Gremlin in the Gears – a flash fantasy story

“Get your bally plane into the fight, Houghton!”

A Spitfire in flight

Squadron Leader Royce’s voice rattled from the radio of Arthur Houghton’s Spitfire. The air ahead was full of planes, twisting and tumbling through the late summer sky. The squadron were fighting for their lives and Houghton was stuck, his plane refusing to accelerate to full speed or to make more than the slowest of climbs.

“I’m trying, sir,” Houghton replied over the roar of the engine. “I swear, there are gremlins in my gears.”

“Stop blaming your machine and get stuck in.”

Houghton gritted his teeth as he wrestled with the trembling controls. Why was it always his plane that failed? No wonder the others whispered about cowardice just on the edge of his hearing.

He tilted his head and peered out of the cockpit. A green head with bulbous eyes stared back at him. Something was peeling back the housing of his engine, something with jagged teeth, an oil-stained arm, and a fistful of frayed wires.

“It can’t be.” Houghton stared wide-eyed at the creature. “It’s a gremlin. An honest to goodness gremlin.”

“I swear to God, Houghton, I’m going to have you on a charge,” Royce snarled.

Houghton yanked the stick, turning the Spitfire into a sudden roll. The gremlin swung loose, hung for a moment by one hand, and then vanished from view.

Grinning, Houghton straightened out and accelerated towards the fight.

“I’m on my way, sir.”

A Messerschmitt 109 loomed in the sky ahead of him. He pressed the trigger on his guns and bullets tore through the air, missing the enemy by inches. The 109 started to turn. Houghton followed, lining up his guns, almost ready…

A green face plastered itself across his view. He yelled in alarm as the gremlin gnashed its teeth.

Then the creature turned and ran down the front of the engine. Somehow, the speed of the plane and turbulence of the air didn’t shake it off. It bent open the engine housing and thrust a hand inside.

The engine sputtered and failed. Houghton found himself drifting into a terrifying glide with no power and little control. He hammered at the started, but got only the most fleeting of growls.

The 109 had completed its turn and was hurtling towards him. Bullets tore through Houghton’s wingtip, then crept closer as the pilot narrowed his aim.

The 109 was nearly on top of Houghton. The gremlin stood by the open engine panel, grinning as it stuffed something oil-covered into its mouth, then came running back along the plane to jump up and down on top of the cockpit, smearing Houghton’s view with its oily feet.

In desperation, he punched the instrument panel. Something shook loose and the engine gave a strained growl.

Seizing on that brief moment of power, Houghton flew up into the path of the 109. The German turned to avoid a collision. Houghton spun his plane and pushed the stick. For a moment, the underbelly of the enemy was inches from the top of his cockpit.

There was a thud, a shriek, and the two planes peeled away from each other. When Houghton looked back, he saw something green clinging to the front of the 109. Smoke was streaming from the 109’s engine.

He pressed his starter. The engine roared into life – not healthy, but working.

He reached for the radio, about to tell the others what he’d seen, to prove that he wasn’t a coward. Then he realised how it would sound.

“Sorry, Squadron Leader,” he said as he turned to join the dogfight. “Lost my nerve for a minute there, but I’m with you now.”

***

The myth of gremlins, malicious creatures that stop machines working, originated with the Royal Air Force in the 1920s and ’30s. By the Second World War, it had become common to blame unexplained mechanical failures on gremlins, a better way of venting frustrations than blaming colleagues in the heat of war. Roald Dahl popularised the idea beyond Britain, and so a legend was born.

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.’

Painting Doom – a flash fantasy story

Thomas drew his brush across the wall, leaving a curve of thick red paint. He filled out the space beneath the curve, then added the white points of teeth and the black barbs of a pitchfork. Another demon emerged on the wall, ushering the pale images of sinners into the flames.

Thomas shook his head. Doomsday paintings were so much of his work. Every noble wanted one in their house. But just painting them filled him with dread, driven by the certainty that he would be judged and found wanting.

He mixed more paint on his palette and turned back to the wall. The paint had clearly run, as the new demon’s fork was pointing at a different sinner, and another of the beasts had approached the flames on pigment wings.

Disconcerted, Thomas took a step back. The composition would still work if he added another demon between these two. He brought his reddened brush to the wall.

The demon with the pitchfork tipped its head back.

Thomas screamed and dropped the palette. Precious paint-spattered the flagstones.

The demon grinned. Its companion flexed its wings and started pulling away from the wall, struggling against a sticky mass of paint.

“It’s a dream,” Thomas exclaimed.

He raised a trembling hand and slapped himself across the face. He did it again, but still, reality didn’t return.

“No dream,” the demons hissed as one. “You have given us life.”

“Then I can take it away!”

Thomas grabbed another brush and smeared streaks of white across both fiends, slapping it on over and over. At last, he stood, panting and staring at a pale blank space.

“Not so easy,” the demon voices croaked.

Red hands appeared, then heads, then torsos. The demons emerged like swimmers from a lake.

“We are still here, whatever you paint over us,” they said. “You made us real.”

Thomas gaped in horror. How had he done this?

It didn’t matter. What mattered was that he could do it. He picked up the black brush and painted a cage over the demons. Bars, floor, roof, hinged and locked door. Red wings batted against the sides in frustration.

“Ha! Thomas said. “Got you.”

“Perhaps,” the wingless demon said, grinning. “Or perhaps…”

It thrust its pitchfork between the floor and bottom of the door. There was a grinding noise as the prongs slid through the slim space. Then it flexed its muscles and heaved. Levered by the pitchfork, the door lifted off its hinges and fell to the floor.

The demons stepped out.

“It’s not fair,” Thomas wailed. “Why couldn’t this have happened when I was painting a landscape or a tavern sign?”

“Where is the power in those things?” the demons said. “Only we would do.”

“What do you want from me?”

The demons grinned.

“Just keep painting,” they said. “Let the fires roar and our kindred emerge to judge the world.”

Thomas trembled in terror. But then he realised, he didn’t have to face them. He turned to run.

With a wet flapping sound, the winged beast burst off the wall, swept around, and hovered in front of him, teeth bared, claws gleaming.

“Really?” it said, cackling. “You think you can flee us?”

“No,” Thomas whispered.

Brush in hand, he turned back to the wall. At least while he did as they asked, they would not drag him down to Hell. And he could paint demons for a very long time.

* * *

 

People in Medieval England were very aware that, according to their Christian faith, they would soon face Doomsday. When fear of Hell is a big part of your moral motivation, life can get pretty terrifying. Especially given the tendency of clergy and nobles to commission paintings of that coming day.

Thanks to Laura for sending me the postcard that inspired this story. If you enjoyed it, then you might want to sign up for my mailing list. You’ll get a flash story to your inbox every Friday, as well as news about my book and comic releases.

Out Today – 9 Tales From Elsewhere #7

The worn grip of the bow was a familiar friend. He pulled back the string, felt the power of his arms and that perfect yew heartwood…

9 talesOne of my short stories is seeing a re-release today. ‘Feathers’, the story of an archer trying to save his son, is reprinted in 9 Tales from Elsewhere #7. If you missed it on its previous release then now’s your chance to pick up a story that should appeal to fans of the fantastic and the medieval.

9 Tales From Elsewhere #7 is available as an Amazon e-book for £2.

Counting the Spoils – a #FlashFriday story

Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David
Napoleon Crossing the Alps by Jacques-Louis David

“I don’t get it.” Fred dipped his pen in the inkwell, made a note of the jewel-encrusted sword. It glowed even in the shadows, one more magical trinket in Europe’s strangest treasure trove. “Why didn’t Napoleon take all this with him? Or hide it and send someone back later? I know he’s a prisoner, but he’s got a whole island to keep it in.”

“Simple, mon ami.” Jean-Luc set the sword back on its shelf and picked up the next item, a simple jar covered in Arabic writing. He blew dust from the top and then frowned as it settled on his tailcoat. “The Emperor expected to win. Who could have foreseen Waterloo, eh?”

Fred set aside his pen, shook out the cramp from his wrist. Logging all the treasures in this isolated hunting lodge was tedious work. He’d rather be outside taking in the fine weather and the French countryside.

Jean-Luc twisted the lid from the pot. There was a crack of breaking wax seals, previously hidden by the dust. The two clerks glanced at one another nervously. Even the lowliest item here was worth a fortune. That was why there were soldiers outside, and why an inventory was needed – so that the heads of Europe could share out the emperor’s magical hoard. If he and Jean-Luc broke something they’d be in a world of trouble.

“It’s alright,” Fred said. “No-one need ever-“

The lid shot off the pot and a stream of fire burst out, coalescing into a glowing figure half the height of a man.

Jean-Luc yelped in pain as the pot glowed red hot. He dropped it and it shattered on the floor.

The creature giggled and dashed off down the room, leaving a trail of smoking footprints on the floorboards.

“A djinn!” Jean-Luc exclaimed in pain and wonder.

“Quick, catch it!” Fred rushed after the creature. He grabbed it as it made for the door, then jerked back in pain as flaming flesh seared his hands. As he stumbled back he knocked a head-shaped mirror and it crashed to the floor, ghostly figures of noblemen emerging from the shattered remains.

“We need something to trap it,” Jean-Luc said as he emerged from between the shelves, catching the djinn between them in a corner.

Fred glanced around. To his right was a crate, its side branded in French and Russian.

“Here.” He grabbed it, relieved to find it much lighter than expected. It must already be empty. “I’ll just open-“

“No!” Jean-Luc’s eyes went wide as he saw the writing.

It was too late. Fred had cracked open the lid, which now burst off. An icy wind blasted forth, frost forming on everything it touched. It rushed up the chimney and blew open the window shutters as it kept coming, an endless stream of cold.

Fred dropped the box as ice started to cover his hands.

“Russian winter!” Jean-Luc shouted over the howling wind. “Napoleon’s sorcerers must have captured it, a souvenir of his greatest failure.”

Outside the windows the sky was darkening, snow fluttering out of what had been a beautiful spring day.

“We are in so much trouble,” Fred said, staring dumbfounded as winter fell both indoors and out.

“I can help,” a tiny voice said.

They turned to see the djinn looking at them from its corner.

“Let me go and I’ll burn this place down,” it said.

“How’s that helping?” Fred snapped in frustration.

“You think you’ll be in trouble for breaking a few treasures?” the djinn said. “Think how much worse it will be if they find out you broke summer for everyone.”  It kicked at the fallen box. “I can burn all the evidence faster than anyone can put the flames out. You say some coals fell from the fire, the place burnt down, everything was lost – mirrors, boxes, the lot. Not your fault.”

Fred looked at Jean-Luc, could see his colleague making the same calculation. Could they get away with this? Could it get any worse?

Probably not.

Two minutes later they ran out of the building, smoke trailing behind them.

“Fire!” Fred screamed at the red-coated sentries huddling against the sudden cold.

“Fire!” Jean-Luc echoed, as the roof creaked and fell inward in a shower of sparks.

Just for a moment, a tiny figured danced in the flames, then disappeared on the freezing wind.

The djinn was gone, along with the evidence of their failure. Fred could only hope people believed it was an accident.

The soldiers grabbed buckets of water in a futile attempt to quench the magically-powered flames. Fred turned to Jean-Luc.

“Was this a good idea?” he asked.

Jean-Luc shrugged.

“Did you have a better one?”

Fred shook his head and pulled his collar up around his ears, as around him the snow fell.

 

*

This story was suggested by Russell Phillips after I told him about the Year Without a Summer. I hope I’ve done it justice.

If you liked this then you might also want to check out my collection of fantasy short stories, By Sword, Stave or Stylus, and you can also read my other flash Friday stories here. Fell free to come back next week for more of the same, and to leave ideas for stories in the comments below.

 

Photo by Sarah Stierch via Flickr creative commons.

By Sword, Stave or Stylus out now

A knight so stupid he might just win.

A prisoner haunted by ghosts, or are they shadows?

A demon investigating an angel’s death.

Action, art and mystery all feature in my fantasy short story collection, By Sword, Stave or Stylus, out today as an ebook today via Amazon and Smashwords.

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

The stories in this collection:

  • Live By the Sword – art and magic combine in a fantasy version of the Roman arena.
  • Leprosaria – a knight and his chronicler uncover strange goings on in a leper hospital.
  • Long Nights in Languedoc – something monstrous pursues an English army through medieval France.
  • The Essence of a Man – the magical power of art is tested under siege.
  • Shadows, Stones and Hungry Ghosts – a prisoner faces a haunting interrogation.
  • The Wizard’s Stairs – a young man, an angry wizard and a test of love.
  • Striking Black Silence – a ninja becomes the shadows on a deadly mission.
  • The Edge of the World – a lowly gutter dweller carries a vital message across a strange rooftop world.
  • The Hunter in the Stacks – a scholar takes up his spear and goes hunting knowledge.
  • The Suspicions of Shadowvalt – a demonic whodunnit.
  • The Faces of the Fallen – Detective Shadowvalt returns to investigate a murder in Hell.
  • The Magpie Dance – a group of morris dancers are more than they seem.
  • One Minute of Beauty – art, revolution, absinthe and a visionary moment.

It’s an eclectic selection of stories, and one I’m proud of. So if you’re looking for some reading why not go pick up a copy from Amazon or Smashwords. It’s only 99c for the first two weeks of release, after which I’ll be putting up the price to a princely $2.99.

And later in the week, once I’ve stopped reeling from the excitement/nerves of hitting the magic ‘publish’ button, I’ll discuss some of the stories in more detail.