The Devil Wears Shapeless Ugly Garments Covered in Dog Hair (a story)

A colleague and friend once said to me (in a moment of rare frustration) “You know Mark, you should write a story called ‘The Devil Wears Shapeless Ugly Garments Covered in Dog Hair’”. I really liked the title, so I decided to oblige.

At their worst, public service performance reviews can feel like being savaged by a pack of wild dogs. This story does not contain a particularly subtle metaphorical treatment of the subject.

It is, I guess, a sequel to ‘In the Service of the Public‘, if flash fiction can have sequels.


The Devil Wears Shapeless Ugly Garments Covered in Dog Hair

Oh god, performance appraisal time,’ Alison thought as the mauve indicator light flashed in the corner of the screen. It was her supervisor, T’ahmar.

Ever since Earth’s artificial-black-hole-induced implosion, Alison had drifted from job to job throughout the bureaucracies that made up the Interstellar Coalition Public Service. Initial sympathy for her plight had morphed into curiosity, which had then solidified into indifference.

The years danced by. No alien race was willing to take on the burden of the million or so human refugees who happened to be away from home when the accident happened. The reality of it was that governments only allowed proper citizens to take senior positions in their public services.

So Alison, once considered the bright future of the Earth Department of Foreign Affairs, was reduced to menial filing in a backwater colony of the Frusbian Empire — a grand name considering the Frusbians had colonised only three moons and a mining asteroid in their own solar system.

Still, human beggars like Alison couldn’t be choosers. With no place to call their own and so little in the way of aid from the other races, humanity drifted towards the edge of extinction. The Sol system had been evacuated and was still off-limits. Any habitable planets in what had been known as human space were claimed by civilisations with military capability. The few nascent human colonies were relocated, “for their own protection”. Humanity was the new underclass of the civilised worlds.

The indicator flashed again. T’ahmar didn’t like to be kept waiting. Not that her previous supervisor Z’utpok had been lenient, but he had at least recognised that Alison — despite being human — had significant skills to offer. Z’utpok had allowed her to help with issues of policy, and she had been instrumental in getting his bureaucratic pièce de résistance approved by the Frusbian government.

Flushed with success and singing Alison’s praises, Z’utpok immediately retired. Unfortunately, the senior bureaucrat brought in to replace him moved to populate senior posts with former colleagues selected more for loyalty than competence. Before long Alison found herself on the wrong side of her new boss T’ahmar through a combination of her connection to the previous regime, her non-Frusbianness, and her all too human tendency to speak her mind.

Now T’ahmar had insisted on a traditional performance review. While theoretically still legal, the orthodox Frusbian performance review was considered barbaric and tasteless by most modern commentators. Still, if Alison was going to save up enough money to get off this rock she’d have to go through with it.

Alison donned the traditional Frusbian review garb (which looked to her more like a hessian sack) and mentally reviewed what she knew about the D’armen attack dogs that T’ahmar favoured. Once she was as ready as she would ever be, she grabbed her favourite duelling dagger from her desk and headed out towards the Review Arena, trying all the while to think of a better way to earn a living.

THE END


‘The Devil Wears Shapeless Ugly Garments Covered in Dog Hair’ was originally published in Antipodean SF, in issue 171 (September 2012). It is also available in the free collection of my published flash fiction and short stories A Flash in the Pan?See my bibliography for more details about my published work.

In the Service of the Public (a story)

To be honest, this story occurred to me as I sat in a prestigious program for promising public servants listening to a self important lecturer drone on about his own greatness. When I realised there was still an hour to go in the lecture I started to wish the world would end. So in some ways this story was semi-autobiographical. Sans the black hole of course.


In the Service of the Public 

Alison’s vision blurred as she stretched the skin of her forehead towards the ceiling in a desperate attempt to stop her eyes from drifting shut. The eminent professor was pleased with his own accomplishments. He droned on, happy to let the audience bask in the light of his genius.

With an effort, Alison snapped the fuzzy image before her into a sharp, three-dimensional representation of the source of her lethargy. After all, it was an honour to have been selected for the Interstellar Coalition Public Service leadership development program. It offered Alison the chance to rub shoulders with colleagues from the seven Coalition planets, and it was a hopeful sign of things to come back on Earth.

Not to mention that the prestigious Hawker Memorial School of Interstellar Government was named after the woman who had bound the human race together after its first encounter with intelligent extraterrestrials — the reptilian Aazorks. As Earth’s inaugural President, Hawker had also negotiated the first Aazork treaties. That, in turn, had paved the way for the Coalition, and inevitably the ICPS.

Six months of dedicated training about the habits and cultural traits of the various species that made up the Coalition was a huge investment by the Earth bureaucracy. Alison’s heart swelled with pride just thinking about it. The trip out to this giant space station in the middle of nowhere had taken nearly three months, and the trip back would take just as long — a full year out of Alison’s life, but time well spent.

As the professor’s self-important drone continued unabated in the background, Alison couldn’t help but wonder what she would do upon her return. She certainly wished that a better faster-than-light drive had been invented, and that the relativity effects had been overcome. Being away for a year was difficult, but by the time she returned over 10 years would have passed on Earth. She’d been a perfect choice — no family, excellent at her job, and practical enough to see the time invested as worthwhile. This trip would propel her to the heights of the Earth Department of Foreign Affairs, but she didn’t even know who would be in charge when she returned, let alone what position she might hold.

A wave of muted noise suddenly rippled across the room. The professor stopped speaking, visibly struggling with the concept that anything could be more important than his lecture.

Alison turned to the man sitting beside her. He was staring at his datasheet in horror.

‘What’s going on?’, she asked.

Her fellow student’s face was ashen. It took him some moments to formulate a reply. ‘News just in on the quantum entanglement coms system. There’s been an accident back home. Scientists started that damn Extra Large Hadron Collider and the Earth has been swallowed by the black hole it generated!’

Alison slumped back in her seat trying to process the shocking information. She could only wonder what a career in the Aazork public service might be like.

THE END


‘In the Service of the Public’ was originally published in Antipodean SF, in issue 169 (July 2012). It is also available in the free collection of my published flash fiction and short stories A Flash in the Pan?See my bibliography for more details about my published work.

Striking Twice (a story)

Time travel stories have always bugged me a bit. Especially the part where essentially the same people wander around changed timelines except with nothing altered except slightly different personalities. I mean come on – wait five seconds to have sex and you’ll end up with a completely different child. If someone did go back in time and start to change things you most likely would end up with completely different people populating the planet. Worrying about this really takes me out of a time travel story. Striking Twice was the result of trying to work through that frustration on the page.


Striking Twice

Roy sat in the delivery room clutching his wife’s hand while the surgeon worked. Breech birth. It was a good sign. The original pregnancy had been breech.

Yes. The right day, and the right time at the culmination of a similar pregnancy. An excellent match as far as his fuzzy and somewhat overloaded memory could tell.

‘Here she comes!’ cried the surgeon with her professional, practiced enthusiasm.

Roy looked up, a wild, desperate hope clutching at his heart. The baby emerged — first the legs, then the stomach and chest, and finally the head. She was beautiful: perfectly formed, and already filling her lungs to scream her displeasure at the world.

Roy slumped, disappointment and despair vying for supremacy. It wasn’t Ella.

He raised leaden fingers to the device on his wrist and tapped a few keys. The room shimmered, then faded away. As his existence unraveled, he wondered how it was that a disembodied consciousness could feel so sick to its stomach.

After a period of time that was both instantaneous and infinite, the world snapped back into focus.

Roy felt the strength and energy of his reduced years flood into him. He was always 18 after the transition — there didn’t seem to be any way to avoid that. Since he had created that first connection it was as if his consciousness had no choice but to follow the same path whenever he activated the device.

That first journey had been unforgettable. He had abandoned his ancient and ravaged body, and regained the glory of youth with a whole life stretched out before him — one where he essentially knew the future. Wealth, power, wine, women and song — Roy had loved every minute of it. This time he had invented the device much earlier, and lived in the sure knowledge that if anything truly bad happened he could go back and start again.

But as Roy’s 20s faded into the distance and he marched confidently into his 30s, he found himself thinking more and more about his daughter Ella. He hadn’t considered her potential lack of existence when he’d jumped. Anxious, Roy had sought out his former, and hopefully future, wife. But his new über-confident personality had cooled her interest. When the original date of Ella’s birth came and went, he decided to try again, and fired up the device.

Since then Roy had lived a hundred partial lifetimes, trying in each one to recreate the circumstances that had brought Ella into his life. He’d soon worked out how to match the broad events, but the critical detail proved tricky.

It all came down to Roy’s sperm. The average man carries billions of the little buggers. Which one makes it over the line to fertilisation depends on fragile, delicately balanced factors — factors that had so far frustrated his efforts at replication.

Roy squinted into the bright sunlight, squared his shoulders, and set out on yet another attempt to make lightning strike twice.

THE END


‘Striking Twice’ was originally published in Antipodean SF, in issue 168 (June 2012). It is also available in the free collection of my published flash fiction and short stories A Flash in the Pan?See my bibliography for more details about my published work.

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This work by Mark Webb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Australia License.

Make Mine a Macchiato (a story)

I wanted to try something a little away from science fiction as well as something a little silly. ‘Make Mine a Macchiato’ was the result. It was also the first time I showed a story in progress to a non-writer friend. While I didn’t agree with all the feedback, I did gain an appreciation for the benefit of better understanding what your potential audience might like. In this instance, my friend wasn’t a big fan of the ambiguity at the end of the story. I liked it so in the end I kept it, but it was a good reminder that you can’t please all of the people all of the time.


Make Mine a Macchiato

Jack was used to tickles of insight that warned him when things weren’t quite right. His talents didn’t lie in proper prognostication — even the thought of tracking the probabilities of multiple potential futures gave him a headache. But every now and then he got a nudge, an inkling that things were about to get ugly. Mostly, those flashes were frustrating and vague. Fortunately, the crushing waves of terror helped him pinpoint the problem this time.

A portal hung open in the middle of the footpath, like a malicious shimmering eye. Through it Jack could see the hazy image of a person. Well, perspective was a little tricky. Perhaps larger than a person. In fact, if he wasn’t an avowed atheist Jack could have sworn he was looking at…

“A demon?” Jack muttered.

“Come on, Jack,” the purported demon said. “You don’t believe in all that supernatural bullshit. Psionics are a completely natural phenomenon. Why would this be any different?”

Jack squeezed his eyes shut and pinched the bridge of his nose in the universally acknowledged mechanism for dispelling hallucinations.

It didn’t work. Some form of response seemed in order.

“If you are human that’s a bloody good disguise,” Jack managed. “You seem to have more horns than I’m used to seeing on the average pedestrian, and the red marbling throughout your suspiciously stony skin…”

“Yes, well, I’m sure there are plenty of rational explanations,” it interrupted. “Anything from a complicated government conspiracy involving a new form of sensory mind control through to that dodgy kebab you ate last night. Does it really matter?”

Jack supposed not, although interpretations that pointed to mental instability would be of concern. The fact that no passersby were freaking out seemed to lend that branch of thought credence and Jack said as much.

“Look, Jacky boy,” the devil shaped entity said. “I’m really just looking for someone to buy me a macchiato. The cafe across the road is my favourite, and it isn’t every day that a certified level 17 psionic walks by. Do a demon a favour and pick me up one would you?”

Jack remembered enough stories to know that he was in dangerous bargaining territory. But he didn’t believe in demons. So why was he still standing here? He started to back away, slowly.

The as yet unproved daemon raised its hands in placation.

“Jack. Mate. Look at it this way. Right now you’re worried you might be crazy. If you hand over the coffee and it actually disappears you’ll know you’re sane. If it doesn’t, well…early psychiatric intervention can only be a good thing.”

The apparition made a reasonable point. Jack shrugged, crossed the road, and purchased a macchiato for it — and a flat white for himself. He used the cardboard carrying tray to pass the small cup through the portal’s glistening threshold to the eagerly waiting fiend on the other side, then stood back to find out if demons were real.

THE END


‘Make Mine a Macchiato’ was originally published in Antipodean SF, in issue 166 (April 2012). It is also available in the free collection of my published flash fiction and short stories A Flash in the Pan?See my bibliography for more details about my published work.

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This work by Mark Webb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Australia License.

The Gloriously Cunning Plan (a story)

In my day job I deal with bureaucracy a lot. “The Gloriously Cunning Plan” stemmed from this concern – what would happen if one of those last minute heroic plans I always see on TV came face to face with the kind of red tape I see in real government work?


The Gloriously Cunning Plan

Second Lieutenant Sanders hovered in perfect equilibrium between oblivion and suffering. He longed to let go and allow the breaking waves of pain to drag him back into a sea of blissful unconsciousness. But a nagging sense of some important task left undone wouldn’t let him rest. That, and the bloody distracting siren that someone insisted on blasting into his eardrums.

One eye opened as a lifetime’s experience of eyelid manipulation had led him to believe it would. The other was… sticky. Gummy — clearly refusing to toggle as required. Already feeling put upon, Sanders tried not to take this additional injustice personally.

Activating muscles that protested being press-ganged into service, he raised a hand to paw at his face. He smeared enough blood away to restore minimal function. The harsh artificial light of the shuttle pod’s interior clashed in headache-inducing splendour with the flickering flames of the uncontrolled fires that burned in the console. Meanwhile, the smell of burning plastic assaulted his nose as thoroughly as the light ambushed his eyes.

Time to leave.

Sanders rose, his body reeling like a tired scarecrow left too long to the mercy of crows. He stumbled forward and collapsed his weight onto the door control, executing a clumsy escape from the increasingly smoky confines of the forward cabin.

One glance at the outside of the shuttle confirmed what his injuries had led him to suspect — it hadn’t been an easy flight from the Odyssey.

The Odyssey! The mayday call from the military freighter. The Captain’s decision to respond. The many, many enemy ships that surrounded them. The gloriously cunning plan of the Captain, that relied on…

…that relied on Sanders getting to the bridge of this run down freighter. The blurry clock icon in his peripheral HUD painted the time in crimson neon across his vision. Sanders focused. Three minutes to go. If the missiles weren’t fired at exactly the right time and in exactly the right pattern the plan would fail, ensuring the destruction of the Odyssey and the almost certain capture of the freighter. But Sanders had served two tours with the Captain. He had seen enough rabbits pulled out of enough hats to feed a small army.

External communications were jammed, and internal communications unresponsive. Sanders raced down grey corridors filled with flickering lights, alarms, and barely repressed panic. These freighters didn’t exactly attract the best of the best. No security stopped him as he burst onto the main bridge with barely 20 seconds remaining.

‘Captain, I’m Lieutenant Sanders from the Odyssey‘, he barked. ‘We need a full spread of missiles, attack pattern delta-epilson-five to coordinates 165 by 234. On my mark…’

The frazzled freighter Captain looked up at Sanders, his expression bemused. ‘No can do. All class seven freighters had their missiles confiscated as a part of the last efficiency dividend process’, he said.

Sanders sighed and slumped to the ground as the forward screen flashed. It was awash with light from the exploding Odyssey.

Bloody bureaucracy, Sanders thought, and waited patiently for the oblivion he once again hoped would follow.

THE END


‘The Gloriously Cunning Plan’ was originally published in Antipodean SF, in issue 165 (March 2012). It is also available in the free collection of my published flash fiction and short stories A Flash in the Pan?See my bibliography for more details about my published work.

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This work by Mark Webb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Australia License.

Shipwrecked (a story)

This was the first story I had published in Antipodean SF, in issue 163 (January 2012). I originally wrote Shipwrecked for an 800 word writing competition in mid 2011, but didn’t finish it by the deadline. When I first decided to submit to Antipodean SF, I polished and cut it back to 500 words then sent it in. I still remember the excitement of getting the acceptance from Nuke and the interesting experience of working through editorial notes on my work.

The story itself came from the unoriginal thought that if there are alien civilisations out there, why haven’t they contacted us? Perhaps they’ve been warned away…



Shipwrecked

Danic sat humming mindless, tension-relieving tri-harmonies. Being chosen as Advocate for Intervention was an honour, but as the years rolled on the Breenic seemed further away than ever from deciding how they would interact with humanity. Direct contact had been ruled out almost as soon as they arrived. The most advanced civilisations on the planet still sailed their seas in wooden boats. No, the Breenic had too much experience in inadvertently ruining civilisations to act in haste.

In their long voyage amongst the stars, the Breenic had refined their methods for dealing with primitive natives like humanity. They could leave behind technological marvels that would reveal themselves when the human race sufficiently matured. Alternatively, if humans were deemed too great a threat — well, aggressive races had met a premature end before. But never before had the Breenic been so divided on the fate of a civilisation. For every observed act of tyranny, there was one of benevolence. For every brutal impulse, a creation of stunning beauty. They could foresee the human race adding to galactic art and culture. They could also imagine them unleashing a firestorm of destruction. The Consensus was torn.

Even by their long-lived standards the Breenic had dallied here, and many were eager to begin the journey again. Without Intervention, their best scientists predicted that humanity was centuries away from slipping the bonds of their solar system. Danic felt his opportunity to convince the Consensus evaporating. Influenced perhaps by the antics of the race he had spent the past decade investigating, he decided to risk all in one final, desperate roll of the dice.

He suggested a test.

His fellow Advocates were intrigued. They knew that such a test was the only way Danic could sway the Consensus, but they also knew it would bring quick resolution. And quick resolution was what the Breenic now yearned for.

Once decided, it was the effort of a moment to shipwreck one of those quaint wooden ships. Marooned with little hope of rescue, the behaviour of the stranded humans would decide the watching Breenic.

Danic watched with mounting hope as the valiant commander headed off on a perilous journey to summon help, and revelled in the courage with which the remaining crew faced their fate.

But that hope soon melted like ice exposed to the searing light of an approaching star. Bravery twisted into ruthlessness. Power corrupted, and soon acts of stunningly savage barbarism left the Breenic reeling. Only some small acts of courage and sympathy for the suffering of the abused prevented the Breenic bringing humanity’s creeping evolution to an abrupt stop.

Mourning lost potential, the Sol system was marked on interstellar charts with signs that warned, “here be dragons”. As the fleet moved on and Danic prepared for the big sleep, he looked back at the slowly fading light of Earth — marooned and set adrift from all other intelligent life — and hoped that the fate of that shipwrecked crew did not represent, for humanity, prophecy.

THE END


‘Shipwrecked’ was originally published in Antipodean SF, in issue 163 (January 2012). It is also available in the free collection of my published flash fiction and short stories A Flash in the Pan?

Creative Commons License

This work by Mark Webb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Australia License.

Showdown (Part 5 of 5)

Previously, on Showdown

Part 1 of 5

Part 2 of 5

Part 3 of 5

Part 4 of 5

Showdown (Part 5 of 5)

Misthrado marched towards the house, determined to cut down these upstarts straight away. The kobolds weren’t in good shape. One decisive thrust should wipe them out.

He was half way across the yard when he noticed the old woman stepping off her front porch, a gaudy statue of some sort in hand. A small group of kobolds stood behind her, a fidgeting and scowling honour guard of sorts. Battered kobolds leaned out of every window of the house, watching the scene playing out before them.

‘Misthrado, isn’t it?’ The woman’s voice carried thinly across the yard. ‘What brings you to my home?’

He raised his hand and his army stopped behind him. What a fantastic opportunity. As frail as she was, the old lady was the mistress of this forsaken hellhole and she had addressed him in parley. This provided him with a chance to engage in a bit of awe inspiring speech making to impress the troops. She was human and was not covered by the law of the Fae, so any terms he agreed to would not be binding. He could secure her surrender then butcher the damn kobolds once they stood down and no one would gainsay him. Indeed, his reputation for ruthlessness would only be enhanced.

He drew himself up to his full height and projected his voice in practiced cadences designed to daunt.

‘I am Misthrado, Lord of the Underworld and Destroyer of Nations. My armies will conquer this puny continent and soon I will take my rightful place…’

‘Yes, yes,’ the woman broke in. ‘So, since you’re the leader of this invading army, I understand I can challenge you to a trial by single combat. Is that right?’

No one interrupted him. No one! Off balance, Misthrado looked at her with suspicion. There must be some trick here. In a flash of insight, he thought he saw it.

‘Ah, you’ve found some kind of champion to fight on your behalf, have you old woman? I counsel against it, there is no kobold alive that can match me. And if your warrior were to lose, both you and your whole army would be mine to do with as I pleased.’

The old woman smiled. ‘No champion, Misthrado. Just me. You can use a champion if you like.’ She hefted the golden figurine. ‘If it’s all the same to you I’d like to keep the trophy though.’

Misthrado heard sniggering in the ranks behind him and realised the situation was fast spinning out of his control. Destroying this old woman would be easy. Too easy in some ways, it would reduce his standing with his troops. But still, not accepting the challenge would be even worse.

‘Keep your idol, human,’ he snarled. ‘I’ll even leave behind my sword. Tearing you apart with my bare hands will be the highlight of my day.’

He slammed his sword point-first into the ground, then strode forward into the now empty circle of grass that lay between his army and the house. The old woman tottered forward, her trophy held before her like a talisman.

Misthrado screamed his displeasure at this humiliating scene for all to hear. The faster he removed this impudent woman’s head and put this whole damn day behind him the better. He crouched in preparation for an eviscerating leap.

It was then that the first knife pierced his thick skin. As he twisted towards the source of the pain, kobolds appeared all around him, stabbing, clawing and biting. The kobolds at the window had been a ruse, a small part of her force left to give the impression the house was fully defended. The remainder had snuck out and lay in wait to catch him once he was separated from his troops.

Within seconds his wings had been punctured and he was bleeding all over. He swung his arms, trying to find enough space to fight back but the numbers were overwhelming. His own army stood paralysed, watching as he collapsed under the weight of so many kobolds. No matter how good an individual fighter was, anyone could be taken down if enough enemies were piled on.

‘This is a violation of Fae law,’ he hissed while trying to protect his vital organs.

Even above the noise of battle, the old woman must have heard him.

‘Well, I don’t know anything about that dearie,’ she said. ‘I’m not Fae.’

‘My armies will destroy you,’ he gasped.

‘I don’t think so,’ she replied. ‘They don’t seem like the type to follow orders, and with you brought down I see quite a few of them leaving. I suspect you’re going to have to find yourself another army.’

Misthrado didn’t have to see his horde to know she spoke the truth. Even at the height of his powers, keeping this many Fae under control was difficult. ‘It’s not fair,’ he yelled.

The old woman didn’t seem sympathetic. ‘Yes, well a seven foot half-demon warrior taking on a little old human lady isn’t exactly punching in your weight division is it? Fair is as fair does, if you ask me.’

Misthrado was losing blood quickly and knew that if he didn’t leave now he may never do so. With a roar so loud it shook the house on its foundations, he managed to dislodge enough kobolds to leap into the air. His damaged wings barely held him aloft as he retreated, the remnants of his army streaming away beneath him.

It would be years before he’d recover from this. He shrieked his frustration into the night sky as he flew back towards sanctuary.

***

Dawn’s golden light found Jennifer and Gral sitting on the front porch. Her kobold guests had spent the night cleaning up, and only some trampled grass and a few broken windows showed that anything special had happened at all.

With the excitement passed, Jennifer felt the old lethargy seep back into her bones. She let the sunlight warm her as she sipped a hot cup of tea.

‘Will he be back?’ she asked.

‘Not for a long time, Miss,’ replied Gral. ‘Although you’d better watch yourself. He’ll want his revenge.’

After setting her tea aside, Jennifer closed her eyes to settle in for a short doze. ‘Then it’s lucky for me I run the best kobold backpackers lodge south of the equator.’

THE END


‘Showdown’ was originally published in Electric Spec in Volume 9 Issue 2 (May 2014). It is also available in the free collection of my published flash fiction and short stories A Flash in the Pan?

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This work by Mark Webb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Australia License.

Showdown (Part 4 of 5)

Previously, on Showdown

Part 1 of 5

Part 2 of 5

Part 3 of 5

Showdown (Part 4 of 5)

‘By all of hell’s fiery pits, where did they come from?’ Misthrado spun around and grabbed Sandrath by the arm, pulling him across and forcing him to his knees. ‘You bloody well told me there were three of them!’

Sandrath looked as confused as Misthrado felt. ‘I don’t know, your majesty. The scouts watched for days and only saw the three, I swear it.’

‘Bah,’ spat Misthrado, lifting Sandrath and throwing him to the side. He turned to his other lieutenants. ‘Bring up the other two brigades. We’ll show these kobolds that a few house spirits can’t get the better of us. And bring me my sword while you’re at it.’

He hadn’t intended on giving his troops a full blown battle. In fact he hadn’t expected any serious opposition until he reached the first of the major cities. The Fae were so predisposed to individuality that all his reconnaissance had told him that a concentrated force of a couple of hundred would be more than enough to pick off individual pockets of resistance. He had planned to seize the sites of power long before anyone could organise against him. And here he was, the first engagement of his new army and he was fighting off the largest gathering of kobolds he’d ever seen. Even if he was victorious, there would be survivors who’d escape to the city. The element of surprise would be lost and his enemies would have time to prepare.

Misthrado’s dark wings stretched out, twitching and stirring in automatic response to his anger. He dealt a therapeutic backhanded blow to a nearby cowering servant and strode forward to lead the second wave of his troops into battle.

***

Jennifer stared through the glass into a scene that was equal parts wondrous and terrifying. Creatures she’d only read about in stories flickered in and out of existence, joined in a chaotic battle royale. Her kobolds were on average much smaller than their foes, but what they lacked in size, they made up for with… well, she would’ve liked to have said with tenacity and pluck, but really it was sheer bloody ferocity. The battlefield had degenerated into a shambles, any attempt at an ordered assault crumbling as her kobolds encouraged the opposing force’s natural tendency towards bedlam. It was hard to tell, but it seemed to Jennifer that her kobolds were getting the upper hand.

A horn blasted in the distance and the attacking force disengaged, retreating to the edge of the property. The kobolds regrouped, dragging their injured and dead back towards the house. Jennifer opened the front door and began shepherding the wounded into the living room, which had started to resemble a field hospital in a war zone. On reflection Jennifer supposed it was. Using skills acquired over a lifetime of caring for sick and injured animals, she started helping where she could.

A few minutes later the horn sounded again. Jennifer looked outside, and saw a much larger force approaching the house. At its head stood the largest man she had ever seen. Her eyesight wasn’t the greatest but it looked like a giant with wings, holding a ludicrously big sword.

The talkative kobold, who had apparently been appointed as her liaison officer, was the tongue twistingly named Grallazenphof (‘call me Gral’). He blanched at the oncoming horde.  ‘Bloody hell, Miss, that’s Misthrado. He was banished from Europe years ago. Never knew he’d ended up here. Most people think he’s dead.’

Jennifer could see that they were outnumbered. She turned to Gral. ‘Any suggestions, young man?’

Gral stood, the lines on his face screwed up into mazes of uncertainty. ‘I sent some of the younger lads into town to try and round up some reinforcements, Miss, but I don’t think we can expect much help from that quarter for a while. We could try to run, but they’d catch us pretty fast out in the open, especially with you tagging along, Miss. No offence’

Jennifer’s running days were well behind her. ‘None taken,’ she muttered. She straightened as she came to a decision. ‘Well then, there’s nothing more you can do for me. You should all go now while they are regrouping. You’ll be able to slip away. You seem pretty good at concealing yourselves.’

Gral’s face twisted in revulsion. ‘But, Miss, we’re bound to your household.’

Some of the old confusion slipped in behind Jennifer’s new certainty. ‘I thought you said that was only temporary? That you were here for a visit.’

‘Sure, it’s fine to leave when everything is going well and there are plenty of other kobolds around to look after things,’ said Gral. ‘But to leave when you’re in danger and the whole household is about to be overrun? We’d never be accepted in kobold society again. It’s unthinkable.’

Jennifer paused to digest the not altogether sensible mores of the kobold community. From the look on Gral’s face and the incredulous muttering of those in earshot, she could tell she wasn’t going to have a lot of luck convincing them to leave. She thought about what she’d witnessed in the previous fight.

‘They seem like a pretty unruly lot, Gral.’

‘Oh yes, Miss,’ he responded. ‘I’m surprised he can hold them together. No one has ever had much luck forming a Fae army. It’s why humans rule the world. We’re too bloody disorganised.’

‘And I’m the head of the household? That makes me your leader?’

‘Ah, yes, Miss. I guess that’s true, technically.’

‘Well, quickly young man. Give me the cliff notes version of Fae battlefield etiquette,’ said Jennifer.

She settled back and listened as Gral went through a beginner’s guide to Fae rules of engagement. As she listened, a plan started to form. She doubted the kobolds would like it, but it was the only thing she could think of that might save lives. She waved over a few of the more focused of her new followers and began her spiel.

***

To be concluded in Part 5


‘Showdown’ was originally published in Electric Spec in Volume 9 Issue 2 (May 2014). It is also available in the free collection of my published flash fiction and short stories A Flash in the Pan?

Creative Commons License

This work by Mark Webb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Australia License.

Showdown (Part 3 of 5)

Previously, on Showdown

Part 1 of 5

Part 2 of 5

Showdown (Part 3 of 5)

Misthrado’s heart quickened as the kobolds made their last minute appearance. He watched in glee as his minions launched into action. The resulting fight was short, fast and bloody. The kobolds were on home ground and fighting for their household. No quarter was sought or given. At the end of the exchange, two of his henchmen lay still on the ground and the third was scrambling back towards the main army. One of the kobolds nursed what looked like a broken arm and the other two had scrapes and cuts, but nothing life threatening. They were also better armed now, having abandoned their amateur weapons and recovered the knives of the fallen.

Even though his soldiers had lost the initial encounter, he was perversely pleased. At least this would provide a challenge for some of his troops. Misthrado motioned towards Sandrath, who bowed as he came forward.

‘Send in the third brigade,’ said Misthrado. ‘I want those kobold heads laid out on the ground before me by the time the sun finishes setting.’

‘It shall be done, your majesty,’ replied Sandrath.

Misthrado watched in satisfaction as his troops began to line up.

***

Jennifer looked at her saviours. They shuffled their feet and seemed incapable of making eye contact. Up close, the odours of the shelter hung thickly on them, of manure and fur and feed. With her distress induced lucidity still intact she made connections that would normally escape her.

‘So, you’re my domestic helpers, I assume?’ she asked.

The largest of the three glanced at his companions before responding. ‘Errr, yes, Miss,’ he muttered.

‘What are you? And what are you doing in my home?’

The creature coughed and ducked its head. ‘Kobolds, Miss. We’re called kobolds. And you see, Miss, us kobolds, we attach ourselves to households. Like to keep useful, see?’

‘That’s nice dear, but it doesn’t actually answer my question. Why me?’

‘Ummm, the head of the household has to be worthy, Miss. And one of the ways we work out who’s worthy is to see how they treat stray animals.’

The kobold paused and for the first time looked at Jennifer directly. ‘No matter how many animals we left out for you, you kept taking them in and giving them shelter,’ he said in a softer voice.

The other two kobolds muttered their agreement, seemingly happy to let their friend do all the talking.

‘After a while, word got around. It’s a nice place, close enough to the city for a day trip. Plenty of fresh air. Over the years you’ve become a bit of a tourist attraction. Some of us from the old country, we come out, attach ourselves to your household for a few months and see a bit of the countryside before we head back.’

Jennifer thought for a moment. ‘Are you telling me I’m some kind of a kobold backpacker hostel?’

The talkative one waved his hands in a placating gesture. ‘We help out around the place, Miss. Make sure the animals are looked after, keep the house tidy. It’s more like a working holiday’.

‘Well I never,’ said Jennifer. She looked at their injuries. ‘You better let me see to that arm young man. I’ve looked after enough animals to know when someone needs a splint.’

The kobolds looked back at her with serious eyes. ‘No time for that, Miss. There are more than three of them I’m afraid. It looks like a bloody army out there, and they’re massing for an attack’.

Jennifer felt a stab of panic. ‘What do we do?’

‘Get back inside, Miss. Perhaps go upstairs and stay out of sight. We think they’re after us. Hopefully they’ll leave you alone once they’ve got us.’

‘Don’t you give yourselves up for me,’ said Jennifer. ‘I’ve never deserted anything in my care before, I’m damned if I will now.’

‘Oh, don’t worry, Miss, we’ll fight,’ said the lead kobold. ‘But still, it’ll be easier if we don’t have to worry about you out in the open.’

Jennifer couldn’t deny the logic of that. She went inside and closed the door. Her cane forgotten, she went to the mantel and grabbed the trophy the local council had insisted on giving her for ‘contributions to civic amenity’ a few years back.  The thing weighed a tonne and even with her aged muscles she should be able to do some damage with it. After turning off the light, she sidled up to the window and peered out. Her three protectors stood in loose formation around the front door. In the yard, she saw the dust resolve into shapes. There must be over one hundred creatures out there. What hope did they have?

As if sensing her thoughts, the chatty kobold looked back over his shoulder at the window. ‘Oh, I forgot to mention, Miss. We don’t take up a lot of room when we visit. And like I said, your place is very popular.’

All around the front veranda kobolds began to appear. After she got to fifty, Jennifer lost count.

With a roar the two forces crashed together.

***

To be continued in Part 4


‘Showdown’ was originally published in Electric Spec in Volume 9 Issue 2 (May 2014). It is also available in the free collection of my published flash fiction and short stories A Flash in the Pan?

Creative Commons License

This work by Mark Webb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Australia License.

Showdown (Part 2 of 5)

Previously, on Showdown

Part 1 of 5

Showdown (Part 2 of 5)

The windowpanes shuddered as if a truck was racing past on the nearby highway, though Jennifer couldn’t hear any engine noise. She lay back in the recliner, a blanket covering her lap. She must have fallen asleep.

The shutters were all closed against the twilight streaming through her open front door. As she rose she felt an all too rare stability. Tentacles of cold evening air curled across her bare arms, making her shiver. She closed the door and made her way to the kitchen, where a cheerful fire was already burning. She drifted across the kitchen and sank into a chair beside the fireplace with an audible sigh.

The house began to creak as the wind picked up. A frown settled on Jennifer’s face. It was unusual to have storms at this time of year. She contemplated getting up to look outside, but the stabilising force that had supported her moments before now seemed to have abandoned her.

Outside, a dog began to howl. One by one the other animals joined in and the noise built until a veritable cacophony assaulted her ears, vying with the wind for decibel supremacy. She struggled up and made her way towards the front door. Something was spooking them and she needed to find out what it was if she was going to have any peace this evening.

***

The closer Misthrado got to the old residence, the lower his already rock-bottom expectations sank. The house was unassuming, the polar opposite of the kind of grandeur to which he aspired. Not a fitting location for his first conquest. Still, no one would criticise his early battlegrounds when he achieved his ultimate victory.

His army coiled around him like a spring ready for release. Grizzled sergeants kept troops in line, and Misthrado grinned at their barely restrained desire to do damage. The ground rumbled with the vibration of his Fae army moving into position.

Nothing moved in the house, and a single source of light shone out from the edges of the front windows. It was so still he could almost believe the scouts had got it wrong, except for the state of repair of the dwelling.

It was good. Suspiciously good. By all accounts, the old woman lived here by herself. There should have been signs of disrepair, of small jobs gone unnoticed and undone. Instead, every part of this should-be-decrepit property shouted “thorough maintenance routine”. The grass short and healthy. The front porch in solid and serviceable condition. Doors hung neatly on their frames and windows polished to a shine.

Yes, they were here, Misthrado was sure of it. He stepped to the front of his army and pulled out his sword.

‘Come out little kobolds,’ he yelled. ‘Surrender and your deaths will be fast and clean.’

He hoped they would put up a fight. A surrender followed by a quick slaughter would not teach the army anything. Still, he had to practice his ultimatums as much as his army formations.

For a moment nothing stirred, then the front door squealed open.

***

The door fought against Jennifer, the handle slippery in her grip. She didn’t understand what was wrong. It had always opened so smoothly before. She wrestled it into submission and stepped out into the dying light. Swirling dust brought tears to her eyes. Indistinct shapes moved before her as she pawed at her face. She leaned back against the door frame for balance.

‘Is anyone there?’ she asked, hating the frailty of her voice even as it escaped her lips. The frantic whining of her animals continued to swell and merge with the wailing of the wind. Their fear was contagious, and Jennifer began to tremble in response. What was going on? She’d never seen the animals this riled before, and certainly not by the wind no matter how fast it came up.

Half heard sounds, like the mutterings of a distant crowd, slid around the animal noises. Jennifer strained to hear, trying to decide whether her ears were playing tricks on her.

She was about to retreat inside when a clear voice rang out.

***

‘Show yourselves now or the old lady dies!’

Misthrado was out of patience. He was the future ruler of this continent and probably the world, and a few pathetic kobolds would not appear at his command. He summoned three of the unblooded warriors from the third brigade and sent them towards the house with a gesture. He’d see how long the kobolds would stay hidden once he put the head of their bonded household in real danger.

His henchmen materialised onto the mortal plane and he watched with pleasure as the old woman fell to her knees.

***

Jennifer stared in horror as three misshapen monsters resolved out of the dirt cloud and lurched towards her. The strength bled away from her legs and moments later the rough surface of the front veranda scraped against her knees.  As deformed and individually hideous as they were, all three wore a common uniform like they were members of some mutated army.

The lead mutant drew a long knife, his warped teeth lending his grin a particular viciousness. ‘Never killed a human before,’ he slurred.

Fear lent Jennifer’s mind a clarity of thought that had eluded her for years. She knew she should run, should get back into the house and lock the doors. But the shimmer of the fading light of the sun along the knife’s quicksilver blade held her attention for the few vital seconds where she might have escaped. The hideous trio mounted the stairs. Jennifer knew that the day where her charges would need to fend for themselves had come even sooner than she had expected.

At that exact moment, all the animals stopped their bleating.

The creatures paused, concerned by the sudden absence of sound. They looked around before resuming their approach, albeit more cautiously than before. The arm holding the knife rose high in the air. Jennifer closed her eyes.

Nothing happened.

After a few moments she opened her eyes again. Between her and the attackers stood three new figures. They were small, about the size of the Daniels boy. Their bodies seemed thicker than was entirely normal, with big ears that stuck out in a way that would have been comical in any other situation. Reddish skin confirmed her suspicion that they were not entirely human. Dressed in old clothes that had seen better days, they held in their hands a variety of farm implements fashioned into makeshift weapons.

‘Our home,’ one of them said.

***

 

To be continued in Part 3


‘Showdown’ was originally published in Electric Spec in Volume 9 Issue 2 (May 2014). It is also available in the free collection of my published flash fiction and short stories A Flash in the Pan?

Creative Commons License

This work by Mark Webb is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Australia License.