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Never Sleep Under the Apple Trees – a fantasy short story

A farmhouse in an orchard
Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

I don’t even remember when I first heard those words, though they were probably from my mother. She would remind us every day when I was a child, tiring herself out watching for me while I tired myself out running around the fields and orchards.

“Never sleep under the apple trees,”  she said sternly. “The fairies will take you away.”

Her voice was the same as when she talked about the bandits in the hills or the local lord’s son, and children follow their parents’ fears, so I took the advice very seriously. I barely even sat under those trees, and watched their branches warily as we gathered the fruit at harvest time.

“Never sleep under the apple trees,” my friends and I would say to each other as we tripped over the cusp of adulthood, when the leaves always seemed to spread wide and the days to turn sleepy, while the nights were full of excitement, embarrassment, and discovery. We barely believed in the fair folk any more, but the words had become a code, signalling to be careful in case you got caught. We lay down with each other under forest oaks, in fields of tall grass, and on the backs of isolated haystacks, because what else were young people to do, but we never lay down under the apple trees.

“Never sleep under the apple trees.” Those words were imbued with such seriousness once my first child was on the way. Part of it was the caution a community flung around an expectant mother, when life was precious and birth could also bring death. It was understood that I should take no risks, and one of those risks was that fairies would switch my baby for a changeling while she was in the womb. I didn’t mind the advice. Carrying the weight of an extra person, it was good to have an excuse to stay way from hard orchard work.

Then I was a mother, bestowing the same wisdom on my own children. I’d never seen a fairy, but I’d seen how vulnerable young animals could be, and I was determined to keep my own young safe. I kept them away from sharp objects, long falls, deep water, and of course from sleeping under apple trees. I had never seen a fairy, but I had never seen anyone drown, and I wasn’t going to risk either.

The first time my own grandchildren told me never to sleep under the apple trees, I almost cried with joy. They were growing up so smart and so fast, becoming little people like the one I had been, like the ones their parents had been. I had grown and nurtured a family, just like I had grown my fruit trees, replacing the ones that fell, grafting saplings to ensure a good fruit. Mine was a loving pride.

By then, the meaning of the words had shifted again. “Never sleep under the apple trees,” my family reminded me, but what they really meant was that I shouldn’t wander too far, or doze off in out of the way places. My body wasn’t as supple as it had been, or as sturdy. I couldn’t always stand up on my own, and if I got stuck under some distant tree, with cold wind or a rain storm coming in, then I might catch the cold that carried me away. My family weren’t ready to say goodbye yet, nor was I, so I was careful, protecting my life both from the fairies and from myself.

But idle minds think strange thoughts. No longer strong enough for farm labour, I was left sitting by the back door, watching the orchard. I started to wonder why we feared the fairies, why it would be so bad to be taken by them. I’d had a good life, but not an adventurous one. I wondered what might have been.

And so, tonight, when my bladder woke me as it often does, I didn’t go back from the outhouse to my bed. Instead, I came out here and laid my head down beneath an apple tree. I’m so glad I did, because I never realised how beautiful you all were, how wonderful it would be to see you hovering in the starlight, ready to take me away.

I doubt I’ll have long in your land. Life has worn my body down, and I don’t have many years left wherever I go, but I am looking forward to seeing a world beyond this one, full of wonders like you. Perhaps I should have slept under the apple trees years ago, but then I wouldn’t have raised my family or tended this land, and there’s a magic to that too. So I suppose that the advice still stands.

Never sleep under the apple trees… at least not until your life’s work is done.

***

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***

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.

A Matter of Life – a historical short story

By RIA Novosti archive, image #5634 / David Trahtenberg / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15579762

Stepan had survived. His street had survived. The bombs had stopped falling, the guns were a distant echo, the Germans had been driven back from Leningrad. There was food to be had again, not as much as before the war, but enough. Hitler’s thugs had come for Stepan and his city, but while the city wore its scars in shattered streets and empty apartments, he remained untouched.

He stepped out of his house and walked straight-backed toward the factory, as he had done throughout the siege, unflinching in the face of hunger and the mechanical screams of war. Eight hundred and seventy-two days, marked off in tiny chalk marks on his apartment wall. Today, he hadn’t had to open the drawer holding the chalk.

Like Stepan, his street had survived the siege untouched, but the moment he stepped past its end, he saw buildings scarred by bombs and shells, others entirely gone, gaps in streets like missing teeth in a boxer’s bloodied grin. He hurried past those buildings. Life was normal again, and he wouldn’t let the ruins steal that from him.

He paused at a junction, letting a convoy of tanks and bread trucks pass. The junction had been bombed early in the siege, its rubble only cleared away now to provide a way through. Something white peered at him out of that rubble. A human thigh bone.

Stepan frowned. No one needed to see a thing like that, especially now that the siege was over. Someone should take it to the graveyard for burial. But no one else was going near the bone, and Stepan needed to get to the factory. He had made it to work every day of the siege, he certainly wasn’t going to be late now. Perhaps he could hide the bone, so that stray dogs wouldn’t find it, and take it to the graveyard later.

He picked the bone up. It was rougher than he had expected, its surface repeatedly scarred by a blade. This person hadn’t just been killed, they had been butchered. Stepan had heard of such things, of course. There was even a rumour around the factory that Pavel, who had stopped turning up on day three hundred and five, had been arrested for corpse-eating. But none of it was real. It was the stuff of whispered conversations and fever dreams.

Trembling as if he himself had a fever, Stepan flung the bone away across the rubble. Someone else could find it and take it to the graveyard. The siege was over, he had survived, he wouldn’t face its filth any more.

The convoy was gone. He walked across the street, feeling the weight of the rubble and its hidden bones behind him every step. He moved faster, rushing along a street that was less scarred, one where he could look down and not see the past glaring at him from shattered windows and fallen roofs.

There were more bones in the gutter. He looked away before he could see what they were, human or animal, blank or bearing butchers’ scars. Then his boot hit a broken flagstone. He tripped, stumbled, sprawled in the gutter, bones inches from his face. He rolled over and scrambled back across the pavement until his back pressed against a wall. He closed his eyes tight shut and sat taking deep breaths, trying to slow his racing heart. It was over. He was alive. The city was safe.

He pressed his hands against his belly. His thumbs brushed his ribs. Once, he had been round, so round that his sister had called him a ball. Now he could feel his rib bones through his skin, just like he felt the hunger, a gnawing pain for eight hundred and seventy-two days.

He had to get up and go to the factory. He had held himself together all through the siege, while others had broken down, become criminals or cannibals, wept or screamed or retreated into silence. If he could stand strong through that, there was no excuse for breaking now, when it was over, when the guns were silent and the food was coming, when he didn’t need to watch in case some desperate soul tried to steal his ration card.

A hand settled on his shoulder. He forced himself to open his eyes, focused on the old lady looking down at him instead of the broken buildings beyond her.

“It’s over,” he croaked, willing the words to be true. But they weren’t. Not for him, and not for the city. The bombs had stopped falling, but their echoes remained.

Stepan stopped trying to take deep breaths. He stopped trying to stay calm. He stopped fighting back the images of pale bones and broken windows. After eight hundred and seventy-three days, he finally let himself cry.

***

Today’s story was written to go with a new comic I’ve got out this week. Survive Leningrad! from Commando Comics is about a military doctor trying to save lives during one of the most brutal sieges in history, and about the shotgun-wielding granny who helps him out. You can find it in newsagents, through Comixology, and as part of a bundle of comics through the DC Thomson store. If you enjoy war stories with an unusual focus then this one’s for you.

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.

Waters of Life and Death – a science fiction short story

Birds flying in front of a storm.
Image by jplenio from Pixabay

Jay emerged from the elevator carrying a tray of vials, each one holding a newly spliced genetic treatment. They rattled against each other as he walked to the football-sized eggs at the edge of the pool, themselves the products of endless modifications.

Crystal was in the pool up to her waist, her legs hidden by lilies, goosepimples rising on her bare arms.

“Thought you were smart,” Jay said.

“Of course I am. How do you think I got from the mani-pedi counter to the postdoctoral program?”

“Then why are you in the water? You know that could get you fired, or worse.”

He nodded down the pool, to where the latest creatures were swimming. One was crocodile-like, but with wings sprouting from its back. The other was a wobbling blob whose shape was slowly shifting, its body unable to settle, skin churning and shedding scales. It had rows of vicious teeth and might have made a deadly predator if its own body wasn’t killing it.

“These creatures are meant to be how we survive,” Crystal said, “whether they become our next sources of food or the plough horses of a flooded world. I want to be part of that transformation.”

Jay fixed a needle onto one of the vials, then plunged it into an egg. He repeated the procedure along the row.

“Don’t come crying to me when one of them turns out to be half wolf, half cow, and ready to eat your leg.”

An egg shook, then started to crack.

“That was quick,” Crystal said.

“Too quick. Usually a sign that it’s going wrong.”

Jay stepped back, but Crystal moved closer, the water swirling around her, and ran a hand across the shaking shell.

“There, there,” she said. “It’ll be alright.”

“Since when did you become so maternal?”

“We’ve been birthing new life here every day for three years. Hasn’t that changed you?”

He shook his head. “I’m here for the science.”

A chunk of shell fell away and a beak poked out, dripping with amniotic fluid. A bird’s eye peered at them, but the shell held strong as claws pressed at the gap.

“Looks like another dud,” Jay said. “If it’s not strong enough to escape the shell, it’s got no chance of surviving that.”

He pointed into the distance, where a storm was raging over the flooded remains of London, lightning flashing down the gleaming glass of abandoned office towers.

“That’s not true,” Crystal said, slipping a hand inside the shell, where the creature rubbed its slippery head against her skin. “Some infants need help to survive. Look at human babies.”

Jay snorted. “Humans are the ones who made this mess, I don’t think we’re a good example.”

“Those were the old humans. We’re the new ones.”

“Enough with the hippy bullshit, Crystal. Our world’s dying. Get out of the water and help me make something that might live.”

Crystal pulled on the edges of the broken shell and the calcified layer cracked open. The bird-thing slid out, its undulating body covered in tiny feathers. The feathers changed as it darted through the water, colours shifting to match whatever lay around it. It swam around Crystal like a dog running around its owner, eager for attention, rubbing its head against her. She ran a hand down its back, between the feathers, skin against bumpy skin. Jay shuddered at the sight.

Crystal’s skin changed, slowly at first, its colour shifting to match the creature. After a moment, bulges appeared, and tiny feathers pushed out through expanding pores.

“Crystal?” Jay swallowed, took a step back, almost tripped over the tray of vials. He couldn’t take his eyes off her. “What have you done?”

“What do you think?” She smiled into the creature’s eyes, then pressed her face against its cheek. The creature made a chittering noise. Others swam from their end of the pool, fins and wings flapping, and Crystal moved away from the edge, so they could swim around her. Jay finally saw the fish’s tail where her legs had been.

“You could have died,” he croaked. “The serums aren’t made for humans.”

“And humans aren’t made for this world,” Crystal said, “but here we are. I had to take a chance. It was that or be left behind.” She looked back at him. The storm was coming closer, lightning crashing across isolated hills rising from a flooded land. “Take a chance. Join us.”

Crystal stroked the blob beast. Her flesh rippled between the scattered feathers and when she smiled it was with a jaw full of pointed teeth.

“I can’t,” he whispered. “I’m scared.”

More eggs cracked open. Strange creatures crawled and slithered across broken shells, down to the pool where Crystal waited. Beneath the storm, a tidal wave was rushing in, tall enough that it would soon engulf them.

“Oh, Jay,” Crystal said, shaking her head. “I thought that you were smart.”

***

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.

Cogs in the Machine – a steampunk short story

Frank walked down the factory hall, through the clatter of the cotton gins, the whir of the spinning machines, the clack and hiss of the looms. Sweat ran down his neck, under the starched collar he’d put on specially for the meeting. It streamed from the brows of the human labourers, but not the automata. They worked without sweat, without variation, without hesitation, until their fires needed to be stoked.

He saw more and  more of the automata in the factories he visited. They were expensive to obtain, but once in place, they worked tirelessly and without complaint. Lots of employers thought they were the future. Frank feared that those employers might be right.

He walked into Mr Stewart’s office, with its mahogany desk and the painting of a woodland scene on the wall.

“What do you want, McGuigan?” Stewart growled around his cigar.

“Good morning to you, too, sir,” Frank said, with practised civility.

“I have to meet with union leaders, I don’t have to make small talk with them. Get to the point.”

Frank laid a pile of medical reports on Stewart’s desk. They made for unpleasant reading, a catalogue of lost fingers, crushed toes, and worse.

“Your workers need protective boots and gloves, Mr Stewart. It’s your responsibility to provide them.”

“My workers did fine without protection for years. I’m not bearing an extra expensive because they got sloppy.”

“It’s your new engines. Everything’s working harder and faster. That means more profit for you, but more risk for my members.”

“Your members.” Stewart snorted. “I’ve got plenty of workers that don’t need  to be coddled, McGuigan.”

Stewart rang a bell that hung on the wall behind him. An automata strode in, piston legs and arms hissing, and stopped next to Frank. He could feel the heat radiating from its belly boiler.

“Show us your hands,” Stewart said.

The automaton’s arms hissed as they stretched out. Its fingers were scratched and nicked.

“Same accidents,” Stewart said, “but no need for gloves. You want to look at his feet too?”

“Of course this thing doesn’t need protection, it’s a machine. But my people—”

“Your people are workers in my factory, same as this brass man. If some of them can take the working conditions but others can’t, I don’t have to pander to the weak ones, but I do have to treat everyone the same.”

“This is outrageous!”

“Everyone treated the same. It’s in your rules.” Stewart pulled his copy of the union agreement out of a desk drawer. It was surprisingly well-thumbed. “I checked.”

“So you’re going to wait until fingers start snapping off these things before you make a change?”

Frank pointed at the automaton’s hands. Worn as they were, they were a long way off breaking. The automaton let out a little hiss, and if it had been a person, Frank would have said it sounded mournful.

“If your people don’t like their working conditions, I can always replace them with more like him.” Stewart nodded at the automaton.

“You can’t sack people without cause.”

“Ah, but if they leave, when conditions are fine for other workers, then I can replace them however I want.” Stewart leaned back, grinning. “You try bringing a union into my factory when everyone here’s coal fired.”

“I’ll find a way to beat this.” Frank snatched up the medical reports. “You see if I don’t.”

“There is no way.” Stewart tapped the union agreement. “I believe that we’re done.” He waved dismissively at the automaton. “Get back to work.”

Shoulders slumped, Frank followed the hissing machine onto the factory floor. It went to its place by a cotton loom and stood for a long moment, hand raised a foot from its face.

An overseer prodded the automaton. “You get back to work.”

The automaton clacked, like gears were missing each other inside its head. The other automata looked up at the sound. They all stopped and raised their hands.

“I said get back to work,” the overseer growled.

When the automaton didn’t respond, the overseer belted it with a broom handle. The clang rang clear even through the storm of machine noises, but the automaton didn’t move. None of them did.

For the first time since he set foot in the factory, Frank smiled.

“Mr Stewart!” the overseer shouted.

Stewart stormed out of his office and stood glaring at the machines, hands planted on  his hips. “What the hell is this?”

“I think your workers want protective gloves,” Frank said. “Maybe boots too. They’ve noticed that they’re getting damaged, and they’re probably worried about what’ll happen when they’re too battered to work.”

“They’re just machines!”

“And buying them gloves will cost a lot less than buying new machines, though of course you’ll have to buy them for my union members too. Got to treat all the workers the same, remember?”

“You did this!” Stewart glared at him. “You’ve found a way to sabotage my automata.”

“Like I’d know how.” Frank laughed. “Let me know when you’ve bought those gloves and boots. You don’t want to break our agreement.” He strolled away down the factory hall. As he passed the automata from the office, he raised a fist in salute. “See you again soon, comrade.”

The automaton hissed. Though his face couldn’t move, for a moment he almost seemed to wink.

***

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.

Last Ember of Life – a fantasy short story

Glowing embers of a fire
Image by diddi4 from Pixabay

I watched the hearth fire fade, the glowing soul of the coals burning down, crumbling into weightless heaps of black and white. This would be the last time. I would keep no final ember alive, cradled in ash through the night to light the next morning’s fire. What was the point, when only I remained? The storm could have me.

The remnants of a log collapsed into dark dust, its sparks fading as they were caught by the wind blowing down the chimney stack. One ember remained, the moment of choice between life and death, holding open the doorway between this world and the next. As was their right, the ghosts of my hearth stepped through to witness its warmth. My parents, uncles and aunts, grandparents, generations before them. My wife, cradling our only child, who never made it past the birthing bed. They watched, expectant, waiting for me to scoop ash around that coal, so that it would burn, slow and steady, through the night.

I gazed at them, then shook my head. The kindling that waited by the hearth would never touch that coal. It would blaze strong and burn out. When my family left, I would soon follow.

The shutters shook and a slither of icy wind forced its way under the door.

Of all the family who had lived around this hearth, only Uncle Olaf was absent. On the night he died, we had carried fire from the hearth out into the night to tend to a sickly sheep. Unseen by any of us, Olaf’s spirit had followed that flame, and become lost when we extinguished it. A year of mourning was not enough to light his way home.

The spirits watched me. I had thought that I wanted to be with them one last time, but that feeling of finality made their presence unbearable. I lurched from my seat, flung the door open and strode into the night. The storm wind blew in behind me, scattering ash before it slammed the door shut.

Icy raindrops soaked my tunic and clawed at my exposed cheeks. The cold wind dragged the heat from my body as mercilessly as from the embers in the hearth.

I gripped the gate of the sheep pen. I should give my flock a chance. I lifted the latch and left the gate hanging open, but none of the sheep moved. They huddled together, companions warming each other in the face of a cold world. I envied them.

The house stood bleak against the hillside, only the faintest glow showing through the shutters. Once that faded, I would go back in. I would die where I had lived, like the rest of my family.

A voice emerged from the storm’s howl, like a lamb’s first bleat almost lost in its mothers birthing cries. A figure stumbled up the valley, torn cloak flapping, clutching a tree branch as a staff, one twisted leg trailing behind. I ran to them and saw a woman’s face, dripping wet despite her hood.

“Please, help,” she said.

I slid an arm under her shoulder and led her toward the house.

“What happened?”

“My horse slipped on the riverbank, crushed my leg and carried us both in. I barely made it out, and now…” Her words faltered, snagged on gasping breaths and chattering teeth.

I flung the door open and led her to my seat by the hearth. I had never seen anyone so in need of warmth and light, but all was darkness.

I grabbed a stick and stirred the dust of the fire. One small ember remained, hidden under the ashes. I placed straw around it, then slender sticks, and blew softly. For a moment, I thought that I was too late, but then a finger of flame rose from the straw, and the hearth fire was reborn.

For a moment, the ghosts of my hearth stood illuminated. The fire was growing, the door closing, and they faded from my world. The last I saw of them was my wife’s smile.

“Here.” I handed my guest a blanket. “Get out of your wet clothes. I’ll go fetch wood.”

Outside my house, the storm raged. Inside, the hearth fire blazed.

***

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.

Layover on the Way to the Stars – a science fiction short story

Stars floating in space.
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Hi mum, it’s Angie. I’m recording this one later than usual, hoping I can get it into a civilian data beam back to Earth. I meant to record it at the jump gate terminal outside of Centauri, but I got distracted, and you’ll never guess who by – cousin Dioni!

I should probably tell you about the terminal first. This place is amazing. There are shuttles heading to every system you’ve ever heard of, and a bunch you haven’t. The terminal has all these different habitat zones for different species, but they’re separated by glass, so that you can see each other. There are even speakers with translation systems in the glass. I had a long chat over coffee with a guy who has tentacles for a head. I say over coffee, he was inhaling purple stimulant smoke while I had coffee. He was as fascinated to hear about Earth as I was about his home world. It was intense!

But I know you, and I know you’re going to care more about Dioni than some alien, even if she did have fifty-seven eyes. The alien had the eyes, that is. The only new body mod Dioni’s got is a recording tattoo, and she said not to tell Aunt Stella, because of her Views, so forget I told you that.

Anyway, Dioni’s running one of the restaurants in the human zone here, one of those Metaphor Burger franchises. You know the ones, where the ingredients are meant to symbolise a philosophical concept or a work of art. OK, maybe you don’t know, but it’s a whole thing. Dioni says she stopped here to do a few shifts and earn more money on her way to that colony in the Regamium system she was going to join. Only it turned out that the franchise holder was leaving, and Dioni had an opportunity to take his place. The old manager showed her this data about the insane profits you can make selling burgers to travellers, and she figured, why not give it a go. She used her travel money to buy him out, figuring she could triple her money in six months, then head on to the colony like Aunt Stella wanted her to.

Ooh, and just as Dioni was telling me this, a guy with three heads came in, and then an actor out of… You know what, you won’t know the show, and it doesn’t really matter. The important thing is that Dioni has these amazing customers with stories from all over the galaxy. My mind was blown.

Where was I? Oh, yeah, well it turns out that it’s not so easy to leave this franchise Dioni’s bought into. She hadn’t paid attention to how much of a cut the company takes when she signed the contract, so she hasn’t earned what she expected, even though the place is buzzing. And there’s another big fee when you leave, which is half repayable if you leave everything in good condition, but you’ve got to have the money in the first place, and most of what Dioni earns goes on rent and visits to the alien habitats, so she can’t afford it. The whole past three years, she’s been stuck here, telling Aunt Stella that she got to Regamium so that Aunt Stella wouldn’t worry. Isn’t that wild?

Um, you’d better not tell Aunt Stella that part either. Or any of this, now I think about it. Please. But you can tell her that I saw a genuine Centauri fishman, because he stopped by right then to invite Dioni to a party.

Anyway, Dioni talked about how she couldn’t leave, and she wasn’t getting to Regamium any time soon, and it was all so sad. But then I thought, mum’s always telling me how I should help people in need, why don’t I help Dioni? She was so excited to leave Earth and go to Regamium, she should get to do that. So I offered to lend her some of the money you gave me. I hope that’s all right. I figured you’d approve, seeing as how she’s family.

Dioni couldn’t answer at first. She spotted this customer down the bar who she’d forgotten, and then she had to take a call, and sort something out with one of her staff. I wasn’t going to get an answer before my shuttle, but I said hey, I’ll delay, rebooking doesn’t cost too much. And then Dioni stopped what she was doing, and she said she didn’t want the money. Can you believe that? She said it was really kind, but she got herself into this mess, she had to get herself out. She’s so much more responsible than she used to be.

Then a ship from the Far Stars came in, and all these pioneers arrived on their month off, and they all knew Dioni. I sat and listened to their stories for hours, and Dioni listened too while she worked, and it was amazing, the places they’d been and the things they’d seen. Then I had to get my shuttle, because sure I’d delayed it, but that job’s still waiting for me on Signus.

It’s sad that Dioni never got to Regamium. If Aunt Stella ever finds out, she’ll be really disappointed. So maybe don’t tell her any of this. Can you do that?

Hm. Maybe I just won’t send this. Not for a while, at least. Not until Dioni gets to Regamium.

I tell you what, though, she’s great at putting on a brave face for the customers, even though she’s stuck there. I’ve never seen anyone smile so much.

***

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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.

Faces Lost in the Smoke – a steampunk short story

A pair of smoking chimneys
Image by cwizner from Pixabay

“You can see the whole city from up here,” Archie said, peering out of the control cabin, through the smoke billowing from the constructor’s stacks. “Yet in some ways, you can hardly see it at all. The faces, the clothes, the shop fronts, they vanish from view.”

“Isn’t that what we’ve been building towards?” Ramsey pulled a lever and a vibration ran up through their feet. “To see the big picture and make big changes. To transform the city, so that all those people can live better lives?”

“I suppose so.” Archie sneezed. “Sorry, it’s the smoke. Maybe we should have put glass in the windows.”

“I’ll fix that later.” Ramsey gestured to a big blue button. “Would you care to do the honours?”

Archie took a deep breath and pressed the button, a tiny gesture for a life-changing moment.

The constructor rumbled out of the inventors’ yard on wheels the size of wagons, a towering pillar of steam and steel, and approached a deserted row of back-to-back terraced houses. There was a whoosh and then a roar as vacuum pumps sucked up tiles, bricks, and timbers, then a rattling cacophony as mechanical arms started laying them back down, building cleaner, more spacious houses. Wretched slums became the beginnings of a bold new dream.

In the control cabin, Archie and Ramsey hugged, slapping each other on the back. They could barely make themselves heard over the noise, but there was no need for words. They were changing the world.

#

Archie clutched a handkerchief over his mouth as he stepped into the cabin. Ramsey stood at the controls, stiff-backed, staring out at the city. His hair had grown longer, dark with soot and grease. Archie tapped him on the shoulder and he jolted, then turned.

“Didn’t hear you coming in.” Ramsey raised his voice over the machines.

“I could tell.”

“Pardon?”

Archie took the cloth from his mouth. Smoke scratched at his throat, a reminder of why he didn’t come up often.

“Are you all right?” he asked.

Ramsey stared at him with bloodshot eyes, as if he was looking at a gear that had inexplicably started turning backwards.

“I’m exultant. Look at what we’re achieving!”

A sweep of his hand took in the city. Some parts were a mess of irregular roads and cramped, slumping houses, dirty factories, dingy shops. Other parts, those the machine had been through, were neatly laid out, the houses sturdy and spacious, the shops well lit and the factories clean.

“About that.” Archie shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “We need to slow down. Not everybody wants their homes rebuilt, and some people aren’t getting out fast enough. We’ve upset a lot of people and destroyed some family heirlooms when they weren’t removed in time.”

“Things and feelings.” Ramsey laid a hand on Archie’s shoulder. “These will be forgotten once everyone has the space and shelter they need. Remember our vision: a better city.”

“I suppose…” Archie looked out of the window. It really was hard to see the people from up here.

“You get back down, calm the ruffled feathers, and I’ll keep us going. Trust me, this is all for the good.”

#

Wheezing even with a mask over his mouth, Archie stepped inside the control cabin. He stumbled, kicked the corner of a console, and Ramsey spun around, his smoke-stained coat flapping behind him.

“Archie!” Ramsey grabbed his arm and dragged him to the main console, which was shrouded in wind-blown smoke. “Isn’t it magnificent?”

Half the city had been transformed. Wide avenues, neat houses, matching shops, rail lines on viaducts so as not to break up the grid.

“It’s certainly impressive,” Archie said, blinking tired eyes. He cleared his throat. “But the thing is, we’ve run into some problems.”

“Problems?” Ramsey scowled. “Just explain our purpose to them. Whoever it is, they’ll stop whining once they understand.”

“Look.” Archie pointed to a district where smoke rose denser than ever from the old houses. “Our designs are good, but they don’t leave room for as many people as before, so they’re crammed in elsewhere. And some people want to keep their houses, even if they could have something better. Those homes matter to them. They need time to see the benefits, to accept what we do.”

“This is why we have to keep going, so that a new generation doesn’t grow up bound to the past.”

“No, Ramsey, it’s why we have to stop.”

“Stop?”

“Temporarily.” Archie turned to face his old friend, or what remained of him behind the soot and the scowl. “While we work out which houses to leave standing, and while we win people’s support.”

“They’ve got to you, haven’t they?”

Ramsey shoved Archie against the console. Archie coughed as more smoke billowed in through the window behind him.

“Nobody got to me. I’ve just talked to people, listened to them, seen things you’re missing from up here. Please, come down and see. You’ll understand.”

“Come down, so someone can come in while I’m gone, switch of the constructor, kill the momentum carrying us towards our vision?”

“Your vision.”

“Our vision!”

“Not any more.” Archie swatted Ramsey’s hand away.

“Why you…” Ramsey shoved Archie again. He didn’t mean to push him over the console, but anger multiplied his strength. Archie cried out as he fell through the window, terror gripping him for the length of a single short scream before he hit the street with one final, fatal thud.

Ramsey grasped the console and stared down at the tiny dot that was his friend’s body. Then he whirled around and bolted the door shut. It was a shame what had happened to Archie, but he couldn’t let them stop him because of that. There was a bigger picture here, a better city for everyone. They would understand that once he was finished.

He turned a dial and the sounds of the engine intensified. Smoke blew in through the window. Beyond, the city sprawled. He could see it all from up here: the big picture, and none of the distracting little details.

***

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***

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.

A Gentleman Never Surrenders – a historical short story

The Sopwith Camel biplane hit the ground with a thud and a screech of rending metal. The undercarriage tore off on the edge of a shell hole and the plane skidded on its belly, mangled propeller churning the mud. Aubrey clung on white knuckled, trying not to scream, because dammit, that wasn’t what a gentleman did.

After seconds that took years off Aubrey’s life, the plane slid to a halt. He looked around. Someone was moving half a mile away, near the German trenches, but were they moving toward him? He grabbed everything of use from the ruined plane—a pistol, a flare, a map, a compass, a bottle of water—and stuffed them inside his flying jacket, then leapt out. He sank ankle deep in the mud that was the defining feature of autumn 1917—muddy roads, muddy trenches, muddy airfields that complicated take-offs, landings, and maintenance.

The map and compass confirmed what he already feared, that he had landed well behind the German lines. Surrender might be the safest option, especially given the ache in his ankle, but a gentleman didn’t simply give up. Moving at a crouch, and wincing whenever that ankle found a bump, he headed west.

He’d only gone a few hundred yards when movement caught his eye. A German patrol appeared over the edge of a crater, two of them looking right at him. One raised a rifle while the other shouted in alarm.

Aubrey fired wildly with his pistol. The rifle cracked and pain ripped through his arm, but the Germans flung themselves down behind the crater’s edge. Fighting back pain, Aubrey fled across the battered landscape, firing over his shoulder until the hammer clicked on empty cartridges, then flung himself head first into a shell hole.

He slid down the crater until he hit a broken transport cart and the body of the horse that had pulled it. Waving away flies, he scrambled into the gap between the cart and the cadaver, even as German voices approached. There wasn’t space in the hiding place for his feet, so he forced them into the mud. Then he lay still, trying hard not to throw up despite the rotten stench.

Two German soldiers appeared at the edge of the crater. They looked down, rifles at the ready, and for a moment Aubrey felt like his heart had stopped, he was so certain they had seen him. Another German shouted nearby.

“Nein,” one of the soldiers said. “Niemand hier.”

Then they walked on, around the edge of the crater and away.

Aubrey waited until the voices and footsteps vanished, then waited fifteen minutes more. At last, he dragged himself out of his hiding place. The movement finally made the nausea too much, and he vomited. At least that stopped his stomach churning.

He swirled a little water from the bottle around his mouth, then spat it out, washing away the taste of bile. Then he peeled off his jacket and washed mud from the bullet hole in his arm. The bullet hadn’t hit the bone, which was a relief, but it hurt like Hell, and he had to use up the map and one shirt sleeve to stifle the bleeding. Shivering, he pulled his jacket back on, fastened it, and assessed his remaining provisions. One water bottle, empty. One pistol, likewise. One compass, broken sliding down the crater. One flare.

He needed to get back soon, to get that arm seen to. A few days out here and infection was sure to set in, not to mention hunger and thirst. It wasn’t like he could fight his way through the enemy lines, so he would try to sneak across after dark. If someone caught him, the flare would be his weapon of last recourse, but only if he was nearly through. Otherwise, it would draw every German for miles around onto him.

The one advantage of being shot down in November was that there wasn’t long to wait until dark. Three shivering hours later, the only lights were the stars and a few beams from lanterns around dugout doors.

Aubrey crept from his hole toward the German lines. As he got closer, he heard people moving. He flattened himself against the ground and wormed his way through the mud to the back of a German trench.

The place was crowded with soldiers, the trench lines full in every direction. Their buttons and bayonets were covered in boot black, so as not to catch the light. Their silence was grim as the grave.

If he waited for them to go, Aubrey could raid their dugouts for supplies, then make his way back to British lines through the chaos of battle. For a lone downed pilot, it was perhaps the best chance of getting home. But for the British soldiers in the opposing lines, it would be a terrible night.

A gentleman might not give in, but he didn’t leave other chaps in the lurch. Aubrey rolled onto his back, slid the flare from his jacket, and waited. As the Germans climbed out of their trenches and started their silent advance, he pulled the tab on the flare. It shot into the air, then exploded in a bright flash. There were cries of alarm from the Germans, and more from the west, where the British lines lay. Gunfire opened up and more flares were launched. Revealed by their phosphorous glare, the German advance collapsed into chaos.

Two soldiers scrambled out the back of the trench. Aubrey couldn’t see their faces or understand the words they said, but he could see their pistols, and he could hear the fury in their voices.

A gentleman didn’t just give up, but he was too cold and wet to give a damn about standards any more. Much as it galled him, he would have to sit out the next round of the war.

He raised his hands. “I surrender.”

***

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***

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.

Out Now – Dare to Die

The cover of Dare to Die, showing a fight on top of an armoured car in the desert.

Well look at that, I have a new issue of Commando out today!

I wrote Dare to Die to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the founding of the Special Air Service. It takes us back to the earliest days of the SAS, raiding in the Western Desert during World War Two. When a raid goes wrong, two soldiers are left stranded in the desert, struggling against the elements and enemy patrols. Can they survive against such dramatic odds? Or can they do something even more daring, and finish their mission?

Dare to Die is out now in newsagents and on Comixology.

The Ghost of a Guilty Hand – a fantasy short story

Sunan hefted a lump of stone from her barrow onto the steadily rising wall, then turned the stone until it fitted into place. She wanted to be able to say that this was half the struggle, finding pieces that held so snug together they needed no mortar, but almost all the struggle came in the building itself, pushing rocks around with one good hand and the stump of her other elbow.

As the rocks ground against each other, they released sparks of residual magic from the battle that had levelled the town. She remembered striding up the beach, a sword in one hand and a fireball flying from the other, certain that victory was worth more than its cost. She could almost see that lost hand, a ghostly after image.

A crunch drew her out of her reverie. Prasert had landed his boat and was ambling up the shingle.

“You’ll never finish it at this rate,” he said. “Not before the locusts arrive.”

“What would you know?” Sunan heaved another stone one-handed onto the wall. Its course surface pressed uncomfortably against her stump as she pushed it into place.

“I know that, without a shelter, no one can stay here through swarm season, and without that time to finish, you can’t make anything that will last the winter winds.” He pointed to  rows of scattered rocks, the rubble of her previous efforts. “You know that too.”

He deposited a sack of supplies next to her tent: grain, dried cod, lime juice, other essentials. A pouch was waiting there for him, filled with currency of all shapes and sizes, the dwindling fortune of a former mercenary.

“Trade’s quiet at the moment,” he said. “I could help if you want, just for a few weeks, to get that first shelter built.”

“No.” Sunan heaved another block into place, her anger lending her strength. She felt a little of the old magic flow.

“It’s no sacrifice. Having a port here would be good for—”

“I said no!” She spun around, clutching a rock, and glared at him. “This is my penance, to rebuild what I broke. No one gets to bear it for me.”

“I didn’t mean to—”

“Like demon fire you didn’t.” She slammed the rock into place, sparks flying as the stones cracked together. “I see you pitying the poor cripple, but I don’t need your charity. If I could kill for this place, then I can live for it.”

Muscles strained as she lifted another rock, and another, and another, smashing them into place in swift succession, barely looking at what she did. She would straighten them later. For now, she would show what she could do.

The magic flowed through her, a power flung about this place so wildly it would linger forever. Once, she would have bent it to her will. Now she endured it, like the sand between her toes and the course grass that scratched her skin.

“Sunan,” Prasert whispered. “Your hand.”

“Yes, my poor hand, it must be so worn from all this work. Gods forbid that I labour.”

“No, look, your other hand!”

“I don’t have another…” Sunan stopped and stared at the rock she was holding. Two hands gripped it, one calloused and sun-darkened, the other a ghostly haze of magic stretching from her stump.

She set the stone down and held the ghost hand up. The more she thought about it, the less it seemed like it was hers, and the harder it was to control. Still, she curled her fingers in, one at a time, each bending knuckle an effort of will.

“You’ve tamed the magic,” Prasert said.

“Yes…” Sunan stiffened as she stared at the hand, so familiar and yet so alien. “But it’s not mine.”

“It is now!” Prasert laughed. “And with two hands you can finish the shelter before swarm season. Isn’t that fantastic?”

“No! I have to do this through my own effort.”

She waved the hand away from her, trying to shake off the magic.

“You were a wizard. This is your effort.”

“No! This is cheating!”

“This is applying your gifts.”

“This isn’t… this isn’t… this isn’t how it’s meant to work.”

“Why not?”

“You wouldn’t understand.” Even as she said it, she knew how patronising she sounded, but she didn’t have the words she needed. There was a right way to do this, and a wrong way. The magic hand was wrong.

“Do you even want to finish?” Prasert asked.

“Of course.” She folded her arms. This was a ridiculous question.

“Do you? Because I think there are ways you could have finished by now, with better tools, or better plans, or just a little help. But maybe you want to labour here forever, punishing yourself in public view.”

“That’s absurd. And even if it was true, what business of yours would it be?”

“There was a port here once, well placed for traders and for locals. Since you helped destroy it, we’ve all gone without, and now the big bad mercenary is up here, saying hers is the only way to rebuild. Where do you think that leaves us?”

Every summer for ten years, he’d been bringing her supplies, but she’d never seen him like this; red-faced, brow crumpled, hands planted on his hips. He saw her looking at him, and he sagged as righteous indignation gave way to fear or guilt or something else she didn’t understand.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ll be back next month. Still time for more building before swarm season.”

He walked down the beach, shingle crunching beneath his feet, and climbed into his boat.

Sunan looked at her ghost had. She still had a wizard’s skills, even if they had been neglected. With focus, she could make this go away. Then she could return to the work as she had been doing, the work she deserved. Instead, she picked up a stone with both hands and placed it on the wall.

***

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***

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.