Work in Progress
Another hot-off-the-press item. I’m working on two novels at the moment. Eventually one is going to take dominance and take my time.
At first, Massimo Pandev had thought the vibrations were something to do with the collection of agro-pods and heavy machine equipment that the old lady kept behind the store. He knew she kept two RB-1 class robots back there too, so perhaps they were digging fresh foundations for a new pod or maybe clearing out a blocked drainage outlet? But after a few seconds he realised there was nothing to explain the growing intensity and violence of the ground’s movement. He ran from the store more out of instinct than any kind of planned reaction.
What the hell was causing it?
More immediately, did it have anything to do with his motive for being in the area? The reason he had spent the past three days quietly reconnoitring the village of Sunder and other places bordering the land owned by Torbjörn (a private equity fund).
Outside the store his vision became too blurred to do much than stand in the middle of the narrow road. But what he could see was beyond anything his shocked brain could comprehend.
A Titanic crack appeared directly in front of him and then spread, like lightning, along the length of the road in a series of jagged lines. The speed of it was terrifying. He stepped sideways, believing he was safe. Then he registered movement on the other side of the street. People dashing from houses – some of them half-dressed. Panicked faces. And parts of the structures starting to tumble free – roof tiles, chimney pots and guttering – to come crashing down around them. Then to his horror he realised the ground beneath his very feet had fractured. A spider web of fault-lines. His muscles heaved in fight-or-flight reaction. He tried to throw himself forward but gravity had him in her lethal sucking embrace. A glimpse of the old woman from the store crawling out on her hands and knees.
And then he was gone. Into darkness and falling. But only for a moment. He struck a soft outcropping of spongy soil held together by old roots. It broke his fall, sent him tumbling, spinning off towards the opposite side of the narrow crack. He struck another ridge, this one harder. Pain flashed through his ribs. But his hands were already at work. Fingers raking the irregular surface for a hold whilst his legs began to bicycle so his feet could find a grip.
He had stopped falling. And he was no longer sliding. He clung there. Senses overloaded. Brain reeling. An insanity of noise as shifting walls of earth broke apart around and beneath him. And the overwhelming conscious terror of being buried alive sliding open to reveal another, more monstrous fear – of being thrown off his perch and falling, perhaps forever, into some infinite black chasm below. Because angling his head sharply to peer down that was all he could see: blackness. Unending, inky blackness with the light from above picking out the edges of the crack for a considerable distance below. The sight chilled his blood.
Then a noise erupted from down there. A sound of something he could not describe or explain. Deafening. Overwhelming. It created such a surge of absolute terror it launched him upwards, hands locking around anything that might take his grip, leg muscles turning into bars of flexo-steel as he pushed, held, re-positioned, pushed, and scrambled upwards. A mountain goat in a trench.
That sound. Like a giant metal door being dragged across stone. As if the very gate of Hell was being forced open.
Sunlight jabbed his eyes and he realised he was near the top. He paused for a moment, his torso bucking up and down with explosive breaths as his muscles ate up oxygen. Catching his bearings he found he was clinging onto a soft spongy outcrop, his feet pressed down against some kind of broken utility pipe spilling cables. He glanced down, twisted his shoulders and nearly fell when he saw what was coming up. Fast, a mass of black boiling darkness, like a solid flexing limb of something down there thrashing about. But even as it came up, emerging into the early morning sunlight, so the outer layers of it evaporated away, turning to a smoky dust that glistened like oil. It was weird. And frightening. More so because he could see the momentum of it still had it sweeping up along the whole length of the crack towards him.
He was clambering again, hands pulling, arm muscles yanking, legs muscles pushing with feet stamping. He got a mouthful of dirt and just chewed, yelled and spat it out again.
The black cloud, or whatever it was, rushed up and over him. The stink of hot tar and the dizzying smell of solvents, like industrial chemical cleaners, raked the back of his throat and burned at the soft mucus lining the back of his nostrils. He didn’t want to breathe it in but his lungs refused to obey and sucked away to capacity. It was like inhaling glass. The sensation was of drowning and nearly passing out from being high. All of this in the microseconds that elapsed before his bioware implants slammed down genetically engineered organic defences and released a flood of Nanobots into his lungs and bloodstream. He couldn’t feel it happening, it was the same process as white blood cells launching an attack against an infection.
And then he was up and over, clawing his way across the broken fragments of the road until exhaustion stamped down and pinned him there.
He twisted his head, aware he was sucking in great lungfuls. Air. Dust. And maybe lingering elements of whatever filth had rushed past him. It hopefully didn’t matter. The bioware, if it was doing its job properly, would be scrubbing the delicate layers of his lungs to remove any particulate matter.
Maybe five minutes passed without him moving. He wasn’t sure. After while he heard the cries of people who had been injured and the moans of those who were just too shocked to cope. Coughing, he tasted the coppery flavour of blood. He tried to spit but discovered his mouth was bone dry. He jabbed a grubby finger into his gob and rubbed it against the root of his tongue. Pulling it out he took a look. It was covered in thick blood.
What the heck had just come up from the hole and what had caused the damned crack to appear in the first place? There was no sign of what had come up. It must have dispersed with the slightest breeze. And it sure as heck wasn’t an earthquake. England got tremors and small quakes all the time. But not this size. And yet…
Rolling onto his side and then carefully pushing himself up and over so that he could sit, Massimo surveyed the devastation to the road. The enormous jagged hole that must have been nearly half a mile in length. There were buildings missing on one side of the road where the earth had just simply given way under the violent pressures at work.
It had to have been an earthquake. That was the only explanation that made any sense. However far-fetched it seemed.
But the idea came back to him. Could the activities of Torbjörn have caused this? Some kind of subterranean explosion? A lab experiment gone wrong? He had uncovered evidence of some very strange facts about the Torbjörn facility, which included the possibility they had been burrowing deep beneath the local landscape for years now. Doing what, he had no idea yet but it was one of the reasons he’d been mapping out the surrounding boundaries; looking for any sign of underground exit or entrance points. Unexplained ventilation shafts. Subsidence. Or even a fucking doorway.
Massimo rubbed a grit-peppered palm against his forehead, grimacing as the chemical stink of whatever he had inhaled continued to burn at the soft, vulnerable tissue of his airways.
Maybe this has been some kind of cataclysmic failure in their safety systems? Or was it simply a freak of nature. A coincidental release of geological pressures that had been building up over centuries?
A scream caught his ears. This one different from the rest. It wasn’t pain or even fear. It was a scream of rage.
Alert, wary, senses thrumming to the potential of fresh danger, Massimo hauled himself up onto his feet and stared along the ragged line of devastation.
A man emerged from behind a mound of churned-up earth. Another scream of rage. Bare-chested and wearing only a pair of grubby underpants, he looked like he’d just been woken-up by what had happened. Except for his face. His face was a mask of fury as he strode barefoot across a short distance to where a woman lay sprawled on her back, holding her head and sobbing.
Massimo could only watch in mute dismay as the screaming man grabbed up her in his arms like she was a rag doll. Her dressing-gown flopped open to reveal a naked body. She seemed to know him, she stared at him with a lack of dazed confusion: what was he doing? That was the question formed by her eyes as she stared back at him.
And then he head-butted her. Her head lolled back but then came up again. A crimson mess where her nose had once existed. He did it again. And again. This time she didn’t look back at him. This time her body went limp and dangled from his grip.
Massimo was already running towards them. Other survivors of the incident had the same idea and began to converge on the scene. The man threw the woman to the ground, unconscious or dead it was hard to tell. Her blood was all over his face. The look in his eyes caused Massimo to skitter to a halt a few metres away. It wasn’t a human look. It was something that belonged on a monster.
Then other residents reached the bare-chested man, grappled him, dragged him down as he roared and struggled to fight back.
Massimo turned away. Then man was being restrained, no longer an immediate threat. His eyes picked out the half-collapsed ruin of the store on the opposite side of the hole.
What the hell just happened here?
He didn’t have the answers. Not right now. But he decided there and then he would stop at nothing to find them. And if Torbjörn were involved somehow, even indirectly, then he would bring all the powers of his special unit against them.
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