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The Opposite of Beauty – a flash scifi story

“Tell me the truth, Mister Atticus,” the Dangveli President said, waving a mucus-covered tentacle. “Do humans even like my people?”

I followed her between blister-red trees, stepping carefully to avoid the oozing potholes of the formal gardens. It gave me an excuse to look away while I prepared my words. There was a lot at stake here, both for my career and for Britain’s space-faring efforts.

“Would we have asked to share a corner of your world if we didn’t like you?” I asked, faking a sincere smile in case she knew human expressions.

“I find the ways of aliens confusing. Often, they accept our offer of space on the carbon plateau eagerly, then become unhappy and hostile. No-one stays. They just dig up diamonds and leave.”

Her sixty-seven limbs all drooped and the stalks of her eyes lowered. I felt an urge to admit the truth – that everybody left because the Dangveli were so ugly, so foul smelling, and so objectionable in their behaviour that no-one could bear to share their planet. That their ongoing search for an intergalactic love match would forever remain unfulfilled.

But no-one gets into diplomacy to tell the truth.

“I’m sure they all had their reasons for leaving,” I said. “But humans will be different.”

“Will you?” She stopped by the railing at the edge of the raised garden, looking out over the city. A breeze hit us, carrying the stench of seven billion Dangveli from the city below, and I fought back the urge to vomit.

“Humans are the most adaptable species in the galaxy and the British the most tenacious of humans. Whatever has caused others to run away, we’ll stick with it. We’re eager to establish a special relationship with the Dangveli.”

Digging up their precious minerals could be a very special sort of relationship.

“We have been disappointed before,” the President said, turning to look at me, her eyes as big and innocent as those of a monstrously deformed puppy. “Can you swear that it will not happen again?”

It was hard to keep this going when faced with such sad desperation. But I had a duty, to my country and to my Christmas bonus. I opened my mouth to speak.

The President touched a tentacle to my lips. Mucus dripped onto my tongue. My whole body clenched. Was it possible that this moment was as grotesque to her as to me? Surely not.

“If you cannot tell the truth, please do not speak at all,” she said. “Do you really like us?”

All I could think about was the ooze on my face, the grotesque violation of my mouth.

“I… We…” The words got stuck in my throat. “Of course we don’t like you! No-one does!”

I took three steps back, sank into one of the holes, and staggered out of it with my leg soaked in corrosive sap. I spat into the bushes and wiped my mouth with my sleeve, while trying to ignore the itching sensation creeping up my shin.

The President stared at me.

“How dare you. Coming to my planet, saying these hurtful things!”

“You asked for the truth, you got it! You people are ugly. You stink. You’re vicious, mean spirited, and make constant demands on other species, which we all tolerate because of your wealth. Anyone who sends settlers discovers their limits and runs screaming.”

“This is what you call diplomacy? I will have you thrown into the burning vats. Guards!”

The garden rustled as more Dangveli approached.

The shock of her touch had worn off. My whole body slumped as the reality of what I’d said sank in. Of all my fuck-ups, this was the most fucked.

It didn’t matter that she’d asked a dozen times – no-one wants to hear that they’re the monster.

The guards’ slimy tentacles wrapped around my arms. I contemplated which would be worse, drowning in itching ooze or facing the wrath of my boss back at the embassy on Herrje. A terrible death was terrible, but at least it had an end.

“No-one speaks of my people like that,” the President said, tentacles spread wide in fury.

“Only because the others don’t have the courage to face the truth.”

“You make your fate worse with every word.”

“The truth about themselves.”

“The truth about what?” Her tentacles curled in just slightly.

“That we’re all just as grotesque to each other. Look at me, I’m a ridiculous pink stick with weird patches of fur. My limbs are angular and inflexible. I must look awful to you.”

“Well, yes, of course.”

“You and I, we can be honest about that. If your people came to my planet, they’d soon hate it and leave. The same will happen here. But if we accept that, if you let us send more settlers when the previous ones give up, then maybe we can make this relationship work. What do you say?”

The President stroked her neck ridges.

“You find all aliens monstrous, and they you?” she asked.

“Of course.” I set aside thoughts of the elegant Velanth, the beautiful Simdap, and the adorable hamster-like Quertzels. “Don’t you?”

I didn’t know if she could see the truth, but I knew when someone heard a lie they could live with.

“Guards, release him,” she said. “We have a treaty to arrange.”

As the grip went from around my arms, she held out a tentacle.

“I believe you humans like to shake on a deal.”

“No touching,” I said, holding up my hands. “We’re both just too gross.”

***

Here he is again – Julian Atticus, cynical PR officer and public face of the British in space. Not only here, but in a new story, “Communication Breakdown”, published today by Metaphorosis. If you want to read more, then head over to their website.

If you enjoyed this story 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.

Being in Good Mental Health

I’ve written in the past about my mental health. I didn’t find it easy but I did find it useful to write those things. Thinking back on those posts, and on my struggles with mental health, I recently realised that there was something important missing from the story, and that’s the happy part.

My mental health is currently really good. Not perfect, because nothing ever is, but the best it’s ever been. I’ve made big changes to my life that have made it better. I eat better. I exercise more. I’m more open in talking with people about what’s going on in my head. I use self-reflection and mindfulness and sometimes just giving myself a break. I’ve built up my social life in ways that give me the support I need. Perhaps most importantly, I have a job I enjoy and where I’m in control.

My last packet of citalopram, two years ago.

I’ve now been off the anti-depressants for two years. I haven’t seen a counsellor in nearly three years. I would go back to either of those things in a heartbeat if I thought it would be helpful, but right now, I don’t need them, and long may it continue.

Not everybody comes out the other side of depression. Not every mental health problem can be fixed and not everyone gets the support they need. But there can be happy endings. It can work out. You can make a difference to your own life.

If you think you might be struggling with depression, this article provides some symptoms to be aware of and ways of managing them. But the most important thing you can do is to seek help. Talk to a friend. Talk to a doctor. Talk to a counselor. Because life can get better, and it’s easier to achieve that with support.

King of Cogs – a flash steampunk story

I found it in the back of my grandfather’s cupboard, as we were clearing out his house. A king piece from the game Dreaming Cogs, which he used to play in the park with his friends. He’d taught me too, and the feel of the piece brought back memories of his smile.

I dusted the tin king off with a corner of my tailcoat, wound the key in its back, and set it down. It marched back and forth, guided by tiny and intricate gear systems, trying to give orders to pieces that weren’t there.

“You know there’s been a revival,” my father said. “You should take that and play at one of the new clubs.”

I shook my head.

“I’m out of practice, and I don’t even know how this king behaves.”

But two days later, I walked into the pub where the Desperate Dreamers Club met, holding not just that king but a whole Dreaming Cogs set.

“I used to play with my grandfather,” I explained to their president. “I wanted one last game in his memory.”

“Membership is a shilling.” The president smiled. “Who knows, you might decide you want more than one game.”

She was right. The minute I started winding my pieces and setting them out, something swelled inside me. The world seemed brighter as I made my first move.

Grandfather’s king won for me. He was a custom piece whose pattern of orders caught my opponent by surprise. As his arm nudged my other pieces and then triggered their actions, the other side swiftly became penned in, unable to manoeuvre.

“I say, that’s a marvellous piece,” my opponent said as he shook my hand in surrender. “Don’t suppose you’re selling, are you?”

That had been my plan when I walked through the door, but I found myself drawn in another direction. Instead, I found a fresh opponent and set up a new game.

By the end of the afternoon, a small crowd had gathered around my sixth consecutive match. Somewhere in that crowd, I felt the memory of my grandfather watching me, encouraging and guiding.

“You’re dashed good at this,” my latest opponent said, dabbing at her forehead with a handkerchief. “And that king of yours…”

On cue, I tapped the king’s head, sending him into action once more. A cascade of pawns and my queen’s witch advanced in a dance dictated by the king, one that could easily have become a tangled disaster, but instead brought me inches from victory.

I smiled. Now I had the measure of grandfather’s piece, I could set up these complicated strategies. It was immensely satisfying.

“Is that king strictly legal?” one of the observers asked. “It doesn’t sound like a regulation mechanism.”

“Dreaming Cogs is all about custom pieces,” I said, remembering the first lesson from my grandfather. “Its beauty is in the unexpected.”

“Our sport has moved on since the days of backroom tinkerers and custom cogwheels,” the president said. Her tone had been sharp since I’d beaten her in my third game – losing to a new arrival had clearly stung her pride. “If you want to keep playing with that king, then you’ll need to find a registered craftsman to bring it up to standards.”

My jaw dropped. She wanted some stranger to mess with this beautiful, intricate mechanism my grandfather had made.

I took the king off the board, forfeiting the game as I did so, and clutched it close to my chest.

“You can’t touch my king.”

“Then maybe I should give you your shilling back. We only take regulation players here.”

Without another word, I gathered up my pieces and stormed out. Gasps and giggles told me how much sympathy I would have received if I’d pleaded my case. I’d thought I’d found a connection, but these people didn’t understand the game my grandfather loved.

It was a warm summer’s evening and so I walked to the park to calm myself down. Sitting on a bench at the edge of the rose garden, I took the king out of my pocket, wound him, and set him on the ground. My grandfather’s memory hovered in my mind, an image of warmth and kindness.

“Maybe I should let you go,” I said, looking down at the tin playing piece with its tiny crown.

Then I heard voices across the park. I looked up to see grey-haired women and men sat around a cluster of rickety wooden tables, playing Dreaming Cogs into the evening just like my grandfather had done.

With a trembling hand, I picked up the king and walked over.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Do you… Could… I wondered if…”

“What a splendid king!” a woman said, peering into my hands. “It’s almost as fine as mine.”

She plucked hers off the board to show me. Its shape was unlike any king I’d seen before, with two ordering arms and a turban instead of a crown. When she set it back down, her opponent made no objection.

“Could I play next?” I asked in a small voice.

“Of course!”

Someone pulled up a chair for me, while another of them started setting up the board.

“My grandfather made this,” I explained, feeling like a small child showing off a toy.

“My nephew made mine,” the woman said. “I still don’t know all the tricks he built in, but who cares? There’s beauty in the unexpected.”

Smiling, I sat back and watched their match. In my mind’s eye, my grandfather smiled.

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

Mid-Year Review

It’s halfway through the year, which seems like as good a time as any to talk about what I’m achieving.

Picture by Jose Mª Izquierdo Galiot via Flickr creative commons

Freelance work continues to go well. I’ve got a few ongoing clients and a proven track record that lets me pick up new ones when needed. I had a minor setback a couple of months ago when two sources of ongoing work suddenly dried up, but it proved not to be the huge problem it could have been a couple of years ago. I soon found more work to keep me going and used the time I gained to work on my own writing.

Speaking of my own writing, I am, as always, behind where I want to be. Edits on the project I’ve been working on for the past year and a half have been taking far longer than I wanted, simply because I’m struggling to prioritise time for them. That’s a major frustration, as a lot of work has gone into it, and I feel like I could change this. The problem is, prioritising it means dropping something else, and when that something else is currently paying the bills, that’s not a great option.

I’m getting a few other bits of my own writing done. Some scripts for Commando Comics. Selling short stories that I’ve been touting around for years. Even writing a couple of new ones, as well as all the flash fiction for my blog.

I’ve been grinding away at trying to get reviews and do publicity for my self-published work, to little effect. I have to admit, this is neither my comfort zone nor my strong suit. And yes, that’s all the more reason to work at it. Still, it shows in the minimal results.

It seems weird to end up on that bum note, when for the most part my writing is going really well. I’m earning my keep, having fun, and putting my own stories out into the world. Those things make it all worthwhile.

If you’re reading this and you also write, how’s your year going so far? What have you achieved? Let’s celebrate our good work together.

The Dancing Plague – a flash historical story

“This is nonsense.” Lukas glared at the people dancing uncontrollably in the street. “They’ve not caught some curse or disease, they’re just after attention.”

One of the dancers came closer. His tunic was dark with sweat and his shoes worn through until his feet bled. The expression on his face would have been one of horror if not for the placid, distant staring of his eyes.

“Dozens of people dancing like this for weeks,” Heinrich said, backing away from the man. “Some collapsing and dying. Surely this is a sign from God?”

“You’re just encouraging them,” Lukas said. “When will you all accept that this is nonsense, so that it can end?”

He turned on his heel and strode away.

All through the summer of 1518, Strasbourg’s streets had been blighted by the dancing plague, people breaking into wild fits of movement in which they paused only for sleep, apparently unable to control themselves. He had said from the start that it was nonsense, yet the so-called victims had been encouraged, even put on display in hopes of ending the curse. All that had done was encourage more. It was a disruption to good business and good order.

He reached his home and went inside. The wool trade had been good to Lukas, and he had a large house with two floors and three rooms on each. A bedroom for him and Bertha, another for the children, and a counting room, as well as the kitchen and space for a servant. Quieter than when he’d shared a place with his old master, but a far better reflection of his worth.

He stopped just inside the house and stared, his whole body tense.

Bertha stood in the middle of the room, dancing uncontrollably.

Lukas pulled himself together. His brow furrowed and he let out a derisive snort.

“Stop this at once,” he said.

Bertha kept on dancing.

“I said stop.” He grabbed her arms and turned her to face him. The beauty of her face had become twisted by that distant, horrified expression he had seen on others. Her legs kept twitching even as he lifted her up.

“Stop it!”

He put her down. She danced around him and out the door, her green woolen dress swirling around her.

“You’re better than this,” he cried out as he ran after her. Neighbours looked up as they passed, some with sympathy, others with smug satisfaction.

“You’re a smart woman. You don’t need to do this.”

He grabbed her hand and tried to drag her back, but Bertha resisted with surprising strength. Lukas felt like a great weight was pressing down on him inside. He had promised Bertha long ago that he would never raise his hand to her or the children, never force her to anything. But if she kept on dancing then others would see, and then they would never listen to him.

If he had made the others seen sense earlier then this would be over. Bertha would be fine. But he had failed to get through to them, and now the dancing plague had his love.

Bertha danced out into the square, where so many of the other dancers were. The city’s great and good were watching them, stroking their beards and talking quietly among themselves.

“Look at what you’ve done!” Lukas shouted at them. “You let this thing fester and now it has taken my wife.”

“This isn’t our doing,” a minister said. “This is a disease, God’s message to us that we must deal with the sins of our town.”

“This is just desperate people looking for attention!”

“Is Bertha desperate?” Heinrich asked. “Doesn’t she get your attention?”

Lukas opened his mouth to snap something back, then shut it. Hadn’t he given Bertha what she wanted? Hadn’t he been attentive when his work allowed?

No, this was something else. Some dark influence that had seized her, just as it had seized these other people.

Which left a question to which he had no answer.

“How can we help them?”

“We want to take them to the shrine of St Vitus,” the minister said. “This is the sort of ailment in whose face the saint excels. The problem is getting our dancers there.”

“I have wagons,” Lukas said. “If you want them.”

Heinrich gave him a curious look, which after a moment morphed into a smile.

“Thank you, Lukas,” he said. “That would be very helpful. Can you bring them to the square tomorrow?”

Lukas nodded. Then he drew away from the others and went to stand watching the dancers, watching his Berth as she moved without reason or rest. He watched them all as they suffered this terrible blight and he prayed that they would feel better soon.

***

The dancing plague of Strasbourg was a real event, one of at least twenty recorded incidents of mass dancing manias in mid to late Medieval Europe. No-one knows for sure what caused them, but if you want an entertaining and accessible account of the issue, as well as a theory about the cause of the dancing, then check out John Waller’s A Time to Dance, A Time to Die, which inspired me to write this story.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

Smashwords Sale

This month, Smashwords are running a summer/winter sale (depending on your hemisphere) on a wide range of e-books. Several of mine are in the sale, giving you a chance to pick them up for half price or even free. So if you’d like to fill up your e-reader before you head off on holiday, head over to my Smashwords page now to pick up all sorts of fictional goodness.

21st Century Chic – a flash science fiction story

The minute I walked into the bar I knew I was going to regret it. It was a 21st century theme place, some alien brand manager’s attempt to evoke humanity in the Age of Outrage. I liked irony as much as the next over-educated civil servant, but you could have too much of a good thing. And let’s face it, the early 21st century wasn’t even a good thing.

I slipped the six-armed bouncer a cash card worth enough to pay for her next ten tattoos.

“I’m Julian Atticus,” I said. “We spoke on the phone. Where is he?”

A discreet twitch of her antennae directed me towards a corner booth, underneath a screen showing flashing memes of cute dogs accompanied by dumb captions.

“Get him out quick,” she chittered, “or I’ll have to throw him out.”

I walked over to the booth and stood, arms crossed, looking down at Warren. He was wearing an old-fashioned suit, just like always, and his tie was trailing in a puddle of beer.

“Shouldn’t you be writing press releases?” he said.

“Shouldn’t you be running security at the embassy?”

“S’my night off.”

“And you decided to spend it proving that humans are loud, drunken arseholes?”

“You’re the arsehole.”

I looked down at the menu. It was made up of listicles. “10 Drinks You Should Try Before You Leave!” “15 Starters to Get Your Tastebuds Buzzing!” Utter garbage. Yet for some reason this place had become popular. There were press outside watching for celebrities and politicians to drag through the dirt. Warren wasn’t either of those things, but it wouldn’t look good for embassy staff to be caught out like this.

“You hear me?” Warren bellowed. “Arsehole!”

The screen behind him picked up the shout and flung the word into a social media flow that sprawled across the walls and ceiling. Then some AI started arguing with itself about who the arsehole was. The AI was more articulate than Warren right now, even though it was playing the role of 21st century social media star.

“Fine,” I said. “Stay here. Get seen. Get fired. You’ll make my job easier in the long run.”

I turned, ready to stalk away.

“Knew it!” Warren bellowed. “Ambassador doesn’t care. Government doesn’t care. You’re all arseholes.”

I pressed fingers against my eyes and took a deep breath. I could feel a headache coming on already, and this was only going to make it worse. But I couldn’t leave Warren out like this.

I turned back to the table.

“What’s the matter with you?”

Warren looked up with bloodshot eyes, then he pulled out his phone and waved it at me.

“She’s finished with me,” he slurred. “Said I’m not available enough.”

“You did take a job light years from home.”

“Thought you’d be on my side. Thought you were my friend.”

“What on Earth made you think that?”

I barely had time to hear the words before I regretted them.

“You’re an arrogant wanker,” Warren said, wobbling to his feet. “But so’s everyone in this city. Politicians and pundits and fucking, fucking, fucking trade delegates. Wankers, the lot of you!”

Half the beings in the bar had turned to look at us. Years of training and a complete indifference to other people’s opinions kept me from blushing, but I was intensely aware of how bad this situation was getting. I needed to get him out, but there was no way he’d do what I asked.

Which left one option.

“You’re the wanker!” I yelled and shoved him in the chest.

Warren wobbled, almost fell, then staggered from the booth. As I backed away he followed, fist raised.

“You scrawny little fucker, Atticus. I’m going to give you the beating you deserve.”

“Oh yeah? You and whose army?”

I backed across the room. In the entrance, the bouncer I’d bribed pulled the door open.

“My army.” Warren lunged at me. If our blood-alcohol levels had been any different he would have knocked me flat, but I managed to leap aside and then shove him out the door.

Lights flashed. Seeing some sort of disturbance, low rent reporters came to see what was going on.

I hailed a cab and gave Warren another shove.

“You’re a shitty security guard,” I said loudly. “And I don’t need facts to prove it.”

Warren looked at me, confused.

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

“Questions are for experts and chumps. The people want to hear the truth!”

“But you just said-”

“Truth not facts!”

The cab rolled up next to us and its door slid open with a hiss.

“You’re such a wanker, Atticus.”

Warren took another swing at me. I ducked, then barged him in the midriff. He landed with a thud on the back seat of the cab and a seatbelt immediately latched onto him. As he struggled to get free, I straightened up and turned to the assembled press.

“Ladies and gentleman, I hope you’ve enjoyed our reenactment of the unique debating style that was 21st century human politics. For more of the same, please come to the British embassy for our events celebrating Earth History Month!”

I leapt into the cab, pulled the door shut behind me, and let it carry us away.

With a sigh of relief, I sank back in my seat. Warren, still grappling with the child-proof catch of the seatbelt, looked up at me, his face crumpled.

“What’s Earth History Month?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “But do think any of that lot will turn up?”

“I would come,” the cab’s robotic voice said. “I enjoyed the video feed of your lively debate.”

I groaned and put my head in my hands.

“It wasn’t even a good century the first time around.”

***

It’s been a while since I’ve written a story about Julian Atticus, cynical PR officer and public face of the British in space. But I have a story with him in coming out in Metaphorosis next month, so it seemed like a good time to come back to his life on Herrje. If you want to read more, the first of his stories can be found in Lies We Will Tell Ourselves – more details below.

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.

A Shrine to Rot – a flash fantasy story

The land had grown hard and dry, nothing stirring but dust in the wind. The only place where nature held was in the waste heap outside the village, where beetles and worms ate what people could not. Oxen stood gaunt at idle ploughs while seeds lay lifeless in the soil.

And so Cobark gathered her people and led them into the desert, carrying all that they needed to start again – their clothes, their tools, their blankets, and the last of their food.

They walked north for five days, into an ever fresher wind. The air became cool and damp and their flagging spirits rose.

They reached the coast and looked out across a salt sea that shimmered with the sheen of black oil. Nothing could live here except the birds that fed on rotting fish, and the people could walk no further.

So Cobark led them east, across the desert once more. They walked for five days, their steps growing slower and more weary, until they reached a city from the days before the flattening.

In its ruins they found metal boxes with no opening, and when they broke into them some held precious food. But the first to eat from them became sick and twitched with a terrible fever. As they struggled to save him, monsters emerged from the city, some walking on two legs and some on four, all hungry for the people’s flesh. They fought them off and ran south, with the oxen in a long trail behind them.

After five days, with mountains rising to the east, they came to a canyon. It was as though a giant had taken an axe to the ground, leaving a deep gash where the earth had been. Desperate as they were, they could not cross it, nor could they climb the mountains.

And so, with a weary heart, Cobark pointed west. She let the others walk before her, for she was no leader any more. She had brought them forth and all they had found was misery, different places to die from hunger. She took the rear of the travelling column, and whenever someone fell she would lift them up and carry them until they had the strength to go on. When more fell than she could carry, she laid them on the backs of the oxen or made stretchers on which they could be dragged. Soon, half the people were taking the weight of the other half as they processed home to die.

In this way, it took them ten days to come back to the village. Most returned to their huts to wait for the end. But Cobark felt her failure. She did not deserve such comfort. So she walked out of the village and went to die by the waste heap, where she knew she belonged.

There she saw life. Seeds sprouting from the rotten pieces that people had thrown away. Cobark found hope, for herself and for her village.

She cracked open the hard soil and dug in the rotting waste. Within days the seeds, which had seemed set to lie dormant forever, began to sprout. The people rejoiced. Cobark returned smiling to her home.

And every year after, at the time of planting, they went to offer thanks at the shrine that was the waste heap.

***

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

A gladiator painting with manticore blood.

A demon detective policing Hell.

A ninja who can turn into shadow.

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

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

From reader reviews:

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

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

We Will Be What We Eat

Food glorious food. Without it, we’d all just curl up and die. It’s been the driver behind great historical migrations, the inspiration for fabulous works of art, and a form of artistry in its own right for thousands of years. It’s constantly changing as the means of production and the tastes of society evolve.

Yet we don’t see much fiction centred on food. I can count on one hand the speculative stories I’ve read where food played a central part. It’s sometimes used to indicate character or social status or to add a taste of the exotic. From the mouse feasts of Redwall to the replicators of Star Trek, it’s used as a piece of window dressing, a way of setting the tone. But how often is food central, whether it’s the art of cooking, the struggle against starvation, or the complexities of supply systems? And how often, as speculative writers, do we seriously consider how food production and consumption might change?

I got to thinking about this because of a talk I went to recently as part of Pint of Science, a series of events aiming to make science accessible. It brought home to me the challenges we currently face in feeding humanity into the future. Modern western diets are carbon intensive, so preventing environmental collapse probably means significantly reducing how much animal-based food we eat. It’s a huge personal challenge (I love cheese, but apparently cheese doesn’t love the planet) as well as a social and governmental one. One way or another, it’s going to shape the future, but I’ve never seen it addressed in fiction.

Is this because questions of food don’t excite us? The Great British Bake Off says otherwise. Is it because sci-fi writers don’t like to address awkward issues? The likes of Ursula Le Guin and Jeff VanderMeer prove that’s not true. Is this something that’s hard to dramatise? Open a copy of Interzone and you’ll see that writers can make anything dramatic.

Maybe it’s just too far down our radar. Maybe its time hasn’t yet come. But surely there’s space in the world of science fiction to take a proper look at our relationship with food and food production, to change the way we view these things. Hell, maybe it’s out there and I’ve missed it – if you can think of an example, drop it in the comments.

As a society, we need to think more about our food and where it comes from. Speculative fiction could be a way to encourage that thought.

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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.