The Chop Shop Automaton – a steampunk short story

“Look at Blake’s ridiculous servant!”

Derisive laughter filled the hallway of the Taverwell Academy for Gentlemen, rattling like broken gears in the ears of John Blake. He blushed and pulled up the collar of his second-hand tailcoat, while leaning away from Pounder, his personal automaton, as if a few extra inches could distance him from humiliation.

“I mean really.” Oswald Cheadly-Smythe strode up to Blake, trailing half a dozen obsequious sons of aristocrats and their modern, perfectly formed mechanical servants. “Did it come free with your scholarship?”

Blake shook his head and kept his gaze on the floor. There was no guaranteed way to shake of the likes of Cheadly-Smythe, but silence was a safer bet than defiance. Another fight would only lead to a stern meeting with the headmaster, who looked upon the son of his old friend Lord Cheadly-Smythe with avuncular consideration, and upon scholarship boys as a necessary evil.

“It doesn’t really look like anything, does it?” Cheadly-Smythe tapped one of Pounder’s mismatched arms. “Just a bunch of scrap thrown together.” He paused for his entourage to laugh. “Is that the only place you could find a servant, Blake, off a refuse heap?”

More laughter. Blake’s cheeks burned. It was all too close to the truth. His father and aunt had assembled Pounder out of pieces left behind when they repaired other people’s automatons, as well as broken machines abandoned by the nearby mine. One hand had originally been made to dig coal, the other to shape ceramics in a factory. Neither had the delicacy of the other boys’ servants. Blake’s father had been sure that any automaton would be better than having none at all in a place like this, but Blake lived with the crushing truth that, without the money for new clothes and machines, there would be no fitting in at the Academy.

“Well Blake, am I right?” Cheadly-Smythe leaned in, a nasty grin on his face. “Are you being followed around by rubbish?”

“He’s going to look better,” Blake said, desperately clutching at hope. “After I paint him.”

“Who paints their own servant?” Cheadly-Smythe’s laughter was like a storm, waves of noise crashing in upon Blake. “And you really think that paint could save a wreck like this?”

Cheadly-Smythe knocked his fist against Pounder’s chest plate, its surface uneven from where the dents had been beaten out. A trickle of steam ran from Pounder’s shoulder joint, a deliberate design Blake’s aunt had included to keep Pounder’s pressure steady, but that looked like the leaking of a broken machine.

“You win,” Blake mumbled.

“What’s that?”

Blake sighed and looked Cheadly-Smythe in the eye. “You win. Your machine’s better. Now please leave me alone.”

Cheadly-Smythe’s eyes shone with malicious delight.

“Who even made this thing, some east end junk dealer? They should be ashamed of themselves, putting such a monstrosity into the world.”

Blake’s father and aunt had worked for months building Pounder, while his mother took on extra sewing so that she could buy him a second-hand uniform. His family had dedicated themselves night and day to sending him here, the only lad in his town to escape the pits. They had poured their hearts and souls into that work, and looked so proud as they sent him away.

“What did you say?” Blake narrowed his eyes. His heart was beating faster. He mustn’t hit anyone. If he did that again it would mean expulsion, and the shame of explaining that to his family.

“I said that this rust bucket is utter trash,” Cheadly-Smythe said, leaning in close. “And so is anyone who had a part in making it.”

Pounder’s joints hissed. Blake gritted his teeth.

“My father made that machine.”

“Of course. Trash from trash. How fitting.”

Blake’s whole body shook. He clenched his fists as he drew ragged breaths. Cheadly-Smythe stared at him in delight.

“Go on,” Cheadly-Smythe whispered. “Show me what you’ve got.”

Cheadly-Smythe’s automaton stepped closer, so that it stood facing Pounder, the sleek, pristine servant inches from the cobbled together industrial machine.

“Pounder,” Blake said quietly. “Dig.”

A hand made for shovelling coal slammed into Cheadly-Smythe’s servant, gouging open its chest plate with a scream of rending metal. The hand struck again, tearing out pistons and pipes. Steam spewed, sending the schoolboys scurrying. A third blow, out the back of the chest, and the broken automaton fell with a resounding clang.

“That’s what I’ve got,” Blake said, beaming with pride at what his family had made. He glanced at the slack-jawed students, then turned back to Pounder. “Come on, mate. We’re going to be late for class.”

***

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***

Dirk Dynamo is used to adventure. He’s chased villainous masterminds across the mountains of Europe, stalked gangsters through the streets of Chicago, and faced the terrible battlefields of the Civil War. But now he’s on a mission that will really shake his world.

For centuries, the Great Library of Alexandria was thought lost. Now a set of clues has been discovered that could lead to its hiding place. With the learned adventurers of the Epiphany Club, Dirk sets out to gather the clues, track down the Library, and reveal its secrets to the world.

Roaming from the jungles of West Africa to the sewers beneath London, The Epiphany Club is a modern pulp adventure, a story of action, adventure, and romance set against the dark underbelly of the Victorian age.

Available in all good ebook stores and as a print edition via Amazon.

Crossing Bridges – a historical short story

1817, Waterloo Bridge.

Fred and John stood on the south bank of the river, watching as the excited crowd paid their tolls and stepped onto the new bridge. It stretched across the Thames in nine elegant arches, north and south banks meeting somewhere above the darkly flowing waters.

“Grand, isn’t it?” John said. “Like looking at the future.”

“It’ll be handy,” Fred agreed. “Much easier to get to those apprenticeships Master Brown offered.”

“Easier for me to see Sally, too.” A distant smile suffused John’s face.

“You know there are other girls in London, right?”

“Not for me.”

Fred rolled his eyes, but he smiled. At least they could cross the river together each day.

“If we’re going to train as masons, we might get to build things like this. We should go across, see what it’s like.”

“Well then.” John patted his jacket, and there was a clink of small coins. “Let’s try the future of bridges together.”

*

1831, New London Bridge.

“That’s good work,” John said, eyeing the new bridge. “You must feel proud.”

Like Waterloo Bridge before it, this was a series of granite arches, an elegant stretch of grey stone connecting the south bank to the north, the world of home to the world of work.

“It’s grand to think I helped make it.” Fred grinned. “But now I’ve got to look for other work. It’s not like building houses.”

John shrugged. “It won’t make me rich, but I need the reliability.”

“Come on, I haven’t tried my own handiwork yet.”

They joined the swell of people making their way across the bridge, some hurrying about their business, others taking time to watch the demolition of the old London Bridge.

“How’s family life?” Fred asked.

“Wonderful but tiring.” John smiled. “I haven’t had a night to myself in years.”

“I know.” Fred looked away, scowling at the demolition crew. “I’m proud of what we did here, but I don’t like the way the city keeps changing. It was good enough when we were young.”

“World’s got to change. You can’t keep crossing the same bridge every day, because the river changes underneath it.”

“I liked the old bridge,” Fred snapped. “I still like Waterloo Bridge too. Why do we have to leave them all behind?”

“To build a better future.”

“That’s just an excuse to abandon what you had.”

They reached the end of bridge and stood staring back across, unable to meet each other’s eyes.

“I should get to work,” John said.

“Good for you,” Fred replied, and strode away.

*

1862, Westminster Bridge.

Fred saw a familiar face, framed by hair that had mostly gone grey. He hesitated, caught between fond memories and bitter ones, then walked up to John and held out his hand.

“Hoped I might see you here,” he said.

John smiled back, a little awkwardly.

“New bridge replacing an old one, I thought you’d come and see, even if it’s not stone this time.”

“Got to see what the competition are doing.” Fred gazed at the sweeping structure of cast-iron beams, and nodded approvingly. “There’s a few years left in stone, and that’s all I need.”

“Want to give this one a go?”

Fred swallowed, then smiled. “Of course.”

They set out across the crowded bridge, working their way around riders, carriages, pedestrians, and the occasional hand cart.

“How have you been?” John asked.

“Not bad. I kept thinking about something you said, about the river not being the same. Realised I needed to change, so I set up my own business, working on those grand houses in Kensington and Chelsea.”

“No wonder you’re dressed so smart.”

Fred looked down at his tailored suit, then at John’s patched jacket. Doing well usually made him feel good, but not today.

“How’s the family?”

“My Alf worked on this,” John said proudly, tapping a foot on the bridge. “Iron work keeps growing, so that’s him and the grandkids sorted. Did you ever…?”

“No.” Fred shook his head. “That was one thing that didn’t change.”

They reached the end of the bridge and stood in awkward silence while the crowd jabbered around them.

“I missed something out,” John said. “Back when I talked about the bridges always changing.”

“Oh?” Fred looked at him, catching the weight of emotion in his voice.

“All that change is easier to accept with the right person to talk to as you cross.”

Fred smiled. “Let me buy you a pint or three. We’ve got years to catch up on.”

*

1873, Albert Bridge.

Fred stood by the end of the bridge, an elegantly simple looking construction whose cables reminded him of the rigging of ships on the river. He used his walking stick to keep him steady as the crowd battered at him. It was harder to spot anyone these days. His sight wasn’t as good and he couldn’t look over heads any more. But at last, a familiar face emerged.

Except that it wasn’t. This face was younger, the eyes brighter, and for a moment Fred felt the decades fall away, before they came crashing in.

“Mister Jones?” The younger man asked, moving in to shelter Fred from the worst of the traffic.

Fred nodded and fought back a tear. He knew what was coming.

“I’m Alf, John’s youngest. He passed away two days ago. We weren’t sure how best to tell you, and…”

The words drifted off as Alf fought to control his own grief.

Fred gestured across the bridge with his stick.

“We were going to walk this new bridge together,” he said, a lump in his throat. “I think I’ll still go. Will you lend me an arm to lean on? I can tell you about your dad when he was young.”

Alf smiled and brushed dust from his eye.

“That would be grand. I always love to hear about the past.”

***

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***

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

The Shadow of the Warlord’s Throne – a fantasy short story

Image by Gioele Fazzeri from Pixabay

“So, we meet at last, Torbad the Invincible.”

The voice boomed across the throne room, so deep and menacing that it rattled the goblin skulls hanging from Torbad’s belt. It had taken him days to fight his way into the fortress of Angvald the Merciless, but it had been worth it. The place had everything he looked for in an evil overlord’s lair: a faceless figure perched on a throne carved from ancient granite; a towering bodyguard at the back of the dais; flickering firelight to add shadows and uncertainty. Who knew how many guards were waiting to leap out when Torbad attacked?

Slaying this sort of villain was the stuff of legends.

“I have crossed vast deserts and towering mountains to face you,” Torbad proclaimed, unslinging the war axe from his back. “Do you have any last words before your reign of terror ends?”

There was a whispering, and then the booming voice echoed through the room.

“Words are cheap, barbarian. Show me some action.”

Torbad frowned. That had been a good line, and he hoped that the bard he’d dragged along was paying attention, but something seemed out of place.

“Did that guy behind you do the talking?” he asked, peering over Angvald’s shoulder at the looming bodyguard.

There was whispering again.

“I speak for myself, intruder,” the voice boomed. “And I say it is time for you to die.”

“It is him.” Torbad pointed with his axe. “I can see his lips moving behind the helmet.”

Angvald rose from his throne, plate mail gleaming blood red in the light from the fire.

“Fine,” he snapped, his voice shrill. “I don’t have the booming overlord voice, so I get Bors to do it for me. But I can still kick your spleen out through your spine.”

“Wait wait wait,” Torbad said, narrowing his eyes as he peered at Angvald. “That armour, does it even fit you?”

“Of course it fits me! Now come forth and fight.”

“I know armour, and that’s clearly not your size. The helmet’s wobbling, and the fingers on your gauntlets don’t move.”

This was a disappointment. Maybe Angvald wasn’t the mighty warlord Torbad had hoped for, just another faded wannabe. The bard would have to make some careful choices when telling this tale.

“Fine!” Angvald shook his arms until the gauntlets and vambraces fell off, revealing pale, slender hands. He kicked away thickly soled boots, losing half a foot of height. Finally, he wrenched off his helmet, revealing the face of a teenage girl. “I built it big to look intimidating. You got a problem with that, mister stuffed loincloth?”

Torbad stared up at her. This story wouldn’t just take some careful telling, it would need a complete rewrite. It was the stupidest thing he’d ever seen.

He burst out laughing. The sound filled the throne room, echoing back from looming pillars and a high, domed ceiling. Here was Angvald the Merciless, up and coming warlord of the east, a name whispered in words of terror, nothing more than a little girl. Was this who the knights of Gellent had fled from at Crimson Moor? The tyrant who squeezed a king’s ransom from the Republic of Crows?

Maybe the bard should tell this tale straight after all. The lads at the Adventurers’ Arms would love it. Torbad laughed until his sides ached and he had to catch his breath.

“Something amusing you?” Angvald asked, sinking back into her seat, fingers drumming impatiently on the arm of the throne.

“Nothing, nothing,” Torbad said, wiping a tear from the corner of his eye. “So, do you want to show me straight to the treasure vault, or do I need to spank you first?”

“What?” Angvald’s face turned cold and hard as a gargoyle.

“I just don’t know how this is meant to work. I don’t see many little girls dressing up as a warlord.”

“I am a warlord! Who do you think came up with the flanking manoeuvre at Crimson Moor, or forced the Republican troops into submission? Just because I have to put on this show for idiots like you, that doesn’t mean I can’t do my job.”

“Sure, of course.” Torbad chuckled. “Now seriously, show me the loot. I’m not meant to hit women, but that won’t stop me flinging you over my shoulder and—”

“How dare you!”

“Everyone knows that girls can’t be warlords.”

“Well it’s a good job everyone doesn’t include my mum, because she told me—”

“Enough!” Swinging his axe, Torbad strode towards the throne. “Let’s get this over with.”

Angveld’s hand shot down into the shadows beside her throne. There was a twang, a thud, and a shock of pain that brought Torbad to a halt. He stared, bewildered, as blood ran down his chest from the hole created by a crossed bolt.

“But…” He tasted iron on his breath.

Angveld picked up the other crossbow, the one to the left of the throne, took aim, and shot Torbad through the throat. He hit the ground with a satisfying thud. Behind him, the bard soiled his britches, then turned and ran screaming from the hall.

“Barbarians are such idiots,” Angveld said, setting the crossbow down with a sigh.

“Now, now,” Bors’ deep voice came booming from behind the throne. “I taught you better than to use cheap stereotypes.”

***

This story emerged from a silly conversation at my book club, so thanks to Jamie and Kieran for the inspiration. It was also influenced by a recent controversy of a recruitment poster apparently encouraging people to give up on their dreams. Sometimes a government department’s poor judgement becomes my writing fuel.

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

***

By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

A gladiator painting with manticore blood.

A demon detective policing Hell.

A ninja who can turn into shadow.

Prepare to be swept away to worlds beyond our own in these thirteen short fantasy stories.

Action, art and mystery all feature in this collection, available in all ebook formats.

From reader reviews:

‘These fantasy genre stories take wordsmithing and storytelling to great heights.’ – Writerbees Book Reviews

‘There isn’t a single story in here I don’t love. All short and sweet (or dark), all fantasy with history woven through, all a slightly skewed perspective that will make you rethink assumptions. Totally worth a read.’

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.”

***

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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.

Maintaining the Gearwheels of God – a steampunk short story

Image by Stefan Keller from Pixabay

Sister Savrin set aside her tool belt and placed the chipped gearwheel reverently on the table in the corner of her cell. She closed her eyes, clasped her hands together, and bowed her head in a moment of prayer.

According to doctrine, as espoused by Mother Superior, this gearwheel was no longer a part of God, had not been since Savrin removed it from His great mechanism in the heart of the cathedral. The new, undamaged gearwheel was a part of God now, and would help in performing His divine calculations, while the old one was drained of divinity, mundane scrap to be discarded.

But those scraps made Sister Savrin feel closer to Him. The small spring that she carried in the folds of her shift was an anchor securing her soul through the storms that raged through her heart.

There was a knock on the door. She eased it open just a crack, and peered out at Mother Superior, craggy faced and frowning.

“Sister Savrin,” Mother Superior said. “May I come in?”

To say no would raise as many questions as it avoided. Could she put it off until she had time to come up with an excuse?

“I…” They had brought her into the order for her gift with machines, not with words.

“Sister Bonopass says that you haven’t been bringing scrap to the smelter after tending to His mechanisms. What have you been doing with it?”

“I…”

“You can’t go selling machine parts to the faithful as relics. That was what got Brother Castazzo into trouble, remember?”

“I haven’t…”

“Then there won’t be a problem. Now please let me in.”

That please was accompanied by the pressure of Mother Superior’s substantial boot against the bottom of the door. Savrin lacked the courage to resist authority with words; physical resistance was beyond unthinkable. She stepped back and bowed her head, ashamed, as the door swung open.

“Oh, Savrin.” Mother Superior stared at the pile of broken and rusted machine parts, Savrin’s own private chapel. She didn’t sound angry, just disappointed, but that made Savrin feel like an invisible key was winding her guts like a spring. “What is this?”

“It’s God,” she whispered.

“I’m sure I heard you wrong.”

“I said it’s God. I couldn’t bear to throw him out.”

“Savrin, this is not God. It is just some pieces of metal.”

“Of course it’s God!” Her voice rose, becoming to big for the stone-walled confines of the cell, spilling out like a tide into the corridors beyond. “God is perfect and his pieces are too, even if they’re broken. They came from inside him, and everything in God is divine. How could it stop being holy, just because it stopped moving?”

“Sister Savrin, you know this. God is in the whole, not the parts.”

“Parts make up the whole. My hand is me. My heart is me. My brain is me. I’m made up of pieces, and so is God.”

“God is a pattern, a process-”

“God is a mass of gears that spits out commandments. If those parts aren’t holy then nothing is.”

“Sister Savrin!” The Mother Superior looked appalled. Behind her, other brothers and sisters had gathered in the corridor, staring in shock at what they heard. “Are you denying His divinity?”

“If your rules are His rules, then yes I am!”

The brothers and sisters stared, white-faced. The only sound was the soft, distant thud of God’s master wheel, the heartbeat of all their lives.

“Sister Madack, Brother Jerroff,” Mother Superior called out, her face fixed in cold fury. Two burly siblings stepped out of the crowd. “Take Sister Savrin’s robes and escort her from the cathedral. She is done here. And call for Sister Bonopass to gather this scrap.”

Savrin wept as she was dragged from her cell and stripped down to sandals and shift. She had lived for years among the holy order, and now her whole life was being wrenched away. Some of them watched in silence as she was marched down the nave to the great iron doors. Others, some of them men and women she considered friends, jeered at her miserable fate. Then the doors swung open and she was cast out into the cold.

She stood stunned in the middle of the mud road, while passing strangers stared at her through the pouring rain. She had prayed so hard, but God had ignored her, let her be cast out on her own, while the fragments she had believed were relics were melted down to make nails.

Mother Superior was right. There was nothing divine in those pieces.

Mother Superior was wrong. There was no God at all.

Then Savrin felt something, wrapped in a fold of her shift. A rusty spring, its end twisted, a piece she had taken the first time she ever maintained the great machine. Touching it, she felt peace flow across her like the dawn, chasing away the shadows of fear and grief. Like the saints in old stories, she had been cast out by the ignorant, but God had left her a sign, a part of him that would travel with her.

Sister Savrin straightened her back, wiped the tears from her cheeks, and strode out into the world. Whatever storms raged, this small iron anchor would keep her soul secure.

***

If you enjoyed this story and you’d like to read more, then you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook of steampunk short stories and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

Dirk Dynamo is used to adventure. He’s chased villainous masterminds across the mountains of Europe, stalked gangsters through the streets of Chicago, and faced the terrible battlefields of the Civil War. But now he’s on a mission that will really shake his world.

For centuries, the Great Library of Alexandria was thought lost. Now a set of clues has been discovered that could lead to its hiding place. With the learned adventurers of the Epiphany Club, Dirk sets out to gather the clues, track down the Library, and reveal its secrets to the world.

Roaming from the jungles of West Africa to the sewers beneath London, The Epiphany Club is a modern pulp adventure, a story of action, adventure, and romance set against the dark underbelly of the Victorian age.

Available in all good ebook stores and as a print edition via Amazon.

No Kings – a historical short story

Image by TINTYPEPHOTOS from Pixabay

Robert shifted his musket to the other shoulder, so he could use his free hand to pluck blackberries from the hedgerows. Marching across the midlands wasn’t how he was used to spending the autumn, but it wasn’t all bad. He was doing his duty to God and to England, and there were berries in the bushes like there were back home.

Sergeant Dean was talking as they marched. Robert liked listening. Dean made sense of the war, even when they weren’t winning. He made things feel right.

“Long have we accepted the weight of injustice,” Dean declaimed in his piercing preacher’s voice. “Unjust taxes. An unanswerable ruler. The voice of parliament crushed.”

Robert nodded and popped a blackberry into his mouth. The taste was acid yet sweet, the perfect sign of the changing seasons.

He had signed up to fight because of those injustices. He wanted a fairer world, and the Roundheads had offered to make it happen. No arbitrary taxes or corruption bringing the country down. Men like Dean had made it so clear.

“God made men equal, and they should be equal again,” Dean continued. “And for that to happen, there can be no kings.”

No kings. Robert popped another berry in his mouth as he pondered that one. He had been told that they were fighting to make the king follow the rules, but what Dean said made sense. How could there be justice while one man ruled the rest?

*

Robert stood at the edge of the crowd, a dozen plump raspberries in his hand. He had found them on an abandoned farm next to yesterday’s battlefield, where they had been clearing away Royalist bodies. It was sad that people had to die to get justice, but he didn’t know those men, and the berries took an edge off that distant, abstract sadness.

In the middle of the crowd, Sergeant Dean was arguing with Captain Wragg. Wragg wore the smart red jacket of the New Model Army, like the rest of the men. But Wragg’s jacket didn’t fit as well as Dean’s, and he glared uncomfortably at the angry men around him.

“We cannot simply do away with monarchy,” Wragg said, waving a fistful of crumpled pamphlets. “It is a God-given institution. A righteous monarch gives the country-”

“There is nothing righteous in monarchy,” Dean bellowed. “Just an excuse to raise some above others. When Adam delved and Eve span-”

“Don’t give me that! Poetry is no response to holy scripture, which says-”

Now they were both shouting over each other. Robert wished that they wouldn’t. He liked Wragg almost as much as he liked Dean. They both said things that made him feel smart and helped him understand how he was doing right. He wanted them to get on. He wanted to hear what they both said.

He popped a raspberry into his mouth and frowned. It tasted salty and bitter, not sweet like it should.

The crowd grew louder as men at the front pushed and shoved each other. Robert dropped his berries and turned away. The arguments made him feel sad. He should go and find some new berries.

*

Someone was shaking Robert’s shoulder. He opened his eyes and saw Sergeant Dean standing over him, holding a lantern.

“Come on,” Dean whispered. “It’s time.”

Robert shook off his blanket and joined a crowd of grim-faced, silent men following Dean through the camp.

“Where are we going?” Robert whispered.

“To set things right,” Dean replied.

That sounded like a good thing, but a shudder ran down Robert’s spine. Was it just the cold of night, or was it Dean’s voice that gave him a chill?

“Now!” Dean shouted.

The crowd surged forward, descending on a group of dwindling campfires. The men sleeping there cast off their blankets and stumbled to their feet, looking around in confusion. They were too late. The crowd had grabbed half a dozen of them, including Captain Wragg. They punched and kicked them, driving them towards the edge of the camp.

“We should do something!” Robert said, staring in horror as the Captain was kicked through the embers of a fire pit, dragged himself to his feet, and was struck down again.

“We are,” Dean replied in that piercing, righteous voice. “These men want kings to stay above us. They’re poisoning the minds of the soldiers they lead. Can we accept that?”

“No,” Robert said, shaking his head. “No kings.”

But while Dean’s words usually made the world clearer, tonight it seemed more confusing than ever before.

*

Robert didn’t know where they were marching. Sergeant Dean wasn’t a sergeant any more, and he didn’t have time to explain the war to Robert, who got the impression that this was a good thing, though he didn’t know why. Instead, he marched with unfamiliar men, his footsteps out of time with theirs.

A blackberry bush caught his eye. Winter had almost fallen and there were few berries left, but these stood out against the leaves, swollen purple clusters promising that wonderful mix of acid and sweetness. No one stopped Robert as he stepped off the dirt road.

He smiled as he tasted the first of the blackberries. It reminded him of home, of bringing in the harvest with his father and brothers, of sitting in comfort by the fire. He missed the clarity of knowing that the world was right.

It seemed a shame to let those berries go to waste, so he ate them all. When he turned around, the rest of the army had finished marching past. He could see the red coats of the last soldiers disappearing up the road.

Marching with those men before, he had been sure that he was doing something good, and that made him as happy as when he was at home. But now, looking at them made his guts squirm and his brow furrow. He didn’t want kings, but he didn’t want the army any more.

One last berry caught his eye. He plucked it off the bush, then turned and walked off across the fields, heading for home.

***

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.

***

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.

Blood Red Tie – a fantasy short story

Image by mohamed
Hassan from Pixabay

I sit across the desk from Justin, hoping that he can’t sense the racing of my pulse.

He’s thin as a new grown willow, pale faced and straight lipped. His suit would be ordinary if it weren’t so well fitted, a softer and more presentable skin than the one beneath. His red tie is the only spot of colour. Red for passion. Red for roses. Red for a drop of blood.

His arms hang limp, fingers twitching in expectation. There’s something he wants to grasp, whether to rend or to embrace. The two are much the same with him. He cannot love without destroying, cannot destroy without holding that moment dear.

Not like me. I have to make a choice.

“I have a task for you,” he rasps. Does he sound inhuman, or am I just giving in to suspicion? “A place I need you to go.”

We’re well past the point where I could refuse. He’s owned me since he bought up my broken business.

The wooden stake up my sleeve, that’s all mine.

“What is it?” I ask, trying to sound friendly.

“I need you to carry a message.”

“Can’t it go by email?”

“No.”

His lip twitches and a drop of blood oozes from the corner. That’s when I’m certain that the desiccated corpses in the news are real.

“This is personal,” he says, holding up an envelope. “You don’t mind, do you?”

“Of course not.”  I force a smile, keep eye contact, and let the stake slide down my sleeve. “Happy to help.”

I walk around the desk and lean over. As one of my hands closes on the envelope, the other slams the stake into his chest.

The movement is easy as falling off a cliff. His suits tears, the red tie crumples, and the stake goes straight through into the chair behind. I had braced myself for the spatter and stink of blood, but I wasn’t ready for this.

His skin ripples and falls away.

A tingle runs up my arm, hundreds of tiny lips chewing on flesh. I jerk back and black dots tumble from my sleeve. Ticks. Hundreds of them. They run across my chest, probing, biting, feasting, a thousand pricks of pain.

I stagger back and fling off my jacket. So many bites now that it feels like I’m burning.

I stumble over a chair and fall to the floor. Buttons fly as I rip my shirt open. I see the ticks crawling past my waist and up my neck, covering every inch of skin.

There’s a mass of tiny black bodies where Justin’s face had been. They drip from a mimicry of lips, cascading over my face. I open my mouth to scream, but the ticks tumble in and I choke.

He crouches beside me and lays a hand on my shoulder.

“Don’t believe the stories,” he says.

My throat is swollen shut, my body parched. I want to struggle, but a terrible lethargy has seized me. All that’s left is the pain of my skin.

The last thing I see is Justin’s blood red tie.

***

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

***

By Sword, Stave or Stylus

By Sword, Stave or Stylus - High Resolution

A gladiator painting with manticore blood.

A demon detective policing Hell.

A ninja who can turn into shadow.

Prepare to be swept away to worlds beyond our own in these thirteen short fantasy stories.

Action, art and mystery all feature in this collection, available in all ebook formats.

From reader reviews:

‘These fantasy genre stories take wordsmithing and storytelling to great heights.’ – Writerbees Book Reviews

‘There isn’t a single story in here I don’t love. All short and sweet (or dark), all fantasy with history woven through, all a slightly skewed perspective that will make you rethink assumptions. Totally worth a read.’

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.

Waystones in the Smog – a steampunk short story

The smog around the Salt Bay spoil heaps was the thinnest I had ever encountered. From the bridge of the airship, we could see nearly two hundred yards before grey air gave way to impenetrable gloom. It was almost enough to make me believe in the clear skies from folk tales.

Waystones rattled across the navigation boards, guiding our course into the depths of the detritus. Swooping in low, we passed houses built from warped wood and broken beams, smoke billowing from the stone-built smelters that turned scrap metal into ingots.

I set down beside a house matching the sketch I had been given. The place was solidly built, its walls sturdy at the base with a thinner wooden storey above, like the defenses of a marching camp. Behind it, scavenged timbers held up the entrance to a mine shaft leading into the side of a mountainous spoil heap. A man was emerging from the heap, carrying a crate which he set down before looking up at us.

Leaving the crew to secure the ship, I strode down the gangplank and across broken ground to the man at the mine entrance. He wore a frayed military jacket, the epaulets and embroidery torn away, and a deep frown. The years had crumpled and darkened his face, but it was still unmistakably the man whose engraving I had seen in old newspapers. Childish as it might sound, my pulse quickened in anticipation of our meeting.

I saluted.

“Admiral Albon, I—”

“Not admiral,” he snapped. “They took that from me along with my command.”

Good. There was the righteous fire that older men had told me about.

“That title could be yours again, if you’ll take the command with it.”

“I don’t know what your game is, Captain,” Albon said, squinting at my insignia. “But you’re deluding yourself. Pomeroy would never let me back, and besides, I have work to do here.”

He patted the crate. The spoil underneath shifted, the crate tipped like a deck on a windy day, and I heard the clatter of waystones. The ones in my ship had come from a place like this, components scavenged from inside the spoil heaps where the smog could not get to them. It was said that the oldest airships in the fleet had original waystones, carved from natural stone seams before the smog tainted them, but old airmen loved to tell tall tales.

“Lord High Admiral Pomeroy’s objections may not be the issue they once were,” I said. “He suffered some setbacks in the Western Reach, then tried to blame it on his officers.”

Albon snorted. “Some winds never change.”

“And others take a long time to come about. A number of senior officers now question the wisdom of letting the Lord High Admiral continue in post. His spiteful and erratic behaviour throws some of his past decisions into a new light.”

“Ha!” Albon picked up his crate and carried it towards the house. “You think if he hates me I must be one of you. Seems you’re all still as shallow as a summer soot drift.”

I clenched my jaw and hurried after him. This wasn’t how such conversations went in novels, with their clear curve towards justice. Where was the wronged exile seeking redemption?

“Admiral, if you—”

“Stop calling me that.” He slammed down the crate and held up a hand, its palm smooth with scar tissue. “I disgraced myself, got thousands of men killed because I didn’t follow orders. Ranks are for those who deserve them.”

“If Pomeroy had given you the backing you needed—”

“If night was bright then we wouldn’t need lanterns, but grey skies still turn black at dusk.” He took a deep breath, then gestured at the spoil heaps, this landscape built on generations of discarded waste. “I earned this, with or without Pomeroy’s help.”

“Please.” I held myself tall, my voice tight with tension. “We need you. You’re a symbol the opposition can rally behind.”

“I’m needed here.” He patted the top of his crate. “Digging out waystones so our boys and girls in uniform can find their way home. So no more are lost who needn’t be.”

My crew were gathering around us, caps in hand out of respect for the old man. Whatever I said to try to persuade him, it had to be good, because succeed or fail, it would be around the barracks the moment we got back. I needed time to muster an argument, so settled on mundanity while I rallied my thoughts.

“You know that we can cleanse the stones now?” I asked, pointing at the crate. “They found a way to draw out the smog and make fresh cut waystones usable. No need to go rummaging through the refuse.”

Albon shook his head. “So even this is a waste of my life. Doesn’t that just say it all.”

He sagged, as if all that had held him up was this sense of purpose, and I had chased it out of him. But pity only had a moment in my mind before I realised my chance.

“What was corrupt can be cleansed,” I said. “What was undeserving can be given value again.”

He looked at me, and there was a twinkle in his eye like the gleam of lamplight off a firing pin.

“You’re sharper than you look, Captain.” Slowly, he drew himself upright and brushed the ash and dust from the frayed shoulders of his jacket. He looked around at the gathered airmen, and they came to attention. “All right, it seems I’m not needed here. Let’s go see what needs fixing back home.”

Proudly, I followed him up the gangplank onto my ship.

***

If you’d like more flash fiction then you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook of steampunk short stories and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

Dirk Dynamo is used to adventure. He’s chased villainous masterminds across the mountains of Europe, stalked gangsters through the streets of Chicago, and faced the terrible battlefields of the Civil War. But now he’s on a mission that will really shake his world.

For centuries, the Great Library of Alexandria was thought lost. Now a set of clues has been discovered that could lead to its hiding place. With the learned adventurers of the Epiphany Club, Dirk sets out to gather the clues, track down the Library, and reveal its secrets to the world.

Roaming from the jungles of West Africa to the sewers beneath London, The Epiphany Club is a modern pulp adventure, a story of action, adventure, and romance set against the dark underbelly of the Victorian age.

Available in all good ebook stores and as a print edition via Amazon.

Tinned Beef on Malta – a historical short story

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Captain, this is our chance!”

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

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

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

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

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

“Safe enough.”

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

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

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

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

Fattorini did as he was told.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But freedom, and the war, and…”

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

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

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

***

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

If you’d like more flash fiction then you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook of steampunk short stories and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

What if someone had conquered the Vikings, someone claiming to be their gods?

What if King Arthur’s knights met a very different metal-clad warrior?

What if you were ordered to execute a statue, and hanging just didn’t seem to work?

These short stories explore different aspects of history, some of them grounded in reality, some alternative takes on the past as we know it. Stories of daring and defiance; of love and of loss; of noble lords and exasperated peasants.

From a Foreign Shore is available now in all ebook formats.