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.’




Instructions for an Escape Pod – a flash scifi story

small space ship

Thank you for choosing the Tanahashi emergency escape pod. At Tanahashi Corp, your comfort and safety are our first concerns. In the event that your space transport develops a terminal fault or suffers from irreparable laser fire, please follow these simple step by step instructions.

Step 1: Securely close the hatch of your escape pod, ensuring that the vacuum seals align with the outer rim of the door.

Step 2: Fasten the seat belts across your legs and chest. These may feel a little restrictive, but there’s no need for concern. They are just a normal measure to address safety concerns raised in a recent negligence claim.

Step 3: Press the red button marked “Pod release”. You should hear a thud as your escape pod detaches from the stricken vessel. Your beacon will activate and you can await rescue.
If the pod does not detach, continue to step 4.

Step 4: It appears that your release clamps have become stuck in the body of the main vessel. There is no need to panic. All Tanahashi escape pods of the Deluxe edition and above are fitted with a backup release mechanism.
You did buy the Deluxe edition, didn’t you?
Please stay calm and continue to step 5.

Step 5: Pull the yellow lever below the pod release button. You should hear a loud hiss of escaping air, but there’s no need for alarm. This is simply your emergency oxygen reserves venting as they blast away the docking clamps. You won’t need that oxygen anyway if you can’t escape the ship.

Step 6: Your pod should safely float away from the stricken vessel. Your beacon will activate and you can await rescue.
If the pod remains attached to the vessel, and that vessel is still heading for a terminal disaster, continue to step 7.

Step 7: It appears that the release clamps have become jammed. If you survive, please return your escape pod to the nearest Tanahashi supplier, who will happily provide a replacement.
If you are a Tanahashi Executive using our Super Exec Model X, please continue to step 8.

Step 8: Reach under your seat. You will find a strap connected to the Thermal Removal Device, a unique feature of the Super Exec Model X Escape Pod. Please pull this lever.

Step 9: Your escape pod is now on fire, the flames consuming your body along with the remaining oxygen. Tanahashi Corp’s engineering department apologises for any inconvenience caused by your untimely demise. Next time, don’t try to replace our jobs with robots, you penny pinching corporate bastard.

***

This story was inspired by a creative writing exercise about writing an instruction manual by someone who wants a bad outcome. I have to admit, it was a lot of fun to write.

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.

Honest Work – a flash steampunk story

Jewellery box

“It’s for security,” Lady Winters explained. “I’ve had broaches stolen by servants in the past. I want a jewellery box that will jab anyone who tries to open it the wrong way.”

“It could make a noise instead,” I said. “A tiny clockwork alarm to scare them off and draw attention.”

“I’d rather draw a little blood, to make my point clear.”

“Aye, I get it.” It was an odd request, but I could follow the logic. It would certainly be an interesting challenge to craft, and I loved a challenge, the thrill of putting the pieces together. “Come back in a week, I should have something for you.”

#

Most people came to the artisans’ district on clear days. Lady Winters preferred to come in the smog, and returned a day late because of it. She said that she liked the shadows the buildings cast through the grey-brown gloom, but she never seemed to linger.

“I included something to clean the needle as it goes in and out,” I said, slowly raising the lid of the jewellery box. A needle emerged from a hidden hole in the cushioned interior.

“No cleaning,” Lady Winters said.

“It will help preserve the mechanism.”

“Yes, but…” She looked away to the left, as if gathering her thoughts. “I want the blood as evidence when I challenge the would-be thief. If the needle is cleaned it will be less effective.”

There were better ways to prove a case, but if there was one lesson I’d learnt as a maker of mechanisms, it was to give the customer what they wanted.

“I’ll adjust it,” I said. “Come back in two days.”

#

I sat over the box, carefully taking parts out and putting others in. Removing the cleaning mechanism was satisfyingly simple work that let my mind wander.

What Lady Winter was asking for didn’t quite make sense. I could have made a mechanism that would have stained the thief’s hands, proving their guilt far more effectively, but she’d refused it. The lady’s logic seemed needlessly cruel, but her behaviour showed a calm rationality. Like gears in a poorly made clock, the pieces didn’t fit together.

Could there be a different reason for wanting to stab whoever opened a jewellery box? Some sort of strange prank, perhaps?

It could be a way to deliver poison, but that was absurd. It would be obvious who the killer was, as they’d provided the box. Lady Winter herself would hang for it.

The shop bell chimed and Hooper, a steam mechanic from up the street, walked in amid a swirl of smog.

“You got time to fix a watch?” he asked.

“In a couple of hours,” I said. “I have to finish a job for Lady Winter first.”

“Ooh, one of the nobs gave you a job before they all left town,” Hooper said. “Very fancy.”

I frowned.

“What do you mean, left town?”

“Whole court’s gone to the country until the fog passes.” Hooper chucked me a newspaper. “You need to get your nose out of your gears and learn about the world.” He put his watch down on the counter. “I’ll be back tomorrow, yeah?”

#

“I wanted to share a drink before I go,” Lady Winter said. “To toast your remarkable accomplishments.”

She took two tin cups off my shelf, unscrewed the lid of a hip flask, and poured out measures of something sweet and heady smelling.

“But before we drink, could you show me how it works?” she said, nodding to the jewellery box.

“Of course.” I picked it up and started setting the mechanisms. “You know, I saw your picture in the paper yesterday.”

“They never quite get me right,” she said, smiling sweetly.

“Of course not,” I said, handing her the box. “They didn’t even know that you were in town, unlike all your friends.”

“I like to keep a low profile.”

“That’s not what the papers say.”

“Ha. Shall we drink?”

“In a minute. Try the box first.”

She pressed the switch which had previously disabled the stabber.

“Ow!” She dropped the box and looked down at her hand. The sweet calmness of her usual demeanour was gone. “What have you done, you little bitch?”

“A jabber with a set of inked needles. They tattooed my maker’s mark onto your palm. I didn’t want trouble in my workshop, so I told the authorities to look for someone who looks like Lady Winter, with that tattoo on their hand. Told them the person was a poisoner who’d commissioned a killing box.”

“Bare faced lies!”

“Perhaps. If you drink both those cups you poured, then I’ll tell them I was wrong.”

Her eyes narrowed.

“I could kill you now,” she said.

“Aye, then Hooper finds me in five minutes when he comes to fetch his watch. He raises the hue and cry and they start hunting you straight away. Or you can leave now and I’ll give you two hours head start.”

She looked at the cups, the box, her hand, and back to me.

“You should have been the assassin,” she said. “You have the cunning for it.”

“You should have been an artisan,” I said. “It’s honest work.”


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 Lovelorn Lawn – a flash scifi story

I loved my house. It had the perfect combination of rustic chic and high tech gadgets, like the wood burning stove that I could light remotely during my commute. Anti-static surfaces meant I never had to dust and the front garden was host to a parasite that kept the lawn neat. Low effort, high style, and total comfort. Go me!

Then came Valentine’s Day, when I walked out the front door to find a heart-shaped bald patch on the lawn. I pulled out my phone and called my most recent ex.

“What the hell have you done, Matt?” I yelled into the receiver.

“What?” he mumbled sleepily.

“My lawn, you dickhead. What have you done?”

“Whatever you’re screaming about, save it for someone who cares.”

The line went dead.

I was about to dial again when the lawn started moving. Blades of grass writhed and twitched, turning the heart shape into a number four, then the letter U. Finally, a cluster of buttercups came squirming across the grass then dropped at my feet like a tiny bouquet.

I rubbed my eyes as I tried to work out if I was even awake.

“Lawn?” I asked. “Did you just bring me flowers?”

The grass shifted and the bald patch became a smiling face.

“Thanks, I guess.”

I picked up the flowers. I could talk to the parasite’s manufacturers later and check if it was meant to act like this. For now, it would be nice to arrive at the office with flowers on Valentines Day.

*

At first, I didn’t mind that the company wouldn’t replace the parasite. It was sweet watching my lawn rearrange itself into smiley faces and delivering tiny clusters of flowers, all while keeping itself neatly trimmed. The night it delivered a pile of worms to my doorstep was a messy one, but what boy really understands romantic gifts?

Then I started seeing Jamie and things got weird. Every time he came over, a clump of the lawn died. He caught me out there in the morning talking to the grass, stroking its leaves and trying to reassure it that it still had a place in my life. One night we came home to find a pile of earth in the shape of Jamie’s face, the top caved in with a dirt axe.

“Either that lawn goes or I go,” he said.

I sighed. For all his flaws, Jamie was passable in bed and responded well to suggestions. But…

“The lawn completes my garden.”

“It’s a parasite!”

“Says the twenty-eight-year-old still living in his mum’s spare room.”

“You bitch.”

And that was that.

*

The next morning, I sat down with the lawn.

“You’re an important part of my life,” I said. “But this has to stop.”

A sad face appeared in the grass.

“I’m a woman, you’re a dirt-based parasite,” I explained. “It would never work out.”

The sad face turned into a Disney logo.

“Yes, I know about Beauty and the Beast,” I said. “But that’s different.”

Now a question mark and then, just as I was about to lose my temper, a winky face.

“Fine,” I said with a laugh. “One date. And if it doesn’t work out, you drop this. Agreed?”

The smiley face came back. That would have to count for a yes.

*

After a decade of dating men, I wasn’t surprised that my lawn arranged a better first date than most. It greeted me with roses from the flower bed, escorted me to a cushioned patch of moss under a tree, and used its own cold dirt to chill the bottle of wine I’d brought to see me through this. Even communicating in pictograms, it was a better conversationalist than Jamie or Trevor, the scrum-half I’d dated during my rugby fan phase. I laughed, I sighed, I brushed my fingers across the impeccably trimmed grass. It was as close to perfect as a date with a parasitic swarm intelligence could be.

“This has been lovely,” I said at last. “I have to go now.”

“WAIT.” The letters appeared amid the grass.

“Sorry, but it’s getting late.”

A sad face with a single tear.

“Really, this has been nice, but I have work tomorrow.”

The response was a series of images – the letter “I”, a heart shape, then a “U”.

“Seriously, you’re making this weird,” I said. “It’s only been one date.”

It was the first time I’d seen grass form animated images of a calendar counting away the months. Perhaps I should have been impressed, but instead I was getting annoyed.

“Look, it’s not you, it’s me. I’m a human and that’s not what a lawn parasite needs.”

The Disney logo appeared again.

“Enough with the Beauty and the Beast crap! This is real life.”

Frowny face.

I took a deep breath and forced a smile as Mrs Copperwheat from number twenty-two walked by with her dog.

“We’ve had the date,” I said once the coast was clear. “And I’m sorry, but there’s not going to be another. You said you would drop this if that happened, so are we OK?”

A sad face again, then a slowly emerging thumbs up.

“Alright,” I said. “Thank you for a lovely evening. Goodnight.”

*

I loved my house, but the company who provided the lawn parasite wouldn’t get rid of it. They didn’t care that it made inappropriate messages for months – first passive aggressive pleas for another date, then angry signs and images, then just patches of dead grass to punish me when I didn’t respond. According to them, it wasn’t their fault that I was living with an angry ex on the doorstep. After all, what sort of woman dates a parasite? Never mind that they’d made it what it was.

Reluctantly, I put my perfect house on the market. Someone else could deal with the lawn. I was going to find a new one, and this time I would buy a mower.

***

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***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

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

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

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

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

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is available now as a Kindle ebook via Amazon.

Fleeting Thoughts – a flash fantasy story

I make my way to the back room of the library, a place of dust and shadows, of leather bindings and musty pages. The cold and the quiet should be soothing after weeks in the summer city heat, but what should and what is stand apart, separated by the finest of hairs. Instead of calm, I feel tension, my mind stretched out like the skin of a drum. The clatter of a chair down the room is like a drummer beating an irregular rhythm on my soul.

I set my bag down on a table and make for the folklore shelves. Near to them, that chair shifts again, its weary wood creaking beneath the weight of the room’s other occupant. His face is hidden beneath the hood of a Nike sweatshirt, but I can see jagged, broken fingernails tapping against an old biography of Descartes.

Even with company, I can always lose myself in books. I scan the spines, torn between researching animal myths and wanting to crack open a volume of local ghost stories. If I think about it, I’m sure I can wind the two together. After all, that’s what I do – follow the paths of logic and imagination, turning separate facts into links in a chain.

I catch a glimpse of movement just too soon to avoid human contact. The hooded man reaches out for a book on the shelf in front of me. I flinch and as I do so my hand brushes against his.

The touch of those ill-kept, twisted fingers sends a shudder through me, followed a moment later by something else. A rush of thoughts – incidents, facts, and connections, knowledge I didn’t have before. I let out a childish laugh and take a step back, pondering one of the strange creatures I’ve seen, like an old engraving of Black Shuck and yet not. I can use that. It’s perfect for… for… for something.

Now the image is gone. I shake my head, as though I might somehow shake the thought loose. There was a dog, wasn’t there? Some dark creature? Something I felt excited for?

I look at the man in the hooded. He looks back with soft, empty eyes.

“I saw…” I frown, almost cursing myself out loud. “Did you put something in my head?”

He takes a step back, arms held wide, face a picture of innocence.

“What are you?” I stare at him. There’s a smoothness to his face that isn’t quite right, like an oversized glossy cover hiding the stained bindings of a hardback. The musty smell of old books turns sour in the air.

Why am I looking at this man? I thought I knew, but that knowledge drifts away like a dust mote through a sunbeam, vanishing into shadow. I look him up and down, trying to make sense of it all. He’s wearing trainers, jeans, a hoody. His face is unsettling, unfamiliar, ghostly pale. And what are those soft shoes that he’s wearing?

He reaches out and again there comes a wave of insight. Thoughts of who he is, where he has been, what he has seen. I try to catch them as they pass but they slip through me and are gone.
I’ve spent years pursuing the supernatural, but if I’ve read of something like him then I can’t remember it. I spool through memories, long lines of ghosts, fey beasts, and urban legends. None quite fits, but which is closest?

As I try to recall them again, there’s nothing there. My own memories have been carried away with his.

“Know me,” he whispers, reaching out again.

I step back, hit a chair, and fall across it, landing with a thud on worn floorboards.

My mind burns for lost knowledge like a drowning man yearns for air. I try to find the thoughts I still have, to connect the links in the chain, to hold them together. I cling to anything I can. The logo on his sweatshirt, that symbol of victory, of sportsmanship, of an ancient god, of a brand contorting conformity and defiance as if the two could be one, of…

Why am I staring at a white tick on red cloth? It’s just a swoosh. A nothing.

He leans over. I still remember enough to make my heart race and the breath catch in my throat. The harder I struggle to focus, the more thoughts flee me, like sand trickling through my hands.

I force myself to close my eyes. To find shelter in simplicity. To follow the path of the Buddha, of the ancient ascetics, of…

Then comes the end of the chain. There’s nothing here. Just an emptiness where the things that matter to me were.

I look up into dark eyes set amid a pale face.

For one last moment, I think.

And then…

* * *

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.

The Clockwork Cat – a flash steampunk story

13th March 1887

Never trust a salesman. I was explicitly told, when I subscribed to Professor Turnberg’s Cabinet of Wonders, that they would substitute other mechanicals for those in a likeness of animals, as per my directions. After all, if I wanted a pet I would have bought a pet. What I wanted was mechanical art, but when I opened this month’s box, I found inside a life size clockwork cat.

I spoke to the delivery man, of course, as he was departing with last month’s miniature train, ready to take it to the next subscriber. He promised that he would raise the issue with his superiors. I fully expect a response by the end of the week.

16th March

No reply from Turnberg’s. I wager the delivery man never even passed on my message. I shall write to his superiors to complain.

In the absence of another mechanical piece to adorn the drawing room, I have reluctantly unboxed and wound the cat. It stalks the floor as my mother’s dreaded Mister Snubbles once did, rubbing itself against the furniture and purring in its strange, mechanical voice. I will admit that the work is uncannily convincing, but in a model of a cat, I find that far from appealing.

18th March

During a visit for tea, Lady Kirby insisted that I name the cat, saying that I could not spend a whole month calling it “the beast”. After some consideration, I have settled for Bella – if I cannot have the beast I will have beauty, however unfitting that name is.

19th March

Bella is becoming almost as much trouble as a real cat. It roams the house and protests before any closed door, of which there are many, given its propensity for scratching antique furniture. The things is an infernal nuisance, but I cannot simply let it wind down and stop – what sort of house does not have a mechanical on display in this day and age?

21st March

Today, Bella brought me a dead rat it had caught in the kitchen.

A dead rat. On my writing desk. Disgusting.

I must admit, the sophistication of this feline mechanical is truly admirable. Between the hunting, the playing, and the rubbing against my legs, it is unsettlingly close to the real thing. I will be glad when it is gone.

25th March

Bella has taken to sleeping on my desk while I work. It is inconvenient, but allows me to better show her off when business associates come calling. Having such a fine mechanical can do my reputation no harm.

30th March

Today, Bella did not come to sleep on my desk. I should have been more productive, but instead found myself worrying that my prize mechanical might have come to harm. I eventually found her sleeping in a box in a spare room. Her little chest was rising and falling as she purred in her sleep. Truly a remarkable piece of art.

1st April

No Bella at my desk for the third day running. I was eventually able to lure her into the study with a mouse-shaped toy on a string, but then she caught the mouse, chewed it up, and tried to swallow it. Only swift intervention on my part saved her from with shredded cotton tangling her gears. I would not want to have to pay for damages when she is returned to Turnberg’s.

Now she is sleeping in a sunbeam on the rug. I have drawn a sketch of her there, just to keep my hand in with the old pencils.

6th April

Three nights ago, I forgot to close the bedroom door and Bella came in to sleep with me. Since then, she has become my companion every night, curled up by my feet, sometimes rising in the darkness to go and chase mice in the kitchen. After years on my own, it is strangely comforting to share a bed, even with a mechanical beast.

8th April

At last, a letter from Turnberg’s acknowledging their mistake. They have promised that, from now on, my monthly subscription will match my request for no animals. As compensation for their mistake, this month they will be sending me an intricate clockwork village from their elite subscribers list. I greatly look forward to impressing Lady Kirby with it when she comes for tea.

9th April

Bella is back on the desk, in a box I placed there for her.

I find myself having second thoughts about the clockwork village. Where will I even display something so fine with the house in its current state? Perhaps I should save it for another month.

10th April

Bella is due to be taken away in three days. Perhaps she can take her box with her.

11th April

I don’t think I have time to make space for the village. I will send a telegram to Turnberg’s asking them not to change my mechanicals this month. Just while I make some changes in the decor.

I have given Bella her own blanket at the bottom of the bed, to keep her off the other sheets when I’ve oiled her joints.

13th May

The delivery man came today with the second cat. I will be calling this one Bete. He and Bella have been watching each other warily across the study, but I am sure they will soon be firm friends.

Along with Bete came the first item in my altered subscription – a set of mechanical mice for my cats to chase. Next month there will be birds.

I do not like pets, but my heart skips at the sight of a truly great mechanical.

***

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***

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

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

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

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

The Ocean’s Child – a flash fantasy story

The fog rose from the sea during the night, a white tide that engulfed the town, turning houses into looming grey crags and people into distant, shifting shadows. Land and sea no longer parted at the shoreline. The bodies of the living were as blurry, their features as faded as the memories of the dead.

I had waited a month for a morning like this. Waited ever since a chunk of driftwood had washed up on the shoreline, a splintered plank with the same blue paint as my father’s fishing boat. Waited with the dread of an eldest child, my fears buried beneath the resilience I had to show for my sisters. The resilience my father had taught me.

I walked the fog shrouded streets, cobbles slippery beneath my feet, down to the harbour. In my hands were the well-worn knife my mother used to clean the catch and the last chunk of the loaf that had fed us for three days. Traditional tools for ancient magic.

I kept walking, off the cobbles and onto the smooth stones of the harbour front, then down from them onto the sand, past boats drawn up above the tide line. No-one would be sailing today. Only a few old sailors looked up from scraping barnacles or spreading tar. None spoke. They had known my father. They knew why I was here.

Loose sand became damp and close-packed as I approached the sea. I stopped where the waves would pass in and out across my feet. I took a bite of the bread, its taste like dust in my mouth, and cast the rest into the sea. Then I ran the knife along the back of my hand, a sharp line of pain that pierced my numb heart.

I sank to my knees and thrust my bleeding hand into the surf. The water was icy cold and the wound stung but I didn’t flinch. Resilience, as my father had taught me.

Something stirred amid the waves. A figure, as grey and indistinct as any other, approached out of the fog and the ever-shifting ocean. As it came closer, I saw that it was made not of flesh but of water. Its beard was a tangle of kelp, its eyes cockle shells. Though I had last seen it as flesh and hair, I knew that face, and seeing it like this turned a long drawn out dread into terrible certainty.

“Father,” I said, the breath catching in my throat. “You’re dead.”

“A storm on the first night out,” he said, his voice the rattle of pebbles scraping across the ocean floor. “The boat was shattered and I was embraced by mother ocean.”

“I miss you,” I said. “And I’m scared. How will we get by without you?”

He cupped my face in his hands. That touch finally broke the dam inside me and tears streamed down my cheeks, running into the salt water that he had become.

“Don’t be afraid,” he said, his gaze familiar and yet strange, the father I loved made uncanny by this body he wore. “Mother ocean sends me with a message. You are touched by the tide. You will sense its comings and goings, know when it is safe and when there is danger, when the fish will fill your nets and when they will be absent. This is her gift to you, in exchange for me.”

“I don’t want to make a trade!” I said. “I want you back.”

I tried to bury my face in his chest, as I had done when I was young and in need of comfort. But there was no warmth there, only the icy water.

“It is small recompense,” he said. “But it is all she offers and more than most receive. Please, my child, accept it. For your mother. For your sisters. For me.”

I fought down the trembling and nodded my head.

“I accept.”

The wave that was my father surged across me, soaking me through cloth, through flesh, through bone, to the spark of light that glimmers within. And then I stood alone at the tide line, without even a goodbye.

I wanted to break down weeping. Instead I looked out across the water, as my father had done so many times. The fog was fading, sunlight dancing once again on the tips of the waves. I could sense a shoal of cod approaching, silver bodies flitting in the deep.

I saw the future stretching out before me. Someone would grant me a place on their crew, for my father’s sake. I would guide them to the fish before others found them. I would earn my share and my place in that crew. In time I would buy my own boat. I would feed my mother, my sisters, and in time a family of my own. Mother ocean would be my lifeline and finally she would be my grave, as she had been for my father. Then I too would emerge to guide my child, before I joined my father at last and forever.

For the first time in weeks, I felt as though I was standing on solid ground. My father was dead but a part of him remained. Now was my time, not just to be resilient but to be strong.

I turned and walked through the fading fog back up the beach.

***

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The Great Discovery of Professor Fong – a flash steampunk story

The steam shovel shook in Fong Liling’s hands as she pressed it against the earth. Dirt flew back in great clumps, past the pneumatic power tube and the coal-fired engine, onto a carefully positioned spoil heap. There, her students would sift through it all, looking for shards of pottery and ancient coins, evidence of the people who had built this barrow. As chief excavator, she was after something more.

This would all have been easier if the locals weren’t such a superstitious bunch and she could have paid them to do the digging instead of importing this ridiculous machine. But no, they had to keep away from the ancient grave sites, didn’t dare disturb the angry spirits they were sure lived there.

Just thinking about it made Liling roll her eyes.

There was a clang as the spade hit something solid. Liling switched off the power, pushed her goggles up her forehead, and peered into the dirt.

A curved brass plate caught the sunlight streaming through the trees.

Grab your trowels!” Liling shouted to her students. “We’ve got one.”

By mid-afternoon they had unearthed the whole statue. It was the figure of a warrior, clad in a torc and carrying a club, the whole thing made of interlocking metal plates. A winding key protruded from the back, just like in the ancient books Liling had found.

“Perfect,” she whispered as her students strained to get the statue upright.

With a trembling hand, Liling turned the key. She felt the resistance of the spring inside, heard the clunk of gears.

The statue raised a hand, looked at her, then looked at the grave mound.

“We’ve come to free you from the dirt,” Liling said. “To give you the attention you deserve, you marvel.”

She reached up to brush dirt from the statue’s head.

“Come, this way,” she said, pointing in the direction of their camp.

The statue turned, knelt, and started digging into the dirt they had just rescued it from.

“What’s it doing?” asked a nervous looking student.

“I think it’s trying to bury itself,” another replied.

“No need for that,” Liling said. “Whatever your original creators told you, you are too beautiful to stay hidden in the dark. Let us take you back to civilisation.”

The statue kept digging. It was hip deep in loose soil and still going down into the side of the barrow.

“Well done, you can dig,” Liling said, grabbing the statue’s shoulder and trying to turn it around. “Now come dig in a museum.”

The machine shook her off and kept digging.

“You are mine and you will come with me!”

Liling grabbed the statue around the middle and started dragging it back, its heels leaving scars in the ground.

The statue swivelled around its waist, wrapped an arm around Liling, and lifted her off her feet, clamping her against its chest.

“Stop that!” she screeched. “Stop that this instant!”

The statue strode back into its hole and started digging with its free hand. Dirt tumbled around them as the hole threatened to collapse on Liling. There was dirt in her hair, dirt down her shirt, dirt in her mouth as she opened it to protest.

“Help me!” she shouted. “This thing has gone mad.”

Her students rushed forward. Some tried to grapple with the machine while others tugged at Liling’s legs, almost pulling down her trousers. The edges of metal plates scraped against her chest as she was dragged free and fell in a tousled mess in the dirt.

“This is not funny,” she snapped, seeing the looks on some of her student’s faces.

She looked up at the machine. It kept digging but turned its head to look at her. A single brass eyebrow pivoted up and then back down.

“Fine, you’ve made your point.” Liling stood and brushed off the dirt. “You can stay in your filthy hole. I’m sure there are other sites we could be digging.”

One of the students frowned.

“What will we tell the university?” he asked.

Liling considered her options, wondering which would leave her with the most dignity.

“We will tell them that this place was haunted,” she said.

***

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