Flora of the Fifty Flames
by Sam Buckley
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
But after that, there were five days and nights of sanity. No break-ins, no notes, no gifts. His weekend, even, was free; he spent it queuing for rations and fuel coupons and filling out applications in triplicate for travel permissions to visit his parents in Liverpool.
Come Monday, Adam’s speculations about the stash were confirmed. A filthy trunk was wheeled into the yard and prised open with crowbars; inside, individually packed in Styrofoam, were no less than ten of the devices, each one a metre-long slingshot lined with bank after bank of copper-wrapped magnetic material.
Stowed underneath the weapons were the keepsakes of that last squad of rebellious soldiers, gathered there like the contents of a time capsule: photographs of girlfriends, an ancient package of cigarettes, a scribbled note swearing vengeance and victory.
* * *
The day after the arrival of the guns, Adam arrived at the yard to find a crowd gathered and his co-workers being interviewed by cops. Someone had been hanged from a lamppost in the street, the body swaying in the wind. This in itself was not unusual; the cops did it to dissidents and thieves to make examples.
But Adam recognised the hanged man. It was Grice.
His boss of however-many-years was purple and bug-eyed, with dried spittle running from his mouth. A placard had been hung on a string from his neck, with the noose; it read, in lopsided capital letters: COLLABORATOR.
The guns, which had been piled up in the yard, were gone. The gates had been forced open.
For all he knew, either a cop or an Inter spotter drone or one of the hundreds of citizen informants had him already, was already tracking him, already dialling in his position, age and build. Amidst the terror of that moment, he had the curiously calm thought that these were his last minutes on earth. He needed to decide whether to fight or simply feel relief. He couldn’t, because he could only focus on a series of images: his feet on the filthy pavement; a piece of litter in the hall; a drop of sweat falling from his forehead; his flat door, ajar. Then he stopped.
It was Flora, sitting at his kitchen table.
He passed over the threshold in a state of unstoppable rage, filled with so much hatred in that moment, for everything, that his head seemed to be splitting with the force of it. Then, meeting Flora’s eyes, the feeling evaporated, and he wept.
‘You’re a monster,’ he said.
‘Your intel was off,’ Flora said. She spoke with complete calm. ‘You said there was never anyone around after eight o’clock, but we rolled up, and there he was.’
‘You didn’t need to do it. Not like that.’
‘He’d have gone straight to the informers. A Quisling, through and through. We tried to have an adult discussion with him, but... I’m afraid he wouldn’t see reason. We’ve got no space to keep prisoners at the moment.’
‘So you lynched him. Murdered him.’
‘We’re fighting a war.’
Silence. Flora was studying him. ‘Shut the door,’ she said.
He did, wiping his eyes and trying to breathe. After the door clicked shut, Flora made a sign at the window — something like a thumbs-up — and nodded at someone he couldn’t see.
‘You’re a balanced, well-adjusted man,’ Flora said. ‘It must be a bliss. It’s a luxury. I haven’t had that kind of constitution for years. I’ll tell you what changed the points for me. Why me and the others do what we do. For me it was Shortstown. Do you remember it?’
‘The massacre. Yes, I remember. I wanted to cover it for the Gazette. But the police wouldn’t let anyone in.’
‘I was a social worker there at the time. It was where they’d rehoused a lot of problem families from London. Mega caseload, and it only got worse after the Inters arrived. Lots of kids we had to put into care at the home in Shortstown because of what those things had done to their parents. Often they’d watched their parents die. Traumatised. Depressed. We had to nurture them, day by day, month by month, bring them back. Hard work... but worth it.’
She motioned Adam to sit down. ‘Try and think what it was like to see these kids grow up, and then watch what the Inters did to them. Trying so hard to protect them from it and then, boom. Remember? A single Inter drone goes down in Shortstown. I think it just broke down, in fact, like machines do. Only, if one of the Inters’ machines breaks down, heaven help you if it’s on your street.
‘Obviously we can’t speak to these things, but the cops cleared the roads around the fallen drone to give the Inters a clear path to come pick it up. Only that’s not all the cops did. See, they took the opportunity to round up anyone they didn’t like the looks of.
‘So, when the Inters turn up, the police are trying to control a big, lairy crowd of people who’ve just been dragged out of their homes, and it just gets worse once one of the Inters’ Patrollers shows up. Cops are holding this whole crowd in place with riot gear, trapping them on this one street, and meanwhile they’re blocking every road in and out of Shortstown. I’m on the outside, trying to get to the care facility where all my kids are staying, but stuck at a roadblock. All I can do is watch that ugly Inter squid hovering over the town, and listen to the crowd getting more out of control, more scared.
‘All of this means, Adam, that when one of that big crowd does have a weapon, and is either so scared or so stupid they decide to take a potshot at the Inter, that same Inter blows a massive hole in the middle of the town. The shot kills eighty people. Kills them really nastily. And in that care home, my kids, all alone, watch the whole thing.
‘Not one of those kids spoke a word again. Never went outside, never trusted anyone. Never believed a soul who said “It’ll be okay.” Fifty kids, all of them catatonic. Incurably so.
‘My kids. They didn’t even recognise me, afterwards. Sometimes even they’d lash out. Like every last thing in this miserable little world was trying to hurt them.’
Flora seemed to stare deep into him.
‘Not just the Inters that did this. No. The collaborators were just as guilty. Causing eighty people to die and hundreds more including fifty children to watch the murder. All because of cowardice, clumsiness, and because they liked the power just that bit too much.
‘And that’s why we didn’t hesitate with Grice. Because it is the Grices of this world that kill innocent people, the Grices that put checkpoints on every road, the Grices that wreck little kids. They and the Inters are the same thing. The Grices all get their chances to redeem themselves, but they never take them, never, and that’s why we cut them down.
‘People like you, the frightened heads-down type people, you always eventually choose right. The Grices never do.’
Flora rose, and made another sign and the window. She opened the front door and said, ‘Blue Team, we’re clear. Let’s move.’
A man’s voice in the hall: ‘What about the square?’
‘Leave him. He’s not square anymore.’
Flora looked over her shoulder at Adam. ‘Stay inside until tomorrow evening,’ she said, ‘unless you want to get caught up in it.’
* * *
He sat for hours, watching the Cruisers and Patrollers sidle and pirouette in the sky, trying to lay out what Flora had said to him and make some sense of it. He worked through her story backwards, trying to find the moral of it, the message she’d tried so hard to knock into him. But it just reminded him of how once, reporting from the local courthouse, of a defendant trying to excuse what he’d done by ranting about the things life had done to him, about how he couldn’t really be blamed for what he’d done. Of course it had all been bunk. It was anger dressed up as a defence. Anger at life. Anger at the whole world.
It was the same with Flora, for all her talk. There were the things the world had done, and the things she was going to do to the world to get even. That was all there was to her manifesto: revenge.
Then, that night, he heard that revenge in action.
It woke him up in the darkest part of the night, a long cacophony of splitting reports, metal tearing metal, metal tearing air. He couldn’t see a thing from his window. No lights or streamers. Only the bobbing torches and candles of people craning out of their windows for a glimpse of the battle.
The drumming and cracking carried on for so long that the novel terror of it ebbed away from him. Outside, the bobbing lights went out, and people went back to bed and tried and sleep through it.
* * *
Adam looked through the window from his mattress on the floor. There was no sun, only fog and the vast black cuboid of an Inter tanker passing the building.
He did as Flora said, and made no move until the evening. It was a day spent staring at the ceiling.
Then he heard crowds milling and talking in the streets below, and did something he hadn’t done for years: he went to join them, to talk to them. These were people he’d lived next to for almost a decade.
Everyone spoke about the same thing. Five squid-type Patrollers had been shot down in the night, on the fast road near the remains of the brickworks. Five. How? Someone had said they’d seen a squadron taking up positions near the machines, some with huge metal devices that looked like electronic catapults, trailing wires and followed by aides-de-camp carrying banks of car batteries.
The attackers had worn police uniforms. But they weren’t cops. They’d been far too heavily armed. When the real cops had turned up, the Inters had mistaken them for the attackers, and massacred them, lashing out with their metal tentacles, flinging them a hundred yards and dropping bombs on them, squad by squad.
After this short skirmish, whoever had started the whole thing picked off every survivor of the bloodbath, Inter and cop alike. The Inters had been shot down like their comrades first, and then the cops had been hanged from lampposts along the motorway.
The following morning, people said that the fields south of the town were full of body parts and metal tentacles and mangled bits of machinery. No one knew how many had died. But five of those squids had gone down in one go. People had souvenirs, bits of the Inter ships, too, to prove it, to prove they’d been there to see it. To prove that such a thing was possible.
Adam stared, following the gazes of the crowd, and saw rising plumes of black smoke to the south of the town.
‘Flora,’ he said. ‘Flora, what have you done?’
The horizon was filled with ships. The curling tentacles of Patrollers, and dark hulks of Cruisers, and warships of every conceivable shape and size.
Watching the armada approach the town, Adam could only ask again: ‘Oh God, what have you done?’
He became aware, as he stood there talking to himself, of a group watching him. They were smirking and conferring amongst themselves, in between glances at the approaching ships.
‘Hey square,’ one of them said. ‘You Flora’s guy?’
‘Me? Well, I suppose I was.’
‘We’re gonna cook something up for those ships,’ his interlocutor said. ‘Flora’s orders, Flora’s plan. You’ve already got your hands dirty, right? Are you with us, or are you gonna wait till they knock down your door first?’
Adam stared at the ships, and at the smoke rising around them. He was thinking again of the raging criminal in the dock, lashing out in meaningless fury, but he was also looking at the people milling about the street, excited and scared in equal measure. The ground was beginning to shake with the noise of the ships.
He thought of Shortstown and what Flora had said about the children. He thought of Olly. And so many others.
‘Hey. Adam, right? Decision time.’
He found his gaze falling on a man carrying a child down the street, beckoning his suitcase-carrying wife after him.
Adam said: ‘Are you going to stop them hurting these people?’
‘The civvies? Of course. Why do you think we do any of this?’
He looked once more at the machines.
‘You in or not, square?’
‘I’m in. I’ll do it.’
The group appraised him, clearly working out how he could be useful to them.
A lady said: ‘You sure Flora was right about this guy?’
And the man who’d addressed Adam said: ‘She’s never been wrong before.’ With a last nod at Adam, he turned and led the group away.
Adam took one last look at his flat and headed after them into the unknown.
Copyright © 2019 by Sam Buckley