Robert D Rowntree began writing in 1997 after attending a writing class run by Derek M Fox. His first story was accepted by Strix magazine and then several more magazines took stories in quick succession: Terror Tales, Dead Things and Sci Fright to name a few. He continued writing and had further acceptances in Unhinged, Hadrosaur Tales and sold a micro story for anthology in the States. Along with Lisa Negus, he penned a play which narrowly missed short-listing for the East Midlands Playwriting Competition 2001. It was well received and Robert and Lisa have had discussions at The Leicester Haymarket with a view to expanding the play for a future reading. Currently he is working on a collaborative novella (which appears to be heading to full novel length), The Shedding Of Skins, and has started his first solo novel, Ghosts.
Further along the shore, the breakers broke their iridescent backs on dark rocks, whilst sea-sprats fluttered above showering white spray in setting sunlight. The beach lay empty, picnickers and day-trippers long since washed away: Perhaps snatched by the quickly chilling sea breezes that played amongst the dry sand. A nice thought, an old thought for a beautiful place.
Often, I would stroll along this stretch of sand at this time of day; it gave me room to think, to remember. June loved it. June... She'd lived life like a rock, like the rocks along the shore, steadfast against life's tide, allowing troubles and worry to wash by, unflinching in the face the community's growing doubt. The first to give for the others. She had been my rock, my anchor.
Thoughts of the past made me shiver a little, as they always did. Turning away from the red, settling sun, I made my way up amongst tough gnarly sea grasses and plants of a strange purple hue and out along the wooden walkway towards the dim light flickering at Grover's Cove.
So few left now, so...
Wind whisked fine sand against my skin, ghosts against goose bumps. I moved a little faster, the faint alcohol generated lights motivating me to hurry. Warmth, company and food waited. But, more importantly, there were locks and bolts, doors, walls and timber. You had to keep the night out, to keep the doubts at bay.
The wind howled and I ran...
'Any word?' I asked, crossing the threshold. Nobody spoke. Gant leant against the wall, tossing his tennis ball against a disused piece of hard board, thud-um, thud-um. Sven, as usual, stared into his hot brandy mix and Charlie lay across the radio gear, her breast pert and sharp against it controls. 'Any word? Anything?'
Charlie raised her head slightly, 'No, not since the last com, still expecting six days.'
'Jesus. You sure? Have you tried to raise them again? Have you?'
She gave me the finger and slumped back over the controls. The lights dimmed as the generator groaned and for a moment Gant stopped his incessant ball throwing. His head turned towards me as he asked, 'You see any?'
I knew they'd ask, they always did and as I answered the dimming lights seemed to die a little further, 'Yeah, four or five, out beyond the bluff.'
The generator coughed and without waiting for any response I went along the corridor to fix it. We'd been running on alcohol for the last fourteen months. Hydroponics produced the grain and we built the stills. Breakfast, bread and booze, a reality killer if there ever was one. The complex stretched over a large area, all connected building and corridor filling conduits. Since the last few deaths we had boarded up most of the unused sections, remaining mostly in the wardroom, dining room and kitchen areas. The garage was still accessible. Why remained an enigma, as nobody went there. The vehicles were all out in the field, standing in the spots where they'd stopped. Bloody and still.
The generator lay in a room on the opposite side of the building we now called home. It's small room stank like a lit Sambuka. Brown and greasy, it was in a sorry state, months of burning alcohol had taken a heavy toll from the old girl. Scars from piston explosion wounds, welding and the occasional thump from a hammer gave the thing a worn look, used and loved, a life.
Tweaking a few bolts and adjusting the odd control soon resulted in a more contented purr. And as I gently massaged the old beast I glanced out of the slit window in the wall.
I talked to her, consoled her... 'There, there, take it easy old girl...Not long now&ldots; not long.' Through reinforced glass I saw my fellow colonists, their markers clearly visible, each above a small mound. 'They miss you,' I said, stroking her warm flanks with more than a little fondness. Sixteen mounds and markers. Beyond lay the others; 372 craters, each a final promise, a last atrocity.
We hadn't killed them. This accursed place had. First the land sucking them dry, pulling the very goodness from their bodies and then...
Unable to think about it, I moved away from the view, removing the twilight horrors from my sight. Six days and four of us left. I hoped we would all make it, all return safe to the world we had left so long ago, with our high ideals and our conviction. Funny, the only thing I was convinced of now, was that the universe is a cruel and twisted place. You can never really feel safe out here in the dark.
And with these thoughts running around my head I went to join the others. Gant's ball welcomed me back; thud-um, thud-um.
Someone screamed in my dream. The voice sounded familiar and very close. Green mist flushed away the images as my eyes opened.
Nighttime visions; Sven, bellowing, hurling himself at the emergency exit, knocking Charlie out of the way. Gant wrestling with Sven, Sven's hands griping the door locking-wheel with mad intent. It looked surreal in the dim green night lighting. The noises from outside made it real, gnawing and scrapping, dipping and rising in some counterbalanced dance with Sven's shouts and screams...
'Let me out. I want to be with them. They've come for me, they have, they have...'
Gant still struggled with Sven's hands but Sven was huge, powerful, the wheel began to turn. Charlie began screaming, 'No, no, don't let them in. No, nooo...'
I rose from my bunk, slipping my hand around a wrench on the table next to my sleeping space, the door moved, Sven smiled, Gant perspired and I brought the wrench around to strike.
Something slipped around the door, something wet and grasping. The door opened further, Gant leant against it preventing it from opening fully and Charlie, regaining some presence of mind, picked up a fire extinguisher. I hate being woken up when I'm not ready.
If bone was broken, it remained a mystery long after I brought the wrench down on Sven's insanely moving head. He slumped to the floor and Gant kept tension on the door as Charlie played the CO2 extinguisher on the monstrosity trying to enter. The door closed, the appendage turning cold and brittle, falling to the floor, no more than a dead piece of alien vegetation.
Silence reigned for a moment and I reflected upon the many ways they came, this place's versatility. And I thought of June and the last time I'd seen her...
Alone, holding a transmitter near an earthen barricade. But I wasn't alone...and I knew it.
A pristine beach backdrop, crisp with sharp afternoon scent, relaxing. I moved along the beachside of our hastily built barrier. Nestling against the rocky cliff, the blind we'd erected looked like a small metal cylinder stood on one of its flat ends. Practical.
The door, naturally, was on this side. We'd built it after the deaths became routine, daily. To keep them at bay. Ha, we'd been so naive, so goddamn superior.
Steps led up from the open doorway. And, as I knew I would, I stopped, my legs refusing to take me to that which my eyes did not wish to see.
Fighting my fear I took the first step. The transmitter needed height, needed to be in the observation post. But there I would be able to see. To see June.
I love her now as much as I'd loved her then. And even after she'd gone... I knew I would never hold her in my arms again, never smell her scent, touch her warmth, drink her being, but I couldn't let go. How could I when I could see her every day?
It was this place and she'd been the first.
We'd all grown grey and pallid. Somehow our bodies refused to retain the vitamins we pushed down our throats with ever increasing speed. Feeding ourselves, feeding it.
I placed the heavy radio on the bench and although I did not want to, I looked out of the window.
The beach continued, stretching out and away from me, the cliff slowly fell away to my right revealing flat marshland pushing inland towards low purple hills. How would she come today? Mist, rock, plant? She always appeared to me here, always.
Others had been seen in the daylight, closer to the compound, but in general they kept away almost avoiding the connection to the old, to the past. But at night they came. Came to claim those who remained, those whose bodies still beat the drum of the old world.
Small crabs, locals, scuttled about on their long multi-jointed legs danced, joined, built. June was coming.
Staring, I became transfixed by this new and varied approach. This place lived for invention.
It...no, June stood before me. A chitinous sculpture of divine parody. June's face cut from spindly shell and leg, her smile filled dagger like teeth. Claw drenched arms reaching out to me, yearning, deadly enfolding arms and the worst thing was that I wanted to go, wanted to submerge my crimes in that final loving embrace. I had advocated tolerance. And tolerance had killed hundreds of people.
June had been the first to die, the first reborn. As a preacher I found that quite overwhelming. God's fist slamming me back into belief, back to a religion you could touch, feel and see... No god of mine.
Later we knew of this place's dark and desperate need of a universal tool of flesh, bone, chemicals and the unknown, a heady mix.
June, or June's parody waved to me; shell clicking, claw snapping love. And as I turned away, I felt the pangs of withdrawal. Once a junky, always.
Busying my self with the electrical connects I'd tried to ignore the scuttling scrapes coming from the stairwell. June neared, and I needed to finish before she manifested in the doorway...
We bound Sven securely, even though he probably had concussion. The mood in the compound ran thick with restrained fear and wanting to get away, I left.
Walking briskly in the chilly air, I rounded the cemetery and head inland towards the viewing mound. From there lay the way home.
I sat on a bench and waited. Presently a low rumbling boom rocked the land. I stood for a better view. Far away, at the end of an invisible track the mass launcher shot a cargo pod into the laser launch guide. We thought it would give us a way out, a ticket home, but the accelerations... A diamond bright sun lit the sky, laser light igniting the air in the cargo pod's combustion bell. It rose like fairy light into the sky, winking out in the high cloud deck, waving goodbye.
No amount of tinkering could make it safe and so we stayed. The automated mining and transport system taunting us at every turn.
Days ticked by. The launcher continued to fire cargo, Sven remained unconscious and the place tried to kill us. With two days to go Gant, Charlie and I foolishly began to think we were going to make it.
I'd been walking again, travelling my beach. A momentary glance stopped my stroll. Above the dunes and sea grass a small column of smoke climbed into the sky. It looked thin and lonely, a rising stalks.
Running up the dune and out onto the walkway only confirmed my fear. The compound blazed away, small yellow and orange hands pushed more and more smoke into the sky. From this distance it was obvious that the fire burnt on the far side of the building. Genny? The thought of surviving without power push me on, my legs pumping faster and faster.
Nearing the entrance I saw a commotion over by Hydroponics. Gant helped Charlie to her feet and as they backed away the ground leaped at them. Small patches jumped at them and as these patches took flight they changed into nightmare apparitions. People we knew, distorted, twisted into wild feral forms intent only on consumption, assimilation and conversion. All the more terrifying because of it.
Flame licked at the edge of the Hydroponics bay and as I rounded the gate leading to the bay's entrance, I saw some petrol canisters propped against the sidewall on a raised plinth.
I needed to be fast, no second chances.
The quick release lids flew as I tipped them up, popping like party streamers as I raced by. Last one gone; I kicked out a supporting brace crashing the lot to the ground.
Charlie scrambled free from a sudden burst of activity on the ground. As she did so Gant twisted away, lost his footing and slipped. Something engulfed him, smothering his screams.
I grabbed Charlie and pulled her away as more and more things leaped from the ground, soil effigies of long dead friends.
Petrol ran around our feet. 'Run, run,' I shouted at Charlie, but she'd already got the picture. We jumped and ran as a terrific whoosh deafened us from behind. Hydroponics blazed and in and on the surrounding ground things writhed, stilled and became soil once more. We'd gained some breathing space, perhaps.
'What the hell happened?' I said, once we'd caught our breath.
'Sven...We thought he would be okay...undid his ropes.' Charlie said, between ragged breaths. 'He summoned them...called them right on in and before we knew it...we were running for our lives. Sorry...'
'Sorry? What have you got to be sorry for?'
'We nearly made it, but I felt compassion for him. He seemed so pathetic, an unconscious man tied to a radiator. So, I freed him to give him some dignity. Compassion is over-rated-'
'No, it's not Charlie, not at all. The universe just takes advantage. I'm not sure we were ready to venture out here into the dark. Perhaps the universe is too dangerous a place, maybe we should have stayed home.' If we had, my June would be alive now I thought, feeling a sense of loss engulf me. I shook it off, two of us were alive and in less than thirty six hours our rescuers would be arriving.
Charlie died the next day. Gant had come for her, perhaps annoyed that we'd left him to his fate.
I'd taken us back to the hide along the barricade. Once inside and sure that nothing lurked in amongst the shadows, I wedged a piece of metal across the doorway and sealed the thing with some epoxy resin I'd found in a cupboard. It would keep things out for the night.
And it did. Big things at least. I dozed in a corner and only realised something was amiss when Charlie screamed.
Before her, and still trailing a few stragglers, stood a towering likeness of Gant wrought from millions of writhing insects. It swayed as they tried to keep balance, little legs and feelers constantly in motion. It pulsed.
With swift, sure moves it split into spears and punctuated Charlie's shying body silencing her screams with a flood of clicking buzzing annoyance. I would be next there could be no doubt. Yet, after it had consumed Charlie, the insects just turned on mass and headed for the door.
I waited and night turned to day, nothing.
Later I unsecured the door and headed out to the beach, across the walkway, passed the cemetery and on up to the viewing mound, the rendezvous point.
The air was still, expectant. Only disturbed by the launch of yet another cargo pod.
As I waited the grass began to change. It grew and wove, rising from the ground into a familiar form. June.
The form drifted across the surface like a wave and as it neared I heard something high in the atmosphere. Re-entry?
Stopping some feet away, waving arms implored me to embrace, to caress that once beautiful face and it took all my will power to hold fast. Why didn't it just take me like it had taken the others?
Something shot across the sky. The rescue ship. Minutes, that's all. I had to hold on for minutes.
A smile creased the grass thing before me, knowing and sure. The ship cruised up alongside the mound and the door opened. Arms waved for me to enter.
Arms of dark twisted flesh and shell, sand and stone. I felt stunned, belittled as all hope of rescue fled. And then I knew, this place had gone there, gone to Earth in the cargo pods I'd help send home. The universe loves tolerance; it's a flaw, a weakness to be exploited.
I turned and took the grass-cutting embrace offered by this place. Each cut a sting, each rip a reminder. Sometimes I like to walk along this beach, be the beach, the wave, the sky. And sometimes I remember...
(C) Robert D. Rowntree 2002
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.