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by Rudi Dornemann

The marsh was miles across, surrounded by a perimeter of biohazard signs every fifty feet. Through the plate glass, Skelton watched a V of reconnaissance drones from the research station drag their shadows over the shoulder-high grass. He washed down the last of his sandwich with the last of his beer, and retreated to the mall's cooler inner corridors. The last resident had outfitted the two-room security office as an apartment, which made sense. All that echoing, empty space was unnerving. You needed a close, comfortable place within it.

A yellowed sheet of instructions was tacked to the inside of the office door. The real estate agent had gone on about this. Skelton figured the deal was some kind of tax or legal obligation to keep the property occupied until the genetically engineered grass and the rest of the ecological recuperation made the land worth something again.

He read the directions at intervals through the day. By dusk he knew it well enough to leave it behind while he went to the one locked store and got a restaurant-heavy pasta bowl, a bottle of lamp oil, and a twist of wire-cored wick string.

It was twilight when he got to the patio of unbroken parking lot outside the marsh-side anchor store. Colors moved over the grass like low-altitude aurora. He poured the oil, lit the wick. The flame flickered through color changes in time with its larger cousins out in the marsh. Must be something in the air. Probably nothing healthy. He headed back inside.

For a first night in an unfamiliar bed, he slept well until a roof-shaking wind woke him after midnight. He took a security-guard-leftover flashlight, and made the rounds. The mall was bigger; the echoes, louder. Beyond the jumbled mannequin orgy of the display windows, the marsh-lights flashed kaleidoscope lightning. The lamp-bowl had tumbled, spilled and sputtered dead. No way he'd go out.

But, after nightmares that six cups of coffee barely dimmed, he knew he needed to focus on the task. Sleep by day. Tend the lamp by night. Keep the colors from anyone else's dreams. He couldn't explain the fear that came with the colors, not to himself, not to the real estate agent when she called to check on him. If he could have put it in words, he would have tamed it, and wouldn't have needed to spend his life keeping it in check.

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