Sometimes a thing isn’t good or evil in itself. The sequence is a thing like this. It becomes good or evil when you touch it. If you are good, it becomes good. If you are evil, it becomes evil. But we humans…we are both. What happens when we touch it?
Sam lay her fingers on the page where those words were written. The man who’d written them had been dead for almost a century.
She did not know his name. She did not know his position in society. She was not quite sure of his profession—save that he was some kind of explorer. But he was the first clue that led her to the “sequence” as she too had begun to call it.
But even after four months of research, phone calls, coffee-shop meetings, and video chat meetings, Sam still did not know what the sequence was.
Sam’s passion was history, not philosophy. But she aimed to get as many of the required non-major core classes out of the way in her freshman year. She hadn’t expected to like the philosophy seminar, having literally crinkled her nose at the pretentious title. She just told everyone it was a “philosophy of the human mind” course. To which many of her friends remarked that all philosophy was philosophy of the human mind. But it was the only one available in the time slot she had free in her first year.
She had decided that she would make the best of the class by choosing something history-related for her final project. While languishing in the library one afternoon, researching and rejecting various potential ideas, she finally stumbled upon something that intrigued her. In a translation of a record from an ancient Mesoamerican civilization, she found vague mention of something, a phenomenon maybe or a thing, a tool. It was obviously important for the amount of resources taken to describe it—both to exalt it and denounce it, which seemed strange. But she wasn’t familiar with that particular ancient civilization. For all she knew, it was their manner to speak of things in such dichotomous way.
This phenomenon or thing had been attributed to a recent span of drought, and blamed upon a group of people who had dared to “open doors.”
So she wasn’t sure if she was on to something interesting, because whatever this thing was, it was unnamed and undefined. She needed some way to narrow her search terms. She decided to pick a few texts at random from the unending list that popped up when she combined generic searches like “historical mystery” and “open doors” and “natural disasters.”
She flipped through the randomly chosen books at random too, reading a passage there, a sentence here, waiting for something to pop out at her as significant and relevant. It took a few hours, a frustrated yogurt break, and a delayed dinner for her to find something at last. Even better, the mention was from a philosopher, one who lived in Europe during the Renaissance. He attributed the period to a phenomenon, a series of fortuitous but also inevitable events that pushed through some cosmic barrier to enlightenment.
The philosopher was unnamed, but Sam was getting used to that. And she was already adapting her partially random search method to hone in on what she sought, the answer to her question, the question of her potential final project.
What was this thing?
What was this “open door,” this “sequence?”
“Professor, I freely admit to you that I wanted to showcase history and to show off how deep I am by writing a paper about a meme from the past,” Sam said, sitting across from her philsophy professor in his office. “Memes have existed—even on the global scale—long before anyone had a name for them. I figured it would be a kind of an intersection of history, psychology, and of course, philosophy. And I thought I had found a good one, one that reached all the way back into the ancient world and them seemed to pop up in various later eras. The Dark Ages, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, all the ones that a good number of people know about.”
She flipped to her summary page for reference. “Various horrors and wonders have been attributed to it. The plague that resulted in the Dark Ages. But also the insights and inspirations that led to the advances of ancient civilizations around the world. Some believe it had a hand in igniting both world wars. Not as some external force acting upon the human will, but as a tool of that will. Because like any tool, it could be used to build and create. Or it could be used to dismantle and destroy.” She looked up at him.
“And what is it that you’re talking about?”
“Ever heard of the blood sequence?” Sam asked, smiling.
Farrago, as the professor preferred his students to call him, creased his brows and crossed his arms. “What do you mean, like how it carries oxygen or moves through the heart—”
“No, no, not that.” Sam set the pile of books, folders, and random notes on his desk. She was at her scheduled appointment with him, to propose the topic of her final project. She began to explain what she had discovered.
“The…phenomenon seems to be something that people throughout history have attempted to keep mysterious,” Sam said, gesturing confidently in the hopes of distracting Farrago from the fact that she had veered her project so close to history. “So even if they give it elaborate descriptions, or recount its effects in detail, they won’t give it a name. Either that or it’s given multiple names in multiple variations, some of which have way different specific meanings in modern times…red sequence, blood sequence, plume syndrome. Blood sequence, for example, comes from the personal records of an explorer from the turn of the twentieth century, or the early part of it anyway. The records are incomplete. And I don’t know his name. It’s the most recent primary source I’ve come across so far, but just like the other stories and accounts I’ve found, it somehow contains a whole lot of information, and a whole lot of mystery at the same time. The author is the first one who uses the word ‘sequence’ to describe what he calls a tool, a path, and—wait for it—a philosophy.”
Professor Farrago took a deep breath and sighed. He had the whisper of a smile on a his face that—combined with his slightly narrowed eyes—seemed to be saying, “well played.” But that same smile also reflected a skepticism about the vague nature of the thing, the “sequence.”
“Okay, I’ll give you that you might have something. Might. Dig deeper. Find a solid connection to philosophy.”
Sam raised a finger. “I will, but not too deep.” She had just found rich fodder for one of humanity’s signature qualities…curiosity. “The key to studying the sequence is to not go too far before one is ready, for that way lies horror and destruction.”
Farrago quirked a brow. “Why horror and destruction?”
“From what I can tell, it could be as simple as not having the education and experience to know how to use a specific power. Like before I was given access to a car, I needed guidance, teaching, and hours of practice, and then I had to pass a test. Without guidance, power can run rampant, and typically that means…horror and destruction.” Sam pulled a folder from her pile and flipped it open. “This explorer called it the ‘blood sequence,’ because he believed that someone he knew, someone he cared about, a blood relative in fact…uh…a cousin, was tampering with powers that shouldn’t be wielded by human beings. Our bodies can’t handle surges of electricity or raging bonfires. They can’t repair themselves from every injury. But the explorer’s relative tried to do just that. And he paid a high price. His mind and body were changed, corrupted. The explorer described his relative as being ‘on the brink of death, hovering at its edge, a pale whisper of the man he once was, taking no sustenance but the blood that seeps from his own lips as he bites them at every new discovery. Eager for more and more, I fear he is becoming less and less.'”
Sam grinned at Farrago. “What does that sound like to you?”
Farrago shrugged his brows and then his shoulders.
Sam shook her head, but was undeterred. “The explorer had found a text filled with writing that none of the experts he consulted were able to translate. His cousin, a young scholar, asked if he could try. The explorer was horrified when he witnessed the effects of the sequence. His cousin believed that it unlocked perceptions, maybe in different ways for each person. His cousin was trying to do that, so he could perceive beyond the five known senses. Psychic-like powers basically. But as a side effect, or maybe even as a purposeful part of the process, his cousin was turning into a monster. The explorer tried to stop his cousin, first by pretending to want to help him. He managed to get the book back, but it was too late. His cousin warned that the their family’s blood was now changing, that the sequence would change them all. And that it would spread.”
Sam stopped to take a breath. Farrago uncrossed his arms and leaned over the desk toward her.
“What happened?” he asked.
Sam blinked. “Oh, the explorer started experiencing strange symptoms too. Strange perceptions. He thought he could hear his wife’s heartbeat from two floors below him, and see ghostly figures flickering in the windows of a nearby abandoned house. His curiousity got the better of him for a while. He tried to study the book. When he received news that his young cousin had died, he managed to get a hold of himself enough to try and destroy the book. By doing so, he hoped he had erased it completely from existence so that humanity would never discover it again. ‘If I could have,’ he writes, ‘I would have found some way to discourage humanity from ever discovering it, because there are some things we are not meant to see.’ He began to recover after that, and never spoken of the book again.”
“A gripping story, but don’t lose focus. This project is about philosophy, not mythology or fable. No urban legends.”
“What if it’s all linked?”
“Whatever the sequence is, it allows a person’s perceptions to be opened up to cosmic proportions, which might be expected to lead to either madness or enlightenment, or maybe even both.”
“So…the people who dared to venture into the sequence believed that the reward was worth the risk.”
Sam nodded. “We humans have always wanted more powers than what we can hold in our frail bodies. I won’t lie. That sounds good to me too.”
“So the sequence is a danger to us. But if we don’t know anything about it, in some cases don’t even know of it’s existence, how can we defend ourselves against it? Or can we defend ourselves against it? Or are we just too curious?”
Sam understood that Farrago was still trying to get her to focus, to choose the thesis statement for her paper. Her core argument. What was it? Sam wasn’t quite sure at the moment. She was no longer chasing an ancient meme. Or proving that human’s could resist their curiosity. She wouldn’t go so far as to try and use the sequence. She just wanted to find out what it was.
This time, she pulled out her tablet and opened a series of scanned documents.
“This Dr. Mendelson believed that the sequence is what gave rise to all the monsters in our myths. In a lot of our…origin stories, we weren’t the first thing to show up in the world.”
“Are you saying that this sequence came first?”
“Maybe, and it couldn’t compete with us, and so it tried to cooperate.” Sam suddenly affected a movie trailer announcer voice as she said, “The struggle continues to this day.”
“Is it…a ribosomal sequence?”
“You’ve already forgotten biology?”
Sam shrugged. Molecules and atoms were not her areas of interest. “I thought it was a numbers things, a sequence of numbers. Maybe a sequence of equations that would change the laws of physics and open the gates to another reality, a horrific one or a beautiful one. Then I read something else and thought it was referring to a sequence of steps, like instructions. Or maybe there’s a musical sequence. Or maybe it’s a gene sequence, though that would be a coincidence because the explorer wouldn’t know about genes when he called it a ‘sequence.” It’s also been referred to by other general words, like ‘syndrome.’ People would succumb to some illness and then change, mutate and metamorphosize into a variety of fabled monsters. Mentions of the syndrome have been linked to vampirism.”
Sam nodded. “And even the resurrection of the dead.”
“And when our head-in-clouds thoughts descend back to the earth, what do we think it is, really?”
“Knowledge…knowledge of something we shouldn’t know.”
“Who’s to say what we should or shouldn’t know?”
“No one says, it’s just something we can’t handle.”
“In our current mortal forms.” Farrago smiled suddenly. “Okay, okay, you do have something here.”
Sam smirked. “What grade would I get if I re-discovered this sequence, Prof?”
“Grade? If half of what you’ve presented here is true, I’d say you’d be eligible for a prestigious award or two…assuming you didn’t succumb to the sequence’s charms and turn into something monstrous.”
“Like a freshman?”
Farrago chuckled. “Don’t go opening any black holes with your bare hands.”
Sam knew how to keep herself from falling prey to the allure of the sequence, with its promise of power and enlightenment. She had presented the very solution during her proposal meeting.
But where would one find a guide, a teacher for such an undefinable thing?
The first person she asked was an obvious choice for a student who spent half her time in one library or another, her favorite librarian, who steered her toward some seemingly relevant documents. It turned out to be a fascinating detour to how something that might have been the sequence may have caused various plagues and instances of “mass hysteria.” Modern researchers would probably attribute even unexplained plagues to some infectious microorganism like a virus or bacterium, which made sense. But when the concept of a contagion first arose, the existence of these microorganisms wasn’t known. And there were some who believed that the infectious agent was some component of the sequence, trying to change humanity into something better or worse.
Sam soon realized there was little of substance in such plague stories. They didn’t reveal what the sequence was. She tried again to seek guidance from the librarian, and again was led astray, this time into monster mythology. Sensational material, sure. But she had caught the scent of a more intriguing mystery. She continued the search on her own.
Farrago had been lukewarm about her project from the beginning. When Sam went in for a status update meeting, he seemed to be feigning his enthusiasm. Sam called him out on it. He admitted that he did not see a coherent story in her project. He too steered her toward something else—a focus on psychic powers.
It seemed as if everyone was trying to get her to write the paper they wanted her to write.
Walking out of Farrago’s office in a subdued huff, Sam headed to her favorite off-campus cafe to get some chamomile tea and soothe her frustration. That was the first night she noticed the woman in the pantsuit and impractically high heels watching her.
The woman smiled, as if she’d just happened to glance her way. But it happened twice more, as Sam sat reviewing materials, and writing up an outline. She thought at first that it might be some campus recruiter who’d been given her name or something, but the woman never approached or called her over.
Sam shook her head at herself after the woman left. Chasing the mystery of the sequence was making her paranoid.
The next day, Sam was contacted by a man who said he would be willing to guide her, or send her to someone else who could if she didn’t feel comfortable with him. She’d found him through the librarian, who had vouched for him. She was encouraged when he was so enthusiastic and supportive of her project. Sam thought she was finally getting somewhere. But while he seemed reasonable at first, the more they spoke, the more cult-y the whole thing sounded. She thanked him and asked for another guide. He was understanding about it.
He sent her to a woman who lived out of state. Sam set up a video chat. On the surface, the woman seemed the opposite of the man who’d recommended her. She was ornery and not at all interested in soft refusals, like the supportive redirecting of her professor and the librarian. This woman flat out told Sam that she was stupid for pursuing a thing that was to big for even the greatest men and women who have ever lived to handle. So great that some were willing to transform themselves into monsters to gain knowledge and power that they otherwise could not wield.
Sam realized that she wouldn’t be going any further with the sequence than finding out what its effects were on humans throughout history. She wouldn’t know what it was, how it worked…how it felt.
But then, she would tell herself that she was just keeping her promise, to herself and to her professor. She would be going no further.
Sam’s search had gone above and beyond, by her measure. She hadn’t gone to that much effort for any of her history class projects. Even as she continued to be drawn to the mystery of the sequence, she resented it. What did she have to show for all she had done? What had the sequence ever done for her?
She sat before her pile of research one night and sighed. The outline of her paper glared at her from the laptop screen.
She was exhausted. She needed to turn in a preliminary draft in a few days. She usually liked writing papers. But she was too beat to do any writing that night. She turned off her laptop and thought about sorting through her hard copy notes.
She found herself reaching for the file she’d gathered on the explorer whose haunting journal entries had started her down the path toward the sequence.
“Back to basics,” she said. As she skimmed through his personal records, she found a passage that struck her.
I will not tell you not to go forth, not to go further. You would not listen, for you are young, brave, and foolish, as I once was.
“Young people aren’t always foolish,” she said, responding to the long-dead explorer and also reminding herself.
The particular missive she’d been reading was not a journal entry, but a letter that the explorer had written to his cousin in the early days of their discovery, before the sequence had begun to transform the young man, or lay waste to him.
Sam reached for her own journal. She had started writing thoughts that she would not put in her final paper. Stray thoughts. Personal thoughts. Troubling thoughts.
I thought I saw something. Not in the corner of my eye. But right in front of me. It was not a translucent floating figure. It was not a malicious doll, or a snarling demonic face. It was not a claw, a fang, or a tentacle. It was not even eyes a color that I’d never seen in nature before…in humans.
What I saw was something I had seen before. An everyday sight. Something everyone else around me could see and attest to. I was not the disbelieved prophet, lamenting at a fate that was imminent only because no one would heed my warnings.
I was just someone who was being watched.
And I had a feeling she—and he, I just spotted another one—wanted me to know she was there.
But what is she watching for? For me to need her help? Or for me to cause others to need her help?
I tried walking toward her once, to ask her. But she slipped away.
Am I really seeing what I think I’m seeing? Or has it gotten to me too? I think it’s both.
After Sam turned the preliminary draft of her paper in, she went to her favorite off-campus cafe to reward herself with a chocolate croissant and a hazelnut coffee. She noticed a familiar face already sitting at one of the patio tables.
She approached the woman in the pantsuit and the impractically high heels and asked if she could sit. The woman said nothing, but also didn’t slip away this time.
“I’m Sam,” she said. “Are you a professor?”
The woman sipped what appeared to be a cup of plain black coffee. She smiled. “I am not.”
“Is it my imagination, or have you been watching me?” Sam asked. She was too tired to be her usual respectfully coy self.
“Yes, indeed,” the woman admitted. “You’ve been doing some interesting research.”
Sam laughed a scoffing laugh. “I’m a freshman. I haven’t started any research yet.”
“Original research, no,” the woman said. “But we all have to start somewhere, and the bone you’ve been chasing…well, it was a well-buried one.”
“Who buried it?”
The woman took another sip. “That is the question for the ages.”
“It is? What does that even mean?”
“You’re a historian.”
Sam sat up straighter. “Not yet. But that’s the plan.”
The woman nodded slightly.
“May I ask your name?” Sam asked. “And who you work for?” With the second question, she felt a spike of fear pierce her gut at the thought that the woman might be working for some secret, clandestine organization. Of assassins.
“I work for an agency that does what you’re doing, though on a slightly larger scale.”
“Attempting to solve historical-slash-philosophical mysteries?”
“Something to that effect.”
“Are you trying to find it? Or are you trying to hide it?
“Well we’d have to do the first before we can do the last, wouldn’t we?”
“Let me ask you something, Sam. Would you be able to resist knowing?”
“What the sequence is? Absolutely.”
“In my current form, in this fragile mortal shell, yes. I have a feeling that if we are meant to know, it’s once we pass on, assuming we have souls or spirits, or something like that.”
“I’ve been researching this for months. Did you guys just catch on now? Am I really that close to finding it?”
“Then why stalk me? Did you have my parents’ permission? ‘Cause you didn’t have mine.”
“You are nowhere near, but you might continue. We just had to see which course you would take. Would you pursue your curiosity? Or would you deny it?”
Sam took a breath. “So you’re here to stop me.”
“If we wanted to stop you, we would have found less bumbling ways to do so.”
Sam frowned and a vague notion crossed her mind about the way that her librarian and her philosophy professor had casually tried to nudge her away from studying the sequence directly.
“So…you were testing me? Testing my curiosity? Whether it was strong enough to get past other people nudging me away or out-and-out discouraging me? I don’t understand why you’d bother with me if I’m not a threat or…a resource. What is your plan here?”
“What do you think I’m trying to do? If I’m not trying to stop you?”
Sam’s frown softened and her eyes widened slightly. “You’re trying to guide me?”
The woman smiled.
“But then, why be creepy about it? Why not just…hand me a curriculum or something?”
“Can you guess why?”
Sam sighed. “It’s always going to be like this with you, isn’t it?”
The woman folded her hands before herself on the tabletop.
Both were silent for a few moments.
Sam shook her head and sat up straight. “I don’t want to completely deny or blindly chase my curiosity. I want to…manage it. Keep it balanced.”
The woman nodded. “Finish your paper, Sam.” She reached into her breast pocket and pulled out a card. She handed it to Sam. “If you can demonstrate that you can keep your curiosity balanced, then someone will answer that number when you call.”
“And if I can’t?”
The woman rose. “No answer.”
Sam watched the unnamed woman walk away. And in her mind, she began to measure the risks and rewards in pursuing the sequence, even if she were guided.
She had always believed in the lessons that history could teach her, could teach everyone if they would heed those lessons.
But history seemed to hold no consistent lesson when it came to the sequence.
There’s pushing the limits and then there’s pushing your luck.
Sam flipped the business card over in her hand, over and over, as she sat at the table and thought.
Copyright © 2018 Nila L. Patel