The screams started suddenly, as if the old house had been waiting for the appointed hour before unleashing itself upon those within. But once the first terrified cry cracked the silence, the sounds that followed shattered it completely. Gunshots... loud and thunderous... drowned out the unintelligible screams of panic and fear.
Then the rumbling began. It was a low, malicious sound that almost wasn't a sound at all. It was a feeling... a vibration that emanated from the ground. It quickly permeated everything... the air, the walls... growing louder and deeper... daring the world not to tremble in fear of it. Even the shrubs in the Garden rustled in resonance with it, their sharp leaves making sinister, serpentine hisses as the sound grew and grew and grew... finally erupting into an inhuman roar.
"My GOD, Jameson! What have you DONE!?" came a shout from the house.
The gunshots paused... and then resumed with a vengeance. They came faster and louder... Their resounding echoes wrestled with the roaring bellow of the thing, each seeking to claim dominance over the other within the old house.
Suddenly, the front door flew open, allowing light and sound and horror to spill out into the night. A lone figure streaked across the tiny courtyard and dove into the car waiting on the other side. The engine spat... coughed... then revved to live. An instant later, the car's wheels threw up clods of dirt and soil as it raced through the gate and away from the house.
Behind it, almost as if in response to the departure, the howling roar rose to a frightening crescendo that shook the gate and cracked the asphalt beyond... the cracks propagated down the street after the car, making a 90-degree turn and chasing the fleeing vehicle for a short distance before finally giving up. Then the roar faded. Not slowly or evenly, but abruptly as if stricken down at the source. Echoes of gunshots chased it into oblivion as dark silence reclaimed the house...
Part One: Friday
Three vehicles pulled off of the street and rolled quietly through the open gate. The line of automobiles eased down the cobblestone driveway like a funeral procession. The black Jaguar was in front... its deeply tinted windows turned both driver and passenger into amorphous dark blobs behind the glass. Behind it, the rented U-Haul truck followed at a more than respectable distance. David Wallace sat up in the passenger's seat and blinked away the last remnants of sleep. He looked around and frowned at the , unkept landscape.
"Where the hell are we?" he said.
"I think we passed through Nowhere about fifty miles back," said Anthony Moore. The short, chubby graduate student was simultaneously fiddling with the radio and trying not to run into the back of the Jaguar in front of them. The ancient radio made a few low garbled sounds, and then spat out a mangled ribbon of black tape. "This thing just ate your tape, dude."
"What!? Aw, FUCK! I just bought that!"
"The university owes me another goddamn tape, that's for DAMN sure!"
"I was tired of listening to it anyway," said Anthony.
"Speaking of which..." Anthony peered over the top of the Jaguar and saw the two other cars that were waiting for them in the courtyard. One was a gray Mazda, and the other brand new a station wagon bearing the symbol and colors of Chattahoochie State University. The driver was a young blonde female. She was standing at the back, leaning into the rear of the car to rummage through the boxes she'd brought with her. As she leaned forward her short skirt rose up her long, shapely thighs.
"The abominable snow-bitch," said David. "Can she be any more obvious?"
"Oh, I think so. See..."
The woman reached further into the car. Her skirt responded by sliding up even more... until it was about an inch shy of her crotch.
"Panties or no panties," Anthony mused. "What do ya think?"
"Who gives a fuck?"
"Oh, I'd love to..."
"You're about two-hundred thousand a year short."
"Oh, is that all? I thought she went for a lot more than that."
As the Jaguar entered the courtyard, the woman pulled herself out of the station wagon and turned around. She waved with one hand while adjusting her skirt with the other. Her conservative white blouse was almost transparent in the afternoon sun. The lace of her mostly-nonexistant bra was plainly visible. The Jaguar followed the edge of the courtyard and rolled to a stop. The truck pulled up next to the station wagon, and the final car... a Honda Civic with a plastic CSU frame around the soot-covered license plate, stopped just behind the Jaguar.
The Civic's door opened and a short, brown-haired man in his late thirties stepped out, carrying a tattered briefcase in one hand. He smiled the blonde woman for a moment before noticing the other car. His smile widened as he approached the Mazda.
"Good ole' doc Hixon," said Anthony. He unhooked his seat belt "Still slummin' after all these years."
The comment brought a chuckle from David.
"That must be the psychic," Anthony continued. "Female. I wonder if she's a babe. Let's see-"
One side of the Mazda sank almost to the ground as the huge woman in the driver's seat shifted her weight. She opened the door and literally struggled to get her enormous bulk out of the tiny vehicle. The woman was just short of 400 pounds, most of it concentrated around her midsection. Her stomach and breasts were one continuous bulge hidden under a ghastly yellow blouse.
"Eeeee!" Anthony winced. "Daaaaaamn."
"There ya go, Anthony. She's all yours. Think you can handle all that?"
"...looks like two gorillas fighting in a yellow trashbag."
"....daammmmnnnn. Look at that car... it's still rocking."
The Mazda was indeed still lurching from side to side... aftershocks from the woman's exit. Dr. Hixon approached the woman and extended his hand in welcome.
"Careful, doc," said David. "... get too close and she'll pull you right on in-"
Dr. Hixon's hand clasped the woman's pudgy palm, and Anthony made a wet slurping sound-
"thpthpthpthp! ...help meeee..." he said in a high-pitched voice. "...I'm trapped in her cleavage... hellp meeee..."
"Jesus, you're immature," said David.
"What?!? MEE!?! Oh come on! Like the 'gorillas in the trashbag' remark was the height of maturity!"
"Uh-oh. Here comes Jeffries," David pointed to the Jaguar. The door had opened, and a tall, grey-haired man was getting out. "Guess we'd better get the show on the road. Ready?"
"Let's do it."
David and Anthony flung the truck's doors open and hopped out. The both made the same dramatic pause, then walked to the rear door with the same exaggerated swagger. The blonde in the short skirt glanced at them with disdain.
"Helloooo, Lindsay," Anthony said. He'd lowered his voice a few octaves and winked at her.
"Good afternoon," she said reluctantly, then she looked away. Dr. Hixon and the woman in the yellow blouse were walking toward them.
"Uh-oh!" Anthony mouthed. He held onto the van's door-latch and pretended to strain... as if he were being pulled toward the fat woman by an invisible force. "too much gravity...losing...grip... must...hold...on..."
"Stop it," Lindsay mumbled.
"Oh, I haven't even started yet, babe..." Anthony replied... instantly going back into deep-voice mode. Lindsay flashed him a foul look.
"You wish," she said.
"Yeah, how'd you know?"
"Gentlemen?" said Dr. Hixon. "And lady," he nodded at Lindsay. "This is Ms. Sarah Bishop... she'll be joining us this weekend."
"Hello," Lindsay shook the large woman's hand.
"I see we all made it safely," said Doctor Jeffries. The man was in his mid fifties, wearing a tailor-made gray sport coat with perfectly pressed slacks. His gray hair and goatee were immaculately trimmed, with not a single hair out of place.
"I was just introducing everyone," said Doctor Hixon. "Ms. Bishop, this is Dr. Grayson Jeffries, research physicist."
"Pleased to meet you," said Dr. Jeffries
"These are two of his more talented graduate students.... Anthony Mitchel-"
"Moore," Anthony corrected
"And David Randolph. They helped bring our theories to life. Without them, all we would have are equations and lofty ideas. This is Lindsay Hilliard, of the computer science department. She developed the software we use to collect and decipher the data. And of course, you know me."
"Physicists and parapsychologists working together," Ms. Bishop said with a smile. "How often does THAT happen?"
"Once in a lifetime," said Dr. Jeffries.
"So, doc... you gonna tell us what we're here for or what?"
"We're here to become famous, David. You know that."
"Yeah, but... why HERE? What's with this place? You tell us to pack for the weekend and bring all the equipment, and then we end up in the boondocks somewhere?"
"And here I was thinking that you might actually ENJOY a field test."
"Field test?" said Anthony. He glanced suspiciously at Dr. Hixon and Ms. Bishop. "But, uhhh.... anything we can do here, we can do in the lab-"
"Ohhh, no," said Dr. Hixon. "We aren't testing psychics or probing anomalies... This time, we're after the real thing."
"Welcome to October Falls," Dr. Hixon continued. "Arguably THE most haunted location in America. What better place for science and the supernatural to intersect?"
"This is a haunted house," David said. He turned to at the house behind them. It was big... and old... but it didn't look particularly frightening. "And we're here to what? Talk to ghosts?"
"We'll be doing more than talking," said Dr. Jeffries. "Once the Sampler is up and running, we will be gathering concrete, scientific proof of life after death. The afterlife will no longer be a question of faith or religion... it'll be a matter of research, hard evidence, and indisputable fact. All of which will be due to our work here these next few days. Believe me, gentlemen... and Lindsay... the six of us are about to forge our place in history."
"Six?" Ms. Bishop pointed to Dr. Jeffries' car. "Or seven?"
A teenage boy was leaning on the hood, getting handprints all over the freshly waxed paint. He looked like a younger and messier version of Dr. Jeffries.
"Don't mind me," said the boy. "I'm just the kid." He hopped up onto the hood. The metal gave a little under his weight, making a loud-
-that brought a collective gasp to everyone's lips. Especially Lindsay's.
"KYLE!" Dr. Jeffries snapped.
"What?" said Kyle as he reluctantly slid off of the hood. It popped back into shape with another *clunk* "Geez... you guys are just standing around talking-"
"Kyle is my son," Dr. Jeffries said apologetically. "His mother suddenly decided she had to go to Europe on HER weekend to keep him."
"How inconsiderate!" said Lindsay.
"That's putting it mildly."
"I'm sure he won't be much trouble," said Sarah.
"And I'm sure he WILL be," said Jeffries. "He always is. Let's get all of the equipment inside, then Dr. Hixon can get everyone up to speed. Kyle, find yourself a chair, and SIT in it. You seem reasonably good at sitting on your ass, so I know you can manage that."
"Yeah, whatever," said Kyle. The boy trudged across the courtyard while David and Anthony each grabbed a heavy box from the rear of the truck. The three of them reached door at about the same time.
"Hey, kid," said David. "You wanna help us carry this stuff in?"
"No," Kyle replied. He yanked open one of the large double doors and slipped inside. He didn't bother to hold the door open for anyone else.
"Nice kid," said Anthony as he caught the door with his foot.
"Nothing that a few ass-whuppin's won't fix."
"Hey, its dark in here!" Kyle called from inside the house.
Anthony and David joined him in a dark foyer.
"Whoa," said Anthony. He paused and looked around... at nothing. The light from outside should have illuminated at least to the end of the hall... but it didn't. The air itself seemed to swallow the light before it could penetrate more than a few feet inside the ancient house. David, Anthony, and Kyle stood in a tiny island of sunlight just inside the doorway... everything beyond that was cloaked in abysmal darkness. The sound of their footsteps on the hardwood floor continued to echo unnaturally... as if they were standing on the verge of a deep, empty cave that stretched for miles in every direction. "This... is cool."
"Does this place even have electricity?" said Kyle.
"Oh, great," said Lindsay. She joined the trio in the foyer. She was carrying a computer monitor with a keyboard perched precariously on top of it. "No lights?"
"We brought a generator and a battery-rack," said Anthony. "If you're REALLY nice to me... we'll let you plug your stuff into it."
"And women say that they can't read minds..."
"We'll all be partaking of the generator," said Dr. Hixon. The beam from the doctor's flashlight sliced through the darkness like a sword. He aimed it down the hall, where it caught the edge of a large open room... and revealed the lurking, twisted shadows of what must have been furniture. "I brought plenty of candles and flashlights as well. We'll need them. Set up in the living room there. The dining room's off to the left... we'll gather there when you get everything inside."
"Yes, sir," said Anthony. Dr. Hixon placed the flashlight on top of Lindsay's keyboard and then returned to the courtyard.
"You don't have to call him sir," said David as they started down the hall. "It's just Hixon."
"Oh yeah... right."
"This thing's heavy..." Lindsay grunted. She glanced expectantly at Kyle, who walked right past her, pausing just long enough to grab the flashlight. He swept the beam along the walls as he walked. The white paint looked relatively new. And clean... unmarked by stains or cobwebs.
"You smell that?" said Anthony.
"What?" David sniffed. "What do you smell?"
"Not a damn thing. No dust... no floor-polish or air freshener... nothing. Creepy."
"Only if you're a dweeb who watches to many horror movies," said Lindsay. "Obviously somebody's been keeping this place clean."
"With what?" said Anthony. "You smell any chemicals?"
"Chemicals would strip the floor, dude." David stomped his foot on the wood floor. "Calm down, it's just a fucking house."
"Oh yeah... well tell me this: How long have we been walking down this hallway?"
Anthony and David stopped, then looked back the way they'd come. The hallway was only fifty feet long at the most, yet it seemed like they'd been walking for ten minutes.
"What the fu-"
"Calm down," said Anthony. "It's just a house."
"Trick of the light," David replied. "Hallway's longer than it seems. That's why the light is funny in here."
"What's the matter?" Lindsay called back after them. She'd dropped off her equipment in the living room and was coming back for a second trip. "little boys scared of the dark?"
"I got your 'little boy' right here," said David.
"So we gonna have lights or what?" Kyle Jeffries had already planted himself in a large, overstuffed chair in the living room. His random, lazy sweeps of his flashlight revealed several another chair, some tables, and a large sofa... all were either antiques or skillfully crafted fakes. "This stuff looks old," Kyle remarked.
"Actually," said Anthony, "It all looks brand new."
David and Anthony had made it the rest of the way down the hall in a 'normal' amount of time, even though neither of them was completely sure if anything strange had been going on before. They dropped their boxes on the carpet and went back outside. Dr. Jeffries and Dr. Hixon were wandering the perimeter of the courtyard; Dr. Jeffries was going on at length about things that Hixon couldn't hope but understand. Meanwhile, Ms. Bishop stood by the door and stared intensely at the front gate. There didn't appear to be anything of any interest there, but she watched it nonetheless.
"You think the outside of this place is creepy," Anthony said as he passed her. "Wait'll you see the inside."
"I already have," she replied.
"Been here before?"
"Oooookay..." Anthony grabbed the next crate from the truck and went back inside. David was right behind him, carrying a huge cardboard box filled with long coils of wire, some extension cords, and a strange metal contraption that looked like a giant copper pineapple. As he walked past Ms. Bishop's car, the bottom of the box gave way, spilling the entire contents out onto the ground.
"Fuck!" he swore. "FUCK ME!"
"Oh, my," said Sarah. "I hope you didn't break anything."
"Fuck off." David grabbed two coils of wire and looped them over his shoulder, then tucked the giant metal pineapple under one arm. "Thanks for your help carrying this shit in..." He was leaning over to grab an extension cord when-
"AR-AR-AR-AR-AR!" A tiny black dog popped up in Sarah's car window and began barking at him mercilessly. The animal must have been asleep in the back seat when David's cursing awakened it. The dog's sudden appearance and loud, shrill voice nearly caused David to drop everything again.
"GODDAMN!" he swore, leaping away from the car and then turning around. "What the- JESUS that thing scared me!"
"Really?" said Sarah. She gave David a curious look.
"My aunt used to have a little barking rat like that. Damn thing wasn't happy until it had pissed on everything in the goddamn house. Daily. Fucking mongrel... You keep that damn thing away from me."
"I take it you don't like animals."
"Fuck no." David gathered as much of the equipment as he could carry without a box and then returned to the house. He brushed passed Lindsay on her way out.
"Outta my fuckin' way..."
"Lovely group we have here," Sarah remarked as she wandered off to join the two doctors. "I hope I'm not interrupting anything," she said as she came up on them.
"Rescuing would be more like it," Hixon chuckled. "Jeffries was explaining some modifications he's made to the Sampler.... but physics never was my strong point."
"Perhaps it should have been," said Dr. Jeffries. "Greater challenges reap greater rewards, yes?"
"Parapsychology is rewarding enough for me, thank you."
"But when you get down to it, they're really the same thing. Searching for the same answers... just using different tools and expressing their findings in different terms. One just pays significantly more than the other."
"Yes, there is that."
"Show me the garden," Sarah blurted.
"Garden? Oh, yes! Yes, I'll give you the grand tour while the kids are unloading."
Dr. Hixon lead the two of them down a short cobblestone path that wound through a maze of waist-high shrubs. It took them to a large garden on the west side of the house. The garden was in disrepair... a sharp contrast to everything else on the property. The only thing that grew there were more bushes... an unpleasant species whose sharp green leaves bore tiny spikes on each tip. They looked lush and welcoming from a distance, but up close they became nature's tribute to the art of medieval torture. Without regular pruning, they had grown wild... taking on huge, twisted shapes on either side of the walkway. In some places they jutted out int the path, almost blocking it entirely. Getting past them required squeezing through a curtain of sharp greenery. The leaves pricked their skin, even through their clothes; The stiff spines jabbed them like dozens of hypodermic needles. They were especially difficult for Sarah, who's wide girth brought her into contact with more of their tiny barbs. The painful shrubs tore holes in her clothes and tangled themselves in her long hair. But the psychic plowed through them complaint... almost as if she hadn't even noticed.
"Where ever did you find this place, doctor?" said Dr. Jeffries. He plucked a few kamikaze leaves from his coat.
"It was mentioned in a few articles-"
"You and I must read different newspapers."
"It was research, actually. I was looking for a place to test the Sampler. To REALLY test it. I went back through some old journals to find places with high psychic activity. Places where other investigations failed to find a 'scientific' explanation. There were a lot of possibles... but this place just seemed to jump out at me. I contacted the owner-"
"And they agreed to let us come and dissect their family ghosts?" said Dr. Jeffries.
"Actually... I told her we were making another sequel to the Blair Witch Project."
"It's a movie," Sarah explained. "I think. Isn't it? I can never keep up-"
"Well, she didn't know what it was either, but she agreed to one weekend."
"Will that be long enough?"
"Ohhh, yes," Hixon smiled giddily. "The ghosts in this place are anything BUT camera-shy. We'll get some action soon. Probably tonight... with or without the Sampler."
"And what does our psychic say?"
"Anything yet, Ms. Bishop?"
"Fear," said Sarah. "Fear. And a definite sense that we aren't wanted here."
"Not wanted by who?"
"Hard to say. But there's something else."
Sarah paused on the path and looked around at the shrubs that rose like walls on both sides of them. Then she looked down at the cobblestones. She frowned... then walked forward toward one of the shrubs, her eyes still fixed on the path at her feet.
"Here-" she said. She pointed to the large bush. Its foliage was too thick to see what, if anything, lay beyond. "Through here."
"Eh?" Hixon backed away from the shrub's sharp leaves. "What's through there?"
Without the slightest hesitation, Sarah shoved through the shrubs. The leaves lashed and sliced at her skin... but she moved on through them and was quickly swallowed by the foliage. The bushes rustled for a few more seconds, and then fell still.
"Come on-" she called from the other side. "I think this is important."
Hixon stared at the imposing wall of greenery with increasing reservation.
"Challenge and reward, Dr. Hixon," said Dr. Jeffries. "Challenge and reward." The elderly man followed Sarah's path. He hissed a few times as the barbs pierced his skin through the thick material of his sport coat. Dr. Hixon was a bit more vocal as he followed.
"Ouch... dammit.... Ouch! OUCH! WHAT THE HELL-"
-and then he was through. The three of them were standing in a long-abandoned part of the neglected garden... a hidden alcove shrouded from the path by dense walls of greenery. At one time it had been a peaceful sanctum where lovers could sit on the wrought-iron benches, run their toes through the lush grass, and watch the water trickle from the huge, decorative fountain.
But now it was something else.
The grass, once full and green, was a field of bare dirt dotted with patches of unknown black fungus. The benches were rusted hulks that had long since collapsed under their own weight, and the fountain was just a pile of dangerously sharp stones. It was impossible to tell what shape it may have been. All of the pieces were there, but they'd been scattered around the sanctum as if their former form had been struck down by either an act of God or a particularly inept application of high-explosives. The space where the fountain once sat was just a ring of large, misshapen rock. The fungus grew particularly well there... probably feeding off of whatever water source had once fed the fountain. The entire place reeked of rotting flowers... sickly and overpowering. This section of the garden looked, smelled, and felt... diseased. And the sun actually made it worse. The light brought out every rotting detail of things that seemed best kept in the dark. There were no shadows to hide the rotting carcasses of old mushrooms, or the worms that wiggled out to sun themselves... perhaps suicidally... on the rocks.
"My God," Hixon gasped. He held his clenched fist in front of his mouth as he frowned. "This place is-"
"A sore," finished Ms. Bishop. "A festering, open sore. That's what this place is... A wound."
"Hmmm." Dr. Jeffries stood in a reasonably fungus-free spot of dirt and looked around as if inspecting a new car. "Perhaps we should set the Sampler up out here-"
"No!" Sarah started. Her eyes widened, and her chubby face turned pale. "No! Not here. The house. We stay in the house... inside. No one should come out here. Not to the garden... and especially not to this place."
"We're here to find ghosts, Ms. Bishop," said Jeffries. "What better place than this?"
"We'll find all we need inside," she replied. She glanced around the alcove and shook her head. "This place is too dangerous. Too... deep. Just being here makes me want to reconsider the whole thing."
"And it makes ME want to push ahead that much harder. Hixon?"
"I don't like it," said the younger doctor. "There was no mention of this... place... in any of my reading. This is uncharted territory. I think we should stick with what's inside. Based on previous history, by the end of the weekend we'll have more data than we know what to do with."
"What happened to the others?" said Sarah. She was staring fixedly at the dark stain that was once the fountain, but she was talking to Hixon. "The other group?"
"E-excuse me?" said Hixon. "What other-"
"You said you were looking for places where there no scientific explanation. That means someone must have come to this house before. What did they find?"
"But what did they FIND?"
"They took lots of pictures. Documented some furniture moving around, cold spots, apparitions, voices, that sort of thing."
"Is that all?" said Sarah.
"Well they didn't find THIS place, that's for sure."
"We should get back with the others," said Ms. Bishop. "They need to know what to expect tonight. And I need to go through that house before it gets dark."
"They should be setting up the Sampler as we speak," said Dr. Jeffries.
They all went back to the bush from which they'd emerged, but Hixon grabbed Ms. Bishop before she could go through
"This garden... is this the thing that doesn't want us here?" he asked.
Sarah glanced back at the ruined fountain.
"Yes," she replied. She shoved through the foliage and vanished again. The doctors watched the leaves rustle from her passing.
"Hixon," said Jeffries. He looked down at his colleague. "Your psychic isn't a very good liar."
"No," said Hixon. "She isn't."
Amid and endless stream of jokes and barbs... mostly at Lindsay and Ms. Bishop... the Sampler slowly took shape. Its donut-shaped frame shoved aside the antique furniture and, piece by strange piece, slowly took over the prime floor-space in the center of the living room.
Though the windows were open, the daylight from outside never seemed to penetrate into the heart of the room where it was needed most. Instead, the students worked by the light of electric lamps that David had strung up around the work area. A rack of industrial batteries took up most of one wall, with thick power cables running to the lights... and to Lindsay's computer. The large workstation and its user had been squeezed into a far corner by the massive Sampler.
Kyle Jeffries never budged from his chair. He watched the others with mild disinterest until he realized that he could see straight down Lindsay's shirt whenever she leaned over to fiddle with the computer's connections. From that point on, Lindsay had Kyle's full and undivided attention. The almost fully-assembled Sampler sat only a few feet away from him... and he never saw it.
"What are YOU looking at," Lindsay sneered when she felt his eyes on her.
Kyle just smiled. Three feet to the right, Anthony had an identical smile on his face.
Lindsay gave them a both a middle-finger salute and then buttoned the top button on her blouse.
"Oh well," said Anthony. "Show's over, kid. At least until your father gets back. Hey... you get an allowance? Between the two of us we might be able to scrape together enough for a table dance."
"Fuck off!" Lindsay spat.
"On. Off. Sideways. Upside down. However you want it."
"Stop drooling and plug this in-" David handed Anthony one end of a cable. Anthony jammed it into a port on the side of the Sampler's frame and locked it in place with a twist-
"That it?" he said.
"Exciter's done," said Anthony. "Assemble the Emitter... do the alignments and calibrations... and we're ready to rock!"
"So what is this thing?" said Kyle.
Anthony and David both looked at him as if he'd just asked if the moon were really made of rotten cheese.
"Dude," said Anthony. "You don't even know what your father's research is about?"
"Yeah, yeah... ghosts and stuff. But what's this thing do?"
"Not ghosts," David sighed. "Physics."
"Its an ethereal sampler... sort of like a, uhhh.... quantum transistor," Anthony explained. "It takes an input signal and uses it to modulate a standing carrier field. Now, this field has six dimensions... three in OUR frame of reference and three in ANOTHER, which happens to correlate with-" Anthony saw the glazed-over look in Kyle's eyes. "Forget it. It's like a giant radio, kid. That's all."
"Yeah, that's what I thought," said Kyle.
"He must take after his mother," Lindsay added from across the room.
"Don't talk about my mother."
"Oooo... sore spot," said Anthony. "Take a note, David."
"Gotcha. The kid is a mama's boy and will be fucked-with accordingly. Count it down, Anth-"
"Hey, Kyle, your mom has crabs so bad that she put Red Lobster out of business. Dave?"
"Kyle, your mom is so nasty I called her for phone sex and she gave me an ear infection. Anth?"
"Kyle your mom can suck-start a Harley Davidson. Dave?"
"-your mom is so nasty when she does a split, she sticks to the floor."
"Hey! I'm gonna tell my father!"
"Dude," said David. "Who to you think TOLD us all these jokes?"
"Hey, now," said Anthony, "let's get off of Kyle's mom."
"Why? there's room for all of us! Plus we got the group discount!"
"Kyle, your mom is so nasty she has to sneak up on bathwater."
"Hey, Kyle, I coulda been your father, but the guy in line behind me had the correct change-"
"CUT IT OUT!"
"Kid, you're just sitting there doing SQUAT while the rest of us are working... what do you expect? Hell, even LINDSAY is doing something productive-"
"-fuck you, Anthony. Leave the kid alone."
"Yeah, when he gets off his as and DOES something!"
"I don't know anything about this shit," said Kyle.
"You don't have to know anything. Lindsay is a prime example... you think she knows what the hell she's doing? Fuck no!"
"Here," said David. "Put this shit together." David dropped a cluster of copper rods on Kyle's lap. "Screw three pieces together to make one rod about this long-" He held his hands four feet apart. "Should be seven rods when you're done. Don't cross-thread 'em though, they're delicate and easy to fuck up."
"Then YOU do it," said Kyle. He shoved the rods off onto the floor. "I'm outta here."
Kyle got up and stormed away, taking his flashlight with him.
"Fucking kid," David growled.
"If his dad wasn't Doc Jeffries-"
"Fuck his dad," said David. "I'm kickin' that kid's ass if he throws any more of my shit on the floor. Matter of fact, I oughta go kick his ass right now." David turned to go after Kyle.
"Yeah, but we got work to do," said Anthony. "Kick his ass later. After calibration."
"Damn right." David returned to the Sampler and started screwing the copper rods together. "Fucking kids... I hate kids..."
Kyle found himself wandering down by the bedrooms. The hall was dark... as was everything else in the house. The eerie black stillness closed in around him, retreating from his flashlight with noticeable reluctance. There were four bedrooms on the first floor. The heavy doors were shut tight and when Kyle tried one of them, he found it securely locked. The brass doorknob was warm in his hand... as if someone had been grasping it mere seconds before he arrived. He didn't try any of the others.
The hallway ended in a bathroom and a closet, neither of which interested Kyle in the least. He turned around to go back the way he'd come-
-and stopped before he could take the first step.
All of the bedroom doors were now open.
The flashlight became very heavy in his suddenly-sweaty palm, but he grasped the light tightly, as if it were a weapon.
"...g-guys?" he said in with a timid stutter. "Guys? D-did you do that?"
The silence in the hallway was uncanny. Where were they others? At the end of the hall. He should have been able to hear them... or SEE them from here. Kyle aimed the flashlight's beam straight ahead, but where there SHOULD have been a living room with Anthony, David, and Lindsay hard at work, there was now only blackness that seemed to go on forever. It was as if the whole house consisted solely of this one hallway. As if everything else he'd seen was now miles away in some OTHER haunted house.
"Guys?" he added a twinge more volume. There wasn't even an echo. Should there have been? Was there one before? He couldn't remember. "L-Lindsay?"
Kyle took one tentative step. When nothing reached out to grab him, he took another. Then another. What would happen when he reached the end of the hall? Would the living room still be there... or would he just keep walking and walking and walking...
Kyle spun around. He heard his name. He KNEW he'd heard his name. He was standing in front of one of the open bedroom doors. His light glided across the bare walls and swept over the simple white curtains-
There was something there.
Just a shape... and then it was gone.
Kyle froze. He stared at the spot where he'd seen it. The window. The curtains. Whatever it was had been too fast for him to get a good look. He couldn't tell if it was in FRONT of, BEHIND, or a PART of the curtain itself.
"H-Hello?" he called.
Nothing moved. Nothing responded.
Kyle waited in the hallway... unsure of what to do next. He stared into the empty room for a few uncomfortable seconds, then looked back at the sea of darkness that lay waiting at the end of the hall.
Before he even knew that he'd made up his mind, Kyle was in the room.
He expected the door to slam shut as he crossed over the threshold, but it didn't. Instead, the curtains billowed up away from the window as if caught in some intangible wind. As they settled back down, the rippling fabric cast strange shadows in the light of Kyle's flashlight. Shadows became shapes... and the shapes became a figure that was THERE and NOT... a ghostly image projected onto the curtains from somewhere else.
Kyle froze as the little girl looked at him. She was four... maybe five... with long, flowing curls that looked unnatural on such a small head. Her dress was simple... rough. Poor. It didn't match her hair at all.... or the radiant innocence of her face. Her pale skin seemed to reflect a flickering light whose source was not present in the room. Her eyes were dark. Not cold or sinister... just dark, like her hair.
As Kyle tried to force his mind back into gear, the girl smiled and pointed at the wall to his right. Kyle turned his head slowly... as if dreading what he was going to see.
It was his reflection.
An antique mirror hung on the wall. The glass was uncracked and polished to a high sheen. Kyle could see himself clearly in it. As he looked, flowers appeared around his reflection in the glass. They outlined his face, framing him in a moving kaleidoscope of color. Reds and yellows and pinks danced around his head like a halo. The tiny swirling petals quickly grew to fill up the entire mirror except for Kyle's reflection, completely blocking out the dark background of the room. They rustled and swayed...back and forth... for a second, Kyle could almost smell them.
"Whoa..." he whispered. He kept his voice low not out of fear, but out of awe. Real or not, what he was seeing was truly beautiful. He turned back to the girl. "That was... cool. What else can you do?"
The girl gave him a curious look, as if she couldn't understand him.
"Else?" Kyle said. "Anything... you know... cooler?"
The girl raised her hand and pointed at the mirror again.
"Huh?" Kyle said as he turned to look-
But instead of the mirror, Kyle's eyes fell across the retched, burnt thing that had materialized not two feet away from him, waiting between him and the wall. The thing lunged at him, eyes flickering with red rage. Its bloody, black, and blistered skull came within inches of Kyle's face. Jaws filled with cracked teeth parted to reveal a dank, scorched throat that seemed to go on forever-
"WHAT ARE YOU DOING HERE!!!" It screeched. Its hot, putrid breath was foul beyond reckoning... it would have certainly cost Kyle his last two meals if he'd stuck around to smell it.
"AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!" Kyle screamed. He was out of the room in half a heartbeat... arms and legs pumping furiously as he raced down the dark hallway. The wall of darkness reached out for him- "AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!"
And suddenly he was back in the living room... streaking across carpet on a collision course with the massive Sampler.
"HEY!" was all Anthony managed to say before David turned and threw himself into the path of the speeding teen. David brought his right arm up and around in a hard arc, hand clenched in a tight fist-
He clotheslined Kyle. The boy caught David's forearm across the upper chest, and his own momentum swept him right off of his feet. David slung the boy down to the floor... a bone-jarring hit worthy of a professional wrestler. Kyle's upper back absorbed most of the impact, at the cost of every ounce of air in his lungs. It was several panic-filled seconds before Kyle realized that he was still alive, nothing was broken, and that he could still breathe.
As he gasped for breath and bravery, David loomed over him with a stern frown on his face.
"No running in the house, kid," David warned. "You damage any of this equipment and I'll fuck you up so bad you're gonna need an ass-transplant just to go to he bathroom. Now calm the fuck down."
"G-Go-Go-Go-Ghost!" Kyle gasped. "GHOST! I SAW A GHOST!"
"Of course you did," said Dr. Jeffries. He and Dr. Hixon had just entered the dining room... just in time to NOT see David lay Kyle out like a new suit. "Of course you saw a ghost... this IS a haunted house, isn't it?"
"What's he doing on the floor?" said Dr. Hixon.
"He was running," David blurted before Kyle could say anything. He nodded at the sampler.
"Kyle?" Dr. Jeffries scowled at his son. He pointed at the chair that Kyle was sitting in earlier. "I TOLD you to SIT DOWN! If you DAMAGE any of this equipment-"
"Yeah, yeah... but the GHOST-"
"SIT DOWN before you embarrass yourself any further!"
Kyle stood up and limped back to the chair. He flopped down in it, leaned back, and stared at the ceiling.
"I saw a ghost," he said to no one.
"Whatever." David went back the Sampler and resumed his previous task... inserting the copper rods into the front of the Exciter. The rods came out at angles to form a pyramid. The apex was currently pointed down the hallway that Kyle had explored.
"Get to a stopping point, gentlemen," said Dr. Jeffries. "And Lindsay." Lindsay smiled giddily. Anthony glanced at her and rolled his eyes. "Dr. Hixon wants to fill us in on what to expect here."
"How are we going on the assembly?"
"We're about a half-hour away from having this baby put together," said Anthony. "Then we gotta run down the checklist and test everything out... that'll take another hour. Then-"
"Hey, where's the fat bitch?" said David.
Dr. Hixon looked mortified.
"What?" said David. "I'm just sayin... where is she?"
"Ms. Bishop went to her car to get her things," said Dr. Jeffries. "And David... you'll do well not to insult our guest. She's here for a reason."
"Yeah, but could Doc Hix have found somebody a little less... I dunno... huge?"
"My name is DocTOR HixON."
Somewhere in the house, a door opened. Then it slammed shut. The sounds echoed in strange, unexpected ways that made their origin hard to pinpoint... until Sarah Bishop walked into the living room. The sound had been her entering the house. Sarah carried an enormous suitcase and a huge overnight bag, both of which looked like doll-accessories on her gargantuan frame.
"This house has some serious energy," she announced. "Seeeerious energy. I don't think I've ever felt anything like this."
David leaned over to whisper in Anthony's ear.
"Dude... how much you wanna bet she's got food in those bags."
"...stop..." Anthony tried to suppress his giggling. "...just stop..."
"Snicker bars and Twinkies, dude. Big bags of Doritoes."
"RA!" came a tiny bark from the general direction of the front door. "RARARARAH!"
"Ahhh, hell," David sighed.
The tiny black dog that David had seen in Sarah's came scampering down the hallway... its high-pitched, annoying voice raised in a continuous show of canine aggression. It ran right up to the Sampler, lifted one leg, and began urinating on the base of the Exciter's metal chassis.
David kicked the dog away-
-and then looked up at Sarah, as if suddenly remembering that the dog's owner was in the room.
"...oh, shit... sorry."
Sarah just looked at him. She didn't say a word... she just looked at him as if he'd just grown a third eye in the center of his forehead. In his own defense, David pointed to the spot on the Sampler where the dog had just relieved itself.
"Eh?" he said. "You gonna clean that up? Eh? Didn't think so. And what the fuck is everybody looking at ME for?"
"Okay," Hixon clapped his hands together and pointed to the dining room table. "Everybody gather round and have a seat. Let's get this show on the road, shall we?"
"That's what we're tryin' to do," said David. "We gotta get this machine put together... clean off all the dog-piss..."
"We need to hear what he has to say," said Ms. Bishop. "We need to know."
"Fine..." David inserted one last rod into the Exciter and trudged reluctantly into the dining room. Anthony and Lindsay joined him as Dr. Jeffries sat down in one of the old mahogany chairs. Lindsay sat next to Dr. Jeffries. Somewhere along the way from the living room to the table, the top button of her blouse had managed to come undone again. Sarah Bishop paused in front of the hallway leading to the downstairs bedrooms.
She looked down the dark hallway as if watching something that was unseen by everyone else.
"Who's been down there?" she asked.
"Me," Kyle announced. "I saw a ghost! TWO of 'em!"
"And they saw you," she said as she turned away from the hall. "You shouldn't have disturbed them."
"ME!?! Disturb THEM!?!?"
"Hey, that's what we're here to do," said Anthony. "That's the whole point of us being here: we're here to find the ghosts... and fuck with 'em. Right?"
"I wouldn't put it quite that way," said Dr. Hixon. "Kyle, are you going to join us?"
"I can hear you fine from right here. I ain't movin.'"
"Suit yourself. I just thought that maybe-"
"Yeah, yeah, whatever," said Kyle. "A ghost tries to turn me inside out and nobody gives a flying damn. Now I'm supposed to be interested in what YOU got to say? Forget it."
"Let him sit there," said Dr. Jeffries.
"...long as he doesn't touch anything," David added. "So what do you have, doc?"
"Yeah, what's the run-down on this place?"
Doctor Hixon placed his briefcase on the table and opened it after a dramatic pause. He pulled out a single manilla folder and flipped briefly through its contents before closing the case.
"I knew we were going to need a place to fully test our theories," he began. "Imagine my surprise when I found this place right here in Georgia-"
"Get on with it, doc," said David.
"This building was a built as a boarding house not long after the Civil War."
"We calls that the 'Wor of Nawthun Aggression' 'roun' heah, son!" Anthony said with a thick fake southern accent.
"Can we be serious for a moment, Anthony?"
"Go ahead, doctor Hixon," said Lindsay.
"It was built by Thaddius Cole and his third wife Talia... two of the more prominent citizens of the town back then. Now, the Cole family history goes back England in the early 1500's... where they were essentially run out of the country for witchcraft and 'perversions against common decency.'"
"NOW we're getting somewhere!" said Anthony.
"The family reputation improved somewhat over the Colonial period, and they managed to amass quite a bit of wealth through means that no on can determine. Rumor had it that they used their witchcraft to aid the colonies during the Revolutionary War... for which they were handsomely compensated. Now, despite their... uhh... sinister reputation... the Coles were philanthropists of the highest order. This home for abandoned and orphaned children was one of their last contributions to the town-"
"ZZZZZZzzzzzz...." Anthony pretended to snore and wake up suddenly. "Huh?"
"It has ten rooms. Four downstairs and six upstairs... room enough for about thirty children or so, depending on age. It was open for only a few years before the Coles shut it down unexpectedly."
"Why?" said Lindsay.
"No reason was ever given. They just closed it, boarded up the doors and windows, and refused to let anyone near the place. It sat empty for decades. They finally sold it around the time of the Great Depression. The family had come upon hard times and was selling off property to keep themselves afloat. This place was literally the last place to go... they got rid of their own mansion before letting this place go. The Cole family faded into obscurity not long afterward, and the house changed hands several times over the next few years. Thats when the rumors of hauntings first started to surface. There were numerous attempt to remodel and turn this place into everything from a school to a bed-and-breakfast. Obviously, none of those things happened. Equipment was sabotaged or stolen. Work was sabotaged. Workers would leave at night and return in the morning to find that everything they'd torn down the day before was back up... as if they'd never been there. Then there were the sounds... screaming, talking and laughing coming from empty rooms. Doors opening and closing. Ghostly images floating from room to room. There's the light... we've already noticed that. Something about this place seems to absorb it like a sponge. Its worse in some places than in others... most notably in that hallway down there."
"Thanks for the advanced warning," Kyle said from the living room.
"Sometimes an impending sense of dread or fear will permeate the entire house, or certain rooms in it.... becoming so intense that at least one heart attack has been attributed to it. That person later died-"
"Of a heart attack," said David. "Not of anything freaky... just a heart attack."
"Right. But... the house was responsible."
"Bullshit," said David. "But go on."
"Eventually the building became what it is now... just another abandoned house."
"Why didn't the city just tear it down?" said Lindsay.
"I'd like to see a ghost stop a bulldozer," Anthony added.
"Boo-Yah!" said David. "No more haunted house!"
"Well... apparently the Coles, back during the height of their influence, managed to get a city ordinance passed prohibiting this place from every being demolished. Just getting the renovations approved took more time and money than most people were willing to invest-"
"Wait... these guys got a LAW passed to keep this place in one piece?"
"Yes. As far as the city is concerned, it is a historical landmark. Or something like that."
"So its a museum," said David. "That explains why its so clean in here. Tourists and shit, right?"
"Actually," said Dr. Hixon. "No one has been in this building in about 15 years."
"Bullllshit. Look at this place-"
"Now, I can't say anything about curious kids or trespassers, but the last time this place was OFFICIALLY opened was in 1986. That's when most of THESE were taken-"
Dr. Hixon opened the folder and handed several large, glossy black-and-white pictures to Dr. Jeffries. Jeffries looked at them one at a time... with Lindsay peering over his shoulder, resting one dainty hand on his arm. David and Anthony got up and stood behind her so they could see as well. Anthony was looking down Lindsay's blouse the majority of the time, however.
"In 1986, Dr. Richard Jameson from the University of Chicago parapsychology department, brought a team of researchers here to document the rumors of supernatural activity. I doubt they expected the intensity or... quantity... of what the activity they discovered."
"Just a bunch of blurry photos to me, doc," said David.
"Those are just the first few. The ghosts got bolder later on. Here... look at these-"
Doctor Hixon grabbed three pictures from the bottom of the stack and spread them out on the table. The first was a picture of a little girl standing in front of a bedroom window. The window was barely visible through her body, with the curtains billowing out on either side of her. The girl was looking directly at the camera, and appeared to be frightened by it.
"There are several pictures of her, but his is the best one," Dr. Hixon explained. "Then there's this-"
At first, the second picture looked like it was just a shadow. But on closer inspection, the dark blotch on the image turned out to be a person. A person who's skin had been totally blackened by fire. The ghastly figure was just stepping out of the shadows and turning toward the camera. The swell of a breast marked the ghost as female, but that was as much of an identification as they could make. Any semblance of a face had been seared away long ago.
"That's not funny, David," said Lindsay.
"What!? She's DEAD, geez!"
The third picture was of a woman running down the upstairs hallway. She was looking back over her shoulder, but her face wasn't quite visible. She was almost completely transparent.
"Why are all these ghosts female?" said Lindsay.
"Not all," Hixon replied. "There's his one-"
He grabbed another photo from the bottom of the stack. This one showed a very real-looking man standing in front of a mirror and holding a camera up to his face. The man was the photographer, taking a picture of his own image. Despite the fact that he took up most of the photo, he clearly wasn't the subject. It was the person behind him.
The man was tall and lanky... almost frighteningly so. His pants were dusty and torn, and he wore an old poncho over his body as if to protect himself from the harsh elements. The left side of it was swept back away from his hip, revealing an old-style gun holster hanging from his thick leather belt. A wide-brimmed hat was pulled down over his face... the only part of his head they could see was his jaw... thick, broad, and stern. The man was holding something in his hand, but no one could see what it was. All the photo picked up was an extremely bright glare, as if the figure were carrying a flashlight and pointing it into the mirror to blind the camera.
"What's this?" Anthony pointed to the object in the man's hand.
"I don't know," Hixon replied.
"Is this supposed to be a ghost or something?" said David. "Looks like a man wearing a halloween costume to me."
"He certainly wasn't a member of Jameson's party. And judging from the method of photography, he was only visible in the mirror. At least in this instance."
"There are other pictures of him in there. Of all of them. Him, the girl, and the two women are the least camera-shy, but there are other entities as well. Jameson either couldn't get pictures of them or the pictures were lost. But from his notes, there are at least six entities in this house."
"Who were they?" said Lindsay.
"Who are they the ghosts OF?"
"I'm not sure. Jameson speculated on it in his notes, but nothing was ever concluded."
"Well, how'd they get here? I mean... they had to DIE here, right? I guess the girl could be from when this place was an orphanage-"
"There's no record of any children dying here during that time... although this town's records are notoriously sparse-"
"They didn't necessarily have to die in this house," said Sarah. "They could have died anywhere, at any time. If they had a strong enough emotional connection to this place, then they would have returned here to live out their lives."
"But they're dead," said David.
"Most ghosts don't know they're dead," said Sarah. "They think they're still alive, still living in whatever time they lived in when they were alive. To them, WE would be the ghosts... WE are the apparitions intruding upon what they consider to be their home."
"Maybe they're the kids that grew up here," Anthony offered.
"That would be my guess," said Hixon. "But the adults... the man and the two women... they would have had homes of their own. Families, perhaps. The man looked like he'd been out west and maybe died there. Why would they all choose to return and haunt THIS place?"
"It probably has something to do with the garden," said Sarah.
"We found something in the garden," said Dr. Hixon. "Just an old fountain and a lot of fungus."
"Well let's go check it out, then!" said Anthony.
"No," said Ms. Bishop. "There's a corruption in that place. We shouldn't go there."
"Hell, we shouldn't be HERE," said Anthony. "So what's the big deal? What'd Jameson say about the garden?"
"He didn't mention it. I don't even think they went out there... their main concern was the house."
"As ours should be," Sarah added. "Speaking of which..." she glanced out the window at the setting sun. "If there's anything else we need from the cars, we'd best get it now."
"We don't want to go outside after dark."
"We just don't," she warned. "Sometimes its best never to find out 'why'."
"So, that's what we have," said Hixon. "A house full of spirits... and a machine that will allow us to interact with them on OUR terms... not theirs. This should be fun."
"We'll be haunting THEM for a change."
"If you call scientific study and documentation 'haunting,' David, then yes," said Dr. Jeffries. "I prefer to think of it as ground breaking research that will make us all incredibly famous."
"Assuming your machine works the way you say it will," said Sarah. "Detecting psychic emanations in your lab is one thing. But this-"
"Second thoughts, Sarah?"
"About the experiment? No. Your machine? Maybe. About your choice of subjects? Absolutely."
"Hey, the machine works, dammit!" Anthony was clearly offended. "These are the laws of physics we're talking about. They're universal. If it works in the lab, it'll work here."
"But what if the spirits don't believe in physics," said Sarah.
"They will believe in mine," Jeffries replied.
We could upset them. Upset them further than we already have just by being here."
"They're just ghosts," said David. "No big deal."
"Dude, you never saw 'Poltergiest'?" said Anthony.
"That's just a movie. This is real."
"Exactly," said Sarah. "Exactly."
After retrieving the last of their belongings and equipment from the courtyard, the task of completing the Sampler raced through its final hour. By the time the sun set, the machine stood fully assembled. The Exciter... a giant coil of wire housed inside a metal doughnut, was mounted to the Controller... which was actually the largest and most complex portion of the machine. The Emitter... a horizontal pyramid of spindly copper rods with a pineapple-shaped knob at the apex, reached out from the machine like the business end of some alien weapon. Two sets of cables snaked across the carpet, creating a maze of trip-hazards that no one bothered to secure. The power cables led back out to the generator, which sat just inside the front door. The data cables ran a shorter distance to a corner of the room, where they connected to a home-made I/O module, which, in turn, was connected to the Lindsay's workstation. A rack of massive lead-acid batteries ran the powerful computer and other equipment, and had plenty of juice left over to power the lights that had been strung up over the Sampler.
Anthony was leaning into the Controller, using a meter to test connections on the inside of the machine.
"How 'bout now?" he yelled... his voice muffled by the metal shell.
"Nothing..." Lindsay replied. She had the cover off of the I/O module... a metal box the size of a small personal computer... and was using a handheld PC to run diagnostics on the motherboard. The board was buried somewhere beneath a rats-nest of multicolored wires. "Your workmanship sucks, you know that? This thing is a mess.... haven't you ever heard of using wire-guides."
"Nope," said Anthony. "Never heard of 'em. That box works; and there's nothing wrong in here. Maybe you should check YOUR shit, Lindsay."
"My 'shit' is fine," Lindsay hissed. "We've got a short somewhere, and if YOUR work wasn't such a goddamn mess we'd have found it by now."
"FUCKING MUTT!" David bellowed. David had been tightening down the bolts on the Sampler, but had been recruited to help find the problem with the computer interface. He was kneeling on the carpet and holding one of the I/O cables in his hand. A section of insulation was had been chewed on, and two of the wires inside it had been nicked. "HERE'S your short... FUCKING GODDAMN DOG!"
The dog was laying in a corner, where it had spent most of the evening after David had kicked it earlier. It raised its head and growled at David. David growled back, and the dog went back to sleep. David turned to Sarah, who was returning from 'inspecting' the upstairs bedrooms. He pointed to the dog.
"Keep that fucking thing away from the equipment!"
"What are you talking about?"
"THIS!" David showed her the cable. "Your dog did this!"
"Yeah... unless you think KYLE got down here and started chewing on cables."
"Wasn't me," said Kyle. Like the dog, he hadn't moved from his spot since early afternoon. "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Look... you wanna have an annoying mutt, that's fine. But if he fucks with anything else, I'm gonna drop-kick his mangy ass right into orbit! I mean it!"
"Do you have some kind of mental problem, David?" said Sarah.
"I mean it. Seriously. Are you seeing a professional?"
"I ain't got no problem... as long as that mutt of yours stays in that corner."
"Why don't you just go and... do... whatever it is that you do, okay?" said David. "We can fix this."
Sarah gave David a strange, blank look. Then went and sat down in the living room.
"There's nothing back there now, Kyle," said Dr. Hixon. He and Dr. Jeffries had been investigating the downstairs bedrooms. "Are you sure-"
"I saw 'em," said Kyle with disinterest. "The burnt lady and the little girl... down that hallway."
"Would you care to show us exactly-"
"Fuck no," said Kyle.
"Kyle!" Dr. Jeffries spat.
"What? HE can say whatever HE wants!" Kyle pointed to David, who was actively ignoring the entire conversation.
"HE isn't the son of a research physicist. HE is twenty-one years old," said Jeffries. "And YOU are... not."
"You don't even know how old I am, do you, dad?" Kyle spat.
"Of course I do."
"Old enough to know better than to play MIND GAMES with me, boy. You wanted us to pay attention to your little encounter in the bedroom... well, we are. But now you're too lazy to get up and walk across the damned ROOM-"
"Save it for later, folks," Anthony announced. "Cable is changed-out and we have continuity! Final calibrations are done... Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you.... The Amazing.... the MAGNIFICENT... THE One and Only... Quantum Ethereallll Saammpleerrrrrr!!!"
"Are we ready?" Dr. Hixon asked.
"That's generally what it means when I do that," said Anthony.
"Lindsay?" Lindsay snapped to attention when Dr. Jeffries said her name. "Are we ready to process data?"
"Up and running," she replied. "Been waiting on them for twenty minutes."
"You sure that thing can keep up?" said Anthony. He nodded at Lindsay's computer.
"Keep up?" she sniffed. "This is an SGI Octane. IT can keep up."
"Well lets see, then! David, crank the generator!"
"Let's hope nobody's been CHEWING on it..." David mumbled as he grabbed a flashlight and vanished down the hall. There was a pause, and then he shouted back: "COMING HOT!"
The portable generator roared to life; the rumble of its gas-powered engine filled the house.
"Is it safe to run that thing indoors?" Dr. Hixon asked.
"We're not amateurs, Dr.," Jeffries replied. "We constructed an exhaust hose to vent the fumes outside. We'll only use it to charge the batteries and run the Sampler."
"So what's gonna happen now?" said Kyle.
"We're gonna see some dead people. David?"
"Right here." David and Anthony took their positions behind the Controller, where several dials and indicators served as windows into the inner workings of the machine. They took a few minutes to make sure everything was working properly.
"All set back there, Lindsay?"
"Just turn the damn thing on before I fall asleep," she replied.
"Here we go..." Anthony warned. "Coming hot."
There was a large metal handle mounted on the side of the Controller. Anthony pulled it down, closing the power connections within the machine. In the hallway, the generator's rumble lowered a few octaves, becoming a slow, rattling growl. There was a brief, high-pitched whine as the massive coils and capacitors in the Sampler ramped up to full charge.
But when the whine faded, and everyone's ears became accustomed to the change in the generator... there was no other tangible sign that the Sampler was even operating.
"What happened?" said Kyle.
"Nothing yet," said David. "Shut up."
The Sampler was still pointing down the hallway to the downstairs bedrooms. Everyone's eyes fixed on the dark corridor... then they turned to Lindsay.
"Still resolving..." she said.
"Whats that mean?" said Kyle.
"It means 'shut up'."
"Can't that thing go any faster?"
"Okay..." Lindsay sneered. "For every cubic millimeter in the target volume, i.e, the hallway, this thing has to convolve six 129600-term equations and reduce the result to a single 15-dimensional matrix.... and then SOLVE that matrix for a 3-dimensional solution. GOD couldn't calculate this stuff any faster."
"...told you she couldn't keep up."
Lindsay's workstation interrupted with a loud:
"We got a bite."
Dr. Hixon and Dr. Jeffries crowded around behind Lindsay so they could see the monitor. It showed a 3-dimensional cone that represented the Sampler's target area. There was a small white shape in the upper left corner of it... a tiny white blob that was slowing moving down toward the bottom of the screen... toward them. Sarah joined them at the monitor, but was more interested in the hallway. There was nothing there but shadows, but the computer was saying otherwise.
"Will somebody tell me what's going on?" Kyle demanded.
"History in the making." said Dr. Jeffries.
"When we turned this thing on, it became a giant ghost-magnet," Anthony explained. "And we aimed it down the hall where your two friends were hiding. Looks like we snagged one of 'em."
"It's the girl," said Sarah. "She's scared."
"She's pulling back," said Jeffries. "Gentlemen, more power please..."
"You got it."
Anthony adjusted a round knob on the Sampler. The generator groaned, and there was another brief whine in the air.
"Thaaats better," said Dr. Jeffries.
"So what..." said Kyle. "What's happening now?"
"We're reeling her in like a fish," David replied with a giddy smile. "She's hooked. She ain't going nowhere."
"She's backing away," Lindsay announced.
"She's very frightened..."
"So what? Turn up the power, Anthony."
Jeffries nodded in agreement, and Anthony sent even more power into the Sampler. Sarah stiffened as if someone had dropped an ice-cube down her back.
"What?" said Hixon.
"Just feedback from your machine."
"I don't feel anything-"
"You're not a psychic."
"That got her!" Dr. Jeffries pointed at the white shape streaking down the computer screen. "She's coming in fast!"
"She's running down the hallway!" said Sarah. She pointed. "There!"
"I don't see shit!"
Suddenly, a high pitched scream erupted from the hall. It was the cry of a terrified child.
The sound echoed wildly, seeming to come from six different directions at once. New sounds quickly joined it. Another scream... this one from upstairs:
"Too much power!" said Anthony. "The signal is bleeding out of the target range!"
"We've got multiple targets here!" said Lindsay. "I'm getting harmonics from all directions!"
"We're pulling in every ghost in the house!"
"They're upset... they're angry! They're VERY ANGRY! Turn the machine off!"
"Turn the POWER DOWN!"
"NO! TURN IT UP!" Dr. Jeffries shoved past Sarah and grabbed the power knob. He turned the Sampler's power up to 100%. The generator sputtered, but managed to stay online as the Sampler sucked out every scrap of power out it could provide.
The entire house screamed. Men. Women. Voices from all directions... all yelling in fear, or anger, or both. The walls shook from the unending, howling torrent of sound.
"THERE!" Jeffries pointed to the hallway. She was there. The girl... caught in the Sampler's invisible beam like an fly in a web. The ghostly child floated two feet from the grown, writhing and crying out in agony as if she were being burned alive. "THERE! We have it!"
"LET HER GO!" Sarah demanded. "YOU'RE HURTING HER!"
"We can't hurt it, it's a ghost!" said David.
"LOOK at her! You're tearing her apart!"
Behind them, the dining room table started to rattle... banging violently against the floor. There was a corresponding rhythmic THUMP from upstairs that grew louder and louder...
"They're ENRAGED! They-"
"They aren't going to get anywhere near this machine," said Dr. Jeffries. "The closer they get, the more control WE have over them. So LET be angry... they'll get their turn in the spotlight SOON ENOUGH!!"
"What PURPOSE is this serving, Doctor?!!"
The little girl's was fading in and out of focus as the Sampler tore at the ethereal substance of her body. Brilliant showers of sparks exploded within the ghostly form... and with each explosion the child's cries got weaker and more terrified.
"My God... look at the data we're getting," said Dr. Jeffries.
"I thought we were going to TALK to them!" said Sarah. "Dr. Hixon!"
Dr. Hixon was speechless. Mouth agape and eyes wide, the doctor stood transfixed by the sight of the tortured ghost.
"...we'll talk to the next one..."
"TURN IT OFF!"
Sarah stormed defiantly toward the Sampler.
"Turn it off NOW!"
David heard her coming and turned to defend the machine from the determined psychic...
...only it wasn't her.
"GET OUT!" the angry burnt ghost howled into David's shocked face. The enraged spirit's mouth hung open like a black chasm... large enough to swallow David's entire head. Cracked and blackened teeth rattled in their sockets as the ghost screamed: "GEEEETTTTTT OOOOUUUUUTTTT!"
"That's the one!" Kyle shouted. He was standing up in his chair and pointing at the ghost. "That's The One! THAT'S THE ONE!"
"ALLL OF YOU GETTTT OUUUUT!!"
Sara backed away from the howling fiend. David drew back and-
"Fuck Off, bitch!"
His punch sent the ghost spinning away from both him and the Sampler. The woman's head and upper body few apart in a shower of cold ash. The rest of her body quickly followed, and the ashes quickly faded away into nothing.
Suddenly, the generator began to sputter and cough. Indicator lights on the Sampler flickered ominously.
"UH-OH!" Anthony Moore turned the power knob back down to minimum, and, when the indicator lights failed to stabilize, he grabbed the handle and shoved it back up... severing the power connections. In the hallway, the generator continued to sputter, and finally tripped offline.
The Sampler hummed... and moaned... and then fell quiet once more. All over the house, things began to return to 'normal' The screaming stopped. The table ceased its noisy dance across the dining room floor.
Suddenly freed of the nefarious machine's power, the young ghost vanished... retreating down the hallway and loosing itself in the darkness.
Everything was quiet. For almost a whole second.
"MR. MOORRREEE!" Dr. Jeffries bellowed. "WHAT the HELL do you think you're doing! WHO told you to shut off the POWER!"
"There was a coil fault in the machine!" Anthony threw his hands up and retreated before the doctor. "If we'd kept going we'd have melted the whole thing to slag!"
Dr. Jeffries looked at the machine. Battery power was sustaining the control boards, and their lights were still showing the massive fault inside the machine. Jeffries nodded.
"Good job, Anthony," he said.
"My God, it really worked..." Dr. Hixon gaped. "It worked."
"Of course it did," said Dr. Jeffries. "I designed it and my students built it. Of COURSE it worked."
"WHAT are we doing here?!" said Sarah. "I thought were here to-"
"Study and collect data," said Jeffries.
"You were KILLING that poor child!"
"That 'poor child' died a long time ago. What we saw was just an echo... a stain on the fabric of space-time."
"It was... IS... a HUMAN SOUL! Oh, they are SO angry with us right now..."
"So?" said David. "Fuck 'em!"
"David!" Anthony gasped. "Dude! Do you realize what you did? You swung on a ghost, dude! You fucking punched a ghost!"
"Hell yeah, I CLOCKED that crusty bitch! We need to put HER ASS in the fuckin' zone next time.... screaming in my face and shit... fuck that!"
"Mr. Randolph, please don't physically abuse the test subjects."
"Yeah, whatever man... she as fucking with me. You saw that, right?"
"What I saw," said Dr. Jeffries. "Was proof of my theory. We can physically interact with them when they are in the Sampler's field... whether they want us to or not."
"That might not be a good thing," said Sarah. "We shouldn't have done that."
"Look at this," said Dr. Jeffries. He going through the massive amounts of data on the workstation. "We've got enough data here to keep us busy for months."
"Then we're done," said Sarah. "We can leave now. Or at least in the morning."
"Done?" said Jeffries. "Done? Ms. Bishop, we haven't even BEGUN yet! THAT was just a test of the machine to see if it was working properly. Next time... next time will be for real."
"Next time?" said Sarah. "What makes you think these spirits will allow a 'next time'."
"Because they don't have a choice."
"What was that?" said Kyle.
"It came from upstairs."
"That's the sound we heard before... when the Sampler was on."
"But what IS it?"
The two sounds... a loud thump followed by the distinctive jingle of metal... moved together across the upstairs hallway toward the stairs. Then the 'thump' changed... becoming harder and louder... as they began to descend to the first floor.
The small black dog, which had somehow managed to stay calm in its corner until now, began to whine and shiver uncontrollably. A tiny lake of urine began to form underneath its hindquarters.
"What is that? Keys? A chain?"
"Chain," said David. "Yeah, right... a ghost with chains..."
"No, I've heard that before," said Anthony.
"SPURS! Like in the cowboy movies... you know!"
The sound had reached the bottom of the stairs, where they stopped. David shined his flashlight down the hall. He could barely make out the edge of the steps in the feeble beam. There was nothing there.
"Okay?" said Anthony.
"He's angry," said Sarah.
"The man in the pictures, Dr. Hixon. The man... he wants us to leave."
"Tell him to kiss my ass!" said David. "We can have this machine patched in five minutes... then he can ride my fist back to wherever the fuck he came from."
"What's he doing?" said Dr. Hixon.
"Standing there. Watching."
"Watch THIS, asshole!" David held up his middle finger. "Come get some!"
"Maybe crusty-bitch was his wife or something, dude," said Anthony. "You knocked her face off... he's probably pissed."
The sounds started moving away again. Not up the stairs, but down the hall toward the front door.
"Hey, isn't the generator down there?" said Lindsay.
David and Anthony raced down the hallway, flashlights in hand. Darkness closed in around them, but they ignored it and kept moving... they knew where they were and the knew were they were going. The darkness gave up and retreated, and then just as they heard the unmistakable sound of the front door slamming shut-
The sound shook the house.
"WHAT HAPPENED!" Dr. Hixon called from the living room.
"IT'S GONE!" Anthony replied. "FUCK!"
"The Generator! It's GONE! That fucking bastard STOLE THE GENERATOR!"
[To Be Continued]