“All a bit mysterious”
It was called Footland House. It was a big, rambling old property, set deep in the British countryside, sheltered on all sides by hills and trees.
It didn’t appear on any map. Even Ordnance Survey maps only showed it as a greyed out, unlabelled splodge.
There were one or two spots on the approaching roads where you could sometimes catch a glimpse of it, maybe in the winter when the leaves were off the trees. Ivy covered walls and mysterious turrets, a bit like a little castle. If you were a National Trust or English Heritage member, you might turn off towards it, wondering if it was open to the public and worth seeing, a hidden gem perhaps. Or maybe it had been converted into a Country House Hotel, or Conference Centre, as so many ex Stately Homes had been. Might it be a place to get a drink, by an open fire in an oak-panelled bar? Maybe it had a golf course, or was good for fishing?
But even if you managed to find the right single track road, and followed it to its winding end, all you would encounter was a huge gate and a very well maintained sign, stating, “Strictly Private Property – Keep Out”.
You wouldn’t see anyone, as you stood at the boundary of the estate – but someone might well be looking at you, for in fact there were security cameras hidden liberally around every possible access point.
A log was actually kept of all incidents when apparent strangers had pulled up at one of the gates and appeared to express some interest in the mystery property. There weren’t many of them. The last had been a delivery driver who had got lost and was after directions. He didn’t get any. Before that, two horse riders had banged for a long time on the gate, and looked for a gap in the adjacent hedges, hoping for a short cut in their cross-country route. They were disappointed.
Tom had started off loving Footland House. Later, of course, he hated it.
In the beginning it had all been an adventure. He had always been a loner, a studious boy. Having to wear thick-rimmed glasses from an early age hadn’t done his confidence any favours. And being naturally reticent, people often mistook his reserve and shyness for inability, and missed spotting his extraordinary intelligence – and good nature.
Having reached eighteen years of age, he had been at a loss as to what to do next and where his life would lead – and then suddenly this scholarship had come up. A vast sum, a generous allowance. It appeared that he had been targeted. It appeared that those innocuous personality tests he had done in school that time had thrown up some interesting results, results that had brought him to someone’s attention. Within a few weeks he had signed some papers to confirm he would attend a specialist college for a year, to study psychology and at the same time participate in some cutting edge intelligence tests.
He was promised a stimulating environment with a team of similarly gifted and inclined students from around the country. And because he craved one thing above all else, he decided to go for this opportunity which appeared to be being offered to him on a plate. That thing was – friends.
He had spent his childhood crushingly lonely. Maybe something like this would throw a friend or two in his direction. He longed for companionship and intellectual stimulation of a sort he had not come across either at school or at home. He set off full of trepidation and excitement, and when he first saw Footland House, he thought it was beautiful. More wild sky than he had every known in the city. More greenery, more flowers, more birdsong. He sat in the rambling gardens enchanted.
And on his first day, he found not only the friendship he had hoped for, but something more. He fell in love.
With another boy.
That was a bit of a shock, as he was a late developer and hadn’t as yet explored his sexuality in any way. But he soon readjusted. In fact he was soon to discover how very resilient he was. How, even as things developed in quite unexpected directions, he was able to hold onto a sense of positivity, a strong sense of himself.
The other boy was called Toby. Tom and Toby; Toby and Tom. They both loved the alliteration.
Toby latched onto Tom immediately, as if he had looked around and decided to claim the first person he saw as his best friend, with an unspoken, ‘Yes, you’ll do’.
“What do you suppose we’re really doing here?” Toby asked over their first lunch together. “I couldn’t actually find out anything about this place or these people online. All a bit mysterious, don’t you think?”
Tom was too bowled over by Toby’s warm personality and easy friendship to care anything about the organisation that had brought them together. “Oh, it must be above board. They’ve given us all this money, and they can’t exactly be kidnapping us, can they. I mean, this is a civilised country.”
“Well,” Toby crunched on some salad. “I’m sure you’re right. I just hope it’s not a religious cult or something. I don’t want to be turned into a monk, or some sort of militant, thank you very much.”
The first few weeks passed in a daze. They attended lectures, they were given coursework tasks which were interesting and easy. They sat on benches in the sunshine, discussing history and art and literature. They lounged in soft armchairs in the library, enjoying the peace and quiet, and stealing glances at each other in the warm light from old lamps.
They had adjacent rooms.
Tom was completely green, but Toby was not. As they walked together along the upstairs corridor, after a particularly filling meal and a couple of games of chess in the games room, Toby suddenly took Tom by the arm and steered him into his own bedroom.
Once through the door, Toby pushed his friend against the nearest wall, and stood close to him and looking into his eyes.
“So look, are we going to do it, then?” he asked, in a completely friendly and only slightly exasperated manner. “I mean, I haven’t got you wrong, have I?”
Tom stared at his new friend, at a complete loss.
“I mean, it’s up to you to say, if you don’t want to,” Toby continued.
But something had stirred deep within Tom and suddenly he saw that his arm had risen, as if of its own accord, and that his hand was touching Toby’s hair.
A minute later, they were kissing passionately. An hour later, Tom had been well and truly initiated into the pleasures of the flesh, and was lying next to Toby feeling a lot less green and a lot more happy.
“I never thought,” he ventured, “that anyone would ever want to even kiss me.”
“Why on earth not, you silly thing,” said Toby, propping himself up on one elbow and running a finger down Tom’s nose. “You’re gorgeous!”
Another hour of intense education passed.
And so the ‘honeymoon period’ extended, to two months, then three. All thirty or so residents of Footland House – mainly boys but some girls – lived contentedly in their new home, and many friendships and romances blossomed.
Unknown to them, cold men in dark suits sat perusing report sheets and video footage, and deciding between themselves, “That’s enough of an introduction, I think we need to move on to Phase Two now.”
And so it was that a new science tutor turned up at the isolated college, Mr Silk, and things began rapidly to change for the worse.
Mr Silk was very slim, and very proper, and always very carefully turned out. He had a full head of dark hair, and trendy little glasses, and a mysterious bangle around his left wrist. It was difficult to work him out. He didn’t dress like scientist (never a lab coat in sight, for example), or even like a teacher (perhaps in clothes a little too worn and casual), but was usually to be seen in a smart suit and tie as if he was a businessman on his way to a meeting. And why did he never speak about anything remotely technical or scientific? All his pronouncements seemed bland and general, and all the students began to be suspicious of him and wonder at his motives.
He went out of his way to seem benign at the beginning, always attempting to chat about trivialities, always appearing to be concerned about the students’ welfare. But everyone noticed that the friendly exterior appeared to be a little forced, and that underneath, something cold and unpleasant lurked.
People now began to complain to each other that the work they were undertaking was increasingly banal and uninteresting. Almost as if the coursework they had been expecting had been replaced by any old rubbish, just fabricated to fill in time.
Strange new rules appeared. Permission had to be requested to go out into the gardens. No-one must go anywhere near the East Wing, where blinds were always drawn over all the windows. A curfew was introduced; everyone had to be in their rooms by 11pm, no exceptions.
What’s more, it became clear that there was increasing reluctance to let students leave the premises for any reason.
Over the first several weeks, there had been some group excursions to local pubs, and one long day trip to a castle. But as time passed, people began to notice that their requests to get out of the place were always denied. Trips were postponed, shopping days argued against. And no visitors were allowed.
“It does actually say in the contract you all signed,” Mr Silk informed them in class one day, “that comings and goings might have to be restricted for the sake of the scientific work being carried out here.”
“Whereabouts in the contract?” someone asked.
“Actually on page 14, towards the bottom.”
“Well, I think that should have been made a bit clearer,” another student ventured to complain. “It’s getting to be like we’re prisoners here.”
“Nonsense!” Mr Silk said. “This is a temporary situation which you have all agreed to, and before long you’ll all be free to return to your previous lives.”
One female student, who had been particularly homesick, now spoke out. “Well, I think I want to get out of this, and leave now.”
Mr Silk fixed her with an icy stare, but then forced his face into a smile. “Of course, my dear, let’s arrange a meeting to discuss that, shall we? You realise of course you’ll have to immediately return all the monies paid to you, as it will be a breach of contract situation. But I’m sure we can work something out.”
There was a murmur amongst the students at this, but before anyone could make any further comment, Mr Silk carried on in a rather grandiose style. “Now actually, ladies and gentlemen, I wanted to talk to you all about the plan for tomorrow. We have given you ample time to settle in and be relaxed and comfortable, but now we need to move forward with the experimental program you signed up for. We have some extra staff arriving tomorrow, and the experiments will begin the day after that. It will only involve a few of you at a time – the others can continue their studies as normal. But there will be a bit of a change in the day to day routine.”
“What sort of experiments?” another female student asked, a tall girl who was very studious and had been asking recently about when the trials were likely to start.
“Well,” said Mr Silk, pausing in his pacing and perching himself on the edge of a desk. “In fact this is a very exciting new program, and is all about dreams, and trying to understand what goes on in the human mind whilst we are asleep.”
“So what will we have to do?”
“Nothing at all difficult – simply to write accounts of your dreams once you wake up. From a controlled sleep environment. But everything will become clear – we will do a full briefing tomorrow when the new staff are here.”
That night, Toby crept into Tom’s room, and they huddled together, whispering.
“I thought it was all too good to be true,” Toby complained. “They’ve lulled us into a false sense of security, that’s what’s happened.”
“But sleep experiments don’t sound that bad,” Tom replied. “And as he says, we did sign up for this, and we have been paid.”
“Well, it wasn’t supposed to be an outright payment. It was a study grant.”
“And have you noticed the phone lines are down again? And I can never get a mobile signal.”
“They’ll have to fix it surely. They can’t really be trying to isolate us.”
“Well, let me know when you’ve managed to reach your family, cos I can’t reach mine.”
Tom sighed. “Let’s try again tomorrow.”
“I just hope we haven’t been very stupid about all this!” Toby seemed to have got himself into a very black mood.
“Well, so do I obviously. But at least – ”
It was quite dark in the room, but Toby still noticed that Tom blushed.
“Well, it’s bought us together hasn’t it? I don’t care about anything other than that.”
Toby laughed. “You’re such a romantic! Okay, let’s hope for the best.”
And then they lost themselves in each other for a while again.
But two weeks later, things were very different.
For a start, the tall, keen girl had disappeared.
“They’ve told me she went home,” her worried friend confided to Tom and Toby over lunch. “But how come all her things are still here? And how come she never told me or anyone about it, or even said goodbye?”
Another time they came across one of the other lads crying in a secluded corner. “You two had better watch yourselves,” was all he would say. “They’re deliberately encouraging relationships in here so they can use them against us!”
“Why, what’s happened?” they asked, remembering the nice looking girl their fellow student had been dating, but he only dissolved into tears again, and ushered them away.
Both of the boys had now experienced the sleep experiments themselves, several times. All that happened was that they were given some tablets in the evening and then asked to lie down in a special sleep unit, where the beds were like hospital beds and they were connected up to heart and respiration monitors.
In the morning they would wake up in the same unit, groggy, but otherwise undamaged. Then they would have to do some tests on a computer, checking their response rates to various colours and pictures on the screen, and answering detailed questions about anything they could remember from their dreams.
They both concluded that the tablets were supposed to be making them dream more, but neither of them really dreamed very much at all, so it was generally difficult to find much to write about, and, along with the other students they spoke to, they soon found the repeated experiments extremely boring.
More time passed, and an outside observer might have noticed that the atmosphere in the College settled down. No-one complained anymore, no-one raised questions, or made applications to leave for the weekend, or demanded to be allowed to call their parents. Surely it couldn’t have been that the occupants of Footland House were being gently sedated with drugs all the time, to keep them compliant and docile?
There was a moment when Tom looked around the games room and suddenly realised how depleted their number seemed to be. He could remember quite a few faces he hadn’t seen for a while. Perhaps they had moved them to live in the East Wing, where the new staff (four male ‘nurses’) were housed, and where the sleep experiments were carried out.
But he didn’t let it trouble him. He had been happier than ever recently, and wasn’t keen for anything to rouse him from this aimless but comfortable lifestyle, where he was allowed to spend most of his time with the lover who had come to mean all the world to him.
And so it might have continued. Except that a dreadful thing happened.
They had eaten together and checked the experimental rota, finding that Toby was due in the sleep clinic that night.
“See you in the morning then,” Toby said to him, heading off along the corridor to the East Wing. “But let me sleep in. Don’t know about you, but I’m finding it more difficult to come round in the morning, these days. Felt awful last time, and such a headache!”
Afterwards, Tom wished he’d kissed his friend goodbye. Because it was the last time he was ever to see him alive.
“I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news,” Mr Silk said to Tom the next day. “Your friend Toby got a bit ill last night, so we’ve had to send him to a local hospital. No need to worry, he’s fine. Just won’t been back for a few days.”
A shiver passed through Tom, a great sense of loss and trepidation. “Can’t I visit? What happened?”
“I’ll tell you as soon as we hear anything,” Mr Silk said, but his tone was so insincere, and his smile so crooked, that Tom had a moment of revelation, and suddenly couldn’t believe that he had let himself get so easily fooled by such a strange and smarmy character.
All that day he ate nothing and only drank water from the tap in his room. When his own turn came to take the pre-experiment medication, he faked a coughing fit and managed not to swallow his tablets. He pretended to fall asleep, and was horrified to feel himself being strapped down to the bed by two of the assistants, and then injected with something in his arm. It was all he could do to lie still and not react, but the disappearance of Toby had awoken something in him, and he was determined to find out what was going on.
He felt himself being wheeled into an adjacent room, and he heard screens being pulled around the bed. Struggling against panic, he lay still, and then rather surprising found himself alone. He opened his eyes. The light was on but there was nothing to be seen other than tall white screens positioned all around his bed.
Then whatever he had been injected with must have kicked in, because the next he remembered was waking in the main clinic again, as groggy and confused as ever.
But now Tom had a mission. He needed to discover what had happened to Toby. He tried asking a few more times, but was told Toby was still in hospital.
“Can I get a message to him?” he asked.
“I’m sorry, no,” was the only reply he got.
Doing his best to hide what he was doing, Tom continued to eat as little as possible of the food provided, in the hope of avoiding the drugs he was now certain the remaining residents were being plied with. It worked to a certain extent. He was hungry but his brain remained clear. He watched the rota carefully and did everything he could to eavesdrop on what Mr Silk and the clinic staff were saying. (All the original tutors who had given lectures over the first few months had now also mysteriously disappeared.) After a couple of days, he was rewarded, overhearing that Mr Silk was leaving Footland House for the weekend.
Tom lay in bed that night torn between worry for his friend, and excitement about what he was attempting to achieve. Choosing his moment carefully, he waited until he was sure Silk had left and the building was quiet, then crept to where he knew all the keys were kept, and managed to sneak a set from the hook.
A few minutes later, he was inside the sleep clinic. There was no-one scheduled to be present that evening, so the place was deserted. He crept across the darkened hospital-like room, and opened up the wide swing door which led from it. Behind this was a broad corridor, and as he seemed to be alone and the swing door was solid, he risked turning on the light.
Off the corridor, on both sides, were six further doors, and each had a number stuck prominently on it, from one to six. He tried the door to room one and found it locked, but luckily his keyring solved the problem, including a set of heavy keys neatly labelled one to six.
Behind the door was a room which might well have been the one he had got a glimpse of on the night he’d managed to avoid being drugged. The only difference was that the white screens he remembered, while present, had been pushed back, and so he could see what else was in the room.
A strange set of objects presented themselves. In one corner was a huge sculpture of a grasped hand, a piece of modern art, cast in some sort of plastic. It was bright blue in colour. Nearby stood a gaudy set of tables and chairs, also in blue, and hung on the wall were about ten different paintings and prints, all of which had a sea or lake or other watery theme, and a generally blue colour scheme.
On the other side of the bed, there was an even more random selection of items. A rail full of outlandish clothing, a bathroom cupboard, an uninflated paddling pool, a huge pile of buckets, some old curtains draped over a padded armchair, and on the wall, a large poster of a stylised dolphin. Everything in the room, including the dolphin, was some shade of blue.
Turning off the light and locking the door, Tom quickly and quietly tried room two. Here he found a similar set up – a plain single trolley bed fitted with restraints, a number of tall white screens on wheels, and piled up against the walls of the room, various household and other objects, in this case all basically red in colour.
He tried one more room, the fourth, just to confirm the pattern, and found himself in a room with walls painted green, and vast numbers of artificial plants like palm trees and rubber plants, standing all around the room, creating a plastic jungle.
Bemused, he returned to the main clinic, and found another door which was double locked, and turned out to be an office. Increasingly scared, but also driven by a now unstoppable curiosity, Tom switched on a desk lamp and turned his attention to a prominent filing cabinet.
It was packed full of hanging files, and the very first one was helpfully labelled ‘Control Documents and Summaries’. His hands shaking, he pulled this out and opened the file within.
His jaw dropped at the sight of the very first document his eyes alighted on. He began to read voraciously.
‘Near Death Experience’ Project
Summary to date.
The results of our enforced out of body experiments are extremely disappointing. Not one subject has described any of the objects behind the screens in the sleep rooms, neither have we observed a statistically significant correlation as regards the colour schemes.
As subjects are unaware of the nature of the experiments, it is safe to assume that the lack of result is not due to them deliberately withholding information about anything they might have seen or any out of body experience they might have had.
They believe they are simply being asked to recount dreams, but we are not observing any connection between what they have described and the test matter in the rooms.
According to the strategy initially agreed, we have therefore gradually increased the dosage of the drugs being given to participants on falling asleep. However, despite having done this for all participants over a period now of several months, there is no improvement in the results, which continue to be negative.
And as a result of participants becoming increasingly difficult to revive, we have suffered a high degree of wastage. So much so that I have been forced to initiate another round of recruitment, so as to procure more subjects, and I hope to have another thirty or so candidates arrive shortly.
I continue to have reservations about the long term viability of this project. Whilst appreciating the potential significance of a positive result, the level of wastage is becoming concerning and may cause a problem in future unless very carefully managed.
Tom stared at the paper, hardly able to take in what he was reading.
Near death experience. Increasingly difficult to revive. Degree of wastage.
His heart rate leapt as he realised what he’d got himself caught up in. These people – who knew for what reason – were attempting to induce supernatural experiences, by drugging young people almost to the point of death. Presumably they hoped to prove that someone had had an ‘out of body experience’ whilst being in this near death state, by virtue of them accurately describing some of the coloured objects and images kept behind the screens in the sleep rooms, which they could only possibly have seen by leaving their drugged and restrained bodies behind, and wandering around the room in non-corporeal fashion.
It was outrageous! It was ridiculous!
And unfortunately, not only was it not working, it was resulting in near death experiences becoming death experiences! They were actually killing people here!
A shiver of horror ran through Tom, and he turned back to the filing cabinet, trying another drawer and finding, as he had expected and dreaded, a series of files with people’s names on.
He pulled out Toby’s, and saw the most recent entry, from the night when he had last seen his friend walk away from him along the corridor.
‘Attempts at revival ceased 03.10. Subject discarded from program.’
Discarded. They had killed him! Toby – his dear friend and lover – was dead!
A dreadful grief welled up in him, but was immediately overshadowed by the most massive anger he had ever known, which in turn led to a firm resolve. He was the only one who knew what was really happening at Footland House. He had to get out quickly and put a stop to all this, right now. Returning the files to the cabinet, he looked around the office for a phone and found one, but when he lifted the receiver there was no dial tone.
Hardly able to walk, such was his agitation, he managed to stagger out of the office, out of the clinic, and back towards the front door of the property. There was no time to go back to his room to gather any possessions, no time to try and talk to any of the remaining students about what he had discovered or the danger they were all in. They would surely all be too drugged to believe or be able to help him anyway.
He needed to make it out of the grounds and find a phone, so he could call the Police as soon as possible.
Poor Tom, shocked and grieving as he was, he managed to make it through the house to the main door, and half way along the driveway to the gate. But it soon became clear that the new male staff members also served as guards, and that they must have been watching him on security monitors ever since he’d gone into the clinic, and holding back only long enough to make some phone calls of their own.
Two of them caught up with him easily and pushed him over onto the gravel. Staggering to his feet, he tried running towards the gate, but just as he approached it, a car swept through and caught him in its headlights.
He cowered on his knees by the roadside, shaking with cold and anger, as Mr Silk stepped out of the car and came and stood over him.
“I hear you’ve been prying in the East Wing,” he said in his cold and critical voice. “I don’t think that was a very good idea. We won’t be able to use you any further, if the experiment has been compromised.”
Tom looked up at him, full of hatred. “Who cares about your experiment! You killed Toby!”
Silk sighed. “Oh dear, don’t tell me you’ve been reading the paperwork as well. Now that’s even more unfortunate.”
Tom pushed himself to his feet and looked at the open gate behind Silk. He knew he had to get through it, but the three men were bound to overpower him if he tried.
“You’ll never get away with this,” he heard himself saying to Silk. “Someone will notice, someone will call the authorities.”
Silk shook his head. “My dear boy, don’t you see? We are the authorities. No-one will help you.”
Suddenly there was a clicking sound, and it was followed, in the silence of the country night, by the muffled blast from a gun, and then the thump of a young man’s body hitting the ground.
Tom looked down and saw a strange scene below him. There was a car, its engine off but its headlights on and lighting up a group of figures. There was Silk, putting something away in the car. There were the two security men, shady figures in the dark, preparing to do their duty and clean up. And there on the floor, was the poor wasted body of a young man, with a bullet wound in his chest. A youth who had only sought friendship and stimulation, but found an early and pointless death instead.
And then Tom heard laughter, cutting through his confusion. And he knew whose laughter it was.
“What a joke!” said Toby, at his side. “All those silly experiments, all those negative results! And the silly loser will never know that we’re here, right above his head at this instant, getting the last laugh!”
“Toby!” cried Tom, suddenly happy again.
“Come on, chum,” said Toby, still giggling. “Let’s get out of here.”