Blog

Shattered Streets – a historical short story

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m going to find him.”

“No!”

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

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

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

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

Ursula grabbed her father’s hand.

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

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

“It’s not safe here. Come, now!”

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

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

Schwartz stared fearfully after them.

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

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

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

“We must go back,” father said.

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

*

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

Devouring God – a fantasy short story

Image by sipa from Pixabay

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

“What have you done?” Bor exclaimed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry. We didn’t understand.”

“There must be justice.”

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

“You think you can buy justice?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What is this?” the God asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

Silver and Gold

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

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

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

The Man in the Wall – a historical short story

Image by bassoon12345 from Pixabay

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But the family aren’t—”

“What’s your name, young mistress?”

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

“Like the Queen.”

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

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

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

Liza shook her head. “No, sir.”

“Not even if they ask very nicely?”

“No, sir.”

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

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

“No, sir.”

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

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

#

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

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

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

“This is an outrage,” the steward said.

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

“Where’s the priest?” he asked.

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

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

“Their money’s as good as anyone’s.”

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

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

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

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

“Bad men,” she said.

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

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

She shook her head.

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

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

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

#

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

The man in armour had a terrible smile.

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

“I’m sorry,” Liza wailed.

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

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

***

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

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

***

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

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

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

Theories on a Riot – a science fiction short story

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

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

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

“How’d you get in here?” Mutt asked.

“Followed you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Side?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Sure, I guess.”

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

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

“You mean the TV?”

“Yes, the TV.”

“I want a bigger one.”

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

“No.”

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

Mutt laughed. “Politics is for idiots.”

“Told you,” the second guy said smugly.

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

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

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

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

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

There was a pop, like a balloon bursting.

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

“Stop right there!” one of them shouted.

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m sorry, Master.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

Out Now – One Cog Dreaming

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

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

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

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

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

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

Voices on the Solar Wind – a science fiction short story

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Selene swam through the darkness of space, a single figure in a skin tight space suit surrounded by an energy bubble broad enough to catch the solar wind. She had been out here for three hours, far from the transport ship and the other surfers, coasting on the intermittent waves washing out from the sun. Today was a good day to surf the winds, but Selene didn’t want good. She wanted transcendent. She wanted an experience to make her forget everything else.

She toggled her coms and caught a brief burst of static, background noise from the same streams of energy she had been hoping to ride.

“Anyone think the currents seem funky today?” she asked.

If Matt had been there, he would have chided her for using words like “current”. The solar winds didn’t work like Earth winds or the waves in the ocean, he would say. Those were dumb metaphors that hid a more amazing truth. But Matt had burst his bubble riding a wave out near Venus, and only been found after his oxygen ran out. He had left her with nothing but tears, and she was damned if she’d let him shape her words now.

“Some odd swells, but nothing I can’t handle,” said one of the others — Tad or Tod or some name like that. She hadn’t clicked with anyone since Matt, and wasn’t going to bother learning their life stories. They would be gone in another year, or she would, so why bother? Only the sun stayed the same.

She left the coms open, letting the static of the solar wind crackle in her ears. Matt had said it was like music, that he could hear patterns and sense waves coming in those bursts of noise. Selene had never been able to hear what he did, but that sound left her feeling like he might still be out there.

Her energy bubble shifted, carrying her with it, as a fresh wave of pressure hit. She whooped out loud, losing herself in the moment, and flung out her hands, flattening the bubble to catch the wave. The energy field strained under the growing pressure and she picked up speed, hurtling through the void. This was what she still had: a thrill that was bright but fleeting.

The pressure wave passed and Selene’s bubble slowed down. She rearranged it for stability while she waited for the next wave, and listened to the sound of the wind, of particles colliding with her speaker system.

“…currents…”

The sound seemed to emerge from the static, as much noise as word. The voice wasn’t anyone Selene had come out here with, and none of them seemed to be on coms. It must be a chance thing, like seeing a face in a cloud, or perhaps a figment of her imagination.

Another wave hit. Selene stretched her bubble further this time, letting the solar wind carry her faster and further, reaching for a personal best.

“Selene, you okay?” That was the voice of Etsuko, who had arranged today’s trip. “Your bubble looks a little out of control.”

“I’m fine,” Selene said.

“Okay, just take care.”

Of course Etsuko had asked, she was responsible, but it wasn’t like she really cared. Selene barely knew the woman, they just happened to be riding life’s current together. That was all the world held now, strangers and the sun.

The pressure wave passed. Selene steadied her bubble.

Again, a rustling force seemed to emerge from the static “…funky…today…”

Selene blinked away tears. Was this what she had come to, searching for voices in the void because it was better than accepting that she was alone, better than living in a world where Matt’s voice was gone?

Another wave hit, more powerful than before. Selene howled in excitement, embracing the rush of movement that blasted away her sorrow. She stretched her bubble so wide and flat that her toes almost protruded from the back, and let the wave shoot her forward like a dolphin darting through the ocean.

A warning light flashed in the visor of her suit. The bubble was taking more pressure than it could stand. But she kept going, leaning into the wave, holding back the grief and the loneliness just a moment longer.

Her speaker crackled and sounds emerged from the static once more, not her voice or that of anyone she knew, a sound that was barely human, but still familiar words. “…anyone think the currents seem funky today…”

Selene twisted in her straining bubble and stared at the sun. How were her words coming back to her from there, carried on the currents of the universe? Was Matt reaching for her from beyond death? Was the sun itself speaking?

“…funky today…funky today…funky today…”

The words looped, coming around again as real as she was, no figment of her imagination but someone, something, trying to connect.

The red light flashed faster as her bubble approached its breaking point. Was this the moment to go out, to ride a wave to the end just like Matt? To leave behind whoever was reaching out for her, just like he had?

Selene reshaped her bubble. The light flashed down through amber to green and then winked out as her speed slowed. The words were gone, but she turned up the volume on her coms, straining to make out any sound amid the static.

“Hello?” she called out to a channel no one was listening on. “Is anyone out there?”

For several minutes, there was nothing but noise. Then an inhuman voice rose from the sea of static.

“…hello…out there…”

***

If you’ve enjoyed this story, then you can read more like it in my new collection. One Cog Dreaming collects all 52 of last year’s flash stories in one place for easy reading. There’s a shipwrecked sailor in a land of talking animals, a steampunk rebel in a city with only one rhythm, a spaceship hurtling towards disaster, and much more. A year’s worth of stories at your fingertips – what’s not to love?

Buy it now.

Christmas Lights – a fantasy short story

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Nigel hated being lumbered with the Christmas shift. Sure, there was extra pay, but it meant missing out on a trip to his parents’ place, to get stuffed full of turkey, spuds, and sprouts. It wouldn’t have been so bad if he was a doctor or a copper, someone who really mattered. But no one was going to break into an office block on Christmas day, regardless of the lone security guard. The whole business was a waste.

He sighed and contemplated the limp, prepackaged turkey sandwich sitting next to the surveillance monitors. As attempts at festive spirit went, all it was doing was to remind him of what he was missing. Not that he could have escaped that feeling, with the Christmas tree across the lobby lit up like the headlights of a hundred cars. Nigel would have switched it off, but he had special instructions to keep it on. Seasonal spirit was apparently part of the building’s brand.

A flash of green made him look up from his monitors. The lights on the tree turned to red, then back to green, before settling on white again. Nigel blinked. Those lights had been white for the past four weeks. He hadn’t even known that they could change colour.

The lights flickered. Nigel sighed, took a box of fuses and spare bulbs out of his desk, and got up from his seat. He might not like the tree, but he’d get in trouble if it went out. His footsteps echoed around the empty lobby as he approached the problem.

The flashing stopped as he got close. Probably one of the bulbs was loose, but which one? It would take forever to go through them all. He peered at the nearest one, which was stark white. He fiddled with it, testing in case anything was loose, but it seemed perfectly secure. The next one, also white, was the same, and the one after that. None of the bulbs near him showed any colour. How had they managed to change before?

The light started flickering again. The effect was erratic, a mix of long and short flashes. Staring at them close up made him feel dizzy. Maybe he could get away with unplugging the lights for a bit, as long as it was to fix the problem.

Nigel pulled the plug out of the wall. The lights kept flashing. For a moment they turned red, then green, then back to white again. Nigel stared in confusion at the plug in his hand. Was there a battery pack he was missing? No, it couldn’t have fitted in the plug, and there was nowhere else for it to go.

Intrigued, Nigel put the plug down and took a few steps back. Watching the lights of the tree blink on and off reminded him of happy days when he was in the Scouts, decoding Morse code messages sent by flashing torches. He’d loved the neat little puzzle of it, noting down the dots and dashes, then translating them into letters. In fact, now that he paid attention, the flickering looked more and more like Morse. There were four dots for an “H”, a dot and a dash for “A”, dot-dash-dash-dot for “P”…

He hurried back to his desk, grabbed a notebook and pencil, and watched the tree. There was a brief blaze of green and red, then the flashes started again. Nigel noted them down, delighted to find that he still remembered all the codes:

“HAPPY CHRISTMAS FROM SANTA AND THE FESTIVE ELVES.”

Nigel laughed. He had no idea who had done it, or how, but that was a lovely little thing to hide away in the wiring of the lights.

“Happy Christmas to you too,” he called out, but it didn’t seem quite enough, so he took a deep breath and started into a chorus of “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”. His voice echoed around the lobby until it sounded like a whole choir was singing, like Christmas eve in church, a time full of joy and anticipation.

The lights stopped flashing. Nigel plugged them back in, just to be on the safe side, and enjoyed the warming glow.

Back at his desk, he unwrapped his sandwich and took a bite. Turkey and stuffing, just like Christmas was meant to be. He smiled. His parents would be sitting down to Christmas dinner right now, and it was nice to think that, in a way, he was eating with them.

Meanwhile, amid the snows of the North Pole, a little man with pointy ears switched off the security monitor he’d used to watch Nigel, smiling as he did so at the thought of a job well done.

***

Merry Christmas eveybody!

If you’ve enjoyed this story, then you can read more like it in my new collection. One Cog Dreaming collects all 52 of this year’s flash stories in one place for easy reading. There’s a shipwrecked sailor in a land of talking animals, a steampunk rebel in a city with only one rhythm, a spaceship hurtling towards disaster, and much more. The e-book comes out on 1 January, and you can pre-order it now.

Halderleft and Halderright – a steampunk short story

The sundered cities of Halderleft and Halderright wheeled through the sky, steam billowing from their airbags, their steering wings rapidly turning on the ends of vast pistons. Lori hung from the exposed edge of Halderleft, the wind whistling through her leather safety harness, as the extended gantries and connecting rods of Halderright came closer.

“Ready,” she called out to the engineers waiting among the girders around her. “Ready… Now!”

The airbags of the cities collided in a slow crush of crumpling canvas. A moment later, there was a crash of metal and the whole city shook. For the first time in fifty years, the two halves of ancient Halder came together.

“Go go go!”

At Lori’s command, engineers followed her out onto the tangled beams, looking for connectors to bolt together. From the far side, Rightwise engineers in their canvas harnesses rushed out to join them.

Lori found a place where two joining beams crossed, in line with the plan. She took a bolt from her belt, but while the holes in the Leftwise beam were circular, just like her bolt, those in the Rightwise beam were square.

She looked up to see a Rightwise engineer with a square bolt in his hand, staring at the same problem.

“What is this?” she shouted over the grinding of girders as the gasbags started pushing the cities apart. They only had moments to secure the connection.

“Square bolts so you can see which way it fits,” he shouted back, pointing at the holes. “But what’s this nonsense?”

“Round bolts so it doesn’t matter which way things fit!”

It was already too late. The Rightwise engineer shouted about Leftwise idiocy as the girders scraped over each other and the cities pulled apart.

Hours of frantic semaphore signals followed, and with them a new plan. Once again, Lori found herself hanging among the gantries and connecting rods.

“Now!” she shouted as the airbags collided.

Leftwise engineers raced out across the closing beams, then flung lengths of cable to the other side. Rightwise engineers did the same, ropes uncoiling as they tossed them. Then both sides stood staring at each other.

“Tie them off!” Lori shouted as the beams scraped and strained, about to pull apart again.

“You tie them off!” a Rightwise engineer shouted.

“You were installing pillars to tie them to.”

“No, we were installing cables. You were installing pillars.”

Lori cursed and looked around. If she was quick, maybe she could grab a cable from each side, tie them together, and…

With a grinding of metal on metal, Halderleft and Halderright pulled apart. Cables trailed beneath both cities like tentacles dangling in the wind.

More semaphore flashed back and forth, the conversation slower and steadier this time. It took two days before Lori hung from the girders again, holding a coil of cable with a hook on the end.

“Ready,” she called out as the cities spiralled in towards each other, the gasbags met, and the exposed edges of two communities collided. “Now!”

She ran out along a beam. From out of Halderright, an engineer rushed along his own beam towards her. As they swung past each other, the Rightwise engineer held out a hoop on the end of a cable. Lori hooked her hook through the hoop. A moment later, the cable tightened as her team frantically turned their winch. All across the joining works, cables were connecting. Girders scraped against each other, then settled into place, the two cities finally flying together.

Lori shook the hand of the Rightwise engineer. He didn’t take off his glove first, which seemed rude, and he looked at her tool belt with a combination of confusion and disdain.

“Nice to meet you,” he said in a strangely clipped accent.

“You too,” Lori replied.

The engineer looked around as their teams greeted each other, and he grinned.

“The greatest engineering feat of our generation, and we made it happen,” he said. “Now we can all relax.”

Lori watched the interactions around her, the awkward pauses, the misunderstood accents, the moments of incomprehension at each other’s slang.

It seemed to her that the hard work was still to be done.

***

If you’ve enjoyed this story, then you can read more just like it in my new collection. One Cog Dreaming collects all 52 of this year’s flash stories in one place for easy reading. There’s a shipwrecked sailor in a land of talking animals, a steampunk rebel in a city with only one rhythm, a spaceship hurtling towards disaster, and much more. The e-book comes out on 1 January, and you can pre-order it now.

Obeying Orders – a historical short story

Captain Baptiste’s voice was a saw blade cutting into Verdier’s chest, leaving his heart and soul exposed. As the captain finished reading the telegram from home, the base’s officers stared at him in stunned silence.

“You cannot be serious?” Verdier said, his throat squeezing tight around the words. “We are simply to give in and collaborate with the Nazis?”

Sand swirled through the doorway of the officers’ mess, blown in on the last gasp of the past week’s defiant winds. Out in the streets, ordinary Algerians were going about their business, oblivious to the turmoil inside the French barracks, oblivious perhaps to the war raging across Europe.

“Deadly serious,” Baptiste said. “France has fallen, but Pétain remains, a good military man. When our orders come, we will obey. Go tell your men.”

Verdier walked slowly across the parade ground, dragging the captain’s words behind him like a ball and chain. He had heard the rumours of a government in exile, of De Gaulle in London and the Free French rallying to fight on despite their country’s fall. But discipline was everything, order was everything, and as long as Baptiste was his superior, he had to obey.

He entered the barracks room and surveyed his men. Their open books and half-finished hands of cards were a charade, and their attention focused on him the moment he entered. Every brow was furrowed, every back rigid with tension.

“It’s over,” Verdier said. “An armistice has been signed. We are to collaborate with the Germans.”

“But…” It was the closest any of them had come to challenging him since their first days together. They knew better. This was the army. Discipline was life.

In the corner, one man let out a stifled sob. Another flung his book down in disgust. Private Plantier gathered up the cards he had been playing with, straightened the pack with a sharp rap against the table, and then stood up.

“What are our orders, Lieutenant?” he asked.

Verdier opened his mouth, then closed it. An unexpected realisation swept over him. There were no orders yet, not from Baptiste or from any other officer. Those orders could end up being almost anything, depending upon who was giving them. On the one hand, there was Baptiste, the wavering conformist. On the other hand, there was Major Chapelle at the next town over, an opinionated officer and old friend of De Gaulle.

“Load your packs with provisions for three days march,” Verdier said. “Then assemble on the parade ground.”

He saw their confusion as they bustled about, and the growing hope as they whispered to each other and glanced his way.

Ten minutes later, they stood to attention on the parade ground. Verdier completed the roll call, straightened his own pack, and turned to face the gate.

Once he did this, there was no going back. It wouldn’t matter that he had followed every order he was given, not to anyone but him.

Baptiste emerged from the officers’ mess. His eyes narrowed as he looked at Verdier.

“What are you doing, Lieutenant?” he asked.

“Going out for a march, sir,” Verdier replied. “Our presence should remind the locals of who is in charge during these chaotic times.”

Both statements were true. If Baptiste chose to interpret them as connected, that was his own fault.

Verdier tensed. His men stood stiff behind him, perfectly disciplined, their expressions giving nothing away. If Baptiste gave Verdier different orders now, would he obey them? Could he ever do otherwise?

Baptiste frowned, then nodded.

“Good idea, lieutenant. Carry on.”

They were halfway out the gates when Baptiste called after them.

“Verdier!”

Verdier froze, turned on the spot, and looked back at his captain.

“Yes, sir?”

There was a knowing look on Baptiste’s face, and a flicker of sadness. “Good luck out there.”

“You too, captain.”

***

I have a new comic out this week, an issue of Commando featuring Lieutenant Verdier in a tale of action and adventure set in the Second World War. So if you’d like to see what happens to him next, check out “Desert Vultures”, available on Comixology, through British newsagents, or as part of a bundle of issues via the publisher’s online shop.

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.