Deviation Actions

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By Rafellin
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Literature Text

 The leaves are tinged with premature autumn shades by the few rays of the setting sun that penetrate the lowering grey clouds. I turn off the quiet B-road and the sunlight disappears as the rain starts to hammer down. The long, slow cruise up the wide gravel drive lets my mind wander back to the day that Lathan Dove first came to me, five years ago.

 He was a nondescript young man in a scruffy off-the-peg suit, awkward and somehow furtive in his movements. He walked in off the street, without warning or fanfare, and loitered in the reception area for an hour before approaching the desk. In our offices, that meant we had been watching him very carefully for fifty-six minutes.
 He sidled up to the low marble-topped desk, looking quickly about to ensure no-one was nearby. When the receptionist turned her warm smile on him, he blushed scarlet to the roots of his conservatively cut blond hair.
 “I’d like to speak to Daniel Marsh, please.”
 The sheer unlikelihood of that request actually caused Jennifer, our receptionist, to momentarily lose her calm face, but she recovered quickly, distracting Lathan with her finest ‘you interest me’ look while she pressed the panic button with her toe.
 Poor Lathan, knowing him like I do now, enduring the following minute must have taken all his willpower to prevent himself curling into a ball on the floor. Security screens crashed down and six heavily armoured men surrounded him, their submachine guns steady: aimed at his head and torso.
 “Sir, I am going to ask you to place your bag on the floor and step away from it. If you do not comply, we will shoot you.”
 Lathan didn’t move. Jennifer saved his life by smiling warmly as she said: “Put it down, sir. You know we have to be careful.”
 He put the bag down and was promptly felled by over four hundred pounds of security guards. When they climbed off, he was unconscious. No undue force had been used; Lathan was simply not a physically robust young man.

 An hour later, I knew more about Lathan than his late family had. The searches we can run are extensive and invasive. For obvious reasons, we are not bound by privacy laws, data protection or bureaucratic divisions. What we want, we get.
 Lathan Alexander Dove, son of William and Mary Dove, both former professors at Oxford. He was an exceptional student, a loner with few friends, and had had no steady partners of either gender. He held degrees in several areas of science and computing, and could have been working for us, but his mother had some odd history in her twenties. Until a year before his arrival, he had been programming in the City, turning his brilliant mind toward making rich people richer. Then his father committed suicide after killing his mother. Lathan resigned, spent six months sorting out their estate, then disappeared completely. The sort of off-the-grid that makes normal security agencies worry and make us positively paranoid.
 It is a bigger, scarier world out there than many realise, and it terrifies me that we do not have the resources to be the omniscient protectors of humanity that we need to be. Our particular Pandora’s Box was opened a long time ago, and we can only fight the symptoms that we detect or deduce. All we can do for the rest is pray.
 While a couple of nursing staff made sure Lathan was unharmed and comfortable, I made a couple of calls to some people who had the means to possibly track those who dropped off the grid. It took eighteen minutes for one of them to come back to me with a single sentence: “He bought Gathern’s copy.”
 My off hand was pressing the ‘lockdown’ button as I returned the mobile to my pocket. Young Mister Dove had just become a confirmed threat. Whether to us, or only to himself, was all that remained to be determined.

 Lathan came round an hour later. He sat up on the low bench and surveyed the small room he was in, the toilet in the corner, the chair, and the door without any visible handle. He nodded, looked up at the camera and said: “I can remove the play from the net.”

 We had a crisis meeting. Never in our brief history, and never before in the records of all the organisations that preceded us, had this happened: an owner of the play coming forward willingly - and apparently sane. We discussed every scenario; even the ones beyond the daily insanity we knew brooded just beyond the reality we live in. I think we might still have been discussing what to do with Lathan Dove, but someone had other ideas. Jennifer took him fish and chips for two, along with a couple of mugs of tea. I was in the midst of something highly theoretical - and frankly unlikely - when our duty sergeant crashed into the room.
 “Jennifer’s having dinner with him!”
 The minutes state that the meeting adjourned swiftly to allow remedial actions to take place. Actually it fell apart in a chaos of people shouting and running for the doors. None of them made it before me, and I hospitalised two of them in the process. Jennifer is my daughter.

 A short time later I was watching Lathan and Jennifer getting along like two young, smart people who don’t get out much sometimes do. My belovedly annoying daughter had even switched the feed to visual only. I was considering ways to justify and authorise a random shooting when Jennifer raised the remote that activated the audio and looked over her shoulder at the camera.
 “Don’t you dare. I’ll be out in a bit and then you can shout at me, but I’m not leaving until you stop trying to massage the rules so you can have Lathan suppressed.”
 Lathan smiled: “Suppressed as in dead?”
 Jennifer nodded. I heard Lathan say “Oh” before Jennifer switched the audio off again.
 I cannot fathom how she knows when I’m watching, but she does. It usually happens when the situation is of importance to one or both of us. So I went and got myself a coffee and made my apologies to those I had trampled on the way out of the meeting.
 By the time I got back to the control room, Jennifer was sitting quietly off to one side, a security guard lingering nearby. I waved him away. She looked at me, noting that my knuckles were white where I gripped the steaming mug.
 “Dad, you need to relax. Take a deep breath.”
 I gave her my sternest stare. She smiled. Daughters; who can defend against them? I eased off a bit and she nodded.
 “Lathan is not influenced. He is fixated, but not where you think. Come and talk to him.”
 For all my parental reflex reactions, Jennifer worked with me because she’s very good at reading people. If she vouched for Mister Dove’s state of mind, I had no real evidence, bar over-protectiveness, to doubt her.

 Out of deference to Jennifer, I had Lathan brought to one of our meeting rooms. It was the one with guard positions concealed in the walls, but she didn’t need to know that.
 Lathan entered after holding the door open for Jennifer, then sat in the chair furthest from me. Jennifer sat between us: “Anyone for tennis?” she quipped, looking back and forth. I shook my head and moved down the table. Lathan stayed put.
 “Mister Dove. Let me be clear. You are a cause of great concern to everyone in this building except this young lady. Please, do your best to change that.”
 Lathan nodded: “I’ll need my bag. With all of its contents.”
 I raised my hand and within a couple of minutes, a security guard silently entered, handed Lathan his bag, and exited swiftly.
 Lathan rummaged about for a while, seemingly confirming that all was present and correct. Then he turned his attention fully to me. His gaze was steely. I recognised it as something similar to the one I had seen in men returning from the wars in Afghanistan.
 “Mister Marsh, I presume. Or at least he is probably listening by now. I shall start at the beginning so you can get the full picture.”
 He hunched forward and picked a single strip of torn paper from his bag. The paper was yellowed with age and he held it almost tentatively.
 “This scrap is all that is left of what I believe to be a full transcription of the play, made by one of my father’s students, Ellery Grant.”
 I knew that in the control room above, that name was being investigated.
 “He’s dead. You can tell your people to ease off.”
 Observant or informed? I wondered.
 “As you know by now, my father was a brilliant psychologist, specialising in autosuggestion and induced states of mind. Ellery approached him because he had discovered what he considered to be proof that certain occult writings could induce detrimental states in the reader. Furthermore, he proposed that a group of readers in an induced mental state could exert an influence over certain aspects of what we call reality, in a scaled application similar to that of observing quantum events.”
 A good thing Mister Grant was dead. It saved me having to order him suppressed.
 “My father was sceptical, a state he achieved with ease, I might add. He tasked Ellery with providing a paper to formally quantify his thesis, along with the usual proofs.”
 Lathan paused to take a sip of water, failing to disguise his need to gather himself from both Jennifer and I.
 “Three weeks later, my father returned from a week’s sabbatical to find a large treatise on his desk. Ellery could not be found. Unbeknownst to us at the time, he was already dead. His remains were discovered in the wreckage of his camper van, on one of the rarely used side roads that overlook Loch Ness, a few weeks later.”
 Lathan reached into his bag and pulled out a sheaf of torn paper, quality vellum by the look of it. The lower edges were singed.
“These few pages are all that remain of my father’s daybook entries from the day after the treatise arrived, to the day he committed suicide. It was a loose-leaf notepad-cum-diary. Keeping it was a habit from his youth, and one he maintained religiously. On these pages he made notes and also wrote down extracts.”
 I straightened up. Extracts of what? Lathan saw my increased attention.
 “Yes, they were extracts from the play. From the first act. But what got me was the fragmentary note that survived on the last page.”
 Lathan held the note toward the camera before holding it at forehead height in front of him to read.
 “The main part of the note on the page is lost, but what survives is: ‘PTSD slash Somme et al, question mark. Must see original. Find Maxwell Gathern.’”
 I could almost hear people upstairs dropping things in shock. What an incisive concept! I decided to move things along.
 “You say that’s the last page? What happened?”
 Lathan looked at me. He refilled his glass and drank it. Jennifer took his hand and I had to suppress a warm fatherly urge to have him shot.
 “I am not sure of the timing. As far as I can tell, my father threw all his work on the treatise, and the treatise itself, into the fire haphazardly. Some books and documents he threw in whole, some he tore up, some he shredded. But everything went into the fire in his study. Then he went downstairs, twisted and knotted together two of my mother’s silk scarves Thuggee style, and then stalked my mother through the house after she saw him coming and fled. Eventually he knocked her down the stairs and strangled her in the hall, leaving her hung from the banister. Then he left the house, walked to his car, and siphoned the fuel tank all over himself. He struck the matches just as I returned home. The blast knocked me down. I though it was an accident, ran to the car and seeing dad was beyond reach, ran into the house to get mum. I found her in the hall and I am told I put out the fire in the study before it could destroy the house, but I have no memory of that. From seeing mum hanging to coming round in hospital a week later is a complete blank.”
 I slightly regretted moving things along as Lathan seemed to withdraw into himself. Jennifer leaned close to him whilst pointing toward the door with the hand he couldn’t see. Knowing the guards would protect her, I left.

 A little while later, Jennifer called me back to the meeting room. Lathan had composed himself and the table was strewn with bits of paper. He looked up, hesitating momentarily, before he carefully placed a last piece in a corner away from the rest.
 “This is everything I could salvage from my father’s notes. I should point out at this point that I am under treatment for post-traumatic stress, but not taking the medication. If I get better, I’ll be as susceptible as the usual victims of the play.”
 Good gods. He knew.
 “The stress induced by seeing my parents dead, and knowing why, has induced a disassociation in my mind. That disassociation, I am told, will be detrimental to me. But until I have to have it alleviated, I would like to work with you. I can help, and I am about the only person who can. You have a serious problem that I think you haven’t spotted yet.”
 I raised an eyebrow: “Really?”
 Lathan sat down and stared at the ceiling for a while. The silence stretched. Finally he clapped his hands and looked straight at me.
 “What do you know about Carcosa Servers?”
 My expression must have told him of my total ignorance.
 “I am a programmer by inclination and trade. With a little more amoral and less respect, I’d be a hacker. As it is, I like exploring the World Wide Web, both open and dark sides. I have the skills to get to places where I am not exactly welcome, and to remain undetected. It was on one of those excursions I found some data that contained familiar prose.”
 Any icy finger of premonition stroked leisurely down my spine.
 “There are people out there who consider the play to be the only way to change the world. They view it as some sort of reset. Bring down the governments, the corrupt and the ultra-wealthy by caving in their minds. The fact that no-one is immune, and only a few can withstand the effects of the play for any length of time, is irrelevant to them. The additional fact that those who can withstand the effects have to be suffering some form of dissociative psychosis is ignored; if they even care.”
 The icy finger curled back into the chill fist that twisted my guts.
 “The one thing they have in common is organisation. They’re distributed, encrypted, stealth-moded, and backed up to hell and gone. You could spend the next ten years blowing up server farms and they’d end the decade with more servers than when they started. The self-orbiting satellite initiatives open up entire vistas of untouchable madness.”
 Jennifer raised her hand: “But how will they deliver it?”
 Lathan grinned: “Ever heard of things ‘going viral’? Well, that’s how I’d do it. Make the play something people want to see. Make it a thing of mystery. Rely on the international accords, that I guess are already in place, to ensure that the play achieves the notoriety of censorship. The rest is just waiting. Victims will fall and those initially unaffected will join. Exponential spread of induced detrimental psychoses, with no common symptoms of affliction. My rudimentary calculations predict that it would take two to three months before being recognised as a problem, by which time it would be unstoppable. The main vectors would be rebellious net users: the disaffected. So the greatest impact would be in teenagers and twenty-year olds. They may not bring down civilisation, but they’ll certainly cripple two generations at the very least.”
 My backside hit the seat so hard it rattled my teeth. Lathan didn’t let up.
 “The nearest scenario I can relate this to would be the Spanish Flu pandemic. Except this will have a vector of anywhere with internet access, no cure, and no drop in lethality.”
 Jennifer raised her hand again: “Drop in lethality?”
 “Pathogenic viruses tend to become less deadly over a period of time, as the hosts of the deadlier strains die off.”
 I raised a hand: “You are aware that victims of the play do die?”
 He nodded: “The number of new readers should offset the losses necessary to limit the spread in the way virus fatalities do. In addition, as I had no metrics for those who would suffer deferred onset, I did not include them. Apart from being victims, that group could act as long-term vectors, which only enhances the spread.”

 I pause in my reflections to park the car. The door behind me opens and closes without a word being said. I open my thermos, pour a cup, and sip black coffee whilst returning to my memories.

 Lathan started working for me that evening. While everyone about was suffering fugue, nausea or closeted denial over his hypotheses, he started gathering a team to work on his proposals. He would not state any of it was definite until he could prove it, and only paused long enough to reassure me that the copy of the play he had obtained from Gathern had been burnt to ashes.
 With our computing resources and security clearances, it took him three weeks. It was a bleary-eyed Lathan who placed an inch-thick binder on my desk. I flicked it open and looked up in surprise: the whole thing was hand written. He grinned sheepishly through his exhaustion.
 “I don’t trust computer security. I know what people like me can do, and I’m not one of the best.”
 All of my veteran ‘hacking’ staff disagreed strongly, but Lathan never admitted to his programming genius.
 I read his report that night, with Jennifer by my side. She’d come round after settling Lathan down at her place. Which was something else I was not coping at all well with.
 The next day, I discussed various aspects of Lathan’s single proposal with my information technology teams. All of them agreed that it was theoretically possible. Several of them said that only Lathan and maybe a dozen other programmers in the world were capable of doing it. All of them agreed that Lathan could not do it without better information to derive targets from.
 So when Lathan came in with Jennifer after lunch, I endured my daughter’s cold, angry stare as I handed him what he needed to make his proposal work. It was also the thing that could finish him, but I had no choice.
 Lathan looked at the slim binder, reading and rereading the title page. Eventually, he looked up. There were tears in his eyes.
 “Where did you get this?” He whispered.
 “Your father sent it to Ellery on the morning of the day your parents died.”
 “Does it have the information I mentioned in my report?”
 I looked at Jennifer. Her gaze said a lot of things, none of them good for a father-daughter relationship.
 “Yes, Lathan, it does. My people say that it contains a lot more than the minimum you hoped for.”
 He smiled: “How can you say that?”
 I smiled back: “We have scanners. They look for specific words and word-patterns. Even allowing for the limitations of enhanced optical character recognition, they are accurate enough for us to be sure.”
 Lathan opened the document in the centre and started reading. I reached forward and closed it before he could become engrossed.
 “I wouldn’t normally say this, but as my daughter is glaring at me like her mother used to when I was about to catch hell, I’ll concede this once. Lathan, even if the scanning result is only eighty percent accurate, the report could be as dangerous as the play itself. Your father was brilliant in his analysis and distilled many key aspects: from phrases to common imagery and mood creation. I have no doubt you can get what you need. My people doubt that you will come out untouched, even with the buffer provided by your mental disorder.”
 Lathan stared at the cover of his father’s last treatise. He looked at Jennifer. He looked at me. He looked at the ceiling. Then he did something I never expected. He took Jennifer’s hand and turned to look her in the eyes: “With your help, I can do this. There’s an outside chance I might even get away with it. Without your help, I can probably do this. But I’m certain that what remains won’t be all of me. Either way, I have to do this, because only I can, and I cannot ask for your support.”
 I watched my daughter cry onto his hands and wished I could reach back down the centuries to strangle that playwright at birth.
 Jennifer nodded: “I’ll help.”
 She turned to me: “I know you had to do this. Please forgive me if I can never forgive you for that.”

 That was the last time my daughter spoke a whole sentence to me. Over the next six weeks, Lathan went places with programming that left my best scratching their heads. Then he set them to seeding every possible nook and cranny of the world-wide web and its subsidiaries, which so many of us take for granted, with his carefully designed programs. I got the job of forcing the owners of several major operating systems, and the people behind a large number of security packages, to add some programs to their next releases, and to do so without any testing or documentation. I got a lot older during those few weeks.
 Jennifer spent all her time with Lathan. The people I had tasked with observing said that she seemed to calm him, to be able to bring him back from the contemplative silences he fell into; ones that glazed his eyes with increasing frequency.

 Five months, two weeks and six days after Lathan started, I got a call in the dead of night. Lathan had been taken to hospital. Jennifer had left a DVD for me with one of my special operatives, with instructions to place it directly into my hands. I got dressed and went to the office. The DVD was handed over and the operative was stationed outside my door before I pressed ‘play’.
 The scene was Jennifer’s bedroom. Lathan was sitting in bed with books, papers and my daughter’s underwear scattered about. Nice touch, Jennifer. From the timestamp, it was about two months after Lathan had started his programming. He looked wild eyed but more relaxed than I had ever seen him. Fatherly suspicions started to stoke my anger and I quashed both with professional detachment – although it took me a while to do so.
 “Hold it steady, Jenny. No messing about. Your dad will need this.”
 At least one person in that bedroom bore no malice.
 “Mister Marsh. I’m recording this now in case I am unable to report in person.”
 I heard a stifled sniff from the holder of the camera.
 “I’ll try and leave out the technical bits. You need to know what the beastie I’m writing will do. This program can best be described as a virus, except that it is designed to do good things. It also has to do them without anyone being aware of what it’s up to. So I’ve put bits of it all over the place, each bit being something that no-one will pay attention to. A little program left over from earlier versions, a ghost of an image remaining from a system tidy up; there is lots of obsolete code lying about on computers. But now, some of it is mine.
 My program is made up of a lot of smaller modules, and in a very complex way borrows from two-part explosives. Harmless and untraceable apart, effective together. I thought this was the best way to ensure the program perpetuates. With your inclusion of modules deep in most operating systems and security suites, it should exist as long as the internet runs architecture and software that resembles what we have now. I don’t see that changing for a while. Not forever; but long enough for this threat to go quiet. Each complete program is part payload, part defences. Attempts to reverse engineer my work will cause the most amusing things to happen to analysis or editing software. Whatever your definition of amusing, the end result is that I am happy that my stuff will be considered too much trouble when there are so many other programs out there to hack.”
 Lathan paused and waved at Jennifer: “Back in a bit.” The screen went black. A moment later, it returned, the timestamp having moved on an hour.
 “What the program does is as I laid out in my proposal. It searches computer files for traces of the play. It can penetrate virtually every file type out there. The one’s it can’t I have listed in the documentation, and you’ll have to find a way to access them so my program can do its stuff. What it does when it finds a copy, or part, of the play is the tricky bit. It doesn’t destroy anything. It replaces. It substitutes words, it swaps out phrases. The end result is the play, but with the trigger points removed. It’s still disturbing, but only on a par with classic weird fantasy. What I aimed for was to shred the dangerous elements, to defuse it, but without letting anyone know it has been messed with. That way interest will wane and the play should sink from the public eye without fanfare, in the same way that all over-hyped internet crazes do.”
 Lathan gestured with his hand and the camera angle rose, presumably as Jennifer stood up.
 “Give me the camera, Jenny. Could you go and get us a snack?”
 There was a moment of chaotic angles and then darkness. Suddenly the picture returned and Lathan loomed large in the view.
 “Better make this quick. I’ve finished the program. Tomorrow I start extracting key data from my father’s treatise to give the program its targets. I’ve loaded the substitutions already. The only thing left is typing the extracts of the play in. Then I have to test it. Either way, if you’ll excuse my language, I’m expecting to suddenly become badly fucked up sometime in the next few weeks. Jenny doesn’t know that it is a certainty, not a possibility. Be ready, she’ll need you. Especially if she has to help me hold my mind together for an extended period while I complete this project. The play turns its victims strange. Too strange for most to handle without scars.”
 He paused and seemed to consider something for a moment, then nodded to himself and added: “I’m no expert outside of computing, but please consider this layman’s opinion: I’m certain that there has to be more to this than just a play.” He paused again, then held the camera close: “I couldn’t have done what you did, letting your daughter stay with me. Thank you.”
 He cocked his head.
 “She’s coming back.”
 The screen went black for a moment, then he resumed as if he was finishing off a topic that he’d covered while Jennifer was out of the room: “The program will self-replicate and hunt whenever it encounters new systems or files. I predict it will eventually suffer a lot of interference, but hope that the discovery time will be after it has done its work.”
 A door opened and he looked off screen to his right.
 “Oh, that looks good. Take this so I can stretch, then after I finish, we can eat.”
 The camera angle went off again before settling back into the original view.
 “As I said, the program cannot get everywhere. There is also a chance that some of the smarter system administrators may spot it. Either way, it will not be a clean sweep. It’s like an inoculation. It may not be able to get all the places distributing the play, but it’s got a high percentage chance of defanging copies of the play opened on most computers before the reader can reach the venomous bits. That’s where your people come in, Daniel.”
 He called me Daniel. First and last time ever.
 “You will need to police this like you have been, except with a little more attention to net distribution. I’ve left your teams my scanning programs and the only copy of the entire program will be added to this disk when I finish, along with the source code.”
 A cursor flashed and green letters scrolled across the bottom of the screen like a ticker feed:

> The program and source code are on here. The target data from my father’s treatise has not been included and I have destroyed the original document you gave me.
You will also find that some of the test files I used to prove my programs were your scans of the treatise. Sorry, but the potential for trying to use this as a weapon is something I cannot chance, even with you. <

 I smiled with relief when I read that. I was relieved because I wouldn’t have had the courage to do it, or to order it done.
 “That’s it. Anything else would be telling you what you already know. Wish me luck, and good luck to all of you.”
 Lathan raised a hand in farewell and the screen went blank. I took the disc out of the player, unplugged it and walked the disc, escorted by the operative who had been outside my office, down to the vault. The disc has not been disturbed since.

 I take a swig of coffee and look up at the swooping architecture of the place, lights shining on the rain-slicked stonework. My eyes track without conscious effort to the far window on the second floor, where the corner room benefits from the finest views of dawn across rolling woodland. Up there, Jennifer is reading to Lathan. More correctly, she’s reading to what’s left of him. He looks the same, except his features seem a little slack, and he’s lost weight. But the biggest loss shows in his eyes. He went too far into something mankind should never have set eyes upon, and it kept most of him.

 I look at my watch. Another three hours, or thereabouts. She always reads him Alice in Wonderland. It calms him and the staff say that for the few hours while my daughter is reading, he doesn’t cry.
I consider 'The King in Yellow' by Robert W. Chambers to be one of the finest pieces of wierd horror to ever have been written. Like the damned play of the title, the concepts and moods have haunted me ever since I first read it.

This is the first tale of what turned into a book of stories about the Pale King. The version now posted here is the final version. My King in Yellow anthology, 'Stars of Black' was published on 11th December 2014.

NB: I am not a subscriber to the frankensteinian joining of the King in Yellow with the Cthulhu Mythos. Like the 'Derlethian Heresy' of good gods appearing in the Mythos, it strikes me as an unwelcome dilution.

Further details on my site… , the paperback can be bought here or from Amazon UK, for Kindle it's here for iDevices here and for other eReaders go here…
© 2013 - 2021 Rafellin
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SimonJM's avatar
Thoroughly enjoyable and well-told tale!
Rafellin's avatar
*tips cap* Cheers, guv.
Weaponised's avatar
That was excellent. And produced in such a short amount of time to boot. I have yet to read any non-Lovecraft Mythos fiction but you certainly piqued my interest into Chambers' work here.
Rafellin's avatar
Thank you for this and the fave as well.

RW Chambers wrote over 80 books in his lifetime, but the King in Yellow stands pretty much alone. He had the skills and the imagination, but turned his hand to romance and adventure, whether by preference or to make a living is unknown.

Wikipedia has a list and I think there a couple of places on the net where you can most of works (including the King in yellow) for free, copyright having expired.

The King in Yellow is not Mythos fiction, but it inspired Lovecraft, who borrowed some names and concepts. Then Chaosium linked the King as an avatar of Hastur within the RPG canon and the rot began.

Of all the things I love about it, the creation and sustaining of an atmosphere is the most striking. Quite brilliant and unsurpassed in my experience to date.