In the Walls
You can’t have the lights on, it must be dark — your eyes must be blinded. That’s the only way to find them, because you can’t see them. They move at the speed of light, never standing still long enough for any fleshy human optics to glimpse, running through the wires. But you can hear them, humming and oscillating in the dark.
That’s why it has to be dark.
There’s an old pop culture claim that says when one of your senses is lost, your other senses compensate. I don’t know if that’s true, but it seems you can hear better when your eyes aren’t distracted by light and color, shape and motion. You become more attentive to the signals your ears are sending you.
That’s why I keep the lights on, the racks of candles burning throughout the night. But don’t dare touch the lightswitch.
I know he…or it…I don’t know…he’s lurking in there…
I’m rambling, I apologize. Let me start again.
My name is Gregori Keyes, a mathematics and computer sciences professor at a mid-sized college in Wisconsin. A Russian immigrant from the days of the Cold War — which might as well be ancient history to my students today, an event from the days just after the dinosaurs died off and man tamed fire for all the meaning it holds to them.
I study cryptograms in my spare time, mathematical patterns, and random computer noise for hints of a universal pattern in the chaos…three years ago, I discovered a pattern that shouldn’t have existed, subtle and easily missed, in what was supposedly random static noise on the university data lines.
I won’t bore you with the complicated technical details of the research, except to say it would have changed the entire field of computer science…perhaps the course of modern life itself, shaken history more than the crumbling of the Berlin Wall. If I had gone public. I never had that chance.
From the set of initial data, I developed an algorithm that would parse out the pattern I’d found when run against dozens of network streams, then compare it to a cipher I…nevermind, the details are not important. The program allowed me to find the pattern in the noise, and I was close to making sense of what I had found.
I brought in two assistants to help me with this, two of my brightest and most eager students, who would have gone on to do great things in this world…
Static crackled through the crude radio receiver we had set up to give an audible voice to the signal. The device did not work quite as expected. In fact it did nothing as expected, for where we should have heard merely a series of squeals and pops, a disembodied almost feminine voice arose from it, strangely clipped and variably accented, but understandable, speaking perfect Russian.
This lasted less than a moment, but consisted of one repeating notion: a desperate plea for help. Over and over.
I was the only one who could understand it.
“What the hell was that?” Brandon said, eyes wide in astonishment as he stared at the receiver.
Mai shrugged, trying to look the part of the un-phased, neutral researcher, but confusion showed clearly in the lines around her dark eyes and a shaking hand she hid under her clipboard, “Did we pick up some kind of muddled radio broadcast?”
I considered telling them what I had heard was not the gibberish they were puzzling over, but I merely said, “Down here? No, I doubt there’s much we would pick up. I have trouble tuning in to the local radio station and I think we are properly shielded.”
They waited, looking to me for inertia. “Why don’t you two go home now, you have mid-terms you need to study for anyways. I will double-check the shielding and tweak the program more tonight, then we can start again at, hrm, four tomorrow afternoon.”
They nodded and left, saying their goodbyes amid small talk I don’t recall.
I had no intention of waiting and quickly returned to the task as soon as their footsteps vanished down the hallway. It was nearly midnight by the time I finished, having double-checked the connections, tested the shielding with a portable radio, and modified the program parameters to allow for a better output from the receiver.
On the computer monitor next to the receiver, I watched the fluctuating pattern of a representative shape of the static in the line, derived from a mathematical code of my own devising, waiting until the shape cohered, signalling the pattern had again been found in the noise. I typed in a command on the old keyboard. More numbers flowed across the screen and the computer began transmitting data across the lines, mirroring the pattern back across the network.
The voice came again.
But not the woman’s voice. An American voice, heavy, thick, modern, male. “Burn,” it growled from the receiver, murder dripping from the crackling voice, and the florescent lights overhead exploded with a flashing pop that buried the tinkling patter of falling glass.
I froze, my breath trapped somewhere in my chest and barricaded in my throat, the room black but for the glow of the computer screens in front of me. The crude receiver hummed and hissed with random static noise.
I probably should have stopped there. But I didn’t.
I dismissed Brandon and Mai, told them there were problems I needed to work out with the electric shielding before we continued the project, that there had been an incident in the lab after they left that caused me some health & safety concerns for the project. I cited university regulations that tied my hands and promised the project would be started again as soon as the issues were fixed, then put them to work on a prestigious, public project to keep them from arguing too much.
And I spent weeks in the lab, late at night to try and keep away any questions, trying to recreate that moment of contact and refine the algorithms. I succeeded. And I let something out of the network, and into the electrical grid. Something dangerous and murderous. Something I did not know how to recapture, control, or destroy.
At first it was just lights and strange electrical problems. Then fires, here and there, electrical: sockets flaming out, lights shorting and blackening.
Mai came to me first. She knew what I had been doing, had watched my coming and going from the lab. Knew I had played her and Brandon and wanted back in on the project, or threatened to go public with the whole thing. Had managed to back up all the notes from our work to her personal computer system without my noticing. Smart girl. She put two-and-two together, and asked if the problems around campus had anything to do with the project.
I warned her to stay away, that something dangerous had happened and I did not want her involved. But she went home to her dorm and reproduced the experiments, I suspect. Her dorm burned down. Everyone but her made it out, though there were some minor burns and smoke inhalation. She died of electrical shock before the fire consumed her body, so that was something, at least.
The firefighters claimed the source of the fire was her personal computer, possibly a frayed power cable. I knew Mai better than that. Meticulous and never careless.
Brandon told me he knew Mai, frustrated at being cut out, had been trying to reproduce our experiments from the lab. That she had told him she was planning on doing so, and had invited him over to help. Only the need to study for a test the next morning, and falling asleep in his notes, had saved him from being there when the fire started. He blamed himself, thinking if he had just gone, if he hadn’t fallen asleep, maybe she would still be alive, that he could have saved her…dragged her out or something, given CPR.
So I did the second thing I shouldn’t have done: I invited Brandon to work with me in the lab again.
…to be continued…
So you see why I’m telling you this.
That’s why I’m telling you this, Brandon. Because you can’t tell anyone else. But I have to tell someone.
Copyright (c)2008 Raven Daegmorgan