The Engineer sat quietly in his chair, hands folded in his lap, staring at the blank walls of his office. It was almost time to press the button. That was his job. Every hour on the hour from nine to five he would press the button. He didn’t even know what it did.
Four years of college and another two years to get his master’s degree, and all he did for a living was press a button. He didn’t complain about the money, though. He made ten times what an average mechanical engineer made. All he had to do was press the button. It wasn’t as easy as one would think, though. He could never be late. Never call in sick. Never nod off, even though there was nothing else to do except wait for the hour to come. Books, as anything else that might distract him from his task, were forbidden in his office.
Every day, coming and going, The Engineer had to force his way through a crowd of protesters shouting things like “Give us back our babies!” He had no idea what that meant and had no desire to find out. He came to work to do his job. Press the button eight times, collect his paycheck, and go back home to his family.
His family. The Engineer had a nine-month old son, and sensed the unease that the demonstrators outside his office felt. He had trouble pushing the thoughts from his mind. What had happened to their babies? Why did they think that his company was responsible? He had never seen any babies, pregnant mothers, or – for that matter – anyone who did not work there enter or leave the building.
Granted, his office was but a small part of a large campus. Sitting out there in Whitehall, near the airport, was perhaps the largest military logistics campus that existed in the United States. Logistics – particularly “combat logistics” – generally meant finding a way to get things that kill people delivered to other people who use those things to kill the aforementioned people. He saw no ties to babies in that equation. As far as he knew, the campus consisted of five large office buildings (much larger than his), a national guard barracks, five humongous hangars where they kept God-knows-what, a rail yard, and enough stores and entertainment facilities to accommodate the 5,000 people who lived on the campus. The campus was surrounded by a double set of eighteen-foot-high chain link fences topped with razor wire. The Engineer’s office sat just outside of one of the sally ports entering into the campus proper. He had never, ever been inside the fences in the ten years that he had worked there.
Worked where? Come to think of it, he did not really know. He assumed that it was connected to the logistics campus because of the proximity, but there were no actual identifying marks on the building itself – just an address painted in foot high black numerals on the white stone facing of the structure. He didn’t pay much attention to the place, really. He remembered that ten years ago, when he first interviewed for the job, he arrived at the place thinking that it looks as if it were built in the 1950s. He had just recently moved to the area, so as far as he knew, it had been there that long.
He had been instructed to dress professionally every day, indicating a button down shirt and tie, but not necessarily a sport coat or jacket. He had a badge to permit him entry, but it had no text on it. It was simply a white plastic rectangle with a blue square in the middle of it. He assumed that there was some sort of RFID chip inside. Even his salary gave no indication of whom his employer was. His pay was directly deposited into his bank account under the innocuous name of “Employer C.” He received no pay stubs, of course. The benefits were great but even then, his insurance cards listed his employer as “Employer C” with a group number of 00000.
The platitude “Theirs is not to question why. Theirs is but to do and die,” crossed his mind often. Daily, in fact. Perhaps because it was painted on the wall in his office lobby.
Oops. 10:54am. Time to concentrate. At five minutes to the hour, he would begin focusing his attention on the button and the clock. He prided himself on his ability to always press the button exactly on time. Never a second too early or too late, as measured by the big hand on the analog clock hanging on his office wall. He was allowed a certain measure of leeway, but once he had pressed the button a full five seconds early, and was called to the carpet over it by his supervisor. Another slip-up like that would affect his performance review. A few more would jeopardize his job; and though no one had ever expressed it in words, he had the idea that his was not a job that you could simply get fired or resign from.
There was Harold, for instance. When he retired, they had a party. Well, not a party, really, but Harold, he, and some other employees gathered in the lobby for cake. They were each allowed to take a piece back to their offices. He told Harold to keep in touch, but Harold just blew him off with a tear in his eye. The Engineer guessed that Harold was sad to go and would really miss his job. He must have been right, because Harold turned up dead a day later. Hung himself from a clothes rod in his closet with a belt. Apparently.
The Engineer had allowed his thoughts to wander. 10:59am, and the big hand was on the nine. There was the countdown and… press the button. Oh, God! That was too close. His heart was pounding. He held out his right hand, fingers spread, and looked at it. He was trembling uncontrollably. “Told you that it was a stressful job,” he thought aloud, thinking of his wife.
Three o’clock had finally rolled around. The day was dragging on, as usual. The Engineer was in a rut. That happened sometimes. He had just pressed the button when he heard a commotion in the hall. He stood and was about to head for the door when Justine opened it and pushed her way through, slamming it behind her.
“We have to leave!” she shouted at the Engineer.
“Leave? But, we can’t. It’s not five yet. I need to press my button one more time before the end of the day.”
“Forget the button. We need to go now, while we still can.”
“No. Absolutely not. I can’t…” The Engineer was cut off as Justine grabbed his right wrist and dragged him back through the doorway. People were running up and down the hall, some carrying sheaves of paper, others carrying trash cans or boxes bursting with journals and log books, all making their way to the incinerator room. He had noticed it before, but never been there. He thought that trash incinerators went out in the ‘60s – probably outlawed – and it was a leftover from the days when the building had been first put in use. Jimmy pushed his loaded mail cart down the hall, nearly toppling it as he made a quick turn into the incinerator room. As the young clerk opened the door, The Engineer choked on the smell of singed paper and ash.
“What’s going on?”
Justine stopped and turned back briefly. “I told you,” she growled, “we have to leave now.”
The Engineer just gawped at her. He would obviously not be getting an answer any time soon. He figured that he had better just keep quiet and follow instructions. Whatever was going on, it seemed serious. Justine kept pulling and led him toward a rear fire exit. The door had been labeled “FIRE EXIT,” anyway, and “OPEN ONLY IN CASE OF FIRE.” The Engineer always followed the rules, so of course he never opened it. He had wondered about it, though, because from the outside of the office building, he deduced that it would open inside the campus fence. Now he was being hauled through it.
He was correct. As they emerged through the doorway, he saw that they were inside the inner campus fence. There were people – civilian people – thronged outside the outer fence. Their fingers were laced through the fence and they were shaking it. Trying to push their way through. They were shouting again.
“Give us back our babies!” “You are thieves!” “You stole them!” “We want our children!”
The Engineer squinted and pinched his mouth. “What are they talking about?”
“Just keep moving,” Justine answered as she pulled him back away from the fences.
The outer fence had just collapsed under the weight and force of the crowd of people, and now they were at the inner fence, still screaming their protests.
“Where are we going?”
This time, Justine gave him an answer. “To the rail yard. I think we can get out on one of the trains. They can’t stop it. The box cars are the safest place to be right now, anyway. They’re armored.”
“Why..?” The Engineer gave up trying to get answers. He broke from Justine’s grip and began running toward the rail yard on his own. The horde had now broken through the inner fence and were running after them, as well as the rest who were fortunate enough to escape The Engineer’s office. Glancing back to look at the crowd, he now noticed that the office was on fire. The people were growing frantic and began throwing anything they could find: rocks, bricks, tools from steel chests in the work yard.
They reached the rail yard, and one of the box cars, when a crescent wrench hit Justine in the head. Blood gushed from the wound, but scalp injuries usually looked worse than they were. Usually. Justine went down like a rock. The Engineer considered stopping to help, but his fear outweighed his compassion. He jumped into a rail car just as another coworker was closing the sliding door. It plunged them into darkness. After a bit, The Engineer’s eyes adjusted to the low light filtering in through translucent plastic sheets set into the ceiling of the car. He was in the company of four other coworkers and they were surrounded by hundreds of what appeared to be orange, five gallon buckets with white lids – the kind that they sell at Home Depot, he thought – only with cryptic markings in place of the easily recognizable square label with stenciled words.
The car began to sway as the people outside were pushing against it. “What do they want from us?” cried The Engineer over the din from outside.
One of his coworkers – one that he somewhat recognized, Jeff, he thought – began talking as if The Engineer already knew part of the story. “They’re not babies. Not even fetuses, for God’s sake.”
“What? What are you talking about?”
It dawned on Jeff that The Engineer really had no clue as to what was going on. “The buttons, man. The buttons. Each person had one task. Each button performed one phase of the operation. Preparation, extraction, fertilization, and so on. That way no one person was responsible, either morally or legally.
“Wha..? What did my button do?”
“Yours filled the buckets.”
The Engineer looked around him. The buckets surrounded him. He made his way over and pulled one off a pile, setting it on the floor in front of him. He reached down and pulled off the tab which sealed the lid. Not wanting to draw out the suspense, he tore off the top and looked inside.
“Oh,” whispered The Engineer. “God forgive us.”
This story previously appeared in the anthology Words Can Never Hurt Me, 2018.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Kenneth Kohl has published several short stories and articles for literary magazines, e-zines, and podcasts as well as two full-length novels. Kenneth lives in Columbus, Ohio with his beautiful wife, two sons, and an energetic shepherd dog named Daisy. When he is not at his computer working on his next novel, he is probably hiking, biking, or traveling the world. Kenneth's anthologies and novels may be found on Amazon or most local bookstores.