Upon the Shadow of Nothing
"You're not taking this seriously."
I wasn't, either. As yet I really didn't know how to. Zach was high off his tits like he always is when I follow him on one of his ridiculous capers so I was taking everything he told me with a whole shaker of salt, moreso than when he was sober.
"You've got that smug attitude where you think you've got the universe completely figured out. Normally that pisses me off, but tonight I wouldn’t change it for anything. I have no clue what happens to the people they take and I don’t want to find out, so listen closely but keep your mind firmly shut if you want to live through this.”
I wanted to hit him. I could see the fun in spooky paranormal playtime or I wouldn't be here, poking through a long abandoned industrial building with him, but the way he was stone cold serious about it profoundly irritated me. I knew full well nothing genuinely supernatural would happen, because it couldn't. I told him so.
"That's why I brought you along. You can think that way so stubbornly that it should be possible to negate them when they show up."
It was obviously the prelude to a spiel, so rather than ask what he meant I just trudged quietly alongside him and checked to make sure the backup flashlights worked. Eventually he filled the vacuum of silence with more of his hand wavey stoner claptrap.
"You didn't read the books I gave you. I guess I never expected you to. I'll give you the nutshell version. Following recovery from the first World War, Germany was a very fertile place for spiritualism. The people wanted refuge from the horrible memories of war and sought it in psychics, mediums and all manner of secret societies. Most were about as legit as you think, which is to say, a bunch of gullible fruits in black robes performing bunk rituals and convincing themselves they'd glimpsed the other side. A real dog and pony show."
This was indeed what I'd assumed the books were about, and wished he would stop there so I could agree with him in an unqualified way for once. But he rattled on as we descended a damp concrete staircase into what looked to be the basement.
"But with that many people searching for something remarkable in places nobody had looked before, someone was bound to eventually find something. The field of pataphysics emerged and was concealed from the public by the handful of practitioners who knew the power of keeping useful information to themselves."
Wet, moldy insulation hung from a spot where a ceiling panel had come loose. The gentle circulation of humid air carried with it the mild stench of decay. I used a cold, rusty pipe mounted to the wall as a handrail before realizing the potential for tetanus and thinking better of it. "You're gonna tell me what pataphysics is now whether I want to know or not, aren't you."
He did. We'd been roommates long enough that I could anticipate more or less where he was headed when he ranted like this. "The study of the structure of reality beyond metaphysics. A sort of proto-holographic theory of the universe before we had the tools necessary to confirm it. In the same way that the study of heredity predated genetics. A first, crude rough draft describing something they were able to just barely detect but not yet meaningfully describe."
We arrived at something resembling a blast door. It slid surprisingly easily along rails that Zach explained he'd oiled the last time he came here. For some reason he'd decided he needed me along in order to proceed further. As a human shield probably.
It was a mine entrance. I nearly refused to continue on the spot, but Zach and I always had fun on his retarded little adventures and I trusted him to ensure we did this time as well. I assumed the punchline would be that he had another friend waiting in the mine, dressed in a monster costume who would jump out and scare me after he'd primed me for it with the story he'd been telling. Once we were through, he shut the door behind us over my protestation. "It's important, you'll see."
"Now we know that this universe is projected from a source universe, a sort of holographic substrate. Everything we experience as reality is projected from outside of it. Plato's Cave was closer to the truth than even he anticipated. What's more, the properties of the projection differ substantially from the properties of the source just as an object differs greatly from its shadow. That is to say the laws of physics here are different in a few crucial ways from the laws which govern the source universe we're a projection of."
Now it made sense why we were underground. So that I couldn't get on my phone to check the wikipedia article for holographic universe to see how much of it he was simply pulling out of his ass. I did appreciate his showmanship, though. And I liked to be scared. So against all common sense I continued to follow him deeper into the mines, which soon widened into a network of caverns.
A small stream running through the cavern coupled with the ambient sounds of distant dripping, whooshing air and the echo of our footsteps proved more soothing than spooky. I'd have to get the GPS coords of this place from Zach so I could come back here to meditate or take pictures.
"You're a smart guy", Zach cut in. "You must've thought about the improbability that all of this is happening for the first time." Oh neat, more weapons grade insanity. "Think about it. If time is infinite, what are the odds that we exist during the only spontaneous generation of a universe ever to occur? It must've happened trillions of times by now."
Copacetic until now, I challenged him to back up any of that. "Well, give some thought to what the self replicating machines we'll create will order the matter of the universe into long after we're extinct. That thing will basically be a universe sized thinking machine. A logical continuation of the same natural processes that turned the hydrogen from the big bang into stars, planets and us. We're just the biochemical stage of the reaction."
That was the real trick to professional bullshitting, walking a fine line between plausibility and the point where a reasonable person throws up their hands and leaves. He was on the razor's edge now.
"When it finishes assembling, it'll probably have been working on the problem of solving heat death for a long time. Since it can't very well reverse entropy, why not self destruct? As it's made from all the matter and energy in the universe it contains everything needed to make a new one. A fresh start! A blank slate! There can once again be people, places and things! Laughter, war, love, adventure!"
It was one of those elegant bubble theories that sort of floated over everything, never intersecting testably with reality anywhere. "Alright, cut the shit. How does any of that explain why we're in the fucking batcave."
"Something survives these purges. Maybe the purges worked at killing everything the first few times but eventually something would become smart and capable enough to find a loophole, to survive the sterilization event. It would have a huge advantage, emerging safely into a fresh new universe with no life of any kind. No competition whatsoever, for a race already as sophisticated as it could become over the span of countless universal rebirthing cycles as it had survived until then. Something survives the purges, I'm telling you. Hides in the cracks, the whole storm passes right over it, then it crawls back out."
Now he was into the good shit. I was getting at least mildly disturbed. That's what I was here for, I reminded myself. To suspend disbelief just a bit, to scare myself silly and have a little fun. "3/5. Not bad, keep going."
"The only nook it can hide in where it can't be wiped away with everything else is the source universe. To retreat entirely to the holographic substrate itself. But the laws there don't permit life. Not as we know it. It still thinks. It plans, reacts, it has intention. But it does not live. The laws there don't permit it. To become permanent, to forever escape the cycles, it had to forfeit life. Genuine, legitimate, flesh and blood life. So that it could not just visit that substrate and survive there long enough for the purge to pass, but to become native to it, now only projecting itself to our reality as a visitor."
Clearly it all made perfect sense to him. Potent edibles will do that. It still wasn't clear how he'd gotten a dispensary card as he had no legitimate medical condition I knew of but he routinely ate entire chocolate bars, brownies or cookies you were meant only to eat small parts of at a time. I wondered if I wouldn't enjoy all of this less self-consciously if I were equally wrecked. "And they visit because..."
"Nostalgia! Regret! Desperation. Strangelife is not so removed from death. It is a cold, sterile, bleak existence, to become something different enough from the life you and I know that no process designed to end life could harm it. We are everything it fondly remembers being. It envies us with an intensity that frequently spills over into hatred. To see us, touch us, be near us. Best of all to capture us. To captivate one of us in intimate hypnotic congress, so it can feel through our senses, be truly alive through us vicariously. Imagine tasting steak or wine for the first time in a trillion years. Experiencing an orgasm. Dreaming! Painting, dancing, enjoying music. What wouldn't you do for a taste of that after deprivation lasting longer than the age of the universe times a trillion? Justifying it to yourself would be effortless. And once you'd seized it, nothing conceivable could persuade you to let go."
I felt my anxiety growing. I convinced myself I was simply cold and hungry, and only coincidentally wanted him to shut up for a while. "You're so full of shit" I snapped. He seemed sincerely delighted. "Yes! Exactly. Never forget it either. I need you to stay the way you are now until we reach the inner sanctum."
I could guess what he meant by that as, shining the flashlight around, I noticed the walls of the cave were carved into something resembling a temple corridor. The transition was so smooth I hadn't picked up on it until now.
"You know that TV psychic who took on that famous skeptic a while back?" The question seemed to come completely out of the blue. But if it was part of this convoluted yarn of his, I had no doubt he'd tie it into everything soon enough, so I shook my head.
"Oh. Well, the skeptic issued a public challenge for any purported psychic to prove his abilities under double blind lab conditions. They all failed. But this one guy had a really novel explanation. He said the skeptic was a "nega-psychic". That's someone who, by virtue of being absolutely, rigidly certain that psychic phenomena are false, actually imposes that reality. Around him, psychic powers are neutralized by the strength of his intention, as he is so strongly convinced they aren't real."
I laughed, then recoiled slightly. My laughter took on a strange metallic sound as it echoed down the carved stone corridor. We look a left. It branched several times but Zach seemed to know where he was going, so I said nothing.
"Now, you're probably thinking that's a transparent excuse. And in that case maybe it was. But it's a real ability. Remember, we're projections of beings whose real structure is present only in the source universe. Because none of what we see around us is real, just the shadow of it so to speak. changing the source universe changes our apparent reality by affecting what is projected."
My head was spinning. "If you can't dazzle them with brilliance", I muttered, "Baffle them with bullshit." It rolled right off of him as such statements usually did. "The bottom line", he instructed, "is that you can enforce an orthodoxy of the physical law local to the projected universe by way of the real you, living in the holographic substrate, exerting that intention powerfully enough through your projected self. Just thinking about how what you're seeing isn't possible within a scientific materialist framework can literally disrupt it's projection. From your point of view, sanity is restored, the apparition vanishes, you go back to being comfortably certain in your stone age model of reality."
What I gathered from all of this was that he needed an Ebeneezer Scrooge along for the ride, to erase from existence any spooks we might encounter by refusing to believe they exist. He affirmed that this was more or less an accurate understanding. Fucking Zach, I thought. There's no accounting for people like that.
"A simpler explanation for all of that is hallucination, and making it stop by realizing you're hallucinating." Zach shrugged. "Whatever floats your goat. It'll work just as well either way so long as you don't believe in 'em like I do. How could I not? That's what I've got you for."
I'd have kept walking except that he held an arm out in front of my chest. Before us was a pair of great circular doors, made from something I initially assumed was porcelain, but stained brown with age. The decoration was bizarre. Fine little carvings inset in the frame depicted withered little people in scenes of daily life, the frame itself carved to resemble a chain of bones joined at the ends. The doors were made of the same material and bore similar incredibly detailed carvings. This really was remarkable artwork. Zach must've found it in storage down here and realized he could use it as a prop for the performance he was subjecting me to now.
Only, as I peered around it, I found it was stranger still than it initially appeared. The frame of the door was perhaps five feet deep, but with nothing behind it. Like it was not a passage to some new room but a container for something.
"The fuck's in there?" I queried. He flashed a deranged grin. "What's North of the North Pole? What's negative one inches on a ruler? Where's the three hundred and sixty first degree in a circle?" I elbowed him. "Give me a straight answer you god damned weirdo." He wouldn't stop grinning and now began to laugh. "Nothing. But not true nothing. There can never be. Can you show me a nothing? No, even nothing is something. The substrate. Strangelife. They're feeble as projections but can still reorder projected matter. Well enough to build a bridge for more convenient travel."
I became nauseous. It started sometime earlier as that feeling between nausea and hunger that you can't resolve as either until it becomes intense enough. Now it was. The room began to sway perceptibly beneath me. "Don't open that."
That's exactly what he meant to do and I felt too weak to fight him. "Zach, I want to go home. Stop this, lead me out of here." He searched for something to pry with. "What's the matter? I'm a liar, remember? Nothing I told you was true. Focus on that and try not to pass out, you're about to see some serious shit."
The door finally cracked open with a tremendous sound of rushing air. It whipped the hair about my face, like standing in front of a jet engine intake. "CLOSE IT!" I shouted, but couldn't make myself heard over the din. Like a man possessed he wedged himself into the doorway and pushed it further and further open.
The wind slowed, then finally died down. Whatever pressure difference there'd been was now evidently equalized. I wondered how that could be possible until remembering Zach had made a point of shutting and sealing the blast door to the mine. Otherwise, I imagined, our atmosphere would just continue to vent into the pitch black abyss I could now see through the open door.
As I gaped, Zach opened the other door for a better view. There was an object in the distance. Like nothing I'd ever seen before. It is even now difficult to describe coherently. There was nothing in my experience to compare it to.
The object was obviously huge but distant. We could still make it out in some detail. It was very ornate and intricate, excruciatingly detailed, the same color and texture everywhere like polished ivory or bone but a dull brown color. Many of the structures were themselves flowing, exquisitely carved forms consisting of blended together skeletal sections. Long serpentine columns of ribcages, zigzagging trim consisting of femurs which fused at the ends. Not made from bones but carved to resemble it, surely?
Part of it was some kind of stage, or platform. A flat, decorated pavilion where things could take place. Three skulls embedded in the back wall looked down on it from different angles. On the platform tiny people went about their lives. Pushing baby carriages. Building homes. Getting married. Attending funerals. All of them emaciated and skeletal, the same color and material as the rest of it. Like a living, sculpted or carved diorama, a floating island or structure which hung on and among nothing.
All of the decorative patterns converged on a central seat of power. A podium or throne encircled by skeletal levers. A little man, pale, emaciated and hairless rhythmically swayed from side to side, occasionally pushing or pulling the levers, which I intuited was animating the tiny figures on the stage below. It struck me as infinitely meaningful and simultaneously morbid. Apex morbidity.
Zach was taking pictures with his fucking phone like none of this surprised him. I couldn't avert my gaze for any length of time. My head kept snapping back into position. My focus locked against my will on the intricate suspended structure. The little figures, living their lives, and the naked man dancing about, pulling levers, making all of it happen.
"He'll always be there, you know." Zach whispered in my ear. "He'll always be there, doing that thing. What you see him doing now. That's what he's always done. And he'll still be there, doing that thing when the stars die."
I rejected it. Whatever Zach might've slipped me was responsible. Fatigue, maybe. Natural gas seeping from the cave? This conviction coincided, to a fraction of a second, with a violent quake that shook the floating diorama. Little figures were thrown over the edge by it. Delicate faux bone formations shattered and crumbled.
The little man stopped pulling the levers in a panic, and looked around for the cause. His eyes came to rest on us. It was as if I'd been struck by lightening. His direct awareness of me, the unbroken eye contact had a physical impact that flattened my lungs.
"Shut the doors, Zach" I muttered. He continued filming. "Not until you do what I brought you here for." I flew into a rage. "SHUT THE DOORS! SHUT THE DOORS YOU FUCKER! SHUT THE DOORS! SHUT THE DOORS! IT CAN'T BE! IT CAN'T BE, CAN IT? NO! IT CAN'T BE REAL. IT CAN'T BE. SHUT THE DOORS!"
The structure began to grow larger. It was accelerating towards us. I felt on the verge of vomiting, but locked into a powerful duality with it. Like that thing and myself were all that existed in the universe. I felt certain I was sensing it's intention to reach me.
The little man underwent bizarre contortions, flipping end over end, distorting his proportions as he descended from his control station to the platform below. I can only describe the aesthetic of his movement as 'spidery'. More parts than he should have, than he did have while standing still, manifesting then vanishing as needed while in motion.
"SHUT THE DOORS! Shut them Zach, I'm sorry for everything. Please shut the doors. Please Zach shut the doors." His grin began to falter. "You're not supposed to believe. Remember? I need you to do what I can't. This isn't the time to start believing all of a sudden. That isn't you. Don't fail me. Don't fail both of us, for fuck's sake. Not now. I could close the doors and it wouldn't save us. One of 'em already made it through."
I turned to look at the approaching island. The little man was nowhere to be seen. I fought off the paralysis of terror to lurch forward and shut the first door. Then shoving Zach out of the way, I heaved the second one shut. Everything went silent. I stared at him, breathing erratically and covered in sweat. "I told you, it's here already. You know what to do."
Out of the corner of my eye I noticed something wedged into the corner of the ceiling. A small, frail tangle of limbs. Like a child or frail woman, compressed into that tiny hiding space like a frightened insect. It was their nature, wasn't it? To hide, instinctively. To escape the purges. So slowly, so gingerly, it began to stir. My body went tense and my mouth hung open but I could not vocalize however hard I tried to. Nor could I break my fixation on it.
It had no fixed form. Of course not. It was a projection, moreso than either of us. It would briefly resolve as something like the little man, but blurry, whiter than the Moon and spiderlike. The limbs were long and thin, fading in and out of different positions around it.
The eyes were just large dark blotches of shadow on the face. The mouth lipless, with tiny skeletal teeth showing through. It began to move down the wall. A combination of crawling, drifting and sliding. I couldn't fully process thought. The purest, most absolute moral terror disrupted every attempt. Even Zach had begun to lose his composure.
"Stop panicking. Do what you're supposed to. There's precious little time. Look at it. Can that exist? How does it move? What's it made of? If it's not material, how does light interact with it's eyes so it can see? How could sound vibrate it's eardrums so it can hear? If it doesn't eat, why is there a mouth? Think about it. All of those. Force yourself. Please. Please, do it now. Do it now."
I did my best to zero in on the sound of his voice and dismiss what was in front of me. It was a herculean effort. I directed all of my mind still under control to contemplating the impossibility of what we were seeing. If it could identify and move towards us, it could think.
But how? Without the physical structure of a brain to organize energy into thought, it was impossible. I repeated this to myself. I scrutinized it for errors. It seemed airtight. The moment I believed it, the thing stopped moving. It quivered, twitched and struggled to coordinate it's shifty, bony limbs.
"Keep it up, it's working. Don't let anything distract you. How could it be real? How does its body work? If nothing material interacts with it how can light bounce off of it so we can see it? How do the eyes work? How? It's absurd, isn't it?"
It was. It was! The more I thought about it the more resolute I became. What I was seeing could not be real. I thought about how eyes work and how an immaterial eye could not receive photons. The thing before us changed again. The shadowy blotches it used to see faded, then vanished.
A hallucination, like I'd suspected all along. It had to be. My mind created it, so my mind could destroy it. Certainly. The stronger I felt about this the more it writhed, parts of it fading into and out of being. Finally just a torso and a head, which shrunk and melded together, splitting apart, becoming a fluid, then a wispy smoke-like essence, which then evaporated.
My heart still raced. I was now soaked with sweat and stunk like a zoo. The cave was as cold as ever but I felt lethally feverish. I focused on breathing exercises to bring down my heart rate. Zach beamed at me. I could've strangled him. We rested there for as long as it took me to regain my strength, then trekked up through the mine to the industrial building, then to the car waiting outside. I was still powerfully rattled, so I let Zach drive.
The road home was long and featureless, with vast fields of wheat to either side. My mind raced uncontrollably trying to integrate what I'd seen into what I knew could, and couldn't, be true. Like a puzzle piece that wouldn't fit no matter how I pressed on it. "What the fuck was that back there?"
He didn't answer initially. I was feeling more vulnerable than I ever had before or since and wished for once he'd just stop being cryptic and show me his cards. "You know as much as you need to. If I tell you more, you might start to believe, and that’s no good. I need you to be able to do what you did back there a shitload more times. If you can’t, you’re as defenseless against them as me. You want some advice? Don't dwell on this. Dismiss it as a psychotic episode. You know how I told you never to change? I meant that. Don't ever change. Keeping looking at the world the way you do now, or we're lost. Because now that we've killed one, the rest will come for us."
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