Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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Windows

by Andrew Nagel



"What is it, Daddy?" my son asked as he saw the mammoth creature through the submarine's porthole. His eyes were open wide, as if by opening them as much as possible he could manage to take in the sheer size of the beast.

"We don't know, Jeff." I replied, and looked along with him as we dove deeper and deeper within the ocean. I could hear tiny creaks through the sub's hull over the dull hum of the engines, reminding me of the weight of the water on the slim craft. It made me uncomfortable. It was odd. I felt more dread from being underwater than from the monstrosity before us. Somewhere in the back of my mind, the reptilian part of my brain was yelling at me that I needed to get my priorities straight.

It sat there, bathed in the un-natural light of the fluorescents. Almost a mile in height, even sitting as it was now. Moss covered its skin, and strands of thick seaweed covered its bulbous octopoid head so that the plant life added unnecessary tentacles to its face.

It sat on the ocean floor, clawed fingers resting on its knees, head facing forward, looking like the world's largest kindergartner listening to its teacher telling a story.

Looking at it, I could feel an itch at the back of my head. Inside. Like a dozen small spiders crawling along my brain. I absently scratched my hair as I sat back down, relieved to be out of the thing's view.

"Is it a dinosaur, Daddy?" said Jeff, still gazing at it. "Like Nessie?"

I shook my head. "No. We think it might be older than the dinosaurs."

He pulled his gaze away from the pressurized glass and looked at me, amazed at such a concept. "Older than the dinosaurs?"

"Maybe." I said. "We really have no idea, Jeff. That's why we're down here. No one's ever seen anything like this before." A little lie. Others have seen it in their dreams, staring at them in a ruined city with impossible angles and forms that hurt the mind's eye to see them. Poets, sculptors, psychics, all report seeing the City and its lone inhabitant. Even my wife. After she woke, she fell to the ground, crying, whimpering unknown words under her breath as she drew an image of the thing before us in blood from chewed fingers. When I tried to stop her, she threw me off with almost supernatural strength. She only stopped when the bloodloss was too much

She was never a good artist. Never sold a painting in her life. But that picture -- removed from our bedroom, hardwood slats and all -- captured everything about this creature before us. It wasn't just a sketch in smeared shades of crimson. It was emotion, her fear, terror, and hopelessness within those lines.

She literally wore her fingers to the bone, despite my pleas and attempts to pull her out of her trance. She died the next day, her voice hoarse from screaming non stop in an isolation ward for an entire night.

"No one's ever seen anything like this before." Better to say that than tell Jeff the truth.

"Will we get to see it up close?" Jeff asked.

I looked at the creature, huge and unnatural. For all the moss that covered it, I could still see the lines of musculature under the flesh. I could remember my wife, slashing lines of blood along the floor to draw those same shapes. I wanted to get close. To find out how it touched her mind. Why. To find out what it said to her, what it said to break her mind.

"I know what it said, Daddy," Jeff said.

I looked at him. He was looking at me with those young five year old eyes of his. Eyes that took everything in -- all the books he read, all the shows on television. Those eyes drank and drank and drank.

"What?" I said.

"I said I know what it said. To Mommy."

My mouth opened and closed. I tried to form words with it, but all that came out was a dumb "W...wwwha..."

Then my son spoke words that only a few people before him had spoken. Words that were never designed for a human mouth or throat. Foreign, alien, and utterly terrifying words.

"Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn. He said he's dreaming, Daddy. Of her. Of all of us."

####

The examination room was sparse, with just a single chair in front of a window that looked into the adjoining room. There, my son lay on a bed. Wires flowed like Medusa's snakes from his head to a half-dozen machines surrounding him, each with a monitor showing squiggly-lined representations of brain waves and thought patterns while small pens scratched their arcane patterns of mountains and valleys on auto-fed paper. A video camera watched his eyes shift back and forth under his fluttering eyelids, and recorded each movement so a team of men and women in coats as white and sterile as the room's walls could watch and re-watch my son dream his dreams.

The door behind me opened and Doctor Forbes entered, his security escort left outside. No doubt his escort and mime will mutter to themselves about their two eggheaded charges they've been stuck with today. I've heard them. At least, I think I've heard them. 

This place does stuff to your head.

Doctor Forbes looked up from his tablet computer and gave me a curt nod of greeting, which I returned. He tapped the tablet's screen a few times and then tucked it under his arm.

"Robbins," he said, "I'm surprised you actually brought him here."

I snorted. "Spare me your 'surprise', Doctor. The pool of candidates is shrinking. We need to make use of whatever resources we have to get this project to work." I looked back at my son. "This is infinitely more important than family, Forbes," I lied, "If it were your son, I'd expect the same from you."

Forbes shrugged. "You'd expect it. I don't know if you'd get it." He shook his head and sighed. "Whatever. You were right. We just got the tests back. He's a prime candidate for the experiment." He pulled out the tablet and showed me. Two sets of readings flowed across the screen -- EEG and EKG and brainwave readings. The first was labeled Subject Alpha. The second had my son's name attached to it. Both sets were identical, with the only exception being in order of magnitude. The size of the peaks and valleys in Alpha's readings were more than double those of my son's. 

So it was true, then. There was a link. To be honest, I wasn't terribly surprised. I didn't want to believe it, but it made perfect sense. I just didn't want to admit it to myself. It took me almost two years to stop me from placing the blame for Jenny's death on him and to actually allow myself to love him and see to him as a part of her that will live on. But when he first told me about his dreams of a giant city underneath the waters, I felt my blood turn to ice. And when he began drawing pictures of what he called 'the octopus man', I knew. I didn't want to accept it, but I knew.

"We're going to hook him up to the system tomorrow." Forbes said, pulling me out of my reverie. "You should talk to him before then. Say what you need to say. In case... you know."

"Yeah." I say. "I know."

I had seen it enough times.

####

Jeff and I spent the last few hours of that day wandering around the station. Every time we passed a door he'd ask if we could go in. It didn't matter what was behind the door -- the mess hall, a janitor's closet, it didn't matter. He wanted to see everything.

We had just left the Command and Control Center, and he was swinging my arm back and forth as we walked in that way kids do when he asked me, "Daddy, why are there no windows in the station?"

"What do you mean?"

"I don't see any windows here, Daddy. The only way we can see what's going on outside are on the video screens. Wouldn't it be easier to see what's outside with windows?"

I nodded. "It would be. But remember what's outside?"

Jeff looked up at me and nodded, his eyes wide. "The octopus-man!" he said with a giggle.

I shivered at that. The joy that was in his voice as he said those words was wrong. No one had ever spoken of that thing outside with joy in their voice. Not after actually seeing it, anyway.

"That's right." I said, reaching out a trembling hand to tousle his hair. "The octopus-man. You remember what it felt like when you saw him? How it felt inside?"

Again Jeff nodded, this time more vigorously. "I could feel his words inside me, filling my head. It felt weird. Nice, but weird."

I shivered again, remembering previous subjects:

Subject 14: Upon exposure, subject began screaming and tried to leave examination room. Upon finding the door to be locked, subject began screaming to be let out, pounding his fists against the door. After no response from personnel, subject began pounding on the door with his head, stopping only after losing consciousness due to self-inflicted trauma.

Subject 29: Prior to exposure, subject was sedated with 5ccs of CLASSIFIED and was restrained to a chair via leather straps. Upon exposure, subject soiled himself and began screaming incoherently. Subject then freed his arms from restraint through sheer strength and began to claw his eyes out, screaming incoherently in an unknown language.

I lied to him, "Most people get really nervous when they see him up close. They don't like his voice in their head, unlike you. So we use cameras to look at him instead. For some reason, his thoughts don't come through them."

Jeff thought about this for a moment. "Am I the only one who doesn't get scared around him?"

I nodded. "That's why we brought you down here. We're hoping that you can tell us what he's saying and tell us about his dreams."

"But I already told you! He's dreaming about us!"

"Yes, but do you know why he's dreaming about us?"

Jeff thought about that for a long moment. Really thought. Finally he shook his head, shrugged his shoulders and said, "No."

"That's why you're here. The closer you are, the more you can see into his dreams. Most people get really scared when they see his dreams. But because you don't get scared, we're hoping that you can tell us."

Jeff's face grew thoughtful. "But if there are no windows, how can I see him?"

"Well," I said, "there is one window, Jeff. Right in front of him. We usually keep it closed, but tomorrow we'll open it up just for you."

####

The observation room was similar to the examination room Jeff was in yesterday -- sterile walls, cold tiled floors, and various machines lining the walls. Once again, Jeff was lying on a gurney, but this time it was tilted at an eighty degree angle, and he was strapped in with thick leather straps. The only differences were the shuttered window on the far wall, and that there was no observation theatre above the room; everything that happened in the room was transmitted via cameras to a different room in a separate part of the complex.

Jeff asked why the orderlies were strapping him down and I lied to him, saying that in order for the machines to work properly, he needed to be absolutely still. He nodded at this and let them finish their work with all the innocent trust of a five year old.

I made my way to the Central Operations and sat beside Forbes. He looked at me and raised an eyebrow as if to say "Everything okay?"

I nodded and pressed the intercom button.

"Jeff? Jeff, we're about to begin. Are you ready?"

His response was quick and without a trace of fear. "Yes, Daddy."

"Okay, we're going to show you a few pictures so the computers can learn how your brain thinks. This won't hurt at all. Just look at the pictures."

I pressed a key on the keyboard next to me and the first picture -- a bright sunny day -- popped up on a screen next to my son. To my left, a bank of monitors sprang to life, one showing heart rate and breathing, the second various brainwave patterns. The third had what looked like a pastiche of colours and static flowing along it.

After five seconds, the sunny picture was replaced with an image of a sunflower. As the image changed, so did the brainwaves. The brainwaves were in turn interpreted by the super computers three decks below and the resulting image was displayed on the third screen. It still didn't look like a sunflower yet, but I could see one hiding within the static and erratic colours, like a trained ultrasound tech could see a fetus hidden within light and shadow. 

Every five seconds a new image was shown, and eventually the computer learned how Jeff's brain processed visual information. It usually takes half an hour to an hour for the computer to acclimate themselves to the subject's brain patterns. Within twelve minutes the third screen was showing an almost exact replica of what Jeff saw.

Forbes whistled in amazement. "His harmonization rate is incredible. That's a new record."

I agreed, my heart racing. With a good harmonization, the chances of getting a good image of whatever thoughts were sent to Jeff's mind improved. Previous subjects only showed a jumbled mass of colours before... well, before the brain just shut down to prevent any more damage.

It could also mean that Jeff's mind could be much more sensitive and would break that much easier.

The second part of the calibration sequence involved telling Jeff to think about an object in his head. Objects were simple -- I told him to think of an apple and an image of a Granny Smith appeared on the third screen. When asked to think of a bear, we got a cartoon bear. The bear actually began to run, presumably from a park ranger for stealing a picnic basket. 

I heard Jeff giggle through the intercom. It was strangely disconcerting, coming from a room where the only laughter had been mad gales of insanity.

We continued for another twenty minutes, moving from concrete objects to abstractions like emotions. When told to think of happiness, he produced an image of him holding my hand. Sadness gave us a dark screen with him between an image of myself and a fuzzy image of a young woman. The image had no colour within it; it looked like a videotaped image of a woman on pause. It jumped and flickered in and out of sight. I recognized it instantly.

It was his mother.

He never met his mother. Never got to see her, never got to be held by her. He always knew something was different about his life compared to other children when he saw them with their mothers. He knew something was missing. So it was perfectly natural to think about the absence of his mother when asked to think about sadness.

The thing was, I threw out all pictures of her shortly after I brought him home. I didn't want to be reminded of her, to see pictures of her and start to resent Jeff for 'killing' her by being born.

He had no way of knowing what she looked like.

Yet there she was. Flickering in and out of phase, the image jumping and rolling like a prayer wheel rolled by a spastic child.

I pressed the intercom. "Jeff, are you thinking about mom?"

I saw him nod on the monitor. "Yes, Daddy."

"How do you know what she looks like?"

He turned his head slightly to look into the camera, and his eyes were wide. Wide and glassy. 

"He showed me."

####

Altogether, the calibration sequence took less than an hour. If Jeff was scared, he didn't show it. When we asked him to think of Fear, the only thing that came up on the screen was his bike at home. I had just started teaching him how to ride, and even with training wheels on he was unwilling to give up the safety of his old and too small tricycle.

I feared for my son's safety and sanity. We were about to expose him to something that has shattered the mind of everyone who had been in that room. That room was a death sentence; the gurney an electric chair, and I had put my only son in there in the pursuit of knowledge.

What frightened me even more was the possibility that Jeff would survive, and that thing outside, that ancient and horrible behemoth, would actually be communicating to us through him. A being so ancient, so utterly alien... how could we be sure that it even thought the same way we did?

"We're about to begin," Forbes said. "Are you ready?"

I realized I had been holding my breath. I swallowed it. "Yeah."

I leaned down to the microphone and pressed the intercom button. "Jeff," I said.

His response was immediate. His eyes found the camera and looked into it. "Yes?"

"We're ready to proceed."

Jeff nodded.

"How are you feeling?" I asked.

"Nervous. Excited, but nervous."

Forbes looked at me, an incredulous look on his face. "Excited? Jesus, Frank. What's with your kid?"

I didn't know. I really didn't know. This whole thing just seemed so wrong to me. My son was excited to be able to fully communicate with something that has been sending him images of his mother into his head speaking to him in an alien language for at least three years. Forbes had a point. What the hell is wrong with Jeff?

My heart thudding in my head, I keyed in the password that would open the steel shutter in Jeff's room.

Amber warning lights flashed and spun as the hydraulics slowly let the the foot-thick steel plates slide down. The angry, metallic caw of a klaxon filled the room, a disembodied raven reciting its litany of doom and death.

Through it all, Jeff's eyes were wide, anticipatory. The heart rate monitor in our room began to increase in tempo. Blood oxygen levels increased as his breath came in and out faster and faster. This wasn't unusual -- all other experiments showed these same symptoms, but that was because they were scared shitless. Most began screaming by the time the shutters had revealed only two of the ten feet of pressurized glass.

Jeff was smiling, looking like he was waiting for a friend to finally show up at his house.

It started as soon as Jeff could see the creature. Slow at first. The screen that showed a static-lined image of my wife now showed an alien vista filled with strange buildings. Buildings made of something like a mixture of coral and copper. Large structues stood atop impossibly tall and thin stalks, breathing. Spires rose into the sky, their tips hidden behind two moons so large I could easily make out the pockmarks of craters on their surface.

My son's eyes were wide, bulging. His head shook up and down, frantically nodding in agreement with what his mind saw.

The steel door continued to recede, and image on the screen changed to an enormous five-sided pyramid stood in the middle of that impossible city, with the tentacle-faced leviathan sitting on a throne at the zenith. Thousands of smaller versions of the creature writhed and danced and swelled around the base of the pyramid, chanting in their inhuman language, "Ia Cthulhu! Ia Cthulhu na'phlag gluaghai!" Their voices grew louder and louder in what could only be religious ecstasy, chanting over and over, "Ia Cthulhu! Ia! Ia!" and it wasn't until the shutter was halfway down that I realized I heard Jeff's voice along with them, calling out, screaming to this alien god words that no human should ever speak.

Jeff leaned forward as he yelled his prayer, eyes wide, drops of blood falling from his nose to make bright red circles on the white floor. He was speaking in tongues now, his mouth moving incredibly fast, screaming out nonsense syllables at the octopus man. The syllables ran into each other like a verbal train crash, one becoming another, his mouth unable to keep up with his brain. 

The graphing pens were a blur as they scribbled so fast they ripped through the paper. The heart rate monitor's telling beep increased in pitch and tempo until it was all just one long tone.

The shutter continued to move downward, revealing Subject Alpha's eyes, closed. Dreaming.

They opened.

Jeff's glossolalia turned into a scream. His whole body shook with the scream, his head banging back against the gurney with a metallic clang as he threw his head back again and again and again until the clang became a dull wet sound as his blood-soaked skull thumped against the gurney.

I stood frozen, knowing that I should be doing something, anything, to help my son -- close the shutters, run to him -- but I didn't move.

His arm shook, vibrated like a hummingbird's wing and then bent at an unnatural angle as he broke free from the leather cuff, his scream never stopping, never changing.

His arm reached towards Subject Alpha, hand dangling from limply from his broken wrist, his mouth screaming a supplication, his eyes growing wider and wider in adoration until they burst, showering his face with fluid both crimson and clear. The most senseless thought passed through my mind: 'Vitreous Humor. That clear stuff is called the vitreous humor.'

His arm dropped like a stone. The gurney toppled over.

The screaming stopped. The monitors' staccato eeEeeEeeEeeE changed to a shrill, uniform eeeeeeeeeee

Somehow that terrible sound broke through the paralyzing indecision and I remembered who was lying there on the blood-spattered floor.

No.

--eeeeeeeee--

Oh God, no. 

--eeeeeeee--

Please, God. No.

####

I ran down the hall to the observation room, the long beep of the heart-rate monitor receding behind me. My heart pounded in my ears, in time with the reverberating blare of the klaxons. 

No. No no no no nonononononono--

Somewhere inside my mind, an utterly rational, totally detached voice chastised me for hurrying there. "Why are you running? You can't save him. He's dead. His brain overloaded. His fucking eyes burst. There's nothing you can do. Stop running."

I knew the voice was right, but what could I do? How could I not run to him? He was my son. I brought him here. Maybe I was punishing myself for that. Maybe I wanted to see him because, deep down, I had to hurt myself for exposing Jeff to this and that I deserved to see the horror I had brought upon him and never forget what I did to my son, never be able to erase the image of his broken body from my mind.

I reached the door and turned the handle. It didn't move. Stupid, I thought, and swiped my badge over the sensor. Three beeps, and an LED flashed an angry red above the sensor. I tried again. The handle still refused to move. "Dammit!" I yelled, rattling the steel door. "Fucking OPEN!" Swipe. Red LED. Swipe. Red LED. "Hey everyone," a voice tittered in my brain, "What's the definition of insanity? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result."

In a moment -- a brief, blessed moment of clarity -- I remembered that the shutter was still down. Stupid! I chastised myself. The observation room is completely sealed off when the shutter is down!

There was a white intercom button next to the card reader. I stabbed it with my finger and yelled "Forbes! Close the shutter!"

"Frank, I really don't think you want to go in there..."

I talked over him. "Close the shutter and let me in!"

"...I can see him on the monitors, and... and it's not pretty. Going in there wouldn't do anyth -- "

"FORBES, CLOSE THE FUCKING SHUTTER NOW!"

Silence from the other end, then a click, and the klaxons stopped, leaving only the rumble of the shutter vibrating through the halls. With a sound like the sealing of a vault, I knew the shutter was back in place, hiding the visage of the creature that destroyed my child's mind, protecting me from whatever malevolent, insane thoughts spread out of it.

I swiped my card again. Single beep, green LED, and a soft clack as the magnetic locks on the door disengaged. I threw the door open and ran to the toppled gurney in the middle of the room, and looked at my son.

His face was covered in blood. Night-black holes stared back at me from where his eyes were supposed to be. Streams of congealing crimson coated his cheeks. His mouth was still open in his death-scream, his normally pink lips stained a dark red, almost black. Blood and bile. 

Sobbing, I fell to my knees, clutching him to me. His skin was cold. The blood I knelt in was cold. Everything was cold.

I wept. Thoughts of Jeff and I surged through my mind. His birth, raising him, taking him to movies, tickle fights, Sunday mornings eating pancakes in bed, seeing him off to his first day of school -- him looking through the window of the sub-shuttle and seeing Subject Alpha for the first time.

Then I saw him in the chair again, shaking, pulling against the bonds, breaking his arm to reach out to his... what, friend? God? Mother? 

Jesus, this was all my fault. What the hell was I thinking? Why would I even consider the possibility of sacrificing my son's life to find out why my wife did what she did? What the fuck was wrong with me? What kind of father was I?

I buried my face in Jeff's hair and wept, my body shaking with every sob. I didn't weep silently. I sobbed, shook, and screamed in agony and self hatred. Jeff didn't deserve this. He didn't. He was a kid. He was my boy. What kind of father kills his boy?

Then, a voice coming from a throat full of liquid. "What is it, Daddy?"

I looked down and saw Jeff's head turned up at me, his empty sockets staring at me, his teeth, stained pink and red from blood, smiling at me.

I heard Jeff's voice again, but his mouth wasn't moving. Just that empty stare, and that rictus grin. 

"He's dreaming, Daddy. Of us. Of mom."

####

On the monitor, Forbes saw the man straighten. The boy sat up -- the corpse sat up, and reached out with the broken arm that straightened abruptly with a crack of bone resetting itself. The shrill monotone screaming of the heart monitor went on, unchanged, until Forbes slapped the cutoff switch.

The boy's arm rose up slowly, reached for his father's face, and gently patted his cheek in a 'there, there, it will be all right' gesture. Then it slid down to the man's neck.

With the heart monitor silenced, Forbes could hear the boy speaking, his voice a liquid burbling through a throat filled with blood.

"Let me show you."

Then blood fountained as the boy's hand spasmed and tore through his father's neck.

The man sat motionless, not struggling, not trying to control the gushing blood, until he fell backwards to the floor.

The boy turned his empty-socketed stare toward the camera and smiled.

THE END


© 2011 Andrew Nagel

Bio: This is Andrew Nagel's first attempt at being published. (I'm sure it will not be his last. Editor)

E-mail: Andrew Nagel

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