A Screw Loose – a flash steampunk story

Emerson clung tight to the controls of her ornithopter as they flew into the mountain pass.

Adean mountains

“Woohoo!” she yelled, waggling the Seahawk’s wings. “Look at that view!”

“Busy,” Caron shouted over the rattle of gears. “Something’s shaken loose.”

Emerson glanced back to see her engineer wrestling with a piston. She might be keeping them on course, but without him the machine never would have survived an endurance race. The Peruvian Grand was a team effort.

A gust of air snatched at their wings and the yoke jerked in Emerson’s hands. A mountainside loomed into view and she pulled back, lifting them in time to avoid a fatal crash.

She let out a sigh of relief and wiped the sweat from her brow.

Another ornithopter flapped past beneath them, so close to the ground that snow swirled up beneath it.

“Lunatic!” Emerson shouted as the craft rose in front of them, its tail almost hitting the Seahawk’s nose. She yanked on the yoke again to pull them clear.

The other ornithopter bore the red markings of the Malian team, the last people she wanted to see. There were only three real competitors here in the final leg – the Malians, the Chinese, and her and Caron flying for the Angevin Republic. The Chinese she knew she could beat, but the Malians were a mystery, their pilot never even showing his face. Who was behind the controls of that machine?

“Keep her steady,” Caron shouted. “I’ve got to get this piston back in place.”

Emerson held the yoke level and let an updraft lift them. With a cloud bank above and the mountains below, there was little space to manoeuvre. This was the leg of the race meant to test them to the limits.

She was gaining speed on the Malian ornithopter, thanks to Caron’s excellent work building and maintaining their engines. If she could just get past the Malians then victory was assured.

She edged left and up, past the other craft’s slipstream, almost there…

The Malian’s wings twitched and the craft shot into her path. She yelped, banked right, and almost lost control as another gust of wind swept in.

“That guy’s got a screw loose,” she said. “If I’d been a moment slower we’d have crashed into him.”

Caron emerged from the rear, took his seat, and pulled out a map. “The valley forks up ahead. Go right.”

“I don’t like the look of the winds that way.”

“No-one does, so we’ll be alone. Best way to get clear.”

Sure enough, a mountain loomed ahead, splitting the route in two. And, as Caron had predicted, the Malian ornithopter veered left.

“This is it,” Emerson said, grinning as she steered them into the right-hand valley mouth. “World record, here we come.”

Another unexpected gust caught the Seahawk and sent them spinning towards the mountainside. Emerson cut power to the engines, lifted one wing, and pulled them up seconds before they would have smashed into rocks and snow.

“What the-?”

She stared in bewilderment at the Malian ornithopter. It had flown up so close under them that it flung her of course. Now it was hurtling ahead, following a mad, twisting trajectory down the valley while she fought to regain control.

“Madman!” she bellowed. “Imbecile! I’ll have you drummed out of the sport for this!”

She re-engaged the engines and felt the pulse of power as the Seahawk’s wings flapped. They accelerated after their opponents, but the difference in speed was too great, the gap between them insurmountable.

Caron sank back in his seat and let out a loud sigh.

“Second’s not bad,” he said. “Not given the competition.”

“Second be damned! I’m going to punch that lunatic’s lights out.”

*

The aerodrome crowd was cheering when they came in. Not for them, of course, but for the winners walking away from the red-painted Malian craft.

Emerson set the Seahawk down, scrambled out of the cockpit, and strode across the packed dirt. The crowd parted before her, some of them offering congratulations, others commiserations. She ignored them.

“You.” She grabbed the first Malian by the shoulder. “Are you the pilot?”

The woman lifted her goggles and tugged down her scarf.

“I’m just the engineer,” she said, eyes shining.

“Well your pilot is a lunatic. Did you see the way he was flying? He could have gotten us all killed! I can’t believe that you-”

“One moment.”

The woman turned away, leaving Emerson gaping at her audacity.

The engineer walked over to her companion, who was posing for a photographer. She took off his scarf, goggles, and flying hat. The crowd gasped, and Emerson along with them, at the sight of a shiny brass skull.

The engineer frowned, pulled a screwdriver from her pocket, and played with something on the back of the brass man’s head. Then she pulled the goggles, hat, and scarf back into place and left him with the stunned photographer.

The engineer walked back to a bewildered Emerson.

“Sorry for the crazy flying,” she said. “He had a screw loose.”

***

I confess, I wrote that whole story for the punchline, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

If you’d like more flash fiction then you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook of steampunk short stories and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

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.

Last Ship Out of the Supernova – a flash sci-fi story

A blaze of colours hurtled out of the void towards the orbital station. The light of the dying star consumed everything in its path, no less grim for all its beauty.

Crab nebula

Em gripped the controls of the Lightning Run, ready to trigger the engines at a moment’s notice.

“You said we’d be gone before the supernova started,” she shouted into the back of the ship.

“And we almost are,” Rid called back. “Just couldn’t let this stuff go to waste.”

There was a clatter as Rid and Holben dragged another crate into the cargo compartment. They’d been out all day, gathering valuables people had left behind in their rush to get away. As Rid said, there was always a profit in disaster, and he hated to let profit go to waste.

“We have to go,” Em snapped. Just looking at the approaching destruction was giving her heart palpitations. This was worse than flying scout missions during the war, worse than the rescue work on Elvrey Prime. Then, life had been uncertain. Now she could watch death coming.

“Almost ready,” Rid shouted.

Em sighed in relief. She couldn’t stand to wait here a minute longer with that terrible light hurtling towards them.

She glanced at the monitors at the back of the pilot’s cabin, the ones plugged into the station’s security systems. On one screen she saw Rid and Holben picking up their last crate. On another she saw people running, a dozen of them racing along a corridor to the shuttle’s docking strut.

Why were they still here?

“All aboard,” Rid shouted.

There was a hiss and a clang as the cargo doors slammed shut.

“Wait!” Em stared at the monitors, then back at the wave of destruction rippling through space. “Open the doors again.”

“Are you crazy?” Rid appeared at her shoulder. “We have to get out of here.”

“There are people.” She pointed at the monitor. “They’ll die if we leave them.”

“Do you want to join them?”

“I want to save them.”

“You can’t. We’re out of time and out of space. You’re the pilot, get us going.”

The light of the oncoming supernova washed out Rid’s skin, leaving his face skull white.

“We can ditch the cargo and make space for them.”

“The cargo we risked our lives for? No way.” Rid laid a hand on her shoulder. “Get flying.”

“I won’t go without them.” Em forced herself to let go of the controls and lay her trembling hands in her lap.

Rid took a step back. For a moment she thought that he’d accepted her demand. Then she felt the cold metal of a gun barrel against the back of her head.

“Fly,” Rid growled. “Now.”

Em looked down at her hands. They had stopped trembling. Outside the window, the light was so beautiful, she could almost forget what it represented.

“No,” she said. “And I know you can’t fly this thing worth shit.”

She felt a trembling again, not from her but from the gun pressed against her head.

“Dammit Em, don’t make me do this.”

“No-one’s making you do anything, but you’re running out of time to choose.” She pointed at the supernova. “Not long now.”

The gun pressed harder against her head. Rid’s ragged breath seemed to fill the cabin, a strange and rasping soundtrack to the view outside.

“Argh.” Rid whipped the gun away and stomped back into the cargo space. “Holben, open her up. We’re ditching this shit.”

Another voice rose in protest, but the cargo doors hissed open. On the monitors, Em saw the desperate refugees rush up to Rid and Holben. Together, they flung out crates of precious loot to make space for everyone on board.

The light was getting brighter. Not long now. Would they make it out in time?

“All aboard,” Rid shouted. “We’ve even kept two of the crates.”

The doors clanged shut. Em released the docking clamps and fired manoeuvring thrusters. Bright light washed across the cabin and then the supernova disappeared from view as they turned to face away from it.

The supernova was almost on them as she powered up the main engines. The whole ship seemed to hum as they hung for a moment between safety and oblivion.

Em hit the engines and prayed.

***

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***

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.

Maps of Broken Places – a flash fantasy story

My map was a chronicle of broken things. Dead trees. Fallen fences. Collapsed cliffs and the dead end paths that trailed away from them like tattered bandages. I didn’t need to record the things that had stayed the same, only those that had changed. Only those ruptured by time and careless hands.

Careless hearts too, to pull a kissing gate off its hinges and ditch it in a field.

Mud squelched beneath my boots as I approached the fallen gate. The wind blew a fractured song through the trees, brown leaves rattling for a moment before they were torn away. A one-legged gull watch me from a fence post with hungry eyes.

As I touched the gate, a memory flashed through me. Euan and I had come this way on one of our first dates. We’d stopped at this kissing gate to make sure it lived up to its name. A happy memory once, but now I viewed it through the cracked lens of resentment. I’d left the divorce papers on the kitchen table this morning, freshly torn from the envelope and waiting to be signed. I was working to escape those memories, not sink into them.

With a grunt, I hefted the gate and carried it back to where it belonged. I couldn’t fix the broken hinges today, but I could put it out of the way.

As I leaned the gate against its post, more images flashed into my mind. Memories, but not my own. A small boy walking through that gate with his aunt, basking in the wonders of nature. The same boy but older, swinging on the gate, laughing at the joy of movement and the clatter of wood as the gate hit the post. And now as a teenager with the taste of cheap cider in his mouth, egged on by his friends as he tore the gate from its hinges.

The gate was mourning, for itself and for that boy.

I let it go and took a step back, blinking. The images had seemed so real.

The gull landed on top of the gate and stared at me once more. As our eyes met, I felt another jolt, another rush of memories. The gull as a young bird, learning to find food in what people threw away. Older now, its leg tangled in fishing wire on a river bank, the pain and the blood as it tried to tear free and instead ripped its own flesh. Lying feverish with pain in a treetop, staring at the swollen wound where its leg had been. Learning to balance again, to live without.

I stumbled back, heart pounding in fear. Was I losing my mind?

My boot landed in a fox hole. I stumbled, slid on mud, and fell.

More images. Fences built and broken. Trees grown and felled. The cliff collapsing, inch by torturous inch, into a slowly rising sea.

In this place of memories, the land and everything in it shared my grief. We were sundered from our old selves by sorrow, but bound together in bereavement. I didn’t just cry for me, I cried for every thing on my map, every loss I had touched today.

I thought of that kiss and all the sorrow that followed.

Then the memory shifted. I felt it as the gate, a moment of love that had made this place feel special. For the land, it wasn’t tarnished by tears, but could still be a perfect moment.

Perhaps it could stay perfect for me too. Yes, it was part of my relationship with Euan, but it wasn’t the part I regretted.

Clouds parted, the honey gold of sunlight breaking through grey. I pulled myself up out of the mud and laid a hand on the kissing gate. I thought of all the other times I’d walked this way, alone or in company, in this same glorious sunshine, in the howling power of a gale, in crisp white snow that lay like peace across the land.

And I imagined tomorrow, when I would come back with tools and new hinges.

My map had gotten smeared with mud when I fell. I wiped off the worst of it, pulled a pencil from my pocket, and drew a circle around the x that marked the broken gate. I circled other things too, ones I could mend, places I could put back in order instead of chronicling their collapse.

The gull spread its wings. It was remembering a chip shop down the coast, from whose bins it had eaten the finest fish of its life. It would return there tonight and feast again.

And I would go home to sign the papers and move on with my life. Not everything could be fixed, some grief had to be borne, but we could still live anew, the land and I.

My map was a list of things to be mended.

***

This one’s for Gwyn of the Crudely Drawn Swords podcast. A tweet about his work inspired me to write about the mapping of broken things.

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.’

Clodius’ Pyre – a historical short story

People were swarming around the steps of the Curia Hostilia. Not the patricians usually seen here for senate meetings but a mixed mob, men and woman with swords and clubs on their belts, some glaring with hostility out across the streets of Rome, others bringing in heaps of firewood and jars of oil. I recognised a few of the faces, people I had seen in Clodius’ entourage as he travelled around the city, but many more were unknown to me. I had tried to keep my distance from the mob he used to wield his will, and now that I was forced into proximity with them I found myself an outsider.

I pushed my way up the steps, leaving my servants to deal with the trail of indignation, and hurried into the Curia. There stood the shrine of Vulcan, the viewing gallery, the statues of gods and paintings of battles.

And there lay Clodius, master of half the Roman mob, pale, cold, and empty eyed, laid out on the marble altar.

Fulvia stood by her husband’s corpse and watched as firewood was heaped up around him. Her eyes were red, her makeup smeared, her lips pressed together as she suppressed her fury.

“I’m so sorry,” I said, taking hold of her hand. My own grief welled up inside me – grief for a lost friend and for lost opportunities. “If I had been there I would have-”

“You weren’t,” she said. “Nor was I. But what we can’t undo, we can brand upon the memory of Rome.”

The heap of wood was growing higher around Clodius. Other piles were being made around the hall. I could smell the lamp oil that had been poured over them.

I took a step back.

“You… you can’t be serious. You would burn down the heart of our government?”

Fulvia glared at me.

“They emboldened Milo, and now his party have killed Clodius. You think a government like that deserves to stand?”

A servant appeared with a burning brand in his hand.

“This place is more than just government.” I waved a hand towards the statues and paintings, then pointed at the altar on which Clodius lay. “This is our heritage.”

Fulvia reached for the brand but I snatched it away.

“Give me that,” she snarled.

Other leaders of Clodius’ faction emerged from the throng. Some gathered around Fulvia. Others stood at my back. As we had once faced off against Milo and his men, now we faced off against each other.

“I won’t let you destroy all this in a fit of fury” I said.

“So instead we sit aside and let them win? Let his memory fade with the bloodstains on their hands?”

“If the alternative is casting aside our history, then yes!”

“What use is history if it holds us back? If it makes us weaker?”

I frowned. She wasn’t right, was she? Looking around the building, at centuries of tributes to gods and men, I couldn’t believe that it was right to cast them away.

“There will be other statues,” Fulvia said. “Other paintings. Other buildings.”

“Not like these.”

“And there will not be another man like him. We should remember that.”

I looked at the corpse laid out upon the pail marble, his tunic stained with crusted blood and fresh lamp oil. My ally. My friend. Killed because he opposed men who had sat with me here, deciding the fate of our city. They revelled in their power even as they held back the will of the people, and now it had come to this.

Fulvia was right. Better to let it burn.

I flung the torch on the pyre. The oil ignited and flames shot through the heaps of wood.

“We should go,” I said as fire flared around the hall.

Fulvia took my arm and together we walked out into the dusk.

Behind us, the senate burned.

***

Crazy as it sounds, the Curia Hostilia, home to the Roman senate, really was burned down as a funeral pyre in 52 BC. Clodius, one of many Roman politicians who was as much gang leader as he was statesman, had been killed in a conflict with his opponent Milo. Clodius’ faction decided to make a point by going big on the funeral.

If you’d like more flash fiction then you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook of steampunk short stories and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

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.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

Clockwork Heartbreak – a flash steampunk story

With a screwdriver so tiny it was almost lost between his fingers, Oliver tightened the last screw on the clockwork flower. His heart was racing as he looked up to see if Elizabeth had arrived yet, but her workbench remained empty. He just had time.

He scurried across the room, placed the flower in her seat, and ran back to his place, where he picked up his tools and set to looking busy.

A moment later Elizabeth came in, a figure of beauty in blue overalls with a single curl of her black hair falling across her face. Just looking at her made warmth spread through Oliver’s chest. The thought of kissing her sent that glow rushing to every corner of his body.

Elizabeth almost sat down before she noticed the flower and picked it up with a quizzical look.

Immediately, the clockwork began to click. Petals unfurled in a delicate dance that mimicked a rose at dawn. Elizabeth gave a shrug that made Oliver’s heart sink, then opened the side of the device to peer at the workings. Those at least drew a small smile, and hope sprang forth once more.

Elizabeth crossed the room and placed the flower on Oliver’s workbench.

“Your work, I believe,” she said.

Oliver blushed. “How did you know?”

“We’ve worked together for a year. I know how you build.”

“I made it for you.”

“I know. Thank you.”

“Would you-”

“I have to get back to work.”

She left the flower, furling and unfurling to the rhythm of its spring, and walked away.

Oliver sighed and returned to work.

*

Oliver arrived at the workshop early, opened a box behind his workbench, and took out the object he had finished the night before. This time it was a whole bunch of flowers, each one a masterpiece of minuscule mechanisation, each a distinct and different flower he had found in a florist’s guide. He placed it on Elizabeth’s workbench and hurried back to his own.

This time she had to be impressed.

Half an hour later, Elizabeth walked in. As she approached her workbench, her usual swift stride slowed. Oliver smiled as he tried to focus on fixing a clock. She must be impressed.

Elizabeth picked up the flowers, releasing the lever that held the gears in place. Clockwork clicked, setting the bouquet to unfurl while roses reached up from the centre, rising toward the light coming in through the window, slender petals of red brass shining. It was the finest thing Oliver had ever made.

She turned and strode over to his workbench. Instead of a beaming smile her face was stiff, almost scowling.

“Stop this,” she said, slamming the flowers down on the workbench. Oliver winced at her voice and at the rattling from the delicate mechanisms. “I don’t want your flowers, Oliver. I’m sorry if something made you think otherwise, but this has to stop.”

She walked away. Oliver looked down sadly as the roses wilted and their brass petals tinkled to the floor.

*

Oliver closed the hatch on a mechanical horse eight inches long, then set it to trotting across the workshop floor. He had surpassed himself. The legs moved as naturally as any animal, the silver strands of the mane flowed in an imagined wind. It was a thing of beauty and he had never felt more proud.

Elizabeth loved horses. She had to love this.

The door creaked open, earlier than expected. Elizabeth stood in the doorway, eyes narrowed as she looked down at Oliver crouching over the horse, which was even now making its way towards her workbench.

“What is that?” she asked sharply.

“I made it,” Oliver said. “For…”

He hesitated. He could already see the disapproval in her face, see her tensing as she got ready to tell him off. Tears welled at the corners of his eyes as a gaping chasm opened in his heart, one that threatened to swallow him whole.

But the sound of the horse, its clicking gears and clattering hoof beats, drew his attention. This thing he had made set a slender, tenuous bridge across that chasm inside him, a feeling of warmth and hope despite the darkness.

“I made it for me,” he said, unable to look at her. “To see if I could.”

“That’s amazing.” Elizabeth’s voice softened. She came to crouch beside him, watching the horse as it came to a halt against the wall. “You should be so proud.”

He was. And as that pride unfurled like a flower in his heart, he felt just a little of the warmth he had felt for Elizabeth, turned in on himself.

Perhaps he would make a dog next. He really liked dogs.

***

If you’d like more flash fiction then you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook of steampunk short stories and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

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.

Survivors – a flash sci-fi story

The ops room was silent, the radios dead. On a screen by the door, the symbols for our starships had all turned to black. Not the grey of lost in action or blue of lost comms. Black, every one.

Image of space

With trembling hands, I drew the headset down from my ears and let it hang around my neck. I hadn’t felt this way since I’d been fifteen, sitting by a hospital bed, watching a face that was a mirror of my own turn pale then still as Dani let go her last breath.

At the command station, Admiral Burling drew her hands away from her face and looked around at the analysts, programmers, and comms officer who made up the fleet’s command staff.

“It’s over,” she said. “We gambled and lost. This base is all that remains of the fleet. Go get some rest, our work here is over.”

People rose from their stations and started shuffling out. My grief turned to horror. How could they act like this?

I lurched to my feet.

“What about the survivors?” I said. “They’ll need us to guide them in.”

I pointed at my screen, from which I’d guided whole wings of the fleet, directing them in battles that spanned entire systems, then talking them home when fried sensors and hacked systems left them blind.

Everybody turned to look at me, then at Burling.

“Whatever that weapon was, it wiped out a star system,” she said. “There are no survivors.”

“You don’t know that!”

I saw the others’ shock as my scream echoed around the room. I could be taken out and shot for talking to an admiral like that, but I couldn’t stay silent. I was a desperate, wounded creature crawling towards the faintest sign of light.

“We’ve lost,” Burling said stiffly. “It would be a waste of what resources we have to man these stations. Go sleep, before you cross a line I cannot ignore.”

“Yes, we’ve lost,” I said. “But we have to have hope, otherwise we have nothing.”

“Hope?” Burling spat the word. “Hope isn’t some panacea for your broken soul. Hope is a poison that will have you clinging to that terminal, pouring your energy into dreams that will never come true, burning away the last of your will until all you have left is the darkness and a service pistol that promises a way out.

“I’ve seen what false dreams hope can offer, and I won’t have you drag the rest down with you.”

On a console between us, a diode was blinking a heartbeat rhythm. Between the flashes, I saw how little I understood about the grey-haired woman standing across from me. I knew that she had fought other wars, had lost friends and comrades like the rest of us, had been with us an hour before when every channel went suddenly and chillingly dead. But I had never considered what more she might have seen than me, what scars she carried on her soul.

I looked at my colleagues standing uncertainly by the door. I saw the yearning in their expressions, the desperate longing to hear that not everything was lost. I imagined the weight of expectation held up by my own fragile desire, noble perhaps but unsupported by what we saw, for all of this to be alright.

I saw the trap I was talking them into, a shadow of the one into which we had unwittingly led the fleet.

“I’m sorry, Admiral,” I said.

I took off my headset. As I set it down, a sound emerged, rasping and tenuous. Was that a voice?

I clutched the headset to my ear and felt my heart hammer as I spoke into the mic.

“This is fleet command, can you repeat that?”

There it was again, almost but not quite words.

Burling glared at me and I wilted beneath her fury. I was fooling myself, wasn’t I? Fooling myself and everyone else.

Then the voice came again, louder this time.

“Fleet command, this is Gardener, do you hear me?”

“Gardener, this is fleet command.” I turned to my station, turned my back on my commander, and stared at the screen, looking for some sign of where the voice came from. “How many of you are left?”

The Admiral strode towards me, her boots thudding against the floor. I had to get proof of life before she tore me from my terminal. I had to-

“All hands to stations,” Burling bellowed. “If we’ve got even one pilot out there, we’re bringing them home.”

Her hand settled on my shoulder and as I turned to look at her I saw her smile for the very first time. Around us, people rushed to their positions, grief replaced by grins as they grabbed communication consoles and reached out across the void of space.

I remembered a face going pale and then still.

This time I could do something to help.

This time there was hope.

***

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.

Omens of the End Times – a flash fantasy story

Shooting stars blazed across the sky, bright wounds in the skin of dusk.

“Another omen!” Ostelia shouted, glaring angrily at her fellow senators. “The city will fall.”

His body quivering with rage, Asmir hitched up his toga, rose from his seat, and pointed past her through the pillars of the temple porch.

“The city will not fall because of this,” he said. “It will fall from our neglect. The great lake has not dried up through the will of the gods but through our inaction.”

A rumble rose out of the east. A great foaming wall of water came rushing across the lake bed toward the city.

“Another sign!” Ostelia exclaimed. “The end is upon us!”

“The dams have broken.” Asmir swung around and grabbed a servant. “Quick, ring the bells, get people to high ground.”

The water surged across the dried out lake bed and crashed against the houses beyond. Buildings at the foot of the temple hill were smashed aside. Timbers and bodies spun in the current as the waters rose. One by one, the temple steps vanished beneath the flood.

“The end is upon us,” Ostelia declared.

Half the senators cried out in agreement. They followed her as she strode solemnly out of the temple, onto the steps, and down towards the waters.

“Get back here, you fools,” Asmir shouted. “We’ll need everyone we can get to rebuild after this.”

He ran after them, sandals flapping against stone, and tried to haul them back. A brawl broke out as half the senate tried to keep the other half from drowning itself.

Ostelia reached the water’s edge. It was still rising, but slower than before. She raised her hands and stepped in. The edge of her toga darkened and clung to her shins.

“Take me, oh divinities. Carry me into the purer world that follows.”

Asmir was about to grab hold of her when something caught his eye. A wicker basket bobbed across the water to them, carrying with it a baby’s frightened cries.

Thoughts of Asmir’s fellow senators fled his mind. He tore off his toga and dived into the swirling waters. Currents snatched at him, trying to drag his body this way and that, but this was one thing at which he excelled. Though he was spun around and almost sucked under, he kept his course, until at last he laid a hand on the basket.

There was a hiss. A cat popped its head up over the edge and glared at Asmir. It dug its claws into his fingers, causing a fierce flash of pain. Tail stiff and back arched, it stood protectively over a tightly swaddled infant.

“I’m here to help,” Asmir said, but the cat just raised its claws again.

No time to appease the savage beast – Asmir would have to take whatever punishment it gave him. As blood welled from his fingers, he turned the basket and pushed it ahead of him towards the shore.

The waters tugged at him again as he neared the temple steps. He was so close, but a current clutched him and he could feel himself being drawn away.

Then a hand reached through the last grey light of dusk. Ostelia was in the water, and other senators behind her, a chain of them clinging to each other back to dry land. Asmir grasped Ostelia with one hand and the basket with another. Battling the force of the flood, the senators dragged him to shore.

At last, Asmir sat sodden on the hillside, lit by torches the servants had brought out, the torn up timbers of the city being swept away in front of him. The cat leaned its head out of the basket and licked his fingers, cleaning the wounds it had caused. The baby gurgled, smiled, and raised a tiny pink hand.

Ostelia leaned in, her toga dripping, and the baby grabbed at her dangling hair.

“It is an omen,” she whispered. “A sign that life will go on.”

Anger flared in Asmir. Ostelia had almost died of omens, almost taken half the city’s leaders with her. Now she was twisting this so she didn’t have to see her own madness.

The baby laughed and something shifted inside Asmir. He might not believe in omens, but he believed in people.

“It is a sign,” he said. “A sign of hope. A sign that we can rebuild together.”

Ostelia laid a hand on his shoulder and smiled.

“Together,” she said.

***

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***

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.’

Crone’s Curse – a historical flash fiction

It was a nondescript hut amid some nondescript fields somewhere outside a nondescript town on the edge of Hampshire. There was no mark worth speaking of here, no-one Alice could trick with a sob story or a play on their greed. But if what she’d heard was true, then there was something even better – an accomplice for her greatest con yet.

A woman answered the door. She was stooped and dishevelled, with a jutting chin and sagging eyelids. A black cat rubbed around her ankles. The whole scene could have come straight from one of the witch hunters’ pamphlets.

Alice almost squealed in delight. This was too perfect.

“Judith of Mowbray?” she asked.

“Aye, that’s me.” Judith looked Alice up and down. “I don’t meet many ladies in fancy dresses with fancy ruffs.”

“I think we can help each other. May I come in?”

Judith led Alice into her house and closed the door behind them. The door didn’t quite fit right in its frame, the hinges sagging and the wood warped. It went perfectly with the battered chairs, odd herbs, and cauldron bubbling over the fire.

“They say you’re a witch,” Alice said. “I work the same trade.”

“Aye, I’m one of the guilty.” Judith stirred the pot, then settled into a seat. Her cat leapt into her lap. “Thought I were just making salves for aching joints, but these last years, they’ve opened my eyes to the truth.”

It was a good act, one of the best Alice had seen. That bit about being persuaded made it feel more real.

“You’ve been here for years, right?” she asked. “Since good Queen Elizabeth was still young?”

“I was only a girl then. Thought I were talking to myself, not to devils. But then Adam the carter broke my heart, and I muttered ill wishes against him. Just a month later he broke his leg, the first curse of many.”

“That’s what I need, someone well-established. I have this whole act where I use my powers to find hidden treasure, then promise them more in return for a room and some pay. I set them doing a day-long ceremony to the faeries, then clear the place out and head off while they’re distracted.”

“You’re a con woman?” Judith gaped at her.

“Of course. Don’t pretend that’s not what this is all about. Convincing people you can curse them, then getting paid to curse their enemies.”

“I’m no trickster. I’m a real witch.”

“Witches aren’t real. I should know, I’ve met enough of them.”

“I am! I cursed poor Adam without even meaning it. Same with Mistress Emily, and the alderman’s cows, and a dozen others. Its why no man ever settled with me. It’s why I’ve only my familiar for comfort.” She stroked the black cat behind his ears and he purred happily. “I’m cursed, and when they arrive this noon, I’ll burn for it.”

Alice couldn’t have made a living if she had space in her heart for pity. But looking at this poor woman, dragged down by misplaced guilt and anxious neighbours, something sad and sympathetic stirred inside her.

She knelt beside Judith, took her hand, and spoke softly.

“People have accidents. Milk goes sour. Any time you get angry at someone, something bad will happen to them in the next month, because something bad happens to everyone every month. It might be a broken leg or a bruised toe, but it’s not your fault.”

“Then why am I alone?” Judith wailed. “Why’d it come to be just me and black-furred Jack?”

Heavy footfalls approached the hut. Judith had said they were coming for her at noon. The smart thing would be to leave now and claim no knowledge of the woman or her works.

For once in her life, Alice didn’t choose the smart thing.

“You’re not alone,” she whispered. “Quick, tell me three things about the man who leads this mob.”

As soon as the answer was out, she got up, flung open the door, and stepped outside.

“Alderman Henry,” she boomed. “You come seeking witches? You have found one.”

The crowd was twenty strong, most of them men. They stopped, uncertain, at the sight of a strange woman in rich clothes.

“You want to burn with her?” A large man stepped forward, better dressed than the rest.

“I want to offer you our services,” Alice said, holding out her hands. “Magic can bring curses, but it can bring blessings. I sense things about you. A sickly wife, old debts unpaid, a storm-blasted tree beside your house.”

The crowd murmured to each other excitedly, as if this was the most shocking thing they’d ever heard. It must be witchcraft. After all, that was what they’d come for.

“Want us to burn you too?” the alderman asked.

“Or take my blessings. There is a treasure close to you, one that could cure your wife.” It would be easy to hide a silver crucifix in a storm-blasted tree stump, then guide this man to find it. Judith could help, providing a distraction and authenticity. “Give me three days with my powers and I can heal your Kathryn. Then we can talk of where other treasure might be found.”

The alderman hesitated. She could see him wavering, tugged one way by pain and greed, the other way by cynicism and anger. His eyes narrowed and Alice feared she had finally overstepped.

Then the door behind her creaked and Judith appeared. A wicked smile crept up the Alderman’s face and Alice knew what he was thinking. Profit from his witches, then burn them. Best of both ways.

“Alright,” he said. “I’ll give you your three days.”

Alice took Judith’s hand.

“Come, sister,” she said. “Our powers are needed.”

“But the burning…” Judith looked bewildered.

“No burning, Judith,” the alderman said slyly. “You’re going to do some good.”

Judith’s face brightened.

“Really?” she whispered.

“Really,” Alice replied.

They were going to teach these men a lesson, then be gone before the kindling came out. What more good could a woman possibly do?

With the mob flanking them like an honour guard, Alice and Judith headed across the nondescript fields towards town.

***

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***

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.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

Last Night Under Moonlight – a flash steampunk story

Tasta practically spun the screwdriver as she rushed to unfasten the hatch. Within moments, it fell with a clang onto the gantry, revealing the mechanisms within.

This was one of the last of the great springs still moving. The rest had wound down, their mechanisms too clogged with dirt and old oil to keep going without constant maintenance, the city’s inhabitants too taken with other cares to keep their home alive. They had socialised and celebrated, chased money or art or fame, while their world fell into neglect. Even now, on what the experts had calculated to be Wonburg’s final night, most of them were holding a party in the upper tiers.

Those who hadn’t fled already, terrified at what the city would be like when its mechanism fell still. There would be no transport, no heating, no cold storage, no factories to make clothes or boots, no hospital machines. Wonburg was dying and Tasta’s peers were drinking their cares away.

But she wouldn’t give in. She climbed through the hatch, pulled a cloth from her tool belt and wiped dirt from the spring, dirt that should never have been allowed to accrue. Then she took a crank handle, slid it into a slot in the wall, and started to turn it.

“Tasta?” Fnell’s voice came softly through the open hatch. “Are you in there?”

“Someone has to be,” Tasta snapped.

Fnell stepped through the hatch, wearing an evening gown of blue silk and her finest gold jewellery, the pieces Tasta had given her on their wedding day. She smiled sadly as she looked at Tasta.

“Won’t you come out and join us?” Fnell asked. “It’s a lovely night.”

“It’s the only night left, and I can’t waste it.”

The crank wasn’t working. The gears hadn’t been properly maintained and now they clicked across each other instead of meshing and turning. There was no time for finesse, so Tasta pulled out a crowbar and started prying open the wall.

“It’s too late for this,” Fnell said, laying a hand on Tasta’s shoulder. “It was too late before we were even born.”

“We can’t be sure. A city has never unwound before.”

“And with luck it never will again. We’ll take to the carts and find others, to warn them about what happened here. But first, let’s celebrate what we had.”

Tasta flung the crowbar down, then the chunk of panel she had ripped free. The gears lay exposed.

“How can you celebrate a disaster?” she asked, leaning in close to see the gears. “How can you dance and drink now?”

“We’re not celebrating a disaster.” Fnell wrapped her arms around herself. “We’re celebrating the life we had, the life we’re losing.”

Tasta sighed. The gears were too far gone. She would need to find replacements, but where from?

“I have to go find parts,” she said, pulling out one of the worn gears. “It’s our only hope.”

As she slid past Fnell, her wife grabbed her by the arm.

“Please, Tasta, let this go. Come and make a memory with me. Don’t let this be how Wonburg ends for us.”

“I can’t.” Tasta refused to meet her gaze. “I have to keep trying, don’t you understand?”

She squirmed free and out the hatch, but a sob caught her in her tracks.

“Don’t you understand?” Fnell asked, tears running down her cheeks. “You can’t save the city, but there’s something here you can still save.”

Tasta looked down at the gear in her hand. It had been worn away by the centuries, like so many others she’d seen. Perhaps there had been spare parts to replace it once, but not anymore.

It was over.

She dropped the gear. Tears ran from her own eyes as she turned to hug Fnell.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I just…”

“I understand.”

They clung to each other for a long time, while the spring wound down behind them, its curved steel unfolding into entropy. Then Fnell took Tasta’s hand and led her up to the roof of the city.

A band was playing melancholy songs in the moonlight. The city’s remaining inhabitants waltzed or drank champaign or just sat and talked in hushed tones. There was sadness, even tears, but not despair, not that dark pit Tasta had feared she might fall into if she ever stopped.

Fnell led Tasta onto the dance floor. Everybody else was in evening dress, but they didn’t seem to mind her overalls. Friends and neighbours smiled, happy to see her sharing the end with them.

Tasta could barely feel the trembling of the city’s mechanisms through her feet. Once as constant as her own heartbeat, it was faltering, almost gone.

But the city wasn’t a body, was it? It was a thing once made, so long ago that no-one remembered how. Could they make it again? Could they build something new from whatever remained? She imagined gears repositioned, walls rearranged, springs set aside in place of some new motive source. Perhaps, just perhaps…

“What if we don’t go with the carts?” she asked, looking up into Fnell’s beautiful blue eyes. “What if we stay and try to start over again?”

“In a dead city?”

“We’ll be alive. Isn’t that what counts?”

The moonlight shone gently down on Fnell’s smile.

“Yes,” she whispered.

They kissed, and for one last night the band played on.

***

A story about finding hope in a world falling apart? Can’t think why I’d write that right now.

If you’d like more flash fiction then you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook of steampunk short stories and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

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.

No More Milk – a flash science fiction story

After the funeral, we went next door to the pizza place fuelled by the crematorium fires, in accordance with Uncle Frank’s will.

“If anybody’s getting their dinner cooked by my burning body, I want it to be you,” the will had said. That was Frank – at sea in a world he didn’t recognise, clinging to some scrap of control as if it could keep him afloat. The cancer had won in the end, but he sent us to claim a final victory over his broken body.

We snacked on fried crickets and chatted idly while we waited for our meals. When the food arrived we toasted Frank and joked about him joining us for one last supper. But once the waiters had moved on, there was no avoiding the real conversation anymore.

“One of you should take over the farm,” Mum said. “It’s what Frank would have wanted.”

Kath and I looked at each other. We’d both known this day was coming since we were kids and Frank had taught us to set up milking equipment. He and Mum had persisted through our teenage rebellions and the decline in dairy sales, keeping the herd alongside oat fields and a silo converted for breeding edible beetles. When Kath came home from agricultural college, the only courses they asked about were animal husbandry. When I insisted on studying tourism instead they almost screamed the place down.

“We’ve talked about this,” Kath said and I saw Mum tense. “We’re both willing to take over, but we’d be running things our way.”

A slice of pizza trembled in Mum’s hand. I wondered if she’d noticed that this place didn’t use real cheese anymore. I couldn’t tell the difference, and I figured she would have complained if she’d known. But then, Mum was good at ignoring what she didn’t like.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“If I take over, I’m going to run down the herd,” Kath said. “There’s no market for dairy anymore, not with cheaper alternatives that don’t cost the planet. And we’ve not sold a beef cow in a decade.”

“Those ridiculous cloners,” Mum said. “It’s nothing like the real thing, but who can compete with their prices?”

I kept my mouth shut about how those prices happened, and about the likely origin of the ham on her pizza.

“I’d concentrate on the beetles instead,” Kath pressed on. “Lower costs, lower emissions, and there’s a huge market for them these days.”

“No.” Mum shook her head. “You’re not turning the whole place over to those ghastly, rattling silos. Frank would turn in his grave.”

“Frank just cooked our dinner,” I snapped.

“Simon!”

“Sorry, sorry, that was completely out of line.”

“It’s good that someone here can admit when they’re wrong.” She shot Kath a sharp glare, then looked back at me. “How would you keep the place going?”

“Petting zoo,” I said. “We’d keep a few of the cows for that, and bring in some more exciting animals. Sheep, llamas, maybe some of those prehistoric sloths they’ve started cloning. Those things are adorably fluffy and they can’t run away from over-affectionate toddlers.”

“And the milk?”

“No more milk. It’s just not worth it.”

Now she was glaring at me too.

“If neither of you will keep up with tradition then we may as well sell the place.”

She sat back, arms folded, and waited for us to respond. By the smug look on her face, she thought she’d played a trump card.

I took a bite of pizza, forcing myself to pause and think my words through. Her tone had made me tense up, but I couldn’t let her get to me. I had to deal with this calmly or we’d end up not speaking for six months again.

“That’s fine,” I said at last. “People will always pay good money for land. Without the farm, Kath can take up that research post she wanted and I can move to-”

“How can you say that? How can you let go of the farm? And with Frank only just gone, as well.”

“Don’t start on the emotional blackmail. The world has changed. Diets have changed. The farm has to change.”

“And abandon everything Frank held dear?”

“I’m warning you, Mum, pull that card one more time and I’m leaving.”

I pushed my plate away. I’d had enough. Enough of the pizza, enough of the conversation, enough of the damn family farm.

Kath took Mum’s hand. An untapped well of tears threatened to burst from all of us, a pool of emotion built up through decades of struggling for change and fighting to resist it. The unspoken assumptions, abandoned dreams, and bittersweet memories.

“This is how we preserve Frank’s legacy,” Kath said. “By making it fit for the modern world. We’re on your side, but we have to do this our way.”

Mum sniffed and rubbed at her eyes.

“Can we keep the old milking shed?” she asked quietly. “It’s such a lovely building.”

“Of course. It’ll make a great farm shop and cafe.”

A slightly nervous waiter came over, holding out a set of dessert menus.

“Can I get you anything else?” he asked.

“Why not.” Mum blinked back her tears and managed a smile. “I keep hearing about your rice milk desserts. It’s time I tried one of them.”

***

There’s a lot to be explored about the future of food. What we eat is going to have to change to look after the planet, but that change is painful. It goes against our habits, our expectations, and many people’s livelihoods. I wanted to explore that a little. I daresay I’ll be back to it again later.

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.