0006: Dust

Hollow World #6

Lamont’s eyes darted furtively around the stairwell. Two wall sconces, the globes of which had not been cleaned in years, cast the entrance in a dull amber that made the checkered floor tiles and flaking walls look perhaps even more grimy than they really were. He ducked his head to the side, examining the shadows beneath the steps to search for crouching figures. There was nothing but a week-old edition of the Martian Chronicle that had never been retrieved. Satisfied that no ambush would come from here, Lamont made his way slowly up the steps, keeping his body sideways. A large ventilation fan cut into the front of the stairwell cast alternating bands of deep shadow and sullen purple across the textured metal of the stairs. Lamont held his breath at the turn of each story, but found the landing of each to be unoccupied. Reaching the door to his apartment, he nudged it with his shoe before trying the knob with his right hand. It was locked. Exhaling, he loosened his grip on his key ring, his palm stinging from the pressure of the small metal teeth. He unlocked the door and nudged it open.

The apartment was dark, as he had seen from the outside. Every few seconds, the familiar outlines of his furnishings were dimly bathed in violet, cut into thin strips by the half-open blinds on his window.  The space was small enough to be inventoried at a glance. To his left, the kitchenette with its round-cornered, metal-lined bar. The newspaper he had been reading earlier was open where he had left it, with a coffee cup set on its corner. To his right, a small desk and a card table, underneath which was tucked his filing cabinet. Behind them, a square and thickly padded armchair of cracked synthetic leather and a standing lamp; the one that should have been on. Straight ahead, six paces would take him to the doorway leading to his bed and bathroom. Nothing appeared to be out of place. 

Edging between the corner of the card table and the arm of his chair, Lamont reached into the inverted conical top of the floor lamp, checking the tightness of the bulb in its socket. Nothing changed, so he withdrew his hand and turned the switch at the base of the shade. The bulb came on, filling the small apartment with cool white light. Had he simply forgotten to turn the lamp on before he left? It had been midday, and the room had been well illuminated from the window. He passed a hand over the stubble on his jaw. While often preoccupied, Lamont wasn’t given to absent-mindedness. 

A faint scent touched his nostrils. Smoky, sour, tinged with ozone. He started. Lowering his hand, he saw that the skin was smudged with something white and chalky.

Before he was aware of having moved, Lamont was at the sink of his kitchenette, running cold water over his hands and splashing it over his face until the substance was no longer visible in the stream that circled down the drain. He braced himself against the edge of the sink, drops of water falling from his mustache. He could feel the muscles in his forearms trembling.

“Dust,” he muttered to himself. “Dust from the ceiling.”

Lamont was organized in his work, but not overly tidy. It wasn’t as if he had taken a feather duster to the place in the few months that he had occupied it. But that smell… 

Lamont glanced at his wristwatch. In an hour, the pink lights indicating the beginning of Martian daytime would come on. He was filled with nervous energy now. He boiled some water, fixed a cup of instant coffee, and took it to his desk. He produced a pocket tape recorder from his vest and set it beside the shorthand typing machine. Soon, his mind was entirely occupied with the familiar sounds of a tinny conversation and the steady clicking of the machine as he transcribed it. He never skipped a portion of the recording, no matter how mundane; any detail could turn out to be significant on further investigation, even from a small-time cog like Chester K. Grimwald, who’s droning ruminations piped methodically from the tiny speaker.

“A man works and don’t get paid, there’s a word for that, yeah? Now look: You put in a fortnight, get your check, and where does it go? Groceries from the Company market. Curtains from the Company store. Rent for the company housing—and if you don’t pay it, well, now the Company owns you just like it owns the house. But that’s the thing—they already did. They owned every hair on your head as soon as the airlock closed behind you.”

Words drifted through the air to the clacking of keys, like snow—was it snow?—carried along by a warm breeze.

Lamont woke up suddenly to the sound of screaming.

Next: Help from Neptune