[CONTENT WARNING]: This story contains medical horror. Readers should be advised.
An essay by Max Allaway, as provided by J. Harper
Art provided by Luke Spooner
A deep, groggy breath. I tried to open my eyes. All I saw was black. Had I not opened them? I tried to open my eyes as wide as I could. Had I gone blind? I lifted a hand to touch my face but found myself confined, unable to lift my arm more than a few inches. Something soft but strong was wrapped around my wrists. A noise in the darkness, a groan. I was sore. So terribly sore. I opened my mouth to speak, but the only noise I could make was a hoarse moan. My throat was raw. And my arms felt like they had been severely bruised, a deep-seated pain sat just below my collarbone on my left side, and my crotch. Christ. I felt an uncomfortable pressure and ache as if something was obstructing my urine flow, and my asshole felt … Oh god. Had they put a catheter and a rectal tube in me? Considering the only other alternative I could think of, with shuddering breaths, I could only hope so.
Tears pricked my eyes. I squeezed my eyes shut tight against them, turning my head to my less painful shoulder. Something tugged gently at the skin around my scalp and hairline. Something wet lapped against my face. I swallowed, tried to focus. Cried out instead. I was panicking. Deep breaths dragging in and out as I shouted. Screaming for help, to be let out, for anyone to save me. For any response at all. I struggled against whatever held me, liquid I could barely feel sloshing around me, aches and pains causing me to cry out even louder in anguish as I moved. No one answered, no one came. I screamed until I couldn’t breathe. Until my throat burned and the ache in my limbs and collarbone stung as if down to the very bone. Tears streamed down my face, running in warm rivers to the liquid I floated in. How had I gotten here?
The Hanwell hospital was old, the type you see in movies or Victorian gothic novels, with towering white walls edged in low trimmed hedges and iron bars across the tall windows. It looked like the kind of place you didn’t want to get stuck in, if you were superstitious, like the patients of eras long gone would pop out of the walls to drag you away.
But this was not some cheesy horror movie, and as imposing as the place looked even in the bright sunshine, I’d be damned if I wasn’t going in there. While the hospital now no longer operated for the general public, instead serving special interest cases transferred in from other programs and facilities, it was still one of the largest research facilities in the country. Countless studies had been conducted within the hospital’s grounds, primarily focusing on brain function, perception, memory, and cognition.
I was there because of those studies, as the nearby university where I was an undergrad often encouraged the psychology, health sciences, and biology students to participate in at least one study, providing credits for our degrees in return for each completed study. Up until this point, I had been rather reluctant to participate in a study at the hospital, my grades never suffering to the point where I felt I needed the extra credits, and honestly? The old place gave me the willies.
Everyone local knew the history of the place, and those from out of state, like me, quickly picked up on the weird stories. Back when it had primarily been a mental hospital, it would have been the kind of place people were sent to keep them out of the way and brutalized with treatments now understood as horrific, but back then would have been considered “cutting edge.”
Cutting indeed. Cutting, bleeding, poisoning, and lobotomizing for every case of biliousness, chlorosis, corruption, or hysteria. While none of these practices were still in use, the stories still lingered. Then, of course, there were the local legends, the ones the grad students and undergrad seniors liked to spread around, of students going missing at the hospital after volunteering for studies. It’s all bullshit, sure, but nobody likes to be the white girl in a horror movie.
So why the hell was I standing there in the paved courtyard of the hospital, about to go in and head to the research wing? Because Professor Onassis is an old harpy who decided to make participation in a study a requirement for our practical research and inquiry in behavioral sciences class, that’s why.
Inside the building was even worse than the outside, with dark wood and prodigious walls painted the kind of outdated mint green that makes you feel sick; faded, unsettling historical medical diagrams framed on the walls; and tiled floors that made an ominous click beneath even the heels of my sneakers. The halls seemed to stretch for miles with the numerous corners only appearing suddenly as if conjured. The thought of getting lost in the hospital and ending up late did not assuage my anxiety about participating in some study at all. Nor did the idea of getting lost in the hospital and just disappearing, wandering in a minty medical hellscape for all eternity.
Eventually I came to the research wing, not having seen another person the entire time. The place was creepy if for no other reason than its sheer oppressive quiet and emptiness. The research wing was a different story, however, as while the decor didn’t change, the habitation sure did. The waiting room itself was empty, but behind the frosted glass window of the reception desk, nurses and individuals I could only assume to be doctors of some sort bustled about in passing, never glancing my way once. I waited semi-patiently until finally a severe-looking young woman with black hair slicked back into a bun so tight it gave me a headache to look at stepped up to the window.
“Yes?” Her voice was as clinched and harsh as her appearance. I could only imagine how tight her ass must be. I smiled weakly, nervous and discomforted by her clear no-nonsense attitude.
“I’m supposed to be here to volunteer? For a study? Um, I’m from the University? From the research class–”
“Yes, yes. That’s enough.” She cut me off sharply. “I don’t need to know what class. Just take these forms and fill them out. Someone will be with you shortly to go over the paperwork and give you a physical examination.”
“Physical examination? What kind of study is it that I need to have a physical?”
She just rolled her eyes and slid a second pane of glass over, closing the window before I saw her shadowy outline walk away. Clearly courtesy was not the strong suit here.
Not knowing what else to do, I sat down in one of the uncomfortable vinyl waiting chairs. It squeaked as I sat. Oh good. Jiggling my leg as I sat, vinyl squeaking irritatingly with every bounce, I worked on filling out the forms I had been given. They seemed to be the standard sort of forms one gets at any doctor’s office, medical history, psychological history and depression scales, insurance, personal information, and then a true-or-false based assessment I had never seen anything like before. I have been taken onto a spaceship before. I think there is something wrong with my mind.
What the hell? Designed to test for delusions, I guess. The really weird thing, though, was the liability form, which seemed to be a particularly impressive form of medical jargon and legalese. I’m pretty sure it asked if I was an organ donor or was willing to be. Or maybe it was asking if I was willing to donate my body to the hospital itself. I really wasn’t sure, but it didn’t give the option to check “yes” or “no.” It was apparently an all or nothing agreement. I really wasn’t comfortable with that, but what was the worst that could happen if I signed? I knew the worst if I didn’t sign, no participation in a study, no passing Onassis’ damn class. I’d be damned if I had to retake the course, so I signed and had to hope I wasn’t making some covenant with the devil.
It was some time before someone finally opened the heavy door near the reception window and called for me to come over. I was glad to see it wasn’t the same nurse from before, although this new one didn’t seem that much more comforting. He was relatively young, with stereotypically attractive golden hair and blue eyes, and lots of muscles. His arms bulged as he took the clipboard from me and glanced at it, before gesturing for me to pass him into the next hallway, face mostly emotionless.
“Please come right this way.”
I followed him down the hall into a small exam room, where he asked me to disrobe and put on a gown while he gave me some privacy. As he turned back to the door, I tried to ease my tension by making a joke. “Normally I like to know someone’s name before taking my clothes off for them.” He just looked at me coldly before leaving, clearly unimpressed. I cleared my throat. “Right.”
I wasn’t really sure what was up with this place, or the people who worked here, but bedside manner was definitely not a concern. This only made me more anxious about being mostly unclothed as I shucked down to my underwear and pulled on the cotton gown. It too was a ghastly mint green. Great, I would now blend into the hellscape I was sure to be spending eternity in after my gruesome murder at the hands of some demented doctor, probably after some horrific experiment where I ended up with insect body parts … Why the hell did I think it was a good idea to watch The Fly last night? Oh right, Jeff Goldblum. Sexy, sexy bastard.
The male nurse came back in after only the briefest of knocks. He leaned against the sink counter across from the exam table on which I sat, still looking over the paperwork I had filled out.
“Next to gender you also wrote in ‘agender’?”
I fidgeted. “Yes, I don’t really like gendered pronouns or a gender–”
“Do you have both sets of sexual organs?” He was curt as his eyes flicked over my body as if he was trying to see through the gown.
I flushed a little. “No, I …”
“That’s fine.” He set the clipboard down and approached. “I need to give you a basic physical. After that, I will take some DNA samples.”
I leaned back. “What kind of samples? Why do I need to have a physical anyway?”
He rolled his eyes as he slapped a pressure cuff on my arm, making him look oddly like the nurse from reception, considering they looked nothing alike.
“The exam is to get your baselines, as the test can cause some elevated vitals. The samples are to make sure you will be compatible.”
I frowned, made difficult by him shoving a thermometer probe under my tongue. “Compatible with what?” My speech was slurred heavily by the probe.
He huffed, “don’t talk please,” wiggling the probe for emphasis. After that, he didn’t answer any more of my questions as he examined me, or as he swabbed my mouth. He left the room to me calling out, “When do I get briefed on the study?”
“This isn’t good ethics at all,” I grumbled. I wondered about putting my clothes back on, since blond, burly, and surly never said I couldn’t, and I was definitely feeling uncomfortable. Before I could get further than standing, however, the door opened again, no courtesy knock this time, and several people came in. I turned, opening my mouth to ask what the hell was going on, when the mob of nurses jumped me.
I shouted as several hands descended upon me, gripping my arms tightly. I bucked backward, kicking my feet up toward my scrub-covered assailants. The nurses were all stronger than me though and easily held onto my pitching body, some coming around behind me while others snagged my feet out of the air, holding me suspended.
“What the hell, what is this?” I yelled as I struggled, “This better not be some sort of stress test! I wasn’t briefed for this! I didn’t consent to this kind of treatment!”
My cries seemed to fall on deaf ears, though, the female nurse from before finally appearing, a decidedly large syringe in her gloved hand, the thick needle uncapped.
I struggled harder, feeling the hands on me tighten their grip painfully as they moved to brace me down on the exam table. “This isn’t ethica-aaah!” I howled as the female nurse slammed the syringe into my bared left thigh. I tried to kick out as the bitch depressed the plunger, a sting itching through my muscle as the liquid entered the meat of my leg, but couldn’t move. I could barely breathe. Jesus, how many people were sitting on me? I thrashed again, trying to call for help, but my throat felt tight like I was being throttled. I wasn’t, was I? There were so many bruising grips. I couldn’t tell where I was being held anymore. I sucked in a ragged breath. I tried to thrash once more. It felt like the barest twitch. I flung my head back against the exam table cushion. Another ragged breath. How long had they been holding me down? A rushing exhale, scream dying in my throat. The grips didn’t feel so tight anymore. Maybe I just couldn’t feel them. Panicked gasping. A feeling of strangling. A breath.
A breath. A jagged, shuddering inhalation. Colors swirled in front of my eyes. Deep reds and bruise yellows, a vibrant plum. Skittering movement. The colours distorted. Were those bugs? Christ! I thrashed, trying to knock away the insects, their too many legs and needle-sharp claws pricking my skin as they climbed up my arms and chest toward my face. I jerked back, hitting a wall. I thrashed again; I couldn’t lift my arms!
Everything around me went all wavy, like I was looking through rippling water. The insects were gone.
I panted, trying to peer into the blackness around me, fearful of what I’d see next. Slowly, I looked down at my feet. A scream ripped from my throat, bringing my hands up to cover my face.
Tentacles lashed violently about my feet, worms and millipedes writhing alongside them, acid melting the flesh away from the bones of my feet and legs, the liquified muscle and skin slushing away to blend into the sickening, vomitous pool. I kept screaming. The flesh was melting from my hands! I whipped them away from my face, only to have them caught by rotting tentacles that lashed up from the acid, restraining me. I kept screaming. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t see anything. I couldn’t even scream anymore. I was hyperventilating. A breath.
Everything was dark. After I finally calmed down some, I tried to take stock of where I was, how I was being held. I couldn’t see anything, not even a few inches in front of my face it was so dark. So dark I had to focus to make sure my eyes were open, that I was peering into pitch blackness, not that I was somehow blindfolded. There just truly was no light to see by. I was apparently floating, as I felt no floor or table beneath me, nothing supporting me. At least, I assumed I was on my back; it was hard to tell.
When I moved, I heard and barely felt the gentle brush of water or some other liquid rippling around me. I had to be suspended in something that made me buoyant. Didn’t salt water make you float if the salinity was high enough? I tried to reach out, feel for a wall or anything solid around me, but my mobility was severely limited by the soft restraints that hugged around my wrists and ankles. If I really stretched and flapped my hand in the water, I thought I felt the ripple of water hitting a wall not too far beyond my reach.
When I called out, hoarsely, my voice sounded back at me as if I was in a small room. So I was in a small chamber or tank of some sort. The thought made tears well up in my eyes again. I took a shuddering breath; I had to focus. I was in a god damn water-filled coffin! Focus.
I turned my attention to my body. What had been done to me? I was restrained, I felt the ache of catheters, and the soreness at my collarbone, mirrored in the crook of my right elbow. Collarbone and elbow, IVs of some sort maybe? I took another deep breath. IVs meant my captors either meant to keep me here for a while, or they meant to dose me with drugs of some sort. Or both. Oh god. Deep breaths, deep breaths. There were electrodes of some sort on my head, and maybe a few more on my chest? Probably designed for EEG and vital monitoring. Shit, it was so hard to tell. I felt weirdly numb. Focus.
Electrodes meant monitoring. So they were planning on monitoring me, and they had taken my vitals before, claiming a need for a baseline, which reinforced the assumption. “Elevated vitals,” the guy had said, “compatibility.” Compatibility with what? Drugs? Hallucinogens? What was this, the seventies?
I’m getting a little hysterical; I need to calm down. Deep breaths. IVs and catheters together meant I was intended to be restrained for a while, unable to eat or relieve myself normally. How long had I already been here?
There was no way to tell time. It was dark, so I couldn’t use the changes in light to tell me the passing of hours or days. There certainly wasn’t a clock. Pain, stiffness, can be used to mark time, right? How long it takes the body to stiffen up, to get bed sores? Would I even get edema and bed sores if I was floating, or would I just be stuck here forever? Focus. Breathe.
Gravity would make my blood settle eventually, but I had no idea if the buoyancy caused by whatever it was I was floating in would alter the time it would take. Or hell, if I even really was on my back. I was so disoriented, maybe I was really floating and spinning gently, like those graceful scenes of astronauts in movies. Focus.
Ok, I was floating, in the dark, restrained, catheterized, and probably medicated in some way, for an unknown amount of time, with all signs pointing to remaining that way for a while. Tears pricked at my eyes again, a whimper escaping me. Focus. Deep breaths.
I was in a damn isolation tank! Deep breaths.
I need to get out of here, what can I do? Nothing! I can’t do shit! I didn’t mean to, but I started screaming again.
I think I dreamed. Of darkness, but not the cold, impersonal kind, the warm, safe, comforting kind. I was swaddled in warmth and darkness, pulsing and thrumming in time with my heartbeat. It pressed close around me, but still allowed me to stretch and twist, to flex my muscles and press against the membrane around me. I felt like a fetus in the womb, safe and protected by flesh. I pressed against my encasement, my egg-sack. Soon I would emerge, and live.
I jerk as I wake back up. When did I fall asleep? Did I pass out from screaming? I must have. My mouth is dry, lips chapped and stuck together, and my throat is raw. I swallow thickly. How much time has passed? Was I asleep for hours, minutes, seconds, days?
I try to call out, begging for a drink, to be let out. My calls come out as painful croaks, and no one comes. I feel tired, drowsy and heavy like a weight is sinking into my chest. Bleeding into me from my left side … The IV! They are giving me something; it has to be. The last thought I have before blackness consumes me is that maybe someone came after all.
In the warmth of the darkness, something was happening. I stretched and pushed at my confines, feeling the flex of new muscles as I sought out room. Room to grow, room to fill. One wall of my swaddling, the soft chamber that held me safe, flexed outward in a way the rest did not. I made a conscious thought to focus the efforts of all my limbs on that weak wall, pushing, shoving, thumping against the membranous barrier. It bulged and bowed beneath me as a thought floated to the surface of my mind. How many limbs was I pushing with?
In a blink, I’m out of the warm, comforting darkness and back in the harsh blackness of the isolation tank, my arms and legs straining against the restraints as I writhed. I fell slack. What the? For a moment there it was as if … as if I had more than just four limbs. Like I had multiple, like … like an insect or an octopus. The memory of the dream (the visions?) I’d had of crawling bugs and grasping tentacles came back to me. Hallucinations. It had to be. Whatever it was they were giving me in the IV had to be a hallucinogen.
Christ. Ok. Hallucinogens. What could I do about this? As long as I was restrained and on the IV, there wasn’t much I could do to stop the drugs going into my system. Deep breaths. Depending on the drug, however, I might build up a tolerance, or be able to remind myself it’s all just a hallucination and keep myself calmer. Although, so far, I had been pretty calm in all of my hallucinations, except that first one. It was here in the real world that I was freaking out. Maybe this was just a hallucination too. No, deep breaths. This was, unfortunately, the real world. It had to be. It hurt too damn much not to be.
I was starting to get a headache. Shit. Was this a side effect of the drugs? I struggled in my restraints. “Please no,” I croaked. Any other side effects? I felt dizzy, probably part of the headache, my face felt numb. Christ, my face felt numb! What the hell kind of side effect what that? Neurological? Was this shit they were pumping into me damaging my nerves?
I thrashed, chest heaving. Wait. Deep breaths. I was just hyperventilating. Slow, deep breaths. Slow. Feeling crept back into my face, the tank around me stopped spinning. I started crying again. Slow, deep breaths. I wanted to go home.
The membrane was stretching farther and farther under my efforts. I could practically taste the open space on the other side … just a little more … With a great squelch, the membrane burst outward, limbs flailing through the tear into the outside world. Lumping myself forward as the fluid around me whooshed out through the hole, I used my weight to rip it open wider. A final thrust and the membrane gave way again, my limbs finally finding purchase on a tattered rim.
With an ungraceful flop, I hoisted myself up to that rim, struggling my way through the shreds of membrane and clumps of congealing amniotic fluid. Light, or something like it, burst across my perception, bringing the world around me into sharp definition in more spectrums than should have been possible. I was lying, wet and twitching, at the edge of a depression in a fleshy grey ground, the surrounding rim of the hollow a ragged mess where the membrane had torn free. A black, starless sky stretched overhead. My vision blurred and spun as I adjusted, further inhibited by the rubbery coating of amniotic fluid I had emerged from.
I attempted to rub myself down, to wipe away the gross reddish-grey goo that was clinging to me. Tentacles and claws swarmed around me, writhing across my skin. I screamed, thrashed in horror, only to see the thick tentacles and needle-sharp claws mimic the same panicked movements, on a much larger and more numerous scale. The scream vibrating through the dead air around me was harsh, inhuman, far too deep and high-pitched at once to be heard by human ears. It echoed back at me. My cry cut off in shock, as did the beastly cry ringing in my ears. No.
I thrashed, throwing my arms out as I spun, trying to see myself, to see the monstrous assailant that had to be behind me. I only churned in place within the goop that I had been birthed from, feeling my limbs tangling as I watched the tentacles become twisted around each other and around what appeared to be the spined body of a gelatinous sort of deep sea shrimp. Tendrils and webs of flesh connected the spans between body parts, leaving the impression of great holes in flesh and altering my movements further. Was that … It couldn’t be.
I struggled and kicked out again, only tentacles responded, that inhuman cry ripping forth once more. I flopped to the closest approximation of my stomach, my back rippling as I bellowed in terror. I was a monster! Disjointed limbs and uncontrolled tentacles twitched and flailed around me, my eyes rolling in my head. I could see too much. Too much, too much, too damn much! I could see in more directions than I should. Fleshy ground, struggling body, shaking membranes of my own, all in too many directions!
Perspective became distorted as I tried to focus, to count the different directions I could see in, the multitude of eyes to match the limbs. Spectrums of light flashed before me as my vision wavered, trying to force too many eyes into binocular vision.
As I lay distorted and contorted on the ground, I became acutely aware of not only the horror of my corrupted form, not only of the hideous screeching I couldn’t seem to stop making, that ripped from no discernible mouth, but of what was around me. Everything came into extreme high definition focus as I stopped thinking, could only stare.
The hollow from which I had ripped myself was not just a singular depression but was one of many. Extending out around me, as far as my rolling eyes could see and in every direction, was a multitude of these depressions. Mine was but one burst follicle in a field of follicles on the grey skin of a curving horizon. Some follicles were empty, ringed by withered membrane tatters and dried fluids, while others remained capped by their membranes, dark shadows twitching underneath.
The worst were the follicles that were like mine, ripped open, but still wet, freshly birthed monsters slopping out from inside them or stretching themselves in the invisible but still perceptible light. Each was a greater horror than the last, some with tentacles like me, Christ. Like me. While others had only claws or wings, some had pincers or spikes; others sectioned eyes, flashing colors, rattling bones, snarling teeth. Fetal eldritch horrors, filling their lungs for the first time, their gelatinous, scaled, shelled, or spined skins toughening in the atmosphere.
Mine were not the only cries and screams filling the air. Perhaps these others were facing the terror of their new forms as well? New forms. I sobbed, the sound coming out distorted and wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong! I pummeled the ground beneath me, barely registering its squishy give, the wrong limbs whipping out around me. My ungodly screams filled the air once more, lost amongst the birthing bellows of the world around me.
I was still thrashing and shaking when I woke up. I struggled even more. How many limbs? How many eyes? I couldn’t see, I couldn’t tell! No. Deep breaths. Slow, deep breaths.
All my points of insertion hurt, catheters, IVs, even where the electrodes were stuck on, and my restrained joints felt stiff and bruised. Sensations I didn’t have … before. I was awake now. It was just a bad dream. A hallucination. A really bad trip. It had to be.
I started sobbing, eyes red and sore. This was nothing like my distressed crying before. Snot filled my sinuses and throat, choking me with a slime far too reminiscent of the amniotic fluid from the hallucination. I panicked even more at the thought. I coughed and heaved, but could barely slow my tears to catch my breath, let alone clear my throat while lying on my back. I felt my face swell and get puffy, turn colors from a lack of oxygen. I’d pass out if I didn’t stop. I didn’t care. I wanted to scream, but my throat was too swollen and snot-clogged to permit it.
I wanted to beg, plead with my captors, but my breath was too shallow and jagged to form words. The tight pain of a stitch in my side pierced through me, shortening my breath even further. Please. Please, I mouthed, I’m scared.
The last hallucination I can remember was me, in that horrible monster body again, lashing out on the surface of that grey planet. I wanted to just lay there limp, but some bone-deep instinct wouldn’t let me, keeping me moving. My limbs and body becoming firmer, stronger, expanding. Like a butterfly resting on a branch while it’s crumpled wings fill with blood.
In the distance, I could hear the other monsters being born, bellowing, fighting. Sometimes a shadow would pass over me, as if from a great height. It always made me flinch and thrash reflexively, but I never looked up. Part of me afraid, part of me apathetic, but another part hoping it was some monster come to kill me. Maybe that would end this horrible nightmare once and for all.
Eventually, I woke back up, here in the isolation tank. I always spend the first length of time after waking up crying. Who would have guessed I’d have that many tears to shed? I would have thought I’d have dried out by now. I must be unconscious for longer than I think. Time is relatively meaningless now. I never know how much time has passed. Was I out for a minute, five, ten, an hour? Have I been here for hours, days, years? There’s just no way to tell. It’s driving me crazy. But would it really be better to know, to have a clock or a window to show the passing of the sun? I don’t know. I cry a lot.
I can see a light. It’s so beautiful. It’s so far away, just the barest pinprick in the expansive blackness, but I can see it. It’s there, and I’m going to go to it. The others can see it too. The older, bigger ones already going toward it, their huge, ungainly bodies lurching off the ground. I don’t like to look at them. Their shadows passing over me as they soar into the skies, into the blackness. I snap at them instinctively as their shadows come too close and work toward lifting myself off the planet’s surface as well. I am not strong enough just yet. But soon.
The one sanctity of the hallucinations is the light. No matter how horrific my form may be, no matter how grotesque my neighboring creatures, the light is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. It’s all I want now. To see the light again, to be out of my dark confines. To feel the caress-like warmth of sunlight on skin. Even if I was still held captive, still bound and shackled and intubated. Even if I never make it out of this damn hospital, I don’t want to die in the dark.
Time passes, and I gain strength. Like those before me, I launch myself from the fleshy ground of the planet on which I was born. The light is calling.
Others, the weak, freshly spawned, writhe and twist below me, their heads and pseudo-heads rising to track me, desirous of their own flight. Wings flap, crustacean arms reach, tentacles coil, teeth gleam, and belching orifices gape in defensive postures. They are insignificant. Monstrous to behold, but not yet alive enough to be threats to me.
I turn my many eyes and sensory ampullae away from the heavily pockmarked spawn-planet and focus above me. On the trailing shadows and heat signatures of the siblings that have taken to space before me, on their own paths to the light.
I am much better suited to space. There is no gravity to weigh my hulking girth down here, the vacuum of space supporting my weight effortlessly. My tentacles and claws propelling me forward in easy synchronization with my lungless breaths. There is no discernible difference between the atmosphere of the spawn-planet and space itself. My spines shuddering and rattling noiselessly, the drumbeats of my rowing on a galactic sea. An endless expanse all around me, stars slowly coming into notice.
I’m scared. The hallucinations, half the time I can barely remember that I’m me. I become used to the horrific contortions of my body, the abominations that spawned beside me, even the endless expanse of space. It all becomes so normal, so natural, and then in one shining moment of clarity, I come back to myself and realize the horror anew. I don’t know what’s more frightening, how easily I forget, or how sharply I remember.
Time stretches on forever in the darkness, be it in the cold, enclosing darkness of my tank here in the real world, or the warm, numbing darkness of my memories in the space of my hallucinations. I’ve given up trying to figure out how long I’ve been held captive, I’ve given up hope that if I just keep crying out someone will take pity on me. That this experiment, this nightmare, will come to an end and I will be released.
But I still haven’t given up hope someone will come for me. Not yet. I can’t. People knew where I was going, my roommate, my friends, the school. My parents will notice if I don’t call when the weekend comes. If it comes. Someone will report me missing; the police will come. Someone will find me. They have to. They have to.
How long have I been here?
Others pass by me on my journey. Most know to keep their distance, to respect the space I demand. Some do not, however, their paths crossing too closely to mine as we seek the same light. When these crossings occur, it is the clashing of titans in the heavens. The empty void of space is filled with the vibrations of our soundless bellows and snarls, challenges thrown across time and space to warn each other off. Challenges not always heeded. Sometimes they come charging to me, other times I come roaring to them, rarely we will veer away and carry on in our separate travels. Once a challenge is made, it cannot be recalled.
This new challenger is small, younger than me, but quicker in its journey to the beckoning light. It is foolhardy, thinking its speed makes it greater than I am, as it undulates through the void bearing down upon me. Its slender body is long and flat, rippling. Lashing stings fanning out in circular and polygonal whorls, electric tips seeking to grip my chitinous flesh and numb it, to pull me unstruggling into its various beaked mouthpieces. A stinger tail whips forth to restrain me with a preemptive strike, but I am no easy mark. What it may have in speed I have in strength. Its tendrils cannot prick through my armor, only sparking across the flesh of my tentacles as I hug it close in a crushing embrace.
I leave its body behind me, after taking my fill, a great hole carved into the slender body of my opponent. Blood spirals out from our galactic battleground in the weightlessness of space, creating delicate patterns. I may have won, but it is some time before the feeling returns to the meat of my tentacles, before their sliced wounds stop leaking. It does not matter. I am victorious, stronger and more powerful for it. The carcass I leave behind will serve to warn those that come after me to be wary, as the rent corpses I pass warn me. But still, the light beckons. I have been travelling a long time, and though I am closer, I know I have a long time to wait still.
I’ve stopped feeling mostly. I drift in my tank of liquid, the ache of my muscles long lost to dullness, the pull of my electrodes and restraints no longer plagues or irks me. Even the irritation and wrong fullness of the catheters and the sting of the IVs no longer bother me, the weight of the drugs falling unnoticed into my bloodstream.
But this, this I felt as soon as I woke back up. The stabbing heat of nerve pain, the torn feeling of rent flesh, the extra warmth in the fluid which I floated. It couldn’t be. It wasn’t possible. I must still be under the effects of the drugs, the hallucination still clinging to the edges of my perception. As if the memories of the violence of the fight were not bad enough, now I must feel their physical presence while still awake?
It’s not possible. It is not possible that I can feel the thin, slicing cuts of whip-like stingers crisscrossing my arms and legs like giant papercuts. It is not possible that I can feel the numbing ache of electrical damage radiating from the edges of those cuts. It is not possible I could feel the warm wetness of my blood leeching down my skin and into the water of my tank. It is not possible that my belly could feel full in a way it has not since the bloat of parenteral nutrition took hold, that I could feel the lingering taste of stringy meat. It’s not possible. It’s a dream; I’m still dreaming. Still hallucinating. It’s not possible!
Sometimes I can recall something … Else. A memory or dream, but I do not sleep and have no memory of a life before spawning. In this memory-dream, I am small and scared, bound and trapped. Screams rip from my belly in this memory-dream, but they are puny and tinny as they rattle in the tight space in which I am enclosed. Not the great bellows I can produce here in space, in the waking world. Things unseen and immobile hurt me in this memory-dream, and I am defenseless and powerless against them.
I do not like this memory-dream. It angers me and distracts me from my purpose, seeking out the light.
I choose to take this anger out on the next spawn-sibling I come across, charging down upon them from a great distance. The spawn-sibling is much larger than I, bulky and square, with a thousand eyes gleaming gloatingly as it turns at my vibrating bellows. The curving tusk-like probosci that crown its pseudo-head dripping a viscous slime into the void. Uncountable thick, crustacean legs splay in returned challenge, revealing the desiccated and dried corpse of yet another spawn-sibling.
The battle was fierce, my spawn-sibling roaring, tusk-probosci blossoming open like a carrion flower to reveal a black maw of razor-sharp bony ridges in place of teeth. Ridges that bit and sawed at my meat as the tusk-probosci hooked into me, dragging me closer with each toss of its pseudo-head. Claws and chitinous pincers pinched and twisted, clenching tightly around me.
I responded in turn, tentacles wrapping and squeezing, claws dragging, spines pricking. I eagerly welcomed my spawn-sibling’s strategy of pulling each other into tighter embraces. Blood and other pseudo-circulatory fluids wafted about us, spiraling out into constellations to mirror the distant stars.
But my spawn-sibling was foolish, overconfident and easily peaked into an unthinking excitement by the scent-vibrations of our wounds, and I had learned a new trick. Crushing the spawn-sibling ever closer, I opened up my mouth-parts and then opened them farther. The rend of my full mouth split open wide along the underside of my body, stretching from crown to the multi-jointed border between thorax and abdomen. Clicking inner-jaws springing forward to gape open wide and crash together, plunging deeper into the flesh of my opponent than its defenses could ever hope to sink into mine.
With a sucking wrench, I retracted my inner jaws, severing a large hunk of meat from the body of my spawn-sibling. Again and again, my jaws clicked and sucked, eventually drowned out by the dying screams of the spawn-sibling.
Victory. The thrill of death. The bellows of triumph. The contentment of a full gut-sack. I resumed my path to the light. Powerful once more.
The wounds I woke up with this time are worse than the last. So much worse. I can barely move, stiff from immobility, sore from abuse, groggy from the drugs, and now the ripping pain of deep gouges and abrasions. The water becomes so warm from all the blood. The thought of bleeding to death crosses my mind distantly. Maybe that’s better.
The stars are glorious. Bright. Full of the thrum of life and screams of collapsing death. The trailing lifeblood of dust and debris. The dancing advance of planetoids and comets, and destruction of exploding asteroids to spawn meteors. But none so beautiful or as fierce, as full of life or as deadly as the light. As the place I am meant to go.
I can see tiny lights in the darkness now, sometimes a faint glow that meanders in lazy figure eights before my eyes. Sometimes they change color like seeing one slice of a rainbow at a time. I couldn’t see lights before, in the tank. Just darkness. Are they the stars from my hallucinations come to stay?
Maybe this is the hallucination. Maybe I really am that feral, horrible monstrous being soaring through space. Maybe everything I thought was my life, including this awful little tank, are its dreams or nightmares. What else would a monster have nightmares about but mundanity and powerlessness?
Maybe that’s why I wake up here bleeding after the fights that happen there, but nothing that seems to happen here really affects me there. Not even when I bit my lip so hard my teeth clacked together after punching through the flesh. I tasted the blood here for hours, years, but once I woke up there, I tasted nothing and felt nothing.
I want to go home. I want to see the real light.
The light grows closer. Larger. The bodies of spawn-siblings, dead from fights, dead from age, all shine in its light. The space between the bodies I pass grows smaller. Less time between them. Now I always have a full gut-sack. Time passes. Bodies pass. Stars pass. Everything is growing older, larger, like the light, like me.
The light in the hallucinations, or is it the real world, grows ever closer. I don’t think as clearly anymore when I am … there. Wherever there is. The world narrows, to the light, to the bodies of those that died before me, floating like so much space junk in our planet’s atmosphere, and the darkness. The darkness around me like a funnel, directing me, pulling me into the light as inescapably as gravity. Like a moth to a bulb. All I can do is answer the call.
Nightmares. Nightmares of weakness. Of darkness. Of being trapped. Nightmares and false visions. I must stay awake so I can stay strong, powerful. I must make it to the light, not die weak in the dark or floating cold long before reaching the light like so many of my spawn-siblings. Strong, strong enough to reach the light. The light will take me to the proper place.
It is more common for me to be in the other form now. Travelling through space for lightyears and lightyears. I rarely wake up here in the pained dark of the isolation tank anymore, but I am sickeningly disoriented when I do. Worse even than when I first woke up here. How long ago was that? I don’t even know. Most of the time I don’t even care anymore.
The light. A great, broad sinkhole of brilliant light. Scintillating across all forms of visual perception. It hums and simmers. It is waiting. It is expanding. It will open soon. This knowledge radiates through bones and bony deposits.
Others wait as well. Some floating, twisted dead bodies; those unable to survive until the light’s opening. Some fighting, some feeding, some just watching; those who lived. And so we all wait together. Fighting, feeding, dying. Watching.
The light will open soon. It will take us all to where we need to go.
The light is opening. It has expanded, swelling until a great rend appears at its center. It stretches ever wider, open and accepting. A gateway, a portal. We stir with excitement, leaving off our fighting, feeding, and waiting. Blubbering growls and trumpeting wails echoing the static-and-tearing vibration of the light opening. Heads and pseudo-heads are tossed, wings and tentacles are fanned, legs and false limbs flex, eyes roll, and mouths clack and drool. With a shudder that ripples through our bodies, through all time and space, the light stops expanding. Our time has come. The light is calling.
Great heaving cries. We launch ourselves forward, a tidal crash of eldritch flesh. There is enough room for our massive bulks to pass through as one. Shivers and electrical pulses travel the great lengths of chitinous ridge and sinewy tentacle, my inner mouth-parts clenching and clacking reflexively. It is as if my being has been numbed by the stings of my first spawn-sibling opponent once more. No blood is drawn, no pain follows. The sensations pass. We are through.
The atmosphere is different. Heavier. Cloying. Gravity pulls at my girth, slowing my movement. We hover above the stratosphere of a foreign planet. All blues and greens, solids and liquids, smeared by swaths of numerous other colors and refractions, jutting out at all angles. We descend.
We spread out farther over the skies of this planet as we break through its atmospheric layers. Gravity pulling a little harder. My lungs and respiratory tubules laboring to adjust. Through the scummy air, my eyes finally find focus on the smears across the planet’s surface before me. Small, grotesquely simple bipedal beings make miniscule sound vibrations as they scatter beneath our passing shadows. Weak things. We pause as one. My eyes focus on a sloppy, sprawling structure below me. White walls footed in green and capped with grey. A small part of my hindbrain flares in recognition. I know what I must do. What we spawn-siblings all must do.
Max Allaway is a 23-year-old undergrad working towards a B.S. in psychology at Arkmoore University. Allaway takes pride in creating and running the University’s first club specifically for genderqeer, genderfluid, bigendered, and transgendered individuals like themself, and would like to pursue further education to become a counselor for LQBTQA+ youth. Allaway disappeared on the way to Hanwell Psychiatric Hospital, where they were scheduled to participate in a research study for class credit. Authorities are still investigating the disappearance, and encourage anyone who may have seen Allaway to come forward.
J. Harper is a 26-year-old queer and introverted witch from the North Bay Area in Northern California, with a B.S. in Forensic Psychology. She was recently accepted into the M.F.A. in Creative Writing program at Mills College, focusing on her love of horror and sci-fi in her short stories and novels. When not writing about horror, she is often found reading or watching it, painting, or sometimes playing horror video games rather badly.
Luke Spooner, a.k.a. ‘Carrion House,’ currently lives and works in the South of England. Having recently graduated from the University of Portsmouth with a first class degree, he is now a full time illustrator for just about any project that piques his interest. Despite regular forays into children’s books and fairy tales, his true love lies in anything macabre, melancholy, or dark in nature and essence. He believes that the job of putting someone else’s words into a visual form, to accompany and support their text, is a massive responsibility, as well as being something he truly treasures. You can visit his web site at www.carrionhouse.com.
 Author’s Note: Assessment and sample questions based on the work of Michael Persinger of the Consciousness Research Lab at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario. For more information, please see Spook by Mary Roach.
“To See the Light” is © 2018 J. Harper
Art accompanying story is © 2018 Luke Spooner