by Richard Holliday
Through the window in the cabin of the airliner to the right lay the Irish Sea, glistening in the morning sunlight and refracting it into pretty sparkles. Across the aisle and through the opposite window to the left was the muddy green of the ground below. This was fast disappearing under the wing; though it would reappear in time as the coast of Ireland.
Early morning flights were solemn, quiet affairs, even though this was routine. A passenger took a sip of whisky from a tiny bottle. Another a drag on a dirty cigarette. The smoke dissipated quickly in the pressurised interior of the 707, soaking into the fabric. Nicotine clouds clung to the brown interior. Polyester rustled in uncomfortable seats.
“Would you like anything from the trolley, sir?” the stewardess asked against the din of the engines outside that permeated the aluminium of the fuselage. The man in the seat coughed, and looked up. A bag of peanuts appealed and a tired hand reached for them.
“That’ll be…” the stewardess began, but did not finish.
The aircraft shuddered violently and searing light penetrated the windows. For a brief moment every surface became white hot. All sound ceased except for the gentle tinkle of metal shards that flung themselves into the fuselage. They’d seemingly been borne of the sun itself, and now burrowed through the thin shell of the aircraft until the pressurised cabin sought out minute imperfections in the fabric that kept the plane together. Screams trilled below the overwhelming sound of rushing air. The fuel tanks in each wing, punctured by the same shiny, organic blades that had perforated the passenger cabin, burst into flames in an incendiary exultation, and the plane bucked and swayed. The light dissipated but the damage was done; two burning wings dripping molten aluminium to the houses and lands below. One engine was blown away and the other swung by a thread of weakened metal as the plane’s momentum carried it forward. Deforming aluminium and steel took the form of a gigantic burning paper aeroplane that darted across the clear sky.
Inside the cockpit, ashes filled the charred seats and ruined instrumentation. The panoramic windshields had acted like magnifying glass for the sun’s energy. Hairline cracks made their way across the plan of the window. Those sitting by the cabin windows suffered a less serious fate than that of the two pilots; their hands and faces were scorched, the skin falling off in strips.
A few seconds passed. Pressurised air found forced the cockpit windows out and anything not bolted down was liable to follow it through into the vortex of clouds. The whsssh of escaping air stole the screams of horror from the hundreds of terrified human beings in the cabin out of their very lungs. With a crack, the hoses and bits of metal holding the second burning engine parted, sending the nacelle careening into the tail of the aircraft, smashing it off in a flurry of exploding material.
Screams fell silent. The 707 went into an uncontrollable tailspin as the wind ripped it apart, seats with their occupants strapped into them tumbling from the shattered rear. What was left darted about the sky as control surfaces flailed wildly before the hydraulic fluid drained. The metal slithers on the wing remoulded themselves to form new, alien control surfaces that directed the burning hulk of the Boeing, like a missile, at its new landing site. It would never reach Belfast; or even reach the Irish sea. Instead, the water it was destined to collide with was boiled by the reaction of uranium in a sealed steel vessel. The reactor building of the nuclear station was imposing and impressive, a fortress of science and energy that stood no chance against hundreds of tons of burning metal crashing into it at subsonic speeds.
What remained of the plane vaporised on impact, taking great slabs of concrete and glass with it as the fuel ignited. The incandescent remains of the engines and wings erupted inside the confined space of the reactor building, severing intricate pipework and ducting with wanton abandon before finally exploding in an orange fireball that took the roof of the reactor building clean off in a cloud of radioactive steam. The pressure vessel itself was shaken and impacted by tons of debris from both the plane and its little house. Steam pipes were crushed and the control rod mechanism shattered. The dust only began to settle when, like a radioactive pressure cooker, Number 4 reactor of Calder Hall nuclear station suffered a catastrophic failure.
He woke up sluggishly that morning. The sun felt sticky and strange; not the crisp warmness that he was used to but more a sweltering, humid heat that seemed out of place this far North. When was it ever sunny here, and at this time of year? There was no birdsong or sound of traffic outside. The village was still and serene.
Almost too serene.
“Mandy, you up?” he called to his daughter. She wasn’t in her bedroom; she’d woken up slightly earlier and moved downstairs to make a drink.
“Down here, Dad,” a voice called from downstairs. It echoed around the house, the only sound reverberating about the cold walls.
John stepped onto the staircase, taking each tread slowly. The taste of metal filled his mouth as he breathed, and he realised something awful had happened.
“What’s going on?”
John checked the kitchen as he walked past. A discarded glass of black water sat untouched and unwanted on the counter. Mandy wasn’t here, but clearly had been. John found her on the doorstep looking west. Toward the plant.
John saw what his daughter saw and his mouth fell open. His career flashed before his eyes and this was what no man in his field wanted to see – if they lived. “God help us.”
A great plume of black smoke rose into the upper atmosphere from the destroyed reactor building a short distance from the cottage. Flames licked near the ground but the lack of sirens was conspicuous. The sight of the exploded building was haunting enough. Calder Hall was barely five miles away, and if what John thought, as a former engineer, had happened was true, they shouldn’t have even woken up.
“Wake Grace,” John mumbled, referring to his sleeping granddaughter. He hoped she was as apparently resilient to the invisible danger engulfing the house as her relatives. “We have to go. Now.”
Mandy turned. “Where to?”
John looked at her steely. “Anywhere but here.”
The guest bedroom where Grace slept was peaceful and still. The epitome of childhood in pink and pastel colours. Mandy entered quietly, though avoiding waking her daughter was a foolish aim with that express purpose in mind. The child looked comfortable with the world, even if that world for whatever reason now wished her harm. Mandy shook Grace’s shoulders and the little girl roused.
“Come on sweetie, we have to go.”
“Where are we going?” Grace yawned. Mandy had already moved to get clothes from the dresser and laid them on the bed.
“Somewhere,” Grace’s mother said, distracted by the urgent preparations. She dressed Grace quickly in a yellow jumper and cotton trousers. It was chilly outside, the warmth of the sun being deceptive. When Grace was ready Mandy took her downstairs. John was already in the Land Rover waiting.
John turned the key in the ignition. At first the engine felt unresponsive and unwilling but a further turn persuaded it to get going. Driving cautiously at first, John saw the lanes around the village were empty. It became apparent that the great wooded area his home was nestled in was deserted. Accordingly, John floored the accelerator and drove east – away from the plant. Away from the obvious source of danger. Sweat glistened on his forehead as the car’s interior warmed up in the sunshine, though no windows were open. The illusion of keeping invisible radioactive isotopes out, however flawed, still possessed a considerable psychological hold.
Paved roads that were usually busy arterial routes were deserted, the only signs of life being deserted hulks descending into the ditches that lined the way. The terrain here was undulating and rural; it would be very easily to become lost in this environment. John kept a cool head and pressed Eastward, away from the plant and toward presumed safety.
Inside, the car was warming up, the stagnant heat becoming intensely uncomfortable.
“Can’t we open a window? Even a little bit?” Mandy asked quietly. John kept his eyes on the road, dodging the discarded vehicles that posed as monoliths to failed escape. His eyes did not waver.
“No. There’s something in the air. Can’t you feel it?”
Mandy could. The taste of metal in the air was definite, even if dulled a little by the car’s imperfect seals. The taste was rotten and odious, drying out Mandy’s throat. It sapped at the moisture that hung in the air. Beads of sweat perspired from the three foreheads in the car only to be quickly evaporated by this odd phenomenon.
John drove into a clearing. A circle of cars was parked about a couple of picnic tables. There didn’t initially seem to be anyone here, but a small refreshment stand stood near the edge of the gravel car park. Slowly and cautiously, John parked up. He’d be willing to momentarily brave the metallic atmosphere for the chance of some nourishment and supplies. In their haste to leave their irradiated house, John and Mandy hadn’t brought any food or water. That seemed a mistake now, but being retroactive was a futile exercise.
Gravel rustled underfoot, shifting under the weight of John’s boots. The air felt still and stagnant as it had been all morning; the metallic taste was still there but muted in this location. The door to the shop was smashed into several broken pieces. Poking his head in, John surveyed the scene.
“Hello? Is anyone around?”
The interior of the shop was destroyed. Wooden shelves had splintered in a struggle, the contents spoilt and spilt across the dusty floor. Lamps hung from tattered leads coming down from the stucco ceiling. There was a cool, chilled feeling inside the shop, but the freezer was upturned and non-functional. Looking across, John saw that the counter and till had been upset and tipped asunder. Brown and red marks streaked along the walls and floor towards the back room, from whence a strange and unsettling mumbling emanated. Unable to help himself, John tiptoed over detritus toward the dark portal.
Inside, an overturned crate shuffled. A pile in the corner of the stockroom heaved and overturned as the being underneath roused and shook off the wooden cover under which it had made a bed.
Under the heap of fabric and wood was the body of the shopkeeper, the chest cavity all but demolished by whatever the being was. The being was humanoid in general shape but any further analysis was cut short by it’s sudden movement toward the door. It lunged at John, who fell backwards in shock.
Expecting death, John winced with his eyes clamped shut. The death he imagined was upon him didn’t come; a single shotgun blast rang though the shop and the being fell back into it’s cave. Blood and mucus splattered everywhere. The wall of the storeroom took on a macabre plaster.
“Get out of here, you’ve not much time!” the farmer said hoarsely. He levelled his shotgun toward the door after reloading.
John was breathless. “Thank you, you saved…”
“There’s no time!” Jones, the farmer, cursed. “Others will be coming, you just wait. Get out of here.”
Unsettling wailing came from outside, behind the shop. A door clattered and a hissing permeated the material. It’d not hold for long.
“Go now. I’ll cover you.”
John nearly tripped in his retreat. As he ran from the shop, he looked over and made eye contact with Jones.
“Thanks,” John said.
A weak smile, which would be Jones’ last, wrapped across his muddied face. “All the best.”
The gravel flew into the air underfoot. Shots rang out, but ceased as the wailing and hissing intensified, transforming into a guttural scream, followed by the dirty sound of rending flesh and snapping bone.
The door to the Land Rover flew open, with John barrelling inside.
“We have to get out of here,” he breathed. Mandy noticed his clothes were covered in blood. She looked confused.
“What happened? Did you…”
John looked across, his eyes steeling and preluding any more conversation. He turned the key. Nothing. He tried again. Nothing.
“I’m scared,” Grace said softly.
John leapt out of the open drivers door. He commanded his family to do the same. The car was now worthless, and staying here would no doubt invite certain death.
“What’re we going to do?” Mandy coughed. John took his daughter in his arms in a single motion.
“We run. For our lives. As fast and as far as we can.”
Heading from the clearing toward the trees, the family did that.
A strong taste of metal filled the atmosphere in the woodland; the canopy of the trees providing no shelter from it. John felt he had lost track of his direction. Was he guiding his family toward the ruined nuclear plant?
“Stop,” he said dimly. “I want to make sure we’re going the right way.”
“I’m scared,” Grace moaned again softly. John knelt down to her level and took a tender hand to her cheek.
“Everything’ll be alright, I promise,” he said to the girl. She smiled weakly. It wasn’t much solace, but enough for a five year old.
As he returned to his normal height, Mandy spoke severely into his ear.
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep. It’s not fair on her.”
John didn’t respond. He walked a few feet further down the path they had found themselves on. Trampled foliage and compressed mud didn’t bode well, but for where a lot of people had travelled, they must’ve had a destination.
A sudden breeze caught the tops of the trees, rustling the leaves in a blast of sound that perforated the cool silence that had otherwise prevailed. John had an idea, and ran to the nearest tree intending to climb it, like he had so many trees in his youth. Feeling invigorated by this deep-seated nostalgia, he grasped a branch just above his head and pulled on it, expecting to meet it in the air.
Instead, the branch met John as he fell back to the floor. The wood had become brittle and had snapped like balsa wood; on closer inspection the branch itself had lost all internal substance; the bark the only thing holding it together. The tree was hollow, the trunk holed by a jab of an elbow revealing a yellow, mucus-like substance that oozed from the wound.
Whatever had become of these trees, John didn’t want it to become of him and his family. The trail beckoned and John looked toward the sun. Gauging his position, he took an educated guess as to the direction east was and made a run for it as the snapping of faraway branches echoed slowly closer. Whatever claimed the ice cream shop was coming for them.
Gravel began to permeate the mud of the trail as the group of three travelled. The lapping of water soon filtered through the trees and undergrowth.
“It’s the right direction,” sighed John, a smile cracking through his exterior. Indeed, the nearest body of water was to the east.
A gravel road ran along the bank of the lake and down to the threshold of land and water. Parallel rectangular indentations ran through the track, indicating some heavy vehicles had recently passed through.
“What did that?” Mandy asked curiously.
“I don’t know… hey!” John said, but was distracted. Grace had run off to splash in the lake. He ran after her, catching her just before she plunged into the dark water. He didn’t know if it was safe, and thought best to presume the worst.
John turned back to face Mandy, who had remained by the roadside. A massive flare erupted in the sky where the sun was for a moment, blotting out all vision. After a second it faded away, white noise dissipating to that of feral wolves scratching at wooden doors. It was happening again
John recognised that noise, but was paralysed. A Jeep rapidly approached along the track, kicking up a cloud of grey dust behind it. It abruptly stopped, with black figures with irregular shapes coming toward them.
Soon these angular shapes became automatic rifles, and flashes of tracer whisshed past John’s face. A few live bullets embedded themselves in the dusty shore behind.
“Why are they shooting?!” Mandy screamed, not knowing where to move. She watched the group of soldiers kneel and aim again. This time with the intention of killing them.
John ran forward in the direction of the troops, shouting at the top of his lungs. “We’re unarmed! Help us!”
The attention of the soldiers was diverted from John as the water in the lake bubbled and seethed, a strange steam coming from the surface. The trail of bubbles made for land. John fell back as three of the emaciated figures leapt from the water, screaming with their limbs flailing madly. Droplets of water spattered to the ground as the three figures made for John’s prone body. Like a tape replaying, the scenes in the shop not that long ago replayed themselves across John’s corneas, but this time his family was watching and his survival chances seemed considerably less rosy. His head shuffled against the dirty gravel, allowing him an inverted view of the lake. He saw a small boat a few hundred metres out.
Clearly its occupants had become the being that’d now make lunch out of him. The image of the boat stuck in John’s mind, determined to be the strange thing that would permeate his consciousness in the instant before it was terminated and his brain splattered to a pink jelly on the rocky ground.
The end didn’t come quite as John expected. A ringing explosion sent brain matter everywhere, but it was that of the beings, who fell all around him. Chunks of skull pinged across the lake before sinking without a trace to the bottom.
He looked up, amazed he was still alive, and saw the soldier lowering his rifle as he approached.
“Just in time,” the uniformed man grunted, pulling John back to his feet. “You hurt?”
“No, just shaken I guess. I don’t get it.”
The soldier shook his head. “Don’t. Stories of women and kids trying to cross the forest. At first we didn’t believe it until we found you. Then we believed it.”
The two other soldiers joined the group, with Mandy and Grace in two under woollen blankets. Mandy’s voice exulted relief at seeing John still alive.
“Oh, what a relief. Wait,” she said, looking at the soldier who waved a chrome-plated box with a dial at her. It clicked unceasingly. “What are you doing?”
“She’s dosed, alright,” the soldier yawned, “and the others too. Lethally.”
The silver box was a Geiger counter, and it belied that everyone standing had taken lethal doses of invisible radiation. By all rights these people should be dead; as luck would have it they were not. The soldiers helped to patch up the bedraggled family at the side of the lake. They talked, discussing what had happened and why they were still alive. Mandy preferred to see it as some strange form of divine intervention but John and the soldiers were more pragmatic. There was an outside influence.
“Well, we knew nothing when we were scrambled,” the sergeant, Stevens, stated bluntly. “As soon as we heard of the reactor accident we were out on the road. We knew there’d be people.”
“A lot of these people have been transformed though. By what, I can’t imagine,” John presumed aloud.
Stevens hummed in assent. A few distant howls emanating from the woods behind seemed to be getting louder. More ominous. Nearer. “Let’s get out of here.”
John, Mandy and Grace followed the soldiers back to their jeep. “Where’re we going?” Mandy asked in a loud whisper. Subconsciously not wanting to alert the shadows pursuing them to her presence.
Getting into the jeep, Stevens was short. “Base camp.”
Resuming mechanised transport was a relief for everyone. No longer was there a need to worry about tripping, falling and fatigued feet.
The road away was strewn with debris as the jeep motored along the track. Rubbish fluttered in the breeze from abandoned vehicles left in ditches, doors open and never to be closed. The soldiers kept the windows in the cramped jeep tightly closed, mindful of something in the air that might bring about a transformation. Ignorance was the greatest enemy these people faced; not knowing their fates or the dangers their environment brought to them was a worse feeling than any pain. Fearing hazardous beings of unknown origin was strangely acceptable, but not knowing if the world itself would turn a person inside out was incomprehensible to a rational mind.
A few miles of winding road glided under the jeep, with only the low rumble of the diesel engine permeating the solemn quiet. Muddy tyre tracks were the only wake left by the vehicle on the dry gravel path.
“Our encampment is very near, we’ll have you sorted,” Stevens said half-heartedly, trying to reassure his new wards. “Just round the next…”
The sergeant stopped mid sentence and the jeep came to a screeching halt as it rounded the tight curve. Indeed, the camp the soldiers had set up as a checkpoint was there, but an overturned coach had careened into the brick wall around it and exploded into fire. Blackened figures yelped and hollered, trying to climb over the burning wreckage. Sprays of gunfire rang out over the sound of the conflagration.
The occupants of the coach, dead from either radiation or the crash, though whichever was neither here nor there at this point, now rose from their conscious ends and were jabbing to break through into open country. Hearing the screech of the jeep’s tyres behind them, a handful turned. Blackened, shattered faces looked hungry, and a personified dinner tray had skidded right into their grasp.
Stevens leapt to the ground and withdrew his sidearm, and in a moment his entire training was projected onto his retinas. Unloading six rounds, he took down three of the figures that lumbered awkwardly toward the group. Others kept their attention on the burning fence, taking no heed of the pain grasping the red-hot metal would have caused a normal human.
John scanned the vicinity, looking for a way out. A section of fence was relatively undamaged, and he motioned to Mandy to bring Grace there. Fifty metres of open ground stood behind the position of relative safety behind the jeep and the section of fence that looked accessible. John channelled his school cross-country and made for it, the adrenalin in this veins propelling him, giving him seemingly superhuman strength. This display invoked a similar performance in Mandy, whose instincts overcame her physical ability.
With a rattle, the family took a brief instant’s rest against the fence. Splintered boards on the upper portion were inviting escape to potential safety. Certainly, the other side of the fence was an inviting exit from the dead forest. Grace went first, and easily slid through into the hands of a waiting soldier. Then Mandy climbed the short brick wall that was at the base of the fence and clambered over.
In this time, the figures that had driven the bus into the other side of the fence and had blocked the gate noticed the scurrilous attempts by John and his relatives to make escape. Through a sheet of fire they ran, seeking their own escape and repaying the debt John had incurred in his two previous encounters with these strange creatures that meant him and his kind nothing but harm. John had escaped paying their demands for his life twice already.
John hurried, trying to gain a footing. The wooden planks that formed the fence splintered under the frantic footwork before belatedly finding purchase. One foot followed the other, and John’s head peeked through the gap.
“Come on,” Mandy encouraged hoarsely, her throat thick from the smoke of the fire. “Almost…”
A bony hand clasped John’s ankle as he thrust himself toward the opening. His momentum misfired and he tumbled backwards into the pack of snarling creatures that desired their revenge on him for his evasion. Third time unlucky, and the debt was paid. A soldier took Mandy and Grace away from the fence and the sound of ripping flesh, screeches of agony and exultation and snapping bone.
“Come on, you’ve got to get out of here…” the soldier urged. Mandy was numb, unbelieving of what had just happened. Her father was gone but she looked beside her: her daughter remained. That was something.
With a burst of energy the jeep skidded away. This wasn’t how Mandy wanted to say goodbye, but as she looked out of the rear window she realised the situation presided over her and decided how things would be.
In the distance, the ashen cloud over the reactor spread out to sea and overland. This was the epicentre for something new and scary for Mandy, her daughter, even the British or the world at large. Safety beckoned away from the hot zone of that morning, but however long it would last wouldn’t be decided now.
Cheers for reading! If you’d like to grab a Kindle version of Epicentre or any of my other short stories, please feel free to visit my Dropbox and navigate to the Short Stories folder!
Header image credited to SimonWeaner at DeviantArt