Island In The Sands follows on from the flash vignette Stranger And The Shadow. This short story, as with the flash story Falling, is based on a dream I had when I was a young boy (I’ve always had very strange dreams). If you’ve read my notes on the previous instalments of these ‘Forever Stranger’ pieces, you’ll know that they’re just experiments from my first attempts at writing fiction, not to be taken as works that I’m proud of but more as evidence of a starting point in my abilities with prose, story, character, etc. These pieces are incomplete and disjointed, but at the time they were fun to write. Maybe one day I’ll return to the concept of the Forever Stranger, but that time will likely be far in the future.
ISLAND IN THE SANDS
The warmth of smooth metal upon his skin radiated through Caiaphas as he drowsed. His thoughts were adrift in the peace of the moment. Neither the lone call of a distant creature nor the soft sound of sand caught in an eddy disturbed the silence.
After a while he became aware of a gentle breeze, a ghostly caress playfully tugging at his damp fringe, and he wondered where everyone had gone. A stupid thing to ask in a desert, but he was sure he’d been somewhere else. His bedroom? The woods beyond his garden? Wherever it was, his family were surely close by. Out of sight, but there. Like phantoms flitting through each other’s haunting grounds, sharing the same space, but ever alone.
With a gasp he sat up and stared at his surroundings. Rolling sand dunes stretched endlessly under a bright but sunless sky, the desolation broken only by the occasional dried husk of a cactus, and the featureless cylinder of metal beneath him, risen from the desert floor as big as a house. The disc-shaped top of the cylinder seemed to gesture out into infinity; an unbroken edge mimicking the unbroken horizon, welcoming a lone wayfarer into a bleak and ceaseless wasteland.
And he’d been daydreaming like there wasn’t a care in the world.
He jumped to his feet, eyes scouring the arid expanse. A tiny blot upon the horizon grabbed his attention – just a wavering drop of ink, an ethereal mote blurred in the hazy fold between yellow and blue. He squinted, concentrating. The dark spot oscillated like a charged particle, caught in the rippling mirage of the sterile desert. Like a globule of liquid being pulled apart, it stretched, divided … and there were two.
Then a third. And a fourth.
Soon a vast stretch of the horizon was painted in a thick, shadowy strip. Caiaphas imagined he was on a raft, that the tide was taking him closer to a lengthening swathe of coastline. But it couldn’t be, because now the entire vista was wrapped in the deepening darkness like a ribbon around the world being pulled into a crushing knot.
Not safe here.
Maybe there was a way into the cylinder. The metal contraption might be a bunker of sorts, an underground fortification.
Fortifying against what?
He shook his head. A quick check showed him the steep side of the cylinder was devoid of ladders, doors or details of any kind; not even the slightest blemish marred the sleek surface.
He could jump down, maybe. The soft sand should break his fall. Or perhaps the hard-packed sand would break his legs. Down there was death – whether from the fall or something else – of that he was certain.
A susurrating murmur crept over the threshold of his hearing. The dark band at the horizon was thickening, shrinking the sandscape. There were figures in the approaching darkness.
An ambulating host was filling the land, darkening the day, blotting out the bright sands. In the fading light of the pseudo-day Caiaphas saw nightmarish features among the swelling horde. A rising panic worked his mouth noiselessly, lips forming unfinished questions. A short, barking laugh escaped him as his panicked mind amended the metaphor: The desert was an ocean, but an ocean of bodies. The cylinder – not a raft but an island.
And the tide was coming in.
The distant murmuring was now a discordant keening, quickly rising to a clamour as the host of bodies lurched nearer. One figure was closer than the rest, its ghastly gaze seeming to seek Caiaphas out. It found him, and its grinning rictus widened, splitting the withered skin of its cheeks, its moan barely audible in the cacophony.
Caiaphas stumbled backwards, tripped and fell to the hard metal. As if sensing his proximity, the creature quickened its shambling steps, drawing closer and closer until the lip of the cylinder blocked it from sight.
With thrumming head and pounding heart – a counter-point to the swarm’s frenzied lament – Caiaphas deeply regretted having wondered where everyone was. They came just like the breeze, in answer to his unspoken call. That’s how it had happened, he was sure of it.
The last patches of sand disappeared under the horde’s advance. They fell over each other, arms flapping and heads lolling, staring up at him with a hatred he couldn’t fathom.
Or perhaps he could.
Through his terror he realised the truth – these were the world’s teeming dead. More, they were everyone his life would touch as his impossible tapestry weaved and unravelled in an unending paradox. They were jealous of his vitality. They sensed him thousands of miles and countless ages away. They sensed him from the cusp of the universe, and followed their hunger to the cylinder.
A crush of bodies surrounded the featureless monument. The enraged dead clambered atop their ghastly kin. Caiaphas tucked his knees to his chest and hugged his legs tightly, staring at the scores of ragged, flailing hands as they scratched for purchase over the edge of the cylinder. Metal thrummed and thunder roared, filling his head.
Now there were words within the deafening roar.
“Straaaange,” they seemed to say.
Then a quick, awful chant: “CAIAPHAS! FOREVER! CAI—”
And with a piercing whistle it ended as his eardrums burst.
Scabrous arms slapped against the metal disc, metres from where he sat. The skin over their knuckles split as the hands balled into fists. Heads appeared beyond the edge, staring at him with cataracted eyes, hunger emanating from the twisted features. Their wasted mouths opened, wider and wider…
His fear finally found voice and he screamed, but for Caiaphas it came out as silence. The echo of eternity’s dead resonated in his mind, though his ears no longer heard.
They began to drag themselves onto the cylinder, first one, then several of them. He crumpled, wilted with the weight of terror, toppling to his side to lay on the metal. He hugged his legs tighter to his chest, staring as decayed fingers reached for him.
He squeezed his eyes shut, but the image remained. His heart thrashed within his ribs, his body quaked as terror took him completely.
As skeletal fingers raked his skin.
And began to pull.
Tearing him apart…
Next (and last) instalment: The Hyperverse Accord