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Grave Wood – a flash fantasy story

Tohan crept into the grave wood, a basket of woven reeds strapped to his back, a thief in the most sacred of places. He hated coming here. Memories poured out of the shadows – images of Oela’s body, pale and wrapped in silk; of the mourners carrying her to her grave; of the goods laid with her and the dirt tumbling after, hiding her from him forever. He had shed tears enough to fill a lagoon. Yet here he was again, set on the most wretched of tasks.

Painted wooden grave statue

A figure loomed out of the trees, the first of the grave guardians. The statue’s wooden face had been worn smooth by the centuries, the features of the woman it protected obliterated by time. Only the eyes still had colour, a green that glowed in the darkness, a reminder that there was life after the body passed.

Tohan sidestepped around the guardian’s field of vision. With a creak of old wood, its head turned and he held his breath, then realised that he was standing on the grave it guarded. Another step and the movement stopped.

Tohan exhaled and walked on.

Deeper into the grave wood, his way became crowded with guardians. The oldest of the statues had been carved from living wood and the bodies they represented laid amid the roots. More recent guardians were carved in the town and brought here, to take a place wherever one could be found, to take up their eternal vigil.

He tried to tread a line between the graves, but they were packed tight together and his feet were those of a potter, not a dancer. Several times he stumbled, trod on sacred dirt, and saw the statues turn to face him. Every time, his heart raced and he quickened his step, afraid that if he stayed long enough at one grave then its guardian would turn on him.

At last he reached the place he sought. The grave was new, the paint on the guard clean and bold. Yellow skin, green eyes, black hair. Traces of gold embedded as jewellery around the neck.

There was a treasure buried here, its value beyond counting.

He knelt and drew a trowel from the basket on his back. With trembling hands, he dug into the loose dirt.

There was a creak.

The statue bowed its head to look down at Tohan.

He dug faster, using his hand as well as the trowel, casting aside great clods of earth. His chest felt tight, his muscles tense as bowstrings.

“Come on, come on…” he muttered as the dirt flew.

Another creak. The guard’s arms swung around.

If he wanted to stay free then he should back away now, abandon his prize and the statue guarding it. But he couldn’t. Not now. Not ever.

He scrabbled frantically in the dirt. A nail tore loose but he barely noticed the pain.

The guardian leaned closer. Cold yellow hands gripped Tohan’s shoulders.

“Robber,” a rumbling voice intoned. “Despoiler.”

“Please,” Tohan mumbled, thrusting his hands deeper, feeling desperately for the thing he sought. “Please, I need this.”

He felt damp silk and the cold, unyielding flesh of the fresh corpse. His fingers brushed a leather cord.

“Criminal,” the guard intoned as it tightened its grip and pulled.

The magic of the grave wood was far stronger than Tohan. He was dragged up. He tightened his fingers around the cord, which resisted for a moment and then came.

“Robber!” the guard said, louder this time. Soon, people from the town would hear. They would find him, judge him, know his weakness.

Tears ran through the mud dappling Tohan’s cheeks.

He held up the cord and saw the pendant hanging there, a clay model of a boat, its blue enamel chipped. The first gift he had made for Oela, one she had worn every day since, right into the grave.

“Please,” Tohan whimpered. “I need something of hers. Some token to remember her by. Something to tell me that I’m not alone.”

He looked up into that face, carved with Oela’s long nose, her narrow brow, her broad smile. In place of her eyes, those shining green points, strange and yet familiar. His tears ran until they fell onto the wooden arms that gripped him so tight.

“Alone,” the statue said, its voice soft.

It lowered Tohan to the ground and let go. Painted hands shovelled dirt back into the grave, but made no attempt to take the pendant.

“Thank you,” Tohan whispered.

He stumbled back a step, one hand rubbing at his eyes, the other clutching his precious treasure. Then he turned and walked away through the grave wood.

The guards watched him every step of the way.

***

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.’

The Creator’s Clock – a flash steampunk story

Clock over city with airship

In the beginning was the Great Clock, hanging over the city like a slowly ticking sun. For as long as stories had been told, we had lived in its shadow, our lives dancing to the rhythm of its hands. I could not remember a time when its whirs and clicks had not sounded in my ears, as much a part of me as my own pulse. The Great Clock was our world, its secrets our greatest spur to science.

The ticking grew louder as we rose above the rooftops, the hot air of our balloon carrying us toward that ancient and intimidating dial.

“What if we’re wrong?” Hassana asked as she crossed and uncrossed her arms. “What if all our calculations are incorrect? The evidence inside could ruin our careers!”

“Worse, what if we’re right?” I asked. “Can you imagine anything more tedious than discovering that we have understood our entire world? No more mysteries to pursue then.”

Winds buffeted us. The currents up here were strange and varied, thanks to the movements of the gears and of the clock’s hands. A gust threatened to snatch us away. I tugged on a rope, a motor sputtered into life and spurts of steam directed our course, pushing us toward what astronomers called the Seven O’Clock Hatch.

As we approached the Hatch, I watched the second hand swivel around the dial like a great scythe. It swept between us and our target, the wind of its passage almost blowing us away.

“Quick!” Hassana shouted.

She flung the grappling hook she had been practicing with for months. It caught on the edge of the hatch and she pulled us close, while the second hand kept moving, up the clock face and then back around. Smears of old blood showed where past scholars had failed this test.

I smashed the hatch open with a sledgehammer, leapt through, and turned to catch Hassana as she followed. A moment later, the second hand crashed into our craft, ripping the balloon open like a knife through the guts. The balloon dropped away, torn cloth and battered basket becoming little more than dots, a broken toy falling toward a miniature city.

“Isioma had better come for us,” Hassana said.

I pulled a compact lantern from one of my belt pouches, drew out the wick and lit it. The smell of burning oil joined those of dust and old metal. Its light illuminated a narrow tunnel that ran steeply up to the heart of the Great Clock, exactly as we had predicted. It was full of the sound of gears, the clatter and thud of a gloriously vast machine. I laughed out loud in excitement.

No more mysteries after this, perhaps, but could there still be wonder?

We walked up the corridor to another hatch. This one was as tall as we were and closed with a sturdy lock.

Hassana took the torch. I sank to my knees and pulled out the roll of oiled cloth holding my lock picks. To think that other scholars had called me mad to learn this art. How else would the Great Creator guard his clock if not with elaborate mechanisms?

I inserted the picks and manoeuvred them carefully, feeling for the points of tension, the places to push and those to release. At last there was a click, a twist, and the bolt slid back.

I rose to my feet and took the door handle.

“Ready?” I asked.

My heart was pounding in my chest, louder even than the clack of gears around us.

“Ready,” Hassana said with a huge grin.

I flung the door open and looked inside. My eyes went wide and I gasped at the magnificence of what the Creator had made.

No, not the Creator. The Creators. That much was abundantly clear.

“It’s so much more than I ever imagined,” Hassana said.

“Not just it,” I responded. “We are so much more.”

***

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it 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.

Character, Conflict, and The Girl With All the Gifts

Story is about character. Even when it’s also about zombies or dragons or the emergence of the internet, a good story will keep characters at its core. We come for the novelty but we stick around for the people.

As writers including Film Crit Hulk have pointed out, what makes a truly compelling character is their internal conflict. The divide between what they want and what they need can drive an arc that leaves us yearning to see how it will all end.

This is particularly clear in M R Carey’s The Girl With All the Gifts, a story about scientists and soldiers surviving in the aftermath of a zombie plague. When circumstances force a small group together on the run, there are obvious conflicts between them and with their environment. But it’s the conflicts within that make the characters so engaging.

The wants are carefully shown in the earlier parts of the story. Melanie, a ten-year-old girl infected with the zombifying spores, wants to be loved. Helen Justineau, Melanie’s teacher, wants to protect the children in her care, despite their apparently monstrous nature. Caroline Caldwell, a research scientist, wants to understand the cause of the disease. Sergeant Parks, the commander of their research base, wants to maintain order in a disintegrating world. Kieran Gallagher, a young soldier under Gallagher’s command, wants to please the people around him.

As the story progresses, each character reveals a deeper need, related to and often in conflict with their desire. Melanie, too bright and wilful for a life of captivity, needs to find a place of purpose in the world. Justineau needs forgiveness and acceptance. Caldwell needs to feel heard and recognised for her work. Parks needs to see the limits of his world view. Gallagher needs to escape the traumas of his past.

These needs become the driving engine behind the story, placing the characters in conflict with each other and with themselves. Gallagher, the least prominent of the five, has one of the arcs that moved me most, exactly because of those internal divisions. His past has left him desperate to please but incapable of doing it. As the pressure mounts, traumas he’s never admitted to other people tighten the screw in his mind. We face the awful question of whether he can even look after himself, never mind the people around him.

In a story as dark as The Girl With All the Gifts, not everyone is going to get what they need, never mind what they want. But sometimes those needs can make a tragic arc satisfying. We feel sad for characters who don’t get what they want, but may feel satisfied to see them get what they need. The satisfaction of the story comes in seeing the characters move towards those ends.

In this story, the characters’ divisions also become symbolic of a bigger issue. With the future looking increasingly bleak, what humanity wants and what it needs may not be in line. The revelation of that terrible division becomes the climax of the book, an arc as satisfying as those of the individual characters.

When a real person finds themselves divided, the best port of call is a counsellor. When a fictional character feels strong divisions, it’s time for a publisher. The Girl With All the Gifts is a great example of why these stories work and why, even in the apoclypse, character is so important.

Piggy – A Historical Flash Fiction

Annette’s stomach ached. It felt as though it had always ached, though she knew that wasn’t true, just as she knew that the town hadn’t always been under siege. There had been a time before there were Englishmen outside the walls, and her parents insisted that such a time would come again. But they didn’t look Annette in the eye when they said that, just like they didn’t look her in the eye when they said there would be food soon.

Picture of a pig

When Annette brought them the pig, they would look her in the eye and smile again.

No-one else knew about the pig because no-one else went into the ruined houses on the west side of town, shattered by English trebuchet stones in the first days of the siege. Annette had gone there, curious to see why the others wouldn’t, and hadn’t found the wrecked homes as disturbing as the adults did. That was why she had been the one to see the pig, skinny as it was, hiding amid the broken timbers and fallen stones. That was why she was going back now.

Clutching her mother’s knife, Annette crept back into the ruins. She had never killed anything, hadn’t even learned to butcher the family’s meat yet, but the hunger was eating at her as surely as the misery on the faces she saw around town. She wasn’t a knight who could save them all, but if she was smart and fast then maybe she could fill her family’s bellies.

Lithe as a snake, Annette slid between broken wall timbers. The pig was peering into a broken chimney breast, its back to her. She crept toward it, knife raised.

A stone rolled beneath Annette’s foot. She stumbled. The pig turned.

Annette raised the knife, but found herself frozen as she looked into the creature’s eyes.

The pig squealed and ran.

Annette darted after it. If it got into the street then other people would see it, people as desperate as her but with the strength of adults. She would lose her chance to feed her parents.

Annette abandoned the knife and dived onto the pig, wrapping both arms around it. The pig squirmed and kicked. The two of them went rolling through the dirt. Splintered wood stabbed at Annette’s back as she held on tight and let the pig roll her round.

She couldn’t hold on forever. Clinging tightly with one arm, she reached out with the other, seeking a weapon to fight the pig. A stick, a stone, her knife if she could grab it. Anything would do.

The pig squirmed free and dashed across the room. It got to the gap in the ruined wall where a door had once stood, then hesitated, looking back past Annette to the fireplace.

She grabbed a rock and stalked towards the pig. She didn’t understand why it wasn’t running, but she didn’t care. Dreams of pork stew and smiling faces made her smile in anticipation.

There was a squeal behind her, higher pitched than the pig. A pair of piglets poked their heads out of the fireplace. Their eyes were wide, their ears too big for their heads, their mouths open as they stared at her.

The mother pig looked at Annette and its ears flopped. With heavy steps, it returned to the fireplace and stood between its children and the hungry human.

Annette looked at them. All three animals were so skinny that their bones showed, just like hers did. There was barely a strip of meat on them, but any meat was better than none.

She picked up the knife and approached. The mother pig stood steady in front of her young. The piglets looked out past her at Annette, as Annette had looked out past her mother’s skirts to see the approaching army.

She shuffled her feet and gazed down at the knife. She didn’t feel so hungry anymore.

With a sigh, she hid the knife away in her sleeve.

“They say the siege will be over soon,” she whispered. “But if not, I’m coming back for you.”

She crept out of the ruins, watching carefully to be sure she wasn’t observed. As she walked home, she thought about the cute little piglets, with their shiny eyes and their big ears, and their mother looking after them. That thought made her smile. The hunger didn’t hurt as much and the dread of her parents’ grim expressions faded. The might not look her in the eye when they talked of the siege, but no matter what happened, they would always be there.

***

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.

***

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.

Eastercon 2019: SF is Not Just Escapism

Some people dismiss speculative fiction as pure escapism. Margaret Atwood famously disdains the science fiction label as she thinks it represents something without the depth of her work. But as a weekend in the heart of British SF shows, there are few genres more engaged in the big concerns of the modern world.

Ytterbium

Space ship taking off
Not the sort of escape I’m talking about, but it would be cool.

I spent Easter weekend 2019 at Ytterbium, the latest in Britain’s long-running series of Eastercon science fiction conventions. Eastercon is one of the big national gatherings for the speculative fiction community, covering, fantasy, horror, and science fiction, with an emphasis on the latter. It’s a great place to get a sense of where British SF is at.

As an attendee, Eastercon always seems very smoothly run to me. The volunteers who do the work give every appearance of professionalism. For a long and lovely weekend, a bland hotel becomes the hub of a normally dispersed community.

The entertainment at an Eastercon covers a wide range of topics. Panels, talks, and workshops discuss writing, editing, and commentary. But this year, I was struck by the level of political engagement.

Facing the Real World

What you get out of a convention will always be shaped by what you choose to attend. But that will also be dependent on what’s available, and this year, there was plenty for the politically concerned attendee. I heard panellists discuss subtle forms of racism, climate change, paranoid politics, and fake news. I went to events drawing attention to under-represented groups within SF. It was enlightening, uplifting, and very relevant to the world around us.

When people dismiss SF as pure escapism, they wilfully ignore its potential to engage in deep topics. This depth comes from two angles. One is the writers using spec fic’s tools to make us consider uncomfortable truths about the world, as when Marian Womack or Kim Stanley Robinson write about the future of the environment. The other angle is the analysis, with thinkers like Helen Gould looking at the assumptions in our writing and pushing us to move past them, to create work that is more enlightened, more representative, more inclusive of our world.

In both these ways, the SF community engages hard with real world issues.

Community

And then there’s the community itself.

Human beings need community. It provides them with support and a sense of belonging. SF is great for that. A shared passion for imaginative stories pulls people together.

That might not sound very political, but a moment’s thought shows that it is. By providing a community, we give support to those who need help to get by or who struggle to be heard. While imperfect, the SF community’s approach to trans rights has generally been forward-looking in recent years. Some in UK SF are pushing to amplify voices sidelined by poverty and colonialism, as in the screening of African SF films at Ytterbium. Just by spending time in this space, I’ve become more aware of the issues at stake.

A community can bind together people of very different backgrounds and help them see each other’s perspectives. That’s a radical political act and one that shouldn’t be so rare.

It’s OK to Escape

I don’t think that escapism is a bad thing. Some of the books I read and shows I watch are chosen for it. They help me relax and recharge, give me the energy to face a tough world. They help keep us sane, and we should never be ashamed of enjoying them just because they offer the relief of escape.

But there’s also a rich strand of SF that is politically and socially engaged, that recognises the politics embedded in any text, that deliberately seeks to raise important issues and make us think about the world.

SF is many things, but as Ytterbium showed, it is not just an escape.

The Art of the Pollaxe – a flash historical story

Armour plates clanked as Harry strode into the training yard and faced his opponent. His father had paid good gold for this man to come from Burgundy, allegedly for Harry’s training. But as far as Harry could see, it was one more way of holding him back.

“Defeat Sir Jean with the pollaxe just once,” his father had said, “and then you can go to the French tournaments.”

What Harry heard was “You’ll never be good enough.”

He would show them. He’d out-fought every other young noble in the north of England. He could beat some upstart foreigner.

“Ready?” Sir Jean called out.

“Ready,” Harry replied.

He snapped his visor down and raised his pollaxe, base forward, so that the pointed steel queue faced Sir Jean. The Burgundian did the same and they advanced towards each other.

Harry brought the pollaxe around and there was a crack as the weapons met. He followed that first feint with another, lower, then pivoted the weapon around for a swift, hard swing at Jean’s head.

Sir Jean stepped nimbly aside, brought his pollaxe around, and knocked Harry into the oak rail at the side of the yard. The force of the blow shook him and he had to pause to steady himself.

“One to me,” Sir Jean said brightly.

Harry clenched his teeth and attacked again. He knocked Sir Jean’s pollaxe aside, feinted left and right, then stabbed at his face.

Again a miss as Sir Jean darted clear in his light German armour.

With a growl, Harry swung his pollaxe around, aiming to stagger his opponent through brute force. But Jean deflected the blow and hooked Harry’s ankle with the head of his weapon. Harry crashed to the ground and the wind was knocked out of him.

“Two to me,” Sir Jean said.

Cursing under his breath, Harry pushed himself upright. He needed this win. He wouldn’t be dictated to by his father, left to rot around the castle.

He almost gave in to instinct and flung himself straight at Sir Jean, but years of practice had taught him better. Instead, he feinted low, as if intending to imitate the knight’s last move, jabbed left, then swung the head of the weapon hard at Jean’s shoulder.

In a flash, Jean hooked the head of his pollaxe behind Harry’s and tugged. Harry lost his grip, stumbled, and found the queue of Jean’s weapon pressing against his throat.

“Three to me.”

Jean stepped back and raised his visor. He was barely even sweating.

“You want to win too much,” he said.

“Of course I want to win! That’s the whole point.”

“But to try to win now, you keep doing the same thing. Feint, feint, attack. Feint, feint, attack.”

“Different attacks.”

“Same pattern.”

“Not this time.”

Harry charged, pollaxe raised. Jab, swing, jab, swing, swing, feint, hook at Sir Jean’s weapon, except the weapon wasn’t there. Something slammed into Harry’s leg and he fell to the ground, his shin throbbing.

“I give in,” Harry said, flopping in the dirt. “You’re better than me. I’m not getting to France.”

“Stop trying so hard to win,” Sir Jean said, reaching out a hand. “Pay attention to how you lose.”

“That’s stupid.”

“How else will you learn to win like me, if not by seeing how I beat you? You want to win when you get to France, no?”

Harry imagined himself in a sunbaked tilting yard, crowds of nobles watching as he knocked out some foreign titan, women gazing at him with wide eyes. They all cheered his name.

He grabbed Sir Jean’s hand and hauled himself to his feet. Armour clanked as he backed away, raised his weapon, and took a fighting stance.

“Come on, then,” he said, grinning. “Teach me how to lose.”

***

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the great things about living in Leeds is going to the Royal Armouries to watch the reenactors. A display of pollaxe fighting became the inspiration behind this little story.

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.

***

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.

Been Reading…

For someone who blogs about writing, I haven’t talked much about reading lately. Let’s remedy that…

The Dark Side of the Sun by Terry Pratchett

Pratchett remains my all time favourite writer, which makes it particularly weird going back to his early works. One of two sci-fi novels he wrote before creating the Discworld, The Dark Side of the Sun feels strangely both like and unlike the Pratchett I know. It retains the surreality, some of the jokes, even a few specific words and phrases, but neither the voice nor the story style is anywhere near as rich.

At my book group, we talked about how Strata didn’t feel like a Pratchett story. Instead, it’s like an attempt to do Niven or Banks style sci-fi by someone whose style doesn’t fit that work. Dark Side is the same. It’s fascinating to go back to as a long time Pratchett fan, to see how he developed. And as a writer, it’s heartening to see that someone went from this to become one of the modern greats. But if this sort of thing was all he’d done, I’m not sure we’d even be talking about Pratchett any more.

The Elizabethan Underworld by Gamini Salgado

In England, we’re raised to see the reign of Elizabeth I as a great era of national strength and renewal. But it was also a time full of dark events and seedy shenanigans, from state sponsored piracy to a growing and desperate underclass. This book examines the lives of criminals in that era, and it’s absolutely fascinating.

This is a history book that’s rich in details. It evokes the characters of the time, the places they went, the crimes they carried out. There are descriptions of clever con games, rigged gambling games, and people struggling to survive the game of life.

The Girl With All the Gifts by M. R. Carey, narrated by Flinty Williams

Of all the attempts I’ve seen to put a new twist on the zombie genre, Carey’s is one of the most successful.

Melanie is a girl, maybe ten years old, living in a Britain blighted by a terrible disease that turns people into monsters. Infected with the disease and held in a government research lab, Melanie is part of an experiment to try to understand the disease and maybe help humanity survive it. But of course Melanie doesn’t understand that. She doesn’t even understand the cruelty she’s suffering. She just wants to be loved.

Showing so much of the story from the perspective of a zombie child is part of what makes Carey’s story so distinctive, but the other view points add to its power. Seeing what makes the adults tick, how they respond to Melanie and to disaster, gives this extra emotional weight. It’s that emotion that makes it work – Carey’s clever take on the cause of zombies is just window dressing.

I’m listening to the audiobook of this one, mostly while out running, so it’s possible that my own racing pulse is shaping how I view it. But even with that caveat, this is a thrilling and touching story.

So that’s some of my recent reading. How about the rest of you – what are you reading right now? Anything you’d recommend?

Building the Phoenix – a flash sci-fi story

Garbage lay across the land, torn bin bags and abandoned appliances as far as the eye could see. A trove of wonders from the High Age, exposed by a storm that had blasted by two days ago, smashing buildings and ripping furrows through the earth. Toke had spent a frantic forty-eight hours digging through it all – mysterious motors full of puzzling parts, shining cloth that had survived barely stained, and tiny plastic sculptures of the old gods. His heart had skipped as he bounded across the heaps, pulling out tubes and wires, gears and circuit boards.

Now he collapsed onto a pile of black sacks, which expelled a musty and nauseating air. He’d found almost all the pieces he needed for his machine, but he was still missing a second condenser, and without it, the chemical processor would never be complete. This was how it always ended – succeed or fail, no machine lived up to his dreams.

“Hey Toke!” Froy appeared around a mound of white metal boxes. She stopped by the cart, fed the mule a wrinkled apple, and went to look at the processor. “Still not finished it, huh?”

“Do I look finished?” Toke kicked at a rusted can.

“I don’t know, but you’ll do this. You’re like the phoenix, always rising from the ashes.”

“The what?”

“It’s this thing I found in a book. I think it’s a bird they used to have, back in the High Age. When things go bad, it keeps coming back, see?”

“Unless you can find a condenser, this project’s never coming back.”

Froy pulled a curling length of tube from her bag.

“Might this help? I’ve seen it in old condenser diagrams. It could plug in here.”

She opened a valve on the side of the processor and pressed the pipe against it. Oil leaked out of the gap, thick and dark, with a sweet yet unsettling scent.

“Stop that!” Toke leapt to his feet, pushed Froy back, and slapped the valve shut. “Now I’m going to have to trade for machine oil again. Do you have any idea how much that costs?”

“Sorry.” Froy stepped back and hung her head. “Just trying to help.”

Toke closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and then opened them again.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I can’t find the parts I need anyway.”

“Then make the parts you’ve got do more.”

“That’s not how…”

Toke’s voice trailed off. Did Froy have a point? If he stood the condenser on end then he could use some piping and a gravity feed to send the chemicals round again. It wasn’t as quick as two condensers, but it might just do the job.

“Grab that side,” he said. “Let’s get this off the cart, quick.”

They got the apparatus up on end, with its outlet pipes stood in a pair of old buckets, like dented steel feet. Rust flaked away from sections of metal to reveal the pockmarked plates beneath, while other parts shone in the sunlight, smooth surfaces lovingly burnished to a bright sheen.

“Give me that.” Toke snatched Froy’s length of pipe, unwound it, and opened up the side of the machine. He whistled as he worked, replumbing the interior to a new design. For a while he was lost in a world of moving parts, only to emerge half an hour later, oil-stained and grinning, and slam the hatch shut.

He practically bounced his way to the cart, retrieved a drum of sludge taken from a High Age factory, poured it into the processor’s inlet, and flipped a switch.

These were the moments Toke lived for. When fragments of ancient machinery stirred for the first time in centuries, combined by the careful instincts of the junker’s craft. When dead devices were reborn as something new.

The processor clunked and whirred as the drum inside it spun into action. The whole machine vibrated. There were glugs of chemicals streaming through the pipes.

At last, the first extracts emerged from the outlets, with the distinct and promising smell of oil.

“That’s it!” Toke shouted. “We’ve got it!”

Fire flashed in one bucket and then the other.

“No no no no no!” He grabbed a blanket from the cart and flapped at the flames. The blanket, already soaked with oil, caught fire, and he flung it away. Smoke was pouring from the processor. The whole thing was shaking as it lifted from its buckets on blasts of bright billowing flames.

Froy shot a hand out and switched off the machine. The thuds, glugs, and vibrations stopped. As the flow of chemicals died, so did the fires, and the processor settled back into its buckets with a thunk.

“Ruined.” Toke stared, open-mouthed, at the blackened remains of his work.

“I’m sorry,” Froy said, brushing soot from her sleeve. “Maybe this isn’t your phoenix. But your next project will take flight, I’m sure.”

“Will what now?”

“It’s that phoenix again. It flies out of the ashes, see?”

“Flies out of the ashes…”

Toke looked at the blackened tubes protruding from the chemical processor. It had lifted off while those fires were blazing, had almost taken flight like machines from the myths of the High Age. He had never dreamed of anything so grand, and yet…

He flung his arms around Froy.

“This is it!” he exclaimed. “No more moving from one piddling project to the next. If it takes my whole life, I’m taking us back to the heavens.”

He pointed at the sky, his face feverish with excitement.

“Are you OK?” Froy asked, her brow furrowing.

“I’m more than OK. You and me, Froy, we’re going to build a phoenix!”

***

This story came out of a date.

That might seem like an odd start, given that it’s about two people rummaging around in refuse, but when you go on a date with someone who works in environmental academia, certain issues come up. You start thinking about the damage we do to the planet, how people in the future will cope with it all, and how anyone might recover from the mess we make.

That sort of conversation can be a downer, but I’m a great believer in human potential, in the fact that we can rebuild out of pretty much anything, given time and determination. And so came this story, in which two humans try to rise out of the refuse.

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.

Commentary on The Astrolabe

This month sees my story “The Astrolabe” published in Bards and Sages Quarterly, a magazine that’s played host to several of my efforts. It’s great to see this fantasy tale see the light of day.

Like “The Well of Vengeance”, which I wrote about last week, “The Astrolabe” took a while to find its home. Unless you’re a really high profile writer, this is a common experience. Stories face a string of rejections before they’re eventually accepted, so that the experience can be as much about relief as excitement. “Thank goodness,” thinks the poor author, “someone loves my word baby!”

In this case, the word baby is about an admiral on a sailing ship. She’s a somewhat unusual admiral, in that she’s also a bird, as are her crew. That image of birds sailing a ship was one that had appeared in my head and I found immensely appealing, turning it into a story about mutiny, duty, and trying to stay the course.

Because the idea of bird sailors was so appealing to me, it wasn’t until I asked friends to read the story that they pointed out the obvious flaw – why would birds even need to sail? After all, they can fly.

It was a question I had to think over and then make a nod to in the story, so that it didn’t draw the same reaction from paying readers. My answer is to do with war and transporting cannons, which tied in nicely to the story’s main conflict.

That conflict is around a gift. It’s not been uncommon throughout history for military leaders on opposite sides to admire and even like each other, to maintain relationships across the battle lines. Sometimes it ends in tragedy, sometimes reconciliation. It made for an unusual focus for a war story, one I was keen to explore. But as in so many relationships, for Admiral Concesa, not everything is as it seems. And there a story is born…

I hope you enjoy reading “The Astrolabe“, whatever your reasons for thinking that birds might sail. 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.’