This is one of a collection of stories that are like “Final Destination” meets “The Monkey’s Paw” (W. W. Jacobs, 1902). As such, they are tragedies more than either mysteries or horror, and would appeal most to readers who enjoy the inexorable pull of a story arc that leads to doom. In each story, a protagonist makes a wish that comes true with fatal results for someone, often the person making the wish. Nothing supernatural, but just how things work out. (Or is it?) The technical details surrounding the fatal (or near-fatal) event are drawn from real cases in the US OSHA incident report database or similar sources and are therefore entirely realistic, even if seemingly outlandish. The plots draw lightly from cultural beliefs around actions such as pointing at someone with a stick or knife, wishing in front of a mirror, or stepping on a crack.
Daryll had been a senior facility maintenance technician at the regional hospital for 12 years, and she was feeling somber as she packed her personal belongings in a pair of cardboard boxes. With a sense of loss, she left her desk for the last time.
She had suspected that layoffs were coming as soon as it had been announced that a new management team was taking over, but it was still a shock when it came. She couldn’t remember much of anything the HR drone had said beyond the cynical phrase “letting you go.” Like they were doing her some huge favor, rather than essentially seeing her as a disposable commodity, and treating her like an excess piece of linoleum. The bottom line was, well, the bottom line, and the new management team was focused entirely on financial performance indicators, such as earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation, and amortization (EBITDA). Head count was something they saw as a number to reduce, and in-house maintenance something ripe for outsourcing. The facility maintenance team was to be cut from 15 people and a manager to just one person who would mainly be the contact with the outsourcing firm, plus do some basic troubleshooting and reporting.
As a highly conscientious person, she had written copious notes detailing all the things that needed special attention, or where temporary workarounds were needed to be resolved when backorder parts arrived or budget was made available. She wrote notes on the compressor that was waiting for a motor, the fire hydrant at five-north that was leaking, a ton of spare parts that needed to be matched to work orders, and an urgent software update that needed to be downloaded and installed on the control room supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) computer system. The SCADA system controlled everything from the steam plant to the water sterilization system, and the update addressed several bugs and added extra protection against intrusion and hacking.
Daryll also wrote copious notes concerning the ultraviolet water treatment unit, which was way over its time for retirement. They had been coaxing “just 1 more year” out of the unit for 3 consecutive years already, and there were many things that needed close monitoring or regular tweaking. The pressure gauges were intermittently sticking, all three of the UV lamp sleeves were sweating, and the feet bolted to the concrete floor mounts had badly rusted and threatened to tear loose. Her biggest worry, though, was the steam plant.
There was corrosion everywhere in the steam plant. An overhaul had been requested in the budget cycle every year, but every year it had been deemed lower priority than something else and was repeatedly deferred. Fearing that the new management would not understand the significance and the risks, Daryll wrote a detailed and fully referenced motivation, explaining the risks of a catastrophic failure as well as the potential issues related to any loss of on-site sterilization capacity.
Chip felt grateful but more than slightly triumphant that he was selected to be re-employed. When they announced that one person would be rehired to be the maintenance liaison with the outsourcing firm, Chip had jumped at the chance. “I would give my eye teeth to have that job!” he had remarked over a beer with his bowling team friends. “More like your balls,” Gus had jokingly retorted, to roars of laughter from the rest of the team. Chip had a plan, though, and was confident that it was going to work out. It would be roses, sunshine, and rainbows for him, he had thought to himself. He had not even been a team lead in the maintenance department, and had not yet completed his training, but based on his confidence, low salary, and some adept recycling of documentation written by Daryll, the new management had tapped him to be the maintenance liaison manager. He would be the interface with the outsourcing firm that would be doing most of the work going forward. The new job was definitely a step up for Chip; it meant more money and he got to call himself a manager. Although he was vaguely aware that he was under-qualified for the role, he was confident that by using notes left by Darryl and others, he could wing it.
The new management wasn’t totally blind to the facts, and suspected some plagiarism in Chip’s report, but they were confident that the previous team had done a reasonably decent job, and that there was little risk in the transition period until the outsource team took over. They had approved the low-cost, high-value items on Chip’s list, but deferred high-cost items like refurbishment of the steam plant and replacement of major components in the water sterilization system.
Chip accepted the work order to install a SCADA update that had been issued by the maintenance outsource firm. He worked through the list of prerequisites and was conducting a visual inspection of the equipment in the utilities plant to verify all the equipment was working properly prior to the software installation. He checked the operating pressure in the UV water treatment on the gauge attached to the unit and noted that it was below the nominal 100 psi. Chip walked to the control room, and after checking the manual to find the instructions for adjusting pressure, he entered the percentage change in the SCADA system to increase pressure, and walked back to the utilities room to continue the checklist.
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Puzzled that the pressure had not changed according to the gauge on the UV unit, Chip jogged back to the control room, thinking that maybe he had not added enough percentage or had not hit the enter key or something. He entered the percentage increase again and made sure he clicked on the commit button. Feeling a little flustered and out of breath, Chip jogged back to the utilities room. Exasperated that the pressure had still not changed, Chip tapped on the gauge. The tapping unstuck the needle, which moved to register the baseline of 100 psi that the system had already been at, plus the 30% increase he had initially instructed. As Chip stared at the needle that was now on the edge of the safety limit, his second increment of another 30% took effect, and the needle jumped well above the safety line. With a loud bang the compression nut on unit 1 that held a quartz sleeve and UV lamp in place failed due to the increased pressure. The sleeve was ejected at speed. It passed through his left testicle and embedded itself in his groin, cutting a section from his left femoral artery. With water jetting from the UV unit above him, Chip collapsed on the concrete floor, dazed and bleeding profusely from his groin.
Previously, the job would have been conducted by two people. The SCADA system would have been controlled by someone like Daryll who understood that some instructions take a while to have an effect, and that unexpected readings needed to be verified before making changes. Previously, there would have been other people who would have heard the loud bang, and it would have investigated. But this was the new reality in which only Chip was there, and there was nobody to operate the SCADA system, know that the gauge was sometimes sticky, or hear the bang. Previously, someone would have fetched the trauma kit, and someone would have staunched the bleeding, and someone would have called emergency services. In this new outsourced reality, there was nobody else, and Chip simply bled out quietly, the bright light forming a rainbow above his head in the spray.