Just beyond the dome control room, through the short green tunnel, and out the rusted hatch was an entire landscape. I was awestruck as I approached the door and saw a destroyed and desolate city covered in white snow, loomed over by a dark sky. I came up to the doorway and stepped out halfway. I halted when my foot touched the ground. It was sand, not snow. Pure white sand, covering everything. Ahead of me was a huge metropolis of skyscrapers and enormous buildings of glass and steel. All of them were in ruin, and quite a few were collapsed onto each other and lying in giant wrecks like corpses left to wither. I had no idea how there could be such a city hundreds of feet below the earth, and how it could look like a dark night sky above.
I felt a cold draft crawl over me as a thin cloud of white sand blew past me and into the tunnel. I followed the sand with my eyes as it drifted around me, and just as I turned to look back down the tunnel to the circular room, I heard and felt a gargantuan crash. I nearly jumped out of my own skin. The entire tunnel shook and streams of dust trembled off the walls and ceilings. I could hear one of the heavy metal doors hit the ground and slide against the concrete floor, the screeching sound piercing into my head. The startling noise was followed immediately by the loudest and angriest howl yet, so close that it nearly ruptured my eardrums. The howl was raspy with spit and phlegm and growling with hatred and ill-intent. I didn’t see it, but I knew it was the tall, pale fucker. He’d been trying to get at me all night, and he was closer than ever.
I was frantic and didn’t have any options. I could hear the thunderous footsteps of the creature as it approached the green tunnel. I stepped fully out of the door and pulled with all my might to shut it. The door slowly began to close, and I wasn’t sure if it was my doing or if the door was automated. Right before I lost sight of the tunnel, I saw the huge white figure round the corner. I could feel my muscles burn and my teeth grind as I pulled on the rusty door handle with my life. It shut no sooner than the creature slammed against it. The shock knocked me back from the door, sand and rust trailing me. The large, cylindrical locks were already beginning to spin back in place as the little readout on the panel by the door flashed something in red. I backed away from the door as the banging continued, but while the door did tremble, it didn’t falter. The final lock spun into place, and finally the banging stopped.
My adrenaline subsided just a bit as I stared at the door. It was simply there, sticking straight out of the sand. I leaned to one side, expecting to see a tunnel stretched out behind it, but there was nothing. Just a plain of white sand that went on for miles and miles. At the end was a horizon of pale mountains that looked long dead against the backdrop of the pitch black sky. That’s when I realized there wasn’t a single star in the sky. And yet, light shined down like it was nearly midday. I looked straight up, and saw the moon, unobstructed and shining brilliantly. It looked just like the same moon I’d seen a million times, but maybe a little bigger, and lot more clear.
I shivered as an icy wind blew over me and I turned around. There standing before me was what I soon began to call the Pale City. The door I’d emerged from was just on the edge of a towering cityscape, maybe a mile or less from the first building. I slowly approached the mass of abandoned structures in the middle of the white desert. As scared and confused as I was, I couldn’t override the feeling of surreal wonderment. The city was a compact collection of epically large and uniquely constructed buildings. Like a huge downtown with nothing surrounding it. Each structure somewhat resembled the buildings I’d seen in places like Houston or San Antonio, but far larger and much more abstract.
I passed the remains of some sort of monorail track as I entered the Pale City. It looped upwards from a chrome, spherical station into broken segments that dotted through the city and out of sight. The architecture everywhere was beautiful and new, like nothing I’d ever seen before. Though for all its wonderment, the city gave off an eerie and foreboding vibe. There were no cars or people in the streets. Not even the remnant of one. I soon realized there weren’t even any giant ads hanging from the walls of the odd skyscrapers or posters lining the windows of the store fronts. Each building I passed was covered in white sand and dust, the windows dark and lifeless.
Finally, I turned a corner and found something new. There was a giant armored tank, sitting motionless in the middle of the street. It was almost two stories tall and sat on tracks that could crush a Mac truck. The tank was sleek, with all forms of weapons and devices that I didn’t quite recognize. There was a mountain of rubble that spilled over from a section of ruined building into the street and around the tank. I approached with more curiosity than caution. I climbed over the debris and tank treads and started searching for a hatch. I began to notice scratches and deep gash marks in the tank all over. I used a few of those to help me scale the massive vehicle to the very top. The hatch at the top was ripped right off its thick, metal hinges and flung somewhere unseen. There was a couple blinking lights, dimly calling out from deep inside, along with a stale air that drifted up and out.
I lowered into the tank and it was instantly 10 degrees colder. Which was saying a lot, because it felt like it was about 40 degrees outside. The first section was full of controls and long dead monitors and read-outs. There were more scratches on the metal walls, but no blood or remains of life. I went further in, and the interior opened up to a fortress on treads. The inside was almost bigger than my apartment, full of controls and devices that looked decades beyond anything our military was using. Everything was lifeless and covered in dust and scratches — everything except for two blinking lights at the back of the tank. The lights blinked yellow and red in short intervals from a half-sphere with all sorts of dials and meters. I approached the short but obviously thick door and grabbed the round, metal crank to open the door. There were words and warning signs right by the crank that were all in the same odd language from the tunnel. Aside from registering their existence, I otherwise ignored them and turned the crank.
The round crank was tight at first, but gradually began to give. I spun the handle and heard the metal locks slide out and the door unsealed itself. There was a rush of the sweetest smelling air that passed over me in a brief gust, and a pale blue light leaked out of the circular crack of the opened hatch. I pulled the heavy door fully open and was welcomed by a very unnerving sight.
In the small, circular room was a body. But not a human body, at least, not exactly. There sat what looked almost like a man, hunched over and strapped into a very complex looking chair. I knew it wasn’t a man from the tell-tale four arms. He wore a complex body suit that seemed to connect his whole body to the chair, including a visor or helmet on his hanging head. I crept my hand to the helmet and slowly lifted it upwards. His lower jaw looked normal, except his skin was a very pale white. I wasn’t sure if that was his natural skin color or if he’d been there long enough to start changing colors. The cramped circular room itself seemed very well preserved. Light glowed off the walls, and I could feel some kind of air filtration system softly flowing that sweet scent through the room.
Just as I was aimlessly admiring the construction of the machine, the head propped up in my hand slipped out of the helmet/visor. His head slumped low and to the side, dangling loosely at the neck. I cringed when I saw he had four eyes to match his four arms. Every eye was wide open and completely white, like he’d been staring at his death for however long he’d been there. Now he was staring right at me with all four eyes at a disturbing angle. I decided I was done inspecting the tank right about then. And almost exactly at that moment, there was an all-too familiar sound that echoed through the city and into the metal interior of the tank. The horrible metallic howling.
I paid no more attention to the four armed man or the tank at all. I scrambled back up and out of the tank. I poked out of the top hatch and saw that damn white mist everywhere. It was coursing down the street like a shallow stream, though I could no longer see the street itself. It looked like the fog was coming from the direction I had entered the city. The howling was now accompanied by the distant sound of that hectic skittering. I quickly descended the outside of the tank and hopped onto the ground. As soon as my feet hit the floor, the stinging cold rushed up my ankles to my knees. I turned toward the flow of the mist and I could tell the skittering and howling was closer. It sounded almost like heavy raindrops, there seemed to be so many.
I began to haul ass in the opposite direction. I didn’t know where I was going or what I was hoping to find, but I knew I wanted to be as far from that sound as possible. I rounded the corner of an intact building that looked like a glass spire stretching endlessly into the sky. I noticed a door just slightly ajar and I pulled it open as dust and mist billowed outward. I dodged inside and closed the heavy glass door behind me. I stared at the glass and the misty streets beyond. I could hear the skittering and howling even through the glass and it was only growing louder. I backed into the shadows as the mist grew thicker and began to climb up the windows like a rising tide.
I fully backed up into the darkness and finally turned around. I could just make out the inside as my eyes adjusted. There was a round reception desk with almost nothing on it but two small orbs held up by a glass stand. I approached them and ran my hand over one of the orbs. The surface was smooth like glass and no dust had settled on them. I cautiously journeyed further into the shadows of the lobby area. I could feel the floor begin to crack and fissure below me. I stopped just before the entire floor dropped off into a sloping cavern. It was far too dark to make anything out from the hole. I turned to start looking for another way up or out. The noises outside were only growing, and the floor-to-ceiling windows were nearly covered with fog.
Just then, I felt a sharp pull on the back of my collar, and my body was yanked backwards. I stumbled a few feet and nearly lost my balance. I could make out a dark figure as he released my collar and grabbed me by the wrist. It was dark as hell and he was shrouded in tattered clothing and shadows, but he had two arms, so that was a good start. He began to run as he pulled me along towards the giant hole in the ground.
“What the hell are you doing here, Billy?” came a muffled voice from the figure. The voice sounded concerned and urgent, so I just went with him.
“How do you know my name?” I asked as I was pulled along.
“Just be quiet and keep up… you shouldn’t be here, man,” the voice continued to whisper as he let go of my wrist and began to descend into the giant cavern.
The shrouded man quickly disappeared down into the darkness as I stared into the pit. The howling picked up again, and the voice called out from the darkness.
Just at that moment, the skittering sounded like it reached our building, and I could hear something or somethings start to scratch against the glass. Fear enveloped my being and I climbed down in a hurry, digging my hands and boots into the debris. I descended into the darkness, barely able to see what my hands were grasping onto. I could hear the other man below me, scurrying down at an even faster pace. Before too long, a dim blue light drifted up and around me. Within a minute or two, the light was all around us, and I could tell it was the same light I’d seen in the inner chamber of the tank. The debris had given way to a ladder and a white shaft. The walls looked like porcelain, but felt like steel, and strips of pale blue light ran down the walls in pulsating segments.
We reached the bottom before too long and it was much like the shaft leading down. Smooth white walls and fixtures with pulsing strips of blue light lining the walls. It was a large hallway with giant symbols plastered on the walls in that same weird language. The hallway curved around and out of sight, and the shrouded man began to walk down it. I quickly caught up and grabbed him by the shoulder. He spun around and pulled a pistol on me. It was my goddamn .357. I backed up a foot, but not much more. I was confused and pissed.
“Who the hell are you? Why do you have my fucking gun?” I demanded answers.
The man lowered the gun a little and pulled the cloth wrapped around his face down. It was Ricky. He looked older, and he had a beard, but it was definitely him. I was thrilled and shocked at the same time, but Ricky’s expression was grim.
“Billy, I haven’t seen you in weeks. What the fuck are you doing back here?” Ricky asked me with a defeated tone.
“Jesus, Rick? Holy shit, I thought you were dead. What happened to you? And how’d you get my gun?” I ran through my words, with more and more buzzing in my head.
“I stayed, Billy! You were there, god damn it! You were the one…wait…” Ricky paused for a moment as he glanced down at the pistol in his hand. “You mean you don’t remember giving me…” he trailed off.
“Rick, what’s going on, man? What the hell is this place?” I scanned the odd surroundings as I spoke.
“What happened to me in your world, Billy?” Ricky nearly shouted as he leaned in.
“What are you talking about, ‘my world’?” I asked Ricky.
“Before you came to this place, Billy. What was the last thing that happened to me?” Ricky asked, his eyes almost looking past me.
I hesitated before I finally answered, “You were dragged away by those things up there. We were in the mist, and they pulled you away. I tried to grab you…” I trailed off.
“Ah…” Ricky said as he stared down at the floor. “Doesn’t matter. It wasn’t really me. Look, you came from the north end of the city, right? Through the door about 20 minutes ago?”
“Yeah?” I responded through an air of confusion.
“That means you’ve got about 20 more minutes before the other one is useless. And when you opened the control sphere in that tank, you attracted every creature in the damn city. We’ve gotta go,” Ricky ordered.
Before I had a chance to ask another question, a loud crash of metal and glass echoed down the hole and into the white hall. It was soon followed by the howl that had stalked me all night, as well as a torrent of skittering feet.
“Shit, run!” Ricky shouted as he spun in place and sprinted down the white hall.
I followed Ricky’s example and booked it down the hallway after him. I lost sight of him quickly, but I could hear his footsteps and see his shadow just around the bend of the hall. The blue lights passing by gave me a nauseous feeling and I could hear our pursuers getting closer by the second. The sound of the skittering and howling resembled an approaching thunderstorm, and Rick and I were not in shelter yet. I called out to him, but he didn’t slow down.
Finally he stopped, and I quickly caught up to him standing in front of a giant, mechanical door. He was rifling through a tattered backpack slung at his side that I hadn’t noticed before. He soon pulled out a pale and thin severed hand from the bag. The blood had long dried where it was tied off at the wrist. I didn’t have time to be shocked by it. Ricky waved the hand quickly over a panel on the wall and it lit up in response. The door shuddered and rumbled to life, dust shaking loose from all its moving parts. The door began to slowly open in the middle and I glanced behind us. I saw the mist rushing down the hallway like a dam had broken and the noise was thundering around the bend towards us. I could even see a horde of shadows starting to form along the curved walls of the hall.
“Hurry the hell up!” Ricky shouted from behind me.
I spun around to see Ricky on the other side of the door, working another panel. The door was already closing again. I shot through the opening and turned to face the white hall. The creatures were now in full sight, stampeding through the mist. I could see most of them now, bright red tails sticking straight up. They were moving too fast to be concealed by the mist, and I could make out the rest of their horrifying image. They were hideous and white, save for their red tails. They looked like skeletons with skin wrapped tight around them. They had bones and joints that poked out all over and sunken-in, black eyes. Their teeth were long and mashed together, dripping with saliva as they ran.
I pushed against the door in futility as I caught sight of the creatures, gritting my teeth as I tried to force the door to close faster. It had to be at least two tons, so it wasn’t going to move any quicker because of me, but that didn’t stop me from putting every bit of my strength into it. The creatures made no noise, aside from the awful skittering their long black claws made along the ground as they ran. They were within just a few feet of the door when it finally shut. I fell on my ass as my muscles burned and my heart and lungs pounded and heaved. Before I could catch my breath, there was a series of bangs against the door, sending echoing tremors through the metal. I scooted backwards, still on my ass, not taking my eyes off the door.
“You’ve gotta’ get up!” Rick shouted as he pulled me up and started to run.
We were now in some sort of facility, still lined with that white metal/porcelain and all new signs and symbols I couldn’t read. There were odd machines and fixtures everywhere, far too complicated and odd for me to figure out their purpose.
“That door won’t hold the Shepherd,” Ricky said in a dreadful tone.
“The Shepherd, is that the big white bastard?” I asked as I tried to keep pace with Ricky.
“Yeah, I think that’s what they called him,” Ricky said as he continued ahead, apparently looking for something.
We passed metal doors on every wall and some simply stood on their own, each with a complicated panel of buttons, lights, and switches. Rick stopped when he approached one alone on the floor with a blinking yellow readout. He waved his mummified severed hand over the panel standing beside the door, and the frame of the door lit up in a green hue.
“Was this the right color?” Ricky asked while sweat dripped from his brow and he stared at me with wide eyes.
“The door I came through? Yeah, it was green. Ricky, what the hell is going on? Where are we and what happened to you?” I began to demand answers.
“I don’t have time to explain it all, Bill. You just have to go through this door when the light turns green,” Rick said as he pointed to the yellow, blinking readout on the panel.
Just at that moment, another bang came at the door down the hall. This one was much stronger than the others, and I could feel the whole room shake from the impact. It had to be the Shepherd.
“Why can’t he just phase through?” I asked, not taking my eyes off the door at the end of the room. It shook again from another massive impact, as if on cue.
“This is his world. He’s tangible here, but stronger too,” Ricky said with a waiver of fear in his voice. Another bang against the door sounded out. “I have to go. Just go through the door when the light turns.”
Ricky began to turn and head in the other direction. I grabbed at his arm, and he spun around at my touch, pointing my pistol at me again.
“Rick, what the fuck, man! Where are you going?”
“That’s not my world, Billy!” Rick yelled as he waved the .357 at the door. “You fucking left me here, Bill. Maybe not ‘you’ exactly, but it doesn’t matter, now. My door’s not coming back, and I can’t go through any others!”
“Rick, I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about. The last time I saw you was out in the desert. I thought you were fucking dead, I’m sorry!” I was scrambling for the words to make Ricky stay and help me.
“Back off, Bill!” Ricky shouted as he jabbed the pistol in my direction and backed away. “It’s not my fucking problem. I’m sorry, Billy, but you’re on your own. Just use the fucking door as soon as it turns green.”
I stared dumbfounded at Ricky as he kept the pistol pointed my way and removed a metal grate over a vent near the end of the room. He gave me one last look, filled with frustration and regret. I realized in that brief moment, the pounding at the door had stopped. For just a split second, Ricky and I locked eyes in complete silence. I could tell in his eyes, that was all the help I was going to get. Then, before he could turn into the vent, the wall beside him erupted with a loud crash.
The tall, pale Shepherd emerged quickly from the debris, grasped Ricky by the neck and lifted him at least 3 feet off the ground. I yelled out and the Shepherd turned to me. I could finally see the features of his “face,” and I nearly pissed myself in shock and fear. He had four eyes that were all scabbed and scarred over, as though something had gouged out all four. He smiled at me with a mouth that had been made wide by deep cuts at the edges and was filled with long, yellow and rotted teeth. As the Shepherd stared into my soul with his missing eyes, I heard a loud beep and saw the yellow light change to green. I grabbed a large tool from beside the panel. I didn’t know what the object was, but it was heavy and had a sharp edge. I held it up, ready to charge the Shepherd when Ricky stopped me.
“No! Just go, goddamn it!” Ricky managed to yell through his gasps and gurgling.
Ricky raised my .357 fast, and fired a round right into the Shepard’s chest. Light grey blood sprayed out of the wound, but the bastard barely flinched. The monster grabbed Rick’s arm and began to twist it, never taking his gaze off me or ceasing that awful grin. Ricky continued to pull the trigger as the shots just missed the the Shepherd. The creature’s mouth began to widen, and the howl moaned out of him from deep within his hollow chest. Mist had already begun to seep quickly out of the hole in the wall he’d come from, but now something else emerged. A horde of those terrifying creatures with their black claws and red tails flowed out of the hole. They charged towards me as the Shepherd continued to howl and stare.
“Fucking run!” Ricky let out one last time before the Shepard snapped his arm.
I could already feel the guilt, but I turned and ran. I grasped the handle on the green door and swung it open, grateful it opened right away. I slipped through the portal without looking back, but over the sound of the skittering and howling, I could hear poor Rick yelling out in pain. I slammed the door shut behind me, and the green light that framed it immediately went away. I backed away quickly, expecting the door to burst off the seams and come flying at me. But nothing. No loud bangs or deep scratches.
I realized I was back in the desert. My desert. Or at least, it looked that way. I gazed around at the familiar Texas flatland. I turned my head up and was welcomed by a sky full of stars and a crescent moon. The fog was completely gone and I could see miles of nothing in every direction. My breath slowed down and the horrible realization hit me, I’d let Ricky die again. I didn’t know how any of it was possible, but that didn’t stop the frustration and loss I was going through.
I pushed through the regret and made a slow scan of the horizon. I stopped when I saw a glimmer of light at least a mile away. I began to make my way over the dry and cracked desert floor towards the light. After 10 or so minutes, I could tell it was a car reflecting the moonlight. Shortly after, I realized it was my Chevy. I picked up my pace.
When I got close, I saw that it was just my truck, and nothing else. Ricky’s hatchback and the Concrete Box were gone — there were no sign or trace of them left. I suspected my truck had been moved, but there was the same dirt road that led back to the highway. I felt lost and confused. Like the universe had just played me for a fucking chump.
I opened the door to my truck and got inside. Everything was exactly as I’d left it, except for one new thing. There was a piece of paper, sitting unassumingly on my passenger seat. I hesitantly picked it up and unfolded it. It was a handwritten letter, addressed to me.
We truly appreciate your time with Electronic Solutions, but I’m afraid your contract has expired.
Your services were of great value to our project, and we’re eternally grateful for your time with us. And of course, feel free to list us as a reliable reference on your resume.
You take care of yourself, son.
I crumbled the paper in rage and astonishment, throwing it against the closed window on my passenger side.
“Fuck!” I yelled.
I drove back into town and to the hospital. I was bruised, bloody, and beaten. When I got to the ER, I was ready with a work-related injury story. I wasn’t about to be sent to the nut house on account of stories of monsters and lost cities. I began to fill out the forms when I realized I didn’t know what day it was. I looked around for a calendar, and when I didn’t see one, I asked the receptionist. When she told me, my heart sank a bit. It was over three months later than it should’ve been. I asked her to repeat it, then managed a “thank you” before sitting back down feeling utterly confused.
I got back home and tried to find any trace of Electronic Solutions of Texas on the internet. Not a fucking thing. Like they never existed at all. And maybe they never really did. At least, not in “our world.”
I still don’t really understand what the hell happened to me at that substation. But I know it was the worst fucking job of my life. And it is the last time I ever apply for a job online. All I can tell you is, if you come across an advertisement for an electrician job in a desolate substation, think twice before applying.