Late Bloom, by Melanie Rees

The cruel air lord Shackleston’s newest invention, a time reversal device, has ripped open a new vista for him to plunder! Can the lovely Cassandra and a mysterious stranger torn from his own time stop the mad inventor’s fiendish plans!?

The grandfather clock chimes eleven and then ten. The airship shudders as the pendulum strikes. One second Cassandra stands by her beloved timepiece, the next she’s back beside the desk, tumbling to her knees. She was here an hour earlier, scrutinising schematics for Shackleston’s latest contraption.

Cassandra hitches her skirt to adjust her petticoat, and runs her finger under the ebony boning of her corset, freeing her bosom from the skin-pinching, rib-digging scaffolding.he grandfather clock chimes eleven and then ten. The airship shudders as the pendulum strikes. One second Cassandra stands by her beloved timepiece, the next she’s back beside the desk, tumbling to her knees. She was here an hour earlier, scrutinising schematics for Shackleston’s latest contraption.

It is hardly a dignified act, but floating among the other airships, she almost feels alone, almost feels free.

She returns to her cherished clock and runs her fingers over the mahogany casing, feeling the intricate etchings in the woodwork. The delicate painting of a red flower on the glass clock face intrigues her. Who painted it? What inspired such vibrant colour? On the dusty plains below, the odd pale blue or purple flower peeps through rock crevices, but never a red one. The idea of something else outside the airship’s walls fuels her to persist.

Shackleston bolts into the room. He jumps into the air, clicking his heels. Under his arm, he holds a box which he dumps on the armchair. ‘Did you feel my ship thrust through time?’ Shackleston grabs Cassandra by the waist and pulls her hips to his. ‘Did you feel it?’

‘Yes, My Lord.’ She tries to pull back to free herself from the gas smell lingering around him. But she shouldn’t object. This is the way of things. He is the man, the master… the monster. She wrinkles her nose at the thought of him close.

‘Oh, come on. Show some enthusiasm,’ he pleads.

Cassandra forces a smile. ‘So this new contraption—’

‘Contraption!’ The edge to his voice makes Cassandra sit back down on the armchair.

‘So this new … invention,’ she corrects herself, ‘casts the ship in a reverse direction?’

‘I know. Isn’t it stupendous?’

‘So can you change the past?’

‘Change? Why would you want to change anything?’

Why indeed? She’d pondered such things since the first moment he talked about this device. She would travel way back to when forests graced the ground below instead of raiders and coal farmers.

Cassandra lifts a teacup to her lips to conceal that she is gnawing on her lower lip. Shackleston hates that. So did her father. She can still hear her father’s voice bleating in her ear. “If you wish to stay in the airships you must do as the Lords abide.”

She wonders if it is that terrible on the wastelands these days. At times, even the coal farms have their appeal.

Shackleston smiles like a hyena that has had too much dental work. ‘I almost forgot.’ Reaching past Cassandra, he plucks a wooden cylindrical device from the box.

He steps back and cranks a handle. Cogs turn and a coil compresses within the woodwork.

‘What does it—?’

The coil springs back and something whooshes past her head and smashes into the glass paneling on the grandfather clock.

Woops,’ he chirps like a canary in a coal farm and sniggers. ‘Be a good dear,’ he begins, ‘and clear that up.’

She gazes at smashed glass on the floor. The painted red flower has scattered like fallen petals. ‘Impressive,” she says feigning interest. ‘How does it work?’

‘Why would a courtesan need to know such things?’ He looks her up and down.

‘Sorry, my Lord. Idle curiosity.’ Social expectations clasp her vocal chords and she continues to speak in just a whisper. ‘With your time reversal invention…’ She knows she shouldn’t pry into his business but something intrigues her. ‘What should happen if you changed the past? Let’s say you went back and inadvertently killed your father…’ Cassandra’s voice trails off as she sees Shackleston’s forehead pucker into tight wrinkles. Thank goodness she hadn’t said what she really thought: say I went back and kill you, will you still be there when I awoke?

‘Let’s say I went back and killed my father,’ she rephrases the question, ‘I would never be born, therefore I could never go back to kill my father? Do you see the dilemma?’

‘What?’ Shackleston snickers. ‘What an utter load of nonsense.’

‘Maybe.’ She bites her lower lip contemplatively. ‘But maybe every time you change something an alternate timeline is created.’ Maybe even a new world. She hangs onto that fantasy.

‘How about you let the men do the thinking.’ He has that look in his eyes and she knows to quit before she infuriates him further.

The pilot storms into the room. He raises his beady goggles on top of his head, revealing even beadier eyes.

Shackleston slaps him on the back. ‘Reginald, old chap. Did you feel it? It worked.’

‘Oh, I felt it. But have you seen it?’ Reginald’s greasy moustache twitches like a butterfly trying to free itself from his face.

‘Seen what?’

Reginald glances to the portal at the side of the ship. The glass has taken on a brilliant green hue. Cassandra follows the men to the window. A viridescent crack pierces the sky.

‘The steel merchants are flying nearby. They say they can see through it. They say the land on the other side is covered with a large expanse of trees! Not like the plantations here. They extend forever.’

‘Another world?’ Cassandra feels something akin to hope kindle inside.

Reginald chuckles, but his moustache remains plastered in a static grimace and doesn’t share in the laughter. His beady eyes bear down upon her chest. ‘Where did you pick this one up? I thought you would have a greater selection from the coal farms?’ Reginald leans in close and whispers, ‘one that knows her place.’

Cassandra tastes a hint of blood and realises she is biting her lip. Shackleston hasn’t noticed. She can tell his brain was ticking over, trying to work out whether they could harvest the trees Reginald mentioned.

A thunderous boom saves her from Reginald’s torment. He pulls back, pushes her out the way and presses his face to the window.

Cassandra peers past them to see a peculiar ship plough though the slit of light. There is no woodwork. It is just metal: solid and strong and sleek with its tapered nose that cuts through the air. Peculiarly, no steam streams from the vessel. No balloons or sails keep it aloft.

‘What do you believe powers it?’ Cassandra asks, curiosity making her forget herself.

Fortunately, Shackleston has other concerns. ‘Trees you say?’

Reginald nods. ‘Who knows what else?’

‘Maybe even coal,’ Shackleston muses to himself and wanders to the armchair. He picks up the wooden contraption that dismantled Cassandra’s precious clock. Shackleston thrusts the weapon out of the window.

‘What are you doing?’ Cassandra runs to the next portal and peers out.

Shackleston’s weapon discharges. Sparks fly from the foreign ship. The nose dips forward and it plummets towards the wastelands below. The scene blurs. Cassandra realises she’s breathing so close to the glass it’s started to fog up. She wipes it with her fist in time to see a man shoot out the top of the ship and float down with a parachute. An explosion echoes below as the ship hit the ground.

‘Nets!’ yells Shackleston.

Reginald darts out of the room.

‘What will you do to him?’

‘“What will I do…?”’ he mimics. ‘What concern is it to you?’ Shackleston grabs her shoulder and spins her to face him. ‘And stop biting your lip.’

She snaps her mouth shut.

‘But since you asked. He’ll let us know exactly what is through there and how we can get it. And if he doesn’t he can join the other slavers in the coal farms.’ He leaves her and strides from the room.

Outside, the large net unfolds beneath the falling man. For a second, it appears that he will guide his parachute away from the trap but the billowing fabric folds up on itself and the man plummets. She hears Shackleston ‘wooping’ from the lower decks and the net navigates directly underneath the poor soul. His legs crumple underneath him as he lands, and the parachute engulfs him in a tangled mess.

Cassandra gazes back at the green light still twinkling mid-air. Maybe she can encourage Shackleston to venture there. She can accompany him and then run. Run free. Free through their forests. The image sends chills across her skin. But how far would she really get with Shackleston breathing down her neck.

She fetches an ordinary pane of glass, reaffixes it to her clock, then sweeps the shattered glass into a metal dustpan. She picks up a shard of glass. That painted flower gave her hope. Maybe it still can. For the first time in a long time confidence brews within.

 

Cassandra slows her pace as she approaches Shackleston’s invention room. The wooden boards beneath her feet creak with each step, breaking her calm. She intended to storm into the room and demand for him to be merciful; instead, she tiptoes closer and pries her ear to the door.

For a moment, there is nothing and then a painful deep groan torments her eardrums. The floorboards creak beneath her. She looks at her feet. She hasn’t moved. Why…? She realises that isn’t wood creaking but bones cracking. Or breaking.Cassandra slows her pace as she approaches Shackleston’s invention room. The wooden boards beneath her feet creak with each step, breaking her calm. She intended to storm into the room and demand for him to be merciful; instead, she tiptoes closer and pries her ear to the door.

Cassandra presses her forehead to the door. Just walk in, she pleads with herself. The cracking bones on the other side plead with her too. An aching in her hand distracts her from the noises. The glass shard digs into her hand. She drops it and dabs a line of blood on her palm with her skirt. The glass clatters on the wooden floor and heavy boots thud towards her from inside the room.

She falls forward as the door opens. Shackleston stands with his brass corkscrew in one hand and an unusual metal contraption with a barrel and handle in the other.

‘Oh, it’s you,’ Shackleston says.

Cassandra bites her lip, trying to distract herself from her stinging palm. ‘I’m sorry. I just…’ Cassandra glances down at the glass shard. She can just bend down, pick it up and thrust it deep into his dead dark heart, but that corkscrew drills into her subconscious, threatening her with its glistening brass. ‘I just thought… you might need some help… with your interrogations,’ she stutters.

Shackleston walks towards the prisoner who is strapped to a chair against the far wall. ‘She wishes to assist me. Isn’t that amusing?’ He slaps the man with the back of his hand. ‘I said, isn’t that amusing?’

The man cranes his neck a fraction as if to speak and then spits a gob full of blood on Shackleston’s leather shoes.

Such defiance! Cassandra has been too preoccupied with the corkscrew to pay the man much attention. Her feet move on their own accord as if she’s in a trance. What are you doing, Cassandra? You can leave now. Despite the self-talk, she walks closer and closer to the man and to Shackleston.

‘Since you won’t tell me how this weapon works…’ Shackleston throws the metal contraption on the massive oak table and it chinks against another small one, startling Cassandra. ‘…you can tell me what the deal is with your pointy-nosed ship.’

The weapon lies on the table besides the gas lamp. Cogs and spare clockwork litter the table around it. It looks like Shackleston has attempted to attach his mechanical work to the weapon, but now the used cogs and clockwork litter the table like discarded kids’ toys.

The man raises his head a fraction. Blood drips from the side of his lip; behind swelling and fresh bruising, green eyes glance in Cassandra’s direction. The motley greens of his unusual garments accentuate his eyes. A matt of ginger hair clings to his brow, from sweat or blood she can’t tell in the dim lamplight.

‘Would your ships attack me?’ Shackleston grabs the man’s chin, forcing the man to look at him.

The man smiles. An old scar above his lip creases like a dimple. Despite herself, Cassandra finds herself returning a wry smile.

‘Oh, do you think someone of your class would have access to such women?’ Shackleston asks the man, and then turns to Cassandra. She wipes the smile from her face as quick as she can. ‘I bet you don’t have women like this where you’re from.’ Shackleston grabs the back of her neck and forces her body forward. Her head slams on the wooden table next to the man’s weapon. She casts her eyes to weapon as Shackleston hitches up her skirt.

‘We have women like that, but we don’t treat ours like that.’ His voice hisses with the fury of a stream train. No one ever speaks back to the upper class like that. No one ever dares speak back to Shackleston.

‘You bloody what!’

The pressure on the back of her neck subsides and heavy footsteps thump away from her. She rises slowly and hitches down her skirt.

‘Do I have to remind you we are several hundred feet up in the air? Can you fly without your little pointy-nosed toy?’ Shackleston rests his weight on the man’ right hand. Cassandra notices his fingers are twisted in different angles. She turns to block out the sight, but can’t block out the man’s feverish and agonising groans.

A thud resonates besides Cassandra. On the table, Shackleston jams the corkscrew into the woodwork. ‘Will you watch the prisoner for a while? I have to see Reginald so we can plot a new course.’

‘Are we going to fly to the parallel world?’ Hope rises in Cassandra’s chest. Please send me elsewhere and give me a slim chance of escape.

‘You aren’t. It’s no place for a woman. You are going to stay…’ Shackleston turns the corkscrew so that it digs further into the timber. ‘…right… here.’ He twists it again. ‘If the ship goes down, we all go down.’ He storms out the room. The lock clicks and his heavy feet thud off into the distance.

‘Please. You gotta help me,’ pleads the man. His words are short and fluid. He seems to have a way of running his words together that make it sound like the murmur of the stratospheric winds lashing airships’ sails.

‘He may be testing me. He might still be outside the door. I daren’t defy…’ She notices a poppy embroidered on his breast pocket. A red poppy! Never has she seen anything so bright, so delicate. ‘Do you have such flowers in your world?’ She catches the man’s eyes. ‘Are they really that red?’

Although he barely seems to have enough energy to move, he nods.

Cassandra turns to the door, half-expecting it to open. When nothing happens, she crouches besides him and tugs at the rope fastening his wrists to the chair. His breathing is ragged and deep. She frees his good hand.

‘Are you okay?’ she asks before realising it wasn’t his breathing that echoed in her ear, but her own heavy breath.

‘I won’t let him hurt you.’ He rests his fingers on hers. ‘You know when that green light appeared I thought I was dreaming for a second.’

‘And now?’

‘Now I’m sure I’m dreaming.’ The man unties the other ropes with a few quick tugs. ‘I lied before.’

Cassandra backs towards the table. There is something dark and dangerous about his appearance. Who’s to say he isn’t as awful as Shackleston?

He stands and walks towards her, towering over her lithe frame. He smiles, his scar creases beautifully. ‘I lied. We don’t have women like you.’

He is so close now that her cheeks feel warm under his breath.

She presses her palm to his breast pocket. His heart beats intensely. ‘We don’t have red flowers,’ she mutters without thinking. As soon as she says it, she feels her cheeks flush red with embarrassment.

His lips and his scar smile like flowers in bloom.

She turns towards the door, expecting Shackleston to storm in. ‘I should um… fix up your hand.’

‘It’s fine. At least my left one is fine.’ He runs his hand up her back making her spine tingle. With a single tug of a chord, he loosens her corset. Ribs breathe, breasts exhale, her body trembles as it is freed of its caging.

Pressing his body to hers, he reaches past her and plucks the two metal weapons from the table. He reaches down the inside of his boot and pulls out a handful of small metal cylinders. Opening a chamber on the top of the metal weapon, he loads the cylinders and closes it again with a click.

‘This is the safety,’ he says pointing to a little latch on one of the metal devices. ‘And this is the trigger.’

‘I don’t understand.’

He hitches up her skirt, slides a warm hand along her inner thigh and secures the weapon under the elastic of her undergarments. Against her leg, the metal is cool and hard.

‘Come with me,’ he whispers, his breath hot in her ear. He draws back and presses his lips to her cheek and then her neck.

‘It is not my place to make such decisions.’

His lips touch her chin ever so gently. She feels the ridge of his scar against her lower lip. He kisses her lips briefly.

She takes a deep breath as he pulls back. ‘You can’t let them follow us. They will decimate the forests they saw to make more ships.’

He walks around the other side of the table. Yards of fabric are scrunched next to a backpack. He unravels string and fabric and rearranges it in the pack. ‘So how do we close this portal? How did it appear in the first place?’ He slings the pack on his back and then yanks the corkscrew from the wood with his good hand.

‘His time reversal invention sparked this. I presume disabling it would render the portal inactive.’

He cocked an eyebrow. ‘Time reversal?’

‘It is but a silly invention. Who would want to relive moments again?’

‘I’m guessing it depends on the moments.’ He kisses her again, this time for longer. ‘Where do we go?’ he asks.

‘His invention is up on the deck. But more to the point, we have no way to get out of this room.’

He looks at the door, steps forward and kicks the wood with his hefty boots. The lock gives way with a creak. ‘Where to?’ He cocks his head towards freedom.

Cassandra tiptoes out of the room, holding her breath, hoping against hope that Shackleston isn’t outside. The floor creaks as they make their way up the stairs. She peeks out of the hatch leading to the deck and pauses.

‘Trust me. I won’t let him hurt you.’

Despite their predicament, she can’t help but smile. ‘What is your name?’

‘Red. Or Wayne if you want to be more formal.’

‘Cassandra,’ she replies. ‘Red? Is that on account of your poppy?’

He cocks an eyebrow and tugs at his hair.

‘Oh.’

‘But I will take you to see red poppies, I promise.’

‘Hey!’ Reginald shouts behind them.

Before she knows what was happening he climbs the stairs and thrusts a knife in their direction. ‘Shackleston!’ he screams.

It won’t be long before Shackleston will be here with his weapon.

‘We give up.’ Red takes a step forward.

‘I should think so.’ Reginald’s moustache twitches as he points the knife down the stairs. ‘Chop! Chop! You too.’ His beady eyes gaze at Cassandra.

Red takes another step closer and then swings the corkscrew, hitting Reginald in his jaw. He falls sideways. The moustache rips from his skin and flutters free.

Red grabs Cassandra’s hand, dragging her up the stairs.

She runs across the deck to the helm. Shackleston’s device is a complicated wooden box adorned with cogs and clock faces and levers. Inside the casing is a light. She studied the schematics but never quite understood how it worked.

‘I don’t know how to deactivate it.’ Directly ahead, the green light shimmers. Airships crowd around, eager to invade the new world.

Thudding of heavy boots resonate from the deck below.

Red points the metal weapon at the box. The device makes a clicking sound and then an explosion that rattles her chest.

‘What have you done?’ Shackleston appears on the deck wielding his wooden weapon. ‘You cheap pathetic courtesan!’

‘Go!’ Red screams in her ear and runs to the prow.

Cassandra tries to keep the pace. The light in front begins to close. Airships back away; possibly afraid they will be swallowed whole. She wants to be swallowed whole, with him, and lie in a field of red flowers forever watching the seconds tick by.

‘Cassandra!’ yells Shackleston. He points his weapon towards the prow and fires.

Splinters of wood hit her legs. Her pinafore tangles around her legs, tripping her. The deck knocks the wind out of her as she lands. Shackleston shoots again. Wood explodes just ahead of her. Dust and woodchips obscure her view, but she hears a deep guttural scream and her name echo on the wind. She crawls forward to see Red falling. The parachute opens and he veers towards the light.

‘Jump!’ he screams, and holds out his hand.

She creeps towards the edge. Just leap, she thinks. What is the worst that could happen? She leans forward, but Shackleston grabs a handful of hair and yanks her head backwards. Something thumps the back of her head. The line of green light diminishes, and everything sinks into darkness.

 

The skies are dark by the time Cassandra comes too. She lies slumped in an undignified position in the armchair and her head aches.

A lock clicks.

Cassandra straightens her skirt, and pushes herself up from the armchair.

‘Stop biting your lip!’ Shackleston slaps Cassandra’s mouth.

Her tooth digs into her lip drawing blood. Perhaps it will scar like Red’s. At least he made it back to his home with its peculiar gadgets and ships. Cassandra suddenly becomes aware of the cool metal against her inner thigh. She hitches her skirt and extracts the curious weapon.

‘What are you going to do with that?’ Shackleston laughs. ‘Even I could not figure it out.’

Cassandra rolls the metal container open. The small metal cylinders are still inside. She closes it again and clicks open the lever Red said was the safety switch.

‘Oh, you are right, my Lord. I’m a cheap courtesan, what would I know?’

The bang as she pulls the trigger underneath the barrel resonates throughout the airship and sends shivers down her spine. Blood sprays from Shackleston’s body and he falls.

She walks past Shackleston slumped on his side and inspects her beloved grandfather clock. The red flower on the glass pane has bloomed once more.

Melanie Rees is an Australian writer with a love for speculative fiction. Her work has appeared in markets such as Aurealis, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Apex, Cosmos and Daily Science Fiction. She lives online at flexirees.wordpress.com and on Twitter @FlexiRees.

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