Submarine Pirates and Silkworm Smugglers – a flash steampunk story

The junk steamed through the waters towards Indonesia, its paddle wheels leaving a churning wake behind. Out on deck, the crew were gathered around the automaton Susan had bought in Beijing, the one that excused her investment in engine oil and protective wrappings. They laughed as the mechanical dragon danced jerkily across the deck, oblivious to the smaller box hidden in Susan’s trunk, the one worth thousands of these high price novelty trinkets.

Captain Chao waved to Susan.

“So good!” he said in Mandarin. “Your husband will be delighted with his present.”

Susan smiled, nodded, and straightened her skirts. That imaginary husband was such a convenient cover, but he could sometimes be a hindrance. Chao had a roguish charm and she might have enjoyed his company more if not for the need to maintain her cover.

Suddenly, the sea in front of them churned. Jointed metal tentacles parted the waves, followed by the bulbous brass head of a giant squid. A smokestack on the back opened to let out a billowing black cloud.

Chao ran to the wheel and turned the junk, but they were already too close. The squid wrapped its tentacles around the prow. Wood buckled and splintered as it squeezed.

“Stop your engines and we won’t sink you,” a voice announced, made tinny by a speaking trumpet.

While Chao flung back a lever, Susan hid beneath the heap of crumpled canvas that was the junk’s emergency sails. The weight was oppressive, but better that than be taken for ransom by pirates.

As she peered out from beneath the canvas, men and women clambered out of a hatch in the squid’s head and down its arms. They wore loose, practical cloths and carried cutlasses and pistols. Chao knelt before them and started pleading for his ship.

As the lead pirate bent closer to Chao, Susan saw a symbol embroidered on his tunic – a yellow chrysanthemum. She smiled and shrugged off the canvas. This was no mere pirate raid.

The pirates looked up as Susan emerged, hands raised. She had pulled a book from her pocket and held it open, revealing an image of that same chrysanthemum. This wasn’t where she’d expected her contact to turn up, but it was certainly one way to avoid taking goods through customs.

“Mrs Talbot, I presume,” the pirate captain said in English. “You have them?”

“One moment.”

She went to the back of the junk, where her trunk was stored. From within a pile of petticoats she pulled a bamboo box the side of a briefcase. Holding it carefully in both hands, she walked slowly back towards the pirates.

The captain reached out, opened the lid, and grinned like a wolf who’d just got into the meadow.

“Mechanical silkworms.” He stared at the dozen intricately geared tubes. “The first to get past the Chinese authorities. We’re going to be worth a fortune.”

“We should go.” Susan shut the lid. “Any delay increases the risk of capture.”

“Indeed.” The captain turned to his men. “Kill this lot and we’ll be going.”

“What?” Susan stared at him in horror. Chao, who spoke no English, was looking up at them with a frown.

“Got to cover our trail,” the pirate captain said.

“It is covered! I’ve done everything under a fake identity and you’re sailing a submarine disguised as a sea monster. These people aren’t a threat to us.”

“Can’t be too careful.”

The captain drew a pistol and pointed it at Chao’s head. Chao whimpered. Susan stiffened, took a deep breath, and turned away.

In two strides she was at the side of the ship, holding the case out over the waves.

“If you hurt any of them,” she snapped, “our prize drops into the deep.”

“You wouldn’t dare.” The pirate turned his gun on her.

“Try me. And if you shoot, you know I’ll drop it.”

“You were hired for a job.”

“Not for one involving killing.”

“Shows how naive you are. Now quit this nonsense and get over here. We’re on a timetable.”

Susan’s heart raced. If she gave in, Chao and his people would die. There was no way she could fight back against all those weapons. So how to get out of this?

“There’s air in this box,” she said. “Not enough to stop it sinking, but enough to slow it down. In one minute, I’m going to drop it overboard. If you want any chance of catching it, I suggest that you get into your machine right now.”

“You wouldn’t dare.”

“Fifty seconds.”

The pirate snarled and waved to his crew.

“Everyone back, quick!”

There was a mad scramble up the jointed tentacles and through the hatch. A lid closed over the smokestack and the squid released the junk.

“Time’s up!” Susan shouted.

She dropped the box just as the squid vanished from view. There was a splash and the treasure she’d come all this way for sank beneath the waves. Maybe the pirates would catch it, maybe they’d be too slow. Either way, they would be busy for a while.

Susan gripped the rail with trembling hands and took a deep, slow breath.

Chao got to his feet and walked over to Susan.

“I don’t know what you did,” he said in Mandarin. “But thank you, Mrs Talbot.”

“I’m not really a Mrs,” Susan said, turning to look back across the deck. The dragon automaton was still wobbling around, ignored by the pale and wide-eyed crew. “I don’t suppose you know anyone who would like to buy a dragon, do you? And maybe somewhere I could hide out for a month? I think I need to make a new life plan.”

***

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then check out my collection of fantasy stories, By Sword, Stave, or Stylus. Or you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

And for the steampunk lovers:

Dirk Dynamo is used to adventure. He’s chased villainous masterminds across the mountains of Europe, stalked gangsters through the streets of Chicago, and faced the terrible battlefields of the Civil War. But now he’s on a mission that will really shake his world.

For centuries, the Great Library of Alexandria was thought lost. Now a set of clues has been discovered that could lead to its hiding place. With the learned adventurers of the Epiphany Club, Dirk sets out to gather the clues, track down the Library, and reveal its secrets to the world.

Roaming from the jungles of West Africa to the sewers beneath London, The Epiphany Club is a modern pulp adventure, a story of action, adventure, and romance set against the dark underbelly of the Victorian age.

Available in all good ebook stores and as a print edition via Amazon.

The Well of Vengeance – What’s This All About Then?

This month, one of my fantasy stories, “The Well of Vengeance”, sees light of day in Swords and Sorcery Magazine. It’s a dramatic tale of suffering, endurance, and justice set amid the sands of the Middle East, during the Roman Empire. But where did this story come from?

Monsters

I wrote the original version of this story years ago, in response to a call for stories featuring gigantic monsters. I was looking for something different from the usual apes, lizards, and dinosaurs, and thought that a massive scorpion might be interesting. There’s something sinister about a scorpion of any size, but pair its poison with vast claws and you’ve got something really deadly.

Plus what child of the ’80s didn’t think Scorponok was kind of cool?

While a giant scorpion made for a neat image, it wasn’t going to be much use as a protagonist, or give me emotional substance to work with. For that, I needed a protagonist, and a setting for them to emerge from.

Wells

This story’s title comes from the place it’s all heading towards, a source of water amid the harsh desert sands, an oasis that brings the hope of survival, but also the threat of bloody revenge.

This was inspired by something from the Bible. I don’t remember quite how I stumbled across it, but there was a section talking about wells with symbolic names. The wells were so important for surviving in an arid climate that they gained special associations and a mystique around them. They represented ideas.

One of the most common tricks of fantasy writing is to make the symbolic literal. In the world of this story, wells have significance and meaning not just because of the water, but because of the spirits they embody. The Well of Hope might be a place that brings up bright thoughts. The Well of Vengeance, on the other hand, will stir visitors to examine their grudges and indulge in dark deeds.

That gave me a setting, an antagonist, a title, even a motive for the protagonist – get to vengeance, both the well and the action. But who could that protagonist be?

A Woman on a Mission

Here’s where I get to my limitations as a writer.

A decade ago (blimey, that time has flown past!), when I first started on this story, I’d just become concerned with showing more women in my stories. My then-partner had pointed out that I habitually wrote about men, and I wanted to balance that out. So I created Esther, the protagonist of this story, a young woman on a mission to right old wrongs.

That’s not a bad thing in itself, but there is a problem with it. In trying to show women as empowered, it’s not uncommon to show women who have been hurt by men and are now out for revenge. It centres their motivation on male characters and emphasises men’s effect on women. That’s not bad in itself, but doing it too often – which is arguably a thing – doesn’t help in better representing truly empowered and independent female characters.

This story is part of a pattern that I’m not entirely comfortable with. An attempt at empowerment becomes undermining and more than a little cliched. If I could change anything about the story, it would be that.

Sticking With It

That being the case, why didn’t I rewrite the story?

Honestly, because I’m better off writing new ones. It’s great that someone liked this enough to publish it, but I’d rather create something new than keep recreating my old work. I’m full of ideas and skills I didn’t have a decade ago. I’m moving forward.

I hope you enjoy reading “The Well of Vengeance“, limitations and all. No story is perfect, and I’m pleased with a lot of what I did on this one.

And if you already read and enjoyed it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

A gladiator painting with manticore blood.

A demon detective policing Hell.

A ninja who can turn into shadow.

Prepare to be swept away to worlds beyond our own in these thirteen short fantasy stories.

Action, art and mystery all feature in this collection, available in all ebook formats.

From reader reviews:

‘These fantasy genre stories take wordsmithing and storytelling to great heights.’ – Writerbees Book Reviews

‘There isn’t a single story in here I don’t love. All short and sweet (or dark), all fantasy with history woven through, all a slightly skewed perspective that will make you rethink assumptions. Totally worth a read.’

Inside the Alchemists’ Sewers – a flash fantasy story

A sewer of rough medieval stonework

Greb stood, pick in hand, grinning at the white, glistening barrier that blocked the tunnel.

“Look at that fat, Jonesy,” she said. “We’re going to be rich.”

“We’ll make a shilling apiece,” I said, wading through sewage to find a safe nook for my lantern. “Same as every tunnel we clear.”

“This is different.” Greb spoke in an awed whisper. “We’re near the alchemists’ district.” She ran a finger through the fat, then held it up near the lantern. Blue and red flecks gleamed. “Grimble dust. Frankincense. Maybe a little demon horn. I tell you, if we hit a rich seam then we’re set for life.”

I smiled and shook my head as I started shovelling. In Greb’s mind, every blockage was going to be the one. If the sewer was clogged with grease from the restaurants near the jewellers’ district then we’d find gold shavings and lost opals in there. Beneath the abattoirs we’d dig out priceless layers of unicorn fat. For all her dreams, we were still clearing sewers for the guilds at a shilling a time.

“We’re nearer the bath houses than the alchemists,” I said, filling the cart with shovelfuls of wobbling white mess. Two minutes in and the shovel was already slipping against my greasy gloves. It was going to be a long day.

I was on cart duty that morning. Greb thought I should enjoy these trips to the surface, the chance for a breath of fresh air. She was wrong. As long as I was down in the sewers I could get used to the stink, almost forget about it. Going to the surface meant starting afresh, being assaulted again and again by the stench of rot and sewage. Cart duty left my stomach heaving for hours.

As I returned from the fourth load, I found Greb leaning into a hole she’d dug down one side of fat-filled tunnel.

“You were right about the bath houses.” She turned to me, a grin on her face and blue-green grease full of tiny scales coating her hand. “Look, run-off from the mermaid pools. It’s the oil that protects their skin.”

“Lovely.” I started filling the barrow.

“Jonesy, you don’t understand.” There was a wild look in her eyes. “This stuff lets you breath underwater. It’s practically impossible to harvest, but if it’s been pooling down here then we can collect it. We’re rich, man! This time next week we’ll be sleeping in silk sheets and dining on unicorn steak.”

“Of course we will,” I said, wearily loading the cart.

Grabbing her spade, Greb hacked at the side of the fat plug, pushing herself into the gap she was making. Thick deposits wobbled to her right. For a moment, I thought I saw tiny bubbles escaping from the fat. I allowed myself to believe, just a little, in Greb’s wild hope.

“I can see more,” she said. “This is it!”

“Stop being an idiot, Greb,” I called out. “That whole section could-”

It was too late. A trembling layer of fat fell into Greb’s tunnel, and then another. The plug collapsed in on her narrow space, engulfing her.

My heart was in my throat as I rushed forward and dug desperately at the gleaming fat. I’d seen other tunnellers drown in the stuff, and I’d rather risk breaking Greb’s arm with my shovel than leave her to that fate.

There was no time to clear the whole deposit. I just dug another tunnel in towards Greb, praying to all the gods that it wouldn’t collapse too quickly. Fat trembled all around me, thick and glistening.

After a minute I saw a hand, fingers pushing towards me through a clear layer of coagulated grease. I thrust my hand in, closed it around her wrist and pulled, but she slipped from my grasp.

Unable to get a grip, I tore off my gloves and tried again, hoping that my fingers, not as infused with fat, might keep hold. I had to squeeze tight not to lose my grip on Greb, and she did the same, fingers digging painfully into my arm. I heaved and she wriggled towards me, the fat trembling at her desperate movements.

With a terrible squelching sound, the blockage fell in on me.

For a moment I was trapped in darkness beneath the thick goo. Then the whole mass shook. Chunks of fat were torn away all around me as the blockage broke, not in the controlled way we had planned, but suddenly, chaotically, swept away on a tide of long-contained sewage.

Still clinging to each other’s arms, Greb and I were buffeted by waves of filth. I would have thrown up, but that would have meant opening my mouth. My head hit the wall and it was all I could do not to yell in pain.

Deprived of air, my mind whirled. I fumbled around with one hand for my shovel, with no idea how I might use it, only that it was the tool I had.

Instead of the wooden handle I found a current of heavy grease running beneath the sewage. Tiny scales brushed my fingers.

Greb’s grip on me was loosening, her fingers going limp. But I remembered what she had told me about mermaid grease. I pictured those tiny bubbles escaping from the fat around it. In desperation, I closed my hand around a few of those oily scales and thrust them into my mouth.

There was a fizzing as the scales touched my tongue. Air expanded into my mouth. I drew an excited breath.

Sewage ran down my throat with the air. The taste of it, the stench of it, the greasy, lumpy texture of it mixed with the fizzing of the mermaid scales. Unable to stop myself, I vomited the whole mess back up. My throat burned as stomach acid streamed hot and acrid from my mouth.

My head was spinning. I could feel unconsciousness closing in. Dipping my hand into that low stream of fat, I dragged up another handful of scales.

This time I braced myself for what was to come. As I thrust the scales into my mouth, they started to fizz.

I opened my throat just a little. The taste of sewage was just as rank after vomit as it had been before. My stomach heaved, but I forced it to be still. I trickle of noxious air ran down my throat. My lungs inflated and my mind surged with life.

It was working!

Dragging Greb towards me, I found her face and thrust it into the mermaid grease. Her body felt corpse cold and dread gripped me in its icy fingers. But everything down there was cold. Perhaps there was a chance.

I prayed to the gods who had ignored me before.

It seemed that they accepted prayers when they weren’t for myself. Greb shuddered, heaved, and then sat up.

As the current of sewage kept flowing past us we sat in the dark, clinging to each other, breathing the tainted air that the mermaid scales were making in our mouths.

At last the currents began to settle. Still clutching each other’s hands, we fumbled through the darkness until we found a ladder. Slipping and sliding, we dragged ourselves up. An hour after the collapse we emerged, filthy, gasping for breath, and spitting mouthfuls of sewage.

I collapsed onto the cobbles, glad just to be alive.

“Look,” Greb croaked.

The grin on her face was at odds with my weariness and misery. I pulled myself up just enough to see the contents of the bottle she had pulled from her tunic.

It was full of clear grease and tiny, bubbling scales.

“You did it!” I exclaimed, suddenly indifferent to the filth soaking my skin. “We’re rich!”

“We did it,” Gleb replied.

I lay back in a puddle of sewage, stared up at the stars, and laughed.


In fantasy worlds, like the real world, not every job is glamorous. Pity poor Hercules clearing dung from the stables, or the sewer cleaner in any place and time.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

A gladiator painting with manticore blood.

A demon detective policing Hell.

A ninja who can turn into shadow.

Prepare to be swept away to worlds beyond our own in these thirteen short fantasy stories.

Action, art and mystery all feature in this collection, available in all ebook formats.

From reader reviews:

‘These fantasy genre stories take wordsmithing and storytelling to great heights.’ – Writerbees Book Reviews

‘There isn’t a single story in here I don’t love. All short and sweet (or dark), all fantasy with history woven through, all a slightly skewed perspective that will make you rethink assumptions. Totally worth a read.’




Out Now – Lady Death

War has come to the Ukraine, German tanks driving back the Red Army in a brutal mechanical tide. Faced with the prospect of losing everything she holds dear, Svetlana Ivanovna Korzh takes up the gun, ready to defend her homeland. Turned from a teacher into a sniper, she heads into the streets of Odessa in a desperate attempt to stop the onslaught. But as her friends start to fall, a far more personal struggle begins…

Lady Death is my latest story from Commando Comics, brought to life by the art of Manuel Benet. It was inspired by Svetlana Alexievich’s extraordinary history book The Unwomanly Face of War, which explores the role of women in the Red Army in World War Two, their experiences both in action and in transitioning to and from civilian lives. It’s one of the best history books I’ve ever read, and I can’t recommend it enough for the way it brings forgotten stories to light and personalises a vast historical narrative.

While an action comic could never do justice to the complex and difficult lives these women led, I wanted to at least draw attention to their experiences, from the harrowing losses to the touching moments of friendship amid the horror of war. In doing so, I’ve taken fragments of reality and stitched them together into a fictional whole. Many elements of the story are taken from real life. The recruiting officer who doesn’t want to accept women. The troop trains strafed on the way to war. The wedding dress made from parachute silk. The partisans fighting in the catacombs. And most importantly, the thousands of female snipers who risked their lives, only to be forgotten in the aftermath.

Historical storytelling is a strange thing, a delicate balance of truth and fiction. I hope that I’ve included enough truth here to make the story worthwhile, and enough fiction to keep you entertained.



***

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

You can read more about From a Foreign Shore, including what other readers thought here. It’s available on Kindle through Amazon.



Treasure Hoard – a flash fantasy story

Dragon eye

The troll stumbled into the cave, his club trailing on the ground behind him. The light coming in through an opening high above twinkled golden and gleaming off heaps of treasure that made his eyes go wide. But they were nothing compared with the creature that lay across them. The dragon flexed her coiled crimson body and peered down.

“Do you know what I do to intruders?” she asked, fire flickering between her teeth.

“Just want rest,” the troll said. “Heroes come, kill other trolls. They come for you next.”

“Let them try,” the dragon said, flexing a claw the length of a sword blade. “I’ll tear them to ribbons then roast their remains.”

“Please I stay here?” the troll asked, unable to keep the desperation from his voice. “Until they gone.”

“Nobody stays here but me,” the dragon said, raising her head. “This is my private domain. You can go face the heroes or you can burn here.”

“Why?” the troll asked.

“Because this is my treasure and no-one else can have it.”

“Don’t want it.”

“But it’s treasure! Great beautiful heaps of treasure.”

The troll shrugged.

“You beautiful. Treasure OK.”

“You think I’m beautiful?” The dragon smiled. “No-one ever says that. Of course, there’s never anyone here to say it.” She lowered her head and peered more closely at the troll. “Alright, you can stay. Find somewhere safe behind me until the heroes are gone.”

The troll abandoned his club and scrambled up the treasure heap. Gold doubloons and emerald necklaces slid away beneath him. A silver dish clattered as it hit the floor. He slid back down on a cascade of coins. No matter what he did, he couldn’t get any higher, and the heroes might be here any moment.

The dragon pinned the troll between a pair of claws, lifted him up, and deposited him by her shoulder, at the pinnacle of the heap.

Together, they watched the entrance to the cave.

The dragon’s neck drooped and she turned to the troll, her eyes downcast.

“I’m not going to win, am I?” she asked. “I’ve heard the stories.”

“You strong,” the troll said. “You smart. You crush heroes.”

“It’s sweet of you to say so, but dragons are always strong and smart. That doesn’t mean we get to win.”

The troll stroked the dragon’s scaly side.

“I sad too,” he said. “Had tribe. Had cave. Had idol of demon we pray to. All gone now.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you for listen. Was lonely. Good to have friend again.”

“It is, isn’t it?”

The dragon trailed her claws through the treasure heap.

“Centuries of hoarding,” she said, “just so that we can die on it.”

“Better than die alone in dark.”

Voices emerged from the tunnel, the distinctive sounds of a knightly oath and a wizard chanting incantations.

“Time come.” The troll sighed, stood up, and picked up a golden candelabra which he hefted like a club. “You fight, I fight with you. Die together.”

The dragon stood, sending treasure tumbling down the side of the hoard. She narrowed her eyes and flames flickered between her teeth as she looked across her life’s work one last time, seeing the sunlight gleam across the gold.

The fire subsided as she looked up at the opening high in the cave.

“I can’t believe I’m going to say this,” she said, “but if I leave it all behind and fly away, would you like to come with me?”

The troll nodded. “I like live.”

The dragon laughed.

“Your simplicity is quite soothing,” she said.

“No, your simplicity soothing!” the troll shouted.

“It’s a compliment.”

“Oh. Then yes. I soothing.”

The voices came closer. The light of a burning brand flickered in the tunnel.

“Climb on my back,” the dragon said.

“OK.”

The troll climbed up. The dragon flexed her body and leapt, soaring into the air with long, graceful movements of her wings. As they reached the opening, the troll looked back and saw five figures far below, peering up at them in confusion.

They flew out into daylight and glided along the mountain side. The world around them was lush and green, the air fresh and full of possibilities.

“Where to?” the dragon asked.

“East,” the troll said. “I know great cave. I bring thing for you to start new hoard.”

He waved the golden candelabra.

“For us to start a new hoard,” the dragon said.

***

Why shouldn’t the monsters get happy endings, that’s what I’d like to know.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

A gladiator painting with manticore blood.

A demon detective policing Hell.

A ninja who can turn into shadow.

Prepare to be swept away to worlds beyond our own in these thirteen short fantasy stories.

Action, art and mystery all feature in this collection, available in all ebook formats.

From reader reviews:

‘These fantasy genre stories take wordsmithing and storytelling to great heights.’ – Writerbees Book Reviews

‘There isn’t a single story in here I don’t love. All short and sweet (or dark), all fantasy with history woven through, all a slightly skewed perspective that will make you rethink assumptions. Totally worth a read.’

Making Myself Be Creative

I’ve been struggling with how best to cultivate creativity.

On a day-to-day basis, when I’m writing for clients, it’s something I can essentially force. Deadlines and the need to pay bills focus me on the task in hand. If I need to write a chapter about a shark fight then I’ll damn well write a shark fight, and if it’s not the best shark fight ever, it will at least be competently done and improvable in the edit.

But for my own work it’s different. Sometimes the words that come out match my vision and I get into the flow, creativity coming with ease and more enthusiasm than on other people’s projects. Other times I get stuck, unsure how to turn concept into narrative. Nothing I think of seems right. Without the pressure of deadlines or the distance of knowing that this work isn’t really for me, I struggle to just get something down on the page. I come to a crushing halt.

So how to move on from that? I could force it, as I do with other projects. But this is the time when I want to do better, when I want to present the most dazzling version of my writing, because it really is mine.

I could leave it and hope that, by letting the idea bubble away in my subconscious, I’ll find a way. But that doesn’t feel professional. It doesn’t feel like progress.

The answer may be a compromise. Go work on something else, knowing that at least I’m being productive. Let the thing I’m stuck on bubble away in the background and hope that an answer shakes loose.

Some people say you can’t force creativity, and that’s true in as far as it goes. But you do have to force yourself to be creative, to put in the time and the practice, to work at things until they’re done. Finding the right balance, and doing it without beating yourself up or giving in to laziness, that’s a very difficult thing.

Instructions for an Escape Pod – a flash scifi story

small space ship

Thank you for choosing the Tanahashi emergency escape pod. At Tanahashi Corp, your comfort and safety are our first concerns. In the event that your space transport develops a terminal fault or suffers from irreparable laser fire, please follow these simple step by step instructions.

Step 1: Securely close the hatch of your escape pod, ensuring that the vacuum seals align with the outer rim of the door.

Step 2: Fasten the seat belts across your legs and chest. These may feel a little restrictive, but there’s no need for concern. They are just a normal measure to address safety concerns raised in a recent negligence claim.

Step 3: Press the red button marked “Pod release”. You should hear a thud as your escape pod detaches from the stricken vessel. Your beacon will activate and you can await rescue.
If the pod does not detach, continue to step 4.

Step 4: It appears that your release clamps have become stuck in the body of the main vessel. There is no need to panic. All Tanahashi escape pods of the Deluxe edition and above are fitted with a backup release mechanism.
You did buy the Deluxe edition, didn’t you?
Please stay calm and continue to step 5.

Step 5: Pull the yellow lever below the pod release button. You should hear a loud hiss of escaping air, but there’s no need for alarm. This is simply your emergency oxygen reserves venting as they blast away the docking clamps. You won’t need that oxygen anyway if you can’t escape the ship.

Step 6: Your pod should safely float away from the stricken vessel. Your beacon will activate and you can await rescue.
If the pod remains attached to the vessel, and that vessel is still heading for a terminal disaster, continue to step 7.

Step 7: It appears that the release clamps have become jammed. If you survive, please return your escape pod to the nearest Tanahashi supplier, who will happily provide a replacement.
If you are a Tanahashi Executive using our Super Exec Model X, please continue to step 8.

Step 8: Reach under your seat. You will find a strap connected to the Thermal Removal Device, a unique feature of the Super Exec Model X Escape Pod. Please pull this lever.

Step 9: Your escape pod is now on fire, the flames consuming your body along with the remaining oxygen. Tanahashi Corp’s engineering department apologises for any inconvenience caused by your untimely demise. Next time, don’t try to replace our jobs with robots, you penny pinching corporate bastard.

***

This story was inspired by a creative writing exercise about writing an instruction manual by someone who wants a bad outcome. I have to admit, it was a lot of fun to write.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

A spin doctor forced to deal with aliens who loathe lies.

A squad of soldiers torn apart by the fiction in their midst.

A hunting submarine with its dead captain strapped to the prow, the crew promising that one day they’ll revive him.

We all tell lies to get through the day, some of them to ourselves, some to other people. Now read the extraordinary lies of the future in these nine short science fiction stories.

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is available now from all major ebook stores.

Forward to Basics

cover of The Ode Less Travelled

Sometimes I’m shocked by how little I know about language. Hell of a thing for a professional writer to admit, but there it is. A lot of us never got taught this stuff.

I’ve recently been dipping into Stephen Fry’s poetry writing manual The Ode Less Travelled. One of the things Fry talks about is the rhythm of words, the way we stress or don’t stress different syllables, how that makes language sound and feel. Once it’s pointed out, this can seem kind of obvious, but it’s the sort of obvious that you need pointing out.

Before Fry’s book, I didn’t have a mental framework to think about this issue of rhythm, never mind the language to discuss it or the tools to use it effectively. And with decades of bad habits behind me, it’s hard to make thinking about that rhythm part of how I write. But it’s also useful and valuable, a way to make my words more effective.

I’m not saying this is the sort of thing that we should teach every kid. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. The curriculum’s pretty crowded. But I wish I hadn’t waited until a couple of years ago to start learning about it. And it wasn’t until I started learning that I could think to have that wish.

Honest Work – a flash steampunk story

Jewellery box

“It’s for security,” Lady Winters explained. “I’ve had broaches stolen by servants in the past. I want a jewellery box that will jab anyone who tries to open it the wrong way.”

“It could make a noise instead,” I said. “A tiny clockwork alarm to scare them off and draw attention.”

“I’d rather draw a little blood, to make my point clear.”

“Aye, I get it.” It was an odd request, but I could follow the logic. It would certainly be an interesting challenge to craft, and I loved a challenge, the thrill of putting the pieces together. “Come back in a week, I should have something for you.”

#

Most people came to the artisans’ district on clear days. Lady Winters preferred to come in the smog, and returned a day late because of it. She said that she liked the shadows the buildings cast through the grey-brown gloom, but she never seemed to linger.

“I included something to clean the needle as it goes in and out,” I said, slowly raising the lid of the jewellery box. A needle emerged from a hidden hole in the cushioned interior.

“No cleaning,” Lady Winters said.

“It will help preserve the mechanism.”

“Yes, but…” She looked away to the left, as if gathering her thoughts. “I want the blood as evidence when I challenge the would-be thief. If the needle is cleaned it will be less effective.”

There were better ways to prove a case, but if there was one lesson I’d learnt as a maker of mechanisms, it was to give the customer what they wanted.

“I’ll adjust it,” I said. “Come back in two days.”

#

I sat over the box, carefully taking parts out and putting others in. Removing the cleaning mechanism was satisfyingly simple work that let my mind wander.

What Lady Winter was asking for didn’t quite make sense. I could have made a mechanism that would have stained the thief’s hands, proving their guilt far more effectively, but she’d refused it. The lady’s logic seemed needlessly cruel, but her behaviour showed a calm rationality. Like gears in a poorly made clock, the pieces didn’t fit together.

Could there be a different reason for wanting to stab whoever opened a jewellery box? Some sort of strange prank, perhaps?

It could be a way to deliver poison, but that was absurd. It would be obvious who the killer was, as they’d provided the box. Lady Winter herself would hang for it.

The shop bell chimed and Hooper, a steam mechanic from up the street, walked in amid a swirl of smog.

“You got time to fix a watch?” he asked.

“In a couple of hours,” I said. “I have to finish a job for Lady Winter first.”

“Ooh, one of the nobs gave you a job before they all left town,” Hooper said. “Very fancy.”

I frowned.

“What do you mean, left town?”

“Whole court’s gone to the country until the fog passes.” Hooper chucked me a newspaper. “You need to get your nose out of your gears and learn about the world.” He put his watch down on the counter. “I’ll be back tomorrow, yeah?”

#

“I wanted to share a drink before I go,” Lady Winter said. “To toast your remarkable accomplishments.”

She took two tin cups off my shelf, unscrewed the lid of a hip flask, and poured out measures of something sweet and heady smelling.

“But before we drink, could you show me how it works?” she said, nodding to the jewellery box.

“Of course.” I picked it up and started setting the mechanisms. “You know, I saw your picture in the paper yesterday.”

“They never quite get me right,” she said, smiling sweetly.

“Of course not,” I said, handing her the box. “They didn’t even know that you were in town, unlike all your friends.”

“I like to keep a low profile.”

“That’s not what the papers say.”

“Ha. Shall we drink?”

“In a minute. Try the box first.”

She pressed the switch which had previously disabled the stabber.

“Ow!” She dropped the box and looked down at her hand. The sweet calmness of her usual demeanour was gone. “What have you done, you little bitch?”

“A jabber with a set of inked needles. They tattooed my maker’s mark onto your palm. I didn’t want trouble in my workshop, so I told the authorities to look for someone who looks like Lady Winter, with that tattoo on their hand. Told them the person was a poisoner who’d commissioned a killing box.”

“Bare faced lies!”

“Perhaps. If you drink both those cups you poured, then I’ll tell them I was wrong.”

Her eyes narrowed.

“I could kill you now,” she said.

“Aye, then Hooper finds me in five minutes when he comes to fetch his watch. He raises the hue and cry and they start hunting you straight away. Or you can leave now and I’ll give you two hours head start.”

She looked at the cups, the box, her hand, and back to me.

“You should have been the assassin,” she said. “You have the cunning for it.”

“You should have been an artisan,” I said. “It’s honest work.”


If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then check out my collection of fantasy stories, By Sword, Stave, or Stylus. Or you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

And for the steampunk lovers:

Dirk Dynamo is used to adventure. He’s chased villainous masterminds across the mountains of Europe, stalked gangsters through the streets of Chicago, and faced the terrible battlefields of the Civil War. But now he’s on a mission that will really shake his world.

For centuries, the Great Library of Alexandria was thought lost. Now a set of clues has been discovered that could lead to its hiding place. With the learned adventurers of the Epiphany Club, Dirk sets out to gather the clues, track down the Library, and reveal its secrets to the world.

Roaming from the jungles of West Africa to the sewers beneath London, The Epiphany Club is a modern pulp adventure, a story of action, adventure, and romance set against the dark underbelly of the Victorian age.

Available in all good ebook stores and as a print edition via Amazon.

How Innovative is Too Innovative?

People are a paradox.

We crave the novelty of the new but also the comfort of the old. You can see it any time a superhero gets a revamp – some people will love the bold new direction, others will cry out against it, and some will take entirely different views on the next controversy over.

One of the publishers I work for is trying to adjust its output. They want their content to be more modern in its style and more diverse in its content. But when they say this to me as a creator, I face the implied question – how much do you really want to modernise? How much do your readers want? How much will they take before they feel that they’ve lost something familiar and comforting?

I would be happy to play around with different story formats and to fill those stories with characters who aren’t white, male, straight, cis, able-bodied, and neurotypical. That would be a lot of fun for me and much more in line with how I want my culture. But if this publisher’s style moves too far too fast, it’s going to lose the audience. I want to change things up enough to keep readers entertained but broaden their horizons. I rely on the publisher to guide me in this, just as they rely on me to do it well.

Creatives and marketers face this problem every day. When asked, they’ll get lots of responses asking for new things. But if they actually deliver on that, they’ll often find that their audiences miss parts of what they had.

Captain Marvel looking badass
Oh no, she’s going to get lady cooties all over your man space!

Of course, some people will complain no matter what you do. You can see that in the pre-release complaints about the Captain Marvel film from entitled men who think that a trailer featuring a female superhero is feminism gone mad. To them I say, you can fuck the fuckity off. Superhero films currently have more white male leads played by guys called Chris than they do female leads, there will still be plenty of what the whiners want. Asking to be represented is fair. Asking for everything to be about you is bullshit.

But when writing for the rest, the question remains, how much challenge and change do people really want compared with familiarity and comfort? How much innovation is too much innovation for this audience? And that’s a question I face when I sit down to write.