John A. Frochio
This story received an “Honorable Mention from the Writers of the Future Contest 2015.”
Shesh realized he spoke out loud when, from the car seat in the back, his three-year old daughter Anushka clapped her hands and squealed, “Lights, lights, pretty lights.” He was driving past the site of the old steel mill when he saw the lights. He deftly negotiated his black Hyundai onto the berm.
Anushka enjoyed the twinkling light displays at Christmastime. Though they formally observed the Hindu Winter Solstice festival Pancha Ganapati, they still appreciated the sights, sounds and smells of the Christmas traditions. He turned and watched her giggle as she flipped her black ponytail back and forth. Her face, like his, was long and angular, and her broad smile mimicked his. His dark hair was cut short and his weak attempt at a mustache and goatee made him look his age, which was breathing down the neck of forty.
“Do you want to look at the lights, Anushka?”
“Yes, yes, daddy.”
He unbuckled Anushka and lifted her out of her car seat. Her bright orange and yellow flowered dress with sparkle trim reflected her fascination with lights and colors. He held her hand tightly as they walked along the high fence that enclosed the facility. Two lanes of high speed traffic continually rushed past them, buffeting them with chill breezes.
Finding an opening between the broken slats of the wooden fence, he lifted Anushka and carefully stepped through. He stopped and looked over the wide expanse of the old steelmaking facility. It was a dinosaur from the earlier days of city-sized plants, when the steelmaking process required a series of standalone processing stations: smelting, melting, refining, degassing, casting, forging and shaping, among others. It was impressive in its day, a steel wonderland, but had long ago fallen into disrepair. It was more rust than steel now.
His Father’s company was in the process of buying this plant and all its property. He was planning to start up part of the plant and produce local steel once again, using more efficient modern technology of course. Some called the new steel plants nanomills, but that wasn’t entirely accurate. New and more efficient processes were developed using nanotechnology, but the fundamentals of steelmaking remained the same. Even with modern advances, some basic tried and true concepts never change.
He, Sheshkumar Subramaniam—a chemical engineer by training—would be its first Chief Operating Officer. He’d lived in Pittsburgh for many years now and felt proud to be on the ground floor of restoring it a Steel City once again.
Anushka pointed and jumped up and down excitedly. “Pretty lights, pretty lights!”
He saw them too. A cluster of flickering lights at the far end of the facility, around the scrapyard and scrap processing building near the river. They twinkled like stars yet appeared to move.
Vagabonds? He wondered. Or maybe gypsies dancing around campfires. The homeless? Sadly, there were plenty of homeless around these days.
Tomorrow he would attempt to expedite a tour of the facility to see what was going on down there.
As they walked back to the car, Shesh said, “That’s your future, Anushka. That’s where we’re going to make new steel.”
Anushka said, “Pretty steel?”
He chuckled. “Yes, Anushka, pretty steel.”
As he expected, his Father was furious. He threw up his hands and jumped up from his comfortable padded chair. His father was tall with gray curls and a mass of wrinkles. Despite a noticeable limp, he exhibited a domineering presence.
“Are you saying there are squatters on the plant site?”
“I don’t know for sure, Father. I only saw lights. There was activity because the lights were moving around. It might have been just some kids.”
“I’ll contact the owners. They’ve been putting off a facility tour long enough.”
His Father began pacing back and forth across his office.
“I’m sure it’s nothing.”
“They will learn that we won’t put up with any hanky panky. Thank you, my son, for bringing this to my attention. You may go now. I will let you know when a tour has been scheduled.”
The door closed behind him. Shesh went over to his Father’s secretary, the young blonde Allison.
“Watch out, Allison,” he said. “I just put him in a bad mood.”
“Thanks a lot, Shesh. There goes the rest of my day.”
He left smiling, not quite certain whether she was kidding or not. He liked to tease the American women, but he was never sure if they appreciated his humor. He could never do that with Indian women.
That evening, with the burden of his discovery weighing heavily on his mind, Shesh decided to investigate the mysterious lights on his own. So as not to needlessly upset his wife, he told her he was going out to buy hardware. He did have a long list of projects around their home that needed his attention soon. She was pleased that he was finally going to do something from his list.
The sun was beginning to set. He parked his car close to the hole he found in the fence. This time he was better prepared. He had a fully charged camera cell phone, a new flashlight with batteries installed, a pair of binoculars, steel-toed shoes, hardhat and a bag of roasted almonds. He felt he was prepared for anything.
He estimated there was about 500 to 600 feet of rugged, weed-infested terrain between him and his destination. He began his trek slowly and carefully. The setting sun cast long shadows and he was not familiar with the terrain. He kept watch for potentially dangerous objects hidden among the tall grasses. At the same time, he kept a lookout for the mysterious lights.
After he had covered over half the distance, the sun sunk into the horizon. Sprays of red, pink and purple painted the sky with vibrant strokes. He stopped to enjoy the beauty of the sunset. When his eyes drifted away from the spectacle, he saw the flickering lights. He studied them for a moment, curious at the way they darted about like fireflies in a mad frenzy.
He moved toward the lights, carefully watching his steps. They were primarily localized around the scrap processing building, some clustered among the various piles of scrap in the scrapyard.
He grew more nervous as he drew closer to the lights. He wondered why he decided to come here. Did he feel some kind of unexplained compassion for those who were here? Or did he simply want to validate what he was really seeing?
What if they were unruly scoundrels without a moral bone in their bodies? What would he do if they confronted him? He had no weapon. (He wasn’t as prepared as he initially thought.) His heart began to race when he realized that his life might be in peril.
He needed the flashlight by the time he was a dozen yards from the building, standing among jagged shrubbery. But he left it off in fear of getting spotted. The half moon gave him just enough light for him to see what he was doing.
He lifted his binoculars and scanned the side of the building, the wide opened doorway that allowed railcars to pass through, and the dirty windows. He focused on one of the lights that stopped moving.
He was amazed to discover that the light was a creature of some sort, a bioluminescent creature with wings. He couldn’t tell whether it was a large insect or some other higher order species.
He let the binoculars drop and lifted his camera phone. He focused on the creature and snapped a picture. At that moment, the creature darted into the air, hesitated a second, then instantly disappeared into the building, followed close behind by a small horde of other lights. Moments later, none could be seen in and around the building.
Well, he thought, at least there were no squatters, gypsies, or vicious thugs. But there was something else. An infestation of some new kind of creature. Something larger than a firefly. Nothing he’d ever seen before. They had chosen a home in a place destined to become the center of a new world steel, from which would come new steel cities and weapons of war.
How were these trespassers going to react to their future eviction? More importantly, what was he going to tell his Father?
He turned his flashlight on and headed back to his car, munching on almonds as he reflected on their predicament.
Later that evening, as he was getting ready for bed, he remembered the picture he had taken with his camera phone. He picked up his phone and brought up the picture. The image wasn’t clear, a shadow in a bright light. He zoomed in. The outline of the image appeared to be almost human: two legs, two arms, a torso and head. And behind the humanlike figure, a large spread of glittering wings, full of bright and iridescent colors.
“My God,” he breathed, “it’s a fairy!”
“What did you say?” called his wife from the bedroom.
“Nothing. I’m on my way.”
He turned the camera off.
What was he going to do? There was an infestation of fairies at the steel mill. Or some kind of fairylike creature. It didn’t matter which. This could stop his Father’s plans dead in the water. The government would declare them endangered species and their home would become protected. Scientists and tourists would overrun the place.
He had to say something.
He could imagine the look in his Father’s eyes when he told him. This was not going to be easy. It may not end well at all.
He went to kiss Anushka good night. She looked up, rubbed her eyes and said, “Pretty steel, poppa. Pretty steel.”
“Yes, I know. Good night, little Anushka.”
He did not sleep well that night.
The next day, Shesh scheduled a meeting with his Father. His Father gave him fifteen minutes at the end of the day. He walked in two minutes late.
“You’re late, Son. What is this about?”
“This.” He plugged his camera into a portable projector and projected an image onto the opposite wall.
“What the hell . . .”
“It’s a fairy.”
“And what does that mean to me?”
“The lights I saw. We have a fairy infestation at the steel mill.”
“Damn! What kind of drugs are you on, Son? Okay, assuming you’re not drug-addled, how do we exterminate them?”
“I’m not sure we can. We don’t want the environmentalists after us. Probably on some government endangered species list. We have to find a way to get them to leave peaceably.”
His Father was out of his chair pacing again. He stopped. “Son, I’m giving you this assignment. You know how crucial this is to our entire operation. You must find a way to get rid of these trespassers.”
The next day, Shesh met with a specialist on fairy lore at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Despite his pure white head of hair, full beard, wire-rimmed glasses and unkempt casual clothing, Professor Anson Finneran had a youthful look about him. On first encounter, Shesh guessed he was in his sixties, but he soon reduced that estimate by twenty years.
“This is amazing, truly amazing,” said Professor Finneran. “However, these cannot be true fairies as is known from the legends that have been handed down. For one thing, a true fairy would be found nowhere near steel buildings or scrap iron. For legend tells us that fairies abhor cold iron.”
“So you’re saying I cannot reliably use any of the trappings from fairy lore to chase them away. Like horseshoes?”
“There is nothing I can recommend.”
Shesh’s face lit up. His mouth formed a sly smile.
“Professor, how would you like to go on a field trip? All expenses will be paid in addition to whatever fee you charge for your time. Under the table, of course.”
“Fairy lore and legends are my specialty. I can’t help you with otherworldly creatures who just happen to look like fairies.”
“What if these alien creatures are the descendents of aliens who were the inspiration of those early legends. Even if their ancestors were not true fairies, perhaps they were observed by people who passed on the legends that were shaped and twisted from their true nature and activities.”
“I see what you’re saying.” The professor was getting excited now, as evidenced by his exaggerated movements. “We could find a way to do something about them based on the legends of their ancestors.”
“It’s worth a shot, professor. I’m arranging a tour of the facility. Let me know when you’re available.”
Three days later, Shesh and Professor Finneran met with a representative of the current owners at the rear plant entrance, near the scrapyard. Jackie Bellian was an attractive middle-aged woman with short brown hair, dark gray blouse, bluejeans and a pleasant smile. Despite her cordial demeanor, she was all business and rigid formality. As required by law, everyone wore hardhats and steel-toed shoes.
She said, “Mr. Sheshkumar Subramaniam?”
“Call me Shesh.”
They shook hands.
“This is my associate, metallurgist Anson Finneran.”
The professor bowed. “Pleased to meet you.”
She smiled and shook his hand.
She said, “I’ll drive. If you don’t mind, I was planning on going in reverse of normal processing, starting at Finishing at the North End and working our way back to Raw Material Processing at this end.”
“You’re in charge.”
They got into her current model BMW, Shesh in the passenger seat, the professor in the back. Shesh noticed the car was showroom clean and had a temporary plate.
Their tour began with the hot and cold finishing lines, then moved to the rolling mill, plate mill, electro-galvanizing line, and forging. Next they visited teeming, degassing, ladle refining and the basic oxygen furnace. Finally they toured the blast furnace and coke ovens before returning to the scrap processing area. Shesh asked Jackie if she would mind driving around the scrapyard.
She hesitated, then said, “No problem.”
Shesh was familiar with many different types of scrap, so he readily recognized the different piles. Then he noticed one large pile of scrap at the far end that didn’t quite fit into any category he knew. When they passed near it, he asked her to stop so that they could take a closer look.
They got out of her car and walked closer.
She said, “It looks like parts of machinery and wiring and other junk.”
Shesh said, “Scrap suppliers will sometimes bring you anything, whether you can use it or not, just to get rid of it. It’s worthless junk with no reasonably known chemical composition. I can see why it was dumped away from the rest of the raw materials.”
The professor approached the offensive scrap pile and circled it. He stooped down and leaned in closer. He put on heavy gloves and examined some of the pieces of scrap.
Shesh noticed that Jackie was frowning, undoubtedly suspicious about Professor’s Finneran’s excessive curiosity.
“Ah, metallurgists are an odd lot, aren’t they? All that math and chemical equations bouncing around in their heads, I guess.”
The professor said “ouch” and shook his hand.
“Anson, are you finished yet?”
“Yes. We can go now.”
“OK,” he said. “We’re ready to tour the scrap processing building now.”
“Certainly, but not much to see there.”
Jackie parked in front of the South Bay Entrance. Shesh and the professor followed Jackie through the opened doors. Inside was dimly lit and dirty, the cement floor cracked and cluttered with stones and scrap pieces. The smell of soot and old grease burned their nostrils.
They walked down a narrow walkway between the south wall and the rail car tracks.
Jackie explained how the scrap was brought in from the yard by trucks though this entrance. The overhead crane moved the scrap from the truck to its appropriate bin. You can see that a grid of scrap bins takes up most of the space inside. Each bin holds a different type of scrap.
When steelmaking was in operation, the North Bay overhead crane would load rail cars based on a specified order of scrap types as required by the meltshop for the current schedule of customer orders. The rail cars would then move down the tracks toward the steelmaking building.
Shesh was struck by something strange as he surveyed the scrap bins. The scrap sticking up out of the tops of some of the bins appeared to be too neatly arranged to have been dropped by the crane magnet. The bins were too high to see what was inside them. He needed to look into them from a higher location.
“Can we go up the stairway to the crane platform to get an overview of the layout?”
She hesitated, then slowly smiled. “Sure, if you really want to. Follow me. Be very careful and watch your step.”
Jackie led them up a stairway. Their view was blocked most of the way by a wide column. When they reached the crane platform, the full view of the floor opened before them.
Before their unbelieving eyes appeared a bright and shiny city built of scrap steel. Its buildings jutted out of the tall rectangular scrap boxes like city blocks. It was a complete miniature city of steel, sparkling like a child’s extraordinary new toy, like something magical, like something sprinkled with fairy dust. The whole scene was so astonishing and unexpected that no one said a word for several minutes.
Finally Jackie turned to Shesh and said, “Do you know what this is all about?”
Shesh sighed. Time to confess. He showed her the picture of the fairy creature.
“I photographed this from a distance. It appears your facility has acquired an infestation of fairies. Or, more precisely, some kind of fairy like creature. Possibly aliens.”
She stared at the picture for a long while. Lines of worry creased her face. Finally she said, “So where do we go from here? We don’t need to get the government involved, do we? And does this mean the sale is off?”
“Not necessarily. We just need to find a way to get rid of them. Some kind of alien relocation program. And that depends on whether we can even communicate with them.”
The professor added, “Or we can learn to co-exist with them.”
Shesh laughed. “Not likely.”
“There may be a way. I believe that strange pile of scrap I examined earlier may be what’s left of their former spaceship. Look what I found.”
He held up a small, narrow rod with various hooks and notches distributed along its length and an opening at one end. It glistened yellow in the dim light. It appeared to be some kind of tool or instrument. For very small hands.
“I’m no expert, but I believe this is gold. Real gold. In many forms it was scattered throughout the scrap pile, and I think it’s even used in their fairy city. Notice how the buildings seem to shine.
“Celtic folklore tells of an immortal race of fairylike beings called the Tuatha de Danann. They were believed to have come from the islands of the north or from the sky. They lived in the sidhe, which were fairy mounds, or in ancient barrows and cairns. I think we have discovered a modern version of the Tuatha de Danann. Or the original race itself, come down from the sky.”
Shesh said, “Were they good people or bad people?”
“Good people mostly. Or so legend tells us.”
Jackie said, “You certainly know a lot about fairies for a metallurgist.”
He smiled. “A hobby. Stress relief.”
Shesh said, “I don’t know how this could work for us, but it bears some investigating. Can we communicate with them? Can we work out a deal with them? We make steel, they give us gold. They stay out of our way and we leave them alone. I don’t know. But certainly an amiable solution is better than any kind of confrontation with a being sophisticated enough to construct something like this.”
Jackie said, “I’m glad you said that.”
Her body blurred and began to vibrate. The air around her grew heavy. A second later she burst into a cloud of fairies flying off in all directions, disappearing into the cracks and crevasses of the building and into the steel city below.
Shesh’s jaw dropped.
“Amazing!” said the professor, fidgeting excitedly. “The Tuatha de Danann were known for their power, beauty, intellect and grace. They were renowned craftsmen and had great magic. Many could shapeshift. I can’t believe I’m witnessing the manifestation of this race in all its glory!”
One small fairy creature remained, standing boldly on the staircase railing. A wee voice said, “Do we have a deal? Steel for gold?”
Shesh said slowly, “This is going to be very interesting. We’ll have to iron out the details—no pun intended—but I think I can safely say we have a deal. My Father will have to trust me on this decision.”
“Excellent. We need steel for our homes and our ships. We have limited use for gold. We have great plans for the future. It will be good for us to work together.”
“You wouldn’t happen to know anything about leprechauns, would you? A pot of gold at the rainbow’s end?”
It laughed. A wee laugh. In the next instant it was gone, absorbed into the steel that surrounded them as if it had always been a part of it.
John Frochio grew up and still lives among the rolling hills of Western Pennsylvania. For a living, he develops and installs computer automation systems for steel mills. He has had stories published in Triangulation 2003 & Triangulation: Parch (2014), Interstellar Fiction, Beyond Science Fiction, Twilight Times, Aurora Wolf and Kraxon Magazine, as well as general fiction novel Roots of a Priest (with Ken Bowers, 2007, Booklocker) and sf&f collection Large and Small Wonders, (2012, Byrne Publishing). His wife Connie, a retired nurse, and his daughter Toni, a flight attendant, have bravely put up with his strange ways for many years.