The God In the Machine
Jeffery Scott Sims
Just when everything seemed to be going right, everything went completely wrong. The experiment had been designed with care, the parameters judiciously fixed, the predicted results apparently in hand. We had impeccably calculated our equations, and there were few of us who doubted that the desired outcome would be attained. Of course morose old Gerald Steen, my learned but disputatious colleague, doubted and questioned and griped, but I'd never known him happy about anything, in his work or his personal life, the latter being a total mess. The rest of us at Applied Physics Processing, however (those of us who counted), confidently expected victory over the unknown, and were nonplused and chagrined when fresh mystery arose.
At heart it was a simple test of theory, which I, Kevin Phelps, had arranged and managed to completion at the behest of APP. Theoretical physics had carried man's knowledge, in a few short decades, beyond (or below) the atom, into the realm of the subatomic particle. Physicists had delved into the nucleus of the atom, broken it into its constituent parts, then dived deeper to break up those parts, the building blocks of reality. Dalton long ago thought the atom indivisible, but his heirs presented us with the proton, neutron, and electron, and those who came after peered closer and observed the quarks and superstrings and other fragments of existence which come together to create all that we see and feel in this material universe. What, if anything, lay beyond that infinitely microscopic level? There was a grand question for a team of dedicated and reputation-hungry scientists. We were sure that we had not yet touched bottom, that another infinitesimal layer of the space-time fabric remained to be observed and described. In our huge ultra-modern, state of the art laboratory we had all the necessary apparatus at our command, all the required cash, and we had an idea which made sense according to ironclad theory and equation. We couldn't lose.
This is what should have happened. The hypothesis of Feinberg and Kimoso deduced the existence of a basal non-particulate state, a substratum of ultra-dimensional energy in which the higher known particles swam like fish in the sea, drawing their substance, their structure, their reality, from that cosmic stream. We applied physicists at APP proposed to bombard a sample of pure plutonium with high intensity lasers, excite its atoms, smash their cohesion, knock them apart into individual strings, and then continue on to what no one had accomplished before, the rending of the strings themselves. If our working theory were correct, the latent, all encompassing power of the unobservable substratum should operate to reconstruct the strings according to a precisely defined formula. This chemical process we could measure, and if events developed within a certain range of probability, we would be fairly on our way to achieving our goal. We would have established the secret power hidden far beneath the atom and, incidentally, just might have conceived a method for tapping it, a factor of enormous import to practical scientists in the hire of a commercial corporation. The possibilities were dizzying.
Only it didn't happen the way we expected. As I said, everything went wrong. We cranked up the accelerator to full blast, burning to thin vapor that incredibly dense lump of plutonium, and we kept at it until there wasn't a single intact atom within the vacuum chamber; we isolated the fragments and boiled them with the lasers until there was nothing tangible surviving in there, neither matter nor organized energy; then, when all readings hit zero-- when the meters told us that we had generated an utter emptiness-- we switched off the beams and waited breathlessly for a sign. We predicted one of two things: no reaction whatsoever, or a feeble but indicative increase in energy release, a by-product of the process by which the strings were recreated and recombined. The latter result would constitute victory.
We got neither prediction, not the good, not the bad. We got something startling and frustrating and costly: an immense power surge that shattered the vacuum chamber, wrecked the extremely costly accelerator, and blew all our theories and equations to bits. Every needle in the banks of connected meters suddenly shot off the dials, and before we knew it we had a big problem on our hands, for the surge poured unbidden into our massive controlling computer, searing its circuits and rendering it expensively inoperative. The laboratory filled with smoke, electrical arcing, puffs of flame, and chaos. Then all of our machines shut down with a crashing silence, and we were left, gasping, to pick up the pieces and figure out what had caused the catastrophe.
"And now for your next trick," Steen sneered at me. "I hope you've been saving your lunch money." Of course I was in no way responsible for the disaster, as I was quick to point out-- I had worked out the operating parameters to perfection, as always-- but it was my show, and his snide suggestion rankled. Everything did at that moment. Fortunately the others present were more inclined to offer useful aid than gloating comment. I directed the immediate recovery procedures, saw to it that the dangerous equipment failures were addressed, hovered over the minor technicians as they damped the smoldering flames and suppressed the crackling electrical systems by turning off the remaining power. It was a sad mess, but we got it under control without further financial loss.
Then I had to report to J.D. Cunningham, the big boss. He wasn't a physicist-- more an inventor, and a good one, too-- but he knew the basics, and expected to be kept informed, especially in circumstances like these. His office was located at the top of the administration building at the far end of the APP complex. "Find out what happened," he said upon hearing the preliminary details. "Fix it, introduce new safeguards, try it again and make it work." That's what I wanted to hear, what I expected and needed from that no nonsense fellow. I intended to get down to business without delay.
Upon my return to the laboratory I found fresh trouble awaiting, and this was where matters began to get really weird. Despite my impression from the initial damage survey, it turned out that the central computer, that marvelous technological behemoth which occupied one whole wall of the main laboratory, hadn't fully shut down after all. It seemed to be in good running order, in fact, which should have been wonderful news, except for two things: one, I had examined it myself, and had made sure of my observations on its burnt out condition; two, the power was off by my command, so the beast should have been quiet even if in fine fettle. Output from consoles and meters, however, clearly proved that major internal activity was ongoing. It couldn't be-- it wasn't possible-- but there it was, and no mistake. With the help of Martin Bremmer, my intern assistant, I peeked and pried into every panel and cranny, but couldn't shake the conclusion that the machine was running on its own, from sourceless power.
Mystery on top of mystery! "If we can bottle this," quipped Martin, "then we'll all be billionaires." To which I responded, "Not if we first blow up the lab every time." It gave me a headache even to think about it. Our job was to explain as well as to achieve, and I, among others, wasn't having much luck. The first result had been unexpected, the second inconceivable.
And it got worse, much worse, before the night was over. I called for our handyman Mirrhatta to recalibrate a sensor. He had been there earlier, in the thick of things, but now I couldn't find him, and when I asked around I learned that he'd suddenly thrown down his tools, taken off and run out of the lab. That was childish behavior, and quite uncharacteristic; he was a somber fellow, but supremely dedicated. I sent someone to look for him in his workshop. The someone returned shortly to inform me that Mirrhatta was dead, apparently by his own hand.
At the head of a small party I looked into his shop and found him there, as described. What a grim sight he was lying there, sprawled face up over his desk. The indications were clear enough: he had drunk concentrated cleaning fluid, a highly corrosive solution used to strip and sterilize electrical wiring, straight from the can still clutched in a clenched hand. It was powerful stuff-- I splashed a drop of it on my arm once, and it was already hurting before I applied the soap and water-- so I could imagine the agony he suffered before he died. At least he went quickly, or must have, and yet I was disturbed anew, for reasons beyond the obvious. Even at the time it struck me that the look on his dead, contorted face was wholly improper. It should have revealed only the aftermath of searing pain, and that was there, but there was something else around the mouth and in those staring eyes, a look of peace, of contentment; of joy. He died that way, and yet Mirrhatta was happy when he went!
There came one more shock before that cavalcade of tragedies concluded. A few hours later, after the local authorities of the law had come and gone, and we had finally derived some order from the mess and could think of hitting the sack at last, another horror struck. Shortly before dawn, as we subsequently pieced together the facts, our nuclear chemist Jamison-- a decent enough guy, though usually quiet and withdrawn-- suddenly grew garrulous, even belligerent, stomped out of the lab laughing loudly to himself, then ascended to the third floor, the office level, where a number of witnesses reported him singing at the top of his voice. There he broke into an emergency exit, made his way onto the flat roof and, without further ado, pitched himself down to the hard pavement below. He died by the time anyone got to him. He was a bloody mess, naturally, but I thought, when I viewed the body, that he seemed pretty chipper about it. The sight of his smiling face gave me a queasy feeling.
It would be a while longer before I took to my bed, despite being
already dog tired.
Cunningham had to be briefed once more, to bring him up to date on our festivities. I did that, and he mused for a bit, ordering everyone home for the day, promising immediate action, a complete investigation. By then I couldn't have cared less, although certainly nothing had been resolved by that time. The computer continued to misbehave unexplainably, and our people were killing themselves over it. I went home and slept, an enervating sleep which didn't refresh, although it might have had I been left alone until I got my fill. The boss called me around four that afternoon, to inform me that he was contacting outside help. "We have a puzzle on our hands," he pointed out, "of a sort we aren't equipped to handle. There's too much about this business that's mysterious, that doesn't make sense. I need a man who can put together pieces when they don't seem to fit. I've heard of this Vorchek character-- a Professor Vorchek, one of your colleagues-- who might be able to aid us. I hear he's a whiz at unusual scientific matters, the sort of man who can step in and tie knots when everybody else is at loose ends. I sent a dispatch to him, telling him about the experiment and the computer glitch, referring him to you, making mention of a hefty fee. Look out for him." Fine, if that was what Cunningham wanted. I thought it too soon to panic myself, but I had to admit that I didn't have any idea in hell as to what was happening just then.
Come the next morning a select team, consisting of myself, Martin, Steen, and a couple of high-powered technicians went to work on the computer again, attempting to download all stored data before, as I feared, we lost it altogether. No dice; the machine wasn't giving up any of its secrets, although it continued to chirp and whine merrily, as if something gargantuan was going on inside. Steen was particularly keen on tapping into storage. His was the only cheerful countenance around that day, and he truly applied himself to the work, as if he thought himself facing a worthy challenge at last. I hadn't wanted him around then, when I had so much on my mind-- frankly, I simply didn't like the guy-- but he insisted, and he did know his stuff, so what could I say?
"I tell you, Phelps," he said, as we crowded at a terminal, striving without success to input, "this is big, really big. We've got to break into that machine. It's all there, inside, waiting for us, and all we have to do is unleash it. Maybe you screwed up, but this is a bonanza, and I want it. I want it all." "I don't know what you're yapping about," I shot back. "we have a technical problem of an unforeseen nature, the life's blood of science. We will establish what went wrong which lead to this unfortunate state of affairs, then return to first beginnings and start again. Next time, suitably prepared and forearmed, we will succeed. It's as simple as that." He raised up, leaned back against the wall and said, with a note of wonder in his voice, "You really think so, don't you?" "Of course. There's nothing else." Steen grinned wolfishly, as if enjoying a private joke at my expense. "Well, well, we'll see. I have grander hopes."
We didn't see anything that day. I received a message, one prepared and sent by a "T. Delaney", from the offices of Professor Anton Vorchek. The stationery heading told me nothing about him, though there was an odd symbol next to his name which resembled Indian art, a complicated image of a grotesque face or ceremonial mask. The body of the letter read as follows:
Dear Doctor Phelps,
The professor is a very busy man, with a lot on his plate, but he might be willing to
solve your problem for you, as requested by your superior. The money is acceptable.
Professor Vorchek says you are to describe in full detail the nature of the problem, if
you are capable of doing so. He expects an immediate reply.
That was all, but it considerably irked me, both the amateurishness of the tone and its domineering manner. Who in hell was this Vorchek anyway? I took a break from my fruitless labors to look him up in the Guide to the International Physicists Association, without success. A perusal of listings for degreed professionals of any kind turned up nothing either. A catalogue of working professors gave me what I wanted, without pleasing me one whit. So he was Vorchek, Anton, visiting professor at a minor private college in Phoenix, Arizona. No statement of credentials, which mystified me, but a list of published papers, which mystified me more. I supposed that there was a place for such academic masterpieces as "Yotapai Legends of the Third Advent", "Psychic Responses Among a Test Group to Pictorial Presentations of the Demon Astrodemus", or "Mystical Realities Deduced From the Seventh Book of Artocris", among others, but I couldn't see it myself, and I sure didn't see what any of this had to do with me. One item did briefly fascinate, "Second Level Energy Disturbances In the Vicinity of Cathedral Rock", but it sounded like rot. Taking his publications as a whole I gathered he was some kind of esoteric social scientist, which marked him as a pretty useless specimen at the present moment. It was okay by me if I never heard from him again, but Cunningham insisted that I cooperate, so I sent in response the full scientific particulars of our recent travails, describing fully and accurately the procedures of the experiment, as well as the specific inglorious results obtained. I explained about the computer as best I could-- I felt silly recounting that part, for I knew it didn't make much sense-- but I left out the dreadful personal responses to the failure among our staff. Whatever Vorchek was intended to provide, those sad deaths weren't relevant.
I came in the next morning to find Steen already working at the computer, still trying to tap its contents and discover the secret of its automatic operation. I quickly learned, to my surprise (for he hadn't let on his intentions), that he had been up all night hacking at it. He claimed to be on to something, although he couldn't back up the claim with satisfactory evidence. "This is marvelous," he cried, full of life and vigor, though he looked shabby and worn. "It's as if the machine has fabricated for itself a new language, a binary-style code with its own inherent logic. I think I can crack it-- I know I can-- given enough time." "You mean," I asked, "that the computer language has become garbled, but can be reconstructed?" "Have it your way," he sighed. "I'll figure it out. I will read this."
That morning there occurred the third death involving APP personnel. This one was especially freakish. An administrative clerk who I'd never met or heard of, a long-term female employee called Maggie who, so I was told over the grapevine, had recently experienced a divorce and who suffered from other personal difficulties such as debilitating obesity, did the deed. She killed herself in the strangest way, an incredible act of self-brutalization. She absented herself from her station and, when no one was around, slipped into a break room. There, after downing most of a pot of coffee and raiding the larder of doughnuts, she thrust her right hand into the garbage disposal in the sink, and with her left hand snapped the switch. Then, in an amazing display of sheer willpower, she held her hand inside the rotating choppers, without a scream or any outcry at all, until her hand was reduced to a raw stump, and she bled to death. It was all over by the time the next peckish employee walked in.
The legal authorities duly swept in again, this time sternly recommending that we shut down operations and evacuate the complex while they endeavored to get a grip on the alarming situation. Cunningham went along with that as far as unessential employees were concerned, maybe having thought of it himself, for as he told me, "We need a cooling off period. Our people are getting too worked up, taking everything too hard." So they were, I guessed, although I couldn't imagine why. I'd heard, somewhere along the way, that tragedies come in groups, or in threes, and what was happening fit the bill, though the latest case, not involving our core team, seemed more bad luck of timing than anything else. I doubted that this Maggie gave a damn about experimental difficulties; perhaps, being on the edge for other reasons, the earlier deaths pushed her over? There was lots of talk like that.
I received a second Vorchek missive, prepared again by the irritating T. Delaney:
Dear Doctor Phelps,
The professor is intrigued by, but hardly impressed with, your account. He tells me
that it wasn't necessary to describe your dopey experiment at such length, having heard
all about that from Mr. Cunningham. He is delighted by your computer trouble, though.
the professor, whose time is valuable, expects more information from you concerning
corollary consequences. Please send, soonest, everything you know about bizarre
behavior arising among APP employees or others in the area since the mishap. He
desires a full catalogue of crimes, murders, suicides, and psychotic mania. Only then
can he take action to clear up the mess you've made.
The nerve of that person! Who was T. Delaney to write to me like that? Yet I was somewhat shaken by this fresh request. The professor asked about suicides, although I'd avoided mentioning them, and I didn't think Cunningham had either. Perhaps this Vorchek had heard something in the news, but the way the request (or demand) was phrased suggested otherwise. He was fishing for data, yet had somehow managed to put his finger, as illogical as it seemed, precisely on our sore point. It might be coincidence, but it created the illusion that he knew something. With a heavy heart, thinking ill of Vorchek, T. Delaney, and the wide world, I transmitted everything I'd learned about the three deaths.
The response to my last narrative arrived fast, before an hour passed. This time it was just the short and messianic sentence, "The professor says, 'I AM COMING'". Bully for him; I now imagined that he intended to deluge us with psychological tests, to find out if any more of us were contemplating self-homicide. Come to think of it, that didn't sound such a bad idea. There was, it transpired, plenty of destructive nuttiness among our folks. This Vorchek might do some good, although I couldn't help but brood more-- it was my job, after all-- about our wayward computer. There was nothing a man like him could do about that.
It wasn't just a stimulating puzzle. Until we got the machine back on line, functioning as we dictated, then we at the lab were out of commission, unless we bit the bullet and purchased a brand new instrument. Computers of that caliber weren't a dime a dozen; the Pentagon would bust its budget ordering a dozen, and just one was a gigantic expense for us. We had every incentive to struggle round the clock to fix it, and if we hadn't seen it that way, Cunningham would have chided us, possibly by waving termination papers in our faces.
I didn't, however, know what to do. It kept coming back to that, and no matter how I or anybody else strained our brains we didn't advance. Martin was a jewel, as ever, always quick 11with the clever suggestion which might pass muster-- often had in the past-- but which got us nowhere now. Steen was Steen, a heavy, awkward, grouchy fellow, competent but uninspired, doing nothing for me despite his current enthusiasm. I needed him for fundamental calculations, at which (I granted) he excelled, but it was virtually impossible to tear him away from the consoles. His whole life seemed glued to the terminals, from which he watched and noted the workings of that contrary electronic brain.
Vorchek arrived. My first intimation of visitation occurred when I went in early to work, to find an astoundingly beautiful girl, a dazzling, blue-eyed blonde in her twenties, ambling casually about the littered accelerator room, handling delicate gadgets and fingering buttons. She was provocatively attired in a short, low-cut crimson dress with a broad-brimmed hat to match, fishnet hose and tall, high-heeled black boots. Such a vision was entirely out of place there, as was unauthorized entry, but she was a sight for sore eyes, and I paused before I determined on rounding upon her. Scarcely had I begun a brusque comment before she laconically introduced herself. "I'm Theresa Delaney," she stated, "Professor Vorchek's private secretary." So this was my epistolary nemesis. "The professor is talking to the big man right now," she added, "but he'll show up momentarily. He sent me on ahead. Where is this Phelps character, anyway?" "I am Phelps-- Kevin Phelps-- Kevin to my friends." "All right, Mr. Phelps--" "Doctor Phelps." "Whatever. I'm to take notes on the facilities. Why don't you show me all the important stuff."
I was more inclined to wring her neck, but her company appealed to me for irrelevant reasons, so I went along with her ill-mannered request. I pointed out items of interest, describing them at length, while she scribbled suspiciously short fragments in a little notebook. Occasionally she asked questions, none of which indicated the slightest knowledge of physics or physics laboratories. Her voice was lovely, but she didn't seem to care what she did with it.
Then there appeared her employer, or patron, or whatever he was. "Professor Anton Vorchek," he boomed, extending a jabbing hand as he strode briskly forward. "Is this Phelps?" he asked the girl. "Indeed; very good. Pleased to meet you, Doctor Phelps. Shall we begin?" He was quite tall and lean, a striking, middle-aged fellow, well if not fashionably dressed in a long, open dark coat, tailored trousers and expensive shoes. His dark hair, partly concealed by a large floppy hat pushed back on his head, was tinged with iron-gray at the temples. His eyes were bright and piercing, his nose strong, his mouth firm and, at the moment, set in an amused, all wise grin. His speech, I discovered, was flawless and perfectly modulated, but bore a trace of an indefinable accent.
"One thing I must expect of you," he said crisply, "is complete data. Really, Doctor, there is no getting around it: you withheld pertinent information. Not realizing the kind or rate of progression we have here, I delayed coming by almost forty-eight hours. In matters such as these, time can be precious. Let us agree not to make the same mistake again."
"Oh yes, let's," I grumbled. "Doctor Vorchek-- I see; you prefer Professor, do you?-- Professor Vorchek, it will be easier to comply if you tell me exactly what you want, easier still if I know exactly why you're here. Due to an oversight, I suppose, your relevant credentials are still unknown to me. You aren't a physicist, are you? Forgive me, sir, but I still don't understand why your presence is required at my lab, in these trying times."
"I am an expert on mysteries," he proclaimed, after a studied delay while he lighted his pipe, "having devoted my long career to matters weird and unusual. Your situation is right up my alley, being composed, as should be apparent by now, of layers of mystery upon mystery. The truth must be ascertained, facts revealed, darkness banished. I bear probing light into these circumstances; I shall study and explicate, and in the course of time-- if the evidence be ample-- resolve. Now, to work."
Somehow he had managed to tell me nothing, for I still knew little concrete about him. To work we went, however, and for the next several hours he toured the scene, puffing jovially on his pipe, with me as his guide, and with Theresa in tow, she scribbling notes and interjecting unhelpful comments as we conversed. I described the sequence of events in the fullest detail, while in return he plied me with curious questions. "Are you familiar with Koppermeyer's writings on inter-dimensional boundaries? Was attention paid to Helvetius' theories on the efficacy of second-level defense mechanisms? To the best of your knowledge, are any of your staff members of mystic cults, or devotees of odd religions?" These questions and dozens of others, senseless or meaningless to me, he continually hurled, along with many others which impressed me by their intelligent directness. It bugged me to admit (to myself) that he really did have a good grasp of the project and the principles underlying it. There were people working for me who didn't know half as much about my work.
During a lunch break I sought Cunningham and pressed him for further information concerning Vorchek. I wanted to know how my boss had come by the fellow. He told me. "Do you recall hearing of that business, a couple of years ago, at the Planetary Research Foundation? They had put together some of the instruments on one of the NASA probes to Jupiter, and were in charge of acquiring and analyzing the data. Something went wrong-- a problem arose-- something pretty nasty, if the reports that leaked out were true. It was all very hush-hush, and officially it never happened, but if the rumors were correct those folks got themselves into a pickle over telemetric data, if you can believe it. There were casualties, of a sort-- never specified-- and all the big brains were in a tizzy. Well, Vorchek was brought in, or stepped in, and he straightened out the mess that had everybody else bamboozled. He's an eclectic thinker, a kind of supreme generalist, self-trained I understand, who knows how to solve puzzles that span multiple disciplines. Maybe he is an oddball, but I thought he might serve us well in this case, since what we have on our hands is a hell of a lot more than just a problem in applied physics. I want the pieces put together, I want this wretchedness put behind us. Talk to him, Phelps, work with him; satisfy him, and then the both of you satisfy me. Get the job done."
"I will," said I, "but I'm convinced we're dealing with a kook." After lunch I rejoined Vorchek and Theresa, and then, back at the lab, the professor had his first encounter with Gerald Steen. My colleague was hunched over a console, his normal behavior these days, recording endless strings of seemingly random numbers pouring out of the central computer, inputting his own variants, obsessively recording his results.
"Pleased to meet you," said the professor, his hard, inquisitive eyes belying his warm smile. "I see that output continues. Would you call it data or noise?" Steen glanced up, his mouth pursed sourly, his countenance radiating what I thought I must have mistaken for frank hostility. "So you're Vorchek," he growled, "here to tell us what's what, are you?" "If I may be of service." "No doubt," Steen sneered. "I've been working on this without a break, concentrating on what counts, the heart of the machine, while others entertain guests." He looked at me and grinned coldly, then swiveled his chair out of the way and stared maliciously at our visitor. "See for yourself, Vorchek. It's all there, waiting to be read. Why don't you give it a whirl?"
"You honor me, sir," replied the professor. He bent over the monitor, perused the ever changing figures. What he saw appeared to captivate him, for he mumbled equations to himself and calculated with his fingers. "Miss Delaney," he called, "take this down: cohesive sine, enhanced logarithms incorporating linguistic patterns, and volatile, implosive energies feeding the system. Got that?" "I don't get it," Theresa responded, "but I wrote it down." "Fair enough. Dr. Steen, do you see it as I see it?"
Steen was visibly dumbfounded. He began to reply in an angry, cracking voice, but managed to control himself. "Well, that's a start, Professor. I suppose I ought to be pleased to meet a mind that can comprehend any of it. There's more in there-- you can be sure of that-- and given time, I'll break the code and get inside the machine."
"That may not be altogether wise. One must consider what may be waiting for you within." Vorchek brooded for a moment, then said, " I trust, Dr. Steen, that you will keep me abreast of your findings. I beg you to consult me before you take action." Steen leered, the professor shrugged and turned away. "Come, Phelps; let us finish the survey, at which time we shall take stock."
Much about this moment perturbed me. That Steen, of all people, could be making progress that I couldn't follow galled terribly, but I had assumed he was whistling in the dark, generating bluster rather than results. Vorchek, however, had also seen something, and he had caught it right away, without any great effort on his part. Maybe he was a big faker as well, or perhaps there was something to all this that was beyond me, something for which my training had left me unprepared. If that was the case, though, then how had Steen-- who was not my equal in smarts, much less my superior-- begun to figure it out, as he kept hinting? What inner capacity gave him a leg up?
That evening, at Vorchek's polite insistence, he, Theresa, and myself dined together. We ate at Tony's Seafood in town, sitting in a quiet, secluded back booth, on the table of which the professor had heaped the girl's notes and a bunch of requested documents which I had provided. During the fine meal I had little to say; Vorchek was subdued, occasionally flipping through papers; Theresa was engagingly chatty, though her attempts at conversation seldom impinged upon weighty matters, and yet it was her casually blunt comment which instigated serious discussion.
"It's a screwy situation, all right," she said. "Everything's gone wrong, but nobody knows why, and what's happened since doesn't connect with what started it, and everybody's dying. That's the silly part. I mean, too bad about these technical problems, but it's not worth killing yourself for. Am I right, Professor?"
"On the latter point you are correct," said Vorchek heavily; "I am not, however, so certain about the rest. Indeed, on the basis of the fragmentary reports I received before arrival, I had already formulated a weak theory, one which has received modest confirmation from those curious deaths. If so, then Steen's work may also fall into place. I begin to see the shadow of the answer. I must come to grips with the substance, which will be supremely difficult, for there are unspeakable dangers involved."
"It's about time you included me, Professor," I said loudly, enough to startle a patron at the bar opposite. "I'm supposed to be a bright guy, but I don't know what you're driving at, and your very presence tells me I'm at sea. You're some sort of sociologist, or anthropologist, or antiquarian, or whatever, but you're brought in to repair damage at a multi-billion dollar physics lab, and what's more, I hear you've done this sort of thing before. Talk is you've garnered customer satisfaction in the past, handling dirty affairs like this one. Doing what? What do you know, what have you deduced? What is the problem, and what is the answer? Give me a break, and let me in on the big secret."
"Certainty and deduction are mixed at this stage," said he, "although I may expound basic ideas. Do not chide yourself, Doctor, for failing to grasp the essence of the problem. You are an expert on nature, while the source of the difficulty lies, I believe, in the realm of supernature. I am acknowledged by some an authority on the supernatural, that sphere which lies above or beyond the domain of standard science. There are whole swaths of reality which can not be approached by conventional means; I, therefore, employ my own."
"So you're a New Age wacko made good," I snapped. "You gaze into crystals, count your beads, face east and sing a little song, and somehow that solves my problems. That's wonderful. To have gotten this far, you must have a great P.R. man working for you."
"You're as wrong as only a bonehead can be," Theresa cried, that lovely girl half rising from her seat and leaning towards me. "The professor is rock solid, as true blue as they come, and I would match him against any team of common scientists any day. If you'd just shut up you'd learn a thing or two." With that she leaned back, lit a cigarette and puffed furiously, pretending to ignore me.
"There is my public relations," Vorchek said with a boyish smile. "My dear Miss Delaney, you are very good to me. If you did not exist, it would be necessary-- for the sake of my ego-- to invent you. Seriously, Dr. Phelps, I have no more use for the childish formulations of popular beliefs than you do. The bizarre claims peddled on uncritical television programs or in weekly newspapers plucked from grocery store stands mean nothing to me, being generated solely from the hopes, desires, and fears of an ignorant public. My studies focus on genuine arcana, the esoteric mysteries that must arise at the rim of the known. At any given moment in the sweep of intellectual history, there are frontiers of knowledge. It is the glory of our age that we have pushed those frontiers to encompass a near totality of the natural world. We know it, or we can conceive it, or we can at least ask intelligent questions about it. There is, on the other hand, that vast beyond, the supernatural, about which we know little more than our credulous forebears who squatted in caves or who begged alms from the tops of temple pyramids. The realm of supernature exists; it is real, as real as anything you see and touch. My work has occasionally brought me into confrontation with it. That overarching mystical universe, largely unexplored to this day, can be approached at the margins by a man armed with prerequisite knowledge, and that universe can, at times, under special conditions, approach our own as well.
"That, indeed, is the situation we face. Allow me to describe chronologically, and to explain generally, based upon my previous experience, the recent sequence of events. You and your bright, superbly educated group set out to break down the final logical barrier which separates the macroscopic world from the microscopic. Physicists before you had delved down to what might be deemed a sub-atomic wall; you wished to knock down that wall, and make use, hopefully for profit (certainly for wisdom) of the latent energies beyond. It is a sound plan, within limits; think, however, of that analogy of the wall. A wall may form nothing but an obstacle, a challenge to be overcome-- such was your thinking-- yet it may also constitute a reasonable, proper barrier which protects us from harm or delineates units of property, be they homesteads or kingdoms. In the world of men, in the give and take of regular life, we rightly pause before a wall, for we suspect that it has been erected with the intent to keep us out, or otherwise mark a boundary of importance. That wall may be a dyke which, if broken, allows the flood to cascade upon us to our destruction; it may comprise a warning of enemies beyond, from whom we had best keep our distance. Walls may serve many purposes, so long as they remain intact.
"To the extent that it could, your experiment succeeded. You cracked the final barrier of materiality, and in so doing broke a tiny hole in the ultimate substratum. Unfortunately, you had given no thought-- how could you?-- to what might lie beyond. You had, in fact, opened a minuscule doorway from the natural to the supernatural, an egress and regress into another dimension. Yes, Dr. Phelps, you did it, without knowing what you did. You created a peephole into a boundless, unseen world, with no thought or care for the possibility that someone or something might peep back at you.
"There was more still, I regret to say, to your unpleasant surprise. At that moment an incredibly powerful stream of mysterious energy shot through the hole that you had fashioned. There are several ways to explain that: you stimulated an energy source beyond the dimensional layer, or unleashed a pent up tide of energy flow, or (as you may have hoped) initiated an unexpectedly powerful nuclear reaction within the substratum. The latter we may dismiss forthwith-- by your own account you had passed the barrier, which I accept as given-- and the other two possibilities do not jibe with my previous observations of such phenomena. Granting your data, there is only one explanation I will allow, that a force of awesome magnitude burst through the doorway so soon as you opened it.
"I do not refer to blind energy of the E=mc2 variety. Entry into our domain was gained by a violent but controlled, directed field, an act of purpose, of will. In evaluating what comes next it is wise for you to clear your mind of preconceptions and prior associations; when I speak of purpose and will, please do not fall into the error of thinking I speak metaphorically. The intruder was an organism, an entity, a living thing as such are understood in its domain. To grasp the enormity of the being you have awakened, we must note that the smallest crack in the wall fostered immediate access. We may posit that you suffered the grotesquely bad luck to puncture the barrier at the entity's precise location in its universe, in which case we are dealing with a potentially minor and manageable being. Such an outcome, while the happiest possible for us, is also the least likely, defying all conceivable odds. There is a more dire, as well as more certain, possibility, which is that the thing was able to enter our plane at once, without delay, because where ever you broke into its realm, there it would be, waiting. Ponder long what we are describing: a being the size of a universe, one which makes up the entirety of its universe. Science has no term for such an entity, but philosophy and theology do, and that word is 'deity'.
"Now we wrestle with the cruelties of logic. I postulate the influence of a god, which I should not in a physical context, yet I must, for the facts demand it. 'God' is such a slippery term, one which excites sterile debate, now, ten thousand years ago, perhaps ten thousand from now. Is there one god, or are there two, or a dozen, or a hundred? Do we deduce his nature from nature, or from inherent ideas? We could discuss all night, we could argue the rest of our lives, without approaching proof or accuracy. It is well for us that we need not. Whether it be the one and only god, or merely an aspect of same, or a separate, competing deity among a crowd of similar types, it is still true that 'godness', if you will, has invaded our world. That being so, we enjoy the rare opportunity to judge the nature of this god by its direct actions and the consequences of those actions. Here we come to an analysis of the events following the collapse of the experiment.
"It's first act was to seize control of your main computer. You must see that such control has been established, and you can hazard guesses as to why as well as I. The computer is the most powerful, energy-filled corporeal object within reach, one crammed with information, one connected, in some degree, to every form and field known to man. Our formless visitor took upon itself a body, a material shell within a material world. Numerous legends mention demonic possession and strange cosmic enlightenments; we experience a modernized version of the same. The god has taken complete charge of the machine. You do not know how the instrument continues to power itself, but I do. The god sustains itself in its new body, is its own source of energy. You can not make sense of the data streaming from the machine. Of course you can not, for the pre-existing contents have been wiped clean-- it breaks my heart to tell you this-- wiped utterly clean, and replaced by a fresh universe of data. The computer now embodies the god, the sole denizen of a cosmos alien to ours, and its output, until such time as we learn the rules of communication, must come across to us as gibberish.
"The meaning of later developments still requires examination, but the indications are ugly. Since the god erupted into our universe, people have begun to die, in every case by their own hand. The signs are disturbing. I fear that sweetness and light are not to be counted on from this deity. We deal with a fearsome god, one which craves and demands sacrifices. There is something inherent in its nature which lures the victims to their destruction. Conversely-- though this need not negate the first point-- there is something inherent in the nature of the victims which renders them amenable to self-sacrifice. You have told me that the deceased were people oppressed by the trials of life; let us assume, then, that the god is a sort which feeds upon the miseries of mortals, or one which acts to induce deeper despair among those already afflicted in some manner."
"That's a huge assumption," I exclaimed. "Granting everything you've said-- which of course I don't-- you're going way out on a limb. The history of theology is chock full of broad arguments from effects to causes, most of them without merit, and it sounds to me like you're heading down the same endless road. You could prove anything that way."
"I could posit anything," Vorchek corrected; "what I can prove depends on the evidence, admittedly incomplete. I am not prone, whatever you may believe, to spinning wild theories or leaping at shadows. I am versed in these questions, and I have at my beck valuable source materials. Miss Delaney," he said, turning to the girl, "among the files you packed you did bring that fragment from Bleek, as I instructed?"
"It's with the other papers in our quarters," she replied, referring to the adjoining guest rooms they occupied at the facilities, a conjugation which made me wonder about them. "I took the liberty of reading it, and vile stuff it is, too. It's horrifying to think that it might have anything to do with this business."
"I don't know what you're talking about," I said pointedly.
"Nor should you," said Vorchek. "The matter falls beyond your purview, Dr. Phelps. Jacob Bleek was a mystical philosopher of old, who in his day collected and mastered a great deal of information drawn from the esoteric wisdom of the ages. Only portions of his work survive. He specialized in the blacker types of knowledge, and devoted an entire chapter of his writings to a particularly vicious deity who interests me considerably at this time. The indications are favorable-- if you will excuse the word-- but I wish to say no more at present. First I must gain confirmation."
That was that, for the time being. The professor would say no more, and my brain was swimming in such a fog that I couldn't intelligently pursue the matter. We left the restaurant (I noticed that Vorchek charged the meal to an APP account) and retired to our beds.
I came to work oddly late the next morning. I had slept poorly, and after awakening sat hunched for a lengthy span over my coffee and toast, mulling over the incredible story Vorchek had told at dinner. It was strange; I didn't accept it intellectually-- how could I?-- but his reconstruction of facts mesmerized me. He really had, after his own lights, tied everything together into a coherent whole, and he alluded to confirmation, the life's blood of science, without which his claims were futile and wasteful. Did he really expect to get it, and if so, how? He seemed awfully confident for a charlatan, but then, I supposed they often were. I would wait and see what he produced.
So I arrived late, and was one of the last to hear the news: Laura Ellsworth had killed herself. I had known her slightly-- she worked in an ancillary unit, operating out of a separate laboratory in the complex, mixing novel chemical solutions for testing-- but I hadn't known her well enough, it seemed, for I'd never guessed that she would off herself that way. She had always been a subdued and frowny sort, and I heard after the fact that real life had thrown her a few too many curves, yet nothing I was now told explained why she suddenly, at this particular time, decided that life was too much for her, and that she should sneak into her lab before opening time, activate a high intensity laser used for stimulating and busting molecules, wriggle on her back onto the small dais in the laser chamber where samples were serviced, and methodically burn off her own face, relentlessly and ruthlessly holding herself in place, despite the terrible pain, until such time as life departed from her mutilated body. Unexpected, monstrous, impossible; it couldn't be, but it happened, and another of our personnel bit the dust. Her colleagues found what was left half an hour later.
This extraordinary discovery jarred me emotionally, of course, and while I was imbibing the news I thought of Vorchek and his extraordinary theory. I could imagine him chortling and rubbing his hands with glee, while his sexy pet Theresa egged him on, cooing words of enthusiasm for his genius. Every death, he would claim, supported that much more his dire vision of our situation. These tragic losses were unbearable, they were senseless, and I wasn't going to be the one to explain them, but was he capable or qualified to do so? At this moment of weary depression I experienced a remarkable feeling of revulsion against that man, who appeared to be feeding upon our misery. He wasn't right-- he couldn't be-- and what had become of the proper scientific principle of considering commonplace solutions first? People killed themselves all the time. There was no set pattern or interval; there were periods of drought and periods of storm, and the grim figures averaged out, if at all, only statistically. In a large group of our size, how many suicides were predicted in the span of a year or ten years? The recent crop seemed, I couldn't deny, an overly generous surplus, but who among us had calculated the odds? There were subsidiary factors worth counting: I thought of the initial troubles with the experiment and its aftermath which might, I supposed, have increased ill thoughts in shaky minds, and there was the copycat effect and the like, emotional and social instabilities which fed upon one another and were wont to cause wretched progressions to flourish. I thought of the shop worn concept of "the madness of crowds". I wasn't a psychologist, but that seemed as reasonable a framework as any in which to place our sad tidings. I thought of something else, too.
It occurred to me on the instant that the professor was wrong, decisively, stupidly wrong. I went in search for him, finding him in the computer room with Theresa. He looked dapper as always, showy rather than professional; where the rolled up sleeves, the rumpled trousers, the scruffy shoes of my co-workers? She, dressed to the nines, like something out of a fashion magazine; why didn't she wear pants and dirty tee-shirts, like every other woman I knew? They were keeping company with none other than Gerald Steen, with whom they were conducting an animated conversation. I interrupted brusquely. "Vorchek, I must talk to you." He nodded, chipper as ever, and followed me from the room, with Theresa in tow, clutching a sheaf of papers and dangling pad and pencil, Steen left behind grinning weirdly at me. I led the pair to my office, closed the door behind us, motioned to them to take seats. I settled into my big, comfortable recliner, gripping it by the plush arms. Vorchek said evenly, "What may I do for you, Dr. Phelps?"
"You can listen," I began, waving an accusatory finger at his face. "You're all wet, Vorchek; I've figured out that much. This time you rode your hobbyhorse too far. There is no supernatural mystery here, nothing that requires extreme explanations. We're not under attack from a god, but from bad luck. How do I know? I know because of the pattern of the deaths; the pattern that isn't there! You made a big, howling blooper, Vorchek, that blows your theory to smithereens. You speculate that weak, dark-minded folk are being targeted from outside, and build rickety castles on that foundation, but you've gone out of your way to overlook the obvious exception, the man who doesn't fit the picture, even though you spend half your time talking to him instead of me.
"I mean Gerald Steen. If you'd paid any attention to genuine facts, you'd have noticed that he's the most pathetic, broken, and miserable fellow in the bunch. He's got everything your theory demands, every trait that should've destroyed him quickly. He ought to have been the first to die, but he's very evidently alive. He's in good health, getting along just fine. I've never seen him more lively! If you're right, he's already dead; if he's alive, then your an ass, here to make fools of us all and grab as much cash as you can. It's a great racket, Vorchek, one that's taken you far, but now it's blown up in your face, and I'm throwing the dynamite. I'm going to speak with Cunningham, and we're going to run you out of here."
I settled back into the haven of my chair, wiped my brow. "Have you solved," asked Vorchek presently, his vaguely foreign voice knifing the stillness, "the mystery of the computer?" "No mystery," I snapped, "only mechanical unreliability." "The curious readings?" "Fried circuits," said I, "spewing noise. We'll fix it." "And the news from the city?" he quietly queried. I sat up straight and asked, "What news?"
"My dear," he said to Theresa, "please update Dr. Phelps on the preliminary results of your investigation." "Gladly, sir," she cried, ruffling her handful of papers, which were indeed, as I now saw, copies of local newspapers. "At Professor Vorchek's request I examined the public reports of criminal cases in the vicinity for the period since the failure of your experiment. It turns out there's plenty going on. So far this week there have been seventeen suicides in the city, whereas there were only two recorded for the previous month. The authorities are frantic about it. All of the victims were likely types, but the numbers are at an all-time high, and in all but one case the manners of death were quite unusual. There are no overdoses or shootings in the temples among this lot. See, I've marked the summaries, and I've got three burnings, two multiple stabbings, drinking of acid from a car battery, a partial decapitation, and much, much more. Look them over for yourself." She tossed the papers onto my desk.
"Those are suicides?" I screamed.
"Every one," said Vorchek. "The plague spreads from this geographical point. Now, Doctor, is the time for calm heads to prevail. It is impossible to sweep this cohesive phenomenon under the rug. It exists. Everything links. Uncharacteristic morbidity radiates from your laboratory and, so we must conclude, specifically from your computer. We must severe all ties to the outside world until this ghastly business be resolved. To what outlets is your computer connected?"
"There aren't any," I said. "It did draw power from the city supply, but that's shut off, as you know. It's operating on its own." I felt sick when I said those words. In my fervor I hadn't asked myself how I was going to explain that.
"Of course," said Vorchek impatiently, "but there are still physical connections, and telephone hookups, outlets to other machines at this complex and to other research facilities."
"Yes, there are. That's the way of the world these days. Everything connects to everything else."
"Break those connections," he commanded, "break them by brute force if necessary. Get yourself a pair of garden shears and cut every wire leading out of this building. Isolate the machine, totally. It appears that the influence has not yet reached out aggressively. Let us head it off, blockade it here, and fight our enemy on just one front.
"Now, as to the morose Dr. Steen, I must inform you that I have been closely observing him. He is the sort of man you think he is, as I learned quickly enough. I have not ignored him, nor-- despite appearances-- failed to incorporate him into my equation. On the contrary, he is an integral part of the sum. I ask you, Dr. Phelps, to grant my thesis for the moment. We derive the conclusion that potentially suicidal individuals are being driven over the brink by a malevolent force-- yes?-- and yet Steen, our prime candidate, exhibits no tendencies in that direction. Given the premise, what would you deduce?"
"That in his case, another factor is in play."
"It is necessarily so. You know him; you have observed him; can you deduce that factor?"
I took my time in replying, but I already knew the answer, had known all along. "He enjoys it," I said, "he's getting what he wants from the experience. He's carried self-loathing to such a level that it's all he lives for. He can't get enough of it. Steen doesn't want to die; he wants to wallow in misery."
"Simplistic," said Vorchek, "but accurate, as far as it goes. You describe him to a fair degree. There is more to him, however. The man is positively dangerous. His every waking moment is spent attempting to contact the god in the machine; we must know his precise reasons, whether they be wholly personal, or somehow directed against the wide world. If the latter, then we must shut him down and send him away."
"Shouldn't we do that anyway?" asked Theresa. "If he's a menace, let's send him packing."
"I have the authority," I pointed out.
"Not yet," advised the professor. "Steen progresses-- he verges on results-- and if it be safely allowable, I want those results."
Little more was said at this meeting. Nothing was settled, no plan of action was agreed upon, but I made no more threats, nor did I consider doing so. I would wait and see what developed. Vorchek left, bowing courteously and shaking my hand before he went. Theresa followed, turning to me at the door, staring into my face with her bland blue eyes and saying primly, "You're the ass," before scurrying away.
Later that day I requested, and received, a loan of the ancient document written by the philosopher Jacob Bleek. These were photocopies of what I could see was a translation or transcription, fourteen closely typed pages presenting an account which began in mid-sentence and broke off abruptly at the end. The text, curiously, consisted of verse, a very long and rambling poem intended to explicate arcane concepts. Vorchek warned me about that, assuring me that in olden times such presentation was common among learned men. The bulk of the material related what I would call a legend or myth, although the author clearly considered his account to be no less than epistemologically coherent truth. It was a hideous tale, one that kept me awake long that night pondering its implications, one I couldn't make myself forget; one that I never shall.
Jacob Bleek, this old scholar with the euphonically apt name, had conceived after much study a harrowing view of the world and of man's place within it. The natural universe was a realm influenced and overshadowed by a greater realm where mighty forces ruled, a higher dimension within which alien and unfathomable intelligences operated according to their own wills, and in accordance with their own designs. These were the gods-- or the aspects of godhood, as the case 11might be-- absolute masters of space and time and fate. So vast and magnificent were they (Bleek routinely capitalized: "They", the "Gods", the "Lords of All Things") that the cosmos and its various substances and inhabitants, including man, could be viewed as no more than playthings at their command, when those majestic entities deigned to notice the infinitesimal bubble that we think of as all reality. For the sake of logical organization and understanding Bleek accepted the conventional wisdom of elder days, that there were many deities jostling for power or eminence, and in this fragment devoted his poetic treatise to a particularly reprehensible god, one whose properties were such that (as the author noted in a fey allusion) he must needs be portrayed in popular religion as a devil.
This Blug-- an ugly, distasteful designation derived, so it was claimed, from mysterious records predating conventional history-- represented or fostered everything vile and crude and corrupt in the universe. I couldn't glean from my twisted source whether Blug merely made use of and fed upon that which was nasty and squalid, or whether he served also as the ultimate originator of same, but he clearly dominated that aspect of existence, to the detriment of all concerned. This King of Filth, so ran the assiduously collected stories, ruled from a dark throne at the center of a dreadful region outside of the world, a rancid, stinking mire never to be found on any map, but co-existing, in that strange higher realm of being, at all points with the world of matter, energy, and man. The seat of Blug's primordial, everlasting kingdom was styled the Black Swamp, and it contained within its blasphemous, indefinable boundaries everything putrid, toxic, and loathsome. There Blug governed, and from there he whispered insidiously to all who were oppressed by the burdens of life, all who hopelessly despaired, all whose hate or contempt or fury turned inward upon themselves in black mindless madness, calling to them and drawing them into himself, seeking to make them his own, stoking their self-destructive tendencies and thereby sating himself with their inner darkness, as well as gathering unto himself an eternal, endless legion of sycophantic acolytes and craven, fawning worshippers, those who would dedicate their ruined dead souls to his glory for so long as eternity should endure.
Blug demanded debasement from the world, and he got it. Where his power impinged, there was squalor and decay and meaningless death. In that sense he was nothing but a symbol for everything wrong under the sun, a dull, dirty, tarnished emblem of entropy, and his name had been invoked in that regard, so I read, by thinkers of ancient times. There was more, however; according to Bleek, sinister Blug had gathered round himself on earth a degenerate cult of men who knew him for what he was, who knew what he wanted and were willing to pay the fearful price he exacted in return for adoring him. These were men who, in some sense, made up the lowest elements of humanity, men whose healthy virtues were well nigh extinct, though they might otherwise be rich or educated, even respected for their works. People whose minds dwelt in black swamps of their own devising were the meat and gravy of Blug, their masochistic (my word) inclinations dragging them down into pits of joyous mental agony, from which they could look up to the face of Blug and find shocking solace in what they saw.
The Blug cult, ever present, had emerged from the shadows at certain points of history, mentioned, so I learned, in the writings of Artocris, Plato, and Augustine. Everywhere shunned and condemned, for its grisly practices as well as its ideas, it nevertheless persisted, for there were always the weak and miserable ready to grant obeisance to their chosen lord. Bleek wrote of notable events, culled from awestruck sources, which described specific irruptions of Blug into our universe, events on a small scale, but with the most deleterious of social and personal effects. Blug's power could reach forth from his nightmare kingdom, when foolish men had opened doorways for him, and under such circumstances his intrusion could lead to cumulative dismay and tragedy.
Tread not with thy soiled soul into the murk
For amidst the slime final perils lurk
Give not Blug His due lest ye be held fast
In quick'ning mud where horrors brood and last.
So said Jacob Bleek-- or so ran Vorchek's transcription-- that, and much else besides, all of it gloomy and ominous and, I couldn't help but think, oddly pertinent to current events. I despised what I read, despised myself for reading it, was like to kick myself for believing it, but in some fashion, down deep, I already did. Blug, or something like him, had broken into the modern world-- as a result of my own honest actions-- and was laying waste to the sadder minds among our people at APP and, I must accept, others as well. I came down very early in the morning, before dawn broke, to the administrative office, and there I gave orders (after clearing them with the incredulous but, oddly amenable Cunningham) to the maintenance staff to rip up every electrical conduit and telephone line leading into the accelerator building. Be sure that they asked plenty of painful questions, but they agreed to get onto it right away. Then I strode over to the ruin of my laboratory.
For once I caught up with Steen, who had been beating me to the punch every morning since the unpleasantness began. He looked a wreck, and glumly informed me that he had finally knocked off for a snatch of sleep, explaining that he could afford to since he was "so close to the ultimate breakthrough". He made a sneering comment about my new hours, then stopped short upon our approach to the structure, gesturing before him. Professor Vorchek and Theresa were already on the scene, performing some act by dim lamplight in the gloom.
I guess I might have expected them to be drawing a pentagram or similar occult device, but it wasn't that, or it didn't look it. What they were doing was painting a circle around the entire building, a broad white line that curved around from the back, to which they were just now putting the finishing touches, filling in the final gap. They were using long-handled mops, dipping them into a big double-handled pot. Up close the stuff didn't look like paint, being unusually viscous and slightly luminous in the fading dark. Vorchek had shed his hat and coat, but his natty tie still flapped in the breeze. Theresa had come down in fashion, but she still looked good, better than any girl I knew. I wished I had a private secretary like that.
"What trickery is this?" whined Steen. I asked the same, in a friendlier manner. Vorchek and Theresa paused and rested on their mops, forming an image like a new version of American Gothic. "Instituting safeguards," explained the professor. "No, this is not paint, but rather a composition of my own, one intended to repel extrusions of wicked influence. This fluid has been known to work effectively in less formidable cases, and I thought it worth a try here. Go on in, you two. We will join you in a minute."
"Useless rubbish," Steen muttered unhappily. He made straight for the computer room, while I detoured briefly to my office in order to update some files. When I finished and came after him, I found that our visitors had joined him, all three looking extraordinarily busy. Steen and the professor were deep in discussion at a console, while Theresa hovered about, taking notes and ostentatiously observing. "Three, one, four, one, six," she called out, "and a funny squiggle." "That is 'delta'," said Vorchek. "Delta," repeated the girl, "and four, one, and a seven..." On she went in a sort of singsong recitation. I said sharply, "Somebody tell me what's happening."
Vorchek smiled and said, "Dr. Steen has cracked the code. It is a modified binary, groupings of ones and zeros, with other signifiers mixed in. The latter caused the most grief, but now that we know the language being employed, it is not too difficult to master."
"The language?" I cried. "Do you mean the computer language? It isn't anything like that."
"I refer," he replied, "to the underlying language which the machine is presenting to us in computer form. It appears to belong to a derivative of the antique Rhexellite tongue, a dialect not spoken on this earth for tens of thousands of years. I had previously noted certain patterns in the data which provided clues. A consultation of my library, which I keep on disc, confirmed my suspicions."
"Professor Vorchek has been most helpful," said Steen, his ungracious tone undercutting his words. "I'd worked out the code two days ago, but it didn't scan in English or any language I knew. He provided the final key. Now I'm actually reading the thoughts of the computer mind."
"An awful lot has been going on behind my back," I grumbled. "So, what have you learned?"
"It is an entertaining discourse," said Vorchek. "Here is a snatch which I have translated." He held out to me a sheet on which a paragraph had been scrawled. I took it and read. I started, gasped, could barely keep on to the end. It was the foulest, most degrading conglomeration of sordid, raving insanity I'd ever come across. I felt defiled to my soul by those mere characters on paper. I handed it back to him. "That's inside my computer?"
"It isn't your computer anymore," sneered Steen. "It's His."
"I wish you'd let me read it," said Theresa.
Vorchek grinned, but said soberly, "It is not edifying material for a sweet young girl. What do you think, Dr. Phelps?"
"I read Bleek," I replied. "I suppose this nails it down."
"It does; this, and a symbol which appears repetitively. Yes, you can see it here." He tapped the monitor screen. "That character, the one resembling a lambda, translates from the Rhexellite as a single hoarse, guttural sound, an unconventional word. Your perusal of Bleek should tell you what it is."
"It's true," I whispered, "this is really happening." Then, loudly, "You've had enough of that filth, Steen. Get away from there."
"Not nearly enough!" he screamed. Suddenly his basic nastiness evaporated, replaced by a tone of desperate supplication, a look of agonized woe. "It won't be enough until I've gotten in there and embraced Him. I'm almost ready to begin. I only need ten more minutes. Vorchek, you promised me."
"The promise stands," said the professor. "Your promise doesn't bind me," I cut in hotly; "I say no deal, whatever you have in mind." Vorchek shrugged, saying, "Dr. Steen, continue until all is set for our little experiment. Miss Delaney, maintain your records. Dr. Phelps, let us step outside." I followed him into the hall. Just then one of the maintenance guys showed up, delivering the message that all outside connections had been severed. "We had to rip up the asphalt," he fumed. I dismissed him. The professor enthused, "Everything comes together nicely." This was getting to be too much for me; too much, too fast. I rounded on my companion. "Vorchek, are you nuts? We've got to suppress that maniac before he does something awful!"
"Steen constitutes no threat to us," he announced. "I have satisfied myself on that point. I had a long talk with him, man to man, a candid discussion, in which I learned exactly what he seeks. It is for Dr. Steen, as I surmised, a personal odyssey of self-fulfillment on his part, rather than aggressive megalomania. We may humor him with his experiment-- which may prove unusually rewarding in its own right-- while we commence our own, which should end the matter. The building is sealed, and an unbroken circle of countervailing force surrounds us. That should contain the sinister energies until we have attacked and defeated the source. In a few minutes we may begin." "Begin what?" I queried, and Vorchek replied, "To drive the great god Blug out of your computer, which it has possessed." Then he told me precisely how we would accomplish that. I nodded dumbly. I was adrift at sea, but maybe he knew what he was talking about.
We returned to the desolate computer room, where everyone got busy. Steen carried on with his mysterious endeavors, flashing fresh pages of strange text one after another on his screen, at times chuckling weirdly to himself. In a far corner, behind a low wall of consoles where we had some privacy, Vorchek, Theresa, and I labored to deploy a battery of complicated mechanisms which the professor had produced from his magician's hat. These were odd, spidery gizmos on tripods, linked by electrical cords, which he hooked into our internal power via a boxy transformer, of homemade appearance, which he also provided. "We fight force with force," he explained to me, "thrusting back the influence with an antagonistic, repulsive charge. All going well, we will hurl Blug back to whence he came, and stop up the mouse hole you made. It should be as simple as that." "A piece of cake," Theresa opined.
I urged Vorchek to activate his devices immediately but, inexplicably, he advised delay. "There is one more act of the drama to be played," he said mysteriously. "Miss Delaney, bring the satchel, if you please." She hefted that item and they walked over to Steen. I tagged along shortly, to hear my colleague complaining, "It's a nuisance. I don't have time to waste on that." "A deal is a deal," said Vorchek authoritatively. "Put it on."
"It" consisted of an awkward headset and cumbersome goggles, confusingly wired with many tiny cables into a portable device, another rough and ready unit by the look of it, which the professor placed on the table top at Steen's elbow. I had to hand it to Vorchek; despite my first impressions, he had a penchant for machinery, and exotic stuff at that. He seemed to be a man of many parts. Steen ungraciously donned the headset and goggles, connecting the pads of the former to his temples and scalp, strapping the latter to his eyes, then buckled down once more to his work. "Any second now," he breathed, but he cared nothing for us, had forgotten our presence in that moment. He spoke to the demons within his mind, and perhaps to one without.
As I was obviously impatient to speak, Vorchek drew us away from Steen. I asked, "What's he doing now?" The professor said, "Making contact, I expect. He has the means, and the knowledge; it can be done, if the party on the other end is willing. I think he is." "So what do we do?" "We wait, just a little longer. My specialized recording device, now attached to his brain and eyes, is storing all data, exactly as he sees and experiences them. That is pertinent information, sir, which we must retrieve for future analysis. Miss Delaney?" "I'm with you, Professor." "Miss Delaney, I want you on the switch. When I call out, throw it, and do not hesitate for a second. Dr. Phelps, you and I will observe from this intermediate position."
Theresa assumed her station, holding in her hands a control device wired to the professor's instruments. Vorchek and I remained where we were, watching Steen's hunched back. I wondered why we held back from the scene of the action. It occurred to me that it might not be safe to hang closely to Steen, and I wondered why that might be. The thought bugged me, but in the quiet tension of the moment I couldn't bring myself to ask.
Something happened. The computer began to generate sounds, unusual noises of mounting intensity, as if great activity were taking place within. Steen gasped, pushed away from his console. With his movement I caught a glimpse of the monitor. I was about thirty feet away, and couldn't see well, but I could tell that the output had changed. No longer did the strange text flash on the screen. Instead, there was something else: murky suggestions of form, visual images appearing out of the heart of the machine. Observation of detail was impossible at this remove, and yet I didn't care for the little I saw. Sight of the screen was cut off by Steen's head as he leaned forward, soaking up every bit of the inexplicable imagery that assaulted his senses.
Then Steen threw himself up out of his seat, shrieking a strange word as he did so. It wasn't English, wasn't any language I knew-- or that I would have expected him to know-- but he spoke it wildly, ecstatically, over and again, rapidly. There came a shrill cry from the man, a horrifying wail, and he collapsed back into the chair, sprawling limply, his arms and legs splayed in an ugly arrangement. The hard jostling dislodged the pads from his skull. I noted, instantaneously, that his screen had gone black.
"Miss Delaney," Vorchek cried, "hit it now!" She flipped the switch on the control box, Vorchek's odd devices activated, and all hell broke loose. A roaring emanated from the computer, a wholly unmachine-like sound, more like the bellowing of a big, angry animal. The room seemed to darken slightly, and the floor shook. No, the building shook; a forgotten coffee cup tumbled from its perch, and a framed document toppled from the wall. The roar abated, transformed into a low, monotonous growling, less animalistic in nature, more like the sound of steel balls rolling continuously on a hard surface. Computer panels began to bulge and pop open, emitting sparks and black puffs of smoke at the joins. The growling became a thin, irritating, whistling whine, rising to a piercing crescendo, and then several panels of the computer blew out entirely, and-- despite everything, I still couldn't believe what I saw-- the whole massive machine sagged and began to crumple like tin foil. The destruction progressed at a dazzling rate; within mere seconds that modern wonder of solid circuitry and space age appliance was reduced to scattered bits and jagged fragments of trash, a pile of junk viewed through belching gouts of steam and flickering, dwindling flames. The whining ceased.
"It is finished!" shouted Vorchek. "Miss Delaney, break the current." He said to me, "Sorry about the machine, Dr. Phelps. It was only a shell at this stage, of course. Blug had eaten out the interior to make room for the intrusion of his substance." He forthwith raced to the pathetic shambles of my computer, to where Theresa immediately followed and engaged him in lively, congratulatory conversation. I made for Steen. I pulled his head up by the hair and gazed into his face. I didn't have to be an expert to know he was dead. Oh God, he was the deadest man I'd ever seen. There wasn't a mark on him, and yet I couldn't conceive of a more lifeless corpse. The body was cold, beyond the absence of living warmth, a clammy chilliness, as if the life had been sucked from it. The eyes stared dully, the mouth contorted into a sickening, frozen smile. Steen had died happy, and that horrified me more than anything that had happened.
I joined Vorchek and the girl. "He's dead," I said flatly. Theresa said, "That's too bad." Vorchek muttered, "Predictable, really, just one more aspect of the tragedy." "You knew?" I asked. "It was written," he replied. "Steen has gone to meet his god, the only thing he really wanted. His eternal soul has found the only sort of belonging it would accept." He strode briskly to the dead man, gathered up the various components of his recorder. Theresa swooped in efficiently with the satchel to haul away the stuff. I stood immovable, calling out, "Why did he die, Vorchek?"
"I am no medical man," he said curtly.
"I mean why did it have to be? You set it up this way. Your sweetie here could have snapped that switch ten minutes ago, and we'd have obtained the same results, only Steen would still be alive. That's the truth, isn't it?"
"Possibly. His cooperation may have distracted Blug while we operated, which may have been a benefit to us. I do not know."
"It all came out in the wash," Theresa observed. "The problem's solved. Tough luck about that guy, but he was asking for it. Don't sweat it now; you're home free."
"Shut up, you," I snarled. "Silence, please, from the cheering section. Vorchek, tell me why."
"Because I need that information!" Vorchek thundered. "Only Steen could provide it, unless one of us volunteered to take his place. You do not understand the peculiar qualities of my recorder which he wore. It develops mental images and readings from the subject, what he experiences within the caverns of his mind. It functioned until the moment of Steen's death. Do you realize what that means? Can you imagine the data contained within that instrument? It is all there, as he lived it in those incredible moments. I can manage and massage that data, break them down, build them up, put them on a graph or transfer them to videotape. Much can be learned. Fear not, Dr. Phelps; I will see to it that you receive a copy of the results."
"I don't want it," I said disgustedly. "I just want you two out of here."
Within half an hour they were gone. Applied Physics Processing took a big hit, naturally, but it's a wealthy company, and all equipment was replaced in time, with much hand-wringing and references to the bottom line. Somewhat to my surprise I kept my job. Cunningham, amazingly, ever acted as if he partly understood the weird nature of what occurred that unspeakable week-- he had always taken Vorchek seriously, and that fellow got with him and straightened out everything, for which I confess gratitude-- and my boss saw to it that no blemish was left to fester on my reputation. The day came when I was back in business running experiments, as if nothing had ever happened. One particular experiment I studiously avoided, and no colleague ever suggested it to me again.
This morning a package arrived from Professor Anton Vorchek, without accompanying message, containing a video disc. I knew what it was and thought to throw it away or destroy it, but I couldn't do that; I'm a scientist, after all. This evening I inserted it into my player and watched it on my big screen wall panel television. It might be a fake-- at one time I wouldn't have put a self-aggrandizing hoax past Vorchek-- but I don't think it is. I'd like to know the secret of the professor's recording machine; it must be a marvelous instrument. Hours have passed-- the time nears midnight-- yet I'm still shaking over what I saw, my comfortable, front seat view of the final moments of Dr. Gerald Steen, the man who craved for himself nothing but total and eternal abasement to the power of his chosen lord.
The picture began with a brief, clear-cut image of that well remembered monitor screen. Within moments the text vanished from the monitor, to be replaced by a vague, unfocused vision of formless shapes crowding into sight. Then everything went black for an instant-- I wondered if that was all-- only to have the picture return, but affording a completely different view. The monitor was gone, along with any trace of a laboratory setting. I and Steen were impossibly, unimaginably elsewhere.
Through his eyes and mind I gazed upon a dark, murky landscape of dense growth, a sea of alien shrubs and stunted trees with spiky branches and malformed leaves, rising from a plain of filthy-looking gray-black mud. There was little color to the image, as if I viewed everything through dark tinting, and the picture was smudged, a minute trace of blurring which obscured fine detail. Nevertheless, I saw enough to astound and grip me. The view of the muddy terrain seemed to thrust at me, and I knew that Steen was advancing, running into and through the scene. Damp, thorny fronds slapped at his face-- my face-- as he pushed into the grim wilderness. Thin, tentacular branches reached out as if grasping at the passerby. I think those plants possessed inherent motion, for there was no obvious evidence of wind. The progression into that mysterious land-- shall I call it the Black Swamp?-- continued. Occasionally I glimpsed living objects nearby in the ooze, awful creeping things I didn't recognize, while more often I spied what appeared dead things, incomplete and rotten. I shuddered to note that many of the living organisms looked less complete than the dead. One larger mud-caked specimen, which rolled hastily away into the slime beneath a thick, morbidly swaying bush, bore a disturbing similarity to a flayed human being.
The advance went on through that abysmal landscape for a considerable period, far longer than I could have calculated from the time frame of Steen's death. A kind of temporal expansion was taking place; much information had been packed into that short period while he retained a minimal connection to our world. Then the nearest bushes receded from view on both sides, exposing a broad clearing within which bubbled and steamed a shallow lagoon. A low island lay in the misty distance, with something large and black looming upon it. The image pushed forward again, haltingly, as if the source of the vision slogged through the oily gray water. Moving forms tossed and floundered in the muck, and they were terrible to see. Some were passably human; others might once have been human, but had undergone loathsome changes; others could never have been human at all. When these naked beings weren't rolling and splashing in the scummy liquid, as if in agony or distress, they were staring with gaping mouths and fawning toward the central island.
The island attained, the image paused, as if for a gulp of breath, or from fear or some other, less sane emotion. Something dark and tremendous loomed through the roiling vapors, something that heaved and quivered repulsively. Before it, on the soggy level ground, there sprawled, staggered, and danced a nightmarish horde of naked monstrosities that made the denizens of the lagoon look wholesome. I couldn't accept that such men or beasts lived, but they did, and in a lively manner. Those that had faces bore expressions of pious, ineffable joy. The scene zoomed suddenly, as Steen ran at the massive black bulk, and the source of all that unspeakable delight came clearly into view. Atop a crude, unadorned throne of apparently native rock, gray and unchiseled, squatted a ponderous, amorphous entity, shifting and squirming on its great seat, dripping grease onto the stained rock, an entity which I know must be or represent the foul and squalid Lord of Decay. There sat Blug, and there he governed his miserable empire, calling to those who could know no hope save in him. Smaller beings crowded around the base of the throne, where the substance of the horror slopped down. These beings were, in the main, quite human, men and women-- many women-- appearing less corroded than the outlying specimens, and some still wore shreds of clothing. They pressed up against that reeking (my imagination readily supplies that detail) mass, their hands sinking into the black gel. What were they doing? The image approached my shocked eyes.
From the lower fringes of Blug's heaving mass there bulged and grew frightful appendages, wet, glistening protuberances spouting intermittent streams of an abominably viscous, white, sticky fluid. I thought of unholy teats-- God help me I did, may a sane and decent god help me-- and I recoiled from the television screen in revulsion and desperate disbelief when I beheld the sickening confirmation. These poor, doomed, damned people-- once the born kin of mine, once alive to the same possibilities and dreams-- bowed down and took those swelling protrusions into their mouths, greedily sucking at the thick juice than dribbled down their chins. I screamed, screamed again and averted my eyes when the image of one elongating teat swelled before me. In another moment the incredible video image gave out forever, but not before I realized that Steen, in his ultimate act of degradation, was bowing down to drink of the soul-destroying nectar exuded by his chosen god.