Thursday, 29 October 2009

#FridayFlash: Riot

by Maria Protopapadaki-Smith

The soul-searching is over. I have been through all the stages: anger, then denial; from there to doubt; eventually to acceptance, and finally beyond that to conviction. I now know what I must do, and that I must act fast. I set off, stopping only to collect the one weapon I will need on my quest. I pass the fires still burning from last night, the broken glass from shop windows, the assortment of charred items strewn across the pavement. This is not a night to be crossing the city, but cross it I must. I am frightened, but I am also bolstered by determination and the hope of redemption.

As I walk up the hill overlooking the Square, I hear the chants getting louder. I get to the top and below I can see the opposing factions preparing for tonight's carnage. On the left, the City Guard is in formation, dressed in full protective gear. On the right, the dissenters with their masked faces shout slogans at the Guardsmen from across the divide. A smattering of small objects fly over the barricades, falling on riot shields like raindrops warning of the deluge to come. It is through this that I must pass, so I can get to the south side of the city - all other avenues have been blocked off by the authorities in an attempt to keep the dissenters under control.

I walk, unseen, down the hill towards the Square. More people join in the chants; their collective voice becomes deeper and louder and drowns out the admonishments coming from the Guard's loudspeakers. I get to the edge of the crowd and take a deep breath. Flanked by riot shields on one side and the rioters' barricades on the other, the divide sits empty and waits - but only for a short while longer. I must go through now, or it will be too late. I hold my weapon in front of me and stride into no-man's land. The chants falter, then stop, and the loudspeakers change their tune.

"Guardsmen, hold your fire!"
"Sir, please turn back and leave the area!"
"Who's that idiot?"
"He's holding a - "
"Sir, turn around and leave the area immediately."
"This is for your own safety, sir."
"What the - "
"What's he doing?"
"Can you see what - "
Some whistles, some cheers, a lot of swearing.

I walk about half way along and the first hurdle of my mission is over. I now must walk through a mob of masked men wielding knives and homemade explosives so I can get to the bridge that will take me to the south side. I turn to look at the nearest masked face. The man understands; he holds out a hand and helps me clamber over the barricade and into the dissenters' space.

"What are you doing that for?"
"He's not one of us!"
"Hang on now - he's not one of them, either!"
"Oh just let him through!"
"Yes, I mean look at him - "
"Get on with it, they'll be on us in a minute!"
"The sooner you let him go by, the sooner he'll be gone - "

Dissenters move aside to let me in; as I walk towards the back of the crowd, masked men clear a path that I can pass through and stare at me as if I'm mad. Perhaps I am - but my madness has a higher purpose and I walk on, leaving the rioters behind me as I head to the bridge. They have already forgotten me, and the chants grow louder again.

There is nothing now that is holding me back. I cross the bridge running like my life depends on it, because it does. I run and run, holding my weapon steady as I go, along avenues and across  alleyways until I reach my destination. My lungs hurt, I have a stitch in my side, and my nerves are shot - but all these symptoms are quick to subside. It is my heart that feels like it might burst, when she answers the door and I see in her eyes how much I have hurt her.
"Forgive me", I say, and hand her the rose.
Read more!

Friday, 23 October 2009

#FridayFlash: Of Blood and Bare Breasts

by Maria Protopapadaki-Smith

The Laurentian warrior lords sit around the banquet table, enjoying what has for the past few weeks been a nightly event. The atmosphere is as usual one of unbridled raucousness, and of an uncouthness that only noblemen can manage. The Campagnard Elder is shackled to the wall behind the lord Daubert, the cuts and bruises on the old man's face a map of his tormentors' character. He ignores their jeers and keeps his gaze set on a point in the distance; his back is straight, his chin high, his face impassive.

Young peasant women carry platters of food and jugs of wine into what was once the banquet hall of the Liege of Campagne. The Liege is no longer of this earth, and young Campagnard women are subjected to hands upon them that would have, in more civilised times, been hacked off at the wrist for their insolence. But since the fall of Campagne the days have been ugly; one father will, from now on, only ever be able to see half his daughter's face - a drunken lord, a knife, and a few moments of disposable hilarity have etched away the other half. Other fathers are envious of him - his daughter is out of danger now, whereas theirs are still pretty and can still bring shame and sorrow to their home.

Meat is greedily torn from bone, juices drip down warrior lord chins, jeering laughter bites at the ankles of all those not sat at the banquet table. Empty platters are carried out, and the tray of smoking implements and materials brought in. The Laurentians are ready for the second part of the evening, and the jokes take a more lascivious turn. The group of specially chosen young women is heralded into the banquet hall, while their fathers sit at home in shame and sorrow.

The old statesman can no longer feign pride and strength. Tears fall down his cheeks as they always do when the evening reaches this stage: the sight of the young woman leading the bare-breasted procession once again proves too much for him. He is not her father, but she is like a daughter to him; she is the late Liege's only child and the Elder is the one who watched over her first steps, and taught her to read and write . But she is no longer to dance across the banquet hall, spreading sweetness to old and young alike with her beauty and her gentleness. She is now reduced to a conqueror's plaything and made to traverse the hall bare breasted, her eyes spitting bile at the man who intends to defile her again. The Liege is not here to witness this, but the old man takes upon himself all the shame and sorrow that death has spared the girl's father.

The lord Daubert beckons over his favourite toy, delighting in her anger at him, and in her powerlessness against him. She goes to him as she must, if she is to avoid his dagger devouring part of her face. She positions herself between the table and Daubert, and the other young women take their cue and file into their respective places, their eyes expressionless, their shoulders stooped. Daubert leers once again at his prize; he barks an order at her - it is a worse one than usual, and the girls pale as the lords cheer. The Liege may be dead, and by the Laurentian's own hand, but the lord finds he can relive the satisfaction of his victory every night by bringing more shame and sorrow upon the sovereign's house.

The other lords watch Daubert and his trinket with gleaming eyes. But the old man has a keener eye than those who have spent the last few hours drinking wine; he watches it all unfold. One of the serving girls lets out a cry and holds her fist high. The Elder watches as the Liege's daughter reaches under the table and brings out a knife. With her teeth bared, she grabs a fistful of Daubert's hair, plunges the knife into his stomach and guts him like a hare; his eyes widen in the horror of realisation and she spits in his face. She takes the dagger to his throat and with a swift move empties him of the rest of his blood. As it courses thickly down his chest she plunges her hands into it and covers her breasts in the dark, warm liquid. The old man looks on in shock as she picks up her knife again and removes the nobleman's scalp.

The Elder watches this almost in a reverie. One of the serving girls frees him from his shackles and helps him up. He kisses the girl's forehead in thanks, and looks around in disbelief: he sees serving girls with bloody knives, Laurentian stewards with bloody necks. He is open-mouthed as he sees the lords all slumped around the banquet table, with their scalps held aloft by women wearing dark red tunics made of the most precious Laurentian material. He watches as the Liege's daughter leads these women out of the banquet hall and onto the balcony overlooking the busy marketplace. The people in the square look up in surprise as they see the blood-covered knives and the scalps held high, and hear the women issue a cry the like of which has not been heard before. It is a cry the Campagnards can but answer with one of their own; the uprising has begun and fathers no longer feel shame or sorrow for their bare-breasted daughters.
Read more!

Thursday, 15 October 2009

#FridayFlash: High Feast

by Maria Protopapadaki-Smith

Captain Drew boarded the transfer vessel to the Lauk-Parthians' ship with excitement. He had given up hope of humanity ever making contact with a peaceful extra-colonial race in his lifetime - he had certainly never expected to be the guest of honour at a banquet held by such a people. He nervously patted the front pocket of his dress uniform to check his speech tablet was there; he had practised delivering the speech for so long during the previous evening unit that he didn't really need the prompt, but he didn't like to take chances. It was such a momentous event after all - and indeed one that the First Minister of the Colonies herself would be attending instead of him, had she not been 12 parsecs away, orbiting Jupiter on Satellite A.

Contact had been made ten days previously in the vicinity of 55 Cancri, where Drew's ship was assigned to the Hibiscus convoy as its protector craft; the Hypersloop Badger had been escorting the utility ships as they harvested frozen volatiles from the star's asteroid belt. There had been some suspicious activity on the ship's radars; alarms had been triggered in some of the surveillance systems. The entire crew of the Badger had positioned themselves at their stations in readiness - for what, they did not know. Then an amber cloud had materialised about half an astronomical unit away, to the ship's starboard side, and all on the Badger had watched in awe as it had slowly solidified into what they now knew as the Lauk-Parthian ship. Human science had investigated the possibility of such methods of hyperspace travel; it was referred to in academic circles as the GoldDust process, but had as yet not even reached the experimental stages in the Colonies.

Drew had fervently hoped that the Lauk-Parthians were a peaceful people; humanity was still reeling, not only from the loss of life, but also from the disappointment of the one and only other alien encounter. The scale of the joy that had been felt across the colonies - We Are Not Alone! - had only served to intensify the collective despair after the attacks. The colony in the Epsilon Eridani system had never recovered from the onslaught; even twelve years after the enemy had been forced back into their own reaches of the Universe, the real estate market hadn't picked up. The advertising materials that had once enticed with "Columbus Never Discovered A World As New As This!" were now garishly, pleadingly concentrating on the "Rock Bottom Prices!" of habitation units. It was not because people were worried the colony might be attacked again, but because the habitat had now been tarred with the brush of dashed hope.

On this occasion, however, hope was at a high, and with good reason. Delegations had been sent back and forth over the last few days. Languages had been programmed into translators and bio-information had been exchanged - the Badger's resident scientists had been a little disappointed to find that these new life forms were not only carbon based, but also reasonably similar to humans in terms of their nervous, endocrine and digestive systems. Drew himself had been spending this time exchanging respectful, yet amicable, messages with the extra-colonial ship's leader, Ktarshmie. He was struggling to refer to them as Lauk-Parthian - some vestiges of the boy he had once been insisted on whispering delightedly in his head: Aliens!

Captain Drew and his party reached the Lauk-Parthian vessel in good time, and were cordially greeted by Ktarshmie. Both leaders introduced the crew members to each other and a tour of the host ship was conducted. As the guests were ferried about, Ktarshmie filled Drew in on the rituals traditionally performed by Lauk-Parthians at important banquets. These were traditions that, in the modern day and age, were only upheld at events such as a high statesman's appointment, but Ktarshmie felt that the momentousness of the occasion - the first official meeting of two peoples previously kept apart by thousands of light-years - called for a High Feast. Drew listened to his host explain about how each dinner guest would be allocated a young Lauk-Parthian, termed a Parthenium, who would bathe them prior to the banquet, then rub them with oils that had once been considered sacred, and finally dress them in robes fit for the High Feast.

The entire party entered a wide room, which Captain Drew deduced to be the ante-chamber to the hall where the banquet was to be held; he could see one corner of a regally laid table through a crack in the door. Ktarshmie and his crew started forming a line along the width of the hall; the members of the human delegation took their cue from their hosts and joined the line. The door at the opposite end of the hall to the banquet room opened and a procession of Partheniums entered the hall; they were beatifully adorned, lithe of body and of ambiguous gender. Captain Drew was surprised to feel the stirrings of arousal, but at the same time it felt somehow expected. His Parthenium took him by the hand and led him to where he was to be bathed.


"So, Captain - what did you think of this last dish?"
"Delicious. The meat was tender, and while it was delicate it was nonetheless hearty and satisfying. The marinade was perhaps the perfect match for it. In fact, my only criticism - if one can even call it that - is that maybe the meat would have tasted even better had it been marinaded for a while longer; then its flavour could have infused the meat that little bit more".
"Thank you Captain, I shall pass your kind words and suggestion on to the chef".
"Thank you. And now perhaps it is time for us to leave, before our new friends get wind of our treachery".
"Certainly, Captain Ktarshmie. I shall give the order to jump back to Lauk-Parthia immediately".
Read more!

Thursday, 8 October 2009

#FridayFlash: Late Bloomer

by Maria Protopapadaki-Smith

Gods do not always beget gods. It is rare, but sometimes it happens that the union of two perfectly ordinary gods can result in a mortal child. I fear I might be such a child. I am 14 - not far from 15, in fact - but my back is still bare. A few months ago there was another in my group of peers who had not sprouted yet either, so no one was worried. Late bloomers, they called us. It will come, they said. You will sprout when you least expect it, they promised. But my back is still bare.

I sit with the rest of the boys as I always do, but it is now beginning to be awkward. Their jokes about my tardiness stopped not long after Tarian finally proved himself immortal; no one jostles me any more in our friendly scuffles for fear of touching my smooth back. Still, we remain friends. There will likely come a time soon when the adults will force the divide upon us, but until then I savour the company of the boys I have grown up with.

We sit in the Courtyard, a little removed from the hustle and bustle of the mortals tending to immortals' needs, and I see her walking past. She smiles at me; she does not need to bow before me - I have the status of a mortal as I have not yet sprouted. She curtsies to the rest of the group as is proper and wanders over to the market stalls. Her name is Estria and she is my mother's handmaid.

We found out at the last midsummer fair that she is a remarkably talented archer, not only for a mortal but even by immortal standards; since then, at my mother's insistence she discarded some of her handmaid duties in favour of instructing me in the art of the bow and arrow. She is my age and yesterday, as she was helping me adjust my elbow for a shot, she overwelmed me with the warmth of her breath against my ear and the yielding breast that brushed against my arm. Whether my time in the world be finite or not, it is a moment I will remember for all of it. I have all the other stirrings you see - all except the one that I so anxiously wait for.

She makes her way around the stalls, picking up delicacies for my mother, smiling at all those fortunate enough to cross her path. I watch her make her way back across from the market, the sunlight dancing with the myriad of hues in her hair - but my reverie is cut short by the sight of the hateful Campian crossing the Courtyard.

He was, to the annoyance of all of us, the first of our peer group to sprout. He is the kind of boy that takes pleasure in others' discomfort - he is the only one who still brings attention to my unadorned back by making scathing jokes. Since he can no longer lord it over the others as they too have now almost fully sprouted, he makes me the butt of his jokes with unfailing regularity. The others have started shouting him down about it though, so he needs to find new ways to torture me. He has seen how I look at Estria and now has the fodder he needs. He prances up to her and grabs her by the waist; he moves his other hand inappropriately over her body. She is terrified, but can do nothing - he is a god after all and she but a mortal.

I run across the Courtyard propelled as much by rage as by the twin bursts of pain shooting from my back. As I run my shoulderblades are on fire and by the time I reach Campian I am almost fully sprouted - this is unheard of, and will be talked of for generations, but for now my only concern is the girl. I grab hold of Campian's throat and squeeze. He releases Estria and turns meek and apologetic at the sight of the stormcloud in my face. I push him away and turn to Estria, thrown off balance by my new appendages. I realise that this is only one of many things I will have to get used to: I watch in despair as she averts her gaze from mine and curtsies respectfully from behind the barrier that has suddenly been brought up between us - and all that I want is to be mortal again.
Read more!

Friday, 2 October 2009

#FridayFlash: Puma and Jaguar Save the Planet

by Maria Protopapadaki-Smith

Rushka, Galactic Overlord of the Kharsh Group, Commander of the Luarrh Nebulae, Honorary High Pontiff of the Moons of Aramis and would-be conqueror of Planet Earth, stood cornered with a small armoury of laser guns pointed at his chest and head. He hadn't expected this insignificant, isolated planet to produce any resistance worth worrying about. Earth's technology was inferior - humans had not even managed to get as far as the edge of their own solar system, for Marrh's sake! He observed his nemeses in disbelief: not an army, not a battalion, not even a platoon. Two Earthlings - two!

The call had come directly from the top. As soon as the enemy battleship had declared its intentions and advised immediate surrender, the President had ordered his generals to assess the situation and prepare for war. He had then disappeared into his private quarters, demanding that nobody disturb him. In the bathroom, he had uncovered the hidden cabinet and brought out the red and blue telephone that it housed. The army would be slow in responding; its sheer size was against it. Time was very much of the essence - he had known his only option would be to engage his most secret of weapons. He had made the call.

Special Agents Puma and Jaguar had raced to their ship's  hangar. It was a unique vessel, designed by the agents themselves. It was not much to look at and was slower than most ships its age, but it was the only ship on Earth that could avoid detection - not only by radar but also by sight. Jaguar, never one to pass up an opportunity for fart humour, had insisted that they name it Silent Creeper. Puma had eventually acquiesced because the name itself had a good ring to it, if one simply ignored Jaguar's puerility. As with all such things, it wasn't long before they had taken to referring to it, fondly, as Creepy, which had rendered the argument moot.

They boarded the battleship unseen and proceeded to cause havoc for the enemy - incapacitating grenades were deployed, rendering clusters of enemy soldiers unable to move; machinery was sabotaged; sentries were knocked unconscious with laser gun butts. Puma and Jaguar continued inexorably to the enemy leader's inner sanctum, leaving a trail of destruction in their wake. The goons at the door were no match for the agents' wile; the Overlord's quarters were breached and his security detail gunned down. Rushka tried to make a dash for the servants' exit, but Puma was too quick for him. He now had nowhere to go.

"Looks like Earth is not the one that needs to surrender", said Puma.
"Call off your army - or die", said Jaguar.

The Overlord's face turned a deeper green. There was nothing he could do but admit defeat.
"Fine", he said, petulantly. "You have won this battle. I surrend-"

"Annabel! Maria!"
Special Agents Puma and Jaguar watched in dismay as the Overlord's quarters were engulfed by sunshine and lawn. Their arch-enemy himself had been enveloped by a disgruntled tree ("those sticks they're brandishing at me have probably come from my own trunk, too - the cheek of it").

"I guess your Mum's come to pick you up", sighed Puma
"Mmmm", said Jaguar. They rested their weapons on the tree and walked towards the house, as slowly as possible.
"I'll see you at school tomorrow."
The secret handshake officially marked the end of yet another successful mission.
Read more!