Over the last couple of weeks, Reddit users noticed a strange phenomenon unfolding in the comments (even for Reddit). A user named _9Mother9Horse9Eyes was posting elaborate, often disturbing vignettes, mostly about something called "flesh interfaces," on unrelated discussion threads. Think Lovecraft meets internet troll. After the comments were noticed, they bloomed into a minor sensation, with Reddit sleuths piecing together the stories for clues and continuity, and any information about the anonymous author. Meanwhile, the macabre tales kept coming. I was struck by the use of the format, how the idle browser is forced from the banal to the gruesomely outlandish in the course of a handful of sentences, as well as the dedication to the central, unsettling conceit. So I reached out to Mother Horse Eyes on Reddit, and asked him to expand its fictional empire here. The author sent the following back, over the course of two lengthy direct messages:
I'm not sure who came up with the idea of sending a dead body through the portal. It's such a simple idea, and yet, at the time, it made no more sense than buckling a dead body into a space capsule and sending it up into space. We wanted to find out what was on the "other side" of the portal, beyond the event horizon. We had been studying the so-called flesh interfaces for years, and of all the mysteries that surrounded them, the portal phenomenon -- the apparent teleportation of objects which occurred within the fleshly tunnel -- was the greatest mystery of all. So sending a dead body made little sense.
Remember, this is what we knew at the time:
If an inanimate object went into the portal, it returned a short time (< 3 seconds) later at a random location within the interior zone. Cameras and sensors picked up nothing of interest.
If an animal went into the portal, it sometimes returned, either alive or dead. Most returned altered.
If an adult human went into the portal, the person was likely to return, but would either be dead or too altered to describe the "other side." Those who returned alive died shortly after.
If a child went into the portal, the child was likely to return alive, but was invariably altered. However, the altering was relatively mild, and some even remained cognizant. Unfortunately information gleaned from them was cryptic and seemed to generate more questions than answers. They all died shortly after.
Sending children through the portal was distasteful to us for obvious reasons, and we were searching for an alternative. One day, during an experiment, somebody was about to send a group of genetically altered mice through when they noticed that one of the mice was dead. Perhaps out of curiosity, they sent it with the others anyways. All the mice came back alive.
This was obviously of great interest. Now we were not only dealing with teleportation, but with resurrection. Of course, we immediately started sending all manner of dead animals through the portal. (We joked that if the portal was actually some kind of alien office mailing tube, they'd probably be pretty pissed about all the dead rodents.) Most of the animals were "rejected" in the manner of inanimate objects. But occasionally, if they were quite freshly dead, they would come back alive. Not only that, but none of the returned animals seemed altered at all. This was exciting.
Naturally, we progressed to people. We wanted very fresh, very intact corpses, so we had to face the question of how to kill a person "with the least harm," as the official recommendations absurdly phrased it. We settled on a method of stopping the heart with electricity. Very neat. The first 16 subjects were rejected by the portal. We felt pretty low. In our attempts at resurrection, we were racking up quite a body count. Finally, the 17th subject came back to us. Not only that, but he was cognizant and seemed entirely unaltered. Now, finally, after decades, we were about to find out the secret of the other side.
In 63 BC, the Roman general Gnaeus Pompeius Magnus marched his soldiers across the kingdom of Judea and laid siege to Jerusalem, its heavily fortified capital city. Known to history as Pompey the Great, he was 43 years old at the time and one of the most powerful men in the world, an ascendant general tasked with expanding the mightiest empire on earth.
In his dealings with the occupants of the obscure kingdom of Judea, he surely had become aware of their peculiar devotion to a mysterious god which they worshipped to the exclusion of all others, a strange notion for a cosmopolitan Roman accustomed to a bustling marketplace of competing gods and cults. He also knew that at the heart of Jerusalem there stood a great temple, even more well fortified than the rest of the city, where this curious god resided amongst angelic statues of gold and other symbols of occult majesty.
This temple was the holiest site in a holy kingdom and contained within its walls a small sanctuary chamber, known as the Kodesh Hakodashim, or "Holy of Holies," where the very presence of this god was said to dwell in the darkness. Nobody in the kingdom was allowed into the Kodesh Hakodashim except the high priest, and then only once a year on the Day of Atonement to sprinkle animal blood on the ground as an offering.
The Kodesh Hakodashim was separated from the rest of the temple by an elaborate curtain, and the high priest was required to ritually cleanse himself before entering. It was said that any unclean person who entered the Kodesh Hakodashim would be met with death, and legend has it that the high priest only entered the sanctuary with a rope tied around his ankle so that if he died therein, he could be pulled back out.
How much of this did Pompey the Great know on the day the city finally fell after a three month siege? On that day, he and his soldiers slaughtered 12,000 Jews who were defending the sanctuary, and he strode through the entrance of the imposing temple as a conquering hero to the Romans and a murdering intruder to the Jews. Inside the temple, he saw the glittering wealth acquired from faithful Jews throughout the region. But rather than wealth, it seemed that he was more interested in finally laying eyes on this reclusive god he had heard so much about. Ancient historians record that he did not relieve the temple of its treasure but instead went to the Kodesh Hakodashim. Maybe he wanted to see what sort of magical creature could maintain such a peculiar hold over its faithful that they would not abandon the temple even after it was hopelessly overrun, that they would stay and die by the thousands, sacrificing their own blood on its grounds.
Perhaps he was unaware of the tales of death that surrounded the Kodesh Hakodashim. Perhaps he didn't know that this was a god which had leveled the world with a flood, which had rained fire on cities, which had delivered the Jews from the yoke of the mighty Egyptian empire, which had destroyed armies and kingdoms. Or perhaps he had heard these stories and simply didn't believe them. At any rate, history records that he went to the inner part of the temple and pulled back the curtain which hid the Kodesh Hakodashim from the world so that he might stand and gaze upon the very presence of god.
The man was an illegal immigrant from Honduras. Illegal immigration has always been a great help to us. Why bother to erase people when they can do it themselves? Anyways, he was under the impression that he had been in the custody of immigration enforcement for the last few months, while we ran the standard battery of tests. He was 24 years old, 171 centimeters tall, above average intelligence. We stopped his heart with electrodes and put him inside the flesh interface.
He came back quite jittery and minimally responsive. Posing as doctors and nurses, our technicians took him to a medical room for testing and interviews. We assumed he had been altered, but we tested his blood for the presence of the exotic LSD analogues that accompany alteration, and there were none. Slowly, over a period of several hours he began to calm down. Then he began to talk.
We asked him what he remembered about the last few hours. He was under the impression that his experiences had merely been a dream, that some sort of calamity had happened during his sleep which left him reeling. He assumed that the part where we dragged him out of bed and stopped his heart was a dream too. He said that after that part of the "dream," he suddenly found himself inside something that looked like a giant sausage casing, like a tunnel of meat.
This was very exciting to us, because it roughly corresponded to the appearance of the flesh interface which contained the portal. But given how he was brought into the interface tunnel dead and returned within the interior zone, he couldn't possibly have seen the interface tunnel. Therefore, we surmised, he was describing the interface on the other side of the portal. This was our first concrete knowledge of what was on the other side.
What did Pompey expect to find on the other side of the curtain? In many Roman temples there was an image of the honored god occupying some central place in the structure. It can be assumed that he expected to find one of these. But did he expect to find the actual presence of god? Could he have possibly expected this? For if he had believed in the Jewish lore, wouldn't he have also expected death? Wouldn't he expect to be punished for defiling the temple? Would he have been so cavalier about pulling back the curtain? Perhaps in his polytheistic mindset, he assumed that his gods, which had seen fit to give him yet another glorious victory, were more powerful than this backwater Jewish god.
What did we expect to be on the other side of the portal? Some kind of intelligence which could explain the bizarre living technology of the flesh interfaces? If the interfaces were the product of an intelligence, was it really something we wanted to make contact with? Did we expect this intelligence to be kind and benevolent? If so, how could we have sent so many living creatures, so many people, so many children to their deaths? What would a benevolent intelligence possibly make of our ruthlessness, our rapacious quest for understanding?
According to Tacitus, the ancient historian, when Pompey pulled back the curtain and gazed upon the Kodesh Hakodashim, "it contained no representation of the deity—the sanctuary was empty and the Holy of Holies untenanted." He found nothing. An empty room. Nor was he met with death. Instead he strode out of the temple alive and healthy, destined to go on to greater and greater political glory until fifteen years later when he was finally stabbed to death on the shores of the Nile delta after his defeat to Julius Caesar in the Roman civil war.
As the man spoke of walking through the unearthly, living tunnel of the flesh interface, he said he saw a bluish light ahead and heard what seemed to be music "almost like flutes but much, much deeper." As he told his story, sitting on the edge of a hospital bed wearing a loose gown, his hand wandered to his chest, and he touched the skin above his heart. There, he found two slightly singed patches of skin where we had attached the electrodes that ended his life.
I still get chills when I recall how his face changed when he realized that it had not been a dream at all. It was a pitiful, almost childish look of terrible, unwanted understanding. Tears quickly flooded his eyes. This man, who had been brought back from death itself by an unimaginable technology, by forces beyond all our understanding, slowly went limp and died for a second time.
And so we were left with disappointment once again. More mystery. More frustration. We had already heard from our child subjects about the strange flute music, but always in cryptic disjointed terms. We had hoped that this man would give us something more concrete. But the answer had eluded us once again. So we went back to our experiments, selecting a new round of subjects to send through the portal. We had already sacrificed so many lives in our quest, and there was no reason to stop then.
Knowing what I know now, I sometimes wonder, was Pompey lucky when he pulled back the curtain and found nothing?