Monthly Archives: May 2014

Zero Point

I love a good B-Movie.

I’m talking about something lightweight and fun, something best enjoyed when you’re a little drunk, surrounded by friends and Nachos.  Something that wouldn’t be out of place on a VHS tape, gathering dust in the video store while the flashier, better known movies are plucked off the shelf for sober viewing.  Something starring John Saxon, or Cameron Mitchell, or Sybil Danning.  Movies like Starcrash, or Zone Troopers, or Message From Space, or Godzilla Vs King Kong, or Eliminators.  I could go on (and some would argue that I already have) but the point is that what these movies lack in technical proficiency or script or … y’know, actual acting, they often make up for in enthusiasm and a wild, enviable energy.  The best ones are like listening to ‘Ace Of Spades’ while being punched in the face.

With the following story, I wanted to at least touch the surface of that kind of pulp filmmaking.  As with the movies I’ve mentioned, you’ll recognise some of the props from other, better media (Phantom Empire, I think, features a car from Logan’s Run, though I’m prepared to be called out on this – you take my point, though).  There’s no CGI, all the special FX are taped together with back projection and animatronics.  The dialogue is written with scenery chewing in mind.  I’ve even left deliberate plot holes.  No, honestly, I did it on purpose.

So, break open the beer, grab the Nachos and dive in.  Those of you with any respect for quality, or the rules of good taste, or indeed the laws of Physics, might want to look away now …

 

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It might have been funnier, Gabriel reflected, if the existence of Humanity hadn’t been at stake.

The hatchway to the monitoring suite at Temporal Control irised open and he entered with as much nonchalance as the bulky combat suit would allow. It was one of the older models, all that the armoury could provide at such short notice – all of the newer stuff had been requisitioned by the military for that big H-Quadrant offensive – and as such the suit probably hadn’t seen action since the Vampire War ended in 2095, but it was more than adequate for a simple terminate and retrieve mission like this one. The right gauntlet was equipped with a machine pistol, the left with a focussed UV projector that Gabriel thought looked suspiciously new and, deployed at the flick of the wrist, ladies and gentlemen, a twelve-inch steel gutting blade.

Gabriel Vawn, it said on his interquadrant passport, underneath the holoimage of the handsome black devil with the cobalt blue eyes. Temporal Crisis Operative.

The monitoring suite was in chaos. That was what was making him smile and yet feel, as they said in the trashy foilbooks he was so fond of, the icy fingers of dread scratching at his heart. Techkids in red velvet, none of them more than eighteen, were rushing from terminal to terminal, accessing, downloading, bumping into each other. That was the joke, all of those flashy young things with their intelligence quotients way up there with the orbital traffic, going apeshit-loco because someone had stolen one of their little toys, invaded the temporal matrix and was threatening to fuck up History As We Know It.

But Gabriel guessed that the real punchline to all this was seeing Cameca LeGault panicking right along with them. Cameca LeGault, respected Supervisor of A-Quadrant’s Temporal Control Division: half-Aztec, half-New French, all power crazed ice maiden. Gabriel could feel the surrounding unease infecting him like a flu virus, but it was fun seeing LeGault melt a little just the same.

He half-expected the frantic crossfire of reports and warnings to dwindle into an awed hush as soon as he entered the room – he was, after all, the best – but of course it didn’t. All that happened was that some Techkid with a pretty bad case of acne had looked up and said, ‘He’s here, Supervisor.’

LeGault glanced across at Gabriel, impolitely failing to disengage the data relay monocle over her left eye. ‘About time.’ she scowled.

‘Time is my business, Cameca.’ Gabriel responded smartly, and immediately felt like a prick. ‘Lovely to be here.’ he added coolly, as if that would help.

LeGault turned back to her console. ‘Somebody get the damn helmet on him!’ she shouted. Two Techkids ran across to Gabriel and began fitting the angular black headgear over his angular black features. As they did so, the Supervisor began giving him the story so far.

‘Your target is Julius Lindstrom.’ she said. ‘A terrorist, former infiltrative nanotechnology expert for the Black Crescent Triumvirate.’ Gabriel heard LeGault’s voice alter as the helmet’s audio-sensors activated. Unbelievably, she sounded even more soulless and machine-like. ‘He escaped from the D-Quadrant Imprisonment Compound during the riots there last month. We traced his penetration into the matrix nine minutes ago, heading for Zero Point.’

‘Anybody know how he got hold of a Timepod?’ Gabriel asked, his own voice sounding strangely filtered and distant.

‘Who gives a fuck?’ LeGault snapped, turning on him. Her data monocle flashed amber, barcodes of information streaming vertically past her eye. ‘All that matters is that he’s probably pissing into the primordial pool by now.’

‘Negative on that, Supervisor.’ One of the Techkids called tonelessly from her console. ‘T-pod still in temporal transit.’

‘Any way in particular you’d like him terminated?’ smiled Gabriel through the helmet’s tinted faceplate.

LeGault’s eyes narrowed. ‘You might find your options a little limited in that respect, Vawn.’

‘He’s a Vamp, isn’t he?’ Gabriel asked her.  ‘Something one of those damned Frankensteins at the Tech Service cooked up. That’s why they gave me the UV unit.’

LeGault nodded. ‘Apparently not all the Vampire DNA was destroyed in the War.’ she informed him gravely, as though that explained everything. ‘The military managed to recover some from those corpses they found in the Arctic.  Lindstrom was one of several state captives deemed as acceptable subjects for … experimentation.’

Gabriel could hear the disgust in LeGault’s voice as she revealed this, and for the first and last time in his life, he liked her. Just for a moment, but even so it was a weirdly pleasant experience.

One of the Techkids was struggling with the locking mechanism that sealed the helmet to the combat suit’s collar. Gabriel waved him away and did it himself.  ‘I presume you have a pod ready for me?’

LeGault nodded again.  On the other side of the monitoring suite, the hatchway to the temporal transit chamber dilated smoothly.  Another Techkid, the one with the pustules, mounted the little ramp that led into its gleaming white confines a few steps ahead of Gabriel and opened up the black bubble of the Timepod.  He stepped back respectfully as Gabriel climbed in, then ran back into the monitoring suite moments before the hatchway closed again.

Gabriel sealed the pod, strapping himself in and rebooting the Transtemporal communications link; now he would be able to shoot annoying little quips at LeGault from across the millennia, at least until he got out of the pod.  As yet, no one had perfected a portable translink for travellers to carry around with them in their selected time zone, though Gabriel suspected that the Tech Service had a twelve year old working on it somewhere.

‘I’m locked down.’ he reported to the monitoring suite.  ‘Initiate transit protocols when ready.’

He looked at the pod’s brightly-lit control panel – it registered the invisible shroud coalescing around the little black bubble, the force field necessary to prevent objects disintegrating the nanosecond they entered the turbulence of the temporal matrix.  Some Techkid had once tried to explain the workings of time-travel to him – something about tachyons interacting with the Sterling/Gorski theory of fusion accelerated quantum reality curves, or something – but Gabriel wasn’t that interested.  He didn’t much care how his aircar or his coffee percolator worked either.

‘Remember,’ he heard LeGault saying through the translink.  ‘Minimal timeline disruption is your main priority. Just -‘

‘I know, I know.’ Gabriel sliced off her warning.  He’d heard it a thousand times before. ‘Don’t step on any butterflies.  Don’t fret, Cameca. I’ll be back with Count Dracula’s carcass before I’ve even left.’

He smiled, imagining LeGault’s expression as she started to worry about the paradoxical repercussions if he did just that.  The last thing he heard before Temporal Control plunged him into the matrix was one of the Techkids muttering to another over the translink: ‘Count Who?’

* * * * *

‘Groovy.’ Gabriel said. ‘Special FX.’

Above him, the sky boiled.  The black clouds were stitched together with flashes of lightning, illuminating the rocky desolation that stretched as far as the horizon in every direction.  Erupting volcanoes thrust up into the turbulent heavens, vomiting smoke and lava that drizzled down to earth that was like blackened glass, zigzagged with fractures.  The wind screamed.  There were no butterflies, no buildings.  No vehicles, no people.  This was Zero Point, and people hadn’t been invented yet.

He left his own T-Pod parked in the blasted hollow of black rock that it had landed in, and went looking for Lindstrom’s craft.  It was exactly where the short-range scan had promised, lying intact at the very edge of a high cliff that plunged down into a molten sea.

Gabriel scanned the pod for booby-traps, found none and sprung the lock.  The pod’s interior was much the same as his own craft, he saw, a single high-backed seat and a panel of touch-sensitive controls, currently in unlit standby mode.  A closer look brought a grimace to his features, and he wondered disgustedly if vampires were prey to the common cold.  It certainly looked as though Lindstrom had gotten off a couple of good sneezes while inside the pod – the control panel glistened with a covering of some watery greenish gel that made Gabriel’s innards lurch unpleasantly.  He scanned it, and the combat suit’s computer sent back the revelation that the ichor was in all probability the protective mucus that vampires secreted naturally to shield them against ambient solar radiation.  The thought didn’t faze Gabriel, though: sunblock factor 1000 or not, the focussed emission of the UV projector at his wrist would fry Julius Lindstrom like a strip of synthetic pig-meat.

He reached inside the pod, jabbing experimentally at the panel and the display illuminated, showing him that the craft had exited the temporal matrix less than two minutes ago.  That meant that Lindstrom couldn’t have got far.  Good.

He slid his fingers down and activated the pod’s targeter, inlaying the co-ords that would send it back to Temporal Control and finishing off with a ten-second countdown command.  He snatched his hand back as the pod began to close, feeling a little flash of satisfaction that LeGault would be as revolted by that greenish muck as he had been, hopefully more so.  Ten seconds later, the pod vanished.

He scrambled to the top of a rocky outcrop, looking over the landscape like a general surveying conquered territory.  From here on in, Gabriel knew, he was relying on visual tracking and instinct – no point in looking for a lifesign when your target was undead.  Overhead, purple-white lightning streaked through the clouds, showing him a dark shape, navigating the fractured plateau below him with heavy, awkward strides, heading for the shadowed maw of a cave.

Lindstrom.

Gabriel leaped.  He hit the quivering ground and ran, the fog of smoke and fiery embers swirling around him – at one point, a long, narrow fissure opened up before him and he sprang across it, his heart fluttering like a frightened bird.  He reached the cave in less than two minutes, his mouth coppery and too wet with the adrenaline rush.  He told the combat suit to prime the UV gauntlet, offered a quick prayer, and went inside.

A few metres in, he found what he was looking for, and something else besides.  A wide, shallow well in the fractured ground, filled with some bubbling colourless soup and steaming like a cauldron full of witch’s brew.  He scanned it and frowned, recognising his computer’s analysis with an unexpected reverence.  It was the great amino acid meet and greet in that gunk, it seemed, the fusion into proteins that were the building blocks of what humans called life.  The primordial pool.

Standing over the pool, though thankfully not urinating into it as LeGault had feared, was Julius Lindstrom.

He was a monster, plain and simple, parsecs removed from the romanticised Vamps of foilbooks and holomovies and VR sims, the elegantly wasted wraiths that were pale and slender and immaculately dressed.  His genes were the genuine article, reaching back to touch the carrion-breathed bloodsuckers of Ancient Romania.  His torso was bloated, leech-like, perched on legs as thick as tree stumps and sprouting arms layered with coiled muscle.  Above the tattered collar of his tunic, his smooth head was a livid crimson, the shade of a man choking on his tongue.  When he saw Gabriel and smiled, it was with a mouth full of barbed, metallic teeth.

‘I knew they would send someone.’ He chuckled. Even through the audio sensors of Gabriel’s helmet, the chuckle sounded like it came from a throatful of blood.  ‘But I didn’t think they’d send someone so little.’

‘Fuck you.’ Gabriel snapped back.  As cavalier quips went, it was the best his brain could offer.  He raised the UV gauntlet.  ‘I’m taking you back, maggotdick. Dead or Undead.’

‘You, little man?’ Lindstrom took a step forward, his towering bulk shuddering. ‘I don’t think so.  Before this day is over, I’ll be dining on your intestines.’

Gabriel fired.  He closed his eyes, aware that the reflex was redundant; his faceplate was wired to polarise as soon as he hit the trigger.  He waited for the pleasant chime that would tell him that his target had been barbequed.  It never came.

He opened his eyes.  Lindstrom’s wide, lipless grin had broadened considerably.  ‘Oh, your little toy is broken, little man.’ The ground cracked as he advanced.  ‘Never mind, let me give you a squeeeeze.’

The UV gauntlet had failed, Gabriel realised with a dreamily untethered terror.  He made a mental note to kill whoever invented them, if he ever got back.  It hadn’t fired, and the faceplate hadn’t turned opaque.  He knew that, because when Lindstrom had whispered squeeeeze, the tinted glass in front of his eyes had steamed suddenly with the monster’s graveyard breath.

‘My nanites have invaded your little toy,’ the beast whispered.  ‘I knew you’d met them, your gloves are covered with them.’

The mucus, Gabriel realised dismally.  He put them in the fucking

Before he could move, Lindstrom’s corpulent arms were enfolding him, lifting him from the ground.  As good as his word, the vampire tightened his hold; the combat suit took most of the pressure, but Gabriel still felt a couple of ribs give way with sickening snaps that lanced agonisingly through his chest.

His arms were pinned to his sides as surely as if he’d been straight jacketed; Lindstrom was laughing and snapping at the faceplate with steely teeth.  Gabriel saw clots of somebody’s blood fly from them and spatter against the faceplate like summer raindrops.  The monster squeezed.  His crimson moon-face filled Gabriel’s vision, the yellow irises bright with homicidal joy.  Another rib snapped and Gabriel cried out, his finger tightening spasmodically on the trigger of the machine pistol implanted into his right gauntlet.  He expected the shots to go wild, ricocheting off the blasted stone metres beneath his kicking boots.  Instead, they blew Lindstrom’s toes off.

The vampire roared, and threw Gabriel away from him.  Gabriel crashed and rolled, the impact shunting the breath from his lungs as he brought the pistol up to snap off another shot, and Lindstrom fell on him, his thick fingers seizing the gun and ripping it from its mountings.  The combat suit’s computer helpfully informed Gabriel of its removal, but it needn’t have bothered.  His eyes were wide as he watched Lindstrom crush the weapon in his palm and toss it away like an empty drinks can.

He squirmed like an insect beneath the monster’s elephantine weight, feeling its ragged nails tear at the combat suit’s rubberised collar, long and razorlike and silted with filth, tearing, tearing, tearing.  In moments, they were tearing at Gabriel’s throat.

They pierced the stubbled skin, sinking into the soft meat beneath, and Gabriel felt a cold grip enfolding his windpipe – he had the happy thought that the vampire might simply tear the organ free and be done with it, but no such good fortune; he meant to make his victim suffer, it seemed.

Gabriel choked, his legs kicking uselessly and his own fingers clawing at Lindstrom’s wrists.  He tried to take hold of them, praying that he could pull them away from his throat with some miraculous display of adrenaline-fuelled strength that would give this adventure extra frisson when he related it to his fellow Operatives back at Temporal Control.  But unfortunately, as Gabriel knew all too well, such things only happened in trashy foilbooks.

The world beyond his faceplate began to dim around the edges, and he realised what a joke it was to send such a little man as himself after a giant like Lindstrom.  Gabriel had inherited his mother’s hands, the wide palms and long fingers of a born pianist, but his suddenly strengthless grip didn’t even come close to encircling Lindstrom’s wrists.

It might even be funnier, he reflected in what he knew were his last moments, If the existence of … Humanity … wasn’t at … wasn’t at …

‘Stake!’ he tried to shout, though nothing came out of his throat but a breathless whisper.  He worked his left hand between their bodies and, with a flick of the wrist, ladies and gentlemen, extended twelve inches of serrated steel from its metal sleeve.

The blade pierced Lindstrom’s belly an inch above the navel; his yellow eyes widened in sudden, comical surprise.  As best he could under the monster’s bulk, Gabriel twisted the knife, feeling it snag against loops of gut and stomach lining and then slice through them.  When he sawed into Lindstrom’s aorta, he felt a rush of steaming black gore spill over his gauntlet and still he pushed upwards, until he felt the blade lodge solidly in one of the vampire’s ribs.

Lindstrom fell back, the saw-toothed steel pulling free with a ghastly grating sound that made Gabriel feel simultaneously sickened and exultant.  He scrambled backwards, away from the beast.  His breath whistled jaggedly between his clenched teeth, the song of a punctured lung.  Strings of Lindstrom’s pipework swung from the blade like rotten party favours.  Gabriel could see the vampire sprawled on the ground several feet away now, distractedly trying to jam the rest of it back into his stomach cavity.

He could see into the wound, see Lindstrom’s rent tissues knitting themselves back together with invisible stitches.  Already the flow of vampiric blood had slowed to a trickle, although Lindstrom seemed to have lost gallons of the stuff.  He sat in a black slick of it; rivulets ran along the cracks in the earth like tar.

Gabriel rolled over on to his belly, crying out inside his helmet as his own broken ribs tore up his innards. He crawled spider-like across the ground –

And Lindstrom’s thick fingers wrapped around his ankle.

‘Do you know nothing of my kind, little man?’ he asked Gabriel evenly, flipping his prey on to his back. Gabriel screamed in agony and terror.  He saw that the gut wound had healed flawlessly, a smooth patch of crimson flesh visible through the rip in the monster’s tunic, and some circuit in his mind blew without fuss.

‘Spontaneous regeneration!’ Lindstrom cried, dragging the human by his ankle deeper into the cave.  Gabriel’s head went bumping painfully against the rocks as they went, but he found that he no longer cared.  A warm, pleasant feeling was creeping into his mind, like drifting off to sleep in a warm bed.  ‘The implement has to be wooden to do any lasting damage,’ the vampire continued cheerfully. ‘And thrust directly into the heart, never to be removed.’

With a swing of his massive arm, he hurled Gabriel over his head like a rag doll and into the dark.  He splashed down in the filthy mess of Lindstrom’s blood.  The impact broke his right arm and legs like twigs, but he hardly noticed.  He lay in the shadows, staring with too-wide pupils at the black liquid he lay in, watching the rivulets of it zigzag through the cracks in the earth, trickling unstoppably towards –

NO! his dying sanity screamed.

‘Why do you think I came back, little man?’ Lindstrom was saying from a thousand miles away.  ‘To see the sights? To witness the insignificant genesis of the human cattle?’ He squatted down beside Gabriel, laying a vast, gentle hand upon his shoulder.  It felt like the touch of God.  ‘No … when we return to our time, little man,’ Lindstrom whispered.  ‘You and I shall be brothers.’

The primordial pool turned black.

Instantly Gabriel felt himself changing, felt his DNA weaving itself into new and wondrous patterns.  His wounds, his broken bones, all healed in moments.  Spontaneous regeneration, he thought dreamily. Quite suddenly, he pictured what his interquadrant passport might look like when he got back.  Gabriel Vawn, it would say, underneath the holoimage of the handsome black devil with the yellow eyes and the smile full of barbed, metallic teeth.

 


Short Story – The Skull

An experiment with a different style, dipping my toe into some old-school Hammer Horror …

 

skull

This is the unhappy tale of an acquaintance of mine whose company I have valued greatly since our shared boyhood, Mr James Beaumont, and of his misguided endeavour with a most nightmarishly empowered object.

It should be known to you that Mr Beaumont is a young widower, his dear wife Elizabeth having fallen victim to some mortal fever soon after they were married, and that his tranquil, taciturn exterior – often mistaken for arrogance – once concealed a keen and humorous mind, as well as an enthusiasm for the study of ancient artefacts such as those unearthed by archaeologists and displayed in the fine museums of the capital.

The artefact at the heart of this tale however was not discovered by my friend Mr Beaumont in such an emporium, protected from all but visual inspection by the glass walls of a secured cabinet. It was instead given to him in trade by an individual I myself have never encountered, and I conclude my lack of connection to Mr Beaumont’s associate to be quite fortuitous, for me at least. For the individual in question was described to me as a most unsettling fellow, well dressed and kempt yet carrying with him an aura that dissuaded too close a study of his countenance.

In relating his version of events to me, Mr Beaumont asserted his firm belief that their meeting was not entirely by chance, although he assured me that until the evening when this strange fellow approached him at the inn at the centre of our little hamlet, he had never before set his eyes upon him.

The gentleman – and armed with my knowledge of events beyond their meeting, I wonder if the term gentleman is entirely apt – introduced himself as Mr Leveque, and was permitted by Mr Beaumont to join him at his table. It transpired that Mr Leveque was a man of some learning who had travelled to England on some undisclosed business now concluded, and in conversation he presented himself as an eloquent and intelligent fellow, despite that unseeable disquieting quality to his bearing that I mentioned earlier. After a time their talk turned to matters of archaeology and it was at this point that my friend Mr Beaumont was drawn into Mr Leveque’s confidence.

Mr Leveque offered that he had recently obtained an interesting artefact unearthed somewhere in his native France and my friend’s curiosity was acutely piqued by Mr Leveque’s description of the object. It was a skull, he reported, adding that although he himself was by no means learned in such matters, certain men of his acquaintance trained in the appropriate sciences had speculated that the object was indeed of some ancient, unknowable age.

In spite of the brevity of their association, Mr Beaumont could not resist imposing himself on Mr Leveque, requesting an opportunity to inspect the mysterious skull as soon as possible. The Frenchman welcomed my friend’s interest, though, and as he himself was leaving for the coast the next day to set sail for Europe, arranged to bring the artefact to Mr Beaumont’s home later that very night. He left the inn to fetch the skull from his lodgings, while Mr Beaumont bade goodnight to the landlord and returned to his house.

On his way however he was gripped with a great despair, having realised that in his excitement he had neglected to furnish Mr Leveque with his address. All hope of a second encounter lost due to Mr Leveque’s impending departure, he returned home with a heavy heart and was pleasantly surprised to find his new acquaintance already awaiting him on the doorstep, carrying a solid wooden box which, Mr Beaumont assumed, would contain the skull.

Feeling rather foolish at his failure to provide his address, my friend presumed that Mr Leveque had realised the mistake and returned to the inn, inquiring of the landlord as to where he might find Mr Beaumont. I have the most sincere doubts about this; my own inquiries of the inn’s landlord and several of his patrons have yielded little of use. They seem not to recall the stranger, or even to remember seeing another man in the company of Mr Beaumont.

The two men entered the house and while Mr Beaumont prepared drinks and a cold collation, Mr Leveque unsealed the box and removed the skull.

My friend examined it, his excitement growing. He has since related to me how he felt his desire to possess the artefact bloom like a living thing in his heart, and confessed somewhat shamefacedly that he would have sold even his beloved collection of books to provide finances enough to purchase the object. Sensibly he decided not to elaborate on the price he would be prepared to pay should Mr Leveque be prepared to sell, instead making a hopeful enquiry as to the Frenchman’s plans for the object.

Rather sadly, Mr Leveque stated that he would be unable to take the skull with him on his return journey to Europe, as with his business in England now concluded he had quite enough baggage as he and his entourage could manage. Secretly delighted, Mr Beaumont offered to purchase the skull, specifying an amount far below the price he was prepared to pay, should Mr Leveque choose to haggle, which I believe is the way on foreign shores. Mr Leveque, to my friend’s instant regret, advised that his current finances were more than sufficient, and that he had no need to exchange the skull for money.

He would, however, consider a trade.

The nature of their exchange is a matter that Mr Beaumont has only revealed to me in the grip of the delirious fugues that have begun to plague him of late, and perhaps that is the only manner in which such ghastly secrets can be disclosed. I find I cannot bring myself to disclose it to you, dear reader, until I have offered some summary of the events which ensued. Suffice it to say once the terms of the agreement had been outlined by Mr Leveque, my friend acquiesced.

I visited him the next day, as we had previously arranged, and I found both him and his abode to be an uncharacteristic vision of disarray. Much of the furniture had been relocated to the perimeters of his parlour, the carpet peeled back, and on the floorboards beneath I spied a light dusting of what appeared to be chalk. It seemed apparent to me that some complex pictogram had been sketched upon the wood, and at some point hurriedly and incompletely brushed away.

As for Mr Beaumont, his clothes were rumpled untidily about his frame as though slept in and his hair, usually combed with a care bordering on vanity, was so unrestrained that as he told me of Mr Leveque and the artefact he was constantly forced to push it away from his eyes, which themselves were somewhat swollen and brightly-veined. Rather tactlessly, I wondered aloud about the strange mark imprinted upon Mr Beaumont’s otherwise smooth forehead – a crimson shape that upon first glance resembled some intricate wounding. He dismissed my curiosity and concern, thanking me but insisting that the cut was minor, the result of an unhappy accident he deemed too insignificant to elaborate on. Instead, he showed me the skull.

Our meeting did not end happily. With nary a fracture nor flaw visible upon the dome of ivory-coloured bone, I speculated aloud my doubts regarding its supposed great age, an opinion with which Mr Beaumont disagreed violently. With distressing swiftness he became angered and ordered me from his house, commanding me never to visit him again. I left, disheartened and confused, and, I confess, more than a little frightened by the sight of that smooth, white skull.

Perplexed by my fruitless enquiries at the inn, I reviewed my options and found them limited. Unable to trace the elusive Mr Leveque, I concluded that my only route of investigation lay with Mr Beaumont.

I returned to his home that night. I found myself approaching the house with unbidden stealth, realising only as I converged upon the broad window that looked onto his parlour that not only was I afraid of the mysterious skull, I had become frightened of Mr Beaumont himself. Given my high regard and indeed affection for my friend, it was a most unhappy realisation.

Keeping myself concealed as best I could, I peered through the parlour window and was greeted by a scene of such horror that already I feel the tremor in my hand, the lurching of my heart, as I felt these symptoms that dreadful night.

The room was illuminated by the light of many candles, thus I could see well enough. As before, the furniture had been pushed aside and the wooden boards of the parlour floor exposed, this time fully adorned with a chalk rendering of some complicated symbol that tortured the eyes. Its lines and spirals and impossible angles combined to form some image that was at once every shape and no shape, playing with the senses in such a way that the floor itself seemed to shudder and ripple like a restless sea.

Mr Beaumont stood in the centre of this kinetic non-shape, his body swaying as though the floor was indeed moving beneath him, his left fist enclosing the handle of what I identified with terror as a knife of some description. In the other hand, he gripped that accursed skull.

Held by a bone-freezing dread, I could only watch as Mr Beaumont, apparently in the thrall of some powerful trance, raised the knife to his forehead. With a calm, almost dispassionate motion he pressed the blade to the wound already flawing his brow, and commenced to cut himself further. Blood welled, streaming in crimson rivulets down Mr Beaumont’s pale, somehow mask-like features. The rivulets gathered at the point of his chin, then fell like gruesome raindrops onto the curved surface of the skull.

The effect was immediate and terrifying; where the blood had fallen upon bone, flesh blossomed. Glistening flesh, writhing with some unnatural detached life of its own. Mr Beaumont’s blood had impacted against several portions of the skull, and even by the flickering candlelight I could see how rapidly the twitching matter expanded, combining with other parts of itself to fully enshroud the bone.

Through the glass of the parlour window, steamed with my own ragged breath, I heard Mr Beaumont speak several words, some I identified as Latin in genesis, others with which I am thankfully unfamiliar. With the last of his incantations, spoken with the same toneless detachment as those preceding it, hair sprouted from the scalp of the nightmarish skull; dark hair, fine like an infant’s, but thickening even as it spilled in auburn waves over Mr Beaumont’s fingers.

He dropped the knife to the shifting floorboards, clasping the skull in both hands and raising its smooth visage to his own red-streaked features. Slowly he drew the skull’s countenance closer to his own, kissing its evolving mouth with all his tenderness. His features brightened suddenly with some ghastly expression of joy, and he mouthed words which I could not hear but knew well enough from the movement of his lips.

I love you, Elizabeth, he said, and it was at this point, I find myself unashamed to relate, I heard a shriek and realised it was mine.

Mr Beaumont whirled, his fingers still buried in that luxuriant spill of auburn hair. His eyes were wide and crazed and piercing, but it was not his eyes that held me. It was the glistening orbs that had sprung up within the black depths of empty sockets, blue as the sky in summer and alive. The eyes of Elizabeth Beaumont.

Consumed by the shock of discovery, Mr Beaumont’s fingers released the disembodied head – at this point I could not regard the object as a mere skull – and it tumbled towards the exposed floorboards. I blinked, and in that instant the artefact had reverted to its ossified state, all flesh and hair and staring eyes having vanished as if in a dream. It impacted against the wood, whereupon it shattered into five jagged fragments.

I should have fled then, overtaken by horror and disbelief, yet my legs would not carry me. I simply stood in mute shock outside the parlour window, watching as Mr Beaumont, his shoulders broken by grief one more time, stood in the centre of his sketched pictogram and wept.

Beneath his feet, the liquid-like crests and troughs of the floorboards dwindled to a gentle swell, then ceased, becoming immutable wood once more as Mr Beaumont fell to his knees. His hand enfolded one segment of the skull and he clutched it to his breast, his sobs tearing themselves from his throat with such force that I instantly recalled the night before his wife’s funeral, when his resolve had crumbled and he had cried like a child in my arms.

If I could not abandon him then, I thought, then I could not abandon him now, not in such a moment of unbearable suffering. Barely aware of the tears on my own face, I left my position at the parlour window and went inside.

Now I sit in that very same parlour, composing this final report as best as my memories will allow. I have spent this night at Mr Beaumont’s desk with paper and pen, listening to the wind howl outside and to my friend’s muffled curses as he struggles against his bonds and the gag silencing his mouth. Madness grips him, as I fear it must grip any mortal who looks through the boundaries of reality and into the unknowable void beyond.

All night my gaze has alternated between the words on the page and the other two objects on the desk. A fragment of that accursed skull, and the knife. More and more, I have found myself marvelling at how the blade glimmers in the candlelight.

I know I must kill him.  I am very afraid for my soul should I commit such a dreadful sin, but such a shattered mind should not be suffered to live.  I pray that my heartbreak at ending his life will be eased by the comfort of believing my crime to be an act of mercy.

My soul is to be damned, but I fear that my dear friend Mr Beaumont … James … need have no such concern. For, while I choose to damn myself, with my actions and with these words, his soul lies not in his own safekeeping.  His soul already burns in the hellish realm of the mysterious Mr Leveque, ensnared for all eternity in the words of their unholy contract.