She comes to the house tired and wet and lonely. The sky is dark overhead and glitters with stars, and the sound of the crashing sea fills her ears.
She found the house by accident, when the beam of the lighthouse swept over it, just as she was considering sleeping on the rocks. It is only a single story, built of faded and drooping wood, the sides leaning precariously like it is tired and wants to roll over and fall asleep. The door is unlocked.
The entry room is dim and smells of old wood and dust. An ancient rain slicker hangs on a nail, and dust drifts through the air when she touches it. She wants nothing more than to sleep, but she knows better than to do so without first securing herself. There is no light switch, but there is a kerosene lamp, and to her relief it sloshes when she lifts it. She lights it and, in the comforting margarine glow, she begins to explore.
The house is organized around a single hallway, rooms branching off from it, with a study and library at the end. The rooms are all unoccupied, and appear to have been uninhabited for a long, long time; in places the roof tilts dangerously, but there is no sign of water damage. The dust makes her throat scratchy, and she drinks from one of her water bottles and begins to search in earnest.
Before she can sleep, she must know that this house is safe. Every detail, no matter how minor, must be observed and remembered, leaving nothing. She quarters each room, checking the floors by square feet, one after another.
Kitchen: gas stove, Formica countertops, sink with hand-powered pump and pipe disappearing into the earth. A borehole, possibly, although she isn’t sure if you can get freshwater this close to the sea. There are dishes sitting in the sink, and a plastic garbage bag full of empty cans labeled “Landstreitkrafte Speicher.”
Bedroom: bed made with military precision under a thick layer of dust, closet containing men’s clothing, primarily jeans and sweatshirts. One is labeled “University of Michigan.”
Store room: rack after rack of cans, all with the same labels. On the bottom shelf are gas cylinders and jerry-cans of kerosene, sitting in neat rows. Another store room, another – five in all. All but one are completely full, and that one is only slightly drawn down.
And, at the end of the hall, the study: a pair of enormous glass windows looking out over the black ocean, badly stained with salt from years of spray, a crack zig-zagging down one, the light of the lamp reflecting back at her against the darkness of the night outside. Bookcases line the walls; she turns to them eagerly but is disappointed to find only poetry, literature, a few reference works; nothing of interest. A fireplace is built into a wall, with a pair of overstuffed leather armchairs in front of it, and a desk in front of the window. She ransacks the desk, but finds only office supplies.
As she stands at the window, looking through the desk drawers, the beam of the lighthouse sweeps over the sea. The light shows the gently roiling waters, boiling endlessly beneath the windows. The glow seems to linger for a fraction of a second even when the light has swept past. Then it’s gone. She finishes checking the desk, and takes stock.
No electricity anywhere, nor sign there was ever intended to be any. But there are kerosene lanterns in the bedroom, the kitchen, the study. No locks either, even on the door to the outside. There are windows in almost all of the rooms, but no bars on any of them, no tripwires or alarms.
The house is dangerous. It is not safe. Not to sleep in, to be vulnerable in.
But she’s very, very tired, and knows she’ll be sleeping soon whether she likes it or not. She dry-swallows an ephedrine pill from her backpack and finds a hammer, a roll of copper wire, and bucket of nails in one of the storerooms. She scatters nails in the hallway, and carefully balances the empty bucket on the door to the outside, to fall off with even the slightest motion. The bed is tempting, but the bedroom has a window. She enters one of the store rooms and closes the door, and sinks nails deep into the door frame, then takes the wire and wraps it around the handle and the nails, again and again and again, until it forms a solid mass a good two inches thick. It won’t stop someone from breaking the door down, but it will give her time.
She spreads her sleeping bag on the floor of the storeroom, sets her gun beside her. She has practiced waking up, trained herself, and her hand will reach for the weapon instinctively if something disturbs her, before she’s even awake. The room is dark and shadowed despite the lantern, but shadows don’t frighten her. She hasn’t been scared of the dark for a long, long time, and she blows the lantern out.
Is there anything left undone? Is there any precaution that has not been taken? The thought nags at her mind, even as she drifts into sleep, and she forces herself to think, to focus. Finally, she relights the lantern and retrieves the hammer, and finds some more nails.
And she nails the door shut.
She leaves the house and walks over the barren, salt-stained rocks of the island, towards the lighthouse. The stars burn overhead, as she clambers over the broken terrain.
The lighthouse beam probes across the ground, groping towards her like a living thing. She jogs to avoid it, but it turns unexpectedly, pinning her to the ground, the blinding beam reaching through her mind, an illumination so total it wipes out thought, leaving a blinding, burning fullness.
Then it’s gone, and she realizes the stars are not above her, they’re beneath her, and she’s desperately trying to grasp the ground as gravity clutches at her, pulling her into space. She scrambles for a purchase, trying to hold on, but the ground crumbles under her grip and she’s sucked into the void, her lungs emptying of air and the star wind blasting her-
Her gun is in her hand, and it’s pointed at the door. Her face is covered in sweat, and the sleeping bag feels like it’s stuck to her skin, and her heart is racing.
Be calm. Observe, analyze, act. She thinks these words to herself, over and over, like a mantra, like a prayer.
She puts the gun down. She forgot to take her pills, and she feels a sick twist of anger at herself, for forgetting. Mistakes can’t be allowed. Mistakes will get her killed. No mistakes, no errors – she needs to be perfect.
She still feels tired, but she knows she won’t be able to fall back to sleep. She swallows an ephedrine, sips water from a plastic bottle, eats a pack of orange crackers.
She listens at the door for five minutes as the stimulant works its way into her brain. After five minutes of silence, she begins the laborious process of prying the nails from the door frame. She has very little food and water; she’s going to need to try the water pump and the food stores, but not quite yet.
She walks to the kitchen and looks out. From here, she can see the lighthouse, the only bright spot in the still dark landscape. The sky is still dark, the stars still crystal-bright. A wisp of cloud rises from the far horizon, visible as a blackness before the stars. As far as she knows, the sun never touches the sky here.
The lighthouse is what brought her here. She retrieves a pair of binoculars from her backpack and examines it through them. The tower seems deceptively small from here, but she knows it’s exactly 493 meters tall, almost half a kilometer; she calculated it using an azimuth. The lantern is at the very top, and it sweeps the world in a pattern that at first seems random, its action not confined to the horizon – the beam probes up, across the sky, to the opposite horizon, down, sweeping across the ground, then again, in minutely varying arcs. Taking into account the movement of the stars, every quadrant of the universe is covered in a period just over 29 hours long.
She doesn’t know who built it; as far as she can tell, no one does. It’s spoken of in legends, in old forgotten books, as a place of enlightenment and illumination, and of destruction. They say aliens built it, as a monument to attract other intelligences. They say aliens built it as a trap. Men built it, in the misty future, or the distant past. It’s always been there, part of the structure of the universe itself. It’s sending a message, a prophecy, a truth. It’s a trick, a cruel trick, a meaningless stream of light. It’s the eye of God. It’s a joke initiates tell neophytes in lieu of real enlightenment.
She has pondered over it, has spent long nights at a blackboard or a computer, making and discarding theories. She is fairly confident that the light is a byproduct of the real transmission; it’s too dim to be seen at astronomical distances. Something else is being emitted: neutrinos or gravity waves or something she can’t imagine. But she doesn’t care about the medium.
She cares about the message.
Before she leaves the house, she plucks a piece of hair from her head and places it in the door jamb.
She paces the island as she paced the house, her long strides eating away the distance, step by step. She stays at least five hundred meters away from the lighthouse.
The island is only four kilometers long, and perhaps a kilometer across. It takes all day for her to be satisfied she’s seen it all. The rock is a dark red that looks black under the dark sky, veiny and pocked by tiny holes like flash-frozen soda foam.
She walks, alone and isolated, under the pitch-black sky. It feels like she is standing still, that it is the world that is moving around her.
The island is almost completely flat, sloping up slightly towards the house’s end, so that the house perches over the sea atop twenty-foot-tall cliffs. There is no sign of life except for her; no bird calls, no animal droppings, no grass, no weeds. There are no bottle caps or empty soda cans, no plastic bags or cigarette butts. There is only the house and, about twenty feet away, a pit about ten feet deep, the bottom dusted with empty food tins. The island is sterile and deserted. On the horizon, the clouds continue to build, slowly reaching towards her.
At what she guesses is noon, she stops to have lunch. She isn’t hungry, but she eats anyway, swallowing three packs of crackers and a bottle of water. She’s only a kilometer from the lighthouse, and she studies it through a pair of binoculars while she eats. It’s a thin needle, about ten meters wide at the base, narrowing faintly as it climbs. A faint glow reflects back onto the lighthouse from the lantern’s beam, hinting at smooth gray walls, utterly devoid of features. There is no door that she can see.
In the legends, there are dozens of different instructions for how to enter the tower, usually chosen to suit the preferred symbology of the tale’s author. A common favorite is that there is a Guardian, who watches over the tower. You must win its approval to enter. And even that is no guarantee of success, for those who are not prepared for illumination may be destroyed by it.
She’s seen no Guardian yet, and she doubts there is one. She would not build such an obvious weakness into something so important. A Guardian can be subverted, bribed, tricked, overcome. She would rely on something more sure, more certain, on high-tensile steel and macromolecular carbon. Those will not fail you.
As she hikes back to the house, the beam sweeps past her again. It almost catches her, but she dodges around it, ducking behind a boulder as it boils past.
The hair on the door has been undisturbed..
She takes a can of beans from the stores, cracks it open, sniffs. It smells and looks fine, and she starts heating it up on the gas burner. A risk, but an acceptable one.
She still has some food left. If she can’t eat the stores here, she’ll have time to find something else. She doesn’t seem to eat much anymore; she’s lost a great deal of weight, her body stripped down to essential components, bone and muscle and nerve. She likes that. It makes her feel like a machine, streamlined and cold and steel-hard.
She draws water from the hand-pump. It takes some time before anything comes out of the faucet, and when it does it’s red with rust. She fills a bucket and leaves it to let the particulates settle to the bottom.
The beans taste like preservative, but they’re edible. She scoops water out of the bucket and boils it. It tastes like iron.
She eats the beans in the storeroom, after nailing the door shut again. The taste provokes no reaction in her; it’s merely another data point to be cataloged.
She’s been traveling this road a long, long time. She has learned hard lessons, has studied them well. You’re never safe, she knows, you’re merely safer than you otherwise might be. Never let your guard down, never truly rest. Those are the times you’re vulnerable.
She has sinned, grievously and knowingly, to be here. She has paid prices that cannot be measured in currency. But she is here, where others fear to tread. She likes that. She likes the thought that others fear her, fear what she’s become, what she’s becoming.
She realizes, with a faint start, that she can’t remember the last time she spoke to another human being.
She takes a promethazine and falls asleep. This time, she doesn’t dream.
She eats tinned beans and tuna for breakfast.
She knows what she is here to do, what she will have to do, in the end. But she does not intend to hurry. The lighthouse is dangerous, and it may hold death as easily as revelation. But, though she may circle around it, eventually she will make the attempt.
But not today.
She ransacks the library again. Poetry and literature, mostly; all of it hardcover; none of it written after 1900. She starts checking each book, one by one, looking for one whose contents does not match its cover.
Surely the man who built this house must have left some record, some explanation. His absence worries her. Had he died with stores emptied, she would assume he had jumped into the sea to escape starvation. But he had years left yet. What happened to him? Did he leave willingly? Then why come here in the first place?
None of the books hold the answer. She walks to the storerooms and starts counting. She’s quick with numbers, and it takes only a few minutes to reach her answer: based on the number of empty spaces on the shelves and the average rate of consumption of a grown adult, the house’s owner lived here for between three months and one year, assuming he never restocked his stores. If he did, then any figures she can calculate will be meaningless.
Not very long…
Why build here? There are any number of places that are safer, more comfortable, where a human can enjoy solitude. So he built here because of the lighthouse, perhaps to study it, to research it. But then there would be records, data. And the house, the size of the stores, implies a long program of study, lasting a decade or more, but the stocks have been barely touched…
More data is required. She finds a hatchet in one of the store rooms and attacks the desk, chopping it into splinters, looking for hidden compartments.
To make it this far, he must have known much already. His knowledge would be valuable-perhaps life-saving.
He must have paid the same prices she has, made the same sacrifices. He would be another such as herself, a power. She aches to know what he learned, a need deep in her throat that feels like she can’t breathe.
There’s nothing in the desk. And, as she stands there panting and sweating over the shredded desk, the lighthouse beam catches her.
It pierces the house’s walls, reaches through them to light the room. It floods her sight with light, and she closes her eyes and screws them shut, the hatchet falling beside her as she clutches at her eyes, but the beam reaches through her eyelids and blinds her.
There’s a faint hissing in her ears, and even as she’s running, trying to get out of that horrible, burning light, another part of her knows there’s a message hidden in that noise, and is trying to tease it out. But the light goes out, and she falls to the ground, blinking the light away. She is nearly blind, and it’s ten minutes before the purple splotches subside enough to see.
And then she moves to the bedroom and starts dismantling the bed.
She’s taking too many stimulants. At some point she stopped taking ephedrine, and took two Dexadrines, and later two more. Some distant sense of time tells her she should sleep, but she can’t sit still. She’s torn apart the whole house, completing the destruction that time began, torn up the walls and the floor with the hatchet, hunting for something she has not found. But she left the store room intact, and now she sits there, her mind racing as fast as her pulse. She’s taken a plate of beans with her, and she’s watching it congeal, forcing herself to eat it, spoonful by spoonful. She thinks of it as fuel.
She needs to act. Her muscles ache for motion, her mind jumps from plan to plan, but she holds herself in place and makes her arm move bite after bite of chemically-tasting beans into her mouth. One after another.
She takes a promethazine to counteract the stimulants and waits, but it doesn’t help much. She takes two more and lies on her sleeping bag and stares at the ceiling overhead.
Her body should obey her orders. She wants to sleep. She is ordering herself to sleep. But sleep doesn’t come.
She gets up. She tears the nails out of the door, one at a time. She takes another Dexedrine and her heart starts to race again. She picks up the lantern and walks out of the house towards the lighthouse.
The lighthouse is awe-inspiring, terrifying. It is a colossus, a tower reaching higher than the eye wants to acknowledge, until it seems to go on forever.
Its surface is a matt gray, clean and sleek. There are no doors. She stands at the base of the tower and stares up at the eye, far above.
It’s saying something. Some message is being passed into the night, into the void between the stars. In some medium that human senses cannot reach, data is being transmitted, and she desperately wants to know what.
The lighthouse is screaming, but she cannot hear it.
The beam catches her.
Time stretches. There is nothing but light, and a roar in her ears like an angry ocean, and, hidden beneath the noise, the whisper of a language she does not know.
The Dexedrine is finally leaving her. She feels grimy and sore, and the blackness of sleep is starting to settle on her mind. She can’t sleep here. She takes another tab, then a second, and stares upward.
Through the haze in her skull, she watches the beam sweep the clouded skies.
She turns and walks away.
She doesn’t make it back to the house. Her body shuts down halfway back, a combination of stimulants and tranquilizers and not enough food and too much stress, her legs refusing to obey her instructions. She barely has time to sit before she falls.
Above her, the skies open, and the rain sweeps down, washing over her like a baptism.
She forces herself to her feet. She’s shaking. The rain washes over her, its cold beat pushing away her fatigue. She will not accept this, will not be weak. She is in control, and she will act as she chooses.
She looks up at the sky, the rain pelting her. Lightning blasts across the sky, and she laughs. She walks towards the house.
She reaches the house. Water is streaming from holes she’s knocked in the roof and walls, and sections of ceiling plaster have already collapsed; it will not be safe to stay here. She steals the rain slicker from the entryway and walks into the night again. She sits on the rocks and watches the rain wash around and over her.
At first, being alone in the night frightens you; you fear what the shadows hide, and you long for friendship and comfort. But eventually you take comfort in the dark, for you are what the shadows hide, and others fear you. And she has lived in the darkness for a long, long time.
Sleep clutches the edges of her eyelids again, and she allows her eyes to close. She leans over and rests her head on the rocks beside her.
She sleeps. She does not dream.
The chattering of her teeth wakes her. She’s curled into a fetal ball in the night, and she feels a cold in her as deep as death, but she sees her decision was a wise one; the house has fallen in, and she would surely have been killed if she had stayed there. Her limbs ache and her head feels full and soggy, but these things do not matter. She hunts through the wreckage of the house for the gas cylinder but cannot find it, and makes do with wood that has been sheltered by the wreckage from the rain, building a small fire. She takes water that has pooled in the rocks and heats it in a tin cup and gulps it down. Hypothermia set in some time ago, and she needs to raise her body temperature, and quickly. She takes a spare T-shirt from her pack and soaks it in hot water and rubs her limbs with it, trying to work heat into her body.
She finds a few tins of beans and eats several of them, putting the others carefully in her backpack. She’ll need calories to replace what’s been burned up, she thinks, trying to recall a half-remembered first aid manual. She fishes antibiotics and Tylenol out of her backpack and takes them with the beans; she considers the stimulants, but turns aside for the moment.
Even as she works, her thoughts turn north, to the lighthouse. She knows what she needs to do. Not precisely, but in broad outline. But she’ll need her strength back first.
Her backpack has kept her sleeping bag dry. The risk of sleeping outside is unfortunate, but now inevitable. She unrolls it and sleeps again.
She wakes, she eats. She packs her things. She stands and stretches, working the worst of the aches out. She still hurts, but no matter. She picks up a broken piece of timber from the ruins and starts to walk.
She was foolish. The thought eats at her gut, but she pushes it aside and forces herself to think rationally, to pick and prod at her own motivations, to establish what she is really thinking and doing. She became emotional, during her attack on the house. That was the fundamental flaw: she became caught up in the release of destruction, allowed herself to take too many stimulants, and the rest flowed from there. It could have been a fatal mistake; had this island been inhabited, any of its residents could have killed her as she slept.
It will not happen again. The mistake has been detected, analyzed, and corrected. She will not allow it to affect her judgment in future.
She stops, digs in her backpack, finds the ephedrine and takes a single tab. Only one.
She’s running low. She’ll need to restock at some point. The thought makes her uncomfortable.
The lighthouse looms ahead of her. She approaches it carefully. Her weapon stays in its holster – she knows it will not protect her here.
She stands before it, watching the light sweep the sky overhead.
She must be very careful.
She taps the piece of timber against the lighthouse. She circles the tower, trailing the board along the surface.
If she had built this place, she would have left no entrance. But she did not build it…
Halfway around the lighthouse, on the side closest to the sea, the wood sinks into the lighthouse’s side about half an inch, disappearing beneath an illusionary surface. Probing carefully, she finds a space about three feet wide and six feet tall, and about half an inch deep.
She steps back and considers. If she had built this place, it would have no entrance. But if she had built it with an entrance, the entrance would be trapped. No, not only trapped-there would be two entrances. One would be false, leading nowhere, disguised just enough to be difficult to discover. The other would be real, but impossible to find. Both would be trapped, lethally.
But she did not build this place…
If she had built this place, the real entrance would be locked. It would be opened only by a unique identifier of some kind.
DNA is too easy to fake… A password of some kind, maybe, something long and unique but easy to remember, like a string of poetry.
She would also design the system to kill, or to lock irrevocably, after too many failed attempts…
She considers carefully. Her decision is perfectly rational, weighing all foreseeable factors, the risks and benefits and costs.
It is a frightful risk. But it is worth it.
She steps forward.
Mark Lowell is a graduate student of mathematics and a former Peace Corps Volunteer in Uganda. Aside from a school newspaper, this is his first published work of fiction.
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Great job, Mark. Keep up the writing. It is a great escape mechanism.
Kudos to you for your first tale-excellent sense of mystery and foreboding. Look forward to more
Really enjoyed this one! Great atmosphere.
I love this! Very well done indeed! Congratulations on your first story appearance.