North by the Red Death
by Peter Bailey
Daniel is a site foreman on a project building heavy-duty fences. When he accidentally takes the wrong clipboard from a parts warehouse, he finds himself in possession of information that shadowy forces will kill him to retrieve.
Unsurprisingly “Processing (1) — 75%” turned out to be a near twin of the site he had visited this morning, a series of linked prefabricated sheds, protected by a familiar security fence, hidden well away from town. The road that led to it was still brand new.
The main difference was in the entrance. Unlike this morning, the entrance here was a mass of lights and CCTV cameras that watched the closed gate very carefully. Some of the cameras had lights of their own. Daniel thought this meant that they were night-capable. No one was getting in here without permission, even at night.
The whole thing had the look of something designed by committee and modeled by computer to be completely invulnerable. Except to someone walking in, huddled under one of the trucks.
The trucks had been arriving every hour or so, and Daniel had plenty of time to work his way through the trees opposite, until he was perfectly placed to sprint from cover as they slowed down for the entrance.
The space between the rear wheels of the truck was cramped, and Daniel could feel the burning heat of the exhaust, but as the truck maneuvered slowly towards the entrance, all he had to do was hold on to a strut and shuffle forwards.
There was a bad moment when he nearly fell under the massive wheels when the reversing warning sounded as the truck changed direction. But the strut held his weight and just dragged him for a few feet until he found the rhythm in walking backwards.
After all motion had stopped, there was crashing and banging above him, a low hum as the tailgate was lowered and then footsteps overhead. The sound seemed to go on for a long time, sometimes there were voices — one of them inexplicably shouted “Git along little dogies” — but as long as none of the voices were shouting out, “Hey! Who’s that under the truck?” Daniel was happy.
By the time the sounds had stopped, his legs were stiff and cramped from being hunched under the truck, but he was inside the fence, and no one knew he was there. All he had to do now was get inside the building. Daniel thought that this was a new and interesting use of the word “all.”
Daniel thought about the problem for a while before taking the simple approach. Coming out from under the truck, he held his head up high and briskly dusted off his hands as if he had just been checking the exhaust or something. There were no shouts or challenges, and then he was inside.
Inside, the loading bay was brightly lit — and completely empty. There was no one here to watch him. Daniel risked a quick look behind him to see who might have noticed him, but the strip of tarmac he could see was deserted. He moved away from the loading bay door before he let himself lean against the wall and relax.
His breathing was fast and shallow and his armpits damp with sweat as he listened to the heartbeat of this place. Outside the sound had been barely perceptible, but now he was inside he could hear the muffled thud every few seconds. Not regular enough to be a machine, it had its own rhythm — pausing and then speeding up. If it was a heartbeat, then it was diseased and close to death. Perhaps it was responsible for the strange smell of this place.
The little window in the door from the loading bay let him see that there was no one on the other side of the door. But before he left the vast, empty loading bay, he looked at the bright floodlights hung from the ceiling, and he thought how different this was from the dimly lit area he had seen yesterday. “Almost as if they had been hiding something,” he whispered under his breath. But before he could think about this properly he opened the door and stepped through.
The little movie that had been running through Daniel’s head since he had really seen the map — working title: “James Bond versus the Secret Base” — hadn’t gone as far as to provide any clues on what he would find once inside, but he’d been hoping that something would come to mind.
The reality was a short corridor — a door at each end — with four closed office doors to his right. There was the faint murmur of distant conversations and somewhere a phone rang. It could have been any office in the world.
Daniel was still looking dully at the labels on the doors, trying to decide between opening the door labeled “Assets” or “Delivery” when he realized that the voices were getting louder. There was a moment’s choice between standing and brazening out his presence here, or hiding. It only took him a second to decide.
The door to the office labeled “Assets” closed behind him, just as the voices grew close — and then passed by. He had chosen the nearest door to hide behind for exactly that reason, but the choice had been a good one. There was no one here looking at him expectantly or shouting “Security!” but the hum of conversation seemed to be louder and coming from behind a second door to this office. When Daniel checked the window in this door, he could see the reason for the noise. There was a call center in there.
The scene was instantly recognizable from so many TV programs: rows of people — fortunately facing away from him — sat at computers. They filled the room with the clatter of keystrokes as they updated the screens in front of them with whatever their headsets were telling them.
The only thing unusual about the room was that they were all wearing military uniforms. There was a big screen at the front of the room, but before he could examine it too much one of the seated figures turned around. There was the sound of a door closing and a distant voice said something. Whatever it had said it must have been funny because there was laughter and the sound of something heavy and metallic on wood.
Daniel ducked down and away from the window; whatever was going on in there was out of bounds to him. But he had full access to this office; it must be able to tell him something useful. Unfortunately, a few minutes’ checking told him that the only thing this room had to say was that its owner was a slob who liked porn and that Daniel hated him.
The cheap desk was hidden under a mess of paper and coffee cups sprouting strange moulds, the room’s only decoration was a picture of an impressively built young woman, staring defiantly into the room as if she had not noticed that her clothes had just fallen off. The picture was titled “Blonde Beach Babe Wendy,” but someone had strategically placed a hazardous waste sticker so that it was impossible to see if that title was completely true.
Daniel learnt to hate the owner of this office when he saw the other photo. This was just a little wallet-sized photo pinned to the wall, and the woman in it had both a bikini and an expression that said “No! Don’t you dare,” although Daniel thought this might change to “yes” after a few sambucas. He guessed that the owner of this office had probably spent the night at home with her. He hadn’t been cold and cramped in the back of a parked car, wondering what Sarah was doing. What was she thinking right now? For a moment, it was a photo of Sarah, and he turned away.
There was a white board on the opposite wall, but this told him nothing useful.
Military and medical
Fiscally self-selected personnel
Essential government workers
Daniel looked at the second group before deciding that it must be one of those wonderful bureaucratic euphemisms that they used in place of saying something unpleasant: “enhanced interrogation techniques” in place of “Now connect his testicles to the car battery.” Translated back into English it would read “because they have money”; but it didn’t say what they needed the money for.
There was nothing else of interest in the office. The papers on the desk were either progress reports or requisition orders, and knowing that someone estimated “completion of secure sites in five days” helped him not at all.
Daniel moved back to see if anything had changed with the call center next door, but the moment he touched the connecting door an alarm went off.
* * *
The sound of the alarm was an electronic howl that made his ears hurt, and he hunched into a fetal ball holding his ears, ready for the hands to grab him and take him away. He had run well, better than he had any right to expect — but it was all over now.
Daniel had just given up all hope when an amplified voice cut in over the alarm.
“Pen Two — incident. Pen Two — incident.” And he decided that perhaps he was not the cause of the alarm. Out of the corner of his eye there was the suggestion of motion, and he looked up quickly. From his position on the floor, he could see the window in the connecting door — and saw the heads of people passing as they left the room. Whatever was going on in Pen Two — the call center staff were going to help fix it.
A quick check showed the room next door was empty now, headsets hung over the backs of chairs, and the door closing slowly behind the last person to leave. Before any of the staff could change their minds and come back here, Daniel opened the door and stepped into the call center.
The large screen at the front of the room turned out to be a large map of the local area. Daniel had a pang of anguish as he saw his house and wondered what Sarah thought of his absence. The map was dotted with red points of light and more were added electronically as he watched. It was almost as if a tide were creeping up on the town.
There was a certain rhythm to the board, as each point of light was added, the bottom of the screen showed an address and “possible infection reported,” but this was replaced almost immediately by “armed response dispatched.”
Roads leading to the sites they had worked on had been highlighted in red and labeled as priority evacuation routes. Little toy shapes showed where tanks and armored personnel carriers would be placed to keep these routes open. But it didn’t say open against what.
The whiteboard on the other wall was nearly as uninformative as the board in the room he had just left; only the message here was “fallback in five days.” Each digit counting down to five had been crossed out.
The only other thing left that might be of use were the screens that had been left half-completed, and he moved to the nearest. Little insect voices whispered from the headphones slung over the back of chairs: “Hello? Hello?”
At first, Daniel thought that each screen held a newspaper article that they had been reading, but then he realized that they had not been reading the news, they had been writing the news.
A family of three died instantly in an incident on the M4 after a tyre burst at high speed, forcing the closure of the M4 motorway early today.
Husband ______ and wife ______ both suffered massive internal injuries when a poorly maintained tyre failed and their car spun out of control and off the busy motorway. A child aged _____ was also killed in the incident.
The tragic house fire that killed a family of ______ in ______ yesterday was blamed on an incorrectly fitted gas fire. The fire required a number of appliances to bring it under control, and the local area is still sealed off today.
A report of screams and shots fired in the Old Town area of Swindon was dismissed today as “children playing” by the local police service.
Daniel laughed under his breath as he read the last screen. Even in the few rushed moments he had, he could still recognize disinformation when he read it, and “children playing” sounded like the thinnest, most implausible story ever.
His laugh had sounded loud in the stillness of the room. The alarm had been silenced. Whatever had happened in Pen Two was over and the call center staff would be back here in a few minutes.
Daniel was in a hurry as he left the room and his hand touched something on the desktop — and he instantly regretted it. His hand burnt and throbbed as he tucked it under his armpit while his breath hissed between his teeth in a suppressed scream. As the connecting door closed he looked back to see what had hurt so much, and he saw the familiar swollen flashlight shape of a humane killer.
He’d held one of those things before — and before his granddad had caught him — and it hadn’t hurt then. It was a simple metal tube that used a blank charge to force out a captive bolt at high speed into the brain of a dumb animal. It shouldn’t hurt to touch. He watched the device for a few minutes, before he saw why it had hurt him so much. It was so hot that he could actually see the heat haze rising from it.
The voice that had entered the room must have just put it down — after it had been fired and recharged, fired and recharged over and over again. Used so many times that it could only have been held with thickly padded gloves.
He heard the door open, and he dropped out of sight as the hum of conversation restarted, and he tried to work out what was going on here. It took a little time to match “completion of secure sites in five days” with “fallback in five days” and see that the rising red tide linked too well with the “armed response” reports. It was only when he added in the cryptic remarks about evacuation routes that he could see the full picture — and it wasn’t anything good.
Now he knew why they had been trying to kill him.
Copyright © 2013 by Peter Bailey