Work in Progress
SUNDER GLOOM: A horror has been festering beneath Bristol since the incident with the Carthew Family came to a violent close. Now something terrible is about to take place, bringing darkness to the outskirts of this vibrant metropolis and threatening the entire city.
Djr note: I started this last year. Currently on 5,500 words (Chapter 3). It started as a “fun project” after a random idea popped into my head driving back from Bath (UK) to Bristol last year. Fiery sunlight catching the green slopes of the landscape. And I thought: after Living in Flames (novel), what happened then… the consequences of the end of that book. Ping. Idea formed. By time I got home a whole novel had taken shape.
This is a rough edit. Straight from the machine. Ignore typos and glitches.
The high street in the small village of Sunder slowly began to come to life as the gentle glow of a summer dawn spilled across the sky above it. Nothing really happened with much speed in this part of Somerset, and especially in Sunder. So small, people often drove through it without a second thought. Just another row of quiet shops that occupied a mix of rustic farm buildings, and the more modern permacrete and fu-glass structures put there by developers interested in capitalising on the rural gem associated with the village: Hobgoblin Combe. Despite its apparent insignificance it attracted an variety of visitors who came to enjoy Hobgoblin Combe, a densely forested limestone gorge, that stretched from behind the local pub (The Lord Raglan) through to Witchers Corner, some five miles distant, on the A38 road south west of Bristol. Walkers, romantics and lovers would go there to enjoy the steep craggy climbs, and the medieval isolation of its deep woods and upper meadows. Less frequently, it was visited by botanists and biologists interested in the rare species of flora and fauna, and the unusually diverse collection of butterflies it had been noted for. And once in a while, a school, college or academic outing would visit to study the Iron Age hillfort of Sunder Toot and the overlapping contours of Roman and prehistoric field systems.
At 5.15 in the morning, Janine opened up her small convenience store as she had been doing for the past twelve years. The store had been owned by her family for the last four generations and had managed to evolve with each new challenge that the shifting economic climate had swept in. The big brand chains had tried to buy them out, and then tried force them out by opening several large stores in a nearby retail park. But a combination of loyalty from residents; luck and the steady, seemingly endless trickle of people who came to visit the gorge, had managed to see her family and the store through each of the bad times.
Her first customer was invariably Mr Thompson, unless a road cyclist or mountain biker was getting a particularly early start. Mr Thompson ran the local hotel, more of a bed and breakfast, really, and he always came in at 7.30 A.M. to pick up an order of the bacon and egg puff pastry delights that Janine made every morning. He also always purchased a small cloth sack of the coffee beans that she grew in the hydroponic agro-pods out in the back garden. They had been installed by her last boyfriend, before he’d popped an artery in his brain; collapsing in the Lord Raglan with a pint of his favourite ale in his hand, he’d apparently been dead before he hit the floor. Just as well, Janine always thought, as the man had despised any form of waste. Growing coffee, amongst other things, had been her idea and she’d really mastered the art of it. She had even learned to program the two farm-drones her deceased partner had put in to manage the day-to-day maintenance. Her coffee was known by connoisseurs across the South West; she even had customers on the far side of the world.
Internet shopping had killed off the big stores, who abruptly found themselves burdened with property portfolios that weren’t generating profit. Then the Corporate Wars saw the big guns ripping chunks out of each other, leaving the small people to do what they could to survive; and sometimes making use of the leftovers. Then a new breed of consumer began to take an interest in unique, specialised boutique stores and artisan products, with the Internet – and global courier services – providing the bridge between continents and cultures, sewing together a fabulous tapestry.
She saw Carl Jenkins across the street at 7 A.M. leaving home to start his commute into work. Carl looked over the convertible roof of the low-slung electric Firefly, to see if she was in the window, as he always did. She raised a hand and he did the same, grinning like teenager despite being forty-two years old. Then he folded his six-foot frame into the tiny vehicle. She was always impressed how he managed to do that without looking like a man fighting to climb into a washing machine. The support-struts retracted as the helix-propulsion system fired up. Carl had explained to her on several occasions how it worked. And then he was off, the Firefly rotating with computer controlled precision within the confined space of the small vehicle port, before launching upwards into the sky.
Several groups of road cyclists whizzed past not long after, but true to form, Mr Thompson was her first customer of the day. They exchanged the usual pleasantries. He flirted, as he always did, in a jokey way that sometimes felt perhaps a little serious. He was married, albeit not a happy marriage; he was also a similar age to Carl Jenkins and 30 years her junior, but she always felt flattered. She never accepted more than one drink when he came over some evenings to share a bottle of wine.
By 8.15 she had already served more than two dozen regulars. The first batch of oven-baked treats was in the heated display cabinet. The second pot of freshly ground coffee was close to empty and a third was brewing: she sold beans, bags of grounds, and cups of the stuff ready in a filter; she didn’t do single shot espresso or cortado, or cappuccino or lattes or anything fancy like that. Just too time consuming with only her in the store.
It was 8.25 when her first stranger of the day walked in.
He was a heavy-set man in his early twenties, and she suspected he might have been military judging by his crew cut hair and the deep weathered tan lines on his face. Maybe one of the private army units that had taken root near the airport. Lots of them had formed when England joined the UTOC. The man came straight to the counter.
“Er, coffee. Black.”
His accent was East-European. She spotted the orbital free-fall logo on his baby blue T-shirt. Janine liked to deduce, or simply guess, details about her customers. She considered herself an excellent judge of character.
“The pot’s over there,” she told him, pointing in a friendly manner. “You can help yourself and if you stick around long enough to drink a cup you can help yourself to another. The second is always free of charge.”
This young man was likely a part of the newly forming Colonial Defence Force, part solider, part policeman, keeping the booming space-based population on best behaviour. He had undoubtedly had too much to drink the night before. He looked surprised, briefly confused, and then delighted; gave her a square-toothed smile and nodded as he realised she had sussed him out.
“Thank you. My platoon was out celebrating last night.” He walked over to the coffee pot. “Some of them are still celebrating.”
She was about to play along with the formulaic conversation when suddenly she felt as though the ground was shifting beneath her feet. She thought of her last boyfriend and the pint of ale crashing to the floor of the pub.
Oh no, not now. Not today.
Alarmed, she reached out to steady herself but instead was flung against the side of the counter. Then she heard the man cursing, and saw him staggering across store. Either she had become drunk on the fumes he was exhaling or…
A deep, bone grating rumble came from below. The floor began to vibrate. Anything not bolted down began to tremble and judder. Items began to tumble off the counter and from shelves. The rumbling became louder. It began to drill through her skull. She cried out and clamped both hands to her ears. But it didn’t do any good. The sound was passing through her. The man half ran, half stumbled out of the store. The floor lurched violently and she was thrown off her feet. Everything seemed to be moving. The plaster on the walls began to crack and spread apart. The glass windows split as if twisted by invisible hands and fell in. Shelves began to fall from the walls. Janine cried out again, shook her head in disbelief. Then she was crawling on hands and knees, panting in pain and exertion, terrified the building would collapse onto its foundations and leave her trapped, buried alive. The tremors came in pulsing waves, each stronger than the next, each ending in a crescendo of violent vibrations that had her literally bouncing off the floor.
Finally she reached the entrance, her hands bloodied and cut from broken glass – not that she felt a thing. Adrenaline had her in its grasp. Moving quickly. Eager to survive. But outside, she stopped, unable to believe what she was witnessing.
The young man who had been in her shop was standing in the middle of the road struggling to stay on his feet.
Abruptly, without any warning, an enormous rent opened up, tearing the road apart by his feet. The young man toppled over and disappeared.
Horrified, Janine watched as the rent widened and then lengthened, stretching with a blood-chilling booming and cracking sound. She saw Mr Thompson come out of his tiny hotel. And then the hotel, Mr Thompson, and the whole row of houses on that side of the street collapsed in a roar of destruction that was rapidly consumed by the yawning hole in the earth.
A noise erupted from the blackness down there. A monstrous shriek like white hot metal being plunged into ice cold water; but of a volume, and of a size of sound that was beyond comprehension. It was as if some demon had been stirred awake from the slumber of the damned by the early morning sunlight pouring in. She stared, transfixed, her vision blurred from the vibrations, and for a moment she thought she saw the darkness within the gigantic length of the hole lift up, like a flopping tentacle of inky shadow. But it had to have been an illusion. A trick of light and shadow, and a consequence of everything moving. Because in the next instant, it seemed the massive bulk of darkness turned to smoke, vaporised, melted into dust that swirled away on the breeze.
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 gip, 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 reach up. But even as it rose, 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 beyond terrifying 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, Pandev 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.
Pandev 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, Pandev 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.
Pandev could only watch in mute dismay as the screaming man grabbed her up 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 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.
Pandev 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 Pandev 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.
Pandev turned away. Then man was being restrained, no longer an immediate threat but utterly insane. 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.
Nobody really noticed the particles of black dust tumbling through the ruins of the village. Glistening like oil, they moved with the breeze and against it, swirling in eddies and currents that had nothing to do with air flow. Spread out across a widening expanse they became almost impossible to see but moved together, and with purpose.
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Spotlight: Living in Flames shows brilliant characters caught in the unrelenting horror of David J Rodger’s flavour of Cthulhu Mythos – click