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Forrest Aguirre is a Madison, WI writer whose fiction has appeared or will soon appear in DeathGrip, Pegasus Online, Demensions, SteelCaves, The Earwig Flesh Factory, Indigenous Fiction, Redsine, The Regurgitated Spork, Twilight Showcase, Roadworks Eraserhead press's Strangewood Tales anthology, and Flesh & Blood.

 

Dark Planet is designed and edited by Lucy A. Snyder. If you spot any errors, or if you have any comments, please contact her at lusnyde@cyberus.ca.

All materials copyright 1996-2001 by their respective creators. No stories, articles, poems or images from this webzine may be posted or published without the written consent of their creator(s).

Emulsion

by Forrest Aguirre

 

My dearest Theodore,
I have recently stumbled across an oddity of no small degree in the photographic processing of a portrait I recently took for the Moore family, a name of some wealth and renown in these parts due to the fortunate discovery of diamonds on the coffee plantation of Mr. Moore's late father. You will recall that the Moore plantation lies about two miles northwest of Ngome, bordering the vast rainforest to the west and the volcanic fields to the north. It is suspected that the volcanic magma in the area pushed and compressed a coal deposit upward over the course of hundreds of thousands of years, forming diamonds in the vein which eventually surfaced underneath Moore's property. Suffice it to say that the furor created by the discovery made Alfred Moore a very famous, very wealthy man -- a mean northern farmer transformed into a well-respected colonial powerbroker by the ebb and flow of the Dark Continent. But I diverge and must return to the subject.
As you know, I have of late taken up photography as a hobby and as a means of supplementing the meager salary allotted me as a colonial civil servant. I have greatly enjoyed the tasks of preparing, shooting and framing the portraits of Ngome's most famous -- Colonel Hans Schtack, the stolid veteran of the coastal campaigns; Major Timothy Philby, our appointed district executive; Bembele Ilkuru, the infamous prostitute; even Cibembe XVII, headman of the rapidly dwindling Quongo. The task of developing the portraits, however, has proven vexing. It is difficult to procure the proper materials here. We have never quite recovered from the effects of the First Great War and some supplies seem as precious as in those dark days. I have, therefore, been forced to substitute for various ingredients, most recently mixing a local native vinegar with the other more common ingredients of the fixer bath.
And here, my dear Theodore, my perplexity arose. As I have outlined above, the Moore family had, after seeing the work I performed for the mayor, commissioned me to produce a portrait series for their family. I was thrilled with the prospect and was offered a princely sum -- enough to ensure a sabbatical with which I might travel to the rainforest to photograph its pygmies and other inhabitants, assuming I can get a temporary leave from my post, of course.
The portraits were taken in the sun room, a wicker and ebony affair complete with Kiremba ritual masks (well used and ancient by the wear and sweat stains), baby baobab trees and iron-headed assegai from the southern plains. Mr. Moore, his wife, Marianne, and two beautiful daughters, Penelope and Lucille, were the most gracious of hosts and the most obedient of subjects. The shooting went well and I returned to my studio.
I shut the curtains to my darkroom, sliding the red glass into my little lantern, and exposed the plates to paper. I was pleased with the results as the ghostly figures melted into a semblance of corporeality as they swam in the developing fluid. They were beautiful -- my best portraits yet, rivals of anything one might find in the stolid galleries of the northern countries. Perhaps my career in the colonial civil service could come to an end, I vainly thought. But such dreams were shed like old skin as I placed the photos into my makeshift fixer bath.
At first I thought the pictures altogether ruined, but, to my astonishment, I realized that only the exposed skin of the family members showed any real change. The clothing, furniture and walls remained crisp and bright with sharp black and white contrasts. Indeed, the inanimate looked better after the fixer bath than before. The Moores, however, had undergone a transformation. Mr. Moore's fingers seemed to lengthen as the fixant took. By the time their growth had stopped they were fully twice their normal length -- and half their normal number! Two immense gray fingers, withered like those of a mummy, hung over the shoulders of Madame Moore. Her fingers had, in turn, lengthened across her lap, as had the fingers of young Penelope and Lucille kneeling in front of their mother. The deep green-gray digits seemed sullied and utterly alien against the cloth of those velvet dresses; a horrific contrast lay between the wrinkled foot-long forked hands and the smooth fabric upon which they hung, like the rough bark of the yew tree's branches on smooth graveyard marble.
But the metamorphosis did not stop there. No, this hideous manifestation was only a prelude to the frightening change that then washed over the heads and faces of my subjects. Again, the mummy's face must serve as the closest analogy, but this example is still insufficient to properly portray the grim details of said change. The girls were the first, followed by their mother and father, to transmogrify -- their human heads ballooning into the same green-gray wrinkled texture as the hands. Their mouths shrunk to a slit even as their eyes enlarged, losing their color-on-white patina to a deep, almond-shaped blackness. Their ears shrunk to mere holes in the side of their bloated heads. All hair was now absent, even the beautiful beard which one covered Mr. Moore's now-elongated and shriveled neck. They looked like some demonic nightmare, some progeny of the bottomless pit, their eyes devoid of emotion, full of uncaring.
I processed the next portrait and the next with the same results. Each time the family went through the alteration and came out as I have described it to you.
I thought that perhaps the fluid I was using did something to the skin tones that gave the illusion of change, so I deigned to test my hypothesis. I remembered an old plate of Cibembe XVII which I had saved in anticipation of donating it to the colonial archives, but which I had not yet taken to the basements of the administration building. I printed and developed a photo from the plate and placed it in the fixer bath -- no effect. The portrait remained as it had been, a portrait of Cibembe XVII, leopard skin cap, bead necklace and (most importantly) skin and body unchanged from the original plate.
Needless to say, I am quite disturbed and at a loss as to what course of action, if any, I should take. It is not in my nature to "accidentally" misplace the plates, nor do I wish to approach the Moore's regarding my suspicion -- if it is, indeed, the truth -- that they are not wholly what they seem. They are rather reclusive (which only adds to my suspicion) and have brought suit against other false accusers with disastrous financial results to those who have libeled their name. Besides, I do not with to spurn their patronage, as they have been most kind and generous to me.
Any advice from you would be appreciated.

Sincerely,
Howard Barlowe

 

My Dear Howard,
It seems that you gave yourself quite a scare. I trust that you have now realized that your imagination has had the best of you. Granted, you were never one to take flights of fancy as I or your other friends tend to do from time to time, but, I am afraid, the tropical climate seems to have inclined you to dreaminess.
I understand. My few visits to Ngome have had a similar effect, pushing down the rational conscious, allowing the irrational subconscious to bubble up and seize control of the faculties. Perhaps it is something in that odd mixture of air -- the sweat of toiling black bodies, the volcanic mist, the musk of palm oil and the hint of vapor from the far-off coffee and rubber plantations; or the food -- the bland northern menu has weakened our stomachs, causing an extreme reaction to the mouth-numbing spices of the Dark Continent, with the result that our restless sleep breeds phantasmagorical dreams that linger throughout the day. The constant drums and singing, whether in the market place or from the rainforest, lulls the normal workings of the mind and churns the brain into a low-key frenzy of activity.
May I suggest you lower your commendable standards for the sake of pragmatism? Perhaps it is not such a sin to "accidentally" lose the plates. Then you can retake the portraits and use the ingredients one would normally find in a fixer bath, with the desired results. I actually know the Moores through a friend and would be glad to intermediate. I am sure they would be amenable to a retake of the photographs. They are, despite the legal battles forced on them by insensitive and gossiping individuals, above reproach and people of the finest caliber. I will notify them of the misplaced plates and convince them of your innocence in the matter. You should hear from them shortly. I remain,

Yours,
Theodore Buchalter

 

Dear Theodore,
I have gone with my conscience and approached the Moores regarding the photographic plates. They were not unkind, and Mr. Moore asked that I destroy the plates and the photographs in anticipation of a future sitting. They said they would gladly pay me for my troubles, both for the original setting, development and pictures and for all materials and labor involved in the new series.
I accepted their offer but found myself unable to dispose of the old images. In fact, I grew more and more fond of studying them, wondering what dark secret the Moores have held the two generations they have resided near Ngome. Perhaps they are diseased and, through expensive surgical procedures, have hidden their deformities from the eyes of men, though they could not hold the shutter blind, so to speak, forever. I suspected, though, that the truth was far more serious than some genetically-passed skin condition.
These very suspicions led to an experiment which further heightened my fears. Near the Moore mansion stands a small copse of trees and shrubs imported from the north which have somehow survived the thin, rocky soil of their new home. The decidia impedes one's sight into the grove, but from inside the leafy island one commands a good view of the house and the approach road. It was in this group of trees that I hid with my camera to take candid shots of the family.
I had to wait for a cloudy day so that my flash might be mistaken for lightning, else my position be exposed. It took nearly two weeks before conditions were right, but on a drizzling Sunday I prepared my equipment and set out on foot to the mansion. The family was away at church, so I had little trouble preparing for their return. I had to wait in the rain, so I took a couple pictures of the mansion itself to whittle the time away. In time the family arrived by motorized coach -- they were the first family in the area to own such a vehicle -- allowing me the opportunity to take their picture as they passed by and as they exited the automobile.
My task there done, I returned to my studio and developed the pictures as before, careful to use the vinegar-infused fixer. The results were beyond what I had hoped. As I suspected, the disembarking family, along with the coach driver, appeared shriveled green-gray, just as in the photographs which first led me to suspicion. The photo of the passing carriage was even more astounding, for the automobile appeared nothing like the box on wheels with which you and I are familiar. This vehicle floated above the ground, as if on air! Its shape was like two bowls placed lip to lip with a dinner plate between them. Bright lights pulsated in a ring around the edge of the "plate". I could not see inside, as the skin of the device was a bright chrome, effectively obfuscating what lay inside. I returned to the first picture and confirmed that, yes, a part of the metal craft is clearly visible in what I now call the "disembarkation" picture. The last photographs, those of the mansion, were equally startling, the silhouette of the building revealing an array of thousands of antennae of various shapes and sizes, poking upward like the upheld quills of a threatened porcupine. I cannot divine their purpose but their presence gives the pictures an atmosphere of hellishness, as if I had carried my camera into hell to photograph Dante's iron towers of Dis.
I am not sure what designs the "Moores" have on Ngome, but I sense that they are not in the community's best interest. I am about to go public with my discoveries for the sake of the public well being. I hope I am not too late!

Sincerely,
Howard Barlowe

 

Dear Howard,
Perhaps I did not state my position strongly enough in my last correspondence. Let me make myself clear: It is in your best interest to destroy the photographs. Your reputation may well be at stake, my friend. You have a promising career ahead of you as a colonial civil servant and cannot afford to throw it away by displaying paranoia-like symptoms. I worry that your concern has become an obsession. Please, donāt let your avocation ruin your chosen vocation. Reconsider your actions, think on your enjoyment of a lively, challenging job, then think on the risky position in which you might put yourself -- loss of credibility, loss of work, loss of income are all real dangers to you, should you persist. I think it is clear that your concern over the Moore household, if taken to the extremes to which you appear headed, might prove your undoing. I only wish you,

All the best,
Theodore Buchalter

 

My Dearest Theodore,
Your concern is commendable, but unnecessary. I have just finished a deal which will insure my financial solvency for quite some time to come. The Eyewatcher News, the popular tabloid gazette so widely distributed over the Empire, has bought my photographic plates for such a sum that I will be sustained for several years in much greater comfort than that afforded me in my colonial employment. With wise investments I should see sufficient returns to keep me a wealthy man till the day I die. The editor of the magazine states that, with publishing delays, the photographs will not go to press for several months, but they have fronted me a significant portion of the payment anyway.
You will disapprove, no doubt, but I had to seize the moment. I now have a solid financial basis on which to marry and raise a respectable family. I think I will start to shore up my investments by putting some money in rubber. I hear that plantations in the rainforest are running at full capacity, yet are still unable to keep up with demand because of the recent production increases of the automotive industry.
Please do not think less of me, my good Theodore. I do not wish to denegrate the Moore name -- they remain gracious and kind to me -- but I must consider my financial well-being first and foremost so that I and my future family may prosper in these increasingly financially difficult times.

Sincerely,
Howard Barlowe

 

Dear Howard:
I am truly sorry you have sold the photos. This was clearly a mistake. You are ruining your reputation with these childish antics. Consider your good name -- are you not bringing shame on your family and friends?
You might have all the money in the world, but you cannot buy back your reputation. The social stains resulting from this indiscretion will prevent you from marrying any woman who respects her family name. Reconsider.
All is not lost, there is still time to act. If it is money you want, I have plenty to spare and am more than willing to aid in your support, only remove your photographs from the tabloid's consideration, express sorrow over the hoax and request that the photographs not be published. I am enclosing a cheque made out to you to demonstrate the seriousness of my request. I am sure that my reason will reach you.

Sincerely,
Theodore Buchalter

 

My Dear Theodore,
I read your letter and considered your request -- you argue convincingly. I have to respectfully decline your offer, however, as certain things have come to light which compel me to drastic action. I fear there is more at stake than my reputation.
As I walked near the outskirts of town contemplating your concerns, two unsavory looking characters crossed my path, knocking me to the ground. I was unsure whether the bump was intentional or accidental, but did not want to cross them -- a darkness glowed in their eyes, something mean and devoid of goodness. I brought myself up to my feet and apologized for the "accident," trying to bring some reconciliation to the affair. The two merely stared at me and scowled, then, mumbling something incomprehensible, started off again up the road -- toward Moore mansion.
I immediately ran home to gather my instruments. It seemed like a lifetime, but must have been no more than ten minutes before I had stationed myself in the copse of vegetation on the edge of the Moore's property.
As I expected, the two hoodlums arrived at the mansion and, after greetings with the butler, entered the front door -- but not before I was able to snap a couple of discreet photos. Sensing that something extremely odd was about to manifest itself-- as if what I witnessed already was not odd enough, I snuck up to the mansion, using the small bushes which surround the walls of the building as cover. I went to the back, discovering that the gardener's door was ajar, and entered.
The inside of the building was not as I had left it weeks before. The halls were dark, unlit, but open doors revealed cavernous rooms glowing blue and humming with electricity. The Moore's support staff, or more properly the Moore's army, for I they all moved with the urgency and efficiency of a military battalion, had dramatically increased in number -- every room of the mansion held the almond-eyed monstrosities I have described before, each sitting before a screen of some sort, monitoring a thousand blinking spots of light reflecting in their blank stares. It was as if their eyes were filled with the cosmos, void darkness penetrated only by the light of data.
I had seen enough and exited the building, but failed to evade the dark eyes of the two things which I had run into earlier. I had no doubt that these two were some sort of guards or police sent to secure the mansion from intrusion. They saw me from a distance, not recognizing me, I pray, and gave pursuit. My lead on them was sufficient for me to make it to the tree patch where I found my supplies safe and whole. I waited as they ran about the grounds looking for me, then took a circuitous route back to my flat.
Once home I developed the photos of the guards and found, as expected, their formerly human visages melting into the now-familiar horrific image of a mutated, mummified Ghengis Khan, resurrected from history by some crazed necromancer. I knew now, though, that these were no demons, nor deformed humans, but beings from outside our fragile blue planet -- for in those enormous mansion's rooms, along the walls and across monitors strewn throughout, flashed images of our celestial home floating in the depths of space -- images which could only have been taken from beyond our atmosphere. All our major cities lay targeted in red crosshairs, awaiting annihilation at the hands of these off-world intruders.
I must act now and forestall tragedy.

Sincerely,
Howard Barlowe

 

Mr. Barlowe:
Enclosed find the business card of a Doctor Peter Aribu, a mental health physician residing in Ngome. I have held it in reserve for some time now, but your recent writings betray an unstable mind. Seek help immediately. Dr. Aribu can help you on the road to recovery. I beg of you to undergo counseling at his hand and thus rid yourself of the hallucinations that vex you.

Sincerely,
Theodore Buchalter

 

My Dear Friend Theodore,
I write to you from the confines of a prison cell in the basement of the Ngome Colonial Administration Building. You might think the conditions oppressive, but nothing could be farther from the truth -- I feel free, content, even giddy -- I have saved the human race.
After developing the photographs of the guards I knew I must act in the humanity's interest. They were, you see, larger, more muscular than their counterparts and armed with some pistol-like devices. It was obvious they meant harm. Activity around the mansion reached fever pitch, automobiles coming and going (I suppose they were actually floating saucers like the Moore's vehicle, but had not time to shoot and develop photos) with ever-increasing frequency. It was as if the denizens of that building were speeding up some insidious plan, frantic for their work to achieve fruition.
I made the most wise use of my new found wealth -- including the cheque you so graciously sent to me -- purchasing several blocks of dynamite from a local miner. It was difficult to dodge the black eyes of the many servants who came and went in irregular shifts, but by the time that the sun was beginning to crease the horizon I had planted the explosives all along the perimeter of the building. I wanted to finish the job quickly, feeling that if I did not I would fail in my task, dooming our planet to subservience as some hellish extra-terrestrial playground.
I am satisfied that I was successful. The following snippet appeared in today's Ngome Daybreak Gazette:

Authorities have arrested a Mr. Howard Barlowe, Colonial Civil Service, in the suspected arson and murder of Mr. Alfred Moore II's family, along with over thirty servant and guests attending a banquet at the mansion. According to citizen reports, Mr. Barlowe was seen fleeing from the direction of Moore mansion immediately following a large explosion which killed all therein. A full investigation is pending, but a forensic specialist noted certain unexplained anatomical abnormalities on the victim's bodies, possibly caused by the intense heat of the fireball that demolished the home. Mr. Barlowe is being held without bail.

I could not be happier, my friend Theodore. I have struck a blow for freedom, for the human race, for our beautiful celestial orb amidst the void.

Yours truly,
Howard Barlowe

 

Human fool:
I wish to kill you immediately, but your death would arouse suspicion and involve time-wasting investigations, further delaying the inevitable completion of our goals. Have no fear of captivity, my friend, you will be freed from imprisonment. You will note in the night sky a bright red star, you call it Antares, we call it home. From the direction of that star a vehicle, a hovering chrome saucer, if you will, shall arrive to retrieve you this night. While aboard this craft your screams and pitiful sobbing will echo off the metal walls as you discover pains and sorrows unknown to you or any other human until this time. You shall beg for mercy, we will not show it; you shall plead for death, we will not allow it; you shall cry in pain like a newborn babe, we will console you only long enough to regain your trust then torture you again and again and again. After your night of torment you will be returned to your cell (you will not find this letter there, though you will search in gasping desperation for your only reassurance of what happened to you, your only anchor to reality) where you will await trial. You will, of course, be acquitted on grounds of insanity and go free, only to wander the streets of your little town frightening children and drawing anger from their parents with your unbelievable tales, eventually dying an ignominious death in some back alley atop a trash heap. And years after you die so pitifully, two, perhaps three generations later, we will have rebuilt our facilities and infiltrated your society once more, resolved to display our full strength. Then your children's children -- or, more properly, those of your compatriots, for surely a madman such as yourself will die childless -- will realize too late that your incomprehensible babblings, your screams in the dark, your nightmare sobs, were an omen, a prophecy of the fate which all mankind will suffer together.

Sincerely,
"Theodore Buchalter"
Ygrithulsku

 

THE END