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  • You Can’t Polish Your Soul – a flash steampunk story

    The ticking of the machines was a sweet song to Esmerelda Jones. She knew the pitch and rhythm of each one, could tell if something was wrong from those oh so familiar sounds. From the one that served breakfast to the one that starched her husband’s collars to a grand clock that merely told the time, she loved and understood them all. It was easy to do when she’d made them.

    She wandered the room, polishing their steel and brass surfaces, making everything shine to perfection. Midnight was approaching, bringing with it the end of the year, and she wanted them to be spotless. That gleam wasn’t just about the look of the place, it was about preparing herself for the change to come.

    The Reverend Jones stormed into the room, cassock swirling, and glared at her across his horn-rim spectacles.

    “Are you ready to go yet?” he asked.

    “Not quite,” she said, looking at the clock. “Just a little more spit and polish.”

    “My parishioners will be waiting.”

    “You could go to church alone.”

    “And face the humiliation of my wife’s disobedience? Certainly not! You will come with me this moment.”

    Esmerelda walked over to a large machine she had finished today. Its surface was unspoilt by time and rough usage. Not like her.

    “Just a little more spit and polish,” she said, running her cloth over the machine’s surface, brushing away a few specks of dust.

    “No more spit, no more polish.” The Reverend strode over, red-faced. “These are just things, of no consequence next to God’s work. You can’t polish your soul.”

    He raised his hand. He wouldn’t hit her, of course. That was how she had convinced herself for so long that he wasn’t one of those men. He would grab hold of her, drag her up the stairs, lock her in her bedroom until her will gave way and she agreed to his demands. But would he raise a fist? Oh no. He was a man of the cloth.

    The hammering of her heart out-paced the ticking of any of the machines. The New Year was coming. A time of change. A hope for renewal.

    “I’m sorry, Jonathan,” she said. “But God is your life. Machines are mine. I have at least left them in a fine state for you.”

    “Left them in a fine state? What are you blithering about, woman.”

    He reached out towards her.

    The clock struck midnight.

    The grand new machine hit its critical beat. A cage swung down on a piston-driven arm, crashing into place around the reverend. He had stood exactly where Esmerelda had known he would. That was the advantage of a regular rhythm. You could plan for it.

    “What in God’s name is this?” the Reverend bellowed, shaking the bars.

    The machined whirred. A hatch opened and spat out a carpet bag. Esmerelda opened the catch and double-checked the contents. Three dresses, two pairs of shoes, toiletries, undergarments, portable tools, two rolls of gold coins and a sheaf of bank notes. Everything she needed to set herself up somewhere new.

    “It’s the New Year,” she said with a smile. “A time for fresh starts.”

    She brushed a last speck of dust from the machine, popped the cloth in her pocket, and waltzed out the door to the rhythm of the ticking of her creations.

    * * *

     

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    That’s my last story for this year. I hope you all have a great time seeing the New Year in, and I’ll see you in 2019.


  • Men of War – a flash historical story

    The Surrender of the Prince Royal by Willem van de Velde the Younger

    “Master van de Velde!” I exclaimed as the artist walked up the gangplank. “How good to see you. Out sketching ships again?”

    “Oh yes!” Willem van de Velde said, setting down a bag of paper and pencils. He pulled out a pouch of coins and passed it to me. “I wish to set out immediately. Will this suffice?”

    I opened the bag, peered at its mix of gold and silver, and felt its weight.

    “It certainly will,” I said, then raised my voice to reach the crew. “Boys, get ready to cast off!”

    The younger Willem van de Velde appeared behind his father, just before the gangplank was stowed away. Then we unfurled the single sail of my little galliot and headed out, threading our way through the maze of merchantmen that crowded the docks of the Hague, their timbers creaking and rigging whistling in the wind.

    “Where to today?” I asked.

    “West,” van de Velde said, a strange twinkle in his eyes. “Towards England.”

    “Isn’t that where the fleet went?” I asked, breaking into a sweat despite the wind. “To fight the English?”

    “That’s why we’re going there,” van de Velde the Younger said. “To turn war into art, retrieve beauty from horror, and capture a moment of great patriotic pride.”

    “Which men will pay dearly to hang on their walls,” his father said.

    “We usually avoid battles.” I twisted my cap nervously in my hands. “On account of all the killing and sinking. I think you’d better find another ship.”

    “Really?” van de Velde the elder said, tossing me another bag of coins.

    “Patriotic pride, you say?” With that weight in my hand, ambition overcame fear. “Then it’s our duty as Dutchmen to help you.”

    *

    By the time we got near the battle, my ambition was sinking beneath the weight of my nerves.

    The sea was thick with ships, great men-of-war with full sails and bristling gun decks. They edged towards each other in long columns, smoke billowing around them, cannons roaring. The smallest could have contained my poor boat a dozen times over.

    “Surely this is near enough,” I said, watching war unfold before me.

    The mainmast of the nearest ship shook, then toppled slowly over, hitting the deck with a crash. The screams of mangled sailors were far too loud across the open water.

    “We must get closer,” van de Velde the elder said. He sketched as he spoke, leaning on a board that rested on the rail, pencil flying back and forth across the page.

    “But the danger!”

    “They’ll be shooting at each other, not us,” the younger said, adding a dab of watercolour to his own work. “We need to get in with the fleet, before and behind the ships, to see the timbers splinter and flames roar, to capture the giddy heart of battle.”

    “I’m not sure that my heart can take-”

    Another bag of coins landed at my feet.

    “Well, when you put it like that.” I raised my voice. “Boys, we’re getting in close!”

    *

    Months later, I sat in a dockside tavern, sipping at a cup of warm ale. This stuff didn’t taste as good as it used to, but then, nothing did. The days seemed greyer, the songs less lively. Perhaps if I had been sleeping better, that might have changed, but I woke in the night dreaming of the cannons’ roar and the van de Veldes’ sketches.

    An old shipmate came to sit with me.

    “Did you hear?” he said. “There’s been more trouble at sea. Fleet’s heading out to give the English a bloody nose.”

    My heart raced. I smelled gun smoke and heard the crack of shattering timbers.

    “Excuse me,” I said, downing my beer and abandoning my seat. “I have business to attend.”

    I ran down to the docks. Sure enough, there were the van de Veldes, bags in hand, eyeing up fast vessels.

    “Excuse me, sirs,” I said, rushing up to them.

    “Captain!” van de Velde the Elder said. “I thought that you were, in your words, done with our madness.”

    There was a strange twinkle in his eyes again. I recognised it now, having seen it in my own reflection. He too heard the battle rage around him and felt his heart hammer at the thrill of it.

    “I was over hasty,” I said, leading them towards my galliot. “In these troubled times, an honest sailor cannot afford to turn down business.”

    “I understand,” van de Velde the Elder said, nodding solemnly. He handed me a bag of coins. “Here. I wish to sail west.”

    * * *

     

    This is one of those stories where the real history was so wild that I didn’t need to make it up. Willem van de Velde the Elder and Younger were 17th century Dutch artists who specialised in nautical scenes. During the Anglo-Dutch wars, they would sail with the fleet to make sketches of the battles, getting right in amid the action. These sketches became the basis for grand, dramatic paintings that celebrated the achievements of the Dutch fleet. They later emigrated to England, where they were employed by King Charles II.

    If you enjoyed this story then you might want to sign up for my mailing list. You’ll get free flash fiction straight to your inbox every week, as well as updates on my other releases. And you can read more historical fiction and alternate history in my collection From a Foreign Shore, only 99c in all e-book formats.


  • You Cannot Own the Land – a flash fantasy story

    When the men in the blue coats claimed that the land was theirs, we laughed at them.

    “You cannot own the land,” I told them. “It’s not a drum or a club, something that you can pick up and trade, something whose spirit you can control. It’s just the land.”

    But the blue coats had swords so sharp they could cut the wind, guns that roared like thunder, and floating fortresses from which to bombard our villages. So in the end, we let them have their foolishness. They would call the land theirs but we would still live on it, and that was what mattered.

    They called the chiefs to a great signing ceremony. I had given birth to my second daughter only weeks before, but they became angry when I said I would not go. So I donned my stone bark armour and my feathered crown, took up my war club and my charm bag, and went to meet them.

    I stood with the rest of the chiefs, surrounded by blue coat soldiers. Their chief, with his golden shoulder strings and his pointed headdress, oversaw it all. Another man used a metal stick to draw a map on a great sheet of hide, marking out the shape of the coast and the limits of the land the blue coats called theirs.

    As his blood-red ink touched the page, I felt something change around me. The flow of life through the earth stopped, power building up like water behind a dam.

    “It’s real,” I said, staring in shock as he kept drawing his lines and the power kept backing up. “They own the land.”

    Ofabilla of the Long Fall village sank to his knees, pale and shaking.

    “What have they done?” he hissed.

    I opened my bag of charms, drew out a death tree gourd wrapped in red ribbon, and squeezed it tight. As the spikes pierced my skin and blood dripped into the dirt, I opened the way for the power of the land to flow through me.

    Nothing came.

    I squeezed harder, letting the pain open a path.

    Still nothing.

    I closed my eyes and took hold of my war club. Its power at least would be mine still. I reached out with my heart, down my arm, through my hand, and into the wood, calling the power forth.

    Nothing.

    The blue coats’ map had laid claim to all this land. Its power was theirs.

    I opened my eyes. The map maker was trembling with the strain of his work as he moved towards the end. Another blue coat dabbed the sweat from his forehead so that it would not fall and mar the map.

    I could not let this stand. They had guns and swords and floating fortresses. They would not have our spirits too.

    In my heart, I said goodbye to my daughters, knowing what I took from them in trying to save their world. Then I dropped my club, leapt forward, and snatched the map from the blue coat’s hands.

    They stared at me in shock, every one of them.

    “What are you doing?” their chieftain exclaimed. “Put that down at once, you mad woman!”

    I had no words to waste on him. I simply took hold of the map with both hands and pulled at it with all my strength.

    “No!” the map maker shrieked as his creation began to tear.

    The ground trembled. Trees fell. Men and women were thrown about. I felt the power they had constrained rush through me in a glorious, golden surge.

    Guns roared and I knew that my time had come. I would not see my daughters grow, but at least they would hear of me with pride.

    Death did not come. Instead, the bullets were flung back against those who fired them. The power of the land poured forth, flinging these invaders through the air, leaving them broken like straw dolls at the end of harvest night.

    “You cannot own the land,” I said, picking up their chieftain by the throat. His skin shrivelled as his power was sucked away on the great tide coursing through me. “But perhaps it can own you.”

    * * *

    Maps have power. Look at how we treat borders and the people who live across them. I liked the idea of treating that power as something magical, and this is the result.

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  • The Doctor Will See You Now – a flash scifi story

    The shutters were down across the door of the clinic and however hard I tried my key wouldn’t open the padlock. It was too early in the morning to call anyone else in, but not too early for patients to need a doctor. Fortunately, I had bolt cutters amid the jumble of tools in the boot of my car. We could buy a new padlock. Not everybody could buy time.

    Inside, I was greeted by a waft of trance music and the smell of lemons. Someone had left a computer on overnight, pumping out sounds, smells, and a light show that brightened the peeling paint of the ceiling. I switched it off, opened up an examination room, and waited for patients to arrive.

    It didn’t take long. First was a woman in overalls and steel-toed boots, her face pale.

    “Think I’ve got the flu, doc,” she croaked, pausing to blow her nose. “Need signing off work.”

    “Are you feeling any aches or fever?” I asked.

    She nodded.

    “When did it start?”

    “This morning.”

    “This seems pretty advanced for such a short time.” I peered at her pupils. Sure enough, there was a telltale wideness to them. “Did you know that there are sickness simulators on the web, sites that will bring on symptoms without giving you the illness?”

    She looked away. “Why would someone make that?”

    “Why indeed.”

    “You know, maybe it’s just a cold. I’ll get some medicine, see if I can cope with work.”

    “You do that,” I said.

    Four more patients came in before the receptionist arrived. Two of them had simulated symptoms – one on purpose, the other thanks to malware. They both got the same instructions – turn off the internet for three hours, then come back if they were still sick.

    I wouldn’t be seeing them again.

    “You’re not Dr Rowe,” the receptionist said as she peered in at me.

    “Dr Rowe couldn’t make it,” I said, stifling a yawn. I hadn’t been getting much sleep lately, hadn’t planned on being here today. It was going to be a long shift.

    “Waiting room’s almost full.”

    I nodded. “I’m trying, but you know how it is. Too many sick people, not enough doctors.”

    “Hm.” She gave me a quizzical look, then headed out of the room. I could hear her starting a phone call as the next patient came in.

    “I think I’ve for the flu,” the man said.

    We went through the motions, but I could already tell that it was another simulation. He was too lively for a man on the edge of collapse.

    I was just about to send him away with his no-internet prescription when something caught my eye – a scratch on his forearm, swollen and red.

    “Did you get that recently?” I asked.

    “Couple of days ago.”

    I peered at it more closely. Clearly infected. This guy was probably running a real fever beneath the fake one and I’d almost sent him away without treatment. What sort of doctor was I?

    “You’ll need a tetanus booster,” I said. “And something to fight the infection.”

    I opened a cupboard and realised that I had no idea where anything was. This was the first patient who’d needed more than painkillers or my signature on a renewed prescription. I hadn’t had to find anything else.

    Everything was so unfamiliar. Had I not worked here before? I thought I had, but clinics all looked alike after a while.

    I found a drawer of bottles and started looking at them, trying to find one with the right label.

    What was the right label again? What would deal with this sort of infection? The tiredness was making it hard to think straight.

    “Are you alright, doc?” the patient asked.

    “Fine,” I said. “Just give me a minute.”

    I flung open cupboards and drawers, waiting for anything to jog my memory. Doors banged open as I became more frantic.

    There was a knocking and the door to the room opened. A man stood in the hallway, a stethoscope around his neck.

    “Yes?” I snapped.

    “I’m Dr Rowe,” he said. “I’m on duty here this morning. Who are you?”

    “I’m doctor… doctor…” Somehow it didn’t seem right, putting my name after that word. It didn’t quite fit.

    The patient looked nervously between us.

    “What’s going on?” he asked.

    “Could you just give us a minute?” Dr Rowe said.

    The man hurried out and Rowe shut the door behind him.

    “I presume you read The Lancet?” he said.

    “Of course,” I replied.

    “Did you see the article last month about computer-simulated illnesses?”

    “Must have missed it.”

    “Apparently they can simulate symptoms of mental as well as physical illness now. Hyperactivity, depression, even delusions.”

    “Shocking,” I said. Somewhere in the back of my head, a thought was screaming for attention, but I couldn’t make it out.

    “You look tired,” Rowe said. “Let’s get you away from computers for a bit, see how you feel in a few hours.”

    * * *

     

    If you enjoyed this story, you might also like my science fiction collection, Lies We Will Tell Ourselves. And if you want even more, you can sign up to my mailing list to get free fiction straight to your inbox every Friday.