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  Table of contents Issue Twenty-two LIGHTS OUT

by
EDWARD AHERN
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Y

ou're going to do what?"



"Strap you down with what amounts to a lie detector wired onto you, then completely blacken the room. Completely."



"But why, Professor Givens, I already told you I'm afraid of the dark."



"Jack, unfortunately we get a lot of students who'll say anything to make eighty dollars a session. Before we can proceed to the experiment we need to verify that you do have nyctophobia."



"Hah?'



"Nyctophobia. Fear of the dark. Named for the Greek goddess Nyx who—oh never mind, the qualifying test takes five minutes, once you're rigged up."



"Do I get paid for the qualifier?"



"Twenty dollars."



Jack edged further back in his chair. "What about a nightlight, or maybe instrument lights?"



Givens let out a dry chuckle. "You know, there are almost as many night lights in this country as there are people. Not counting all the constantly burning yard, garage and walkway lights. As a species, we really do fear the dark. No, Jack, no light at all for five minutes. But you can stop any time you want. You'll be holding a panic button and if you press it the lights come back on."



"But only twenty dollars?"



"For this trial. But during the real experiment you'll be well paid for a half hour in the dark."



Jack exhaled. He really needed the money. "Okay, let's do it."



Givens smiled. "That's the spirit. But it wouldn't be a university experiment without a questionnaire. So it's question time. Question one. When do you first remember being afraid of the dark?"



"I was always afraid. And my mother's mother, who used to babysit, was vicious about it. She used to recite an old poem to me, about the bogeyman. I forget most of it...”



"Do you sleep in the dark now, Jack?"



"Never. Two lights, so when the bulb goes on one I have another still lit."



The questioning went on for ten minutes. Givens eventually clicked off the recorder. "We can do the test now if you like."



"Uh. Okay."



Givens lead Jack into an adjoining room. The room was windowless, bare except for a reclining chair and an EKG machine on a wheeled dolly.



"Take off your shirt, Jack, and sit erect in the chair. Once I've set you up with pulse, respiration and skin monitors please just lie back and get comfortable."



"Doubt I'll be comfortable. I've already started to sweat."



Once Jack was rigged and ready, Givens handed him a wood cylinder with a wire coming out of one end and a depressible button on the other. "It's, pardon the expression, a dead man switch. Hold it down throughout the session. Once you release it, the test is aborted and the lights come on. But if you release it before we've completed our readings we'll have to send you home and start on the next applicant."



Jack settled back in the chair and Givens left the room. A few seconds later the room speaker clicked on. "Okay, Jack, here we go."



The room went black. Jack began to softly whine, the same monotonal noise that he'd used as a small child to protect himself from the dark creatures. But he stopped, as if embarrassed that Givens was listening to him panic. And it was panic. His senses began to short circuit, and he could almost taste the electricity flowing through the monitor. The air around him eddied and flowed, as if things were swimming in it.



Jack squeezed his eyes shut and clenched his fists, his knuckles cracking. Thousand one, thousand two he began. Five minutes was a count to three hundred.



Something seemed to brush against his right trouser leg, and he almost dropped the panic button. but held on. Jack's armpits had gone squishy with rank sweat. Thousand seventy, thousand seventy one. Jack was counting out loud now, not caring that Givens heard.



He began curling and uncurling his toes so tightly they hurt with each flex. Something was in the room. He sensed it, knew it. Something not right. Something released when the blanket of light was pulled away. It was to his right, waiting. Thousand one sixty, thousand one sixty one. God, he thought, God help me through this. You are of the light, hold this at bay.



But there was no answer, and no light. Thousand two ten, thousand two eleven. Jack felt tiny touches on his arms and legs, as if mites were crawling up and disturbing his body hairs. He scratched at himself until he was sure he'd drawn blood.



As he moved his arms and legs he felt-resistance- as if something foul had nestled up against him. Thousand two ninety eight, thousand two ninety nine, thousand three hundred. "There! I've done it!"



He threw the panic button off the chair to his right, hoping to hit whatever it was. The lights snapped back on and Jack swiveled his eyes around the room. Nothing. He looked down and saw long, angry scratches on his arms and legs. Givens came into the room, a socially correct and insincere smile shaping his mouth.



"Well, your count was a little too fast, but we got our readings. Congratulations. We can proceed to the test."



"I don't want to do it. Take this stuff off me, please."



Givens began popping off suction cups and removing the blood pressure cuff and respiration strap. "Jack, we can't do the experiment without you. If it's the money I can double your stipend. You've suffered with this all your life, don't you want to learn more about it?"



"I'm scared, Professor. There, I've said it."



Givens stared down at Jack for a few seconds. "You know, Jack, I can't think of much better protection that what you have here. Your vitals are closely monitored, and I'm in constant contact with you. That's got to be better than a ten dollar night light."



It was Jack's turn to stare, his expression conflicted. His car sat in the dorm parking lot, undrivable until it got two hundred fifty dollars worth of life support. "I'm going to need three hundred dollars. Firm."



Annoyance flickered across Given's face, then the unctuous smile reappeared. "Okay Jack, I'll make an exception. But we'll need to do the trial tomorrow. Would that be all right?"



The next day was Saturday, so no classes, and Jack wanted it to be over.



"Okay, sure."



"Come at eight thirty, there's some things I need to explain to you."



On the way back to his room Jack speed dialed Suzie. "Suz, I need company. And some of that warm care you provide. Couple beers at Stan's?"



"You sound shaky, Jack. Everything okay?"



"Not so much. But I'll tell you when I see you."



Stan's draft beer was cheap and almost flat, but it did the job. Halfway through the second beer he opened up. "So there it is, Suz. I'm afraid of the dark."



"Not a huge surprise. Your goddamn lights keep me awake. But, Jack, the bogeymen never really get anyone. Even if they existed, it's like they're restrained from getting at us."



"Yeah, I guess."



Suzie continued. "It's only going to last a half an hour, and the butthead professor will be eavesdropping the whole time. You'll get freaky, but my guess is that you can do it. And it would be nice for you to have wheels again."



"Selfish bitch."



"And you love me for it."



"Stop by the dorm?"



"What an enticing proposition. But no, I've got a paper to finish. Call me in the morning before you get strapped in."



Jack stopped for service-truck Mexican on the way back to his room, exchanged a few banalities with his roommate and went to bed. He surprised himself by sleeping well, but anxiety struck him as soon as the alarm clock went off.



Jack understood at skin level that his fear was irrational, but he also knew, in his bones, that he did not belong in a dark place. He stared at his car keys for motivation, then dressed and left.



"Hello, Jack, bit late aren't you? No matter. Let me explain some things to you while I rig you up."



Givens lead him back into the room with the reclining chair, and showed him a large, complex apparatus that fed wires to what looked like arc lights in corners of the room.



"What's that?" Jack asked.



"A light machine. Sit back down, Jack. There you go. We're evaluating a hypothesis. We initially ran tests with subjects who had no fear of the dark, but the results were disappointing."



"Disappointing?"



Givens applied straps and suction cups as he continued. "It's complicated, but let me try and explain in non-scientific terms. Darkness is usually defined as the absence of light, but light is weird stuff. We can also produce darkness by overlapping light waves that cancel each other out- we can produce darkness with light, and that what we're going to do today."



Givens adjusted a metal fiber skull cap onto Jack's head.



"What's that for?"



"To give us a better idea of what you're seeing or not seeing. We can't just rely on your descriptions. Anyway, the overlapping light waves will produce a completely dark area. And that area can move faster than light."



"Nothing can move faster than light."



"Almost nothing, Jack. The overlapping waves create an effect something like the cutting action of a pair of scissors. The action itself is twice as fast as the movement of an individual blade. With me so far?"



"I guess."



"So that's where you come in, Jack. Our instruments tell us a lot, but not the apparent effects of this overlapped darkness. You're hyper-sensitive to the dark, and we need your subjective feedback. There, I think you're rigged and ready."



Givens stepped back from the chair, and gave Jack his billboard smile. "I'm going to elevate the chair back and lock it in position so your field of vision covers the dark area we're going to generate."



"But the room will already be dark, isn't that enough?"



"Not nearly. We'll first remove all light, really just to eliminate any distractions for you. Then we'll generate the field and let you sense what you can. If anything."



"But I get the panic button?"



"Oh, absolutely. Uh, Jack, you did relieve yourself before you came in?"



"Yes."



"Excellent. Okay, we'll start now. Here's the dead man switch. I'd wish you luck, but I'm sure you'll do well."



Givens turned a little too quickly and left the room. Jack had begun to sweat even while Givens was talking, and felt droplets trickling down his forehead. The lights cut off, and darkness dropped on Jack like a heavy duvet. Thousand one, thousand two, he bagan, wondering how he could focus on observing while he was counting.



Servo motors in the large machine behind him came to life, and a high pitched whining drowned out Jack's counting. Harsh, glaring cones of light formed above and behind him, then gradually overlapped and dimmed until darkness was again complete.



And more. The blackness directly in front of him seemed more substantial, more deeply inky. Jack squeezed his eyes shut, then realized that Givens could probably tell when his eyes were closed, and cautiously reopened them.



The high pitched whine of the machinery syncopated with another noise, a rasping shriek that seemed to come from the ebony ichor in front of him. Thousand thirty eight, thousand forty he mumbled.



Odors began drifting past him, the rank, fetid smells of plants and animals long dead in a bog. The shrieking from in front of him condensed into almost syllables, almost words. The darker area appeared to heave.



Jack began screaming. "Thousand hundred ten! Thousand hundred eleven! My God, I can't do this!" His bowels opened and he soiled himself as he kept screaming.



He flipped his thumb off the dead man's switch, but the room stayed dark, the whines and screeches howling. Jack grabbed the wooden handle in his left hand and pounded the switch with the palm of his right, but only cowered in blackness.



A form, vague and sinister, began pushing itself toward Jack, as if swimming against the current of the projected light. Jack lost his ability to scream and sat open mouthed, half gargling sounds from the back of his throat."Agh, agh."



The shapeless black touched Jack's shoes, then crabbed under his pant legs and upward over his genitals and torso. Jack fell silent, his expression blank.



Givens reentered two minutes later, his lips pressed together, his nose wrinkled at the smell of shit. His words were non-stop.



"You gave us a little bit of a scare, Jack, your readings were frantic, but you seem to have stabilized nicely, I'm sorry about the dead man switch, but we needed to test your reactions in a panic situation, please don't be mad at us, Jack, say something please."



"I'm. Acclimating."



"Thatta boy, take your time, we'll get you cleaned up, wow, what a display you put on, are you sure you feel okay?"



"Professor. Givens. You will conduct this test using other nyctophobics?"



"Oh, absolutely, there are several already scheduled."



"So the barrier will be removed many times."



"Your fear of the dark has enabled this, Jack, you should be proud."



"I no longer fear the dark." Jack smiled with his lips but not his eyes. "You have created life for me, Professor, and will be spared until the end."



"Pardon?"



"Oh. Nothing. Just thinking ahead."



   
   

 

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Ed Ahern resumed writing after forty odd years in foreign intelligence and international sales. He's had a hundred sixty stories and poems published so far, and three books. Facebook: edward.ahern.39 Twitter: @bottomstripper



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