Magnus had slaved away at the machine for seven years. Greasing gears. Replacing tubes. Regulating the flow of steam. He had come to know its strengths. Its weaknesses. Its propensity for failure on the hottest days of summer.
Though the foreman would be loathe to admit it, Magnus kept the factory running. Few could bear to be within the belly of this mechanical beast for more than a few minutes at a time. Fewer still understood the complex movements and delicate maintenance that underlied its functions. Just the same, this was home.
The clatter and vibrations from the machine were the closest thing to a heartbeat he had felt in ages. Glancing forlornly through the small, single-paned window of his maintenance office, Magnus saw the first of Winter’s snowfall begin to blanket the forest just beyond the factory’s border. Wisps of steam rose through low smokestacks peppered throughout the factory grounds, quickly consuming the fresh snow before it could coat the dull gray concrete buildings that extended as far as Magnus could see through his tiny window against an unrelatable, alien world.
The machine belonged to him as much as he belonged to it. A youth filled with isolation and a string of infrequent, failed adult friendships had taught Magnus his place in the world. Life was one way and he was another. He had made his peace with it. He wasn’t thriving, exactly, but he was living. He was satisfied. He didn’t know any different.
The phone on his desk rang, stirring Magnus from his stolen gaze through the frosted window. The phone never rang. He drew a sharp breath and picked up the receiver.
“Y…yes?” He asked, cautiously.
“Magnus…” a strained voice called.
His brow furrowed, Magnus called the foreman’s name but received no reply.
He replaced the receiver and cast a confused glance at the machine. It was working smoothly; the gauges he could see from his desk were all showing normal.
Pausing to take a deep breath, Magnus rose and walked toward his office door. With one quick look back at the machine, he turned the handle and stepped through into the dimly-lit hallway beyond. The foreman’s office was a twenty minute walk away and Magnus hadn’t been there in months. He was rarely called upon or needed for anything beyond his daily maintenance of the machine.
The phone call was an anomaly – a wild flag of disharmony in an otherwise routine day. His curiosity piqued, Magnus began his journey toward the foreman’s office.
Arriving at the foreman’s closed, nondescript office door, Magnus cast furtive, curious glances down the hallway in either direction. No one was here. The hallway stood empty and silent, save for the irregular hum of the flickering lights strung up along its length to distribute the machine’s largesse to dark corridors throughout the factory.
Magnus carefully cleared his throat, formed a fist, and rapped it slowly yet firmly against the door. Three knocks.
Magnus tried the door handle. His grip firm and palms sweaty, a twist of the handle begat an audible “click” and the door began to swing open against the squeaking protests of an unoiled hinge.
The scene that greeted him was as unwelcome as it was unexpected.
The foreman sat at his chair slumped over his desk, a narrow metal hilt rising from his back. It looked like a letter opener but amidst the shock of it all details seemed trifling.
A pool of blood surrounded the desk, filling the air with a metallic twinge. Magnus felt his mouth fill with bile.
Movement in the shadows drew his attention. A woman, not much shorter or older than Magnus himself, dressed in the gray overalls of those that worked the factory floor, stepped into the light.
Her hair was as dark as night, pulled into a ponytail while errant escaped streaks of blackness framed her face. Her eyes were unreadable, soulless pools of infinity that took away the flickering lamplight and gave nothing back. Her features were sharp and unmistakable. This was a face Magnus would never forget. Could never forget.
She was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.
Clearing her throat, the woman spoke, her voice firm.
“You must be Magnus,” she said. “I’ve been waiting for you.”