0a : At First
What happens at the end? The question has exercised the minds of humans constantly through the ages. At the most basic level, it is clear that we die, we become one with the air or the earth and our bodies disperse. In life, we are composed of fragments of the world that was before us. After life, we are destined to become woven into the fabric of the world to come after us.
Sometimes, the fragments refuse to disperse.
Some individuals possess a matrix which shows an unusual degree of coherence. And in time, out of the harsh, unrelenting glare of day, that which was the individual in question can reassemble a fraction of its former components.
When the fraction is small, the entity lives on as what is usually known, in the world of the living, as a ghost -- a being having little substance and little capacity to interact with the world at large, a being which can only observe but which retains a certain capacity to startle.
Sometimes, the fraction is very large.
In that case, when the sun goes on to its nightly rest and darkness takes possession of the world, from field and fen, the after-life entities return. Arising like a thickening mist from the earth which shelters them through the day, the continuation of a once-living person can assume a virtually solid form and become able to play a part again in human affairs.
It is a sad fact that the living fear the dead. The living create grand visions of paradise and torment -- paradise for me, torment for you if you fail to follow me and serve me faithfully. But when the dead linger, then they must be destroyed and dispersed.
Some among the still-living crave contact with the post-living and they are content to receive plausible messages via an agent. But when the deceased returns in a more physical form, the average human sees a threat.
Of course, the post-living are not 100% angels. The normal distribution of pre-death behaviour is there -- perhaps, admittedly, with a bias toward malevolence. Survival after death takes a strong will and a desire for revenge is often a great source of strength.
And so we tend to continue our existences largely separated from the pre-dead or unobserved by them. Those who torment the living generally come to a more final end than their death from being living persons.
But things change.
We know now that something has changed. Our numbers have waxed and waned with the ages. There have been times when the dead never went to their reward whole -- when the living held back the heart or the head, or both. The events of these times have confirmed that no one can rise again if they become dispersed while seriously incomplete.
The loss of a limb has much the same effect on the risen as on a living person. But those deprived of an organ which is necessary in life -- the heart, the brain, the liver, both kidneys, the pancreas -- they become unviable as a post-living person.
Something new in the soil is probably the best explanation for the change. We sink into the ground as sunrise approaches, seeking protection, never knowing if we shall emerge again to experience another night. Things go wrong when the sun reigns. Sometimes, as a result of 'natural' causes, the risen never rise again. Sometimes, the living track us down and disperse our final traces beyond hope of recombination.
But something has happened.
Chemicals in the soil. Agro-chemicals, industrial waste, toxic material dumped by criminals as an alternative to paying to have it destroyed, some new combination of existing and/or added materials. We have even considered the possibility of debris from space in the light of the theory that comets could be the source of plagues.
Something has happened to make us stronger.
We are fortunate enough to live in times when a great many people want to believe that there are 'undead' creatures walking the night, but few really, truly accept this notion when confronted with the obligation to subscribe to it or reject it..
Now, we -- the post-living -- are less liable to retire to the earth at dawn and never reappear. And the secret rituals to ensure that the newly dead will never rise again are strictly part of history. Apart from the obvious exceptions.
Our numbers are relatively stable -- as far as one can tell about such things. Our 'birth' rate is vastly lower than in previous times -- some have suggested that living longer, healthier lives burns us out to a greater extent and makes us less likely to coalesce after our initial dispersion. But that ignores the fact that most of us seem to have met a premature end. Wherever the truth lies, once resurrected, we are now more likely to continue.
In the old days, life for the 'undead' was less demanding. Most were too in awe of what they had become to have too much ambition. No longer subject to the needs and drives of the living, most just drifted around fairly aimlessly. In fact, as far as we can tell, most just hung around for a few days and then, feeling that they were now in a place where they had no right to be, they 'embraced the dawn' and went into belated non-existence.
A minority, the more strong-willed, re-invented themselves. Some sought revenge on those who had offended them during their initial phase of life. They claimed the night and made their enemies tremble from sunset to dawn and long for the lengthy days of summer.
The rest just got on with experiencing the world, such as it is, at night. Our post-life phase must have been very boring until the growth of large settlements and the arrival of a class of people with the leisure to enjoy the night hours in ways which provide entertainment for observers.
In my own case, the circumstances of my death remain a mystery to me. I know that I was born on December 19th, 1943 and I went to bed, as normal, one night in March of 1990, aged forty-six. The next thing I knew, I was alone and adrift in a form of afterlife. I chose not to find out what had happened to me.
After my coalescence, I wandered the streets of major cities by night in search of diversion for a long time -- for at least a decade. I drifted invisibly into theatres, cinemas, clubs and all sorts of places of legal and illegal entertainment. I watched the emergency services tackle fires, crimes and road accidents. I watched criminals in action when I was lucky enough to be nearby. And I saw all of the natural and artificial wonders of the ancient and modern worlds.
And then I surrendered to a need to withdrawn for a period of quiet contemplation while I sorted out some objectives. I felt that I had to get clear in my own mind whether my activities in this afterlife should have some purpose. I also had to confront the fact that I seemed to be alone. I had met no one like myself during my years of wandering. Or, more accurately, if I had met anyone like me, we had failed to recognize each other for what we are now.
I chose to withdraw to an abandoned farm in rather desolate, rocky, hilly country for my period of reassessment. I assumed that the former occupants had abandoned the struggle to survive on subsidies in conditions of extreme isolation and moved to somewhere more populous. The place was in bad condition when I arrived but I have sufficient presence by night to be able to perform cosmetic repairs.
Our needs in this afterlife are modest -- more concerned with mental stimulation than bodily sustenance. We don't feel hot, we don't feel cold. We don't feel hungry and we don't feel thirsty. In fact, we don't feel much of anything any more in a physical sense. If we go out in the rain, we feel wet but not in the same way as the pre-dead. There is no sensation of being cold and wet, nothing terribly unpleasant at all -- just a sensation of being 'not dry'.
When it comes to emotions, however, we can still feel rage, loneliness, happiness, satisfaction, the urge to change things and so on. And we feel the urge to seek out others of our kind from time to time -- but purely for exchanges of information and companionship in the sense of not being alone. As far as the body goes, we feel nothing much any more.
Imagine my surprise when, out here in my extreme isolation, I began to receive visitors. There must be something about the place which attracts the post-dead. Over a period of a couple of months, my farmhouse became a meeting place for a small colony of my present kind. They drifted in, one by one, drawn to the place while passing. We found that we can sense one another's presence when we are close enough, although the feeling can be very fugitive until we are within a hundred yards or so of contact. It's a big world and it's very easy to miss one another when we are travelling about it.
Iktar was the first, then Xanthe. Both had been wandering alone for over half a century. Then Frosch homed in on our triple presence one wild night. He had been adrift for a lot longer than any of us and he had developed delusions of being king of a post-dead population of one.
In general, I appreciate the company of my own kind -- not to be entirely alone is as much an ambition for the post-dead as for those still living. The pre-dead, on the other hand, are an entirely different matter. I generally look upon them as invaders when they find the farmhouse, no matter what sort of people they are.
Some of the invaders arrive, destroy anything which takes their fancy and leave before nightfall. Some stay on to sleep in the chaos which they have concocted. The rest tend to make their surroundings comfortable according to their own specifications and leave the place in a habitable condition for the next visitor.
Those who do no harm remain unharmed.
We refuse to tolerate the destroyers, however.
We have an ability to drain life force from the pre-dead, should we choose to exercise it. This was a purely accidental discovery born of rage, in the case of myself and my three companions. No one has ever produced solid proof that taking away this life energy from the pre-dead has any benefits for the post-dead. In terms of longevity, preception of health and other measures of improvement, those who transfer life-force to themselves and those who choose not to seem to be identical.
The same cannot be said for those whom we drain. We are always careful to leave the messy invaders with enough life-force to crawl a few miles before they expire. And when they do, they never return -- return in our sense, I mean. Their fate is to remained dispersed.
This has been the pattern of our lives in former times -- to observe, to be entertained by the pre-dead, to associate mainly with our own kind and to cull the destroyers.
But as a result of the change, things are about to get radically different.
0b : In Changing Times
Our loosely bound group had gathered at the farmhouse by night -- Frosch, Xanthe, Iktar and myself, Prethon. The rule may be 'ladies first' but somehow, Frosch places himself above rules. Xanthe and Iktar are both long resigned to letting him take precedence. It was his assertiveness and self-confidence, Frosch believes, which played a major part in his continued existence beyond the natural barrier of death.
Returning to the business of the moment, we had evicted a group of destructive wanderers from the daytime, by the usual permanent deterrent means, and the ladies were moaning about the state of the main room. Which was nothing new.
The offence, of course, was purely to their aesthetic sense. In our current state, we can stroll through the vilest filth without becoming contaminated. If we choose not to notice it, the most lethal stench does not trouble us. Not being required to breathe can be a positive benefit at times. Even so, Xanthe at her most vocal triggered a response in Frosch.
In life, he had ended his days as a soldier, falling for King and Country in some meaningless battle on the European mainland in 1915. He quickly found his way back to his native land in his post-life form, proving that soldiers can be very resourceful people. Iktar, who has a morbid curiosity about such things [and I'm sure she knows exactly what happened to me], has taken the trouble to seek out a photograph of him at an archive in the Imperial War Museum. The pre-dead Frosch was a somewhat undersized individual, who looked rather lost in his new uniform on the verge of being shipped overseas to fight.
Post-death, he has bulked out, reducing his density to make himself taller and more imposing -- in much the same way that Iktar, vain female, has re-sculpted her own body to make it taller, thinner in some places and more imposing in others. Frosch fell on the battlefield as a lance-corporal. General Frosch was speaking to us as he lounged in an ancient armchair and watched the ladies gather up a harvest of crushed beverage cans and other debris left by the latest soon-to-be-extinct intruders. Frosch had been getting ambitious of late. In a time of change, he has changed the most. After drifting around for the best part of a century, he is looking to put down roots again.
"What we need is a place of our own with cable TV and a good library," he announced.
"And a garden where we can rest during the day?" Xanthe added.
"Or a park nearby," said Frosch.
"All that requires money and explanations," Iktar pointed out. She has, according to Frosch, a distressingly practical streak. "Interactions with ..." she waved a hand in a semi-regal gesture to encompass the world of the pre-dead.
"What we need to do is find somewhere to invade," General Frosch said.
"Where?" Iktar remained unmoved by a dream.
"Think of somewhere." Frosch looked at me.
"Buck House?" I said.
"Ten Downing Street?" Iktar put unrestrained sarcasm into her voice.
"Some posh penthouse?" I decided to offer a moderately sensible suggestion, just to find out where Frosch was going. He has a habit of building grand castles in the air. I wanted to find out if he was merely passing time with his harangue or whether he really intended to make a move on the realm of the pre-dead.
"Some posh place where the owner's gone abroad for a while." Xanthe said, giving us something achievable.
"With cable TV." Iktar added, giving the general a mocking look.
"The thing to avoid, though, is getting noticed," Frosch decided. "Otherwise, the bad old days of hunting our kind down are going to be back with a rush."
"I'm pleased to hear you're not on some mad suicide mission," I told him.
"In fact," Frosch ignored my contribution, "we need to establish ourselves quietly and then maximize our opportunities. And I have a few ideas in that direction."
Xanthe hurled a final can into a black plastic bag with excessive force then she began to tie up the neck with the built-in strip of orange tape. "Just because we don't need anything better than this as a meeting place, that's no reason for not aspiring to something better."
"I have an idea. I'll tell you about it in due course." Frosch had come to the works of Lewis Carroll late in life. He still thought that it is highly amusing to dematerialize in such a way that his smile is the last thing left.
"I hope he's going to be all right," Iktar said with almost reflex concern.
"The Devil looks after his own," Xanthe returned, looking at me with an expression which told me that if the ladies had gathered up the junk then it was the job of the men to remove it from the premises. Although long divorced from life, we find that we remain subject to its moral imperatives.
Two nights later, Frosch was back -- but later on in the dark evening. Xanthe had wandered off somewhere in search of entertainment, leaving Iktar and myself to repel two more destructive boarders.
We came back to this world as the light of a cloudy evening was fading and we stood on a hillside and watched the clouds turn from brilliant, fiery red to an ominous dark, murky crimson. Then we headed for our farmhouse out of habit. We needed our focal point as a starting point for the night.
Judging from the sirens in the distance, the police seemed to be doing a lot of zooming around but all of it was a long way from our location. We concluded that something serious had happened during the daylight hours. As we neared the farmhouse, we heard banging about. Two drunken louts were having a scrap and generally kicking our sitting room to bits in their eagerness to get at each other.
One of them took violent exception to Iktar's torrent of indignation. He soon discovered the difference between substance and integrity. There is a lot less of us, post-life, but what there is can be fixed immovably, each particle of our being remaining locked in an absolute position with respect to all others.
The lout's fist flew against Iktar's clearly feminine features with no regard for her status as a member of the allegedly weaker sex. Flesh and bone met a surface which could be even more unyielding than diamond. Flesh and bone lost the encounter.
The draining process can be very gentle, allowing the pre-dead to be eased from one state to the next. When angry, we can make the change a rather drawn-out symphony of agony [we are unable to perform the process as quickly as shooting someone] from which death is a blessed relief. Iktar was almost exploding with her anger.
I was careful to leave my intruder in a zombie-like state, in which he had no free will but he retained sufficient residual energy to let him walk in a direction chosen by me until that energy ran out. I had to carry Iktar's intruder. She was quite unrepentant, of course, and still seething inside. A drunken thug who attacks a woman, she believes, deserves as much final agony as he can tolerate -- and probably a bit more.
Going down from our hills, we come to woodland areas which have never been cleared. The land around them is too broken and unwelcoming. The people of the area have always been able to fit in to the less forbidding regions and they have never felt a need to expand here in search of a piece of territory to call their own.
Here, in the scrubby woods, we abandoned our intruders, hoping that we had seen the last of them. Neither would receive a warm welcome from us if he became post-dead through some miracle. It was a black night under the clouds when we returned but we could see a ghostly glow where the half-Moon was lurking behind a thinner patch of cloud and we are not dependent on light for successful navigation.
We had intended to walk back to the farmhouse, having nothing else planned for the time, but a loud noise and a bright lance of light changed our minds. There was a police helicopter in the air and the police cars were still zooming around and still using their sirens, even though we could not work out why they needed them. We decided not to let the helicopter spot us.
Frosch was there when we wafted invisibly back into our meeting place. He had closed the shutters on the window, lit the lamp and tidied up some of the wreckage from the brawl. Leaving a share of the tidying up for the rest of us, he had then lit a fire of dead branches and he was sprawled in one of the armchairs with his feet up, the image of one of the pre-dead enjoying the warmth and light of a cheerful blaze.
"Been enjoying yourselves?" he remarked when Iktar and I solidified.
"Where are the big, strong blokes when you need them?" Iktar said in a distinctly hostile tone.
"When did you ever need a bloke?" scoffed Frosch. "There's lots going on out there. More police cars than you can shake a stick at. And even a helicopter."
"We know, we were out there," Iktar said frostily.
I turned one of the armchairs in her direction and stood behind it, holding the back, offering it to her and looking at Iktar.
"Someone's accusing me of being loud and unfeminine," she decided.
"Why would anyone possibly do that?" scoffed Frosch.
Iktar and I claimed armchairs and hitched them over to the fire so that we could prop our feet up on the communal foot-rest.
"What do you think of Number One, Churchill Square as an address?" Frosch remarked with an air of smugness.
"Sounds a bit posher than Number One, Farmhouse Square, the Middle of Nowhere," said Iktar. "What's the catch?"
"It's full of squatters. Well, six of them," said Frosch. "Or maybe even a few more."
"So we get them out and the owners move someone in?" scoffed Iktar, anticipating where Frosch was taking us. "Big deal."
"Right and wrong in different areas," Frosch said smugly.
"Are you going to tell us your big idea or are we going to have to drag it out of you, two words at a time?" I said, trying to hurry things along. One explosion from Iktar per night is quite enough.
Frosch glanced at me, delivering his most rapid wink. He had received the message. "The thing about this place is that it's a des. res. One that's the subject of what's going to be a long legal battle. At least three fractions of an extended family are claiming that it should go to them. At the moment, they're all gathering up their evidence while the family solicitor tries to trace some more relatives with a similar level of claim."
"Which does what for us?" said Iktar. "We evict the squatters then what?"
"We move in as sort of caretakers," Frosch told her. "And we approach the solicitors and tell them that if they install cable TV and switch the electricity on in our TV room, we'll look after the place for them."
"And then watch them laugh themselves sick?" scoffed Iktar.
"It makes good sense," Frosch protested. "Someone's going to cop for the place in the end. It makes more sense to make a deal which lets them inherit somewhere that's been looked after rather than a dump that the squatters have wrecked."
"Assuming it's not already been wrecked," I contributed.
"The place is still very okay," Frosch assured us.
"What about the library you wanted?" Iktar prodded. "Are the solicitors going to have to cough up for that, too?"
"Not if we can find some all-night bookshops. What do you think of that?" Frosch reached down beside his armchair, out of our view. The hand came back into view holding an oblong object, which he tossed to Iktar.
"Dosh!" she said in surprise, riffling a wad of £20 notes with her thumb.
Frosch hauled a sports bag into sight. "I think your visitors had a lot to do with this. I found it shoved in a corner when I was inspecting the wreckage."
"How much is there?" Iktar demanded.
"Not enough to buy Number One, Churchill Square," Frosch said with a laugh. "But more than enough for an extremely decent library."
"Before you get too attached to it, I think it might be an idea to be somewhere else for a while," I remarked. "That helicopter sounds like it's getting closer."
Frosch cocked his head and listened. "You could be right, mate."
"What are you going to do with it?" Iktar asked, returning her bundle of notes reluctantly. It was not something that she could keep with her during the day.
"Shove it in a locker at the station," said Frosch. He peeled a note off the wad. "I'll need to buy something to get some change."
"Make sure you buy it a long way from where you leave the bag," I mentioned. "In case the police have got the numbers."
Frosch just looked at me with a lazy smile, trying to tell me that he had already thought of that problem while admitting that he had not.
"Okay, let's get on with it." Iktar pushed to her feet. "And someone had better put that fire out."
I turned out to be the someone. We left the farmhouse locked up and in good order. And then we headed for civilization with our loot.