Friday 12 August 2011

Friday Flash - The Swarm

Eliza stood in the queue for the omnibus. The line at the stop snaked around the corner into Taffeta Street. On a normal Tuesday evening, silence would hang heavy in the queue. Citizens would stare straight ahead, eager to avoid even eye contact with those around them. Today, nervous chatter filled the air as people jostled together amid handshakes and greetings.

"Looks funny up there, doesn't it?" asked the woman beside Eliza.

"I'm sorry, what does?"

"The sky. It's essentially empty."

Eliza looked up. Dirigibles should be puncturing the thick plumes of smoke from the factories out west, puttering through the clouds. Instead, a bomber droned above the city on its third sky patrol of the afternoon.

"I heard they tore down the north east transport tower last night, right before they torched the scrapyard," replied Eliza.

"Really? Well I'm not surprised the Council stopped the airships running after that,” said the woman. She gestured to the queue. “I suppose that explains why there are more people waiting for the omnibus."

"I've never seen it this busy so early but I suppose everyone wants to get home before Curfew." Eliza glanced at the Public Order notice strung from the lamp post. Black letters on a red field spelled out the consequences of disobeying a Curfew.

"All the shops are closed in the Merchant's Quarter. Even in Central Street – it should be heaving by now." The woman noticed a shopkeeper across the street. He drew a rattling iron grille across the window of his butcher's shop before scuttling away.

"All the shutters in the world won't stop the Swarm," replied Eliza. She looked up the street, half expecting to see them stampeding towards her.

"Do you think they’ll come again tonight?" asked the woman.

"I don't know. How do you predict a mentality like that?"

Eliza shuddered to think of the Swarm, rampaging gangs of feral youths from the hinterlands around the city. They'd ventured into the outlying suburbs before, usually just to scavenge, but only in twos or threes. No one had ever seen so many at once, pouring into the City to loot shops, burn buildings and attack anyone who got in their way.

"Did you see what they did to Renfield?" asked the woman.

"Yes, someone brought the daguerrotypes into the office. All those poor people...I heard they had to pull the buildings down. Too much fire damage, or something," replied Eliza.

"Shocking, shocking. And I bet that's bad news," said the woman. She pointed to the telegraph wires overhead. They thrummed and bounced between posts. The police commandeered the network the night before, and judging by the violent vibrations, the news wasn't good. Eliza imagined her nerves looked the same way.

A horse-drawn police wagon clattered past. A banshee clung to the roof, wailing a warning. The queue fell silent to watch its progress along the cobbles. A gust of wind lifted the canvas flap to reveal grim-faced policemen clad in grey uniforms. White knuckles wrapped around batons. The same gust of wind brought the sharp scent of smoke. The tension in the queue wound itself tighter.

"Looks like it's started already. So much for the Curfew," said Eliza.

An omnibus trundled along the street. The sign on the front announced the destination as Edinsville, a bohemian community to the east. Eliza turned to the woman beside her.

"Are you going this way?" she asked.

"No, I'm waiting for the one to Onslough. You have a safe trip home though," said the woman.

"You too." Eliza reached out and squeezed the woman's shoulder. The woman smiled.

Eliza clambered on board the omnibus and slipped into the last available seat. The passengers shared idle reports of things they'd heard or seen, dropping to conspiratorial whispers to discuss what the police should do about the Swarm. Eliza found herself drawn into a conversation between two men in suits.

The omnibus trundled into Becker Square. Front doors stood open as quaking homeowners stepped into the street. They clutched makeshift weapons culled from the items left lying around their homes. Loyal household automatons placed themselves as guards in front of the families they served.

Eliza wished each and every one a safe night.


Carrie Clevenger said...

Beautiful and bleak. Really drawn in by the descriptions, dialogue completely natural. Love your work Icy.

Tim VanSant Writes said...

"How do you predict a mentality like that?" I think we're all wondering that lately. Nice juxtaposition of time and events.

Anonymous said...

Been away from Icy flash for too long. A welcome return. Absolutely loved this...

Helen A. Howell said...

Yes it makes you wonder about the mentality of some people - especially after this last week. This was a nice piece of writing that contrasts against recent happenings.


John Xero said...

Great flash, Icy. And very relevant. I really like that you focussed on the community aspect, the way it has brought people closer, over the violence itself.

Cathy Olliffe-Webster said...

Loved the historical feel of the this piece, perhaps brought on a wee bit by the drawing but also in the courtly way it was written and in details like the dirigibles, the daguerrotypes and the telegraph wires – an especially good detail, comparing Eliza's nerves to the thrumming wires. Obviously the riots are playing heavy on your mind but you resisted a straight report and brought the same sensibilities to riots from the past. Lovely work, Icy.

Larry Kollar said...

Even in an alternate steampunk universe, the riots go on. Great name, The Swarm… I was expecting an alien (or perhaps insect) invasion at first.

I had the same thoughts as JohnX, people coming together in the crisis. It's a pity it takes so much to connect sometimes; doing it earlier might have avoided the problems in both story and real life.

Icy Sedgwick said...

Carrie - Thank you! I like to try and use the kind of dialogue I hear.

Tim - I figure this stuff can happen anywhere.

Ian - Glad you liked it.

Helen - It's my way of trying to interpret things.

John - It was what struck me. Seeing strangers wish each other well, and pulling together...I was very proud of my fellow Londoners this week. That was what I wanted to capture most of all.

Cathy - I can't help revisiting steampunk, it's one of my favourite genres. I wanted to do something about the riots but I was worried it would be trite, sentimental or at worse insulting, so I figured reframing it in this way might help circumvent those problems.

FAR - I certainly saw those crowds as being like a swarm. One moves, they all change direction. It is a shame that it takes something like this to bring people together but I suppose at least something positive comes out of so much devastation.

Tony Noland said...

You cast the time and place with a keen ear. The emptiness of the sky was something I heard from New Yorkers ten years ago.

Anonymous said...

Another fantastic piece, Icy. Your writing is so very eloquent :)

John Wiswell said...

Good feel of period despite fairly modern prose. Enjoyed the work. I was hoping the Swarm would be something even more fantastical, but of course those riots preoccupy.

Emma Newman said...

Not only an enjoyable flash, but it also gives us a chance to "process" what happened this week in a safe way, if that makes sense? Liked it a lot. Especially the banshee :o)

Sam Pennington said...

Fantastic writing Icy, I love the way you've drawn on real-life events and then totally run with the idea. Like John, I was expecting the swarm to be something more apocalyptic, but hats off to a great story. I've not read steam punk before - I like it!!!

Eric J. Krause said...

You did an excellent job of weaving in current events with a steampunk story. This was very well written, and a pleasure to read.

Bevimus said...

I started off thinking this was curfew for the blitz, then imagined a swarm of giant killer insects, and finally was slammed back into the reality of what the city just endured. I think I have whiplash!

John Pender said...

I love how you've tied in the current rioting with a city of the future. Good work.

Unknown said...

Pretty much everybody else has said it already, but I'll parrot it once more..loved how you tied in the riots into the story without beating us over the head with it. It was the perfect balance between too subtle and too blunt.

Also, great imagery too. Loved how the sky was 'empty'

Anonymous said...

Fantastic story, Icy. You did an amazing job of capturing the feel of the city amidst such violence. I especially love the small details that made the steampunk world come to life.

Anonymous said...

I loved the detail - dirigibles,daguerrotypes, basnhees. And the swarm is the perfect name for the rioters.

Unknown said...

Beautiful world and I loved the way you pulled in a touch of current events.

Jason Coggins said...

A slightly melancholy but life affirming glimpse into the lives of us little people as larger events beyond our control ravage the world. Nice.

Steve Green said...

Icy this is brilliant, the fear of the mob is a real, and very deep fear, whatever the time period.

Anonymous said...

Going steampunk with this was the perfect choice Icy, (in my opinion anyway). You truly captured the community feel in this timely piece.

Icy Sedgwick said...

Tony - It's often the absence of something so normal that sticks out as being strange. Obviously I can't speak for ten years ago, but I experienced it during the "grounding" when the Icelandic volcano erupted. Birds got the skies back.

Lisa - Thank you!

John - Well the people in the city characterise them as feral youths but as no one in this piece has actually SEEN them, who's to say they are? Maybe if I revisit this particular steampunk burg, you'll find out more about them.

Emma - That's what I was trying to do. And I've been wanting to get a banshee into my writing for ages!

Sam - Steampunk is soooo good! I love it. It's the best form of alternate history!

Eric - Glad you liked it!

Bev - Well I got the feeling London experienced a snippet of the Blitz solidarity earlier in the week...though sadly people have forgotten that unity already.

John - Thanks!

Michael - Glad you liked it! Sometimes it's best to focus on the human over the political.

Danni - I do love my steampunk!

Sonia - 'Swarm' just seemed to best sum them up.

Aidan - Thanks.

Jason - I'm a melancholic kinda gal.

Steve - It's an ever present danger, too.

Deanna - Thanks!

Stephen said...

A nice use of flash to deal with current events. And I wish the best for all of you in London. What has happened there is a tragedy.

Anonymous said...

This world feels so bleak and hopeless. The people scared and nervous. I felt tense just reading about the Swarm. Nicely done.

Jen said...

You really captured the ominous tone of things lately, Icy. And I like that you set it somewhere else. That little bit of removal right here and now is welcome.

Raven Corinn Carluk said...

Riots are scary in all settings.

Stephen said...

Hi there Icy -- liked your period, riot-inspired piece. Nice sense of London community, almost reminiscent of the blitz, though the youthful Swarm links neatly back to current events. Lots of steam-punky layers to enjoy, though if the Swarm is responsible for the current lack of dirigibles (my most beloved item in such fiction) then I, most assuredly, will be writing to the Times: "Sirs, what is Victorian England coming to?" St. Esq.

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