Friday flash fiction – Five Points of Ingress to the Land Beyond This One

The first point of ingress to the land beyond this one is a gap in the berry hedge to the west of Greatbury Manor. One must enter from the inner side, so not just navigating the estate’s maze of orchards and forests, but also evading the roaming wolfhounds and their flint-hearted master, Wilmett the groundskeeper. Night-time under a new moon is best for this approach, if one is wary enough of the additional hazard of nocturnal poachers.

https://pixabay.com/en/currant-hedge-field-currants-shrubs-2412980/

Provided one can reach the point of ingress suffering neither detention nor attack, it is a simple matter to locate the gap, behind a dismembered statue of Nemesis commissioned by a great-great-great-Greatbury patriarch in times long past.

Squeeze into the fissure and push through. Never mind the razor-edged leaves as they brush slices into your sleeves, the jagged branches pinching skin from your cheeks like a deranged grandmother, or the thousand pinprick thorns sinking wells in search of blood.

None of that matters to one who is truly determined to reach the land beyond this one.

Brambles catch and claw at my face as I press on, squeezing through a space too small for a full-grown man. Blood wells in my eyes and ears, dulling moonlight and muting the baying dogs. I drive myself forward, not because of what an insane old man wrote in his diary, but because if I turn back, I’ll be lost.

The second point of ingress to the land beyond this one is a cave in the heart of Mount Antipathy. It is not hard to find, for it lies at the end of a sealed road, behind explanatory signs and a booth selling tickets. One asks merely to be guided to the Third Chamber. The ticket-taker will ask no questions, but supply a map, a source of light, and a small pouch of coins.

Do not lose the coins.

The woman in the booth asked questions all right. “Are you sure?” she asked, and “What did you do?” I didn’t have answers, not for her, and when I refused to reply she gave me the promised items. She couldn’t resist telling me, “It’s not too late to turn back, you know. There’s no shame in it.”

She doesn’t know what she’s taking about. It’s always been too late. There’s nothing in it other than shame.

The caves are so dark that the phosphorescent glow of the compass dial is all the light I need. In the deep pitch, I count out three coins for the hairless, tongueless thing standing guard at the threshold. The other two coins I keep for myself. The guardian steps aside, and I cross the second point.

The third point of ingress to the land beyond this one is an examination of character. One will take it in ignorance, knowing its nature only when it is too late to change course.

“Can you substantiate your whereabouts on the night in question, sir?”

“I was with friends. We ate dinner. We drank at a pub.”

“Can you be more specific?”

Of course, I could. But I say, “I’m afraid I was very drunk.”

When the policeman asks, I give the names of my well-prepared friends. They will swear to the honesty of my answers. They will loudly declare my innocence, accounting my involvement as unthinkable. By the time the holes in their stories are laid bare, it’s too late.

I pass through the third threshold. The diarist tried his best to conceal it, but the test’s purpose was always obvious. It didn’t exist to judge my character, but to expose it.

Judgment is my own responsibility.

The fourth point of ingress to the land beyond this one is a simple gate in an ordinary laneway. One succeeds to the next stage by no more complex a measure than simply opening it and walking through. One will know it when one sees it.

The laneway hasn’t been cleared up. Every surface glistens, fresh, as if it was splashed just moments ago. Perhaps it was. The silver coin of the moon glints in the corner of every droplet and smear, and even the unbloodied bricks and pavers gleam with a purifying light. All around, the windows are dark and curtains are drawn. I feel the eyes looking into the lane all the same. They see everything and do nothing.

The gate is wrought iron, black except where it’s wet. If I open it, it will creak but it won’t resist. If I let it go, a rusting spring will pull it shut.

A voice cries behind me, nothing more than a whimper shaped into a word: “Sorry.”   

It waits, as if expecting me to respond. I won’t. I didn’t then and this time is no different. When the silence has gone long enough to answer for me, the voice says, “Help me th-through the gate. Please.”

I won’t. I’m not listening any more.

I tuck the diary into my coat and grip a dry spot high on the gate. I push it open and walk through.

The final point of ingress to the land beyond this one is the mouth of the titan called Argus. One must wait by the shore until called. Place a coin upon the tongue. Cast the other coin into the waters. Follow where it skips, neither hesitating nor deviating. Argus will open wide its mouth. One must only decide whether to swim on or turn back.

I leave the diary with my clothes. Someone will find it, no doubt. Someone will follow me into the land beyond this one, either in pursuit of me or else some mad dream of their own. I don’t care.

The waves part and the jaws of Argus rise until they eclipse the sun. Until my world is nothing but an endless yawing darkness ringed with teeth.

I know nothing about the land beyond this one. I know only that it’s not this one.

I swim on.


Emergency edit: First version of this story used “egress” when I meant “ingress”, because I am an idiot who does not remember to check a dictionary.

No real news this week (other than the exciting reality of the print copies of my book, as mentioned in the post below this one). I will be sending out another newsletter in the next few days, which will feature a preview of a much-anticipated [1] upcoming story and an exciting and unique [2] giveaway. Sign up by filling in the form over there on the right.

[1] By at least, and perhaps no more than, one reader
[2] Exciting may be hyperbole, but unique isn’t
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An Anniversary Unboxing

My box of print copies of Mnemo’s Memory and Other Fantastic Tales arrived this week. It was an exciting moment, but in itself not so particularly noteworthy as to warrant a blog post. Then I remembered: this is my sort-of-anniversary.

A boxworth of books

Five years ago this month, I stood up with a veritable army of co-authors at the Conflux 9 launch of the CSFG anthology Next. My contribution to the table of contents, ‘Imported Goods – Aisle Nine’, was my first published short story.

Since then I’ve published eight more short stories in various venues, and I have another five awaiting publication. There’s probably another couple of dozen in states of completion ranging from “this will never see daylight” to “for goodness sake, just hurry up and edit it, you dolt!”

I’ve written two extremely unpublishable novels (one of which might eventually be salvageable). I’ve written forty consecutive flash fiction stories without missing a Friday. And I’ve published a collection of short stories.

In the scheme of things, it’s not the most prolific output, but it’s not nothing either. Nothing is what I had to show for the previous twenty-five or so years [1]. I’m pretty happy to have crossed that little threshold from “occasionally published short story writer” to “self-published author”.

There are more milestones to hit, of course. For one, I would love for all of my stories currently choking up publishing pipelines to actually come out. There’s hints of movement here and there, but in most cases there’s nothing I can do to push things along so I’ll just keep on keeping on until the news changes.

I’m also ready to make the move up to being a self-published novelist. I’m currently working out the logistics of meeting a particular self-imposed deadline while also travelling overseas for five weeks in June. I think I can do it, but in case I can’t, I’m not going to jinx myself here. More news when I’m confident I won’t drop the ball completely.

I think it’s good to mark notable occasions and celebrate the little victories. I’m going to go write this week’s flash fiction story and sip a wee dram of whisky. Salut!


[1] Not entirely true. I wrote some awesome tabletop roleplaying campaign materials, and a bunch of great songs, if I say so myself. But they don’t really count towards this score.
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Friday flash fiction – Any Dream Will Do

There is a ghost in the machine and the monsters don’t like it. They are creatures of relentlessly exacting habits; the slightest imperfection in their designs is an irritant that itches the whole social order. Francesca Kincaid is a bag of gravel tossed into their precision clockwork world.

https://pixabay.com/en/hospital-ward-hospital-medical-room-1338584/

She’s been on the run for weeks now, during which time she has learned three things.

One, she can walk into any dream she pleases, a chameleon in the landscape, unseen by monster eyes.

Two, there are others like her, who possess the right spark of imagination to defy the monsters’ horrifying dream architecture; once they understand their imprisonment, they are all too willing to be recruited to her cause.

Three, she may not be the monsters’ only problem.

It begins with the crew of the fishing boat.

Most dreamers are imprisoned in solitary worlds, as she had been, but sometimes the monsters group them together. The trawler is one such collective nightmare, an unsettling scenario of snarled nets, spoiled catches and a storm approaching too fast for the engines to outrun. Four sailors aboard bend grimly to their frantic work, praying for their safe return to loved ones ashore, but certain they will never see land again.

Such scenarios, awash with anxiety and dread, are rich pickings for the monsters, Francesca knows. She doesn’t understand yet how they feed, but their undoubted purpose is to cultivate this miasma of horror.

“Ahoy, Captain! Can I lend a hand?” By the dictates of dream logic, her sudden presence goes unquestioned. She simply blends into whatever narrative preceded her.

The ship’s captain is a scrawny man with thinning hair, more an accountant than a seasoned trawler man. He squints at her through foggy spectacles in momentary confusion, then nods. “We need to lose weight. Help Nelson dump the cargo.”

As she strides across the deck, wind driving sea spray at her, she affects a stagger for appearances. Nothing here will affect her unless she chooses it, but it pays not to be complacent.

Nelson is a thick-armed teenager with anime tattoos and Sophia Loren on his t-shirt. He is using a crane to move heavy bins stocked with live fish to a niche on the stern. Francesca watches him overturn the bin and spill the catch into the churn of the boat’s wake. “You crane, I’ll tip!” he yells.

Francesca assumes control of the crane and lifts the next bin into place. A heavy wave hits the prow, throwing a wall of spray across the entire boat.

When it clears, Nelson has vanished. At first, she assumes the dream has concocted a new plot point to escalate the stress: man overboard! Either sacrifice time and perhaps die in the course of his rescue or abandon him to the sea.

Then she sees the anime-festooned limb sloshing among the gasping fish.

“What the -?” A woman’s head emerges from a hatch behind Francesca. She asks, “What happened to Nelson?”

Before Francesca can answer, the woman vanishes back into the hatch with a surprised “Oh!”

Francesca rushes to the hatch, but within is a black hole and the woman has vanished. A man screams from the darkness, “Watch out, it’s-” and is abruptly cut off.

The Captain appears, gun in hand, looking wildly about. He yells “Nelson! Burgess! Samuels!”

Francesca is rattled. Dream-deaths are rare – the monsters need the terror, not the release of tension brought by death. Something else is going on here. She grabs the Captain’s hand. “Back to the cabin! We’re getting out of here.”

She leads the way, ducking through the wheelhouse door. Movement makes her look back. The Captain shudders and jerks out of sight. Francesca catches a glimpse of russet hair and claws like scissor blades.

She flees the savaged dream, taking refuge in a troubling reverie of looming bills and suspicions of infidelity. As the dreamer frets about confronting her husband, Francesca pours herself a drink.

“Alison,” she says to the dreamer, “I just saw something killing dreamers. How does that happen?”

“I don’t understand anything anymore.” Alison shakes her head and goes to answer the door. Her husband kicks it off its hinges and brandishes a knife at her.

Francesca pulls her away and drags her to the kitchen. “Is this your dream or his?” she asks.

“We used to share everything,” wails Alison.

A sound like breaking sticks comes from the front door. The husband screams in hoarse terror.

“Come on!” Francesca drags Grace out of her own dream, ignoring her disoriented cries. They stumble through a child’s towering, indistinct terror of half-glimpsed horror movies; they tumble through smoke-filled corridor, ignoring the hacking coughs and wailing sirens; they run headlong through a dim forest of miserable owners calling for missing pets.

In a hospital corridor smelling sickly of disinfectant, Francesca comes to a halt. “It’s still coming,” she says, as a blood-splattered orderly rushes past with an instrument trolley. “It must have our scent somehow.”

“Is there anything you can do?” Alison’s only certainty is her reliance on Francesca. She is struggling to remain calm.

“A couple of things.” Francesca finds a restless sleeping patient and begins unplugging machines, flicking switches, hitting alarms. A heart monitor starts wailing.

“What are you doing?”

“Disrupting the dream,” replies Francesca as she hefts a fire extinguisher through a window. “Our hosts will send a troubleshooting crew.”

“You said they were monsters too! How many monsters do you want here?”

“I want to set the monsters to fight each other.”

Alison shakes her head. “I don’t want to be in the middle of a monster fight.”

“You won’t be.” Francesca points to an unoccupied bed. “Lie down.”

Confused, Alison obeys. “This isn’t much of a hiding space.”

“You won’t be able to keep up if I have to run. The only place you might be safe is out of the dream.”

In the distance, wood splinters and the screaming begins.

Francesca snaps her fingers.

“Alison. Wake up.”

 


If all goes well this episode will have uploaded itself. I’m away overseas this week, with uncertain internet access, so please enjoy this rare example of me planning ahead. Unless it didn’t work.

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Friday flash fiction – Flyers

I hate fighting flyers.

https://pixabay.com/en/city-aerial-view-night-2598001/

The cocky bastards always think they have the edge, and the worst part is, they’re usually right. They can duck behind cover I can’t reach on foot. They can come at me from above or below, which blows my sight lines. And some of them – like this prick Aeronaut, for example – throw things at me.

In this case, it looks a lot like it used to be a chimney stack.

Did I mention I hate fighting flyers?

I hit the asphalt at a full sprint and drop onto my side, sliding on titanium-reinforced joint ridges– heels and ankles, knees, hips, elbows. My momentum takes me under the body of a moving bus and out the other side. Aeronaut’s brick missile nails the bus dead-centre, caving a dent in its side the size of a hatchback. The bus goes into a skidding spin and wobbles to a halt in front of oncoming traffic, facing back the way it came. I spare a quick glance at the shaking driver and see the “Out of service” sign give a fitful orange blink and then wink out.

No civilian casualties. Aeronaut’s luck is better than his brains.

No time to feel superior. He’s coming at me again, with those ridiculous ankle-jets flaring up and filling the sky with a smoky purple vapour trail. I slink into the temporary safe haven of a shadowy alley and find a fire escape. Anything to even up our current elevation disparity.

At least I have one thing going for me. The Professor kitted me out for ranged defense. I unpouch a couple of razor-edged shuriken in the shape of a night shrike. At least, I assume they’re in the shape of a night shrike. I don’t know what one looks like. Hell, I don’t even know if it’s a real bird. It sounds cool, doesn’t it? Yeah. That’s what matters.

You’d think if you were someone who jets around at barely subsonic speeds in a skin-tight luge suit and no helmet, you’d cultivate some situational awareness. Not Aeronaut. He blasts around the corner after me like a hawk on fire, eyes on the alley floor. He’s so sure of himself, a class-B flyer fighting an earthbound villain, that he doesn’t even do me the courtesy of looking up.

Downright disrespectful.

Just for that, I decide to teach him a lesson. The first shuriken pings off the engine casing around his right ankle. It raises a few superficial sparks but does no substantial damage to the jet propulsion unit.

The other shrike-shuriken hits him square in the left buttock.

His howl is so embarrassingly shrill I instantly regret not activating the camera in my body armour. I could have gone viral with footage of the following three seconds. He goes off course, clips a bulky air-conditioning unit and crashes straight through some civilian’s bathroom window.

Colossus City is full of idiots like this, brimful of unearned power, unchecked aggression and a deeply flawed understanding of the principles of law. I mean, I’m no upstanding citizen, but I don’t fly around hitting people with architecture. I’m a business woman.

Speaking of which, my window of opportunity is closing. I hit the rooftops and cover the distance to the PerniCorp Labs office in under a minute. I may not have wings, but I get around just fine.

A notification pings from the faceless dweebs of Tethys Sentinel. They’ve hacked the alarm on the CEO’s office window, put it in a standby coma. On any other day I would laser-cut a clean hole, but Aeronaut’s interference has killed my schedule. I turn the entire pane to dust with my sonic drill and leave it to the Teths to paper over the cracks in the security system. That’s what I’m paying them for.

Forty seconds, in and out. The safe is where it’s supposed to be, my passcodes are up to date and the cameras are sightless. Professional, right?

I’m just anchoring magnetic clamps to the CEO’s desk for my descent when Aeronaut makes his triumphant return.

“Got you now, mercenary scum!”

He smashes through a window – not the one I already broke – and slams me in the midsection like he’s a linebacker for the Rhodes. Tangled together, we smash through another previously-unbroken window, which I barely notice over bellowing security alarms, roaring wind and all the air emptying from my lungs.

“Get off me, you idiot!” I gasp, trying to break his armlock around my waist. Is he trying to cop a feel? I’m at a bad angle to see his face but I have my suspicions. And not just about Aeronaut’s lack of boundaries. I think we’re gaining altitude.

“Maybe you should reconsider your career in cat burglary, Miss Shrike.”

God, he’s so pompous.

“First of all, burglary and industrial espionage are two different things. Second of all, Night Shrike is not actually my name. Third, keep those hands to yourself or you’ll lose them.”

We are definitely climbing. The lights of Colossus City splay out below, stretching along the five converging rivers like enormous fingers spreading from a sparkling hand. “Are you planning to put me down soon?”

He booms with irritatingly forced laughter. “I’m planning on teaching you a lesson, Night Shrike.”

Ah. So he’s one of those ones. In it for the sadism. Figures.

I hit record on the camera. “Y-you’re going to d-drop me?”

“I’m going to teach you to fly. A thousand feet should give you plenty of practise. So long!”

His grip loosens and I’ve had enough. I double-tap the sonic drill and blast the jets right off his ankles. As we fall apart, I unfurl my wingsuit and flatten into a glide.

Aeronaut goes into a howling uncontrolled tumble and vanishes towards the bay.

“Tread water,” I shout helpfully after him. “I’ll call the coast guard in an hour. Three at most.”

I hate fighting flyers, but what else can you do when you can’t beat them?


This was going to be next week’s story, because I’ll be out of the country next week and I wanted to get ahead in case of unreliable internet or something. Then I had my flu shot today and now I’m too damn tired to write this week’s story. So next week’s story is now this week’s story, and the story I would have written for this week is getting bumped to next week.

I mentioned I’m tired, I think.

Colossus City first appeared in “Mister Extra“, and will continue to be the venue for me getting this superhero fixation out of my system.

 

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Friday flash fiction – The Dimble Family Fungus

Smetter’s Crusted Toadstool (Malus sienkiewiczii) fruits once every seven years. On each occasion, it heralds a new apocalypse for the Dimble family.

https://pixabay.com/en/photoshop-mushrooms-psychedelic-2662636/

Nearly half a century ago, Letitia Dimble’s great-grandparents Bertram and Millie were lost when their greenhouse spontaneously combusted on a cool spring morning. Also killed were eleven fellow members of the Little Brompton Fungi Appreciation Society, along with a reporter and a photographer covering the botanical phenomenon for the local newspaper. Grandfather Charles escaped his parents’ fate by missing his train home from Oxford, where he was studying for his PhD in chemistry.

Seven years later to the day, Letitia’s great-uncle George, well-regarded about town for his green thumb and genial nature, was arrested for the murder of the six reserve soldiers bivouacked in his dairy paddock, to whom he served a beef stroganoff casserole laced with the deadly toadstool. The only explanation he offered at his trial was a complaint, repeated frequently, that the soldiers were “louder than the telly”, despite being camped more than a mile from his cottage.

Fourteen years into his life sentence, George picked a fight in the exercise yard of Her Majesty’s Prison Wakefield with one Ronald “Thumbs” Larkin and his associates, whom he loudly described as “a right lot of soft turnips”. He was stabbed in the kidneys with a sharpened screwdriver and bled to death seated on an old bench. When he failed to rise and run for cover from a heavy spring downpour, the prison guards discovered bright blue stalks capped with spotted yellow ovoids, sprouting from the bench’s rotten timber up between George’s bloody fingers. Under the grisly circumstances, the strange outcropping was considered an odd but unremarkable occurrence.

It took Letitia to put it all together, and then only by accident.

When she was still in high school, Grandfather Charles’ sudden death from a mystery ailment forced his last remaining descendant, Letitia, to see out her education in the care of a loving foster family. The bereaved teenager managed her acute sense of abandonment by studying journalism and developing web applications. Months after she moved on campus to celebrate her twentieth birthday, her Grandfather’s executor sent a stack of personal journals.

Partly to satisfy her curiosity about her ancestry, but mostly to satisfy the requirements of her academic coursework, Letitia decided to document the Dimble family history.

She was already painfully aware, of course, of many of the more tragic elements. Her mother Cindy died giving birth to her, the result of complications from an unexplained lung infection. Her father Michael followed when Letitia was in her early years at school, the victim of a single vehicle crash. To her surprise, a toxicology report folded neatly into the back of one of Grandfather Charles’ notebooks made no mention of alcohol, but it did cite “elevated concentrations of an unknown fungal agent”, which it hypothesized as a possible contributing factor in the driver’s erratic behaviour and eventual loss of control.

A great deal of Charles’ notes was given over to lamenting his late wife Beth, who suffered a fatal stroke while napping peacefully in her garden. As Charles was attending a conference in Inverness at the time, she went sadly undiscovered for more than a week. When a neighbour finally checked in on her, her remains were in a shrivelled state, surrounded by thick grass, weeds and a well-fed crop of mushrooms. Letitia’s Grandfather had rarely mentioned her. This all happened more than ten years before Letitia was born.

Dutifully mapping names and dates into a family tree, Letitia quickly noticed the rhythmic pace of the deaths.  As she expanded her research to the internet’s inexhaustible supply of news clippings, coronial reports and – her curiosity overcoming any squeamishness for family she no longer reliably recalled – post-mortem photographs, she found the toadstools.

“Oh,” was all she could say, before hitting the books anew.

After weeks of analysis, cross-correlation and verification, Letitia could no longer refute the coincidence of her family’s history of untimely deaths and the reproductive cycle of Smetter’s Crusted Toadstool. She became an expert in what the botanical community agreed was an unusual, unpleasantly toxic but on the whole unremarkable species of fungus. Try as she might, she could find nothing especially interesting about the toadstool, other than its apparent involvement in the systematic extermination of her lineage.

With only a couple of months to go before her twenty-first birthday, and highly conscious of her status as the last remaining Dimble anywhere, Letitia decided to grab the bull by the horns. She built a terrarium, ordered in a stock of spores, and cultivated a crop of Malus sienkiewiczii in her laundry room.

She wasn’t reckless. She wore a respirator and hazmat suit and followed an efficient decontamination routine. She put her affairs in order. She recorded her observations and filmed the crop’s development. She kept a video diary, which gained a steadily increasing following.

She began a countdown to her birthday, which coincided with the flowering date of the toadstool. A few clumsy followers and several trolls wished her a happy birthday, provoking reprisals from her loyalists.

The internet held its breath.

Letitia, who was by no means superstitious but nevertheless found herself enthralled at the prospect of somehow being murdered by fungus, began a livestream on the morning of her birthday.

She recounted her research and told anecdotes about the lives of her predecessors. She swapped jokes and well wishes with thousands of followers. She politely declined several job offers and two marriage proposals. Donations to her charity fund reached six figures.

She streamed all day, and well into the night. The terrarium live feed showed nondescript blobs of grey throw out blue stalks and mottled yellow caps until long after midnight. It cut off suddenly at 1 am.

Letitia Dimble never reappeared.

After a week, her website redirected to a news article about a Little Brompton foster program which had just received a generous contribution from a mysterious donor called Smith.

 


I cannot begin to tell you where this came from. I’m very tired. I think the first line might have come to me when I was dreaming. Though in this case, “dreaming” is short for “zoning out in a fatigue stupor while walking back to the car after work”.

Never ask a writer where they get their ideas. They might actually tell you.

 

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