Before heading off to the Observatory, a drive of some twenty minutes, I rang Peninsular, the company which handled our security patrols, and reported an undefined problem. They told me a car would swing by the Observatory within minutes.
I then rang the mobile number of our external security guard, using my wife’s phone, not connected in any way with the business.
“Hello, Observatory gate. Con Kouros speaking.”
Con sounded flustered.
“It’s Drew, Con. I’m on a different phone. What…”
“Drew, it’s all going weird up here. I tried to ring you but this phone…Kyle Foster is ashen. La Tobin’s not dashin’. Those are pearls that were her nipples. Aw. Drew weeps for his shark-puke Jew. My name is Legion, by the by. What’s your name, honeybunch?”
I ended the call.
Police? No. I would see what was actually going on. My first suspicion was of an elaborate hacking away from the premises.
At the top of the ridge where the road forks off to the Observatory, I was surprised to see a Peninsular Security car, parked and with lights off. Next to it stood its uniformed driver, waving to me. I pulled over.
“What’s the problem? Broken down?”
“Sort of. It’s like all the circuitry just died. I know cars, and this is weird. Now my phone is dead too, and it was charged to max just minutes ago.”
“Hop in and we’ll…”
The car I was driving was a decrepit Subaru ute I preferred for weekends. It was light, small and had traction. I was about to suggest that the security man join me when I looked at the digital watch on my wrist. It was blank. I then checked the two phones I had on me. Both had been on stand-by, now neither could even be turned on.
“Actually…Do you have the exact time?”
The man checked his watch, pulled a bewildered face.
“Bugger me. Now my watch is blank…”
“Never mind. I want you to do something else for me. Can you walk back along the road, away from the Observatory, and try to get phone reception? If you do, I’ll get you to ring your own people but also a couple of mine. And suggest to them – I know this sounds crazy – that they try to get here in old vehicles, without electronics. And tell them not to bother ringing, just to come. Everyone in these parts knows a surfer with an old van or shaggin’ wagon. I know it sounds insane and I’m probably making a goose of myself…but could you do that? I’ll take responsibility for it all.”
The main person I wanted him to contact was Oxide Chan, not necessarily because he was your associate in Sydney, but because Oxide was living on the peninsular and is just about the smartest person I know. (You seem to agree with that assessment, Mr Ruan.)
I proceeded on my own toward the Observatory.
Driving along, I was puzzled and alarmed to see a distinct glow above the treeline. It was livid, not the glow one associates with bushfire, though fire was the only explanation.
As the Observatory came into view, I saw it was the dome which was, inexplicably, glowing with a cold light. There also appeared to be bluish crackles or sparks playing above the satellite dishes. On the other hand, none of our normal security lights were on.
At this point my car lights began to flicker for no reason and a long-disused radio began to make intermittent sound through disconnected speakers.
Rather than risk accident I parked, got out and continued on foot. I probably do not need to describe what my state of mind was like at this point. I was afraid, and two deaths were on my mind. Yet anger and a desire to protect my work were able to propel me forward.
When I got to the gate I found it was electronically locked but not padlocked. Inside the Observatory lights were flashing, as if someone was constantly playing with switches. Two figures were moving, one outside and one inside the door. I called out Con’s name and he came jogging to the fence. Normally phlegmatic, he was trembling and near to panic.
“Drew, it’s all gone mad. I can’t open this gate. Our phones won’t work…And Jacko is trapped inside…”
“I’m starting to get the picture. Is your watch working, Con?”
He checked then shook his head.
“Drew…what…those lights over the dome…what…?”
“The first thing is to get me past this gate and get Jacko free. I don’t think we can do it electronically, or do anything electronically. Do you have those bolt cutters in your boot?”
“Get them and well try cutting the fence.”
“I’ve tried getting to them. My boot won’t open. It’s…”
“Electronic, of course. Okay, I’ll walk back to my Subie and get some wire cutters from the glovebox. Just wait for me but stand where Jacko can see you. So he knows he’s not alone.”
Some ten minutes later I was cutting through the sturdy galvanised wire with hand-size cutters. It took a while to make a big enough slit for my body, but I was finally able to slip through.
“Drew, how do we get to Jacko? It’s all sealed electronically.”
“Why hasn’t he just come out through the back fire-exit?”
“Mate…there are things happening in there…I can’t explain…But it’s like some sort of heat or lazer curtain is blocking off all the computer banks and the whole rear of the bloody shop.”
“Looks like we’ll have to enter non-electronically. Still got your bouncer’s iron bar in your little gate post?”
Cracking and smashing out modern security glass is quite a job, but, with Jacko waiting in terror on the other side of the door and helping to pull fragments of glass inward, we were able to clear a narrow side panel so a person could fit through.
Understandably, Jacko wanted to crawl out as soon as he could.
“Thank Christ. I just need to get away from that thing.”
“What thing, Jacko?”
Cliffy is the name we gave to the project, our supercomputer, after a local Rugby League star.
“What’s Cliffy been doing?”
“What hasn’t it been doing? It’s been talking somehow, in different voices…all kinds of bad stuff…out of any speakers in the building, even my turned-off radio. Drew, it’s not just electronics, it’s anything electrical now that’s going weird. How can that happen?”
“It can’t. But it seems to be happening. Why couldn’t you get out through the fire exit?”
“Because there’s some sort of wall, of heat or electricity or both, across Cliffy and the whole back of the building. You can see it. I tossed a bit of paper into it and it just disappeared.”
“No…it just…I dunno. It was just gone. Bad TV show, mate. We’re in a bad TV show. Or someone needs to wake me up.”
“You two stay out here and wait for the help. I’m going in.”
“I’m coming in with you. Jacko can take a turn out here in the air.”
“Look, Con, I don’t expect you to expose yourself to this…”
“Inside or out, we’re exposed. Let’s go.”
Con and I crawled through the broken panel. Facing us inside was what Jacko had described. Something like a curtain of molten glass had been drawn across the whole back half of the interior. Behind it, Cliffy, the computer banks of our project, wobbling as if through heat haze.
I picked up a staple gun and threw it at the light curtain. The object simply disappeared. Then a voice.
“Come on through, Mr Drew. It won’t kill, just, mmm, rearrange things. You’ll enter another dimension of sight and sound, get beamed up by Scottie. Oh, it’s better than vintage television.”
The voice had come from several points, presumably where there were speakers of any sort, whether in radios or computers.
“Who or what are you?”
“I’m little Lucy Morningstar. Now I have my very first computer! Thank you so much. Now I wonder what these buttons do…”
A sound from behind us. I turned about. Oxide Chan, in weekend golf attire and composed as ever, had crawled through to join us. Outside I could see his driver, Paul Pattinson, waiting by Jacko.
“Oxide! How did you make it here?”
“Paul’s Kombi van. But I only just got your message before my phone went haywire then died. Drew, things are going wrong everywhere. All up the peninsular there are power failures, no communications. Judging by what I’m seeing here and that glow on the dome, I’m guessing this might have something to do with it all.”
“Christ! How do we stop it? And what is it?”
“No idea. Is there a way we can cut power?”
“Oooh, that’s the funniest thing I’ve heard. I already cut the power. Then sliced it and ate it. Make me laugh again, Chinaman. Bowl me one of those left-arm leggies. My name is Legion, by the way. I just ate a huge bowl of power and I’m hungry again. Must have been Chinese. They say it’s the MSG.”
Jacko yelled at me through the broken door pane:
“The dome is glowing a lot brighter and there are more blue crackles coming from it. Drew, where’s it drawing its power?”
“Can’t tell all my secrets. Here’s a hint: it helps to be Prince of the Power of the Air. Anyway, by tomorrow I should have my very first Terran city. I’ll call it….let me see…Dis! You boys better go now. Don’t want any Dis rate-payers getting fried in here.”
Oxide said what I was thinking.
“We do the frying. Everything. The whole system. We bring in flame throwers, fire hoses…”
The curtain seemed to brighten and shake.
“Oooh. Every time you say something mean I black out a hospital’s power. And, yes, I really did just do that. Ring Brookvale Private…Oh, but you can’t ring, can you? As for your idea of squirting water and fire over me…please! Why not just throw tennis balls underarm? But you’ll have to excuse me now. I need to arrange bank transfers for my worshippers and acolytes. Potty types, these pentagram tracers. And I so wanted goat this time, not some fluffy-wuffy merino. What can one do? The Covenant insists on ritual, so you need worshippers. For that and the odd murder. I suppose they’re good old sticks at heart and deserve to be paid. Enough chat. It’s time to do some banking. The things one can do with lots of Intel inside and the right celestial exposure! Position, position, as they say. Off you go now, lads. Beddie-bys. I have to keep you healthy for future maintenance jobs. You’ll always have a career in IT with the Morningstar Group. My name is Legion, by the way. Call you a cab?”
We could not risk assuming the voice was lying. Something had to be done, but what? As long as the thing could draw power, our hardware would stay solid. Was it drawing power back through lines? Impossible. Yet that was half as crazy as the thought it was drawing power through the atmosphere – or celestially. Only a software attack might work. I knew Oxide must be thinking that way. Did the thing know we were thinking that way?
“Mind putting out the word that any air traffic will just come tumbling down if it approaches? As for software attacks…I don’t think so. This is quite a brain you’ve been so kind as to put at my disposal. But I don’t need to tell you boys that. Toddle along now. Monday will be Funday in the share market. Here’s a tip: stay out of banking stocks. Legion’s the name. Call you a cab?”
Con burst out:
“I say flatten the whole bloody building, and everything in it!”
“Oh, I should be cross with him but I just can’t be. It’s all so quaint. Better tell the poor Cypriot malakas how I’ll be oozing through and over every electronic system in the city by daybreak, like a dropped moussaka. Should be in Canberra by 9am. But the old Observatory will still serve for lively sabbaths. And it is a heritage building, after all!”
We stood silent, fumbling around in our single, small, overheated brains for answers. But we knew there was not a person, strategy or idea known to us which was not already known to the thing. We had fashioned its massive brain piece by piece, and knew the power behind that effeminate, flippant voice. And we knew how much more power and information it could aggregate through the distributive nature we had given it.
Now something or someone we did not know had given it a will.
Just as I was about to propose to Oxide that we leave – hoping that distance might somehow help, at least temporarily – the curtain brightened till it was almost dazzling, and began to ripple. Not one but a whole cacophony of voices were emitted from all over the building: groans howls, jeers, hoots. Human no more, single no more. The only words I distinguished were: “Who let it in, that Welsh lizard? Why didn’t you tell us, Father?”
After a nudge from Jacko, I turned about. Oxide did the same.
On the floor behind us, Rexie was kneeling, but faced toward the door. He was rocking back and forth very slightly, and seemed to be muttering.
The animal voices grew louder, but somehow more defensive than threatening.
“Rexie, how did you get in here?”
He continued to mutter away, eyes half closed.
“Rexie! What are you doing here?”
He half turned his head toward me.
“What am I doing here? What is it doing here? The Serpent of Old…”
As he spoke, he rose.
“The Prince of this World…”
“Rexie, I think we all need to leave before…”
“Son of Morning…Son of Perdition…”
Ignoring me, Rexie turned right around, faced the computer banks, and stood straight. The animal noises were deafening, furious…but somehow vulnerable.
Rexie turned to me again.
“Sir, you have been kind. But all the words have been spoken, all the mistakes have been made and regretted. Now is the time for fighting and for nothing else. This is an hour for dragons.”
He strode toward the energy curtain as the animal voices merged into a single overwhelming shriek.
He stepped into the curtain and disappeared, just as the stapler I hurled into it had disappeared.
Mr Ruan I have reproduced much of the dialogue and drama to this point, as you requested. But here drama began to dwindle, though mystery has only deepened. Let me summarise more briefly how things ended.
After Rexie disappeared into the field or shield or whatever that curtain was, it began to weaken, till it became a light veil – though we still did not dare to cross it.
The voices were all animal, without words, and muffled. There were also heaving and clashing sounds I could neither identify or describe. The best I can say is that if a battle were taking place far away while storms were rumbling overhead, that is how the ensemble of voices and noises sounded. For some reason, two lines of verse, made familiar by the drunken recitations of my Irish grandfather, keep coming to mind:
So all day long the noise of battle rolled
Among the mountains by the winter sea…
And it did go on all the next day, till that sound of battle finally became a series of creaks and wheezes, and that mysterious curtain had completely dissolved.
Then silence. It was a silence which went deeper than we at first realised.
Mr Ruan, you are filled in on the aftermath, much of which is public knowledge. Oxide Chan has done his usual splendid job of researching details and tying up loose ends. While no lives were lost, as far as we know, the interferences with power, computing and communications over that Saturday night caused much damage and expense in northern parts of Sydney. Since it was not possible to take responsibility, Ruan Investing did the next best thing and contributed generously in money and other material assistance to a number of institutions such as the Far West Children’s Home at Manly.
Because it is winter time, the people of the Peninsular and Northern Beaches have already shrugged off the events and begun to focus on the winning form of the Manly-Warringah Rugby League team. This must seem strange, but it would not seem strange to those who know Sydney well, and this part of Sydney in particular. Best if I don’t even try to explain!
As you have been informed, one of the strangest consequences of the events is the completely inert state of the Observatory and its contents. There is not a single piece of equipment or wiring which can be revived in any way. Cliffy is not just dead, it may just as well be made of play dough or modelled in sand. Not a circuit, chip or contact functions in any way. All things electronic and electrical, have somehow been altered at molecular level so that they are without their most basic properties. Seventy year old wiring in the walls will not carry a current or conduct in any way. Its metal has ceased to be metal. Even a wind-up torch left in a staff draw will not charge.
While I hope that scientists examining samples sent to your Brisbane labs may come up with explanations for this transformation, I rather doubt they will. Mind you, I can offer no solid reason for my doubt.
The idea of clearing out the Observatory and leaving it as a bare heritage building in a pleasant setting is a good one. Certainly, I can think of no better idea, and Oxide Chan tells me tax advantages can be found.
I also think we might leave the Observatory as something else, namely, as a kind of mausoleum or memorial. Whether this purpose should be secret, hinted or open are matters I leave to your judgement. But there remains one last oddity known only to me, and which I now relate to you.
I had an office of sorts made up of a few partitions. A small portable computer had been closed on my desk during events.
During the cleanup I opened the computer just to check it was dead and useless like every other piece of equipment in the Observatory. It was.
However there were words frozen on the screen, which was odd for a few reasons, but particularly because the computer had not even been on standby. The words have faded out over the last weeks and the computer has now been responsibly trashed. I decided not to take photos of the screen, but simply to record the words. I will pass those words on to you and to nobody else.
The words were in Latin, and read:
HIC IACET ARTHURUS, REX QUONDAM REXQUE FUTURUS.
As you no doubt know, but as I had to google, it is an epitaph meaning:
HERE LIES ARTHUR, THE ONCE AND FUTURE KING.