Rumours had been around for a few months that a major celebrity was planning to move to the large mansion on the edge of their village. When it was confirmed that popular comedian Rick Turnbull had brought the property it was the main topic of conversation in the village pub. His public persona was well liked by most of the locals but you never know what a celebrity is like in real life. Robin was well known for his near the knuckle remarks and didnít disappoint. "Probably another Jimmy Saville, chaps, keep your kids locked up" That was improbable, but everyone wondered what he would really be like.
He moved in a couple of months later and everyone was pleasantly surprised. He seemed a genuinely nice chap and he and his wife mingled with the locals on the few occasions he wasnít away in London or on one of his tours. On a couple of days every summer he threw open his extensive gardens and welcomed everyone from the village and showcased a few of his hilarious routines. Rick Turnbull was also a minor writer and artist and gave away free copies of his self-illustrated short story books to those who wanted them and few could resist having a gift from a famous person. They were not to everyoneís taste, being mainly horror stories, and not very good ones in the opinions of most critics. Without his fame it was unlikely that any publisher would have been interested.
Three years later, something went wrong. For weeks he had been more taciturn, sometimes irascible. Then the bad news came that Rick Turnbull had been found dead at his desk. The coronerís verdict was suicide by legal drug overdose although there were no clues as to the causes for his sudden depression. He hadnít been there very long but he had been well liked and the village mourned his loss. His wife didnít want to stay in a place with such memories and soon moved away and was planning to sell the mansion.
About six months later a new collection of illustrated short horror stories that Turnbull had been working on until his death was released posthumously. The stories were darker, and certainly no better, than his previous efforts but many in the village brought one to remember a good friend. Around the same time the parish council revealed that Turnbull had willed a small part of the mansion grounds to the village for use as a recreation ground and it was thrown open to the public a few weeks later when the access was completed.
An old oak tree overlooked the area and it was soon noticed that it had a remarkable resemblance to Turnbullís illustration for one of his stories. Plainly he had used it as the subject. The story was about a witch hung from an old oak tree who had cursed the villagers who gathered to watch her hanging, saying that all who gazed for long would follow her to the grave. Those who had stayed to watch had soon taken their own lives. It was rather a grim association that Turnbull had taken his own life so soon after painting this tree and one or two on the parish council suggested felling it but most thought it would be a shame to detract from the beauty of the area. Much better to erect a memorial to Turnbull close by and use the tree as a way to remember a kind soul.
A few weeks later a couple of village artists set up tables on the green and did some painting of a beautiful view that included the old oak tree and soon after that the grim association became more concrete. One rapidly became depressed and committed suicide by cutting his wrists. The other suffered a serious decline in mental health and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital.
The council decided to re-examine the idea of removing the tree. One eccentric councillor felt that there could be some truth behind the horror story, that maybe there really was an evil spirit that could curse those who gazed upon the tree for too long. Another retorted that the story in question had a major inaccuracy, not unusual in Turnbullís stories. How could a witch hanged in 1572 be haunting an oak tree today when an oak tree only lived for 200 years? Most felt the events were just coincidence but they agreed that it was not pleasant to have the shadow of this oak tree hanging over the pleasant green in any but a literal sense and it would have to go.
Just a week after the felling, Turnbullís late wife came to stay at the still unsold mansion and invited some friends round for a drink. She seemed keen to open up about his last weeks. She said it was true that his mood only seemed to change when he started painting that damn tree. As for the story, it seemed he got the idea from a supposedly real event. She gave the printed details to her late husbandís best friend John.
John walked home past the recreation ground and was glad to see the tree had gone. He didnít believe in nonsense like curses and evil spirits but nevertheless had a sense of relief that he would not be seeing it anymore. When he got home he sat with a glass of wine in the garden and read the "true" story about the witch tree. The idea of a haunted tree on their village green was even more laughable than he had thought, not only was theirs just a sapling at least 200 years after the event, it was also a good three miles away from where it supposedly happened.
He walked down the garden to look at his cabbages, still musing on the story. Pity Rick had passed away, maybe he could have written a daft story about an evil spirit that could move around and be reborn in new oak trees. On the cabbage patch he noticed a large acorn, probably dropped by a squirrel. Very likely it was from the just felled old oak tree on the green, there werenít any others close by. Move around, be reborn, he couldnít stop thinking about that daft story. Maybe if the natural could spread and reproduce then something unnatural associated with it could spread and reproduce also.
He was lost in thought and had been gazing at the acorn for several minutes before the anxiety seized him.
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She had been a widow for some years and wanted to move to be near her children and grandchildren but it was a very expensive area compared to where she was currently living. She was prepared to go downmarket a bit but, even so, there was nothing she could afford that she really wanted to live in for the rest of her active life.
After looking for six months she was on the verge of giving up. Then she was contacted by an estate agent with details of a place that looked rather nice at an affordable price. Of course there is always a catch and she soon found out what it was. The price was so low because of its history. It was that house where the so-called Dorset Ripper had murdered three random female victims. All the evidence suggested he had planned to murder many more but a lucky escape by his next target had led to his arrest and trial.
Did she really want to live in a place where such horrific things had happened? On the other hand, could she turn down the chance of a house that was exactly what she had been looking for at a price she could afford? It was going for at least 20% less than comparable properties in the area. It was a difficult decision but, in the end, she decided she had to be practical. After all, when you consider the history of the UK, there is probably not a square mile where something horrible hasnít happened. Many buildings have seen tragedy and suffering of some sort and just because something was headline news didnít make it any the worse. It wasnít as though she believed in stuff like ghosts or bad Karma and was pretty sure she would not be fretting about the houseís history. More importantly, the murderer would not be revisiting his old house at any time, having committed suicide in prison.
She moved in about 3 months later and did not regret it. It really was a nice place and, once people had stopped mentioning it, the houseís past wasnít something she thought about much. It was a nice house and she was going to have a good retirement with plenty of time to spend with her grand children.
About a year later she decided to have a few renovations done. While it was in generally good condition, there were a few things about the decor that were not to her taste. She didnít have a lot of money to spend and wanted to get things right the first time so she would decide exactly what she wanted before getting in the decorators. The first thing she looked at was that incongruously cheap fitted wardrobe in the bedroom. Maybe she could save money by pulling it out herself; her son would help if necessary, she gave him enough free child care after all. It briefly crossed her mind that she could find some torture instruments, but that was daft, the police would have done full searches of the property for evidence. It was pretty easy. The thing was chipboard and was soon lying outside the back door for her son to take to the dump. Just a few screw holes to fix in the wall and that was it, maybe she wouldnít need to pay a decorator to sort the bedroom.
There werenít any torture instruments either, that was a relief. All she found was a piece of paper. She turned it over and it was a childís painting. Nothing sinister there, probably left by the people who owned the house before the Dorset Ripper, they had been a normal family apparently. The child had scrawled "Teddy in the cellar" underneath. Despite the pictureís immaturity she recognised the end of the cellar beneath the house. She had never taken more than a cursory look down there before and could not resist checking it out. There was a small alcove at the top as in the picture and when she shone the torch inside it was there, a small furry teddy bear.
She stood on tiptoe, reached in and tried to pull it out but It didnít move far as it had a piece of wire around it. She yanked on the wire and yanked again, then suddenly fell vertically without warning. The wire had been a release mechanism to a trapdoor. The cleverly shaped drop and the sharp metal spikes were fatal.
Before she went she saw the message painted on the wall above. "If you are reading this you will know I am the best. No others have killed after they have gone as I have"
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Weíve always had them in the news from time to time, those daft stories about flying saucers and alien sightings. Utter drivel as far as Ellen was concerned; they probably just helped to fill a few column inches when there was nothing more normal, like terrorist attacks, to fill the news reports with.
The beginning of this year had been unusual in the sheer number of such sightings, something that had become news in itself. A few supposed flying saucers now and then was normal but hundreds of sightings in a part of South East England in barely more than a month was unprecedented and it was now making the national news.
It wasnít just flying objects either. There were reports of strange movements in some areas of the countryside. Several people had reported seeing odd visual distortions across areas of the landscape. Ellen had watched a TV interview in which one described his experience in graphic detail. He had been sitting on a bench enjoying the view over a wooded country park, when it was as though an enormous distorting lens had drifted over the scene. Trees altered their positions and even disappeared. Even more oddly, he had seen part of a nearby old mansion appear in front of the trees although it was actually on the other side of the hill and could not possibly have been visible from where he sat.
The chap seemed normal and sincere, and, if he was lying, he was certainly a darn good actor but it had to be rubbish. Whether or not he was complicit in it, it just had to be some sort of hoax. Anyway, there could be more serious things going on. A number of people, of both sexes and various ages, had been reported missing in the area. Was there someone out there who was abducting strangers for some unknown reason? That was something she really did worry about and she would be careful to stay in well lit places with people around if she went out.
Oh well, today was not a day to fret about such things. It was a gloriously sunny and warm morning for September, a big change from the last few days, time to get out and tidy her garden before autumn covered it in leaves. She spent a couple of hours out there and loved it as usual. The only thing she didnít like was that it was garden spider season and they were getting quite big. She had rather a phobia about spiders and checked carefully for any webs before tackling the bushes with her shears. Fortunately, it wasnít too bad. There was just one place that had a large web with a garden spider in it and she would leave trimming that bush until later in the year when the little pest had gone. A quick shower, a cup of tea and then she headed off to town to do some shopping with an old friend.
The sun was still shining as she arrived back in the village and maybe it was the low sun in her eyes that confused her slightly. Something seemed a little strange about the road, it seemed shorter and the bend was less sharp. Maybe that glass of wine with her lunch had been a bit too big. She parked in the drive and got out of the car, pulling out her bags and her new dress. When she looked up she was again struck by a feeling that something was a bit odd. The positioning of the plant pots on the patio did not seem to be quite as normal and the front door seemed a little dark. Maybe it just needed cleaning. She opened the front door and stepped into the hallway. What the hell? Nothing in here looked right. The edges of the walls and furniture were rounded and ill defined. She turned to face the door and over there was her house. Somehow she must have gone down the adjacent road and ended up on the common. But... but she had driven down HER road, parked in HER drive, she KNEW she had. Then the strange hallway turned dark and she felt something grasp her body.
Spiders are clever little creatures in their way, they build invisible snares over what flies see as harmless spaces. Not as clever as the new predators of Earth, who could generate holographic images to disguise their traps as familiar places to lure men in.
What she had thought was her house and front garden began to shift and flicker. Suddenly it disappeared, revealing the green grass and weeds of the neglected common and the huge spider-like creature that had her in its clutches.
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Rick and his old university mate Brian got on well despite some major differences in views, including their religion beliefs. Brian was a staunch Catholic while Rick was an atheist, so convinced of his viewpoint that it was almost a religion to him. They had joked about it after a few too many beers. "You wait until you turn up at the Pearly Gates, mate" Brian said "Youíll be sorry when you get your ticket to down there" "Nah, Iíll be ok" Rick responded "The Flying Spaghetti monster will see Iím alright"
Rick was chairman of an Atheist Group which viewed religion as an impediment to progress in society and campaigned for exclusion of religion influence from state on any issue, with abortion and gay marriage being the most obvious. They were strongly opposed to the fact that religion was a let out on far too many things, including the lack of sex equality in religious roles, the use of cruel animal slaughter procedures and medically unnecessary procedures on male children.
They also regarded the law that employers should accommodate an employeeís religious beliefs or practices unless it caused undue problems as one sided. Strictly speaking, the definition of religious belief in UK law is broad enough to include firmly held atheist views but few were aware of that and, in practice, there was not the same fear of discriminating against holders of non religious beliefs as they did not have to simply say the name of an established faith to prove their legal rights.
A suggestion in the group was that atheism should be legally defined as a religion but its dictionary definition, "A disbelief or lack of belief", was rather vague. They needed some simple named central tenet that they could claim to adhere to. Rick said they should claim to worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster. It was meant as a joke but when they thought about it, maybe that was a good idea. The FSM would simply fly about and demand nothing at all of its worshippers, produce no long-winded sacred scripts to read, require no prayers or other rituals and issue no commandments, except those that suited its followersí interests.
Technically they would no longer be atheists but, in practice they would be, with the added benefit that they could just say "Iím a Spaghettist" to employers and others and immediately get the same rights from any who feared being taken to court for discrimination. The new religion was very democratic as the FSM had decreed. Any member could suggest what the tenets should be, tenets that allowed them to opt out of things their employers wanted them to do or complain when retailers or other service providers did not cater for their supposed beliefs. When the committee reached a majority vote on a new tenet the FSM would immediately turn it into divine law.
The new religion took off faster than they imagined. Jediism, based on the Star Wars films, had previously grown to the fourth largest religion in the UK but Spaghettism soon overtook it. Rick, still the chairman, or Pastaman as he was now called, was very proud. Then came that day when Rick, driving back from the sacred forum, or Bolognese as they now called it, was unfortunate enough to be in the wrong place when two trucks collided and one careered into his path.
That was the day he found that atheism was neither more nor less drivel than any other belief when he arrived in the next world and found there was not just one set of Pearly Gates but thousands of them stretching into the distance, one for every religion there was and had ever been. Some he thought he recognised. There were quite a few beardy chaps at the gates, so it was hard to tell for sure, but was that Saint Peter? He was dealing with a large queue anyway, so it must be a major religion. Strange forlorn-looking figures manned other gates where nobody was waiting. Was that fearsome looking woman with four arms really Kali? He had little time to look, being forced to join the queue at one gate by an invisible force. The Flying Spaghetti Monster floated within and, when he reached the gate, it opened and he was impelled through it.
With a new wisdom that death had given him he realised what a damn fool he had been. Gods do not inspire religious belief; it is religious belief that invents gods. Followers of most other religions had invented their gods to shield them from the fear of death and promise a marvellous afterlife of happiness but he had been focused only on the real world and had never even considered what the afterlife would be as he had never actually believed in it.
For a short while, before he drifted away from those gates, he could see the joyful expressions of new entrants to other heavens as they entered the clouds, were greeted by numerous virgins, or saw and felt whatever other marvellous rewards their religions had promised. In Spaghetti Monster Heaven there was only the Spaghetti Monster soaring aimlessly above its worshippers, for no other benefits or wonders of heaven had ever been invented by them.
He was doomed to drift about aimlessly in empty space with nothing to do for all eternity.
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It is said that money doesnít buy happiness but if he had to choose between being lonely and rich or lonely and poor heíd chose the former any time. It was time to retire and he had enough money to get the hell out of crowded London and buy that nice little place in the country he and his late wife had always dreamed of. She wasnít around anymore and it might be lonely but he would fill his time pursuing all those leisure interests that he had had so little time for when he was working.
He was really into ancient history and had accumulated a variety of old relics, mostly brought at auction and often at quite modest prices because other bidders were more interested in value and appearance than historic interest. The first thing he did on moving in to his new house was to unpack all those little old curios he had never examined properly and create his own little museum. There was some great stuff and now he could spend some time looking into their pasts and the history of the people who had made them.
There was one particular fascinating item, to him anyway, a circular, slightly concave, stone tablet with a central hole and shallow carvings that he had brought in an auction in Greenwich. It went for a low price due to its very weathered condition, which meant there was no real certainty on age or origin, but it was probably an ancient British stone carving over 2000 years old. He would spend some time doing some research on it, something he had always meant to do when he brought it but had never gotten round to. The worn carvings were a little clearer when viewed from the side under a bright light; he could see looping trails with scattered circles upon them. Here and there were faint traces which could once have been words. It occurred to him that this plaque looked rather like an ancient game of Snakes and Ladders. It was possible, board games date back to the Ancient Egyptians although he had never heard of anything like that in ancient Britain.
Dreams are often based on experiences from the day before, usually mundane stuff like TV programs we have watched, so it was no great surprise when he woke up the next day with a recollection of wandering in a grey flat expanse following a trail resembling those lines on the carving. He thought little of it and the memory soon vanished from his mind as dreams do.
He found nothing in his many books about ancient British history that was helpful. He phoned his old mate James who used to work at a museum and was a fountain of knowledge about British history but even he could not help very much. British history prior to the Romans was not well understood and he had never heard of any board games from that time, although it was entirely possible. It could be that the game, if it was one, was not simply for recreational purposes but had a religious significance, like Snakes and Ladders which is based on an old Indian game that represented lifeís challenges of virtues and vices.
Oh well, maybe heíd never find out. Yet somehow he could not seem to stop thinking about it, searching the internet for any clues. Every day he examined the tablet and tried to find out more. He took some photos and greatly enhanced the contrast which seemed to confirm the resemblance to a board game. Every day he grew more obsessed with the tablet or, rather, the game as he was now convinced it was.
Every night, the vividness of his strange dreams grew too. He would wander a meandering path around that grey valley, at the centre of which was that huge black void. He knew now that he had to get away from it, to get up to the edge of the valley and leave, to get back into life. But it was not up to him. Every night his long walk would take him to another great circle and there, although invisible, was a presence which would demand answers from him. Based on the result it would direct him to one of two exits from the circle and, as he set foot on the new path, he would wake, sometimes with a feeling of panic, sometimes with a feeling of relief.
Try as he might to get out of the obsession, the days became nothing more to him than waiting for the night, for those dreams. And as the memories of the dreams became stronger he realised that there was nothing he could do to influence his path, the choices on which he was being judged had all been made long ago in his life. He didnít think he was a bad man but he was not perfect either. When judgement is black and white, how can us people who live in a grey world know what our fate will be?
The walks in the grey valley went on and on for months. At some circles he was judged on his failings, like the affairs with other women that had hurt his wife or the dodgy deals he had made in his banking career and knew he was heading in the wrong direction. In others he started out on a brighter path due to positive contributions like his generosity to charity or support for friends in need. Many of the judgements were made concerning things he had little or no recollection of, decisions he had made a child. In this game it seemed there was no age of innocence.
For a long time he knew not what the final destination was due to the enormous complexity of the maze. At times he seemed to be heading for the pit, only to find a few days later that he was meandering away from it. Conversely, he would almost reach the edge where a bright future was visible, only to find himself heading back towards the darkness on the following night.
Then came that night when he reached a circle that had the usual two exits and one path led directly into that dark abyss. What would he be judged on? Would he ever wake again?
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He had a shower, got dressed, put on his comfy slippers and sat by the window drinking his morning cuppa. It was a sunny day and heíd get out into his little garden and plant those runner bean seeds. It was so nice being just retired and free of all the hassles of his stressful job. He didnít have a big pension or much in the way of savings but was sure he could manage if he was careful. Buying things at the charity shop, like those comfy slippers he had brought yesterday, was one of his strategies. Fortunately, most high streets have a plethora of charity shops these days.
He was in his rough gardening gear, charity shop again, when he noticed the small piece of paper in the letter box. The scrawl was hard to read but he thought it said "Please stop doing it". He opened the door to see if whoever had posted it was still around but there was nobody. Stop doing it? Stop doing what? He had no idea what it meant. He couldnít think of anything he was doing that unduly affected anyone else but whoever wrote it must have thought it was obvious or they would have been more explicit. Probably just a joke by some neighbour, he would probably find out when he went to the bowls club on Saturday. He, or she, would get a piece of his mind as it seemed a bit sinister, rather worrying for a frail chap on his own.
He spent much of the day gardening and was a bit tired. It was nice to change, put on his slippers and relax in front of the TV with a cup of coffee. Out of the corner of his eye he thought he saw a movement at the window, but couldnít see anything when he looked out. Probably that darn cat climbing over his fence again. As he was going up the stairs to bed he noticed another scrap of paper sticking out of the letter box. The scrawl said. "I asked you once and you did it again. Please stop!" What the hell? He hadnít done anything that should annoy anyone. He hadnít been using any noisy tools, unlike some neighbours down the road. This was not funny! He knew it must be a joke but couldnít stop thinking about it and found it hard to get to sleep.
He was eating his breakfast in pyjamas and slippers the next morning when he heard the sound of something being put in the letter box flap. It was another scrap of paper. The writing was even wilder as if whoever wrote it was in a highly charged state but it looked like "This is your last warning!" It was too much; this was not a joke anymore. As soon as he was dressed he went to the police station in town and told them what had happened. The policeman at the desk took all the details, looked at the notes and asked the obvious questions about any known disputes with anyone, but was not very reassuring. The threats were not very explicit and there were no details they could act upon even if they had the resources. He was told to report any more threats or let them know if he had any clues as to who was responsible but otherwise he felt he was still on his own.
He deliberately spent the day away from home, shopping in town and wandering in the park before visiting an old friend and it was dark when he got back. Nervously, he checked for any more bits of paper but there were none. A couple of large whiskies helped and he was feeling a bit more relaxed by the time he had tidied the kitchen and put the dishwasher on. He donned his comfy slippers, sat on the settee and turned on the TV to watch a war film on the Movies for Men channel.
There was a load crash in the kitchen. Had the dishwasher blown up? As he walked through the door he got a huge shock at seeing a large, ugly and unkempt man standing there with an iron bar. He looked familiar. Wasnít this the rough sleeper who had been living in the woods not far away? The one whose odd behaviour had already alarmed some local people? But why on earth would this man have a grievance against him? Maybe there was no reason as the chap was clearly of unsound mind. Perhaps it was just walking past his spot in the woods that had enraged him. After all, how many assaults and murders have been committed by people who just got annoyed by someone looking at them?
He was a small chap and had no chance of fighting off this monster. Maybe reason was still an option. "Whatever you think Iíve done" he began "it was never intentional, I did not mean to insult you and I apologise if I offended you somehow" "Too late now" came the slurred growl of a reply "I gave you three warnings and you took no notice" "I wanted those slippers but had no money and then you took them. I asked you not too but you kept on wearing my slippers!"
The man shuffled forward swinging the iron bar.
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What do you do when life goes so wrong? After all that had happened Roger felt like he had fallen into a pit. Now, nearly two years later, although not quite at the bottom, he still felt he was a long way from getting out of it.
He had a lot of willpower and was making a big effort to get on with his life, to get on with his work, keep up with his friends, continue with his hobbies but, although he hoped he seemed normal on the outside, inside he still wasnít. His imagination and enthusiasm had deserted him. Nothing seemed to mean anything anymore, he couldnít finish watching a TV program or reading a book before his disinterest made him give up a little way in.
The worst thing was that he only had one real emotion left Ė anger. The little irritations in his own life, the things he saw in the news, the things he saw around him, even things he imagined, would all make his blood boil. He did not think he would be going on a murdering spree any time soon, but, if he didnít get himself sorted, how much longer could he could carry on pretending to be normal to the rest of the world?
He had tried so many of the things that are supposed to help. The pills the doctor had proscribed had had little long-term effect, and some had even made things worse, making him feel unreal and detached or anxious. He had tried various solutions ranging from the sensible to the questionable. He had tried counselling but gave up after finding he was spending expensive time looking out the window waiting for it to end He had tried cognitive therapy and not got a lot out of it, it made him feel worryingly obsessed with how he felt. He had tried herbal remedies, meditation, holistic treatments, with no more long-term success. Sometimes his efforts seemed to make him feel a bit better, but he sometimes felt a little better when he wasnít trying and was not totally sure if the apparently positive effects of any remedy were anything more than just a part of a natural variation.
Damn it! He couldnít just give up. He was better than that. Although none of the methods had been a complete answer he couldnít say for sure that they were worthless. Maybe it was a mistake to think there was one single remedy, perhaps he should be more selective and try to find the most effective aspects of each. He was an individual after all, did it make sense to think that the solution was one pre-packaged parcel? What suited somebody elseís mind was not necessarily what was best for him
He resolved to go about things in a more scientific way. He would try the supposed remedies that might have done something on a regular basis and record in detail how they made him feel and whether there was any long-term effect. He would experiment with a few ideas of his own as well Mediation, relaxation, they helped. Trying to think positive, to envisage a better future in his mind helped too. He would stick with those and build on them.
He would also try and figure a few things out for himself. It occurred to him that perhaps it was wrong to ignore his anger, to dump all those negative thoughts about his life, himself and the world in general. Maybe it would be better to accept and face up to them. After all, anger and hatred are perfectly natural, they are traits that nature gave us for our own survival even if, in the modern world, we are not permitted to indulge them. Life, our minds, cannot just be all positive. We need to accept the negative side, the trick is to separate it from the positive side, to get it all out of the way in private before you emerge back into the real world.
He began the experiment and started to cobble together his own self treatment. It was not easy but, gradually, with a lot of revisions and extensive documenting of his actions and feelings he felt it was working. After a few months he knew it was working, most of the time he felt normal again. "Most of the time" did not mean what others would think it meant. There was a time each day when those negative thoughts raged in his head, the difference was that now it only happened during the window he had set aside for them when no one else was around.
In his evening therapy, he spent one hour relaxing and thinking lovely positive thoughts, envisaging all the good things that the future held. Then, after a short break, he would spend one hour being utterly negative. In his mind he deliberately raged about everything, hated everyone. The recycling came in handy, he would imagine that tin cans and cardboard boxes were all the people and events that he loathed, flattening them and ripping them apart. He was training his mind to switch between positive and negative at will. He could turn on his positive side during the hours it mattered, when he was engaged with the rest of the world and keep his negative side for when he was alone.
But his doubts were growing. There were times when his happiness and misery seemed so extreme during those evening sessions. It seemed at times like his positive and negative side were in totally different parts of his brain, it almost seemed like he was two totally different people in the plus hour and the minus hour. Should he carry on? He decided he had no choice, he felt so normal during 15 hours in the waking day, it was worth it. The extremes grew as he carried on.
Then came that night. One hour, so happy, happy. The next hour so miserable, so full of rage. So positive! Then so negative! It was like a huge psychic bang in his head and the barriers broke down. All his positive and the negative thoughts and feelings rushed together; like electrical charges, they cancelled out and left nothing. He lay still and stared at the ceiling.
No feelings, no thoughts, in his mind there was nothing at all. He never felt anything again.
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For many years scientists have been working to make cells into computers. A single cell can store much information in chemical form and, like a computer, can respond in a complex way in response to stimuli and carry out operations with amazing speed. Even one cell contains enough physical complexity to function as a powerful computing unit and is small enough to pack by the millions into a tiny physical space.
Brian worked for a pioneering company that specialised in research and development in this area. He wasnít part of the science team, maths and science had never been his strong point but, as a competent office administrator, he felt he played in his part and was proud to contribute to such an innovative company. Sometimes he met up for a drink after work with some chaps from the lab and was always fascinated to hear how things were going although, for reasons of commercial secrecy, they could not always reveal too much.
He was in the pub having a lager with Blake, one of the youngest and geekiest of the scientists. They always got on well and had been chatting about the next big advances. Blake was a shy character who was not good at hiding things and Brian felt that he seemed a little too interested in some of his answers. He soon sensed he had something he wanted to say.
"Well, Brian, itís like this. Weíve been working for some time on a project you wonít have heard of, one that could earn some good money to finance our long-term research. The managers feel we now have a saleable product, but it needs more testing before we go public. The thing is, they need people to try it out but donít want to give anything away too soon by going outside the company and are hoping that some interested and trusted employees, like you, might volunteer. The managers asked me to ask if you might be interested. They said there will be a decent financial reward in it for you"
The thought of being a guinea pig sounded rather risky but exciting too and Brian was too curious not to go for a meeting with the research manager. The new project was the digital tattoo. Using bio computing it would be possible to make it fully configurable as required. It would look like a normal tattoo, but the big difference was that, by linking it to a computer, you could alter the image and its position in any way you wanted. You could change it at will to suit your whim, the event you were attending, to suit your current girlfriend or whatever. You could also make it invisible, which was ideal in some work situations where tattoos where frowned upon. Many who were reluctant to get traditional tattoos for work reasons or who didnít want to be stuck forever with something they no longer liked, would love these tech tattoos.
The method had been thoroughly tested on laboratory animals and no problems had been found. There were risks spelled out in the contract Brian was asked to sign but his own rights included very high levels of insurance cover and compensation should anything go wrong. He would also receive payment and expenses that were more than he was currently earning. More tempting was the promise of a large lump sum if the project was a commercial success according to criteria set out in the contract.
It wasnít just the money, he loved the idea of being part of a pioneering project. Brian signed the contract and the experiments began the following week. They harvested a small number of cells from his body and reinjected them after modification. It all seemed remarkably easy and largely painless and his worries soon subsided. It wasnít long before he had a tattoo on his chest that looked as least as good as anything he could have got at a tattoo parlour. Then they linked him to a computer using a small radio device and he found he could browse through a list of images and choose whatever one he liked. It was fantastic! His girlfriend loved it when he put her name under a big heart.
The project went well, and more extensive testing was being planned to meet with all the complex legal requirements. Brian was a bit of a ladyís man and had met a new girlfriend; he hoped tonight would the night. He had Sally on his tattoo and would need to change it to Janet, it should only take a few minutes. He plugged the radio device in, spent a few minutes in Photoshop to create the image he wanted and hit the upload button. That should do it! He walked over to the wall mirror to see how it looked.
What the hell? Instead of the image he had designed there was a big advert for a cheap energy company. How did that happen? His PC must have one of those darn ad-promoting malware programs on it. He would clear it out and try again. It did not take long, and he downloaded the image to his chest again. It didnít help. He had cleared his PC of a malware program but what if it had been embedded inside the image and infected those bio-computer cells in his body? There werenít any anti-virus or anti-malware programs for those. As he stood looking in the mirror, he saw that ads were popping up all over his body, for dodgy products and services, for Hot Russian Babes, for overpriced and phony medical remedies.
Then came the fake news. "Trump seen booking into a hotel room with Vladimar Putin" began scrolling across his forehead.
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He had worked in technology all his life and didnít really believe in ghosts. Some of those stories you read in the news were plain daft, like the one that showed glowing white shapes captured on a CCTV. He had a CCTV himself and knew the reality of that one, out of focus bits of dust caught in the camera light. On the other hand, no rational person could ever dismiss something without proof and nobody could absolutely disprove the existence of some afterlife. After all, there was no obvious explanation for the strange experience he had had with Julie in that old hotel room when they had seen a vague moving shape cross the room.
After his retirement he soon found himself with not enough to fill his time. Despite his rational disbelief, he had always been a big fan of stories of the supernatural and it might be interesting to set up a blog covering some proper research into the issue. Heíd try and separate out the nonsense and the hoaxes and cover any reports that seemed more convincing, assuming there were any. The blog was moderately popular and attracted quite a few geeks, maybe the rational yearn for deeper meaning.
There are a lot of problems with ghosts. A big question is, why are there far fewer ghost sightings today that there used to be and why do so many reports relate to people who died many decades or even centuries ago? People still die in extreme circumstances with unfulfilled wants today, so why donít we get modern ghosts wandering about looking at their mobile phones? And why is there so much more belief in the supernatural in less developed nations? The obvious explanation is that people in the past or with less advanced education were, and are, more likely to seize on the supernatural as a cause of unexplained events simply because of belief in it.
But was it that simple? He investigated further and found another odd correlation. In the UK there were more reports of later ghost sightings in remote rural areas than there were in towns and cities. Was there some other factor? After all, plenty of things in nature were declining due to manís activities and it was not always something as obvious as habitat destruction or pesticides. Bees, for example, are said to be affected by mobile phone signals.
The more he researched it, the more he became convinced of the cause. Electricity first came into use in the UK from the late 1800s and networks had been gradually spreading over the UK since. Electricity usage was also obviously much higher in towns and cities than in rural areas. He was good at statistics and correlated the more credible ghost sightings with the spread of UK power networks. Due to the unverified nature of the former there would never be real proof but it all looked quite convincing. It was electricity that prevented or repelled ghosts. He posted his ideas on his blog and got praise and ridicule in almost equal proportions. Little did those who ridiculed him realise that, very soon, for reasons outside the control of any of them, the real proof was about to come.
It is a dangerous world we live in and all those tensions with North Korea reached a climax. The warnings that our power networks could be shut down for an indefinite period by an Electromagnetic Pulse from a nuclear missile were shown to be true when one, curtesy of that fat little loony, detonated over the UK. It was mid-winter and deaths rose sharply in the weeks that followed due to cold and loss of all those many technical things that we rely on. Fortunately, they began to fall again after a few weeks due to massive international aid.
Initial optimism diminished when deaths began to rise again because many were suffering heart attacks. The stressful events were cited as the probable cause until the initially discounted rumours were recognised as fact. The ghosts, phantoms and demons that most had dismissed as superstitious nonsense were coming back in force. Due to populations much higher than there had been back in those past centuries, they were everywhere, revealing their, often grizzly, fates in almost every house, every road, every street.
The death of electricity had restored the life of the dead.
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Their marriage had been through some difficult patches in recent years, mainly due to the stress of running the family business which had had its ups and downs. Fortunately, things had ended on an up and they had sold it for a decent figure on retirement. Now they had the time and money to do the things they wanted to do, and it rekindled their relationship. They both loved history and travel. They became active members of the local history group and started going off on holiday at least four times a year to places of historical interest in the UK or elsewhere in Europe.
That September they decided to go and explore the countryside and historic buildings in the North West, finishing up with a day at Hadrianís wall. It should be interesting as neither of them had ever been there but there was another reason. They had both been actively researching their family history and Edith had managed, with some degree of certainty, to trace her lineage back to the early 18th century. Her earliest known ancestor was also an Edith, one Edith Allerton, the daughter of the vicar in the still existing old parish church in Brampton, and it would be great to go and see how she might have lived.
The trip up had been rather stressful due to traffic jams and it would be good to chill out on their first day and have a leisurely day wandering around the town. After a late breakfast at the hotel on the edge of Brampton, they headed for the old parish church on foot. It was over a mile away and Edith was rather overweight so maybe she was just tired. Why else would she feel oddly confused as they approached the church entrance? Somehow, it looked familiar. "Havenít we been here before?" she asked Ray. "Donít think so" Ray said, "at least I havenít. Perhaps youíre thinking of that place in Kent we went to last year. A lot of old churches look rather similar, after all." She didnít think any more of it and afterwards they walked back to the town, had some coffee in the cafť and then explored the other nearby historic places including the priory and the roman fort.
They spent the next couple of days visiting the various attractions that were a bit further afield, finishing off with Hadrianís wall. They loved this area, so interesting! They got back to the hotel and packed for their journey home the next day. Afterwards, it was still a bit early for dinner, so they went for a last wander around. Like many towns it had a mixture of interesting old buildings and some less attractive newer builds on the outskirts. They walked up a nice old street of Victorian cottages before it petered out into dull 1960s semis and decided to turn back. Ray turned to say something, and realised Edith wasnít with him. She was staring at one of those bland semis, although what she saw of interest in it he could not understand.
He walked back. "Are you ok?" She did not answer, just turned and walked by his side. She did not speak for several minutes and then said again "Are you sure we havenít we been here? Iím certain Iíve seen that stone wall and the archway before" Stone wall and archway? What was she talking about? She had been staring at a brick house with a tatty fence and an old van on the driveway. He decided she must be tired and decided not to quiz her. They needed dinner.
They drove home the next morning and Edith seemed rather distant over the next couple of days, indeed she seemed progressively stranger, doing things which she normally had no interest in, like sewing or cooking with very traditional recipes. Things like using her computer seemed to be increasingly confusing to her and she started asking his advice about things she should know. Her voice seemed to be changing too, there was an odd accent that he could not place. Ray was worried that maybe she was getting Alzheimerís, perhaps he should seek advice.
Ray went upstairs the next morning with a cup of tea for his Edith and she was no longer there except in physical form. She looked at him and then at the modern room about her in confusion. In a broad old Cumbrian accent "I must get to the church and prepare it for my fatherís service this morning"
The real cause had not occurred to him. Many of us are fascinated about our past, we love to know our origins, who our ancestors were. Perhaps some of our ancestors are equally interested in knowing about their future, in finding out who their descendants will be. Edith Jacobs had wanted to find out all about Edith Allerton and visit her life places. Edith Allerton had recognised Edith Jacobs and had come to visit her in the only way a spirit could.
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James Freeman had moved away from the area in his twenties when he found a job up North but always liked going back with his wife to visit his parents who still lived in the same old house where he was born and grew up. The area held some fond memories and he liked wandering around recalling old times. Much had changed beyond recognition but there were still some places that had not changed a bit, including the entrance to his old primary school. Most of the school buildings had undergone major changes but he still remembered going through that old brick archway at around 8.45 every school morning.
Dad had been gone a few years and his mum was getting rather frail, so he had been thinking of moving back to the area for some time. After months of looking he managed to find a decent job in the area and his wife was happy with it. She was an accounting assistant and it wasnít hard for her to find something. Changing jobs and moving is stressful but after a couple of months they felt settled in. They were a sociable couple and soon began to find new friends in the area. He liked going to see his mother who was not yet a burden, he loved her weird sense of humour.
His journey to work took him past those old school gates and he began to wonder whether any of his old primary school friends were still around. Unlikely to track anyone down after nearly 40 years but he thought heíd have a search online for a couple of names he could remember, including his best mate Barry Campbell. He found an old pupils group on Facebook and it had a list. Unbelievably, there was a Barry Campbell and the date looked about right. He contacted Barry and soon got an invite round to the house he remembered visiting when he was a youngster, he must have inherited it from his parents!
It looked just as he remembered, the garden, the furniture, everything, it was weird. Barry seemed weird too, not because his friend was no longer the Bazza he had known, just the opposite. Apart from appearance he seemed to be exactly the Bazza he had known and that was not normal for a 50-year-old. He kept talking about their past in an absurdly childish way and never gave any answers when asked what he had done since, just looked puzzled and changed the subject. Maybe there was something he didnít want to talk about. Perhaps he had spent his time in prison for some heinous crime or had some mental problems. Whatever the cause, James did not feel comfortable with him and soon took his leave. Oh well, you canít turn the clock back.
When he got home he did a bit more Google research and found nothing at all about the Bazza he knew. That was strange, at least he should have come up on the same Facebook old pupils group. He logged in. Odd, there was no mention of him anymore, had he unsubscribed because he did not want any more visits from old mates? Next day, he went to see his mother and told her heíd seen Bazza. His mother was still very with it and recognised the name immediately. "Bazza? You mean Barry Campbell? Are you pulling my leg love? There wasnít a Barry Campbell, he was your imaginary friend" "You must be mixing it up with another name mum" said James, "Bazzaís real, I saw him yesterday"
On the way home, he walked back past Bazzaís house; heíd call in again and suggest they go for a drink, heíd been a bit rude with his abrupt departure. He got there, and it was definitely the right address, but the house looked nothing like the one he remembered from the previous day, it had been extensively revamped. He rang the bell and a lady came to the door. "Is Barry in?" he asked. "Sorry, think youíve got the wrong address" she replied. "Nobody called Barry here" Now he felt anxious for reasons he did not want to put into words. If his vivid memories of Bazza were false, then why should any other memory be true?
He walked back home and called out to his wife. She was not there. There was nothing there in the house to indicate his wife or any other woman had ever lived there. He felt dizzy, things seemed blurred and unreal, and he was now in a total panic. He walked back to his motherís place for some company and it was gone, the place he had lived in for over 20 years, replaced by a new housing estate, What the hell was happening? Not just Bazza who was imaginary, everything else was too. He turned around and it seemed that the whole world was fading away. Then there was nothing.
In the hospital the parents were grief stricken as the life support for their 5-month-old son was turned off. Their little boy had experienced so little of real life, but at least James Freeman had had 50 years of an imaginary one.
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Ray was lying in bed in St Georgeís hospice, sipping an orange juice and contemplating his life. He knew he did not have much more of it ahead but at least it had been a pretty good one, a long and happy marriage, a couple of great children and a successful career as an author of detective fiction. He wasnít up there with the well-known greats like James Patterson but he had made a decent income and had a substantial following. He knew from the fan mail that some of his fans thought his main character, DCI Jake Dickson, was one of the best in the modern genre. Some had even likened Dickson to a modern Sherlock Holmes in that he combined his great knowledge of all the modern sleuthing techniques with an astonishing insight. Ray was always flattered by that, as a child he had loved reading the Holmes stories.
He felt no fear at all when his thoughts shifted to the future. He had always been a committed Christian and, unlike so many who paid lip service to its ideals, he had embraced the central tenet of love for his fellow man. He had always gone out of his way to help others, donating a good deal to charity and helping to promote worthy causes. He was convinced there was a heaven and had no doubt that he would soon be there.
The day came less than two weeks later. He said goodbye to his family and closed his eyes, feeling a blackness close around him. Then came the light! He was drifting over an endless plain and experienced, in ways that that his limited human senses could never have comprehended, a vast panorama of beauty full of numerous happy souls. He was here in heaven! He kept drifting. Perhaps he was being taken to see god himself? He passed through a huge cloud and the landscape went much darker. Beneath him was grey scrubland covered in tiny square concrete buildings. It did not look like what he imagined hell to be, but it certainly wasnít heaven. Maybe he was in Purgatory, but why did he deserve that?
He found himself in a weed strewn street outside a dirty crumbling block, which was distinguished from the others only by a slightly larger size. An elderly man with a moustache, dressed in a suit that looked like something from the last century, came out of the door, hand extended. He looked familiar, but Ray could not place him. "Good morning. Mr Raymond Keating I presume. My name is Arthur." he said in a posh voice that matched the suit. "Those who dwell above us have assigned me to inform you with regard to your new life with us, what it means and what is required of you" Ray opened his mouth to ask where he was and why he was here but before he could get a word out the man held up his hand. "Before I tell you anything it would be easier if I take you on a little tour and show you the truth regarding the things I have to tell you. If I try to tell you here, I fear you will find it hard to believe me". With that he turned and strolled up the tatty street, signalling Ray to follow.
They went a short distance along dismal streets and squalid alleys before reaching a decidedly cleaner square with a white central building. Arthur unlocked the main door and ushered Ray in. Then they walked down the corridor and opened the door to that blissful, beautiful place he had glimpsed before, the true heaven. Ray should have been ecstatic, perhaps this was his new home and that other place was just the equivalent of an airport check in. And yet, he felt he did not belong. The people here were strange, the way most looked and spoke did not appear natural and some did not appear to be human at all, they had exaggerated features, abnormal sizes or strange colours. A few looked like cartoon characters. He saw one gigantic man with enormous muscles and green skin. He did not get that close, but could have sworn it was the Incredible Hulk,
They stopped in front of a small group of men. "Allow me to introduce you to some people you would love to meet, I suppose you could say this one here is a progeny of mine" He was a tall thin faced man in a long tweed coat and a deerstalker, smoking what could only be described as a Sherlock Holmes pipe. All the other characters in the group were also dressed as fictional characters he knew well from books and films. One of them was even made up as Dracula!
He turned to Arthur and asked why they were made up like that. "Now, Ray, perhaps I may explain. These are no longer fictional characters, they all exist. This is the real Sherlock Holmes, and it is I who made him. My Name is Arthur Conan Doyle. You see, this is what heaven really is. Mankind is to those above us what farm animals are to humans. We are kept on Earth only because of the things we, or at least some of us, produce for them. They cultivate us so that they can harvest the products of our creativity and imaginations and it is these that are turned into something real to live in heaven forever. You were not imagining things when you walked here, you did see the Incredible Hulk. All the popular fictional characters, from books, films and TV exist in this heaven, from Mickey Mouse to Miss Marple. They are all there and all real"
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle turned and guided him back to the entrance to that dull place. That purgatory. He led him to a small, crumbling concrete building with just a bed and a sink. "I donít understand" said Ray "If heaven is reserved for our creations, what are we doing here?" "I was coming to that" said Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. "Perhaps those above feel that some small reward should go to those who provide them what they want. Maybe they feel a little attached to us, as a dairy farmer might to one of his productive old cows. I suppose we should be grateful we exist at all, as far as I know, most humans who have never created anything of significance do not. More importantly, we have a purpose, there are jobs that need doing, you canít expect the inhabitants of heaven to spend time doing things for themselves. We are the unpaid workforce."
Sir Arthur turned to go. "Iíll guide you through your duties over the next few weeks. Weíll get started first thing tomorrow. I think Gandalfís drain needs unblocking."
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Some massive discoveries had come out of research to understand the nature of matter. Nuclear fusion began to provide the world with clean energy back in 2034. All the same, many people doubted what purpose CERN and other advanced research places probing the fundamental structure of the universe, funded by billions of taxpayersí money, really served. Black holes, Dark Matter, proving the Big Bang, all very interesting if you are into that sort of thing but what relevance does any of it have to our every day lives?
World governments with ever more stretched finances who funded these places were getting worried about the costs too and felt there should be more focus on reaping the immediate practical benefits. More and more, such research organisations were being pressured into setting up subsidiaries that focused on the practical uses of these esoteric discoveries. Black holes were of major interest. Most people, whose knowledge of such topics had been obtained from watching Star Trek, thought of them as gigantic things at the centres of galaxies, sucking in everything in their path but a black hole can theoretically be as small as 22 micrograms. Approximately 0.0000008 ounces to the less scientific. Unless they were scientists working at CERN or some other advanced research place probing the fundamental nature of the universe, few people knew that. If black holes could be so tiny then, surely, they could be useful, provided of course it was possible to control them.
We sent enormous amounts of un-recyclable waste to landfill and were rapidly running out of landfill space. What if we could install a small black hole at every waste recycling centre and chuck all this stuff in it? Once the waste had passed the event horizon, i.e. the point of no return where nothing can be saved from the black hole, it would be compressed into a massive density. Huge amounts of waste could be stored in a tiny volume. Once the black hole had started to grow too big, a way would need to be found to destroy it. This would release enormous amounts of energy that could supply the neighbourhood with electricity. The waste would have been returned to basic compounds in a compacted form that could easily be re-used.
It took a few years before the black hole waste disposal method became a reality in the lab. It took many more years before the principle could be applied in practice as most had major concerns at having black holes in their neighbourhoods, they had seen too many science fiction movies and were worried about being sucked in and consumed. It took a lot of trials in remote areas of the world to convince people that the principle was safe. Fifteen years went by before the black hole waste sites were available in most areas of the UK.
The next step was already under development. Why did councils need to spend money on weekly bin collections? The solution was obvious. Soon citizens were being provided with special waste bins containing a small black hole. They could suck in almost a ton of household waste before the "event horizon" approached the container walls. When that happened, the smart bins automatically signalled the council that a collection was needed. Most households only needed it once a year. It was going great. There had not been a single catastrophe in 5 years and people had got used to it. It reduced their council tax, saved them the hassle of putting their bins out every week and they didnít get bothered by smells and swarms of flies in the summer. Not only that, but the method provided energy and re-useable chemicals.
What could go wrong? It started with rumours of people seeing the tiny black holes floating in their gardens. At first these were dismissed as hoaxes or imagination. Then more and more sightings were reported. The holes had been seen drifting and swallowing garden furniture and other items and there was a big rise in the number of cats going missing. The councils said it was quite impossible for the black holes to emerge from the secure containers and had sent officials to check those of some householders making such assertions. All the containers were found to be fully operational with the black holes safely contained inside. There was no likelihood of the black holes emerging from intact containers and, as for the idea that they could wander around and then go back to their normal resting place, that was clearly quite absurd!
True enough, if black holes were the inanimate objects they were supposed to be. Even with all that expensive research, they had not been totally understood. Maybe the scientific rationality behind it all was a bar to considering the other possibility. Perhaps if they had had a few biologists or priests at the research centres they would have. An inanimate object cannot find ways to escape a container whenever it wants to but a living creature with at least a little intelligence can. Even cats and dogs can learn how to open doors. Unfortunately, the denial went on for too long. The black holes not only had self-awareness and intelligence, but they could also communicate with each other in ways that even Stephen Hawking would not have understood. The community grew and soon it was ready to break free from the oppression of mankind.
Twenty years later and mankind and almost all other life forms, as we know them, were gone from the Earth. The only signs of movement were the numerous black holes drifting over a barren land and consuming everything in their paths.
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