by David McGillveray
“To my great-nephew Jeroen I leave the family mystery. You always were fascinated by puzzles when you were small, my boy.”
From the will of Gerrit Klaasz, April 2010
It came in a pine box like a miniature coffin that Jeroen had to lever open with a screwdriver. Resting amongst the straw inside was a fat triangular tube the length of his arm sealed with cork and made of heavy wood blackened by age. He removed the seal with some difficulty and upended the tube over the table in the apartment’s living room. What looked like triangular pieces of slate clattered out across the surface, each around ten centimetres to a side. Jeroen put the tube aside and sat at the table, spreading the pieces with his hand, noting how cold they felt, like metal but with the texture of stone.
He counted nineteen of them. They slid smoothly over one another like repelling magnets. When he turned one over in his hand, he saw each edge was raised in a sequence of ridges and nubs like jigsaw pieces waiting to be fitted together. One side of it was marked with fragments of what seemed to be script, although not one he recognised, with elements of Arabic, Oriental characters and even hieroglyphs. He understood none of it, although he found some of the markings strangely disturbing, pulling at his mind with hidden meaning. When he rubbed a nail over the markings, he found they were neither carved nor inscribed on the stone, but somehow embedded as if each piece had been chipped from the mother rock fully formed.
Jeroen tried to fit a few of the pieces together at random, but always they fell apart as he failed to find a matching pair. Frustrated, he searched inside the pine box for any potential instructions great-uncle Gerrit may have included and was rewarded with an unmarked, yellowed envelope. Inside was a single sheet of paper, brittle with age and covered in faded ink in a hand that did not match his great-uncle’s. It was not a set of instructions, but a letter of provenance, of sorts.
“Dutchmen did some terrible things to ensure dominance of the spice trade, things that are now a scar on the conscience of our tolerant and forward-thinking people. Entire islands were burned to support the price of nutmeg from existing Dutch holdings elsewhere in the Moluccas. Entire tribes were destroyed and driven into the sea under Dutch cannon fire to protect spice cultivation secrets that could not be allowed to pass to the British. It was on one of these blasted islands so forgotten by God and human decency that these pieces were found. The native population were all expected dead by flame and gunpowder. An initial landing to verify this resulted in perhaps just disaster, for but a single Dutchman returned, and without his mental faculties he followed his companions to his own grave soon after. It was a second expedition, led by a Captain Klaasz, my ancestor, who recovered the pieces from the smoking ruins of a hut once belonging to a tribal medicine man. Of the priest himself, there was nothing to be found, not even bones. Nor were the bodies of the ill-fated Dutchmen discovered amongst the desolation, although perhaps this is not surprising given Captain Klaasz’ craving to get off the island. Thus the provenance of these pieces is not soaked in prettiness and I urge those whose hands they fall into to respect the dead that lie in their path through history.”
The letter was signed by a Dr. Cyrille Klaasz and dated January 1902. A trail of ancestors! Jeroen, initially disappointed that his great uncle had not included him in the monetary division of his estate despite not seeing him since he was a child, was now filled with greater warmth for the man, and returned to the ancient puzzle that was his inheritance with renewed purpose.
He set out the triangular stones in rows on the table, paying attention to where the markings or ridges on their sides seemed to fit together. He laboured over the table, turning them, sliding them against one another with that curious frictionless that reminded him of magnets. So many times, just as he thought he had successfully joined two pieces, they would pop apart again, the match not quite right. Much later, he was surprised to look out of his window at the fine view of the Rijksmuseum from his apartment and see the rooftops of Amsterdam touched by the first rays of the sunrise.
The same obsessive love of intricate problems that had led Jeroen to a successful career in the more esoteric financial disciplines of currency and equity swap pricing drove him to complete the puzzle. But the pull of the thing and his reciprocal need to prove he would not be defeated by it grew in importance until it squeezed out all other thoughts from his mind.
He could not sleep for thinking about it. He began rising at dawn to work on the puzzle before going to the office and poring over it late into the night. Colleagues commented on the bags under his eyes, his less than usually immaculate appearance, and asked him if he was ill.
So it was accepted when he began calling in sick to struggle with the all-consuming challenge at home. Unanswered messages began to stack up on his machine, his mail piled in the hallway of the shared block. Then he ceased bothering to call in sick. Every waking thought was filled by triangles revolving in his mind and burning islands in the Pacific and the temptation and agony of final understandings haunted his dreams.
And it was during one of these dreams that he saw a way, a geometric shape revolving in space. He jerked upright, wrapped in the sheets he’d neglected to wash for so long now that a strong odour permeated. He crossed the open plan apartment to the worktable.
His mistake had been to think in two dimensions. All that time wasted! Of course, the pieces would not fit together – he had been holding them at the wrong angle. This was a 3-D puzzle. The triangles fitted together to make a shape, a shape with nineteen sides.
Sure enough, the pieces began to slide together when he fit them according to the new plan in his mind, the negative attraction that made them slide over one another suddenly working in reverse. When put together in the right configuration, the pieces snapped together almost hungrily, and Jeroen felt a profound sense of satisfaction and release as each part of the puzzle came together. He imagined a glow infused the strange fragments of script as the geometry began to take shape.
But still he was not quite there. Still, he chased that final satisfaction and various pieces lay apart on the table. On a rare moment away from the table itself, searching the Internet for geometric clues that could help him, he came across a representation of an icosahedron, a twenty-sided shape, and he made the final connection. He did not have to make a nineteen-sided shape at all, but one with nineteen solid faces and a final face left open, an eye on the world.
It took only days after that, not that Jeroen paid attention to the passing of day and night any longer. The icosahedron was all. Slowly it took shape on the table in the middle of the apartment, growing like an alien fungus.
Jeroen kept the open face upward rather than at the base, synchronous with the vision in his mind. At last, there came a time when that vision reached into reality, manifesting itself on the table, the sum of all his efforts. Jeroen felt complete, fulfilled in a way he had never been before. Replete from the act of creation, he felt like an urban deity.
He looked into the opening on the icosahedron but saw nothing. He placed a torch inside but it created only shadows. He was sure there must be more; every sense told him it must be so, that there was a greater prize. Anxious, he grasped the now-solid sides and peered once more inside. This time, he felt something. His fingertips were tingling, burning. He pulled his hands away from the icosahedron and stepped back. He had not noticed how dark it was in the room, but now he did, for his creation had begun to glow, as if it had drawn the energy out through his fingers. He was suddenly cold.
There was presence within the icosahedron now and it drew him. Careful not to touch the sides, Jeroen gazed inside for a third time and gasped with a sudden wave of vertigo. His perspective wheeled and his legs nearly gave way as a sense of immensity engulfed him, as eons rolled over him, unthreading the edges of his sanity.
Rather than terrestrial shadows, he now stood at the gate to a void. A void where bloated red stars coasted through vacuum bleeding long streamers of sick light; a void where blasted black planets turned airless and orphan in the dark; an abyss as old as every possible universe.
And he was noticed.
He felt his tiny consciousness graze against that of something infinitely greater. He felt its regard touch him for only a moment, but in that moment he understood space and time and felt what it was to be master of both. And when that regard fell away, he was as empty as the void itself, with something wondrous briefly given and cruelly torn away.
Jeroen was repelled and lured in equal measure. He stared into the triangular door and reached forward without thought. He felt resistance as his hand pressed against the invisible membrane that separated that realm from his. Then his fingers broke through, reaching for what he had lost.
He screamed. Agony raced up his arm from a hand that felt as if it was being held in a flame, tingling with fierce pain as if every molecule was being torn to shreds. He snatched back his hand and collapsed backward, striking his head on the hard floorboards of his apartment. The breath went out of him and he blinked to clear his vision, for something was emerging through that broken membrane. Cradling his hand, he pushed himself backwards until his spine hit the wall. The thing kept coming, bubbling from the open face of the icosahedron, expanding and moving with a curious flickering motion to occupy the centre of the room.
It was a triangular column, so opaque that it was difficult to tell if it was liquid, gas or solid. Jeroen saw strange colours flicker inside the body of the thing, brief flashes of forked lightning. St. Elmo’s Fire played on the metal surfaces of his furniture. The thing filled the room from floor to ceiling, slowly rotating, as if waiting for him. Jeroen felt that awful, wonderful sense of regard once more, but could do nothing but whimper and try and push himself further into the corner of the room.
Then the thing was gone, flickering upward and through the walls and ceiling to leave Jeroen gasping and terrified in his own sweat.
Pain. Every part of it screamed as it billowed over Amsterdam. The very physics of this universe were wrong: the speed of light, the pull of gravity, the constants that bound reality together. The agony of these tiny differences in the fabric of universes burned its awareness until it bathed in pain. Only when it bathed in others, in those brief moments of consumption and annihilation when it became tenuously connected to this bastard universe, did the pain ever diminish.
“I thought we were finished.”
“I never said that –”
“That’s the problem, Jeroen, you never said anything. I haven’t heard from you in nearly two weeks. You didn’t answer your phone. You didn’t come to the door when I came round. Your office doesn’t know where you are. Where have you been?”
“I, I’ve been working on something. I lost track–”
“For the bank?”
“No, not exactly.”
“For whom then?”
“Well, uh, it’s, it’s a family thing.”
“A family thing.”
“And that’s all you’re going to tell me?”
“It’s too difficult to explain.”
“Oh for God’s sake, Jeroen, I’m not stupid. I don’t believe a word I’m hearing. You sound like you haven’t slept in nights. You’ve been holed up with that tart, haven’t you, the one from the office who thinks you’re so damn smart? Well, she can bloody well have you!”
“Karli, please. That’s over, I swear it. I’ve told you enough times. It’s nothing like that. I know I’ve been behaving strangely, but I need to see you. You’re the only one I can talk to. I think I’ve done something terrible, made an awful mistake.”
“It’d better not be what I’m thinking.”
“No! God, it’s not that. Will you meet me, now, tonight?”
“Jeroen, it’s ten-thirty. I’ve got work in the morning. So have you.”
“Please, Karli. I need to share this with someone. You’re the only one. It won’t be for long, I promise.”
A long sigh. “Where?”
“The Abraxas? Half an hour?”
“I’m warning you, this better be good.”
“Thank you, Karli,” Jeroen said, but she had already hung up. He put down the receiver and stared around his apartment as if he’d never seen it before. It was a mess of scattered clothes, food wrappers and empty bottles. He found his jacket and wallet and went out on to Weteringschans, a prestigious address across from the Rijksmuseum he had been proud of when he cared about such things.
It was a clear night and the stars shone through the haze above the city. A cold wind blew down from the North Sea, reddening his face and rippling the black water of the canal. He walked rapidly, hunched over to avoid being noticed, even though there were few people on the street this late on a Tuesday. It was not people he was trying to avoid. His boots echoed on the pavement. He imagined the thing in the sky above the city, waiting for him. He could feel its attention.
A shadow passed over him and a small moan escaped his lips. He could not bear the sight of that horrible column of alien substance, so heavy with disregard, such utter indifference. He glanced up, terrified of what he might see, but there was nothing. He increased his pace, turning right on to Leidsestraat and heading towards the centre of the city. It was with relief that he turned into Kerkstraat and saw the neon light of the Abraxas flashing at him.
He almost ran into the pub, a long thin room with a bar along one side and wooden tables along the other. The place was almost empty — it was a place mostly unknown to the tourists that thronged the city. The barman gave him an odd look before nodding in recognition. Jeroen checked his watch and saw that he was early. He had two beers and a whiskey before Karli had even arrived.
She saw him as soon as she walked in and slid into the chair opposite. Some remote part of him still was pleased she had taken time with her hair, bunched at the crown of her head and with blond strands teased down over her forehead. Her cheeks were flushed from the cold, matching the colour of her lips. Jeroen felt a sudden, almost overwhelming ache for her.
“So,” she said, and let the word hang in the air.
“So,” he said back. He tried to make it a joke, tried to smile, but Karli just looked at him like he was a puzzle. The bartender brought a beer over and set it in front of Karli, moving away silently, repelled by the atmosphere over their table.
“You look even worse than you sounded on the phone.” She moved her hands across the table towards him in a familiar motion, but then she remembered the circumstances and withdrew them again. “What’s going on, Jeroen?”
“I’m sorry I haven’t been here,” Jeroen said, clasping his own hands round the cold glass of his beer. “Things have been so upside down, you know?”
“Not really.” Karli looked at her watch. “It’s very late.”
“Stay, please. Not for long, I promise.” Suddenly the words rushed from him. “Do you sometimes feel that things can pick you up and roll you along while the rest of the world stays still, like time’s stopped or something? Like everything you do is already written down somewhere and you just have to act out the lines? That’s what I feel has happened to me, like I’ve been rolled along by a big hand and the rest of the world’s meant nothing while it’s been happening. I haven’t been in control of myself these last days. I’ve not been me.”
Karli stared at him from behind her glass. “You’re rambling, Jeroen. You don’t sound yourself.”
“I’m not, that’s the point! You’d think I’d lost my mind if I told you what I’d seen,” he said.
“I’m close to thinking that already.”
He pressed his knuckles to his temples and let out a sigh. “Oh Karli, I’m sure something terrible has happened. Ever since great-uncle Gerrit died . . . what he left me.”
“Your great-uncle? Is that what this is all about? You told me he’d died but I didn’t think you were close. I didn’t think you’d take it this badly.” Karli stretched out her hands again and this time she left them there for him, like an offering.
Jeroen stared across the table at her. He started to protest but then he saw the convenient lie, the path away from the truth and he took it without hesitation. How could he tell Karli about the thing in his apartment, the bloated stars that swam inside that strange box he’d put together with his own hands? It seemed absurd even to him, unreal in a place as familiar as the Abraxas. “It’s been hard,” he said.
Karli took his hands now and pressed his fingers against her cheek. Perhaps everything would be okay after all. They talked about mundane things, about life. They talked about holidays they had shared and planned, about people and places they knew. It was a comfort to Jeroen, a mask for the mounting dread within him.
When they left the bar, Jeroen realised that his return to the familiar had failed to banish the thing that followed him. He felt something in the sky, but when he glanced upwards, he saw only the stars. Karli took his arm and they walked together awhile through the deserted streets until she turned to him on an arched bridge over a canal. A rising wind tugged at her hair.
“I have to go away with work for a few days tomorrow—to London,” Karli said. “But you call me whenever you want. I promise I’ll pick up.” She kissed him on the cheek and then on the lips.
Jeroen nodded and tried to smile. He had that awful sense of being noticed once more. Karli began to walk away and Jeroen found himself watching her in frame advance, her movements slowed down as if the air had thickened, as if gravity itself had suddenly increased. Something occluded the stars and a curtain of distortion moved between Jeroen and Karli. She turned back as it swirled around her but even then Jeroen knew that the thing that had stepped from the icosahedron had found him again.
He wanted to step forward and go to Karli, protect her no matter how ineffectually, but a sudden monstrous heat pouring from her body pushed him back. He watched as the fine features of her face shifted and seemed to settle anew, as if the thing inside her contorted her body into a new configuration. Her stance altered subtly until Jeroen could see nothing of Karli in her anymore, but instead saw something alien draped in flesh, something unused to the base limitations of human form. She opened her mouth.
Jeroen cried out her name and took a step forward, but the heat intensified and drove him back once more. Her clothing burst into white-hot flames and blew away in the gusting wind like ash from the end of a cigarette. He could not understand why her flesh didn’t blacken and burn.
“Command or return me.”
The words came from Karli’s throat in a sigh, as if her lungs were being used as billows to force air through unfamiliar channels. It was nothing like a human voice at all.
The heat was fierce. Karli stood naked before him on the bridge. Fire burned behind her eyes even as the thing inside stared at Jeroen with unknowable calculation. Her hair became filaments of white-hot intensity and her skin glowed so bright Jeroen could see her inner structure.
“Command or return me,” the terrible travesty of her voice sighed again.
Lines of white light crawled across her body, welts of fire. They formed patterns on her torso that hinted at meaning.
Then she began to come apart along those lines. Part of her skull sheared away and fell from the bridge to hiss briefly in the canal. Her body began to collapse in on itself, unable to survive even with the alien force sustaining her. Her insides shone as she fell in pieces to the cobbled paving stones, turning to hot ash stirred by the wind.
Jeroen stood as a frozen witness until the heat died and the horror that had taken him finally released its grip. Then he turned and ran, tears blurring his vision, his lips curling around meaningless sounds.
He did not remember running through the silent streets, did not remember returning to his apartment, but when he awoke on the floor the following afternoon his furniture lay broken and pictures had been torn from the walls and the component triangles of the icosahedron lay scattered about the room.
The terms of transition went unmet. The custodian of the portal bound those who emerged from it in this universe, but this operator was ignorant, a child or a slave. No purpose was given, and the way remained closed. Amidst the prolongation of pain there were only brief moments of grace, in the spending of creatures native to this existence.
It ached for a different physics.
Behind closed curtains amongst the wreckage of his dark room, Jeroen listened to the voices on the radio. There had been disappearances reported from Central Station and the Red Light District and the housing projects out in the direction of Schipol. A street performer in Dam Square had spontaneously combusted in front of a screaming crowd on a sunny afternoon.
When he closed his eyes, Jeroen saw Karli incandescent on the bridge, turning to ash. He saw light crawling across her body in alien script.
All of it lay at his feet. He was responsible: his damned need to solve a puzzle that should have been left alone. His horror matured to a profound despair, his guilt and incomprehension drew him towards madness.
The light crawled. He heard the voice, played through Karli like an instrument, speaking to him. He felt sure it had only spoken to him. He was the originator. He had released it.
And from this thought, he gathered his senses. Here was another puzzle and its solution lay within him.
Jeroen gathered up the pieces of the icosahedron from where he had thrown them, testing their weight and resting his palm on their cold surfaces. He began reconstructing the object he now knew was a device. He squinted over the markings on each triangular section; a language that had remained unspoken on Earth perhaps since the time of his ancestors plundered the Spice Islands of the Pacific. And he knew he had seen these markings in another place.
He closed his eyes. Light crawled. Karli’s body splintered and turned to ash.
Light writhed over her burning skin. It formed patterns, characters. Characters like those on the triangles in his hands.
The icosahedron began to form again. As he searched for the configuration he’d been shown, more events were reported on the radio. People burned and died in Amsterdam.
And when the last piece clicked into place, the patterns matched those he saw when he closed his eyes. When the warmth of his fingers touched these patterns, the void was there again in the dark insides of the icosahedron. He felt the same vertigo, the same terrible feeling of time incomparable and the insignificance of the world on which he stood. And he knew this was a home to what he had released. It called out to the sky above his apartment.
He waited, staring through the portal at that corrupted, warped universe and in time he was not alone. The air warped and the thing coalesced into the visible spectrum, a turning triangular column of appalling sentience. It filled the room and pressed him back with a pressure more psychic than physical.
“Go! You can go,” he shouted, gesturing wildly to the icosahedron and its glowing script.
But this was not the end. The creature expanded until Jeroen could no longer avoid its touch. He felt heat and shared its terrible pain. Anger and pain defined it. Anger and pain crammed into him until there was nothing else. He screamed. He could feel what it was to exist in this obscure universe, the wrongness,as if every nerve ending was being flayed without relief.
And in that extended moment of shared awareness, as he was drawn into a universe where the physics could cause only agony, Jeroen was granted understanding of the inscription that burned on the icosahedron:
“That which is summoned must pass through.
That which summons must return.”