“Hope in reality is the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man.”
The fire made a low grumbling noise and spat a mouthful of sparks against the blackened stone that enclosed its crackling heart. Erik allowed himself to be mesmerised by the fire's baleful dancing, but only for a few seconds, before he turned his back and began to trudge back up the rough track; the crunch of his boots echoing against the low ceiling. After a few minutes of walking, Erik's eyes were streaming from the cloying smoke that rushed to the tunnel's entrance, dissipating into the frozen night air. He reached the tunnel mouth and clambered carefully up an overhang of frost-spined rock onto the sodden undergrowth of the forest floor.
Erik crouched low, staring through the vast lines of trees at the sky that was winter clear with stars. His breath steamed in the cold and he crept forward, slowly, his eyes fixed on the horizon, his gaze never wavering as he moved sporadically, spider-like, for the first hundred yards. He was used to the forest noises, the rustlings and occasional, shock-inducing bursts of birds from the bushes, but he strained his hearing for anything else; all the time ready to lie flat and still.
After Erik had gone about a hundred yards from the edge of the chasm that disappeared suddenly into the ground (the warning signs were the first thing they burned), he stopped and switched his gaze to a looming pine that would appear to anyone, no different from the thousands of others that stood like darts, sparkling with frost. Erik crouched again, cupped his hands to his mouth, the stench of his ragged, woollen mittens making him wince slightly, and made a low, hooting sound that reverberated slightly in the night air. A few seconds later, his call was answered by another, similar noise. Erik counted down five seconds and when he heard it again, turned around slowly, to make his way back underground, his toes already numbing.
“All clear.” Erik rubbed his hands and scooted over to the left wall of the cavern, the sleeping area, where Jess curled under the heap of khaki bedding, her blonde hair just visible in the gloom.
“I'll never get used to the night-time.” Jess whispered, tightening her foetal position against the wall, pulling the blankets underneath her chin.
“You should sleep.” Erik stroked the bedding where Jess' arm was.
“I know.” She breathed, a small vapour-trail leaving her mouth. “The dripping was so loud, I thought I heard....”
“Stop.” Erik gripped the bedding now, pressing his fingers down hard, “Jess, stop it. We're safe, OK? Down here, we're safe.”
Jess' answer was s quick sigh. Erik tightened his grip further.
“Listen to me, ok.” His voice got louder, consciously providing affront to the fear that Jess had managed to cultivate in the cavern. “The first few nights down here man, I heard my fucking name in those fucking drips. There's nothing there. Nothing. It's in your head. There'll be all sorts of water and shit down here, but that's all.”
“Sorry.” Jess murmured.
“S'ok”, Erik relaxed his grip and went back to stroking Jess' arms through the layers of blanket. “just try your best to keep it together, yeah?”
He lifted the blankets and huddled up next to Jess to combine their body heat against the still cold of the underground air.
“Just be firm with your mind.” Erik could feel the onset of sleep beginning to tickle the edges of his vision. “That's what gets me through; think only of tomorrow, never further, never back.”
The two of them, swaddled in the pile of fabric against the cold stone wall, shut their eyes and tried to close their minds against the faint dripping that echoed from somewhere far away behind them.
* * *
Louis shifted position slightly, wincing as the rope that held him steady, creaked gently. He pulled his scarf up higher, covering the bottom half of his face and breathed hard, trying to stay warm. Luckily there was no wind, just this empty cold, making his position high up in the tall fir, slightly more bearable. Louis, like Jess, hated the night time, especially when it was this quiet; every single noise in the forest made him jump, he had to work hard not to start hearing things in the dark, he had to tell himself to think about today, this moment.
Louis lifted the heavy pair of binoculars from around his neck, catching a brief glimpse of the distance beneath him from the tattered climbing harness that held him fifty feet from the ground against the trunk of the tree. He stared out into the night sky, scanning the pitch blackness that was punctuated with gleaming stars.
It had been five days since they had seen the last Cigar. Despite their size, cigars were easy to miss, moving quickly with absolutely no sound - elongated craft with rows of gleaming lights down each side that changed colour like some sort of graceful sea creature from a pinkish hue into electric blue. Cal had told them that the where there were Cigars, there were settlements or people; they had promised each other that seeing more than one Cigar in a day was time to move.
Louis sighed, knowing he was here for another few hours since Erik had owl-called to check in. Having no way of telling the time for so long, the four of them had come up with the idea of using the fire. Certain amounts of logs burned at vaguely regular times and they calculated a way of burning logs at the mouth of the mine shaft to work out shifts for keeping watch at night. Their body clocks had synchronised as well; they woke and slept at around the same time; became hungry at morning and evening together; it was their way of surviving.
Placing the binoculars back against his chest, Louis tried to remember how long they had been using the mine shaft. The last time he had looked at the notches that Erik carved into a strip of timber that lay, immovable at the entrance of the sleeping area, it had been three months. Louis sighed as it would not be long until they had to leave; the Cigars would begin appearing; hanging like great metal whales in the night sky, casting their nightmarish lights across the ground; then they'd have to run.
* * *
Jess was not quite asleep; the snoring form of Erik beside her had stifled her imagination from turning the dripping from somewhere in the dark of the mine into footsteps, metal feet on stone. Instead, she simply remembered; she knew this was not a good idea, it was like Erik had said, “think only of tomorrow, never further, never backward.”
They were Cal's words though, they both knew that; Cal had been the one who had told them how to do this, how they would survive; mental discipline.
“Humans are pack animals, we're scared of the dark. Cal had told them, “Back in the cities I saw people lose it. When the Cigars started coming, they wouldn't leave.”
The four of them; Jess, Erik, Louis and Cal had been sitting in the cellar of what had been either a pub or some sort of farm house, but was now a blackened skeleton of scorched wood and stone. They didn't know each other then; their faces were unfamiliar; just wide, scared eyes that reflected the flickering light of the candle that drew long shadows from the dark, cobwebbed corners. They had been there, down in the dark for several hours, trembling with every explosion from above, that shook dust from every corner of the cellar. They had only begun to speak, when there was quiet.
Cal's eyes had shone as he talked, trails of tears running into his beard.
“I saw people running into the streets, screaming into the sky, waving fucking kitchen knives!” He had smiled through the grief, shaking his head as if it had been a dream.
“That's when they send down the drones....” Cal had trailed off. He didn't need to go on.
Jess tried not to think of the ball of white light that had plummeted from the sky and hurtled through the village, wreathed in a freezing orange flame. Her eardrums still felt tender from the unbearable thrumming drone it emitted as it swooped at the ground like some silent bird of prey.
“I've seen them before.” Erik had spoken up from the corner of the cellar; his voice grim, “Two drones came down at Hazelthorpe.”
He came forward, into the light. Erik, like Cal was bearded and his eyes held a haunted quality that was unnerving for someone so young. There was a gasp around the cellar at the mention of Hazelthorpe. It was like someone saying they were working at the world trade centre in the US, all those years ago.
“People were trying to leave in their cars.” Erik continued, “There's only one road and it was backed up.” He fumbled in his pocket and lit a cigarette, with shaking hands. “The Cigars had been sighted nearly every day, but no one knew what to do.”
The four of them were suddenly quiet as a muffled explosion from somewhere far away reverberated slightly in the air.
“I had packed, I was leaving, I wasn't taking any chances.” Erik took a long drag on his cigarette. “Those things came out of nowhere; suddenly, there they were, just above the cathedral, two of the bastards.”
Jess was staring at Erik, both hands over her mouth. Cal was nodding, his eyes closed. Louis hadn't spoken at all, he was hunched in the other corner of the cellar, hugging his knees.
“I felt like my eardrums were about to burst inside my head...there was this crackling, like a loudhailer, you know, and a voice, but it was far too loud and all the words were...wrong...all mixed up.”
Now tears began to silently pour down Erik's cheeks; his tone did not change, nor did his expression.
“All the cars just....stopped, all the engines they just...were silent...”
Shocked quiet again in the cellar, they all knew what had happened at Hazelthorpe; the whole village, incinerated, nothing left but dust.
Jess opened her eyes, Erik was a coiled lump beside her, the silence and still of the mineshaft was now something of a comfort as she forced her brain to stop trawling through recent memory. Neither Erik, Louis nor herself had mentioned how long it had been since Cal had disappeared. They all had to stay strong, keeping watch and hoping he returned before the lights in the sky began to gather.
“Hope in reality is the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man.”
The Fringe is open to submissions of poetry, flash fiction and short stories of any genre. Stories accepted will be published online in our Ezine and also in the monthly pdf magazine.
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About The Fringe Magazine
Here at The Fringe Magazine we publish Short Stories, Flash Fiction, Poetry in all genres and reviews of books, roleplay games, music and movies.
Our variety seems to be hiting the mark with over 100,000 views of our Online Magazine with a good spread across all articles.
Our variety seems to be hiting the mark with over 100,000 views of our Online Magazine with a good spread across all articles.?xml:namespace>From surveys we've conducted, our readers are like most people and enjoy reading all kinds of books, both fiction and non-fiction.
With over 350 readers visiting our site each day, we listen to the voice of the masses and try and procure books in all genres to review. To date, we have reviewed over 600 books, including; non-fiction reference, music, art, photography, gardening, cooking, Self Help, architecture, design, biographies and roleplay games.
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- ► 2011 (753)
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