Safehouse

Vibrations rippled in my ears, and slowly, foggily, I responded. With no sense of time or location, my mind instinctively grasped for memories that were no longer there. In that moment, I knew nothing. This blank slate received only minimal etchings from my surroundings. It was dark, it was warm. I was lying on something soft, pinned down by the residual weight of torpor from what must surely have been a long hibernation. The air was completely still, oppressively devoid of animation or odour, although there was a faint saccharine hint that stuck uncomfortably in my nostrils. For maybe ten minutes (although it was impossible to judge), this was all that I had. Then, the room observed my wakefulness and began in turn to stir. Staccato clicks and whirrs came from the walls as long-dormant mechanisms resumed their operation. Sympathetic to my confusion, the lights that covered the ceiling sparked dimly at first, revealing more and more of the room in their slow crescendo.

I was in the middle, wrapped up tightly and with alarming precision, in the sheets of a single bed. The room was fairly small, no more than twenty feet across, with a yet smaller antechamber ferreted away in one of the corners. I guessed (correctly) that this would contain a shower and latrine. In the opposite corner was a small console attached to some kind slot in the wall. I recognized this as the kind of food and drink dispenser typically seen in cheap housing, where space was a concern and luxury was not. The wall facing me as I groaned into a seated position was dominated by a large screen, currently inactive. Once the lights had reached the full extent of their powers, I could make out some detail on the walls. They had clearly been a pristine white at some point, but were now maculated with thick, grey patches of damp. This was most prevalent on the ceiling, where the beginnings of mould were emerging from the diameter of a hefty metal hatch, the only apparent point of in- or egress from the room. Also of note were a series of tally marks that had been scratched into the wall, although my eyes were still too gummy with rheum to enumerate them properly.

As I sat, dazed and bewildered, the room took it upon itself once more to assist me. The screen flickered into action, tinting my field of view with a placid blue light. There was another flicker, and then there appeared a nondescript human figure, clearly digital. It ‘spoke’ directly into my ears with a voice that was just as flat and artificial as the rest of its design.

Greetings client, and welcome to your VIP Safehouse experience. We offer the ultimate in personal security and comfort. I will be your host during your stay with us. Refreshments are available from the console in the back-left corner of the unit. Entertainment is available on demand through the main screen or your aural implants. As a lifetime subscriber, you have unlimited days remaining on your plan. I will alert you when the danger has passed. My script is capable of processing all common queries and requests, so please do not hesitate to alert me if you need anything. Enjoy your stay.

I was dumbfounded, momentarily, before I took the computer up on its offer and started bombarding it with questions. I cycled through the expected permutations of who, where, what, why and when, trying in vain to extract any small measure of understanding from my only available source of information. My attempts were met with stubborn monotony, the host replying in each instance as follows:

To ensure your psychological wellbeing, certain harmful pieces of information have been redacted and withheld in accordance with my calculations. Safehouse offers the ultimate in mental and physical wellbeing for these trying times.

The times were apparently so trying that “certain harmful pieces of information” extended to virtually everything. I eventually realised that any further questioning would be pointless, and resigned myself, for now at least, to ignorance.

This left me with the burden of time, and the question of how best to spend to it. My first thought was to eat, and so I spent some time wrestling with the refreshment console. However the device sourced its materials, it seemed that the chain of supply had collapsed somewhat. This was evidenced by a rather basic selection and a large number of blacked-out options. In the final analysis, my choices boiled down to nutrient-rich gruel (with or without additional sugar and a handful of dried flavour packages), and water (with or without additional stimulants or depressants). Bowl of sweetened gruel in hand, I decided to explore the entertainment options. This was achieved, upon experimentation, by gesturing towards the screen. Each of the various categories of media provided ended up directing me to the same garish error message, which seemed to grow increasingly disingenuous in its apologies the more I saw of it. I was forced to reach the conclusion that access to this data had been permanently lost, and my VIP Safehouse unit was in a state of considerable disrepair. Still groggy from my long sleep, I decided that it would suffice for now to drink the day away. I used my gruel spoon to mark an additional tally on the wall, then lost myself in flask after flask of depressant-enriched water. The effect was actually quite pleasant.

After a while, the lights began to dim. I took this as my host’s way of informing me that it was night-time outside, and obligingly stumbled back to bed. My extemporised inebriation proved sufficient to see me off, and within a few minutes I was asleep, numb and unaware once again.

Sadly, this condition did not last. I was awoken by a piercing scream from somewhere outside, shrill and lurid enough to stop my heart for a moment even through the walls of my cage. I lay frozen in the dark for a second, unable to move for instinctual fear of revealing my presence. There was then a riot of shuffling, like the movement of hundreds of feet through wet soil. This prompted another scream, more vivid than the last, and there followed a cacophony of braying and squealing, a ceaseless, glottal violence that threw me into a blind panic. I rushed into a corner and huddled with my sheets, shouting urgently for lights and sounds to distract me from whatever was going on up above. The host, following my orders, turned the lighting to full power and attempted to fill my ears with music that no longer existed, resulting instead in a fuzzy white noise. The brightness allayed my fright to some extent, and the drone was almost enough to smother the din. Still, it remained at the back of the soundscape, now distant but no less present. I slept timidly, one proverbial eye open at all times even as the lights tapered out once again.

The next day, I was understandably shaken. I felt vulnerable, confused, and afraid. I asked what the source of that commotion had been (in slightly more colourful terms).

To ensure your psychological wellbeing, certain harmful pieces of information have been redacted and withheld in accordance with my calculations. Safehouse offers the ultimate in mental and physical wellbeing for these trying times.

The answer was as expected, and continued to be so for the next dozen or so questions. The host was single-minded in its determination to keep me from harm, and no amount of tantrum could sway it. At last, I asked if I would be allowed to leave, if I chose.

Clients are free to leave the Safehouse unit at any time. Please be advised that the current danger level outside of the unit is: critical.

Any mind that I had to instigate my own release was immediately quashed by the memory of those sounds, still fresh enough to make me shiver and shrink back into the corner. My inquisitive fire now decidedly cold, I returned to my life of gruel and drugged water. I marked another tally on the wall, and paced fretfully around the room, observing as I did the growth and darkening of the moist patches. They were almost imperceptibly slick to the touch. Above, the patch of mould on the ceiling had spread overnight, and was now releasing a slightly fruity aroma that never quite seemed to fade into the background. Starved for diversions, the time passed slowly. This consuming boredom was a double-edged sword, in that my eagerness for time to pass was tempered by my dread of nightfall. I asked the host regularly for updates on the time, counting down the minutes until the unseen sun went down and embracing the blurring effects of my ‘water’. At last, the lights started to dim. By this point I was too drunk to be anything but tired, least of all afraid, and so had little trouble getting to sleep.

It was not long before the unknown grotesquery outside reminded me of my causes for distress. There was no scream that night, but it otherwise began as it had before. The shuffling of feet, this time more and with greater frenzy, and then the disgusting choir, a wall of animal grunts and rasps, screeches and tortuously extended, retching breaths. I lay sweating and disoriented, until I finally demanded that the always-observant computer mute the world again. The white noise returned, still not quite loud enough. I was determined to sleep, though, and pushed my head into the pillow, doing my best to ignore the nauseating assault, becoming all the while more and more sure that I was the intended target of this invasion. I was safe within my walls, albeit imprisoned, and that would have to do. Just as I was beginning to believe myself on that front, my thinly waxing security was shattered by the striking of metal. Something was pounding against the safehouse walls with inhuman force and vehemence. My chest leapt with fear, and I was overcome with terror so intense as to be completely paralysing. Unable even to make the pretence of an escape, I cowered, listening with ever greater alertness to each clang and scrape, hoping against hope for a cessation, one way or another. A miracle, some other victim to take my place, or else a quick and final success for my tormentors.

The night dragged on, until artificial daybreak marked the start of my artificial relief. Some of the lights now flickered in and out of life, presumably having been damaged during the siege. Their electric crackle merged with a stochastic dripping from the mould to form a sort of maddening, unstable polyrhythm. Stretched over the course of hours, this proved so nettling to my already over-taxed brain that I asked the host to keep the white noise constant until I instructed it otherwise. The supply of depressants had run out, and so I was forced to consume my gruel sober. I moved in and out of corners, swaying and cursing to myself, desperate but lacking the direction either to act or to implode. I added two tally-marks, forgetting the first after a protracted bout of morbid fantasy in which the walls were finally torn down, and I was exposed. In summary, I was disoriented and disconsolate, in dire need of a solution but in no state to find one. All thoughts of escape lead to the hatch, and all thoughts of the hatch lead to suffering and danger. This safehouse was the only difference between me and that scream on the first night, and I would not discard it for all the possible freedoms in the world.

Once more into the dark. Shuffling, then the scrabbling of prying digits through loose dirt. The expected cacophony followed, hoarser, more bestial, and closer than before. Even with my ears shielded by a constant assortment of random signals, the sounds seemed to crawl in through obscured fissures, drawing nearer until the trill of each howl and wail could be felt against my skin. The hammering of unknown tools or appendages against my walls, this time frantic and all-surrounding, a promise of harm to me and me alone, a percussive reminder that my defences were only as stubborn as my assailants. I cried.

Exhausted and despondent, I stumbled listlessly around the room for the first few hours of the next day. The decay had proceeded hurriedly overnight, the walls now gleaming slightly across their wet patches, the mould now dangling in mucilaginous strands. I could hear only my life-preserving white noise, but the sight and scent of the place where just as upsetting to me as its sounds by this point. I took my gruel with stimulant, mumbled, shouted, and paced. It would not do. I had to open the hatch. I ordered my host to remove my sonic blanket, and it obliged. I asked what the situation was like, up above.

The current danger level outside of the unit is: -critical-.

A newfound energy building inside me (whether chemical or legitimate courage), I demanded to be told more. I needed details. I needed the truth, no matter how gruesome.

To ensure your psychological wellbeing, certain harmful pieces of information have been redacted and withheld in accordance with my calculations. Safehouse offers the ultimate in mental and physical wellbeing for these trying times.

Shaking with what I told myself was righteous vigour, I demanded my release. A ladder descended unceremoniously from a hidden panel bordering the exit hatch, and in numb ardour I began to climb it. The rungs were icy cold, in painful contrast to a room that I now realised was perfectly clement. They had not escaped the clutches of the mould, and my fingers threatened to revolt each time I commanded them to wrap around a new layer of oily, unwelcome life. Determined, I fought through until I had my hand clasped around the dial that would, if turned, grant my freedom. I paused. The stench was thick, filling my nostrils with nauseating, virile sweetness. The hatch permitted only the faintest threads of air through, but from this proximity their icy gossamer could be felt with upsetting clarity. I strained my ears, hoping to make out some sign of the danger above, something to justify a delay. This appeal to my senses invited a flood of recalled noise, a vivid, horrifying replay of all that I had heard, the braying and squealing closer and more intimate than ever before, emanating from my own mind. My limbs failed me, and I fell to the floor. In unspoken triumph, the ladder ascended back into its moorings. Defeated, I marked another day on the wall and resigned myself to another night.

Trapped in the dark, choking in a world of savage percussion and animal song, amygdala burning with threat, ganglia thrashing wildly, holding myself in a comfortless, scraping embrace.

Critical stress levels detected. Do you wish to activate emergency wellbeing procedures?

Yes, without a single thought.

There was an electric snap in my skull, and everything was calm, null and comatose. Another hibernation.

The Listening Room, 1952 by Rene Magritte

The End

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