Cell phone cameras don’t work for many miles outside of the perimeter that the common lore has designated the “certain death zone” (or CDZ). Digital cameras don’t work. So I took pictures with my film camera, on the off chance that would work. And it did.
I meant to send the pictures in to a higher authority. I packed them up, all nicely labeled, slipped them in the envelope, and sealed it. I debated whether or not to submit them anonymously. I usually had that part figured out before I started snapping pictures. But this time, it was harder to decide, not just how I was going to submit the photos, but whether I wanted to send them at all. I tore open the envelope and spread the pictures out again on my desk.
There had to be other pictures like the ones I took, pictures that did not exist on the internet or in any kind of public archive because they had been…what? Pulled? Suppressed? Why was I feeling so paranoid? After all that I’d seen. This was what I did for a living after all. Take pictures of unusual phenomena.
I didn’t start off that way. I started off as an investigator. I started off curious. Then I learned that I had a knack for noticing weird things. I’ve seen enough now to have quenched my curiosity. Still, it’s a decent living. Far more so than if I were taking pictures of cheating spouses and dirty dealings in alleyways.
I peered down at the pictures. Unstable stones, they were called, because they appeared and then vanished with no rhyme or reason. Unstable.
There have been other occurrences. In my research, I found a decent amount of information and primary sources (though some of them were questionable).
In the 1600s, three children who lived in a small French village, two brothers and their little sister, went into the woods near their house to pick firewood and berries, and presumably to dilly dally and climb trees. They had been warned never to go too far into the woods by themselves until they were grown. When the children didn’t come home by evening, and didn’t answer when their mother called them to supper, thinking they were frolicking somewhere close by, their family went out to look for them. They found the children, almost a mile away, in a small vale. The boys were trying to revive their sister, who had fallen into a deep sleep. All around them was dead quiet. Nothing cheeped. Nothing chirped. Dead birds and insects littered the forest floor. The children were taken home.
The boys claimed that a stand of stones had appeared in that small vale where they often played. They all three approached it, marveling, for the stones were as tall as ten men. They touched the stones, skipped around them, tried to climb them, and then, the boys did not know when exactly, the little girl fainted away. When her brothers saw her, they immediately went to her aid. They tried to give her water and wake her. They saw that she still drew breath. Afraid they would be punished for not taking care of her, they did not take her home right away. The little girl never woke.
In the 1970s, there was a group of teenage kids who found an occurrence in the Nevada desert while they were out trying to stargaze. Two girls and two guys. They had never been to that spot before. They didn’t know that the stones hadn’t always been there. They returned to the same spot for days afterward. They started keeping a record of the event, trying to study it. They took thermometers and magnets out to the stones. They supposedly even got a hold of a Geiger counter. There were no atypical readings on whatever instrument they managed to point at the stones. But each time they visited, the stones were in different positions. Some of them looked slightly bigger. They took rubbings of the stones, chipped off bits of stone, and collected the surrounding dirt. They took pictures, on several rolls of film. What happened to those pictures, I couldn’t find out. So it wasn’t public knowledge.
One day, they went to see the stones. The two girls returned alive and unharmed to a diner-combination-gas station that was the closest place where they could get help. They had with them, in the station wagon they had driven, the body of one of their friends. They claimed they couldn’t find the other boy. While the girls were searching for him and calling out to him, their other friend started having trouble breathing, so they grabbed him and dragged him into the car, hoping to get help. But by the time they reached the diner, it was too late.
In the days and weeks that followed, a search party was sent out. The medical examiner deemed that the boy had died of asphyxiation, probably due to exposure to a toxic chemical. No one else died. But when the girls led the party to where they had been studying the stones, there were no stones to be found. The authorities assumed that the girls were mistaken about the exact location, or that all the kids had been taking drugs, or just being inattentive about where they were, or any number of logical, more likely, explanations. But what they did find was dead animals. Spiders, scorpions, lizards, ravens, and a few coyotes lay in a zig-zagging lightning bolt pattern. To the investigators, that only confirmed that some chemical had affected the area. The girls had gotten lucky they weren’t exposed.
In recent years, a group of standing stones was found in a remote area in the western region of Iceland. They seemed to have appeared overnight. Then they kept moving. Every day, they were in slightly different positions. Some seemed have grown bigger. At first, it was thought to be a hoax or an art project. So a film crew went and filmed the site for days, weeks, months. They didn’t do their homework, at first. For the first few days, they tried camping out and watching the stones while recording with digital cameras. Nothing happened and nothing got recorded. Then they switched to film. They hid the cameras, left them running, and left the site. But again, nothing happened. The cameras showed the stones remaining in the position they were in when filming began. The crew finally decided to confirm that it must have been a hoax and whoever was responsible was not able to come and move the stones with the film crew there. They were lucky. None of them ended up in a coma. None of them died. Nothing died. Strangely, the video did show birds and beasts, alive and well, crossing the cameras’ fields of vision. Birds would even land and roost on the stones. A few days after the crew left, the stones vanished. They left no death behind them that time.
There was some seed of a connection there. Did the filming affect the stones somehow? Or was the so-called “certain death zone” not so certain? I needed more than one example of people taking video of unstable stones. But I found none. And I only had the still camera and two days before the stones I photographed vanished.
I encountered one strange detail in many of the accounts. Witnesses recalled seeing a yellow butterfly, sometimes more than one, fluttering about and around the stones, never landing on one. It’s hard to tell if that “fluttered around but never landed” was truly a detail from each account, or if it was added by someone who wrote all the accounts down. How many subtle washes of subjectivity had colored all these tales over the centuries and decades before I laid eyes on them? Yellow butterflies symbolized hope and the soul, specifically the soul at peace. They must have been a poetic and hopeful addition to the stories. I especially thought so after I saw my photographs.
I examined the photos with the magnifying glass. Some might argue they looked faked. But I had the pictures developed at two different places. And both sets looked the same. Both sets of photographs had figures standing near each stone. Not a single account of the unstable stones mentioned them. Gray shadows, but with the shapes of faces, arms, legs, and eyes. Hollow eyes.
Three quick and forceful knocks at the door startled me out of my thoughts. Then came the sound of paper sliding on a hard surface. I walked over to the door and saw an envelope on the floor. Someone had just slipped it under. I hesitated. My heart started beating faster. It wasn’t the first time someone had anonymously slipped an envelope under my door. But the coincidence of receiving such an envelope just as I was considering sending one of my own was strong enough to get my hackles up. I knew that real life was full of coincidences, but I still didn’t believe in them.
I grabbed the envelope and poked my head out of my office door, looking up and down the hallway. My office was on the second floor, so I listened for footsteps on the stairs or the sound of the rickety elevator descending to the ground floor. There was nothing. I went back into my office and peeked out the window. But it was usually a busy sidewalk, so there was no telling if any of the people I saw passing by were the ones who left me that packet.
There was a security camera pointed at the main and rear entrances to the building. All but the newest guards who worked the building had gotten a request from me to take a look at the video when some potentially problematic clients or associated characters came by. The guard on duty saw the look on my face and knew I’d ask to see the footage. She queued it up.
The camera conveniently stopped working in the few minutes that it would have taken the person or persons to enter, walk up the steps, and deliver the envelope. The guard was irritated. She tested the system daily to make sure it was working.
I returned to my office and decided to open the envelope, slowly and cautiously.
There were photographs. I sucked in a breath when I saw what was on those photographs. The pictures weren’t as clear as mine. They were slightly fuzzy around the edges. But it was unmistakably photos of unstable stones. And of gray ghostly shadows.
There was more in the envelope. A brief note, typed and unsigned, and something that looked like a flash drive, but after some examination turned out to be a thumb-sized recording device.
The note was a single question: “What does the camera do?”
The little device had an earphone jack, so I plugged in my earbuds and I pressed the only button I could find on it. I began to hear a crackle, then a conversation where the speakers sounded hollow and faraway. It was a partial recording of a conversation between two men. One of them seemed to be a scientist. The other seemed to be someone who was higher up and in charge.
“These are not your typical standing stones. These are as mysterious today as they were hundreds of years ago, when people first started noting their appearance. That too is significant. We haven’t found any accounts of anything going back further than maybe five hundred to seven hundred years ago. The stones just appear out of nowhere, and after they do, everything that enters a certain irregular perimeter dies. With one exception, there is a species of mouse that seems able to move in and out of the certain death zones.”
“Why is that, Doctor? What makes these mice so special?”
“I don’t know.”
Feedback distorted the recording. Over the buzzing, high-pitched whine, I couldn’t tell if anyone was speaking, much less what they were saying. The feedback decreased, then stopped, leaving only the light crackle again. The man in charge spoke.
“You’re saying that the reason these mice are surviving is because there is an intelligence at work in there…and it likes them?”
The crackling stopped. A new recording began playing. This time, there were three voices. Two women and one man. Again, there was a scientist, one of the women. And again, there was the person in charge, the other woman. The two women sounded so similar, it was hard for me to tell them apart. The man spoke only once at the start of the recording.
“It’s happening again.”
“This time, it’s not mice. All the mice in the CDZ are dead.”
“What is it then?”
“We haven’t yet figured out what the survivor species is yet.”
“What about that butterfly we saw?”
Someone sighed loudly. Then the woman who was in charge spoke.
“Have we figured out how they work? How to block the effects or stop them? What is their purpose?”
“We theorize that brainwave patterns are being disrupted, but only of certain organisms. The configuration of the stones might be what determines who or what will be affected.”
There was a pause for several seconds.
“This could be some sort of experiment. Eliminate as many variables as you can. Everything that crosses this zone dies, except one kind of thing.”
“And then what? What’s the point of such an experiment? And why kill everything else?”
“We do that kind of stuff with cells on a Petri dish all the time. If we’re dealing with some intelligence that sees all life on Earth the way we see bacterial colonies on an agar plate, then that intelligence wouldn’t have any qualms about killing. It may not perceive us as complex enough to consider our well-being.”
“How could it not know?”
“How could we not know?”
“We didn’t know until we studied. We didn’t know how intelligent elephants, crows, and dolphins are until we did studies. We didn’t know until that some animals experience emotional and psychological pain as well as physical pain until we studied them. We might not want to accept it but whoever or whatever is conducting this study may not know that we aren’t just all a bunch of cellular masses with no thoughts or conscious or culture. Or it may know but not care or consider those things or our lives valuable.”
“We’re getting off track. We have no proof whatsoever that there is an intelligence involved in this phenomenon. And even if there is, we have no proof that this intelligence is conducting an experiment.”
“Yes, ma’am. You’re right. The effect the stones have on living creatures could be reflex or reproduction, or who knows?”
“So let’s talk about what we do have proof of. If we don’t know or can’t figure out what it is, then let’s at least see if we can tell whether or not it’s spreading. If it’s not, we can cordon off this area until it goes away. According to all the accounts that you’ve found of this phenomenon, it eventually goes away, is that right?”
“Yes, that’s true, but I don’t know of any that’s lasted this long.”
“Is that all we can do? Wait for it to go away?”
“No, we can keep studying it.”
“How? None of the devices we send inside the CDZ will work.”
“Which means they’re being disrupted by something. There are some unusual forms of radiation that we’ve encountered before. It doesn’t seem to be emitting any of those. There are also mystical energies that we’re familiar with. It doesn’t seem to be emitting any of those either. It’s not emitting anything that we can measure directly. So we’ll have to take indirect measurements. With the exception of photographs.”
“Just like those kids.”
“They tried to be hotshots, measuring temperature and magnetism and taking scrapings and swabs. They didn’t get anything unusual either.”
“What happened to the evidence they collected?”
“Your guess is as good as mine. I should have access to it, but I’ve been denied a few times already.”
The recording went quiet again for a few seconds, before a single, clear voice spoke. It shocked me. I turned around, even though I knew I was listening to a recording. He sounded so clear and so familiar.
“I need your help. Your help,” the voice said.
“You can help get them out. Don’t just look. See.”
I glanced at the photographs sprawled across my desk. I didn’t want to look at those shadow figures, even in photographs.
I certainly didn’t want to see them in person again.
“I know you’re scared. You may not be a great photographer. But not everyone can see what you can see. You have to step up. Trust that you are not powerless to solve. You are not powerless to save. All I can give you is the packet and this push. The rest is up to you.”
That was it. The recording went silent. I pulled out the earbuds and sat back in my chair, dazed.
No, I thought. I just take pictures. I’m just a witness. Who is that anyway? Why should I trust him? It sounds like me, but if it is, that only raises more questions. A lot of guys probably sound like me.
And I wasn’t the only one who saw things.
The guy at the camera shop who developed the photos saw the gray ghostly shadows in my photographs too. He thought it was some art project I was doing. He asked me how I’d gotten the effects. So I wasn’t just hallucinating the shadows in the pictures, or in the park where I’d seen them gliding around. I followed them to the stones. I’d gotten lucky too. After two days of taking pictures, I had walked away unharmed. It was only after that I did the research and realized I could have died.
What does the camera do? The question on the note reminded me of the old story of how a photograph, by capturing a person’s image, captured that person’s soul. What does the camera do? It captures the essence. Maybe the unstable stones did something like that. Maybe they extracted the spirits, the very life essence, of some of the people and animals who’d come too close.
Maybe it was simpler, like that scientist said in the recording, some brainwave disruption caused by something the stones were doing that we just couldn’t measure yet. Those shadows I saw had to be some kind of ghost I’d never seen before, a kind of ghost I could see with my naked eyes, and they seemed attached to or trapped by the stones. I had figured the people I was planning on sending my pictures to already knew that.
But maybe they didn’t know. Maybe it was up to me to tell them. To show them.
I searched the packet, the photos inside, the note, and the recording device for any dates or identifiers or other markings, looking for clues about the clues. But I found nothing. Where did it come from? Who did it come from really? Just an hour past, I’d been wavering about whether or not I should send my pictures to someone.
Now I wondered, should I go further than that? I knew something new. Something that could help save people. If not their lives, then their souls. Now my palms were even sweatier. The constant fizzing of anxiety in my chest had become a churning. I gazed at the photographs. I had new pictures to worry over now. A new mystery to consider.
I had a new decision to make.
Copyright © 2016. Story by Nila L. Patel. Artwork: “SF_WK5” by Sanjay Patel.