by Mike Adamson
They say Ardvreck Castle is haunted, and I know it is. But not quite the way you might think.
Scientists are supposed to be practical people, and we are. My expedition from the University of Edinburgh was a summer master class to air out grad students on laser scanning and building a comprehensive 3D image of an archaeological locality, and Ardvreck Castle was our choice. I’ve coordinated projects like this in the past, but the moment our minibuses arrived on the shores of Loch Assynt on that summer afternoon, I knew something was different. Wrong.
I couldn’t explain it at that moment, and we went about setting up camp and unpacking the systems, getting our computers working, everything ready to begin scanning after the short summer night. We should be back in Edinburgh the day after, the drive each way being a comfortable six hours, including a stop for lunch. County Sutherland, in the far north of Scotland, was one of the wilder places in the British Isles, and we relished the clean Atlantic air, the cries of eagles and the rustle of wind in the summer heather, hip-deep on the hillsides.
But the beauty of the rippling waters, reflecting sky and peaks, was not quite as it should have been. The castle itself is a bare ruin, only a single tower and associated walls left standing, the rest blasted to fragments by a lightning strike in 1795, and while commonly called a romantic relic of the past, those who can feel the world around them will tell you something strange walks these ways.
My half dozen students were oblivious though, their mobile phones, tablets and music almost sacrilegious in these surroundings, but the modern world will not be left behind, and they went about setting up our field camp with the enthusiasm and humour one expects from the young. As they did so, I found time to walk out on the shores of Loch Assynt far enough from them to hear nothing but the wind on the water, and let myself breathe the air of the wild.
My eyes were drawn over and over to the placid loch, its long reach arching away to the north-west, and something seemed vaguely ominous. At first I thought it merely reaction to the gulf of time we were exploring, this castle had first been raised around 1490 as a far northern outpost of the McLeods, and it had fallen into ruin before Napoleon rose to prominence; but there was more.
The legends said the feat of building, here on this promontory into the loch, had called for a pact with the devil himself, and the Laird of Assynt had given his daughter in marriage to Diaboles in exchange for help–and immortality. But when the daughter learned of her intended she flung herself to her death and wanders the ruin to this day, weeping her anguish. Many will tell you they have heard her cries and felt her presence, and even the most clear-headed will admit some dire chill clings to those stones.
I set my impressions aside and returned to my students, and with all preparations made before nightfall we settled to cook by an open fire and enjoy the stars of the northern summer, before sleep. Yet as I zipped into my sleeping bag I could not help thinking of those ancient ruins, and how they must be when snow grips the land and the aurora dances above the crumbling tower, and the ghost wails her misery to the aloof heavens.
“Professor Murtry,” called Andrew, a dreadlocked young man who seemed determined to combine his Gaelic ancestry with reggae music. “There are some very odd anomalies in the data.”
We stood around the computers in the main tent, watching them build their model by integrating the lidar returns. We had erected seven scanning points around the castle and first taken a rough “snapshot” to verify coverage before proceeding to the more detailed high-res data-collection. The snapshot was building in the system and Andrew was indicating a number of abstruse charts on which spikes and troughs were coalescing.
“Very odd,” I murmured. I knew the patterning of the data blocks in this software corresponded to the gross mass distribution of the structure being recorded, and the odd pattern suggested a structure where none should be. Anomalies are often data transposed from one coordinate set to another, so it seemed we had vertical stone showing up in the angle of the surviving walls. “The coordinates look alright at this level. Check the deeper code.”
“Nothing showed up on the tests earlier,” Andrew mused, shaking his head.
We watched the low-res scan taking form and something was clearly amiss, a pillar forming where none should be. But as we watched it seemed a cold hand stroked our spines, for with each scan pass, building information into the image, the anomalous object collected detail and the amorphous mass fined down–clearly developing a head and shoulders, and the impressions of chest and abdomen.
“What the…” I breathed as the next pass revealed more of the apparently humanoid shape. “All right, which of you was standing there when the scan went through?” I gestured impatiently. “Who’s being funny?”
No one owned up, they were all as clueless as myself, and I saw in their faces a vague dread, a sense of the macabre, as the model approached its maximum available resolution, leaving us with a grey-toned image of the castle, drawn roughly as if with broad-tip markers, with an equally grey statue in its midst. Not clearly human, I might add.
There are tales aplenty of strange goings-on. As practical people of the modern social sciences we were inclined to set them aside, or pass them to our colleagues, the psychologists and folklorists, but here we saw in our data something our eyes had failed to reveal, and we were more than a little shaken.
“Save the scan,” I whispered. “Just as it is.” Andrew transferred it to memory without a word. “Coverage looks fine. Proceed with the main run.”
Now the lidar began to scan out the castle at far greater resolution, including spectral analysis of the tonal values of the rock, enabling us to build a perfectly lifelike model into which researchers could move ever after. The scan would take two hours, and we could not enter the area during that time or we would register as data where none should be. I knew we would all be scanning the accumulating information for exactly that, and none spoke as time wound on, a strange, cold feeling in us defying the summer day.
As evening gathered over the calm loch we cooked our camp food and murmured among ourselves, casting an eye at the data every few minutes. Not at the stonework now standing out so clearly we could count the pebbles in the mortar and distinguish the stone types, but at the ghosts. In many places were scatters of pixels where none should be, outlining parts of bodies–here the lidar had been scanning at knee height and a pair of legs emerged from the background, there it had been at medium height and a hand extended into space from nowhere. A hand with the wrong number of digits, it seemed. The ghosts were always transparent, mal-formed, which we knew to be a product of the object being in motion when scanned. We knew what it meant.
Something we could not see was walking among us.
“Could it be the laird’s wee lass?” Dermot whispered. He was our laser technician and had nothing to do but sit around and monitor the units as they worked, which he did while perpetually sipping bottled McEwan’s Red.
“Put away another half dozen of those and you’ll not need lidar to see ghosts,” I grunted. But he had a point. Had one science just intruded upon the territory of another?
Andrew folded his arms and snorted softly. “It dis’na look like a girl.” He had cleaned up the original rough scan, cut it out of the background matrix and applied a smoothing algorithm. While reducing the random roughness, it tended to decrease information, resulting in an almost-gelid looking statue of roughly human shape. But he was right, there was little to suggest the female about it. Our girls, Jean and Flora, watched silently, nodding their agreement.
At length Dermot smiled evilly and shrugged. “Perhaps marrying the devil corrupted her human form.”
A range of impatient expressions greeted the comment and he concentrated on his beer. Soon Andrew nodded to the main readouts. “Two per cent to go.” The main scan would be in memory soon, and we were aware of a sudden need to pack up.
But my own curiosity began to get the upper hand, and I tapped the printer. “Andrew, give me the largest physical printouts we can manage. Mosaics are fine. I want the best angle on this thing, plus the fragments.”
“What are you planning?” Flora asked softly.
“A little experiment,” I murmured.
“We can print at A3 and fit sheets together,” Andrew said readily.
“Do it,” I replied, shoving hands into pockets and looking out at the late sun on the loch. “Set up the work boards out by the fire. Let’s just see…”
See what, they may have asked. Our spines were creeping with the thought of the unknown; as we set up the images they crept twice over for we could almost sense something staring over our shoulders… recognizing itself. That was the object–to make clear to whatever haunted this ruin, we knew it was here.
The scan finished and the data was checked and stored. We pulled down and packed the lidar units while we had the last daylight to work by, then we drew back by the hearth and were glad of the cheery flames when we set match to kindling. The boards were lit orange-bright and the motion of the flames gave strange life to the shadowy figure that became our strange guest.
We sat around, drank, ate, chatted with a tension stretched like a drumskin, and after a while we felt the sky was tightening around our heads, something so strange it seemed to suck the willpower from us, but we had strength in numbers so we stayed by the flames and hoped for the best. We were rational people, after all, and did not believe in ghosts.
What coalesced from the air before us more or less supported that notion, for it was anything but a ghost.
About a head taller than the best of us, it was certainly humanoid, the right number of limbs and organs, the features more or less correct, but the eyes were great black jewels that looked into our souls, while the nose was merely breathing slits and the mouth almost atrophied. The skull was some shape far removed from the human norm, and the skin a wrinkled grey-brown hide. Three-fingered hands mirrored a like number of digits on the feet, and it was naked but for what seemed jewelled bands around each wrist and a third at the neck.
Dermot dropped his beer.
The apparition, left hand poised over the band at the right wrist, came into being with a spontaneous glimmering of charged particles, like a snap of static electricity in the air, and we found ourselves face to face with the absolute, total and utter unknown.
Well, we wanted to know, I thought.
The apparition looked slowly around the group, making eye contact with each in total silence, before stretching out its left arm and a single digit pointed to the printouts.
“Yes,” I said softly, smiling and nodding, hoping desperately our body language was understood. “We saw you in our scans.” None dared move, but I very gently rose and faced our guest. “Do you understand our speech?”
I did not really expect a reply. The visitor manipulated a jewel at its left wrist and a projection sprang seemingly from the palm of the hand, an image of this place on a stormy evening, and we saw a blazing meteor-like object come down from the belly of the clouds. Before it struck the loch, a great finger of lightning deflected from it into the castle, which went up in flames at once. I swallowed hard, realising the image we had been shown was 220 years ago… Had our guest been here, alone, ever since? Was it marooned, a castaway of space, hiding from those it could not communicate with … and feared?
The being cancelled the projection and stretched an arm toward the waters, and we saw, far out in the gloom, a light begin to pulse, an illumination outlining the ripples so the loch seemed made of sulphurous yellow-green phosphorescence.
“My friends,” I whispered. “We have reached a turning point, for everything is changed from this day forth.” They rose very gently and watched as I dared slowly approach our guest, and when I extended my hand, palm outward, the being matched the gesture, so our palms met very softly, and I felt alien skin on my own.
As I began, I know for certain fact Ardvreck Castle is haunted, but now it is the crucible of all the dreams humanity has ever harboured.
The future has arrived.
Mike Adamson holds a PhD in archaeology from Flinders University of South Australia. After early aspirations in art and writing, Mike returned to study and secured degrees in both marine biology and archaeology. He currently has been a university educator since 2006, is a passionate photographer, a master-level hobbyist, and journalist for international magazines. His recent sales include work in Nature Futures, Daily Science Fiction, and Compelling Science Fiction, plus the anthologies Endless Apocalypse, Lost Worlds and Future Visions.