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.

Chat Up Lines From Another Dimension – a science fiction short story

Tod Fortuno opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling of the cave. The rocks were colours he didn’t have words for, impossible protrusions that folded across and through each other in defiance of geometry. Tod hadn’t even whimpered when he’d broken his leg during a cage match gone out of control, but looking at that ceiling made him want to scream.

At least it was better than the sky outside.

“Where are we?” he said, still trying to make sense of the rocks.

“Another dimension,” Captain Lesting said, grinning as she brushed dust from her dress uniform. “Pretty cool, right?”

“Why?”

“The maths of this place, mostly. It’s not often you see somewhere so spectacularly at odds with our universe.”

“I mean why did you bring me here?” Tod forced himself to sit up, despite the wild spinning of his brain. Now he knew why only a select few entered the Interdimensional Corps – it must take a twisted sort of mind to cope with this.

“I asked if you wanted to go somewhere that would blow your mind, and you said-”

Tod groaned. “I thought it was a chat up line.”

Lesting looked down at her feet.

“It kind of was. I’ve always had a thing for wrestlers, and the party was boring anyway, so I thought maybe…”

“Just take me home.” Tod closed his eyes. He’d thought that Lesting was his type – short, brunette, dressed in a uniform – but it turned out that his type didn’t include interdimensional joyriders.

“About that…” Lesting held up the device she’d been playing with before the real world vanished. It could have just been a smartphone, if not for the eerie light pulsing on one end. “Coming here drained the battery. I figured that once we were on our own it would have time to recharge, but-”

Outside the cave, something howled. The sound was closer than the last time, which had been closer than when they’d seen the creature outside, a clawed cross between a jaguar and the aftermath of a bomb blast, muscled legs covered with jagged protrusions and swirling with toxic grey dust.

“That thing is coming for us!” Tod yelled.

“Ssh!” Lesting pressed a finger to her lips. “You don’t want it to hear us – not until the opener has recharged.”

“What difference does hearing us make? It saw me. It looked into my soul and I swear I could feel its hunger, like a maggot trying to eat me from the inside.”

Lesting tipped her head on one side and looked at him.

“You should be a poet,” she whispered.

“Are you high?” Tod asked, narrowing his eyes. “Or are you just insane?”

“Little of column A, little of column B.”

Tod pressed the palms of his hands against his head, as if he could somehow press down the mounting pressure that came from his anger and the dizzying weirdness of looking around this place.

Part of the cave wall melted, turned briefly into something like a pile of silver bricks, then returned to its original form.

Lesting smiled at her device. “Halfway there.”

The howl sounded again. The creature had come a lot more than half way.

“What do we do if it gets here?” Tod asked, looking nervously towards the cave mouth.

“Usually I have guns and bombs and emergency transponders, but apparently you’re not allowed to take those to parties.” Lesting’s look of baffled frustration turned suddenly to excitement and she looked up at Tod. “You could wrestle it!”

“That thing’s seven feet tall and covered in claws!”

“You wrestled the Overtaker. He’s seven feet and he was wearing a robot suit.”

“But that wasn’t real. That was TV. That was us faking for an audience!”

“No!”

“Yes, of course, you mad b-” Tod stopped, seeing the glitter of mischief in her eye. “You’re messing with me, aren’t you?”

“Little bit.” She held up the device. “Battery’s charged.”

The howling came again, so close it shook Tod’s teeth. Fear had replaced nausea and confusion in the wrestling match for control of his mind. He grabbed hold of Lesting’s hand, squeezing far tighter than on their way out of the party.

“Get us the hell out of here.”

“I love it when you take charge.” She grinned at him, then pressed her thumb against a blinking light.

A bright flash forced Tod to close his eyes. He felt himself lifted for a moment, then settled back onto his feet and looked around.

“We haven’t moved. Why haven’t we moved?”

Lesting looked down at the device. The blinking light had turned to a dull glow.

“Sorry about that,” she said, letting go of his hand so she could tap the top of the screen. “These things don’t always work first time. We’ll just have to wait for a fresh charge.”

She looked at the cave mouth and her face went pale. The howling rang out, closer than ever, and the cave walls rippled in response.

“Oh shit,” she whispered.

The creature prowled into view, its single eye glowing like a supernova. Tod looked from it to Lesting to the light that was slowly building in brightness on her device.

He turned back to the beast and squared his shoulders.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“I’m gonna wrestle it.”

“But your wrestling’s fake!”

“You think they know that in this dimension?”

He raised his hands. The beast bared its death-black teeth. Tod’s head spun as he tried to make sense of the way the beast moved and the cave walls warped around it.

“You were right, this place really did blow my mind.”

***

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.

The Other Plague of Locusts – a science fiction short story

Professor Kimani stood in the doorway of Green Eden Labs, watching the locusts swarm across the fields. She smiled to herself – all was well with the world.

A jeep came tearing down the track out of the mountains, bumping and jolting, dust flying behind it. It screeched to a halt and one of the passengers climbed out.

Kimani recognised him from snippets she had seen of the rebels’ social media. A tall man with a predatory grin and a Kalashnikov hanging from his shoulder, Joseph Mburu looked like a wolf prowling into a field of sheep. He was, depending upon who she listened to, the country’s last great hero or a terrorist whose hands would forever drip with blood.

“Professor Kimani,” he said. “I hear you have performed a miracle.”

“You’re too kind,” Kimani said, certain that kindness was no a feature of Mburu, whatever the merits of his cause.

“You have genetically engineered locusts that feed crops instead of devouring them, yes?”

“Correct.”

“Then I have come to buy your locusts.” Mburu signalled to his driver, who opened up a gym bag, revealing rolls of worn US dollar notes. “With them, I will be able to feed our poor freedom fighters and the abandoned communities they serve. You will be saving the soul of our country.”

“I’m sorry, but no.”

A flash of anger shone in Mburu’s eyes.

“Be careful who you say that to, professor,” he growled.

There was a shout from his driver. A BMW was rolling sedately between the fields of wheat, light glinting off its mirrored windows. It slowed as it approached the lab, decelerating quietly to a halt. Two white men in sunglasses stepped out, holsters visible beneath their jackets. They watched Kimani and his driver as a third figure emerged from the rear of the car.

Kimani recognised her from an international conference on genetic editing. A stately blond woman wearing discreet makeup and a perfectly tailored suit, Julia McKee had the utter confidence only a CEO could carry. She was, depending upon who Kimani listened to, the world’s greatest innovator in genetic technology or a parasite preying off the work of gifted minds.

“Professor Kimani,” she said, offering her hand. “A pleasure to meet you again.”

“And you,” Kimani said, wondering if McKee actually remembered her.

While Mburu eyed the businesswoman with a hungry grin, his driver and her bodyguards exchanged tense glances, their hands inches from their weapons.

“I hear that you’ve made an amazing breakthrough,” McKee said. “That your benign locusts will drive hostile swarms away.”

“Correct.”

“Then I have come to buy the rights to your locusts.” McKee drew a cheque from her pocket, revealing more zeroes than in the lab’s whole annual budget. “With them, I will transform pest control, empowering farmers and agricultural businesses around the world.”

“I’m sorry, but no.”

McKee barely blinked.

“This is just a consulting fee, professor,” she said. “Our full payment will set you up for life.”

“Hey, those are my locusts!” Mburu butted in. “They’re going to feed the downtrodden.”

“They will feed the world.”

“That’s what you capitalists always claim, just before you empty our pockets.”

A car horn blared out a tinny impression of the national anthem. They all turned to watched as a limousine roared up the road from the city, flags flying from the bonnet. It ground to a halt next to the BMW and three uniformed soldiers leapt out. While one held the door open, the others pointed their guns at Mburu and his driver, who waved their own weapons back. The air was full of angry shouts as McKee’s bodyguards dragged her into the shelter of their car.

“Please, stop this!” Kimani said, trembling as she stepped between the three bands of armed men. “If any of you want me to listen, you will stop this at once.”

Reluctantly, they all lowered their weapons, and a man stepped out of the limousine.

Kimani recognised him from a hundred news broadcasts. Short and round, dressed in an overstretched uniform with a string of medals across his chest, Charles Wambui carried himself like a man used to being obeyed. He was, depending upon who Kimani listened to, either the gifted politician who had reunited a troubled country or a corrupt bureaucrat leaching her nation of life.

“Sally,” he said, ambling over with his arms held wide. Kimani stepped back to avoid what looked worryingly like it might have turned into a hug.

“I prefer Professor Kimani,” she said. “Mister President.”

“Whatever you wish. I hear that you and your team have achieved amazing things, that your new locusts while breed with the old swarms, rendering them sterile and killing off these plagues.”

“Correct.”

“Then your country thanks you for your good work. We will be providing grants to help you continue, while we take your first creations and use them to protect the harvests.”

“I’m sorry, but no.”

Wambui frowned.

“I don’t think you understand, professor. I am the president. I am legally entitled to-”

“Your laws are grounded in lies,” Mburu yelled. “These insects should go to the people, so that-”

“You cannot keep this technology for a single nation,” McKee interjected. “The world deserves the chance to reap the dividends of an incredible moment in-”

“Enough!” Kimani yelled.

They all looked at her, stunned into silence.

She took a deep breath, surveyed the three most powerful people she had ever met, and tried to keep her voice from wavering.

“I will not be selling the locusts to any of you, because I can’t. Humanity cannot control nature, and I cannot control a swarm of insects. Look.”

She pointed across the fields. The swarms that had been there before were gone, flown away to protect and nurture some other crop.

“They are doing what they were made to do,” she said. “The people will benefit from it, not one of your causes.”

She turned on her heel and strode back into the lab, slamming the door behind her.

“Locusts,” she muttered angrily, shaking her head.

***

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.

The Surprise of Snowpiercer

I’m a huge fan of the film Snowpiercer. It’s an exciting, action-packed story and a powerful modern fable. That’s also why I thought it would make a terrible TV show.

Snowpiercer is a parable about inequality. Following an environmental cataclysm, humanity has been reduced to the inhabitants of a single massive train, constantly rolling around the world. The inhabitants are strictly divided by class, with the wealthiest few living in spacious carriages at the front, the poorest crowded together in the rear, and a range of other ranks between. Pushed to the limit, a group of the train’s poorest inhabitants set out on a revolutionary journey to overthrow the hierarchy by fighting their way to the front of the train. As messages go, it’s not subtle.

As a film, it works because, in the short space of a couple of hours, you’re carried along by the pace of the story. You don’t pay attention to the things about life on this train that don’t make real-life sense, like how they’re managing to feed everyone. The film’s train works as a symbol, not a coherent reality, and you can brush over that for a two-hour parable. Not, I thought, for a long-form television story.

It turns out that I was wrong. The makers of the TV show have found a way to expand upon the setting of Snowpiercer, by showing us the other side of the fight for control of the train. Instead of portraying the train as a functioning self-contained system, we’re shown that it’s constantly on the brink of collapse, the people in charge struggling to hold things together. It’s like the middle third of Seveneves, where experts are desperately trying to save what’s left of humanity using the dwindling resources of a broken orbital armada. Viewers look at Snowpiercer‘s train-bound society, say “that couldn’t work”, and the characters look back at us and say “we know!”

This changes the nature of the story. The morality of the film was clear and simple – oppression bad, rebellion good. In the show, it’s more complicated. The people holding down the poorer class are doing so because they think it’s necessary to save humanity. I’m not sure that’s a good message to make relatable right now, when we’re seeing real-life authoritarians throwing around justifications for cruel and brutal behaviour. It’s certainly an argument though, and it will be interesting to see where the show takes a more nuanced and complex, but still tense and intriguing, version of its story.