CHAPTER ONE - ONE UNHOLY COMMUNION
Saturday, 1:12 A.M.
Twenty miles south of Moscow, the city of Podol’sk slept under a moonlit sky. On a small side street, greenish light glowed through the frosted cellar windows of the Anokhin Institute of Neurophysiology.
Stefan Dürr’s naked, lanky frame hung suspended in a liquid-filled, transparent vertical cylinder at the basement laboratory’s center. A weighted belt supported his position. Straps battened down a helmet topped with small transmission antennae concealing his head and shoulders. When he exhaled, bubbles emerged from plastic tubing at the top. Black lines crosshatched his body. Telemetric electrodes dotted their intersections.
His bizarre appearance was insect-like, a huge, mosquito larva floating under the surface of a pond.
Lights below his suspended body cast colorful, rippling waves across the lab’s cinder-block walls. From loudspeakers, the sound of gas hissed over an amplified heartbeat.
Dürr was asleep, but not dreaming—at least, not in the usual sense. Gasses fed to a silicone mask he wore were shaping, or “driving,” his brain activity. Unknown to researchers monitoring him, the two brain areas normally most active in sleep were being altered by a third, transforming his dream sleep.
From deep within him, long-buried childhood memories flooded his mind, igniting explosive emotional reactions. Like breakers against rocks, unrelenting dreams hammered at his defenseless mind. He cried at first, reliving memory fragments from his tortured past. This became convulsive sobbing, then terrifying screams.
~ * ~
In Dürr’s dream-reality, a mustachioed Prussian soldier loomed over him like a colossus, his imperial metal cavalry helmet, and ornaments gleaming. He stared down with accusatory red eyes burning with hatred. Frozen by panic and shame, urine trickled down Dürr’s leg. With mocking laughter, the soldier’s enormous arm reached down and pointed at him. Dürr began to run from the titan, glancing behind with stark terror.
The soldier remained where he was, preening his mustache. The eagle on his helmet moved. Its wings detached and rose from the shiny surface, followed by the feathery body. Fully detached, it screeched and dove towards Dürr, its yellow eyes focused on him, razor-sharp talons outstretched. He tripped and fell, covering his head with his hands. The bird swooped down, its curved claws raking his back, slashing strips in his shirt and bloody streaks in his skin. It ascended swiftly, banking for another pass.
Dürr shrieked in agony and twisted onto his arched back. Alone and vulnerable, he cried out like a wounded animal for divine intervention as he had done so many times as a child. “My God! Where are you?” As was the case during his childhood, no intervention came. He was as weak and abandoned as he had always been.
An explosion of rage seized his reasoning. If there is no God, then I will be God. In his growing madness, his eyes blazed toward the eagle as it glided in for another attack. In a commanding voice, he declared, “From universal chaos you were born. Back to chaos I will send you.”
He closed his eyes and spread his arms. With fury-driven concentration, powerful heat radiated from his hands as he visualized the eagle withering, shrinking, its cells collapsing. When he opened his eyes, a charred, misshapen thing lay at his feet. Dürr smiled with perverse satisfaction, then looked up at the soldier, whose eyes widened as he drew back.
Dürr spread his arms again, turning his palms towards his retreating enemy. The heat was greater now and took less effort. It coursed through him like a fiery stream. Caught in a web of glowing energy, the soldier writhed in anguish, his mouth open, uttering distressed, guttural sounds as smoke arose from his shrinking body. The torment and hideous changes he inflicted on the soldier only heightened Dürr’s pleasure. He exerted more effort to double the effect, to annihilate the detestable man.
At first, Dürr laughed with crazed pleasure as the man shriveled. Then he noticed the energy increasing far beyond his effort. Was he losing control? He dropped his arms, then turned away from the blackened, withering figure, and tried to stop the unceasing flow. But there was no change. He was caught in the trap of his own creation. He had to escape—or die!
~ * ~
The helmet microphone transmitted Dürr’s shrill cries to the laboratory rooms monitoring him. His body heat rose sharply, raising the temperature of the solution. The plastic helmet softened and fissured under the heat he generated. Scalding water dribbled through the cracks, reaching his uncovered face. Small air bubbles covered his blistering skin as the fluid climbed towards boiling. Blood seeped from his nose, eyes and ears. Then his body spasmed. A pulsing red aura formed a few millimeters from his hands, then spread to enshroud his body. His wiry muscles contracted repeatedly. His limbs thrashed wildly, battering the enclosure.
The first spidery crack appeared in the tank wall.
~ * ~
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. Good God! 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 dung.
He reached into a cabinet for a bottle and poured three fingers of brandy. While relishing his first sip, he noticed the blinking voicemail LED on the phone, hit the speaker button, and entered his code. “Hi, Dr. Wa—I mean, Beau,” a young female voice said sweetly. “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? Call or text me later, okay?”
He winced at Karin’s message. He’d been looking forward to—no, needed—companionship and a warm body, even a graduate student’s, to share his bed.
Damn it! 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, CNN 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. Vicious racial slurs written in human excrement were smeared across his office walls. He gritted his teeth angrily, hearing the stabbing insults he’d endured since childhood.
Hot! Damn, I’m so hot! Can’t breathe.
A streetlamp’s light sliced through vertical blinds and crossed the dim living room, falling across his tossing body. Clawing at his sweat-saturated shirt, now tinged pink, Walker rolled his head back and forth on a damp pillow, his eyes clenched shut.
He was alone in a gleaming marble hall stretching into the distance before him. The heat was unbearable and he strained to breathe. He sensed an unknown threat behind him and became aware of his vulnerability and an urgent need to escape. Where the hell am I? What’s happening?
The stonework decomposed on all sides, chunks dropping into a void beyond the walls. The floor weakened under him. Pieces crumbled into powder and disappeared. Heart pounding, he leapt from piece to piece as entire stretches of marble vanished. If he slipped, he would die.
His body acted strangely, instinctively, as if under its own volition. Each jump was frightening, but effortless. His eyes widened with fear when a flimsy marble lattice disintegrated ahead.
~ * ~
Saturday, 1:47 A.M.
The laboratory ceiling lights flickered on and the double-doors crashed open. A thin layer of bluish gas swirled near the ceiling. Breathless, Yuri Vorontsov rushed inside carrying a medical bag, followed by Marina Krupayenska. Behind her, slowed by his seventy-three years, Dmitri Cherkov strained to keep up with them, his eyes fixed on the tank.
“Dürr is seizing!” Vorontsov called back to Cherkov as he raced toward the tank. “Hurry!”
Krupayenska asked, “Those screams…What’s happening to him?”
“I’m not sure. Maybe a psychotic break. Before he screamed, the EEG showed an abnormal gamma wave spike.”
“There’s a sharp odor,” she said.
Vorontsov sniffed the air. “Ozone.”
“How can that be? Ozone is generated by electrical discharges.”
“No time to explain,” Vorontsov snapped. “Hurry!”
Unable to keep up with them, Cherkov called out. “Vorontsov! Sedate him if you can,” he panted. “Use the cyanide gas if you have to. Control him or kill him!”
Streams of blood seeping from Dürr’s wounds mixed into the liquid surrounding him. Patches of skin flaked off his body to drift free. Without awareness, his fingernails scratched at the polyacrylic walls.
“What is that loud suction sound?” Krupayenska asked apprehensively.
~ * ~
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 laboratory ceiling lights flared, then exploded. Vorontsov and his colleagues cowered under the showering glass shards. The sucking sound grew louder. An unseen force gripped the three scientists, dragging them toward the tank. They screamed warped, distorted sounds, as if played on a slowed record player. Furniture and equipment screeched over the floor toward the tank, like iron filings drawn to a magnet. Creaking pipelines vibrated violently, straining against their anchorages before buckling, breaking, and filling the room with spraying water and scalding steam.
Dragged towards the tank, Vorontsov caught a Z-bar by his fingertips. He stretched out his arm for Krupayenska, caught the sleeve of her jacket, and clutched her against his chest. “If you value your life, hold on!”
Cherkov stumbled and fell, his spectacles cracking as they fell off and hit the floor. He hugged the leg of a desk jammed against a heap of furniture.
Shielding their eyes, they tried to peer into the inexplicable radiance emanating from the tank. As its brilliance lessened, the dark, shrunken remnant of Dürr’s body floated to the tank’s surface like driftwood. In its place was a churning, melon-sized, black cloud.
They watched in silence as the formless, featureless cloud attacked the surrounding water-salt-glycerin solution, seeming to feed on it.
Cherkov fumbled for his damaged glasses, slipped them on, then strained to see into the tank. Astonished by the macabre change, he watched in dread, knowing what it foreshadowed.
“What is happening?” Vorontsov called to Cherkov.
“Bozhe moy!” The old man said. “My God! It’s too late. Too late,” he answered. “Dukach warned me. I didn’t listen.”
“Dürr’s gone, Doctor! What is that…thing?” Vorontsov asked, still holding Krupayenska fast, terror engraved into her expression.
“Our punishment for violating a territory never meant to be explored,” Cherkov said grimly.
Ionizing streaks emerged from the black object. At first, they crackled around the tank, then blazed outward, randomly striking objects, leaving smoldering holes. Cherkov screamed when a bolt struck his chest. Vorontsov and Krupayenska turned and saw him blanketed by an energy field. Fiery flashes burst through his translucent skin. He was burning up from within. He raised his trembling arms towards them as if pleading, then fell forward, disintegrating into a mass of vanishing particles.
Krupayenska pressed her face into Vorontsov’s chest. “Yuri! Oh God, Yuri!” He clung to her in his fear, but found himself without words.
The small fissure in the tank wall widened and divided, each crack snaking along its surface. Escaping fluid dribbled onto the floor, and wet, broken wires spat showers of sparks.
With a terrifying hiss, the black object exploded beyond the tank’s boundaries, swelling into a vast, dense ebony cloud sweeping 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 dissolved instantly, as though they had never existed.
The cloud contracted, leaving behind a gigantic, scooped-out concavity where the heart of Podol’sk had once stood. A thunderous blast followed, as air raced in to fill the unnatural void it created.
There was an ominous silence. Faint cries of despair and pain echoed at a distance, beyond the edges of the new, hemispherical hole in the landscape. Then, another, larger discharge leapt beyond the boundaries of the first with the same devastating force, absorbing and annihilating everything within its reach. Automobiles, mailboxes, and a mass of other 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 an absolute darkness, deeper than night.
~ * ~
Friday, 6:15 P.M.
Beau 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. Then, he looked up at the reporter and Russian flag on the screen. Curious, he raised the volume. In a somber voice, the newscaster announced, “We’ve just received confusing reports of a disaster in Podol’sk, Russia, twenty miles southwest of Moscow. Unofficial social media reports describe substantial damage to the city’s center and a major loss of lives. Russian news agencies have not yet reported the event. Calls to the local Russian embassy have gone unacknowledged. We will continue to monitor this story and interrupt with further developments.”
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’s eyes widened as he 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 regulated his breathing. With the combined effect of the brandy and breath-control, his body grew more relaxed.
After a few minutes, calmer and in 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 was covered with blisters minutes earlier.
The rapid transformation was no surprise. Still, he sighed with relief.
From the next room, the TV news announcer reported, “Russian officials now confirm significant damage to the city of Podol’sk, an industrial suburb of Moscow, and a loss of lives estimated at near two thousand. The cause of the incident is under investigation. An unidentified municipal spokesperson reports that an industrial accident is suspected. Details will follow as they are released.”
Walker’s gaze traveled down to the brooding marble gargoyle on the counter. A line from Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame came to mind, and his eyes filled with tears.
“Why was I not made of stone like thee?”
My first exposure to creative writing was in an art school course with Gerald Stern, poet, essayist, educator and poet laureate for New Jersey. Brilliant, stimulating, and iconoclastic, “Gerry” encouraged the class to write in an imaginative yet disciplined way (see my page on creative writing). A sculpture and design major, I realized that art was not to be my path. I turned to biology.
From biology I was urged by coworkers at a State penitentiary to look into psychology. Seeing little value in it, I stubbornly resisted. Finally, they convinced me to take one course. I’d found my niche and threw myself into studies, earning a B.A. and M.A. in Psychology, then a Ph.D.
Years of practice and training followed. I was steeped in empiricism: If it couldn’t be sensed and measured, it wasn’t “real.” Oddly, my pragmatism was balanced by explorations into parapsychology and occasional writing fiction.
I realized that writing fiction exercised my imagination and permitted me to roam beyond the reality of my senses alone. Now, I thoroughly enjoy merging fringe realities with ordinary reality: shadowy, elusive events, people, and abilities lying just beyond the (seeming) limits of the physical world, bordering on imagination. Consequently, I am of the Asimov, Bradbury, Crichton, and Heinlein breed. Others, however, had a powerful impact: Rod Serling, Ray Bradbury, and the extraordinary genius of Phillip Dick.
Even as a clinical psychologist, I couldn’t escape the paranormal. I’ve been honored by clients who made me the first they trusted to relate near-death and out-of-body-experiences, ghostly apparitions, possible past lives, and a variety of ESP events. I published a well-received study on the psychology of “psychic” (a poor term) healers in journals and as a chapter in a book.
I’m passionate about understanding paranormal human abilities and how they relate to creativity and spiritual practices. I’ve explored paranormal abilities with volunteers, including hypnotic induction of telepathy and research into alleged past–and future–lives. Synchronicity as expressed in astrology and the I Ching have also been ongoing interests, as they were for Carl Jung.
On the less cerebral side, I love film (especially clever, unpredictable science fiction and paranormal films), snorkeling, photography, reading, and music–especially tempestuous, Russian classical composers.
If you have questions for me, I would be glad to answer them–time permitting. I’d like to hear from you if you’ve had any paranormal experiences.