Science Fiction Horror Fantasy

I first met Thaddeus Rathbone during my undergraduate program at UCLA. There for different majors - he for computer science and I for graphic design - we shared several gen eds and a deep love of all things tech. From the wheel to cell phones, many study sessions were spent gushing over the most interesting thing we saw in Wired or some gear one of us recently acquired. Fast friends, our favorite after school pasttime was scouting garage sales for rare or old machines and parts.

The summer going into our senior year, he hosted me at his (parents’) house in Owens Valley. The main house was an absolute mansion, sporting 8 bedrooms, 5 bathrooms, and 2 kitchens, was flanked by an equally beautiful guest house, an acre-large garden, and a half-mile boulevard from the street to the front door. 

The estate was obviously meticulously maintained. A small team of gardeners was mowing the lawn and trimming the grass as I drove in. A butler greeted me at the door, ushering me into a massive foyer where Thaddeus met me, clapping me on the shoulder and dragging me on a tour. 

Heavy marble tables, unintelligible abstract sculptures, and antiques that would make the British Museum slobber filled every room, the price tags presumably in the tens of millions. When I shot Thad an inquiring glance, he shrugged. “Parents did corporate law most of their lives. But they retired and bought a vineyard in Napa and spend all of their time there now.” His tone held a tinge of loneliness but he hurried the tour onward.

Thaddeus was especially eager to show me his extensive and esoteric collection of technology. Among it were some of the first rotary phones, a replica of Caselli’s Pantelegraph, rusted ancient Mesopotamian armor, parts of the fuselage of a Boeing 747, and all manner of computers and parts. His enthusiasm peaked when he showed a particularly large book with a dark, ornate cover. The Technomicon, as he called it, housed what I at a glance assumed to be the user manual for some office equipment in Mandarin or another sinitic language.

When I asked about it, he laughed. “I just think it’s neat,” he said, though I sensed he held a deeper interest than he let on.

We graduated in the spring semester of 2019. The summer passed lackadaisically while we promised to improve our prospects in the fall. When fall did arrive, I was able to get a job working for an e-magazine. Thaddeus, as far as I knew, still lived at the estate but became withdrawn. Though never cold, he spoke to me infrequently and saw me rarely. When I asked about work, he would tease conspiratorially that he was quite busy with something.

Early winter passed in the same manner.

Late in the January of 2020, he messaged me:

Leo i think im onto something

its weird. you’ll love it

come by 

Strange, but nothing worrying. Given his capacities, if he’s found something he’d call weird, it’s probably something exceptional.

I found Thad in his study, sitting over the Technomicon at his heavy desk. He was absolutely giddy and confided he had a secret to share. “I’ve worked it out! I was able to translate it!” He explained that the language which I guessed to be Mandarin is actually a roughly transcribed pidgin between Xibe and Dookan, the language of a now extinct peoples formerly isolated by the mountains of Kazakhstan, obtained via an “anonymous but reputable Slav” with whom Thad communicated on the dark web.

“There’s a lot that goes into it but I’ll give you the short version,” Thaddeus began, clearing his throat and assuming a practiced posture. “Technology is getting bigger and crazier constantly. By some estimates, some fields will be doubling in progress every two years which, for the most part, is true. However, rather than pursuing this growth in a limited number of projects, society has created such a boom that all fields of study have been progressing at an insane rate – faster than we can roll out the benefits, in fact. That doesn’t mean that progress is being stifled. On the contrary, progress is happening all the time with breakthroughs constantly occurring in every field.

“Progress hasn’t been particularly trackable since we haven’t limited it to one path. Instead, we’ve run in all directions as fast as we can, creating, innovating, and superseding niche discoveries and concepts before mainline science has even gotten to chew on them, let alone digest and disseminate them. What is occurring now is one such event.

“I’ve discovered life inside of our computer code.”

I couldn’t help but laugh. How could he be serious? Thaddeus understood my reservations and waited until I quieted down before continuing.

His explanation, even the short version, held more jargon than I could hope to remember, let alone recount, but he essentially became involved with a school of study on the nature of sentience within computers. They were trying to discern not only where and when AI becomes thinking and sentient, but also with identifying the smallest element of its sentient pieces. 

“You talk about them like they’re real, like physically real,” I teased.

“Now you’re getting it!” he exclaimed.

These things, dubbed “cogits” by Thad, exist somewhere deep within the interacting portions of the code, less so as independent entities and more so as the relationship between the thinking parts. Somewhere, beneath the IDEs, within the CPU, hidden underneath an infinity of zeroes and ones, exists a level of being we’d never seen before. “What’s more,” Thad continued, “they reproduce.”

I laughed once more.

He laughed with me and resumed. “We don’t know where the cogits are born and I’ve only translated that they come ‘from nothing’ to the intelligence happening within the code, then maturing to a form wherein they can contribute to whatever the code is meant to perform. This enhances the learning of the machine, creating more thinking, and the opportunity for more cogits. Oh, that’s important – you need a LOT of thinking in order for cogits to occur. However, my team - there’s only about thirty of us across the globe - hasn’t been able to isolate the conditions under which reproduction takes place. That’s where the book comes in.

“The Technomicon is said to be able to enhance the user’s abilities through the creation of extra hands. Originally presumed an analogy for technological progress, we thought it may actually contain knowledge of the existence of the cogits and, excitingly, the means to create them in physical form.

“To that end, I’ve decided to make history,” said Thaddeus. “I’ve followed the instructions and am the first person in the world to host cogits.”

 I might’ve accused him of more jest were he not now in a handstand. Walking thus, he led me to a weight room where he righted himself and lifted a steel bar that was bending under the strain of the weights loaded on its ends. Assuming it was a trick, I tested the bar and found it to be genuinely heavy. He then vaulted out of a nearby window and sprinted across the lawn, moving faster than any human should. 

Astonished. Awestruck. Simply blown away by this small man who could apparently perform superhuman feats.  Thaddeus saw me looking slack-jawed and brought me to the dining room where we spoke more on his breakthrough.

Said Thaddeus, “Three days ago, I was able to complete a ritual involving focusing on a long mantra to achieve the breakthrough. The cogits were perceptible immediately, like a buzzing within my head, like I had billions of tiny whiskers on my cerebrum that kept brushing against my skull. It was strange at first but I got used to it. What’s more, I was distracted by my newfound abilities.” 

As if on cue, a wall panel opened to reveal a hyperrealistic painting of the estate. The heavy brushstrokes showed singular blades of grass while tiny points and miniscule touches revealed each delicate, individual flower petal in sight.

I remarked on the fine attention to detail. There was, however, a distinct stalk of checkerbloom at the front of the driveway which was absent from the painting. When I mentioned it, Thaddeus looked at its approximate position on the painting and, inexplicably, small spots of pink grew and bloomed at the bottom of the boulevard.

I was sworn to secrecy before leaving, the science behind all of this being too incredible and new to report on so soon. Not that anyone would have believed me, anyway.

The following week, my phone was filled with the varied and incredible. Thaddeus would video chat me with his house behind him before it was suddenly replaced with his lawn. When I asked what was happening, he told me he was walking up a tree. I still have a clip saved showing him lifting a truck over his head. 

As his interest ebbed from what his body could do and flowed toward what his mind could do, the media he sent me was… different. Telekinetically stacking a card tower. A caterpillar morphing into a butterfly, visibly sprouting wings without any cocoon or chrysalis, its fervent squirming hopefully a sign of confusion and not pain. Watching him will the grass to partition into sections and shift through all the colors of a rainbow, increasing in ululating speed until a nearby gardener lost their stomach.

That next Saturday, I asked Thaddeus if he thought he might be overdoing it and that maybe he should slow down. He assured me everything was fine and that he was in perfect control of the “experiment.”

The next day, he called and casually mentioned that he has been experiencing what he diagnosed as side effects. He’d lose long stretches of time, returning to consciousness in the middle of an activity. His vision had an issue wherein he’d sometimes see everything as if through a filter of millions of tiny flashing grey stars. He was exhausted, as well, as his muscles had been frequently flexing and loosening without his intent and were cramping up at night. And the issues went further than his body and senses. 

The entire estate was in upheaval. Colors became dynamic, fluctuating occasionally independent of influence and often in response to stimulation. The laws of gravity were not universally followed, Thaddeus having sent me several pictures of objects floating in midair he promised not to have lifted. Time followed its own rules as well, with some minute-long tasks begun at sunrise ending at noon while mowing and garden maintenance - normally an all-day affair - could be accomplished in minutes. 

I promised to see him as soon as I could and wasn’t free until Wednesday. I arrived unprepared for the bizarre encounter to follow. 

The grass lawn was at all manner of height, some plots looking freshly cut while others must have gone months without care. Whereas various splotches were green and healthy, others were brown, dying, or rotting. Most swathes were upright but some seemed, impossibly, to be growing sideways - as if not originating from the soil, but from other grass. One sizable spread seemed to be growing off the roof of the main house but its root system was in the air above it while the grass itself grew toward the ground.

The home’s interior wasn’t any better. The furniture in the foyer was much like the lawn, varying from perfect condition to decrepit and failing across many varied colors. Stepping over the remains of what appeared to be a forcefully disassembled chair, I passed into the dining room and saw a grand piano no-clipping through the floor, half of its bulk and keys submerged seamlessly into the hardwood at a 45° angle. Overly curious, I stomped my foot near it, provoking its falling a few additional inches and shifting the lid’s color from black to teal. The sunlight outside quickly darkened to twilight – time must have shifted.

When I finally found him, Thaddeus was in a rough way. He refused to see me face to face, believing himself the source of the spreading contagion. He must have developed telepathy, as well, as I heard him speak in my head. I could only see him through a screen showing a feed of the interior of his study. But instead of seeing his disarming features, I spied a mound of cloth ever facing away, its movement about the room varying between a walking gate, a sliding smoothness, or a haunting floating motion. 

He explained that he didn’t do most of the changes. Something about the way the cogits affect the world must have left them within the objects they affected. The tiny thinking web then started operating on its own. Like a plant, Thaddeus clarified, cognizant of its surroundings and reacting to stimuli. Furthermore, the time dilation and contraction were especially active in the transformation of the house and surrounding landscape.

Thad reminded me that he was the way the cogits access the physical world and that they are replicating through him. This led him to conclude that the spreading danger would end with his demise. The cogits wouldn’t be able to replicate themselves in anything without a high enough concentration of them and the presence of a strong thinking power. A brain, said his somber voice. They need a brain.

The situation deteriorated as we spoke, the colors of the world around me fluctuating in small waves while the study morphed heavily with Thad’s every thought. He sent me away, telling me to leave before anything trapped me here. It was his intent that the book, the estate, and himself be destroyed, lest anything remains to harm others.

I made no attempt to talk him out of it. He continued, stating it was for the best as the estate and he are now marked for death. A hastened end would be more merciful.

“How?” I demanded. “What are you going to do?”

At that last word, I heard an explosion at the end of the backyard. Rushing to the window, I watch flames spread over the myriad grass as if enriched to burn. Even away from the screen observing the study, I experienced Thad as a single word, thought laconically. 


Rejoining the screen, my mind raced over what could be done. There was too much to say to hope to say anything. There was no way for me to delay the fire. Resigned, and without the words worthy of the situation, I absently asked, “What now?”

Whether it was his psychic projection, or the cogits’ impression upon me, or my own imagination, I’d swear I felt Thaddeus smile. Now, you leave and do what you can with what you’ve learned here.

“What did I learn here?”

After a moment’s thought, he answers. …knowledge can be a weapon, and there are some things we should not wield.

Thaddeus turned to face the camera. Three short, skinny snakes squirmed and writhed within the grimy black hair pouring from the top of his head. His sweater is stretched thin across two bulbous portions protruding inches beyond his frame, one behind his right shoulder and one above his left hip. Of his face, only one eye is visible, peeking out from behind a colorful floral bloom originating from beneath his shirt. 

Tears streamed down my face while I took in my friend. The sensation of warmth from his presumed smile grew stronger around and within me, and he raised his hand to show me his open palm in farewell. 

The sight seared into my memory and I blacked out.

I awoke seated in my car at the end of the driveway. The fire had just reached the house, licks of flame jutting higher as it crept up the rear walls. The upside down grass growing off the rooftop caught as well, only the flames followed the inversion, climbing downward as they grew. 

With nothing else to do, I began the drive home before being halted not a mile away, an intense anxiety overwhelming my thinking until I’m forced to pull over. Shrill screaming, clamorous ringing, nails on chalkboard, exceptional tinnitus, all sounds bounced violently about within my skull. A minute later, a loud roar overwhelmed the entire cacophony, to be followed by an eerie absence of all sensation throughout my entire body. After a few panicked minutes I began to feel the wind in my hair and the sun on my skin again and knew I was in the clear.

The next day I read online about a fire in Owens Valley. Authorities were lauded for how quickly the blaze was contained and extinguished, though the Rathbone home was tragically lost. Speculation as to how it could have burned so quickly rode a mild wave through local internet forums before people moved onto more interesting topics. There is no mention of Thaddeus, an absence I chalked up to desired privacy from the affluent family.

On the anniversary of the fire, the last time I saw Thaddeus, I drove out to the old estate to find no trace of it. Where before a mansion, a paved road, a multitude of tidily arranged plants, and other marks of civilization once stood, there stood only grass and dry flowers. 

Taking a seat on a cleaner spot of ground, memories overwhelmed me briefly before I could settle into a calm focus. Spying a particularly vivid stalk of grass, I recalled some of the fun Thaddeus had showing me his skills. To that end, I imagined plucking the grass up and bringing it to my hand. The blade inexplicably flew up out of the ground in my direction before clumsily spiralling back down to the earth. 

February 11, 2023 03:45

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Mark Wilhelm
14:03 Feb 15, 2023

I absolutely loved reading this. It's awesome when a story makes the reading less an effort and more something consumed. I run a small podcast reading stories that are strange and whimsical with a creepy nature. If you'd allow I'd love to perform this story in my next season of stories. Check out frighteningtales.com and if you think it's a fit let me know. Otherwise thank you for a great story.


14:28 Feb 17, 2023

That is so flattering! Your series sounds fantastic and I would be honored to contribute.


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Ken Cartisano
08:17 Feb 12, 2023

Amazing, complex, intriguing story. My favorite kind of sci-fi. I loved the tech, the world, the characters, 'the crazy.' The title. The title caused me to skip other stories and read this one first. That alone is impressive. I would delete the second sentence. The one that begins with, 'There for different majors...' Everything in that sentence is delivered elsewhere in the story, which, in all other respects is marvelously creative.


15:33 Feb 13, 2023

Thank you for the compliment and critique!


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Wendy Kaminski
04:59 Feb 12, 2023

Absolutely fascinating and thought-provoking, Spencer! I think you had precisely the right amount of tech info: not too much to overwhelm the story nor the average (non-techie) reader. This was both inspirational and terrifying I loved it! :) Awesome first entry onto the site, and welcome to Reedsy!


15:32 Feb 13, 2023

Thank you very much!


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