Wow, three weeks in a row of Flash Fiction Friday. This is actually turning into a regular thing. This week, the Story Dice gave me a ship, a stag, and a train. As is my wont, I wrote up a bit of steam-inspired flash, which I have shared below.
Fair bit of warning, though: I’m super crunched for time this week, so I have not had any time to edit or proof this week’s story before posting it. As is the case with all first drafts, errors are likely to abound, misspellings litter the landscape like discarded Taco Bell wrappers on a frat house floor, and you may find your first look at one of my first drafts terrifying.
But take heart, gentle reader. Know that no matter how much suffering may be wrought by this unpolished prose, J and I will be seeing Nightwish in concert and celebrating our seventeenth anniversary. It’s going to be awesome.
Onward, into the wild frontier of the first draft!
An Ocean Without Rails
It had been often said that only the bravest or most foolhardy of men would dare attempt to cross the great salt sea. Once upon a time, Captain Shu Xi had been one of those men, bursting with tales of the wonders and dangers lurking among and beneath those waves. That was a time when men sailed by the stars, risked death each time he set out into the blue, and then came home filthy, half-starved, and barely able to remember what a woman looked like.
Then someone invented the damned steamship and ruined everyone’s fun.
It had taken two years of poverty and the threat of losing his ship before he’d finally given in and had it retooled with a steam engine that took up most of the cargo bay and a massive propeller so he could keep up with all the fancy new cargo ships his competitors had taken to using. Of course, the lack of cargo space meant he had to improvise how to actually drag his goods from port to port.
Shu scaled the ladder to the crow’s nest to survey the long line of barges stretching nearly a quarter mile behind. Each one connected to the next through a series of steel cables, rigging, and half a hundred different clamps, pulleys, and good old-fashioned knots. From so high, his crew looked like little more than distant ants, scurrying to and fro as they tightened and adjusted the myriad of webbing needed to keep the waves from tearing his aquatic locomotive to pieces.
The corners of his lips pulled downward as he spied a cluster of men two barges away. It looked as if they were in a brawl or some other struggle. He pulled a spyglass from his vest pocket and swung it around to face the disturbance. What he saw made him swear under his breath and slide down the ladder, already calling out to the first mate to watch the bridge before leaping into the wiring connecting the ship with the first barge.
A litany of curses rampaged through his consciousness. Someone on that barge didn’t do his job, and now the entire voyage was at risk. If somehow they lived to see shore again, Shu would make his displeasure obvious in the most physical manner. But before that, they needed to get it locked back up.
He dropped to the deck of the first barge and barreled his way toward the second, weaving in and out to dodge the crew and shouting, “Out of the way!” to warn them aside.
First, he heard the shouting. Must have been a dozen men trying to subdue the beast, and it didn’t sound like they were having much success. He almost stopped cold when he heard the monster’s cry, a bellow of frustration and rage that shook his bones made his heart stutter. A deep breath steeled his resolve, and he redoubled his efforts, fists clenched at his sides as he charged ahead.
When he reached the aft railing, he leapt again, fingers stretched toward the mess of cables leading to his destination. Rough, corded steel slipped along his fingers before he found purchase, but then gave way as the cable snapped and he dropped face-first into the churning saline waves.
The impact blew the air from his lungs and allowed seawater to rush in to fill the void. Shu coughed, sputtered and heaved, desperately working to clear his airways he bounced along between the barges, dragged along by nothing more than his iron grip on the snapped cable.
“Man overboard!” someone called out from above.
The edges of his vision blurred and began to darken. No help would be coming. The first barge’s first concern would be to ensure that the rest of the cables remained intact and the train did not come apart, and the second barge had much bigger problems, the sounds of which still reached him, even as the waves rolled over him again and again.
After coughing up enough salt water to allow a breath, Shu shook his head to no avail, trying to cast off the creeping darkness that both worked to limit his vision and weaken his body. He was a man of the sea, and he would not allow a bit of water to be his end.
He began to climb.
Every muscle howled in protest, and the burning of that effort spread quickly, through his arms and down his torso and into his legs. It would have been easy, so seductively easy, to just let go and give himself to the sea. It would claim him eventually, he had no doubt, but not today. Not while he had a cargo to deliver and men under his protection.
One hand over the other, he made his way up. Legs wrapped around the cable and held on tight each time the slippery steel threatened to elude his grasp. More than once, the cable slipped through his fingers and he had to scramble to regain his grip. Below, the waves beckoned, promising a long sleep. Gods, he was tired. With every meter’s progress, sleep sounded better and better, but not now. He had a job to do, and he’d be damned if he let it go undone.
It felt like a year had passed by the time Shy stumbled over the railing. The blackness threatened to overwhelm him now. Through the haze, he saw his crew struggling with the beast, a four-legged brute covered in course fur and crowned with a nest of shimmering silver antlers. Silver flashed as it thrashed, barely held by a dozen ropes as it lashed out with hoof and great swings of its head. For the most part, the crew appeared to have avoided injury, but they would lose the battle before long.
Shu coughed again, spattering the deck with another mouthful of salt water before hooking an arm over the railing and hauling himself to his feet. His gaze locked with the massive stag as he shambled forward. Fury raged within those eyes, and now it fixed squarely on him.
He grimaced as he stepped forward. While he kept the beast’s attention two more ropes hooked around its neck, holding it more securely, but still not enough. It snorted and bellowed and tried to rear up, but somehow the crew fast.
When he reached the creature, Shu turned back, then spun toward it, fist outstretched as he threw his entire body into the swing. Bones snapped upon impact, and a surge of pain shot through his arm that nearly took him off his feet. With a roar that sounded tinged with surprise, the stag fell, unconscious.
Shu couldn’t see anything now beyond a hazy mess of fur on the deck surrounded by blackness. He knew he was about to pass out. The body could only take so much, and a broken hand combined with his previous lack of oxygen seemed to be his limit. He gave the order to have the beast taken back down below, and then he slept.
So, what did you think? What sort of story would you put together based on this week’s dice roll? Let me know in the comments below, and remember to Like and Share. Thanks for reading!