Shock! Horror! I’m getting pretty good at making these shorts a regular thing. The story below is based on another #RueLouPrompts prompt. If you’re a writer looking for some inspiration, I couldn’t recommend them more. You can find Rue and Lou here and here, respectively.
This fortnight’s prompt was “ghost in the machine”. I went down a kind of creepy path, so, uh, brace yourselves for that. I haven’t been able to edit it as much as I would have liked, due to some family matters that happened yesterday (an ambulance was involved), but I hope you enjoy it, nonetheless.
The Cobalt Diamond Factory
Eric had always wondered how his father’s machine worked. The papers said it was magic, his peers said it was sheer force of will. His father said, “It’s a secret.”
All day long the machine chugged and whirred and clanged, singing the busy tunes of industry. You could hear it from outside the Cobalt Factory walls. And every hour, on the hour, it would spit out a pristine blue diamond, beautifully cut and with perfect clarity. Eric has seen it happen with his own eyes. And all his father ever did was feed it coal.
The day his father died, Eric received a letter from his father’s lawyer. It came with a note attached, stating that his father had given strict instructions about its delivery. When Eric opened it, he found it contained only the following words:
You must continue to feed the machine.
Eric felt his stomach tighten. Of course, he had always intended to feed the machine. His family’s lifestyle very much depended on a consistent flow of sparkling stones. But something about those words, alone on his father’s letter head, made his skin crawl. They told him he couldn’t take a moment to grieve; he must go immediately and feed the machine.
When Eric arrived at the factory, he gave a nod to the security guard. The large, muscular man marched toward him like a soldier.
“Sir, I’m sorry to hear about Fauxbert Sr.”
Eric nodded again. “Thank you.”
“Are you here to feed the machine, sir?” he asked. “I can take care of that today. It’s no trouble. You should be with your family.”
Eric smiled kindly. “It is something my father wanted me to do, but thank you …” He squinted at the guard’s badge. “Thank you very much for the offer, Mr Steele.”
Mr Steele nodded and returned to the shelter of the guard hut. The wind was bitter. Eric’s father had been a man born to die in the middle of winter. Hard as stone and cold as ice; it was only death that fitted.
Eric pulled out his father’s unwieldy set of keys. There were four locked doors between the outside world and the machine, or at least that’s what he remembered. He raised his brow.
“Five keys,” he murmured. Maybe he’d miscounted the doors. It had been a long time since his father had last let him see the machine. Not since his teenage years. They’d had a frightful row. Eric just wanted to know how it worked.
Eric swallowed, and began testing keys in the front door. When he hit upon the correct key, he gave Mr Steele a wave and stepped inside the factory. The door locked automatically behind him.
The next door was only a few feet in front of him. Eric’s father had always been obsessed with the security of his machine. He paid men like Mr Steele enough that they wanted for nothing, so that they wouldn’t ever dream of stealing from the Fauxberts. Eric could understand this. Diamonds were diamonds, after all.
He rifled through the keys again, and unlocked the second door, then the third, noting which key working in what lock. But when he finally opened the door to the machine room, there was still one key left. He hadn’t miscounted.
Eric’s stomach tightened again, but he didn’t pause. He didn’t want to spend longer in the machine room than he had to. His father had always been quick, too. Perhaps it was the un-ending noise. It did rather set the teeth on edge.
First, Eric collected up the diamonds from the previous day, tidying them swiftly into a plush velvet case. Then, he picked up the empty coal scuttle and flicked up the lid on the chute. He couldn’t find anything to lift the stones, so with his bare hands he threw them in, stone after stone, into the vessel. He couldn’t hear the clang of the rocks against the metal over the machine’s racket. That was until the last stone fell.
The metallic tone rang around the suddenly silent room. Eric stood up, scuttle in hand, and marched over to the machine. He hefted the scuttle up to the opening and shook the coal free. Then he stared at the machine in silence.
The knocking started quietly at first. Eric thought he was imagining it, but then the sound grew louder and louder. It wasn’t the machine’s usual incoherent tune; it was a rhythmic angry bang, bang, bang, working its way towards him. Eric stepped back as the sheet of metal in front of his face quivered with rage. The knocking stopped. There was a shuffling noise, almost like feet on floorboards.
“You’re late,” said the machine in a tinny, child-like voice and Eric almost fell over.
He caught hold of coal chute and steadied himself. “I – I’m sorry?”
There was a pause. “You’re not Fauxbert. He never said sorry.”
Eric licked his lips. “N-no. I’m Eric Fauxbert II. My father has passed away.”
The machine let out giggle. “Well, thank you, Eric. You’ve made my day.”
Eric squeezed the metal under his fingertips, checking the world was still real. Then he stuttered, “W-who are you?”
Another pause. “I’m Heinzelmann. I’m ten-years-old, Eric. Your father trapped me in this machine.” The voice grew softer, kinder, and more wistful. “I’ve been in here such a long time, forced to work, day and night. Now your father has gone, won’t you please let me out?”
“My father would never – ”
Eric gaped at the machine, the acid in his stomach curdling up his throat. He had once watched his father smack a young street child across the face for refusing to get out of his way. Was it so unbelievable that he kept some poor thing in his machine, cutting and shining perfect diamonds under the guise of industrial magic? Eric swallowed. No, it was in fact quite possible.
“How do I let you out, child?” Eric asked.
“Oh, thank you! Thank you!” the voice cried eagerly. “Do you have your father’s keys?”
Eric thumbed the large brass key on his father’s ring, the only one he had not used entering the building. It was discoloured where it had hardly been used. “Where’s the lock?”
“Over here,” the voice replied. “Follow the knocking.”
There was a further bang, bang, bang. Eric followed the noise down the side of the machine to a quaking panel of brass, with a single leather flap. He lifted it to reveal the keyhole and pushed the key into the lock. He stopped just short of turning the key. Something cold passed through him, and made him shiver violently. What if it were a ghost playing tricks on him? What if –
“What if I’m going mad?” he said to himself. “My father has died and I’ve gone mad.”
The voice in the machine cried, “Please, sir, you must let me out. I don’t want to die in the dark!”
Eric’s hands shook. If it were a child, then opening the door would save an innocent life. If it were a ghost, then it could do him no harm because everyone knows ghosts have no form to hurt you. If it was a vacuous space and a voice in his head, well then, he would go home and call the doctor right away. Whatever way he looked at it, Eric needed to open the machine.
He wrapped his hand around the key and twisted. The machine let out a gentle hiss and a cloud of musty air. The door slid to one side. Eric peered in.
His father’s machine was dark and hollow inside. He couldn’t see anything, or anyone.
“Hello?” he asked the darkness.
“Hello,” it answered back.
Eric took a step inside and reached out. He felt for a wall, but the space was an endless void.
“Where are you?” Eric called.
“Behind you,” said the voice.
Eric whirled around. Partially silhouetted by the light of the door, was what appeared to be a small boy child. He was pale, so very pale, but clad in breeches and a waistcoat made of fine red velvet. The boy grinned at him, and the grin revealed teeth that were far from human. They were clean and white and pointed – every single one.
“You’re no child!” Eric cried.
“No,” said the boy. “I’m not. But I’ll tell you what I really am.” The boy leant toward him, as if to whisper. Eric leaned in, just a fraction.
When the boy did not speak, Eric prompted, “Well, what are you?”
“Free,” said the child. He snatched the ring of keys from Eric’s clutches and stepped quickly backward, out of the machine.
Before Eric could protest, the door slid shut, sealing him into total darkness – a cold, vacuous tomb.
“Let me out!” Eric yelled. “Let me out, right now!” He hammered against the cold metal door.
A trickle of laughter was all the response he received.