Kallandra ran through tall grass and yanked back the five-bar gate. Five more steps and her legs rebelled. Her body trapped in a trance as her brain tried to make sense of the bizarre sight. Muscles screamed: run away. Her curiosity pleaded: stay. After adrenaline-stretched moments that seemed like hours, with the others similarly confounded behind her, she found words.
June 23rd Lunchtime on the mystical hill of Glastonbury. The famous festival music could just be heard.
"Oh my God, I can't believe it,
I've never been this far away from home,
And, oh my God, I can't believe it,
I've never been this far away from home."
Lying on her dampening back, feeling the grass tickling, Kallandra added her Phoenix accent to the Kaiser Chiefs' chorus wafting across wheat fields from the Glastonbury rock festival. Fair-weather clouds in the blue sky, faded away as it seemed swallows ate them. The aroma of strawberries escaped from their picnic basket adding to spilt brown ale. As her left hand scrabbled in daisies and stones, her right played with Derek's perspiring fingers, transmitting worry. Only a week left on Earth for both of them, and then off on the first manned Mars mission. Both were as lucky as they were skilful to be selected; she as NASA's youngest trainee astronaut, and he as aeronautical engineer for Eurospace. She knew Derek worried so she didn't have to.
"Relax, Derek, honey, and flow with the music. Remember when we canoodled here as students, enraptured by Coldplay? Now they're here again, reformed. So apt, eh? As are Kaiser Chiefs' lyrics...
"...a million miles from here," she sang to him, but he seemed disturbed. She persisted. "You know, our space mission?" She sat up to rest on her elbows, straining to listen to the umpteenth repeat of the popular song. Mega-sized amplifiers, reinforced by fifty thousand drunk, high and happy voices, blasted the sounds, but from almost five kilometres away. By the time they reached Glastonbury Tor, only the bass and occasional higher frequencies made it. Her hazelnut-brown hair would have hindered hearing, but for the mission she'd had it styled short so now her ears were unimpeded. She picked up the lyrics-
"It don't matter to me
'Cos all I wanted to be
Is a million miles from here
Somewhere more familiar
Oh my God, I can't believe it
I've never been this far away from home...."
She lay back and saw a shape flutter on top of the ruins of St Michael's tower. The blackbird must have given up competing, and watched them while perched in silhouette. She stopped singing and tried to whistle a friendly greeting. Derek laughed-finally, she thought. So that's what it took: his woman attempting to whistle. The bird took off, probably in fright.
"This is so bliss," she said.
"Make the most of it. It'll take a few thousand years to terraform Mars sufficiently to lie in the open on a grassy hill and sing along to rock bands while scaring away wildlife."
"Hey," called Blake, Derek's teenage nephew, "are we going down to the festival proper? Reheated Coldplay are due on."
Kallandra evil-eyed him. She'd agreed, but didn't really want the chubby youth with them, no matter how hilarious she found his attempts to dance. She swore she could feel the worms making a run for it as he thumped.
"We are coming back, Derek," she said, devouring an escapee strawberry.
"What?" said Blake, taking off his glasses and rubbing them on his T-shirt for the millionth time, "to this weird hill and its spooky ley-lined, King Arthur's tower?"
"I know the plan is for the expedition to be a return trip, but did you read the small print?"
"No, the tiny print in between the lines of the small print."
Her green eyes looked at his, as they did three years before. Sometimes she felt he was such an idiot, not with his work, but as a man. But in romantic situations like this, she knew they were an item.
"Derek, I test space vehicles. Every day might be my last. Every day I wake up thinking whoopee, I survived another day."
"I know, and your dad never tires of telling me how, as a kid, you'd leap off the barn roof in homemade gliders so often, the ER called you bird girl."
"That's me. I was brought up on cornflakes and adrenalin. I continue to need both, so get used to it."
"I have, nearly," Derek said. "Blake, stop leaping around, you'll start an earthquake. Watch out, Kal-ants crawling up your arm."
She leapt up, brushing the insects off her tanned arm. "Good God, look at them!" The ants marched haphazardly across their picnic cloth, swarming over the basket. "They're after the crumbs. Blake, tell them we've eaten the food."
"You're nearer to having a meeting of minds," she said, grinning at Derek, who winked back.
The bass throbbing from the rock festival continued, but she looked up as her blackbird squawked its distinctive warning to its family.
"They're after the ants," Derek said, clipping up the basket while Kallandra waved the tablecloth in the air. "Telling us to go away so they can picnic on the little blighters."
"And the worms," said Blake, "millipedes, beetles and earwigs-they're all coming out. Ugh, there's a load of flying gnats. Let's get out of here."
A golden Labrador pawed the straggly grass and then growled. Minutes ago it had rushed over to sniff Derek's crotch, and quietly collected a Frisbee for a family a hundred metres away. Now it barked. Not playful-excitedly but in panic, as Kal recognised from her farmyard youth.
Defeated by wildlife and Blake's need to have his ears pounded by the world's largest speakers, they gathered their luncheon remains and headed downhill. But Kallandra skidded to a halt as an urge forced her to grab one last, lingering look at the tower. She'd fallen in love with Derek here and, by association, the place, but with additional mystique. The pragmatist within her had tried to analyse the hair-tingling feeling she experienced last time. She laughed, remembering the tarot-wielding hippies, and alternative-reality culture that 'knew' Glastonbury was the magical centre of the world. If the locale harboured extraordinary and sacred evanescence, it might have to do with the extraordinary people traipsing through the Field of Avalon, the Tipi Field, and the riotous craziness at The Lost Vagueness, culminating in exuberance at the Avalon stone circle. For all that, she derived more inexplicable emotion from this tower on the extraordinary tor.
Several odd things happened at once. Either her vision blurred, or the top of the tower developed fuzziness. Maybe it had become bored with its sharp lines after eight hundred years. Her legs became blurry too, as if the footpath couldn't wait for her and decided to slither downhill and make its own way home. Staggering, Kallandra put her hand on a large boulder to prevent herself falling; a temporary respite as the rock vibrated. The tiny pink flowers of a miniature thyme plant clung to the top of the boulder. The dark green petite leaves trembled, exposing a timorous millipede that scuttled across the top.
"Go for it, beastie. Escape while you can."
In spite of a deep rumbling, she heard Derek call from lower down the hill.
"Look out, Kal! The tower."
Fighting the hill's attempt to send her sprawling, she watched in horror as the old stone tower demolished itself from the top down. Eight centuries after proud masons on wooden scaffolds shared broad smiles and raised mugs of celebratory cider, the tower was disintegrating in front of her. But the stones didn't rest where they fell. Kallandra's chest tightened with fear as the trembling hill encouraged the dismantling tower to hurtle down towards her.
"Run, Kal," shouted Derek, but the difference between a spaceship designer and her survival skills was the use of her brain. So she scrambled laterally towards brambles that had sheltered in the lee of exposed bedrock, making a natural wall. She threw herself into the prickly Blackthorn just as a small avalanche of limestone blocks rumbled down the path she'd vacated. Sore from the scratches but intact, she crawled through the scrub and over the shaking hillside, zig-zagging until she met up with Derek and Blake behind a field wall near the base.
The ground vibrated less here but, in addition to the crashing of tumbling masonry, shrieks from scared humans, and a cacophony of terrified animals, a deep rumble worried their ears.
Derek shouted: "Are you all right?"
"I've been pricked before."
"Is it an earthquake? You've been in them before in the States."
She sniffed the air. It carried the familiar disturbed earthy odours but not the sulphurous emissions she'd experienced during some quakes in California.
"I doubt it," she yelled. "I thought you only got tremors in Britain."
"It's a volcano," shouted Blake. "Look at all the smoke."
Kallandra shook her head but she didn't want to shout a speech. She pointed downhill to the car park. With arms out like tightrope walkers, they rushed down the lower slopes.
"Seatbelts on, where shall we go?" Derek said, starting the engine.
"Nowhere," Kallandra said. "I only came back for my other digivideocam. The batteries are gone in the one in my bag."
"You're not intending to go back up there?" Derek's eyebrows disappeared into his blond hair, making Kallandra smile.
"You can take Blake back to town if you want. Although, if it's an earthquake, you should stay in the open."
"But it's dangerous on the tor, love. Come with us."
"Most of the tower has fallen, so the worst of the danger is over. Derek, this is too fascinating. I gotta be here, don't you see that? Anyway, no time for a debate." She waved and started back up the vibrating hill.
She'd already told herself this was no ordinary earthquake. She'd experienced a few first hand in California, and they didn't rumble on for ages like this. They came in short bursts, only seconds long. Yet the hill shook so much she had difficulty keeping her feet. She reached the piece of sandy-coloured limestone bedrock against which she'd first steadied herself, and aimed the digital videocam east, at the distant Glastonbury Festival. She'd expected to see emptying fields as the crowd escaped, but she could see on the distant giant screens, a rock group leaping and twisting as they belted out another musical gem. The crowd vibrated to the resonance of the beat rather than this hill. Swinging the cam around to the west the bulk of the tor hid the small town, but she could see the M5 motorway carrying traffic as normal.
She loved this kind of mystery. She looked at her feet imagining the tectonic event hidden beneath, yet it was so local that life continued blissfully ignorant several fields away. She granted that crescendos at the festival would mask the loud rumblings beneath her, and the drivers probably couldn't hear either. Her cellphone tinkled.
"Are you OK, Kal?"
"Sure. What's the situation in Glastonbury town?"
"Chaos. The hill slopes right into the back gardens on this side. You can feel continuous tremors. It's as if they're ants that have lost their queen. But no one is leaving. I've put Blake in a taxi to take him to the guesthouse in Weston. Cost a bomb, but I had an urge to come back to you."
"Aw, sweet. It's not so loud now up here, but the vibration seems to be worsening. I'm spitting out flying insects. There are swarms of them. Derek-can you hear me above this racket?"
"Just about. You've swapped sandwiches for live insects?"
"Close enough. Bring a shovel with you? In fact buy two."
"Good grief, Kal. That's lunacy-oh, all right. And you mean spades."
The vibration seemed to calm for a moment so she ventured away from the large rock up towards the pile of stones that was Saint Michael's Tower. Felled like the tower of Babel. Maybe the Kaiser Chiefs overdid the loudness earlier and triggered a fault beneath the tor? Not a chance.
She could just detect the bass of Reheated Coldplay's new piece, Random Order, and, although she wouldn't make room for it on her own MP3 player, hummed to the chorus. A fragment of normality in this craziness. Randomness could have described the drumming beneath her feet, as if it had a beat controlled by stochastic monkeys.
She spotted Derek using the two spades as walking sticks to steady himself up the quivering hill. Fifty metres from her, he staggered as a thunderous roar preceded a violent shudder sending them both sprawling. She lay on her back as she was an hour before, only now the cumulus clouds angrily gathered. Kallandra felt the ground crumbling and digging into her back, forcing her to struggle to her feet. The rock she had leaned on rose from the surface by a metre or so before cracking and falling, accompanied by increasing roaring as rock strata ground against each other. The roaring sounds were matched by the tremors in her stomach as she thought she might not survive. This premonition was reinforced as a large crack appeared between her and Derek. The slope she slowly traversed seemed to rise at a steeper angle.
As she reached the crevice, she saw that so much loose earth and rocks had fallen into it she could scramble across, noting it was less than a metre deep. Derek grabbed her in a bear hug.
"Yes, Derek, but you're hurting me." She saw his face was wet, but she was uncertain whether he'd feared for her, himself, or both. Maybe she was being unkind, but for all the dangerous upheaval, she was more excited than afraid. So when Derek pulled at her to go back down to the car-the only one left in the car park-she resisted. Unable to yell coherently with the roaring around them, she pulled away and grabbed a spade he'd discarded. She didn't need to hear Derek trying to shout rebukes over the growling terrain. His admonition telepathed across the disturbed air clear enough.
Reaching the shallow fissure, she plunged the spade in. Why did she have an urge to dig? Defying logic she dug more in the mix of soil, turf and limestone. Another minor upheaval, releasing earthy smells into the air, sent her onto her back. She saw Derek thrown to the ground too as he tried to reach her. Back on her feet, her ears aching from the roaring noise, she raised the shiny new spade and stabbed again at the chasm, which had opened a little more. Again it merely struck limestone rubble, jarring her arm. An urge compelled her to see if anything just beneath the thin soil was responsible for this phenomenon. Was it a result of logical analysis that this event couldn't be related to seismic disturbance nor volcanic? No. Her logic circuits partly worked that out but a more ethereal need drove her on. A feeling, intuition; a culmination of the esprit of Avalon, her scientific and engineering training, along with bloody-minded curiosity forced her to lift the spade again.
"Come back down, Kal. For God's sake," yelled Derek, his voice wailing across the thundering noises.
Clang. The spade hit another rock sending sparks where quartzite and steel met. Her nostrils pinched with a smell of burnt sulphur bringing memories of when, as a child, she smashed a lump of white and grey quartzite laced with yellow sulphur. She dropped the spade, which slithered further into the crack out of reach. She rested her enviably flat stomach on the ground, feeling small stones through her shirt. Stretching, she grabbed the handle. A strange tingling sensation travelled up her arm to her head. Totally, unlike anything she'd experienced, and she'd been through throb hell: stinging nettles on this hill, purple-striped jellyfish at Long Beach, and the literal hair-raising moment when a shuttle simulator became a stimulator with an accidentally electrified hull. But none of these buzzed her brain. Not that her grey matter was frying, but it had tingled. She had the prescience and presence of mind to consider that her arm was slipping in and out of phase, but it could've been the increased vibration.
"Kallandra. Good God, woman, come back down before you turn into a firework."
"I will. Just let me get this spade."
Although the shaking ground made upward travel more like a fairground ride, Derek managed to reach her. "Bugger the spade. You should've seen yourself."
"I nearly didn't. What did you see?"
"Your hair stood up like a luminous porcupine."
"That'll be my blue highlights. I knew they'd set off my brown hair."
"How can you be so calm? We're in the middle of Armageddon."
"That's why I'm a pilot and you're an engineer."
"And spaceship designer. Your life support system would soon fizzle out-"
"Without your cunning design. I don't underrate your genius, Derek, but you do panic unnecessarily. Now can you reach the spade handle? It's slipped further down."
"Leave it. I'll buy you a dozen."
"I want that one. Something's happened to it. There, you have it."
They both stared at the shiny business end. At least two inches were missing as if it had been dipped into the sun.
"That's it," Derek said, his voice trembling with fear in addition to the physical quivering. "It must be a volcano and we're on top of it!"
"It can't be. Feel the cut end, it's cool."
"For Heaven's sake, Kal, you could've burnt yourself."
"Life is one big chance event, Derek. Anyway, you win. Let's go before these clouds of gnats remember we're food."
Aided by increasing ground tremors they scramble-slithered to the Volvo estate car waiting in the car park. She gasped not only at the exhilaration but also at the sight at the base of the hill. Luckily, Derek had parked at the far end, near the gate. The rest of the tarmac was buried under detritus. Rocks and turf hid the wheels nearest the hill. Realising they'd be fortunate to move the car, they opened the door furthest from the landslide and at his insistence, Derek took the wheel. With impressive control he didn't rev the three-litre-engine but nudged it in four-wheel-drive until out of the gate. The lane, too, sported a mass of fissures and debris but the sturdy vehicle successfully saw them to the main road, where they surprised a policeman erecting a barrier.