Sounds. For all of recorded history, sounds have been an integral part of the human experience. From the beginnings of language to the current aesthetics of music and entertainment, we are inundated with noise. Even in our own homes, when all is calm and peaceful at night we are surrounded by sounds of our own creation; gurgling compressors on our refrigerators, the white noise humming of HVAC units, the click and quiet roar of a gas-fired water heater.
Truly, for much of the civilized world, it's hard to imagine what a world without constant noise might be like. We seldom give thought to the fact that it was just such a quiet world that gave rise to our ancestors. It is from them that we inherit our hearing, yet they had no iPods to listen to, no alarm clocks to waken them. These are things we have co-opted our hearing to take advantage of. What is it that caused our hearing to be naturally selected for, originally? In the relative silence of a pre-civilization world, what did a man's keen hearing protect him from?
Outside of our now cacophonous cocoon of music and machine noises, what dangers lurk that we can no longer perceive?
"And this is our final stage of compression!" Derek shouted, his voice all but lost amid the tumultuous whirring of the large, electric engines. "Two single screw compressors, bringing the gas up to about 800 psig each! The motors each have a brake horse power of about 783! They're the biggest motors in the plant and, as you can imagine, the loudest!"
His audience, the four investment firm representatives sent to tour the facility, nodded despite the blank looks on their faces. Derek could already tell he'd have to review the information again once the returned to his office; the group was standing at the end of a compressor row, consisting of over a dozen of the noisy devices. Despite his shouting, the combination of the motors and their hearing protection made explanations in the field quite difficult.
Still, the plant was his 'baby', and he loved to show her off in person. As the plant engineer, he was proud of the progress they'd made in making the plant efficient and profitable. The investors here now were evidence enough of this, and he wanted to make sure they had the best impression of the facility possible.
"Let's go ahead and go back inside now!" he shouted, speaking slowly to try and maximize understanding in that clamorous environment, "We can go over any questions you have there."
The three men and one woman all nodded their understanding and they all turned towards the main building. It was a simple structure, corrugated metal siding painted industry grey. Inside was the main hub of operations, where an operator controlled the plant remotely. His office was located in this building as well.
As he turned a corner, following his four guests, he felt his coat snag. Thinking himself caught on a long bolt from a flange, he turned. He nearly jumped out of his skin. It was Greg, one of the operators of the facility. It was so easy to sneak up on people in this noisy environment, and the grin on Greg's face at that time let Derek know that he knew it.
"My radio is on the fritz again!" Greg yelled, leaning in close so Derek could hear. "Could you call up to control and let them know I finished fixing the blowdown valve?"
Derek nodded, keying the microphone of his own radio. The device was clipped to his waist, but the mic attachment was connected by a cord, allowing it to clip at his shirt collar.
"Control, blowdown valve on 3501A has been repaired."
"Blowdown repaired, copy," crackled the response. Even with the volume turned all the way up, it was still difficult to hear them in the middle of the plant. Derek flashed Greg a thumbs up, which he returned before turning back towards the facility. Derek returned to his guests, who had stopped as he spoke with Greg, and escorted them to this office.
"It's a very impressive facility," the first investor said, a notepad resting in his lap. The others in his party nodded their assent, postures identical to the man who had spoken. Each one had their own pad of notes as well, and as Derek sat across from them he couldn't help but picture a line of 'Office Space' bobbleheads. He smiled faintly, removing his own hearing protection and running a hand through his thinning hair.
"Thank you very much. It's the largest of its kind in the Pacific Northwest," he said, allowing himself a little rush of pride, "We're able to push numbers well above what a typical plant of this design can, mostly due to our location."
"Yes, I did have a question about that," remarked the woman in the group. She was dressed quite professionally, her grey-streaked hair up in a tight bun. "When we spoke with your plant manager, he mentioned there was some early trouble with local groups concerning your plant's construction? Are you still dealing with that?"
"Oh that? No, no, that's all behind us," Derek reassured her, "Some of the Native American advocacy groups protested the use of the land previously, but they haven't expressed any concern since we started the place up."
In truth, as Derek recalled, the group didn't really have a tangible reason why they were opposed to the location. They had admitted that it was not a burial ground, nor a holy site. When asked why, the elders of the tribe hadn't really been able to say, though the impact of the plant's noise on the surrounding area's property value certainly wasn't positive. Without a concrete objection, the construction went forward without a hitch. That was four years ago, now.
"Well we're glad to hear that," answered another man from the group, before cracking a smile. "Though truth be told, we're not sure how we can hear anything after having been out in that plant." They all chuckled at this, with Derek cracking a smile as well. Even inside the building, though it was dulled to a constant roar, the plant could be heard thrumming.
"You get used to it," Derek replied, shrugging nonchalantly, "In fact, you start to understand how it's supposed to sound. It makes it much easier to determine if something is wrong when the sounds change."
They spoke for several more minutes before exchanging business cards. Derek walked them out to the parking lot, thanking them for their visit. They thanked him once more for the tour, and departed.
Derek let out a sigh as they turned the corner, moving out of site down the road. He stretched and looked at his watch. Only about a half hour until quitting time. He had a few things he could finish up, then it would be time to head home for a relaxing weekend.
Beebeebeep! Beebeebeep! Beebeebeep! … Beebeebeep! Beebeebeep! Beebeebeep!
Derek woke up with a start. It was still dark outside - too dark for it to be time to head into work just yet. Besides, it was supposed to be his weekend. He could vaguely make out the outline of his dresser and the glowing, digital clock atop it. He rubbed his eyes, willing them to focus, then glanced again. The yellow-green haze coalesced into a series of characters: 2:30 AM.
The incessant beeping continued, and it took Derek's groggy mind a few long moments more before realizing it was his work cell phone, not his alarm. The ring was obnoxious, meant to get his attention compared to his own personal phone and its more melodic ring.
'Great', he thought sleepily, 'What could be wrong now?' The process of getting the plant operational had been quite arduous, considering how easy construction had been by comparison. They had spent months troubleshooting and fixing bugs in the system's programming. Back then it wasn't uncommon for him to be called in at all hours of the night, needed to fix this issue or troubleshoot that worry. But those times were long past now, so what...
Derek picked up the phone.
"N'ello this is Derek," he mumbled. There was no answer, except for breathing and mumbling. He could hear tapping in the background - the operator was working at the control station. He must have had it on speaker phone.
"Hello?" he stated loudly, irritation creeping unbidden into his voice.
The voice was that of Jeff. Jeff was one of the more senior operators. He was working the night shift for the next few weeks, alongside Reggie. The plant was very modern and mostly automated, so the night shift only needed two operators. At least, if everything was going right."
"Jeff?" Derek inquired, getting up to turn on the light. "What are you talking about. What's wrong?"
"It's not right. Something's off. I can hear it."
Derek's brow furrowed in concern. "Jeff, can you tell what it is? What does it sound like?"
Nothing. All that came over the phone was the tapping, the mumbling, and the very distant sound of the plant in operation. It was a whisper on that call, underlying the more prominent sound of mumbling and typing.
"Alright Jeff, alright," Derek said, sliding out of his pajama bottoms. Clearly something was off. He'd have to advise the plant manager to conduct some drug screenings. Working the job inhibited was extremely dangerous, and it wasn't like Jeff to be so scatterbrained. "I'll head out there, and we can figure it out."
It was 3:30 AM as Derek's car pulled up to the plant, the wheels crunching the gravel of the parking lot. Derek turned off the ignition, hearing the car's engine turn off, and climbed out of the vehicle. He walked across the gravel towards the plant, the rock sliding under his feet as he moved.
Even from here, he could hear the plant. Nothing seemed amiss; the flare wasn't lit, so no gas was being released. The tell-tale humming of the compressor bank sounded right, the periodic pressure swings between vessels hissing like a giant beast breathing in and out. Nothing sounded.
Out of the corner of his eye, Derek saw some movement near the control building. Was it Reggie? If Jeff was working the board then Reggie would be working in the plant. The two operators worked in tandem, troubleshooting issues from both ends. That is, when they weren't making late night calls to the plant engineer instead.
The figure moved into the shadow of the building, and out of sight.
Derek continued walking, eventually reaching the door to the main building. To his left lay the plant, and now that he was this close he listened, really listened to the plant. He could make out the sound of belts on pulleys, air solenoids activating, all the normal symphony of the plant and yet there was something. He could hear it now. It was something not quite right. The pitch was off, like a motor set at a lower speed than it should have been. It was out of place, more akin to what one would hear during a plant start-up.
Derek entered the building, walking into the control room. At the desk sat Jeff, his face illuminated by a half dozen computer screens. The screens were covered by diagrams and figures, showing the plant's configuration in two dimensions. In the dimness of the control room, and from the distance, the scrawls of pipe and numbers seemed like eldritch script across the screens.
"Jeff?" Derek inquired, walking up behind. He was there, mumbling sounds to himself and typing. On one of the screens, the plant system was minimized. Instead a word processor was open. Derek could see that the typing Jeff was doing wasn't actually making any words in the processor; the screen filled with random letters and numbers. Jeff pounded at the keyboard violently, seeming to care little about what was actually written.
To his side, the speaker phone remained on, the tell-tale fast beeping of a line left off the hook playing softly in the room.
"Jeff?" Derek asked again, before flicking on the room's light.
Jeff screamed, jumping out of the seat and falling to the floor. He looked around frantically, breathing rapidly until his eyes fell on Derek.
"Geez man," Jeff replied, practically yelling, "You're gonna give a guy a heart attack."
"Well maybe you should take out your ear plugs so you can hear people calling you, then," Derek said, noticing a thin line of red hanging from each of Jeff's ears. It wasn't uncommon for the operators to leave their ear plugs in to keep them clean if they were going to be out in the plant. But Jeff was on the board tonight...
Jeff looked at him quizzically for a moment. He shook himself and turned back to the board.
"Well I'm glad you're here. There's something odd happening out in the plant, and I can't seem to figure out what it is. Production has dropped to a third of normal, and there's a weird sound out there."
"Yeah, I heard it," Derek replied, "It sounds like one of the variable speed drives is running a motor too slowly or something. Have you had Reggie look at it?"
"I said have you had. Reggie. look at it?!" Derek shouted, "Seriously man, just take out your ea-"
Derek stood there, confused for a minute. Gone? Operators weren't allowed to leave the site during their 12 hour shift. You needed two operators, one outside and one inside, to do any kind of work. Working the night shift alone was not feasible.
"Well where'd he go?"
"I don't know where Reggie went. He just told me he was leaving and he left."
Derek shook his head. Reggie would definitely be let go for this. Derek had even seen someone outside earlier - probably Reggie leaving the site - as he pulled up. Slinking around in the shadows and sneaking away couldn't be allowed. He would report that to the manager in the morning. In the mean-time, something had to be done.
"I'll grab a radio and head out, Jeff," Derek said, making sure that he made eye contact. "I'll see what I can find, and let you know."
Jeff nodded. Derek grabbed a radio off the charger and turned it on. Checking to ensure it had power, he put in some ear plugs, hooked the radio to his belt and collar, and went out into the plant.
The first thing that occurred to Derek when he entered the plant proper was how different it seemed. He hadn't been here at night for some time, and now that he looked at it, the lights they had installed didn't seem to be nearly enough. Deep shadows were cast between pieces of equipment, the overhead piping casting a lattice of darkness across the gravel-covered grounds.
Derek walked out into the plant, listening to the pitches, hisses, and whines of hi s plant. It was all there...and something more. The dull motor, wherever it was, was still emitting a lower pitch than normal. He could practically feel it in his chest. He strode out with purpose, listening closely for the motor in question.
He had only gone a dozen steps when a shadow flitted out of the corner of his eye. He looked to the side, but saw nothing. A trick of the light for sure, nothing more. Derek continued. He passed compressors one after another, each one humming to the tune of 60 hertz. That was the full speed frequency of most of their high amperage compressor motors, and he knew the sound by heart now. He smiled to himself, remembering how much of a hassle it had been to set up the soft starters for such large moto-
He saw the shadow again.
Just ahead to the right, he saw a shadow coming from a lit area alongside one of the valve skids. Derek felt the hairs on the back of his neck standing up. He slowed his walk, moving away from that side of the walkway and, ever so slowly, moved until he could see around the corner...
...and saw the pallet of bearing grease that was placed there earlier that day.
"Damn it," Derek muttered, half chuckling and half scolding himself. He himself had said to get it staged to start greasing the motors the next day. How could something like that surprise him? He must be really skittish if that sort of thing could scare him.
The sound was closer now, and he thought he knew the culprit - a lower horsepower compressor used on a recycle process in the plant. He turned his mind towards how to troubleshoot the device, and was about to turn when he heard it.
It was subdued, it was quiet, and barely on the edge of hearing with the plant noise around him, but it sounded like gravel under foot. A heavy foot.
Derek froze involuntarily, some deeper reflex telling him to stop and listen. But the plant was loud, and he heard nothing. Steeling his nerve, he turned abruptly, casting his eyes over an empty walkway. He turned his head left and right, searching for the source of the noise. He thought he saw a shadow turn the corner ahead towards the recycle compressor.
The errant pitch decreased further, bringing him back to the present. He needed to fix that compressor, otherwise the entire plant might come down without that additional recycle stream.
He walked onward, wary now, looking back and forth, ahead and behind. He felt stupid, but something had sparked worry in him. It would not be the first time someone had snuck onto a plant site. It was pretty common for drug users to try and cut the thick, copper grounding cable away and sell it to scrap yards for extra cash. They tried to keep the plant site locked up to prevent this, but even so...
Derek turned the corner to the recycle compressor. It's discordant tone rang clearly; yes, this was the motor in question. There was no doubt in his mind. He went to move towards it when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw something.
No doubt in his mind this time, this was no shadow. He, or IT, stood about 200 feet away, on the walkway from where he had come. It slouched significantly, and in the shadows it was difficult to tell how big it might be. It stood there, unmoving, in the walkway.
Derek keyed his mic. "Control, this is Derek. Did Reggie come back, by any chance?"
He released the key, but the mic remained quiet. He tried again, "Control do you copy? This is Derek."
Again, no response. The obscure person remained standing where it was, unmoving. Derek, not taking his eyes off the figure, slowly unclipped the radio from his belt, and began to raise it to his eyes. He needed to confirm his suspicion. Finally when the radio was held right to the side of his head, he hazarded a quick glance at the initials engraved on it.
This was Greg's radio, the one that was 'on the fritz'.
'Damn,' thought Derek, his eyes flicking back to the shape or where it had been. Where he had once seen the figure, there was now nothing.
Panic started to mount in his stomach, but he forced it down. Having a dysfunctional radio, getting no response from Jeff meant nothing. Moreover, he would bet anything it was Reggie returning from whatever midnight munchie run he had gone on. Even if it wasn't, and it was a thief, it'd be in the thief's best interest to not be found, right? They could deal with whatever theft there was in the morning. Derek was many things, but he was no vigilante.
Still cautious, however, Derek walked slowly over to the compressor. He touched the HMI screen, bringing it to life.
The device was set in manual, at 10% of motor speed.
Now Derek was upset. This device was always to be run in AUTO, unless otherwise instructed. Running at this low of a speed inhibited the recycle and made everything run less efficiently. It even risked tripping the system due to low system input. His earlier trepidation dispelled by his indignation, he set the device to automatic operation, listening with satisfaction as the motor speed increased, joining into the harmonious hum of the plant. All was right, now.
Derek turned and strode away, heading back to the control room where he could vent his spleen upon the hapless, possibly intoxicated Jeff. How could they make such simple mistakes after so much work?! He'd have to amend the operating procedure to make sure no-one did this again.
Derek stopped in his tracks. Behind him, he had heard the motor ramp back down. He swiveled around quickly, out of sight of the compressor but still seeking an answer. There, cast against another tank, was a large shadow. It was being cast from where the compressor was. Someone had just turned it back down.
Stealing was ONE thing, but messing with the equipment was another entirely. Derek ran back, watching the shadow disappear as he rounded the corner to see no one there. He angrily returned to the device; it had been put in manual again. He turned it to automatic function, when he felt something odd. There was a deep groove cut into the screen glass.
Frantically he looked around the compressor. Above, to the left, to the right, and finally down into an oil patch that had been spilled from the compressor unit onto its concrete platform. Leaving the oil was a set of footprints, only three or four before the steps entered the gravel. These footprints had two toes, and the concrete was scored at the end, as if by something sharp.
Derek's stomach dropped. He had to leave. He knew it now, he had to run, and run fast. Terror bubbled under the surface, and he willed himself to run, but he couldn't. He knew his plant, and he knew that whoever, whatever this was could be hiding anywhere. He couldn't see it, that seemed clear; every time he tried, he saw only a shadow, an outline cast on equipment or the ground. It seemed to flit away as soon as he tried to look closely.
A thought came, unbidden: the crunching gravel. He had heard it. He needed to listen for it. Maybe if he heard it he'd know where it was and be safe; nothing could sneak around on loose gravel like theirs. He could work his way back to the control room, call the police, do something. But to get there, he'd have to stay alive. Somehow he knew now he was being watched. No, not watched, stalked. And stalking creatures typically have a very singular goal.
He briefly considered hitting the emergency stop for the plant. There were buttons littered through the plant for that. But what if he angered it? What if it knew what he was doing and outright killed him? At least now it seemed to be toying with him. Maybe he could use that?
Slowly, he began to move, trying his best to seem nonchalant. He began to feel like he was being watched again, his every move under scrutiny by hungry eyes. Beads of sweat, despite the late night chill, ran down his face now. It took everything he had to stop himself from running. 'You can't hear when you're running,' he reasoned, and some primal instinct told him that his ears were his greatest defense in this.
One step, then another. One yard at a time he was closing the distance. Every few steps he thought he could see it, a lumbering mass on a spindle-like set of legs. Every direct glance he shot after it, however, he saw nothing. The oppression build with every step, the gaze burning into his back. He was a mouse, being watched by a cat, being given so many steps before it pounced and took him.
Half-way to the building he stopped, dread crippling him almost completely. Thoughts raced in his head, thoughts he no longer was sure were his own. 'You can't hear!' they cried, 'You're going to be caught! You NEED to be able to HEAR! Quickly, take out your ear plugs!'
His mind rejected the notion; the decibel level was far too high here, amid all this equipment. Even without the plugs, there was no guarantee he could hear anything at all. The thoughts nagged at him, insisting, 'Take them out! You must or you will die! Take them out!"
Derek dropped to his knees, the noise around him suddenly seeming a racket, a screen hiding what he needed to hear. He needed to survive! He needed to live. Violently, as if by involuntary spasm, he jerked his ear plugs out.
The tumult around him assaulted his senses. The motors and pumps and vacuums and valves, all so loud that his ears instantly felt pain. But now he could hear! He strained, even against the pain, to hear evidence of the creature. He heard nothing but the sound of the plant.
He stumbled up from his knees, bracing himself against a nearby pipe support, struggling to rise. He took one step, then listened. Then another, and listened again. As he moved the noise around him grew more and more harsh. A ringing accompanied the sound now, and he knew it was his ear cells dying. He didn't care, what were a few cells compared to his life?
A few more steps, and still no sounds. The building was just ahead now. He was going to make it...
The sound came from behind Derek, and before he could turn, he felt his shoulders seized by impossibly thin, impossibly cold appendages. A shadow fell over him. He couldn't move. Something leaned close to his ear, expelling a sibilant hiss that he could barely make out before the ringing and darkness consumed everything.
"Thanks for listening..."