Eddie resisted the temptation to tell Jen he had a bad feeling. She would ask "why" and he didn't have an answer. His sixth sense had picked up something, but when he tried to figure it out the thought darted away from him. "Long line," he observed instead. He wasn't good at making conversation and this was all he could think to say. Jen gave him a look. "How long have you been working here? The line's always long."
He thought of saying it was a beautiful day, but he remembered that Jen had told him not to discuss the weather. Discussing the weather was what people talked about when they had nothing else to talk about. Besides, there had been a string of beautiful days. It was mid-June at the Saltflats amusement park. A heady, pleasant odor of fried dough, sausages, and salt air permeated the atmosphere.
The Cyclone, also known as the Orbiter, began as a rather straightforward amusement park ride. In the beginning, the park at Saltflats, a New England beach community, had installed a new attraction. It was a simple ride similar in operation to the Merry Go Round or other rides that traveled in a circular or elliptical fashion. It had one significant innovation, however. On this ride, axles projected from the center swinging the passenger in a circle. The innovation was allowing the passenger to choose how far out on the axle he or she wished to sit. Those who wanted a slower ride sat in a carousel closer to the center. Those who wanted to be whipped around at greater speeds could sit further away. The distance from the center was referred to as the carousel's orbit, therefore, "jumping to higher orbit" meant sitting further out on the axle.
It took a little while to catch on, but when it did, it spawned a revolution in the design of amusement park rides. At first, customers demanded the axle be lengthened to allow an even faster ride. This was done, at Saltflats, and at other parks around the country. However, the real driver of change had been allowing the passenger a choice; fast or slow. It allowed different types of people from small children to thrill seekers to enjoy the same ride. More improvements were made. It became a social sensation. Riders demanded more. Soon, carousels were designed so that riders could extend them higher in the air.
Eventually, the Orbiter's starting point was moved upwards so that customers had to ascend nearly eighty feet to a platform where attendants arranged their seat. By this time, each seat could move higher, lower, twist left or right, or, if it was caged, even flip upside down. Riders on the extreme end could go even faster by jacking up their carousel as high as it would allow and then dropping down as the Cyclone whipped them around. This technique was called “going vertical”.
The dream of Cyclone enthusiasts was realized when Saltflats installed the first Cyclone with individual axles for each carousel. The idea was once thought impossible. Cyclones with multiple axles were nothing new. They had become an economic necessity to allow more people access to the ride. However, this iteration of the Cyclone was far more complicated as dozens of different riders controlling their own axles required immense safety precautions. Interrupter gears, exchange apparatus, and collision prevention devices were necessary to keep carousels from careening into one another or axles jamming together. With so many different variables, dozens of riders making their own decisions, it seemed impossible to safely build a machine that could safely handle such freedom of action.
The breakthrough was the creation of the Strange Musik computer. Using quantum technology, this computer could calculate all the different possibilities allowing riders to safely move in or out, speed up or down, or change their angle of spin. It prevented the axles from becoming entangled or carousels from colliding. The operation was aided by the construction of the axles. The new axles were incredibly thin, constructed of a super strong material that could deform and somehow shape itself to both support it's carousel's weight and allow other axles to move over, around, or even through. Despite this innovation, the Strange Musik needed to compute incredibly complex calculations to account for all the variables.
Eddie had been working as an usher on the Cyclone for four months now. He was a gangly, bespectacled seventeen year old high school junior and not the most social of students. It was his first job. It afforded him the opportunity to interact with many of his classmates. He also liked working with Jen. Jen was a year older than him. A high school dropout, she was nonetheless quite adept at working with computers and machinery. She was now the chief usher.
Jen was even taller and thinner than Eddie with curly hair, multiple earrings, and a tongue stud. She had worked at the Cyclone for more than two years and had even been trained to do rudimentary work with the Strange Musik computer. In the beginning, an engineer and computer expert had been employed to look after the Cyclone's computer, but they were let go to save money. Now only Jen handled any of the computer work. Basic work was all that was necessary, of course, because Strange Musik was mostly automated, completely fool-proof. Jen treated Eddie better than most people.
For Eddie, the best part of working at the Cyclone was watching girls. A beautiful blonde named Sarah Stoner was a regular. Most of the speed freaks were men, but Sarah enjoyed pushing the Cyclone to the limit; using the controls to accelerate past slowpokes, then "jumping to higher orbit", that is, extending her seat's axle away from the center as far as possible. She liked moving the angle of spin as close to the vertical axis as possible; so that she shot into the air before hurtling towards the ground after cresting. She always gave Eddie a quick smile when he got her carousel ready. He doubted she knew his name though. She had come with her friend Danny, another speeder and popular Cyclone enthusiast.
Then there were the Milano sisters. They all went to Eddie’s school. Jill, the youngest, was a freshman. Stacy was a sophomore. She turned sixteen next month. Eddie was hoping she came when he was working so he could work up the courage to wish her happy birthday. He saw them in line on the stairs. They were with their older sister Tiffany. She had graduated the year before. Both Tiffany and Stacy had dark hair and skin tanned almost bronze while Jill was a bit fairer.
Kristen Dorset was another girl he knew from school. Curly blonde hair. Angel face. Unfortunately, she was an absolute bitch. Or she was to Eddie, when they were at school. Now she ignored him as he seated her.
Two kids with long, scruffy hair climbed the stair. Eddie recognized them as Travis and Kyle, two of the Dive Bombers. The Dive Bombers were one of the cliques that enjoyed pushing the envelope. They went for the fastest, most intense rides, pulling G's, they liked to say. They constantly accelerated and decelerated, shortened and lengthened their arc, flipped the carousel, anything to exert more force on the body. Eddie didn't like them. They constantly complained when the Strange Musik computer delayed their commands. Commands were queued when they couldn't be immediately obeyed for safety reasons. This happened quite often, especially when riders like the Dive Bombers were moving all over the place. This was the job of Strange Musik; prevent collision. But the Dive Bombers seemed to think the only reason their commands were ever delayed was to aggravate them. A part of Eddie imagined that the computer was aggravated by them.
Travis and Kyle went to school with Eddie, juniors like Eddie. They reached the platform together.
"You have to step back," Eddie told Kyle. "It's one at a time in the loading area." He said the same thing to them every time.
"But you didn't even ask if we're riding together," Travis gave Eddie a goofy grin. They smelled of weed.
"Ah...ok...you're going together."
"Eddie, you dumb shit, you know we ride alone," laughed Travis. Neither one stepped down though. They talked quietly together. Eddie was sure they were making fun of him, but he pretended to be focused on the returning carousel. He was relieved when Travis boarded. He wasn't as uncomfortable with just one of them there.
As always, their were plenty of regulars in line. Shortly after Travis and Kyle got on, Eddie ushered Mr. and Mrs. Smith onto a carousel. They were a handsome older couple, very polite, the opposite of Travis and Kyle. They were also opposites in their riding preferences. They usually chose a slow ride on a short axle close to the center with a rotation almost completely horizontal. Such riders were called tourists. They enjoyed seeing the action around them. A tourist who made no variations would still rotate high above the amusement park cooled by gusts of salt air from the ocean . The carousels were quite comfortable and offered a beautiful view of the park and beach. It provided an opportunity for social interaction in a unique setting for twenty or thirty minutes. The Cyclone was a cultural phenomenon.
Eddie's boss was Frank, the Cyclone's operating manager. Jen said that Frank had arrived about year ago. His only job was to keep tabs on the Cyclone for its investors. Eddie remembered the old manager, Mr. Stanley, back when Eddie used to ride the Cyclone. A smiling, white haired old man, he had seemed to be involved deeply in every part of the Cyclone's operation. Frank, on the other hand, was only around a few hours a day, and seemed to do, well, nothing. But then again, the Strange Musik meant that it was all automated. Nonetheless, Jen said that Frank knew next to nothing about the Cyclone. Allegedly, the old manager had been fired for incompetence. Jen said that was bullshit.
"That guy knew everything about the Cyclone and could work with Strange Musik too," she had said. Jen gave a sardonic grin. "You want to know why he was really fired. He was taking young boys on free trips at night. On the Cyclone. But we're not supposed to repeat that. The Cyclone is supposed to have a perfect safety record. Not too good for business if Chester the Molester is operating the thing." Chester was actually the old guy's first name.
Riders spent a minimum of $7 or $1 per minute whatever was greater. They could spend up to an hour on the ride before their carousel returned to the safe zone where Eddie or another usher would seat the next person or party. Since there was always a line during peak hours, it was imperative for the usher to get the riders seated as quickly as possible. Ideally, the carousel would earn $60 per hour, except of course it took about a minute for the carousel to return to the safe zone, unseat the previous occupant, and seat the next one. The safe zone was the area off the ground and just underneath the center where carousels carrying riders got their start before moving off into the Cyclone. Strange Musik prevented any possible trajectories that took another carousel into the safe zone and it also made the safe zone secure so people could exit and enter.
When Eddie first arrived, it took him two minutes. Frank was furious. He took Eddie aside and scolded him away from the hearing of the customers. "It shouldn't take more than forty-five fucking seconds." Of course, Eddie had never seen Frank seat anybody. Jen was the only one who came close to that time; the other ushers took slightly over a minute. It was Jen who showed Eddie what safety steps to take, how to seat the riders and explain the controls to them. Frank had never bothered to show him.
It was just past 1 PM. Eddie thought the Cyclone was as lively as he had ever seen; a roiling mass of metal and people flying through the air in a harmony that only Strange Musik understood. The incredible activity triggered the worry he had never smoothed out. The red warning light.
The Strange Musik computer ensured complete safety, everyone knew that. Foolproof. Accidents could not happen. And yet, there existed a red warning light. Eddie could see it from his perch on the loading area, a large circular bulb not five feet away situated next to the computer terminal and a conspicuous red button. Eddie wondered why a warning light was necessary if the system was foolproof. He told himself not to think so much. He wasn't that smart after all. Everyone said so.
When he first started, Frank had not even mentioned it. After working up the courage to ask, Frank had said to ignore the light, the red button, and the adjacent computer terminal. The terminal, Eddie knew, gave access to the Strange Musik. The red button, however, gave him pause.
"Never touch that red button," Frank had said sharply. "Just ignore that stuff."
When he asked his coworker Josh about it though, he got a different answer. "I think you're supposed to hit the button if it lights up or starts flashing or something. I don't know, I think it's kinda important to do that though."
And when he asked Jen about it, he got another answer. "If it lights up, you're supposed to hit the button to shut down the ride. But if it starts flashing, you're not supposed to hit it."
He had waited awhile, then asked Frank again. He had been furious.
"The damn light has never gone off and will never go off. Stop trying to use your pathetic brain. Do you know what it means to hit that button? It stops the ride. So don't hit it." Stopping the Cyclone meant loss of revenue and lots of unwanted questions. The Cyclone had never been stopped in mid-operation.
The Cyclone was the only attraction to stay open after the rest of the Saltflats Park had closed. Operation ceased at 2 AM, but if you had the graveyard shift, work continued. As the new guy, Eddie was given the task of cleaning the carousels. At first, he had hoped it would be an opportunity to find some loose cash, but what he found instead was not a boon but a burden.
"I'm pulling rank," Jen had announced to him and another usher, Mikey. "You guys can clean the carousels." She had been flashing one of her sarcastic grins. He soon learned why. He expected to have to clean dirt or maybe bird crap. He didn't expect to find bodily fluids. It was distressing how many examples he found. Jen had names for them. Soup chunks, liquid gold, ruby stains, cream puffs, mystery juice, and, the dreaded hershey kisses, also called chocolate surprise. This was another factoid that wasn't shared with the public. Vomit was the most common; what Jen called soup chunks or sometimes Grandma’s Leftover Special.
Jen made fun of Frank when he wasn’t around. “Bodily fluids is Frank’s euphemism. He can’t deal with this part of the job. He just turns his body, says ‘take care of the..the..bodily fluids’, and walks away. That’s an improvement though. He used to call them ‘secretions’.”
Eddie scanned the line. He wondered what they would think if he told them about the cream puffs and hershey kisses. He couldn't though. Frank would terminate him in a second.
"Pay attention," Frank called up to him. Eddie hadn't even notice Frank arrive.
The Milano sisters were next up. They wanted to be seated together. Eddie knew they would be more moderate in their choices. They were more of tourists than speed freaks. He was acquainted with all three of the girls. They each gave him a mild smile and Tiffany said hi. Today, Stacy wore brilliant white socks and white shorts that contrasted nicely with her tan. Her dark hair flowed past her shoulders and down her back. Eddie watched her ass perfectly outlined by her shorts. He could see almost all of her legs as he seated her. Jen would make fun of him if she caught him staring, but she was below speaking with Frank.
Eddie watched as Sarah Stoner shot by in an arc that took her below his perch before she rocketed skyward moving to a higher orbit simultaneously. That was the way to get to the best rush, Eddie knew. He could hear Travis swearing from his carousel. He was relatively horizontal about hundred feet off the ground, his attempt to move to higher orbit hindered by Strange Musik because of traffic.
"Fucking machine," he cursed before his command was obeyed and his axle extended him further from the center.
You would be dead without that machine, thought Eddie. The Milano sisters were laughing as they swung around. They stayed relatively even, but they were trying out extending the axle. They were still far from speed freaks.
Today, there were plenty of speed freaks to spare. Almost half the carousels were single occupants. Travis and Kyle continued to curse. Others like Sarah and Danny, picked their spots allowing a smoother transition to elevating, accelerating, or jumping to higher orbit. The action on the Cyclone was at all time high. The addition of three more carousels a few weeks ago brought the total to thirty-nine. There was always a line and more carousels meant more money. The Saltflats Cyclone contained among the highest number of carousels. The strain this load put on the Strange Musik computer was disregarded as Strange Musik was infallible.
Of course, people aren't infallible.
The first indication that something was wrong was a message that popped up on the computer terminal. This puzzled Eddie. The screen had always been blank. Jen would take care of it when she returned.
On the Cyclone, Eddie noticed that most carousels were moving quite fast. That had always been the trend, most riders eventually liked to increase the speed. But it was strange to see the Milano sisters jumping to higher and higher orbit. They were as extended out as far as he had ever seen them. Jill Milano was afraid of the higher orbits.
THE WARNING LIGHT!
The red light was on. Eddie didn't know when it had come on, but it was certainly on now. When confronted with an unfamiliar situation where he didn't know what to do, Eddie always did the same thing. Ask someone else. Yet he was by himself; Jen was down on the ground, and Mikey was on the stairs watching the crowd. Frank was god knows where.
Eddie could hear a cacophony of voices. There was a lot of cursing and not just from Travis and Kyle. All the carousels were either accelerating, extending, or else wildly moving higher and lower. Even the Smiths were whipping around, still close to the center, but at the top speed that was allowed from that orbit. There was a lot more screaming too. It occurred to Eddie that the screaming wasn't for joy, but for fear.
Do I push the button? Frank's words to ignore it rang loud in his mind endlessly echoing off the inside of his skull. On the other hand, Jen had said to hit it and she had always helped him. The screaming got louder. People in line finally realized something was going on; he could see them murmuring to one another and pointing. Tiffany and Stacy Milano had contorted their faces into masks of fear. Beside them, Jill sobbed. For once, Travis and Kyle weren't swearing. The look on their faces was pure horror. The Cyclone had ceased to be fun. It had become a machine of terror.
There will be plenty of bodily fluids to clean up tonight.
Tentatively, he tried getting Mikey's attention. Far below, Mikey couldn't hear him above the roar of the crowd and Eddie was afraid to yell too loud. He didn't want to cause a scene after all. Frank wouldn't like that. He wanted to wave to him, but, frustratingly, Mikey had his back turned dealing with the crowd. The red light glared ominously. Eddie was frozen with indecision. For once, he wished Frank was there.
He glanced at the monitor next to the warning light. He tried reading the text but he was so unnerved that he only caught fragments of it: STRANGE MUSIK....INITIATE VARIABLE....INCONSISTENT REQUEST....REPAIR CODING DECAY. It meant nothing too him. Maybe Jen would know. Strange Musik was supposed to be completely automated. Completely safe, everyone said so. Just reading from the terminal made Eddie nervous, like he was breaking a sacred rule. Ignore it, Frank had said.
The screaming continued. The fear had become a living thing. I should hit the button. That's what Jen said to do.
He had made up his mind to hit it when he finally caught sight of Jen and Frank. They were on the ground below him over eighty feet down. Seeing Frank froze Eddie in place and tuned his insides to jelly. He had been expressly told not to hit the button. If he shut down the ride, Frank would fire him. Besides, what if he had misjudged the situation? What if everyone was having fun like usual and nothing at all was wrong?
The red warning light, however, was definitely lit.
He called down to Jen and Frank, but it was far too loud. He motioned toward the warning light. Jen called back to him, but her voice never reached his ears. Frank looked confused. Eddie saw them engage in a quick excited conversation. He could tell they at least understood the warning light was on. Jen looked up at him. He thought she said "hit the button", but then she kept talking and now it seemed she said "don't hit the button".
Sweat started pouring down Eddie's forehead. To hit or not to hit, that is the question. Once again, he started to reach out to push it. Just then, the warning light started to flash. Eddie literally jumped backwards. Below, Frank was waving wildly at him. Jen had taken off towards the staircase, but her progress was slowed by the mass of people in line and in the crowd beneath the Cyclone. On the Cyclone itself, the nightmare continued. The Smiths looked to be in shock. Most others were screaming.
Vaguely, as if a thousand years ago, Eddie remembered hearing something about the light flashing, something Jen had told him. Right now, he was panicking. Any instructions he had been given fled from his adrenaline filled brain. He was on his own. Jen was still below trying to force her way up. Mikey had finally turned around. He was further up than Jen, but he stood still with his mouth gaping, staring up at Eddie.
Somebody above vomited, soup chunks narrowly missing Eddie. It was the last straw. He hit the button.
Nothing happened. It didn't stop or slow down. The red light continued to flash. The only thing Eddie noticed was the computer terminal. It reacted wildly. Meaningless letters, numbers, and symbols filled the screen all jumbled together.
Then something else happened. The carousel carrying the Milano sisters had dropped low and close, but now shot upwards and further out. At the same time, a rider that Eddie recognized as Billy, a well-known speed freak, was inverted and descending into the same orbit that the Milanos were about to enter. Both were operating at higher speeds than should have been possible. Eddie caught one last look of horror on Tiffany Milano's face before the carousels collided.
They seemed to explode. Flesh, metal, bone, blood, and plastic came together in a grotesque meld.
It was only the beginning.
Eddie saw a carousel at low orbit swing through the path of another carousel's axle. The rider, some kid he didn't recognize, was decapitated. Other axles made contact with each other sending their carousels out of control. There was more collisions. The riders no longer had Strange Musik protecting them. Eddie saw Julio who had once been an usher. His carousel had crashed into the ground. Julio was still alive, but his lower body was pinned beneath him; his legs appeared to be crushed and he looked to be demented with pain. Kristen Dorset and Sarah's friend Danny had also crashed. They and their carousels were locked together in mid-air still rotating around the center. They were both alive as well, but their bodies were broken. They wailed inhumanly as they spun through the air, blood leaking to the ground to trace their path.
Please be a dream. Please be a dream. No such luck. A sneaker with a foot still inside landed next to Eddie. Blood was on his hands. For a moment he thought he was injured, then he realized he had been gripping the rail which was covered in blood. He was standing well within the safe zone. Well, what had been the safe zone. He suddenly felt very exposed.
Some of the carousels were coming to a stop. But others were going even faster. Kyle's carousel was rotating at near vertical at incredible speed.
If the Strange Musik computer had any control left, perhaps it reserved a particularly nasty fate for Travis. His carousel had collapsed in on itself. Travis' arms and head were caught in the wreck, but his body hung loose beneath the axle. As he spun around, another stationary axle took his feet off, the next his ankles, the next his lower leg, then his knees, and finally his waist. Remarkably, the static axles had been perfectly aligned.
The almost vertical angle of Kyle's carousel brought him underneath the usher's platform, nearly scraping the ground before rocketing back into the air. It appeared to move faster and faster to the point that the eye couldn't follow it. Kyle's journey ended when the carousel broke loose from its axle just as it started to crest almost a hundred and fifty feet in the air. He catapulted through the air still attached to his seat traveling out of the park, over the beach, before crashing into the ocean beyond.
The spectacle was finally winding down. On the ground, Frank was uninjured Eddie noticed, but completely drenched with blood. Body parts were strewn around the park. Jen looked to be unhurt as well, but debris had struck Mikey and he lay on the stairs clutching his wounds.
Some of the riders made it. Sarah Stoner was sprawled on the ground splattered with blood and unconscious, but alive. The Smiths survived too. Their carousel was one of the few to stop and, with remarkable luck, nothing collided with them. They got off with some cuts and bruises. Psychological injury may have been another story. Survivors would recall their disturbed look and the fact that they seemed to have lost the ability to speak.
Saltflats was pandemonium. Some people fled while others stood transfixed by the carnage. A twisted ball of metal and gore was all that was left of Billy and the Milanos. It was impossible to distinguish anything in the red pulp. The foot that had ended up near Eddie belonged to Jill. It was the largest intact piece of any of the four remains. Travis' upper half continued to circle; innards occasionally dropping from his severed waist. One unlucky spectator, unable to clear the stairs in time, got a face full of intestines.
Jen approached the top of the landing. The remaining carousels had all stopped or slowed. The machine was shutting down.
"Am I going to be fired," Eddie asked. "Frank will fire me now, I'm sure of it."
Jen didn't seem to hear him. Wide-eyed, she surveyed the scene. Her mouth opened slowly.
"Ohhh.....shit," was all that came out.
Meanwhile, a new message had popped up on the Strange Musik terminal. Together, Eddie and Jen turned to read the message: EMERGENCY SHUT DOWN SUCCESSFUL. ADJUSTMENT TO SAFETY PRTOTOCOL RECOMMENDED. REFURBISHING AND MAINTENANCE MAY BE NECESSARY.