I’ve been playing around with scenarios leading up toward the new book series that I am planning, much of it hinted at in the short story and film “The Price of a Free Lunch.” Here’s another take, which may end up being part of a prologue, entitled “The Shadow People.” I hope you enjoy.
THE SHADOW PEOPLE
I know what I’m going to tell you will make me sound like a madman. In fact, that’s the very reason why I haven’t said anything before this. But madman or not, something has to be said. The signs are all there, and my conscience will no longer allow me to stay silent. So at the risk of being laughed at, or even worse, ignored, I am going to share my story.
It’s actually not even my story, but the story of my great-great-grandfather and a man he admired and worked with for many years. You probably haven’t heard of my ancestor, but the other man has a name that’s legendary, possibly even apocryphal.
I first heard the name Nikola Tesla when I was in elementary school in science class. It took me a while to put the Tesla they talked about so reverently in relation to development of electricity as being the same Mr. Tesla that had employed my great-great-grandfather. I had never known my ancestor Fritz Löwenstein. After all, it was more than a hundred years ago. But the stories he had told had stayed with my family. Stories of rooms full of lightning, phantasmic shapes walking at night surrounded by fire, stories of people who were there and then weren’t.
By the time they reached me, a fifth-generation Löwenstein, the stories were more magic than myth, and we smiled and giggled as they were told each All Hallows Eve, sitting around the fire and looking at the pictures of our parents, and their parents, and their parents before them.
And that’s all that I thought they were: stories. I lived in a time of facts and evidence and prided myself on being able to prove what I believed. I had since resolved that my great-great-grandfather had indeed worked for the great Nikola Tesla, both at his Colorado Springs laboratory and later at the famous Wardenclyffe Tower project at Shoreham, Long Island in New York City. The position had allowed my hard-working ancestor to put two children through college, one of them my great-grandfather, who went on to be a physician. In the days where Nikola Tesla was always desperately scraping for funding for his next experiment, my great-great-grandfather had been setting aside every spare penny he could. Where Nikola Tesla had failed as a businessman, Fritz Löwenstein had succeeded. I saw that as the bright light in the story.
My great-grandfather had been a physician, and his son had been an engineer. He had tried to instill a sense of education in all of us. But my father had returned from Vietnam, but never really did. A few years later, he was gone for good. Because of this, I never really knew him. My mother raised me, and my grandfather, the engineer, was a stranger to me as well. It wasn’t until he died that I was remembered.
I was a Löwenstein, but in name only. When I came to visit the family in Long Island, I heard the stories. But when I left, my mother, a Johnson, reminded me of her family’s heritage, my father’s absence an open wound that would never heal.
When Grandpa Löwenstein died, I was away at college on the West Coast, at Stanford to be exact, probably trying to talk my way out of another poor philosophy grade. I got the letter; ignored it. I got an email; ignored it. I got the phone call and didn’t answer. When I got the package, I couldn’t pretend I didn’t exist.
There it was. I was a Löwenstein. Actually, I was the very last Löwenstein, as far as any one could tell. And a large box had been deposited on my dorm room doorstep with my name on it. I stood and stared at it for a very long while before dragging it inside.
My roommate, Yanov Topovich, watched as I opened it and looked inside.
“It looks like a stack of papers,” he said blandly, licking peanut butter off a slice of apple.
I reached down and picked up one stack that was smaller than the rest. It was a bundled stack of correspondence, written in a scribbled pen addressed to F. Löwenstein. I felt the hair on the back of my neck stand up when I saw “N. Tesla.” written in cramped scrawl in the upper left corner of the envelope.
I handed the stack of envelopes to Yanov, and reached down to see what else was in there. Much of it was a collection of invoices, notes, drawings and diagrams. At the bottom, however, was an oversized leather book that had leather straps holding it together. It seemed somehow to be more important than all the rest, somehow more protected than all of the other papers.
I carried the leather book over to my desk and cleared a space off for us to open it up and see what was in the book. It was heavy and thick, and the paper it used was sturdy as if Tesla himself knew that what he wrote on it would need to be protected. I turned each page carefully, almost reverently, as if I were looking at previously undiscovered drawings by daVinci or Michelangelo, for as far as I knew, some of the information on these pages could be hitherto undisclosed inventions by the genius the world knew as Tesla.
What I saw disturbed me, however. The first of the pages were schematics for engineering plans—one of the drawings I recognized as a Faraday Cage, another what we know now as a Tesla Coil—but later there were drawings that were twisted with phrases and words that didn’t seem to make sense. The first few pages were well laid out as if drawn by an engineer, but as the pages wore on, it became obvious that whoever was drawing the diagrams and writing the messages was either sick or demented.
One one page, the word “polyphase” was written multiple times, as if the person was obsessed with the word, or if it the act of calling upon it might conjure up some magic. On another page, the word was “high frequency current,” which repeated itself five times, then dissolved into scribbles.
I turned the page, and found myself facing what looked like the monsters that had been described to me all those years ago sitting around the fireplace in the Löwenstein household: it was a faceless, shapeless form, walking across the floor in front of me, pausing as if mid-stride, looking at me as if trying to understand me. Beneath I read, “Ljudi iz senke.”
I closed the book and turned and looked at Yanov.
“It’s Serbian,” he said. “It means ‘People of the Shadows.’ His face turned pale and he turned away from me, shaking his head. “Someone was losing it.”
I put all the papers back into the box and left it open, with the idea that some museum somewhere would welcome papers written by the famous Nikola Tesla. I even toyed with the idea that I might even get some of my tuition paid out of the transaction. I lay on my bunk that night, unable to sleep, thinking about what to do, until I decided to pull out my laptop and find out what happened to the great man.
I discovered the the genius Nikola Tesla, holder of hundreds of patents, creator of alternating current and the induction motor, died a delirious, penniless old man in a New York hotel. I wondered how much of it was poor business sense and how much were the demons I saw reflected in the writing tonight.
I looked across the room at the box in the dim light. And I saw something that I had missed before. It was a plain envelope that was sealed, sticking out from behind the book I had been looking at earlier.
I looked up at the bunk above me and saw that Yanov was asleep, then crept across the floor to retrieve the envelope. On the front of it was simply the word: Löwenstein.
I dropped down on the floor next to the bunk and opened up the brittle envelope and found equally yellow and brittle paper inside with a letter written on it. I held it up so that the light from the laptop illuminated it and I could read the faint pen scratchings on the paper.
A moment’s glance made me realize it had been written by Fritz Löwenstein, my great-great-grandfather. It read:
To whoever reads this. I can only hope that this finds one of my descendants, a Löwenstein who has heard the stories that I have told each of you from the time you were born. Because even though they may have seemed like fairy tales at the time, those stories are true. I am sharing the nightmares I have witnessed and experienced with my own eyes and ears and hope to never see again.
The man I worked for all those years, Nikola Tesla, is the most brilliant scientist I have ever met. He is also taken upon himself a cause that risks the existence of mankind itself. For he has discovered something in the power that he had hoped to harness that threatens Man. He called it Ljudi iz senke, The Shadow People.
He first came in contact with it when he experimented with polyphasic current. As we adjusted our carrier wave, we realized that certain frequencies were capturing evidence of patterns that shouldn’t be there. It was as if we were seeing substance where there was no substance, or more accurately creating substance by certain adjustments in our carrier wave. I was fascinated by the possibilities of it, but Tesla was on a different path at the moment, so we made note of it and moved on.
Later, when we were investigating what would later be known as X-rays, Tesla actually captured images of someone who was not there. That is where he came up with the name, The Shadow People. At the time, it was a joke, but by this time, I was starting to wonder if we were actually recording evidence of poltergeists. That night, I began hearing voices. They came, not when I lay down to sleep, as I expected, but when I was shutting things off at the end of the day. I had one remaining switch still left on in the workroom and was reaching for it when I heard my name being whispered through the wire.
“Fritz,” was all it said quietly.
“We want to join your world,” it said. And I felt, more than heard, a multitude of voices behind the one, agreeing that they wanted to come into our world, as if they were somehow trapped inside the wires that ran across the walls and into our switches.
I flipped the switch and turned the light out, and the voice disappeared.
I shared what happened with Tesla the following day, and he and I became more and more convinced that there exists a race of beings beyond ours, somewhere out there. They exist in a realm of energy, just as we exists in a world of matter. Our friend Albert Einstein affirms that energy and matter are inherently the same, with only the speed of the particles making up the difference. But Mr. Tesla and I are concerned that these Shadow People may not have the best interest of mankind at heart.
We have never had reason to invade their realm, and yet electricity is ever more pervasive in ours. It is only a matter a time before they discover a way to cross the gulf between their universe and ours. When they do, we will discover what kind of beings these Shadow People really are, and whether their intentions are good or evil.
You may not be someone trained in the science of electricity, but if you truly are a Löwenstein, then you have a duty to prepare the world for what may come sooner rather than later.
Fritz Löwenstein, 1911.
I stared at the letter for a long while, then folded it up and put it back in the box. I’d wondered for a long while what my future held for me. Somehow I got the feeling that answer had just been decided for me.