Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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The Lonely Sea

by Ian Donato



Every secret world has its lonely sea.

Professor Nick Gogos

1.

The front door stood before me and I knocked twice. I had not seen this door for twenty years and despite that or because of it I was feeling nothing. If there was something I was feeling it was hidden from me. Perhaps if someone opened the door and that someone was the person I'd come to see they'd show me what to feel.

Of course, after twenty years, missing for twenty years that is, I had no reason to actually believe it would be my wife, if anyone, who would open the door. The odd thing was, as far as I could tell, was that the door had undergone no change at all. In every detail it was the same door I'd left closed behind me.

While I waited for an answer I peered up at the sky. I was still getting used to seeing the sky again.

The door opened and I must've resembled a tortoise with its head out: blank stare heavenwards and leathery neck swaying.

"Where the fuck have you been?"

It was my wife.

All I could do was look at her with my beady little eyes.

"What the fuck has happened to you?"

I couldn't answer her. She was shocked and I was easily twice as shocked. There was no shock in her face, it was all in her voice. Her face was a lump of wood, albeit a youthful lump of wood.

Look, all things considered, it had every right to be a lump of wood but not a youthful one. Twenty years had passed since I'd last seen it.

"I'm back," I finally told my wife.

"I can see that, but what the fuck has happened to you?"

"I've been gone a long time."

The lump of wood became the carving of an angry face.

"Sure, a year is a long fucking time. But, answer my question."

To put it lightly, something wasn't right here. A second shock, akin to a bolt of lightning, passed through me. If I hadn't been hollowed-out before I certainly was now, I was overtaken by a pervading sense of lifting off the ground.

"Jesus fucking Christ, you look like an old man."

I continued to float.

"I am an old man."

"I don't give a fuck what you say you are. Piss off. I don't want the children to see you like this. Don't come back."

The children? Our children?

No, this was impossible. I had been gone for twenty years. There could be no children, not mine anyway. I had been gone twenty years and I'd been -- I won't say happy, but I will say fully-engaged -- where I'd been. That'd gone to hell and I'd returned home because my wife would be old and our children would not be children.

My feet touched the ground.

"All right," I told my wife, my unchanged wife, "I'm out of here."

She slammed the front door in my face.

2.

My plan, now shown to be a vague notion, a lapse in comprehension, a failure to understand something strange at work, was in tatters. I was at a loss as to what to do next; all I had in one hand was a small bag with a single change of clothes and in the other a coat. The weather was warm and I had no money whatsoever. I walked and walked at my snail's pace.

My memory served me like something buried deep but nonetheless effective, a blind creature that somehow knew where best to go. I ended up in a large expanse of parkland. I'd figured it would've been built upon by now despite its uneven nature, it was really steep in places, but it hadn't been and for that I was truly grateful.

I found a bench in the shade, sunshine at this point was still so alien to me it remained a completely new form of radiation. I sat down and considered my next move.

There was no way I'd be going back to where I'd been for the last twenty years. To expand on what I said before, death and sex had rather suddenly ruined my last situation. Prior to these particular events, one following the other in quick succession, I will contradict what I said earlier and say I was happy. Sometimes very happy regardless of the illegal, not to mention unholy, nature of my employment.

Anyway, it had all been ruined.

Firstly, there'd been the death of a young man who'd only lately joined our science team. For the record I didn't like him and he didn't like me but to be party to his death by being the senior lab assistant to his junior one spelled the end of my joy in the sick experiments conducted within my once beloved Research Complex.

Secondly, I'd had sex with my employer, the Young Scientist. The Young Scientist had been the only other person at the complex apart from me until the arrival of that young man who may or may not have been meant as my replacement. At any rate, before his death, I'd never crossed the line with my employer. That line is there to prevent your employer, no matter how beautiful she might be, from becoming your master.

Why I crossed the line I find too shameful to go into detail about. In fact, I'd actually meant to kill her at the time because she had so gleefully, in retrospect, engineered the new lows involving that last experiment. The only detail I feel obligated to impart is the fact the Young Scientist and I had copulated on the floor of the same lab where the body of the young man lay.

One other thing I must add is that the new assistant had not been killed by either me or our employer or his own hand. The thing that'd killed him was aliving machine.

Thankfully, he'd also killed it. He'd had a knife.

Then I took his knife and dropped it.

Later, after we'd finished, the Young Scientist told me our next living machine would go by a different name.

The New Human.

3.

On the move again, mine was no longer a snail's pace. The steep terrain leading down into the darker heart of the parkland saw to that. In one way it was quite uplifting to hit patches of ground which were pretty much vertical and experience moments of free fall, but, to break a bone, and presumably my bones were no better than lengths of chalk, would've left me fucked.

Loose soil was both a kindness and a threat. I was soon covered in dirt and that was more liberating than any amount of sunshine. Just short of this pit's bottom I reached a barrier and I knew this barrier well. I'd known it since I was a child. In a sense this barrier was hundreds of years old.

A wall of truly-ugly scrub was now in front of my nose. To go any further and deeper would surely prove to be harder work than I was capable of. However, the reward on offer here was a return to darkness. One somewhat less unnatural but perhaps just as malevolent.

The initial growth, the skin of the tract of scrub, was painful to penetrate. My own skin was left behind in sizable cuts like cuts of grey fabric soaked in blood and sweat. This ugly shit didn't leave a scratch, it was too busy tearing strips off me.

I didn't give a fuck. Nonetheless, as luck and growing darkness would have it the scrub became sparser and the going got a lot easier.

The neglect here, the forgotten nature of the place positively sang to me. There was a purity to be found borne out by the fact the scrub was largely made up of a single type of weed. Hogweed we'd called it as kids but I'll readily admit I've never known its real name.

This weed, now barely touching me thankfully, persisted in providing coverage overhead. It was as if the thick skin at the start of the tract had continued to grow up and up until its weight had bent it over into the canopy presently over my head. Dappled sunlight played over my moving arms and legs and the blood covering them. The dust I happily kicked up created needles of light around me.

A lot of the canopy wasn't green at all. A lot of it was straw-colored, brittle and very dried-out by the look of it. At times I felt I was moving under a great big overturned basket made of bones, thousands and thousands of them.

At last I found what I was looking for. In the very heart of this forsaken tract was the little railway station that once upon a time, a time when this place had been cleared of its original population of trees, had been started but never finished. There was even a length of train track in front of it that met nothing at either end. The rotten sleepers were under my feet, soft and welcoming.

The uncompleted train station was pretty much just a concrete hut. However, it was a structure built above ground, handy in a shelter. Once I climbed up one of its end ramps I found the inside of the waiting room to initially be a letdown. It too was unfinished; dim light found its way through gaps between the walls and the roof. The damp here was interminable, borne out in the fact the waiting room's only upholstery was moss. The moss was wall to wall and ankle deep, it crept up the walls in patterns I read as talismans.

My wounds began to sting fiercely. Not all the bleeding had stopped. I had every reason to believe infection would set in sooner rather than later. Instinctively or otherwise I lay upon the moss then rolled in it. Almost immediately both the pain and bleeding stopped, but I kept rolling in the moss regardless.

4.

It was out of the question to spend the approaching winter at the station. I'd only be able to stay a couple of weeks and then what? In the meantime, what if other squatters or worse turned up? And what was I going to do about food?

For the moment at hand, though, I was happy. Happier than an old fool like me had any right to be. I was alone, I wasn't hungry, I wasn't afraid and most importantly I was clear of the Research Complex and the master.

A week or two went by, and as unlikely as it might've seemed, all was going well in my new situation. I found things to eat, nothing to rave about, but nonetheless each night I slept like a man who lived in a mansion.

That was until one morning I woke up and there was a visitor standing on the platform, needles of light revealing her face. It took some time for me to recognize the face or, more likely, to accept whose face it was. I lay on my bed of moss and studied the Young Scientist's face as if she wasn't really there, as if she was a dream.

Like a dream her face had not changed in the slightest detail. It's never less than beautiful, the sort of beauty that holds more the promise of being a threat rather than being unobtainable. Her large eyes have oversized whites which glisten as if with venom, and their irises are so dark they conspire with the pupils to create black holes.

Sitting up in my bed I took notice of the fact the Young Scientist had gone to the trouble of wearing her lab coat. It, along with her face, hadn't suffered a smudge or a tear in coming here. It was a perfect white and that was unsettling.

Equally unsettling was that there was a knife in the Young Scientist's hand. This wasn't a knife unknown to me, this was the knife I'd left behind in the Research Complex, the one I really should've used to kill her.

Of course, it was neither her property nor mine. In lieu of a proper breakfast there was the taste of theft in the air.

It was a struggle but I got to my feet and perhaps as sign of her appreciation for my efforts the Young Scientist threw the knife onto the floor near me. The moss caught the knife with a wet whisper.

I opened my mouth but nothing would come out. Apart from the fact I was facing my former employer of twenty years, as well as her other significances, I hadn't said a word to anyone at all since my wife.

"Have you taken a vow of silence?"

I groaned. It was just a groan yet it counted as a start.

"Ah, it almost speaks."

"How the fuck did you find me?"

"You had no money and so I checked the parks. At the bottom of one park I found your blood and followed it here."

The Young Scientist made a few short sniffs as if I was supposed to believe she did indeed have the snout of a beagle. I looked at the knife between us for a brief moment.

"What else did you bring with you?"

"Nothing, nobody. Now that I've given your knife back there's just me in my lab coat and you."

"We both know that knife is not mine."

"We can safely say you inherited it."

Having said that, the Young Scientist actually jumped into the waiting room. Her bare feet made the same sound hitting the moss the knife had. I snatched up the knife in a motion quicker than I thought I would've been capable of.

"What the fuck do you want?"

The Young Scientist lifted her arms which in turn caused the lab coat to lift a little above her knees.

"I want you to come back with me. I want you to be my assistant again. My one and only."

"You must be joking."

"I've missed you. It seems like years because it has been fucking years. I want to see me and my work through your eyes again. I need a muse."

"You're fucking joking."

"Think about it. You'd otherwise never be a muse, or even a particularly good assistant, for anyone anywhere else but for me in my research complex."

I did think about it. To my understanding, a muse was traditionally female, and only poets or the like had use for one -- not a scientist whose work, while creative, could never have been mistaken for art.

Then something else occurred to me.

"What have you been doing since I've been gone?"

"I've carried on working."

Thinking about that I peered into the dark scrub around the station. I couldn't shake the feeling something was standing in those pools of ink which surpassed shadows.

"Are you here on your own?"

"Yes, it's just you and me."

To place any amount of trust in the Young Scientist was ill-advised. I hope I've made that much clear.

"If you need me so much why have you waited as long as you have to track me down and why have you carried on without me?"

My mistrust was beginning to bore the Young Scientist, I could see that in her face.

The Young Scientist bored had never been a safe prospect in the past. She came closer with no regard for the knife in my hand and those big eyes dug into my head.

"I wanted you to come back on your own and I wasn't going to stop working because wasting time can't be forgiven. It's the one form of waste that has no comparison -- and you would know that to be a fact."

Ignoring her rant about the nature of time, I replied, "What the fuck made you think I'd come back on my own?"

"Take a good look at yourself. You're living in a cave that's not even a proper cave and meanwhile you're both unable and unwilling to rejoin your family or society. What's really funny is, you're the one person worse at being a part of society than I am. There's no place for you but with me, working with me."

The knife wanted to fall from my hand; the feeling was equally familiar and compelling. I kept it in my hand by what may have been a force of will, but was probably fear really.

"Look, going back to what you said about time, something I've learned about being inside the Research Complex is that if I were to return I would be dead in no more than year from now as far as the outside world will be concerned."

Those big eyes were so moist I could not pick the line between love and venom.

"Inside our Research Complex so much will have happened in that year. You and I will have rocked the world and the world will never find out. We'll have thousands of secrets and we'll never ever share them. Yes, you will die quickly in relation to all this around us now but, relative to your remains, your children will live for centuries."

"That's mad, you're fucking mad. You've got to go."

The tip of the knife was touching her lab coat. This counted as unprecedented progress on my part. I closed my eyes.

"You will be safe with me," she said, "I promise we will never fuck again."

I lunged with the knife but the Young Scientist was gone.

Sadly, I have to admit I already knew she was no longer there in front of me. In fact, only when I was sure she was long gone did I throw the knife as far away as I could.

< B>5.

The very next morning there was yet another visitor waiting for me on the platform of the little station when I awoke. Once again, it took some time for my eyes to focus. There wasn't only the lack of sufficient light, there was a definite lack of belief in seeing who I was seeing.

A little girl stood upon the platform. She was eleven years old. As far as she was concerned she'd been ten the last time I'd seen her.

The moment I accepted the reality of who my visitor was, I was beset by a powerful clash of happiness and horror. To see my daughter standing only a few meters away from me, and her still a child after twenty years, was somehow, in a manner of speaking, like seeing someone who'd come back from the dead.

I wanted to jump up, run to her and hold her but I couldn't bear to do it. Twenty years weighed upon me like deep water. On her part, my daughter was not prepared to come any closer to the old man who was and wasn't her father.

Instead, she held out her hand. There was something balanced upon her fingertips and it looked larger and uglier than ever. It was that fucking knife again.

"I found this. Is this yours, Dad?"

I got up off my bed of moss and slowly approached my daughter. I took the knife from her hand without touching her and I said her name. But saying her name could neither separate nor remove the horror from the happiness I was feeling.

"Are you starving here, Dad?"

"No, there are certain mushrooms and all sorts of little blind things living underground to eat. Shall we dig some up, and I'll show you?"

"No,Dad, but what's the matter with you? Have you been sick with cancer or something? You look so old."

My daughter's face was such a pocket-sized study in concern, her eyes so bright in spite of the gloom around my camp I just wanted to laugh. I didn't though.

I said, "I am old. But, much more important is what are you doing here on your own?"

"I'm not here on my own. My brother came with me."

My heart did another loop the loop. I searched the bony scrub for my son, but he was nowhere to be seen, he was hiding from me. I shouted out his name.

"He won't come out, Dad. He's pissed off with you. He's only here to look after me."

Out of frustration I threw the knife in my hand at the wall behind me. It barely made a sound or a mark. I turned back to my daughter.

"How did you find the knife?"

"My brother found it," she replied in a whisper like this was a secret.

"And he gave it to you?" I whispered back.

"No, I had to beg him for it. He wanted to keep it. He was already so pissed off with you and I had to beg him to hand it over to me."

Once more I looked around for my son. He may as well have been a myth.

"Thank you," I told my daughter.

I think she wanted to smile but, all things considered, was unable to do so. If I hadn't been the old and hollow man I was I might've been able to hold and reassure her. As it was the child was effectively fatherless.

"I really don't know how you found me but now you should find your brother and go back home."

"A woman told me where to find you. She was very strange and she was very pretty."

"What?"

And, against everything I've said I'd been unable to do, I took a hold of my daughter's hand, rather roughly too I regret to say. The poor thing yelped.

Out of nowhere my son appeared and set upon me like an enraged chimpanzee. A year had granted him greatly-increased strength and me the body of a dried-out fossil. Something broke and I was in immense pain.

My screams sent my children running back the way they'd come. All the way home, with any luck.

It was only much later, when the pain had been replaced by a lolly bag of dull aches and throbs, did it occur to me that they'd both been dressed in what amounted to rags. That in the time I'd been gone my children had descended into poverty.

6.

I was standing in the entrance hall of the Maritime Museum where the hulls of capsized, antiquated boats rose out of places in the floor like the bellies of giants in shallow graves. I was standing in the second last place I'd hoped I'd ever return to; my second last place of employment.

This, amongst other painful things, was the place where I'd met the Young Scientist. At the time, so long ago from my point of view, she'd been a beautiful woman making me what I'd thought to be a remarkable job offer. How I'd caught her attention confuses me to this day although my distaste for my job here and my life back then must've been obvious. Had she merely been opportunistic?

"Is that you, Ian? Is that really you?"

And there she was. Not the Young Scientist, of course; this woman was my former supervisor. The last time I'd seen her she'd been my senior not only in position but by ten years in age. Now I was ten years her senior, yet my position was bound to be no different if I was about to talk my way into getting it back. In all likelihood it'd be worse than it once was and I would have to go with that because, in stark black and white, I needed an income.

"Ian, what's happened to you?"

How many times would I have to answer this question?

"I won't lie to you. The last year has been terribly rough on me."

Barely perceptibly, my supervisor shook her head.

What the fuck was I thinking? Standing here in my single change of clothes, one hand in my coat pocket to hide the dislocated or broken finger that jutted out at a crazy angle (how long was I going to be able to hide that?) and, furthermore, why the fuck was I hiding the knife with a curse on it under my coat?

"Come on, then," my supervisor said, and we began to walk into the museum.

The hall we were bound for was the Hall of Doomed Voyages and Those Still Lost At Sea. To return there had my stomach in knots. To me it's always been the hall of burning shame. My duties there had always been to assist in the creation of exhibitions which celebrated folly. And the nature of the exhibitions themselves had always been, let me say, disquieting.

Thankfully, my supervisor was in a hurry to lead me into her office and only briefly did I reacquaint myself with the hall itself. In the year I'd been gone the hall had acquired a number of new model ships, some rather large, and all of them emitted a warm and flickering light as if holding candles within their decks. I peered into the portholes of a large model, while still walking, and saw no candles. What I saw appeared to be small figures, human figures, moving around or dancing; a recreation of a ballroom at sea.

We were in my supervisor's office and I wanted to ask her about what I'd just seen. I was particularly interested to know if these most recent models were the work of the model maker I'd last been working with. That woman had been such a sick fuck, the Young Scientist had appeared to me an angel. However, there was a third person who'd already been waiting for us in the office and I decided to save that question.

I immediately recognized the woman who greeted us as being the head of the Hall of Submarines and Submersibles. For me it'd been twenty years but hers was not a face to be forgotten; her eyes were so piercing they could've sunk the sturdiest of her hall's exhibits in their prime.

This woman, I also remembered, had strong ties to certain sections of the scientific community.

"Ian," my supervisor said, "you remember Stella, don't you?"

"I do," I said and shook Stella's outstretched hand, my other hand still in my coat pocket.

Her hand was particularly cool and dry, unlike mine.

We all sat.

"I hope you don't mind Stella joining us," my supervisor said.

"No," I lied. Then I said, "Just a bit curious I suppose."

"When Stella heard you were returning to the museum she expressed an interest in being at this interview."

"I see."

Bold as brass, Stella slapped me with the question, "Where have you been?"

I looked at my supervisor trying to convey the thought I'd much prefer it she be the one to conduct the interview if that's what this was.

My supervisor, as was to be expected, was with Stella.

"Yes, Ian, I have to say we're both interested in where you've been."

I rubbed my slippery hands together. Too late did I notice my jutting finger out in the open like incriminating evidence.

"All I'm prepared to say right now is that I've been away. I don't wish to appear rude, but, for the time being at least, it really is a story longer than any one I'd care to tell. To be honest, I don't think either of you would believe it."

"I'm prepared to believe it," Stella told me and as her piercing and perfectly clear eyes held mine I actually thought about telling my story.

The moment, however, passed and I declined to say anything further about where I'd been.

"That's okay. I suspect you'll tell us later, sometime in the coming weeks when you've resettled here," my supervisor said by way of mediation although I felt it held much more in the way of foreboding.

"So," I said, "I still have a position here?"

"Yes."

"I suppose it has to be my old position, does it?"

"Oh yes, the model maker has sorely missed your assistance this last year."

"And she is still largely occupied with the whole business of 'lost souls'?"

"You must've seen the new models coming here."

"I didn't really stop to study them."

"You'll be studying them, and considerably more than that, when you return to work with us."

My heart sank. But it was always going sink in, having to come back here. I knew that, they knew that.

"We will see you tomorrow," my supervisor told me.

And that was that. Well, almost.

After we all stood and I shook my supervisor's hand, I held out my hand to shake Stella"s.

"Let's not say goodbye just yet," Stella said, looking down at my ancient hand and not shaking it, "I'll walk with you and we'll pass through my hall before you leave today."

I turned to my supervisor and she made a motion with her head as if I had to go with Stella without protest or delay.

7.

If the Hall of Submarines and Submersibles had changed since I'd last seen it I was unable to tell. Much of it was still kept in abject darkness to mimic great ocean depths like the Abyss and that zone below it; the Hadal Zone. A zone below the Abyss? Yes, by all accounts, the Abyss is not the last stop when making your descent.

The black wash of this hall, so fresh after twenty years, possibly hit me harder than the hall I'd just left. I clearly remembered how you were meant to dive into the fake depths which held things you were to touch and they were to touch you but you could never see. There was even one black bit designed to crush you in a manner to mildly simulate the effect of being in a submersible that'd strayed below its maximum depth.

The purported joy was to be on the cusp of unconsciousness, to safely trace the thin line between being your normal self one instant then a grain of blood and bone the next.

Suddenly, Stella took a hold of my hand, my good one as luck would have it, and dragged me into her office.

In her office sat another old man and he was easily as old as me. What struck me straight away was the fact was that this was the first person I'd encountered since fleeing the Research Complex my own age. Here was a possible kindred spirit, a possible co-conspirator.

What was I thinking? This man was not necessarily anyone I could count on. After all, he was relaxing in the office of someone I deeply distrusted. I'd obviously been lonelier than I realized to leap to such conclusions so fast.

Then another thing struck me. The other old man was, for whatever reason, vaguely familiar.

"I'm sure you already know Professor Gogos," Stella told me.

I hesitated.

The good professor took no notice of this. He stood up and shook my hand.

"Sit down," he said in a tone somewhere between eagerness and insistence.

I sat in a chair facing the professor's, and after he took his seat, Stella parked herself on her desk and in effect hovered closely above us.

Once we were all settled Professor Gogos began his own interview.

"I understand you've been missing for the past year, is that right?"

"That's right."

"And now you've reappeared -- and a lot worse for wear by the look of you, they tell me. By all accounts, you seem to have aged decades."

I briefly wondered where the professor had heard the accounts he spoke of but the man's expression was relaxed as opposed to interrogative, and given his face was lined in much the same way as my own, this interview was not in the least intimidating as yet. Apart from Stella's presence, this was an oddly gentle situation, and if it was a trap for a lonely old fool, I was blithely unaware of it.

Nonetheless, I just said, "The last year has been like many rolled into one. I've been through a lot but I'm back and happy about it."

Then I smiled and it was a real smile. It felt like a forgotten artifact buried for so long now brought to light. It probably looked ridiculous, but it did feel good.

Professor Gogos smiled a smile of his own and I continued to consider myself in genial company. He leaned in closer to me as if what he was about to say was meant to bypass Stella's ear -- altogether unlikely, as she was directly above us.

"The 'year' we're talking about, was it spent working for a different employer?"

Before I answered I glanced upwards, Stella's gaze made me think the top of my skull must've been made of glass and my mind an opened book.

"Well, Professor Gogos, since I've been gone from the Maritime Museum I have not received a cent. As such I was never in anyone else's employ."

Professor Gogos kept smiling and he said, "But you were housed and fed in return for your labor and valuable assistance. More to the point, you were hidden and protected for your dedication to a different employer."

"Sounds to me like you had a master, not an employer," Stella added.

Professor Gogos's smile did not falter, and so gained its first hint of menace.

"I believe I know your master's name," he said.

Fearing he was about to say it, I hissed, "shut the fuck up. I'll talk to you but not here, not under her."

Stella laughed. For all I knew she knew as much as Professor Gogos. Still, for my own reasons, I didn't give a shit.

Mercifully, the professor stopped smiling.

"Sure," he said and stood up, ignoring the young woman crouched over my head, "let's go and I'll buy you a drink."

8.

Professor Gogos set a drink in front of me the color of wood. It was by no means the first I'd had; in fact I'd lost count.

"I don't think I'm going to drink any more."

"It's there if you want it," the professor said, his voice sounding so kind.

Thankfully, I was still in enough possession of my faculties to realize this was just the alcohol working the controls.

I just took a sip.

Looking around the bar I studied the naval cadets surrounding us. I remembered from long ago how each and every one of them, as far as their age went, fitted into that narrow band between 18 and 20. Their youth and energy seemed boundless even in the face of how easily they were affected by alcohol.

Given my lack of practice they weren't the only ones. I put my drink down vowing to myself that'd be the last of it.

The cadets' uniforms were so crisp. Along with their youth and aimless noise, this isolated the two old men within their midst all the further. Too all intents and purposes we were invisible, which suited the business at hand perfectly.

However, I did spy one cadet who was not pissed as a fart. She was the only one in the bar who looked towards our table from time to time. She'd even given Professor Gogos particular attention as if he might've been a man of some academic notoriety.

Of course, considering I was pissed as a fart I might've been mistaken and merely taking notice of a woman who bore a faint resemblance to my former employer -- or master, as I'd been corrected before.

"Have those drinks agreed with you?"

"I won't lie to you, they've gone down very well indeed."

"A year without a drink, I suppose."

"And it felt like twenty."

"There's no more need to lie to me. I know it was twenty years."

A change took place in the bar, stools shifted and cadets stood almost all at once and began to clear out in a quiet and orderly manner. The cadet I'd noticed before looked over her shoulder at Professor Gogos as she filed out with the others.

Despite the fact there was now an empty bar around us I leaned in close to the professor and kept my voice low.

"If you know it was twenty years, what else do you know?"

The professor pointed to my empty glass. I was mortified, I had no recollection of finishing it off and yet I knew I had.

"Let me get you another drink first."

While Professor Gogos was at the bar I could've followed the cadets' example and cleared out. They may have been young and stupid but they weren't without discipline. I, on the other hand, had no code and nothing to prevent me falling through the bottom of an empty glass.

No sooner had another drink appeared before me did I duly make half of it disappear.

"You like to hide and you love to have time treat you differently. You loved your work and you loved your employer and she possibly loved you. There was only one master, and that was the work you did together."

"What sort of talk is that for a professor?"

"Get me into her Research Complex and you'll never have to work again."

"Money?"

"Money."

I drank the last of my last drink.

"We're not young men, professor. There's no future in that fucking place. The last thing we'd ever do would be to go there."

Professor Gogos was about to answer me but we were no longer alone. Standing right next to us was that naval cadet who'd silently and somehow invisibly doubled back.

"Sorry, sir," she addressed one of us, "but, aren't you Professor Gogos?"

"Young lady, what if I was?"

The young lady gave me a look, a look which indicated she'd much rather I wasn't present at this exchange. I'll admit her look saddened me.

She turned back to the professor, "Sorry, professor, but I was given to believe you were missing at sea. Well, not just missing. It's documented that the last submersible you piloted exceeded its maximum depth and you and its crew were lost."

Professor Gogos smiled his famous smile.

"My sweet child, it's all true. If you know it to be true then it must be true. You're an exceptionally clever young person, I honestly thought your type were extinct. If I was ever to return to teaching, a student like you would be the reason."

The beautiful cadet tried not to betray the tear in her eye by turning and running away.

9.

The only door into the Research complex resembles many of those which guard the most regal of tombs inasmuch it is one thick fucker and affects an antiquity that mocks the cheap feel of the times we live in. Unlike most tombs this door was truly impenetrable. The only way through it was unlocking it. And unlocking it without being in the company of the Young Scientist would be impossible but for the fact the lock could be engaged in conversation and hopefully be persuaded to open for me and the professor. Within the door resided the most trustworthy of the Young Scientist's living machines and definitely her strongest despite its small size. This little living machine has no other desire but to inhabit the front door and serve as its lock.

So, the keyhole is not really a keyhole at all. It's the means to speak, or whisper if you want to improve your chances, with the little fucking monster to be allowed in.

"Hello, lock."

My voice was so low it might've fallen below a whisper, I wasn't sure whether to address the little fucker as "lock" or "door" or "sir". I was reluctant to use "sir". I'd only been allowed in once before, that was years ago and I'd been with the Young Scientist.

But, I had gotten out much more recently and in getting out I hadn't whispered. I'd bawled, howled and pleaded. I'd literally been on my knees and had begged the lock to let me leave the Research Complex. It'd obviously listened to me, either taking pity or just glad to be rid of a sniveling pain in whatever tiny pucker served as its arse.

Would I beg this time? I was hoping it wouldn't come to that.

"Hello, lock, it's me," I whispered.

Professor Gogos didn't look particularly dismissive or impatient, he looked worried.

And he had every reason to be if truth be known. If the lock was asleep we wouldn't be getting in no matter what. The little fucker could sleep through an explosion and in sleep could never be budged in any way whatsoever.

"You're back," the lock whispered in reply, awake after all. The little fucker sounded amused.

"Yes, I'm back and I have someone with me."

"Give me a name."

"Professor Gogos."

The lock, as a mechanism not as an unnatural creature, seemed to shift. There was a noise and I took it as a good sign. The door didn't open though.

"The professor can speak to me himself."

I made way and nodded at the professor.

"Hello, lock. It's a pleasure to meet you."

There was another noise, possibly laughter. It sounded small and fucked-up.

"Professor Gogos, you'll never really meet me. You'll never know what's within this door let alone what's past it."

The professor closed his eyes in an effort to hide his disappointment or contain his anger or both.

Then he opened them and said, "Nevertheless, it's been nice chatting with you, lock, and I feel not seeing you doesn't necessarily mean I haven't met you."

As we were walking away from the door we heard the slithery shot of a bolt and spinning around we saw our way in to the Research Complex.

Before the door closed behind us I had fished out the sizable rock I'd placed in my coat pocket and wedged it at the bottom of the frame. I had no intention on relying upon the temperament of the lock on my way out.

The lock hissed, it writhed. I feared it was going to emerge from within the door and seize my rock and hurl it at us like a bullet shot from a gun with its terrible strength.

The professor and I kept moving and the lock kept hissing, unable to do its job as long as it was unwilling to leave the door. For all we knew, for all its strength, the lock may have been trapped within the door.

10.

Unlike a descent into the ocean, the light inside the Research Complex grew brighter as we ventured deeper and deeper. There came a point where we no longer need our torches and from there the light remained stable and we quickly found our way to what I strongly believed was the Young Scientist's current lab of choice.

"How can you know this is the lab in use?"

"My twenty years here was much more than a job. In here I was so much more than I was outside."

"She may have changed without you here. Things could be very different."

I had my hand on the knob of the lab door, there was only one lock in the whole of the Research Complex and we'd long left it behind us, "I guess we're going to find out."

Professor Gogos made a gesture for me to stop from opening the door for a moment.

"So, a lab gets used only once for one experiment? There are more labs here than we can ever see? And you still think we've found the right one?"

To end all further questions I simply opened the door.

The lab was evenly lit, very evenly considering its size. By the way, I'd lately come to the conclusion that every lab gets used more than once. More times, in fact, than any of us apart from one special woman will ever know. In the meantime, the amount of light in the lab me and the professor were now in accentuated its emptiness. There was no lab equipment, there were no signs of any scientific activity whatsoever.

However, some distance from us, there were two figures standing there as if they'd actually been expecting us. Despite the distance there was no doubt in my mind neither of them was the Young Scientist.

The door closed behind us. This side of it had no knob, it'd been removed.

"Fucking bitch," I muttered.

"Hello there," Professor Gogos called out to the two figures, entirely at ease with our situation.

I went to retrieve the knife from where I'd stowed it deep in my coat. My fingers found a hole. I'd had it on the outside, I'd checked. How could I have lost it in the Research Complex and not heard it drop onto the floor? Old men and their hearing, of course, this was bound to prove to be just one of our fatal shortcomings.

"Hello there," Professor Gogos called out again, even louder.

I backed up against the door and started tapping on it even though I knew she wasn't going to open it. The two figures began their approach towards us. Their stride was smooth and they covered a lot of distance in very little time. These living machines were many leagues above those I'd assisted in the making of.

Up close their faces were flawless. I wouldn't say beautiful -- there must be warmth for beauty -- but there was complete symmetry and purpose. And it was in their eyes this consummate purpose was most clearly expressed. Their eyes were nuclear reactors on the verge of meltdown somehow disguised as lumps of coal.

Professor Gogos remained the blithe spirit.

"You're both very impressive I must say. It's a real pleasure to meet you."

There was no response from the living machines. I kept tapping on the door and this constituted as the only sound in the whole world.

Then.

"Oh, you're unable to speak. That is disappointing."

"Oh, we can speak all right, old friend," one of them said.

"Do you know me?"

The professor was actually excited. I began driving my heel into the door.

"Stop that," he told me, "stop it."

The silence in the lab now was itself an unnatural creature. The very size of it threatened to crush us all.

Professor Gogos merely picked up where he'd left off. "So, do you know me?"

"I know you. As it happens, I've been based on you," the same thing said.

The professor rubbed his grey chin in thought.

"So, what are you? Artificial children?"

At last, the other living machine had something to say. "Children are a gamble, we are not. We'll be your replacements and the new humans in the world at large."

I found I could no longer feel my legs.

The professor, on the other hand, moved graciously out of their way and bowed.

"Well, don't let us stop you. There's just that door to get through."

As much as I wanted to move away from the door I was unable to. Make no mistake this was catatonia, cowardice in its purest form. I was not standing up to these things who I knew above all else must never be allowed to leave the Research Complex.

"Move it, old meat."

I could not move it. Perfect hands began to reach for me. There was a woman's scream directly outside the door. The scream carried such pain -- our master was in such pain -- I was able to move at last.

The living machines went to work on the door. Despite their fucked-up, fatherless, motherless origins you'd have thought they were clawing their way through to save their mother such was the nature of their agitation.

Even so, the door resisted them. The living machines were getting nowhere fast.

On the other side of the door, the handle could be heard and the living machines jumped back. The door flew open and there was the knife I'd dropped in the hand of my son. He came at the living machines in much the same manner he'd come at me the last time I'd seen him.

"No," Professor Gogos screamed.

My son wielded the knife like a butcher. Not just any butcher but the butcher serious students of the trade dream of becoming in their blood-soaked dreams. Once again the boy was producing an incredibly tight and devastating flurry.

I suppose I should've been proud, yet the savagery on show held only a cold emptiness for me. There was blood on the knife but none of it belonged to the living machines. They were made up of air sacs. My son punctured one vital balloon after another and the gaseous blasts threatened to tear me off my feet and melt my lungs.

Professor Gogos was there to catch me when I did begin to keel over. There were tears in his eyes.

After the last balloon was slit my son glared at the old men left behind, me in particular. The knife shined like new.

"I'll be right back for you, you old cunts."

The boy was back out the door and chasing the trail of blood left by the Young Scientist.

Professor Gogos lifted me onto my feet.

"Come on, we've got to stop the boy from killing her."

"I can't."

"Fuck you."

And the professor was gone.

Given the doorway was littered with the shredded remnants of the living machines and the air held the acrid smell of burning tires I found myself retreating the other way into the otherwise empty lab. The further back I drifted the less I felt like myself. That is to say I not only felt faint but at a loss, not only afraid but gutted. Perhaps about to die.

I went into a free fall. It seemed to take some time for my sorry arse to find the floor but find the floor it did.

Once there, a minor miracle took place, I slowly began to re-coalesce. The lab floor proceeded to save me by the virtue of a faint smell. The faint smell of a thousand years of odd and cruel experiments.

11.

The rock I'd left to hold open the front door was gone. There wasn't even a strand of hair in the way of light anywhere along its edges and I was in total darkness.

"Please let me out, sir."

"Why should I?"

"I'm leaving my son behind."

"Is that all?"

"Is that all? What more do you want?"

The lock was silent and seemingly unmoved. I'd no courage, wisdom or love. The only thing I appeared to have any capacity for was desperation and a fresh well of it now opened up at my feet.

"I leave behind another old man in my place. You know the man, he came in with me. He's a professor."

"Is that all?"

"Yes, fuck it, that's all."

The lock made that sick and sour little sound again I knew to be its laughter. But, much more importantly, it then made the sound of unlocking the door.

As the door was closing behind me I heard another scream, another girl's scream. In the final moment before the door shut the scream accelerated, sped-up and in a sped-up voice the girl called out for her father.

All my wailing and pounding upon the door served as nothing other than a lullaby. The lock tightened as it went to sleep and grew impossibly strong in what may or may not have been its dreams.

The End


© 2012 Ian Donato

Bio: “My own story is one of being a 48 year old married man with two kids. I work at ABC TV in Sydney, Australia as a sound recordist. I’m particularly fond of horror movies like 'Evil Dead' and John Carpenter’s 'The Thing'. Authors I admire include J.G. Ballard and Robert Aickman. Writing, for me, is a secret world and I tend to keep it to myself. Here’s hoping, on this occasion, you’ll disagree with me.”

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