A basic update, but with free fiction!
June 1st saw the publication of a flash fiction, “The Fear in His Eyes,” in the Flame Tree Press newsletter. If you get that newsletter, you’ll have seen it. But if you don’t, then signing up for it now won’t get it for you, unfortunately. But I like my readers, so I’ve put it below!
First, a quick update on publishing: What Rough Beast was handed in back in February 2021, and will be coming out in 2022. It’s the finale of the Remembrance War saga, and I’m working on a short story and a few different novel ideas currently.
I’m also watching anime with my daughter, who is about to enter High School and has become quite the cosplayer/anime fan. She’s gotten me interested in both Jujutsu Kaisen and DemonSlayer. I’ve tried to get her into Neon Genesis Evangelion and Gundam Wing, but no dice.
This fall I’ll be attending the local community college to study Mandarin Chinese. That’s going to be hard, but I’m looking forward to it. The hard part is that the class appears to be fully online, and that’s never as fun as being in the classroom.
And now, the new story. This was written for Flame Tree’s prompt, which was “Big Bang.” Here’s what I came up with:
The Fear in His Eyes
Michael R. Johnston
The first thing Akala Shoroana did on waking was go to her desk and check the data. Finding no change, she dressed in her best formal robes and took a moment to look around her apartment. She brushed her hands over a deep blue geode, remembering the handsome man who had given it to her, before leaving. She did not bother to lock the door. It didn't matter anymore.
Now, standing before the great metal iris that led to the throne room, she tapped the fingertips of her right hand against her thigh rhythmically, a gesture born of years of waiting in official reception rooms for politicians to hear her reports.
A hand reached out and gently stilled her fingers. She glanced over and saw one of the court functionaries. "He doesn't like nervous gestures," the man said quietly. "They make him..." he tried to find a better word, and then shrugged. "Nervous." His eyes met hers. "Be direct, be honest. He will not appreciate prevarication."
She nodded. "What does he already know?" she asked.
His eyes flicked to the door and back to her. "He's read the reports. He knows the general shape of things, and that we tried to stop it."
She opened her mouth to speak again, but as she did, the door irised open. The functionary withdrew, apology in his eyes.
She crossed the threshold into the throne room, her steps echoing in the cavernous space. At the end of the long hall, the emperor sat, his diminutive form looking even smaller in the large throne. Emperor Koral had only been on the throne for a year, since the accidental death of his parents. He was barely more than a child, but he had already developed a reputation for maturity beyond his years. Nobody could be prepared for this, however.
When she reached the throne, she knelt as protocol demanded. The emperor had not been worshiped for centuries, but the old forms remained.
"Look at me," he said. "Rise."
She raised her eyes and saw Koral gazing at her, his deep blue eyes filled with a barely-repressed fear. She felt tears threatening to surface, and resisted the urge to hide her eyes again. Thank the gods I never found the time for a family, she thought. She stood, her back stiffening with resolve.
Koral stood and beckoned her to follow him. He led her behind the throne and turned his gaze to the giant crystalline windows there. His gaze led hers to the harsh white light in the morning sky, brighter and larger than the rising sun. It was growing visibly as they watched.
"Why is this happening?"
She took a deep breath. "We tried to explore the origins of the universe. The scientists on Creniv tried to replicate, in miniature, the explosion that began the universe. The reaction grew unstable, and we lost control." She gestured to the approaching wave front. "This is the result."
"We reached too far."
"I am told there was an attempt to stop the reaction," he said.
"There was. Many people died trying, Great One."
He waved off the title. "Please, just call me Koral. We're past the time for pomp and circumstance," he said. Then, in a voice more like a little boy, he asked, "Is there anything we can do?"
She thought about it, and wondered if she should give him a comfortable lie. "No. We've exhausted everything; there's no way to stop it now."
"How long do we have?"
She glanced at the sky. "According to my calculations, about three hours."
"Just enough time for a party." She looked down at him, and he smiled at her, his eyes twinkling with his amusement. "Nothing to be done," he said. "So we might as well have one last good day."
The seneschal made sure they had a picnic basket with the Emperor's favorites. There were talkla sandwiches, fruit salad overloaded with the sweet red berries he favored, and a mountain of sweet pastries for dessert. After all, there was no point in saving anything for later. When all had been laid out, Koral had told the servants to go and be with their families. A few stayed; like Akala they had no families, and nowhere else to go. Koral urged them to join the picnic. They were stilted at first, but they managed to let go of fear and enjoy themselves for a time.
After they'd eaten, they lay on the blanket in the Palace Garden and gazed at the growing light as it raced toward them. When he spoke, his voice was small, childlike, and he suddenly seemed much younger than he was. "What will happen?" he asked. "When it gets here?"
She considered her words. She had no wish to frighten him, but at the same time, he didn't seem to want a comforting lie. "The expanding energy front is remaking everything it touches. It will reduce everything in the universe--even the stars themselves--to its component atoms," she said.
"Will it hurt?"
"Change always hurts. Becoming something new is painful."
His voice was tinged with anger now. "'Becoming something new?' Don't you mean 'dying?'"
"Well... yes, we are going to die. But..." She met his eyes, letting him pour his fear into her. She took it, melded it with her own, and found words in some hitherto-unknown well of wisdom within her that might barely help him make sense of this. "What remains of us will become part of the new universe on the other side of the explosion. Whatever that universe is, it will be made from us as much as anything else. The planets, stars, even the people, will be remade, turned into a new universe of wonder." She sighed. "I wish I could see it."
She patted his hand. "I am, too."
"It's getting hot."
"Yes. Not long now."
"Will you face it with me?" he asked.
They rose, joined hands, and faced the end together.
That’s all, folks! See you next time!