Aphelion Issue 223, Volume 21
November 2017
 
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Cave Fish

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 often enough.

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 output either.

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 curious.

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 hand corner.

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, 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, couldn’t matter.

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 next hallway.

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 did.

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 on whom.

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 correct.

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.

Then:

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 yell.

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 pants.

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 them.


* * *

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 course.

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 stop.”

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 character squirmed.

“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.

“Yeah?”

“Ms. . . uh, Williams?”

“Yeah?”

“Is that you, Ms. Williams?”

“Yeah.“

“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 association.”

A noise came from inside, almost like a cough, but the door remained shut.

“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 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 bypassed.

She sat on the floor in front of her desk, and let her hands meld onto the keys. Steadily, she began to type.


THE END


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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