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Dust

Edward Ashton is the author of more than a dozen short stories, as well as numerous technical articles and medical texts. His fiction has appeared in InterText, Louisiana Literature, and The Lowell Review, among other places. His first novel, Three Days in April, is currently in search of a good home. You can find his work online at smart-as-a-bee.tumblr.com.
You're peeling back your inner gloves, aching in every muscle after a twelve-hour shift, when you feel a faint pressure against the inside of your left wrist where the thick latex is doubled over. You barely have time to register the sensation before it disappears with a soft pop, and a cloud of tiny motes appears around your hand, sparkling in the harsh white lights of the decontamination room. Your heart lurches and you yank your hand back, but it's a spastic movement, directed by your terrified lizard-brain rather than the part of you that thinks, and those few centimeters of exposed skin at your wrist pass through the cloud before you stagger backward, cradling your arm to your chest. You look down to see a thin dusting of gray specks on your skin, then feel a brief, almost-painful tingling as they disappear, leaving behind an angry-looking scattering of tiny red bumps.
You stare at the pattern of spots, frozen, until they begin to form red constellations against your sweat-grimed skin. The burner is less than two meters away. Will charring up to the elbow be enough? You try to think back to your training, but your mind is a howling void. Has it been ten seconds yet? Twenty? How long does it take the nanos to worm their way into an artery? You should probably go all the way to the shoulder now, but you still haven't moved. You've seen what the burner does to an arm or a leg before, and a tiny voice inside your head is whispering that all you need to do is wait. Just a few more seconds now, and there won't be any point. You won't have to do it at all.
A voice speaks in your ear now, a loud voice, caught halfway between boredom and alarm. It's the duty officer, asking if there's something wrong. He can see you standing there staring at your wrist, of course, but he must have missed the spore pod bursting under the pressure of your folded-over glove, must have missed the spreading cloud of dust.
Not his fault, really. You missed it too. The pods are everywhere out there by now, encysted, clinging to the walls of buildings, to the interiors of abandoned cars, to the cans of food and bottles of water you were sent out to scavenge. You think back, try to remember when your outer glove might have gotten pulled back just a centimeter or two, when a gap might have opened up that let the pod sneak in between the protective layers, in where the bath of solvents that doused you before you were allowed in the first lock couldn't find it.
"Hey," the duty officer says. "Seriously, is there a problem? Do we need to run a second-pass decontamination?"
You look up at the camera mounted above the inner door. Second pass decontamination. A polite way of asking whether you'd like to be incinerated.
"No," you say finally. "No, I'm fine. I thought I saw something, but I'm... good. I'm good."
Your voice is shaking, and you're sure that his hand is hovering over what you imagine as a giant red button on his control panel. You close your eyes, and wait for the flames.
"Well hurry up," he says finally. "We've got three more waiting to come in."
You open your eyes, nod without speaking, and slowly finish peeling off your gloves. They go into the burner, as does the latex-lined jumpsuit you wore under your hazmat gear. The smell of your damp, clammy skin is unbearable. You think of a story you read once, years ago, in the world before the dust, about a man being forced to dig his own grave. You didn't understand it then--thought it was ridiculous, in fact. Why would he do it? Refuse, and die now. Agree, and die an hour later. You understand now, though. You're a walking corpse, far more surely than the man in the story, and the grave that you're digging is not only your own. You know this, just as you know that the flames would give you a far quicker, cleaner death than the dust will.
You know these things, but your lizard-brain doesn't, and it's been in full control since the moment you saw that cloud of dust coalescing around your hand. All it knows is that death is final, and that no price is too high to pay for another hour, another minute, another second. All it knows is not yet. Not yet. Not yet.
Would it make a difference if you had a family? A wife, or a husband? A beautiful, pig-tailed daughter, waiting for you inside? You remember stories of fathers charging into burning buildings, of mothers offering up their bodies to shield their children from hails of bullets. Maybe. There were other stories, though, probably more true, of mothers and fathers selling their daughters' bodies to buy another day's bread. Who's to say what kind of parent you'd have been, if the dust hadn't come?
You hear a dull thumping now, coming from the outer lock. There are three others outside, waiting their turns. Will the dust you've left behind find them? Doesn't matter. The nanos inside of you are multiplying already, converting your bones and blood and organs into copies of themselves. In a few hours you'll bloom, and that will be that.
Naked now, you walk slowly to the inner door. You close your eyes, take a deep breath in, and let it back out. Is that a twinge already? Can't be. The pain shouldn't start for an hour or more. You lift the cover from the keypad, and punch in the first three digits of your access code. You hesitate over the final digit. Your hand is shaking. You hit clear, lower the cover, and take another deep breath. And then, as if from a great distance, you hear the words: I'm infected. It takes a long moment for you to realize that they've come from you.
The duty officer is shouting, but you can barely hear him now over the roaring in your ears and the hissing of the snapped-open fuel vents. You close your eyes again, and as the droplets of aerosolized gasoline settle onto your skin, you think back to a day years ago, before the dust. You were nineteen then, standing on the knife-edge peak of a place called the Dragon's Tooth. The sun was high and hot in a cloudless blue sky, and the green farmland of the Shenandoah Valley was laid out below you like a salt map, six hundred meters down. The shadow of a hawk passed over you. You looked up, squinting into the sun, as he circled around and called to you. You feel the warmth of the sun on your face, and for a moment, just at the end, you can almost believe that you're there again. The hawk dips lower. You reach out to touch him. The sun in your eyes is blinding as the world flashes white.
The End
This story was first published on Thursday, September 25th, 2014


I've always been interested in trying to imagine what goes through a person's mind in that moment between the trap door opening and the rope snapping tight. That's essentially what this story is trying to explore. It's a challenge to write about that moment using either first- or third-person, however. It's very difficult to find a way to say something like “...and then I died” without sounding ridiculous. That's how I finally settled on second-person present tense for this piece, understanding that some readers might see this as hitting two points of the pretentiousness trifecta (the third, if you're wondering, is using "lapis lazuli" when what you mean is "blue".)

- Edward Ashton

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