Thursday, July 21, 2011

Flash Fiction challenge: The Art of Swimming in Armour

The challenge is here. The title comes from a heading in a book that's open at the top of my staircase. Sorry about the appalling science.

It was a beautiful June day. The walk up from Pinkham notch was easier than it should have been. Chuck kept looking up. If India or China had found a way to stop the end times ahead, he wouldn't know; news wasn't getting through.

"Big change coming," said the man he'd caught up to on the hill. The man's pack looked nearly empty. Might as well eat beef jerky sticks and Mars bars when the end is a few hours away.

"Going up for a better view?" said Chuck. He'd abandoned not just pots and pans, but the concept of eating. He'd fasted before for longer than humanity had left. He'd trained at the same time, even. He wore everything he had: swords, knives, armour.

"Just thought I'd climb up." The man was far too old to be hiking. But if his knees gave out, he wouldn't be going down the mountain. If he fell in a crevice, he wouldn't lie there for long. "Might as well keep moving. What's the armour for?"

"Show mostly," Chuck said. "It's who I am. If I'm going to die, it will be be on my own terms."

"Me too," the old guy said.

On second thought, Chuck turned back. "Heading to the summit?"

"Nowhere else," the old guy said.

Chuck had been at a Buddhist retreat when he'd heard the news. They had all checked their electronics at the gate, so he and the rest had been surprised when the hordes started coming, looking for a place to hole up and some canned goods. Fortunately, a great number of the students at the school were there not so much for the meditation as for the Shaolin monks and the Kung Fu.

"Climbed this hill before?" the old guy asked, on a flatter patch. He didn't stop for breaks, just kept seeking the path of least impact, never taking a step up if there was a way around.

"A few times as a kid," said Chuck. "You?"

"A few times," the old guy said.

"As a kid?" Chuck said with a smile.

"You could say that." The old guy used his hands to scramble up a steep, uneven staircase.

Unfortunately, a Buddhist temple in upstate New York couldn't provide the best view of the apocalypse, so Chuck had headed for New Hampshire. When the gas ran out, he'd abandoned his car.

It had always been his plan, when he'd still been worried about more mundane things, like the zombie apocalypse (it had seemed like a more pressing concern at the time) to head to the hills.
Above the tree line, you can see the shamblers. And zombies don't do so well on scree slopes and boulders. His armour was light enough to run in, being mostly leather.

"How many years ago, the last time?" Chuck said.

"About twenty-five." The old guy pressed himself up with two telescoping walking sticks.

"You were what, fifty?" said Chuck.


Chuck did some quick math in his head. "Shouldn't you be in a home?"

"Homes are for old people," said the old guy. "This trail isn't as bad as a lot of them. Ever done Adams? It's heartbreaking."

"Nope, just Washington, over and over."

"Typical," said the old guy.

Chuck matched the old guy's pace. He checked his GPS watch; at this speed, he'd be at the top with little time to spare.

"Why aren't you with your family?" Chuck stopped and drank some water from a stream. No point worrying about Giardia now.

"Why aren't you?"

They'd hit a ridge, and the going was faster for a time, but still they needed to watch their footing. The trees diminished to gnarled bushes; hundreds of years old, they wouldn't survive the day either.

The old man stumbled. Chuck stopped, but let the old guy keep his dignity, struggling upright with the aid of his sticks.

They kept walking. The bushes gave up, leaving grass, moss, and lichen. Running shoes might have been easier, on the rocks, than the old guy's old-style hiking boots. At least they would have been lighter. The wind picked up, but didn't blow away a heavy fog.

Above the treeline did not seem so safe from zombies as he'd imagined. The temperature was at least 20 degrees lower than it had been at the foot of the mountain. They could only see one or two cairns ahead.

Under his armour, Chuck sweated. He checked his watch. "Why didn't you go up the auto road?"

"Thought there might be cars." The old guy accepted Chuck's stabilizing hand on his arm as they jumped boulder to boulder.

As it often was, the summit served as a brake for a morning worth of clouds. The cafeteria was locked up, as was the weather station. All the other sightseers must have had the good sense to choose a shorter mountain with a more consistent view.

The wind picked up, wildly changing direction. The clouds blew back to the west the way they had come.

"Think that's it?" the old guy asked, looking up.

"No question," said Chuck. It was like a giant lens falling to the Earth.

"Don't take this personal, but I don't want to hold your hand."

"It's okay."

The friction of the atmosphere made it look like a ball of flaming dry ice.

How many balls of ice and water would it have taken to fill the early, cooling Earth's oceans -- a hundred, a thousand, a million? Turns out, if they were the size of this one, it would take about two. As the maddened hordes outside the pillaged grocery store had put it, the Earth had been going through an interstellar drought for millennia, and now it was over.

The mountain shook.

The wave rolled in, and Chuck lost track of the old guy as he jumped up to meet the water. His armour would be no help. "Wipeout!" He shouted, and took a deep breath as the water rolled over him.


Ed said...

You've turned some sort of a corner - because these last couple of short stories have been absolutely excellent! They were good before, but you've really reached a new level. Much more adept at creating backstory with only a few selected words, and then letting the reader fill it in. Characters have a new depth and purpose. I'll sum it up with the only word an author wants to hear: MORE!!!

Anonymous said...

I second the motion. More and I am really happy I clicked on over

Robyn said...

Thanks. I'm learning so much with these challenges, mostly about editing. With this story, I learned (I think) a key difference between fiction writing and technical writing: in my day job, I can explain everything. Fiction, not so much. I took out a lot of lines about why Chuck isn't worried about giardia, why it's okay to eat mars bars and meat sticks, why he's thrown away all his stuff... not so necessary!