A short story by Darrell Winfrey
Steven Jorge thinks deeply about what is to come next as he proceeds down the long corridor. The hallway is brightly lit and seems to go on forever despite the end being clearly in sight. There is something eerie and cold about the whole experience, as well as the inescapable thought of walking the last mile. The tiles are flat with no identity of their own, reflecting mostly the bright ceiling above. There are no doors on either side of the corridor. Only an occasional blood-red fire alarm and FM-200 jet break the continuous monotony.
When he reaches the door at the end, he grasps the handle. The chilled steel releases a blast of warm, stale air as the door swings open. The next room envelopes him in a blanket of its lively atmosphere. Departure from one environment and entry into the next could not be more discernible, even before the door closes behind him. He stands and looks around the dimly lit boiler room, relieved to have escaped the luminous tomb.
He knows the room all too well, although it seems like ages since he was last here. The floor is unpainted concrete with unrecognizable stains littering its entire surface. The metal panels on the walls and most of the fixtures are coated in a cocoon of tawny rust that seems to tell intimate secrets about the room’s past. The occasional reassuring sound of the release of steam gives the impression that everything is working properly.
Steven walks down a set of steps to the lower main floor of the room. The rusty metal of the steps resonates dully within the walls. Pipes of various colors run along every wall and the ceiling. A mechanical engineer like himself could recognize that some of the tubes run back into themselves and serve no dynamic function. For that matter, none of the pipes serve such a purpose. They are as much of a mask as the rust that covers most of the room. He takes pride in the fact that only he and a few people know the location at which the mask could be pulled back. He weaves through the network of false machinery and pipes to finally arrive at the spot.
A sewer pipe protrudes from the floor etched in long cracks extending from the pipe to the adjacent walls. He bends down, firmly grasps the sewer cap, and turns it several directions in sequence, all the while listening for a specific number of clicks. At the end of the combination, there is a loud click that allows the cap to open, revealing a fingerprint reader. He places his thumb on it and then sees the green glow of the confirmation light around the reader. After a couple of seconds, he hears the sound of the rubber seals pulling apart. The triangular section of the floor made by the cracks begins to recede below the real floor before being pulled completely beyond the wall. The security lighting within the hole reveals steps leading into a less weathered room. Once inside the small, poorly lit room, he finds himself standing in front of an elevator and a door to a stairwell. Both of them require two different fingerprints to access. He remembers that he called in a favor from his friend Bart, who was all too happy to set the system to only require one print for a limited time period.
His final destination is an eight-story ride down the elevator. The idea of being stuck in that shaft is terrifying. For there are no floors between the top and the bottom. He could take the stairs, but there are other reasons why that is an incredibly bad idea. He steps up to the elevator and firmly presses his thumb against the reader. Nothing happens.
“Dammit, Bart,” he says under his breath.
He can’t think of a reason why he should be whispering. He tries again, pressing a little harder as if that would make a difference. He then sees the lights inside the compartment come on as the doors part, sounding as if they are peeling apart. It is almost as if they are warning him not to open them. He steps inside and takes the last few steps of his mile. The elevator slowly descends on a trip that seems to take an eternity. It finally stops, but nothing happens. A bead of sweat trickles down his temple. He waits and waits, but still, nothing happens. Before panic starts to set in, he remembers that there is another security panel. He opens the small metal door and enters his code on the keypad. He’s wondering whose bright idea it was to install this keypad but then remembers the gruesome scenario of how someone could “steal” someone else’s fingerprints.
The door opens to a small control room with consoles and monitors on every wall. Beyond the thick glass window of the control room is a surprisingly large dome-shaped room. The floor and ceiling are made of featureless concrete. The lines between the massive bricks are hardly visible. In the center of the room sits a 20 foot upright cylinder made of what appears to be copper. This cylinder acts as a near-perfect hohlraum for fueling another device. Behind it is a much larger cylindrical structure resting on its side with a number of cables coming from it to several laser devices protruding from the hohlraum. The pipelines, conduits, and other electrical components attached to the cylinders are all real and quite functional. They all run into the rear wall behind which is a device that is nothing short of a miracle of science.
Behind the door on the far wall is the world’s first sustained fusion reactor. Access to this is restricted even for him, although he helped design portions of the device. Much of what is on the other side of the wall is beyond his knowledge. Of course, Steven has very little interest in what is behind that door. He realizes that what is far more remarkable than the fusion reactor is what resides in the copper-colored hohlraum.
It’s more of a prison.
This thought pops into his head for some unknown reason before it fades away just as quickly. He stares at one of the monitors for quite a while. Disbelief washes over him as he recalls what he and his team had done. He tries to tell himself that it had to be done but is not very convincing, considering the whole purpose for descending into the abyss on this day. The contents of the hohlraum provides a unique and still mysterious energy source that feeds the fusion reaction. This is the only fusion reactor in the world that actually yields much more energy than it takes to maintain it. What is unique about this reactor is that the energy source is actually a living creature. What is puzzling to him is how something alive could survive in such extreme temperatures for ten years without any sustenance. It is also puzzling why the creature looks so human and can speak so many languages.
The outside of the hohlraum is affixed with specialized microphones so that the vibrations generated from the creature’s “voice” can be heard inside the control room.
“I assume this is quite an unofficial visit,” the creature says. “Am I detecting compassion?”
Steven pauses for a moment before answering, “How could anyone show compassion to something that’s committed the horrendous crimes that you have?”
“That’s not an answer, just another question. What crimes do you speak of? Whose laws?”
“You know what you have done and why you’re here.”
“I know why I’m here. The most relevant question is do you know why you are here?“
Steven pauses for a moment realizing that he is in one of the most precarious positions of his life. He has to be careful how he answers because the survival of the human race just might depend on this foul creature.
The creature continues, “I sense that all is not as expected in paradise. Are we coming to ask a favor of the vile beast in the dungeon? Is it not enough that I am the battery that powers so many of your toys?”
“You say that as if you volunteered,” Steven replied
“This is getting old.”
“Sometimes, I think you need reminding of the position you’re in.”
“You are entitled to your opinion.”
Steven pauses for a long time. The conflict inside him is almost overwhelming. He tries to compose himself because, despite the thick shielded walls and glass, the creature still seems to peer into his very soul. Steven straightens up and tries to mask any uneasiness in his voice.
“I was asked to come here to make a deal with you,” Steven says, hinting at sternness.
“If that is true, then why do you start with a lie,” the creature asks.
“I’m speaking the tr…”
“During my entire visit to this prison, not once has a person come alone. I didn’t even think it possible until now. I suspect your colleagues aren’t even aware that you are here, or at least you think you have covered your tracks. Now tell me what it is that brought you to this pit!”
“It’s possible that I made a mistake coming here.”
“Perhaps you did. You should be on your way then.”
Steven knows that doing so could have dire consequences. He also knows that his request could be almost as grim, but the clock is ticking with very few options available. He absolutely hates the phrase “lesser of two evils,” but it applies here more than any other situation.
After much contemplation, Steven says, “Hesius is just as powerful as you are but lacks your numerous flaws. It’s just that he…” Steven pauses again.
“I notice that you still refer to my old friend by name while many of you refer to me as It,” the creature chides. “So your savior, the being who helped imprison me, may not be quite the perfect hero that you expected.”
“That’s not what I was going to say.”
“The truth usually comes with little hesitation.”
“It’s just that he may have created a situation that might be a bit more than he can handle.”
“So you come to me for assistance? Advice?”
“I’m not sure why I’m here.”
“I think we already established that. Did it ever occur to you that the situation Hesius created may not be one that he ever intends to handle? Maybe this situation is a means to an end.”
“That’s hardly likely. Something has happened, and we can no longer communicate with him.”
“And you believe this is my doing?”
Steven admits that the thought crossed his mind, but he realizes that the idea is almost absurd. These beings can be detected by a specific energy signature, and this one hasn’t moved from this underground location in 10 years. He begins to come to grips with the real solution to the problem.
“I think we need to release you,” Steven finally admits.
“See there, truth with ease,” the creature says with content.
“We haven’t made a definite decision yet.”
“So you are here as the one-man parole board? Do you think you need to evaluate my sanity?
“We imprisoned you once, and we can do it again and again if necessary.”
“And then there’s that. So what exactly is the problem that you believe I can solve for you?”
Steven is irritated at the accuracy of the last part of that question. He puts his hands together prayer-style in front of his mouth and wrinkles his brow. He’s actually not quite sure how to describe what is or isn’t happening. All that he knows is that if the current scenario plays out, humanity could be wiped out within a few years or less.
“It seems that he put a global sentinel system in place to protect us and keep us safe,” Steven explains. “The problem is that the system seems to be malfunctioning. We also can detect traces of his energy signature all over Earth, but he can’t seem to be located.”
“Why do you see this as a problem?”
“Not only are these trace energy signatures all over the earth, they seem to be growing in intensity. They also have been randomly killing people in larger and larger numbers over time.”
“And you believe that I have the ability to undo this.”
“Yes, I do.”
“You are very much mistaken if you think that I even care about your little problem.”
“That is where I differ from my associates and much of the human race. No one else seems to think it to be significant, but over the eight years, while you were on your reign of terror, a number of people were killed directly by you. What is a mystery to me is the fact that you never succeeded in killing millions, despite having numerous opportunities to do so. How is it that a creature with enough energy to power the entire earth manages to kill no one while devising, and executing, schemes to destroy entire cities? Only you can answer that question.”
“I have no answer. What do your colleagues say?”
“They believe that you have always been stopped by us or Hesius right before the worse could happen.”
“Maybe they are correct. Maybe your data is wrong.”
“At this point, it really doesn’t matter who is right or wrong. I just need to find a way to convince the others that it is time for your release.”
“What if I don’t cooperate after my release?”
“Then we’ll just return you to your prison.”
“How could you possibly do that without the help of the great hero?”
“I strongly believe that he will return if you manage to escape.”
“Ahhh. Now, this conversation is going somewhere. You just might be one of the smartest ants in the mound. Are you a…”
At that moment, the voice turns into static, and the room seems to ripple a little as if a massive heatwave passes through it. The monitors and electronics in the room start to show noise and distortion before recovering right after the wave passes. Steven doesn’t recall seeing anything like that happen during previous visits. He thinks that it is just in his head, but that would be too much of a coincidence. The thought of why they have the policy that no one is to enter this room unaccompanied creeps into his head.
“Did you just do that?” Steven asks.
“Do what? All I did was ask you a question,” the creature slyly responds.
Although Steven did not hear the question come through the speaker, he somehow knows the answer to it.
“Yes. Yes, I am,” Steven says as the uneasiness creeps back into his voice.
The creature then states very pointedly, “But you are not afraid of me.”
“We know how to defeat you. You can be controlled if necessary. I have reasons to be cautious around you, but there is no reason to be afraid.”
“You believe that to be true, yet fear is what drove you to imprison me. Be careful not to mistake a lack of fear as courage or strength. This perceived lack of fear can quickly turn into arrogance and devolve more quickly into ignorance. Fear has ensured the survival and success of your species for ages. You can be most innovative when the fear of impending doom is upon you. At the same time, fear has proven to be deadly when you choose to turn these innovations on other members of your own species.”
There is an increasingly loud buzz coming from the speakers in the room. The high undertones are getting gradually louder. Steven begins to feel incredibly nauseous. There must be some very low frequency waves coming through the speakers to cause this feeling. He turns off the speakers and any other devices that could be the source of such tones.
Is that any better?
This “loud” thought pops into his head. Without missing a beat, he answers his own thought verbally.
“The annoying sound is gone, but I still feel like I’m about to vomit,” he says to no one in particular. Steven jerks himself almost into a more sober state of mind. Why on earth would he respond to his own thought in that way?
You won’t feel any better, the thought continues.
This time the thought has a more defined voice that seems to be resonating everywhere within the room. It is now clear that it is coming directly from the creature. How is this possible? “Get out of my head right this second!” Steven exclaims.
Such a demand with absolutely no leverage. I must make this quick; otherwise, it could get quite uncomfortable for you.
A dose of fear –maybe you will invent a special hat made of foil to keep me out. I am not actually pushing any thoughts into your head. Doing so would cause serious damage. The mind is too complex, even in primitive creatures like you. I carefully access the more simplistic neural bundles that feed your senses. In other words, I stimulate your auditory nerves, and you think you are hearing a voice that is coming from nowhere in particular.
“Get out of my head. Let me turn the speakers back on. I don’t like what you’re doing!”
I do not wish to communicate what I am about to say through your communication system. Others are listening and recording. If you wish to…
Steven is only half listening. He turns on another microphone at one of the terminals on the console. Panicking, he blurts out, “Bart! Baaart! We have a problem here! I need you to do something for me as soon as possible! Baaaart!” There is no response. He gets up and rushes to the elevator door and then the stairwell. It only takes one fingerprint scan to unlock either door to go up, but both doors have been disabled. He notices that the remaining monitors and other console devices are no longer on. The overhead lights flicker and go completely out. There is only a dim light coming from the main room through the window. He looks around frantically for something to trip the locks, but he already knows that is pointless.
Are you done yet?
“So was all of this some plan of yours? You create the problem we currently have up there so that we have no choice but to free you.”
Given the actual dilemma you face outside of here, does that scenario make any logical sense?
“I don’t know what you are capable of at this point. It’s hard for me to think right now.”
Before we proceed, I suggest that you stop talking out loud to a voice that is in your head. It makes you seem like an imbecile. If you think properly, I can understand you.
Filled with emotion and growing rage, Steven expresses his next statement via a blind fury of words and emotions.
Yaguthrmutashhaais what he manages to mentally convey.
I suppose there are many vulgarities and obscenities buried somewhere in that nonsense. Remember, I cannot read your actual thoughts. You must imagine that you are moving your lips to say what you want to say without actually moving your lips and making sounds. It’s almost like speaking while you are dreaming. Your mouth never moves, but you believe that you are actually talking.
I zuurng trmfna cleem, Steven thinks with slightly less angst.
After much trial and error, mostly error, Steven manages to think about speaking. His words come a bit slowly but are finally understandable to his new teacher. It never occurred to Steven that he rarely thought in words, and when he did, his brain did not always think about forming them with his mouth.
So… why can’t… your… you… read… thoughts, Steven asks.
I can read thoughts, but it is a very exhaustive process that requires massive amounts of energy. It almost always results in traumatic brain damage or death to the host. Your sensory neurons are not much different from those in the most basic organism, so using them to communicate with you is elementary. In order to hear you speak to me, I must access your cerebellum. I can tell when you are actually moving as well as when you just think about moving. Now enough with the anatomy lesson.
Why the… s… secrecy?
You are about to get a lesson in what it is like to be me. That is the best way you will get a chance to…
“What!?” Steven exclaims out loud, “What the hell does that mean?”
It will give you a chance to understand how to deal with your current dilemma.
What… does ith… MEGNRAA!, Steven thinks angrily.
You may not be aware of it, but raw emotion manifests in unpredictable ways. It is difficult for me to read your motor thoughts when you are at the extreme of a particular emotion. You will understand what that means shortly.
Steven then realizes that the consoles and sensors within and connected to the control room had been disabled for quite some time. Silent alarms were going off already, and armed guards were probably headed his way.
“You have to turn these back on now,” Steven pleads.
Before I leave, there is something that I must reveal to you. I must apologize for what I am about to do, but it is absolutely necessary.
Steven laughs out loud, “You can’t leave. It takes four of us to initiate the process to release you.”
To a being like me, human emotions may not be as easily interpreted as one might expect. My friend and I are not of this world.
“We figured that out a long time ago,” Steven says impatiently, “What is the point of all of this.” Sweat stains have formed under his arms, and his hair is more disheveled than when he entered the chamber.
We are not of this world, nor are we of your known universe. Over eons, we have developed mental functions that are far more complex than you could comprehend. The only concept that can be used to describe these functions are what you refer to as emotions. Even then, it would take several of your lifetimes studying these, and you would only just begin to understand them.
“We are far more intelligent than you give us credit for.”
You are intelligent beings, but you haven’t even scratched the surface of some of the most basic concepts. You believe that time is something real and incorporate it in nearly every aspect of your lives. You even create devices used to quantify it and track it, yet you have no idea what it really is or why it seems so real.
“This is making no…”
The creature cuts him off, and Steven feels a sharp pain in his head and weakness throughout his body. Steven starts to regret having made this trip and could not have dreamed that these current circumstances were even possible.
The mental functions or emotions I speak of are how beings like me communicate with one another. The process involves every particle of our being, and the amount of information conveyed would easily overload all of the combined computing power contained on earth. When I say computing power, I am speaking of the artificial as well as the organic. A simple flicker of one of these thoughts could turn your brain into jelly. In order to better understand what I mean, I will convey one of our most simple mental functions to you.
All of a sudden, the weakness turns into searing pain radiating from every molecule of Steven’s body. He wants to scream but has no control of his bodily functions. It feels as if his entire body is being ripped apart and reassembled hundreds of times a second. He can no longer see, hear, touch, or smell anything in the room. The only experience that he is aware of is searing pain. In reality, the pain only lasts for a fraction of a second, but it feels like at least half an hour. When Steven’s senses slowly return, he notices a foul smell. He is curled up in the fetal position under one of the consoles. He looks at his pants and realizes that he has defecated and urinated on himself.
Wh… Why would you…, Steven’s thought trails off.
Control of his body is slowly returning. The feeling of shame and embarrassment is overwhelming. Tears stream from his eyes and mucous from his nose.
The sentinel that scares you so much and pushed you to come down here seeking answers can do exactly what I just did to you. Many of your fellow citizens who died felt a hundred times the pain you just experienced but lasting much longer. Why Hesius left this sentinel in place and abandoned your people is something you must discover. Maybe the sentinel forced him to leave.
“C… Can’t you just communicate with him… the way you described?” Steven asks in a trembling voice.
My old friend stopped responding to my communications ages ago. It is possible that he regards me as a vile thing, much like you do. That, of course, is not the most pressing matter at hand. You are right to believe that life, as you know it on this planet, could end prematurely. The sentinel is mostly a machine that has only one purpose at any given time. It can link to living organisms on earth, much like I was able to link to you. If it is malfunctioning, as you suspect, it could very well see some humans as a threat to life on earth. It could also be just reading thoughts of people on a massive scale, which means a slow and painful death for everyone it touches.
“You are scaring me. My family could be in danger,” Steven snivels.
You and everyone on this planet ARE in danger.
“I have to go get cleaned up.”
Don’t worry, your friends will take care of that for you.
Steven looks over at the elevator and door to the stairs, noticing that both doors are being accessed. He also notices that the energy signature registering in the hohlraum has attenuated to just below 10%.
Now, Steven, I must make my grand exit. If you live long enough, you may discover what I truly am and what I am made of. Of course, I must leave behind the husk that I once inhabited. Unfortunately, when I interact with real matter, merging or separating, the process generates a tremendous amount of energy. I suppose you will have an enjoyable time explaining how you destroyed the only functionally efficient fusion reactor and simultaneously killed a creature that was once believed to be indestructible.
Steven can’t see anything dramatic happening in the domed room. As a matter of fact, the room itself looks exactly the way it looked when he first entered. The console is flashing with numerous alerts and warnings. The energy field is now completely gone, and Steven is left there alone, sitting in his own excrement. The elevator door opens, and five armed soldiers enter the cramped room. One of the soldiers grabs him under the arm and lifts him with ease while three point their guns at him.
“Damn, I think this guy shat himself,” says the one who picked him up.
A female soldier laughs a little, “Yeah, we have that effect on people. You’re in a lot of trouble, guy. They already grabbed your friend.”
One of them radios up top to let them know that they apprehended a single suspect. They ask if they need to clear the domed room, but they can’t enter that room without properly shielded gear. Another team that includes a couple of Steven’s former coworkers is tasked with that.
Steven, who is now in handcuffs, is accompanied by the soldiers on the elevator back to the access chamber and then the fake boiler room. He realizes that the creature could have escaped any time it wanted to. Although the creature never called himself by any name, the press sometimes referred to him as Mephisto or Loki. Whatever he, or she, is named really doesn’t matter. Steven realizes that this being is truly something beyond human comprehension. For so many years, Steven Jorge was heralded as one of the people who captured a monster and saved the world. Now he is starting to question just about everything that has happened over the last 18 years. After being shamed and humbled by such a magnificent beast, he can now wear that as his personal badge of honor.
Copyright 2014 Darrell Winfrey