The Blissful Insensate

zmachine

There’s a reason we don’t know about the things sharing the same space we do. The most obvious one is we can’t see them. Nor can we hear, smell, touch, or taste them. But they exist. They float in and through us; in and through each other. Space, to them, is an infinite series of fields in what we’d consider single positions. If it sounds like nonsense, then you’re showing you can think. You’re showing you have an epistemology based in logic and reason. The problem for us, a group of great thinkers by anyone’s standards, was it meant we were utterly unprepared.

I worked at the Sandia National Laboratories on a project called the Z-Machine. We made the news back in 2006 when we were able to produce the highest temperature ever detected, at around 6.6 billion degrees Fahrenheit. Since then, the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland has produced a higher temperature and gleaned loads more information than we were able to. That didn’t mean we decommissioned our Z-Machine and terminated the associated research. Far from it.

After 2006, we began to implement a series of upgrades to our power and containment infrastructure. The goal was to leapfrog the LHC temperature record and reach one quadrillion degrees Fahrenheit; a number nearly every scientist on the team believed would be unattainable for at least another 50 years. New computational models combined with advances in materials science and capacitor discharge timing, however, caused them to reconsider their doubts. Under a cover of secrecy, we continued our upgrades – and in late August of 2016, we were ready to test.

I should give a little background before continuing. In the interest of full disclosure, I need to tell you a little something about myself: I was born blind. I endured my share of hardships, which, when compared to some less-privileged children, were paltry, but still unpleasant. Despite my disability, my love of learning was obvious. It became clear fairly early in my life that I was unusually good at mathematics, and thanks to the resources of my parents and a few generous people in my school, I was allowed to continually test and hone my mathematical abilities over the course of my educational career. I ended up at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and, eventually, at the Sandia National Laboratories. Whether or not this will help lend credence to my story is entirely up to the reader, but I think it is important to include.

Now, at the end of this past August, the days leading up to the test were fraught with difficulty. Small parts were breaking down, simple things that’d worked perfectly for the last test were failing in the models, and our capacitor banks kept refusing to synchronize. Some of us were reminded of the hardships prior to the first test of the LHC, when conspiracy theorists were claiming visitors from the future were sabotaging the components to prevent a catastrophe from occurring when the machine was activated.

Thankfully for our project and the stress levels of the engineers and physicists I worked with, the problems were ironed out. On August 29th, Dr. Wang Lin and Dr. Alasdair Greenberg were alongside me in the control room as countless people in all branches of the military and scientific establishment watched remotely.

We’d begun charging the capacitors a few hours prior to the test. Our onsite nuclear plant was chugging along and providing the power we needed, despite redlining once or twice as the capacitors absorbed every electron they were fed. I felt out the various readouts on my braille terminal and listened for any audio cues that were programmed to indicate any anomalies. There were none. We were ready to test.

At 11:10am, we started the countdown. The smell of ozone from all the nearby electricity was pervasive and mildly intoxicating. Dr. Lin’s voice was steady and tinged with controlled excitement as he read the last numbers: 4…3…2…1.

I heard a loud, clapping sound as the power was shunted from the capacitors into Marx generators, followed by a pop as the generators fed the Z-Machine. The test was over. All we needed to do was wait for the flood of data.

Before any data could pour in, though, I heard some commotion behind me. Drs. Lin and Greenberg were talking, but not to one another nor anyone observing remotely. It was as if they were talking to themselves, under their breath, but not in words I could understand. Then Dr. Lin said, “hello there,” as if speaking to a cat or other small animal. Similarly, Dr. Greenberg muttered, “what in the world are you, little guy?”

I asked them who they were talking to, but they wouldn’t reply. I felt some pressure in my chest and against my skin that reminded me of blankets rich with static electricity were being pressed and rubbed all over me.

“What are all these things?,” asked Dr. Greenberg. Someone viewing remotely asked him to clarify; they weren’t seeing anything on the monitors.

“Jerry,” said Dr. Lin, speaking to me, “do you feel them?”

“Feel who?,” I asked. “Feel what?”

“They’re all over us,” Dr. Greenberg told me. “Floating in and out and around like little squid or jellyfish.”

“What the hell is that?,” Dr. Lin asked.

“Jesus, what is…,” started Dr. Greenberg.

The two doctors gasped and shouted. I felt them pushing up against the control panel next to me, which was the furthest spot from the observation deck overlooking the Z-Machine.

“Guys, what’s going on?” I felt moderate fear starting to nibble at my spine, growing in severity as the doctors refused to answer me and only kept gasping and shouting.

I clicked my headset over to the observation channel and tried to get one of the remote parties to fill me in on what was happening. They were equally in the dark and wanted me to tell them what was wrong with the doctors. Other members of the labs were banging on the door of our control room, trying to get it open. It was locked.

“It’s huge…,” choked out Dr. Greenberg.

“Why is it here?,” whispered Dr. Lin. He was sobbing.

“I can’t look at it anymore,” Dr. Greenberg announced, matter-of-factly.

I heard something metallic, then the sound of Dr. Greenberg screaming. “I can feel it in my head – I can taste it – it’s in every part of me.”

Dr. Lin called out, “let me help you.” There were wet noises mixed in with the pounding on the door and the commotion on the radio as the remote observers saw what the doctors were doing in the control room.

All I could focus on was the feeling of static and pressure on my skin. It was suffocating and terrible, like those blankets were sliding in and out of my lungs and mouth and leaving little arcs of electricity with every move.

I heard the door slam open and the feeling dissipated. I sat slumped in my chair, trying to catch my breath, as security and other scientists rushed into the control room.

“What the fuck is going on?,” I yelled, and felt someone pushing me and my chair out of the room, down the long hallway, and into another lab.

And that was it.

I was sedated against my will and woke up in the hospital three days later. I was forced to sign documents making me promise, under penalty of treason, that I wouldn’t divulge what happened during that test. But I didn’t know what happened. I still don’t. Regardless, I need to tell you that something happened. Something monstrous.

As I waited in the hospital, a friend of mine from the labs, Dr. Marie Lenzetti, sat with me and said what happened to Drs. Lin and Greenberg. Both were dead. Dr. Lin had killed Dr. Greenberg and inflicted terrible injuries on himself. But Dr. Lin spoke to the other scientists before he died. He told them what it was he saw; what he saw, then as a consequence heard and felt and heard and smelled and tasted. It was something entirely beyond his comprehension; something entirely beyond anything he could have dreamt.

The doctors got a glimpse of what occupied the space we thought was our own. The Z-Machine experiment created conditions that allowed them to see how wrong we were. That moment, he said, lasted an eternity. As soon as its shape registered in his eyes, he experienced it in all his senses. Every sense was dominated. Cutting away Dr. Greenberg’s eyes, tongue, nose, ears, and as much skin as possible was the only act of mercy and relief he could give his friend. And when he was done, he tried to do the same to himself, only to be stopped before he could excise his own tongue and skin. He died of a massive stroke an hour later.

I’m writing this to let you know there are things outside the realm of our senses which pervade everything we do. Everything we are. Things that can prove, and in fact have now proven, that we are not the dominant actors in the space we occupy. The Z-Machine experiment last month showed my friends the atrocious nature of true reality: something too hideous for our senses to endure. I will never consider my blindness to be anything other than a gift for as long as I continue to live.

More.
Unsettling Stories is on Facebook.

The Face in the Clouds

sky

Our observatory received word about a meteorological anomaly in Himachal Pradesh, India. While our satellites didn’t pick up anything out of the ordinary, the frequency and diversity of the reports suggested something was, indeed, amiss. Further, the crowdsourced pictures and video of the area, all taken and sent by cellular phones, were all corrupted beyond recognition. Whatever it was these people were seeing, you had to be there to get a glimpse.

As I was stationed on a military base in Afghanistan and about three hours away by jet, I was chosen to investigate. One quick flight to a local airport and a short helicopter ride later, I was on the ground at the site of the anomaly.

The meteorological disturbance was gone. The sky was clear and the late afternoon sun cast a warm orange glow on the orchards and farms at the foot of the mountains. That glow was the only warmth to be found.

The locals who’d seen the anomaly were uncharacteristically quiet. I’d heard from folks familiar with the area that the people here were normally gregarious and outgoing. These people were the opposite. They were taciturn and skittish. Moreover, they were unwilling to discuss what they’d seen that morning. They spoke about the incident as if it’d been a trauma; more often than not, their eyes teared up when my translator mentioned it.

I did my best to glean any bits of information that I could, but my success rate was low. The most I was able to learn came from a little girl, who, in the course of recalling the incident, burst into tears as she mentioned a face in the clouds. She would give us no more information after that.

The translator and I decided to call it a night and checked into our hotel. It was small but pleasant enough; the meal that was included was sumptuous, albeit a bit spicier than I’d been expecting. As we ate, it was hard not to notice the quietness of the dining room. Despite all eight tables being filled with diners, few words were spoken. Many tears, however, were shed. It felt like a great tragedy had occurred, yet no one was willing to admit what, exactly, had happened.

At my suggestion, the translator was able to eavesdrop on a few commonalities in the brief, quiet conversations going on around us. They all talked about having intense discomfort with having to wait for so long. There were nods of resignation and more tears. Still unable to put anything into a coherent, let alone meteorological, context, we decided it would be best to retire to our room and try again the next day.

Our sleep was taken from us in the early hours of this morning. It was still dark, but there was a buzz of activity in the streets. We left our room and went outside. We recognized people from dinner and from the businesses we’d stopped in the previous day. In the glow of the streetlights, I could see their faces were all wet with tears. They wept and moaned and the translator, with some alarm in his voice, told me they were conducting a slow, disorganized countdown. They had just reached ten seconds.

I stared at the translator for a moment, trying to put it all together, but there just wasn’t enough. Nothing made sense. Then, as the first sliver of sunlight crested the mountains, the screaming started. Women, children, and men, in unison, shrieked with sorrow and pain and desperation and clasped their hands to their eyes. My panic, already growing in my chest, began to bloom as blood trickled down their screaming faces.

As more sunlight filled the street, the intensity of the hideous wailing grew. When it reached a point when voices were beginning to give out and people were falling to their knees, a cloud passed in front of the sun. Every scream was silenced. Faces drenched with tears and blood began to smile. Hands were lowered to sides. Now it was I who shouted. Their eyes were destroyed. It looked as if they had burst. From what, I had no idea.

The translator, who’d been looking at the sky, gasped. I started to turn my gaze in the direction he was looking, but he grabbed my head with great force and pushed it down toward the ground and the faces of the terribly-disfigured people who still smiled with their faces turned skyward.

“Don’t!,” he shouted. He inhaled a lungful of air and exclaimed, “Now I know what they saw!”

The panic and concern in his voice was combined with something else. Something far more disturbing. It was ecstasy.

“Oh my God,” he cried, over and over and over, still holding my head in a vicegrip to prevent me from looking up. I’d lost my desire to do so. In fact, something else had claimed my attention. The gaping holes in the faces of the townsfolk had started projecting strings. Fleshy, red filaments slinked down their faces, but then perked upward and became erect. More and more length poured out and stretched outward and up. I couldn’t see where, but I had a feeling.

“They’re getting to touch him,” whispered the translator. “He is letting them inside.” His voice cracked and his next words were punctuated by sobs. “They’re tasting him with their eyes.”

I scanned the faces of the people in front of me. Their smiles were rapturous and the thin tendrils pulsed and quivered and gently pulled their heads forward.

The sky brightened. All at once, the ropes fell from the sky. They draped over me and the translator and the townsfolk fell on their faces into the street. The sun broke through the clouds. None of the fallen people moved.

The translator released my head and I spun around and looked into the cloudless sky. I directed my gaze down and saw what had to be miles of red, meaty tendrils stretched across the roads and rooftops all the way to the mountain. Finally, I looked at the translator. He was weeping. I asked him to tell me what he saw.

“The face in the clouds,” he told me. “The face that lets eyes taste him.”

He wept for a minute without interruption before speaking up. “There is so much more I wanted to see with my old eyes. So many more sights. But my new eyes will allow to taste so much more than I’ve ever been able to see. All I have to do is wait.”

Flies began to investigate the bodies in the dirt, landing on the gaping eye sockets and extruded filaments. My thoughts wandered to what I should do next. The translator sobbed next to me and began counting down from 85,000. The number of seconds until the next sunrise, I realized. More and more flies descended on the corpses and tasted the townsfolk with their feet. As the translator counted down with breathless anticipation, my fear grew into something monstrous and unexpected: curiosity.

Curiosity and desire.

More.
Unsettling Stories is on Facebook.

Ouroboros

ouroboros

Calories in, calories out.

I used the dremel saw I stole from work to cut off the first knuckle of my left pinky. The bosses had to know I took the thing but I doubt they even cared. What’s a $100 tool to a company that’s worth millions? Besides, they were getting rid of me, and that’s what their priority was. Maybe they’ll take it out of the last check they said they’d mail.

Despite what I thought, it wasn’t easy to pull the bone out of the finger chunk. So, I peeled off the nail and then cut the remainder of the piece open with the dremel and took the bone out the messy way. I didn’t think much as I popped the fingertip in my mouth and chewed for what felt like an hour before the meat broke down enough for me to comfortably swallow. I tried to figure out how many calories were in the finger segment while also working to determine how my caloric needs have changed now that my body mass had decreased by that little bit. I don’t know why I wasted so many years cutting when I could’ve done the smart thing by cutting off.

My adrenaline was off the chart for the rest of the day and I could barely sleep. I was brimming with excitement; I’d actually found a way to beat the system. Why do we need food when we are food? This elation was crushed when I stepped on the scale the following morning and saw the familiar, disgusting number: 82 pounds. I punched myself and clawed at my face as I stared at the scarred, bloated atrocity that smirked at me in the mirror. Much too much of me. Far too much.

I bent the remainder of my left pinky backward and twisted. The mirror-me kept smiling. I twisted and twisted the finger until it was connected to my hand by a tiny, tight rope of skin before pulling the broken digit completely off. I walked into the kitchen and turned on the stove’s electric burner and pressed the stump onto the coils. No more bleeding. Back in the bathroom, I took an antibiotic and an Oxy I had left over from my back surgery last year. I didn’t want to get too sick to continue or be in too much pain and lose my nerve. I gazed in the mirror while I chewed the cooling flesh off the bone.

Did you know it’s surprisingly easy to find someone on Craigslist who will perform surgery for the promise of cash? We met in my garage. He inspected the place for cameras, closed the garage door, and slammed the hatchet into my left wrist. I fingered my collarbones and traced the craggy topography of my ribcage as he swore, realizing he’d only broken the bones without severing my hand. All the while I’d retreated into my head, watching the scene unfold from above. I felt the thud as the blade hit me and the dull popping as he carved away. The Oxy did a really good job masking most of the pain. To be honest, I was a little disappointed.

My Craigslist surgeon looked mildly haunted by what he’d done, so as soon as he seared the wound shut with the torch, he ran out. He’d be back soon enough, though. I sat in the garage and stared at the stump where my hand used to be. It smelled like the time mom burned pork chops and almost set the kitchen on fire. My severed hand sat on the table like a flaccid relative of Thing from The Addams Family. Picking it up, I was a little surprised by how heavy it felt. You never really think about the individual parts of your body having weight. Still, I was encouraged. This was an immediate loss of at least a pound or two.

I gnawed at the sinewy knuckle areas and fought through a dizzy spell. Orange juice helped get my head to stop spinning. Whether it was blood loss or excitement didn’t matter much. Things were finally going in the right direction.

A week later, I contacted my Craigslist surgeon again. I didn’t have any more cash, but he agreed to do what I wanted in exchange for a couple of the Oxy pills. I had at least 20 more in one bottle and an unopened bottle of 30 stashed in my bedroom, so he’d be happy for a while. Besides, we were almost done. I was almost done.

My surgeon said the next part would probably kill me. I agreed. He got to work. The pills didn’t do much to dull the pain this time. The feeling of a saw going through a femur right near the hipbone is a hard thing to describe. Even harder is the sensation one experiences the moment one’s femoral artery is severed. It’s like the world starts melting and going gray at the same time. Luckily, my surgeon had the torch ready and seared the gushing artery shut before finishing the amputation. When dropped the saw, the first thing I did was try to wiggle my toes. It felt like I was wiggling them just fine. Strange. I threw down another few antibiotics and painkillers.

Before the surgeon left, I demanded that he help me to the bathroom scale. It was hard to balance on one leg and get a proper reading on the scale, but when it finally registered, I was triumphant. 68lbs. The dizziness came back quickly and I yelled to the surgeon who was about to leave. We were going to finish this. It didn’t take long for him to agree to take off my other leg in exchange for more pills. Cut cut, burn burn. He carried me back to the scale where I teetered on my lopsided stumps. 59lbs. Then he brought me to my bed.

So here I am. My right arm works fine; I don’t think I want to get rid of that. It’s probably the only part of me I find useful these days. I figure I have another couple weeks of antibiotics left. They’re next to me under the pillow. I tucked my severed legs under the comforter. Over the next few days, I’ll nip at them whenever I’m hungry. My guess is the hunger pains will become less intense once my body realizes it doesn’t have as much to fuel. Until then, I’ll just keep taking little bites. Minimal intake, just like I’m used to. Just like what keeps me comfortably in control.

More.
Unsettling Stories is on Facebook.

My dad was a safety officer at Chernobyl during the meltdown. Before he died last year, he told me about something he saw that night. I can’t keep it to myself.

chernobyl

I won’t give a long backstory because it doesn’t matter. Basically, he got the job through a former schoolmate of his who worked in some mid-level Party position. Dad was down on his luck at the time and Egor happened to see him at a local tavern. They got to talking, and Egor pulled some strings and gave him the position. Didn’t matter that he wasn’t qualified. “Half the guys aren’t,” he was told.

Anyway, dad started working there in 1984 and did a pretty good job. He did what he was told; most of it was just checking dial readouts and making sure pipes were sealed and whatnot. In late 1985 and early 1986, he started noticing far more Party representatives coming in and out of the plant. Usually the visits were limited to compliance officers and hazardous materials supervisors when radioactive material was moved in or out. But these weren’t plant specialists. They looked like they were Politburo. He told me he recognized a couple of them from televised speeches, but he didn’t remember the names. He just knew they were high ranking.

On the night of the meltdown, Dad was doing his usual valve and dial checks when Politburo members, accompanied by soldiers with kalashnikovs, streamed down the hall toward the reactor area. The soldiers were wearing radiation suits. The Party members weren’t. He tagged along a few tens of meters away and went up on a high catwalk where he could see all of them. They crowded around the cooling pools. Dad made an effort to act as if he was staring at the pressure readouts in front of him, vaguely noticing they were rising as he watched.

This was around the point when the lights cut out. Apparently this wasn’t abnormal for the plant; the electrical systems were under maintained and all the electricians on staff were tasked with more critical work. Even with the lights not working, Cherenkov radiation cast its characteristic blue glow over the group and illuminated the politicians and soldiers. The water in the pool started moving.

Now, dad wasn’t a nuclear engineer. Still, he knew whatever was happening in the pool was abnormal. He’d been by the area plenty of times and never once did the water move like it did right then. It sloshed with turbidity and looked like it was coming to a rolling boil. He glanced at the dials in front of him and saw the temperature and pressure in the loop system was dramatically higher than it should’ve been. As he was beginning to sprint across the catwalk toward the nearest alarm station, he saw something that made him stop.

What he told me didn’t make much sense at first. You have to figure someone running at a dead sprint to pull an emergency alarm at a nuclear power plant wouldn’t stop for anything. But he stopped. And he stared. Something had floated to the top of the boiling water. The way he described it, it was dark, grayish red, almost shaped like a person, but much bigger and dreadfully deformed. It floated, facedown, in the pool. The Party members didn’t react but the soldiers raised their rifles at the thing until one of the politicians barked an order at them to stand down.

A moment or two later, the thing crawled out of the pool and raised itself on thick legs to stand before the gathered crowd. What dad said he remembered most about the thing was its head. It sat directly on its lopsided shoulders and it had no eyes, no nose, no ears. All that was there was a gaping hole. Not even a mouth, but a hole. And inside, the same blue glow from the pool shone out onto the faces of the people surrounding it.

Someone else in the plant must’ve noticed the temperature and pressure abnormalities and pulled the alarm, because sirens began to blare and diesel generators were galvanized into action to force the cooling cycle into overdrive. None of that mattered to dad, though. He said the thing approached the soldiers, one by one, and without any of them putting up a fight, it pressed the hole in its face against the top of each of their heads and they started to dissolve. First their suits melted, then their skin began to blister and char. The thing moved its maw downward until it nearly reached their legs, which dropped to the ground in a smoldering heap.

It then did the same to the assembled Politburo. All but one. She stood in the middle of a pile of steaming legs and hips and crotches and stared at the atrocity. Then, she screamed at it. It’s something dad said he’s repeated to himself every day since. “залить соль на почве.” Salt the earth. As the words left her mouth, the geiger counter dad was forced to carry with him at all times exploded into life at the same instant the politician burst into flames. He could swear she smiled as she burned.

All this was finally enough for dad to make a break for it. He knew he’d been irradiated badly, but he took some solace in the fact the ticks from the counter slowed quickly as he left the pool area. Right before he was clear of the room, he took one last glimpse at the thing. It had begun to melt. As soon as its body began pouring through the metal grate, the water below erupted into a mass of superheated steam. Dad avoided being scalded to death by about half a second when he turned the corner and slammed the door behind him.

The rest of the meltdown played out more or less like it was eventually reported. Dad was able to get out before the main explosion. He lived with the profound guilt of running by his colleagues who still didn’t know something truly catastrophic was about to happen. He believed his thyroid cancer was payback for his indifference toward them during his escape.

The iconic photograph of the radioactive “elephant’s foot” in the basement of the power plant stood, framed, on his dresser for the rest of his life. As he told me this story, he confessed he kept it to remind him of the implications of the politician’s words before she was devoured by flames. “That thing will render the area around it uninhabitable for a hundred years,” he sighed. “And it’s melting through the ground, even today. If it hits groundwater, it’ll explode like a dirty bomb and make the disaster in ‘86 look like a firecracker. Russia, Europe, North Africa. All irradiated.”

He died a couple days after he shared his experience with me. I just have no idea what to do with it all. Obviously, he could’ve made the whole thing up. But I don’t know why he would. He doesn’t have anything to gain now that he’s dead. Maybe some of the other survivors or their kids can corroborate parts of what he said, maybe they can’t. Either way, if it’s true, there is so much more going on with that disaster than we’ve been told. Even now, as that radioactive slag melts into the ground, dad’s story almost makes it sound like the meltdown was just a precursor to something far worse. Something plotted. Please, if anyone can give some advice or insight, it would be appreciated. I don’t want what he told me to be true, but “залить соль на почве” terrifies me more than I can bear.

More.
Unsettling Stores is on Facebook.