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Serious Sabotage – a steampunk short story

“You should take this arrest as a compliment, Professor Greenspoke,” the agent from the Ministry of Political Hygiene said. “We don’t listen in on people we don’t take seriously.”

“I imagine not.” Greenspoke glanced at her manacles, idly considering the six most likely mechanisms to secure their lock. “It takes a lot of resources to build secret pipes in a person’s walls, to run the tubes all the way to a listening station, to man it twenty-four hours a day.”

“We don’t need to be there all day.”

The MPH agent opened his briefcase, took out a wax cylinder the size of his forearm, and laid it on the table. It was bone white, with a surface that gleamed in the light of the gas lamps like the sweaty skin of a fever patient.

“You’ve been recording as well as listening.” Greenspoke leaned forward, trying to deduce the model of gramophone based on the width of the grooves. “This is me incriminating myself?”

The agent chuckled. It wasn’t a funny sound.

“Of course not. This is to make a point. I wouldn’t put the evidence of your anti-patriotic plotting where you can damage it.”

“Then there was no need for this.” She pressed a finger against the cylinder. It didn’t immediately soften beneath the warmth of her body. This was no fragile candle wax. “My laboratory is next to the factory that makes them. I know what they look like.”

The agent leaned back in his seat, arms folded across his uniform jacket.

“Where is the incendiary powder, Professor Greenspoke?”

“What powder?”

“The one we heard you discussing with known dissidents. It wasn’t in your laboratory when we took possession this morning. That means it’s been shipped out already. Is it going to be used for a jailbreak, an assassination, perhaps another pointless attack on a statue?”

Greenspoke sighed. This man was unimaginative, so crude in his conclusions. She had hoped for a more insightful interrogator, when the time inevitably came.

“Your ignorance is showing,” she said. “You entirely misunderstand what I was talking about.”

The agent gave a derisive snort.

“I heard what you said about the Empress, about the lords, about the penal code. You expect me to believe that you’re not a dissident?”

“I’m not foolish enough to think you need proof to arrest me for that. The value in your recordings lies in listening over and over, comparing, finding clues, following the trail to others who resist this tyrannical regime.”

“You think you’re so smart, but whatever you think I missed, you’re wrong.”

“Really? Then how does the powder work?”

“Put enough in one place and it heats up. As the heat spreads, it reaches a critical mass, then bursts into flame. That works even if it’s spread out through other chemicals. You could hide it in samples of engine oil or soap, transport them separately, then pile them up together and walk away. A heap of innocent objects becomes an inferno.”

“The objects don’t have to be innocent.”

The agent frowned, which made Greenspoke smile. That comment had caught him. Somewhere in his subconscious, he was making the connection, thoughts heading toward their own critical mass. He just hadn’t realized it yet.

Greenspoke’s pocket watch chimed. She took her hand off the wax cylinder, leaving behind a melted palm print. Manoeuvring awkwardly in her manacles, she took the timepiece from her pocket and opened the lid.

“Midday,” she said. “If my calculations are correct, you should be receiving a message soon.”

Something snapped in the agent. He strode to the wall, tore the lid of a communication tube, and barked into it.

“Somebody fetch me the Greenspoke recordings. We’re missing something important.”

He fixed the lid back on, ignoring muffled protests from the other end of the line, and stood glaring at Greenspoke.

“Whatever it is, I’ll find it,” he said. “You’re not as smart as you think.”

The door opened and a junior agent hurried in. Her gaze darted between captive and interrogator.

“Sir, we can’t get you the recording,” she said.

“Why not?” His hand clenched around the edge of the table.

“The cylinders. They started melting an hour ago. By the time anyone noticed, they were too soft to pick up without destroying them. Then one of them burst into flames and the whole archive building went up.”

The senior agent stared at Greenspoke. His expression had the stiff stillness of a memorial statue, a calm carved from professionalism, not real emotion.

“You put the powder in the cylinder wax,” he said, his voice tight.

“They made it right next door.”

“This won’t set you free. I can lock you up forever just by whispering the word dissent.”

“I’m sure you will. But all those recordings, all those overheard words, all those pieces you could have puzzled together to find others like me…” Greenspoke shrugged and smiled. “You should take this as a compliment. I don’t sabotage people I don’t take seriously.”

***

If you enjoyed this story and you’d like to read more, 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.

Confusion Cake – a fantasy short story

Image by congerdesign from Pixabay

Dawn was bursting over the rooftops when I reached the bakery, to find Aisha up to her elbows in flour. Behind her, the fire in the oven built to a golden glow, the previous night’s lucky bun turning to ash in the flames, binding one day’s baking to the next.

“Good morning, Gwen,” Aisha said brightly. “Could you make the calm and apple tarts?”

I didn’t mind that Aisha set me straight to work. That was what we did to keep her bakery going, to make sure that I could work with her every day.

I mixed the pastry, cut it into rounds, filled them with apples and soft, dark sugar. As I sprinkled on the cinnamon, I remembered a summer afternoon, the two of us sipping tea in the sunshine. My calm flowed into those little pastry cases, to be baked in with the other flavours.

By the time I put the tarts in the oven, Aisha had made a dozen other treats, delicate pastries full of melancholy or wistfulness, eclairs of joy, churros sprinkled with sugar and acceptance. There was a reason why her name was the one above the door.

Together, we worked on the bread, a simple staple without the flourish of spices or emotions. As I pounded the dough, I pretended I was fighting an ogre, and Aisha laughed at my dumb monster sounds. Our fingers touched as I passed her the finished loaves, and for a second my heart beat as loud as the ogre’s roar.

The first customers came around seven. Aisha served them with that same smile she gave us all. She sold them joy and whimsy, inspiration and exaltation, all wrapped in perfect pastry.

An old lady beamed as she tasted one of the tarts.

“This is very good, my dear.”

“That’s Gwen’s work,” Aisha said, turning her bright smile on me, and I felt so tall my head could have scraped the ceiling.

“Haven’t you trained her well,” the old lady said.

As she left, I jealously eyed the box of cakes in her bag.

Not long before midday, there was a lull in business. Having put fresh loaves in the oven, I crept up behind Aisha, pressed a hand against her back, and reached around her for an éclair.

“No!” She laughed as she slapped away my hand. “They’re for the customers.”

“I just want to try one.”

“I’ve made you something special,” she said. “Just like always.”

I pouted. “What if I don’t want special?”

She brushed a floured hand against my blushing cheek. “You deserve it.”

Then a builder came in looking for his lunch, and we were back to work.

For most of the day, the coffee pot was just a coffee pot, a source of tarry black caffeine, but in the middle of the afternoon a woman came in who needed something more.

“I’m not sure,” she said with a frail and quivering brightness, looking across the pastries rather than at Aisha. “I just wanted something to… to…”

She bit her lip and blinked hard.

“There’s a table by the window,” Aisha said. “Gwen will bring you a coffee.”

This was something she had taught me early on. Not every moment was one for excitement, contentment, or ambition. Not every day was bright. As I poured the coffee, I thought about walking away from the bakery night after night, leaving Aisha behind, and the melancholy flowed from me into the cup. I set it down in front of the woman and she smiled at me with forced brightness.

“Thank you,” she whispered.

She took a sip of the coffee, and then she broke. Tears streamed down her face as she slumped over the cup, giving in to the sorrow she so badly needed to release.

“Why doesn’t he want me?”

I wrapped an arm around her shoulder and held her until she was still. I understood her sadness all too well, and the need for human contact to carry her though. Aisha silently brought a churro to the table, and when the woman’s sobs subsided, she found acceptance in that warm, sugary stick.

“Thank you,” Aisha said, once the woman was gone. “Here, I made you something.”

Late afternoon light glistened off the glaze of a complex knot of pastry, with a spoonful of tapenade at its centre and a sprinkling of chilli. The things she made me were always like this: unique, spectacular, and with none of the sweetness she offered even casual customers. I tried to look excited, for Aisha’s sake, and failed. I wanted sweetness and comfort from her, not the bite of bitter and savoury spices.

In spite of everything, I held out hope. Pastry crumbled against my lips, and the earthiness of olives gave way to the sharpness of chilli. Through it all ran a sliver of grief, the memory of a beloved grandmother’s funeral. It was my turn to cry.

“That’s amazing,” I said, and Aisha smiled.

But it wasn’t what I wanted from her, to be the subject for her experiments, an outlet for loss, curiosity, bewilderment, whatever she was playing with today.

She brushed a crumb from my lips. I drew back, almost colliding with the wall. I couldn’t take this any more.

The shop was empty, the counters clear of bread, pastries, and pies. All that remained was Aisha’s good luck bun, her personal superstition, baked each day before I arrived and thrown into the fire the next morning. There were no cakes filled with joy or contentment for me.

Aisha closed the door, telling the world that we were done for the day. She turned back to me with the same soft smile she offered everyone, and it was too much. I couldn’t be just an employee to her.

“I—” The words caught in my throat. “I can’t work here anymore.”

Aisha stiffened. For a long moment she stared at me.

“I see,” she said. “Please bank the fire and lock the door before you go. You can leave the keys beneath the loose slab in the alley.”

The keys slipped from her hand and clattered on the counter. She strode out into the street.

I stared after her, feeling angry and confused. After all these months, no goodbye, no thank you for my work. It made me glad I was leaving. I deserved better.

My gaze fell on the good luck bun. Apparently, I didn’t matter, but making that bun did. She could make time for that but not to say goodbye.

I snatched up the bun and sank my teeth into it. Didn’t I deserve some good luck?

A warm feeling rushed over me. My stomach fluttered, like it had the first time I had met Aisha. I tingled from head to toe at that memory. Except that it wasn’t my memory, it was hers, and that fluttering feeling was still there.

The strange pastries I had been trying turned from experiments to a revelation, Aisha showing me her secret self. Her disappointment when I frowned at them hadn’t come from a baker showing off her skills but from a woman opening her heart only to be rebuffed. I felt the fear of rejection, baked into a bun with that love day after day, locked down in the only way she knew how, making it possible for her to work alongside me.

I dropped the remains of the bun and rushed out the door, keys and fire forgotten. The slapping of my shoes against cobbles echoed around the street, a fanfare announcing my approach. Aisha turned to look at me in confusion a moment before I swept her up in my arms.

Perhaps tomorrow we could make confusion cake together. We had been living with its ingredients long enough.

***

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, updates on new releases, and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

The goldsmith Cualli lives in a land of endless summer, where blood sacrifices hold back the dark of winter. Through her craft, she grants power to priests and soldiers, channelling the magic of Emperor Sun. But what matters to Cualli is not power; it is proving herself as the empire’s finest goldsmith.

Not everyone feels blessed by the empire’s blood-stained faith. Dissent is turning to rebellion and the rebels want Cualli on their side, whether she likes it or not. When the season of sacrifice threatens the lives of her closest friends, Cualli must face a choice: will she fight for change through the illegal magic of silver, or will she bask in her own triumph and the endless golden summer?

Silver and Gold, a novella about friendship, magic, is out now.

The Cost of Compromise – a steampunk short story

Image by Gordon Johnson from Pixabay

Sarah clutched the cog so tight that its teeth bit into the palm of her hand. That was alright. This was a moment of power, the cog her vote, a chance to make the right choice for all of the strikers. Life always hurt when there was so much at stake.

Fred Hauld, sitting next to her with his left sleeve pinned to his chest, reached over and squeezed her shoulder.

“It’s alright,” he said. “We’ll get Billy back and put this behind us.”

She smiled and brushed away a tear. Outside the window of the union hall, a constabulary airship hung over the distant, silent factory. Power watched them from above, ready to stamp down hard.

“Here it is,” the Chairwoman said, holding up a bundle of papers. “What the bosses are offering us. First, a pay rise, two shillings a week instead of the seven we asked for.” Cheers turned to groans as the whole of that news sank in. “Second, no more docking pay if you miss production targets.” A mumble of acceptance. That one was actually good news. “And last, they’ll return the bodies of those who died in the big accident and the riot after.”

Sarah sighed in relief. That was it. Billy was coming home, or as much of him as she could bury. To hell with two shillings a week or targets, his memory was what kept her here.

“What about compensation for injuries?” Fred called out. “Plenty of us here lost a part of ourselves making their mechanical prosthetics. We’ve said it from the start, we want what we make. We want our hands back.”

That drew cheers and applause, but the Chair looked grim.

“Sorry, Fred,” she said. “But you know how much those things sell for. When I told them that was in our demands, they all but laughed me out of the room.” She ran her gaze across the assembled strikers. “I know this isn’t the deal we wanted, but I think we should take it.”

Theresa West, who’d organised the first picket lines, got to her feet.

“It’s not perfect, but it’s a win,” she said. “We have to compromise to get anything, and this deal leaves us better off. We can fight again for other rights later. For now, I say yes as well.”

Some heads nodded, but the future hung uncertain. To Sarah’s surprise, she found herself on her feet and the Chair calling on her to speak.

“They’ve got Billy’s body still,” she said, fighting back tears. “Others too. If we don’t agree now, who knows when we’ll get to bury them. We need that chance to let go. The owners are cruel and greedy, but we’re better than them. We can compromise for the sake of those we’ve lost.”

Her hand ached as she squeezed the cog. Others looked at their own voting tokens and nodded sadly. Relief flowed through Sarah. They were going to take the deal.

Then Fred stood.

“This deal would end a lot of suffering,” he said. “Most of you would go back to being paid, instead of struggling to survive off the strike fund and charity. Those who’ve lost loved ones could mourn them at last. We’d be showing that we’re reasonable people, ready to move on.

“But I’m not feeling reasonable.” He tapped his empty sleeve and his face darkened. “I’m down an arm, and there’s no compromise on that. They give me a new one or they don’t. I have two hands or I don’t. You back me and others like me, or you don’t.

“We’ve been here for you, even though we can’t work in that damnable place anymore. The question is, will you still be here for us? Because yes, this is a compromise, and it leaves most of you better off. It’s a win the union can cheer about. But it leaves me without the one thing that made this fight worthwhile.”

The silence that followed his words was as heavy as the factory itself. No one had an answer. Sarah couldn’t even look at Fred, she was too angry and too hurt. He’d been Billy’s friend, how could he deny her husband the chance to rest in peace?

When no one raised a hand to speak, the Chairwoman heaved two brass jars onto the table, one with a “Yes” stamped on the front, the other “No”.

“Those for the deal,” she said, resting a hand on the Yes jar. Then she moved to point at the No. “Those against. Everyone got their votes?”

Each man and woman in the room held up a single cog stamped with the union’s seal, a pair of clasped hands. They looked at Sarah, they looked at Fred, and they sat, each unwilling to be the first to move.

Fine. Sarah would make this happen herself. Her steps were leaden as she walked down the hall to those jars. Her hand hovering over the Yes jar, she turned to look defiantly at Fred. She remembered him coming to her with news of Billy’s death. She remembered him cooking stew one-handed, feeding her from his meager supplies in the days when she was paralysed with grief. She remembered Billy tending to Fred after he lost that arm.

She remembered supporting each other.

She looked across the expectant faces of the strikers, saw relief at the thought that his could end. And she saw those few missing arms or hands, for whom compromise could never be enough.

Her cog fell with a clang into the No jar.

“We all stand together, or we fall apart,” she said.

One day, she would get to make peace and finish her grieving. Today was not that day.

***

If you enjoyed this story and you’d like to read more, 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.

Hearts Lost to the Sea – a science fiction short story

Image by David Shepherd from Pixabay

A rumble emerged through the howling wind off the sea. Half a mile down the coast, the cliff face fell, ancient stones tumbling as waves surged up and swallowed them.

Eamon’s fingers trembled as he tapped at his tablet. Rain ran down the screen, down his face, down the road in rushing rivulets that grew stronger by the hour. This storm was the worst yet and it was still rising.

A swarm of insectile robots scurried across the new sea defences, the ones Eamon had raised after the harbour was abandoned. The signs of his failure appeared and disappeared as the waters rose and fell: the broken walls of houses, the shattered windows of drowned shops, even the stumps of wind turbines out to sea. But this time he wouldn’t fail. He couldn’t fail. This was what he did. He was Eamon, and he saved the town.

“Eamon, we have to go!” Hannah grabbed him by the shoulder. Behind her, a lorry stood outside their house, one of the last to be evacuated. A neighbour was climbing into the cab, while another slammed the rear shutters down, and a third started up the car.

“No.” Eamon shook her off. “Giving up is how we got here.”

He squinted as the storm blasted his face, and made another adjustment to the robots’ instructions, sending them to reinforce the new sea wall. As they moved, a wave rushed up and snatched two of the robots away. A third landed on its back, legs twitching broken in the air. Eamon ran towards it, but Hannah grabbed him around the waist, and others joined in, dragging him back as a chunk of concrete blew out of the wall.

“There’s nothing left to save,” Hannah shouted over the wind.

“That’s my house!” Eamon said. “Our house. And Sammy’s house next to it. And a dozen more. We can still save them!”

Rain ran down the road where he had played as a child, carried away the dirt of his father’s flower beds, streamed across the front step where his mother had sat with him every summer morning, talking about what the town had been back in its fishing days, about what it could be again.

“One day, you’ll save this town, Eamon,” she had said. “I believe in you.”

Now his parents were gone, along with everyone else buried in the cliff top parish graveyard. But the house was still here, as solid as his mother’s faith in him. If it fell, that would be on Eamon.

“I love this place too,” Hannah said, tears running with the rain down her cheeks. “You think I would have come back to teach in our old school if I didn’t? But the town’s like that school, half into the ocean and the rest about to follow. You have to accept that. Better heartbreak than death.”

“I saved us once,” Eamon said. “I can do it again.”

Down the hill, waves crossed the broken sea wall and thrashed against the front of the souvenir store from Eamon’s tourist boom, against the arts centre whose funding he had found, against the estate agency he had coaxed back as house prices rose. His mother had been so proud.

“I knew you could save us,” she had said.

This was what he did. He had studied economics to drag them out of their decline, then engineering to save them from the rising seas. Everything he had ever been, everything he had ever loved, was here.

He tapped at the screen, sent the robots swarming to the gap in the sea wall. They clung to each other to stop the waves washing them away, while some extruded polymers to close the gap, to hold it together until the storm passed. They became a single mass, a part of the wall that buckled but didn’t give way. They were Eamon’s spirit, bending but unbroken.

Further down the sea wall, the concrete cracked and the water poured in. There were no robots left to plug that gap. The tablet hung in Eamon’s hand, a cold dead weight of useless electronics.

“I’m sorry.” Hannah wrapped her arms around him. “But please, for me, you have to come. You’re all I have left of this place.”

“I failed,” Eamon whispered.

“No one could have—”

“I failed!” The words were a howl of anguish. The tablet shattered as it hit the ground.

“Yes, alright, you failed here! But look at how much you learnt along the way. Imagine how much more you can achieve if you start working with others instead of trying to do everything on you own.”

“But this is what I do. I save the town.”

“Not this town. Not any more.”

The waves were surging up the street. The wall of the souvenir shop collapsed and its roof followed, tiles and solar panels sliding over each other into the water. Another chunk of the sea wall fell, taking Eamon’s robots with it.

“As long as we live, so will this place,” Hannah said, pressing her hand over his heart. “And who knows what other towns you could help save.”

Feet dragging, Eamon let her lead him to the car. As they drove away, he looked back through the window, watching his house disappear into the haze of a rain-drenched twilight. He remembered his mother on the doorstep, on her sickbed, in her coffin. Eamon trembled, and finally began to cry.

***

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.

Shattered Streets – a historical short story

“Where’s father?” Ursula had to shout to be heard over the air raid sirens and the crash of the first bombs falling on the city. The sound of British planes was a distant third in the maelstrom of noise blasting her eardrums as she stood frozen on the steps down into the cellar.

Her mother’s eyes were already wide with terror, but now her skin went ghostly pale.

“The office,” she said. “They needed him to… to…”

She pressed her face against little Werner’s head, and he gripped her tight, crying at the noise and the confusion and the fact that his mother was scared again. A neighbour wrapped her arms around them both, but the crying only grew louder.

Ursula was almost in tears too as she imagined her father hobbling through the city, trying to out-run the bombs with his cane and his crippled leg.

“I’m going to find him.”

“No!”

Her mother’s scream was a hook in her chest, but she accepted the pain and ripped herself free, running out of the building and into the road.

Moonlight and searchlights combined to cast disjointed shadows that shredded the shapes of streets, creating a world of jagged angles and sharp, broken surfaces, as if the impossible geometries of nightmare had spilled out into the heart of Germany. But Ursula had lived in these streets for fifteen years. She knew the reality behind the illusion. Even as her eyes tried to make sense of the chaos, her feet carried her across the cobbles, dashing down roads and alleyways to her father’s office.

The bombs fell like the footsteps of an angry giant, crushing buildings as the raiders crossed the city. The percussive booms grew closer with each moment, while the sirens howled like wounded beasts and the stutter of machine gun fire stabbed through the engine growls above. By the time Ursula reached her father’s office, she could feel each quaking impact in her guts. Flames had taken hold two streets over, adding their infernal glow to the hellscape she ran through.

Her father stood in the doorway of his office, staring up at the sky. With one hand he clutched his walking stick, while the other clung to the door frame. Behind him stood Herr Schwartz, his faced drained of self-importance as he hugged a bundle of ledgers to his chest.

Ursula grabbed her father’s hand.

“Father, we need to get to the shelter!”

“Ursula, what are you doing? It’s not safe in the streets!”

“It’s not safe here. Come, now!”

He came with her, leaning on her shoulder. They moved as fast as they could, faster than he ever could have managed on his own, but it still felt terribly slow. They were the turtle in this race, and the hare had been replaced by a clawed and feral wolf.

“Come on, Herr Schwartz,” father called back over his shoulder. “Don’t go down with your building.”

Schwartz stared fearfully after them.

“Quickly!” father shouted as they reached the end of the street.

Schwartz took a reluctant step out of the doorway, then another.

Incendiaries hit, a string of them falling down the length of the building, blooms of fire unfurling, igniting the oil store for the heating system. Flames burst forth then drew back, sucking the air in with them. Papers flew from Schwartz’s fingers before he was caught by a blast from the doorway and fell, burning and screaming.

“We must go back,” father said.

“No! It’s too late.” Ursula dragged him after her. Schwartz’s harrowing cries faded as they hurried away. Tears streamed from her eyes, but she wouldn’t go back. She couldn’t risk her father.

A dog dragged itself out of an alleyway, blood streaming from its shattered back legs. Down a street a woman ran, shrieking and clutching her head. A building crashed down, filling the street with dust and debris, but miraculously nothing touched Ursula or her father.

At last, they reached the apartment building. She opened the cellar door and ushered him in. As she turned to close the door, an unexpected quiet fell. She hadn’t noticed the bomb blasts and the engines receding, but they were gone, leaving only the ringing in her ears. Was that it? Were they safe at last?

No. It was a cruel joke, a mocking imitation of peace. Even if the British were done for the night, the Americans would come in daylight. There was no moment when her broken world reassembled itself, when the pieces made sense.

Ursula closed the door and followed her father down into an imitation of safety.

***

I have a new Commando comic out this week, showing the bombing campaigns of World War Two from the perspective of a British aircrew. It seemed like a good time to show the other side of that experience.

I’m not going to take a “well actually, both sides…” approach to that war. The far-right regimes of 1930s Europe were monstrous and had to be stopped. It is also true that the Allies did some monstrous things to stop them, channelling the courage and skill of individual servicemen into inexcusable attacks on civilians. That courage and those atrocities existed in the same moment, and acknowledging their co-existence is one of the most difficult things history forces upon us.

*

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.

***

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.

Devouring God – a fantasy short story

Image by sipa from Pixabay

Our local guides cried out in alarm as they walked into the clearing.

“What have you done?” Bor exclaimed.

“It’s a campfire,” I explained. “We use it to—”

“Not that!” Bor snatched up the python skin, all thirty blood-slicked feet of it, and held it out, his hands trembling. “This!”

“Quite a beast, isn’t it?” I patted my belly. “We caught it by surprise at it slithered into the clearing. It’s fed us well, and with enough left over for several days.”

“You monsters!” Bor drew his shortsword, firelight burnishing the bronze blood red, and shouted at the top of his voice. “The travellers have killed God!”

I grabbed my bow, and my companions followed, snatching up a sword, an axe, a crossbow. But locals were pouring out of the forest, and though their furs were ragged and their weapons simple, they outnumbered us ten to one.

“There’s been a misunderstanding.” I lowered my weapon and raised my hands. “You said that this clearing would provide for us, and when the snake appeared…”

“He has provided for his people for a hundred generations.” Bor’s face was pale. “Since the day he ate his brother, took his power, and became God.”

“I’m sorry. We didn’t understand.”

“There must be justice.”

“Of course.” I knelt and opened my saddlebags, glad that we had brought plenty of gold and other trade goods. The risk of being robbed was nothing next to the risk of being unprepared. I held out a handful of coins. “A hundred, perhaps? Two hundred?”

“You think you can buy justice?”

At a nod from Bor, two of his people pinned my arms behind my back. Around the clearing, my companions were held tight where they stood, their weapons flung out of reach.

“There must be blood.” The tip of Bor’s sword touched my throat, gentle as a traitor’s kiss, while he readied himself to strike.

“Please, it was an accident!” I tried to keep my voice steady, but it was hard to die with dignity when I so desperately wanted to live. My stomach was tying itself in a knot. “Where’s the justice in killing me for that?”

“Where is the justice in letting a deicide live?”

My guts squirmed, and I struggled not to shit myself. Fear was making an infant out of me.

Then the snake skin moved, scales rippling as it slid away from the fire. Bor sank to his knees as the hollowed out beast raised its head, empty eye holes staring from the space where a skull had been.

“You killed me,” said a voice that rattled like dead leaves in the winter wind. “But I killed my brother when the world was young and took his power for myself. I am a killer of gods, and I will easily kill you.”

“Yes, my lord!” Bor cried out, and his people cheered with him. “Punish the transgressor!”

The writhing in my gut spread through my body. Muscles trembled and skin crawled. My bones cracked and twisted. I cried out in pain. My punishment had come.

“What is this?” the God asked.

My clothes fell away, no longer fitting me. My arms slid from my captors’ grasp, then dissolved into the sides of my chest. Scales burst through my skin as realisation burst through my mind.

“I ate you,” I hissed, forked tongue flickering. “As you ate your brother. I am the God of this place now.”

I shot across the clearing and grasped the old God, wrapping him in my coils. He cried out in anger, but it was too late. I tightened my grip, exhilarating in the movement of muscles I had never known. My opponent crumpled. At last, I flung his empty skin into the campfire and watched as it withered in the flames.

The locals were on their knees, chanting my praises. My travelling companions, freed of their grasp, snatched up weapons and saddlebags, ready to make an escape.

“Can you ride like that?” One of them asked, looking up at me in admiration. “Or do you want to stick around for a bit, see what we can get out of this?”

I slithered across the clearing and wrapped my coils around him.

“I am God,” I said. “What do you have to offer me, little man?”

***

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.

***

Silver and Gold

The goldsmith Cualli lives in a land of endless summer, where blood sacrifices hold back the dark of winter. Through her craft, she grants power to priests and soldiers, channelling the magic of Emperor Sun. But what matters to Cualli is not power; it is proving herself as the empire’s finest goldsmith.

Not everyone feels blessed by the empire’s blood-stained faith. Dissent is turning to rebellion and the rebels want Cualli on their side, whether she likes it or not. When the season of sacrifice threatens the lives of her closest friends, Cualli must face a choice: will she fight for change through the illegal magic of silver, or will she bask in her own triumph and the endless golden summer?

Silver and Gold is available as an ebook from Amazon or through the publisher’s website.

The Man in the Wall – a historical short story

Image by bassoon12345 from Pixabay

Liza wandered awe-struck through Lady Sarah’s house. It was more like a palace than a house, with a dozen rooms at least, most with their own fireplaces, fancy carved furniture and rugs on the walls. There was even glass in the windows, though not in the kitchen where Liza’s mother was talking with the steward. Glass was only for the richest people.

Liza walked quietly. She wasn’t meant to leave the servants’ rooms, but she couldn’t resist coming to see the glass, like squares of perfectly clear ice, rows of them filling each window.

She walked through a doorway and saw a man in a black dress standing by a fireplace, talking with Lady Sarah. There was a hole in the wall behind him, where a wood panel normally stood.

“Hello, who are you?” the man said, crouching to look at Liza.

“Oh God, the brewer’s daughter.” Lady Sarah’s hand darted across her chest like she was sewing four giant stitches. “What’s she doing here?”

“It’s alright.” The man smiled at Liza, and she almost believed that he was happy to see her. “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me.”

“But the family aren’t—”

“What’s your name, young mistress?”

“I’m Liza.” She finally remembered to curtsy. Doing that felt fun. “Or Elizabeth.”

“Like the Queen.”

Liza smiled. The Queen’s house must be a lot like this one.

“What do we do now, Father?” Lady Sarah’s voice trembled. “If Topcliffe questions the girl we’re all undone.”

“We will carry on with our game,” the man said. “That’s what we’re doing here, Liza, playing a game. I’m hiding from some friends, who are looking all over the country for me. You wouldn’t spoil the game by telling them where I am, would you?”

Liza shook her head. “No, sir.”

“Not even if they ask very nicely?”

“No, sir.”

“Or if they ask very meanly?” He scowled comically.

Liza laughed. The man was far friendlier than Lady Sarah, who stared at her like a dog that might bite.

“No, sir.”

“Then I think we will be alright. God would not send an innocent to do the devil’s work.” The man walked into the hole in the wall, then turned and waved. “Goodbye, Liza.”

The wood panel swung into place and the hole was gone. Liza curtsied, then ran away before Lady Sarah could tell her off.

#

Liza was in the kitchen of the big house, watching her mother argue money with Lady Sarah’s steward, when men burst in with muskets, clubs, and swords. The fiercest of them wore armour on his chest and a fancy hat with a feather.

Liza’s mother pulled her close, holding on so tight that her fingers dug into Liza’s shoulder. The steward spluttered, but was silenced by a slap from the armoured man. Liza buried her face in her mother’s skirts, wishing that the men would go away.

“Spread out,” the armoured man said. “Search every nook and cranny. I’m not letting that damnable priest slip through my fingers again.”

“This is an outrage,” the steward said.

Liza opened her eyes a crack. Two men had the steward pinned against the wall, but the armoured man was looking at Liza’s mother, and that made her really scared.

“Where’s the priest?” he asked.

“I’m here on business,” her mother said. “We’re good Protestant folk, and I don’t know anything about a priest.”

“If you’re such a good Protestant, what are you doing in this den of papists?”

“Their money’s as good as anyone’s.”

“Good for buying silence, I’d wager.” The man’s eyes narrowed as he stepped closer, then looked down at Liza. “I bet you see things, don’t you, child?”

Liza tried to curtsy, but her legs wobbled and she almost fell. The man laughed.

“Do you know what a Catholic is?” he asked.

Liza remembered the church bells ringing the year before, and people telling stories about Spaniards, ships, and storms. The Catholics in those stories were terrible foreigners coming to kill the Queen.

“Bad men,” she said.

“That’s right. And one of them is hiding in this house. Have you seen him?”

That didn’t make sense. The man she had seen was friendly. He couldn’t be one of these Catholic devils. And besides, he had asked her not to tell.

She shook her head.

“Have you seen anything strange here?” The man took hold of her mother’s chin and tipped her head from side to side, staring into her eyes. The trembling of her mother’s hand passed into Liza’s shoulder. “Remember, bad things can happen when you lie.”

Liza didn’t want to tell the angry man about the friendly man. She had promised that she wouldn’t even if he asked meanly. But she had never seen her mother scared before, and that made her more frightened than she had ever been.

“There’s a man in the wall,” she whispered.

#

Liza watched through a veil of tears as the men smashed the wood panel with axes. The friendly man didn’t look scared as they dragged him out, not like Liza’s mother or Lady Sarah or any of Lady Sarah’s friends, who stood by one wall, swords pointing at them.

The man in armour had a terrible smile.

Lady Sarah stared furiously at Liza, but when the friendly man saw her, he only nodded and smiled a smile that didn’t quite reach his eyes.

“I’m sorry,” Liza wailed.

“Don’t be,” the friendly man said. “None of this is your fault. Besides, I’m going to a better place.”

Liza hoped that place was a palace, like the one the Queen lived in. She hoped it had rugs on the wall, carved chairs, and those perfect squares of glass in the windows. She hoped the friendly man would be happy, no matter what a Catholic was.

***

During the 16th century, attitudes to religion got pretty screwed up in England. Fear and anger led to a brief period when Protestants were oppressed by a Catholic government, then a much longer period when the Catholics were oppressed by Protestants. There were covert religious services, a secret printing press, and a long, deadly game of hide and seek as the authorities hunted down priests sent to England from abroad. Those priests hid in specially built hiding holes in the mansions of sympathetic nobles, only to be tortured and executed if they were caught. Richard Topcliffe, the only real named person in this story, was among the more fervent priest hunters, and by all accounts a nasty piece of work. If you want to learn more, check out God’s Secret Agents, a very readable history of the period by Alice Hogge.

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, updates on new releases, and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

The goldsmith Cualli lives in a land of endless summer, where blood sacrifices hold back the dark of winter. Through her craft, she grants power to priests and soldiers, channelling the magic of Emperor Sun. But what matters to Cualli is not power; it is proving herself as the empire’s finest goldsmith.

Not everyone feels blessed by the empire’s blood-stained faith. Dissent is turning to rebellion and the rebels want Cualli on their side, whether she likes it or not. When the season of sacrifice threatens the lives of her closest friends, Cualli must face a choice: will she fight for change through the illegal magic of silver, or will she bask in her own triumph and the endless golden summer?

Silver and Gold, a novella about friendship, magic, is out now.

Theories on a Riot – a science fiction short story

The city roared around Mutt. The sirens, the stamping feet, the chants of two opposing armies of protesters. In the next street over, frustration had just bubbled over into violence, coordinated chants turning into cries of alarm, the crash and thud of projectiles, someone screaming into a megaphone.

While the world was distracted, Mutt flung a brick through the window of a store and stepped in over the broken glass. He walked to the back of the room, where the latest eighty-five inch high definition TV stood in pride of place. The biggest and the best he had ever seen. It was going to be his.

A sound like the popping of a balloon drew Mutt’s attention to the cash register. Two guys were standing there. Both wore baggy pants and hoodies, with bandanas covering the lower halves of their faces, just like Mutt.

“How’d you get in here?” Mutt asked.

“Followed you.”

Mutt didn’t remember seeing them outside, or hearing anyone following him. But how else could they be here?

“Can we ask you some questions?” one of them asked. He pulled out a phone as thin as a sheet of cardboard and tapped the screen.

“You cops?” Mutt growled, glancing around for something he could hit them with, then deciding it would be better to run. “You gotta tell me if you’re cops. I seen it on TV.”

“We’re not cops,” the guy said. “Bro. We’re here rioting, just like you.”

He nudged his buddy, who started sweeping things off the sales counter and into his bag—pens, mints, fliers, worthless shit. Mutt watched them both warily. They looked kind of nerdy, pale-faced behind their masks, a little squinty, and they talked in that fancy way folks did on east coast TV shows. They didn’t seem quite right, but Mutt wasn’t going to let a couple of freaks get in his way. He started disconnecting the giant TV.

“Which side are you on?” the guy with the phone asked.

“Side?”

“Out there. Are you with the traditionalist-authoritarian movement, or the social equalitarians?”

Mutt didn’t know what those words meant, but he knew where he stood on events in the streets.

“Neither,” he said. “Politics is for idiots.”

He’d got the TV off the wall, but it was bigger than him, and that made it difficult to carry. He stumbled around, one end of the screen resting on the ground as he tried to get a solid grip. There was a flash, and he realised that the guy was pointing his phone at Mutt.

“Hey!” Mutt knocked the phone from the guy’s hand, almost losing his grip on the TV in the process. The phone hit the ground and Mutt stamped on it, but instead of smashing, it bounced back up, like it was made of rubber. “What the hell?”

“Sorry, do you have some objection to being photographed?” the guy asked.

“Do you think it’ll steal your soul?” asked the other guy.

“Don’t be a dick, Lucas,” the photographer snapped, picking up his phone and then turning to the increasingly bewildered Mutt. “He’s new to studying this era, and he got some weird ideas off his old supervisor.”

“Uh, okay…” These guys were creeping Mutt out. It wasn’t just their sharply spoken yet meaningless words. Their clothes caught the light in odd ways, and there were too many stars on the American flag of the first guy’s bandana.

“Tell you what,” the phone guy said, “if we help you with that televiewer, will you answer a couple more questions?”

He had to mean the TV, right? And Mutt was struggling to work out how he could carry it away. This wasn’t an opportunity he wanted to miss—the Superbowl was gonna look amazing on a screen this big.

“Sure, I guess.”

The two guys took hold of the TV, then one of them turned Mutt around while the other took some elasticated cords out of a shiny black bag.

“Lean forward,” phone guy said. “We’ll strap it to your back. Now tell me, why did you choose this as your artifact to loot?”

“You mean the TV?”

“Yes, the TV.”

“I want a bigger one.”

“So you weren’t targeting a particular company, its owners or investors?”

“No.”

“You weren’t trying to make a political statement?”

Mutt laughed. “Politics is for idiots.”

“Told you,” the second guy said smugly.

“Shut up, Lucas. My hypothesis could still be correct. We need to gather a broader range of data.”

“You mean you need a new thesis topic. Nobody in twenty-first-century studies will let you get away with this weak shit.”

The TV was firmly strapped to Mutt’s back now. Maybe meeting these guys hadn’t been so bad after all. They were freaks, but they were useful freaks.

“See you around.” Bent over beneath the weight of the TV, Mutt headed for the broken window.

“I doubt it,” camera guy said as a siren approached through the night. Red and blue lights lit up the broken store front.

There was a pop, like a balloon bursting.

A black and white car pulled up in the street and two cops leapt out.

“Stop right there!” one of them shouted.

Mutt tried to drop the TV, but it was too firmly tied on, and too heavy for him to run.

“Quick, untie me!” He turned around and found himself alone in the store.

“Hands out where I can see them!” a cop shouted.

Mutt groaned and spread his hands. Where were those freaks when he needed them?

***

This story is a sequel of sorts. A few months ago, I published a story about time travelling academics studying the destruction of Pompeii. Part of that story involved a time-travelling looter. In response, one of the readers on my mailing list, Vicki Barbosa, suggested writing a story about what happens when time travellers from the future run into modern looters. After letting the idea sit and stew for a while, here’s the result. I hope that you like it.

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.

Master Ronvolio’s Steam-Powered Squid – a steampunk short story

Tentacles of interlinked brass rose from the water of the harbour, their tips waving in the air. At their centre, steam poured from a pipe in the back of the squid’s gigantic, gleaming head, while its expensively-dressed driver waved out of a porthole eye.

“We should keep moving,” Elizabetta said, straightening her hat and trying to ignore the twitching in her legs. The mechanisms inside the hat shifted and a miniature train rolled out around the brim, trailing steam and delighting a nearby child. When Master Ronvolio didn’t respond, she tugged at his sleeve. “You’re due at the academy, Master.”

“That’s one of mine!” Ronvolio exclaimed in a voice like a poorly-maintained gramophone. “How in all the circles of Hell did they get hold of it?”

“Perhaps they just had a similar idea to you,” Elizabetta said, trying to draw him away from the dockside. “Come on, your audience is waiting.”

“Similar idea my arse. I built that thing just before my etheric communicator. How did they get hold of it?”

Elizabetta glanced around nervously. She didn’t want to be having this conversation at all, but at least at the workshop she could have controlled it, could have let him wear himself out and forget the issue. Here, the celebrated inventor was drawing a crowd, and it was just a matter of time before someone arrived who could tell him the truth.

“Maybe you sold it?” she suggested. “You have been forgetting more things lately. Like your midday meals, or that painting of Prince Arducio last week.”

Ronvolio glared at her. “How long have you been my apprentice, Elizabetta?”

The word “apprentice” was like a spanner tightening the screws on her frustration. She had been with the Master far too long to still be an apprentice. He should be calling her his assistant by now, perhaps even his workshop manager. That was the job she had been doing for most of a decade, and she deserved some acknowledgement, just like she deserved to be better paid.

“Fourteen years, Master,” she said through gritted teeth.

“And in all that time, have you ever known me to sell one of my creations to these… these… these buffoons?”

He gestured toward the red-faced young nobleman climbing out of a hatch in the top of the squid, waving in self-satisfaction at the gathered crowd.

“No, master,” Elizabetta snapped. “And that’s why you’re constantly poor.”

“What?”

“Imagine how much better off we would be if you sold just a few of your works to the nobility, instead of displaying them in shops and public parks or selling them to labourers’ collectives for a fraction of market rate.”

“This is a matter of principle. My art and my devices go where they are needed, to lift up the common man and woman.”

“What about lifting me up? Or just filling my stomach?”

Ronvolio’s eyes narrowed. Elizabetta shrank back from him, and the hat shifted, internal counterweights keeping it upright at all times. She swallowed, remembering too late that Ronvolio was absent-minded, not a fool. But she was committed now. A long-simmering pot had reached the boil.

“You,” he hissed. “You sold them my squid.”

“Of course I did. Your clothes were threadbare. You needed new coats for the winter and a respectable suit to lecture in. We needed coal for the stove and gears for the machines. You think materials just fall into your life by magic? You needed this!”

“Don’t you presume to tell me what I need, Apprentice. This was my decision to make, not yours. You have perpetrated a theft, and falsehood, a fraud of the highest order. I should have the watch slap you in irons.”

Elizabetta opened her mouth to defend herself, but the sight of his fury, so utterly uncharacteristic, turned the words to dust in her mouth. She had betrayed the man who had fed her, sheltered her, taught her since she was twelve years old. It was an unworthy act. She shut her eyes and gave a small nod.

“I’m sorry, Master.”

There was a click, then a hand settled gently on her shoulder. She opened her eyes and saw Ronvolio holding an enamelled tube with an etheric antennae at one end and a red button at the other. He smiled at her softly.

“Never mind, Elizabetta,” he said. “I am prepared.”

He pressed the red button. Out in the harbour, the mechanical squid tremble, seeped steam, and began to fall apart, pieces of tentacle splashing down into the waves. The driver leapt clear just before its boiler detonated, hurling out chunks of glass eye and brass skin.

The crowd gasped, then cheered at the spectacle. Elizabetta stared at her Master, who pocketed the tube.

“I build such a solution into all of my devices these days,” he said, “in case of theft.”

“All?” Elizabetta’s trembling hand went to her hat, where the miniature steam train was once again hurtling around the brim.

“Most of them, at least.” Ronvolio winked. “Though I am a little forgetful about which.” He pulled a watch from his pocket. “Speaking of forgetfulness, aren’t I due to deliver a lecture soon?”

“Yes, Master.” Elizabetta took him by the arm and led him away. Behind them, a dripping young aristocrat emerged from the water, while behind him the last remnants of the squid sank in a great gout of steam.

***

If you enjoyed this story and you’d like to read more, 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.

Out Now – One Cog Dreaming

A shipwrecked sailor hunting for a way home from a land of talking animals.

A rebel desperate to carve out her own path in a steam-powered city.

A casualty from the trenches of World War One looking for a reason to live.

A time traveller seeking knowledge in the past while trying to protect history from the future.

Meet all these people and more in fifty-two short stories, ranging from the ancient past to the far future and into words utterly unlike our own.

My new collection of short stories, One Cog Dreaming, is out today in all the regular e-book formats. Collecting all the stories I published on this blog last year, it’s a journey through fantasy, history, steampunk, and science fiction. So if you missed some of those stories, if you’d like them all together in one place, or if you’d just like to chuck me a couple of dollars to say thank you for the entertainment, then please go grab a copy today.