It’s always fun to step into a new world for the first time. In this week’s flash fiction piece, I’m taking my first steps into a new world based vaguely on Jin Dynasty-era China in which roles are reversed and history might just turn out completely different. I hope you enjoy it.
Before It’s Too Late
Yao hunched forward, pressing close to the handlebars of the skysled. If he lowered his profile just a bit more, he just might be able to stretch his meager coal reserves long enough to reach Qen Shien. He fixed his gaze on the horizon, refusing to even glance back at the engine. That way, he could at least pretend the reserves were full and all was well.
Somehow, the engine failed to hear his wish. The distant pass that held the Northern encampment was still little more than a blurry smudge against the mountainside when the first sputtering of the engine nearly jostled him out of his seat.
He gripped the handlebars tightly and swept his gaze across the landscape ahead. He needed to set down and he needed to do it now, before the engine died and gravity did the job for him. Mountains. Cliffs. The river below. Nothing even remotely appropriate for a landing zone.
His best bet was to push the skysled as hard as he could and pray that his ancestors saw him safely to his destination. He released his entire remaining supply of coal into the furnace and pushed the boiler to its limit. The steam engine roared, and he shot forward.
He almost thought he would reach his destination, but his mount had other plans. The skysled shuddered and bucked, then dropped several feet before the engine sputtered back to life, yanking itself free from Yao’s grasp and spiraling off into the mountainside, where it erupted in a cloud of steam, showering metal and boiling water everywhere.
Yao struck the ground before the shift in circumstances even managed to take root in his mind. The impact knocked the air out of his lungs, and his mouth filled with sand and dirt before he managed to take a breath.
He rolled onto his stomach, retching and spitting. Once his mouth was clear and he heaved sweet, luscious air into his grateful lungs, he tried to push himself up onto his feet. Immediately, he regretted it.
It wasn’t just the pain, not that there wasn’t pain. Spirits above and below, there was pain. Yao’s ankle bucked under the barest pressure, and he crumpled again. His head pounded, and the ringing in his ears was almost loud enough to make him forget about the cascading waves of pain coursing up and down his leg.
Then he saw them. Men. Sentries. Probably guarding the entrance to the encampment. Yao clawed at the ground. Inch by inch, he pulled himself forward. He had to reach them. He had a message. Soon it would be too late. Just a little more. Closer. The creeping darkness in his peripheral vision closed. The distant sentries faded into that long tunnel before all went dark.
The dark really wasn’t so bad, he decided. At least it wasn’t cold. Not that it was warm either. Some forgotten pocket of thought tucked away in a corner nibbled away at a half-remembered worry. It had seemed so important a moment ago
Strong hands, whose he couldn’t be sure, heaved him up off the ground. Light swam in front of him. It was fuzzy, but it was light. His vision cleared ever so briefly, and then wafted in and out of focus. It almost seemed as if that they were carrying him toward the encampment. Then he remembered his message, the message for Qen Shien. He just hoped that Qen Shien was still there, that he wasn’t too late to deliver his message.
He may have lost consciousness a few times as he was carried into the encampment and laid out on a bedroll. Time certainly seemed to skip forward several times. He was being carried, then he was lying down, and then he saw Qen Shien.
The massive warrior seemed to fill what must have been to him an uncomfortably small tent. In his hands was a scroll, the message Yao had been bid to carry, the message inviting Qen Shien to a peace conference at the border with the Southern province.
“So,” Qen Shien said, not looking up from the scroll. “Am I to understand that your emperor finally wishes to live in peace?”
This was it, the moment Yao had waited for ever since he discovered the truth behind the proposed conference. He wet his lips. “Actually, Lord Qen…that message, the message they gave me, it’s a lie. I, I brought you another message, a true message.”
“And what message is that?”
“I, I came to warn you to stay away.”
Now Qen Shien looked up, meeting Yao’s eyes for the first time. They were old eyes, and grey like a sea that had seen too many storms. His voice, however, was still and calm. “Why would you tell me this? Are you not loyal to your emperor?”
Yao balled his hands into impotent fists. “I was. Not anymore. He is a madman who would remake himself into a god. Someone has to stop him.”
“Well, then,” Qen Shien replied, squeezing Yao’s shoulder. “Rest for now, and tomorrow we’ll see what we can do to do just that.”
One of the most fun aspects of historical fiction is that you can switch up roles, events, and completely rewrite history however you want. You can turn Alexander the Great into a cobbler (or a cake; I don’t judge), Mussolini into a traffic warden, or Joan of Arc into a bard. You could even pluck them out of time and drop them in someplace completely different, like Victorian Boston. In the comments below, let me know what historical figure you would like to see in a different setting and where you would put them. Thanks for reading!