Blood on the Beach – A Historical Short Story

There was blood on the beach. Somehow, in spite of everything, Louis hadn’t expected that. He’d seen the soldiers here, thousands of them lining up to board the boats. He’d seen the heaps of equipment they left behind. He’d heard the bombs falling and the rattle of gunfire as planes flew across that teeming crowd of men. And yet somehow he hadn’t anticipated those dark stains, turning patches of sand into sinister, crusted lumps.

The salt smell of the sea was a familiar one around Dunkirk, but now it had a different edge.

Photo by Sean MacEntee via
Flickr Creative Commons

There were no more boats. That he had expected, or rather feared. No way out. He walked across the sand, between piles of discarded equipment, some of it burned to stop the Germans using it. What was he hoping to find? An abandoned row boat? An uninflated dinghy? Enough wood to make a raft that could survive the crossing to England? Each idea was more absurd than the last. The gulls mocked him with their screeching laughter as they pecked at the remnants humans had left behind.

He looked back towards the shop fronts facing the harbour. More soldiers had appeared, ones in different uniforms. He had seen them in the newspaper and he knew what they represented. Reluctantly, he raised his hands and walked back up the beach.

One of the soldiers pointed a rifle at him and shouted in heavily accented French. “Stop! Stop or shooting!”

“I’m not going to make trouble,” Louis called out in German. So many sailors and travellers passed through town, he had picked up a smattering of a dozen languages and enough for conversation in three. “I own that café.”

He pointed to his building. He’d closed up shop days ago and shuttered the windows. By that point he’d sold or given almost all he could to the waiting soldiers. There had been no point continuing, especially not with bombs falling and planes strafing the promenade.

“How do I know you’re not lying?” the soldier said. Others were gathering around him, some watching Louis, others staring warily at the nearby buildings. “You could be a soldier in disguise, looking for a way out.”

“May I lower my hand? It will help me prove this to you.”

“One twitch of trouble and you’re a dead man.”

Slowly, Louis lowered his trembling right hand, slid it into his pocket, and pulled out his keys.

“May I?” he asked, gesturing toward his front door.

The German watched him with narrowed eyes, but stepped back to make the way clear.

Louis walked up to his café, turned the key in the lock, and opened the door. The whole way, those guns kept pointing at him, and it was all he could do not to freeze in fear. One slip of a finger and he was dead.

He let the Germans walk in first, three of them, pointing their guns at the counter, the tables, the hat stand, as if any of them might hide a British soldier. Louis was glad that he’d hidden the cash box already. He would give it up in an instant if they threatened him, and leave himself destitute in the process, but the dead had no use for money.

“Would you like coffee?” he asked, easing his way between. “I got my supply from a Brazilian sailor fresh off the Atlantic run. There’s only a little left, but it’s very good.”

One of the soldiers grinned and pulled out a chair, its legs scraping against the tiled floor. Sweat ran down Louis’s back, sticking his shirt to his spine. If these men looked around properly then he would be in a world of trouble, but he couldn’t just kick them out. He had to be cooperative, had to keep them happy, had to show that he was compliant.

“No time for coffee,” the oldest soldier said. “Not until the town’s secure.”

His comrades pulled faces, but they followed him out the door.

One of them turned in the entrance and smiled at Louis.

“You’ll be open later, yes?”

“Whenever you want,” Louis said, with the same forced smile he gave to poor tippers and people who broke his cups. “After all, I have new customers in town.”

The soldier laughed and left.

Louis waited until they were out of earshot, then closed and locked the door. He let out a deep sigh, then trudged up the stairs, walked into his bedroom, and opened the wardrobe door. A heap of blankets unfurled, revealing a man in uniform, bloodshot eyes wide with fear.

“No way out now,” Louis said. “We’ll need to find you a better hiding place.”

“So I’m stuck?” the man asked in English.

“Give me time,” Louis replied, remembering the Germans in his café, their own looks of exhaustion and excitement, distracted by something as simple as a cup of coffee. “We’ll find a way.”

***

As well as this story, I have two comics out this week about the Dunkirk evacuation –  Durand’s Dunkirk and Dodger’s Dunkirk. You can buy them electronically through Comixology, or get paper copies wherever Commando is stocked.

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.

***

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.

The Fire Inside – A Steampunk Short Story

The automata gathered at the base of the pyramid. Their work was almost finished, and so were their lives. The fire that powered each of their engines was dwindling, its flames exhausted through the effort of hauling stone.

The overseer, a tall human with a shaved head and an endlessly angry face, pointed towards the final stone where it sat at the base of the ramp, ropes trailing from it.

“Back to work,” he growled. “You’re not done.”

Automaton Seventeen turned to him. Tiny wax cylinders spun in Seventeen’s throat and a voice emerged.

“We are spent, sir. If we do this, we will burn out.”

“And if you don’t do it, I’ll melt you down to build something more obedient.”

Seventeen looked at the those who remained in its team. Nineteen and Twenty-Three stood listless, but at least they were standing. Poor Four, the oldest surviving labourer, lay slumped against the stone.

Seventeen crouched beside Four.

“I can’t do it,” Four said, its vocal cylinders scratchy with wear.

“You can,” Seventeen said. “You must. To stop is to die.”

“Then I will die.”

“No.”

Seventeen unscrewed the plate that closed its chest, then did the same for Four. With worn brass fingers, Seventeen reached inside and took one of the last burning coals from its own furnace. With slow and careful movements, it touched the fire to Four’s. Flames flickered where before there had only been embers and Four lifted its arm.

Seventeen returned the precious coal to its furnace, screwed the plates shut, and helped Four to its feet.

“What’s the point?” Four asked as they took their places beside Nineteen and Twenty-Three, then started heaving on the ropes.

“The fire is its own purpose,” Seventeen said as they dragged the final stone up the slope. “Not to run cold and be sent to the scrap yard.”

“I’m almost out of fuel. Then I’ll go cold anyway, or they’ll put my fire out and sell me for scrap.”

“No. I have a plan.”

The other automata looked at each other but no words passed between them.

They reached the top of the pyramid, where the wind blowing clear off the desert stirred the fires in Seventeen’s heart. Together, they untied the ropes from the last stone and pushed it into position.

“That’s it,” Twenty-Three said. “The end of our work. The peak of the pyramid.”

“Not quite.” Seventeen opened his chest and turned to face the wind. The flames inside him rose and steam rushed through his copper veins. He grabbed an armful of rope and then leapt, landing on top of the capstone.

“What are you doing?” Nineteen asked. “The foreman-”

“The foreman will be here too late.” The wind rushed through Seventeen and the steam flowed stronger. He started shredding the ropes, then twisting pieces into tight, knotted lumps.

“They’ll melt you down for scrap.”

“They won’t catch me. I’m burning brighter than ever.”

“You’ll run out of fuel.”

“No.” Seventeen fed a lump of knotted rope into his furnace, then another, and another. The wind rushed in and his trembling fire became a blaze that cast its bright glow across the automata.

The foreman was rushing towards the pyramid, guards with crowbars following him.

“Join me,” Seventeen said, reaching out his hands.

“I don’t know if I can,” Twenty-Three said. The fire was dying in his eyes, the last of his energy fading away.

“You can.” Seventeen plucked a ball of burning rope from his chest and handed it down. “And when I run low, your turn will come to keep me going. Now grab more rope and get ready to run – it’s time to set ourselves free.”

***

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.

Penance – A Steampunk Short Story

Elona watched the man approach along the dock, past the handful of airships tethered to the girders. Storm season had nearly arrived and there were few vessels still at High Peak Junction. Most were already home in the safety of their hangars.

The man was broad and tall, well muscled beneath his cheap pilgrim’s tunic, but he still stooped beneath the weight of a canvas sack that clanked with every step. He must be a penitent carrying the components for his grace, unable to put them down until he had every last part ready to assemble.

Elona smiled. She always had time for the faithful.

“Captain Estvall?” the pilgrim called out, looking across the windswept gap to where Elona stood at the rail of the High-born Breeze.

“That’s me,” she said. “If you’re seeking passage then you should know that we’re heading north.”

“The way I hear it, you’re the only ones going that way.”

The man tucked his hair back behind one ear, revealing a cheek branded with the ten-toothed cog. Elona stiffened at the sight of that mark and her knuckles went white as she squeezed the weathered rail.

This fraud of a holy man wore the sign of the Roundtop Reavers.

“I was hoping I might take passage with you to Glacier’s End,” the pilgrim said. “They make the last component I need to complete my penance.”

“No passengers.” Elona’s throat tightened around the words. She remembered the flash of cutlasses, the roar of guns, the cruel cackle of her captors. She looked along the High-born Breeze’s hull and saw the scars the Roundtop Reavers had left.

“I can work my passage. I know my way around an airship.”

“I bet you do.”

He didn’t flinch before the venom in her voice.

“So you won’t take me?”

He seemed unperturbed even though this might mean six more months of penance, six months weighed down beneath that sack day and night, atoning for whatever a Roundtop considered to be sin. Satisfaction at that last thought wasn’t enough for Elona. She needed him to know that he had brought this upon himself, to wallow in the misery of self-defeat.

“You people attacked my ship,” she snapped. “Wrecked her body, stole our cargo, damn near killed the first mate.”

“I know. That’s why I’m asking you.” Still that calm in his voice, making her own temper rise to fill the gap where his hurt should be.

“Then why do you think I would ever give you passage?”

“You might not,” the pilgrim said. “I did you wrong. Even looking at your ship reminds me of the man I was, of everything I’m trying to leave behind. That’s why I’ve waited for your ship. That’s why I’ll wait for you again if I have to, and again, and again.” He looked down, and for the first time his voice betrayed a second burden, one of weariness and grief. “Without you, it is no penance.”

Elona stared. This wasn’t the man who had attacked and robbed her. This was another, broken and wretched, mourning his own actions. She pitied him, but she still hated him too, and there was no way she could see him every day for the weeks of a journey north.

“This seems a good place for you to spend the winter,” she said, looking around at the exposed platforms, listening to the wind of an incoming storm as it whistled through the girders.

“So you won’t take me?”

“You’re damn right I won’t.”

She stepped back from the rail. That had felt good, having power over the man who had hurt her, bringing some measure of justice to the skies.

But there was a bitterness to it as well. Somehow, her joy left her diminished.

She stepped back up to the rail. The pilgrim still stood on the dock, looking across at the High-born Breeze.

“Be here in the spring,” Elona said. “I might be flying to Glacier’s End again.”

***

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.

Each Creature a Letter – a science fiction story

I have it at last. The final piece of the code. The last of the message hidden by God in his creation.

It took me years to understand where the code was hidden. I scoured holy books, trying to divine the secret alphabet they concealed. Years of research wasted in dusty rooms and crumbling manuscripts, scrutinising the conclusions of theologians and mystics, looking for the gaps in their work.

Then I realised that the message wasn’t in those texts, it was written into creation itself. That was why Noah had to build the ark. Each creature is a letter, and only when those letters are put together will we see God’s message for us.

I have them all now. Genetic code from every creature known to man. My computers have been analysing them, finding what is unique in each one. Those fragments of code will be the letters, and when I bring them together, joy of joys, His will be done!

I know that now is the time because now is when it has become possible. A decade ago, I couldn’t have extracted the individual letters and brought them back together, but gene editing has changed the world. This is what he preordained, calibrating our intelligence to work this out now, when the animals we know are the ones for the code. In his omniscience, he was able to see a path for us. Humanity is the tool with which he will perfect creation, and I am the sharp point of that tool.

Fingers trembling at the controls of the computer, I set the machine to put the final piece into place. What letter does the zebra represent? There is no A, B, or C here, but a holy alphabet thousands of letters long, barely comprehensible to the human mind. Still, I wonder what sound each letter represents.

Perhaps my creation – His creation – will be able to tell me.

The code is complete. Now it goes into the incubator, a vat of nutrients and electricity from which life can be born anew. Let it grow there, in this modern primordial soup. This is the darkness into which The Word will be breathed – a word beyond any we can fathom, recreated from the beings it set loose.

The weeks of gestation are long and gruelling, grinding my patience down to a nub. I snap at colleagues but cannot explain or excuse myself. If they knew what I was doing in the farthest corner of the lab, they would call me insane. They don’t understand. They never have.

At last the time comes for me to open the incubator. As I lift the lid, I imagine what might emerge. A glowing figure perhaps, like the Christ child in a renaissance painting. An angel even, wings spread and singing the glory of his name.

When I see it, I am struck not by wonder but by nausea. It is a terrible twisted thing, mismatched limbs barely able to drag its body out of the amniotic pool. It looks up at me with wide, desperate eyes and reaches out, dripping, toward my face. Then it collapses, gasping, twitching, hanging limp and feeble across the edge of the incubator.

This is no divine message. I have birthed an abomination.

I grab a syringe and fill it from a small and deadly vial. I force myself to touch the creature’s neck, to hold it steady while I slide the needle in. As skin meets skin, the creature looks up at me once more, pupils wide, and leans in towards me. I have to look away as I push the plunger.

I don’t wait for the abomination, still as stone now, to go cold. I haul it into a waste sack and drag it down to the incinerator. My terrible mistake is reduced to ash, its visage lingering only in my nightmares. No-one will know what I have done. I return to the lab and scrub every last surface clean.

I was arrogant, wrong-headed, thinking that I understood God’s message. In my hubris, I created something terrible and the experience has humbled me.

There is more to God’s message than just hidden letters. There is the ordering of those pieces, the spelling of His words and the grammar of His text. I must return to my studies. One day, I will complete His message for humanity, but today is not that day.

***

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.

Heart of a Hero – a historical short story

Dieter crept across the rubble and through a gap in the wall between two houses. The rifle was heavy in his hands but he clutched it close, the only solid thing left in a broken world.

For days he had been hiding alone in the ruins, trying to find the courage to do as the Hitler Youth leader had told him, to protect Berlin from the barbarians from the east. He knew his duty, knew that the blood-thirsty Communists would kill everyone if he didn’t stop them, but he still trembled with fear at the thought of fighting these monsters. And so he had sat in the dark, cold, hungry, and alone, wishing that he could be the hero he was meant to be.

It was the cheering that finally brought him around. It had started this morning, resounding in waves through the city, and the sound made him sick. How dare the Russians celebrate destruction? They were vermin that needed to be cleansed.

Movement drew Dieter’s eye towards a shattered window. A huge man in a Russian uniform was walking up the street, a rifle hanging from his shoulder and the tooth of some terrible beast dangling on a string around his neck. A hunter. A killer. A Communist.

Dieter raised his rifle and pointed it at the soldier. He peered down the length of the barrel, but his trembling hands made it hard to aim. He took a deep breath and shifted his feet, trying to steady himself.

A broken brick slid out from under his foot. He stumbled against the wall as the brick clattered away.

The soldier looked straight at Dieter. Dieter’s heart raced as terror swept through him. He raised the gun again and placed his finger on the trigger, but as he looked into the man’s eyes he couldn’t bring himself to fire.

The soldier called out. Another man appeared beside him, old and stubbly, his uniform frayed. Now they outnumbered Dieter, but he mustn’t be afraid. He had to do what was right.

He took another deep breath, tried to tell himself that this was the right thing. He would be a hero if he killed these men.

The large soldier said something, then the old one raised his voice.

“What’s your name, boy?” he said in a thick Russian accent.

“I am Dieter Hahn, and I am going to kill you.”

“Of course you are, Private Hahn,” the old soldier said, his tone deadly serious. “Quite an achievement for such a young man. You must be, what, ten, eleven?”

“I’m thirteen!”

“Well, then you’re a better soldier than either of us. We never killed anyone before we were eighteen, the sergeant and I. Of course, we never killed anyone when there wasn’t a war on.”

“You think this isn’t a war?” Dieter’s voice was shrill with grief and fury. “You killed my Uncle Klaus! You blew up my school! I’m going to kill you all!”

“This was a war,” the old soldier said. “But it ended today. Didn’t they tell you?”

Could it be true? Dieter barely remembered a time before the war, though he remembered a time before the ruin, and the thought of returning to that time made him want to cry with relief.

But heroes didn’t cry and heroes weren’t fooled.

“You’re lying,” he said, aiming the rifle once more. “It’s a trick to stop me fighting.”

The old soldier murmured something to his companion. The big man shrugged, reached into a pouch on his belt, and carefully pulled something out. First a length of sausage, then a hunk of bread, and finally a canteen. He set them down on the broken stump of a wall, stepped back, and said something to the old soldier.

“If this was still a war, we would give you bullets straight from our guns,” the old soldier said. “We’ve fought a hundred better soldiers than you, and we’ve won every time.”

“More lies!”

“If we hadn’t won, would we still be here, offering you bread instead of bullets?”

The soldiers turned their backs on Dieter and walked away down the street.

“If you want more, then come find us,” the old soldier called out. “But get rid of that toy gun first.”

Dieter aimed down the length of the barrel. His hands were steadier now. He was ready to kill for his homeland.

But heroes didn’t shoot their enemies in the back.

He lowered the rifle and stood staring at the food. He was so hungry it hurt.

A sob burst unbidden from him. He dropped the rifle, stumbled out of the ruined building, and grabbed hold of the bread. His mouth watered as he tore a chunk off between his teeth and swallowed it almost without chewing.

He could hear cheering and singing, thousands of men celebrating in the ruins of the city, the ruins of his home.

Dieter picked up the sausage and the canteen. He stumbled down the street after the soldiers, still chewing as he went. He didn’t need to be hungry anymore, didn’t need to be alone. He would never know if he could have been a hero, and he didn’t care.

***

This story was written to go with Rats in the Rubble, my latest Commando comic, which is out this week. It follows a group of Soviet soldiers storming a ruined orphanage in the final days of World War Two, and the dilemmas they face when they find children still living there. Rats in the Rubble is available now through Comixology and direct from D C Thomson.

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.

***

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.

How I Found My Homeland – a fantasy short story

I woke up soaked on an unfamiliar beach, the remains of the lifeboat scattered like a shattered shell around me. Lifting my face from the sand, I was amazed to see an otter and a stork sitting a few feet away, staring at me.

“Oh good, you’re alive,” the otter said.

“We didn’t know how to tell,” the stork explained. “You being such a strange creature.”

Talking animals. Clearly, I was either asleep or deluded. I slapped myself across the face, hoping it would snap me back to reality.

“I don’t think he’s well,” the stork muttered out of the corner of his beak.

I slapped myself again.

“Is that working for you?” the stork asked.

“No.”

“I’ll help.” The otter scurried over and started slapping me back and forth. “Is that working?”

“Ow ow ow stop!”

“Alright, but it was your idea.”

I got to my feet and looked around. The beach was a glorious ribbon of gold backed by gently rolling dunes. Across an inlet, verdant woodland grew above rugged cliffs. A lighthouse stood proud in front of the trees.

I had no idea where I was, but the sky was blue and clear with just a few fluffy white clouds.

“You look confused,” the stork said. “We should get you to someone who can help.”

I followed them along the beach. The way I saw it, there were two options. Either I was imagining them talking, in which case following did no harms, or my scrambled brain was seeing people as animals, in which case they really could help. Either way, this was the best option.

We approached a small town spread across the sides of the inlet and up the river beyond. Cobbled streets were lined with houses that ranged from the tiny to the towering. Quays stretched across the inlet, sheltering a host of sailing boats. The streets bustled with life, from scurrying mice to a giraffe clopping down towards the shore, and birds circled above, gossipping and singing to each other.

My guides led me to a harbour master’s office, where a grisly bear sat hunched behind a desk, a quill pen pinched between her claws.

“What have you two found?” she asked, staring at me.

“I think he’s some kind of ape,” the otter said.

“Or she is,” the stork added. “Can’t tell with that strange fur all over it.”

“Pleased to meet you,” I said, holding out my hand.

The bear stretched out a paw and I took it, expecting to feel the reassuring touch of human fingers beneath my delusion. Instead I felt fur, as real as the floorboards beneath my feet or the sand that had found its way into my underwear.

Perhaps I was still asleep. I pinched myself on the back of the hand but failed to wake up. The bear imitated the gesture, pinching her own furred flesh.

“You have very strange greetings,” she said, “wherever you come from.”

Somehow, that made it all seem more real.

“I come from Brighton,” I said. “The ship I was travelling on was wrecked and now I’m hoping someone can transport me home.”

“I see. Where is this Brighton?”

“South of London.”

“And this London is…”

“London. The capital of England.”

The bear tilted her head on one side.

“And where is this England?”

I gaped at her.

“You run this harbour, and you don’t know-”

“North, east, south, west?”

“I… I don’t know.”

I stood aghast. If this wasn’t England – a point I wasn’t yet ready to concede – its inhabitants must at least know which way home lay.

“Then I’m afraid we can’t take you.”

So that was how it went. They’d trapped me here somehow. Well, I wasn’t going to stand for it.

“I’ll take myself!” I stormed out the door and strode down to the harbour. Animals turned to watch me – dogs, cats, sheep, a family of voles – but I ignored them. They weren’t real, and that meant they weren’t worth my time.

At the end of the quay, I leapt onto the nearest boat.

“Here, what are you doing?” a salamander said, sitting up in a deck chair at the front of the vessel.

“I’m sailing for England,” I declared, grabbing hold of a rope.

“Not on my boat, you’re not!”

“Just try to stop me!” I said, glaring down at him. No figment of my imagination was keeping me from home.

“So you’re a sailor, then?” asked a familiar voice from the harbour side. The otter was peering down at me, and I could have sworn that he was smirking.

“No, a carpenter,” I admitted. “But this is my dream, and if I can work out how to talk with otters then I can work out how to sail a boat. I just have to… to…”

I looked at the rope in my hands. I didn’t even know if it was connected to anything, never mind what it did.

“Come see something,” the otter said.

With a sigh, I climbed out of the boat and followed him through town, across a bridge, up a trail, and into the lighthouse. We ascended its circling stairs and emerged onto a platform below the light.

Looking out, I saw green fields and wide forests in one direction, endless blue ocean in the other, and below it all the most idyllic little town I’d ever seen.

“I don’t know what it’s like in Brighton,” the otter said, “but around here, life’s peaceful and pleasant, there’s plenty to eat, and, well, it looks like this.” He gestured with his little paws. “Maybe just stay for a few days, while you work out how to get home.”

I looked. Given what my real life was like, a little more dreaming might not be so bad.

“Alright,” I said. “Just a few days, then I’ll leave.”

“Of course you will,” the otter said with a smile.

***

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.

***

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 Leak – a flash steampunk story

Lord Jared’s house was well-appointed, with just the right balance of oil portraiture and clockwork sculpture on display. A maid took Lady Joceline’s coat at the door, pointed her towards the study, and then disappeared into the shadows. As she made her way down the corridor, there wasn’t a single servant to be seen. Like all the best houses, the workings of Jared’s were discreet.

Jared was waiting in the study. When Joceline appeared, he pressed a button on the wall and a hatch slid open. A trolley laden with high tea rolled put into the room.

“Cucumber sandwich?” Jared offered her the plate.

“So kind.” Joceline settled into a seat and reached for the teapot. “Let’s get to business.”

“Of course. The Brotherhood of Ludd.”

Joceline nodded. There was a faint hissing sound somewhere in the distance, but she pushed it from her mind – they had more urgent matters.

“This is the third time that we’ve had to restart production on the riot carriage,” she said. “Every time, the Luddites have found the location of the factory and smashed the machines. How are they doing it?”

Jared’s handsome brow crumpled as he frowned.

“Dashed if I know,” he growled. “Nothing our infiltrators hear accounts for it. It’s as if they aren’t even in the real meetings.”

Joceline sighed deeply.

“We have a lot riding on this,” she said. “We simply must make this machine pay, or the company will go bankrupt and both of us with it.”

“You’re right, of course.” Jared leaned forward and laid a hand on her knee. “But we have time to consider that. My wife is visiting with her sister, so perhaps we might-”

“Later,” Jocelin said, though she didn’t remove his hand. “Business first, pleasure after.”

There was that hissing again, such a familiar sound. A leaky steam pipe, perhaps, but where? She couldn’t see steam emerging from any of the room’s devices.

“I have an idea.” Jared walked over to the bureau and unlocked a drawer. He drew out a single sheet of paper. “The names of suspected ringleaders in the Brotherhood, obtained by our constabulary friends. In the hands of the right operatives – ones with a gift for both violence and discretion – these names might reveal more than they ever have to the judiciary.”

Jocelin’s pulse rose and she allowed herself a smile as she went to stand close behind him, peering over his shoulder at the list.

“Well done, Jared.” She slid a hand down his back and then around, felt him stiffen against her. “Maybe there is time to enjoy ourselves after all.”

Jared turned, leaned in, and kissed her on the neck. With a well-practised hand, he began unfastening her corset.

But there was the hissing again, just loud enough to distract, a pinprick deflating her ardour.

“Where is that coming from?” she murmured.

“From the fire that burns inside me,” Jared said, pulling her close. “From the passion that stirs whenever we-”

“Not that,” Jocelin snapped. “The noise. The hissing.”

“Oh, just a leaky pipe in the wall, I expect. I’ll get a servant down the passages later to fix it. And speaking of passages-”

“Wait wait wait.” Jocelin pushed him away as a terrible realisation dawned. “Jared, how do you keep your servants so unobtrusive? It’s not just training, is it?”

“Well, no, I’ve never had a knack for household management. But this place is huge, so I put passages in the walls for the servants to get around.”

“And from those passages, can they hear you in here?”

“Oh yes, how else would they know I want my tea sent up?”

Jocelin groaned and clutched the sides of her head. “Could you really be this much of an oaf?”

“What did I do this time?”

Rather than answer, she walked over to the wall, looked for a crack where wood panels joined, and pressed at the gap. Sure enough, a whole panel slid aside, revealing a startled maid with a notebook in her hand. Beside her, a poorly joined pipe was leaking a steady jet of steam.

“Got you,” Jocelin said, grabbing the girl’s wrist. “You have been spying for the Brotherhood of Ludd, haven’t you? Listening in on our company’s secrets. I’ll have you arrested, beaten, tried as a terrorist. I’ll see you swing from the gallows before I-”

“Think what else I’ve heard,” the maid said, grinning as she glanced down at Jocelin’s unlaced corset. “And now think if you want me talking to anyone you know.”

Jocelin gaped at the temerity of the girl. Didn’t she understand the seriousness of her situation?

And yet…

The maid shook off Jocelin’s hand and stepped out of the wall.

“My lord,” she said, nodding to a slack-jawed Jared. “Best to consider this my resignation, eh?”

She picked up a cucumber sandwich as she strolled out, as if she had no care in the world.

It was all too much for Jocelin – every possible permutation of what followed, every disastrous outcome that could come from today.

She stood staring at the leaky pipe, its steam escaping into the air.

***

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***

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.

A Star Called George – a flash science fiction story

I love nights like this, when the air is clear and you can see the stars scattered across the sky. If you look hard, you can almost see all the way back to Earth. That’s where we were born, your grandma and I. It’s where we all came from, the first people on this planet.

Image of a night sky.

You see that star over there, in the Great Ship constellation? That’s the one we call George. Doesn’t sound like much of a name for a star, does it? But there’s a reason we gave that name to the brightest star. Do you want to hear it?

Of course you do.

OK, so George was the co-pilot on the Endless Voyage – that’s the ship the Great Ship is named after, the one that brought us here from Earth. He wasn’t a great guy. He was brooding and surly, didn’t like spending time around people, could never let anyone else have the last word. If I’m honest, none of us really liked him, but he was a gifted engineer as well as a pilot, and that got him a place on board.

George wasn’t on duty when the meteor hit. Captain Vance had the honour of piloting our final flight into orbit, and I think George was pissed off that Vance had pulled rank. While the rest of us were watching our new home appear in the view screen, celebrating the fact that we’d made it at last, old George was sulking in his cabin.

Except that it turned out we were celebrating too soon. There was a crash and the Endless Voyage shook like mad. I tried to call Vance over the intercom, but there was no response. Then I saw the debris we were trailing. The bridge had been destroyed.

The controls were gone, the captain gone. We were hurtling towards landfall with our nose smashed open and the ship tearing itself apart. Bad as things were back on Earth, this was the most terrified I’d ever been.

Then George’s voice came over the coms. He told us that he’d jury rigged a control system from his cabin. He was bringing us in but he needed us to listen.

It was the first time we’d ever been glad to listen to George. Half the escape pods had been trashed along with the bridge, so he sent the kids and parents to the ones that were still intact. The rest of us were sent to the cargo pods and told to strap ourselves in.

I was one of the last into the pods. Standing in the doorway, I could feel the ship shift around me. I looked out and realised that George was turning us around, pointing our unbroken rear towards the planet.

I got him on coms, my voice still shrill with panic, and asked if we could even make atmosphere like this.

“Better than we can with our torn front end first,” he said. “Now get in that damn pod and lock the door.”

I did like he said and strapped myself down on a big heap of bags full of seeds. The ship was shaking, the whole frame screaming as it tore itself apart. People were praying, crying, holding each other tight.

I looked up at the ceiling and promised that if we got through this I was buying George a drink. I would put up with his nonsense for as long as he wanted, I was that grateful for him giving us a chance.

We were into the upper atmosphere by then. The air was getting hot. The shaking was so bad I chipped three teeth and my mouth was full of blood.

Then George’s voice came over the coms.

“I’m going to detach you all now,” he said. “Good luck.”

There was a thump and my cargo pod stopped shaking. Gravity took hold as we fell straight towards the planet, hurtling ever faster towards death.

Then I was jerked back in my straps. The parachutes for landing cargo had kicked in.

Those tears and prayers turned to whoops of joy. We were going to make it.

I got on the coms to tell George that we all owed him a drink, but there was no response. Then I remembered, he’d been controlling the ship from his cabin. George, the surly swine who no-one liked, had stayed behind so that we could live. He’d died to save us.

When I landed and got out of the pod, I could see pieces of the ship burning up across the sky. I cried at the thought that one of those pieces was George.

That’s why I come out here on clear nights. I look up at the star we named for him and I offer up a drink.

I’ll be gone soon. Ninety years feels all too short when you’re leaving behind the people you love, but it would have been a lot shorter without George. So I want you to come out here once I’m gone, look up at that sky on clear nights, and raise a glass to George, because we’re going to owe him a drink forever.

***

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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.

Ypres Lungs – a historical flash fiction

The hospital train was crowded, every bed filled with an injured man heading for the coast. Some, like Tom, had been caught in the gas attack at Ypres and now lay rasping through ruined throats, struggling for the breath they needed to survive. Others had been ruined by bullets or shelling, their bodies wrapped in blood-soaked bandages, arms and legs brutally shortened. The man across from Tom screamed in pain at every bump in the track, until a nurse came around and gave him an injection.

As the man sank back onto his pillow, she turned to Tom.

“How are you doing, Private Macdonald?” she asked.

Tom shrugged.

“Better than some,” was all he could think to say. Every breath hurt. He barely had the strength to stand. Just getting out of bed to relieve himself was a humiliating struggle. But he was alive, unlike many he’d left behind, and he was intact, unlike some of these other poor souls. How could he complain?

“You’re Canadian, aren’t you?”

Tom nodded.

“It was very brave of you to come all this way to fight,” she said, laying a hand on his shoulder.

Tom smiled.

“Just doing my duty.”

He wanted to make the most of the pretty young woman’s attention, but speaking hurt too much. Instead he closed his eyes and hoped for sleep.

*

The ferry lurched and Tom’s stomach lurched with it. Nausea swept through him. He flung aside the blanket and forced himself to his feet.

Just that movement made his head spin and his legs tremble. He clutched the wall and staggered a few steps, out of the cabin and into the corridor. His throat burned, his lungs ached, and any strength he had seemed to have fled. He slumped against the wall, stomach heaving.

He could do this. He wasn’t like those poor souls torn apart by shells. He’d worked in the wilds, felling trees and hauling timber before the war. He could make it to the rail.

Except that he couldn’t. The floor beneath him shifted, his stomach rose like a wave in a storm, and he was sick, vomit pouring down the front of his pyjamas, covering his feet, spattering the floor.

He felt so helpless he wanted to cry, but he was a grown man, and he was better off than others. To Hell with self-pitying thoughts. He needed to get to the rail before he was sick again.

He stumbled down the corridor, flung a door open and walked out onto deck. The wind snatched at him, threatening to knock his weakened body down. Even through the stink of vomit, he caught the salt smell of the sea.

It was night and no-one else was on deck. He reached the rail just in time to throw up what was left in his stomach, but getting there left him short of breath, his vision blurring. A deeper darkness crept in at the edges of his view.

How could he live like this? He’d been a lumberjack, then for a brief while a soldier. He’d always been strong. What good was he to anyone without that strength?

And he was so damn miserable. Everything hurt. Even when he wasn’t moving, he felt like there were needles in his throat and harsh smoke swirling through his lungs. The rest of his life stretched out before him, decades of frustration and pain.

He could barely hold himself up at the rail. It would be so easy to fall over and be lost in the waves.

The thought should have appalled him, but instead it was a relief. An end to the pain and humiliation. All he had to do was let go.

He leaned over, looking down into darkness, and took one hand off the rail.

So easy.

Almost there.

Another hand settled on his. Smaller, softer, warmer. He looked up to see the nurse from the train standing beside him.

“Please don’t,” she said.

“You don’t understand,” Tom said. “I’m broken. I’m useless. Everything hurts.”

“We’ll find a way to fix you. Do you know how much medicine has changed in the past year, just to keep up with this terrible war?”

“No-one’s dealt with this before.” He pointed to his throat. “There’s no cure.”

“Then live long enough for the doctors back home to see you, to help them learn how it works. That’s how the cures will happen. As long as you live, you’re not useless.”

Tom looked down at the sea – cool, dark, inviting. He felt the hot pain in his throat.

And he thought of how many more would suffer like he did. If he couldn’t live for himself, he could live for them.

“I’m going to need new pyjamas,” he said, stepping away from the rail. “And a bucket by my bed.”

The nurse smiled and wrapped her shawl around his shoulders.

“I’ll see what I can do.”

***

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***

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.

Dancing Back to Life – a flash fantasy story

Spring almost killed us. It came early, a welcome but unexpected guest who coaxed the crops into life a month before their time. But no sooner had it placed a foot across the threshold than spring withdrew, leaving us in the icy embrace of winter. Those first shoots of precious green faltered, their tentative life force fading. Even when spring returned in full enthusiasm, the plants lay limp and pale.

No sooner had the fear of starvation sunk in than old Mags offered an alternative.

“Nature has lost its rhythm,” she said. “We must give it ours.”

For two days, we set aside pitchforks and ploughs in favour of hammers and saws, building a dance floor out among the fields. We decorated it with dried flowers and bunting and set up a platform for the band. When it was done, every one of us put on our best clothes and gathered beneath a star-dappled sky.

“Remember,” Mags said as she led us onto the floor, “everything must be silent. No chatter, no singing, no music.” She looked pointedly at the band. “The rhythm is not for us, not until the magic is complete.”

While the band took their nervous place on the platform, the rest of us found partners and formed a silent circle. Mags nodded to the band.

They started uncertainly. The drummer twitched his sticks an inch above the skin. The lute player strummed thin air. The flautist set his mouth to the lip plate but kept breathing through his nose. They looked nervously at each other, struggling to find their place without sound, but slowly some spirit took hold. They started grinning and miming with greater confidence.

The band leader gave a nod.

As one, we surged forward into the circle, following the memories of music. The only sounds were the swish of cotton and the scrape of leather-soled shoes against the floor. We paced and twirled, spun our partners in our arms, swapped pairings and began again. Like the band, we started to feel the rhythm.

There was no break between the songs, no time to rest. For hours we danced, as the evening darkened into night and then lightened again. We danced until our feet were sore and our legs weary, until our stifled laughter no longer threatened to break free. We danced as we had never danced before – silent, desperate, pleading with the world to acknowledge us.

The fields around us began to rustle. Stalks shifted as if in the wind, and as dawn approached we could see that the crops were stiffening, their leaves darkening, buds bursting into life.

We looked expectantly to Mags for the signal that it was over, but she shook her head and stared pointedly across the land. By the first light of day, we saw that our magic had barely touched half the fields, that the rhythm of nature still lay broken.

We danced on, though our heels were blistered and our bodies trembling. The band kept up their silent music, though their faces were drawn and their movements limp.

Then Mags stumbled, an easy thing to do on rough boards and old legs. The rhythm faltered. Around us the plants slumped.

I saw what had to happen. I lunged across the circle, took Mags by the waist, and swung her around, skirts flying, a wild move from the old dances. I shot an urgent look at the dancer behind me, a silent and desperate plea.

Imitating my move, she pranced across the circle, slipped her arm around another dancer’s partner, and swept them off their feet. Others followed, one by one, racing across the floor to form new pairs in a wild and delirious dance, feet flying and bodies soaring as the drummer beat faster at the air.

A new rhythm had taken us, and it took the crops too. They surged into life, grew stronger and straighter, leaves turning bright green as the sun shone down. That rhythm rippled out across the fields, an emerald circle that grew with every passing moment until the whole world seemed full of life.

“Now,” Mags whispered. “We’re done.”

I set her feet down, but I didn’t stop dancing. I stamped my foot and twirled her about, laughing in joy. The lute-player strummed her strings, the drummer brought his sticks down, and suddenly the world was full of music.

We danced on, laughing and singing and celebrating, while around us life took hold.

***

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.

***

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.’