“We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far.”
“This is the voice of Dr Andrew Kneale; recording made on the 18th June, 2019 at the Polar Deep dark matter research facility. This place is a message, and part of a system of messages. I know this now, thanks to Stella; I also know that I realised it too late, and so did she, even though she was closer than I was to the truth when we met. But by the time we had worked out the message, we had already unleashed the danger. So take this recording less as a cautionary tale, and more as an epitaph, or an apology.”
I pressed record, and forced myself to go back over the last 72 hours of my life; what perhaps will turn out to be the last 72 hours of all of our lives.
* * *
“We know that only five per cent of the universe is visible, right?”
Everyone nodded at this line. It was our mantra, after all, here at the Polar Deep research facility. We were at our corner table in the red-lit bar, on a Friday night; the surface crew to thaw out their faces and hair and get some respite from the bright whiteness of the months-long Antarctic day, and those of us from the deep labs to preserve our dark-sight but get a little human company and noise at the same time. I was on one, ranting a little; I had tried out some of these thoughts before on one or two of them individually, but not with the whole crew at once. But I was buzzing, after this latest set of readings; over-confident, as it turned out.
“There have been scientists working down here for twenty years, trying to find hard evidence that the other 95% – dark matter and dark energy – even exists. We’ve come up with a million ways of detecting them: trying to measure something that only hypothetically exists in the first place. And then we’re disappointed when we don’t find anything. We go deeper and deeper into the ground away from surface interference, even out here a thousand miles from the nearest city, so that we have a chance of finding these readings, which will be infinitesimally small even if they do exist in any form we can perceive. And we never find them, so we keep tunnelling down. And the deeper we go, the darker and quieter it gets, right?”
“Right,” said one of the junior researchers, playing along, sucking up a bit if I’m honest. There were other nods and murmurs around the table.
“Well no, actually, as it turns out, that’s not right. All this time, there’s been an elephant in the room: some of the readings have been getting bigger, not smaller.”
“Like what?” said Frank, never my biggest fan, looking at the table as he scratched something off with a dirty thumbnail.
“Jesus, that again,” he muttered.
“But – that’s the machinery, right? Like in the underground, or in a mine – you always get it.” It was someone else who spoke this time, cutting across Frank, her tone more reasonable. Professor Stella Mackintosh, the new director of research. An anthropologist originally, appointed on some massive salary no doubt, despite the fact that we were conducting physics experiments 99% of the time. Maybe she was studying us. And this wasn’t a stupid point to make, not at all.
“Well, maybe, some of it,” I said, turning to her to see if she was genuinely interested, “near the surface – but not really deep down. You would expect it to get lower away from the lift engines and the compressors and generators, right? But it doesn’t get lower. And you know what? When you get really deep, right down as dark and deep as we get, it goes off the scale.”
“OK, so that’s weird,” said Stella again. Maybe she knew what she was talking about.
“Hey, don’t encourage him,” said Frank.
“I’m interested,” she said, “let him dig himself in a bit more.”
Her tone was friendly, but Frank snorted into his beer.
“OK, so here’s the thing,” I started – taking a deep breath, “there’s a place, on the deepest level, that’s darker than dark. The closest to zero lux that we’ve found. We call it the Coal Shed. I found it, actually, twelve months ago. I was trying to find the best place to set up the baryon oscillators, but once I found it I started wondering. This is the darkest place on Earth – we know that much, but not much more. What is it really like, as in, scientifically speaking? Wouldn’t that be worth finding out, and writing about? I’ll admit it wasn’t 100% to do with my main research objectives, but then meeting those every year for the last decade hasn’t done much good to me or anyone else. And we all have our own side projects, right?”
“Some more than most, I’d say,” said Frank, but I ignored him and took another drink.
“So anyway, I decided to set something up, knowing that apart from me there weren’t too many other people who made it down that far very regularly, or at all really, given how long it takes to acclimatise. At first I measured anything I could think of. Temperature, moisture levels and so on from the safety kit, various kinds of sub-atomic phenomena that the baryon oscillators could pick up, and then acoustics, audible and otherwise, which is what led me to infrasound. And like I say, it was clear straight away that it was super anomalous. Which wasn’t a surprise in one way, given how many problems we had in the early days. With, well, what would you call it, Frank?”
“The dark problem,” he said, sardonically.
“The dark problem. Some shall we say issues with the mental wellbeing of the researchers who spent days at a time in the almost absolute dark.”
“Give me an example,” said Stella, glancing up at me sharply from her drink. Definitely not a come on, I thought. This was her kind of thing, maybe.
“There were all kinds of stories: strange chills and violent attacks of shivering; shapes glimpsed out of the corner of one eye; hands placed on shoulders in the darkness; sounds of laughing, crying, screaming even. That kind of thing. Pretty routine in your average county town among the peasantry but remarkable amongst a staff entirely made up of PhDs. Many of whom are at the less imaginative end of the art-science spectrum anyway.”
This got a bit of a laugh from the junior researchers but I wasn’t really playing it for laughs by now.
“OK,” said Stella, fixing me with a bit of a look once more, which I thought at the time meant, point made, get on with it.
“Anyway, so the point is, I knew this kind of shit happened, and I had a pretty good idea straight away that it was something to do with the infrasound readings we were getting.”
“Right,” said Stella, impatient, “because of the haunted frequency theory. That certain infrasound frequencies correlated with reports of chills, and odd noises, and even ghost sightings. Tandy and Lawrence, and so on.”
So she knew quite a lot more than most. That must have been what that look meant. Frank and some of the others had heard some of this before, but they hadn’t heard the full theory, and the junior researchers hadn’t heard any of it.
“OK,” I continued, taking a decent draught of the dark ale and making eye contact with a few of them, “so Tandy and Lawrence brought the research up to date all right, but they were only building on what the early psychical researchers – guys like Harry Price, Paul Tabori, Peter Underwood – had already touched on. In places like Borley Rectory and Langenhoe they recorded audible sounds, vibrations, infrared images, temperature drops, and, occasionally, infrasound. It was always there, waiting to be discovered: some kind of physical phenomenon that could make you shiver, that might conceivably make floorboards creak, shut poorly-weighted doors, or even create the feeling that someone invisible was with you, was watching you.”
“Urgh,” said someone, involuntarily, and it had gone a bit quiet around the table if I’m honest.
“And what Tandy and Lawrence did,” I carried on, “was identify certain frequencies of infrasound as being strongly correlated with reports fo feelings of foreboding and fear. They concluded that “hauntings” were nothing more than places where infrasound, for whatever reason, could be regularly found to be strong and to be at those “haunted frequencies”. Breakthrough moment: ghosts are scientifically understood for the first time. But then what happened? Same as happens with a lot of science. A few groups of researchers tried to recreate the findings in lab conditions – firing off those frequencies at people and recording the results. And nothing happened. So it seemed like a dead end: interesting theory, no proof. But then Professor Armitage at the University of Essex County came along a couple of years ago, and that was the research that really set me thinking. The thing she proved was that this frequency-haunting correlation did not universally happen. The haunting effect could not be reproduced by infrasound alone: certain additional conditions needed to be met. And the places in the world where those conditions were met naturally had something rather surprising in common: if I mentioned train tunnels, mine shafts and morgues; crypts, trench complexes and air raid shelters; the basements of old dark houses, and burial grounds at midnight, what would you say?”
“Come on,” said Frank, who was obviously listening despite his attempts to look uninterested, “you’re saying that spooky places are in some way actually measurably spooky?”
“Kind of. There’s a more prosaic answer though: they were all very dark places, often underground places as it happens. And yeah, spooky, too, for the most part; but the same feelings turned out to happen in places whether or not there was any imaginative decoration, so to speak: it could be a brand new build basement gym as much as a twelfth century burial chamber. What Armitage’s research seemed to show was simply that the haunting effect was correlated most strongly with high infrasound and low light levels. She concluded that the darker it is, the greater the emotional effect from the infrasound.”
“And so you did what?” said Stella. Fair question. She was management after all.
“Hah. First of all, I played it straight, pointed this out to the director; like I said the dark problem was a big one here – and I mean people going crazy, leaving in droves, morale issues, and so on – so I pointed this research out, and the management, to give them credit, started measuring infrasound alongside light levels, as a precaution, and asked staff to avoid the places where it was highest and where light was lowest. They bought new generators, insulated them, cleaned up the lifts and so on – making little changes to bring the infrasound down on those particular frequencies. And it worked – we had fewer stories, lower staff turnover. It was less spooky. But we never got rid of it altogether, not in the darkest places.”
“Why?” said Stella.
“Well, we didn’t know why – and I wanted to keep on trying, to keep on finding out. Armitage’s conclusion – that the infrasound and the dark were unrelated to each other, but in combination caused the symptoms – left me wondering a bit. So I asked for official time to continue the measurements. But the bosses decided that it wasn’t a priority to find out. That was my thanks for saving them a few hundred thousand in medical claims and recruitment fees – they asked me to shut down the side project and stop measuring the infrasound.”
“But you thought otherwise, am I right?” said Frank.
“I did, yeah, as it goes,” I said sharply, suddenly aware that I had stepped over a line, with Stella here, but I was pumped up with adrenaline and alcohol and couldn’t have stopped myself even if I’d wanted to. “In fact I thought there might be more of a link between the dark and the infrasound. And I had regular access to the darkest place imaginable, I had access to infrasound kit. I was down here for days at a time when no one else is around. And like I said earlier, otherwise I’d been recording what amounted to fuck all for the last ten years in my day job. So I thought, if it’s connected to the darkness more intimately, I could prove it by measuring the infrasound so deep there could be no interference from man-made sources, and where the light level would be at near zero lux.”
“And let me guess,” said Stella, “your theory is that rather than simply a random combination of infrasound plus darkness causing feelings of terror, it’s the other way around: something terrifying exists in those dark places which also happens to be producing infrasound.”
“It seems equally likely to me, and more logical,” I said, quietly. And that was what I thought, though I hadn’t been able to articulate it quite so well by myself before. God she was smart.
“Oh, this is bullshit,” said Frank.
Stella didn’t say anything.
“I don’t think so,” I said, looking around briefly – and the small crowd were all still listening, even Frank – and then looking directly at Stella, “and think about it: we are the first humans to be able to experience this exceptional level of darkness, and if we don’t take the opportunity to investigate it, we’ll be ignoring a basic scientific duty. The dark is calling to us. We need to listen.”
“We listen to the dark,” said Stella, an odd smile on her face.
And we could do more than listen, I thought.
We had a few more drinks, Frank drifted away and soon there were only the two of us left, Stella and me. While she was in the bathroom an odd thing happened. I absently watched a few minutes of a documentary playing on the big screen that I’d seen before; something about atomic waste disposal sites in North America. I was quite drunk so I wasn’t really following properly, but they were talking about how we might warn some future civilisation about the dangerous stuff we were burying, given it might outlast our civilisation with its half life of ten thousand years, or whatever. The caption on the screen said “system of warnings” and there were pictures of giant arrangements of forbidding blocks, geometric shapes at enormous scale, forests of iron spikes twenty feet tall, in liminal places, off the beaten track, you get the picture. Keep out, generally, being the message. It struck a chord with me for some reason, but I couldn’t think why. Stella came back and we had another drink, talked some more, and I started thinking about confiding in her a bit more. There was something different about her, she was someone I could get to know, I thought.
Later that evening it was just her and me in my room, pretty wasted by now, staring at the readings as they spooled out on the low-light screens I’d set up, which with their green text and black backgrounds looked for all the world like some kind of vintage tech.
“Those data are pretty fucking wild,” she said.
“Aren’t they though?”
“That’s – I mean, that’s – I was expecting something like we saw at Gulf Trench, but this, wow.”
“Gulf Trench? You were at Gulf Trench?” I blurted out, surprised.
“You didn’t cyber-stalk me when I got the Directorate? I’m impressed. Or not impressed. Not sure.”
“I’m – I’m not that kind of, you know,” I stammered, the truth being I was so far away from getting the kind of job she had that the whole application process had passed me by. She didn’t notice my embarrassment, or pretended not to.
“Whatever, I have to ask you something,” said Stella, “about your research.”
“Uh huh,” I said.
“Are you trying to produce visualisations? Trying to see in the dark as well as listen – to see what’s producing the readings?”
“No,” I said, “we already have a visual idea of what’s producing these phenomena. The same things appear to all of us, when the infrasound is strong enough, in the dark.”
“What do you mean?”
“Like I was trying to say earlier. You’re an anthropologist by trade, right? The dark is terrifying, always has been, for all of human history. It hides the natural world from us and shows us monsters – the sleep of reason, yeah?”
I took a deep breath. This was the really crazy bit. “So what if that’s all real? What if ghosts, hauntings, I mean, are scientifically provable? What if we could predict poltergeist activity, predict apparitions to the minute and to the centimetre, or even cause people to experience them? Or monsters, demons and fairies, whatever takes your fancy.” I hadn’t been quite brave, or maybe drunk, enough to go this far earlier, with Frank and everyone muttering in the background. But something about Stella told me I could trust her.
“All real and measurable? So you don’t mean supernatural.”
“Well,” I said, “I’m not sure it’s a relevant concept. If we treat these phenomena the way that we treat dark matter and dark energy detection, and start from the assumption that they exist in the real physical world, just in a form we haven’t worked out how to detect, then we don’t really need an – uh – anthropological explanation. Sorry. I know ‘psychical research’ isn’t exactly top quality science, but at least the psychical researchers approached things scientifically.”
“And anthropologists don’t?”
“I – I’m sure you do. But not everyone, right? Sometimes there’s this feeling of a divide. And I think science lost something during the last two hundred years – we left a load of interesting stuff to the poets. But it didn’t used to be that way: Newton was an alchemist as well as a physicist and cosmologist; all the great early natural philosophers tried things like talking to angels alongside creating vacuums and vaccines; and what if they were right and the modern approach is wrong? What if rather than being anything to do with imagination, what if haunting and so on are all about perception? A problem of physics? When it’s dark, when it’s really, really fucking dark, what if ghosts which are always there become more easily detectable, and even sometimes become visible, at the same time as what we call the physical world is hidden? And what if these phenomena are even part of the dark matter and dark energy thing, the ninety-five per cent, that we spend so long trying to detect? What if it’s right in front of us and always has been?”
“Jesus, the things we saw in Gulf Trench,” she said, after a few moments of silence. Rather than, “bullshit,” which is what Frank had said when I had tried talking along these lines once with him. “There were some crazy things down there.”
“Tell me,” I said, pouring her a drink.
What followed was one of those slightly off-centre rambles, the kind you go on when drunk with someone you feel close to for some reason but don’t know well enough to feel embarrassed. She talked about shapes in the darkness, infrasound readings that no one understood, feelings of despair and recognition among the researchers, especially those who dived deepest and longest. She talked about recurring dreams, about long-term sick leave and non-disclosure agreements. I didn’t notice the exact moment but at some point in the long night we both started talking not about things that we’d seen, or phenomena, but about ‘them’.
“What does it feel like, to be down there?” she asked.
“It’s the most terrifying place on earth,” I said, and shivered despite myself. A bit dramatic. I’d never freaked out like some did – probably something to do with the acclimatisation.
“Take me there.”
This was at half past three in the morning. It was the drink talking, I thought, or the zeal of a new boss talking to an interesting but probably crazy member of her team and wanting to appear relatable, and I thought she’d forget about it the next day, but she didn’t.
* * *
“Let me look at the dark,” said Stella.
It was only a few days later, but she had already picked up the way we talked about things around here. It was her first full descent, so of course she’d spent some of the week acclimatising in progressively darker places. The process was similar to the way that deep-sea divers avoid the bends. Those of us working in the utter dark needed to keep our dark sight, so the nearest we would come to the daylight in any given week would be, say, the dark of a moonless night, one ten-thousandth of a lux. I could tell she was moving her hands around in the blackness, feeling her way into it, trying to conjure something up by way of a vision. We were in the Cellar, what we called the lowest level of the site. The dark was not quite absolute. If you waited long enough, grey shapes would emerge as if from an even deeper pit of blackness, and swim about you. They were so insubstantial you could not get a fix on them, and some were undoubtedly created by dust-motes on the lens of your eye. Others were less like shapes in a visual sense and more like – how to put this – impressions in your idea of space. The lateral geniculate nucleus of the brain- the part of the brain that gives us blind sight – starts working pretty well when you’ve acclimatised. And if you move your hands around slowly, and talk to yourself or to someone else, you can start to work out how the space functions and start separating physical from imaginary objects. This is what we meant when we said that we could look at the dark.
“This way,” I said, steering her gently by the elbow, as we headed down still further, “to where the dark really comes alive.”
“What a way to describe a coal shed,” she said.
Area 34, level zero of Polar Deep 1, deeper than the deepest sea bed, was not really a coal shed, of course, just as the Cellar was not really a cellar. It was an isolation chamber, in effect, created to house the baryon oscillators, the instruments that would have the best chance of detecting the dark matter particles that were thought to be streaming ceaselessly through the body of the planet. We were in the darkest place on earth. I hadn’t spoken to her since that night – she was busy setting up the department, and I had been down here for another 72 hour stint.
“Remember what we said the other night? About the dark and what might exist within it? Well, I’m taking a chance here, but I’m assuming you were serious,” I said, swallowing hard. I was still taking a risk admitting all of this to the new director of research, given that I was spending her resources. But then if she had been at Gulf Trench, and she wasn’t playing me, then maybe Stella had been thinking along the same lines that I had. What if there was something in the dark, producing madness?
“I was serious,” she said, “that’s why I’m down here. I want to find out what was producing those readings as much as you do. I’ve been researching the same thing.” She paused to let this sink in.
“The same thing?”
“I think we’ll make a great team,” she said, noticing that I looked a little put out. She could get more funding than I ever could, and she must have been researching from a different point of view, of course, but it still rankled. I wanted to be first.
“How far did you get?”
“Not as far as you, but pretty close. The teams kept finding infrasound readings we couldn’t explain. And then there were the reported phenomena – sightings, sounds – that made no sense, but were a definite problem, that management couldn’t ignore. I set up a team to try to understand those experiences, and codify them, get visualisations of them that everyone could agree on, that kind of thing.”
“I don’t see the point of that,” I said, still a bit raw from no longer being the only one in the field. “We’ve been drawing, carving, describing ‘them’ for thousands of years, in church architecture and cave paintings and illuminations.
I want to talk to them,” I added, absent-mindedly, as we got close to where I had set up the focal point of my experiment.
There was a pause, before she said, in a different tone, “Do you think that’s wise?”
To be honest it had not even crossed my mind, the wisdom or otherwise of my private experiment. As far as I was concerned I was a seeker after truth, striving at the edges of reason to make a breakthrough which would be recognised retrospectively as such; I was aware I could be following a red herring; I had not considered that I could be right, but that I might not understand the implications of being right. And I had been so wrapped up with Professor Stella Mackintosh taking me seriously that I hadn’t expected her to take quite this, well, moral approach.
“Wise?” I said; as I did so I had this idea that I was coming back into focus or waking from a dream, and something was not quite as it should be.
“Yeah. You don’t understand this phenomenon, and you are considering replying to it. That strikes me as unwise.”
That was why I was brought in, an anthropologist, to see if we could spot any patterns, bring in some context. But they didn’t really fit with any familiar stories or folk tales or the religious beliefs of those who reported them, or with any of the familiar psychosexual tropes either. They seemed to speak of some older, stranger tradition. There were strange rock formations, seriously deep down, miles into the trench, that seemed too regular to be natural. I started to compare them with other places, both under the water and on land. There were some interesting correlations. And then the money just stopped.”
“Did you find out why?”
“No. There were rumours, but nothing that seemed to make any sense, or even to make for a pleasing conspiracy theory. So I – we all – started looking for other work. I signed something to say I would not continue my research along similar lines. That’s why I didn’t mention it earlier. But I did continue.”
“Now would be a good time to tell me what you found,” I said.
“I found places reporting extremes infrasound readings and psychological problems like Gulf Trench, like Polar Deep, across the world; places that we had only recently been able to reach. But then I found Tandy and Lawrence’s research into the haunted frequencies, and started looking for examples of places that generated similar infrasound but that were easier to find. And the more I looked, the more similar these places were. And something told me they had to be for some similar purpose.”
“They are systems of signs, they are telling us something. They are warning us about something known of old but long forgotten. They are systems of warnings…”
And all of a sudden, with a lurch of my stomach, that phrase – systems of warnings – made me remember the documentary from the other evening back up at ground level after the bar, while I had been waiting for Stella to return so we could head up to my rooms to look at the readings without being spotted. I remembered it the way you do sometimes, incongruously it seems at first, and then not so much.
“…Most of the warning systems are gigantic, strange, alien to the landscape, and in liminal places like where the sea meets the land, or at cliff edges,” she said. “They are very obviously created by people, but they perform no function that archaeologists can agree upon. They are out of kilter with their surroundings. There is no reason for their creation that can be deduced from agriculture, trade or warfare, though I can tell you that I and other researchers in my field tried very hard to come up with something plausible. Their materials are carried for thousands of miles at great expense. They are maintained for centuries before finally they decay when empires fall or peoples migrate or die out. The structures are entirely unreasonable. Some of them are underwater, or underground and some are on the surface; but all of them have one thing in common: their age. They were all created a few tens of thousands of years ago, warning of a great danger.”
“And what particular danger would that be?”
“I don’t know. Something very old, and buried very deep, and almost – but not quite – dead and forgotten.”
“Give me some examples,” I said, breathless, thinking: if this is how we try to communicate with cultures ten thousand years into the future, what is there in our landscape now that might be similar communication from ten thousand years in the past?
“Stone circles in the Orkney islands. Paleo-Neolithic cave drawings across Europe and the Middle East. Paths bordered by granite monoliths that lead steadily and clearly into the deepest and never-inhabited seas. Places like the stone circles of Avebury, which are built like hill forts of the Stone Age, only the defences are inside out. As if they were keeping something in, not out. They are all part of the same system, part of the same message. They mean the same thing, though they look so completely different.”
“Keep out,” I said, flatly.
“Keep out. Right. And what have you done here?”
“What have I done? No different to you – to anyone else…” I was gabbling, my mind racing.
“But you have done something new,” she said, “haven’t you, by talking back? Isn’t that what you are showing off to me here?”
It was true. She was right.
“I wanted to be…”
“I know,” she said, quietly but urgently, “I know you did. First. To make a great discovery. And you have. How are you going to do it?”
“To talk back? You probably guessed already that the infrasound here is not just strong, it’s focused. I followed the vibrations to their strongest point, and built this place, this Coal Shed. The design is based on sound mirrors built on Britain’s coastline in pre-radar times to detect incoming Zeppelins. Same principle really – to concentrate the vibrations that I know are there sometimes, and amplify them.”
“To make this the most terrifying place on earth, then, with all that infrasound, in this absolute darkness.”
“That’s right. And once I had it all set up, you know, it was pretty trivial to reset the sound mirrors, and use them – to talk back.”
“And when were you thinking of doing th… what was that?”
She couldn’t see anything, of course, but I knew she would feel it when it came. I had set all the machinery going already, days ago. I counted down. Most people, I had theorised, based on my own limited experience from previous experiments, took about three seconds to register the focused infrasound signal properly after they felt the initial jolt. I had found it pretty interesting to be honest, in the context of an experiment: vague figures on the periphery of vision, the odd sound effect, nothing any more mind-bending than might be produced by a few hours drinking mushroom tea. So I wasn’t worried about how Stella might react. Three, two, one…
“Oh, God,” she said, “Oh God. I can see them, I can see them,” she said, her voice convulsing in terror. I could hear her breathing, almost feel it. This was not the reaction I had been expecting. Something was different: something was wrong. “What – what is it – dear God,” she said, “what have you awoken?”
“Awoken?” Just at that moment as she said that word, a sudden thought struck me, that seems quite obvious in retrospect but didn’t, honestly, in the isolation of that place, when it had just been me, a scientist alone. What I was talking to was not abstract or theoretical; but more than that, it might well be conscious, and powerful. It was a horrible thought. It felt like my insides were being removed with an ice-cream scoop. Cold, metallic, empty.
“Tell me: what happened to the sounds, after you talked back? What happened?”
“I don’t know, they – they stopped for a few days, and then started again. But they had changed,” I stuttered, the horrible feeling intensifying.
“Changed how?” She insisted.
“They got stronger. Louder, if you will. It has been getting louder every day.”
“Every day? How long ago did you send the message?”
“On – on Saturday morning,” I said, and then, feeling her horrified reaction rising, added lamely, “I thought, because you seemed to believe me…”
“This place is a message,” said Stella, her voice coming deep from some place of last retreat, “and that message is a warning about danger. That this is not a place of honour. That this place is best shunned and left uninhabited. Keep Out! You fucking idiot,” she said, “they’re coming back”.
And then the visions started. They looked like ghosts at first: not of people you knew, not of people at all. But not ambiguous or half-glimpsed in the way that I had seen them before, but directly seen and real. Strange bodies, moving in ways that made your very centre lurch; and odd shadows and profiles, sometimes seeming to be human, and sometimes anything but. Sounds of oceanic surge and suck, feeling like your soul was being carried out on some unending tide… They were right in front of you as if they lived and breathed – except that you knew, 100% knew, that it could not possibly be true, because you were two miles underground and in this absolute darkness.
I may have been slow to realise my mistake, but I was very quick to realise its implications. Stella was right: I was an idiot. Imagining exactly what I have awoken is impossible: we have until now seen only five per cent of the universe. And in all probability we’re a mystery to them, too. If Stella is right, I’ve just sent out a flare to let some of that ninety-five per cent know who and where we are. And so they’re coming back: the kind of thing no one has seen and lived. Unless you take a few of those more out-there poets and prophets and natural philosophers literally maybe: the Book of Revelation, the Bedlam poetry of Christopher Smart, the Voynich manuscript. Tales of the return of the elder gods, from the darkness.
“We can still stop them,” I said, suddenly.
“You’re out of your mind,” she said, sounding out of it herself.
“Listen,” I said, “think: everything you found out suggests that there is some reliance on humans, right, in order to communicate? And everything I found out about infrasound suggests the same thing. They can’t just come back whenever they want – we have to call them back. I’ve opened the equivalent of a portal or something by firing off those messages. So we can close it, therefore.”
“You’re going to have to help me think this through: we may only get one shot at it. The messages are made up of reflections of the infrasound vibrations that I detected. Kind of a mirror image in terms of how the waves would look on screen.”
“OK – and ancient cults and religions, ancient magic books, often used reversals and mirror images in the way they recorded chants and spells.”
“So let’s say that the infrasound I was picking up was designed like a codebreaker’s key: you need both parts to be able to open the portal, the original, and the mirror image. So when I sent it back, that’s what set things running.”
“I get it, I get it – but how does that help us? How do we stop it again?”
The sick feeling that had been in my stomach had spread to my very bones; the whole place seemed to be vibrating, as if the dark were singing. It was like an infinite congregation of monks chanting, in a dark and cavernous place.
“What if we send back the original signal, rather than the mirror image?”
“Or some kind of three-dimensional transformation?”
“The inverse of the signal?”
“Maybe one of those will work. But Jesus Christ, we don’t have time to find out which…”
The vibrations were making the dark come alive – there were shapes forming out of the blackness. Gargoyles, screaming faces, strange geometry and streams of symbols were flooding into my head. They were almost here.
“We don’t have to work it out,” I said, “we can send them all, try everything: inverse, rotations, shear transformations. I can set it up from the control panel back at the surface in ten minutes…”
My voice trailed off. Even if I could get to the surface in time, even with the lead lined chamber to the emergency elevator, even with the darkness of the transition cave, I would have to wait hours to avoid the equivalent of the ‘bends’ by coming up much too quickly. So either whatever it is I have awoken would get here while I waited, or I’d go blind and mad with the sudden light, and be unable to do anything anyway.
“You can’t get up there that quickly,” she said simply, “but I could.”
Stella hadn’t acclimatised to the dark yet. She could get to the surface.
“But what will you do?” she said.
I took a deep breath. I am not a brave man, but one thing I’m not afraid of, is the dark. And this was my problem to solve.
“I’ll be the welcoming committee. I always wanted to be first to something, remember?”
Stella was silent for a moment. “Just tell me what I need to do,” she said, “and I’ll make it. I promise.”
* * *
“So as I said at the start: this is an apology. Only five per cent of the mass of the universe was accounted for, and us a race with a consistent, cross-cultural history of stories of demons, gods, ghosts and monsters. What on earth did we think was down here, lurking in the utter dark? And I set up, painstakingly, over several years, exceeding my authority to do so, a means of calling them back into our world.
It was about forty-five minutes ago that she left. There was nothing else for me to do except dictate this obituary-apology, so if she manages to pull off some kind of miraculous rescue of the world – which I sincerely doubt – it will be the basis of the bestselling story, the Oscar-winning film, of what was almost the end of the world, the return of the 95%. And if she doesn’t – well, then assuming the world survives in some way, even if it’s only a tiny fraction of us, dwelling on the fringes of the new world, in some newly liminal spaces where the old gods can’t quite reach, there’s no harm in one more piece of obsolete technology adding to the warnings of danger that have accumulated over this place, over the millennia, for someone to find and decipher one day just as Stella and I did.
It’s time to sign out now, I can tell. Every now and then what feels like an earthquake shakes me: the call of the returning gods, savage and immeasurably dark. The next one feels like it will be the last, as the vanguard reach the boundary of whatever dimension they inhabit, and use the key I gave them to break through. So either Stella finds the right combination to close it in the next few minutes, or I need to decide on how to welcome them. I always wanted to be the first to something, and now I can be. Stella asked me if I had tried to visualise them, translate them into visible energy, and I hadn’t, it was true. I hadn’t even thought about how they might sound, if instead of infrasound readings they were audible in the human spectrum. But now, as the final call begins, I think it’s audible sound waves penetrating the last few yards of rock; and I can feel something in me rising up to meet it, some awful howling buried deep within me, recognising their greeting, and responding in kind.”
Sam Derby writes short fiction, either gothic / supernatural / horror or in a historical setting (usually 18th to early 20th century) and is inspired by Shirley Jackson, M.R. James, Roald Dahl, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Charles Dickens and H.P. Lovecraft among many others. Contemporary writers like George Saunders, Margaret Atwood and Michael Chabon are also favourites. Sam lives and works in Oxford, UK.