Thanderians

 “The devil’s agents may be of flesh and blood, may they not?”
― Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Hound of the Baskervilles

The recent sale of Gilbert Keith’s television was, officially, the cause of his unsavory behavior. Of course, being a Peeping Tom suggested a disturbed state that must have begun some years prior, if not all the way into early childhood.   So often is the case that people are seen but not charged, or go for years without being punished, due to this loophole or that, and especially due to fear of retribution.

What made Gilbert Keith strange was that he had turned himself in. He told the Oakland Police Department that this woman was a resident of a neighboring high rise, whose name he did not know, but whom inquiries soon revealed to be a certain Mallory Blum. By all accounts, Blum and Keith had never met, beyond Keith’s self-accusations.

Detective Roger Wilde remembered the night Keith turned himself in well.

Wilde had been in his office, writing up his report on a previous incident, when he had gotten the call. At the time it had seemed like an irksome amount of paperwork and red tape. It paled in comparison to the long, sleepless nights he faced now.

He hadn’t seen Keith enter the department, but he later watched the security footage. Wilde found all security footage unnerving; it made him feel powerless in the most uncanny way. On one hand, he had the perspective of a ghost or even God in the room, but on the other hand he was deaf to the actual noise of events, and powerless to change them.

So in Wilde’s mind, despite stories of Keith’s entry that night, that January 3rd of 1994, being loud and abrupt, he imagined utter silence as the doors flew open.

Keith stormed up to the booth, and demanded he be taken in, reports said. When asked the reason, he said that he spied on his female neighbor and that he had invaded her privacy. Keith was informed this crime was a misdemeanor, something he would be fined for but not an imprisonable offense. At this point Keith changed his story and explained he didn’t feel safe in his own home. He requested custody and when that was denied claimed he was a danger to himself and others. Strangely he requested a full search of his apartment, and stranger still he seemed willing to admit to any crime that had him behind bars.

Detective Wilde decided to search Keith’s apartment twice–once before questioning him to do his homework and see if there was even any evidence of illegal surveillance, and then a second visit with Keith’s testimony in mind.

Wilde decided to go alone. He had a partner, assigned by the department, but he didn’t much care for him. He couldn’t even remember the guy’s last name; there was something just sort of bland about him. Kevin was his first name, Wilde remembered that. Kevin got to do Wilde’s paperwork during office hours.

With Keith’s keys, which he had given to the police, in hand, Wilde strode into the empty apartment. There was a strange reverse paranoia the detective felt about searching other people’s living spaces, he tried not to imagine how it felt for the person living there to know someone had definitely gone through their stuff.   Plus, each apartment and home felt like a graveyard to the person’s everyday life. Wilde’s line of work rarely had him searching nice houses. Usually he was looking through the living spaces of people who were neither rich nor smart enough to keep him out.

The natural light that would normally illuminate such a windowed space was diminished thanks to the neighboring high rise. It was a very sunny day, and this created in the apartment’s lighting an intense divide between light and shadow, the well-lit areas shining a dusty, naked white, the shadowed areas seeming extra ominous and occupied.

Wilde had been in creepier spaces, he told himself. Surely he had, and yet whatever thickness the air in this apartment had gave it a sinister feeling that began to form motive in Wilde’s mind for Keith’s mania. The man had found a way to get cabin fever in Oakland.

Wilde didn’t have to look long to find the camcorder. It was on a tripod, with a fabric shield that one might use to divide a desk in a non cubicle office blocking it from the window. It was eerie seeing the lengths Keith had gone to camouflage himself. There was even an ergonomic stool he had set up. The whole setup was in a corner a television might usually be found in; in fact an empty TV stand was being used for a makeshift desk.

Wilde put on some gloves to have a look at the desk’s contents.

Notably there was a journal. He flipped through the pages and found detailed sketches of the woman’s apartment, with certain areas on the edge of the drawing circled, with the words “where they live?” or “hiding place?” or “how does it fit?” written by the circles.

Wilde put this into a plastic bag for evidence.

He then took a few Polaroids before ejecting the V/H/S from its holder in the camcorder.

Wilde thought it strange that Keith had gone to the trouble of recording his neighbor when he had no television.
Wilde had a look through the viewfinder.

It was still zoomed in, far enough that it was plenty clear which apartment Keith had been spying on. It was at a lower level, and the camera was tilted to have a slight bird’s eye view. Even now, without the apartment lit, Wilde could clearly see a small metal kitchen table with a yellow-checkered cloth over it, as well as a few magnets on the fridge, holding up what seemed to be postcards. A cat slept on the kitchen table, its expression the typical nonplussed feline glare.

This was all sufficient, at least, to ratify Keith’s claims that he was a Peeping Tom. Though it didn’t explain his desire to be in police custody.

Wilde returned to the station, and turned in the V/H/S.

“Have one of the eggheads look at this, would you?” he said to the Evidence clerk. “See if there’s anything strange.”

“You can probably have a look at it yourself, if you wish,” she said.

“That’s all right,” Wilde muttered. “These things can hold up to three hours. I’d rather use the time to give our person of interest a talking to.

The clerk shrugged and put the V/H/S into a plastic baggie, logging it and setting it aside for examination.

After grabbing some coffee, Wilde had a look at Keith through the window of the interrogation room. Keith had bloodshot, blue eyes, a physically unfit but thin build, and matted, dishwater blonde hair. Wilde considered that whomever was looking at the V/H/S would also be looking over a tape of his interrogation of Keith. Wilde realized he took some comfort in knowing who was looking over the tapes, or perhaps more accurately he felt a slight chill when he considered there were tapes of moments or memories that were recorded but never viewed. Theoretically no one looked at them, but surely someone did. Wilde wondered absently if so many people would videotape their child getting a bath if they considered the elevated likelihood that a stranger might happen upon it one day.

He sipped his coffee and walked inside.

“Afternoon,” he said, pulling out a chair. “My name’s Roger Wilde. I’m the detective assigned to your case. Mind stating your name for the record.”

“Sure,” Keith said nervously. “Gilbert Keith.”

“How old are you, Gilbert?”

“Twenty-nine, sir.”

“Twenty-nine. How long you lived in Oakland?”

“Four years, sir. Moved out here from Bakersfield.”

“Mmm. What do you do for a living?”

“I, uh, work mornings at Ronocom Shipyard. Drive a forklift.”

Wilde nodded. “That what you want to do with your life?”

“Don’t really know what I want to do with my life, sir. Don’t know that I’ll have much of an option after this.”

Wilde sighed. “Look, son, I paid your apartment a visit. I found the camcorder. Mind explaining to me why you have a camcorder pointed at your neighbor’s window?”

“D-did you watch the tape?” Keith said almost excitedly.

“Nah, letting the eggheads in evidence do that for me.”

Keith’s eyes widened. He looked almost angry.

“You shouldn’t have let that tape out of your sight,” Keith said.

“Why’s that?”

“They’ll try to destroy it,” Keith replied. “They might have destroyed it already.”

“Son, we have a pretty stringent policy on the handling of evidence. Trust me, there are things in that vault dating back to the 70’s. But are you trying to say you left that tape for us?”

Keith nodded. “I won’t pretend to be normal guy, detective. I’ve been interested in creating video performance art and needed a camcorder, so I sold my TV. But I also don’t have many friends, and not much to do on nights. She would always have her lights on and her blinds open, so I’d watch. I felt less lonely when I did.”

“You do it to get off?” Wilde muttered, a bit disgusted.

“Well, yeah, sometimes,” Keith said. “Again, I can’t defend it. And I felt awful gross about it. But there was no one to tell me to stop. And then one day I knew I shouldn’t stop.”

“Now what do you mean by that?”

“Well, I’m pretty sure she lived alone. Sure seemed like it. Didn’t have any roommates, just a cat, that seemed pretty affectionate towards her. But when she went to bed–and I never allowed myself to watch her bedroom, that was too creepy for even me–I would notice…people…in her apartment. And her cat hated them.”

“What do you mean by people?”

“Well, they sure looked like people, but they didn’t act like people at all.  They were dressed all nice, like businessmen. And they seemed to just step out from the shadows. Like they had been there all along, but she hadn’t noticed them. The cat would often hiss at them. One time it got so angry that she came back and collected it. But when she went back into the kitchen they’d step out of view.”

Wilde stared at him a moment. This had to be a lie, yet the sequence of events followed as such that Occam’s Razor actually worked in favor of Keith telling the truth.

And Keith had that look in his eyes as though he had seen something that had shaken him pretty deeply.

“So you saw some… ‘people,’” Wilde said. “But what’s got you so shaken? Maybe she has very eccentric roommates.”

Keith shook his head. “No, sir…they…if they’re her roommates, they killed her all the same.”

Wilde looked at him, confused. “Now, son, why wouldn’t you have opened with that when you came to the police station? Surely we could have gotten this investigation going better if you had said ‘I have to report a murder,’ or even better yet, called 9/11.”

Again, Keith shook his head. “I couldn’t be sure I would have reached you if I had called 9/11. And at any rate, the minute you went to her house, you wouldn’t have believed me.”

“Why’s that?”

“She’s one of them now. On that tape, it shows it…she goes to bring her cat back into her bedroom, and they surround her…I couldn’t see what exactly it was that they did, but whatever it was, when they backed away, she was lying on the floor, dead. A pool of blood surrounding her like a halo…but it all came from her nose.”

He shivered.

“Then they began to clean it, took the body to her room. I broke my rule and panned the camera to see what I could. The angle isn’t as good there, but I saw them cutting…they…”

Wilde knew what was coming, but it was bad protocol to finish a POI’s sentence for them in an interrogation. Instead he slid Keith a cup of water.

“If you need it,” Wilde said. “Now, what did you see?”

“One of them, a bald man, began to cut her skin off. Then a skinny, purplish creature with tentacles on its head that almost looked like hair…slid out of the bald man’s skin…stood over her body…put it on…and I don’t know what they did, this thing was way taller than her, she’s pretty short and this thing looked like seven feet tall…it wore her skin, and when they’d finished the, eh, operation, it looked just like her.”

Wilde stared at Keith, trying to hold in a laugh. The son of a bitch was pranking him. Well, two could play that game. Wilde had seen The X-Files.

“I see,” Wilde said, adopting a somber tone. “Well, son, you know…not everyone at the department will be as open to…extreme possibilities.”

“You don’t believe me,” Keith said.

“Oh, I want to,” Wilde said, failing to stifle a snicker. “Look, what did you expect? You’d turn yourself in, we’d eat up your story, and say, ‘you know, we actually have a whole dossier of unexplainable incidents in the Bay area, turns out the Golden Gate Bridge is actually an antenna for little green men to get TV reception from home.’ And the whole thing with the V/H/S tape? You knew I’d find that before talking to you, there’s probably nothing on it, or like you recorded the super bowl on it, then you’ll say ‘they’ messed up the footage.”

“I didn’t know,” Keith said. “I thought I’d give my testimony before you investigated my apartment.”

“Should have thought of that before you authorized us to look,” Wilde said.

Keith went pale.

“I didn’t,” he said. “I mean, I’m sure that’s on record. But I have no memory of that.”

“I’m done here,” Wilde said.

>>>

Wilde arrived home in a bad mood. Keith’s little stunt had added to his workload and wasted his time.

“Hey, Jackie,” he said, hanging his coat next to the door. “Got anything ready for dinner?”

“I don’t,” his wife said, muting the television. “You never told me when you were coming home, so I didn’t know when to get supper started.”
He gave her a look.

“We don’t have the money to be eating out every night,” he said.

“All the more reason you need to communicate with me,” she said.

“For god’s sakes, if it gets cold I can microwave it.”

Her eyes widened. “Okay. Guess I’ll have some stuff ready next time. Thanks for your patience.”

There was some silence, during which he sat down at stared at the muted evening news, Ted Koppel giving the most sincere stare that a well-dressed man could give as he read news that was lost on Wilde’s ears. It reminded him of the security footage he had watched, which in turn reminded him…

“I got pranked today,” he said. “This kid came running into the station first saying he was a peeping Tom, then saying he’d witnessed a murder, then saying aliens were wearing people’s bodies as clothes, and of course when I checked in with evidence his “tell-all” tape was just some adult film that he’d removed the label fro–”

“So where are we going to eat?” Jackie said. “I’m pretty hungry, and I wanted to wait to eat with you.”

He didn’t like that she’d cut him off, but all the same, he put his arm around her. “I’m sorry. That’s really sweet. Let’s see…is Chinese okay?”

“That’s fine,” she said.

There was a cheap dim sum place near their townhouse that they would often go to on such nights as these. It held some nostalgia for them, as it had been one of their first dates. Wilde had convinced Jackie, his then girlfriend, to try the chicken feet.

“These are…much spicier than I had expected,” she’d said, trying and failing to rip the chewy meat off one of the toes.

“Here, let me help you,” he had said, and bit the other toe, and their tug o’war had resulted in a mess that they found very funny and their waiter did not appreciate one bit.

That same waiter greeted them with a smile now. Jackie and Roger sometimes wondered if they kept the place in business.

“I got a promotion,” she said after they’d ordered. “I hadn’t cooked because I’d wanted to celebrate.”

“That’s fantastic,” he said. “Where did they move you to?”

“They made me staff accountant,” she said. “They’re bumping hourly pay up to $20 per hour.”

“So we can afford to eat out now,” he said, grinning sheepishly.

“Yeah,” she said. “And it’s like, I handle finances for a division of a Fortune 500 company. I don’t know that I appreciate a vote of no confidence in how I handle home finance.”

“I was stressed,” he said. “I got, uh, pranked.”

“My own Philip Marlowe,” she said with a grin. “Ol’ Sam Philip Spade Marlowe getting pranked.”

“I’m getting sick of it,” he said. “I knew that it wasn’t going to be the gumshoeing that you read about, but I didn’t realize how much of a rudimentary desk job it is.”

“Get a new one,” she said. “There’s a lot you do at that desk job that could get you at least a better paying desk job.”

“Yeah,” he said. “You’re right. I keep hoping if I stay in it they’ll promote me to a more administrative position.”

“Still doesn’t pay as much as it could,” she said.

“I didn’t want it to be all about money,” he said.

“We moved to the Bay,” she said. “This is the most expensive place in the US. It will be all about money for a while.”

“I’m too romantic,” he said. “When I was single I could just slum it.”

“Was that ever a great way to live, though?”

“It was manageable,” he said.

“I don’t know if I agree with that.”

Wilde didn’t really know what to say back, and they continued their dinner in silence.

<<<

The next day, wishing to take out his frustration, Wilde checked on Keith’s case.

“Please tell me you fined his ass,” he said to the clerk of courts over the phone.

“Obviously we did,” the clerk said. “We even considered incarceration, but went against it. We don’t need this joker adding to our prison population.”

“So he’s back at his apartment?” Wilde said. “Has anyone notified the woman he claimed to be spying on?”

“Not my department.”

Wilde paged through the case file.

“Guess that’s my job,” he muttered.

>>>

A strange sense of déjà vu accompanied Wilde’s visit to Blum’s apartment. He even parked at the same meter as he had when visiting Keith’s place. He eyed Keith’s tower apartment now, trying to guess which window was his. He also felt vaguely annoyed with how unsafe he, a police officer, felt in Oakland. Surely he should have seen enough action that he was jaded to the city streets by now. The fact of the matter was, he was cooped up in the office most of the time. And as much as he hated that, he hated even more that he was secretly glad to be in such a safe place most of the time.

But he’d been in worse places than this, hadn’t he? He had to have been. And anyway, this was just a normal woman, not a Peeping Tom and certainly not an alien, he thought as the elevator rattled up to the eighth floor.

Blum’s apartment was 867. Wilde again felt annoyed by his anxieties, the emptiness of the halls leading to her space, the vague yellow glow of the hall lights, and the way the flickered. An old building, even if it was an expensive building, he reminded himself.

He knocked on Blum’s door.

“Oakland police.”

Silence, followed by gentle footsteps.

Why was he bracing himself to see something horrible? The story was a prank.

The door opened, revealing an astonishingly beautiful woman.

She had long black hair, blue eyes, and cream-colored skin, and was about five foot two. Not nearly tall enough to be some sort of vessel for an eight foot alien.

“It was a very skinny alien,” Keith had protested.

“Hello, officer,” she said. “Can I help you?”

Wilde sort of wished he had a hat to take off, like they did in the movies. Instead he just ran his hands through his wavy, light brown hair, and it looked silly.

“Are you Mallory Blum, miss?” he said.

“I am,” she said.

“Well, hate to disturb you or cause you alarm, but a man came into our station claiming to have spied on your apartment. Now, we’re pretty sure he’s a prankster, but all the same we did find camera equipment pointing directly at your place.”

“Oh my gosh!” she said, laughing. “Guess I’m not alone after all! Was he in that building, across the way?”

“Yeah, that one.”

“What apartment, if I can ask?”

“Well, not sure I’m at liberty to reveal that.”
She gave him a warm smile. “I just want to know so I can angle my shades away from that window.”

“Yeah, that’s fair enough. You know, if you don’t mind me stepping in for a moment, I can point it out to you. That way I won’t have told you his address, but you’ll feel safer. We in the precinct call that a loophole.”

“I know what a loophole is, officer. But yeah, I’d appreciate that.”

Gosh, he was smoother than ex-lax right now.

“Right,” he muttered, running his hands through his hair again.

He stepped into the kitchen, and again felt a sense of déjà vu, upon seeing the table and refrigerator magnets, which he could now make out as magnets in the shape of various states. One of course, was California, the other Vermont. They held up small postcards that read “Visit Glacier National Park!” and another that said “Mon Amie, Paris” with the Eiffel Tower on it and a little Made in Taiwan printed at the bottom left hand corner.

He wondered if Keith could see him in here.

“You from Vermont?” he said.

“No,” she said, “I’m actually from Nevada. Just always wanted to see the East Coast. I hear it’s lovely in the spring.”

He nodded. “That’s why I came out here. I’m from Iowa, actually. Got sick of seeing endless land.”

He pointed out Keith’s apartment.

“It’s that one. Been there myself. He had the camera set up in the middle window. Claims he never spied on your bedroom, but also seems like part of your bedroom might be visible from there. Didn’t really check myself, and the video in his camera didn’t have anything recorded on it. Seems like an odd prank, probably just wants attention, but seemed like it’d be negligent to not at least warn you.”

“Yeah, I appreciate that,” she said, taking a Polaroid of where Wilde had pointed. “Hopefully I never have to meet this guy.”

“He didn’t seem dangerous,” Wilde said. “Just a bit too into aliens and all.”

“How do you mean?” she said.

“Well, for starters,” Wilde said, “he claimed he saw aliens cut off your skin and put it on as their own.”

He decided to leave out the detail about the sketches. Anyway, he wasn’t giving Keith his journal back anytime soon.

“What a weirdo!” she said, giggling. “Well, just to be safe, you should, uh, take me to your leader!” She made the Vulcan gesture. “Too corny?”

They both laughed.
“Honestly,” Wilde said, “I wouldn’t mind if the humans took me to their leader too. I’d ask for a better job.”

A shrill hissing noise came from her bedroom that took him so aback that he hoped it wasn’t obvious how horribly startled he was.

“Oh, sorry,” she said. “That’s just my cat, Ripley. She doesn’t like strangers.”

The cat didn’t seem to notice Wilde at all. She was glaring at Blum, her eyes squinted, hissing so frantically that her mouth looked impossibly wide, like the Cheshire of Wonderland.

“Come now, Ripley,” Blum said. “No way to treat strangers! Back to your room!”

She went over to fetch the cat, but it arched its back and swiped at her hand, leaving a nasty scratch, before running back into her bedroom.

“Sorry about that,” she said.

“Hey, not to worry,” he said, dampening a paper towel. “I’ll help you clean the wound, put my police training to some good use.”

“‘The wound,’” she muttered and laughed. “For an officer in Oakland, you haven’t gotten out much, have you?”

“I’ve seen a thing or two,” he said, and she laughed even harder.

“Hey, maybe this is forward,” she said, but would you like to get dinner? There’s this kind of dreamy diner that’s not far away.”

He sighed, turning off the faucet.
“Miss Blum, I would really, really like to. I wish I had met you earlier. But I’m married. It wouldn’t be right.”

“Oh, of course,” she said. “Gosh, I feel so stupid. The nice people always get taken first, don’t they!”

He smiled, squeezing the excess water out of the towel. “I guess they do.”

He knelt down next to her and grabbed her hand, looking for the wound.

He couldn’t find it.

“You heal quickly,” he said.

“It wasn’t that bad of a scratch,” she replied.

She took out her wallet, and pulled out a business card.

“I’m a singer,” she said. “If you…and your wife can come too…ever want to see me perform, I work at Chicor’s jazz club. It’s on Phaeton Drive…guess it says that on the card, though.”

He couldn’t help but notice her number was also on the card.

“Thanks,” he said, putting her card in his wallet. “We’ll have to check it out. And hey, this Keith guy seems harmless, but if you’re ever feeling unsafe, here’s my card. I’m not there most evenings, but you can tell my buddies you know me and they’ll have a look, 9/11 charges be damned.”

He stood and added, “I better get going, I’m behind on non-prank case files that are unfortunately much less interesting. Lots of stolen bikes.”

“Hopefully see you around, Detective.”

As he left the apartment he took a glance towards the end of the hall. A bald man in a suit stood at its end, watching him. It was so lacking in subtlety that it was jarring.

“Can I help you?” he said.

The suited man turned silently towards the exit stairs and walked away.

Wilde considered following, but then what was the point? He felt, in a way, that to act at all like Keith might have been telling the truth would be to admit fault, and even moreso to admit that Mallory was potentially inhuman. Which was stupid.

Wilde took the elevator.

<<<

Back at the station, Wilde was logging the serial numbers on stolen vehicles in the area when boredom turned to curiosity. He picked up the office phone and called evidence.

“Hey, don’t judge me, but do you still have that skin flick Keith was watching?”

“Rough day?” the evidence clerk said.

“Rough couple of days.”

“Come on over, and clear this stuff out while you’re at it. We need room here for other things.”

Wilde collected the bankers box with Keith’s evidence in it–the box seemed a bit excessive seeing as it was just a tape and a journal, but protocol was protocol.

He closed the blinds in his office and slipped the tape into the player.

The tape had clearly been heavily watched, it was missing a few audio tracks, but then these things weren’t exactly prized for their writing.

Wilde decided it would be poor practice to beat it in his office, so he pulled out Keith’s diary instead, and began to page through it absently.

A couple entries stood out to him.

14 December, 1993
Sold television today. Haven’t been productive enough. Hoping sale of TV and purchase of camera will kill two birds w/ one stone. Using TV stand as a desk. Like view of city, even if it is blocked by another high-rise. Perhaps will test camera on what little of horizon I can see. Hope no one gets wrong idea. Maybe can hide camera for test.

Interesting, so he really did have good intentions at the beginning. What happened?

16 December, 1993
No luck, late nights + no friends = no crew or subject for filming. Fascinated by high-rise neighbors. Probably illegal but replaces TV. One in particular very pretty. Won’t creep on bedroom but she often reads in the kitchen alone with her cat. Wish I could meet her correctly and we both could be less lonely.

Boring. Wilde scanned, looking for the aliens to start showing up. Surprisingly, it was Christmas Eve.

24 December, 1993
Wanted to spend Christmas Eve with Raven [that was his name for her], but could swear I saw some intruders in her house. She wasn’t having a party. Need to sleep.

25 December, 1993
They’re back again. She doesn’t know they’re there. Now really glad my viewing spot is well-hidden. Feels like Rear Window. Maybe I can keep her safe. Want to find her apartment but don’t know which one it is. Don’t want them to know I am watching. They seem to always be there.

27 December, 1993
Talked to Dale at the library about stories where men snuck into a house without using door or window. Dale suggested paranormal or extraterrestrial. Told me about a book written in 1922 by a man who simply identified himself as “Kestrel.” Theorized Kestrel was FBI agent, as implied by his book, Imposters as Adam Clad. In the book Kestrel recounts staying in a hotel where he witnessed behavior of residents slowly begin to change; irritable residents becoming oddly pacified overnight, quarreling couples reconciling after a night of sleep, often to the other’s astonishment. Kestrel seems a bit like me, he was familiar with the hotel and knew of a passageway between rooms that allowed him to spy on residents. This was the way he saw the aliens, which he called Thanderians, not sure why, seemed to have some prior knowledge before writing? Dale couldn’t remember. But Kestrel saw large purple creature that looked like a dog and a silverfish and spider crawl into human body after shedding a temporary skin that they proceeded to burn. Kestrel wrote that the aliens often disguise themselves as musclemen, officers, or guards. Theorized human body was like exoskeleton to them.

Exactly like what I’m seeing here. Too weird to believe. Will keep watching.

Following this were many pages of drawings, where Keith had drawn the men, one of which looked a lot like the one Wilde had seen in Blum’s high rise.

These were the drawings Wilde had seen when searching the apartment.

1 January, 1994
New Years. Thanderians still visit. Don’t know what their plan is, but need to help Raven. Might be misunderstood but will videotape her apartment. Rather be charged with spying than let someone die. Can’t explain without tape. Not sure who to trust anyway, if Thanderians can take on human form. Will film tomorrow or night after if I can find good tape.

2 January, 1994
Turns out camera doesn’t come with tape. Seems like a scam. Could have sworn I had one. Went to Circuit City but tapes were more expensive than I can afford. Might just use Busty Brigade tape my buddy leant me if I can’t find anything else. Will peel label off so police don’t think I’m pranking them.

3 January, 1994
Oh god, it’s all real.

Wilde realized he hadn’t even been paying attention to the porno, and he looked up to see that Busty Brigade was no longer onscreen, but instead he was looking at a home recording of an apartment window.

Blum’s apartment.

Wilde felt the hairs on his neck stand on end.

He watched in horror as Blum went to bed, leaving a single lamp above the sink to illuminate the room.

He watched as bald men in suits materialized from beyond the corners of the window. Like Keith, Wilde wondered where they had been hiding. There were five of them, and they were very broad-shouldered.

They stood in the low light of the apartment kitchen, seemingly motionless, seemingly silent, at different points around the table.

Wilde wondered absently if they were in a star formation. Perhaps because they came from the stars?   He wasn’t sure which direction their star was supposed to be angled at. He had seen a horror movie during the Satanic Panic of the 80’s and knew that a lot of cults drew an upside down star to, like, summon demons or something. He wasn’t sure about that, they didn’t look to be summoning anything. Could have just been the easiest way for them to all fit in that room.

Blum’s cat ran in, just as Keith had said, and hissed at the men, the way it had hissed at Blum when Wilde visited.

He watched, powerless, as Blum ran into the dining room to collect her cat, only to be overtaken by these men, kicking, screaming, doubtlessly fighting with every breath.

He watched as she became hidden by the figures, which seemed to have knocked her out and set her on the table.

The camera panned, following one of them as it lifted her onto its shoulders and carried her to the bedroom.

The angle was indeed obscured, but it was clear a slit was made in her skin, looked like it was in her hairline, where a cut wouldn’t be visible. Keith had not mentioned that the man had used some device to remove organs such as her brain, and perhaps spinal fluid as well? He appeared to be hollowing out her body in a specific way­–it was hard to tell, and Wilde was somewhat relieved he didn’t have to know.

Then the most awful image came, as a purple creature slithered out of the man’s mouth, the skin and suit going limp around it as it “undressed.” It had a head that looked like a ring, with no discernable face, and tentacles around that head that looked like hair, but also a bit like the tentacles of a cuttlefish or anemone. It had frame like a dog, its double-jointed legs curved backwards, giving it a countenance that was both arachnoid and lupine. From its side jutted projections that looked like ribs, or maybe vestigial limbs? These were flexible, and it folded them, as well as its long arms and claws, to an almost impossible degree as it climbed into the slit in Blum’s hairline.

Blum was motionless for a moment, then violently twitched as she opened her eyes. She stood, picked up the disposed suit and skin, rolled it up, and brought it back into the kitchen.

The figures turned, looking out the window, and while they didn’t make eye contact with the camera, they closed the blinds all the same.

The tape stopped shortly after, though he could hear Keith muttering “oh god” behind the microphone.

“You and me both, buddy,” Wilde said quietly.

That reminded him.

They had sent Keith home.

And he had shown Blum where Keith lived.

He picked up the phone, and then cursed his disorganization.

If he had Keith’s number, he didn’t know where. And he wasn’t about to ask anyone in the department for it.

Better to haul ass and find Keith himself.

He called his wife, but got the answering machine.

“Hey, honey, I’m going to be a little late for dinner. Don’t worry about making supper, we’ll get takeout or something.” He thought about warning her to call for help if he didn’t come back soon, but then he wasn’t sure who might be at his townhouse, or who even his wife could ask for help.

“Love you. Bye.”

He hung up, threw on his coat, and ran.

>>>

It was an eerily calm night in Oakland. There were few sirens, few arguments on the street, and not a single junky out raving to themselves. Just Roger Wilde, parking at the same meter he had parked at before, dashing frantically into Keith’s building, trying to stay out of view of Blum’s apartment.

He wasn’t sure whether to take the stairs or the escalator, but opted for the stairs despite the fear in his body rendering his legs like jelly. He wanted to put himself in a position where he could easily escape, and while the concrete stairs were creepier they also provided more options.

He ran up nine flights of stair to Keith’s apartment, and was out of breath when he got there. He could feel his fear creeping up his spine frantically, checking his peripherals for one of the men in suits.

He knocked on Keith’s door.

“Gil, it’s me, Detective Wilde. I saw your video. I’m not a Thanderian.”

He had no clue what a Thanderian wouldn’t say, but he assumed their biggest agenda was to not have a name in the first place.

At first there was silence, and he could feel his fear mounting even further.

What if he was too late?

He felt some relief as he heard footsteps coming to the door.

But then his heart dropped as he realized:

How would he know if he was too late?

Keith opened the door, looking a little worse for wear but not dramatically different than Wilde had left him. He was in a t-shirt, boxers, and slippers.

“Detective,” he said with a smile. “Thank God. So you read my diary?”

“Yeah, and I saw the tape,” he said. “We need to get you out of here. Before I believed you I went to her house and told her where you lived.”

“Oh god,” Keith said. “Yes, definitely. I’ll get dressed right away. Please tell me you didn’t tell anyone you were coming.”

“No,” Wilde said. “I didn’t know who to tell.”

“Good,” Keith said, “Then we should have a few minutes. Come inside, I don’t want you standing out there and something happening while I’m getting dressed.”

“Thanks,” Wilde said, “I don’t want to be alone.”

He walked in and locked the door as Keith made his way into his bedroom.

“Do you have any idea where I’ll be going?” Keith said. “I don’t know where to hide from these things. This Kestrel guy seemed to be able to do it, which is probably good seeing as the FBI discredited his book.”

“Don’t know,” Wilde said, “but I’m going with you, and I’m taking my wife.”

“Hey,” Keith said, “close the window, just to be safe, if they see us together we’ll have much less margin.”

“Good thinking.”

Wilde went to the window and as he closed it, looked at Blum’s apartment.

His heart rose to his mouth.

Staring from the window, directly at him, was one of the bald men.

“Hey, Gil?” Wilde said, closing the shades with a panic.

“Yeah?” he heard Keith say behind him.

Wilde turned and screamed.

Standing in front of him was Blum, Keith, and two of the bald men.

Wilde continued screaming, but it was too late.

The last thing he saw was Blum silently charging at him, her hands outstretched.

<<<

It was almost 9:00 PM when Wilde came home.

“Hey,” Jackie said, “Thanks for calling me.”

“No problem,” he said. “I missed you.”

He ran up to her and gave her a kiss, holding her in a way he hadn’t done in years.

“Are you hungry?” he said.

“I went ahead and had dinner on my own,” she said. “I hope that’s okay.”

“That’s totally fine,” he said. “I actually just ate too. But I would like to have a night out. My friend told me about this jazz club called Chicor’s that’s in Oakland. I know it’s a Wednesday, but I can drive you to work tomorrow, if you’d like.

She put his arms around him, curiosity and hopes for a new chapter in their relationship in her eyes.

“Who are you and what have you done with my husband?” she said.

“I killed him,” Wilde replied. “I thought I could do better than him, so I slipped into his skin.”

“Don’t be gross!” she said, laughing. “I guess you’re still the man I married.”

Wilde tried to hide how funny he thought that was, and succeeded.

+++

Samuel Cullado
9 January 2017

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Cerebrum

The swarthy, smartly dressed young woman stood out against the sterile corridors of Building M of Ultrencht Health’s Research and Development compound. Her task, as she had just learned in a briefing with her lawyer the night before, was to synthesize human imagination. Delores Daring, her nametag read, though truthfully she preferred the name Lola, and anyway either name was preferable to her unwanted high school nickname of Double Dee. She was a graduate student, pursuing a career in neurosciences, and while money was certainly a factor, Lola Daring was in it for the discovery. She took a sort of winsome pride in the fact that her name sounded like a Carmen San Diego knock-off, because she felt that she was, like her heroes Picard, Kirk before him, and Nemo before all of them, exploring the unknown frontiers of existence. The final frontier, in Lola’s mind, however, was the human brain. In studying it, she was reminded of Crichton’s The Lost World in the sense that it was almost impossible to truly know the brain in an unbiased manner. Was there anything more reflexive than using one’s mind to study the brain? And if brains could communicate, as some theorized, did one brain considering another affect said brain?

These were the sorts of questions Lola avoided asking at parties, especially medical events. Her fellow students weren’t there to theorize, they were there to schmooze, and more to schmooze they were there to show off what they knew. She recalled Ultrencht’s annual Emerald Gala, where she was subjected to an hour and a half of mutual masturbation in the name of medicine but mostly money. After getting bored of downing champagne, Lola stole away to the corridors of Gambol Central hospital itself, on the pretense of exploring.

It was amidst the fluorescent shadows of the hospital and the echoed slaps of her heels against the linoleum floor that reflected them that she came across Dr. Hollarghast.

“Not much one for parties, are you?” Hollarghast said, sitting on a lounge chair that overlooked the Gambol Campus.

His voice, which was scratchy like a burlap bag, caused Lola to start.

“Sorry if I scared you, Miss Daring,” Hollarghast said. “It’s just that I rarely find good company during these yearly festivals to Mammon.”

He held out his hand to the lounge chair next to him.

“Have a seat,” he said. “It hasn’t yet been tainted by the uninsured, I promise.”

Hollarghast was, by all accounts, a cynical–and depending on whom you asked, odious–man. But he was also universally praised for his talent and innovation. There was a running joke that he basically lived at the hospital these days–after all, he had to prove his worth to them beyond innovation, and he performed this through what most was an addiction to healing surgery. In truth, it was a calculated maintenance of his ReveRevue’s–Ultrencht’s way of monitoring employee value to the company. The Revue’s, as they were called for short, were a measure of how much money every doctor was bringing in for the hospital. You operate on a lot of patients who have cheaply treated disorders, lower revenue. But if you take a handful of bizarre cases…

In this manner, Hollarghast had achieved value both to the company and to himself. It had given him enough sway to whip the boards that made these sorts of decisions to open a research and development unit. The idea, of course, was to innovate more expensive treatments. This was Hollarghast’s gambit, at least. Everyone knew, though, that the man was reincarnation of the Nazi scientist complex, though he was without a morally void Reich, instead opting to work within a morally null company.

Lola considered all of this as she observed Hollarghast now, staring out the windows at the cold, navy blue and orange sunset that only the American North could provide, sucking on all things a lolli from the basket they left for patients in Family Practice.

“What flavor?” Lola said.

“Green Apple,” Hollarghast muttered. “Delightfully sour. I’d have grabbed one if I’d believed myself that you’d come.”

Hollarghast looked like he was a very lively 100 years old, with the physical presence of Eustace from Courage the Cowardly Dog and the darkness and mystery of Keith Richards. Like the former, he wore Transition lenses that seemed to completely obscure his eyes, even indoors with the lights on. His eyes themselves were blue, but so pallid that they almost looked grey.

“If you believed yourself?” Lola said. “I’ve heard legends, Dr. H, but you don’t control fate.”

She wished to assert herself. Notions of gender were changing, but people, especially the older amongst them, still saw the Other as lesser and something to be pushed around. Not Lola Daring, though; she’d make sure of that.

“You are a gifted student,” Hollarghast said. “And I sense you’re looking to test the limits of the brain. Oh, don’t get me wrong, you’re looking to make money, make a name for yourself, save the image of the Brain Surgeon from the flimsy hands of Ben Carson. And you can do that, and you will do that. But, here’s the thing about great minds–they collaborate.”

He took off his glasses, folded them, and put them into the lapel of his white lab coat. Hollarghast had not dressed for the party. He was, ostensibly, on call.

“I read your report on imagination,” Hollarghast continued, pulling up his phone and tapping on the PDF app.

“Specifically it was about the brain’s ability to make manifest certain realities–“

“It was about imagination. Don’t misunderstand me as saying you’re not saying anything new. It’s just that you’ll find greater credibility in the dumbed down macro concept, not the mystifying jargon. Nothing terrifies your competition more than when they can understand everything you’re saying without grasping the whole.”

“So you read my report,” Lola said.

“Yes…” Hollarghast said, “and I wanted to extend a job offer to you.”

“Oh?” Lola said.

“It would require you to work when you’re not on your fellowship. And I can only guarantee twelve dollars an hour, maybe more if you’re resourceful. But I know your studies aren’t cheap. I know your parents can only help you so much.”

“I’m well cared for,” Lola bluffed.

“Mhmm,” Hollarghast said. “Look, I won’t insult you with money. I’ll admit, it’s a title too that’s below your stature. You would be my assistant.”

“You really know how to make a hard sell,” Lola muttered.

“I’m not a salesman, Miss Daring. I’m a scientist who moonlights as a surgeon. And with my recommendation, you can do the same on your terms, and even experience something that will give your passion something to feast on in the meantime.”

“What are you doing that you need an assistant for.”

“Regardless of whether or not you take the job,” Hollarghast said, “I’ll need you to sign an NDA before I can tell you…Ultrencht’s rules, not mine. Probably for the best, even in my bitter, cynical state, if I wasn’t legally obliged to keep my mouth shut about this, I’d probably be telling all of your underperforming classmates that we are synthesizing the very thing they lack.”

He gave her a look, as though this was ample information, mixed with concern that she might still not be picking up on his drift.

“And they don’t lack skill,” he added.

Lola laughed. “All right, Dr. Hollarghast, I am intrigued. I will not be signing anything tonight, but might I meet you in your office sometime soon to discuss terms?”

“Yes,” Hollarghast said, almost growling with glee. “In fact, any time tomorrow afternoon–my office hours are 3 to 5– if that is not too early.”

“If I decide upon it, I will be arriving during the four o’clock hour,” Lola said.

“Don’t keep me waiting, Miss Daring,” Dr. Hollarghast said.

“Don’t tell me what I will do,” Lola said with a smile, and walked away.

She thought she heard him mutter, “I don’t have to,” as she left, but she hoped she was imagining that. She had, in her mind, already made up her mind in the negative. She would sooner work at Sandwich Station than work for Benjamin Hollarghast.

>>>

That night, Lola had a nightmare.

The nightmare began, if she could recall properly, on her bed, but she was stunned to find her bed was in the midst of the cosmos, all around was blackness, but there was a nebula in the distance, purple and wispy. The bed itself was swinging around a single, white planet, rapidly. As her bed spun around to face the planet, she discovered it was in fact a giant eye, green like hers. She screamed as her bed sped into the eye itself, enveloped in the black pupil.

Lola awoke to find herself in her room, and in retrospect chided herself for not noticing the geometry was all wrong. She stood out of her bed and stumbled to her bathroom. Now, in real life, she lived in a 1-bedroom apartment, with a bathroom adjacent to her bedroom. But this journey to the bathroom entailed a long corridor, decked out with purple wallpaper, with a strange featherlike design from floor to ceiling. She remembered wondering who designed this house to have a long hallway with a bathroom at the end. It didn’t seem practical.

Still, she finally made it, opened the bathroom door, and hastily turned on the lights.

She was startled by the immediacy of how bright the lights were, but she was even more startled by her reflection in the mirror.

Her bangs were breathing.

She parted them to find her forehead itself was expanding, then watched with astonishment as her skull itself opened, revealing not a brain, but an endless deluge of eyes, all kinds of colours this time, floating to the ceiling and popping like bubbles, leaving a grayish pink stain on the ceiling each time they popped. Each stain looked like human in an old medieval relief, complete with grotesque, pained expression.

She screamed and woke up.

<<<

To her own surprise, Lola found herself at Dr. Hollarghast’s office the next day, at 4pm.

She was less surprised to find Hollarghast was out.

“He’ll be back soon,” his office manager, Gilles, said, frustrated. “I’ve texted him. And he’s not fully scrubbed in, but he’s consulting on a surgery. Just have a seat in his office in the meantime.”

“Will he be okay with that?”

“Yeah, he told me to make an exception with you.”

“Hey, I’m gonna be working pretty closely with this guy, if I agree to his offer,” Lola said. “You’re his office manager. What’s it like working with the guy?”

Gilles rubbed his hands, almost as though he was washing them of the matter, and said, “It’s great experience. A year of this and I can go anywhere.”

“Right, but what’s he like as–”

“It’s hospital work,” Gilles said abruptly. “Your work follows you home and you can either handle it or you can’t. A lot of people can’t handle Dr. H. But if you can, then he’ll respect you. And that counts for something. But if you think I’m going to stand here and waste my time telling you why not to work for him, then you really are quite foolish. He works for Ultrencht, I work for Ultrencht, and in a way it’s my job to rat on him to them. Not to you. And trust me, we’re watching you as much as him. Now have a seat, won’t you?”

Lola nodded, a bit dumbfounded, and made her way into the office, checking the reflection of one of Hollarghast’s awards to make sure Gilles was leaving. Almost out of principle, she did not have a seat.

Instead, she dug through Hollarghast’s bookshelf, which was extensive. Various volumes stood out to her. Of course, there were old standbys, books on surgery that he was more likely to possess because he’d had them as a student himself in the days before EBay, textbooks that could not be sold anyway because they were out of date a mere month after publication. Then there were more colorful volumes, such as Anton Szandor LaVey, as well as an odd-looking book labeled “Codex Gigas.” There were also more recognizable and less esoteric volumes, such as Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene, Madeline L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, and a book called The Six Dares of Saligamus. Dr. Yvonne Drummond’s book, The Corridors of the Subconscious, stood out to her. She wondered if there might be any interpretation of her dream, then considered that Drummond had gone mysteriously missing following a quickly-hushed scandal at the college she taught at, so perhaps not the most credible source.

“Curiosity!” she heard Hollarghast hiss behind her.   “The catalyst of the creator’s mind.”

She was startled, but she hid it. She slid Drummond’s book back into its place.

“Love your books, Doctor,” she said, and indicated A Wrinkle in Time. “See yourself in Charles Wallace?”

Hollarghast chuckled.

“Miss Daring, I don’t see myself in anything I read. Helps me stay objective.   I do, however, see much of myself in you. To the point where whenever I see, you, I get the first two lines of ‘I am the Walrus’ stuck on my head in a loop.”

He took a seat at his desk, which was surrounded by various chachkis. Notably there was a picture of a woman, but it was old, and Lola was unsure if it was a lover or a relative. Everything else seemed designed to suggest Hollarghast spent his time going to various exotic locals and purchasing souvenirs that looked “authentic.” Whatever that meant.

“I considered your offer,” Lola said. “And I’ve decided to accept.”

“Excellent,” Hollarghast said, “I have the papers right here–“

“However,” Lola continued, “I accept on the condition that every question I ask, you must answer. Even if you think it’s a stupid question. Even if it’s ‘classified.’ I am your assistant; I can do my work best if I know. And if we really are innovating, there’s a lot I’ll be asking about.”

Hollarghast stared at her, the corner of his mouth curling ever so slightly.

“Yes, Miss Daring, absolutely. That won’t be a problem whatsoever.”

“Good.”

“So you are ready to sign, then?” he said.

“Not yet,” Daring said. “I want to have my lawyer look over this paperwork first.”

Hollarghast nodded.

“Of course,” he said. “We couldn’t possibly have you working in an abusive condition.”

“Finally,” Lola said, feeling some anger mounting within her chest, “you will not speak to me in that way. You will speak to me as an equal.”

Hollarghast narrowed his eyes.

“I cannot agree to that,” he said. “For I see none as my equal.”

“Fair enough,” Lola said. “On some abstract level I do respect that. Doesn’t make you a good person.”

“I’m not,” Hollarghast said, as she began to leave. “Don’t ever see me as one who claims to be.”

She nodded. “If everything looks good to my lawyer, when do I start?” she said.

“Monday,” Hollarghast said, checking his copy of The Corridors of the Subconscious, as if she might have left something in it. “9 AM. Arrive at 8 so that you have time for decontamination.” He sighed, snapped the book shut, and set it on his desk. “Miss Daring, I can never promise any good intent, I cannot promise that I appreciate or care for morality, I cannot claim any fealty to ethics. But know that I am speaking in earnest when I say whatever work you choose to do will be most appreciated.”

She nodded, and left. But she found it oddly endearing.

 

EXPERIMENT 1

 

It was this series of events that led to the swarthy, smartly dressed young woman finding herself within the sterile corridors of Building M of Ultrencht Health’s Research and Development compound. From the exterior it had looked almost like a crate one might find on a barge, but its interior led to a stairway guarded by a lone security guard, his tag reading “Francisco J.” Francisco looked at Lola’s badge, nodded, and pressed a button unlocking a vault door at the foot of the stairway.

Upon entering the compound Lola was reminded of another Crichton book, The Andromeda Strain. Facility M was similarly labyrinthine, and “samey” as one might say. The only thing delineating one hallway from another was lettering and numbering. For instance, the exit stairway led to ring A1 of the facility. Lola assumed that this was the largest ring and she would be working further inward as she gained more clearance, but without a map it was hard to be sure. This was certainly a building designed for the left-brained, and Lola was glad to have become so adept at masquerading as one who was left-brained, living within the trance created by another.

The compound, Lola soon learned, did indeed work further inwards, and was in fact in the shape of a spiral, with “spokes;” that is, hallways connecting each layer. Her freedom to roam was limited, as if you went too far in, bland-looking men with sunglasses were quick to kindly ask you to turn around.

“Well, thank goodness this isn’t a test of problem solving skills,” Hollarghast said, when Lola finally arrived, ten minutes late, and everyone laughed. There were five test subjects sitting in a circle with him, and he had an empty seat open for Lola.

“Now, we’ve all signed our NDA’s, and my assistant finally figured out how to navigate a spiral,” Hollarghast said. “Let’s get down to the meat and potatoes of why we are here. Ultrencht Health Systems has found a way to synthesize imagination, and is looking to test its effects. We hypothesize that the potential for imagination may be much greater than simply looking at the world in a different way. Maybe the reason we cannot study a system without affecting it is because our minds are constantly changing the world.”

He looked around, and with a condescending grin simplified his statement:

“By that I mean, our imaginations don’t just adjust reality, they create it.”

Hollarghast pulled out a remote and pressed a button, lowering a projection board over one of the observation windows.

“Everyone, meet Cerebrum, our own synthetic imagination program. Now, don’t be alarmed, I’ve engaged in a little bit of theatrics, but I can assure you this is not what the machine actually looks like.

He opened a PowerPoint presentation and flipped to a slide showing a brain with two eyes attached.

Everyone laughed, except for Lola, who felt unexplainably ill. It was not the same as the image that she had seen in her dream, and yet the eyes, particularly fullness of the ones attached to this brain, reminded her so much of the ones that had floated out of her head. Moreso, the eyes in her dream…well, there had been no brain there, had there been? The absence made it all more ominous, if the brain was not in her head, where had it been in the dream? What was her mind trying to show her?

She brushed these questions off, as she didn’t want to miss Hollarghast’s explanation of the program.

“Now,” Hollarghast said, “Your purpose in this experiment is twofold. A, we just want to see how the layman handles an SI–Synthetic Imagination. AI was already taken, naturally. Secondly, though, you all get to give input. You are all “creatives”–one a musician, one a comedian, one a photographer, one a dancer, one a painter, one a…no, I guess that’s everyone. My point, anyway, is that you each represent pillars of the right-brained community. Of course, we’ve given Cerebrum a functioning left-brain as well, otherwise we wouldn’t be able to control it, but it’s a normal processor, like any other computer. That’s the control of our experiment. The right brain of Cerebrum is the variable. And you all get to be a part of the experiment to test it. Any questions before we move on?”

The photographer, nametag reading “Jordan,” raised his hand.

“Yes, Mister Zaphon?”

“What’s the right brain of Cerebrum made of?”

“Organic stem cells,” Hollarghast said. “A miracle of science, to be sure. Not to be taken lightly.”

Zaphon nodded, satisfied with the answer.
“All right, then,” Hollarghast said, and he handed a clipboard with a thick stack of papers on it to Lola, “without further ado, it’s time for Experiment 1.”

Experiment 1 lasted for a week, and would turn out to be everyone’s favorite experiment, though Lola would soon discover this might not be saying much. However, the experience itself was a marvel nonetheless.

The subjects were given a cap of sorts that was connected to Cerebrum. The first experiment had screens placed over their eyes that showed first person footage of another test subject doing something they were proficient at. So, for instance, the sketch artist experienced the violinist playing Paganini Caprice number 1, and the violinist experienced the sketch artist drawing a detailed ink portrait of a bittersweet child on a rainy day.

The catch was that after they experienced these events, these talents that were outside of their field, cerebrum enabled them to accomplish them on their own. It was exactly imagination, per se, more talent, but Hollarghast felt that this was a very functional finding, something to tell shareholders about. The findings were exciting and bizarre; the dancer did a standup routine­–and killed. The comedian, man in decent shape, but nothing muscular, performed Ballet en Pointe and was able to do most of a move set from Swan Lake’s “Dance of the Cygnets.” However, physicality was a limitation, something Hollarghast and Lola made note of [later experiment alters comedian’s physiology]. Still, everyone applauded, despite the comedian nearly breaking his ankle and being absolutely out of breath.   They had never seen anything quite like that.

This went on for a week each business day focusing on the results of each individual.

Lola herself played with Cerebrum’s talent programming, and was astonished to find herself drawing not only the picture the artist had drawn, but a rendering of her own nightmare. It wasn’t quite as good as the artist might have drawn it, but it was much better than Lola had ever drawn.

On the third day, Lola pulled Hollarghast aside after the day’s session had ended.

“Dr. Hollarghast,” Lola said, “You’d mentioned Cerebrum was made of stem cells…”

“Yes,” Hollarghast said, and then added sarcastically, “only the best stem cells.”

“Well, I was wondering if I could have a look at it. The Cerebrum Right Brain processor.”

She was expecting him to say no, which is why she asked so early in the experiments, with hopes of persuading him near by the end.

“Yes,” Hollarghast said, “But later, if that’s all right, Miss Daring.”

He was surprisingly polite.

“Yeah,” Lola said, “Just as long as I get to.”

“You most assuredly will,” Hollarghast said. “Good night, Miss Daring, and thank you for your help.”

<<<

That night, Lola dreamt she was in Gambol hospital. It was confusing because she was both a doctor and a patient–two people, two different perspectives, both experienced simultaneously from a first-person point of view. She felt powerless as the patient, confined to her view of the hallway from her gurney. This powerlessness registered in the dream as this awful, ticklish sensation, somewhere around her armpits.   As the doctor she felt this wickedness, this ill intent coursing through her, which registered as chills around her neck. Overall it was a highly discomforting feeling, and because she was both victim and perpetrator she was unable to stop herself from the eventuality that her gurney seemed to be barreling towards at full speed, as pushed by herself.

And that was also disturbing. She couldn’t see her “doctor” face as the patient, and as the doctor she could only see the double door at the end of the hallway that she was intently pushing the bed towards. But she could read the nametag on the white hospital coat of the doctor.

Hello! My name is:

DARIN LOLAN

It was dream brain; that sort of way that your subconscious can never quite form a coherent written word, but it was no matter: it definitely signified her name.

“Stop,” she tried to whisper, but became frustrated when it came out of the doctor’s mouth and not the patient’s, as a loud scream.

As the doctor she took out a surgical mask and tied it around her mouth, but not before taking a large wad of tissue and shoving it into her own mouth, keeping herself, the doctor, from speaking. All of this was seemingly performed without the gurney slowing its journey down the hall. If anything, it was speeding up.

The two red double-doors, blackness behind the windows, grew closer and closer, faster and faster, until they were upon them.

The blackness of the windows gave way to two eyes.

Lola’s eyes.

The dream screamed, all around. The eyes screamed, the walls screamed, the hall screamed, Lola screamed as a patient, finding with horror that her tongue was somehow bound, and Lola screamed as a doctor, choking on her own gag.

And Lola woke up.

 

EXPERIMENT 2

 

“Gloves are off, kiddos,” Hollarghast said. “Not gonna be fun this week. But we’re paying, and we’re paying good.”

They were. The subjects were receiving two thousand dollars per day. It had led to an overwhelmingly chipper attitude the week before, after their initial qualms about what on earth would have a company paying them this much for testing had passed. Now those qualms were resurfacing.

“What exactly are we doing?” the painter, Jordan Zaphon, said.

Hollarghast did not acknowledge him but proceeded to answer. “Who here likes haunted houses?”

The photographer, Aria, held up her hand slowly, grinning, but she looked nervous.

“You can go first, then,” Hollarghast said, “it’s kind of like a haunted house. But much safer. It’s just in your head. And we’ll be all around you to make sure you’re safe. We’ll even have a team of doctors standing by to monitor your vitals, your comfort, etcetera.” Hollarghast motioned to the windows of the room they were in, which of course were mirrored, so it was hard to know how many if any doctors were actually present. “Unfortunately they can’t meet you. Not that they’re too good for you, they just don’t want to interfere with the results of the experiment. Like Crichton’s Lost World.”

“Sick reference,” Lola muttered, in spite of herself.

“What a moment, everyone,” Hollarghast said, “Doctor Daring wants you all to know she caught my reference. Let’s all give her a round of applause.”

Everybody laughed nervously, and clapped, except for the comedian, who looked visibly uncomfortable.

Lola looked at Hollarghast, and mouthed Doctor?

Hollarghast shrugged, and smiled ever so slightly.

Aria was hooked up to cerebrum, and reclined on gurney that Lola told herself looked nothing like the one in last night’s dream.

“All right, Miss Ciela,” Hollarghast said to Aria, “Are you comfortable?”

Aria smiled and gave a thumbs up, her eyes obscured by Cerebrum’s blinders.

“All right, then,” Hollarghast said, “I think it’s time we took you on a tour of frights. My colleagues say I sound a bit like Vincent Price, so in a way I’m the most qualified.”

Everyone laughed again. Hollarghast was acting more genial than usual, and Lola sensed this was not because he was more comfortable with the test subjects. She had met doctors who had worked with the man for almost a decade who still felt a palpable chill when the man was in the room. In a way, his friendliness, which Lola was beginning to suspect was an act, made him all the more unsettling today.

Aria jolted a moment, and everyone shrieked.

Aria giggled, “What’re you guys freaked out about?”

“You just had us going there a moment,” the comedian said.

“The body jolts when cerebrum amplifies its ability to imagine. Essentially the computer has tricked it into dreaming, so the body thinks that it is asleep.

“I feel so funny! It’s a bit like being high,” Aria said, then added: “So my friend tells me.”

Everybody laughed.

“Can you tell us where you are?” Hollarghast said.

“I’m on the shores of an ocean. It’s nighttime. It’s beautiful,” Aria said.

“Go into the water,” Hollarghast said, more quietly.

“How deep?” Aria said.

“Just get your hands wet, hold them in the water, maybe,” Hollarghast said, and then motioned for everyone to join him at the sides of Aria’s gurney.

“Oh, it’s cold!” Aria said.

“Sorry, but keep them there a moment. How does the air feel?”

“Better than in here,” Aria said. “It’s fresh and it’s delightful.”

Everyone gasped.

Aria’s fingers were becoming pruny. They weren’t wet, but they were reacting to being in the water all the same.

“What’s everyone gasping about?” Aria said.

“Your hands are reacting to the water in the dream, the way they would if you got your fingers wet in real life. Your body is bridging the gap between imagination and reality. This moment may be the first observed moment of the human brain creating reality from nothing.”

“What, uh, what else can it do?” Aria said nervously.

“What would you like it to do?” Hollarghast said.

“Um…” Aria clearly had something on her mind, but Hollarghast cut her off.
“I know!” he said, “you should eat some food in the dream and see if it nourishes your body. Imagine the applications.”

“Yeah,” Aria said, “which way is a restaurant?”

“This will be a bit of a jolt,” Hollarghast said, “I’m going to seat you now.”

“Okay,” Aria said, “I’m ready.”

She didn’t sound ready.

Hollarghast turned a dial and Aria screamed, which made everyone else except for the doctor gasp.

“Are you all right, Miss Ciela?” the doctor said.

Aria nodded. “Sorry, just not used to experiencing dream transitions so vividly. I’m at a Rio Bravo Steakhouse.”

“Nice,” one of the other subjects said.

“Feel free to order, I’ve programed servers into this,” Hollarghast said.

He stood up and went to get coffee, and Lola followed.

“Doctor,” Lola said to Hollarghast, “What exactly are we doing today?”

“We’re testing Cerebrum’s ability to communicate with the amygdala,” Hollarghast said, “as well as the prefrontal cortex. You know the phrase ‘perception is reality?’ Of course you do, who doesn’t–” Here he poured himself some more coffee. “–We’ve always taken this to mean people see the world in the way that they imagine it. But what if human perception is powerful enough to alter reality itself? The possibilities would be endless. We could circumvent invasive treatments, cure diseases, save money, abolish money even, or make our own new standard of money. We could do whatever we wanted. Ultrencht hasn’t even considered the full scope of this, mind you. A corporation does not want to fund something that could abolish the notion of funding. They want to fund something that gives them power. But the power of imagination is so raw…it makes the very concept of power seem petty.”

He took a sip, wincing from the heat.

“Anyway, we better get back.”

He heard a scream from the test room.

“Uh oh,” he said, casually.

His attitude could not have been any more different than the scene they were about to discover.

>>>

If one were to look at the documents that explained the events that led to Aria Ciela’s death, one would be surprised not only by the amount of detail they contained, but how little they actually revealed. There were four witnesses, a full vitals monitor, and even a live feed of the input from the Cerebrum program. The case itself was open and shut; she had a pulmonary embolism that led to an unexpected and almost instantaneous death, unrelated to what she was experiencing in the dream.

However, witnesses claimed to have witnessed Miss Ciela struggle with her breathing in her final moments, as well as complaining of an unnerving figure watching her through the windows of the restaurant in the Cerebrum dream, eventually letting itself in through a shadowy emergency exit near the restaurants’ lavatories. Furthermore, this figure matched Ciela’s memory of a home invader she had mentioned during test pre-screenings. She had caught him in her apartment in the weeks prior to the tests, rifling through her things. He had clearly been a robber, but she confessed the notion of home invasion had become a recent fear and obsession of hers. After all, the only valuables he had stolen were her photographs, suggesting he was some sort of obsessed fan with premeditated and prior knowledge of where she lived. Her home, she explained, had always been her haven–or was it heaven? It was hard to catch through the grainy recording of the interview now. But either way that heaven had been violated.

All other test subjects had been quarantined for questioning and mental evaluation followed the events of the test. As the death seemed to have been caused by external factors, the study would continue.

<<<

Lola, like everyone else who had been present for the incident, had to sleep in housing provided by Ultrencht. It was a simple, windowless room, with a squeaky bed, a small side table, and a tube TV in the top corner. Hollarghast explained he had pulled some strings to set Lola up in a call room, which he promised was nicer than the quarters the other test subjects had been given.

Lola could only imagine what their space was like, as she killed a cockroach that had scuttled out from the bedside table. She turned on the TV to a rerun of this old early 1960’s sitcom, Delores and Louise, and fell asleep.

Lola dreamt she was in a tunnel, which looked as though it was made of rusted rock, and the rock was breathing, and the tunnel was breathing. It became more and more narrow, the contractions of the tunnel making it more and more claustrophobic. She was alarmed to find that though the walls contracted like muscle, they were still every bit as hard as the rock of a normal cave. She crawled on all fours, to avoid getting crushed, and quickly made her way through the narrowest part of the tunnel towards a pale light, doing her best not to get crushed.

She thought the cave had the best of her when she popped her head out of its entrance, but was able to successfully slide out before the final contraction. The air was clammy, cool, and misty, and the moon lit the breezy knoll on which she stood.

She looked out over the knoll to behold the bay of a large, glistening lake.

The lake from Aria’s dream.

She was terrified, but knew not where to go, so she headed towards the lake itself, until she was in up to her ankles. It was cold, but not shockingly so, and on any other night the gentle lapping of the waters would have soothed her, but tonight its gentle rhythm took on a much eerier tone, as though it was the calm before some horrid storm.

She heard a deep groan, like the cry of a whale, deep beneath the waters of the bay.

An eye floated to the surface, floating ever so briefly, staring at her before popping in a red mist, like a bubble.

Then another eye.
Then another.

Soon thousands of eyes began to carbonate the surface of the lake, suggesting there was something much bigger in the water, floating to the surface.

She saw a veiny, pink membrane break the water’s surface, right in the center of the moon’s reflection.

And there, an enormous brain, the size of a small yacht, floated to the surface, two eyes attached beneath its frontal lobe.

Lola’s eyes.

Lola blinked, and the eyes blinked as well.

Lola felt dirty concrete beneath her hands.

She had been watching the whole dream up until then on the screen of a tube television, like the one in the call room. She appeared to be in some sort of basement, with no light except that of the television and some external hard drives connected to it, pulsating lights on their posteriors. The television itself was propped on an old wooden dresser with two drawers, the topmost drawer open, revealing a black box with a cord that led to the hat on Lola’s head.

She was connected to cerebrum, or something like it. It wasn’t nearly as state of the art; that was clear, but it was working every bit as functionally. It was around this time in the dream that she realized she was a man, in a man’s body, somehow restrained in this dark basement. Lola lifted her male hands, to discover they were anemically pale. Even the act of lifting them was far too much.

She heard movement in the shadows of the basement, from beneath what looked like the faint outline of a staircase. She could sense there was someone else down here with her, and they were headed towards the television.

The noise, like the swoosh of sweatpants, or maybe slippers on concrete floor, stopped once it had reached the dresser, and went silent for a moment, which was punctuated by the faintest sound of breathing.

The TV cut to a black screen, with flashing white text:

Time to wake up, Lolan.

A shadow of an arm moved in front of the tube TV, switching it off.

And Lola was surrounded by blackness.

She realized her feet still felt wet from the dream of the shore, as she woke up.

She was back in the call room. It was 7:00 AM, and the room was lit by the fluorescent lights of the laboratory halls from underneath the bedroom door.

Her feet were pruny from the lake.

And the television was off.

Lola hastily made for the bedside light, trying to get the twist switch to work, before realizing she needed to turn it towards her.

The room, lit, revealed she was alone.

She looked at the television, and turned it on.

Still reruns.

Must have been a sleep timer, Lola thought to herself, and indeed when she found Doctor Hollarghast, he confirmed this was the case, apologizing for not warning her.

 

EXPERIMENT 3

 

It took a few minutes of sitting for Lola to realize no one else was coming to today’s session.

“Is it just us?” Lola said.

“Apparently,” Hollarghast muttered, wincing at his coffee.

“What do you mean, ‘apparently?’ I thought everyone was pretty much held here against their will at this point. Not really something you can flake out of.”

Hollarghast shrugged. “Should we check on them?”

“Yes,” Lola said, annoyed.

Hollarghast motioned for her to follow him.

“Sleeping all right?” Hollarghast said.

“Just fine,” Lola replied.

Hollarghast nodded. “You don’t have to tell me about it. Just wanted to know. If you do experience nightmares after yesterday’s incident, there’s no shame in consulting therapy.”

“I, uh….yeah, I agree.”

Hollarghast made his way past Quarters 2, the musician’s door, to Quarters 1, where the dancer was staying. They could hear Paganini’s variations playing furiously within, immaculately.

“Didn’t know he was a violinist,” Lola said.

Hollarghast knocked on the door of the first quarters.

“Miss Celeste?”

Silence.

He opened the door to find the quarters completely empty.

“It’s gone,” he said quietly.
“You mean ‘she’?” Lola said. “Also, these are barely big enough to be practice rooms, let alone sleeping quarters.”

Hollarghast made his way to Quarters 2, where the music was coming from.

“Mister Ali, are you all right in there?”

The music stopped.

“Mister Ali, mind if we come in?”

The music began playing again.

“Take that as a ‘yes,’” Hollarghast muttered, procuring a key and opening the door.

Inside was something that mildly resembled the musician. It had legs like a human, it was seated, and it had a torso like a human, a head like a human, and arms like a human.

Notably, though, his neck was open.   It was not gory; there was not a lot of blood. But his vocal chords were visibly exposed, and red from how much activity they had experienced. He had discovered a way to run air through them in a way that simulated the music of a violin.

Attached to his head was Cerebrum.

“My, Mister Ali, what innovations you’ve discovered!” Hollarghast said. “Truly the human voice is the greatest instrument!”

“Does that…does that hurt?” Lola said, quietly.

The musician looked at her and nodded, tears running out of his eyes.

“We’ll leave you to it,” Hollarghast said.

They went to the next room, Lola too dumbfounded to say anything. Anything she might have said was lost upon reaching the comedian’s room.

“Coming in!” Hollarghast said.

They heard a groan of pain.

“Better hurry,” Hollarghast said calmly, opening the door up.

Inside was the comedian, his legs unnaturally muscular, balancing his entire body in a pirouette. He was shirtless, and his vertebrae were notably jutting out.

“Hey guys,” the comedian said, “I had become frustrated with my bad physical shape, so I thought I’d give the ol’ machine a try and see what it could do for me.”

“Should have consulted with us first,” Hollarghast said.

“You can fix this, right?” the comedian said, pointing to his feet, where his toes had fused together.

“Yes!” Hollarghast said, clapping his hands, “and Cerebrum is the key! Have fun.”

“All right, man, but you will fix it, right? This really hurts–”

Hollarghast shut the door.

“Onward!”

Hollarghast didn’t even bother knocking on Quarters 4, and opened it to find the painter sitting in front of a canvas, looking dumbfounded.

“Oh, there it is,” Hollarghast said, pointing to the Cerebrum unit atop the canvas.

Within the canvas was Aubrey Celeste, the dancer, practicing her newly learned standup routine, to the cheers and laughter of a painted audience.

“It’s a new reality,” Zaphon, the painter, said. “I made a new reality. But I don’t know how to get her out. I think she is the new reality. It’s acrylic,” he said blankly. “Saligamus wanted oil. I see him looking through me.”

“Who’s Saligamus?” Lola said, but Hollarghast spoke over her.

“Miss Celeste, can you hear us?” he shouted into the painting.

The dancer looked at them through the canvas, and waved.

“Hey!” the painter said, angrily. “Don’t break the illusion.”

The dancer, looked at him, frightened, and then went back to her routine, and the audience laughed even harder than before. The image was lit like Lautrec’s vision of the Moulin Rouge, and there was something ghoulish about it all.

“Wow,” Hollarghast said, with enthusiasm that was excessive by a half, “this is so cool.”

He walked out and slammed the door shut.

“They’ll be fine,” he said. “They don’t need us anymore.”

Lola was not entirely clear what spell Cerebrum had the subjects under, but she knew she had to destroy it.

“Doctor,” she said, “this is a marvel. Did you build this?”

“In a way,” Hollarghast said.

“Mind if I see it?” Lola said. “I want to admire your creation.”

“Our creation,” Hollarghast said. “Follow me.”

They made their way deeper into the spiral of the research facility.

“What do you mean our,” Lola said.

“Miss Daring, Cerebrum is not yet complete. We come to this little realization every time, and each time you are held back by your fear.”

“Each time?”

Hollarghast continued: “You and I are very much alike, but the primary difference between you and I is what we are willing to live with. It has made me the much smarter of the two of us, despite the larger potential of your own mind. You look at those subjects and see people in pain. I look at them and see notches on the wall between humanity and the cosmos. At the end of the day, though, it’s your perception that makes reality.”

They had reached the spiral’s center.

Hollarghast opened the door with his keycard, and somehow, impossibly, the door opened to reveal a sterile medical hall, with two red double doors and darkness at the end.

“It’s in that room at the end.” Hollarghast said.

“What is it?” Lola said, nervously.

“Humanity is a celestial creature, Miss Daring,” Hollarghast said. “This is why the devil always is so obsessed with them in literature. God was so consumed in self-importance that he created proof of his own obsolescence. Greeks believed Prometheus stole fire from the gods, but the Judeo-Christians and the Satanists know the truth: God snuck the fire to man before he even existed, and he made man forget so he wouldn’t get any wild ideas. And as long as man is man, he will remain ignorant. But if he were to become more…”

Hollarghast paused, and grinned. “Lola Daring. It sounds like bad fiction. It’s so perfect.”

“Can you go with me?” Lola said, nervously.
“I’ve already gone,” Hollarghast said. “This is your journey to make.”

He shut the door between himself and her.

Lola looked at the end of the hall, and against all better will, began her journey down the hall. To record the thoughts that flitted through her head as she made a journey that must have been about five minutes but felt like an hour would fill an entire volume.

Finally, though, she reached red double doors at the end of the hall.

Silence, broken by the whine of the hinges as she trepidatiously entered the darkness.

It was a room different from all others in the compound; dry and dirty, like a well-guarded cellar, concrete all around and presumably no paint.

The only light was a television, a cathode ray tube from the 90’s, perched atop a small wooden dresser. Lola could hear shuffling in the corner and knew she was not alone. It terrified her, but she sensed that to investigate would be madness.

Instead, she opened the top drawer.

Inside was a Cerebrum console, with the name Lolan Darin written on it, over white tape.

Lola put it on.

She watched the screen in horror, as it showed her own brain being removed from her head, connected to the eyes of each of the test subjects, and stored in a jar. The jar, in turn, was connected to a processor, that remotely controlled each of the Cerebrum units.

Cerebrum was her brain.

It had been the whole time.

And whatever had transpired, perhaps even Lola’s entire lifetime, had all happened inside of that brain.

She heard the shuffling growing closer.

Staring at her own brain, inside of a jar inside of a screen, Lola felt all at once helpless and like a god.

She was in a prison of her own mind, with no idea of how to escape.

She watched in horror as countless experiments were performed on infinite test subjects. Sometimes the sessions would last a few weeks, as her memory events had gone, other times they would last for years.

The screen flashed: Text, followed by images of Cerebrum experiments.

Dare 1.

She saw men scream in terror as they spoke all languages at once.

Dare 2.

She saw women whose eyes showed the immensity of how it felt to be powerful and powerless as they used telekinesis to build prisons around themselves with rocks and concrete that they were not strong enough to break free from.

The screen flashed:

Dare 3.

A boy, no older than nine, was able to use Cerebrum to breathe blue fire, incinerating a mouse that had snuck in.

Dare 4.

The mouse, outfitted with a tiny version of Cerebrum, enslaved all of humanity.

The screen flashed once more:

Dare 5.

The cellar again, this time the man from Lola’s dream surrounded by at least twenty duplicates of Lola, each staring at him lovingly.

Dare 6.

The lake once more, but out of the waters surfaced the world, and Lola fell in. All around her were monuments, statues, even currency, with her face on it, and within her face, if you held the currency up to the sun, you could see Cerebrum, the brain in a jar, its twelve eyes staring back at her.

The screen flashed a final time.

Time to wake up, Darin.

The shadowy figure reached out and turned the dial, and all went black.

 

END EXPERIMENTS. RESULTS PENDING.

+++

Samuel Cullado
12 December 2016

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The Hate

https://www.podomatic.com/podcasts/culladobehindthecurtain/episodes/2016-10-29T19_54_45-07_00

The gravity was noticeably weaker on this new planet, and any novelty the colonists had found in the slower falls and higher ascents was quickly wearing off. It was an unexpected adjustment, one that affected their operation on a very basic infrastructural level beyond the overall poverty and lack of resources they all had. Necessity and disaster had seen them leave earth in a hurry, and as such they had no elaborate plans for housing, a fact that was further complicated by their new planet being completely devoid of oxygen. They had set up scaffolds within the central shaft of the base camp, itself set up in the shape of an underground missile silo, a central hollow from which various offshoots, offices, and “businesses,” if you could call them that, had formed.

The upside of living on a planet with low gravity was that if you fell off your scaffolding, you could catch your fall, even from great heights.

Of course, this wouldn’t have been a problem if they could have stayed on earth. But that was not an option.

The downside of living on a planet with low gravity was that the already starving masses were charged with a strict regimen of exercise daily. Most did not meet this requirement, and in addition to malnourishment, their bone density began to decrease. The first death had happened late in the night, an old man in his seventies waking to use the public restroom, misjudging his leap to the staircase along the side of the silo, and plummeting slowly, unnoticed, to the floor, unable to catch his fall.

This would have not happened, had humanity been able to stay on earth. Then again, everyone had been impressed the man had even survived the journey.

He had a name, Russell Dornan, and had become something of a historian. When his body collided with the steel alloy surface of the silo, the valuable contents of the hard drive that was his mind was lost to the ages. He was the last of humanity that remembered the original run of Full House when it was new, the first President Bush, and the Persian Gulf War. He remembered a time before the Internet, whereas most of the refugees remembered a time after it.

The Director considered this as he hopped from scaffold to scaffold the next day, checking in with the suffering citizens in his charge. He was a man in his mid forties, youthful and spry, but he had an agedness in his eyes that people trusted and more importantly trusted in. He had organized the mass exodus from earth, in the waning days of the War on Hate, a monster that had been living amongst them all for the entirety of human history, only choosing to make its truer forms known in the late twenty-first century.

The Director leapt up to the scaffold where Dornan’s daughter, Brenda and grandson Timothy lived. Brenda Dornan looked silently at the Director, sadness and anger at their situation in her eyes, though she was too exhausted to express this anger. The Director was observant, though.

“Can I do anything for you?” he said. “Room is limited, but we can relocate you elsewhere.”

She didn’t break her gaze.

“We’re fine here,” she said. “For now.”

The Director nodded. “I’m sorry.”

“Wish there’d been more time,” she said.

“Me too.” Then he added: “You are always welcome for dinner. Always.”

Brenda nodded, her eyes distant, as though she was convincing herself that was a good idea.

“Be good to see Fiona,” she said, referring to The Director’s wife.

Though the exchange was tense, it was not hostile. Everyone knew that without the Director’s last-minute planning, they would have been consumed alive by The Hate.   They owed their prolonged survival to him. They couldn’t be too angry with him, but even if they were, he would have understood.

The Director sighed, and remembered another lifetime, when he was a child and everything was provided for him. Whenever things did not go his way, whenever he discovered something he didn’t like, he’d wish it away into the cornfield.

Once, as a boy of six, he was stung by a bee, and felt the bee’s fear and loathing course through his hand in the form of venom. It was the most pain he had ever felt, and he wanted nothing more than for all bees to be exterminated.

“I wish there never were any bees,” the boy would say.

The Director smiled at the memory in spite of himself as he made his way to the offices of The Silo.

“I wish there never were any Hate,” he muttered to himself now, and the thought brought him back to where it all started.


Like Russell Dornan, The Director also had a name, a strange name for an unusual man: Alister Rhodes. Young Rhodes had become a legend in the early days of the War on Hate for surviving an encounter with The Hate in Parma, Ohio, which the creature had completely overtaken.

Rhodes had been seventeen at the time, and he was with his friends at the mall.

In these days, the economy was already dwindling, and malls were even seedier affairs than they were in the early days of the Great Recession. It was about closing time, and Rhodes, who had been indecisive about a purchase at one of the novelty stores, a place with gaming merchandise but with a cheap pop-up store vibe, and told his friends to wait for him as he went back to get it. Rhodes couldn’t even remember what it was–maybe a Wizard Wars scarf? A pair of League of Vengeful Superheroes socks?

Either way, when he returned to the store, he found himself alone with a clerk different from the one earlier in the night. Rhodes didn’t think much of it at first, until making eye contact with the man, a sallow Caucasian man with wavy orange hair and a strange glint in his eye.

“We’re closing,” the clerk said.

“I just wanted to grab one thing,” Rhodes said, “if that’s all right.”

The clerk grinned at him, and his teeth seemed unusually sharp: “Sure…for you…”

Rhodes felt that strange surge of adrenaline that comes when you know you’re in a bad situation but don’t know why yet. It was a similar neurological response to fight-or-flight, but one cultivated by years of training in social and cultural mores. Rhodes didn’t want to be rude.

“Nah, don’t worry about it,” he said. “I can come back tomorrow.”

The clerk’s smile deepened.

“You can’t,” he said simply.

“What?” Rhodes replied, slowly backing out of the store.

“I have already taken your friends.” The clerk said as he stepped out from behind the counter.

The mall was mostly empty, and just above the quiet hum of the Muzak, Rhodes could hear the pounding of feet, coming his way.

Even now, all these years later, on a distant planet, Rhodes could recall certain details but not others. He remembered the fluorescent lights in the mall shutting off one by one. He remembered catching a glimpse of one of his pursuers, his friend Jeremy from high school, someone he had known since kindergarten, from countless birthday parties, charging at him, arms outstretched, his eyes possessed of the same glint that the store clerk had, his tongue…but no, tongues didn’t do that.

Then again, friends didn’t suddenly just turn on life long friends either.

Rhodes at this point accepted he would never know how he escaped that mall alive, or how he ended up back at home. At the time it had been so abstract in his terrified young mind that when he woke up the next morning he had thought it was a bad dream.

The imagery didn’t help either. He could have sworn he had seen his friend Casey, Jeremy’s girlfriend, shift in shape, her skin tearing as her arms stretched out to reach him, her eyes beginning to creep out of their sockets, turning into tentacles with which to grab him.

Ridiculous. This was a bad dream, a dream where he was dealing with his insecurities about his friends, yeah? He had read that somewhere. That the monsters we saw in dreams were manifestations of insecurities or fears, and the nightmare was the brain’s way of neutralizing them, sort of like running a fever to kill harmful bacteria. That was it, right?

Still, it didn’t explain why Rhodes, who usually opted to sleep in his drawers, had slept in the same clothes he had worn to the mall in his dreams: long khaki cargo pants and a black button-down shirt. His belt was even still on.

It was twelve o’clock, Saturday.   His parents were probably making lunch now.

He stretched out his legs, and slowly made his way downstairs.

>>>

Granny Rhodes was at the table already, and he heard clanking in the kitchen.

“I was wondering when you were going to get up,” Granny Rhodes muttered distantly.

“Sorry I slept in, Mom!” Rhodes yelled into the kitchen.

“Hey, Ali, have you seen your father?” his mom said. “He went out to look for you last night and didn’t come back.”

She also sounded strange, sedated, almost.

“No,” Rhodes said, “should we look for him?”

He heard the clanking stop. Silence.

Broken by a nonchalant: “Nah, he’ll find his way back.”

Rhodes took a seat next to Granny.

“Saw a nice young man today,” Granny said. “Said he knew you. Good to see nice young men when everything’s going so bad in the world these days.”

“Who was it, Granny?”

She shrugged and stirred her coffee halfheartedly.

“Hey, are you guys okay?” Rhodes said, and that’s when he heard the snickering from under the table.

“I hope you don’t mind,” Granny said, “we heard him knocking at the door this morning, and decided to let him in. He said he was very hungry!”

The clerk from the night before crawled out from under the table and had a seat at its head.

Rhodes immediately pushed away.

“Guys,” he said, “we need to get out of here.”

The clerk laughed and long, pink muscular tentacles shot out of his fingers. Instinctively, Rhodes knew he couldn’t let the tentacles touch him. It would be the end if any of it touched him. The clerk’s head extended from his body, supported by the pink flesh underneath, and his arms and legs split and shifted to give his form a countenance almost like a centipede.

All’s I need is you, the clerk hissed.

“Granny, you’re in danger!” Rhodes shouted as he backed away, shuffling back on all fours.

One of the tentacles had shot right past Granny Rhodes’ face.

“I know, sweetie,” Granny Rhodes said, staring at her coffee as though the tentacle wasn’t there, “I saw some white supremacists moving into the neighborhood just earlier this week. I think they’ve broken into our house.”

This, though!” Rhodes shouted, “Do you see this?”

And though he didn’t have a name for it then, Rhodes knew in his heart that The Hate had already taken his mom, his grandma, and more than likely his dad as he had slept that morning.

Rhodes saw the tentacles were brittle, and swinging a dining room chair, he shattered several, causing the creature to screech in pain, giving him just enough time to run away as granny stared at him one last time, blankly, before her body and the clerk’s became one large, pink miasma.

<<<

The Taking of Parma was one of the first major events in the War on Hate. Rhodes had run to his car, driving as far away as possible, calling 911 as he did so. Eventually he was taken in by the government for questioning, as he was the sole survivor of what was at the time called The Cuchulain Epidemic, as it made people’s appearances grow grotesque and wrathful like the Irish warrior of ancient myth.

Quickly, though, this simply became known as The Hate.

The worst thing about it was that while everyone knew it was there, and everyone could identify when it was present, nobody could exactly figure out what it was. Every time a scientist attempted to study it, they would become infected, and would have to be quarantined. At the very least, a three-step life cycle had been identified. The first stage, the hardest to identify, was the Excitability stage. At this stage The Hate would only manifest if its new host was provoked. The Second Stage, the one people feared the most, was Malice. At this stage, the host, fully assimilated into The Hate’s hive mind, would begin hunting for new host, through which it could spread what scientists assumed was a parasite. The final stage, which could happen either immediately or after a hunt had completed depending on the strength of any given subject, was Indifference, in which the subject became complacent, disinterested, and typically nonaggressive. At this stage they were simply a reserve of energy for The Hate, which though it operated as a collective seemed to move as one mind.

As more and more people were claimed by The Hate, both within the government and outside of it, Rhodes became a symbol that The Hate could be fought, that one could face it and survive. In the waning days of earth, as a critical mass was claimed by The Hate, Rhodes made the controversial but ultimately agreed-upon decision that the only way to save the rest of humanity from The Hate was to leave those infected behind and start a new world elsewhere. Rhodes suggested a planet with minimal atmosphere, where quarantining would be easy, as by this point the government had the equipment to terraform, and by all accounts hosts of The Hate had already infected much of Mars.

Rhodes’ suggested Jupiter’s moon of Europa as a new home.

The trip had been, by cosmonautical standards, last minute and haphazard, but it had gotten the job done; after intense screening, it was confirmed that all twenty-thousand occupants of the final stronghold of the UN Coalition of Hate Survivors were, in fact, not infected, and they were all frozen in preparation for the journey.

As Rhodes sat at his desk, and began to log the details of the eldest member of the UNCHS’ death, he considered the terrifying truth about that Saturday morning, which he had hidden from the public in order to allow hope to foster:

He had always felt that running from the Hate, leaving his mother and grandmother behind, even if they had been completely consumed, as his greatest failure.


Unlike the rest of the Europa colony, Rhodes lived in a mansion, which had a penthouse near the moon’s surface, its entrance accessible underground. Rhodes rarely spent much time here, preferring instead to work with the residents of the Europa Hate Free Colony, making sure their conditions were optimal even if they weren’t ideal.

Everyone comes home sometime, though. Plus, it was the only place where Rhodes and Fiona could truly be alone, a luxury he did not take for granted. Rhodes had met Fiona Skye when he had visited the home of her father, General Martin Skye, after the general had taken interest in Rhodes’ methods.

The general was something of a fascist; in any other age he would have been made a laughing stock by media and citizen alike for his old fashioned views on the nature of order and justice. In these days, however, his rhetoric made people feel safe, even as it quietly filled them with terror.

“Hate is not a cancer,” the general would say, “because you can survive cancer. It is only a disease in the way Death is a disease. It is a metamorphosis. Think of the zombies of television past. When your loved one is touched by The Hate, they cease to be your loved one. They belong to it, the Great Malevolent Hypnotist.”

Rhodes wondered if this rhetoric had escalated the violence of the War on Hate. Any time an argument broke out amongst families, or offense of any extreme kind was taken, people would kill the supposed Hate-infected without hesitation. They would burn the body, because all could agree, you could not­­–you could not–let it touch you. Propaganda signs were erected in squares and posted over billboards. Where once you might have looked to find the nearest Cracker Barrel, now you were met with THE HATE: ONE TOUCH, AND YOU’RE IT!

People were terrified of The Hate, and of each other.

Rhodes was the first to admit that while he survived, he had no greater understanding of this monster than any other scientist. His best plan was to screen those who did not have The Hate and house them in a gated, even walled community. General Skye liked this idea and even proposed ghettos for those who had The Hate, but in perhaps an ironic twist The Hate spread so quickly that eventually those who did not have it were forced to live in a ghetto of their own fashion to stay safe in the days leading to the Great Exodus.

The General stayed on earth, even when invited to join them on the new planet, as he said his passion for exterminating The Hate was greater than his instinct to survive. Most likely he was there, even now, killing former friends and citizens, in the name of reclaiming one more host from The Hate.

Needless to say, Rhodes found General Skye exhausting, and it was after one of these exhausting meetings over proposed ghettos that Rhodes met Skye’s daughter, Fiona.

The conversation at the table was mostly dominated by the general, but what Rhodes and Fiona both remembered of that night was searching each other’s eyes, silently studying them to see if they felt the same way about this old fashioned rhetoric.

Both were relieved to find the other did not.

“Dad would have fared better in a time when imperialism wasn’t a dirty word,” Fiona said. “Some people want to build block castles, other people want to knock the castles down so someone else can have a chance to build them. I guess you could say Dad is the latter.”

“I don’t want to talk about your dad,” Rhodes said quietly.

Fiona smiled. “What do you want to talk about? And if you say ‘I don’t know, whatever you want to talk about, Fiona!’ the conversation is over.”

Rhodes was silent, and Fiona went silent too. And they walked for a while together, knowing in the silence that they would be walking together many more times. Fiona later told Rhodes she believed that the only place you were truly safe from The Hate was Silence, and she asked people what they wanted to talk about to see if they understood this.

Most people just wanted to talk about a time before The Hate, or what a time After The Hate would look like. Or how they were sick of talking about The Hate.

The conversation was always dominated by The Hate.

Rhodes was glad he had passed Fiona’s test.

As he headed through the narrow corridors of his house–for Europa, it was a mansion, but space was still consolidated–Rhodes discovered Fiona and Brenda Dornan, eating together in the kitchen, as Timothy quietly played with Hot Wheels cars, one a police van, the other a Cadillac.

While there was a garden and a farm in The Silo, non-processed meat was not yet allowed, and everyone in the Silo, scaffold dweller and administrator alike, was on a strictly regimented diet of frozen TV dinners until the animal population was deemed self-sustaining.

“I got out the wine,” Fiona said to Rhodes.

“Tonight is a night for wine,” he said. “I’m glad you could join us, Brenda.”

Brenda nodded. “Fiona and I were just talking about the early days of getting moved in here, when we were all getting used to the gravity. And construction workers were doing inventory, and somebody got this bright idea to play the Blue Danube while they were assembling the scaffolds. And this one guy–Drew Preston, yeah? –thinks the scaffolds are assembled, not realizing they still need to be anchored. So he leans against the tallest one for lunch, and it slowly falls over, dominoing all the other ones as the construction crew is leaping for their dear life, all to the…all to the tune of the…”

At this point she was laughing almost to the point of wheezing.

“Buh buh dah dum dum! Wah wah, wah wah!”

Everybody laughed at her rendition of the piece.

“It’s amazing nobody died sooner,” Rhodes said, before he could stop himself.

The room went silent. Fiona shot him a look, more confused at how he could be so stupid than outright angry.   Brenda tensed up, and took another sip of wine.

“Hey Timothy,” Fiona said, changing the subject, “whatcha playing?”

“Cops and robbers,” Timothy said. “But I have a problem.”

“What is it, buddy?” Fiona said.

“If the robbers committed a crime, and the officer goes to stop them, but then gets infected with The Hate, who shoots who for the good guy to win?”

The room got quiet again. Rhodes breathed in to say something, and Fiona, not wanting Rhodes to dig himself in deeper, jumped in first:

“It doesn’t matter anymore,” she said. “There isn’t any hate out here. So if you commit a crime, nobody has to get shot. The cops take you to prison where you work to help the colony, and everybody wins.”

Brenda’s eyes widened, impressed with the answer.

“It’s a bit of a walk back to your place,” Fiona said to her. “You and Timothy can feel free to stay here for the night, we have a spare room that looks out the mountainside.”

“That would be wonderful,” Brenda said. “He loves looking at the stars.”

>>>

Rhodes and Fiona also had a room on the mountainside, which looked over the pale, luminous rocks of Europa, its sky blacker than anything on earth, its primary source of light the reflection of the sun off of the gasses of Jupiter.   They also had skylights, with mirrors like periscopes that allowed them to see the surface of the plateau above them while still retaining some privacy once the surface was terraformed and people roamed the mountains freely.

Fiona and Rhodes lay in bed together, staring at the pale ground above them.

“I wish there was room in here for everyone,” Rhodes said, referring to the house. “I know resources are limited, but there’s got to be a better solution than the scaffolds.”

“Something I don’t know how to deal with,” Fiona said, “is the fact that I could give this mattress up, but I like the comfort. Sometimes I feel like I need the comfort.”

“You have a stressful job,” Rhodes said, “Like me you’re The Director around here. There’s a lot we both have to manage. It sucks, but we deserve some comfort. If we rest well then we’ll make better decisions, and it’ll work out better for everyone.”

“You think we’ll ever get to a point where people can own property that isn’t a platform on a scaffold?”

“I think people are very creative,” Rhodes said. “It may take a while, but things will get more sophisticated out here.”

Fiona smiled and kissed his forehead. “I hope you’re right.”
She rolled over and went to sleep.

Rhodes continued watching through the skylights. Sometimes he’d imagine some curious, intelligent alien life form would happen upon their base, and teach them some sort of space magic survival or something. Truth be told, he had to push back the fear every night that the little pocket of humanity that was in his care was living on some sort of egg timer. His backup plan was to make one more mass exodus to Io, another moon of Jupiter with a frozen surface, if Europa didn’t work out. He hadn’t wanted to build a base in the ice, but the presence of water would lend them other resources. He didn’t want to bring this up, however, until they were out of options here.

He thought he saw something black move over the skylight.

It’s nothing, he thought, go back to sleep.

He heard rocks scattering outside.

With a minimal atmosphere, there was no wind to stir any of the dust out here.

Maybe the terraforming is going quicker than

Unmistakably, he heard the rustle of feet.

He went to the window overlooking the valley where they had built the silo, but saw nothing.

The noises were coming from above them. Rhodes quietly stood up on his bed to get a better look through his skylight.

There were six of them, maybe more, hairy amorphous blobs with legs, like tarantulas. The blobs that the legs carried had faces, though, two white eyes in the midst of the black fur, and thin but wide smiles filled with razor sharp teeth.

And in those eyes, Rhodes saw a familiar glint.

The Hate had already been here. Maybe it had always been here.

Rhodes heard something shatter downstairs, followed by screams and shouts from Timothy and Brenda.

“Fiona! Wake up!”

Rhodes pulled a revolver from his bedside table and loaded it.

“What’s going on?” she said, disoriented from being half asleep.

“Look out the skylight,” Rhodes said, “it’s The Hate. It’s already infected this moon’s indigenous life.”

Rhodes hit a button, sealing off the mansion from the rest of the silo. He couldn’t let any of those things get in, even if it meant his house losing oxygen.

“Europa has indigenous life?” Fiona said, putting on a gas mask as Rhodes did the same.

“Whatever it is,” Rhodes said, “it isn’t human. Maybe it’s the original entity, I don’t know. But it got into Brenda and Timothy’s room.”

He handed her the gun and they charged down the stairs.

They could hear a wheezing, howling noise, ostensibly from one of the creatures, as they approached the guest room.

“How many are in there?” Rhodes shouted through the door.

“Just one!” Brenda shouted. “Quick, get it away from Timothy!”

Rhodes kicked the door open and ducked as Fiona took aim and fired at the creature, which had four legs on the floor and five on the wall as it crawled for Timothy.

“Don’t shoot my son!” Brenda, who was holding a fire axe, shouted.

“I won’t,” Fiona said, firing at the legs, causing the creature to fall to the ground, sputtering and writhing.

“Hand me that,” Rhodes said to Brenda.

She tossed him the axe and he began to hack the limbs off the creature, which continued to fight back at first when severed but slowly became stiff. Finally he landed the axe in the creature’s back.

“The sheets,” he said.

Brenda ripped the sheet off her bed and tossed it to Rhodes, who used it to grab the creature’s thorax, which was about the size of his chest, and throw it back out the window.

Fiona led Brenda and Timothy back into the house, from the now breached bedroom and using a sealing tool, blocked off the bedroom doorway and restored the house’s atmosphere.

“How did it find us?” Brenda said, visibly shaken.

“I think it’s always been here,” Rhodes said. “Maybe it’s everywhere.”

“Oh, so it’s here and it’s on earth so that makes it everywhere?” Brenda said.

“Maybe that’s how Mars fell so quickly,” Fiona said, but her eyes were fixated on a cut on Timothy’s shoulder. “How’d you get that, buddy?”

“The spider cut it.”

The room went silent as Fiona looked at the boy with sadness, her gun still in hand.

“Oh, no you don’t,” Brenda said. “I’ve already lost my father, you are not taking my son.”

“We’re not going to hurt him, Brenda,” Fiona said. “We’re going to study his symptoms and make sure he’s not infected.”

“And if he is?”

“We’ll have to see. If he’s not overly symptomatic of Excitability, he might be able to live a normal life, that’s always been my hope. We would still have to quarantine him.”

“We’ll test both of you,” Rhodes said. “You can stay with Timothy throughout the process. It’s just a safety precau–”

“You can both go to hell,” Brenda said. “My boy and I do not have The Hate.”

“Brenda, I know this has been a really stressful night,” Fiona said, reaching for the boy, “but just trust us here…”

“Get away from my SON!” Brenda shouted, knocking the gun out of Fiona’s hand.

“I’ll hold her down,” Fiona said. “Grab the gun.”

She went to hold Brenda down, only to realize with horror that fleshy, pink tentacles were coming out of Brenda’s eyes, puncturing Fiona’s hand.

“Timothy, look away,” Rhodes said.

In slow motion, Rhodes watched as Fiona Skye, the only family he’d known since The Hate had touched his own, became contaminated by The Hate, living inside of a woman who had once been her friend.

This time, he did not run.

Immediately he fired, severing the tentacle from its grasp of Fiona’s hand. A second shot separated Brenda’s neck from her head. Her body stood up, and began to angrily flail around. Rhodes took his axe and prodded the body into the bathroom nearby, pulling the door shut and locking it from the inside as the flailing torso tumbled into the tub.

Rhodes leaned his axe against the door, further barring the creature from getting out.

Fiona stood there, staring at her hand, bruised and oozing where the creature had grabbed it.

“The tub,” she said quietly, “it could get into the water supply…”

“It doesn’t matter,” Rhodes said.  “You’re infected.”

“You can’t save me,” Fiona said, “but you can save everyone else.”

“I can’t,” Rhodes said. “I’ve never had a plan beyond running away from this thing, avoiding it. I get us to a whole new planet and I find it’s been here all along. Maybe we just need to learn to live with it. Tame it, domesticate it.”

Fiona nervously looked at Timothy.

“Hey…how are you doing, Timothy?”

Timothy sat there, quietly, staring at her.

“Mom wouldn’t do that to you,” he said quietly.

Fiona nodded. “This thing makes people do stuff they don’t mean. But even if they don’t mean it, they still hurt people. That’s why we tried to stop it.”

“You’re not acting scary,” Timothy said.

Fiona laughed. “I guess…that’s because I know I have it.”

“Seriously, though,” Rhodes said, “you’re functioning asymptomatically. I’ve seen people who were less damaged by The Hate that would already be looking like some sort of monstrosity by now.”

“I can feel it inside of me,” Fiona said. “And I, well…” she laughed. “I hate it. But I know that’s not constructive.”

“You’re fighting it,” Rhodes said.

He looked at Timothy. “Are you angry, Timothy?”

“I’m scared,” Timothy said.

“He must have gotten scratched from falling,” Rhodes said. “How long do you think you can fight off the Malevolence stage?”

“I don’t know,” Fiona said. “But if I was to get somewhere safe…somewhere with you…maybe we could learn how to treat it.”

And Rhodes knew what she meant.
“Like you said,” she added, “we have to learn to live with it.”

Rhodes looked at Timothy. “I want you to do something for me, okay buddy? Call security; tell them The Hate got us. Tell them Mrs. Fiona and I are infected, but we’re okay and need to be taken to the infirmary right away. We know the cure for it.”

“Do you know the cure for it?” Timothy said.

Rhodes laughed. “I don’t even know what this thing is to begin with. I just have a hunch. Now go.”

Timothy ran out of the room to the entryway, where the intercom was. Rhodes could hear him making the call. The boy stuttered, but he said everything just right.

Rhodes looked at Fiona, whose eyes were fighting back the glint that had been in so many of his nightmares, the daughter of a man who had done horrible things to keep her from being in the situation they were both in.

“I will always love you,” she said quietly.

“I will always believe that,” he said back.

He took her hand, and kissed it where The Hate had infected it.

He could feel the entity travelling into his blood through the soft skin of his lips.

It didn’t feel at all how he had expected.

+++

Samuel Cullado
25 October 2016

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