Martin jerked awake as the train hit yet another older bit of track and the carriage slammed to the right before thumping him to the left again. One more stop, and then he could get back into his own quiet world, away from poxy arselicking for funds. Next time, he vowed, the seat he booked would be in the middle of the rolling stock, not perched on the wheels. Less moment arm to throw him about, that was it.
“Our next station stop will be Loughborough. Can passengers alighting into the station please ensure they take all of their personal belongings with them on departing the train”
There was English buried somewhere in the words, but nothing worthy of recording for posterity, oh no. The train slowed, pulling in to a geriatric old station where sliding glass doors jarred against old brick and decrepit gingerbread, and he hauled the suitcase out from the luggage rack, slang his laptop case from his shoulder and waited for the guard to remember to unlock the bloody doors. After all, if the bastard could mangle syntax and grammar so badly, what hope was there for the facility to push a fucking button? Twat.
He cut in front of some cow with a pram to grab the only taxi on the stand, and dumped his case on the back seat just as the young Asian tosser driving it opened the boot.
“Leavesden Grange, sonny”
“What part of Lufbra’s that, miduck?”
“Woodhouse Eaves, not Loughborough”
“Oh, is it that old stone place across from Nanpantan?”
“How the fuck do I know? Do I sound local?”
The cabby grunted something to himself, and Martin settled into the worn leather of the back seat as he drove off, right arm down by his side as he began what turned out to be a constant session of texting. They wound through an identikit English town centre, then past row upon row of semi-detached houses as the first drops of what would turn out to be a constant downpour hit the windscreen. Eventually, the road eased uphill, and at a crossroads the driver swang left onto a more rural and rolling lane, called something like “Breakback”
Martin grunted at that. Poncy stupid film, dirty little fuckers buggering each other…or should that be dirty little buggers? Either way, it was so, so wrong. The Duke would be spinning in his grave at the thought of it.
They turned into a driveway, hidden among the trees that had so quickly swallowed the sightlines around them, and the driver muttered something about the price.
“Seven fifty, miduck”
“Here’s fifteen, if you can give me a ticket for twenty”
“I give you double the fare, you give me a bigger receipt, I claim it all back, win-win, yeah?”
“Can’t do that, duck!”
Martin counted out seven pounds and fifty pence from his bag of change, making damned sure he got rid of some of the Gibraltar coins left over from the last trip. Little shit.
He turned on the muttering boy and dragged his bag over to the door of the solidly built, dark grey stone manor house the company had rented for the last part of the project. Such a pity about the others. The Hard Memory project was so far ahead of their pathetic little attempts at ‘innovation’ that he felt like Columbus chairing a meeting of the Flat Earth Society. That was the trouble with computer technology: so many people looking at some mundane application that had occurred to them over a bottle of pretentious piss, and so few actually looking at the process itself. He was carrying one early breakthrough in his suitcase, and would present it at some point, ready-formed like Venus on the half-shell, with due deference to Fred Pohl and none at all for the pathetic mouth-breathers who made up the board. What use was a degree in English Literature if you still had to move your lips when you read? And how was it that a company supposed to be at the raw edge of new tech was run by people who thought a Blower Bentley was the apex of scientific achievement? Tossers.
The door even had a fucking cable-pull for a bell, and it took a while for someone to come in answer to his ringing. She was small, blonde and business-suited, about thirty five, clearly one of the interns or whatever that stupid yank word was for unpaid office juniors.
“Martin Allsopp? Trina Graham, I’m your support worker for the next fortnight”
“Bag’s there. Where’s my room?”
“I am dreadfully sorry, Mr Allsopp, but that’s lab support, not bloody skivvy. Carry your own bag, or leave it to get wet or nicked, I don’t give a monkey’s. Your room is on the first floor, left at top of the stairs, second door on right. Got that? Good. See you in the main hall in half an hour”
Off she ticked, as Martin stood and glowered. Cheeky fucking cow! In the end he humped his bag up the stairs and into the room, through odd twists on narrow stairs and along a corridor that undulated up and down with age like a snake with indigestion. At least the bedroom fittings turned out to be modern, and there was a fibre-optic cable that suggested a proper net link. With all the stone, wifi might not be that reliable, Martin realised.
He took what he needed from the suitcase and got rid of at least some of the crap that clung to him from a ride on such a poor excuse for a mass-transit system, and made his way down to the main hall with his new toys. Graham was there already, with a half-dozen others of both sexes, most of them without ties or jackets or whatever stupid female equivalent was in fashion just then, and Christ knew what that might be because the slappers weren’t wearing it. There was coffee on a side table, along with biscuits—custard creams, for fuck’s sake. What next—fig rolls? A balding man with a goatee nodded to him as he poured.
“Martin Allsopp? I’m Trevor Matthews, coordinator of this little group. Trina you’ve met, I believe, and these are:”
John Andrews, head of the sat-nav head-up display unit.
Mary Wilkinson, his workmate.
Sandra Burbage, ditto.
Colleen Ripley, office support.
Donny McLeish, finally, his main lab technician.
What was it with all the women? Didn’t head office know that they couldn’t hack the pace in real techno-innovation? Martin could see that the office support function was necessary, and a slit fitted in nicely there. That was her place, as long as she could keep the teas and coffees coming, but engineering? Oh, sod off. He forced a smile onto his face, nevertheless, and brought out his toys.
“Right, this is stage one of my side of this little jolly away from home. I call it a piezophone”
Trina nodded. “Fred Pohl, I believe?”
Martin winced. What the hell was she doing knowing SF? He carried on as if she hadn’t spoken.
“It is designed to work on the piezoelectric principle, where mechanical pressure on a crystal produces electric energy which a microprocessor converts into digital output. No batteries, no mains power, no loss of charge that needs a top-up. What we are here for is to extend the principle into memory storage, using the crystalline lattice itself as a storage medium”
Sandra raised a hand. “So how does that make a commercial difference?”
“Silicon chips need all sorts of etching, doping, technical complexity. If we can use the crystal structure as it is, we get much cheaper memory, processing. We build in some sort of obsolescence so that we can keep selling the things, but at a stroke we have changed the whole game. No rare earths, no fancy micro-circuits, just simple minerals. Knocks a poxy back-projected screen into next week, as far as I’m concerned”
Trevor visibly winced. “Look, let’s keep this sort of civil for now. We have a fortnight here to try and shake some sense out of the trees, so let’s keep our flags on the same pole, folks. All the same corporate strategy, yeah?”
Trina looked at him, trying not to make her shudder visible. What with the sexist twat with the squeezy phone, having someone playing Bullshit Bingo was getting so far beyond a joke it was almost funny again. Allsopp’s problem was obvious, as was Trevor’s. Perhaps, if she found a room she could lock them in together for a week, she could get the whole thing rolling properly. The piezophone had struck her as a winner, but the crystal memory was pure aerial pastry. The whole thing about crystals was their stability, and memory could only be imposed by altering their structure. That sort of militated against the whole game plan.
She took a quick peek at the others. Management drone, sexist wanker, arselicker, dyke, frigid dyke, ugly frigid dyke, possibility… fuck it, change the mood.
“What’s the word on this place, Trev?”
She noticed the wince at the abbreviation.
“It’s sixteenth century, local stone. Charnwood, supposed to be the oldest stone in England”
“Yeah, yeah. Any stories? Bloody murders, ghosts, all that jazz?”
Sandra grinned, and Trina reconsidered her looks. Make that two possibilities; she had never been THAT fussy.
“Yes indeed”, Sandra said, “There’s a ghost here. Mid-Victorian, servant girl or some such. You know, all corset, white apron, cap, that sort of thing”
Donny leant forward, eyes gleaming. Yes, definitely a possible…
“Head under arm stuff, or just waily-waily?”
Trina winced. What a fucking waste, camp as a row of tents. Sandra shook her head. “No, she just comes into the cellar, floats down the wall, screams and vanishes”
Colleen looked worried. “You can hear her?”
Sandra shook her head. “No, but supposedly it’s the full silent-movie schtick, all hand to mouth, yeah?”
Mary was shaking her head. “Sounds like a piece of crap. How do you know this, anyway?”
“Simples. I went to the Uni here, at Lufbra. Got one of the best holography departments in the world. How else do you think I ended up on this project?”
Trina looked her over a little more carefully. She hadn’t had any girly fun for a while, and if meat and two veg were off the menu, then perhaps, just perhaps, if she wasn’t already otherwise occupied.
No. Business first, sweaty panting if and when. Stick to business.
Later that night, unknown to her, as her toy buzzed, Martin was dealing with his own tensions almost simultaneously, and Donny was shaking in the kitchens after watching his first ever ghost. Breakfast was an odd business.
“What’s up, Donny boy?”
“Don’t call me that, Colleen”
“Sorry, but you look like you’ve had no sleep. Missing somebody?”
“Matter of fact I am, but that’s not it”
Sandra gave Trina a look, and for an instant she thought her hopes had spawned some sort of Sapphic telepathy, but Sandra clearly had other ideas.
“You went ghost-hunting, didn’t you?”
Donny looked at his plate. In a small voice, he simply said “Yes”
Sandra was out for blood. “And? Spill, boy!”
Donny drew a breath that actually shuddered. “I found one”
Martin muttered something. Sandra turned on him.
“What was that, Martin?”
“It was ‘bollocks’, Sandra. Utter bollocks. If Donny saw something, it was no ghost”
Trina watched as Sandra bit back. “So what was it, then? A bad pint? A half-digested prawn cracker?”
Martin sneered. “Fuck knows, but there is no such animal as a ghost. No spirits, no Great Sky Pixie who writes magic books, nothing. Tell you what: we set up some instruments, we measure it, we set up CCTV, whatever. No such fucking thing”
Trevor shook his head. “This is a limited-time shakedown, not some sort of Scooby-Doo mystery hunt. If, and only if, we get some windows in our calendar, then we can float the option of a side-issue, investigation-wise”
Sandra looked across at Trina, one eyebrow raised, and at that point Trina decided that her options were indeed more open than she had originally intended. She prodded, just a bit.
“Set up the lasers, get the Jacob’s ladder sparkgap going, launch the kites?”
Trevor looked puzzled. “Kites? In a cellar?”
Sandra looked smug. “Na, the good burghers of Lufbra are too busy getting pissed to form angry mobs, and there’s a bit of a lack of pitchforks”
The smile she gave Trina was so obviously a come on she nearly wet her knickers. Oh dear me, that was a yes, she thought. The rest of the day was too busy to devote much attention to distractions such as sex or ghost-hunting, though, as they worked hard at setting up their respective equipment in the two rooms of the cellar complex. Sandra was watching Trina carefully by then. She had picked up on her predatory looks around the group from the first, and while Trev(or) and Martin were so out of the loop it was laughable, it was Trina’s reaction to Donny’s affectedly camp voice that had forced Sandra to bite her tongue so as not to laugh out loud. That was one randy bitch, and once she had sorted the men by species it was more than obvious where her gaze was lingering, so Sandra made a point of bending over every so often, and crossing her legs at the knee and her arms beneath her breasts. She was fed up with the almost visible slime that Trevor exuded, and while she was away from her girlfriend…well, she could hardly get pregnant. As the lab slowly emerged from a mass of packing cases, she played the game, and before too long was rewarded with a brush of thighs. And the dirty bitch was wearing suspenders…
A full day sufficed, in the end, and a quick power-up seemed to confirm everything was working as well as could be hoped, so they settled down to the Chinese meal delivered by taxi, and each one drifted off to their own room for a bit of research work, which in Sandra’s case accidentally happened to involve Trina’s bed, and one thing, and another, and it was indeed what they had both been after, and Trina seemed to have absolutely no inhibitions of any kind, any kind at all, and just as Sandra was working to yet another delightful little moment the scream came.
It seemed that nobody had had time to think, just reacted, and they made an odd group at the top of the stairs. Trina and Sandra were still sweating, and Donny ticked his mental box: not just him on the other bus. He had been in the middle of another e-mail to Damian, trying to get him to reconsider, when he had heard the sounds, and it was clear that Sandra and Trina had been in a very private world indeed, as had Colleen and Martin. What was it with him? He clearly hated women, and yet there he was having surfaced from what was obviously some serious interpersonal functioning. He had pulled on a vest and boxer shorts, but there were scratches visible around his shoulders, and Colleen had that bed-hair that made Damian despair.
It was Trevor and Mary, though, that were the centre of everyone’s gaze, and Donny had to giggle. Had she not seen “Something About Mary”? I mean, he thought, hair gel was one thing, but shaving cream…he made a few hopefully-subtle gestures, but she missed them all.
Martin caught the shirtlifter’s pathetic little titter, and then the line of his gaze. The dirty bitch! Trevor had clearly had her on her knees, because there was a great dollop of jizz on her chin. Of course, that was always the way to deal with ugly bitches, get their face out of sight and onto your tackle, fill their gobs and then kick them back out. Trouble was, he hadn’t finished, despite the fact that Colleen was really rather good at it. He supposed that when you had a face like a bulldog licking piss off nettles, you diversified a bit into other areas of expertise. If this could get sorted, while Mr Happy was still interested, he’d let her have another go, but what the fuck was going on? What the hell were they doing in the cellar? Trevor was talking.
He was embarrassed all too hell, being caught in such an inappropriate course of action. Mary had politely suggested an extra-curricular course of investigation, and it had been dark down there, so she had insisted on holding his hand, and he steadied her on the stairs, and…well, it was one of the executive privileges, surely? And she knew what he liked, and he liked what she knew, and…
Mary herself was still shaking, and it was in a truly tiny voice that she told her story.
“We thought, you know, we’d have a look down here, see what all the fuss was about, bit of a joke, yeah?”
The sharp-dressed bitch, that Graham, so clearly now a rugmunching whore, she was staring at her.
“Mary, cut the crap, you’ve got Trev’s spoodge all over your chin, yeah? So cut to the chase. You were on your knees, giving him a gobble, when what happened?”
Bitch. Deep breath. “Whatever we were doing is irrelevant, OK? We are old friends, both single, so it has nothing to do with you, yes? So we were there, and it was dark, right? There…there is a bricked up door over one of the rooms…”
They had been on the stairs, his orgasm just finished, and Mary had been dreaming of what would happen later, now she had sorted his little problem with the prems, how he would take her properly, and…there was a door, up by the cellar ceiling, where there had clearly once been another way in, and suddenly there was light, flickering light, and it strengthened steadily. A figure appeared, just as described. She looked about eighteen, long dark hair under a lace cotton cap, a black working dress and white apron, and it was clear she was laced into a very tight corset. Mary had realised, distantly, that Trevor’s balls had withdrawn from her palm, just as his cock had shrivelled to nothing. Neither could speak.
The girl shuffled, standing in mid-air, as if adjusting some item of underwear, and then started down the side of the wall, and that was when Mary realised that she wasn’t floating, just descending a staircase that was no longer there, candlestick in hand and wicker basket slung over the crook of an elbow as she traced her way down the wall. She wore a slightly irritated expression, and her lips were moving as if muttering to herself, but there was no sound from her. Mary had watched, like a rabbit before a stoat, as the girl descended, a faint frown on her face, right up to the point where it all changed.
What would have been five or six steps above the floor, the girl had stopped. Her eyes went wide, and the basket fell, vanishing as it passed her feet, bouncing down the invisible steps. Her free hand went to her mouth and her back arched, and Mary realised that if there had been any accompanying sound, it would have been that of a throat torn raw by screaming. The girl turned, frantically trying to keep her eyes pointed over her shoulder at something, something unseen, that had clearly been awaiting her at the foot of the vanished staircase.
And then she was gone, as if a switch had been thrown, and Mary had realised that there were screams, and they were her own, and Trevor had started to shake her just before the first of the others had appeared.
Martin was shaking his head. “Bollocks…look, Donny, that is what you saw, right?”
“Think, Donny boy, think. Was there anything different, anything at all, in what you saw?”
Donny spent a while thinking, rewinding the memory still so fresh in his own mind.
“No, just the same. Mary, she’s on, isn’t she?”
“On the rag, having her monthlies. That’s that thing with the underwear, aye? No tampons back then, al towels…”
Martin was laughing out loud. “Don’t you see? I was right! No such fucking thing as ghosts. It’s a bloody recording!”
Trina looked at him with sudden respect. “Fuck me, he’s right! Bloody Hard Memory, isn’t that what you called it, Martin? It’s in the fucking STONES! Oh, for God’s sake, Mary, wipe your bloody chin”
Suddenly, oddly, Trevor was all business. “You know what this means, Martin? A head start on your project. Bugger me, but this is a turn-up!”
Martin was suddenly in his element. “Look, people, I have to think on this one. Let’s get some shut-eye; no nightmares, no ghosts, yeah? Just a crystal lattice memory display!”
They started to split up, at that point, Trina goosing Sandra just to remind her of the direction to head, and Martin whispering to Colleen that she still had a couple of unexplored areas. Nobody heard Donny’s murmur, except John, and he made a sarcy comment about being on the wrong bus for him. It was true, though, and Donny wondered how nobody else had realised the blindingly obvious: what the hell was it that the maid had seen at the bottom of the stairs. He lost track of that thought later, when he saw the e-mail from Damian, and life was suddenly looking up again.
They had a sombre breakfast, each lost in their own train of thoughts, until Trevor called them to order.
“Right, we had a night of it last night—stop laughing, Ms Graham, we all had our own moments, except for John, and possibly Donny, so no holier-than-thou games. Here’s the plan.
“Sandra, you will work with Martin, as will John and Mary. Martin, I am hoping that some aspect of the laser work might help to get this…recording playing again. I’ve got no idea what triggers it, but, hey, we have a shitload of kit here, there must be something we can use. Trina…what?”
“Trev, what happened to the management bullshit bingo crap?”
Mary murmured, “He loses all that when he gets excited—oh, FUCK OFF Colleen. You can speak, you need to learn some quieter pillow talk! I am surprised you can sit down, given, you know…”
Trevor held up a hand. “Quiet! Martin, you lead on this, it’s your pigeon, the crystal shit. This could be rather more than a nice little earner, this could be fucking Nobel material, yeah? Downstairs, half an hour, people. Let’s go to work”
The days passed steadily, as the group tried out each bit of equipment in turn, and each other by night. Now that the bedtime games had been made so open, there was no need to hide, right up to the point where Martin realised that Colleen had visited someone else before her appearance in his room, and with truly bad grace resigned himself to his own right hand as she took up with John where she had left off with him.
The breakthrough came when they first managed to trigger what they were now referring to as ‘The Recording’ by using two lasers at onceto illuminate the bricked-up doorway. Each time, she appeared, each time descended, screamed, ran and vanished, and no matter what they did, they couldn’t rewind or otherwise manipulate the process. Oddly, no matter how they tried to record the image, nothing retained it, neither holographic record nor CCTV. It was Donny who came up with the new idea.
“Martin, does your prototype have a camera?”
“Of course it fucking does. What use would a mobile phone be without a camera? Who’d buy it? Oh, shit, you are bloody well right! Trina, got the piezophone over there?”
Mary was shaking her head. “There’s something else here nobody has thought of. We’ve watched this so many times, yeah?”
She replayed what they were all now seeing as just another movie, and spoke up just before the end.
“Look, what is the elephant in the cellar?”
Donny was nodding. “Aye, just what I wondered. What the buggery bollocks was at the bottom of those stairs? Was it something real, or…?”
Trina was in first. “Or another bloody hard memory recording, yeah? Fucking brilliant, Donny boy!”
He shuddered. “Please…don’t…”
Trina flipped him two fingers. “Let’s try, yeah? Martin, you sexual monster, got the camera phone? Mary, John, let’s light up the bottom of the staircase, OK, and see what we get. I’m laying odds on Murder Most Foul!”
An hour later, Donny was curled into a foetal ball, as Colleen was vomiting in a corner and Mary’s screams were ripping the air. The others….
The others had laid out the lasers, as Martin lined up the piezocamera in his phone. Trevor was almost dancing with excitement.
“Light it up!”
This time…this time it was different. This time, there was sound, but it was nothing they knew, nothing familiar, and nothing in any way earthly. There was something there, something where the foot of the stairs had been, and it was darker than the darkness, deeper than the black, and they could feel it, and they knew that it could feel them, and as a flickering, sped-up sequence of maid on stairs repeated itself over and over again, it moved, and it coiled, and it reached out, until Donny had howled and thrown the circuit breaker, but just for an instant it had stayed, held its form…and Martin was on the floor, the phone burnt out along with his mind, and Mary was screaming, and Colleen was throwing up, and the front of John’s trousers was wet with his own piss as the image vanished, and Martin lay still, eyes open, phone dead, soul gone, Mr Allsopp has left the building finally and forever.
Martin came to the top of the cellar stairs, seething with resentment. The miserable old baggage, never off her back, the mare. Just cause she was bleeding Cook didn’t make her the Almighty, now, did it? The stairs were always a labour, especially as ‘er Ladyship insisted her girls be so bleeding strait-laced, and he always got a touch of the vapours on stairs. And then there came another cramp, and she…he…she felt the towel chafe against her thighs, just to remind her of how Eve’s curse had come, as usual, and for an instant, just one, he thanked the Good Lord for that, cause what with ‘er Ladyship’s eldest’s attentions, it wasn’t so much a curse as a blessing, a relief, and wasn’t that God’s honest truth?
Down the stairs, candle in one hand, the other tracing the old, old stone of the wall, and the blackness receding before her, and then it didn’t recede, not how it should have, and then…
Then it moved, the darkness that shouldn’t have moved, just gone backwards, but this darkness was squirming and roiling, and there was a pressure in his…her…his head, and it was there, and it was WRONG, and there was hunger, and pain, and AGE, dear sweet Saviour, AGE, it was old, so old, and it was here, and it had been here so, so long, and there was need…
Martin came to the top of the cellar stairs, seething with resentment. The miserable old baggage, never off her back, the mare. Just cause she was bleeding Cook didn’t make her the Almighty, now, did it?
Martin came to the top of the cellar stairs, seething with resentment. The miserable old baggage, never off her back, the mare. Just cause she was bleeding Cook didn’t make her the Almighty, now, did it?
Martin came to the top of the stair. Martin comes to the top of the stair. Martin will be coming there as long as the Hard Memory calls him out, and each time, deep, deep inside his soft memory, which has no mouth, he still screams.
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