Tinned Beef on Malta – a historical short story

By Royal Navy official photographer,
Russell, J E (Lt) – photograph A 11484 from
the collections of the Imperial War Museums.

“The food here is terrible,” Giuliano Fattorini said, scraping the last briny, flavourless scraps from a tin their captors had insisted on calling beef. “It is no way to treat an airman.”

“Yes, Captain.” Luca stood by the barred window, scowling out across the rooftops of Malta. He had worn that same expression for three days straight, ever since British sailors had fished them out of their ruined plane in the harbour. Though Fattorini admired the younger airman’s passion, his intensity was exhausting to be around.

Outside, bombs were falling, filling the air with the whistle of their descent and the roar of their detonation. That was another thing Fattorini disliked about being captive on the island. The Regia Aeronautica and their Luftwaffe comrades were doing a splendid job against the British, he had always said so, but that splendour was unsettling when experienced up close.

Luca’s eyes widened and he flung himself away from the window. Fattorini rolled out of his chair and covered his head just as a blast shook the building. With a groan of straining masonry, the outer wall collapsed, hitting the street with a crash.

Luca was back on his feet first, staring out through the swirling dust.

“Captain, this is our chance!”

Fattorini peered across his fallen chair. “Our chance?”

“To escape and return to the war. Come on!”

Luca lowered himself to the edge of the floorboards, then swung his legs out where the wall had been. He looked back expectantly at his captain.

The floorboards were rough beneath Fattorini’s fingers, the sounds of the falling bombs unbearably loud. Of course he wasn’t afraid, it was the shaking of the building that made him tremble.

“Is it safe?” he asked, crawling across the floor.

“Safe enough.”

Luca dropped onto the heap of rubble below. Fattorini followed. A brick slid from beneath his foot as he landed. His ankle turned, but not painfully, so there was no reason not to follow Luca as he scrambled down the heap.

Most people were indoors, hiding in shelters and cellars while planes battled overhead, the rattle of guns and roar of engines like thunder from a clear sky. The two men dashed down empty streets, Fattorini puffing and panting as he struggled to keep up with Luca.

At a junction, a soldier was crouching behind an overturned truck. When he saw them coming, he leapt to his feet and swung his rifle around.

“Halt!” he shouted in English. “Hands in the air!”

Fattorini did as he was told.

“What did he say?” Luca asked. He was ten feet ahead of Fattorini, and the soldier swung his rifle jerkily back and forth to cover them both. Fattorini hoped that the man’s trigger finger was steadier than the rest of his hand, or this could end very badly.

“He says hands up,” he translated. “Alas, it seems our escape is at an end. We will be forced back to a new cell, to live out the war on watery stew and bad coffee. Oh, for a—”

“What are you on about?” the soldier shouted over the sound of bombs. He advanced towards Fattorini, rifle still raised. Fattorini, stomach jumping, clamped his mouth shut.

A chunk of masonry hit the soldier in the head and he fell, his rifle under him.

“Yes!” Luca shouted. He had another brick in his hand, ready in case his first throw had missed. “Come on!”

They ran on through the streets, heading for the harbour. Fattorini sweated like a pig standing at the butcher’s block. Was it his imagination, or had the bombing grown even more intense?

They emerged at the water’s edge. There were boats in the harbour, some of them sinking or riddled with shrapnel, others bouncing on the waves. Half the buildings had their windows blown out or sections torn from their front facings.

“That one,” Luca said, pointing to the nearest boat. “If we get in while the British are busy, we can sail out before—”

There was a fountain of water as a bomb landed feet from the boat, then a muffled boom and a towering spray. The boat was flung onto its side, sat for a moment on the sudden swell, and then tipped over, landing upside down. Its exposed hull was riddled with holes.

Luca stared at the ruined boat as waves lapped against its sinking sides. He held himself with a different sort of intensity now, his mouth hanging open, eyes wide.

Fattorini laid a hand on the younger man’s shoulder.

“Maybe we don’t escape today, my friend.”

“But freedom, and the war, and…”

The bombs were still falling. Fattorini steered Luca to the doorway of the most solid building he could see.

“I will be sorry to miss it too, but we can’t help if we are bombed or drowned, can we? We will just have to wait for another chance.”

They crouched in the doorway, heads down in case shrapnel flew their way. Fattorini thought again about his tin of watery beef stew, and about the shredded mess that was the underside of that boat. He felt suddenly giddy at the thought of returning to their prison room. Maybe he could grow to like English food after all.

***

I have a new Commando comic out today. Flight to Freedom is a story of aerial combat and daring escape in the Mediterranean theatre of World War Two, featuring Capitano Fattorini and Luca in very different circumstances. You can buy it at newsagents or in digital form via Amazon Kindle or Comixology.

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.

***

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.

Out Today – Flight to Freedom

How do you escape from an Italian Opera singer in a seaplane, when you’ve got no weapons, no aircraft of your own, and your only help is from a six-foot-six Soviet who makes up for his lack of English language with his fists?! Issue 5369 of Commando has the answer, in my latest comic story, Flight to Freedom. It’s a tale of daring adventure set during the Second World War, and is out now through UK newsagents and Comixology.

Secret Beloved – a historical short story

Image by William Adams
from Pixabay

The crowd roared as two knights emerged onto the tilting field, their horses advancing with perfect control, their lances raised so that the blunted tips shone in the sunlight.

Beside me in the stands, the Lady Matorell let out an excited gasp. For a moment, I assumed that the Lord Matorell was taking the field, but then I remembered that he had been knocked out already, flung from his horse in one of the early matches. The lady’s attention had not been drawn by her husband, but by a handsome young knight with a halo of blond hair and a smile of unshakable confidence. A strip of cloth was tied around the armour of his upper left arm, its yellow and blue a match for my lady’s dress.

“How romantic,” she whispered. “Sir Arnau knows that he cannot have me, yet still he wears my colours.”

“Such chivalry,” I replied, smiling through my envy. This was romance like the storytellers proclaimed, the perfect and chaste love of a knight who knew that his desires could never even be spoken. I dreamed of any knight’s attention, while my mistress had it all: a rich and powerful husband to provide for her, and a storybook romance on the side.

“He barely even speaks to me,” she said. “The poor man must be afraid that his passion will overcome his senses.”

She let out a sigh that had nothing of sadness in it.

Sir Arnau donned his helmet, obscuring the features over which so many women had swooned, and lowered his lance. At the far end of the field, his opponent did the same.

I had imagined moments like this as I read to my mistress during long winter nights, but until this day I had never understood the reality of the joust. The thunder of hooves, the crash of blows, the thud of bodies on the ground. One knight had been carried off with his leg bent out of shape, another with blood streaming from his arm. It was thrilling and frightening all at once. My heart raced all the harder for these gallant men in their fine and gleaming armour. It made me feel my lovelessness more, and I slumped in my seat.

In the stands opposite, our host lowered his hand. The two knights set the spurs to their steeds, which sprang into action, galloping toward each other. For a moment, only hoof beats broke the silence. Then came the crack of lances, the cheers of the crowd, the fall, the thud.

Lady’ Matorell’s hand went to her mouth.

“Is he hurt?” she asked, eyes wide.

I saw Arnau’s horse ride on to the end of the lists, while his opponent cast aside a broken lance and raised his fists in triumph. But Arnaud himself was hidden by the spectators below us. I stared at them with my hands clutched to my chest, praying for his safety.

A knight rushed onto the field, followed by a pair of squires. It was Lord Matorell, dressed in the same blue and yellow as his wife, the colours of his house. My heart beat faster. Many stories saw spurned husbands confront their chivalrous rivals. Lady Matorell took my hand and gripped it tight.

Lord Matorell bent down. When he rose, he was supporting Arnau, the younger man leaning on his shoulder while he waved off the attention of the squires. As they hobbled from the field, the two men smiled at each other, laughing in spite of Arnau’s pain.

I had seen smiles like that between men before. I remembered my brother, before he removed himself from temptation by joining a monastery. There was more than one type of love a young knight would have to hold concealed, more than one person blue and yellow could stand for.

I looked at Lady Matorell, and just for a moment her expression narrowed into something bitter. Then Lord Matorell whispered in Arnau’s ear, and the two of them turned to wave at us.

“So noble!” Lady Matorell proclaimed, a little too loudly to go unheard. “The two of them together, despite their feelings for me.”

“A beautiful thing, my lady,” I said, matching her forced smile.

The envy in my heart wilted away. It was easy to be jealous of a real woman’s fortune, but not of a story, whoever had made it up.

***

This story was inspired by an article on clothing in Catalan medieval romances by Dr Ester Torredelforth, in Ties That Bind: Love in Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by Francesca T Barbini. If you enjoy analysis of sci-fi and fantasy then the whole collection is well worth a read.

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.’

How Wrong We Have To Be – a historical short story

Maria took a breath as loud as the pounding of her heart. Her grip tightened on the bayonet they had taken from the French soldier. She looked down at him, arms and legs tied to a chair in the middle of the one-room house, blood dripping from his nose onto the white front of his uniform. His blond hair and soft, round face made him look like a cherub beneath the bruises.

“We found him walking alone on the Barcelona road,” Juan said. “Near where they strung up Santiago and Maya.”

“Were you part of that?” Maria asked, pressing the point of the bayonet against the soldier’s neck. Her hand shook at the memory of those bodies, flies buzzing around their drawn out guts, faces contorted by hours of pain. The soldier winced and blood trickled down the bayonet.

“He doesn’t speak Spanish,” Juan said.

“Of course not. Napoleon and his cockroaches want to rule us, not understand us.”

Maria took a step back, removing the blade from the soldier’s throat. Justice should be decisive and deliberate, not a slip of the hand.

Her gaze never left the soldier. Had he been one of the killers? Had those pale, slender fingers ripped off her friends’ clothes? Had this bayonet, blunted and battered, torn through their flesh? If she looked really close, would she find blood staining the corners of his fingernails?

It didn’t matter. He had come to Spain as a conqueror, had chosen to align himself with murderers. He was one of them.

“Take him back to the Barcelona road,” Maria said with a sneer. “Leave the body there for them to find.”

Juan untied the soldier and hauled him to his feet. That soft face looked around uncertainly, eyes darting between Juan and Maria. Bruises shone blue against ghostly skin.

“We’re going to make you suffer,” Juan said, leaning in close to the soldier, baring his teeth in a terrible smile. “Everything you did to Santiago and more.”

Maria frowned. She had sworn to do whatever was needed to set her country free, but what the French had done to Santiago and Maya was hideous.

“Kill him cleanly. Show we’re better than them.”

“No. We have to show that we’re worse, that every atrocity they commit will come back upon them a hundred times over. If we don’t then they’ll never stop.”

Juan spoke of terrible necessities, but his face filled with malicious glee as he dragged the soldier towards the door.

The bayonet was hard and heavy in Maria’s hand. A tool made to kill men, brought into her country for no reason but to keep it under control. The Frenchman deserved this, but what did her people deserve?

She leapt forward, grabbed the soldier from behind, and thrust the bayonet into his back. It was like sewing, a matter of precise placement, the cloth resisting the needle just for a moment before it slid through. Fear and hatred were replaced by the swift, energising moment of action.

The soldier didn’t even let out a gasp. He crumpled, fell, spilt blood across her feet and through the gaps between the floorboards.

“What the Hell?” Juan snapped.

“Take him to the Barcelona road,” Maria said, stepping back. She would have to find something to cover her dress, to hide the bloodstain as she walked home. “Do whatever you want to the body there. Make it as hideous as you like.”

“He was meant to suffer. He was meant to make a point!”

The soldier’s lips were parted in an “oh” of surprise, his blue eyes still open and staring across the bloodstained floor. Every crease and freckle of his skin was a letter in a book that no-one would ever learn to read.

“We only need the French to think that we act like monsters. We don’t need it to be true.”

“You didn’t have the right to make that decision.”

Maria picked up a blanket off the bed and wrapped it tight around herself.

“None of this is about right – it’s about how wrong we have to be.”

***

Maria comes to this story fresh from my latest Commando Comic, which is out this week. V for Vitoria is the sequel to my previous Napoleonic story, The Forlorn Hope, both set during the Peninsular War. English riflemen Hopper and Jones continue their journey through a wartorn country, aided by a washerwoman who is more than she seems. The comic is available through Comixology and wherever paper copies of Commando can be found.

***

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.

Out Today – V for Vitoria

Spain, 1813: Former opponents Tom Hopper and Samuel Jones are part of Wellington’s army, driving back the forces of Napoleonic France. When their captain is captured, it falls upon Hopper and Jones to rescue him. But it will take a daring escape and a lesson in humility before they can join their comrades to face down the French at the Battle of Vitoria.

Out today from Commando Comics, V for Vitoria is the sequel to my previous Napoleonic story, The Forlorn Hope. See Hopper and Jones continue their journey through a wartorn country, aided by Maria, a washerwoman who is more than she seems.*

V for Vitoria is available through Comixology and wherever paper copies of Commando can be found.

*No, she’s not Toad of Toad Hall,  though that would also be cool.

The Pilot – a historical short story

Image by Mark Taylor from Pixabay

Alan stood alone at the edge of a sheep field, watching planes battling in the sky above. Some of them were from the nearby airbase, others intruders who had flown all the way from Germany. They darted and chased through the sky like a flock of deadly birds.

With a roar of dying engines, a plane streaked across the sky on a trail of smoke. Alan watched open-mouthed as it hit the field, ploughed through the dirt, and came to a stop only fifty feet from him.

It was a fighter, Alan could see that, but too battered and mud-streaked from the impact for him to make out any insignia. Other boys in his class could tell a Spitfire from a Messerschmitt by their shape, but none of those boys had shared their knowledge with Alan. To them, he was just an outsider with a funny accent.

Flames crept across the plane towards the cockpit. Teachers had told Alan to find an adult if he saw a plane shot down, not to go near the wreckage himself. But he could see someone moving in the cockpit, struggling against the closed canopy, and they would be dead before he could get help. He was scared of getting in trouble for disobedience, scared that the pilot might be a Nazi, scared most of all that he might get burned, but he couldn’t leave someone to die.

Alan ran across the field and climbed up the side of the plane. His skin throbbed at the heat from the fire as he grabbed the edge of the canopy. The pilot pushed from the inside and Alan quivered as he pulled with all his might.

There was a clunk, the canopy flew back, and Alan tumbled to the ground. His head hit the hard earth and the world filled with spinning stars.

Gloved hands grabbed Alan out of the dirt. He bounced about in the pilot’s arms as the man ran from the plane. Then there was a boom, a blast of air, and he landed hard again.

As the dizziness faded, Alan looked over at the pilot, who was sitting up and clutching his shoulder. If he wore any insignia then they were hidden by soot and blood. The boys at school might have recognised the flight suit, but it meant nothing to Alan. Was this man British or German? Should he be helping him or running for his life?

The pilot turned to face Alan, revealing an empty holster at his waist. A pistol lay on the ground nearby.

“Where are we?” the man asked in a strange accent.

A chill ran down Alan’s spine. Germans had killed his father at Dunkirk, now one of them was going to kill him.

He could run, but retreating hadn’t stopped the Germans shooting dad. If he ran, the German could just pick up that pistol and shoot him.

But if he got the pistol first…

Alan lunged and grabbed the weapon. Its grip was cold and hard in his hand. He scrambled back, pistol raised, away from the befuddled looking pilot.

“You’re my prisoner,” he said, his voice wobbling as much as his hands. He was all alone, faced with a merciless killer. Mum kept telling him that they had to be brave, to manage on their own, but it was hard to be brave when you were staring down a wild-eyed Nazi.

“Please,” the pilot said, flinging up his hands. “Not point gun at me. Trigger is too easy, yes? Will shoot, bang bang!”

Alan rose, trembling, to his feet, and gestured for his prisoner to do the same.

“I should just shoot you,” he said, tears running from his eyes. “Like you Germans shot my dad.”

“I am Polish, yes?” the man said. “Fly RAF Hurricane.”

He pointed to the flaming wreckage, but even if Alan had known how to spot a Hurricane, he couldn’t have told if that was one. These could just be lies a German would tell to save himself.

His grip tightened on the pistol. He took a deep breath and steadied himself. This was his chance to get revenge for dad.

“Please,” the man said, his voice wavering. “I am here to help. Fight Nazis who kill my brother.”

Alan hesitated, his finger resting by the trigger. Someone had told him there were foreign pilots flying British planes. Was it really true?

He didn’t want to let his dad down, but he didn’t want to kill a good person.

“You’re my prisoner,” he said, pointing towards the road. “Now march that way.”

As they walked towards the airbase, the pilot talked to Alan in broken English. He said that his name was Jakub. He talked about his home, about how he’d come to Britain, about flying planes. Sometimes Alan got so caught up in it that he found himself asking for more details. Then he remembered that this could all be a trick and he snapped at Jakub to walk faster.

They approached the airbase, Alan wielding the gun, Jakub with his hands in the air. A sentry rushed out to meet them, only to burst out laughing.

“Bloody hell, Jakub,” he said. “You got shot down by a kid?”

So it had been true.

“Sorry,” Alan said, handing over the pistol. “I just thought…”

“You save me from plane,” Jakub said, ruffling Alan’s hair. “For that, I do not mind the gun.”

“I should go.” Alan had thought that he was being a hero, but instead he was pointing a gun at one. Shoulders slumped, he turned away, heading back down the road alone.

“Wait,” Jakub said. “You stay, we call parents to fetch you.”

“My mum works until late,” Alan said. “And my dad…” He stopped, fighting to hold back tears. “My dad died.”

Jakub whispered something to the sentry, who looked over at Alan, then nodded.

“We’ll need you to give us a report,” the sentry said. “Tell us what you saw when the plane came down.”

“Really?” Alan stood a little straighter. He was going to help the RAF.

“After that, I take you to meet my squadron,” Jakub said. “We need local to run errands – you think you can do this?”

“Oh yes,” Alan said, nodding eagerly. “Yes please.”

“This way, then,” the sentry said, pointing towards the gates of the base.

Alan followed him inside.

***

This summer marks the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, one of the most celebrated and mythologised moments in British history. This story is set during that struggle.

I’ve also got a new Commando Comic out this week to mark the occasion – Flying Fever, the tale of a pilot living through one of the most desperate moments in the history of the RAF. You can find it on Comixology or wherever Commando Comics are sold.

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.

Fly Me to the Moon – a steampunk short story

It was in the spring of 1649 that I travelled from London up to Oxford, to fulfill a dream long considered impossible. King Charles had but lately been beheaded, propelling England into a bold and unprecedented age in which the people ruled themselves. Developments in clockwork, cogs, and lenses came to us from across the continent, each month delivering news of some previously unimaginable device. For the first time in my life, it seemed that anything was possible.

Doctor John Wilkins met me at the entrance to Wadham College, where he had but lately been made warden. A gentleman of charm and obvious intelligence, he greeted me as if we were lifelong friends, not merely acquaintances linked by ink and parchment. I was by then intimately acquainted with his remarkable scholarship in theology, natural philosophy, and most importantly the burgeoning field of astronomy, so it was in a state of giddy delight that I followed him to a courtyard in back of the college.

There, my eyes fell upon a most remarkable contraption, a boat of sorts, but with wings attached, large crank handles on the sides, and all manner of mechanical workings encased in its central section. I stared spellbound at Wilkins’ flying chariot.

I was, of course, acquainted with the precedents on which Wilkins had built his machine. The flight of the monk Elmer, Archytas’ wooden dove, Regiomontanus of Nuremberg’s iron fly, examples of human and mechanical flight stretching from ancient Greece almost to the modern day. And yet, as I considered the possibility of leaving the earth, questions suddenly filled my mind.

“Are you sure it has enough power?” I asked, laying a hand on the stern. The chariot’s springs had been wound and it was thrumming with barely contained power.

“My dear Bragg,” Wilkins said. “Modern gearing can upgrade mechanical energy by factors of thousands, more than enough to escape the initial attraction of the Earth.”

“You say initial attraction.” I tugged at my collar, releasing the unaccountable heat which was, of a sudden, making me sweat. “Might there be a danger of that attraction drawing me back after the clockwork has run out?”

“Not at all! Based on Gilbert’s De Magnete, I have calculated that the force of attraction will be nullified at twenty miles up. From that point, you will be safely airborne.”

Twenty miles up, and that only the beginning of my journey. I would be a bold explorer bringing civilisation to the inhabitants of the moon as Columbus had once brought it to the Americas. This was everything I had dreamed of in the comfort of my London home, everything I had sworn excitedly to fulfill. But now I was here, I started to see practicalities I had not considered.

“It’s awfully barren up there,” I said, staring at the empty sky. “Won’t I be deathly cold?”

“Away from the earth, in the realm of the sun?” Wilkins laughed. “You are a wit, Bragg.”

I forced a smile. “How long will it take?”

“Six months, based on travel times to the new world and the relative distances of America and the moon.”

“Alas, this will never carry enough food for six months.” I shook my head as I looked at the pitiful supplies in the front of the chariot. “Never mind for my return. Alas, we will have to rethink the whole business.”

“Never fear,” Wilkins said. “Once beyond the earth’s pull, you will no longer be exerting your spirits and so will not need the energy. You will have no necessity for sustenance.”

“So why is there food and drink on board?”

“For the same reason there are books – to keep you entertained.”

And there it was. I knew as well as Wilkins did the biblical, observational, and logical evidence that the outer air was breathable. I had no need for extra food or warmth, was well supplied with entertainment and all the power required for my journey.

I would be going to the moon, as I had dreamed.

Alone.

In a glorified rowing boat.

“You’re not having doubts, are you?” Wilkins asked.

“Of course not,” I said. Braggs never had doubts. Not my cousin Samuel who had been crippled fighting for the king, nor my brother Tobias who had died in the service of Parliament. If they could stand for what they believed in then so could I, and I believed in the endless possibilities that natural science foretold.

My legs felt heavy as I clambered into the flying chariot and took hold of the lever that would release its power.

“Godspeed,” Wilkins said, smiling even as a tear ran from his eye.

I pulled the lever. Gears whirred, wings flapped, and the chariot rose. The wind rushed past as I soared like a bird and I laughed at myself for ever having harboured fears of failure.

I shan’t bother you with the long details of my journey, for there were almost none. Wilkins proved correct in every assertion, making my travel smooth and comfortable. I set down on the moon one hundred and seventy-four days after leaving Wadham College – slightly under the calculated six months – and was greeted with friendly curiosity by the natives.

However, there is one complication we had not foreseen. While there was every chance that the locals would have no English or Latin, their understanding of the world is so different from ours that communication has proved impossible, and the rich exchange of ideas Wilkins hoped for has not come about. I shall attach this account of my adventure to a mechanical creation of my own devising, which I believe to be capable of reaching the earth. Wherever you are, if you find this message and can, by Wilkins’ principles, find a way to reach the moon, please send an expert in languages. I am, for now, at an utter loss.

***

Sometimes, history is weird. Dr John Wilkins was a real English priest and academic who eventually became Bishop of Chester, and he really thought and wrote, at some length,  about how to fly to the moon. His theory for doing this was grounded in the best understanding of the world available in the mid-17th century, an understanding rooted in a mix of theology, logic, and what we would now label as scientific observation. He was, in retrospect, completely wrong, but his arguments made sense to him and others at the time, and every point I’ve included here is an accurate (if limited) representation of Wilkins’ thinking. And honestly, I find the logic of it, while madly optimistic, both compelling and kind of brilliant in its twists.

If you want to learn more about Wilkins, I recommend Allan Chapman’s book  Stargazers, which depicts the careers of a range of European astronomers from the 15th to the 18th centuries, many of whom were equally fascinating, from the obstinate and argumentative Galileo to Tycho Brahe and his gold nose.

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.

Durand’s Dunkirk – A Commando Comic

The second of two comics I wrote for the 80th anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation, Durand’s Dunkirk follows the crew of a French SOMUA S35 tank. With the French armies shattered and the Allies in retreat, Regis Durand and his indomitable crew gain a new mission – to hold up the advancing Germans and allow the British to evacuate through Dunkirk.

A Story of Sacrifice

Both Durand’s Dunkirk and its companion comic, Dodger’s Dunkirk, are stories with a message, but those messages are very different. During the Dunkirk withdrawal, the British showed that there could be courage and even triumph in a well-executed retreat, that not every battle should be fought to the bitter end. But the French army showed how sometimes you have to fight on, one person’s sacrifice becoming another’s salvation. The French fought hard to buy time for the Dunkirk evacuation, even knowing that it would leave their country undefended. That’s the battle that Durand fights.

Just as the evacuation didn’t only rescue British troops, the stand that made it possible wasn’t only fought by the French. The film Darkest Hour touchingly demonstrates this, in a section dealing with the fate of British troops in Calais who fought on as a distraction for the others rather than being given a chance to escape. But it was the French army that provided the greatest barrier to the advancing Germans in those last days.

An International War

Another point of this comic was to explore the international nature of the World Wars, a point I bang on about so much it’s probably getting boring, but that bears repeating.

Originally, Durand and Dodger’s comics were pitched as a single script, one that showed how the very different fates of the withdrawing British and the French rearguard were connected. I wanted to celebrate the British success at Dunkirk while remembering how many other countries were involved. It was thanks to my editor at Commando that the one story became two, and I’m really glad I got the chance to expand on that original idea.

In England, we refer to the First and Second World Wars but often neglect that “world” part. Our stories tend to be focused on British experiences, which is understandable but also a bit repetitive, limiting how many facets we see of an incredibly complicated story. There have been some interesting exceptions in recent years, such as the film Hurricane and the recent inclusion of a Sikh soldier in a scene from 1917. I think it’s good that we’re doing that more, as it makes the stories more interesting and more representative of reality. So of course I wanted to depict the French as much as the British in exploring Dunkirk, and also to show other nations, such as the Belgian soldier who plays a key part in both these stories.

One of these days, I might stop banging the drum on this subject. Today is not that day.

The Myth of National Character

This story is also about one of the big myths of late 19th and early 20th-century military thinking – the power of superior national character.

Across Europe, every country found a way to convince itself that it was inherently superior to the rest and that this was reflected in its armed forces. A superior fighting spirit would ensure their victory over a far less impressive enemy. This is a myth that Durand, the tank commander of this story, buys into.

The inherent flaw in this thinking is obvious – if everybody has a superior national character then nobody is actually superior. The myth falls apart based on logic, never mind evidence. It can be a useful myth in motivating troops, but it’s also a dangerous one if it encourages soldiers, commanders, and politicians to ignore reality. Germany didn’t win the Battle of France because of superior national character, but because it had better tactics and the element of surprise. Russia didn’t defeat the Germans in the east because of a greater fighting spirit, but because of superior numbers and a willingness to spend lives in a war of attrition.

Durand goes into the story believing in a superior French fighting character. The question the story asks is how that attitude can stand up to the prospect of defeat.

Out Now

Both of my Dunkirk comics are out now. Both work as standalone stories, but together they create something more complex, showing the same events from different angles. You can buy them electronically through Comixology, or get paper copies wherever Commando is stocked.

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.”

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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.

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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.

Out Now – Durand’s Dunkirk and Dodger’s Dunkirk

I have not one but two Commando comics out this week, with matching covers by the excellent Keith Burns.

Durand’s Dunkirk and Dodger’s Dunkirk tell the stories of two soldiers, one French and the other British, taking part in the fighting that led up the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940. The two stories stand alone but are connected, with events and characters crossing over between the two. It’s one of the coolest projects I’ve had at Commando, and I’m really pleased with the results.

You can get both Dunkirk issues on Comixology or wherever copies of Commando are sold.