Flora of the Fifty Flames
by Sam Buckley
Adam watched the sun rise. He lay on his mattress on the floor, on his side so he could look through the window. It was daybreak, or what passed for it.
The sun was little more than a smoky circle breaking behind the rooftops, latticed by a fretwork of telegraph wires and old television antennae. Still, it was rising. That was something. But then, climbing to its apex, it slid behind the oblong of a vast metal machine hovering below the cloud line, and it was night once again.
It was one of the Cruisers, mainstay of the invaders they called the Interlopers or Inters, for short. A placeholder name, put in place by the press at the time of their arrival. It had stuck; the human race had been lost for words since their subjugation. What the operators actually called themselves or even what they looked like was as much an unknown quantity as their origin.
Having seen the machines, Adam could not tear his eyes away. Even after ten years of occupation they still inspired the deepest animal revulsion in him, still set his nerves painfully on edge. And yet the vast machines just made the usual placid transit across the sky, nothing more.
No-one seemed to know how they stayed airborne, these carbuncular metal cuboids that looked like long Tetris pieces, laden with pipes and studded with thin spines. Some technology beyond human understanding. Like everything about them, Adam thought for the thousandth time: all of it was incomprehensible, from the first attacks to life under their heels.
It was a quarter past six in the morning, but he was already exhausted. To wake himself up, he mixed some xanthine stimpowder into freshly boiled water, breaking up damp clumps of the stuff with his spoon. He glanced out of the window again and saw that Patrollers had joined the Cruiser in the air: mushroom-shaped craft floating lazily over the canopies of the trees along the banks of the river.
God, he could only think, what now? What do they want? What have they seen? What will they do?
He turned away from the window and tried to continue his daily rituals.
Breakfast: a sandwich of NutriFil Forte paste and ancient bread. He brushed off the mould and ate.
Then he gathered his passes: checkpoints between every neighbourhood, legally required as of two weeks ago, with a unique pass for each, anything to stop people slipping through with food satchels full of semtex and going after one of the Cruisers. It wasn’t even collusion on the part of the cops, just blind terror of what would happen if the Patrollers were set on the town again.
There were now at least three of the Patrollers in the air; one alone was a bad sign, one being enough to flatten a neighbourhood, to pluck out the survivors and execute them there and then. He hadn’t seen three in one place, he realised, since the Accommodation Act had gone through Parliament after the invasion, and trying to attack or hinder the Inters’ machines in any way had become illegal. Things had been very quiet since then for most folk.
Two more arrived, drifting into view to join the other three. Five was an unprecedented gathering of Patrollers; it was enough for the Inters to fight a small war. Something really big had happened; something bigger would happen next.
He had two fears. One: leaving and being stolen away for some reason or the other. Being caught up in something. Being taken right off the street, lifted into the air by one of the patroller’s many arms. Two: not going to work, which meant no coupons for food or rent. The stimpowder started kicking in, redoubling his anxieties.
Smoke, he saw. Not from the town’s heaters and stoves. Not from the ground, but from some point in the sky. This meant that one of ships had been hit. He moved along the window to see what had happened and see what the Patrollers were doing in response.
Then he saw it.
The massive oblong of a Cruiser hung at a crazy angle, one end pitched low and burning. Smaller hook-shaped craft emerged from vents along its hull, circling and dispersing. The Cruiser’s tilt deepened as he watched.
Thumping at the door.
He actually screamed and had to learn how to breathe again, drowned in his own rabbit-like thoughts. But he hadn’t done anything. Who-why-they’d think-his nerves — the sweat on him like red hands.
‘Fifty genuine cigarettes if you let me in, Park,’ the visitor said. ‘Payment upfront. I need somewhere to lay low for an hour. Help a friend.’
Hang on a minute. He knew that voice. ‘Flora...Flora, is that you?’ He turned the handle absentmindedly, and she nearly ran him down.
It was Flora. Mad red hair, mad red cheeks, mad darting eyes. Mad Flora.
It couldn’t be.
Of all the flats in the world.
Flora had always been a firebrand. He had known her even before the invasion, when he had been a roving reporter with the local rag, publishing angry op-eds about the downtrodden, and she had been a social worker giving him tips about government failings. They had been like a pair of conspirators taking on the officials, the powers that be.
Until the Inters had replaced the powers that be with something much, much worse.
Until Flora had turned militant.
‘Flora Dalchini, It really is you—’
‘The very same. Nice to see you again, Adam. How long has it been?’
‘Not long enough. I’m not in the activist business any more, Flora. I don’t want any part of it.’
‘I’m paying you, dear boy. Fifty fags, Adam, and I’ll be out in an hour or less. Now close the door, close the curtains. Do it.’
He did. The machine was hanging at an even crazier angle now, looking as if it were diving. It was completely shrouded in steam and smoke.
‘Beautiful,’ Flora said. ‘Give it ten minutes and it’ll be on its roof in the river. I bet you it will.’
‘Please tell me this was nothing to do with—’
‘Shut it. Close those blinds.’
He did so.
‘An hour tops. That’ll be enough. That’s about a cig a minute, Park. Best hourly rate you’ll ever get. Don’t tell me I never do anything for you.’
Flora was telling the truth. She put a box down between them, and opened it. Sure enough, there were fifty cigarettes piled up inside. He hadn’t seen such things for years. At the sight of them, he could have squealed like a child.
‘An hour,’ he said. ‘That’s fine.’
He smoked, using his mug as an ashtray and nearly falling over with dizziness.
Flora had parted the blinds to check on the burning machine. ‘There it goes...’
‘Kerplunk,’ Flora said. ‘Wanna know how we did it?’
‘No, I don’t. I told you, I don’t want to be a part of it.’
‘Too late. You’re shielding a resistance fighter. You shouldn’t have let me in.’
‘Oh dear God—’
‘A couple of the Cruisers have been dredging where the river’s dried up farther south. You know how they do. Taking anything organic that they might be able to use as fuel. Using those big scoops to drag it all up. All we had to do was get ahead of it and drop a little present in its path.’
‘A time bomb.’
‘Yup. A clock and some pre-war blasting caps from a quarry down south. Honestly, Adam, I’m amazed it worked.’
It was smart, Adam realised. The kinetic effect of even a small blast in the middle of a thousand tightly-packed tonnes of bone-dry silt and rock would have caused the Cruiser’s storage bay to shatter, unleashing utter destruction behind the machine’s impregnable armour and defence systems.
‘All right, Adam, I’m nearly done here.’
He could barely finish the cigarette. His mouth was parched and tarry. He coughed.
‘Does a life good to have a bit of texture,’ Flora said, eying the bare walls of the flat. ‘You used to live with another hack, didn’t you? Olly, that was his name. I gave him the odd tip when you were too slow—’
‘Yeah. Rest his soul.’
‘The Inters killed him near Stagsden. Random attack by all accounts. He was just passing through.’
Adam stubbed out his cigarette in the mug. ‘He was a lovely bloke. And you don’t need to remind me how he died.’
‘Murdered,’ she said. ‘Tell me, if you had to report it today, at your paper—’
‘The paper closed.’
‘Yes, but if it was still running, would you just report it as an accident or try to dig deeper, uncover the truth? It’s not like the Inters would be able to read it. But we’d know, at least. The people would know.’
‘I’d look at all the facts first. What I knew, what people had seen.’
Flora ground her teeth and took another look through the blinds.
‘Look at them,’ she said. ‘Swarming over half the town. Murderers. They’ll tear up twenty houses for every miserable machine they lose.’
‘Only when we provoke them.’
Flora looked at him with disgust. ‘Provoke? Are you serious? You don’t need to provoke them, Adam. You know that. How long before you provoke them? Tell me that.’
‘As long as I can avoid it, Flora.’
‘As long as you can hide, you mean. Jesus! The Inters, the government, whoever, they’ve really broken you.’
Before he could reply, she was halfway out of the door, letting it close silently behind her.
He didn’t feel shame or sadness. Just relief. After all, what did Flora think she’d achieve by telling him what he already knew? Of course the Inters had broken him; they’d broken everyone.
Like everyone else, he remembered the day they’d arrived. The reports coming in from Ireland first, then Morocco, Portugal, Spain and France.
He’d been in the newsroom for the paper, and everyone had been watching, stopping everything to watch the massive machines flying in from the Atlantic and arriving over Cork, then Tenerife, then Rabat, then Lisbon, and on and on. Vast monoliths hovering over the buildings, making the military jets and drones that circled them look like flies.
Olly, God rest him, had been with them in the newsroom that day. Adam remembered looking at him, one seasoned journalist to another, and knowing he was thinking the same thing as Adam: that nothing they were writing about mattered now. None of the local issues mattered, none of the things they’d devoted their lives to. Life had changed the instant the reports had come in.
Then the Inters started shooting.
He shook his head to get rid of the memory and brewed some more ReadyStim.
* * *
But that wasn’t the end of it.
The morning after Flora’s visit, rehearsing an apology to his boss at the scrapyard for missing work, he found a note slipped under his door. It read, in jagged handwritten capitals: YOU’RE BETTER THAN THIS.
He carried the note down to the street and dropped it into the first drain he came to, praying that a Patroller hadn’t seen him. He was pouring sweat.
At work: the foreman, Grice, lined up every employee who’d stayed home the day before, on a patch of waste ground, then spent ten minutes shouting at them. Then he brought out their lunch rations, and tipped them onto the mud in front of them.
‘This is what happens if you pussy out of turning up just because the pikeys act up down town. You eat food that’s been on the floor. Simple as. I turned up. These lads turned up. If you’re not turning up when the pikeys are up to stuff, then I say you’ve got something to hide.’
Adam came home that evening to find a jar of ground coffee, a bottle of real milk, and a loaf of freshly baked bread — still warm — on his kitchen table.
And a note: Courtesy of the ‘pikeys’.
No sign of a break-in.
He ran down the corridor, and halfway down the street, and looked out of every window, trying to catch sight of the person who had invaded his home.
Then he scrawled at the bottom of the note: Leave me alone!
But he couldn’t bring himself to throw out the coffee, the bread, and the milk. All three tasted amazing.
And the evening after, when he came home from work, there was a single addition to the note:
* * *
Flora had always been persistent. He remembered clearly that she had been hounding him even on the day the Inters had arrived. Her phone call to him had come in as the BBC had patched through to a reporter in Morocco, where a battle had erupted over Rabat-Salé Airport.
‘Flora,’ he had said to her over the phone, ‘turn on your TV now.’
This was one of his last memories of being a pre-war reporter. Within half an hour of the first news reports, there had been a commotion and, outside, the sky had been filled with the cuboid-shaped machines Adam came to know as Cruisers.
* * *
At the scrapyard, Grice was edgy. There was a high-value bit of scrap coming in. Adam’s colleagues murmured that it might be a big old military piece, one of last bits of hardware not broken down under the Accommodation Act.
One of his colleagues elaborated that it was a stash of M1-Gs, experimental gauss guns from the U.S. Adam had heard of the stash too, though only through rumours and urban legends: one of thousands airdropped by NATO forces in a last-ditch attempt to arm local units with an effective weapon as the Inters swept through Europe, en route to Russia, Asia, and finally the Americas.
The rumour went that a band of soldiers had hidden them in the countryside, complete with the tungsten slugs they fired, just outside of town, after the British government had ordered a surrender.
If this was the real deal, it was the motherlode. The Inters’ defences couldn’t cope with projectiles fired at Gaussian speeds. Nothing could. Sure, whoever took on the weapons would need a hefty power supply for those electromagnets, but Flora seemed nothing if not resourceful.
He got home to find his flat had been ‘broken into’ a third time. Again the door was undamaged. This time he found a jar of raspberry jam on his kitchen table, and felt resignation, not horror, at the situation. Such was life: heat from Inters, heat from collaborators, heat from renegades and rebels. It was a fact of life. It they weren’t shaking you down for bribes and forfeits, they were shaking you down for intel.
There was no mistaking the timing. Flora knew about the stash.
At this thought, he became angry. He was being used; never mind what might become of him. He picked up his pen and wrote a note back to Flora, stabbing at the paper so hard he kept punching holes in it.
They’ve found the NATO stash. I’m sure you know which one I mean. They’re bringing it all in for scrapping. No-one’s ever at the scrapyard after 8:00 pm. I am only saying this, nothing more. What you do with the information is up to you. Don’t involve me any further.
Afterwards, he collapsed, exhausted, and slept.
He woke up the next morning to find that Flora had broken in yet again even as he had been sleeping. How could she get in and out so quietly? He had to be going mad; perhaps he was leaving himself notes without realising it. Something brought on by paranoia or malnutrition or too much stimpowder.
Another note. Ta, it said, and was signed off with a smiley face.
He screwed it up with abject fury and yelled at the walls: ‘Stop breaking into my house!’ The neighbours upstairs thumped on the ceiling to tell him to be quiet, and all he could do was laugh to himself.
* * *
Copyright © 2019 by Sam Buckley