Real Food – a flash science fiction story

It was the gun that got Liz’s attention. She hadn’t seen many guns in her life, had seen none at all in the protein plant before, and this was very definitely the first one to be pointed at her. The darkness of the barrel had a hypnotic draw that almost made her ignore the man behind it.

She raised her hands and stepped back, legs trembling, sweat breaking out across her brow. Her back pressed against the guard rail, hard and cold even through her overalls, and she found herself trapped, caught between the three terrorists and the vats below.

“We are the Real Food Front!” the leader of the terrorists bellowed. “We demand that you switch off these machines.”

When she looked back on it later, Liz realised that she should have just said, “yes, of course, right this way…”, but in the moment, her brain was lagging somewhere behind the dangers of reality.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because people should be people,” he said. “They should eat real animals and plants, not some synthetic protein pooped out by bacteria.”

“That’s not really how this-”

“Silence!”

He waved the gun. Liz clamped her mouth shut, terrified that he might accidentally pull the trigger. It would be bad enough to get shot over this goop, never mind dying because some idiot’s finger slipped.

They stood staring at each other, both waiting, while his comrades peered down into the gently bubbling vats.

“I said switch it off,” the terrorist said.

“Oh!” Liz blinked, then laughed uncomfortably. “Sorry, I can’t. I don’t have that level of control.”

“Then you’re no use to us.”

He shoved her hard and she fell over the guard rail with a shriek. For a moment, the air rushed past, then she landed with a splat in the vat below.

Liz flailed wildly, trying to swim through a morass of bacteria, water, and the proteins they were making. Each breath was a desperate gasp as she felt herself sinking.

Then she remembered how shallow the vat was. Blushing with embarrassment, she got her feet underneath her and stood, chest-deep in goop.

“You will provide a warning to the world of the danger this place has unleashed!” the terrorist shouted, his voice echoing through the factory. One of his comrades held up a phone to film Liz. “As genetically modified bacteria dissolve your body, the world will see how deadly their food is, why they should return to the good old ways of real food.”

Liz raised her hand.

“What?” the terrorist asked.

“You know this won’t work, right?” Liz said. “These bacteria don’t eat anything but hydrogen. Even the ones that dissolve plastic can’t-”

“Of course I knew that! This was, um, a test, to show that you’re a real employee here. And now the world will see your face as we poison your precious artificial protein. No-one will be able to eat your barbaric products, as they bring the same death to the body they bring to the soul.”

One of the others had taken off a bulky backpack and pulled out a plastic sack. He ripped it open and poured white powder into the vat.

Liz raised her hand.

“What?” the lead terrorist snapped.

“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to rain on your parade, but that won’t work either. There are so many filters in this system that whatever you’ve put in, it’ll probably be taken out. And if not, it won’t make it past quality testing. Regulations are even tighter for us than for other food.”

The terrorist leaned forward, one hand gripping the guard rail. His face was red.

“I didn’t want to do this,” he said. “But you people have pushed us to it. For the sake of future generations, we must return to real food.”

He unzipped his jacket, revealing a mass of plasticine-like blocks and trailing wires. One of those wires let to the switch he pulled from his pocket.

“I may die,” he declared, chest thrust out as his comrade stepped back to film him, “but by sacrificing myself to destroy the very vats that poison our people, I bring this place to a halt and prove to the world that life is worth more than this.”

Liz raised her hand, but it was too late. The terrorist ran along the gantry, vaulted the guard rail, and landed with a splat in the next vat over, out of sight from her.

There was a muted thump. A fountain of bacteria-infused goo blasted into the air, then pattered down like a thick, pink rain. Liz, already coated from her fall, watched with a smile as the remaining terrorists tried to shake off the slime.

Then the doors burst open and the police ran in.

An hour later, Liz was sitting under a blanket beside the vats while a woman from HR failed to comfort her.

“This is going to be a disaster,” the woman said, shaking her head. “Never mind cleaning the vats, the publicity from it all-”

“We sell food powders with all the taste and glamour of plasticine,” Liz said. “Until today, we were as cool and edgy as a children’s TV presenter. Now our food has survived a terrorist attack.”

She got up and started looking around for new overalls.

“Unlike the Real Food Front, I think we’ll survive.”

***

A story inspired by real attempts to make food using gas and microorganisms. Because the world is a wild and wonderful place.

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***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

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

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

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

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

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

Three Little Pigs – a fairy tale retold

The wolf prowled into town on paws as soft as mist and as deadly as winter. Her every breath made the leaves trembled in the trees.

Close up of a wolf's face

Three pigs fled before her. The first, skinny and clad in rags, ran into a house of straw. The second, in his simple, sturdy tunic and tool belt, ran into a house of wood. The third, decked out in a bowler hat and waistcoat, ran into a house of bricks.

The wolf grinned, drool dripping between saw-blade teeth. She would eat well today.

She stopped at the first house.

“You think this can protect you?” she called out with a sneer.

“It’s all I have,” the first pig replied, his voice high with fear. “But there’s no meat on me. Am I even worth eating?”

He wasn’t worth answering. The wolf took a deep breath, her lungs swelling with all the power of the east wind, pursed her lips, and blew.

The house exploded beneath the force of the gale, straw bursting apart and billowing through the air.

The pig cowered in the ruins, frozen by fear. The wolf snapped her jaws shut around his throat and tasted hot, delicious flesh. She gave in to her hunger, rending, tearing, chewing, until all that remained was bones and blood-spattered chaff.

She brushed a straw from her nose and frowned. The pig had been right – he wasn’t nearly enough to sate her appetite.

She stalked over to the house of wood. It was carefully constructed, timbers linked with dovetail joints and wooden pins, an apple carved into the frame above the front door. The windows were shuttered and bolted.

“You think this can protect you?” the wolf called out as she admired the handiwork.

“I built it with all my skill,” the second pig replied, his words sharply edged, the voice of a creature failing to hide his fear. “I have faith that it will stand.”

“Let’s put that faith to the test.”

The wolf stepped back and took a deep breath. The wind was a great power within her, a living, surging, seething thing. Then she blew.

The house shook. Shutters rattled in their frames. Joints creaked under the strain. The wolf kept blowing determinedly, her breath the full force of the elements.

“I told you,” the pig shouted over the howling wind. “I said that it-”

With a splintering crash, the front door flew in, wrenching away half the doorframe. Timbers around it buckled and broke. Splinters whirled. Walls fell. The roof went tumbling across the street.

The pig tried to run but the wolf was faster. Paws pinned him in the mud. She smelled the blood seeping from a hundred splinter wounds.

“I don’t want to die,” the pig whimpered.

“And I don’t want to be hungry,” the wolf said, a moment before she sank her teeth in.

When she was done, she wiped the blood from her muzzle with the back of her paw. That had been good. The carpenter had more flesh on him. But still she hungered for something more.

She approached the brick house, standing tall amid the scattered straw and pulverised planks. The third pig looked down at her from a crenellated turret on the northeast corner.

“You think this can protect you?” the wolf asked, licking her lips.

“I bloody well hope so” the pig replied. “I spent half my fortune on it.”

The wolf took a deep breath, her chest expanding, her body flooding with the wind’s power. Then she blew.

The wolf’s breath battered at the brickwork, blowing dust from the mortar and whistling through the roof tiles.

The house stood firm.

The wolf frowned, took another deep breath, and blew gain.

The wind was a vast force pounding at the house. The turret trembled and the pig clung on with gritted teeth. A chimney pot shattered in the street.

But still the house stood.

The wolf growled in frustration. This wasn’t how it was meant to work. She blew, houses fell, pigs got eaten. That was the way of the world.

She took another breath, the deepest she had ever known, sucking in air until she felt she would explode. And then she blew.

The tower wavered. The pig crouched in terror behind the battlements. The front door rattled in its frame like the battering of hail on a frozen pond. The wolf blew and blew until there was nothing left in her and she lay panting in the dirt.

Still the house stood.

The pig peered down from his tower, drew out a cigar and lit it with a gold-plated lighter. He grinned and blew a smoke ring.

The wolf forced herself up onto her paws. Her head hung in shame and her belly rumbled.

“You win,” she growled. “I’ll go.”

“Why the rush?” the pig said. “I know a way you can stay here and still be well fed.”

“Stop taunting me,” the wolf snapped. “We both know you’re not coming out to be eaten.”

“True,” the third pig said. “But you see those windmills I had built on the hill? They could feed quite a community. Lots of hard workers for my new factory. Lots of succulent little piggies for you. Offer them bread and jobs and not too much death and they’ll come from miles around. All I need to make those mills work is a little gust of wind…”

***

This story started out with a simple writing exercise and ended up going all Animal Farm. Who would have thought it from an old lefty like me?

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***

By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

A gladiator painting with manticore blood.

A demon detective policing Hell.

A ninja who can turn into shadow.

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

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

From reader reviews:

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

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

The Whale Yard – a historical short story

John approached the whale yard at dawn, like he did every day. The sun was rising over Whitby, a golden disk emerging from the grey of the North Sea, silhouetting the fishing boats and casting the houses in a rich and warming light.

John felt that warmth too, soaking through him, giving him a moment of happiness despite the smell of whale oil heavy all around. For that moment he smiled.

Then he stepped into the yard.

Whale sculpture, Pannett Park, Whitby

A whaling ship had come in yesterday, the Venerable Sue, with a whale’s jaw tied high on the mast to signal a successful hunt. The crew had brought out heaps of blubber, bones, and meat, and carried it all to the yard for processing. Somewhere along the line money must have changed hands, because the Sue’s crew had made merry in the taverns after dark. John’s pay would come at the end of the week, after he’d cleaned those bones and boiled the blubber, enough to keep him fed and warm and sheltered. A decent living for a humble man.

Matthew was in the boiling house already, lighting fires. John helped him stoke the flames then slide slices of blubber into the great iron pots where the oil was rendered. Soon, the building was thick with the smell of it, a smell that clung to John’s clothes just as it clung to the yard long after the fires went out.

“Do you ever wonder what else you could have done?” Matthew asked as they stirred the pots.

“This is what I do,” John said. “A good job for good pay.”

“Didn’t you ever want to be a sailor or a preacher or something like that?”

John shook his head. “Just this.”

More men had arrived and were helping with the rendering. John stepped out into the yard, to help scrape the bones. It was messy work, but satisfying somehow, making things clean and ready for sale.

The sun was at its peak. Soon it would sink towards the sea and another day would end, another few pennies earned amid the smell of rendering oil.

*

John approached the whale yard at dawn. The sun was somewhere behind the clouds, the houses and fishing boats cast in a soft, pale light. It soothed his spirit, for better or for worse. Hard to feel excited on such a day.

They were still working through the haul from the Venerable Sue. John and Matthew lit the fires and put the pans on while they waited for the others to arrive. Soon the smell was there, familiar and grotesque, as inescapable as breathing. John gagged as a thick cloud of it clawed at his throat.

He sighed in relief as they stepped out of the boiling house and headed for the bones. Soon, his hands would be sticky with fat and half-dried blood, but at least the bones would be clean.

“You alright?” Matthew asked, peering at him.

“Fine,” John said, and it almost felt true. But there was a hollowness inside him, something that even cleaning bones couldn’t mend. A feeling he couldn’t describe or explain, but that made him feel as though he was falling into himself, tumbling forever into nothing.

He looked over at Matthew, who had pulled out a scraping knife and set to work.

“I don’t know what I’d be,” John said.

“Eh?” Matthew looked up, confused.

“If I wasn’t here, I don’t know what I’d be. Don’t know if I can be anything else.”

“Good thing you like it here then, eh?” Matthew gestured at the heaps of bones and the boiling house, dark and greasy smoke trickling from its door.

John hesitated a long time before he answered.

“Does it matter if I like it?” he asked. “It’s what I’ve got.”

The sun peered through a thin patch in the clouds, white and washed out, a cold and uncaring eye. They cleaned the bones and the day dragged on.

*

John approached the whale yard at dawn. White clouds were drifting through a blue sky, casting patches of shadow across the town. Moments of warmth and coolness passed over John as he stood at the gate of the yard, stuck in the moment before going in.

This was what he did, a good job for good pay. But even that thought couldn’t fill the hollow inside, or stop the bile rising in his throat at the thought of stepping once more into the boiling house. He could still smell its stench on him from yesterday. No matter how hard he tried, he never got clean.

He looked out across the town. A merchant ship was loading at the docks. Fishermen were heading to sea. In the shipyard, carpenters repaired a coal barge. He couldn’t imagine doing any of those things.

He didn’t have to imagine working in the whale yard. He knew what it was like, knew how it had been for all these years, knew what it would be like today and tomorrow and for the rest of his life, a clinging stink of oil and hands sticky with gore and an emptiness inside him.

He imagined himself walking, not towards anything, just away from the yard. It was like letting go of one those great lumps of blubber, dropping it into the pan and feeling himself step lightly away.

It was all he could imagine.

It was enough.

The sun came out from behind a cloud as John turned and walked away into a cool fresh breeze.

***

I don’t often associate Britain with whaling, but it was big business in the 18th and 19th centuries, providing everything from oil to parts for corsets. Whitby, on the Yorkshire coast, became a significant whaling centre, with yards processing the dead whales as they were brought in and it sounds like ghastly work. I hope some of the people there really did get to walk away from it.

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

***

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

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

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

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

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

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

Waiting for a Train – a flash steampunk story

The toymaker stood on the wind-swept platform, hands clenched around the handle of his suitcase. The case rattled, not just from the shaking of his nerves but from the impatient wriggling of its precious cargo.

An  old-fashioned suitcase

The toymaker bent over the case.

“Ssh,” he whispered into the lock. “I know it hurts, but you mustn’t move. Not until we’re safely in the city.”

The suitcase went still.

The toymaker straightened and looked up at the chalk board listing trains. Someone had just wiped away the one they had missed, leaving only a white smear on the black and a smell of coal smoke in the air. The toymaker had tried to be clever, arriving just in time so there would be less time for the guards to notice him. Instead, he had arrived just too late. To leave and return for the next train would draw the attention he wanted to avoid, and so instead he waited, his muscles tense and palms clammy, the heavy case threatening to slip from his grip.

A pair of border guards strolled down the platform, bright buttons gleaming against black jackets, rifles slung from their shoulders. The real border was twenty miles away, halfway across the great plain that separated the city from the outlands, but no-one challenged the guards’ presence.

The toymaker huddled back into his coat, trying not to catch the eye of the guards. But they kept moving closer, as if drawn by an invisible string.

The guards stopped in front of the toymaker.

“Papers, please,” said one of them, holding out his hand.

“Of course.” The toymaker set the case down and reached inside his coat, fumbling for his precious papers. He forced himself to smile. “Lovely day, isn’t it?”

“Not really.” The guard flexed his fingers. “Come on, cough them up.”

The toymaker held out a bundle of paperwork. There were his identity papers, signed by the local doctor and counter-signed by his town’s mayor. There was the passport, stamped to show that he was a skilled worker of the sort the city needed. There was his letter of transit, showing that he had passed the immigration process. And there was his ticket, one way across the plains.

He held his breath as the guard looked through the papers. He had heard horror stories of people banned from the crossing because they looked at a guard wrong, and there was more reason than that to stop him. The rustling of pages was like sandpaper scouring the rough ends of his nerves.

“Seems to be in order.” The guard handed back the papers. “Enjoy your journey.”

The toymaker smiled and his shoulders sagged.

The guard made to move on, but his partner stopped and pointed down at the case.

“What’s in there?” he asked.

The toymaker tensed, took a deep breath, forced himself to stay calm despite the hammering of his heart.

“My whole life,” he said. “Clothes, tools, food to see me through the week.”

“Show me,” the guard commanded.

“Don’t you have other people to-”

“I said show me.”

The toymaker carefully laid the case down flat on the paving stones. Above him, the station clock ticked down to the next train. He opened the catches and lifted the lid, revealing a neatly folded jacket and shirts.

“See?” he said. “Just ordinary things.”

“What’s that ticking?” the guard asked.

The toymaker pointed up at the clock.

“No, there’s something else.” The guard knelt over the case. His companion brought his rifle around to point at the toymaker’s feet. “Something that got louder when you opened it.”

The guard pulled back the jacket and the shirts, then a pair of trousers underneath.

A figure lay exposed. A boy of brass with a clockwork heart, contorted around himself to fit inside the case. His enamelled eyes flickered in the sudden light.

The toymaker stifled a whimper.

The guard rose and snatched the papers, leaving a cut across the toymaker’s palm, a sudden sting.

“You know the rules.” The guard kicked the case for emphasis. The lid fell shut on the toymaker’s son. “No mechanicals in the city.”

“Please,” the toymaker said, hands clasped as if in prayer. “He won’t do any harm. He doesn’t even need feeding. He just-”

“No mechanicals.” The guard tore up the toymaker’s letter of transit and cast the shreds into the wind. They blew away like ashes from a funeral pyre. He crumpled up the ticket and thrust it into his pocket, then dropped the passport and identity papers onto the cold stone.

“Get out of here,” the other guard said, pointing his gun at the toymaker’s chest.

“But there’s no work left,” the toymaker said, his voice rising to a high and pleading tone. “Almost no food to be had. The city’s my only hope.”

“Should have thought of that before you did this.” The guard kicked the case and a cry of alarm burst from within. “Now take your abomination and get out of here.”

With mournful movements, the toymaker lifted the lid, helped his son out, and dropped his useless papers in with the clothes before locking the case shut. Waiting passengers stood back, some watching him sadly, others muttering indignantly, as the two of them walked wearily down the platform, through the ticket hall, and out into the street.

The toymaker sighed. It would be so easy to give in, to go back to his workshop, scrape by on what work he could get, and wait out the days until the whole town faded away. But then what would happen to his boy?

There would be other trains, other guards who were less observant. By the time he saved up for another ticket, these two might have forgotten him.

He had to hope.

“Come on,” he said, taking his son’s hand. “We’ll go home and wait for our train there.”

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

Out Now – City of the Dead

Cover for Bards and Sages Quarterly January 2020

An abandoned city, a discredited physician, and gargoyles sacrificed to household gods, such a weird mix of topics can mean only thing – I have a new story out.

“City of the Dead” is a fantasy tale that explores the limits of obligation. Left behind by a great exodus, Pyrus lives alone in an abandoned city. Every day, he makes sacrifices to his clan’s gods, to ensure his family’s safe passage and assuage the guilt of his tragic past. Can he break free from the bonds of tradition, or will the city of the dead destroy him?

“City of the Dead” is in the January 2020 edition of Bards and Sages Quarterly, available now from all good e-book stores.

Silver Sails – a flash science fiction story

Helena stared open-mouthed at the silver sails drifting across the black of space. They moved like a flock of vast and shining birds, flowing back and forth in V-shaped formations hundreds of kilometres across, blown by the solar winds between the binary stars. As they turned, one face or another would catch the light, their bright tissue rippling and folding in invisible currents.

Space

“How do they even exist?” she whispered.

Johar shrugged and steered their shuttle towards the edge of one of the flocks.

“No-one knows,” he said. “Just be grateful that they do. They’re our way out of this system.”

The nearest sail shone brightly as Johar manoeuvred them in behind it. Tweaks of the thrusters, using up their precious supply of fuel, brought them in line behind that sheet of silver.

“Your turn,” he said.

Helena rubbed her hands against her thighs then wrapped them around the grappler’s controls. Her skin was tingling, her heart beating fast, but she tried to ignore that and focus on the task in hand.

She lined up the target finder on one corner of the sail and pulled the trigger, but a jerk of her hand left the shot misaligned. The grappling cable spooled out across the void, missed its target, and trailed limply like a heavy grey thread.

“Come on Helena, you’re better than this,” Johar said. “I’ve seen you practice.”

“It’s different out here,” she said, setting that grapple to wind back in while she reluctantly lined up another one. “They’re so beautiful, it doesn’t feel right to trap them like this.”

“They’re not people, not even animals, just a strange quirk of the cosmos. They won’t know that they’re trapped.”

“I will.”

Johar sighed, unstrapped himself from his seat, and floated across the cabin to her.

“You can do this,” he said, laying a hand on her shoulder. “I believe in you. And I believe in us. We could never afford the fuel to escape the system with rockets, but with a sail and a couple of cryo cans we can go wherever we want. It’s a whole new life for you and me.”

Helena couldn’t bring herself to look at him. Instead, she focused on the target finder, lining up the grappling shot like she’d practised so many times. Johar was right, this was their dream.

And yet…

“What if it goes wrong?” she asked. “What if the sail tears or we can’t find somewhere to settle or the place we find is dreadful or… or… or anything?”

Johar took a deep breath before he spoke.

“Sure, any of that could happen,” he said. “But if we don’t try, we know what will happen. We’ll live here our whole lives, stuck in dead-end jobs for an uncaring corporation. I’ll live through that for you, if that’s what it takes to be together. But couldn’t we have more?”

Helena looked out across the flocks of silver sails swirling against the black. She had never known such beauty could exist, never mind that it could exist here. Did she embrace that? Or did she leave it all behind, hoping that the universe might hold something more?

“Everyone I’ve ever known lives here,” she said. “Family, friends, all the places we share.”

“If it’s too much, we can stay.” Johar let go of her shoulder and drifted back to his seat. “Sell the ship, buy a little apartment instead, get by with what we have.”

His fingers stabbed at the controls, setting a course back home, then hovered over the thruster switch.

Helena imagined that apartment, the two of them raising kids in one of the city tower blocks. She imagined snatching a few hours of leisure each week with family, treasured moments between the long hours of her job. She could live with that.

The sail they were following turned with the rest of its flock. Like vast silver birds, the sails soared through the void, shining with borrowed light. The wonders of the universe were laid out before Helena.

She stilled her trembling hand and pulled the trigger. The grapple caught a corner of the sail.

Maybe she could live with this place, but she would rather dream of something more.

***

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.

Dread the Dawn – a flash fantasy story

I dreaded the dawn, not because it would change anything, but because it would show me the truth.

Sunrise over the desert.

Night after night we had fled across the desert, straining at every step against the sand that tried to hold us back. My legs ached and my throat rasped from the dry, dusty air. Patches of skin that had been blistered by the midday sun now felt the bitter chill of the cloudless dark.

Every moment was etched with terror as I watched for our pursuers. Sometimes I would see one of them looming out of the moonlight, would raise my hand and summon ancient power. My palm would blaze and the creature would be driven back, teeth gnashing and claws slashing at the air, or it would be exposed as just a figment of my fearful imagination.

When the creature was real we could fight it. My staff and Kotali’s sword swinging in the darkness while the child clung to her back, whimpering in fear. That was the sound driving me to strike harder and faster, to fling my magic around with wild ferocity, to scream and shout and hammer each fallen beast until it was nothing but broken bones and blood seeping into the sand.

When the creature wasn’t real, only my fear and anger lay exposed, a bloody wound on my soul.

For the sake of our innocent burden, I was becoming a monster. The soft, compassionate woman who had left the city was gone, replaced by a ruthless killer. And yet it wasn’t the loss of myself I feared. It was the coming of the sun.

“This is the night,” Kotali said as we strode up a dune, sand sliding down between our feet. “This time we’ll get there.”

“You said that last night,” I said. “And the night before. And the one before that.”

“This time it has to be true. We’ve come so far.”

“Who says it’s far enough?”

“You’ve got to have hope.”

“I can’t.”

Hope had killed Arden, when he walked towards an oasis and straight into the creatures’ claws. Hope had killed Zell, when she tried to make peace with the sorcerers of the old city. Hope wasn’t getting me, and it sure as hell wasn’t getting the child.

But the creatures still might, if we weren’t fast enough.

“What is it like?” Kotali asked.

Dozens of us had dreamed of finding shelter in Elvast, but only I had ever been. Mine were the stories of the shining towers, the kind people, the wise rulers I had seen in my youth. I was the one who had set our course as we fled the sorcerers’ guards and their ravenous beasts. Only I really knew what we were running towards.

I pictured it rising out of the desert, with bright towers and open gates, the city that took in the lost and the broken, that would give a home to all who needed it. A place where the child could grow in safety until he came into his power. A blazing beacon in a world of shadows.

I remembered the first morning in the desert, watching for those towers as the sun came up, so sure that they must be within sight. I remembered my grief at their absence and my horror as I saw the sorcerers’ creatures dogging our trail, waiting for their chance.

Could I even bear to see that again?

The child pointed east, ahead of us. The sky was growing light. The night would soon be over.

I stopped and turned my head, unable to face what was about to be revealed. Parched as I was, tears formed at the corners of my eyes.

“Look for me,” I said, my voice a strained croak. “I have to watch our rear.”

The creatures were closing in, sensing some change within us, a moment of weakness they could exploit. I felt that weakness, a hope broken before it could even become real. I raised my hand and fire danced between my fingertips. If it had just been me, I could have let that power go, let the creatures end my long, drawn-out pain.

But it wasn’t just me.

Kotali gasped. The child giggled. A flash of something bright and earnest rose within me, faltered, and fell.

I held out my hand to the creatures and waited. Better that than face the dawn.

***

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***

By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

A gladiator painting with manticore blood.

A demon detective policing Hell.

A ninja who can turn into shadow.

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

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

From reader reviews:

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

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

Little Foot – a flash historical story

Sharru and Little Foot, his trusty mule, had just emerged from the river when the bag fell with a crack against the rocks. Perhaps the current had somehow loosened the straps. Perhaps Sharru hadn’t bound them properly. Whatever the cause, he felt a sense of horror at the sound.

That bag was the most precious thing he carried. More valuable than the supplies for their journey or the token that would see him served at relay stations along Assyria’s great roads. That bag held his duty.

He opened it with trembling hands and looked inside. Sure enough, the clay envelope was cracked. He had broken the message he carried between the Great Ones.

Unable to bear the sight, he closed the bag. In twenty years of service as a courier, he had never once broken a message. What would they do to him?

He tied the bag back into place, pulling each knot so tight that he felt the rope scraping on his hands. Then he climbed onto Little Foot’s back and they continued along the road.

Sharru imagined Tukulti, the man who ran the next relay station, a man with a belly big enough to match the importance of his job. He would be fuming when he found out what had happened. Would he beat Sharru himself, or would he call for soldiers and have him dragged away? The Great Ones’ messages were a sacred trust, a thread holding civilisation together, now broken by Sharru.

“What will we do?” he asked.

Little Foot snorted and shook his head. It seemed to Sharru that the mule understood his distress and was comforting him with the gentle rhythm of his walk. But then, it always seemed to Sharru that Little Foot understood him.

Despite Little Foot’s reassuring snorts and steady pace, Sharru couldn’t keep his mind on the mule or the road ahead. His eyes kept falling to his message bag. It was like a scab over a painful wound – he knew that he should leave it alone, and yet he couldn’t help wanting to pick at it.

He should leave it as it was, get to the relay station and hope for the best.

And yet he found himself opening the bag and drawing out its contents.

The envelope was cracked along one side but had not yet split in two. The tablet within remained concealed.

Sharru had never seen one of the actual tablets, though he had carried thousands back and forth along this road, all wrapped in that outer layer of clay. What might it say? Orders for soldiers at the frontier perhaps, a request for supplies to the capital, maybe even something about how the messengers were to be run. Could it be announcing a royal tour or the start of a war?

His fingertips ran across the surface, nails digging into the crack in the wounded clay. The damage was done already, his career over. Why not go all the way, break the seal on the envelope and see what was inside? After all these years, didn’t he deserve a look?

Little Foot snorted and shook his head. A fly buzzed away.

Sharru sighed and slid the tablet back into his bag.

“You’re right, old friend. I shouldn’t make things worse.”

He leaned forward and rubbed the mule’s head, just behind the ears. Being parted from Little Foot was the worst thing he could imagine. Never hearing that familiar snort again, never knowing the rhythm of those hooves. The mule was getting on now, just as he was. Maybe, if he was very lucky, they would get rid of Little Foot when they sacked him, and the two of them could leave together, go to his brother’s farm and live out their days in peace.

More likely they would be torn apart and he would be beaten for failing the Great Ones.

The relay station was up ahead, a clay brick building by a fork in the road. Sharru wanted to slow down, to put off the inevitable, but he didn’t want to spoil Little Foot’s pace.

As they reached the building, Tukulti came out to greet them.

“Got something for me?” he asked, holding out a hand.

Sharru sighed, took the clay envelope from the bag, and handed it over.

“I’m so sorry,” he said, hanging his head. “I have failed. I dropped it and-”

“Feh.” Tukulti waved a hand dismissively. “It’s just a crack. Happens to everyone from time to time. As long as it’s in one piece, we’ll be fine.”

“But my sacred burden, my duty to the Great Ones…”

“The letter’s in one piece, right? That’s all that counts. Now come on in, we’ll pass this to the next rider and you can put your feet up.”

Sharru felt like he was floating in the air. He turned to Little Foot with a grin.

“Did you hear that? It’s going to be alright.” He patted the mule’s nose. “Let’s go find you some food.”

***

Not for the first time, the inspiration for this week’s story comes from Ben of the Crudely Drawn Swords podcast, who told me about the ancient Assyrian mule mail service. You can check out Crudely Drawn Swords on your favourite podcatcher and find Ben’s tweetings over here.

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

***

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

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

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

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

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

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

Steaming Out to Sea – a flash steampunk story

Haruo stood in his boat, shovelling coal into the boiler. Heat blazed from its open door and the glow illuminated him in the pre-dawn darkness.

“What is this?”

Haruo jumped in alarm at the voice. He looked up to see old Master Zuki standing with his stick on the quay.

“Nothing,” Haruo snapped, shutting the boiler door.

“Is that a steam engine?” Zuki asked, his voice rising in alarm. “On a boat?”

Haruo tugged sharply on the rope binding his boat to the dock. A knot unravelled and the rope fell away, untethering him from the city.

“You can’t do that,” Zuki said. “Steam belongs in the city, not on the water. You know the rules.”

“I’m sick of the rules,” Haruo said as he pushed off.

“The rules keep us safe!”

“The rules keep us trapped. I’m going to be free.”

“Guards!” Zuki shouted. “Guards, Haruo has put an engine on a boat!”

Haruo pulled on a lever, opening a valve in the intricate pipework he had spent months building. A paddle wheel turned and the boat inched away from the docks, gaining speed as it went. He grinned as he looked back to see the city watch arriving too late.

“I’m going!” he shouted. “No-one can stop me now.”

Dawn was creeping over the horizon as he steamed away from the city. Ahead, the waters churned above the Great Reef that surrounded the known world. There lay the limit of all the lives within the city, a barrier no-one had ever crossed and safely returned. But no-one had used steam in the crossing before.

His boat was special. It was no flimsy thing of wood, powered by the whims of wind. It was a vessel of hardened steel driven by the power of the industrial age, and no mere reef was going to stop it.

Still, his heart hammered in his chest and he sweated despite the early morning chill. It took all the will he had to keep his hand steady on the tiller.

This had to work, or he would be stuck in the city forever, his genius constrained by rules and tradition.

There had to be something more.

He hit the foaming water around the reef. There were places where he could see it protruding from the waves, and he steered around those. But the further he went, the more turbulent the waters were and the harder the journey became. The boat bucked and shook, scraped against unseen obstacles, screamed as coral gouged its side.

But it stayed whole and it kept moving.

Dawn had come, but not the sun. It was hidden behind a dark bank of clouds, blown in on a billowing wind. Like the will of his ancestors, they came looming over Haruo, trying to drive him back to the city he knew. The rain lashed down and lightning flashed overhead. Great gusts flung the boat about and rising waves threatened to hurl it over.

Haruo clung on tight as the boat heaved beneath him. His stomach churned and bile burned in his throat.

He mustn’t be afraid. Fear was how they kept you in place. Fear stopped you being free.

Lightning crashed down. There was a flash as it struck the roof of the boiler. Haruo leapt away in alarm, just as another wave lifted the boat. He went tumbling as the whole hull tipped. The top of the rail pressed against his spine and gravity grabbed hold, hauling him over.

He shot out a hand and snatched at the rail, clinging on for all he was worth. He was half in the water now, soaking and freezing, battered against the boat by each passing wave. Wet fingers slid one by one from the rail.

He swung his other hand up and grabbed hold just in time. With all his strength, he dragged himself up, over the rail, and collapsed into the bottom of the boat.

Another boom of thunder. The boat was flung about, crashed against the reef, almost tipped over.

In desperation, Haruo turned the steam dial, letting all the power he could flow through the engine. With a chugging so loud it seemed to drown out the storm, the boat gathered speed. Momentum carried it through the crashing waves, across the ocean, towards who knew what.

Haruo lay in the bottom, shivering and shaken, too scared to approach the rail and look out.

At last, the wind died down and the water grew still. The clouds parted and sunlight shone down on Haruo.

Nervously, he sat up and looked about. Behind him were the churning waters of the Great Reef and the roiling sky. Ahead was a terrible emptiness – no fresh lands, no strange boats, just a vast, watery void.

Haruo swallowed. Should he go back now? He had made it through the reef. He had shown it could be done. But all he had seen so far was danger and misery. Were the elders right to say he should stay in the city?

Sunlight gleamed off the water – not a void, but a world of potential, a vast expanse of the unknown. There could be anything out here, beyond the horizon.

Grinning, Haruo turned back to his boiler and started to shovel coal. He was going to see what this world held.

***

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

***

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

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

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

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

Invisible – A Flash Science Fiction Story

This whole thing started for me when Gazetech brought out their smart glasses. You remember, they were the first with filters to separate out real human faces from the imitations on screens, machines, and billboards. A shortcut for the brain.

Glasses on laptop

Everyone was getting burnt out by then. The internet of things meant an endless succession of appliances trying to engage with us, using fake faces to grab our attention. Just walking down the street became a road to mental fatigue, trying to work out who was human, who wasn’t, what any of them wanted and why. You’d see tired parents and exhausted executives picking fights with holographic bank machines. Our silicon helpers were killing us with friendship.

Then came Gazetech with their solution, because apparently the fix to broken technology was more technology. A pair of glasses that would detect and blank out fake faces.

It worked. The people who bought them reported greater happiness and productivity. Within weeks, more factories were being built. Vandalism against public-facing machines plummeted.

And people started ignoring me.

I didn’t realise at first. We’ve all had people who jump ahead of us in queues or try to barge past in the street. When it happened with acquaintances, I started to think I’d done something wrong, even became a bit depressed. Then a colleague bought his first Gazetech and stopped responding to me around the coffee machine. Finally, I worked it out. I had the wrong sort of face.

Gazetech uses a variety of filters to detect fake faces – excessive symmetry, surprising stillness, average features for your gender and skin tone, stuff like that. One of them alone won’t trigger the glasses, but hit all those buttons and it’ll think you’re just another device or an advertising board.

I’d never been exceptional looking. Good enough to get dates, not so handsome that I drew admiring crowds at parties. Now I knew why – I was the definition of average.

At first, it was amusing, a novelty to tell people about, but as the glasses became ubiquitous, it became a pain. I had to keep reminding everyone that I was in the room, or I’d be entirely ignored. It was as frustrating as being a teenager.

Then came the revelation.

We’d just finished a team meeting and I was sitting alone in the conference room, feeling sorry for myself. The others had walked out, all wearing their Gazetech, gossipping away, forgetting about me. Then a couple of the company’s directors walked in for a meeting of their own, both wearing Gazetech. They closed the door, sat down, and started talking like I wasn’t even there. To them, I wasn’t.

Oh boy, the things I heard. Projects and investments that no-one else knew about. Details of a planned restructuring. Who was sleeping with whose secretary. I kept quiet and took notes.

That evening, I bought shares in one of the companies they were planning to take over. Within weeks, those had soared in value.

After that, I did it on purpose. People had got used to not seeing me, so they didn’t notice that I wasn’t at my desk. I spent my days in the corners of meeting rooms, hoovering up the company’s secrets. Most of it was useless for anything other than blackmail, and I didn’t have the streak of cruelty it took to go down that route, even against people who had stopped seeing me as a person. But there were gems amid the muck.

It took me a while to foster a contact at a rival firm. I had to prove that my information was good, without giving away how I’d acquired it. I built trust slowly, giving away crumbs so I could sell them the whole loaf.

At last they were convinced and the work started in earnest. Every month, I received a substantial transfer from an anonymous bank account. Every month, I sent an encrypted email from a secret address. Every month, our rivals made a move just in time to thwart my firm.

Eventually, management realised that they had a mole. A witch hunt started. I had one day of roiling, gut-churning panic before I realised that I didn’t need to worry. No-one was going to blame me. They had forgotten I was there.

Over the next year, the company’s fortunes plummeted while mine soared. I made canny investments based on their planned next moves, doubling what I earned from my other employers. I didn’t even have to hide my grin, because no-one saw it.

Then came the fateful day. I was sitting in the corner of a board meeting, learning about their desperate, last-gasp plans to turn things around.

The chief executive let out a deep sigh and admitted that it wasn’t going to work. She was exhausted, battered by the winds of fortune, barely holding herself together. She took off her glasses, rubbed her eyes, and looked straight up at me.

Nobody called the police. Instead, security guards brought me down here, to a quiet, windowless room in a corner of HR, for a discreet little chat. And I can be discreet. I think I’ve proved that by now.

So here’s the thing. You could finish firing me and hand me over to the police. Or you could go grab my laptop. I’ve been working on a job application for a rival firm. I can get through the doors there. I can find my way onto the inside. And then…

***

This story was inspired by a friend of mine who works in academic psychology. She went to a talk on how processing the presence of other people, trying to work out their thoughts, feelings, and intentions use up our brainpower, even when those people are actually just objects that look like people. She wondered, in a grand way, about its sci-fi potential.

Then I took the idea and made something seedy out of 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.