It is 6:56am PST, and I watch a car drive across a bridge. The passenger, who for this record I will call Child, presses her face against the window. The driver, who for this record I will call Caretaker, waves her hand in the back seat to have Child sit still. It is a long drive to school, and Caretaker has to bring Child early so she can get to work on time. The clock ticks to 6:57, and I rest my hand on the seismic lever, pushing it up three notches and entering the coordinates for San Diego.
The messages receive are on plastic laminate, this one listing the location of an earthquake. I already had set tornadoes, fires, a storm in Sri Lanka, but this directive is different, like a test. I still do my duty. I consented after all; it is my turn in the center of the earth, my twenty-four hours where I have to make all the bad things happen. It isn’t common knowledge that people get selected for this, but that’s okay. It has to be done, says the manual.
The manual is enormous; I use it as a second chair on the other side of the control room. The cheat-sheet on top gives the basics: Follow the directives. Double-check the times. Anonymize targets. The earthquake reaches the car and it stops. Child huddles around a backpack as Caretaker crawls into the backseat to comfort her. A potted plant falls from a windowsill and shatters on the sidewalk, and I can see Child’s mouth trembling. The cheat-sheet informs me to use the monitors to confirm all directives are carried out. It prohibits using the system to watch people, to watch them closely.
It is 6:59am PST, and I reset the seismic lever and turn off the aftershocks. Caretaker steps out of the car and brings out Child and they stand there, looking at the sky. I wonder what Caretaker is thinking, at least it wasn’t today, at least it wasn’t too bad. I wonder what Child is fearing, will it come back, why is this happening to me. I touch the screen with my finger.
It is still half an hour before I turn off the sandstorms in the Sahara, or another three before snows thin in British Columbia. I stand and walk the room, but keep the monitor on, on and following the car. Caretaker drives slower and the roads crowd with morning traffic. Child stares at the headrest in front of her, staying still. Her mouth is moving just a little, like she is saying spells or promises the way children do.
I lean against an empty panel and drink my coffee. I am not allowed to sleep for my shift, I wouldn’t want to miss it. I only get one, if any, in my whole life. By being far enough away, the monitor is blurred, and I can’t recognize Child, Caretaker, or even the car, or the road. I stop drinking the coffee when I can take no more; it tastes awful, as if they couldn’t at least get decent stuff for this place.
A whoosh comes and the Aerotube gives a metallic ring. I slide it open and remove the tube. It is like the last directive, with the coordinates for San Diego. The levels are much higher and I stop breathing. I look at the monitor, with the bumper-to-bumper traffic in a narrow street.
It is 7:05am PST, and I set the coordinates and lay my palm against the seismic lever. Caretaker is on the phone, explaining the traffic. Her new boss isn’t forgiving. Child looks playful again, but is being too loud. Caretaker presses the phone against her chest and tells Child to settle down, then honks loudly. I know she hopes her boss hears it and understands. Caretaker is funny like that, always thinking.
It is 7:06am PST and I don’t move the lever. The Aerotube rings again and I retrieve the directive. It reminds me of Global Operations Manual Chapter 342 Part 6B Paragraph C: You know nobody. I remind myself I don’t recognize them.
It is 7:07am PST and I begin to push the seismic lever. I push it up two notches and hold for thirty seconds. The cars all brake. I feel my face grow hot as I add another two notches, and hold again. Child is crying, and Caretaker is frozen in place, whispering, I hope, something comforting. It’s okay, I want to tell them, it’s me, it’s my turn today. I’ll make sure it isn’t too bad.
It is 7:08am PST and I turn it up two more notches. The cars jostle and push, and the asphalt cracks. Cars push around, and glass begins to fall from windows. The buildings shake bricks loose like drops of water. The driving car keeps pushing forward, turning to the side, the driver pointing at the building. He thinks its going to fall. Others hear and all start driving or running off. Caretaker stays calm, but her car is shoved, compressed. The door by Child is bent inward. Child watches, drained. I am not allowed to watch, I know, because I shouldn’t see what happens. The center of the earth should be far enough away, but Caretaker is crying and I feel it, I feel the earthquake in my stomach, in my spine, I feel like I, too, might die.
I can take no more, and drop the seismic lever. The building doesn’t fall, the cars stop driving. People begin to come out. Caretaker takes Child by the hand and starts walking. I am crying, and I cannot stop as I go about and turn it all off, every disaster, every catastrophe.
It is 7:09am PST and a directive comes in. I will face punishment. I accept this; I consented, after all. The rusted metal door screams open, and the next operator comes in, bewildered yet serious; I can see it in his eyes. I wonder where he is from, if he knows anyone in Sri Lanka, or the Sahara, or British Columbia. I hope I didn’t hurt anyone he knows, but I probably did. He and I and everyone before, we do this to ourselves. And, soon enough, it will be someone else’s turn.
Two security guards arrive to escort me. A maintenance worker wheels in a different manual; the cover is in writing I don’t recognize. The manual prohibits conversations with other operators, warnings, and to be sure of this the next operator will always speak different languages. Just so I can’t tell them to refuse.
Jono Naito is currently pursuing a MFA at Syracuse University, and has work in or forthcoming from StoryQuarterly, Waxwing, and Maudlin House. Learn more at jononaito.com