This is how a festering void will consume the Earth. The frontman for an acclaimed black metal band brings us science fictional vision of a collapsing planet.
Art: Surian Soosay
'The void' is usually the infinite unknowable, the dark expanse opposite human existence itself. So what if we ourselves are opening it up, with our bad habits, our exploitation of the natural environment? Terence Hannum, a founding member of the experimental/black metal band Locrian, may be uniquely positioned to examine the question—his story here seems of a piece with his band's last work, 'Infinite Dissolution'. Maybe, both reader and listener must consider, that's ultimately what we're up against. -The editor.
The ground opened up.
In my dream there was the void, expanding, growing wider and swallowing everything; the phosphate mine, the scrub grass, the trees, the highways, houses, every car reduced to rivulets of matter disappearing into the shadow of its maw. This was before I even landed in Tampa. So when the phone's ring woke me from sleep at the LaQuinta, I knew.
I'm not psychic. I saw it, endless and expanding as an extension of feeling. I felt the hole.
In the mirror I prod the sore red blemish beginning to form on my cheek. I dry my face and leave the LaQuinta, heading off into the dark Florida pre-dawn, pushing the rental Dodge down Highway 60 beneath the bright cold stars of the early morning.
After phosphate is separated from the gypsum, it is stacked dark blue and jagged in the first light. Workers scurry around the stations looking at me from beneath pale hardhats. The plant is still running, separating elements, while a news helicopter hovers overhead, waiting to capture the gash before they get to covering traffic on I-4. Corrosive water cascades silently into the hole. There seems to be no bottom for it to hit, for the water to crash on and send us back the echo of tumult. It's like this hole has ripped through the fabric of matter and time.
"We drained all the ponds to find it," the foreman confesses to me in his slow southern drawl, wiping sweat from his tired brow. His weary face is one of many ringing the blackened site. I nod and sweep the Geiger counter over the pile in front of me, climb a ridge in the work boots and see it open before me, faintly smelling of brimstone and rust.
"There shouldn't be any more water comin' in," he says and shakes his head.
"Nope, there shouldn't. How long have you been here?" I ask.
"Too long," he says.
"When does the next shift start?"
He laughs and just removes his hardhat.
"Well, we need to change people over or they're going to run past their daily limit," I say.
"I hear ya'. But, no one would sleep if they go home. We'd rather be here."
I know what it looks like when they close their eyes.
"We started pulling the waste back into the plant right?"
"Yup. It'll take months though at this rate," he says, then fixes his helmet back on his head. A side of black rock cleaves into the hole. Rumbling slightly before it falls, but then, as if muted, vanishes into the fissure.
"Keep it up. Get some rest. They called in some more shifts from the plant in Barstow."
He stares off toward the dim horizon, chewing on the side of his mouth.
All day we run tests, examine geologic maps, consult with state experts, watch helicopters check in as it grows from 40 feet wide to 50, from 60 to 70. On the television inside the command post trailer, aerial shots display it like an earthbound black hole swallowing the land, a wide rivulet of water cascades down in a prehistoric vision of a planet still in formation. It isn't Earth, but it is someplace, a dark and contaminated planet of waste.
When phosphate is refined, it not only creates this gypsum, but also trace amounts of radium and uranium, both of which are present after sulfuric acid is used to separate the materials we want for fertilizer and feed. I toss back the third Bud Light at the Twilight Zone Lounge off 60, and I flick the peeling dead laminate of the bar and listen to bad country music. Pop country, not real country. A song about a river, girls and trucks—new mythology. A few others gather here, laughing in their small gatherings of friends, dancing occasionally, mostly staring into their drinks. I hope the low blue neon light hides my face.
Up and down the state highway the black pavement disappears into the lightless night. There's just the light of the Twilight Zone Lounge, an oasis against the dark.
Back at the LaQuinta I run a washcloth under the hot spigot. Placing it on my face I lay down on the bed listening to the television drone on an infomercial. I keep the lights on but it does no good. When my eyes close, when the dream arrives, I see the streams of sulfur and Gulf of Mexico disappear deep into the silent void before me. I look for masses of resistance, outcroppings, formations, but I find none. Cars and buildings vanish in wavering lines. I search for a ridge that could be formed to stop the widening pit. But there is none.
The next morning they've moved the command center further away from the hole, beside a black train idling on the line, yellowed by molten sulfur with nowhere to go.
"It's growin'," the new manager says to me from our front stoop. He tongues some dip in his lip and spits into a Speedway cup.
"Hundred feet now," I say, casually measuring from our distance behind the new shades I keep on to hide the oozing pit on my face.
"I'd reckon 120 or so." He spits into the cup, wiping some brown drool from his thin lips. We walk out onto the pile past pink topped stakes designating every ten feet. A helicopter rings us overhead in a persistent bleat, louder than the plant, which is still functioning, still turning out phosphate. A cascade of sandy soil descends into the gaping hole like a broken hourglass spilled into infinity.
"Think it'll stop anytime soon?"
He still has hope.
"Maybe. There's some good stone under here but—" I trail off. Back at the gate, news vans shine bright lights into the property.
"Fuck," he says, drawing out the "u" then spits on the gypsum. Beneath the centuries of sediment is the aquifer and all of this debris is collected there somewhere. Typically, a hole should fill up with water from the aquifer and we'd be done with this. Typically.
In the trailer we construct our optimistic message for the director while we watch the screen display overhead images of the hole growing past its gypsum barriers. The company flew in a geologist from Colorado and a PR person from New York. We talk, argue and write. A statement gets written but not much else. I request some ammonium carbonate, I request more fill dirt or more gypsum, but it just gets added to the list.
In the bathroom I touch the hole on my face and it stings.
"Filling it won't stop it," the geologist tells me as we stalk the perimeter. He draws on his vape pen and sucks in more air between his teeth. "It seems the more it consumes, the faster its rate of expansion is."
"The water info isn't good," I say.
He nods and flips through his phone. Exhales gray chemical plumes that drift into the evening air while he texts. "That's spreading, all tests show its elements are arriving in Tampa, and as far east as Lake Kissimmee."
He nods his shaved head and draws again from his vape pen.
"Eventually we'll have to tell them," I say.
"There's a contingency."
I nod and walk to the rental Dodge over by the rails. Contingency is a good word, but it doesn't mean anything. During the worst of our fracking episodes, it was always cheaper to buy everyone a private cistern and deliver water than to stop.
The train is gone now. For all I know it fell into the sinkhole. It can't be bottomless. At some point the void has to end. It can't just swallow all this matter and have nothing down there. The dissolution of the rocks has to cease.
The second Bud Light tastes better than the first here at the Twilight Zone Lounge. I pay the bartender.
"Is there a drugstore near here?"
She laughs and adjusts her tanktop straps.
"Depends on where you're going." Her face is taut.
"Brandon," I say, pushing the damp napkin across the bar.
"There's a CVS on the way."
She hands me my crumpled bills and brushes her bleached hair off of her shoulders.
"You with the Mosaic people?"
I reluctantly nod and put the bills into my money clip.
"Can I ask you somethin'?"
She places her elbows on the bar and looks me in the eyes. There's a tattoo of the Tasmanian Devil warped around her forearm.
"Don't bullshit me, are we safe?"
She looks down the bar at a couple slow dancing to more of the same pop country. She finally pushes herself away from the bar, laughing. "You got a good game face mister."
On the highway, I push the Dodge faster than I should. I turn off the lights on a vacant stretch before I hit Brandon and speed through the night. Above me the night stars burn cold.
Taking a pin from my shaving kit, I place it inside the gaping pore. It doesn't meet any resistance. It doesn't hurt as it disappears into my skin. I dab the translucent blemish balm from CVS on the wound and finally it burns. On the bed, hot washcloth on my face, listening to the Rays lose on the TV, I let my closed eyes open to the dark. Here, I'm headless, my face has vanished into its pore. I am a faceless body in the world without senses. The world has become the hole, an inversion of what we know.
Then I wake up. My head is still here, and my eyes open up in their sockets with a cold washcloth on my face.
In the dim of the next morning, the phosphate plant slowly collapses into the crater, each column, pipe and cantilever taking smaller pieces with it. We sit back at the edge of the property as the rails and earth buckle inside and silently drift away from view. Traffic helicopters swirl overhead.
For months this wound sat small like a canker beneath our stacks. For months it syphoned off toxins and burrowed this pit, growing without our knowledge. Once it was small, now it is an insatiable vacuum. Expanding everyday until it will sup from the molten core of the earth. Turning everything inside out. Of this I am sure.
My face has begun to heal. I touch the scab and check it in the mirror on the sun visor after I pull into regional airport, where we can get a helicopter up. Our helicopter ascends through the clear afternoon. From this height we cannot avert our eyes. It is all we see. Waterfalls and debris move in slow motion, vanishing beyond the blackened cataract.
The geologist takes notes. Deep in the pit I search for some glimmer of bottom, but just stare into nothing.
"Pretty fucked," the geologist shouts. I agree.
The helicopter passes over the open center. Here, only here, I admire with fear the depths below me. As if dreaming, and only for a brief moment over the drone of the blades, I hear this magnificent void sounding an echo from the back of creation. It shakes through me and I am frightened as we begin our descent.