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Rare Books in Rough Hands – a historical short story

The hammering on the door repeated, followed by a furious voice.

“Open up, in the name of the holy inquisition!”

Diego Ortiz stumbled through the bookshop, pulling up his britches as he went. There was just enough light for him to see without a candle, but in his rush he collided with the corner of a table and came away with a throbbing shin.

“Open up, Señor Ortiz!” The hammering persisted.

“I’m trying, I’m trying!”

Diego yanked the bar back from the door and pulled it open. In the street stood three robed priests, like wise men come to visit the stable, and behind them three armed men, who looked a lot less wise. The sun had barely begun to creep above the rooftops of Seville, and only the earliest of roosters had yet saluted the dawn.

“You are Diego Ortiz, the bookseller?” one of the priests asked.

“I am.”

“Father Alvaro de Fuentes. I am here to search your stock for heretical texts.”

“Couldn’t you wait an hour? As you can see, I’m not even dressed yet, and there’s been no time for—”

“We will not give you time to to hide crimes.” Father de Fuentes pushed past Diego, and his companions followed him. “You may fetch a shirt, but one of the guards will go with you.”

“You think I’m hiding heresies under my tunic?”

“Protestants are wily, Señor Ortiz. As long as Calvin keeps churning out his blasphemous texts, we must remain vigilant.”

The priests started pulling books off the shelves, piling them up in the middle of the room. Diego blanched at the rough treatment of his precious stock, then scurried off to finish dressing, a guard tramping after him.

By the time he returned, the shelves were virtually empty, the books a tumbled heap. One of the priests was tapping at the backs of shelves, testing for hiding places, while the other two examined the books.

“Is there anything you want to tell us?” Father de Fuentes asked, waving a volume of Tacitus.

“You shouldn’t find anything amiss,” Diego said. “And if you do, I can hardly be blamed. We haven’t seen an updated banned books index in years. If you would just—”

“Protestantism is heresy, your thin claim to technical ignorance no excuse. So I say again, do you have anything you want to tell us?”

Diego clasped his hands tightly together and tried not to let his fear show. This moment could see his business ruined, or worse. Admission in advance might show cooperation, but there were no guarantees.

“No, Father,” he said. “There is nothing here that should trouble you.”

“Should is a weak word for a weak man. Let us see what other weaknesses this place holds.”

De Fuentes read the spine of the book in his hand, snorted, and set it aside, the beginnings of a second heap. Together, he and his brothers began checking the titles, while Diego watched them nervously and the guards watched Diego. Every so often, one of the priests would hold out a book for the others to check, or they would compare a title with one on a list. Twice, Diego had to explain the difference between a book in his possession and one with a similar title by a wildly different author.

“Is there something in particular you’re looking for?” he asked, trying to calm himself by treating them like just one more group  of customers.

“Certainly not.” De Fuentes tossed a Catalan romance onto the checked pile, and Diego winced as the book landed open, pages buckling, its corner scratching the cover of a poetry collection.

“Could you please take a little more care with my books?”

De Fentes scowled at him. “Souls are at stake. I would expect a good Catholic to value that above mere material goods. Unless, of course, there’s something you’re not telling us…”

“No, no, you carry on. I’ll just…” Diego wiped his palms on his tunic, leaving a sweaty smear. “I’ll just wait.”

At last, the priests finished checking all the books. De Fuentes put his list away and waved to the guards.

“We’re done here.”

“You’re not going to put them back?” Diego asked, pointing at the books.

De Fuentes glared. “Be grateful that you still have them all. This has gone very differently for others.”

Diego waited until the priests and their guards were gone, then sank to the floor next to his poor, abused books. He slumped, then laughed shakily. Rummaging around in the bottom of the heap, he pulled out a volume labelled as Tacitus’s Histories, then flicked through until he found a second title page. Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin, the title proclaimed. Diego turned the page and started to read. If it was worth all this, then it must really be worth reading.

***

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.

Throwing a Stone at Spacetime – a science fiction short story

Image by Benjamin Balazs from Pixabay

The ground fell away and I fell up, conflicting gravities hurling me in unnatural directions, twisting my spine until I screamed. I scrabbled at the wall of the laboratory, trying to cling to solidity, and instead grabbed a single loose stone. To my left, Victor gasped as his body expanded, contracted, expanded again. He opened his mouth, and the sound tore the world in two. Where he had stood there was a gap in reality, and I fell straight through.

~

Then it was three days earlier and the lake lapped at my ankles as I tossed a stone up and down. I pushed aside the nameless dread dragging at my mind and flung the stone. Ripples slid across the still water. Here, half a mile above the accelerator, birds sang and the sun shone on the trees.

Another stone, flung by Victor this time. Its ripples intersected with mine in the lake, made taller peaks and deeper troughs, a complex and compelling pattern.

“That’s the purpose, you see,” he said, flinging another stone. “Not to see what rules a new big bang gives its universe, but to watch how they intersect with our own physics, to find out the meta-rules.”

~

A ripple in those rules scooped me up and forward in time. I’d grabbed a wrench and slammed it into the accelerator’s control panel. Shards of glass flew, only to be swallowed by a darkness inside the machine. That darkness was distorting the world around it, ripping panels from the walls, sucking in air, bending light and sound and turning one into the other. It tugged at me.

“Run!” Victor shouted.

“Where to?” My voice soared and plummeted through the reality wave. “You think anywhere is safe?”

The wrench melted like ice in an inferno, then became a wall of screeching sound, and I tumbled through a gap in time.

~

I was back by the lake, in my lab coat, watching the sun rise. A gentle breeze stirred the water and ripples ran all the way to the shore. They caught a fly buzzing too close to the surface, swallowed it whole.

“Come on, Frank,” Victor called from the entrance to the facility. “We’re going to fire her up.”

“Are you sure that’s a good idea?” I asked. There was a stone in my hand, but I didn’t remember picking it up. My back ached and I didn’t know why, though I was sure there was something to remember.

“It’s going to change our understanding of the world. Of course it’s good. Now come on…”

~

Another ripple. They were coming quicker, shorter, closing in on a single moment.

~

In the lab, the machines had started, lights blinking and motors humming. Victor’s triumphant smile faltered as the console shook.

“This isn’t meant to happen.” He stared at the black orb spinning in the centre of the accelerator. “The energy field should hold it in.”

“The energy field only works as long as the law of physics do,” I said. “We have to shut it down.”

“I tried.” Victor flipped a switch back and forth. “Frank, I think I fucked this up.”

The orb pulsed. Our broken reality tossed me back.

~

I was in the corridor, following Victor to the accelerator. Dread closed around my heart like cold fingers around a stone.

“Please, Victor,” I said.  “I have a bad feeling about this. We should wait until another day, run through the theory again, work out what we might see.”

“Why run the theory when we can see the reality?” Victor flung a door open, shaking the frame. “Science is based on observation, Frank, and we need something to observe.”

The ripples were closer now, so close I could see over them to the looming disaster. There was a stone in my hand that I hadn’t picked up.

I grabbed Victor, but he shook me off and flipped a switch. The accelerator hummed into life.

“This is it!” He grinned in triumph.

I flung the stone, aiming straight at the glass. Victor caught it out of the air.

“Calm down,” he said. “Everything will be fine.”

~

Forward a fistful of seconds, to his first look of doubt.

~

Then back to this moment, as he dropped the stone and shook his head.

“You’re such a drama queen.”

“You don’t understand.” I squeezed something cold and hard in my hand. “Once you throw a stone, you can’t take the ripples back.”

“Good. I want to change the world.” Victor looked through the glass as a pinprick black point began to expand. “This isn’t what I was expecting. What do you think it means?”

***

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.

Smashwords Summer/Winter Sale

Smashwords have just started their annual summer/winter sale, which runs for the next month. You can find a whole bunch of e-books at discount prices, including many of mine at 50% off. Meet Victorian explorers, magical gladiators, or a robot developing emotions. There are links for my books here, and more great discounts all across the Smashwords site. Go on, treat yourself.

How We Fly – a steampunk short story

Image by b0red from Pixabay

Professor Halleux watched the airship lift away from the docks and into a clear blue sky. Another vessel completed, another crew and their passengers launched into the wide yonder. Twenty years as master of her own air yard, and there was still satisfaction to be had from a finished project.

Time to take stock, to pull out the well worn blueprints and to prepare for the next order. With all the final checks and then the bustle of the launch, it was days since she’d been inside the workshop. It would be a relief to put her feet up and spend some time with her old tools.

She walked into the workshop and stopped, unsettled. The regular tool racks and shelves of components had been pushed back against the walls, as had some of the workbenches. In the empty space stood three figures.

“Ingrid?” Professor Halleux shouted. “What is this?”

Halleux’s apprentice scuttled out of a back room, carrying a set of aviator’s goggles.

“Professor, perfect timing!” Ingrid pulled the goggles over the head of one of the figures. “I’ve just finished preparing.”

As her eyes adjusted to the gloom, Halleux now realized that the figures were dummies, all dressed in leather overalls and strapped into mechanical contraptions.

“I should not have to repeat myself,” she said. “What is this?”

“I’ve been working on some alternative flight options we can offer to customers,” Ingrid said. “This one is a glider, allowing free flight from a starting point aboard an airship or other transport vessel.”

She pulled a cord and canvas wings unfolded with a clack.

“Did you waste good balloon canvas on this?” Halleux asked.

“No, Professor. It’s offcuts.”

“Well, it’s not the sort of thing our customers are after.”

“Then how about this?” Ingrid stepped to the next dummy, which already had thinly curved metal wings extended. She pressed a button and flames roared from a funnel just above waist height. “Jet propulsion. It only carries fuel for short flights, but you can take off from the ground!”

“Our customers are not looking to sprout wings. Please put things back in order, I want to sit down and start planning for the meeting with Von Chauffen.”

“Just one more.” Ingrid’s voice tightened. “Please?”

“Quickly.”

Ingrid grinned and reached up to spin the propeller blades that sat on the helmet of the final dummy, stretching out two feet to either side.

“I really stretched myself on this one, thinking beyond conventional approaches to flight. A horizontal propeller that lifts the wearer into the air. It’s not as fast as the jet, but you can hover in place, if you want to.”

“Extraordinary,” Halleux said.

“Thank you, professor.”

“Extraordinary that after all this time you have not learnt what it is our customers want. That you would waste time and resources on these ridiculous, impractical machines.”

“Surely we have to try new things?”

“No we do not. We have machines that work, that solve the problem of flight, that carry people around the world. If that’s not good enough for you, then you are in the wrong profession.”

Ingrid’s lip trembled, but she stood firm.

“You used to be an inventor, an innovator, a champion of progress.”

Halleux stared at the girl. How dare she talk like this when Halleux had taken her under her wing, taught her the secrets of the trade, trained her in everything that was needed to take to the skies?

“I am an inventor. I defied gravity itself, and I won. You have barely even mastered the reinforcement of gas bags.”

“Who needs reinforced gas bags when you have wings?”

“Don’t take pride in ignorance. Now tidy this nonsense away. Any components that can’t be returned to supplies will come out of your wages.”

With a sigh, Ingrid started unstrapping the glider’s pack.

Halleux still wanted to sit down and put her feet up, but with all the furniture rearranged she couldn’t even see her chair. Instead, she stood staring at the dummy with the propeller on its head. A long neglected impulse stirred her hand, and she pushed the propeller blade, watched it turn and listened to the click of its mechanism. Ridiculous, and yet…

She unstrapped the helmet, flipped open a panel on the side, and peered at the mechanisms. Intriguing. Not how she would have made it, but a good start. With a more refined drive mechanism, better control could be gained, and then there was the question of how fuel was fed to the motor. She patted her pocket and realised that there was no magnifying glass there. Sometime in the past decade, she had stopped carrying it.

The feeling that had hold of her was familiar, even though she hadn’t known it in years. She strode over to the middle dummy and peered at the jet engine. Perhaps these things could be combined. That was often where the best advances came from.

“Professor Halleux?” Ingrid said quietly from the back of the room. “I’ve, um, I’ve cleared the way to your chair.”

“Not now, girl.” Halleux shook her head. “Come here and tell me, what is the fuel mix? And have you considered a second jet funnel?”

***

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.

The Carnival Comes to Carnage – a fantasy short story

Image by Merio from Pixabay

Dormud woke in the shattered stump of a guard tower that had been his home ever since The Fall. Creaks, thuds, and groans filled the air. Probably Levlin trying to rebuild the central spire again, as if that could bring the magi back, or Tolbar trying to make a lumber mill out of broken siege machines. Any minute now, Tolbar would start singing, and then any chance of sleep would vanish. Idiots, the lot of them.

Dormud dragged himself out of his pile of straw, kicked a rat away, and plucked a handful of fungus off the damp granite wall. At least he’d never go hungry as long as he stayed here in Carnage, as long as he didn’t mind the boils and the stomach cramps that came with living off the waste from a spell war.

Through the rusted bars of his window, people were gathering in the street. Not just his neighbours, but strangers in bright tunics, unloading poles and canvas from wagons. More idiots.

Chewing on his rubbery, bitter breakfast, Dormud stomped out into the town’s central crater. He’d heard whispers of the carnival, but never seen it before, and never wanted to. All these tents with their fluttering pennants, the barkers calling people to celebrate the wonders of the world, it was a cloth woven from lies. That woman in the pointed hat making puppets dance for the children, she would walk away with trinkets tossed to her by grateful parents, but what good would that do anyone? When the excitement wore off, they’d still be living in ruins, and they’d be poorer too.

Stones clattered from beneath his feet as he stomped along the slope and into one of the tents. A dozen of his neighbours sat on rugs amid a choking cloud of incense, while a string quartet played lively tunes. Everyone was smiling: the musicians, the audience, the man holding the tent flap back for Dormud. Fools the lot of them.

He stepped inside so he could see better. The music made him think of the time before The Fall, when he worked with others in the tower, serving the magi with their glittering robes and their grand visions for tomorrow. If his heart beat faster, it wasn’t because of the music, just the incense in his throat. That was why his eyes watered, why he struggled to walk away.

As he emerged, dazed and drifting, an hour later, he nodded to the man holding the tent flap. Maybe it wasn’t so bad for the inhabitants of Carnage to take a moment’s joy. It might not make the wasteland better, but it wouldn’t make it any worse.

Levlin smiled as she walked past Dormud. “Enjoying yourself?”

“No.”

He stomped off up the crater. Others might need the bright costumes and the music, but he didn’t. He had accepted the world as it was.

Four carnies stood along the edge of the crater, one at each compass point, arms outstretched, the wind whipping at ribbons that hung from their arms. It must be a strange wind, because all four sets of ribbons were flowing toward the crater.

Dormud squinted. He’d picked up a few tricks from the magi, a certain sensitivity. He saw the magic rising from the tents, faint but glittering ribbons that vanished into the carnies at the compass points. The power and potential of the townspeople being drained away.

The music, the incense, the smiles, it had all been a trick. For a moment, he’d let himself believe, but the world wouldn’t let him have that moment.

Dormud strode around the rim and grabbed a carny. Ribbons fell limp as he lifted her by her tunic.

“I knew this was a lie,” Dormud growled. “Leeches, the lot of you.”

“We give them joy,” the carny said in a trembling voice. “It’s a fair trade.”

“It’s not a trade, it’s a theft.” Dormud flung her into the nearest tent, which collapsed in a heap of broken poles and tangled ropes. “Leeches! Vultures! Get out or I’ll break your bones!”

He strode down the crater, casting aside carnies and tearing down tents, bellowing in fury as he went. Sad and confused, the people of Carnage watched as the carnies loaded their wagons and hurried out of town.

Dormud stood in the middle of the crater, his neighbours staring at him.

“Why, Dormud?” Levlin asked.

“Because they deserved it.”

What more needed to be said? These people believed him or they didn’t. Either way, they would go back to their lives of denial, the sort of idiots that carnies could dupe because a tune or a play had made them feel better for an hour. People who would give up their power, their potential, for a day’s relief.

As they turned their backs on him, Dormud heard a fragment of music, the carnies playing as they rode down the road. He remembered the world as it had been before, a bittersweet memory of shining towers, fine food, and lofty dreams.

“Levlin,” he called out.

She turned, slow as the closing of a dungeon door. “Yes, Dormud?”

“You still trying to rebuilding the spire?”

“Yes.”

“I’ll come help. And Tolbar?”

Tolbar looked at him, uncertain. “Yes, Dormud?”

“I’ll help you with your mill later if you sing for us now.”

“Sing for you?”

More people turned and looked at him in confusion, but Dormud had said all he meant to for the day. He lifted a block of stone from the crater’s edge.

The Fall was over. It was time to rise again.

***

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.

Olga Goncharova Gives Up Her Gun – a historical short story

Olga opened the door just enough to glare out at her visitor. Let the journalist stand around in the stairwell, with its mould and peeling paint. Olga’s apartment was a place for good Communists, not modern girls in jeans who refused to take no for an answer.

“Good morning, Miss Goncharova,” the journalist said, smiling at Olga over her notepad. “I was hoping that you might have time to talk, if I came in person.”

“Why would I talk to you?” Olga’s scowl tugged at the scars on her cheek.

“Because I want to write about your experience in the war, about what happened to your village, about how you saved all those people. Surely that’s a story you’d like to tell?”

Olga snorted. “I didn’t save anyone. Go away.”

“Please, Miss Goncharova. The stories of so many women were swept away by the party, I want to—”

“I have nothing to say to you.”

A door opened across the hallway, one of Olga’s neighbours peering out, spying on her like they all did. And this stupid girl, still standing with her pencil in her hand and a face full of eagerness.

“In, in.” Olga ushered the journalist into her apartment, then slammed the door. They couldn’t report what they didn’t hear. “I have nothing to tell you, but I won’t have you causing a scene.”

“I’m sorry.” The girl wasn’t. She walked around the apartment with a look of open curiosity, like she was searching for hidden truths. “But what you did was extraordinary.”

“I told you, I did nothing.”

“That’s not what the other survivors say.”

Olga gritted her teeth. Nearly forty years since the Germans invaded her old home, and now the memory of them invaded the new one.

“Read the history. It was Captain Oblonsky and Private Kuzentsov who saved the people of my village.”

“I’ve read the damn history, with all its party lies.” The journalist glared at the portrait of Lenin on the wall.  “They don’t want to admit the difference that women made. They let you struggle and suffer and bleed, and then they closed you back up in kitchens and bedrooms, to play the mother and the servant. You deserve better. We deserve better.”

“We?” Olga folded her arms. “You know nothing.”

“That’s why I’m here. So that everyone can learn about your war.”

“My war?”

The clock ticked on the mantle. Outside, a lone car drove past the bread line below the tower block. The journalist stood expectantly, pencil at the ready, watching Olga.

“My war was seeing my home burned down. It was four years of living in swamps and forests, choosing which of the children we could feed today. It was eating rats and drinking water that was as likely to kill you as quench your thirst. It was sitting for hours amid the roots at the edge of a river, holding my frozen body still, because I could not let a German patrol hear me. It was watching my friend miscarry in a ditch.

“And then, at the end, a man from the ministry who came to me, and he was so polite, and he said ‘Miss Goncharova, it is time to give up your gun, to give up the battles you have won and the men you have killed and the glories you have earned, because families make our country stronger, and a woman’s place in the family is not to fight.’”

“Did you have that family? Did you see the strong country you paid for in blood and silence?”

Slowly, Olga ran her finger down her scarred cheek.

“Leave my home.”

“Please, Miss Goncharova, this is your chance to—“

“Leave! Now!”

At last, the girl listened. She scurried to the door like a rat with a cat on its tail.

“You have my number, if you ever—”

“Out.”

The door closed behind the journalist. Olga looked up at the picture of Lenin. Underneath it sat another picture, cut from a newspaper, showing the school they had built on the site of her old home. She had not gone back for the grand opening, too afraid of the ghosts waiting there, but the photograph, with its proud building and smiling children, reminded her that it had been worthwhile.

That all of it had been worthwhile.

She pressed a hand to her belly. So much lost. Then she stood, walked into the next room, and pulled an old wooden trunk from under her bed. The lid creaked back, revealing a rifle, Karabiner 98K, German made, taken off the body of a man who had tried to kill her. The wooden stock was worn smooth by years of use. The barrel gleamed.

“‘Miss Goncharova’,” she said to herself, “‘it is time to give up your gun.’”

She slammed the trunk shut, then stalked to the window and peered down into the street below. The journalist was emerging from the bottom of the tower block, stuffing her notebook into her satchel.

“You!” Olga shouted. “Come back up here. I have stories to tell.”

***

I have a new Commando comic out this week, set during the German invasion of Russia in World War Two. Like the real war, it features women achieving remarkable things in the defense of their homeland. This story is about what happens later, about the fate of one of those woman.

The Soviet government really did try to hide the role of women in the war, to support a return to what they considered normality. I’ve talked before about Svetlana Alexievich’s book The Unwomanly Face of War, in which she brought those stories back into view. If you haven’t read it, then please do. It’s a remarkable piece of history writing.

And if you want to learn more about Olga’s story, check out We Are the Winter, out now from Commando.

***

***

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 – We Are The Winter

Cover art by Neil Roberts

I have a new Commando comic out this week. “We Are The Winter” is set during Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia which kicked off 80 years ago this month. The story follows Olga Goncharova, a partisan leader trying to protect her village from the invaders. When other Soviet troops arrive, they offer the promise of assistance, but also the threat of greater destruction. Can Olga save her people from the horrors of the war?

“We Are The Winter” has art by Khato and a marvelously dynamic cover by Neil Roberts. You can buy it now through Comixology, from British newsagents, or as part of a bundle through the publisher’s online store.

Life’s Horizon – a science fiction short story

Office block construction site at dusk.
Image by Michael Gaida from Pixabay

Wind whipped through the skeletal office block, whistling through the gaps between girders, tangling McCoy’s hair as she strode along an exposed beam. She knew that her footing would be good despite the darkness, had known it for a decade, since the agency planted a spike in her brain and the future rolled out before her like an open road, every step of her way clear to life’s horizon.

She stopped a few paces from where Kidman sat, his legs dangling over emptiness, a bottle of imported Russian vodka sloshing in his hand.

“You’re wasted again,” McCoy said, her disdain concealed beneath the calm that came with inevitability. She always used the words or actions she had foreseen, because by the time they arrived, they were the best choice. She would catch a falling child, ram aside a robber’s car, offer precise words of guidance, because she knew what followed.

“How insightful,” Kidman slurred through gritted teeth. He was on more than just booze; she knew that from next week’s autopsy report. Kidman had been killing his brain all year.

“Why?” She had to ask, so that she could hear the answer coming. “You know it messes with your spike.”

“Exactly.” He swung his hand for emphasis. The bottle slipped from his fingers, tumbled through the air, and smashed on bare concrete seven floors below. His laughter was a caged animal howling for release. “Should have seen that coming.”

He started to sob, his body heaving, slender fingers pressed to his face. McCoy laid a hand on his shoulder and the tears slowly subsided.

“How do you live like this?” he asked. “No novelty. Every day predictable.”

“You went to school at Eton, didn’t you?”

“S’right. Then Cambridge. Best years of my life.”

She squeezed his shoulder again, pre-empting another round of tears.

She could barely imagine Kidman’s upbringing, sheltered behind the walls of money and power. The holidays, the parties, the gifts, the casual acquaintances whose names were splashed across the headlines. His life had been an amusement park, and he never had to wait in the queue.

McCoy drew two cigarettes from a pristine packet, lit both, and handed one to Kidman. She took a deep, satisfying drag on the other. This was one of the benefits of knowing how she would die. Cancer had no place in her future.

“Do you know where I grew up?” she asked.

Kidman shook his head. Of course he didn’t. In his world, people talked about themselves instead of asking about others.

“Council estate in Salford,” she said. “A concrete flat up six flights of stairs, past a lift that never worked. Three of us kids wondering every night whether there would be food, whether dad would be sober enough to hit someone or if he’d pass out on the couch. Social workers did what they could, but none of them stuck around for long.”

She took a drag from the cigarette. It was comforting, not just the warmth of the smoke, something she hadn’t tasted in years, but knowing that she would do this, anticipating the nicotine rush and then feeling it for real.

“That’s sad,” Kidman slurred. “We should be fixing that shit. You an’ me, superheroes. Using our powers to change the world.”

“We do.” McCoy tapped out her cigarette on the side of the girder, then pocketed the butt. She left no trail when she was on the job. No-one else should have to clear up her mess.

She had cleared up others’ messes when she joined the agency, including the shit show that was staffing. Thanks to her, they recruited people for whom predictability was a rock of reassurance in a dark and chaotic world, people suited to the spike. But every so often, they were lumbered with some rich kid convinced that he was the exception, whose daddy could pull the right strings to get what he thought he wanted.

People like Kidman, who bitched and moaned, drank until their spikes stopped working, their misery drifting like a toxic fog through the agency. Then the futures got darker as morale faded and good agents lost their way.

“It’s the only time I can’t see what’s coming,” Kidman said, tapping another bottle he’d drawn from inside his coat. He unscrewed the lid, chucked it into the darkness, and took a gulp.

“It’ll be okay,” McCoy said, resting her hand on his shoulder again. He leaned his head, dampening her fingers with his tears.

Ahead of her, she saw sirens screaming through the night; policemen listening sympathetically to her story; headlines describing the tragic accident that had killed the son of a peer. She saw the knowing looks of her colleagues, any one of whom could have been in her place. She felt guilt, burning like poison in her gut until it faded with the passing of time.

She looked over the edge into darkness, then slid her arm down Kidman’s back and pushed, as she had always known she would.

***

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.

I’ve also got a new story in a magazine this week. “It Will Have Its Way”, a historical horror story set in post-war Berlin, is in the new issue of Aurealis, Australia’s longest-running small press sci-fi and fantasy magazine. Aurealis #141 features stories from A. Marie Carter and Benjamin Keyworth, as well as non-fiction and reviews, all for only $2.99, so go check it out.

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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.

Out Now – It Will Have Its Way

“Say what you would about East Berlin—and after two years Jo had a lot to say—but at least the men here were too scared to misbehave. Back in the States, every veteran thought his service gave him the right to get between her legs, and any man who’d stayed home was over-compensating for it. Never mind that Jo had risked more than any of them, playing native among her Grandma Kleiber’s people, praying not to fall foul of any of the smart Nazis…”

Did you ever wonder what would happen if dark forces stalked the streets of post-war Berlin? I mean, darker forces than Soviet spies, CIA agents, and black-market profiteers? OK, maybe that’s dark enough, but I’ve got a new story out this week that adds something more, with elritch powers stirring under the city. “It Will Have Its Way”, a historical horror story, is in the new issue of Aurealis, Australia’s longest-running small press sci-fi and fantasy magazine. Aurealis #141 also features stories from A. Marie Carter and Benjamin Keyworth, as well as non-fiction and reviews, all for the fabulously low price of $2.99, so go check it out.

Velvet and Frozen Whispers – a steampunk short story

Image by b0red from Pixabay

The clock was crafted from velvet and frozen whispers, cogs edged with the sharpness of expectant waiting, framed in a box made from slices of pre-dawn calm. One hand was snow taken in the moment it fell upon the drift, the other polished planking from a funeral parlour’s floor. In place of a cuckoo there was a tiny mute gargoyle, its hands pressed against its stone mouth.

Instead of ticking, the clock created moments of silence. Falling into the room, they softly smothered the noises that would have been. The creak of the chair. The rustle of the curtains. The thuds and mumbles from next door.

For the first time in his life, the clock maker found the perfect peace he had dreamed of. Free from the noise of an ever more frantic world, his attention turned in on refining his work. He made a clock that could count off hundredths of seconds, a watch small enough for a mouse’s pocket, a ballerina doll that danced out the hours.

The silence kept coming. It spread from the clock maker’s workshop to the rest of his house. The cook was freed from the whining of the scullery boy. The clock maker’s insomniac wife slept all the way to noon. The cat crept up on its prey unheard. They worked and rested and stalked in peace, and the house filled with their happiness.

The silence seeped into the street. The discordant rumble of carriages and the clopping of hooves faded. Angry voices became still. The racket of the shoe factory no longer filled the neighbourhood from dawn to dusk.

In the stillness, a carter took a moment to admire the blossom he had always missed on the trees, and a newspaper seller finally found the words he needed to complete a sonnet. Birds rested, undisturbed by the frightening noises humanity had made for far too long.

Three doors down from the clock maker, a blind woman wept.

***

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.

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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.