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The Message

By Martin Greaney

What if those messages for which we sit in wait arrive by means we had not

anticipated? If only our minds and our machines had been more open to the

possibilities, perhaps we would have learned a great deal. Never was this

demonstrated more ably than when I was called upon by Queen Victoria's

Metropolitan Police Force to assist in their investigations of the singular case

of one Professor J Burke, resident of 8 Manchester Square, Marylebone.

The death on April 5th of John Wells, assistant to the professor was taxing the

force beyond their considerable capability. The unfortunate incident occured

late in the evening in question, when the two men - Wells and Burke - were

alone in the house (excepting their housekeeper, Mrs Wainwright). The

professor was writing up notes in his ground floor study, while our victim was

still in the laboratory on the first floor, dismantling some or other apparatus.

Professor Burke was roused from his papers by a loud explosion, like the

crack of a riding whip, emanating from the storey above. Immediately

judging the situation, he ran to the aid of his assistant and friend. Mounting

the stairs to the first landing the Professor noted lights coming from under

the door to the room, "dancing like the last guttering flame of an expiring

candle". However, these lights died before he reached the door, the handle

of which he noted was slightly warm.

Fearing a conflagration within, Professor Burke entered the laboratory with

caution, where it was now quite dark except for the steady glow of an oil

lamp upon the wall.

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Allow me to describe the layout of the laboratory as I have since seen it. The

room is about forty feet by twenty, and dominated by a large work bench,

ten feet by six, which sits at its centre. There is only one doorway as

entrance, the remainder of the walls supporting another long bench, with

cupboards beneath.

The central bench at this time was crowded with an arrangement of flasks,

tubes, bottles and other paraphernalia too obscure for a generalist such as I

to comprehend. Nevertheless, a series of experiments was clearly under


Upon entering, the Professor's attention was immediately drawn to the feet

and legs of Wells, which protruded into his field of vision from the opposite

side of the main bench. The remainder of the body was at first out of site.

Having rushed to his friend's side, however, the Professor was greeted with a

grisly spectacle, and drew back in horror.

Well's hands were up about his ears, as if protecting them from some loud

noise. His torso was rotated, as if he had been cowering from an assailant.

But the most disturbing feature was the face: the eyes were wide and

bloodshot, and the mouth curved down into the unmistakable grimace which

accompanies sheer terror.

It was at this moment that the loyal housekeeper rushed in, also drawn by

the noise. Now, I have been made aware during subsequent investigations

that Mrs Elizabeth Wainwright is not one gladly to suffer nonsense in her

household. But this stern woman, of fine Northern stock, did no more than

shriek, turn upon her heel and flee without a moment's pause. When I

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arrived at the villa some hours later she remained at nearby friend's house,

being consoled with warm words and no doubt a large measure of gin.

And so I bring you up to speed on the history of the incident, and will now

relate to you the startling sequence of discoveries made in the aftermath of

this most mysterious expiration.

I am usually drafted into an investigation after some time, once all routine

lines of enquiry have been followed through to their natural end. However,

this case immediately began to produce such unusual evidence that it was

felt straight away that my – how shall I put this? - unique investigative

experience must be brought to bear at once. And so it was that I arrived at

the house of Professor James Burke.

Detective Inspector North was speaking with one of his uniformed officers as

I stepped through the doorway, and immediately broke off to speak to me.

“Good evening, Mr. Scarbrick,” he said in the slightly officious tone which

was his habit. “I won't waste time on idle chatter. Let me take you upstairs.”

When we arrived at the scene of the incident the body had already been

removed. The first thing I noticed upon entering the room was the faint smell

of gunflint, and a charred aroma, as of damp wood smouldering. I

commented on this to North, who pointed out that, as we were in a room of

science, where numerous sources of heat were ignited daily and various

chemical combination combusted on a regular basis, this hadn't been

deemed a salient detail. This could of course have been a fair observation,

and yet something didn't quite sit right with it. I put it to the back of my

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The villa in which we were standing was already an old building when

Professor Burke moved in. Although he harboured few pretensions to the

elite classes of society – save the small housestaff and a penchant for fine

brandy – the house in which he resided bore the signs of faded wealth. There

was a large kitchen and scullery at the rear of the ground floor. There were

servants' quarters – unoccupied for a generation – at the top of the house.

An elaborate system of wires connected from convenient points in the

bedrooms, the sitting room, the library and elsewhere to a collection of bells

mounted upon a board at the bottom of the staircase. The name of each

room was embossed in neat gold lettering above each bell, to indicate where

service was required. Professor Burke had made next to no use of these,

being a man more likely to fetch his own refreshment than call upon the

services of Mrs Wainwright.

During my tour of the remainder of the house, the thing I noted about these

bells was that the wire to the bell marked 'Green Room' was broken, and was

tightly curled at the end. It was also quite clear that there was no room

currently known as the Green Room in the entire house. I made mention of

these details to North as he guided me around, but one has to be careful of

treating everything as a clue.

“So, Inspector,”I finally challenged at the end of my tour,“what is your

verdict? There must be a particular reason you called upon my skills.”

The policeman looked uncomfortable for a moment, as always at our initial

meetings, and then said:

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“This Wells was clearly struck by some force, of which we can find no trace.”I

nodded as encouragement. “There are no marks on the body, other than the

dirt of a man hard at work. There was no one else in the house save for the

Professor and Mrs Wainwright, who have no motive, much less the capacity,

for murdering this young man.

“There was no sign of entry, nor exit, and no one else was seen. And yet

there are two disturbing elements. The unusual lights which the Professor

saw coming from below the door, and of course the expression on the face of

poor Wells as he died.”The Inspector paused a moment before continuing,

aware that he was about to stray onto speculative ground. “He saw

something in those last few moments. Something in those lights, sir,

something unnatural. Something which took the very life force of that chap

away from him early this evening...”

I could see the thought processes of the policeman, and put my hand up to

indicate that I understood his fears. He looked relieved as he ended his


“Do not worry yourself, Inspector,”I said. “There will be a rational

explanation for this, as scientific as those men were and are. I will require

your men's assistance, but we will get to the bottom of this.”

To this day, and to the day I die, I fear I will never know whether I was truly

wrong on that count.

It wasn't a séance, as we were not universally seated, and I personally was

not looking for a ghost. But the common men of the Metropolitan force

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seemed almost reassured that we were carrying out some sort of watch upon

the house.

In my years as an investigator into such matters as baffled the police, I had

had to concede on such formalities frequently. It may be due to this that I

had garnered the reputation that I had. But even as I saw fit to let others

observe some sort of supernatural detective work, within I remained the

staunch scientist, and knew that every investigation would end in a mundane

and fully explicable case study. So far I had been proven correct in all but

two instances, and in those I stood firm in my conviction that, firstly, those

two cases would eventually yield up their worldly truths in light of later

investigations, and secondly that my pursuits at the time sowed the seeds of

such truths which would eventually blossom into columns of oaken certainty.

The extensive library of my own notes, plus the writings of previous

travailers in these arts, this science, will not fail to shed ultimate illumination

upon these darkly phenomena.

So this evening three nervous constables plus their chieff gathered in the

dim drawing room, while I paced up and down, and between rooms, deep in

thought. Schooled, however inadequately, in the areas of chemistry and

natural history, I had formulated a very brief hypothesis – a first hypothesis

which I could quickly test and dismiss as necessary.

The Professor, upon further interview, had given up information which had

led me to form this thesis. While I followed a delicate thread which

suggested that the academic's own experiments had largely precipitated the

accident, the gentleman informed me that on the night previous to the

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death, at around the same time of evening, the assistant Wells had noticed

an ''oppressive atmosphere'' in the room in which he was later to meet his


Perhaps already sensitised by the expectation of some sort of haunting,

Wells had vacated the room after only a few minutes, reporting to the

Professor in his study of a heavy head, a dry throat and an ache in his joints.

The two men had been conversing on the situation, the assistant

recuperating under the fortifying influence of the aforementioned brandy,

when a sharp crack and a distant rumble, as the professor witnessed the

next evening, could be heard. Even the Professor himself, up until that

moment unaffected by the morbid air, felt a lightening of the ether, as if an

invisible weight had been lifted from his shoulders.

Observing his aide remaining uneasy now his feelings had the weight of

proof behind them, the Professor had allowed Wells to sleep that night in the

large armchair by the drawing room fire, with a heavy blanket for warmth. It

was this strange performance, as related by Professor Burke, which I believe

gave the police their motivation to contact me.

And so, two nights subsequent to that first outburst, and twenty-hour hours

after the death of Wells, I instructed the men to gather in the sitting room

while I, with nothing but my wits to guide me, placed myself at the source of

the mystery.

At three minutes to the appointed time, I ventured up the narrow wooden

staircase to the first floor. I'm not one usually given to flights of fancy – the

very reason for my professional successes – but as I mounted each step I

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could in some sense empathise with the doomed laboratory assistant.

The walls of the stairs and landing were decorated with dark oak pannelling,

plain and austere. It lent the stairwell a gloomy air, and it was only by great

effort of anchoring myself in the present investigative circumstances that I

prevented myself being overwhelmed by the same panic which had showed

itself in the maddened visage of Wells.

However, upon entering the dark laboratory the feeling once again grasped

firmly upon my heart. Almost undetectable at first, as I switched on the

barely effective electric light and began once more to examine the table of

scientific tools, the feeling grew. Like a miasma it began as a rarefied tug at

my entire being. Moment to moment it began to weigh upon me, perceptibly

slowing my heart, I fancied, making it beat slower but harder, in my chest

and in my ears.

I was testing different locations within the room to measure subjectively any

effects which may have overcome the victim. I struggled to find an epicentre

for this feeling, while it threatened to consume me with a dread fear. As it

grew in intensity I had to force myself with ever greater vigour to remain in

the room. It was then that the buzzing began, and the room grew dimmer. I

felt the hairs on my neck stand on end and crackle, and simultaneously I

believed I had homed in on the cause of the fever I was in.

At this point in my circumnavigation of the room, following an instinct

brought on by my previous explorations of the house, I had come close to

the wall-mounted apparatus which communicated the bell pull near the

bricked-in fireplace via a hole drilled in the wall with the bells in the bottom

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of the stairwell. At this point in the house many of the wires came together

to begin their journey down to the ground floor. This was a most important

feature I was only later to grasp the full significance of.

Meanwhile I was examining this confluence of copper as the buzzing grew

once more in intensity. It filled the room, or rather it appeared to come from

all directions at once. My gaze passed from the wall to the tables, and from

tables to bench to tables again, and I began frantically to search for the

source of the growing vibrations.

I moved quickly to the window, perhaps imagining I could pounce upon the

hiding place of the troublesome noise, but still it remained elusive.

I rushed to the fireplace – or at least I tried to, as the noise at once seemed

to come from inside my own head, or at the very least was penetrating and

infusing throughout the cranium. The almost fluid nature of the infernal

sound filled my head and pressed at my temples. I pushed the balls of my

hands to my forehead, trying to counteract the outward pressure.

Still I tottered towards the fireplace, but it seemed that the more effort I

expended in moving forward, the thicker the air, alike to wading through a

vat of molasses. My feet were grounded to the wooden floorboards and my

knees threatened to give way beneath me. I glanced up, hoping to use the

mantlepiece to steady myself, but the wall on which it was mounted

appeared to recede, the walls either side stretching into infinite perspective,

carrying my target out of reach.

My head throbbed, and the noise threatened to sink and engulf my chest

also. Even if I had formulated the wish to cry out, I suspect I would have

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found it impossible. My heart, in self-defense, took up a strenuous pounding

within my rib cage, and every moment the pressure on my shoulders grew.

Was I about to finally meet my ghost?

The room itself was growing ever more dim, as a mist or a shadow had

descended upon it. The deadly twilight recalled to mind the eery shadow of

the Moon as it passes across the Earth during eclipse, as I witnessed in

northern Africa during my time in the army. It was a simple darkening, and

yet possessed of an unearthly malice which brought an unnatural stillness to

the bright African day.

Providence was perhaps smiling on me that evening, however, as I managed

to turn my gaze to my left, to the door with its wires passing through the

hole above. It transpired that I had not moved a single step in my efforts

towards the chimney. I must have had the presence of mind – befuddled as it

was by this acursed phenomenon – to effect my escape and reach the men

downstairs. My memory of that moment is fragmentary, but I let my own

weight carry me one step towards the door, and I reached out for the handle.

But in that moment, which must have taken fewer than four swings of the

pendulum which hangs in the enormous grandfather clock standing sentry in

the hallway below, I was granted a series of the most extraordinary visions,

of which even now I can grasp only the most rudimentary of meaning.

Sight ran completely from my eyes. The buzzing ceased. All weight fell from

my shoulders. I could see nothing; I could feel nothing. There was no up, no

down, no left nor right. I had no sense of place, nor even if I existed in the

common sense.

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Then I saw a single, tiny point of light dead ahead. Soon it was joined by a

second, and a third, and so on until my entire visual field was filled with this

cloud of tiny pinpricks. Then the gaps between the lights filled with patches

of milky mist, and I realised that these were stars I was looking upon, and

the cosmic clouds of dust which an astronomer friend informed me inhabited

the spaces between. This was soon made clear as the canvas resolved itself

into three dimensions. Now I could see that some stars were closer than

others, and began to feel that I was floating in the interstellar void, the

billions of stars encircling me.

I was not quite myself, but I'm sure I was gaping at this scene, just as it

began to rush towards me. Or rather, I felt I was falling with ever greater

rapidity into it, towards one fraction of that giant mosaic. Clouds passed by

at enormous velocity until a concentrated mass of light approached. At its

appearance I slowed in my journey, until I could make out one lone star and

its satellites. There were around a dozen in all, plus a belt of smaller bodies

between the fifth and sixth planet. Despite the obvious inaccuracies, I

recognised this model as our own dear solar system.

I slowed only momentarily (was I being shown this display?) to observe the

dance of these orbs about their parent. Again I accelerated, towards what I

knew to be Earth itself. However, it was not to be a trip fulfilled. Rather, I was

to be shown this at close quarters as an anchor point before setting sail on

another, more fantastic journey.

I was now heading towards the Sun. The white circle grew until it filled my

vision; until the curve of its outline stretched into a horizon. Reader, you

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must take my word for my observations, as I know of no way to prove myself

to you outright, but understand that in this vision our eternal and bright Sol

was depicted as a tormented vulcan ball of spitting flames!

A giant frond of yellow sun-matter ejected from the surface of the star, and I

dove headlong towards it. As I drew close by I felt not the white heat I

expected, but I saw in ever greater detail the filaments which made up this

cloud. Closer and closer I approached, until I observed that these filaments

were in turn made up of droplets. The droplets were at first like a cloud of

raindrops suspended in mid-air, but as the sun disappeared from my

consciousness (it was by now so collossal) I realised I was viewing these

particles at a microscopic level – these were the very atoms of the Sun's

ejecta I was seeing!

But still more was to be revealed. As I came closer, they resolved into their

own miniature planetary systems, but with the 'star' at their centre made of

a cluster of smaller worlds, and the satellites orbiting them forming a cloud

which ebbed and flowed about the core. Was this the crazed hallucinations of

a man already half way to death, or is it really the true nature of the

subatomic universe?

There were hundreds, perhaps thousands of these systems, and of different

types: some had only two core planets, and two moons, while others had

four, five or very occasionally more. The other pattern was that there were

always the same number of satellites as of core planets. This beautiful and

tiny symmetry spoke to me, a man of science, of some grand design, despite

my usual skeptical proclivities.

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Had I possessed some corporeal existence during the vision I would have

been dumbstruck surrounded by such wonders. The Sun itself was almost

abstract in its hugeness, but it slowly regained its definition as I travelled

back out from the strands of cloud, again at some speed. It became once

more the boldest figure in my firmament, but I did not stay near it for long.

I imagined I was about to be transported back to Earth (quite possibly back

to my body in a Manchester Square laboratory), but the Sun continued to

recede, until I could see the whole solar system, and then the star was just

one of a great number of similar lights, and then all but invisible in the great

mass of the Milky Way, which was now laid out before me like a bejewelled


My eyes still held their gaze over the portion of the galaxy from which I had

come, and I suddenly had a great yearning to return to it, but my journey

now took me towards another, far distant point across millions of light years

of that silvery plate.

I should have been exhilarated by this new venture, but I felt a sickening

unease, a fear, an incredible longing for home, and for the first time on this

expedition I was again aware of my heart pounding somewhere about my

breast. I was slipping into another phase of panic, and the fantastic view

once or twice faded to darkness.

When the view returned each time I found I was heading towards another

star with its own system of planets surrounding it. But even as I came to

focus on one of the inner spheres (I cannot recall now which one) my fear

risked consuming me.

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As I fell deeper into this new system I began to see symbols surrounding my

visual field. I assumed it to be some kind of script, as each appeared to light

up in sequence from bottom to top, then crossing and returning down. This

process repeated, and then on the third rehearsal was accompanied by a

booming noise, like the report of a field gun, or the muffled shouts of a

remonstrating colleague through a thin brick wall. Was this a disembodied

voice reading the symbols out loud to me?

Simultaneously I tried to take all this in, but the very truth of my experience,

the overwhelming implications and the wrenching homesickness I felt falling

towards this alien destination brought back to me the buzzing of the

laboratory. Immediately I empathized with that look of horror on Wells'

countenance when we found him. He must have felt, in his time as I did now,

that he would never return to see London and England again.

I felt again the pounding blood in my skull, a screaming rush of noise across

my whole being which, combined with the 'voice', culminated with an

almighty crack as of summer lightning and I was back in Manchester Square,

my clenched fist wrapped around the brass door handle and my cranium

heading neatly for the oak panelling of that sturdy laboratory door.

According to Inspector North they found me slumped behind said door. My

prone body, as that of Wells, was accompanied by a metallic tang in the air.

My hand was severely burned where it had made contact with the door

handle, which was still hot when my person was recovered.

The Professor later surmised that a massive electrical discharge had exited

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my body via my fortuitous contact with the metal handle, a contact which

Wells, alas, had not benefited from. If I had not taken that fall when I had –

immediately prior to my vision – I do believe I would not be here to relay this


The strange disturbance that night was the last in Manchester Square.

Perhaps whatever energies had been discharged by my grounding on the

door, or the full dismantling of the experiments displaced some equipment

vital to the functioning of the vision. Certainly, the wires above the door, long

since disused, had fused into a solid copper cable.

However, I have left the most important aspect of this case open to the last.

The Metropolitan Police found their 'ghost', and were satisfied to close their

file on an 'unusual electrical phenomenon' which warranted no further

investigation. I, though, am right at the beginning of my philosophy. What, or

who, was it that found it necessary to grant this unassuming villa such


Clearly it was not aimed at any one individual (assuming Wells was the

victim of the same effect from which I escaped). But it seems that the

powers we possess as humans, even with our advanced scientific apparatus

and our fathomless minds, are at a loss to receive and contain such forces.

Wells succumbed entirely, and I nearly so, except for the interventions of

Fate herself.

I have satisfied myself that some other, vastly superior intelligence wishes to

communicate, and may still be doing so. But we are not in a fit state

technologically to receive, let along listen to what they have to say, or

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respond. How many messages are we missing on a daily basis because we

have not developed a telegraphy sufficient to transmit such messages?

I write these words in the hope that someone reading them can conceive of

and build such a device. But who knows whether their peers will appreciate

the need for that effort, when so many troubles a much closer to hand on our

own planet? And will those compatriots be ready, not just technically but

psychologically, for the message that it would bring?

The Message by Martin Greaney is licensed under a Creative Commons

Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

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