The Basalt Obelisk, by Michael Wen

Basalt Obelisk Illus 72dpi

Art by Nick Gucker:

It was said that if you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth. If that maxim works on a psychological level then that cannot happen soon enough for me. My doctor told me that the bouts of sweatiness and hyperventilation that invariably afflicts me before and after every public appearance can be fully explained by your garden variety performance anxiety, but I preferred to attribute my symptoms to the cognitive dissonance caused by having to knowingly dissemble in public, and to the damage done to my ego from constantly making statements that I know to be beneath my intellect. As someone who’s very proud of his ability to remain detached and apply analytical skills to emotional situations it was exasperating for me to take stances that I believe should be beyond the pale for any rational person with sufficient evidence. I hope the day would come when I can come forward and share my knowledge of what happened to Serge Mufel with the world, but enough of my rationality has survived the constant assaults by insomnia and nervous breakdowns to keep me from destroying my credibility once and for all.

I shall start from the beginning. I first met Serge four years ago at a reception for new associates at Solomon Brothers, one of the premier institutions in financial services before the market crashed. I remember forcing myself to go to the event more out of a sense of obligation than a desire to socialize since I had interned with the firm the summer before and knew most of the attendees. Truth be told I often felt uncomfortable around my testosterone-fueled, type-A colleagues. It had not been mine but my father’s dream for me to work on Wall Street, but we did not clash over this as I found a way to incorporate a stint in high finance into the narrative I was creating for my life. My passion was in policy; fiscal, monetary, foreign, and judicial. As a borderline introvert I did not foresee a future in electoral politics, but I was confident that with my analytical skills, eyes for detail and general wonkish demeanor I would be invited into a powerful inner circle someday. Working hard in my twenties to attain financial independence would have given me a significant leg up over those who need to sell books or give speeches to pay for their mortgage.  Principle and integrity do not come cheaply as some of you may know.

After half an hour of obligatory mingling I retreated to a spot near the buffet table, close to a platter of excellent beef carpaccio. Sooner than I liked however I was joined by a gaggle of fellow wallflowers and before I could extricate myself a new round of exchanges on respective entry-level careers began. One of the newcomers, a skinny tall guy in his late twenties wearing a pair of rimless glasses that covered the palest pair of blue eyes I’ve seen, mentioned that he had studied Persian history in college.

“Really?” I never could resist a chance to show off. “Which period? Achaemenid or Sassanian?”

“Neither. Safavid.”

“Didn’t they last only two hundred years?”

“But more happened in those two hundred years than the thousand before.”

He introduced himself as Serge Mufel and we had an engaging conversation on all sorts of esoteric but useless subjects that I did not think can interest anyone else. Soon we would lunch together almost daily at the deli downstairs, taking turns bouncing ideas off each other. He was the only one I felt comfortable enough with to share my market based schemes for solving problems ranging from Peak Oil to Third World corruption. We spent a lot of time together after work too since we both shared a fondness for lectures and seminars while our colleagues preferred expensive dinners and lavish parties. Serge did not like to talk about what he did before coming to the US for an MBA from Columbia, but he did mention that he studied particle physics in Russia and worked for a few years at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, more commonly known here as CERN. He claimed he left physics behind in order to make more money but I didn’t buy that for a minute. I saw him as a fellow traveler, someone with a vision and a grand design who could not possibly care too much about the acquisition of more and better things.

As many of you may know a significant part of a Wall Street trader’s income is the year-end bonus which is performance based. The mid 2000’s were good years for finance and I had managed to reach the top tax bracket during my first two years at Solomon. I always assumed that Serge’s pot was of a similar size but one day a tax document misplaced on my desk showed his take to be over three times of mine. I brought that up later that day, more out of curiosity than envy.

“Yes I had a good year. But remember in addition to derivatives I also do stock trades.” He explained.

“Baloney. I did some calculations based on company stats. To pull that kind of dough your stock trades have to average at least 300% in returns.”

“Maybe I was lucky.”

“Then tell me how you got so lucky.”

I continued to pester him about this afterward, half out of jest and half out of competitiveness. I was doing too well for myself to let this bother me, so was a little surprised when he finally gave in one day.

Even though Serge and I spent a lot of time together we’ve never been to each other’s home before. He gave me an address in Midtown which I didn’t make much of at the time, but when I exited the subway station and saw the street full of storefronts hawking cheap cameras and flashy jewelry I thought I must’ve gotten off at the wrong stop. The scene was reminiscent of the New York shown in eighties movies, not what one would expect to find outside the doorstep of an affluent financial services professional.

Serge greeted me and showed me around a nine hundred square feet one-bedroom apartment. The place was, like mine, sparsely furnished. Aside from a couch, a bed, a dining set and a large folding table that doubles as a desk there was little in the way for creature comfort. The couch was the only item that might’ve cost more than five hundred dollars, although the mythological motifs on its wooden frame were so antiquated as to predate any style I’ve studied. The apartment was far from uncluttered, however. Cardboard boxes, some of them unopened, stacked along one of the walls, while the opposing side was taken up by two pieces of electronic equipment encased in large black metallic frames. A thick, black wire protruded from one of the black boxes, snaked around the floor, and penetrated the back of a mounted air conditioning unit large enough to occupy two windows. I looked outside and saw the view dominated by a long, narrow screen built into the side of the building across the street that continuously streamed tickers and prices of major stocks and indices in bright green symbols.

“Nice view.” I commented.

“It’s not as fancy as Brooklyn, but I show you why I live here.”

He began to unscrew nuts at the back of the huge air conditioner. After the back panel was removed he gestured for me to come and look inside. What I saw did not look like the guts of any air conditioners I’ve seen. It was half empty and the panel facing outside was actually a one way glass. Behind the panel a large, black telescopic lens was bracketed at such an angle that it pointed directly at the giant stock ticker.

“Did you set up a live webcam feed of the ticker? Why?” I asked. “The ticker in our trading floor has got to be more up to date.”

“It’s not a live feed. It… I show you.” He sat in front of his computer workstation started pounding away on the keyboard. Numerous grainy still images of the ticker popped up on the monitors.

“So, instead of streaming video, you took images of the ticker and processed them to look like they were taken with old cameras? Is that for an art project?”

“Look at the date on this one.” He pointed at the largest image in the middle.

“March twenty-eight, two thousand and fourteen? What…Is it photoshopped?”

“No. The date is correct. These prices are from twenty fourteen.”

“But how? That’s two years in the…”

“Here, I explain.” He dragged the ticker images to the monitor to the right, pressed a few keys, and other screens began to pop up on the monitor to the left. From what I could tell some of the screens showed partial differential equations and while others showed schematics to electronic devices. Serge then went into a lengthy monologue interspersed with terms like “hadron”, “tachyon”, and maybe some Russian words. The gist of it, from what my non-technical mind could grasp, was that while he was working at CERN he wrote a secret program that allowed him to emit packets of certain subatomic particles in specified directions whenever the particle accelerator’s running, and that some of the particles have the ability to travel faster than light.

“Well, that’s impressive…” I knew he was waiting for a light bulb to go off in my head but my modern physics was very rusty.

“According to general relativity, when something travels faster than light speed, it goes back in time.”

“Oh. So you, future you, sent yourself this image through those particles?”

“Sort of. I rigged this camera to take images of the ticker and send them digitally to my program at CERN, and the program then sends out those tachyon particles in encoded packets. I built another device that can receive and decode these packets. It’s really simple, just a matter of calculating…” I was not able to follow the rest.

After he was done I exclaimed, “Wow. This is huge. Did you get a patent for this? I bet they’ll even give you the Nobel Prize.”

He was completely dismissive of the idea of making his invention public. “No. Imagine this in the hands of politicians.” I was going to say something in protest but then he handed me a flash drive containing two years’ worth of prices. That immediately set the gears in my head into motion toward contriving various discreet schemes to take advantage of this clairvoyance. I was very successful in the end and over the next two years exceeded my financial target threefold. We did not speak any more of his invention except in passing. Serge stayed at Solomon for another year and we shared a couple more adventures together, including a stint as digital freedom activists where we both became accomplished hackers. That’s a great tale that I hope to write someday.

I was on the verge of starting my post-financial career when the financial markets crashed. The timing could not have been worse. I had already been accepted by a couple of good but costly law schools and was in the process of starting a public interest law firm/think tank prior to matriculation. But before I was able to take the first step toward making my mark in the world I lost three quarters of my net worth. I thought I had played it safe by putting at least a quarter of my assets into annuities and other safe investment vehicles, but the near collapse of economic stalwarts like student loan lenders caused a financial tsunami large enough to breach my safe harbor. I still had enough left over for a modest income, but having factored in my newfound tycoon status in my future plans I could not imagine continuing without it. So I emailed Serge to get back in touch, and was pleasantly surprised when he called right away and asked me to come and visit him at his lab in Los Robles, New Mexico.

It had been two years after Serge left Solomon and at least six months since our last correspondence. Last I heard he had taken up environmental activism with gusto and was heavily involved in research on geoengineering, the application of technology to counteract the effects of climate change. He had built a lab in a remote and scalding valley in New Mexico to carry out his experiments, and practically lived there according to his last email. He insisted on the phone that I should come and visit him, so I found myself, a native New Yorker who barely passed the road test, struggling to maintain control of a four-wheel drive SUV on a deserted road two hundred miles out of Albuquerque. The landscape was almost Martian in appearance and aside from boulders and scattered sagebrush was completely devoid of feature. The condition of the road was so poor that it may as well be unpaved, but that was a blessing for I would certainly have fallen asleep on account of scenic monotony and exhaustion without the constant stream of pebbles bouncing off the windshield. After the most nerve wrecking three hours of my life the valley where the lab was located finally came into view.  It was surrounded on all sides by a tall electric fence which I was forced to almost circumscribe until I found the entrance, where a uniformed and armed guard opened the heavy gate for me.

The lab was unimpressive from the outside. It lay perched halfway up a small mountain and had the appearance of two double wide trailers stacked next to one another. A small wooden staircase led up to a small landing where a lone figure beckoned me to climb. Serge.

I did a double take when I reached the top of the stairs. Surely my friend could not have evolved into this emaciated, middle aged form in the span of two years. The only features I could recognize were the unfashionable rimless glasses and the pale blue eyes that sat on top of the unkempt beard that could not hide the hollowed out cheek. After a terse and formal greeting he took me on a tour. Most of the facility was actually inside the mountain, with the trailers merely providing a reception area. The interior consisted mainly of non-descript cavernous rooms where pipes and wires of all sizes and materials twist about every which way on the ceiling while large blocks of machinery filled all available space outside of the narrow walkway. The ceiling lights were too few and too low, for I kept seeing moving shadows out of my peripheral vision even though we were the only ones there. The purpose of the these machinery, Serge explained, is to process the sulfates present in these rocks and ground them into fine particles, which are then released into the stratosphere in huge balloons. These sulfates should reduce the amount of the sun’s energy that reaches Earth’s surface and cool the area below. The isolation and lack of air streams in this locale make it an ideal proving ground.

I asked about the people he works with.

“Once a while we have scientists from Los Alamos come and perform experiments, and we often have maintenance personnel here to fix things, but today it’s just me.”

“Must have been a major culture shock from Manhattan.”

“Actually I prefer the quiet.”

“Well, I don’t know about quiet.” I was referring to the whooshing noise that would permeate the facility from time to time. It sounded like wind but was so high pitched that sometimes it went beyond the range of what the human ear can pick up.

“Oh, that’s just a draft in some of the rooms. Let’s go to my office and talk.”

I was taken to a small chamber that seemed to have been carved out of limestone. It was lit by the greyest of fluorescent bulbs and felt too warm and humid for a room that housed a large server computer. He brewed two cups of black brick tea using the same samovar that he had in New York, and laid out some old biscuits. My original plan was to avoid broaching the reason of my visit and instead engage in catching up, and after a few hours ask to borrow a workstation to check email when I would then use the flash drive in my pocket that was modified to surreptitiously load a backdoor program that would allow me to hack into his computer later. Ironically Serge was the one who taught me that trick. But I didn’t know whether it was the heat, the exhaustion or a general sense of trepidation suddenly I didn’t feel like staying, so as soon as decorum allowed I went right out and stated the purpose of my visit. Yes, I am grateful he had given me the chance to make some money in stocks, but I had lost most of the money and would it be possible to give me more “sneak previews”?

He just sat and nibbled the biscuits as I talked, and continued to chew as though he wasn’t listening even after I was done. Finally he got up, asked if I had a flash drive, took it and put it into his computer.

I still follow the market and have guessed the reason you wanted to see me, and I had gone ahead and prepared the information you need. He explained as he worked. Remember that time we infiltrated that computer hacker convention? Those were the salad days, weren’t they? He handed the flash drive back to me, walked me to the exit and with a firm handshake begged to be excused as he has much work to do as new equipment will be arriving tomorrow. As I stepped back out into the desert air I noticed goose bumps on my arm, even though it was hardly cold inside.

I drove straight back to Albuquerque despite my exhaustion, hopped on the next flight back to New York, and didn’t rest until I was back in my Brooklyn brownstone. As soon as I got back I popped the flash drive into an offline laptop and browsed its content. It contained only a single file, a spreadsheet, with ticker symbols, dates and closing prices. The last date is about a year from today. That should do. I opened the properties window of the document and saw that it was created and modified on the day before last. The earliest price was tomorrow’s, when the market opens for the week. I copied the file to a secure location, reclined on the couch, and promptly fell into a dark and dreamless slumber.

When I came to sunlight was no longer streaming into my east facing windows. I had asked for three days off and was in no hurry, so I picked up the tablet on the coffee table as a matter of habit and was about to skim the major indices when a headline grabbed my attention:

“Explosion in Los Robles, New Mexico. Climate Research Center Destroyed.”

The article did not contain a whole lot of details, except that an explosion so strong that half of the mountain had collapsed, completely burying the facility. The sheer volume of debris scattered throughout the area prevents any serious rescue attempt from being mounted, and in any case the only expected casualty, resident scientist Serge Mufel, was not expected to have survived the initial blast.

That must have something to do with the new equipment that he was supposed to receive today. I picked up the phone and dialed Serge’s number. No answer. I sent out a text perfunctorily, not really expecting a reply. I was quite shaken by the temporal proximity of my visit to this violent event and I spent the next hour randomly changing the news channels but not absorbing much of anything. Something had bothered me since I walked out of the lab. Serge had acted as though he knew what I was up to. He even asked if had a flash drive on me. Why didn’t he call me out on it? Thinking he might’ve been attempting electronic shenanigans of his own, I reviewed the content of the flash drive again. It still contained only that single spreadsheet but its property window said it was half full. I changed the display to show hidden files and was rewarded by two new folders.

The one named “Utah” contained nothing but jpg graphic files. The first one showed a semi-arid plain with a mountain range and a handful of boulders in the background. Aside from a carpet of bluish-green grass, clusters of short shrubs, and a few deer or antelopes in the background it was empty. The time stamp showed a date in 2028. I changed the sort order to reverse chronological and looked at the time stamp of the newest file. It was taken on a date in June, 2046. I was not exactly surprised to see this. If Serge had devoted the last year of his life to climate issues he must’ve tried to use his invention to gather more data.

The second folder contained saved emails with stock and commodity prices all the way up to 2020, and an application that can be used to parse these files and exports their content to a spreadsheet. Looks like Serge found a way to transmit data directly from the internet of the future. Think of all the things he might’ve learned from it. I didn’t find anything resembling a note or an instruction in the flash drive. Running out of ideas I went back to the Utah folder and played its content as a slideshow. The first part was about as interesting as watching paint dry, with the same arid landscape undergoing typical seasonal changes, but right around the year 2034 that started to change. First, the amount fauna and flora shown began to decrease and then finally disappear altogether. The landscape was populated then only by what appeared to be mini-tornadoes, but as the slideshow progressed I saw that these mini-tornadoes were actually polyporous forms with a variety of shapes. Some even had limb-like protrusions from their sides. In a few of the images these polyps took on the appearance of dancing as they seemed to twist, undulate and even float horizontally in mid-air. My attention was then drawn to a black object the upper right corner of the frame around which a number of these polyporous things would hover. It was the size of a smudge initially but then it grew taller and taller and eventually turned into a tall, windowless tower of black basalt. After this obelisk-like structure was completed the polyps mostly disappear from the images, except for the occasional individual that could be seen emerging from its side. The last few images were mostly devoid of activity until the very last frame, which was greyish and very blurry and I thought the elements had finally gotten to Serge’s camera. I used an image-processing program to enhance its quality and the result became the template of my future nightmares. I could see three of these polyps hovering right in front of the camera at point blank range, one of them appearing to manipulate the device with its appendage.

It’s been suggested that human memory is a fickle thing, prone to embellishment and suppression. After that day whenever I replayed in my head the visit to Los Robles the dark shadowy shapes in the corners of my eyes invariably coalesce into polyps. I would see groups of them hovering about the cavernous rooms of the facility, staying just out of sight in shadows. Sometimes one of them would grow a smoky tendril out of its bulk and extend it toward Serge and me only to have it dissolve into thin air right before contact. I could not be sure that these images were real, but at the same time I could not stop seeing them when I close my eyes any more than I could un-ring a bell. I took the week off, lying out on the couch while relying on my subconscious to put the pieces together.

I was able to draw but few conclusions. I believe that Serge had meant to provide me with these files. The fact that he had to resort to subterfuge to accomplish that suggests he was being watched. The polyporous things on these images could only have been living entities, and the last image suggests they were studying Serge’s device. Could they have found a way to follow its signal all the way to its target, to the present? Was the explosion Serge’s only means of escaping them or was it the punishment inflicted on him for his betrayal? Could events depicted in these images be undone, or do the rules of temporal physics dictate that they must transpire? If the future is not locked in place, will the images magically redraw in front of my eyes when my actions change it? What was I expected to do with my newfound knowledge? I wanted to kick myself for the myopia I displayed in not showing more interest in temporal physics while one of its greatest practitioners was still alive.

I went back to my job and finished out the year as planned. I rebuilt my net worth quickly with the new prices and entered law school. The year I graduated I started a public interest firm devoted to defeating all legislative action designed to combat climate change, while the foundation I started lavishly funded research projects conducted by contrarian climate scientists in order to undermine the scientific legitimacy of the issue. I kept myself extremely busy in order to avoid sleep or daydreaming. In most weeks I could be seen in print, on cable talk shows, in academic seminars, or testifying before legislative committees. I’ve been called an ignoramus, a Luddite, a hack, and worse names. I’ve received so many death threats that I never go anywhere without security. Sometimes it occurred to me that this crusade of mine need not be a lonely one, and that I could prove everything just by producing the stock prices, but the risk of forfeiting my fortune and therefore my influence was just too great.

I kept every corner of my residence well lit and had all of the non-loadbearing walls removed to minimize corners and shadows. I also took care to place all networked devices in a room separate from the rest of the house, and above all I avoided access to any device that may have come into contact with any of Serge’s inventions. I don’t know if anything I do can keep the black obelisk from rising, but if must rise then let it wait until its appointed time. Until then its denizens are not welcome in my home.

MichaelMichael Wen writes computer code by day and fiction by night. Some of his stories have appeared in ezines like Bewildering Stories and The Flash Fiction Offensive. A chronic procrastinator, you can easily keep up with his output at Random Musings of Nihilist. He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife even though he would rather be somewhere cold.

If you enjoyed this story, let Michael know by commenting below — and please use the Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus buttons below to spread the word.

Story illustration by Nick Gucker.

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9 responses to “The Basalt Obelisk, by Michael Wen

  1. Michael, I enjoyed your story! A nice contemporary take on the Lovecraft style, right down to the two male protagonists. I got a nice shiver when the contents of the “Utah” folder were reviewed, and that’s what it’s all about!

    • Paul, thanks for your kind words. My story was indeed a tribute to two of my favorite Lovecraft tales: “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” and “That Thing on the Doorstep”.

  2. “In the year 2525, if man is still alive. If woman can survive, they may find,” a future of cosmic horrors.

  3. To often do modern writers throw Mythos in your face, and thus detract from the underlying, unseen horror of its world. I think you did a good job with this, I was never quite sure is Serge was actually part of the Mythos or just an ordinary chap. Nice work 🙂

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