Blog

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.

***

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.

***

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.

Keeping the Fire Alive – a fantasy short story

Image by erikgoetze from Pixabay

Joran pulled his dirty blanket tight around his shoulders and crept out onto the crag, testing the packed snow with his foot before each step. To the west, the pass was draped in shadow, the tips of the trees not yet visible. Dawn took a long time to reach those depths.

Snow crunched as Letta trudged up the mountain, pushing a rickety barrow full of logs. She stopped a few feet away and squinted.

“Seen anything out there?”

“Of course not.” Joran gestured at the contents of the barrow, wood for their cooking fire and for the beacon on top of the tower. The beacon never burned, but still Letta chopped and tarred fresh wood each day, never giving it time to dampen and rot. “You should let me do that. I’m stronger than you.”

With the head of her axe, she prodded at the chain running from his ankle back into the tower.

“If you wanted to run free, you shouldn’t have killed that man.”

“It was him or me.”

“That’s not what the judge said.”

Joran pulled the blanket tighter, shivering against the wind, and peered west. He could see the tops of the trees now.

“There’s someone moving up the pass.”

“Merchants?”

“Is it ever anything else?”

Letta squinted again. Joran snorted.

“Why are you even up here if you can’t see?”

“I won’t leave my kin’s safety to criminals like you.”

“I could push you off the mountain, you know.”

“Try it.” She hefted the axe. “I’ll be checking the beacon, just in case.”

Joran looked down the valley again. This whole thing was a cruel joke played by some malicious god. One punch swung too hard and now he lived here, watching for an invasion that never came.

It was a bigger merchant caravan than usual, and better guarded. Sunlight glinted off something, spear tips or helmets. Scores of them. Hundreds. Thousands.

“Letta!” He turned, slipped, slid through the snow toward a precipitous drop. The chain jerked him short and he grabbed a protruding rock a moment before he would have screamed. “Letta, they’re coming!”

The crunch of footsteps. She appeared above, hauling on his chain.

“Get up here and help me with the fire,” she said. “We have to warn the city.” Then she looked past him, into the woods below. “Joran, what’s moving down there?”

“I don’t care, just help me up!”

“Damn your eyes, Joran!”

He cursed, shifted his weight against the crumbling ground, and peered over his shoulder, into the woods below the beacon tower. It would be a wolf or a cluster of crows, the sort of hard-living beast that survived the snow.

Steel glinted between the trees.

“Scouts,” he said. “Must have run ahead during the night.”

Letta let go of the chain and grabbed her wood axe.

“Don’t leave me!” Joran shrieked.

Letta strode off, toward the lone trail up from the wood.

“Light the fire quick,” she shouted. “I’ll hold them off.”

Cursing and straining, Joran grabbed a protruding rock and pulled himself up. He kicked a foothold from the snow and pushed higher. From below came voices, Letta and the scouts. He hoped that she could hold them off with words, because six to one was terrible odds.

Joran hauled himself back onto the crag, then dashed toward the tower, snow flying from his feet, chain clinking. He flung the flimsy wooden door open and, in the gloom of their tiny barracks room, scooped a bowlful of glowing coals out of the fire.

Thuds and shouts rose from the trail. A man screamed. Letta was putting up a fight, but she was no soldier, and her weapon was no war axe.

Joran’s chain rattled against the stone stairs that spiralled up the outside of the tower. Almost at the top, a jerk at his ankle stopped him short and he fell, arms slamming against hard edges, hot coals flying into his face.

The chain had snagged. He had to go back. Except that the sounds of fighting had stopped, and now three men were approaching the tower, dressed in armour and carrying swords.

Joran shook the chain. The men looked up and one of them shouted. Joran shook the chain again, shook as hard as he could. A few more feet of chain came loose, a few more seconds of hope.

Footsteps on the stairs, the jingling of chain mail. Joran ran up the last few steps and flung the remaining coals into a heap of carefully stacked wood. Smoke emerge from the kindling, then a flicker of flame, then a blaze as the heat touched Letta’s tarred logs.

Joran turned and raised his hands as the scouts reached the top of the steps.

“It’s done,” he said. “No point killing me.”

One of the men cursed. Another spat and peered east. “Maybe they won’t see it.”

On the next peak over, fire flared from a beacon tower. A minute later, it rose from another further east, and then another.

There was a red stain in the snow on the trail, and a dirty brown one at the base of the tower, where Joran’s blanket lay discarded. The fire warmed his back, a comfort in the cold and one last gift from Letta to her kin.

***

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.

We Will All Be Colby – a science fiction short story

For my first week in the labour camp, the name of Colby was a mystery to me. I heard prisoners use it as a curse when acidic sap spattered their cheap radiation suits. Others shouted the name in excitement when they found a scrap of meat in their stew. The guards flinched from the word, but the guards always looked uncomfortable, like they were the ones being punished. It wasn’t until the sixth night, as we lay in our bunks in the dark, that Jones explained it to me.

“The legend is that Colby was one of us, back in the early days. Seemed like a quiet guy, did his hours, kept his head down, made believe he might make it back to Earth alive. This was before the rad suits, when they slathered prisoners in sunblock and told them that would keep them safe.”

“Safe from the radiation that made this?” I asked, waving incredulously toward the mutated jungle beyond the bars of our cell.

“In case you haven’t noticed, safety standards aren’t high around here. Only reason they upgraded us to rad suits was that it’s more cost effective.

“Anyway, this Colby, he plays things quiet, bides his time, watches for an opportunity. Then one day, he flips. Cuts the tracker out of his shoulder. Breaks his manacles. Starts hacking up guards instead of vines. Leaves three of them in the hospital and runs off into the jungle, never to be seen again.”

“He must be dead by now.”

“He should be, sure, but people say he found a way to make his own sunblock, stuff that would really protect him. They say he lives off jungle fruit and what he can steal from supply wagons.”

“That’s bullshit. You’d have to be some kind of mad scientist to make a rad blocker from these plants.”

“They say that’s who he was. A brilliant chemist, locked away with the rest of us thugs.”

“More bullshit. Why would a guy like that end up here?”

Jones’s bed shifted as he shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know. Maybe he poisoned his wife, or built a bomb, or just invented a colour of paint they thought was critical of the government. You know how the system goes. What matters is that he got away.”

I lay there for a long time, thinking about Colby, ragged and smeared with home-made rad-block, feasting on jungle fruits. For a moment, it seemed like there was a way out. But then I shifted my leg and the manacle scraped my ankle.

“Bullshit,” I muttered, before rolling over to sleep.

*

The one time I saw Colby, I was at the edge of the jungle, sawing down a tree by hand. That was how it all work. They gave us manual tools, and shitty ones at that, so we couldn’t use them to escape or attack the guards or whatever other paranoid crap they thought we could achieve, chained and tagged and light years from home. It didn’t matter to them how long we took to clear space for a settlement. The real colonists were years away.

This was before I’d got used to the struggle, before I’d turned my bureaucrat’s body into that of a grizzled labourer. My muscles were aching and my hands were blistered. I paused, hoping to snatch a couple of minutes rest before the guard noticed and offered me the choice between work and a beating. I’d already gone through the change that mattered, the abandonment of hope. All that remained was to decide between acceptance or ending it. The thought of thirty to life in this hell hole made the ragged saw blade appealing.

A movement in the jungle caught my attention. Someone was staring at me through the trees, a tall, wiry man in the stained and ragged remnants of prison overalls. Something dark and sticky was smeared across his exposed skin and matted hair. He stared at me with wide eyes and pressed a finger to his lips. I looked around, checking in case any of the guards were nearby, and when I looked back, he was gone.

But he was real. I was sure of that much.

*

In another time, another place, we might have become a cult to Colby. Sneaking away from work to the stump of the tree, close to where I had seen him, leaving scraps of food or small stolen tools, gifts to our ragged hero. We could have turned as crazy as he looked, gifts turning into offerings, words of hope into prayers.

Instead we’ve become a conspiracy. Slowly, surely, we make our plans. Tallies etched in the wood of the stump, diagrams scratched into the back of thick jungle leaves, supplies set aside for our escape, they’re slowly accumulating around Colby’s altar.

Now we know that you really can live in the jungle, another change has come over us. One day soon, we will all be Colby.

***

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 Symphony in Steam – a steampunk short story

Tilda reached her seat just as the bright flames of the gas lamps turned down to a minute flicker. A moment later, a woman stepped out in front of the curtains, her angular face and elegant dress illuminated by the blaze of the footlights, and the crowd burst into applause for Dame Letitia Glave, the foremost composer of this or any generation. Tilda, swept up in the wave of enthusiasm, clapped so hard that her hands hurt, until Dame Letitia raised her own gloved hands and the crowd fell silent.

“A Most Extraordinary Night,” the handbill promoting the concert had said. It would turn out to be one of the great moments of truth in advertising.

“Tonight, I have a new piece for you.” Dame Letitia’s rich voice filled the concert hall, her words hooking every listener on the point of anticipation. Tilda, who had never been to such a grand recital before, grinned to herself in the darkness. “Not just a new piece, but a new instrument.”

The curtains flew back, revealing something like a gigantic church organ, but with strings as well as pipes, and with a row of drums and gongs along the front. The crowd gasped, then applauded, as crowds were prone to doing. Tilda squinted as she tried to work out what all the pieces were and how they fitted together.

“Now, for the very first time, my Symphony Number Nine, for Glave Organ.”

Dame Letiti took a bow, stepped back, and flung a lever on the device. There was a hiss of steam rushing through pipes, and then the noises began.

It was, the kinder reviewers would later say, a sound like no other. Even the kindest among them faltered after that point, leaving the way clear for those unblinkered by the great Dame’s reputation. “An appalling racket,” wrote Vandermeer of the City Times. “Dying dogs have made sweeter music,” wrote Brooks of the County Express. Atwood of the Daily Light was perhaps the most damning: “I would have torn my own ears off, if not for fear that this so-called music would reach my brain directly through the holes.”

Yet through it all, through the screeching of pipes, the wailing of strings, the flat clatter of percussion, Dame Letitia stood proudly by her machine, head tilted on one side, listening with apparent delight. Tilda watched in shame, then horror, then growing fascination, wondering how this could possibly end.

As the last discordant squeal faded away, Dame Letitia bowed, then looked out expectantly as the house lights rose.

No one clapped.

No one cheered.

As Letitia later wrote in her autobiography, even jeers and flung tomatoes would have been better than that awful silence, as the shocked audience rose from their seats and hurried away.

While the auditorium cleared around her, Tilda stayed in place, peering past the unseemly rush of bodies to the machine on the stage. The sound had been monstrous, like nothing she had ever heard, and yet it had stirred something inside her. It wasn’t pretty, it wasn’t heroic, but it was real. It was a pain like heartbreak and a pace like running to catch a lost friend. It compelled her.

Stage hands watched nervously from the wings, and the manager clutched at his cravat, trying to find the courage to speak to the humiliated star. But Tilda had no such qualms. Glory had been torn away, and now she saw only a heartbroken woman, standing trembling on a stage. Tilda walked down between the seats until she stood just behind the footlights and looked up at Dame Letitia.

“Excuse me, Madam,” Tilda said.

Dame Letitia’s voice was a tiny, quivering thing, a small echo of her machine. “Yes, my dear?” she managed.

“Could you teach me to play this thing?”

It was the beginning of what critics would later call the most remarkable pairing in music, and while few of those critics meant remarkable as a compliment, Tilda chose to hear it that way.

***

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.

Spam Today – a historical short story

Lancaster bomber in flight
Image by h s from Pixabay

The windows of the mess hall rattled as a Lancaster bomber rumbled along the landing strip outside, smoke trailing from a damaged engine, the last to return from the previous night’s run over Germany. Behind the serving hatch, Wilf Turner crossed himself and offered up a silent prayer for the ones who wouldn’t come back.

“What have you got for me today, Turner?” Flight Lieutenant Halliard asked, late to arrive as usual, expecting the kitchen staff still to be there ready to feed him.

“Spam today, sir.” Wilf deposited a fritter on the lieutenant’s plate, then reached for the mashed potato spoon.

“More bloody spam?” Halliard sighed. “I know there’s a war on, so it’s not going to be duck a l’orange every lunchtime, but can’t you get us a bit of variety? I ate better than this at Eaton, and we all know what that was like.”

Wilf most definitely didn’t, but he wasn’t going to highlight the reasons someone like Halliard looked down on him.

“I’m doing my best sir,” he said, shifting to take the weight off his club foot. It sometimes hurt to spend this long standing at the hatch, but if he couldn’t be up in the air, he could at least help those who were.

“The worst part is, you probably are.” Halliard shook his head, took the plate, and walked away, leaving Wilf to glare after him.

*

Wilf was on the verge of closing the serving hatch when Flight Lieutenant Halliard swaggered in, still wearing his flight suit, grabbed a plate, and walked up with the usual smug look on his face.

“What have you got for me today, Turner?” he asked.

“Spam, sir,” Wilf said, reaching for the serving spoon.

“Again? Christ on a bike, Turner, I thought it was your job to feed us as well as you can.”

“I am, sir, but there are limits.”

“Limits to your intelligence.”

Some of the other airmen looked around to see what the fuss was about. They watched with amusement as Halliard pulled a face of pantomime disgust, while Wilf crumpled in on himself in embarrassment.

“What have you made?” Halliard continued. “It looks like someone ran over the commander’s dog and shovelled it onto a plate.”

That got laughter. Wilf’s cheeks burned with shame. He’d worked hard on the meal. He knew it wasn’t brilliant, but he didn’t have brilliant resources.

“It’s a spam hash, sir,” he said. “It’s made with—”

“At this point, I honestly don’t care. No idea why I expected better from a sallow-faced shirker who spends the war in the kitchen, not out there fighting the good fight.”

Wilf felt like an artillery shell was clogging his throat. Everyone was watching, but he wasn’t meant to answer back to officers, and he didn’t even know where he would start. How dare Halliard talk to him like this? If he could have done, he would have been up there with the rest of them. Hell, he would rather have been shot down over Germany than be stuck here all this time.

“My foot,” he mumbled.

Halliard rolled his eyes. “Keep your excuses to yourself. And next time I’m here, there had better not be any bloody spam.”

*

A movement in the doorway of the mess hall made Wilf reach under the counter. Then he saw that it was one of the senior engineers, not Halliard, so he took the lid off his pan and scooped up a ladle full of stew.

“Beef!” the engineer exclaimed as he caught the stew’s scent. “Turner, you’re a legend.”

“Thank you, sir.”

Wilf put the lid back on the pot, glanced at his hidden plate of spam, and grinned. Everyone else was so happy with their meals, but wait until Halliard turned up. This time Wilf had been practising what he would say. “Sorry sir, we’ve run out of stew.” Or perhaps “there was some, but you came too late.” Most importantly “here’s what we’ve still got: spam.” Oh yes, he was looking forward to it.

He glanced out the window. The last plane had got back half an hour ago. Halliard really was taking his time.

“Something the matter, Turner?” the engineer asked.

“Just wondering where Flight Lieutenant Halliard has got to, sir. He’s usually the last one here.”

“You haven’t heard?” The engineer shook his head. “Halliard’s plane took a direct hit over Kiel, went down in flames.”

Wilf took a step back onto his club foot. Stew dripped from his ladle onto the floor.

“Sorry, Turner, was he a friend of yours?”

“No, sir,” Wilf said. “I just…”

I just hated him, he wanted to say. I just needed the fight.

“I understand. It’s always tough when we lose a crew.”

The engineer nodded and walked away.

Wilf put the ladle down. The spam stared accusingly at him, a sordid and pointless pile of pink meat.

Serving time was over. Wilf closed the shutters. He picked up a bowl, and was about to fill it with stew, but then the other plate caught his eye. He picked it up and reached for a fork.

“Spam today,” he muttered to himself.

***

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.

Uncle Grigori’s Alien Toe – a science fiction short story

Photo of starkly lit jungle.
Image by lisa runnels from Pixabay

“Urgh, enough of this crap.” Vlada pushed her plate across the table. “Am I the only one craving meat?”

Jayden, the exploratory team’s token American, gave a rueful chuckle.

“I know what you mean. I’d kill for a burger right now.”

“Not burger. Proper meat. A steak. Some chops. Not endless leaves and vat-grown proteins.”

“You both knew what you were getting yourselves into,” Tatiana said with the calm, reasonable tone that had earned her position as commander. “This is a research mission, not a colonial one. Two years of running tests and only eating what we can grow in the habs. Everything else has to wait until they send settlers from Earth.”

“We know there are animals out there.” Vlada pointed through the window to the alien jungle surrounding their outpost. “And thanks to our tests, we know that their proteins are compatible. Why not eat one?”

“Rules are rules.” Tatiana put her plate in the sink. “You two finish your dinner, then get out there and set the new sensors. I’m heading back into the lab.”

Once she was gone, Vlada set her fork down and looked at Jayden with the intensity she normally saved for games nights.

“You know how to shoot, right?” she said.

“Just because I’m American doesn’t mean—”

“It’s not an insult. I shoot too. The point is, we’ve got guns in the equipment locker, just in case. Getting a proper look at one of those creatures would have scientific value, and if we get to eat the meat afterwards, well…”

“That’s just a bonus.” Jayden grinned. “I like it.”

“Even though the commander won’t?”

“I’m American. We like to play the rebel once in a while.”

*

The body lay amid the large, purple leaves that covered the forest floor. One limb was stretched out past its head, as if grasping for something just out of reach. Blood ran, thick and dark, from the hole in its chest.

“I knew they were bipedal,” Jayden said. “I just hadn’t expected it to look so…”

“Ape-like,” Vlada said firmly.

“Right. Ape.”

Jayden lifted one of the forelegs, with six long toes stretching out from its bald paw. One of those toes was opposable. Better to think of them as forelegs rather than arms, just like it was better to think of the creature, with its bare face and large empty eyes, as being ape-like instead of anything else. It didn’t help that he’d managed to shoot one of the smaller ones, six feet tall and without the scales that sometimes sprouted from their backs.

“Here,” Vlada said, offering Jayden a broad knife. “You killed it. You get to make the first cut.”

“Um…” Jayden ran his gaze over the carcass, trying to work out where the best meat would be. The problem was, the more he looked, the less he thought of it as a carcass and the more it seemed like a corpse.

“You do it,” Jayden said. “You’re more experienced than me.”

“Weak-ass Americans.” Vlada snorted and knelt down in the squeaky purple leaves. She tipped the creature’s head back, exposing the throat. “Those eyes, though.”

She rolled the head, so that they wouldn’t see its face. That only drew attention to the mass of brown hair, the sort of curls a model would have killed for.

“Down here,” Vlada said, moving here attention to the legs. “It will be just like ham.” She pressed the point of the blade against the thigh, then hesitated, staring at the creature’s bare feet. “Look at that. It has a callous on its toe, just like my Uncle Grigori.”

Above their heads, trees swayed. In the distance, a winged creature sang as it soared above the trees.

“You can’t do it, can you?” Jayden asked.

“Of course I can.”

“Go on then.”

“You go on. You killed it.”

“And now that thought makes me sick.”

They both sat back, the knife abandoned, staring at the poor, limp body.

Jayden ran a hand over his face. “Now what do we do?”

*

Tatiana was waiting when they emerged from the airlock into the hab, their shoulders slumped and their gazes downcast. She looked pointedly at the guns and the knife hanging from Vlada’s belt.

“I hope you idiots at least took measurements before you butchered it.”

Vlada tossed her a sensor box full of photos and biological readouts.

“No butchery,” she said. “We buried the corpse.”

“You what?”

“We buried it,” Jayden said. “Had a prayer and put up a cross and everything.”

“You really are idiots,” Tatiana said, then laughed. “And here I was, all ready for a steak.”

***

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.

War is Hell – a fantasy short story

Image from Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R05148 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de

The world was an overwhelming roar, a noise so vast and deafening that Hans Feist shook all the way to his bones. The ground beneath him lurched; the air stank of smoke and blood; everywhere he looked, when he dared to peer from his tiny shelter in the trench wall, he saw earth and sky combine as fountains of dirt spewed from craters gouged out of the hellscape that had been the Somme.

So this was war. Not grand charges, noble duels, or banners flying over a victory parade, but being shelled to death, hungry and haunted, his trousers soaked with mud and piss. He clutched the tiny wooden crucifix his mother had given him and prayed for salvation.

He didn’t even know who was still alive. His brain was so shaken that he couldn’t remember the names of men he had arrived with, never mind the replacements who had come since. He couldn’t remember how long he had been here, just that it was too long.

An officer walked down the trench toward Hans. The man must be insane, to walk so openly through this storm of shells. Hans clenched with dread as he anticipated the moment when that pristine uniform and waxed moustache would be reduced to a cloud of blood. But the man kept coming, somehow untouched, and a worse fear gripped Hans. Was the officer going to order him up to his post, ready to defend the line?

The officer crouched in the mud, which barely touched his polished riding boots, and peered into Han’s tiny shelter.

“Didn’t make it into the tunnels, eh?” the officer said.

Hans shook his head. He probably should have tried. He would have been safer down there than in this muddy hole, but he couldn’t face the moments of exposure it would take to reach the steps. Fear was more powerful than reason.

“I can get you out of here,” the officer said. “For a price.”

Hans had heard about officers like this, ones who would offer a transfer to somewhere safer in return for sating their own needs. He wanted to think that there were lines he wouldn’t cross, but this shaking world made that untrue.

“What do you want?” he asked.

There was an explosion behind the officer. It should have torn him apart, but instead he was framed by the blast, silhouetted against the pale burst of smoke and debris. In that moment, spikes of windblown hair became horns and fire flickered from him.

“Your soul,” he said.

Hans squeezed the crucifix so hard that his hand ached. Now that he saw what the officer was, he could not unsee it. The pointed teeth, the snake-like eyes. The man drew a cigarette, lit it with fire from the tip of his finger, and offered the packet to Hans.

“Well?” the officer said.

Hans screwed his eyes tight shut. He should be better than this. His soul was at stake, something infinitely more valuable than this weak and trembling body. But he had lived in mud and blood and the roar of the guns for so long that he couldn’t remember what it felt like not to be afraid.

He opened his eyes. “Yes.”

As he took the officer’s hand, a sense of peace came over Hans. Was this part of the deal, or was it the certainty that came with knowing that, whatever happened from now on, his future had been decided?

The officer pulled Hans to his feet, then led him away, walking through the maze of twisting trenches. They didn’t see another soul, but the shells kept shaking the ground, filling the air with noise and debris. With each step, Hans left a little of his fear behind, shedding a weight that had held him down for so very long. He strode purposefully through the mud, toward a light beyond the clouds of smoke.

He was almost free.

The officer turned to look at Hans and mouthed a single word: “Now.”

There was a crash and a force like a hundred hammer blows flung Hans off his feet, slamming him into the trench wall. He slumped to the ground, half his body blazing with pain. With one working eye, he stared down at the blood and guts sliding from his torn tunic. All the fear flooded back, redoubled by his inner scream of pain.

The officer stood over him and chuckled.

“You said you’d save me,” Hans said. “We had a deal.”

“And I fulfilled it, many years ago.” The officer crouched to look Hans in the eye, and his smile was terrible to see. “Now we are into the payment, and we both know what your idea of Hell would be.”

Through the pain and the fear and the death of hope, Hans felt himself slip toward darkness. Tears ran down his cheeks.

“Why?” he whimpered.

“Because I can.”

The world faded away…

Hans Feist woke to an overwhelming roar, a noise so vast and deafening that it shook him to his bones. He didn’t know who was still alive, couldn’t remember how long he had been here, but he knew that it was too long.

***

This isn’t the only war story I have out this week. Horror of Hurtgen, my latest issue of Commando, is out on Comixology, in newsagents, and as part of a bundle through DC Thomson’s online store. Set in the late stages of World War Two, it follows an American soldier caught up in the horrifying fighting in the Hurtgen Forest. Fighting through a fever to prove himself, he finds himself facing real monsters alongside the Nazis. Are his visions real, and what will they mean when his squad finally reaches the enemy lines?

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.

Growing Gears – a steampunk short story

Alf pressed the trunk of a felled tree against the spinning saw blade. For a few seconds, the air filled with a grinding noise and the extra squeal of the steam engine straining to do its work, then a slice of the tree fell into the sawdust. It was less than an inch thick, made of solid, hard-wearing wood, and like the trunk itself, it was in the shape of a perfect cog wheel.

Alf kept going, slicing the trunk up until it was just a pile of gears. Then he disengaged the steam drive, pushed up his goggles, and gathered up  what he had produced.

A man in a top hat was standing beside Alf’s old wagon. He held out his hand.

“Are you the man who grows gearwheels?”

“That’s right.” Alf shook the hand. “Alf Cartwright.”

“I’m Nathaniel Black, of Black Industries.”

“And what brings a big man like you down to my little patch of land, Mr. Black?”

“I’ve been hearing good things about your gears. I thought I should learn more.”

People had warned Alf that this would happen, that the rich gents from the cog-making companies would come and try to steal his secrets. He hadn’t expected them to be so brazen about it.

“All it takes is the right tree and the right frame to shape it,” Alf said. And the right fertiliser, the right elevation, the right program of pruning, feeding, and watering, but he wasn’t even going to give a clue to those.

Black laughed. “I understand your caution. Tell me, are your wooden gears cheaper to produce than my brass ones?”

“Not yet, but they will be, and I don’t produce as much slag and smoke in the process.”

“Yes, I hear that people care about that these days.”

Black picked up one of the gears from beside the saw and held it up between thumb and forefinger.

“This is very good. I assume you can grow more than one size and design?”

“I can.” You didn’t just tell a rich man like Black to go away, but Alf was damned if he’d make him at home. “Let me guess, you’ve come to shut me down. You’ll threaten me with legal action or financial ruin or just comment on how flammable this place is.”

Black laughed. “Oh no, Mr. Cartwright. Far from it. I want to buy you out.”

“Pardon?” Alf stuck a finger in his ear and wiggled it around. “Think I misheard you there.”

“These wooden cogs hold great promise for the future. I want to buy you out, right here, right now. You sign this contract…” He held up a piece of paper. “…I give you this banker’s draft…” He held up another piece of paper. “…and your business becomes mine.”

Alf took the banker’s draft and peered at the figure on it. His fingers trembled.

“With that, you could retire to anywhere in the world,” Black said. “You can spend your time doing whatever makes you happy. No need to work any more. What do you say?”

Alf took the contract and read through it, slowly, carefully, pausing over the meaning of every word. If he signed it, he would walk away now with nothing. Not his tools, not his frames, not his saplings, not even the wagon. In return, he would be richer than his wildest dreams.

“What’s the catch?” he asked.

“No catch, just what it says in there, that you won’t make these things any more. My company doesn’t want the competition.”

“What if I say no or ask for more?”

“Then I might start to observe how flammable this place is.” Black still smiled, like it was a joke, but there was steel in his eyes.

Alf didn’t like to be pushed around, but he knew when he was weaker, and he knew a good thing when he saw it too. He could get into a fight with people more powerful than him, or he could walk away a rich man, knowing that his legacy would leave the world a better place. He pulled out a pen from the pocket of his apron, tested the nib, signed the contract, and pocketed the cheque.

“Well, well, well,” Black said. “I expected more of a struggle.”

Alf shrugged. “I’m going somewhere tropical. Enjoy the gears.”

He headed for the gate. As he went, Black whistled, and workmen came streaming in. They had saws and axes.

“What’s all this?” Alf asked, turning to glare at Black.

“As I said, these wooden cogs have promise for the future. But my company is heavily invested in metal cogs. I can’t have this promise undermining our decades of investment.”

Someone smashed open the steam engine that powered the saw. Hot coals fell out, igniting nearby sawdust.

“You can’t do this!” Alf said.

“I can. I own it now.” Black held up the contract. “Good day.”

With a heavy heart, Alf walked away from the destruction of everything he had built. His shoulders sagged and he thrust his hands into his pockets. One hand closed around the check, a crumpled sign of how he had betrayed his own creation, with its cleaner way of working. His other hand closed around half a dozen seeds he had forgotten.

He could afford to retire anywhere in the world, do anything he wanted with his time. He was willing to bet that, if he travelled far enough, there would be places where Black’s contract and the laws around it meant nothing. Some of those places would have fine, warm climates, even better for growing his trees.

***

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.