Down In the Steam Tunnels
“What is nothingness? Can you show it to me?” More irrelevant questions. I was beginning to regret answering his email. The portly, withered old man with the severe dowager’s hump sitting opposite me in the stately little office identified himself when we met as Professor Heironimus P. Travigan. Ogled me through a little pink monocle, invited me in, then began this bizarre spiel.
“Your email said that you knew something about the university’s steam tunnels that wasn’t in my article.” He shifted anxiously in his seat. “In good time, my dear boy. I assure you, this is all related.” I couldn’t see how, but that didn’t seem to trouble him. “You know, these days we’re meant to believe that the universe sprang from nothing.”
I braced myself for a religious diatribe. It turned out to be stranger still. “In truth, Our universe exists due to an act of separation. Two substances, divided by some unknown force, which some understandably deify. When those substances are together, there is nothing.
But because they are divided, you and I can be sitting here talking about it. The Biblical ‘waters above and below’. Matter and energy, negative gravitational energy. Pleasure, and suffering. Yin and yang. Light and darkness, life and death, good and evil!”
He waved his arms about for effect. I stared for a moment, then challenged him. “Alright then. Can YOU show ME nothingness?” He flashed a devilish grin and withdrew a strange leather case from under the desk. Once open, it revealed a set of five syringes filled with some sort of black syrupy fluid. I protested. “That’s clearly oil, or ink of some kind. Don’t waste my time.”
“Not so! A stable liquid suspension by all appearances, I will give you that much. But whereas any other liquid is comprised of atoms, this stuff simply continues to appear as it does to you now, however small a scale you examine it at. Which is to say, it isn’t made of anything.”
He then withdrew from the desk drawer a jar of blue luminescent gas. Not so easily identified. As he slid the jar near the syringes, both rattled subtly and the glow of the gas wildly fluctuated. They settled down once he restored the distance between them. “Magnets” I uttered, deadpan. “Are we done here?”
He released a quiet sigh. “You’re quite right to be skeptical. I sensed that quality in your writing, it’s why I contacted you. The proof’s in the pudding, isn’t it? Here, take this.” He handed me an unfamiliar device consisting of two glass chambers, one containing the black fluid, the other containing the glowing blue gas. Between them, an ordinary electrical outlet.
“What is it?” I queried, studying the weird little mechanism. “A battery! But then so is the universe and everything in it.” I continued searching the gizmo for any signs of a hidden pair of double As or something that would explain the blue glow. That’s usually how it works. So called free energy magnetic motors, or perpetual motion machines of any kind always conceal some conventional means of motivation.
“A battery, when charged, is simply maintaining a chemical imbalance. Allowing that imbalance to slowly equalize, re-balancing itself, is what generates the current. Like a wind up toy, the weight in a grandfather clock, or any other method of storing energy.
Our universe also exists in a state of imbalance which equalizes as the energy supplied at the moment of the big bang very gradually depletes. The whole mess is slowly running down, lad! And every little thing in it.
Stars will some day burn out. The molten core of the Earth will go cold long before that. And of course, the finite quantity of Orgone you were infused with at birth slowly depletes with every breath you take, your body deteriorating along the way.”
I chose that moment to pick a nit. “I’m sorry, did you say Orgone? As in, the pseudoscience of Wilhelm Reich?” Not at all put out, rather, he seemed delighted I knew something of the matter even if I deemed it baloney.
“Indeed! That’s what the blue stuff is in the trinket I’ve just given you. Highly concentrated primordial energy, not very far removed from the original form. You couldn’t look at the truly pure stuff without the brilliant white light it emits destroying your retinas and roasting your skin!
So for practical purposes, most in my line of work subdivide it according to the light spectrum into a variety of less potent but more manageable varieties. You’ve seen Orgone, the blue stuff. There’s also a golden substance called Vril, and so on.
The higher the concentration, the warmer the color temperature, the more energetic reaction you get when you recombine it with the black stuff. There is of course just one variety of that, as nothingness cannot be subdivided for obvious reasons.”
Oh, that’s nice, I thought. Thank you for sharing an insight into the severity of your dementia with me. “You write for the university paper” he continued, “so you must have one of those portable computers they sell nowadays.” At times like this, his age seemed to exceed even what his appearance suggested.
“Plug it into the device I’ve supplied you with. Use that alone to charge it. Even just with the orgone it would take at least a week to run out. But because it’s reacting with….the other stuff….the amount there should last you no less than a month.”
I made a point to scrutinize the petite, fragile vials. Each the diameter of a pencil and perhaps two inches long. “Yeah, whatever. I’ll give it a shot. Don’t contact me again unless you’ve got more info about the tunnels.” Day wasted, I thought to myself. At least now I know where the administration stashes their fruit loops.
On my way out, some hippie with blonde dreads, a sacred geometry t-shirt, khakis and sandals burst in through the front door. “I came as soon as I heard!” The geezer appeared behind me. The two embraced, then shook hands. “Zachary, m’boy! No doubt you enjoyed having this place to yourself in my absence!” professor Travigan wheezed.
“Zachary” gives him a dubious look. “Please. You’re a fixture here! I managed without you, but only that. You look great, all things considered! Those two were as good as their word.” I began backing towards the door. Neither noticed, just continued catching up. “Indeed. But there’s been somewhat of a...hostile takeover since then. I’ll need your help securing a new supply of...medicine.”
Once back to my apartment I threw my notebooks on the bed, then myself. I’d really hoped this lead would go somewhere. Ever since learning of the urban legend surrounding the network of corridors under the school, service access for pipes carrying steam to heat various buildings, I’ve been obsessed with discerning how much truth there is to any of it.
The story goes that during the tail end of the 1940s, William H. Shendon and Ernest A. Horton undertook an experiment requiring all incoming freshman at Ivy league schools to be photographed in the nude, with a set of metal pins in their spine. Purportedly to study posture. Some say they favored eugenic theories involving the posture of “higher” and “lower” orders of people.
Still others say it was nothing to do with either, but a ruse to gather blackmail material for use at a future date against students who went on to high ranking positions in government. I have my own ideas. What all sources agree on is that some, but not all of those photos were shredded, then burned by 2001.
As for the rest? Available on the black market supposedly. Or exclusively to initiates of the Skull and Bones society. But again, my own research indicates otherwise. One by one over the past two years I tracked down everybody who claimed at one point or another to be in possession of even a single photo from that collection. Mostly cranks, out for attention.
A few of them really had the goods, though. And, once convinced I was sincere about getting to the bottom of the matter, all shared with me details not found in any mainstream article or documentary. Details which, to my surprise, more or less lined up. Even more tantalizing, one of them claimed to have scanned many of the photos which were later shredded and burnt.
She’d provided me only with a cryptic clue as to their location: “You will find what you seek in the book of the all-seeing eye. It’s closer than you think.” I’d have dismissed her as one of the cranks except that she still had one of the deadtree photos to show me, and her story matched up with the others. So began my quest for the ‘all-seeing eye’.
I’m no good with riddles. Even simple ones. As a consequence it took me months before I figured out the intended meaning. In that time most of my focus was on the all seeing eye depicted on dollar bills.
They are after all quite close most of the time as I carry cash on me for emergencies. But no, complete dead end. As often happens, what I sought turned out to be hiding someplace I’d already ruled out.
My university has a long and storied history of controversial behaviorology experiments. Primarily done with animals. Pigeons, chimps, rats and so forth. But also the human animal on occasion, these being the studies which drew the most ire.
Regulations concerning human participation in such projects were not always so stringent. The sixties were a particularly permissive decade for this kind of research. It saw landmark experiments such as the Stanford prison study, the Milgram experiment, and various attempted implementations of Panopticon. It’s that last one which drew my interest.
She’d mentioned a book, after all. The closest repository of those I could think of was the university library. Searching their computerized catalogue for “all-seeing eye” produced a dizzying list of books about the Illuminati. That might’ve sent me down yet another dead end had I not noticed the odd book out.
Just one book in that list wasn’t about conspiracy theories concerning the Illuminati. Instead it concerned Panopticon, a type of prison designed by Jeremy Bentham, a social theorist who thought to improve the efficiency and efficacy of prisons by designing them such that every inmate could be monitored from a central observation tower enclosed with one-way mirrors.
Although of course a single guard could not watch every cell simultaneously, prisoners could not tell whether or not they were being watched, and so had to operate at all times under the assumption that they were.
Given the sociological significance of the project, and the similar nature of the photographs I was searching for, I followed my hunch and soon located the dusty leather bound book on a shelf buried deep in the recesses of the library. Removing it from the shelf, I heard and felt a weight shift within it. Could it be?
In fact, there was something inside. The recluse who’d sent me on this cryptic scavenger hunt, or someone she knew, must’ve hollowed out the book’s interior. When I opened it I found a water tight case of the sort you might carry your camera or phone in while boating. Inside of that, a stack of 3.5 inch diskettes.
How long had these awaited discovery? Evidently the book was sufficiently obscure that nobody else had checked it out in all that time. Nor did I, simply tucking the case of diskettes into my bag and hurrying home with it. I wound up having to buy a USB external floppy disk drive to read them. Luckily, a few manufacturers still make such a thing.
Jackpot. Only a few photos would fit on each diskette due to their limited capacity. But, strewn across the lot, I found a wealth of photos from the notorious collection I’d never seen before. On the final diskette, a document time stamped 1995. It read “You will find the rest in the steam tunnels.”
The steam tunnels are another oddity my university is famous for. Locked up to prevent access for many years now. Finally, I had some concrete sense as to why. What better closet to stash your skeletons in? Aside from the difficulty of access, the heat, humidity and occasional bursts of steam make it dangerous to spend any substantial amount of time in.
When a trio of curious students set out to map the tunnels in the late 80s, one went missing, the body never recovered. That’s the official reason for the chains and padlocks sealing every entrance I know of. It was clear that if I wanted to poke around in those tunnels, I would need clearance from the administration. At a fairly high level, too.
This is what led me to follow up on the email sent by Professor Travigan about my article on the history of the tunnels, published in a recent issue of the university paper. He identified himself as someone who was around during the timeframe of the Ivy League posture study, and one of the few faculty able to access the tunnel network.
It’s difficult to express the disappointment I felt when he turned out to be a nutcase. Because everyone else with the sufficient clearance either didn’t return my calls or advised me to discontinue my investigation. Citing the incident in the 80s, which I gave every appearance of accepting as a sufficient reason.
Sniffing around where you’re not wanted is a good way to make powerful enemies. The simplest precaution you can take is to always behave as though whatever line of BS they feed you has completely satisfied your curiosity. It’s only if they think you’ll continue to pry that they take severe action to prevent it.
I received an email from my editor recommending alterations to the article I’d submitted about the annual canned food drive just a few minutes before the power went out. I was sitting in my bedroom, typing away in the darkness as usual such that I didn’t notice there’d been an outage until I went to the kitchen in search of a snack.
At times like this I’m glad I’ve furnished this place so sparsely. It still looks more or less as it did when I moved in, as I only unpack things from the stack of boxes by the door when I actually need them. My reasoning is that this way it’ll be less work when next I move.
“Fuck!” I shouted, hopping about on one foot as I struggled to cradle my stubbed toe without falling over. A storm last year knocked out power for a solid three days, inspiring me to buy a small folding solar panel to keep my phone charged. I knew it wouldn’t begin to suffice for the fridge. I’d just been grocery shopping too.
That’s when I remembered the professor’s trinket. After deliberating for a while, I decided it was worth a shot, and plugged the fridge into it. Impossibly, it appeared to work. Even more impossibly, it was still working an hour later when my laptop ran down enough that I sought out someplace to plug it in.
I wound up digging a power strip out of one of the boxes, plugging that into the device, then plugging both the fridge and my laptop charger into that. A gift horse scenario. Who cares how it works so long as my groceries don’t spoil, and my laptop doesn’t die? I sat crosslegged on the cold kitchen floor, finishing up the alterations to the article before calling it a night.
When morning came, the fridge was still running. My laptop’s battery read full. “Alright”, I conceded. “Whatever’s in there, it’s not double As”. I turned the device over in my hands, again looking for some fraudulent gimmick and again finding nothing obviously amiss.
I gave up on it for the time being, showered, ate a hastily prepared breakfast of cold pizza and cereal, then biked to class. A physics lecture really should be an evening affair. The brain is never as inelastic as it is during the early hours of the morning. I rubbed at my eyes soon after taking my seat, becoming self conscious about the dark bags under them in the process.
Near as I can tell, those are permanent. If ever you wreck your sleep cycle, even once, racoon eyes stay with you forever. Someone like me, an incurable night owl with a penchant for obsessive investigation, never stood a chance.
I looked around at the sea of macbooks, my own laptop one of the few PCs present. It’s as yet unclear to me how spending twice as much on a computer with the same hardware specs aids the learning process. My eyelids fought every effort to keep them from sliding shut.
How are we meant to absorb such esoteric material while struggling to stay awake? I’d once stocked up on those five hour energy dealies only to discover they really supply about fifteen minutes of wild, manic wakefulness followed by a devastating crash. If that isn’t liquefied meth, it’s got to be something chemically similar.
“-In fact, as the COBE, WMAP, Herschel and Planck probes all confirmed, the quantity of matter and energy in the universe precisely equals the quantity of negative gravitational energy.
That satisfies the chief prediction of the zero energy universe theory. It is the only way we know of that a universe could spontaneously come into being without violating the law of conservation.”
I quite like this professor and would hate to disrespect him by falling asleep in his class. Where other professors come highly recommended if they jazz up the material to make it more approachable and engaging, he delivers only the relevant facts in as concise and clear a manner as I’ve ever encountered.
He won’t bring the beauty of physics alive for you, whatever that could mean, but he does let us know specifically which chapters to study in advance of tests and recommends exercises which promote the retention of what we’ve read. At least in my opinion, everything teachers should be and nothing they shouldn’t. We’re not here to be entertained.
But in this condition, his droning monotone only exacerbated my craving for sleep. I half wished he’d deliver the rest of today’s material through a megaphone. My ears began to perk up, nonetheless, as I recognized parallels between the lesson and the subject matter of the discussion I’d recently had with professor Travigan.
“Now, the mechanism responsible is thought to be particle pair separation. We’ve observed this happening constantly at the very smallest scales, a sort of existential static. Commonly called quantum foam, particles and their antiparticle equivalents spontaneously separating out of apparent nothingness, then annihilating when they collide soon after.
You can get something from nothing, it seems, so long as the debt is eventually repaid. I often liken it to digging a hole in flat ground. You now have a hole, and a pile. Or, just as you can add one and negative one to get zero, you can likewise carry out the operation in reverse.”
He dimmed the lights and turned on the projector. An artist’s rendition of a black hole filled the screen. “So, how was this discovered? As it turns out, there is a specific distance from any given black hole where, as particle pair separation events occur, one of the particles, ejected towards the black hole, is drawn in by its gravity while the other, ejected away from it, escapes.
This accounts for the constant emission of particles and antiparticles from black holes that we now call Hawking radiation. It was quite perplexing before the cause was understood, as of course, nothing is supposed to be able to escape a black hole.”
I felt my mind drawn inescapably towards the black hole of unconsciousness. Regretting, mildly, that I’d turned down a former roommate a week prior when he told me he’d found a reliable hookup for adderall. All too common, particularly in STEM programs.
“The collapse of our universe into existence by this mechanism is thought to have been driven by entropy. Nothingness, or whatever you’d like to call the state preceding the big bang, is perfectly uniform and therefore maximally ordered. Some theorize it was an endless sea of Higgs Bosons.
By contrast, the present state we colloquially refer to as existence is far less ordered if you think about it. And the distribution of that order is anything but uniform! Someone with a naive perspective might look at the high degree of order on Earth and wrongly infer the rest of the universe is equally ordered, in the same way that a child living in a luxurious gated community might wrongly extrapolate from his or her surroundings that the rest of the Earth is an equally lavish utopia.”
He’s a real downer when he talks about this stuff. Seems to delight in it, though. “What are you here for” he once asked an offended evangelical student, “if not to have your illusions destroyed?” No doubt the life of the party, if by some miracle or mistake he’s ever been invited to one.
Today’s afternoon class was literature. Even more tiresome if you can believe it. The sort of people who self select for the course are commonly motivated by the desire to impress one another with elaborate, unorthodox interpretations of works in which, more often than not, the author was perfectly frank about his meaning. As the professor of this course is relatively lax, I finally allowed myself to sleep.
When I got home, against my expectations, the fridge was still running. I checked the little vials, finding that the level of the black stuff had been reduced noticeably while the glow of the blue gas seemed somewhat diminished. Fuck me, I thought. It actually does something.
Not hard to guess his game, though. Casually hand off the device, let me try it out on my own and be fooled by whatever trick it employs. Then I return to him a true believer, eager to gormlessly lap up whatever line of BS he means to sell me. Somewhat more sophisticated than a worm on a hook, but same basic principle.
I set about reviewing the pictures. The cache hidden in the book yielded forty photos, all told. Which were exactly what I’d been let to expect. At first. I admit it was slightly titillating to view nudes of average people, who believed these photos would never be seen by anyone except the scientists carrying out the study.
It was also surprisingly troubling. The mild guilt I felt must be what makes voyeurism exciting for a certain crowd. But for altogether unrelated reasons, the feeling of unease only intensified as I progressed through the images.
No longer simply demonstrating posture, some now depicted the subjects connected by countless long, thin wires from the pins in their spine to an odd machine about the size of an old timey radio, with all manner of analog gauges, knobs and dials on the face. The edges appeared riveted together, the housing made from rough steel.
Through an open service panel in the side I could see row upon row of what I initially thought were vacuum tubes. But, looking more closely, they were instead full of a hazy gas of some kind. I wondered if, were the photos in color, that gas would be a certain shade of luminescent blue.
No. Full stop. Now he’s got me playing along with the delusion. Had the woman who pointed me to these photos done so under his direction? I could see no other plausible option besides folie a deux. All this effort to steer me towards these doctored photos, for what? So that I would come to believe in Orgone?
An investment scam? But I’m as skint as any other student. Recruitment into a cult? I’d seen no other potential members except the unkempt blonde hippie. He’d at least succeeded in arousing my curiosity. What could still be hidden down there? In the humid, dark labyrinth of steam tunnels.
It’s all I could think about during classes. The pitch black, hissing, pulsating web of corridors beneath me. Spreading out organically, like cracks in a window as a stone impacts it in slow motion. Somehow growing, new tunnels sprouting off of existing ones, serpentine concrete pseudopods burrowing relentlessly outward into the cold, dead soil.
It gnawed at me. Every effort to bury it in the back of my mind thwarted as time and time again it clawed its way to the forefront. What’s down there? What could be down there still? What the fuck is down there, hidden in those tunnels? I gave up fighting the losing battle to focus on the lecture and instead left early. For the steam tunnels, of course.
The most well known entrance isn’t difficult to get to. Down a flight of stairs which also leads to the room that the backup generators are kept in. That’s through the door to the right. The double doors straight ahead, however, lead to the steam tunnels. Hence the heavy loops of chains and locks.
Nothing like a deadbolt however. So it was possible, with some grunting, to open the doors just far enough to peer through the crack. That proved to be the limit of what the chains would allow, but it was enough. If only the tunnel on the other side weren’t so dark.
My phone! A millennial’s answer to every problem. I activated the light widget and pointed it through the gap between the doors. On the screen, though grainy, I could make out perhaps twenty feet of tunnel as well as the nearest intersection. Rusty steel pipes snaking down the ceiling and walls, emitting periodic puffs of steam from leaky fittings.
Then, in a flash, I glimpsed a silhouette dart through the tunnel juncture ahead. It was over so quickly I couldn’t convince myself I’d really seen it. My heart rate increased. “Hello?” I called out through the gap. It echoed uselessly down the concrete passage, eliciting no response.
I did, however, hear a faint metallic screech. Like the audio feedback you hear when you place a microphone too close to the speaker it’s connected to. As I strained to hear, I realized it was getting closer. My heart now beating so hard I could hear it, I found I could not make myself run.
I don’t know when the curiosity consumed me. Just that it was now firmly in the driver’s seat and would not allow me to retreat as any sane person would. Instead, I called out again, then put my ear up against the gap, waiting for any reply.
Instead, a hot breath in my ear. This time I did recoil. Nothing visible through the gap except darkness. Over the sound of my pounding heart, I heard the metallic screech recede into the distance. Accompanied by the sound of hurried limping, one foot dragging behind the other.
What was that? Wandering those tunnels, peering out at me through the gap? What the fuck could still be in there? With all other avenues of investigation closed to me, although it frustrated me that he’d succeeded in arousing my curiosity, I returned to professor Travigan.
“Knew you’d be back. Knew it!” he cackled maddeningly. I’d played right into his hands, but could see no other possible direction left to go in. He could get me into those tunnels, and seemed to possess an understanding of their nature I would not find in any book, article or documentary.
“Orgonic null reactor’s still going strong, isn’t it?” I hung my coat on the rack inside the doorway and took a seat before his tremendous polished oak desk. “I just want you to know”, I sternly began, “that I don’t believe a word that’s come out of your mouth since we’ve met. I’m all too familiar with your type.”
He scoffed. “I very much doubt that. Even by my own standards I’m a rather unusual person.” As if to underscore the statement, he withdrew one of the syringes full of black syrup, rolled up his sleeve, then proceeded to inject himself with it. I gaped.
“Oh, this? Never you mind. Just a little something to keep me going.” Drugs certainly would explain a great deal about this guy. “Seems like half the campus is on uppers of some kind” I muttered. He puzzled over that before I spotted a flash of recognition.
“Yes, I suppose you could say that’s what it is. I’d certainly not be...up and about, were I to skip a dose. Zachary sees to it that I don’t forget.” As I studied his wrinkled face, I began to notice something off about his skin. Entirely without color. I could understand why he was pale if he spent all his time holed up in here, but not even his tear ducts or lips were pink.
“Can you get me into the steam tunnels?” I’d wasted enough time indulging his eccentricity. Time to get down to business. He raised his eyebrows. “Is that all you need? Of course. We can go right now if you like.” What? Too easy, I thought. Not like him to be so straightforward. There’s gonna be some kind of ridiculous-
“We’ll go by subway.” Ah, there it is. “You’re confused. There’s no subway that links up with the steam tunnels.” A wry little smile crept over his face. “You’re certain about that, are you? Absolutely, one hundred percent?” I mulled that over, wondering what he could possibly be getting at.
“If you mean in a philosophical sense. I suppose not. I haven’t personally checked, so technically, there exists some infinitesimal possibility that without my knowledge, a subway station was constructed there.” I imagined I felt some distant vibration, and wondered at the source.
He clapped. “Very good!. And are you absolutely, positively certain that the subway in question does not have a stop in the basement of this building?” Had I been drinking milk I would’ve done a spit take.
“Come on now. What’s your game?” He only doubled down. “Can you honestly say, with no caveats, that it is absolutely impossible for there to be a subway station beneath us right now?”
I agonized over how to answer in a defensible way, but finally gave up and rolled with it just to see where it was leading. “No, I guess not. I haven’t been down there to look, so I guess there’s a remote possibility that-” I was cut off by a sudden earthquake.
Or what I mistook for one, anyway. The curios and various glass labware on the shelves rattled as did the entire building around me. “Excellent!” professor Travigan exclaimed. “We’ll use that one.”
“That one”? He hurried me down the stairs to the basement where, to my absolute astonishment, there actually was a subway station. Not one like I’d ever used, though. All of it decorative tiles, polished brass and oak paneling. Stylistically resembling professor Travigan’s office, and the house itself for that matter.
The train itself consisted of a single car with no obvious motor. The exterior was as elaborately decorated as the station, every polished metal surface imprinted with reliefs depicting scenes from mythology. “How? How is this down here? I didn’t think you were serious. When was this built? It must’ve cost a fortune.”
I staggered about, taking it all in, still struggling to believe it was real. The inside was like a Victorian livingroom with plush leather seating, oil lamps and even floral wallpaper. “How can this exist?” I demanded. Professor Travigan, content to hang back and watch in amusement during all of this, shrugged. “You weren’t sure that it didn’t. That’s good enough.”
As if that explained any of it. Zachary descended the stairs behind us, seemingly irate. “We’re going right now? Seriously? Maury is on. They’ve got a guy with a cotton phobia, Maury’s gonna come out wearing a cotton monster costume. Then when he runs backstage, they’ve covered every surface in cotton balls. That’s must see TV!”
Professor Travigan beckoned to him from within the train car. “No time like the present, m’boy! Whatever ‘present’ means, of course. You can resume viewing your frivolous picture radio programs upon our return.”
The two really are a matched set. While taking my seat in the train, I wondered if eccentric little old weirdos like professor Travigan are just what hippies like Zach eventually turn into.
The door slid shut with a solid, reverberating ‘kerchunk’. Zachary turned levers at the corners to tightly seal the door shut, though I couldn’t imagine why such measures were necessary for a simple train ride. “He should really be blindfolded for this”, Zach called out from the rear as he completed preparations. Who, me?
“No need. I’ve vetted him thoroughly enough by now to know that his skepticism is ironclad. There is nothing he could see or hear, I feel, that would diminish his negation potential.” Listen to them, talking about me like I’m not even here.
I felt some odd tension around Zachary. Couldn’t determine the nature of it. Not that I felt threatened, but that the way he speaks about pseudoscience and every other manner of transparent fraud as if I were the idiot for not buying into it makes me desperately want to punch him.
The professor is the same way. Worse, even. I just can’t stay mad at a feeble little pensioner. Who now hobbled excitedly about the train car, lighting the lamps, although they seemed to be included only for decoration. Electric lights lining recessed parts of the ceiling already did a serviceable job of illuminating the interior.
“You know”, the professor warbled as he began firing up whatever sort of engine propels this hulk, “skepticism and credulity are also antipodes. They react just as energetically as any other set of opposites. We just don’t commonly think of it that way because to us, that reaction looks like simple argument. But as ever, it’s really the equalization of a built up differential.”
I glanced over at Zach. Taking bong rips while reading a worn paperback titled “The Cosmic Serpent”. Rang true enough. I’ve learned to get along professionally with these kinds of people, but the way they carry on believing in the most absurd things truthfully does irritate me in the worst way.
Professor Travigan carefully slid the weighty throttle on the brass console before him, and the train lurched forward. “With that, we are off!” I smiled. He’s crazy as a shithouse fly, but his excitement is contagious. Across from me, Zachary continued taking hits from what I now recognized was a bong shaped like the head of Skeletor, from the old He-Man cartoon.
There was no motor sound I could discern. Whatever propelled us was not steam, and perhaps not electric unless especially silent. Nonetheless, we were moving. I resolved to figure out how it all worked at some point. Just another elaborate trick of course.
“Tell me something about yourself” Zach plied, through a growing cloud of fragrant smoke. “Were you always like this? Can’t believe in anything that doesn’t agree with what you already know?” I took exception to that. I’m entirely able to integrate new knowledge, providing it wasn’t obviously some sort of magician’s stunt.
“I dunno. I guess I was never much fun to tell ghost stories to. I remember my first camping trip as a boy scout. We’d gathered around the fire, savoring its warmth and light with the mysterious, dark woods at our backs. Following a particularly spooky tale, they began daring each other to make the dash through the woods back to the van, to get some sodas from the cooler.”
Zach did seem to be listening, although on account of the weed, he was no longer properly sitting in the chair but had instead assumed its shape like a soft putty. “Then suddenly they looked up and there I was with the sodas. Amazed, all of them. As if I’d actually done something brave.”
He began to softly chuckle. Each laugh barely escaping his lips before trailing off into the next one. Something like “ehmmhemehehhemehe”. How much was getting through to him in this state? “Anyway, one of them pointed out I’d brought my knife with me. As if to prove I was not so brave after all. “Ghosts aren’t real”, I told them. “But wolves are.”
He was really a good deal less irritating like this. Much of the tension now gone, and apparently with a ways yet to go until we reached our destination, I continued to share memories from my childhood.
“I remember this one time my sister set up an owl statue to scare me. It was on the porch outside my bedroom window. You could make its head turn with an included remote. Only, I didn’t know it was anything but a normal statue. So while I lay trying to get to sleep, I noticed its head was in a different position. I thought, surely I imagined it. But then, slowly, it turned to look at me.”
Zach now appeared enraptured. Still the weed at work, presumably. “I immediately got up, walked outside and picked up the statue to inspect it. Once I turned it over I found the little door in the bottom for the batteries and the jig was up.
Really disappointed my sister, she’d blown her allowance on the prank. When she asked why it didn’t scare me, I answered “A living statue is impossible.” She was cross with me for the rest of the week, as if I’d done something wrong.”
“Hold on” Zach murmured. “I’m gonna need to bring out the big guns for this.” He stashed his bong in a cabinet under the seat, and from the same cabinet withdrew a helmet with a pair of bongs, one mounted to either side. Their outputs led to a medical respirator style mask by a pair of flexible transparent tubes. “Alright, fool. Proceed.”
He’s really got the world’s most punchable face. I doubted that was a real thing until recently. “I get that many want to believe in the fantastical. It’s a normal impulse. But it’s unfair to dump on people who are just wired such that they can’t humor that sort of thing. I don’t mean them any harm, I wish they’d just-”
Zachary tugged at the window cover behind him. It retracted, and I found myself at an abrupt loss for words. The scenery outside was the void of space. An unfamiliar green gas giant loomed large, with a pink nebula behind it. I just boggled, struggling to string words together but failing.
“Almost like you don’t have it all figured out” he suggested, muffled by the mask. With great effort he pulled himself to his feet and headed up to the front to speak with the professor. 3D screen, I thought. Has to be. There’s still gravity, after all. What a cheap trick! But the clarity is amazing. It’s just like looking out a window.
Zachary returned and slumped back into the plush, beautifully hand carved seat. “You don’t believe that shit either, do you.” He gestured to the window behind him. I shook my head. “That’s impressive, though. The train works like a motion simulator ride, doesn’t it? Hydraulics underneath. I bet we’re still in that station now.”
He issued a disgusted sigh, plumes of wispy weed smoke billowing out the edges of the mask, then pulled the shade back down. After a time, I grew restless. “How much longer until we get there?” The professor called back “It will continue until you decide it’s gone on for an implausibly long time.” So I did. Just like that, the train stopped.
Yet when the door slid open, no steam tunnels. We were underground, certainly, but in some sort of busy subterranean town. Across the street were all manner of businesses advertising their wares with antiquated electrical signs, seemingly competing to see whose sign could blink more obnoxiously than the rest.
“Mortimer McGraw’s Quality Coffins, for sleep or libidinal purposes”. Come again? Another advertised pocket sewing kits with included surgical implements. For what possible purpose? A never ending throng of men and women dressed like they were reenacting the early 20th century milled down either side of the street, perusing the various strange wares.
I motioned as if to step out and explore. “Not so fast, lad.” The Professor raised an arm to block the way. “I’m afraid they do not welcome warmbloods here. You and Zachary stay behind. I’ll return with what I came for shortly.” I still felt dumbstruck that we weren’t really in his basement all along. The number of sensible explanations for all of this was rapidly dwindling.
So, I stayed. But continued to gawk. A boy selling newspapers cried out the headlines in an effort to entice passersby. “Chaos continues on surface! Freshly risen mobbing the streets and invading homes, body count now in the thousands!” I felt a tremor. The lights flickered and dust fell from the ceiling.
“The omission of the memory serum was to blame” a stately looking fellow in a top hat and tweed vest whispered to his companion just a dozen or so feet from me. The other nodded and grunted in affirmation.
“They’re saying that whatever scheming rogue set this calamity into motion disconnected that hose first. So the risen would remember where they were before. It’s no wonder they’re in such a disquieted state. If you ask me, they’re the real victims.”
If he could see me or the train, he gave no indication of it. Soon enough, professor Travigan returned, wheeling along some sort of rectangular mass concealed beneath a sheet. On a hand truck, I assumed. “What is this place?” I demanded. “None of your concern. Shut the door.” Put out somewhat, I obeyed, securing the corners of it with the levers I’d seen Zachary use before me.
“What’s under the sheet?” I asked next. I imagined I’d heard it whimper as the two loaded it onto the train. “A perceptor. Standard practice to bring one along on a job like this, I had the good doctor assemble one for me in advance. Only way to fully reveal projections.” As ever, he rattled off all of that as if I was supposed to know what it meant. I objected that I didn’t.
“It’s as I told you before, lad. The universe exists due to an act of separation. But that imbalance is slowly equalizing. Eventually it will finish. There will be nothing but cold, dead debris. Until the next separation, that is! Of course, the next one always destroys everything left over from the last, in the course of recycling it. Or it did, until something discovered how to survive the process.”
I recalled something about a cycle of creation and destruction at the core of Hindu beliefs about cosmology. He borrowed so casually from such a wide range of traditions it was impossible to keep track of them all.
“Hides in the cracks. Subtle, subversive. The wave of destruction passes right over ‘em. Waiting, planning, riding it all out in the very holographic substrate from which our universe is projected.”
He completed preparations, then twisted a few knobs and once again slid the throttle. The train surged forward, hopefully this time headed for the steam tunnels. “But, trillions of years pass between cycles. It is no conventional being which can endure such extended stretches of cold, dark silence. How can I possibly quantify for you the intensity of their thirst for the return of life, color, light and sound? For fresh experience?”
I could offer no answer, as to me this was just yet more schizo babble. But I nevertheless humored him as the last stop had satisfied me that this was at least a real train, so we might yet wind up where I wanted to.
“So many sacrifices. To exist in that form, and in that place. It is not so far removed from death. Strangelife, pataphysicists call it. Something which does not metabolize. Which has no eyes, but can see. No brain, yet it thinks. Schemes. Craves. Having converted themselves irreversibly, paying the steep price to survive the purges, they cannot return here for any length of time. Unless they create, or hjiack, biological vessels.”
I puzzled over the prior stop as he rambled on. What was that place? Some sort of secret society for alumni, I suspected. Accessible by this train. If the only other stop is in the steam tunnels it might help explain the taboo against exploring them. My brain chugged away, processing everything I’d seen so far into a digestible narrative. Because the alternative was unthinkable.
Just as I wondered how the second leg of the trip could possibly take so long, given that the house we departed from is a scant few blocks from the university, we arrived. “Really, they’re negative life”. Travigan just kept on talking the entire time. I felt sort of guilty for ignoring most of it.
“When the imbalance which animates you fully equalizes, like a robot with a dead battery, you de-animate. Infusion with Orgone can delay that while you’re still alive, but what use is it to administer medicine to the dead? Rather, an infusion of...the other stuff...creates the same sort of imbalance which animates your body, but in the other direction. Negative, not positive. Strangelife. If you can’t beat ‘em, join em!” he laughed. “Then defeat them from the inside.”
“And a hearty ooga booga to you as well” I wanted to reply. But as the door slid open I discovered he’d really been as good as his word, so I held my tongue. At last, I was inside the steam tunnels. Enduring an old man’s senile fantasies now seemed like a trivial price. Zachary unloaded the great rectangular mass covered by the sheet, then pulled it away.
I seized up, and nearly ran. It looked very much like a hospital bed, but propped upright with large rubberized wheels at the bottom so it could be pushed about. Strapped tightly to it at the wrists, elbows, chest, neck, forehead, waist, knees and ankles was an emaciated, bald stranger.
“Who is that!” I blurted out. Travigan assured me he’d volunteered for this. He did look calm, now that I studied his face. “That doesn’t really answer the question. Who is this guy? What’s that thing he’s strapped to?”
More than just a bed, there were all manner of machines bolted to the back that I recognized as relating to life support. Tubes and wires from them snaked around to the front of the bed, then into the man’s chest through various healed over incisions.
“This is fucked up” I stammered. “I didn’t know you’d do something like this.” Neither Zachary nor the old man seemed the least bit apologetic. “Once you understand what’s waiting for us in those tunnels, you’ll be glad we brought a perceptor. Only someone on the verge of death can see them clearly.”
I tried to guess from the hiss and throb of the various machines what function each performed. A respirator, the most obvious. But also the most compact dialysis machine I’d ever seen, an external mechanism for pumping blood, a reservoir of beige nutritional goo periodically deposited intravenously into his stomach, and so on.
“They really have to be right on the edge”, Zach explained. “None of their organs can be functional except for the brain. The organs aren’t dead, just prevented from operating conventionally. The machine does it all instead. Runs on batteries. Needless to say we shouldn’t fuck around, as he’ll die if they run out before we can get him back to the train.”
Psychopaths. On top of being fantasists. I was rapidly reevaluating what sort of company I’d isolated myself with, deep underground. If I’d known all of this would result from asking for Travigan’s help, I would’ve just used a set of bolt cutters to remove those chains from the doors.
A gentle wind rushed past. Like the inhalation of a giant, whose esophagus we now stood in. The distant echo of dripping water barely audible over the groan of flexing pipes, and periodic bursts of steam.
Wiping my forehead, I realized I’d begun to sweat. “This is it”, I thought. “This is what you came for.” Yet, I couldn’t force myself to move. My body vetoed any effort to enter the all consuming darkness before me.
“Don’t tell me you’re afraid, after those stories you told me on the way” Zach quipped, nonchalantly rolling the unexpected fourth member of our party down the corridor. I shed my jacket, wary of overheating, and followed. Couldn’t let that new age dipshit show me up.
“Don’t you need permits for this?” I asked, gesturing to the fellow strapped to the rolling bed. Zach scoffed. “Permits? We’re not just an institute, we’re THE institute. If you have to ask which one, you’re not in the loop. And if you’re out of the loop, you’re liable to ask silly questions like whether we have need of permits.”
That settled it as far as he was concerned. Though as usual, he’d not actually explained anything. I was beginning to sense a recurring theme. Cryptic for the sake of being cryptic. Fetishization of ritual, pomp, tradition, ceremony and embellishment of all kinds.
Was there anything of substance behind it all? Or was it turtles all the way down? Faintly lit by the lights from the bed’s machinery, I could see the professor reach out to a switch on the wall, and toggle it. I heard the distant rumble of a generator starting up.
In stages, the lights began to turn on, until I could finally see more than a few feet ahead. Dim, flickering, plainly in need of replacement bulbs. “If you think the light makes us safe, you’re mistaken. They’re attracted to places like this regardless. Desolate, bleak, featureless places which evolution programmed us to find creepy. Now you know why.”
It all really did look the same. The more we explored, the more lost I felt. “They’re moving the corridors around us so that we go in circles. Make no mistake about it. This is why they choose places with lots of repeating features. One easy way to temporarily defeat that is to split up. But of course, that’s what they want, and why they do it.”
So we stuck together, and continued to explore. Now and again, a jet of blistering hot steam would blast forth from a pipe fitting in front of or behind us. Condensation dripped continuously down every wall, and upon placing my hand against one, I realized I could feel the distant vibration of the generators.
The man strapped to the bed began to squirm. He couldn’t talk, apparently a good deal more of his body was disabled than I’d realized, but he could weakly wriggle in his restraints and emit an anxious sound from deep in his throat.
“He’s spotted one.” Heironimus peered at a cathode ray tube mounted to the rear of the bed. It displayed something like you’d expect from sonar. “Sure enough. Dead ahead, perhaps twenty feet. Focus!” The man stared, eyes wide, pupils dilated, beads of sweat rolling down his face.
I scanned the corridor ahead of us, searching the spot that he seemed to be looking at so intently. Initially I saw nothing. But as he continued to stare, something began fading into view. “He’s got it pinned! Full materialization soon, if he can keep hold of it.” Sure enough, the small, frail looking form began to grow more distinct.
Appeared for all the world like the delicate, ghostly skeleton of a little old man curled up in one of the shadowed parts of the ceiling. Except with a bulbous, malformed skull and disproportionately large eye sockets.
As I watched, it began to stir. It did not move conventionally. Similar to rotoscoping, except that it sort of flowed, or morphed, from one frame to the next. I shouldn’t be watching this, I thought. Shouldn’t be here. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, but something deep in my gut begged me to run.
I’ve never listened to that voice before. I’m not about to start, either. “This is a projection, alright” I explained. “What you’ve done is to hide a small digital projector someplace. Among the pipes, maybe. It’s casting a white animated figure against a black background onto the thick water vapor around us. Textbook Scooby Doo bullshit.”
The creature flickered, faded, then disappeared. Heironimus slapped me on the back. “Nicely done, boy! You’re worth your weight in Atlantium, you know. But you’ve not killed it, just driven it off. To truly destroy the things, you must accept that you’re seeing them.
But then, dwell exhaustively on the reasons why an immaterial creature is a physical impossibility, until you convince yourself of it so powerfully that it becomes true. That’s negation.”
They never let up. It’s like an Andy Kaufman routine. I can explain every last detail of how they fake everything and they just carry on with the charade anyway. Absolutely infuriating. Moreso because the projection trick really did shake me somewhat. That’s a terribly cruel prank to play on someone in a place like this.
After a few minutes of walking, we came upon a door. Locked, but rusty, such that with concerted kicking we managed to bust the door open. It was mercifully much cooler than the corridors, and less humid. Dust hanging in the air adhered to the thin layer of sweat coating my skin, forming a sticky film.
The room was concrete like the tunnels but dressed up enough to be livable. Well furnished, although overtly out of date. The nearest shelf bore a rotary telephone, drum of slides, and a phrenological model of a human head with dotted lines demarcating the regions of the skull to be measured for qualities like ‘wistfulness’, ‘vigor’, ‘ingenuity’, and ‘criminality’.
Then, I noticed the machine on the far wall. With the gauges, dials and knobs. And a faint blue glow radiating from the open service panel. Could it be? The room before me didn’t match what I’d seen in the photos. They couldn’t have been taken here. Which means this must simply be where the machine was stashed once the study concluded.
Flipping the light switch accomplished nothing. Evidently the bulb was burnt out. But my eyes were already adjusted, and aided by the faint blinking lights on the face of the machine, so I was able to make out the room well enough to navigate it.
“Ah, here it is” the professor cooed. “Can’t let these fall into the wrong hands.” He unscrewed the glass tubes full of glowing blue gas from within the machine, then pocketed them. There sat a gurney adjacent to the machine, a tangle of thin wires strewn across it, terminating in small metal pins. The sheets were, in places, stained brown with long dried blood.
“What was this room used for?” I softly queried. When no answer came, I looked behind me to study the professor’s face. He appeared uncomfortable, as though deliberating how much I should know. He turned and rummaged through the contents of a shelf, then produced a stack of notebooks. “Better that you hear it straight from the horse’s mouth.”
While I began reading the first notebook, Zach fired up the old fashioned slide projector. Remarkably the little bulb was still good, but the lens needed a bit of cleaning to render the image satisfactorily clear. I glanced up now and then to study the slides. Most matched up with photos I’d already seen reproductions of.
The first notebook was simply a dry, by the numbers description of daily procedures. What I would expect from a disciplined scientist. But because of the format I couldn’t get a big picture sense of what he’d been up to. So, I continued to the second notebook, which turned out to be a journal.
“Personal record of William H. Shendon, August 17th, 1948. Had a disagreeable encounter with some blinkered fool from the sociology department today. Wasn’t even talking to him originally, but to Albert.
We were discussing the imperative of higher grades of human being to uplift degenerates by means of eugenics. It soon erupted into an ugly argument about what constitutes superior or inferior, and who could possibly have the authority to define either. Won’t anyone do? Is there really anyone alive who doesn’t recognize the supreme importance of qualities like intelligence, strength and health?
To pretend that there is any significant variation in how most define superiority is a red herring. To position me as some sort of self appointed arbiter of what constitutes superiority is just a tiresome attempt to embarrass. It is always the degenerates who try to sow such tactical confusion, to conceal their shortcomings and put their betters on the defensive.
I am still in shock at the result of the war. Not so much that the German leadership failed, given the fuhrer’s history of poor strategic decisions and well known abuse of methamphetamines, but at the realization that their failure has doomed the science of eugenics.
I encounter ever more opposition to my field with each passing day. Though I have never so much as spoken an ill word to or about any Jew, it is routinely implied that I am antisemitic, by the tenuous association of any eugenic enterprise with the atrocities of the deceased reich.
Over my protestations, sociology and all related departments are being wilfully handed over to critical theorists, with the admittedly noble aim of ensuring that the atrocities of the Germans are never repeated. But, what will this mean for America?
There will soon come a generation which does not simply repeat the sociologist’s well meaning lies to facilitate social harmony, but which truly believes them. Which either does not remember that there was a time when such ideas were known to be false, or regards us as monsters for it.
Sincerely, I hope they are right that there exist no biological differences between geographically separated human populations. That somehow, despite all appearances, we are identical in every crucial respect. Because if they are wrong, then by embarking upon this new course, we are destroying ourselves.
I mean not to sound harsh, or exclusive. But it is no secret that there exists a strong correlation between intelligence and the function, or dysfunction, of a society. Between the average intellect of its constituent citizens and the level of organization, provision, comfort, safety and efficiency of its operation.
If the new thinkers are mistaken in their belief that there exists no connection whatsoever between heredity and intelligence, and they succeed in their aim of homogenizing humanity to achieve the final death of discrimination, what sort of civilization will look back on these accomplishments in a few centuries time?
Will they have advanced meaningfully beyond us? Or will the dwindling populations of surviving anglo saxons, teutonics and asiatics create the illusion of progress by occasional feats of brilliant engineering, even while society at large decays around them? As the average intelligence of citizenry, source and perpetuator of civilizational functionality, continues to plummet?
I mean no harm to any breed of man. Contrary to what I know is whispered about me by those contemptuous vipers in the sociology department, I bear no relation to the German barbarians who so recently laid waste to Europe. Who we’ve sacrificed so much to defeat, hopefully for the last time.
However, I recognize the central importance of brainpower to sustaining and improving our quality of life. The brain is the lynchpin of it all. Committing irreversibly to any policy which degrades the average IQ over time begins a downward spiral, a sort of evolutionary regression from which no escape is possible. Because there will soon be nobody left capable of understanding why it is occurring or how to reverse it.
Why does this matter? Isn’t it only because of the tremendous success of Western civilization, due to the intelligence which established and sustains it, that we are able to not only support ourselves but also the undeveloped world with medicine and other provisions? Who will provide those things to us when our own civilization breaks down? Its rotting corpse picked clean by the ever-swelling ranks of belligerent, greedy simpletons.”
Perverse, atavistic ideas I was all too familiar with. I recalled a humanities course which, for a few days, covered the shameful error of American eugenics. Whole enclosed villages erected solely as someplace to imprison those deemed unfit to live in healthy society, much less to reproduce.
There were, for many decades, impassioned arguments put forth by what at the time passed for learned men, that we should all have to carry eugenic certificates attesting to our level of hereditary fitness. That we should marry not for love, but with a view to creating offspring that are in certain ways an improvement over us.
My feeling that I had not misjudged this man but was right to condemn him from the start only intensified as I read subsequent entries. “The persecution continues. Not a year goes by that I am not, at least four or five times, called before the board for review. My publications put under the microscope for any sign of heretical thought.
Most recently it was strongly implied if not stated outright that, should I wish to continue here, I must choose some new avenue of scientific inquiry other than eugenics. My tenure is all that prevents my swift disposal. Very well, then. I can devise ways to persist in this field without arousing anger. A rose by any other name, as it were.
Albert has proposed characterizing our biometric study as an investigation of posture. The board approved, and I feel hopeful that by subterfuge I may continue in my vital work without the usual suspects throwing a wrench into the gears.
In some decades, as the quality of the average mind degrades, it might be up to me and just a few others still toiling tirelessly in our labs, to find some miracle cure. Some silver bullet, with which to undo the accumulated damage to the quality of our stock by these so called critical theorists.
May God save us if we fail. I have read an interview in which the venerable Albert Einstein opines that if world war three is fought with nuclear weapons, world war four will be fought with sticks and rocks. Forget the nuclear weapons, though.
By the time the next world war occurs, nobody will remember how to make them, nor how to maintain the arsenal we’ll have built up before then. We’ll fight that war with sticks and rocks simply because any technology beyond that will exceed our understanding.
We will be as the Africans were before colonialists ever arrived on their shores, having never in all the millennia up until then so much as invented the wheel, indoor plumbing, or oceangoing vessels more complex than a raft.
The sociologist’s contention that the state of Africa today owes to the rapacious interference of Europeans seems to imply that we possessed time machines with which to sabotage early African development.
And who is it that sold us the slaves? Were they not Africans, who were already busy enslaving one another long before we arrived? Did we truly invent slavery, or was it standard practice in the world at the time, and for much of human history?
We certainly invented abolitionism though, and have done vastly more to atone for and destroy slavery around the world than any society before or since.”
Despite this guy’s insistence that he had no affinity for the Nazis, he sure as hell sounded like one. Every conceivable attempted justification for the worst excesses of colonialism was on full display here. I could only be glad he was dead, and that men like him are for the most part extinct. However carefully he argued his views, the underlying attitudes made my skin crawl.
It is a tragically short leap from this sort of thinking to forced sterilizations, mass graves, and industrialized crematoria. A road paved with good intentions, blindly traveled by machine men, with machine minds and machine hearts, if any. Men who dutifully march towards whatever conclusion their own cold, calculating reason arrives at...however monstrous.
I turned the page only to find a faded, worn booklet tucked in there. Perhaps as a makeshift bookmark? “Manual for the correct operation and maintenance of your new Beltone Harmony™ vacuum tube hearing aid”. My blood ran cold for a moment, though I couldn’t say why.
I looked up in time to see a slide that was not a match for any of the photos I’d yet seen. A young boy with a bandaged head, looking bruised and malnourished, lay restrained to an operating table. The long, thin wires trailed as usual from the machine to pins in his spine. But in this photo, something new was discernible in the corner of the room.
Something faint. Ghostly. Malformed. I felt a tightness in my chest the moment I recognized it, and recalled the professor’s exposition on the train. “Unless they create, or hijack, biological vessels.” As I feared, with each new slide, the apparition drew closer to the boy. But then, Zach arrived at the end of the drum.
“Bummer. Kinda wanted to see what happened” Zach muttered, as if reading my mind. Thought that was really an understatement. What had William gotten up to down here? Swept under the carpet by the administration, an unwanted embarrassment to the university.
“Ah! Here we go.” The professor, who’d been quietly searching through a file cabinet while I read the notebooks, handed me a brittle manilla envelope. Inside, the prize I’d sought from the beginning. What appeared to be the remaining photographs, including the anomalous ones I’d seen slides of just now.
One of them depicted William himself. Slouched over, one of his legs apparently deformed. A large, clunky device I figured for the ‘Beltone’ hearing aid strapped to his waist, twisted cable running from the box on his hip up to an earpiece.
I smirked, recollecting his criticism of “degenerates” who “sow tactical confusion to conceal their own shortcomings”. Physician, heal thyself. It always seems to be the damaged and insecure who try to elevate themselves by denigrating others. Often concocting disturbingly elaborate worldviews around those ideas in the process.
I continued to the next journal entry, hoping for clues that would put everything else into perspective. “Fools. Would that I could wring their necks. My new office is little more than a furnished utility closet. I know this is a punishment, however they deny it. They are ashamed of me. But, I am also ashamed of them.
I can see the decay in everything. Like a train wreck in slow motion. As the years pass, attention spans growing shorter. Interests shifting from the high minded and technical, to the prurient, sensationalist and slapstick.”
I fiddled with the light widget on my phone to assist in reading, but accidentally opened flappy bird. Once the light came on, I was also able to make out strange illustrations. “Figure 12b” depicted a series of skulls, labelled “Asiatic, Europid, Mongoloid, Negroid, Aboriginal”. I grimaced.
Of course, their shapes appeared markedly different. Because of the unfortunate preconceptions of the pitiful man who’d drawn this. To supply him with a private office, even in the steam tunnels, was an act of charity. I’d have invited him to continue his work from within a dumpster.
“One of the unforeseen benefits of operating on the fringes of academia is that you meet all manner of interesting figures. Radicals, most of them somewhat unhinged. But my dear Albert, who has stood by me faithfully even as my career goes up in flames, recently brought my attention to the work of one Wilhelm Reich.
His story is not dissimilar to mine. Destroyed by the prevailing ideological mobsters for espousing unwanted ideas. It is his frankly intriguing opinion that matter does not create mind, but the inverse.
Which is to say that life did not self-organize by Darwin’s process, at least not exclusively. But instead, that there is a fundamental life force which organizes matter into living configurations wherever it is present in sufficient concentrations. He calls this substance Orgone. From ‘Organism’, and ‘Organization’.
Though the administration feels this is so much hogwash, they’ve encouraged me to investigate it and even provided me with more funding than I requested. Perhaps pushing me in this direction simply so that I will abandon eugenic research.
My desperate hope is that there is yet some salvation to be discovered in the hidden frontier of alternative science. Some way to arrest the deterioration of humanity, however advanced it may be by then, in a single fell swoop.”
So he’d been suckered into the world of smoke, mirrors, and thinly disguised pseudoscientific dead-ends that Professor Travigan also inhabits. Not the dumpster I prescribed, but an effective way to redirect his energies towards some fruitless endeavor. At least this way, his research couldn’t hurt anybody. Or so I thought.
“Today saw the most fortuitous windfall imaginable. A small boy, the abandoned offspring of vagrants by the looks of him, sought refuge in the steam tunnels. I came upon him searching for scraps. He can clearly speak his own name, Jeremy, but struggles with language apart from that.
If, through my recent discovery of Orgonic science, I can devise some means of artificially enhancing his intellect, I will have done it. The holy grail of my decade long struggle since I fell from grace.
The short-sighted compassion of those horrid bastards of the Frankfurt School, who set us on this inexorable path to self-destruction, will have amounted to nothing. Generations of gradual cognitive decay, reversed practically overnight!
No law will be needed. No movement, no revolution. Only to offer as a commercial service the voluntary application of Orgonic intelli-hancement. Albert says the name isn’t as catchy as I think. But if I build it, they will come.
What mother would neglect her child by declining to improve its IQ? What father would not desire to give his progeny the best possible chance at success? The key, I’m certain, is in the organizing properties of this queer blue gas. Reich was kind enough to ship me some, that I might independently verify his findings. Not that the university will pay any attention, mind you.”
A paralyzing fear began to take hold. He’d really done it. He’d gotten his hands on some abandoned child to experiment on. Of all the creeps that boy might’ve wound up in the custody of, William was the worst, or at least a serious contender.
“The trepanation did not go as smoothly as hoped. Jeremy would not hold still, or stop whining. Doesn’t comprehend the importance of my work. Undoubtedly due to the poor stock he comes from. I might’ve drilled in just a bit too far. But whatever damage I may have inadvertently done will be reversed by the infusion of Orgone, I feel certain of it.”
The text was accompanied by another sketched illustration. This time a cross section of a human head, with a cylindrical device penetrating the skull, and a short ways into the brain. The exterior portion was a sort of threaded port, into which it seemed you could screw one of the Orgone filled glass tubes I’d seen Travigan take from the machine earlier.
“There have been certain...complications. Little Jeremy’s borehole is not healing properly. I don’t understand it. I’d have involved a qualified surgeon except that I would never find one who’d agree to perform such a procedure.
The pus replenishes itself faster than I can clean it away. The smell is atrocious. Jeremy only cries now, and runs a perpetual fever. If anyone discovered what I’ve done, I can only imagine what they’d think of me. Not understanding the larger importance of my work.”
I could feel him breaking down, evident in the slow change of his tone as I progressed through the journal. I wondered where it could lead to. Surely he was eventually discovered, and imprisoned for all of this? I felt I couldn’t bear any other outcome.
“The administration seems to have forgotten about me. All the better. I can accomplish everything I need to from down here. How long has it been? I could do with a calendar. Every so often, degenerate fools intrude to explore the tunnels. It’s a simple matter to isolate one from the rest. It pains me to take life, but I cannot continue my work without a reliable supply of Orgone.”
My breathing was short and shallow. Each page proved worse than the last, and it was a struggle to force myself to keep reading. There was seemingly no depth William hadn’t sunk to, while imagining himself heroic for it. Directionless rage began to grow in me without any productive outlet. After all, there was nothing left of him that I might take it out on. So I thought.
Suddenly, the lights went out. Everything was still, dark, and silent. “Professor?” I called out. “Zach?” No answer. Putting my hand against the wall, I could no longer feel any distant vibrations. The generator had either run out of gas, or broken down. Unless someone shut it down manually, those were the only possibilities I could think of.
I checked the battery meter on my phone. 19%. I went into the network menu and turned on airplane mode to conserve power. Even so, I knew I was fast running out of light. My heart rate increased, and I began to hyperventilate.
“Zach? Professor?” I called out through the open door. Loathe to leave the relative safety of that little room, but left with no other option. Now sweaty and nauseous, I tucked the manilla envelope under one arm and inched down the darkened corridor, arms outstretched so I might feel my way along.
Then, one of the lights sprang to life. Not thirty feet away, illuminating a silhouette I recognized as Zachary. He beckoned to me. “Where were you! When the lights went out I called for you and the professor, but you’d left me behind, you asshole!” He didn’t react. As I got closer, I began to notice something was amiss.
His outline was hazy. Whenever he moved his arm, the motion was blurred. Like a sloppy rotoscoped animation. I stopped in my tracks. Perhaps sensing that I’d figured it out, the form dissolved, revealing instead another one of those faint, ghostly projections. I could just barely make it out, and sorely wished they’d left the perceptor with me.
It had only stubby, vestigial arms and legs. Fine, fragile little fingers and toes, certainly not useful for anything. Its ribcage and spine elongated like the skeleton of a whale, or serpent. The mouth looked much too small to be used for eating anything, the teeth like fine, pointy little porcelain shards.
It stirred, detecting my presence. Then, slowly, turned to face me. I dreaded it, and internally, begged it all to stop. Some primal part of my brain intimately recognized it. Instinctive familiarity, now inducing waves of nausea and fear, cascading through my body. What is it? What the fuck is it? How can it be real?
It can’t. Just like that, my perception realigned itself. None of this could possibly be happening. I stiffened up, stared down the crippled little spectre, and dared it to continue existing. Can’t possibly be real! A hallucination. From fumes that build up down here, no doubt.
Truly, no doubt. Not a shred. There can be no such creature. What is it made of? If nothing, how could I see it? More likely by far that I was just overheated, my mind conjuring up this fever dream. As I grew more insistent about this, the vision began to falter.
First, the limbs shrunk, then vanished. Then the spine began to retract. Shorter and shorter, the ribs disappearing into it as it reached them. Finally, just the skull. I stared, as certain as I’ve ever been that nothing supernatural exists in this world or possibly could. With that, the skull folded in on itself, then vanished.
I fell to my knees and sharply exhaled in relief. Mind over matter. The small victory reinvigorated me. I set off down the corridor, now confident I would soon escape, prize in hand. But before long, I heard it. Softly at first, such that I couldn’t tell exactly what it was.
The echoing distorted it. Only as I drew near did it resolve into weeping. A small boy, by the sound of it. I hesitated. Another hallucination? But refusing to hear it had no effect. The weeping only continued, and grew louder as I approached the source.
“Who’s there?” I whispered. The weeping softened, then stopped. “Y...you’re not him. Are you?” Him? I knelt before the unseen child. “I came here with friends to find something. And to explore. Are you hurt? Where are your parents?”
I heard sniffling. Then the sound of a small body climbing to its feet. “I...don’t have parent. I don’t remember back that far. I get lost down here. Was cold outside, I just want get warm.” I reached out, but heard him withdraw. “Don’t touch! I don’t like! Nobody can touch, ever again.”
I assured him I wouldn’t. “Are you hurt? Do you need me to carry you?” More sniffling. “I can walk. I bleed, but….is just….my medical wound…” He sounded ashamed of it. Medical wound? I grew tense. Wondering if it could really be what I suspected. Heart gripped by dread, I asked for his name. “Jeremy.”
Not the same one. Or a prank? He should be nearly seventy by now. But, reality is what continues to exist, even if you don’t believe in it. And however severe my doubt, the sniffling only persisted. Then the weeping again.
“Shh. It’s going to be okay. If you follow my voice, I can lead you out of here.” Silence followed. “You mean it?” I assured him I did, and would even see to it that he was taken care of by doctors once we escaped. “No...No more doctor. No drill. NO DRILL!” He became frantic.
“Shhh, no drill. No doctors, if that’s what you want. First things first, let’s get out of these tunnels.” He then calmed down somewhat, but insisted that the tunnels go on forever in every direction. Certainly seemed like that on the way in. A difficult maze to navigate, even with the lights on.
I wiped the accumulated sweat from my face, picked a direction and began walking. Calling out every few seconds for Jeremy, so he could follow. We’d not made it far before I heard it. Distant, and initially unfamiliar. Like the weeping. But once close enough, I realized what it was.
Metallic screeching, and the sound of hurried limping. Then, the whirr of an electric drill. “NO DRILL!” Jeremy cried, and ran back the way we came. I followed, unsure of what could possibly be behind us, but not wanting to find out. My only cues were Jeremy’s occasional frightened cries. It was difficult to stay with him.
Left turn. Right turn. Right. Right. Left. Right. Left. Left. No clear direction. Nothing to indicate how far we’d run. Still, I could hear it following us. The metallic screech. The drill. Left. Right. Right. Left. Thighs burning, throat dry, body coated in sweat. A burst of steam narrowly missed my face. The indirect heat still seared my skin.
I screamed and fell to the ground. Jeremy just kept running. The screeching drew closer. My mind raced, grasping at possibilities. I would never find the way out at random. My phone had long since shut down, the battery depleted. There was just one remaining option. But I would have to believe it was possible.
The screeching now nearly on top of me, I struggled to my feet and ran. Despite my aching muscles. Despite everything. “There could be a subway stop down here, couldn’t there?” I thought. It’s unlikely of course. But possible, right?
Yes! Nothing absolutely prevents it. There’s ample precedent. The construction could have been done in secret. All told, I convinced myself I was absolutely, genuinely unsure of whether there could be a subway stop ahead.
That was all it took. The door slid open, bathing a short stretch of the corridor in warm tungsten light from the oil lamps. I began to cry with relief, salty tears mixing with the grimy layer of sweat on their way down my face.
Inside stood professor Travigan, Zachary, and a small boy with a bandaged head. I barged in, slid the door shut behind me, and eagerly set about sealing it with the four levers. Only then did I let myself recover. Breathing gradually slowing down. Heartbeat returning to normal.
“You don’t know how glad I am to see you”, I confessed. But I received no response. When I turned around, the professor and Zachary were nowhere to be seen. The boy stood unnaturally still, not visibly breathing. When he finally opened his mouth as if to reply, metallic screeching came out...then the drill began to emerge.