By J.M. Ramage
Roman Elzer looked up at Karolinka Observatory, unimpressed. It was, like so many buildings of the Communist era, a dull, concrete structure, box-shaped save for the iron-and-glass dome for the telescope. It sat on the side of a mountain, right on the border with Slovakia, surrounded by dark firs. Elizabeth Manning was waiting by the door, her black-velvet dress and glittering, moonstone jewelry seeming anachronistic, as if a grand dame of the First Republic had stepped out into the grimness of the late 60s.
“Roman!” she called down to him. Then she said in English, “Glad you could come.”
“Hmn,” said Elzer. “Where is Simon?”
His abrupt tone didn’t affect her smile. “He’s inside. He won’t bother us.”
That, thought Roman, depended on your point of view. Simon’s very existence was a “bother” and had been, even before Roman had persuaded Elizabeth that she deserved someone better than some “mediocre Czech scientist”.
Elizabeth led him into a wide hall with reliefs on either side, one a map of the solar system and the other showing the constellations. All in the same grey, concrete-like stone and, all around, the air clung damp and chilly to Elzer’s skin. There was a smell of damp, too, as well as something sharp and metallic that he couldn’t place. The smell of a building long abandoned.
Stacked against the walls were numerous boxes, each neatly marked with letters and numbers, in the Cyrillic alphabet rather than the Roman one used by the native Czechs, which struck Elzer as odd. None of the Communist facilities he’d looked at for the National Technological Museum in Prague used Russian exclusively.
“So, where do you want me to start?” he asked.
Elizabeth frowned, but soon recovered her smile. “Right down to business?”
“What would you prefer?” It came out sharper than he had intended and Elzer shrank back, busying himself with the nearest boxes. Inside were reams of yellowed paper, typewritten in Russian. He remembered enough from school to pick up that they were reports and diagrams of some sort of satellite or probe.
“The main laboratory’s through here,” Elizabeth said, sounding crestfallen. Perhaps she thought he’d fall at her feet when he saw her again, beg her to leave Simon and come back to him. He turned to finding her standing by the double doors on the opposite side of the hall. He followed and they went into a Spartan, clinical corridor lined with doors bearing square windows of safety glass. Elizabeth opened one at the far end and revealed a set of stairs, which took them to the next story and another featureless corridor that smelled of linoleum and cigarette smoke. A series of clatters came from an open door a few meters on.
“Simon?” Elizabeth called. “What are you doing?”
“Can’t find my bloody keys,” returned a man’s voice, muffled as though he were holding something between his teeth. “Ah.” There was a jangle of keys and Simon strode out, cigarette limp at the corner of his mouth and his long, pale face twisted into a sneer. He walked past them, shouldering Elzer out of the way, and made for the stairs.
“Where are you going?” Elizabeth asked.
“Away,” Simon snapped. He paused on the landing and glared up at them. “You and your little Czech mate have fun.”
“Where are you going?”
“To get supplies,” he said, with another glare at Elzer. Whatever this meant, Elizabeth seemed to understand and nodded.
“I’m sorry,” she said to Elzer when Simon was gone. “He wasn’t all that keen on bringing you in, but I told him you’re sensitive; I think you’re the best man for the job.”
“For once,” Elzer replied under his breath then added quickly, “What is it you want me to see? I’ll get some photographs and email them to the museum.”
“You might want to hold off,” she said. “Once you’ve seen the stuff we found.”
Elzer raised an eyebrow. “It’s just a lunar observatory, you said. What stuff?”
Elizabeth bit her lip thoughtfully. “Wait and see, but if I thought the museum could have helped, I’d’ve contacted them direct. I thought you … you might understand. You always were more sensitive to new ideas – at least, you were at uni.”
She took his hand and led him to a room at the end of the hall, much larger than the ones they’d passed so far. It reminded Elzer of the classrooms at his school where he’d studied physics: full of benches, charts, periodic tables, and a blackboard at one end covered in smudged Cyrillic.
“The telescope’s directly above us,” said Elizabeth, looking up.
“Why is it all in Russian?” Elzer asked.
“Seems to have belonged to the Soviet Space Program,” said Elizabeth. “I tried to ask the government man who arranged to return the land to my family, but he said he didn’t know anything, just that the Nazis commandeered the land during the War, then the Russians built this in ’69. One old lady in the village said they stayed away from the observatory, didn’t like the noises coming out of it at night, but that was probably just the telescope. But the others wouldn’t say anything. You know what these people are like ….”
“Yes,” said Elzer, “we Czechs are only one step away from the Dark Ages.”
He flashed her an icy smile. Her attitude was no worse than many of the British and American expats in the country, who refused to speak anything but English and regarded the Czechs as some sort of infestation, ruining an otherwise-profitable little bit of real estate, but somehow, Elzer always considered hers worse, given that her grandparents had been Czech, something he imagined she would never have admitted before she learned they had property due to them through the repatriation schemes.
“It’s what they were doing here …,” she went on. “I thought that was what would interest you.” She opened one of many the boxes lying on the benches, and brought out some typewritten notes and a metal box. Elzer edged closer, but stopped as he caught a whiff of her perfume, the same one he used to buy her.
“According to the notes,” Elizabeth said, as she flipped the lid, “this came from Luna 16, one of the sample probes the Soviets sent to the Moon, in 1970.”
She turned the box towards him and he saw it was a rock of some kind, partially transparent but with white scratches scarring the surface, turning it partly opaque. Its shape was hard to define, a little like a flower with five main petals, yet other shards stuck out at strange angles and so, turned a few inches one way or another, it seemed to change form completely. As Elzer held it, it caught the sunlight and glints of colour played across the surface, while at its heart, a little rainbow of refracted light twisted and danced around as the object moved. He found himself staring right into it, so absorbed that when Elizabeth laid her hand on his shoulder, he nearly threw it into the air in fright.
“Simon saw it first. I think it freaked him out,” she whispered. She leaned right into his shoulder, breathing on the exposed skin of his neck. “I think it’s because it’s from so far away, and so old. Medical doctors deal with the human lifespan. We deal with eternity.”
Elzer swallowed and pulled out of her grasp. “Well, it’s strange, quartz perhaps, and odd there’s no mention of Luna 16 having brought back anything other than soil, but it is just a moon rock and there are tons of the things on Earth. The Americans brought so much back ….”
She shrugged. “If you think so.”
She was mocking him, but he tried hard not to show her it bothered him. Even before she met Simon, whilst she and Elzer were both at university in Prague, she had been proud of her superior abilities and intellect, never afraid to show them off. He’d always wondered if she was slumming when she was with him. Then he failed to get anywhere after his PhD, except the Technological Museum, where he was little more than a librarian, and she had her suddenly rich Czech family and her already-rich American father, and her top level research job at MIT.
“I’ll have a look through it,” he said. “Maybe take a few boxes back with me to Prague, but I doubt you’ll get much money for this stuff.”
“Oh, we’re not interested in money.” She sauntered over to the door, swaying her hips so that her velvet skirt rippled like liquid as it caught the light. “I’m going to see if Simon’s back. I’ll be outside if you need anything.”
Elzer pulled a chair over to the bench and settled down to look through the boxes. He photographed the strange, clear stone and leafed through the documents that accompanied it, though his Russian wasn’t good enough to get more than a general gist of their content. There were diagrams of some sort of apparatus attached to the stone, tables showing resonances they’d achieved when exposing it to different energy sources.
He found himself holding the stone again, several times, tossing it from one hand to the other and clasping his fingers to feel the cool crystal against his skin. The window in the lab looked out over the slope of the mountain, so that only the tips of the firs were visible, framing the pastel-blue sky. The Moon was already out, like a chalk drawing, nearly full, and Elzer tried to imagine the distance. He had bandied around terms like ‘a quarter of a million miles’ at university, but as he held the stone, he tried to envisage it and then to imagine the silence, the airless, deathly still surface of Earth’s satellite. A cold shiver rippled down his spine. The darkness and the silence had always drawn him to lunar studies and, every time he’d watched the grainy footage of the American missions there, had kept him fascinated. Sometimes, he wished the astronauts would just switch off their radios and record the natural sounds, or lack of same, of the Moon. He had always said that was what he would do, back in the days when he was still a student and still certain he could do anything he wanted. Perhaps that was this ‘sensitivity’ Elizabeth spoke about.
He leafed through a few more Russian reports, but tiredness was already creeping up on him. The strain of translating a language he was only been vaguely competent at did not help, but the last few documents he’d found were odd, and seemed to refer to some experiments carried out in the early 70s on the moon rock, again with diagrams of some sort of machinery connected to the stone, only, in these documents, he found, again and again, the phrase “человеческий субъект”, which Elzer was sure meant “human subject”. He stared at the pages for a long while, hoping to glean some further meaning but to no avail. With a sigh, he sat back and glanced at the pile of notes still waiting for his attention. He’d hoped to be done in a few hours, but the sky was darkening outside, the Moon growing more solid and white as pearl.
He found Elizabeth upstairs in the telescope room, stooped over the eyepiece, but when he tried the handle, the door refused to open. Elzer frowned. Why would she be working in a locked room? But she had heard him. She came over and unlocked the door.
“What are you doing?” Elzer asked.
“Nothing, just mucking about. What’s wrong? Have you found something?”
“No, I just wondered … It’s late and I’m tired and you said ….”
“Of course, your room. This way.” She pushed past and locked the door before he had a chance even to look into the room, then led him downstairs and out of the observatory into the clear, frosty evening. A short way behind the observatory was a small, detached house, much older than the rest of the complex, perhaps 1920s.
“The Germans used the villa as an office, though we don’t know what for, and we think the Russians’ chief scientist lived here,” she said. “So, the electricity’s connected and there’s gas heating. We’re staying here until we get the place sorted out.”
“What, exactly, are you going to do with it?” Elzer asked, looking back at the path. Over the tops of the trees, he could just make out the dome of the observatory reflecting back the gleaming Moon.
“Sell it, I suppose,” sighed Elizabeth. “It’s a shame it’s in the Czech Republic. I’ve always wanted my own observatory. But hardly convenient.”
She showed him to a neat, clean little bedroom. There were a few creaks on the parquet as she left, then the place fell into a sleepy silence, broken only by the whisper of the trees rocking in the gentle wind outside. Elzer dumped his bags and barely had the energy to change into his pyjamas before he collapsed onto the bed and fell asleep.
Perhaps it was exhaustion, the stress of meeting Elizabeth again, the knowledge that he was running at her beck and call like a lovesick teenager, but he slept fitfully. When he did manage to drift off, he sank into dreams that left him with a sickening coldness in his chest when he woke up. No matter how many times he interrupted the dreams, moreover, he always slipped back into the same scenario. He couldn’t tell where he was, because it was almost completely dark save a few glints of colour and reflections, as if he were in a room made of black glass. He could hear nothing, but it was no ordinary silence, the sound of an empty room; this was a complete absence of sound, as if any noise that tried to intrude would be sucked away by whatever force lay beyond the impenetrable dark and the glass.
In one dream, he ventured towards his own reflection and tried to look out. He caught a glimpse of lights in the distance, a hint of something below him, the massive sprawl of a city, but when he looked up, the effect continued, the snatches of refracted light carrying on to dizzying heights, as though whatever chamber he was in was beneath some far higher dome or covering. And the room, whenever he tried to look around, gave the impression of vastness, so large he knew he would never be able to reach the far side.
In the last one, the worst one, he realised he was not in this city of black glass alone. The hairs along his neck and shoulders prickled. Though he still heard nothing, he knew there was someone or something there with him. When he looked at the shadows, he thought he saw them shift, as though they were not shadows at all, but groups of something, and he knew they were watching him. He went to the glass again to look out, but felt the presence, closer than ever. He turned and, just before he awoke, he glimpsed a face, its form seeming to change every time it moved, though vaguely florid somehow, exploding out from a central point. It looked directly at him and let out a shriek that seemed to carry with it all the emptiness and desolation of a being alone in that vast darkness.
Dawn was creeping above the firs when Elzer sat up after this last dream and caught his breath, so he decided not to attempt sleep again.
He was aware of Elizabeth watching him at breakfast, though she said nothing and there was no sign of Simon. Elzer wondered if he should ask if something had happened, though decided against it, in case it seemed he was picking at cracks in their marriage.
“So what do you think?” Elizabeth asked him. “Anything useful?”
“I don’t know,” Elzer lied. His mind was already set on those reports, on setting up his laptop, finding a decent online Russian dictionary and seeing exactly what they were about.
“What about the rock?”
Elzer glanced up and found her staring at him, her eyes wide and excited. He shrugged and she went on.
“The crystal? Well, it’s fabulous, isn’t it? Did you read the reports?”
She smiled. “A little. My Russian’s not so good, but Simon’s is passable. He translated a few passages for me.”
Of course Simon speaks Russian, Elzer thought. Simon can do everything.
“I was intending to do that myself today,” he said, “though, if Simon’s already translated it, it would seem to be a waste of time.”
“I’ll fetch his papers,” said Elizabeth. She darted off before Elzer had a chance to argue. He ate his breakfast in silence, headachy from lack of sleep and still unable to shake off the full chill of his dream, as well as the nagging feeling that had been with him ever since he’d agreed to come to Karolinka, that there was something inherently wrong about the job.
Elizabeth returned with a wad of handwritten papers. Simon’s was a spidery hand, but easy to read, and Elzer skimmed until he found his passages on ‘human subjects’. He allowed himself a little moment of pride that he had been correct, though it soon fizzled out when he saw that Simon had translated the whole thing.
“Human Subject One was exposed to the electrically stimulated crystal for one hour, however, no notable effect was recorded. Subject One did report strange dreams the following night, but did not recall their nature.
“Human subject Two, similar results …,” and so it went on. After six subjects failed to produce more than a vague feeling of having had a bad dream, but were unable to recall the details, the scientist in charge apparently changed tack and opened up the brainpans of three of the subjects, inserting electrodes directly into the cerebrum. Subjects One and Two died. Subject Three was never mentioned again.
When he finished reading, Elzer glanced up and saw Elizabeth still studying him.
“Well?” she said. “What do you think?”
“I think you had a bunch of mad scientists living here,” Elzer replied. “Did it say what they were trying to achieve? I mean, why connect a rock to someone’s head?”
She smiled like a schoolgirl with a secret and came to sit next to him. “That’s what I wanted to know. But I think that was the main purpose of this observatory – at least, towards the end of its life. Like I said, I did a little research and most people don’t know anything, but I had heard rumours … Well, did you never wonder why, when they were so far ahead of the U.S. in every other part of the Space Race, that the first manned mission to the moon came from America? The Russians should’ve been there years before – they’d done all the groundwork – but they just stopped.”
She glanced around, as if checking for eavesdroppers, then went to one of the drawers in the kitchen dresser, pulling out a plastic folder. “We found these in the laboratory. According to the markings, they’re from the Luna 3 probe, transmitted back to Earth during its flyby of the lunar surface in 1959. But see here, this little crater with a kind of triangular structure … I’ve been a lunar astronomer since I was 15 and this was what caught my eye. It’s a crater called ‘Ukert’, in a region called ‘Sinus Medii’, right on the equator.’
Elzer shrugged and gave the grainy pictures a cursory glance. “So?”
“So, Sinus Medii is on the near side of the Moon. Luna 3, according to its mission statement and any official reports that came out, only photographed the far side. It was the first probe to take pictures of the far side, in fact, famous for it. So, what was it doing sending back pictures of this area?”
“Perhaps it got lost, it happens.”
Elizabeth sighed. “Then look at this.”
She showed him the next photograph. The image was again grainy, black-and-white, but the cratered surface of the Moon was still recognisable. She pointed with the edge of her fingernail at something near the edge of the frame, where a hazy, black line marked the encroaching lunar night.
“See this? It’s geometric, almost like a structure, or the supports for one.”
Elzer laughed. “Aliens? This is what you want me to look at?”
“Well what do you think it is?”
“A flaw in the photograph?”
She slipped the photo aside and showed him the next image, where the darkness had progressed a little father across the Moon, and there again was the little crisscross pattern.
“The notes accompanying the photographs said this building was set up, in Czechoslovakia, far away from the main focus of attention in Moscow, to look into the possibility that there had been something, possibly even a civilisation, on Earth’s moon. Whatever it was, they thought it looked as if it had been destroyed, bombarded, perhaps, by meteor activity. But it scared them enough to abandon a manned mission. And then Luna 16 brought back this crystal. According to the chief scientist here, the crystal was examined in Moscow first of all, but then he talks about officials in the space program having dreams, something about shadows and old cities made of black glass.”
Elzer straightened slightly.
“One man even claimed to have dreamed about a temple on Earth, a lunar temple, and what he was describing was evidently Stonehenge in England, but he talked about sacrifices to dark, shapeless gods and how the primitives cut open the skull of their victim to expose his brain and ‘let the shadows in.’ All in the light of the full moon.”
Elzer frowned at her, trying to find some hint of a practical joke or mockery in her eyes, but she seemed in deadly earnest.
“And you think the Russians tried this themselves?”
“They were trying to expose people to some sort of emanation from this crystal,” she said. “Now, you know as well as I do that quartz is a natural resonator, and it’s possible … Have you ever heard of the stone-tape theory?’
Elzer buried his face in his hands. This was why this felt wrong. Because she was having a nervous breakdown and dragging him down with her.
“It’s a line of thinking in parapsychology ….”
“‘Parapsychology?'” he asked, looking up. “So, are they ghost aliens, then?”
‘Listen to me. According to some researchers, certain types of stone, particularly those with a high quartz content like granite, can act as a recording medium. If a sufficient amount of energy is beamed at them, it can leave an imprint and, under the right circumstances, that recording can be played back. It’s one theory as to how a ghost can manifest itself, yes, but it’s also used in theoretical computing, the amount of data a quartz crystal can store ….”
“Yes, yes, I know, and what you’re saying is the Russians thought there was something stored on these crystals?”
“An imprint of something, yes, that’s what I think. Something older than anything we’ve ever experienced. They were working off the theory that it takes a human mind to act as the interface. Storing the data is all very well, but you can’t just hand someone a hard drive and expect them to read what’s on it.”
“It’s just a rock. And so what if people have dreams when it’s nearby? Maybe it’s … I don’t know.”
“You were working with it all afternoon,” she said. “What did you see?”
“I saw a rock.”
“But when you went to sleep, what did you see?”
She leaned forward and grabbed his hand, squeezing his fingers so tightly they hurt. “Tell me!”
“Elizabeth, this isn’t like you,” he said. “Maybe you’ve been working too hard, at MIT ….”
She let him go and cursed under her breath, then picked up her laptop bag from the chair in the corner, bringing out another folder. “You see these?” she asked, spreading pictures, clearer this time but still of the lunar surface, across the table. “These are from Lunar Orbiter 3 in 1967, of the same area, Sinus Medii. Look at this – this is an enlargement, but you see here, on the horizon?”
She pointed at a tiny blob, white against the black sky. “You see it just there, a little shard of stone or something sticking up out of the surface? How could something like that survive under constant bombardment from meteors? And here, in the analyses we had done, you can see the different light intensities inside it. It’s glass or crystal, just like our rock.”
“We had done?” Elzer said. “You already knew about this stuff?”
She straightened. “I’ve been a moonwatcher for years, Roman. I’ve seen things I can’t explain. Lights … A friend of mine at MIT contacted me to ask about these pictures, see if I had seen anything when I was doing my observations, and then I heard about this place. It didn’t take much to fake the paperwork, tell them I’d had a Czech great-grandmother who owned the land, get a few forged documents together”
“Do you not realise what this means? There’s something out there, something that might have been dead for millions of years, but which equally could be out there, still, watching us. What did you see, Roman? You sat with the crystal all night’ you must’ve seen something.”
“I had a strange dream. That isn’t evidence of any aliens in – ”
“What did you see?”
Elzer considered her for a long time before he answered. “I had a dream, sort of like you said. A city, perhaps, but it was too dark to see. Just silent and huge. And there was something there. I don’t know; it was very vague. I couldn’t focus on them, even when one came up to me.”
“You saw them?”
“No, that’s what I’m saying. I sort of saw one, but it was as if I couldn’t really look at it.”
She beamed at him. “My God. I knew it. I knew you would be open to them. You always were sensitive, even if you wouldn’t admit it, Roman.”
“What are you talking about?”
He saw her smile twitch slightly and her gaze shifted to something behind him, but before he could look, a sharp, hot pain flared in his neck and his body seemed to turn liquid. He toppled forward as he tried to stand and collapsed at her feet. He then saw Simon, syringe still in his gloved hands, coming round to join her. Then he couldn’t hold onto consciousness any longer.
He dreamed again, this time of an open sky and the full moon directly above him, its pockmarked surface like a skull, gazing down at him. There were stones all around, broad and tall and rough-hewn, looming black against the moonlight. Torches burned between them and figures flitted in and out of the shadows, chanting, each wearing robes that seemed maggot-white in the torchlight and masks of strange, contorted faces. He was bound and saw one of the figures approach with a silver scythe in hand, saw him bring it down hard towards his skull. He felt the agony of the blow across his crown and screamed.
As he drifted back to wakefulness, however, he realised the pain was gone. He could feel nothing, just his own thoughts, as if that was all that remained of him.
“Roman?” Elizabeth’s voice, soft and nearby.
He opened his eyes and saw her leaning over him, smiling, with the laboratory window and the pale, full moon behind her. He tried to speak, but nothing happened. Besides his eyes, which he found he could move slightly to shift his line of sight, his body was inert. He could hear Simon then, too, moving about in the background but beyond his field of vision.
“It’s all right,” Elizabeth whispered. “You’ll be fine. You’re what we’ve needed.”
She withdrew to one of the benches, where they had set up a machine, one Elzer recognised from the Russian reports, and there was the crystal, sitting on a little tripod and attached with several wires. Beside it was a silver kidney bowl, flecked with blood, and just the hint of some hair and a little snatch of scalp sticking up over the rim.
“It won’t hurt,” Elizabeth told him. “Simon’s given you something. Don’t worry. Just relax. We’re monitoring your brain patterns. With any luck, you’ll finally get us the answers we’ve been looking for.”
At first, he felt nothing, only heard the gentle hum of the device, but then there came the prickling feeling that someone was nearby, though he could see Simon and Elizabeth standing by the bench, five feet away. The things closed in around him, unseen, just shadows in the corners of his eyes, and he found himself staring at the bright, full moon, its preternatural silence pressing against his ears, the stillness of its landscape seeming to close in around him, filling his mind’s eye, as Elizabeth and Simon and the lab and the machine all sank away into nothing.
Last of all, he saw its face swim into view, composed of shadow and awkward, unnatural angles, never still, always shifting. And then it screamed.
Bio: J.M. Ramage was born in Dunfermline, Scotland. She studied stage management and worked as a tour guide in London, England, then returned home to study law and history. She worked with BBC Scotland and, for several years, with Scottish Television before moving to Prague, Czech Republic, in 2011. When she isn’t writing, she leads nighttime tours around Prague’s mysterious and haunted locations.