the next three days we saw or heard nothing more of our strange
and I would have been inclined to dismiss them but for the
blasé attitude of the Institute’s control centre.
an off-handishness in the way the matter had been summarily
dismissed that nagged at Robina and me. But for that I probably
would not have bothered setting up spotlights to try and light
up whatever had passed over should they return again during
with control on the night of the first fly-by, for the first
time Robina and I questioned our association with the World
I were brought together by Brogovnia. We had been working within
different sections of the Institute and had never met. When
global attention was suddenly focused on Brogovnia the Institute
swung its considerable expertise into action, aided by generous
finance poured into its coffers by the world’s concerned governments.
knew the cause of the disturbances at Brogovnia and when after
a while the Institute finally began to piece together what
was going on, no-one wanted to know. For a while governments
continued to pay lip service to putting matters right while
at the same time cutting funding to the Institute to strangle
its involvement. It was too late for that, however, but the
perpetrators of global politics could not be restrained although
Brogovnia represented an undeniable threat to their very existence.
I began working together at first as strangers belonging to
the same organisation. Before long we realised we were both
lonely people isolated in our work yet each with much in common
and six months later we were close friends. By the end of the
first year, after living together for some months we married
in a quiet, unattended ceremony and bought a house on the edge
of Ashurst Forest, a short drive from the Institute’s location
of the Institute for the first time disturbed us. Although
we had known we would be isolated at Brogovnia, we had not
paid as much attention to that aspect as perhaps we should
have. It was only when we came to realise just how isolated
we were that things took on a different meaning. What would
happen if major earthquakes started? In the past they had erupted
without warning and it would be weeks before any rescue could
be attempted, possibly months. We tried to convince ourselves
we mattered to them but the doubts remained.
We had a two-man
helicopter to get us off the ground and keep us airborne hopefully
long enough to escape the worst–Robina had been trained to
fly the thing–if we could get it in the air in time from out
of its shelter, if wind conditions allowed, if, if, so many
given up," was Robina’s attempt at explanation. "Maybe they
know something we don’t and know nothing matters because whatever’s
going to happen will happen no matter what…"
that," I said. "We know as much as anyone." I tried to sound
more convincing than I felt. There was an uneasily raw perception
behind her comments that I couldn’t shake.
On the ninth
night we had the second fly-by, later in the evening than the
time before but just as unnerving. I’d rigged up a parabolic
dish reflector to serve as a microphone that could be focused
in tandem with the spotlight. The wind had gathered strength
and the temperature had dropped but it was still many degrees
above freezing when we heard the approaching sound.
"Hit the switch!" I
yelled to Robina as I grabbed my parka and ran through the
a crazy man I swung the spotlight around and up, tonight there
was cloud cover and no stars to denote the passage of whatever
was above. The squawking came again, just as loud and intense
as before and as the halogen bulb reached full intensity I
tried to catch some glimpse of what was up there.
A black, heaving
mass was overhead and the narrow beam of the spotlight could
only pick out a small section but by sweeping the beam back
and forth I realised the mass was huge, though too high to
see enough detail to tell what it was. I tried matching the
speed of the movement with the beam and thought for a moment
I saw long necks and wide wings but I couldn’t be sure. Robina
high!" I yelled against the squawking. "Check the recorder."
stood transfixed and didn’t budge so I yelled again. "Go on,
she understood and ran to the cabin. As she reached the door
the squawking abruptly stopped, but the heavy beating noise
and the sound of something akin to a large mass passing overhead
remained for a few moments more before it too faded. I tried
following the sound with the beam but saw nothing useful.
Back in the
cabin Robina was checking the recording equipment.
"I think we
go it," she said excitedly. "I’ll run it through."
As she rewound
the tape I shut down the spotlight and closed the door, hitting
the shutter control at the same time. It was wise not to take
chances out here.
A few moments
later we listened to the recording. It was recognisable to
us but of poor quality in comparison and I doubted it would
be of much use by the time it had been transmitted and received
at the Institute’s control centre. Still, it was better than
an hour to go to our scheduled transmission at 8pm so we sat
to some food and to enjoy some beer from our supplies. Sipping
the beer, I tried making sense of what we’d seen and heard.
crazy I know, but they looked, well from what little I could
they looked like swans. But they weren’t white. They had, at
least I thought I could see, long necks and big wings. Christ,
there must have been thousands of them up there."
very little and just sat deep in thought. Finally we gave up
the guesswork and readied ourselves to speak with the control
centre. Robina made the connection and we heard control telling
us there was nothing knew for us to know before they asked
for any update from our end. Robina said we’d managed to capture
some sounds on tape and asked control to prepare to receive
and record the material.
As we waited
for confirmation before transmitting the recording I conveyed
my observations to control.
crazy telling you this, but they looked like swa…, like black swans.
I mean, you know, swans, out here? Black ones? But they don’t
sound like any swans I’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard enough," I
the recording doesn’t convey it, but I’d guess there were
thousands of them. Certainly hundreds no matter what.
have been known out here in the past but I don’t think I have
to point out they don’t fly." I wished I could shut up. The
more I said the crazier it sounded.
in silence as the recording was transmitted. If only one of
us had seen and heard it, things might have been real tough.
At least Robina and myself had each other’s confirmation to
bolster ourselves. There was a moment of awkward silence after
the tape stopped playing before control came back on air.
it sounds like there was something there." Not so bored
this time, but still hesitant. "Look, we’ll get onto it for
you, we’ve a few ideas this end."
For a moment
I amused myself with wondering just what explanation a seismic
research institute might come up with for the sounds on the
tape, then I got back to informing control that all instrument
readings had been clear of disturbance and relaying information
about the weather conditions.
to you guys tomorrow, same time. Bye," said the voice and clicked
off. Another beer later and Robina and I turned in early for
alarm woke us and for a moment I lay wondering where we were
and what was going on before the penny dropped and I scrambled
out of the warm bed.
distracted by Robina’s nakedness as she ran from the bed to
the monitors, it took me longer than it should to realise I
couldn’t feel any tremors or anything untoward.
the cliffs area," said Robina, hunching over the monitors and
giving me a luxuriously erotic display of her long legs and
delicious thighs. She slowly straightened up but kept her eyes
on the monitors. "We should be feeling something," she added.
I was, but
not what she was thinking. I stood still also, feeling a little
foolish at my own nakedness and the glimmer of an erection,
which I couldn’t help but think of as incongruous to the possible
advent of an earthquake. Still, nothing, thankfully.
We stood waiting
as if for the inevitable, knowing if an earthquake came of
anything like the magnitude of the others we’d be needing a
lot more than luck to survive.
making sense." She was pulling on a dressing gown and fastening
the waist band. "It’s registering something we should be feeling," she
her at the monitors I had to agree. I studied the graphs. "Maybe
there’s a fault with the tremblers."
tinged with disappointment and I marvelled over it. I told
Robina and she took it all in a matter of fact way. We were
there for and because of earthquakes–we lived and breathed
seismic activity and neither of us had ever actually experienced
any except for a minuscule tremor, which happened when we were
on holiday in Norfolk and really caused nothing more than a
conversation piece in the region. An earthquake in Brogovnia
could destroy literally everything including us.
rationality inched its way back and advantage disappointment
dropped to deuce then faded forty love to relief. Robina poured
brandy into two glasses and began heating water.
it neat," I said as she passed me the tumbler. She took the
kettle off the heat again and sipping at her own neat drink
checked on the monitors again.
the screens all showed unflinchingly steady lines. "We’d better
check the equipment in the morning—it’ll be the perfect chance
to get a look at the cliffs," I said.
were the result of the last quake. Satellite pictures revealed
a huge fissure sliced through solid rock to leave a jagged
cliff some three hundred feet high. The pictures were reminiscent
of a lunar landscape and I was keen to visit the area. Seismology
had given me an interest in geology and fossils and I wondered
what we might find.
We spent some
lazy hours pottering about the cabin and trying to feel busy.
At 8pm we were back on the telephone radio to control.
there was something more like interest in the voice.
you guys, we got some news. We had that recording analysed
by a specialist
from London Zoo. I’m not sure you’re up to this, but she says
she’s practically a hundred per cent sure it’s vultures."
I stared at each other for so long control thought we’d gone
Oh, yeah. Vultures? Does this specialist know where we are?" I
In fact she was embarrassed at telling us, so much so that
she’s the best in the field she still wanted and got confirmation
from Marwell Zoological Centre."
I was familiar
with Marwell and knew the calibre of staff working there. I
didn’t know what to say next.
me to requisition some bird seed next time we call." It didn’t
I let control
know of the disturbance registered by the equipment and the
fact that we’d felt nothing and would be checking out the instrument
site in the morning.
an eye open for vultures too." Any moment now and I’d wake
up from this insanity.
wore the gown and it had slipped slightly open. The image added
to those of before. A gleam flashed in her eyes as she saw
my look and with the added aphrodisiac of danger still in our
veins and the images of vultures overhead there was no holding
or Courtship Canyon as I later christened it, stretched for
nearly three-quarters of a mile and the instruments were located
some two thirds of the way along from our point of entry.
pictures may have been reminiscent of the moon but they still
didn’t prepare us for the rugged reality of the terrain. Before
getting into the canyon we had to gingerly climb over a huge
dam of large boulders blocking one hundred yards of its mouth
like the strewn leftovers of an avalanche, at one point piled
to over one hundred feet high. Beyond the boulders the way
was relatively clear. A lumbering dinosaur would have looked
at home in this prehistoric setting.
was less tough but still not easy.
stay in the centre, away from the cliffs," I said, wary of
the steep rock faces which, going by the stones and boulders
scattered around, were prone to indiscriminately shedding missiles.
swung gently to the left and we could only see about one hundred
yards or so ahead. Being sandwiched between the two cliffs
was a little like being in Manhattan. A small rock bounced
down the cliff face, dislodging others as it fell. I imagined
what a nightmare it might be to be caught in the canyon on
a wild night with heavy rain and driving wind and rocks the
size of double decked buses breaking free and crashing down.
"Maybe a rock
fall set the instruments off," I ventured.
stooped to pick up something. It was a small and thin weathered
last of the Mohicans," she quipped. Then:- "Rocks would have
given a less uniform reading than what we saw."
It was true,
the reading had been steady. More likely a fault, I thought.
"Why Mohicans?" I
"Why not?" she
said. "Nothing else in this place seems to make any sense."
I let that
one go. Up ahead a short way the canyon twisted sharply to
the right and I was getting less keen on this blind adventure
by the minute. The place was practically unexplored except
for air reconnaissance and that wasn’t by any means round the
clock, more like every year or so. A lot could be missed. I
knew there shouldn’t be anything up ahead but I had the jitters
none the less.
me lightly on the arm with the piece of bone Robina said: "This
could belong to a bird, you know."
I took it
from her as we walked. She was right, but it could also belong
to a large rodent, or anything for that matter. I wasn’t any
authority on bones and this one could have fitted dozens of
different animals as far as I was able to tell.
be anything," I said and tossed it away without thinking before
Robina could stop me. She retrieved it straight away and tucked
it into a breast pocket.
a good memento when we leave," she said. "A bone… in this place?
It’s a little like finding a party in a mortuary."
at the comparison. We rounded the sharp twist in the canyon
and found it straightened out for several hundred yards. We
knew the canyon ended in sheer cliffs enclosing an area the
size of a football pitch after the straight section and the
instruments were located just within the enclave. We trudged
on, bothered by the sticky heat. We each carried survival packs,
thermo-blankets capable of retaining body heat in extremes
of cold not even reached in Brogovnia.
casing of the instrument cover glinted. The seismometer was
buried beneath in an reinforced steel tube and could be adjusted
by removing the lid of the casing if desired. There was an
access port and Robina had packed one of the laptops. We reached
the cover and as I began to open it she took the laptop out
of her pack and began attaching the cabling. Then the first
shriek of wind alerted us to the climate swing.
already onto it, cramming the laptop back into her pack and
dragging out her thermoblanket as I snapped the seismometer
cover back down and pulled the emergency thermo-bivouac from
my own pack. The bivouac snapped open at a touch, it was just
big enough for the two of us but had to be anchored quickly.
were already attached and I ran to the lee cover of the cliff
face, finding a small recess that afforded some shelter from
any rocks that might tumble from above and, using the small
hammer clipped to it, secured the bivouac in place. The wind
was already starting to freeze my cheeks as I shoved Robina
in through the bivouac opening, squeezing myself in after her
and fastening the easiclose multi-layer zip. I clipped the
emergency light to the hook in the apex and shook out my own
thermoblanket before pulling on mittens.
We had the
best in survival equipment, made from materials developed by
NASA and guaranteed to provide protection against the cold
of this region. I just hoped we didn’t take a direct hit from
falling rock, it wouldn’t afford any protection against that.
I hoped too that the cold snap was a short one, otherwise we’d
have an extremely uncomfortable time as we’d have to make it
back to the cabin in short spurts. We each had three days supply
of emergency high energy survival food, chemically heated and
light to carry but our only chance of survival if the cold
snap dragged on was to make it back to the cabin.
survivable temperatures outweighed the extremes in duration
but some cold snaps had been known to last up to three
days. I hoped this wasn’t one of them. We huddled tightly together,
the thermo blankets under and over us and sealed. All we could
do was wait.
We slept for
a while secure in our warmth but aware just how treacherously
cold it was. We had no metal articles next to our skin, metal
could get so cold as to burn right into the flesh.
I awoke, the bivouac’s external temperature indicator read
65°. We’d slept for nearly four hours and I was glad it wasn’t
colder. We’d studied the weather patterns carefully and knew
the Brogovnia Run was, if nothing else, reliable in its monotony.
When temperatures swung, the extremes of the first hour would
be the maximum for that swing, no matter how long it continued.
Robina still slept and I was about to rejoin her when I caught
the distant sounds of squawking. I gave it a moment to be sure,
then gently shook Robina.
said as she stirred.
she was still groggy from sleep and the cold, her eyes told
she too heard. "The temperature’s falling but it’s still minus
sixty. What the hell is that?" My question was beyond
a noticeable rhythm to the squawking, which somehow didn’t
seem that distant. As I lay trying to figure it out my eyes
strayed over the temperature gauge. It had risen to minus forty.
It was a ludicrous situation and I could imagine Mervyn Peake
tapping at the bivouac. There he’d be in beach shorts with
a mug in his hand.
me," he’d say, "but would you mind awfully if I borrowed a
cup of sugar from you? Dashed if I can find a shop anywhere and
I really must get back to my room of roots."
"No problem," I’d
say, giving him a fistful of saccharine tablets. In under a
minute I’d composed three chapters around the demented scene.
If sheep could fly Westminster would be jammed with collies
carrying banners proclaiming ‘dogs not helicopters’.
out," I said, trying to make myself believe it. Robina nodded.
She knew it had to be done.
The cold intruded
into the unzipped bivouac like some uninvited and unwelcome
guest trying to make itself at home. Outside, the absence of
snow and ice made it seem all the colder. Breath hung in the
air like a speech bubble. Trying to burrow deeper within my
parka I chaffed my face with mittened hands as Robina emerged
"You okay?" I
asked. She nodded. The sheer cliff walls forming the enclosure
rose some three hundred feet and I wondered what lay beyond
their rim. I had the field glasses out and at the far end of
the enclosure, outlined against the sky, I could see what looked
like ragged, leafless trees, pitifully stark. Danté would
have loved the place.
okay to check out the seismometer? I’d like to get a quick
it was okay. Behind her about fifty yards away and close to
the cliff base I could see a narrow pillar of rock, perhaps
twenty feet tall. But it was something I’d spotted on the far
side of the enclosure I wanted a closer look at.
I could see
an opening at the base of the far cliff, some sort of cave
and it looked quite cavernous but it was too far off and too
dark within to see anything from where we were. Robina was
about to dismantle the bivouac.
a while, just in case," I said. I gestured across the enclosure. "I’ll
be over there. Use the whistle if you need me." Bringing the
pea-whistles was my own idea, a throw back to my mountaineering
and fell walking days.
was still frozen solid between the broken rock and boulders
but I could tell the temperature was rising steadily. Picking
my way over towards the opening I looked in vain for any sign
of present or past vegetation. Nothing. Behind me Robina was
hunkered over the buried seismometer.
yards from the cavern entrance I came into a small arena encircled
by large rocks. The ground in the arena was fairly level in
comparison with the surroundings and covered in large slabs
of what looked like slate. I guessed it was an abnormality
caused by differing temperatures acting on the rock. Many of
them had reddish brown patches, unlike anything I’d seen on
my walk across the enclosure. Closer examination of the patches
left me none the wiser and I pocked a small piece of rock to
examine it in detail back at the cabin.
It was getting
warmer and opening my parka I guessed that the temperature
had now risen some way above freezing. I glance back to see
what Robina was up to. She was breaking down the bivouac. Seeing
me looking in her direction she raised a hand in acknowledgement.
I waved back.
of the cavern hinted at its depth. I stood in the opening and
shouted, hearing my voice wash away into the gloom. The small
flashlight I carried failed to penetrate to any great depth
and I was reluctant to explore too deeply without better light.
Picking up a small pebble I threw it as hard as I could into
the gloom and it sounded like it travelled the full length
of my throw without hitting any wall. Making a mental note
to return and better explore the place I headed back out into
the cold sunlight. Whispy clouds smeared the wide circle of
sky above the enclosure.
see Robina and for a moment I panicked before acknowledging
to myself that she was quite capable of looking after herself.
Scientist she might be but prima donna she definitely was not.
I’d once seen her sock a US marine hard enough on the jaw to
lay him out in a Portsmouth harbour bar after he’d made a smart
ass remark at her.
at an Institute Christmas party that later ended in the bar
and there became engaged in conversation with the marine. I
only knew her as another associate at the time. I wasn’t paying
particular attention to the conversation but heard her forthrightly
tell the marine there were people in the world who would monopolise
your time to their own advantage and it was wise to fuck those
people off. To this day I still don’t know what he said to
her, but from then on she was never fond of swearing.
I was half
way back toward the bivouac before I spotted her exploring
along the base of the cliff towards the pillar of rock. As
I changed course to join her I heard a terrifying screech that
sent my nape hair cold and stopped me in my tracks. It came
from beyond where Robina stood and I was still trying to comprehend
what it was when I heard a full volley of the same screeching.
looking towards some point at the top of the cliffs ahead of
her and scanning the rim. I thought I saw something move but
it was too indistinct, too vague. Then Robina was running towards
something I couldn’t see and shouting so I too broke into a
She was a
fast runner and I lost sight of her as she ran behind a large
cluster of boulders. Then I too was among the boulders frantically
trying to spot her and skidding shocked to a halt when I did.
She was down
on one knee holding something bulky and dark and I could see
feathers and claws and a long scrawny neck and blood and a
hooked beak and closed eyes and the encyclopaedia in my brain
turned hundreds of pages in a nano second and I thought it’s
a vulture good god Robina’s down on one knee in this god forsaken
place holding a VULTURE in her arms for GOD’S SAKE and I didn’t
think what’s a vulture doing here and I did think what
a shame I didn’t bring some bread…
"I think it’s
dying," she said.
said and all I could think was please put it down Robina
know vultures get fleas worse than hedgehogs before the notion
then crossed my mind to write a song I could one day play in
some bar if we ever get back to any place with a bar and it
would be all about my woman being down on one knee in Brogovnia
comforting a dying vulture.
* * *