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.

The Colour of the Trees in the Park – a sci-fi short story

Image by Albrecht Fietz from Pixabay

Tom was adjusting the leaves on old oaks when he noticed a gradation in their colour, an orange in the recesses that hinted at autumn rising through the last lush days of summer. Curious, he took off his glasses and his overlay disappeared, revealing the meatworld leaf. For a moment he wondered if the orange had crept through his holographic filters, riding on the back of the street signs, road markings, and emergency vehicles that had to be allowed unfiltered through ampglass, but the real leaf was a dull and disappointing green, with none of that rich, warm glow.

He put his glasses back on and his private world returned. The colour must be a glitch, but it wasn’t a bad one. Instead of over-riding it, maybe he should adopt it for all the trees, for a few weeks at least. It would add richness to his daily walk, the sort of richness that created his moments of happiness between days in the office and evenings home alone.

He walked to the next tree and took a leaf in his hand, thinking about how to give it that orange layer. His eyes widened as he saw that the orange was already there. He took off the glasses, rubbed his eyes, put the glasses back on again, but nothing changed. The orange wasn’t just a glitch in one tree. Nausea lay heavy in his stomach as he realised that someone had hacked his world.

Blinking, Tom glanced around. Other people were out in the park, walking their dogs, riding their bikes, chatting as they strolled around, people Tom didn’t know and had never cared about before. How could he possibly tell which of them had broken into his private space? Was the culprit even there? He clutched his stomach, his hand trembling at the thought of the violation.

Then he saw her, a woman in jeans and a superhero hoodie, frowning up at a tree he had turned silver the previous day. In his eyes, reflected light dappled her skin as she reached for a leaf, her face made all the more luminous by curiosity. Surely she wasn’t seeing what he did?

Tom approached with tense, jerky steps.

“What do you see?” he asked.

“That’s a very personal question.” The woman looked around, an eyebrow raised. “Who are you and why are you asking?”

“I just…” He licked his lips. “I’m curious.”

“Hm.” She stared at him suspiciously. “I see silver.”

“I knew it!” The words stabbed at her accusingly. “What are you doing in my overlay?”

“Your overlay? What are you doing turning my tree silver?”

“You put orange in mine!”

“The leaves needed more orange. It brings out the green.”

“Then bring out the green in your own overlay!”

A group of cyclists stopped to stare at them. Tom hunched his shoulders and leaned away from her, lowering his voice to a normal level.

“I mean, please stop changing my space.”

It wasn’t that he disliked the orange, it was the principle of the thing, the sick feeling at losing control over the world that was his, the one thing he could make perfect.

“This is my space,” the woman said sharply. “You’re the one trespassing.”

“I am not.” He whipped off his glasses and brought up his holographic frequency on one lens. He pointed from that to the identical number printed on the arm of the glasses. The woman leaned in, her long hair tickling his arm, then took off her own glasses and stared at the production number.

“Damn,” she whispered. “How did that happen?”

Each set of ampglass was meant to have a unique production code, a wavelength for the user’s holographic overlay. Though their glasses were in different styles, hers a cute yellow plastic, his a more traditional black, the digits on them were identical.

“Manufacturing mistake.” Tom’s mouth was dry. If there had been an error, then one of them would have to give up this wavelength, and it could be him as easily as her. He had spent months perfecting this park, and now he couldn’t bring himself to look at it.

“Just when I’d got the grass the way I like it,” the woman said, hanging her head.

“It’s really good grass.”

“And the sky’s a perfect blue.”

“I know. Why do so many people pick something brighter?”

“People are idiots.”

They laughed and he grinned at her sheepishly. She fitted in so well here in the park, beautiful yet relaxed, her laughter as lovely as the singing of the birds. She could almost have been something he created, except that he was seeing her without the benefits of ampglass. When was the last time he had spoken with anyone like this? He couldn’t even remember, and that thought made him unaccountably sad.

“I like the silver tree,” she said. “I’ll keep it if they let me keep this place. Might even copy it if they don’t.”

An idea uncurled inside Tom’s heart, like a leaf unfurling in the first thaw of spring.

“Maybe we could share, for a while at least. We seem to like the same sort of world.”

“Can we do that?” she asked, wide-eyed.

Tom shrugged and offered her a lop-sided smile. “Who’s going to stop us?”

The woman’s eyes lit up. She smiled and nodded at him, then held out a hand.

“I’m Amy. Let’s build a world together.”

***

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.

Emperor Sun’s Blessing – a fantasy short story

It was good that winter never came anymore, that the sun blazed down on the terraced fields while the streams dried to a trickle of mud. The priest, visiting from the great city in the north, made this clear to Eztli and the other villagers, while he waited for their annual tax of sweet potatoes and cocoa beans.

“Emperor Sun has saved us from the bitter cold,” the priest said, stroking his gold medallion. “His bright light ensures a bountiful harvest. We will thrive thanks to his blessing.”

As the priest led his laden pack llamas away, Eztli looked around the village where she had lived for most of her life. She saw the smiles of her friends and family, the freshly thatched roofs of their huts, the stacks of potatoes, maze, and beans filling the storehouse. Then she saw the dried up fields. Could one year’s blessing be another’s curse?

No winter meant no rising of the streams. It meant no spring rains. No elders died from the cold and no frosts threatened early crops, but green shoots withered in cracked and dusty fields. Instead of huddling in her home for warmth, Eztli tramped back and forth beneath the relentless sun, carrying skins full of water to keep her seedlings alive.

When the priest came again, he looked at their empty storehouses with disappointment, and muttered about the bountiful harvests of the lowland villages, about how the highlanders were clearly wasting Emperor Sun’s blessing. But there were no exceptions to taxes, even if it meant harvesting half-grown crops.

Eztli had travelled the Empire when she was young, and she had seen how others farmed.

“We could dig channels,” she said, once the priest and his llamas were gone. “Divert water from the river.”

Hunger had weakened the bodies of the villagers, but not their determination. With picks and spades, they gouged a straight line through the hard earth. At last, water flowed, the soil darkened, and stunted shoots reached for the sun once more. The villagers sang a song of praise for Eztli, and she smiled as she dreamed of the harvest to come.

But no winter meant no snow on the mountains and no melt water in the spring. The river level sank, and though the villagers dug their channel deeper, it was never deep enough to keep the water flowing. By the time the priest returned, the fields were parched once more.

The villagers’ ribs showed through their skin as they loaded their taxes onto the llamas’ backs. Some muttered about not paying, but the priest had brought guards, men and women wearing feathers and carrying clubs edged with sharp stone. Words of resistance died beneath their merciless gaze.

Eztli had travelled the Empire when she was young, and she had seen what others did to earn the blessings of Emperor Sun.

“We could draw lots,” she said, “and offer one of us as a sacrifice. Then maybe Emperor Sun will bless us with rain.”

No one looked each other in the eye as they drew pebbles from a jar. It was one thing to offer a sacrifice to ward off starvation, another to face the stomach-lurching reality of sending a lifelong neighbour to die. When a young man drew the black stone, his whole body seemed to slump, but he followed the priest and the soldiers away, while Eztli and the villagers wept for sorrow and for gratitude.

Still no winter came. Still the river ran dry. Still crops faltered and bellies ached. Still the time approached for the priest’s return.

The villagers stood before the storehouse, staring at its emptiness with dry and bloodshot eyes.

“We must tell the priest that we cannot pay,” someone said.

Eztli had travelled the Empire when she was young, and she had seen what happened to those who did not pay their taxes. The memory of their blood on the temple steps was like a knife slicing through her heart.

She looked around the village, at the square where she had played as a child, the house her father had built for her when she came of age, the fields she had tended and the channels she had dug, all with these same people, her family and friends. She remembered all their work to preserve this place, and the life they had given on the whim of a single black stone. She was too sad to cry, so instead she spoke.

“I travelled the Empire when I was young,” she said. “I saw the jungle beyond its edge, where many fruits grow wild and wide leaves provide shelter from the sun. Come there with me.”

“What if the jungle is dying too?” someone asked.

Eztli shrugged. “Then we will know just how great Emperor Sun’s blessing is.”

***

This story is set in the same world as my new novella, Silver and Gold, which is out this week…

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.