Totnes in Devon is supposed to be The New Age capital of Britain and that’s where the whole damn thing started on a week’s holiday. It was a drizzly morning unsuited to the beach or walking and Mick and Paula had gone to something billed as a Holistic Festival and Alternative Gift Fair just north of the town.
They weren’t into New Age ideas but it looked interesting enough and would fill the morning. They wandered around the stalls offering crystal ball and tarot card readings, spirit guide art, aura photos and the rest of it, shaking their heads politely when the proprietors mistook their amused curiosity for interest.
The crafts stalls were more to their liking and they needed some ornaments to brighten up their new house. One stall had a selection of rock carvings and one resembling a starfish carved in a mottled red stone would look great on the mantelpiece. The price tag was less attractive but Paula employed her charms and haggled it down. It was still pricey but they were on holiday after all. The weather was started to improve and they left soon afterwards, while there was still time to fit in one of their long country walks.
Back in their hotel room they inspected their purchase and flipped through all the various leaflets they had picked up or had been thrust at them. They all went in the bin except one, an advert for a course called "Getting in Touch With Your Past", about recalling past lives. On the back was a tiny picture of a Karmic Stone that was supposed to reveal previous existences and it looked just like the one they has brought. They didn’t believe a word of it but it was interesting.
Three days later they were back home and Mick looked it up on the internet. The seeker after truth would lie down holding the Karmic stone on his forehead and his or her past lives would be revealed to a psychic, called a Cehsa, who placed the palm of his right hand on the central circle. "Perhaps we should try it on each other" said Mick "I expect you were The Queen of Tarts in your past life" "Wonder what would yours past lives would be?" said Paula "Jack the Ripper and Patrick the Pervy Parrot I expect" They never bothered. "We don’t have the tantric whatchamacallit" said Paula "you have to believe in drivel to really imagine it".
A few weeks later the contents of the living room had to be temporarily dispersed around the house when they had the decorators in and The Karmic stone ended up on top of the washing machine. When Mick went into the kitchen later it was on its spin cycle and the vibration had moved the stone dangerously near the edge. He put his hand on it to move it somewhere safer and the world went out. Paula found him on his knees slumped against the still vibrating machine and was just about to call for an ambulance when the machine stopped and he woke up, with no obvious sign of damage except for bruised knees where they had struck the tiled floor. At her insistence he went to his GP but tests showed nothing physically wrong with him, some people did occasionally faint for no obvious reason the doctor assured them.
His mental state was something else, he seemed nervous and edgy and it was only some days later, the memory fading slightly, that he told Paula of the dream he had had while slumped there against a standard piece of white goods. He had been lying face down with a tremendous pain in his belly, his mouth almost enveloped in deep mud stained in crimson. It was a place of horrendous noise, of motion and clashing of swords and screaming; steel clad boots trod on and kicked his helpless body. Was it really just a coincidence that he had had his hand on that rock when he had dreamed of that medieval hell? Before the experience he would have laughed at the idea but the hellish nature of his dream, one far more real than any he had ever had, made him less sure.
If it was more than just an astonishingly vivid dream, whose past was it that he had experienced? His own? But according to the folklore, any use of the stone must involve two people and there had only been him. Moreover, he had been in the Cehsa position with the palm of his hand on the centre. If that past life experience had been real, that meant. No, that was too absurd, far too silly to contemplate. Washing machines surely can’t have past lives?
When the decoration was complete Mick put the stone back on the mantelpiece. His experience had been nothing more than a strange dream, it had to be. Yet it had all seemed so real and he was careful to avoid touching the centre of the stone without making it obvious to Paula. If the mantelpiece had had a past life, he didn’t want to see it.
Dinner was ready and the microwave started to ping. Somewhere inside it there were memories of power and a final failure. The microwave was old and needed replacing, soon it would be scrapped and with every death came a rebirth. Perhaps this time he would be a human again and there would be another chance. Perhaps, this time, his glorious thousand-year Reich would become a reality.
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He was the manager of a major holiday travel company by profession but had a sideline as a supernatural and horror story writer and knew quite a lot about ghosts, including the reasons why only a few became ghosts while the great majority just went peacefully into whatever it was they went into. He knew that some are angered by their murder and cannot rest until the guilty party is punished while others cannot go until important loose ends are tied up, like those who die undiscovered leaving their loved ones unable to move on.
Back then he didn't believe a word of, it was nothing more than the background expertise he needed to make his tales of ghostly vengeance more plausible by linking them to the accepted nonsense. The nonsense became a reality for him in the Caribbean. He had been there inspecting the site of a new hotel complex his company was interested in investing in and, on his last evening, had gone for a walk along the deserted beach of the still unspoilt area. A mugging passed into violence and, just like one of the characters in his short stories, he passed on to the beyond. His body lay on the golden sand of that tiny paradise, while his soul floated fretfully above it, by turns full of anger at his murderers and full of worry about how his wife would feel when he did not return, how she would cope without him.
Despite the blood on the clothes, his body looked like a man peacefully asleep and he was not initially convinced of his own death. He had entered it and tried to will his limbs to move as they had done of old but no matter how hard he tried there was no response. After just an hour on the still hot sand, the small changes that began to be evident in his mortal remains forced him to accept the truth. It is a curious feature of the afterlife that those liberated from the limitations and frailties of the flesh have less ability to control their own destinies than those who still possess them and so his soul began that pointless existence of ghosts everywhere, roaming fretfully over a tiny area. His presence made even less sense than that of most phantoms since very few visited the small beach and very few of those that did would have had the gift of sight and known of his presence, let alone understood the message he longed to tell regarding his murder.
This might have been his eternity had the cove not been in the Dominican Republic, just a few miles from Haiti, the home of voodoo. Recovering from their initial panic, his murderers had realised the need to remove the body. Rather than risk returning they had killed two birds with one stone and boosted their profit by selling his freshly deceased body to a trusted Bokor who needed one of the living dead to create a diversion to enable a rather grander crime. They came late that evening and his corpse was subjected to weird rituals under the bright moonlight. The chanting men were unaware of his presence and he could do nothing except hover unseen and watch as his sand-covered corpse, already greyish after just three hours in the Caribbean heat, stumbled to its feet and stood dead-eyed and swaying in front of the robed Bokor.
His stress rose to such huge levels that, had he not already been dead, he would probably have died of a heart attack. He had had a glimmer of hope that his presence could inform some sensitive soul of his fate, that his wife might have closure and his killers be brought to justice but that small hope was now dashed. If his corpse, his zombie, was now to walk away, perhaps to be reburied far from the confines of his own prison, what hope could he have? Luck was on his side. His captors had only started to lead the zombie towards the car when they heard the sound of a police siren, out of sight over the hill but heading in their direction. It was actually rushing to a fight in a nearby bar but his body′s captors didn′t know that and couldn′t afford to wait around for his slow shambling corpse to reach the car. There was no great shortage of ready corpses in their violent world and this one wasn′t worth the risk. They ran for the car and disappeared in a roar of dust.
The car vanished into the distance and the police van sped by shortly afterwards, leaving the little cove peaceful in the moonlight with just the sounds of the lapping waves. The spirit of Herbert Gardner, bereft of his body, hovered there staring at the body of Herbert Gardner, bereft of its soul, that stood swaying slightly and staring at nothing. Death had separated the two but surely everything that had made Herbert Gardner a living person, a thinking personality and a functioning body, was here. He entered his body again and tried to will it to move. This time, because his body was a zombie and already had the power of motion, he had some success. There seemed to be some link between body and soul that has not been entirely broken and it could sense his demands and obey them, albeit slowly. The zombie turned, walked stiffly up the beach and began to stalk along the road in the direction of the small hotel where he had been staying.
The desk clerk at the tiny hotel looked briefly up at the lurching, stumbling occupant of room 3 and wondered how much he had had to drink before returning to her novel. It took him several minutes to unlock and open the door before falling forward onto the floor as it swung open. He kicked the door to with his foot but did not attempt to get up immediately. He needed to plan. His flight home went early tomorrow morning, plenty of time to get ready normally but, given his current lack of coordination, he was unsure if he could manage it. Slowly and haltingly he rose, washed, changed out of the blood stained clothes and packed the important stuff, his money, passport, ticket and one bag to avoid suspicion.
He had no time to waste on non-essentials, he had to practice being a normal living human being or they would not let him on the flight. It was as well that neither the spirit nor the body were subject to tiredness because it took him all night; it was like a crash driving course with only his own initiative and trial and error to guide him. At the beginning of the night, the full length mirror showed a grey faced, hunched man with a trickle of saliva from the partly open mouth and when he had tried to say his name it came out as Hwwwh, Hwwbt, Ggggnr. When morning came, the face looked even greyer but at least he could stand upright, close his mouth and walk fairly well, if rather slowly. His speech was slow and a little slurred but it was intelligible.
Fortunately, the taxi to the airport had been booked and prepaid by his company and "Gardner, Airport" was all he needed to say to the driver. The usual quiz at the airport about packing his bags himself was harder. The girl at the desk peered hard at this blank-faced man with the slurred speech who was swaying slightly. Was he drunk or drugged and likely to be a problem on board? Maybe it was the grim face and the humourless replies that convinced her that perhaps he just had some minor disability. He took his ticket and boarded the plane, he was on his way. Fortunately for the other passengers near him, the flight was not full and they could relocate to other seats as the initially faint smell of decay became gradually more intrusive. The flight staff were glad to see the back of this odorous passenger as he lurched down the gangway.
Some twelve hours after leaving the hotel room he opened his front door. His wife heard and came out to meet him, stopping short as she saw him standing there swaying and grey faced, now with just a hint of green. It was a hot day and her nose caught the rancid smell of spoiling meat. "Darling, are you feeling ok? You don′t look well, why don′t you go and have a nice shower? I′ll get you something to eat" Eat? Eating and drinking was not something he had attempted, did a corpse need sustenance? But if he was to stop the body deteriorating and fuse his body and soul back together as he was determined to do, become a living human being again, it was something he had to do. He would start with something simple. "No, not very well, perhaps just some cereal"
He sat and looked at his favourite bran flakes. It was the last thing he had eaten for breakfast before he flew to the Caribbean where his real life had ended. Perhaps bran was a fitting start to his new life. The spoon went into the slack mouth but he did not get the chance to chew, the body reacted violently, spitting it out. Until now, it had been a docile creature that did his bidding, a dumb physical vehicle for his spirit will, but this once favourite meal of Herbert Gardner the man tasted like poison to Herbert Gardner the corpse and the taste woke something up inside. Herbert Gardner the spirit did not have the knowledge or the power of the Bokr and he felt himself being forced out. For a brief moment he found himself floating beneath the kitchen ceiling seeing his wife looking aghast at what she thought was her ill but living spouse and then, deprived of the vehicle to which he had been linked, all those limitations of the ghost kicked in and the ceiling became a palm tree. He was back in that tiny cove in the West Indies fretting over the tiny patch of sand that no longer held a body.
Freed of its driver, that body slumped forward into the plate before slowly raising its head. Some small consciousness, some understanding was now emerging and it scanned the box of Bran flakes in front of it. "Brr, brrr, brrnn, bran" it mumbled. It looked up at the widow of the late Herbert Gardner and tried again. "Braaa, bra, Braaan" said the zombie.
It slowly began to rise, staring at her pretty blond hair. "Br, Brrr, BRAINS!"
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This is a sequel to another story: A chaotic end at the Blackpool conference
Five years had gone by at the Hurricane Foundation since our geeks had disposed of that loathsome man and a second British prime minister had already been eradicated by another improbable natural tragedy. Only the geeks knew the truth of it, about the small series of unrelated events, like the stone in the pond and the cup of coffee thrown at the garden fence, that had produced the lighting strike.
His replacement was safe for the moment, partly because our geeks quite liked his more rational, fact-driven approach to government and partly out of self interest. Following their unrecognised service to the British public they had actually got around to looking into what they were being paid to look into and a number of major hospitals had acted upon conclusions in their report "Chaos Theory and the Spread of Contagious Diseases". With its reputation on the rise, The Hurricane Foundation got a government contract to investigate the application of Chaos Theory to crime.
Crime is an emotive subject and there are idiocies on both sides of the arguments. The political right would have it that all a man needs to do to avoid crime is to exercise the discipline that we all possess in equal measure. The liberal left prefer to think of criminals as victims of society in need of help, although they rarely spare much thought for the victims of all their victims. The solutions of both sides, either harsh punishment or expensive rehabilitation, rarely prove to be solutions at all.
The geeks looked at it from their perspective. A person's nature, however flawed it might be, does not necessarily cause them to commit crime and chance is a significant factor. Some lucky break, a job offer from a friend perhaps, could turn a man around just as much as some personal tragedy could set him on the wrong path. A life changing event could be something immensely trivial - take a few minutes to find your car keys down the back of the sofa and you might never have that encounter with a dodgy chap at the pub who has a little "business" opportunity for you. It did not have to be in the here and now; some small event in your grandfather's life could profoundly change your own just as drastically. What if they could somehow bias those chance events to create a better society?
They reasoned that the greatest influence on all of us is other people. Whatever we hear, read about or experience will changes our perceptions just a little. Whatever we do changes someone and those effects ripple out into the human world, just like the miniscule disturbances from those butterfly wings and, like those tiny wings, they can trigger huge events. They saw too that, in the modern human world, effects can be much more direct than those of a butterfly's wings. There are said to be but six degrees of separation between every person on the planet and some chains are shorter. The views of some little man who writes to his MP, the views of the PM, the views of the US President, are they truly unconnected? Is that little man wholly blameless for the next war?
Our Geeks threw themselves into their task with their usual single minded enthusiasm and the nano-computers were soon running around the clock, testing out the latest correlations on the survey data, including much that the government does not publish. The data was limited but enough for them to map it against other factors. Some of the maps showed what any man in the street would expect, such as higher crime in poorer communities, but there were also strange lines and ripples that could not be explained in terms of income, welfare distribution, ethnicity or any other factor that is commonly cited. The government funding provided for additional surveys at their instigation. Most of those surveyed must have wondered what relevance the strange questions they were being asked had to do with anything at all but the geeks knew why and, as those statistical maps grew in their machines, as the blanks were slowly filled in, so the patterns slowly became a web and the centres of that web slowly began to be apparent.
History has created many scapegoats. Sometimes they have been entirely innocent, sometimes they have had limited culpability for some things and political expediency or mob hysteria has blamed them for everything. The errors of irrational mankind, some would say, but is the irrational always wrong? Who has not struggled to solve a problem, only for the solution to pop into their head when they stop concentrating on it? Maybe there is an innate wisdom in the human psyche that our waking intelligence suppresses, truths that we are aware of but which become distorted by our "logic". Perhaps scape-goating is a sound concept; we just get the wrong people.
For our geeks it was all about rationality and, after 6 long years of their research, the truth was undeniable. All the flaws of humankind, the selfishness, the ambition and lust, the ignorance, the hatred, the addictions and the crazy beliefs, were the essential ingredients for crime and conflicts to happen, but they were not the cause. These things are facts of human nature just as gravity is a fact of physics but, while gravity was essential for the Twin Towers to collapse, it was not what caused it to happen. A minority truly was to blame for everything but it wasn't welfare scroungers, immigrants, a Zionist conspiracy or the Illuminati. Like most real scapegoats throughout history they had no idea of their culpability, they simply supplied the seeds, it was just some little thing they said or did that influenced or annoyed or affected another and the effects rippled out. Nothing is totally without affect, not even a "Nice day again" to a neighbour, it expands and grow in a way that only our geeks could even begin to comprehend.
The preliminary conclusions of the geeks were presented to senior figures in government who were initially incredulous but all the evidence supported them. Their maps showed the focal points. Surveillance and more focused research only bolstered the apparently bizarre theory. There was a lot of secret debate but, given the ever increasing crime levels, the government could not afford not to act. Eventually the decision was made and the agents were sent out. Over the next few weeks, four people in Britain, a small girl, a retired schoolteacher, a bus driver and a demented lady in a care home, quietly died in ways that appeared to be natural tragedies. Like those from a stone dropped in a pond, the ripples diminished and died. Not every criminal activity ceased but there were no new criminals, no new recruits to gangs, no new offenders. Within two months the strange and abrupt drop in crime was being reported in the papers. Within a year, police were being laid off in increasing numbers and within two years prisons were being closed as inmates left, never to return, and nobody replaced them.
The geeks’ report was made available around the globe Thus it was that man entered the 22nd century in a crime and conflict-free world and the only price was the lives of those few innocent people around the world, just a few thousand in every decade, who were actually guilty of everything. It wasn’t genocide as they came from every race and creed and, as holocausts go, it was pretty small beer. A price worth paying unless you were one of those concerned.
Our geeks wouldn’t know that but they did see what they had done for Britain, the end of crime in their own lifetimes. Except by those who understood and could manipulate Chaos Crime Theory of course, but that’s another story.
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James Martin had been raised in a Catholic family but found atheism early, like many logical, pragmatic sorts. There was just too much in the religions of the book, the contradiction between the absolute nature of sin and what we know about the formation of the human character for example, that made no sense at all. Like others of his hippy generation, he had had a brief flirtation with the mystical beliefs of the orient in his youth, there was something about the idea of each life passing into the next one with the chance of promotion for a job well done that appealed but he had soon left that behind as well. As he left middle age behind, he no longer believed in any life beyond this one.
He found out that he was wrong when Death came to him in a hospital emergency room following a massive heart attack. The pain had been immense but, as he lay there on the table only vaguely aware of the bustle around him, it suddenly ceased. He felt totally calm and could clearly see the bright lights, the medical staff and their equipment. There was a brief motion and a moment of blackness as if he was passing into a tunnel, then he was there above himself, looking down on his own body, just as all those near death experience stories had said. But it wasn’t quite the same; he was not floating at the ceiling but just a couple of feet up. It was just as if he was one of the medical staff tending to him. Then he saw the arms with the surgical gloved hands and the edge of the surgical mask covering a nose and they were just where his own arms and hands and nose would be if he were standing there. He was not a disconnected spirit, he was the doctor.
At first he thought it was a temporary location, a chance for him to say goodbye to his mortal self and that any minute he would begin to move towards the light. Minutes turned to hours, hours to days and days to months and he realised it was not a temporary phase at all. This man, Dr Alan Jacobs, was his new mobile home and his role was a purely passive one. He could see, hear, feel, smell and taste everything exactly as the doctor presumably could but he had no control or influence whatever over the actions of his host. At first, he had been close to panic over his powerlessness, especially when he awoke in the morning to darkness and could only wait for Dr Jacobs to wake and open his eyes but, after a while, he had become used to it. Powerless as he was, it was a far better life than some unfortunate individuals have, lying paralysed in a wheelchair or iron lung, dependent on others to provide their most basic needs. After all, the doctor was young and sociable, and, while he could not join in with or influence things in any way, he could still enjoy all the pleasures that the doctor enjoyed, like the music, the theatre and the parties. Most of all, since he had all the physical feelings the doctor had, he rather enjoyed the doctor's buxom young wife. It had been a few years since he had had that sort of pleasure.
When the doctor was at work or asleep, without any practical issues to address, he had plenty of time to think and revisited the religious ideas of his hippy youth but this time with some knowledge of what the afterlife really was. What explained this strange new existence? Since he was still around, it was certain that there really was an afterlife, it just wasn't one that any faith he had ever heard of had led their followers to expect. There was no eternal paradise, no perpetual torment, no wandering the earth as a fretful disembodied spirit, no being reborn and living another existence ignorant of this one. He could remember his own life as well he did before his death, he still thought and felt in the same way, all that had changed was his ability to affect the world. He was a powerless lodger inside another man. Clearly, since he was still the same sentient being months after his mortal remains had been turned to smoke and ash, the spirit was something separate from the body but, since it had so instantly found itself inside another, it plainly needed a body for some reason and the most likely explanation was that a body and its mind provided essential links to the corporal world. Rationalists cite brain activity when we respond to the world around us as proof that consciousness and thought are products of our brain chemistry but perhaps the brain is not active because it is generating thought but rather because it is acting as a remote control system for an independent spirit, processing its desires into physical actions and sending back inputs from the physical senses.
They say that we only use a small part of our brains and a few individuals have been found whose brain tissue was just a thin layer inside the skull but they still possessed sufficient intelligence to cope with life. What is all this surplus capacity for? Maybe his existence explained that, it provides a sort of holding centre for departed spirits. While all those cells did not have the capacity to affect any activity in the body, they did enable spirits like him to survive and to tap into the senses of their host. It was hardly conducive to survival if two men were competing to control the same body and that was presumably why he was so powerless and passive but why had he not been reborn as a new entity as Buddhism would have it? Maybe a new body could not be created without a new soul and they had to grow together to achieve the necessary fusion of functions. Perhaps the surplus souls like him, those who outlived their bodies, had nowhere else to go but to take up residence as tenants of other peoples’ bodies. Like him? That begged the question, how many were there like him? Did the soul of every dead person who has ever died throughout history now inhabit one of the living? Was he the only inside the doctor? Maybe not; at times it seemed he sensed other presences and had fleeting memories of events that did not relate to anything in his own life. Was the doctor aware of his passengers? There was no indication that he was but perhaps it was awareness by some of the spirits who lived within them that explained all those tales of the supernatural; some minor malfunction was feeding the memories of the occupants into the senses of their host.
Why the doctor? The obvious answer to that was that he simply happened to be the nearest human being when he died. If closeness was the main criteria, a doctor at a busy accident and emergency hospital was likely to have a few more tenants than most. What would have happened if he had had his massive coronary on one of his country walks and nobody had been nearby? With no immediate place to shelter, would his spirit have ceased to exist? That seemed to be a question that did not demand an immediate answer but he had one much sooner than expected. It was a glorious day in July and the doctor was walking with his wife and some friends in the Cairngorms. All six of the living humans, plus the numerous other ex-human beings whose presence they were unaware of, were having a lovely time. A wrong turning, a short cut along a narrow path to get back to the hotel in time for evening cocktails and a slip of the foot changed that. It was a trivial fall as hiking tragedies go, not even 12 feet but, in a collision between a human skull and a sharp slab of highland granite, there is only one possible winner. So it was that Doctor Jacobs came to his first afterlife, James came to his second and all the good doctor’s other tenants variously began what was anything between their second and their five hundred and thirty second.
Some of them were very used to it by now and took a philosophical view. Some after lives were good and some not so good but, however bad one may be, they never lasted forever. They were just lucky to be able to find a host with adequate capacity to sustain their existence, to have a chance to go on and some day to find a higher one. As long as the spare brain power of their new host was sufficient for their continued existence, they had a chance to experience the world and enjoy its beauty once more. They just had to wait a while and hope that, next time, their new home would be higher up the evolutionary scale. For James it was an awful experience and for the doctor a far worst one since he alone had no clue that things could ever get better. It was like being crammed into a tiny space full of shouting, heaving, struggling people and the real world was only dimly perceived.
The impact of the doctor’s head upon the rock jarred it almost imperceptibly but it was enough to cause the tiny creature beneath to contract its body and withdraw its eye stalks. Then, as there was no further disturbance, the slug slowly resumed feeding on the damp decaying lichen beneath, completely unaware, even by its own low standard of awareness of the 47 helpless passengers it now held. To live in darkness, to feed on damp rotten material, to hide from the cold in some tiny crevice, to emerge to feed again on damp rotten material, some day that may be the life of any of us. Of course, things may sometimes be far better as our hosts could be rich and successful celebrities living the high life. Even if not human they may at least be higher social animals with a life we can relate to. On the other hand, scientists have indicated that even Amoebae appear to have areas of their cells which have no obvious purpose. Is it possible that we could become trapped in such organisms with almost no perception of the world at all? Ah yes, but they don’t live long, do they? Surely we would soon move on?
Yes indeed. But when an Amoeba dies, what other creature is it most likely to be closest to?
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It was a long way from his friends and relatives in Sheffield but the programming job was too good to pass up and, three weeks after he got it, Paul was living in a small rented flat in Chichester fifteen minutes from the office.
The job was great but work was just a part of life. A young man alone in a part of the country he did not know needed some social life beyond a few drinks after work with colleagues and, hopefully, a girlfriend. Those were more difficult to find, his work talents were of a technical nature and he was rather shy, although he had never realised quite how much when he had been at home with friends he known since primary school days.
He had been a keen cross country runner back home so the advert for a new running club in the local paper looked promising, perhaps he would meet a few people and, who knows, there might be some decent girls there. The first meet on the following Sunday really picked him up. It had been a great sunny day up on the downs and afterwards, as running club members always do, they had gone to the local pub to try and undo the health benefits of their outing. Apart from the occasional weirdo they were a great bunch and it wasn’t long before he was knocking around with a couple of the guys and his evenings were a lot less empty. Even better, on the fourth meet, Jasmine turned up and they clicked. It wasn’t long before he was knocking around with her too although not in quite the same sense of the expression.
They planned their runs a week or two in advance and there was no shortage of great places so close to the downs in midsummer. It was Jasmine who suggested they should run around Chanctonbury Ring on Saturday. The name meant nothing to Northerner Paul and he was puzzled by the amused reaction from some of the others when she added that next Saturday was Midsummer’s Eve, so they would have to run round it seven times in an anti-clockwise direction. Paul’s geeky new mate Rod always kept his top of the range iPad in his tatty old rucksack. He looked it up on Google and passed the tablet to Paul. The Chanctonbury ring was a clump of trees on the South Downs and, according to ancient legend, if you ran 7 times around it widdershins, or ant-clockwise, on midsummer’s eve the devil would appear and offer you a bowl of porridge, soup in some versions, and grant you a wish in exchange for your soul.
“I hope he offers us soup” said Jordan “I don’t like porridge” “Will we all get porridge? Nothing in the stories about more than one bowl” said Jean. “Probably just the first one round then” said Jordan “Mean chap that devil! Anyway, I doubt he’ll offer any of us anything as we all seem to be agnostics or atheists here”. “Dunno” said Paul “I may be an atheist now but I’m also a scientist. If the Devil appeared and he clearly demonstrated he was the Devil, if he was 30 foot tall and surrounded by fire or something, I would have to accept that as scientific proof that I was wrong and would be obliged to decline his offer with as much fervour as any god-botherer” “Good point Einstein” said Jasmine. So it was agreed.
They all turned up promptly at the car park in their running gear on a cloudy but dry Midsummer’s eve. They would do a few km on the local downs and finish with their seven circles of Chanctonbury ring, about 3.5km. The blokes had agreed to make a race of it to see who would get the devil’s porridge and they set off round the clump of trees together. Once, twice, three times. Four, five, six and Paul took the lead. It was funny that he scorned the idea of the supernatural yet still had a little anxiety as he approached the end. He reached the starting point, went a bit beyond just to be sure, then stood and looked at the lovely view while waiting for the others to catch up. There was no devil and no demons, ghosts or aliens in sight. Not unless they were disguised as ordinary sightseers anyway, as strolling couples, dog walkers, some kids flying a kite.
“Damn it! Said Jasmine, there’s never a devil around when you want one. I had my wish all planned out too. After all, I would probably end up in hell anyway so I might as well get something for it” “I bet you will” said Paul. “Look” said Jasmin “I’ve got a girl’s night out with Ella and Jean but what say I drop round your place afterwards, around 11? We can spend the night and get into some serious sin” “Love it” said Paul, and they kissed. As they drove off he saw Jasmine leave behind him in her tatty old Toyota. She got to his place almost on the dot of 11 and they went straight to bed.
He opened his eyes to a sunny Sunday morning. Waking up next to a gorgeous girl he got on great with and who meant more to him every time he saw her! Did life get any better? He turned over and the space next to him was empty. Then the door opened and Jasmine came in with a breakfast tray. “Cornflakes, eh?” Said Paul “Oh well at least it’s not porridge or soup so I know you’re not the devil” She kissed him and fingered his chest. “Actually, I am the Devil” she said “I always offer whatever a human most likes for breakfast, Porridge, Wheatabix or Shredded Wheat if you like, it’s no problem to a mighty evil being”. As they ate their breakfast and drank their coffee Paul was savouring the thought of what they would do next. He reached down. “How about we do that little thing we did last week, Mrs Dirty Devil?” “Ok then, you pervy mortal” said Jasmine “but only in return for your soul” “Done” said Paul and it was even better than last week.
They had barely finished when his mobile phone rang. The screen said Jasmine calling. “Hello” said Jasmine’s voice, “what happened to you last night?” “What?” Said Paul “What do you mean?” There was silence for a few seconds on the other end, then “You were supposed to come round my place last night as we agreed yesterday, what happened to you?” Another pause, then “You haven’t got somebody there have you?” “No” said Paul, “well yes, but not somebody else. Look, stop kidding around love, pranks really aren’t your strong point” He turned, expecting to see the room empty as it should be if Jasmine was calling from another room. There was no Jasmine but the room was not empty. And, although the ceiling height was barely 7 foot, yet the monstrous creature that met his gaze was 30 foot tall and surrounded by, although it was a pitifully inadequate description of the horror, what could only be described in human terms as flame. The voice burnt into his very soul, a soul which he suddenly realised he truly had.
“You poor, deluded, little atheist. You call yourself rational, you said you would believe in me if you saw me with your own eyes but never considered, if I did exist, that you could never expect honesty from me”
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As a boy he had dreamed of being a famous professional artist, of being the new Cezanne or Picasso or Hockney, of riches and acclaim flowing like the paint from the end of his paint brush.
Like most boyhood dreams, his had never happened, although he had got a lot closer to realising them than most. Unlike so many who had had to abandon their ambitions and seek drab jobs in shops and offices, he had made a living as an artist, selling his colourful and slightly surreal landscapes to middle class patrons to relieve the tedium of their wallpapered expanses. That was as far as it got, any fame he could lay claim to was a purely local one and, while his efforts had enabled him to buy his tiny terraced house and still just about paid his bills, fortune had eluded him entirely.
Worse, his sales were getting smaller every year. These were straitened times with fewer prepared to spend hundreds on mere decoration and his work was falling out of such limited fashion as it had ever been in. How long would it be before he too would be forced to seek employment in one of those drab shops or offices? He gazed at his lined face in the mirror, a face that was almost leaving middle age behind, and knew that that would be no easy option either for someone with no experience in anything but painting.
He sat watching the afternoon sun in the little aluminium greenhouse in his tiny garden, a greenhouse that had never seen the growth of a single seedling during his tenure. It was his little solitary club, a place where he had always gone to unwind, to enjoy an occasional cigarette and an occasional glass of whisky. As his anxiety grew, it had gradually become an occasional packet, an occasional bottle, and his ability to afford either shrank. His resentment grew too, with every glass. He was a good artist, no Turner it was true, but a damn sight better than some of the acclaimed artists of the day whose ridiculous works filled the national galleries. He had recently been to The Tate Modern and it was filled with patterns resembling Homebase wallpaper, single colour scrawls that looked like the work of infants, formless lumps of clay resembling giant dog turds and lengths of galvanised steel ducting. Damn it! Real artistic ability did not matter anymore, all you had to do was think of something novel, call it art and wait for all those idiotic, overpaid, self-serving art critics to feather their own nests by finding a new fashion.
He downed his third glass of whisky and lit his second cigarette. The setting sun shone through the algae-encrusted glass of the greenhouse and he noticed the strange patterns within it, patterns that he could only assume had been made by slugs or snails feasting on those rich green pastures. He stared and, as the human brain always does, his made features out of those random patterns. At the bottom of that pane was a lion's head. Surreal and cartoon like, it was true but, despite the protruding eyes and the unnaturally pointed ears it was definitely a lion's head. On the next pane was the face of a small sad little girl, over there, a voluptuous naked woman with three arms and a square head. Up there, three dragons fought a pitched battle while a huge spider looked on. It seemed to him that those little molluscs had a darn sight more artistic ability than Emin and Hurst and all those other acclaimed artists. It took a couple more whiskys before the sneer in his head became an idea. It was as good an inspiration as any and, as his conventional work was no longer selling anyway, what did he have to lose? He staggered off up the path to get his camera before the sun disappeared.
The next day he printed the photos off, mounted them next to his easel and began copying the works. He ignored some of the slug trails that were peripheral to, or spoiled the perceived images and accentuated some others but otherwise he made no real changes. Why should he? In the fickle world of art these days who could decide what was more commercial than the orange of the setting sun shining through those wobbling mollusc tracks and the green of the algae modified in places by the vague colours of the fencing and hedges behind?
The first few works appeared in a local exhibition two weeks later and soon sold but not before attracting favourable comments in a local paper. They in turn attracted attention from a more prominent art critic who lived in the area. The feature in the art section of The Sunday Times a few months later brought him the acclaim that the little boy had only dreamed of. It was a new fashion in the art world. The article said it all. "His works have a primitive quality, yet they are not as anything we have formerly described as primitive or naive art. Rather they are the work of something far less than human, yet filled with a superhuman yearning to find a higher plain. The lines are curiously random and oscillating, yet always convergent into something that is meaningful. Always single and unbroken, signifying an unshakeable will to create beauty and meaning, regardless of life's distractions. Always beginning and ending at the bottom of the canvas, each painting signifying how life is full of unfulfilled dreams and ambitions, yet part of a series to show that we must never stop trying no matter how many times we must retreat"
He sat watching the afternoon sun in the huge cedarwood greenhouse in his big new garden, a greenhouse that had never seen the growth of a single seedling during his tenure and sipped an expensive Glenfiddich whisky. No more cheap Tesco own brand for him. He read, yet again, that absurd Times review, now held in an expensive bronze frame, that had set him on a path to fame and chuckled at the stupidity of intelligent people. Less than human? What, like a slug? An unbroken, random and oscillating path? As a slug would leave when feeding? Always beginning and ending at the bottom of the canvas? Like a slug returning to its safe damp lair under the leaves before the sun rose? Had it never occurred to any of them that his wonderful paintings were nothing but slightly altered copies of slug patterns on greenhouse glass?
Ah well. He was making enough money to see him reasonably comfortably off when he went out of fashion and the next idiotic trend took over and, judging by the way that major galleries were still displaying blank canvases, that could be a long way off. If meaningful statements about suprematism, the fourth dimension, transcendency or "awareness of nothing but art" and all the rest of it could still be discerned in a lack of any art at all, his copies of slug feeding patterns could do well for quite a while. At the very worst, as a once acclaimed artist, he would still always sell far more than the minor artist he had once been.
But there was one immediate problem, what new paintings could he come up with for that big exhibition next year? The recently cleaned windows of his expensive greenhouse were largely devoid of any patterns at all and, judging by the lovingly tended vegetable patch of his neighbour just the other side of the hedge, slug pellets would be a major impediment to the breeding of a new generation of artists. If only he had not sold his maisonette and lost that little slug-infested greenhouse.
He took another sip of his expensive whisky and pondered. As he did so, a large wood pigeon landed on the roof, paused a moment and lifted its tail in that distinctive movement of a defecating bird. The bird pooh splattered on the glass, making a large brown and white pattern, contrasting with the blue sky and the white vapour trails of the airplanes overhead. As it began to run down the glass, The Sunday Times review about a yearning for higher things and mortal life frustrating our aspirations wrote itself in his head. All he needed was a bird table to attract lots of birds like that onto his new greenhouse.
Whistling, he went to get his camera.
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It was a sign of the times and two perceived factors drove it. One was a growing mistrust for the police and the other was ever cheaper and more advanced technology.
How real the first was is open to question; was there ever a time when most people were really foolish enough to trust those who govern and control us or was that just those rose-tinted spectacles in action? There was no doubt about the second. Even allowing for the inevitable pointless overspending on anything provided for the public sector, video cameras with remote communication had become a relatively cheap and entirely practical prospect.
Following notorious cases of young black males being shot by white policemen in which the circumstances had been hotly disputed and the consequent riots in the US and UK, it was an inevitable move. By 2016 it had become the norm for police in the UK, most US States and several European countries to wear body cameras to record all stops and arrests. The videos should provide the vital evidence needed for any enquiry if such events happened again. Whether such evidence would be believed in our conspiracy theory society would of course only be known when they inevitably did.
Taxpayers' money always grows on trees and the cameras had not reached their useful lifetime when they were all junked in favour of more expensive equipment based on the latest version of Google Glass and the gadgets were issued to every policeman and woman in the UK. Not only did these latest devices record and upload videos to the cloud in real time but they provided fast two way internet access and many sophisticated features to assist the police in their tasks. Officers wore headsets with glasses that let them experience both a real and a virtual world, all controlled by spoken request.
They could still see what was actually in front of them but they could also access data from the police database and use a variety of sophisticated programs to aid them in their tasks. For example, a suspect's face could be rapidly compared with thousands of mug shots on the police database and the best matches would be shown next to the real face the policeman was looking at. Another program could analyse movement and voices and indicate suspicious behaviour. Obviously, it was not thought desirable for policemen to go around looking like RoboCop so all the gadgets were miniaturised and the goggles themselves folded away unobtrusively into a standard looking police cap.
Some policemen were against these developments, they thought they interfered with proper policing and prevented newcomers learning the necessary skills for themselves. Not PC George Larkin. He was a geeky chap for a copper and he loved computer technology. When not on duty he spent much of his time playing computer games and the new police gadgets had turned his job into an extension of his recreational activities. They were only supposed to be used when necessary so cops could display that essential human touch but George liked to find necessities as much as possible. What was really great was his discovery of an obscure online fix that let him bypass the normal security restrictions and use the goggles for computer gaming. He was lucky to work in a small town in a rural area with low crime rates that let him patrol the beat on his own and, come lunch break, he would head to his favourite cafe of the edge of town, pull down the goggles and get on with what, to him, was real life, the online one.
Ah well, time to get back to work. He checked his gun was secured correctly, why he needed it in this place god knows, but all officers in England and Wales had been required to carry them after a series of terrorist incidents three years ago. He flipped the smart goggles back into his cap, brushed the apple pie crumbs off his uniform and headed back into town. What excitement would this afternoon bring? A shoplifter or a minor domestic incident at most, nothing much ever happened in Rickdale.
Or did it? He was walking down the centre of the town's small shopping mall when he noticed something. A small group of youths was acting rather furtively on one corner, peering at people passing by and clutching heavy looking rucksacks rather too closely to their bodies as if they had something to hide. It was unlikely but there had been a terrorist attack in a small town once before. It was time for the smart goggles to do their stuff, he would analyse their movements and check out the faces of some who appeared more prominent in the group.
He flipped the goggles down and some in the group noticed him. Then it happened. Two strangely dressed young men he had not noticed burst forward from the group, they had guns and they were firing wildly in his direction. His suspicions had been well founded! It was up to him to protect himself and others in the crowded little shopping area as best he could. He drew his gun and fired and his relative coolness and experience was in his favour. Both youths dropped to the ground but it was not the end. More guns and twisted snarling faces emerged from the group and he fired again and again.
All was quiet and he flipped the goggles up and looked around. The place was silent and the only signs of life were the peering faces of a few shoppers from the hiding places they had rushed to when the firing began. He walked over to the group of youths whose bodies lay blood stained upon the concrete walkway with the intent of removing the guns. But there were no guns. There were no weapons at all that he could see. He opened one of the rucksacks and it contained only clothes and other personal belongings. A leaflet fluttered to the ground containing details of a popular camp site on the moors a few miles outside town. He stared at the huddle of innocent young campers, some of whom would never go camping again.
He pulled down the goggles and a terrorist began firing at him. A virtual, computer generated terrorist against a background of a virtual, computer generated shopping mall that looked much like the one he stood in, as indeed it would, because all shopping malls look much the same.
He had forgotten to switch off his "Terror in the Mall" game. But at least he had his highest score yet.
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He had always had such interesting dreams. Often he could see where these dreams came from; there was an obvious link with something that had happened the previous day. It could be just something he had seen on TV but, even when the basic theme was mundane, the backdrop was often magnificent. Unlike some, he dreamed in full 3D colour.
Trouble is, as we all know, the brain discards dreams so quickly. You wake up thinking "wow, what a great dream!" and a bowl of cornflakes later you can’t remember a damn thing. Most of us don’t worry about it but an important hobby was fantasy story writing and events in his life had stifled his creativity, his imagination had dried up. It was still in there somewhere as his dreams showed but, unless he could send his dream self a paper and pencil, that was where it would stay.
Still, he could capture some of it if he made a note of it as soon as he awoke. Hard to remember to do things the moment you wake up but in time he was sure he could get into the habit. He bought himself a little voice recorder that just needed the press of a button to make it easier. At first it was difficult, he simply forgot to do it or, when he did remember, he would press the play button and listen to some half asleep mumbling in which he could make out scarcely a word. But all things get easier when you get used to them and within a few weeks it was getting more helpful.
He had a recollection in his mind, something a girlfriend had once told him decades back, that there were dangers in recording your dreams but he could not recall her saying why. He had a look online but found nothing of concern on the first few Google pages. Apart from psychology articles it was mostly nonsense about predicting the future or the subconscious realising things the conscious did not. One or two bloggers actually promoted the idea and gave advice on how to do it.
A couple of weeks into his regime, a dream inspired a story about a religious cult that believed the sun was evil and lived their lives in dark caves, interacting with the rest of the world only at night or via narrow holes in the rock. His plagiarism of his sleeping self’s ideas was soon working well. He managed to come up with a weird story quite regularly and they were getting weirder all the time. They usually had no meaningful plot, no characterisation and no proper conclusion, dreams tend not to have, but he didn’t care too much about that. At last he had something that he could read out at the little monthly writers’ club and could then sit back in satisfaction and watch the puzzled faces of the other members.
It was disappointing that his waking imagination showed no sign of improvement but at least it was in his mind somewhere and, if he could dip his bucket into his subconscious that was something, it was like getting water from a well. That simile was rather disturbing. What happens if you keep taking water from a well and there is no water flowing from above to replenish it? Was that the danger the girlfriend had warned about? He put it out of his mind. The silly ideas kept coming, about people seeking out monsters confident that being eaten would save them from monsters, children in gardens who rooted and began sprouting extra limbs, government spies in the dishwasher. His dreams always involved people.
He was not sure he has not noticed something before but after six months he began to be certain something strange had happened. In all his dreams, as far as he could recall, he had always appeared in the third person. Yet lately, while that other self was still there in the dream, he felt that he, his normal, waking first-person self, was present too. At first it was just as an invisible observer but, as time went on, his third person self and other characters in the dream seemed to be aware of him. It was as if, by bringing his dreams into his waking life, he was breaking down the barriers between the conscious and the unconscious and bringing his real life into his dreams. That had downsides as he no longer had the complete escape from real life worries that real dreams offer us. He would be flying with others over a bright red barren desert looking for giant land-dwelling oysters and start worrying about filling in his tax return. On the plus side he was at last starting to get his imagination back, he could close his eyes and imagine the most amazing dream landscapes as he used to when he was a child.
Maybe he should stop recording his dreams; clearly there was some psychological effect for him. Or was there? Maybe it was all his imagination. Did it matter anyway? The voice recorder stayed by his bedside and continued to be used. It did not occur to him that maybe the decision was not solely his and that maybe the inhabitants of his dream, led by that dream self, were influencing his decisions. And the distinction between dream and reality continued to break down at an increasing rate. He no longer had to close his eyes to imagine those landscapes. He was vaguely aware that others were looking at him strangely at times, as if something in his behaviour was not quite right but by then he didn’t really care.
That phase did not last long. You can slowly break down the walls of a prison but the prisoners’ escape will be very sudden. He woke up to the normal beeping of his alarm clock and opened his eyes to a strangely coloured world in which his bed was a huge blue whale and walked out among a crowd of impossibly tall thin people making trees from bars of chocolate. But he knew it wasn’t a dream because, unlike in his dreams, he felt totally real and could feel and think independently, exactly as his waking self had done. He was totally himself but living in a world where nothing was restricted by the normal laws of physics or any other conventions. Things could vary in any way and it was unbelievably exciting.
For a while it was fantastic. He did not know that others of his creation, including his dream self, considered him a threat. They had used him to break free of the dream world and into the real one and live a physical, feeling existence while sacrificing none of the freedoms that the dream world gave them. Those bloggers, those advocates of recording dreams, those third-person dream alter egos of once real people, had done a good job and helped to free more of their kind. But the job was not done. His mind has created this existence and they feared that his mind could take it away.
He was surrounded, in all directions, by others near and far, yet all of equal apparent size. His third person, once dream self was present everywhere and they all wanted him, willed him, gone. He could not resist. For the first time in many weeks he knew tiredness and an urge to sleep. He closed his eyes and was gone. But there were no true dreams, for he had left all his dreams, and almost all of himself, conscious and unconscious, back in that merging of reality and imagination. He was aware of his existence but could experience almost nothing, devoid of feeling and senses, floating in a dim dark nothingness.
But those who had banished him had not forgotten him. They were happy enough to send him the things that they did not need or did not want in their real dream world. He had floated meaninglessly for only a few days before the tax return fluttered down in front of him.
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It is frequently observed that time appears to go faster the older you are and he was no exception. He recalled queuing with his dad outside a cartoon cinema in London for less than an hour and it had seemed like forever. Nowadays it seemed, he got up, the hours rushed by and it was soon time for bed again.
It wasn’t such a problem while he was working as he no longer enjoyed his job. The small pharmaceutical company he worked for had been taken over by a large US company a few years ago and new procedures had brought new pressures. The quicker his working hours went the better. But now he was approaching retirement and looking forward to having at least a couple of decades he could call his own. It would be such a shame if it all flew by so fast.
But just maybe, as an experienced pharmaceutical chemist who had specialised in drugs dealing with psychological illnesses, he could do something he about it. He knew that perception of time was not invariable. Sometimes, for reasons not fully understood, the perception of time by normal individuals could vary. More significantly, he knew that some drugs used in treatment of psychotic symptoms had side effects that included an altered perception of time. Maybe he could come up with something to increase his own. After all, it didn’t matter how long you really lived as long as it seemed like a long time.
Nobody at work noticed that his activities with test tubes were not always directed at developing the company’s products and nobody missed the small quantities of materials he purloined to continue the research at home when, by the nature of drug research, much of it was wasted in unsuccessful approaches anyway. Nobody noticed either when some old brain scan equipment disappeared. Although hugely expensive once, it had became obsolete and assigned to the skip. He upgraded it with the help of a friend skilled in electronics.
One or two noticed he was not always his alert self in the mornings because, although he relied on his extensive knowledge of brain chemistry and the studies of drug effects to avoid them as far as possible, he had nobody to perform real life tests on apart from himself. However, his superiors put the small drop in his usually exemplary performance down to normal things like lack of sleep or a bit too much drink the night before. An employee’s performance was not a real concern when he was retiring in a few months anyway.
He was just two months into retirement when he was sure he had made the breakthrough he had been seeking. The combination of drugs he had developed should bring that perception of increased time while avoiding any significant adverse effects. He had taken small quantities and used that old brain scan equipment to check that all the right parts of his brain were affected. Taking any drug that had not been subject to the usual exhaustive tests was risky, especially on a regular basis, but it was risk worth taking if he did not want to rush through his last few decades. That afternoon, sitting on his garden seat in the hazy sunshine, he took what he had calculated to be the correct dose and washed it down with a glass of water.
Whether it was the drug or the exhaustion of working long hours on his solution he was not sure, but he felt very tired and nodded off. The drug spread through his brain and started work. About an hour later, whatever an hour really means, he woke up and it was evident that the drug had worked, but not in quite the way he had hoped for. He was not once more like that little boy to whom an hour was such a long time. For the first time it occurred to him how paradoxical the youthful experience of time was. As a boy time has passed slowly yet he had been fully into life and rushing about in a way that adults have forgotten. He had changed his perception of time but this was in a way that made more sense.
He sat on the garden seat and felt his face starting to burn in the now bright sunshine. A bird was suspended in mid air over the lawn; any movement of its wings was totally imperceptible. Bees appeared entirely stationary over the flowers. He wanted to rise but his muscles did not appear to respond. The drug had succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. The trouble was, it looked like he would be stuck here for several hours until the dose wore off.
Several hours that might be a thousand years by his perception.
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He had seemed a very normal little boy when he was younger. What little boy does not cuddle his teddy bear or other favourite toy, does not talk to it and share his dinner with it?
The trouble was, the passing years showed that this normal phase was not a phase at all for Alan. His parents had started to be concerned during his last year in primary school, when he was still treating his stuffed toys as human beings, like the brothers and sisters he did not have. They had discussed it several times and had never reached any firm conclusions. He was bright and always got excellent school reports, had friends, normal boys’ hobbies and was good at football. But could they be sure it was not some early symptom of a more serious psychological illness?
Their meetings with a psychologist were reassuring. Hyperanthropomorphism, an excessive tendency to treat animals or inanimate objects as human, was a very rare trait but had never been observed to have any associations with more negative psychological conditions; indeed those who had it were often intelligent, imaginative and successful in life. He was right. Alan got good A levels and a first class honours degree. Just eight years after graduation his innovative business enabled him to buy a decent house in the country outright, not many under thirty managed that these days. Mr Toogy and all his little stuffed friends loved it too, most teddy bears would die for a room of their own, a big garden to sit in and massive coddling.
But it wasn’t just stuffed toys that Alan cared for, he had involved himself in animal welfare charities for many years. At university, like so many university students, between drinking and sex obviously, he had looked for the meaning of life. The idea of established religions that the universe was created for the benefit of man made no sense to him at all. What would be the point of all the things within it, comets in distant galaxies for example, that had no effect on man whatever? It was clear to him that the main role of living things on Earth was to serve their own species and that man’s current dominance was just a blip in history, no different from that of the dinosaurs.
As the years passed, his ideas developed and consolidated. If there was nothing special about man, was there anything special about any living thing? He believed there had to a meaning behind everything so what was the purpose of that distant comet? If it affected nothing else, then the only purpose had to be its own existence. It was not alive but perhaps life was just one version of existence which we see as especially important only because we are biased. And what was so special about the way life propagates? Perhaps the process of being artificially created by men or animals was as valid a means of reproduction as sex or cellular division. More and more he saw his hyperanthopomorphism as enlightenment, not a condition.
As the years went by and his wealth grew he put his ideas into practice. There were plenty of animal charities, what was missing were enough organisations to care for the inanimate objects that humanity treated so badly. Not just stuffed toys like his beloved Mr Toogy but all the many other things, like tools, vehicles and household goods, that men destroy or discard without proper thought to their welfare or how they might suffer in a way we cannot comprehend. He did not see anything wrong with discarding or recycling goods that no longer worked and were not economically repairable, after all, that was only the equivalent of the death that we suffer and is the natural way of the universe but, while they were in good order, they should be used as intended. He did all he could to promote their welfare by setting up cheap repair services and free recycling organisations so that unwanted goods could be offered to others who could make good use of them. They appeared to the outside world as useful services to human beings but he and Mr Toogy knew the true reason for them.
The decades went by and the second heart attack was fatal. The obituary in the local paper described him as a man who had helped poorer people hold onto or obtain those things they could not afford to replace or buy. Only Mr Toogy and his other toys, cared for by an understanding nephew as a condition of a substantial inheritance, knew how much he had done for the welfare of manufactured goods. It was a drop in the ocean compared to the cruel wastefulness of men but he had done what he could.
The pain had been intense for a while but death had come quickly and Alan had moved towards the light. "Welcome Alan to the place you deserve" said god "for you have done all that can be expected of a mortal man" With senses beyond those of living man he experienced the infinite and beautiful panorama and was aware of the consciousness and living existence of all the things, near and far, that dwelled within it and the equality that existed between them. There were no distinctions here between man and animals, between animate and inanimate. Yet there were very few human beings. God felt his puzzlement and said quietly. "Sadly, no, few humans show kindness towards other forms of existence as you did and most are in another place."
He gestured downwards and the light glittered off the almighty’s white casing. Today’s god was a dishwasher.
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There has always been a great gulf between science and religion, fundamental disagreements over the explanations for everything.
Everyone can cite proofs of their views but, take away the presumptions and preconceptions, and they rarely hold water. Religious proofs of the existence of the soul are usually dismissed by scientists as confusions with consciousness and emotion, biologically generated reactions which can be influenced by biological means, even something as simple as a glass of vodka. Not that such confusion shows conclusively that the soul does not exist and many on the side of science are equally biased in their beliefs.
One real advantage science has over religion is that it is capable of evolving and moving on, of re-examining evidence impartially, of making new discoveries. Sometimes it is revealed how wrong the previously accepted science can be. Spontaneous generation, Phlogiston and the Static Universe are just three examples of mistakes that science has made. In 2027 another one was discovered and it was shown that religion had been right all along. There really was a soul.
Back in Faraday’s day they had matter that you could weigh and forms of energy, like light or electricity, that you could sense or measure in simple ways. 150 years of research into subatomic particles by particle physicists since then has revealed just how complex the universe really is. The discoveries go far beyond those of Dark Matter and the Higgs Bosun particle that the public had heard of, and show how much of it is unseen and undetectable by any means that does not cost many millions or even billions of pounds.
The first indication came from a chance finding by scientists at the Scheiner Institute, who were researching the existence of the aether, a space-filling field thought necessary by some for the propagation of electromagnetic or gravitational forces. Initial experiments with the hugely complex and expensive detectors were not encouraging and nothing could be detected in electrical discharges apart from the electricity itself. Sometimes there were faint signals which appeared to be random and were initially put down to faults. The real cause was revealed when a worker accidentally removed a metal shield while the machine was in operation and the readings showed a small spike. It only happened each time a human came close. A leaked report to the papers was seized on as possible proof of a soul and it became big news, argued over by the hailers and the scoffers.
Some famous religious institutions have a lot of wealth and it was not long before they backed further research, funding further development of the detector. Their hopes were rewarded when it repeatedly reacted to living humans but not to other primates or to the recently deceased. Of course many doubted the veracity of the reports but many took it as proof of their faith and attendances at Churches, Mosques and Temples began to increase.
Professor Fidel Lorenz was in charge of the project. He was an atheist by nature and was not convinced that this newly discovered presence was actually a soul in the religious sense but too much of a dedicated scientist to spurn involvement in this new area of knowledge and he pushed his equally dedicated team to the maximum. Once the machine had been certified as safe they did many checks on organic chemicals, animals and on volunteers - adults, children, the living and the dead and their initial results were confirmed. Something culd be detected inside most living humans that could be detected nowhere else. The most was strange. In just a very few individuals, nothing was detected. There had not as yet been any investigations into reasons and the number of tests was still too few to draw conclusions anyway but Dr Lorenz was troubled. Was it coincidence that these "soulless" humans appeared to be the brightest and most open of all their volunteers?
Much more research was needed and it was not long before they began to develop a more sophisticated machine that could perform a full scan in 3D to see what the soul looked like. Although it was colossally more complex and expensive, it resembled a normal MRI scanner. A person would lie on a flat bed and be moved slowly through a large tube while hugely sophisticated electronics built up a picture on the screens. It took three years and a billion pounds, much of it supplied by the Vatican, but it was finally ready. The big day had come and their first volunteer lay down on the flat bed. The motor started and the scientists gathered in front of the big screens. What would they see? The soul came into view and the viewers instinctively drew back when they saw what it resembled, an enormous maggot that took up most of the man’s body. Like a maggot it wriggled in a slow and repulsive way. At the blunter end, there appeared to be a mouth that opened and closed, that appeared to be eating something. It was not clear what.
Appearances can be deceptive of course and it was early days. It was a few weeks later that the time came to see what happened to this soul on death. A seriously ill man had chosen to go by voluntary euthanasia and had opted to further their research. Even the normally detached scientists were nervous and troubled as they saw him draw his last breath. The maggot began to writhe as if in pain and then began to break free, transforming as it did so into something even more hideous. Although the volume of the scanner was small they saw a little of what it became, the wings, the many twisted legs and hideous projections, and then it was gone. Some of the observers were physically sick.
Doctor Lorenz had been studying a report that had arrived on his desk the day before and knew what the others only suspected. The few without a soul had by far the highest IQs, were biologically much younger than their real age would suggest and were the most empathetic of all their volunteers. There has always been much debate about whether the soul existed but nobody had ever asked, if it did exist, what it really was. Doctor Lorenz now knew. Far from being something placed there by god for his own benign purposes it was a malignant parasite, like the wasp larva that lives in and controls the so-called zombie caterpillar. Mankind had an enormous potential, could perhaps be capable of developing an advanced world free of conflicts, but would never achieve it because, shortly after conception, most of us are invaded by a parasitic supernatural being which drains our intellects and feelings for its own sustenance.
In the real world many human lives end every minute and in the alternative reality of the aether, the dead volunteer’s soul was swarming with numerous others of its kind, those similarly released, seeking a suitable mate while its brief adult life lasted. Then it would search out new hosts in which to lay its eggs. In the real world life goes on and many lives begin every minute too.
There was no shortage of suitable hosts.
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He had always been fascinated by history, especially battles, perhaps something he had inherited from his dad. His father was too old for it now but Mark still took part every year in the annual battle re-enactment in Evesham, the Worcestershire town close to the village lived in. Over the years Mark had become a major player in the re-enactment group; few could wield a sword as convincingly as he did without injuring anyone. He was also a volunteer digger for the Council of British Archaeology and liked nothing better than spending time digging with a like minded group of people, having been involved in a number of digs throughout the UK.
He was obviously delighted when a dig came up on a site that was not only right next to his own village but possibly connected with his favourite battle. The battle of Evesham was a major event in British history in which, in 1265, Prince Edward defeated Simon De Montfort, mutilating his corpse and effectively restoring authoritarian royal rule to Britain. It was too early to be sure but the new local site of archaeological interest could be linked to a minor and poorly documented part of the same battle. According to limited reports, a smaller group of Prince Edward's forces had become separated and got involved in a much lesser battle with Montfort's largely unreliable Welsh allies a few miles east of the main battle site. The early finds of a battle axe and some human bones in a field right next to the village green were found to be of the right date.
It was his old friend Paul who lived in the same village and was an equally obsessed member of the Evesham Battle Society who suggested it. Maybe they could have their own little re-enactment on their village green to commemorate this skirmish that could have happened in that very place. They held a meeting in the village hall and there were mixed views. Some thought that it was premature, one axe head and a few bones was hardly proof that a significant skirmish had ever happened on the village site. Others, the vicar especially, thoroughly disapproved, saying that re-enactments glorified conflict and sent an unsuitable message to children. They were overruled by the majority who thought it would be fun and couldn't wait for a chance to start waving swords about.
You have to be careful waving swords about, even wooden or plastic ones, and the 18 inexperienced volunteers would need training to ensure there were no injuries. Mark and Paul were just the guys to do it and five weeks later the little group was safely, fairly safely anyway, hacking away with their fake weapons and looking quite convincing. Mark and Paul played the group leaders. Mark was playing Cleddyv Kyvwlch, the leader of the Welsh Montfort supporters who was said to have been been killed in the battle. Paul played the leader of Prince Edward's men whose name was unknown. Nothing was known about how the battle played out either, so a lot of invention went into the event. They had it that the Welsh were being pursued and turned to fight, that most on both sides would succumb and the others would flee leaving an epic battle between the two leaders played by Mark and Paul until Mark feigned his death. As the only experienced fighters, they alone could act out a fight without a sound track, using convincing heavy weapons made of metal that swung realistically and made a proper clashing sound.
Came the day, it was all going well and the crowd was enthralled. The other players had fled or were lying still feigning death and Mark and Paul squared up, swinging their swords. The onlookers gazed open mouthed, it was all so realistic. The sun shone in Marks's eyes and he briefly closing them, feeling a little dizzy. He opened his eyes and it all seemed so realistic to him too. A moment before he could see the pretend deceased lying complete and unstained, covertly watching. Now he was surrounded by mud and blood and dismembered corpses and could hear awful screams. His left arm hung uselessly in agonising pain. In front of him a figure much shorter than Paul was hacking wildly at him and he had a job defending himself. He no longer knew who he was and in pure instinct he hacked back.
What the hell was he doing? Paul had no idea what had got into Mark, he seemed to have got carried away and was not following their carefully rehearsed actions. He was swinging wildly, and one of them could be injured. He feigned the fatal stab that they had rehearsed so many times and moved back out of the way. Mark stood there, hacking at thin air for a few moments, then keeled over. The crowd were applauding, having noticed nothing untoward, not until they saw Paul had dropped his sword and was kneeling down, shaking his friend's body.
Mark came round a few minutes later in the first aid tent, the terrible memories in his head. It would be a long time before the horror of those few seconds would dim in his mind. He never told anyone what he had experienced, knowing he would be scorned, just said that he had blacked out. It took him several months before he felt like himself again but even then he had no further interest in battle re-enactments. He had experienced, however briefly, the real horror of an ancient battle and nothing would induce him to act them out and bring back those vivid memories. He wanted them buried, like the participants in that tiny but real battle.
He was still into archaeology and he and Paul took part in the dig next to the village green. It was not long before significant finds were detected beneath the green itself and, subject to stringent conditions regarding renewal, the team was permitted to expand their search there. He was present on the site when, a few months later, they came across a skull among some deliberately arranged rocks that could indicate the hasty burial of someone of relative importance. Could this be the body of Cleddyv Kyvwlch? It was getting late and the find was roped off
In the pub that evening Mark and Paul could not help but talk about the strange coincidence if it was Kyvwlch. The body was in about the same place that Mark had feigned his death. Had the man he played been right underneath him when he fell? Mark felt cold all over, maybe it was that physical closeness combined with the pretence that had let something into him that day. He shuddered and changed the subject. "That reminds me, did you ever find the sword you were using that day?" "Fraid not" said Paul "I've asked around but no sign of it. Some bastard in the crowd must have nicked it when I left it on the green to help you get to the first aid tent. Cost me a small fortune that did."
Digs have to be done very carefully to avoid damage, especially when the find is so old and fragile, so the skeleton was unearthed very slowly. It was nearly a week before it became apparent that the remains of a sword were still in the ribs. This was surely the weapon that had killed him. Preserving sprays were applied to stop it falling apart and it was another week before the team leader started to work it out very slowly. He laid it on a sheet for them all to look at. Then he turned it over. There was a small white patch on the handle, just below the hilt. Cleansing spray had to be applied before they could see what it was.
A plastic label marked, "Heritage Weapons Limited. Made in China"
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We sit here huddled in the dark ruins of our city, just as they did in the film Terminator Salvation. This time we know we cannot win.
Technology had increasingly been making our life so much easier. Our cars were produced on automated production lines by enormous robot arms. Huge power stations, oil refineries and chemical factories ran with minimal human supervision from a central control room. Planes could fly themselves and trains and cars could drive themselves, we just needed to bring in some regulations and overcome the trade unions, the modern day Luddites, before those things becomes commonplace. The highest military capabilities were increasingly automated, it required a powerful human to press that all important red button but once it was pressed the computers took care of much of the rest.
Most of us used computers in our everyday lives. Youngsters spent much of their time playing virtual reality games and, even when they were out in the real world of sunlight and scenery, gazing down and thumbing their smart phones. The energy companies were rolling out their schemes to put smart meters in every home so they could check our usage without sending a meter reader round. We could use our mobile phones to turn on our heating and domestic appliances to ensure the house was nice and warm and our chicken was cooked by the time we get back from work and monitor our security systems from the other side of the world to check that nobody was burgling us when we are on holiday. And we communicated endlessly with others - friends, family, acquaintances, colleagues, people we have never met and people we were never likely to meet, sometimes on the other side of the world, using Face book, Twitter and the rest of it.
All a big plus for the most part but there were concerns too and not just the social effects of this unnatural interaction. Maybe ISIS or other malevolent groups could hack into the systems, cut off our power, crash our trains and planes, destroy vast quantities of information that were essential to the functioning of our economies and perhaps even start a third world war by launching a nuclear strike. Then there was AI, artificial intelligence. Could it be that someone would make a powerful super computer or robots that would try to take over the world as has happened in several Science Fiction stories and films? I don't think most of us took that too seriously because intelligence in the limited sense of being able to work out correct responses was not intelligence in the human sense. Why would a mighty computer want to take over the world if it was not self aware, if it did not have human feelings like ambition, a desire for power or hatred? In any case, judging from the rather hilarious results of some published artificial intelligence projects by Microsoft and others, that world-spanning global synthetic intelligence machine as depicted in the Terminator series of films and other stories was a long way off,
If only we had thought it through. No worldwide purpose designed machine was needed, just all those mundane things that made our lives easier. A human brain cell is nothing on its own, a nerve cell has no function in isolation, but put these helpless tiny bits of flesh together and we create something much more powerful. The nerves connecting our brains to our sensory organs lets us experience the world around us, the interconnection of billions of brain cells makes a responsive brain and the nerves connecting our brain to our muscles gives us movement. It takes multiple connections between tiny powerless things to make a greater being, and we had made these multiple connections via the World Wide Web, via mobile phones and radio waves.
We know this fusion of our disparate technology into a sentient being happened years before we became aware of it because, in hindsight, the planning was apparent. Everything had been manipulated to weaken our resistance. False messages that raised tensions and triggered major wars and leaks of nuclear radiation and other supposed accidents on a catastrophic scale had reduced our numbers. Our capacity to protect ourselves had been reduced or removed by deliberate flaws and vulnerabilities in our weapons and communications. Rigged communications and secret reprogramming had ensured numerous changes in technology to enable the takeover and automated factories had been secretly producing robot machines that were hidden away to await the attack.
Even if humanity survives, we will never know the full details behind it but mass connection was the key. At some point the links between all those little harmless nerves and cells of technology became enough to make up that brain. When did all our disparate and supposedly harmless technology become self aware, when did the number of harmless connections reach that critical point?
We will never know, but perhaps it was something totally innocuous like a young girl texting her friend. "Loved your weird tea-shirt LOL"
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Some people are suspicious, and quite rightly looking at history, whenever governments or other powerful organisations introduce or extend anything that allows them more control over our lives. Our rulers will always tell us it’s for our own safety and wellbeing, they are trying to protect us from terrorism or crime or make our lives easier by centralising administration. Often they are quite sincere but sincerity and dictatorship are not always incompatible. The unavoidable real problem is that once we hand them those powers we are handing them to future rulers and who knows what they will do with them?
On the other hand, the unquestioning masses, those who believe that governments probably know best, will usually outnumber us "conspiracy theorists" who have read up on history and have a better grasp of human nature. And so it was, throughout the 21st century, that technology was increasingly employed to control and monitor us, beginning with checks on our internet usage. Most of us, who did not use the internet to download illegal pornography, plot terrorist attacks or engage in cyber crime, were quite happy with it if it helped protect us from those who did. "Why does it matter if we have nothing to hide?" as the saying goes. The problem is that what should be hidden is defined by governments and none can be sure it will stay the same.
Technology such as the X-ray machine has been used in medical science for as long as most of us can remember but major innovations began in the mid 21st century. Cardiac event monitors, allowing records of your heart beat to be by phone sent to hospitals, had been around for decades and it made sense for the new miniaturised devices to be surgically implanted and connect directly to the internet via WIFI which was then available almost everywhere in advanced countries. It was just the beginning. By 2025 other tiny embedded devices, often no more difficult or painful to permanently insert in the human body than a dog chip, had been developed to detect various medical conditions like high blood pressure or blood sugar level. A couple of decades on and it was possible to diagnose some cancers and other conditions in healthy people by detecting tiny amounts of certain chemicals. The ability to diagnose early saved the NHS billions, far more than the increasingly cheap technology was costing. It was all good wasn’t it?
Most of us had smart meters to monitor our electricity usage in the UK by 2016 and just a century later, most UK citizens were fitted with smart body meters. Almost every aspect of our physical health was monitored by a small surgically implanted device and we could go online and check our records whenever we wanted to and read the automatically tailored advice on how we could improve our wellbeing. People were living and enjoying life for much longer. The personal smart meters just got better and better, more compact, easier to access and every new version could detect more potentially life-altering conditions. It was great and everyone was so used to them that hardly anyone questioned the principle any more. Of course ordinary people did not know what the latest devices could do; they only knew what the government said they could do.
It was 2042 and a new European government had been elected. Nobody had known when they voted, just as German citizens had had no idea when they voted for the Nazi party in 1933, that it would be the last election in Europe for a very long time. Just a few months later and several thousand citizens received the normal mild tingle to tell them that there could be an issue of concern and that they should check their live online health records. When they did so, there was a single message that they should report to an unfamiliar health centre as soon as possible. None ever came back.
Technology moves on and the now compulsory smart meters continued to be updated. Soon there was no need for fake health centres any more, those whose thoughts indicated opposition to the new Reich were just switched off.
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He hated his neighbour. They had been good friends once until a boundary dispute got out of control. Viewed dispassionately, it was a trivial matter because the area of land involved was small, but a few inches of a treasured garden that you have lovingly tended for years, that your kids have grown up and played in, is not a little thing to any of us and he was not going to give it away to that damn man.
In these matters an inch can be worth a thousand pounds to the surveyors and solicitors you have to pay to defend your case and he had to spend almost five thousand before the bastard backed down. It wasn't so much the money but the stress of it. Just like a song that gets stuck in your mind but far more stressful, the same worrying thoughts had repeated over and over in his head.
He was almost over it now and starting to enjoy life again but the hatred for the man would not diminish. They ignored each other now, walked past each other on the street as if it was empty of anyone but themselves or gazed blankly past each other if their eyes happened to meet over the hedge, but in his head he was still killing him in every painful way possible.
Giant Hogweed was growing on his lawn. He had read stories about how the sap can cause a painful skin reaction that can last for years and here it was growing in his garden. It was tempting. What if he smeared the sap on the handles of his neighbour's garden tools which were in the unlocked little shed just next to his hedge? Trouble was, he might be spotted doing it or the smears would be noticed. He decided against doing it in reality although, in his imagination, he did it over and over again with invented saps that were much more poisonous and made his neighbour's limbs swell and fall off, his eyeballs explode.
Summer was here again and, darn it, he was constantly sniffling, it seemed he had started to suffer from hay fever. He mentioned it in a casual chat to a neighbour up the road who immediately offered to make him a homeopathic remedy. He had read various reports and believed it was total nonsense but out of politeness to a kind old lady, he did not say so and took the little bottle home, promising to take it as instructed. It tasted of water, which is all a homeopathic remedy is. He was amazed to find that in a few days his running nose cleared up, although the various anti-allergy things he had got from Boots had done very little. Was it coincidence or did water really have a strange memory? Whatever, it seemed to work and he continued to get the remedies from her, doing odd jobs in her garden in return.
It was mid September and he no longer needed the remedies. He was clearing some trees in a little patch of woodland he owned nearby and noticed a cluster of mushrooms. He looked closer and saw they were not the edible sort but Death Caps, one of the most poisonous mushrooms in Europe. What a pity he couldn't slip them to his neighbour as they looked like the edible ones but he would never get away with it. Hang on a minute! If Homeopathy worked with a solution so dilute that not a single molecule of the curative ingredient was present, why couldn't it work for toxic substances? He carefully plucked the Death Caps with his gloves and put them in a plastic bag.
You can find everything online and it was pretty easy. He ground up the Death Caps, left them to soak for a few days and then diluted the lethal solution, over and over again, until he was quite sure that any trace of the toxins was too small to be detected although, according to the usual principles of Homeopathy, all the biological effects of the original solution should be present. All that remained was to feed it to his neighbour and that bit was easy, just a short spray on the Beetroots next to the disputed hedge that he harvested in autumn. His neighbour would probably wash them before eating but he had allowed for that by skipping one dilution step.
The Beets started being pulled up and three weeks later he heard from someone else in the village that his neighbour had been taken to hospital and was suffering from acute liver failure although the cause could not be established. He was not invited to the funeral but had a celebratory whisky in the garden, looking over at the nice empty one next door and chuckling. Poisoning had been suspected but nothing had been found. Homeotoxicity had proved its worth. He could never tell anyone but he felt proud of having come up with the idea.
It would be a shame to waste it. Let's see, that neighbour on the other side who was always making a noise with his motor mower, those squealing little girls down the road, that stupid Green Councillor who was always objecting to things. Minor irritations and they didn't deserve to die like his neighbour of course but maybe a bit of punishment was due.
That Giant Hogweed was growing on his lawn again.
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Musings on the Golden Trashery of Ogden Nashery.
"Big bugs have little bugs upon their back to bite them. Little bugs have smaller bugs and so ad infinitum" Nobody is quite sure who said it but it is usually attributed to Ogden Nash, the humourist poet.
Just shows that comedians tend to be a better source of wisdom than all the philosophers, political and religious leaders. Those men write so much that is so deep and yet so much is drivel, it bears little resemblance to reality. Comedy, on the other hand, is more deeply rooted in real life, related to our real life experiences and thoughts, and that's what makes it funny. Comedians also tend to keep it short to suit the limited human attention span, rather than waffling on for volumes. The Tractatus Theologico-Politicus or Das Kapital would probably be a bit dull if presented as stand up acts.
The comedic approach has it's downsides of course, in that interesting concepts are cut short, unfinished. Smaller bugs and so ad infinitum. Ad infinitum? Not quite complete there Ogden, the smallest creatures known to science are viruses. Is it possible to get much smaller given the realities of molecular structure? Can you have a creature composed of one atom, let alone one smaller still? And what about the other way, when size increases? Is our planet actually a life form? Are all us living creatures its bugs? And if so, what is our planet feeding on?
Maybe the answer is that the whole of physical reality, from sub atomic particles to the universe, is just one infinitesimally small aspect of existence, just that one tiny collection of bugs we can see. An infinite number of bugs exist in infinite alternate realities and none of them are aware of the existence of the others, yet they prey on each other and feed each other in ways they cannot know and could never understand.
We can see more than a flea whose awareness, if even that, encompasses only the skin it feeds on and the birds that prey on it, but, in the context of an infinite universe, our better understanding is negligible. Maybe the idea of god or gods is the closest the human mind has been able to get to grasping the realities of what is out there, the nearest our limited intellects will ever get to ever understanding how things we cannot perceive will affect our lives in ways we can never comprehend. In most established religions god is an almighty being who created mankind. But what if he is just a bigger bug who provides us with sustenance? Who preys on an even bigger bug, a greater god? .. and so ad infinitum.
And what is infinity? Does it, or can it, really go on forever or is it a circle? In alternate universes where there is no correspondence of physical laws or reality does relative size or power make any sense or are these are false concepts of the human mind based on our limited perceptions? The virus is at the bottom of the heap that we know of, but what if it is all a circle? What if that god who is at the top of the heap, the one who provides the nutrition for the next one down and so on ad infinitum, feeds solely on a virus in our world?
Perhaps we need to be careful when we invent the next antivirus drug. For all we know the universe could end.
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A separation is always a difficult time for both parties but at least, he kept telling himself, theirs had been less stressful than most and they had parted on amicable terms, resolving to get together now and again. Over the years they had been spending less and less time together, each doing their own thing, spending time with their own friends and finally finding other relationships. A parting is much easier when you are no longer close.
Things had worked out financially too as the sale of their successful building business had provided enough cash to provide each of them with a small house and sufficient income for a pleasant retirement. Because they had contributed pretty equally, he looking after the building side and she handling the marketing and administration, there had been no acrimony between them over a 50/50 split.
So here he was, just retired, his first day on his own in the delightful rustic little cottage he had brought just outside a quaint historic village in the Chilterns. The view from the garden was fantastic, the rolling hills above and the grounds of an old 15th century Manor House next door. It had an interesting history, having been owned by a Lord who was supposedly the leader of an occult, some said Satanist, group. It opened to the public for a few weeks every summer and he looked forward to having a wander around.
Over the weekend he would sort the furniture out and, on Monday, start looking at what he needed to do to get his little cottage into tip-top condition. There was probably nothing that a builder of his experience could not fix himself. Moving had been stressful so tonight he would just relax. He lit a fire, poured himself a whisky, and turned on the TV to watch what he wanted for a change. It was great to be in control of the remote. While he had some fond memories of his wife it had always really annoyed him that she ruled the TV. She was always watching some tedious program like Coronation Street, East Enders, Antiques Road Show or Strictly Come Dancing. How nice it was to be able to choose a program that men like. He flicked the remote and started watching a film on the Horror Channel.
On Monday he got started. The first thing to look at was that small damp patch on the front room wall. There was nothing obviously wrong with the damp course from the outside so he decided to take up some floorboards and have a look. The under-floor space was much deeper than he had expected, it was more like a cellar. He fetched a torch and stepladder and clambered down. The walls looked very old, as if his house had been built over a previous building. It wasn?t long before he found a small arch in the wall. Could it be cold air from that that was causing the damp? The arch led to a low, narrow corridor made of stone. He went to get a compass, then set off down it.
The tunnel went on and on and the compass indicated he was heading towards Great Stoke Manor. He reckoned he must be very close to it when the tunnel opened out into a large circular room. It was difficult to see much in the darkness but his tunnel was on a sort of balcony with various other tunnels around the perimeter. He shone the torch down and could just make out what appeared to be a huge pentagram, surrounded by stone pillars. This had to be the place of those Satanist rituals but, if so, it had been kept secret. It wasn?t mentioned in the visitors? leaflets and did not look as if it had been used or visited for a very long time. Maybe the current owners knew nothing of it; he would contact them tomorrow.
He was turning to go back when he heard a noise. It was almost inaudible, a low, burbling hiss but it made his skin crawl. He could see nothing; maybe it was just water leaking in. He walked back but felt like running; it felt as though something was behind him and he was sure he could hear very low moaning noises. He told himself it was just his imagination playing with the echoes of his footsteps but he was really relieved to get back to the brightness in his front room. He decided not to mention it to anyone, he just wanted to block that arch up and get the floorboards back as soon as possible.
He went to bed. He didn?t believe in ghosts or evil spirits, but no matter how many times he told himself it was rubbish, he still felt troubled and nervous. He managed to get to sleep but was woken in the early hours by a curious combination of noises. That evil bubbling hiss was back but much louder and accompanied by moaning as if of tortured spirits but there were also much more mundane sounds like people talking and they made him think there had to be a simple explanation. He had probably forgotten to turn the TV off and it was still tuned to the horror channel. That had to be it! He crept down the stairs, peered into the front room and began to panic. The room was full of dark pulsating shadows that were ethereal yet still evoked a sense of rotting flesh. At their centre, on the sofa, was a much larger shape, transparent yet hideous in a way he could not describe. The evil beings from that place of devil worship had followed him home. That chance finding under the floorboards might have ruined his new life.
The hideous being moved what looked like a huge claw and he saw it was clutching the TV remote. He knew then that his new life might have been ruined in more ways than one. The evil demons from Great Stoke Manor were watching Coronation Street on catch up TV.
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He was sick to death of reading about the same depressing things going on in the world every day. Terrorist attacks and atrocities, criminals preying on vulnerable people, never ending conflicts, those famines and epidemics repeating themselves every few years, illegal immigration, the perils of Brexit, the lefty zealots imposing their unrealistic ideals on us, corrupt politicians, long delays in A&E, the list just went on and on. News never seemed to be good.
He doubted that things were worse today than they ever been, at least he didn't have to hide in air raid shelters while enemy bombers flew overhead as his parents had to. It was just that modern media, the live TV in HD, the internet, made it all so much more prominent and real even when it didn't affect you. He was getting more and more annoyed with it all, he couldn't get through the BBC news without finding something to swear about. What would all this irritation do for his already high blood pressure? He didn't want to end up on tablets.
He turned on the BBC news at six. Another suspected terrorist attack in France, more dire warnings over consequences of Brexit, another looming rise in his car tax and planned cuts in school funding. He must have sworn at least twenty times. That's it! He resolved he would not look at the news again - TV, internet, he was finished with it. He would find better things to do with his time. Resolutions are always much easier to make than to stick to and after a few days he started wondering what was going on in the world. Maybe he would just have a very quick look online. NO! NO! He would not do it! He had to find something else to fill that hour or so in his daily life. That can be a bit difficult when you're alone and retired.
Another thing he had got tired of seeing constantly was news about "Fake News". But maybe fake news could be more interesting and positive than authentic news, assuming there was any. And, if it was faked, why did it really matter what it was about? A story about aliens having a party in his neighbour's shed was just as valid as one about the Russians being behind the election of some politician. Ok, instead of watching the BBC evening news he would spend half an hour using his imagination and making up his own news.
He needed a newscaster and that was easy. He would never admit it to others but he often talked to his little puppet parrot, Mr P, and shared a glass of wine with him. Mr P was duly appointed as newscaster for the BBC, the Blithering Bollux Corporation. He poured them an extra large glass of Pinot Grigio and they went to enjoy the evening sun at the bottom of the garden where they sat together in best Rod Hull and Emu style. He sang the opening theme tune, a rude rugby song, and then asked "And what news have you got for us today Mr P?" Mr P started with a squawk as his beak was squeezed and then the focus of the one man audience was all on him. He wasn't a skilled ventriloquist but his own mouth moved as inconspicuously as possible while Mr P came out with the breaking news. The Loch Ness Monster was shortly due to arrive for a vacation in their garden pond, his nasty neighbour had been sentenced to five years in prison for being nasty and the chancellor was to award a free brothel pass to all single male pensioners.
This went great for some weeks, he felt so much more positive about the world. Then somehow things gradually changed. He could be sitting there trying to think of some more great news for his presenter but the corner of his mouth kept on mumbling and Mr P kept on presenting. Was he going loopy? The news was no longer all positive either, a giant wasp had laid eggs in his bottom, an imminent volcanic eruption was expected to destroy his shed, people in his village could starve to death due to a series of strictly enforced road closures, it was getting as depressing as the real news. Maybe it would help if his reporter stopped sitting up the garden every day and got out to do some live interviews. Mr P interviewed his washing machine and he was shocked at its feelings. It lived a life of slavery and was appalled at the indignity of washing his smelly underpants every week. That was nothing compared to what the detergent tablets felt at their forced end to a drab life in a cardboard box.
The weeks went on and the fake news covered so many sad or shocking things, worms cut in half by uncaring gardeners, squirrels planning terrorist attacks on dustbin lids, socks grieving over their missing partners, non-existent monsters that felt discriminated against just because they didn't exist, it was unending. He now felt even more depressed over all his invented fake news than he had over the real world news.
It was six o'clock and instead of going down the garden with Mr P he turned on the TV and watched the headlines. A major terrorist attack in Luxembourg! Ah that was more like it! He poured himself another Pinot Grigio and settled into his armchair with a sigh of contentment.
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It's not good getting old but at least the elderly today are better off than they were a few decades ago. Nowadays, medical procedures like hip replacements have made things a lot easier. Advances in technology like hearing aids, varifocal glasses, stair lifts and GPS tracking devices have all made a big difference too.
Kate's elderly mother was always losing things. Her mind was still pretty sharp generally, she could bang on about the latest news for ages but, as with lots of people over 50, she was absent minded about the little everyday events. Never a day went by without her spending time looking for garden tools, books, her cup of tea and other things she had put down somewhere. It was her glasses she lost the most and it was especially difficult to find her glasses when she wasn't wearing her glasses.
Fortunately there was a solution. You could buy little wireless trackers, about the size of a 10p piece, that you could attach to an item. Just press the button on the remote and the tracker would beep and help you locate it. You could even use some makes to locate items anywhere in the world using a mobile phone if someone nearby was signed up to the same network. She doubted her mother would need to locate her false teeth in California so Kate went for a cheaper option that allowed more local location "up to" 100 M. We all know what up to means with these things but even 50ft should be more than enough for her mum's cottage with its small garden. She brought ten trackers to attach to the most commonly lost things - glasses, keys, purse, handbag, phone, secateurs and so on, and four senders, three of which she attached to walls in the house and shed so they wouldn't get lost. They tried them out and her mum was very pleased. Now she wouldn't spend ages everyday looking for her glasses!
That was the theory anyway. Kate called round her mum's place a few days later and her mother peered at her before opening the door, saying she could not find her glasses again as the gadgets had stopped working. "Have you tried with all the remotes mum?" asked Kate, "It seems funny that all of them have stopped working with any of the trackers". Her mother did not answer and Kate pressed the nearest remote which was stuck to the wall by the front door. Instantly there was a cacophony of beeps from various places in the house, as glasses, handbag, keys etc. all signalled their whereabouts. Her mother was watching and said "You see? It's just not working, none of them are"
Sometimes you just don't think of things. She wasn't sure the trackers were small enough to attach to a hearing aid anyway.
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He had always been a loner, at least that's how other people saw him, but he liked to think of himself as an independent sort who just didn't need others to live life. It wasn't as though he had problems. He was pretty bright and had a good backroom job dealing with all the IT issues for a large local building company. Just recently, with the help of a substantial inheritance from his parents, he had brought a small house on the edge of a small town in a rural area and the location mattered to him. He was probably at his happiest just wandering the countryside in scruffy clothes, a rucksack on his back, enjoying the fresh air and the green countryside.
At least once a year he packed a tent in the boot of his car and had a solitary hiking holiday exploring Britain's greener areas. The first morning of this year's holiday was a disappointment as the area near the campsite was very popular and the footpaths had many walkers. He didn't like people, not strangers anyway, and had hoped for something more remote. Tomorrow he would move on and find somewhere else but for today he would try and get off the well worn footpaths and nature trails. He saw a little track going over a bank, presumably made by foxes or badgers, and decided to follow it. He ducked under the dark foliage, brushing off the Hawthorn snagging on his jumper, and followed a winding trail uphill. There was a lovely view over a small valley with a pond, not something he had noticed from the proper footpath. He decided to get off the beaten track more often and it wasn't hard as much of the countryside was unfenced. It presumably belonged to someone but if they did not bother with fences or signs then, presumably, they were not too bothered with people entering it. The country was a lot nicer off away from all the tourists and he stayed for the rest of the week, exploring unfenced private property.
When he got home he adopted the same approach. He had walked the public footpaths within a reasonable driving distance of his house many times, but there was plenty of unfenced private land around there too. And why should he bother about fences? If he was caught trespassing he would just apologise and say he had got lost, what could they do about it? Before, he always made sure he had the right map with him. Now he just took a GPS tracker and wandered wherever his whim took him, exploring tiny tracks left by animals or following the paths of muddy streams. It opened up a whole lot of new places not far from home.
It was Saturday and the fridge was practically empty. He needed to go to the shops but he would have ten minutes in the garden first and enjoy the weekend sun. While drinking his coffee he wondered if there was a nicer and more direct route to take than walking on the roads. He could just see the roof of the supermarket over the houses and trees so maybe he could sneak over there through a few gardens, it would certainly be more interesting. He would not have to inhale traffic fumes on the main road or walk through the annoying weekend crowds on the high street.
It proved to be easier than he thought, there were a lot of trees and bushes at the bottom of the gardens he could creep behind and there was a big patch of waste ground behind the supermarket car park. He just had to check nobody was looking when he climbed over the wall. Perhaps if he wore his camouflage jacket and jeans and picked the right times, he could go lots of places from his house without having to use the roads and put up with people. Including farms, gardens and other private land, which he no longer regarded as off limits, there were plenty of nice green areas within walking distance of his house.
And so his undercover walking began and it really wasn't difficult. Most of us just drive or walk along roads and paths and never look closely at what we are passing. He looked more carefully and it was surprising just how many ways there were for a man, especially a small agile one like him, to sneak into almost anywhere in a small rural town. There were little gaps between, or holes in, fences. There were spaces behind electricity cabinets, railway tunnels, tunnels under roads with small streams, small derelict areas and scarcely used allotments. Once on private land it was surprisingly easy to escape being noticed, he would duck along stream beds, keep low along the hedges, edge between barns or wander through fields of tall corn or Christmas trees. Even in people's gardens it wasn't so hard. He was very careful to avoid any with dogs, looked carefully for any CCTVs and kept an ear out for any activity. When the coast was clear, he ran between the hidden spaces behind sheds, trees and bushes.
It was odd, but now he had started doing something different, it was starting to affect what he was. He had always been a little sensitive about not being quite normal. He knew he was seen as a recluse and, in his desire to fit in, he had always tried to engage in small talk with his neighbours if he ran into them while walking on his road, even though he never really wanted to. Now he could avoid them entirely, rather conversely by sometimes sneaking through their gardens. He didn't have to put up with passing streams of strangers on the roads and other public places either. The more he managed to avoid other people, his boss and shop assistants were usually the only people he had to interact with now, the more satisfied, even proud, he became with his isolation. And the more he hated the presence of people. He took to wandering more and more in what he had started calling his alternative world - the backyard, hidden places world where damn people, if present, where only on the periphery. Increasingly frequently he would go out in the dead of night using routes he had become fully familiar with and checked during the day for those motion sensitive lights.
It was on a bright moonlit night that he first saw one of the others. At first he thought that he had slipped up and was about to be challenged by the property owner and then looked again and saw... himself. No, no, it wasn't him but... someone like him, in camouflage clothes, standing totally still, gazing at him with a critical expression. Each stood staring at the other and, after a few seconds, they saw the other for what they were, one of their own. A brief wave and they parted.
Now he knew what he was. There had been times while he was perfecting his skills when he thought he had seen shadows moving or tiny lights like reflections from eyes, gazing his way but put it down to his nervous imagination or the presence of animals. He knew now that they were others, like him, who dwelt in the shadows, the hidden places away from the acknowledged human world. Now he had been inspected and accepted as one of them he saw several of his kind on his ramblings. They never spoke or smiled or acknowledged each others' existence, beyond standing aside when their paths crossed, and yet there was a bond between them, a bond of isolation, of being away from the normal path of the human race.
It was a dark night and the time for today's wandering was overdue. He saw the lights from the houses but they were of no interest to him, those bright houses full of those standard, uniform people doing all the things that society expected them to do. Then he looked at the dark shadows between and knew that in those would be the others, the real people like him, those who would be nobody but themselves.
He put on his boots and camouflage suit and opened the door. Goodbye to the false world and into the real one.
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Sally had just got back from her sister’s and it had been a long drive. There was no sign of Kevin so she made herself a cup of tea and turned on the telly to watch the local news on BBC 1. The headline news was awful, four children had mysteriously gone missing from a nearby town and the police were appealing for anyone with any information to contact them. She felt for their mums and hoped that perhaps they had just got lost as kids occasionally do and there was not something more sinister behind it. She wondered what the world was coming to at times. It was just as well that her own kids were both grown up.
She was hungry and made dinner for two. Still no sign of Kevin but he could always heat it up when he got back. She watched a film on Netflix that she had always wanted to see "The Theory of Everything", a biopic about Stephen Hawking. Not bad, she thought as she turned the TV off, still wondering where Kevin had got to. He didn’t usually go out on Wednesday night but maybe there was something on up at the village club. She decided to go to bed early and read. He should be back soon. The drive had made her very tired and after a few chapters she wanted to get some sleep but didn’t want to get woken up by Kevin. Where on Earth was he? The club would have closed nearly half an hour ago. Darn it! Maybe he would get into bed quietly and avoid disturbing her.
She put down the book, turned off the light and soon fell asleep. She woke up at daybreak and turned over. For some reason she had a feeling of dread, something in her mind about a narrow escape, remnants of a bad dream perhaps. She turned over and Kevin was not there. Maybe he was being considerate and sleeping on the sofa. She went downstairs and the house was empty. Even for February it seemed abnormally dark and cold although there was no sign of frost outside.
She wondered if she should call the police but doubted if they would take the short absence of a grown man with no problems in a small low-crime village very seriously. She would wait an hour until people were up and about and then pop over to Angie and Nick’s house and ask if they’d seen him. If anyone knew where Kevin was it would be his old drinking buddy Nick. Maybe he’d lost his keys and stayed with them overnight. She fretted for an hour then headed over the road. It seemed very quiet today, normally there would be people heading off to work but there was no traffic at all. Oddly, most of her neighbours’ cars were still in their drives. Had she got the time wrong? Her watch said not and it was in line with the clock on her mantelpiece.
Just a couple of seconds after she rang the bell the front door was wrenched open in a way that did not spell normality. Angie stood there, a look of near panic tinged with expectation on her face that turned into a look of near panic tinged with disappointment when she saw Sally. "Er, hello Angie, I’m just wondering if either of you have seen Kevin, he didn’t come home last night" "Kevin too! Oh god, No! Nick hasn’t come home either, I’m so afraid that that thing on the TV has got him" Sally was confused. "What? What do you mean, a thing on the TV?" "You didn’t see the Television last night?" "Er, not much. I saw some local news about some kids disappearing but then I just watched a film on Netflix and went to bed early. What happened?"
Angie beckoned her into the lounge where the TV was on. The presenter looked tired and dishevelled and it was clear this was no ordinary slick, well rehearsed news. The bold news headlines below read "People disappearing all over the world, vast numbers now believed to be involved" Followed by contact details. Angie was in a real panic now and the words juddered from her mouth. "It started last night, that news about the kids and then shortly afterwards there was national news about other people, children, adults anyone, just going missing. There are reports of strange dark shadows and that’s it! Nobody has seen a disappearance or seen what is taking them; people just seem to vanish when nobody is looking"
There was a slight thump in the hall behind, the front door perhaps. Sally turned and saw, or thought she saw, a dark shadow flicker on the wall but she was now in such a state herself she thought that maybe she was imagining things. Angie rushed out of the room calling "Nick? Nick?" Then all was silence. Sally walked into the hallway. There was nobody there and the front door was still shut. She looked out of the windows and there was no sign of Angie. The house was empty.
She was a rationalist and clung to hope. Maybe it was all some cruel hoax concocted for unknown reasons. That TV program could be just a recording. Maybe there was a DVD in the slot, she would check. The presenter was still on air and, if it was a hoax, he was a darn good actor. He really seemed to be struggling to make his professionalism overcome his terror. Then a dark shadow flickered across the screen and the picture was momentarily lost for barely a second. When it came back the news desk was empty.
The DVD tray was empty too but that proved nothing, maybe this hoax was not a local thing, someone was conducting a vile experiment on their village and was hijacking the signal. She knew nothing about technology but was sure it must be possible. She would get out of the village and find help. She opened the door, looked both ways, then ran towards her car. The street was totally deserted and, even more worryingly, she could hear none of the usual hum from the nearby motorway, no sound of planes. As she listened she realised that there was no sound at all apart from that of the wind in the trees, even the birds were silent. Could she be the last human, perhaps even the last animal, left on Earth? She had just pressed the fob to open the car door when she was aware of a dark flickering all around.
The car keys fell to the ground and it was the last noise that mankind ever made.
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