An edited and improved version of this story is now available for purchase as part of the ‘Prophecies of the Drowned Oracle’ collection.
A story inspired by something my dad said, for father’s day.
It was like stepping into another world. A world made of concrete and metal. The shelves stood like towers, or maybe hulking trees growing out of the cement floor. The sorting machine moved around, within, between, them like scuttling insects high in the canopy.
The whole thing—individual shelves coming together as one hulking mass—creaked, and swayed. It was like standing on a ship, only, from your earlier entrance, you were sure the warehouse stood on firm ground.
Behind you, the workers shuffled, rubber soles shifting on rough concrete. You pressed your lips together. “What am I supposed to be helping with?” you asked, glancing behind you.
“Manpower,” a burly worker said, joining you at the front. “We need more people.”
You eyed the big shelves of metal, parts moving automatically, pushing crates around, carrying them where they needed to be. “In a place where everything runs by itself?”
Something rumbled in the distance. Wheels, maybe, or gears. A loud whistle from the same direction. The workers jumped, and three sprinted there with nervous, even fearful expressions. Their steps echoed on the cement floor long after they vanished from view.
“So, what exactly am I meant to do?”
The burly worker shook his head. “Nothing, not yet.” His voice took on a peculiar tone you couldn’t decipher. He continued, though it was so low you weren’t sure you were meant to hear, “Sending in more people.”
“Sending them to do what?” It wasn’t like they were low on workers. Even with three vanished to places unknown and various others puttering around in the area, there still was a whole group at your back.
The worker didn’t answer. You scoffed and turned away. Bastard. Suppose you were just supposed to stand around then? Nothing to do, and no conversation either apparently.
Another rumble, followed by a yell. “What was that?”
“Don’t worry about it,” the burly worker said blandly.
You looked at the other workers, who looked equally unconcerned. “Someone screamed.”
“It was just the machine. Nothing to worry about.”
As if in answer, the shelves near you scraped and groaned. The sound swept through the warehouse like a wave, ending where the scream came from. You looked to the worker, who stared blankly ahead. He didn’t seem to be looking at anything, let alone planning to actually do something. Frustrated, you turned and stalked off to where the nearest workers were muttering over a crate. Anything better than just standing there like a statue. But as you came closer, the discussion looked less and less work related.
“Something wrong?” you asked.
“Everything’s wrong,” said a spectacled worker with a shaking voice. “It’s going all wrong!”
The other worker, this one with a fierce beard, hissed and hit his companion on the arm. “Shut it. Don’t let it hear you.”
You watched the interaction in bafflement. “It?”
The bearded worker glared and mimed a zipper being closed over his mouth, but the spectacled one didn’t heed his warning. He leaned into your space, until you could see not just his hands, but even his eyes shaking in fear. “The warehouse,” he whispered, “The machine.”
The bearded worker growled, but any menace it might have had was betrayed by his rapidly paling face. He stormed off, clipping your shoulder as he went past. You were sure you heard a muttered ‘lost cause’ before his steps faded in the distance.
You laughed uneasily. “A warehouse can’t hear,” you said, voice strained.
The worker’s eyes shifted from side to side behind his spectacles. “It can. This one can. It hears, it watches, it moves.” He suddenly gripped your arms, fingers turning white from pressure. It hurt. His eyes were manic. “It lives.”
You shook your head and stepped back out of the worker’s hold. The man was mad. Why was he still here? He was obviously unfit to work. But then again, all of the workers here seemed off. Near the entrance still stood the procession that’d ‘welcomed’ you. Just standing, staring, not even talking among themselves. Stationed throughout the place were others, instead of blank, these ones were fearful, so tense their movements seemed robotic. It gave you the creeps. You wanted your phone, to call someone, or just as a distraction, it didn’t matter. But you’d had to leave it behind in a locker. Like you weren’t trusted to do your job (whatever that might be) without the possible distraction of the internet.
Or didn’t want you to call for help.
The machine rolled past, close to the spectacled worker’s back. Were the shelves this close before? They hadn’t moved. The worker shrieked and ran away in a blind panic, deeper into the forest of shelves.
You stumbled back away from the shelves on shaky legs. Your balance was all off, like the world around you had tilted to the left. The shelves rattled as the machine hurtled past, carrying enough weight in metal to squash you like a bug.
The fear, the workers, the machine, It didn’t make any sense. This wasn’t supposed to-
The world tilted again, this time to the right.
Not here, not in the middle of the fucking country. You weren’t anywhere close to the sea.
There this was normal, there this was fine. Machines coming alive on the swaying of the waves. Ships developing a mind of their own as they listened to the whispers of the deep. The engine rumbling, screeching, demanding fuel, demanding power, demanding life.
But not here. Not here far away from it all, in a massive warehouse in the middle of the country. The only connection to the sea was-
The shelves towered, hulking metal structures in a world of concrete. The shelves carried crates full of metal themselves. Sheets as thick as castle walls, screws as long as leg, pipes and tubes an army could march trough.
All tiny bits meant for bigger things. Parts of massive machines. Parts of engines.
The workers watched dispassionately as you stumbled toward them, falling and having to use those infernal shelves to lean on every time the world around you swayed. The waves of the deep so entranced in the metal it bled through to the warehouse itself, giving it life.
The machine screamed around you, rumbled under your clutching hand, louder and louder. For a moment, the dispassion of the workers shifted, a spark of something appeared in their eyes. One winced in anticipation, eyes trained behind y-
It was just the machine. Nothing to worry about.