Crossing the Bay

I have been a little lax in keeping up with the fiction writing recently, so it’s about time for a new piece. Again based on a Chuck Wendig challenge, this time on the theme of a ‘journey’. I interpreted that as an invitation to try to read the mind of a dead person (as an historian, it’s basically what I do anyway) on a fairly short physical journey, but perhaps a very long metaphorical one.


Crossing the Bay

It was a chilly morning and still quiet, the silence only disturbed by the small waves washing against the side of the barge as it glided across the bay. George strained to catch a glimpse of the city they were heading towards, but thin strands of the morning fog still drifted over the bay and besides, his eyesight was not what it used to be.

“Mr. Humphreys,” he asked his private secretary and steadfast companion for the last ten years, “can you spot the city?”

“Not as yet,” Humphreys replied, “but I think I see some ships in the roads. We should be there in an hour or so.”

His last hour as a private individual for years to come, George reflected with some regrets, or perhaps even the rest of his life; although in truth, he had not been a completely private individual for the last fifteen years or so. He had emerged from the chaos of the was as a national hero, and whether he had wanted it or not, the country had continued to look to his leadership – except, he thought with some bitterness, when it came to paying pensions and reparations to his soldiers – so when a Mr. Thornton had arrived at his front door with the letter that officially congratulated him on his election, it had almost been a formality.

It was all a great honour, of course, but one that George was still ambivalent about. He was not getting any younger – he had turned fifty-seven the month before – and in his quiet moments, he had dared to entertain a vain hope of getting to spend his remaining years in quiet retirement on his estate. There were so many things he was looking forward to do; plan out the field rotations, experiment with new varieties of crops, write books on surveying and long letters exploring the advantages of different species of cattle.

He had already sacrificed so much for the sake of his country, for the sake of the republic, and he did not think it unreasonable that he would want some peace and quiet after so many years and the hardships he had suffered. But the republic was a harsh mistress, who now required still greater sacrifices from him, and when she called, he would not allow himself to refuse. So things had turned out differently.

Even then, it was more than a little ironic that even though so many compared him to Cincinnatus, the Good Roman who put down his sword and his positions to return home and till his fields, he himself would not even be allowed to enjoy that small luxury, that reward. On the contrary, the sword and the fasces were practically being forced back into his hand.

As the barge made its way across the bay, many more boats joined in from all sides to escort it until they made up an entire water-borne procession. The almost monarchial pomposity and circumstance of it all sat poorly with George’s republican sensibilities, and his distaste only grew when several series of thirteen gunshots thundered across the water from the several warships moored in the harbour, saluting their arrival. First the Spaniard Galveston and the North Carolina, then the city fortifications joining in until the echoes rolled back and forth for what seemed like an eternity.

Trying to distract himself, George pointed over to the mouth of the river that bounded the city on its eastern side.

“That was where we retreated from the British after the Battle of Brooklyn,” he said to his secretary. “Brought the whole army across, night after August 27th.”

“I remember hearing about that,” Humphreys replied. “We were still in Connecticut at the time. Hard to believe that was thirteen years ago.”

Had it been thirteen years? So much had happened since then, it rather seemed like a lifetime ago. George caught himself thinking that things had seemed simpler then; that had been a difficult, even a desperate time – but still…

Finally, the barge arrived at the pier, and followed by Mr. Humpreys and the rest of their party, George debarked to face the vast crowd of thousands that had gathered on the waterfront to greet him and now cheered and hollered at his arrival, waving flags, banners and hats in the air, and accompanied by tolling bells and more of those damned gun salutes.

Again he reminded himself that the excitement was as much to celebrate his position and his reputation as for him personally. Indeed, these people, and others like them, had elected him to the highest office in the new republic. But was it really a man they wanted, or an icon? His countrymen were a fractious people, and many hoped that unite a new country that threatened to come apart at the seams even before it had been properly established. But how many others were actually wishing that he would prove a demigod rather than a man, how many were secretly hoping that he could wave his hand and just banish all of their problems as if by magic? If any did, and he suspected there were more than a few, they would be disappointed.

Meanwhile, George Clinton, the rotund Governor of New York was advancing towards them, smiling amicably. Even though they had been political opponents recently, especially when Clinton had opposed the Constitution less than a year earlier, they were also old friends, and it was a pleasure to throw some glamour over him and his city through this occasion.

“President Washington. Words cannot express how honoured I am to welcome you to New York,” Clinton said and extended his hand.

Dismissing his dark thoughts, George Washington gravely took the Governor’s offered hand and shook it firmly while the cheers of the crowd rose to new heights. If being an icon was what the new country demanded of him, then by God he would strive to become the best icon history had ever seen.


Historical postscript: The event described here is the arrival of President-Elect George Washington in New York on April 23, 1789, where his first inauguration would take place the week after. The impression one gets from his letters is that Washington was notoriously reluctant to return to public service after some years in retirement following the Revolutionary War, not to mention accepting the highest office in the republic and the responsibilities that followed with it. Whether he actually meant that, or it was just false humility is of course as always up for debate, but the case for his sincerity is persuasive. So consider this an attempt to imagine some of the thoughts that might go through the head of a man who willingly or not has been turned into an icon.

Reading for context and extra credits:
American Revolution
George Washington
First inauguration of George Washington
Battle of Brooklyn (or more commonly ‘of Long Island’)
Governor George Clinton
Colonel David Humpreys


Tranquility Station

This is an idea I’ve been playing around with for a while, so when ‘bottom of the ocean floor’ was included in Chuck Wendig’s latest flash challenge, it seemed an obvious fit (fortunately, he didn’t specify which ocean). That said getting this thing to fit in 1000 words was a hell of a job, and I still think it could use more detail to establish atmosphere and such. But here it is, anyway.


Tranquility Station

Tranquility Station was a grandiose undertaking; the first permanent human presence in the outer Solar System. The Jovian moon Europa had become a priority of the space programme after the early probes had confirmed the presence of life. It had taken decades, trillions of dollars and unprecedented scientific and technological achievement to construct, but now at last, it stood complete on the bottom of the sub-surface ocean, housing dozens of scientists dedicated to studying this new world.

Clustered around volcanic vents on the ocean floor, Europa’s life was alien, but recognisable. Living in almost total darkness, they were mostly chemoautotrophs, deriving heat and nourishment from the mineral-rich streams of warm water emitted by the vents.

The fascinating exceptions were the ‘jellyfish’, as everyone called them: complex luminescent organisms, each composed of thousands of long, thin feelers and manipulators, gathering in large blooms to feed off the autotrophs – a grazing apex predator, as it were. Soon after the studies began, one scientist caused a brief flurry with the hypothesis that the jellyfish might even be sentient, that their blinking lights and graceful motions represented a form of communication.

However, such ideas were soon replaced by more immediate concerns when the facility equipment started breaking down.


At first, everyone attributed the equipment malfunctions to simple accidents and wear. As expected, maintenance had proven to be one of the greatest challenges for the facility. The environment at the bottom of the Europan ocean – extreme pressure, cold and darkness, high salinity content – wore out machinery and electronics at an astounding pace. It was only when equipment in the protected environment inside the base started to break down that suspicions were aroused.

“Sabotage.” I do not remember who used the word first. But in any case, it seemed incomprehensible. Given the hostility of the environment, any act of sabotage threatened the very existence of the facility, and the lives of everyone living here. Who would be so insane as to put their own life at risk, and for what purpose? Tranquility was an international project, a peaceful scientific research facility that would benefit all of humanity. No country, no political party, not even any terrorist organisations would gain much from its destruction.

After some time, though, the malfunctions abated for a while and we all relaxed somewhat. Perhaps they had just been a series of freak accidents. Maybe it had just been coincidence that they happened all at once.

But then people started dying.

As the base doctor, I was responsible for examining all of the victims. Like the earlier equipment malfunctions, the first couple of deaths seemed accidental. The first victim took too many sleeping pills one evening. The next suffered a suit malfunction, then came a sudden heart attack, electrocution from a faulty power cable, and so forth. But when a microbiologist was found in his room with his throat cut, there could be no further doubts. We had a murderer among us.

At that point, the base commander decided to send the submarine to the surface and request assistance. It had barely gotten a hundred meters away from Tranquility when it exploded. With the next supply ship not scheduled to arrive for several months, we were now truly cut off from the rest of humanity. As expected when people are locked into an enclosed area and afraid for their lives, our tiny society collapsed rapidly after that. Suspicions and tempers ran high, carrying a gun at all times became a matter of course, and people began to stay together in groups; the only thing worse than being alone was being together with just one person. Not that any precautions did any good – people just kept dying.


Doubt was always my ally. People are naturally inclined to trust doctors, so it was easy enough to increase a sleeping pill dose here, switch two medications to cause a heart attack there, and so forth. Even the base commander trusted me almost to the last, and in doing so, he doomed both himself and everyone else in the facility. By the time I had killed the rest of the crew, and there were no one left but him and me, he realised his error, of course. And then I shot him as well; the last inhabitant of Tranquility Station except myself.

He is lying on the floor right next to my desk as I write this, a small stream of bright red blood running across the floor from the wound. It is a surprisingly vivid colour. I try to commit it to memory as clearly as I can, for I will soon embrace the darkness, where there will be no more colours.

Tranquility Base had always been misnamed. Certainly, the bottom of the Europan ocean seemed tranquil to us when we first arrived. Quiet, dark, cut off from the rest of the universe by kilometres of water and ice. But in reality, we were a disturbance, an intrusion, an unwanted foreign element in this world.

I do not regret what I have done. I have, in a sense, betrayed not just all my colleagues, but all of humanity. But it was necessary. The jellyfish required these deeds of me. I heard their song soon after I arrived, an eerie, subdued, alien presence in my mind. Far from being frightening, it was comforting and reassuring; but they required a service of me. I do not know why they chose me as their instrument, but I understood what they wanted me to do; what was necessary to do. Tranquility Station had to fall silent.

I have shut down all equipment in the facility, but still I hear their song in my head. I shall join them in a moment. This is the reward they have promised me: Without the artificiality of a suit, I will at last be able to experience their world as they do. To repose forever in the quiet and the dark of the ocean depths.

It will be magnificent.


A piece I wrote for a previous Chuck Wendig flash challenge: Write a complete story in five sentences and at most 100 words. (If you were wondering, yes, that’s pretty hard.) A little ‘meditation’ on the power of words (or ‘speech acts‘, to be technical) to change lives.


Helen refreshed the website for the 117th time that evening and saw that the opinion had finally been published: ‘People v. Lindsay, Nicolas’. Her heart racing from anxiety, she quickly scrolled down to the conclusion. She had promised herself she’d be strong, but she still burst into tears when she read the terse final sentence:

“The judgment of the trial court is AFFIRMED.”

For the judges of the state supreme court, it had been just another day at the office, but for Helen Lindsay and her son on the death row, it was the day that hope died.

The Fire of the Gods

A contribution to Chuck Wendig’s most recent flash fiction challenge: A piece which must be titled “The Fire of the Gods” and be no more than 1000 words long.

The Fire of the Gods

The new star had appeared in the sky over Cyrannus on the eve of the Harvest Festival, and had caused much argument among the Hierophants. It did not behave like any of the multitude of fixed stars that populated the dome of the heavens, progressing across the sky in a staid, orderly manner, turning predictably with the seasons. Nor was it like the planets, the heavenly abodes to where the divine Ancients had withdrawn in the Great Exodus two score and thirteen generations ago, and which regularly appeared in the sky for days at a time so that the gods could keep watch over the descendants of the faithful who had remained behind.

The new star, on the other hand, appeared in the sky each night, and often several times. Always it came and went in the same pattern, crossing the sky from sunsetwards to sunrisewards as quickly as a running man could cover the distance from the gates of the royal palace to the Temple of the Ancients. It would disappear beneath the horizon, only to return half or a quarter of a watch later for another pass. And some of the most sharp-eyed warriors in the Kingsguard had even spotted it during daytime.

Thus, on the sixth days after the appearance of the star, the Council of Hierophants gathered on the summons of the High King to debate its significance. Some interpreted it as a messenger from the gods, a sign that the Ancients would finally return to Cyrannus, as they had promised, and bring with them a new age of salvation and prosperity. Others felt that it was a warning for the faithful to renounce their sins, and a harbinger of the divine wrath that would come over the people should they not renounce their wicked ways.

Eventually, on the advice of the Council, the High King decreed that the daily burnt offerings in the temples and households should be doubled, and that all subjects should undertake a daily period of prayer and reflection. Yet the star remained in the sky, quiet and unchanging, and as days turned to weeks, the people of Cyrranus returned to their daily routines, only occasionally turning their eyes skyward to wonder at their new divine companion.

But in the early hours of the day of the Festival of Snowfall, fifty-three days after the first star had appeared, the new star was no longer alone; there were now dozens of stars moving across the sky in the same pattern. And at the same time, messengers came to the capital to report that gigantic flying chariots had set down among the holy ruins of Starija Porta, some distance away from the capital, from where the Great Exodus had started, and were disgorging ranks upon ranks of warriors in unearthly armours.

With growing concern, the High King summoned the Council once more, but by then, it was much too late. At daybreak, hosts of black demons flew over the capital with terrible thunder and screeches, spitting out a terrible breath of destruction that within minutes had turned the once-magnificent city into an ocean of flames and death. Thus, with the fire of the gods raining down over the helpless cities of the kingdom, the invasion of Cyrranus had begun.


Aboard the flagship of the orbiting Imperial invasion fleet, the Admiral was roused from his studies of the planet beneath them by the timorous approach of his adjutant. “Report,” he snapped without turning around.

“Lord Admiral,” the adjutant said, “the Marines have established a bridgehead at the ruins of the old starport. Our advanced scouts have encountered and defeated some minor organised resistance, and are now advancing towards the capital.”

The Admiral made a curt nod. “Proceed with the suppression.” The adjutant bowed again and quickly withdrew, leaving the Admiral to resume his contemplation of the planet.

He had long ago concluded that the Second Empire had fallen because of the softness and tolerance of its rulers. They had permitted too much diversity, too much independence, too many particularist interests. Eventually, the Empire had come across at the seams, broken down in a century-long civil war that had destroyed the galactic society, ushering in a millennium of regressive ignorance and darkness. But now the Third Empire was on the rise, having clawed itself back to a shadow of the old technological prowess, and it would not repeat the mistakes of its predecessors.

The Admiral spread out his arms as though to embrace the entire planet. Two Galactic Empires had fallen because of their weakness. But this Third Empire would be forged in fire and strength, and the pitiful savages of this world, the old Imperial colony world of Cyrano, would be the first to have the honour of submitting to its rule. It would stand forever, governing through order and unity, and a Fourth Empire there would not be.


On the surface, the world was burning. After two score and thirteen generations of waiting, the gods had returned. But instead of salvation and prosperity, they had brought with them only fire and death. Their black demons had performed their task well. The royal palace lay in ruins. Their own temple, where the Hierophants had brought the Ancients burnt offerings and obedient prayers, was now itself a smouldering crater. The Kingdom of Cyrannus had ceased to exist, the first conquest of the reborn Third Empire.

But somewhere in the city, in one of the bombed-out houses, a young man, tearfully cradling his mother’s burnt corpse, raised his eyes to the fading stars in the morning sky, and swore to whichever unknown gods were listening that he would have his revenge. The Ancients had come with divine fire and power beyond imagining, but the fire of hatred and vengeance now blazed in his heart – and when driven by such a fire, even a mortal may challenge the Gods.