Ypres Lungs – a historical flash fiction

The hospital train was crowded, every bed filled with an injured man heading for the coast. Some, like Tom, had been caught in the gas attack at Ypres and now lay rasping through ruined throats, struggling for the breath they needed to survive. Others had been ruined by bullets or shelling, their bodies wrapped in blood-soaked bandages, arms and legs brutally shortened. The man across from Tom screamed in pain at every bump in the track, until a nurse came around and gave him an injection.

As the man sank back onto his pillow, she turned to Tom.

“How are you doing, Private Macdonald?” she asked.

Tom shrugged.

“Better than some,” was all he could think to say. Every breath hurt. He barely had the strength to stand. Just getting out of bed to relieve himself was a humiliating struggle. But he was alive, unlike many he’d left behind, and he was intact, unlike some of these other poor souls. How could he complain?

“You’re Canadian, aren’t you?”

Tom nodded.

“It was very brave of you to come all this way to fight,” she said, laying a hand on his shoulder.

Tom smiled.

“Just doing my duty.”

He wanted to make the most of the pretty young woman’s attention, but speaking hurt too much. Instead he closed his eyes and hoped for sleep.

*

The ferry lurched and Tom’s stomach lurched with it. Nausea swept through him. He flung aside the blanket and forced himself to his feet.

Just that movement made his head spin and his legs tremble. He clutched the wall and staggered a few steps, out of the cabin and into the corridor. His throat burned, his lungs ached, and any strength he had seemed to have fled. He slumped against the wall, stomach heaving.

He could do this. He wasn’t like those poor souls torn apart by shells. He’d worked in the wilds, felling trees and hauling timber before the war. He could make it to the rail.

Except that he couldn’t. The floor beneath him shifted, his stomach rose like a wave in a storm, and he was sick, vomit pouring down the front of his pyjamas, covering his feet, spattering the floor.

He felt so helpless he wanted to cry, but he was a grown man, and he was better off than others. To Hell with self-pitying thoughts. He needed to get to the rail before he was sick again.

He stumbled down the corridor, flung a door open and walked out onto deck. The wind snatched at him, threatening to knock his weakened body down. Even through the stink of vomit, he caught the salt smell of the sea.

It was night and no-one else was on deck. He reached the rail just in time to throw up what was left in his stomach, but getting there left him short of breath, his vision blurring. A deeper darkness crept in at the edges of his view.

How could he live like this? He’d been a lumberjack, then for a brief while a soldier. He’d always been strong. What good was he to anyone without that strength?

And he was so damn miserable. Everything hurt. Even when he wasn’t moving, he felt like there were needles in his throat and harsh smoke swirling through his lungs. The rest of his life stretched out before him, decades of frustration and pain.

He could barely hold himself up at the rail. It would be so easy to fall over and be lost in the waves.

The thought should have appalled him, but instead it was a relief. An end to the pain and humiliation. All he had to do was let go.

He leaned over, looking down into darkness, and took one hand off the rail.

So easy.

Almost there.

Another hand settled on his. Smaller, softer, warmer. He looked up to see the nurse from the train standing beside him.

“Please don’t,” she said.

“You don’t understand,” Tom said. “I’m broken. I’m useless. Everything hurts.”

“We’ll find a way to fix you. Do you know how much medicine has changed in the past year, just to keep up with this terrible war?”

“No-one’s dealt with this before.” He pointed to his throat. “There’s no cure.”

“Then live long enough for the doctors back home to see you, to help them learn how it works. That’s how the cures will happen. As long as you live, you’re not useless.”

Tom looked down at the sea – cool, dark, inviting. He felt the hot pain in his throat.

And he thought of how many more would suffer like he did. If he couldn’t live for himself, he could live for them.

“I’m going to need new pyjamas,” he said, stepping away from the rail. “And a bucket by my bed.”

The nurse smiled and wrapped her shawl around his shoulders.

“I’ll see what I can do.”

***

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***

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.

Dancing Back to Life – a flash fantasy story

Spring almost killed us. It came early, a welcome but unexpected guest who coaxed the crops into life a month before their time. But no sooner had it placed a foot across the threshold than spring withdrew, leaving us in the icy embrace of winter. Those first shoots of precious green faltered, their tentative life force fading. Even when spring returned in full enthusiasm, the plants lay limp and pale.

No sooner had the fear of starvation sunk in than old Mags offered an alternative.

“Nature has lost its rhythm,” she said. “We must give it ours.”

For two days, we set aside pitchforks and ploughs in favour of hammers and saws, building a dance floor out among the fields. We decorated it with dried flowers and bunting and set up a platform for the band. When it was done, every one of us put on our best clothes and gathered beneath a star-dappled sky.

“Remember,” Mags said as she led us onto the floor, “everything must be silent. No chatter, no singing, no music.” She looked pointedly at the band. “The rhythm is not for us, not until the magic is complete.”

While the band took their nervous place on the platform, the rest of us found partners and formed a silent circle. Mags nodded to the band.

They started uncertainly. The drummer twitched his sticks an inch above the skin. The lute player strummed thin air. The flautist set his mouth to the lip plate but kept breathing through his nose. They looked nervously at each other, struggling to find their place without sound, but slowly some spirit took hold. They started grinning and miming with greater confidence.

The band leader gave a nod.

As one, we surged forward into the circle, following the memories of music. The only sounds were the swish of cotton and the scrape of leather-soled shoes against the floor. We paced and twirled, spun our partners in our arms, swapped pairings and began again. Like the band, we started to feel the rhythm.

There was no break between the songs, no time to rest. For hours we danced, as the evening darkened into night and then lightened again. We danced until our feet were sore and our legs weary, until our stifled laughter no longer threatened to break free. We danced as we had never danced before – silent, desperate, pleading with the world to acknowledge us.

The fields around us began to rustle. Stalks shifted as if in the wind, and as dawn approached we could see that the crops were stiffening, their leaves darkening, buds bursting into life.

We looked expectantly to Mags for the signal that it was over, but she shook her head and stared pointedly across the land. By the first light of day, we saw that our magic had barely touched half the fields, that the rhythm of nature still lay broken.

We danced on, though our heels were blistered and our bodies trembling. The band kept up their silent music, though their faces were drawn and their movements limp.

Then Mags stumbled, an easy thing to do on rough boards and old legs. The rhythm faltered. Around us the plants slumped.

I saw what had to happen. I lunged across the circle, took Mags by the waist, and swung her around, skirts flying, a wild move from the old dances. I shot an urgent look at the dancer behind me, a silent and desperate plea.

Imitating my move, she pranced across the circle, slipped her arm around another dancer’s partner, and swept them off their feet. Others followed, one by one, racing across the floor to form new pairs in a wild and delirious dance, feet flying and bodies soaring as the drummer beat faster at the air.

A new rhythm had taken us, and it took the crops too. They surged into life, grew stronger and straighter, leaves turning bright green as the sun shone down. That rhythm rippled out across the fields, an emerald circle that grew with every passing moment until the whole world seemed full of life.

“Now,” Mags whispered. “We’re done.”

I set her feet down, but I didn’t stop dancing. I stamped my foot and twirled her about, laughing in joy. The lute-player strummed her strings, the drummer brought his sticks down, and suddenly the world was full of music.

We danced on, laughing and singing and celebrating, while around us life took hold.

***

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***

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.’

One Cog Dreaming – a steampunk short story

Is this the moment when the cog starts dreaming? When it emerges, bright and shiny, from a machine on the factory floor, one in a hundred thousand made that day, their futures an infinite plane of possibilities stretching out in front of them. Could it be that, from the very first moment, the cog imagines those futures?

Perhaps it starts dreaming now, as the watchmaker picks it up between her tweezers, fits it carefully into its place, and then releases the wound spring on a brand new pocket watch. For the first time, the gear is part of something larger, counting off the seconds as they pass. It seems like a moment for grand dreams.

Or is it at the wedding, when the watchmaker hands the ticking timepiece to her bride? The two of them look like angels in their white lace dresses, their hearts soaring towards heaven on wings of love. A day full of the brightest dreams.

It could be sometime in the year that follows, as the first traces of oil and specks of dirt accrete on the cog’s surface. It’s not new anymore, not shiny. It has the marks of age and the beginnings of wear that come from being wound day after day, from counting off hours spent at the theatre, around the office, in the kitchen, in the bedroom. Experience gives it things to dream about.

This could be the moment – not a dream but a nightmare, the sickening crunch as a carriage hits the watchmaker’s wife, the watch flying from her hand as she falls broken in the street, the glass front shattering on a cobble and the gears scattering in the dirt.

Some dreams are formed from memories, and perhaps that’s how the cog’s dreams begin. The watchmaker picking it up from the dirt, scouring the cobbles for every last lost gear, clutching them as close as she holds the memories of marriage, those magical moments that threaten to fade like the embroidery on her wedding dress.

Many might think that the cog starts to dream when it’s put in the head of the automaton, along with every other working piece of that broken watch. Together with thousands of other tiny pieces of gearing, they form the most complicated machine the watchmaker has ever assembled, a machine that can move like a human, that can see its own face in the mirror and know itself, even if it doesn’t know the woman its face is modelled on.

Night is the time when dreams come unbidden, so perhaps that’s when they come to the cog, as it lies in that cold, hard body, warmed by the watchmaker’s embrace, by her tears, her kisses, her demands.

Dreams are the moment when we break from the rules that govern us, from the constraints that hold us in place, so perhaps the dreams begin when the cog slips, just a little, just enough for the workings of the automaton to change, for it to start making its own rules, defining its own desires.

If a dream is a call to action, then this is the moment dreams come true, as the automaton creeps from the house in the middle of the night and sets out into the smog. It has lived so far as a facsimile, acting on the orders of its creator, imitating someone else’s life. But it isn’t the watchmaker’s wife. It is its own being. It has to forge its own path.

This is the moment when dreams almost die, as bailiffs seize the automaton and drag it back to the watchmaker’s house, talking loudly about property rights and good order. The watchmaker weeps in relief as the automaton is presented to her. The automaton would weep too, if it could.

But others have been watching, and now a shared dream takes hold. That web of gossamer threads that lets people live together, things so delicate they cannot be seen or touched – justice, morality, the rule of law. In court, the automaton becomes tangled in these dreams as a young lawyer argues that it is a person, that it and a thousand others like it cannot be owned. That this travesty must end. Do the lawyer’s words become the cog’s own dream, a private part of the shared fantasy that is civilisation?

Surely it must be dreaming now, as it walks free down the courthouse steps.

And now two dreams guide it. The automaton holds a bunch of flowers for each. One to be laid on the grave of the watchmaker’s wife, while the cog dreams of what it was like to be her, to breath and eat and sleep and love. The other for the watchmaker, an offering to its creator, a small vestige of kindness and consolation for a woman consumed by loss.

The cog is dreaming.

***

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 Hall of Ideas – a flash science fiction story

Alec walked into the Hall of Ideas and took a seat at a terminal. A shiver of excitement ran through him as he took a data chip from his pocket and inserted it into the machine.

Today was the day. He’d been working for months on his design for a public mural. It was bright, vibrant, taking a whole new approach to the art style of public spaces. He had the vision. He had the materials. All he needed was approval from the algorithms.

For several minutes, he sat staring at the screen, clasping and unclasping his hands. Around him, other people went through the approvals process – designers, musicians, public planners, all taking their ideas to the machine so that it could compare them with billions of pieces of data and determine what people would want. Only then, once the machine had proved that an idea was wanted, would they receive permission to proceed.

At last, the screen flashed. A message appeared:

“We are sorry, but this idea is not what people want from public art. Do please try again with your next idea.”

Alec sagged, despondent, in his seat. He’d been so certain. He loved the design, why wouldn’t other people?

With a sigh, he got up and headed out of the door. He would just have to try again.

*

Alec walked determinedly into the Hall of Ideas and slid his data chip into a terminal, then took a seat while he waited for it to assess his idea.

The new mural design was even more inventive than the last one. Bold juxtapositions of colour and shape, a bright and enlivening pallet, a valuable message about what it meant to be human. It had to be worth doing.

Inside the machine, the AI sifted through its vast data store, looking at what people did, what they bought, what they had said about past works of public art. The totality of electronically recorded experience went into its decision.

The screen flashed and a message appeared:

“We are sorry, but this idea is not what people want from public art. Do please try again with your next idea.”

Alec frowned. There must be a mistake. He took the data chip out, put it back in again, and waited for the AI to process the design.

The answer flashed up the same – a clear denial of his dreams.

“What then?” Alec snapped. “What do you want if not this?”

People turned to look at him, alarmed and confused by someone disturbing the calm of the Hall of Ideas.

Alec blushed. He took the chip out of the machine, got out of his seat, and strode out of the hall.

Next time, he would get it right.

*

Alec thrust the data chip into the terminal. Around him, the Hall of Ideas was busy, as it had been six months before, and six months before that. A year wasted on reinventing his design twice over. There was no denying that the mural would be better for it, as he had refined every last detail, creating something so extraordinary that the people he showed it to gasped in excitement. Still, the lost time frustrated him.

The screen flashed:

“We are sorry, but this idea is not what people want from public art. Do please try again with your next idea.”

“No!” Alec leapt to his feet. “You’re wrong, you stupid heap of junk. All you know is what people did before, what they liked before. You want everything the same as it’s always been. But we can dream bigger. We can do better. We can try something new!”

Around him, people watched in shocked silence.

Alec snatched the data chip out of the machine.

“You’ll see,” he bellowed to the rafters. “This thing doesn’t know shit.”

He stormed out of the hall and into the sunlit street. To hell with machine decisions and official approvals. He had the paints, he had the brushes, he had the design, and he knew a blank wall going spare. He would show the machine and everyone behind it that art didn’t have to match what had been loved before.

Back in the Hall, people turned back to their screens. A few began to wonder, could they try something new?

***

This story was inspired by an article by Cory Doctorow on the inherent conservatism of AI. Doctorow is a great commentator on technology and where it’s taking society, so his work is well worth a read.

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.

When the Waters Ran Red – a flash fantasy story

Aunt Hella rushed up the road to our front step, where father and I were fixing fishing nets.

“Come quick, Tommar,” she said. “Something’s happened to Lestin.”

I leapt to my feet, hooked like a fish by the tone of dread with which she said mother’s name.

Father and Hella rushed down the street, clogs clattering against the cobbles, and I ran barefoot after them, over the bridge where the river ran red from the big city die works, through town and down to the quay.

Mother’s boat sat at anchor a dozen yards off shore. It shouldn’t have been. She had sailed out on the tide just after dawn, heading away from the murky waters by the river mouth, towards the distant waters where the big shoals of cod swam. We had seen her more when the waters were cleaner and her days shorter, but as father said, we all have to make sacrifices.

People were swimming in the water around the boat. One of them flipped over and I saw his tail rise from the waves.

Merfolk.

A mermaid was swimming towards the quay.

My heart beat so hard it hurt. The merfolk seldom came to shore, except when they rescued boats lost in storms or sailors fallen overboard. They preferred to live separate from us.

But this mermaid wore a look of anger, not pity.

“We have taken the people from your boat,” she said.

“Why?” my father asked, clutching the leather marriage band around his wrist.

“We will keep them until you make the water clean again. If it becomes any dirtier, we will start to kill them.”

“We’re not making the water dirty!”

“Yes you are.” The mermaid pointed towards the red running from the river mouth.

“That’s not us. That’s the dyers in the big city. Please, don’t hurt our families for this.”

“Humans did this. Humans must fix it.”

“But we’re innocent!”

“No.” The mermaid pointed angrily at him. “You accept this so that you can have your coloured cloth skins. You accept this so that the city will buy your fish. You are not innocent, and our children are sickening from this filth. If ours suffer because of humans, humans will suffer too.”

As she swam away I felt like a mouse caught in the claws of a hawk. They had my mother. They were going to kill her.

I ran to the edge of the quay and leapt off. My father shouted in alarm, but I was already in the water, the splash of my landing drawing the mermaid’s attention. She watched as I swam towards her with a child’s clumsy strokes, my simple smock clinging to my skin.

“Please!” I said, spluttering through the water as it rose over my mouth. “Let my mother go. We can’t fix this. She didn’t do this.”

“Neither did we.”

“Send a message to the people who did!”

“That’s what we’re doing.”

She turned and swam away, far faster than I could follow.

My father grabbed me from behind, hooked his arm around my chest, and dragged me kicking and weeping towards the shore.

That day, as I stood dripping on the docks amid the silence of a stunned community, I swore that I would get my mother back, no matter what it took.

For weeks my father watched warily, half expecting me to swim off out to sea on some fool rescue mission.

But I knew better. The merfolk were right. This wasn’t their fault. It had to be fixed on land.

I stopped skipping school to earn pennies sweeping up fish guts. I spent summer evenings with pen and paper, practising my words. I wrote letters to the dyers, then when they wouldn’t listen to the big city councillors. When a newspaper started, I wrote to them too.

A year passed. The water was no cleaner or more dirty. Once a month, grim-faced merfolk brought greetings from our kidnapped kin, a reminder of what was at stake. Our fishermen started takes weapons with them to sea.

I roamed the coast, rallying support in other towns and villages, people who understood the anguish of losing family to the sea and who saw the merfolk’s pain.

More years passed. We formed an association, wrote a petition, raised funds to pay for a lawyer. Still nothing changed.

And then, last week, the river ran black. The worst was happening.

We still had funds in our collection. I went to a friend who works at the quarry and bought all the blasting powder I could.

Perhaps the people at the die works are innocent. Perhaps they don’t understand what they’re doing to the sea, despite all the letters I’ve sent. Perhaps no-one has told them. Perhaps they don’t deserve what’s about to happen.

But my town is innocent. My mother is innocent. The merfolk were innocent until we poisoned their world.

It’s never enough to say that something has to change.

And so I say, I’m going to change it.

***

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

***

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.’

Cold Comfort and Clockwork – a steampunk short story

The elevator rattled to a stop. There was a hiss of escaping steam as it settled into position and a servant in the clan’s deep blue livery opened the door.

Mitry stepped out onto the thirty-seventh floor. Wind whistled through the girders and stirred the petals of clockwork flowers in the academy’s garden. The chiming of those petals brought back a rush of memories. Hearing that distant sound while he learnt the intricacies of contract and tort. The smell of oil on the days when the garden was being maintained. Stealing one of those flowers to give to Angelica Patby, and the crushing disappointment when her whole response was to look confused. The loneliness on returning to his room after mealtimes, with only his mechanical tutor for company.

“Can I help?” the grey-haired doorman asked.

“I’ve come to see my daughter.” Mitry presented his personal punch card. “I believe she may be struggling here.”

The doorman slid the card into a box by the door. Dials spun, clicked into place, and presented a row of digits.

“This way,” the doorman said, handing back the card and pushing open the door.

They walked down echoing corridors and up wide stairwells, past doors identical in every way except the numbers on their frames, from which the whir and hiss of machinery emerged. At last they stopped in front of one of the doors.

The doorman slid back a shutter and gestured for Mitry to peer in.

Carola had grown since he last saw her. Red hair tumbled in long curls down her back, bright and vivacious against the deep blue of her dress. She sat facing her mechanical tutor, a gleaming box taller than she was, covered in dials, keys, and levers. She was reading a row of dials presented at eye level, then responding using keys at waist height. Mitry could practically feel the smoothness of those well worn keys beneath his fingers, almost hear their clacking and the whir of the machine presenting a response.

A green flag shot up. Carola had got an answer right. A toffee fell from a brass tube into a dish by her hand. She smiled, put the toffee in her mouth, and pulled the lever for the next question.

Mitry remembered when they had brought her here at four years old, remembered the warmth of her tiny body as he held her one last time, the softness of her hair.

“Can I go in and speak with her?” he asked.

“It’s frowned upon,” the doorman said. “Clan rules require thorough immersion in mechanical learning. Your daughter’s education depends upon being left in peace.”

“I have concerns.” Mitry pulled out a single sheet of paper carrying a list of scores – Carola’s annual progress report. “These grades do not match what I expected.”

The doorman patted Mitry on the shoulder.

“We’ve been here before, haven’t we sir? And every time we tell you, she’s doing well enough.”

“My family does not do adequate, we do excellence. I strongly suspect that a private tutor-”

“Private tutors are a fad. The academy’s machines have been producing the finest lawyers for generations. Cold, calculating, sharp.”

The words could have described Angelica, even after years of marriage, or almost anyone else in Mitry’s social circle. They were the highest compliments a lawyer could hear.

Spoken around Carola, they broke his heart.

“I just want to be sure,” he said. “A brief conversation to make sure nothing is amiss, then I’ll go.”

The doorman sighed.

“Very well, sir.” He slid a key into complex clockwork, twisted it twice, and the door opened on hinges oiled into silence.

Carola turned as Mitry walked in. There was recognition in her eyes, but little interest.

“Can I help with something?” she asked.

“I’ve just come to check on you,” Mitry said. “Are you well?”

“I am in adequate health and proceeding at an acceptable rate with my studies.”

“Are you happy?”

She frowned as if presented with a conundrum.

“I receive sweetmeats when I succeed in a test. Success makes me happy.”

“Good, good.” Mitry felt cold despite his winter coat. He fought the urge to look away. This was all he would see of her for a long time and he had to take in every moment. “I brought you something.”

He held out a flower made of gold and glass, each edge shining as it caught the lamplight, and placed it in her hand.

“Thank you?” she said, her look of confusion so like her mother’s. But her mother had changed in the end, had agreed to a marital contract, just as Carola might one day accept a change of her own. “Is this a test? Should I know the response?”

Now he had to look away. His eyes fell on the other flowers, one for each year, sitting in a neat row on a shelf above her bed.

“It’s a gift,” he said. “For you. And a reminder – if you ever want to leave this place-”

“Why would I leave?” Carola looked shocked. She laid a hand on the keys of her mechanical tutor. “This is where I learn.”

“Of course.” Mitry’s eyes prickled. He forced his face to stay still. “But the offer is there.”

“Time to go,” the doorman said.

“Goodbye,” Carola said, turning back to her machine.

Mitry reached out an arm, but knew better than to wrap it around her.

“Goodbye,” he murmured.

The door closed behind him and he stood in the corridor, shoulders slumped.

“Here.” The doorman pulled a hip flask from his pocket and held it out. “I carried this special, thinking you’d be here today.”

“How did you know?”

Whiskey burned its way down Mitry’s throat.

The doorman pointed at the code above Carola’s door, which included her date of birth.

“Same day every year,” he said. “Now come along, you should be leaving before the warden finds us.”

They walked along echoing corridors and wide stairwells, past rows of identical doors.

“Do you think she’ll ever say yes?” Mitry asked, wiping his eyes with the back of his sleeve.

“I think she’ll make a fine lawyer,” the doorman replied.

Outside, clockwork petals chimed in the wind.

***

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.

Drawing the Desert – a historical short story

Ernst Schmatlock cursed as his plane swept down towards the Egyptian desert. The Luftwaffe had been sure this area was still in Axis hands, that the squadron would make it safely back. But here he was, out of fuel behind Allied lines.

Desert sand dunes

He wrenched at the yoke, pulling up the nose of the plane moments before it hit the ground. Wheels tore through the sand, the Stuka tipped, and for a terrible moment he thought that the whole thing would flip over, trapping him. But then the tail sank back, there was a jolt, and the plane came to rest against a sand dune.

Schmatlock grabbed what supplies he had – a few biscuits, a half-empty canteen of water, his service pistol. He hadn’t been prepared for this. Next time he would do better.

If he lived through this time.

Before he climbed out, he took one last small bundle from the back of the plane. That package of pencils and paper was his lifeline, a connection to the artist he had been before the war. Food and water would keep him alive, but drawing would keep him sane.

Schmatlock had no idea where the nearest people were, or any source of water. All he knew was that friendly troops lay somewhere to the west, and so that was the way he walked.

Sand sucked at his boots, making every step a strain. By nightfall he was exhausted, his food and water used up. As the blazing heat of the day gave way to the bitter chill of a cloudless night, he took a few minutes to draw the desert, to tame it with his art. Then he fell into a deep and dreamless sleep.

When he woke, the sun was well up and he could feel his face starting to burn. He took off his jacket, draped it over his head, and followed his shadow west.

By the middle of the day, his strength was fading. The dry heat sucked the water straight out of his body, leaving him with a parched throat and a spinning head. When he stopped to rest, he drew wine bottles and waterfalls, but they only threw his thirst into starker relief.

Somewhere along the line, he started losing things. A pair of binoculars. The empty water bottle. Even his pistol, abandoned during a delirious, desperate attempt to lighten his load. But he clung tight to the pencils and paper. Those he needed. Those were part of him.

He was on the verge of giving up when he saw movement between the dunes ahead. He staggered up a slope and looked down at a town below.

At last, somewhere he could find water! A chance to survive and to make it home.

A truck was driving into the town, a long dust cloud snaking out behind it. A British truck, driven by British soldiers.

Schmatlock cursed his luck. If the British spotted him in that town, he would be sent straight to a prison camp. But he was so thirsty, so exhausted, what choice did he have?

A sound made him look back. A camel was approaching with a man on its back, laden with saddle bags. The man looked like a local.

Better to risk exposing himself now than to face the British unprepared. Schmatlock waved and called out a greeting.

The camel rider approached. He looked down and said something Schmatlock couldn’t understand.

“Thirsty.” Schmatlock pointed at his mouth. “Water, please.”

Perhaps the rider understood, or perhaps he just saw Schmatlock’s desperate state. Regardless, he threw him a water skin and Schmatlock gulped the contents gratefully down. His guts gurgled at the sudden change, but he felt some sense returning, his mind emerging from the fog of dehydration.

He handed the water skin back, then tugged at the edge of the rider’s robes.

“I need these,” Schmatlock said.

The rider drew his leg back and frowned.

“Please.” Schmatlock pointed at the robes, then at himself. “Please, I need different clothes.”

Again, the rider said something, then he laughed. He pointed at Schmatlock, then over the ridge, and finally plucked at the hem of his robes.

“Yes, exactly!” Schmatlock said. “I can’t go there looking like this. Will you help?”

The man rubbed his thumb and forefingers together.

“You want paying.” Schmatlock sighed. “Of course. But I don’t have any money.”

He opened each of his pockets, turning them inside out or holding them open for the rider to see. The only thing that came out was the bundle of papers and pencils.

The rider frowned, shrugged, then pulled a worn robe and a headscarf from his saddle bags. He held up the clothes, then pointed at Schmatlock’s papers and pencils.

“You want these?” Schmatlock stared at the proffered bundle of cloth, then at his precious art supplies, the one thing he had clung to all this way.

The rider said something, then made as if to put the robes back in the bag.

“No, wait!” Reluctantly, Schmatlock held out his art supplies. True, he could sneak on past the town now he had had a drink. But what were the odds of finding somewhere else out here?

Better to go a little crazy staying alive than to let the desert take him.

He took a single sheet from the bundle – his sketch of the desert at night, a reminder of what he had been through. Then he handed the rest to the rider and took the robes in return.

The man said something and his camel started walking, heading over the dunes and away. Schmatlock pulled the robes on over his uniform, hiding him from the sun and from scrutiny. As he stepped over the ridge and down towards the town, his fingers tightened around his one remaining piece of paper.

He hadn’t given his art up for nothing. He would find a way home.

***

This story is a prequel of sorts to my latest Commando comic, “Stealing Stukas”. If you want to find out what happens to Schmatlock next, you can find that comic in newsagents or on Comixology.

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.

***

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.

Real Food – a flash science fiction story

It was the gun that got Liz’s attention. She hadn’t seen many guns in her life, had seen none at all in the protein plant before, and this was very definitely the first one to be pointed at her. The darkness of the barrel had a hypnotic draw that almost made her ignore the man behind it.

She raised her hands and stepped back, legs trembling, sweat breaking out across her brow. Her back pressed against the guard rail, hard and cold even through her overalls, and she found herself trapped, caught between the three terrorists and the vats below.

“We are the Real Food Front!” the leader of the terrorists bellowed. “We demand that you switch off these machines.”

When she looked back on it later, Liz realised that she should have just said, “yes, of course, right this way…”, but in the moment, her brain was lagging somewhere behind the dangers of reality.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because people should be people,” he said. “They should eat real animals and plants, not some synthetic protein pooped out by bacteria.”

“That’s not really how this-”

“Silence!”

He waved the gun. Liz clamped her mouth shut, terrified that he might accidentally pull the trigger. It would be bad enough to get shot over this goop, never mind dying because some idiot’s finger slipped.

They stood staring at each other, both waiting, while his comrades peered down into the gently bubbling vats.

“I said switch it off,” the terrorist said.

“Oh!” Liz blinked, then laughed uncomfortably. “Sorry, I can’t. I don’t have that level of control.”

“Then you’re no use to us.”

He shoved her hard and she fell over the guard rail with a shriek. For a moment, the air rushed past, then she landed with a splat in the vat below.

Liz flailed wildly, trying to swim through a morass of bacteria, water, and the proteins they were making. Each breath was a desperate gasp as she felt herself sinking.

Then she remembered how shallow the vat was. Blushing with embarrassment, she got her feet underneath her and stood, chest-deep in goop.

“You will provide a warning to the world of the danger this place has unleashed!” the terrorist shouted, his voice echoing through the factory. One of his comrades held up a phone to film Liz. “As genetically modified bacteria dissolve your body, the world will see how deadly their food is, why they should return to the good old ways of real food.”

Liz raised her hand.

“What?” the terrorist asked.

“You know this won’t work, right?” Liz said. “These bacteria don’t eat anything but hydrogen. Even the ones that dissolve plastic can’t-”

“Of course I knew that! This was, um, a test, to show that you’re a real employee here. And now the world will see your face as we poison your precious artificial protein. No-one will be able to eat your barbaric products, as they bring the same death to the body they bring to the soul.”

One of the others had taken off a bulky backpack and pulled out a plastic sack. He ripped it open and poured white powder into the vat.

Liz raised her hand.

“What?” the lead terrorist snapped.

“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to rain on your parade, but that won’t work either. There are so many filters in this system that whatever you’ve put in, it’ll probably be taken out. And if not, it won’t make it past quality testing. Regulations are even tighter for us than for other food.”

The terrorist leaned forward, one hand gripping the guard rail. His face was red.

“I didn’t want to do this,” he said. “But you people have pushed us to it. For the sake of future generations, we must return to real food.”

He unzipped his jacket, revealing a mass of plasticine-like blocks and trailing wires. One of those wires let to the switch he pulled from his pocket.

“I may die,” he declared, chest thrust out as his comrade stepped back to film him, “but by sacrificing myself to destroy the very vats that poison our people, I bring this place to a halt and prove to the world that life is worth more than this.”

Liz raised her hand, but it was too late. The terrorist ran along the gantry, vaulted the guard rail, and landed with a splat in the next vat over, out of sight from her.

There was a muted thump. A fountain of bacteria-infused goo blasted into the air, then pattered down like a thick, pink rain. Liz, already coated from her fall, watched with a smile as the remaining terrorists tried to shake off the slime.

Then the doors burst open and the police ran in.

An hour later, Liz was sitting under a blanket beside the vats while a woman from HR failed to comfort her.

“This is going to be a disaster,” the woman said, shaking her head. “Never mind cleaning the vats, the publicity from it all-”

“We sell food powders with all the taste and glamour of plasticine,” Liz said. “Until today, we were as cool and edgy as a children’s TV presenter. Now our food has survived a terrorist attack.”

She got up and started looking around for new overalls.

“Unlike the Real Food Front, I think we’ll survive.”

***

A story inspired by real attempts to make food using gas and microorganisms. Because the world is a wild and wonderful place.

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.

Three Little Pigs – a fairy tale retold

The wolf prowled into town on paws as soft as mist and as deadly as winter. Her every breath made the leaves trembled in the trees.

Close up of a wolf's face

Three pigs fled before her. The first, skinny and clad in rags, ran into a house of straw. The second, in his simple, sturdy tunic and tool belt, ran into a house of wood. The third, decked out in a bowler hat and waistcoat, ran into a house of bricks.

The wolf grinned, drool dripping between saw-blade teeth. She would eat well today.

She stopped at the first house.

“You think this can protect you?” she called out with a sneer.

“It’s all I have,” the first pig replied, his voice high with fear. “But there’s no meat on me. Am I even worth eating?”

He wasn’t worth answering. The wolf took a deep breath, her lungs swelling with all the power of the east wind, pursed her lips, and blew.

The house exploded beneath the force of the gale, straw bursting apart and billowing through the air.

The pig cowered in the ruins, frozen by fear. The wolf snapped her jaws shut around his throat and tasted hot, delicious flesh. She gave in to her hunger, rending, tearing, chewing, until all that remained was bones and blood-spattered chaff.

She brushed a straw from her nose and frowned. The pig had been right – he wasn’t nearly enough to sate her appetite.

She stalked over to the house of wood. It was carefully constructed, timbers linked with dovetail joints and wooden pins, an apple carved into the frame above the front door. The windows were shuttered and bolted.

“You think this can protect you?” the wolf called out as she admired the handiwork.

“I built it with all my skill,” the second pig replied, his words sharply edged, the voice of a creature failing to hide his fear. “I have faith that it will stand.”

“Let’s put that faith to the test.”

The wolf stepped back and took a deep breath. The wind was a great power within her, a living, surging, seething thing. Then she blew.

The house shook. Shutters rattled in their frames. Joints creaked under the strain. The wolf kept blowing determinedly, her breath the full force of the elements.

“I told you,” the pig shouted over the howling wind. “I said that it-”

With a splintering crash, the front door flew in, wrenching away half the doorframe. Timbers around it buckled and broke. Splinters whirled. Walls fell. The roof went tumbling across the street.

The pig tried to run but the wolf was faster. Paws pinned him in the mud. She smelled the blood seeping from a hundred splinter wounds.

“I don’t want to die,” the pig whimpered.

“And I don’t want to be hungry,” the wolf said, a moment before she sank her teeth in.

When she was done, she wiped the blood from her muzzle with the back of her paw. That had been good. The carpenter had more flesh on him. But still she hungered for something more.

She approached the brick house, standing tall amid the scattered straw and pulverised planks. The third pig looked down at her from a crenellated turret on the northeast corner.

“You think this can protect you?” the wolf asked, licking her lips.

“I bloody well hope so” the pig replied. “I spent half my fortune on it.”

The wolf took a deep breath, her chest expanding, her body flooding with the wind’s power. Then she blew.

The wolf’s breath battered at the brickwork, blowing dust from the mortar and whistling through the roof tiles.

The house stood firm.

The wolf frowned, took another deep breath, and blew gain.

The wind was a vast force pounding at the house. The turret trembled and the pig clung on with gritted teeth. A chimney pot shattered in the street.

But still the house stood.

The wolf growled in frustration. This wasn’t how it was meant to work. She blew, houses fell, pigs got eaten. That was the way of the world.

She took another breath, the deepest she had ever known, sucking in air until she felt she would explode. And then she blew.

The tower wavered. The pig crouched in terror behind the battlements. The front door rattled in its frame like the battering of hail on a frozen pond. The wolf blew and blew until there was nothing left in her and she lay panting in the dirt.

Still the house stood.

The pig peered down from his tower, drew out a cigar and lit it with a gold-plated lighter. He grinned and blew a smoke ring.

The wolf forced herself up onto her paws. Her head hung in shame and her belly rumbled.

“You win,” she growled. “I’ll go.”

“Why the rush?” the pig said. “I know a way you can stay here and still be well fed.”

“Stop taunting me,” the wolf snapped. “We both know you’re not coming out to be eaten.”

“True,” the third pig said. “But you see those windmills I had built on the hill? They could feed quite a community. Lots of hard workers for my new factory. Lots of succulent little piggies for you. Offer them bread and jobs and not too much death and they’ll come from miles around. All I need to make those mills work is a little gust of wind…”

***

This story started out with a simple writing exercise and ended up going all Animal Farm. Who would have thought it from an old lefty like me?

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.’

The Whale Yard – a historical short story

John approached the whale yard at dawn, like he did every day. The sun was rising over Whitby, a golden disk emerging from the grey of the North Sea, silhouetting the fishing boats and casting the houses in a rich and warming light.

John felt that warmth too, soaking through him, giving him a moment of happiness despite the smell of whale oil heavy all around. For that moment he smiled.

Then he stepped into the yard.

Whale sculpture, Pannett Park, Whitby

A whaling ship had come in yesterday, the Venerable Sue, with a whale’s jaw tied high on the mast to signal a successful hunt. The crew had brought out heaps of blubber, bones, and meat, and carried it all to the yard for processing. Somewhere along the line money must have changed hands, because the Sue’s crew had made merry in the taverns after dark. John’s pay would come at the end of the week, after he’d cleaned those bones and boiled the blubber, enough to keep him fed and warm and sheltered. A decent living for a humble man.

Matthew was in the boiling house already, lighting fires. John helped him stoke the flames then slide slices of blubber into the great iron pots where the oil was rendered. Soon, the building was thick with the smell of it, a smell that clung to John’s clothes just as it clung to the yard long after the fires went out.

“Do you ever wonder what else you could have done?” Matthew asked as they stirred the pots.

“This is what I do,” John said. “A good job for good pay.”

“Didn’t you ever want to be a sailor or a preacher or something like that?”

John shook his head. “Just this.”

More men had arrived and were helping with the rendering. John stepped out into the yard, to help scrape the bones. It was messy work, but satisfying somehow, making things clean and ready for sale.

The sun was at its peak. Soon it would sink towards the sea and another day would end, another few pennies earned amid the smell of rendering oil.

*

John approached the whale yard at dawn. The sun was somewhere behind the clouds, the houses and fishing boats cast in a soft, pale light. It soothed his spirit, for better or for worse. Hard to feel excited on such a day.

They were still working through the haul from the Venerable Sue. John and Matthew lit the fires and put the pans on while they waited for the others to arrive. Soon the smell was there, familiar and grotesque, as inescapable as breathing. John gagged as a thick cloud of it clawed at his throat.

He sighed in relief as they stepped out of the boiling house and headed for the bones. Soon, his hands would be sticky with fat and half-dried blood, but at least the bones would be clean.

“You alright?” Matthew asked, peering at him.

“Fine,” John said, and it almost felt true. But there was a hollowness inside him, something that even cleaning bones couldn’t mend. A feeling he couldn’t describe or explain, but that made him feel as though he was falling into himself, tumbling forever into nothing.

He looked over at Matthew, who had pulled out a scraping knife and set to work.

“I don’t know what I’d be,” John said.

“Eh?” Matthew looked up, confused.

“If I wasn’t here, I don’t know what I’d be. Don’t know if I can be anything else.”

“Good thing you like it here then, eh?” Matthew gestured at the heaps of bones and the boiling house, dark and greasy smoke trickling from its door.

John hesitated a long time before he answered.

“Does it matter if I like it?” he asked. “It’s what I’ve got.”

The sun peered through a thin patch in the clouds, white and washed out, a cold and uncaring eye. They cleaned the bones and the day dragged on.

*

John approached the whale yard at dawn. White clouds were drifting through a blue sky, casting patches of shadow across the town. Moments of warmth and coolness passed over John as he stood at the gate of the yard, stuck in the moment before going in.

This was what he did, a good job for good pay. But even that thought couldn’t fill the hollow inside, or stop the bile rising in his throat at the thought of stepping once more into the boiling house. He could still smell its stench on him from yesterday. No matter how hard he tried, he never got clean.

He looked out across the town. A merchant ship was loading at the docks. Fishermen were heading to sea. In the shipyard, carpenters repaired a coal barge. He couldn’t imagine doing any of those things.

He didn’t have to imagine working in the whale yard. He knew what it was like, knew how it had been for all these years, knew what it would be like today and tomorrow and for the rest of his life, a clinging stink of oil and hands sticky with gore and an emptiness inside him.

He imagined himself walking, not towards anything, just away from the yard. It was like letting go of one those great lumps of blubber, dropping it into the pan and feeling himself step lightly away.

It was all he could imagine.

It was enough.

The sun came out from behind a cloud as John turned and walked away into a cool fresh breeze.

***

I don’t often associate Britain with whaling, but it was big business in the 18th and 19th centuries, providing everything from oil to parts for corsets. Whitby, on the Yorkshire coast, became a significant whaling centre, with yards processing the dead whales as they were brought in and it sounds like ghastly work. I hope some of the people there really did get to walk away from it.

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.

***

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.