The air was cold, the waves were choppy, and a bright, gray fog surrounded the boat, impenetrable as a darkness. It was seven thirty in the morning, and I had no idea where in the world I was.
Everything I needed would be provided on the island, they’d told me. All I should bring was three days’ worth of underclothes to complement my uniform, which I was assured I could launder on-site. They also recommended coat, hat, gloves and boots: the island could make even the most clement weather feel autumnal.
The nameless officer who briefed me just called it the Station. When I asked him to show me the location on a map, his jaw twitched. ‘We had it removed,’ he told me. I supposed the intention was to prevent me from blabbing to family and friends. If so, he needn’t have worried – I had none close enough to confide in. And as far as I could tell, the boat might as well have been trawling in circles for the past ninety minutes. Maybe this was all a joke – some elaborate test. Maybe I’d be deposited back at the base, congratulated for passing muster and given my real assignment – some desk job on the mainland, or foreign bureaucratic posting. For a moment, thinking about it, I hoped this would be the case. I didn’t exactly regret accepting the post – a bit of solitude, I thought, would do me good. But the cold and fog had seeped under my collar and into my head, and I longed, unexpectedly, for the comforts – however meager – of home.
I wasn’t to wonder about these matters for long. For the last five minutes, I’d been standing on the port side of the boat, my gloved hands gripping the gunwale, trying to descry something, anything, through the curtain of fog. Now, suddenly, the undifferentiated gray gave way to shapes: wisps and tendrils, eddying and parting, agitated in our wake. The engine moaned, the vessel lurched beneath me, and suddenly I could see green, emerging first in a ragged, distant patch, and then, as the fog dispersed, all at once; and the island exposed itself to us, like a pervert unveiling his tumescence from behind an old colorless raincoat.
It really did appear pornographic at first, after the demure and shapeless gray of the fog: a massive crag, thrusting into the dead sky, black rock smeared in moss and bird shit. Then we drew closer and lurched starboard – I nearly lost my grip on the railing – and the rest of the island shrugged into view. It was a C-shape, roughly, variegated gray along the shoreline, grass-green above that, then the moss and dung and black peak. Two black peaks, I saw now, at opposite ends of the landmass. They were connected by a rounded spine, a thing I imagined you could climb up to and walk along.
The place had once been occupied. Several rows of abandoned stone cottages formed a small village on the plain; their roofs, doubtless thatch from the mainland, had long ago rotted away. To the north, a squat concrete block had been sunk into a hillside. Behind it, three enormous radio masts reached up to disappear into the clouds; each was as thick at the base as a giant redwood, and sprouted a motorized antenna array whose leaves silently pivoted as I watched. Together the towers evoked an executive board or panel of judges: stoic, watchful. Along with the concrete bunker, they doubtless comprised the Station.
The boat pulled up alongside a small pier, sturdily constructed of reinforced steel plates bolted to concrete pilings. The captain climbed out, tied up and turned to face me, his large eyes squinting out from under a damp canvas hood. I could detect, beneath his red beard, a tight, irked mouth; it said, ‘Well, get off.’
I shouldered my bag and climbed up onto the pier. It was heavy, well anchored and made little noise under my feet.
The captain towered over me. ‘I’ll be here for an hour,’ he said. ‘If he misses me, I won’t be back for a week.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘Misses you? Who?’
In response, the captain just thrust his chin towards my presumptive HQ. ‘Him. Move him along.’
The wind was strong at my back as I trudged up the rocky beach to the path that led through the old village. The cottages were ghostly, colorless. The wind roared through them, making strange music out of their empty windows and doorways. Inside some of them, the remains of wooden tables and chairs lay decaying on the dirt floors. A few tin cans, a fork or spoon. At the threshold of one cottage, a word had been chiseled into an irregular flagstone: vilcoem.
Soon I’d passed the village and begun the climb up to the Station. It took longer than I expected – distances were deceptive here. Eventually I arrived at a featureless steel door, its paint worn away by the weather. A hinged plastic housing concealed a large recessed button that glowed green. I pressed it.
Nothing happened for a long time. I watched a lone gull ride an updraft and settle on one of the towers. Just as I was about to buzz again, a series of clanks issued from the door and it fell slowly open.
If I’d expected to be greeted cheerfully, or at all, I was to be disappointed. By the time the door had opened far enough to allow entry, my predecessor had already turned his back. He was scurrying down a long hallway illuminated by dim yellow bulbs dangling from green metal shades. As I watched, he ducked through an open door, and I heard him in there, stomping about and banging drawers shut. I closed the door behind me and looked around.
I was standing in a large storage area. Boxes of food, toiletries and cleaning supplies were stacked to the ceiling along all the walls. A pair of work boots lay on a rubber mat just beside the door. They were like my own, brown leather affixed to thick crêpe soles, except heavily scuffed and worn.
A grunt echoed down the hall behind me, and I turned. He was around my age and height, though thinner, and he wore the same casual duty uniform, though somewhat worse for wear. A duffel, also the same issue as mine, was slung over his right shoulder. His dark hair was messy and much longer than men like us typically maintained it. But the most noteworthy thing about him was his beard: thick, long, it covered his lower face and neck entirely, and had crept up over much of his cheeks as well, sparing only enough room for two tired eyes, which gazed at me in apparent fascination.
‘Fucking hell,’ he said. His voice was gruff, precise and a bit nasal.
I said, ‘The captain wants you to hurry.’
The man laughed – dismissively, I thought, as though I’d just said something irritatingly obvious.
He was tying his boots the same way I did: laced two eyelets shy of the top, and double-knotted. As his hands moved, I experienced a sense of déjà vu, as though I’d been here before, and watched this man tie his shoes. He stood up and reached for the door latch. ‘Excuse me,’ he said. ‘I have a boat to catch.’
‘Wait!’ I said. ‘What am I – that is –’
‘Manual’s on the desk in the bedroom. When it says every three hours, it means every three hours.’ He punctuated these words by poking my chest with a trembling finger. ‘Also –’
He shook his head. ‘Never mind. It’s pointless. You’ll do it anyway.’ He flung the door open and tramped out into the wind. The clouds were parting, and the sun was visible just over the ridge. Soon it would descend, and my side of the island would be cloaked in shadow.
I followed him a few steps down the slope. ‘Tell me!’ I shouted. ‘I want to get it right.’
He shook his head, stared briefly at the ground. Then he looked up, pointed at me, and said, ‘You’re gonna want to go down the other side of the mountain and check out the Facility. Don’t do it. Okay?’
‘Unbelievable,’ the man said. ‘There you go. I can hear it in your voice.’
A horn cut through the damp. The man raised his arm and waved. The air was clear enough now to make the captain out, leaning out of the bridge and waving an arm back. My predecessor set off, walking backwards. Then he turned and ran, full tilt, down the grassy slope towards the pier.
I carried my bag into my quarters. A bed, a dresser, a desk. A clothing rack, in lieu of a closet. The bed had been stripped and the dirty linens lay in a ball on the floor. Tsking, I dropped my bag, grabbed up the greasy sheets and set off in search of the laundry room. I found it at the end of the hall, next to a bathroom that contained a small shower, sink and toilet. I stuffed the sheets into the washer, grabbed down some detergent from a shelf and set the machine churning. Then I walked back down the hall and peered into the room where I would be doing my work.
The control room was drab and imposing, with pale green painted cinderblock walls and a gray linoleum floor. A long, thin window stretched across the back wall and looked out onto the mossy face of the north hill. At this hour, it let in some meager light that, along with the room’s dim incandescence, illuminated a heavy console of switches, dials and gauges. This console had been installed along three walls of the room, and was dominated, in the center, by an extraordinary visual display.
Approximately four by six feet, this object resembled an oil painting more than it did an electronic device. In fact, that’s what I thought it was, at first, a painting, of the island itself and the surrounding ocean as seen from above, complete with the cottage rows, the towers, the dock and the building I was now standing inside. Then I noticed a faint shimmer in the water and, moving closer, realized that all of it, the entire image, was in slow, undulating motion. I was not looking at a static depiction. Rather, it was a constantly updating likeness, a live feed, rendered in three dimensions – as though the textured surface of a paper globe had come to life. I leaned closer, nearly touching my nose to the rippling surface, until I could make out an incalculable quantity of tiny shafts, each glowing, shifting in color, moving infinitesimally in and out with the movement of the waves. I was wondering how such a thing was possible when I realized that I could hear them as well: the whir of the tiny motors that powered each pinlike element, accompanied by the hum, like a distant insectile swarm, of whatever technology caused the shafts to fluctuate, ever so subtly, in position, color and luminance.
On the work surface beneath the display lay a leather-bound ledger, where my predecessor had been logging, in pencil, readouts from the control panel and the adjustments he had made, via the various knobs and levers, to maintain these at their proper values. He’d marked the time for each of the readouts and they were indeed taken every three hours, on the hour. I remembered what he’d said as he headed for the boat and scanned the ledger for the last entry. In a sudden panic I glanced at my watch: I had only seven minutes before the next readouts were due.
I ran to the bedroom and picked up the manual he had left behind. He was right: the procedure was indeed very clear. I didn’t have many responsibilities here except to keep my body healthy and to maintain this system. I hurried back to the control room, lay the manual open on the desk, and followed the instructions as quickly as possible: recording the values indicated by each readout; adjusting the knobs, levers and switches to nudge those values into the proper range; and taking note of the new values. The only remaining task was to enter all the new data into the terminal.
I almost made it. I was just sitting down before the terminal’s keypad when a piercing ring issued from a faceless telephone hanging on the wall above it. I answered with my name, title and personnel code, as was customary, and a woman’s voice replied, ‘The figures are late.’
‘I’m sorry. I’m entering them now.’
‘They are to be entered every three hours, on the hour, except in cases of high alert, during which time they must be entered every half-hour, on the half-hour, without exception.’
‘I know. It’s my first day,’ I explained. ‘My first hour, in fact.’
‘You’ll be permitted two further irregularities, at which time your assignment will fall under judicial review. If found negligent, you could be suspended, terminated or imprisoned.’
Imprisoned? No one had informed me of that possibility. ‘I understand. There,’ I said, clicking the submit key. ‘It’s done.’
During the pause that followed, I could hear the sounds of a busy command center. I wondered where the woman was. She said, ‘Data received. Under the provisions outlined in the manual of conduct, section 3, item 14a, you have received your first of three warnings. Do you acknowledge?’
‘The permissible responses are yes and no, sir.’
‘Thank you. Good evening.’
I intended to explore my surroundings, but there wasn’t much to explore. A cramped exercise room, complete with a treadmill and some barbells. A bookcase in the foyer filled with adventure, horror and western paperbacks. I ate food from cans and drank water from bottles and listened, briefly, to a radio broadcast in a language I didn’t understand. I slept surprisingly deeply between midnight and my 3 a.m. monitoring session, and after my 6 a.m. session, enjoyed a few brief sorties, on foot, around the east side of the island, as the towers’ ambient hum mingled with the sound of the rushing wind.
I experienced a brief panic in the control room when I noticed, upon arriving, a small dark spot on the gravelly verge outside the headquarters, moving towards the door. Alarmed, I dashed out and looked around. Nothing. When I returned to the monitor, the spot was gone – but then it reappeared for a moment before moving, once again, towards the door. The spot was me. The display, it seemed, had a latency of about ten seconds.
Another night passed before I decided to climb to the lowest point on the ridge and see the east side of the island for myself. I knew from the control-room display that there wasn’t anything there: a steep declivity of bare rock, probably impossible to walk down, terminating in violent seas. But I wanted a look, before settling in to what would doubtless prove a long, dull relationship with the Station’s collection of paperbacks. I waited until just after my 3 p.m. data upload, when the grass was at its most dry, laced up my boots and made a beeline for a small notch in the ridge, just southeast of HQ. I walked at a good clip and maintained my speed as the climb got steeper. I noticed that the grass had been trampled, creating a sort of path up to the notch. Animals might have created it, but so far I’d seen no animal life at all, save for the seabirds and a few insects. The only reasonable conclusion was that my predecessor had walked this same route – perhaps quite often, in fact.
All told, it took me about twenty minutes to reach the top, accompanied by the sough of the wind against the rock, the rasp of my boots through the grasses, my labored breathing and the distant, unanswered cry of a bird, somewhere beyond my vision. When I arrived, I was startled by what lay before me: the ocean, yes, churning against the craggy black of the unforgiving shore that the control-room display had shown me; and, at my feet, the softly humped green ridge that led north and south to the island’s two peaks. But the steep wall of rock between the two was interrupted by a long, low, gray structure situated just above the beach and extending an indeterminate depth into the hillside itself. Its placement would seem, from an engineering perspective, to be foolish in the extreme; the blasting, materials delivery and man-hours expended in such an unforgiving location must all have been extraordinarily costly. Yet there the building sat, seemingly as monolithic and unchanging as the rock itself, as though it had been there for a century. Indeed, it was almost as though the building had existed first and the mountain had grown over it, like a tree does through a chain-link fence.
My predecessor had told me this place existed – the Facility. Gazing at it from the ridge, I experienced a strange kind of vertigo: a sensation that my mind, not my body, might tumble down the cliff side, be dashed against the structure’s brutal corners and surfaces. This feeling ought to have terrified me. Instead it manifested as an urge, a hunger to be broken.
I took a step back. I’d want to climb down and explore, my predecessor had told me, and I should resist the temptation. He’d also dismissed, in the same breath, the possibility that I might actually resist. I did want to explore, of course, but I also wanted to prove him wrong. On the other hand, I wanted to defy him, which, quixotically, I could accomplish by proving him right.
My plans were further complicated by the dampness of the air and the slipperiness of the rock. My boots were made to grip surfaces like this, but there was only so much they could do on a slick, sheer plane. A good fifty yards separated me from the structure below, plenty of room to take a wrong step and fall to my immediate – or worse, slow and agonizing – death. How long would my body lie there before anyone was sent to investigate? Days, perhaps. And by then I might not only be dead, but torn asunder by the waves, or scavenged by birds and fish, carried away in tiny pieces high into the sky and deep into the sea. There wouldn’t even be remains to ship back to the mainland, or even evidence of what had happened to me. By all appearances, I would have simply disappeared – ceased to exist.
I turned around and began the walk back down the hill.
For several days, I found it fairly easy to keep myself occupied. I began an exercise regimen involving the small workout area of the Station and frequent brisk walks around the west side of the island. I tried, once, to circumnavigate the entire island by walking along the beach, but the peaks defeated me: their steep flanks plunged directly into the water, cutting off any possibility of safe traversal. Several times a day I passed through the village and tried to imagine the people who had once lived there. Sheep herders, I suspected, based upon the startling cairn of bones I encountered in a small cave near the northern end of the beach. What must it have been like to grow up in such a place? Perhaps living here sharpened the imagination and toughened the body. Or not – perhaps they went mad from loneliness.
My own childhood had been spent largely alone, which is part of what made me a good candidate for this assignment. I began to work my way through the bookcase, starting with the westerns. Some of them seemed familiar to me, and I wondered if these specific titles might have been among the ones I had stashed in my dusty corner of the attic, where I would quietly read, hiding from my father, when I was supposed to be out playing baseball or riding my bike. There in the Station, as I read, I remembered the sound of my parents’ arguments, my mother’s crying fits, my father’s dialogue with the television, which they didn’t realize I could hear.
I was dimly aware that summer would soon come to an end, and that I should capitalize on the good weather by toning my mind and body for winter. So I continued to take walks up on the ridge, and occasionally would gaze down at the Facility, wondering who had occupied it and why, and how they had got there. I could see no dock on the beach below. It was conceivable that a helicopter might be able to land on the roof – but of course nothing of the sort had happened during the weeks I’d resided here.
One sunny afternoon, when the grass was dry and the earth was hard, I found myself standing on the ridge once again, staring at the sheer rock face below. I was startled to realize that, in spite of myself, I was tracing a possible route down to the Facility. I could make out obvious footholds on the rocks – a series of serendipitous stairs, almost as regular as if they were man-made. And then, after further observation, I decided that they actually were man-made – cleverly hewn out of the existing rock for the very purpose of reaching the Facility below from the lowest point on the grassy ridge. Irregular they were, yes, but operational.
And the more I thought about my predecessor’s warning and dismissal, the more I believed that he himself had probably climbed down there as well. His sneering contempt wasn’t directed at me – a man he’d never met – but at himself, for betraying a nonexistent ‘rule’ that for some reason he believed was important.
Why should I permit my own behavior to be dictated by a stranger’s obscure system of values? There was nothing in the manual that forbad exploration of the western shore of the island, and I had two and a half hours to go before my next upload.
At first, the going was less perilous than I’d imagined. Whoever had made these steps had taken great care with them, maintaining a reasonably uniform height for each and angling them to accommodate the folds of rock. I descended the first twenty yards swiftly, and the Facility gradually rose to meet me.
But at some point I must have made a wrong move. A shallow ledge appeared to lead to a lower one, and one lower than that – but several steps down I realized that I was no longer treading on man-made cuts. What looked like a stair revealed itself as a steeply canted surface, and my feet flew out from under me. Hands grabbing at empty air, I fell, and my chin met the rock in an explosion of pain. For a moment I was certain I would go sliding to my death, but I managed to curl my fingers into a declivity, and my feet found purchase on a small outcropping. I hugged the mountainside, gasping, and could see, just ten feet to my left, the path I should have taken – my mistake was now clear.
Chin throbbing, I inched my way towards the safe path, handhold by handhold. That the sun had warmed the rock, drying it out, was the only thing that made this possible – there was nothing resembling a level surface between me and the stairs. But at last I made it, and was able to climb, trembling, down to the Facility.
It was nearly featureless – an uninterrupted slab of gray cement, save for the few ventilation fans affixed to the roof and the reinforced steel door, painted olive drab, that greeted me as I approached the near wall. I was standing on a natural terrace of relatively flat rock, dotted with lichen and bird droppings. Water pooled in shallow depressions here and there despite the heat, but the terrace was otherwise devoid of interest – along with the gray wall and green door, it formed a bleak geometry that alienated the visitor more than any keep out sign could hope to do. Further discouragement was provided by the absence of a knob, latch or handle to open the door with. By all appearances, it was the kind of door intended exclusively for use as an exit – doubtless a crash bar was affixed to the other side.
Only the narrowest foothold separated the Facility’s western wall from a sheer drop to the jagged rocks and churning sea below, so it was with great care that I edged around the side to check for an alternate entrance. There was none. The eastern side of the Facility was buried in the mountain, and I suspected the southern end was, too.
I gently touched my chin, and my fingers came away bloody. A pocket produced a wad of tissues, and I pressed these to the wound while I considered the mystery of this building. If the door I faced were the only entrance, and it could only be opened from the inside, then someone must be inside the building already – indeed, must be inside at all times. The only way for a visitor to get in would be for this person to know they were coming, and to leave the door open at a previously agreed-upon time. Perhaps the Facility was staffed in much the same way as the Station, with workers serving long stints there. Maybe more than one worker was on duty, so that they could take breaks. I could imagine one of them propping open the single door with a crate, and having a smoke out here on the terrace.
Imagining these workers inside monitoring various settings, examining data, striding around in their uniforms, gave me the idea that I should try simply knocking on the door. The Facility was large, but perhaps someone was stationed near this end – it was certainly reasonable to assume so.
I approached, arm extended, prepared to knock. But, before my knuckles could land, I heard a muffled buzz and click issue from beneath the painted steel, and the door fell silently open before me.
Beyond the doorway lay darkness. I took a step inside, instinctively feeling for a light switch or pull chain. None was evident. I reached around the door for the expected crash bar, and, reassured by its presence there, allowed the door to fall shut behind me with a dull thump.
The darkness was absolute now. I began to panic: I inhaled so sharply and hoarsely that I nearly choked, and sweat broke out under my arms. My scalp tingled with such intensity that I thought I could feel my hair turning brittle and gray.
What imagined horrors had frightened me, I didn’t know – there was only terror, exerting itself on my body without first registering in my conscious thoughts. And then, as suddenly as it gripped me, the fear released me, leaving a fleeting feeling of euphoria in its wake. My muscles loosened and I let out a groan of relief.
As my mind grew accustomed to this temporary blindness, my other senses sharpened. The room I now stood in harbored a collection of familiar odors: engine oil, for one, specifically oil that had leaked for many years into a slab of wet cement. It was accompanied by the faint smell of gasoline, as though from a closed but poorly sealed five-gallon red plastic canister, with integral yellow spout. I could also detect rodents, possibly squirrels but probably mice, an active nest of them somewhere in the walls, and the mingled scents of insecticide and latex paint. Beneath it all lay a faint, fecal reek.
The quiet sound, of my boots scuffing against the cement, and of my once-panicked, now-calm breaths, echoed in a particular way against the floor and ceiling, giving me to reason that the space measured approximately twenty feet by fifteen, and that I was standing close to a wall. I reached out to my right, and my hand found a wooden shelf, cluttered with greasy, dusty cans and jars. I lifted one and gave it a shake, and heard the sound of small metal objects – nails, screws or washers – rattling inside glass. From somewhere nearby came the rhythmic thrum of a machine, though it didn’t originate here, in this room – it came from behind a wall or walls. I also could sense something warm to my left, and remembered I’d heard a resonant tick when I entered, which had been repeating in ever-lengthening intervals. I set down the jar and reached out with my left hand. There it found a smooth metal surface, at about waist height: the hood, I realized, of a car. It was indeed slightly warm to the touch – as though the engine beneath it had been switched off about ten minutes before.
I didn’t need light to know this was my father’s 1982 Ford Mustang GT, but I slid my hand further across the hood to check for the scoop.