8 mins // 17PEN18
The route I’d scouted from above the neighboring hill took me through some light brush, but nothing I couldn’t handle. The most dangerous part of the trek would be crossing the road leading up to the main structure, though of course that was unavoidable. I decided simply to take that part of the journey as far as possible from the front gate which the road led to. If I was spotted by whatever lay in wait, it was out of my control.
Before that night when the Sunset had licked the trees, when the smoke cried out for help, we had talked about the structure. From everywhere within our paper walls, you could feel its influence. If you listened close you could still hear its sad rushing roar, though most of us had heard it so long, we could barely make it out anymore. Sometimes, it seemed like a sign of hope, for something more, something to point out to the children as proof that things were still okay, though we knew we were reassuring ourselves.
Yet, there was always something ominous about it. To me, it had brought the thoughts of cicadas in the deep Summer, a time when I would run ceaselessly through the grass, only going home after dark to avoid my Mother’s lectures about my scraped knees.
It also brought to mind the thoughts of the tall man in the tent that became a home, locusts in the desert, relentless in their consumption, leaving the land stripped and bare. And, I suppose, the biblical meaning wasn’t far from the reality.
Nothing is uniform. Nothing absolute. The Sun may rise tomorrow, but if it does so without you, what good does that give you? And a sunset for one prairie’s a dawn for another. There was something beautiful and horrible in that, the thought of the river still flowing after all we did to it, drained dry and run low, all its majesty and awe sold for… for what? But the water’s gotta flow, even if you give it nowhere to go.
I made it past the road without incident, but was forced to merge with it anyways soon thereafter. Only way in, from this side.
We’d wondered, for so many a night, what it meant. Something was still going on inside, that much would be sure. Soon, the cracks would start to show, and drop by drop this whole thing would come apart, the land returning to how it was. That was all well and good with me too. I knew it would happen eventually, as all things do, but for now something kept it going. If it was hope against hope or the last kook bureaucrat cooped up in that tomb, the rush never ended. Neither did our talk.
Never seemed like a good time to go knock on the door and ask. Never until now, of course. How could it? I once read that people will do damn near anything to keep things the way they are, even if the way they are ain’t so good either. Because we can imagine the worst a lot easier than we can imagine the best. The best seems like a dream; the worst seems like a promise.
I had made it into the shadow. The massive concrete structure loomed over me like a storm-wall frozen in time. The roar was almost unbearable here. The water rushed out of massive vents. A row of searchlights blazed at the top of the wall, as they always had. Deep lines of water stains had formed in the concrete, making the wall seem almost natural, like a living erosion map.
Getting inside was far easier than I had expected. I found a maintenance door, picked the lock, and that was that. I was on tilt, and that only made me more nervous. I knew I wasn’t going to find a welcome party, but I expected some resistance. This wasn’t running on good will.
What I was confronted with didn’t calm me at all. The insides were white, or once white. The same staining had occurred inside the plant, though here they ran yellow and brown, diseased gouges in the hospital tile and linoleum, all slick with moisture like a sewer. It looked like an artificial intestine. The lights were a sickly green, but still on, mostly. Just enough of the lit ceiling panels were on to only leave a few feet of shadow before the next pool.
The smell grew stronger as I got deeper into the belly. Years of water leaks, mold growth, the births and deaths of its own self-contained ecosystem, all these smells coalesced into one. This stinking sickly sweet smell, like flowers in decay filled my nose, but I wasn’t paying attention to it.
Even though the hall was mostly lit, I got out my headlamp and clicked it on. Wasn’t about to take any chances. I also got out my women, and carried it readied at my side. The light from my lamp skipped down the hall like a stone on a lake, all sheen lighting and reflections. I started advancing.
From somewhere down the hall, I heard a popping sound, like dead or dying speakers barely clicking along. This started to build as I walked further, though the sound was so quiet to be almost inaudible. A classic trap, leading me on. I followed; where else could I go? I raised my gun higher. Not a good time to be jumpy, but I was.
I walked past a few closed doors, with windows the size of pieces of paper at face level. I peered into each one as I came to it, looking for a sign of trouble, waiting to be ambushed. Each door I passed safely only made me more anxious. The rooms were mostly dark, with deep shadows hiding the walls. Using my headlamp, I saw they were all but bare; stripped by an earlier tresspasser?
As I approached the end of the corridor, I finally realized what I was listening to: it was music. Over some unseen speakers, perhaps these vents in the ceilings, an ancient melody carried out, with words just barely perceptible.
…games, and daisy chains and laughs, you’ve got to keep the loonies on the path.
Cute. Someone was definitely fucking with me, and I wasn’t in the mood. I got to the end of the hall, two double doors, beyond which was the source of the music. Brought the gun up so I could see down the sights. The song reached its climax, all choruses, and drums, singing hollow into the hall. I kicked open the door.
Once I got through, I lowered my gun. It was an impulse, my only option at the time. A single, vintage computer shone into the darkness, sat atop a crowded desk of ruined papers and maps and graphs. The walls were all screens, all cracks and empty mirrors, reflecting the nothing back at itself. I stood still.
The screen rippled in front of me, a stone dropped into an infinitely deep pool. Static wove across its pixels. Then, it went blank. The song had ended. Only the heartbeat looked groove continued, beating on. The popping came back.
Then there was a word: “Hello”.
Scrawled across the tiny display, a miracle, I stared at it, seeing only a drawing before I realized what it had meant.
‘Hello’, I replied out loud, feeling ridiculous, looking for an entry device to log a response instead.
The screen went dark again, then flashed to life once more.
“What can I help you with?”
I walked in closer, unsure what to do next, or what was happening now. My gun was all but forgotten, as was my purpose.
The screen went blank, then reasserted itself with the same query: “What can I help you with?”
‘What is this?’,I asked?
“This,” the screen replied immediately, “is the QB-438c Dam. I am its caretaker.”
‘And how do you do that?’
“I keep the lights on.”
The rushing, roaring sound was still there, somewhere, but I couldn’t hear it. It was a periphery sensation, a tingling that I’d long grown accustomed to. The popping, with its irregularity and the thrum filled my head.
In a dark room, both above and beneath the soil, the water, the air, I saw light in a dark room. I watched the pixels draw themselves, as they had been taught so many years ago. Each time the screen went blank, I saw a woman I had never seen, watching with the wide eyes of a child. And each time, the lights came back.