Flash Fiction: God’s Own Expanse
Flash fiction is back, after a brief respite. Apparently some glitch over at terribleminds stopped it from being posted last week.
That’s a shame, because this one was a doozie.
The challenge: a random title.
I use the random number generator (actually, the same one he links to, but I was using it first so nyuh) when I need to select from a list for flash fiction. In this case I got 17) God’s Own and 3) Expanse.
My first thought was “that sounds like a Hallmark movie.” I had a helluva time coming up with an idea. It could be a grand epic. It could be a small character study.
Eventually I looked up. The title image for this post is a painting hanging above my desk. (I need to take a minute to apologize PROFUSELY to the original artist, I’m fairly terrible at shooting artwork, and I DID NOT do this painting justice). It inspired the story below.
“Captain, a storm is brewing. We have to turn back,” Lieutenant Harding screamed into the gusting wind.
Captain Peniel stood firm at the helm. Face clenched against the driving rain, his arms strained to keep the vessel on course. The sea grew angry. The ship bounded over wave after wave. Lightning danced from cloud to cloud in the distance.
No man had ever crossed the sea. Peniel would be the first. Chop be damned. Squall be damned. Crew be damned.
And if he was wrong, if God himself didn’t reside at the edge of expanse of blue, they all very well could be.
But he wasn’t wrong. He couldn’t be wrong.
“Know your place, Mr. Harding,” he said, teeth grinding with the effort of maintaining his heading. “No storm can sink this ship, for our purpose is divine.”
Harding was a good man and a good sailor. He had sailed with Peniel from the time he was a boy, nothing more than a mate on an old schooner. A young lieutenant himself, Peniel had taken the boy under his wing. He had taught him everything he knew about the sea. Harding was a good man and a good sailor.
But Peniel knew that, in this, Harding believed his captain to be mad.
An officer and a gentleman in his majesty’s navy had absconded with a ship of the line in search for God himself. Across the darkest of seas, where no man dared to sail, Peniel was in search of a deity.
But mad? No, not mad. God existed, his faith told him as much. It only stood to reason that the Creator would live among his greatest creation. Just out of their reach. Just out of their site.
Just across the sea.
“Captain,” Harding said, “The men are nervous. They’re frightened.” He paused. “Sir, they think you a madman for setting out on this pursuit. And if we don’t turn back we face mutiny.”
So there it was. Peniel knew Harding had questioned his sanity, but the Lieutenant would never dare lead the men in open revolt against him. The crew, on the other had, were mostly common. Their loyalty to their Captain and to the Crown extended only so far. If they felt it would save their sorry skins, even for a short while, they would throw the officers overboard and seize the ships for themselves.
“Pray that doesn’t happen, Lieutenant,” Peniel said, “We stand at the threshold of the House of the Almighty. This storm is but the doorman. Only those that prove worthy shall pass into the Father’s presence. If we turn back now we shall never know the countenance of God.”
A great bolt of lightning leapt from the angry sky, striking the base of the main mast. Wood and iron exploded on the deck. Nearby men screamed, maimed by the debris.
The great mast groaned. A burdendsome, sorrowful wail against the violence of the raging storm. The mast toppled forward. A tangle of lines and sails followed, dragged down by the heavy wooden beam.
Some men leapt out of the way. Others were swept into the sea by the falling debris.
Without the main sail to help guide the vessel Peniel couldn’t hold back the wheel. It spun out of his grasp. The ship veered sideways against the pitching sea. Some of the men managed to lash themselves to the remainder of the railing. Those that didn’t were tossed out into the black.
Peniel picked himself up from the rolling deck. He threw himself at the wheel, fighting to regain control of his ship. The rudder pitched against a wave, slamming him back into the rough wood.
Harding appeared above him. The lieutenant hoisted him to his feet and together they wrestled the wheel. Together they straightened the ship into the rolling sea. Wall after wall of water crashed over the bow. Lightning arced into the black sea around them.
Only the worthy would be allowed into the face of God. Peniel was worthy. He would enter the presence of the creator.
The men remaining on the deck had abandoned their posts, lashing themselves together in an attempt to ride out the squal. They pulled their way along the splintered railings up onto the main deck.
“Captain, this is madness!” one of the men shouted, “You’ll send us all to hell!”
Peniel couldn’t recall the man’s name. One of the new mates, the type of scum the Navy felt fit to send out to sea for King and Country. Men that had been given a choice. Jail or Sail.
“Quite the contrary,” Peniel answered, “I intend to lead us all to the gates of Heaven itself!”
The man produced a pistol from the under his waistcoat. The sound of the hammer carried over the driving rain.
“Madness!” he shouted, “Captain, release the helm. We have to turn back!”
“Mister Thomas,” Harding said, “Stow that pistol.”
Harding was a good officer. Where Peniel had been distracted by the order of the day, Lieutenant Harding had been sure the familiarize himself with the names of the entire crew.
“Mutiny carried a death sentence, man. You will all be hanged for this,” Harding said.
“If we survive,” Thomas said, “I’d rather chance the hangman than give my soul to the sea!”
Thomas pulled the trigger. The powder flashed in the pan, but the ship pitched before the ball left the pistol. The shot, meant for Captain Peniel, found its target in Lieutenant Harding’s thigh.
Harding dropped to a knee. He clasped a had over his leg in an attempt to stem the flood of blood. Peniel couldn’t hold the wheel alone, it broke his grip and spun free. The ship spun suddenly to it’s side. Another wave shot over the side of the ship.
The vessel overturned into the boiling sea, lightning still streaming from the heavens all around it.
Before they were thrown into the sea Peniel wrapped his hand around Harding’s coat tail. He wouldn’t lose his Lieutenant to the sea, not when they were this close to Paradise.
Peniel was swallowed into the black. The roiling water tossed him about. There was no sun in the sky to point him toward the life saving air. Even the faint glow of the lightning was muted and dispersed in the murky depths.
The air burned in his lungs. Peniel fought for some orientation, some indication of the way out of the blackness. Something hard bumped into his leg. A barrel. An empty barrel, on its way to the surface of the sea.
Peniel found a line lashed to the barrel and lashed Harding to it. His grip held firm as the barrel shot to the surface.
The storm raged above as the remnants of the mighty vessel floated around him. Peniel tightened Harding’s lashings to be sure the Lieutenant would remain above the water.
He lashed his own arm to the barrel and scanned the black for any orientation.
Any point of bearing.
Floating on a barrel in such a storm was death. Peniel didn’t have time for death. He had an appointment with the Almighty.
Then, off on the horizon, Peniel spied a faint glow. A beacon. A lighthouse, maybe, though they were far away from any land on any chart.
He fought his way through the raging storm toward that singular ray of light in the distance, his barrel and his lieutenant in tow.
The beacon grew steadily brighter even as the storm began to wan. The clouds broke into a clear, starry sky. The sea calmed to glass. Peniel paddled harder, driven by the need to reach the beacon before another squall picked up.
In time they came to rest on a sandy beach. The sand sparkled in the starlight, mimicking its heaven-bound cousins. Peniel cut Harding free and dragged him further onto the beach, out of the reach of the tide.
He stopped and stared at the beacon, now brighter than ever. The light burned bright atop a pyramid at the edge of the beach. The white stone of the pyramid glowed in the night, lighting the entire beach. A narrow, guilded stairway led to the top of the structure. To the foot of the beacon.
To God himself.
Tears began to stream down Captain Peniel’s face. He lifted Harding’s arm over his head and started for the stairs.
“Come, Lieutenant,” he said, “It is time for the worthy to meet their Maker.”