NIGEL BRUTON - MURIEL'S SECRET
Nigel moved to Ontario, Canada from England as as boy and has just moved to Nova Scotia for retirement.
He has had several short stories and poems published and is currently working on a collection, now that he has the time.
I looked at the tattered hand-written letter, the cursive script of another time. The words so precious yet so secretive. I sold my house in Bristol and disposed of all possessions. A loner for most of my life, I felt now some how at peace with myself and at home here, on the moors, with only my solitary quest and the letter to guide me. All that I owned I carried.
Up the road was a village. Its local pub would be my source of information, for the simple map drawn on the back of the letter had no major landmarks, except for an old graveyard that I was sure would be well overgrown and abandoned. I was not far wrong it turned out, except for one grave that was kept by a woman who was said to be over a hundred years old. She lived in a small cottage at the end of a narrow lane.
I paid the innkeeper for a night’s stay and made my way to a cosy corner by the fire to dry my shoes and warm my feet. Making myself at home, I sipped at a glass of port while talking with the local few who worked the sheep farms in the area. Hitchhiking my way here from Bristol gave me a clear view of the landscape but only a vague plan of what to do. Much was riding on the old woman and the location of the graveyard, if it was even the same one.
As the evening grew and the pub cleared out, the flames of the fire drew my mind back and it felt as though fate led me here. The year is two thousand and twenty-one and I am thirty-five years old. I have seen new technologies, new governments and new nations formed. But with all of the change going on around the country and around the world, I sit here in a place untouched by time, content, warm and thankful. I feel more at home and in my element than I ever have. I’m finally doing what my grandfather wanted me to do and I can feel his presence around me. I swear he sits beside me, pipe in hand, and will be my guide from this day on.
It all began just prior to World War II when a group of scientists and engineers formed a top-secret division known only as M-CON. Its sole purpose was to build a post-apocalyptic rescue robot programmed to automatically awaken and help an elite selection of the population escape from hibernation after a nuclear attack. M-CON stood for Messiah Control.
Messiah was made mostly of iron and steel. It stood twelve feet tall and weighed five tons. It moved with the aid of hydraulics and pneumatics and was powered by an atomic battery shielded with a lead casing six inches thick, located where the heart would reside if it were human, which its body loosely resembled. The brain was an intelligent analog computer, developed through years of research. The project was assigned the highest security rating: ULTRA TOP SECRET.
It continued through to 1951. Policies changed and history moved on. Nuclear war never happened and so the project was mothballed leaving Messiah buried in a cavern somewhere under Dartmoor in south-west England, all that remained was rumour and fear. Little was known of the project, everyone but my grandfather passed away and only he was left to tell the story. Or so that’s how he explained it to me every time I went to see him in the old folk’s home.
I was twelve when he first told me the story. He swore me to secrecy and of course I agreed, secret handshake and all. By the time I was fifteen the story was like a piece of history to me. The different stages of progress that the team went through, the failures and the victories, I could see it all happening right before my eyes. Then one day I was pulled out of class and brought to the Head Master’s office. There, I was offered a glass of warm milk and some scones, which I refused, put off by the sympathetic looks I was receiving from the office staff. A little while later my dad came in and knelt beside me.
“Your Granddad is dying. He wants to see you.”
With that I was taken to the home and to his bedside, his cold hand placed in mine then a kiss on the head from my Mum. I looked back and they beckoned me to move in closer so I did.
“Johnny, what I told you, about Messiah. There’s a letter for you. Make sure you get it. Be careful. Read the code, remember the key. Only you know. You’re old enough now.” He whispered breathlessly.
He looked at me and tried to do the secret handshake but couldn’t so I moved his hands into the positions for him, my tears falling onto his cold withered skin until he stopped moving at all. And then he was gone. His eyes closed and his head nodded to the pillow. My mother moved me away and his hand slipped from mine limply to the bed. On the drive home I did not cry or speak, I only stared out of the window, the smell of the leather seats coating my memory of that day for years to come.
Now I sit here staring at the letter left for me by my grandfather. More than eight decades after the story of Messiah began, I have come here to this remote and forgotten place in hopes of finding him and at the same time, maybe even finding myself.
I looked up from my heavy thoughts to find Howarth, a tall slim man in a tweed cap and work pants, standing beside me as if waiting for an introduction. I obliged and asked him about the village. We talked for about an hour at the fireside. His knowledge of the area and its folklore was impressive. Like most of the villagers, he was born here and had land passed on to him from father to son. Tradition flowed thick like glue and bound all that lived here together.
When I asked him about the stories of the machine-man, as it was called during the years after the war, he only nodded slowly and said, “Oh ah, I remember. Frightening tales they were of a giant robot out of control, its inventor, mad as a hatter.”
I stirred in my seat trying not to become too defensive of my grandfather. I didn’t want anyone to know of my relationship to the “mad inventor,” at least not yet. One thing I knew is that I had come to the right place and the authenticity of the letter, the stories and most importantly, my grandfather were valid. I talked more to the tall man before finally heading up to my room.
The morning fog seeped in through the open window and chilled me out of bed. I got up and slid it shut. As I looked down the road I could see an old lady tending her garden. It was only six o’clock and she was already hard at work. I decided to get up and talk to her. In the kitchen at the bottom of the stairs, breakfast was already being made. I forgot how early farmers rise in the morning. After a cup of tea and some sausages and eggs, I was ready to get started.
A black metal gate framed the entrance to a flagstone pathway that led to the old lady’s cottage. A stone wall choked with ivy surrounded the yard and completed the picture perfect country home. I said good morning, introduced myself and told her of my grandfather and the map.
“Oh wonderful,” she said, “please come in.”
I followed her as she walked slowly up the path to the house. Inside, I sat at the kitchen table while she put on a kettle of water for tea. My hunch was right. She knew my grandfather and as it turned out, she also knew of my grandmother.
“Your grandfather Tom worked on a special government project during the war,” she said. “It was all very hush-hush. He would come out here and work in one of the cottages. It’s not far from here, been deserted since he left. Most people thought he’d gone mad there, so they left it alone. Now it’s just an empty shell, the weeds got it years ago. You have to keep at it or they’ll take over before you can blink an eye. No weeds in my garden,” she said and set the teacup down in front of me.
“Thank you.” I said and sipped it slowly, the hot liquid burning off the coldness in my hands.
“Your grandmother was dead for two weeks before word got to Tom.” She continued. “He was out here working on the project. She was in Bristol. She was a seamstress making parachutes and uniforms for the troops. Her factory was bombed during an air raid. Bristol was hit bad. His job was so top secret that nobody even knew how to reach him. When he finally went home, he got the news. She’d already been buried. From that day on he devoted himself to his work. He left Bristol for good and spent his time here at the cottage. The army trucks came and went for years, bringing in supplies and digging up the ground. The area was sealed off and soldiers guarded it day and night. Then one day they just left and never came back. He stayed though. The light burning all night. I’d see him passing back and forth in front of the window in the morning while walking my dog. He’d probably been up working the whole time. He was obsessed with his work. I’d bring him food from time to time just to make sure he was all right. We talked and we became friends. He told me things, strange things I believed were just the thoughts of a lonely hardened man, stuff that they would now call science fiction, but back then they’d just call it plain crazy talk. So I listened to the stories and kept them to myself. He must have told some of it to other folk because word got out and it wasn’t from me. I kept quiet.”
I listened intently. It brought back the feelings from my childhood. Things started to come back to me, things I hadn’t thought of for years. The secret handshake, it was more than just that, it had to be practised to precisely the right timing. Timing was everything.
“I’m sorry,” I said, realising I’d been drifting off into a memory for the last couple of minutes. “Did you just say something about a key?”
“Yes, your grandfather gave me a key for safekeeping but never came back for it. I suppose it belongs to you now.”
She left the room still talking and returned with a small wooden box. Inside, within a red velvet compartment, was a long black key, the letters, MESSIAH stamped onto the shaft, my heart raced as I looked down at it.
She was already walking away, muttering again about her garden, all trace of the previous conversation lost. I was studying the key when she came back in and startled me with what she said next.
“You know, the robot thought of him as his father.”
I sat there listening, somewhere between memory and imagination. She went on to tell me of the conversations that she’d had with my grandfather. He would come over and vent his frustrations and accomplishments on her, just as he did with me all those years ago. She said that when the robot, or ‘Messiah’ as she said he liked to call it, was first powered up, it imprinted itself on him. She said that this was some secret thing that he programmed into the robot for safety’s sake. It would obey his commands without question and would protect him or anyone who used the code.
The code, as it was told to me as a lad, was a set of six words that had to be spoken at least three seconds apart. The robot would then kneel, allowing the key to be inserted into a slot behind a panel on the chest plate. Should any of these instructions not be followed precisely, Messiah would go into defensive mode, destroying everything in sight.
She started walking outside so I followed her, three steps behind in case she should fall.
“What about the graveyard?” I said, pulling out the letter with the map on the back.
She turned and without looking down simply said. “It’s beside the cottage silly, at the church.” She pointed down the road to a steeple about a half-mile away.
“See, that’s where he lived. It’s all overgrown with weeds now. Nobody goes there, weeds everywhere. The only place there isn’t is the one grave I keep clear. I promised him I’d do it and I haven’t gone back on my promise, just like I never told his secrets, except now, to you.”
“When did he leave and why did he ask you to keep the grave clear?” I asked.
“Don’t remember,” was all she said and walked into the cottage.
I went down the lane towards the gate, shading my eyes from the morning sun with my hand. I was about to go, to walk straight there but thought again before leaving. I decided to get my things from the inn first, for I had a feeling that I might not be going back.
At the inn, talk of war and bombs were on the lips of everyone. The place was full and each had a cup of tea or coffee in hand or on the table in front of them. Some were shouting, some were slamming their fists onto tabletops, others just listened, but all were very serious. I walked in bringing with me a stream of sunlight through the door that illuminated a path down the middle of the floor and set all eyes on me.
“What do you know of this?” The tall man from the previous day demanded.
“I don’t know what you mean. What’s happening?” I asked.
“War’s broke out all over the place,” said the landlady, her flabby face giggling as she spoke. “France, Germany, London, won’t be long ‘til it hits here.”
“But why, what’s going on, what caused it?” I said. My mind racing.
Talk of war and threats had been in the news for years it seemed. Most people just ignored it and got on with their lives, but behind closed doors the collaboration between governments was dissolving quickly and conformity of the masses was about to be shattered.
People in the pub looked at me with distrust. I was not a villager, only a stranger asking dangerous questions. My timing couldn’t have been worse. I went upstairs and gathered my things. On my way out, the landlord asked where I was going. I told him I was called away. He asked me to wait while he went to the lounge. I listened through the door. I heard anger in their voices. They wanted answers and needed someone to blame. I left quickly and made my way towards the old church and the grave where I hoped I would find some answers.
I passed the old lady’s house heading towards the steeple in the distance. I glanced back but she was nowhere to be seen. I felt for the key box in my coat pocket. It was there, thank goodness. I kept walking, looking back as I went. I knew it wouldn’t take long for them to figure out where I was headed after bringing up the old stories again, so I quickened my pace.
The graveyard was as broken down as the old lady described it. Headstones crumbling, the pavement cracked and crooked. I walked towards the church doors. They were arched and studded with metal pegs. The handles were two large metal rings. I pushed the door but it did not budge so I walked to the side of the building. There was another archway, the door long since missing judging by the growth around it. I walked cautiously into the dark church. The only light, that which managed to penetrate the dirty stained glass windows, illuminated the weed covered pews an eerie green. I backed out before going much farther and instead went outside to the graveyard.
Again, nature erased what Man would have had last forever. Weeds grew everywhere. Vines covered the stone perimeter walls and even the trees. I walked around the outside of the church. A path led to a clear spot in the far corner under a sycamore tree, its large leaves flapping freely in the breeze without restriction, an oasis in an English jungle. At the end of the path was a grave, well kept and clear of all foliage. There were no flowers or wreath, only a cleared spot as promised a long time ago. The headstone read:
1937 – 1951
REST IN PEACE
It was my grandmother’s name, though the dates were incorrect. She was born long before 1937 and died during World War II. This date described the period of the MESSIAH project. I’d forgotten most of the secret code I was taught, under strictest security from my grandfather. Now seeing the name and the dates pulled it all together; it was the code to control Messiah.
“Muriel: Mechanical, Uranium, Radioactive, Ionised, Electrical, Life.”
The phrase, “Rest in Peace” had me a bit worried though. If war were about to break out, if it hadn’t already, would Messiah awaken? What would it do? I stood gazing at the headstone trying to recapture my memories of what I’d imagined it would look like. I turned around, a little startled and feeling somewhat vulnerable out here alone when I spotted a small stone cottage over the wall, just beyond the sycamore tree. Another path through a gateway led to the front door. I strode towards it with new vigour and hope for an ending to my search.
The cottage, unlike the grave, was overgrown and in poor condition. Its architecture resembled that of the church. Inside, dark curtains covered the windows letting in only cracks of light but it was enough to find my way around. There was nothing remarkable in the front room or the attached kitchen. Down the hall were a bathroom on the right and a large bedroom on the left. The bedroom had a bed at one end and an oak desk in front of a window overlooking the graveyard. I went over to the window and opened the dusty drapes to get a better look at the desk. The drawers were empty except for some pencils and rubber bands. The room showed no sign of my grandfather’s work. I was looking for something but wasn’t sure what. I went back to the hallway. The bathroom was ordinary, nothing significant there either. In the kitchen I found something I’d missed the first time, a trapdoor to the cellar. I opened my bag, got out a light and descended the stairs. Ten feet in front of me was a brick wall with a large door in the middle. It was locked. I took out my wooden key box, quickly opened it and inserted the key into the lock and turned it, it worked. I pushed open the heavy oak door and shone my light into the space behind the wall. A tunnel started about eight feet in. I walked down a few steps and looked around the entranceway. The ceiling was much higher, castle-like. Two fuse panels were mounted on the wall side by side. I pushed up the main switch on each and the whole tunnel and entranceway lit up.
The tunnel extended about fifty yards with three doors along the left side. I opened the first one. Two old oscilloscopes, a large power supply and some hand tools sat on top of a long lab bench against the wall. Other equipment I was unfamiliar with sat off in the corner. I started to look around excited at my discovery when suddenly a loud switching noise came from behind the wall, then a buzzing sound started. A red light flashed over the door and I quickly exited the room and went into the tunnel. There, a row of red lights blinked in sequence, leading towards the next section of tunnel. I followed the lights to a stairway at the end. It led up towards the surface. I started walking up when the ceiling automatically slid open. Earth fell in covering my head and I tumbled down the steps. When I looked up I could see daylight. I walked back up and looked outside.
I was at the gravesite. The sound coming from the tunnel was deep and steady, almost that of a heartbeat, slow and regular. I looked back into the opening, staring as the lights blinked in rhythm to the sound, “thump, thump, thump, thump.” Behind me, I heard another sound, engines coming towards the church. I climbed the rest of the stairs to the outside and looked down the road. There were several trucks and a tractor. People were hurrying beside the vehicles, raising their arms and shouting. The shouts got steadily louder as they approached. There were at least fifty of them, the people that were gathered in the pub earlier. I was afraid. They looked like a lynch-mob and I feared for my life. One more casualty of war, I didn’t want to be that statistic.
They reached the churchyard pointing towards the grave and started to spread out. I was being surrounded. I looked up at the sycamore tree, a branch the perfect height for a hanging. Suddenly a plane flew overhead, low to the ground. It circled around and came in again, this time lower. The angry mob scattered, surprised as I at the low approach of the plane.
I heard another sound, this one much closer. The ground began to tremble around the grave and the noise grew louder. I looked back towards the mob and could see that they also heard the sound and stopped where they were, stricken with fear, for the old legends seemed to be coming true. The mad scientist’s monster was awakening.
I ran through the graveyard towards the sound. It was coming from beneath me though I had seen no sign inside the tunnel. Ten feet ahead the weeds gave way to a massive square box rising from the earth straight up. It stopped at about twelve feet high. Two steel clamps at the top released and one side lowered slowly to the ground on long pneumatic pistons. A thick fog rolled out and hissed as the vacuum seal was broken and air from the new century spilled in.
The fog cleared and there stood Messiah, silent and enormous. A red light blinked three times on its chest and went out. I watched and suddenly without an ounce of fear in my body, I smiled. “Granddad,” I said to myself and walked towards the robot.
He matched the description precisely, my grandfather having been the one who primarily designed him in the first place. I remembered the drawings scribbled on scraps of paper and destroyed before I left the old folk’s home so no word of the project leaked out. Back then I only half believed the stories he told but loved to dream of the adventures I’d have with Messiah as my robot companion. Then the yelling started and snapped me out of my daydream. Messiah was real and so was the angry mob at my back.
I walked up closer and stood in front of him. He towered over me. Most of his body was shielded with armour plating. The knees and elbows, for he truly resembled a giant man, had hydraulic pistons in place of muscles. The feet were at least a yard long. Shins were made of iron with steel plating and kneecaps were protected with steel rectangular guards. The thighs were similar to the shins but twice as thick. His coating was not shiny but of a flat black that reflected no sunlight. The waist was narrow, giving him a v-shaped torso. The centre of the chest bore a triangle shaped plate with the flat side at the top resembling a shield. Across the triangle were the raised letters, MESSIAH. Square shoulders and massive biceps led again to joints at the elbows and wrists. Each hand was different. His right had three fingers of equal length each with two knuckles. The thumb was shorter and had only one knuckle, resembling human form. The left hand was triangle shaped and had a split down the centre forming two smaller triangle-shaped tools and a swivel mechanism at the wrist. The neck was cone-shaped and fit into a pivot point allowing the pyramid shaped head to rotate 360 degrees and move down to his shoulders so he could view objects at almost all angles.
The head had no distinguishing marks other than two thin slits in the front. This was a sonar device that actually radiated at all angles but focused forward and so required openings to concentrate the signal. It also gave the illusion of a face to a small degree. On the top of the head was a glass dome and inside a circular vacuum tube similar to the old amplifiers I had seen as a child. This one however was used to create a powerful laser beam that could cut through a tank like a block of butter.
Without notice its head tilted down, it had ‘seen’ me. The light on its chest glowed red again and a sound emanated from the sonar holes in the faceplate.
The sound radiated through the ground for at least ten seconds and trembled through my body. Its vibrations played havoc with my eardrums. The low frequency voice seemed to drill its way into my brain. I stumbled backwards and fell to the ground. It moved towards me in slow mechanical steps. I lay there helpless but somehow believed that my life could not end with my childhood dream turning on me like this.
“Muriel!” I shouted but it just kept coming. Then I recalled the code.
“Mechanical, Uranium, Radioactive, Ionised, Electrical, Life.”
I said the words, three seconds apart as my grandfather had instructed me to do time and time again. With that the robot stopped its advance and knelt beside me. I had three minutes to do the next step, put the key into the compartment behind the chest plate. I reached into my pocket, it wasn’t there. I’d left it in the door to the tunnel. I stood while Messiah knelt motionless, its sonar sweeping the ground, tracking my movements. I had about two and a half minutes, a hundred and fifty seconds, to get the key and come back. I ran as Messiah continued tracking me.
The lights were still flashing in the tunnel, leading away from my direction. For a moment I was tempted to follow their path and leave this place but knew that I could not. I ran, not looking back. The sound of air raid sirens started outside and seemed to chase after me. I moved on, dreamlike to the door at the end of the tunnel. The key was still there, the wooden box on the ground below. I quickly picked up the box in one hand and took the key in the other. I ran towards the outside, this time the flashing red lights streaming ahead of me, moving me forward.
As I strode the stairway the sound of gunfire clashed with the air raid sirens. I had somehow entered a war zone in the few minutes I was gone. I looked towards the lift but he was no longer there. I must have gone past the time limit. He was now in defensive mode. I looked behind me. The villagers were shooting at the sky with shotguns and rifles while the dogs barked and howled. Then I saw Messiah, its head pivoting towards an incoming plane. A glow formed within the dome on its head and the laser beam shone and turned the aircraft into a massive ball of flames. It crashed near the village and smashed its way through buildings as it skidded down the main street. Messiah then lowered its head and turned towards the shouting villagers, their guns pointed at him. They screamed and fired all at once; the sound deafening as the smoke from the barrels formed a long cloud across the graveyard. The bullets merely bounced off of its armour plating and it moved slowly towards them.
The deep sound, rumbling through the ground, terrified the attacking crowd and scattered them like mice. Its beam once again glowed and swiftly brought down one of the men, instantly turning him to flame, his bullets exploding in his hand. It strode towards the retreating invaders, igniting them one by one as it made its way to the village. One of the men drove the tractor head-on towards the robot. Messiah sensed the vehicle and rotated its head, the laser melting the machine and the driver without missing a step. I stood watching, key in hand, frozen in fear.
It began to move faster, marching through the graveyard, crushing headstones in its path. Suddenly the church became an inferno, the weeds crackling as they roasted, the stained glass windows melting into a pool of black tar. It started down the road leaving deep tracks in the ground behind it and burning anything that moved.
I followed, keeping a safe distance behind, waiting for my chance to reprogram Messiah. After all it was not evil, for it had no soul. It reached the old lady’s cottage, not yet destroyed from the growing fire that had swept through the village. It stopped for a second and then rotated its head towards the house. The old lady came out and it aimed its deadly laser.
“Messiah!” I shouted. It stopped and turned. I stood there out of breath, awaiting death. The old lady watched calmly. I repeated the code slowly and precisely. Messiah knelt and I pressed on its chest plate. It slid open and I inserted the key and turned it clockwise. The light in its glass dome dimmed and I removed the key. The steel chest plate slid closed. It then stood; a faithful servant.
The old lady smiled and came over. “Hello Messiah,” she said and looked towards the burning churchyard and whispered, “goodbye Tom.” With that she returned to her cottage and closed the door behind her.
Above, the roar of approaching, shooting planes filled the sky. As they came into sight, Messiah picked them off one by one, their missiles exploding all around. After the last of them crashed to the ground, Messiah turned towards me, standing still and tall like a sentry. I gave him one last command: “Protect England.”
That was a week ago, though it feels like a month. I sit here now, injured and bleeding in this deserted bombed out building in London. Messiah stands guard outside.
Most of what I’ve seen could not be described as a city but as an open morgue. The Tower of London is a mound of rubble. The Thames River, dammed by cars and debris, flooded into the streets forcing the rats to flee from the sewers and into the open where they now feed on the rotting corpses. The London Zoo was bombed yesterday, releasing lions and elephants along with all other types of wildlife to roam the streets, some injured, all of them hungry.
Millions of people, homeless and fighting each other spill from the cities towards the country, while the villagers head towards the cities. The military have set up barricades and barracks but panic and mayhem have overwhelmed the people and there is no end in sight. The world is at war and it’s each country for itself. Alliances are a thing of the past but I have faith that England will survive, for I have a friend, faithful and strong and he will not stop until his mission is complete. My part is done. I have told my story. I do not know what Messiah’s full potential is. My grandfather did not tell me everything. I do know though, his mission is of survival and the protection of England and that if there is a God, I pray he be an Englishman.
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