The sky roared. The wind howled and screamed at anything strong enough to stand in its way. Between the darkening twilight and the thickening clouds, the sky had descended into an impenetrable expanse of inky black. The ferocity of the storm had long since smeared away the boundary between the ocean and the sky, the water only recognisable by the foaming white terror of the waves – whose relentless crashing against the land could be heard even from the house. The rugged moors that swept up from the beach to the town had easily adopted the monotone colours of the storm. Each and every plant thrashed about – firmly anchored in the ground yet irresistibly compelled to join the wind in the sky. Nature was at war against nature.
Then, of course, there was the thunder. It wasn’t intermittent like it was earlier, but constant and furious. The cacophony, framed by the rest of the chaos around it, was like the noise of a thousand metal barrels rolling down the side of a rocky mountain.
Rhona pulled her quilt closer around her. Her bedside lamp flickered. In her attic bedroom, she was sure she could hear the tiles rattling off the roof, though she was probably just imagining it. It had been a while since she’d tried to go to sleep and she had long since given up on the possibility of getting any shut-eye at a reasonable time. She slipped out of bed and, pulling on her dressing gown, walked over to the dormer window sticking out of the sloped roof. It was only small; Uncle Brag couldn’t fit in the little alcove of the window comfortably, so she often considered it her own personal nook where she could sit with her thoughts and watch the world go by.
Sitting on the small wooden shelf beneath the window, she pressed her face up against the glass to allow her gaze to penetrate the fizz of droplets rattling the glass. The glass felt cool on her nose and her breath periodically misted up the view in front of her. She could just make out the foam of the sea in the distance and the silhouette of the writhing young oak nearby, but not much else. Turning off her bedside lamp allowed her eyes to adjust to the darkness. Even then it was hard to make much out – everything outside just looked bleak and cold and horrible, in the same dreary shade of grey. Rhona just sat there for a moment, mesmerised by how the heather undulated and waved in unison with the wind, almost like the sea itself.
In an explosion of pure light, everything was illuminated.
For a split second Rhona saw everything outside in exquisite, contrasting detail – every leaf on the tree, every plant on the moors, every wave in the sea – before all was plunged back into a shroud darkness. She flinched back slightly in response to the sudden sensory overload. A long, rolling rumble ground its way across the sky and right through the house. Rhona’s heart skipped a beat. Lightning!
Reaching for her duffel coat on a nearby hook, she reached her set of binoculars out of a pocket and looked through one of the eyepieces. She had bought the binoculars a couple of years ago at a car boot sale – one of the lenses was broken so she always used it as a telescope and her uncle had kept offering to buy her a new pair, but she liked the leather straps and scratched metal of the ones she had, and eventually he had conceded. She loved her Uncle Brag, and he had always been very nice to her – unless she’d been naughty, of course – but he could be such a fuss sometimes. He always wanted to keep her close like he was worried she’d get into trouble one day. Sometimes she found it stifling.
Her thoughts brought her to the events of that evening; the book, the chest, her uncle’s reaction; she was sure there was something he wasn’t telling her, something he was hiding. Normally she would have just asked – he was usually quite open – but when it came to certain topics – their family, Uncle Brag’s upbringing, the study – the openness abruptly ended. He would find something to do, or promise to tell her some other time, or converse her into a dead end. She was cut off. Again, she loved her Uncle Brag, but it confused her how someone so kind could be so restrictive, how someone so open could be so cagey.
As she meandered through her own musings, her attention was drawn from the ground below to the sky above. There wasn’t much to see in the darkness, but in the brief bursts of clarity the lightning provided she was able to observe the towering might of the storm clouds. These clouds were the size of mountains, carved out with cliffs and crevices and tunnels and outcrops like the most intricate of geological features. As the troubled clouds struck inland from the sea, they fell on top of each other and reshaped themselves in slow motion; a constant state of flux. With her binoculars, Rhona found herself concentrating on a hole that had opened up in one of the clouds, permitting a view deeper into the storm. This region was particularly violent, lightning bolts flashing between clouds every few seconds like intermittent tendrils of magnificent blue fire.
Flash. Boom. Lightning flickered through the darkness.
Flash. Boom. Like a deep cave illuminated by a camera flash, the centre of the storm flared with light then faded into obscurity.
Rhona turned over her binoculars and rubbed one of the lenses. What had she just seen? She aimed back where she was looking and waited for another lightning flash.
There it was again.
Silhouetted against the flashes of lightning within the storm, she could see… what? It was shaped a bit like a whale, but that would be ridiculous. It could have been an aeroplane, but it was far too large and fat to be that. Maybe it was a UFO? As she wondered, she noticed that it was moving down rapidly. Falling? No, not that rapidly. She pressed her eye harder into the binoculars as the silhouette moved down against the dark backdrop of the storm. For a moment she thought she’d lost it as it was engulfed in cloud, but a chance lightning bolt allowed her to reacquire it as it continued its descent.
It was getting bigger, she was sure of it. Or at least closer. It was coming right toward her! As it did so it also seemed to get fuzzier, and as it neared the beach it looked for all the world like a cloud. But it couldn’t be. Something wasn’t right. Clouds don’t move like that; they certainly don’t move like that in such weather.
Eventually, the grey cloud settled in a small cove away from the town, further up the beach, where it thickened and spread out in place. Any tendrils of cloud which strayed too far from the shelter of the cove were quickly whipped up by the wind and carried away into the continuing ferocity of the storm. After several minutes of observing this behaviour under the unideal illumination of lightning, Rhona sat back and wondered what to do. She bristled with curiosity; she had to do something. If she went to bed now the strange object could be gone with the storm by morning, just as suddenly as it came.
A few frantic minutes of internal debate passed in her head. She checked back through her binoculars to make sure it was still there. It was, but for how much longer?
She had to go out there. The mere thought of it made her shiver; not just the idea of going out in such a storm, but of betraying her uncle’s trust. He’d be furious if she went out at night on her own – and rightly so; it was dangerous. She could slip over and break her leg, or get dragged out the sea by the waves. But still… there was a part of her mind which dared her to do it, dared her to venture out into the night and discover whatever was out there. Uncle Brag didn’t even need to find out; if she was extra careful and extra quiet and came back in good time, she imagined, he could find her lying peacefully in bed by the morning, none the wiser to her expeditions the previous night.
Rhona bit her lip and glanced over to the duffel coat hanging on the wall.
She grabbed it and headed for the door.
* * *
Uncle Brag always went to his room to read not long after her bedtime, so Rhona knew she wouldn’t bump into him as she crept downstairs to the hallway. As soon as she left her room a million doubts rushed into her head. She could get into real trouble. Big trouble. Was she really going to do this? There was still time to go back to bed and forget about the whole thing. But she had already decided; she was going out there, and if she was quiet about it then nobody needed be any the wiser.
Rhona crept down the stairs as carefully as she could, wincing with every creak and pop made by the wooden boards. As she went down to the hallway she thought through everything she would need for the excursion; her coat, her wellington boots, maybe a snack… sneaking to the kitchen she rooted through the fridge and rooted out a plastic box of beige hummus. Hummus was one of her favourite things; she brought some to school every day to have at break time – it perfectly fit in her coat pocket. Slipping her feet into her wellington boots, Rhona headed for the door.
She needed a torch.
It was only a few seconds before she was picking through the dark study – the big torch was kept in the desk drawer. Rhona found she was beginning to rush, scared that if she stopped to think any longer she would side with her better judgement and give up on the whole folly. She didn’t switch on the light, worried it would give her away if her uncle came out of his room.
It took a whole minute to complete the obstacle course of junk that filled the room, and a whole other minute to fumble through the drawers to find the torch. She pulled the switch to check it was working. A blinding shaft of white light beamed out of the torch, causing her to drop it on the desk with a loud clatter. It spun there for several turns, its beam illuminating the room like a lighthouse, throwing moving shadows across the walls as it went. Eventually, the beam settled on the book. It was the book she had found sitting on the windowsill that evening. The book that had fired up her curiosity in the first place. Maybe it and the strange thing that had fallen from the sky were connected? Or maybe she was, quite literally, chasing clouds.
Nevertheless, she took it and stuffed it in her coat pocket. She wasn’t sure why; it just felt reassuring, as if holding that little piece of the unknown would mean the much greater unknown which lay in wait outside would allow her to pass through unscathed.
Once her eyes had recovered from the glare of the torch, she picked it up and checked it over. The lens was cracked. Maybe it was like that before. It was an old torch, after all. Relieved it was still working, she used it to guide herself out of the study and toward the front door.
The door rattled in its frame as a fresh gust of wind threw itself directly at the front of the house. Gale-force drafts squealed through every crack and gap they could find. The storm continued to spit out its rage just an inch of wood away. Rhona undid the latch and reached for the brass handle. It was icy cold to the touch. Was she stepping outside or releasing a monster? Boldly, she turned the handle. The storm did the rest.
* * *
It took a few seconds to be soaked, a few minutes for the chill to reach her bones and about the same amount of time for regret to saturate her thoughts. The raging storm was no longer locked safely outside; she was in the centre of it; while the eternal walls of the house had kept it at bay, it took mere moments for the storm to tear and soak its way through her clothing. The wind and the thrashing rain did not merely buffet her but actively wore her into the ground. She wrapped her arms around herself and struggled to keep hold of the torch. Thick mud caked her boots, making them feel more like bricks wrapped around her feet than items of footwear. Each footstep increased the roar and fury of the sea ahead.
Despite everything, she pressed on. She had already gone too far to turn back, already made her decision. The storm’s efforts to push her back only gave her something to fight against and strengthened her resolve. Soon she was clambering and slipping down the steep path toward the sea; the further she went the more the wind and rain died down as she entered the shadow of the cove. The way ahead became more and more obscured by the mysterious cloud ahead until…
A wall of mist stood before her. Wisps of grey vapour drifted and twirled in front of her. A relative calm existed as the nearby headland shielded the cove from the brunt of the storm; only occasional errant gusts of wind served to punctuate the stillness. Even the sea was quieter.
Rhona pulled down her hood – her orange hair was soaked and matted anyway – and reached a hand forward. She couldn’t feel a thing. The torch failed to penetrate the mist or reveal any of its secrets – all it returned was a dull reflected glow. Her imagination filled in for everything she couldn’t see ahead. Was this mist actually smoke from a crashed plane? Or an alien spaceship? She had to investigate.
Inadvertently holding her breath, she strode into the mist before she could have second thoughts; its tendrils immediately wrapped around her, cutting her off from the rest of the world. Unlike the storm, this mist seemed much more eager to admit her – Rhona wasn’t sure if that relieved or unnerved her.
She must have been walking for nearly a minute before she finally stopped. It crossed her mind that she had absolutely no idea where she was any more. The path had long been replaced by pebbles, so she was clearly on the beach, but there was absolutely no indication of where the path was or how to get back. She couldn’t see anything apart from the ground at her feet; everywhere the torch was pointed was featureless grey and everywhere else was darkness. It was then that Rhona began to feel genuinely scared. So far any fears and doubts had been quickly pushed out of mind but things were finally catching up on her. What if she ended up wandering around the beach all night, trying to find a way back? She shivered in the cold. Nobody knew where she was. There would be nobody coming to find her for a long time. Why hadn’t she just stayed at home? In vain, she cried out, “Hello?” Her voice was meek and quiet.
Then, somewhere to her right – she couldn’t tell how far away – she saw two orange lights. They flickered occasionally like candles or lanterns, and as they came closer they revealed the barely-distinguishable silhouettes of two people. She could hear voices; they were talking, but she couldn’t make out what was being said; caution stopped her from calling to them, and they soon faded back into the mist. Suddenly, she found her voice again, “Hello? Is anybody there?” She ran in the general direction of where she disappeared, but to no avail – there were voices all around, barely audible but they were there, she was sure of it. She ran in another direction, the pebbles crunching beneath her boots as they stumbled about wildly, running in circles. Trying to calm herself down, Rhona listened out for the sea; walking away from the sea should take her off the beach and back onto the moors and hopefully out of the mist.
But it was a different sound that caught her attention. A regular huffing, like a dog panting but constant and metallic. Rhona swung around, trying to ascertain the source of the sound. A few seconds of walking later, a large object began to emerge from the mist. It was a ship.
The vessel was in the style of the old-fashioned sailing ships she saw on television; much bigger than a rowing boat but much smaller than a galleon, it had a top deck with a lower deck underneath. The appearance of such an old-fashioned looking ship was strange enough, but the strangest thing was how it appeared to have run aground in the middle of the beach, sitting in a small crater in the pebbles. A large wooden plank extended from the top deck to the beach below. Rhona turned off the torch – the multitude of lanterns hanging from the structure provided ample illumination as they swung back and forth in the wind – and carefully walked up the plank onto the deck.
The heat from the lanterns pushed back the mist around the ship and allowed Rhona a view right across the deck. There didn’t seem to be anyone around. This was certainly no aeroplane or alien spaceship. In the middle of the deck sat a big metal cylinder lying on its side – it was about the size of a car and covered in pipes and black soot. Jutting out of the top of the machine was a metal chimney which repeatedly squirted out puffs of white smoke – smoke with the same wispy texture as the mist which filled the cove.
“So that’s where it’s coming from,” she said to herself. She was about to investigate further, but was distracted by voices in the distance. They were muffled and unclear, and soon faded back into the mist. Rhona shivered as a stray puff of wind blew across the boat, mist billowing aside before lazily drifting back over the deck. She was seriously beginning to consider whether this was in fact a ghost ship; in school she’d been told many stories of the smugglers who used to ply the coast on misty nights. Had their spirits returned to find treasure they had hidden long ago?
Another gust of wind sent heavy mist drifting away across the deck and drew Rhona’s attention to a new object. She had to walk right up to it to work out what it was. Sat on top of a wooden pillar on the edge of the deck was a long pole made up of the plastic insulation she saw on electricity pylons – lots of plastic discs stacked one on top of the other – it pointed outward toward the sea. From the back of the pole extended two large wooden poles, like giant rifle butts, side by side, with large handles like bicycle brakes underneath them. On top of the whole contraption was a glass sphere the size of a football filled almost to the brim with a thick bubbling grey fluid. Attached to the front of the pole was a thick cable, which hung below the bottom of the pole then dropped below deck through a small hole nearby. In fact, the whole pillar the device sat on was covered in wires and cables, some attached to it, some wrapping around it, all trailing into that hole in the deck.
Rhona inspected it curiously. The contraption gave off a gentle heat which dispelled the mist around it; it seemed almost alive, the wires and cables like veins and arteries, the glass sphere on top like some kind of gently churning heart and stomach. Instinctively, she wrapped her hands around the two handles; she found she could swing the whole thing around quite easily, despite it being significantly longer than she was. She tried squeezing the left handle slightly. It wouldn’t budge. She tried squeezing the right handle, but to no avail.
Wearisome of tampering with something she knew nothing about, Rhona resolved to move on. She still had no idea what was going on, but if she stayed much longer the ghosts might catch her, or her uncle might realise she’d gone. Her fear was finally starting to override her curiosity and, if she was honest with herself, she was getting very scared.
As she moved to walk away, she slipped on the mist-soaked deck. In a sudden reflex to right herself, she squeezed both handles at once. A blinding flash of electricity shot out over the cove, accompanied by a deafening thunderclap. Rhona recoiled and slipped over again. What had just happened? Had she been struck by lightning? She could hardly think over the ringing in her ears.
Voices called out in the distance again. No, not in the distance. Close by. She had to go. Unsteadily, she got up onto her knees and saw shadowy figures holding lanterns heading up the ramp onto the deck. Too late. She had to hide. Doing her best to get up, she stumbled around looking her a hiding place. She did not feel good. As the lights came closer, she fell through a hatch, down some steps, and below deck. It was pitch black. In a panicked but decreasingly rational frenzy, Rhona ran through the darkness, feeling her way along walls and around pillars until there was nowhere else to go. Crawling into a corner, she curled up and finally lost consciousness.
* * *
Braghad, or Uncle Brag as Rhona called him, sprinted across the moor, oblivious to the renewed rain lashing around him. He’d heard the front door slam open and assumed it was just the wind. It was only when he went to see if Rhona was okay, and saw a distant torch beam flickering across the moors, that he realised what had happened.
They’d set up in Scotland when she was just a few months old. Life was quiet. Life was safe. And now this. This wasn’t just an abject catastrophe, it was a betrayal. Braghad had promised her parents he’s keep her out of trouble. He’d just broken that promise.
“No, no, no, no, no…”
He thundered down onto the beach, spilling pebbles hither and thither, just in time to see the large wooden boat rise up from the surface. It hung under a large beige gas envelope, similar to an airship. Cables rattled and twanged metallically under tension as the boat rose higher and higher into the storm-filled sky, white mist billowing from the top of the deck and gas envelope and settling around him.
Braghad jumped into the air in a vain attempt to make contact with the vessel.
“No! Come back!”
Lightning crashed overhead. He kicked a collection of pebbles across the beach defiantly, “Bastards!” A short spike of anger which quickly descended into despair. Braghad knelt down and threw his head back, helplessly looking on as the vessel faded back into the storm.