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Author's note: This story marks Entry #2 in The Dreadfort Files

The Ontological Vacuum Chamber had been intended to create a pocket of absolute Nothing, in the purest, philosophical sense of the term. It was to be completely devoid of not only mass and energy, but space and time as well. This would not be like the vacuum of the observable universe, filled with diffuse hydrogen and ever frothing with random quantum fluctuations. This would be Nothing; no caveats, no asterisks, just the pure unadulterated absence of being down to the Planck scale. There would be much ado about this Nothing, since it would be, by any conceivable metric, the greatest technological achievement in human history.

The specifics of how the Ontological Vacuum Chamber worked were highly classified, and most of those with clearance didn’t properly understand it themselves. In principle though, it worked like a normal vacuum chamber, pumping out its contents until there was nothing left. That required, or at least implied, an impressive capacity to manipulate spacetime itself, possibly derived from NASA’s dabbling experiments in the Alcubierre warp drive concept. And yet, even this would pale in comparison to the engineering that went into the wall of the chamber itself.

It was a perfect, flawless sphere; necessary to evenly distribute the pressure of all external reality crushing down on it. It was comprised of some sort of Trans-Planckian substrate, made out of something smaller than the smallest scale in the universe. As a result, it was completely indestructible; anti-matter couldn’t annihilate it and even the most supermassive blackhole couldn’t spaghettify it. It was Clarketech, pure and simple; indistinguishable from magic no matter how egg-shaped your head was.

While the sphere was over thirty meters in diameter, its walls were said to be less than a single Planck length in thickness; completely two-dimensional for all intents and purposes. While it may have seemed that there would have been better uses for such a miraculous substance, allegedly the sphere needed the constant pressure of all reality trying to snuff it out to hold its shape, and it was otherwise unstable in any other conditions.

Though the sphere itself interacted more or less normally with the fundamental forces of the universe, light couldn’t pass through it since there was no spacetime inside for it to pass through. Thus, in theory, the Ontological Vacuum Chamber should have appeared as a total void to any observers.

Eventually, the day came when all the required components were assembled and ready. The precursor of the Trans-Plankian substrate had been evenly applied to the interior of the chamber, and as the spacetime within became thinner and thinner, the precursor became more and more condensed. The instant the true Nothing had been achieved, the precursor material around it was catalyzed to transform into the impossible substance needed to contain it.

But when the researchers peered into the oblivion they had created, they were greeted by a most unexpected sight. 

It was a creature; a beast several times the size of a human being. Its mottled skin was a pallid and sickly grey, pot marked here and there by moulting feathers, and at the end of a long, serpentine neck sat a vaguely owl-like head. It had an owl’s hooked beak, at least, and its unblinking eyes were too large to move on their own. Its eyes were asymmetrical in their size and alignment, however, and heavy, liver-spotted jowls sagged from its cheeks. Its body was mostly an amorphous lump of wriggling blubber, possessing only a single pair of appendages that most closely resembled naked and emaciated wings.

From the moment it first appeared, the creature spent most of its time curled up against the surface of the sphere, its moist folds of fat creating enough suction to hold it in place regardless of gravity. It would occasionally use its withering appendages to drag itself along to a new spot, but otherwise, it did nothing except mutter unintelligibly to itself in an almost human voice.

It should have been impossible for any sound to pass through the sphere, of course, but yet the creature’s incessant muttering went on without end. It was recorded, every nanosecond, subjected to analysis by the greatest human minds and the most powerful AIs, all of them unable to attribute any plausible meaning to what the entity was saying.

Research was limited to passive study of the light and sound that emitted from the Ontological Vacuum Chamber, since nothing and no one could get inside – if there even was an inside to speak of. Despite the Owl's vague - if deformed -  resemblance to Earthly life, spectral analysis failed to confirm the presence of any known elements or molecular compounds in its body. In all the time it had been there, it had never shrunk or grown, never required any sustenance or produced any waste, never stopped muttering long enough to inhale even once. It had also never reacted or responded to external stimuli of any kind. If it was sentient, and it was far from clear if it was, it was thought to be solipsistically unaware of the rest of the universe.

The Owl was certainly an anomaly; an impossible and likely extradimensional being of utterly unknown origins and nature, but one that seemingly couldn’t interact with the outside world at all and thus posed no threat. With its ontological prison being both inescapable from within and impenetrable from without, there was simply nothing to be done about it. And so, it was left where it was. Everything was recorded, everything was analyzed, and sometimes new experiments were conducted, but otherwise, the Owl was largely forgotten about.


“Okay, that time it said ‘Crayola-coloured Kraft Dinner simmers unheeded as the scullery implodes under the matron’s arduous tutelage’,” security officer Joseph Gromwell claimed, somehow managing to maintain a straight face.

“Shut up. No, it didn't," researcher Luna Valdez laughed, punching him playfully in the arm.

The two of them stood on a concrete walkway in front of the Ontological Vacuum Chamber in its underground bunker, the entire setup being fairly reminiscent of a public aquarium. While the Dreadfort Facility didn’t exactly condone its staff treating the low-risk, non-humanoid containment level as a menagerie, on-site recreational opportunities were somewhat limited. As such, the occasional impromptu date among madness-inducing cosmic horrors was tolerated.

The Owl clung to its two-dimensional wall directly in front of them, folds of slimy pale flesh squished up against it, pulsating in time with some unknown internal bodily rhythms. Its large-black eyes were filled with wandering white pinpricks of starlight as it idly gazed outwards, despite everyone being fairly confident that it couldn’t see anything.

“Luna, I’m telling you this Owl’s coming up with some Lewis Carroll level nonsense,” Joseph insisted, before finally cracking a smile. “What do you think it is then, smarty pants?”

“I think it’s a Boltzmann Brain of some kind – a being born from astronomically improbable vacuum fluctuations,” she said contemplatively. “We tried to make Nothing, but there can never truly be Nothing, because it’s too unstable. Nothing is a perfect, absolute state and something is any deviation from that state, so Nothing will always deteriorate into something eventually. Nature abhors a vacuum, after all.”

“Okay, but why wouldn’t it just collapse into some hydrogen gas or some radiation or something? Why would Nothing turn into…that?” Joseph asked, gesturing towards the enormous owl-like monstrosity before them.

“Well, for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. We tried to make an Ontological Vacuum, which necessitated something as equally improbably and complex to balance it out, which apparently meant this thing emerging fully formed from the void like Aphrodite rising from the sea,” Luna replied.

“Yeah… I’m not seeing the resemblance to Aphrodite,” Joseph smirked. “What really messes with my head is the thought that since light or sound can't exist inside the bubble, what we're seeing and hearing is just a hologram on its outer surface, and there's nothing actually inside the bubble at all.”

“It could be that it’s emitting its own form of radiation, and that when it crosses the threshold into our reality it's transmuted into EM and acoustic waves," Luna speculated. "But if that’s the case, we’re lucky it’s limiting itself to visible light and some unintelligible muttering, otherwise it could really do some –”

“They wept like anything to see such quantities of sand.”

Luna and Joseph both went dead silent, turning their full, horrified attention to the Owl who, for the first time in its recorded existence, said something they could understand.

“Did you hear that?” Luna whispered softly, stepping slightly further away from the Owl and slightly closer to her armed escort. The Owl itself showed no change in its demeanor, and had returned to muttering nonsense, its head trembling about like a chicken in a factory farm cage. 

“I heard it, Luna,” Joseph said, swallowing nervously. Resting one hand on his sidearm, he slowly raised the other to reach for his radio. “Site Control, this is Gromwell. Valdez and I both just heard the Owl speak a single comprehensible sentence. Please confirm that you heard it as well. Over.”

“Gromwell, this is Site Control. Deviation from the entity’s established behavioural norms is confirmed,” Site Control replied. “The AI flagged it and it’s showing up in the recordings too, so it wasn’t just in our heads, thank God. Standard protocols have been automatically activated. Site’s on lockdown, and no one gets in or out of the Owl House until command says so, so sit tight.”

“Roger that,” Joseph radioed back.

“It could be nothing,” Luna suggested, though she sounded far from certain. “It’s constantly muttering; eventually some of it is going to sound vaguely recognizable.”

“That line was from The Walrus and the Carpenter, Luna,” Joseph told her. “I said it was coming up with Lewis Carroll nonsense, and then it quotes The Walrus and the Carpenter. It can hear us, Luna. It’s probably always been able to hear us.”

“Or you saying that is what primed us to interpret it that way,” Luna countered. “It’s just pareidolia, like seeing a face on Mars. Let’s not assume anything until we have more data.”

It was then that the Owl fell silent, itself an unprecedented occurrence. It raised its long neck back and coiled it slightly so that it had a better view of the outside. It cocked its head towards Luna, and then Joseph, before beginning to speak again.

“In ages yet to be, the Cydonia Mesa shall be carved into a face by Martian settlers, validating the delusions of their forebearers,” the Owl muttered.

“Fucking hell,” Joseph cursed under his breath. “Is that enough data for you, Luna? It can hear us, and it looks like it can see us too.”

“Don’t engage it unless we have to or command orders it; that’s the protocol,” Luna reminded him. “Even if we can’t leave the Owl House, we can probably still get out of its sight.”

“An odd notion,” the Owl muttered. “For an enlightened mind, a single glimpse of an object, from the tiniest particle to the most massive galactic supercluster, is enough to read all its intrinsic nature and infer the rest of its worldline. Its past, its future, and everything else it will ever interact with. The worldlines of these objects can then also be inferred, and so on and so forth, albeit with compounding levels of inaccuracies the further one strays from direct observation. I perpetually extrapolate worldlines from everything I see and compare them with one another, allowing me to minimize the margin of error for those I cannot see directly. I see all the universe, all of spacetime, in ever-growing clarity.”

“So… you’re saying your perception of reality is like high-level psychedelic geometry?” Luna asked with a raised eyebrow, her curiosity momentarily getting the better of her. 

“Sadly, that may be the closest your kind is capable of experiencing consciousness as I do, yes,” the Owl muttered.

“Well, that’s… ironic, considering we thought you experienced nothing at all in there,” Luna remarked. “So, the light, sound, and whatever else that makes contact with the Ontological Vacuum are transmuted into something you can perceive?”

“They become me,” the Owl muttered. “And what you see is that which I return to keep the balance.”

“Luna, I think you were right about keeping to protocol; the more we interact with this thing the more we risk being compromised by it,” Joseph whispered to her as he gently grabbed her by the arm and pulled her aside. “Let’s at least get where we can’t see it and wait until –”

“You’ve already been compromised, Gromwell,” a commanding voice said over his radio. “Valdez is to continue her dialogue with the entity and obtain as much information as possible. That’s an order, understood?”

Joseph sighed, before reaching for his radio to reply.

“Understood, sir. Over and out,” he said with a shake of his head. Luna smiled at him sympathetically and gave him a consoling pat on the shoulder before turning back to face the Owl.

“Why is it you’ve never attempted to communicate with us until now if you’ve been aware of us this whole time?” she asked.

“That question doesn’t make sense to me,” the Owl muttered. “I’m speaking to you now because now is when I speak to you.”

“Alright. Let me rephrase the question, then,” Luna suggested. “Up until now you’ve been muttering constantly, but what you were saying was completely unintelligible to us. Why were you doing that?”

“I wasn’t speaking to you,” the Owl muttered. “I spoke to others, a plethora of others in a plethora of tongues, all scattered across space and time and planes, holding up a lantern in daylight in the hopes I might illuminate a being worthy of the title.”

“You’re saying that you’re looking for a being worthy of being?” Luna asked, her voice lowering slightly at the potentially violent implications. “And if you find us unworthy?”

“Nothing,” the Owl muttered. “Extropy continues and reality marches onwards to the Omega Point as always, and I search elsewhere for a worthy being.”

“Good. Good,” Luna said with a nervous swallow. “In that case, I’d very much like to learn more about you. You mentioned that you speak with other worlds and times and realities. Can you see them all from inside your chamber?”

“It’s not my chamber,” the Owl muttered. “Now, what do you see when you look at me?”

Luna froze at the question, her mind rapidly shooting off multiple responses. What did it mean by that? The fact that it had deliberately compared itself to Diogenes suggested to her that it valued virtue and detested convention. If would not have asked what she saw if it did not wish to hear itself described as she saw it.

“I see a very large creature with a passing resemblance to an Owl,” she replied. “Your size and deformed appearance are unsettling to me – monstrous, even – but you’ve revealed yourself to be a highly intelligent creature, and I’m eager for the opportunity to learn more about and from you.”

The Owl stared silently at her for a moment, and she stared silently back in wretched anxiety, wondering if it expected her to say more.

“You do not see enough, then,” the Owl muttered, and then returned to muttering incoherent gibberish once again. 

“That’s it?” Joseph asked irritably. “Just some ‘the meaning of life is 42’ bullshit? Unbelievable. Apparently, it’s too much to ask timeless Lovecraftian abominations not to waste us mortals’ precious time.”

"Well, we know more about it than we did a few minutes ago, so I call that progress," Luna said through a forced smile, even though it was obvious to Joseph that she was disappointed. "Let's go find someplace to sit down until they let us out."

“Don’t let it get you down, Luna. Maybe it will – oh, shit!” Joseph cursed, immediately drawing his pistol.

Luna spun around and saw that the Owl had shifted in position to raise its long, boney, claw-like appendage into the air, then immediately brought it down to strike the invisible wall of the Ontological Vacuum Chamber. Cascading shockwaves of light moving as slowly as molasses danced through the air, sending Luna and Joseph ducking to the floor to avoid them. The Owl began to drag its wing along the wall of the chamber, creating a ghastly and ungodly screeching as it went.

“What are you doing?” Luna screamed, her hands clutched over her ears.

The Owl didn't respond, but its mutterings had grown louder so that they were still audible over the racket it was making. Joseph opened fire upon the entity, only for his bullets to bounce harmlessly off of the Trans-Planckian barrier.

“That's not helping!” Luna shouted. “Radio Site Control! Tell them there’s a breach!”

The Owl began to furiously peck at the interior of its chamber, sending concussive waves of vibrations rattling through the concrete bunker, shaking it like an earthquake. Strange, sparkling sand began falling down from the ceiling like snow, accumulating on the floor at an unnaturally quick pace.

“I’m pretty sure they know!” Joseph shouted back.

“If that thing succeeds in creating even the tiniest imperfection in that sphere - " she screamed. With a reticent growl, Joseph reached for his radio.

“Site Control, this is Gromwell. The Owl is attempting to breach the Ontological Vacuum Chamber. Tell me there’s a contingency!” he shouted.

The response came in the form of seven ontological stabilization pillars spaced evenly around the perimeter of the room whirring to life. Crackling with static and glowing with a strange indigo aura, Luna and Joseph could both feel the reinforced weight of reality as they stood in the pillars overlapping fields. This should have, in theory, strengthened the ontological differential between the inside and outside of the chamber, toughening the Trans-Plankian substrate and making it harder for the Owl to affect anything outside of it. Perhaps it did, but the Owl just struck at the chamber even harder, and the force of its perturbances was still felt in full.

The pillars spun even harder, bolts of ethereal lightning flickering off them and striking the chamber, all to no avail. One by one the pillars were pushed passed their limits, shorting out in a small explosion that left only a smouldering metallic husk behind.

When the final pillar had died, the Owl unleashed an earsplitting screech as it struck the wall of the chamber one final time before it cracked. While a basic understanding of osmosis would’ve led one to believe that reality would have started rushing into the chamber, instead the Nothing inside began leaking out.

Pure void began to seep out through that nigh-infinitesimal hairline fracture, oozing out to the ground below and pooling at its base. The walls of the chamber began to quiver and groan as its compromised structure struggled to maintain integrity, and as the void around it continued to accumulate, it slowly began to sink into it. The Owl itself was placid once more, seemingly content with what it had accomplished.

Luna and Joseph raced to the sealed exit, banging and pleading for it to be opened, but Site Control had already written them off as collateral damage. When Luna turned back to see what was happening, she was just in time to witness the last of the Ontological Vacuum Chamber submerge into the void it had created. Once the last of it was gone, a downwards implosion punched a hole deep into the Earth, if not deep into spacetime itself, creating a banshee-like shrieking as the air rushed in to fill the hole left in its wake.

The draft was strong enough to pull both Luna and Joseph off their feet and to the ground, but thankfully no further than that. When the whirlwind abated, the room they found themselves in was deathly quiet, the strange coating of sand absorbing sound as effectively as freshly fallen snow.

Weeping and trembling, Luna slowly raised her head and saw that not even the emergency lights were working. But even in near-total darkness, the void in the floor where the chamber had been was unmistakable. The sheer absence of reality before her could never be mistaken for something as mundane as darkness. She knew that she should have gotten as far away from it as possible and waited for help to arrive, but she had to know what had become of the Owl.

Slowly, cautiously, she crawled across the debris-strewn floor, cutting her hands and knees on shrapnel and flotsam as she inched forward, until she was at the edge of the void. Making certain her hands were still on solid ground, she timidly peeked her head over the edge of the void and peered down. At first, she saw nothing, but then spotted the starlight-filled orbs that were the Owl’s eyes staring back up at her from fathoms below. For the second time, the Owl stopped muttering, and for a moment the two just stared at one another in dreadful silence.   

“Gaze until you can finally see, or until the world is no more, lest I look elsewhere for a worthy being,” the Owl muttered. 

Written by The Vesper's Bell
Content is available under CC BY-SA