The Final Hours of London

Andrew McGreevy stood on the balcony of the Royal University, gazing out over the smog-covered rooftops of London.  He fingered the top of his sword cane, a gift from his friend and mentor, Professor William Shackleton.  His wedding ring clinked musically against the metal knob.  Clara.  The young man sighed, surveying the destruction on the outskirts of the city, the eerie silence oppressive after so many weeks of siege. 

Raiders had posed a threat to travelers in the English countryside for several years, but a few months earlier the ruffians had banded together before vanishing from knowledge.  After a few weeks, they reappeared and laid siege to London.  The first wave of the attack was nearly successful, and the royal family fled to France.  The newly-formed police force was decimated, and if not for the leadership of the Lord Mayor and the ingenuity of Professor Shackleton, the city would have fallen.  Three weeks of fighting had ensued, and after the last battle (in which the defenders had utilized many of the explosive devices designed by the professor), the raiders had withdrawn. 

Andrew sighed.  It had been nearly a week, and there was no sign of the raiders returning.  Professor Shackleton had begun to voice hopes that the invaders had given up on London and moved on in search of easier prey.  The young man remained doubtful, so he stood watch over the city, leaning gently on a sword cane, his black coat stirred by the light breeze.  He glanced to the heavens in a moment of quiet contemplation, but above London, a strange dark shape loomed, casting an ominous shadow upon an already depressed town.  Andrew’s lips tightened, his heart filling with an unwelcome foreboding. 

Professor William Shackleton limped resolutely into a crowded square, tan trench coat flapping and mechanical leg clanking as he glared furiously up at the huge contraption that hovered above the city.  Bobbies armed with metal truncheons stood gaping as the machine slowly lost altitude.  The truncheons were the professor’s own design, and contained a flammable liquid that made the clubs formidable weapons.  The citizens of London gazed toward the skies in wary fascination as the Lord Mayor issued orders and the Police Commissioner glared from beneath his helmet, bushy moustache bristling. 

“Professor!” a young man’s voice exclaimed from the midst of the crowd.  Professor Shackleton glanced over his shoulder as his friend and student, Andrew McGreevy appeared, his face creased with concern.  “What is it?” he asked. 

The professor squinted up at the ominous shape as he made his way to the steps where the Mayor and Commissioner stood. “Some sort of skycraft, I think,” he growled.  “My Lord Mayor!” he called over to the bald politician.  “What’s our plan?” 

“Blow th’ blasted thing t’ smithereens!”  Commissioner Graham shouted over the din.  “No good cahn come of it!” 

The Lord Mayor mopped his brow, glancing between the scowling policeman and the glowering scientist.  “Well…” he began, but at that moment, the crowd increased in volume, and a ragged man was escorted before the Lord Mayor.  The stranger’s clothing was in tatters, his hands were shackled, and he sported a nasty cut that was leaking blood down the side of his face. 

“Wot’s this?” demanded the Commissioner. 

One of the bobbies escorting the prisoner nodded briefly to his superior.  “We caught ‘im sneakin’ around da river, sah.  Thought we should bring ‘im ‘ere for questioning.” 

The Lord Mayor frowned, and the Commissioner glared at the captured man as if he had a long-standing vendetta against him.  “Wot’s this, wot’s this?” he demanded again.  “A raider sneakin’ around?  Sounds loik a hangin’ offense t’ me!” 

“Wait!” the man burst out.  “I have information!  Valuable information!  Please don’t kill me!”  The raider’s eyes were wild with fear. 

“What do you know?” Professor Shackleton asked sternly. 

The prisoner glanced feverishly from face to face.  “The rest of the raiders…They’re gone!” 

“Gone?” the Lord Mayor repeated in disbelief.  The Commissioner frowned suspiciously. 

“Yes, your lordships!  Gone!” the raider said earnestly. “They disbanded.” 

“Then what is that,” the professor said, pointing to the hovering contraption, “Doing above our city?” 

The prisoner shrugged.  “I dunno, your lordships.  Some of the real smart ‘uns were building that.  They left after they launched it into the air, but before they could use it.” 

Professor Shackleton glanced up at the skycraft.  “The secret of flight…” he murmured wistfully.  “With a craft like that in our power, we could hold London indefinitely.”

“Then haul it down,” the Lord Mayor ordered quietly.     

“Haul it down, lads!” Commissioner Graham bellowed.  The bobbies hastened to comply, firing the professor’s grappling guns at the netting that covered the large, balloon-like structure. 

Andrew watched, brow furrowed, as the huge contraption was pulled down by strong hands.  The skycraft was made up of a large wooden box and an enormous cloth balloon, several propellers and smokestacks completing the machine.  Slowly, reluctantly, the skycraft descended.  Ropes were made fast to fences and lampposts, and the machine was left drifting a few feet above the ground, surrounded by curious civilians and cautious bobbies.  Except for the hum of the skycraft’s machinery, the contraption was still and lifeless.  Then pandemonium broke out.

Explosions rocked the skycraft as cannons thrust their deadly maws from hidden hatches, spitting metal into the surrounding buildings.  Longer muzzles extended from the sides of the craft, spraying liquid fire into the screaming mass of civilians.  Raiders flung open well-concealed doors, charging into the crowd as battle was joined in the heart of London. 

“Professor!” Andrew yelled, shoving his way toward the old man.  “What do we do?” 

“Run!” Professor Shackleton growled, as bells began to clang throughout the city.  “Get to the University!  Clara will know to meet up with us there!” 

Growling, a raider swung a rusty scythe at Andrew.  The young man ducked and drew his sword cane, stabbing the invader through the chest before turning back to his mentor.  “Get out of here!” the old man called over the din.  “I’ll be right behind you!” 

Andrew dashed off, but quickly found himself pressed against a building as his fellow citizens tried to escape the slaughter.  Desperate, the man shoved open a door and raced up a staircase.  Throwing his cane into a corner, he flung open a window on the fourth floor and clambered out onto the roof.  Several blocks away, the Royal University’s dome soared.  Andrew could just make out the window of his mentor’s laboratory.  With a sprint and a leap, the young man flew over the narrow street, landing unsteadily on his hands and knees.  With a grunt, he straightened, ran across the slick shingles, and crossed an alleyway with another jump. 

Ten minutes later, Andrew pulled himself over a window ledge and into the darkened lab of Professor Shackleton.  The professor’s machines and equipment stood scattered around the workshop, vague shapes in the dimly-lit room.  As Andrew walked further into the room, an ominous click echoed behind him.  “Hands in the air, or I’ll blow you to pieces,” the stern voice of a young woman spat.  Andrew did as he was told, turning slightly. 

“Clara,” he said gently. 

“Andrew?” the woman gasped, lowering the miniature crossbow that she had leveled at him.  Andrew’s wife rushed toward him, and he turned and caught her in his arms. 

“Where’s Anthony?” he murmured into her blonde hair.  “Where’s our son?” 

“He’s here,” she said, stepping away to look up at her husband.  “He’s asleep right now.”  She studied Andrew’s face for a moment.  “What is happening?  We heard the alarm bells…” 

“The raiders launched a surprise attack,” Andrew told her.  “They got to the center of the city in a flying machine.  We thought it was abandoned.  We were wrong.”  He glanced toward a corner of the room, where his infant son lay asleep in a nest of blankets.  “Where did you get that crossbow?” he asked Clara. 

“The professor gave it to me a few weeks ago,” she said, handing the weapon to him.  “He said we needed something to be able to defend our home with.  Something that could cause serious damage.” 

Andrew inspected the weapon.  The crossbow was small enough to be fired with a single hand, and the bolt had a round bulb on the end.  Clara handed him a small quiver of bolts attached to a leather belt.  “Careful,” she warned.  “The tips are explosive.”  Andrew strapped on the quiver, then unloaded the weapon and set it on a workbench. 

A distant blast shook the building, and Andrew pulled Clara into his arms again.  “I’m scared,” she whispered in a small voice. 

“I know,” he said, sighing.  “So am I.” 

“What will become of London?” Clara murmured, a tear leaking down her cheek.  “Of our home?” 

Andrew swallowed the lump in his throat.  “I don’t know.”

The door burst open, and Professor Shackleton limped into the room, grabbing a large blunderbuss from a side table.  “You need to leave,” he barked.  Andrew caught up the crossbow, and Clara rushed to the corner where her son slept. 

“What about London?” Andrew asked. 

The professor looked up from his weapon, his face a mask of hopeless pain.  “London has fallen,” he growled.  “I’ll stay and fight for as long as I can, but you have to leave.  Now.  Before you no longer can.” 

“We’re not leaving without you, professor,” Clara said, her son in her arms.  “Come with us.” 

“No!” he growled. “I’m too old.  I’ll only slow you down.”

“We’re not leaving without you,” Andrew warned. 

The old man’s eyes bulged.  “Oh yes you are!” he bellowed.  

“No we’re not,” Clara snapped back.  “You are our best chance at defeating these raiders, and you can’t work on your experiments if you’re dead.  The city has fallen, you’ve said so yourself, but if you can get away, maybe to France…”  Professor Shackleton snorted derisively.  “…Then perhaps we could someday avenge our home.” 

The man frowned as another nearby explosion rocked the building.  The professor looked for an instant like a feeble old man, the kind that ought to be reading a book by a fire, not fighting a war.  “Alright,” he sighed.  “I’ll go with you.”  Turning, the scientist hefted his gun.  “Follow me.”

The professor led the young family down several flights of white marble stairs, then down a narrow hallway and a servant’s staircase.  They fumbled around in the dark subbasement until the professor lit a small lantern, shadows fleeing from the feeble light into the corners and crevices of the dingy room.  The old man began to hand the lantern to Clara, but she was carrying her son.  He started to give it to Andrew, then glanced at the explosive crossbow bolts and thought better of it.  With a grunt, the professor set the lantern on the floor next to a rusty manhole cover.  “Can you give me a hand?” he grunted at Andrew.  The young man bent down quickly and helped his mentor shift the heavy lid aside.  The biting stench of the sewer seeped up from the hole, but the professor just slung his gun across his back, picked up the lantern with one hand, and clumsily descended into the drain, his metal leg clanking against the rusty ladder.  The old man reached the bottom and glared up at Andrew and Clara.  “Come on!” he called. 

Andrew helped his wife down into the sewer, Anthony cradled carefully against her shoulder.  Clara reached the bottom, and Andrew clambered down hastily after her.  Holding his lantern aloft, the professor limped away, sloshing through the slimy muck. 

The fugitives hurried through the sewer, dust raining down as explosions echoed along the streets above.  They had been walking quickly for several minutes when eight armed, ragged men burst out of a side tunnel.  The professor flung the lantern at the group with a shout, quickly unslinging his gun.  The raiders opened fire, bullets ricocheting off the wet stone walls as they attacked the fleeing citizens. 

Andrew loaded his crossbow as the professor fired wildly into the group, his weapon feeding cartridges automatically as he was obscured in smoke.  Hand shaking, Andrew launched a bolt into the midst of the raiders.  The explosion rang out, scattering the invaders and leaving several writhing in the filth of the tunnel. 

“Run!” Professor Shackleton screamed.  He charged into the raiders, his gun still firing, bullets tearing through the flesh and bones of the invaders.  Andrew reloaded the crossbow as he ran, Clara following closely after him.  They raced past their attackers, angry shouts echoing around the sewer as they emerged into a larger tunnel where a small boat sat waiting for them.  Andrew leapt into the vessel, helping his wife down into the wooden boat.  The professor untied the rope and grabbed an oar, setting his gun down gently.  Exhausted, Clara collapsed into the bottom of the boat as Andrew grabbed the second oar.  The two men heaved away, and the boat quickly shot into the main sewer.    

The small vessel emerged from the mouth of the sewer and slid silently into the Thames.  Smoke drifted across the water, and shouts of pain echoed over the river, but Andrew tried to ignore the pain and destruction around them.  They rowed the boat into the middle of the river then rested at the oars, allowing the current to carry them away from the city. 

“Andrew,” Clara said weakly.  The young man glanced down at his wife and gasped.  The woman’s face was ashen, her dress covered in blood.   

“Clara!” Andrew cried, handing his oar to the professor and kneeling beside his wife.  Her breathing was weak, and she clutched her child like he was the last thing anchoring her to this world.  “Hold on,” her husband said, but a quick glance at the wound confirmed his fears.  One of the raiders had aimed true. 

“Andrew,” she whispered.  “Raise our son an Englishman.”  Her husband choked down the lump in his throat, fighting away the icy fist of desperation that threatened to close around his heart. 

“Clara.”  Hot tears burned his eyes as his wife stared up at him, and he gathered her into his arms, her blood staining his coat.  He felt the tiny form of his son pressed between them. 

“He will be a fugitive,” she murmured, her breathing growing ever more ragged.  “A stranger in a land that is not his own.”  The professor watched the heart-wrenching scene with tears streaming down his face as he rowed the craft down the Thames. 

“Thank you,” Andrew whispered hoarsely.  “For joining me on the journey.  Forgive me…I could not protect you…or our home.” 

She raised her head feebly.  “I’m…going Home,” she said weakly.  “I…love…” 

Tears ran down his face as she trailed off, gazing up at him with sightless eyes. 

“I love you Clara.” 

Andrew McGreevy sobbed as he cradled his dead wife and his living son in his arms.  He turned his eyes to the smoke-choked heavens as the little boat nosed its way down the Thames toward the North Sea.  Behind him, London burned.

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