Two feet positioned like dance steps, a round location map pin, a small flame and a miniature flight of steps with an arrow pointing upwards, always upwards – I’ve got a lot of work to do. Only 4,825 steps so far. I roll the slate blue Fitbit back on my wrist and recline in the chair, listening to the Discharge record in my ear buds. This forces me to adjust the Kevlar vest down over my gray security button down. Above me the dim cantilevered ceiling towers in ornate dim majesty. Has to be 50 feet up there to the unlit chandeliers where thousands, maybe tens of thousands, dulled Swarovski crystals are arranged as a flat disc extended over the vacant lobby. I want to shout, to hear my voice echo off of the walls, but I don’t. This place is uncanny. “A hell on earth.”
Through the large glass windows to the outside, particles rain down in slow-mo as if on their own time separate from the tempo of the world. This dust mixes with the sand and small plastics on the rust colored marble that leads down past the never occupied storefronts, across wide esplanades, past a petrified mangrove swamp and down the cantilevered walkways to the thin strip of Florida Gulf shore. Then there are just the waves, but it’s the Gulf so they’re not really waves. This land is deceiving.
Empty stairwells, blank facades, strange corners, sand covered walkways, abstract vistas, corridors stretching into infinity and then the expanse of the Gulf cycle through on the laptop’s CCTV relays. Nothing moves that is not moved by the wind. The camera lingers on the main gate where I see my partner, Holmquist, stalk his post. Then it flips to another hallway. Then some blank apartments 100 floors up. Then a floor on a cavernous parking garage. The tease of my own Acura at the end of a line of white golf carts for the company. I think of leaving – going out the guard gate – over the lonely unlit four-lane bridge, through the automated guardhouse. I think of showering off the dust and sand, kicking back playing some records in my ice-cold apartment, sucking down some rum and watching the sunrise while I roll black film off of my skin and deposit the membranes onto a tissue.
My Maglite could easily crack a skull. The formidable heft sinks with each swing of my arm. Each doorway to empty anonymous shops is shuttered with sleek metal shades. On the floor months of footprints are etched in the dust, some are mine, some are others who came before me, some are other shifts – all gather for about 100 yards. As far as I can tell, all are human but this place is full of surprises. I blast “The Possibility of Life’s Destruction” and walk.
When I scan my magnetic baton to these sensors they never beep, no lights change on the softly glowing red ring. I grab the black 3M Respirator from the hook, slip it over my head and open the door. I do not think anyone at headquarters ever checks our protocol. It just gets logged and stored in case one of us fucks up.
Outside, not even the sea can disguise the chemical atmosphere through the mask.
My radio shocks to life interrupting the music.
“You on the move?” Holmquist’s voice in my ear as I follow the promenade to the other tower, walking around encroaching sand and brown, brittle plant life shivering in the breeze.
“Holmquist, you’re alive.”
“For the moment.” He jokes as his voice trails off, the signal is pinched. I’m no meteorologist but the air here is different. Contaminated.
“Shooting for 30,000 steps tonight.” I say and cross a dramatic fountain that has been transformed into a geometric crater in imported Carrara marble. This is Michelangelo’s marble, cut hexagonal and full of sand, contagious dust and dried palm fronds.
“What else are you going to do but watch me? I am your entertainment.” With this I do a small dance and Holmquist clearly chuckles over the radio.
“Well, while you’re at the store can you grab me a cold one?”
“Are you not entertained?” He doesn’t laugh at this. “Are you not entertained?”
“I get it, man, Gladiator.” He says as I walk beneath grayed palm trees, framed in a hexagonal opening display their shriveled fronds. Their surface shimmers with glistening particles, almost like they were caught in a slate ice storm. Here the weather always shifts.
“Yeah, you got it.” I say.
“Welp, I have to finish my homework.” Holmquist says. He went back to school and sought our radio time as an appropriate space to regale me with summaries of his homework.
The white monolithic face of another building stretches up to the gray sky. Some dust gathers on my wide face piece. I flip the Maglite and catch it in my tactical glove – like a boss, then pointlessly pound the magnetic sensor to the dim red ring on the column before opening a door into the next building.
I listen and on the ringed balcony of what was supposed to be a mall I stand over a large pit. Below me still escalators vanish into dust that goes on to form gradual dunes glittering in the dark light.
“You like it?” I ask the name sounding familiar.
Dust invades every space, slowly fills it up. I’ve seen it in real time, starts like the dust you’d wipe from a shelf but then gathers and attracts more. Replicates on its own. I could walk up fifty flights and open a door into entire apartments filled with hardened translucent dust. Floor to ceiling.
Which reminds me that I should probably climb fifty flights of stairs to get my steps in.
“It’s about pioneers—”
“Which we sure aren’t.” I say this and thumb the light off before turning back to the doors.
“Hey man, I got some ocean movement—” Holmquist says.
“Bullshit.” I say while the outside light shifts slate and sunless.
“Nope it’s there.” He says. “Might be some fucking activists—” Holmquist’s voice gets squished by a wave of white noise. My black work boot crushes the crystals while I descend the covered steps to the overlook.
Never trust anything you see.
“Well, what do you have on camera?” I ask.
“Nothing.” He says. I check my Fitbit again: 3,635 steps. It went back.
“Man, my Fitbit—” I say and tap the surface.
“—Go get those steps.”
“No, it went back. Like it rolled back.” I say shocked.
“You know it’s weird out there.” He says as the malodor of decay enters my mask. I press my baton to the small red sensor on the railing.
“Jesus, it reeks.” I say and Holmquist is silent. The Discharge record roars back into my earbud. The Gulf undulates its dark gray expanse before me like a singular organism. The Gulf should be blue or pale murky yellow but it is gray. I know it isn’t a red tide, it just smells like one. Red tides aren’t actually red. Or even, technically tides.
Nothing means anything here.
“You know why we’re here?” Holmquist asks, his voice reverberating in the headset over the music, he always has theories, like a guy who has been watching too much Info Wars. I scan the faded horizon, the large green buoys out in the gulf bob in the gentle current, they flash bright white lights.
“We’re protectors of the realm.” I say. The lights are warnings, I shake my wrist and check the Fitbit, 10,382.
“Seriously?” Holmquist’s voice asks.
“Ok, to protect the assets during clean up.” I answer, quoting our contract from Greystone.
“No, I mean why we’re really here.” These games again.
“Sorry Alex Jones.” I say. There are no boats on the horizon. No rafts of environmentalists coming to hold protest. No Sea Shepherd. Like most things, people don’t care. It’s just the gulf, small pathetic waves breaking delicately on the shore deckled with crab and fish carcasses over minor sands.
Nothing lives very long here.
“Strap on your goggles.” He says, his voice chopping in tremolo.
“Come on man, there’s no one on visual.” I say and turn to trek back up to the main office. I just want to listen to music. I got a few more hours before I can get back to my Acura, get out the guard gate, go over the bridge and maybe hit the last call at Chickee Bar.
“Do you trust me?” His voice is smaller, behind a scrim of fragile static. “— on the damn goggles.”
The goggles fit over my faceplate, they adjust to the late afternoon gray light. The steps shift lavender with contamination. This carries all along the pathway and down to the shore where the debris and the surf foam bright violet. Even the gulf itself is coated far beyond the buoyant barriers. “Shit.”
“That’s the point.”
“It’s kind of beautiful.” I say, not thinking. This hidden world is totally contaminated and entirely secret.
“There’s no point in keeping people from here, we’re already there.” Holmquist says, very clearly now. The stain extends past the silhouetted weather buoys and out toward the horizon. Total dispersion. “We don’t even have to be here.”
The location lights atop the buoys flash blinding white in the goggles.
“Everything.” It’s the only thing I can say and it makes no sense. The realization washes over me.
“It’s going to everyone.” His voice fades again into static. The raging drums return to my ear buds.
Removing the goggles my eyes adjust to the far brighter seascape. None of the lavender stain remains. I ascend back to the front office, check my Fitbit again: 8,825 steps. I tap the face but the number remains.
“I’ll be in the stairwell.” I say but he doesn’t respond.
My gloves leave a mark in the silver dust on the face of the glass door. I stop and wipe the trace away effectively cleaning the window of all the handprints, of all the other guards before me, in the dust. Erased.
You can’t trust time here.
That night blasts of static broadcast in my earpiece as I get in the golf cart making me pause my music. Pale blue security lighting illuminates the path.
“On my way back.” I say into the respirator. Another wave of static responds back to me. “Got my steps in and nothing happened, just another day at the toxic beach.”
The cart’s bright white headlights glitter off of the sand like capturing a galaxy.
“Life’s a beach.” I say, wait, check my Fitbit, zero steps. I tap the screen annoyed. “And then you die. You there?”
I pull up past Michelangelo’s fountain and further inland, over the wide wooden bridge.
“Holmquist? Yo. Over. Uh, roger that? Hey, copy?” I should be able to get his signal now. I pass over the frozen inlet of deep night, broken only by the black skeletons of birds who died upon contact.
“You on break or something?” I say and pull through the rows of vacant apartments, towering solid shadows above me into the violet night sky. No lights on, long shredded plastic curtains wave in the light sea breeze. “Shit man, I’m coming in. Hope you’re ok.”
Past the hulk of the empty parking garage the guard gate rests beneath the sodium lamps, alone before the large wrought iron fence, topped with barbed wire, glimmering in the bright halogens. Beyond that a wall of barricades.
A blast of static pulses in my earpiece, with heavy drums beneath it.
“I’m here man.” He says. No lights are on in the guard house. I pull in and slow down, listen to the ocean tumble far behind me.
“Holms?” I ask and then nothing. The golf cart is still moving when I step off of it and walk to the door. I open the door, expecting to be surprised, to walk into some prank. “Holmquist—”
Sand and dust pour out around my feet, flinging the door out pushing me back. The office is a cavern of particles illuminated cold blue in the golf cart lights. I shout and fall backwards, catching myself on the cracked pavement. The office is filled with contaminated dust. White noise blasts in my earpiece.
“…it’s going to everyone.” His echo, from an eon ago replies. A fragment of a doom laden riff fades in and then out. I look out towards the entrance and am blinded by a pair of headlights.
“Ready to trade off?” Holmquist asks me from within his Acura, not in his security uniform. I look up at his face unsure if he is real. “Rough shift? This place will do that to you.”
I laugh and lay back watching thousands, maybe tens of thousands of dulled stars extend over the Earth. I hold my wrist over my face where two feet positioned like dance steps, like feet dancing to stand still, glow in a glaring light as an unnatural tremor fills the night.
Terence Hannum is a visual artist, musician, and writer. Based in Baltimore, MD he has performed in the groups Locrian (Relapse Records) and The Holy Circle. His death-metal coming-of-age novella Beneath the Remains (Anathemata Editions) was published in 2016 and his body-horror novella All Internal (Dynatox Ministries) was published this year. His short fiction has appeared in Terraform, Lamplight, and Turn to Ash. www.terencehannum.com