Omens of the End Times – a flash fantasy story

Shooting stars blazed across the sky, bright wounds in the skin of dusk.

“Another omen!” Ostelia shouted, glaring angrily at her fellow senators. “The city will fall.”

His body quivering with rage, Asmir hitched up his toga, rose from his seat, and pointed past her through the pillars of the temple porch.

“The city will not fall because of this,” he said. “It will fall from our neglect. The great lake has not dried up through the will of the gods but through our inaction.”

A rumble rose out of the east. A great foaming wall of water came rushing across the lake bed toward the city.

“Another sign!” Ostelia exclaimed. “The end is upon us!”

“The dams have broken.” Asmir swung around and grabbed a servant. “Quick, ring the bells, get people to high ground.”

The water surged across the dried out lake bed and crashed against the houses beyond. Buildings at the foot of the temple hill were smashed aside. Timbers and bodies spun in the current as the waters rose. One by one, the temple steps vanished beneath the flood.

“The end is upon us,” Ostelia declared.

Half the senators cried out in agreement. They followed her as she strode solemnly out of the temple, onto the steps, and down towards the waters.

“Get back here, you fools,” Asmir shouted. “We’ll need everyone we can get to rebuild after this.”

He ran after them, sandals flapping against stone, and tried to haul them back. A brawl broke out as half the senate tried to keep the other half from drowning itself.

Ostelia reached the water’s edge. It was still rising, but slower than before. She raised her hands and stepped in. The edge of her toga darkened and clung to her shins.

“Take me, oh divinities. Carry me into the purer world that follows.”

Asmir was about to grab hold of her when something caught his eye. A wicker basket bobbed across the water to them, carrying with it a baby’s frightened cries.

Thoughts of Asmir’s fellow senators fled his mind. He tore off his toga and dived into the swirling waters. Currents snatched at him, trying to drag his body this way and that, but this was one thing at which he excelled. Though he was spun around and almost sucked under, he kept his course, until at last he laid a hand on the basket.

There was a hiss. A cat popped its head up over the edge and glared at Asmir. It dug its claws into his fingers, causing a fierce flash of pain. Tail stiff and back arched, it stood protectively over a tightly swaddled infant.

“I’m here to help,” Asmir said, but the cat just raised its claws again.

No time to appease the savage beast – Asmir would have to take whatever punishment it gave him. As blood welled from his fingers, he turned the basket and pushed it ahead of him towards the shore.

The waters tugged at him again as he neared the temple steps. He was so close, but a current clutched him and he could feel himself being drawn away.

Then a hand reached through the last grey light of dusk. Ostelia was in the water, and other senators behind her, a chain of them clinging to each other back to dry land. Asmir grasped Ostelia with one hand and the basket with another. Battling the force of the flood, the senators dragged him to shore.

At last, Asmir sat sodden on the hillside, lit by torches the servants had brought out, the torn up timbers of the city being swept away in front of him. The cat leaned its head out of the basket and licked his fingers, cleaning the wounds it had caused. The baby gurgled, smiled, and raised a tiny pink hand.

Ostelia leaned in, her toga dripping, and the baby grabbed at her dangling hair.

“It is an omen,” she whispered. “A sign that life will go on.”

Anger flared in Asmir. Ostelia had almost died of omens, almost taken half the city’s leaders with her. Now she was twisting this so she didn’t have to see her own madness.

The baby laughed and something shifted inside Asmir. He might not believe in omens, but he believed in people.

“It is a sign,” he said. “A sign of hope. A sign that we can rebuild together.”

Ostelia laid a hand on his shoulder and smiled.

“Together,” she said.

***

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By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

A gladiator painting with manticore blood.

A demon detective policing Hell.

A ninja who can turn into shadow.

Prepare to be swept away to worlds beyond our own in these thirteen short fantasy stories.

Action, art and mystery all feature in this collection, available in all ebook formats.

From reader reviews:

‘These fantasy genre stories take wordsmithing and storytelling to great heights.’ – Writerbees Book Reviews

‘There isn’t a single story in here I don’t love. All short and sweet (or dark), all fantasy with history woven through, all a slightly skewed perspective that will make you rethink assumptions. Totally worth a read.’

Last Night Under Moonlight – a flash steampunk story

Tasta practically spun the screwdriver as she rushed to unfasten the hatch. Within moments, it fell with a clang onto the gantry, revealing the mechanisms within.

This was one of the last of the great springs still moving. The rest had wound down, their mechanisms too clogged with dirt and old oil to keep going without constant maintenance, the city’s inhabitants too taken with other cares to keep their home alive. They had socialised and celebrated, chased money or art or fame, while their world fell into neglect. Even now, on what the experts had calculated to be Wonburg’s final night, most of them were holding a party in the upper tiers.

Those who hadn’t fled already, terrified at what the city would be like when its mechanism fell still. There would be no transport, no heating, no cold storage, no factories to make clothes or boots, no hospital machines. Wonburg was dying and Tasta’s peers were drinking their cares away.

But she wouldn’t give in. She climbed through the hatch, pulled a cloth from her tool belt and wiped dirt from the spring, dirt that should never have been allowed to accrue. Then she took a crank handle, slid it into a slot in the wall, and started to turn it.

“Tasta?” Fnell’s voice came softly through the open hatch. “Are you in there?”

“Someone has to be,” Tasta snapped.

Fnell stepped through the hatch, wearing an evening gown of blue silk and her finest gold jewellery, the pieces Tasta had given her on their wedding day. She smiled sadly as she looked at Tasta.

“Won’t you come out and join us?” Fnell asked. “It’s a lovely night.”

“It’s the only night left, and I can’t waste it.”

The crank wasn’t working. The gears hadn’t been properly maintained and now they clicked across each other instead of meshing and turning. There was no time for finesse, so Tasta pulled out a crowbar and started prying open the wall.

“It’s too late for this,” Fnell said, laying a hand on Tasta’s shoulder. “It was too late before we were even born.”

“We can’t be sure. A city has never unwound before.”

“And with luck it never will again. We’ll take to the carts and find others, to warn them about what happened here. But first, let’s celebrate what we had.”

Tasta flung the crowbar down, then the chunk of panel she had ripped free. The gears lay exposed.

“How can you celebrate a disaster?” she asked, leaning in close to see the gears. “How can you dance and drink now?”

“We’re not celebrating a disaster.” Fnell wrapped her arms around herself. “We’re celebrating the life we had, the life we’re losing.”

Tasta sighed. The gears were too far gone. She would need to find replacements, but where from?

“I have to go find parts,” she said, pulling out one of the worn gears. “It’s our only hope.”

As she slid past Fnell, her wife grabbed her by the arm.

“Please, Tasta, let this go. Come and make a memory with me. Don’t let this be how Wonburg ends for us.”

“I can’t.” Tasta refused to meet her gaze. “I have to keep trying, don’t you understand?”

She squirmed free and out the hatch, but a sob caught her in her tracks.

“Don’t you understand?” Fnell asked, tears running down her cheeks. “You can’t save the city, but there’s something here you can still save.”

Tasta looked down at the gear in her hand. It had been worn away by the centuries, like so many others she’d seen. Perhaps there had been spare parts to replace it once, but not anymore.

It was over.

She dropped the gear. Tears ran from her own eyes as she turned to hug Fnell.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I just…”

“I understand.”

They clung to each other for a long time, while the spring wound down behind them, its curved steel unfolding into entropy. Then Fnell took Tasta’s hand and led her up to the roof of the city.

A band was playing melancholy songs in the moonlight. The city’s remaining inhabitants waltzed or drank champaign or just sat and talked in hushed tones. There was sadness, even tears, but not despair, not that dark pit Tasta had feared she might fall into if she ever stopped.

Fnell led Tasta onto the dance floor. Everybody else was in evening dress, but they didn’t seem to mind her overalls. Friends and neighbours smiled, happy to see her sharing the end with them.

Tasta could barely feel the trembling of the city’s mechanisms through her feet. Once as constant as her own heartbeat, it was faltering, almost gone.

But the city wasn’t a body, was it? It was a thing once made, so long ago that no-one remembered how. Could they make it again? Could they build something new from whatever remained? She imagined gears repositioned, walls rearranged, springs set aside in place of some new motive source. Perhaps, just perhaps…

“What if we don’t go with the carts?” she asked, looking up into Fnell’s beautiful blue eyes. “What if we stay and try to start over again?”

“In a dead city?”

“We’ll be alive. Isn’t that what counts?”

The moonlight shone gently down on Fnell’s smile.

“Yes,” she whispered.

They kissed, and for one last night the band played on.

***

A story about finding hope in a world falling apart? Can’t think why I’d write that right now.

If you’d like more flash fiction then you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook of steampunk short stories and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

Dirk Dynamo is used to adventure. He’s chased villainous masterminds across the mountains of Europe, stalked gangsters through the streets of Chicago, and faced the terrible battlefields of the Civil War. But now he’s on a mission that will really shake his world.

For centuries, the Great Library of Alexandria was thought lost. Now a set of clues has been discovered that could lead to its hiding place. With the learned adventurers of the Epiphany Club, Dirk sets out to gather the clues, track down the Library, and reveal its secrets to the world.

Roaming from the jungles of West Africa to the sewers beneath London, The Epiphany Club is a modern pulp adventure, a story of action, adventure, and romance set against the dark underbelly of the Victorian age.

Available in all good ebook stores and as a print edition via Amazon.

Revelation – a flash sci-fi story

“Take a seat, Julian.” Ambassador Canning had the steely gaze and stern demeanour of a Victorian headmistress. Unable to refuse, I did as she instructed.

Like everything else in her office, the chair was a piece of slick, high quality minimalism. I, on the other hand, was currently made of pain, sweat, and the sort of stress that crushed all coherent thought.

Someone who looked just like me had stolen government data. My attempt to get it back had got me beaten half to death. Best case scenario, I was about to be revealed as a clone and lose my job. Worst case, the word treason was heading my way.

“Tell me what you know about the theft at the spaceport,” Canning said.

“We tried to stop them,” I said. “But we were too-”

“Not that. The man who looks like you on the security footage.”

“A lot of people look like me,” I said. I couldn’t help myself. Years of PR training had taught me to obfuscate in a crisis. Even as another part of my brain screamed that it was futile, I started weaving a web of bluster. “That’s the problem with modern recognition systems. They create a bias that-”

“Enough.” I’d never seen Canning hit the table before. The sound froze me in my tracks. “Your face, Julian, caught on camera with the thief. Now talk.”

I don’t believe that people are ever truly without choices. But I respected Canning too much to keep bullshitting her. Even if I’d wanted to, I was too exhausted to make it coherent.

“I’m a clone,” I said. I rolled up my sleeve, revealing the vat scar. “I came up with an excuse for this years ago. Built a paper trail to cover my past. That’s how I got past the government checks and got this job.

“I know it’s illegal, but it was the only way I could get the life I wanted.

“The man in the pictures is a later clone from the same batch. I’ve met him. I tried to take the stolen cloning data off him, to protect British interests.”

“British interests or your own?”

“Both. And I fucked up. I’ve probably lost us the chance to get the data back. Now they’re going to release it – that was always their plan.”

“So it’s for politics, not profit?”

I nodded.

“I didn’t mean to betray you or the country,” I said. “But it turned out that I wasn’t as smart as I thought.”

“You admit you betrayed your country?”

“By acts of omission, yes.”

It was a relief to come clean. I could see a line of trials and jail cells in my future, but I’d brought that on myself. At least now, for one moment, I could do the right thing.

Canning opened her drawer. To my bewilderment, she pulled out a bottle of vodka and two glasses. She poured a large measure into each and slid one across her desk.

“I used to work in intelligence, Julian,” she said. “I do better background checks than anyone in the foreign office. I’ve always known that you were a clone. It’s part of why I keep you on the staff, despite your excesses and your attitude to your colleagues. Because the man who can so successfully live a lie is the man I want telling lies for me.”

She sipped her drink. I downed mine in one burning gulp and held the glass out for a refill. I was already feeling dizzy at the revelations and the beating I’d taken. What harm could the booze do?

Canning shook her head and stoppered the bottle.

“I need your head clear,” she said. “We’re about to get shafted.

“When the story about continued cloning experiments breaks, the government can’t avoid the diplomatic implications. But if they focus on the data breach, they can control the domestic response. The same people who insisted on sending me the information are going to blame us for losing it.

“You, me, Warren and his security team – we’re all in the firing line. My people are going to suffer for someone else’s fuck up, and that makes me mad as hell.”

At last, I managed to slump in my seat. It was a strange thing, but I didn’t mind the risk to my job and my freedom half as much now that I knew I wasn’t alone. Now that the person I had to fight wasn’t someone I respected.

A great weight lifted from my mind. The thoughts started to flow. One in particular caught my attention.

“You used to work in intelligence,” I said. “Have you ever brought down a government before?”

“Not my own,” Ambassador Canning said. She opened the vodka and poured a little more into my glass. “Keep talking.”

* * *

 

There’s a fitting ending for the day after an election! Can’t say I planned it that way, but I’ll take accidental relevance over none at all.

If you enjoyed this story, please share it. And come back next week for the finale of this series, as Julian tries to set things right.

Or at least to set them a different sort of wrong.

A Hard and Hollow Sound – a steampunk flash story

2617377522_0061b469b8_zPart of Dirk had always longed to be musical. There was something magical about music, something transporting. But he had no instinct for it, and life made so many other demands that he’d never found the time to learn. So he made do with listening.

The music drew him to the heart of the funfair, just as it had so many others. Peering over heads and around top hats, he saw an extraordinary machine. Steam and sound rose together from a cluster of church organ pipes, to which other instruments were connected by fanbelts, cogs and pistons. There were fiddles and banjos, washboards and drums, even an accordion with its low, distinctive drone. Most amazingly, the instruments were playing without any sign of human intervention, apart from the grinning and soot-stained woman shovelling coal into the back of the machine.

It wasn’t just a mass of noisy instruments playing at random. The sound was beautiful to the point of hypnotic. The hard, hollow notes of the banjo transported Dirk back down the path of memory, to long nights out on the plains and journeys taken through the peaks of the Rockies. Without intending to, he found himself taking all the money from his pockets and pouring it into one of the buckets in front of the machine. All the other listeners were doing the same, and more were approaching, drawn by the music. Coins overflowed from the buckets, as seemed only right and proper.

A stubborn corner of Dirk’s mind screamed at him that they weren’t doing this of their own volition. He hadn’t chosen to put a week’s rent in the bucket. The machine was controlling his mind. He had to break free.

Yet the rest of him refused to care. His hand just flopped back down when he lifted it up. There was no need for action, just listening.

What was he worrying about anyway? Something about money and a bucket? Maybe he hadn’t brought any with him. That would make sense. Yes, that was it.

Once again he heard that hollow banjo sound. The funfair faded away, replaced by the plains and the horse drifting along beneath him.

Except that wasn’t how it had been. Those days had been hard work and hunger, not just sunsets and scenery. Like those banjo notes, it was a thing of melancholy, not comfort.

He clung to those notes, clung to the real world and its hard realities. The plains faded back into memory, and he was stood in front of that amazing musical machine, its operator rubbing her hands as she wandered in front of the empty-eyed audience, collecting up the buckets of money.

Dirk grabbed the bucket in front of him, heavy with nickels and dimes, and flung it with all his considerable strength. It hit the heart of the machine with a mighty clang. Coins flew and steam sprayed from buckled pipes. The music went from melodious to discordant. The operator stared around in alarm as the audience blinked their way back to reality.

A pipe hurtled into the air. People ran screaming as another one flew past, demolishing the bearded lady’s tent. Dirk ducked as the whole thing exploded, burst pipes and snapped strings flying every which way.

As the sound faded, a banjo fell with a clunk at Dirk’s feet. He picked it up and turned to walk away. This time he’d find the time to learn.

* * *

This story was inspired by listening to the awesome Yan Tan Tether singing at the Otley Folk Club on Wednesday. This song doesn’t feature any instruments, but will give you an idea of the enchanting and haunting tunes I enjoyed.

And if you’d like to read more of Dirk’s adventures, steampunk adventure story Guns and Guano is free on Amazon Kindle and Smashwords.

 

Photo by Jim, the Photographer via Flickr creative commons.