In over ten years of continuous travel, I have encountered many peculiar and fascinating individuals. Usually the most interesting encounters are those with other travellers: men and women with no particular destination; or at least no destination they care to share. I like the idea that one can spend a fleeting evening with a stranger in the middle of a foreign metropolis, only to wave goodbye the following day and never hear from them again. We are merely ships that pass in the night.
As I contemplate modern technology–social media and the like–I fear the ships are becoming all too visible. The subtle nuances, silent expressions and secrets that define us are now exposed to the prying spotlight of a lethargic civilisation.
So I look to places where secrets still exist: hidden nooks and passageways; the world beneath the disembodied voice of the many; the past. And there–by chance–a friend and I encountered an individual so out of touch with the modern world that he could have passed for a ghost. In what could very well have been his last year on this earth, he told us of a strange and profound experiment he was party to in his youth.
A Cold Winter’s Morning
Keleti Train Station
The train bound for Sighisoara, Romania rolled in at around 11am. If memory serves its final destination was Bucharest. The journey time was estimated at eight hours so we were pretty sure we’d be spending the whole day on board. As well as the two of us, several others boarded. We located an empty compartment and stowed our luggage.
Within ten minutes the train was ready to depart. Upon doing so, the ticket lady approached us almost immediately. I’ll never forget the vacant look on her face as she studied my ticket.
Some five or so minutes into the journey, an elderly gentlemen clutching a brown leather briefcase opened the door to our compartment. He hovered in the doorway for several seconds before finally choosing to enter. Nodding in our direction as he entered, we responded in kind as he sat opposite us. His weathered face was chock-full of gorge-deep lines.
My first thought was how unusual it was for an elderly gentleman to choose to join a pair of twenty-somethings on a train that was practically empty. It would soon be revealed however, that we were precisely the kind of company he was looking for.
The man–who I came to refer as _Mr. Grey_–sat in silence as he watched the world go by outside. My friend and I were idly gossiping, mostly about the things we had seen in Hungary and would undoubtedly see in Transylvania. Towards the end of our conversation, the man carefully opened the brown leather briefcase atop his lap and began to inspect the contents. Among a bundle of papers–written in more than one language–were a number of Soviet Military Orders: all of which looked weathered and tarnished, rather like the man himself. He looked down at the Orders, and then back up at us whispering in a thick Russian accent, “Tell me what you know of fear.”
The Man from Tbilisi
Mr. Grey grew up in Tbilisi, Georgia in the 1920s. His father was a military figure and a great admirer of Joseph Stalin. He claimed to have been heavily brainwashed in his formative years: becoming a strong believer in the Soviet regime and communism in general. So, when he approached adulthood, his heart was inevitably set on military service.
Upon reaching the age of 18, he relocated to the Soviet Union, specifically Moscow. He rose to prominence as a young and dedicated officer with an increasing interest in the human condition. This he attributed to his commanding officer’s interest in experimental psychology.
Throughout the Second World War, Mr. Grey worked as a practicing psychologist in a Russian laboratory on the outskirts of Moscow. There, he and his commanding officer – a man whom he referred to as Mr. Red – conducted a variety of experiments on unwitting subjects: often prisoners of war, although it wasn’t unusual for volunteers to arrive at the laboratory, including would-be soldiers unfit for frontline warfare.
Unsurprisingly, Mr. Grey’s interest in this field grew exponentially after the end of the Second World War, and almost a decade later during the height of the Cold War, he was conducting his own experiments.
For reasons undisclosed, Mr. Grey relocated to Gabala, Azerbaijan and established a psychological research facility with a team of seven medical practitioners. The team was assembled to conduct a highly controversial and secret experiment dubbed _Project Sleep_. But for those of whom were involved, it would later come to be known as _Project Fear_.
In their search for willing subjects, villages in the neighbouring countries of Armenia, Russia and Mr. Grey’s native Georgia were systematically searched. Vague but intriguing advertisements were posted in strategic locations throughout small and often poor communities. Mr. Grey was carrying one of the advertisements in his briefcase. Written in Georgian, he read the text aloud in broken English which, if translated, would have looked something like this on paper:
_SUPPORT MEDICAL SCIENCE_
The applications poured in. Twelve candidates were selected and subsequently invited to eligibility hearings. Of the twelve initially selected, seven were formally invited to participate in Project Sleep. The experiment was to be conducted in two stages, though candidates would only be made aware of the first.
Project Sleep: Stage One
Candidates were to be kept awake for a period of 72 hours in solitary confinement. To ensure their consciousness, candidates were under constant supervision. Alarms were triggered remotely and repeatedly if candidates appeared to be falling asleep.
Periodically, at the 24th, 48th and 72nd hours, candidates were asked to describe their worst fear. As each period passed, three out of the seven candidates exaggerated the fear they had initially described. For example, Candidate #2 had initially described a generic fear of crustaceans, specifically woodlice. Upon questioning at the 72nd hour, his fear was not only of woodlice, but of the possibility his closest friends and family members would eventually mutate into woodlice.
The 48th hour brought about strange, dark fears for candidates #3 and #5. Fears that greatly worried the practitioners. Unsurprisingly though, the 72nd hour instilled a heightened sense of anxiety and paranoia in all seven candidates, though it was specifically noted that Candidate #5 was said to be experiencing severe, apathetic gloom.
And then it was on to Stage Two.
Intermission: Train Compartment
Even the notion of describing Stage Two filled Mr. Grey with visible unease. He was sweating and clutching haphazardly at tattered bits of paper.
I recall with perfect clarity the moment Mr. Grey withdrew a handkerchief and slowly wiped his brow. His motion was pained and unsteady. But in that instant I could have sworn his obscured mouth was grinning.
Project Sleep: Stage Two
Upon completion of the 72nd hour, each candidate was permitted to sleep. In fact, they were given a sleeping agent which ensured they wouldn’t be aware of what was to follow.
All candidates were driven to a secret facility in the mountains somewhere outside Gabala, the team referred to it secretly as _The Mansion_. The sleeping candidates were strategically placed in various locations throughout the complex and were left to awaken naturally. The team allotted 24 hours for them to remain inside. The facility was locked from the outside and metal panels were used to seal the windows. No surveillance equipment was used. They would rely purely upon the candidate’s statements upon release at the end of the time period.
It is interesting to note that according to Mr. Grey there was nothing particularly unusual about the facility, other than its convenient, isolated location.
Upon completion of the 24th hour, The Mansion’s heavy doors were opened. There Mr. Grey and his team discovered two emaciated candidates: numbers #5 and #7. Following the first sweep of the facility, the remaining candidates were nowhere to be found, though bizarre evidence to suggest they encountered unspeakable things was everywhere.
Candidate #5 was comatose and as such was placed under supervision. Candidate #7 however was surprisingly calm and coherent. He described an experience unlike anything any member of the team had heard of before. It began with him waking in a quiet room–one eerily similar to his bedroom at home in Armenia–and hearing strange sounds, including the fearful cries of unfamiliar voices.
Approximately ten minutes elapsed before a stranger burst into his room shouting maniacally, alluding to an insect of giant proportions pursuing him throughout dilapidated, maze-like corridors. Ready to dismiss the stranger’s story as nonsense, he became aware of a distant humming – or buzzing – sound. Some inexplicable, winged creature was on the prowl, tirelessly searching for a victim to fulfill its unknowable desires. The stranger left the room amid uncontainable shrieks and disappeared into the darkness of a gloomy corridor. The buzzing sound continued for a while until #7 heard what he could only describe as a bloodcurdling scream.
#7 exited the room, only to discover thick, coarse hairs strewn about the corridor, accompanied by sporadic pools of an unidentifiable viscous fluid.
Mr. Grey and his team referred to the notes made during Stage One with Candidate #7. He had repeatedly described a fear of helplessness, a fear that had remained consistent even after sleep deprivation. And so throughout Stage Two, as he wandered throughout The Mansion, he continued to experience circumstances beyond his control. He described labyrinthine corridors surrounding him that seemed to grow in height as he explored them. Doors seemed to move away from him, and his attempts to open them failed. He repeatedly came upon dead ends beyond which he heard manic voices, giving rise to the notion that the owners of those voices were being pursued.
In the end it was nothing more than blind luck that led candidate #7 to the exit. And up until the moment the doors were opened, he had believed he was slouched against a cold, brick wall rather that a set of perfectly ordinary oak doors.
Mr Grey’s discoveries within the facility were both fascinating and horrifying. In what appeared to be confirmation of the presence of a large crustacean, the team discovered a giant exoskeleton complete with a number of jointed limbs. And although it was retrieved for further analysis, it inexplicably disappeared from safe storage several days later.
Puddles of coagulated blood were also discovered, supporting the idea that something malevolent had been wandering the halls, and furthermore, that something or someone had been injured.
Intermission: Train Compartment
Mr. Grey looked at my friend and me with cold, vacant eyes. “The experiment was a success,” he said in that thick, Russian accent. “Although now I wish it hadn’t been so.” Once again he reached into his briefcase and produced a bundle of papers.
Undisclosed location, Azerbaijan
Candidate #5 spent almost six months in a coma, and had been under constant medical supervision in an undisclosed location, where the team hoped he would eventually recover. Much to their relief, he awoke on February 23rd, 1956. Several days passed before he felt well enough to discuss the events leading up to his coma.
The middle-aged Azerbaijani librarian disturbed Mr. Grey and his team of practitioners with his account, so much so, that all plans for subsequent experiments were abandoned.
Mr. Grey recalled the librarian’s unique fear as described in Stage One: the fear that human beings were vessels for a single, greater entity; a being with one desire: to compartmentalise itself into a theoretically infinite number of finite individuals. The fear intensified as the time periods passed, with #5 describing the entity as present in mammals, birds and fish, but more worryingly present in all human beings, living and dead. An entity that took the form of absolutely everything capable of breath in an endless attempt to escape the truth of itself as an impossibly lonely, omnipotent being.
Candidate #5’s conclusion and ultimate fear was that he too was an aspect of this faceless, mass of a thing, and that in a universe of infinite possibilities, he would be forced to live every single inconceivably horrible life imaginable from start to finish, over and over again, forever. In line with Project Sleep, deep within the walls of The Mansion, this all-consuming fear came alive. And as it did, almost instantaneously, candidate #5 saw through the eyes of the other candidates. He saw their fears, and lived them. He watched as they fled from untold horrors, and screamed each of their screams. His mind wandered further still, deep into the strange, half-imagined minds of the creatures made flesh by the candidates and their fears. He felt things only monsters were supposed to feel, and merged them with emotions unthinkable to man. And as this hapless wandering consumed him, his mind began to collapse, almost as though the matter in which he was made was coming apart, torn asunder by the unseen forces of an exotic dimension, a place where only fear, pain and agonising confusion could exist. And there he stayed for almost six months.
Candidate #5 addressed Mr. Grey and his team, telling them of their fates, explaining the intricate, invisible tapestry binding each and every one of them together, regurgitating memories, thoughts, hopes and dreams from the deepest and darkest recesses of their minds.
After what Mr. Grey described as _almost an eternity_ of outpouring, the Azerbaijani librarian returned to that deep, dark coma the team had found him in following the experiment.
And so Mr. Grey’s conclusion was ironic. In what was supposed to be an experiment designed to study the depths of fear, he and his team of practitioners summoned what can only be described as man’s deepest fear: the fear that he one day may know himself.
I asked what he meant by that. He said simply, “Your question is proof that we aren’t quite there yet.” Mr. Grey closed his eyes and slept.
As the Carpathian Mountains rolled by the compartment window. I thought about the being, and the frightening possibility that Mr. Grey himself, and even my friend and I on a quiet train rolling through Eastern Europe could be nothing more than aspects of an unknowable, omnipotent creature.
We reached our destination. Mr. Grey remained asleep. I took his photograph. A part of me wants to visit Gabala, Azerbaijan to seek out the old facility in the mountains nearby. Will it be there?
If the experiment truly was a success, shouldn’t whatever was summoned still be there?
Credit To – Muted Vocal