So, here it is—my first foray into short story writing in almost a decade. That’s why it’s also a little late. The flash fiction challenge set by Chuck Wendig on Terribleminds was supposed to be posted by 2 October. Alas, I’ve missed the boat, but here it is anyway. My chosen title was WriteFirster’s “Stuck In A Hole”. I interpreted that literally, an act that many a creative writing teacher would probably scold. Well, here you go…
The shallow puddles ripple in unison. Once at first, out of the corner of her eye. They may well have done so already, but she hadn’t noticed until now, branching out in every crevice deep enough to hold water, gently bouncing from one to the other as the concentric circles reach their outer limits. Spirals upon spirals upon spirals.
Then more ripples.
Fresh ones, feeling their way towards the boundaries, their prison walls. Then more ripples, this time joined by a distant boom, that bounces and bounces too, but towards her. Ripples. Boom.
Ripples. Boom. Ripples. Boom. Closer and closer together, the time between them closing as the distance between their source and she slowly narrows. They’re coming. Quite a few, it would seem.
She stands in a deep bowl some miles in diameter. The outer edges are deep hills that smooth out as they descend to the basin, where bushes and small trees gather to form an outer ring. This dense ring of fern and fauna forms a perfect circle around a raised platform of stone blocks cut in equal sizes and on which she now stands. The stone is weathered with age and nagging; dozens of craters litter its once smooth surface. Each is a different size and depth; some are cracked and uneven, others are deep gashes in the armour adorned by the bowl. The platform is man-made but equally abandoned, its untidy makers’ ways forgotten. Ripples. Boom.
She sees them now, as the gray clouds rescind and the cold breeze that’s been biting at her skin gathers pace. They are many, marching towards her, for her. Thousands of men, in well organised units: riders, shielders, archers, pawns. They sing battle songs to time their march as bannermen drum a rhythm.
She turns 180 degrees and sees another force approaching from the North, this one with horse-drawn machines and many bladed spears and scarred warriors of a hundred battles. They come, armour first, their machines only slightly more disposable than the vulnerable man, a scarce resource in this day and age of picking a side. Their clothes are muddy and beaten, but that’s not indicative of the men who fill them. They wear their dirty, battered rags with pride because they’re still alive to wear them. Opposite, the well-organised machine approaching on horseback and foot is regimentally clean, as if it had been kept away from fingers and eyes. These men pride themselves on their appearances, the proof of the better lives they live.
Each force arrives at the edge of the great bowl, encircling it. They do not fear attack from each other, feel no need to protect their flanks or rear. Each side is not here to attack the other. Each side is here for her. Here for what she can do. Sorties from each side begin the descent towards her. The Machine Men leave their old cars and coin-operated bicycles with the bulk of their men. She sees they are heavily armed, with scythe blades strapped to baseball bats and machetes wrapped in thick wads of tape to form handles. The men are dressed in no particular style and only prioritise defence as a function. Their chests and backs bear padded armour, as do their shoulders. Some wear helmets with grills across their faces; others prefer freedom of movement but wear sunglasses to keep the slow-to-appear sun from their eyes. The Vaults are more uniformly dressed, but with splendour as their aim. Every black and gold uniform is strapped in leather and metal, each waist bears a sword, dagger and pistol. The last piece of weaponry is ornamental, passed down as a gift from father to son. Their archers move in front of the main mass of men, looking down as their small sortie moves closer to her. They do not go for their arrows.
The parties step up on opposite sides of the platform, with her in the middle. One man from each steps forward, ready to cup his hands and say his piece. No one moves any closer.
“Why have you come?”, she yells at no one. The Vaults’ spokesperson speaks first.
“You are to come with us, as our prisoner.”
A machine man steps forward. “No, you are to come with us. We need you.”
She turns slowly in a circle, taking in the number of men surrounding her, sad that it has come to this. She is no longer anonymous, that much is clear. For so long she has hidden among them, been one of them, but apart from them. For so long she has seen them come and go, unaware of what she is, where she is from and what she represents. That is as true of her as it is of them. She has hidden from herself. Now that too is finished, because whatever happens here today, someone knows what she is. They will send more men, of that she is certain. Still, she can send a message. Perhaps it will be heard.
“What is your answer? Surely you can see that resistance is futile. You will be taken, by one side or the other,” says the Vaults man. His men stand ready.
The machine man throws down his weapons and armour, as his men struggle to hold him back. He shrugs them off easily, a big man with strength in his eyes and a back unbroken by the horrors of machine-kind. He lunges forward clumsily as his men try to hold him back. He falls at her feet.
“You do not need to do this,” he whispers, as she take a step back. “We are in here in peace. We know who you are, as do they.” The last word he spits out. “They will go to war over you. We will not. We armed ourselves simply because we were told to. But not a man I am with would go against you. Yours is our side. Please take it.”
He words are wise and full of terror. But he knows that she will not be told to do anything and so pleads with his eyes against the third option, which she knows is her only choice, and so not really a choice at all.
She takes hold of the big man by the scruff of his neck and holds him up high.
“You made me do this. I hope I will not be not made to do it again”, she says, letting the passage of time enter her voice, so all he hears between his ears is the blackness of the void where bad things come from, like her.
Then, all around them, men catch fire. They erupt in flames and pain and screams, each one setting fire to the next in a continuous flame. The rim of the bowl is a ring of fire in seconds, as men drop and their burning corpses begin rolling down the incline.
The men on the platform stand in disbelief as their friends and foes burst into terrible flame. Some spin and lunge at her, who still holds the big man high so he can see the evil that he and his kind have made her do. She freezes them with one look and they drop, blood bursting into their lungs. They do not drown quietly.
“Why?!” screams the big man, his voice choking under her grip.
“So my warning will be heard,” she says, as she throws him into the fire.