Silver Sails – a flash science fiction story

Helena stared open-mouthed at the silver sails drifting across the black of space. They moved like a flock of vast and shining birds, flowing back and forth in V-shaped formations hundreds of kilometres across, blown by the solar winds between the binary stars. As they turned, one face or another would catch the light, their bright tissue rippling and folding in invisible currents.

Space

“How do they even exist?” she whispered.

Johar shrugged and steered their shuttle towards the edge of one of the flocks.

“No-one knows,” he said. “Just be grateful that they do. They’re our way out of this system.”

The nearest sail shone brightly as Johar manoeuvred them in behind it. Tweaks of the thrusters, using up their precious supply of fuel, brought them in line behind that sheet of silver.

“Your turn,” he said.

Helena rubbed her hands against her thighs then wrapped them around the grappler’s controls. Her skin was tingling, her heart beating fast, but she tried to ignore that and focus on the task in hand.

She lined up the target finder on one corner of the sail and pulled the trigger, but a jerk of her hand left the shot misaligned. The grappling cable spooled out across the void, missed its target, and trailed limply like a heavy grey thread.

“Come on Helena, you’re better than this,” Johar said. “I’ve seen you practice.”

“It’s different out here,” she said, setting that grapple to wind back in while she reluctantly lined up another one. “They’re so beautiful, it doesn’t feel right to trap them like this.”

“They’re not people, not even animals, just a strange quirk of the cosmos. They won’t know that they’re trapped.”

“I will.”

Johar sighed, unstrapped himself from his seat, and floated across the cabin to her.

“You can do this,” he said, laying a hand on her shoulder. “I believe in you. And I believe in us. We could never afford the fuel to escape the system with rockets, but with a sail and a couple of cryo cans we can go wherever we want. It’s a whole new life for you and me.”

Helena couldn’t bring herself to look at him. Instead, she focused on the target finder, lining up the grappling shot like she’d practised so many times. Johar was right, this was their dream.

And yet…

“What if it goes wrong?” she asked. “What if the sail tears or we can’t find somewhere to settle or the place we find is dreadful or… or… or anything?”

Johar took a deep breath before he spoke.

“Sure, any of that could happen,” he said. “But if we don’t try, we know what will happen. We’ll live here our whole lives, stuck in dead-end jobs for an uncaring corporation. I’ll live through that for you, if that’s what it takes to be together. But couldn’t we have more?”

Helena looked out across the flocks of silver sails swirling against the black. She had never known such beauty could exist, never mind that it could exist here. Did she embrace that? Or did she leave it all behind, hoping that the universe might hold something more?

“Everyone I’ve ever known lives here,” she said. “Family, friends, all the places we share.”

“If it’s too much, we can stay.” Johar let go of her shoulder and drifted back to his seat. “Sell the ship, buy a little apartment instead, get by with what we have.”

His fingers stabbed at the controls, setting a course back home, then hovered over the thruster switch.

Helena imagined that apartment, the two of them raising kids in one of the city tower blocks. She imagined snatching a few hours of leisure each week with family, treasured moments between the long hours of her job. She could live with that.

The sail they were following turned with the rest of its flock. Like vast silver birds, the sails soared through the void, shining with borrowed light. The wonders of the universe were laid out before Helena.

She stilled her trembling hand and pulled the trigger. The grapple caught a corner of the sail.

Maybe she could live with this place, but she would rather dream of something more.

***

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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.

Invisible – A Flash Science Fiction Story

This whole thing started for me when Gazetech brought out their smart glasses. You remember, they were the first with filters to separate out real human faces from the imitations on screens, machines, and billboards. A shortcut for the brain.

Glasses on laptop

Everyone was getting burnt out by then. The internet of things meant an endless succession of appliances trying to engage with us, using fake faces to grab our attention. Just walking down the street became a road to mental fatigue, trying to work out who was human, who wasn’t, what any of them wanted and why. You’d see tired parents and exhausted executives picking fights with holographic bank machines. Our silicon helpers were killing us with friendship.

Then came Gazetech with their solution, because apparently the fix to broken technology was more technology. A pair of glasses that would detect and blank out fake faces.

It worked. The people who bought them reported greater happiness and productivity. Within weeks, more factories were being built. Vandalism against public-facing machines plummeted.

And people started ignoring me.

I didn’t realise at first. We’ve all had people who jump ahead of us in queues or try to barge past in the street. When it happened with acquaintances, I started to think I’d done something wrong, even became a bit depressed. Then a colleague bought his first Gazetech and stopped responding to me around the coffee machine. Finally, I worked it out. I had the wrong sort of face.

Gazetech uses a variety of filters to detect fake faces – excessive symmetry, surprising stillness, average features for your gender and skin tone, stuff like that. One of them alone won’t trigger the glasses, but hit all those buttons and it’ll think you’re just another device or an advertising board.

I’d never been exceptional looking. Good enough to get dates, not so handsome that I drew admiring crowds at parties. Now I knew why – I was the definition of average.

At first, it was amusing, a novelty to tell people about, but as the glasses became ubiquitous, it became a pain. I had to keep reminding everyone that I was in the room, or I’d be entirely ignored. It was as frustrating as being a teenager.

Then came the revelation.

We’d just finished a team meeting and I was sitting alone in the conference room, feeling sorry for myself. The others had walked out, all wearing their Gazetech, gossipping away, forgetting about me. Then a couple of the company’s directors walked in for a meeting of their own, both wearing Gazetech. They closed the door, sat down, and started talking like I wasn’t even there. To them, I wasn’t.

Oh boy, the things I heard. Projects and investments that no-one else knew about. Details of a planned restructuring. Who was sleeping with whose secretary. I kept quiet and took notes.

That evening, I bought shares in one of the companies they were planning to take over. Within weeks, those had soared in value.

After that, I did it on purpose. People had got used to not seeing me, so they didn’t notice that I wasn’t at my desk. I spent my days in the corners of meeting rooms, hoovering up the company’s secrets. Most of it was useless for anything other than blackmail, and I didn’t have the streak of cruelty it took to go down that route, even against people who had stopped seeing me as a person. But there were gems amid the muck.

It took me a while to foster a contact at a rival firm. I had to prove that my information was good, without giving away how I’d acquired it. I built trust slowly, giving away crumbs so I could sell them the whole loaf.

At last they were convinced and the work started in earnest. Every month, I received a substantial transfer from an anonymous bank account. Every month, I sent an encrypted email from a secret address. Every month, our rivals made a move just in time to thwart my firm.

Eventually, management realised that they had a mole. A witch hunt started. I had one day of roiling, gut-churning panic before I realised that I didn’t need to worry. No-one was going to blame me. They had forgotten I was there.

Over the next year, the company’s fortunes plummeted while mine soared. I made canny investments based on their planned next moves, doubling what I earned from my other employers. I didn’t even have to hide my grin, because no-one saw it.

Then came the fateful day. I was sitting in the corner of a board meeting, learning about their desperate, last-gasp plans to turn things around.

The chief executive let out a deep sigh and admitted that it wasn’t going to work. She was exhausted, battered by the winds of fortune, barely holding herself together. She took off her glasses, rubbed her eyes, and looked straight up at me.

Nobody called the police. Instead, security guards brought me down here, to a quiet, windowless room in a corner of HR, for a discreet little chat. And I can be discreet. I think I’ve proved that by now.

So here’s the thing. You could finish firing me and hand me over to the police. Or you could go grab my laptop. I’ve been working on a job application for a rival firm. I can get through the doors there. I can find my way onto the inside. And then…

***

This story was inspired by a friend of mine who works in academic psychology. She went to a talk on how processing the presence of other people, trying to work out their thoughts, feelings, and intentions use up our brainpower, even when those people are actually just objects that look like people. She wondered, in a grand way, about its sci-fi potential.

Then I took the idea and made something seedy out of 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.

Tone Versus Content – The Star Trek Revival

With Discovery now two seasons in and Captain Picard about to return to our screens, Star Trek is having a big TV revival. But is it doing what Trek does best?

Let’s get this out of the way first – I am totally on board with these shows. Discovery‘s diverse cast and bold storytelling are things of joy. The idea of seeing an aging Picard back in action makes my heart swell.

But the tone of Discovery, and by the look of its trailer Picard too, is very different from what Trek was. Both in the visuals and in the storytelling, things are darker, more ambiguous, less hopeful. There’s an emphasis on long-term storytelling that’s at odds with the original episodic format.

This isn’t surprising. Sci-fi TV saw a significant shake-up in the wake of the Battlestar Galactica reboot, which took existing trends and expanded on them to create a gritty show with squabbling crewmates and deep, troubled characters. Much of what’s followed has tried to recapture that, and it’s led to some great TV.

But this isn’t what Star Trek was about. It was a show in which the crew fundamentally got on, in which the right decision could be made, in which the universe was a hopeful place. And it looked like it. Even Deep Space Nine, the darkest of shows from the second wave, kept that underlying tone and built its ongoing plots on the solid foundation of episodic storytelling.

The new shows have content and continuity carried over from before, but they don’t have that tone. The universe is a shadowy place, visually and morally. In Discovery, episodic storytelling takes second place to ongoing arcs, squeezed into the corners of even the most stand-alone episodes. There’s every reason to expect the same from Picard.

That doesn’t mean that it’s bad sci-fi. Far from it, there are some great stories here. But there was a Star Trek shaped gap in our viewing schedules, a place for hope and brightness in contrast with the post-BSG shows. Star Trek could have brought that and it didn’t. For better or for worse, it’s a very different beast now.

Out Now – Scrapheap Destiny

When journalist Eve goes back to her home planet, she thinks she knows what she’s after. A corporation is rebuilding the old scrap fields and they’re paying her to tell the story. But not everybody thinks that change is for the better, and Eve will find herself caught between her community, her sponsors, and her own desires.

My latest short story, “Scrapheap Destiny”, is out now in issue 30 of Neo-opsis.

Last Ship Out of the Supernova – a flash sci-fi story

A blaze of colours hurtled out of the void towards the orbital station. The light of the dying star consumed everything in its path, no less grim for all its beauty.

Crab nebula

Em gripped the controls of the Lightning Run, ready to trigger the engines at a moment’s notice.

“You said we’d be gone before the supernova started,” she shouted into the back of the ship.

“And we almost are,” Rid called back. “Just couldn’t let this stuff go to waste.”

There was a clatter as Rid and Holben dragged another crate into the cargo compartment. They’d been out all day, gathering valuables people had left behind in their rush to get away. As Rid said, there was always a profit in disaster, and he hated to let profit go to waste.

“We have to go,” Em snapped. Just looking at the approaching destruction was giving her heart palpitations. This was worse than flying scout missions during the war, worse than the rescue work on Elvrey Prime. Then, life had been uncertain. Now she could watch death coming.

“Almost ready,” Rid shouted.

Em sighed in relief. She couldn’t stand to wait here a minute longer with that terrible light hurtling towards them.

She glanced at the monitors at the back of the pilot’s cabin, the ones plugged into the station’s security systems. On one screen she saw Rid and Holben picking up their last crate. On another she saw people running, a dozen of them racing along a corridor to the shuttle’s docking strut.

Why were they still here?

“All aboard,” Rid shouted.

There was a hiss and a clang as the cargo doors slammed shut.

“Wait!” Em stared at the monitors, then back at the wave of destruction rippling through space. “Open the doors again.”

“Are you crazy?” Rid appeared at her shoulder. “We have to get out of here.”

“There are people.” She pointed at the monitor. “They’ll die if we leave them.”

“Do you want to join them?”

“I want to save them.”

“You can’t. We’re out of time and out of space. You’re the pilot, get us going.”

The light of the oncoming supernova washed out Rid’s skin, leaving his face skull white.

“We can ditch the cargo and make space for them.”

“The cargo we risked our lives for? No way.” Rid laid a hand on her shoulder. “Get flying.”

“I won’t go without them.” Em forced herself to let go of the controls and lay her trembling hands in her lap.

Rid took a step back. For a moment she thought that he’d accepted her demand. Then she felt the cold metal of a gun barrel against the back of her head.

“Fly,” Rid growled. “Now.”

Em looked down at her hands. They had stopped trembling. Outside the window, the light was so beautiful, she could almost forget what it represented.

“No,” she said. “And I know you can’t fly this thing worth shit.”

She felt a trembling again, not from her but from the gun pressed against her head.

“Dammit Em, don’t make me do this.”

“No-one’s making you do anything, but you’re running out of time to choose.” She pointed at the supernova. “Not long now.”

The gun pressed harder against her head. Rid’s ragged breath seemed to fill the cabin, a strange and rasping soundtrack to the view outside.

“Argh.” Rid whipped the gun away and stomped back into the cargo space. “Holben, open her up. We’re ditching this shit.”

Another voice rose in protest, but the cargo doors hissed open. On the monitors, Em saw the desperate refugees rush up to Rid and Holben. Together, they flung out crates of precious loot to make space for everyone on board.

The light was getting brighter. Not long now. Would they make it out in time?

“All aboard,” Rid shouted. “We’ve even kept two of the crates.”

The doors clanged shut. Em released the docking clamps and fired manoeuvring thrusters. Bright light washed across the cabin and then the supernova disappeared from view as they turned to face away from it.

The supernova was almost on them as she powered up the main engines. The whole ship seemed to hum as they hung for a moment between safety and oblivion.

Em hit the engines and prayed.

***

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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.

Survivors – a flash sci-fi story

The ops room was silent, the radios dead. On a screen by the door, the symbols for our starships had all turned to black. Not the grey of lost in action or blue of lost comms. Black, every one.

Image of space

With trembling hands, I drew the headset down from my ears and let it hang around my neck. I hadn’t felt this way since I’d been fifteen, sitting by a hospital bed, watching a face that was a mirror of my own turn pale then still as Dani let go her last breath.

At the command station, Admiral Burling drew her hands away from her face and looked around at the analysts, programmers, and comms officer who made up the fleet’s command staff.

“It’s over,” she said. “We gambled and lost. This base is all that remains of the fleet. Go get some rest, our work here is over.”

People rose from their stations and started shuffling out. My grief turned to horror. How could they act like this?

I lurched to my feet.

“What about the survivors?” I said. “They’ll need us to guide them in.”

I pointed at my screen, from which I’d guided whole wings of the fleet, directing them in battles that spanned entire systems, then talking them home when fried sensors and hacked systems left them blind.

Everybody turned to look at me, then at Burling.

“Whatever that weapon was, it wiped out a star system,” she said. “There are no survivors.”

“You don’t know that!”

I saw the others’ shock as my scream echoed around the room. I could be taken out and shot for talking to an admiral like that, but I couldn’t stay silent. I was a desperate, wounded creature crawling towards the faintest sign of light.

“We’ve lost,” Burling said stiffly. “It would be a waste of what resources we have to man these stations. Go sleep, before you cross a line I cannot ignore.”

“Yes, we’ve lost,” I said. “But we have to have hope, otherwise we have nothing.”

“Hope?” Burling spat the word. “Hope isn’t some panacea for your broken soul. Hope is a poison that will have you clinging to that terminal, pouring your energy into dreams that will never come true, burning away the last of your will until all you have left is the darkness and a service pistol that promises a way out.

“I’ve seen what false dreams hope can offer, and I won’t have you drag the rest down with you.”

On a console between us, a diode was blinking a heartbeat rhythm. Between the flashes, I saw how little I understood about the grey-haired woman standing across from me. I knew that she had fought other wars, had lost friends and comrades like the rest of us, had been with us an hour before when every channel went suddenly and chillingly dead. But I had never considered what more she might have seen than me, what scars she carried on her soul.

I looked at my colleagues standing uncertainly by the door. I saw the yearning in their expressions, the desperate longing to hear that not everything was lost. I imagined the weight of expectation held up by my own fragile desire, noble perhaps but unsupported by what we saw, for all of this to be alright.

I saw the trap I was talking them into, a shadow of the one into which we had unwittingly led the fleet.

“I’m sorry, Admiral,” I said.

I took off my headset. As I set it down, a sound emerged, rasping and tenuous. Was that a voice?

I clutched the headset to my ear and felt my heart hammer as I spoke into the mic.

“This is fleet command, can you repeat that?”

There it was again, almost but not quite words.

Burling glared at me and I wilted beneath her fury. I was fooling myself, wasn’t I? Fooling myself and everyone else.

Then the voice came again, louder this time.

“Fleet command, this is Gardener, do you hear me?”

“Gardener, this is fleet command.” I turned to my station, turned my back on my commander, and stared at the screen, looking for some sign of where the voice came from. “How many of you are left?”

The Admiral strode towards me, her boots thudding against the floor. I had to get proof of life before she tore me from my terminal. I had to-

“All hands to stations,” Burling bellowed. “If we’ve got even one pilot out there, we’re bringing them home.”

Her hand settled on my shoulder and as I turned to look at her I saw her smile for the very first time. Around us, people rushed to their positions, grief replaced by grins as they grabbed communication consoles and reached out across the void of space.

I remembered a face going pale and then still.

This time I could do something to help.

This time there was hope.

***

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.

No More Milk – a flash science fiction story

After the funeral, we went next door to the pizza place fuelled by the crematorium fires, in accordance with Uncle Frank’s will.

“If anybody’s getting their dinner cooked by my burning body, I want it to be you,” the will had said. That was Frank – at sea in a world he didn’t recognise, clinging to some scrap of control as if it could keep him afloat. The cancer had won in the end, but he sent us to claim a final victory over his broken body.

We snacked on fried crickets and chatted idly while we waited for our meals. When the food arrived we toasted Frank and joked about him joining us for one last supper. But once the waiters had moved on, there was no avoiding the real conversation anymore.

“One of you should take over the farm,” Mum said. “It’s what Frank would have wanted.”

Kath and I looked at each other. We’d both known this day was coming since we were kids and Frank had taught us to set up milking equipment. He and Mum had persisted through our teenage rebellions and the decline in dairy sales, keeping the herd alongside oat fields and a silo converted for breeding edible beetles. When Kath came home from agricultural college, the only courses they asked about were animal husbandry. When I insisted on studying tourism instead they almost screamed the place down.

“We’ve talked about this,” Kath said and I saw Mum tense. “We’re both willing to take over, but we’d be running things our way.”

A slice of pizza trembled in Mum’s hand. I wondered if she’d noticed that this place didn’t use real cheese anymore. I couldn’t tell the difference, and I figured she would have complained if she’d known. But then, Mum was good at ignoring what she didn’t like.

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“If I take over, I’m going to run down the herd,” Kath said. “There’s no market for dairy anymore, not with cheaper alternatives that don’t cost the planet. And we’ve not sold a beef cow in a decade.”

“Those ridiculous cloners,” Mum said. “It’s nothing like the real thing, but who can compete with their prices?”

I kept my mouth shut about how those prices happened, and about the likely origin of the ham on her pizza.

“I’d concentrate on the beetles instead,” Kath pressed on. “Lower costs, lower emissions, and there’s a huge market for them these days.”

“No.” Mum shook her head. “You’re not turning the whole place over to those ghastly, rattling silos. Frank would turn in his grave.”

“Frank just cooked our dinner,” I snapped.

“Simon!”

“Sorry, sorry, that was completely out of line.”

“It’s good that someone here can admit when they’re wrong.” She shot Kath a sharp glare, then looked back at me. “How would you keep the place going?”

“Petting zoo,” I said. “We’d keep a few of the cows for that, and bring in some more exciting animals. Sheep, llamas, maybe some of those prehistoric sloths they’ve started cloning. Those things are adorably fluffy and they can’t run away from over-affectionate toddlers.”

“And the milk?”

“No more milk. It’s just not worth it.”

Now she was glaring at me too.

“If neither of you will keep up with tradition then we may as well sell the place.”

She sat back, arms folded, and waited for us to respond. By the smug look on her face, she thought she’d played a trump card.

I took a bite of pizza, forcing myself to pause and think my words through. Her tone had made me tense up, but I couldn’t let her get to me. I had to deal with this calmly or we’d end up not speaking for six months again.

“That’s fine,” I said at last. “People will always pay good money for land. Without the farm, Kath can take up that research post she wanted and I can move to-”

“How can you say that? How can you let go of the farm? And with Frank only just gone, as well.”

“Don’t start on the emotional blackmail. The world has changed. Diets have changed. The farm has to change.”

“And abandon everything Frank held dear?”

“I’m warning you, Mum, pull that card one more time and I’m leaving.”

I pushed my plate away. I’d had enough. Enough of the pizza, enough of the conversation, enough of the damn family farm.

Kath took Mum’s hand. An untapped well of tears threatened to burst from all of us, a pool of emotion built up through decades of struggling for change and fighting to resist it. The unspoken assumptions, abandoned dreams, and bittersweet memories.

“This is how we preserve Frank’s legacy,” Kath said. “By making it fit for the modern world. We’re on your side, but we have to do this our way.”

Mum sniffed and rubbed at her eyes.

“Can we keep the old milking shed?” she asked quietly. “It’s such a lovely building.”

“Of course. It’ll make a great farm shop and cafe.”

A slightly nervous waiter came over, holding out a set of dessert menus.

“Can I get you anything else?” he asked.

“Why not.” Mum blinked back her tears and managed a smile. “I keep hearing about your rice milk desserts. It’s time I tried one of them.”

***

There’s a lot to be explored about the future of food. What we eat is going to have to change to look after the planet, but that change is painful. It goes against our habits, our expectations, and many people’s livelihoods. I wanted to explore that a little. I daresay I’ll be back to it again later.

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.

Why Aren’t the Stars Burning? – a flash scifi story

The sky beyond our starship was streaked with light. The bright beams of lasers, the blazing flowers of exploding warheads, the glowing wakes of crippled engines and flames tearing through ruined hulks.

My eyes watered from the acrid smoke. Breathing made my throat ache but it was better than the alternative, just like being on the bridge of the Remus was better than being anywhere else in the fleet. We sat at our stations, trembling hands working the controls that still functioned, caught in one last moment of defiance. If we could smell the burning systems from here then we would all burn soon.

“Fire everything you have!” Admiral Salter yelled. “Every beam and torpedo, every bullet and bomb. Make the bastards bleed!”

“We’re doing it, Admiral,” I replied, wiping the sweat from my brow.

“Then why aren’t the stars burning?”

I swallowed and forced myself to face him.

“The stars still blaze, Admiral. Their light is hidden by the battle.”

“Why don’t they blaze brighter, Tollard?” He glared at the red console above my station. “Why aren’t they bursting apart to swallow up this wretched mess? Why aren’t we going down by the light of the Never Bombs?”

I shrank from the intensity of his stare.

“What good will killing the system do?” I asked.

“It will teach others to fear the wrath of the Republic. You think we built this weapon to sit on it? Launch the bombs!”

Gripping the back of my seat, I stood to face him. A fearful, lizard part of my brain betrayed me, one hand reaching for the controls. Obedience had a power beyond thought, but I forced my hand back and forced myself to stand firm. My fingers gripped my sidearm tight, the bite of cold metal reassuring me of my body’s obedience.

The priests said that I was damned if I disobeyed a superior, but I was damned if I was killing planets of minions. Better to ride the wave to Hell alone than to be flung down by furious ghosts.

 “The war is lost,” I said. “Never Bombs won’t stop that.”

Across from me, Gonda looked up from the shield controls, wide-eyed with shock at what was playing out. Her fingers darted across her console, redirecting the last dregs of energy, keeping our defences from collapse. I wasn’t going to waste these last minutes she had bought us.

“Do as you’re told, Tollard.”

The Admiral drew his sidearm and pointed it at me. Despite everything, the blackness of its barrel filled me with dread. When all you have is moments, they become more precious.

“No.”

“Then stand aside and I’ll do it.”

I drew my own sidearm.

“I won’t let you.”

I heard a thud and felt pain rip through my shoulder a moment before my own finger tightened. My shot hit the floor and I fell, blood streaming across the deck.

I forced my shaking hand up, trying to aim for the admiral, but it was too late. In three swift strides he had reached my station. His foot clamped down on my forearm and he reached for the Never Bomb controls.

“If the Republic burns, then we’ll burn the sinners away too,” he said.

He flipped switches and twisted dials. A countdown began, sixty second to give a commander thought before unleashing total destruction.

Tears streamed down my face, drawn by more than the smoke. There was only one way out of this.

Every millimetre of movement filled with pain, I raised my wrist and pointed my sidearm. I squeezed the trigger. There was a thud and Gonda sprawled across the shield controls. A second shot smashed those controls apart.

Alarms howled. The ship shook as shields collapsed and enemy fire hit.

Bright light blazed across the viewscreen.

“The stars are burning,” Admiral Salter said with a wide grin, oblivious to the clock running down behind him. Thirty seconds until the failsafe passed and he could launch the bombs.

Long enough for us to die.

Another flash and the screen went dead. A bulkhead gave way and smoke billowed onto the bridge.

“The stars are burning,” Salter repeated like a priest reading from the Great Verse.

I sank limp onto the deck. In the final moments, stars blazed across my vision, but the universe around me was safely dark.

***

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.

About “Communication Breakdown”, My New Short Story

Individualism. Communication. Responsibility. There are some big themes underlying Communication Breakdown, my new story in Metaphorosis. So how did I end up writing about them?

The answer lies in part with the character of Julian Atticus. As a character, Atticus is over a decade old. He sprang onto the page, world weary and sometimes drunk, back in 2006, when I wrote the first draft of Our Man in Herrje. That story, which eventually saw publication in Jupiter, was all about communication. Atticus, a professional liar, had to deal with an alien culture that despised untruth. It was a story about a cynical man dealing with more idealistic people and about the value of untruths, from entertainment to conspiracies.

Since then, Atticus has become a go-to character when I want to write stories centred on communication or personal responsibility. Being responsible really isn’t his thing, but he will reluctantly rise to the occasion when forced, or when his conscience takes over, as happens more often than he would like.

This time though, the voice in the back of his head isn’t Atticus’s conscience, it’s an alien that’s sharing his body for a diplomatic encounter. We get very protective of our sense of individual identity and how it ties to our bodies. We see a clear cut distinction between ourselves and the outside world, even though the boundary is actually very hazy. Ideas drift in and out of our heads. We can receive other people’s organs and still be ourselves. And of course, the question of when we become people is a fraught one that blurs the temporal edge of our existence.

Atticus was the perfect choice to face a further breakdown in that distinction. With a parasite in his body, he loses some of his control, some of his self. How will this encounter shape his life? And will he get to go back to his “true” self at the end?

You can judge for yourself in Communication Breakdown, out now in Metaphorosis. And you can read more about Atticus in Diplomatic Baggage, a series of connected flash pieces, or in my short story collection Lies We Will Tell Ourselves.

The Opposite of Beauty – a flash scifi story

“Tell me the truth, Mister Atticus,” the Dangveli President said, waving a mucus-covered tentacle. “Do humans even like my people?”

I followed her between blister-red trees, stepping carefully to avoid the oozing potholes of the formal gardens. It gave me an excuse to look away while I prepared my words. There was a lot at stake here, both for my career and for Britain’s space-faring efforts.

“Would we have asked to share a corner of your world if we didn’t like you?” I asked, faking a sincere smile in case she knew human expressions.

“I find the ways of aliens confusing. Often, they accept our offer of space on the carbon plateau eagerly, then become unhappy and hostile. No-one stays. They just dig up diamonds and leave.”

Her sixty-seven limbs all drooped and the stalks of her eyes lowered. I felt an urge to admit the truth – that everybody left because the Dangveli were so ugly, so foul smelling, and so objectionable in their behaviour that no-one could bear to share their planet. That their ongoing search for an intergalactic love match would forever remain unfulfilled.

But no-one gets into diplomacy to tell the truth.

“I’m sure they all had their reasons for leaving,” I said. “But humans will be different.”

“Will you?” She stopped by the railing at the edge of the raised garden, looking out over the city. A breeze hit us, carrying the stench of seven billion Dangveli from the city below, and I fought back the urge to vomit.

“Humans are the most adaptable species in the galaxy and the British the most tenacious of humans. Whatever has caused others to run away, we’ll stick with it. We’re eager to establish a special relationship with the Dangveli.”

Digging up their precious minerals could be a very special sort of relationship.

“We have been disappointed before,” the President said, turning to look at me, her eyes as big and innocent as those of a monstrously deformed puppy. “Can you swear that it will not happen again?”

It was hard to keep this going when faced with such sad desperation. But I had a duty, to my country and to my Christmas bonus. I opened my mouth to speak.

The President touched a tentacle to my lips. Mucus dripped onto my tongue. My whole body clenched. Was it possible that this moment was as grotesque to her as to me? Surely not.

“If you cannot tell the truth, please do not speak at all,” she said. “Do you really like us?”

All I could think about was the ooze on my face, the grotesque violation of my mouth.

“I… We…” The words got stuck in my throat. “Of course we don’t like you! No-one does!”

I took three steps back, sank into one of the holes, and staggered out of it with my leg soaked in corrosive sap. I spat into the bushes and wiped my mouth with my sleeve, while trying to ignore the itching sensation creeping up my shin.

The President stared at me.

“How dare you. Coming to my planet, saying these hurtful things!”

“You asked for the truth, you got it! You people are ugly. You stink. You’re vicious, mean spirited, and make constant demands on other species, which we all tolerate because of your wealth. Anyone who sends settlers discovers their limits and runs screaming.”

“This is what you call diplomacy? I will have you thrown into the burning vats. Guards!”

The garden rustled as more Dangveli approached.

The shock of her touch had worn off. My whole body slumped as the reality of what I’d said sank in. Of all my fuck-ups, this was the most fucked.

It didn’t matter that she’d asked a dozen times – no-one wants to hear that they’re the monster.

The guards’ slimy tentacles wrapped around my arms. I contemplated which would be worse, drowning in itching ooze or facing the wrath of my boss back at the embassy on Herrje. A terrible death was terrible, but at least it had an end.

“No-one speaks of my people like that,” the President said, tentacles spread wide in fury.

“Only because the others don’t have the courage to face the truth.”

“You make your fate worse with every word.”

“The truth about themselves.”

“The truth about what?” Her tentacles curled in just slightly.

“That we’re all just as grotesque to each other. Look at me, I’m a ridiculous pink stick with weird patches of fur. My limbs are angular and inflexible. I must look awful to you.”

“Well, yes, of course.”

“You and I, we can be honest about that. If your people came to my planet, they’d soon hate it and leave. The same will happen here. But if we accept that, if you let us send more settlers when the previous ones give up, then maybe we can make this relationship work. What do you say?”

The President stroked her neck ridges.

“You find all aliens monstrous, and they you?” she asked.

“Of course.” I set aside thoughts of the elegant Velanth, the beautiful Simdap, and the adorable hamster-like Quertzels. “Don’t you?”

I didn’t know if she could see the truth, but I knew when someone heard a lie they could live with.

“Guards, release him,” she said. “We have a treaty to arrange.”

As the grip went from around my arms, she held out a tentacle.

“I believe you humans like to shake on a deal.”

“No touching,” I said, holding up my hands. “We’re both just too gross.”

***

Here he is again – Julian Atticus, cynical PR officer and public face of the British in space. Not only here, but in a new story, “Communication Breakdown”, published today by Metaphorosis. If you want to read more, then head over to their website.

If you enjoyed this story 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.