Flash Fiction: Trouble Close Behind

zoe_gun

Right, so, I’ve finally got Chuck Wendig’s “X meets Y” prompt finished.  I already told you the two prompts I discarded out of stubbornness (Fast and the Furious meets The Godfather, and The Matrix meets True Grit), but here’s the one I got first: Transformers meets Toy Story.  This, of course, is how I ended up with something that feels a bit like a sci-fi horror western with magical girl-esque figures, all in barely less than 2000 words.  It makes perfect sense*.  I hope you enjoy it.  If you do, I have more for you.

***

Lina stood at the edge of the bar’s porch, staring down the busy street as a familiar figure slowly rode closer.  Her hand rested lightly near her gun while her other picked at her chapped lips.  Mare was in town.  Trouble couldn’t be far behind.

Mare rode her moa all the way up to the bar, sliding off her saddle with a liquid ease that Lina envied.  She gave Lina a huge sickly smile as she wrapped her reins around the porch’s railing.  Lina held still, her eyes narrowed.  Mare’s smile withered.

“It’s nice to see you too, Lina.”  Mare stared up, strands of hair escaping her ponytail and drifting across her face.

“Why aren’t you in your town?”  Lina wet her fingertips with the tip of her tongue, rubbing them together.  She’d picked up the habit handling her shooting iron’s hot empties years ago.  Her tightly kinked hair stuck out at odd angles beneath her hat.

“Why the hell do you think I’m here?”  Mare scowled.  She stalked up the porch steps and brushed past Lina into the bar.  Her badge, still pinned to the inside flap of her coat, was missing the corner-of-your-eye shine of a fully powered Protector.  Lina pivoted on her heel and followed Mare inside, close behind her.

“You screwed the pooch, and you’re still here to talk about it?”  Lina grabbed Mare and spun her around, stopping her in place with hands on both her shoulders.

Mare’s mouth was a tight line in her creased, sun-burnt face.  Her iron was out between them and leveled at Lina’s gut.  “Don’t,” Mare ground out, “say one fucking word.”

The people in the bar were petrified by the confrontation between the two Protectors.  Tension was thick, palpable, and Lina’s badge gently fluoresced with their fear.  Lina could feel Mare shaking beneath her hands.

“I asked you for help.”  Mare was staring Lina straight in the eyes.  Lina could see the confusion, heard hurt and rejection quaver in her voice.  “Why didn’t you come?”  She dropped to a scratchy whisper, “We could have saved them all, Lina.  I know it.”  Pain filled her face, even as she eased the hammer down on her iron.  “Sorry,” she muttered, looking at the ground.

Now Lina felt afraid.  “Mare, I never heard a thing from you.  Are any of them still… there?”

Mare nodded.  “I hoped you’d help me if I came in person.”  She peered into Lina’s face, “What do you mean you never heard?  That tinker didn’t come through here?”

Lina shook her head, sucking in her chapped lips to lick them.  She could feel her tension twist through her back.

Mare’s shoulders slumped, unconsciously echoing her face.  “I guess we need to find him too then.”

Lina looked over the burnt wreck of the tinker’s wagon in the glimmer of pre-dawn.  They’d camped beside it, after burying the husk of the tinker last night.  She’d burned herself pulling the body out, the caravan’s timbers still hot where they rested in the scorched savanna grass.  They were too late.

Mare hadn’t quite cried.  He’d been one of her people.  She still said that some of them survived, untaken, and Lina figured that she’d know.  Her badge wasn’t dead yet, after all.

Lina slowly smeared grease over her healing cheek.  The long thin line had cauterized, angry against her dark skin, and the tissue beneath it stung.  Not as bad as some burns she’d gotten.  She looked over at Mare, still asleep in her roll, and sighed.  She prodded Mare awake with the tip of her boot, keeping her eye on the horizon.  The sun wasn’t up yet, but its light was painting the sky pink off to the east, grey seeping into the sky as the stars slowly disappeared overhead.  She didn’t see any movement in the pale light of dawn, but that didn’t mean that they weren’t out there, watching.

Mare woke with a start, her iron out and leveled at Lina’s head.  Lina turned back to the small camp stove, squatting back down on the small rock to stir their pot of coffee.  “If you were going to kill me with that thing, you’d have done it back in town.  Up an’ at ‘em, Mare.”

The ride that day was hot and draining.  The savanna swayed with the baking wind, and the Protectors couldn’t shake the feeling that something out there was watching, stalking them.  By noon, Mare rode with her iron out and resting in her hand.  Lina was starting to feel twitchy herself, staring at any movement that felt the least bit out of place.  Their moas didn’t like it either.  The next two days only got worse.

Mare crawled up to the edge of the ridge overlooking her town, beckoning Lina up beside her.  From the outcropping, they could see down the long, dusty main street of Shepherd’s Brook.  The weak trickle of water that gave the town its name had dried up for the season, leaving a dry gulch that bisected the main street a ways down the road.

People still walked along the streets, leading moas, driving carts, working and building, but something was off about the whole picture.  No one spoke.  The noise of town held no voices, no shouted conversations.  Lina stared.  She hadn’t seen so many husked folk in one place in years.  She glanced to the side, and felt awkward seeing the tears clearing tracks through the dirt on Mare’s face.  She looked back to the town and pretended she’d seen nothing.

“You really think there’s still some of them there?  They’re not all gone?”

Mare nodded, a vague motion in the corner of Lina’s eye.

Lina gnawed a flap of chapped skin off her lips, chewed it in thought.  “Well,” she couldn’t see any good way this’d go, “shit.”

Protectors didn’t have much in the way of choice.  If you thought there was still something to save, something to protect, you did whatever you had to.  The thoughts, hopes, dreams, and emotions of your folk were your shield, they led your gun’s beam, they were the badge you wore.  Without them, you were just another poor sucker, hoping you’d find a Protector to help you.  With them, sometimes, you felt like a god.

They, the things that fed on people, the ones that hunted you in your dark moments, would come for you.  They’d come for you whether or not you were a Protector, but Protectors always had to respond to their threats.  You couldn’t run, or give up.  It wasn’t an option.  You succeeded, or died trying.  And as Lina looked down at the town, all she could think was that she was staring death in the face.

Somewhere down there, amidst all the empty shells that had been sucked clean of their humanity, there was someone who still needed their help.  And Lina knew that she and Mare would do whatever it took to find them and rescue them from the hell that had come to Shepherd’s Brook.

As with so many horrible nights, this one started with fire.  Lina and Mare had spent a day and a half circling the town, triangulating where Mare could still feel the faintest flicker of her flock while they came up with a plan.  They couldn’t know for sure, but they guessed that the last survivors were being held for later feeding, delicacies for the lurking hungry things.

Their plan, such as it was, was for Lina to provide a distraction while Mare snuck in and freed the last of her flock.  Mare was the only one who could find them, or identify them if they were unconscious, so she had to be the one to infiltrate the town.  With any luck, some of Lina’s folk would already be dreaming, able to lend her more of their strength.

Lina had picked a good spot for a last stand, a place from which to run her distraction.  Mare had already begun to sneak towards the brickworks’ ovens, where her badge led her.  Like they’d discussed, Lina gave her a good three minutes to move into place before she started her side of things.  Then, leveling her iron at a stack of hay near what had once been a tavern, she fired a searing beam into the dried grass.

The fire caught almost instantly.  It crackled softly at first, clouds of smoke rising from the first embers, but soon it became a raging torrent of flame, pouring skywards.  Lina’s next two shots laid bare the skulls of those that came out to fight the fire, cooking them as the laser pierced the bone.  She licked her fingers and pulled the hot empty from her iron.  She could feel her fingers burn a little anyway.  The fresh cylinder slapped into place with a solid click.

She lay still in the grass, watching as more husks came out to put out the fire.  They moved without communicating, eerily like automatons.  So far, she didn’t think any of them had noticed the dull glow of her hot cylinder.  She’d avoided hitting the grass between her and her targets, so she’d left no burn trail.  She nodded quietly in satisfaction and prepared to keep them occupied.  She knew it couldn’t last, and rubbed her shimmering badge for reassurance.

Crouched outside the brickworks, Mare saw the pillar of flame rise from the edge of town.  She checked her iron, then rolled sideways over the low brick wall which surrounded the building’s yard.  Her boots came down on something soft, and she stumbled into a run across the yard towards the large building.  She pressed up against the wall by the empty doorway, closing her eyes for a moment to let the feel of her badge wash over her.  It was dim, only three people left, but she could sense them inside and to the left of the doorway, on the main floor.

She rushed in, calling up faltering light to lead her way.  The light quit before she had gotten half way there; despair was weak fuel.  Mare had a clear path to the tied up people in the space before the ovens, but the shadows around the walls flitted with hungry things.  She counted her steps and slid to a stop by the captives.  She’d recognized one of them in that brief moment of illumination, and had a glimmer of a plan.

Her belt knife sawed through the ropes which held her folk, and she shook them to alertness.  Fingers quivering with adrenaline, she pulled the dull badge from her coat and pinned it to the shirt of young Hobb, calling his name.  She felt his face turn towards hers in the dark, faint light streaming through the brickworks’ open doors.

“Do you know what this is?”  She tapped the badge she’d pinned to his shirt.  He nodded, confused.

“Do you accept it?”  He nodded again, more slowly this time.

“Good.”  Mare smiled, and the light of her hope, her triumph, poured from the badge.  Hobb’s badge.  “You take care of these people, get them out to the big fire.”  She pointed, lit by the badge.  “Another Protector will help you when you do.”  She stood up, shaking herself to loosen up.  “I’ll be right behind you.”

Lina knelt now, firing into the oncoming husks, burning hungry shadows with beams, or with licks of radiance from her badge.  They weren’t behind her yet, but it wouldn’t be long.  Then the light show started deeper inside the town.  It coruscated across the sky, blasted through Shepherd’s Brook, blew apart buildings in a sparkling, glimmering mess.  A boy came, uncertain, his badge gleaming like the sun while two others stumbled after him.  Where he looked, the shadows fled from the light that poured off of him.  And as he reached Lina, as she wonderingly led them back towards safety, the light suddenly dimmed.  And the boy began to cry.

***

P.S. I had some more thoughts about how I came to write this piece.  I used to have them at the top of the post, but they distracted from the story.  Here they are after the story instead:

I was totally stumped for a while, since I couldn’t think of anything that didn’t feel like an awkwardly derivative fanfic.  But then I decided to look under the hood, so to speak, and pick out some deeper themes to use for my story instead of going with the obvious trappings of giant stompy robots and the secret lives of toys.  I fixated on the clear white hat / black hat distinction present in Transformers, and thought about the way in which Transformers (or at least the early movies, which were my primary exposure) showcases the conflict between the values of freedom and self-sacrifice, and the opposing pursuit of tyranny and selfishness.  With Toy Story, I mostly thought about the Hero’s Journey faced by a pair of characters who have to expose their own failings to each other and come up with a way to work together to surmount them (and the problems that they’ve created for themselves).

Then I spoke further with my housemate Ben, who pointed out that I was still missing another set of central themes.  Toy Story is really about the secret lives of your imaginary friends / the guardians and enablers of your imagination, while Transformers explores the question of “What would it be like if your imaginary friend was real, and really was fighting to save the universe from evil?”

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5 responses to “Flash Fiction: Trouble Close Behind

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