Smokestack by J. R. Hobeck

smokestack_thAn enormous, enigmatic object appears suddenly in a limestone quarry in the flat lands of the midwest. A reporter, a security guard, and government operatives all seek the answer to what the object is, and why it has appeared. What they discover is not what any of them expect. This unpredictable thriller takes readers on a journey to the edges of quantum physics and also the inner reaches of the psyche. Each key character must come to terms with his or her past, as well as their common destiny.

Chapter One

Gregg Childress drove the giant gravel truck up the ramp toward the rim of the quarry. As he reached the top of the ramp he was blinded. The sun shining on the dusty windshield created so much glare he could not see. The truck rumbled to a stop. He ran the wipers and watched the washer fluid first streak and smear then clear the windshield. He realized the glare was not getting much better. It dawned on him that the filth on his own glasses was causing most of the problem. He took a handkerchief out of his pocket and began to wipe the accumulated grime from the thick safety lenses.

As he wiped, the weather report came on the radio.

“…Today’s high a blistering 94, low tonight expected to only get down to 78 under clear skies. Tomorrow, there is a possibility of thunderstorms in the evening as a cooler front comes through. We certainly could use the rain. Stay tuned for…”

Gregg liked the warm nights of the summer. He often sat in his swimming trunks in the quick set pool he had bought a couple summers ago. He liked to sit out there at night looking at the stars and daydream about being an astronaut. He imagined the hum of the pool filter being the rocket engines propelling him to Mars or Pluto or the jump limit, beyond which he could flip a switch that would propel him to anywhere in the galaxy. That had been his dream as a boy. He had tried to get into the Air Force when he graduated from high school, but had been a little too heavy and had been told that, even if he had gotten in, he would never be a pilot because of his poor eyesight.

He finished wiping his glasses, and was delighted when he put them back on and could see clearly. The rock dust that was omnipresent in the quarry coated everything. The lack of rain lately had made it worse. Even walking with a light tread would raise a cloud of dust. He looked down to the gauges on the truck and noticed that the engine was running a bit hot; not close to the red, but hotter than usual. The radiator needed a good hosing off. He made a mental note to take care of that, and check the air filter at the end of the shift. He drove the truck to the big hopper at the end of the cement plant and dumped the load of limestone. He started the trip back down into the pit to pick up another load.

Slowly turning the switchbacks as he went, he drove the truck down the ramp. He had reached a level plateau, a shelf about fifty yards wide that skirted the perimeter of the active pit. Anywhere active quarrying was being done could be reached from here. He drove along the limestone wall parallel to the road in front of the plant that was about seventy feet above his head. Followed this path around an angled outcropping of stone that had been left in place because it wasn’t been considered useful, he turned the corner at the end of the outcropping and headed toward where the bulldozers were filling another truck.

Gregg was about twenty yards from where he would queue up to get his next load when there was a brilliant flash to his right. The truck rumbled for a moment then died. The radio cut out. He looked at the gauges. There were no readings. Even the battery gauge was zero. He turned the key to try and restart the massive diesel. Nothing happened. There was not even so much as a click, a cough or a single whir.

He looked up, and noticed that one of the bulldozers had stopped with its load of stone halfway dumped out into one of the other trucks. The operator was moving levers and nothing was happening.

Then the bulldozer operator looked up. To Greg it appeared the man was looking between two of the dump trucks. The operator’s face went pale. He stopped shifting the levers. Slowly, mechanically, he undid his seat belt. His eyes never left what he was staring at.

Gregg looked to his right as well. He could not see what the bulldozer operator was looking at, his view obscured by the back of the  cab. He got out of the truck, walked to the front of the truck and stopped dead in his tracks.

Gregg saw a giant object. It had the appearance of the monstrous metal horn of a giant robotic bull had had been thrust, wide end first, into the pit. His first thought was that it was a hallucination.  He had forgotten to take his medicine last night and had only taken his regular dose this morning. Then he looked around at the other people in the pit and realized he was not the only one seeing this thing. Despite the fear of what he was seeing, he was glad at least that it was not his mind playing tricks on him. He had learned he could deal with anything in the real world much easier than he could with the things that lurked in the shadowy corners of his mind.

He stood staring at the thing for nearly a full minute before it dawned on him that there might be some of the other employees much closer to that thing. From where he stood, it looked like one end of the object was near where the engineers were setting up for the next blast. He tried to remember the blast schedule, realizing the next scheduled blast was in 2 days. The final inspection of the bore holes would be happening today.

Gregg started to run toward where the next blast would be happening. He wanted to be sure everyone over there was safe. As he ran, he kept an eye the entire time on this thing that had just appeared. Scenes from every science fiction alien movie he had ever seen started to flash though his mind. He kept coming back to the scene in Alien when the alien’s ship is first seen. This thing vaguely reminded him of that. When he suddenly had to stop running and vomit, he had an image of one of the alien babies bursting out of his chest. His body gave the closest approximation it could muster, his breakfast bursting forth from his mouth. When he was finished, he wiped his mouth with his handkerchief.

He kept walking, out of breath, toward the blast area. As he got close he called the name of the two people he knew would be doing the inspection.

“Harry. Stephen?. Where are you? Harrrrry?… Steeeeve?” He called.

Gregg kept calling as he walked. He saw the pickup they had driven out to the blast zone. They had to be close. Then he saw two smoking piles on the ground. The blue of the Shawnee Quarry jumpsuits, blackened around the edges, was still visible. Without pausing to think, he pulled his cell phone out of one pocket and its battery from another. As a safety measure, they were not allowed to keep the battery in their cell phones inside the quarry. It was not really a problem except on blast days, but the quarry management made it an everyday rule so the employees would develop the habit of keeping them separate. Gregg slipped the battery onto the phone and turned it on. He started shooting pictures as he approached the lumps on the ground.

As he got closer, he could see the nametags on the jumpsuits. It was them—Harry and Stephen. He was overtaken with another wave of nausea. The first round of vomiting had emptied his stomach, which did nothing to stop the dry heaves. He took more pictures after he recovered. He made sure to get the name tags.

Fear shot through him as he realized whatever had done this to Harry and Stephen might do the same to him. He turned and began to run. Raw fear, panic overtook every bit of sanity he had so desperately cultivated and clung to since the accident. He ran back to the dump truck. He tried one more time, in vain, to start it.

Standing outside the cab was Jack, the bulldozer operator. Gregg climbed  out and called to him, “Harry and Stephen are dead! It looks like they just incinerated—completely. They’re over by the blast zone. I got some pictures. I gotta out of here. I…I…I…” Then he simply stopped speaking and turned to look at the object again. He took a couple pictures of it and turned off his phone. He began walking toward the ramp.

His mind had kicked over into “robot mode”. At least that was what Gregg called it. His psychiatrist called it a mild dissociative disorder. He would just turn off all emotion and become like a robot when he reached a point where he was no longer able to cope with what was happening around him. It had been a long time since it had happened to him. The part of Gregg that was still aware of what was occurring around him knew robot mode did not last forever. Had he been able to feel anything, he would have been glad. He would have to deal with all of what he had just seen, but he did not have to do it yet.

He walked out of the pit. There was a sheriff’s car pulling into the parking area. The car’s siren was on and gumball machine lights were flashing. Gregg understood it was here because of that thing in the pit. He recognized the short, round, blob of a man in the driver’s seat—Horace Jones, one of the deputies. Gregg heard other sirens approaching. He knew if he were to have a chance of getting to safety, he had to leave now. He walked quickly to his car, got in and hoped it would start. It did. Whatever had happened to the engines of the vehicles in the pit had not extended this far. He spun his wheels as he drove to the back of the office building. There he found the two tracks of gravel that formed a seldom used service road. It led to an exit that was almost on the opposite side of the plant from the main gate. He pulled onto the gravel path and began to drive home.

***

J. R. Hobeck is a writer, poet, scientist and pharmacist. A native of the flatlands of northwest Ohio, a smokestack very similar to the one in this story has always been on his radar. He currently lives in Clemmons, NC with his wife, Jenni, his two children, Jake and Juli and his dog, Charlie.

Click here to buy: Smokestack

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