Reading Time: 5 minutes“The Secret Doctors of NASA” is a series of memoirs, diaries, and reports from actual doctors employed by an undisclosed arm of NASA between 1970 and 2001. These writings contain true accounts of the unusual and often highly-classified medical conditions experienced by astronauts during and after their space missions. Following the defunding of the clandestine medical program after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, the majority of these accounts were left, forgotten, on tape drives in a NASA storage facility. In 2016, a former intern, whose job was to clean out one of these facilities, discovered them. Two years later, he is ready to release what he found.
*Releaser’s note*: This account is from a post-surgery oral memoir dictated by an unnamed surgeon to an anonymous NASA official. The background circumstances are unknown.
A Surgeon’s Nightmare
Look, I’d been awake for two straight days. You guys have been putting us through hell with all the injuries from the Hephaestus Project, so forgive me if my results weren’t as great as they could have been. But come the hell on – what do you expect when someone comes to me in that condition?
So you want to know what happened in my own words? Fine. But don’t get pissed when I call your practices into question.
The patient was admitted with significant injuries to his legs, torso, arms, and head. On the surface, they appeared to be lacerations, which was strange because their severity would have caused near-instantaneous exsanguination and they would’ve gone straight to the morgue, not to me. Closer inspection revealed the wounds had been sealed by intense cold, as if the patient had been frozen either while being injured or immediately after. He was still clinging to life.
If I had to speculate, which I know you want me to do, I’d guess the patient was injured and subsequently exposed to a hard vacuum. How that could have happened is beyond my guess, as I know the patient was not, and never had been, an astronaut. But I guess that’s what Hephaestus is all about, right boss? We can put pieces together over here, you know.
No, the god damn pun was not intended.
Anyway, as soon as I realized the cold was the only thing keeping the patient from bleeding out, it was a race against the clock to get him closed up.
Do I really have to tell this next part? You have the f*cking videotape.
Drs. ____ and _________, as well as the assistants, packed the wounds. We used the portable scanners to check for internal injuries, and, of course, there were more than we could count. You guys knew that too, obviously. There was no saving this guy. Thanks for making us try, though. Seriously. It’s not like any of us will be seeing this in our nightmares for the rest of our lives.
No, I won’t calm down. This is bullsh*t.
Yeah, I know about my wife. Just… just let me vent. Christ.
So the patient flatlined and I called it. But then your boss, _________, said to keep working. Keep packing. Keep suturing. It felt like we were taxidermying the poor guy.
You people are really sick, do you know that?
Dr. ____ was the first one to detect movement, presumably once the tissue had warmed up enough for the __ _____ __ to — what word should I use, boss? Gestate? Hatch?
Okay, “become.” Whatever you want.
I’ll admit, as a surgeon, it was fascinating to see the filaments stretching across the wounds to close them up. Whatever you folks are planning to do with them might save a lot of lives in the future. Probably after I’m long gone, though.
What I don’t understand, though, is why you brought the patient to us when you knew this was going to happen. Did you need a sterile environment? Did you need witnesses with medical training? There’s no shortages of medical degrees around here. Hell, the patient was a doctor of biophysics.
Here’s what I’d love to know from you: what did the medical assistants do to deserve what happened to them? They were kids, for Christ’s sake. Were they even twenty-five?
Yeah, I know what they signed when they started. Jesus.
Okay, once the filaments had closed all but one of the wounds, they also sealed the orifices of the patient. The patient’s skin appeared to take on the characteristics of the filaments as well; reinforcing it, perhaps? Because what happened next would need more tensile strength than baseline flesh, I guess.
After the skin was reinforced, the filaments began to tighten. This had the effect of opening the remaining wound on the torso.
Can I at least clean the blood off me before I finish this? No? Great. Thanks. You guys are really something else.
So everything tightened and the remaining wound gaped open until the patient, what — inverted? Is there even a medical term for someone turning inside out? That sound, man. That wet, cracking sound…
We would’ve been out of there like a shot if your boss hadn’t locked the door to the operating theater. We just had to watch the patient – or whatever he was now – slapping and writing against the table.
Hephaestus is about point-to-point wormholes, right? Yeah no sh*t, I know you can’t confirm or deny it. I’m not retarded. Give me a little credit.
When your boss told me and doctors ____ and _________ to step back and have the assistants conduct a physical examination, I knew they were done for. I knew. I’ve worked here long enough, __________.
“Never get attached,” is your motto, right? Must be easy for you, since no one wants to get to know you. F*ck you. Seriously. Those girls deserved better.
Yes, I know I have to f*cking report what happened. I just want you to know that I’m saying “f*ck you” and the “you” is referring to you. You. What are you gonna do, fire me? Ha. No, I know, that’s not your style. I’m sure I’ll wake up on the other side of that wormhole you “can’t confirm or deny” tomorrow morning. Whatever, man.
The inverted patient stopped moving when the assistants began the physical examination. They took its temperature, they drew blood, and they sampled whatever that yellow mucus was. It seemed to be going fine until they were asked to do a biopsy of one of the mucus ducts.
________, and yes, I’m going to use her damn name because she’s a person, no matter how much you viewed her and __________ as commodities, made the first incision and was instantly enveloped by a membrane extruded by the duct she’d tried to cut. It was semitransparent; we could all see inside.
Another membrane wrapped around __________, and before our eyes, they were compressed. If any sound can overtake the patient’s inversion in the race for the most disturbing noise I’ve ever heard, that sound will do it.
Once ________ and __________ were compressed into shapes roughly the size of a beachball, a small hole opened in each membrane to let out the blood and other bodily fluids. It shot across the room, all over me and the other doctors. Which you can plainly see from the state of my clothing you said I couldn’t change until we were done with this b*llshit.
After the liquid was released, the compression resumed until they were small enough to get sucked into the patient’s body. And they were. Then you let me and the other doctors out.
Yes, that was it. You know that was it. You were watching the whole f*cking time next to your boss. Jesus.
Reading Time: 6 minutes“The Secret Doctors of NASA” is a series of memoirs, diaries, and reports from actual doctors employed by an undisclosed arm of NASA between 1970 and 2001. These writings contain true accounts of the unusual and often highly-classified medical conditions experienced by astronauts during and after their space missions. Following the defunding of the clandestine medical program after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, the majority of these accounts were left, forgotten, on tape drives in a NASA storage facility. In 2016, a former intern, whose job was to clean out one of these facilities, discovered them. Two years later, he is ready to release what he found.
*Releaser’s Note*: This report is an annotated interview with an American astronaut which took place in 1981. His name has been changed. The psychologist self-refers as “Interviewer.” The report was originally found at the location of the interviewer’s death.
A Psychologist’s Suicide
Interviewer’s Note: The patient is a 42 year-old astronaut. It has been two weeks since his last mission. Up until that point, he had been in perfect physical and mental health. During that recent mission, he spent 31 days in low-Earth orbit conducting various experiments pertaining to inorganic chemistry. His condition has not been determined to be the result of any of his work in orbit.
Interviewer: Good morning, John. Do you know who I am?
John: I was told a psychologist would be visiting. Are you her?
Interviewer: I am. I’m Doctor ****** **********.
John: I’m happy to answer any questions you have for me, doctor. Maybe I can save us some time and tell you that I know you want to hear about my eyes. So let’s start there.
Interviewer: Thank you, John. And you’re right — your eyes are at the top of my agenda. What happened?
John: Can’t you see? I’d be shocked if it weren’t obvious.
Interviewer: I see you’ve turned them backwards, yes. I’ve seen the x-rays and imaging. You managed to avoid significant injury, which I think we can both agree is a great thing.
John: More than great.
Interviewer: Why is that?
John: Because now I can see everything I’d missed.
Interviewer’s Note: John returned from space complaining of headaches and blurry vision. Examinations yielded nothing. His symptoms persisted. The pain grew unbearable and his vision diminished. John declared himself blind two days later. Further tests were inconclusive. Even if he were in perfect health, which is what the tests showed, doctors believed he could not see. All specialists were at a loss.
Five days after John’s return from space, he mutilated himself. He dislodged his eyes and stretched the optic nerves enough to turn his eyes to face the inside of his head. Every doctor on staff was baffled by how John had managed to do this without severing the nerves and blood vessels.
All John’s complaints about headaches and blurry vision ceased. He has been in psychiatric care since then. No attempts have been made to fix the direction of his eyes.
Interviewer: Can you explain what you mean by “see everything you’d missed?”
John: Ever since I was a kid, I looked up at the stars. They fascinated me. They called to me. I knew when I was four that someday I’d walk among them. The books I read had said it would be possible in the future. That was all I needed. Lo and behold, I went to space for the first time when I was 36. It was beyond anything I could have expected.
Interviewer: But something was missing.
John: Yes. I’ve been to space twice since then. This last time, when I performed a space walk to fix something outside the shuttle, I discovered I was wrong to be excited. My dreams had been misplaced.
Interviewer: Can you elaborate on that, John?
John: I think so, yes. But I need you to trust me. Will you?
Interviewer: I’ll listen, John, and I will give you the benefit of the doubt. As for trust, we just met. I don’t think either of us have earned it from one another.
John: That’s very fair. And I appreciate your candor. I’ll elaborate for you.
John: The universe curves in on itself, doctor. I could look on and on and on, through the stars and galaxies and void, and if I could see everything – if my eyes were powerful enough to have an unbroken line of sight – you know what I’d see at the end of it?
Interviewer: Tell me.
John: I’d see the back of my own head. No matter where I looked, that’s all I could ever see. All our exploration – all we might find – all terminates right there. We watch ourselves watching ourselves for eternity.
Interviewer: I have to admit, John, that’s a pretty interesting theory. Did you come up with it while you were in space? Or did you get the idea at another time in your life?
John: No. No, I didn’t think of it myself. It was whispered to me during my last space walk.
Interviewer: Whispered? By whom?
Interviewer’s Note: I should remark here that I noticed the first change in John’s physical appearance after asking that question. The blood vessels in his eyes swelled and his optic nerves pulsated. He gave no indication that anything was wrong, however, and I believed it was appropriate to continue our interview.
John: The universe sent me an emissary. She wanted me to know the truth.
Interviewer: Are you referring to an alien intelligence? Were you able to determine whether it was one of the species we’ve already encountered?
John: I don’t think so, no.
Interviewer: Was it something new?
John: No. Not new at all. I believe it was the universe herself.
Interviewer: Can you tell me what it said? The universe?
Interviewer’s Note: John was silent for a stretch of nearly four minutes. I did not disturb him. He appeared in deep thought, though given the condition of his eyes, it was difficult to say for sure.
John: The whisper said, “Suiversal vastation.”
Interviewer: Suiversal? My Latin is a little rusty, John. Is it like “the universe of the self?” I know “vastation” but I’m unclear on how those words connect.
John: Suiversal vastation. And the whisper showed me. It was just a glimpse. Just a peek. But that was all I needed. It was when the headaches started and my vision started to go. My mind had been rewired to the new way of seeing. Turning my eyes to face it was the necessary step.
Interviewer: Can you see, John?
John: I can. I do.
Interviewer: What can you see?
John: I see the purifying of the chaos that had been inside me. In its place is the real universe; the universe I’d been wanting to see since I was a child. And it’s where the answers are. Every last one. You mentioned the aliens, doctor? The ones who stare through space, just like us? It’s a terrible anthropomorphism. They are not like us. They stare, yes, but with purpose – although one they don’t yet know. What they want to see is what I’m looking at right now. The echoes of human thought. The cycles of dominating our volition onto nature, rather than nature being raped into us. We are the only ones who can do that, doctor. And the aliens know it. And they’ll find us.
Interviewer: I just don’t understand, John. The aliens want our control over nature? Is that what you’re telling me?
John: It would be easier if I just showed you.
End of report.
Releaser’s Note: I was able to piece together the subsequent events using the abandoned log entries from NASA security personnel and medical officials. I cannot guarantee that all the information was logged and there may be gaps in the timeline. Below are the relevant excerpts:
Security report: The astronaut held out his right index finger. It began to elongate. I, as well as *** ***** rushed to intervene, but the psychologist waved us away claiming “I want to see.”
The finger grew to approximately five feet long, spanning the table where the astronaut and doctor were conducting their interview. The finger pressed against doctor’s left eye. She made a sound that suggested pain and *** ***** started toward the astronaut again. “Do NOT interfere,” the doctor ordered. I demanded *** ***** to stay back.
For a moment, the finger did nothing but press on the psychologist’s eye. Then it moved lower and slipped under the eyelid. The eye became dislodged and fell against the doctor’s cheek. *** ***** and I watched as the finger appeared to grow longer and pushed into the doctor’s head.
There was a space of ten minutes when no one spoke. Both the doctor and astronaut were motionless, aside from the eyes of the astronaut swelling and pulsating. After those ten minutes, he withdrew his finger. I must remark that there was blood on about eighteen inches of it.
The doctor made one articulation, which sounded to us like, “oh.” She then spent two or three minutes resituating her eye. She got up and left. I had *** ***** follow her back to her apartment, but she did not allow him entry.
End of report.
Medical report: Doctor ****** ********** was found deceased in her apartment by security officer *** *****. According to his notes, it had been three hours since he had been turned away at the door of her apartment following an incident with astronaut ** ****. The second visit had been for the purpose of checking her well-being after phone calls went unanswered.
Emergency officials deemed her death a suicide, but parallels between her condition and that of the astronaut cannot be overlooked. Her left eye, which had been involved in the interview, had been turned to face the inside of her head. Her right eye, however, had been torn out.
Written in blood on the dining room wall, presumably with the excised right eye, were the following words:
“Fixating and turning in mass direction. Now they know why they look.”
“The Secret Doctors of NASA” is a series of memoirs, diaries, and reports from actual doctors employed by an undisclosed arm of NASA between 1970 and 2001. These writings contain true accounts of the unusual and often highly-classified medical conditions experienced by astronauts during and after their space missions. Following the defunding of the clandestine medical program after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, the majority of these accounts were left, forgotten, on tape drives in a NASA storage facility. In 2016, a former intern, whose job was to clean out one of these facilities, discovered them. Two years later, he is ready to release what he found.
A Dentist’s Discovery
Arnold F. A*******, DDS
August 4th, 1989
I met the astronaut after a half-year mission on the Russian space station. He’d gone through his preliminary post-landing physical but complained about pain in his jaw and gums. His health, aside from those complaints, was fair.
It was my job to find out what was wrong with him before moving him on to the next specialist. The urologist, I think. The order always changes.
The patient was in decent spirits when we met, although I could tell something was on his mind. We chatted for a little bit. It turned out he’d been working on the Feng-Lee Discovery. My heart sank.
When Feng and Lee discovered what they initially called “the Venus tic-tacs” in 1982, no one in-the-know was surprised. Just another alien organism to add to the list of hundreds. A team was formed to conduct research and determine its risks and benefits, and there were no expectations that anything would come of it.
Well, as is so often the case, those in-the-know knew nothing. Give those Venus tic-tacs an electric shock in the right place for the right amount of time and what do you get? Pluripotent stem cells. They had the potential to be a game changer in the field of regenerative medicine. I don’t think anyone expected to discover them when we did; all the data we had showed we were at least a decade away from inducing pluripotency. Hell, we assumed civilian doctors might figure them out first. This was Big. Capital B.
In dentistry, it meant we might be able to regrow missing teeth and reverse jaw deterioration. I followed the studies with great interest.
The animal tests were successful. New teeth, better jaws, nice smiles all around. Success. Good. Great.
The researchers moved onto human subjects. Failure. Nothing. Zilch.
No reason. No god damn reason whatsoever. No one could figure out why there was 100% success with animal subjects and 0% with people. The cells wouldn’t grow AT ALL.
Then, a doctor named Franco T******, who’d been on the team since the beginning, suggested they try using the tic-tac cells on people in space. He didn’t give a reason, and I don’t think he had one. It was probably something like “well f**k it, it doesn’t work here so let’s try it up there.”
So we did.
And it worked.
The effects were different for everyone. Sometimes cavities were repaired. Sometimes jaw bones grew again. Then again, sometimes teeth fell out. And jaws collapsed. That’s what happened to Jose G********. No one wanted to use Venus tic-tacs ever again.
That’s why, when this astronaut came to me with pain in his gums and jaw and told me he’d been working on the Feng-Lee Discovery, I was less than thrilled with what I’d find. There’d been a six-year moratorium on Venus tic-tac human experimentation since the Jose incident. It had only been lifted a year ago. Apparently someone on that team wanted to pick up right where they’d left off.
While I talked to the astronaut, he informed me that there’d been new research on the tic-tacs. I frowned and told him I wasn’t aware of anything new. He filled me in.
Apparently there’d been some civilian advances in stem-cell technology that ended up contributing to our own knowledge of the science. New experiments were drawn up, plausibility was determined, and one of the team leaders impressed the brass at NASA’s ethics division. That, combined with the limited number of Venus tic-tacs that’d been recovered and the uncertainty surrounding how much longer they’d live, ended the moratorium.
That was all well and good. At that point, I still hadn’t looked inside the astronaut’s mouth. Before we’d started chatting, I had my assistant do some x-rays of his jaw. They developed while we talked. Then they were ready.
I’m going to digress for a second. Have you ever seen what a child’s skull looks like before their adult teeth have come in? It’s unsettling. Look at this. That was all of us at one point. I’ve been a dentist for the last 36 years. I’ve dealt with a lot of crazy stuff, but just thinking about all those holes makes me uneasy. Some things just stick with you, I guess.
Why am I mentioning this? This astronaut – this grown man – had what looked like new teeth forming above his adult ones. I consulted with the x-rays we took before his mission. There was nothing unusual about them – just the filled cavities and mild bone-loss in his jaw that had made him a test candidate for the tic-tac cells.
Now, as I stared at the new x-ray, I saw the cavities were still there. The jaw was still decaying. But those dark smudges on the x-ray indicated new teeth deep in there. I’d never seen anything like it.
I remained professional. I asked him to lean back and open his mouth so I could begin the examination.
As soon as I took my first look, I knew something was dreadfully wrong. His gums were puffy and bled at the slightest touch. His teeth looked gray, as if they’d never been brushed. It didn’t make sense.
I swung the magnifying lens over and brightened the light. I think he heard me stifle my gasp when I looked through.
His teeth were covered in infinitesimal holes. They were much smaller than regular cavities. I looked closer. Each of the holes had a tiny, pink hair sticking out of its center. I touched the tip of my instrument to one of the hairs. It recoiled back into the tooth.
At this point, I was getting uneasy. I asked the astronaut if what I did hurt and he told me it did, but not badly.
I decided to numb the gums around his top front teeth. While I waited for the novacaine to take effect, I studied his molars. Those had bigger holes with thicker growths. When I reached for one of them with my instrument, rather than slip back into the tooth, the hair extended about a quarter of an inch and wrapped around the metal tip. The astronaut didn’t seem to feel it.
I gave the instrument a gentle tug. Nothing. I pulled harder – but still barely using any force. The molar came out. My patient gasped and I apologized profusely. I stopped what I was doing and put the instrument and the tooth out of his line of sight.
I decided to level with him. I told him there was some severe damage to his teeth and I didn’t know what it was. I said I needed to do more exploratory work and it would likely be very uncomfortable.
The astronaut did his best to take it in stride. He told me he knew something was very, very wrong from the moment he was brushing his teeth on the space station and the bristles would get caught inside the holes. The thought made me shudder.
I numbed his mouth the best I could and got to work. By the end of it, I’d accidentally caused nine of his teeth to fall out. All that remained in their place were those bizarre, pink hairs.
I sent him back to base with an appointment for the next day. It was to remove the rest of his teeth. I felt terrible for the guy.
I got a call in the middle of the night from the Head of Medicine at the NASA hospital. I had to come there right away.
The astronaut’s roommate had called emergency services an hour or so ago. He was in excruciating pain and bleeding from the mouth. I arrived at the hospital in ten minutes.
I expected to be able to go right into the room and see the patient, but I was stopped by security and the Head of Medicine. He instructed me to put on a clean-room suit. Right then, I knew something was deeply wrong.
I donned the suit and followed the Head into one of the two observation areas above a hermetically-sealed operating room. I looked at one of the television screens showing the astronaut’s mouth. My stomach churned.
All the man’s teeth had fallen out. In their place, growing out of his gaping, bloody gums, were swirling tangles of the pink hairs. I watched as a surgeon grasped one of the tangles in a pair of forceps and pulled. And pulled. One doctor held the astronaut’s head while the surgeon put his weight into the effort. With the sound of a heavy piece of brush being torn from the ground, the tangles gave way.
They writhed at the end of the forceps. The ones still in his mouth stretched out, as if they were trying to take it away and bring it back. The surgeon dropped the veiny clot into a bowl and the camera zoomed in on it.
At the top of of the tangle was something solid. Something that, I realized, looked very much like one of those new teeth deep inside the astronaut’s jawbone I’d seen on the x-ray that afternoon. Now, out and exposed to the light, I saw it wasn’t a tooth at all. It was a brand new Venus tic-tac — the first we’d ever discovered outside a Venusian meteorite.
So the issue of pluripotent stem cells and whether or not they’ll benefit human subjects is still a mystery. And, after hours of surgery, my patient is in a coma. As a human being, I write this with a heavy heart. As a scientist, though, I have some hope. Maybe even a little excitement. Thanks to that poor astronaut, now we know how to breed new Venus tic-tacs. Perhaps, someday, we’ll learn how to use them.
Reading Time: 19 minutesI’ve never much cared for religion. I mean, it’s interesting and all; the old parables and philosophic insights from people two millenniums removed from the present. I particularly enjoy the books of the Apocrypha, and the Bible’s magnum opus of Revelation if for nothing else than the interesting stories. Even some of the tenants, like an emphasis on strong family bonds and moral stature I can resonate with, but in terms of a giant omnipresent entity that created everything yet loves us unconditionally watching our every move from unseen planes – yeah, I don’t know about that.
I still don’t ascribe to a singular religious doctrine, but knowing what I know now… well, let’s just say the title of atheist would be a little disingenuous. Staking my flag in that camp would contradict all the principals of which my life has been founded upon. Try as I may, I cannot in good faith deny or refute what I myself witnessed. Calling whatever we discovered ‘god’ may in time prove a bit inaccurate, but there is no denying it; we found something.
Science has at times become this sort of monolithic and infallible institution. One that suffers from the ostracization of fringe concepts that fail to breach the egotistic blockade. It is all too often wielded as a trump card to negate all that doesn’t assimilate to the prevailing narrative. Too often outlandish claims are torn asunder because no metrics exist to properly digest them.
For all the good it has brought, science is not and will not ever be an absolute. Nothing is. Absence of proof, is not proof of absence. And what happened out there, in that lab deep below the streets of Stockholm, now stands as a testament in my life, to all the ventures humanity has yet to embark upon. It serves as an anchor, and if ever I find myself drifting away into the blissful seas of cognitive dissonance, it is there to remind me how small and naïve I truly am.
I graduated from UCLA with a Bachelor’s in physics and an incredible opportunity landed in my lap. One of my professors had put in a good word for me with a lab out of Stockholm. I was contacted and offered an internship. One of dozens to be extended the opportunity. I accepted the offer without a moment’s hesitation.
From there I uprooted my Californian lifestyle to move halfway around the world to the frigid north of Sweden. I was not prepared for the cold. Most of my summers were spent in a bikini, frolicking on the sandy beaches of Santa Monica and lounging in the sun. Sweden might as well have been another planet. Temperatures would plummet to a bone-chilling negative 30 in the winter. Luckily for me though, I had a marvelous host family who helped me acclimate myself and integrate into Valhalla.
I was brought on to the team and slowly began the arduous process of melding into the group. They were all incredibly kind and welcoming, but still the feeling of being woefully outclassed by my colleagues was thick as tar pitch. The project consisted of over fifty men and women, all of them among the best the world had to offer. They hailed from Germany, Japan, Poland, Hong Kong, South Korea and many other sovereign states. It was a melting pot of some of the greatest minds I’d ever met. Seeing them in their element, and marveling at the way their minds hurdled asinine topics to delve straight to the cortex was altogether incredible, and more than a little intimidating.
The expressed goal of the coalition was to study the behaviors of quarks, protons and other particles in the subatomic realm to further decode the complex world of theoretic energy matrices. By extension, the group also allotted resources to develop tools for observing and decoding quantum entanglement and string theory. These principles were still in their infancy at the time, and none of us could have ever imagined the enormous magnitude of the things that were to come.
The lab had its very own particle accelerator, which I myself pretty much obsessed over from day one. Most of the concrete data however, was relayed from the lab in Geneva, home of the large hadron collider. I even got to see the magnificent machine in person on a few occasions.
One thing that has always staggered me, is the amount of incredible achievements capable when pursuit of knowledge guides the way. However, the complete polar opposite is also true, as curiosity without empathy all too often yields crimes against humanity.
As you may already know, the large hadron collider was the first machine capable of synthesizing the particle known as the Higgs-Boson. The machine is a particle accelerator built in a 27-kilometer loop. It uses a state of perpetual vacuum and temperature colder than that of outer space to accelerate particles to 99 percent the speed of light. These particles collide with one another, creating spectacular outbursts of radiation and results which are believed to be similar to that of the big bang on a much smaller scale. It is also through this process that the infamous Higgs-Boson can be synthesized.
Some call it the ‘God Particle’, but many physicists are not fond of the omnipotent moniker. It is in a way suitable though, as it is ubiquitous and can spontaneously manifest or dematerialize through processes which are not yet entirely understood. It is a sort of bridge between matter and antimatter. The entity that binds the ethereal with the corporeal. It is the place between light and dark, hard to define, as once light ends shadow begins and vice versa. The exact moment of intersection is difficult to pinpoint, but there is a definitive moment, and that moment is the Higgs-Boson.
It was once thought that matter could only exist in one place at a time, however the particle slit test of our progenitors proved otherwise. A particle accelerator was used to eject electrons between one of two microscopic slits. They naturally assumed the electrons would pass through either slit A or slit B, and when directly observed their premise was corroborated.
However, when an imprint background was installed to bypass direct observation, they noticed a peculiar detail. The electrons produced what is known as a wave, or interference pattern on the imprint like ripples in a pond. This meant that the electrons were interfering with themselves while simultaneously passing through both and neither of the slits. It was at first thought to be a false-negative and outright impossibility, but thousands of repeated experiments all reached the same conclusion. There was denying it anymore. Matter can exist in more than one place at a time, and reality is altered simply by perceiving it.
The world of particle physics is a strange one, and one which we have only just begun to glimpse the majesty of. At times it may even require us to suspend our own limited human understanding of things, to contemplate things beyond our minds comprehension. It was this idea which was the tabernacle of all the group was trying to achieve. To unravel the mysteries of the subatomic universe, and better understand reality itself.
The group was funded magnificently, and state of the art equipment was provided from lavish donors from all around the world. My contemporaries and I began to study the processes again from square one. This consisted primarily of monitoring the nature of particles and testing the same process over and over ad nauseum. Progress was slow, and many failures were soon under our belts, but you can’t build a house without chopping down a few trees.
It took years to decode part of the formula, but eventually we learned that the behavior of these particles could be predicted under certain pretenses. They could also, to a certain extent, be directed. Programmed to inhabit separate locations at the same time, giving them the perceived ability to exist in two places at once. In reality though, it was more akin to a transfer of locale via microscopic slits in the Higgs-Boson. We realized it was not a matter of travelling to, but instead travelling through. Through the fabric of space itself.
With electrical stimuli and coordinate based geo-synchronization, one could manipulate these particles to transfer locations faster than the blink of an eye. The machine used was primitive compared to later iterations, but it’s true potential was not lost on us for a moment.
Time went on, and the technique was further refined, most readily in the distance particles were able to be transposed. It started as only a few nanometers, but eventually we could transfer particles several feet. It was through this process that blueprints for an entirely new type of machine were first devised. It was to be a machine unlike any before it. Instead of electrical stimuli sent through circuits and wires, it was transferred directly from one location to another. Wireless energy transposed through space. This greatly improved computing capabilities and allowed the machine to act and calculate much quicker than anything ever seen before.
Initial ideals for the machine were skeptical at best, but as time went on the real significance of its potential became apparent. When combined with a suitable processor and digital interface, it soon began decoding encryption and translating mathematic cipher in a fraction of the time of anything seen before it. It didn’t stop there, though.
With a binary converter, it wasn’t long before human physiology itself was soon able to be deciphered and converted into convenient little anagrams and simplistic formulas. This soon gave the machine the ability to replicate human tissue and organs from fetal stem cells. When given raw biomass it could manufacture a duplicate heart or lung. One which was genetically indistinguishable from that of the donor’s DNA.
On one occasion, the machine even managed to regrow the arm of an amputee war veteran. Most of us thought it couldn’t possibly work, that the nerve endings on the man’s arms would be unable to be resuscitated after so long. But after seventeen hours in surgery, when I saw the vet move his new fingers for the first time after transplant and cell resuscitation, I knew we had discovered something special.
Diseases became able to be observed on a molecular level and eradicated before gestation. A virus or bacterial strain could be genetically reprogrammed to attack and destroy itself rather than the host. HPV, AIDS, the black death, the common cold, strep throat, gonorrhea, none of them stood a snowball’s chance in hell against the unrivalled power of the machine.
It could even reprogram human DNA to desired proportions, eliminating extra chromosomes and restoring neural pathways to reverse entropic cognitive illness like Dementia and Parkinson’s. Even pre-birth conditions like cerebral palsy and microcephaly were in the process of being all but eradicated.
It wasn’t just organic material either. The machine could take a block of carbon and alter its isotopes to create carbon-14 and elicit radioactivity. This proved interesting for further power possibilities as the machine demonstrated potential of creating its own fuel source, but there was another more pertinent discovery.
By changing the number of protons or neutrons in the atomic nucleus, the given element’s atomic weight was altered, thereby turning it into another element altogether. The machine held the power to change the very building blocks of the universe itself. It could turn copper into gold, bromine into iodine.
I think it was then that we first realized the scope of what it was that we had created. The applications for the machine seemed endless. It could write books, clone living organisms and alter the very elements beneath our feet. It was the philosopher’s stone, the holy grail and the all-seeing eye in one convenient little package. The Deus ex Machina. The world’s very first quantum computer was born.
One important distinction I would like to make, despite the rumors; the quantum computer was not in fact an AI. It had computing power which was eons beyond that of a normal computer, and the ability to perform almost any task given to it provided the necessary accommodations were implemented. For this reason, it was not allowed to make decisions for itself. Many in the group were justifiably nervous at the prospect of an artificial intelligence somehow gaining sentience and going rampant with the power of quantum manipulation.
We really had no idea where our experimentation would lead us, and so the decision was made early on, to prevent it from thinking on its own and going all Skynet on us. The computer was a beast of burden, happily doing any task given to it, but it was us that held the reins.
That was when the bureaucratic troubles first began. A lot of donors for the project, and even a few of my fellow team members had their own ideas on how to best utilize the machine. Every nation involved wanted it for themselves and had their own vision on how best to implement it’s capabilities.
Several members of the coalition ended up leaving the project or being outright dismissed, promising to return with a battalion of lawyers at their back. One man was even caught attempting to smuggle data from the lab, and detained to await prosecution. The reigning project overseer was also relieved of duty. In his place; Dr. Henryk Lundgren assumed the role of director of operations.
Dr. Lundgren is a dear friend, and a brilliant mind. That’s what makes his fate lie so heavily on my heart. It’s a tragedy what befell him, but I won’t act as though he wasn’t responsible for stoking the flames.
Lundgren managed to settle the group down and unite a divided faction of researchers who all held their own agendas. He made the executive decision to keep the computer in the hands of the international team and continue to study it for continued data analysis and eventual replication. All those who didn’t abide were dismissed or removed physically as the need arose.
Lundgren had toiled for years on development of the machine’s virtual capabilities, and decided it best to invest more heavily into it. It took months of development, but soon, a fully-functional Sims-esque program was up and running. The simulation was modeled to be an exact carbon copy of our own world and held all the coordinating pieces within it. All the people, animals and nations. Augmented control apparatuses were then developed to allow us the ability to view the computer’s creation firsthand.
The simulation it created was so visceral, that none could even perceive that they were in a simulation at all. Test subjects were exposed to their own loved ones within the program and could not distinguish them from their real-life counterparts. I even took it for a spin a few times. I was hooked up to the monitor via a neural cortex interface, and had my mind rendered into the simulation.
I awoke to the sights of sunlight peeking through my blinds, and the sounds of cars outside. Around me on the walls were posters of Harry Potter, JoJo and the X-files among countless others. I recognized immediately where I was. It was my childhood home, an apartment complex in Sacramento. The simulation was so detailed, that even my old raggedy-Ann doll with the missing eye was there.
My parents were both there and acted in accordance to how they would behave in real life. My dad even made new corny jokes in a fashion that suited his personality. It wasn’t a memory though, it was an entirely new scenario, concocted by my mind and the quantum simulation.
My parents are both deceased in the real world and getting to spend time with them again was… indescribable. Even if they were just simulations, the experience was profoundly cathartic for me. I ended up leaving the simulation in tears, overwhelmed by the experience and the ability to speak with my parents once again. It even made dealing with their absence a little easier in the real world. After all, I could now speak to them any time I wanted. I found myself never wanting to leave the matrix.
Dr. Lundgren subsequently questioned me about my experience, and I was all too happy to relay the things I had seen. He listened intently, with simple occasional nods and one-word responses. His grey face wore a smile, and cheeks dimpled in delight, but his eyes were far from the present, and worried.
We held a meeting with all staff members sometime after. Lundgren stood and paced in front of the group, silent and mind swirling in thought. When he did finally speak, he held our undivided attention. He walked through all that our little group had managed to accomplish, and all the things we had learned on our journey. All the miracles unraveled and translated into digital coding, and all the advancements made. It was not a triumphant voice however, it was somber, as if none of it truly mattered. He then first proposed his new theory.
Here we were, with an entire simulated universe at the tips of our fingers. A digital reality created and maintained by a machine we had built. A simulation which was so authentic, that none could tell it apart from reality itself. And if we had the power to create that, how did we know that our own universe was not the result of the same process? How did we know our reality was not in fact a simulation?
An unnerving silence befell the rest of the group as Lundgren concluded his epiphany. All in attendance seemed to silently contemplate the idea, with a noticeably nervous aura now lingering. There wasn’t much said after that, but there didn’t need to be. We had an entirely new goal.
Upon returning for work the following day, I immediately noticed that several of our colleagues had abandoned the project without so much as a ‘goodbye’. Only 7 of us remained, among which was the prestigious Henryk Lundgren. He was changed though, his upbeat optimism and inquisitive attitude reverted to an impatient gibbering wreck of a man. He became hostile to prolonged questioning, and I could see the idea gnaw on his mind as he walked the tightrope between madness and genius. At times he even appeared on the verge of psychosis. He would ramble and talk to himself, and pretty much stopped leaving the laboratory altogether.
We set our sights on a new task; to dismantle and test the hypothesis of Lundgren. To develop an ability to break through the boundaries of our suspected simulation and pier beyond our own reality to glimpse whatever may lie on the other side. Nothing else seemed to matter anymore by that point.
Life may be accidental, consciousness too, hell even complex organisms like human beings the result of genetic evolution and a bit of luck. However, simulation is not accidental. It requires an immense amount of dedication, programming and logistics. Not to mention, power and maintenance.
The ability to synthesize digital worlds is not something learned or accomplished by accident. It takes time, resources and brainpower to even attempt it, and even then, it’s no guarantee. The one concept that was off the table immediately, was that the theorized simulation was the result of natural phenomenon or random cosmic alignment. If Lundgren’s hypothesis was correct, and our universe was indeed a simulation, then someone or something had to be pulling the strings behind the veil.
Powerful as the quantum computer was, even it did not have the ability to glimpse directly into higher dimensions. As stated before, it took commands only from us, and could only perform tasks which we could coherently articulate to it. We realized rather early that directly viewing outside the boundaries of the universe was likely not possible. The only option was to send a message.
Through remedial experimentation and dozens of ponderous sleepless nights, we finally had a breakthrough. Our reality is based on laws. Laws of motion, laws of attraction, laws of physics. These laws cannot be broken accidently, but with quantum technology, they can be manipulated. Many believe that intelligent extra-terrestrials were first alerted to humanity when the atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Ours was essentially the same idea. Demonstrating that we had the capability to toil with the quantum world in hopes of eliciting a response from a higher being. If we could ‘break’ or ‘bend’ one of these laws of reality, then perhaps the orchestrator would be compelled to respond.
One of the earlier discoveries we had made was that of the concept of reverse time. Time is a measurement of something that occurs, and without anything to observe, time is meaningless. The concept only makes sense when in the presence of matter. The two concepts of space and time are coterminous, like light and dark or hot and cold; one does not exist without the other. Where there is space there is time, and where there is time there must be space. The opposite of matter is not nothing, but anti-matter. A true nothingness or void of anything substantial does not exist. It cannot exist based upon the nature of existence itself. Anti-matter is the invisible material which operates unseen and fills all the gaps which matter does not. All of it held together by the Higgs-Boson.
If an opposite of matter exists, then an opposite of time must as well. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction, and all reactions must remain proportional to force exerted. By utilizing the quantum computer, we had the ability to send protons back in time, sort of. We could make them exist where they once had not before they existed there, by using dark energy matrices and particle superpositioning to make them exist in two places at once.
The discovery had actually been made some time earlier, but never officially tested. It was restricted and marked as unbroachable, as many of our patrons were rightfully concerned by the prospect of unintentionally altering the past. Doing so could create a butterfly effect and wreak havoc upon the present. We were told vehemently that the reverse-time experimentation was forbidden, but now we had a legitimate reason to take interest.
It took some convincing on our end, but eventually we were successful when we promised to unveil the greatest discovery yet. The parameters were set within the computer and the lab was prepped for the operation. A single seed of dianthus caryophyllus was placed in a transparent reinforced container in the center of the room. The specimen was placed on damp resin paper, and several little green tendrils had sprouted from its shell.
The idea was to reverse the symbiotic metabolism of the test subject and cause it to rapidly revert to a zygote state. The seed would be directed to perform it’s life cycle backwards, thereby contradicting the natural forward flow of life and time.
The parameters were finished, and Lundgren stood by the machine. He glanced to each of us individually with a sullen demeanor and nervous twinkle in his eye. He looked to me last and I nodded. Lundgren took a deep breath, adjusted his glasses, and flipped the switch.
Immediately the tendrils within the seed began to retract. They disappeared within the shell soon after, and the seed shrunk until the point in which it was no longer visible. The computer alerted us that the task had been completed, and silence descended upon the crew.
We stayed that way for several seconds until a commotion from the computer drew our attention. An array of flickering lights and sirens began to wail like banshees, indicating an error of some sort. Suddenly, the seed reappeared and began to grow at an impossible rate. A mass of wriggling green tendrils erupted from the shell and pressed firmly against the case within seconds. It swelled within and the chamber violently ruptured a moment later sending shards of glass catapulting throughout the room. I managed to duck away just in time, but others in the group were not so lucky.
One man, Reginald Diabek, was struck with a shard in the neck. The piece cut a gash across his throat, causing a thick crimson to spill forth from his gullet. He collapsed to the ground, as others began to rush to his aid. Before we could reach him, the engorged serpentine appendages of the seed ensnared him, slithering around his neck and abdomen. Diabek gurgled and terror filled his eyes as the green pythonic roots began to constrict him.
I watched, at a loss for words, as Diabek’s wound sealed. His grey hair turned to a dark brown. The wrinkles on his forehead and bags below his eyes dissolved into his skin in a matter of seconds. The blackheads and liver-spots on his cheeks soon followed suit. All of us watched, stupefied as the process continued onward and Diabek appeared to age backwards.
Diabek had to have been nearly sixty years old, but in a matter of moments he appeared as though he was a young man in his early thirties. He then went young adult, then juvenile, then teenager. Diabek screamed in terror as his voice cracked from a gruff, raspy tone to a high-pitched pre-pubescent shriek. His body shrunk in his clothes and his extremities retracted within his coat. By the time we had reached him, he was gone.
We didn’t have time to gawk, as our stupor was interrupted by the computer blaring a warning siren, and a flickering plethora of lights designated an external problem of some sort. The display was a failsafe designed to protect the computer from malicious outside sources. Most of us thought the firewalls of the quantum computer were enough to prevent any attempted breach, but apparently, we were wrong.
One of my colleagues scrambled to the kill switch. He was poised to throw it, when he was halted by a sudden shout from Lundgren. Lundgren stood, eyes wide as dinner plates and mouth agape as he stared at the main monitor of the computer. The warning display had ceased, and only a single screen remained active. Upon it was displayed a single loading bar, with approximately twenty percent of it being filled in. This indicated only one thing, something was being downloaded.
We immediately surmised that it must be a virus or other malware of some sort. A prospect once thought impossible based on the security measures of the computer, and yet the download persevered. All attempts made to restrict the download and halt its progress proved futile.
We exchanged nervous glances with one another, torn on whether to pull the plug and save our creation from hostile insurgence, or allow it to continue to whatever ends. The call was eventually made by the investors outside the room, who had since been notified of the development. They demanded power be cut, and the machine be saved. The computer represented a colossal investment, and the costs to repair or replace it if any damage were to ensue was not something taken lightly.
Begrudgingly, Lundgren followed orders and commanded shutdown protocol. It was done straight away, but the machine did not power down. It continued, impossibly, and without a direct power source sustaining it.
Panic began to erupt from the lab, and power to the entire facility was ordered to be cut from the mainframe. It was done within seconds, and the room fell into darkness. The only light that remained was that of the main monitor as the download reached the halfway mark. The computer groaned and whirred under enormous duress as hundreds of fans shot to life to attempt to cool the leviathan machine.
We stood back, unable to make heads or tails of the development. There was simply no possible way the machine should’ve remained active, and yet it was. It continued to fill up the progress bar, powered by the fuel of some unknown outside source. With no other viable solutions at hand barring physical destruction of the computer itself, we could do nothing but await the culmination.
The download finished several minutes later, and the room fell into pitch black. We deliberated for a moment, before deciding our only recourse was to power up the computer once again. The mysterious file weighed in at an impressive 100,000 terabytes, enough to fill hundreds of normal hard drives, but just another drop in the ocean for the quantum computer. Once full mobility was achieved, a single never before seen prompt filled the screen.
“Unknown file type. Do you wish to execute the file?” All attempts made to bypass the prompt failed. We quickly used a separate program on another screen to trace the file’s origin, but to no avail.
Now, there is no hiding from a quantum computer behind a proxy or VPN. It uses algorithm-based process combined with ping response speed to determine probable origin up to an accuracy of 99.999%. We’re talking response time measured in millionths of a second, but for a quantum computer, it’s like the ABC’s. Sure, it gets it wrong once in every million attempts, point being it always has a guess. This time however, we received a new message.
“Unable to determine file origin.” Lundgren took a step back and pondered the situation and wiped the beads of glistening sweat from his brow. With nothing else at our disposal, he realized there was only one option left. And so, he gave one last command.
The computer began to render the file, the process taking several minutes to complete. It was entirely in binary code, and eventually translated to a single message. Upon completion, two words in a white font sat silently amidst a black background.
I never thought two simple words could have such lasting effects on my psyche. Those two words that have made me question everything I thought I ever knew. The computer fizzled out moments later and shut down. All of us just kind of left after that.
I returned home, overwhelmed by the events and left with a mystic sense of terror instilled deep in my stomach. The following morning, I was called by one of the investors. He informed me, that someone had broken into the lab late the previous night and sabotaged the operation. The lab was lit ablaze and soon reduced to a smoldering pile of ash, and the quantum computer was damaged beyond repair. Whoever had done it, possessed a security card and seemed to know the exact process required to dismantle the automatic sprinkler system.
Police held a single suspect in custody. A man who appeared as a neurotic mess in the center of a maniacal nervous breakdown. He was tried and convicted some time later and declared clinically insane. He was ordained to a mental health facility in northern Sweden, and it is there that he remains to this day. That man’s name? Henryk Lundgren.
I’ve never been able to properly assess just what it was that happened that day. The event has left me shaken and confused in more ways than I could possibly list. I don’t suppose I’ll ever be whole again, I just can’t be.
I know the truth, the reason for our meager existence. We had reached out far beyond, and something had answered our call. Whether or not it was truly what we would call ‘god’, I can’t say. But I will say, after what I saw happen to Diabek, and what became of Lundgren, I can’t think of a better word for it. I think god is something we never could’ve imagined. It holds us all within the palm of it’s hand, and with a simple flick of the wrist, we would cease to be. There is no love, there is no salvation, there is only that which lies beyond the margins of reality. That which we have no possible hope in understanding.
One thing is also certain; it is watching us, and it does not want us meddling in that which we have no business seeing. We are set amidst an ocean of infinite black seas, and it was not meant for us to travel far. That final message could not have been clearer, and anytime I find myself drifting, I remember those two simple words relayed by the quantum computer in its last moments of life.
Reading Time: 12 minutes“Just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they aren’t real.”
“How do you know?”
“Because you can feel them when they’re close,” I said. “The goosebumps on your skin even though it’s not cold. The way the air tastes, and the dry lump in your throat. That’s how they let you know they’re about to strike.”
“How do you get away?”
“No-one ever has. You get about ten minutes after you notice them before they force themselves inside you. Then it’s all over. Wait — did you feel something? Clara look at your arms! You’ve already got the goosebumps!”
My sister squirmed, thrashing against the seatbelt which suddenly looked like it was squeezing the breath out of her frail body. Her skin was bone-white, although that was hardly surprising since she never went outside.
“Mark stop scaring your sister,” mom clucked from the passenger seat. “We’re almost there, just hold on.”
“Moooooom I can feel them!” Clara howled.
I was doing my best to softly blow air on her from the corner of my mouth without her noticing it was me.
“Ghosts aren’t real, Clara. You’re twelve-years old — you should know better by now,” my dad said without turning. It had been a long drive for all of us, and he was gripping the wheel so tightly it looked like he was ready to swerve off the road and camp in the first ditch we found.
“See? I told you.” Clara crossed her arms in an infuriating display of smugness.
“Then how come dad’s mouth didn’t move when he said that?”
I’m almost ashamed to admit how much pleasure I got from her double-take. Almost. Then came the rapid, aggressive burst of tapping on the window and Clara actually shrieked. I couldn’t stop laughing as dad rolled down the window.
“Camping registration?” the park ranger asked, face shadowed by his wide-brimmed hat. He glanced disinterestedly into the back seats to catch Clara giggling and smacking me. She wasn’t strong enough for it to hurt, and I was laughing too so I didn’t bother defending myself. Mom looked tired, but peaceful.
“Thank God. I thought we’d never get here.” Dad handed the man an email printout.
“Long drive, huh? Where you folks from?” the ranger asked.
“California. I tried to tell them we have our own forests, but Clara was heart-set on seeing the great quaking aspen.”
“Welcome to Utah then. You won’t be disappointed. Did you kids know that the Pando is the oldest and biggest life form on the planet?”
“I did!” Clara raised her hand, flailing it around like an eager student. “Although each tree is only about 120 years old, they’re all connected to the same root network which has been alive for over 80,000 years, stretching over 105 acres.”
“Just 80,000?” The park ranger smirked. “I’ve heard it’s more like a million. We’re not sure exactly, but there’s a good chance the Pando was alive before the first human being walked the earth. Pretty incredible, huh?”
“Yep! I wish I could live that long.” Mom and dad exchanged furtive glances.
“It’s not about how long you live.” Mom’s voice cracked, and she had to take a long breath before she restarted. “It’s about what you do with the time that you have. And I for one am grateful for every second we get to spend together as a family.” Dad squeezed mom’s hand. It must have been hard too, because their interlocked fingers were trembling. The uncomfortable silence which followed only lasted a moment before the park ranger handed us a pass and waved us on our way.
It’s no secret that my sister is sick. Mom and dad don’t like to talk about it, so I didn’t know exactly what it was. She spent a lot of time in the hospital though, which seemed stupid to me because she was always weaker going out than she was going in. I’ve asked her about it before, but she just shrugged and said, ‘they’ll figure it out.’ I didn’t like the way her face looked when she said it, so I didn’t ask again. Seeing her scared like that wasn’t any fun.
It was almost dark when we got to the campsite. I helped dad setting up the tent while mom unpacked the car. Clara just sat on a log and stared at the sunset, which seemed really unfair to me, but it’s not like she’d be much help anyway. The light was weird here — even after the sun went down it didn’t really get dark. The twilight felt like it went on for hours, and the air was so quiet that time must have frozen. I was half-hoping Clara would pick up on the weird atmosphere and start believing in my ghosts again, but I think she’d forgotten all about them. Maybe she was never even afraid in the first place, only putting on a show for my amusement.
“Can you hear them?” she asked when I went over to call her for dinner.
“The trees. They’ve been waiting for me for a long time.”
I didn’t buy it. She was just trying to creep me out as revenge. “What are they saying?” I asked anyway.
Clara’s pale skin glowed in the enduring twilight, almost as white as her eerie smile. “It doesn’t speak with words. It’s more like feelings. Images. Ideas. The ‘Trembling Giant’ is angry. Slow, purposeful, smoldering, anger, like a glacier carving a hole in a mountain range. And it needs me to set it loose.”
I wish she wouldn’t smile like that. “Dinner’s ready, come on.” I turned back toward the fire in a hurry, not wanting to give her the satisfaction of seeing me shudder. Glancing back over my shoulder, I could still see the glow of her little teeth piercing the gathering dusk.
The next day was miserable and dull. I wanted to go out hiking and explore the forest, but Clara was too tired and mom insisted we don’t leave her behind. The whole point of this trip was to spend time together as a family, she said, so we were just going to do activities that we all could enjoy. So there we were, surrounded by spectacular natural beauty with adventure and discovery hidden behind every tree, while we sat in the dirt whittling sticks. Singing songs. Weaving baskets, watching the world drip by one excruciating second at a time.
“The baskets are fun! Look how nice your sister’s is turning out.”
“Can I make a really big one?” I asked.
“Of course! You can make whatever you want.”
“Okay I’m going to weave a coffin then. You can just bury me wherever.”
“Don’t even joke about that,” my father grunted.
“Or better yet, I’ll make one for Clara. If she’s too sick to do anything fun then she might as well —”
“Mark!” Mom that time. I’d crossed a line and I knew it, but I didn’t care. I was bored out of my mind. I missed my computer and my friends. I hated all this lovey-dovey family time. They always took her side about everything and gave her whatever she asked for, but if I ever wanted something I was just being selfish.
“I’m going to be in the woods if anyone needs me. As if.”
I heard mom start to chase me for a second, but dad stopped her to interject: “Stay close, okay? Don’t get lost.”
Getting lost didn’t seem like such a bad option at the moment. White-barked giants stretching as far as I could see, with mazes of fallen trees and branches that I could use to build forts. Lush grass and ferns to run through, craggy rocks to climb, meandering streams to jump — I can’t believe the rest of them sat 8 hours in the car just so they can keep sitting around here. I marveled at the natural grandeur as I walked, mesmerized by the idea that this huge forest was all a single living thing. I decided to dig with a stick to get a look at the connected roots, but the ground was hard and the going was slow.
This would have been a lot easier if I’d had some help. When Clara and I were little, we used to do everything together. She was like my side-kick, always enthusiastically following me around leaping to attention whenever I had a mission for her. What was the point of playing games with yourself when no-one was there to cheer your victories or mourn your defeats?
My frustration at the futility of the dig was quickly mounting, but I used that feeling as fuel to ram the stick down even harder. Out of breath, sweating and aching, I thrust the stick so hard that it snapped in two. I don’t know why that made me so angry, but it did. I dropped to my hands and knees and started digging with my fingers, hurling rocks and dirt clods around me in every direction. My fingers were accumulating cuts and scrapes, and I was about to give up when my hand suddenly broke through a thick clump of roots to reveal a hole in the ground.
Dirt and pebbles rained down the hole to disappear in the darkness below. It must have been deep too, because even with my ear to the ground I couldn’t hear anything land. Unwilling to return and admit defeat, I spent the next few hours widening the hole and trying to find a way to climb down. By around noon I was so filthy that I was practically indistinguishable from the earth I churned through. My fingers were openly bleeding in places, and the beating sun frowned down with disdain at my efforts. None of that mattered though, because I’d opened the hole wide enough to slip inside the yawning darkness.
I climbed down the network of roots which were matted as densely as a net. My phone’s flashlight prodded the darkness like a needle in an elephant, utterly underwhelming in the massive space I suddenly found myself within. The hidden cave was a converging point for the tendrils from the innumerable trees, which joined together here into larger roots, merging in turn to weave great networked tapestries which dwarfed the thin trees above the ground. I continued climbing downward along the widening roots, tempted to hide down here all day and freak out my family.
Below the cave, my route terminated in a small circular space, not much larger than my own body. It felt like being on the inside of an egg: completely encapsulated by the roots which were matted so densely now that they formed an impenetrable wall of wood. It was so quiet down here that I could hear my heart throbbing in my ears, my labored breathing a hurricane which fractured the stillness.
‘Can you hear them?’ my sister had asked last night, wide-eyed and serious.
Up above under the wide open sky with my family eating dinner? That question was child’s play. But here in this hidden kingdom under the earth? I placed my hand on a massive column and felt what she was talking about. This could have been growing before humans existed. It could have been touched by forgotten Gods or aliens who walked the Earth before history began. Or perhaps the Earth itself was living through these mighty pillars, lying dormant but for the quiet seething anger which slowly burned through the millennium.
The root was warm to the touch, and as I felt it, it was unmistakably feeling me in return. I had the unnerving feeling that a sound too deep for my ears to register was silently screaming around me. The feeling became more intense the longer I held on. I saw fire in my mind’s eye, running in infernal rivers from the depths of the world to drown the cities which infested the land like festering rot on clean skin. The root was getting hotter under my touch, and as much as I tried to clear my head, the thoughts returned — the decaying towers, the teaming crowds aimlessly running, the rivers of blood which flowed down crumbling streets.
I ripped my hand away and let go, panting for breath. This was better than ghosts. This was real. And all I could think about was showing it to Clara and watching her freak. I scrambled back up the roots, pulling myself hand-over-hand onto the surface to run the whole way back to the campsite.
“What in the world —” my mother started.
“Where’s Clara? I want to show her something.”
“She went to lie down for a little while. How did you get so filthy?”
But I didn’t wait. I sprang into her tent, practically dragging her to her feet while my parents protested from behind.
“Just for a second, okay? You can sleep anytime, but this is what we’re here for.”
“Mark don’t you dare bother her —”
“It’s okay, mom,” Clara said, dragging herself out to flinch beneath the sun. “I’m here to spend time with Mark too, right?”
There it was again. Mom and dad holding hands, clenching so tightly they shook. That didn’t matter though. All I could think about was Clara’s face when I showed her my secret discovery. Our parents offered to come with us, but I figured that would destroy the whole fun of the secret. I was pleasantly surprised that Clara was so willing to go — it seems like she didn’t want to do anything anymore.
“You heard it too,” she said the moment we were alone.
“Not heard. Felt.”
“This isn’t a trick, right? You’re not just making fun of me because I believe it?”
“When have I ever tried to trick you?” I put on my best facade of shocked-innocence. She snickered.
“How about when you wrote ‘soap flavor’ on the ice-cream box so you wouldn’t have to share?”
“That’s an isolated incident.”
“Or when you told me the cactus had soft spines like cat’s fur?”
“I didn’t think you’d just slap it.”
She laughed again, and we walked on in silence for a bit. She was obviously struggling, but she was just as obviously making an effort to hide it, so I didn’t say anything. It wasn’t much farther anyway.
“Up there, right around that grove. Anyway if I trick you so much, then how come you still believe me?”
She shrugged, catching my eyes for a second before turning to look where I was pointing. “I guess I don’t know how many more chances I’ll have to be tricked. I want to make the most of it while I still can.”
I didn’t know how to respond to that, so I kept walking.
“That’s why we’re here. You know that, right?” she asked.
I kept staring straight ahead.
“This might be our last chance for the whole family to be together before I…”
“It’s over here,” I interrupted, squatting down beside the hole. I expected her to say something sarcastic or to complain.
“Give me a hand, okay?” She didn’t even hesitate. Feet first, she began lowering herself down. I helped keep her steady while she climbed. I kept my eyes on our hands so I didn’t have to look at her face. I fully understood what she was saying, and I didn’t want her to say more. I didn’t start climbing after her until her feet had touched the cave floor.
“You’re right. It’s stronger down here,” she said.
“You haven’t seen anything yet. Come on.”
I continued leading to the point where the roots terminated in the enclosed root-egg. There wasn’t enough room for both of us to fit in the perfect nest, so I helped her climb in while I waited in the larger cave. Her fingers grazed the roots in silent reverence, hand jerking back from their warmth. That little smile glinted in the darkness, stretching into a euphoric grin as she touched the wood again to massage the wood.
“You feel it?” I asked. I knew she did, but I had to ask anyway because the silence was so heavy down here.
She simply smiled and closed her eyes. The sound of my rushing blood filled my ears again. I had to keep talking.
“What made you think it was calling for you?”
She wasn’t the one who answered though. It was that scream again, too deep to hear, but I felt the echo in every vibrating root. It came from everywhere — all the mighty forest bellowing in silence, all the unknown depths of the roots, all resonating with a single, persistent, throb. Even outside of the egg I could start to feel the colossal intent seep into my mind. Incessant, irrepressible thoughts, so vivid I might as well be seeing them with my eyes. Imagery of burning rivers bubbling up from the Earth to exhaust themselves in the open air, leaving behind an abyss so deep that it must pierce through the core of the planet.
“Clara? What’s going on? What do you see?” Even shining my light in my face, I could barely see it. All was fire and the bellowing howl, mounting in pitch just enough for me to actually hear the low rumble like an earthquake.
“Clara you have to get out of there. Something is going to happen.”
“I know. I’m making it happen.” The voice sounded so small and distant next to the enveloping presence. “We both need each other. “I need its enduring life, and it needs a body to guide its will.”
“Clara where are you? Quick grab my hand!” I fumbled to reach down to her, but the visions were too intense for me to see straight. My raw hands kept butting up against the roots.”
“Tell mom and dad that I didn’t die. That I’ll never die.”
Why couldn’t I find the opening? I’d been standing right over it a moment ago.
“Tell them I’ll be with them in the forest, even if they think themselves alone.”
It took me going down on my belly to finally realize what had happened. It wasn’t that I couldn’t find the hole — it’s that the hole didn’t exist anymore. The roots had moved, fully sealing Clara inside the earth.
“Clara! Can you hear me? Clara get out!”
“I am out, Mark.” The reply was so faint. “No more tricks between us. You’re the one who should be running.”
I’m not proud of the fact that I ran, scrambling back up the roots to pull myself onto the surface. Some might call it cowardice, but I know the certainty in her voice and I trusted her more than I trusted myself in that moment. Even above the ground I could still feel the silent scream, so low and powerful that my entire body vibrated. Panting for breath on the surface, I started to scream with everything my ragged lungs would allow. I don’t know how long this went on for, but by the time I stopped, the forest was silent again.
The earth wasn’t shaking. The visions had cleared. All except for the hint of Clara’s face outlined in the bark of an aspen tree.