Here’s a quick story that I threw together in an hour or so the other day. It was my entry into an informal Valentine’s Day-themed prompt night held by Lancaster University Writers’ Society. It’s a little first drafty, but here goes:
I saw it on the news. In the age of smartphones, dashboard cams and 24-hour rolling news channels, it was inevitable. It was a fireball that caught my attention. Something exploded and the flash of orange drew my eyes up from my monitor screen to the TV on the wall of the office.
We all gathered around the screen, horribly aware that this was all happening just a short subway journey across the city. It wasn’t so close though that we could hear anything through the windows. That felt wrong. We were in the same city, but we couldn’t hear the terrible things happening to our neighbours.
The ticker scrolled across the bottom of the screen: ‘on standby for launch – Pentagon chiefs meeting with president – Eyewitness reports of mass casualties – Sightings of parahuman intervention unconfirmed – NYC Mayor says’ but our eyes were just fixed on the jerky, blurred, repeatedly looped images. That explosion kept happening. Third time around, I realised that it was a bus.
‘Which way is it going?’ Mitchell from Sales kept asking. ‘Is it coming this way?’ Again and again, he said it, just in case someone, somehow had any new information other than what he was watching with the rest of us.
‘It’s superscience,’ Jeff explained with false authority, when Mina muttered something about the end of the world. ‘It’s some embittered, unhinged professor who’s just lashing out because the government cancelled his defence contract or something.’
‘Where are the Protectors?’ asked Vicky as we watched a terrified cop waving people into the safety of a subway station. The gun in his hand seemed pointless.
‘It says they’re intervening,’ the new girl said.
‘No,’ Jeff said. ‘It said that’s unconfirmed. That means it’s just rumour. Anyway, the president has to officially request the Protectors from the UN. More likely it’d be the Patriots, but I think they’re still cleaning up in Atlanta.’
‘Could be someone else,’ the new girl muttered, and I gave her a supportive nod. I need to learn her name at some point.
‘There’ll be someone out there somewhere,’ I said. ‘This city’s full of independents. There’ll be at least one of them involved.’
Jeff just snorted.
I couldn’t let on to my colleagues that I could feel ice creeping towards my heart. I had to pretend that I was afraid for the same reason they were.
Brian, my team leader, probably understood my true feelings the best. He broke down in tears when the newscaster said something about ‘extensive damage to the Alpha Insurance building’, where his wife works. Vicky and Joanne led him out to the corridor, away from the TV.
A spokeswoman for St Stan’s Hospital was up next, talking over a crackly phone line to the studio about how their ER was overwhelmed, and warning citizens not to come into hospital unless it was for something that absolutely could not wait. She was talking about crush injuries, broken bones, traumatic amputations. When asked about fatalities, she paused. She said she couldn’t confirm numbers, but at St Stan’s alone, it was into double digits.
The newscaster licked his dry lips before continuing, commentating on new camera-phone footage of fighter jets – the air force, he suggested unnecessarily – sweeping across the Hudson River, firing rockets at something unseen off-camera before arcing away. The unnamed citizen-journalist refocused his camera just in time to see one of the planes torn apart by something black and tentacular.
I whimpered. I couldn’t help it. The new girl put an arm around my shoulder. She was trembling.
‘Did he eject? Did he eject?’ Mitchell was almost weeping.
He hadn’t ejected. The cockpit had been crushed and the plane sheared in two. That had been obvious on screen.
‘They eject. They’ve got ejector seats,’ Mitchell said, his voice hollow. He rubbed his eyes with thumb and forefinger.
‘There!’ exclaimed the newscaster. ‘Is that…? It is!’
A few of us cheered. In the background of another new sequence, apparently from a documentary-maker who’d been shadowing the New York Fire Department, was the distinct shape of a human silhouette in the sky.
I burst into tears.
‘What are they waiting for?’ someone asked.
‘Who is it?’ someone else said.
‘It’s just a bird,’ Jeff said. ‘Or a plane.’
‘No, it’s not,’ I said, struggling to get the words out.
‘Oh my god,’ the new girl said. ‘Oh my god! It’s Lightning!’
There was a distinctive flash of light and a sonic boom as the flying figure suddenly accelerated from stationary, zipping as a blur into the smoking city.
‘It’s alright,’ the new girl whispered to me, hugging me closer. ‘It’s all going to be alright now. Lightning’s here.’
I forced a smile, tried to look relieved. She was laughing through her own tears.
‘I’m just being informed we’ve got some live… uh, some live images from the ground, from our reporter Amy Callaghan, if we can run those images? We can? Okay. Obviously, this footage may be… may be very upsetting to some viewers. Amy, tell us what you can see…’
There was Lightning, swooping back and forth across Times Square, using electromagnetic repulsion to hurl abandoned vehicles at the rampaging creature. Terrified, dust-plastered civilians ran shrieking from the creature’s flailing tentacles, protected by a wall of EM force projected by the parahuman.
People were cheering around the office. I was silent. I couldn’t even sob any more. I just stood, staring helplessly at the screen as Lightning shot towards the creature.
‘I think we can get closer,’ Amy Callaghan was saying, ‘and get a better view, a close-up, of the climax of this incredible battle.’
She and her cameraman moved quickly, the image bouncing as they dashed from the cover of a burned out taxi cab to an overturned hot dog stand. We all just watched, aghast. Ramon left the room. Shortly afterwards, so did Yvette. I wished I had as well, but I couldn’t.
‘There! There they are. Lightning is going in for the kill on the beast that’s attacked Manhattan today. Zoom in! Zoom in!’
There was a fault with the broadcast. The digital image became pixelated, jerky.
It froze on a shot of Lightning, surrounded by shredded tentacles. There was no mistaking though that the bright white energy crackling around Lightning’s head was enough to destroy anything.
You knew it as well. You loomed over the parahuman. Above your fanged maw, I recognised your all-too-human eyes. You were afraid, I think. I don’t believe you wanted to do what you were doing. It was your curse.
The broadcast cut, obliterated by the electromagnetic blast, just as you were.
I’ll always love you.
And the prompt? It was E.L. Hubbard’s quote: “A friend is someone who knows all about you and still loves you.”
Featured image by Vanessa Mannee.