Sunday, June 28, 2015

The Robots of Jericho: Mysterious crate scene

Synopsis: What's so scary about industrial welding robots? Well, plenty--if those robots are not what they appear to be.

This excerpt is from the opening scene of the short story, "The Robots of Jericho." In this scene, college student Pete Greer begins to suspect that his summer job in an automotive components factory may turn out to be anything but routine. 

"The Robots of Jericho" is one of the stories in Hay Moon and Other Stories: Sixteen Modern Tales of Horror and Suspense





“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 just 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 workpants. 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-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 their fascination. 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.