“Hey, college boy! Are you gonna unpack those crates?” Ralph Stevenson barked. “Or are you just gonna look at ‘em all day?”
The maintenance crew boss looked upon Pete with rheumy, bloodshot eyes. His hands were on his hips and his considerable beer belly hung over his utility belt. A smoldering cigarette was clamped in the boss’s mouth. Smoking was forbidden in the plant area of the Stillwater Manufacturing Company; but Ralph flouted this rule whenever the general manager wasn’t around. And he knew that Pete would never dare to say a word to the higher ups.
“I’m on it,” Pete Greer said, as if the older man could not see him straining against the long end of the crowbar. The hooked end of the tool was wedged between two planks of one of the giant crates marked: JERICHO ROBOT COMPANY. Pete was slight of build; and even when he used all of his weight as leverage the task was difficult.
Not wanting to give Ralph the satisfaction of seeing him fail completely, Pete took a deep breath, summoned all of his strength, and threw himself backward, his hands clenched tightly around the crowbar.
This effort only succeeded in dislodging the tapered hook end of the crowbar from the crate. There was the sound of wood splintering; then the crowbar went clattering to the factory floor with a metallic jangle. Pete fell back on his butt, knocking his tailbone against a protruding electrical floor outlet. These pesky things were scattered throughout the floor of the manufacturing area.
Ralph threw his head back and guffawed, his belly jiggling. “That was real good, college boy,” he said through his laughter. Ralph used the term “college boy” as a curse, as if everyone knew that university students were all either subversives, pansies, idiots, or worse. “Why don’t you pick yourself up and give it another try, huh? Only like a man this time. Jeez.”
He shook his head contemptuously.
“If you need to, college boy, fish around for a bigger crowbar or a wedge and a hammer in the tool room. But get it done. I want all five of these crates unpacked by noon. Work through your lunch break if you have to. Then you and me and Walt are goin’ to start on the installation.”
“Okay,” Pete said, lifting himself from the floor. He patted his legs in an attempt to brush the dust from his heavy polyester and cotton twill work pants. His tailbone still smarted horribly; but he was not going to let Ralph know that. “I’ll get it done.”
“I’ll believe that when I see it.” Ralph headed off in the direction of the office area. No doubt he was going to park himself in the company cafeteria, where he would smoke and drink sodas while reading the paper. The plant was closed today for the Fourth of July weekend. No one was here but the maintenance crew, so Ralph could loaf around while collecting time-and-a-half holiday pay.
When Ralph had gone, Pete paused to assess the task before him. There were five crates, each one about eight feet high and five feet across. They were placed in a long row opposite the loading dock, not far from where the truck had delivered them the previous Friday.
Pete walked along the row of crates toward the loading dock. Each one bore the simple inscription JERICHO ROBOT COMPANY in black stenciled letters. The Stillwater Manufacturing Company made welded body components for the automotive industry—door panels, floor panels, and the pillars that separated the front and rear seat areas. The robots inside these crates would be huge, like the ones already installed on the production lines.
Pete had been working at Stillwater since early June, when classes at West Virginia University broke for the summer. Next summer he would try to land something better in Wheeling or Parkersburg. Thanks to constant harassment and hazing from Ralph and Walt, the job here had turned out to be a fairly miserable summertime gig.
But he did enjoy watching the welding robots.
Pete had never set foot inside an automated manufacturing plant prior to June, and he had never seen a welding robot in action. Maybe that was why they fascinated him so much. A welding robot consisted of a tall jointed metal body, tipped with a beaklike apparatus that welded workpieces as they traveled along an assembly conveyor.
When welding robots executed their programmed routines, they vaguely reminded Pete of dinosaurs—or better yet, dragons. Like a flock of prehistoric reptiles, the robots dipped their elongated avian heads and bit down on the metal pieces that flowed past them, producing a shower of sparks and an ozone smell with each bite.
The robots were powerful—no doubt that was part of what made them fascinating. When a robot was in its automated operational mode, it was isolated behind a locked metal cage and a prominent warning sign. These precautions were well warranted. One of these beasts could easily crush a man.
And perhaps they were waiting for a chance to do just that.
This last thought made Pete feel foolish, even as it made him shiver. The welding robots were driven by electricity and pneumatic force, nothing more. They only appeared to be sentient beasts. Any notion to the contrary was simply his mind’s way of alleviating boredom—killing time by playing tricks on itself.
And why shouldn’t he feel boredom? After all, it was a beautiful summer morning, and he was stuck in an empty factory building with Ralph and Walt. He looked out the open doorway of the loading dock: the big metal door that received truck cargo was rolled up to a foot below the ceiling. The view it afforded was impressive—at least by West Virginia standards. The open field beyond the loading dock area was a grassy sea of black-eyed Susan, lilac, and chicory. In the distance, the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains rolled in their midsummer glory.
And he had to get all of these crates unpacked by the afternoon.
Pete continued walking. Maybe a closer observation of the crates would provide a clue as to how he might open them more easily. Then he noticed the customs markings on the third crate: Cairo, Beirut, Haifa.
A long way from here. The crates had made a substantial journey before arriving in West Virginia. Had these robots really been shipped all the way from the Middle East? That didn’t make sense. Most high-tech manufacturing robots were made in Japan or Germany.
But it was apparently true.
At the end of the row of crates was a smaller box, also from the Jericho Robot Company. Pete opened this box easily. It contained the installation and user manuals for the robots.
The first page of the user manual contained the following words:
“Thank you for purchasing from the Jericho Robot Company. Our robots are ferocious and fearless, like the Philistine warriors of old.”
Now that was weird. Why would anyone want to describe an industrial robot as ferocious and fearless? Well, these robots came from overseas, so perhaps it was a mistranslation.
“Whatcha doin,’ college boy?”
Pete looked up to see not Ralph, but Walt Crenshaw. The third member of the happy maintenance trio was the physical opposite of Ralph. Whereas the maintenance crew boss was a barrel-chested whale of a man, Walt was tall and lanky.
Walt was intermediate in age between Pete and Ralph—perhaps in his mid-thirties. Unlike Ralph, Walt had no formal authority over Pete. But because of the age difference—and the fact that Pete was temporary summertime help—Walt felt that he had license to lord over the younger man. He had quickly adopted Ralph’s habit of calling Pete “college boy,” and frequently used the moniker with dark enthusiasm.
“I’m just making sure that all the manuals are here,” Pete said, turning back to the book.
Walt stood above Pete and began reading over his shoulder.
“’Philistine warriors’?” Walt inquired.
“That’s right, Walt. You’ve heard of the Philistines. They were in the Old Testament—the enemies of the ancient Hebrews. Remember the story of David and Goliath? Well, Goliath was a Philistine.”
And it turned out that these robots were called “Goliaths” as well. On the next page of the user manual were the words:
“Instructions for the installation and use of the Goliath model 4909 industrial welding robot.”
The name of this particular model of robot was not surprising, given the company’s name and its connections to the ancient lands of the Bible. But this revelation caused a chill to go up his spine, nonetheless.
He continued flipping through the pages of the manual. Towards the end of the book, there were twenty or thirty pages written in another language.
“What the heck is that?” Walt asked. “Japanese?”
“No way,” Pete replied. No resident of Tokyo would have been able to decipher the script on these pages. In fact, to the best of Pete’s knowledge, no one who had been alive for the past few thousand years would have been able to read this—not fluently, at least.
Pete had no trouble recognizing the runes on the pages at the end of the manual (although he could not even begin to read them). A half-dozen archeology and ancient history classes will fill your head with trivia like that. This past semester Pete had taken a Near East Archaeology course at WVU. The writing on these pages was a dead ringer for the runic script carved into the clay tablets that had been unearthed at the biblical site of Ekron, in northern Israel.
These were Phoenician runes—but they had apparently been printed with modern software and printing equipment.
“If it ain’t Japanese, then what is it?” Walt asked. His tone suggested that he would be ready to challenge whatever the college boy said.
“As best as I can tell,” Pete said. “These pages here at the end of the manual are written in the ancient Philistine language, using a Phoenician script.”
Walt shook his head. “Whadda you talkin’ about?”
“The ancient Philistines used a variant of the Phoenician alphabet for a while,” Pete explained. “Or at least that is what historians and archaeologists believe. The Philistines later adopted Aramaic, the principle language of the Middle East in New Testament times.”
“How d’you know that?”
“I’m a history major at WVU.”
“Sure you are. You’re the college boy here. But what I want to know is—who the heck uses that stuff now?”
“No one does. No one has communicated in the language written on these pages for thousands of years.”
“Shee-it,” Walt said contemptuously. “That don’t make sense.”
“No, it doesn’t.” On this point, at least, Walt and the college boy agreed.
“So why would the company print that in their manual?”
“I don’t know, Walt. I have no idea.”
Walt delighted in seeing the college boy stumped. He laughed and said, “Well, I guess even a college boy don’t know everything.”
A few seconds later Pete forgot about Walt’s teasing. He was kneeling down on the floor over the box that contained the manuals, and his shoulder was resting against the fifth wooden machine crate.
He was about to respond to Walt when he felt—or thought he felt—the slightest trace of a vibration inside the crate.
“What’s wrong with you now, college boy? You look like you seen a ghost.”
“Did you feel that?” Pete asked.
Then Pete reconsidered his question. Of course Walt could not have felt the tiny vibrations that came from within the wooden container. Pete had barely detected them himself, and his body was touching the crate. Walt would not have felt anything, standing three feet away.
“Did you hear anything, then? From inside the crate?”
“Shee-it!” Walt exclaimed. “Now I done heard it all. You craaazy, boy!”
“I felt a vibration from inside the crate,” Pete insisted.
“I’ve got to finish repairing the lights over the stamping area,” Walt said. “I got no more time for you and your foolish yappin’. Best you be gettin’ to work, college boy. You got a lot to git done by this afternoon.”
And with that he was gone. As he walked away, he made one more sarcastic remark about the deficiencies of college boys; but Pete did not hear him.
Pete’s attention was focused on the fifth crate.
He stood and laid both hands against one wooden face of the last JERICHO ROBOT COMPANY crate. The planks were rough-hewn and coated with splinters. He was careful to hold his hands still, so as to avoid getting a splinter stuck in one of his palms.
He could detect no vibrations through his hands, nor any movement from inside the crate. Had it been his imagination after all? Or perhaps it was a very small earthquake that he had felt. The state of West Virginia was crisscrossed by glacial mountains, and perhaps there was an unstable tectonic plate in this area.
But if it had been a tremor, Walt would have felt it too. There would have been more sounds, more things rattling.
Pete leaned forward and placed his ear against the crate. He held his breath.
He heard nothing.
Oh well, perhaps it wasn’t important anyway. The important thing was that he had to unpack five large crates by noon. He glanced at his watch: it was already past ten-thirty.
As annoying as Ralph could be, his last words had contained a kernel of useful advice. This job would go much faster if he could find a wedge and a hammer in the tool room. He could use these tools to make an opening in each crate. Then he could use the crowbar to pry the boards apart. Yes, that should definitely work and—
Just then the sound of metal scraping against metal broke the silence of the empty factory. The noise came from within the second crate in the row of five. The source was unmistakable. This was immediately followed by a loud THUNK! and a cracking sound, as something inside the second crate shifted against the wooden planks and fractured one of them.
Despite being startled, Pete hurried over to the second crate. There was a visible rupture in one side of the crate; he could see a sliver of the darkness inside the box.
Pete leaned over and held his eye up to the fissure. Nothing but inscrutable darkness. He couldn’t actually see anything.
So he waited.
He stood beside the crate for a minute. Then two. Then three. Like the vibrations inside the fifth crate, this was apparently a one-act show. But at least he could now be reasonably sure that the earlier incident had not been his imagination—because this one was definitely not his imagination.
The most likely explanation was that the robots were not properly secured inside the crates. They were therefore shifting due to gravity acting on their joints. Perhaps the robot in the second crate had been secured with a thin piece of twine, and the twine had finally broken a few seconds ago.
Pete looked at his watch again. It was now 10:46 a.m.
By the time Pete began his return trip from the tool room, he was resigned to the fact that he would have to work through his lunch break. The tool room was located at the far end of the factory, and he had consumed the better part of a half-hour rummaging around for a hammer and wedge.
He quickened his pace as he rounded the corner and started down the wing of the factory that ended in the loading dock. Then he saw the mess in the loading dock area and stopped in his tracks.
The five crates had been completely destroyed. The floor space that they had previously occupied was now a disordered mess of wooden planks and packing materials. It looked like a tornado had passed through.
But this was not the worst of it: The robots that were supposed to have been inside the crates were nowhere in sight.
Pete dropped his tools and ran the rest of the distance to the scattered debris. The robots were gone—vanished, disappeared.
Ralph had charged him with unpacking the robots, and now the robots were gone. What was the irascible maintenance manager going to say about that? The mess alone would be enough to provoke him. There was enough wood, Styrofoam and plastic sheeting here to fill a large dumpster.
A hot breeze stirred one of the loose plastic packing sheets at his feet and he looked outside. The door of the loading dock was still open. Could someone have entered while he was gone, hastily unpacked the robots, and loaded them onto a truck?
No way. This scenario was all but impossible. A heist like that would have required a monumental degree of planning and timing. And besides—industrial robots weren’t high on the shopping list of the average thief.
Suddenly, it all made sense to him, and he chided himself for his overactive imagination: There could be only one explanation for the missing robots: Ralph and Walt had decided to get an early start on the installation work. They had returned and found the robots still in their crates. So they unpacked them, and then rolled or forklifted them over to the installation site (no doubt making fun of the “college boy” all the while.)
Pete found it difficult to believe that the two men could have accomplished so much during the forty minutes or so that had passed since he departed for the tool room, but it was not impossible. Ralph and Walt, for all their personal flaws, were veteran maintenance men. They knew all the shortcuts; he had seen both of them make quick work of maintenance tasks that took him hours.
They would tease him for his inefficiency and ineptitude, and Ralph might even give him a mild reprimand. (Pete could imagine what Ralph would say: something along the lines of: “All that fancy book education and you can’t even unpack five crates!” ) But never mind that. At the end of the day this was just a summer job; and there were worse fates than receiving a low estimation in the eyes of Ralph Stevenson and Walt Crenshaw. He didn’t even plan to return here next summer, so what difference did it make?
Pete walked over to the phone mounted on the wall near the door of the loading dock. He lifted the handset and dialed the number to Ralph’s office. If he didn’t reach him there he would simply walk around the plant until he found him.
But Ralph was in his office. He answered the phone with a gruff, “Yeah?”
“Hey Ralph, it’s me Pete. Say, I noticed that you and Walt unpacked the robot crates.”
“What are you talkin’ about, college boy? We didn’t touch the crates. The crates were your job.”
“Well, maybe Walt did it by himself then.”
“Walt’s right here in my office, where he’s been for the past half hour. We been—revising the schedule for next week.”
Yeah right, Pete thought. “Revising the schedule” my ass. Try ‘surfing porn and shooting the bull on the company’s dime’ instead.
But instead he said, “Well, I just got back from the tool room, and the robots are all unpacked.”
“You got a genie workin’ for ya, college boy? A team of elves maybe?” In the background Pete heard Walt—always the suck-up—laugh at his boss’s attempt at witticism.
“Not exactly, Ralph. But listen, there’s something else, and you’re not going to like it.”
“Did you break something, college boy? Because if you got careless and—”
“No Ralph. Nothing like that. Please let me finish. The robots are gone.”
“What do you mean ‘gone’?”
“I mean gone. When I returned from the tool room with a hammer and wedge to open the crates with, the crates were torn apart and all five robots were missing.”
“That doesn’t make a damn bit of sense! Each one of those robots weighs thousands of pounds. And there is no one in the plant today besides you, me, and Walt.”
“Exactly. That’s why I called you. I don’t know where they went.”
Ralph paused and gave Walt a brief synopsis of the situation. Pete could hear them both snickering on the other end of the line.
But when Ralph returned to the phone, his tone was one of irritation:
“Stay right where you are, college boy. Me and Walt’ll be there in a few minutes.”
“Okay. Sorry for the inconvenience but—”
Ralph hung up before Pete could finish.
So Pete proceeded to wait. To pass the time, he made a more careful examination of the debris on the ground. The crates and the packing materials did not seem to have been cut or pried apart—but rather ripped apart. He lifted the remains of a board that had been part of the fifth crate. It was broken into three irregular pieces, as if it had been struck with a blunt object.
Most unusual of all was the damage inflicted on the pallets that had comprised the base of each crate. All five pallets were crushed, as if the machines had been lifted and dropped multiple times before their removal.
It simply didn’t add up. No one—not even a thief—would unpack five huge crates in this manner.
Mysterious though it was, none of this was a life-and-death matter to Pete. Even if the robots had been stolen, there was no way that the Stillwater Manufacturing Company would be able to pin the blame on him. Let them try. No, this little episode was simply one more incident in what was turning out to be a really crappy summer.
Pete folded his arms and resumed his wait for Ralph and Walt.
Then he noticed the footprints.
There were at least two sets of footprints in the loose, scattered drifts of sawdust that surrounded the ruined crates. They all seemed to be heading away from the crates, as if several people had been dropped from the ceiling and then run off into the plant.
Pete bent down to make a closer examination. The footprints bore no discernible treads; but this wasn’t their most unusual aspect: Based on the dimensions of the imprints in the sawdust, these footprints would have been made by something like a size thirty shoe—a wide size thirty shoe.
This was purely hypothetical, of course: No store sold shoes that large because no one had feet large enough to fill them.
Or so Pete had always thought….
Pete was still pondering the footprints when he heard a commotion arise from the far end of the plant. There was a loud sound of metal clanging against metal. And something else as well: a muted boom, boom, boom.
In the stamping area of the plant, there was a 500-ton press that stamped out automotive body components from rolls of high-grade steel. When the press’s massive die fell to cut metal, it made a sound much like that. It also sent vibrations throughout the plant; and Pete noted a series of slight tremors beneath his feet. But the frequency of these tremors was higher than those generated by the 500-ton press. And he knew that the no one was working in the stamping department today.
Pete stood and tried to locate the cause of the sounds and vibrations. His visibility was limited by the geometry of the plant layout and the many obstacles in his way. The plant was a dense jungle of machinery and assembly line equipment. Air hoses and electrical lines hung from the ceiling, further limiting the distance he could see.
Then he noticed a solution: The stairs leading to the mezzanine were located along the adjacent wall. From the mezzanine, he would have a bird’s eye view of most of the plant.
He ran over to the mezzanine stairway and began clambering up the metal steps. The mezzanine was an open walkway installed high above the factory floor, just below the ceiling. Almost every manufacturing facility had a mezzanine; they were used to gain access to the ventilation pipes, electrical wiring, and other functional elements that were located above the plant floor.
In less than a minute Pete was standing on the mezzanine walkway, leaning against the railing. He was almost immediately able to identify the source of all the racket.
Pete saw; but his mind could not fully process what it was now forced to take in. The five welding robots were out on the factory floor, and they were on the move. Their tall, jointed bodies bobbed up and down as they moved down one of the main aisles in the machining area. Their beaklike heads swung to and fro, occasionally snapping open and shut with a shower of sparks, a puff of smoke, and a hiss of burning ozone.
They looked like birds on the hunt—or better yet, raptors on the hunt.
But there was more.
The robots were moving not on wheels, but on appendages that Pete had never seen before on any robot. Below the base of their bodies—where a set of wheels should have been—each robot had a pair of extensions that resembled…legs.
Legs? It was insane, of course; but what else would you call the body extensions on which the robots were perambulating? (And right now they were perambulating at a rapid rate, in the direction of the loading dock.)
As the robots drew closer, Pete noted that the legs had a humanoid quality about them. It was as if each robot were mounted atop the lower half of a very large man. (Hence the model name: Goliath, Pete reckoned with a shudder.) The legs were bare; they were covered with an integument that was a blend of primitive skin tones and metallic hues.
A giant man and a machine were fused together, Pete thought. High-tech versions of the biblical Goliath.
He tried to put the pieces of the situation together: robots delivered from an unlikely location in the Middle East, a user manual written in a dead Canaanite language, and—
“Our robots are ferocious and fearless, like the Philistine warriors of old.”
Those were the bizarre words that the Jericho Robot Company used to describe a normally mundane industrial product.
Why had someone in the purchasing department of the Stillwater Manufacturing Company bought these robots to begin with? Had a salesman called here, or were the robots procured via the Internet?
Then Pete realized that none of these speculative questions mattered at the moment. He had perhaps two minutes until the robots wound their way through the maze of factory equipment and arrived at the loading dock. And he had no doubt that the loading dock was their destination. One thing was clear from their predatory postures and snapping jaws: they were on the hunt.
Pete now had one imperative: escape. He determined that his best move would be to scramble back down the stairs of the mezzanine, and then head out the loading dock door. A short sprint across the parking lot and he would be in his car. Then he would be down the highway as fast as his Honda Civic could carry him.
He turned toward the staircase when a voice called out:
“Hey college boy? What the hell’re you doin’ up there?” It was Ralph Stevenson, with Walt Crenshaw in tow. Ralph’s face was distorted in a grimace of extreme irritation. He surveyed the disaster area on the loading dock, then looked up at Pete, then looked back at the floor again.
“You got some explainin’ to do, college boy,” Ralph said. Walt said nothing; but he reinforced his boss by smirking at Pete and shaking his head.
“Ralph! Walt! Don’t you hear that noise?” It occurred to Pete that they would have come from Ralph’s office, which was located in the wing of the plant that was most distant from the robots. If they had been yakking as they walked, they might not have noticed the disturbance.
Both men paused to listen. Their eyes grew wide as they heard the sounds of the approaching robots.
“What is that?” Ralph shouted up at Pete. “What have you done?”
In as few words as he could, Pete gave Ralph and Walt a brief synopsis of the situation.
While Walt guffawed, Ralph glowered. “Quit actin’ like a damn idiot. You think we’re a couple of ignorant hicks, don’t you, college boy? Let me tell you what I think happened. I think you were screwing around in the stamping area and somehow turned on the 500-ton press. That’s what I think.”
Pete ventured another glance at the rapidly approaching robots, which were still obscured from Ralph and Walt’s position on the floor.
“You’ve got to believe me! They’re right over there! I’m telling you the truth! Just come up here and look!” he babbled. “No, there’s no time! We’ve got to get out! Get out of here right now! Let’s go!”
“College boy, in the mood I’m in right now, you’d better just stay up there for your own safety. Damn! Where the hell are the ROBOTS?”
As if on cue, the first of the robots appeared at the far end of the loading dock wing, at the intersection with the other wings of the factory. It was joined by another. Then another, and then two more.
Walt and Ralph saw the robots, gathered less than a half a football field away from where they stood. The half-humanoid, half-mechanical beasts were clicking their welding jaws together, producing sparks and smoke and singeing sounds. They swung their jointed necks back and forth, as if looking for a scent in the air—the scent of prey.
Walt screamed; but he did not seem inclined to take any action to save himself. Paralyzed by fear, his feet remained still. They might have been bolted to the floor.
Ralph ran a hand across his forehead, brushing the bill of his uniform cap. The cap fell from his head and tumbled to the ground, unnoticed, behind his back.
“Oh, shit,” he said simply. Then he turned to run for the open loading dock door.
Almost simultaneously, the five robots charged.
Ralph might have made it to safety if his feet had not gotten tangled in a pile of packing materials from the crates: plastic bubble wrap and metal banding—a fatal combination. For a split second it looked like he was going to stumble free of the debris and keep going toward the door. But then his body swayed decisively earthward. Ralph fell face down on the hard cement floor. The blow knocked the wind out of him.
Pete watched from above. He was rooting for Ralph, despite the relentless hazing that he had endured for the amusement of the maintenance boss. Workplace politics were suddenly insignificant; and he gave Ralph the benefit of the doubt: the older man would hope for his own escape if their places were reversed. Probably he would.
Ralph labored to get up. He appeared to have suffered some debilitating knee damage from the fall. He struggled back up into a standing position and began limping toward the loading dock door.
At the same time, the thunder of the charging robots assaulted Pete’s ears. He had never been to Africa; but he imagined that the sound of stampeding elephants must be quite similar. The walkway of the mezzanine vibrated as if giant hands were shaking it.
Pete threw himself to the floor of the mezzanine walkway and watched, lying on his stomach.
They got Walt first. Walt was still standing in the same position, screaming bloody murder, when the mandibles of a robot closed around his torso. It lifted him high into the air with a stench of sizzling flesh. This made him scream even louder—though now his high pitch of uncomprehending fear had been replaced by one of agony. The robot was joined by two of its companions. One of the newcomers seized Walt’s right leg. The other fastened its mandibles around Walt’s head.
Pete tried not to look as the robots literally ripped Walt into pieces, methodically detaching his head and limbs from his torso. Pete clenched his eyes shut during the worst of it; but he could not close his ears against the screams. Within a few seconds Walt’s screams stopped abruptly; and there were only the sounds of bones being crunched, of flesh and sinew being torn apart.
The remaining two robots caught up with Ralph when he was about twenty feet from the loading dock door. The lead attacker swept Ralph’s feet out from under him, breaking the bones of his lower legs in the process. Ralph now lay on his back; his legs had acquired joints where joints should not be, midway between his knees and ankles. Blood was already seeping through his pants legs from the compound fractures.
The maintenance boss was still conscious, though he, like Walt before him, was shrieking incoherently.
Then one of the robots impaled Ralph, thrusting its jaws into his abdominal cavity with a horrifying squishing sound. The other robot grasped him around the neck and began pulling. Ralph’ screams went silent as his head was ripped from his body, an expression of terror still frozen on his face.
The robot tossed Ralph’s head casually aside and they went to work on the rest of him, as if disassembling the man according to some preprogrammed routine.
Pete did not watch. He buried his face in his hands. But once again, he could not escape the sounds.
Then, abruptly, the sounds stopped. Pete pulled his face out of his hands and looked downward. The floor area around the loading dock was a nightmarish collage of body parts and blood. The interior of the factory looked like a slaughterhouse rather than a manufacturer of automobile parts.
But Pete had a more immediate problem.
The robots had now finished with the bodies of Ralph and Walt. They could be violated no further. The half-man, half-machines gathered together near the spot where the crates had been. Their sandaled feet kicked up dust and made more footprints in the packing debris.
They milled about beneath him, circling like wolves. Their metallic snouts probed the air, clicking together in a hissing combination of sparks and foul-smelling smoke.
The robots were apparently communicating with each other somehow. And there was more: now each one was reaching upward and twisting its head around. They reminded Pete of the periscopes of submarines, searching for enemy ships on the surface of the ocean.
Pete held himself very still and quiet. A minute passed. Then two.
The robots ceased all movement. There was no more clicking of steel jaws or sparks.
For a brief moment Pete permitted himself to hope that the robots had shut themselves off. He knew better, though. They somehow sensed that one man remained in the factory, one more object of prey. They were restricting their own sensory input so that they could detect him when he stirred.
This left him no other option but to stay on the mezzanine until help arrived. More than seventy-two hours remained before the first shift would arrive next Monday.
He would never make it. That was too long to go without food and water—not to mention holding himself perfectly motionless and silent in an uncomfortable position. No, he would have to take matters into his own hands.
He had his cell phone in his pocket. He could not risk speaking into the handset; but he could text one of his friends and tell him to contact the police.
This was by no means a completely reliable plan. As it was the middle of a holiday weekend, his friends would be busy with picnics and waterskiing and whatnot. None of them would be standing around waiting to receive an emergency text message from Pete Greer.
The alternative, however, was to wait and do nothing. To wait and do nothing and die.
Pete slowly slid his hand toward his pants pocket. He had to accomplish this a few inches at a time, so that he could compensate for each shift in the flimsy mezzanine floor. A single careless or jerky movement would cause the mezzanine floor to buckle and groan, thereby giving away his position.
His fingers closed around the phone and he withdrew the device just as cautiously, moving no more than an inch at a time.
At last the phone was at eye level. Since one of his arms was presently pinned under his body, he rolled onto his back so that both hands could work the buttons.
Facing the bare girders of the ceiling, he flipped the phone open. Then he slid the sound control into the MUTE position before hitting the POWER button.
The phone mercifully lit up and a welcome message appeared on the tiny screen. At least he did not have to contend with a low battery, or worse—a dead one.
Pete steadied the phone with both hands and began pushing buttons with his thumbs. He addressed his first text message to a WVU buddy named Gary Millburn, who was fairly meticulous about keeping his cell phone close at hand. Then he would send a message to Bryan Convis, then another to Mark Westlake.
If he sent text messages to three people, at least one of them would read it and take action.
Before going to work on the phone, he did not pause to consider the condition of his hands: His palms were slick with perspiration, and the oily film of grease and dust that was unavoidable in any sort of factory work. Pete was therefore unable to react in time when he squeezed the phone, and it slipped from his hands like a bar of soap.
The phone bounced off Pete’s chest before clattering between the grates of the mezzanine floor. He frantically rolled over in an attempt to catch it, heedless of the noise he made. He watched helplessly as the phone fell end over end before finally landing with a loud bang on the floor below. The case split open on impact and bits of the phone went in all directions.
The robots stirred to life.
Pete had no doubt now that they had merely been lying in wait—playing possum, as one of the local old-timers might say. The mandibles of all five robots were now opening and closing rapidly, like the jaws of bloodhounds snapping at a cornered rabbit.
But did they know where he was? And could they get to him? The only way up to the mezzanine was the—
The first robot started in the direction of the mezzanine staircase, its bizarre legs carrying it with surprising agility. Then the robot mounted the stairs.
As its feet crashed down on each step, the metal framework below it cried out in protest. The robot was going to destroy the staircase; there was no question about that. The question was: would the staircase hold up long enough for the robot to reach his level?
The mezzanine tilted steeply to one side. Then it shook violently up and down as the single robot thundered upward in his direction. For the moment the robot was out of his field of vision, and it took all his strength and concentration to hold on to the metal grating, lest he be tossed to the factory floor some thirty feet below. Pete saw only the plant floor—still strewn with the gory remains of his late coworkers—vibrating wildly back and forth.
There was a distinct loud crash that was immediately followed by a change in perspective. Pete’s feet plummeted downward as his upper body was thrust toward the ceiling.
The section of the mezzanine that Pete clung to now formed a chute of death. He changed his grip to avoid sliding downward. Beneath him, the first of the five robots was advancing up the steep incline of the sagging structure, its feet booming with each step. Above his head there were whines and pops from the metal framework that connected the mezzanine to the ceiling. The framework was being wrenched from its connections. Plaster pattered down onto Pete’s face. The collapse of the entire structure was inevitable.
Another series of pops above him. He felt himself plummet again. Then he saw a set of metal jaws, hot and vaguely reeking of burning flesh, descend on him out of nowhere.
* * *
Sheriff Floyd Nibbet had more than thirty years of experience in law enforcement—all of it in Crayton County, West Virginia. He had been the Crayton County Sheriff for most of those three decades.
There wasn’t much crime in Stillwater, Crayton County’s largest town. Not by big-city standards, at least. But nor was the job free of trauma and violence. In his thirty-odd years as a peace officer, Nibbet had investigated one ax murder, and at least a dozen garden-variety homicides. These were mostly cases of men shooting each other in the local bars and taverns. Sometimes the arguments that precipitated these murders concerned money; more often they involved women.
In 1988 Sheriff Nibbet had arrived on the scene of a domestic dispute that ended when a drunken, laid-off construction worker placed the muzzle of his twelve-gauge shotgun against his wife’s ear and pulled the trigger. That one had given him sleepless nights and stomach problems well into the early 1990s.
And then there were the gory accident scenes—more of these than he could possibly count. Kids barely old enough to drive legally, who seemed to believe that they were made of Teflon. They wrapped their vehicles around trees and telephone poles, and sometimes other vehicles. The results of these predictable but common tragedies were always disturbing.
So Floyd Nibbet was no stranger to the darker side of life. Nevertheless, he had been unprepared for what his frantic deputy had discovered inside the Stillwater Manufacturing Company a few hours ago. Nothing could have prepared him for that.
Nibbet found that he could not stop his hands from shaking. For the first time in many years he desperately wanted a drink, and he had given up alcohol more than twenty years ago.
His deputy, Donald Farley, tapped him on the shoulder and Sheriff Nibbet practically jumped. He whirled on the deputy and started to berate him, but he stopped himself. His deputy was just as distressed as he was—more so, even. Farley’s normally florid complexion was an ashen white.
They were both standing in the Stillwater Manufacturing Company parking lot. They were just outside the loading dock area—a few yards from where all the blood and body parts were smeared and scattered about.
They had secured the parking lot with yellow POLICE LINE: DO NOT CROSS tape. A forensics team from the state police was on the way. The investigation of this crime scene was beyond the capabilities of the Crayton County Sheriff’s Department. The county coroner had also been called. There would have been no point in summoning an ambulance.
Finally Deputy Farley spoke. “Were those f-f-footprints?” he asked in a croaking half whisper. “I mean, that’s what they looked like, right?”
Nibbet simply shook his head. He didn’t want to answer that question. He didn’t even want to think about it, in fact. There were indeed multiple tracks of footprints throughout the gory mess inside. But if they were footprints—they were the footprints of a man close to twenty feet tall.
“Don’t jump to conclusions, Don. Let’s just wait for the state forensics team.”
“But you saw them! Didn’t you?”
“I don’t know what I saw. And neither do you. Like I said, we’ll let the state investigators look this over, because they—”
“Wait!” Deputy Farley interrupted. “What was that?”
“What was what?”
Before Farley could answer, Nibbet understood what he was talking about. There was a booming sound coming from the other side of the factory building, apparently out in the parking lot.
The source of the noise was obscured from view. The first association that came to Nibbet’s mind was one of those huge devices that demolition crews use to shatter concrete.
No, not one. There was apparently a whole crew of them. But that was impossible. Unless a county road crew was doing some work on the two-lane highway that ran in front of the factory. And nothing was scheduled. The sheriff’s office received all roadwork schedules in advance.
And besides, he couldn’t make himself believe an answer so mundane as a road crew—not after the ghastly scene that lay behind them, inside the plant.
Nibbet glanced down at the blacktop of the parking lot directly in front of him. The pebbles scattered about his feet were bouncing up and down.
Footsteps. Big footsteps.
Sheriff Nibbet drew his gun. Deputy Farley followed suit.
Nibbet put one finger to his lips in a don’t-say-anything gesture and motioned for Farley to follow him around the side of the building, toward the approaching footsteps—or whatever they were.
And then Nibbet heard the sound of metal striking metal, a series of clicking sounds. He turned briefly around to make sure that Farley was following him. Farley was staring past him. The deputy’s eyes grew wide, then he opened his mouth and screamed.
Nibbet whirled back around. He saw the five robots bearing down on them, running atop their metallic muscular legs, their bloody necks and jaws waving.
And Nibbet screamed, too.