1 Pandora’s box
Saturday, 1:12 A.M.
In a basement laboratory of the Anokhin Brain Research Institute, Stefan Dürr’s wiry frame hovered in a transparent, liquid-filled, vertical sensory deprivation tank. Naked, with the exception of a soft weight belt, straps battened down a round, silver helmet covering his head and shoulders. When he exhaled, a plastic umbilical line at the top released a stream of bubbles that crept through the viscous solution toward the surface.
Loudspeakers emitted the sound of gas hissing over a racing heartbeat. Lights below the cylinder deflected upward, casting soft, undulating green waves across cinder-block walls.
Dürr looked like a human embryo, floating peacefully in the amniotic fluid of an artificial uterus.
He was dreaming—but not in the typical sense. Gasses fed through a facemask shaped, or “drove,” his brain activity into an uncommon state of consciousness.
Researchers monitoring his EEG in another room were unaware that a third brain area had altered two others normally most active in sleep. Neither did they know that he was drawn into hellish nightmares that replaced his dreams.
Dürr trembled at first, shuddering and jerking. Then he thrashed violently in a futile attempt to escape the inner horrors. The heat emanating from his body soared, quickly raising the liquid’s temperature to near boiling. The helmet softened and buckled; cracks opened, allowing scalding liquid to reach his face.
His terror and pain intensified until the helmet microphone shrieked his agonized cries to the investigators, immediately bringing them to their feet.
Small air bubbles covered his blistering skin; blood from his nose, eyes and ears seeped through the fissures and ribboned in the solution. A pulsing red aura formed a few millimeters from his hands, then spread to envelop his whole body.
Sinewy muscles spasmed repeatedly. He flailed wildly, battering the enclosure until the first spidery crack appeared in the tank wall, then crept outwards.
Friday, 5:12 P.M.
Five thousand miles east of Podol’sk, Beau Walker tossed his textbooks and briefcase on the dining room table of his home in Philadelphia, then hung his duffel coat over the extended arm of a small cigar-store Indian next to the front door.
“Sekoh Toolah yonkyats,” he greeted the solemn figure in his native Mohawk. “Bet your day was a damn sight better than mine.”
He took a stack of blue test booklets from the briefcase, sighed, then dropped it on the coffee table with a thump. There’s my weekend: Endless pages of basic psychology interpreted by semi-literate undergrads. Maybe this weekend there would be a glimmer of at least one shining intellect amidst the usual pile of crap.
He reached into an oak cabinet for a bottle of brandy and poured three fingers. While delighting in his first sip, he noticed the blinking LED on the phone, hit the speaker button, and entered his code.
“Hi, Dr. Wa—Hah! I mean, Beau,” a young female voice said sweetly. “Hey, I’m sorry. Bad news. Tonight’s out. I totally forgot my Mom’s birthday, so I booked a red-eye to Cali. But we’re definitely on for next Friday, right? Bed and breakfast in New Hope. Call or text me later, okay? I’ll miss ya.”
He winced at Karin’s message. He’d been looking forward to—no, needed—companionship and a warm body, even a 25-year-old graduate student’s, to share his bed.
Damn! A perfectly rotten end to a perfectly rotten week.
He toed off his loafers, turned on the television, and sank into the softness of the sofa. The volume off, Fox’s news scrolled across the bottom of the screen, but he was still distracted and annoyed by Karin’s message.
As he sipped the brandy, Walker gazed at his deceased parents in the black-and-white photograph on the opposite wall. A quaintly dressed African-American woman wearing a beaded tiara stood stiffly, her hand resting on the shoulder of a seated, equally formal Native American man sporting a dark suit adorned with a bear clan necklace. He wore a three-feathered cap—a gustoweh—adorned with pieces of deer antler, representing his authority as a tribal elder.
He sighed. Strange times. Who’d have guessed I’d ever envy you two?
He emptied the snifter, tossed an afghan over his shoulders, and fell back on the couch. In minutes, he was asleep.
~ * ~
The nightmare struck. Countless indistinct faces mocked his mixed parentage. He read the hateful racial slurs written in human excrement, smeared across his office walls. He clenched his teeth angrily, hearing the piercing insults he’d endured since childhood: prairie nigger, redskin, Indian coon.
So hot! Damn! I’m hot! Can’t breathe.
A streetlamp’s light sliced through vertical blinds and crossed the dim living room, falling over his tossing body.
He clawed at the sweat-saturated shirt, now tinged pink with oozing blood, rolling his head back and forth on a damp pillow.
Then, he was alone in a gleaming marble hall that stretched into the distance before him. The heat was unbearable and he strained to breathe. He sensed an unknown threat behind him, turned to see, but found only darkness. Sensing that he was being tracked by something and acutely aware of his vulnerability, he had to escape.
Stonework decomposed on all sides. Chunks dropped into a void lying beyond the walls. The floor weakened under him, large pieces crumbling into powder and disappearing. Heart pounding, he vaulted from piece to piece as entire stretches of marble vanished. He knew that, if he slipped, he would die.
His body acted strangely, instinctively, as if under its own free will. Each jump was frightening, but effortless. When a flimsy marble lattice disintegrated ahead, his eyes widened with fright.
Saturday, 1:47 A.M.
The laboratory’s double-doors crashed open; overhead lights flickered on. A thin layer of bluish gas swirled near the ceiling.
Yuri Vorontsov raced inside breathlessly, carrying a medical bag, followed closely by Marina Krupayenska. Behind her, slowed by his seventy-three years, Dmitri Cherkov strained to keep pace.
“He’s seizing!” Vorontsov called back to Cherkov as he raced toward the tank. “Hurry!”
“Those screams…What is happening?” Krupayenska asked.
“It could be a psychotic break. Maybe an epileptic seizure. The EEG registered gamma, fast, and ultrafast brainwaves.”
“And that sweet, pungent odor?”
Vorontsov sniffed the air. “Ozone.”
“But that is generated by electrical discharges.”
“No time to explain!” Vorontsov snapped.
Cherkov shouted. “Vorontsov! Try to sedate him. Use the cyanide if you have to. If you can’t control him, kill him!”
Patches of Dürr’s skin flaked from his body, and drifted free as his fingernails scratched at the polyacrylic walls.
“What is that loud sucking sound?” Krupayenska asked, fearfully.
Friday, 6:02 P.M.
A large, unattached piece of the wall drifted to Walker’s left. On impulse, he hurled himself up, feet first. To his surprise, he pivoted and floated down, landing upon it. There’s no gravity here. Or very little. He ran, springing from piece to piece, his body rotating, twisting from wall to ceiling to floor. A slab tilted unexpectedly. His feet slipped on its glossy surface and he fell between the debris into infinite, empty space. “God…help me!” he cried out in his sleep.
Saturday, 2:02 A.M.
The lights flared suddenly, then exploded. Vorontsov and his colleagues cowered under the shower of glass shards, covering their faces.
Furniture and equipment streaked toward the tank like iron filings drawn to a magnet. Pipelines overhead and along the walls shook violently, straining against their moorings. Under enormous force, the anchorages buckled and the pipes broke loose, filling the room with gas, spraying water, and steam.
The sucking sound grew louder. An invisible force gripped the three scientists, dragging them toward the tank. They screamed as they tried to resist, their feet sliding on the wet tile floor.
Vorontsov grabbed a steel support beam by his fingertips, wrapped his arm around it, then stretched out his hand for Krupayenska. He caught the sleeve of her jacket before she passed him. She wrapped her arms around him desperately as he pulled her against his chest. “Hold on!”
Cherkov stumbled and fell, his spectacles cracking as they hit the floor. With one arm, he hugged the leg of a desk jammed against a heap of furniture and reached for his glasses with the other.
A glow formed in the tank, lighting the laboratory with its blinding brilliance. Shielding their eyes, the researchers tried, but failed, to see the source.
When its intensity lessened, the dark, shrunken remnant of Dürr’s body floated to the surface like driftwood. In its place was a roiling, melon-sized black cloud. They watched silently as the formless, featureless mass attacked the water-salt-glycerin solution, seeming to feed on it.
Cherkov slipped on his damaged glasses. Stunned by the macabre change, he squeezed his eyes shut.
Vorontsov shouted to the elderly man over the loud noises. “Cherkov! What in God’s name is happening?”
“Bozhe moy!” the old man said. “Dukach warned me…I didn’t listen!”
Still holding the terrified Krupayenska fast, Vorontsov shouted to Cherkov over the raging din. “What is that…that thing?”
He dropped his head, his voice filled with despair. “Nashe nakazaniye. Our penance: punishment for violating a realm of the mind never meant to be desecrated.”
Like lightning, short streaks of plasma shot wildly from the black object. At first, they crackled only around the tank. Then, they blazed beyond, randomly striking the walls and other objects, leaving smoldering holes.
A bolt struck Cherkov’s chest. He fell onto his side, with a harsh, abrupt screech. “YURI!”
Vorontsov and Krupayenska turned toward his piercing cry. Enveloped in a radiant energy field, fiery flashes burst through Cherkov’s translucent skin; he was being devoured from within. He raised a weak and trembling arm toward them in an unspoken plea for help, then slid forward. His body disintegrated into a mass of fading particles.
“Chert voz’mi!” Vorontsov turned away from the dreadful sight. “Oh damn it!”
Krupayenska pressed her face into his chest. “Yuri! Chto seychas proizoydet? What will happen to us?”
Unable to find words to console her, or himself, he clutched her tightly.
Small fractures in the tank wall crackled, widened, and divided, each branch snaking along the surface. Fluid dribbled onto the floor; wet, broken wires spat showers of sparks.
Then, with a high-pitched hiss, the black object burst beyond the tank walls, swelling into an enormous ebony mass that swept out in all directions.
In microseconds, every physical object within a kilometer vanished. Children and adults, plants and animals, businesses and homes, automobiles and streets, air, soil, and bedrock disintegrated instantly, as though they had never existed.
The blackness contracted and condensed almost to its original size. As it drew back, it revealed a gigantic, scooped-out crater where the heart of Podol’sk had once stood. A thunderous blast followed, as air raced in to fill the unnatural void it had created.
An ominous silence followed. Faint cries of despair and pain echoed at a distance, beyond the edges of the new hole in the landscape.
Suddenly, another, larger black discharge burst beyond the bounds of the first with greater devastating force, absorbing and annihilating everything within its reach. Automobiles, mailboxes, and a mass of small objects careened along the streets and disappeared into the dark sphere.
When it compacted again, another deafening blast followed.
Central Podol’sk plunged into absolute darkness, deeper than night.
Friday, 6:15 P.M.
Walker groaned in his sleep, his body radiating a reddish aura. When his eyes opened, the subtle emanation faded rapidly. Parched and bewildered, he reached for the coffee table. He groped for the brandy bottle, gulped deeply, and returned to the couch. Leaning forward, his elbows on his knees, he held his pounding head and dripping face between his hands. His skin burned as if he’d been scrubbed raw with steel wool and dipped in acid. What the hell’s wrong with me?
He examined his hands in the light from the television. His gut tight with apprehension, Walker hurried to the bathroom. Swallowing hard, he switched on the light and stared at the shocking reflection in the mirror. A man in his forties stared back, straight black hair matted against his café-au-lait forehead, his shirt saturated with dried, sweat-diluted blood, the skin of his face and hands covered with second-degree burns. Blinking owlishly, Walker stared at his blistered palms.
What the hell? The dream. The damned dream—it externalized!
He returned to the living room and turned on a lamp, then blanched at the scorched discoloration on the couch in the shape of his sleeping body. He squeezed his eyes shut for moment, then touched the still-warm fabric.
“Oh no, no, no,” he muttered, and dropped into a recliner. I can handle this, he tried to convince himself. It’s happened before–but never like this.
He closed his eyes and controlled his rapid, shallow breathing. With the combined effect of the brandy and breath-control, he grew more relaxed.
After a few minutes, calmer and in better control of himself, he returned to the bathroom. He leaned on the counter and studied his image more calmly.
While his damp hair was still plastered to his forehead and his shirt moist with a mixture of blood and sweat, his burnt skin had already returned to normal.
A dusting of pale ash fell from his body where it had been blistered only minutes earlier. Although the rapid transformation was no surprise, he sighed with relief.
His gaze fell on the brooding marble gargoyle on the counter that he’d bought near Notre Dame cathedral. It’s foreign, alien. Neither fully human or animal. Like me. It reminded him of a line from Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame; his eyes filled with tears. Why was I not made of stone like thee?