Shelf–much to my chagrin–had always been an ugly town with ugly houses which flanked ugly streets walked by ugly people who wore ugly hats and smiled ugly smiles. Its townsfolk were those damnable souls that were just Loud. Plump and curvy to a man, woman and child, they called to one another with cheery waves and noisy salutations, banged pots as they cooked and slammed doors as they went about their business, living loudly by night and snoring monstrously by day.
Little wonder that I eschewed the company of such insufferable neighbours. Overlooking this raucous place from my house on the hill, I, Albrecht Lazell Esquire, lived a life of quiet solitude to focus on my experiments and studies. And how they filled my every waking hour!
Of these multitudinous inventions … Nay, obsessions! … three were the source of my greatest pride. The first (being a large rocket ship which virtually filled the entirety of my back garden) had barely reached completion before the events that I am about to relate to you; the second (a wondrously complex clockwork head and brain of brass, cogs and springs) I had used to replace my real head at the end of my tender teens; and the third (the chief source of this narrative) I would still describe as my greatest invention; The Instantaneous Communicating Machine.
Some might claim the Communicating Machine to be the instrument of my destruction, but, looking back, I now see my cat–Glimpse–to be the true architect of my downfall.
The countdown to disaster began on one of the few days I allowed the traitorous beast into my basement workshop. Being of a curious nature, the cat usually had to be locked out, possessed as it was with an infuriating tendency to knock things over upon the rare occasions I allowed him inside (so much so that I had my first suspicions that the animal felt a deliberate need to wreck the machines). Upon being shown the Instantaneous Communicating Machine, however, Glimpse had merely looked uninterested in that utterly dismissive way that only cats can. The creature had ever been difficult to impress, and my machine–with its beautiful wooden casing and such delicate and precisely engineered mechanisms–seemed to have a typically underwhelming impact upon the cat.
“And what’s this Instantaneous Communicating Machine supposed to do?” he inquired as he licked his paw and proceeded to wash behind his ears.
“Well, in terms you might understand,” said I, “it communicates across limitless distances instantly by virtue of the agitation of reality; an agitation which, if controlled properly, can be received by an identical machine and deciphered into messages.”
“You mean this wooden box transmits pulses through the membranes in M space to communicate with receivers elsewhere in eleventh-dimensional space?” Asked Glimpse. His eyes widened, and he stopped washing as he stared at the machine, suddenly transfixed.
“Um. Yes.” I will admit his interpretation made little sense to me, and I suspected him of some facetious tomfoolery. Regardless I continued. “Rather like a telegraph machine would send Morse code down a telegraph line, except here the messages are conducted by the fabric of our existence.”
At this juncture, even Glimpse–usually so parsimonious with his praise–had to profess his admiration, saying as he did, “That is pretty bloody clever. Wotcha gonna use it for?”
Gripping my lapels, I allowed my chest to swell with pride as I replied, “I shall use it to communicate my findings when I land my rocket on the Sun.”
Glimpse looked at me, and, with an attitude I could only describe as one of incredulity, his eyes widened still further. “Land? Rocket? Sun?”
“Indeed. The last great unexplored frontier.”
And the cat merely shook his head as though lost for words.
To call any home on this Earth a house is something of a non sequitur, and mine was exception. With only one of its three floors above ground level, and that one floor more akin to an armoured bunker than a place of residence, it lacked any exterior charm or decoration. Whilst most buildings were clad in mirrors to reflect heat, the walls of my home were furnished with black tiles and my father’s ingenious heat-exchange system that fed the complex batteries which powered my utilities. Such was the reality of life in the face of our fierce and unforgiving sun.
Regardless, my father (God rest his soul) had determined that the house be at least well-furnished and comfortable. The drawing room bore the most lavish testimony to this as witnessed by its profusion of books, leather chairs and mahogany furniture. Lavishly illustrated maps and blueprints filled the walls, but all were dominated by a portrait of the great man himself.
The following night I sat in that drawing room with one of my father’s collections of essays resting on my knee. To my shame I will admit I neglected the book that evening. Instead, I spent much of the time regarding Glimpse critically as the cat sat upon the window sill and, heat-resistant shutters on the windows thrown back, watched the town below. As I observed him, I dwelt upon the conundrum this animal presented. Quite why Glimpse had decided to move into the house had always confounded me. All I know is I walked into my kitchen one night and found the scrounger helping himself to a plate of cold meats (my supper, no less!). The blasted stray had stayed ever since. When asked from whence he came, he would offer only a cryptic “Elsewhere”, and that he had chosen to live here because “the house is warm, and it’s riddled with mice.” Only once did I manage to partially hypnotize him with a woollen mouse stuffed with cat-nip, but I could only elicit–before the animal realised my plan and ran away–the claim he had travelled here “from the future”, and had slid into the past “because it gets real grim once The Nil come…”
As much as these scant clues–and the mentioned of these mysterious ‘The Nil’–fascinated me, I had since been unable to extract further information from the cat. Only now do I realise how much harder I should have tried…
But I digress. Going back to that night in the drawing room, I had just turned my attention back to father’s book when Glimpse ceased his washing and proclaimed, “A-ha! Lunch!”
I looked to the window to see something land on the sill outside. A pigeon, it peered at Glimpse through the glass and hopped nervously from one foot to the other.
“Right,” said Glimpse as the eyed the pigeon, “come here, you!”
“Oh no, you don’t!” said I, rising from my armchair. “I’m expecting this chap. He’s part of my experiment with the Instantaneous Communicating Machine.”
“How can he help? He’s a pigeon!”
“A messenger pigeon, to be exact,” said I. “His owner has a receiver for my Machine set up in the city.
“What news?” I proceeded to inquire of the pigeon, which, in turn, continued to eye Glimpse somewhat nervously.
“’Ere,” said the pigeon, “is ‘e safe? One of his kind ‘ad my Uncle Albert, y’know.”
“He’s perfectly safe,” said I, impatience manifest in my tone. “Now, what news?”
The pigeon continued to shift from one foot to the other in unease, but answered nonetheless. “Well, Doctor Tidy says the receiver is workin’ perfectly,” said he, “but he’s confused by your communication this mornin’.”
This perplexed me. “This morning? I sent no communication this morning.”
“Well, he says he received a burst of information just before breakfast. And lots of it.”
“Information? What kind of ‘information’?”
“That’s what he’s unsure of. He says it wasn’t gibberish–it was too structured–but he also says it’s no language he’s ever ‘eard.”
“Good lord,” I murmured. “How strange.”
“He’s asked Professor Klepper to ‘ave a look, see if ‘e can make anythin’ of it.”
“Ahhh … Klepper.” That could only be good news. As a linguist of some renown, even my father had spoken highly of this man. “And when will the Professor be next visiting Doctor Tidy?”
“Tomorrow night, I believe.”
“Then you must return and give me any news, there’s a good chap.”
The pigeon still regarded Glimpse with some suspicion. The cat didn’t help matters by grinning at the bird whilst displaying his claws.
“Will ‘e be ‘ere?”
“Of course. He lives here.”
“Well, ‘e’s a bad un, like all ‘is kind,” the pigeon muttered. “You mark my words.”
The following night I impatiently awaited the return of the pigeon.
Night time in Shelf, like any other town or city on our accursed Earth, is not just a time of Noisy People, but also of Even Noisier Vehicles. Only during the nocturnal hours could flat-beds and wagons bring their fresh goods from the various hydroponic silos used for fresh fruit and vegetables; or the high-sided and vans bring fresh meat and dairy produce from multitudinous battery farms and underground abattoirs that lurk in the ground, hidden from the ravages of the sun. Not only were these dreadful, ill-engineered machines equipped with noisy, grumbling diesel engines and squeaking suspension; but they were cacophonous also, ejaculating malodorous plumes of smoke and pools of sullied oil in their wake. And, as though to add insult to injury, the drivers seemed even more clangorous than Shelf’s damnably rambunctious shopkeepers as they traded their goods for cash and friendly smiles! How insufferable I found it!
But I had no choice but to witness this racket from the window in my drawing room, eager as I was to hear the latest message from Tidy’s lab. By three o’clock in the morning, however, there was no sign of his messenger pigeon, and I gradually accepted there wouldn’t be any communication that night. I found this to be a matter of eminent agitation. For all my annoyance, however, I knew waiting would serve no purpose, and thus retired to my workshop.
Once there, I took a moment to dwell on my fourth greatest invention. And what a magnificent sight it was! A mechanical body with which I intended to replace my flesh and blood prison before I journeyed to the sun, its dormant pistons and internal batteries lay exposed as it lay strapped to a bench tilted at some fifty-five degrees from the floor. The body gleamed in the lamplight, tall, broad and indomitable. The day I swapped my mortal shell for this eternal simulacrum could not come soon enough.
All the while, as I dwelt on this fantasy, the Instantaneous Communicating Machine whirred and ticked, sending its scheduled messages to Doctor Tidy’s lab.
I remember tutting at the mere thought of Tidy. How the man vexed me. Why this delay in communication? Had he not spoken to Klepper? Had they, or had they not, decoded these mysterious transmissions?
Aware no answers would present themselves that night, I pushed the matter aside, and went to work upon my new body
As dawn approached, I confess to abandoning my task, so distracted had I become by my annoyance at the tardy Tidy. A mistake at such a delicate juncture, I knew, could ruin the body’s mechanisms. Thus, I decided to err on the side of caution and elected to take supper and watch what I could of the sunrise.
Dawn broke, and I stood at my front door for as long as I dared, wary of the impending sunrise. To be caught in the sunlight meant certain death. So strong were the sun’s rays since the Expansion that they burnt and stripped flesh from bone in seconds. Old Widow Rose, who lived at the bottom of the hill, made a prime example. Drunk on sherry, she’d fallen asleep on her porch in the dead of the night and slept soundly until sunrise. The first creeping rays of the morning had stripped her legs clean, and she’d barely escaped with her life, awoken by the agony and managing to drag herself indoors.
As the horizon lightened, I looked upon the town. As ever, this was the only point in the day when all was quiet. In that moment of suspense between night and day, as the townsfolk retired to their beds and animals fled to their sanctuaries, there breathed a split second of silence; a split second I adored with as much passion as I detested the noise and bustle of the town’s nightly life and the guttural snores of the day. Even now I vividly remember closing my eyes as I dwelt on how I longed to take flight in my rocket and escape to the sky … and the fiery solitude of the sun.
As day broke on the horizon, however, I abandoned my daydream and slipped back indoors, risking one last look at the dawn before bolting the heavy door shut.
Indeed, I reflected as I secured the door, the only hope I had of surviving my exploration of the Sun, of living beyond the moment I exposed myself to its vicious countenance, lay in the perfection of my brass body.
Duly invigorated, I returned to my work.
The following night a different pigeon came. The bird apologised profusely for the previous night’s absence of news, but the regular messenger had ‘called in sick’ (more likely he was terrified of Glimpse, I concluded). Although almost identical to the previous messenger, this one appeared much more assured, and not at all intimidated by Glimpse … but his message was much the same.
“But you say this burst of information lasted longer than the first?” Asked I after hearing the pigeon’s report.
“Aye, and it was much more intense,” said the messenger.
“And do we have any word from Professor Klepper?” “
“Not yet,” said the pigeon. “The last I ‘eard ‘e thought it was going to take quite some time to get anywhere near the bottom of that conundrum.”
“Well, as ever, do press upon Doctor Tidy the importance of keeping me informed.”
“Aye. I’ll be off then.”
The pigeon flew away, leaving me with my thoughts. Arms crossed in front of the open window, ignorant to the incessant calamity resounding from the village below, I turned the facts over and over in my Babbage machine brain. Whilst I knew what I hoped this all meant, I did not dare believe…
Had I reached an alien intelligence? Had my transmissions across the bedrock of reality made contact with something beyond, much as one might knock on a door or bang on a wall? Were these mysterious signals an attempt at contact–at a reply–by another species?
I turned to confer with Glimpse, and found myself surprised on two counts: one that I had slowly come to value the feline’s opinion; and two, that he had gone, no doubt slinking silently out of the room.
With a shrug, I left the drawing room, intent on returning to my work.
It didn’t take long to find Glimpse. The cat lurked in the hallway, low to ground, alert and primed as its paw rested on a captive mouse which struggled in vain to escape.
I sighed and said, “Glimpse, don’t be cruel. Stop playing with your food.”
“I’m not ‘playing with it’,” said the cat. “I’m just holding it prisoner until its family comes to negotiate for its release.”
I paused to consider this piece of feline cunning before asking, “Will they do that?”
“Looks like it.”
Sure enough, five mice emerged from a hole in the skirting board. The foremost bore a white flag which it waved timidly as the others clustered behind it. I looked at Glimpse, and seeing the smile of cruel satisfaction on the cat’s face, decided to go to my workshop before things became … visceral.
And besides, I thought as I put my fingers to my riveted temple, I had developed a headache.
You may find it hard to believe a man with a clockwork brain could have a headache, but I assure you that, try as I might, I simply could not concentrate such was the pain.
I do confess, however that pain isn’t quite the right word. More of a vibration, an endless oscillation constantly punctuated by staccato stabs and deep throbs. It continued to assail me. Reasoning such a thing could only be caused by some malfunction deep within the machinations of my brain, I concluded I would have to resort to my spare head whilst I repaired this one–but that would have to wait.
With my body still prone to the frailties of flesh and blood, I had become sluggish, tired and in need of food and rest. Putting down my tools and–with the Instantaneous Communicating Machine ticking away to itself–I left the workshop, locked the door, and retired to the kitchen, and then my bed.
I awoke with a start.
A chaos of noise besieged me–more so than usual–but there was nothing “usual” about this tumult. Crowding in from the town outside, piercing my shutters and bludgeoning my ears, were bizarre sounds that sounded very much like screams … but not quite. Something about the decay and resonance of the pitch was very wrong, like the screams were being sucked into a pit and choked into silence.
I arose from my cot, unsteady and staggering. Constant and oppressive, the vibration in my head had become even worse. The punctuating stabs had become incessant, and–even then–I had a dread suspicion the sounds were trying to form words, the same structures and vibratos repeating over and over.
Yet I cast all this aside. My biggest concern remained the workshop, from which I swore I heard an almighty crash.
I dismissed this as impossible. Was the door not securely bolted? Father had fitted those locks. Nobody could get in there without a key. Not even…
Not even a mouse.
The most frigid fear beset me. Ignoring the tumult that bestrode the world outside, I sprinted for the workshop. All the while I became more and more convinced the devilish noise outside drew closer and closer (was that not the sharp, irritating pitch peculiar to Old Widow Rose I heard before the sound was snatched away?)
I reached the workshop with unprecedented alacrity, as good as flinging down the stairs that led to its metal doors. Unable to shake the feeling a fresh noise had joined the uproar outside (What was that howling, I wondered that fierce roar–that quaking–that seized the very foundations of the house?). My fingers shook as I fumbled with the keys (Damn this ridiculous flesh and blood! Thought I. Oh for my metal body!), before finally unlocking the door and flinging it open.
As my house convulsed and wept dust and as masonry all about me, I trembled with anger and fear as I stood in the open doorway. A scene of devastation greeted me. My beautiful metal body, the restraining straps severed, had been tipped from its table and fallen headlong onto the Instantaneous Communicating Machine, silencing the machine forever. A tiny note lay upon the brass back of my would-be surrogate body. Stumbling across the shaking lab, I snatched up the missive and read it as best I could, the paper flailing and vibrating in my hands as the whole lab shook.
SORRy I HAD TO STeAL YOUR ROCKET, BUT I THINK THINGS ARE ABOUT TO gET PRETTY GRIM. I CAME BACK THROuGH TIME TO BREAK YOUR BLOODY MaCHINE, BUT IT LOOKs LIKE I WAS TOO LATE. I’d HAVE MADE It (mAYBE) IF I HADN’t HAD TO SPEND SO LONG CHEWING thROUgh THOSE BLOOdy STRAPs.
YOU’VE DISTURBED THE NiL, AND NOW THEY’RE HERE TO SHUT YOU UP
YOU AND EVERYBODY ELSE
IN CASE YOU’RE WONDERING, THE MICE–IN RETURN FOR THEIR LIVES–SHOWED ME A HANDY WAY IN. THERE’S A hUGE HOLE IN THE SKIRTING BOARD UNDER THE WOrKBENCH AND A MASS OF TINY TUNNELS. I’D GET tHAT SEEN TO IF I WERE YOU
SORRY AGAIN, ALBRECHT. YOU’RE ALRIGHT, Y’KNOW? FOR A MAN WITH a METAL HEAD
ALL THE BEST, GLIMPSE
My entire being shook with the most abject fury. That traitorous animal! I flung the letter to one side as I sprinted out of the workshop and up the stairs. I’d catch that duplicitous beast if it were the last thing I ever did!
From out of the stairwell and into his hallway, I burst. But even then I knew it to be too late. The violent quaking–no doubt caused by my rocket lifting off–receded, and I accepted Glimpse to be airborne.
I groaned and put my hands to my temples. Whilst the distorted screaming outside may have ceased, the noise in my head grew ever louder, and there could no longer be any doubt that it was speech. It may have been a dialect I didn’t recognise, but the tone could only be described as one of anger and admonishment. I had no doubt the language battering my head to be the same language the sister Machine had picked up but which Tidy and Klepper had failed to understand.
And I had no doubt as to what the message said.
The front door buckled and splintered, the noise of its destruction sucked up and swallowed by some … thing that stood at its threshold. A stark, black shape filled the doorway, framed by the sun as light flooded the hallway. Daylight fell upon me, and my body immediately smouldered. Then, with a merciful speed that shielded me from all but the briefest pain, my body burst into a devilish flourish of orange and red fire, and collapsed backward. My head, scorched and orphaned by the destruction of my neck, pitched forward and bounced down the hallway before coming to rest on the welcome mat by the front door.
Head still functioning perfectly, I had the briefest moment to look up, my iris valve eyes revolving on their pivots to allow me the first sight of whatever unearthly beings now terrorized Shelf. Now three of these creatures–bulky and squat silhouettes–loomed above me as they crammed into my doorway.
At that moment, it began to make sense. These creatures could only be what Glimpse had called ‘The Nil’, and now they had come to Shelf in anger from an extra-dimensional realm beyond our own. Quite why escaped me. Had the utter silence of their existence been shattered by the insistent chatter of my Machine? Or had my invention alerted them to the presence of our reality, and now they arrived as conquerors?
Whatever the case, here I am at their feet, awaiting the inevitable. And, in this brief pause, I have this one last opportunity to see beyond the The Nil and appraise Shelf. At this moment–this final second–I realise, for the first time that the town paints quite the pretty picture. It basks in the midday sun, light glinting from mirrored roofs, cooling towers and armoured walls. Best of all, it is finally divested of its chattering masses and lays silent and at rest.
And thus I close my eyes and prepare to die. I close my eyes and enjoy the silence.
A former concept artist and professional illustrator, Paul L Mathews has now swapped his pencils for the keyboard as he pursues his love of writing. To date his short stories and comic strips have appeared across the world in such publications as Nova, Nowa Fantastyka and Murky Depths as well as in various anthologies from Accent UK.