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.”

***

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.

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.

Dodger’s Dunkirk – A Commando Comic

I have a pair of linked Commando comics coming out this week, to mark the 80th anniversary of the Dunkirk evacuation. Today, I’m going to talk about the first of them – Dodger’s Dunkirk.

One Man’s War

Dodger’s Dunkirk follows a British infantryman caught up in the Allied withdrawal to Dunkirk.

The Battle of France, fought from May to June 1940, was one of the great disasters of World War Two. The Allies badly misjudged both German capabilities and the terrain they were fighting over. In one of the most dramatic campaigns of the war, the Germans smashed through the Allies’ weakest positions and ripped their forces in half. Thanks to the incredible blitzkrieg advances of German generals such as Guderian and Rommel, the bulk of the Allied forces were surrounded, forced to retreat into an ever-shrinking pocket against the coast, unable to effectively manoeuvre or bring their forces to bear.

This is the chaos that Dodger is caught up in – a shattered army trying to pull itself together, groups fighting desperate, heroic rear-guard actions while the generals try save what they can. But Dodger doesn’t want to withdraw. To him, retreat is failure, and the only thing a soldier should do is fight on. With a gun in his hand and a stiff attitude fixed across his face, he’s set for conflict with his own side as well as the enemy.

Different Forms of Courage

I created Dodger to represent a particular attitude towards courage and fighting spirit.

Holding strong in the face of danger takes a certain stubborn willpower, something that’s a necessity in war. Without the courage to hold your ground despite terrible odds and others’ fears, many battles would have been lost.

But that stubbornness can go too far.  Great military disasters have been born from an unwillingness to compromise, to back off, to accept the limits of what can be achieved and so to salvage something of value from a loss.

Dodger has that stubbornness gone too far. He has his reasons for this, which I won’t spoil here, but that doesn’t mean that he’s right. No Retreat is about a man learning that there’s something dangerous, something toxic in a virtue taken too far. Can he bend with the wind, or will the raging storm of Dunkirk break him?

Why Dunkirk Matters

The Dunkirk evacuation is rightly remembered as a significant moment in history, especially in Britain. The evacuation of 338,226 soldiers in eight days was an incredible logistical achievement, one that saved the bulk of the British army from destruction, along with 100,000 French troops and other Allied personnel. Without it, the Allied armed forces would have been significantly diminished and the remainder of the war might have been very different.

For me, there’s something even more significant about Dunkirk, and that’s the fact that we celebrate a retreat. Well-executed withdrawals are hugely important and hugely challenging to achieve, yet they’re almost never marked in this way. We just want to talk about the victories. With Dunkirk, we acknowledge the importance and the challenge of knowing when and how to give up. It makes the right retreat into a heroic achievement, breaking our narrow view of what qualifies as success.

In challenging and reshaping our view of history, it’s one of the key moments of the 20th century.

The Historical Details

While Dodger’s Dunkirk exists to explore the big picture, historical fiction is also about the little details. So what is there to look out for in this comic?

One of my favourite bits is the Canal Line. As in the First World War, the Belgians opened the slices of their canal system to waterlog the ground, bog down the enemy, and create a stronger defensive line. It’s a small thing amid the carnage, but it’s also a good example of looking beyond the obvious in tackling a problem.

As with many of my Commando stories, the international element is important. The Dunkirk retreat wasn’t just a British effort. Belgian, Dutch, and French forces also played a significant part, and without them the withdrawing British troops would probably have been overrun. An encounter with a Belgian sergeant helps shape Dodger’s approach to the fighting, and there’s also a French tank crew who we’ll come back to in a minute.

This being a Commando comic, you can be sure that the artist will have filled in a lot of extra details, like the uniforms of the soldiers and the equipment they use – enough to please fans of the period. I’ll leave it to you to explore the visual treats that I can’t claim credit for.

More to Come

Dodger’s Dunkirk is released on the 28th of May, alongside a companion comic, Durand’s Dunkirk, which follows a French tank crew through the Dunkirk retreat. I’ll provide some commentary on that one next week, and on Friday a short story tying into them both.

Until then, if you’re looking for more historical fiction then you can check out my mini collection of short stories From a Foreign Shore, and pick up copy of No Retreat on Thursday.

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.

Out Now – Rats in the Rubble

Berlin, April 1945. Sergeant Nikolai Kulikov is part of the Russian army advancing into the city. When his unit is sent to clear out an apparently abandoned orphanage, they discover that the children have been left behind. Faced with enemy aggression and his own men’s indifference, can Nikolai get the children out alive?

This week sees the release of my latest Commando comic, Rats in the Rubble. It’s a story about the devastation of war, about struggling to survive, and about the power of stories. You can get a copy now through Comixology or direct from the publishers.

Cover art by Neil Roberts

Rats in the Rubble

Berlin, April 1945. Sergeant Nikolai Kulikov is part of the Russian army advancing into the city. When his unit is sent to clear out an apparently abandoned orphanage, they discover that the children have been left behind. Faced with enemy aggression and his own men’s indifference, can Nikolai get the children out alive?

This week sees the release of my latest Commando comic, Rats in the Rubble. It’s a story about the devastation of war, about struggling to survive, and about the power of stories. And of course, it’s also a reflection of the bits of history and culture that fascinate me.

The Battle of Berlin

This spring marks the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Berlin, one of the last and most destructive battles of the Second World War.

Cover art by Neil Roberts

By April 1945, Germany was on the brink of defeat. The Allies were storming across the country from both east and west. The armies of the Reich lay shattered. Its European allies, such as Italy and Finland, had long since fallen away. On the 16th of April, Berlin, which had so briefly been the capital of a huge and cruel empire, finally came under attack.

The Battle of Berlin was a vital moment, for both symbolic and practical reasons. As the capital of Germany, it held the remains of a collapsing government, its genocidal leader, and much of the grandeur of the Reich. Taking out this city would behead what remained of the German war machine while signalling the nation’s defeat.

For Germans still dedicated to the fight, this was a last stand. Children, old men, and the walking wounded took up arms. If Berlin fell then all was lost. While many in the city just wanted the war to be over, others would fight on to the end.

Desperate Germans weren’t the only reason why the fighting was so terrible. Mid-20th-century warfare was a colossally destructive business fought on an industrial scale, with high explosive bombs and shells shattering entire cities. That destruction now rained down on Berlin.

And then there were the attackers. For reasons of politics and geography, the task of capturing Berlin fell upon the Soviet Union. Its people had suffered particularly badly at the hands of Nazi-led armies. Millions had died, soldiers and civilians alike, and the great cities of the Soviet heartland had been left as shattered shells. Many in the Red Army were out for revenge and felt that the Germans deserved every awful thing that could happen.

Writing Heroism into Horror

Even at a distance of 75 years, it’s hard to write an action story set amid that destruction, given the risk of romanticising a battle in which thousands of innocent civilians were robbed, assaulted, and killed. But even in the darkest moments, there are acts of heroism, and I wanted to reflect that.

This is where Nikolai Kulikov comes in. The hero of Rats in the Rubble is an idealist. He might fight with all his strength and brutality, but he still believes in protecting the innocent, and when we realises that there are children at risk he becomes committed to looking after them.

In some ways, his heroism shines more brightly against the darkness. Rats in the Rubble shows the destruction of Berlin, from the falling bombs to the callous disregard of many in the Red Army. It’s story about surviving a moment of horror, morally as well as physically.

My Raid Story

This is one of the more compact stories I’ve told for Commando. Rather than taking place across days, weeks, or even months, the action is contained to just a few hours and a single military action – one infantry squad assaulting an old orphanage.

In terms of story structure, this is my military history take on Dredd and The Raid, two of the most tightly contained action stories on film. Just like in those movies, the protagonists have to fight their way up through a single building, confronting dangers on each floor, as they try to defeat a deadly enemy who uses the building to their advantage. It’s a style that’s well suited to the Battle of Berlin, an intense, claustrophobic conflict fought amid the buildings of a shattered city.

Parallel Stories

This is also a story I’ve used to play with comic-writing techniques.

In Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud talks about the different ways that words and pictures can interact. One can dominate over the other, they can work together to provide meaning they couldn’t on their own, and sometimes they even duplicate each other or tell separate stories. It’s something I’ve been wanting to play with for a while, and in this story I got to do that.

There’s a section in Rats in the Rubble where the pictures and the words part ways. While a character tells a fairytale story, the images show a dark moment in his past. In a sense, it’s what McCloud would call a parallel relationship, but in another sense it’s interdependence. These apparently parallel stories together show how Kulikov views himself, how the war has touched him emotionally, and what he is trying to achieve.

It’s one of my favourite bits of script I’ve ever written, and a technique I’m hoping to play with more in the future.

The End

Because of its subject and timing, Rats in the Rubble is also about the end of the war. It’s coming out around the 75th anniversary of VE Day, when the war in Europe ended, and that’s reflected in the end of the comic itself. As I said before, this is a story about survival, and that means it gets to celebrate being alive.

That seems a suitable point to end this. Rats in the Rubble comes out on the 30th of April, when you can get it through Comixology or direct from the publishers. If you enjoy claustrophobic action thrillers then check out The Raid and Dredd, and if you’re interested in reading more about how words and pictures work together than I really recommend McCloud’s Understanding Comics – it’s an accessible and insightful discussion of how comics work.

Happy reading!

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.”

***

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.

Out Now – Out of the Woods

My latest Commando comic, “Out of the Woods”, is out today! Set in the First World War, it follows twin brothers Tom and Harry as they travel from Canada to the trenches of Belgium. Far from home, their courage is put to the test during the horrors of a gas attack.

You can buy individual issues of Commando online, get digital versions through Comixology, or subscribe through the publisher’s store.