by P. C. Van Slyke
Mort Carrie was just a normal guy. He worked hard at the electronic store, nine to six. He spent time with his teenage son, helping with homework and coaching in sports. And he loved his wife and tried his best to keep her happy. Mort was just a normal guy, but he had one oddity. Mort spent every second he could in his basement workshop, among the cinderblocks and spiders, inventing.
"Mort, what are you working on down there this time?" his wife asked, almost on a regular basis, as he left the table after dinner and headed toward the basement.
"I am not sure, honey. But I have a feeling we are really onto something."
"Do you need any help?" she asked, only semi-kidding.
"No thank you. Tonight it would only be a distraction, and I am going to need to be very focused tonight."
"All right, dear," she laughed. "Say, Mort, you wouldn't know what happened to the microwave, would you?"
He smiled sheepishly, pushing up his glasses. "Oh, you noticed that, did you? Well, I found that it was, um, not working properly, so I took it downstairs to fix."
"Okay," Jane humored her husband. "Well, I hope you are able to fix it soon." She laughed. "You want John to come down?"
"If he wants to, I would love to have him. But I won't be hurt if he doesn't. It's not like I'm a scientist on the verge of a big breakthrough or anything. It's just fun for me to mess around. And who knows? Maybe someday I will make something."
His wife came up and hugged him. "I believe in you, Mort. I believe that you are a good man. I believe that you are good father. I believe that you will make something important."
"You are more than I deserve, Jane, but soon, I am going to make your proud."
"I already am proud."
Mort reached the bottom of the steps and took a deep breath. The basement smelled warm and was full of possibilities. It was well lit and very organized. To the left of the steps was storage; Christmas mostly, but there was also camping, clothes and old books. But to the right was a workshop, a laboratory, and it was here that Mort felt the most comfortable.
Yes, Mort went to work every day, religiously. He came home and spent time with wife and son, both of whom he loved immensely. He did chores and paid bills. But it was here, in his basement laboratory, that he felt most alive. A silent part of Mort would always regret that choices had taken him away from a career in electrical engineering.
"Okay," he said, rubbing his hands together. "Let's see what we have for tonight."
Mort walked up to his workbench and noticed a small cardboard box sitting on his stool. The label said it came from France.
"Oh, man," he said to himself as he pulled out his pocket knife and slit open the box. Inside were the expected white packing foam peanuts which Mort sent flying as he dug into the box.
His purchase looked even better than it had on eBay. Supposedly it was a core from a Russian supercomputer. Mort thought that highly improbably considering it cost twenty-five bucks and there had been thirty of them for sale, but still, it looked fascinating.
The "core" was a ten-inch tall cylinder and it was obviously dense. Mort sat it on a digital scale and whistled. Seventeen pounds. "Good lord," he muttered, pushing up his glasses. "It must be filled with lead."
"Hey Dad, what's up?" John came stomping down the wooden stairs with his usual teenage rambunctiousness. "Whatcha working on?"
"Well, hey there John. This is a pleasant surprise. What brings you down to the dungeon?"
"Ah, I finished my homework and there's nothing on TV so I thought I would see if you were doing anything cool."
"Well, I don't know about cool, but I got this off the internet and it's pretty interesting."
"What is that thing?" Mort's son knocked up against him. He was a tall, good looking kid but more importantly he was hardworking, honest and nice. Mort was very proud of his son.
"Well, tell you what, John, I have no idea. eBay said it is the core of a supercomputer from the old USSR or something."
"It's neat," John said, taking it from his Dad. "Jesus, it's heavy. Well, these look like silicon chips around the outside." Small black chips ran in exact rows from top to bottom all the way around the cylinder.
"They do, but I have never seen connectors like these, have you?" Mort was talking about the near invisibly thin threadlike wires that ran between the rows of chips.
"No, never. Those little wires are a trip. It looks like they are almost transparent" John tried to pick at the wires with a fingernail. "They're hard."
"You know what, kid? Let's see if this thing is giving off any radiation."
John looked at his Dad, eyes wide and gently put the down the device. "Radiation?"
Mort laughed as he dug through the cutter under bench. "Don't worry, John. I'm not talking about melting your bones radiation." He pulled out an old Geiger counter and set it next to cylinder. "They couldn't send something like that through the mail."
Mort fiddled with the knobs on the device and then plugged it in. It exploded with a bang.
"God!" John hollered and fell back away from the counter. Mort, a bit more familiar with small catastrophes, simply grabbed a fire extinguisher and waited to see if it would be needed.
"Everything all right down there?" A very unworried voice floated down from the upstairs living room.
"We're okay." Mort announced without taking his eyes of the counter.
"What the hell was that, Dad?" John asked excitedly.
"The Geiger counter blew, for some reason." Mort answered. "It was pretty old, but that is still odd. Oh, say, you know not to say hell in front of your mom, right?"
"What? Oh, sure Dad. Do you think that thing blew up your Geiger counter?"
"I guess it's possible," Mort said doubtfully. "More likely, it just got old, kind a like your old man."
"Cut it out, Dad. You're not old." John said carelessly. "So what are we going to do now? Are you going to try to open it up?"
Mort put down the extinguisher and looked closer at the device. "It's warm," he commented, putting his hand on the core. "Am I right, John? Is it warm?"
"Yeah, Dad. I think so. Of course, it was just next to a fire."
The father and son laughed together.
"Greg? Hey, Greg, look at this, will you?"
Mort pulled the core out of a shopping bag when he got to work. He had started at the mammoth electronic store as a clerk right out of high school. Now he was the general manager. He loved his job...but still. It took him out of the basement. That was probably for the best, however. He would never see the light of day if he didn't have to go to work.
"What's up, boss? What the hell is that thing?" Greg was Mort's number one tech. He could fix anything. Sure he had long greasy hair and bad skin, but he was a monster with a soldering iron.
Mort pushed up his thick glasses. "Well, I'm not sure. I got it off eBay. I've never seen anything like it."
Greg grunted when Mort passed him the core. "Jesus, it's heavy. This thing is cool."
"I agree. The internet said it was some Russian processor but I don't know."
"I guess it could be," Greg said doubtfully, sitting down at a chair in the employee lounge and putting the core on a table. "Doesn't look like any processor I've ever seen. It almost looks...well, look here..." he ran a finger around one of the circular ends. "This almost looks like an input window."
"Oh, you know. Like for collection and measuring waves." He turned it over. "These look like they might be where the damn thing plugged into something. Maybe a power source." He flipped it again. "It's warm."
"It is. I thought maybe it was radiating some energy but when I hooked up my old Geiger it blew."
"Well, it's radiating heat, that's for sure. Where'd you get it again?"
"Huh. You know..." Greg pulled his two-way from his belt and pushed the button. "Pete, you around?"
The radio crackled to life. "Sure, big guy. Talk to me."
"Can you come to the break room?"
"Why yes I can. Need a couple of coffee anyway. Give me two minutes."
"You think Pete might know something about it?"
Greg had his face very close to the core. "Huh? Oh, I'm not sure but he mentioned..."
"Hey guys! Hi, boss! I didn't know...Hey! It's another one!"
Pete was very tall and gawky but there was no better salesman. He knew the inventory like no-one else.
Greg looked up. "Is this thing like what your cousin got?"
"Yeah, that's the exact same damn thing," he smiled. "Where'd you get it?"
"You've seen this thing before?" Mort asked, pushing up his glasses.
"Sure. My cousin got one at a junk store. We couldn't figure out what the hell it is but is sure is cool looking."
"The boss got his off eBay," Greg said, returning to close scrutiny. "I don't know, boss. My guess is that this is a tube for measuring some kind of energy. You plug it into a power source and then it ionizes a gas inside that chamber to measure...something. The only thing is that there doesn't seem to be an output anywhere. No way to quantify what is being measured, like a readout or something. Probably the biggest flaw in my theory is the weight. It is hard to imagine how it could be so heavy if it is basically hollow."
Angela came in off the floor. "Hey, boss."
Mort pushed up his glasses. "Good morning, Angela. What's the good word?"
"Friday," the pretty girl smiled. "It's Friday and I got the weekend off. Hey, what is that? I saw one of those somewhere."
"Where'd you see it?" Greg asked without looking up.
"I'm not sure, but I know I've seen one of those. Hey, maybe it was at school." Angela was working her way through college. "I might have seen it in one of the labs."
Greg stood. "Well, whatever it is, boss, the consensus is that's its cool. I got to get back to work. I've got like five computers to fix."
"Sure, sure. Don't let me hold you up. I've got to get busy, too. But thanks."
"No problemo, boss. Let me know what you find out."
"Me too. My cousin is going crazy," Pete added, walking back out to the floor.
A herd of buffalo stampeding above his head announced the arrival of Mort's son home from school. Instead of running into his room and slamming the door as usual, Mort was surprised to hear the door to the basement fly open.
"You down there, Dad?" The boy hollered much louder than necessary.
"I am, kiddo. Everything okay."
The youngster pounded down the stair and knocked up against his father. "Everything's okay, but guess what."
"My science teacher has one of those," he said, touching the core.
"You're joking." Mort looked at his son and pushed up his glasses.
"Nope. He brought it to school today. And guess what."
"Yep. Two other kids said their Dads had one, too."
"Are you serious?"
"Yes!" John laughed. "Isn't that weird?"
"That is so weird. Two people at work said they had seen it, too."
"God, they're everywhere I guess."
"I guess so," Mort said returning his gaze to the object. "Did your teacher have any idea what it does?"
"Nope. But he said he went over it with some microscope thingy and said the only markings he could find were on the bottom, in between where the plug goes. He said there are two letters on it. Either HM or WH, depending on which way you look at it."
"Give me that pencil," the boy said, grabbing a piece of paper. "Look. HM. Turn it over," he turned the paper. "WH."
Mort flipped the core over and grabbed a magnifying glass. "I'll be damned. There it is. Look," he said, handing over the glass.
"Wow. It's small. Hey, maybe it was made at the White House." They both laughed.
"You remember Greg from the store?" The boy nodded. "He thinks this is a port, maybe for a power supply."
"It does kind of look like one of those foreign power outlets. I wonder what you are supposed to plug in there."
"Anybody home?" Jane called from upstairs.
"Down here," both responded simultaneously.
Jane laughed as she walked down the stairs. "What are you two parrots doing down here?"
"Well, honey, we are not quite sure, I guess." Mort responded, kissing his wife.
"Hi John. How was school?"
"Good, mom. Have you seen this?" he asked, pointing to the object.
"My hairdresser has one of those."
"What?" both males parroted.
Jane laughed. "Yes. She said someone dropped it off for her husband. She was going to give it to him when she went home."
"God, Dad," the boy hollered. "They're everywhere."
"So it would seem," Mort murmured. "So it would seem."
The two Carrie men sat on stools staring at the core. They had been there, silent, for some time.
"I think we should try to plug it in," John commented.
Mort looked at his son and then back at the object. He pushed up his glasses.
"It's got three holes. Positive, negative and ground," the son continued. "I think we should plug it in."
Without taking his eyes off the core, Mort addressed his son. "There should be a square block of black rubber under the counter there. Would you see if you can find it?"
While his son rummaged, Mort found an old computer power cord and cut off one end. He stripped the wires and separated them into three copper strands.
"This it, Dad?"
"That's it. Put it on the counter and lay the core on it." Mort dug around and found two pairs of safety goggles. "Put these on."
"I think you should connect positive to this one and negative to this one," the boy commented.
"Sounds logical to me." Mort carved the rubber block into a shape that would fit into the port on the -- whatever it was -- and used an awl to punch three holes that lined up with what they thought must be the power port. He threaded the three wires through the holds and folded and twisted the ends of the copper wires into prongs approximating the holes in the mystery device. When he tested the fit, he was pleased to discover that his improvised connector slid into place with only minor adjustments. "Not bad for a hack job."
"Nice, Dad. It's like it was made for it."
Mort grinned. "Well, it was made for it. Just not by the original manufacturer."
John rolled his eyes. "Riiight, Dad. You gonna plug it in now?"
"Yes, but let's be careful. You hold the fire extinguisher and I will get an extension cord so we can plug it in across the room. That way if it blows we'll be okay."
"Dad, this is awesome!" Mort saw the excitement in his son's eyes.
"I agree. Grab that extinguisher."
Father and son walked to the back of the basement and Mort prepared to plug in the extension cord. "If something happens, you give me the extinguisher and then get out of here. If something really bad happens, call 911."
"You got it, Dad. Plug it in."
"Okay, here goes..."
Holding his breath and saying a silent prayer, Mort plugged in the device.
There was a muffled bang, almost too quiet to be heard and the lights dimmed a bit. The core began to hum gently and seemed to emit a faint purple glow.
"Cool!" the boy hollered and went for the bench.
Without taking his eyes off the device, Mort caught his son by the arm. "Hold on a sec, John. Let's see what happens."
Father and son stood, eyes glued to the core for a minute...two minutes...
"You think we can get closer?"
"Yeah," Mort answered. "If it was going to do something, it would have done it by now, right?"
Carefully they approached the bench, ready to run at the slightest hint of danger, but the object sat still, quietly humming.
"What do you think it's doing Dad?"
"I don't know." Mort peered closely at the end opposite the cord. "It looks like the glow is coming from this end."
John ran around his Dad and then bent in for a closer look. "Cool. It looks like there is a slit across it, covered by glass. The glow is coming out of there."
"It is. Greg thought it might be a collector of some kind."
"Huh?" the boy questioned. "Collect what?"
"Rays, I guess."
John looked at the light bulb in the ceiling. "Like light?"
"I guess so, maybe. But if it is collecting the light, it doesn't seem to be doing anything with it."
"Hey, Dad. What about microwaves? Do you think it could collect microwaves?" The boy pointed at the kitchen appliance that Mort had failed to take back upstairs.
"I guess it could," Mort said thoughtfully, pushing up his glasses. Turning, he looked around until he spotted some rubber gloves. "Okay, stand back a bit, John. I am going to turn the receiving end toward the microwave."
"Do microwaves come out when the door is closed."
"A small amount do, but they're not harmful. Microwaves have a very long wavelength so they are not visible but they will excite water molecules. The vast majority stays in the box but if this is designed to collect them it is possible that one or two might enter the receiver"
"I hope it poops out a bunch of gold."
"You hope it...?" Mort began to laugh. "I do too, John! I do too. Okay, go stand over there by the stairwell. Okay, are we ready?"
Mort set the microwave for twenty seconds and then pressed cook.
"Wow!" Mort cried, stumbling back. Now they had a reaction.
The core came to life. They tiny filaments that covered the device began to wiggle and swim. They shot out in all directions and the core was lifted off the rubber mat and quivered in the air.
"What's it doing, Dad?" John bellowed, rushing forward.
"Hold it, John!" his Dad put out and arm. "I don't know what that thing is doing."
"Those tiny wires are holding it up! It looks like a porcupine log."
"You're right. And they are getting longer. Look, they're kind of waving around. Almost like..."
"Like antennas on a bug," his son finished.
The microwave dinged, turning itself off but the filaments continued to grow.
"Unplug it, John. This is getting weird." The core was now at least a foot off the bench and it looked like the filaments were searching for something, touching all of the tools and objects that came within its grasp.
"Okay." John ran to the back of the basement and pulled the extension cord from the wall.
"Jesus," Mort breathed. The thing did not stop growing as expected, rather the wires continued to lengthen, shooting everywhere, flinging tools and ripping at the bench.
"Get out of here, John! Get out! Call 911, quick."
"Come on, Dad!" the son screamed. "Let's go."
Mort grunted and his body stiffened. "Too late." he said, almost calmly. He turned with difficulty and John saw that the filaments had reached his father and were busy burrowing under his skin, and heading for his eyes.
"Dad!" the boy screamed again.
"Go, John, go. Get your mother out." Mort's voice was distorted by the wires slithering down his throat. "It wants you, too."
Jane was had fallen asleep on the couch and she was shocked awake by screams from the basement. She was up in an instant but before she could reach the stairs the door slammed open and her son rushed out, crying and screaming.
"Go, mom! Go! It's got Dad!"
"What's going on?" she cried.
"It's alive! It's coming!"
John looked back at the door and cried out. Millions of wires came shooting out of the stairwell, searching. He pulled his mom to the front door. "Mom! We got to go!"
Jane resisted. "Your father, John. Where is your father?"
Time slowed and the wires began to vibrate. They buzzed and hummed and then the sounds became modulated into a recognizable voice. "I'm right here, Jane." Mort's voice seemed to be all around them. "This is just the next step for us. It's grey in here. Join me."
The wires, which had continued to spread and grow until they lined the room like an inside-out cactus, began to close in.
© 2012 P. C. Van Slyke
Bio: P. C. Van Slyke's story The Back Bay appeared in Necrology Shorts. His work has also appeared in CUriouser Phalarope, Cruentus Libri, Cover of Darkness and others. He has also completed a novel The Dead Wall, first in a trilogy, currently in contract for publication.
E-mail: P. C. Van Slyke
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