Ozone; or, The Horror Upstairs

WHEN A MAN HAS GIVEN his life to science, even to the naked edge of that science, he is expected to be vocal about it. And if others choose not to listen, well … perhaps they won’t have the nightmares, the persistent phobias, that I do.

My name is Howard Philips. I came to this city because it offered better opportunities for a dreaming poet and erudite antiquarian than did the sprawling, soulless suburbs. I dwelt in a squalid flat near the docks, one of the city’s older neighborhoods. The pre-century architecture and furtive residents suited my mood; the diverse faces of the passing crowds inspired me to tell (or invent) their stories in free verse and rhyme.

My building seemed to have stood forever, as evidenced by its worn-down hallway carpeting; shabby lighting; and close, dank air. Its most reclusive tenant lived directly above me. I never met or even saw him, but the loud and incessant hum from his apartment – an untuned wireless? droning rotary fan? Failing air-conditioner? – disturbed my creative meditations. When I tried to complain to him, my intermittent knocking brought no response.

Then, one day, the noise ceased.

I rejoiced, but a moment later the sudden blessed silence was replaced by a low moaning. I rushed upstairs. My frantic pounding still went unanswered, so I forced the door.

Through the deep gloom, a tangled cocoon of wires and cables met my eyes, and the acridity of ozone assaulted my protesting nostrils. An old man lay slumped before a large metal box festooned with dark glass tubes and bright silver rods. Some of the wires led to a copper cap which encompassed his scalp. For a heartbeat I feared the worst. Then he lifted his eyelids and beckoned with one palsied arm.

“Throw the switch,” he murmured, indicating a rubber-handled lever on the box’s near side.

I leapt to obey. Instantly, a blue glow suffused his room, somewhat dispelling the murk, and the ozone stench increased.

“You have saved my life,” he whispered with a wan smile.

“What is all this?” I demanded, as I helped him to his feet. “And who are you?”

He nodded, raised one hand, and seated himself on an ancient wicker chair.

“What do you know about electrobiodynamics?” he asked with a hoarse quaver. “There is a spark which sustains us in life, until old age and death result from our bodies’ decreasing conductivity. I have discovered a way to enhance and prolong that conductivity. But over a long while, the process requires a constant induction. With some adjustments, and not a little keen vigilance, I have been able to sustain myself for … an incredible span of years.”

“Tell me more,” I said, fascinated. From that point I was his ever-present companion and eager student.

Our relationship grew cordial as I ran arcane errands for him, foraged various bits of wire and equipment, and learned to solder and to weld. The uncaring sweep of days and weeks made me forget my beloved poetry and treasured antiques, and I relied on desperate and sordid measures to sustain both of us with cheap provisions. Engrossed in our ceaseless work, I cared little for the world outside his ill-lit room.

Until the day of the great blackout.

That terrible shadow dropped with astonishing and abrupt force. Shocked but undaunted we labored against time’s onslaught with every measure and resource his cramped apartment could provide: acid batteries, Leyden jars, lightning rods, a Faraday disk, roof-mounted and cable-tethered kites, even an improvised static-generator.

But the inevitable could not be resisted, and in the end my mentor was as a sandcastle melted by an indifferent tide. His voice, always faint, became less and less distinct, and at the last I could only gasp with increasing horror as his limbs, then his torso, and finally his head dissolved into grey sodden ash, with neither bang nor whimper to mark his passing.

And that, gentlemen, is my statement. I do not know how long you intend to keep me here in this warehouse for the insane, but I hope that the approaching electrical storm avoids us. I’ve come to detest the smell of ozone.

2 comments for “Ozone; or, The Horror Upstairs

  1. Audrey Darby
    2023.08.24 at 0443


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