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A little thing wot I wrote about a girl with a tough life and a gun.


 

Melody, A Prologue

A young girl looks down the barrel of a gun at the bad man standing over Mother’s bloody body lying on the ground. Even her short life among the bad men has taught her that Mother won’t get up again, that a whole world can change with a moment of anger. She blinks away her tears, instinct tells her there’s no time for that now; there won’t be for a long time to come.

The bad man turns to her and laughs and reaches out to take the gun from her. He doesn’t think she’ll use it; turns out he’s wrong. She clenches the handle tighter in both hands to keep it level and pulls back on the trigger like she’s seen the bad men do so many times. The gun jumps in her hands with a loud CRAK and there’s a shower of blood and brains and screams and shouts and confusion. So she runs. Into the tunnels where she knows the bad men are always afraid to go.

Weeks pass, perhaps months, who knows? She’s made her home in the old tunnels, always on the move through the darkness and the stinking, shallow water, a deadly game of hide and seek with the bad men who try to find her and bring her back.

She has learned that to be unseen is to possess power.  The power to reach out at will and take a man’s life and disappear again in the darkness. She becomes one with the darkness, she claims this domain as her own. Here the bad men, the hunters, become the hunted ones. They were always afraid of the tunnels, so they come down in groups, loud and blustering to hide their fear from themselves and each other. They are easy to find and easy to trick and easy to kill, and when they die, their bodies are little treasure troves of food and ammo. So she survives, prospers, even.

There are other things down here, of course there are, hungry things. She hears them all the time, occasionally she sees a fleeting shape, a brief movement in the shadows, a dim light briefly reflected in far too many eyes. But they leave her alone; perhaps they have come to think of her as one of their own. Or perhaps they just know that her presence here and the deadly game she plays means more and easy food for them, each dead body of her enemies a sacrifice to the things that share her domain.

At last, she emerges from the tunnels into the ancient ruins of a once-great city, now a skilled hunter of men. The tunnels have taught her well, but they have exacted a heavy price. She has seen things, done things that no little girl should ever see or do. But of course she’s no little girl anymore, those times are long gone already, the tunnels and the bad men – slavers, she now knows to call them – and the gun took all that away from her.

Never looking back, with nothing but her gun in her hand and Mother’s dead, bloody body in her dreams, Melody sets out through the ruined city, across the dusty plains, into a world that is broken and torn and burnt to ashes – out to do do bad things to bad people. For if all the bad people can be made to go away, forever, maybe she will finally find the security and comfort she has never known?

—–

(Illustration is copyright © by the amazing Jonas De Ro (seriously, go visit his site right now). All rights reserved. Permission granted for non-profit usage.)

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For a Wendig flash fiction challenge. I have been reading a lot of Borges recently, which might have influenced this piece somewhat. As always, let me know what you think, whether good or bad.

 

 

The Tower of Babel

 

4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.” 5 But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. 6 The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.” 8 So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel —because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.

– Genesis 11:4-9

I have renounced my name out of grief and shame. You may call me Nimrod, for it was I who oversaw the second fall of humanity from its pinnacle of pride and greatness.

By the time humanity had left the cradle of Earth and reached out to touch the stars, we had also grown prideful and confident in our own ability, and old lessons of humility were buried and forgotten. And thus, we set about constructing a monument to our own accomplishments: A space station, kilometres in length, that would be the centrepiece of human presence in space, tying together the thousandfold dispersed worlds, colonies and outposts.

In an act of what in hindsight seems like inexcusable hubris, we named it The Tower of Babel, for it was meant to undo the ancient dispersal of the peoples and confusion of tongues and bring humanity together as one again; a single people which – so we were convinced – would fulfill humanity’s ancient destiny to conquer the heavens and make ourselves the undisputed masters of nature.

After decades of work, effort and investments that claimed the resources of a thousand worlds, the Tower was completed, orbiting a planetless star at the centre of human space. It was a constructed wonder of ingenuity and technology, a centre of trade, culture and politics.

The Ultracosmologist sect of Plautijnius 6 came there to negotiate mining rights with the executives of SempaCorp. The peace treaty between the Empire of Achenar and the Hierocrats of Tau Orionis was signed here, and the declaration of war by the Harvesters of the icy moons of Delta Draconis on the anarcho-collectivist states in 18 Scorpionis issued. It was on the Tower that the neo-Druidic Church of Nebulas’ Salvation declared the excommunication of the Thirteenth Prophet, and it was here that the polyartist Li Wenming exhibited his first thirteen-dimensional holo-painting, which shattered all conventions of art and culture forever. For a while, the advances of humanity seemed unstoppable.

But it was not to last, as we soon discovered. The orbit of the station became unstable and started to decay, each revolution inching it closer and closer to the star. Engineers and scientists searched in vain for causes. Had the mass of the star increased? Had we underestimated the resistance of the local interplanetary matter? Or had we discovered some previously unknown natural law which could cause gravity itself to change?

No one knew the answers, and no one had solutions. The stationkeeping engines were insufficient to counteract the unknown forces that acted on the Tower. And moving it further away only increased the pull of the star, further exacerbating the problem. Out of the hundreds of proposed solutions, nothing was able to halt the inexorable migration towards annihilation.

In the end, it was decided to abandon the station. As the both first and last Administrator-General of the Tower of Babel, I was the last to leave. I spent my last hour on the Tower wandering through the halls and corridors that had resounded day and night with the voices of millions of beings speaking a thousand languages. I visited the grand markets on the sixty-first deck, where resources, goods and services worth enough to ransom a thousand kings ten times over had been bought and sold every single day. And finally, my walkabout ended in the hangars to find my shuttle, a tiny mosquito in the now empty cavernous halls where once gigantic starships from every corner of known space had docked to load and unload cargo of every imaginable description.

As I boarded the shuttle, the overworked engines on the Tower were deactivated, and the thrummings of the power plants which had provided a dissonant accompaniment to it all put down their instruments for the final time. The whole station had fallen quiet as an empty mausoleum where not even the dead remain to sigh a quiet, mournful choir, the terrible silence ringing in my ears as the final impression of my doomed masterpiece.

With the engines turned off, the station dropped towards the star like a rock, within hours grazing the corona and entering the last minutes of its life. From a command bridge that was not my own, on a starship on which I had no position or authority, I who had commanded the greatest creation in known space, witnessed the final moments of the second Tower of Babel – of my life’s work.

In the end, even the dignity of an appropriate burial was denied me. The demise of the Tower was celebrated by no fanfares, no fireworks, no mighty explosions to light up the skies of future distant worlds and tell their inhabitants: This was humanity’s greatest moment. As a final insult, the Tower was gone in a second, the final impact barely visible on its surface of the star, never leaving behind the slightest mark of its existence in the vast, uncaring silence of space. I turned away my face and wept.

With the Tower of Babel gone, humanity once more learned humility, but we lost our ambition in the bargain. Nothing approaching the grandeur of the Tower was ever attempted again, and humanity stagnated. We had reached too far and were struck down from our lofty heights, whether by a jealous god or by a nature that would not be tamed.

And so, I have become as like a second Nimrod, for I am convinced that it was my hubris that brought judgement upon humanity. I first proposed the construction of the Tower; I suggested the name; and I wasted no efforts to become its first Administrator-General, thus to enter my name in the annals of history with indelible ink. This last I have accomplished, and for that reason I have renounced my name forever. Behold the works of humanity, ye mighty, and despair.

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For this week’s flash fiction challenge by Chuck Wendig (I have decided that ‘Wenflafillenge’ is a silly word. You can have it), the theme was ‘over the top pulp insanity’. At 1150 words, this one is a little longer than it should be, but who’s counting? Not exactly my usual style, but it was good fun to write.

The Freedom Fighters and the Flying Battleship

The skyscraper shook with an explosion, causing showers of glass, steel and concrete fragments to rain down everywhere. Aided by short bursts from the jetpacks in their battlesuits, the three Freedom Fighters – Starburst, Black Ronin, and Mr. Comet – leapt from their flying car through the new hole in the outer wall, straight into the secret laboratory of the evil Dr. Ahrenfeldt. Inside, glowing tubes and wires criss-crossed the room, carrying fluids and energy between the contraptions that filled the room, one more hellish-looking than the next. On a platform in the middle of the room, surrounded by computer monitors and instruments, stood the Doctor himself, along with his personal guard of genetically-modified alligator-men.

“Surrender, Dr. Ahrenfeldt!” Starburst called out, raising her battlesuit-armoured fist at the evil scientist. “Your insidious schemes have come to an end!”

The Doctor spun around, an evil sneer on his face. “You’re too late, Freedom Fighters! I will have this city at my mercy in just a few minutes! Guards, attack them!”

Standing on a levitating platform, the Doctor quickly disappeared through a hatch in the ceiling while the alligator-men covered his retreat, slowly advancing on the Freedom Fighters, snarling and baring their knife-like teeth. However, even though the alligator-men were strong opponents, they were no match for the Freedom Fighters, and a short battle later, they had cleared the room of all enemies.

“Great!” Black Ronin said. “Now let’s get after that…”

Suddenly, another strong tremor ran through the tower, and a dark shadow fell over both the tower they were in and the neighbouring buildings, as if something of immense size was blocking the sun. The Freedom Fighters ran to the hole in the wall and looked out. The five top floors had detached themselves from Dr. Ahrenfeldt’s tower, revealing themselves as a heavily armoured flying battleship, bristling with laser cannons! Within moments, the cannons started opening fire on the city below, causing one skyscraper after another to crumble into rubble.

“What do we do?!” Black Ronin asked. “He could lay waste to half the city before the Air Force would even get here!”

“Then we’ll have to stop him ourselves! Come on!” Starburst thumped her jetpack on again, and the three Freedom Fighters jumped back to their flying car and flew up towards the battleship at top speed.

“There!” Mr. Comet shouted and pointed at an opening in the hull of the flying behemoth. “That looks like a shuttle bay!” Dodging and weaving to evade the laser beams that burst through the air all around them, Black Ronin expertly piloted the car through the small bay opening and brought it down hard on the deck, careening straight into a squad of alligator-men who had been guarding the bay, before coming to a rest against the bulkhead.

“Great landing, eh?” Black Ronin said proudly, admiring the chaos their forced entry had caused.

“Better than usual,” Mr. Comet noted dryly.

“Come on!” Starburst said. “We have to find the command bridge… and quickly!”

Fighting their way through the ranks of alligator-men that filled the corridors of the battleship, the Freedom Fighters soon made it to the bridge and entered, having found the door curiously unguarded. Inside, Dr. Ahrenfeldt was standing in front of a large panorama window from where he could enjoy the destruction being wreaked by his flying dreadnought, looking like an arena owner who was waiting to welcome new gladiators into his ring.

“There you are! I was wondering what was taking you so long – no, no,” he interrupted gleefully as Starburst was about to say something, “this is not the end yet. I have one final surprise for you – an old friend I want you to meet.”

He hit a big red button on his console. A hidden door in the bulkhead slid open, and an unnaturally large and muscular man stepped out. At almost nine feet in height, he towered above the heads of any of the Freedom Fighters, and his bulging muscles spoke of a superhuman strength even beyond that of a battlesuit.

“Golem!” Mr. Comet exclaimed. “The Freedom Fighter you captured last year! What have you done to him?!”

“Just a few modifications,” Dr. Ahrenfeldt gloated. “A little brainwashing, hormonal treatments for greater strength and aggression… you’ll find out.”

Growling, Golem dropped into an attack stance and advanced on them. It seemed like there would be no negotiations with their old comrade. The Freedom Fighters spread out around him, wolf pack-like, waiting for an opportunity to counterattack. Suddenly, Golem jumped forward, grabbed Black Ronin, and threw him bodily into the nearby bulkhead with enough force to bend the metal. Black Ronin slid to the floor, obviously out for the count.

Mr. Comet quickly exploited the opening to charge in and deal a heavy blow to Golem’s head; but the giant simply shrugged off the hit that would have stunned most normal men. A single retaliatory backhanded strike brought Mr. Comet down on the deck and the giant loomed over him, preparing to strike the finishing blow.

Suddenly, a computer monitor crashed into Golem’s head from behind. Furiously, he turned around and saw Starburst who was standing on a console just a few yards in front of Dr. Ahrenfeldt.

“Come here, you big tank of lard!” she taunted him. “Try to take me on if you can!”

Howling with rage, Golem launched himself at her. At the very last moment, Starburst punched the jetpack alive and launched up towards the ceiling in a cloud of smoke, evading Golem by a hair’s breadth. Caught by surprise, Golem tumbled into the Doctor and sent them both crashing through the panorama windows, falling to their deaths far, far below.

Moments later, an explosion rocked the whole battleship, and it started to list to one side and rapidly lose altitude.

“It’s going to crash!” Starburst shouted and started towards the door. “Come on!” Hoisting the still unconscious Black Ronin up on his shoulder, Mr. Comet quickly followed her back into the warren of corridors.

The Freedom Fighters made it out of the doomed battleship in the flying car just moments before the large construct crashed into the ground, destroying another city block in addition to the many buildings it had already blasted to rubble. They set down on the rooftop of a nearby building and stood for a moment in a silent contemplation of the extensive destruction that the insane scientist had caused.

“Well, I guess that was that,” Black Ronin finally said.

“Not yet,” Starburst said. She had taken her helmet off and shaken her long, raven-black tresses free, and was now looking thoughtfully at the crashed dreadnought. “Dr. Ahlenfeldt would never have been able to raise the resources for something on this scale himself. There must be something greater behind this…”

——

As always: Liked the story? Hated it? Or somewhere in between? Comments are the sweet, sweet manna that nourishes all writers, so tell me about it! And critique and suggestions for improvement are just as welcome as positive comments; I’ll never get better without them.

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This was originally another Wendig flash fiction challenge (a ‘Wenflafillenge’? (<= trademarked)), but fitting it into the allotted 1000 words proved, shall we say ‘infeasible’, so technically, I failed the challenge. But on the other hand, a story came out of it. So I guess everyone wins. (Except in the story, where pretty much everyone loses.)

 

Operation Platinum Wizard

The control room aboard the US Air Force patrol spacecraft USSC Paul Linebarger was a testament to comfort sacrificed on the altar of functionality. It was not just swelteringly hot – located just above the heat sinks for the Paul Linebarger’s giant spinal laser cannon, the temperature in the control room almost doubled whenever the cannon was armed for firing, as it had been for the last thirty-six hours – but also claustrophobically small and dark, lit up only by the faint red, green and blue lights from the many computer screens, displays and readouts that covered almost every square inch of the metal bulkheads.

To the commanding officer of the Paul Linebarger, Major David Norman, and the other six Air Force officers manning the control stations, however, the heat was quickly becoming a very minor nuisance. Instead, they had their attention entirely focused on the main tactical display where a little red blip labelled ROMEO-1 was slowly moving towards a long, curved green line. If the blip, which represented an approaching space craft they had detected a few hours earlier, did not change its vector, it would cross the line in another five minutes, and the Paul Linebarger was there to make sure that did not happen.

‘There’, specifically, was a holding position near (322619) 2099 KP6, an asteroid that had been discovered a few months earlier, and which was at that moment quite possibly the most important object in the Solar system next to Earth. It contained not just a motherlode of gold, copper, cobalt and platinum, but also several million tonnes of concentrated lithium ore, easily enough to keep fusion reactors and ion drives of at least one great power running for the next couple of millennia.

Thus it was no surprise that the United States had claimed the asteroid almost immediately upon its discovery, and it was equally predictable that the other great powers had complained vigorously, pointing out that the move violated several outer space treaties and principles of international law. However, reasoning that possession was nine-tenths of the law, the White House had not backed down and had instructed the Air Force to establish a presence near the asteroid to enforce the claim. Having moved slowly down through the digestive tract of the military chain of command, that job had eventually ended up in the hands of Major Norman and the crew of the Paul Linebarger in a mission the top brass had creatively labelled ‘Operation Platinum Wizard’.

Their orders had been composed in that particular dialect of military language that somehow managed to be both completely clear and totally ambiguous at the same time:

“Following standard rules of engagement, establish space superiority around asteroid (322619) 2099 KP6 by all necessary means.”

Of course, which means were actually ‘necessary’ was a judgement call that the top brass had kindly left for Major Norman to make, and if the approaching craft continued on its current vector, he might have to make that judgement uncomfortably soon.

Unwilling to postpone the inevitable any longer, the Major turned to his communications officer. “Comms, establish a line to that craft. Let’s see what they want.”

As soon as the comms officer reported an open connection, the Major grabbed his microphone. “Unidentified craft, this is the USSC Paul Linebarger. You are approaching a military exclusion zone established by the United States Air Force. Request you alter your vector by fourteen degrees ecliptic lateral.”

It took a short while for the reply to arrive, only barely understandable above a constant, heavy static. “Paul Li…ger, …is is PRC …sel …inzhou, Senior Li…enant …ngwei commanding. We a… unarmed resear… …ssel, not …litary. We reque… free passage … treaty.”

Major Norman glanced over at the comms officer with annoyance. “Can you clean that up? I need the name of the craft.”

“We’re getting a lot of interference from solar wind,” the comms officer said. “I could try to run it through the analysis software, but that would take at least fifteen minutes.”

Norman shook his head. “Negative. We don’t have time for that. Give me your best guess.”

A breif silence followed while the comms officer listened to the radio message again. “It sounds to me like they’re saying ‘Linzhou’,” he finally said.

Major Norman nodded curtly. “Look it up. And Weapons, get me a firing solution on that tin can.”

Both the temperature and the tension in the command room rose by another couple of degrees while the comms officer silently searched through the registry database.

“Yeah, there she is,” he finally said. “The Linzhou, classified as escort frigate, Liberation Army Space Fleet. Definitely military. Well armed, too. Spinal laser, three missile bays, point defence guns.”

The sensor operator looked uncertain. ”Dimensions of the contact matches well enough, but the energy signature is all wrong. It’s emitting far less waste heat than it should with all those weapons.”

“I need a conclusion, gentlemen,” Major Norman snapped impatiently. On the tactical screen, the red blip representing the Chinese craft moved still closer to the line that marked the exclusion zone where Major Norman would have to use ‘necessary means’. Conveniently, the line also matched the distance at which the two crafts would have a reasonable chance of hitting each other with laser fire. Letting an armed and possibly hostile craft getting that close would put their own craft and everyone inside at risk.

“I guess they could be storing the waste energy in the heat sinks instead of venting it,” the sensors operator finally said. ”Useful if they want to appear unarmed… but they must be boiling in there.”

Major Norman nodded. That sounded entirely like what he would do in that situation. “‘Research vessel’, right,” he muttered under his breath. “And I guess your engines run on rainbows and fairy glitter.”

He opened the line to the Chinese again. “Linzhou, Paul Linebarger. Our registry shows you as a PLA-SF escort frigate, not a research ship. This is your final warning. Change your vector by at least thirty-six degrees ecliptic lateral immediately, or you will be fired upon.”

Paul Line…ger, …zhou. Not unders… Check y… registry. We … …jing daxue. … are con…nuing on vector,” the answer came back after a moment.

Major Norman glanced up on the tactical display again. The Linzhou had crossed into the exclusion zone. If their weapons were armed, and he was convinced they were, they could open fire on the Linebarger at any moment. There seemed to be no alternatives.

“Firing solution acquired!” the weapons officer called out after a few seconds that felt like an eternity.

“Weapons, main cannon, fire, fire!” The stress and tension made Norman shout the order louder than necessary, his voice reverberating against the metal bulkheads.

The complete lack of sensory feedback made firing the main cannon a surreal experience. There was no loud laser-like sound, no bright energy beam – not that the Linebarger had windows, anyway – and no shudder running through the hull of the craft; just a couple of changing numbers on the weapons displays, and a red blip on the tactical screen that suddenly was not there anymore.

“Contact Romeo-1 destroyed,” the sensor operator said matter-of-factly. “Radar shows extensive debris. Radiation from probable reactor breach. Still not seeing much of a heat signature, though.”

“Right, we’ll go over the sensor data again later,” the Major said distractedly. “Pilot, set a course for the debris, and Ops, prepare for rescue operations.” It was highly unlikely that any of the Chinese crew would have survived, but they had to check regardless.

###

The control room had returned to an uncomfortable silence for half an hour when the comms officer spoke up. “Major?”

Major Norman had worked with the man long enough to recognise his ‘I have bad news’ tone. “Problems?”

“I just checked the registry again. There’s another Chinese craft called the Jinzhou, quite similar to the Linzhou… except it’s, er… it’s a research craft, sir, belongs to the University of Beijing.”

Major Norman fought to keep his voice steady, but a tinge of panic still crept into it. “Are you telling me we may have just destroyed an unarmed civilian Chinese craft?”

“I think so, sir.”

Several excuses immediately flashed through the Major’s thoughts. It had all seemed to fit together at the time. He had been under pressure. There had been so little time. His craft and crew might have been at risk. The solar storm had interfered with communications. His command staff had agreed with him. None of that would carry much weight in the court martial. It was his responsibility, the rules of engagement required him to verify the identity of the target, and he had failed to do that.

“I should… go report in. Weapons, you have the control,” he finally said, then set off from his seat and floated towards the exit hatch, steeling himself for the worst – and possibly last – after-action debriefing he would ever have.

###

DATE: 2101/09/08-02:11EST
MSSG PRECEDENCE: FLASH (Z)
FROM: COMDEEPSPACE
TO: ALL UNITS

FOLLOWING INCIDENT NEAR (322619) 2099 KP6, PRC MILITARY FORCES HAVE ATTACKED US TARGETS ON EARTH, IN EARTH ORBIT AND DEEP SPACE. WARTIME RULES OF ENGAGEMENT ARE NOW IN EFFECT AGAINST ALL PRC CRAFT AND ASSETS. USE OF NUCLEAR WEAPONS IS AUTHORIZED BY NATIONAL COMMAND AUTHORITY AT DISCRETION OF LOCAL COMMANDERS. MAY GOD BE WITH US ALL.

——

Liked the story? Hated it? Or somewhere in between? Tell me about it! Critique and suggestions for improvement are just as welcome as positive comments; I’ll never get better without them.

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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.

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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.

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