The Cloud (New Edition; September 2014)
by Richard Holliday
“Sonny, you there? Sonny?”
The sound of dripping water reverberated along the concrete tunnel. Putting down his tools, the man, Kal Donovan, called for his workmate again.
“Sonny, where are you?!”
He was getting concerned now. Where had Sonny gone? He was sure he’d been here just a minute ago! A surge of concern swept through Kal’s system but quickly dissipated; Sonny had almost certainly surreptitiously made off to lunch early yet again. Sonny had form for this; Kal sighed knowingly.
Kal didn’t like the claustrophobic space offered by the maintenance tunnel. A few inches of decades-old concrete were the only thing separating him from the millions of tons of damp, waterlogged soil under London. Maintaining the underground railway system was hard, dirty work. Skipping for lunch early wasn’t such a bad idea. Turning back, Kal chuckled to himself.
“Could’ve at least told me it was lunchtime, mate!”
The man walked back along the straight tunnel toward an open metal door at the end which grew in size with every step. Beyond this open metal door was a ladder that led up the twenty feet or so to the surface and the busy, buzzing streets of London.
It was odd, Kal thought as he ascended, his heavy boots ringing out on the metal treads of the ladder, that he’d not heard his friend making the same clattering, noisy journey. The sound was usually unmistakable in its reverberations
Sunlight, and a curled cheese sandwich, beckoned. Kal hoisted himself out of the anonymous doorway and onto the concrete and asphalt of the urban jungle beyond.
It was a hot July, and the city had been thronging with tourists. The Olympics were weeks away and already the mood of the city had changed for this great international carnival. The weather that day was clear, however on stepping out Kal immediately noticed a strange, unearthly chill hung in the air outside of the tunnel. Looking around, Kal noticed that there was not a soul in sight for hundreds of metres. The streets were completely empty.
The City had paused, the life that resided within strangely and conspicuously absent.
“Sonny, where are you?!” Kal called cautiously. His voice echoed from deserted office towers and desolate streets. “Where is… everyone?”
Only the eerie whistling of the wind outside replied.
Forgetting his sandwich, Kal wandered, the signal upgrade he’d been working on in the tunnel seeming insignificant. Finding an explanation for the sudden exodus of all human life from London seemed most pressing. This simply couldn’t be, his mind kept telling him. This city was teeming with life a few short hours ago, and now it was as if it had been deserted for a decade.
Kal wandered silently for an hour, eventually coming to an embankment which overlooked a huge and deserted railway station. This place was usually thronging at any time of day, but now the lines and platforms were totally devoid of people, or anything else save a few scraps of litter that fluttered in the wind. It was a cold, sharp wind that seemed to change direction with every gust. Was there a weather calamity? Had the population of this buzzing city hidden underground like rabbits in their warren? It wasn’t possible; Kal had just been in one particular warren and had no indication of any danger. Kal had heard nothing from his workplace in the tunnels, and this scared him. No way could so many people leave the city so quickly and so quietly.
The wind gusted again, this time in Kal’s direction high above the railway tracks, carrying the pungent odour of electrical burning and cauterised, burned meat. A loose metal gate squealed open and a stairwell to track level beckoned. Looking around, and realising there was no-one here to accost him for trespassing, he ventured down the brick embankment toward the empty ribbons of steel. There should be trains everywhere, he noted. Where were they? Had they hidden themselves too? As he approached, he saw there were multiple ashen heaps lying motionless against some of the raised electrified rails.
The smell wasn’t of cooked meat, Kal realised in horror – it was roasted human flesh! These bodies had been burned out of all recognition by the current but remained in a haunting, human pose that was all-too recognisable. Kal stopped instinctively. The hum of thousands of volts coursing through the carbon-stained electrified rails was all too audible down here. There were no answers here; only more death. To Kal, that did not appeal at this time.
Had the rest of the population succumbed to the same fate? Kal didn’t think so; these burned bodies were clearly those of people trying to escape, only to trip and fall into an electrical oblivion. Was this deliberate malevolence or a tragic consequence of the sheer panic that had no doubt surged through these people? The confused contractor returned from whence he came, not wanting to go near the steely field of arcing death. It game him an uncertain feeling. Remaining here invited death itself.
Kal wandered aimlessly for another couple of hours, hoping to find answers or maybe another survivor. He found neither of these, but instead found more evidence of an exceptionally-expedited evacuation. Calm, lifeless roads soon turned into scenes of recent panic and terror as he neared the river; discarded personal belongings littered the pavements atop the broken glass of shop fronts. Law and order had disintegrated in an instant.
“What happened here…” Kal mouthed to himself, asking himself a question he had no provisions to answer. A light piqued in his mind to tell him to continue toward the river. After all, water was life.
Kal walked through street after empty street. The devastation in each creating a macabre uniformity that robbed each street of its identity .He’d grown up and lived in the City all his life but it now seemed a completely alien place. Once-familiar roads and landmarks stood desolate amongst piles of rubble and detritus. A rhythmic whistling noise came from the sky as gusts blew through the deserted alleyways and avenues. It felt cold and at odds to the pristine, sunny sky above.
The lone man investigated the smashed frontage of a clothes shop that strangely called out to him. Smashed glass festooned the upturned mannequins inside and spilled out onto the pavement – signs of looting, perhaps or rather signs of escape. Inside, racks of merchandise were strewn chaotically about the sales floor.
Kal could understand the horrors and crushing mass of a quick escape but the devastation inside these shops seemed unusual. These places gave the appearance of pillaged and raided ruins from months ago when just a few hours prior this place had looked as it did on any other, normal day. Something had happened – or been in – these stores and upturned the contents to give the sense that an invisible explosion had taken place.
Looking over the piles of ruined clothes, Kal noticed a fine, grey dust uniformly covering them like snow. Approaching, Kal brushed a sleeve on some of the particles. They clouded up in the air like ash. Breathing in, Kal felt a burning sensation in the back of his throat and coughed. Outside, a breeze rattled broken wood pallets and Kal felt that it was time to leave this place. Not for the first time death seemed to await those who lingered here.
The path back to the river was mysteriously blocked by crashed cars and rubble from buildings that looked otherwise undamaged. Climbing over a smashed bus that blocked the way, Kal reached skyward, working his way through the crushed decks of the buses and through broken window openings. His hands ached with effort but soon Kal expected the cool, lapping waters of the Thames to be perceptible in the air.
The river air usually was clean and refreshing but was neither. Today, however, it felt heavy and Kal started to cough like he had done in the shop. The feeling was familiar to him! Soon the river came into view around the last corner, peaking from behind the last building. The concrete parapet beckoned with its northern opposite seemingly at arm’s reach. Kal ran, not knowing why but he did so, until his hands grasped that concrete railing and his head looked.
The river was no more. Aghast, Kal saw it had ceased to exist as a waterway. Instead a blanket of dark grey matter hung low at the level the water would be that bubbled and hissed angrily.
“The fu… what is this?!” he cried, but yet again nobody responded. The only response came from the river itself, and the mysterious, intoxicating Cloud that hung over it, sucking from it water molecules and spitting out hydrogen and oxygen. Seemingly at will, these elements burned together at the apex of a mysterious pointed object – like a cylinder – jutting from the centre of the river in a fire brighter than the Sun itself for a split second.
The Cloud was eating the river by its constituent parts, feeding the water into the grey cylinder that spewed the Cloud from vents near the waterline. Kal turned to run, but lost his footing in a panic. The ghostly tendrils of the Cloud detected his flight and hunted him down. Somehow, Kal realised, it was following him. Mist burst through gates and vents, turning from gas to solid lump in an instant with a certain unearthly sentience. Obstacles hissed as they dissolved under the acidic extremities of the pursuing cloud. Kal dared not to look back, fearing the delay would spell death for him. Running through the rubble-strewn streets Kal’s greatest fear became reality as he tripped and fell, badly grazing his legs. Pain surged through his nerves from his bruised shins. A moment passed before the Cloud billowed all around him, forming into a semi-solid wall eight feet tall that totally surrounded Kal. It was taunting him before his inevitable demise. This was the end, Kal thought, and closed his eyes. The Cloud tickled its way underneath his prone body. The sensation of motion on a cushion of living gas was too surreal; Kal’s eyes clamped shut. Whooshing filled Kal’s ears until they were nearly bleeding. It was a sensory assault before the physical assault.
“Gemme outta here!” he cried instinctively. Hot water splashed onto his clothes, soaking them and scalding the flesh beneath. This was the Thames in its death throes, and Kal was to die with it as the last survivor taken with the city.
All stopped as quickly as it began. A rhythmic whirring grew from almost nothing to dominating Kal’s sense of hearing. It seemed odd and… artificial. His eyes opened in curiosity and amazement to see a helicopter directly overhead.
Was this a projection of death? Was Kal, who had never before been religious, about to be carried to heaven by a helicopter? Ridiculous a notion that was it certainly made a better fate than boiling with the river and becoming food for the occupants of the cylinder, and Kal reached out for the approaching rope.
It wasn’t an illusion: the helicopter really had come for Kal. The Cloud, beaten back by the rotor down draft, surrendered its last victim reluctantly and conceded defeat over him to domination of the City. As Kal flew away to safety on a faraway island, the City burned in a great conflagration that was borne of the cylinder. The consumption of the river was now complete, and with its hunger still not satiated, the cylinder and the Cloud turned their attention to the city itself.
Kal was thoroughly shaken, both mentally and physically. The chopper ride was bumpy and, amazingly, packed with other survivors. Most of their faces were dirtied beyond quick recognition. Kal could find out who they were later; for now, escaping the Cloud and the total destruction of London was a good enough prize.
He felt a gentle nudge that took his attention, and Kal turned his head slowly and slightly. An outstretched hand offered a sandwich to the traumatised worker. Accepting, Kal followed the arm back up until he saw the face offering him food.
It was Sonny.
This version of The Cloud was submitted for consideration to be broadcast on Radio 4.
As ever, you can grab a Kindle version on my Dropbox; just navigate to the Short Stories folder!