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.

Chrome and Sandstone – a flash science fiction story

Sergeant Otieno stared down the scope of the targeting laser. Despite the miles between them, she could easily make out the heavily armed androids on the hillside opposite, their chrome skin gleaming with menace. They stalked between heaps of weather-worn sandstone, some ruin from the days of the planet’s first settlers, treating it all like it was just one more heap of rocks. The sight of those machines made a vein in her forehead throb, but she focused on the task in hand. She set the targeter on its tripod, checked the view again, and pressed the button on its side.

Ruins

Private Graves pressed the long-range radio to his ear, then nodded.

“Bombardment in ten,” he whispered.

They sat in the silence they had shared on so many covert missions, waiting for destruction to rain down.

Rocks rattled on the hillside behind them. Otieno spun around, pistol in hand, ready to take down whatever tin can son-of-a-bitch had found them. Instead, she found herself facing a human.

The woman was dressed in loose, dusty clothing. A trowel hung from a hook on her belt.

“The fuck are you?” Otieno hissed.

“Professor Hana Taslimi,” the woman said, extending a hand. “I’m here with the historical preservation project.”

“The what?”

“We’re trying to protect historical remains from the war. And you’re here to bomb the androids across the valley, aren’t you?”

“That’s classified. Now get down on the ground.”

Taslimi sank to her knees and put her hands behind her head. She was strangely calm for a woman with a gun pointed at her.

“Please, don’t do this,” she said. “Those ruins are unique. Destroy them and we might never truly understand the early expansion era.”

“Let those tin cans win and they’ll turn humanity to mulch. What good are ruins then?”

“Can’t you wait for the androids to move and then target them? We don’t need to lose the ruins.”

“This is the most we’ve ever caught in one camp. Can’t miss that shot.”

“They might leave together.”

“‘Might’ isn’t enough.”

“Please, sergeant. Look at what you’re destroying.”

It was hard to resist the passion in the professor’s voice. Besides, what harm would it do to look?

Otieno pulled out a scope and stared across the valley to the ruins. Now that her attention wasn’t focused on the androids, she took in more of what surrounded them. The stones were intricately carved, some with abstract patterns, others with fragments of an image. It showed people in some sort of uniform, though it was hard to make out the details with the stones tumbled apart by time. The artists had worked with the colours of the stones, so that their natural variations added to the patterns of the carvings. The effect was mesmerising.

Reluctantly, she lowered the scope and looked back at the professor.

“It’s all very pretty,” Otieno said. “And I’m sure it’s important history. But history doesn’t win wars.”

“I see.”

Taslimi’s shoulders slumped in defeat. She stared at the dirt for a long moment. Then something stirred in her and she looked up with renewed purpose, this time focused on Graves.

“Why is this war worth winning, private?” she asked.

Graves looked at Otieno, who nodded.

“Cause the tin cans gonna destroy us,” Graves said.

“So we’re fighting for our lives?”

“Hell yeah.”

“And what makes life worth living?”

“Shit, I don’t know. Good stuff. Food, drink, gettin’ laid. Real good music and them big damn pictures with all the awesome little details, you know?”

“So pleasure, and maybe art.”

“Shit, yes. And tin cans, they don’t care ‘bout that. They smash it all up, ‘cause they got no souls.”

“Which is why you have to stop them?”

“Hell yes.”

Taslimi turned her attention to Otieno and raised an eyebrow.

“I see what you did there,” Otieno said.

Graves drew his pistol and stared in alarm at Taslimi.

“She makin’ some move, sarge?” he asked.

“Think, private,” Otieno said. “Who smashes beautiful things?”

“Tin cans, sarge.”

“And what were we about to do to those beautiful ruins?”

“Shiiiit.” Graves’ eyes went wide. “She’s sayin’ we’re no better than tin cans!” He glared at Taslimi and raised his weapon. “You take that back.”

Taslimi’s eyes had also gone wide. This was the problem with smart people – sometimes they forgot how dumb and scared and defensive the rest of humanity could be.

Otieno sighed and holstered her pistol. She tapped the switch on the side of the targeter.

“Call the carrier,” she said to Graves. “Make sure they cancel that inbound strike. Tell them we’re waiting for the enemy to move out, to give us a better targeting opportunity.”

“But what if the tin cans don’t all go at once?” he said.

“Then maybe we don’t get them all. But if we fire now, we know what else it will cost us.”

***

This was inspired by a friend of mine whose work is focused on preserving history in real conflict zones. As far as I’m aware, she’s never faced down anyone with a gun to save some ruins, but it’s still bloody impressive work.

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.

Grave Wood – a flash fantasy story

Tohan crept into the grave wood, a basket of woven reeds strapped to his back, a thief in the most sacred of places. He hated coming here. Memories poured out of the shadows – images of Oela’s body, pale and wrapped in silk; of the mourners carrying her to her grave; of the goods laid with her and the dirt tumbling after, hiding her from him forever. He had shed tears enough to fill a lagoon. Yet here he was again, set on the most wretched of tasks.

Painted wooden grave statue

A figure loomed out of the trees, the first of the grave guardians. The statue’s wooden face had been worn smooth by the centuries, the features of the woman it protected obliterated by time. Only the eyes still had colour, a green that glowed in the darkness, a reminder that there was life after the body passed.

Tohan sidestepped around the guardian’s field of vision. With a creak of old wood, its head turned and he held his breath, then realised that he was standing on the grave it guarded. Another step and the movement stopped.

Tohan exhaled and walked on.

Deeper into the grave wood, his way became crowded with guardians. The oldest of the statues had been carved from living wood and the bodies they represented laid amid the roots. More recent guardians were carved in the town and brought here, to take a place wherever one could be found, to take up their eternal vigil.

He tried to tread a line between the graves, but they were packed tight together and his feet were those of a potter, not a dancer. Several times he stumbled, trod on sacred dirt, and saw the statues turn to face him. Every time, his heart raced and he quickened his step, afraid that if he stayed long enough at one grave then its guardian would turn on him.

At last he reached the place he sought. The grave was new, the paint on the guard clean and bold. Yellow skin, green eyes, black hair. Traces of gold embedded as jewellery around the neck.

There was a treasure buried here, its value beyond counting.

He knelt and drew a trowel from the basket on his back. With trembling hands, he dug into the loose dirt.

There was a creak.

The statue bowed its head to look down at Tohan.

He dug faster, using his hand as well as the trowel, casting aside great clods of earth. His chest felt tight, his muscles tense as bowstrings.

“Come on, come on…” he muttered as the dirt flew.

Another creak. The guard’s arms swung around.

If he wanted to stay free then he should back away now, abandon his prize and the statue guarding it. But he couldn’t. Not now. Not ever.

He scrabbled frantically in the dirt. A nail tore loose but he barely noticed the pain.

The guardian leaned closer. Cold yellow hands gripped Tohan’s shoulders.

“Robber,” a rumbling voice intoned. “Despoiler.”

“Please,” Tohan mumbled, thrusting his hands deeper, feeling desperately for the thing he sought. “Please, I need this.”

He felt damp silk and the cold, unyielding flesh of the fresh corpse. His fingers brushed a leather cord.

“Criminal,” the guard intoned as it tightened its grip and pulled.

The magic of the grave wood was far stronger than Tohan. He was dragged up. He tightened his fingers around the cord, which resisted for a moment and then came.

“Robber!” the guard said, louder this time. Soon, people from the town would hear. They would find him, judge him, know his weakness.

Tears ran through the mud dappling Tohan’s cheeks.

He held up the cord and saw the pendant hanging there, a clay model of a boat, its blue enamel chipped. The first gift he had made for Oela, one she had worn every day since, right into the grave.

“Please,” Tohan whimpered. “I need something of hers. Some token to remember her by. Something to tell me that I’m not alone.”

He looked up into that face, carved with Oela’s long nose, her narrow brow, her broad smile. In place of her eyes, those shining green points, strange and yet familiar. His tears ran until they fell onto the wooden arms that gripped him so tight.

“Alone,” the statue said, its voice soft.

It lowered Tohan to the ground and let go. Painted hands shovelled dirt back into the grave, but made no attempt to take the pendant.

“Thank you,” Tohan whispered.

He stumbled back a step, one hand rubbing at his eyes, the other clutching his precious treasure. Then he turned and walked away through the grave wood.

The guards watched him every step of the way.

***

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 Art of the Pollaxe – a flash historical story

Armour plates clanked as Harry strode into the training yard and faced his opponent. His father had paid good gold for this man to come from Burgundy, allegedly for Harry’s training. But as far as Harry could see, it was one more way of holding him back.

“Defeat Sir Jean with the pollaxe just once,” his father had said, “and then you can go to the French tournaments.”

What Harry heard was “You’ll never be good enough.”

He would show them. He’d out-fought every other young noble in the north of England. He could beat some upstart foreigner.

“Ready?” Sir Jean called out.

“Ready,” Harry replied.

He snapped his visor down and raised his pollaxe, base forward, so that the pointed steel queue faced Sir Jean. The Burgundian did the same and they advanced towards each other.

Harry brought the pollaxe around and there was a crack as the weapons met. He followed that first feint with another, lower, then pivoted the weapon around for a swift, hard swing at Jean’s head.

Sir Jean stepped nimbly aside, brought his pollaxe around, and knocked Harry into the oak rail at the side of the yard. The force of the blow shook him and he had to pause to steady himself.

“One to me,” Sir Jean said brightly.

Harry clenched his teeth and attacked again. He knocked Sir Jean’s pollaxe aside, feinted left and right, then stabbed at his face.

Again a miss as Sir Jean darted clear in his light German armour.

With a growl, Harry swung his pollaxe around, aiming to stagger his opponent through brute force. But Jean deflected the blow and hooked Harry’s ankle with the head of his weapon. Harry crashed to the ground and the wind was knocked out of him.

“Two to me,” Sir Jean said.

Cursing under his breath, Harry pushed himself upright. He needed this win. He wouldn’t be dictated to by his father, left to rot around the castle.

He almost gave in to instinct and flung himself straight at Sir Jean, but years of practice had taught him better. Instead, he feinted low, as if intending to imitate the knight’s last move, jabbed left, then swung the head of the weapon hard at Jean’s shoulder.

In a flash, Jean hooked the head of his pollaxe behind Harry’s and tugged. Harry lost his grip, stumbled, and found the queue of Jean’s weapon pressing against his throat.

“Three to me.”

Jean stepped back and raised his visor. He was barely even sweating.

“You want to win too much,” he said.

“Of course I want to win! That’s the whole point.”

“But to try to win now, you keep doing the same thing. Feint, feint, attack. Feint, feint, attack.”

“Different attacks.”

“Same pattern.”

“Not this time.”

Harry charged, pollaxe raised. Jab, swing, jab, swing, swing, feint, hook at Sir Jean’s weapon, except the weapon wasn’t there. Something slammed into Harry’s leg and he fell to the ground, his shin throbbing.

“I give in,” Harry said, flopping in the dirt. “You’re better than me. I’m not getting to France.”

“Stop trying so hard to win,” Sir Jean said, reaching out a hand. “Pay attention to how you lose.”

“That’s stupid.”

“How else will you learn to win like me, if not by seeing how I beat you? You want to win when you get to France, no?”

Harry imagined himself in a sunbaked tilting yard, crowds of nobles watching as he knocked out some foreign titan, women gazing at him with wide eyes. They all cheered his name.

He grabbed Sir Jean’s hand and hauled himself to his feet. Armour clanked as he backed away, raised his weapon, and took a fighting stance.

“Come on, then,” he said, grinning. “Teach me how to lose.”

***

As I’ve mentioned before, one of the great things about living in Leeds is going to the Royal Armouries to watch the reenactors. A display of pollaxe fighting became the inspiration behind this little 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.

Building the Phoenix – a flash sci-fi story

Garbage lay across the land, torn bin bags and abandoned appliances as far as the eye could see. A trove of wonders from the High Age, exposed by a storm that had blasted by two days ago, smashing buildings and ripping furrows through the earth. Toke had spent a frantic forty-eight hours digging through it all – mysterious motors full of puzzling parts, shining cloth that had survived barely stained, and tiny plastic sculptures of the old gods. His heart had skipped as he bounded across the heaps, pulling out tubes and wires, gears and circuit boards.

Now he collapsed onto a pile of black sacks, which expelled a musty and nauseating air. He’d found almost all the pieces he needed for his machine, but he was still missing a second condenser, and without it, the chemical processor would never be complete. This was how it always ended – succeed or fail, no machine lived up to his dreams.

“Hey Toke!” Froy appeared around a mound of white metal boxes. She stopped by the cart, fed the mule a wrinkled apple, and went to look at the processor. “Still not finished it, huh?”

“Do I look finished?” Toke kicked at a rusted can.

“I don’t know, but you’ll do this. You’re like the phoenix, always rising from the ashes.”

“The what?”

“It’s this thing I found in a book. I think it’s a bird they used to have, back in the High Age. When things go bad, it keeps coming back, see?”

“Unless you can find a condenser, this project’s never coming back.”

Froy pulled a curling length of tube from her bag.

“Might this help? I’ve seen it in old condenser diagrams. It could plug in here.”

She opened a valve on the side of the processor and pressed the pipe against it. Oil leaked out of the gap, thick and dark, with a sweet yet unsettling scent.

“Stop that!” Toke leapt to his feet, pushed Froy back, and slapped the valve shut. “Now I’m going to have to trade for machine oil again. Do you have any idea how much that costs?”

“Sorry.” Froy stepped back and hung her head. “Just trying to help.”

Toke closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and then opened them again.

“It doesn’t matter,” he said. “I can’t find the parts I need anyway.”

“Then make the parts you’ve got do more.”

“That’s not how…”

Toke’s voice trailed off. Did Froy have a point? If he stood the condenser on end then he could use some piping and a gravity feed to send the chemicals round again. It wasn’t as quick as two condensers, but it might just do the job.

“Grab that side,” he said. “Let’s get this off the cart, quick.”

They got the apparatus up on end, with its outlet pipes stood in a pair of old buckets, like dented steel feet. Rust flaked away from sections of metal to reveal the pockmarked plates beneath, while other parts shone in the sunlight, smooth surfaces lovingly burnished to a bright sheen.

“Give me that.” Toke snatched Froy’s length of pipe, unwound it, and opened up the side of the machine. He whistled as he worked, replumbing the interior to a new design. For a while he was lost in a world of moving parts, only to emerge half an hour later, oil-stained and grinning, and slam the hatch shut.

He practically bounced his way to the cart, retrieved a drum of sludge taken from a High Age factory, poured it into the processor’s inlet, and flipped a switch.

These were the moments Toke lived for. When fragments of ancient machinery stirred for the first time in centuries, combined by the careful instincts of the junker’s craft. When dead devices were reborn as something new.

The processor clunked and whirred as the drum inside it spun into action. The whole machine vibrated. There were glugs of chemicals streaming through the pipes.

At last, the first extracts emerged from the outlets, with the distinct and promising smell of oil.

“That’s it!” Toke shouted. “We’ve got it!”

Fire flashed in one bucket and then the other.

“No no no no no!” He grabbed a blanket from the cart and flapped at the flames. The blanket, already soaked with oil, caught fire, and he flung it away. Smoke was pouring from the processor. The whole thing was shaking as it lifted from its buckets on blasts of bright billowing flames.

Froy shot a hand out and switched off the machine. The thuds, glugs, and vibrations stopped. As the flow of chemicals died, so did the fires, and the processor settled back into its buckets with a thunk.

“Ruined.” Toke stared, open-mouthed, at the blackened remains of his work.

“I’m sorry,” Froy said, brushing soot from her sleeve. “Maybe this isn’t your phoenix. But your next project will take flight, I’m sure.”

“Will what now?”

“It’s that phoenix again. It flies out of the ashes, see?”

“Flies out of the ashes…”

Toke looked at the blackened tubes protruding from the chemical processor. It had lifted off while those fires were blazing, had almost taken flight like machines from the myths of the High Age. He had never dreamed of anything so grand, and yet…

He flung his arms around Froy.

“This is it!” he exclaimed. “No more moving from one piddling project to the next. If it takes my whole life, I’m taking us back to the heavens.”

He pointed at the sky, his face feverish with excitement.

“Are you OK?” Froy asked, her brow furrowing.

“I’m more than OK. You and me, Froy, we’re going to build a phoenix!”

***

This story came out of a date.

That might seem like an odd start, given that it’s about two people rummaging around in refuse, but when you go on a date with someone who works in environmental academia, certain issues come up. You start thinking about the damage we do to the planet, how people in the future will cope with it all, and how anyone might recover from the mess we make.

That sort of conversation can be a downer, but I’m a great believer in human potential, in the fact that we can rebuild out of pretty much anything, given time and determination. And so came this story, in which two humans try to rise out of the refuse.

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.

Commentary on The Astrolabe

This month sees my story “The Astrolabe” published in Bards and Sages Quarterly, a magazine that’s played host to several of my efforts. It’s great to see this fantasy tale see the light of day.

Like “The Well of Vengeance”, which I wrote about last week, “The Astrolabe” took a while to find its home. Unless you’re a really high profile writer, this is a common experience. Stories face a string of rejections before they’re eventually accepted, so that the experience can be as much about relief as excitement. “Thank goodness,” thinks the poor author, “someone loves my word baby!”

In this case, the word baby is about an admiral on a sailing ship. She’s a somewhat unusual admiral, in that she’s also a bird, as are her crew. That image of birds sailing a ship was one that had appeared in my head and I found immensely appealing, turning it into a story about mutiny, duty, and trying to stay the course.

Because the idea of bird sailors was so appealing to me, it wasn’t until I asked friends to read the story that they pointed out the obvious flaw – why would birds even need to sail? After all, they can fly.

It was a question I had to think over and then make a nod to in the story, so that it didn’t draw the same reaction from paying readers. My answer is to do with war and transporting cannons, which tied in nicely to the story’s main conflict.

That conflict is around a gift. It’s not been uncommon throughout history for military leaders on opposite sides to admire and even like each other, to maintain relationships across the battle lines. Sometimes it ends in tragedy, sometimes reconciliation. It made for an unusual focus for a war story, one I was keen to explore. But as in so many relationships, for Admiral Concesa, not everything is as it seems. And there a story is born…

I hope you enjoy reading “The Astrolabe“, whatever your reasons for thinking that birds might sail. And if you already read and enjoyed 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.’



Submarine Pirates and Silkworm Smugglers – a flash steampunk story

The junk steamed through the waters towards Indonesia, its paddle wheels leaving a churning wake behind. Out on deck, the crew were gathered around the automaton Susan had bought in Beijing, the one that excused her investment in engine oil and protective wrappings. They laughed as the mechanical dragon danced jerkily across the deck, oblivious to the smaller box hidden in Susan’s trunk, the one worth thousands of these high price novelty trinkets.

Captain Chao waved to Susan.

“So good!” he said in Mandarin. “Your husband will be delighted with his present.”

Susan smiled, nodded, and straightened her skirts. That imaginary husband was such a convenient cover, but he could sometimes be a hindrance. Chao had a roguish charm and she might have enjoyed his company more if not for the need to maintain her cover.

Suddenly, the sea in front of them churned. Jointed metal tentacles parted the waves, followed by the bulbous brass head of a giant squid. A smokestack on the back opened to let out a billowing black cloud.

Chao ran to the wheel and turned the junk, but they were already too close. The squid wrapped its tentacles around the prow. Wood buckled and splintered as it squeezed.

“Stop your engines and we won’t sink you,” a voice announced, made tinny by a speaking trumpet.

While Chao flung back a lever, Susan hid beneath the heap of crumpled canvas that was the junk’s emergency sails. The weight was oppressive, but better that than be taken for ransom by pirates.

As she peered out from beneath the canvas, men and women clambered out of a hatch in the squid’s head and down its arms. They wore loose, practical cloths and carried cutlasses and pistols. Chao knelt before them and started pleading for his ship.

As the lead pirate bent closer to Chao, Susan saw a symbol embroidered on his tunic – a yellow chrysanthemum. She smiled and shrugged off the canvas. This was no mere pirate raid.

The pirates looked up as Susan emerged, hands raised. She had pulled a book from her pocket and held it open, revealing an image of that same chrysanthemum. This wasn’t where she’d expected her contact to turn up, but it was certainly one way to avoid taking goods through customs.

“Mrs Talbot, I presume,” the pirate captain said in English. “You have them?”

“One moment.”

She went to the back of the junk, where her trunk was stored. From within a pile of petticoats she pulled a bamboo box the side of a briefcase. Holding it carefully in both hands, she walked slowly back towards the pirates.

The captain reached out, opened the lid, and grinned like a wolf who’d just got into the meadow.

“Mechanical silkworms.” He stared at the dozen intricately geared tubes. “The first to get past the Chinese authorities. We’re going to be worth a fortune.”

“We should go.” Susan shut the lid. “Any delay increases the risk of capture.”

“Indeed.” The captain turned to his men. “Kill this lot and we’ll be going.”

“What?” Susan stared at him in horror. Chao, who spoke no English, was looking up at them with a frown.

“Got to cover our trail,” the pirate captain said.

“It is covered! I’ve done everything under a fake identity and you’re sailing a submarine disguised as a sea monster. These people aren’t a threat to us.”

“Can’t be too careful.”

The captain drew a pistol and pointed it at Chao’s head. Chao whimpered. Susan stiffened, took a deep breath, and turned away.

In two strides she was at the side of the ship, holding the case out over the waves.

“If you hurt any of them,” she snapped, “our prize drops into the deep.”

“You wouldn’t dare.” The pirate turned his gun on her.

“Try me. And if you shoot, you know I’ll drop it.”

“You were hired for a job.”

“Not for one involving killing.”

“Shows how naive you are. Now quit this nonsense and get over here. We’re on a timetable.”

Susan’s heart raced. If she gave in, Chao and his people would die. There was no way she could fight back against all those weapons. So how to get out of this?

“There’s air in this box,” she said. “Not enough to stop it sinking, but enough to slow it down. In one minute, I’m going to drop it overboard. If you want any chance of catching it, I suggest that you get into your machine right now.”

“You wouldn’t dare.”

“Fifty seconds.”

The pirate snarled and waved to his crew.

“Everyone back, quick!”

There was a mad scramble up the jointed tentacles and through the hatch. A lid closed over the smokestack and the squid released the junk.

“Time’s up!” Susan shouted.

She dropped the box just as the squid vanished from view. There was a splash and the treasure she’d come all this way for sank beneath the waves. Maybe the pirates would catch it, maybe they’d be too slow. Either way, they would be busy for a while.

Susan gripped the rail with trembling hands and took a deep, slow breath.

Chao got to his feet and walked over to Susan.

“I don’t know what you did,” he said in Mandarin. “But thank you, Mrs Talbot.”

“I’m not really a Mrs,” Susan said, turning to look back across the deck. The dragon automaton was still wobbling around, ignored by the pale and wide-eyed crew. “I don’t suppose you know anyone who would like to buy a dragon, do you? And maybe somewhere I could hide out for a month? I think I need to make a new life plan.”

***

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then check out my collection of fantasy stories, By Sword, Stave, or Stylus. Or you can sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

And for the steampunk lovers:

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 Well of Vengeance – What’s This All About Then?

This month, one of my fantasy stories, “The Well of Vengeance”, sees light of day in Swords and Sorcery Magazine. It’s a dramatic tale of suffering, endurance, and justice set amid the sands of the Middle East, during the Roman Empire. But where did this story come from?

Monsters

I wrote the original version of this story years ago, in response to a call for stories featuring gigantic monsters. I was looking for something different from the usual apes, lizards, and dinosaurs, and thought that a massive scorpion might be interesting. There’s something sinister about a scorpion of any size, but pair its poison with vast claws and you’ve got something really deadly.

Plus what child of the ’80s didn’t think Scorponok was kind of cool?

While a giant scorpion made for a neat image, it wasn’t going to be much use as a protagonist, or give me emotional substance to work with. For that, I needed a protagonist, and a setting for them to emerge from.

Wells

This story’s title comes from the place it’s all heading towards, a source of water amid the harsh desert sands, an oasis that brings the hope of survival, but also the threat of bloody revenge.

This was inspired by something from the Bible. I don’t remember quite how I stumbled across it, but there was a section talking about wells with symbolic names. The wells were so important for surviving in an arid climate that they gained special associations and a mystique around them. They represented ideas.

One of the most common tricks of fantasy writing is to make the symbolic literal. In the world of this story, wells have significance and meaning not just because of the water, but because of the spirits they embody. The Well of Hope might be a place that brings up bright thoughts. The Well of Vengeance, on the other hand, will stir visitors to examine their grudges and indulge in dark deeds.

That gave me a setting, an antagonist, a title, even a motive for the protagonist – get to vengeance, both the well and the action. But who could that protagonist be?

A Woman on a Mission

Here’s where I get to my limitations as a writer.

A decade ago (blimey, that time has flown past!), when I first started on this story, I’d just become concerned with showing more women in my stories. My then-partner had pointed out that I habitually wrote about men, and I wanted to balance that out. So I created Esther, the protagonist of this story, a young woman on a mission to right old wrongs.

That’s not a bad thing in itself, but there is a problem with it. In trying to show women as empowered, it’s not uncommon to show women who have been hurt by men and are now out for revenge. It centres their motivation on male characters and emphasises men’s effect on women. That’s not bad in itself, but doing it too often – which is arguably a thing – doesn’t help in better representing truly empowered and independent female characters.

This story is part of a pattern that I’m not entirely comfortable with. An attempt at empowerment becomes undermining and more than a little cliched. If I could change anything about the story, it would be that.

Sticking With It

That being the case, why didn’t I rewrite the story?

Honestly, because I’m better off writing new ones. It’s great that someone liked this enough to publish it, but I’d rather create something new than keep recreating my old work. I’m full of ideas and skills I didn’t have a decade ago. I’m moving forward.

I hope you enjoy reading “The Well of Vengeance“, limitations and all. No story is perfect, and I’m pleased with a lot of what I did on this one.

And if you already read and enjoyed 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.’

Inside the Alchemists’ Sewers – a flash fantasy story

A sewer of rough medieval stonework

Greb stood, pick in hand, grinning at the white, glistening barrier that blocked the tunnel.

“Look at that fat, Jonesy,” she said. “We’re going to be rich.”

“We’ll make a shilling apiece,” I said, wading through sewage to find a safe nook for my lantern. “Same as every tunnel we clear.”

“This is different.” Greb spoke in an awed whisper. “We’re near the alchemists’ district.” She ran a finger through the fat, then held it up near the lantern. Blue and red flecks gleamed. “Grimble dust. Frankincense. Maybe a little demon horn. I tell you, if we hit a rich seam then we’re set for life.”

I smiled and shook my head as I started shovelling. In Greb’s mind, every blockage was going to be the one. If the sewer was clogged with grease from the restaurants near the jewellers’ district then we’d find gold shavings and lost opals in there. Beneath the abattoirs we’d dig out priceless layers of unicorn fat. For all her dreams, we were still clearing sewers for the guilds at a shilling a time.

“We’re nearer the bath houses than the alchemists,” I said, filling the cart with shovelfuls of wobbling white mess. Two minutes in and the shovel was already slipping against my greasy gloves. It was going to be a long day.

I was on cart duty that morning. Greb thought I should enjoy these trips to the surface, the chance for a breath of fresh air. She was wrong. As long as I was down in the sewers I could get used to the stink, almost forget about it. Going to the surface meant starting afresh, being assaulted again and again by the stench of rot and sewage. Cart duty left my stomach heaving for hours.

As I returned from the fourth load, I found Greb leaning into a hole she’d dug down one side of fat-filled tunnel.

“You were right about the bath houses.” She turned to me, a grin on her face and blue-green grease full of tiny scales coating her hand. “Look, run-off from the mermaid pools. It’s the oil that protects their skin.”

“Lovely.” I started filling the barrow.

“Jonesy, you don’t understand.” There was a wild look in her eyes. “This stuff lets you breath underwater. It’s practically impossible to harvest, but if it’s been pooling down here then we can collect it. We’re rich, man! This time next week we’ll be sleeping in silk sheets and dining on unicorn steak.”

“Of course we will,” I said, wearily loading the cart.

Grabbing her spade, Greb hacked at the side of the fat plug, pushing herself into the gap she was making. Thick deposits wobbled to her right. For a moment, I thought I saw tiny bubbles escaping from the fat. I allowed myself to believe, just a little, in Greb’s wild hope.

“I can see more,” she said. “This is it!”

“Stop being an idiot, Greb,” I called out. “That whole section could-”

It was too late. A trembling layer of fat fell into Greb’s tunnel, and then another. The plug collapsed in on her narrow space, engulfing her.

My heart was in my throat as I rushed forward and dug desperately at the gleaming fat. I’d seen other tunnellers drown in the stuff, and I’d rather risk breaking Greb’s arm with my shovel than leave her to that fate.

There was no time to clear the whole deposit. I just dug another tunnel in towards Greb, praying to all the gods that it wouldn’t collapse too quickly. Fat trembled all around me, thick and glistening.

After a minute I saw a hand, fingers pushing towards me through a clear layer of coagulated grease. I thrust my hand in, closed it around her wrist and pulled, but she slipped from my grasp.

Unable to get a grip, I tore off my gloves and tried again, hoping that my fingers, not as infused with fat, might keep hold. I had to squeeze tight not to lose my grip on Greb, and she did the same, fingers digging painfully into my arm. I heaved and she wriggled towards me, the fat trembling at her desperate movements.

With a terrible squelching sound, the blockage fell in on me.

For a moment I was trapped in darkness beneath the thick goo. Then the whole mass shook. Chunks of fat were torn away all around me as the blockage broke, not in the controlled way we had planned, but suddenly, chaotically, swept away on a tide of long-contained sewage.

Still clinging to each other’s arms, Greb and I were buffeted by waves of filth. I would have thrown up, but that would have meant opening my mouth. My head hit the wall and it was all I could do not to yell in pain.

Deprived of air, my mind whirled. I fumbled around with one hand for my shovel, with no idea how I might use it, only that it was the tool I had.

Instead of the wooden handle I found a current of heavy grease running beneath the sewage. Tiny scales brushed my fingers.

Greb’s grip on me was loosening, her fingers going limp. But I remembered what she had told me about mermaid grease. I pictured those tiny bubbles escaping from the fat around it. In desperation, I closed my hand around a few of those oily scales and thrust them into my mouth.

There was a fizzing as the scales touched my tongue. Air expanded into my mouth. I drew an excited breath.

Sewage ran down my throat with the air. The taste of it, the stench of it, the greasy, lumpy texture of it mixed with the fizzing of the mermaid scales. Unable to stop myself, I vomited the whole mess back up. My throat burned as stomach acid streamed hot and acrid from my mouth.

My head was spinning. I could feel unconsciousness closing in. Dipping my hand into that low stream of fat, I dragged up another handful of scales.

This time I braced myself for what was to come. As I thrust the scales into my mouth, they started to fizz.

I opened my throat just a little. The taste of sewage was just as rank after vomit as it had been before. My stomach heaved, but I forced it to be still. I trickle of noxious air ran down my throat. My lungs inflated and my mind surged with life.

It was working!

Dragging Greb towards me, I found her face and thrust it into the mermaid grease. Her body felt corpse cold and dread gripped me in its icy fingers. But everything down there was cold. Perhaps there was a chance.

I prayed to the gods who had ignored me before.

It seemed that they accepted prayers when they weren’t for myself. Greb shuddered, heaved, and then sat up.

As the current of sewage kept flowing past us we sat in the dark, clinging to each other, breathing the tainted air that the mermaid scales were making in our mouths.

At last the currents began to settle. Still clutching each other’s hands, we fumbled through the darkness until we found a ladder. Slipping and sliding, we dragged ourselves up. An hour after the collapse we emerged, filthy, gasping for breath, and spitting mouthfuls of sewage.

I collapsed onto the cobbles, glad just to be alive.

“Look,” Greb croaked.

The grin on her face was at odds with my weariness and misery. I pulled myself up just enough to see the contents of the bottle she had pulled from her tunic.

It was full of clear grease and tiny, bubbling scales.

“You did it!” I exclaimed, suddenly indifferent to the filth soaking my skin. “We’re rich!”

“We did it,” Gleb replied.

I lay back in a puddle of sewage, stared up at the stars, and laughed.


In fantasy worlds, like the real world, not every job is glamorous. Pity poor Hercules clearing dung from the stables, or the sewer cleaner in any place and time.

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.’