THE LIGHTS IN THE SKY
Ancient star cluster - Wikipedia commons
Soon be July, thought Josh, contemplatively sucking a milky blade of grass. From the rise where he crouched on his haunches, amidst a small colony of rosy-purple foxglove, he peered through narrow weather-slitted eyes at his scrawny wool-clad sheep. The odd forlorn cry pierced the pre-dusk air, the sturdy little lambs now trotting confidently through the dew-sodden gorse, already independent of their mothers. Josh filled his chest with pride.
Below, the north Tyne's headwaters bubbled rapidly over smoothed rocks and makeshift weirs. On the rim of the trees to his left, the rough-hewn cottage at the foot of the slope issued its spiral of wood-smoke.
Ann would be laying the table now. He looked across the valley, scanned the thick copse on the far hill's brow, higher than this one. The cairn looked like some ancient highwayman, even this close - possibly only a mile off. The gray-slate rocks appeared to take on the guise of a footpad, Josh's imagination completing lines that didn't exist. If he stared long enough, he would swear that the thing actually moved!
When Josh looked up again, the clouds darkened. Dusk had fallen. He jerked up with a start, unaccustomed to dozing in his present position. His knees creaked painfully as he rose, gingerly unstiffening the old limbs. He inserted thick, 'honestly-dirty' fingers into his mouth to whistle for Ruff, his faithful sheep-dog.
But the lilting call froze on his suddenly bloodless trembling lips.
Weird lights flashed over the far brow, hovering above the copse. Intermittent disc-shaped mauves and scarlets gyrated soundlessly.
Josh couldn't move. Coldness seeped into him as he stood watching the lights, now mostly various shades of green as they descended towards the black silhouette of the cairn.
The lights dimmed. He stared wild-eyed, fingers still unmoving in his mouth, poised, as a black shape at the now barely luminous lights' center lowered alongside the cairn. The thing was twice the cairn's size, as tall as the largest tree on the brow. Finally, all movement ceased and the lights went out.
Figures, apparently human in form, parted from the dark silhouette and moved towards the cairn. They looked unwieldy, bulky. At first, they circled the cairn; then the headstone was removed as though a mere pebble.
Ruff's whimpering brought Josh back to his senses. He blinked his eyes, his head still swimming maddeningly. 'Where?' Bemusedly, he reached out, supporting himself against the cottage doorway. Ruff continued to whimper by the blazing warm hearth.
'Whatever's come over you?' Ann whispered in concern, helping him inside. 'Where've you been? Dinner's absolutely spoiled!'
He shook his head; the contents of his skull felt very loose, making him giddy. 'Brandy - a drink...' he stammered, still wide-eyed though seeing little. He stumbled into his high-backed rocking chair, sat down.
Ann left him for a moment but was soon back by his side. 'You're as white as death, Josh.' She handed him a full glass. 'It's not - not your heart?'
Without answering, he sank the warming alcohol and scraped the rocking chair round to face the fire. 'I - I remember my old man... telling me about some lights he saw...' He squinted, endeavoring to resurrect the memories of fireside talks. 'The way he described it, tonight's was the same...' He tried draining the already empty glass. 'But that was forty years ago,' he said. 'I was only a youngster...'
Ann held onto his arm, knelt beside him and looked into his vacant unbelieving eyes. 'Perhaps you remember your father's story, and just imagined it...'
'No, I saw it all right,' he growled, adamant, color gradually returning to his cheeks. 'It took off as fast as it landed.' His eyes fixed on hers. 'Ann, what should I do?'
She too was in a quandary. Biting her lower lip, she looked away. 'I'd keep quiet about it, JOsh. People will only laugh...'
Josh kept silent and stared into the embers of the fire, the red-glaring logs constructing and destroying fantastic magical caverns, cairns and alien shapes. After a while, he nodded. 'Maybe you're right, at that,' he said.
'What do you make of it, Jen?' Nik asked his fiancee, handing over the 10x50 binoculars.
Inexpertly, she leveled them on a distant brow of a hill, and Nik guided their direction to the section beside a deep-green copse. The hill sloped behind another smaller hill in front of them. 'It looks like a man. But he must be huge!' she exclaimed. 'I mean, he's at least a mile away!'
Nik nodded. 'Let's investigate.'
Jen hesitated. 'Must we? I'm still out of breath with this morning's rambling.' Her stomach rumbled in defense too. But Nik had not waited for a reply; impulsive as ever, he'd run on ahead.
Hunger-pangs aside, she was admittedly intrigued by the figure on the brow. 'Wait for me!' She had to run hard to catch him up, and was soon breathless.
It took a while to descend the slope for much of the couch grass was sodden, not completely drained since the recent rains.
Eventually, they reached the stream.
'There's no way across,' Jen observed, not without relief.
After an abortive search for suitable stepping-stones, Nik unzipped his leather boots, pocketed his socks and threw the boots to the other side. He didn't particularly relish the idea, but the brooding figure on the near-horizon goaded him on.
The stubby sheep-grazed grass felt prickly underfoot. 'Come on then, love,' he said with a brave grin. 'I'll carry you across.'
'It looks slippery, mind,' Jen murmured. And it did: green slime smeared most of the rocks. Gingerly, he dipped a foot into the clear chill waters. Following the first shock, it wasn't unduly cold, and he reckoned he could traverse the slippery parts if he took it slowly. 'It's all right.'
He hefted her into his arms. She circled his neck with an eager arm. Though slow, he made it across in less than a minute.
The climb up the other side took the wind out of them. Here, on the exposed slope, the grass was dry and his feet were dried after the first few yards and he replaced his boots, his feet now tingling hotly as blood rushed to warm them.
Gasping in lungfulls of air, they reached the brow's summit. 'It's obviously a cairn of some sort,' Jen said, panting.
'Bloody big one, as well,' Nik agreed. It measured about nine feet high. Purple-veined henbane clustered at the cairn's foot; its noxious smell wafted to his nose.
'Very impressive,' Jen wheezed, her hand clasping his as they neared the edifice.
'Must be a landmark, don't you think?' He reached out to test its firmness.
Shivering uncontrollably, he buckled up double, sucking in air as a massive wave of agony twisted in his stomach.
Eyes horror-struck, Jen gasped as Nik's pain-racked hand squeezed hers. Her stomach overturned, all of a sudden nauseous. 'What's hap...?'
'The - cairn!' he choked. A clammy coldness, as though he'd been immersed in a black airless arctic space, overwhelmed his entire body till he instinctively staggered further back.
Rivulets of sweat streaked his ashen face. 'It's evil!' he croaked, trying in vain to master his excessive shivering bout. It sounded silly, unreal, but he could think of no other word or explanation. He was revolved, aghast, yet unable to comprehend why he should be affected so violently. He just knew, without question, that the cairn was pure evil.
Absently, he felt Jen's clawing hands on his shoulders, drawing him away. 'I know - I sensed it as well,' she mumbled. 'It's as if - as though it were something dark and slimy, black and ugly...'
When they had reached the brow again, about three yards from the cairn, they couldn't contain themselves any longer and vomited where they stood, bowed in pain.
Without looking back once, Nik gripped her hand and they both stumbled dazedly down the slope. 'Must be some old black-magic place.' He coughed. 'A witch's burial place, maybe...'
Earlier in the day, before their rambling, they had made love in the dappled privacy of a nearby forest, among aromatic tansy. The bird songs, the incurious sheep and latterly the gallant stream crossing had all added to the perfection of the day. They had been filled with a great sense of well being, a belief in the invulnerability of their love.
Now, without saying, they sensed that all this had shattered irretrievably.
This is one day we'll want to forget for the rest of our lives, he thought.
Jen was crying.
'Maintenance Party's completed inspection of Sol III's mechanism,' reported Captain Gunsines. 'D-core's functional. Bring-up for next inspection - forty Terran years hence. Over.'
Forty years, Gunsines mused, his midriff tentacle switching off the sub-space transmitter. That is, if by then these insane Earth creatures hadn't brought nuclear warfare into space. Because if they did, then the device tunneled from the 'cairn' to the Earth's core would simply destruct.
Notes. 1) In the original, I used the term ‘footpad’ but it was edited and changed to ‘footpath’ which made no sense at all, since I was referring to a footpad as in highwayman. I’ve changed it to ‘highwayman’ for subsequent use! 2) 'Gunsines' is an anagram of Guinness, which I used to drink at the time of writing...
Previously published in The Writer magazine, 1975.
Copyright Nik Morton, 2014
My collection of crime tales, Spanish Eye, published by Crooked Cat, features 22 cases from Leon Cazador, private eye.
He is also featured in the story ‘Processionary Penitents’ in the Crooked Cat Collection, Crooked Cats’ Tales.
Spanish Eye, released by Crooked Cat Publishing is available as a paperback for £4.99 ($6.99) and much less for the e-book versions – UK or COM.