09 May 2007

The Final Report of James Graham

The Final Report of James Graham is a baroque horror story set in a virtual reality world. It was my first attempt to fuse these two disparate genres and while I don’t believe this particular story is fully effective in capturing this juxtaposition I was suitably pleased with the concept to try it again in later works.

I do not know how much of what I am about to tell you will be of any use in clarifying the events of the case in question; or in explaining my own disappearance, which I am aware cannot have gone unnoticed; or whether it will even be believed. I myself have no explanation for what has occurred during the time since I last spoke to Valentin Koze nor do I have any knowledge of how long I may have been missing, for I have no means of measuring the passage of time.

Much of what occurred on that fateful night is now lost to the dank fog that even now clouds my mind. Events began several days before with the discovery of a body in a squalid flat in Durham. The deceased had been discovered after his neighbours had

telephoned the police to complain about strange smells and agonizing noises emanating from within.

What was found on the officers' entering the flat, I am told, sent one onlooker to permanent residence in the County Mental Hospital. Needless to say the flat was sealed off to the public and I arrived at the scene as quickly as I could.

Upon entering the flat I was set upon by a singular feeling of impending dread that has been impossible to shake. The squalid conditions in which Alexander Cumbernauld, the former tenant, had lived were unrecognisable beneath his fetid remains, which had been cast liberally across the few pitiful items of furniture he owned. The walls and floor were covered with a writing of some kind, daubed with a heavy hand in a black viscous substance. The meaning of the text has been impossible to fathom but the symbols and imagery that accompanied it were of a kind that left me in no doubt that the writing held some malignant intent.

There were three images in total, if the numerous symbols and diagrams that broke up the reams of text that covered the bare walls and floor of the late gentleman's hovel are to be discounted. Of the three it was the main image that disturbed me the most for it depicted a creature of some considerable size and monstrosity; being some kind of hybrid of man, dog and spider.

It stood seven feet tall if the image were life size, and balanced upon eight spindle-like, many jointed legs that seemed to move in a swimming motion even as I stared at it. Upon these infeasibly thin legs sat a squat body of considerable weight, giving the creature a bloated look beneath its matted fur. Atop this hideous form was a long muzzle and myriad spindle-like appendages, the purpose of which were lost to me. The creature, despite being merely a crude depiction carved of chalk and greasepaint, seemed to gaze at me with a level of malice I have no wish to experience again.

What little furniture existed in the flat lay broken and scattered such a way as to suggest a pitched battle had occurred. The only device left untouched was Mister Cumbernauld's computer, which appeared to still be functioning; although the rig he had used to connect through it into the etheric realm now lay in a charred and bloodied heap beneath the hideous depiction I have already mentioned.

I took the computer to the station and there was able to determine that Mister Cumbernauld had been such a feature of the online world that on the few occasions when he disconnected and returned to Earth he must have done so only to satisfy a duty that could not be undertaken any other way. His connection logs showed that he lived and worked in the online realm and did so with some great success, for his virtual domicile was the epitome of opulence, in stark contrast to the squalor that housed his physical shell.

Mr Cumbernauld had been connected to the computer for some time when the police arrived and the logs on his computer told me that he had still been active inside the etheric realm at the time of his death. I telephoned the company responsible for this online world and while they were at first uncooperative I was able to determine that Mr Cumbernauld had been accompanied by two others at the time his neighbours had called the Police.

With the assistance of members of the aforementioned company I was able to identify these individuals as Valentin Koze and Juliette Hallow; both obvious pseudonyms the individuals had created for their online activities, as is common practice. Mr Koze proved difficult to locate in the real world, having been careful to retain a distinction between his real and virtual lives but Ms Hallow was not as keen to remain anonymous. I quickly discovered that she lived in a village outside Shepburn but when I attempted to contact her to arrange a visit I received no reply.

Nevertheless I travelled to her home and once again I came upon a depiction of that hideous creature whose name and purpose were both a mystery to me. It was this time picked out in intricate detail upon a stone wall in the lounge of the victim's cottage, while the victim herself lay mauled beneath it. Although its eyes, if it even had such devices, were not visible to follow me as I moved about the cottage I nevertheless felt its attention was upon me always. I felt a need-–nay, a compulsion–-to leave as quickly as I could and return there no more.

An examination of Ms Hallow's computer indicated that she too had been online at the time of her death, which had occurred within hours of Alexander Cumbernauld's own demise. It was clear to me that if I was going to get anywhere with this case I had to speak to Mr Koze, but to do so meant entering a world I knew precious little about.

The etheric world is something of which I have long been wary because to access it requires the use of a device that inputs signals directly into the brain and, in turn, is controlled by commands sent directly from the user's mind. It is this unnatural interaction with which I take issue and thus I have remained steadfastly connected to this Earth unless it has been absolutely necessary to venture elsewhere. While I realise it is supposed to be impossible to come to harm within the online world I have always been sceptical of claims of this type and I believe this particular case is ample evidence that my ill ease was well founded. Two people were dead already while a third may have been dead or dying and if they had not met their fate through means of some agent within this constructed reality then I am certain their doom must be in some other way linked to their activities in this artificial world.

With a growing sense of dread and thoughts of the hideous creature adorning the walls at the scene of these most gruesome of deaths I returned to Durham and headed to the police training facility near the city centre. There I booked in to one of the smaller training rooms and used a mindset system to enter the main ethereal realm, where I hoped to locate Mr Koze.

The experience of entering a mindset is unpleasant, beginning with an unnatural pickling sensation across the scalp that spreads to every portion of skin. In most users this sensation lasts for a few mere seconds while the mind adjusts but in my case, as with some others, it continues until the user fully awakens in the new world. With the memories of the dead still vivid in my mind, I engaged the sensory input on the mindset and choked back the sense of nausea that greeted me as my mind tried to cope with a sudden shift in perception.

I found myself at Brewis Station, the largest of several connection points where people who have no other connection to the etheric world can enter it. Looking around I saw a great number of people who all shared the same confused expression that one gets when transported into another reality where things look similar but can work in very different ways.

Shaking off the nausea that accompanies travelling to this unnatural world I set about locating Mr Koze. Because of the enhanced abilities provided to me by the police mindset I was using I was not only able to confirm that he was online but I was able to find him very quickly. A map appeared in front of me when I asked for directions, blinding me to my surroundings but giving me very precise details of his location. I fought with this insufferable nuisance for a minute or two before I learned how to make it go away and then set off to find my quarry.

The map had told me Mr Koze was located in Denver Park, a relatively new addition to the world if the signs declaring it to be 'Under Construction' were any indication. The park was mostly deserted, save for a handful of saplings planted at the entrance, a gravel path that wound through neatly cut grass and a shed, presumably for the grounds keeper, at the far side, by a small lake. Huddled by the lake, in the shadow cast by the shed, was Valentin Koze. I headed for him quickly lest he disappear before I arrived, and found him muttering incoherently with his head bowed and his arms folded protectively around his knees.

'Valentin Koze?' I asked, kneeling beside him. The ground felt damp and smelled of freshly cut grass and I marvelled at how detailed this imaginary world was.

Koze did not respond to my greeting and flinched when I reached out to touch him on the shoulder. I told him I meant him no harm and that I was merely seeking information about Alexander Cumbernauld but he told me he did not know who that was. I asked him about Juliette Hallow and this time the poor wretch looked open me with horror and scurried backward. I grabbed him by the shoulder so he could not escape and he screamed. He pleaded with me to let him go, to leave him be and not trouble him any further but I could not.

'You were with her the night she died,' I said. 'I must know what happened.'

'Please let me be!' he cried. 'I cannot bear to think of it!'

'Tell me!'

'I cannot! It is too hideous! I cannot – I must not – relive it!'

'I must know what happened, Mr Koze.'

'No! I cannot say!'

'I saw a terrible figure at Juliette's home,' I told him. 'A many-armed creature, not wholly man nor wholly beast. I saw it again at Alexander Cumbernauld's house. Do you know of what I speak?'

The wretched fellow nodded and pointed to the ocean beyond the park, which marked the edge of the world as it presently stood.

'It took them out there,' he told me.

'To the sea?'

'No,' he replied, flatly. 'To the house. You do not see it?'

'No,' I replied, for there clearly was no house to be seen.

At the edge of the park was a low, stone wall and beyond that a long drop to where the sea crashed against jagged rocks. Between ourselves and the wall there was only the grounds keeper's shed and five metres or so of grass, nothing more.

From beneath his jacket, which was made of denim and somehow managed by inexplicable means the achievement of appearing to be both old and new at the same time, a gold locket that glinted in the sunlight. He handed the locket to me and I recall its unearthly coolness, which I attributed to another of the peculiarities of the unwaveringly artificial realm. He bid me fasten the locket around my neck and as I did so I felt the nausea creep up on me once more as the world changed subtly.

Where once the wall had stood between the park and the ocean there was now a small stone building with darkened windows and a tall, thin oak door. The building stood two floors high but the windows on the upper floors were boarded over from the inside and the roof contained many holes. How this derelict could have gone unnoticed is something that will no doubt trouble me for some time but upon its appearance I found myself unconcerned, as the eerie disquiet I had felt earlier when gazing upon that monstrous visage had returned.

Koze did not wish to accompany me inside this house and, having no reason to believe I could not find him again later if I needed to, I allowed him to remain where he was cowering while I ventured inside alone. I stepped up to the deep red door and grasped the doorknob, feeling as I did so that I was being watched just as I had felt when confronted by that foul depiction in Ms Hallow's cottage. I turned the knob and the door slid open to reveal a short hallway with a staircase leading upward and several doors leading off to various rooms on the ground floor. I stepped inside and glanced around as I closed the door. Koze was nowhere to be seen but I paid that no heed.

I checked the doors closest to me and found them both locked. Attempting to push them open was no use as they did not move one inch. I put this steadfastness down to the mechanics of this realm rather than good workmanship and moved on to the next door. This too I found to be locked tight and solid enough to resist my attempts to force entry, which left only one door on the ground floor for me to attempt. This final door stood beneath the stairway.

I turned the handle and the door glided open without a sound. Looking beyond I saw only a ladder leading to a cellar. A lantern hung from a nail beside the ladder but the room was otherwise empty. A feeling of intense dread filled me as I gazed down into the endless black of the cellar. In a moment of cowardice I closed the door looked away, turning my attention instead to the upstairs.

I ascended the staircase with its bare wooden slats that echoed my every footstep and was greeted with a hallway not dissimilar to the one below it. Here there were four doors leading off, two at one end and two at the other. I tried the nearest door and found it led to a small bathroom containing an old toilet with a cracked cistern and no seat; a sink with no plug and taps that, when turned, gave no water; and a large, cast iron bathtub in which there were dark stains. On closer inspection, these deep red-black markings were very old and as I ran my finger over them some chalky powder came away. The powder smelled of dust and as I wiped my hands clean on my handkerchief and left the room I thought about what their origin may be.

The remaining three rooms each contained a neatly made bed and empty wardrobe. It was clear to me that whoever owned this house did not spend much time living in these upstairs rooms.

With nowhere else that I could now investigate my mind once again turned to the cellar and the fear that had overcome me when I first espied it. I descended with great trepidation, imagining at any moment that the creature I had seen in the images at the victims' houses would burst through the door to devour me. Finally I found myself at the door to the cellar, my hand on the handle ready to open it and face whatever lay beyond. I looked around, conscious that there were still other rooms that could contain vital information for my case or, as my paranoia was keen to remind me, could easily conceal a killer waiting to pounce when my attention was diverted. When I was certain there was nobody else around, I took the lantern from its hook and carefully descended into the darkness.

The light from the lantern was weak and I could see only a few feet in front of me at any time but I was glad of its presence as the light was a comforting barrier against the cold emptiness of this vast cavern of a cellar. I called out a greeting, having realised I had not done so when I first entered the house, but I heard no reply.

I pressed on with my investigation, beginning by following the wall to determine the size of the room. Despite the dim light it was clear to me that the markings on the walls were similar to the writing I had encountered in the real world and I was now convinced that if I was to discover the truth behind the deaths of Cumbernauld and Hallow then I had to uncover the truth behind these markings and the depictions of strange beasts that accompanied them. However, there were more markings in this cavern than I could recall in the real world and more depictions too.

Suddenly the wall disappeared and I was faced with a tunnel of sorts with walls that were too smooth to have been a natural occurrence. I felt a strange compulsion to enter and despite my fears and all my common sense telling me not to do so, I began a slow descent into the tunnel.

The air was thick in here, and damp. My heart began to race and I felt my grip on the lantern slip for my hands were slick with sweat. I stopped and placed the lantern on the ground so I could wipe my hands on my handkerchief but when I came to retrieve the lantern I froze. The floor I stood on was slick with a layer of red-black fluid and as I knelt to examine it a sickly sweet scent flowed over me. I turned to look for the source of this strange aroma and caught a glimpse out of the corner of my eye of a muzzle covered with a familiar matted fur.

I shrieked and turned to run, grabbing the lantern as I did so. I heard the creature lurch after me and give chase but I did not look back for I feared what I might see. I ran as fast as I possibly could, my heart threatening with each beat to burst under the strain and my lungs now paining me. I felt the sweet scent of the creature's breath on the back of my neck as I ran and I had barely reached the ladder when the lantern slipped from my sticky grasp, hitting the floor and plunging the world into darkness.

The creature grasped my legs as I scrambled up the ladder and pulled but somehow I managed to climb. Its claws ripped at my clothes and I cried out as it tore into my flesh. The wounds itched as untold years of dirt and decay worked their way into my body from this foul being's talons but still I climbed until I reached the safety of the top of the ladder. I fell with my back against the floorboards and when the filthy scalp of this hideous predator threatened to push past the ladder to come at me once more I kicked out with all my strength. My foot connected with the beast's skull with a crack and it roared in pain, sinking out of view and giving me the chance I needed to race for the door.

As I reached the threshold a moment's clarity made me tear the locket from around my neck and cast it back into the house. The building began to fade from view almost immediately and I leapt through the open door just in time, landing roughly on the grass outside. I lay there for some time, gathering my strength and trying to piece together what I had seen in the house. Images of that hideous beast whirled in my mind and by the time I felt able to move again the park was covered in darkness. The pain in my leg had subsided, although the burning sensation was spreading and I feared there may be some infection.

I attempted to disconnect from this realm and take what information I had gathered back to the real world but I could not. Summising that as I had arrived at Brewis Station then I must also have to leave the world there, I tried to head back but I found no way to leave the park. I called out for assistance and nobody came.

Finding myself trapped I began to panic, fearful that the beast within the house might return at any moment to finish me off. I thought I smelled its sickly aroma and I instinctively headed for the refuge of the grounds keeper's shed, where I barred the door with what items I could find.

I have remained within the confines of this makeshift fortress for many hours, although I cannot be certain of the time. Since my retreat I fancy I have heard many noises and sounds of movement at the door. The scent of the creature that hunts me has grown stronger and I am now certain that it lurks nearby. I will use this mindset's messaging system to send this report to the station I hope the creature will not discover me before help can arrive.

There is movement at the door. It is too late. The beast is here. The walls are not strong enough!

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