The Lost Virtue

NYC Midnight 100 Word Microfiction Challenge 2022.

You might recall that, in June, I got through to the second round of the NYC Midnight 100 Word Microfiction Challenge 2022. This time, I was in the mix with the remaining 1,770 writers of the original 6793. My challenge for the round was:

Genre: Fairy Tale/Fantasy

Action: Popping a Bubble

Word: Bitter

Completely and utterly out of my comfort zone, I managed to come up with a piece that I was relatively pleased with in The Lost Virtue.

Sadly, I didn’t get through to the next round but I did get some positive and encouraging feedback.

I’d love to know what you think of my effort.

The Lost Virtue

Seven years since Dozumoth had captured the virtues of the realm of Ebruven and Sarander had begun her quest to free them.

Seven bitter years of fear and chaos.

At last, Sarander stood in the high clearing and plucked a thorn from the bush where they dangled in fluid, shimmering bubbles.

Time was short. The sky darkened.

Sarander pierced the first. Prudence. A soft, blue mist blossomed and swirled.

The next. Justice. Green.

Fortitude. Red.

Temperance. Yellow.

Thunder cracked. Lightning flashed. Dozumoth rose.

Sarander reached for the last. Tolerance.

Dozumoth struck. The thorn fell.

Sarander wept dead tears for Ebruven.

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Wet Paint

NYC Midnight 100 Word Microfiction Challenge 2022

It’s that time of year again. The NYC Midnight challenges for 2022 have begun. This year I’ve only been able to enter one – the 100 word microfiction challenge – as I have too many other things going on when the others take place.

Telling a story in 100 words is harder than you might think and is even harder when you have to write to a set brief under a tight timescale of just 24 hours.

In April, 6,973 writers were divided into 118 groups of around 59 per group and set their first challenge. Mine was:

Genre: Comedy

Action: Waiting for a Train

Word: legal

I was on holiday in Nice at the time and didn’t want to spend too much time sitting indoors on my laptop so I felt a lot of additional pressure with this one, especially as my partner was waiting for me to finish before we could get out and enjoy the French sunshine.

After many more “empty head” minutes than I care to remember, I came up with a little ditty called Wet Paint. I wasn’t particularly happy with it but when I read it to my partner and he laughed out loud at the end I decided just to submit it and hope for the best.

I’m happy to say that Wet Paint squeezed through to Round 2 at number 14 of the top 15 qualifiers in my group! This morning I have been writing my entry for the next stage of the competition. This time 1,770 writers were assigned to 27 groups with approximately 66 writers per group. My challenge for this round was:

Genre: Fairy Tale/Fantasy

Action: Popping a Bubble

Word: Bitter

It’s a little little encouraging that I wrote my first ever fantasy piece last month and it got great feedback from my peers! I’ll let you know how I get on at the end of July.

In the meantime here is Wet Paint for (I hope) your amusement and entertainment.

Wet Paint

The station was a riot of football noise and colour. Edgar’s brand-new England shirt was a white beacon in a sea of blue and white stripes.

He regarded the Greek sign on the empty blue bench. He couldn’t read Greek. His train was in fifteen minutes. He needed to rest.

Edgar removed the sign and sat down. It couldn’t be legal, not to sit on a bench. What was the worst that could happen?

The station was a riot of football noise and colour. Edgar’s brand-new, Greek shirt melted into the sea of blue and white stripes.

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The Dragon Slayer

A High Fantasy Challenge

For each of our JAMS monthly creative writing meetings we all prepare a piece based on a a randomly selected prompt. We take turns to read each others work and, after the meeting, provide each other with a full written critique. It’s the main method that we use to develop and improve our writing skills.

Sometimes the prompt can really test our abilities. This was the case last month when the challenge was to write a High Fantasy story that featured a Dragon Slayer and contained the word “gracious” somewhere in the text.

I was so far out of my comfort zone that I thought, for the first time ever, I was not going to be able to complete the task. However, I persevered and produced a story that I was reasonably happy with. Honestly, I was just delighted that I had managed to come up with something at all.

I was both surprised and delighted when my fellow JAMS members were blown away by my story. If it weren’t for a few typos and sloppy mistakes, I would have been awarded full marks in both of their written critiques.

You can read the story below (with – I hope – all errors and typos corrected). I hope you enjoy my first foray into the realms of High Fantasy as much as my colleagues did!

The Dragon Slayer by J. M. McKenzie

The hamlet of Lemon Arbour has lived under the shadow of the dragon named Qomrirarth for many years. Too many years. The time has come to slay the beast. But what of the fabled dragon slayer? Who is he? Where is he? Why has he left them to fend for themselves for so long?

Engar was two years into his second decade when he first heard talk of seeking the Dragon Slayer. The dragon, who had been the scourge of the small hamlet of Lemon Arbour, in the Vale of Terrador, for as long as Engar could remember, was named Qomrirarth. The name meant, the bright one, on account of the vivid green markings that sparkled like emeralds on his wings, the shimmering of which could be seen from many miles away, forewarning of his next dreadful arrival.

On first sight of green sparkles at the hazy line where land meets sky, the village bells would peal their warning and a flurry of fearful activity would ensue. The frantic gathering of livestock, the anxious recall of children at play, the hurried boarding of cottage doors and windows and the collection of water with which to quench the flames that would inevitably burn in the aftermath of Qomrirarth’s fury.

Engar, had never known a life outwith the shadow of Qomrirarth. Indeed, Jaquard, eldest of elders, had once told him that the dragon had made its first appearance on the very day that Engar celebrated the completion of the first year of his first decade. Back then, the dragon too had been but a young fledgling, probably, Jaquard said, not more than one year since hatching himself. In those early days, he had taken only chickens and newborn lambs or kids, but as he had grown, so had his appetite and his strength and last month he had carried off a fully grown dairy cow from the herd of Daymar Garanthon.

On the day in question, Qomrirarth, had seized his first human prey and thus a line had been crossed for the people of Lemon Arbour. Nerensyth Larendarson, the eldest daughter of Grandal and Heta Larendarson, had been ignoring her mother’s cries to get inside and gathering up a kitten that had wriggled from her grasp as the family hurried for cover. Nerensyth had been trying to coax it from behind a tall, wooden water barrel when Qomrirarth had swooped from the sky in a blur of green and red and carried her away. The kitten survived.

Now the whole village was talking of the Dragon Slayer.

Engar sat at the top of the stairs long after he had been sent to bed and listened to his parents talk. It was a cold night and he had dragged the soft wool comforter from his bed to wrap around his shoulders in an attempt to stop his chattering teeth from revealing his hiding spot. The dying embers of the day’s fire created a slowly decreasing orb of warmth and orange light, which caused his parents to draw their chairs closer and closer to the hearth, making it difficult to hear all their words, but Engar heard enough. They were planning to seek a Dragon Slayer to kill Qomrirarth.

“It is time,” his father was saying. “We have waited too long. We have been foolish. And now it has come to this. None of our children are safe.”

“But we always thought the slayer would come. They always do,” said his mother. “It is their destiny. It is how it is. For every dragon there is a slayer and, when the time is right, they will come together. It is their fate. It has always been this way and it always will.”

“But where is our slayer?” his father cried. “Where is he when we need him? We cannot wait! The time is now. Fate or not. If the slayer will not come to us, we will have to seek him out. We must make haste. Who knows who will be taken next? It could be one of our own! Baby Sarander, little Mesophe or even Engar! No, we must act. We must act now. As is his custom, the beast will be quiet for two score days after his successful excursion. We have time. Tomorrow I will gather a group of good men and we will journey down the vale in search of the slayer.”

Engar couldn’t understand why this conversation disturbed him so. He shivered and pulled his comforter tighter around him as he snuck back up to his room and climbed into his cot. His sisters, Sarander and little Mesophe, slept on the other side of the room, head-to-tail in theirs. He lay awake for a long time after he heard his parents go to bed in the next room and the whole house grew quiet and colder still. Stars twinkled outside in the clear night sky and the waning moon washed the room in a silver light. Engar knew that when sleep eventually claimed him he would dream of Qomrirarth. He always did.

He had always felt a strange connection to the dragon. Of course, he had a healthy fear of the death and destruction the creature wreaked upon them on its monthly visits to the village. Of course, he cowered under the kitchen table with his sisters as its great wings thundered and its fiery breath roared outside. But Engar also saw the beauty in its lithe and powerful form and the brilliant colours and patterns of its scales. Saw the elegance and grace in the rhythmic, rippling of its wings in flight. Heard the melody in its cry and sensed the intelligence in its piercing green eyes.

Engar’s eyes were green too. So green that sometimes the other children in the village teased him about being related to Qomrirarth. That they were brothers. That Engar had not been birthed from his mother’s womb but had hatched from an egg. They called him Qom or Qomo and always made him play the monster in games of tag or hide and seek. They pretended to kill him in their playfights, poking and swiping at him with their stubby wooden swords until he sulked home with his head down and his shoulders slumped, tears welling in his eyes.

But they were right. He did feel a connection with the dragon, and at no time was this stronger than when he closed his eyes each night and entered the world of his dreams.

He first started dreaming of Qomrirarth in the first year of his second decade. He never told anyone about the dreams. Not even his parents. Fearful that by speaking of them that they might fuel the fire of his imagined bond to the beast. Fearful that he would be shunned by his family and rejected by his so-called friends if he revealed any signs that might threaten to transform a childish fantasy into a terrifying reality.

 The dreams had a clear and regular pattern. Each night he would find himself walking out towards Qomrirarth’s lair. In the waking world it was over a day’s walk from Lemon Arbour, at the end of the Vale, beyond the Red Forest, high in the Mountains of Elwyre. But in his dreams, he covered the distance like a wisp, feet skimming over hill and dale like a gazelle, weaving through the forest like a breath of wind, and scaling rocks and boulders as nimbly as a mountain goat.

The strange thing about the dreams was that he never reached the lair, always awakening back in his bed before reaching his goal. But, every year since the dreams had begun, he had got closer and closer before the dream had ended. In the past year he had reached the edge of a deep crater littered with bones and rotting carcasses. From inside a dark cave at the far end of the basin he could hear the deep rumble of Qomrirarth’s breathing, see the wisps of steam and smell the acrid scent of brimstone that drifted from deep within. This night, the night of the eavesdropped conversation about the Dragon Slayer, he got as far as to take his first step down into the hollow before he awakened.

As discussed, the next day, his father and a group of men set out on a journey to seek out a dragon slayer. They returned one score and eighteen days later, dejected, and disappointed. The day after their return Qomrirarth struck again, this time claiming the widow Armthwaite who had been out walking and had taken shelter under the old Sycamore tree at the centre of the high meadow, knowing that she did not have either the speed or succor to make it back to the village in time.

And so, life continued as before. All talk of the Dragon Slayer ceased. Weeks became months and months became years. Qomrirarth came and went as did the seasons. For a time, people and livestock perished in greater numbers than ever, crops and buildings burned, and the entire village lived in a cloud of fear and dread. It was only when they came up with idea of leaving out a sacrificial offering each month that some sort of stalemate was reached. They got into the habit of keeping a single goat, sheep or cow staked to a post at the edge of the village within clear sight of the dragon’s usual approach. After the first few occasions when the beast took both the offering and any additional opportunistic prey he could secure, Qomrirarth gradually began to accept the offering and leave without entering the village. After this, a period of several years passed in state of fragile but seemingly mutually acceptable peace.

In Engar’s dreams he reached the mouth of Qomrirarth’s cave. Secretly he was relieved that for the moment, the need to slay the dragon had been forgotten.

On the first day of Engar’s eighth year of his second decade, Qomrirarth launched an attack on Lemon Arbour the likes of which no one could recall. He appeared without warning, descending with such power and speed from the clouds above that no-one could escape his wrath. Two boys, Frimlar Smeed and Baobub Drax, had been crouched by the edge of the pond skimming stones into the water and didn’t even see him coming. The dragon made it very clear that the unhappy truce was over. Circling overhead with the screaming boys dangling from his talons, he bathed the village in fire, burning the haybarn and the mill keeper’s cottage to the ground and scorching the cornfield to a smoking cinder.

The village was in uproar. Accusations and recriminations flew back and forth. There was much weeping and wailing. Why had they not continued with the quest to find the Dragon Slayer? Why had they been content to accept the false truce? How stupid they had been to think that it would continue? They were not dealing with a reasonable being! They were dealing with a malevolent and evil monster! What were they going to do now? Where was their Dragon Slayer? Where was the one that was fated to slay Qomrirarth? Where was he when they needed him?

Engar, was deeply troubled and plagued with guilt that he had been content that the villagers had not chosen to pursue their goal of destroying the dragon. He sought out the wisdom of Jaquard.

The old man was frail. He eased himself uncomfortably down into the chair by the fire, signaling to Engar to take the other. Engar was nervous. He needed to talk to someone and Jaquard as the only person he could trust. Or so he hoped. He looked at him wondering whether to say what was on his mind. But, above his long white beard, Jaquard’s eyes twinkled with warmth and gracious compassion. Engar relaxed and started to speak.

“Jaquard,” he started. “I need your advice about some dreams and some thoughts I have been having … “

“Yes,” said Jacquard with a knowing smile. “I have been expecting you. I’m surprised it has taken you this long.”

“What do you mean? Do you know … ?”

“About you and Qomrirarth? Of course, I do. You two have been linked from the start.”

“I don’t understand. Linked? Of what do you speak?”

“You know that you and Qomrirarth are one. You know that you dream of him every night. That you admire and respect him. That your destinies are linked. That your fates are bound.”

“No! I don’t! I don’t understand! I don’t know! What does it mean?”

“You will find out in time. When the time is right all will be revealed. But you will not need to wait for much longer, I sense that time is approaching.”

Engar just stared at the ancient man. Afraid to speak and say something he would regret. He was clenching his jaw and his hands were curled into tight fists. He was shaking with anger and frustration. He was furious that Jaquard knew about him and Qomrirarth. Why had he not told him before now? Why had he not helped him? He could have saved him from so much misery and torment. Yet still he did not understand how and why the Dragon and he were bound, and the old man was not going to tell him. He got to his feet and stormed back to the cottage. His parents and sisters were seated at the kitchen table when he burst in through the front door. They looked up at him, startled.

“Engar, what troubles you?” His mother rose and held out a hand to touch him.

He brushed it away and hurried up the stairs.

“Let him be,” said his father. “Today he has become a man and what should have been a day of celebration for him has become a day of great sorrow. He is feeling it. This is all.”

That night, as every night, Engar dreamt of Qomrirarth. But this dream was different. Yes, he moved with the same speed and grace across the vale, through the forest and up the mountain. And yes, he reached the mouth of the cave wherein the dragon lay. But this time, instead of awe and wonder and curiosity, all Engar felt was rage. Rage at what Qomrirarth had done to his village and his people. Rage at the fear and dread he had brought to all their lives for so long. Rage at the pain and suffering the dragon had inflicted on his friends and family. No! However, magnificent, and beautiful Qomrirarth was, it was time for his reign of terror to end. It was time and it was Engar who had to do it.

Engar looked down at his right hand, suddenly aware that in it he held a sword. A heavy Damascan Steel sword. It was a thing of power and beauty with a bright, green, emerald shimmering in the centre of the intricately engraved pommel. It was a sword with which to slay a dragon. The sword with which to slay the bright one. In an instant Engar understood the connection between him and the dragon. They were connected. He did admire and respect the beast. He did appreciate its power and beauty but only because he was the one destined to slay it.

He raised the sword and stepped into the blackness.

The lair was dark and steamy. It smelt of decaying meat and sulfur. It was filled with the sound of the dragon’s breathing. Deep and shuddering and steady. As his eyes adjusted to the darkness, he gradually made out the shape of the creature against the back wall. Its great bulk was lying in a resting pose. Its glittering scales reflected in a shaft of moonlight that shone in from outside. Its sides rising and falling with every rumbling breath. Qomrirarth was asleep.

Engar approached the creature. He stepped slowly and carefully across the carpet of bones that littered the floor of the cave, lest a crunch of something underfoot should wake the beast. He was tense but he was not afraid. He knew that this was his destiny. He had to see through. He had no other option. Did not want any other option. He had to fulfill his destiny.

As Engar grew near, Qomrirarth opened his bright green eyes, but he did not stir, and his breathing did not alter. As Engar stared deep into these eyes, that were so much like his own, he felt rather than heard Qomrirarth speak to him.

It is time Engar. It is time for us to come together at last. From the day of our birth, we were bonded. Destined for each other. We have lived sperate lives but we are forever joined. We are meant for each other. I am tired of killing and burning. It is time for you to end my reign of fire. It is how it should be. How it must be. Time for us to bond in the way of ways.

When Engar raised his sword to strike, green tears spilled from his eyes.

When Engar awoke in his bed the next morning he felt different. Still in his hand was the Damascan Steel sword, streaked with Qomrirarth’s blood. His feet and hands were caked with mud, his shirt and breeches tattered and torn, and pine needles clung to his hair. Before his sisters stirred, he rose, wiped off the sword, concealed it under his mattress and went to the bathroom to bathe. When he was clean, he looked at himself in the looking glass. His eyes seemed greener than ever. He stretched and yawned and as he opened his mouth a tiny wisp of smoke curled from between his lips. But Engar was not startled. He closed his mouth, smiled, and went back to his cot.

Qomrirarth never visited Lemon Arbour again, as far as they knew.

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1000 Paper Cranes

Chisako is folding 1000 paper cranes. Tradition dictates that when she is finished, her one true wish will be granted.

Well sadly, 1000 Paper Cranes didn’t get me through to the final round of the 2021 NYC Flash Fiction Challenge, but I did come 6th in my group with an ‘Honourable Mention’ and got some lovely feedback from the judges. By my rough estimate I was in the top 150 of over 4000 writers so I’m feeling pretty proud of that. The upside of it all is that I now have a completely free weekend, as I had planned to do nothing other than write on Saturday and edit on Sunday.

No rest for the wicked though … the following weekend I will find out if I got through to the next round of the 2021 NYC Micro-fiction Challenge with my little ghost story, Until Next Year. More on than that next weekend!

In the meantime, here is 1000 Paper Cranes. I hope you enjoy it! If you do, why not drop me a line and sign up for my Mailing List while you’re at it?

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1000 Paper Cranes

Chisako sat cross-legged on the tearoom floor as she watched her onee san, Chikafumi, perform the ancient ceremony with the poise and elegance that defined everything she did. Ever since the san san kudo, when they had been bound as sisters through the sharing of sake, Chisako had been spellbound by her Geisha mentor.

The open windows on two sides gave the room a light and airy feel. The clean lines and neutral tones of the walls, paper screens and bamboo mats contrasted with the lush green disorder of the gardens outside. A fountain gurgled, a wind chime tinkled, and the chirp of cicadas heralded the start of summer. Inside, the grassy scent of green tea mingled with the heady aroma of sandalwood incense, and the only sound was the rustle of silk and the murmured thanks of her clients as Chikafumi prepared and served tea, smiling, and nodding as she moved around the space with effortless grace.

As a maiko in the third stage of her training, Chisako accompanied Chikafumi to the teahouse and around the hanamachi every day, to learn the ways of a Geisha through observation. Some of the other maiko complained about the length of this stage of their training, which could last for many years, but as far as Chisako was concerned, she wouldn’t care if it went on forever. She would happily watch Chikafumi until the end of time.

To Chisako, Chikafumi epitomised not only the perfect Geisha, but the perfect woman. She was tall and slender. Only the smooth folds of her obi interrupted the flowing contours of her frame. Her classic Cupid’s bow lips and almond-shaped eyes were accentuated by the traditional bright red lipstick, black and red eyeliner, and white face powder. Her immaculately sculpted dark hair was sleek and shiny. She might have looked like a porcelain doll but for the tantalising glimpse of soft, pale flesh revealed by the low, dipped neckline of her red and gold kimono. Every inch of her was intoxicating, from the top of her cherry blossom hairpin to the tips of her white-stockinged toes.

Chisako was aware that she was mesmerised by Chikafumi in a way that went far beyond the usual respect and admiration of a maiko for her onee san. She was completely captivated by her. She adored her. Every night she went to bed dreaming of her, and every morning her face was the first thing she saw. She had had crushes before but never anything like this. Indeed, it was the confusing and unwelcome feelings that she often felt for other women that had prompted her to enter the profession. She had hoped that by immersing herself in the most controlled and feminine of environments, such feelings would fade and disappear. In fact, the reverse was true. Being surrounded by a preponderance of exquisite and glamourous young women had made them more difficult to control than ever, and none were stronger than those she felt for Chikafumi.

But her feelings were not reciprocated. Chikafumi barely noticed her, not beyond their professional relationship that was. She was unfailingly polite and personable in all their interactions, and patient and gracious in her instruction, but she remained aloof and guarded. Chisako was amazed that Chikafumi didn’t seem to feel the tingle of electricity that passed between them every time their fingers touched. She couldn’t understand why Chikafumi never held eye contact with her for a second longer than necessary. It was as if she was deliberately preventing the development of a deeper connection between them. At the end of each day when Chikafumi left to return to her private house in the hanamachi, and Chisako to the okiya with the other maiko, Chisako would watch her until she was out of sight, but Chikafumi never looked back.

Alone in her room in the okiya, Chisako was folding origami paper cranes. She had eight to do to reach 1000 and complete the senbazuru. Tradition dictated that the folding of 1,000 paper cranes would grant the person the chance for one special wish to come true. When Chisako had begun, her wish had been that she could be like other girls and no longer be tortured by feelings and desires that she could never realise. Now, as she folded the last tiny figure, she knew that wasn’t what she wanted at all. All she wished for, and would forever wish for, was for Chikafumi to notice her and love her back.

The next morning, they were alone in the teahouse for a shamisen lesson. To help Chisako get her hand position right, Chikafumi sat down behind her and reached around her body. For Chisako, the closeness of their bodies was almost unbearable. Her heart quickened and she couldn’t catch her breath.

“Here. Place your fingers, like this,” said Chikafumi placing her hands over Chisako’s. Chisako could not stop the small moan that escaped from her lips. Chikafumi froze for a moment before sighing and moving her body away. She stood up. Chisako bent her head, deeply ashamed of her momentary loss of control, fearful of how Chikafumi would react.

“Stand up, little sister.” Chikafumi’s voice was gentle. “Look at me.”

Chisako stood and turned towards her. A single tear rolled down her cheek as she raised her head. Expecting admonishment, she gasped when she saw that Chikafumi was smiling.

“Don’t worry, little sister.” Chikafumi nodded. “Don’t be sad. I know how you feel, and it is time for you to know that I feel the same.”

Chisako stepped back in surprise. Her hands flew to her mouth. A thousand emotions flooded through her. Joy. Relief. Hope. Disbelief.

“But … I don’t understand … I thought …” she stammered.

Chikafumi took both her hands in hers and looked into her eyes.

“We must be careful, little sister. Patient. Can you do this? Do you understand?”

“I can,” Chisako whispered. “I do.”

“Then let us resume the lesson for now, little sister.”

From Venice With Love

Still in the game – NYC Midnight.

Last weekend I found out that I had done enough to qualify for the next round of the 2021 NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge. You might recall that in round 1 I came second in my group of around 50 writers with The Buttonologist and scored 14 points.

For the next round, I was given the challenge of writing a thriller, set in a canal, and featuring a headlight. It was M who came up with idea of setting the story in the canals of Venice and I used a recent fake news story, about Covid-19 originating in Italy, for inspiration. My story was called From Venice with Love and, while it didn’t score as highly as The Buttonologist, it came 10th in the group giving me another 6 points. This brought my total to 20 which was enough to place me in the top 5 of my group overall, and progress through to the next round.

You can read From Venice with Love at the end of this post.

My next challenge was to write a romance, set in a teahouse, and featuring a crane! I cogitated for a while then wrote a story about unrequited love in a Geisha community that featured the folding of 1000 origami paper cranes. We’ll have to wait until the 11th of December to find out if it takes me any further in the competion. It’s a big ask! Only 600 of the 4500 (approximately) participants made it through this far, so even if I don’t, I’m proud of what I have achieved so far!

From Venice with Love

“New research reveals that the novel coronavirus was detected in samples in Italy as far back as September 2019” (News International, 2021)

The boat’s powerful headlight illuminated a wide fan of water in front of them, momentarily bathing the ancient, stony-faced buildings, which disapprovingly witnessed their reckless passage, in harsh white light. The other boat was caught in the furthest edge of the beam. Ernestine could see the black headscarf and beige jacket of the woman with the briefcase standing in the stern. She was facing ahead, and she too was gripping the handrail as she was thrown from side to side by the violent twists and turns of the vessel.

Ernestine knew that the fate of the entire world depended on what happened in the next few minutes. She clung to the cold steel of the handrail as they bounced through the wake of the speeding boat ahead, each wave hitting the bottom of the hull with a terrifying thud. They hurtled through the network of canals that criss-crossed the old city in a way that would never have been possible during the day, when the waterways would be choked with drifting gondolas and other slow-moving pleasure crafts.

“Faster! Faster,” Ernestine pleaded with Marco, the lab night security guard, who was at the helm. “We can’t let them get away!”

“We’re at top speed, Signorina. We can’t go any faster.”

Then, a sharp crack echoed across the water, and she caught a whiff of cordite as something whistled past her ear.

“Get down! Get down!” Marco shouted. “Guns. They have guns!”

Ernestine dropped to the floor and curled into a ball, struggling to make sense of what was happening. What was she doing? She was a scientist for God’s sake! Not a spy, or a member of the militia! Just ten minutes earlier, she had been at her lab bench, working late as usual, when she had heard the tinkle of breaking glass from across the corridor. As she had gone out to investigate, she had seen a woman with a briefcase walking towards the front entrance but thought nothing of it. There were lots of people in the building at that time of night. It was part of the ethos of the place. High expectations that yielded equally high rewards were a strong motivator to burn the proverbial midnight oil.

The door to the sample bank was ajar. The hairs on Ernestine’s neck bristled and her skin prickled with alarm. The room was always kept locked. Only a few high-profile people had the access code. She cautiously pushed open the door and, when nothing stirred, she stepped inside and flicked on the lights. Her heart lurched when she saw the broken test tubes on the floor and the open fridge door. This too was always kept locked. Now her heart was racing, and her breathing was shallow as she looked inside at the empty space where the tray of experimental viral samples should be.

The image of the woman with the briefcase walking briskly down the corridor flashed into her head, and suddenly recalling things that had registered only in her subconscious, she knew immediately that it was her. The way she hadn’t turned her head but quickened her pace when Ernestine had entered the corridor.  The smart briefcase. The black headscarf. The tailored beige jacket. Most of her co-workers dressed casually in jeans and tee-shirts and carried well-worn backpacks suitable for a daily commute on foot or by bike.

  Ernestine ran down the corridor. She reached the front entrance just in time to see the woman stepping off the dock into a boat with its engine running. A man dressed in black was helping her aboard and another was at the helm. Ernestine shouted to Marco, who was sitting with his feet on his desk, scrolling through his phone.

“Marco! That woman! She has the viral samples! Quickly!”

Marco jumped up. Startled. Confused.

“But … chi? … come? She had a pass! Dio santo!” he muttered as he ran towards the lab’s boat moored at the other end of the dock.

Ernestine followed him. Once they were in the boat, she fumbled in her jeans pocket for her phone, considering calling the Carabinieri, but Marco looked at her and shook his head. He was right. Too many questions. The fallout would be disastrous. Not just for them as individuals but the for the organisation as whole. They were going to have to do this alone.

“They’ve entered the lagoon!” Marco shouted, snapping her back to the present. “Their boat is fast. They’re picking up speed!”

Ernestine got warily to her feet.

“It’s alright. We’re out of range,” Marco reassured her. “But they’re getting away.”

“Oh no! God help us.” Ernestine put her hand to her mouth. “God help us all.”

“It’s ok. They’re heading for the airport. It’s not too late.”

***

As Ernestine entered the terminal building, she was temporarily stunned by the bright lights and the crowds. She frantically scanned the space. A sea of heads. People moving in all directions. The soft rumble of luggage wheels. The collective murmur of a hundred voices. Cell phones ringing. Automated announcements in Italian and English ringing out over the tannoy.

Then, over by the departure gates, a flash of beige. The now familiar black headscarf. Ernestine pushed her way through the crowd, trying to keep her target in her sights. But the woman was moving further and further away. Ernestine felt as though she was wading through treacle. She finally reached the gate just as the woman passed through and out of reach. Her black head bobbed into the distance. Never looking back.

In desperation and dismay, Ernestine’s eyes ran down the list on the departure board. There were two flights about to depart. One to Paris, France, and another to Wuhan, China. Ernestine knew instantly which one the woman would be on. She dropped to her knees and wept.

NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Competition – The Buttonologist

A taste of success!

Trident Edge Update

Its’s been a while since I wrote about my writing! Since we got back from Barbados I have finished the first draft of Trident Edge (the sequel to Wait for Me) and it is currently with my editor (Get It Write UK).

Prior to that, I went on a road trip with my fellow writers in JAMS to check out some of the real-life places that feature in the book. We visited Fineshade Wood, RAF Coningsby, Kirkham Priory and RAF Menwith Hill, all highly significant locations in terms of the plot, but you’ll have to read the book to find out more!

After that I made a few tweaks and sent it off to my beta readers who, as ever, gave me some great feedback that I incorporated before finishing my final edit. It should be ready for my final edit in early October with a view to publication in time for Halloween.

Short Stories

In the meantime I have been working on building up a “bank” of short stories and entering a few competitions. I’ve been working through a book called The Very Short Story Starter by John Gillard. It contains some exercises and ideas and 101 Flash Fiction prompts. I also did a week long Short Story course with Arvon. So far, I have written seven short stories, some of which I like considerably better than others!

I am also starting to think about my next novel. I am pulling together all my Covid-19 blog posts into a non-fiction journal style book called Viruses and Volcanoes and that is an ongoing project. However, I’m starting to think about what my next fictional book will be. I think my Zombie Apocalypse series has reached a natural conclusion and I’m ready to start something new. My options are; to stick with the post-apocalyptic theme but do something different with the genre; or to pick up my original idea from years ago, The Ice Factory; or to have a go at something else entirely. I’ve bought a workbook called Ready, Set, Novel and so far it seems to be taking down the post-apocalyptic road but this time in a climate change scenario. So, we will see …

The Buttonologist

One of the competitions I have entered is the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge. For round 1 my genre was Comedy, the location had to be a Meet and Greet, and the story had to feature a Diploma in some way. I came up with a piece called The Buttonologist and was delighted (especially as I don’t think I’m very good at being funny – not intentionally anyway) when it came second in my group giving me 14 points to take in to round 2!

Here is my (almost) winning story. I hope you enjoy it!

The Buttonologist

Peter pushed his small, round, wire-framed glasses up his nose. He squinted again at the flyer that he’d picked up from the counter in his local grocery store. It was advertising an opportunity to meet Maximus G, one of the country’s leading buttonologists, and to receive a signed copy of his latest book. He checked the address on the flyer against the street name and number on the signage above the smoky, mirrored glass frontage of the large, modern building. A glittery, rose gold logo on the door read B Hub. It wasn’t quite what he’d been expecting, but he was definitely at the right location.

He looked up and down the street. In his experience, button collectors, or buttonologists as serious collectors now referred to themselves , tended to meet in locations that comfortably mirrored both their personalities and the nature of their pursuit. Small, aging, unobtrusive buildings, tucked away in quiet, lonely corners of narrow, cobbled side streets that, when you entered, were bursting at the seams with a cornucopia of ancient miscellanea.

B Hub, on the other hand, was big and tall and shiny and minimalist, and located bang in the centre of the busiest street downtown. While this was highly unusual, and mostly made him feel wary and decidedly uncomfortable, a small part of him was pleasantly surprised and tentatively hopeful that his field might finally be beginning to emerge from the shadows into the warm light of mainstream concerns.

He took his diploma out of his briefcase and smoothed out the plastic document folder. He smiled as he traced his finger over the elegantly hand-inscribed calligraphy on the delicate, creamy parchment:

The World Society of Buttons

has awarded to

Peter Anderson Wilmington

The Diploma in Advanced Buttonology

Maybe it hadn’t been the ‘big waste of time and money’ that his parents kept telling him it had been. Maybe it wasn’t always going to be something that everyone who heard about it laughed at. Maybe this was the day he would at last meet someone who felt the same as he did about buttons. Maybe this would be the first step towards finding a job that would allow him to do what he loved and actually get paid for it. Maybe this was the day when his obsession might finally start to become a blessing and not a curse.  Maybe this was the day when his dyslexia and hypernumeracy would start to work for him and not against him. Maybe this was the day when it was finally all going to come together.

A woman brushed past him, her elbow colliding with his and almost knocking the diploma from his hands.

“Hey, be care …” he started. But the words froze on his lips as his gaze came to rest on what had to be the biggest backside he had ever seen in his life. No, that wasn’t right, it wasn’t the biggest, it was just the most … pronounced, and it was grossly – no, magnificently – out of proportion with the rest of her lycra-clad, athletic frame. It appeared to have a life of its own, each buttock moving independently of the other and the rest of her body, as she sashayed towards the door.

Her movements were slow and exaggerated, as if she knew he was watching her and was luxuriating in his attention. When she reached the door, she placed her hand on the glass as if to push it open but instead, turned to face him. His mouth, already slack-jawed in astonishment, dropped open even further as she gave him a full-on, languorous wink.

“Come on, Baby. Don’t be shy,” she said, her voice as sweet and rich as honey. Then she opened the door and slipped inside, her backside entering the room several milliseconds after the rest of her.

Peter scurried after her. This was going to be even more interesting than he had hoped.

The interior consisted of one vast, high-ceilinged industrial space. The walls were lined with mirrors making the small crowd of people queuing to meet Mr. Maximus appear like a multitude. Harsh strip lighting illuminated every detail of their features and clothing. Like the woman outside, they were all wearing bright shades of skin-tight lycra that clung to every inch of their finely honed physiques. There was a preponderance of well-defined buttocks and above the buzz of general conversation he heard words like ‘glutes’, ‘implants,’ ‘squats’, ‘enhancements’ and ‘lifts’. As well as ‘maximus’, people were talking about ‘medius’ and ‘minimus’.

He looked down at his worn, baggy corduroy trousers. He was suddenly aware of his own concave gluteal muscles and his generally puny frame. Something wasn’t right. He pulled the flyer out of his pocket and looked at it closely. He read the words again:

Sunday October 6

10 till 4

at

B Hub

17- 23 Reede Street

Meet and Greet and Book Signing

with

MAXIMUS G

The Country’s Leading Buttologist

Option 3.

Today I had some great news! My first ever smidgeon of success as a writer.

I entered the NYC Midnight Short Story Competition this year and my Round 1 entry was 2nd in my category! This is my story:

Option 3.

Leo was tired. Tired of hiding. Tired of being constantly on the move. Tired of always having to be alert, watchful, ready. Tired of not having a place to settle, to call home, to rest for a while. Truly rest. Not just lie down for a few hours, fully clothed with one hand on his gun. That wasn’t rest. He couldn’t remember the last time he got undressed, got into bed and slept soundly, all night.

But, most of all, he suspected he was growing tired of killing.

He sat in a low deck chair on the roof of the narrow boat nursing a mug of hot, strong coffee. It was just after 4am. He’d been awake since 3. The full moon cast a rippling ribbon of light along the dark, smooth surface of the canal. The trees and bushes along its banks, dark silhouettes against the luminous night sky. A light breeze coaxed the water to lap gently against the side of the boat. The only other sounds were the occasional calls of night birds and the rustling of small creatures rooting in the undergrowth.

A blanket draped loosely around his head and shoulders. The folds of the fabric trapped the steam rising from the mug and bathed his face and hands with warm moisture. He sighed, relishing the tranquillity of the moment. He was unusually relaxed, his gun resting lightly on his lap under the blanket. But Leo was never completely relaxed, his senses always alert to anything out of place, the faintest sound, shadow, or small waft of air.

His mind kept drifting back to his last job. How close it had come to going wrong. Very, very wrong. He was good at what he did. Clinical. Always had been. That was why he was so much … in demand. It wasn’t like him. It troubled him. He was confused.

A trained and highly skilled mixed martial artist, he relied on his hands to do most of his dirty work. They were lethal, fast, silent and clean. Garottes were slow. Guns were noisy. Knives messy. Attracted too much attention. Created too many possibilities for being traced, tracked, followed.

The job had been in Addis Ababa. His mission had been to gather intel from an OC HQ. It had gone to plan until he’d encountered a meaty SG blocking his escape route. He shouldn’t have been there. Leo had done his recon. The guy was having a sneaky smoke away from his post. Leo was behind him. It should have been easy. A couple of taps to key pressure points and the guy went down. One twist to the neck and it would be over. But, Leo had hesitated. Only for a nanosecond. But it was enough. Enough for the guy to cry out, before Leo finished him. Enough to trigger raised voices and footsteps running in his direction. He only just got out.

Now, thinking back, he realised these feelings had been developing for a while now. Imperceptibly creeping up on him from a place he hadn’t known existed. Surprising him at the most inopportune moments. Causing him to think twice. To make mistakes.

As a young man he had studied many martial arts. Krav Maga in Israel, Vale Tudo in Brazil, and Kung Fu in China. However, increasingly, in the past few months, he kept thinking about his days in Japan where he trained in Aikido at the Aikikai Foundation in Tokyo with Doshu Moriteru Ueshiba, the great grandson of its founder, Morihei Ueshiba. He studied the teachings of Morihei and his religious mentor Onisaburo Deguchi. Their philosophies centred around universal peace and harmony, the attainment of a personal utopia, and love and compassion for those who seek to harm others. For Leo, it had taught him more about evasion and defence than any other discipline he had mastered. He hadn’t bought in to the peace-loving ideology, but recognised that his time there had been one of the most fulfilling periods of his life.

The words of his teacher, Moriteru, kept echoing in his head. Love your enemy. Do no harm.

***

Leo eased himself silently in through the window. He carefully released the line he had used to lower himself from the roof terrace and watched as it recoiled with a soft hiss. The large, opulent bathroom was bathed in the green glow of his night vision goggles. He was at the south end of the building. His target was in the master suite at the north end.
The house was silent. The bathroom smelt of vanilla and lemon. The door was ajar, as he had expected. He pushed it open and looked down the long hallway. He knew from his recon that, apart from the nanny, this floor was exclusively occupied by the family.
Seven doors. Three on his left, the boy’s room, the nanny’s room and a linen store. Three on his right, the girl’s room, another bathroom and a study. At the end, facing him was the door to the master suite. All doors except one, the boy’s room, were closed.
He moved silently down the corridor. He paused to look into the boy’s room. A child lay in the bed, his tousled mop of dark hair, stark against the pillow even with the night vision. His small features, relaxed in sleep, a mask of innocence.

Leo felt a pang of remorse for what he was about to do.

Love your enemy. Do no harm.

Not now, for chrissake! He shook his head. Get a grip man! Now unnerved and angry with himself, he carried on down the corridor. Outside the master suite he took a small cannister out of a loop on his belt and sprayed both door hinges. He eased the handle down and opened the door.
Two figures lay on the bed, their limbs intertwined. The woman stirred in her sleep and rolled away from the man to face Leo. The sheet fell away to reveal one small round breast. Leo noted that the nipple was dark, erect and perfectly positioned in the center of the breast. He looked away.
He moved around to the other side of the bed to where the man was lying on his back. This was going to be straightforward. A sharp knock to the pressure point on his temple to stun him, followed by bilateral pressure to the carotids would kill him in less than a minute. Lethal, fast, silent and clean. His trademark kill. He rapped a spot on the man’s temple with his knuckle. His jaw slackened and his breathing deepened. He was out. Leo positioned both hands over his carotids.

Love your enemy. Do no harm.

Shit! He was losing it!

His hands hovered over the man’s throat. His mind was racing. He couldn’t do it. An image of the sleeping boy flashed through his mind. The woman’s breast. In what felt like minutes, but was probably less than one, his brain whirred through his options.

Option 1. Kill him. Job done. Get out.

Not an option anymore. He couldn’t do it.

Option 2. Don’t kill him. Abort mission. Walk away.

But they’d just send someone else out to do what he couldn’t.
Then they’d come after him.
He could go off grid and lie low.
But they’d never stop looking for him.
And he’d be out in the cold.
Unprotected.
Eventually others would come too.
He’d be on the run, hiding, forever.

Option 3.

There was no Option 3.

He sensed another presence. Just a small rustle and change in air pressure. He looked up.
A tiny boy with a mop of dark, curly hair stood in the doorway.
The boy’s arms were outstretched. He was pointing a small gun at Leo. He gripped it with both hands to steady his aim. He seemed unafraid. His dark eyes were cold.

Leo instinctively went for his own weapon then stopped. He took a step away from the bed and raised a finger to his lips. The boy took a step forward and adjusted his aim. He knew what he was doing. He’d clearly been trained. Leo allowed himself a moment to reflect on the tragedy of this.

A small red light wavered over Leo’s left nipple. He looked down at it for a moment.

Then, in one rapid movement, he shifted back around the bed to stand face to face with the boy.

The boy faltered. Fear flickered across his face. His hands shook. The red light moved around crazily. It jerked and spun around the room. The boy tightened his grip on the gun. He didn’t make a sound. His dark eyes never left Leo’s face.

Leo let him settle. Waited until the light hovered over his left nipple again.

He stepped forward.

The boy fired.

Leo felt the bullet hit his chest. There was heat and light, and he dropped to his knees. A coldness spread through his body from his chest to his abdomen, flowing out to his arms and legs, his fingers and toes. His head drooped on his chest.

He was vaguely aware of what was going on in the room. The woman, naked and screaming in the doorway with her arms around the boy, who was now crying. The man, also naked, fumbling to turn on the light. Pulling his own gun from the bedside cabinet.

A rough kick knocked Leo onto his back. The man stared down at him. His face contorted with rage.

Leo was tired. Tired of hiding. Tired of being constantly on the move. Tired of always having to be alert, watchful, ready. Tired of not having a place to settle, to call home, to rest for a while. Truly rest. Not just lie down for a few hours, fully clothed with one hand on his gun. That wasn’t rest. He couldn’t remember the last time he got undressed, got into bed and slept soundly, all night.

Leo closed his eyes.

A Better Place

There must have been thousands standing in the rain that day. We’d arrived just after dawn, thinking we’d be among the first, but the square was almost full when we got there. The queue was confined within a series of compact, orderly rows, by red rope barriers. Row after row of young men and women, waiting. The air hummed softly with their collective hope, but beneath that was a faint, but distinct, whine of despair.
We were three rows from the back. I’d counted seventy, as we made our way down, and there had to be at least a hundred people in each. But that was just the queue in the square. Beyond the end of the barriers, a line of people, three or four thick, snaked irregularly down, what had once been the main shopping street, as far as the eye could see.
I’d not seen so many people gathered in the in the city centre like this for years. Way back at the beginning, when the GCC had introduced some controversial new policy or something, I’d been to a few demonstrations. There had been thousands of people at some of these, but they were different to this. They were loud and vibrant. People waved flags and banners, blew horns and whistles, wore face-paint and bright, colourful clothing and carried backpacks crammed with spare clothes, food and drink. People were angry and indignant back then. We were still happy back then. We still believed in the future. A future.
Now, we were resigned, subdued, fearful. This gathering It was very quiet and orderly. People spoke very little and, when they did, it was in hushed, soft voices. No-one wanted to attract any unwanted attention, to jeopardise their chances of being selected. They just wanted to wait patiently in line until their turn came. There were no flags or banners, no horns or whistles, no backpacks. All we had with us were the clothes we were standing in, and these were dirty, dull and frayed. We’d been instructed specifically not to bring anything with us. If we were selected, everything we could possibly need in the new world would be provided.

I think the GCC officials were a bit taken aback by how many people had turned up. They hovered around the edges of the crowd, in their high visibility jackets, glancing at us but not making eye contact, frowning and talking in low voices on their walkie talkies. Occasionally, they looked towards the large grey building at the other side of the square, where the queue began. At the front of the building, was a large set of double doors, at the top of a wide flight of stairs. Despite the humidity, all the doors and windows were firmly closed but, I was sure I could see shadowy figures watching us from inside, lurking behind the net curtains. I was also pretty sure they had air conditioning. The net curtains fluttered slightly, as if caressed by a soft breeze. But there was no breeze. I clenched my jaw against their hypocrisy.

Next to me, Grace was shivering a little. It wasn’t cold, it was almost never cold anymore, but she was soaked through. I took off my jacket and wrapped it around her thin shoulders. She smiled up at me. Her skin was pale, almost translucent, making the dark shadows beneath her eyes look like bruises.
“Thanks.”
“Won’t be long now. The email said registration starts at nine.”
She looked at her watch. “Ten to.”
“See. Just a few more minutes and we’ll be moving.” I pulled her close and kissed the top of her head. She pressed her cheek against my chest. Her damp hair smelled like vanilla and coconut.

It had started to rain about an hour after we arrived. It’s always raining these days. I always imagined that global warming would bring endless hot, dry days, but it appears that the opposite is true … for now at least. Something to do with warmer air holding more water vapour. I say “for now at least” because the GCC tell us that one day soon the rain will stop and, when it does, we’ll really be in trouble. As if we’re not already.

I closed my eyes and inhaled deeply, as a sudden wave of nausea hit me. What was I thinking? What was I doing to Grace? To us? I couldn’t trust these people. They had lied to us time and time again. Imposed one crazy policy after another, and yet carried on living their own lives as if nothing had changed. I don’t even really know what we’re applying for. A new programme, a new world for young healthy young people. A chance to live, a chance to have children, a chance for a future. But where, how? It was very vague, very non-specific. But that was the point, they said. They wanted young, brave, healthy people. People who were prepared to take a risk for the future, for the human race, for the planet.

I had seen the first poster a month before. I’d been cycling back from the allotment with a basket of gnarled potatoes and a bunch of skinny carrots. It resonated with me right away. Something about the images stayed with me, smiling families, children, pets, bowls of fresh fruit, shiny white furniture. I thought about it all the way home. The seed was sown. By the time the leaflets, emails and notifications started to come through, asking for volunteers to attend an initial screening programme, it had taken root. I was convinced that this was what I had to do. What we had to do. Grace and me.

Our parents were devastated. When we told them, my mother wept, and my father just sat at the kitchen table with his head in his hands.
“Mum, please?” I’d said. “Try to see it from our perspective? You and Dad have had a life. You’ve had jobs, kids, you’ve travelled, everything!”
“Son, we love you.” Dad looked up. His eyes were red. “Of course, we want all that for you, and more, but it just isn’t possible anymore. Times have changed. Just think about it. It doesn’t make sense. If something seems too good to be true, it almost always is.”
“It can’t be any worse than this! No meat, no fresh fruit and veg, except what we can grow ourselves, no power, except what we can generate ourselves, constant rain but not enough water, no cars, no new clothes, no jobs, no kids, no fucking money …”
“Ian, Ian.” Dad interrupted.
“Look, Dad, I know you don’t trust them because of everything they’ve done, but they’re trying. It’s hard. It’s really hard. We’ve gotta do something! Try something! We’re dying. The FUCKIN’ WORLD IS ENDING!”
“Ian!” Mum stopped crying. She was angry now. “That’s enough.”
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Look, we’re going to give it a try and that’s it. If it doesn’t work out, we can come back.”
“Are you sure?” Mum asked.
“Yes, I read it. It’s not compulsory. It’s not a prison.”
Grace’s eyes met mine. I looked away.

Now, standing in the registration queue, something didn’t feel right. Considering that we were all headed for some bright new future, there was a distinct lack of excitement. The invitations and information briefings had been upbeat and enthusiastic. Now, that we were actually here, the atmosphere was tense and apprehensive. Sure, it was a bit scary, stepping into the unknown like this, and the rain and the shifty GCC officials didn’t help, but there was something else. Something nagging at me. Something ominous, menacing.

I remembered an article about the GCC I had read the previous summer. It was on a subversive website that had popped up on my social media feed. It talked about corruption and elitism in the GCC and their belief that the single causal factor in global warming was overpopulation. It described their policies as Malthusian and suggested that their ultimate aim was extreme population control. It talked about eugenics and genocide and compared them to far right and fascist regimes of the past. It was fake news, of course it was. The conspiracy theorists had gone berserk over the past few years. Understandably so. But they were all nutters. Of course, they were. But what if … ? What if … ?

“Grace … ” I started. “I’m not … ”

My words were left hanging as the cathedral clock chimed nine. The crowd murmured. There was a scuffle of activity ahead of us. The GCC officials straightened their backs, poised and ready to officiate. The double doors at the top of the steps opened with a series of heavy clunks and a grating of metal on stone. Grace took my hand and stepped forward. I didn’t move. She took another couple of steps then turned back to look at me. Our arms were outstretched. She tugged my hand. Her eyes pleading. Still, I didn’t move.

“What’s the matter?”
“I’m just not … feeling it.”
“What d’you mean?”
“I’m …”
“Ian, come on. It’s time. Don’t do this.”
“Sorry.”

The queue was moving steadily now. I could see people ahead, ascending the steps and entering the building. People behind us looked at me questioningly, jostled me, started moving past us. What was wrong with me? I wanted this. Of course I did … Anyway, what choice did we have? What was the worst that could happen? I was getting paranoid. Been reading too much fake news. They weren’t going to murder us! I was losing my mind. I was just having a little panic. It’s a big deal after all.

I smiled at Grace and moved towards her.

“Sorry.” I kissed her forehead when I reached her. “Just a little wobble. I’m fine now. Let’s go.”

We turned and walked hand in hand towards the building.

Deja Vu

Since the world gave up the fight, and finally started to die in earnest, it takes longer to get to work in the morning.

 

The consequences of dietary deficiencies are time consuming. Muscle wasting and anaemia cause such extreme fatigue and shortness of breath, that the time and effort needed to shower and dress, becomes equivalent to that required to run a marathon. Creams and dressings must be applied to rashes and sores, and teeth and hair must be brushed slowly and carefully to minimise gum bleeding and hair loss.

 

Chronic exposure to toxic air pollution exacerbates breathlessness and throws in occasional prolonged and disabling coughing fits, especially in the mornings.
Breakfast is protracted and complex. Filtering, sterilising and heating water on a Calor Gas stove, to reconstitute dried milk for porridge, takes considerably longer than pouring milk from a carton in the fridge, and heating it in the microwave. Eating and drinking is slow and painful, due to mouth and throat ulcers.

 

The walk to work is mercifully short since Colin and I set up in his building two blocks away. We relocated there when the museum closed six months ago, and we were the only two left. Most of our colleagues had moved or died, and the rest simply stopped coming to work.

 

A lot of people did that. Simply stopped going out. It is as if they have come out in sympathy with Mother Earth. Given up the fight. They sit about in their bathrobes. They don’t get dressed. They smoke and drink like there is no tomorrow, which of course there isn’t. Not really.

 

Giving up was never an option for us. We are getting close and we are running out of time. Of course, we are dying, everyone is, but it is worse than that. If the long, slow decline towards a “natural” death isn’t enough, governments are threatening to hasten the end by blowing everything to bits as they squabble about the allocation of the remaining natural resources.

 

For many, the prospect of a quick and painless end holds a certain attraction, but for us it only serves to increase our urgency. Where we had previously been looking at months for the end stages of the project, we are now talking weeks, maybe days. We have taken to working in shifts. Colin works at night and I do the days.

 

It has been a seven-year project. At the time of the discovery, the whole world was talking about what we had found and what it might mean for humanity. At the start, the funding came flooding in and, at its peak, there were thirty people in the team. But the work was laborious and painstaking. We made slow progress and the world soon lost interest.

 

I pull my hood down over my face, adjust my goggles and make sure my bandana is snug around my nose and mouth, before I open the front door. Tall, grey buildings tower over the deserted street on both sides. A thousand vacant windows gaze mournfully down on cracked and uneven sidewalks, that are lined with the withered skeletons of long dead planetrees. Rusted vehicles have become one with crumbling tarmac. It is cold. Only I, hear the forlorn moan of the lonesome north-easterly as it passes through the city.

 

I walk as quickly as I can. Head bowed against the cold and the wind. Concentrating on my breathing and conserving my limited energy. When I reach Colin’s building, I am surprised. He is looking out of the window. A pale, gaunt face with hollow cheeks and dark eyes. He is waiting for me. When he sees me, his features break into an uncharacteristic smile and he motions at me to hurry. My heart quickens.

 

When I arrive at his apartment the door is already open. He is standing in the entrance grinning, a small tumbler of amber liquid in each hand.
“I’ve done it! I mean, we’ve done it! We’ve broken the code!” He giggles. I have never heard him laugh.
For a moment I am confused. Stunned. “When? How?” My voice is breathy.
“About two hours ago. Here.” He thrusts one of the glasses at me. “We’re celebrating!”
I look stupidly at the glass and then at him, before logic kicks in. “Have you…”
“Translated? No. Of course not. I was waiting for you.”
“I’m sorry. I can’t quite believe it. I just wasn’t expecting…so soon…”

I should be exulted, but a terrible sadness sweeps over me.
It is almost over. We have reached the end. I want to cry.
“I knew you’d be like this. It’s a shock. Don’t worry. Look, just drink the Bourbon and then we’ll do it together.”
I drink the Bourbon and we do it together.
We translate.

 

I am a linguist and Colin is an archaeologist. In 2025 we were part of a team that discovered some inscriptions in a cave in southern Italy, after volcanic activity opened some new fissures. The inscriptions are thought to be the oldest ever discovered. Estimates suggest that they are over 2.5 million years old, and predate the development of the human race, as we know it.

 

When we are done, we look at each other and at the translation. Colin drains his glass and a single tear rolls down his cheek. I read the translation aloud.

 

We are the last survivors of humanity. We are dying. Our planet is dying.
We have destroyed the world through greed and selfish desire. We knew what we were doing but we did not stop. We ignored the warning signs. We paid no heed to the pleas of our wise women and scientists. We closed our ears and eyes to the inevitable until it was too late.
Don’t be like us.
Cherish your planet. Respect your environment. Protect all life forms. Celebrate biodiversity. Conserve natural resources. Embrace the power and beauty of the natural world.
Learn from our mistakes. Do not do what we have done.

Vera

The steady drone of the Lancaster’s four engines drowned out all other sound. Not that there was anything else to hear. The crew were unusually tense and quiet in the dark cockpit. The end of this trip would mark our 30th operation and the end of our first tour. Only two other squadrons had made it this far and one of these never returned from their last raid. The other was back at base tonight, ready to fly the following evening.

There were seven of us in total. As rear-gunner, I was at the back in the most exposed part of the aircraft. I could never tell if it was the cold or the fear that caused my teeth to chatter. Above and behind me, Rog, our mid-upper gunner, was humming tunelessly under his breath. I wanted to tell him to shut-up but I knew it was his way of dealing with his nerves. Will, our navigator, worked in a curtained off compartment so that his light would not reveal our position to the enemy. Charlie, our pilot and squadron leader, and Bob, our flight engineer, sat up front. Beneath them Norm, at twenty-four the old man of the group, and our front gunner and bomb-aimer, lay on his stomach, waiting to guide our cargo home.

We were a tightknit crew. Our approach was simple. We each knew what we had to do and we did it. All of our lives depended on it. We were a brotherhood. We worked and played together. We worked hard and played harder.
“Bogey on your right, John!” Rog’s voice broke the silence.
“Christ, where’d he come from?” I saw the bursts of white light and heard the rattle of gunfire at exactly the same time as Rog spoke.
We were hit before I could even return fire.
There was a searing blast of simultaneous light, heat and pain and then I was floating in a vast, black space. The last thing I heard was the high pitched whine of a falling aircraft intensifying into a metallic scream just before everything was covered with a blanket of silence.

***

I am flying. Soaring above myself. Leaving my lifeless body floating face down in the water. The cold, cold water. Six pale faces watch me go. Pale, haunted faces with dark, pleading eyes, bobbing in the cold, cold water. Watching me soar and fly. Dark eyes willing me up and onward.

I am small. I am light. I am weightless.
Home, I must get home.
Fly, I must fly.
To fly home is all I know and all I am.
Water beneath. Sky above. Home ahead.

But behind, what is behind? Black billowing smoke. Fear, pain and cold.
Light, heat, pain. Vast, black space.
Death. Death is behind.

Home is ahead. I must get home.
This time it is more important than ever. Dark eyes, pale faces.

Day and night I fly. My feathers are slick and heavy with oil. I am buffeted by wind and rain. I swerve, soar and dive to escape hawks, falcons and gunfire. Day and night I fly.

I am over land now. I have lost track of time and space. I am exhausted. I must get home.

The coop ahead! I am home. I glide gently inside. I lower my head and preen. I rest.

There is a bustle of activity. Running about. Raised voices. Gentle hands remove me from the coop. Examine me. Tend my wounds. Remove my tag. I am home. My job is done.

***

Charles sat in the rescue plane, wrapped in blankets and looked at the faces of his crew. They were all alive. Cold, shocked, battered, bruised and dehydrated but alive. All alive except John, that was. He had taken a direct hit and was dead before they hit the water. He had never stood a chance. Charles looked at the cold still figure under the blanket at the back of the plane.
“How did you find us?” he asked one of the rescue team.
“The pigeon, mate. The bloody pigeon!”
Charles shook his head. “I can’t believe it. We only released her in desperation when there seemed to be nothing else we could do. Never honestly thought…”
“Her owner rang it in the minute she got home. Base worked out your position from the time the plane ditched and her arrival, taking into account wind speed and direction and her likely flight speed, given her injuries and the oil on her feathers. Took the rescue team just fifteen minutes to find you.”
“Bloody hell.”
“Even still, no-one knows how she made it, poor little thing. Half-dead she was. Somethin’ powerful was driving her. Somethin’ I doubt anyone will ever understand.”
“You’re probably right, we’ll never know how she did it, but thank god she did.”

***

It was as if my life had just begun that night in the cold and dark over the North Sea. I couldn’t remember a single thing from before my ordeal. I was long since recovered now of course, enjoying an extended period of rest in the coop. Until today that was. Right now I had no idea what was going on. George, my owner had bathed me this morning and now he was standing outside the coop with a group of strangers. They were all staring at me. Reaching in to pat me and stroke me. It was slightly annoying. I flapped my wings and ruffled my feathers, pecking at their fingers.
“Steady on! Steady on!” one of the men laughed. I recognised his voice, his laugh. Come to think of it, they were all very familiar. I had seen them all somewhere before. Heard their voices, their laughter, somewhere before. A memory came to me. A memory of six pale faces with dark eyes staring up at me, getting smaller and smaller as I flew higher and higher. That was it. But no, it was something else, the reason that I knew them. Something more, something much, much more…