T. L. Sherwood
The end of the mission was so close, Hank allowed himself to think about crisp ironed sheets, clear mountain streams…and revenge. His duties at the Seed Project Depository were minimal but monotonous. It gave him time to nurse a coincidence into a paranoid delusion. His girlfriend must be cheating on him.
Another alarm went off. When the jolting sound wasn’t silenced within thirty seconds, Hank sat up on his cot. Bleary-eyed, he glanced at the clock and saw he had only ten more minutes to sleep anyway. The photo of his fiancée dressed in a bathrobe was pinned to the wall. He’d seen the same bathrobe recently. It was strewn across the back of the chair that the Seedman sat in during their last Skype call. Hank reached over, pulled down the picture, and then pressed the button on the two-way radio.
“Jesus, Dan. Are you gonna shut that off today or what?” Hank asked while searching the photo for a hint of betrayal.
Dan answered from the control room. “One minute. I’m checking something.”
“Oh come on. What is it? A walrus in Section C?”
“No. It’s strange. I don’t see anything.”
Yawning, Hank let the photo flutter to the floor while stretching his arms above his head. He expected Dan to speak again, but all he heard was the alarm. Hank stroked the stubble on his cheeks with his right hand a few times. In the last five months, he had changed his mind about growing a beard at least twenty times. Today, the idea of shaving was winning out again. Jenna liked a man with a beard. She could go fuck herself.
“Hey Hank?” Dan finally spoke.
“Would you come look at this?”
“On my way.” After shoving his feet into the grey slippers that had seen more wear than any of the pairs of boots or sneakers he’d packed for the mission, Hank pulled on a flannel shirt and the sweat pants he’d worn the day before.
Still half-asleep, shuffling his way down the main corridor, Hank took a right into the cafeteria and grabbed his coffee mug. There was no coffee in the carafe, which wasn’t unusual. Dan would have a full pot in the control room.
When he heard Hank behind him, Dan reported. “I keep changing the angles, but nothing. The readouts say it’s a fifteen pound object.”
“That’s one puny walrus.”
“Exactly what I was thinking.”
“Have the penguins come back?”
“Haven’t seen any.”
“Kill the alarm at least. Let me look at the feed.”
Hank poured coffee into his mug, never taking his eyes off the bank of video screens. His first sip of the chicory blend coffee was bitter and invigorating.
Dan turned the key in the lock a quarter of a turn and pulled open the clear plastic cover. He toggled the switch off with his thumb. The alarm immediately stopped.
“You see?” Dan asked. “There’s nothing out there.”
Both men scrutinized the bleak landscape that filled the video screen. It was a frozen white mass as far as the camera’s viewfinder would focus.
“Play the tape back for me.”
“How far back?”
“Half hour ought to do. Give me thirty second refreshes.”
Dan busied himself with the video feedback program. “Screen twelve.”
Hank took another sip of coffee and watched the screen as it rapidly sped through glimpses of an unchanging snow-covered ground until the red light began to flash.
“Fourth time this week. Think the sensor is bad?”
“No.” Hank took control of the other keyboard. He pulled the focus of the camera out then zoomed it in before he rotated it a full 360 degrees, showing the outer edges of the entrance. “Well, I don’t know. I wouldn’t think so.”
“I’m calling Shattuck.” Dan picked up the receiver and dialed.
Hank could have fought him over the call, but he didn’t. He wasn’t on duty yet. Topping off his coffee mug, he left the control room. If Shattuck didn’t like receiving a call in the middle of the night again, good. Hank hoped his slutty soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend and the Seedman were being interrupted. He couldn’t wait to confront them. In a few weeks, Hank and Dan were finally scheduled to get back to the real world. Changes were going to be made. Major ones.
Walking back to the sleeping quarters, Hank glanced up at the speaker hanging in the corner. Identical speakers were in each room of the complex. They conveyed whatever was being said in the control room. Hank listened to Dan leave a message for Shattuck. There was no way to turn the speakers off. According to the Seedman, it was a safety feature.
“How is listening to Hank’s farts a safety feature?” Dan jokingly asked when they were doing their initial walk-through of the seed bank.
“In case there’s ever an emergency,” Gerald ‘The Seedman’ Shattuck explained. “The data feeds will be a second witness. Your partner will be the primary.”
“What emergency? We’re guarding seeds, not nuclear warheads,” Dan said.
“I’m not Nostradamus, Daniel. I don’t think there will be any problems, but as I said, they are there just in case. Now, over here is the media entertainment headquarters. No new episodes of “The Walking Dead,” I’m afraid, but the video selection is quite extensive.”
“Like “Girls Gone Topless” extensive?”
“Of course. You’ll be here for six months. I’m hoping you put your free time to a little better use than that. You’ll notice the discs over here. That is the complete catalogue of all the seeds gathered so far. It might be interesting for you to know which species of plants you’re investing your time in.”
The three of them passed by the digital jukebox, plasma television and the various video game consoles without comment. The Seedman opened the next door, “And this is the gymnasium.”
From the rock wall to the treadmills and stair climbers, everything was brand new and gloriously sweat-free. Hank would rise two hours before his shift began and start his daily rigorous physical exertion’s that were a pleasurable counterpoint to the mentally numbing screen watching and temperature recording that made up his twelve hour shifts in the control room.
He was just about done with his last ten chin-ups when the alarm went off again. Hank pulled himself up repeatedly, determined to finish his reps. When he confronted the Seedman, he was going to destroy him. Not only had that man stolen his girlfriend, he’d made it so Hank didn’t have a chance to keep her. Hank dropped to the ground, picked up a towel, and wiped the beads of sweat off his forehead then hit the shower, hoping to drown out the sound.
By the time he rinsed his hair, the alarm was off. Hank pulled the scissors out of the medicine cabinet and cut off most of the beard growth. He lathered up, shaved his cheeks clean, then sculpted a goatee out of the remaining whiskers. Satisfied with the result, he pulled on his tee shirt and boxers. He was determined not to look like a slob if the Seedman called.
A month ago, Dan called about the alarm going off in Section J. Shattuck returned the call when Hank was on duty. Being bawled out by the Seedman was one thing, but having sweaty hair and wearing a dirty shirt during the Skype exchange made it even more embarrassing. The call was entered into the official record. Members of the Board of Directors of the Native Earth Life Preservation Society could view it.
Hank volunteered for this duty hoping that it would help him get his own work funded when he got out. Jenna was hesitant about it at first, but after she spoke with the Seedman, she’d agreed to let Hank go. Hank wondered what other conversations had taken place between them while he was stuck babysitting a bunch of seeds on the off chance the world destroyed itself and civilization needed a jump-start to the agricultural phase.
In the bottom drawer, Hank found a red chamois shirt, a gift from his cheating girlfriend and threw it across the room. He finished dressing and whistled as he walked to the cafeteria. He rinsed out a carafe and made a fresh pot of coffee. When it was done brewing, he carried it with him to the control room. The plastic cover, which protected the alarm sensor reset toggle switches, was open. Another of the sensor toggles was switched to the off position.
“Look at this.” Dan pointed at a screen. He had the camera on Section H pulled back as far as it would go and pointed directly downward.
“Bird prints.” Hank said. “So?”
“Watch this.” Dan had already cued up the section he wanted to play. “Thirteen hundred hours, nothing. Five minutes later, the alarm sounds.”
“I didn’t see anything.”
“Watch it again. I’ll slow it down.”
The bitter, white cold filled the screen. Suddenly, the imprint of a bird’s talon appeared in the snow beneath the camera. In the video, a red light began to blink, which threw more light on the print. Mercifully, Dan had muted the sound.
“What the…?” Hank took another sip of his coffee. “How’s that possible?”
“It shouldn’t be possible. I went ahead and alternated the views. Every other camera is pointed at the ground, the rest on the horizon. I haven’t seen any birds in weeks. The penguins have been gone for months. The prints. What are they? Hawks, you think?” Dan switched off the video they had just watched. “I mean, what do we do now?”
“What did the Seedman say?”
“He hasn’t called back.”
“Try him again.”
“After the last time—”
“Get him on the line.” Hank grimaced. This was not the conversation he wanted to have with his rival.
Dan picked up the phone. His face was reflected back in the monitor screen. He hung up.
Hank saw Dan’s brows furrow. “What?”
Perfect. Not only has the Seedman got his girl, he’s abandoned the mission. Hank refused to let his emotions betray him. He walked over to the emergency ham radio and turned it on to warm up the tubes. With any luck, he’d be able to reach one of the ships in the area if not the mainland itself and bypass protocol. Regardless, he didn’t want Dan to worry. “You know what the problem is?” Hank asked.
“What?” Dan responded.
Hank turned around and looked him right in the eye. “Sunspots.”
“What?” Dan sounded confused.
“Used to hear about it all the time when I installed satellite dishes. Sunspots flare up, knock out the signal and next thing I know, there’s twenty people screaming that their dishes are broken.”
“Yeah?” The muscles in Dan’s face relaxed. He seemed relieved that Hank had found an explanation for the odd occurrence.
“Yeah. Look, your shift is almost over. Why don’t you go on? I’ll keep trying to get a hold of Shattuck. Ok?”
“Are you sure?
“Positive. I’ll wake you if anything else happens, ok?”
“Absolutely.” Hank flashed him his most reassuring smile. There was a humming sound followed by sudden static. Hank turned back to the radio and picked up the headset. He took his time snugging down the earpiece, waiting for Dan to leave. Hank started to spin the channel dial to nineteen.
“Attention: This is Seedstore Two. Seedstore Two requesting assistance.”
After making his opening statement, Hank turned to look at Dan. He finished with his log update. Hank flashed him the ok sign with his thumb and forefinger. Dan nodded and left the control room. With a practiced voice capable of exuding utter calm, Hank proceeded with protocol. He switched the channel to eighteen and repeated his plea to the outside world. The words echoing throughout the complex were tremendously reassuring.
Stroking the hairs on his chin, Hank watched the bank of screens intently. He switched the toggle on Sector I off before the alarm sounded. The footprints of the bird of prey pressed closer to the wall of the complex in that area. Section E was next. Fascinated with what he saw, he readjusted the focus of the other cameras to point downwards. Over and over again, footprints appeared where no bird stood. Three hours into his shift, all of the alarms were toggled to the off position. He turned off the ham radio. In the silence of the snowy screens, Hank watched the invisible birds multiply outside the concrete walls of the Seed Storage and Preservation Center. Silently, inexplicitly their numbers increased. Hank could hear Dan snoring. Whatever the hell had happened out in the real world was bad. It was worse than the girl he’d asked to marry him sleeping with his boss. A Rubicon had been crossed or a spiritual transcendence had been achieved. Before the implication that he hadn’t been there to witness it being ushered in had a chance to grate on his nerves, Hank heard the first faint peck of a ghostly beak on the main entrance door.
T. L. Sherwood lives in western New York near Buffalo. She’s Fiction Editor at Literary Orphans and the Assistant Editor of r.kv.r.y Quarterly Literary Journal.