Uncle Grigori’s Alien Toe – a science fiction short story

Photo of starkly lit jungle.
Image by lisa runnels from Pixabay

“Urgh, enough of this crap.” Vlada pushed her plate across the table. “Am I the only one craving meat?”

Jayden, the exploratory team’s token American, gave a rueful chuckle.

“I know what you mean. I’d kill for a burger right now.”

“Not burger. Proper meat. A steak. Some chops. Not endless leaves and vat-grown proteins.”

“You both knew what you were getting yourselves into,” Tatiana said with the calm, reasonable tone that had earned her position as commander. “This is a research mission, not a colonial one. Two years of running tests and only eating what we can grow in the habs. Everything else has to wait until they send settlers from Earth.”

“We know there are animals out there.” Vlada pointed through the window to the alien jungle surrounding their outpost. “And thanks to our tests, we know that their proteins are compatible. Why not eat one?”

“Rules are rules.” Tatiana put her plate in the sink. “You two finish your dinner, then get out there and set the new sensors. I’m heading back into the lab.”

Once she was gone, Vlada set her fork down and looked at Jayden with the intensity she normally saved for games nights.

“You know how to shoot, right?” she said.

“Just because I’m American doesn’t mean—”

“It’s not an insult. I shoot too. The point is, we’ve got guns in the equipment locker, just in case. Getting a proper look at one of those creatures would have scientific value, and if we get to eat the meat afterwards, well…”

“That’s just a bonus.” Jayden grinned. “I like it.”

“Even though the commander won’t?”

“I’m American. We like to play the rebel once in a while.”

*

The body lay amid the large, purple leaves that covered the forest floor. One limb was stretched out past its head, as if grasping for something just out of reach. Blood ran, thick and dark, from the hole in its chest.

“I knew they were bipedal,” Jayden said. “I just hadn’t expected it to look so…”

“Ape-like,” Vlada said firmly.

“Right. Ape.”

Jayden lifted one of the forelegs, with six long toes stretching out from its bald paw. One of those toes was opposable. Better to think of them as forelegs rather than arms, just like it was better to think of the creature, with its bare face and large empty eyes, as being ape-like instead of anything else. It didn’t help that he’d managed to shoot one of the smaller ones, six feet tall and without the scales that sometimes sprouted from their backs.

“Here,” Vlada said, offering Jayden a broad knife. “You killed it. You get to make the first cut.”

“Um…” Jayden ran his gaze over the carcass, trying to work out where the best meat would be. The problem was, the more he looked, the less he thought of it as a carcass and the more it seemed like a corpse.

“You do it,” Jayden said. “You’re more experienced than me.”

“Weak-ass Americans.” Vlada snorted and knelt down in the squeaky purple leaves. She tipped the creature’s head back, exposing the throat. “Those eyes, though.”

She rolled the head, so that they wouldn’t see its face. That only drew attention to the mass of brown hair, the sort of curls a model would have killed for.

“Down here,” Vlada said, moving here attention to the legs. “It will be just like ham.” She pressed the point of the blade against the thigh, then hesitated, staring at the creature’s bare feet. “Look at that. It has a callous on its toe, just like my Uncle Grigori.”

Above their heads, trees swayed. In the distance, a winged creature sang as it soared above the trees.

“You can’t do it, can you?” Jayden asked.

“Of course I can.”

“Go on then.”

“You go on. You killed it.”

“And now that thought makes me sick.”

They both sat back, the knife abandoned, staring at the poor, limp body.

Jayden ran a hand over his face. “Now what do we do?”

*

Tatiana was waiting when they emerged from the airlock into the hab, their shoulders slumped and their gazes downcast. She looked pointedly at the guns and the knife hanging from Vlada’s belt.

“I hope you idiots at least took measurements before you butchered it.”

Vlada tossed her a sensor box full of photos and biological readouts.

“No butchery,” she said. “We buried the corpse.”

“You what?”

“We buried it,” Jayden said. “Had a prayer and put up a cross and everything.”

“You really are idiots,” Tatiana said, then laughed. “And here I was, all ready for a steak.”

***

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***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

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

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

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

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

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

God’s Unblinking Eye – a science fiction short story

Taylor swaggered past the cheap, staticky holographic greeter and into the coffee shop. She was followed by Boon, the two of them wearing suits cut to hide their military augments. She would have preferred something more practical, in case their target caused trouble, but people asked fewer questions when you wore suits. Her boss had been clear, they needed to raise no questions.

The girl was sitting at a shadow-slicked corner table, her computer rolled out in front of her. It had no screen or projection. She wore mirror shades and a scarf patterned in staticky black and white abstraction, an affectation too far.

“Caz Crystal?” Taylor asked.

“What?” The kid didn’t look up, just kept typing.

“You’re coming with us.”

“Why would I do that?”

Taylor held out her ID. Boon opened his jacket just wide enough to flash the butt of his pistol.

“Use your fucking words,” Caz said, still typing.

“Fine. My name is Taylor Grant. I run security for Neon Blue Holdings. Ring a bell?”

Caz stopped typing for a moment, then started again. “Nope.”

It was easier to lie from behind a pair of shades, so Taylor snatched them off Caz’s face. In place of eyes were two gleaming silver orbs pierced by the dead black holes of inoperative camera lenses. Taylor glanced down at the computer and registered the braille on the haptic interface.

“Hey!” A barista said, pointing angrily at the shades. “Not cool. Give her those back.”

Taylor tossed the glasses onto the table.

“Neon Blue security. We have a policing licence.”

“Didn’t you bust up the living wage protest last month?”

“You want us to bust you up?” Boon squared up to the barista, who took a nervous step back, then scurried behind the counter and pulled out his phone.

“You’re coming now,” Taylor said to the kid. “And if we have to arrest you, then we’ll confiscate your fancy shades and your fancier computer.”

“Bitch,” Caz spat, but she rolled the computer up and followed them out.

#

Taylor leaned against the interrogation room wall, reading a copy of Caz’s file projected by a subdermal chip. The kid sat with her arms crossed, the shades back over her eyes, the lower half of her face buried in her scarf. From the corners of the room, security cameras watched them, the unblinking eyes of a corporate god.

“Second time you’ve hacked Neon Blue property,” Taylor said.

“You stopped providing tech support for my eyes. How was I meant to see without jailbreaking them?”

“Buy the upgrade, like anyone else.”

“You know the price of that upgrade?”

“I know the law, and I know you broke it.”

For the second time in as many hours, Taylor removed Caz’s shades. This time she took the scarf off too and dropped it in a crumpled heap.

“That’s better,” she said. “I like to see who I’m talking to.”

“So would I, but your employers took that from me.” Caz felt about on the floor until her fingers closed around her scarf. She laid it on the table and flattened it out, while her empty gaze settled on a space in the air past Taylor’s shoulder. “You shouldn’t drop other people’s possessions in the dirt.”

“And you shouldn’t hack other people’s drones.”

“It worked then?” Caz’s smile was knife blade thin. Her fingers stretched out across the table like they were feeling for an interface, a way to interact with a world she couldn’t see.

“As far as the press and our corporate partners are concerned, it’s just minor disruption at a depot.” Taylor leaned across the table into Caz’s space. The kid didn’t flinch. “But between you and me, you trashed shipments worth millions, and that’s not the kind of cost my employers can ignore.”

“You fuckers deserved it. You bankrupted me and left me blind.”

“You did that to yourself.”

“Really? So what am I doing to myself this time? Private prison perhaps, assembling your microchips for no wage, one more corporate slave?”

“Eventually.” Taylor cracked her knuckles, pulled out her phone, and brought up the controls for the security cameras. “But first, you need to learn a lesson.”

She tapped the icon to kill the camera feeds.

Nothing happened. She frowned, looked up, and saw the cameras pointing straight at her. A lock clicked and the door of the interrogation room swung open. A drone flew in and laid a rolled-up computer on the table.

“What the hell?”

Caz picked up her scarf and held it out to show the staticky pattern.

“Got this printed specially for today,” she said. “Read by the right sort of camera, the pattern turns into a code, which gets into your system and triggers another code planted by my last hack. One that couldn’t get past your firewall until you walked me in.”

She wrapped the scar back around the lower half of her face, ran a hand across the table, and found her shades.

Taylor fought the urge to hit the kid. She knew how this went, how bad it must be to have earned the big reveal. Suddenly, she was the powerless one.

“Ransomware,” she said. “Only unlockable by you, only from the outside, and only once a large crypto payment has triggered some digital switch.”

“Exactly.” Caz’s smile wasn’t a knife blade anymore. It was a banner announcing her victory. She unrolled the computer and ran her fingers across the raised symbols of its keys, which were lifting up and down, telling her what her program had found.  “Now, let’s talk about how you’re going to fix my eyes.”

***

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***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

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

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

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

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

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

Hearts Lost to the Sea – a science fiction short story

Image by David Shepherd from Pixabay

A rumble emerged through the howling wind off the sea. Half a mile down the coast, the cliff face fell, ancient stones tumbling as waves surged up and swallowed them.

Eamon’s fingers trembled as he tapped at his tablet. Rain ran down the screen, down his face, down the road in rushing rivulets that grew stronger by the hour. This storm was the worst yet and it was still rising.

A swarm of insectile robots scurried across the new sea defences, the ones Eamon had raised after the harbour was abandoned. The signs of his failure appeared and disappeared as the waters rose and fell: the broken walls of houses, the shattered windows of drowned shops, even the stumps of wind turbines out to sea. But this time he wouldn’t fail. He couldn’t fail. This was what he did. He was Eamon, and he saved the town.

“Eamon, we have to go!” Hannah grabbed him by the shoulder. Behind her, a lorry stood outside their house, one of the last to be evacuated. A neighbour was climbing into the cab, while another slammed the rear shutters down, and a third started up the car.

“No.” Eamon shook her off. “Giving up is how we got here.”

He squinted as the storm blasted his face, and made another adjustment to the robots’ instructions, sending them to reinforce the new sea wall. As they moved, a wave rushed up and snatched two of the robots away. A third landed on its back, legs twitching broken in the air. Eamon ran towards it, but Hannah grabbed him around the waist, and others joined in, dragging him back as a chunk of concrete blew out of the wall.

“There’s nothing left to save,” Hannah shouted over the wind.

“That’s my house!” Eamon said. “Our house. And Sammy’s house next to it. And a dozen more. We can still save them!”

Rain ran down the road where he had played as a child, carried away the dirt of his father’s flower beds, streamed across the front step where his mother had sat with him every summer morning, talking about what the town had been back in its fishing days, about what it could be again.

“One day, you’ll save this town, Eamon,” she had said. “I believe in you.”

Now his parents were gone, along with everyone else buried in the cliff top parish graveyard. But the house was still here, as solid as his mother’s faith in him. If it fell, that would be on Eamon.

“I love this place too,” Hannah said, tears running with the rain down her cheeks. “You think I would have come back to teach in our old school if I didn’t? But the town’s like that school, half into the ocean and the rest about to follow. You have to accept that. Better heartbreak than death.”

“I saved us once,” Eamon said. “I can do it again.”

Down the hill, waves crossed the broken sea wall and thrashed against the front of the souvenir store from Eamon’s tourist boom, against the arts centre whose funding he had found, against the estate agency he had coaxed back as house prices rose. His mother had been so proud.

“I knew you could save us,” she had said.

This was what he did. He had studied economics to drag them out of their decline, then engineering to save them from the rising seas. Everything he had ever been, everything he had ever loved, was here.

He tapped at the screen, sent the robots swarming to the gap in the sea wall. They clung to each other to stop the waves washing them away, while some extruded polymers to close the gap, to hold it together until the storm passed. They became a single mass, a part of the wall that buckled but didn’t give way. They were Eamon’s spirit, bending but unbroken.

Further down the sea wall, the concrete cracked and the water poured in. There were no robots left to plug that gap. The tablet hung in Eamon’s hand, a cold dead weight of useless electronics.

“I’m sorry.” Hannah wrapped her arms around him. “But please, for me, you have to come. You’re all I have left of this place.”

“I failed,” Eamon whispered.

“No one could have—”

“I failed!” The words were a howl of anguish. The tablet shattered as it hit the ground.

“Yes, alright, you failed here! But look at how much you learnt along the way. Imagine how much more you can achieve if you start working with others instead of trying to do everything on you own.”

“But this is what I do. I save the town.”

“Not this town. Not any more.”

The waves were surging up the street. The wall of the souvenir shop collapsed and its roof followed, tiles and solar panels sliding over each other into the water. Another chunk of the sea wall fell, taking Eamon’s robots with it.

“As long as we live, so will this place,” Hannah said, pressing her hand over his heart. “And who knows what other towns you could help save.”

Feet dragging, Eamon let her lead him to the car. As they drove away, he looked back through the window, watching his house disappear into the haze of a rain-drenched twilight. He remembered his mother on the doorstep, on her sickbed, in her coffin. Eamon trembled, and finally began to cry.

***

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

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

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

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

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

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

Theories on a Riot – a science fiction short story

The city roared around Mutt. The sirens, the stamping feet, the chants of two opposing armies of protesters. In the next street over, frustration had just bubbled over into violence, coordinated chants turning into cries of alarm, the crash and thud of projectiles, someone screaming into a megaphone.

While the world was distracted, Mutt flung a brick through the window of a store and stepped in over the broken glass. He walked to the back of the room, where the latest eighty-five inch high definition TV stood in pride of place. The biggest and the best he had ever seen. It was going to be his.

A sound like the popping of a balloon drew Mutt’s attention to the cash register. Two guys were standing there. Both wore baggy pants and hoodies, with bandanas covering the lower halves of their faces, just like Mutt.

“How’d you get in here?” Mutt asked.

“Followed you.”

Mutt didn’t remember seeing them outside, or hearing anyone following him. But how else could they be here?

“Can we ask you some questions?” one of them asked. He pulled out a phone as thin as a sheet of cardboard and tapped the screen.

“You cops?” Mutt growled, glancing around for something he could hit them with, then deciding it would be better to run. “You gotta tell me if you’re cops. I seen it on TV.”

“We’re not cops,” the guy said. “Bro. We’re here rioting, just like you.”

He nudged his buddy, who started sweeping things off the sales counter and into his bag—pens, mints, fliers, worthless shit. Mutt watched them both warily. They looked kind of nerdy, pale-faced behind their masks, a little squinty, and they talked in that fancy way folks did on east coast TV shows. They didn’t seem quite right, but Mutt wasn’t going to let a couple of freaks get in his way. He started disconnecting the giant TV.

“Which side are you on?” the guy with the phone asked.

“Side?”

“Out there. Are you with the traditionalist-authoritarian movement, or the social equalitarians?”

Mutt didn’t know what those words meant, but he knew where he stood on events in the streets.

“Neither,” he said. “Politics is for idiots.”

He’d got the TV off the wall, but it was bigger than him, and that made it difficult to carry. He stumbled around, one end of the screen resting on the ground as he tried to get a solid grip. There was a flash, and he realised that the guy was pointing his phone at Mutt.

“Hey!” Mutt knocked the phone from the guy’s hand, almost losing his grip on the TV in the process. The phone hit the ground and Mutt stamped on it, but instead of smashing, it bounced back up, like it was made of rubber. “What the hell?”

“Sorry, do you have some objection to being photographed?” the guy asked.

“Do you think it’ll steal your soul?” asked the other guy.

“Don’t be a dick, Lucas,” the photographer snapped, picking up his phone and then turning to the increasingly bewildered Mutt. “He’s new to studying this era, and he got some weird ideas off his old supervisor.”

“Uh, okay…” These guys were creeping Mutt out. It wasn’t just their sharply spoken yet meaningless words. Their clothes caught the light in odd ways, and there were too many stars on the American flag of the first guy’s bandana.

“Tell you what,” the phone guy said, “if we help you with that televiewer, will you answer a couple more questions?”

He had to mean the TV, right? And Mutt was struggling to work out how he could carry it away. This wasn’t an opportunity he wanted to miss—the Superbowl was gonna look amazing on a screen this big.

“Sure, I guess.”

The two guys took hold of the TV, then one of them turned Mutt around while the other took some elasticated cords out of a shiny black bag.

“Lean forward,” phone guy said. “We’ll strap it to your back. Now tell me, why did you choose this as your artifact to loot?”

“You mean the TV?”

“Yes, the TV.”

“I want a bigger one.”

“So you weren’t targeting a particular company, its owners or investors?”

“No.”

“You weren’t trying to make a political statement?”

Mutt laughed. “Politics is for idiots.”

“Told you,” the second guy said smugly.

“Shut up, Lucas. My hypothesis could still be correct. We need to gather a broader range of data.”

“You mean you need a new thesis topic. Nobody in twenty-first-century studies will let you get away with this weak shit.”

The TV was firmly strapped to Mutt’s back now. Maybe meeting these guys hadn’t been so bad after all. They were freaks, but they were useful freaks.

“See you around.” Bent over beneath the weight of the TV, Mutt headed for the broken window.

“I doubt it,” camera guy said as a siren approached through the night. Red and blue lights lit up the broken store front.

There was a pop, like a balloon bursting.

A black and white car pulled up in the street and two cops leapt out.

“Stop right there!” one of them shouted.

Mutt tried to drop the TV, but it was too firmly tied on, and too heavy for him to run.

“Quick, untie me!” He turned around and found himself alone in the store.

“Hands out where I can see them!” a cop shouted.

Mutt groaned and spread his hands. Where were those freaks when he needed them?

***

This story is a sequel of sorts. A few months ago, I published a story about time travelling academics studying the destruction of Pompeii. Part of that story involved a time-travelling looter. In response, one of the readers on my mailing list, Vicki Barbosa, suggested writing a story about what happens when time travellers from the future run into modern looters. After letting the idea sit and stew for a while, here’s the result. I hope that you like it.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

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

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

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

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

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

Voices on the Solar Wind – a science fiction short story

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Selene swam through the darkness of space, a single figure in a skin tight space suit surrounded by an energy bubble broad enough to catch the solar wind. She had been out here for three hours, far from the transport ship and the other surfers, coasting on the intermittent waves washing out from the sun. Today was a good day to surf the winds, but Selene didn’t want good. She wanted transcendent. She wanted an experience to make her forget everything else.

She toggled her coms and caught a brief burst of static, background noise from the same streams of energy she had been hoping to ride.

“Anyone think the currents seem funky today?” she asked.

If Matt had been there, he would have chided her for using words like “current”. The solar winds didn’t work like Earth winds or the waves in the ocean, he would say. Those were dumb metaphors that hid a more amazing truth. But Matt had burst his bubble riding a wave out near Venus, and only been found after his oxygen ran out. He had left her with nothing but tears, and she was damned if she’d let him shape her words now.

“Some odd swells, but nothing I can’t handle,” said one of the others — Tad or Tod or some name like that. She hadn’t clicked with anyone since Matt, and wasn’t going to bother learning their life stories. They would be gone in another year, or she would, so why bother? Only the sun stayed the same.

She left the coms open, letting the static of the solar wind crackle in her ears. Matt had said it was like music, that he could hear patterns and sense waves coming in those bursts of noise. Selene had never been able to hear what he did, but that sound left her feeling like he might still be out there.

Her energy bubble shifted, carrying her with it, as a fresh wave of pressure hit. She whooped out loud, losing herself in the moment, and flung out her hands, flattening the bubble to catch the wave. The energy field strained under the growing pressure and she picked up speed, hurtling through the void. This was what she still had: a thrill that was bright but fleeting.

The pressure wave passed and Selene’s bubble slowed down. She rearranged it for stability while she waited for the next wave, and listened to the sound of the wind, of particles colliding with her speaker system.

“…currents…”

The sound seemed to emerge from the static, as much noise as word. The voice wasn’t anyone Selene had come out here with, and none of them seemed to be on coms. It must be a chance thing, like seeing a face in a cloud, or perhaps a figment of her imagination.

Another wave hit. Selene stretched her bubble further this time, letting the solar wind carry her faster and further, reaching for a personal best.

“Selene, you okay?” That was the voice of Etsuko, who had arranged today’s trip. “Your bubble looks a little out of control.”

“I’m fine,” Selene said.

“Okay, just take care.”

Of course Etsuko had asked, she was responsible, but it wasn’t like she really cared. Selene barely knew the woman, they just happened to be riding life’s current together. That was all the world held now, strangers and the sun.

The pressure wave passed. Selene steadied her bubble.

Again, a rustling force seemed to emerge from the static “…funky…today…”

Selene blinked away tears. Was this what she had come to, searching for voices in the void because it was better than accepting that she was alone, better than living in a world where Matt’s voice was gone?

Another wave hit, more powerful than before. Selene howled in excitement, embracing the rush of movement that blasted away her sorrow. She stretched her bubble so wide and flat that her toes almost protruded from the back, and let the wave shoot her forward like a dolphin darting through the ocean.

A warning light flashed in the visor of her suit. The bubble was taking more pressure than it could stand. But she kept going, leaning into the wave, holding back the grief and the loneliness just a moment longer.

Her speaker crackled and sounds emerged from the static once more, not her voice or that of anyone she knew, a sound that was barely human, but still familiar words. “…anyone think the currents seem funky today…”

Selene twisted in her straining bubble and stared at the sun. How were her words coming back to her from there, carried on the currents of the universe? Was Matt reaching for her from beyond death? Was the sun itself speaking?

“…funky today…funky today…funky today…”

The words looped, coming around again as real as she was, no figment of her imagination but someone, something, trying to connect.

The red light flashed faster as her bubble approached its breaking point. Was this the moment to go out, to ride a wave to the end just like Matt? To leave behind whoever was reaching out for her, just like he had?

Selene reshaped her bubble. The light flashed down through amber to green and then winked out as her speed slowed. The words were gone, but she turned up the volume on her coms, straining to make out any sound amid the static.

“Hello?” she called out to a channel no one was listening on. “Is anyone out there?”

For several minutes, there was nothing but noise. Then an inhuman voice rose from the sea of static.

“…hello…out there…”

***

If you’ve enjoyed this story, then you can read more like it in my new collection. One Cog Dreaming collects all 52 of last year’s flash stories in one place for easy reading. There’s a shipwrecked sailor in a land of talking animals, a steampunk rebel in a city with only one rhythm, a spaceship hurtling towards disaster, and much more. A year’s worth of stories at your fingertips – what’s not to love?

Buy it now.

The Colour of the Trees in the Park – a sci-fi short story

Image by Albrecht Fietz from Pixabay

Tom was adjusting the leaves on old oaks when he noticed a gradation in their colour, an orange in the recesses that hinted at autumn rising through the last lush days of summer. Curious, he took off his glasses and his overlay disappeared, revealing the meatworld leaf. For a moment he wondered if the orange had crept through his holographic filters, riding on the back of the street signs, road markings, and emergency vehicles that had to be allowed unfiltered through ampglass, but the real leaf was a dull and disappointing green, with none of that rich, warm glow.

He put his glasses back on and his private world returned. The colour must be a glitch, but it wasn’t a bad one. Instead of over-riding it, maybe he should adopt it for all the trees, for a few weeks at least. It would add richness to his daily walk, the sort of richness that created his moments of happiness between days in the office and evenings home alone.

He walked to the next tree and took a leaf in his hand, thinking about how to give it that orange layer. His eyes widened as he saw that the orange was already there. He took off the glasses, rubbed his eyes, put the glasses back on again, but nothing changed. The orange wasn’t just a glitch in one tree. Nausea lay heavy in his stomach as he realised that someone had hacked his world.

Blinking, Tom glanced around. Other people were out in the park, walking their dogs, riding their bikes, chatting as they strolled around, people Tom didn’t know and had never cared about before. How could he possibly tell which of them had broken into his private space? Was the culprit even there? He clutched his stomach, his hand trembling at the thought of the violation.

Then he saw her, a woman in jeans and a superhero hoodie, frowning up at a tree he had turned silver the previous day. In his eyes, reflected light dappled her skin as she reached for a leaf, her face made all the more luminous by curiosity. Surely she wasn’t seeing what he did?

Tom approached with tense, jerky steps.

“What do you see?” he asked.

“That’s a very personal question.” The woman looked around, an eyebrow raised. “Who are you and why are you asking?”

“I just…” He licked his lips. “I’m curious.”

“Hm.” She stared at him suspiciously. “I see silver.”

“I knew it!” The words stabbed at her accusingly. “What are you doing in my overlay?”

“Your overlay? What are you doing turning my tree silver?”

“You put orange in mine!”

“The leaves needed more orange. It brings out the green.”

“Then bring out the green in your own overlay!”

A group of cyclists stopped to stare at them. Tom hunched his shoulders and leaned away from her, lowering his voice to a normal level.

“I mean, please stop changing my space.”

It wasn’t that he disliked the orange, it was the principle of the thing, the sick feeling at losing control over the world that was his, the one thing he could make perfect.

“This is my space,” the woman said sharply. “You’re the one trespassing.”

“I am not.” He whipped off his glasses and brought up his holographic frequency on one lens. He pointed from that to the identical number printed on the arm of the glasses. The woman leaned in, her long hair tickling his arm, then took off her own glasses and stared at the production number.

“Damn,” she whispered. “How did that happen?”

Each set of ampglass was meant to have a unique production code, a wavelength for the user’s holographic overlay. Though their glasses were in different styles, hers a cute yellow plastic, his a more traditional black, the digits on them were identical.

“Manufacturing mistake.” Tom’s mouth was dry. If there had been an error, then one of them would have to give up this wavelength, and it could be him as easily as her. He had spent months perfecting this park, and now he couldn’t bring himself to look at it.

“Just when I’d got the grass the way I like it,” the woman said, hanging her head.

“It’s really good grass.”

“And the sky’s a perfect blue.”

“I know. Why do so many people pick something brighter?”

“People are idiots.”

They laughed and he grinned at her sheepishly. She fitted in so well here in the park, beautiful yet relaxed, her laughter as lovely as the singing of the birds. She could almost have been something he created, except that he was seeing her without the benefits of ampglass. When was the last time he had spoken with anyone like this? He couldn’t even remember, and that thought made him unaccountably sad.

“I like the silver tree,” she said. “I’ll keep it if they let me keep this place. Might even copy it if they don’t.”

An idea uncurled inside Tom’s heart, like a leaf unfurling in the first thaw of spring.

“Maybe we could share, for a while at least. We seem to like the same sort of world.”

“Can we do that?” she asked, wide-eyed.

Tom shrugged and offered her a lop-sided smile. “Who’s going to stop us?”

The woman’s eyes lit up. She smiled and nodded at him, then held out a hand.

“I’m Amy. Let’s build a world together.”

***

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

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

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

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

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

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

Making History – a science fiction short story

Image by Holger Schué from Pixabay

Chrissy turned slowly on the spot, taking in the sights of ancient Pompeii. It was hard to embrace its awe and beauty while smoke streamed from Vesuvius in the background, especially knowing what would happen on this day in history, but she kept reassuring herself that everything was fine, the time tether would snatch her and Domingo back to the 22nd century before the destruction hit, she just had to keep her head and make the most of this unique opportunity.

In a sense, it didn’t really matter what she saw. What mattered was the camera and other sensors in the amphora she was carrying, part of her disguise as one more slave running errands for her master. Her recordings would be pored over by historians for decades, turned into books and papers, imitated in games and entertainment streams. But for her personally, knowing that she could only ever visit this time once, it was an opportunity she shouldn’t waste.

“Got everything you need?” Domingo asked quietly as she finished a complete rotation, filming all the buildings around the square. The two of them had enough Latin to get by here, but communication was clearer if they kept their voices low and spoke in English.

“Finished,” she said.

“Then let’s move on to the next location.”

They didn’t need to discuss where it was. They had spent months planning for this, memorising routes carefully planned to maximise evidence gathering, in line with a funding application that had been years in the making.

A passing slave caught Chrissy’s eye. On the surface, he looked just like the rest, his skin weathered, his tunic made from authentic period cloth to an authentic period cut. But he smiled for a moment, revealing teeth that were whiter than any others she had seen since they arrived.

“Wait.” Balancing the amphora in one arm, she grabbed Domingo by the wrist and hissed in his ear. “Look, another time traveller.”

Domingo shrugged.

“Looters. You always get them in places like this, snatching antiquities before they get lost in the disaster.”

“He’s stealing from these people?”

“Probably, yeah.”

“And removing evidence future archaeologists could find?”

“Evidence future archaeologists didn’t find, because it’s gone.” Domingo started walking. “Come on, we’ve got a schedule.”
Chrissy nodded in the other direction, after the looter.

“We have to stop him!”

“Why?”

“Because he’s a thief. Because he’s ruining the evidence. Because it’s the right thing to do.”

Domingo gave the weary sigh of a veteran, which only aggravated Chrissy’s temper. He had only done two of these expeditions before, it wasn’t like he had some huge wealth of experience she lacked.

“Our job is to record this place for posterity.”

“Screw the job. We can’t let people like him go unpunished.”

Red-faced, she shoved her amphora into Domingo’s hands and strode after the looter.

“Chrissy, wait!” Domingo called out.

Chrissy froze. Around them, people turned to look at the slave shouting strange words in an unfamiliar accent.

“Sorry,” he said in loud, overly clumsy Latin. He pointed at himself. “From Gaul.”

People nodded and rolled their eyes, then went on about their business.

“What the hell?” Chrissy hissed as he caught up with her. “You know we have to be careful.”

“Which do you think will make more difference to our understanding of the world, catching that looter or completing our research?”

Chrissy stood with feet planted firmly, fists bunched at her sides, unwilling to concede the point. “Completing our research. But that doesn’t mean-”

“And which will do more to improve the world, having a rich, detailed record of this lost city, or stopping one guy nicking jewellery from people who will be dead in six hours?”

“If he gets away with this then he might do it again.”

“You’re right, and that’s not fair. But the question is, do you want to punish him more than you want to help all those historians and school kids and history lovers? Does your anger matter more than their understanding?”

Chrissy glared at him. Time was ticking away, either to do their research or to catch the looter. She trembled with frustration as her own calculations dragged her away from the answer she wanted to choose.

“Fine.” She grabbed the amphora from Domingo and stomped away up the street. “Let’s go make some history.”

***

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

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

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

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

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

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

Face of 1000 Heroes – a Commando Comic

Cover image by Neil Roberts

In the year 2104, regular military forces are obsolete. Instead, Iron Wind Corporation has created an enhanced army of super soldiers known as N-Unit. Engineered to be faster, stronger and braver than normal fighters, N-Unit is a clone army. Together they are unstoppable — that is, until one member goes rogue…

I’ve been writing comic scripts for Commando for a couple of years now. In that time, I’ve told a lot of stories that I’m proud of, from the intense urban warfare of Rats in the Rubble to the epic story of 1066. But this month sees the story I’m most excited about – a sci-fi adventure called Face of 1000 Heroes.

How the Story Came About

This story started at a comics convention.

I love history, and I’ve got the degrees to prove it, but as a fiction writer, my abiding passion is science fiction and fantasy. So when Commando publisher DC Thomson put out a collection of their old Starblazer comics last year, I was excited to see whether there might be more in the works.

Not long after, I met Gordon from Commando‘s editorial team at the Thought Bubble comics festival. Thought Bubble is always an amazing place to be, browsing the incredible range of comics being put out by British creators. It was fantastic to see Commando flying the flag for historical action alongside the superheroes and whimsical humour that make up so much of the comics scene. Naturally, I mentioned how excited I was by the Starblazer release, and asked whether it might mean more sci-fi from DC Thomson.

Following that conversation, Kate McAuliffe, the fantastic editor I work with on Commando projects, invited me to pitch a couple of sci-fi stories to her. While there’s no more Starblazer in sight yet, she accepted one of those pitches as a Commando comic, with a few changes to better fit the Commando theme.

And so a story was born…

Why Clones?

Face of 1000 Heroes follows a group of identical cloned mercenaries. I could give a load of highbrow reasons why I wanted to write about clones, from questions of consciousness and free choice through to a fascination with what makes an individual. But if I’m honest, the real reason is two pieces of sci-fi I loved as a teenager – Star Wars and Space Above and Beyond.

I grew up before Star Wars really got into clones. The prequel movies weren’t out yet, so the clone wars were this vague concept mentioned briefly in passing. Even when clones started to appear in stories like the Dark Empire comics, they weren’t well fleshed out. But that idea of wars between clones lurked in the back of my mind, a concept tugging at my curiosity down the years.

Then there was Space Above and Beyond, the shortlived TV show about US marines fighting a war against alien invaders. When it was bad, SAaB was pretty ropey, but when it was good, it was spectacular, and there was nothing like it on TV. One of its characters had been grown in a vat, part of a group known as In Vitroes or tanks, a non-identical clone underclass. Originally grown for war, the tanks were social outcasts, used by the show to explore issues of prejudice and segregation. A rich and fascinating history was hinted at during the show’s all too short run, before some nameless TV executive killed the series I loved.

When I sat down to think of a sci-fi war story, my mind went back to those two stories. If I was going to write about the future of warfare, then I was going to write about clones.

Rebellion, the Most British of Virtues

As a student of history, I’ve often found rebellions exciting. From the Spartacus revolt in ancient Rome, through the American Revolution, to the resistance fighters against Nazi occupation, military history is rammed full of rebel heroes.

And despite our outward image of conformity, the British have a long, proud tradition of rebellion. Boudicca’s revolt of 60AD turned Roman Britain upside down. The Civil Wars saw dozens of dissident groups reshape politics and religion, from the Roundhead armies to the radical agricultural protest of the Diggers. The 19th-century Chartists and 20th-century suffragettes helped bring on a real democracy.

Even within apparently conformist war stories, the heroes are often the rebels, the people who buck against corrupt authority and don’t play by the rules. It’s why Richard Sharpe has become such a popular figure in fiction.

There is nothing more British than rebellion, so if I was going to write a British sci-fi war comic, I was going to get some rebellion in.

The Long History of Mercenaries

The fact that the clones in this story are mercenaries also has its roots in history. Though we’re now used to thinking of armies as belonging to nations, armies have often worked differently. Late medieval Italy was reshaped by the condottieri captains, while the British East India Company ruled a whole country through private armies.

The past 20 years have seen private military firms gain influence and attention again, thanks to the use of companies such as Academi (formerly Blackwater) in the Middle East. Mercenaries, who not long ago seemed like figures from the past, increasingly look like the future of military action. That made them a natural choice for my story, helping to distinguish the military culture of my clones from the modern military while giving them someone to rebel against – the ruthless company they were bred to serve.

Why The Title?

The title of this story is an inversion of one of the most famous works on storytelling, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Campbell’s book explores fundamental patterns in myths and storytelling. Released in the 1940s, it was hugely influential over the following decades, not least on a certain young director named George Lucas.

Now its influence is on the decline. Writers from different backgrounds have shown that many of Campbell’s generalisations don’t hold true. He’d found one pattern of myth-making, but it wasn’t as universal as he claimed. Many modern storytellers work hard to drag us away from Campbell’s monolithic form.

In some ways, the clones of Face of 1000 Heroes represent the opposite of Campbell’s work – not the idea that a single pattern can repeat with a thousand different faces, but that a thousand different people could each have the same face and still each have their own unique story. It’s a rebel’s approach to the theme.

Go Buy It!

So there you go – the origins and influences of a single sci-fi comic. If you’d like to see more sci-fi from Commando, or more British sci-fi comics in general, then please go out and buy this one. Experiments like this help publishers to understand what their audience wants, and the more people buy Face of 1000 Heroes, the more likely it is that Commando will publish more sci-fi. Hell, if enough of you buy it, then one day I might get to write the other story I pitched, the one with a carnival planet, a talking cat, and a space station that folds up in your pocket. Dream big, right?

And to all of you who’ve already picked up a copy of the comic, thank you very much, and happy reading!

Like Snowflakes – a science fiction short story

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Snow was falling as I stepped off the platform and into the retirement town. This was it for the rest of my life, contained in one spot by the company that made me. At least the place looked pretty.

A woman stood by an all terrain car in the parking lot. She pulled the scarf down from across her mouth, revealing my face but with a scar running down her left cheek. ZK-class clones were bred as specialists, scattered around the world in mountain rescue teams, and I’d only encountered two others in my career. Even knowing it was coming, the experience was uncanny.

“I’m ZK-334,” she said. “You can call me Nora. And you must be 418.”

I didn’t shake the hand she offered, instead fiddling with the strap of my bag. It was too weird seeing my own face on a stranger.

“Everyone finds it unsettling at first,” Nora said. “You’ll get used to it.”

As she drove me into town, Nora talked about the people and possibilities the settlement held. All I could do was stare through the windows of the shops and restaurants we passed, seeing hundreds of faces like my own. I pulled my jacket tight and settled my hand on my belly, trying to calm its quivering. There’s nothing wrong, I told myself. This is just what you expected. But I couldn’t help scrutinising those faces, wishing there was someone different from me.

*

Nora laughed when I opened the door, revealing my outfit of tartan trousers and a bright pink hoodie. My distress must have shown, because she stifled her grin and offered a sympathetic smile.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Everyone goes through something like this when they arrive. It’s part of adjusting.”

I should have invited her in, but my home was the only place where that face was confined to the mirror. Even dressed the way I was, I didn’t feel like my own person in the rest of the settlement: no clothes could make me unique when everyone else had my eyes. Still, I clung to those clothes like they were a safety line and I was hanging over a crevasse.

“You don’t dress like this,” I said, twisting my neon watch.

“When I first got here, I wore outrageous Hawaiian shirts for a month. It gave me something to do while I got settled.”

“It’s been a month. I don’t feel settled.”

“It was easier for me.” She ran a finger down her scar. “I’d had this for a decade, and no-one without it looks quite like me.”

I nodded. That scar was part of why I could stand to see her.

“You pick a name yet?” she asked.

I shook my head. I had always been ZK-418. I got the principle of picking a name to mark the end of my service period, but no name would have sounded like me.

“Why don’t you come out for coffee,” she said. “Meet some people. It gets easier once you find out more about them.”

“No.” Just the thought of being around them made me feel faint. “Thank you.”

I stepped back and shut the door.

*

I looked in the bathroom mirror. There it was, the same face I saw everywhere. The same face as everyone I knew. Maybe if I had spent my life surrounded by it, like the military clones did, then I could have lived in this place, but to suddenly be robbed of my individuality, to dissolve into an identical multitude, was like falling from a mountain side, feeling solid support fall away as I hurtled powerless through the void.

I couldn’t even stand to see myself any more. I slammed my fist into the mirror and it shattered, slivers of glass ringing out as they landed in the sink. My knuckles stung and blood dripped down my middle finger.

A blood spot on glass stared up at me like a single, unblinking eye. Hypnotised by its gaze, I finally saw the answer. Nora had found a way to make it all bearable, and so could I.

I picked up a shard the length of my hand and raised it to my face. A scar like Nora’s wouldn’t do: this had to make me unique. The thought of doing it made me feel cold as ice, but it had to be done.

The doorbell rang. I turned, too numb to think beyond automatic reactions, and went to answer.

Nora’s smile lasted all of a second before she saw the look on my face and the glass in my hand.

“Oh, honey!” She looked at me with such sympathy that I could have cried. “That’s not the answer.”

Gently, she took hold of my hand and pried the glass from between my fingers.

“This is why you need to meet people,” she said, laying her hands on my shoulders. “It’s not what’s on the outside that makes us unique. It’s the people inside, and once you meet them, you’ll see more than just your own face looking back. This,” she tapped her scar, “it was a lifeline while I settled in, but it’s not what’s kept me sane.”

“I can’t,” I whispered. “Can’t go out. Can’t face them. I…”

“Then let me come in. I’ll tell you how my accident changed me, all the things I’ve done since that you haven’t. And if that’s okay, tomorrow I’ll bring Judy, the lady with all the piercings, so she can tell you how she went from mountaineer to DJ. How does that sound?”

It sounded terrifying. But so did the clink of shattered mirror falling into the sink, a reminder of the bloody alternative.
I stepped back from the doorway and let Nora in.

***

I have a Commando comic out this week, Face of a Thousand Heroes. Unusually for Commando, it’s a science fiction story instead of a historical one, a tale about cloned soldiers fighting in a future conflict. I wrote this story to show another side of that comic’s world. If you’re interested in reading more, you can find Commando on Comixology or in newsagents.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

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

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

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

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

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

After the Fire – a science fiction short story

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

Fifty feet above my head, there’s a wildfire blazing. Towers of flame stretching into the sky, destroying everything from windweed to prefabricated houses. The nearest city is probably ash by now, but I’m down here, cool, safe, and mercifully alone.

It might have been useful to have company when I reached the shelter. The firestorm came in so fast, I rammed my car into a tree racing here, then gouged my leg on the twisted bumper. It’s not easy to bandage yourself when you’re shaking with shock, but I did it, and I’ll be fine once the painkillers kick in. Better to deal with it myself than to be stuck down here with some random stranger, listening to their snoring and clearing up their discarded trash. If I wanted company then I would have stayed on Earth.

Time to go check out the kitchen, see what I’ll be living off for the next few weeks.

#

If I ever meet that colony recruiter again, I’m going to kick his ass. He told me these bunkers were heatproof, but I’m sweating like a politician in front of the press.

#

Father was the bear, you see? But then the waves, and the falling, and it’ll all be ecstatic.

asdfggggggggg

#

Three days of fever dreams, and I wake up to find that my leg’s still infected. I replaced the bandage, but the new one already stinks like a garbage dump. This place has a tiny shower cubicle, so I washed the sweat and crud off the rest of my body, but the wound on my leg hurt too much to be cleaned. Then I had to lie down for two hours, because apparently ten minutes of standing is more than I can take.

If only I’d been more careful getting out of the car. Just a few seconds of caution would have saved me a world of pain. If I’d looked down, stepped a little wider, or stopped at that first tearing sound, instead of letting fear of the flames rush me.

Idiot.

I’m reduced to eating cold meals out of cans because I used up all my strength on that shower and there’s no-one else here to cook. Can’t even call for a takeaway. I’ve watched the same stupid movie on loop three times because it’s easier than using the remote, and now I’m dictating rather than typing. Seriously, what have I become?

#

My temperature’s back down and the leg’s healing nicely. I’m going to have an awesome scar.

Now I can make use of this place, I can really appreciate the opportunity it’s given me. There’s no work to do, no one asking if I want to go for drinks. I don’t even have a virtual connection, because any affordable coms antenna would get melted by the fire. So it’s just me, my thoughts, and a library of digital entertainment. I’m going to work out, read a few classics, and really take some time for myself.

Of course I’m not saying I’m glad of the wildfire, but this is going to be exactly the break I need.

#

Which idiot thought that this was a planet worth settling? That we should live through a firestorm once a decade just so they could mine the minerals? And now we’re here, why aren’t we all living out at sea?

Fuck you, first settlers. And fuck you, colonial recruiter.

#

Nearly four weeks. The hatch sensor light blinks orange, saying that the temperature’s falling above me, but not enough yet.

I got through two books before I had to give up. The air down here must be missing something, because I don’t normally have a problem with concentration. Now I sit limply in front of a screen, watching the same sitcoms on loop, because the moments when the couples connect make me feel warm inside and the jokes almost make me laugh.

These are the people I can live with. People on a screen.

#

I just spent an hour staring at the hatch, wondering how far through the fire I would have to run to find people.

#

A big day in two ways.

This morning, for the very first time, there was no pain at all in my leg.

This afternoon, for the first time, the hatch sensor dropped down into the green.

The advice we were given is clear. Unless you urgently need help, wait for three days in the green before you go out. That way you can be sure that the fire won’t flare up again.

I sit and stare at the sensor. In the background, canned laughter rolls out over cheap jokes. Soon, it’ll be time for the wedding episode. Until then, this little green light has me transfixed.

#

It’s not quite been three days, but it’s close enough.

I’m dictating this with one hand on the hatch. In my imagination, there are rescue workers up there, come to check for bunker entrances that have become buried or jammed shut. People in masks and overalls striding through swirling clouds of ash.

Real people.

The scar tissue feels stiff when I stretch out my leg. I need to be more careful this time, but I also need to get out into the world. Not for the people, of course. For the space and the clear fresh air.

***

They say to write what you know, so hey, here’s a story about someone living in isolation. I bet there aren’t a bazillion of those out there already.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

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

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

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

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

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