Everyone fled for the old, deserted places; to the caves, the ruins and the ancient abandoned settlements. The cities had long gone; collapsed in on themselves. All modern infrastructure wiped out.
No-one understood why, but there was no longer anyone to ask or to explain. The politicians, the scientists and the specialists had long retreated into their state-of-the-art doomsday bunkers. Much good would it have done them. All technology had fried when the black hole came into view.
The inevitable came, although it took months. Quite a number of us survived. There had been long enough to prepare. But then the time came. The skies grew dark. There were flashing lights, the rushing of wind, a strange hollow feeling that seemed to gnaw on the soul.
When it was all over, we awoke to a bright new dawn. We opened our eyes, felt our limbs, went outside and looked at each other. Then we noticed. Everything was reversed like in a mirror. Our hearts were beating on the other side of our chests. It took a little getting used to.
We carried on, improvised. Crops grew. The water in our wells was sweet. Everyone felt good, younger by the day. We were more vigorous, more robust, we were quicker and stronger. And then we realised. We were actually getting younger, day by day. And the process was speeding up. What would become of us as we hastened to youth, to childhood and earlier?
Wrapped in her fluffy pink robe she glides into the beautiful bathroom. Hot water gushes from swan-shaped tabs into a large claw-footed tub. The light is subdued. Rose-scented candles glow seductively, reflected in the slightly-smoked full length mirror with its glittering frame of hand-picked pink quartz tiles. She pauses and turns around. What has she forgotten?
Moments later she reappears carrying a large crystal glass containing her favourite mouth-filling red wine.
The white-tiled floor is glossy, and slippery with an unnoticed sheen of steam. She strides forward and suddenly…
She’s on the floor, prone on those pricey ice-white tiles. She hesitates for just a moment and then rises to her feet. She stands facing the mirror, but something’s wrong. Where’s her reflection? She focuses on the one missing tile on the far corner of the frame, still not mended, but when she looks back, her face is still absent.
Her gaze travels down the misting mirror. What’s that on the floor behind her? She turns and sees a pink robed figure. Spilled red blood mingles with spilled red wine. She raises her hand to her mouth to suppress a scream, but there is no hand, no mouth.
There is nothing.
Written in response to The Haunted Wordsmith’s ‘Main March Madness‘ 13 ‘A Ghost’
and with a nod to a scene from Michael Connelly’s ‘Dark Sacred Night’.
The year before, and all the years before that, as long as anyone could remember, when the travelling circus came to town, elephants and monkeys marched along the main road all the way through the town to the open field where they set up the tents. Snake handlers, people on stilts, and even the bearded lady followed, handing out fliers as they danced past.
But this year was different. On the appointed day we heard a brass band heralding the parade. The rosy cheeked ringmaster in his full regalia marched proudly at the front. Dainty drum majorettes followed, parading and pirouetting; next came the gaudily dressed clowns with their sad, smiling faces. And acrobats who turned cartwheels and somersaults.
But where were the lions, the tigers and elephants? Where were the dwarfs and the tallest man in the World? No ladies with beards or two-tailed monkeys? No fire-eaters, no sword-swallowers or freak acts at all!
We’d heard rumours of strange reptilian creatures stalking the lands beyond our borders. We’d not paid much attention. Similarly, we’d dismissed the reports which were sent back from the Palace Guard’s intelligence team who patrolled the perimeter of our kingdom. Men, far away from home are prone to flights of fancy and over-exaggeration. However, when the creatures did appear they were quite beyond imagination.
One spring morning they came, floating down from the fluffy white clouds under little canopies of sky-blue silk. We watched from our roof tops and our high city walls as they landed, then marched upon us, fanning out around the entire circumference of the city. We’d closed the heavy outer gates, pulled up the drawbridge and manned the battlements. But it was not enough. They were too large, too strong, too determined. And there were so many of them.
Our archers fired on them, but the arrows bounced off their patterned breast plates and scaly bodies. Within the hour they had peeled back our gates and smashed down our ramparts with their huge taloned paws. Our swords and spears were no match for them either. Once they had entered the city, they unslung their weapons and fired beams of sound and light which turned men to dust.
People scattered before them. Those who were too old or too slow were scooped up in their great scaly arms and flung aside with a force that snapped necks and broke bones. One of the creatures pulled a bleating goat from its tether and bit the poor animal’s head off. Then it split the body in two and tossed each half to its comrades who marched on either side.
What was left of the Palace Guard formed a ring around the entrance to the Sanctum where our queen and her council were gathered. The creatures filled the main square; row upon row of them. They stood in their ranks, facing our guards. Silence fell, punctuated only by the groans of the injured and the laments of the bereaved.
Then one of the creatures stepped forward; the symbols on its breastplate finer and more intricate than the rest. It advanced up the steps to face the Commander of the Palace Guard. Bringing a huge, scaly paw down on the Commander’s left shoulder it leant forward, forked tongue flickering.
At that moment, there was a strange roaring noise and suddenly, out of thin air a mysterious object appeared. A huge, great storage vessel, rather like the ones we use to store oil or wine, but much larger and made of a dull, grey metal. A door in the side of the object slid open and a tall, willowy figure dressed in a flowing silver gown appeared. The creatures in the square turned towards her, low whistling sounds emanating from their nostrils. They cowed their heads. She raised a shiny black staff and pointed it at their leader. She spoke and although her words were incomprehensible to us, we knew they were full of power. The lizard leader muttered something. She said a single, potent word and it vanished in a puff of smoke. Then she turned her shiny black staff on the massed ranks of creatures. Pop, pop, pop. They all disappeared. Then without a word, she returned to the vessel and the door closed behind her. The roaring noise sounded and the vessel was gone.
The old man finished his story and stared into the distance. Someone asked him a question.
“True? You ask me if my story’s true? Evidence?” He paused. “Well, if you look carefully there are some scorch marks near the entrance to the Sanctum.” The old man held up his finger. “And, I believe, fine sky-blue silk underwear is still worn here by women of a certain age.”
I remember The Time Before. The time before The Changes, before the bees died all over the world. Suddenly. All wiped out. It was that one dreadful year when things started to break down. Lots of things happened, but it was all about the bees.
We knew they were important.
We knew they were vital.
We knew they were vital for life.
Everyone had predicted it would be a catastrophe; but it turned out there was hope. There was a work-around; people with technology, scientists, biologists, cyberneticists. They had a plan.
They brought out the drones. Not the only-good-for-one-thing males of the bee species. No, these were machines.
But we didn’t realise that these tiny robots were more than just little automated pollinators.
Did you know about the waggle dance? The one a bee did to tell other bees where to find the good stuff. No? Well it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the new drones, the cute little bee drones, have eyes everywhere. They’re watching us. So you’d better toe the line.
They don’t do a dance, but they do tell their masters.
They watch; their masters observe.
Their masters control. Your life.
Everyone had predicted it would be a catastrophe, and it was. But not in the way people had thought. And now nothing is like it was in The Time Before.
‘No more rides,’ said Humphrey the Unicorn, ‘especially not for that fat fairy.’ He was talking to himself, deep in the enchanted forest. His back ached and his horn was sore where the young fairies, pixies and elves had been touching it for luck. Much will that do them, he thought.
Humphrey sighed, ‘a noble beast like me, scratching a living as a side-show attraction at Friday’s Fantastical Fair. He wandered over to a patch of four-leaved clover and started munching.
‘Hey, Unicorn!’ said a voice. Humphrey looked up to see a strange little man leaning against a tree with a notebook in his hand and a pencil behind his ear.
‘You’re good at story-telling aren’t you?’ the little man said.
Humphrey nodded. He’d always been fond of telling stories, but the magical kids of today weren’t interested.
‘And you’re looking for a new career?’
Humphrey nodded again.
‘Okay, here’s the thing,’ the little man pulled the pencil from behind his ear and waved it with a flourish. ‘I’ll pay you double what you get from the Friday Fantastical Fair, if every week, without fail, you provide me with a 250 word story for my Friday Flash Fiction spot.’
Humphrey jumped at the chance. He and The Writer, for that was who the strange little man was, made a pact for life. But one year later, when Humphrey couldn’t squeeze his brain for even one more story, he found to his cost that he’d made a pact with the devil.
Inspired byThe Haunted Wordsmith’s Three Things Challenge– fairy, unicorn, devil These little prompts are coming to an end, but with Halloween approaching Teresa promises us new inspiration for tales of ghosties and ghoulies and long-legged beasties.
Sounds like fun!
With apologies to the creators of Star Trek and Doctor Who
The doors to the holodeck swooshed closed. Ensign Marcus Bain felt a warm breeze ruffle his crew cut and the midday sun on his skin. Dressed in appropriate time-period leisurewear he plunged into the fairground crowd.
Garish colours, distorted sounds and the smell of fried food assaulted his senses. He checked the handful of notes and coins which had been issued to him with his slippery pale blue nylon outfit. There had been some orientation information on the pre-entry briefing screen, but he’d barely skimmed it in his impatience to visit late-twentieth century Earth.
He stared about at the crudely-made mechanical rides from which music blared and people screamed. The young ensign selected a ride at random and proffered a handful of coins. The operator raised his eyebrows and laughed, saying something Marcus didn’t catch, before showing him to one of the little rubber-rimmed cars which people were driving around the smooth oval-shaped rink.
Marcus had only just wedged himself into the seat of his little green car when someone bumped him hard from behind. He swivelled around, but the car had already reversed away. Then another slammed into him from the side. “You drive like a Klingon on Rackta,” he yelled at the driver who gave him a thumbs-up sign before driving off to bash a little blue car. Marcus clutched the steering wheel and depressed the single pedal on the floor. The car moved forward, describing a graceful arc.
He cruised around the rink, skilfully avoiding attempts by other cars to bump him. It was a bit like steering a star-ship through a meteor shower; not that he’d actually done that other than on a simulator. Marcus was oblivious to the hostile looks from the other drivers as he evaded their challenges and failed to make any contact himself. Then three cars came at him at once, one behind and two on either side, driving him edge of the rink. There was nowhere for his little green car to go. Marcus swung his car around to face them and stopped. He could feel the pressure from their cars push against his, which was tight up against the rim of the rink. The electric charges from the poles mounted on the back of the cars crackled brightly on the conductive mesh above their heads. The three guys scowled at Marcus. All were dressed in tight cut off t-shirts which revealed hostile-looking tattoos on their arms. He saw the man on his right crack his knuckles.
Marcus was up and out of the little green car before they had a chance to move. He hesitated for a few seconds, then seeing them hoist themselves out onto the busy rink and advance towards him, he set off at a run. The nylon fabric of his clothing slid unpleasantly over his skin as he looked around for somewhere to lose his pursuers.
Marcus noticed a door flapping open at the rear of one of the flimsy buildings. He dived through the door slamming it behind him. It was very dark. Marcus felt his way along a narrow corridor. His stomach knotted as he heard his pursuers enter behind him. Marcus groped his way along the passage until he found another door; he opened it cautiously and slipped through.
It was suddenly very bright; the walls around him were lined with mirrors which distorted and multiplied his reflection. He rounded a corner, hurrying past the grotesque versions of his reflected self into a mirror-lined corridor which twisted and zigzagged before opening into a large, triangular-shaped room. He heard a shout: ‘split up, get him.’ Heavy footsteps pounded on the wooden floor; the mirrors shook. Before Marcus could decide which way to run, three figures appeared each from a different doorway. Marcus was trapped.
‘Exit!’ shouted Marcus, remembering the escape command.
‘We’re not going anywhere,’ one of them grunted. The three men closed in on the now desperate Marcus, who knew he was not immune to blows from holographic foe.
‘Exit!’ Marcus yelled again. Why didn’t the program end?
Vworp! Vworp! The three men stopped and turned to see a large shape materializing in the middle of the room. Marcus sighed with relief. But what appeared wasn’t what he’d expected. Rather than an archway, it was a big blue box, taller than a man and a little wider than the double doors in the side which faced him. Perhaps this was a new version of the Arch? He wished he’d read the briefing more thoroughly. One of the doors opened and a figure in a long brown coat and an even longer stripy scarf appeared. He raised his broad-brimmed hat revealing a shock of unruly, curly hair.
‘Good afternoon, gentlemen,’ he said. He looked at Marcus, ‘You’d better come with me ensign.’
Marcus hesitated; his three would-be assailants stood open-mouthed.
‘Come along Ensign Bain, hurry up now,’ the man said, beckoning to him. ‘This way.’
Marcus hurried toward the blue box. ‘Who are you?’ he asked his rescuer as he drew level with him at the doorway.
‘I’m the Doctor,’ he replied, offering Marcus a toothy grin as he ushered him inside.
‘Doctor who?’ asked Marcus.
‘Have a jelly baby,’ said the Doctor, offering him a crumpled paper bag.
Marcus stared around him.
‘Welcome to the Tardis! Bigger on the inside, yes, I know,’ said the Doctor, beaming wide-eyed at Marcus. ‘Now let’s get you back where you belong,’ he said as he pushed buttons and pulled on levers at the central console.
Before Marcus could take stock of his surroundings, the Tardis materialized in the engine room of the USS Enterprise. ‘Home,’ said the Doctor, helping a dazed Marcus out.
‘Aye, another one, is it Doctor?’ said Scotty, the Chief Engineer.
The Doctor nodded. ‘Your virtual reality toy keeps causing a tiny rift in the space-time continuum. You need to fix it. I’ve better things to do than scoop up young ensigns on their day off.’
‘Aye, Doctor,’ said Scotty, ‘we’ll get onto it right away.’
Even for a Catholic Church there are a lot of statues. Not just the usual suspects: Our Lord on the Cross, Our Lady Weeping (touch of woodworm on those toes), and good old Saint Francis with a mouldy-looking bird on each hand and a rabbit missing half an ear at his feet. All have been subjected to some dodgy touch-up jobs. Nail varnish on Saint Anne? You shake your head.
There are newer statues too; peopling the perimeter like extras from a low-budget film. They stare out from the shadows, waiting for the action.
You drop a coin in the shabby wooden box, select a candle, light the wick and place it among its fellows. You pause, looking like you’re offering a prayer; for form’s sake.
You glance at your watch. Surely he should be here by now?
Perching on a pew near the back of the nave, you survey the altar. The altar cloth is rumpled and askew; the silverware huddled together at one end, as if something (someone?) had been resting there and was suddenly removed.
A shaft of sunlight falls on the golden lectern, illuminating the outstretched wings of the malformed eagle which support a heavy leather-bound bible on its wings. You notice a chain and padlock securing the stand to a ring-bolt in the floor. You can’t be too careful these days. Something catches your eye; movement reflected in the eagle’s wings. You glance over your shoulder. The statues appear closer; one of them, a young man, has a hand raised as if in greeting. Was it like that before?
The clouds move over the sun and the lectern fades in the gloom. A door scrapes open and a pool of yellow light spills onto the flagstones alongside the altar. There is a shadow too: an elongated arm with an extended finger touches the edge of the altar cloth. Then ghost-sounds of shuffling feet, whispers of words and the rasp of heavy breaths echo across the nave. You suddenly notice that the statues are lined up along the central aisle. They watch you; empty-eyed. How did they get there? You close your eyes, shake your head and open them again. Are you dreaming? You don’t think so.
A door slams somewhere and a black-garbed priest appears carrying violin case. The man for whom you’d been waiting: the one who says he has a story for you. He sets the case down on the altar and opens it, taking out a strange-looking rifle. He glances at the statues and stares back at you. Now he smiles and flicks off the safety catch.
They say you never hear the bullet which kills you. Father Anselm’s petrifying bullets are different.
I was sent to the Valley in my fourteenth year. I was given a little attic room and assigned as apprentice to the Herbalist beyond the Green.
She set me to work in the Storeroom, where I organised the shelves, made labels and lists. She was impressed with my lettering. Gradually I started to learn Herb-Craft: where to gather the freshest ingredients, what to plant and when to harvest, recipes for teas and tinctures, poultices and potions.
A year later, following the midsummer feast, she put me to work on the Book. I copied out new recipes, made illustrations, noted where and when certain plants could be found. I began to assist in the Dispensing Room. She was pleased with me and with my work.
I learned that certain things displeased her. If she found me chatting too long whilst I was dispensing remedies, she would stand at the door, arms folded, tapping her foot. My friends soon took the hint. Or if she saw me spending time at a particular market stall, she would take me firmly by the elbow telling me to ‘come, leave that now’.
I worked with my pen and brush in the Storeroom at a little desk among the wooden shelves on which the flasks and jars were kept neatly in rows. Even on the hottest of days the Storeroom doors remained shut. No prying eyes were tolerated; the work was secret. I was sworn to keep those secrets.
One afternoon, I’d made myself a cup of herbal tea using leftovers from a poultice. She came in and sniffed my teacup. “What is this?” she asked. I explained. “Is it in the Book?” “No, it but was only a handful of leaves.” Her eyes flashed, “There must be no omissions from the Book.” She stabbed at the cover with fingers clenched and walked out.
Two years passed. My knowledge grew. I followed her rules; made sure she had no cause to admonish me. She taught me a little rudimentary Spell-Craft and the Storeroom prospered as never before.
One morning in late summer, when the dew was still fresh on the ground, I took my basket up to the head of the Valley to the source of a little stream I knew. There I found newly growing belladonna and wolfsbane. I picked a sprig of each and hurried to back to the Storeroom.
Later that afternoon, I settled down at the little desk with my brush and pen and my new specimens. I opened the Book and turned to the poison plants section. But it was missing. I checked again, carefully, page by page, but it was as if the pages had never existed.
I hurried over to her little house and called her. She followed me slowly and sat down at the desk. I showed her where the missing pages should have been; how they seemed to have disappeared into thin air. I thought she’d be cross and give me that look, so I prepared myself. But she looked up at me and said “Never mind now.” She laid her wrinkled hand on my arm: “Go home; I’ll see you in the morning.”
The Storeroom was unusually busy the next day and my morning was spent making up and dispensing remedies. It was only in the afternoon that I took the Book down. The moment I opened it, I could see something was wrong. Strange symbols had been written in the margins and there were untidy blots and crossings out. I didn’t understand.
I heard the Storeroom door open. She appeared in the doorway and came over to the desk. “Something’s happened to the Book,”’ I said, showing her.
“Only you use the Book. No one else has touched it.” She brought her face close to mine and I saw pure hatred on her face. “Why have you done this?”
“I haven’t done anything.” I felt myself starting to shake. I knew I hadn’t done anything. I stared up at her. “It wasn’t like this yesterday.” My stomach churned under her gaze. “We looked at it together, remember? The missing pages?”
“I know you did it.” Her voice was like gravel.
I stood up, facing her across the little desk. I held her stare; not this time, I thought. There was a burning smell. I looked down. Smoke was rising from the edges of the Book. The paper began to curl and suddenly the pages ignited. She slammed the Book shut.
“Go!” She pointed to the door. “Just go!”
I grabbed my basket and cloak and fled towards the Green. I looked back just once. There she stood, framed by the doorway. She glared back at me for a moment; then she slammed the Storeroom door shut.
I never went back. I avoided that part of the village and only went to the market during dispensing hours when I knew she’d be occupied. I could never rid myself of the memory of the expression of loathing on her face, or the power I’d felt that moment when the Book had ignited. I had been changed forever.
Sanchez rises early. He dons his trench-coat, pulls on his hat.
Sliding stealthily through the silent streets, a dark, fast-moving, shadow. Hat pulled down, collar turned up, he passes through the checkpoint unchallenged. Now he’s in the ‘other’ city.
He’s closer now. He slows down and looks around. His eyes flick left, flick right. Careful, as he watches comings and goings of the grey-clad people. He times his move, then scurries across the square. He waits hunched in a doorway. A clock strikes.
He hears the click-clicking of heels on the flagstones; getting closer. He glances at the reflection in the window opposite. He tenses, wired for action. The woman draws level with him.
He springs out, reaches into his raincoat, pulls out a single red rose. He hands it to her. She smiles.