By Mark Cheese
Society embraces new technology. Many people are dependent on it, even without understanding it. A businessman has no understanding of how an email relay works, but he relies on it every day. One speck of critical information lost can ruin months of hard work. He might lose a deal and get angry, but what happened to that poor little piece of information? Nobody seems to care.
Information floats all around us and we don’t give it a second thought. We bathe in invisible wireless signals without really comprehending them being there.
But they are there. What if there is more there than we think?
People have always believed there is more to the world past what we can see — the hidden forces of the world. The plane between physical and spiritual. The veil of death.
There are also people who believe those other people are crazy.
I am not here to try and convince you of either side, I am only here to tell a story to the best of my recollection and ability. Whether you believe it or not is up to you.
Friday had come and it was a long weekend.
Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which doesn’t mean much for a skinny white guy, but I’m all for equality. I also love extra days off work, so I can’t complain.
I was driving home in my ‘94 Civic in the freezing cold. The roads were bare, but hills of ice lined the edges of the roads. They had long since turned black from sucking up the exhaust of passing cars. It’s a common thing in the Midwest of America.
A sign flew by informing me that I was leaving the city. The tall buildings started fading from view, replaced by towering pine trees. The sound of crunching salt was replaced by the soft muffle of fresh snow flattening under my tires, forcing me to slow down. Surrounded by wilderness, I had arrived in the middle of nowhere.
Living outside the city was much more peaceful. It always amazed me how quickly things changed when you crossed the city line. An imaginary line created by a cartographer thousands of years ago that separated crowded streets and boundless forest.
The light pollution from the city was now barely poking in my rear window. I drove past long clusters of trees and gigantic fields of snow sprinkled grass, maybe passing a residence every few miles. Finally I saw it, peeking out of a mound of grey snow, an old wooden wagon wheel. It marked the beginning of my driveway. The wheel was the only way to tell the difference between every other off-road along this stretch. I turned into the driveway but still had another half mile to go before I reached “home”.
I crept along barely pressing the gas pedal. The driveway was not plowed like the main roads and was still covered by about 4 inches of snow where my tires had not flattened it. I could do this entire part of the drive with my eyes closed. My mind started to wander.
Out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed movement in the trees. This is not uncommon, as there are a still lot of deer running around. Even some bears with bad internal clocks that forgot they should be hibernating right now. For tourists, seeing a deer like that would be the highlight of their trip. For me, it was just another day. In some cases that majestic deer would become majestic dinner.
Something felt strange about this though. It was a dark blotch that I only saw in my peripheral because it contrasted heavily off the pristine white snow. The blotch was pitch black with no grey tones at all. The edges and corners were very simple, but it vaguely had an upright shape.
I quickly turned my head but there was nothing there. There were not even footprints or any marks in the snow where it had been.
I rubbed my eyes. They must be playing tricks on me after a long day of staring at a bright screen. The old motor groaned as I pushed on the accelerator. I was eager to find the warmth of home.
I pulled up to the small wood cabin I called home. It wasn’t much, but it was all I needed. I lived alone, I didn’t have enough friends to necessitate worrying about having company over, and I didn’t have many possessions to take up much room.
Fiddling with my keys, I tried to unlock the front door. The bitter cold turned my hands into useless appendages. I finally wrestled the key in and unlocked the door.
The door swung open and a figure emerged from the darkness lunging towards me. Before my frozen muscles could react, I was falling backwards into the snow. The cold sent a wave of shock through my spine, rendering it useless.
I was pinned and completely at the beasts mercy.
I felt something cold and wet slather the side of my face.
“Zoey!” I exclaimed, “How many times have I told you to wait until I’m inside and warm! Not cool!”
When I said I lived alone earlier that wasn’t completely true. Zoey is my dog and probably (definitely) my best friend. She showed up at my cabin a few years back, no tags or chip. I let her in and shared some of my string cheese that I was having for dinner, and she has stuck around ever since. I named her Zoey after a video game character. She was a tiny puppy when I found her, but she quickly grew big. Being part pitbull and part rottweiler, she became a big meatbag of muscle. I banked on the fact that she loved me and would protect me instead of tearing my throat out at first opportunity. Anytime someone gets a new dog they are saying “I am going to feed and shelter you, please do not kill me in my sleep.”
I wrestled with Zoey in the snow until my toes and fingers could not take it anymore. I got up and went inside with Zoey at my side, locking the door behind us.
Zoey immediately went back to her overly expensive comfy bed. I bought it for her at the pet store and set it near the fireplace so it was always nice and warm for her. She laid down and closed her eyes. Moments later she was snoring like a puppy.
The laziness of that dog was breathtaking. She only has short bursts of energy that completely drain her. Tackling me into the snow was all the energy she had even though she slept all day.
I changed into warm dry clothes and stood by the warmth of the fireplace. Once I had the feeling back in my extremities, I walked to my desk.
This entire corner of the cabin was filled with technology. The desk held 3 large monitors that cast a soft blue light across the room. Next to the desk sat a towering rack of servers, creating a wall of blinking LEDs and a symphony of whirring fans. I sat down and gave a loving nod to my enterprise router - the most expensive thing I owned, ‘99 Civic included.
Numerous programs were outputting their progress to console windows displayed on the monitors. The programs were mostly scripts I wrote to automate repetitive server administration tasks.
I moved some windows over to a different monitor and pulled up something entertaining to watch on the main monitor. I leaned back to relax and watch the show, but much like the dog before me, my eyes closed and I was in dreamland.
I awoke to darkness, barely able to see my surroundings. How much time had passed? Why was it so dark? There should be light from the fireplace, or even from the countless LEDs and screens. I was in my cabin for sure, the dimensions and shape were all correct, but it did not feel like my home. I did not get that feeling of ease when you walk in your door. Something was off.
I went to the window to look out and make sense of what was happening. Everything looked faded, as though a layer of film grain had been placed over my eyes. The sky was a shade of dim gray and filled with swirling clouds that sucked up ash and dirt into the sky. The greens of plant-life were gone, replaced by a rotting brown. All life had been drained from this place (if it had life at any point).
In the distance I could hear a constant sound. It was a hum with intermittent screeching. It was the sound of an old printer spitting out sheets, only this was thousands of them in unison, stuck printing forever.
That’s when I saw it. The black figure, maybe the same one I had seen before, only now it was much more defined. The figure was negative space. A humanoid shape had been cut out of the universe, but the edges were polygonal like 3D rendering in the ‘90s. Around the outside it distorted the land behind it. I was too far away to identify facial features, but I knew it was staring right at me.
I stood frozen for some time, it could have been a minute or it could have been an hour, I really do not know.
Then I blinked, and it was gone.
Something inside me told me to turn around. I hesitated, but I knew I had to see what was there. I prepared myself and quickly turned. The shadowy figure appeared and lunged towards me, moving faster than I could react. I flinched, closing my eyes and putting my arms up in a defensive position blocking my face (like that would stop whatever it was).
I opened my eyes to find I was in my cabin, but it was my normal cabin again. The fire danced in the fireplace, LEDs flickered red and green light, and Zoey was sleeping comfortably in her bed on her back with her paws straight up in the air.
Was it a dream? It hadn’t felt like a dream. Was I sleepwalking? I never had a sleepwalking problem before. I was avoiding the one question I didn’t want to acknowledge.
Are you going crazy?
I sat down in my chair and pulled up a browser window on the main screen. I closed all of the other windows because nothing else mattered. I had to dedicate all brain and processing power to figuring out what the hell just happened to me.
Scouring the internet, I found way too much information that matched my experience. Hundreds of stories and theories from people who thought they knew everything. This was the internet, so chances are most of them were written by 12 year olds or someone who should’ve been committed years ago. But who was I to talk, at this moment I was inches away from having myself committed and locked up forever.
I read until my eyes were too sore to continue. Mountains of useless information flooded my screens. I laid my head back in the chair and closed my eyes. My thoughts were racing, and I was unsure what to do next.
Then I had a moment of clarity (I think they call it an “epiphany”). I remembered something that I stuffed deep into the recesses of my brain. There was an IRC (Internet Relay Chat, for the uninitiated) server dedicated to the unknown. I visited a few of the channels a couple years back to chat with the more interesting users. I was picking their brains and testing the validity of some of the more plausible statements. I got nothing from it.
I connected to the server to find it was not as populated as it had been the last time I was there. Most of the users had been committed, but also, no one really uses IRC anymore except for old people like me.
I clicked through the channels, frantically looking for a live human with answers. Every channel was deserted—an admin bot was the only sign that these rooms had ever seen activity. Until I came across one of the last rooms: “#null”, 36 active users.
That took you way too long to find.
I joined to find two users in the middle of a heated argument. I waited a minute for them to come to some sort of a conclusion before starting my interrogation. I took the opportunity to type out and send my first question: “What is the null?”
© 2018 Mark Cheese