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“Happy October, everyone!” Yuki calls out from her PC setup in the laboratory, she raises a glass before taking a sip of the amber-colored beverage.
“What’s that you’re drinking?” her assistant asks.
“It’s a pumpkin shandy with some brown sugar along the rim.”
“That sounds good! Can I have one?”
Yuki laughs. “Nooooo. This is booze, my young friend. Not a high percentage, but you’ve got a few more years before I can legally serve you.”
His employer leans in her chair and pulls out an Igloo cooler. “I didn’t forget about you though. Some pumpkin pie soda for you.” Yuki rummages through and pulls out a glass bottle and hands it to him. “Now, pop a squat and let’s get the show on the road.”
“We got a scary one tonight?”
“I mean in a sense. Tonight’s tale is about a man trying to get through a long, boring shift at his warehouse gig. Little does he know, it will start to pick up halfway through in a way he can’t possibly imagine.”
Fog was settled over the winding road in the pre-dawn hours. The rolling hills in the distance were becoming visible against the the violet sky. Matthew Dawes was thankful for his umbrella in the backseat when the first droplets of rain pattered down onto the windshield. He noticed the last road leading to his workplace was soaked through, the street lamps reflecting brilliantly.
A Burger King/BP station sat one minute down the road from the few warehouses in the otherwise untouched landscape. Based on the lack of cars at the drive-thru and at the pumps, he imagined they would be running on a skeleton crew today. Most of his co-workers lived more remotely than himself, along twisty, narrow roads; he at least had the luxury of driving in via a fairly straight State Route.
On a whim, Matthew decided to pull in to the BK and pick up a Croissan’Wich and orange juice. He kept an eye on the dashboard clock, which was ticking uncomfortably close to his start time.
The second he pulled out of the drive-thru, he unwrapped his breakfast meal and scarfed it down just before entering the warehouse parking lot. All the rain building up overhead came down at the exact moment he put on the e-brake.
Well, damn, he thought, sipping at his OJ. The rain was coming down in thick sheets and the wind whipped the accumulation into waves across the blacktop. For the next couple minutes he went through the remainder of his drink. When the rain started to calm down, he took the opportunity to get out the umbrella and briskly crossed the lot to the turnstiles. There really weren’t a lot of cars parked at all.
Not exactly bad news for Matthew, there would be a lot less foot traffic and congestion in the warehouse aisles. It’d be nice and quiet, too. A perfect end to the work week.
Matthew waved to Simon, the security guard, as he slid his ID card across the reader to the gate. It looked like they had trouble getting drivers in for the outgoing parcels as well. Normally, there was a queue nearly the length of the building at this hour; there were only two waiting for Simon to sign them out.
Inside, Matthew put his phone and smartwatch into his locker and retrieved his anti-static clothes and shoes. At the metal detector he greeted one of his supervisors. “G’morning, David.”
“Hell of a storm on the way in.”
“Tell me about it,” David replied, sighing. “Not looking like there’ll be an end to it soon, either. At least you were able to make it in.”
“Huh, I thought the parking lot looked like a ghost town.”
“And it probably will be for the rest of the day. I haven’t been off the phone yet, trying to call people in.”
Matthew grimaced for effect. “I barely made it in myself,” he lied. “That’s why I’m here now; I even left earlier than normal. Don’t worry, I’ll hustle with my picks.”
“Please don’t. Even dispatch is having a bitch of a time getting drivers in. Just…take it easy today.”
“Gotcha. See you at lunch then,” Matthew said, picking up a headset and scanner and headed for the racks.”
David called after him, “Not if I string myself up first!”
There was a brief reprieve from the rain while Matthew waited for the orders to upload to his handheld. The hiss overhead stopped on his way to grab a handcart and started back up while he waited for the elevator to the sub-levels—a whopping ten minutes!
His first order had him start in sub-level three, aisle Alpha-Charlie to Alpha-Juliet. E groaned when he saw those letters appear on his screen. David didn’t want him to move fast, but nothing in any of the locations between those two points weighed more than 300 grams. There wasn’t a way for anyone to pick slow in there.
I’d sell my soul to be able to listen to an audio book or a podcast right now.
Dutifully, as much as it pained him, Matthew took his sweet-ass time in the racks. Because he’d normally be moving fast and getting caught up with gossip from his co-workers, he never gave much thought into where or what these electronic components were going or being used for. In fact, he didn’t recall seeing individual addresses on the shipping labels—granted he’d predominantly worked as an order picker, and hadn’t spent much time packing. For his job, it only required him to know that he was picking the right product from the right location and that he was putting them in the correct bin on his cart.
Matthew adjusted the microphone on his headset and spoke into it, “System; pick summary.”
The computer answered in a light feminine voice, “five hundred and nine pieces in three hundred and forty-two locations.”
Holy shit, Matthew muttered. A job that large normally would take a couple hours to pick; at a snail’s pace he could stretch it out to four and get his lunch in right after.
At the end of the pick, Matthew offloaded the remaining totes from his cart on to the conveyor belt. Their epic journey would continue on to P&L (packing and labeling), and travel upstairs to shipping.
“System; take a break,” Matthew said.
“Take a break option?” the system replied.
“Option two; lunch break. Correct?”
“Taking a break. Goodnight.” A jingle played in a minor key and then went silent.
Matthew strapped his scanner to the cart and hung his headset over the handle.
Among those that were able to make it in despite the weather were the cooks in the cafeteria. Normally, Matthew only went for a candy bar and a soda, but after nearly boring himself to death this morning, a hot burger and fry combo was a perfect pick-me-up.
In the far corner of the room, the television was switched to channel nineteen, currently airing the late-morning news. Matthew decided to get caught up on the current events. With all his morning shifts as of late, he’d largely been out of the loop on local affairs. As he chowed down on his burger, Matthew learned that his high school football team (go Panthers!) was on their first winning streak in years (they’ll inevitably choke, they always do, Matthew told himself with a snort); there was a shooting the other night and a farmhouse burned to the ground (wouldn’t be a news broadcast without a significant chunk of broadcast time dedicated to rousing anger or sadness from the viewer); a new shopping center was finally breaking ground after being delayed for months by various scandals; and several schools in the surrounding districts were doing number of fundraisers for families of soldiers lost in the latest war effort (going on six years now, what a crock of shit; those crazy Cassinians have the nerve to claim we were building illegal weapons when their own crap region has toiled in chaos and death for generations).
David approached, lunch tray in hand, as Matthew was winding down on his fries.
Matthew took a sip of his Coke and said, “Have I been moving slow enough today?”
David nodded and popped the tab on his 7UP. “Perfect. After your break, finish up whatever job you’re on and head over to P&L so we can clear the lines for tomorrow.”
Matthew raised an eyebrow. “Think we’ll be back up to pace by then?”
“Possibly. The next storm surge might fizzle out. Best to be prepped though.”
Of course the first thing Matthew did when he reached a packing station, now that the thought was firmly planted in his mind, was read over the shipping labels for any address. The only constant was the warehouse’s address for returns and the weight of the supplied products—all in plain English. In place of a tangible shipping address was a series of letters and numbers that made no sense to him. He wondered if there was any program on his station’s PC that could decipher the codes—probably not, but once he got through the workload, there’d be plenty of time to check!
Matthew noticed after packing a dozen or so boxes that some of the address codes were the same…or damn close. So with his next few orders he took a pen and a piece of scrap paper and jotted down the codes for delivery and stuffed it into his pocket.
He started to grab for the next item when he heard a rumble in the distance. Impressive that it could be heard amongst all the machinery.
I guess the storm isn’t over ye—
The building shook violently. Another rumble started up, much closer this time. Another jolt caused the racking and conveyance system to sway dangerously. It even nearly sent Matthew on to his ass. A couple of his co-workers had toppled, lying alongside mouse and keyboard. At first he thought they were having an earthquake, but a massive explosion on the far side of the building damn near blew his eardrums out. Black plumes of smoke and the orange glow of fire told him otherwise.
Matthew crouched down and looked overhead, making sure nothing from the ceiling was dangling over him.
More and more explosions rocked the world around him. The sounds were overwhelming and disorienting. He started to panic and looked around at his co-workers to see what they were doing. Most were hauling ass to the emergency exits while others were tending to those who were injured. No one in his lane was down, so he made for the nearest exit on shaking legs. He stretched out his arms as he neared the door. Eons passed and his palms found the cold metal of the crash bar. Daylight greeted him and he winced.
To his left, fire spat out of the side of the warehouse. The roof looked to have collapsed in on itself. No people were scurrying from down that way. Matthew jogged far from the building, trying to get his wits about him. The sounds of jet engines echoed overhead. He couldn’t see them, but several trails confirmed there had been a swarm up there.
What the hell? Were we just fucking bombed!?
A moment later another formation of fighter jets approached. Matthew’s heart leapt into his throat. He froze in place. Not like there was any point in running; all that was around him was wilderness, he’d get lost for sure and encounter whatever the hell was out there. He kept his eyes locked on to the aircraft and watched as they passed right on by. Friendlies.
Matthew heard panicked voices on the other side of the compound, instinctively he started toward them.
Then he noticed one of the trucks.
It had gone about twenty yards from the loading dock. It was still running and the door was ajar. The driver probably figured he’d be a harder target than his eighteen-wheeler.
Matthew looked to see if anyone could see him; when he felt all was clear, he headed straight for the truck’s cab. The GPS was in dead center and hadn’t been programmed a route. He fished the crinkled slip of paper from his pocket and input the codes from the labels.
Virginia Beach, Virginia
Naval Air Station Oceana
Okinawa City, Okinawa
Awase Communications Station
Pacific Missile Range Facility
Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division
Naval Support Activity Mid-South
Naval Air Station Fallon
Jesus Christ, Matthew thought. We cater to the fucking Navy? What in the fuck are we making to have a target painted on Buttfuck Nowhere, Alabama?
Suddenly, those weird conspiracy theorist kids in high school didn’t seem so fucking crazy anymore. Matthew wished he had his phone on him to get a shot of the GPS deets. Thinking fast, he checked around the inside of the cab for a pencil or a pen…anything to write down the actual destinations. Deep in the glove compartment, he was able to find a barely-working yellow highlighter (good enough). He scrawled the locations next to the corresponding code and got the hell out of the truck before he got caught.
The rest of the morning was a blur. Matthew huddled up with the rest of his frightened, sobbing co-workers. There was no sign of David, who must have been obliterated when one of the bombs struck.
Simon was visibly shaken. His guard house was no more and it was only sheer luck that he decided to do a quick perimeter check before having his lunch at his desk. With all the craziness going on, he was now the de facto leader and kept everyone herded together and upwind from the hideous amount of smoke.
Emergency services were on-scene moments after Matthew joined up with everyone else. Firetrucks arrived first with ambulances and police cruisers tailing behind. The EMTs tended to the injured and those in shock. All of the firefighters got to work immediately on the flames and started a desperate search inside for any survivors (with luck, the people picking in the sub-levels were safe from the blasts). The cops, on par with public perception, were next to useless and only aggravated an already stressful situation. They foolishly tried to demand everyone present provide detailed accounts of what happened. Not at all surprising, this only riled up the crowd.
Before anything got out of hand, Simon ordered that anyone currently in possession of their keys could leave; anyone without a means of transport would be provided a cab home.
To hell with all this, Matthew thought and slowly backed away from his co-workers and went straight home.
The first thing Matthew did when he got to his apartment was pull a beer from the fridge and guzzle it down. The second thing he did was search every last one of his social media friends lists to look up at least one of those paranoid geeks from school.
“Ilsa…Jeremy…Karla…There you are, Max.”
He got out the scrap paper and put it into his scanner and put the image into an IM and added context from the day.
A gray check mark advised Matthew that all was sent and received, but had not been read. Max appeared to be online last seven hours before; it was just a waiting game now.
The third and fourth things Matthew did, respectively, was chug another beer and pass the fuck out.
Matthew woke later that evening with an unread message from his former classmate:
DON’T MESSAGE THIS KIND OF SHIT TO ME!
Max had also blocked him on top of that.
He switched off his computer and contemplated what he should do next. He couldn’t let this go. Could he? With a sigh, Matthew got up from the office chair and decided to make himself something to eat. As he started to move toward the kitchen, he noticed a sheet of notebook paper at the foot of his front door. He bent down and scooped it up.
Knocked at the door
and got no response.
I’ll be in contact with you
“Sonuva bitch. ‘Course he showed up while I was sleeping.” At least he can still help out with this info.
Matthew went back to his business and retreated to the kitchen. He pulled a steak from the refrigerator and put it in a Ziploc bag with a marinade he put together while the oven warmed up. It went back into the fridge. He took two russet potatoes, wrapped them in foil, and stuffed them in the oven. It was going to be a late as hell dinner, but it wasn’t like he had a job to go to in the meantime.
Knock, knock, knock.
The sharp rapping at the door surprised Matthew. Shit! I didn’t expect him to try again so soon!
Matthew closed the oven and quickly made his way back to the living room. He started speaking before he pulled the door open, “I was wondering when I was going to—”
At the foot of the door, two men with nondescript faces in full dark clothing stood like mannequins. They rushed Matthew and had him against a wall before he could protest. One of them cupped a gloved hand tight over his mouth. He felt a burning sensation at his neck and then some pressure. Matthew couldn’t fight back; his limbs were numb. Another few seconds passed and his body slumped. Everything went dark.
In the cover of night, Matthew was carried out of his apartment and into the back of a Ford Transit. None of his neighbors noticed the van that night and they never saw Matthew again. They would recall, however, a moving crew two days later. The men boxed up his possessions and hauled them away (his car had gone the day before…again, nobody noticed it leaving). The day after the movers, cleaners arrived (neighboring tenants were told this was on behalf of management) to give the unit a good scrubbing and fresh coat of paint.
Aside from departing without a word, none of this seemed out of the ordinary for the neighbors, until the manager showed up in person to enquire about Matthew, who apparently paid the remainder of his lease in full without explanation. Confusion was abound at this point, as the manager explained that he had not yet arranged for a cleaning crew. Until he spoke with Matthew’s nearest neighbors, management hadn’t even been aware the unit had been vacated.
“This is why I’m glad I work here. Not for the government, and far, far from any kind of military base.”
Yuki looks away from her assistant and takes a sip from her shandy.
Her assistant raises an eyebrow. “Oh no…what are you hiding from me?”
“I mean, we’re no longer funded by the government. Not for a long time now. Well before you showed up.”
“We’re not in any danger are we?”
“Aside from our little interdimensional friend we’re trying to get rid of? No. The thing about our government, you’ll learn soon enough, is that that they’re incredibly inept.”
“Yeah, but they’re not after us. Are they?”
Yuki takes another sip. “They’ll never find us.”
“Oh my god…”
Yuki gets another soda for her assistant and hands it over. She claps his back and says, “Look, if you’re wanting some real scares, be here for our next excursion AND on Halloween.”
Her assistant sighs. “I’m sure they’ll take my mind of the fact we may be wanted fugitives.”