Clarc wore a red jumpsuit when he operated the robotic arm. It was standard issue for all workers at the steel plant. He pulled on his black boots one by one, zipped his jumpsuit the rest of the way, and limped into the factory.
The heat was always what he noticed first. The way it clung to his skin as he passed through the aisles of hard-working robot arms carving a path to his station. He waved to Jay and Henny as he walked by; their arms already in the throes of the day’s first quotas rhythmically moving steaming hot pieces of metal.
“Hey! Last day today?” Jay asked, shouting over the mechanical din as it echoed around the vast space.
“Yea,” Clarc shouted back, “and don’t you make a big deal about it.”
“Ah, come on,” Jay laughed. He made an obscene gesture with one of his robotic arms, sending tiny sparks flying. Henny erupted into a fit of laughter.
Clarc swatted the air toward Jay and Henny. They were young and always screwing around, but it didn’t bother him. “Drinks after work then!” Clarc smiled and shook his head knowing deep down he would miss this back and forth banter.
Jay reminded him of his own son who had been transferred to a neighboring community. Clarc hadn’t seen his son since, and that was over 20 years ago. He took the last few steps to his station and pressed his thumb on the scanner.
The arms hummed to life springing forth before settling in first position over the steel press. Clarc slipped protective eye-wear over his eyes and inserted his hands into the control panel. Almost immediately, red hot molten steel poured into a huge metal bowl and he put the arms to work, shaping and manipulating the steel.
Once it was the right size and shape, Clarc moved the metal into the press and two big hammers plowed angrily into one another and upon retreating, revealed a perfectly smooth oxygen canister. It dislodged and tumbled out of the press with a clang. It would be the last first canister Clarc ever made. He briefly wondered how many he’d actually manufactured over the years; imagining there’d be enough to fill the plant from floor to ceiling.
He was abruptly pulled from his reverie when a loud bang reverberated through the factory followed almost instantly by an alarm blaring around the massive space, creating an effect of constant high-pitched noise. The arms froze in space as Clarc removed his hands from the control panel and whipped around to see what was going on.
Jay jogged over by Clarc’s station and asked, “what’s happening?”
“Not sure,” he responded.
In all the years he’d worked at the plant, this was an alarm Clarc wasn’t familiar with. He walked out from behind his station. All work seemed to have ceased because the aisles were filled with confused workers wandering around.
As the most senior employee on the floor that day, Clarc felt a sense of responsibility over the other younger workers. So, out of guilt more than anything else, he awkwardly limped his way past the crowds toward the front of the factory, grumbling under his breath at the inconvenience.
Sweat dripped down his left temple and he used his upper arm to rub it away as he pushed open the back office door. Cool air rushed over his sticky face sending a chill careening through his body.
The office was empty.
“Hello,” Clarc called out for good measure. No response. He furrowed his bushy grey brows into a V. Where was everyone?
As the alarm continued to shriek, he eyed the large blue door at the back of the office which led into the security room. It was off limits for anyone but upper leadership, yet it stood uncharacteristically ajar. Without any clear indication on what he should do and no leadership in sight Clarc reached for the door and pushed it the rest of the way until it bumped against the opposite wall.
Rows of lit up screens spread down the long room but no people. Clarc hobbled over to the first screen and put his hands on the desk, leaning in. What he saw caused a second layer of cold sweat to erupt over his entire body.
The entrance to one of the docking terminals was stuck open and bodies were strewn about the floor, some squirming and clutching at their throats and chests, desperate for air.
Indecision rooted Clarc to where he stood as he fully appreciated what he was looking at. Frustration mixed with fear spewed from Clarc’s pores as he perilously looked around for anyone who might offer some explanation or instructions on what he should do, but the only thing Clarc saw was the bright flashing screens of security footage from around the plant. Most of which were filled with confused workers wandering from their stations.
There had to be someone who could do something, Clarc thought. Panic rose like bile through him as he turned his eyes back to the screen. The bodies were moving less now; hypoxia setting in. Feeling intense pangs from inaction, he moved from one screen to the next in a furious attempt to figure out what was causing the door jam. But he was no engineer just a simple, about to retire, machinist.
Then he saw something that made his old heart skip a few beats. He stopped at the second to last screen of the row and helplessly watched a gaping irregularly shaped hole spill oxygen out into the noxious atmosphere in wisps of white smoke. Clarc’s spine tingled and his stomach lurched, threatening to eject the soy-based eggs his wife had made for him that morning.
He wasn’t sure what had caused the door to jam and he definitely didn’t know what caused the hole, but what he did know was that because the air lock wasn’t closing it was preventing the building from sealing off the compromised area and precious oxygen was escaping. It was only a matter of time before the generators would fail putting everyone in the plant in jeopardy.
Where was leadership!?
Clarc stepped back from the screens, his fogged mind trying to figure out what to do, when his boot stepped into something wet. He looked down and saw a cup on its side with spilled coffee pooled around it. Single pieces of paper littered the floor as if they were dropped or fell off the desk; he wasn’t sure how he’d missed that detail before.
Then a sickening thought crossed his mind. Did they evacuate and leave the rest of us? He shook his head, removing the thought. He looked back at the screen and, to his horror, the bodies were no longer moving. Sweat dripped down his forehead and into his eye; he wiped it away with a shaky hand.
Suddenly he realized he was short of breath and the recognizable feeling of air hunger gnawed at his chest. He stumbled out of the security room through the office and into the open space of the factory. The heat, once again, slapped him in the face.
Everyone stopped moving about when Clarc came back, their frightened expressions looking to him for answers. His unnerved colleagues, many of them friends after a forty-year placement in the factory, sent raw fear ebbing through him.
“The air! It’s thinning out,” Jay huffed as he jogged up to where Clarc was standing. “Where’s leadership?”
“I…I…,” Clarc stumbled, “I dunno.”
Jay stared at him pleadingly. “What do you mean you dunno?” Jay’s voice broke as he spoke. A vulnerable sound that could have brought Clarc straight to his knees, but he couldn’t do that. Not with Jay’s eyes looking watery like that.
Mustering whatever modicum of courage he had, Clarc faced Jay and announced, “follow me,” then set off at, as quick a pace as he could, in the direction of the jammed airlock.
The air grew thinner and thinner the closer they got and by the time they reached the supply cabinet near the jammed door they were both coughing and wheezing. Clarc pulled out two oxygen masks, handing one to Jay and pulling the thick black straps taught on the other, snapping them against the back of his head. He pressed the mask against his face. The silicone stuck like a suction cup in the shower. He pulled out two portable oxygen canisters, handing one to Jay, and clipping the other into the hose that hung from the mask.
The first inhale was relieving, the next, a swift reminder of limited time. He abruptly turned to face Jay. “We need to close that door.” He pointed through to the halfway closed airlock.
Jay took a few steps toward the opening and peered in, his eyes widening in shock, most certainly at seeing all the bodies. He shook his head feverishly taking steps back.
There wasn’t time for this, Clarc thought, as dread spilled over. He clipped the oxygen canister onto his belt and said, “just wait here,” and bent down scooting under the jammed door. Air whirred in turbulent tendrils through the jagged opening to the outside as Clarc was met with a violent scene.
It was worse to see it in person. Bodies in red jumpsuits littered the floor, their hands splayed out, some still at their throats. Clarc moved swiftly by, being sure not to step on any of them. He nearly tripped when his boot nearly stepped on Franny, the woman with gentle eyes who always stopped to say hello, and Clarc briefly reflected that even in death her eyes remained gentle. He took a giant stride over her lifeless body. A few more and he was at the gaping ripped hole.
Its origin became apparent almost immediately, evidenced by compromised oxygen canisters and blackened ash covered surfaces. An explosion of sorts.
He made his way back to the jammed airlock and tried pushing down on it, crying out as he did, but it was in vain. The door was five times bigger than him and probably even heavier than that. How he wished he had his arms!
He tried the obvious first and pushed the red button. To his astonishment, the door closed with an ear deafening bang, but the moment he took his finger off the button it opened again. He cursed as he repeatedly pushed the button and each time the door failed to stay closed, another piece of his heart broke. It broke for the dead. It broke for the living. It broke for himself.
A loud beep sounded, and Clarc saw his oxygen cannister was nearly empty. Going back meant death for everyone in the plant including himself. Staying meant death for him but the possibility to save everyone else. With time quickly running out, there was only one last thing that he could try. He closed his eyes tightly for a moment and pictured his wife smiling at him then he saw his son. Tall, handsome, and full of young life; the way he remembered him.
With that thought, he unclipped the oxygen canister from his belt, wrapped his hand around it, and lifted it over his shoulder. He held the red button down one final time and with all the force he could muster, he slammed the canister into the control panel. It seized and when Clarc took his finger off the button the door stayed down.
With the door finally closed, the air inside the factory would soon normalize. Clarc felt relief wash over him. He silenced the relentless beeping in his ear fully aware his oxygen was about empty and wished he had made sure the canister was full before grabbing it from the supply closet.
Jay’s face appeared in the sliver of a window on the airlock door as understanding slowly painted his features. Clarc put his hand on the window and mouthed, it’s ok. Jay shook his head violently and pounded on the window.
Clarc moved away from the door and made his way to the gaping hole. He stepped out and into the open drab world. Sickly grey clouds loomed overhead, blocking the sun. Beeping resumed in Clarc’s ear. He let the oxygen canister tumble to the ground with a clank and removed the oxygen mask letting it fall next to its companion.
Off in the distance, the clouds parted and a single ray of sunshine burst through. Clarc’s chest stung and burned as his lungs begged for fresh oxygen, that he knew wouldn’t come. As he fell to the ground and took a last shaky breath, Clarc pictured his son, imagining that all his years had been filled with happiness.
© Andie Ski 2019