by Steppen Sawicki
I wasn’t going to post today, but it’s my birthday, so I should post a birthday post or something. Here’s an old old story of mine that was once published on a webzine that no longer exists. It’s got issues, but I’m not going to read through it and fix them cause it’s tooooo old. Like me.
Short Story: Horror
The old man shuffled around the perimeter, his body stooped, his eyes downcast. Even now the boy moved his hand over the machine’s surface, his face radiating ecstasy, and as he turned his attention to the old man his eyes widened in expectation.
“Is it ready?” he said, his breath a reverent whisper.
“You know as well as I do,” sighed the old man. “We have done our best with it, yes.”
He had nothing else left to say. He had spoken his doubts many times, until the boy had grown too impatient with his criticism and begun to threaten him. He took this in stride; he was being paid well. Otherwise he would have long ago left the boy to rage alone in his madness. But even with his payment, the old man did not like to think what fury would arise when the machine proved its uselessness. He had nothing to say against the fact that what they were about to do had been done previously, that such beings could be called, but the method was all wrong. His knowledge was in books, glyphs, the studies of the stars, the pitch of a chant. The modern machine could not replace these arts.
Still the boy had persisted in taking the old man’s wisdom and converting it to a form he himself could understand. He had spent countless nights perfecting the device that rose above them: a towering cylindrical body, twenty feet high and at least fifty paces around. Metal gleamed dully under fine layers of dust. Numerous wires coiled against the curve of the thing and snaked their way in and out of the panels haphazardly bolted in place. Tiny lights blinked on and off as if impatient to begin their work. This was the product of the young man’s toils, of so many secret and hidden months.
The boy traced his fingers over a seam in the paneling. The machine had been built from junk and scrap metal. It was spare parts and rusty bolts and even thick strips of tape in places, but the boy gazed at it as if it were made of the most precious polished silver. His mouth spread open in a smile.
“Ah, you still don’t believe in it. You are so set in your ways.”
“My ways, as you so call them, are true. I have used them myself, and they work. I have seen the proof with my own eyes.” It was the same conversation they had gone through several times before. This time, however, the boy was too enamored of the finished monolith to be offended.
“You will see the proof of this machine too, tonight,” he said. “This will change everything. No more will man have to stare into the heavens for years, awaiting the correct time. No more will he miss his chance for having forgotten a line in his symbols. No more will his call go unheeded because he devised the wrong chorus from a grimoire. And no more will he have to placate the being that should arise even if all went well. With this wonder,” and he stretched his arms up to the machine, “I will call a demon, and there will be no need to beg his name to gain his might; I will extract his powers to use at my leisure.” He beamed up at his treasure with a wildness in his eyes, his arms still outstretched as if expecting the demon to fly down into his embrace at that moment.
The old man, however, was not moved by these words and gestures. He walked behind the boy to a row of twinkling panels set into a recess in the far wall. The boy’s madness was only temporary, his rants a passing fancy. When he saw his work fail, his mission futile, he would hang his head and join the old ways. Then the old man could truly teach him, as a guide rather than a piece of reference in some silly game. The passion was there, the ambition strong; he need only work through this phase.
A few buttons to press, switches to toggle, and the machine hummed and ground to life. Cooling fans deep in its recesses spun. Lights flashed. Numbers ran across the screens set into the panels. The tiled floor thrummed with the energy flowing throughout the room. The old man concentrated on the monitors, carefully measuring figures and twisting dials to compensate for the varying energy flows. The boy merely closed his eyes and tilted his head back as if absorbing the energy coursing through his senses.
And the machine did its work.
Time was nullified to make irrelevant the planets’ motions; the time of the day would not now find the demon in hiding. Libations were no longer to be consumed or poured – the program superseded them all. Though the ground made for the meeting was metal, the computer made irrelevant whether it was holy or damned. No seal needed to be worn or placed in circles to prevent harm and ensure cooperation; all safety precautions were provided for. The program was complete.
The call was made, silently, sent through electric pulses and lines of wire rather than chant. The machine whined angrily in protest, stressed to its limits. Hot air flowed out from the fans in its casing. But there was no response to its cries.
The boy’s posture faltered more and more as the minutes passed.
The stage remained empty.
The boy took two steps away from the machine and crumpled to his knees amidst the rubble surrounding it. Pity stole into the old man’s heart then, for he saw not the anger he had been expecting from the boy – only despair. He abandoned the panel and returned to the boy, who threw out a hand to him and cried “No! It’s not finished! Keep trying!” but his voice was thin, strained. The old man only shook his head and laid his hand on the boy’s shoulder as the machine’s insides settled back to a point of rest.
There was no sleep for the boy that night. His mind could not still itself. He recounted over and over the machine’s awakening, its failure. He had neglected something, he thought, some code to its program or some wire to its socket. But he had felt the power of it himself. Surely there was some other reason the demon had not answered.
He stood once again in the room, dark now with the florescent bulbs overheard turned off and only the dim light from the panel’s monitors glowing. No anticipation filled that space now. There was only silence, the chill of the night, and useless metal scraps. He gazed up at the machine, not as he had done earlier that day, filled with hope and power, but tired and drained of resolve. He shivered, suddenly aware of the cold that filled the room now that most of the components were switched off. He wondered why he should even be here. The thing had failed. Perhaps the old man had been right all along. Perhaps the creatures beyond this world pay no mind to modern technology. Perhaps they preferred the old ways of placation and ritual.
Then the boy had a realization. Maybe he had been underestimating these creatures. It could be he had been insulting them with his safety protocols and underhanded plans. For all his concepts, he might have forgotten the most important variable: the demon itself.
He turned and walked swiftly to the panel in the wall. A renewed purpose filled him and blocked out all sensible thought. He had to know if his program worked, no matter the cost. He disabled the circle meant to keep the demon in place and its seals intended to protect the summoner. He released the power source meant to take the place of names and extract the demon’s talents, broke the lock on true forms. All safety measures and guises were done away with. If there was still no appearance…
Stalling his trepidation, the boy woke the machine from its sleep. It started reluctantly, its circuits having that morning been taxed for too long. Slowly, laboriously, they climbed to full power, and once again a silent call was sent out in an electronic packet. The boy imagined he could feel the call cutting through the cold air, reaching out achingly to touch the recipient and shepherd him to its origin. He closed his eyes to concentrate on stifling the plaintives he yearned to speak but feared would interfere with the call. He breathed out in a shaky sigh and opened his eyes, surprised to find his breath escaping him in a fog. Rather than warming from the heat of the computers, the room had chilled considerably.
Shifting his gaze to the top of the machine, he saw that a fog was growing there as well, only this one wasn’t melting into the surrounding air but instead turning darker as it collected. It grew denser with each pulse of the machine, until it suddenly collapsed into jet-black tendrils of stirred smoke, which hung in the air. These drifted lazily downward for a few moments, then whipped up fast as lightening and swam around and between each other, a few coalescing into a larger dark cloud. With one more burst of energy, the blackness broke open, revealing what appeared to be the body of a man sitting perched on the clotted mist.
He was naked, his body thin to the point of emaciation. His ribs showed through his flesh, and this together with the pointed bone of hips and gauntness of abdomen his torso presented an odd zig-zag shape. His arms didn’t look strong enough to lift themselves, and his legs looked to be mere bone too long to fit with the rest of his body. His hair, a deep crimson that clashed with his sickly skin, fell around a face with sharp angles of protruding bone and deep hollows, but the eyes burning out from the depths of the sockets were alive, fierce, and knowing. He leaned forward in his seated position on the black mass, tendrils of it flowing over and around him as if vying for his affections. His mouth spread in a smile and small yellowed teeth broke free of the cracked lips.
“So,” he spoke in an oddly light and sonorous voice that defied his appearance, “you finally devised some manners.”
For all the boy’s surety, he had never conjured a demon before. Rather, he had never succeeded in his attempts to conjure a demon, and his inexperience had left him naive. Forgetting all tradition, he managed a few banal words, stuttering softly in a low voice. “You…you heard the…the call?”
“Well I more felt it,” replied the demon. “It had a very strong pull, this thing.” The dark substance supporting him parted from beneath, allowing him to stand on the roof of the machine, whereupon he began inspecting the thing, bending down to press his hand to it as if to feel the strength in it.
“But,” continued the boy, “but…you didn’t come before–”
“Before you pulled your tricks away?” The demon looked down at him and narrowed his eyes, deepening the shadows surrounding them.
The boy realized that he was going about this all wrong. It was not the demon’s place to be haughty; this was his achievement. He remembered convention then and, straightening himself, he pronounced loudly “What is your name, demon?” With the program impaired, this was the crux of the conjuring. Only its name would allow him power over the demon.
But the demon, ignoring the question, had straightened up as well and was continuing his inspection in a slow arc, eventually moving out of the boy’s sight as he rounded the machine’s roof to the far side. The boy anxiously circled the machine to keep his eyes on the demon. He was not surprised by the demon’s actions; these creatures were expectantly reluctant to give their name and hand over control of their powers. He asked a second time, louder still. “Demon, what is your name?”
The demon responded this time with low laughter, which hit the far walls and came rolling back in an echo. The echoes did not diminish, but instead became louder with each rebound. The growing sounds wove around each other, creating a tapestry of laughter that grew and grew. The boy, yelling louder still over the shrieking laughter that was gaining ear-splitting momentum, gave his question a third time.
The demon’s laughter stopped as quickly as it had come, and he again looked down upon the boy. “Truly, you expect me to give it?” he said. “With your programs stripped of all their glamor? You don’t even hold a talisman. So centered is your mind on this modern summoning. Boy, I do believe you have lost your head!”
The boy knew then that the demon had not come because of him, in expectation of contracts or dealings for service. This thing’s only interest had been the machine. His eyes blazed when he peered down at it beneath him. The boy knew well the look in those eyes, for he knew his own eyes must have looked much the same when they fell upon his invention. It was a look of greed, want, and control. He was suddenly angry that the demon should be looking at the machine — his machine — in this way.
“It’s quite a device,” the demon said somewhat to himself as the boy fumed.
“If you will not give your name, then I have no use for you.”
“What will you do then?” The demon spread his arms to indicate the machine. “You did not call me here – this machine did!”
“And the machine is mine!”
“Is it?” said the demon in mock surprise, and when the boy did not answer, he grinned and raised a long, bony finger. “Yes, names have power. This much you know at least, even if you lack all other knowledge. But you have forgotten the even greater power of naming itself. And boy,” he pointed downwards at the great instrument on which he stood, “you have not named your machine! So allow me…”
There was an darkness then that was so vast and immense it penetrated even into the boy’s mind, for he heard the demon shout a word that sounded miles away and was not clear enough to discern. The blackness pressed upon his insides, filling his entire being before releasing him, dissipating. When he could once again see, there was nothing for the boy to lay his eyes on. He stood in an empty room, and both demon and machine were gone.