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“Who goes there?” Was what people said in stories about wars and adventures and Alice, a young lady of lawks-a-mercy-almost-ten, felt rather silly saying it. She was hardly a soldier, though she supposed she might count as an explorer. How many people could say they were ripped into pieces and stitched back together again as she had been? Not many, if any, she thought. That sense of uniqueness added some strength to her spine, and she stood up straight with her shoulders back – just as the doctor had told her to.

“Who be going over there by ‘eck?” It was a queer little voice and as it spoke the figure that was carrying it lifted a small lamp and Alice got her first look and who – or what – it was.

Before her, was a peculiar little man in a fustian suit of muddy brown. His pale little face peered out from between the eaves of a high, starched collar and as he blinked, Alice realised that there were more than two eyes. His whole face was covered with them, all of them staring. Alice also became aware that there were other little lanterns, picking over the ground, which she now saw was a ripe and foetid mix of everything that had ever fallen down the plughole.

“Why, I’m Alice. I’m pleased to meet you,” Alice gave a little curtsey, a man in a suit – however peculiar – seemed like a gentleman to her, and politeness cost nothing.

The little man seemed somewhat sombre, and he stared with his too-many-eyes at Alice before appearing to recall his manners. “My name is Edward,” he said, and stepped closer, wiping his grubby hand on the corduroy roughness of his russet trousers. “I’m afraid you come at a sad time, I was going to give you the last rites.”

“Oh, I’m terribly sorry to have put you out by not being dead,” Alice didn’t quite know what to do, she hadn’t been to a funeral before – save that of poor old Dinah. She curtseyed again, for lack of anything better to do and offered the only words she could think of. “My condolences for your loss.”

“Thank you, thank you, but fortunately it seems to have stopped,” Edward looked upward and, when Alice followed his gaze with her own, she could see the opening to the plughole high above and the light streaming through – though it hardly seemed to penetrate the gloom.

“Oh however will I get back up there?” Alice fussed.

“You come from that hellish place?” Edward started in horror and turned his many-eyes on Alice again, seeming to see – for the first time – all the joins and scars where she had put her pieces back together.

“It’s not so bad, even if my aunt and cousin can be a little cruel,” Alice frowned as she looked up into the sky, trying to puzzle out the problem.

“But it is such a cruel place! Full of horrors! Only we, the shortest are spared the tortures, our friends and brothers skinned alive, cut to pieces, their severed parts raining down on us from above and only our dedication putting their spirits to rest!”

Alice was shocked and horrified to hear such a thing, not to mention puzzled. “You make it sound like the most ghastly place imaginable, and it’s really just a kitchen!”

“But look at you!” Edward, rather presumptively, poked and prodded with one whitish finger at the scar lines on Alice’s arm. “You were ripped to pieces as well! What manner of vegetable are you and how did you survive?” An intense, penetrating, suspicious stare emanated from every one of his squinty little eyes.

“Why I am not a vegetable at all!” Alice declared with her hands on her hips. “I am a human being!”

“A harwig bean?” Edward leaned even closer. “Que’st ce to fais ici, si loin de la Belgique?”

Alice’s French vocab had entirely abandoned her, so she tried explaining clearly and loudly. “A human being!” She said. “An animal!” She added, for clarity.

“Oh, we don’t get many of those, and never alive,” Edward said. “How is it that you are untouched?”

“Sir, I hardly think I was untouched. The machine chopped me into tiny pieces, and it was all I could do to pull myself together again. I’m not sure I got every piece though, I have a suspicion that there were some bits of my insides left over.”

“Oh, I shouldn’t worry about that,” Edward shook his head. “Have you ever taken apart a carriage clock?”

Alice thought for a moment and winced slightly. “Never on purpose.”

“Well, you will often find,” Edward took on a professorial and lecturing tone. “That there are pieces left over, but that the clock works just the same as it ever did. You seem to be fine. Has anything like this ever happened to you before?”

Alice paused and thought for a long moment, she had happened to have strange adventures before, but she had never been entirely sure whether they had really happened or not. “I suppose I have. There was a time when I fell down a hole, and another when I travelled to a mysterious land. There may have been another one where there was a sort of mechanical doll that looks exactly like me, but I’m not sure it’s canon.”

“Well, I’m sure I fail to understand what guns and explosives have to do with it, unless they’re what blew you to pieces,” Edward had become haughty and priggish since explaining about the clock. “You can join me if you wish, I must find a couple more casualties before I return to camp and then we can see what is to be done about you.”

“Oh, I do so hope you and your friends can help me,” Alice fell in behind Edward, glad of the warm little light cast by his lamp and keeping quiet, for his search seemed to be rather sad.

Alice found herself wondering, recalling her past adventures, which of them had been real and which had not. They seemed ridiculously fanciful when she thought back to them, but then again here she was in yet another strange and sinister world, at the mercy of forces beyond her comprehension. There was nothing for it but to go along with things and to see how they all worked out.

“Hark! Avert your eyes girl!” Hissed Edward, and Alice swiftly turned her back.

“What is it?”

“The gruesome remains of one of my poor, fallen brothers,” answered Edward and crouched in the muck, mumbling some sort of prayer. Alice could barely hear, but it was something to do with tubers and leaves and the richness of the soil. It had the same, well-practised drone that the Reverend’s words had every Sunday and while it was pleasant enough, it made her feel bored by association.

Alice had been told not to look, but then she’d also been told not to play with the garbage grinder and where had that gotten her? Slowly, carefully, trying not to make any noise, she turned about. “Why, it’s nothing but a potato peeling!” She cried.

Edward started from his crouching prayers and twisted back to look at her. “I said don’t look! This is too terrifying for a mere bean-sprout to see! It’ll turn your leaves black!”

“But it’s only a potato peeling, I’ve seen plenty of those!” And, after a moment “Altogether far too many of them!”

Edward seemed horrified, spluttering without words for long moments before gasping out, “You poor, poor creature, to see such terrors!”

“Oh, it’s not terrifying, just annoying to be made to do chores like a common scullery maid. I’m almost ten you know! I shouldn’t be peeling potatoes.”

“Puh-puh-puh-peeling? You did this? You carved the living faces of my brothers from their bodies and cast them into the pit?” He was shaking and trembling and seemed in a frightful sweat.

“My aunt made me,” said Alice, scuffing the dirt with her shoe.

“But why?” Edward stood, clutching at his own face, every one of his eyes glaring, unblinking at Alice.

“Well, without them what would we have to go with our sausages for supper?”

“Sausages?” The concept seemed outside of Edward’s experience.

“Chopped up meat in a sort of skin-bag and cooked,” Alice offered, matter of factly, trying to remember what the butcher had said last time she had visited. “Pork and fat and… rusk, I think.” Then, after another moment’s thought she added; “But I don’t think I’ll eat sausages any more, having been treated like one. I think I might become a vegetarian.”

“Eat… only vegetables?” Edward’s jaw had practically hit the floor.

“Well, what else could I eat if not meat or fruit or vegetables?”

“Soil!” cried Edward, forcefully. “Like any peaceable, civilised tuber! Delicious, loamy soil! Full of goodness and minerals!”

“I can’t eat soil,” Alice frowned.

“Won’t, you mean, you unethical monstress!” Edward took a deep, deep breath and began to bellow. “Help! Help! A demoness! A monster! A wild-eyed potato eater! A fiend in a pinafore!”

Alice almost jumped out of her skin. “What? No! I mean yes, but…” There was no talking to him, and the little lights of the other suited men were getting brighter and closer. Alice turned this way and that and then, in a panic, hitched up her skirts and began to run, as far and as fast as she could.

The lights gathered and pursued her, with a hollering, bellowing roar of outrage. Alice was terrified, but also confused and scared. Why were they all so upset? “It doesn’t matter! It doesn’t mean anything! It’s just a silly chore!”

Clammy, wet, white hands clawed at her, dancing lights threatened to catch her petticoats aflame and just as all seemed lost, a great flood of water fell from the sky and in a maelstrom of icy suds and filth the world was swept away.

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sergey-shetukhin-alicesAlice was getting thoroughly, indescribably bored with scrubbing and peeling potatoes. Her fingers were numb and cold from the tap water, there was dirt under her fingernails, and her fingertips were scratched and tender from slipping with the knife.

The little potatoes kept falling down the plughole, which was frustrating, and the larger ones seemed to take simply forever to get clean and were leathery and awkward to strip out of their tight brown jackets.

“Surely,” Alice said, petulantly. “Some clever fellow should have invented a machine to do this, so as to spare little girls such a chore? Or is it could have? Would, could, should.” As was so often the case, Alice found she was only confusing herself even more in trying to puzzle it out.

Snowdrop thought, for a moment, that Alice might have been talking to her and stretched out her paws, giving a little “Mrrp” for an answer, but Alice was only talking to herself.

What would such a potato-peeling machine even look like? Alice liked to imagine something terribly modern, electric and shiny, gleaming gears and clicking switches, but if she allowed herself to be sensible – something she was loath to do at the best of times – she thought it would likely more closely resemble her mother’s unused apple-peeler. How beastly dull that would be. Even duller was the realisation that, so far as her aunt was concerned, Alice was the potato-peeling machine.

Alice stared down at the latest potato from the sack, a big greenish one, and it stared back, in all directions at the same time, which was a little unnerving, like trying to maintain eye contact with a basket full of kittens.

“Why do they call them eyes do you suppose?” She asked, to nobody in particular and Snowdrop paid no heed, curled into a ball in front of the stove, already dreaming of sardines. “They don’t see, they’re where the potato grows its roots – so I’m given to understand by the gardener.”

Alice drew the peeling across the skin, slicing down to the watery off-white flesh beneath. The length of peel unfurled, curled and dropped down into the sink. Easily distracted, especially when engaged in a chore or left at a loose end, as she often was, Alice watched it slide perilously close to the yawning maw of the plug hole.

Soon, fascinated as she was by the slightest amusement, Alice found herself on tippy-toe, atop the wooden step that granted her sufficient reach to use the sink. It was a grand old sink, massive, weighty, almost the size of a bathtub – so it seemed to Alice – dark and smooth, like the worn stone steps at the church. In the dark of the plughole, there was a sinister glint of steely metal teeth.

That was the grinder.

Alice was a little confused by such a modern contrivance. It seemed out of sorts, out of character, out of time and out of place. Alice often felt that way herself, and so didn’t really feel she had the authority to complain about the world she found herself inhabiting. Why shouldn’t objects have as queer a life as she had, herself?

Her aunt had been simultaneously proud and terrifying when she described the grinding machine. A set of electrically powered, stainless, whirling blades that would chop anything that fell down into the hole into tiny bits and flush it away into the sewers, “of which we do not speak as it is not ladylike” as her cousin would have it.

“Alice,” her aunt had said, wagging her finger with the imperious authority that came naturally to her, despite her advancing spinsterhood. “You are absolutely, positively, never to poke your finger or anything else down the plug hole that does not belong there. Do you understand me? I lost my first engagement ring down there, never to be seen again, and a maid lost her finger. It was a such a frightful fuss.”

Losing a ring made sense to Alice, she had once lost a good dozen curtain rings and had been locked in the nursery for a whole day for the sake of it, but losing a finger didn’t. How could you be so careless with something that was attached to you? She’d heard you could forget your head if it wasn’t screwed on, which worried her because she’d never been able to find the screw. There was nothing about fingers though. For all she knew the finger was still in there somewhere, and perhaps the maid would be happy to have it back. Still, it wasn’t worth incurring the wrath of her aunt, who was quick to anger and almost as ready to reach for the slipper.

After those dire warnings that dark little hole and the mysterious machinery that lurked within had become increasingly attractive to Alice’s inquisitive mind, rather than less. It was most certainly a lot more interesting than peeling potatoes, while her aunt and cousin were off trying on dresses and taking tea in town. Alice was near-as-damn-it-ten, wasn’t she? Old enough to think, and even sometimes say, a scandalous word like ‘damn’. Maybe she was also interested in dresses and gossip, tea, cake and shopping. Perhaps she wasn’t, but it had to be more fun than peeling potatoes for supper, and she did oh-so-very-much want to be treated as a lady, rather than as a child.

Alice heaved a fresh sigh, puffing her hair up into the air, and slowly she drew the peeler over the potato once again, making a game of it. She tried to get the piece of peel to drop, directly into the hole and she smiled to herself in delight when a part fell right into the hole. That was when the grinder gave a deep, vibrating grumble and swallowed down the skin – eyes and all – in one, big, mechanical gulp.

All of a sudden a long strand of Alice’s golden hair fell from behind her ear, in the exact same instant that the latest strand of peel dropped from the potato into the mouth of that metal glutton. With a roar, it began to chew enthusiastically, on both the skin and Alice’s hair.

“Oh dear!” Said Alice and braced her hand against the edge of the sink as her hair was twisted, knotted into a rope and pulled down into the sink.

“Oh bother!” Alice shouted as she was pulled, head first, off her feet, into the air and over the side of the sink.

“Help!” Screamed Alice, getting dizzy as she spun around and around, legs in the air, stockinged feet towards the ceiling, presenting a most undignified sight to a fortunately indifferent Snowdrop.

“Rurrrr!” Said the grinder, as it chewed its way through Alice, from the crown of her head, all the way down to her toes. It ate the lot of her, unfussy, snout to tail.

It gnashed its way through her dress, her pinafore, her shoes and her unmentionables.

It chewed her hair, devoured her scalp, gobbled up her arms, wolfed down her legs, gorged itself on her torso, noshed on her skin and gulped her down, every bit, without so much as a burp to show for it, the lace of her shoe vanishing into the plug hole like a strand of spaghetti.

Alice decided there and then that she would never eat another sausage so long as she lived, now that she had some inkling of what might be involved in the process from the perspective of the meat.

The kitchen had vanished in a whirl of metal, blood and ripped strands of cloth. She was left dizzy, nauseous and sickened from the twisting as she spun around and around into the darkness of the drain. She had a strange sensation of being stretched, drawn out, taken apart piece by pieced, sorted and alphabetised as though she were a bookcase, rather than a collection of bones and organs, dreams, aspirations and half-remembered French vocabulary.

Finally, it stopped, and Alice realised she was sitting in a little pile, all bits and pieces, in the dark of whatever it was that came after the grinder.

Then Alice realised that she was realising something, and that – she realised – was unlikely and peculiar for someone who had been chopped into little pieces.

“I would have thought that I would be dead,” said Alice, thinking aloud as she was wont to do. She heard her own voice coming from the area around where she would normally expect her knees to be. That was unsettling, but amongst so many other troubling things it didn’t seem quite so urgent.

“Well, it is what it is.” She’d heard her aunt say that when she broke a vase once, and it seemed to help a little. “Pull yourself together gel!” That she’d heard at the train station, called from the window to a distressed looking woman, so she assumed he’d meant ‘girl’ and had never had a governess who was committed to elocution.

Alice wasn’t entirely sure where to start, but she had to start somewhere and, so, she began to grab around with her hands, pulling the scattered pieces of her body into a pile and sorting through them, trying to remember – from her dollies – how her body might fit back together into one overall piece.

Finally, with a sort of wet-sounding ‘pop’, Alice slid her second eyeball into place and turned back and forth, swishing her raggedy skirts. She was just about certain she had put herself together, and now that her eyes were brushed off and put back where they belonged they’d had time to adjust a little to the darkness.

Alice was still a little dizzy, but even through that dizziness and the shock of being pulled apart and put back together, “definitely no more sausages,” she was aware of the sensation of being watched.

She squinted a little and peered into the murky darkness, shielding her eyes with her hand, two-dozen little eyes glittered in the dark, gazing back.

“Hello?” Said Alice, and took a careful, faltering step towards the eyes. “Who goes there?”

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abandonedcampsiteA post-apocalyptic tale, rejected (narrowly) from an anthology. So you get it! Something of a dry-run for a setting for a forthcoming survival game.

Days run a little differently now than they used to.

It used to be I would get up, kiss my wife good morning, wake up the kids and head into the shower. Breakfast was a cereal bar and a cup of coffee on the way out of the door to the car. I drove eight miles to town, parked my car, walked to my office and sat in front of a computer from nine in the morning until five in the evening fielding people’s problems with their computers. Then I’d go home for an evening of forcing my kids to eat their peas and watching boxed sets on Netflix in bed with the missus.

A dull, boring, ordinary life. Days ticking by on my phone calendar. Nothing special, the same kind of thing that millions upon millions of people did every day, day in, day out, without changing or straying from the norm.

Now, things are a little different.

I get up when the sun rises, and I let everyone else sleep. I peel back the tarp and climb down the ladder – slippery with morning dew – to the forest floor. There’s no breakfast, we eat once a day, in the evening. I walk the trails through the woods and check the snares as well as the fish hooks we leave dangling in the rivulet – though the water drops every day. If I find any fallen wood, I bring it back to the hide to dry out for the evening’s fire, but that’s getting scarce too. We’ll have to start cutting them down soon, and that will make our presence easier to detect. Then I walk back to the hide, and I sit in the cover under the hide and tinker with the radio, just for something to do. It’s unfixable since the pulse, like everything else, but it keeps me busy.

I don’t know how anyone else lives now, but if they’re surviving it must be something like this.

Somehow we survived the pulse, the chaos that came after it. The plague and the looters, the rioters and murderers. All of us, my whole family.

There’s me, my wife (Ellie) my father (Gramps), and my kids, Tony and Amy.

Tony’s doing alright; he was a scout before everything went to hell and while he doesn’t enjoy camping anymore, he can cope with it.

Amy’s broken, though, and there’s nothing we can do about it. She hasn’t talked since we escaped town and she has her little den she’s dug in the woods away from the rest of us. She only comes close to us when we make food, so at least we know she’s eating. We keep hoping she’ll snap out of it, but she hasn’t yet.

My wife was a fiercely independent woman before all this happened, the one who did everything made more money than me doing bank work in the city, organised and ran our lives. Now she’s lost, traumatised, just doing what she has to and crying over everything we’ve lost.

Gramps is old, sick, but he struggles on and helps me as best he can. He’s a tough old dog, my father but we all notice the cough. Sick as he is I’ll dread it when he’s finally gone. He’s used to a simpler world than we were. He’s practical; he knows how to fix things, how to skin rabbits and gut pheasants, skills which have become literal lifesavers. I’ve learned more from him in this past year than in the forty preceding it. I used to be the one to teach him things like using the internet or setting the video to record. It’s strange how things turn out.

We lost track of time in all the chaos but so far as we can tell it’s late summer now, maybe the end of August. We’re hoping we can find and preserve a lot of autumn fruit and nuts, somehow, once they start to appear. We can’t get meat to smoke or dry properly, we’ve tried we have no salt or vinegar or even alcohol to pickle or preserve with, and we daren’t go back to town to look for supplies that probably aren’t there.

It’s a worry.

This morning was the first in quite some time that there had been a chill in the air and mist clinging to trees. It was getting towards the autumn, and that weighed heavy on my mind.

We had a rabbit in a snare, so that was a good haul for the morning or at least better than nothing. The hazelnuts weren’t ripe yet, by any stretch, so that was a bust, and the blackberries weren’t ripe yet. I still had some gloves and a good knife, so I cut a big bushel of stinging nettles – they come out a bit like spinach when you boil them. We’re all utterly bored of them, though, we lived off nettles and rice too many days before we got the snares right. Just as well that they did, because we ran out of rice. I read once you can’t live off of rabbit, but that’s been almost all we’ve been eating this month other than the nettles. Another thing to worry about.

When I get back on this day, everyone’s up and awake. My grubby little family of dirty survivors. No sign of Amy though, at least not yet, no food for her to eat I suppose. My wife’s hanging up the blankets to try and dry and air them in the sun – it hardly works even in the summer, you just can’t get dry living outside. Gramps is fiddling on that bow of his again – bailing twine and hazel sticks don’t make for the best or most accurate hunting weapon, but he perseveres. Tony’s tending the fire; that has become his singular obsession. He keeps it going through the day from the embers of the previous night. He’s gotten pretty good at it, though we don’t dare have a massive fire. Someone might see.

The day passes, somehow. Boredom is something we all constantly experience now, boredom punctuated by terror at the noises coming from the woods. We’ve not seen another person in months, just deer and the occasional fox sniffing around. We still remember what it was like getting out of town. People were – and probably still are – terrible. Desperation does that to people. It has done it to me; there is blood on my hands as much as anyone.

When the sun starts to set, we build the fire up, boil the river water in our fire-blackened pot and put in the rabbit and the nettles. It’s not much, but its something, or will be when it’s cooked.

Tomorrow, maybe, we’ll have some better luck.

Only we don’t get to tomorrow uninterrupted. There’s a loud cracking sound from the edge of our little clearing, our home, and then a voice raised, calling out to us. A new voice, one we haven’t heard before, cracked and husky with a lack of practice at speaking.

“Can you spare a little of that?”

***

He looked a state, but then we all did. He’d made an effort to trim his beard, which I hadn’t, but he was still as grubby and tired looking as the rest of us. Layered with muck and sweat, the sort of thing you only ever used to see on homeless people. He had a huge backpack, one of those army ones called ‘Bergens’ I think, and a gun, something I hadn’t seen in a long time. It was a battered looking double-barrel, and he had a half-empty bandolier of shells hung around his neck. It was pointing down, but he was almost as cautious as we were, frozen in place around our dinner with only gramps and his stupid bow and arrow to defend ourselves.

“I’ve got salt, pepper, some spice. Just nothing to put it with, can we make a trade?” He took a cautious, half-step forward, holding the gun one handed, raising the other, palm towards us.

Just the thought of salt had me salivating, let alone anything else. My stomach yawned at the mere mention. Less food, but with flavour? That would be a good trade at this point and someone who’d been out there might know something. News and flavour. I stepped forward and waved gramps to lower his bow – for all the good it could do in the first place.

“If you put the gun down and show us what you have, maybe we can find a place for you tonight and a bit of food. It’s just rabbit and nettles, though. Nothing fancy.” I moved, slowly, between him and my family. If things went wrong, perhaps I could still protect them.

He set the gun down on a stump with the shells and unslung his pack, keeping one hand up as he rummaged in the side pocket. He showed us salt, pepper and – Lord have mercy – garlic granules.

“Alright, come on closer but leave the gun there,” I gestured to him to approach, and he set his pack behind and came forward.

He stank worse than we did, or we’d just gotten used to our smell perhaps. We could wash – occasionally – in the rivulet, but he smelled like he hadn’t washed at all in the year since the pulse. He was greasy with it. Shiny-headed in the firelight and the fading sun, and I could hear his stomach growling as loud as mine was. He handed over the condiments, and I gave them to Ellie. She added them to the stew pot with shaking, quivering hands.

“It won’t be ready for a while. Why don’t you sit with us and sing for your supper?”

He winced a little at the suggestion, but he did sit, on one of the mossy logs we’d dragged here to use as seats and after a deep sigh he told us his tale, constantly glancing towards the pot and the promise of food to come, as though reassuring himself it was real.

“What do you want to know?” He asked, his voice low, almost lost in the crackling of the fire.

“Your name,” I sat, opposite him and everyone else crowded closer. “Everything you know. What’s been going on out there, how did you survive?”

He tongued his lips and took a sip of water from his canteen, and then he began to talk, a practised tale he must have told many times before. Too many people.

“My name’s Alan. I was a delivery driver. My watch didn’t work; my phone didn’t work, the van didn’t work. Nothing worked. I waited for other cars but after an hour all there was, was a young couple whose own car had broken down. That seemed like a bit too much of a coincidence to me, but I stayed with the van. Like an idiot.

He shook his head and plucked a few leaves off his boots before he went on. “Wasn’t until a policeman on a bike – of all things – came by that I clicked something bigger was going on. His suggestion was to find a pub or something to stay at, but I didn’t. I stuck with the van. I thought it might all get fixed I suppose. Two days later and nothing but a few people trudging down the road. Got to the point where I started breaking into the packages to look for food and drink, but eventually, I had to lock up the van and get going again.”

“We were in town when it happened. It was worse in a lot of ways, though people were looking out for each other at the beginning.”

“Then the sickness hit,” he sighed again, deeper. “As I’m sure you know.”

“We didn’t see much of it; we decided to leave town after a couple of days.”

“You were lucky then. I walked through a couple of villages before I got to a town and by the time I got there, the sickness was in full force. Pale people, white as sheets, barely able to move for how weak they were. Easy prey for the people who were still fit and were looking to loot and pillage. Whatever it was, I didn’t want to catch it. I stayed long enough to get some supplies and then got the same idea you did, to get out.”

I nodded along with him as we shared a moment of understanding. It had been horrible, and it had felt like there was no choice but to get away. We’d seen the writing on the wall the same way he had. Still, leaving people to die was haunting.

“I tried a couple of camping sites, but the sickness or bandits, or worse, always came along. Things broke down or just stopped working – whatever machines were left that is. The amount of people around got fewer and more sparse and spread out the more time went on. I just kept on moving. You’re the first people I’ve even seen a sign of in a few weeks.”

“Worse?” that worried me, I thought we’d seen the worst this new world had to offer.

“Ah, forget it. Don’t worry. Just being dramatic I suppose. I’ve just stayed on the road; there is still food and supplies out there if you’re not too fussy. Dog food will keep you going in a pinch. There’s hunting if you’re a decent shot, but I’m not,” he laughed, a little bitterly. “You seem to be doing alright, though. I’ve been watching you since this morning. You and your family have it pretty good.”

“It doesn’t feel like it most days,” I turned and looked to Ellie as she hovered over the pot. She nodded.

We had plastic bowls from an old picnic set, enough for everyone, though they were no longer the cleanest. The stew was thin and sloppy, but with the salt, pepper, and garlic it was the grandest feast we’d had in some time, considering a single rabbit don’t go so far between so many people.

After a mouthful of boiled rabbit and soggy nettle, Alan stopped abruptly, eyes wide and white in his grubby face. He swallowed, hard, and jabbed one dirty finger at the bowl we’ve filled for Amy. “Why are there six bowls?” He sounded panicked, scared, terrified. We didn’t understand why, but the fear was infectious.

“My daughter. Amy. She’s not well. She hides in the woods, but she comes back for meals. What’s wrong?”

“No, no, no!” He’s clutched his head like it was about to split, set down his bowl and stood, casting about and then walking towards his gun with quick strides.

“Wait no!” I spilled my bowl as I got up. “Don’t hurt us!”

He snatched up the gun and the shells and looked back at me. “I’m not going to, but six people is too many. I didn’t know about the girl. It always goes bad when there’s more than five. Always. Always.”

There’s a subtle change in the air as he says it. His fear is genuine, and it does feel like something has changed, shifted, a chill, a sense of being watched. I can’t explain it.

***

Alan kept staring into the woods, clutching that shotgun of his, white-knuckled and panicked but nothing was happening. My family huddled together in the dark except Amy who had scuttled back into the woods to hide. Slowly the tension began to evaporate from the terror he’d induced in us, and I stepped away from the others to try and talk some sense into him.

“Alan, please, you’ve scared everyone. Nothing’s happening.”

“It will,” he looked back at me with wild, feral eyes. “It’s coming.”

Something about the way he spoke made me still believe he meant what he was saying; I swallowed to wet my throat and ease my voice. “I’ll climb up into the hide and see if I can see anything.” He nodded to me and kept staring out into the trees.

I moved away from him, with a glance towards my family for mutual assurance, and then I stepped to the ladder. When I set my hands on it, it felt strange, dusty under my fingers and when I placed my weight on the bottom rung, it simply snapped, rusted through. That was absurd. It was steel; it had held firm as long as we had been here and showed no sign of breaking or damage. I just stared down at the fragments at my feet, uncomprehending. “Rust?”

“Rust?” Alan twisted around to look at me. “Get clear!” He shouted, stabbing a finger to point up at the hide.

My family moved the moment he barked; I didn’t. I was frozen, staring at the ladder, the patina of rust spreading across it like a time-lapse image of mould running across fruit. I looked aside to the great wooden beams that held the hide up above the forest floor and there too the metal bolts that ran through it and held it all together was turning red-brown and crumbling before my eyes. As I looked up in terrified wonder, the hide gave a loud groan, shuddered and slewed drunkenly sideways.

Our home, everything we had scraped, preserved and recovered was smashed to pieces in a deafening, splintering crash as it toppled into the woods and threw up clouds of dirt and leaves in all directions, blowing our meagre fire across the forest as embers that quickly vanished in the dark.

My ears were ringing. My lungs were burning as I coughed up leaf mold and ash. I stared into the crater around the broken stumps of the support columns as the clouds settled and thinned and saw something even stranger. The ground was writhing, twisting, heaving with worms, one atop the other in an enormous tangle right where the hide had stood. I’d never seen anything quite like it. The rust, the worms, none of it made any sense. At all.

“Alan! What the hell is this?” I screamed at him over my deafness, and I staggered to check on my family. They were horrified, staring at what remained of our meagre life, backed against a grand, old tree.

“This is what I meant by worse,” he yelled back. “Come together, help each other, and the world turns against you. I thought we were safe! I didn’t know about the girl!” The despair in his voice made my spine quiver.

I held Ellie tight though there was nothing I could offer to calm her, no platitude that would serve in this situation. Every last little thing we’d scraped together, this hardscrabble desperate life we’d forged, ruined in an instant.

Tony stepped apart from us, peeling away from the family huddle, clinging with one hand to my ragged shirt and staring into the night. Suddenly pointed out, with his free hand, past Alan, out into a gap in the trees to the blue-black night sky and the distant stars. “Dad! Look!”

I looked where he was pointing, and through the gap in the trees, the sky abruptly turned completely black. With sudden ferocity a torrent of croaking, shrieking feathers came pouring through the trees like a tidal wave. A pecking, screaming mass of crows that scratched, flapped and snapped at us as they flew around and over us and circled back through the trees and into the sky to fly back at us again.

I was bleeding from dozens of cuts and scratches, as was everyone else. Blood ran from a gash in my brow, down into my eye, half blinding me as the birds wheeled and whirled through the trees, screeching and cawing, massing for a second attack. It was incredible, it was impossible, it was terrifying, but there was no time to think about it. As they swept back I grabbed for my wife and son and hit the ground, scrambling under what remained of the tarp as Alan’s shotgun barked deafeningly, and flashes of light lit through the plastic.

Ears ringing I could barely hear the bodies of the crows tumbling around us, some still twitching and squawking in pain, crippled or killed by a shot, others tearing at the tarp with their claws and beaks to try and get at us. There were sickening crunches, something smacked into my leg and bruised it to the bone, but most of the crowing stopped. We screamed as the tarp was thrown back.

It was Alan, bloodied, blinded in one eye, a ragged hole where it should have been. The crows that remained perched angrily in the trees; the ground was littered with their corpses. Blood and spittle dripped down his chin as he opened the gun and thrust in the last shell. “It’ll be people next I think. Bandits. It won’t stop. It won’t ever stop so long as we’re together.”

I struggled to stand, the bruised leg almost giving way under me. “We’ll run, there’s nothing to stay here for anyway. Come with us. We’ll make it together. Don’t be stupid.” I reached my hand towards him, bloodied and scratched, fingers stretched out to take his hand.

He just shook his head and looked at me with one working eye and one ruined one, blood running down his face. “No. It won’t work. No more than five people. Never more than five. There’re no antibiotics anyway. I’m done. Thanks for the rabbit. I should have seen the girl.” Tears mingled with the blood.

Before I could stop him, he twisted the gun and fired. The flash was so close it singed my eyebrows and blinded me for a moment as his mostly headless body fell back with a wet, boneless thump amongst the dead crows.

We stood, I don’t know how long, in shock. When we recovered our senses, and our muscles answered our appeals to move the surviving crows had left, and it was quiet again. The air had changed, back, to the way it was before, without that tension, without that sensation of being watched. A new peace settled over our shattered camp and then, after a time, as we had so many times before, we set about picking up the pieces of our shattered lives.

***

We’re back on the road now. All five of us. Amy came back out of hiding after Alan died though she still hasn’t spoken and never leaves her mother’s side. We have Alan’s supplies and his empty gun. We have a tiny bit of food, the last gasp of the snares and fishing lines, but autumn is coming now, and there’ll be nuts and berries and whatever has survived in people’s abandoned gardens for a while.

We’ll look for supplies in some of the forest villages and then try to find somewhere remote and sheltered where we can rest up for the winter. All five of us. Just the five of us. Wherever we go, I’m going to leave this information, no more than five. Maybe it’ll keep some other people alive, but it means we’re alone, and we have to stay alone if we’re going to live. It means there’s never going to be any more help. No civilisation. Nobody to ride to the rescue or to rebuild.

It’s just us now.

Just family.

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792ff0efca4a02382678eb238ac650adJust over a year ago I was standing on the far platform of a railway station, with crusted blood on my arm from self-inflicted wounds and trying to muster the courage to throw myself in front of a train. I nearly did it too. Standing so close to the edge of the platform that the side of one of the trains brushed and almost clipped the tip of my nose.

I couldn’t quite do it though. Not quite. Ended up going back home with my tail between my legs and trying to salvage the pieces of my broken brain.

I was in a very severe depressive slump anyway and then was kicked while I was down by life. One friend died and another, dear, friend turned out to be in a rather harsh home situation. I couldn’t help either of them in any meaningful way and was left feeling thoroughly impotent, even more useless than usual and selfish for feeling terrible. I was unable to ask for support and help when I felt other people needed it more.

Eventually, of course, people found out and were amazingly and wonderfully supportive, as they always are (depression lies to you about that) and while a dead friend can’t be brought back, at least the other friend now has an escape plan that I can – hopefully – help with.

My beautiful and lovely friend, and one-time unofficial, virtual housemate, Katie sent me a care package not long after my bout of suicidal ideation, and while some of the contents were an arcane mystery (a face pack? wtf?) amongst the goodies was The Book of You, a little diary/workbook of sorts with daily micro-actions for a whole year (there’s also an app). I just finished working through it (it was actually useful and not the hippy crap it might look like at first glance) and one of the things it tells you to do is to ‘report back’.

So, what’s there to report back?

I’ve made it 12 months without a relapse. No self harm in that time. No new suicide attempts. Only – relatively – mild bouts of depression and panic. I’m out of therapy but back on the drugs, on what seems to be a semi-permanent basis, constantly trying to anticipate and balance the dose. Summer is the worst time of year for my mental health, the heat I think – and the lack of sleep. I also tend to feel out of place at this time of year, it’s not really my ‘cup of tea’ and there are extra, physical chores that need doing.

I’ve been working hard to try and get back to the self-sufficiency I was at before the last few years’ heavy bouts of depression, but it’s tough. I’ve even been looking for supplementary part-time work but with the depression as it is I just don’t think I’m reliable enough for anyone to hire. This presents its own problems in terms of both self-esteem and finances, wanting to regain that full independence and being – seemingly – unable to. There’s not a lot of options to remedy that either. Seeking assistance or benefits is massively impactful to self esteem if you don’t feel you really need them and austerity has cut funding for such things to the bone anyway. An ‘invisible illness’ would be a tough sell to any assessor or board, especially the kinds that judge terminal cancer cases ‘fit for work’.

There’s no real prospect of ever ‘getting better’ at this point. Just varying degrees of coping. That puts a lot of stress on friendships and relationships, as does the aforementioned lack of independence. There’s things I’m good at, even very good at, but imposter syndrome is a bitch and even having talent isn’t enough in a very tough gig economy with a trashed reputation, caused by sticking up for what you know is right – no matter what. No matter the lies and aspersions. Even when some of the people you were sticking up for end up turning on you.

I’ve accomplished a lot, in spite of being sick. In spite of there being no prospect of ever getting better. These are things I should be proud of, but anhedonia – one of the symptoms of depression, look it up – makes it all but impossible to truly acknowledge and take it to heart even when you do something amazing and against the odds.

I’m still here, but the Reverse SAD is pretty bad, panic attacks are pretty frequent. The abuse and suspicion I’m used to by this point, and when you have severe depression nobody can hate you as much as you hate yourself anyway, so it barely registers.

All of that sounds really bad, but here’s the thing. It isn’t.

It’s just an acknowledgement of status. I’m coping. I’m plodding on. I’m working away on things – bit by bit. I’ve re-organised my work schedule and am much more productive. I have a large body of work on Youtube now. I’m at least looking for ways out of my problem situations and there’s slow but steady progress on every front.

That’s all much better than it sounds.

Thank you everyone who looks after me when I need it, stays friends through tough differences of opinion, doesn’t treat me like some fragile thing all the time and forgives me my failings while valuing my strengths.

Here’s where I was last year, for comparison…

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[Brain scan of white matter fibers, brainstem and above. The fibers are color coded by direction: red = left-right, green = anterior-posterior, blue = ascending-descending (RGB=XYZ). The Human Connectome Project, a $40-million endeavor funded by the National Institutes of Health, aims to plot connections within the brain that enables the complex behaviors our brains perform so seamlessly.MANDATORY CREDIT: Courtesy of the Laboratory of Neuro Imaging at UCLA and Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at MGH / www.humanconnectomeproject.org] *** []

I have something of an on-again-off-again project to re-mystify and update Lovecraft to existential and peculiar horror, reinventing concepts from the books. This story was rejected from a couple of places, so you get it!

MI5: TOP SECRET, DoR/CISP EYES ONLY

From: [Redacted]

To: [Redacted]

Sir, an update on the Mundy situation.

Mr Mundy’s disappearance and the death of his old mentor now appear to be related. Investigations have been hampered by bad practice at the university and hostility towards police and government investigators from students. The reclusive nature of the Professor and Mundy’s absconding with his papers, along with widespread conspiracy theories and disinformation online have further hampered investigative efforts. Nonetheless we have recovered what we can from the internet and from hard drives and other sources to try and get to the bottom of matters.

We suspect cult activity but this is the kind of cult activity which may drive a new source of domestic terrorism. The investigation is still ongoing, but the team seeks direction from higher up on how they want us to proceed.

Pertinent information is attached.

[Redacted]

***

From: ReisenChew@[Redacted]

To: MundayNext@[Redacted]

Mr Mundy,

My name is Jane Riesen. I don’t know if you’ve heard of me but I interned for your great uncle, Professor Angel.

I’m sorry to bring you such bad news, especially in such as impersonal a manner as an email, but the professor died yesterday. He collapsed, suddenly on the street and died on the way to the hospital despite the best efforts of the ambulance men. Some sort of heart attack they tell me, though I’m not family and I’m sure they could tell you more.

I didn’t really know who else to contact about this as he seems to not have any family besides you. I enjoyed many of the books you sent him and noted that you inscribed them to him. A little poking around (please forgive me!) showed that you might be the only member of his family to have stayed in touch with him over the years.

I hope I haven’t overstepped the mark in tracking you down but there doesn’t seem to be anyone else who knew him or who cared about him, apart from me. I don’t want to clear his house of his effects until I know what’s what and whether you want anything as a memento or to preserve for the family.

I’ve attached a map so you can find the house. Here’s my number so you can let me know when you’re coming. [Redacted]

My sincere condolences on your loss, the professor was eccentric, but a good and brilliant man.

Jane Riesen

Assistant to Professor Angel

[Redacted]

***

From: MundayNext@[Redacted]

To: ReisenChew@[Redacted]

Miss Riesen,

I’ve been out of the country the last couple of weeks so please forgive the slowness of my reply. I am upset to hear about the death of my great uncle. We were quite close, despite his troubles with the rest of the family.

I will make arrangements as soon as possible to come and check the house and help you clear his things. Thank you for informing me and looking after his affairs until I can get there.

William Mundy

Author of The Grey Tide trilogy

Born on Munday

***

Mr Munday,

Enclosed are copies of your great uncle’s will and the details of his death. I have attached summarising cover letters in each case as they are quite technical documents. If there is anything further we can do to assist you, do please let us know. We endeavour to make the grieving period and the execution of the will as smooth as possible.

Sincerely,

Albert Cumming

Alexander & Courant

Solicitors

LAST WILL & TESTAMENT

THIS Last Will & Testament is made by me PROFESSOR GEORGE ANGEL of [Redacted]

I REVOKE all previous wills and codicils

I APPOINT as executors and trustees of my will ALBERT CUMMING of [Redacted] and JONATHAN COURANT of [Redacted] and should one or more of them fail to or be unable to act I APPOINT to fill any vacancy JANE RIESEN of [Redacted].

I GIVE ALL MONEY AND PROCEEDS OF MY ESTATE to JANE RIESEN of [Redacted] and ALL PAPERS AND EFFECTS DESIRED to WILLIAM MUNDAY of [Redacted] with any remaining material he does not desire to be sold or otherwise disposed of as he wishes, with resulting monies going to JANE RIESEN.

I GIVE the rest of my estate to my executors and trustees to hold on trust to pay my debts, taxes and testamentary expenses and pay the residue to JANE RIESEN of [Redacted] but if she fails to survive me by 28 days or if this gift or any part of it fails for any other reason, then I GIVE the residue of my estate or the part of it affected to WILLIAM MUNDAY of [Redacted].

I WISH my body to be LEFT FOR SCIENTIFIC OR MEDICAL RESEARCH.

***

Coroner’s Report

Decedent: ANGEL, GEORGE (PROFESSOR)

Date of Death: Monday 24th of February 2014

Cause of Death: Natural causes (Myocardial infarction)

Autopsy Performed by: WILLIS DEBORAH, MD

Summary:

Professor Angel reportedly collapsed on the street, while riding his bicycle and passers by immediately called an ambulance. Medics were unable to revive him at the scene and hospital staff had no better luck. Blood tests showed positive for botulinum toxin of types A, B, E and F though the source of the poisoning is hard to determine.

Professor Angel was of advanced age and had not been eating well. He appeared below weight with a generally poor state of health which explains his lack of resistance to the toxin.

While there are contusions, scrapes and bruises on the body these appear to have been sustained when he collapsed and are not a cause for additional concern.

***

From: MundayNext@[Redacted]

To: ReisenChew@[Redacted]

Hey Jane!

It was great to meet you the other day, despite the sad circumstances. Thank you for letting me in to the house. I’ve filled the skip with things I think are junk and set aside a few other odds and ends I don’t want but which may interest you, or at least may be able to be auctioned off for a worthwhile amount of money.

I must say, I’m shocked at the state of the place. The house is a real tip and looks like it has barely been maintained. My hat is off to you for being willing to work in such circumstances and I’m, frankly bewildered that he had the money to pay you but not to replace the broken window in the downstairs toilet.

As for his notes and other materials I am slowly sifting through them to see if there’s anything worth keeping, but he was clearly getting disorganised in his old age and only his draft manuscripts, next to his typewriter (!) seem to be in any sort of order at all, not that they make a great deal of sense to me either. You might be better qualified than I am to know what material would make a suitable legacy or donation to one of the university libraries.

Amongst his notes I found some interesting pieces of art. My uncle was never much for the visual arts and to have so many similar pieces in his possession seems more than a little out of character. They’re not really my ‘thing’ but they clearly meant something to him. Can you shed any light on what they are or where they came from?

I’ve had a copy of the key cut for myself in town, so you won’t need to be around to let me in any more. Still, give me a text if you are going to be about or if you want any help. I’ll be staying at a B&B in town until this is sorted out.

Cheers,

Bill

***

From: ReisenChew@[Redacted]

To: MundayNext@[Redacted]

Hi Bill,

Nice to meet you too, thank you for the lardy-cake and the tea. I’ll go through what you’ve left when I get a spare morning.

I don’t want you to think too badly of your uncle, he just wasn’t very practically minded and while I did what I could he mostly wanted me there to help with his notes and research rather than as a glorified housekeeper. It’s not like he went senile or anything, or turned into a hoarder, he was as intense and bright as ever as long as I knew him. Scarily so, right up to the end.

He didn’t have to pay me, but he did and thanks for letting me know about the will. He didn’t have a lot but it should keep me from building up too big of a debt, for which I will be forever grateful.

His recent project and manuscript he was being quite secretive about but I think his earlier work on ‘Ur language’ is worth keeping, even if it was never completed. The ideas behind it seem sound to me and it could help whoever studies these things after him to make faster progress. The notes are in the red cardboard files in the bottom drawer of the leftmost cabinet and should be in good order unless he was messing with them.

As to the art, that was somehow related to his recent work I think. Most of it comes from a student on the Fine Arts course, Tony Wilcox. Student admin should be able to put you in touch if you explain what it’s all about. He came by the house a couple of times to drop things off so if I see him around I’ll let him know you’re looking for him.

J

x

***

From: MundayNext@[Redacted]

To: ReisenChew@[Redacted]

Hey J, thanks for the quick reply.

I’ll definitely look into this artist. Maybe he can let me know what’s going on with all that and I can work out whether it’ll be worth anything in the future. 🙂

I found the ‘Ur language’ thing, but despite being a writer I can’t make head nor tail of it. I recognise the words but it all seems a bit technical to me. I’ll save it, but it would be nice to know what it’s about so I can brag at parties.

B

***

From: ReisenChew@[Redacted]

To: MundayNext@[Redacted]

Ur language was your uncle’s concept of an original human language, a sort of human ‘root code’ if you will.

You can think of it like this:

There are basic things that are instinctual about human communication. We know what a blush means or a smile, no matter what our culture or origin. We know a scream in pain means one thing and a laugh another. A hiss, a glare, all those sorts of things.

Sure there’s some local variations and nuances but your uncle believed there was some deeper communication possible at this sort of root level, that concepts other than ‘danger!’ could be expressed in this way, perhaps subconsciously as much as consciously.

He didn’t get very far with it, but the ideas always seemed sound to me.

Gotta run. Got a lecture to go to.

Good luck!

J

***

From the personal blog of William Munday, retrieved 23/03/2014

Fine Art and Fine Cake

The poor old duffer was not living well.

Clearing my great uncle’s place is a labour worthy of Hercules, only instead of shit filling a stable it’s papers, magazines and scrapbooks – and they’re absolutely everywhere.

I found a loose floorboard (by putting my foot through and nearly coming a cropper). When I went to fix it I found a couple of shoe boxes full of clippings and photocopies of articles about ‘Marian apparitions’ stuffed into the space beneath the board. Jane says he wasn’t a hoarder but when you find yellowing papers on instances of mass hysteria from the middle of last century, stuffed under under the floor, you have to wonder.

I needed a break from it all, so I headed into the town proper, the ‘dreaming spires’ and all that. I needed to talk to administration about finding this Wilcox guy who did a lot of the art.

How could I skip over this place without taking a moment?

Bicycles, students, old buildings and shitty parking. That pretty much sums Oxford up. It’s hard not to be impressed by the sheer weight of history the place has. History and poshness and students braying like a herd of particularly privileged goats.

I grabbed a spot of late breakfast/early lunch at the Oxford Organic Deli, which isn’t that far from the famous Trinity College. Then I dropped by the administration and put in my request and pottered about doing some touristy type stuff until they called me and let me know Wilcox was willing to talk to me.

Wilcox is a bizarre guy. Almost your stereotypical artist, the kind of thing you expect to see as a stereotype in a sitcom. He had a house-share with some other students who weren’t that pleased to see me and didn’t seem too pleased to be sharing a space with him either. He’d taken over the shed as a work space, perhaps to escape from the rest of them, and that’s where I found him.

Raggedy looking guy. If I put him in one of my books people would write him off as trite and cliché. He had one of those straggly young-man beards, looked like he was on drugs (no, I’m not being judgemental, I remember what cannabis smells like) and all he seemed to care about was his art, at the expense of everything else. Even personal hygiene.

It was the same weird stuff I’d seen at my uncle’s place and it’s hard to describe. Unsettling shapes kind of like a Möbius strip or a Klein bottle but inadequately represented in two dimensions. It hurts your eyes when you look at it, trying to follow all the lines and curves and make sense of it. I can’t really describe it right, but clearly he’d taken some inspiration from mathematics and that’s not that unusual if you think about the golden ratio or a Fibonacci spiral.

You see the same kinds of things in language – rhyme and meter in poetry, the rule of three in public speaking and so on. You even see it in prose, the careful selection of the particular adjective that is weighted to convey the more precise meaning in interaction with its neighbours.

He wasn’t very forthcoming, not really, but it wasn’t just him who’d done the art, it was other students in his tutor group as well. That was a bit surprising because it was all the same kind of shape, the same kind of thought the art was seeking to express, just in different media and from different perspectives. I’d thought Wilcox had done all of it. I thought it was just variations on a theme.

That’s when it got weird, because of course it had to get weirder.

I went back to the admin and tried to get in touch with some of the other artists but, unlike Wilcox they didn’t seem willing to talk to me. Some of them had dropped out without leaving contact information, others I found nothing out about at all. I managed to talk to the parents of one of the students who lived locally, [Redacted] and while they seemed standoffish they told me she was at church that evening and with a bit of wheedling and an accurate sob-story about why I was asking, they told me which one.

It turned out to be one of those weird ‘spiritualist’ churches, the ones that claim to be mediums and to contact the dead. All that ‘Derek Acorah’ stuff I’ve never had any time for.

Frauds.

I dropped by anyway, thinking I’d wait for the service to end and then collar her about the art but standing outside that sad little building and listening to the weird chanting and speaking in tongues going on inside I bottled it and left.

There’s a story of some kind here. I can sense it. It seems weird that my great uncle should die and leave me this mess to investigate. I can’t shake the feeling there’s something big and important going on and I want to be part of it. Maybe it’s all in my head though and I just want a good story, the kind you just don’t normally get in the real world.

But I want it.

***

Extract from Neuroecology by Professor George Angel

The Selfish Meme

It is a sad truth that many people who see fundamental truths are not those who spend their lives studying it but those who take inspiration from elsewhere. It was a biologist, Richard Dawkins, who hit upon the idea of memes, self-replicating pieces of information, as being analogous to genes in biological organisms. Many areas of expertise are now so specialised and so deep that this kind of cross-discipline insight is becoming less and less common.

Dawkins is otherwise most famous for his work in understanding natural selection at the level of the gene. That is, that the individual organism does not necessarily matter in the grand scheme of things, only that the genes multiply and progress to the next generation. This concept reinforces ideas behind group selection, eusocial, self-sacrificing creatures and makes sense of a lot of seemingly self-destructive animal and human behaviour.

An animal though, is not a single gene and a person is not an individual meme, or idea.

Like genes, ideas thrive when they are replicated, whatever the effect on the person who holds them to good or to bad. Some memes are passed on because they’re useful. When you’re taught how to tie your shoelaces you are being ‘infected’ with a meme but it’s the kind of useful meme that improves your life and becomes part of your informational ecosystem, precisely because its useful.

Other memes might by harmless, wearing clothing a certain way or using a particular slang term, and these fall in and out of favour, novelty and ‘tribal’ identification being a big factor. Other memes can be downright dangerous, at least to the individual. The idea of ‘coolness’ for example may lead many a young lad to make a fool of himself or risk his life to impress others and gain social currency. It also might kill him, but even then the idea can and will spread because it’s high risk and high reward. The organism, the person, the greater collection of memes is irrelevant to the spread of that individual meme.

Few memes live in isolation however and just as an organism adapts to fit its ecological niche. So these memetic organisms, or memeplexes, made up of many connected memes can adapt and exist across many minds. Consider religion or political ideology as an example.

Let us take socialism as our case in point. It is a network of interconnected ideas about how to organise society. What is it that makes a good person? What is the state of human nature? These are all bound together in a single memetic ‘organism’. As a memeplex it is well adapted to the poor and underprivileged, to the young and revolutionary and to times that are economically and socially hard. When the situation fits it spreads and thrives, when the situation changes it withers and its rival philosophies do better. Just as in biology these memetic organisms survive, die and spread according to how well they fit their niche.

Can a meme be selfish? Not in the sense that a set of ideas can actually think (though that is an interesting idea, what is a human being after alll?) but yes, a meme can be selfish. A suicide bomber kills himself but dies to spread the idea and the example of his sheer devotion to his cause can convince others through the power of martyrdom.

Like the selfish genes, the selfish memes are all too common.

***

From the personal blog of William Munday, retrieved 23/03/2014

An Inspector Calls

Forgive the title. I couldn’t help myself.

I should really check into a proper hotel or something, but I haven’t had the advance on my next book yet and ‘unca George’ didn’t see fit to leave me any money when he had a pretty intern to give it to. I don’t blame him, I’m not really resentful, but sometimes it can’t help but grate a little. I’ve been here enough days now, untangling his mess, that people know where to find me and I’ve gotten to be on nodding terms with a few dog walkers and the guy at the corner shop.

I’ve been here long enough that a policeman knew to come looking for me here just after breakfast and take me for a little stroll in the park to ask me about uncle George.

I knew there had to be more to this. Since I got here I’ve had this paranoid feeling that something is going on, just outside my reach, just beyond my grasp and it seems like Detective Inspector Grass feels the same way.

He told me he’d worked with my uncle a few times over the last couple of years. It all started with a suicide cult, though I don’t remember anything from the news about it. Grass told me they’d had a bunch of complaints about travellers on a site not that far from here but when they went to knock on doors and move them on, they all already had – apart from one bus load. The people in that bus were almost all dead, weird writing all over the walls, foreigners fresh across the channel different to the other travellers or so the word was.

Nobody could make sense of the writing and the survivors had deliberately poisoned themselves with ergot – the kind of poison associated with outlandish tales of witches and devils in the past. The contortions had broken their backs or spasmed their hearts until the muscle tore. The couple that were still alive and able to speak, did not, would not.

Nobody knew what the writing or symbols were and give Uncle’s work on languages and cryptography (back in the day) they consulted with him about it, but even he couldn’t tell them much about it. It was meaningful, it had structure, but he couldn’t work out what it meant – and nobody really gave enough of a damn about a handful of dead, illegal immigrants anyway. Such is people’s indifference to suffering.

DI Grass seemed a bit intense and it all sounded a bit off the books. He was a bit too excited about everything and told me he’d been looking into this since the first incident and that there were others. That he’d talked to my uncle on and off about it and that these deaths were ‘hidden’ somehow. If he hadn’t had a badge I’d have written him off as one of those internet ‘truthers’ who’d drunk too much of the David Icke Kool-Aid. I suppose there’s no law that says such people can’t also succumb to such ideas.

Plus he seemed to agree with my suspicions that my uncle’s death might not have been as natural as it seemed. So I need him.

He’s going to stay in touch, but I’m not that sure how to take it.

I’m keeping this post locked down for now, friends only.

***

Extract from Neuroecology by Professor George Angel

The Integral Sea

If we think of the memes and memeplexes in terms of organisms. If we think of them like bacteria or animals and, therefore, our minds, our nervous systems, as the world in which they exist do we not have a useful analogy or metaphor for understanding ourselves? Every day ideas, thoughts, fashions, anything that can be thought of in informational terms fights to persist in our brains, to thrive and to spread.

I think of it as an ocean. A deep, dark ocean.

At the surface are our conscious thoughts, the ideas that we are aware of in the moment. Fleet, fast, adaptable but visible. They breach the surface like dolphins or fly in the sky above the waters. As I think these words and move to type them the ideas and concepts that make them up are called to the surface, flashing and dazzling like a shoal of silvery fish.

As I try to recall a memory, larger, slower creatures – whales perhaps – rise to the surface to take a breath and show themselves before sinking back down into the darkness beneath.

Deeper, perhaps, we find the subconscious desires and thoughts that influence us powerfully and subtly. The Freudian id, if you will, or the Jungian unconscious if you won’t. Even deeper still, perhaps, the truly unconscious, the autonomic nervous system, the beat of the heart, the swell of the lungs, the reflexes, the basics of life.

What niches have their analogues in the ecosystem of the mind? Are there plants, passive thoughts, immutable solidities of perception feeding on regular, but weak, use. The recognition of a colour perhaps, or a sound. Are there herbivores? Big, placid, slow moving ideas of certitude and solidity. Are there predators? Fast moving ideas that wipe out and kill others, feasting on their corpses and replacing them?

When one sees a previously rational man overcome with religious fervour, tossing aside the validity of reason and embracing madness it is not hard, I admit, to picture a writhing mass of sharks within his head, frenziedly eating up what little common sense he might have had.

How complex, how evolved can these ideas be? Is our consciousness the apex of the mental ecosystem and does it emerge from or coexist with these other memes? Might there not be other, greater noospheric organisms alongside us, unseen, beneath these metaphorical waves?

Do all ideas, all consciousness, share a common memetic ancestor and can we derive that fundamental root to all thought. The double-helix of the meme. Can ideas exist and express and communicate across multiple minds?

From the personal blog of William Munday, retrieved 23/03/2014

Curiouser and Curiouser

Will keep this private, it’s pretty much a ‘note to self’. Maybe I’ll let a few of you see it with permissions controls.

Been here too long and the landlady is really starting to get on my tits. She keeps going through my things when I leave for the day. I appreciate she has to tidy up but I’ve been stuck here over a week now trying to make sense of all this and she’s had a lot of my money. A bit of privacy wouldn’t hurt too much, surely?

I know she’s been going through uncle’s things that I’ve stored there for research. Sticking her nose in. She knows that I know and I’ve been getting strange, synchronised glares from her and her other guests every morning over my Crunchy Nut, as though it’s me that’s done something wrong. I hope I can wrap this up soon.

I miss London, the easy access to things to do. If you’re not a student there’s not a huge amount to do here and I have to go out every day while Mrs Nosey pokes around my stuff. I am so bored of spending the day in pubs, you have no idea.

It’s not like I’m that isolated, I have the internet, but I dread opening my mailbox or social media because every time I do there’s a dozen crazy messages from DI Grass about his bizarre conspiracy theories.

RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: RE: WHAT’S THE CONNECTION???”

He keeps asking and there isn’t one, its coincidence plus paranoia. What do they call it? False pattern recognition? Apophenia I think. I can’t even be bothered to Google it.

Yet in spite of all this, I still feel this need to know what’s going on. I’ve got an appointment tomorrow that might shed some light.

Mr Wilcox, he of the scraggly beard and Klein bottle fixation, was committed. He got arrested trying to steal money and then babbled enough convincing nonsense at the arresting officers over a long enough period that he got sectioned. The police and his parents asked a few questions since I’d been poking around and they thought that was suspicious, but while they were talking to me I was talking to them and I found out something interesting.

Mr Wilcox had been getting payments through the university for some time related to his participation in some experiment or other. I chased it up with my good friends in admin, worked my charm (and a big packet of Ginger Nuts) and lo and behold I have an appointment with a Doctor Lang at [Redacted] Hospital tomorrow to talk about it. A very nervous sounding Doctor Lang at that.

From the personal blog of William Munday, retrieved 23/03/2014

I have a pretty horrible headache that won’t go away. Worse and better than a migraine at the same time and no amount of painkillers are making a dent. So I might as well sit here in the dark, squint at the blinding light of the netbook screen and get my thoughts down.

I met Doctor Lang at [Redacted] and like everyone else I’ve met on this ‘quest’ to get to the bottom of my uncle’s murder… do I mean murder? Yeah I guess I do. I’ve got no actual proof but that’s my feeling at the moment. Anyway, like everyone else I’ve met along the way Doctor Lang is weirdly obsessed.

Lang’s work is in brain imaging, but it’s not the kind of crude MRI scan stuff we’re used to, those static slices of brain and blobs that show where the blood flows when you think about carrots or whatever. No, this is real time, building on the work of someone called ‘Nieuwenhuijzen’ who uses MEG (Magnetoencephalography) to image brains in real time and even interpret those signals and image them. Nieuwenhuijzen managed to get their device to understand when someone was thinking about or looking at numbers and letters. Lang’s work is a quantum leap ahead of that.

I had to sign some sort of official secrets thing before Lang would even talk to me and even then he was a nervous old bird (specifically a vulture, like in Spiderman, eerily so). I’m not even supposed to be writing this down but what else can I do? It’s how I organise my thoughts. Maybe I’ll delete it afterwards.

Anyway, Lang uses his MEG and a bunch of computers, to genuinely, actually read minds. It uses my uncle’s ideas to interpret what it reads subjectively so it’s not exactly precise but you can literally see thoughts, even ones a subject isn’t consciously aware of.

Lang’s experiments are the connection.

They use my uncle’s theories and ideas about language, and thought to interpret the data. The art students were the test subjects for the machine – they needed the money – and so it all hangs together after a fashion.

It makes sense with the glaring exception of DI Grass’ worldwide murders. For them there’s no damn connection at all.

Lang showed me the visualisations he recorded from some of the students and I particularly asked to see Wilcox’s ones, since he seemed the most affected. The playback was swarming with a familiar image that made my skin crawl and ramped that feeling of paranoia up until I was shaking.

Wilcox’s recording was full of those weird Klein bottle images he’d been obsessing over, strange, twitching, endlessly complicated shapes like bundles of spaghetti passing through too many dimensions, swimming through his mind like so many grotesque jellyfish transforming through all their possible permutations.

Of course, I wanted to go into the machine.

Lang strapped me in, talked me through it, gave me a lecture on the preservation of helium and switched it on.

It’s a weird sensation, knowing your mind is being read. You don’t want to think of anything bad or wrong, which only means you do. Every bad break up, every illicit fantasy, everything you’ve ever done wrong, ever deepest, darkest secret. That was all I did really. I sat in the chair feeling guilty and trying to remember something similar I’d seen on the TV (Persinger’s God Helmet, after I looked it up, but it works in the other direction).

Then it was done and we took a look at what had been recorded.

Sure enough, there were our little Klein-bottle friends swimming around in my mind and as we watched they split and multiplied and my headache got worse and worse.

I made it back here, somehow and now I can’t sleep. I have this irrational fear that these things are still there, in my mind, twisting and turning, eating away at everything else. I see that pattern everywhere now, in my uncle’s papers. In the art. Even in Grass’ stupid crime scene photos he keeps sending me. Pale reflections of that Klein bottle thing but echoes nonetheless and once you know what to look for, it’s all there, or is it apophenia?

I should sleep, paranoia or not.

***

Extract from Neuroecology by Professor George Angel

The Noospheric Ocean

If the human mind is a sea in which ideas swim and compete then the collective human consciousness is an ocean. Ideas are not unique to an individual and are not isolated from each other. Ideas flow from one mind to another and can be gathered from a text, speech, music, an overheard conversation, a picture, a film anything you care to mention.

Like a Cichlid dropped by some passing bird into an empty African lake, a new idea can change, mutate and re-organise to meet its surroundings and might not also something greater be able to live across many seas, occupying this ocean of the mind?

When mankind spread across the Earth, communication was slow, limited to the speed of a man on horseback or the speed of the wind. Ideas could emerge and compete and find new niches.

A perfect case in point might be the American Revolution, where old, strong ideas of monarchy and tradition, removed by a great ocean, could not wield the power they once did and were outstripped by younger, more vital but ultimately vacuous concepts of liberty and freedom that have been dumbed down to the point of buzzwords.

Now with phones, the internet, the telegraph, the television, ideas spread from mind to mind almost as fast as they spread from neuron to neuron. The processing power of the combined human intellect is enormous and yet it does not seem to be working to our benefit. We are still the same, primitive, warring apes we ever were. Is it, perhaps not working to our benefit at all? Are we livestock to some meta-ego above the superego? Some supremely powerful memeplex that operates on the level of civilisations and cares no more for its environment than we do?

The more we talk to each other, the more information we record, process and communicate, the more likely this seems to me and if it hasn’t happened already, perhaps it will soon. Just as humanity emerged from the primordial physical soup, so too might something monstrous and alien emerge from our collective unconscious when the conditions are right.

I think I have glimpsed it.

From the personal blog of William Munday, retrieved 23/03/2014

I‘m making these posts and everythIng I’ve gathered publiC.

I went back to Doctor Lang’s lab today and went through all the recordings, as deep as the records would let me.

Those Klein-bottle things are present in every mind he ever scanned. They’re just dormant in some and active in others, like how a disease can hide away and Flare up again years later, like malaria or the spores of some bacteria.

Ideas can be like that too. hidden away in writing, stone tablets, cave art. Ancient ideas to whom we’re not even alive. To whom we’re a natural resource or a thing to live in and on, the same way we walk the ground, swim the water or fly through the air.

I doubt the idea even knows we exist, even knows we’re alive. I think, though, when we get a little too aware of it it reacts, or its immune system reacts at least. We would put out a fire, seal away toxic waste, clean water and that is what it did when it killed my uncle.

I know how insane that sounds, but there’s no doubt that ideas can kill. Religion kills every day. Hitler’s twisted ideas about eugenics and race killed millions. Millions more died because of the ideas of Mao and Stalin, ideas so powerful that reality was ignored.

Those are crude though, this idea is subtle enough to single out my uncle and have him killed. It’s smart enough to know who I am, what I have done. It’s smart enough to be aware of me.

The way the landlady watches me, the way the other guests watch me. If I could see inside their heads that twisted little thing would be writhing and multiplying, I just know it. I was followed to the lab by someone, some of the porters looked at me strangely and when I left I was followed again but I don’t know by who.

Of course, I could just be mad. Maybe I snapped under the pressure and the grief, under the strange ideas that frankly, I have never understood.

I knew this was big, but I never knew how big. How many more minds have to be infected before the idea truly awakens and then, when it awakes, will it be aware of us now? Will we still be us? Who or what will we be? Am I in charge of my own mind or am I the parasite, the bystander.

I’m part of something bigger now.

I need to tell people about it.

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CJlHrWGUAAAig8hThe white leather ball looked like a perfect shot, for all of two seconds. If there had been a crossbar it was even odds whether it would have hit it or sailed perfectly in through the corner. The problem was that with jumpers for goalposts there wasn’t actually a post, or a crossbar, so the ball continued to shoot through the air and vanished through a hedge in a shower of leaves, dislodging a particularly peeved pigeon.

“Bollocks,” said John, who – at the ripe old age of eight, had mastered the dark art of swearing. “I’ll go get it.”

“No!” cried Rob, at the head of a triangle of other, suddenly bashful and ashen-faced kids.

John turned, mid step and nearly fell over. That ‘no’ had been particularly forceful.

“Why the bollocks not?” that was the trouble with swearwords, when you mastered one you felt the need to use it all the time.

“Ol’ Mr Gaiman lives there!”

“So?” John was genuinely confused. Maybe they’d come up with this silliness while his mum had him at her house for the first half of the summer.

“He’s a monster!”

“No such thing as monsters.” His dad had told him so and his dad worked in a pub, so he knew things.

“He is one! He’s a witch with crazy grey hair, and he talks funny, and he has a human-skin jacket and he’s married to a banshee!”

“A what?”

“It’s an Irish ghost, only this one’s American. Anyone who hears her singing, dies!”

“Bollocks,” said John, again, though it was more heartfelt this time.

“No, it’s true! Toby’s nan kept complaining about her singing all the time, calling her a banshee, and then she died.”

“Of an anti-rhythm in her brain!” offered Toby, helpfully from behind Rob’s legs. He was only four. “Though dad said it’s just because she was angry all the time…” he trailed off, less helpfully.

“And the first week of summer break,” Rob continued. “Luke lost his toy plane over there and went looking for it and nobody saw him again.”

“Didn’t the police come?” John hesitated by the gate to the Gaiman house, hand on the handle, feeling a little unsure.

“He paid them off with his book money to leave him alone! Please, don’t go in there!”

“Nah, it’s bollocks.” John stuck out his chin – you had duties being the big kid – and in he went.

***

“And that,” said Ol’ Man Gaiman, picking young, delicious meat from his teeth with shards of the broken dreams of lesser writers. “Is where I get my ideas.”

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