Phase

by Rob Boffard | May 3, 2013 | Horror

Horror Short Fiction
Published in eHorror Magazine.

The scream exploded through the studio. Jimmy winced, and quickly turned down the main volume.

Every time, he thought. I get caught by mic feedback every single bloody time. And that insane whine was, to Jimmy, the single worst sound in the world. Like a screaming baby dragging its tiny nails on a blackboard.

With the volume down, he turned the main studio microphone off, killing the feedback. There. Now all he had to do was sift through the three hours of voiceover audio  in search of thirty seconds which would make his client happy. Jimmy sighed, and rubbed his neck. It was five thirty on a mild London evening, and he was going to be stuck underground for at least another two hours.

Turning to the studio computer, he navigated the on-screen cursor to the audio, and hit play. The voice of Emily, who had recorded the ad, filled the room. “It’s a smile, a glance, a raised eyebrow. It’s running a hand through your hair. It’s the sun on your face. It’s new Nivea Moisture-Lock Shampoo, and it’s made for you.”

Jimmy winced again. By the time that segment had been recorded, they were two-and-a-half hours in, and Emily’s voice had become a thin reed. The client, a man as a fat and indolent as a puffadder, had done nothing but complain and stuff his face with complimentary biscuits the entire time, and by then he had reached a kind of plateau of disgruntlement.

Jimmy played a few more takes, marking out any he thought were halfway promising in red. He clicked on the edit tool, turning his cursor into a tiny pair of scissors, and moved the cursor over the audio. He’d planned to start right away, but then he leaned back in his chair, stretched his arms over his head and cricked his back, his eyes closed. In a minute. He could face it in a minute.

As studios went, the one Jimmy worked in was passable – just. It was certainly smaller than the one’s he’d gigged in before. He’d been a music engineer, recording in studios that had vast mixing desks with channels that seemed to stretch to the horizon. He remembered warm, glowing lights and headphones padded with plush fabric.

Of course, these days, you took what work there was, and if that meant mixing a radio commercial for Nivea fucking Shampoo, so be it. This studio – really no more than a slightly tired room under a back street in Soho – was pretty grim. The mixing desk was small and functional, done out in grey plastic rather than metal and varnished wood. Under the fluorescent lights, it looked insubstantial, as if it would give out a hollow bong when hit. The recording booth was in front of the desk, another room separated from the studio with four thick panes of soundproof glass. Right now, it was empty, save for a lectern, a mic stand and two smaller speakers at the back.

Instead of baskets of fruit, the surfaces in the room were littered with scripts from radio ads long since forgotten, jumbled together with scratched CDs and dead marker pens. A whiteboard in the corner was blank, save for the words ‘Danziger 4/30pm’ scrawled cryptically in one corner. About the only new thing in the studio was the leather couch for clients, squatting on a raised platform.

Of course, Jimmy knew that he and the studio were a perfect fit – in appearance, at least. He was the studio in human form: endlessly scruffy, a thirty-something who looked as if he hadn’t bought any new clothes in a decade. He was in his habitual uniform of a loose black hoodie. No matter how many times his bosses in the offices above implored him to dress professionally, to make an effort, he never did. At best, he might wear a collared shirt for a day or two, but then the good old hoodie (or one of its variants) would come back out.

Idly, Jimmy used the mouse wheel to zoom in on the session. It always amazed him how you could take sound and turn it into a picture, marking out its peaks and valleys as easily as you would draw a line on a roadmap. He could already see the little blobs on the waveform where Emily had taken breaths. There were lots of them. The woman might have a great voice, but she had to take a breath every five seconds. It was part of the reason the session had taken so long.

That was when he heard it. The whisper.

He frowned. There was nobody else in the studio, so what was…

Again. The tiniest whisper. Right at the thin edge of his hearing. The ordinary person wouldn’t have caught it. Jimmy, his ears trained and tuned through countless hours of mixing, could catch it and – there – hold it. He couldn’t make out the words, but it was definitely in the studio. Had he left something playing? Something on the main desktop, turned down really low? But there was nothing.

He got up out of his chair, and the whisper vanished in the rustle of his clothing. Jimmy froze, his ass hovering frozen over the seat.

It was coming from the main speakers.

They flanked the booth window, huge and black, squatting on stands anchored with concrete. All at once, they seemed to loom over Jimmy, their speaker cones becoming deeper. And the whispering increased – just a touch, but yes, it was definitely louder. Jimmy still couldn’t make it out, but now he could tell it was something being repeated. A few words. Barely audible, but constant.

A chill ran down his spine, like cold drips of water. Without looking – without thinking – he reached over to the main level control on the desk, and turned it all the way up, raising the volume of the speakers. Later, he would wonder why he’d done it so quickly. Why he hadn’t given it a moment’s thought.

The room filled with an electric hiss, and it was then that the drips of water on his spine turned into a trickling stream. Jimmy knew the hiss was only the electrical field from the speaker cables picked up and amplified, but this was different. It didn’t sound like it came from cables. It sounded alive. Like the breathing of something malevolent, half metal, half animal.

As if in a trance, Jimmy walked to the speaker. At the back of his mind, a voice was telling him that this was all wrong. The voice had been strong before, but it was screaming now, screaming at him to turn the volume knob down and turn off the computer and disconnect the speakers and maybe even burn them, yeah, have a nice little bonfire right here in the studio, burn them until the plastic crackles and melts and…

And then, he was bent over at the speaker, his left ear pressed up against it. The hissing was appallingly loud now, and the whisper was inside it, like something in a cage. Something with needle-teeth and pleading eyes.

His lips were moving, he realised with a kind of dull horror. He was trying to say it. Even as the thought occurred, the hissing vanished – instantly, as if someone had yanked the cable out – and the whisper was there, only he could hear his voice too, saying the words: “You are summoned.”

Silence. Jimmy clamped a hand over his mouth, his eyes wide. His body felt encased in ice.

Slowly, he pulled his hand away from his face, and stood up. His eyes, shiny with fear, flicked from left to right. The studio was unchanged.

He realised he was holding his breath, and exhaled in a long whoosh. It seemed to jerk some life back into him, and he let out a shaky laugh. “What the hell was that?” he muttered, trying to laugh, and finding he couldn’t. There was no-one to hear him, but he felt better saying it, as if the presence of human sound in the room could banish his fear. He’d been working too hard. The editing could wait until tomorrow. He breathed a long sigh, and turned to the computer, intending to shut it off and escape.

But then, there was the noise.

It burst out the speakers in a terrible explosion. Jimmy yelled in pain, and he staggered backwards, his hands clapped over his ears. The sound was a horribly distorted ball of fury, as if the whisper had broken its cage and come hurtling at Jimmy, teeth bared and eyes triumphant.

And the noise wasn’t just noise. Jimmy could understand it. It was a word. Just one single word, delivered at the worst volume imaginable.

The word was: NOW.

Terror cascaded through him. The word extended, drawn out way beyond its single syllable, a horrible cacophony of noise.

It vanished as quickly as it had come. Jimmy’s ears thudded in the silence, aching gently. He stared with horror at the speakers.

“What the hell?” he said to himself for a second time. He  had collapsed in front of the leather client couch, with his back leaning on the cushions. He glanced around once more. Everything in the studio seemed normal. Nothing had changed. But Jimmy trusted his ears, not his eyes, and he knew what he’d heard.

He got up and walked slowly to the computer. His legs felt mired in jelly. His session was still onscreen, and the audio he’d brought up was still dull crimson. With one finger, Jimmy reached out and touched the mouse. The cursor on the screen moved as it always did, flicking across the session. He exhaled again, his breath hot. I thought it was going to shock me, he thought. Like it was actually going to explode.

Right then, a fader on the mixing desk began to move.

Jimmy froze. His eyes tracked the fader control as it slowly rose up and up and up. It bumped the top of the channel, rocked back – and then bumped it again. Then it began to pound itself into the plastic, slamming repeatedly into it with a horrible clacking sound.

As Jimmy watched, with his fingers gripping and knotting the pouch of his hoodie, the other faders began to move. Some moved slowly, creeping up the channels, but others shot up, as if they couldn’t wait to taste the plastic, to…

Break through.

The knobs on the mixer started turning. One after the other, all of them, slowly at first, then jumping left to right. The desk lights were blinking now, flashing red and green. The speakers gave off no sound, but the desk had become a horrible, whirling monster, a thing with its own life and purpose. The clacks and whirs and buzzes began to sound like teeth. Or like the sound of a million insects.

“Oh God,” breathed Jimmy, and the first fader control snapped off. The little nubbin of plastic flew off the console, whirling through the air and cracking against the glass of the booth. The other faders followed, breaking their metal prisons with sounds like gunshots. Jimmy thought, for one bizarre moment, that he would have liked to record that sound.

One of the plastic faders scored a hot line as it zipped across his cheek and he jumped back with a yelp. His hand flew to his face, and came away slick with blood. The sting that followed was sharp and clear, and with his heart thudding in his chest he hurled himself behind his chair. Whizzing bits of plastic gored the foam of the backrest.

After a few moments, the desk seemed to sputter. Jimmy heard a crackle, and smelled the crisp scent of ozone, mingled with smoke. He stood slowly, and then froze, his eyes locked on the studio glass.

There’s something in the booth.

It took Jimmy a few moments to understand what he was seeing. At first, his mind just refused to take it in. A silvery cone had formed on the studio floor, made of what could have been liquid metal or something else entirely. The liquid – and it was liquid, Jimmy saw – was dripping out of the microphone, slithering down the stand and coalescing on the floor.

The cone pulsed, and grew upwards. It sprouted arms, hideous nubbins which gave birth to long silver fingers. The point narrowed, and a head emerged, perfectly smooth. Two dimples appeared, and then two staring, empty eyeholes. A mouth, nothing more than a horrible black 0.

The eyes looked at Jimmy, and thing in the booth cocked its head very slightly. Jimmy felt a sticky wetness on his leg and realised, with distant wonder, that he had pissed himself.

It rose to its full height on stalklike legs, and suddenly it was there, up against the glass. It had crossed the booth in an instant. It’s eyes were locked on Jimmy, and in that moment he felt terror that dwarfed anything that had come before it. It made a statue of his body.

And yet, there was still no sound. His eyes flicked to the studio door. There was still time. He could run. He could –

The thing leaned forward and pressed its mouth to the first pane of glass in the booth window, squashing up against it. The glass began to steam, then bubble. There was no sound as it collapsed inward, the entire pane folding and bending and finally shattering.

The part of Jimmy’s mind that was still working wondered why it didn’t go through the door between the booth and the studio. Even in his horror, the thought nearly made him laugh out loud: a monster that didn’t know how to open doors. Perhaps, like an animal scenting prey on the wind, it was simply coming by the most direct route. It had smelt, or felt, blood, and it wanted its kill.

Jimmy suddenly understood with a sickening clarity that if the thing broke through the last pane, and entered the studio, it would take him, and then it would take everyone else. In some quiet part of his mind, something said: I brought it here. I have to stop it. I have to send it back.

He forced himself to think. He’d summoned the demon, if indeed a demon it was. It had entered the system, found a way out through the microphone, and now existed in the real world. He looked around the room, hunting for a weapon. Could he attack it somehow, fight it off? No – there was no weapon on earth for the thing in the booth. But what then? How could he…

Jimmy’s gaze fell on his computer. The screen was still stable, his audio session still up. One of the onscreen level meters was filled, pushed into the red.

“It’s sending a signal,” Jimmy whispered. “The mic’s still working.”

His voice seemed to butt against the terror he felt, pushing it back. He remembered a band session he’d recorded when he first started out. He’d had two mics, both recording the guitar. He was going to layer them to get a lush sound, but when he played the two pieces of audio together, the sound thinned and shrunk. It was called phase cancellation.

You could mess with phase deliberately. If you took two copies of a sound, and completely reversed the phase of one of them, then you’d hear nothing.

No sound at all.

And the demon was made of sound. He was sure of it. So maybe sound was the way to kill it. If the mic was still working, then he could record the demon. If he could do that, he could reverse its phase. He could play the recording through the booth speakers, and…

Lot of ifs right there, Jimmy.

The demon had begun work on the second pane, its mouth horribly twisted against the glass. Jimmy swung the chair round and sat down at the computer, feeling the pieces of plastic from the exploded desk dig into his back. He stared at the screen, refusing to look at the demon again. If he did, he knew he would simply go mad.

His hands began to move. All his training, all the endless hours spent in this shitty little studio, meant that he didn’t have to think. To match the sound, to create his own copy, he had to hear it. With a trembling hand, Jimmy moved the cursor to the on-screen level control, and turned it up.

The noise that came out of the speakers was like nothing he’d heard before. It was the worst form of tinnitus imaginable: an impossibly high, ringing screech. It was the cry of something being born. The sound seemed to bore right through Jimmy’s eardrums into his brain. For a split second, he nearly bolted for the door. He actually felt his legs twitch, as if they were going to abandon his body and make for safety. Under the screech, he heard a cracking sound. The second pane of glass had given way.

Jimmy forced himself to look at the computer. He hit record. The sound began to appear onscreen as a dark, spiky waveform. He let the awful sound run for ten seconds before stopping, hoping it would be enough. Working quickly, he told the program to reverse the phase of the sound. There. Now all he had to do was play it back through the booth speakers…

He hit play, and they exploded.

They didn’t just shatter; they ruptured, spewing flame and shards of plastic. The mic crackled and leapt off its stand, turning into a melted lump of ruined metal even as it flew upwards. Jimmy stared in horror. His eyes were drawn to the creature, and in one dreadful moment, he realised it was grinning at him.

It knew. Somehow, it had worked out what he was doing, and destroyed the speakers.

Then Jimmy realised that he could still hear it. It took him a moment to realise that he wasn’t hearing the demon; he was hearing his own phase-reversed recording, still playing out of the speakers in the studio. They stood behind the desk, still intact. Either the demon didn’t know they were there, or it considered them unimportant.

Right then, Jimmy knew what he had to do. If he was going to kill it, he had to let it break through, and hope that as it dived in for the kill, it was focussed solely on him. He had to become bait.

He stopped the sound playing, and navigated the cursor back to the start of the audio. He found he could just hear the demon, a thin wailing behind the glass, but the studio was suddenly quiet.

He heard a sharp crack, and looked up to find that the third pane of glass had gone. The demon was much, much closer now. With a sickening thud in his stomach, Jimmy saw that while its body was still in the studio, its neck had stretched out to impossible proportions. The head was behind the last remaining pane of glass. Jimmy forced himself not to look into its eyes, but he saw its mouth. It was huge now, dripping silky-grey liquid. Dark red things moved inside it. Things that could have been flesh, or something else entirely.

The demon suckered onto the final pane of glass, which began to liquefy. Jimmy couldn’t help wondering what would happen if that mouth latched onto him. The instinct to run was stronger than ever, but he didn’t. Instead, Jimmy forced himself to breathe, watching the pain of glass. He turned the volume control all the way up.

The glass sizzled, spattered. And then the demon broke through. It poured into the room, a slimy silver mass, leaping towards Jimmy. The noise was everywhere.

At the same moment, Jimmy pressed play on the computer.

His sound, the polar opposite of the demon’s cry, exploded through the speakers. Jimmy felt his left eardrum rupture; there was no pain, but a thin stream of blood trickled down his cheek. Dimly, he realised he was screaming.

So was the demon. And now it was screaming in pain.

Huge slashes appeared in its body. It began to swing its head furiously from side to side, striking the walls. The studio speakers split and tore apart – whether from the demon or from the sheer force of the sound, Jimmy didn’t know, but the damage had been done. He threw himself under the desk, his hands over his head.

With a final moan, it collapsed, as if a plastic bag full of water had had a knife thrust into it. The moan trailed off, and then died altogether. The studio was spattered with steaming silver. The phase-reversed sound came to its end, the cursor on the screen tracking on into soundless infinity.

There was silence.

Jimmy crawled out from under the desk and stood in the ruined studio, his shoulders heaving. His left ear was completely deaf, but his right was filled with a high-pitched whine, and he almost laughed out loud because it was just tinnitus, it was normal, it was human.

His head ached, and his left ear was now starting to drum out pain. But he was alive.

“I did it,” he whispered. And then the phone next to the computer rang, and he screamed.

It took a moment for him to pull himself together. When he did, he reached out for the handset and held it, trembling, to his ear.

“Listen,” said the client. “I think we need to get that voice woman back in. The Nivea ad really isn’t right yet, and it has to be perfect, you know what I mean? I’m on my way in.”

Jimmy stared at the handset, and began to laugh.

 

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