The Backwards Man
Warner Robins, Georgia
I’ve seen a few posts over the years making fun of our consistent skepticism, pointing out what they believed to be formulaic episode writing. One of the more memorable ones I saw was “CA episode format: hear about spooky thing, not believe in spooky thing, find spooky thing, be spooked, repeat.” They were less actual complaints and more playful jabs, but it was still a tiny bit irritating. The reason for this apparent inconsistency, why we could see so many things and still have doubts when someone called us up and told us about a monster in the woods, is that we cut out all of the dead leads. For every one episode where we showcased something supernatural or paranormal, we had ten scrapped ones of us muddling through woods and abandoned buildings, waiting to spot this or that random urban legend, and looking stupid when it didn’t show. To you, it might have looked like yet another plausible source we were scoffing at. To us, it was the twelfth imaginary boogeyman we were going to waste a whole day trying to find. I hope some of that is apparent in my writings. Getting a peek behind the scenes may make it easier to understand why we did some things the way we did. Even so, it’s worth repeating before we start talking about the Backwards Man. After all, it’s far from the strangest thing we heard about. It’s not even close. But we treated it with an air of doubt until we saw it. Maybe that’s not fair; we treated it with outright disbelief until we saw it. But my point is, we had reasons. Luckily for us, though, we have seen stranger. And at the end of the day, that made all the difference. *** Our heads were in a weird place in Georgia, and especially in Warner Robins itself. I’m not exactly sure what to call it; somewhere between a doldrums and a funk, I guess. Most of the work we were doing was for “Faces of America,” and that was getting pretty old. My patience for the interviews was nonexistent at this point, and even Zoey’s near endless enthusiasm was beginning to tire. On top of that, we were coming off a string of failed investigations for Creepy America. We didn’t necessarily need them to pan out; the last three episodes had come pretty fast, so we still had plenty of time to find something. But the quick succession we had from Monolith to Monday to the Reaper had energized us to attack the next episode of Creepy America with gusto. Now, five dead leads later, that energy was beginning to turn. “Rrgh.” Zoey rubbed her eyes, then pushed the laptop off of her stomach. She was sprawled out on the RV couch. “Is there anything we have to do today?” I looked over from my seat at the booth. “Well, we need to edit the Mississippi interviews, call up the bank…” “But is there anything we have to do?” I thought about it, then shrugged. “I guess not. Why?” “I want a break. Brain needs to be unplugged.” “Yeah, that doesn’t sound like a bad idea.” I stretched, then bent over and picked the laptop off the floor. “You check the channel’s email yet?” “One guy with a blurry UFO pic. One guy talking about how he saw Bigfoot one time. A shitty attempt at a creepypasta, and somebody talking about how his sister’s-friend’s-step-cousin’s-gym teacher might have seen something one time, so, you know,” she gave a dismissive hand wave, “the usual suspects.” I opened the laptop. The browser was opened to our email and, sure enough, there were four items in the inbox. The first was a long, incomprehensible wall of text, void of any paragraphs or punctuation, that contained someone’s encounter with Bigfoot ‘or rossie as he liked to be called.’ I scanned the text for a bit, but quickly clicked off once ‘rossie’ teleported the man to the inside of our hollow Earth’s core to give him a tour. The second was even easier to dismiss. All that was there was the email’s title, ‘I HAVE PROOF OF ALIENS’, and an attached jpeg of a giant silver smudge that really could have been anything. There must have been cave paintings out there with better image quality. The third one was promising. It was a campfire story that had gotten passed around someone’s friend group quite a bit about a girl who had wandered into the woods during a camping trip and disappeared, only to reappear five years later, in the same woods, exactly as she had been the day she disappeared. She hadn’t even aged. When questioned the girl claimed that she had followed a ‘strange moonbeam’ into the woods and entered into a field with a lone, solitary tower in the center, emitting constant howling and laughing into the night air. She became frightened and ran off, and came back to discover she had been missing for five whole years. The story ended with her getting committed to an insane asylum because every time she walked in front of a mirror, she would scream, break the glass, and begin cutting into her face with the broken shards. If asked, all she would say was that there was ‘something wrong with her reflection.’ Two years later, they found her dead in her room. She had snuck a glass sliver under her tongue and used it to peel all of the skin off of her face, bleeding to death soon after it was done. Supposedly, nobody knew it was happening because she stayed completely silent while mutilating herself. It immediately set off my internal radar, especially the lost time part. I’d kept my ear low to the ground for that detail ever since Timothy Chapman’s Monday. The ending seemed fake, drummed up details for a little more drama, but the rest seemed very, very real. My heart dropped as I saw the other browser tabs, though. Zoey had thought so too, and the next five to six tabs all contained Google searches with the names of the people involved and the forest it had taken place in. Nothing came back to corroborate any of the details. Even the name of the woods didn’t match any known area. If it did happen, there was no way to prove it. I sighed, then clicked on the last email. To my simultaneous relief and disappointment, it was brief and to the point: “So the last episode you guys did, you asked for people to send in requests for things to investigate. Well, there’s something strange here in my hometown of Warner Robins, Georgia. We call it the Backwards Man. It hides in the woods. It looks like a man in a suit, but his joints are all backwards and he’s got this really wide grin. All he does is stare. He shows up at random, and he doesn’t move, even when we point at him. This is a picture my friend drew:” And underneath, a sketchy pencil drawing of a man in a business suit and a bowler hat, crouching behind a fallen tree. The joints had been reversed; the elbows and knees were pointed forwards, instead of backwards like they were supposed to, and the palms of the hands looked like they rested outwards, as if someone had taken his wrists and rotated them 180 degrees. Other than that, and the crazy grin going literally from ear to ear, it looked normal. The email ended there. “Nice drawing, at least,” I said. Zoey scoffed. “You responded to any of these yet?” “No,” she admitted. “You mind?” “Yeah, alright.” I copied and pasted a generic ‘thank you for supporting the show’ email to ‘rossie’ and ALIENS, then took some time to write a personalized email for the third one, thanking them for their reply and asking them to please respond with any additional information or people to talk to that they could think of. After a second of debate, I decided to hand-type the last email too, thanking them for their time and to please message back if he knew someone we could interview about the creature in question. I didn’t really expect an answer back; the ‘pastakids’, as Zoey and I called them, were usually just highschoolers hoping that they could give their creations a boost by convincing us to use them in one of our episodes. Most usually went silent after they realized we were being serious. That, and many of them weren’t stupid enough to meet up with strangers on the internet, especially ones willing to believe in ghosts and demons and monsters. Even so, I didn’t quite have the heart to dismiss them with our normal copy-and-paste responses we had at the ready. After all, they were at least treating the show with a level of respect some of the others out there didn’t. I hit send and began to close the laptop, then stopped as it gave a ding. Zoey gave me a glance. “What’s that?” “Pastakid responded. Like, right after I sent the email.” I opened the message and read it out loud: “Thanks. Are you around Warner Robins, Georgia at all? Me and my friends could meet you at Harvest Church near Sandy Run Creek. That’s where we’ve seen him the most.” “Tell him we can’t make it,” Zoey responded immediately. “Tell him we’re in Oklahoma or something.” “Zoey, c’mon…” I prodded. “It’s fake!” “Maybe, but seeing as how it’s right here…” “No,” she insisted. “I am not spending another night shivering in the cold for the sake of some kid’s stupid oc. I mean, what was the last one we did? Teeth fairies? I thought it couldn’t get any worse, but here it is!” I held my hands up. “Fine, fine. I guess we’ll just spend the rest of this state editing the Mississippi interviews.” Zoey gave a long groan, then turned back to me. “Tell him the earliest we can make is noon, TOMORROW.” I smiled and did as I was told. *** I remember feeling slightly disappointed once we had pulled up to the Harvest Church parking lot. The area across the roadway, our designated meeting spot, was a long hill that sloped into a woods. Which, of course it was. It was always a woods with the pastakids. Nevermind the fact that there were plenty of other places a tale like this could take place in, up to and including a populated truck stop, as we had just proven; they always picked a woods as the monster’s hiding spot. I guess campfire tale tropes run deep. That wasn’t what bothered me, though; I had expected that much. No, what bothered me was how boring the woods they had picked was. The trees were sparse and young. Sunlight shown through the ample spacing between the leaves. Sandy Creek was merely a tiny stream winding through a dirt bed set in the middle of a nicely lit, bright, and safe suburban neighborhood. Zoey must have been thinking along the same lines, because she shook her head and sighed as she turned off the RV engine. “They could have at least pretended to pick a haunted spot.” “Maybe they set up something here,” I said, remembering the time a group of kids had tried to convince us an abandoned house was haunted by banging on the walls and making moaning noises from outside. Things had gotten pretty awkward once I told them our cameras had night vision. Zoey groaned and slid down in her chair. “This is stupid. Why did you talk me into this?” “Hey, it’s unfair to write off something like this just because it sounds unbelievable. Unbelievable happens all the time.” “Bullshit. You’re just tired of recording interviews with me.” I winced. “Yeah, alright. Maybe.” “You don’t even have to do the talking…” she muttered under her breath. I turned away from her to watch the kids across the street. There were four of them, three guys and a girl, all long awkward limbs and casual, but trendy, clothing. By the way they kept nudging each other and glancing over to us, I could tell that they were trying to muster up the courage to walk over, or at least convince someone else to. “How long do you think it’ll take them to break and admit they made the whole thing up?” I asked. “They do seem pretty nervous.” Zoey sat up a bit straighter and studied the group. “Really nervous, actually.” I stopped and waited to see if Zoey’s ability to read people would add anything to the situation. After a minute of silence, she sighed. “Well, grab a camera. Let’s get this over with.” I nodded and picked up one of the smaller, more mobile models, following her out as she took one of the handheld microphones. The highschoolers stepped back a bit in shock as we climbed out and approached them. As we got closer, one of the kids gave a hesitant step forward while his friends moved back an inch. “Joey Gonzales?” Zoey guessed, extending a hand out to the courageous one of the four. “Yeah, that’s… that’s me.” He was tan, and dark haired; almost handsome if the hive of acne on his face didn’t ruin it for him. He moved his hand out and let Zoey bob it up and down a couple of times before he withdrew it. “To be honest, I didn’t expect you to show up.” She smiled. “Well it seemed so interesting, how could we not?” I smirked just a tiny bit. Zoey was a very good liar. An uncomfortable silence fell over the group until Joey cleared his throat and said, “well, I uh… suppose you want to see the spot we saw him at, right?” “Yes please,” she replied, waving at me to start recording as Joey led us over to the slope. He stopped at the top and gestured down. “Well, there it is.” I frowned at the image in my camera lense as I recorded it. All that was there was a gentle grass slope that led down to a fallen log a few feet before the thin open cluster that served as a tree line, an area I recognized from the drawing (whichever one the artist was, they had some real talent). Zoey waited for a bit. When none of them said anything, she asked “You mean in the woods down there?” “Sometimes,” Joey admitted. “We’ve seen him a few other places, too. But most of the time he just sits behind that log.” Where it’s bright, open, and well-lit, I thought. It occured to me that maybe the entire group was horror-incompetent, or perhaps none of them had seen a single scary movie. Zoey paused, waiting for him to continue. When he didn’t, she cleared her throat and asked “So what does he look like?” Joey shrugged. “I mean, we sent you the picture, right?” I notice Zoey take a deep breath. “Please describe it in your own words, for the benefit of the camera.” “Oh!” He turned to face me, as if he had just noticed me for the first time, and began to narrate and gesture into my camera lense. “He’s a guy. Or, at least, he looks like one. But he’s all kinds of messed up. All his joints point backwards. Like, his elbows go forward, and his knees, and his hands are on the wrong way. That’s why we call him the Backwards Man.” “And what does he do?” Zoey prodded. Joey deflated a bit. “Nothing. He just… sits there, and stares.” “...at the log?” He nodded. “At first, he’d stay deep in the woods and run away if he noticed any of us had seen him. Then he started getting closer. Started to watch longer. Stopped running away. Eventually he got courageous enough to get up to that log, but… no closer.” “And all he does is stare?” “And cry,” one of the other boys added. Everyone turned to look at him and he blushed. “He cries a lot. But he never stops smiling when he does.” “You ever try talking to him?” I asked. “Hell no!” the girl exclaimed. “We’ve seen your show. Bad things happen to people who mess with stuff like that.” Smart,” I conceded. “Do you guys have any pictures, or video recordings of him?” Zoey asked. An awkward silence fell over the kids. “Told you we should have taken pictures,” the last kind muttered. “Hey, I didn’t stop you from doing it,” Joey protested. “All I said was I wasn’t going to be the one to get some kind of black magic death curse on my phone by taking pictures of monsters.” “Yeah, like that one cryptid that hunts you down if you see his face!” the girl agreed. The second boy scoffed. “That’s not a cryptid. That’s an SCP.” “A what?” I tapped Zoey on the shoulder and led her out of earshot from the others. “So what do we want to do here?” “Well,” she sighed, “the kids have come up with something different, at least. Not a real something, but still…” she shrugged, “might as well stake out the woods. We already got the RV in here and besides, the kids might try something. I could use a laugh.” *** Seeing as how we didn’t think we were going to seriously find anything, we spent the rest of the day setting up a ‘bnb’: “beer and bonfire”, Zoey joked. Two camp chairs, two cameras, an improv fire pit filled with sticks set at the bottom of the hill (and hopefully out of sight; we were in a suburban neighborhood, after all) a six pack, and one sunset later, we were ready to begin our ‘hunt’. “To the Backwards Man!” Zoey proclaimed, clinking her bottle against mine. “At least he isn’t a tooth fairy.” I chuckled, then took a long swig from my bottle. “Guess that means the show’s doing okay, though, if we keep getting waylaid by these wannabe Steven Kings.” “Better than I thought it would,” Zoey agreed. “Faster than I thought it would, too.” “I think that kid had a crush on you.” Zoey rolled her eyes. “Please, he was sixteen. He’d have a crush on linoleum flooring if it curved the right way.” I laughed, then smiled at her. “Real or not, I’m enjoying this.” She smiled back, then her expression turned sad and she stared into the fire.. I frowned. “What’s wrong?” She didn’t speak for a long time. Finally, she said, “I saw that piece of paper you kept messing with yesterday, the one you told me not to worry about.” The words were soft and even. “The budget.” A deep silence washed over us, broken only by the crackling of the fire. I sighed. “This is why I wanted to talk about this later, when I had some more time to come up with some solutions.” “Please tell me those numbers are wrong,” Zoey said. Her voice was barely a whisper. “Tell me you did the math wrong somewhere.” “I…” I swallowed hard. “I wish I had. But I’ve checked them three times now.” “But that’s…” “Barely enough for three more months, I know.” The painful silence dragged on. “How?” she finally asked. I shook my head. “I don’t know, Zoey. I really don’t. A million little things, I guess.” “We’re going to have to end all of this soon then, aren’t we?” “Hey,” I put a firm hand on her shoulder. “Nobody’s saying that right now.” She gave me a look of frustration and pleading, as if daring me to prove her wrong. Instead, a loud SNAP from the forest beyond interrupted our thoughts, I shook my head, grabbed the camera next to me, and prepared to film whatever stunt the pastakids had cooked up for us…. and stopped. It was immediately obvious that it wasn’t fake. The limbs bent too awkwardly, the smile stretched too macabrely, it was all just too… wrong to be fake. No amount of prosthetics or makeup or even animatronic magic could be conjured to give that intense feeling of disturbance, that bone deep feeling of danger and alieness that comes from that primal portion of the brain, the one that won’t stop whispering when something is just not right. The Backwards Man was real, and he was staring at us. It’s height was impossible to guess, stooped over as it was behind the log that lay only five to ten feet away from us. Neither inhumanly short or threateningly tall, I could tell that much from the firelight. It didn’t need to be tall to be threatening, though; my skin crawled as I saw the elbows twisted forward, pointed out like knives in our direction. The hands rested on top of the log, palms up, fingers bent as if they were broken. I could see its knees just a bit, collapsed backwards like the legs of an otherworldly dinosaur and the smile… It wasn’t an actual expression on its face. It was more twisted physiology, another inhuman feature of the thing. I could see now, in person, that it was actually an absence of skin, the lips and the section of mouth immediately above and below it simply gone, the strange gash curving around the chin and up to the bottom of its ears. I wasn’t seeing a smile. I was seeing its naked, exposed jawline. It shifted, just the slightest bit, and I noticed that the puke-green tweed suit it was wearing was ripped and torn, seams coming apart from being forced to stretch in such unnatural ways. “I can’t…” Zoey began, then trailed off. “It’s real.” “Yeah,” I croaked. My throat felt strangely dry. It shifted again, in a way that seemed to suggest nervousness, and the firelight made something on his face glisten. Two trails of tears shined from the corners of its eyes and down into that hideous grin. “What do we do?” I hissed. Zoey squinted into the firelight. “I don’t think it… he’s hostile.” “How do you know?” “Hunch.” She took a small step forward and the Backwards Man immediately lurched back, like an abused dog preparing for another beating. “Hey, hey, hey” Zoey crouched and stretched her hands out, doing her best to look to look non-aggressive. “It’s okay. We’re not here to hurt you.” The Man shifted a tiny bit forward. Fresh tears came to his eyes. Zoey frowned. “What’s wrong?” He sniffled. “H..H-h…” “It’s okay, you can tell us,” Zoey encouraged. “H-hu...H-hur…” He paused, closed his eyes, and took a large breath. Part of me realized that he was trying to figure out how to make the sounds without any lips. “Hurts…” he finally managed. A loud SNAP sounded from the top of the hill and the Backwards Man bolted, leaping away from the log and into the trees. His steps were awkward and strange, with a speed created from pure panic and terror in spite of the broken angels of his legs. “WAIT!” Zoey cried. She started to run after him, but I caught her arm and pulled her back. “Zoey, stop,” I pleaded. “We have no idea what’s in there.” “He needs help,” she protested. “Maybe, but he’ll also be there in the morning.” Her struggles slowed, then stopped. Together, we stared into the abyss of the woods beyond. *** We set out after sunrise, just long enough to transition the dimness of dawn into full sunlight. This time, we didn’t have any quips to say. Silently, solemnly, we trekked through the woods, each with a camera in hand, slowly sweeping the lens across the trees, trying to find any evidence of the man who had been there last night. At one point, Zoey held up her hand and gestured down at the ground. They were shoe-clad footprints set into the mud, but odd ones, with the toes pointed outwards, leading away from the woods, but the deepest point being the backs of the heels. As if someone had been walking backwards. I recorded them for a moment, then nodded to Zoey, and we continued on. The woods themselves were quiet. There were no animal noises to be heard. Not surprising, considering that they couldn’t have been big enough to support any major populations of life, but that didn’t make the hush any less eerie. The only sounds were the occasional muted roar of a car passing nearby or the dull rustle of leaves set across the backdrop of the open and spacious forest, the young trees almost naked in the bright daytime light. Zoey held up her hand again, then pointed forward. There was a small camp of some kind. She beckoned me to follow her and we approached, doing our best to make our footsteps through the leaves and twigs as noiseless as possible. It wasn’t much of a camp. There was a dirty vinyl sleeping bag set out under a small shelter made out of a couple of sticks and what looked to be a discarded picnic blanket. Near that was a small pile of trash, cans, wrappers, paper, and the like, and a few belongings scattered nearby: a wallet, a set of keys, a few plastic cards, and a laptop. Something behind me went snap rustle. I turned around to see the Backwards Man staring at us. The light didn’t reveal anything more about him, save for how absolutely filthy his suit was, but instead it sharpened how grotesque his features were. There didn’t seem to be any way to place himself in a relaxed posture. His arms jabbed forward, as if some wrestler had snapped his shoulders forward while he was imitating bird wings. The way his knees pointed back made him bob, like a slinky, whenever he took a step. Worst of all were the fingers, wrapped curling backwards, away from the palm. Those made me cringe in internal pain whenever I saw them. Doing my best to tear myself away from those awful fingers, I zoomed in on his face instead. Two fresh, glistening trails of tears fell into his awful forced smile, leaking from eyes wide with fear. “It’s alright,” Zoey said in a soothing tone, “Don’t be afraid.” The man took a half step away, ready to run, but moved no further. “We don’t want to hurt you. We’re here to help,” Zoey continued. It shuffled a bit. “Can you tell us your name?” It paused, then slowly, ever so slowly, it began to step forward, eyes focused on the small pile of belongings. Zoey motioned for me to back up a bit out of the way with her, and we did, giving the man a comfortable berth as he shuffled around, eyes darting to watch us every so often. Once he had made it there, he knelt down, knees collapsing behind of him with a sickening POP. Fresh tears came, but he powered through and awkwardly dug around in the space, then draped his fingers around something and uncomfortably smashed his hands around it, using his palms more like tongs than he did hands. He rose again with another set of POPs and stumbled on over to Zoey, dropping the object into her hands. “Doctor R. A. Thaumen?” Zoey asked, inspecting the small I.D. card she had been given before handing it over to me. I studied it myself under the lense of the camera; it had a picture of a man who bore a passing resemblance to the thing in front of us, sans broken limbs and ripped smile, and had the words “THETA-5 AREA ACCESS, LEVEL 3 CLEREANCE” lettered under the name. Dr. Thaumen nodded up and down with energy. Zoey reeled back a tiny bit. “What… what happened to you?” Thaumen’s expression turned sad, and he slowly began to turn back to the pile of things at the camp. “Here…” Zoey interjected, stepping in front of him, “how about I get it for you?” Thaumen nodded, looking relieved. “Lat… latoh.” She furrowed her brow. “I’m sorry?” “Latoh!” Thaumen suddenly looked frustrated and began to cry again. “Lat… Lath…” “I think he’s saying ‘laptop,’” I said. Thaumen nodded and pointed at me with a crooked finger. “Okay.” Zoey bent over and picked up the large, black laptop sitting in the leaves. After looking around for a second, she opened it up and placed it on a rock roughly chest high. Thaumen paused, then stretched a broken hand out to me. I looked at it. “Uhh…” “Card,” he moaned. “Oh.” I very gently dropped the I.D, card into his hand. He balanced it there while hobbling over to the computer, then tipped it out onto a small corner of the keyboard. It gave a small beep and the screen flashed white several times. “WARNING,” an electronic voice spoke, “YOU ARE ACCESSING A TERMINAL WITH HIGHLY CONFIDENTIAL INFORMATION STORED ON IT. PLEASE INPUT THE CORRECT PASSWORD OR ALL INFORMATION STORED HERE WILL BE WIPED IN 30… 29… 28…” Thaumen’s eyes went wide and he began to hyperventilate. He pecked at keys with jerky motions, each one bringing a new wince. Finally, he smacked the side of his hand against the ‘Enter’ button and the screen went black, then blue. Zoey and I looked at each other, then huddled closer to see. The computer itself was nothing fancy, dull Windows system showcasing a desktop full of folders and documents. Behind them, a logo of white against a backdrop of blue served as the deskstop’s background: a large globe of the earth, with what looked to be an infinite mobius strip wrapped around its center, an apple with cartoon motion lines falling parallel and alongside the strip, and finally, two large phrases in bold framing the picture: THE SILENT ACADEMIA, SOCIETY OF PHYSICISTS, above, and
Te Scientia Moritur Cum Te, underneath. Thaumen began to scroll over to a video file. “What’s the Silent Academia?” Zoey asked. He paused. He looked to the desktop background, then to Zoey, then to me, then back to the desktop background. He sighed, then drew himself up and moved over to a different video file and clicked on it. The screen shifted to a view of what looked to be a company break room, complete with vending machine in the background, dark with all the lights turned off save for one focused on a man with fiery red hair in a black tie and suit; Anderson, I realized, but subtly younger, maybe mid-twenties instead of early thirties. After a moment of buffering, he looked up to the camera, smiled, and began to talk in a noticeably thicker Southern accent: “Hello there Dr. Thaumen. Let me be the first to congratulate you for being invited to join the Silent Academia! This is a rare achievement, so take a moment to enjoy it.” Anderson paused, then continued. “Now I’m sure that someone has already spoken to you about what crossing over to this side of the Veneer and into the Society itself means. This video is being sent to you to allow you to redigest these details at your leisure, so that we can make sure that you understand the gravity of this decision. Not that we think you’re stupid, by any means.” He grinned and picked up a thick stack of papers next to him, looking over the pile with a satisfied expression. “On a personal note, I have to admit that I’m quite impressed with this. I read the entirety of your paper and, just between you and me, we have men on this side who wouldn’t be able to figure this out even with our help.” He cleared his throat. “‘An Explanation For Dark Energy Based Upon Mathematical Models of Collisions of Hyper-Dimensional Objects.’ Quite a mouthful.” He looked back up to the camera. “And yes, you’re right. The expansion of our universe, the phenomenon known as ‘dark energy,’ is, in fact, caused by universes on hyperdimensions higher than our own colliding with each other and stretching our space-time fabric as a result. I’ll give you another moment to let that sink in so you can appreciate your own genius.” Anderson put the papers down, turned to a styrofoam cup next to him, took a long sip, then looked back at the camera. “The Silent Academia is a group of brilliant men and women, like yourself, who have discovered things about reality that are dangerous, like yourself. Yes, I said dangerous. There are things out there that we are not meant to know. Things that could tear you apart with their claws.” His expression darkened. “If I told you all I knew, right now, you would be sent screaming for the hills. And what I know is a very shallow surface of a much, much darker ocean. “Mankind can not afford to live with this knowledge. We simply can not function with the existential weight of knowing what’s out there, because having such knowledge would, literally, destroy us, in every sense of the word I can communicate. The only way to survive in the dark is make as little noise as possible, and this is the purpose of the Veneer. It keeps us safe from the curious and hungry things out there.” “At the same time, though, we can not afford to be completely ignorant. We need to do our best to explore this massive, dark space, so that we can learn about the threats before they get too close, and to do so in a responsible way that doesn’t lead the threats back to us. And this is the Silent Academia. “You will be at the forefront of science. You will be taught things that your mentors can only dream of learning one day. You will discover things that your peers can never hope to comprehend. Together, with others of the Silent Academia, psychologists, biologists, astronomers, and, yes, other physicists, you will push into the dark and study it, allowing us to prepare for what may be waiting there. “In return, you will be silent. You will never publish any of your findings. Any discoveries you make will be privately distributed to the rest of the Silent Academia, and only the Silent Academia. Your knowledge, if it is ever cleared to be learned by the wider establishment, will never be attributed to you; another will claim your achievements as their own while you die in obscurity. Not even your family is to know about the true nature of your work. “And, of course, you will be in the dark places. Where the monsters are.” Anderson looked at his watch. “You have 72 hours from the moment you received this video to say ‘no.’ If you do, we will wipe your memory, destroy your research, and let you get back to your life like nothing ever happened. Past that point, our amnesiacs no longer work and the only way out will be a bullet to the head. Either way, the decision is final.” He stood. “Whatever you choose, I wish you luck Dr. Thaumen. I will in no way blame you if you decide not to join. However,” he said, picking up the paper once more, “we certainly would appreciate you.” And with that, the video ended. I blinked. “So… you’re part of this group. With Archangel?” Thaumen nodded. “And they turned you into this?” I added. He shook his head no, then moved over to the file he was originally trying to open. This time, the video showed a bright, white room with a table in front of it. Two objects sat there, one a large orange piece of paper, and another a skeletal frame of what looked like a three-dimensional cross made out of cubes, a cube jutting out of each side near the top to form two different cross-intersections. A second later, Dr. Thaumen came into view, not the miserable, twisted person next to us, but the official, almost bored man from the I.D. card. He was wearing the same tweed suit the Backwards version of himself now wore. “Experiment notes 36-A, April 26th, 2016…” he looked down at his watch, “2132. Unfolding a tesseract.” He looked up at the camera, and a brief flicker of annoyance crossed his face. “For the benefits of my colleagues here, I will begin by explaining what a tesseract is, as their insistence on studying the Scranton Scale of Reality has left many of them lacking knowledge of even the most basic of hyperdimensional objects. “A tesseract is one of these hyperdimensional objects, meaning that it exists in more spacial dimensions than the simple three we perceive and interact with.” He took the orange sheet and carefully folded it into a box. “Much like a cube is a step up from a square, a tesseract is a step up from a cube.” He stooped under the table for a moment and came back with a pair of strange black gloves on his hands, wires criss-crossed around the fingers and knuckles. Thaumen pressed a small button near the wrist and the gloves blurred, turning into strange smudges. Thaumen moved his arms and the smudges grew larger, taking up more area, then shrinking when they stopped. “We have known about these objects, in a theoretical sense, since the 1600s, and since Maxwell’s creation of the Hyperdimensional Gloves, we have also known how to fold Dali Crosses,” he gestured to the metal skeleton on the table, smudging his hand through the air as he did so, “into tesseracts.” He grabbed the cross and his hands diffracted into strange patterns. The black smudges split into several tiny pieces, disconnected from each other, each wrapped around a different section of the cross. Thaumen pushed and the cross began to smush inwards into itself, elongating and shortening as the pieces moved inside of themselves, merging with their neighbors. As they did, the small black smudges began to travel closer together until they were once again collected into two large smudges. The end result was what looked like a cube inside a cube, a smaller one suspended to the frame of the larger one by a long line connecting each of the corners of the two cubes. Thaumen picked it up and rotated it. The shifting was hard to describe. As it turned, the larger one fell backwards and shrunk, nestling inside of the smaller one as the smaller one lurched forwards and grew, until each cube had shifted spots, inside one on the outside and outside one on the inside, the black smudge holding an edge simply elongating to follow. Thaumen twisted the other way and the process happened in reverse, outside cube shrinking into itself and inside cube growing out of itself, and, if you didn’t get to watch the episode, please google “tesseract”. The motion is truly bizarre. Thaumen smilied. “My guess is that most of us assume that we completely understand these objects, and that is why many of us are content to ignore these fascinating things.” I grimaced. I was beginning to get a headache. He sighed and put the tesseract down. “However, there is one large hole in our understanding.” He moved his smudge-hands together and they suddenly snapped back into regular gloves with wires, no blurs. “We can unfold a regular cube back into its two dimensional net, like so,” he demonstrated by bending the paper around itself until it was once again flat, “however, we can not seem to unfold a tesseract back into a Dali Cross.” The gloves blurred on and he grabbed the mind-bending object, pulling at it with no result, proving his point. “This fact, in all honesty, makes no sense. Math and physics tell us that it should be no harder to unfold a tesseract than it would be to unfold a cube. The difficulty comes from trying to access fourth-dimensional space, but…” He waved his hand through the air, transforming it into a long smear, “Maxwell Gloves solved this problem for us. So why can’t we do it?” “I believe that this is caused not by the object itself, but the space around it. Or, more accurately, lack thereof. You see, several points of the tesseract exist in the same space and the same time in three dimensional space, something that is impossible. Therefore the act of folding the tesseract seems to actually displace three dimensional space, shoving into the fourth dimension to make room for itself. “The result is a vacuum of reality, much in the same way pumping air out of a space makes a vacuum of gases. The reason we can not unfold a tesseract is that reality needs something to fill the space, and what fills it is the axes of the tesseract. If those axes were to leave, there would be the opposite of space in those places, a measurement of distance inverse to the concept of distance as we know it. Something that would not be meters long, but antimeters long. Such a thing is impossible, and therefore not allowed, and so the unfolding itself is impossible.” Thaumen reached one of his blurry hands into his pocket and pulled out a small object that looked like a laser pointer, one with far more buttons along the side. It hovered in the air, surrounded by the pastel black cloud of his palms. “If my theory is correct, however, then the only thing one would need to unfold the tesseract would be a Juelian Editor. By changing the speed of light along one axis, the Planck length would change, thereby changing the meaning of distance altogether. Such an action would force the axes on the same three dimensional space to split apart, and the resulting influx of space should cause the whole object to split open on its own accord, like a suction cup losing its adhesion to the wall by introducing air into the vacuum space.” Thaumen paused, then reached the laser pointer thing forward, into the tesseract. As he did, the glove did its strange diffraction again, this time taking the pointer along as well as the end split and duplicated so that it pointed along three different sides of the object. The three pointers slid along the side, no indication that they were emitting anything, but as they did, the cube began to shake and rattle, first by just a little bit, then more and more violently. Thaumen’s eyes lit up. “I think it’s working!” There was an ear-splitting POP from the laptop’s small speakers, like a balloon the size of the world had just exploded. The camera rattled, the sheet of paper flew through the air, and even Thaumen fell backwards with the force of the shockwave. The tesseract itself snapped forward, elongating back into the cross it had been in before with a mind numbing whirl of motion. Nothing moved. The room lay still. “R...Rgghh…” A strange animal sound appeared. A broken hand, palm splayed upwards, fingers bent back, smacked itself onto the edge of the table, then slipped off as weight was applied to it. “Hrgh! Nnn….” The hand reappeared, this time further into the table’s surface. The arm it was attached to, elbow bent inside, straightened as weight was applied to it. “Augh! Ah! Ha…. ha…” Moans and cries of pain filled the room, paired with the sickening pops and cracks of joints sliding in and out of place. Laboriously, a twisted frame, one with lips curled inwards and arms bent back, rose above the table’s surface. The Backwards Man looked at the camera. Then he screamed. Dr. Thaumen, the one next to us in the real world, pressed a hand down on the spacebar to pause the video. There was more time on the file, but the expression in his eyes told me that was all he was going to show. “I…” Zoey’s eyes began to tear. “I’m sorry.” Thaumen’s eyes watered as well. “You can’t go back to Archangel, can you?” I asked. He shook his head. “They’ll kill you, won’t they?” I continued. He nodded. “What do you need from us?” Zoey asked. “Can… his…” Thaumen moaned, gesturing to himself with clumsy movements. “Need… tine…” “Need time. Time to fix.” I looked at Zoey. “This is something we can do.” Zoey nodded back. “We’ll do whatever we can to help you get you back to normal, doctor.” Thaumen cried. For once, I don’t think they were tears of pain. *** We told Dr. Thaumen that we would be back, then went back to the R.V. to regroup and plan. First, we decided, we would need to set him up in a more permanent place, somewhere that wasn’t a homeless camp in the middle of the forest. Joey and his gang seemed like good candidates for that. They were at least a little bit open minded, and not too threatened by him, so hopefully we could convince them to help Thaumen live in a garage or an attic or something. After that, there was the problem of getting him unstuck. He’d surely need to get back to his lab in Archangel for that and well… we’d cross that bridge when we came to it. By that time, dusk was settling. Zoey brought up the idea of letting Thaumen crash in the R.V. so he could at least sleep somewhere warm, but after taking a look around and seeing all of the random corners and tight spaces… we decided it might be better for his health if he spent one more night outside. So we journeyed back to his camp, told him we’d be back in the morning with some people who could help, and went to go sleep in the R.V., readying ourselves to wake up early and tackle the problem. I awoke at about two a.m. needing to pee, so I sighed and shuffled out of the vehicle. We had a toilet inside, true, but the tank filled way faster than you thought it would, so I used this method whenever I thought I could get away with it. Zoey always said it was gross, but I think there was the tiniest bit of biological envy in that statement. I finished my business, then blearily looked around outside. There were flashlights in the woods beyond. My tiredness faded. I blinked some of the smudging out of my vision. Sure enough, tiny yellow bobs of light wandered through the trees, traveling back and forth without urgency. The area they were in was approximately where Thaumen’s camp was located. I hesitated, then slipped inside, grabbed my camcorder, and started to sneak into the trees. I decided not to wake Zoey; after all this could be Thaumen doing some kind of mad science in the forest, and as you’ve probably already learned, Zoey can get upset when she gets woken up. All I needed to do was figure out what was going on… It was agents. Archangel agents, they had to be. Ten to twelve of them, a mix of builds and features, each wearing that g-man ensamble of black pants, black suit, black tie, even the women. Each had a flashlight, roaming around the forest floor. One of the lights swept over the body of Dr. Thaumen. His broken limbs splayed out in painful angles. His twisted face was stretched into an even more disturbing expression of pure terror. A large hole sat at the center of his forehead, and the back of his head was missing. Then the light swept off of it, and the corpse was once again covered in a blanket of darkness. “Looks like this is everything, ma’am,” a deep male voice called out. “And the spatial phenomenon seems to be limited only to the body.” “Good,” a woman replied. “Grab the body and head back to base. We’ll start investigating tomorrow, try to figure out who all had the opportunity to see him.” “And the camp?” “Leave it. It’ll be easier to concoct a cover story if people believe a random hobo was sleeping out here.” I have to get back to Zoey, I thought. As silently as I could, I turned to move… ...and something stopped me. An arm. A strong arm. A strong, thick arm, grabbing onto my shoulder. I panicked, tried to pull away, out of it’s grip, but the arm wouldn’t budge. Instead, it simply pulled and twisted, forcing me into an armlock. One hand idly took away my camera while the other, still immobilizing me, yanked my body in front of his and forced me to march. After a few fumbling steps, squirming all the way, trying to free myself without drawing too much attention, the person behind me rumbled, “ma’am, we’ve got a problem.” The sound of footsteps in crunching leaves made their way over. “What’s this?” “No idea,” my captor replied. “Found him sneaking around with this.” In the dim light, I could barely make out my camcorder being handed from one person to another. There was a pause, and then the woman shined her flashlight directly into my eyes. After a few minutes being blinded, I finally blinked away the bright spots and saw a vaguely Asain face studying me. “Shit…” she swore. The grip on me loosened slightly. “Ma’am?” “It’s the Foster kid.” “Who?” “Anderson’s pet. Wait here.” She walked off, pulled a phone out of her pocket, and began to talk into it. I strained myself to hear. “...yeah, here. Next to the Academia runaway.” “Yes sir. Do you want me to…?” “I’m sorry sir, what?” From the light of her screen, I could see her shoot me a death glare. “Are you sure, sir?” “...no, it’s just…” “Yes, sir.” She walked up over to us. My heart raced and I began to struggle anew, but nothing I did seemed to move the living mountain behind me. “Let him go,” the woman said. The surprise loosened his hold on me more than any of my attempts had. “What?” “I said, let him go. Orders.” The agent dropped me and I rubbed my wrist. She pointed the phone towards me. “Anderson wants to talk to you.” Cautiously, I took it. “You have no idea how lucky you are,” she snarled, then the two moved away and back to the larger group of agents. But not too far away, I noticed. Still watching them, I raised the phone to my ear. “Hello?” “Foster,” Anderson’s voice replied. The tone was polite, but the smallest undercurrent on annoyance was there. “We do have to stop meeting like this.” I spun around. “Where are you?” “London. Buckingham Palace, more specifically.” He must have sensed my confusion over the phone, because he added “the monsters exist in more places than just America, Foster. And I do have other responsibilities than just babysitting you.” “Then why are you talking to me?” “Because by bailing you out of this mess, I’ve just made a very large investment in you, so now I need to hold my investment’s hand and walk him across the street to make sure he doesn’t go right back to playing in traffic.” The mocking his voice was bordering on outright hostility. “So what, you want me to forget about Dr. Thaumen? Delete my footage, pretend this never happened?” “Don’t be so dramatic. I want you to collect your footage and make your little episode about this. As fiction, where it belongs. What I don’t want you to do is march right back out there and try to convince people that the Backwards Man was a real person, which is what I have a feeling that you’re going to go try to do.” I heard a little quiver of rage in my voice. “Dr. Thaumen was a man. A person that you killed. You can’t just sweep…” “Did he happen to show you the little recruitment video I made for him?” Anderson interrupted. I deflated a bit. “Yeah.” “Wonderful. So you know that his involvement was completely voluntary, and not only that, but that he also knew the dangers of what he was doing, much like any soldier or spy or police officer would.” “Soldiers and spies don’t get killed by their own command.” Anderson scoffed. “Of course they do. They get killed every time a general orders men to hold a line, or a prisoner is labeled as ‘expendable.’ Honestly, where do you think the cliche of cyanide pills come from?” I felt myself begin to falter a bit. “He said he could fix himself with enough time.” “And I’m sure he could, just as I’m sure that every army could save all of their P.O.W.s and find every M.I.A. if they put all of their resources towards it. In the end, though, you get one of two conclusions: ‘not practical’ or ‘too dangerous.’ And in the case of Dr. Thaumen, I think he did a good enough job of proving that messing around with spatial anomalies lies firmly in the ‘too dangerous’ category.” I tried to say something, then stopped. All of my righteous anger seemed to have dried up. Anderson sighed. When he spoke again, his tone was far less upset, and far more tired. “Foster, I understand where your frustration is coming from. This is why I need you and Miss Hammersham’s help.” A flash of anger returned to me. “What is that supposed to mean?” “It means that I’m tired of a world where the Veneer is so damn rigid. It means that I’m tired of trying to make sure that everyone’s eyes are blind. It means that I’m tired of losing sleep trying to decide on whether or not four teenage children in Georgia should die because they were just a little too observant for their own good.” My blood went cold at that last sentence. “You and Miss Hammersham, your webshow, have been drafted into phase one of a plan that could make that happen,” Anderson continued. “If we can work together, we can make a world where we don’t need to be behind every corner, where we don’t need to silence the ones who have seen something. Hell, where maybe we have enough time and resources to try and save people like Thaumen. But I can only do that…” the venom returned to his words, “if you stop trying to act like this is some kind of holy war.” I stayed silent. Andeson sighed again. “Try telling Miss Hammersham about this conversation, then. She seems to have more sense than you do.” “Wait…” I began, but he had already hung up. *** After being ordered to return the phone and doing so (“you have no idea how lucky you are,” the Asian woman repeated to me, “if you had been literally anyone else, you’d be dead), I had walked up the hill, gotten back into the R.V., and just sat on the couch until the sun rose again, staying silent and feeling numb. With the sun came Zoey, walking out of her room. She stopped when she saw me. “Liam,” she asked, “what’s wrong?” I told her the whole story, start to finish. She listened without saying a word. When I was done, her face turned sad. “You know what has to be done, right?” I nodded. *** An hour later, we rolled our way into the parking lot where Joey Gonzales was standing, like we had asked him to. We climbed out, no cameras this time, and walked over to meet him. “Hey!” Joey said, brightening as we approach. “So I got your email. What did you find out?” Zoey paused. “After some deliberation, we have decided to use your idea for an episode.” Joey smiled, then looked confused. “Idea?” “Yes, of the Backwards Man. A very creative creature, right Liam?” I nodded. I didn’t trust myself to speak. “We’ll be using the concept in a later episode,” Zoey continued. “We’ll credit you as the monster’s originator, if you want.” “But.. I didn’t make him up. He was real!” Joey’s eyes began to dart between us. Zoey did her best to look puzzled. “Real?” “Yeah! We saw him in those woods!” She chuckled. “Joey, it’s okay. You already sold us on it, no need to double down.” “But he was there! In the trees, behind the log…” “We explored those woods,” she said, tone turning serious. “There was nothing in there. An old hobo camp, but that was it. No backwards monster.” “But… I saw it…” Joey was beginning to sound less and less sure of himself. She frowned. “Perhaps you saw the homeless man out there. Darkness and shadows can do stranger things to our eyes, right Liam?” I nodded again. I still didn’t trust my voice. Joey looked at us, his expression one of hurt. “I…” Zoey shuffled uncomfortably, her only truthful piece of body language so far. “Well, we have to leave for our next state. Thank you once again for supporting the show and coming up with such a fantastic topic.” Zoey broke away, and after a second, I followed. I stopped once I was at the door to the R.V. to look back at Joey Gonzales, staring into space, looking like he was completely lost in the world. *** “What did we just do?” Zoey turned, seated in the passenger’s seat next to me. “We saved four high schoolers who were in way deeper than they ever knew.” “By lying to them. By betraying their trust,” I protested. Zoey stared at the road ahead. “Yes, by doing that.” We sat in silence for a while, the highway racing under our tires. “So what now? We work with Archangel?” I asked. “You mean the same Archangel that kills people?” Zoey replied. Her tone was hateful. “I don’t see Archangel out here, trying to save orphanages from that Red-Eyed freak. I don’t see Archangel trying to rescue Sims, or Thaumen, or anyone for that matter. They seem to prefer executions. Must be easier, I guess” She looked at me with fire in her eyes. “We do not work with Archangel. We will never work with Archangel.” “We did today.” “We did what we needed to do to save people’s lives. There’s a difference.” “Is there?” I pressed. “That’s the same thing they claim, every single time. Yesterday, we promised no lies. Today, we lie. Where does that end, Zoey? What’s to stop us from falling off the slippery slope, to waking up one day and thinking nothing of just shooting someone to keep things quiet?” Silence fell over the R.V. again. “I’ll tell you what’s stopping us,” Zoey finally said. “Archangel thinks that people are powerless. That we’re just ants in the cosmic void, scampering insects trying to stay away from the feet of big monsters, and if that’s the case, then yes, there’s nothing wrong with sacrificing a few ants so that the giants leave the hive alone. Let them die.” “And isn’t that the truth?” I replied. “No. We’ve traveled across the country, Liam, and talked to people from every background and class and history you can imagine and do you know what I’ve learned? People are strong. Stronger than anyone gives them credit for. They can deal with shit luck. They can deal with crap lives. They can live through things that should, in every right, kill them. And if that’s the case, then they not only need our help, they deserve it.” She stared back out the window. “People aren’t lost causes, Liam. We don’t let them die under the weight of their burdens. We lighten it until they feel ready to carry the weight again.” And twelve years later, I type that sentence alone. The irony is not lost on me. And how could it? After all, the bitter taste is almost overwhelming.