The Engineer

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

A night at the pub turns into a tale of disbelief as Christopher Fox describes his recent pursuit of a 'silver-suited fella' climbing up radio towers with a remote control.

“The Engineer”
(as featured on the 8Sparks Stories podcast)
By Shaun J. Nigro

You know how sometimes you get into the groove of a thing——like really start losing yourself in a moment? How you lose yourself in a video game, or maybe a bit of conversation that started out simple, almost as a reprieve from the arduous existence of everyday life, and then prolonged itself into late hours of the night? You know that feeling? The feeling they equate to “having fun with the passing of time,” or however that old saying goes. “Time flies.” that’s what it was I think. Kind of a meaningless supposition. After all, what is time? No, on second thought, don’t answer that. I don’t really care. Because life is good, and always has been. I think it’s the alcohol that sparks my imagination. Nothing more.
Anyway, it was this trivial line of thought that derailed itself upon the crashing of a human heap into the floor at the entrance to Joe’s Pub.
That heap turned out to be Christopher Fox, and it was immediately evident to the four of us——myself, Grady, Jerome, and Darnel——that something was amiss here. The four of us, on barstools, chugging pints and mellowing mindlessly, had been chatting in bursts and cheersing at intervals, mostly to meaningless moments. The fireplace by the leather couches to the right of the Pub’s entrance raged in a wavy incandescence that swept the room with a soft orange glow amidst tendrils of sneaking shadows. A shadow in the shape of my pint glass grew and shrank slightly on the bar before me as I debated taking another sip of the stout. My nerves, after all, were now unnaturally on edge.
“What’s the meaning of this, Chris!” Joe yelled from where he stood behind the bar. He was finishing drying and putting away glasses that had been emptied by the night’s earlier patrons.
“Geez, you look like hell,” Grady muttered matter-of-factly, barely averting his eyes from the tv screen above the bar.
Christopher Fox remained where he knelt at the entrance, panting like a dog and staring into the wooden floorboards as if he expected a portal to open up.
“Out with it man, you’re givin’ me the willies,” Jerome laughed nervously, pulling his own pint of ale closer to his lips.
“I need a drink, boys. Just a drink and I’ll be fine.”
It was then that Darnel, the kindest of our lot, removed himself from his barstool and helped Christopher Fox to his feet and over to the couches in front of the fire. I took another sip from my stout as I watched astonished, though the alcohol seemed to be quelling the nerves.
“Bring it over to him, will ya’?” Joe pushed a foaming glass of golden ale in my direction with a toothless smile.
“Sure thing,” I obliged. I grabbed the glass, as well as my own, and made my way to the couches where Jerome had already made himself comfortable.
“Grady, you gonna watch that thing all night?”
“Nah.” Grady grunted, pulling himself away from the bar——and tv——with an obvious air of inconvenience.
After Grady pulled up a chair and when Christopher Fox finished more than half of his pint (in one gulp), we all went silent. The fire had died down a bit so that it seemed only to illuminate the face of the exasperated man. He had thick black eyebrows and a bulbous nose. His cheeks were pudgy and his chin had almost a duplicate below it. It dawned on me that I would not have been surprised had Christopher Fox then related to us a story of how he had merely lost his breath on his way to the pub.
“What year is it?” He blurted with eyes suddenly widened and looking maniacal by the glow of the fire.
“2020, Chris. When else?” Said Darnel.
“That..that can’t be right.”
“Right is rain, ‘less I been on a bender longer than I thought.” Grady looked quizzically into his glass.
“Well that means..that means I’ve only been gone an hour.” Christopher Fox’s eyes moved toward the fire as he appeared lost suddenly in his thoughts.
“Where’d you go?” Jerome laughed.
“I..I don’t know.”
“Well, that’s an interesting story,” Grady started to stand but I motioned for him to sit.
“Just hear him out, Grady,” I said.
“Look fellas, maybe I’ve had some sort of breakdown. But I feel like I’ve been through hell and back.”
“And you look like it too!”
“Cram it, Grady!”
“Ah, hell,” Grady muttered, muting himself with a swig from his pint.
“I can tell ya’ what I think happened, but you gotta let me tell it honest. Some of it’s gonna sound a little funny. Most of it, actually. But,” he took a breath, and a sip, “but I gotta tell it uninterrupted. You see I’m out of breath as it is. And I think I should have gone straight home, but I think I’d like to tell you the details while I remember them. They seem to be fading already as it is.”
“Aw hell, I could use a good story,” said Grady, relaxing a bit in his chair. “Joe, how ‘bout a round of pints for the lot of us!”
“On you, Grady?” Joe’s voice came from the bar behind us.
“What? No. Since when do I pay for these sorry tramps.”
Had I not been so interested in what Christopher Fox had to say, I might have bopped Grady a good one in the noggin——as crude as he could be, Grady’s roughness was teetering on unacceptable; I attributed this to the money he was losing in the Pub’s football pool, hence his fascination with the contents of the tv.
“Alright, Chris, we won’t interrupt you,” Darnel assured him. “Will we?” He turned with a glare and forced a nod of agreement from the rest of us.
“Okay.” Said Christopher Fox.
And when Joe had brought out a tray of pints, sweating with condensation and glistening like potions by the light of the fire, Christopher Fox recollected the curious events of the hour that had finally brought him collapsing before us that evening at the entrance to Joe’s Pub.

“Before I begin, fellas, you oughta remember who it is telling you this story. It’s your sorry old pal, Christopher Fox. You all know me well enough. I have about as much imagination as a jar of pickles. My idea of a good time is never more than a foot away from this here pub. I hand out permits at town hall and I go home and I come here. Rinse, repeat. Darnel, you’ve seen my walls. No posters. My reading material is..well I have no reading material.”
“We get it, Chris, you ain’t Stephen King.”
“Not even a Shaun J. Nigro.”
“Hey, he’s not so bad!”
“Point is, I’m dry. No adventure and that’s always been just fine for me. Joe’s is my adventure, but tonight that changed. Tonight, I find myself at the tail end of a mind fuck.”
“Cheers!” We all raised our glasses for no particular reason.
“Animals! Will you pipe down, already!” He took a sip from his pint, and a deep breath. “Tonight, I came home and put on the tv, you know, to see where I was in the pool. I finished a leftover burger from Lankey’s, with a beer, and I got myself ready to come here. Well when I was almost a block from my place, I caught a chill from the wind and realized I had forgotten my hat. So, naturally, I had to go back. And it was when I was making my way back to my apartment, passing by the old radio station building——you know the place, used to crank out the “golden oldies” back when we were kids.”
“Sure, I remember,” I said. “Well..I remember the music anyway, never went by the building much.”
“Well that’s where I was when I heard a loud bang! I thought I heard it coming from the roof of the radio station, you know, where the old radio tower sits. And sure enough, when I looked up, I saw something funny. Well..something peculiar, anyway.”
“A mirror, maybe,” Grady chuckled. We all ignored him.
“I saw a man. A thin man in a silver suit.”
“On the roof?” I asked, unable to contain my curiosity.
“On the roof, yes. And he had some sort of remote control in his hand, with a large antennae and a little screen that even I could see lit up from where I stood on the sidewalk. He saw me then and started climbing fast up the tower. And..and..well I don’t know what came over me! A silver-suited man I never saw in my life!
“So I went around the side of the old station where I knew, from passing in daylight, there was an old fire escape. In fact, I was sure that was how the man had gotten up there in the first place. I made my way up that fire escape, with great difficulty I might add. And when I stood to my feet on the rooftop, I peered up into the darkness where I could just make out the tiny light of the strange man’s device. I couldn’t tell from there how high he had climbed but I guessed he must’ve been close to the top. Something compelled me, fellas, otherwise I would have given up just then and there. I had to get to the bottom of this ridiculous mystery.
“So I climbed. And quite a ways up it was. I don’t think I ever knew that radio towers could be so high. I think I must have been close to the top when I started worrying that I might catch asthma.”
“You can’t catch asthma, dingle-brain,” blurted Grady.
“Well it sure felt like I could. So I stopped to take a breath. And when I looked up again, I couldn’t believe it, but the man had completely vanished. No light from his device, not even the cling and clang of his shoes——boots, I think they were——on the metal rungs of the tower. I tell you, I was flabbergasted, fellas. I swear I never experienced such a strange thing in my life-“
“-as you’ve said-“
“Until what came next! I thought then that there must have been something rancid about my burger. Wouldn’t be the first time I got food poisoning from Lankey’s. And then the scope of the situation dawned on me and I looked down for the first time. I tell you, fellas, I must’ve been a mile up! My hands started shaking like my late Grampy Grant and I got this nauseous feeling in my stomach.
“I thought I might climb down then when there was that loud bang! sound again and a flash of white light. I tried to hold on tight as I could but my hands were just too shaky. I felt weak. And I lost my grip. And I fell.”
“And a grand story it’s been!” Grady started to stand again.
“Sit down!” Christopher Fox shot a fierce look at Grady like none of us had ever seen before. It was clear that, true or false, Christopher Fox was determined to finish his story.
“Anyways, as I said, I fell..and I fell..and I fell. I tell you, fellas, I swear I didn’t land for a full 10 minutes!”
Grady grunted a sigh of literal disbelief.
“But when I finally did land..I was Somewhere else.”
“Somewhere else?” I asked, beginning to side with Grady.
“Somewhere else. That’s all I know, fellas. It was just..Somewhere else.
“Well,” Jerome indulged him, “what did it look like?”
“A bit bleak, actually. Everything looked like a black and white photo. The sky was gray, without clouds. And the grass..well the grass was gray too. I discovered quickly that I was in a field just outside a big city. The city, also, was gray. Fellas, I thought then that I must’ve gone colorblind!”
“You already are colorblind, Chris,” we all laughed.
“That’s a red-green sort of colorblind. This was like a dog sort of colorblind! Stop interrupting me!”
Joe brought over another tray of pints then, which we all gladly grabbed from.
“Anyway, I thought I’d probably wake up in a hospital right about then, when I saw the man again!”
“The silver-suited bloke?”
“Yes, him! And he had that device in his hand and he was running like the wind toward the city. So I stood, apparently unbruised from the fall I had just taken, and I went after him. After all, I had come this far, and if this were a comatose delusion, what harm would there be in going with it?
“I followed that strange man into a vacant city of hollow skyscrapers with towering parapets that seemed to pierce the lifeless sky above. But everything..and I mean everything..was gray. Even the ground, which was paved——though beginning to crumble in its abandoned state——was so much the hue of the sky that it appeared as if the strange man and I might in fact be running upside down and seeing above us to the ground. I should not have lost myself in this trance though as I was abruptly halted by a firmly planted lamp post, which, if you will now notice, is where I acquired this ghastly bruise.”
Jerome, Darnel, Grady and I leaned in toward Christopher Fox to find that our friend did indeed have a bruise on his forehead, which must have gone unnoticed amidst the chaos of his arrival and the low light of the pub’s crackling fireplace.
“Well when I stood again, I looked around for the silver-suited man only to find that he had completely vanished once more. Or at least that was how it seemed, until I caught a silver glimpse of motion on the rooftop of the building across the street from me. And low and behold, fellas, it was another radio tower that this ridiculous man had begun climbing!”
Though I had to admit that Christopher Fox’s story sounded farfetched..beyond the border of fantastical even..I couldn’t help but find myself enthralled. Admittedly, the alcohol may have been having more of an effect at that point than I was willing to grant, but whatever the cause, I needed to know how this story ended.
“So, fellas, I suppose I don’t need to tell you that I went on after the man. I climbed once more. And, looking back, I believe that the strangeness of it all had given me a boost of adrenaline that never seemed to wear off until I collapsed through that door over there,” he pointed to the pub’s entrance, his outstretched arm illuminated from behind by the light of the fire.
“What happened next, Chris?” Darnel asked, seemingly curious as I was now to get to the bottom of this strange tale.”
“It was about a half a mile more that I climbed before I finally reached the silver-suited man, almost at the very top of this radio tower. Remembering my mistake from before, I did not chance to look down this time. Instead I advanced toward the man, who seemed to be having troubles with his device, which now only flickered as the man pressed the buttons down harder and harder in frustration. All the while, he kept his gaze fixated on the gray sky and barely flinched when I grabbed his right ankle. Well, I gave that ankle a good yank, fellas, and he acknowledged me then.
“‘You don’t know what you’re doing!’ The man yelled. ‘You’ll fry the system!’ Of course I hadn’t the slightest clue what he was going on about. I guess I was as confused as you fellas seem to be right now. ‘What system? Who are you?!’ I remember yelling. Or no..wait”
Christopher Fox paused for the first time, chewing his lip and looking up toward the ceiling in that manner that people always do when they’re trying to remember something——as if foggy memories tended to float and remain just out of reach for safekeeping.
“No, that’s right. ‘What system? Who are you?’ I asked him. And he continued fidgeting with his device until I gave his leg another yank, this time nearly causing him to lose his grip on the tower.
“‘THE system,’ he yelled. ‘I’ve gotta refresh everything now, who knows how this has diverted the node-path,’ and he started babbling to himself, ‘Maybe when I get out, if I reset protocols, they can overwrite the corrupted-’ And he went on babbling about stuff that sounded awful nonsensical to me, fellas. ‘What are you talking about?’ I remember yelling. ‘What the hell is a node-path’ though I couldn’t be sure I really wanted to know. A part of me still believed I had hit my head on that first fall. There was a beeping sound then, I remember, and the screen on his little device lit up. He looked down at me with a smirk and then back up to the gray sky above us, which now seemed to be turning black, like the night sky now. Excuse me,”
Christopher Fox took a big gulp from his second beer as we all sat flabbergasted. Either our friend had slipped a screw and hopped the fence to Lala land, or he was telling the truth. We were all pretty sure, I think, that it was likely more the former than the latter, but something in Christopher Fox’s voice felt very, terrifyingly, real.
“I’m a bit thirsty, I suppose. Anyway, I’m..” He paused again. “..I’m having trouble remembering the rest of it now.”
“And they all lived happily ever after!” Said Grady, sensing that the story was finally coming to a close.
“No, no..” Christopher Fox chewed a thumbnail and stared into the fireplace. “No, I..ah, yes! And I..well..I thought there was more but..but I guess, now that I think about it, I just sort of woke up..yes, that’s quite it, I think. I woke up on the sidewalk right where I had first seen the man on the radio station rooftop.”
“What a wonderful story, Chris. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be getting back to the game,” Grady stood up and made his way to the bar. We all knew the game was likely over now but nobody bothered to call him back. It did seem that, after all, Christopher Fox’s story had collapsed upon itself. It now seemed most likely that the man had fallen, perhaps not even from the rooftop, and had hit his head, and had stumbled into the Pub not long after.
“Well that’s what happened, fellas. I guess I can’t convince you either way but it sure felt real to me.”
“Ha! Silver-suited men. Good one, Chris,” even Darnel had tuned out.
“What do you think?” Jerome asked me.
I looked down at my empty pint glass. “I think I’ve had a bit to drink. Chris has clearly had a fall, and we’ve had a thrilling story.”
“Pub’s closin’, fellas,” Joe shouted from the bar.
“And the game’s over! What a waste of a night,” Grady grunted, grabbing his coat from the barstool and making his way to the door. The rest of us, except Christopher Fox, began gathering our own coats.
“Wait a minute, fellas,” Christopher Fox’s voice rang from the couch where he still sat. “What the hell is this?”
He stood with something in his hand, which he had apparently pulled from his own coat pocket. We all crowded around him then and peered down into his palm, where what looked like a small antennae rested.
“You coulda got that anywhere,” Darnel laughed nervously.
“What the hell’s goin’ on out here!” Grady’s voice came from outside.
Christopher Fox shoved the antennae back in his pocket and followed us out of the pub into the night. Only it wasn’t night. It wasn’t morning either. There were no stars. There was no moon. There was not a cloud in the sky.
“I think I’ve drank too much,” I said but no one seemed to hear me. I turned to Christopher Fox who stood silent and staring into the palm of his hand, where he held the antennae again.
“Yes..yes, I think I’ve drank too much,” I said again, but my words were muted and swallowed by the silence.
It was the silence, I thought to myself, of a world with no color. It was the silence..of gray.

Submitted: November 28, 2020

© Copyright 2021 Shaun J. Nigro. All rights reserved.

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