A very short story
Maybe it missed them because they were in the vault in the second basement. Damien and Fernando had been searching for the mislabelled 2009 tape. Some storage genius had thought it a nice idea to have an electronic catalogue of the tapes. This was great. It worked very well, until today, when the backup catalogue system had crashed. It was not backed up itself.
Fernando would put the tapes in upside down, and then carefully turn them around and insert them again with extra care.
“Sometimes I think you’re a total moron.” Damien did not know why Fernando seemed to count him as a friend, but he didn’t really care. Fernando was a total moron. “Can’t you see there’s a red stripe down the left side? That always goes on the left.”
“Sorry Damien.” Ever apologetic. He would try harder.
After each tape, they would sit back and wait patiently for the system to carefully rewind it, whirr painfully through the index sectors (a few times) and then it would report that there was nothing of interest on the tape.
“Shouldn’t we label the tapes as we go?” Fernando always had ideas. “Then when the operators do it again, they won’t have to work as hard.”
“Who cares about the stupid operators. We’re not going to do this again. It’s not our job to make their job easier.” Damien did not appreciate leaving his desk, his air conditioner, and his sea view for the stuffy vault. Why the operators were all permitted to take vacations and have children all at the same time was beyond him.
Sometimes the tape would have to rewind. It seemed as if it had to rewind a number of times before anything would happen. The fans of expensive storage devices filled the air with an ambient noise. With a click and a whirr, the system ejected another tape.
Fernando reached for the tape, ready with the next one in his hand. He was interrupted by something going wump, or a very loud shout, or a trumpet. It was like the sound of an 18-wheeler truck about to plough through your mini, like the sound of a ship about to collide with your tiny rowing boat, like the sound of an angry elephant about to crush your body. Like the sound of a metal girder falling from a high-rise building, just before it hits the ground. Like the sound of a pin dropping.
Fernando dropped the tape on the floor. He fumbled with the tape in the drive, and dropped that onto the floor too. Damien collapsed onto the floor, grabbing a pile of tapes as he fell. The tapes clattered loudly onto the floor. The sound did not last long, and, when it stopped, it left the distinct impression that there had not been a sound. There had been something, but not a sound. Something dark and terrifying. It was more like the effect of a loud bang, without the sound. The sound that isn’t made by your car just before it hits a solid wall. The sound that is made by headlights shining on an immobilised rabbit. The sound that the nightmare would have made if you hadn’t woken up.
Nobody spoke. Damien tried to regain his composure, and fumbled around to pick up the tapes. Shock gave way to anger. “You dropped the tapes!”
“Wow! I thought the vault was soundproof.” Fernando stated the obvious. “Did you hear it?”
“Give me a hand here.” Damien started to pick up the tapes, but he was shaking too much.
“Here, let me help you.” Fernando bent down, and gathered up a stack of tapes. He put his hand on his neck, taking his pulse. “Whatever that was, it was quite a shocker. Do you think it was an earthquake?”
“I don’t know. I think I’m okay. I’m glad we were in the vault, though, whatever it was.”
The phone rang. Damien picked it up. “The vault, Damien speaking.” There was a bit of a quiver in his voice.
“Sorry, what? You want what? Hello? Hello?” He looked to Fernando for an explanation. “What’s happening?”
“What is it?” Fernando felt that he should be worried, but for some reason he was elated. “Who’s that?”
“I don’t know … it was totally incoherent. Something about … actually, I don’t know what they said.”
Fernando took the handset, and listened for a bit. “Nothing. I’ll phone reception.” He dialled the number, and listened for a while. “It’s gone to voicemail. There’s nobody there. I wonder what happened?”
Damien was beginning to shake. He looked pale.
“We should pray.” Fernando took Damien’s hand and held it firmly. “Something’s up.”
“Yes, you’re an idiot, that’s what’s up.” Damien recovered his bristly composure remarkably quickly, and took his hand back. “We should go and have a look what’s happened. For all we know, the building is burning down on top of us.” He put the tapes down on the rubberised workbench, and headed for the door. “Besides, I could use a strong cup of tea.”
Over Fernando’s protests, Damien pressed the door control to open the vault, and took the lift from the second basement to the fourth floor, where their regular offices were.
The lift doors opened with a “ding”. There was nobody about, which was unusual. When they had gone down to the vault a few hours earlier, there had been two ladies sitting in the reception area, and and one or two technicians were waiting to be taken in to fix a broken computer, air conditioner or executive toaster oven. The buzz of conversation was now replaced by the quiet hum of unattended computers.
“Where is everyone?” Fernando didn’t have a clue.
“Look here.” Damien pointed at a cup of steaming coffee on the reception desk. “I think they left in a hurry. I wonder if there’s a meeting or something?”
“Look there.” Through the glass window, the small speck that Fernando had pointed at on the horizon rapidly grew into the shape of a fighter jet. In seconds it screamed across the landscape over the beachfront, and then out of view towards the other side of the building. It was followed by another two.
“Oh hell,” said Damien. “Something is up.” He took took off down the corridor to see what was happening.
Fernando followed. They ran through an open plan work area which was earlier full of busy people, but was now entirely deserted, and out onto a veranda which overlooked the main street and the other side of the peninsula.
Two of the three fighter jets were disappearing into the distance, but one of them had fallen behind, and was slowly losing altitude over the bay. As they watched, it descended gracefully, and nose-dived into the sea. There was hardly a splash, and the plane was gone.
“Did that jet just fall into the sea?” asked Damien, not believing what he had just seen.
“Where are all the people?” wondered Fernando.
“What?” asked Damien.
Fernando pointed at the street below them. Normally, the street was jam packed with cars at any time of day. There were cars on the street now, but they were parked in a disorderly fashion. Some cars had bumped gently into each other, and some were parked in the oncoming lanes, or with a wheel or two on the pavement.
“You don’t suppose,” began Fernando, but Damien took his hand firmly, and dragged him inside.
“Quick!” said Damien, in a hushed whisper. “Back to the vault. Whatever’s going on, it’s not safe here.” He ran back the way they had come, and jabbed the button to open the lift doors. “We can phone from there, and see what we can do.”
The doors opened without a delay. Damien jumped in, and almost shut the doors in Fernando’s face in his haste to get going.
“Aren’t we supposed to take the stairs in an emergency?” asked Fernando.
“It really doesn’t help that we don’t know what kind of emergency this is. That woman on the phone, she said … she said …” his voice trailed off, and the elevator started moving downwards.
They travelled in silence back to the vault. Fernando entered his code, Damien entered his, and the door swung open.
Damien rushed to the phone, picked it up and dialled, while the door closed firmly behind them.
“I’m phoning the emergency number,” said Damien. “Maybe they will have a message about what’s going on.”
Fernando walked over to the tapes still strewn on the floor, and began to arrange them neatly. He began humming a tune, much to Damien’s annoyance.
“Shut up a moment there,” ordered Damien. “I’m almost through. I’m first in the queue.”
Fernando looked at the tapes that he had just arranged. He could see now, that the tape they had been looking for was not there. It was in the next stack, the third from the top. It would have taken another two hours to find it. He reached over, and had a look at it. It was number 501 841. He blew some dust off it, and put it smoothly in the tape reader. Not that it mattered anymore.
“This is freaking me out!” Damien was getting more and more agitated. “Why don’t they answer?” He bit his nails, and a piece of the nail came off and took a little flesh with it.
The tape whirred in the drive, and began to rewind.
“Answer the phone, you freaking morons, you bunch of imbeciles! What the heck is going on here?”
There was a knock on the door. Three knocks. Damien dropped the phone, and stared in horror at the vault door. “What’s that? Who knows we are here?”
Fernando was already on his way to open the door. Damien sprang up and blocked Fernando’s path.
“Don’t open the door!” Damien was shaking, and his face was ashen. “Please don’t open the door. Don’t open the door. I’m not ready … please …”
“We must open. It’s too late now, Damien.” Fernando spoke gently, and then firmly stepped past Damien, and pressed the door open control.
“No!” Damien did not try to resist, but jumped aside, and crouched behind an enterprise storage server, from where he could see Fernando opening the door.
From outside the vault, a voice spoke. “Fernando, come out.”
A fear and dread that he had never known came over Damien. Whoever spoke those words was not someone to be messed with. He knew who it was.
As the door opened, sunlight flooded into the dimly lit vault. Fernando glowed in the light. Sunbeams danced across his face, and shimmered on his faded jacket. He looked truly terrifying. He smiled, with a truer smile than Damien had ever seen on his face.
“Oh, hello, it’s you!”