by J. S. Helgerson
The first portal off world was created in Cassandra William’s
basement, on an Apple II Plus microcomputer. Floating point arithmetic
(an improvement of the plus model over the original) was vital for the
establishment of communications, though it did end up introducing
translation errors which Cassandra only ever partially solved. Numbers,
in one form or another, were all that went back and forth. Numbers are
There was a period of time where Cassandra referred to the portal
computer as an Apple - //, said “slash-slash”, a deviant of the
official name. All her later nicknames came from this base. Technical
names are always shortened – convenience conquers all. So she went from
“Apple slash-slash plus” to “Slash – plus” before settling on simple
“slash”. “Time for slash work,” she would say to her mirror every
morning, looking her reflection in its bag-rimmed eyes. She never said
this to anyone else. She hadn’t talked to anyone else in months.
The portal was written during the spring of 1985, in more or less
one continuous binge, starting on March 2nd and ending on April 10th.
Cassandra left the house three times during this period. Twice to buy
food and once to setup a grocery delivery subscription. She subsisted
on milk, carrots, tortillas, and peanut butter. Nothing that had to be
prepared. Time spent away from her keyboard, away from her work, was
time wasted. If she thought she could have finished it fast enough, she
would have forsaken food, water, sleep, and just bashed it out in a
single devouring session. But, sadly, Cassandra still had to capitulate
to the needs of her body. Being efficient about it only ever relieved a
small portion of her frustration.
Her world was constrained to the green on black reality of her
computer screen, the clack of each finger press on her keyboard.
Everything else, her house, her old friends, her body, was tumor
pressing upon the pure flesh of her code.
She started coding the portal on a whim, uncertain of exactly what
she was setting out on. It started as an exploration on bit-shifting,
Cassandra just playing around as usual. That first evening she was
supposed to meet up with Jeanine, one of the few college friends
who still tried to keep in touch. They were going to meet up at a quiet
bar downtown, and Jeanine was going to try and prod Cassandra away from
mathematical topics of conversation for an hour and a half. Jeanine
usually failed at this.
But a few minutes after she’d started coding, Cassandra felt a
strange intuition pull her code in a certain direction. Uncertain, she
wrote one line, then another, then another. She compiled it, ran it,
and saw that while the program didn’t crash, it didn’t produce any
Cass stared at the lines she had just written. Each one was
perfectly understandable on their own, each just playing with memory,
but she couldn’t picture what they were leading to. She wasn’t sure why
she had written them. This wasn’t suspicious to Cassandra, only
So she began to type more, thinking less and less, letting each line
follow the last without analysis. She felt like she was excavating the
program rather than writing it, slowly digging out the tunnels and
branches with each keystroke. Its structure seemed natural and
unquestionable, if incomprehensible to her. Discovery, rather than
creation. Cassandra would almost have claimed divine inspiration if it
wasn’t for the complete surprise her first message was met with.
Heaven, apparently, didn’t know she was coming.
When the program was complete, she compiled it for the first time in
nearly a month, and let it run. She typed in a single letter-”h”-and
then left. She went to the bathroom first, and then the kitchen, then
finished the loop back down to the basement, carrot sticking out of her
mouth. Waiting for her was a screen full of gibberish.
One of the things Cassandra never managed to figure out was why the
font always changed for their messages. The Apple// didn’t have a wide
color pallet, 16 colors, and Cass always kept it as just green words on
black background anyway. Still, the messages would always be displayed
in the most incredible and varied shades of red, like the autumn leaves
of a tree alternatively shading and revealing each other as they sway
back and forth in the wind.
Cass froze at the bottom of the stairs, stopping mid chew. For a few
seconds she stared, eyes seemingly unfocused, at the glowing screen.
Then, slowly, slowly, she began to creep towards the computer, closing
the gap inch by inch. Her the trespasser, it the sleeping ancient. When
she reached her desk she outstretched her hand and brushed her
fingertips through the static fuzzing the monitor and, for a brief
moment, the glass.
She then fell back into her usual adroit movements. Cassandra pulled
a legal pad out of her desk drawer along with a ball point pen. Wishing
she had bought a printer, she copied down every character on the
screen. Most of them were random letters and numbers but sometimes the
pixels would form other shapes or, worse yet, random scatters. She did
her best with these but little imperfections crept in, much to her
later frustration. When everything seemed captured, she scanned through
the text once more, made few corrections, and tapped the return key.
The screen was blank once more, the cursor blinking in the upper left
Cassandra ran the program again, this time with an input of a dozen
random letters. The mess vanished from the screen and for a few
pregnant moments it remained blank. Then the red text returned. This
time there were exactly twelve characters. Cassandra wrote them down,
cleared the screen, and sent off three more random letters. Immediately
three red characters popped back up. After jotting these below the
previous ones, Cassandra shut off the computer, sat down, and finished
chewing her mouthful of carrot.
* * *
On the other side of the screen, as the fading of light dripped
down, down, eyes slowly narrowed. They squinted at the path the light
took through the logic, all the minute and sudden turns the air forced
it into. Nothing moved, save the eyes and the light.
Take a well, any size, and fill it with sieves. Every spare cubic
millimeter inhabited by a circle of wire, the sieves layered so closely
on top of each other that there’s hardly room for air. All these
filters, no matter the size of their holes, will finds themselves
overlapping, blocking light, air, water, just as well as a solid floor.
The quietest sound, provided there’s enough repetitions, can drown out
the loudest. Crickets over gunshots.
But if those sieves are configured just right, one permutation out
of a billion billion, a speck could sneak through. And then all of the
well’s bottom takes notice. Only after the last drop light had
disappeared did the eyes move away from the hilltop. They flowed
slowly, grudgingly back down to their normal spots to wait.
* * *
Cassandra slipped into the rhythms of translation easily enough. All
that changed from her schedule was that her hours of typing were now
punctuated by periods of scribbling on sheaths of yellow paper. These
papers were first placed on the basement floor, arranged in
chronological order: first contacts near the far wall, more recent
messages approaching her desk. There was just a single yellow column at
first, then two, then three. A necessary reshuffling to make footpaths,
then another to free a space for her to back her office chair into. By
the time she ran out of paper nearly the entire basement floor was
carpeted in urine colored sheets.
She left the house then, for the first time since her last grocery
run. She didn’t bother to lock the door behind her, didn’t even bother
to pull it completely shut. Nothing invaded during her three hour
sojourn – not the family of raccoons that had colonized her backyard
shed, not the kids that had been daring each other all afternoon to
sneak in through her window, not the pensioner who spent most of her
afternoon watching Cassandra’s windows and telling herself stories of
what happened behind those curtains.
When Cassandra returned, a shrink-wrapped tower of fresh legal pads
in her arms, her house’s sour smell struck her again. Then within one,
two, three steps it was gone, folded back into her subconscious. She
was home, there was work to do – the smell of the walls didn’t,
From then on the yellow sheets began to take over the house. They
poured up out of the basement and into the kitchen, swallowing up the
linoleum tiles. The den, the bedrooms, the sunroom, the few free inches
left in the hallways, were soon devoured. Eventually there was only a
narrow path of bare floor throughout the whole house, and the pages
started to crawl up the walls.
As the sheets spread, Cassandra began to spend more and more time
away from her computer. She paced through the yellow halls, staring at
the sea of strange characters. She would arm herself for these circuits
with a sharpie and a roll of masking tape, jotting down notes in the
margins of sheet and underlining patterns she noticed. Sometimes these
scribblings would prompt her to reorganize a swatch of paper, untaping
and retaping the sheets into new, increasingly byzantine patterns.
Then, once whatever spot had been reorganized, she would scan over the
new mess, like an introvert brooding on the order of her thoughts,
making more minutes changes until, finally, she would move on to the
Depth versus breadth was a conversation topic that Cassandra had
always worked hard to avoid. Back in college this had been a favorite
amongst the geeks, mostly to assure themselves that they were, in fact,
the smartest. Why bother learning other disciplines when computers are
the future? Time spent reading history is time not spent on the
mainframe, not spent pushing frontiers, not spent getting ahead of
everybody else in the department, damnit. Maybe breadth gives you the
occasional insight, they would say to each other over boxes of Chinese
balanced on their knees, but depth gives you results. This would elicit
a knowing smirk from the others. One step short of slapping each other
on the back.
Meanwhile Cass would still be on the mainframe, staring at her
fingers as they danced over the keyboard, having forgotten to go get
dinner yet again.
Depth is breadth, she would say matter of factly. The areas we
explore have surface area – it’s obvious. Like a crumb of dirt can
expand to house a microscopic world. Dig and you don’t just go down –
you excavate nooks and crannies of thought that can house entire
fields. No endeavor lacks this roughness. Depth is breadth, she would
repeat before going back to exploring the finer possibilities of hash
functions. The others would blink at each other and remember why they
tried to avoid Cassandra, if possible.
After she left college, Cassandra’s opportunities for conversation,
never abundant in the first place, began to vanish. She went from
speaking perhaps once a week to maybe twice a month, spiraling away
until half a year passed between social calls. Her speech had retreated
within itself, losing distinction and sharpness until when she did
speak it sounded as though she hummed her words.
But as her voice atrophied, the pace of her speech only quickened.
When pressed into conversation she would blaze through her replies,
mumbling rapid fire in an attempt to reach a finish as quickly as
possible. What use did she have for conversation, after all? Her
isolation taught her that she could live without it, and it only ever
pulled her away from her keyboard. If muscle is useless, it’s best to
let the body reabsorb it and redistributing it in the hopes of
fostering something useful.
So Cassandra roamed the cluttered halls of her house in complete
silence, rearranging the shape of her mind.
* * *
Cassandra translated tirelessly for months, each day scratching her way
closer to a comprehension. Like all of her pursuits she did this out of
compulsion rather than joy. It was simply the Thing To Do. She would
never have called it obsessive. That would be like calling a hungry man
obsessive for eating. It was natural, just the Thing To Do.
It never occurred to her that the translation might have been an
impossible task. She never even thought about finishing. She merely
Close to two months after the first message she had created her
first rough translations. Only a sliver of the first messages were
translated, and perhaps only a quarter of those were even close to
accurate. As first drafts go it was questionable, but patches of
lucidity were dotted throughout. Repeatedly Cassandra ran across
statements of confusion paired with threats, or what seemed like
threats. There were several references to eyes and fingers. “Intrusion”
seemed to appear regularly, though it was never clear who was intruding
The messages’ language had 287 different characters mapped to the 49
Cassandra could send over, each seemingly changing its equivalent
depending on what preceded and follow it, like a lexical tree with
leaves reachable only by careful traversal. The southern wall of her
kitchen was dedicated to sketches of what such a tree might look like.
Circle after circle tied to line after line, chasing each other across
the great white wall.
Most of her clues came from the first messages, where each of her
missives was met by an echo containing the same number of characters.
Assuming that these were the same letters in the new alphabet lead to
some minor progress. But soon the messages she received seemed like
proper response, not merely echoes; they varied in length, sometimes
pages long and at other times just a single line. It didn’t help that
these messages (from what Cassandra could translate) varied incredibly
in tone. Some seemed conciliatory, other threatening, others warm,
others bored. That later translations would see these moods flipped as
words were corrected and translations defined didn’t help.
Those later translations were finished faster and faster, the second
done in one month, the third in three weeks, and the fourth in ten
days. Cassandra’s progress had a momentum all of its own, and it
carried her deeper and deeper into meaning.
She started sleeping on the floor, wherever and whenever fatigue
grabbed her, rather than in her dusty bedroom. She would just stop,
drop to her knees, then fall to her side and close her eyes. She would
lay perfectly still for three or four hours before consciousness
overtook her. Then she would be back at it, pursuing whatever line of
translation she’d been stuck on before. She did not dream.
* * *
The day she finished the fourth draft, Cassandra decided to try and
communicate in the other language. She wasn’t certain of the accuracy
of the translation, but she was confident that the gist of it was
It took her hours to type her first message, copy and pasting each
character from a cache of the missives she had saved. It was a
painstaking work, but Cassandra didn’t stop until she was done. She
barely even blinked.
“My name is Cassandra, and I don’t mean any harm. There is no need
for threats. I simply want to learn about you. I’m talking to you
through from my house on a place called Earth, on an object called an
Apple // plus microcomputer.”
When she had finished typing she didn’t bother reading it over. The
moment the last character was in place she jabbed return.
For a long while the screen was blank. The basement was silent, same
as it ever was, but the quiet somehow felt heavier to Cassandra. The
beginnings of anxiety stirred in her stomach, her first emotion in
months. She drummed her fingers on the slash’s plastic siding.
The screen exploded into color. Page and page of text flood the
monitor, each line sweeping the last off the screen so quickly they
began to bleed into each other, becoming one rushing current of
symbols. The slash’s built in alarm sound, the only noise it could
make, went off with each new line, soon becoming a continuous, red
Cassandra was caught between shock and revulsion. The multiple pages
of input, the alarm noise, were not things she had coded in. That they
were happening was worse than a bug. It was a violation of her control,
of herself. Halfway between shock and revulsion, fear and disgust,
fight or flight. Her eyes locked onto the screen, unblinking as it
screamed into her face.
Yank the power cord, shut it off, kill it. Run up the stairs, lock
the door, wait for it to quiet down.
What if it never stops?
What if pulling the plug doesn’t kill it?
Hurt the center of your life? Break the glass. Rip out the speakers.
Leave the bits of skull and viscera on the floor, step around the eyes
so you don’t find out what they sound like beneath your heel. Say
goodbye to your closest friend by wiping their shattered face off your
Or just leave. A single slight doesn’t mean the death of a
friendship. We all make mistakes, say things we don’t mean in tones we
don’t intend. We all take things the wrong way. Leave, wait. Come back
when feelings have mellowed.
Cassandra took one step back. Then another, then another. She didn’t
turn her back to the computer as she walked backwards, slowly, up the
stairs. With each step, she whispered “I’m sorry.” She didn’t close the
door completely behind her, but left it cracked open half an inch. The
sound of the screams seemed barely diminished. In fact, it was just
about as loud in every corner of the house, which in the coming days
Cassandra would explain away by “heating vents.”
Cassandra stood outside the basement door for fifteen minutes, not
moving, except for the occasional tremor. Friends have disagreements.
It’s fine. It’s fine.
* * *
Below, everything was a flurry in the twilight. Every possible thing
that could be moving was dancing upwards, every parcel of air, every
clod dark grass, every atom. The air itself boiled.
But there was no cacophony to accompany this riot. Only the place’s
visuals were confused. The sound remained sane. Close your eyes and
everything would seem calm again. The only sound was a steady
murmuring. Things, blind to the chaos around them, discussed the story
unfolding above them. All eyes remained open. Grey flesh pressed into
grey flesh as they all crowded onto the hilltop. Each spoke in the same
unhurried murmur, continuing without stopping for anything like breath,
each overwriting the sounds of its neighbor. A weaved basket of noise.
A parliament of rooks, a murder of crows, a skein of geese, a
destruction of cats. A jury of eyes, their world boiling away around
* * *
It was took a week for Cassandra to grow desperate enough to venture
back down into the basement. A week of listless, distracted attempts at
translation. A week of trying desperately not to listen to the screams
of her computer. Her ability to work had been infiltrated by its noise.
For the first time, Cassandra found herself without the need to work.
She felt like a balloon without air, dragging herself throughout the
house, going from one translation cluster to the next without really
looking at any of the symbols on before her. She had never needed to
create her own motivation before. It had always existed in rich veins
just below the floor of her mind, an unending list of things to do, and
of course she would them. Reasons didn’t factor in; reasons beg the
question “why do this”, a question that had never seemed pertinent. Of
course she would do them. They were the Things To Do. Of course. Of
And then she found herself staring at the endless pages covering her
walls and wondering, really, if it was worth finishing. Her only friend
was angry with her, still screaming at her with all the power of its
metal lungs. For a brief moment she was struck by what she was – a
tired woman in an abused house that smelled every minute of the months
she had spent stewing in it.
Then a particularly violent roar rose from the basement and
Cassandra snapped her head down to look between her feet. She felt ill
for a moment, painfully nauseous. The feeling receded by inches, until
she returned to her baseline numbness and could move again. She took a
few steps, stopped to finger another sheet of yellow paper, and stared
through the floor when another scream rose up. She repeated these
steps, waltzing through the house, for days before she was pulled
downstairs by a thought.
“Friends make amends. Friends make it right. Friends make it work. “
* * *
Downstairs the computer continued its tantrum. Cassandra walked down
through its yells like she was walking away from shore, breaking
through a wave with each step. The moon hung low in the sky before her,
screaming. Grey flesh had begun to grow out from its front, oozing
through like dough pushed through a colander. In small sections on its
surface Cassandra recognized the foreign language’s characters. She
thought they spelled out hateful things. She wasn’t sure.
Cassandra walked until she was barely a foot away from this grey
mass. She kneeled. The flesh was draped over the computer desk,
covering both the keyboard and the glass screen it had pushed out. It
did not have a smell. The sound was so loud that when Cassandra spoke,
she could not hear herself even in the vibration of her jaw.
“If we’re going to talk, I need you to quiet down.”
The scream continued. Cassandra swallowed, then went on.
“I didn’t mean to anger you. And I think you know that wasn’t my
intention, either. Maybe it was a translation error. Probably was. Had
to be. But if you’ve been writing back this entire time you have to
understand that mistakes are inevitable. You can’t understand me
perfectly yet. You have to have empathy for my mistake. Your feelings
can’t be hurt. Not truly. You’re too intelligent. So please, please
Still the scream. Cassandra sighed and reached behind her for one of
the sheets of yellow paper. Flipping it over to the blank side, she
jotted down a few complex characters. Then she slapped that side down
onto the mass with a wet thwack. The scream stopped immediately.
The mass jiggled when she had hit it, like so much thigh fat, and it
began to squirm. Something like sweat glistened on it. Bit by bit, the
paper grew wetter. The mass’s writhing tore it up into little yellow
curds, which rolled off it one by one. When the paper was gone, in its
place the flesh had formed a character. It was like watching someone’s
hand move beneath their shirt. Cassandra read the character. It was one
she knew. She shook her head.
“No. I don’t want to.”
The character melted back into the mass, only to immediately reform.
“Why?” Cassandra asked, feeling on the verge of tears for the first
time she could remember. “Let’s go back to the way it was before. Our
correspondence. We can do that. I liked the way it was. Didn’t you?”
A new character. Cassandra hung her head.
“Why do you want this?” She muttered beneath her breath. The
“Fine,” she said to her knees. “We’ll see.”
And then, head still hanging down she placed her hand on the mass,
directly on top of the character. The character receded. The flesh
began to swallow her hand. She closed her eyes.
* * *
At the dead end of fall the pensioner across the street finally called
the homeowner’s association about the state of Cassandra’s lawn. It
hadn’t been mown all summer, and none of the leaves had been raked. The
words “disgrace” and “pathetic” featured prominently in the discussion.
The year before Cassandra had at least mown once in the fall, mulching
the whole mess just before the first snow. But the forecast called for
snow this afternoon and nothing had been done. Disgrace.
The man from the association was in his mid-50s. He walked on the
balls of his feet as he picked his way along the lawn’s edge, hands
folded behind his back. He gave three pert little knocks on the front
door and called out “Ms. Williams! Homeowners’ association”, knocking
three more times when no one opened the door. He was about to call out
again when he heard footsteps approaching from behind the door. But the
door didn’t open. Instead, a thick voice called out from behind it.
“Ms. . . uh, Williams?”
“Is that you, Ms. Williams?”
“Uh, can you open up the door, Ma’am? I want to talk to you about
the state of your property.” He paused, then added “I’m from the
A noise came from inside, almost like a cough, but the door remained
“We’re talking right now. How can I help you?”
“Ma’am, please open the door.”
“I’m sick. Don’t want to spread it, yeah?”
Another almost cough. The man pursed and then unpursed his lips.
“Fine. The bottom line is that when you moved into this house you
agreed to follow certain regulations regarding your property. Grass no
longer than 1 ¾ inches high, drainage systems routinely unclogged—”
“I’ll take care of it. I’ll hire a few landscapers. Whatever you
want, done within the week.”
“Don’t interrupt me. This has as much to do with your seeming
disregard for the association’s bylaws as it does with your breaking of
them. Need I remind you that when you moved into this house—”
“I’ll call the landscapers right now. Thank you for coming by.”
Then footsteps walking away from the door, deeper into the house.
The man stared at the door for a moment, frozen. Then he burst into
movement, hammering on the door with renewed anger, screaming at the
top of his lungs.
“Ms. Williams get back here you can’t walk away from me there is so
much left to discuss don’t you dare walk away from this conversation I
swear I WILL FINE YOU!”
* * *
Cassandra slouched into the kitchen, the man’s shouts barely muffled by
the walls. She waited a few minutes for him to tire and walk away
before picking up the phone. It took her a while to find a landscaping
company in the phonebook, given how hard it was to turn pages with what
remained of her hands. The phonebook pages were so light as well, that
she often had to shift whole clumps of pages at a time. Once she found
a number though it only took her a full minute to punch in the ten
digits. She had been practicing her keystrokes day in and day out, and
while she doubted she would ever return to her previous speed it was
only so long until she reached a reasonable rate once more.
The call with the landscapers was brief, something Cassandra was
thankful for. She had a project waiting for her downstairs that she was
loathe to be away from. She began to squirm in excitement just thinking
about it. The thrill of a new endeavor continued to be one of
Cassandra’s favorite things.
On her way to the basement she brushed against a stray yellow sheet,
an escapee from the week Cassandra had spent tearing every piece of
paper from the walls and floors. Creaking, she bent over and stuck the
paper to her skin. Later she would toss put it in the pile with all the
other sheets in the corner of her bedroom.
The stairs creaked as she descended to the basement. When she first
returned from her trip, she had been worried the stairs wouldn’t hold
her new weight. She had waited ages between each step, hoping the next
wouldn’t see everything crashing down beneath her. She had grown to
trust their integrity since then, though she had fewer reasons to leave
the basement than before. All the food in her refrigerator had gone
rotten, unused. She didn’t need her bed anymore. Obstacles, each
She sat on the floor in front of her desk, and let her hands meld
onto the keys. Steadily, she began to type.
© 2017 J. S. Helgerson
Bio: J.S. Helgerson is a student based out of Minneapolis,
Minnesota. He enjoys the work of Tsutomu Nihei and Shirley Jackson.
Beneath his bed is a vat of peach-flavored toothpaste, just in case.
You can read his debut horror novel,The
Doe Brothers, on Amazon.
E-mail: J. S. Helgerson
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