Exterior Camera Two goes dark.
Aaron sits forward. Attention instantly on the monitor.
What he should be seeing: A bird’s-eye view of the rear of the lighthouse. Looking down on the wooden addition where the generator is housed. Its padlocked door.
Instead? The screen is black.
He reaches involuntarily for the telephone. Stops himself. Can’t afford another false alarm. If the camera is out, he needs to call it in. But is it? He looks to the other monitors.
Various views of the lighthouse exterior. Empty. No movement. Nothing noteworthy or out of place. The sky is moonless. Overcast. If the lamps partnered with any one of the other cameras were to burn out on a night as dark as this, the effect would be similar to that of the camera dying, wouldn’t it?
Aaron looks back to the monitor in question. Squints into the image.
Not quite black, after all. A hazy halo of light sneaks into the bottom edge of frame. Indirect spill barely reaching around the lighthouse’s curvature from the lamp over the main entrance. The dimmest glow, illuminating the rock on which the lighthouse stands. Enough to to prove the camera itself is operational. The bulb above it must simply be burnt out.
Aaron forces himself to sit back in his chair. To calm down. To take in the larger view. Facing: A bank of computers. Satellite images. Sonar. Weather reports. The crow’s nest is filled with information about the situation outside. None of which is telling him to panic. The scanners scan. The pingers ping. The other monitors remain unchanged. Displaying images and readouts virtually identical to those they’ve shown for the last month. They might just as well have been stills taken the night he started working. His domain is intact. Secure.
Nothing to call in. This is not an emergency. It’s a bulb change.
He can handle it.
But first, he needs Max.
On the balcony’s edge. Head and long limbs pressed through the bars of the railing. Legs dangling over the rocks below. Feet kicking.
Not soaked yet, but certainly damp. Enough cold mist on the wind to equal a light rain, though the real storm is still a ways off. He sees it in the distance: A shimmering curtain connecting sky to sea. Coming ever closer.
Looking directly forward eliminates all traces of the lighthouse from his peripheral vision. Leaves Max weightless. Floating far above the shoreline. He looks for stars to fly towards, but storm clouds obscure most of the night sky.
Behind him, the glass door squeals open. Smoke escapes his lungs in a blue cloud. He addresses his visitor without looking back. “What’s up, A-Ron?”
“We’ve got a light out. I have to go check on it.”
“Yeah?” Max’s fingertips burn. Blacken. He draws every last benefit from the joint before flicking away what little remains. Tries to track its trajectory through the night air, but quickly loses sight of it. “You sure you shouldn’t call for backup?”
A pause before Aaron answers. “Hilarious.”
Max hears the hurt in the reply. Regrets poking at a raw spot. He pulls his head from between the bars. Looks back at Aaron: His closest friend since childhood.
The uniform makes the seventeen year-old look like a child. The smallest they had, still two sizes too big. Baggy. Sagging. Sleeves and pantlegs too long even with cuffs rolled. Aaron was always undersized, only seeming moreso since puberty spread through their class. A plague, ravaging everyone else. Aaron apparently immune.
An icy wind blows the thick shock of dirty blond hair from Max’s eyes. Brings tears. Blinking spills them down his cheeks. “Better make it quick. Storm’s almost here.”
“That’s why I’m… Max? We’re not supposed to leave the monitors unmanned. There’s a reason they’ve got two of us here, right?”
“Is there, Aaron?” Max turns away. Puts his head through the railing. Grips the bars tightly. Watches the whitecaps march ever-onwards. Nature’s first strike, softening the shoreline in anticipation of the coming attack.
Behind him the door opens. Shuts. Aaron’s gone.
A flash. Thunder.
The storm even closer than he’d thought.
The bulb undoes easily. Already loose.
Just to check, Aaron tries tightening it. Blinds himself as it blazes to life.
Flinching away from the flash, he loses balance momentarily on the tall ladder. Grabs at the lighthouse wall. Finger slipping. Its painted brick slick with ocean mist. Somehow, he manages to catch hold. Saves himself.
Overhead, the lamp shines down. The bulb tight enough now to avoid any further blackouts. Would it stay that way? Aaron is debating replacing it anyway, when a old man’s voice speaks from his pocket.
“All right, b’ys. Drop yer cocks and pull up yer socks. This is Martin, on Tower One, putting out an All-call. Somethin’s in the air tonight, so’s ya best look lively and keep wary. It’s time to lemme know yer still out there.”
An All-call. Of course. Aaron wastes no time: Half-climbs, half-slides down the ladder to the rock below. There will be no bulb exchange tonight. He has to get upstairs before it’s his turn to respond.
He yanks the release. The ladder drops. Folds into itself. He rushes to carry it inside. Doesn’t quite make it before a curtain of rain draws itself over the scene.
The storm has arrived.
“Tower Two? How’s by you?”
“This is Monique at Tower Two, Martin. Giving you the all’s well.”
“Thank ya, Tower Two. Keep yer eyes peeled and have yerselves a good night, there.”
“Yessir, we will. Tower Two out.”
Each metal step rings out as Aaron races up the spiral staircase. Leaping two at a time. Faster than prudent in wet sneakers.
“Tower Three, how ya be?”
Nearing the top, Aaron’s feet slide. One quick hand catches the rail. He keeps himself upright. Scrambles onwards. Upwards.
“Tower Three? We’re all waitin’ on ya.”
“Sorry about that, Tower One, just doing a quick double-check. We’re all-clear here at Tower Three.”
“Thank ya, Tower Three. Don’t drop yer guard tonight. I’ve an itch, deep in my ballsack. It’s the boys, tellin’ me beware, and I’ve longsince learned to listen to them fellas.”
“All right, Martin. We’re on it. Tower Three out.”
Aaron reaches the crow’s nest. Leaps into his chair. Rolls into place facing the bank of monitors. There’s no sign of Max, naturally. Above, the rain pounds the windows of the lantern room.
“Tower Four? What’re–”
“All’s well at Tower Four.” Patsy’s voice is sharp. “All’s always well at Tower Four, Martin. Going on year fifteen and all is always all-well, all night, every night, for every night of every one of those years, including all the nights when you’ve had a bad feeling.”
Aaron cringes. Uncertain how the old man might respond to the mutiny.
“Don’t ya let yerselves be lulled, there, Patsy.” Martin’s voice remains calm. Strong. Sure. “That’s just what they’re hoping for.”
“Oh it is, is it? Pretty goddamned patient, aren’t they?”
“Ya’d better believe it, girl. They’re a wily bunch, and they’ll outwait the rock itself if that’s what it takes to–”
“I’m putting the question to the rest of you, Towers.” Patsy shouts him down. “Any of you still believe in what we’re doing? Even if there was some threat out there – once upon a thousand years ago – how long are we going to keep watch before we consider maybe it’s gone on its merry way?”
Aaron grabs his clipboard. Methodically checks his monitors: Video feeds from live cameras. Interior. Exterior. Underwater. Computer readouts. Sonar. Doppler. Satellite imagery. A screen for everything and everything in its screen.
Nope. None of the other towers are interested in backing her up.
“You’ve got a lot less to say with Martin on the line.” There’s a clunk. Footsteps away from the microphone. Patsy’s final word comes from a distance: “Cowards.”
“Uh… Tower One, this is Mike.” Patsy’s partner steps in. “Giving you the all-clear from Tower Four.”
“Our thanks to ya, Mike. Be sure and thank Patsy for me as well. The nights are long and the business slow. I feel it, same as anybody. But it’s better this way, believe me. Better we take the watch and never see nothing than leave the shore unguarded and… Well, God forbid what might happen then.”
Most blanks already filled on Aaron’s midnight check-in form. He taps his ballpoint pen next to each remaining entry. Underlines “Exterior Camera Two.” He looks up at the monitor in question: The scene clear. Well-lit. Secure. Everything once again in its place. Not a moment too soon.
“Look alive, Tower Five.”
Hand on the call button. Aaron’s ready. He clears his throat. Presses down.
“This is Aaron, on Tower Five. We’re all clear, here…”
When he starts to say it, they are. Then, Exterior Camera Two winks out again. Replaced by blackness.
“Which is it, b’y? Y’all clear or only mostly? ‘Cause let me tell ya, there’s a world of difference. Would ya expect I prefer my coffee all-clear of piss? Or only just mostly?”
“No, no. It’s all-clear. We’re all clear.” It must just be the bulb. Still not screwed-in tightly enough. He should’ve replaced it. “It’s just–”
“Aaron.” The old man’s voice is harsh. “Don’t be telling me yer all clear, if there is some way in which ya ain’t.”
Flustered, Aaron takes a breath. Tries to compose an answer in his head. Before he can, the speaker crackles. A new voice chimes in.
“Hey Tower One, this is Tower Four. Just got word from my doctor. She says I’m all clear of cancer, mostly. That’s pretty good, right?”
Aaron groans. “All I’m saying, is–”
“Tower Four, this is Tower Two. I wouldn’t worry about that report at all… Mostly.”
Aaron sees his future stretching out ahead of him: This in-joke, repeated every time he runs into another lighthouse keeper. Exactly the sort of offhand nothing these guys live for. Bored out of their minds in their respective crow’s nests, watching their own banks of unchanging monitors, just waiting for the slightest slip-up to latch onto for the sake of entertaining themselves.
“This is Tower Three. Let’s go easy on Aaron, guys. It’s not as though he’s made any mistakes before… Mostly.”
Laughter from various headsets.
“He’s called in absolutely no false alarms… Mostly.”
A mix of voices vie to get in the next jab, only to be abruptly cut off.
“All right, ya bastards. Ya’ve had yer fun, now clear off my lines. Get back minding yer own bees’ wax.”
“You are so right, Tower One. At Tower Three we’re far too busy to engage in such juvenile hijinks…”
A trio of voices chime in: “Mostly!”
Laughter cuts off as they leave the call. Aaron shakes his head. Without a doubt, “Mostly” will dog him for the rest of his life.
“Tower Five? This is Tower One, still waiting on yer status.”
Aaron looks at Exterior Camera Two. He licks his lips. Swallows.
The line is quiet for a moment.
“Then ya’d best be signing off, lad.”
Aaron nods. “Tower Five out.” He lets go of the call button. Drops back in his seat with a massive moan. Why must everything be so much harder than it has to be?
“All right, children. We’re all-clear on all points, but I want yer eyes wide open tonight. Remember why yer out here. The whole island’s counting on ya, whether they know it or not. So pay heed. Keep a careful watch. Tower One out.”
The speaker clicks off. The All-call finished. Ambient sounds seem to rise in volume to fill the silent void: Rain. Thunder. Dripping. The monitors blip and ping.
A single dark screen reminds Aaron there is still work to be done: The bulb. He’ll need to go out in the storm to replace it. On his own. He looks up at the lantern room windows. No point in asking Max for help again. If the kid couldn’t even be bothered to come in out of the rain, he wasn’t going to be of any use now.
Aaron stands. Resolved to get the job done himself. Storm or no storm.
This is when the power goes out.
Wanda’s jeans are halfway down when her phone rings. She’s leaning against the wall in a less-than-pristine bathroom stall. Unscrewing the top from a small nailpolish bottle.
A born multi-tasker, she pulls out her cell. Glances at the screen briefly. Wedges it between ear and shoulder.
“However may I be of service to you this evening, Aaron?”
“I’ve just got a bit of a… Work-related question.”
“Gotta stop you there, kiddo. I’m outside the Circle. Persona non grata. You no speakee work outside Circle, savvy?” Wanda removes the lid – also a brush, primed with translucent black goo. Lets some drip back into the bottle.
“So, who’m I supposed to call with this stuff, Aunt Wanda? My mom?”
Wanda smiles. “Why not? She’s the understanding sort, isn’t she?” She laughs. Leans forward with the brush. Examines the inside of her upper thigh: A patchwork of unhappy pink rectangles stands out from the flesh. Sore spots. Some fresh. Others nearly healed. “All right. Ask yourself your question. If I happen to overhear it, that’ll be my fault for eavesdropping.”
Aaron asks himself: “I wonder what should I do if the power goes out?”
Wanda tightens up. “Like… Out completely?”
“The lantern’s on. Still turning. But that’s it.”
“It’s on solar back-up. If you lose power from the main, everything else should run from the genny.” She paints an inch-long stripe of the black goo onto an empty spot near her panty-line. Quickly sticks the brush-lid into its bottle. Screws it shut.
“It should? But what if it isn’t?”
Wanda grimaces. Sucks air through her teeth as the burn sets in. Her skin sizzles and pops as the goo absorbs. Cooking on contact. Her body contorts as the chemicals rush to her extremities. She pushes back hard against the stall divider. It bows in the middle from the pressure.
She relaxes visibly. Slumps as the crackling dies off. Shoulder-grip loosening, she loses her phone. Barely catching it in her free hand before it can drop into the toilet.
“Not… To… Worry.” She swallows. As always, her mouth fills with saliva as the goo does its thing. “It happens… The lighthouse… The whole damn thing’s all held together with spit and wishes, anyway.”
Wanda opens her eyes. Looks at her leg. The goo has burnt away. Leaving behind a badly charred strip of flesh. Crisp. Black.
“So what do I do, then?”
“Well… If the generator hasn’t come on on its own, it’s going to need to be started manually.”
“You’re saying I should do that?”
“I’m saying somebody has to.” Wanda sighs. Already, her buzz is beginning to fade. “Either you do it, or you call it in.”
The bathroom door clatters open. Someone enters. Wanda tilts her head. Peers through the crack. Makes out a form, but doesn’t recognize it.
“Or you can just sit there in the dark, I suppose.” She rubs at the charred spot. Clenching her teeth. The pain gives her a jolt, but she doesn’t stop. The burnt flesh cracks. Breaks away. Flakes and powder. Dusting her half-mast pants. Beneath, her skin is red. Raw. “I dunno, Aaron. I’m just a civilian now. You’re on duty. It’s all up to you.”
A sharp rap on the stall door. A voice: “Your five minutes are up, chick.”
“I know. Just got waylaid. By a phone call.” Wanda quickly rubs away the rest of the crispy-fried coating until nothing remains but a hot-pink rectangle. No worse than a bad sunburn. “It’s Aaron.”
She pulls up her pants. It’s a struggle. They’re too tight for this to be quick or easy. She cringes as the denim brushes against her freshest wound, but fights through it.
“Everything all right?” asks the voice outside the stall.
“What? Yeah. They’re fine.” Wanda brushes herself off. Straightens up. “You’re fine, aren’t you?”
“Me?” Aaron is far from certain. “I’m… I still don’t know if I should–”
“Good! Good. I gotta go, kiddo. Best of luck to you.” Wanda hangs up her phone. Drops it into her pocket. Flushes the toilet.
And opens the stall door.
The full force of the storm batters Aaron as he opens the lighthouse door. Forces him to step back inside until he can muster the power to fight his way out.
He plays his flashlight along the slick rock. Follows its beam around the circumference of the building. Steadies himself with one hand against the stone wall as he approaches the generator shed.
A late extension to the century-old lighthouse, the wooden shed was added long after the advent of electricity. With its own separate entrance, it remains inaccessible from within the main building. Attached, but never fully integrated. Aaron curses the architects for their short-sightedness.
Keys out and ready, he finds the padlock has been removed. Hasp hanging open. He plays his flashlight over the ground. Any further than a few feet away is a mystery. The darkness eats up his beam of light whenever it strays too far from its source. No sign of the lock nearby.
He turns back to the shed. As he opens the door, the wind rips it from his hand. Slams it against the wall. He struggles to pull it closed behind him.
Inside, the generator is silent. Dark. Definitely not operational.
Aaron shines the light around the interior, looking for the laminated instructions he remembers seeing hanging on one of the walls, during orientation a month earlier. His first day on the job.
There. Attached to the back of the door. He swipes raindrops away. Reads the title: Emergency Manual Power Transfer Instructions.
Step One: Before attempting transfer, turn ALL breakers/disconnect switches to OFF.
A moment’s searching turns up the breaker box. With stiff clacks, he snaps every breaker into its off position. Simple enough. He returns to the door for his next instruction.
Step Two: After disabling grid-use functions, determine whether ATS is set to Normal or Neutral. IMPORTANT: Do not crank or attempt bypass while in EMERGENCY position. Failure to follow these directions can result in catastrophic damage to equipment and injury or even death to operator.
Um… ATS? Grid-use functions?
Try as he might, Aaron cannot find anything at all labelled ATS, and far too many things labelled Normal or Neutral. He’s utterly stumped and unwilling to risk life and limb for an uninformed guess.
He should have called it in. That much is clear. He should never have attempted this on his own. As hard as everyone has been on him since his false alarm, no one could have faulted him. A power outage? Entirely justified. All the monitors are down. The island left unprotected. The more he thinks about it the worse the mistake seems. He needs to call in for assistance, now. There’s no time to waste.
Even gripping the handle tightly, Aaron loses the door to the wind once again as he exits. Before he can regain his hold, he sees three enormous black forms advancing towards him. Shambling through the sheets of rain.
After a frozen moment of panic, he grabs for the handle. The things break into sprints. Run towards him, just as he yanks the door shut.
He’s shaken as they slam into the other side. Holds tight as they yank on the handle and bark at him through the wall. Guttural sounds he can’t make out through the storm and their pounding.
With a loud crack, the door frame buckles beneath the assault. It’s too much. Aaron lets go of the handle. Hoists his flashlight over his head with both hands.
As the door flies open, he brings the flashlight down with all his might. Square in the face of the first creature to enter.
The man screams in pain and surprise, grabbing at his instantly gushing broken nose as a second man leaps forward, stopping Aaron from landing another blow.
“What the hell!? Aaron, it’s us!”
Aaron looks up into the familiar face of the man restraining him: Roscoe. Turning, he sees Burl. Hands held over his face. Blood pouring forth from between his fingers.
“Augh… Ah dink ee broke by puckin’ dose.”
A smaller third black shape storms into the shed. Grabs Aaron away from Roscoe without breaking stride. Slams him into the breaker box.
She snatches the flashlight from Aaron’s grasp and shines it into his face. Holds it there. The light blinds him. Burns his night-adjusted eyes.
“You useless idiot! What the fuck are you thinking?”
“I wanted to help. I wanted to fix it.”
Aaron can’t see his mother’s face beyond the flashlight beam. He blinks hard. If tears come, he knows he’s forever sunk in her eyes, but the light is so bright.
“Sylvie.” Roscoe puts a hand on the woman’s shoulder. Squeezes. “Let the kid loose. We’ve got work to do.”
Sylvie releases her son. Turns away. “Go. Get the first aid for Burl.” She puts the light on the generator. Slides open a panel. She knows what she’s doing.
Aaron trudges out of the shed. Into the rain. Rounding the building, he finds Max standing in the dark of the lighthouse doorway. “Aaron! Where were you?”
He sighs. “You called it in?”
Max is incredulous. “The power’s out and I couldn’t find you anywhere. Of course I called it in.”
Of course he did. Aaron steps past his partner. Heads inside to get the first aid kid, wondering what nicknames will come of this.
Sylvie gets the generator up and running in no time. As it rumbles to life, the light shining from the lantern above brightens distinctly. No longer on solar backup alone, the beam cuts a sharper swath through the pounding downpour and out over the ocean.
The lamp over the shed flickers. Resumes its task. In no need of further tightening. Beneath its light, Sylvie’s team emerges from the generator shed. Heads around the lighthouse towards the main entrance. She brings up the rear. Slams the door. Closes the empty hasp. Finding no padlock and seeing no sign of it on the ground, she pulls a wrench from her work belt. Jams it through the loop to hold the door in place. It’s a tight fit, but does the job.
She then follows her men inside. Out of the weather.
Only when the lighthouse door has closed do those watching dare to move.
Back from the rocky shore, in a nearby thicket of fir trees, they stir. Turn away from the lighthouse without a word to one another. Head off through the dripping foliage.
The last of them hangs back a moment. Drops a useless hunk of metal to the ground before following the others into the darkness of the woods.