Cool Short Stories
A Sound Like Distant Thunder
Home > The Stories > A Sound Like Distant Thunder

Author:

Genre:

Cert:
Brian Williams

Horror

U



I consider myself fortunate to have lived a long and active life. I have also always considered myself fortunate in my choice of home: although originally not from here, the town that I have lived in for many years gives me all that I could want in a place.

It is sufficiently large that it has a plentiful and varied supply of cafes, restaurants and night life, as well as ample shopping, several theatres, a cinema and excellent sports facilities. It is also situated so that London is an easy day-trip away for either business or pleasure.

Despite its size and proximity to the capital, it is still at the edge of genuine countryside. From my house, it is but a five minute walk out onto the rolling hills of southern England. The town itself straddles a river valley where a tributary of the mighty Thames cuts through the last line of hills before London. It is an important and strategic site and the town is suitably ancient, having been mentioned in the Doomsday book, with strong evidence of a Saxon settlement here at least 100 years before that.

The story I am about to tell took place not that long ago in one of the hot summers we are becoming accustomed to. It started with a low rumbling noise, a sound like distant thunder or perhaps a freight train or large, low-flying jet aircraft. That’s what I thought it was at first, but it started to come with increasing regularity. I was in my garden on several occasions and was able to exclude the aircraft and thunder as possibilities, while I was convinced that the local branch line that ran near my house did not carry freight.

It had been a strange year in other ways. Although the summer was hot, it was unseasonably hot in our locality. Frequently we made the evening’s weather forecasts as the hottest place in the country. There was also a spate of fish dying in the river a short way upstream of the town. Experts put it down to the heat, but the locals along that stretch of the water told stories of the river bubbling and hissing at night.

However, the river was only of passing interest to me and slowly, it was the noise that began to arouse my curiosity. It was a deep, rolling sound that made the house and ground shake ever so slightly and, being retired, widowed and having little else to do, I decided to track it down to its source.

Enquiries with the transport authorities soon confirmed my suspicions that it was not a train. Furthermore, I felt that the sound emanated in the other direction, away from the railway line and town and out in the country.

My story proper begins on the evening of one particularly hot day, too hot even to potter in my garden. I had been cooped up in my house, sweltering uncomfortably all day when the setting sun offered the promise of cooler air and I decided to go for a stroll. From the end of my road, there is a short footpath out onto the hills, where one is faced with a choice of walking: a swing to the right down to the river and then downstream to the town, or to the left, deeper into the hills themselves.

Such is the lie of the land, with the town on the sides of the river valley, that once you are out into the hills, the town is all but invisible to you. A favourite walk of mine is to strike out away from town and river towards a hill known locally as the Martyrs’ Hill. It stands alone at the end of a short ridge, offering fine views all around and, being as cool a place as any on a summer’s evening, I decided to make my way there.

I had often idly wondered at the name and who the martyrs were, but it was only subsequent investigations that I discovered that the martyrs were a group of local men, including some notable land owners, who were charged with witchcraft and devil worship. Found guilty, they were burnt on a mass bonfire on the top of the hill in the 13th Century.

However, all this was unknown to me as I started out for the hill. I had only just set out when I became aware of the low rumbling noise. I could hear it in the distance and feel it faintly in the ground beneath my feet. To my surprise, as I made my way towards the hill, it slowly increased in both volume and intensity. Reaching the hill, I felt as if the source of the vibrations was the hill itself, or something beneath it. Feeling that perhaps I was onto something I started to climb with renewed vigour.

The hill is heavily wooded, but there is a clearing at the top and in the centre of that clearing, on the summit of the hill, stands an old church. Although I did not know it at the time, it had been built in the 13th Century, just a few years after the “martyrs” had been burned alive there. However, by the end of the 19th Century, the church had fallen into disuse, being a good hour’s walk out of town and having no natural congregation to draw on for support. Throughout the 20th century, it had been slowly crumbling away, a victim of neglect. It was therefore something of a relief when five years ago, a local Lord and landowner had offered to buy the building from the church in order to restore it and use it as a venue for occasional public concerts and recitals.

Permission was rapidly granted and the building was quickly restored, although a few unkind souls complained about the lack of access to the hill during the six months the works were going on. Those living nearby also complained of massive trucks on the country lanes and wondered just how much material and machinery the restoration of a relatively small church required. However, these were just dismissed by the population as a whole, myself included, as a form of nimbyism.

The restoration was completed about four years ago and the church, no longer consecrated, held a series of summer concerts and recitals. For a while, it proved a popular venue, but the public sessions started to become more widely spaced, replaced by private gatherings for the Lord’s select invitees. Many a time, a passing walker would be drawn to the lighted windows and the sound of singing or music only to be politely but firmly turned away at the doors of the church by members of the Lord’s household.

One thing that struck me as I made my way up the final ascent to the top of the hill was just how oppressively hot it had become. I was used to the hill being a place of cool retreat, but now it felt as if the ground itself was radiating, making up for the sun which had not long set.

In the gathering gloom, I approached the church and saw two figures standing close to the doorway. I had hardly the time to register their presence when one motioned to the other and then said, quite loudly, “Look, there he is.”

“Come on,” the other called out to me. “You’re late.”

Up until that point I had had no plan other than to approach the two and pass the time of day, but on seeing that someone was expected and that had been mistaken for that someone, I suddenly decided to play the part and see where it took me.

Tramping quickly up to the two men, I decided the best course of action was to say nothing, lest my voice gave me away. Acting as if I was out of breath from a swift climb (which wasn’t far from the truth – while fit, I was not as active as in my younger days), I headed for the door, head down.

It is surprising what we will convince ourselves of if we have already made up our minds of something. Perhaps it was the fading light, but neither of the two men challenged me in any way or made to check my identity.

“Hurry up,” the first man said, holding the door to the church open for me. “You know the way.”

He had indicated with his head across the narrow nave to the far side of the dimly lit church where there was a door which I took to lead into the sacristy. Without stopping for thought, I strode through the door with a slight nod my head and made my way over to the place. It was here that I hesitated a moment, hand on the door knob. The sacristy could only be a small room and unless it was pitch dark, my intrusion would be immediately noticed.

Once again, however, the two men saved me.

“Don’t forget your cloak,” one called from across the nave, and, looking up, I saw a single, dark, hooded cloak hanging from a peg by the door. I nodded my thanks and, taking the cloak from the hook, swung it around my shoulders and pulled the hood over my head. Thus disguised, I opened the door and stepped into the room.

I don’t really know that I had any firm idea of what I should find in there: some vague thought of a small, secret meeting that I would have to bluster my way out of in an embarrassed fashion. What I had not expected was what I had found; a small room, bare except for a large trap door in the centre of the floor. It was open and I could see a flight of spiral stairs leading down, poorly lit by a series of light bulbs in intervals along the wall.

However, this was not my first impression. Upon opening the door I was immediately struck by a blast of heat emanating from the stairwell, followed immediately by the deep rumbling that had brought me here. At last, and almost by accident, I had found the source of my mystery. Wrapping the cloak around me, I forgot all thought of turning back and set off down the stairs to literally and metaphorically get to the bottom of things.

At first I just descended the stairs, but after two turns of the spiral I realised that this was no ordinary access to a cellar or a similar structure. The stairs occupied a deep shaft, from which the heat and noise grew with every step. I took to counting the stairs to gauge some idea of the depth and wondered as I descended at its origins.

The stairs themselves were of modern construction, but I sensed the shaft was older. It was lined with brick and had it been of modern construction, concrete would have been the natural choice. Furthermore, the bricks were old and crumbling; in the dim light I could see where they had been patched with more modern materials.

At 350 or thereabouts, I reached the bottom of the stairs which opened into some sort of antechamber. I think my approach, while not silent, was masked by the rumbling from below, because as I reached the bottom I came across two men standing in the opening. Before I could be seen, I stepped back into the shadows and listened.

Over the rumbling, I heard them talking and could make out most of their conversation.

“I don’t think Brother John is coming,” said one.

“Something must have happened,” the other replied. “Tonight of all nights.”

“Well, we cannot wait any longer. One will not make much of a difference. Are you agreed?”

“Yes. Let us proceed.”

Something else was said, but in a low voice I could not make out. Then, I heard both men.

“Brother Alexander. Tungsten.”

“Brother Clive. Tungsten.”

Suddenly the rumbling noise doubled in volume and there was a blast of heat as if someone had opened a door to a furnace. Then, just as quickly, the noise and heat died back to their previous levels. I waited there in silence for a minute or two and then looked out into the chamber. It was perhaps three metres by five at most, with a low roof. On the far side was a metal door set into the rock and as there was no sign of the men, I stepped into the room and approached the door.

“State your name and password,” said a low voice, which surprised me from a hidden speaker.

I hesitated and then gave my stolen identity.

“Brother John.”

As for the password, I could only assume it was the same phrase that the other men had spoken.

“Tungsten,” I said.

I need not have worried. The door slid open and the voice bade Brother John welcome. I stepped through into the heat and felt the noise assail me like a physical thing.

What I found beyond that door is not easy for me to write of, nor are my memories of it firm. I think that is a result of the human mind’s capacity and desire for survival: to willingly forget what it cannot bear to remember.

Let me be brief. I found the source of my mystery and more than I had ever bargained for. An underground complex had been built beneath the church and the signposts that pointed to storerooms, workshops, generator rooms and the like gave away its considerable size. I was instinctively led to the main hall, a large cavern filled with hooded figures like myself.

It is here that my memory fails me. Along with my fellow humans there were also things in that cavern that were not of this world. I am a scientific man and I can say with some confidence that what I saw, while bearing a passing resemblance to the human form, was like nothing on earth. Let me say further that no mutation or genetic manipulation could have given rise to those creatures. They were distinctly of a different place or even dimension.

I joined the back of a crowd of hooded men and saw at the front of the cavern a stage. His Lordship was there, along with other prominent local men (but no women) that I recognised. Behind them was the source of the noise: a massive structure which I instantly recognised as a particle accelerator. While an engineer by profession, I have long held an interest in particle physics and instinctively knew that this was some form of field generator. A leap of faith led me to the conclusion that it was a portal, a gateway to some other place, whether in our universe or another, I do not know.

I think I knew this before I saw the events of that evening unfold, but I cannot be sure of the sequence of events and my thoughts. I cannot even be sure of what I saw.

His Lordship was just starting a speech when I entered. It was a passionate, confident, inspiring speech, about the future and destiny. He spoke of power, and of order, and then he spoke of visitors, of the things that were not human in the room. It became clear that these had been called forth from another place and with their aid, those in the room would rule, first this country, and then, in time, the world.

At the end of the speech, he exhorted us to be ready and a low chanting sprung up. It felt like a spell or ritual, but was in no language that I knew or recognised. I do not know its purpose. Perhaps it was just for show, or maybe it was a necessary part of the proceedings. Perhaps the portal merely opened the way and the chanting was required to summon whatever lay on the other side.

A figure left the crowd and joined those on the stage. The chanting increased in intensity, the portal pulsed and then something truly hideous seemed to come forth from it. Momentarily it hung on the stage and the chanting faltered. The man backed away only to be held by two of the things. It seemed to me that a shadow enveloped the man and then, suddenly, it was gone, as if it had been sucked inside him. The things stepped away and the chanted regained its former certainty as another stepped up from the crowd.

I watched in horror and fascination as this was repeated once and then twice. I do not know how long I would have stood there. Perhaps I too would have been drawn up to the stage and joined with a visitor from beyond the portal. I certainly had no thought of action until I caught sight of an urgent figure force his way onto the stage and catch his Lordship by the arm, whispering something into his ear. His reaction was of a man stung and he swiftly gave orders, dispatching those on stage. Seconds later, the doors to the main hall swung shut, but it was too late. Intuition had warned me that my intrusion had been noticed and I slipped into the shadows and out of the hall before I could be shut in.

Away from the chanting and the hypnotic throb of the portal, my mind cleared and I knew what I must do. A secret plan was underway to take over the world: I knew that I must stop it. I followed signs to the generator room and there I found the means to accomplish my goal. A large generator seemed to supply power to the complex and was fed from a fuel tank. A lifetime in engineering identified the weak-point in the design and soon I had fuel oil spilling over the floor.

A match completed the task and I started a blaze in that confined space that no man could extinguish. I had no real thought for my own safety at that point, assuming I would perish with the rest as the flames consumed the oxygen in the complex. However, the human instinct for survival is strong and I found myself fleeing the scene, knowing that to stand a chance of survival, I had to get below the source of the fire. Returning the way I had come offered me nothing but a swift death.

I hadn’t gone far when I met with two hooded figures coming towards me from the main hall, obviously looking for me. Even then, I could have been caught, but I had a sudden inspiration.

“Quick!” I shouted as I rushed towards them, pointing back the way I had come. “The intruder has set a fire in the generator room. Try and put it out while I raise the alarm.”

Without stopping, they rushed past me and I rushed past them, heading for a tunnel I had seen earlier. It ran away from the complex with a steep gradient, carrying a large pipe. I assumed that it carried water used to cool the generator and reasoned it was my only hope of escape. Although we were deep under the hill, I felt we were still higher than the river, which is surely where the pipe must lead.

The last thing I remember of my flight is the sound of a massive explosion and the buck of the floor of the tunnel under my feet. Then all was dark and it seemed that I floated in a black emptiness for an eternity before I realised that I was lying on wet grass, looking up at the night sky. I staggered to my feet and found myself on the river bank, wet, bruised and, I realised later, profoundly deaf. I took my bearings and knew I was about a mile upstream of the town. Looking to the hill, I could see a tall column of smoke ascending to the heavens.

The aftermath of the explosion under Martyrs’ Hill is well recorded in the local and national press. Although there was no official, definitive explanation, popular opinion laid the blame on the terrorists so often at the forefront of people’s minds at that time. Clearly they had been planning some outrage and had a bomb-making factory under the church which had gone off prematurely. The fire itself had totally destroyed the structure and collapsed the entrance shaft, so no thorough investigation could be made. Of the location of the exit point of the tunnel that had saved my life, I could never find any evidence.

I did consider going to the authorities with my story, but one thing put me off. His Lordship was not alone on the stage, for as well as several prominent business people, I also recognised the county’s Chief Constable and our MP. I have no way of knowing how far the conspiracy went, but I am sure that it extended beyond those who died that night, for stories of the sudden disappearance of so many prominent people were conspicuous by their absence in the press.

Of course, notices of their deaths and the subsequent obituaries followed over the next few days, but their deaths were ordinary and mundane. Only if you knew of the prior link would you have thought to put them together.

Silence, of course, is my other option and one I exercised for a while. However, I know I cannot remain silent forever. Although I stopped this attempt, I believe that those on the other side of the portal are as patient as they are ambitious. It was not a coincidence that the Martyrs’ Hill was chosen, for I believe that the Devil worshippers of the 13th Century were also trying to summon the same creatures to our planet. Regardless of the truth of that conjecture, what is certain is that man has made contact with an alien intelligence and we have the technology and the knowledge to re-open the portal that I closed. While I would like to think that it did, I am sure that this knowledge did not die in the fire. Even if that were the case, mankind will one day reinvent it.

That is why I have committed my tale to paper, even though I am sure it will be the death of me. No newspaper will publish this piece, but as a work of fiction it will be read. I have included enough facts for those of you who are interested to check the veracity of my story. Please do: you will find it easy to identify the town and the hill and to corroborate the main events of my narrative.

Of course, that is not proof. By I implore you, if you have power or influence, organise an excavation of the Martyrs’ Hill. While my fire was thorough, it will not have destroyed everything. I am sure that in the charred remains of the complex there will remain sufficient remnants to allow a DNA examination. I am equally sure that this will show that what is buried beneath this hill did not, and cannot, have come from this planet and thus prove the essential truth of my story.



© Brian Williams, 2009



© CoolShortStories.com, 2010