01 Feb The Erebus Project
A factoid you may have come across while browsing the internet is that blind people don’t see blackness or darkness; we see nothing. If you’re sighted, you don’t see darkness behind you, you just don’t see anything at all. That’s what it’s like for me. I’ve been completely blind since birth, and vision’s always been a very foreign, abstract concept to me. I’ve never known light or darkness.
But that changed when I volunteered to be a test subject for a project named Erebus.
I received a phone call last November from someone claiming to work for a private research firm called Noir Laboratories, saying they had gotten my information from the NHS. They were looking for subjects with varying degrees of visual impairment to test something they called an Aluminiferous Chamber, and wanted to know if I could come in for an in-person assessment. They were willing to pay me fifty pounds just to come in, and another thousand pounds for the testing if I qualified.
I had my brother help me research them to make sure it wasn’t a scam, and we came to the conclusion that it was a small but legitimate operation. It was a little vague exactly what they did, but their primary research projects appeared to be moonshots based on fringe science. That was, admittedly, a bit of a red flag, but it didn’t make the prospect of a thousand pounds any less tempting. I figured just going in for an assessment couldn’t hurt.
My brother took me to the clinic as I had never been there before, but since I had no idea how long it would take, I didn’t see any point in him hanging around. I assured him I’d be fine on my own, and I would call him when I was ready.
In retrospect, that was a mistake.
They were ready for me as soon as I got in. I consented to them viewing my medical records, orally answered a questionnaire, let them prick my finger for a blood test of some kind, and submitted to an eye exam to confirm I was one hundred percent blind. During the questionnaire, I did hear a very odd sort of mechanical whirring noise. When I asked what it was, they told me it was only an old scanner someone was using.
At the time, I just assumed they’d meant a document scanner.
After all of that, I was given a one-on-one interview with a woman who introduced herself as Ms. Noir. I stifled a chuckle at what I assumed to be a very obvious pseudonym, given her company’s name and its mysterious nature. But I suppose there are people named Noir, so maybe it was just a happy coincidence.
“I’ve finished going over all of your information and test results, and I think you’d make an excellent test subject for Project Erebus,” she said as I heard the creak of expensive leather upholstery from her sitting down in her office chair.
I couldn’t help but take note that the guest chair I was in was of much lower quality, which told me a great deal about how Ms. Noir viewed her underlings and test subjects. She smelt strongly of cashmere, so I presumed she was also well-dressed, along with smelling fastidiously and immaculately clean. Her voice was fairly young, mid-to-late twenties, and she spoke in a properly aristocratic King’s English accent. I suspected she was a posh little trust fund baby who had used her familial wealth to finance this peculiar start-up of hers.
“I assume you have some questions before you agree?” I heard her say, and realized I had zoned out while she was still speaking.
“Well, I’m still not really sure what the project even is,” I replied, nervously fidgeting with my folded cane. “Aluminiferous Chamber just sounds like a fancy name for a dark room.”
“Mmm. Have you ever heard of anechoic chambers, Marissa?” she asked me over the sound of her fingers softly tapping on a touchscreen. “They’re the most soundproofed spaces in existence, the quietest places in the world. They’re so quiet you can hear your own organs move. Most people find the experience quite unnerving, and can’t stand to be in one for more than an hour.
“Electromagnetic anechoic chambers exist as well, but they don’t have the same psychological impacts as the acoustic ones do. Our Aluminiferous Chamber doesn’t just block all light, doesn’t just absorb all light, but is literally a space where light cannot exist. Photons are still created, and survive long enough to enable chemical bonds between atoms and molecules, but are obliterated so quickly that if you shined a torch right into someone’s eyes it would never even reach their retina.”
“Obliterated? By what?” I asked curiously.
“Have you ever heard of luminiferous aether?” she asked in reply, taking a sip of what smelt like saffron tea – and never asking me if I would like some.
“Um, yeah, I think so. It’s a discredited theory about light existing solely as a wave in an otherwise undetectable medium, right?” I said uncertainly.
“Discredited isn’t the term I’d use. Scientific theories are never fully proven or disproven beyond dispute, they’re merely adjusted to accommodate new evidence,” she said with authority, her teacup clanking against the saucer as she put it down.
“Oh, yes, of course,” I smiled weakly, wondering what kind of pseudoscientific nutter I’d gotten myself involved with. “So, you’re saying that your Aluminiferous Chamber works by modifying the luminiferous aether so that light can’t exist inside of it?”
“That’s the gist of it, yes,” she answered, her chair creaking again as she leaned back in it. “And as a result, it’s the darkest place in the universe. Do you know that the human body is luminescent in the infrared spectrum? That means no matter where a person goes, they always have light with them, even if they can’t see it. But just as the silence of an anechoic chamber makes previously inaudible sounds quite noticeable, we’ve found that the absence of any ambient light at all allows for the emergence of some rather novel phenomena that have hitherto gone unobserved.”
“What kind of phenomena?” I asked, suddenly concerned.
“For the sake of the experiment, I’m afraid I’ll need you to be going in completely blind,” she replied. I waited for a beat for her to say ‘no pun intended’ or ‘no offence’, but she said nothing.
“Well, am I going to be in any sort of danger?” I asked.
“Not physically, no,” she assured me. “Psychologically though, it’s a bit unclear. All of our other subjects, all sighted, found the absolute darkness extremely disquieting and were unable to tolerate it for more than a few moments. You though, you can’t see darkness. You see nothing, and we’d like to know what effects, if any, our chamber has on you.”
“And I’m not going to be exposed to any kind of dangerous radiation or chemicals or anything like that? It’s just ‘Aluminiferous aether’?” I asked, hoping I wasn’t coming across as too incredulous.
“Yes, and it’s completely harmless,” she promised. “All you have to do is sit in a dark room for as long as you can, and you’ll walk away one thousand pounds richer.”
I pondered my options for a minute. It would obviously be the quickest, easiest thousand pounds I had ever made, but what if it was dangerous? There was no such thing as luminiferous aether, so Ms. Noir clearly had one or two screws loose. Whatever the Aluminiferous Chamber actually did could very well be dangerous, but then again it might not be doing anything at all. She did say that there had been other test subjects, and unless she was blatantly lying about that then surely one of them would have notified the authorities had they suffered serious harm, or their next of kin would have if they had died.
“Right then. So, where do I sign?”
She slid me a waiver and non-disclosure agreement, in Braille and non-Braille versions, and after reading them I signed and initialled wherever she pointed my hand. I’ve been told I have a doctor’s handwriting, but just making a mark is good enough for legal reasons. Once the legalities were out of the way, she led me down the hall and to Project Erebus’s Aluminiferous Chamber. I was walked straight into it and told to sit down upon a chair, without being provided any description of the device itself. I can echolocate a little bit though, and I got the impression that the chamber was round, maybe a couple of meters in diameter, with a very hard and smooth shell.
Once I was in place, Ms. Noir slid the door shut, and it sealed with a distinct hiss. That made me a little nervous, since it led me to believe the chamber was airtight, but otherwise, I didn’t notice any change. I had assumed that it would be a sensory deprivation chamber of some sort, but I could still hear muffled movement on the other side. The voices were largely indistinct, but I did hear Ms. Noir give the very clear order to “Turn off the lights, and turn on the dark.”
The chamber started to hum; a very eerie, unnatural humming that wasn’t quite like anything I’d ever heard before that sent a chill down my spine. And that’s when things started getting weird.
Have you ever heard white noise that you didn’t notice was there until it stopped? I suddenly felt like something was gone, something that had always been there but I had never noticed, like a fish who never knew what water was until they were taken from it.
There truly was no light within that chamber, and even though I had been completely blind since birth, I felt its absence.
The perfect darkness that I felt enveloping me was creepy, but not immediately alarming. It was an alien sensation, and I didn’t know what to make of it. As it grew stronger, I increasingly got the impression that it was something abominable, something Eldritch, something that wasn’t supposed to exist, that couldn’t exist under the laws of nature as I understood them.
And then I realized why this new sensation seemed so very foreign to me; it was sight. I wasn’t just feeling this otherworldly darkness, I was seeing it. I don’t understand how, but the first and only thing I ever saw was the primordial darkness inside the Aluminiferous Chamber.
I was horrified and confused, but also curious, so I didn’t ask to be let out of the chamber just yet. I stared into the impenetrable darkness as deeply as I could, and the longer I did so, the longer I got the feeling that something was looking back at me. Now that I could see this darkness, it – or something in it – could see me.
I took a sudden deep, reflexive gasp, loud enough for my echolocation to let me know that the chamber no longer seemed only two meters wide anymore. I couldn’t sense the walls at all. I think that was because my brain was devoting all available processing power to make sense of this vision of darkness. People like me who have been blind from birth or young childhood really do have more acute non-visual senses, because our visual cortexes have rewired themselves to more thoroughly process our remaining sensory input. Now I was experiencing the opposite of that, all my other senses going numb as my visual cortex attempted to fulfill its intended purpose.
It really was a cruel irony. I could see for the first time, and there wasn’t one photon of light to see with. When I most needed my remaining senses at their keenest, they were dulled as the novel darkness demanded so much analysis from my brain. I tried to fight it, tried to listen, tried to echolocate to figure out what was in the darkness with me.
Instead, I felt hot, fetid, rancid breathing on the back of my neck.
I screamed and jumped out of the chair, my only thought to bang and scream on the chamber door until they let me out or I knocked it down myself. But it wasn’t there. It should have been just one or at most two strides in front of me, but it wasn’t. The darkness I had found myself in was somehow far larger than the chamber itself. Terrified beyond reason, I ran as fast as I could, not knowing what lay ahead but desperate to escape from whatever was behind me.
But I couldn’t escape. It wasn’t chasing me, for I heard no sign of pursuit, but I couldn’t gain any distance on it. No matter how fast I ran or in what direction, I could still hear its ragged breathing behind me, still smell the odour of death and decay it carried with it. It was in the darkness, a part of the darkness, and I could not escape that darkness.
It became harder and harder to breathe as the stench of the thing intensified, and eventually I dropped to my knees, gagging and retching, at the mercy of whatever was there in the dark with me. I unfolded my cane and started swinging it all around me in a last-ditch effort to defend myself, but it never made contact with anything solid.
“Who’s there!” I demanded, tears of desperation pouring down my cheeks. Maybe in response to me, or maybe not, it came closer, close enough that my echolocation was enough to get a vague sense of its dimensions. It was an uneven, oblong shape about the size of a person, suspended vertically about a foot off the ground. It was pock-marked with various orifices that wheezed out foul-smelling vapours, the entirety of its form expanding and contracting greatly with each laboured breath. It shuddered in what seemed like pain with each exhalation, but was otherwise quite lethargic and sluggish.
It was right in front of me now, mere inches from my face. I was shaking, trembling, sobbing uncontrollably. What was this thing, this bizarre, otherworldly, alien thing, and what did it want? Did it mean me harm, or was it simply investigating an intruder into its territory? I just wanted it away from me, and since I couldn’t flee, I decided that my only option was to push it away.
Reticently, I slowly raised my hand and placed it upon the entity’s body. Its flesh was soft and moist like kneaded dough, and warm like it had been left to rot out in the hot summer sun. It didn’t react to my touch, so I pushed my luck harder and gave it a subtle nudge away from me.
It didn’t move one inch. Instead, I felt an eyeless human face emerge from the mass, its mouth hanging agape and askew. I screamed and fell backwards, trying my best to scuttle away but still unable to put any distance between myself and that thing.
And then the face started singing. It wasn’t screaming, exactly, but a ghastly, unnatural sounding wail that carried with it the slightest hint of harmony to indicate that it may have been music. And then another voice joined the chorus. And then another, and then another. It sounded like the creature was forming new faces all over its body, every one of them singing their soul-shattering hymn. More voices came from behind me, another one of the creatures emerging from the darkness, already with a multitude of faces to join in the choir. At least three more drifted in from the sides, and I was completely surrounded now. Their voices just grew louder and louder, and I clasped my hands to my head in a desperate attempt to block it out.
They’re going to deafen me, I thought. No. Please God, no. I can’t be blind and deaf. Please no.
Helplessly I laid in the darkness, enduring the acoustic assault of the strange monstrosities that had accosted me, with no means or hope of escape. Mercifully, it seems that the technicians attending to the experiment were neither ignorant of nor apathetic to my plight. In an instant, the singing stopped and the darkness was replaced by the complete absence of sight that I had known all my life. My ears were still ringing from the ghoulish music, so I didn’t hear the door open, and I barely heard the lab assistants as they tried to console me and help me to my feet. What I did hear was that same mechanical whirring I heard earlier, this time accompanied by a bunch of excited jargon that meant nothing to me. They were scanning me, and had scanned me earlier, and were perfectly fine with doing it without asking or telling me. It made me wonder if I hadn’t just escaped from one den of monsters to another.
A little over half an hour and a quick debriefing later, I was back in Ms. Noir’s office. My hearing was back to normal, but I was badly shaken. I didn’t fully understand what I had just experienced. I still don’t.
I heard Ms. Noir walk in, and smelt that she had a mug of steaming hot chocolate with her. This time though, she put it down directly in front of me.
“That’s from my personal stash. You won’t find that in any shop you’ll ever set foot in. On the house,” she said, a soft hint of sympathy in her voice as she sat in her chair.
“What the fuck just happened?” I demanded.
“Marissa, I think I owe you an apology,” she sighed. “I thought that since you were blind the effect of the chamber would be negligible, even non-existent. It seems it actually affected you more severely than our sighted subjects, likely because you didn’t have the luxury of confusing the darkness you were seeing with something mundane.”
“But how could I see anything, and what the fuck was in there with me?” I demanded.
“The darkness, the pure, true darkness created within the Aluminiferous Chamber is primordial, so fundamental that any conscious entity can perceive it, with or without visual sensory organs,” she claimed dubiously. “As for what was in there with you… that’s a tad more speculative at this point. We think that they’re made of some form of dark matter, a shadow ecosystem and maybe even civilization composed of a kind of matter that doesn’t interact with our own. We’re completely invisible to each other, at least under normal circumstances. But, when we create a space of true, primordial darkness without any photons, that appears to allow for at least a degree of interaction. Our sighted subjects, they experienced things as well, but not like you. I think it may be because you experienced the darkness in a way that they just didn’t, and maybe through some kind of observer effect, you and those creatures became more real to each other than was otherwise possible.”
I let her words sink in for a minute. Those creatures, those monsters I had encountered in the chamber, were everywhere. They were everywhere, we just couldn’t interact with them. I had experienced something that was otherwise impossible in that chamber, encountered the denizens of a shadow Earth that I never should have met.
“Bloody dark matter aliens, and you didn’t think that was something I needed to know before I agreed to this?” I asked bitterly. “You said all I had to do was sit in a dark room. I could have lost my hearing. I could have been killed!”
“Yes, it seems our initial risk assessment was a bit off, and we are willing to compensate you for that financially,” she told me as I heard her flip open a checkbook. “So long as you understand that none of this invalidates your liability waiver or non-disclosure agreement.”
I scoffed in disgust, and reached for the cocoa she had given me. It was rich and delicious, and did calm me down a little. Even if I could somehow find a lawyer who would take such an outlandish case, or a court that would hear it, what chance would I have in a lawsuit against a firm with the resources to literally bend the laws of physics to their whim?
“Yeah. I understand,” I nodded with a dejected sigh.
Ever since then, I’ve been a blind woman who’s afraid of the dark. I sleep with my bedroom light on now and always carry an LED light in my purse, because if I’m in the dark too long I start to feel that same warm, fetid breathing on the back of my neck.
I think Ms. Noir was right about there being some kind of observer effect involved in this. The shadow creatures and I know about each other now, and we can’t unknow each other. This anchors us in each other’s realities just enough that we no longer need perfect darkness to interact. Just regular darkness is enough for us to start to faintly perceive one another. Maybe they don’t actually mean me any harm, maybe they’re as afraid of me as I am of them. But I don’t think so. Maybe it is just because they’re so strange, but I can’t think of them of anything other than monsters.
I suppose that one day, when the lights finally do go out, I’ll find out for sure.