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By: Sergio Burns

Preview and purchase Sergio's excellent short story collection Dark Ghosts Rising. Thank you for supporting the authors of WordShack Publishing.

1. Alienation, Hunger, No Power

Did I say? On her iPod - a SuperNano Xeron Futura 64 gigabite (the Last Frontier) - Massive Attack's redigitalised and integrated trip hop track Unfinished Sympathy (The 2054 version - the one some people masquerading as 'Massive Attack' recorded in 2054) all six minutes twenty seven seconds of it - you know the track? For a while she sings along to the hollow and haunting melody with the band as she walks. She loves the...what she calls...'the' sound, knowing that she will only be able to listen to and enjoy music until the NRGxzone powersaver runs out.

Massive Attack is followed by a few from her Grandfather's CD collection, Hard-Fi's Living For The Weekend (one of her all-time favourites) Dr Dre's Still D.R.E. and then Guns N' Roses' Better from their classic early 21st century album Chinese Democracy.

The music keeps her spirits in train and on track, despite the hardship, as she trudges wearily and doggedly through the wind and snow. Her 35 litre purple and green Karrimor Trekker 7 rucksack (with reheated NRGxzone) high-masted to her aching back.

Charisma Dawn Street, punkish (though she always denied the punk ticket) pretty, spiky, black hair streaked blue on either side, Tolkienesque Shieldmaiden, peered into the gathering gloom.

An English literature student abroad in a terrible, terrible era (dissertation nearing completion : Alientation, Kafka and a Hunger Artist) surveyed all before her as she ploughed on through the blizzard. As she walked - head stooped - into a misty, jagged visibility, the weather closed in and enveloped her in a winter shroud.

The girl with 'free yourself' and 'revolution' tattooed to her wrist and shoulder respectively, who once lived only for her studies and the Glasgow weekend - 'Glasglow' as she and her friend Keller Stacey Kin used to refer to it on nights out in the city -was now simply focused on surviving the bitter flight of cold.





W i n d b l o w i n g

she felt so small in the world, so minute in the universe...

For Charisma the world was now massively reduced - a microscopic globe, a universe in the tiny eyes of a bemused bee, thrown out of balance by changes in the seasons - spied through the thin membrane of a turbulent sheet of steadily falling snow blown hard by the June.

The student perceived the scene through the retinas of her dark brown eyes, the hazy snowscape stretching out before her toward the rapidly darkening horizon. A wintry Farquharson landscape populated with ragged sheep, their ragged wool coats heavy with clinging snow pulled and tugged by the wayward summer blizzard. Ahead of her drifts of wind-blown snow formed into smooth, icy dunes reaching up fields toward a distant shadow on a partially-obscured, crimson horizon.

All around her diverse and intricately patterned flakes of snow tumbled haphazardly in the wind. Creating a delicate sheet of white. It is June, she reminds herself, yet snow is falling relentlessly curtain white from a brooding, low sky. Virgin snow drifting on the wind to lie bright and sparkling across unseen fields where cold, grey, steel fences demarcate the boundaries between underworld nations. The stinging stormblast of the blizzard whipping across land, rising angrily in wild gusts, powerful air swirling demented snow sheets.

In the distance she caught a glimpse of the farmhouse emerging gradually from a cloud of snow. Surrounded by deep, dark angles and silhouettes, still and silent, save the tortured howl of the wind and the screechy stuck and solitary squawk of a lonely hooded crow.

Charisma Dawn, in that moment, stopped dead, twilight swooping menacingly around her, and looked up into the sweeping grey and white of sparkling snowflakes. Above her a cream moon climbing slowly into a cobalt sky brought temporary light and lit her way and a minute part of the world.

She shivers, lips trembling made a sorry, soft blurrrr sound and she pulls her Airwalk Urban Exploration Bronx hat down over her ears and the hood of her fishtail parka up and over her head. Her cheeks, shiny, cherry red with the chill of the wind and the wet, driven snowflakes on her skin.

The student starts moving again, sighing and finding renewed strength she shifts toward the gloomy house. The shadowy sight of possible refuge in the form of the grim, dark farmhouse spurring her forward. A murky box of welcome shelter in the fading light and the blanket of falling blizzard.

She walks toward a sign which grows large as it drags itself from the gloaming, announcing and pointing to some esoteric knowledge of the immediate environs. A white sign with dark lettering framed by snow. Ishleesh, she rolled the name mutely around in her mouth, it was, she thought, such a beautiful sound. But she moved on, determinedly focused on reaching the house. The farmhouse standing over her and situated toward the far end of the field.

Her body was aching, her mind exhausted with all the confusion of this rapidly changing world and a million disorientating thoughts racing around her head.

Having walked three and a half miles from the road in drifting snow and blizzard conditions after her car had ran out of petrol, she was now badly in need of rest, but still - perhaps driven by instinct - she ploughed on.

Peering, squinting into the hazy mist of blown snow, she was now certain she had caught sight of a candle flicker in the farmhouse window. She resisted dreaming that after a week without talking to anyone - the mobile and video phone networks 7 Zeron, Axis Robbo, Romanovski Dimensions and Klone had all automatically collapsed - she would at last come face to face and communicate with live people again. It made her realise just how much she now missed Carl.

Charisma's legs were leaden with the relentless weight of the rucksack on her back and the relentless weight of the snow and the relentless pull of maximum and relentless gravity - the reality of physics within the human world of imagined illusion. An illusion she knew she had to learn to use to her own ends if only she were to be given the chance. Now as she walked she sank deeper and deeper into the snow.

Suddenly she stumbled, pitching forward in flickering slow motion. Her arms desperately windmilling in an attempt to keep her balance. The student made a terrible wailing sound as she tumbled headlong into the snow. It broke the eerie silence. Startled, the crow made a complaining squawk and flew off, its wings flapping hurriedly, as it rose into the teeth of the blizzard.

The girl fell face first, arms outstretched, making the shape of an angel imprinted onto the snowscape. Crucified horizontally - soft white art.

In that very instant the NRGxzone pack in her iPogine player finally ran out. The nano machinery fell silent in the middle of Kate Bush's Hounds Of Love -
wheniwasachildrunninginthenightafraidofwhatmightbehiding...and and utter silence...inthedark she whispered as the music stopped and the iPogine died.

For a few, long seconds all was silent, then she could hear the sound of excited dogs bark in the distance. As she lay there she sensed the animals approaching rapidly.

Slowly she raised her head and peered into the driving snow unable to see anything properly. For a few seconds, disorientated, she waited and listened, until torchlight speared its way through the darkness followed quickly by muffled voices carried on the wind. Humans? Dogs?

As they approached from out of the murky darkness and maddening storm she remembered, as she lay there and listened to some weird canine sniffing and barking, that it was now seven days.

2. Seven Days

It was now seven days since she had woken in the middle of a really strange dream about a wolf who had called upon her asking if she had seen three little pigs?

"Have you seen these porcine creatures my dear?" It licked its lips, rolled its big saucer-sized yellow eyes. "Yum, yum".

Awake,she found herself in total darkness, had risen, shivered with cold and pulled on her nightrobe. She had then wandered through the flat flicking switches, all of which refused to come to life. She was guided by shadows and familiar walls with cheap wallpaper and doorways and furniture (the mental map of her surroundings) and made her way to the front room, her imagination running wild with thoughts of a hidden stranger who had cut off the source of electricity to the house and who now lay furtively in wait for her.

Charisma quickly reasoned with herself that perhaps the power to the block of flats was down. Maybe something had happened to cut the electricty. She moved to the window and could see, however, that the whole of Glasgow was in absolute darkness, only the moon shed light across the metropolis. Maybe, she thought to herself, as she stood at the window fascinated by the gloomy skyline, 'The world has ran out of power.'

She thought about Carl and how the previous evening they had rekindled their love for each other. She wondered if he was up and about, if he knew about the electricity cuts, the darkness.

As daylight swung around, bringing light and confusion, cars and then garages soon began to run out of fuel, even the new biosupers - introduced as the greenest fuel ever in the mid 21st century ( though some scientists warned that they generated more pollution than the more traditional gas station) - ran rapidly dry. Motor vehicles and trucks soon littered the roads and streets and motorways, dumped on the hard shoulder of some of the main arteries running through and around the city, with only the odd piece of abandoned metal left to rust in the central reservation. Even in chaos most of humankind fought to find order.

The student tried desperately to make videophone calls on her Axis Robbo network and then mobile cell calls as an outmoded backup, but nothing worked anymore. She wanted desperately to contact Carl but couldn't and he had no way of reaching her by video or mobile phone. Her breakfast, for once, had not been made by the Aauutoon (a kind of robotic maid she affectionately called Irene) her Zinox NRGxzone 7 cell having run dry, silencing that grating chip voice forever.

She tried to email Carl but it kept bouncing back, but did manage to email her friend Keller Stacey Kin, her fellow student from university. She managed to get through to her on her microlaplab until it too lost its power source.

From :
To : Kellerk@geezonexplus.corg

Hey KK

I have no electricity, the flat is freezing and it's starting to snow in June??? What's happening??? I can't get a hold of Carl!!!!

Charisma x

From : Kellerk@geezonexplus.corg
To :

Hey Charisma

Listen, stay put, don't go out on the streets Shieldmaiden, it is crazy out there. I am not sure what is happening but it seems the world's resources have ran out, shops are being looted, there are gangs roaming around with guns and talk of civil war. The world has ran out of power, fuel, natural resources and they've fucked up the climate. Everything is anarchy Shieldmaiden don't g..............................................................

Charisma's screen suddenly went blank, she felt panic rise inside her, fear crawled across her skin.

'Everything Is Anarchy' she thought to herself was a recent Strufdance hit for the immensely talented Verana Klitchalkovski - who also starred as Kate Bush in the recent biopic Hounds Of Love. But thinking about Everything Is Anarchy reminded her of Everything Is Tuesday which was a hit record for Chairman of the Board who also had a hit with Give Me Just A Little More Time also covered by Kylie Minogue another diva from the late 20th early 21st century.

Ignoring her friends warning, Charisma had gone out into the streets and witnessed the looting, the fights, heard the gunshots. She had thought about trying to travel across town to Carl's flat but the sight of a young girl being gang raped in a lane just off Sauchiehall Street drove her back to the sanctuary of her home.

She remained holed up at home for three days before finding her car and driving out of the city.

3. Ishleesh

Suddenly hands at either side of her were grabbing her roughly by her shoulders and hauling her from the snow, the dogs circling and yelping.

"Are you okay?" A woman with wide green eyes and long blonde hair flowing from beneath a Bronx hat asked as she and a male lifted Charisma back onto her feet.

"We heard you call out" the man explained. "Where did you come from?"

"The road" the student replied. "Back there" she pointed with her eyes. "My car ran out of petrol."

The couple were called Siobhan North, a pretty elfin-looking girl with a wide smile who was seven months pregnant and Nathan Klum, a handsome dark haired thirty-something with ice blue eyes and long dark hair. They led her back to Ishleesh farmhouse where they took her into the front room and sat her by the fire. For the first time in what seemed like an eternity Charisma felt warmth seep into her complaining bones, and her face glowed red with heat. The couple brewed coffee over the fire and made her toast by candlelight.

As the three settled back, now warm in a room soft lit by several strategically placed candles, the dogs sprawling sleepily by the fire, Siobhan and Nathan gently asked her of her journey and how she had found them. In a strange sort of way Charisma Dawn thought it quite sweet and homely and welcomed the opportunity to make conversation with other human beings for the first time in just over a week.

The couple explained that, like Charisma, they too had walked all the way from the M8, Glasgow to Edinburgh motorway, to the farmhouse after their car had died on them, but not, they added in such dreadful conditions. They told the student of fleeing Edinburgh when the New Town riots spread east to Leith and then to Bruddenbriggs. Initially they had strayed to a deserted village about two miles away and had raided an empty supermarket and stocked up on food and essentials. By sheer good fortune they had found the farmhouse about four days before and had made this their home, though they now knew that this was their destiny.

Half-asleep in front of the dancing flames of the fire Charisma had missed the 'destiny' part of the last statement and let it slide.

Nathan also explained that he was not the father of Siobhan's child. They had, he had explained in some detail, simply lived in neighbouring flats and he had helped her flee the terrible anarchy and chaos that befell the capital after it was plunged into darkness.

As Charisma polished off her toast with gusto and drank her coffee Siobhan fetched a bottle of Bunnahabhain malt whisky from a sideboard in the front room and a couple of glasses. She poured Nathan a generous glass and offered some to the student. "To warm you up?" Siobhan offered raising the bottle, Charisma nodded. "I wont when I am expecting the little one."

Siobhan patted her tummy as she gave the student the glass, her face cut into dark and light patterns by flickering candles.

"Besides I don't really like whisky anyway" Siobhan added as she poured.

"Who ever lived here had good taste" Nathan held his glass up in mock toast.

"Well congratulations" Charisma smiled. "On your baby."

Nathan and Siobhan looked at each other and fell silent.

"We knew you were coming" Siobhan smiled at length. "We knew."

Charisma raised her glass to her mouth but didn't drink, she lowered the glass and looked from Nathan to Siobhan and Nathan broke the tension by laughing.

"Cheers" he said and took a pull at the whisky, CD did likewise and then made a face and all three laughed.

"Here's to you!" Charisma said as the rawness of the malt caught her in the back of her throat and she coughed before it slipped down into her body making her glow from the inside. She relaxed back into her seat, the fire warming her, the gentle heat from the Bunnahabhain and overall exhaustion encouraging her to drift toward sleep. Suddenly regaining her composure she sat upright.

"That certainly hit the spot" she laughed. "God I am exhausted."

The farmhouse had a front room, a dining area, a kitchen and bathroom on the lower floor and four bedrooms two generously spacious while the other two were compact and cosy on the upper floor. The master bedroom had an en-suite facility while a large toilet and double shower sat at the end of the upper corridor to be shared by the other three rooms and those who resided there.

At around one in the morning Nathan took Charisma to her bedroom and showed her where his room was while pointing out Siobhan's which was further along the hall and had the en suite, which, of course, was academic in the present situation.

The student's room was bitterly cold. The single candle Nathan had given her barely lit the area and she had to edge herself toward her bed. For a few seconds, though she was shivering, Charisma stood by the bedroom window and looked out across fields illuminated by moonlight. It had stopped snowing and she felt grateful to have found shelter knowing that it was now below freezing outside.

She removed her ghost from her rucksack.

They were something most single girls had to comfort them at night while they slept alone. Glowing white, with a mysterious green tinge, six inches tall with wide eyes and a welcome smile the little creatures were driven by complex diginano esprer technology.

So good was the build that many thought they were really 'ghosts'. Some even believed that the spirits of those now departed resided inside them.

Many paid big money to have their ghost deconstructed to spirit. Some even made a living out of being ghost guides. These were people who could tell you who the spirit was that resided in a certain ghost. People Like Marasha Kee and Stockani Dor were paid huge sums of money for their readings and attained ghost guide celebrity. Stockani even had her own The Ghost In Your Room show on prime time 3D Glitterbox.

At the same time others were completely convinced that the ghosts were really just little human manufactured machines. But most people had mixed feelings about the whole thing. At once convinced they were machines and yet, because of their humanistic qualities, they could convince themselves of their paranormal origins.

The technology, however - or as it was claimed - was the work of a dour Scotsman with a penchant for riding bicycles called Murdoch who had lived and worked in Tokyo. The professor would walk into the lecture theatre and open his class by telling his students : These are my creations and I can't believe I am here. But just as much as I can't believe I am here, neither can I believe that they are there and they, with their primitive thought patterns still find it hard to believe that they are here....he always paused at this point and studied his bemused students... if you catch my drift?

Ghosts were little men or women - but mostly male - who glowed in the dark and guarded their keepers while they slept. Charisma had purchased a Vitoferimo Esprer 52, one of the earliest models - and some have argued the most ghostlike - just after the technology was born. She had taught the ghost to answer to the name Pietro and she brought him out every night to keep her secure and loved him dearly. For many it had been a bit of a fad and sales of the little creatures dropped significantly by 2055 while for others it became a passion and many people had gathered little armies of the techno-species.

Charisma placed her little man on top of a bedside cabinet.

"Hi Pietro" She whispered as her ghost stretched and threw-out some much needed light into the gloomy room.

"Miss" The little creature replied in a squeaky voice. "Alarm mode?"

"No...thank you, let me sleep in the morning"

"As you wish, guardian security?"

"Yes, please, high pitched squeal to warn me of danger please Pietro."

"As you wish. Voice activated to high pitch squeal in the event of intruders or danger."

Charisma shivered as she looked down on her ghost.


"Miss?" the little creature cocked his head to the side to listen.

"Don't you ever get lonely?"

The ghost frowned and looked up into his misstresses big, wide eyes.

"Why, no miss."


"No" Pietro replied shyly. "I have you...I always have you."

"Favourite piece of music?"

"Well it has to be supert...t...t...t...t...trance, trance, supertrance, the remix of Sasha and Emerson's Scorchio"

"Strufdance?" Charisma said making a face.

"No, not quite" Pietro shook his head. "I like a regular rhythm miss."

Charisma smiled and kissed her little friend on his glowing white - green tinged - forehead.

"Look after me Pietro."

"As you wish" the creature nodded and began marching the few paces up the bedside cabinet and then turning made his way back. While Charisma watched, the strange little creature paced up and down earnestly on the look out for danger, the protection of his mistress the only thing on his mind.

Exhausted and gently relaxed by the whisky the student longed to climb under the covers and rest. Yawning, she laid out her sleeping bag under the duvet, removed her boots and climbed fully clothed into bed and fell asleep almost immediately.

Pietro looked down from his lofty sentry post and sighed. "Good - night" he whispered.

Her dreams flowed thick and fast, of waking up beside a giant hare who then remote controlled the three dimensional Glitterbox into action. Everything seemed unfamilair to her and she soon discovered that she and the hare were alone in a very dark and seemingly endless forest of tall dark trees and shadows.

"Don't be frightened" said the hare. "Come with me."

Soft sunlight stole through the open curtains and poured in on Charisma asleep on the bed.

She had been so exhausted the previous evening and so relieved to find shelter she had not bothered pulling the curtains shut and now woke squinting at rogue rays as she lay in her sleeping bag beneath the Nano Zero plus fabric duvet.

She sighed as she stretched out in her sleeping bag, her ghost still pacing.

"You can stop now Pietro."

"As you whir miss, whir misk, whi."

It was an error the little man made every now and then, especially after another long night on guard. Recently he had started to confuse words and she had noticed that he increasingly stuttered, a sure sign that his isoesprer chamber was becoming deleted, or in other words he was beginning to show the first signs of machine dementia as Professor Murdoch had once explained to the fascinated students he taught at the University of Tsukuba. "I" he used to tell them as he removed his bicycle clips "Am a maker of ghosts".

She stared at Pietro, soon he would need replaced, only there was no DigiNano Esprer stores around anymore the designer retailer of ghosts Vitoferimo, the manufacturer, she imagined no longer existed.

As Pietro shut off, she reached up and returned her little security guard/alarm clock/friend to the rucksack of his short existence aaaaaaaaaaazzzzzzzzzzz.

She snuggled down into the sleeping bag once more, closed her eyes and felt the sunlight caress her soft skin. Her mind was a rush of thoughts and she recalled the couple who had plucked her from the deepening snow, perhaps, the thought occurred to her, she might even owe her life to them. The tall, dark Nathan and the pretty, pregnant and mysterious Siobhan unwilling to reveal who the father of her child happened to be.

4. Vooodooo Children

He (Nathan) she had recalled from their conversation - the soft amber glow of the Bunnahabhain in his glass reflecting the yellow, red and blue flames of the fire - had said he had led Siobhan to safety from the anarchy of what was now Edinburgh.

She also recalled Nathan had said some really extraordinary things the previous evening. She remembered he had said things which she found strange, but she didn't like to say anything that might offend and besides she had been too tired. He had, for example, mentioned a book called 'The Chronicles', a leather bound text he had held tightly in his right hand. She was unnerved by the way he had told her that her arrival at Ishleesh had been foretold - in the book. She had laughed and had sleepily smiled when he referred to her as 'The Maid' and 'The Angel In The Snow'.

He had gone on at some length about the catastrophic financial collapse that had occurred in the early and mid part of the century. It was, he declared, the precursor of things to come in the future. It warned, he had announced, of the evil that had corrupted society and that would eventually underpin the complete collapse they were now experiencing.

Nathan had spoken about 'saving' Charisma and she thought at the time he had been referring to plucking her from an icy tomb in the deepening snow. He also referred to 'saving' Siobhan for future generations, and she had thought that he had meant keeping her safe from the civil war and chaos in the capital and the 'future generations' reference was obviously to do with her being pregnant. Now she was not quite so sure. They were, she agreed with herself, a strange couple - or - indeed - a strange non-couple. It was true they didn't sleep together and there was none of the natural closeness often shared by lovers, but the way they spoke and the collusion that she could see in their body language and eyes gave her the impression, rightly or wrongly, that they were up to something.

Sometimes the conversation had strayed into fertile if weird pastures of unfamiliar woodland. Siobhan and Nathan, she now recalled, had clearly talked excitedly about something they called 'The Great Coming', about the God inferno as predicted in 'The Chronicles' and about Year Zero - which in her befuddled weary state Charisma had confused with Pol Pot's bloody and brutal regime in Cambodia (now, of course, called Kemschetsika since the end of the Second Asian War 2038-2047).

Charisma had been too exhausted by her ordeal and too sleepy to respond and had let the comments slide. Now as she lay, refreshed from a night in a warm cosy bed, did she allow herself to wonder about what it was he actually meant. Now as the sun announced the new day, the student was contemplating the previous evening's conversation with greater insight. Still, she had woke alive, she had not been molested as she slept, though, of course, they might have known she had a ghost - the delightful Pietro now showing the first sad signs of wearing out and machine dementia.

The girl pushed herself up to a sitting position and felt the chill air rush around her head and arms. She yawned and rubbed her eyes. She looked around herself and saw the room for the first time in light and found herself in a sparsely furnished farmhouse bedroom.

Facing her as she sat up in bed, was a plain wooden wardrobe with a mirror on the door. A dresser, which also had a mirror was situated to her left. She caught her own reflection as she looked round - confirming, at least, that she hadn't been transformed into a vampire as she had slept. She giggled at the mischievous nonsense of her thoughts and then wondered - if vampires, reputedly, can't see their own image and leave no trace of their existence in the mirror, how can they stay clean shaven? Laughing out loud stupidly she saw her breath vapourise in the cold morning air.

The room, she thought, contrasted with the compact cosiness of the flat she owned in Glasgow (paid for by the trust fund she inherited when she turned 18). She recalled, emotionally, how her mother and father were both killed a week before her sixteenth birthday in a car crash on the M8.

The tragedy had been covered extensively by the Pod Iso News and read on Matrixline pens by almost the whole of the population. Her mother, of course, was Hellia Zubyeet the famous novelist, the woman who wrote If At The End Of Time, a fictional work that used as its subject matter a modern ice age scenario and the total loss of natural resources. It was one of two bestselling works she wrote and there was now talk of it being made into a movie.

The suddenness of change, however, had thrown everything into doubt and for most the only game left to play was survival.

Her thoughts drifted wistfully to the little flat she had fled from. The three dimensional poster of Kent Starkly, who portrayed Darcula Returns in the new version of the vampire legend. The plotline suggests that history has always had his name wrong from the start. It is not as hitherto thought Dracula but is actually in fact Darcula. Hence Dracula, sorry, Darcula 'returns' to clear up the misunderstanding with neck biting results and thinly veiled sadomasochistic sex symbolism. Funny and tragic and dark, it had become one of Charisma's favourite movies.

She also considered her books by the side of her bed, so precious to her, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein she imagined sitting forlornly on her white rose bedside cabinet. It was, she knew, unlikely that she would ever return to the flat or, indeed, see the book again. The thought frightened her and she visibly shuddered. She also wondered about Carl Exx, her erstwhile friend/boyfriend (she was never sure where there relationship was going because she knew where it had been before, though she loved him and always would) with his lovely eyes and shoulder length hair and his photography books spread out across his bed. She had once made love to him while lying on top of a hardback copy of a book on Henri Cartier Bresson. But,It was all nothing more than the abandoned paraphenalia of another existence, one that belonged to another time, another more technologically advanced, yet less civilised time.

Charisma stretched, unzipped her sleeping bag and removed herself from the warm, pulled the duvet back and clamboured out of bed.

Rising she shuffled out to the hall and called out, rubbing her hands against the bitter cold. She received no answer and wandered further along the hall until she found the toilet. Like the bedroom the bathroom was freezing. As she retraced her steps back to the bedroom she heard Siobhan call out from downstairs.

"Charisma! Are you awake, I've organised some breakfast for you!" "I'll be right down" the student replied smiling, they were really so kind.

Despite the strange comments from the previous evening, Charisma agreed they were really nice people. They had saved her life, taken her into the farmhouse, gave her shelter, a bed, and despite the fact Nathan had confused her by telling her that her arrival at Ishleesh was foretold in the leather bound book he called The Chronicles, she kind of felt she could trust them and had started to like them as people.

5. Life On Venus

The front room was by far the warmest place in the house. She was greeted at the door by the eager dogs, entered and immediately approached the roaring fire over which eggs were being fried and bread toasted by Nathan. Her hosts bid her good morning, and Nathan revealed that they had found an Iso K return energy heater which they had saved for the downstairs bathroom so that if anyone wanted a bath they would not freeze to death.

"They are set up to last for ages and it is the only heat source we have in the house" Nathan explained. "We thought it might bring comfort to us as we kept clean, so I will keep it in the bathroom."

The three ate together at the large oak table near the window, Bryn and Fly dancing hopefully about their feet hopeful of scraps tumbling to the floor. The dogs, Nathan had told her, belonged to whoever had lived there before them but had obviously been abandoned when the previous owners had left. Charisma remarked that she thought that doing such a thing to the dogs was cruel and Nathan and Siobhan agreed.

Later Charisma was able to boil enough hot water over the fire to enjoy a long soak in the bath, the Iso K return heater taking the severe chill from the bathroom, though getting in and out of the bath was still a cold experience.

In the afternoon they sat by the table and discussed the farm, who might have lived there, the dogs and what it now might be like in Edinburgh and Glasgow. Nathan again mentioned the 'Great Coming' and how he and Siobhan were waiting for it to happen and again he referred to the 'Chronicles' and quoted from the world famous Life Coach Claire Murray's book Never let your fears keep you away from life's real adventure. The student was sure he had misquoted her but did not try to correct him.

Charisma thought that the quote came from Claire Murray's latest book About Being You. The life coach, author had been for many years the best selling author of many books on self-improvement and now approaching her ninetieth year had the vitality and determination of a woman half her age. The student wondered how she would be coping in such terrible conditions. She found it strange to contemplate the fate of someone who had, until a few days ago, shared Glasgow with her.

The discussion was cut short by a knock at the door which startled Charisma but left the other two knowingly smiling.

Nathan, referring to Charisma as 'Maid' - which made her feel weird - asked that she answer it. She looked around to reply but now found that Nathan had slumped to his knees by the side of Siobhan's chair and the two seemed to be praying.

Retreating from this bizarre scene Charisma made her way out into the hall and along to the front door and opened it to a group of travellers. The group were huddled together against the cold, four men and two women. One of the women stepped forward, nodded and introduced herself as 'The Midwife'.

"I am Corin Knight" the woman had said as Charisma opened the door.

"Yes?" the student had frowned.

"The Midwife" the woman widened her eyes to try and help the girl understand.

"Maid!" Nathan called from behind her. "Let them in, they have come to witness."

Charisma immediately stepped aside and they all filed inside.

"So" Corin had started up as she passed the girl in the hall. "You are the Maid?"

Charisma nodded because she didn't really know what else to do and the woman smiled. I am the maid she had thought to herself and shrugged. At least I have a roof over my head and some food.

The woman who called herself The Midwife, was tall and very attractive with hazel eyes and long brown hair. As she was greeted by Nathan it was clear that they knew each other and their body language told Charisma - if she wasn't mistaken - that they had previously been intimate.

As the group filed into the front room the student saw from her position in the hall that each and everyone of them went over to Siobhan. The group stood for a few seconds with their heads bowed and then almost in unison, all of them bending before her on one knee, they all started to pray in hurried whispers. Once finished, Siobhan made a strange circular sign over their heads, said a few words of welcome and one by one they rose to their feet with the midwife being the last to rise.

After the initial and pseudo religious formalities, the travellers were made welcome, there was much discussion and Nathan had Charisma organise tea and coffee for everyone.

5. Arrival

Throughout the day people kept arriving from all over Scotland telling terrible stories of massacres, lootings and fighting. 'The Divil, Aul Nick' one wild-eyed, bearded fanatic explained. 'Is alive and weel and has taken ower Aiberdeen!'

By twilight over 30 people had arrived at Ishleesh hailing Siobhan as 'The Virgin' while Charisma was introduced to each and every one of them as 'The Maid'.

The student watched in wonder as people from all over the nation congregated around the farm greeted by Nathan and, quite unexpectedly, she became rather fond of being regarded with so much adoration. Many bowed their heads in respect as they were introduced to her, while some even kissed her hand.

The people found shelter in the freezing barn, built fires and sat around them in little groups singing softly as it grew dark. Despite the bitter cold of that June, spirits were high. Others found shelter with their families and friends in the cold labourer's cottages that bordered the field behind the farmhouse, all, one way or another, made do.

It was decided by Nathan that the midwife, Corin, would stay in the farmhouse. She would sleep in the fourth bedroom next door to Nathan. In the early hours of the first morning The Midwife actually slept in the house, Charisma heard the soft fall of bare feet as Ms Knight shifted ground and joined Nathan in his warm bed.

Two nights after Corin had arrived, Charisma had crept from beneath her duvet, stole out into the hall, tip-toed to the door of Nathan's bedroom and listened. She heard them whisper to each other and laugh quietly, at one point Charisma thought she heard Corin tell Nathan that she loved him. As quietly as possible she retraced her steps and went back to bed and lay awake until sleep eventually overtook her just before dawn.

On the fourth evening - a particularly starless and bitterly cold night toward the end of June - Nathan gathered the people in the barn. With the help of some of the men he had organised an impromptu stage. Behind a table borrowed from the farmhouse, Siobhan was seated to the right of the 'Leader', Charisma and Corin to the left.

He rose in the multi-candle light and the crowd immediately fell silent and it soon became obvious, if it hadn't been before, that Siobhan was the centre of attention. Like a great queen bee, she was, he told the congregation, the virgin who harboured within her womb the 'Messiah!' He had announced this to rapturous cheers and calls of 'hallelujah!'. Some of the group stood and called out 'Amen!' as he waved the leather bound book at them telling his mesmerised audience that it was foretold in the Chronicles.

Nathan paced the stage in front of his women - the non-contributing father of the flock - introducing a bemused Charisma as 'The Angel In The Snow', the 'Maid' to loud and continued applause and cheering.

"This, my gathering, my great coming, is the angel plucked from the snow, The Maid!"

They cheered and called out.

"We found her in the snow just as it was predicted in the great book! She is the angel sent to look after Siobhan and the New Messiah!"

They roared with delight and went wild and Nathan gestured to Charisma to stand and take the applause.

When introduced Corin stood and took a bow, she was Nathan told the faithful 'The Midwife'. The student watching the circus unfold had noticed the weirdly intimate body language between her and the 'Father' - they were she knew, lovers, but neither her face nor movements on this night betrayed their secret union. He spoke of 'The Great Coming', 'The New Messiah', 'The Virgin', 'Year Zero', 'The Midwife'. 'The Maid', 'The Angel In The Snow' and all of it foretold by the leather bound book he waved about his head as he preached : The Chronicles.

It was, for Charisma, the sceptic, nevertheless intoxicating. She could, she thought to herself as people cheered her when she was introduced, get used to such adoration. She had become a star in a poor person's Hollywood, nevertheless it was infinitely more comfortable than being a hard worked and perpetually cold disciple.

At the end of Nathan's performance the audience went wild and clapped and cheered and some even slumped to their knees and wept.

Later the congregation filtered past Nathan and the women who now stood by the door. The crowd waited patiently in a snaking queue and as they passed they hugged and kissed their 'Father' and his women gently on their cheeks and whispered 'Much Love' and 'Bless You' and filed out into the night.

As the days passed many more came and a tented village grew and sprawled and crawled around the farmhouse. Soon the weather improved and as they moved toward what would be Autumn, the climate, for a short period, became springlike. Rough wooden structures began to take shape and people helped each other build houses until there were more than 200 people in and around the farmhouse at Ishleesh.

As the population of the settlement grew, Nathan chose four minders who followed him everywhere and acted as 'security' as he visited his people and made decisions and even laws on their behalf. Two men who had admitted to being gay were humilated in front of the congregation. Standing in only their underwear they were pelted with rotten fruit and vegetables and driven from the farm.

Charisma could feel nothing but sympathy for the men, and she recalled friends she had known at university who were gay. For her it had never been an issue, but now things had changed. She had noticed Nathan staring at her as she had watched the vile hatred pouring out of the congregation as they pelted the men. She wanted to eat, so almost immediately she was lifting mushy tomatoes and throwing them at the men who had by now taken to their heels and were running out of Ishleesh.

The whole business seemed totally surreal to her and as the days drifted past she increasingly missed Carl and wondered where he was and what had happened to him.

6. A Surreal Moment of Change

A few weeks ago she had been a student who had rediscovered her love for Carl Exx, her former lover and increasingly popular photographer. She had friends, nights out in Glasgow and a dissertation to finish. Now she didn't know where Carl was or what had happened to him. She was, however and apparently, the chosen nursemaid to the new Messiah.

The speed of change was disorientating and though she enjoyed the comforts and privileges of her elevated position, not for one minute did Charisma Dawn Street believe one utterance of it. She knew that, despite the facade they attempted to put up, Nathan slept with Corin every night. She didn't believe that Siobhan had conceived as a virgin, but she had no way of knowing who the father was.

She also wondered about all the people who had trekked from all over Scotland in the worst of weather to pay homage to Siobhan and await the baby that would deliver them from evil and into the New World - as Nathan constantly stated. Where did they really all come from and how could they have known about Siobhan? It had been explained by Nathan when she asked him, that they had travelled to Ishleesh by the power of the mysterious and all seeing God, who was, he had added, guiding them to a greater world.

"In the Great Book" Nathan started up one night as they sat around a roaring fire in a gloomy room lit by candles.

"Don't you mean the Chronicles?" Charisma had interrupted. "The Chronicles" Nathan had agreed glancing at Corin and looking a little irritated. "In The Chronicles, it mentions the name Charisma, The Maid, the foundling. In this book!" Nathan held up the leather bound volume. "It tells of the angel in the snow and how people will know, only by the mysterious power of the coming of the second Messiah."

Now as she listened to the discussion, the authoratative voice of Nathan, the whisper of Siobhan the deferring soft tones of Corin, she told herself that she WAS the nursemaid in waiting to the new Messiah.

Still, she found it all so very difficult to get her head around. Who, she thought to herself, were these people, where had all these people came from and why were they prepared to believe so willingly? How did they really know about Siobhan and where they would find her?

"How did the people know to come here?" She said interrupting Nathan in full flow about his plans beyond Year Zero. Plans which would start after the child was born.

Corin drew breath and Nathan fell silent.

"I just wondered..." Charisma added nervously. "How they had known to come here...?"

Nathan smiled at length and glanced from Corin to Siobhan and back to the student.

"They just knew" Nathan shrugged. "In the Great Book they called it the mystery, we just knew we had to get here to the farm and wait."

"But how?" Charisma pursued and frowned.

"How what? How did we know to come here?" Nathan stroked his chin thoughtfully. "We were led here, we followed a star." Nathan smiled and reclined in the armchair satisfied with his answer. The flames danced in the hearth and shadows flickered across his angular face, he looked handsome and confident and from the corner of her eye she saw Corin tilt her head toward him lovingly.

It was at moments like these that Charisma began to harbour suspicions about Nathan, Siobhan and Corin. Who were they really? What was the great book? Was Siobhan truly a virgin about to give birth at the end of one period of time and at the start of another? Charisma mulled it all over for a microsecond, long enough to convince herself she didn't believe a word of it.

As she climbed the stairs to bed, the student thought that the whole thing was an elaborate fraud and as she slipped into her sleeping bag beneath the duvet agreed that they were really nothing more than a bunch of chancers. Still, she thought to herself, just as she drifted down toward waiting dreams, she couldn't explain how all the people had known to descend on the farm and of the 'virgin's' presence.

The snow slowly melted as the out-of-sync seasons made their way toward a Spring of sorts. The sun made a belated appearance at the start of September and Siobhan gave birth to a boy, difficult and anguished and tended by the unflappable Corin on the 21st. The boy was subsequently called Nu and the day commemorated as 'The Time of Light' decreed by Nathan and as foretold, of course, in The Great Book. The believers celebrated for several days.

Meantime the settlement of Ishleesh had grown to a village of over 300. Rough wooden houses had sprang up everywhere and the people combined to organise a thriving community that quickly became self-sufficient and supportive. There were, for instance, several doctors that tended to the sick and people of other expertise who combined to guarantee food and the means of survival.

Soon, the snows returned and the world drifted back to winter after brief spring.

Charisma took her duties as the Maid seriously enough to convince the others of her loyalty. She went about her business with quiet efficiency. But, deep inside, no matter how hard, she tried she could never quite believe in the Nathan directed Shangri-la in which she now lived. She never believed that the baby was anything more than an ordinary baby born to a woman with the help of an unnamed and as yet, anonymous man. He cried too loud and hard to be a Messiah she had thought from the first day she bathed him.

Yet, despite her doubts she never voiced a word of dissent. For her trouble and because she was known and respected and held in high esteem as the 'Angel In The Snow' and 'The Maid', she was fed from the harvest and lived in the comparative luxury of a sturdy farmhouse with her own bedroom. In Ishleesh people stepped aside when she approached and no one dared say anything to her unless she spoke first, she was truly at the centre of worship.

Maybe, in the end, she was willing to be corrupted and conspire with the others for the comfort she had grown to enjoy and the prestige in which she was held. It was certainly easier than carrying out backbreaking work in the fields like the other women and men or living in the poorly constructed shacks of the followers.

7. The Other Side of the Universe

She missed Carl, and heard rumours of people, who challenged in any way Nathan's authority, being intimidated by his four burly henchmen. She even heard of one man called Jesse who was reportedly beaten to a pulp and had to be tended by two of the doctors. Jesse, his wife and children later disappeared from Ishleesh their tiny shack emptied of its human cargo and belongings.

And all the time,all she had to do was help Siobhan look after little Nu and show deferrence to Nathan.

For a great deal of the time she was left to her own devices and she had began to keep her own journal recounting this struggle for survival in a world without electricity or natural resources. While she wrote her 'Chronicles Of The End Of Time', Nathan wrote his sermons and quoted from his 'Chronicles'.

One night, unable to sleep and after standing by her bedroom window wondering how many stars there actually were in the sky, Charisma crept downstairs. She was surprised at this late hour to find Nathan fast asleep in his armchair. The fire had faded to pretty coloured embers and a glass of whisky sat forlorn on one arm of the chair, the Great Book perched mockingly on the other.

Charisma tilted her head in the semi-gloom and saw Nathan's craggy features bisected by the small flickers of light from the fire. He looked so peaceful, she thought, almost attractive and she at once thought of Corin and looked up at the ceiling with her eyes. She smiled at her foolishness, as if Corin might know what she was thinking, besides while she might find Nathan handsome in the darkness she was hardly in love with a man she believed to be no more than a charlatan. He spoke, she believed, utter rubbish and she did harbour terrible thoughts about the three people she shared the farmhouse with. They were in her eyes frauds, and they were deceiving all these poor zealots. No matter that Charisma played along with it all startingly well. An Oscar winning performance of subservient co-operation with her fellow confidence tricksters.

She moved to waken Nathan but stopped short and stared down on the Great Book he called The Chronicles. The magnificent leather-bound book with the word Ishleesh embossed on it in gold.

The student tiptoed toward the Father, pulling up just short as she loomed over him steeped in the light thrown off by the fire. She reached forward her hand trembling and lifted the Great Book. She stroked its leather cover and then she held it at eye level so that she could read it in the poor light and casually flicked open the book. Peering and squinting at the page in front of her she quickly realised and was horrified to discover that it was actually a copy of The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum. This wasn't some great and majestic theological work like the Torah, Quoran, Bible Old or New Testament - no - this was beyond that, this was...The Wizard of Oz.

Startled, eyes wide, Charisma almost immediately replaced the book on the arm of the chair and was about to turn away when Nathan stirred and coughed.

"Maid?" he said sleepily and stretched out his hand. She hesitated and then reached forward and clasped his hand in hers. "What brings you here?"

"I...I...came to see if you were here" she said hastily.

"Why?" he asked pulling himself up with the help of her hand.

"To ask you."

"Ask me? Ask me what?"

Charisma pulled her hand free and walked back toward the door and then back toward Nathan.

"It has always puzzled me how the people knew to come here, to Ishleesh, I wanted to ask for you, you are wise you would know, I thought to myself. Tonight all these thoughts raced through my head and I could not sleep. I came down for water and found you here asleep."

It was difficult for her to pick-up on his body language and she peered into the gloom searching for his eyes. Nathan stood and stretched.

"It is foretold" he said at length. "Is that not enough, it is not for us to question these things. We cannot question the Chronicles" "Of course not, I am sorry to have bothered you with this at this late hour."

Charisma made to move and Nathan grabbed her arm. His grip was gentle and he smiled at her.

"You don't have to worry about such things Charisma, it's all taken care off."

"Of course" she agreed and forced a smile in return, wriggled free of his grasp and made her way out to the kitchen.

She poured herself a glass of water, her hand shaking.

"Charisma?" His voice startled her as he stood at the kitchen doorway. "Goodnight".

Nathan turned away and as she stood there gulping water she heard his footsteps climb the stairs and then recede as he made his way along the upstairs corridor to his bedroom where, Charisma imagined, Corin lay waiting.

Just as she turned to enter her bedroom she heard Corin's voice drift from Nathan's room.

"Where have you been? I've been waiting for you."

8. Strangers in the Snow

The student found it incredibly difficult to sleep, so much raced around her head. She couldn't, try as hard as she might, believe in all the mumbo jumbo that Nathan preached to those poor deluded settlers. The Time of Light, the new Messiah, Year Zero, The Maid, The Virgin, The Midwife, the fucking angel in the snow, it all seemed so plausible, yet so totally fraudulent. Finding the 'The Great Book' or 'Chronicles' and opening it to discover L. Frank Baum's Wizard of Oz convinced her, if she needed convincing, of deception. Nathan, she was now sure, was a con man.

How difficult it would now be to pray with them, to collude with them, to be The Maid. This was her dilemna, she was really grateful for the privleged position she held, but how long must she go along with it and at what price? All she had to do was pretend to believe and continue to be looked after in the comfort of the farmhouse, that's all, but it was now becoming too much of a strain. How she wondered, would she be able to cope. A tear ran from the corner of her right eye.

How she wished her iPogine would work again, how she longed to play Guns N' Roses Chinese Democracy, Siratosfear The Planets Come Calling - decribed by High Point as the best industrial metal string ever, The Sex Pistols Anarchy in the UK ( nano technique mixed). How she missed her world cinema collection and how much was she looking forward to the Japanese remake of The Grudge.

Charisma hated the noir music, the airy sweet melodic yukky funky stuff she had called 'darkshit' that made most people dance as if they were in a trance, but they weren't really. The music that made people of her age go all sort of gooey and that was a good way to decribe the dance nights at The Overdrive. She much preferred scream terror or armageddon rock which they played constantly at Apocalypse at the top of West Nile Street. She sighed, wiped the tears from her eyes realising that she would never again sit with a book and enjoy an americano in Gino's in Union Street. Never again would she set off on the bullet train the RSD900 to Edinburgh Double X from Glasgow's Third Station. A journey which could now be completed in 12 minutes. Then she recalled how she used to lie in bed in the darkness after a hard day's studying listening to her favourite music - Mariast

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