, but Kelley holds up a silencing hand.
“Get ahold of all your suppliers in Darphina—”
“She knows about Darphina?” Tyler is beside himself.
Kelley flicks her lituus, and suddenly, where Tyler’s rosy lips used to be, there is only a thin, sealed line. Tyler claws at his face for a moment, snorting helplessly, then stands still, eyes burning. “Now, what was that about our suppliers?”
“See if some of them are willing to help out in any way—like issuing some credit on the next few shipments of materials. They know the faster we can recover, the faster we’ll be back to buying their products.” Kelley is smiling, nodding for her to go on. “Next, get all of the employees together and be up front—tell them everything that’s going on. If you have an emergency fund, use part of it to pay any lost wages. It’ll make them stop worrying about losing their jobs and get them all excited about rebuilding.”
Kelley’s eyes are aglow. “Go on.” Tyler looks on with dismay.
“Now, once we’re up and running again, see if there are more ways to grow DimCor. Buy out a smaller company and dominate their market. Open another location—maybe even in Nebraska! You’ve obviously got connections there, right? Last but far from least…” Marissa spares Tyler a glance. “…invest in a damned finance department instead of farming this shit out.”
Kelley claps her hands in delight, then throws an arm around Marissa’s shoulders. “Girlfriend, I can already tell you’re gonna shake things up around here. Welcome to the team!” She continues as they walk through the entryway together, stepping over the last traces of Meredith’s blood: “Now, I’m thinking we need an expert like you to look over our books and help us get our poop together. What do they call that in World Two?”
“Perfect! That’s what you are. Now, I’m gonna take you upstairs and show you your new office…” From behind them comes a whiny sound, punctuated by indignant grunts. “Oh, yeah.” Absently, Kelley waves her lituus over her shoulder. Tyler’s mouth reappears, a silent red oval of outrage.
Copyright © 2018 by Shoshana Sumrall Frerking
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living, dead, or otherwise, is purely coincidental.