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

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

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

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

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

“Then why aren’t the stars burning?”

I swallowed and forced myself to face him.

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

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

I shrank from the intensity of his stare.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do as you’re told, Tollard.”

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

“No.”

“Then stand aside and I’ll do it.”

I drew my own sidearm.

“I won’t let you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bright light blazed across the viewscreen.

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

Long enough for us to die.

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

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

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

***

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

***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

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

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

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

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

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

The Awkward Love Lives of Gargoyles – a flash fantasy story

By the time the sun set, Darbelfang had spent the whole day building up his courage. Unable to move while humans roamed the world below, unable to even talk with his fellow gargoyles, he had spent hours working out what to say and to do. He knew he wasn’t worthy, but he was as ready as he would ever be.

“‘Ood ‘uck,” Ordrasy said, grinning around the pipe that protruded from his mouth.

“‘Anks.”

Darbelfang hauled himself from his place above the church window and up the roof. Where the nave met the tower, he squeezed through a pointed window, his sandstone scraping against the frame, and lowered himself to the narrow ledge below.

There he saw her, carved from the purest marble, feathered wings sprouting from her back.

Mefolina.

He forced himself to stop staring and approach before his courage evaporated. As he got near, there was a low grinding noise and she turned to smile at him.

“Darbelfang,” she said through lips that had never been disfigured by a drainage spout. “It’s nice to see you.”

“‘Ou ‘oo,” Darbelfang said.

She was looking straight at him! He wanted to stare into those exquisitely carved eyes, but he was too nervous and had to look away.

“I ‘as ‘ondering,” he began. “’At is ‘o ‘ay-”

“I can’t understand you,” Mefolina said, looking at him quizzically. “Maybe this would be easier if…”

“Oh, ‘es!” Darbelfang retracted his pipe. For the first time in days, his own lips met. “What I meant to say was, I think you’re really pretty and really smart, and I know I’m just an ugly brute with frogs legs and donkey ears, but-”

“I don’t think you’re ugly. The ears are sweet.”

Now he’d said something wrong! This was all going horribly. Darbelfang ran a hand across the course stone of his head and took a deep breath. Better to get it all over with now, to be shot down in one single, hideous go.

“I know you’re probably busy, and you won’t have the time, but I just thought maybe we could…”

“Could what?”

It was one thing to say this to an imaginary Mefolina, but saying it out loud, to the real her, and to face her response, it was all too much.

“Never mind.” He turned on the narrow ledge, ready to leave. “I’ll just go.”

A hand took hold of his, its surface as smooth and pale and beautiful as bone. Darbelfang quivered.

“I’m not good enough for you,” he muttered.

“I’ll be the judge of that.”

She pulled him closer, smiling and unfurling her wings. Her face was inches from his. He leaned in closer, her lips parted, and-

“Ouch!”

“’Orry, ‘orry!” Darbelfang retracted his pipe. “It comes out when I’m excited.”

Mefolina laughed, then covered her mouth.

“I didn’t mean to-”

Darbelfang leaned in again. But his clumsy frog legs lost their grip on the ledge. He tottered and started to fall.

Mefolina shot out a hand, grabbed him by the ears, and hauled him back to safety.

Sitting on the ledge, Darblfang stared disconsolately at the ground below. He’d dreamed of this moment as he slept through the long days of summer, but now it had come he had ruined it.

“I should go. I’m making a terrible mess of this.”

“Please don’t.” Mefolina bit her lip. “You’re funny and you’re smart and you’re one of the few gargoyles with the courage to come talk to me here. The problem isn’t you, it’s this stupid ledge.”

Darbelfang took a deep breath. He could barely bring himself to believe what she was saying, but…

“Maybe we could go up onto the roof?” he asked, daring to look at those finely carved eyes again. “We could catch pigeons and watch the moon rise.”

“I’d love that. Why don’t you lead the way?”

Darbelfang grinned and the pipe shot from his mouth once more. It was going to be a magical night.

***

This story started out as a silly comment on Twitter, about writing awkward urban fantasy romance. Once again, I will take inspiration from anywhere.

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.’

Billowing Breeze – a flash steampunk story

Earnest walked slowly down the line of racing wagons, notebook in hand. Every year, the machines at Cheltenham races became more impressive, these glorious assemblages of brass and chrome, steam pouring from their boilers as they were stoked for the race. He noted the use this year of higher chassis and reinforced front wheels, a shift he considered more a matter of aesthetics than function, as practical as the top hat fashion forced him to wear.

A steam engine

“Hey, aren’t you Earnest Fry?” A young woman in goggles and racing leathers peered out from one of the machines. “Are you going to include my Breeze in your race report?”

Earnest peered at the embossed plate on the hood, carrying the name “Billowing Breeze”. Not a machine he had heard much about, but Cheltenham had provided upsets in the past.

“That depends upon how she performs.”

“Want to find out first hand?” The driver grinned and gestured into the back of the Breeze.

Earnest stared at the trembling boiler, the explosive pressure of its steam barely contained. He swallowed and looked away.

“I don’t ride along. Terribly unprofessional.”

“To hell with professional – you can write about the races better if you know what they’re really like.”

“I don’t need writing lessons from a soot-stained mechanic.”

“You saying you can’t get any better?”

“A dozen awards say that I’m the best.”

“Not this year, though. This year Jardine got the prize.”

Earnest glared at her. He would not be so easily goaded.

“Riding with you would cloud my objectivity. I must give all the contestants fair and equal attention. Now good day.”

He walked stiffly on.

“There’s a simple solution,” the woman called after him. “If it’s really about fairness.”

Earnest gritted his teeth. He wanted nothing more than to get away, to find a nice cup of tea and write up his notes. But other drivers were watching now and he couldn’t have this impertinent grease monkey besmirch his reputation for balanced reportage.

He turned to face her.

“What solution could you possibly have that I have not considered?”

“Ride with all of us. Then there’s no bias.”

He imagined himself climbing into each machine in turn, sitting amid the intricate grandeur of their mechanisms, facing the terrible power of those boilers.

“I have reported on these races since before you were born.” He jabbed the air with his pencil. “My knowledge and objectivity are beyond reproach. I will not be taunted into some act of tomfoolery!”

“How you going to be objective when you’re so wound up?”

“I am not wound up.”

“Scared then.”

“I am not scared.”

“Prove it.” She gestured at the steps up to the cabin of her machine.

“Very well, I will.”

Earnest strode over, grabbed the handrail, and climbed up the steps. At the top, confronted with the heat of the firebox and the trembling of the boiler, he froze.

The driver held out her hand.

“Come on in,” she said gently. “The old girl won’t bite.”

Earnest wrenched his gaze away from the flames of the firebox. A small crowd had gathered below, chattering about the great journalist taking his first ride. There was an air of excitement. Dozens of faces looked up at him.

He took a deep breath and stepped into the cab.

“Off we go.” The driver kicked the firebox hatch shut, released the brake lever, and pulled back on the throttle.

The wagon shook and started rolling forward, building up speed. Earnest gripped the rail so hard his fingers hurt. He forced himself to keep his eyes open, to see and hear and feel every detail, despite the furious pounding of his heart.

As the vibrations of the engine shook him, an unfamiliar feeling swept through Earnest. The words that crowded his mind fell away, leaving only the sensations of this moment.

As they grew faster, the wind blasted his skin and whipped at his coat. His heart kept racing, but now its rhythm was in time with the engine. He tore off his top hat and waved it in the air.

“This is exhilarating!” he called out over the roar of the engine. “Invigorating! Astonishing!”

Spectators shot past to either side as Billowing Breeze rushed down the course. Some cheered and waved. Earnest waved back.

At the end they stopped. Earnest took hold of the driver’s hand and pumped it up and down.

“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you so much.”

“You want another go?” she asked, a twinkle in her eye.

“Oh no. I have to be objective.” He pointed to where the other racing wagons stood, a glorious gathering of brass and chrome and pulsing power. “I have to take a ride in all of them.”

***

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.

Owning the Sin – a historical flash story

Rob raised his musket and aimed at the oncoming Roundheads. Even through the smoke drifting across the battlefield, he could smell the powder in the pan so close to his face and the match smouldering away in the lock.

“Fire!” the captain bellowed.

Rob squeezed the trigger and closed his right eye. There was a click and a flash as the match hit the pan, then a moment later his musket barked, along with hundreds more along the line.

“Reload!”

Rob lowered his musket and reached for his powder and shot. The first round of each battle was an orderly business, the men working in unison through the intricate dance of loading and firing. But by now they were all just going as fast as they could to get their hits in before the enemy reached them.

A man next to him fell as the Roundheads fired back, but Rob pressed on. Reloading complete, he raised his musket and took aim.

A familiar face emerged from the ranks across from him, a face all too similar to his own. His stomach lurched.

“Fire!” the captain bellowed.

With a jerk, Rob tilted his musket up, then squeezed the trigger, firing into the sky. It was one thing to shoot the nameless men who had taken up a false cause. It was another when their rank included his own brother.

“Reload!”

Red-faced with shame, Rob reached for his powder again, but this time he didn’t reach for the shot.

*

The camp was dark but not quiet. Everybody knew that they would fight again tomorrow. Despite a day of marching and shooting, the tension of that knowledge overcame their exhaustion.

Rob crept through the camp. He had left his belongings behind, pretending that he was just going for a piss. By the time anyone realised the truth, he would be long gone.

“Where are you going, Rob?”

The voice stopped him in his tracks. He turned to see the captain in his red coat.

“Just, you know, in the trees…”

“Wrong way for the trees. Looks to me like you’re heading towards the road.”

Rob stiffened. He reached for the sword at his side, then hesitated. He wasn’t willing to kill his brother. Was he any more willing to kill a man he’d fought alongside?

He let out a sigh and his whole body slumped.

“I saw Adam on the other side today,” he said.

“That’s the brother who turned puritan?”

“Yes.”

“Hm.”

The captain watched Rob in the dim light of the nearest campfires.

“I can’t shoot at my own brother.”

“So you’re deserting?”

Rob nodded. He hadn’t let himself think that word, even though he knew it was true. Wretch that he was, he could at least face the consequences with dignity.

“I’ll take my punishment, whatever it is.”

“It’s a tough situation, lad, but you’ve owned your sin, now you can overcome it. Head back to camp and I’ll say no more.”

“I was deserting! I deserve to be punished.”

“You’re not deserting now, and that’s what matters to me.”

Rob trudged back to the fire and the comradeship of his unsuspecting company. Their welcoming smiles stung more than any lash.

*

Rob raised his musket and aimed at the oncoming Roundheads. Along the line, others did the same, ready to kill for king and country.

Rob scoured the faces across from him, looking for that familiar one. He could fire into the sky again, or choose to load powder without shot. His captain was busy with the battle line. He’d never know.

But what then for the rest of their men? What danger did he put them in by not fighting? And what of the cause he’d sworn himself to?

He took aim and tightened his grip on the trigger. He couldn’t see his brother in the front rank facing them. He would just have to hope he wasn’t in the rank behind.

“Fire!”

***

I’ve been thinking a lot about the English Civil War recently. There are some features of recent politics that are disturbingly similar to the buildup to that terrible war. While I’m not running around panicking that we’re on the verge of violence, it has put the war and its dilemmas in the forefront of my mind – hence today’s story.

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

***

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

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

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

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

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

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

About “Communication Breakdown”, My New Short Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

King of Cogs – a flash steampunk story

I found it in the back of my grandfather’s cupboard, as we were clearing out his house. A king piece from the game Dreaming Cogs, which he used to play in the park with his friends. He’d taught me too, and the feel of the piece brought back memories of his smile.

I dusted the tin king off with a corner of my tailcoat, wound the key in its back, and set it down. It marched back and forth, guided by tiny and intricate gear systems, trying to give orders to pieces that weren’t there.

“You know there’s been a revival,” my father said. “You should take that and play at one of the new clubs.”

I shook my head.

“I’m out of practice, and I don’t even know how this king behaves.”

But two days later, I walked into the pub where the Desperate Dreamers Club met, holding not just that king but a whole Dreaming Cogs set.

“I used to play with my grandfather,” I explained to their president. “I wanted one last game in his memory.”

“Membership is a shilling.” The president smiled. “Who knows, you might decide you want more than one game.”

She was right. The minute I started winding my pieces and setting them out, something swelled inside me. The world seemed brighter as I made my first move.

Grandfather’s king won for me. He was a custom piece whose pattern of orders caught my opponent by surprise. As his arm nudged my other pieces and then triggered their actions, the other side swiftly became penned in, unable to manoeuvre.

“I say, that’s a marvellous piece,” my opponent said as he shook my hand in surrender. “Don’t suppose you’re selling, are you?”

That had been my plan when I walked through the door, but I found myself drawn in another direction. Instead, I found a fresh opponent and set up a new game.

By the end of the afternoon, a small crowd had gathered around my sixth consecutive match. Somewhere in that crowd, I felt the memory of my grandfather watching me, encouraging and guiding.

“You’re dashed good at this,” my latest opponent said, dabbing at her forehead with a handkerchief. “And that king of yours…”

On cue, I tapped the king’s head, sending him into action once more. A cascade of pawns and my queen’s witch advanced in a dance dictated by the king, one that could easily have become a tangled disaster, but instead brought me inches from victory.

I smiled. Now I had the measure of grandfather’s piece, I could set up these complicated strategies. It was immensely satisfying.

“Is that king strictly legal?” one of the observers asked. “It doesn’t sound like a regulation mechanism.”

“Dreaming Cogs is all about custom pieces,” I said, remembering the first lesson from my grandfather. “Its beauty is in the unexpected.”

“Our sport has moved on since the days of backroom tinkerers and custom cogwheels,” the president said. Her tone had been sharp since I’d beaten her in my third game – losing to a new arrival had clearly stung her pride. “If you want to keep playing with that king, then you’ll need to find a registered craftsman to bring it up to standards.”

My jaw dropped. She wanted some stranger to mess with this beautiful, intricate mechanism my grandfather had made.

I took the king off the board, forfeiting the game as I did so, and clutched it close to my chest.

“You can’t touch my king.”

“Then maybe I should give you your shilling back. We only take regulation players here.”

Without another word, I gathered up my pieces and stormed out. Gasps and giggles told me how much sympathy I would have received if I’d pleaded my case. I’d thought I’d found a connection, but these people didn’t understand the game my grandfather loved.

It was a warm summer’s evening and so I walked to the park to calm myself down. Sitting on a bench at the edge of the rose garden, I took the king out of my pocket, wound him, and set him on the ground. My grandfather’s memory hovered in my mind, an image of warmth and kindness.

“Maybe I should let you go,” I said, looking down at the tin playing piece with its tiny crown.

Then I heard voices across the park. I looked up to see grey-haired women and men sat around a cluster of rickety wooden tables, playing Dreaming Cogs into the evening just like my grandfather had done.

With a trembling hand, I picked up the king and walked over.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Do you… Could… I wondered if…”

“What a splendid king!” a woman said, peering into my hands. “It’s almost as fine as mine.”

She plucked hers off the board to show me. Its shape was unlike any king I’d seen before, with two ordering arms and a turban instead of a crown. When she set it back down, her opponent made no objection.

“Could I play next?” I asked in a small voice.

“Of course!”

Someone pulled up a chair for me, while another of them started setting up the board.

“My grandfather made this,” I explained, feeling like a small child showing off a toy.

“My nephew made mine,” the woman said. “I still don’t know all the tricks he built in, but who cares? There’s beauty in the unexpected.”

Smiling, I sat back and watched their match. In my mind’s eye, my grandfather smiled.

***

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.

The Dancing Plague – a flash historical story

“This is nonsense.” Lukas glared at the people dancing uncontrollably in the street. “They’ve not caught some curse or disease, they’re just after attention.”

One of the dancers came closer. His tunic was dark with sweat and his shoes worn through until his feet bled. The expression on his face would have been one of horror if not for the placid, distant staring of his eyes.

“Dozens of people dancing like this for weeks,” Heinrich said, backing away from the man. “Some collapsing and dying. Surely this is a sign from God?”

“You’re just encouraging them,” Lukas said. “When will you all accept that this is nonsense, so that it can end?”

He turned on his heel and strode away.

All through the summer of 1518, Strasbourg’s streets had been blighted by the dancing plague, people breaking into wild fits of movement in which they paused only for sleep, apparently unable to control themselves. He had said from the start that it was nonsense, yet the so-called victims had been encouraged, even put on display in hopes of ending the curse. All that had done was encourage more. It was a disruption to good business and good order.

He reached his home and went inside. The wool trade had been good to Lukas, and he had a large house with two floors and three rooms on each. A bedroom for him and Bertha, another for the children, and a counting room, as well as the kitchen and space for a servant. Quieter than when he’d shared a place with his old master, but a far better reflection of his worth.

He stopped just inside the house and stared, his whole body tense.

Bertha stood in the middle of the room, dancing uncontrollably.

Lukas pulled himself together. His brow furrowed and he let out a derisive snort.

“Stop this at once,” he said.

Bertha kept on dancing.

“I said stop.” He grabbed her arms and turned her to face him. The beauty of her face had become twisted by that distant, horrified expression he had seen on others. Her legs kept twitching even as he lifted her up.

“Stop it!”

He put her down. She danced around him and out the door, her green woolen dress swirling around her.

“You’re better than this,” he cried out as he ran after her. Neighbours looked up as they passed, some with sympathy, others with smug satisfaction.

“You’re a smart woman. You don’t need to do this.”

He grabbed her hand and tried to drag her back, but Bertha resisted with surprising strength. Lukas felt like a great weight was pressing down on him inside. He had promised Bertha long ago that he would never raise his hand to her or the children, never force her to anything. But if she kept on dancing then others would see, and then they would never listen to him.

If he had made the others seen sense earlier then this would be over. Bertha would be fine. But he had failed to get through to them, and now the dancing plague had his love.

Bertha danced out into the square, where so many of the other dancers were. The city’s great and good were watching them, stroking their beards and talking quietly among themselves.

“Look at what you’ve done!” Lukas shouted at them. “You let this thing fester and now it has taken my wife.”

“This isn’t our doing,” a minister said. “This is a disease, God’s message to us that we must deal with the sins of our town.”

“This is just desperate people looking for attention!”

“Is Bertha desperate?” Heinrich asked. “Doesn’t she get your attention?”

Lukas opened his mouth to snap something back, then shut it. Hadn’t he given Bertha what she wanted? Hadn’t he been attentive when his work allowed?

No, this was something else. Some dark influence that had seized her, just as it had seized these other people.

Which left a question to which he had no answer.

“How can we help them?”

“We want to take them to the shrine of St Vitus,” the minister said. “This is the sort of ailment in whose face the saint excels. The problem is getting our dancers there.”

“I have wagons,” Lukas said. “If you want them.”

Heinrich gave him a curious look, which after a moment morphed into a smile.

“Thank you, Lukas,” he said. “That would be very helpful. Can you bring them to the square tomorrow?”

Lukas nodded. Then he drew away from the others and went to stand watching the dancers, watching his Berth as she moved without reason or rest. He watched them all as they suffered this terrible blight and he prayed that they would feel better soon.

***

The dancing plague of Strasbourg was a real event, one of at least twenty recorded incidents of mass dancing manias in mid to late Medieval Europe. No-one knows for sure what caused them, but if you want an entertaining and accessible account of the issue, as well as a theory about the cause of the dancing, then check out John Waller’s A Time to Dance, A Time to Die, which inspired me to write this story.

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

***

From A Foreign Shore - High Resolution

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

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

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

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

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

A Shrine to Rot – a flash fantasy story

The land had grown hard and dry, nothing stirring but dust in the wind. The only place where nature held was in the waste heap outside the village, where beetles and worms ate what people could not. Oxen stood gaunt at idle ploughs while seeds lay lifeless in the soil.

And so Cobark gathered her people and led them into the desert, carrying all that they needed to start again – their clothes, their tools, their blankets, and the last of their food.

They walked north for five days, into an ever fresher wind. The air became cool and damp and their flagging spirits rose.

They reached the coast and looked out across a salt sea that shimmered with the sheen of black oil. Nothing could live here except the birds that fed on rotting fish, and the people could walk no further.

So Cobark led them east, across the desert once more. They walked for five days, their steps growing slower and more weary, until they reached a city from the days before the flattening.

In its ruins they found metal boxes with no opening, and when they broke into them some held precious food. But the first to eat from them became sick and twitched with a terrible fever. As they struggled to save him, monsters emerged from the city, some walking on two legs and some on four, all hungry for the people’s flesh. They fought them off and ran south, with the oxen in a long trail behind them.

After five days, with mountains rising to the east, they came to a canyon. It was as though a giant had taken an axe to the ground, leaving a deep gash where the earth had been. Desperate as they were, they could not cross it, nor could they climb the mountains.

And so, with a weary heart, Cobark pointed west. She let the others walk before her, for she was no leader any more. She had brought them forth and all they had found was misery, different places to die from hunger. She took the rear of the travelling column, and whenever someone fell she would lift them up and carry them until they had the strength to go on. When more fell than she could carry, she laid them on the backs of the oxen or made stretchers on which they could be dragged. Soon, half the people were taking the weight of the other half as they processed home to die.

In this way, it took them ten days to come back to the village. Most returned to their huts to wait for the end. But Cobark felt her failure. She did not deserve such comfort. So she walked out of the village and went to die by the waste heap, where she knew she belonged.

There she saw life. Seeds sprouting from the rotten pieces that people had thrown away. Cobark found hope, for herself and for her village.

She cracked open the hard soil and dug in the rotting waste. Within days the seeds, which had seemed set to lie dormant forever, began to sprout. The people rejoiced. Cobark returned smiling to her home.

And every year after, at the time of planting, they went to offer thanks at the shrine that was the waste heap.

***

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.’

Fly Another Day – a flash steampunk story

The sound of steam carriages and passing pedestrians floated up to Tao Wan through the darkness of a Bianjing night. The streets below were lit by gas lamps, far more sophisticated than the tarred log street lights back in the Kingdom of Xia, but up on the outside of the War Ministry, all was darkness.

Clinging to the stonework with her toes and the fingers of one hand, Tao slid a slender knife along a window frame, lifted the catch, and opened the shutters. Clad in loose grey clothes, she slid across the sill and into a corridor.

As she had expected, lamps were lit to guide the guards, but none were here now. Their next patrol should be in twenty minutes.

She strode silently down the corridor, opened one of a pair of imposing doors, and entered the Archive of Inventions. The room itself was a majestic machine, full of gears, pulleys, and belts, all set up to protect and secure documents.

A control console in burnished brass stood before Tao Wan. She didn’t have the key needed to operate it, so instead she forced open a panel and started rummaging around inside, removing bolts and repositioning gears, making it work for her. She pressed a carefully selected series of engraved buttons on the console then pulled a lever.

Gears rattled. Belts whirred. A piece of brass like a picture frame emerged from a slot in the wall and came towards her, hanging on a chain. It stopped in front of the control console and hung swaying a foot from Tao Wan.

She smiled in satisfaction at the blueprints for the new Chinese attack airship.

Tao Wan took hold of the frame and tried to open it.

It wouldn’t part.

With a frown, she turned it on the end of its chain. There was some sort of geared locking mechanism on the side, one that clearly needed a matching machine to make it work. She would have to hack that too.

There was a click. She opened a pouch on her belt, revealing a fat metal tube and a pocket watch. The click had come from the watch, a signal to tell her when time was nearly up.

The guards would be on their way, regular as clockwork. Regular as Chinese discipline.

She cursed under her breath. The time for subtlety was over.

Tao Wan tensed her arms then yanked hard on the frame. Chains rattled and gears groaned somewhere in the machine. She pulled again and this time a metal link broke. The frame came free and clanged to the ground.

From the corridor came a surprised shout and hurrying footsteps.

Still clutching the frame, Tao Wan ran out through the archive’s great doors. Guards stood at one end of the corridor, spears raised, staring at her.

“Stop, thief!” one of them shouted.

Tao ran back towards the window where she had come in. As she ran, she slammed the frame against the wall. It buckled and a corner gave way. She wrenched it open, pulled out the papers, and flung the frame back behind her.

The guards bellowed and picked up their pace. Tao Wan’s heart raced. The fate of spies was worse than mere execution, but that was nothing compared with the fate of her country if they couldn’t match Chinese technology. Almost at the window, she stuffed the papers into her tunic and pulled the tube from her pouch.

She flung the shutters open and leapt up onto the windowsill. Outside was darkness and a terrible drop. An airship was passing by, twenty feet up and a dozen out from the tower, like a low grey cloud passing through the night.

“Ha!” a guard shouted. “We have you now.”

The guards slowed, and when she looked back their expressions varied from smug to cautious, uncertain what sort of adversary they faced.

“It’s a hundred feet down,” their leader said. “But if you want to jump, we can peel you off the street instead of arresting you.”

Tao Wan pointed the tube at the airship and pressed its trigged. A barbed spearhead shot out, powered by a miniature rocket, trailing smoke and a slender rope. It buried itself in the gondola of the flying machine.

The rope tugged at Tao Wan as the airship sailed away from the tower. She grabbed hold with both hands and let it lift her from the window, swinging out over the city and away. Behind her, the guards pointed and yelled, but failed to draw the attention of the airship’s crew.

A mad burst of laughter swept through Tao Wan as she climbed up the rope. She had done it. She had got the plans and got out alive. Now all it would take was a little airship piracy and she would be on her way home.

***

For a longer and more subtle adventure from Tao Wan, check out my story “Zhai Chengda’s Wife” in Volume 14 Issue 2 of Electric Spec, out now.

And 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.

Out Now – Zhai Chengda’s Wife

It’s story time again!

My steampunk short “Zhai Chengda’s Wife” is out now in the latest edition of Electric Spec. A spy story set in an alternate history Song Dynasty China, “Zhai Chengda’s Wife” follows Tao Wan, a covert agent for the Kingdom of Xia. As the Song Empire threatens Xia, its politicians are forced to the negotiating table, expecting to be crushed by their more powerful neighbour. But when Tao Wan meets with the wife of the Chinese ambassador, an opportunity arises to level the playing field. Will she take it? And what will this meeting cost Zhai Chengda’s wife?

This story was inspired by a desire to write steampunk in an unusual setting. My friend Jon suggested Song China as a time and place full of industrial growth. It was a chance to go beyond the western settings that dominate steampunk and show something new.

Along the way, I stumbled across a theme I hadn’t been expecting – imbalances of power. The story is all about these uneven dynamics, from the bullying diplomacy of the Song Chinese to the ambassador’s abusive marriage. Even the relationship Tao Wan builds with Lady Zhai, a relationship that offers hope for an escape, is built on the power imbalance between a confident, educated woman and her disheartened peer. Is it possible to bring justice when only one side knows how to be heard?

“Zhai Chengda’s Wife” is out now in Electric Spec.