• Tag Archives #FlashFriday
  • You Cannot Own the Land – a flash fantasy story

    When the men in the blue coats claimed that the land was theirs, we laughed at them.

    “You cannot own the land,” I told them. “It’s not a drum or a club, something that you can pick up and trade, something whose spirit you can control. It’s just the land.”

    But the blue coats had swords so sharp they could cut the wind, guns that roared like thunder, and floating fortresses from which to bombard our villages. So in the end, we let them have their foolishness. They would call the land theirs but we would still live on it, and that was what mattered.

    They called the chiefs to a great signing ceremony. I had given birth to my second daughter only weeks before, but they became angry when I said I would not go. So I donned my stone bark armour and my feathered crown, took up my war club and my charm bag, and went to meet them.

    I stood with the rest of the chiefs, surrounded by blue coat soldiers. Their chief, with his golden shoulder strings and his pointed headdress, oversaw it all. Another man used a metal stick to draw a map on a great sheet of hide, marking out the shape of the coast and the limits of the land the blue coats called theirs.

    As his blood-red ink touched the page, I felt something change around me. The flow of life through the earth stopped, power building up like water behind a dam.

    “It’s real,” I said, staring in shock as he kept drawing his lines and the power kept backing up. “They own the land.”

    Ofabilla of the Long Fall village sank to his knees, pale and shaking.

    “What have they done?” he hissed.

    I opened my bag of charms, drew out a death tree gourd wrapped in red ribbon, and squeezed it tight. As the spikes pierced my skin and blood dripped into the dirt, I opened the way for the power of the land to flow through me.

    Nothing came.

    I squeezed harder, letting the pain open a path.

    Still nothing.

    I closed my eyes and took hold of my war club. Its power at least would be mine still. I reached out with my heart, down my arm, through my hand, and into the wood, calling the power forth.

    Nothing.

    The blue coats’ map had laid claim to all this land. Its power was theirs.

    I opened my eyes. The map maker was trembling with the strain of his work as he moved towards the end. Another blue coat dabbed the sweat from his forehead so that it would not fall and mar the map.

    I could not let this stand. They had guns and swords and floating fortresses. They would not have our spirits too.

    In my heart, I said goodbye to my daughters, knowing what I took from them in trying to save their world. Then I dropped my club, leapt forward, and snatched the map from the blue coat’s hands.

    They stared at me in shock, every one of them.

    “What are you doing?” their chieftain exclaimed. “Put that down at once, you mad woman!”

    I had no words to waste on him. I simply took hold of the map with both hands and pulled at it with all my strength.

    “No!” the map maker shrieked as his creation began to tear.

    The ground trembled. Trees fell. Men and women were thrown about. I felt the power they had constrained rush through me in a glorious, golden surge.

    Guns roared and I knew that my time had come. I would not see my daughters grow, but at least they would hear of me with pride.

    Death did not come. Instead, the bullets were flung back against those who fired them. The power of the land poured forth, flinging these invaders through the air, leaving them broken like straw dolls at the end of harvest night.

    “You cannot own the land,” I said, picking up their chieftain by the throat. His skin shrivelled as his power was sucked away on the great tide coursing through me. “But perhaps it can own you.”

    * * *

    Maps have power. Look at how we treat borders and the people who live across them. I liked the idea of treating that power as something magical, and this is the result.

    If you enjoyed this story then you might want to sign up for my mailing list. You’ll get free flash fiction straight to your inbox every week, as well as updates on my other releases.


  • The Doctor Will See You Now – a flash scifi story

    The shutters were down across the door of the clinic and however hard I tried my key wouldn’t open the padlock. It was too early in the morning to call anyone else in, but not too early for patients to need a doctor. Fortunately, I had bolt cutters amid the jumble of tools in the boot of my car. We could buy a new padlock. Not everybody could buy time.

    Inside, I was greeted by a waft of trance music and the smell of lemons. Someone had left a computer on overnight, pumping out sounds, smells, and a light show that brightened the peeling paint of the ceiling. I switched it off, opened up an examination room, and waited for patients to arrive.

    It didn’t take long. First was a woman in overalls and steel-toed boots, her face pale.

    “Think I’ve got the flu, doc,” she croaked, pausing to blow her nose. “Need signing off work.”

    “Are you feeling any aches or fever?” I asked.

    She nodded.

    “When did it start?”

    “This morning.”

    “This seems pretty advanced for such a short time.” I peered at her pupils. Sure enough, there was a telltale wideness to them. “Did you know that there are sickness simulators on the web, sites that will bring on symptoms without giving you the illness?”

    She looked away. “Why would someone make that?”

    “Why indeed.”

    “You know, maybe it’s just a cold. I’ll get some medicine, see if I can cope with work.”

    “You do that,” I said.

    Four more patients came in before the receptionist arrived. Two of them had simulated symptoms – one on purpose, the other thanks to malware. They both got the same instructions – turn off the internet for three hours, then come back if they were still sick.

    I wouldn’t be seeing them again.

    “You’re not Dr Rowe,” the receptionist said as she peered in at me.

    “Dr Rowe couldn’t make it,” I said, stifling a yawn. I hadn’t been getting much sleep lately, hadn’t planned on being here today. It was going to be a long shift.

    “Waiting room’s almost full.”

    I nodded. “I’m trying, but you know how it is. Too many sick people, not enough doctors.”

    “Hm.” She gave me a quizzical look, then headed out of the room. I could hear her starting a phone call as the next patient came in.

    “I think I’ve for the flu,” the man said.

    We went through the motions, but I could already tell that it was another simulation. He was too lively for a man on the edge of collapse.

    I was just about to send him away with his no-internet prescription when something caught my eye – a scratch on his forearm, swollen and red.

    “Did you get that recently?” I asked.

    “Couple of days ago.”

    I peered at it more closely. Clearly infected. This guy was probably running a real fever beneath the fake one and I’d almost sent him away without treatment. What sort of doctor was I?

    “You’ll need a tetanus booster,” I said. “And something to fight the infection.”

    I opened a cupboard and realised that I had no idea where anything was. This was the first patient who’d needed more than painkillers or my signature on a renewed prescription. I hadn’t had to find anything else.

    Everything was so unfamiliar. Had I not worked here before? I thought I had, but clinics all looked alike after a while.

    I found a drawer of bottles and started looking at them, trying to find one with the right label.

    What was the right label again? What would deal with this sort of infection? The tiredness was making it hard to think straight.

    “Are you alright, doc?” the patient asked.

    “Fine,” I said. “Just give me a minute.”

    I flung open cupboards and drawers, waiting for anything to jog my memory. Doors banged open as I became more frantic.

    There was a knocking and the door to the room opened. A man stood in the hallway, a stethoscope around his neck.

    “Yes?” I snapped.

    “I’m Dr Rowe,” he said. “I’m on duty here this morning. Who are you?”

    “I’m doctor… doctor…” Somehow it didn’t seem right, putting my name after that word. It didn’t quite fit.

    The patient looked nervously between us.

    “What’s going on?” he asked.

    “Could you just give us a minute?” Dr Rowe said.

    The man hurried out and Rowe shut the door behind him.

    “I presume you read The Lancet?” he said.

    “Of course,” I replied.

    “Did you see the article last month about computer-simulated illnesses?”

    “Must have missed it.”

    “Apparently they can simulate symptoms of mental as well as physical illness now. Hyperactivity, depression, even delusions.”

    “Shocking,” I said. Somewhere in the back of my head, a thought was screaming for attention, but I couldn’t make it out.

    “You look tired,” Rowe said. “Let’s get you away from computers for a bit, see how you feel in a few hours.”

    * * *

     

    If you enjoyed this story, you might also like my science fiction collection, Lies We Will Tell Ourselves. And if you want even more, you can sign up to my mailing list to get free fiction straight to your inbox every Friday.


  • A Lungful of Smog – a flash steampunk story

    Sir Thomas strode through the smog, his mask clamped to his face, rubber seal tight against skin. A Smith and Wilkins Model Three Aerator, it was the height of technology. A small steam engine in a satchel at his side kept the air flowing, constant and clean, as he made his way around the city. No need to walk in one of the transit boxes, sharing the breath of a score of the great unwashed, or to share a motor cab with one of the city’s other peers. He travelled alone, as a man should.

    As he crossed Oldrail Bridge, he caught a whiff of chemical smoke. The smog must be particularly thick today if it was getting through the mask.

    Up Redgate and along Pennypurse Lane he went, while one of those ghastly transit boxes rattled past in the other direction. The smell was getting stronger, like someone had set fire to a sewage plant and was marching him towards it. He swallowed back a wave of nausea and paused for a moment to catch his breath.

    What in all eight hells was wrong with his mask?

    Sir Thomas ran his fingers along his forehead, down the sides of his face, and around the underside of his chin, feeling for a gap between his face and the mask, some place he hadn’t fitted it right. Nothing. Apparently the air was simply so awful that even the worst mask wouldn’t help.

    He started walking again, but still the smell grew worse. He could taste it on his tongue, something vile and tingling. He swung the satchel around from under his arm and flipped the flap open to check the filters.

    A trickle of oily black smoke ran from the motor out into the thin, sickly brown of the smog.

    Panic made Sir Thomas’s heart jump, followed a moment later by anger. He had been promised the best in personal perambulatory equipment and instead he had this. Someone would pay for this with their job, if not their hide.

    A transit box ground to a halt next to him, its overhead wires creaking. A hatch opened and the driver thrust his head out.

    “You need a ride, sir?” he asked.

    “Certainly not!” Sir Thomas snapped. “Do I look like a man who would ride in your ghastly machine?”

    “Suit yourself.” The hatch snapped shut and the box drove on.

    By now, the smoke from the motor was visible behind the glass of his mask. A flame darted from the corner of the satchel.

    “Gah!” Sir Thomas ripped the mask from his face and flung the whole device in the gutter. Something popped. More flames sprang from the side.

    “I’ll sue the bastards,” he growled, glaring at the mask, its glass plate cracked where it had hit the cobbles.

    But he couldn’t stay here, brooding on others’ failings – he had business to be about. With a furious snort, he set off along the road again.

    The smell of the burning device might be gone, but now he faced something just as bad. The smog swirled around him, thick and acrid, filling his lungs with every breath. His eyes watered and his nose ran. The back of his throat tickled, then scratched, then burned. He clutched a handkerchief to his mouth but it did no good. There was no escaping filth when that filth was in the very air.

    Only another half mile, he told himself. Keep going. You’ll be there soon enough.

    A coughing fit took hold of him and he doubled over, bitter phlegm spraying from his mouth. The coughing went on and on until his head spun and his legs were week. Even when he finally got his breath back, his knees felt like jelly.

    He took one step, then a second, and a third, grabbing hold of a lamppost just before he collapsed.

    It was all so unfair. He had paid for the best, he should get the best. Otherwise he was just…

    Was just like…

    Was…

    He jerked his head up, coughed again, caught a lungful of smog that almost made him puke.

    Someone had hold of his arm.

    “Here, quick,” they said. “Get him in before we have to breath any more of this shit.”

    He was aware of being dragged and then lifted, of settling onto a hard seat, of the world moving around him. Gradually, he came back to his senses.

    He was in one of those awful boxes. Beside him, a little old lady was holding out a cup of water.

    “Here, love,” she said. “You’ll want to clear your mouth out after that.”

    “Thank you,” he croaked, accepting the drink.

    The box was crammed with people. Across from him, fleas were dancing on the back of a mangy dog. The whole place smelled of sweat and cheap gin.

    “It’s not good to go out on your own,” the old lady said. “Better the box, where there’s someone to catch you if you fall.”

    Sir Thomas nodded. Maybe she was right.

    Or maybe he just needed a better mask. They said that Smith and Wilkins were working on a Model Four.

    * * *

     

    My latest steampunk book, The Epiphany Club, is out tomorrow! Collecting all five novellas of that name, it’s a great way to get the whole series cheaply or to buy it in print for the first time. Click here to buy the e-book from your preferred store or the print version from Amazon.


  • The Dirt Beneath Messines – a flash historical story

    I woke with a start, sitting bolt upright on my lumpy, flea-ridden mattress. My head hit the bunk above me and I stifled a curse. In the surrounding darkness, the men of my company filling our dugout with the rumbling chorus of their snores.

    I’d had the nightmare again. The one where the British stormed our trenches and I was taken captive. Mocked, beaten, scorned, an embarrassment to my family. Girls I had known back home pointing and laughing at me through the bars of a cage.

    I swung my legs around to sit, hunched, on the side of my bed and laid a hand on my rifle. If the British came then I would not let them capture me, no matter what. Death before dishonour.

    A stub of candle was stuck to a tin lid by my bed. I struck a match, lit the wick, and reached for my boots. If I couldn’t sleep then I might as well go up to the trenches and help keep watch.

    Before I could get my boots on, the roar of an explosion filled the air, shaking the room. The sound of it drove the breath from my lungs. At the far end of the dugout, roof beams gave way and the earth fell in, burying men in their beds.

    As the room kept shaking, men tumbled out of their beds, looking around in alarm. We were meant to be too deep for any shell to penetrate. We were meant to be safe.

    Timbers groaned, creaked, cracked like God snapping his fingers. Dirt tumbled down the stairwell and into the room.

    I rushed barefoot across the rough floor and peered up the stairs. They were filled with fallen soil and broken timbers.

    Hans appeared beside me, dressed in only his underwear, a wild look on his face.

    “We have to get out,” he said. “Before we’re trapped here forever.”

    Some men came to us, while others dug frantically to rescue the buried men.

    My skin crawled at a whole new imagined dread – the thought of being trapped not just in a cage but beneath the earth. My pulse quickened. Hans was right. We had to get out.

    I grabbed a trenching tool and scrambled up the stairwell, the dirt cold and damp between my toes, until I couldn’t ascend any further. Then I started digging, hurling rocks and soil down behind me, opening a gap just wide enough for me to wriggle forward and keep digging.

    Hans came up behind me and I could hear others behind him, shovelling the dirt back from one man to the next until it hit the floor of the dugout.

    The ground shook again and I heard something fall. Dirt cascaded across my arms, almost trapping them.

    “Faster!” someone yelled. “The whole place is going to collapse.”

    I tore at the heaped earth with my digging tool, flinging dirt into the faces of the men behind me. My knuckles scraped against fallen boards and rocks. Dirt filled the grazes. Pain flashed and my heart raced.

    My hands burst through a last layer of dirt and into air. I writhed out of the fallen earth and into a clear stretch of stairwell. Above me, I saw a rectangle of grey dawn sky.

    I laughed, turned, and started digging again, trying to make a way through for the others.

    There was a roar and I was flung from my feet. The walls came crashing down on top of me. I was swallowed into the darkness of the earth.

    I couldn’t breath. Not just couldn’t reach the air but couldn’t move my lungs. I strained, trying to force air down, got only a mouthful of dirt. Panic gripped me and I would have sobbed in pity for myself if only I could have made a sound.

    Desperately, I strained with my right arm, forcing fingers through the weight of dirt. They found the broken edge of a plank and I gripped it tight, trying to ignore the splinters piercing my palm as I heaved with all my strength. My body moved an inch, then another. I forced my other arm around, like swimming in slow motion, and took hold with that hand too.

    My head was spinning, my chest burning. Muscles trembled as I pulled on the plank, dragging myself higher.

    The dirt loosened. My chest heaved. I drew in air as well as dirt, but still it wasn’t enough. Muscles trembled as I tapped into the last of my strength.

    Writhing and twisting, I worked my way up through the ground until my arm burst out into the open air. Moments later, I slithered snake-like from what had seemed to be my tomb and lay panting on the ground.

    The world was filled with shouting, strange men using unfamiliar words. One appeared at the mouth of the stairwell, only a few feet away. He pointed his gun straight at me, a figure out of my nightmares, ready to drag me off into captivity.

    I laughed and flung my hands up.

    How sweet it was to breath again and to know that I might keep on breathing.

    Better dishonour than death.

    * * *

     

    Harriet’s War, a comic I wrote set in the First World War, is out next week, so it seemed like a good time to return to that era.

    I’ve written before about the attack on Messines Ridge, when the Allies triggered the largest non-nuclear explosion in military history. In To Win Just Once, I showed that action from the perspective of the New Zealand troops attacking the ridge. Ever since then I’ve been fascinated by the awful idea of what it would have been like to be on the other side, among the ten thousand Germans killed or buried alive in the explosion. This story is about that.

    If you enjoyed this story then you might want to sign up for my mailing list. You’ll get free flash fiction straight to your inbox every week, as well as updates on my other releases. And watch out next week for more about Harriet’s War.


  • On Butterfly Wings – a flash fantasy story

    None stood brighter in all the Court of Arcadia than Lady Elithia. None stronger. None more elegant. None wiser in the ways of war. The beasts of the forest, awed by her prowess, bore her banners before her when she entered the mortal realm. Butterflies darted between the warp and weft of reality just to bring her morsels of fruit.

    And so it was that a butterfly with gold and ebony wings landed before her on the council table laid down a grape.

    “You are a fine creature,” she said, running a finger down its back. “More beautiful than those that normally tend upon me. Has nature adapted to pay fitting tribute?”

    She split the grape in two, placed one part before the butterfly, and relished the taste of the rest on her tongue.

    “The Dark Court knew we were coming,” Lord Asahar said, standing tall in his umber robes as he glared down the table. “How do they keep doing this?”

    “There must be a spy,” The Frozen One turned their ice blue gaze upon Elithia. “Your mortal soldiers drink until their tongues loosen. My bones tell me that one of them let slip.”

    “Then your bones are as hollow as your head,” Elithia replied, still stroking the butterfly. “I am too wise to give our game away. My mortals learn our intent only when the time comes to charge. Your weather sprites, though, are fickle and wind-blown, easily swayed. Clearly one has turned traitor.”

    “My children would not dare!” Ice crackled across the table from The Frozen One’s fingers. Elithia laid her hand down to stop it before it reached the butterfly.

    “Your children run wild every winter. They cannot be trusted.”

    “How dare you, you pompous banshee.”

    “Cold-hearted cur.”

    “Pale pariah.”

    “Enough!” Asahar’s fist shook the table. “The weather sprites were locked away when the Dark Court countered our summer campaign. It must be another.”

    “One of your scribes?” Elithia asked.

    “Not this time.” Asahar shook his head. “I have… taken measures.”

    “A lord or lady turned traitor?”

    “Too much to lose.”

    “One of Elithia’s armourer lovers?” The Frozen One asked. “Perhaps you whisper secret somethings in their ears.”

    “Do not take me for such a fool.”

    “You give the impression of it well enough.”

    Elithia rose, the butterfly perched on one hand, her sword in the other.

    “I have time for more than one war,” she growled, as The Frozen One drew their ice-rimmed bow.

    “I said enough!” This time, the table buckled beneath Asahar’s fist. “Sit down, both of you. All our fates are at stake here.”

    Grudgingly, Elithia did as she was told. She sank her sword into its scabbard and cupped the butterfly in her palm, stroking its wings to sooth herself.

    “At least you understand me,” she whispered.

    It flicked its wings, about to take to the air, to return to its blander cousins in the mortal world.

    Elithia’s heart sank as realisation dawned.

    “Perhaps you understand me too well,” she said, fingers closing like a cage around the butterfly.

    It flapped and butted against her hand, desperate to escape, but her grip only tightened, squeezing until, with a flash of darkness, the creature transformed. Elithia was left clutching the arm of a dirty, jut-chinned boggart.

    “Ha!” The Frozen One pointed. “The spy was in your camp! I would never be so stupid.”

    “There is wisdom in learning from our mistakes,” Asahar said, and with a flick of his hands ropes appeared to bind the creature.

    “Then maybe Elithia really might wind up the wisest of us all,” The Frozen One said.

    Elithia picked up the leftover piece of grape, placed it in her mouth, and relished the flavour on her tongue. None stood stronger than her still, none more elegant. That would be enough.

    * * *

     

    As often happens, this story was inspired by something on Twitter – in this case, Emma Cunliffe’s photo of a butterfly in her office. What can I say, we writers are parasites who will feed off any spare thoughts you leave lying around.

    If you enjoyed this story, you might like to sign up to my mailing list, to get free fiction straight to your inbox every Friday.


  • Special Delivery – a flash science fiction story

    “You can’t do this!” I screamed at the phone screen. “We need those meds!”

    “I’m sorry, Ms. Mendoza, but we don’t deliver to your region any more.” The man from Aldercon kept his face neutral, but I could hear the disdain in his voice. It wasn’t the region that was the problem.

    “This is prejudice,” I said, lowering my tone to an angry growl. “You’re refusing to sell to spacers.”

    “It’s just business,” he said. “The electric storms around the mountains have worsened, so our drones can’t get through. If you lived somewhere else then-”

    “We can’t afford to live somewhere else!”

    “Then Aldercon can’t deliver to you.”

    “Please. No-one else makes these meds.”

    “Rightly so. The governor gave us the exclusive contract.”

    I took a deep breath.

    “I read the contract. It says that you have to deliver everywhere in the colony.”

    “Everywhere we safely can. And that does not include storm-struck mountains. Good day, Ms. Mendoza.”

    The screen went blank. For a long time I just sat staring at it. Finally, I found the will to force myself up from my chair, out of my room, and down the clear plastic tunnel to the communal dining hall. Through the walls, I could see dust swirling and lightning flashing as the storms bounced ceaselessly between the mountains. Maybe one day we would understand what caused them, but only if we lived long enough to finish the work.

    With every step, I felt an ache deep in the muscles of my legs. That pain was reflected in the faces of my neighbours as I joined them in the hall. After generations living in space, our people’s bodies weren’t used to being planetside. But our old home was gone and this colony was our only hope.

    I didn’t have to speak. They could see from my face how the call had gone.

    “Sorry, Nita,” Jacko said, reaching out to squeeze my hand. “And thank you for trying.”

    In a corner of the room, a child started crying. Her mother joined in with a low, broken sob.

    “Fuck trying,” I said. “You’re a chemist, right? Could we make this stuff ourselves, with what we have out here?”

    “Maybe,” Jacko said, tilting his head to one side. “If we can find the right elements in the soil. But we’d have to be real lucky.”

    “Good enough,” I said. “Let’s get to work.”

    It took a month to get things set up. By then, several of the kids were bedridden, their bodies unable to cope. I’d taken to using a walking stick to make trips around the habitat bearable. But we had what we needed.

    I was careful about how I phrased the sales page. Nothing directly saying that we’d replicated Aldercon’s Groundease pills, just talk of medicine to make a spacer’s life on the ground bearable. I offered to sell it to people in the mountains at cost and to others at half the price of Groundease. The page said that sales would start in two weeks, once the first batch was ready.

    Within two hours, the call came through. It was the same Aldercon executive I’d argued with before.

    “You’re breaking the law,” he said. “Infringing upon our exclusive contract.”

    “I’m just trying to help people,” I said.

    “We’ve obtained a cease and desist order.” That was fast. But then, big companies usually had judges in their pockets.

    “I’m not doing anything illegal.”

    “Like hell you aren’t!”

    “I used to be a lawyer,” I said. “On this colony, a cease and desist order has to be delivered in a physical, printed form. So until I see that-”

    “You’ll see it alright.”

    “Packages can get lost so easily…”

    “Ha! Try pretending you don’t see the order when it’s delivered by a dozen drones, all with cameras. And if you don’t follow it, we’ll sue you for whatever crap you space-head losers-”

    I killed the call. The blank screen that followed was the most satisfying thing I’d ever seen.

    When I called him back the next day, he looked as smug as only a corporate executive could.

    “I got your cease and desist orders,” I said. “All dozen of them, ordering us to stop making your drugs.”

    “And?”

    “And we can’t stop because we’ve never made them. Do you know how lucky we’d have had to be to find the ingredients?”
    I heard knocking on a door. He looked up, irritated, towards someone beyond the camera.

    “Who the hell are you?” he snapped.

    “Probably an officer of the court,” I said. “Come to collect footage from a dozen drones, all proving that you can safely deliver through the electric storms.”

    To his credit, he held back whatever insult he wanted to throw at me. He forced a smile and I smiled smugly back at him.

    “The contract,” he said. “Of course. No need to go to court, Ms. Mendoza. Let me arrange a delivery for you now.”

    * * *

     

    This story was inspired by some interesting coverage of the intersection between commerce and politics – see this article on Amazon deliveries and this Twitter thread. I’m sure there’s something deeper to be written on the subject, but I only had a thousand words, so deeper can wait.

    If you enjoyed this story, you might like to sign up to my mailing list, to get free fiction straight to your inbox every Friday.


  • Fireworks and Foolishness – a flash steampunk story

    The smell of fallen leaves and bonfires filled Dirk Dynamo’s senses, as close to fresh country air as London ever got. Somewhere in the distance, the first fireworks were going off, but here in the heart of the city the crowds were just getting warmed off.

    He headed off the main thoroughfare and up a well-appointed residential street. Outside Sir Timothy Blaze-Simms’s apartment, something was looming, its bulky body, heavy wheels, and strange projections casting a monstrous shadow in the gaslight.

    “You’re here!” Blaze-Simms appeared, his top hat askew and a wrench in his hand. “Just in time to see my latest creation.”

    “What is it?” Dirk asked, peering dubiously up at rows of brass tubes.

    “An automated firework launcher, programmed using a miniature Babbage engine.”

    “Why the wheels?”

    “So that it can drive past crowds. This way, everyone can have a good view.”

    “Nice thought. Did you have to get a licence?”

    “A licence?”

    “For a truck full of explosives near Parliament.”

    “It’ll be fine.” Blaze-Simms pulled a lever. Steam burst forth and wheels began to turn. “What could possibly go wrong?”

    After years of working with Blaze-Simms, Dirk couldn’t pick a single answer. There were just too many options.

    With a whoosh, the first firework shot skyward, exploding in a dazzling burst of white light. A red one followed, then a blue, then a stream of smaller yellow rockets as the machine accelerated down the street.

    “It’s not meant to go that fast,” Blaze-Simms said. “Maybe we should stop it.”

    He looked expectantly at Dirk, who raised an eyebrow.

    “You can clean up your own mess this time.”

    “But I…”

    “Your machine, your mess.”

    “I suppose so.”

    Blaze-Simms dashed after the machine. It had reached the end of the street and headed out into the crowds. People jumped aside to avoid it, laughing and screaming as Catherine wheels spun on its sides.

    Dirk strolled along behind, keeping the machine in sight. He saw the moment Blaze-Simms leapt onto its back and started prying a hatch open. He saw the burst of steam that blew the inventor’s hat off. He heard his friend cry out in pain and fall back into the crowd.

    “Dammit.” Dirk started running.

    The machine was veering through an increasingly panicked crowd. Dirk had hoped that Blaze-Simms could learn from this one, but he couldn’t let that happen at other people’s expense.

    The sky blazed with artificial stars as the machine rolled at ever-increasing speed through the city. It hit a lamppost, spun around, smashed into the side of a Hackney carriage, and continued its rampage towards Westminster Bridge.

    Some people saw the machine in time to leap clear. Others, distracted by its fireworks, were almost crushed as it bore down on them.

    Dirk caught up just as it thundered onto the bridge. He leapt onto its back, clinging to the towering mass of gunpowder and brass as it headed towards the lights of Parliament.

    With a crash, the machine hit a chestnut seller’s cart. Hot nuts and blazing coals flew in every direction, some of them falling down the pipes at the front of the machine.

    A renewed volley of fireworks sprang into the sky. So many launched at once that the machine shook, almost flinging Dirk off. His shoulder blazed with pain as he was hurled to one side and then the other, but he clung on with all of his strength.

    Hauling himself up, he peered through an open hatch into a mass of gears and pistons. Acting on instinct, he reached inside, ready to yank something out or jam something in, anything to bring it to a halt. But a blast of steam forced him to pull his hand back, skin red raw.

    The pain was intense. He had to cool the hand down before it got any worse, but first he had to stop this machine.

    Over the side of the bridge, he saw an answer to both his problems. The problem was, it meant diverting a machine ten times his own weight.

    Clinging on with his good hand, he flung himself one way and then the other, putting his whole weight into it. His shoulder went from an ache to a raw blazing pain as he became a human pendulum, each swing bigger than the one before.

    At last, the machine started to sway with him. It tipped up onto just two wheels on one side and then the other. As Dirk flung himself back and to the left, the machine started to turn.

    They were nearly at the end of the bridge now. A dozen alarmed-looking policemen were rushing to get between the machine and Parliament, but Dirk couldn’t see any way they could stop this. The heart of democracy was about to face the explosive fate Guy Fawkes had once planned, this time at the hands of a well-intentioned eccentric.

    He swung with all his remaining might. The machine lifted up on one wheel and pivoted around. It clanged back down at ninety degrees to its previous course, hit the side of the bridge with an almighty clang, and tumbled over, taking Dirk with it.

    As they plunged through the air, Dirk kicked off from the machine. There was a huge splash, then a smaller one as he hit the Thames. The water was filthy, but the cold on his hand came as a sweet relief.

    He surfaced to see a crowd looking down at him, pointing, gasping, and cheering. Beyond them, Parliament stood proud against the night sky, lit up by fireworks.

    Dirk turned onto his back and watched the fireworks as he drifted towards the bank. He had to admit, they were spectacular.

    On the bridge, a figure in a top hat stood awkwardly, waiting to face the consequences of his latest endeavour. Maybe this time he’d remember how these things could go wrong.

    Dirk wasn’t holding his breath.

    * * *

     

    For more of Dirk and Blaze-Simms’s adventures, check out The Epiphany Club, a story of action, adventure, and intrigue set against the dark underbelly of Victorian society, released on the 1st of December. And if you’d like more short stories like this one then you might want to sign up for my mailing list. You’ll get free flash fiction straight to your inbox every week, as well as updates on my other releases.


  • Gonzalo Marched Away – a flash historical story

    I was nine years old when the Spaniards were billeted on us. My father and both my brothers had died of a fever the previous winter and all that remained of our family was me, little Maaritje, and my mother. I helped mother around the farm, but Maaritje could barely walk, never mind plant beans or milk the goats. We had enough food to live off, but only just.

    The Spaniards arrived in uniform, carrying their muskets and their swords. Both were mud-spattered and wary-looking. The officer accompanying them knew some Dutch and my mother spoke a little Spanish from when she had lived near the docks in Amsterdam. It was enough for explanations.

    These two men – broad Barros and lean-faced Gonzalo – would be staying with us for the winter, until their company was gathered again. We had to provide them with beds, firewood, candles, and a roof above their heads. There was talk about the officer sending food or the money to pay for it, but even I could tell from his tone that it would never come. Within an hour, he had ridden off, leaving his men with us.

    Barros and Gonzalo took mother’s bed, leaving her to sleep on a pile of straw beside Maaritje’s cot. They took most of the food at meal times, though Gonzalo was more sparing, his eyes flitting uncomfortably across what Maaritje and I ate.

    We were hungry all the time. Maaritje wailed into the night despite mother’s soothings. My ribs showed more clearly than ever beneath my shirt.

    After a few weeks, mother began setting some of the food aside when she cooked. Barros and Gonzalo seldom left the house, so she had to do it furtively, sliding scraps of meat and crusts of bread into the folds of her apron. In the dead of night, while the soldiers slept, she fed me and Maaritje these secret feasts, and we were a little less hungry.

    Neither man knew any Dutch, but mother talked to them in Spanish, and as the weeks went by she was able to talk more. Barros started lurking around her while she cleaned and cooked, a hungry look in his eyes. Now she was hiding food within inches of him.

    It couldn’t last.

    I was out in the yard, my breath frosting as I fed the pigs, when I heard a shout from the house. I ran inside, slamming the door back against the wall in my haste.

    Barros and my mother were by the fire, where our dinner was cooking. He had hold of her arm. They were talking over each other in Spanish, but I couldn’t understand a word of it. Gonzalo sat on the edge of the bed, a knife and a stick in his hands. Maaritje sat sobbing in a corner.

    As I came in, Barros tugged at a pocket on my mother’s apron. The stitching gave way. Half an apple and a chunk of bread fell out.

    My mother froze. Barros pointed accusingly at the food. Then he slapped my mother.

    She staggered back, holding her face. Barros advanced on her, grabbed her by both arms, and pressed her up against the wall.

    I ran over and tried to pull Barros off my mother. He hit me with the back of his fist. Lights flashed across my eyes and I fell to the ground, the taste of blood in my mouth.

    Mother struggled harder, her voice rising in panic. Barros tore at her dress. Maaritje screamed.

    Gonzalo rose. He strode across the room in three steps. Barros turned to him with a wicked but welcoming grin.

    Then came a moment I could never have imagined, as Gonzalo punched Barros in the nose. There was a crunch, a spray of blood, and Barros fell. His head hit the wall with a sound like a hammer hitting wood. Then he slid to the ground and lay very still.

    For a long moment, we all stared at the body. Gonzalo seemed the most stunned of all, unable to comprehend what he’d just done.

    I remembered the officer who had brought these men. He was coming back when the army mustered. What would happen if he found this?

    I staggered to my feet, took hold of Barros’s boots, and dragged him towards the door. He was twice my size, but I was fuelled by a terrible determination. I had to protect my mother and Maaritje.

    After a moment, Gonzalo was with me, lifting his dead companion by the shoulders. Together, we carried him out into the biting winter wind.

    I led us towards the trees where we had buried father, Jan, and Lieven. But Gonzalo stopped and pointed at the pigs. He said something in Spanish, but all I could do was stare in confusion and fear. Didn’t he understand that we had to hide this body? Had the shock of killing his friend addled his mind?

    He pulled a knife from his belt and my terror deepened. I was sure that he was going to kill us all, and so cover his tracks.

    But it wasn’t me he cut.

    The pigs ate well that week. Afterwards, we took the broken bones and flung them in the river. Then we settled down to living through the winter, a little less hungry with only four mouths to feed.

    In the spring, the officer came. Whatever Gonzalo and mother told him about Barros, he didn’t seem surprised. He just rolled his eyes, muttered something, and set off down the road, his horse’s hooves clip-clopping on the dirt.

    Gonzalo laid his musket against his shoulder. With his spare hand, he held something out to Maaritje – a toy pig whittled from a lump of wood. She smiled in glee and he smiled back. Mother nodded her approval. I just felt sick.

    Then Gonzalo marched away.

    * * *

     

    Billeting soldiers on civilians was a feature of life in Europe for centuries. It seldom went well for the civilians. They were seldom compensated properly, if at all, for their losses. Many suffered cruelty and even murder at the hands of their enforced guests. In regions where the billeted forces were hostile to the locals, things could get very ugly.

    I wanted to show some of that in this story, but still find some ray of hope, some glimmer of justice amid it all. If this one seemed a little too dark, just remember, the truth was worse.

    If you enjoyed this story you might want to sign up for my mailing list. You’ll get free flash fiction straight to your inbox every week, as well as updates on my other releases.


  • Stone Doesn’t Bend – a flash fantasy story

    Hogar the Destroyer smiled a vicious, broken-toothed grin and twirled his war hammer. The weapon hit one of his goblins, spattering the creature across the dry dirt of the plains. Hogar didn’t care. He had thousands more where that one came from, trolls too, even ogres from their caves high in the Black Mountains. All marching to the beat of his war drums, heading for the walls of Tancaster.

    Hogar was a grand yet simple villain, with ambitions to match. All he wanted was to do wrong by the people of the river lands, and all that stood in his way were the free cities – Tancaster, Allerday, and Nell. True, their fortifications were vast and ancient, but Hogar had never met a wall he couldn’t smash.

    “Open fire!” he bellowed, waving his war hammer in the air.

    Along the ridge line, there came creaks and thuds as a score of catapults flung rocks through the air. One landed amid the horde advancing on the city, but most reached their mark, crashing against the walls.

    “Again!” Hogar roared.

    Soon this land would be his.

    *

    “It’s this stone, oh mighty one,” said the goblin prostrating herself at Hogar’s feet, her words almost lost in the dirt. “Our catapults can’t smash it.”

    “Why not?” Hogar growled, shoving her over with an armoured foot.

    “It bends at the impact,” she said, trembling as she stared up at him. “So it doesn’t break.”

    “Lies! Stone doesn’t bend!”

    “On my life, I swear it’s true!”

    Hogar sneered. A goblin’s life wasn’t worth much, but it was the only thing they valued.

    “Then use something else instead,” he said. “Advance the battering rams.”

    “But the enemy have hot oil and rocks. They’ll kill us before we even-”

    “I could kill you now.” Hogar bent over, his rancid breath washing across the goblin.

    “To the battering rams!” she cried, leaping to her feet and scurrying away.

    *

    “What do you mean, it isn’t working?” Hogar asked, turning the war hammer over in his hands, the shadow of its head shifting across the goblin’s back. “It’s a battering ram. You swing it and it hits things. What’s to not work?”

    “It’s this stone again,” the goblin said. “It’s some strange sort of sandstone. It bends beneath the blows but doesn’t break.”
    “STONE DOESN’T BEND!” Hogar roared.

    All around, the sounds of war fell silent. Archers hesitated, their bows half drawn. Catapults stood still. Assault parties stopped sharpening their weapons and looked at their master.

    “Of course, you’re right, oh magnificent one,” the goblin said. “But this stone, it’s wrong.”

    “Enough excuses.” Hogar kicked the goblin aside. “I will deal with this myself. Ogres, with me!”

    He raised his hammer and charged at the walls. Around him came the thunder of heavy footfalls as the ogres ran, swinging clubs the size of trees.

    Arrows rained down from the battlements above, bouncing off Hogar’s armour and becoming lost in the depths of the trolls’ flesh. As they reached the walls, rocks crashed down around them.

    Hogar swung his war hammer in a huge arc and smashed it into the wall.

    The stone bent. Not a lot, yet far more than stone should.

    Hogar swung the hammer again. Again, instead of the familiar clang of metal against stone and the cracking of rock, there was a disappointing thud as the wall gave way an inch, absorbing the blow, and then sprang back.

    “Stone! Doesn’t! Bend!” Hogar yelled, hammering at it.

    The ogres joined in, pounding with clubs and gnarled fists, while rocks, arrows, and boiling oil fell all around them.

    Still the wall held.

    In a fury, Hogar pounded at the wall, his hammer swinging over and over, but the stone wasn’t even chipped. Red-faced with fury and exertion, he kept going until his muscles filled with pain.

    The rain of missiles ended. In their place came the laughter of the defenders.

    Hogar screamed and flung his war hammer down on the ground. He stormed away, leaving the ogres scratching their heads.

    “Withdraw!” he shouted to his troops. “We’ll go conquer Allerday instead.”

    *

    Hogar stared at the wide moat around the walls of Allerday. All along it, his assault rafts were going up in flames.

    “It’s not fair,” he grumbled. “Water doesn’t burn.”

    * * *

     

    This story was inspired by real bending rock, from the collection of Leeds Museums. I may have taken huge liberties with how it works, but that’s fantasy fiction for you.

    Iif you enjoyed this story, you might like to sign up to my mailing list, to get free fiction straight to your inbox every Friday.


  • Age’s Terrible Toll – a flash scifi story

    Sarah sat back in her armchair, eyes closed. She turned an old zippo lighter over in her hand, its familiar shape a comforting distraction.

    “You shouldn’t smoke,” the nurse from AlderCon said as he rolled up Sarah’s sleeve. “You’re never too old to get lung cancer.”

    “I quit decades ago,” Sarah said. “I keep this around to remember why.”

    “Fair enough. You ready?”

    Sarah nodded, eyes shut tight. The needle wasn’t big but she still flinched as it pricked her arm. She squeezed the lighter and forced herself to sit still.

    She trusted AlderCon and their staff. Thanks to their security division, there were no more teen gangs roaming the city’s streets. And thanks to their treatment, she’d barely aged since she hit fifty. These injections were adding decades to her lifespan.

    Still, she couldn’t bring herself to watch the needle going in.

    “How does it work?” she asked, as the nurse put the syringe away.

    “It’s complicated,” he said. “I wouldn’t worry about it.”

    “I was a research chemist for forty years. I think I’ll understand.”

    The nurse blushed and looked away. “Alright, you’ve got me. I don’t know how it works.”

    “Not even how it’s made? Your office is on the same site as the factory.”

    The nurse glanced around, then leaned in close and lowered his voice.

    “Let’s just say there’s a reason you don’t see many teenage troublemakers around here.”

    Sarah squeezed the lighter again. As a student, she’d campaigned against child labour in China. Was this young man saying that it was now on her doorstep? Or was he just making up wild stories to impress clients?

    If there was one thing she’d learnt in her career, it was that you had to have evidence before you tackled a problem.

    “Thank you,” she said, rolling her sleeve back down. “Same time next month?”

    *

    The electronic lock on the factory door clicked open, letting Sarah slide inside. In her forties she’d dated a corporate spy, a wild-eyed Australian by the name of Shona. It hadn’t ended well, but she’d learnt a lot along the way, including techniques for tackling security systems. Given the ache in her hip, avoiding the guards had been tricker than getting through the doors.

    She crept along the corridor, past offices and storerooms, towards the main processing plant. The factory kept working at night but its clerical staff didn’t, making this the easiest way in.

    She’d brought a better camera than the one on her phone. Hopefully she wouldn’t need it. She’d just find young people on apprenticeship schemes, making pharmaceuticals instead of hanging out on street corners. But if she saw school age children, or if conditions here weren’t good, then she would want leverage to make the company improve. Life was long and she didn’t want to spend it carrying around a weight of guilt.

    The next lock was easier, as internal security measures often were. She opened the door just enough to slide through into the shadows at the edge of the factory floor.

    She froze, one hand still holding the door.

    There were young people here alright. Hundreds of them, sitting in orange boiler suits on plastic chairs. Many were in their late teens, while some were too small and smooth-faced to be more than twelve years old. All were strapped into their seats, staring glassy-eyed into the distance. Plastic tubes ran from strange machines to the needles in the young people’s arms.

    So many needles.

    Sarah slid her hand into her pocket and squeezed the familiar shape of her lighter.

    *

    “What I don’t get is why you burned the place down,” the detective said, looking across the desk at Sarah. Beside him, a light blinked on the police station’s digital recorder. “I mean, that’s where you get your drugs from, right? Other people in your neighbourhood too. Are you so sick that you want to hurt your own community?”

    “My client has not admitted to any act of arson,” Sarah’s lawyer said for the third time.

    “She was found watching the place burn, holding a lighter and a bottle of home-made accelerant.” The detective shook his head. “How stupid do you think we are?”

    “Surely AlderCon’s security tapes will show you what happened inside the factory?” the lawyer said.

    The detective frowned. His partner snorted.

    “For victims, they’re surprisingly uncooperative,” he said.

    “Perhaps they’re just incompetent,” the lawyer replied. “They did just misplace a hundred young offenders from one of their secure facilities,”

    “They told me to ask you about that too.” The detective gave Sarah a puzzled look. “Any idea why?”

    Sarah shifted in her seat. The ache in her hip was growing. It would only get worse without her injections, as would the other symptoms of age. The next few years would be cruel ones.

    She squeezed her hand tight, but there was no lighter there. Just the memory of how it felt, and of a flame bursting from it for the first time in years, blazing in the shadows of the factory.

    “I have an old friend who’s a journalist,” she said. “Watch the news tomorrow and I think you’ll find some answers.”

    The detectives looked at each other, then back at her.

    “What are you on about?” one asked.

    “These days, I never really know,” Sarah said, smiling and tapping the side of her head. “Age is taking its toll.”

    * * *

     

    I don’t remember exactly where this idea came from. I found it in an old notebook, among various scribblings from last year. I think it might have been influenced by a body horror piece by Steve Toase, about people being used by medical business. Judging by the orange boiler suits, I also had Misfits on my mind, but then I often do.

    If you enjoyed this story then please share it with other people – there are social media links below. And if you’d like to receive free stories straight to your inbox every week, consider signing up to my mailing list.