Immerse yourself in the world of A War Transformed, our upcoming folk-horror Weird War One wargame, with the first of three short stories by its author Frederick Silburn-Slater...
Beneath the Waves
A gull wheels above the sandflats, its piercing cry quickly snatched away by the wind. She searches, keen eyes scanning for some unfortunate creature left behind as the sea withdrew, laying bare its secrets. She lands nearby like a dreamer’s punch: sluggish, treacle-slow. Her crooked wings rise upwards as she alights, pecking with gusto at some desiccated crab in the sand, long since turned foul in the winter’s pale sun.
Behind my shoulder, the moon hangs impossibly huge in the dawn sky, girdled with a halo of dust and debris torn from the gaping wound in its surface. Ahead, out over the great expanse of sand, the sun is slowly rising, still low – a weak band of gold, wan and sickly, just above the horizon. I put my hand to my pocket to consult my watch, releasing the clasp to reveal the neat ivory face…
7 o’clock in the morning – it would be high tide, by rights.
I look out at the great expanse of sand and silt before me, dotted here and there with stinking piles of wrack and dulse rotting in the sun. In the far distance the ribs of a crab boat, pulled from the shore by some great wave decades ago, crumble slowly to nothingness in the driving wind.
The bed of the North Sea, from here to Amsterdam, is laid bare before me. It is here that we start our journey.
The car stands on the sands in the shadow of an old pier. The blackened uprights, shot through with algae veins like green serpents, stand like the obelisks of some ancient necropolis. I slap the hull – time to leave. My wedding ring clangs against a rivet, loud as hammer on anvil: a discordant sound, it rings sharply though the steel armour.
An answer comes, a bleary, slurred shout, thick with sleep – I smile as the iron-clad shutter lifts, revealing a slit in the metallic carapace. The driver drags his hands across his eyes, as though hoping to wipe the sleep away – I am glad that one of us could shut out this strange new world of ours for a few hours.
The engine sputters to life its noxious, coughing protest, dampened by three and a half tonnes of armour plates. With a clunk the drive engages, and we are propelled forward with slow, juddering lurches. The car settles as we make cautious progress to the littoral, the boundary that marks where, even at the lowest ebb of a spring tide, the sea would formerly have begun.
The sound of the wheels changes perceptibly, a crisp, sharp rasping as we break the saline crust.
We are underway now, the wheels turning briskly as we canter out over the erstwhile seabed. I stand for a few moments, feel the air against my face as the armoured car thunders across the sands. Eventually the stench of rot and brine becomes overpowering.
I duck below the hatch, dropping my foot off the parapet so that I stand completely within the turret. My hand gropes vainly above me for the handle – no luck. My fingers pull across the surface in search of some purchase, catching against the sharp border of some hastily-welded plate, its burred edge slicing at my numb fingers.
I pull my hand before my face, trying to assess the damage in the gloom of the compartment. The thin column of weak light from the still-open hatch of the turret reveals a ragged cut, narrow but gaping – deep.
Weakness comes on like a crashing wave as the bright blood wells up, pulsing in my vision. The swathe of blood grows in my sight until it obscures everything, a blinding shroud of crimson that fades in an instant to impenetrable darkness.
A moment passes and a form begins to appear in a swelling, throb of colour: a woman, naked and blood drenched, her hair knotted through with flowers and bone, tar-dark eyes as deep as eternity. Her mouth falls open, pouring out a cascade of verdant growth: harebell and anemone, celandine and ransom – all tinged with the scent of honey and rot.
I jerk backwards, wide-eyed with terror. I thump against the hull, my elbow finding some blunt protrusion. The jolt of pain snaps me back to myself, gasping at the dull ache.
“Sorry sir, the springs are cold – she’ll soon loosen up,” the driver shouts, mercifully mistaking the episode as a momentary loss of balance.
She is gone.
Cursing myself silently for my foolishness, I stuff my bloodied hand into my armpit and squeeze hard. Imagine that? A soldier unnerved by a passing fancy; a trick of the mind. It will not do.
I leave the hatch – we will have to live with the stench.
The afternoon sun burns low, casting undulating shadows over the stunted dunes of silt. I look again at the photographs given to me, taken less than a week ago by the crew of an aerial reconnaissance plane. I look at the Gyre.
It stands on what was, until recently, the sea bed, a huge mass of interlinked earthen banks, twisting together around an axis, its four spiralling arms projecting out from a central point. Its origins are unknown, but the land on which it stands has lain beneath the North Sea for eight millennia.
Lying astride the southern-most arm, like a shuttle passing through the warp of a loom, is the beached hull of the cruiser HMS Tam Lyn. The Gyre utterly dwarfs her – the Tam Lyn seems little more than a grey smudge by comparison to the huge earthen vortex, strangely tiny and fragile. She shared the fate of so many ships, marooned over the wide expanse of Doggerland by the retreating sea three weeks ago.
Of the sailors who had crewed her there is no sign. No tell-tale trace of activity betrays their presence, nor is there any evidence of a trail or path by which they have left, attempting to reach drier land. Even when the pilot and his mate had flown low over the ship, they had not been able to ascertain the fate of the crew – some 370 hands, vanished without a trace.
Whatever the Gyre transpires to be, it is not supposed to be there. So great an unknown cannot be tolerated so close to our borders…
For the last hour of our 70 mile journey, we drive much more slowly. Here, where the waters had been deepest, there are still pockets of water co-mingled with the silty sand – to get stuck in the mud so far from home would be a death sentence. And then, on the horizon, there it is.
The Gyre is a wonder. Its great dark bulk looms above the plain on which it stands, great enveloping spirals bathed in the golden light of the moon. It is an incongruous sight, so solid and deliberate in all this nothingness, like the vast pyramids and ziggurats of the east, a sudden mirage – so unnatural. Those monuments were tombs – perhaps this is the same? The last resting place of some great and terrible king, ruler of a savage past, consigned for an eternity beneath the waves…
We drive in a cautious ring around it, gazing up in bewildered silence, struck dumb by its vastness. The great, stricken form of the Tam Lyn, haphazardly entangled athwart the sprawling spiral limbs, seems tiny and uncomfortably angular. The sharp, mechanical geometry of its chimneys and guns profane amongst such sublime, rugged enormity.
We finally come to rest by the base of the western-most arm. Some twenty yards away our armoured car idles, its thick steel plates rapidly cooling in the chill of the night. Without the guttural throb of the engine, the air seems oppressively still – as though a stifling blanket has been thrown over us. With nothing else to do, we begin to climb: from our position the Gyre betrays few of its secrets, but perhaps something can be gleaned at its centre, the axis around which the great earthen spirals whirl.
From the top of the bank the true scale of the Gyre is even more impressive. The four limbs spread out wide across the horizon, far into the distance. More curious still, the banks are studded by great stones – like the spines on the back of some antediluvian monster. Many have toppled, pushed down by surging waters long in the distant past.
For the first time, I turn my gaze towards the Gyre’s centre and suddenly I feel it. Not the warm and sensual beckoning of a siren’s call but a dragging, throbbing tug – an invisible hand that grasps at my intestines and pulls me to forwards. The ragged cut on my fingers seethes with stinging pain. The veil of crimson darkness is pulled again over my eyes – I sense Her, that savage, gore-soaked queen from my vision, Her hot breath rich with the scent of decay and nectar. She calls to me with a strength I have never felt before, a keening wail that wrenches the very air from my lungs and leaves me breathless.
My heel rises, unbidden, from the compacted earth of the bank, body tensed – arching forward as though preparing to bolt. Every muscle in my body is gripped with a visceral, adrenal tension.
To my left my driver is transfixed, as taut as a hound that has caught the scent.
They feel it too. Feel Her.
The Gyre calls out to us.
We cover the distance to the Gyre’s centre as though under a spell – a mad, sweat-drenched charge across the great vortex. It ends at the mouth of a tumulus, a low mound of rock and silt at the Gyre’s centre, like the eye of a storm. There is an entrance of sorts, a great carved lintel, rough-hewn and engraved with swirling arabesques. In its centre is a crude face, stained by the eons of water, sharp and feminine – human but for the great, dark pits of its eyes. It gazes down at us from beneath a knotted crown of bone and basalt flowers, savage and regal. The power beckoning us breaks as though we can be compelled no further – to cross this threshold must be our choice.
Beyond this portal is a passage leading into inky, impenetrable darkness. It breathes a stream of warm air, thick with damp and cloying sweetness. Heady and intoxicating, the vapour exuding from the tumulus grips our throats and squeezes, leaving us gasping – sucking in huge gulps, filling our lungs with saccharine, aetheric miasma.
I feel Her – there, in the dark bowels of the gyre.
My muscles scream in exhausted protest – I want nothing more than to rest. I feel my legs give way, just for a moment, and a thought comes unbidden into my mind – how sweet it would be to descend into that dark passage, to curl myself up in the pitchy womb of the earth and sleep…
To give myself to Her.
I hear a whispered, pleading warning – “don’t…”
My driver rocks on his heels, his face contorted by terrible effort, before taking a faltering, uncertain step across the threshold. He turns to me then with a sigh and smiles, as though relieved of some terrible burden, before wordlessly slipping into the black.
I feel my own feet edge forward, the silt beneath them grinding as my weight shifts imperceptibly forward. The tug of my pack against the archway pulls me from my trance too late – I feel the sole of my boot come down upon the cold unyielding stone of the passageway floor.
I turn, look at the sky for the final time, and follow my companion into the stygian gloom.
A War Transformed is out 28th September in the UK and 31st October in the US.
The next Dispatches from Doggerland short story will be out a week today -
and the second design diary, covering the game's mechanics, is out this Thursday.