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The Pilot – a historical short story

Image by Mark Taylor from Pixabay

Alan stood alone at the edge of a sheep field, watching planes battling in the sky above. Some of them were from the nearby airbase, others intruders who had flown all the way from Germany. They darted and chased through the sky like a flock of deadly birds.

With a roar of dying engines, a plane streaked across the sky on a trail of smoke. Alan watched open-mouthed as it hit the field, ploughed through the dirt, and came to a stop only fifty feet from him.

It was a fighter, Alan could see that, but too battered and mud-streaked from the impact for him to make out any insignia. Other boys in his class could tell a Spitfire from a Messerschmitt by their shape, but none of those boys had shared their knowledge with Alan. To them, he was just an outsider with a funny accent.

Flames crept across the plane towards the cockpit. Teachers had told Alan to find an adult if he saw a plane shot down, not to go near the wreckage himself. But he could see someone moving in the cockpit, struggling against the closed canopy, and they would be dead before he could get help. He was scared of getting in trouble for disobedience, scared that the pilot might be a Nazi, scared most of all that he might get burned, but he couldn’t leave someone to die.

Alan ran across the field and climbed up the side of the plane. His skin throbbed at the heat from the fire as he grabbed the edge of the canopy. The pilot pushed from the inside and Alan quivered as he pulled with all his might.

There was a clunk, the canopy flew back, and Alan tumbled to the ground. His head hit the hard earth and the world filled with spinning stars.

Gloved hands grabbed Alan out of the dirt. He bounced about in the pilot’s arms as the man ran from the plane. Then there was a boom, a blast of air, and he landed hard again.

As the dizziness faded, Alan looked over at the pilot, who was sitting up and clutching his shoulder. If he wore any insignia then they were hidden by soot and blood. The boys at school might have recognised the flight suit, but it meant nothing to Alan. Was this man British or German? Should he be helping him or running for his life?

The pilot turned to face Alan, revealing an empty holster at his waist. A pistol lay on the ground nearby.

“Where are we?” the man asked in a strange accent.

A chill ran down Alan’s spine. Germans had killed his father at Dunkirk, now one of them was going to kill him.

He could run, but retreating hadn’t stopped the Germans shooting dad. If he ran, the German could just pick up that pistol and shoot him.

But if he got the pistol first…

Alan lunged and grabbed the weapon. Its grip was cold and hard in his hand. He scrambled back, pistol raised, away from the befuddled looking pilot.

“You’re my prisoner,” he said, his voice wobbling as much as his hands. He was all alone, faced with a merciless killer. Mum kept telling him that they had to be brave, to manage on their own, but it was hard to be brave when you were staring down a wild-eyed Nazi.

“Please,” the pilot said, flinging up his hands. “Not point gun at me. Trigger is too easy, yes? Will shoot, bang bang!”

Alan rose, trembling, to his feet, and gestured for his prisoner to do the same.

“I should just shoot you,” he said, tears running from his eyes. “Like you Germans shot my dad.”

“I am Polish, yes?” the man said. “Fly RAF Hurricane.”

He pointed to the flaming wreckage, but even if Alan had known how to spot a Hurricane, he couldn’t have told if that was one. These could just be lies a German would tell to save himself.

His grip tightened on the pistol. He took a deep breath and steadied himself. This was his chance to get revenge for dad.

“Please,” the man said, his voice wavering. “I am here to help. Fight Nazis who kill my brother.”

Alan hesitated, his finger resting by the trigger. Someone had told him there were foreign pilots flying British planes. Was it really true?

He didn’t want to let his dad down, but he didn’t want to kill a good person.

“You’re my prisoner,” he said, pointing towards the road. “Now march that way.”

As they walked towards the airbase, the pilot talked to Alan in broken English. He said that his name was Jakub. He talked about his home, about how he’d come to Britain, about flying planes. Sometimes Alan got so caught up in it that he found himself asking for more details. Then he remembered that this could all be a trick and he snapped at Jakub to walk faster.

They approached the airbase, Alan wielding the gun, Jakub with his hands in the air. A sentry rushed out to meet them, only to burst out laughing.

“Bloody hell, Jakub,” he said. “You got shot down by a kid?”

So it had been true.

“Sorry,” Alan said, handing over the pistol. “I just thought…”

“You save me from plane,” Jakub said, ruffling Alan’s hair. “For that, I do not mind the gun.”

“I should go.” Alan had thought that he was being a hero, but instead he was pointing a gun at one. Shoulders slumped, he turned away, heading back down the road alone.

“Wait,” Jakub said. “You stay, we call parents to fetch you.”

“My mum works until late,” Alan said. “And my dad…” He stopped, fighting to hold back tears. “My dad died.”

Jakub whispered something to the sentry, who looked over at Alan, then nodded.

“We’ll need you to give us a report,” the sentry said. “Tell us what you saw when the plane came down.”

“Really?” Alan stood a little straighter. He was going to help the RAF.

“After that, I take you to meet my squadron,” Jakub said. “We need local to run errands – you think you can do this?”

“Oh yes,” Alan said, nodding eagerly. “Yes please.”

“This way, then,” the sentry said, pointing towards the gates of the base.

Alan followed him inside.

***

This summer marks the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, one of the most celebrated and mythologised moments in British history. This story is set during that struggle.

I’ve also got a new Commando Comic out this week to mark the occasion – Flying Fever, the tale of a pilot living through one of the most desperate moments in the history of the RAF. You can find it on Comixology or wherever Commando Comics are sold.

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.

Silver and Gold to be Published by Candlemark & Gleam

I’m delighted to announce that my fantasy novella Silver and Gold is going to be published as an ebook by Candlemark & Gleam later this year. It’s a tale of magic, friendship, and rebellion set in a world inspired by the Aztec and Mayan civilisations.

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?

You can read the full announcement for the book on the publisher’s website, and I’ll share more details here when I have them.

Omens in Blood and Bone – a fantasy short story

Hesper stood in black robes behind a battered travelling table, a map of the battlefield rolled out in front of her. She cast the bones over the map again and again, and every time the omens came up the same.

Of course they did. There was no cheating the future.

The screams and clashing of blades was growing closer.

The tent flap was flung open and General Soraya stormed in, her face smeared with soot, blood dripping dark as tar from her sword. Her armour gleaming red and gold in the candlelight.

“I should cut you down where I stand,” Soraya roared, pointing at Hesper with her blade. “What use is a military astrologer who can’t tell me how to win?”

Hesper took a step back, hands raised. “I did what you told me to. I cast the bones, read the omens, guided you based on what I saw.”

“You told me that our cavalry’s best chance was on the right flank.”

“And that was true. They would have been killed in half the time if you’d put them on the left.”

“You told me to advance, and we walked straight into a hail of arrows!” Soraya slammed her gauntleted fist against the table, making marble counters jump.

“If you had held back, they would have had longer to shoot at you.”

“I pay you to look into the future.” Soraya advanced. Hesper backed away, keeping the table between her and the furious commander. “To tell me how I can win my battles. To ensure victory.”

“And that worked, as long as the other side didn’t have an astrologer of their own.”

“What?”

Hesper held up the bones.

“With two of us, the outcome became inevitable. Each predicted what the other would advise, how the future would play out, until we reached the optimum battle. They had an unbeatable approach, and all I could do was save us from utter disaster.”

“If I’d known you were leading me to disaster, I would have had your head days ago.” Soraya brought her blade down, smashing the table to pieces.

“That’s why I didn’t tell you. I foresaw how you would respond.”

“Yet here you are.” Soraya stepped over the splintered planks, her face twisted with fury. “And here you will pay the price of failure.”

Hesper shrugged. “If I’d been on the battlefield, you would have killed me there and then. If I’d run, you would have pursued and caught me later. But if I waited here, and if we paused to have this conversation…”

The tent flap burst open and half a dozen soldiers strode in, their armour painted blue and silver.

“General Soraya.” Their leader pointed his sword at the general, and triumph gleamed in green eyes. “We have you. Surrender or die.”

“Death before dishonour!” Soraya swung her sword. There was a clang of steel on steel, then the soldiers moved in to surround her.

Hesper stepped back. In the entrance to the tent, a man stood wearing black robes like her own. He nodded to her, one professional greeting another, while between them the soldiers fought to the death. Hesper nodded back.

She cast her bones across the shattered remains of the table. The omens looked good, all things considered. A good astrologer couldn’t always save their employer, but they could save themself.

***

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 Other Plague of Locusts – a science fiction short story

Professor Kimani stood in the doorway of Green Eden Labs, watching the locusts swarm across the fields. She smiled to herself – all was well with the world.

A jeep came tearing down the track out of the mountains, bumping and jolting, dust flying behind it. It screeched to a halt and one of the passengers climbed out.

Kimani recognised him from snippets she had seen of the rebels’ social media. A tall man with a predatory grin and a Kalashnikov hanging from his shoulder, Joseph Mburu looked like a wolf prowling into a field of sheep. He was, depending upon who she listened to, the country’s last great hero or a terrorist whose hands would forever drip with blood.

“Professor Kimani,” he said. “I hear you have performed a miracle.”

“You’re too kind,” Kimani said, certain that kindness was no a feature of Mburu, whatever the merits of his cause.

“You have genetically engineered locusts that feed crops instead of devouring them, yes?”

“Correct.”

“Then I have come to buy your locusts.” Mburu signalled to his driver, who opened up a gym bag, revealing rolls of worn US dollar notes. “With them, I will be able to feed our poor freedom fighters and the abandoned communities they serve. You will be saving the soul of our country.”

“I’m sorry, but no.”

A flash of anger shone in Mburu’s eyes.

“Be careful who you say that to, professor,” he growled.

There was a shout from his driver. A BMW was rolling sedately between the fields of wheat, light glinting off its mirrored windows. It slowed as it approached the lab, decelerating quietly to a halt. Two white men in sunglasses stepped out, holsters visible beneath their jackets. They watched Kimani and his driver as a third figure emerged from the rear of the car.

Kimani recognised her from an international conference on genetic editing. A stately blond woman wearing discreet makeup and a perfectly tailored suit, Julia McKee had the utter confidence only a CEO could carry. She was, depending upon who Kimani listened to, the world’s greatest innovator in genetic technology or a parasite preying off the work of gifted minds.

“Professor Kimani,” she said, offering her hand. “A pleasure to meet you again.”

“And you,” Kimani said, wondering if McKee actually remembered her.

While Mburu eyed the businesswoman with a hungry grin, his driver and her bodyguards exchanged tense glances, their hands inches from their weapons.

“I hear that you’ve made an amazing breakthrough,” McKee said. “That your benign locusts will drive hostile swarms away.”

“Correct.”

“Then I have come to buy the rights to your locusts.” McKee drew a cheque from her pocket, revealing more zeroes than in the lab’s whole annual budget. “With them, I will transform pest control, empowering farmers and agricultural businesses around the world.”

“I’m sorry, but no.”

McKee barely blinked.

“This is just a consulting fee, professor,” she said. “Our full payment will set you up for life.”

“Hey, those are my locusts!” Mburu butted in. “They’re going to feed the downtrodden.”

“They will feed the world.”

“That’s what you capitalists always claim, just before you empty our pockets.”

A car horn blared out a tinny impression of the national anthem. They all turned to watched as a limousine roared up the road from the city, flags flying from the bonnet. It ground to a halt next to the BMW and three uniformed soldiers leapt out. While one held the door open, the others pointed their guns at Mburu and his driver, who waved their own weapons back. The air was full of angry shouts as McKee’s bodyguards dragged her into the shelter of their car.

“Please, stop this!” Kimani said, trembling as she stepped between the three bands of armed men. “If any of you want me to listen, you will stop this at once.”

Reluctantly, they all lowered their weapons, and a man stepped out of the limousine.

Kimani recognised him from a hundred news broadcasts. Short and round, dressed in an overstretched uniform with a string of medals across his chest, Charles Wambui carried himself like a man used to being obeyed. He was, depending upon who Kimani listened to, either the gifted politician who had reunited a troubled country or a corrupt bureaucrat leaching her nation of life.

“Sally,” he said, ambling over with his arms held wide. Kimani stepped back to avoid what looked worryingly like it might have turned into a hug.

“I prefer Professor Kimani,” she said. “Mister President.”

“Whatever you wish. I hear that you and your team have achieved amazing things, that your new locusts while breed with the old swarms, rendering them sterile and killing off these plagues.”

“Correct.”

“Then your country thanks you for your good work. We will be providing grants to help you continue, while we take your first creations and use them to protect the harvests.”

“I’m sorry, but no.”

Wambui frowned.

“I don’t think you understand, professor. I am the president. I am legally entitled to-”

“Your laws are grounded in lies,” Mburu yelled. “These insects should go to the people, so that-”

“You cannot keep this technology for a single nation,” McKee interjected. “The world deserves the chance to reap the dividends of an incredible moment in-”

“Enough!” Kimani yelled.

They all looked at her, stunned into silence.

She took a deep breath, surveyed the three most powerful people she had ever met, and tried to keep her voice from wavering.

“I will not be selling the locusts to any of you, because I can’t. Humanity cannot control nature, and I cannot control a swarm of insects. Look.”

She pointed across the fields. The swarms that had been there before were gone, flown away to protect and nurture some other crop.

“They are doing what they were made to do,” she said. “The people will benefit from it, not one of your causes.”

She turned on her heel and strode back into the lab, slamming the door behind her.

“Locusts,” she muttered angrily, shaking her head.

***

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.

The Surprise of Snowpiercer

I’m a huge fan of the film Snowpiercer. It’s an exciting, action-packed story and a powerful modern fable. That’s also why I thought it would make a terrible TV show.

Snowpiercer is a parable about inequality. Following an environmental cataclysm, humanity has been reduced to the inhabitants of a single massive train, constantly rolling around the world. The inhabitants are strictly divided by class, with the wealthiest few living in spacious carriages at the front, the poorest crowded together in the rear, and a range of other ranks between. Pushed to the limit, a group of the train’s poorest inhabitants set out on a revolutionary journey to overthrow the hierarchy by fighting their way to the front of the train. As messages go, it’s not subtle.

As a film, it works because, in the short space of a couple of hours, you’re carried along by the pace of the story. You don’t pay attention to the things about life on this train that don’t make real-life sense, like how they’re managing to feed everyone. The film’s train works as a symbol, not a coherent reality, and you can brush over that for a two-hour parable. Not, I thought, for a long-form television story.

It turns out that I was wrong. The makers of the TV show have found a way to expand upon the setting of Snowpiercer, by showing us the other side of the fight for control of the train. Instead of portraying the train as a functioning self-contained system, we’re shown that it’s constantly on the brink of collapse, the people in charge struggling to hold things together. It’s like the middle third of Seveneves, where experts are desperately trying to save what’s left of humanity using the dwindling resources of a broken orbital armada. Viewers look at Snowpiercer‘s train-bound society, say “that couldn’t work”, and the characters look back at us and say “we know!”

This changes the nature of the story. The morality of the film was clear and simple – oppression bad, rebellion good. In the show, it’s more complicated. The people holding down the poorer class are doing so because they think it’s necessary to save humanity. I’m not sure that’s a good message to make relatable right now, when we’re seeing real-life authoritarians throwing around justifications for cruel and brutal behaviour. It’s certainly an argument though, and it will be interesting to see where the show takes a more nuanced and complex, but still tense and intriguing, version of its story.

Fly Me to the Moon – a steampunk short story

It was in the spring of 1649 that I travelled from London up to Oxford, to fulfill a dream long considered impossible. King Charles had but lately been beheaded, propelling England into a bold and unprecedented age in which the people ruled themselves. Developments in clockwork, cogs, and lenses came to us from across the continent, each month delivering news of some previously unimaginable device. For the first time in my life, it seemed that anything was possible.

Doctor John Wilkins met me at the entrance to Wadham College, where he had but lately been made warden. A gentleman of charm and obvious intelligence, he greeted me as if we were lifelong friends, not merely acquaintances linked by ink and parchment. I was by then intimately acquainted with his remarkable scholarship in theology, natural philosophy, and most importantly the burgeoning field of astronomy, so it was in a state of giddy delight that I followed him to a courtyard in back of the college.

There, my eyes fell upon a most remarkable contraption, a boat of sorts, but with wings attached, large crank handles on the sides, and all manner of mechanical workings encased in its central section. I stared spellbound at Wilkins’ flying chariot.

I was, of course, acquainted with the precedents on which Wilkins had built his machine. The flight of the monk Elmer, Archytas’ wooden dove, Regiomontanus of Nuremberg’s iron fly, examples of human and mechanical flight stretching from ancient Greece almost to the modern day. And yet, as I considered the possibility of leaving the earth, questions suddenly filled my mind.

“Are you sure it has enough power?” I asked, laying a hand on the stern. The chariot’s springs had been wound and it was thrumming with barely contained power.

“My dear Bragg,” Wilkins said. “Modern gearing can upgrade mechanical energy by factors of thousands, more than enough to escape the initial attraction of the Earth.”

“You say initial attraction.” I tugged at my collar, releasing the unaccountable heat which was, of a sudden, making me sweat. “Might there be a danger of that attraction drawing me back after the clockwork has run out?”

“Not at all! Based on Gilbert’s De Magnete, I have calculated that the force of attraction will be nullified at twenty miles up. From that point, you will be safely airborne.”

Twenty miles up, and that only the beginning of my journey. I would be a bold explorer bringing civilisation to the inhabitants of the moon as Columbus had once brought it to the Americas. This was everything I had dreamed of in the comfort of my London home, everything I had sworn excitedly to fulfill. But now I was here, I started to see practicalities I had not considered.

“It’s awfully barren up there,” I said, staring at the empty sky. “Won’t I be deathly cold?”

“Away from the earth, in the realm of the sun?” Wilkins laughed. “You are a wit, Bragg.”

I forced a smile. “How long will it take?”

“Six months, based on travel times to the new world and the relative distances of America and the moon.”

“Alas, this will never carry enough food for six months.” I shook my head as I looked at the pitiful supplies in the front of the chariot. “Never mind for my return. Alas, we will have to rethink the whole business.”

“Never fear,” Wilkins said. “Once beyond the earth’s pull, you will no longer be exerting your spirits and so will not need the energy. You will have no necessity for sustenance.”

“So why is there food and drink on board?”

“For the same reason there are books – to keep you entertained.”

And there it was. I knew as well as Wilkins did the biblical, observational, and logical evidence that the outer air was breathable. I had no need for extra food or warmth, was well supplied with entertainment and all the power required for my journey.

I would be going to the moon, as I had dreamed.

Alone.

In a glorified rowing boat.

“You’re not having doubts, are you?” Wilkins asked.

“Of course not,” I said. Braggs never had doubts. Not my cousin Samuel who had been crippled fighting for the king, nor my brother Tobias who had died in the service of Parliament. If they could stand for what they believed in then so could I, and I believed in the endless possibilities that natural science foretold.

My legs felt heavy as I clambered into the flying chariot and took hold of the lever that would release its power.

“Godspeed,” Wilkins said, smiling even as a tear ran from his eye.

I pulled the lever. Gears whirred, wings flapped, and the chariot rose. The wind rushed past as I soared like a bird and I laughed at myself for ever having harboured fears of failure.

I shan’t bother you with the long details of my journey, for there were almost none. Wilkins proved correct in every assertion, making my travel smooth and comfortable. I set down on the moon one hundred and seventy-four days after leaving Wadham College – slightly under the calculated six months – and was greeted with friendly curiosity by the natives.

However, there is one complication we had not foreseen. While there was every chance that the locals would have no English or Latin, their understanding of the world is so different from ours that communication has proved impossible, and the rich exchange of ideas Wilkins hoped for has not come about. I shall attach this account of my adventure to a mechanical creation of my own devising, which I believe to be capable of reaching the earth. Wherever you are, if you find this message and can, by Wilkins’ principles, find a way to reach the moon, please send an expert in languages. I am, for now, at an utter loss.

***

Sometimes, history is weird. Dr John Wilkins was a real English priest and academic who eventually became Bishop of Chester, and he really thought and wrote, at some length,  about how to fly to the moon. His theory for doing this was grounded in the best understanding of the world available in the mid-17th century, an understanding rooted in a mix of theology, logic, and what we would now label as scientific observation. He was, in retrospect, completely wrong, but his arguments made sense to him and others at the time, and every point I’ve included here is an accurate (if limited) representation of Wilkins’ thinking. And honestly, I find the logic of it, while madly optimistic, both compelling and kind of brilliant in its twists.

If you want to learn more about Wilkins, I recommend Allan Chapman’s book  Stargazers, which depicts the careers of a range of European astronomers from the 15th to the 18th centuries, many of whom were equally fascinating, from the obstinate and argumentative Galileo to Tycho Brahe and his gold nose.

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

***

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

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

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

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

The Pace of Reading

I’ve noticed a weird thing with the way I read lately – I always seem to speed up near the end of a book. It’s not that I’m skim-reading or rushing it and missing the detail, I just seem to be more enthused and more likely to keep reading the further along I go. I don’t know whether it’s being keener once I’m engaged in the content, or if I’ve got hooked on the satisfaction of putting a completed book away on the shelf. It’s kind of nice for the second half,  as I tear through books with a sense of glee, but the flip side is when I’m a little way in, not getting very far, and part of my brain checks out because it wants to cut straight to the final rush. It can make getting started on a new book feel more like work than it should.

Do you have any patterns like this to how you read? Are you a completionist who has to finish once they start something, a ten-books-at-a-time reader, or find your reading patterns shaped in some other odd way? Leave a comment, reassure me that I’m not the only one acting up.

Rough Justice – A Science Fiction Short Story

I stared at the broken tanker in the middle of the waste ground. Green sludge swayed and pulsed around it, creeping towards the river. I could smell its putrid fumes through the filter of my cheap prison issue hazmat suit.

My last day. All I had to do was obey the guards and I would be out tomorrow, a year knocked off my sentence for the sake of biohazard work, work that had given me skills and a purpose for three years. Sometimes you really could win.

“I won’t do it,” Cyril said. He always protested at the jobs, but always did them in the end.

“Come on,” I said. “Cut to the end and let’s get working.”

“I’m serious. I won’t touch that stuff.”

The lead guard, Haverstaff, glared at Cyril. “You get down there and do what you’re told, or it’s solitary for all of you.”

A groan went up from the whole crew. The warden believed in the motivational power of collective punishment, but to us it was one more injustice.

“No.” Cyril folded his arms, but though he played at defiance, what I really saw was fear.

“Let me,” I said, and Haverstaff stepped back. He was always happy to let someone else do the work.

I prodded Cyril in the chest.

“I need this,” I said. “My kid are waiting to see me tomorrow, and that only happens if I do my last day.”

“I know what that stuff is.” Cyril stared in horrified fascination at the green goo. “If it gets through the suit, it won’t just make you sick. It’s an engineered parasite that will take over your body.”

“You idiot,” I growled. There was only one way Cyril knew this – his company had made it, before they were shut down for reckless endangerment. “You get down there and face the sick shit you made, or I’ll drag you down and throw you in.”

If he was considering resisting, Cyril stopped when he saw the look in my eyes. He followed me down to the spillage, where the others already waited.

What we faced wasn’t just a liquid. It was a living thing, pulsing and writhing, stringy tentacles rising from its surface. We fought them off with shovels and brooms while trying to suck it up with hoses and a vacuum tank. Acrid chemicals were spread over the thin traces left behind. After two years on the crew, I knew better than to let those powders splash my suit, but twice I had to stop new guys from reaching into the jars.

Halfway through the day Dunn, one of those new kids, stopped working and stood staring at the side of the broken container.

“I know this stuff,” he said in his slow drawl. “This is the stuff what took over my aunt and her kids. Good as killed them.”

Cyril froze at those words, sweating behind his plastic visor. He didn’t realise that Dunn and the rest had missed what he said. They didn’t know he was responsible.

Haverstaff glared at Dunn. He didn’t like it when inmates stopped working. The threat of collective punishment loomed again.

“Sorry, man,” I said, laying a hand on Dunn’s shoulder. “Let’s make sure this shit doesn’t kill anyone else, eh?”

Dunn was a good guy, despite his conviction for assault, and those words were enough to set him back to work.

But Dunn’s words plagued me. It wasn’t fair that people had died from this shit, when all Cyril got was a couple of years on the inside. I could have let Dunn know, let him balance the books with his fists, but it would have ruined the day’s work.

“Out of the way,” I said to Cyril, who stood tense amid the remains of the ooze. Since Dunn spoke, he’d been even more on edge, too distracted by Dunn to focus.

I swung the jar in my hand and chemical powder hissed as it hit the green ooze. A little of the powder landed on the back of Cyril’s leg, scorching tiny holes through his suit. I thrust the jar into his hand and grabbed the hose that he hadn’t moved in two minutes.

“Fuck’s sake, Cyril, I need to get this finished.” I swung the hose around and drips of green goo flew. It hit the back of his leg, just where the holes were.

“Hey, careful with that!” he said, stumbling back.

Suddenly, he froze and his eyes went glassy.

I leaned in close enough to whisper through the thin masks of the hazmat suits.

“Keep quiet, do the work, and we all get out of here, OK?”

The parasite that had taken over Cyril nodded.

I might have felt guilty, except there was screening on the way into the prison. They would work out what was wrong and isolate the thing that was in him. Dunn would have his revenge, I’d have my day’s work finished, the other prisoners would be safe. Justice for all.

“Last day nearly done,” Haverstaff said to me. “What you gonna do on the outside?”

I pointed at the biohazard. “I’ve got good at this work, figure I’ll get a job doing it for real. Decent protective suits, proper equipment, real pay…”

“That’s not gonna happen,” Haverstaff said, his laughter not cruel but patronising. “Wit ha criminal record, you’ll never get the licence to handle chemicals.”

He frowned at Cyril, who was staring vacantly around.

“What’s the matter with him?” he asked.

I froze. One more hour, that was all I needed. One more hour and my work was done. But if we didn’t finish the day…

Haverstaff prodded the thing that had been Cyril. “I told you, do the work or you’re all off to solitary.” He frowned at the stain on the back of Cyril’s leg. “What happened there?”

The creature stared blankly back at him.

“I said, what happened?”

The creature seemed to see the jar in its hands. It tipped it up and chemical powder fell around their feet.

“Jeez!” Haverstaff leapt back as the ooze around them bubbled. “Be careful with that shit.”

I wondered for a moment if I should just let things fall apart. Here I was useful. I was making the world safer for ordinary people, ones screwed over by the likes of Cyril. Out there in the world, I’d just be one more guy signing on for government help or working in a convenience store.

But I’d be one more guy with my kids.

“It’s OK,” I said, grabbing Cyril’s jar. “I’ve got this.”

“Hurry up and finish,” Haverstaff said. “I want to get out of here.”

He wasn’t the only one.

***

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***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

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

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

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

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

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

Contagion – When Fiction Can’t Predict the Reasonable

I recently watched Contagion, a film about a pandemic sweeping around the world. Inspired by Folding Ideas’ moving video essay on watching the film during lockdown, I wanted to go through that experience, to see what insight or catharsis an imagined pandemic could bring.

Like watching real reactions to the pandemic, it was a strange mix of alarming and comforting. It certainly felt more real in the light of recent events. R numbers, social distancing, face masks, the difficulties of making a vaccine – many things that have become all too familiar in 2020 are present in this 2011 film. But there was one thing that was notably absent – people being reasonable.

There’s been a lot of alarming and selfish behaviour around covid-19,  from hoarding to anti-lockdown protests to attacks on telephone masts. There have also been dramatic examples of selfless, generous, even heroic behaviour, from the long hours worked by medical staff to the armies of volunteers feeding and supporting their communities. But what I’ve seen the most of, in between the clickbait headlines, is people being calmly and undramatically reasonable. Following the rules, both in their letter and their spirit. Finding ways to stay sane while they can’t get out. Rebuilding their social support structures online to get through the constant, low-level mental health grind that is living in strained circumstances.

The reality of covid-19 has been Zoom meetings, online pub quizzes, extended video calls with family and friends. It’s been waiting for hours to get a delivery slot for groceries so that you don’t go out and risk spreading the infection. It’s been everything from wine tasting to book clubs to entire business departments going virtual with a lot of ingenuity and very little complaint.

It’s not dramatic, and perhaps that’s why these reasonable moments are missing from Contagion. Or perhaps its creators couldn’t predict that this was how most human beings would behave under pressure – not moving to extremes of selfish or selfless acts, but simply, quietly, cooperatively finding ways to get on with life.

Immortal – a fantasy short story

I dragged myself through the last tangle of thorns, leaving scarlet trails across my hands and face, and emerged into a clearing. In the centre was a pool of deep water reflecting the clear blue of the sky. A woman sat beside it in flowing robes, and as she turned to look at me I instinctively straightened my tailcoat.

Portrait of a Girl’s Head by
Sir George Clausen

“My lady.” I doffed my hat. “I have journeyed around the world to find you.”

“I know.”

Her sigh was the fluttering of butterfly wings.

“I am Sir Gideon Whiting,” I continued, “scholar, adventurer, knight of the realm. Perhaps you’ve heard of me?”

“I’ve heard of everyone, Sir Gideon. It happens when you have eternity to fill.”

“So it’s true!” I sank to my knees beside her.

“I know everything, yes. Every detail of your story, from the abandoned child in the industrial slum to the trek through deserts and jungles that brought you here. I know your true mother’s name, your deepest regret, the thrill and the shame of your first kiss.”

I was astounded, yet also disconcerted. She matched my vision of an immortal, full of beauty and grace, but where was the power and pride of an omniscient immortal?

“So you see it all?” I asked, feeling a little embarrassed as the implication sank in.

“History is a circle, Sir Gideon. I am fated to survive each turn of that circle and be there for the start of the next. I know about you because you have told me it all before.”

“Amazing,” I whispered.  “The things you must have seen.”

“Yes, I have seen and heard and tasted every detail of this world, done it so many times that I know it all. I am utterly, unbearably bored.”

“Perhaps there’s something I can do to entertain you?” I asked. “A joke, a story, a song…”

“We’ve tried that before. Trust me, you get boring pretty quickly.”

“Oh.” I slumped. “So what do you want from me? Can I help you to end this cycle?”

The thought was a terrible one, but sometimes terrible acts were needed, and my revolver sat ready at my hip.

“You think I haven’t tried? After a while, even blowing your own brains out gets boring.”

“Then what’s the point?” I asked, staring at my fat, useless hands. “What’s the point if I can’t change anything?”

“Go back and enjoy your life, Sir Gideon. Be grateful that it’s the only one you have.”

***

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***

By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

A gladiator painting with manticore blood.

A demon detective policing Hell.

A ninja who can turn into shadow.

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

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

From reader reviews:

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

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