The Light at the Top of the Stairs

Written for the Flash Frenzy round 51 contest. It’s a little rushed, but I think I made it in before the deadline. The prompt is the image shown, by Aswin Rao.

If not for laundry day, she would have died along with everyone else in her apartment. She remembered the buzz of the dryer, the scent of fabric softener, and the feel of warm cotton. Then the lights flickered out. The concrete floor shook her off her feet. Plaster dust filled her nose. And from up the stairs, the thud of the heavy door swinging shut.

She woke within a red dungeon. Emergency lights lit the stairwell, and little else. For the first time, she noticed the sign on the laundry room door: three yellow triangles, and barely visible beneath decades of grime, the words “Fallout Shelter”.

Her phone and the lights were dead. The heavy steel door to the basement laundry room was jammed shut. Throat hoarse from shouting, she slumped against the cold cinder block wall at the foot of the stairs and counted.

One Mississippi. Two Mississippi. Three Mississippi.

Thousands of Mississippis blurred together. After an eternity, the dim red lights faded to black. From time to time, she crawled through the darkness. No food, no water: only laundry supplies filled the basement racks.

Thirsty. Hungry.

When she slept atop a pile of her clothes, nightmares of death and torment haunted her. Her friends’ voices screamed out to her in the darkness. Their faces appeared in front of her, gaunt, skeletal, irradiated. Hallucinations of familiar old haunts taunted her, then collapsed in a blazing inferno. When she awoke, darkness pressed against her eyeballs.

Uncountable years passed. Surely she was dead?

One day she awoke to find the door standing open. A river of white light poured down the stairwell. She stared uncomprehendingly up the stairwell, bathing in the glory of the light. What awaited her at the top of the stairs? Had everyone been killed? Did her city lie in smoldering ruins? Was she dead, and on her way to eternal bliss?

After an age, she found the strength to stand. Step by step she ascended, not knowing if Heaven or Hell awaited. Either way, it was an escape.

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The World Anew

Written for Flash! Friday vol. 3-5, based on the image prompt shown.

Her constant provocateur, the avatar of Saint-Michel perched upon his white wispy cloud. “The trump of war cries out! Heed its holy call!”

Jehanne wept not for the trillion souls killed by the Great Holy War. She had long since shed a tear for each precious life lost; she had none left to cry.

“No human survives on this planet but you and he!” Saint-Michel urged, floating on wings of a dove, but speaking with a hawk’s voice. “Kill him, and good triumphs over evil!”

Jehanne turned her back, clutching the necklace that bore the cross of her tormentor. Bare rock chilled her feet. Nothing grew in ground saturated with millennia of blood and hatred.

“There has been too much death,” resolved Jehanne. “I choose life.”

“Then cursed are you among women!” screeched Saint-Michel, before vanishing in a whiff of sulphurous smoke.

Her former enemy approached Jehanne, and as they embraced, their newfound tears moistened the barren soil.

Semper Fi or Semper Fry

Written for Flashversary. This week’s writing prompt was simply the image shown.

Four tours of duty in that godforsaken desert hadn’t killed me, but this was a total Charlie Foxtrot. My platoon was dead, my rifle was out of ammo, and now flames from the city surrounded the baroque cathedral where I was holed up.

I raised my canteen to fallen friends. “Don’t storm the gates of Hell without me.” But when I lifted it to my lips, only steam poured out. I basted in my own sweat: this place was an oven.

Just the way the dragon planned it.

Another unholy roar rattled the great stone walls. Outside the broken window, the beast flapped its wings. Upon seeing me, it licked its scaly lips.

I stared back, into the creature’s yellow eyes. “Tonight you’ll work for your dinner.” Clutching my bayonet, I sprinted for the window and leapt. Stained glass fragments shattered against me as I flew through the air.

“Oorah!”

And They Are Ours

Written for Finish That Thought 2-21. The prompt is the first line of the story.

All may be fair in love and war, but Kayleigh just stepped way over the line. And considering that our original plan started with “nuke ’em ’til they glow,” that says a lot. But that civilian, Mr. Spitzel, joined us at Fort Rigel and sparked some crazy ideas in Kayleigh’s brain.

Officially, Mr. Spitzel was a teacher. He turned our mess hall (which he called the cafeteria) into his personal classroom, crammed us together with the infantry, and taught us everything Earth science knew about the Qatzu. Anatomy, physiology, strengths and weaknesses, while we ate lunch.

Afterward, the infantry discussed the intel in the locker room, brainstorming ways to kill Qatzu. Aim for the mouth, not the tentacles. Burn their skin with phosphorus bullets. Slash their carapace with a bayonet. Grotesque stuff.

War with the Qatzu obeyed Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle: it was strangely distant, yet also brutally personal. Wherever the 135th Orbital Engineering Regiment went, we opened with a volley of nukes, cratering their strongholds. Yet this was insufficient. Within a few days, a lone surviving Qatzu could lay its clutch of eggs. Within a month, its new brood would be combat ready. A dozen Earth colony ships, thousands of civilians, had been killed by forces from Qatzu planets we’d already bombed back to the stone age.

So wherever the 135th went, infantry followed, to track the Qatzu survivors through the radioactive ruins and claustrophobic tunnels. The stories those infantrymen told were haunting… I was just glad to be an Orbital Engineer. Our official motto was Fiat Lux, but our unofficial Ka-Boom! worked, too.

Kayleigh was quite the firecracker, herself; everyone in Bravo Company called it the Irish in her. Funny how we carry our stereotypes with us, no matter how many hundreds of parsecs we go from Earth. Halfway to Alnilam, she got one of her bright ideas, and locked herself in the lab.

Whatever she told the muckety-mucks must’ve wowed them. Gossip started spreading the day after orbital insertion. Instead of following protocol, carpeting Planetoid Alnilam/3/35A with a 500 gigaton kiss of death, we simply launched Kayleigh’s mystery superweapon… and waited.

For weeks we circled the planet.

We broke orbit.

The infantry never dropped.

Though the infantrymen were dying to know our secret, I never told any of them what Kayleigh told me about our miraculous superweapon.

“Mr. Spitzel’s seminar made me realize how similar the Qatzu are to us, biochemically,” she told me that first night in orbit. “DNA. Proteins. Cellular structure. So I created a mutagen to make them even more like us.”

Her explanation took a while to sink in. “So… any surviving Qatzu on the planet will lay their eggs…”

“…which will hatch and quickly grow up to become humans,” Kayleigh affirmed cheerfully. “If it works, we’ll deploy against their home planet. War over, and instant human colonies.”

I didn’t get much sleep after that. All may be fair in love and war, but Kayleigh just stepped way over the line.

Quantus tremor est futurus

Written for Flash! Friday vol. 2-47. This week’s prompt was to include a monk, along with the photo prompt shown.

Flames flickered on the horizon; ashes flew like snow in a blizzard. Within the concrete walls of the monastery, Dom Exos folded four of his tentacles in prayer. “Miserere mei, Deus.”

Nearby, Teuthida peered through the barred window, weeping inky tears. A flurry of demon ash, unleashed by terrible new weapons, threatened to bury Sepiidan civilization. “If we receive His mercy,” she said as a sudden gust blew debris through the window, “it will not be in this life.”

The Monastic Order of the Seraphim had long studied this fundamental paradox. From the ruins of the Seraphim, the Sepiidan had recovered ancient writings that now guided their beliefs — and terrifying technologies that had led them, by all appearances, to complete destruction.

“If such is God’s plan,” Exos said laconically, bowing his bulbous head and genuflecting on six tentacles to resume prayer.

“That Savior from the Seraphim’s holy writings died for their sins,” reminded Teuthida. “Not ours.”

In Good Times and Bad

An entry for Flash! Friday vol. 2-41. This week’s prompt was to include a marriage proposal, and the photo prompt was Krak des Chevaliers/Qalat al-Hosn, Syria. CC photo by Jon Martin, shown.

Few Americans would call Syria home, but that’s life in the Agency. I can navigate Homs better than DC. That castle across the way is five hundred years older than my hometown… and Annapolis was founded by Puritans.

My only regret is all those nights that Christian spent alone, while I was here spying on some unpronounceable terrorist group. I was stunned when she agreed to elope. Maybe she was just happy that I proposed.

She was less enthusiastic about the honeymoon destination, until she saw the view from the hotel room. Working for the Agency has its perks.

For example, through the Agency I learned of the alien invasion fleet approaching Earth.

That castle’s stone walls may not stand up to whatever weapons the aliens may wield, but I bet it lasts longer than the White House.

Christian approaches me from behind, and I smile.

“I want to spend the rest of my life with you.”

Fireteam Zebra

Written for Flash! Friday vol. 2-40. This week’s prompt was war, and the photo prompt is this black-and-white public domain photo by Burton Holmes of the 1896 Olympic marathon.

Corporal “Bulldog” Bautista’s body was a well-oiled machine. He strutted proudly along the mud-covered road, leading Fireteam Zebra on its daily patrol.

“Private Asim, you’re lagging! Are you tired of my scenic countryside already?”

“No,” Asim panted along on the corporal’s left. “Just… tired, Corporal.”

“Pick up the pace! We’re only halfway there — another thirteen miles before you sleep.”

To his right, Bulldog heard Private Bundok hopping along on bloodied and blistered feet. “What’s your problem, Stripes?”

“Corporal,” Private Bundok asked, grimacing with each pained step, “why can’t we have uniforms? Or weapons? Or food? Or boots?”

“Shortages happen in wartime. Get used to it — and never let an officer hear you complain.”

“There are no more officers,” Asim reminded him.

“No more enemy, either,” Bulldog agreed. “Shortages.”

“Seriously, Corporal,” huffed Asim, “we’re the only ones left. How long will we keep patrolling?”

“Until I receive orders otherwise, Private.” And the machinery of the military rolled ever onward.

In the Crosshairs, part 4

Part 4 in an attempted ongoing story loosely set in the Orion’s Arm universe. Hoping to avert another attack, Bertrand dyson strikes the enemy’s leadership.

The great Orion arm of the Milky Way rose in perfect silence in the window of Café Alesia. Four beings gathered around what had become known as the Round Table.

“I thought you were a cryptosavant,” Jarrett shouted at a hulking lizard-man. “So far, we’ve decrypted only a single Korwen transmission, and Boustrophedon did that, not you!”

Gabeta’s facial scales turned dark green in annoyance. “If Bertrand’s computer systems were not stranded in the Paleolithic Age, I would enjoy more success,” came his deep rumbling reply.

“Marshall Gnawsa,” interrupted Shakti, “have I congratulated you on your recent promotion?”

With her anteater tongue, Gnawsa skewered the furry black lump on her plate. It squealed briefly in protest, but did not move.
Continue reading “In the Crosshairs, part 4”

Imperatrix Universi

An entry for Flash! Friday vol. 2-28. This week’s prompt was “arrogance”. (Apologies to any Latin professors if I screwed up the title. I never studied Latin.)

The Great Virgo War had been disastrous for the Empire. Now its end was near. The Draco space fleet circled Britannia Ultima, blockading the planet and cutting off all trade with the rest of the galaxy.

“Your Majesty, the Draco ambassador believes you to be quite addled.”

“It matters not, Prime Minister, what they think of me. I think them to be disgusting reptiles.”

“Nonetheless, the ambassador has sent an ultimatum. Surrender immediately, or the Draco fleet will reduce our planet to magma. We must surrender!”

“Worry not, Prime Minister. I am attending to our war strategy myself. Victory shall soon be ours.” With a dismissive wave of her hand, she sent the Prime Minister away to deliver her response to the Draco ultimatum.

“Incompetence,” she grumbled as he left. Victoria the MMMCMXCIX, by the Grace of God, of Britannia Ultima Queen, Empress of Centaurus, resumed plotting her brilliant counteroffensive.