by Jean Graham
A prequel to the OUTER LIMITS episode “The Forms of Things Unknown”
Based upon characters and situations created by Joseph Stefano.
“The strangest of the strange” accurately describes this OUTER LIMITS episode, the pilot for an unsold series entitled “The Unknown.” Its pivotal character, Tone Hobart, was both insane and brilliant: a classic mad genius who succeeded in tilting the cycles of time and bringing the dead back to life. Only two vague hints are given as to just how Tone came to be in Kolas’ dark, mysterious house. To Casha and Leona (two women who have taken refuge in his home after committing a murder), the blind man says that Tone “stumbled upon my house in the dead of night, just as you did. He was in flight, just as you were.” And some time later, he speaks of the device Tone has constructed upstairs: “He screamed in his delirium... His lifeless form had been hanging there for almost a week, bound to his time-tilting device by rare magnetic wires. He’d had no food, and no water. It was a cold time. But he had died for want of more than bodily sustenance. I unfastened him, and carried him to his bed...”
The poet's eye, in a fine frenzy
Voices. A dog’s sharp yap, and the bone-snapping sound of a twig under booted feet. Shadows, stretched beneath a waxing moon, are bisected by long spears of light, sweeping, searching. For me.
I flee into the blackness, mindless of the splintered fingers that have reached out to tear at my clothing. One of them snatches at my feet and trips me, but I stumble on and past it, the odor of lichen and damp earth still clinging to me from the fall.
The dog bays. Shouts echo between the dead tree trunks. More light swords pierce the gloom.
My feet strike damp clay and fly out from beneath me; I am sliding, rolling, until the shock of cold water envelops me. Stagnation assailing my mouth and nostrils, I struggle up again and run, splashing, until the far bank meets my feet and I climb, a primordial creature emerging from the slime.
The sounds of pursuit have diminished now. I hear only my own labored breathing and the squashing of my mud-filled shoes.
Unexpectedly, a shape looms out of the darkness ahead. A silhouette of gables framed against the moonlight. An isolated house; no lights in its bleak windows. In spirit, it looks rather like the place from which I’ve come: as drearily repressive as that cold steel fortress the euphemistic call a “hospital.”
I move nearer. The trees cast jagged patterns on angular storm cellar doors. The lock is broken. I anticipate the squeal of rusted hinges when I lift the right-hand side, but there is only the ashen hiss of leaves displaced by my action. The door is damp and clammy to the touch. Inside, aged wooden steps sigh wearily beneath my weight, like lost souls.
They are here, too, the dead. Here in this cloying earthen place. I close the door above me, and blind, grope my way to a juncture in the chill, rock-hewn wall. There I gratefully collapse, and savor the chance to breathe once more.
A warmth has mingled with the damp beneath my clinging sleeve. A touch evinces stinging pain. The dead and splintered trees have taken their revenge upon the living, though in my haste I have not noticed the wounds until now. It hardly matters. The cold, wet, pain and hunger are all superceded by my need for sleep...
A shout, and the pounding of a fist on a door jar me awake. Disoriented in the total darkness, I start up, clutching at the rocky soil of the cellar floor. Some insect writhes beneath the weight of my fingers, and skitters away when I lift my hand. The pounding echoes above me again, louder now.
With an effort, I can just discern the outline of a stair travelling upward to a door. Something flickers in the small, barred space that is a window in that door: the faint light, perhaps, of a candle. I hear another door, bolted, being opened, and at once the stern policemen’s voices demand to know if a stranger has been seen in the vicinity.
I wait, not breathing, as an old man’s voice replies that he has seen no one. He can see no one.
The policeman mumbles an apology. Has he heard anyone then?
Whom do they seek, the old man wonders. A smuggler? A thief? A murderer, perhaps?
No, I think. Tone Hobart has been none of those things. He is only a young man touched by the insanity of desiring to resurrect the dead. For this the laws of God and man decree he must be locked away.
These things, in coarser terms, the callers above have outlined. But their erstwhile host has said they will not find their quarry here. The thump of the huge door closing reverberates down the dark stair.
My relief at this is short-lived. The candle has come to the cellar door, and with the hollow clank of metal, light spills through the opening and down the littered steps. The man on the landing stares, but does not look at me. His eyes are empty, unseeing. I wonder briefly why he needs the candle, and then realize that he must have brought it solely for the benefit of the men at his door. Has he brought it now for me?
“You may come out now,” he says to the cellar. “They have gone.” And when I do not answer, he calls, “Mr. Hobart?”
I rise, apprehensive, back pressed to the wall. They have told him my name, of course. That is how he knows it. Yet it is disconcerting, to have your name spoken so by a stranger. Like the ancients who believed that to know a man’s true name was to possess his soul.
“I shall leave the door open,” the old man says. “There is a fire in the grate, and food and drink, to which you are welcome. When you feel assured that you are safe, you have only to come up the stairs.”
Bending, he leaves the candle in the doorway. His dark shape retreats. It is several moments before I garner the courage to accept his invitation. Ascending the stairs, I grasp the candle holder by its base, still warm from his touch, and its halo of light moves with me past another stair, through double doors into a great room, nearly barren save a few sparse chairs and the fireplace. He is there, tending flames that cast demon distortions in the black of his eyes.
“Are you the master of this house?” I ask him without preamble.
“My name is Kolas,” he says to the fire. “You need not worry about others. There is no one.”
I take a chair beside the fire, and find the promised food and drink already at my side. But when I reach to take the steaming cup of tea, the injured arm reminds me harshly of its presence.
My sharp intake of breath turns his eyes toward me. “You are hurt.”
“No. Not very much.” In the firelight, I examine the gash beneath my tattered sleeve. “’Tis not so deep as a well nor so wide as a church door.’ I lift the tea cup to my lips and savor the flood of warmth it brings. Life flowing into life.
Partaking of his bread and meat, I fail to notice that my host has gone until he has returned with medicines and bandages, and clothes that will be illfitting, but clean and dry.
“Why do you live in such a house, alone?” I ask when we have treated and bound my hurts. It is, I know, part of the reason he has welcomed me. His loneliness is a tangible thing; it walks before and after him.
“A blind man,” he answers, “is always alone.”
“But there were others here, once.”
“Yes. Long ago. They have gone now.”
“Do you mean they went away? Or...did they die?”
He returns to tending the fire, as though my question has suddenly disconcerted him. “All men must die,” he says, resigned.
“Yes. But some die more timely deaths than others. Would you not like to see them again? The ones who’ve gone before?” I can see his puzzlement at that, even though his back is to me. No doubt he wonders now what manner of lunatic he has welcomed into his home. I leave the chair to stand beside him at the hearth. “Think of it. For all those souls who died before their time to live again. For all the love they left behind to breathe again, and be fulfilled again. Is it so heinous a thing to want to right the wrongs of time? Is it?”
He faces me now, but all fear and doubt have fled from him. The walking loneliness has vanquished them both. “Come,” he says. “There is a room upstairs, where you may rest.”
I know, as I retrieve the candle to follow him, that he does not sense the dead who remain here. I lightly touch the polished banister as we ascend the stairs, and feel the presence of a child who once played upon the railing. On the landing, there are memories of a man, his wife, and the enmity they shared. Did one come to kill the other, I wonder?
What other pasts still linger here? How many people died untimely deaths within these walls?
An uncompromising taskmaster, Death.
“Do you not hear them, Kolas?” I ask as we traverse the shadowed hall. “The sighs of all those who lived and died here?”
“No “ he says. “They do not speak to me.”
I smile. “’Of the myriads who before us passed the door of Darkness through, no one returns to tell us of the road which to discover, we must travel too.’ Yet they are here, Kolas. They are here.”
He opens the door to a room with a bed, a bureau and a single kerosene lamp. “It is seldom I am able to speak with the living,” he says. “I do not know about the dead.”
I place the guttering candle on the bureau, and stare into its flame. “We begin to die as soon as we are born. And the end is linked to the beginning.” He nods. “Good night, Mr. Hobart,” he says simply, and closes the door.
The dancer arrived today. She is a touching surprise–one I had not expected. But Kolas’ messengers are more efficient than I’d thought.
Three weeks have passed since I took refuge in his cellar. Three weeks through which I have found the Special Room at the hall’s end, where I shall build the device. In another room, I have found that Kolas secrets a multitude of clocks: all the clocks, he says, that ever served the house when there were people in it. He no longer has need of them, he says, for time has no meaning to him now. But I tell him he is wrong. It has every meaning. Time holds all the universe in bondage. And I wish to break those bonds.
I will move the clocks into the Special Room.
All that I need to construct the device, Kolas has, through his messengers, been able to provide. Magnetic wires, tools, and the generator to power the single strand of lights for the hall.
I do not ask him how his messengers obtain some of these items, nor do I care. But I am pleased at their latest acquisitions. They have brought the only two things that I regretted leaving at my former place of residence.
One is the dancer.
She is the keeper, though she makes no sound, of a tune my mother loved. She sat upon our grand piano once, and waltzed all the while my mother played. And thus that best-loved piece became indelibly the dancer’s theme in my young mind. I hear it sing each time I touch the gentle balance or watch light refract and play about the spinning, silver toy.
The other item is a letter; a memory of my father as the dancer is that of my mother. It is written in a childish hand, and says, “Dearest Father; Do not be angry with me for leaving school. I am interested only in experimenting with ways to bring dead people back to life. I want to bring Mother back. Your loving son, Tone.”
Dancer and letter are the only fragile bridges to my past remaining. When I told Kolas about them, I never dreamed he could retrieve them from that place. He asked me to sketch out the floor plan, and said the messengers would deal with the rest.
He asked little more about the hospital, except once, if it had been at all like a prison. I told him briefly of the needles and platitudes and suffocating tedium. To imprison the body, I said, is merely punishment. But to imprison the mind... That is the vilest of cruelties.
Hospital is a place best left in the dead quiet past.
The device is ready now to be tested.
Two months of work have honed it, sculptured it into the image of my mind’s conception: a platform through which immutable time’s cycles may be tilted. If I can make it work, the coiling planes of time will tumble into one another for just that fraction of a fraction of a moment that can bring the dead back to the living.
It can be done. I know it.
The dancer is spinning on top of my bureau; the letter to Father beside her. The one approves my efforts; the other remains disdainful. And so I set her figure whirling once again, to let the music fill my mind and banish long ago phantoms of harsh, angry voices.
Kolas’ rap at my door dissolves the melody. The dancer slows, stops. Soft light from her balance prisms patterns on the letter’s page. They quiver as she totters on her perch.
“I have brought the items you requested, Mr. Hobart,” Kolas says when I open the door. “The food and provisions I have placed in the Special Room. As to the plant...” He proffers the withered remains of a potted geranium, and I accept it gratefully.
“It is perfect, Kolas. Thank you.’ I carry the moribund gift out into the hall, and pass with it beneath the harshly glowing strand of bulbs that marches toward the Room. Kolas follows, silent, in my wake, but pauses short of trailing me inside, where the provisions he has promised reside on a table near the door. There is enough for five days, the length of time I anticipate the experimentation to last.
“When I have closed the door, Kolas, please do not open it again, for any reason. My work must not be interrupted.”
“It will not be.” He extends a hand into the doorway. “To your success, Mr. Hobart.”
Wordlessly, I shake his broad, thick hand. I watch then as he turns to go, and I wonder what he privately thinks of these affairs. Whatever his opinion, I muse as I swing shut the door, Kolas has proved in our three months of acquaintance to be a man of his word.
My testing will not be disturbed.
Success has come even sooner than I’d hoped. Not a full day has passed, yet the device has proved its worth! The geranium, near dead when Kolas brought it, lives again, a healthy, thriving plant once more. As I had hoped, the cycles tipped, and it slid into a living present from the all-confining silence of the past.
It is alive! And it has proven that the tyranny of time is not inviolate after all.
Now to test the theory further.
I have run an electrical line from the generator to the central post of the device. It is the same hub from which the time wires radiate. My left hand I have secured to those wires, and with my right, I reach with confidence to touch the electrically charged pole...
The numbing fire of the current races through me. I feel my body stiffen, and the wires at my left wrist cut deeply into flesh as the spasming hand, independent of mind, attempts to free itself. The generator hums a tuneless ballad, then obeys the command of its timer and closes off power to the extra line. My right hand at once flies from the post backward, entangling itself in more magnetic wire. Muscles spasm, going rigid and then limp so that I must resemble some insect twitching in a silver web.
The ticking of the clocks is a roar in my ears. The odor of burnt flesh is strong. Yet I feel nothing. I can neither move nor cry out. Shadows obscure my vision.
Is this the preamble to death?
Suspended, I wait. But instinctively, I know that I have failed. The current has been insufficient. The creator of Time’s-undoing has blundered at the executioner’s art.
Already the voices of the dead are here, derisive at my folly. I hear them whisper in the rhythm of the clocks.
This would-be conqueror of time.
He cannot even die correctly.
Something drips onto the wooden floor; a tiny spot of crimson that is soon joined by another. I cannot lift my head to look. But I am certain all the same that the time wires have dutifully severed a vein in my wrist. It is not the swift mode of death that I had chosen. But it will suffice.
I do not know how many hours – or days – have stolen past me now. Is it not an irony that the dying should lose track of the very Thing which is about to swallow them?
Kolas’ provisions still wait patiently upon the table. The clocks, uncaring, measure on.
Abruptly, the sensation of falling engulfs me. I see the floor, pooled with blood, rushing up as though to strike me – and then drawing away. It tilts, recedes, and finally rights itself beneath my feet. The dizziness subsiding, I touch my right hand to my head – and jerk it away to stare in wonder at a wrist unscathed, unfettered...
I whirl, and behind me on the wires hangs the figure of my lifeless twin. He is pale and hollow-eyed, the straw-blond hair askew across a sweat-damp forehead. I touch, but cannot feel, his cheek. I cannot move him.
We are partitioned. He my substance, I his soul. Time would conspire now to separate us further, but I will rob it of that opportunity. I have but to touch the wires, to spin the dancer’s balance out of time and place.
But I cannot touch them.
I can do nothing to affect them at all. The designated time for its automatic function long past, my creation merely gapes at me, a smug reminder of my inefficacy.
I must find Kolas. Somehow I must show him what has to be done.
My steps to the door are halted by the snap and whine of breaking wire. The body lurches for a gruesome moment in its radius of metal light, then droops once more, still caught within the filaments. Yet its movement has triggered by chance the wires that are needed to–
Clawed fingers clutch my heart and, yanking savagely, wrench me toward the lifeless thing upon the wires. It stiffens, jerks, and it ... we ... draw in a tortured breath of stagnant air. Pain washes over me, a torrent of ills from bleeding wrists to thirst-swollen tongue. I am alive. But I am still imprisoned.
The clocks tick madly from their unresponsive walls.
The door remains impassive.
My head tilts backward in the bright confining strands, and from somewhere as yet untouched by the body’s deprivation, I find the strength of a primal voice.
It is hours, days, before Kolas’ heavy tread can be heard outside the door. I can see (without seeing) that he is hesitant to disobey my long-ago request that he not enter the room. He calls my name, but strength spent, I cannot answer.
Another eternity passes before he has finally overcome caution and forced open the door. Then at once, his firm, gentle hands are on my own, working to free me from the wires.
He lifts me as easily as a parent takes up a child, and with blindness no hindrance to this long familiar path, carries me back to the room where the dancer is waiting.
She moves in the brisk wake of our passing, turning slowly in her arc as Kolas places me upon the bed. He is speaking, but I do not hear his words. My mind is reeling like the dancer on her silver tray.
Time cycles tipped and broken.
Death tumbling into life.
All the love left over can be found again at last. Mothers, children, husbands, wives. Untimely endings finally made to right.
I have defeated Death, and somewhere, out there, there is another with whom I shall prove it was no accident.
The dead can live again. I am the proof.
It can be done.
All that tread
(This story first appeared in HERE LIES ILLYA KURYAKIN in 1985)
The troopers march along the street,
Devils dressed in black,
A single soldier turns his head,
And sees me looking back.
I stand there frozen to the spot,
None so scared as I,
And then he doffs his helmet,
Smiles and winks an eye.
Soldier, are you human then?
Did you burn my land?
Soldier, will you tell me?
For I don’t understand.
– Judith Proctor