Tonight's smoky-drinky was a slow one for me. I have to work tomorrow and it's never a good idea to be wasted in my lab. There are far worse things than hangovers in there. Tomorrow night there's another one which I'll make full use of because I don't have to visit the lab on Sunday.
So, early (for me) night tonight and no time to browse the news. Instead I offer up a tale that combines religion with modern technology and which was published in a recently-closed online magazine called Alienskin way back in 2005. I was sorry to see that one go, it was among the very best. I can understand it. Free online magazines are great for you and me but there's not much in it for the people doing the work.
So. Inspired by the installation of a wireless internet connection in St. John’s rectory church in Cardiff, Wales, in May 2005, here is the little tale...
The engineers packed away their tools and left the church. Father Aaron Johnson inspected the work and nodded his approval. Beside him, the verger, Edward Chadwick, shook his head.
“You see, Eddie? The equipment isn’t even visible. It does nothing to mar our old church.” Father Johnson puffed out his chest. “We’re just catching up with the twenty-first century. Your worries are groundless.”
“It’s not the visibility of the thing that worries me, Father. It’s what it means. We shouldn’t be doing this.”
“Nonsense.” Father Johnson led the way into the vestry. “There’s nothing in the Scriptures to say we can’t, and if it brings more people into our church, well, that can only be a good thing.”
“But what kind of people?” Eddie’s voice was muted by the cassock he was pulling over his head. He resumed speaking once it was off. “You’re inviting the money-changers into the temple. That’s definitely against the teachings of God.”
Father Johnson grimaced as he hung his own cassock on its hook. Eddie may have a point there, but what was he to do? Somehow he had to increase his congregation. More people meant more donations, and the ancient building was sadly in need of repair. Many a sermon had been punctuated by the constant drip of water into buckets, and the heating system fought valiantly, but failed miserably, against the winter chill. He left the vestry, followed by Eddie, and they strolled among the graves that surrounded the church. The cold October air drifted between the old headstones, some with their engraved names so faint they were little more than almost-upright slabs. The churchyard had filled many years ago, and the dead were now interred in another graveyard, across the river. Father Johnson pulled his jacket tight around his generous waist.
“It’s not too late, Father. You don’t need to switch it on.” Eddie’s concern filled his voice.
“I’ve already advertised the new wireless internet connection in the parish magazine.” Father Johnson paused in front of the church. He looked up at the sandstone arch over the main door.
“Look up there, Eddie. See that stone?” He pointed to a rectangular slab above the arch. Carved into it was a date. 1579. “This church was built after the monasteries were dissolved in 1540. It’s been here ever since. It’s served the Parish of Marchway for centuries, and with God’s help it will serve for centuries more.” Father Johnson bit his lip. If he failed to increase his flock, the building may well collapse within a decade.
“This is a holy site, Father, and as you say, there’s been a church here for a long time.” Eddie spoke quietly. “This has always been a place of ceremony, long before the church, long before Christianity came to these lands. There are dark things in the ground beneath us, things best left undisturbed.” He nodded towards the ancient stone monolith in the far corner of the churchyard. Thousands of years of Marchway’s unpredictable weather had left its carved runes almost illegible.
Father Johnson’s laughter boomed over the headstones. “Come now, Eddie. Fairies and goblins? You read too many of those folklore stories.”
“Local history, Father, not folklore. Pagans worshipped here. Celts and Saxons once occupied this land.”
“Don’t forget the Romans and the Normans, and all the others. Honestly, Eddie, all those things are long dead. Stories to frighten children, nothing more. Besides, what good is a wireless internet connection to the old devils? Do you think they lie buried with computers?” He took Eddie’s arm and led him from the churchyard. The setting sun cast long shadows and the evening air cooled rapidly. “Come on. I have a sermon to write, and I always appreciate your advice. And your sherry.”
It had been a dry, though cold Sunday morning, and Father Johnson allowed himself a self-satisfied sigh as he sat behind his desk in the vestry after the service. When Eddie came into the room, Father Johnson pointed to the collection plate.
“Have you ever seen it so full? There must have been fifty people here this morning.”
“Yes, they were here, but were they listening? Handheld computers, laptops clattering away all through the service. It’s sacrilege.” Eddie pulled off his cassock with enough force to lift his pullover over his head. He struggled to manoeuvre the garment back into place.
“Oh, let’s be realistic.” Father Johnson started counting the money in the collection, placing it into neat piles. “We were down to six regular attendees. Six. And I know two of them, at least, have slept through every sermon for the last year. All I can do is talk, Eddie. It’s up to them if they want to listen.”
“If they don’t listen, then what’s the use?”
“If they don’t come to church, they won’t hear me speak.” Father Johnson raised his finger. “If they’re in the church, they’ll hear something. Maybe if they come often enough, they’ll start listening. At least they’re contributing.”
“We shouldn’t be doing this for the money. It’s wrong.”
“I agree, but the roof leaks and the heating doesn’t work properly. We have to raise the cash to pay for repairs or there won’t be a church for anyone to visit.” Father Johnson sat back in his chair, frowning at the piles of coins on the desk. “I know it seems like Judas’s thirty pieces of silver to you, Eddie, but we need it.”
“Yes, we do.” Eddie turned away and hung his cassock on its hook. “But what price are we paying? What if someone’s surfing pornographic websites in church? Or gambling? What if they’re sending viruses or malicious Emails from here?”
“I’m assured that our installation blocks such things.” Father Johnson rose to his feet. “I don’t know how it works, but there should be nothing like that happening under our church roof. Anyway, we’ll find out tomorrow, at the open day.”
Eddie winced. “That’s the worst idea you’ve ever had. You’re going to fill the church with computers. The money-changers have returned to the temple, after all this time.”
“Look, the church is hardly used throughout the week. Few people in Marchway have Internet access, but a lot of them have computers. We’ll be renting the wireless hardware for the day, to those who don’t already have their own. Everyone will make a donation to use the facility. Then there’s the tea and cake sales—”
“Yes, I know.” Eddie walked to the door.
“Eventually they’ll stop using the wireless on Sundays during services. Then, hopefully, some of them will stay and listen to what we have to say.” Father Johnson scooped the money into a cloth bag and slipped it into the pocket of his coat. He followed Eddie to the door. “It’s going to be fine. Our congregation will grow as a result of this. You’ll see.”
“It’s going well, Eddie. At this rate, we’ll have that church roof fixed before the winter sets in.” Father Johnson rubbed his hands in glee. The church pews had been moved aside, stacked below the arched stained-glass windows. An assortment of tables and chairs filled the main body of the church, most of them occupied by people with laptops and even a few desktop computers. Cables trailed along the floor, providing power to the clattering keyboards and glowing monitors.
“If only they paid as much attention to your sermons.” Eddie scowled at the rows of people, all staring intently at their screens.
“Oh, they will, eventually.” Father Johnson smiled and gave the thumbs up to the women who worked the cake-and-tea stalls on either side of the church. “Once they get used to coming to church, I’m sure they’ll remember the real reason they used to come here.”
“How far back do their memories go, I wonder?” Eddie muttered.
Father Johnson’s reply was cut off by a parishioner, a middle-aged man in a tired suit, who approached them with an apologetic look in his eyes.
“Excuse me, I was wondering if you could help me?”
“This is the Lord’s house. All who ask shall receive.” Father Johnson smiled his widest, most sincere smile. The man responded with a weak half-smile, half-grimace.
“Yes, well, it’s just that your internet connection doesn’t seem to be working properly.”
“Ah.” Father Johnson looked to Eddie, who shrugged and shook his head. He forced a new smile on the parishioner. “Well, you see, my particular expertise is more, shall we say, spiritual than technical.”
“I see.” The man raised an eyebrow. “Well, surely you have a technician around here somewhere?”
Father Johnson coughed. “Why don’t I take a look?” He followed the man back to his computer. On the way, he noticed Eddie respond to a raised hand from a pretty young girl in the second row.
“Look. The web pages are coming through scrambled.” The man pointed at the screen. Father Johnson took his spectacles from his pocket and put them on. The image, whatever it was supposed to be, wasn’t in English. He found it hard to focus on the typescript against the bright red background, but the letters weren’t even recognisable. They did seem familiar, somehow. Russian, perhaps?
“Have you tried restarting the computer?” Father Johnson hoped the man had not, because his knowledge of computers extended no further than this.
“Yes. Several times. Whenever I access the internet, this is all I get.” The man sat and stared at the screen. Father Johnson suppressed a groan. He glanced at Eddie, who was leaning over the pretty girl, tapping at her keyboard. His face was deathly white. Father Johnson guessed Eddie was faring no better than he was.
“Excuse me, Father.”
It was Muriel, from the Women’s Institute. She clasped her hands in front of her ample figure.
“Sorry to disturb you, but there’s a phone call for you. In the vestry.”
“Thank you, Muriel. I’ll see to it.” Relieved, Father Johnson straightened. He looked down at the perplexed man who still stared into his screen. “I’m sure it won’t take long. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” The man made no answer, gave no indication he had heard. Father Johnson made his way to the vestry.
He sat in his chair and stretched his neck before reaching for the phone.
“Hello. Marchway parish church. Father Johnson speaking. How may I help you?”
“Ah, hello. My name is Brian, I’m calling from your ISP.”
“Well, hello, Brian.” Father Johnson pursed his lips. “May I ask, what is my ISP?”
There was a pause on the line. Brian coughed. “Your internet service provider. We run your installation.”
“Ah, of course. How can I help you?”
“There seems to be an enormous amount of traffic on your line at the moment. We were wondering what you were doing there, if you had some kind of virus problem.”
“No, no, we’re just having an open day. There are around fifty or sixty computers here. Nothing to worry about. The engineers told me the equipment could cope with a hundred at once.”
“These are ordinary computers?”
“As far as I can tell.” Father Johnson raised his eyebrows. This conversation was likely to get out of his depth very soon. “The parishioners brought them in.”
“Well, there are gigabytes coming down the line every second. Your connection isn’t designed to handle that kind of speed and we’re wondering how it can be happening. It’s causing some problems for us at this end.”
“Aha. Maybe that’s what’s causing our problems too. Some of our connections are messed up. Gibberish on the screens, that sort of thing.”
Another pause. “It may be best if you disconnect for now. We’ll get an engineer out as soon as possible.”
“Is that really necessary? We’d have to refund most of the money we’ve made, you see.”
“I’m afraid so.” Brian spoke to someone in the background. Father Johnson listened as the exchange became heated. Brian came back on the line. “There’s a fault of some kind, we can’t disconnect you from this end. The traffic is tying up our computers, and some of them have locked up. We can’t even restart them. You have to unplug your modem.”
“Right. How do I do that?”
Brian grunted. “Just pull the plug from the mains. Go to the installation we put in, find where it’s plugged in, and pull it out. We can’t check the line until we get our computers working again.”
“Okay.” This wasn’t going to be a good day after all. “I’ll see what I can do.” Father Johnson hung up. He stared at the phone, rubbing his lower lip between his teeth. If this idea failed, his church was doomed. While he considered his options, the door burst open and Eddie came in.
“Have you seen what’s on those screens?”
“Yes. A load of rubbish. I’ve just been speaking to the computer company. They want us to unplug our modem.”
“It’s not rubbish. It’s runes.” Eddie trembled as he spoke. “Something’s coming through all right. Something that shouldn’t be there.”
“Runes?” Father Johnson raised an eyebrow. The ancient stone in the graveyard was covered with runes. That must be why the text on the screen looked familiar. He had taken little notice of the stone in his years here, it was just a historical artefact. History was dead, surely. Something from the past could have no effect on modern technology. On an impulse, he stood and headed for the door.
“Where are you going?” Eddie followed him.
“I just want to look at something.” Outside, Father Johnson picked his way through the gravestones to where the monolith towered over them. The markings in its surface were, indeed, very similar to the tangled letters on the computer monitor. He turned to Eddie, whose jaw hung open.
“That’s what the screens are showing. The writing on this stone.” Eddie reached for the slab. He touched it with his fingertips, then withdrew his hand. “It’s hot.”
“Hot? In October?” Father Johnson brushed the monolith with his fingers. Searing heat made him close his fist. “This is silly. It’s just an old stone.”
Eddie ran back to the church. Father Johnson hurried as fast as his unfit body would let him. Breathing hard, he arrived in time to see Eddie pulling at the wooden panelling behind the altar. He stepped forward, into silence.
Even when empty, the old building managed to produce the odd creak or groan. Wind, even a small breeze, normally whispered through the gaps in the window frames. There was nothing. Father Johnson’s congregation stared at their computers. Nobody clicked a key. Nobody moved a mouse. Nobody coughed, scratched, sighed.
The women at the tea-and-cakes stalls stared at each other, at the silent congregation, at Father Johnson. It was Eddie who broke the silence.
“Father. How do I open this panel?”
Father Johnson hurried to join Eddie. With a deft shove and a twist, he pulled the panel free, lifting it to one side. Behind the panel, nestled among the pipework and wiring of the building, a silver box flashed green lights. A deep moan from behind made him drop the panel and surge upright.
The congregation moaned again, their voices in a perfect chorus. One note issued from each mouth, blended together in the air. Something, somewhere, tapped. Eyes open, their attention fixed on their screens, the people in the church produced a single tone, at the upper limit of human hearing. Father Johnson reeled and fell to his knees. The tapping grew more insistent. It came from everywhere at once. The women on the tea-stalls ran for the doors.
“I think I see where it’s fitted.” Eddie reached into the hole behind the panel. “If I can pull out this wire…”
The tapping was rain. It grew to a roar, battering the roof of the church in a wet drum-roll. Drips appeared at several points on the floor. A stream of water ran onto Eddie’s arm, trickling down his sleeve.
“For God’s sake, Eddie. Don’t worry about breaking the thing. Just yank all of the wires out.”
“I’ve got it. This must be the one.” Eddie grinned up at Father Johnson in the instant before the flash. There must have been a bang with that, Father Johnson thought, because his ears rang with a continuous pitch. He lay on his back, shaking his head. When he pulled himself into a sitting position, Eddie’s charcoal corpse grinned up at him.
Father Johnson lunged for the modem, but strong hands restrained him. Two men, their eyes glazed, smiled down at him, then pulled him to his feet. They pinned his arms to his sides and marched him to the people waiting in the church.
The man in the tired suit spoke.
“Father. We need you.” He moved a seat back from one of the tables. “Perhaps you’d better take a look at this.”
“Let me go.” Father Johnson slipped on the wet floor, but the men held him. He struggled and twisted, trying to break free of their grip, but they forced him into the seat. The bright red screen flickered, showing strange symbols in rapid succession. He closed his eyes.
“The old gods have come home, Father. We need a priest to guide us.” The voice whispered in his ear. “Open your eyes. Let them explain.”
“No.” The Lord’s Prayer came into Father Johnson’s mind. He started to say it aloud, but a hand clamped over his mouth. Fingers pressed into his eyes and lifted, pulling his eyelids open.
The symbols sank into his mind, awakening memories so old they were coded into his genes. Not his memories, but those of his forefathers. Memories from the dawn of Man. Father Johnson held his breath. The symbols changed at an increasing pace. To his eyes, the screen was a blur, yet his brain noted every line, every curve, every geometrical explanation as it was offered to him. Voices as old as time spoke in his head. He exhaled. The hands released him. The crowd took a step backwards.
Father Aaron Johnson rose from his seat and walked to the altar. He pushed Eddie’s smouldering remains to one side and faced his new congregation.
Behind him, a small silver box relayed an ancient message to the world. Today, everyone was listening.