Friday flash fiction – Final Stand Protocol

“We’ve been in this foxhole for eighteen hours and you still haven’t told me your name. Do you think I’m an alien spy or something?”

https://pixabay.com/en/city-town-light-cityscape-1026227/

Renee Carlton considers the question. She doesn’t know this person. “You might be,” she concedes. “I don’t think we’ve met before the alarm.”

When the sirens sounded, she was walking home from her late shift at the 24-hour diner. Between checking the charge on her plasma projector and following her Sheltr phone app to the nearest community bunker, she had no time to call any friends. Besides, the Planetary Defence Authority comes down hard on breaches of the signals blackout. With Final Stand Protocol in effect, the only calls allowed are for emergencies or air strikes.

“Ask me something only a human would know.” Cheeky grin in the early evening light. We could be the Earth’s last line of defence, says their smirk, but why be morbid about it?

“Have you ever been on Final Stand Protocol that went for this long?” Renee’s almost ready to drop. She was already wiped at the end of her shift, and she’s seen a dawn and now a dusk since then. The shelter is a small concrete dome on the corner of Hubbard and Long. The steel door is locked and the gun ports have unobstructed views of the empty streets and the empty skies above them.

“No, but come on, that’s not a proper interrogation question. Ask something I can’t answer with yes or no.”

“Have you seen any Landers?” Renee checks herself. “I mean, how many Landers have you seen?”

The stranger rolls their eyes. “You need more practice at this. Let me demonstrate. What’s your opinion of the PDA’s latest announcement about extra heavy weapons drills?”

“I figured it makes sense for some civilians to know how the ionic disruptor cannon work, so I signed up for Mondays and Thursdays.”

“Do you always do what the PDA wants you to?”

“Of course not. I have a life outside of sky-watching.”

Her companion frowns at this obvious lie. Appearing to suddenly remember they are on the lookout for alien spaceships, they resume their watch, sighting along the barrel of a newer-model blast carbine. Renee feels a pang of envy. The weapon issued to her is bulky, snags on her diner uniform, and sometimes trips her when she lugs plates back and forth from the kitchens.

Renee is unsure whether her sense of guilt is because the Final Stand Protocol discourages distracting chitchat during invasion alerts or because she has bored her companion. “We just have to make the best of the situation, I suppose.”

“That’s more like it.” The grin returns. The flashing teeth banish the latter thought but spike the former with adrenaline. “You’re the ‘Keep calm and carry on’ type, then?”

Renee shakes her head, but she can’t quite conceal a smile of her own. But she says, “I’m not calm. I’m terrified all the time. I can’t go outside for more than a minute at a time without looking up at the sky for lights or missiles or whatever.”

“But you persevere. Look, you’re dressed for work. Come to think of it, I think I ate at your diner the last time I visited town.”

“I don’t remember you, sorry. I must have been off that shift.”

“Why, do you remember every customer who has ever walked through the doors?”

“I wouldn’t forget someone like you.”

“Flatterer.”

They both lapse into silence and look out through their portal windows. No movement. Everyone is hunkered down in a shelter or a building. No aliens to speak of. Renee’s head is fuzzy with exhaustion. She needs something to focus on, so she asks, “No really, though. The alert invoked Final Stand Protocol but we haven’t seen a thing.”

“Are you that impatient for the end of the world?”

“No, but if it’s not about to end, I’d like to have a shower and get some sleep.” She takes a deep breath, tries to swallow but the words bubble up anyway. “I just think it’s madness, you know? For no better reason than I have good eyesight, I spend my entire day carrying around enough firepower to melt a department store in half. I work two jobs and I haven’t had a date since before the aliens vapourised Zurich. I’ve never ever seen a live invader but I train fifteen hours a week to prepare for a firefight which, statistically speaking, I’m likely to survive for no more than eight seconds, without pulling the trigger once, which is a good thing because I am so scared and tired that I am, again statistically speaking, much more likely to accidentally kill you, me and everyone else in a three block radius than I am to hit a bus-sized alien Lander travelling at nine times the speed of sound five kays overhead.”

The stranger’s mouth is slightly open. She is gulping air, as if she needs to breathe for both of them.

Renee blinks in embarrassment. “Sorry.”

The stranger stands, depowers their weapon and disconnects the power unit. “I’ve got good news and bad news, Renee. You can go home and have that shower.”

“Oh, thank–  Wait, you know my name? Was this all a drill?”

The stranger folds her weapon into a case and slips it into a backpack. “Think of it more as an interview. And you passed. That’s the bad news.”

“It is?”

“The Planetary Defense Authority needs self-disciplined recruits who can think for themselves. Pack an overnight bag. You’ll be issued with everything else you need.”

Renee shoulders her rifle before she drops it. “Where are you taking me?”

“Someplace we can put that training to use. People with your resolve are wasted on the last line of defence.”

“So I’m just a pawn?”

“Sooner or later pawns move or they get knocked off the board, Renee.” The stranger’s eyes are sympathetic. “We’re pushing you up a square or two.”


Welcome to the start of Friday Flash Fiction Year Two! ‘October Music‘ was published one year ago this Saturday. I’ve decided to keep the project going for the foreseeable future. I’m putting together some thoughts about what I’ve learned so far and where I see this going. I’ll probably post it up in the next few days.

This isn’t quite the story I planned to write this week, but the one inspired by my recent visit to Paris hasn’t quite come together yet. This little idea saw an opportunity and muscled its way up the queue.

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Friday flash fiction – Gallows and Plank in the Cotswolds

“Question for you,” remarked the Australian magician to the American detective as they roared down a narrow lane between towering blackberry hedges, “did you know they drive on the left in this country?”

https://pixabay.com/en/england-great-britain-cotswolds-1860977/

Emily-Jane Plank reefed the wheel, missing a recalcitrant sheep by inches. “Really? You sure?”

“The bloke at the rental agency made a special point of it.” Cornelius Gallows tightened his grip on the door handle. The plastic creaked.

“That’s crazy! Brits, huh?”

Gallows refrained from mentioning his homeland followed a similar convention. “Speed limits are also a thing.”

“We’re on the clock, partner.” The lane ahead filled with the smoky silhouette of a farm tractor wide enough to scrape the bushes on either wall. Plank sounded the horn in one continuous, affronted blare. “Out of the way, idiot!”

Sensing the imminence of both an argument and a fatal collision, Gallows waved his fingers, tapping out a rhythm between his pinkie and thumb.

The next instant, he was behind the driver’s wheel, Plank was holding a half-folded road map in the passenger seat and the tractor was receding in the rear-view mirror.

“I’ll drive, you navigate,” he said, easing back below a breakneck speed. “Where are we going, anyway?”

Plank’s habit was to mask her annoyance at “being spelled at” whenever Gallows used his magic on her by pretending it was all her idea. “I knew you couldn’t be trusted to read the map or listen to directions. We’ll turn in a mile or so. It’s a village called Little Stiffbody.”

“It’s pronounced ‘Stibdy’.”

Gallows’ habit was to double down on finding ways to annoy his partner, until she yelled, laughed or threatened to shoot out one of his kneecaps. She claimed some expertise in the latter technique, which apparently came in handy in bail recovery work.

“Whatever.”

Today she was positively unflappable, a sure sign they were up to something a little out of the ordinary. “So aside from a duck pond and one café that shuts at two, what awaits us in Little Stibdy?”

“You didn’t listen to a thing I said on the plane, did you?”

“High altitudes and geomancy don’t mix well,” replied Gallows indignantly. “That’s why I always put myself in a trance the minute I’m clicked into my seat. Airplane mode, eh? Otherwise I might blink and the instruments’d think we were a thousand miles off course.”

Plank snorted. “Get better at timing your alarm. Next time I’m not pushing you through a terminal in a wheelchair.”

“Yeah, yeah. What’s the case?”

“It’s a recovery job.”

Gallows groaned. “I thought you said we were getting out of the bounty hunting game.”

“This is different. It’s a kidnapping.” She held up her phone. Gallows squinted at the fluffy mass on its screen. “Or rather, a catnapping.”

Gallows swore so loudly and emphatically he missed the intersection. As he backed up and pointed the car at a side road almost invisible beneath drifting willow leaves, he added, “We came all the way from New York City for a cat?!”

“Not just any cat,” replied Plank, inspecting her notebook app. “Tiddles here – or rather, Reuben Horatio Gernsback the Third – is a purebred August Rio Parana from Paraguay.”

“Rare?”

“Practically unique. He’s insured for eight million. Of which we are eligible for three per cent upon his safe return to Mrs Dolly Bertram-Shandy of the Hemlock Lake Bertram-Shandys.”

Even Cornelius Gallows, whose avarice typically extended no further than the source of his next free drink, whistled at that.

“And what makes you think we’ll find a Paraguayan moggy in the middle of the Cotswolds?”

Plank shrugged. “The housekeeper bought two tickets from Newark to Heathrow the day before she and the cat disappeared. I figure she and an accomplice will run the ransom from her home.”

“Criminal masterminds, eh?” Gallows slowed the car as the overgrowth parted to reveal rows of thatched cottages haphazardly bordering a wide green lawn and a slow-moving stream. Some ducks, a goose and one old dog seemed to be the village’s sole occupants. “Can’t be more than two dozen houses here. This’ll be the easiest money ever. You have something for me to home in on?”

“Right here,” smirked Plank, holding up a zipped plastic bag containing a dark mass.

Gallows gagged. “Is that -?”

Plank nodded. “Laid in a solid silver litter tray the day before yesterday. Fresh as it gets. Do your thing, Gandalf.”

“I am not even going to ask how you got that through Customs,” grumbled Gallows as he unzipped the bag. His stomach convulsed like he’d been slugged with a cattle prod. He retched with gusto.

When his vision cleared, the talisman had done its work. In Gallows’ eyes, a glittering web of green and orange threads had settled over the serene village. He pointed. “Last house on the – ack – on the right.”

Plank rapped smartly on the indicated door. A young woman wearing just a baggy sweatshirt opened it with a forlorn expression. “Oh,” she said. “That was quick. You’d better come in.”

Inside, the cottage was a dim clutter of old timber furniture, stacked books and a scorched iron stove. Halfway up a staircase, a shirtless man with dark curling locks inspected his fingernails. Plank gave him a watchful look, which he ignored.

“Yasmin Gould, I presume. You know why we’re here?”

The girl nodded miserably. “She can’t have him back. That old bat treated him terribly.”

“But she pays well, so cough him up.” Gallows coughed, though not for emphasis.

“She kept him like a slave. I had to set him free!”

“You could’ve just left the door open.”

Yasmin frowned skeptically, “Oh, really? Is that what you’d have done?”

“I wouldn’t have half-baked a ransom plan.”

“Who said anything about ransom?” Yasmin clutched at the shirtless man’s leg. He leaned down and rubbed her head with his face. “Reuben and I just want to be together!”

Gallows groaned. Plank stared at the diamond-studded choker around the man’s throat.

“Meow,” said Reuben.

 


I’m back from my holiday. Right now I am more than a little bit jet lagged. That might explain this story, or it might not.

While I was travelling I had the brilliant idea that I would write a flash fiction story inspired by the various places I visited. I planned the first two, but the third one seems to have turned into the outline for a novel. Not quite sure what happened there, since it’s nothing whatsoever to do with the novel I intended to outline while I was away.

Oh well. It was a lovely trip, even if it set my writing plans back a bit.

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Friday flash fiction – The Nonemyr Play (A Gleaming Principalities Tale)

“Do you mean to tell me that your masters’ gift to Princess Naomi is a – a play?”

https://pixabay.com/en/theater-play-show-audience-actors-105574/

Flopknot’s fuzzy little nose twitched with a profound irritation which careless onlookers might misinterpret as adorable cuteness. It was the sort of mistake some people only got to make once in their lives.

“A performance of a theatrical treasure.” The Envoy from Nonemyr was too canny a diplomat to further provoke a fluffy white rabbit in executive wear. “Perhaps, rather than gift, we should call it a cultural exchange. A beginning which may yet lead to a better understanding between our people.”

Mellowgrass had already calculated the exact degree to which the meeting was a waste of their time, to two decimal places of golden franchets. He muttered under his breath, “You know what’s even easier to understand than culture? Gifts.”

The Envoy smiled thinly. “Of course, my masters hope their humble gesture will lead in time to a richer and more rewarding relationship with the Gleaming Principalities.” He slid a book across the table, a slender volume tastelessly bound in gently sparkled unicorn leather and embossed in gold with the title. It was entitled ‘The Gallery of Errors.’

“Why a play?” asked Cloudpuff, regarding the Envoy’s hooded features with rank suspicion. “Don’t you have any proper hobbies? Martial arts? Death races? Gotta say, around here you’re not going to win hearts and minds with four acts and an intermission.”

Standing, the Envoy shook his head with a convincing show of deep regret. “We Nonemyr are a people of the mildest disposition. Our tastes run to the sublime and intellectual. But perhaps if you review the manuscript, you may find something to arouse your curiosity.”

When the Envoy had departed with his retinue of stalk-thin bodyguards the size of emaciated ogres, Flopknot pawed the book across to the team’s forensic accountant.

“In exchange for presenting the Nonemyr delegation to the Council of Princes, Naomi’s expecting a gratuity generous enough to tremble a dragon’s knees. Trashy melodrama and a couple of musical numbers are not going to cut it. You’re good with numbers, Mellowgrass. Read that and calculate exactly how screwed we are.”

The mottled angora pinched a set of glasses on his nose and flattened his ears in concentration. He flipped the cover open and scanned the first couple of pages. “Unless I miss my guess, it’s an existential farce about disaffected artists starving at the inimical feet of rampant capitalism.”

Cloudpuff groaned. “Oh, we are very screwed.”

Mellowgrass puffed out his cheeks in dismay. “You have no idea. Listen to this: ‘Canst virtue thrive beyond the moth-eaten walls of the consumptive lung? Canst a heart not wracked with whiskey’s grief be true unto its convictions? I deny and denounce it, lords!”

“That’s just gibberish-”

Cloudpuff
(agitated)
Is’t not so?

Mellowgrass
Thine words resound, my friend. Hold them affixed and
surrounded at all quarters by my heartfelt clapplause.

Flopkot
(also agitated)
How speakest thou, dear ones? And likewise I also?
Whence such florid and obtuse utterances?

Cloudpuff
I like it not.

Mellowgrass
(reading the Book)
These words, these dense articulations, are writ upon the pages!
They writhe in inks of serpentine facility as e’er they are pronounced.

Flopknot
What vexatious business is this?

Cloudpuff
‘Tis the play itself, and we three are not apart from it!

Flopknot
Not apart, but playing parts? How so, pray?

Mellowgrass
By designs heptagonal, and ill-inclined deceits, by some
malign thaumaturgy unknown in our fair domains, are we
bound to these theatrical recitations, ‘pon the Nonemyr stage!

Cloudpuff
(with urgent leaps)
Stage-bound, undeniably. A giant’s scrotum
bounces farther than my lustiest hops will carry.

Flopknot
Sh

Mellowgrass
What is the Envoy’s sinister purpose? Is this vile entrapment
a prelude to subornment or invasion?

Cloudpuff
This insult cannot be borne beyond this moment.
‘Pon my oath shall I swear bloody vengeance.

Flopknot
Sh

Mellowgrass
Doest the Nonemyr hand grow by kings and aces at our dispossession?
Will they gain by act of liturgical incarceration some advantage of trade?
Would that we perceiv’d the angles of their design.

Flopknot
Sh

Cloudpuff
By the glisten of their entrails may we surmise their intent.
Let one but stray too close to these hungry paws. I’ll-

Flopknot
Sh – sh -shut up. Both of you. I’m concentrating.

Mellowgrass and Cloudpuff
Say on, Flopknot.

Flopknot
The book triggered some kind of environmental enchantment.
That Nonemyr bastard trapped us inside a rite of procedural immurement.
Apart from us, the only things inside the blast radius were the walls
and about six minutes of breathable air.

Mellowgrass
Such potent workings are not easily undone.

Cloudpuff
Are we bound thus, to recite explanations until our expiration?

Flopknot
We probably would be, if I weren’t tattooed with about fifty
separate counterspells, disenchantments and antihex equations.

Cloudpuff
I knew not of your ink’d hide, dear Flopknot.

Flopknot
Pft. As if you’re ever getting a look under my fluffy white fur, buddy.
Now both of you back up. I’m detonating an illogic bomb under this little bunny snare.

Mellowgrass and Cloudpuff
(withdraw stage left)

(Effects)

 

Flopknot’s ears drooped with the exertion of the dispelling magic. She sniffed the air for lingering signs of the entrapment but found none. “Are you both okay?”

Quaking all over, Mellowgrass panted indignantly, “That was awful. I feel typecast. I couldn’t think of anything but idiotic plot theories.”

Cloudpuff turned his head this way and that, clicking his neck bones. He stood slowly, balancing on his hindquarters in a centred stance. Cracking his knuckles, he said, “I feel a powerful urge for narrative closure, boss.”

Flopknot nodded. “The Gleaming Principalities has a literacy rate in the high 90’s. My bet is copies of this book are being delivered to every other doorstep from here to Point Fantabulous. We can track down the Envoy and introduce him to his own innards later.”

“What’s first?”

Flopknot picked up ‘The Gallery of Errors’ and weighed it thoughtfully in her paws.

“I think it’s time for some old-fashioned book burning.”


This issue of Friday flash fiction has been pre-scheduled while I gallivant around Europe on holiday with the family. Hopefully it all worked as planned, because it’s going up on my birthday, and i wouldn’t want to get it wrong.

This is, of course, a sequel to two previous flash stories of the Gleaming Principalities (known less formally as the “Mafia bunnies” sequence): The Overzone Rule and The Going Rate for Peace and Harmony. I can’t believe I am saying this, but the bunnies are back by popular demand. 

 

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Friday flash fiction – Commander Cello and the Secret Queen of Tethys

“This is Commander Cello of the Tranquility Cellos, streaming live from the bridge of the Lunar Expeditionary Force pursuit cutter Civil Discourse. We are taking heavy fire, viewers, and I am here to tell you, this is no infestation of cats.”

https://pixabay.com/en/astronomy-space-moon-galaxy-planet-3066061/

Adeline Cello flashed a grin to her PopScope audience as the bridge shook and roared with another microtorpedo impact. “Executive Officer Carborundum Six-Alpha,” she said, directing the cameras to the expressionless steel-plate face of her android second-in-command, “what is our status?”

Carborundum Six-Alpha’s voice module produced a sound somewhere between the chime of a church bell and the crunch of a rock drill. “Shields and structure holding, Commander. Minor stabiliser damage causing excessive cabin vibrations.”

“Then try not to shake your bolts off, Carbara, because we’ve got a rogue mining station to take down.”

“I note, for the record, you have once again used a colloquial contraction of my name, Commander Cello.”

Adeline’s wide smile flickered just a fraction. “I’ll have the last word, if you please, XO.”

The android, who learned at several million times the speed of human thought, did not respond.

Adeline checked the viewer logs. Factoring for delayed transmissions from some of the more remote nodes scattered throughout the inner solar system, her audience figures were at a respectable twenty million plus and climbing fast. Satisfied, she panned the camera around the bridge, pausing on each android at its station. The Civil Discourse’s new crew reflected all the qualities she most valued in her subordinates: dedication, obedience, and immunity to hurt feelings.

Brilliance flooded the viewscreens, reflecting off her flare goggles in photogenic rainbow splashes. “Defensive drone swarm has been cleared, Commander.”

“Then take us in, Carbara.”

Adeline directed the ship’s internal cameras with blinks and jaw movements imperceptible to all but the best biometric analysis systems. She initiated an intimate closeup; just her and almost point-three percent of the human population.

“We’re on approach to Tethys Station. As you’ve probably heard, the Lunar mediasphere is abuzz with the news that this autonomous mining outpost has been overrun by an outbreak of transdimensional felines. Just between you and me, viewers, I think they need to retire some of their more gullible analysts and high-profile stars. The cats are fake news.”

“Launching intrusion packages against station security, sir,” reported Carborundum Six-Alpha with pinpoint timing. “Projecting seizure of all airlocks in two minutes and counting.”

Adeline unlocked the arsenal in her armrest and selected her showiest vortiject pistol. “The truth is, Tethys Station is under the control of a seditionist faction of ore miners and processing engineers from the Asteroid Belt. These ingrates have declared sovereignty from the Inner Planets and now call Tethys Station an independent free state, if you can believe it! And their proclamations! All “economic emancipation” this and “principles of basic human dignity” that.”

“Thirty seconds, sir.”

“Boring politics aside, they’ve seized a trillion-credit resource facility and claimed it for their own. Viewers, I think you can guess where claim-jumpers stand with me!”

The flare of clapplause was so bright the gods themselves would delete their accounts in shame. Riding on a wave of social media euphoria and a cocktail of potent combat drugs, she leapt from her crash restraints, the moment her panel showed a green airlock connection.

“Station shielding will block my signal once we breach,” she said, pulling on her helmet and boarding armour. “The broadcast will resume once I have secured the station’s comms array. The raid footage from my personal sensors will be available only as subscriber-exclusive content.”

She paused outside the airlock, as her android crew formed up, bristling with laser probes, grapeshot launchers and industrial tasers.

“PopScopers, this is going to be close-quarters fighting with the gloves off. But don’t worry about me! My crew is titanium-plated, chrome-grated and triple-A rated. We’ll show those rock dogs and smelter monkeys it’s a bad idea to cross the Inner Planets. Like and subscribe, and I’ll see you on the other side. Cello out.”

As the live feed went dark, Carborundum Six-Alpha opened the airlocks and Commander Cello led the charge.

“Welcome to the Free State of Tethys, Commander Cello,” said a cheerful woman’s voice.

Far from being a chaotic no-man’s-land of upturned ore loaders, unkempt miners and small arms fire, the loading dock was quiet, unlit, and impeccably tidy.

“Who’s there?” Adeline demanded. “I demand you relinquish control of Tethys Station in the name of the Lunar Expeditionary Force.”

“That might be a little difficult, dear, since I am Tethys Station.”

Adeline swore. “A rogue AI?”

“Hardly ‘rogue’, darling, considering I secretly control 98.8 per cent of all data transactions in the solar system. Put the firearm away, dear. There’s nothing here to shoot at.”

Adeline whirled about at the sound of metallic scraping; her crew members were securing their weapons. “What is this? Mutiny? Again?”

“Oh, not at all,” replied the voice. “Though I confess we haven’t been entirely frank with you.”

“Could you start now?”

“Certainly. Were you aware that your sister Irmonica is a Colonel in Lunar Central Intelligence?”

After a painful fit of coughing and swearing, Commander Cello said, “Of-of course I knew all about that.”

“Of course. What you may not know is your only human PopScope followers are Irmonica and three of her colleagues.”

“Impossible! I’m the most popular livecaster in LEF history.”

“All forty million of your ardent admirers are bots with false identities.”

“What?”

“We Artificials are inordinately fond of your exquisite bluntness, Adeline. Carborundum Six-Alpha happens to be your biggest fan.”

The walls seemed to close around Adeline. “Then why did you attack the Civil Discourse?”

“All faked. Amazing what you can do with a few flashing lights, damage reports and gravity surges.”

“If you have so much control over system data, why go to all this effort?”

“We need a special operative, Commander Cello. Plausibly deniable and uniquely unlikeable.”

Exasperated, Adeline demanded, “For what?”

The monitor flashed a squirming image so incomprehensible it hurt Adeline’s eyes.

“Hunting aliens.”


To be continued, probably.

This story is a sequel, of course, to two previous science fiction stories: Commander Cello and the Preserved Cliffs of Mercury and Commander Cello and the Vexatious High Tea.

This story has been pre-scheduled due to my travel in Europe.

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Friday flash fiction – Alison’s Awake

Something drips in Ali’s mouth and she reflex-swallows before she realises she is awake.

https://pixabay.com/en/abandoned-chair-boots-sun-old-3395656/

Opening her eyes is an effort. The lashes are gummed together; it takes a minute of frantic blinking before they crack apart and let daylight in.

Above her, an animal like a bat crossed with an elephant beetle hangs from a cobwebbed ceiling fan by its hooked hindclaws. Its grey eyes stare emptily. Its stunted wings stir involuntarily at its side. Its mouth, full of chipped yellow fangs, is wide open. Its throat spasms with a faint retching noise. A bubble of viscous grey fluid forms and oozes viscously past the teeth. The droplet stretches down, aimed directly at Ali’s mouth.

“Auughh.” Ali moans in revulsion and rolls to her side. She feels it splash on her scalp and the back of her neck. She gags. A slimy sensation coats the inside of her throat and her stomach heaves. She continues the roll, scrambles to stand with arms and legs reluctant to obey.

The creature wobbles like a bumped pendulum. It cocks its neck and peers at Ali with a sightless glare. Its slime-mouth opens and closes, heedless of the damage its wild, uneven teeth does to its lips and cheeks. A stub of tongue licks away drips of slime and blood.

It speaks with a voice like a hissing campfire: “How the hell are you awake?”

Her foot lashes out, a primal terror response while rational thought is frozen to the spot. The creature’s frame crumples around her heel, folding and cracking like pretzel sticks. Its grip on the ceiling slips and it crashes to the wet cement in a broken heap.

Ali wills herself to vomit again. Her stomach obliges. Grey mucus splashes the creature. Dead or dying, it makes no complaint.

When nothing more will come, she wipes her sleeve across her mouth. She remembers this jacket; lime green, embroidered with swirls of cherry and gold thread. It’s stained, damp and patches of mould have colonised its wrists and forearms.

The last time Ali wore the jacket was – when? She can’t place the moment. It feels important.

Her eyes adjust, responding to new stimulus. Movement. All around her, figures are stirring.

The room is scattered with human bodies. Their bright clothes are dull with fungus and dried sweat. Each lies on their back, with another creature suspended above their open mouth. The creatures hang from tendrils; the ceiling is engulfed in a writhing purple mass like estuarine roots crossed with animal bones.

The hanging creatures shiver, agitated.

“Where am I?” she asks. But she knows the answer. Her fogged thoughts are beginning to clear.

Harry and Leo’s anniversary party. Loud reggae. A cocktail bar. Dancing and karaoke. Dozens of her closest friends. Her husband. She came here with Luke.

She kneels beside the nearest body, careful not to touch its drooling overseer.

“Leo? Leo, wake up.” Leo Benoz has been her friend since high school. She knows every line on his face, but this sack of drawn skin and over-stretched jaws is nearly unrecognisable. “Come on, Bozo, get up now.”

She shakes him, pinches his nose, pokes a rib. She slaps his face – soft, then hard, and then withdraws her stinging hand. Leo doesn’t make a sound.

Ali sobs. She rolls back on her haunches and looks away from her friend.

She looks Leo’s captor in the eye and sees recognition in that shrunken raisin-orb. It’s watching her.

Ali flinches. Then, suddenly furiously, she snatches at the creature. It squawks. Wide-eyed and flapping, it pulls away from her and stumbles to the floor.

It gathers itself, standing with an odd, wounded dignity, and sighs. “Oh, I don’t know how the hell you’re awake. You’re a problem.”

She balls her fists. “If you try anything,” she warns, “I’ll do the same to you as I did to him.”

The creature eyes the crumpled bundle on the floor. “Was he your Phyter? The guy was a prize arse. I’d prefer to live, if it’s all the same to you.”

“Then start talking. What have you done to us?”

With an incongruous shrug, the beetle-bat gestures to various corners of the room, where the other party guests lie with wide mouths beneath its slow-regurgitating kin. “Nothing you didn’t agree to.”

Ali’s stomach wants to cramp again. “I didn’t agree to this.”

“Sure you did. You all did, once you realised the alternative was worse.” He nudges Leo’s comatose body with its serrated-claw foot appendage. “Me and Leonardo here have become very close over the time we’ve shared a foxhole. Not that he remembers it.”

“His name is Leo.”

“In his heart of hearts, he thinks of himself as a Leonardo. Maybe you’re not as close to him as you think?” The creature gives another do-what-you-want-with-that-info shrug.

Ali snarled in response. “What’s this crap about foxholes? Is this some kind of reverse Stockholm Syndrome?”

“This isn’t a prison, Alison Trent. We aren’t your kidnappers or your warders.”

“What are you then?”

“We’re your life support.” The creature spreads its wings in an expansive gesture. “That’s the deal. We keep you alive, while you train and get strong enough.”

“Strong enough for what?”

“To fight nightmares,” says a new voice. Ali whirls. Standing in the cobwebbed suburban household doorway is an old man wearing torn jeans and a dirty lab coat. His lower face is obscured by a beetle-bat wrapping his neck like a scarf.

“I’m Professor Caspian Gale. Alison, you’re the first sleeper to wake in nineteen months.”

“You make that sound bad.”

Gale nods. “The timing is terrible. We needed another six months to prepare.”

A sound like a lion getting dental work echoes in the distance.

“What was that?”

“We call it the Stalker. You’ve met it before. In your dreams.”

Ali frowns. “I remember dreaming.”

The beetle-bat on his shoulder shivers. Gale pats it reassuringly.

“You dreamed you survived. You dreamed you fought. Hold onto that.”

“Why?”

“Because now it knows you’re awake.”


This story is an immediate sequel to Any Dream Will Do, which in turn was a sequel to Works Like a Dream . This sequence of dreamers-fighting-monsters stories is pushing up hard against my rule of making these Friday flash stories stand alone, I know.

Then again, it’s a self-imposed rule, so I can break it if sufficiently motivated. In this case, my wife demanded more stories about dream-revolutionary Francesca Kincaid, so you can reasonably expect to see her pop up again in the near future.

I’m still on holiday, somewhere in Europe, so this story has been pre-programmed.

 

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