Magister Ludi (2): Fic Contest
March 22, 2010
HiLobrow.com readers are INVITED TO PUBLISH an extremely short RADIUM AGE APOCALYPSE STORY to the comments section of this post.
During science fiction’s Radium Age (c. 1900-35), in the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.G. Wells, Jack London, Karel Čapek, Olaf Stapledon, Philip Gordon Wylie, Garrett P. Serviss, J.D. Beresford, George Allan England, J.J. Connington, and S. Fowler Wright, among others, the world — or life as we know it — was shattered by fire, ice, flood, famine, plague, roving planets, and tectonic shifts, not to mention war (conventional or atomic), invasion (interdimensional or extra-planetary), and economics-driven strife (led by capitalists or communists). Your story should either be set in the 1900-35 era, or be written from the perspective of that era — i.e., without knowledge of any post-1935 historical events, social-cultural transformations, or technological developments. Read more about Radium Age apocalyptic fiction here.
THE GUIDELINES: No more than 250 words. Only one story per person. Stories featuring explicit/hardcore/extreme sex and/or violence will not be posted. Curse words OK, though, if necessary. Stories replete with spelling and/or grammatical errors will not be posted. Do not include a title.
HOW TO SUBMIT YOUR STORY: Publish it to the comments section of this post, no later than 5 p.m. EST on Wednesday, March 31. NOTE: Don’t include any personal info besides your name and email address. ALSO NOTE: Content published on HiLobrow.com is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License.
THE JUDGES: The stories will be judged by HiLobrow.com editors Matthew Battles and Joshua Glenn, and HILOBROW’s Magister Ludi, Patrick Cates.
THE PRIZES: The author of the winning story will receive a HiLobrow t-shirt, and her story will be published on this website. A few honorable mentions will be awarded; those stories will also be published on this site.
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READ the winning story from our first Radium Age SF micro-fiction contest.
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What do you think?
The chieftain held the pistol steadily angled slightly off, a conductor’s baton eager to assist the maestro in a last symphony of bloodshed. Von Junzt tensed but otherwise remained motionless. The Electric Book’s platinum cover was slick from the rain. It nearly fell out of his hands. Behind the chieftain stood his son, a child, but already wrapped in the furs of his kills. Von Junzt’s loyal friends, Armitage and Dr. Nelson froze, as the chieftain had surprised them while they were breaking camp. The three of them were the last civilized men on the continent, perhaps the world, yet the savage had bested all of them with simple cunning and brute instincts.
“You needn’t die Junzt.”
“It holds the means to stop the miasma!” Von Junzt roared with an intensity that surprised even him.
“The shaman spoke. It is evil.”
They froze, an eternity between heartbeats before the pistol spoke. Nelson fell first, a blossom of blood on his chest before he could reach his rifle. Armitage dived in front of Junzt, taking the shot meant for the book. Junzt dived to the side and took the third shot in his gut. The Electric Book fell between them. Before the Chieftain could dispatch it, a blade emerged from his chest. Too surprised to even speak, he collapsed.
Vont Junzt stared at the child. The boy simply pulled the blade from his father’s chest.
“I liked the stories it told me. Will you show me more?”
An innocent smile formed.
Harry didn’t worry about the Germans coming. He didn’t worry that Flanders and France had fallen to the Kaiser’s Empire. Eastbourne was ready. All along the Eastbourne seafront Vickers machine guns and barbed wire had been laid. Anti-aircraft guns and spotlights were hidden in the town ready to fight off any incursion from the air. Behind the town larger guns ready to shoot ships out of the sea had been built.
England was ready. While the army had been decimated in the run from France its numbers had been replaced with ready volunteers. All veterans and boys ready and proud to do their patriotic duty.
It did not happen how Harry had been told it would. When the air-raid siren rang he put his gas mask on and ran from school to the seafront. In the sky a dozen Zeppelins were coming in off the sea. They hovered over the sea while German fighter-bombers flew over the town dropping gas. No ships full of soldiers came. They came from the Zeppelins. Dropped from the sky in rubber uniforms.
The patriots, like Harry, fought hard, but England although ready was tired. Weeks after in invasion Harry fled to India to watch the Empire crumble from afar. Eastbourne and the south of England was poisoned. America stopped accepting refugees. It was better in India, because eventually even the Kaiser’s Empire fell.
We were the first in the county to get a Ford and off to California. For a people emerged from a coalmine into the bleakness of a Midwestern winter, to roll up shirt-sleeves on Christmas proved an undertow to the west. We found a home and a parish. We didn’t own a radio. We only got the Sunday paper. The town began to grow around us. Others came to roll their sleeves in December.
That day had been dark, clouds rolling through a diamond sky. With the dark came a hiss and with it a living roil of swarming life, of what would prove a pestilence, lifted over our city, and then dropped from the air like a balloon had burst. Its grit lay on every surface, this fine alien dust that choked your throat and ringed your nostrils. At sunrise on the second day, the bleeding began.
On cots, the yellowed sheets were threadbare and loosely knit. Each eye stared at the chapel ceiling through a gauzy lens stretched over every head. The glossy, red stains would wick through them rapidly, like a nation fleeing toward the coasts. By day four, if the nurse forgot to roll you, you’d be wrapped in a gestalt of your own lifeblood in a few minutes. Weighted and suffocated in a glistening, crimson death shroud. In 1918, you could drown from the inside on your own fluids. Now, not so much the opposite as a new the-same.
Cynthia reached into the bag of popcorn that Orville held in his trembling hands. She thought his nervousness cute on their first date.
The news reel before the film started. The announcer’s voice booming about the glorious fighting of the country’s soldiers in the face of such a brave enemy as images of smartly dressed uniformed men marched synchronously and tanks being loaded onto cargo ships flitted across the screen.
Cynthia looked at Orville. The images reflected in his eyes. The bag of popcorn had stopped trembling. She imagined him wearing a uniform. Still too young to enlist, Orville had another year.
“You’re going to make a fine soldier,” Cynthia leaned over and whispered in his ear. She kissed him on the cheek and giggled as he blushed. “I will be proud of you.”
“And now for the national anthem,” the announcer’s voice boomed through the theater over a black still frame with white letters that read Everyone Please Stand. Cynthia and Orville mouthed the words along with the other theater patrons.
“Cynthia,” Orville’s voice sounded like the announcer’s booming across the theater. “Cynthia, wake up. I brought back food.”
Cynthia opened her eyes to Orville holding a rabbit with blood still dripping from its slit throat. She stood up from the broken chair in the burnout theater that she and Orville had made their shelter for the night.
She touched him on the arm and kissed his cheek, “I’m proud of you.”
The ground shakes beneath us
With violence so cursed,
Something is churning
The surface of earth.
The sun which had lit
So fine a spring day
Glints blinding off metal
Marching our way.
Cry high, cry low!
The Walkers have come,
And they’re treading our
Doom in steps that are slow!
Ten stories tall,
Feet like train engines
Their nerves copper coils
Their muscles are pistons.
Linked by radio
And infernal transistor
Their legions are mighty
Their industry sinister.
Cry high, cry low!
The Walkers have come,
A Fordian Doom,
Assembly line grown!
Bullets bounce off them
For bombs they but pause
After bites from their jaws.
Machines which once built
Our cities so high
Now bring the bricks down
And below them we die.
Cry high, cry low!
The Walkers have come
The final opponent
Our last heroes will know!
Who could have built them?
Can they be stopped?
Metal legs are on marching
O’er a world already lost.
We fight and we bargain
We plead, we become slaves
The lucky are vaporized
Inside sealed iron graves.
Cry high, cry low!
The Walkers have come,
From under their feet
Shall our rusted blood flow!
From pole to pole
From mountains to plains
They stamp out humanity
In alloyed boot stains.
When the humans are crushed
Not one being left
The Walkers’ legs stop
Having earned themselves rest.
Cry high, cry low!
The Walkers have come,
And they’ve delivered our
Doom in steps that are slow!
I never understood how those ‘stock markets’ worked. I never understood what they were talking about stuff being worth this and that. I guess I never understood how some saw those as things to be missed.
I did understand how to plant a seed, nurture it with the help of sun and rain, maybe some manure and a little luck. I understood how to track a buck, sneak up on it, and have it provide for my family. I never understood how a man could go his whole life without doing those things.
There is something else I understand today.
Today I understand how those God-damned creatures die when I hit them in the eye with a pick, or God willing, a bullet from my rifle.
Today I understand that I’m not going to roll over and be dead for those things to take anything else away from me, or anyone else. Whether or not I understand why a man misses something, or longs for something, I understand that he is a man, just like me.
I understand that together, we are going to take it all back.
And I will plant another crop, in land and wife, and watch it grow free of the tyranny of those creatures.
And if someone wants to make another ‘stock market’ some day, then he is welcome to. Whether I understand it or not, at least he will be free to do it.
The last rocket left at three, and Jamison would not be on it.
He sat on a sagging bench in the old airport amidst a thinning crowd of onlookers, his collar flipped against the wind. Soon, the vast engine would roar to life and, even though he knew they couldn’t see him through the metal armor of the rocket, Jamison would stand to wave goodbye to Marion and all the others.
There weren’t many of them left now. First the war and then the sickness following the war, and then the trouble with the crops. And now the last rocket, taking the remainder of those who mattered. The last ticket for this last rocket had been sold twelve years ago, back when the entire fleet existed merely as an abstract collection of curved lines on an engineer’s slate. Men had pawned their wedding rings for the sake of those lines. They had murdered and betrayed.
Suddenly, a commotion from the staircase leading to the rocket’s hatch: it was his Marion, breaking free from the soldiers’ arms and running towards him across the crumbling tarmac.
“Oh, Jack!” she cried. “I couldn’t leave! I couldn’t do it!”
She ran to him and collapsed in his arms, sobbing, and for just a moment, Jamison allowed himself a vision of the future, a future with a picket fence and a roast in the oven and Marion by his side.
The flames beneath the rocket flared, and then they were alone on the ruined Earth.
Rain fell for 517 days straight. Nights too. As the storms kept on, many coastal cities began to sink under water. And citizens moved inland in masses, searching for higher ground. Theories came, solutions too, but rising waters and the disintegration of communities so constrained widespread communication that most simply felt lost, left alone to fend for themselves.
Ernest Hemingway spent most of this time sailing around the Caribbean in a boat he bought no more than a week before the rain began. And for most of this time, he remained drunk and unaware of the real devastation of such a rainstorm. Still by the end of the first year of rain it struck him that he had been given some duty. And in what began as a truly noble act of heroism, Ernest Hemingway navigated north in search of survivors.
The trip did not prove all that successful. Somewhere near Florida, Hemingway rescued a dog that was inexplicably swimming with no land in sight.
He named the thing Pilar.
But after that Hemingway felt his duty tiresome. He much preferred lying back and shouting obscenities at the dog he now had with him, the one who took everything agreeably. And so in his final days he took to little more than predicting the deaths of his once-contemporaries.
Pound, Burned, he said once to a captivated Pilar.
It was the final act of grace in the days of the flood.
Eliot, he said later, Death By Cows.
Henry made a small pinhole in the almanac calendar and held the tattered page against the lamp. “Two years,” he said. The lamp-fat sputtered and Jan frowned, nudging her needle through a thrice-darned knee patch. He understood her silence. Its darkness filled his chest and congealed words on his tongue. If not for the loud ticks of the clock they religiously wound and their ritual daily reading of an almanac page, the silence would overcome them.
Two years meant he was sixteen, Jan was fourteen. They had made it, and he felt he could wait another year before touching her. Two years–not since they entered the tornado cellar and the deep underground cavern attached to it, but since they’d been alone. Jan’s father, Henry’s Uncle Roy, was the last to go. From the other side of the cavern, Henry had watched him staring into the sulfurous pool, Roy’s gaunt features dimly lit by phosphorescence coming from the water’s depths. Watched him slide in headfirst, the grim splash echoing, sending bats aflight. Henry didn’t cry out. He was furious that his uncle had disturbed his hunt. Without the bats they had nothing. At least Roy hadn’t drowned himself in their drinking pool.
Three years ago they’d seen a black cloud blooming on the plain, thought a bad one was coming. His father had gone up to see if the storm was over, and never came back. His older brother went next, then his mother. Two years. He could wait.
The ocean had been empty for three days, and the two brothers had been riding for most of that. It was only 40 miles from the shore of Tenerife to that of Gran Canaria, but the land route was unfamiliar. They followed the Myers Co. Transatlantic telegraph cable, which Astor had assured Rutherford connected the two islands by the shortest possible course.
“Astor, do we know our sister is still alive?” Rutherford asked as he stared at Gran Canaria looming above them, the top lost in clouds. A whale impaled on a crag hung from the mountain.
“I told her I would bring it to her, Ruth.”
“Can we get up to shore from here?”
“We found a way down.” Astor pulled on the reigns. “Let’s stop for the night.”
They could no longer stomach the rotting marine life, so they cooked oats in water from drums strapped to the horses. The animals ate putrid squid without complaint.
Inside the tent, the hot air felt greasy. A terrible wind came at night, responsible for every sound and smell. They lay in a mausoleum covering seventy percent of the earth. Ruth could think and dream of nothing else, so he did not know if he slept.
In the morning, white clouds gave way to a crimson haze, and dead birds rivaled fish in number along their path.
“Do you think her promise still means anything?” Astor asked, doubtful for the first time.
“I don’t know.”
Then it started to rain.
The President of the U.S.A. looked out the window of his room in the Hotel Murat and sighed. Another meeting with them, he thought. “Them” being Prime Ministers David Lloyd George of Britain and Georges Clemenceau of France. Neither they nor Prime Minister Vittorio Orlando of Italy nor any of the other leaders and diplomats with whom he met had to say a word to communicate their condescension. He was the President of a Johnny-come-lately nation, and the rulers of Europe didn’t like the idea of treating someone they considered a naive and idealistic neophyte as an equal. Funny how they’d had no objection to that upstart country sending millions of troops to save the nations of Europe from annihilating one another.
Lloyd George was a decent enough fellow, truth be told. He supported most of the President’s Fourteen Points, privately at least. But it would be political suicide for him to back the President publicly. The British people, like the French, wanted Germany to pay and pay dearly for the Great War. War, thought the President. “He kept us out of war.” That had been his campaign slogan. He’d broken that promise, but if breaking it ultimately made the world safe for democracy, it would be worth it. Braced by that thought, President Makonnen Woldemikael Gudessa of the United States of Africa walked out into the cold Paris morning.
The underground tunnels were their only escape, and yet they knew that something awaited them down there. Deep down, where the Noise was, but at least the Noise was unknown. Compared to the fate that awaited them up here, they would take their chances.
“Here, put this on,” the boy said, handing her the silver suit. The small mole above her eye, the beauty of her lisp.
“It’s ridiculous,” the girl said.
But she did, and so did he, stepping into the loose-fitting doped cotton suits, which he had made secretly from the Hindenburg material when they began building it two years earlier, in 1931.
They entered the tunnels, nothing more than a hole in the ground with a makeshift hundred-foot ladder in the remote Nebraska Badlands, the fires illuminating the distant eastern skies. The entire world perhaps cursed by that devil Tesla’s tinkering with Godspeed: the boy knew just enough about the inverse-square law to understand that its inevitable consequence was complete and total domination of the thoughts of men and women through sound and images.
At least, underground, they would be free from the “clear reception” that everyone craved, and so they descended the ladder, with its rotten and sometimes missing rings, into the cool earth, the small portal at the top of the ladder growing smaller and smaller, the Noise growing louder, the world itself shaking from the fluctuations of gravity and radio and their love tectonic in its apocalyptic mystery.
August and Emily enjoyed ice-cream as they strolled along the promenade. It was Saturday in Whitstable, a hot August afternoon, the beachfront littered with oyster shells, children and an assortment of sunburnt and sleeping day-trippers.
August looked out to sea and, in the distance, against the afternoon haze, saw a burning brightness falling out toward the horizon. Others had seen it too, silence fell on the beach, swiftly broken by a shrill cry, and the clatter of oyster shells on shingle as panic gripped the beach. Screams filled the air as all around them white hot meteorites, small like tennis balls, started falling.
The beach emptied as once-sleeping parents, children, family dogs and beach-hawkers ran for cover. Screams came from everywhere but seemed concentrated on the marquee where the band was being crushed by desperate day-trippers seeking shelter, a trail of melting ice-cream cones signposting their fleeing paths.
August and Emily were swept up by the crowds as they headed for the safety of a beachside pub. A frightened dog caught Emily’s eye; its owner had tethered it to a wind-break before the panic. Never one to ignore a helpless spaniel, much less a handsome cavalier, she ran back to struggle with its knotted lead. As August pushed through the fleeing crowds to reach her he saw the shattered beach, the sky on fire with now giant meteorites. Then he saw the giant wave, from that first massive blast, towering above him, just as it reached the shore.
Thelma gazed across flat Dakota emptiness. “So flat,” Father joked, “that on a clear day, you can see the back of your own head!” The wheat field was ploughed, but not yet planted. Thelma saw something several yards off, large, metallic, glinting in the sun. Walking toward it, she wondered if it was part of Father’s thresher, broken off during harvest. Nearing the thing, Thelma saw that it was larger than she had first thought, mostly buried beneath the ground. This was no thresher.
Presently, Thelma was close enough to see the exposed metal that had first caught her eye projected off the object’s cylindrical body, which was sleek, shark-like. The part sticking up, the fin, was as tall as Thelma, the cylinder six feet across and of undetermined length, being partially buried in the field. Thelma observed a seam running around the diameter of the cylinder. As she watched, this seam began to widen, the tail-end of the shark-thing extending out of the ground. Petrified, she realized this widening was the object opening itself. Whatever was inside was about to reveal itself. Thelma fled toward the house, seeing only black ground and blue sky blurred by wind and tears. Then a blinding white flash dazzled her, and there was nothing else.
At home, Mother stood at the kitchen window. “Did I just see lightning? And not a cloud in the sky! Lucille,” she called to her youngest daughter, “run and fetch your sister. I think a storm is coming.”
As I gaze into the rheumy blue eyes of the strange primate that was Professor Leland, I cannot but reflect on the weird phenomenon of the comet and what it portends for humanity, nay, all of the living things that are the natives of this fragile sphere we call earth.
The comet had somehow escaped observation till it was but weeks away. Though it did not collide with us, it passed close enough that the debris of its tail fell to earth. This proved to be a fine dust rather than ice. Astronomers the world over excitedly revised their theories. Then an even odder thing occurred.
Horses began shrinking over time, down to their ancestor the eohippus. Dogs became wolves. All animals were returning to earlier stages in their evolution. But the most frightening changes were happening to our species. As man crawled back towards that common ancestor we share with chimpanzees, civilized society became an impossibility. I shudder to think of the horrors those who changed slower (for there were some among all species) experienced as the cities became primal jungles of bloodstained brick.
We ocean-borne survivors thought ourselves immune. But the Professor began to change, then others. The fishing boats among us increasingly catch plated, jawless fish from the Cambrian period. My own reflection is less recognizable each day, as my brow and jaw become more prominent. I wonder if our fate is to return to some primordial slime or to the dust from which god sculpted Adam.
Harkin hadn’t had much luck recently. He had survived the big flu six years ago, when everyone else he knew had died. He hadn’t been one of those fat cats who got what they deserved when they tried to replace honest working men, and that was a kind of luck too. But the winter was coming, and until today, he began to think that his luck was running out. Until he found these jars of bathtub gin hidden within the clerk’s counter in this gas station. He smiled to himself as he drank to his good fortune.
The smile disappeared from his face when he heard a scraping from the back room. At best, it was another scavenger come to steal his gin. At worst, it was one of those things. He drew his revolver from his coat. There was a slight whir, and as the door inched open, he fired all six shots into the door, right at chest level. Shells slipped out of his fingers as he tried to reload. He fell to his knees to collect the cartridges.
He looked up to see a mechanical man in the open door, two dents in its shiny steel chest, bolt towards him. Harkin raised the empty revolver at it, only to have the machine effortlessly snatch the pistol away. It grabbed Harkin’s arms with an iron grip. Its voice was cold, flat. “Comrade, you must come with me. We will take care of you, and all humans.”
“Listen,” said Hank, pointing at the Cape Cod listening tower’s shiny radio. “It’s the same thing every night.”
Orville hung up his coat, and watched Hank nervously keen to the faint static of the powerful radio, supposedly built by Marconi himself. A crackle, and then a slow, strangled voice: “We’re coming, Harold.”
Hank pointed. “See? It’s a German sneak attack.”
“And you call yourself a radio man. That’s a British accent, and damn familiar too.” Hank, the junior operator, watched Orville ponder. “I knew a Harold. Harold Bride, worked the Ti—Jesus! Get me the Newfoundland chart.”
Hank got the chart and watched Orville use his sextant and ruler like a frenzied pirate. Orville finally drew a red line that ended at the tower.
Orville heaved a sigh. “How long can you walk in a day, Hank?”
“Ten miles, I guess. Why?”
“Ten miles.” Orville sat down, exhausted with his secret. “It’s been about eleven months. Would have had to walk fifteen hundred miles, with the last bit all uphill.”
“What in the blue blazes are you taking about?”
“I recognize that voice, Hank. You should too. It’s Jack Phillips.”
“Jack died … on the Titanic.”
“Yep, with about fifteen hundred other poor bastards. They hear the aetheric waves of the radio, Hank. Judging from how clear that transmission sounds, they’ll be here soon.”
Hank stared at the new radio, dazed. “Aetheric waves …”
From the balloon, we see the extent of the devastation. Fields and farms have decayed into pads of plain color — browns and yellows. I glance at my taciturn companion staring, disbelieving, at this, what should you call it?, reordering of the world. He is changing, too, his black hair become somehow more discrete, his irises more rectangular, his shoulders more abrupt. I am surprised the basket still carries us, one rectangle dangling below another that is merely more brightly hued. But where would we fall in this undifferentiated nothing? The sun, a square of fire, dipping toward the absolute line of the horizon in a uniformly blue sky, punctuated by irregular blocks of pure white. I swallow and there is grit in my saliva and the newly sharp edges of my tongue. We did not discover a cause. My companion is crying, now, and I marvel at the streaks of transparent sliding down his face. I miss my wife, twelve years gone.
It accelerates. Colors become pure as pigments shift into their components. In place of my fingers, flaps. Oddly, my *self* begins to simplify and decompose, disbelief becomes discrete next to pools of sadness and awe. The balloon, my companion, gone now, I see colors alone. A quickening, and suddenly my self folds into something — else. I pull an apparatus from my head, the name hasn’t yet returned, a boy across the table, all in white, smiling, says “Again! Again!”
The pressure was crippling. Nothing Maude could do seemed to ease the sharp pain in her ears. Once the bathysphere’s decent leveled off, however, she attempted a Valsalva maneuver, and felt the sweet release of twenty fathom’s worth of pressure. Once again in control of her faculties, she surveyed the sandy sea bottom below.
There was no sign of the wreck. Once again, her father’s research notes had sent her on a wild goose chase. There was no shipwreck, no artifacts, no treasure. She had squandered her inheritance chasing the pipe dream of an opium addict, and now she was penniless.
There was nothing left to do. She switched on the transceiver to order her crew to reel in the cable. And then she saw something that burned her eyes and stopped her heart.
“Jack,” she screamed into the radio, “Get me out of here, pull me up right now!”
The radio buzzed, and then popped in a flash of sparks.
“No, no, no. Not like this,” she pleaded.
The bathysphere began to shake wildly, and the cable that tethered Maude to the surface snapped. She hit the seabed with surprising force. She balled up her fists and beat the dials of the radio.
“Jack? Jack! Can you hear me? You have to get me out of here! They’re coming, Jack! Do you hear me? They’ve come back!”
Silence. And then: soft music. The sound of violins, a single castrato, a wine glass shattering.
Thomas was born in August, nearly ten years before. He’d been nursed in the city and, when the city couldn’t handle us—Mum would never say it was the other way around—we all became Land Girls, and Tommy became our little country boy, his first steps on earth rather than soot.
When they told us Da wasn’t coming back, we cried, and Mum just held Thomas in her arms. He didn’t understand, and we were happy for it.
Those days, he’d follow the plow and lay seeds. In time, his legs lengthened and he grew to wander. Mr. Macready, the farm owner, couldn’t walk anymore, so Tommy took his gun to hunt—with Mum’s permission. He wept when he first killed a coney, but we were pleased to have meat, rationing taking the rest. He came to take pride in shooting.
I stared whenever motorcars passed, for they carried men. Old Macready was the only man left at the farm. With each season, however, Tommy lost some of the boy and gained a man’s look.
One afternoon, two cars arrived, and the men stayed longer. A one-armed officer pleaded. “It’s the same all over, ma’am. England’s no different.” Mum would hear none of it. She snatched up Thomas and locked herself away. As the soldiers burst down the door, I could hear Tommy’s screams, then my mother’s. “No! He’s no use to you!”
As they dragged him to the motorcar, I saw his eyes bleeding. They took him nonetheless.
The windows of the zeppelin’s bridge were opaque with frost and rime. The captain of the airship stood half out of the cabin door on the walkway, shouting instructions to the pilot. Sudden gusts of arctic wind made the slowly descending airship sway and their howl fought with the roar and whine of the ship’s engines.
Professor Väisälä sat on a bench in the back of the bridge, trying to stay out of the way.
The sun winked out, leaving the widows milky white instead of painfully bright panes of golden light. There were shouts, the air anchors were lowered and the ship lurched when they caught.
“Arctic circle plus ten, approximately 20 kilometers out of the former city of Rovaniemi”, the navigator intoned.” Väisälä stepped out to the catwalk outside the bridge to survey the shipwreck, which spanned hundreds of meters of the shadowy arctic landscape.
The wreck of the previous expedition had been spotted by the steam plume of their zeppelin’s Fermi-pile, which was still melting through the ice. Parts of the airship FZ Aino still hung on the kilometer high ice wall that loomed over Väisälä’s ship. The captain scratched his beard covered with hoar. “In the night, with the snowstorm, it must have looked like a cloud bank.”
Professor Väisälä let out a wavering sigh. “But they have proved the theories and confirmed the terrible conclusions. The holocene is over, and the sixth ice age is upon us. God save us all.”
In dim daylight, we scurried like ants, carrying bundles of precious lichen-laden leaves across cog-worn fractal branches, tending our epiphytic gardens nestled amongst wheels and mossy pistons and long-darkened lights, bedding our young in slung cocoons hanging in iron hollows. Our dwellings variously dripped down the huge girth of hexagonal trunks, swung suspended from those same fractal branches by cables, wires and ropes we collected like preening bowerbirds, and perched on middens isolated within the subterranean savannas of vast and flat copper caverns.
By firelight, weary travelers told stories populated by distant peoples more concentrated, less dispersed than we. Of towns which clambered up arithmetic walls towards the clouds, footbridges swaying between homes like aerial arcades, of forges and looms driven by windmills which harnessed howling gusts, of children clothed in greens and reds and purples, of great halls and many-roomed bazaars pieced together with scraps torn from steel stalactites and aluminum stalagmites.
Far above us, the mechanized earth still churned, rearranged, split, fused, oblivious. Occasionally a shudder rang down from above through a dank canyon, followed by a fragmentary metal rain, or a blinking shaft of spilled light pierced our depths, the mating call of some unknowable tidal wave of machinery crashing across the surface in hot pursuit of some equally unknowable purpose.
At night, we caught glimpses of the patchworked greens of the moon, but quietly turned away, intent on fables and children.
Standish glanced at his pocket watch.
Ingar passed over the telegram which he had decoded and translated, Morse to Icelandic to English: CRAFT LAUNCHED.
They emerged from the shelter and splashed through glacier melt across the lunar-looking landscape.
From the summit they looked across the fjord, and felt the earth tremble beneath their feet. From this far away it looked as big as a fly, and yet the whine of its engine was loud enough to burst cochlea. Most ominous, though, was the black smear in The Machine’s wake — a dead zone a mile wide, stretching to the horizon.
Soon the craft crested a hill: 80 flying machines, bolted together in a hasty yet solid bond. Ingar took a reading with some sort of sextant. The altitude was correct. Standish gave a double thumbs-up as the craft roared over their heads.
“I do hope this jolly well works,” Standish shouted over the din.
“If not?” Ingar responded.
“Doesn’t bear thinking about, old chap.”
It took less than thirty seconds. The biplanes started firing, an onslaught of lead pinging off the side of The Machine. Then they saw a red glow, a shot of light coming out of the monster’s belly. The shooting stopped, as did the creature’s noise, and all they heard was the sickening drone of an aircraft descending, and the final screams of 80 men.
“Well,” Standish said, voice barely quivering, “we had better start down. And fast.”
The Visitor left its parcel in the middle of the night. Pa had gone down to the kitchen for a glass of milk when he found it outside the back door. Ma had phoned the police to come out to the farm—At Once!—for they had heard tales of the Visitors but had yet to see one in person. Ma and Pa’s farm was the only farm in their county with a telephone box, they’d got it after Pa nearly lost his arm to the thresher.
Officer Jenkins arrived disheveled and out of breath. Chief’d been worried and sent officers spread out across town, and Jenkins had been sent on bicycle on account of how he lived down the road and could go home real quick to his wife if anything happened.
The phone rang. Ma said it was for Jenkins. He held it against his shoulder nodding his head uh-huh and you-don’t-say. He hung up. “They’ve placed ‘em on all the farms. This county, the next, and the next one after, far as we can tell.”
“Chief is calling the Bureau. He don’t know what to do any more than the rest of us. Said, above all, not to touch it.”
Ma moved to the kitchen door and looked out the window at the small curled up figure, glowing cool green like the insides of a cucumber. “I don’t know. He looks kind of cute.”
They didn’t call it the Dirty Thirties for nothin’. Droughts, depression, world-wide political unrest, rampant crime – it all made for dark times. But I guess it prepared us for The Fall.
It happened in springtime. Dark clouds rolled over the world like a terrible storm. A storm that didn’t go away. Food production halted overnight. Scarcity created tribal warfare the world over.
That was four years ago and we’d been running since.
But today we stop running.
For months we’d been sticking to the outskirts of small towns. Pillaging what we could at night. Lucky if we found tinned food, stored grains or farmhouse preserves.
Once we found bicycles, and for one week we held an incredible pace – smiling as we distanced ourselves from the starving packs behind us. Maybe we got comfortable, I don’t know, but they managed to catch up.
They found us camping by a starving river and came fast. All blind fury. They were more interested in our stores than us, making it easier to fight them off and escape downriver. We weren’t unscathed.
I held her close as we floated. Her eyes were closed. Her face a pale grey like the sunsets these days.
I carried her. Tended wounds. Suppressed fevers. Hoped. Prayed that there was still a god somewhere.
I thought we‘d make it, that I’d save her and we’d start again.
But I can’t carry her anymore. And I can’t go on without her.
We’ll know soon enough if god’s out there.
Matt’s story came in a minute late but I bet our Magister Ludi will let it slide. This is going to be tough to judge — so many terrific stories!
Red serge conceals a multitude of sorrows. It is the same substance as the setting sun, an eternal and conquering rule, but the man beneath is shadow. We have not heard from command in over eight weeks. Norway House is desert, Thompson is desert, the world is mute save in Indian whispers. Fading into evening like a shopworn coin, I await the airships’ arrival.
The rest of the day is preparing for this. The patrols, the numbing cavalry drills. Adjudicating native disputes, firing warning shots, making threats. Any cession of activity is permanent in a vacuum, and none since Adam have known the siren’s glamour of the stars or the creeping noontide sun as us. Without structure, our mission would end as perchance mankind has ended: in moonshine.
Steam rises from the southern horizon, massing, lifting and delivering the airships fully formed to the spectator. In the shock of sudden revelation, the exact mechanisms, the broad structure, even the scale cannot be ascertained. Sometimes, the propellers are in quincunx arrangement on the ventral surface, other times arrayed along the sides. Propellers. Medicine wheels. Mandalas. They emit an odour like burnt hair and stale blood before passing into another state and vanishing. Unseen pilots speak gibberish in High German. What could it all mean?
Constables and natives are not to discuss the airships. Weakness of mind sired this upon the world- disorder is to be eliminated. Protocol will hold just as the sun sets, eternal and conquering.
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