Freebie Mondays: The Ballad of Striker and Vinyl

Freebie Mondays: The Ballad of Striker and Vinyl

Back in November, I started streaming my writing sessions. I did it as part of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and in part because I met a lot of other writers streaming for the same event. I had no idea what to expect, but the Twitch writing community came out in force to support me. I quickly realized it was something I would enjoy doing long term and looked at my schedule to find ways I could stream without giving away too many spoilers about novels I hope to one day publish.

Then I remembered that I write shorts for my blog every other week! This was my second streamed short story writing session, and the idea was actually suggested by chat. Our friend Cauliflumps often streams XCOM. He lets his chat redeem naming characters in the game and it just so happened that my character and his wife’s (Vinylstencil) ended up becoming a paired match. I joked that we would go on silent dates where we read books and drank tea, and thus was born the story featured here.

I also watched a lot of Time Team prior to writing this, and the influence is probably a little bit obvious. (I may one day expand this story with future installments!)
. . .

Nothing that came from the depths was ever pristine. Dirt clung to every tiny cranny, filling the spaces with the weight of time. But once the tiniest particles had been scraped away, they revealed a glimmer of the hidden past, a spark of the vivacity that might have filled those long-lost days.

Though the thin metal shaft at first appeared to be part of a weapon – as so many objects pulled from the rubble of that layer were – it soon became apparent that it was too thin, too fragile to have been used as a blow dart or even an arrow. Though the thin ends had snapped free, leaving only the thickest, heaviest decorated part of the metal tubing to study, it soon became apparent that it must be decorative. Part of a pin perhaps or, as later archeologists speculated, a writing implement.

Pens and pencils had been common at the time they studied, which made quills and other forms of calligraphic stylus rare – but certainly not unheard of during the early parts of the war.

That, then, must have been its purpose. It made a certain amount of sense when paired with the rest of the frail objects pulled from the same small stretch of ground.

It was the leather scrap that fascinated its discoverers most. Compressed against the sediment of the encroaching earth, it hardened, leaving a deep impression in the calcifying rock matter. This allowed its discoverers to trace the subtle folds and contours of what had likely been a book’s binding. From this mess of wrinkles, close observation teased the shape of a tree, its branches spread wide and spattered with tiny, dot-like leaves.

And beneath that was a set of words, hard to decipher, partially rubbed away, but roughly translated to read:

Roses are red
Violets are blue
I like to drink tea
And I know you do too
.

That, then, provided context for the final scraps found scattered throughout the sediment layer. The shining piece of ceramic, still coated with the brightly colored gloss that gave it personality while it was whole. The delicately curving, still slightly gilded handle that might have adorned the cup or another like it, and the stained, stamp-like crests still clinging to the small shards of glass they managed to prize from the earth.

When they were set on museum shelves – the decorative quill nib set against a brilliant black feather and the tiny bits of vinyl reconstructed with fresh materials – the finds told a story of star-crossed lovers living in unprecedented times.

*   *   *

Sunlight poured through the window, casting tiny rays of yellow across the floor. On the far side of the room, the gentle buzz of ambient chatter drifted through the squared arch of the doorway, carrying the occasional hint of laughter. Two voices rose above the rest, passionate in their observations – sometimes historical, sometimes political – no doubt drawing a large crowd of interested participants to their table.

But here, on the threshold between the officer’s mess and the garden, it was tranquil. Beyond the tiny haven, tall grass swayed in the gentle spring breeze, and happy little worker bees fluttered between blossoms, delivering small flakes of pollen between plants as they gathered their burdens to deliver back to their hives.

The outer door stood open, allowing lavender and lilac to drift into the room. It mixed with the scent of black tea and spices rising from the tea pot, creating a small pocket of paradise.

The walls were made of faded wood beams, long since stripped of their staining. At a glance, they conjured images of old cabins stashed away in deep woods, though they were affixed on their far side to a tarnished steel plate. The bulk of the facility was made of reclaimed metal – a better shield against the weapons likely to be leveled in their direction. But this small, outer portion remained organic in hopes it would be harder to notice.

Likewise, the floors were old hardwood and still managed to cling to some small portion of their shine. A tattered old maroon rug rested in one corner, framed on either side by a pair of padded rockers.

At the base of one, square in the sunbeam pouring through the window, rested a tawny-colored tomcat. His legs were folded beneath his body, and his cheek was pressed to the soft carpet threads. He was only half-domesticated, and might allow one of the women sitting in the rockers to pet him. But if anyone else exited the officer’s mess, he was just as likely to bolt.

The soft rustle of paper indicated that one of the women had turned a page in their book and, shortly after, a second sound indicated that the other had reached the bottom of her page.

To an outside observer, it might seem that everyone occupying the room was engaged in completely separate behaviors – the women each in their books and the cat at his nap. But actually, this was a small group of like-minded individuals sharing in a joint event.

At least, it was for the women. Tea and reading time was hard to come by, and they had taken every opportunity to squeeze it in as the war activities beyond their facility grew more frantic. Especially when one or the other was recovering from injuries – as was the case at the moment.

The cat had invited himself to this and several other outings. But he moved as he pleased, mostly haunting the garden, and was just as likely to abandon them as he was to stick around.

With a soft yawn, one of the women closed her book and set it on the small table that held the tea pot. Then she locked her fingers together and pushed her arms outward and above her head, stretching her muscles until the joints popped.

With a soft smile, her companion set a small colored strip of paper into her book to keep her place. Then she, too, set her book aside and joined the stretching, shifting her upper body from one side to the other until the tension eased from her back.

They both seemed to finish their motions at the same time, as if the movement had been carefully choreographed, and each flashed the other a smile when they came to rest.

At a glance, each woman was quite different from the other. One had light hair, the other dark. Likewise, one dressed in bright pastels while the other favored shades of grey. But the joy that lit their faces when they looked upon each other resonated in perfect harmony.

The light haired woman pointed to the tea pot, and her dark-haired companion nodded. They moved in perfect synchronicity as one set a pair of brightly colored teacups on matching saucers, while the other lifted the cartoonishly painted tea cup to pour steaming liquid into each of the cups. There was some furious shuffling as each woman prepared her tea the way she preferred it, then they lifted the cups and carefully touched the rims together to create a soft clink.

Everything in this small pocket of the old world moved at a stately pace. The women sipped slowly, so as not to burn lips or tongues against the hot liquid. One sank deeper into her chair while the other bent to scratch lightly behind the tomcat’s ears.

Often these meetings went on for some time, alternating between tea refills and shuffling book pages. No words were spoken because, none needed to be spoken, though occasionally one woman would lean over and point to a line in her book she hoped the other would read, and both would laugh before returning to their previous positions.

Slowly, the light wore down, the sunbeam shifted positions, and the tomcat shuffled so that he remained within its warmth. The supply of tea in the pot dwindled, leaving small bits of tea leaf floating in its base and a pair of drip-shaped stains across each of the cups. The books and mugs often shifted positions as the women read and sipped, though sometimes they would simply stop to stare out the window and absorb the movement of the earth.

These were trying times, after all, and peaceful moments were exceedingly few and far between.

At last, a distant bell sounded.

The tomcat jerked into a half-seated position, one arm spread in front of him, his ears cocked toward the source of the sound.

An alarm began to blare in the mess, deafening compared to the recent stillness.

At last, the tawny cat bolted, disappearing instantly into the hedges pressed against the side of the wooden wall.

The two women lowered their books and exchanged a fresh glance. Instead of bright with joy, this time each set of eyes was dark with worry, and concern creased each of their brows.

Moving with far less harmony, each of them closed their books and gathered the remains of their tea set.

Beyond the door to the mess, the loud voices that had spent the last several hours engaging in passionate conversation bellowed directions as the soldiers rose from their tables and stampeded toward the proper locker rooms to prepare for battle.

Everyone knew the routine; each of them could have completed it in their sleep. Clear your current activities as quickly as possible, don your armor, claim your weapons and report to your superiors for assignment.

Yet even among the hustle and hubbub of preparation, the two women moved slowly, trailing purposely in the wake of the others, delivering the tea set and the books back to their bunk, tucking them carefully between blankets.

They converged in the doorway and, at some silent signal, their hands twined together.

In a moment, they would be swept into the flowing tide of traffic to participate in the hectic hustle of another battle. Neither of them knew what waited in the world beyond their small haven, or how many people would come back when the job was done.

These were uncertain times, and the future never seemed to stretch more than a few hours or a few days in any direction. But as the two had learned from the time they spent in the wooden antechamber, life could not wait to be lived. One had to find joy in the moment, however fleeting it turned out to be.

So rather than fear or sorrow, each woman’s eyes shone with possibility. There were dozens – possibly even hundreds – contained within their next step alone. And when they stepped across the threshold, it was with their hands still twined, marching now in perfect step to discover what awaited them.

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