It’s the fourth week of the month, so we’re back in the realm of creativity. Read on for my latest piece of flash fiction. As usual, I’ve snagged an evocative image for inspiration: The Sickle, by Sa Fonklor. (With thanks to Eygló Daða Karlsdóttir for the heads-up. You always share such wonderful pictures!) I spotted a fun challenge from Emily Inkpen on The BSFA Facebook page, asking entrants to create a single-post story using the key words ‘Cloud Chamber’, so I wove the two together to create the following piece. I… hesitate to call it a story but see what you make of it. I’ll talk through the creative process afterwards.
When the Red Mist Rises
The mist was ever present, rolling gently through the lower depths. Its scent – rich and rotten – permeated the ancient city, carried by currents of air and the preoccupied bustle of flesh through streets and squares, scaling steps and ladders, lifts and lines to the cold towers and torpid turrets of the upper reaches. It clung to clothing, it stained the skin, it ate its way into every crack and crevice until the crimson patina became all-but invisible to the citizenry; they took no more notice of it than the air they breathed. Those who lived in the bowels of the city were not so privileged. Like an ocean, the mist had its tides and its moods, and monstrosities hid in its depths.
The earliest settlers called it the Roil and saw it as a boon. It provided resources vital to the expedition. Water was the primary one, of course. They used condensers and a panoply of specialised equipment to harvest the mist and make it potable. The alien elements, separated in the distillation process, proved to be of near equal value: molecules of a hyper-conductive mineral initially missed by the primitive planetary survey; spores of an edible fungal variety, capable of growing even in this wretched soil; and, as one terminally bored scientist discovered, the makings of a mind-blowing psychotropic drug, the illicit perfection and sales of which granted her family all the wealth and leverage needed to found a ruling dynasty. What began as an expedition became an outpost, a colony, a city, growing upwards and out from the Roil like a flower seeking sunlight, climbing the walls of the vast underground chamber that hid, housed, and protected them all from the harsh brutality of the surface.
The end came as the stars and moons aligned, as it always does. And as always from the ashes, some small remnant survived to begin anew. The next wave of colonists marvelled at the city they discovered, populated by degenerate savages. These they conquered easily, folding the survivors into their civilisation, teaching them their ways, aye, and learning a few things in return. The new technologies they brought enabled these settlers to build upon the foundations of the old city, restoring it to splendour and raising it to new heights. And, as is always the way, the settlers began to take on some of the more colourful, interesting, or attractive local customs, making them their own.
Thus came the Order of the Sickle. It was a moon cult, born in the shanties of Rock Bottom, where the lowliest of workers and the least productive elders were exiled. Down, down in the darkest deeps where the mist rose and fell in tidal breaths leaving Hacker’s Lung, Scale and a dozen other ailments behind. Red Eye was the one most feared – an infection of the mind that led to acts of terrible violence. The moon was both blamed and worshipped for it by the ‘natives,’ for it was noted that the baleful eye was at its fullest – peering down through the cracked chamber roof – when the tide marks reached new hights. The mist rose to meet it, they said. The Sickle Knights had a watch point they claimed as their own, marked with a sigil in the long moons of yesteryear. Word had filtered down to them along with a crippled old man past long past use and his family’s patience. It was nigh halfway up the great cavern wall, he said.
The battle to take and hold the path up to it was sudden, terrible, and fierce. None of the Uppers could withstand the cult’s zealous savagery.
It was their writings and charts that gave the next wave hope: a chance to survive their own great apocalypse. The cult itself was long dead, torn apart along with their contemporaries when the stars and the moons once more aligned. Communication between the levels here was more frequent, more cordial, more equitable. The third wave had grown as a people, though they bore the same flawed genetics as their ancient forebears. The newcomers had no need of the resources contained within the roiling crimson cloud. Indeed, they reviled it from the start. It spoke of menace to their eyes and olfactory senses, so they sealed off the rock-bottomed floor and thought no more about it. This was their city now, and whatever lay beneath could rot there.
Ah, were it so simple.
It is a child – a child! – who finds the Sickle Room once more. Who begins to decipher the charts and the diagrams. Who is mesmerised by the long staff topped with a crescent blade. And when in the fullness of time she realises what has happened before, aye and the time before that, she throws all her will into finding a solution. The moon is the key, that much is plain. If she can judge it aright, warn her people in time, they might find a way to prevent the disaster, or escape it perhaps. Peering up at the great cracked roof of her world from the lonely sigilled spot, she notes the moon’s position, measures it against the crescent staff. And in that moment, the Sickle Knights are reborn. When the red mist rises, rises, rises up to drown their great city once more, she’ll be ready. They all will.
So, yeah. Not much in the way of character, and without character can we really call this a story? It had me pondering as the, well let’s call it the history of this mist-bound city unfolded on the page. I could have chosen to tell any tale within the geographical (or psychological) context of the imagery, but for some reason my mind wanted to skip across the details of individual people in order to unveil the world. And that’s what we have, I suppose: a chunk of world-building. I envisaged it like a civilisation unwittingly built near a volcano, reaping the benefits but ignorant of its dangers. The monstrosities within have been left ambiguous at this point, but I find creatures a little bit unsatisfying, truth be told. I see the mist, the fungal varieties, the psychotropic drug as all being related. I see the celestial alignment as causing extra high ‘tides’ of it which flood the city, and in doing so expose the whole populace to Red Eye. There are monsters in the mist for sure, but they are men and women and children, driven to madness and murder.
Once more, I’m left with the sense that this is a world I could expand upon, that I could fill with people and events should I choose, and once more I find myself backing away, shameful and a little angry with myself for being content with these little literary spurts. Exercises, I call them. Games. Building up my muscles for bigger and better things. But will I ever stop dickering around the edges and write something more fulsome? I’ve done it before – had a couple of stories published – but I didn’t put myself forward for them; I was asked. Is that what it comes down to? Is this just an extension of the strange passivity I had as a child – waiting helplessly, hoping to be asked to be a part of things? That’s a little pathetic. I shall have to think about this.
I’ve found great value in these creative pieces, ‘forcing’ me to write something each month. There’s accountability there. An expectation of results. I had planned to do NanoWriMo this year, to finally (finally) write the Twisted Earth novella I had in mind, but the circumstances of my employment make that highly doubtful now.
So, tell me – how do you do it? How do you wonderful, restless writers commit yourself to weeks, months, years of work on a single project in the hopes of getting it over the finish line? I would love to hear from you in the Comments below. I don’t expect feedback on my flash pieces, but feel free to if the spirit moves you.
I’m still at sixes and sevens while I prep for my new role as Specialist Mentor at the university, so I shan’t be here next week. With luck I’ll have settled in and be blogging again for the first week of November. Until then, tutty-bye.