“Borte bra, hjemme best”
‘Away good, home best.’
Erik couldn’t move; all around him, rushed an ear-bursting roar of air, like being trapped in an eternal scream. Vibrations thundered through his body and, as dreams are, all around him was blurry slow motion. He became slowly aware that he was seated, strapped in to the cockpit of some sort of machine. His vision was blurred by condensation-edged goggles and his mouth was muffled, lips clamped around the bitter tasting rubber of breathing equipment. As the dream’s fuzzy awareness began to sharpen, it was clear that Erik was high above the ground – a blurry white landscape was unfolding through the window in front of him
His stomach lurched as the aircraft he was manning began to point downward, in a terrifying slow-motion dive. Snow-covered hills and islands below began to come into clearer view as the plane soared downward, bursting through the clouds. Erik was aware he was grappling with some sort of controls before him, but he felt detached; not in full control of his movements. Everything was now sluggish, slow and as the plane began to plummet downward, something in Erik’ peripheral vision to his left made his stomach quake again. Two glowing balls of orange light, the size of large beach balls were tearing through the air beside the plummeting aircraft, they passed at a gut-churning speed, disappearing into the middle distance before hurtling back into view, heading straight for the cockpit before swerving at the last minute and disappearing from sight. Erik new that he was screaming and there was a searing pain in his head, the freezing blue of the ocean was coming fast and the pine-clad islands, thick with snow that ran into it began to rush upward at a dizzying speed. Erik’ stomach lurched again as the silent, glowing craft hurled back into view, dancing around the falling plane. Erik felt his eyes closing again, the whine of the engine dissipating and the cloying clouds of sleep descending again.
Hazelthorpe was once beautiful; a small fishing town nestled comfortably at the mouth of an estuary that’s salt marshes led gently to the sea. Flocks of migrating water fowl colonised Hazelthorpe’s wetlands during the winter, picking daintily through the serenity of the marsh grass to fuel their enduring journey to brighter lands. People also took solace within the dry stone perameters of Hazelthorpe’s squat, ivy-clad buildings. They came in gentle waves during the summers and springs, along the narrow, winding lanes and humpback bridges to watch the ends of the seasons turn in the colours of the trees.
Erik Helberg’s family had emigrated from the Norwegian city of Bergen after the war; Hazelthorpe reflecting the calm serenity they had known before conflict. Erik grew up in Hazelthorpe with a simple love for nature; he and his grandfather taking long walks along the high cliffs that meandered into the distance from Hazelthorpe’s port. The two would return, wind-swept, with the smell of salt in their hair and notebooks bulging with the names of birds. Unlike many of his peers, Erik had never felt the pull of the great cities as he grew up, preferring the songs of the lonely winds and the crash of the sea on the rocks. Wherever he went, the haunting cry of the Herring Gull reminded Erik of home.
Erik’s grandfather passed when Erik was twenty one years old. It was quite sudden and in no way anticipated, the old man having been in good health. Erik held precious the time they had spent together as he had grown up.
Unable to stride, as he used to along the cliffs that flanked the port of Hazelthorpe, the two of them would take a gentle stroll up through the silent market square on a Sunday morning and catch a bus to the headland where stood a squat lighthouse at the end of a mile stretch of coast.
“De gamle bukkene har de stiveste hornene.” Kjell Helberg would grin to his grandson as they stood together at what felt like the edge of the world, watching the sea’s white foam torment the shore.
The old billy goats have the stiffest horns.
Erik always smiled at his grandfather’s words, picturing himself as an old man one day, staring at the sea. It was at these moments that he swore to himself that he would stay, to emulate times like these, that they would never fade.
One such morning, autumn was creeping into the air, the sea grumbling and the air sharper. It was taking longer for the sky to awaken; a grey gloom still hanging over Hazelthorpe on the coat-tails of night. Both Erik and his grandfather were caught in the ambience, staring into the sky, when something appeared, shining high through the clouds. Erik, even at twenty one, instinctively moved closer to the old man as he stared, stricken at a ghostly, rotating light that hung high on the horizon. Spherical in shape, the light was only just visible, but its ghastly allure of green that spread to a vivid bauble-red in regular, pulsating waves was hideously out of place against the English grey of the sky.
Erik and his Grandfather watched the light that suspended above them, glaring like some android eye, in silence, before it gradually diminished as the morning light raised its sleepy head across the sea.
“Come, it’s getting cold.” Kjell Helberg took his grandson’s arm, his age biting unpleasantly at his joints as they turned abruptly from the morning, to go home.
The only interaction between Erik and his grandfather on their short journey home, was a raised finger of warning when Erik opened his mouth to ask a question. The old man’s brooding silence and furtive glances around and behind him said enough. The next week, he was gone, his ashes scattered to the sea that he had loved all his life.
Almost four years to the day that Erik and his grandfather had seen the first light in the sky, what was once Hazelthorpe was a smouldering tangle of blackened silence.
* * *
“He’d seen them before,” Erik’s voice was low, its slight Norwegian lilt carried gently over the comfortable crackle of the fire that burned below the entrance to the mineshaft. Jess and Louis were sitting before him on their haunches; their faces long masks in the shadows. Their breath came in long plumes of condensation in the freezing night air.
“He was a fighter pilot in the Luftforsvaret, during World War two.”
The rain continued its barrage from above ground and echoed through the mine.
“They were massacred by the Germans, but he survived; trying to escape to Finland...’never forget’ he used to say...his stories scared me shitless, gave me nightmares as a kid.”
Erik shook his head slightly, his brow curling with memory.
“The Americans used to call them ‘Foo Fighters’, flying round the planes during dogfights, orange balls of light. The official word was that they were some Nazi secret weapon, but the pilots knew better; no man-made craft could fly like that.”
Erik trailed off and there were a few long moments of silence.
“He never told me what happened, but two of the bastards brought down his plane somewhere over northern Finland. Minus twenty degrees, in the middle of nowhere in a crashed plane...somehow he survived.”
“You’re saying...?” Jess began.
“That’s as far as he would go...not even my gran knew what happened out there. He just couldn’t say...”
“What do you think happened?” Jess’ question hung in the semi-darkness.
Erik shook his head again, his eyes glassy with tears.
“We’d seen the lights in the sky, the cigars gathering above Hazelthorpe; remember the news blackout?”
The others nodded gravely, remembering the blank smiles of the newsreaders as they reported economic downturn, sports results and winners of reality shows as the skies over the cities filled with craft.
“He said the call would come one day for me. That day we saw that...thing...I heard him talking to my gran... ”
“Erik, we have to go.” Louis’ words were barely discernable through his chattering teeth. Above ground, the rain lashed through the trees and hammered down hard onto the earth. Erik held up his finger at Louis’ words; he could hear Jess’ breaths rising and falling faster and faster as a faint thunderclap rumbled through the mine.
“Where are we going to go, Louis?” Erik’s voice was calm, controlled. “Where are we going to go?”
Erik cut Louis off, a discernable growl to his tone,
“Cal said, Cal said...I know what Cal said, but Cal’s gone and I’m saying we stay, here, below ground.”
“And what if they send down one of those drones?” Louis’ panic had given way to exasperation.
“What if they send down a drone?” Erik was still calm, “we run do we? I tell you what Louis, two of those fuckers came down at Hazelthorpe; I felt the heat of the explosions from a mile off. If you want to take your chances, go for it...I’m staying here.”
An uncomfortable silence fell in the mineshaft, the three companions lost momentarily inside their own minds. Erik spoke again, this time his voice was flat, final.
“Two cigars, three days...we should stay, at least until we see one more.”
These words seemed only to fuel Louis’ panic, he scrambled to his feet, grasping the sodden strap of his rucksack. This time, Louis’ face was contorted with a red, childish rage.
“And if the drones come down and blow the forest to shit, what then?” He swung the rucksack onto his shoulders, wincing slightly as its water-drenched cold pressed into his back.
“You think we’ll just be safe in the mine? What if our only way out gets blocked? We’ll be trapped down here like rats, what then Erik?”
Erik got slowly to his feet as well; the two shadows silhouetted on the tunnel wall, long, spindly limbs and shaggy heads.
“We have no choice!” Erik’s calm was shifting to irritation; echoes from another thunderclap from above ground rattling around them. “We have no chance up there Louis!”
With a desperate, frustrated flail of his arms, Louis turned on his heel and began striding through the tunnel to the entrance to the mine.
“Louis!” Jess shrieked, still seated, tears already appearing on her cheeks; the rain getting heavier.
Erik gave a grunt and began to follow, but ion hearing his boots crunching on the gravel, Louis began to run; disappearing from sight, haring upward to the entrance hole of the mine. Erik stumbled slightly and began to sprint through the tunnel, a wild fury coursing through him as he heard the scrambling and crashing of Louis ascending to the forest.
Above ground, the forest floor was boggy; the rain turning the carpet of dead leaves into a chocolate-coloured quicksand that sucked hungrily at his boots. The rain was falling in relentless sheets, hissing furiously through the leaves. Erik’s fingers were throbbing from his swift and reckless clamber up the overhang of sharp rock that hid the entrance to the mine. He was panting and adrenaline blurred his vision as he cast desperately about for the sight of Louis through the trees. A movement to his right and Erik was sprinting through the soaking gloom of the forest, his clothes instantly soaked from the screeching rain. He could see Louis running ahead of him, slipping in and out of the trees. Erik could hear Jess behind him, screaming their names, her sobbing cries permeating another deafening thunderclap. Erik turned quickly behind him, making sure Jess was in sight, but then running again, trying desperately to close the gap on Louis. Rocks and trees loomed suddenly out of the darkness, roots and muddy sludge grasped at his feet, but his fury at Louis’ retreat kept him moving.
“Jess!” Erik yelled, not turning around “I’m here! Keep up!”
From somewhere behind him, he heard Jess’ voice; Erik burst through a wall of trees, leaping over a jagged outcrop of rock and tumbling to the ground.
Spitting sodden leaves and soil from his mouth, Erik pulled himself to his feet, a sickening twinge in his right wrist. A panic filled him as neither Louis nor Jess could be seen, he whirled around on the spot, nearly toppling again, when a woollen-gloved hand reached around his mouth and someone pulled him back, hard, against a tree.
“Shh! Shut up, don’t shout, don’t move!” Louis’ voice hissed in Erik’s ear as they both fell backward behind the rough trunk of a tall pine. Erik struggled, shrugging Louis off him, flailing an elbow which missed Louis, but collided with the tree. He yelped in pain, but Louis’ hand grabbed at his face again, this time the voice thick with terror.
“Erik, for fuck’s sake shut up, just stay still!” Erik bent double in pain and fell to his knees. Louis skidded from his hiding place behind the tree to join Erik on the forest floor, his arm, this time grabbed Erik around the shoulders in a desperate embrace.
“Look.” Erik saw Louis trembling finger point over his shoulder, through a gap in the trees to the middle distance in front of them.
Over a small hump that led the forest floor uphill, a thick plume of blue-tinged smoke was spiralling into the sky. The smoke was dense and there was a faint smell; something like burned plastic in the air. The tips of faint, gas-blue flames threw an eerie light through the trees. Louis relaxed his grip on Erik as they both stared, stricken, through the storm at the smoke.
“What...the fuck...is that?” Erik began to get to his feet, his voice an empty breath, but Louis grabbed him again and pulled him down, hissing into his ear.
“Erik, where’s Jess, where is she?”
They both peered behind them, staring desperately through the falling rain.
“We’ve got to go back for her.” Erik tried once more to get to his feet. Louis held on to him even more tightly, whispering again into his ear.
“Seriously Erik, don’t move...look.” Louis’ finger pointed again, this time behind them, then to the left and to the right. Erik felt a swell of primeval, instinctive fear balloon inside his stomach, pulling at his bladder; he could only manage a gasp.
As the flames threw more blue-edged light from the hill where the smoke poured, it illuminated the sight of three gigantic, black animals that lay curled on the branches of the trees that surrounded Erik and Louis. It was hard to tell in the gloom and the rain, but they were definitely feline; pumas or panthers of some kind; the relentless rain running in rivulets off of their fur. Erik felt his stomach quake and his head felt light with a crippling terror. The flickering light reflected the big cats’ eyes; six yellow, glowing circles that were staring straight at him.
Silence reigned in the forest, but for the rain and the ragged, terrified breathing of the two men. Above the tips of the trees, lights began to gather.