Book: Black Wings

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David J. Schow


David J. Schow began publishing short stories in Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone magazine in the 1980s. His first novel, The Kill Riff (Tor), appeared in 1988. In 1990 he  published three books: the novel The Shaft (Macdonald) and the story collections Seeing Red (Tor) and Lost Angels (New American Library/Onyx). He has gone on to publish several further collections—Black Leather Required (Ziesing, 1994), Crypt Orchids (Subterranean Press, 1998), Eye (Subterranean Press, 2001), Zombie Jam (Subterranean Press, 2005), and Havoc Swims Jaded (Subterranean Press, 2006), and the novels Bullets of Rain (Morrow, 2003), and Rock Breaks Scissors Cut (Subterranean Press, 2003). Schow is also the author of The Outer Limits Companion (Ace, 1986; rev. ed. GNP Crescendo Records, 1999) and the editor of the anthology Silver Scream (Dark Harvest, 1988).

ou will forgive me if my recollections of Denker seem fragmented. I do know that his Nobel Prize was rescinded; that seemed unfair to me, but at the same time I understand the thinking behind it, the dull necessity of the counter-arguments, all the disparate points of view that had to swim together into a public accord in an attempt to salve the outrage.

  It used to be held as common superstition that if you paint an interior door in your home with a certain kind of paint, the door might open into another time. The paint was lead-based and longprohibited. In 1934, there were doors like this all over the place. The doors generally had to be facing south. People have forgotten this now.

  Chinese horticulturalists discovered that dead pets, buried in a specific pattern around the entryways to houses and gardens, not only seemed to restrict access by spirits, but lengthen daylight by as much as half an hour. Type of animal, number of burials, interment pattern, and even the sexual history of the pet owner all seemed to have modulating effects.

  I cite these stories as examples among thousands—the kind of revelations that seem to defy not only physical laws thought to be immutable, but logic itself.

  Nevertheless, they took Langford Meyer Denker's Nobel Prize away from him. They—the big, faceless "they" responsible for everything—probably should not have. Denker made the discovery and fathered the breakthrough. "They" claimed Denker cheated; that is, he did not play by strict rules of science. But there are no such things as rules in science; merely observations that are regularly displaced by new, more consolidated observations.

  Some said that the dimensional warp door Denker created was real, that it worked. Others held that it was a flashy deception; sleight-of-hand rather than science. Still others maintained that Denker's demonstration was inconclusive. By the time the furor settled, all of them said Denker had cheated. Denker had used the book.

  Denker's machine was a gigantic, Gothic clockwork; an Expressionist maze of gears, liquid reservoirs, lasers, and lenses. Lathed brass bins held clumps of humid earth. Common stones were vised by hydraulics in that peculiar way you can squeeze an egg between your palms with all your might and not break it. Particle-emitters were gloved in ancient lead. Imagine a medieval clepsydra wirelessly married to countless yottabytes of computing power and stage-managed by a designer who had been seduced by every mad scientist movie ever made. The containment chamber was made of pitted bronze shot through with rods of chemically pure glass; it weighed several tons and was completely non-aerodynamic, yet Denker claimed that once the whole package was transposed into a realm where earthly physics were irrelevant its properties recombined according to perverse rules to render the device as safe as a pressurized bathysphere or commercial space capsule.

  Of course the earliest naysayers called him mad.

  I remind you at this point in the story that without a totally arbitrary baseline of normalcy, "insanity" is not possible. (It has been said that normalcy is the majority's form of lunacy, which I suppose explains Christianity.)

  Colors can drive people mad. It follows that there are spectra yet unknown to us, flavors and timbres that might catalyze our air, our light, in new and unpredictable ways. "Sounds that were not wholly sounds"—that sort of thing. The scientific community's rebuke of Denker was a denial of the most commonplace protocols of experimentation, but by that time the point was to demonize the man, not disprove the theory.

  A portal to another universe different from our own perceived reality? Something that functioned so far out there that what we thought of as our physical laws seemed irrelevant? Fine.

  A glimpse into the unutterable? Also fine.

  But Denker had used the book. Not fine.

  I ask you to stop right now and consider the purpose of a book that was never intended to be read. What is the point?

  Consider this: You take an ordinary bible, which credits supernatural forces for all the bloodshed and horror in the world. They still make people swear on this book in courts of law; its symbolism has become part of ritual.

  Denker's book was no mere opposite pole or gainsaying counter-dogma, although many people tried to discredit it that way. That's an irony: the arrogance to assume you can neutralize something that will not be denied.

  Where Denker found the book, if he ever truly possessed it, I do not know.

  Scholars claimed the book was a repository of forbidden knowledge, therefore much sought or shunned through millennia. Bait for fanatics. A grail for obsessives; a self-destructive prize for the foolhardy. Unless it was akin to a key or a storage battery—a necessary link in a logic chain—it was still a dead end, because in the end (as one story went) you wound up dead too. Denker's philologists rapidly proved that trickle-down translations of the book (about 400 years' worth) were virtually worthless because there was no way to reconcile different languages to the concept of the unnameable. Latin held many of the book's conceits in polar opposition to the Greek interpretation, and so on. In many ways the book was like a tesseract, partially unfolded into a yetundiscovered realm.

  But Denker did not stop at etymology. His scheme advantaged the top skim of curious geniuses all over the world. He used crypto experts to translate partial photo plates from Arabic—an iteration long thought lost forever. No one ever saw more than an eighth of a full page. Then he used colloquialists to defang the language piecemeal, in order to render down the simple sense of highly convoluted and frequently unpronounceable arcana. The resultant text was presented to a hand-picked and highly elite international group preselected by Denker for the interests he knew he could arouse.

  When he had exhausted one scholar, Denker moved to the next, and you have probably already heard the story about how Rademacher Asylum gradually filled up with his depleted former colleagues.

  These were not dazzled hayseeds or the easily swoggled rustics of a fictive Red America, nor were they the deluded zealotry of one improbable religion or other. These were minds capable of the most labyrinthine extrapolations—the first, second, and third strings of pawns to fall to Denker's inquiry.

  Denker followed his instincts, and in the hope of discovering an anti-linear correlation presented his findings to a physicist who was then in the grip of Alzheimer's. He consulted South Seas tribal elders with no word for "insane" in their lexicon. Then philosophers, wizards, the deranged and the disenfranchised. With a brilliant kind of counter-intuitiveness, he allowed children to interpret some of his findings. Then autistics. The man with Alzheimer's was said to have "lost his mind completely" prior to his death. But as I've told you, the mad are always safe to expose. The mad enjoy hermetic protections unavailable to the mentalities that judge them unfit for normal human congress. "Normal humans" were the last thing Denker wanted.

  Darwin pondered natural selection for twenty years before going into print; Denker did not have that kind of leisure. Our science these days is competitive; cutthroat; the Sixties-era model of the Space Race has overrun all rational strategy. There are very few scientific rock stars and most of our millionaires are invisible. Resources may be accessed at the fierce cost of corporate sponsorship, which often mandates blood sacrifice or the occasional bitterly humbling obeisance: while the former can be a mental snap point, the latter is often a more serious derailment of any kind of exploratory enthusiasm, crushing instinct and logic into the box of fast, visible progress. Expediency becomes cardinal. This was the bind in which Denker found himself, in both senses—he embraced the delirious possibilities of risk and, using stress as a motivator, discovered his own interior limitations.

  Coleridge wrote that "we do not feel horror because we are haunted by a sphinx, we dream a sphinx in order to explain the horror that we feel." Borges, after Coleridge, wrote, "If that is true, how might a mere chronicling of its forms transmit the stupor, the exultation, the alarms, the dread, and the joy that wove together that night's dream?" This was in essence the chicken and-egg riddle that governed Denker's inquiries. Possessed of a fanciful mind, he did not believe the most transporting inspirations to be reduceable to mere mathematical schemata, yet that was the task set before him. Others had failed. Replacements waited hungrily. More tempting, to Denker, was that capacity which Apollonius Rhodius coined as "the poetics of uncertainty," itself reducible to the twentieth-century argot of doing a wrong thing for the right reason.

  All this citation makes Denker sound stuffy or cloistered or pretentiously intellectual, so I need to give you an example of the man's humor. He referred to the book as his "ultra-tome-bo"—at once conflating the Spanish ultratumba (literally, "from beyond the grave") with the Latin ultima Thule (i.e., "the northernmost part of the habitable ancient world")—thereby hinting with a wink that his quest aimed beyond both death and the world as we know it. Knew it, rather.

  (He further corrupted ultra into el otro—"the other." The other book, the other tomb. He was very witty as well as smart.)

  I hope you can follow this without too much trouble. Sometimes my memory itself is like a book with stuck-together pages; huge chunks of missing narrative followed by short sections of overdetail. If I have learned one thing, it is that harmonics are important. You may sense contradictions in some of what I am telling you, and I would urge you to look past them—try to see them with new eyes.

  Denker's so-called scientific fraud was revealed when his device was taken from his stewardship and disassembled. The machinery held a bit of nuclear credibility, but the heart of the drive was an iron particle accelerator that resembled a World War Two-era sea mine, a heart fed by cables and hoses and fluid.

  Empty inside.

  Because Denker had removed his fundamental component— the book.

  Having spent three-quarters of a billion dollars in corporate seed money and suffering the deep stresses of delivery-to-sched ule that such funds can mandate, Denker cheated the curve. Science failed him, but when he combined science with sorcery, he was able to give his backers what they thought they wanted. All he had to do then was word his interviews precisely enough to feature that hint of arched-eyebrow evasion as to method. Money was already coming at him from all sides.

  Most people don't know exactly how an internal combustion engine functions, but they drive automobiles. In kind, Denker's device could transcend space-time boundaries; the point was that it worked. Never mind that on the other side of the boundary might be a group of surly cosmic Vastators, or the displaced First Gods of our entire existence, itching for a rematch now that we have evolved, devised technology, and gotten ourselves so damned civilized.

  A long time ago, I used to have a lit-crit friend who was enchanted by the idea of haunts—in particular, living quarters in which resonant works of literature were conceived, the way that James M. Cain wrote Double Indemnity while resident in his "Upside-Down House" in the Hollywood Hills. If it was true that the most dedicated writers "lived, ate, slept, drank and shat" their way through their most lasting works, might not some of that ectoplasmic effluvia generate a mood or lingering charge of unsettled energy, the sort of thing ordinary people might classify as a ghost?

  My interest was not in Denker's book. That seemed too risky. So I sought out the place where Denker's book was not so much written as assembled, collated.

  The locale, you might have guessed. It is dead now. The structures engird no whispers. The "charge" was long gone, if it ever existed. No negative energy. No ghosts.

  Because it had all gone into the book.

  By then, naturally, the world was dealing with other problems. Disequilibration was, in many ways, the most predictable outcome.

  Throughout history, certain individuals had sought to destroy the book, not realizing the futility of the attempt. In the state Denker used it, it could not be destroyed. It could only be discomponentialized—taken apart the same way it had been put together. Except now that it was whole, it could only be handled in certain limited ways, and none of those would permit its possible destruction. Again, as I have said—contradictions. Did Denker have the book, whole and entire, in a single place? We may never know. Thus, when I reference "the book," we are speaking of whatever grand assembly Denker managed, which stays in my mind as his true achievement.

  One mishandling of the book caused peculiar incipient radiations—or new colors and sounds, if you will. Unfathomable byproducts and side-effects. This was one reason Denker insisted his cumbersome bronze-and-cast-iron device had to be tested in outer space.

  This achieved two important goals: It removed the book briefly from the physical surface of the Earth, and it guaranteed Denker's deception would be a long time unraveling.

  I saw in Denker's journals that he noted, early in the experiment, that animals were profoundly affected by the proximity of the book. Animals lack the ameliorative intellect by which humans justify insanity.

  If one is inflexible and devoted to an illusion of normalcy— stability, permanence, reality—then the break is always harsher. The more rules there are to violate, the more violations there will be, because what we call reality is an interpretative construct of the human mind; a reality we re-make every day to deny the howling nothingness of existence and the meaningless tragedy of life. Bacilli have no such concerns. They just are. They can't be horrified or elated.

  Denker's two safety margins were time and space. Many of his translations—the words from the book—were not meant to be in the same place at the same time, not even as ones and zeros in a database. The whole of it, as I have said, was tricky to handle. There was no manual for this sort of thing. This was completely new, untried, unsaid, undone.

  In the end, Denker realized that ultimately all his equipment was not needed. The physical hardware briefly won him that fickle Nobel Prize, but all he had really needed was the book. He had already achieved what we have agreed to call a break from reality, but in the end people are more comfortable saying that he just snapped.

  I think it is overreachingly grandiloquent and silly to blame Denker for the downslide of the entire planet. Haven't you noticed that long before the incident, we had already become so biosensitive that we could not even travel without getting sick? I think the Earth is simply evolving, and it is not for us anymore.

  In the midst of all that I have told you, it might be said that Denker himself fragmented. His mind went elsewhere.

  And if you could find me, you could probably find Denker too, but it's not really Denker you're interested in, is it? You're after the book, just like the ones before you.

  Now, of course, the fashion is to impugn Denker for the way the sky looks at night. For the night itself, since I have heard that the sun no longer rises. I have not been able to bear witness to the other stories I have heard about the freezing cold or the sounds of beasts feeding.

  But once I find a way to free myself from this room, I am going to seek out Denker and ask him to explain it to me.



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