Ancient magic brings a lost father back at the ocean’s edge.
- Tag Archives short story
While digging up an ancient barrow mound, an archaeologist finds its inhabitant far from cooperative.
When a 9th century woman’s husband is killed her mind turns to vengeance, but the authorities have other ideas…
There are strange pills to be had in a city in decline, and maybe they’ll change more than the user’s outlook…
The ticking of the machines was a sweet song to Esmerelda Jones. She knew the pitch and rhythm of each one, could tell if something was wrong from those oh so familiar sounds. From the one that served breakfast to the one that starched her husband’s collars to a grand clock that merely told the time, she loved and understood them all. It was easy to do when she’d made them.
She wandered the room, polishing their steel and brass surfaces, making everything shine to perfection. Midnight was approaching, bringing with it the end of the year, and she wanted them to be spotless. That gleam wasn’t just about the look of the place, it was about preparing herself for the change to come.
The Reverend Jones stormed into the room, cassock swirling, and glared at her across his horn-rim spectacles.
“Are you ready to go yet?” he asked.
“Not quite,” she said, looking at the clock. “Just a little more spit and polish.”
“My parishioners will be waiting.”
“You could go to church alone.”
“And face the humiliation of my wife’s disobedience? Certainly not! You will come with me this moment.”
Esmerelda walked over to a large machine she had finished today. Its surface was unspoilt by time and rough usage. Not like her.
“Just a little more spit and polish,” she said, running her cloth over the machine’s surface, brushing away a few specks of dust.
“No more spit, no more polish.” The Reverend strode over, red-faced. “These are just things, of no consequence next to God’s work. You can’t polish your soul.”
He raised his hand. He wouldn’t hit her, of course. That was how she had convinced herself for so long that he wasn’t one of those men. He would grab hold of her, drag her up the stairs, lock her in her bedroom until her will gave way and she agreed to his demands. But would he raise a fist? Oh no. He was a man of the cloth.
The hammering of her heart out-paced the ticking of any of the machines. The New Year was coming. A time of change. A hope for renewal.
“I’m sorry, Jonathan,” she said. “But God is your life. Machines are mine. I have at least left them in a fine state for you.”
“Left them in a fine state? What are you blithering about, woman.”
He reached out towards her.
The clock struck midnight.
The grand new machine hit its critical beat. A cage swung down on a piston-driven arm, crashing into place around the reverend. He had stood exactly where Esmerelda had known he would. That was the advantage of a regular rhythm. You could plan for it.
“What in God’s name is this?” the Reverend bellowed, shaking the bars.
The machined whirred. A hatch opened and spat out a carpet bag. Esmerelda opened the catch and double-checked the contents. Three dresses, two pairs of shoes, toiletries, undergarments, portable tools, two rolls of gold coins and a sheaf of bank notes. Everything she needed to set herself up somewhere new.
“It’s the New Year,” she said with a smile. “A time for fresh starts.”
She brushed a last speck of dust from the machine, popped the cloth in her pocket, and waltzed out the door to the rhythm of the ticking of her creations.
* * *
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That’s my last story for this year. I hope you all have a great time seeing the New Year in, and I’ll see you in 2019.
When the men in the blue coats claimed that the land was theirs, we laughed at them.
“You cannot own the land,” I told them. “It’s not a drum or a club, something that you can pick up and trade, something whose spirit you can control. It’s just the land.”
But the blue coats had swords so sharp they could cut the wind, guns that roared like thunder, and floating fortresses from which to bombard our villages. So in the end, we let them have their foolishness. They would call the land theirs but we would still live on it, and that was what mattered.
They called the chiefs to a great signing ceremony. I had given birth to my second daughter only weeks before, but they became angry when I said I would not go. So I donned my stone bark armour and my feathered crown, took up my war club and my charm bag, and went to meet them.
I stood with the rest of the chiefs, surrounded by blue coat soldiers. Their chief, with his golden shoulder strings and his pointed headdress, oversaw it all. Another man used a metal stick to draw a map on a great sheet of hide, marking out the shape of the coast and the limits of the land the blue coats called theirs.
As his blood-red ink touched the page, I felt something change around me. The flow of life through the earth stopped, power building up like water behind a dam.
“It’s real,” I said, staring in shock as he kept drawing his lines and the power kept backing up. “They own the land.”
Ofabilla of the Long Fall village sank to his knees, pale and shaking.
“What have they done?” he hissed.
I opened my bag of charms, drew out a death tree gourd wrapped in red ribbon, and squeezed it tight. As the spikes pierced my skin and blood dripped into the dirt, I opened the way for the power of the land to flow through me.
I squeezed harder, letting the pain open a path.
I closed my eyes and took hold of my war club. Its power at least would be mine still. I reached out with my heart, down my arm, through my hand, and into the wood, calling the power forth.
The blue coats’ map had laid claim to all this land. Its power was theirs.
I opened my eyes. The map maker was trembling with the strain of his work as he moved towards the end. Another blue coat dabbed the sweat from his forehead so that it would not fall and mar the map.
I could not let this stand. They had guns and swords and floating fortresses. They would not have our spirits too.
In my heart, I said goodbye to my daughters, knowing what I took from them in trying to save their world. Then I dropped my club, leapt forward, and snatched the map from the blue coat’s hands.
They stared at me in shock, every one of them.
“What are you doing?” their chieftain exclaimed. “Put that down at once, you mad woman!”
I had no words to waste on him. I simply took hold of the map with both hands and pulled at it with all my strength.
“No!” the map maker shrieked as his creation began to tear.
The ground trembled. Trees fell. Men and women were thrown about. I felt the power they had constrained rush through me in a glorious, golden surge.
Guns roared and I knew that my time had come. I would not see my daughters grow, but at least they would hear of me with pride.
Death did not come. Instead, the bullets were flung back against those who fired them. The power of the land poured forth, flinging these invaders through the air, leaving them broken like straw dolls at the end of harvest night.
“You cannot own the land,” I said, picking up their chieftain by the throat. His skin shrivelled as his power was sucked away on the great tide coursing through me. “But perhaps it can own you.”
* * *
Maps have power. Look at how we treat borders and the people who live across them. I liked the idea of treating that power as something magical, and this is the result.
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The shutters were down across the door of the clinic and however hard I tried my key wouldn’t open the padlock. It was too early in the morning to call anyone else in, but not too early for patients to need a doctor. Fortunately, I had bolt cutters amid the jumble of tools in the boot of my car. We could buy a new padlock. Not everybody could buy time.
Inside, I was greeted by a waft of trance music and the smell of lemons. Someone had left a computer on overnight, pumping out sounds, smells, and a light show that brightened the peeling paint of the ceiling. I switched it off, opened up an examination room, and waited for patients to arrive.
It didn’t take long. First was a woman in overalls and steel-toed boots, her face pale.
“Think I’ve got the flu, doc,” she croaked, pausing to blow her nose. “Need signing off work.”
“Are you feeling any aches or fever?” I asked.
“When did it start?”
“This seems pretty advanced for such a short time.” I peered at her pupils. Sure enough, there was a telltale wideness to them. “Did you know that there are sickness simulators on the web, sites that will bring on symptoms without giving you the illness?”
She looked away. “Why would someone make that?”
“You know, maybe it’s just a cold. I’ll get some medicine, see if I can cope with work.”
“You do that,” I said.
Four more patients came in before the receptionist arrived. Two of them had simulated symptoms – one on purpose, the other thanks to malware. They both got the same instructions – turn off the internet for three hours, then come back if they were still sick.
I wouldn’t be seeing them again.
“You’re not Dr Rowe,” the receptionist said as she peered in at me.
“Dr Rowe couldn’t make it,” I said, stifling a yawn. I hadn’t been getting much sleep lately, hadn’t planned on being here today. It was going to be a long shift.
“Waiting room’s almost full.”
I nodded. “I’m trying, but you know how it is. Too many sick people, not enough doctors.”
“Hm.” She gave me a quizzical look, then headed out of the room. I could hear her starting a phone call as the next patient came in.
“I think I’ve for the flu,” the man said.
We went through the motions, but I could already tell that it was another simulation. He was too lively for a man on the edge of collapse.
I was just about to send him away with his no-internet prescription when something caught my eye – a scratch on his forearm, swollen and red.
“Did you get that recently?” I asked.
“Couple of days ago.”
I peered at it more closely. Clearly infected. This guy was probably running a real fever beneath the fake one and I’d almost sent him away without treatment. What sort of doctor was I?
“You’ll need a tetanus booster,” I said. “And something to fight the infection.”
I opened a cupboard and realised that I had no idea where anything was. This was the first patient who’d needed more than painkillers or my signature on a renewed prescription. I hadn’t had to find anything else.
Everything was so unfamiliar. Had I not worked here before? I thought I had, but clinics all looked alike after a while.
I found a drawer of bottles and started looking at them, trying to find one with the right label.
What was the right label again? What would deal with this sort of infection? The tiredness was making it hard to think straight.
“Are you alright, doc?” the patient asked.
“Fine,” I said. “Just give me a minute.”
I flung open cupboards and drawers, waiting for anything to jog my memory. Doors banged open as I became more frantic.
There was a knocking and the door to the room opened. A man stood in the hallway, a stethoscope around his neck.
“Yes?” I snapped.
“I’m Dr Rowe,” he said. “I’m on duty here this morning. Who are you?”
“I’m doctor… doctor…” Somehow it didn’t seem right, putting my name after that word. It didn’t quite fit.
The patient looked nervously between us.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
“Could you just give us a minute?” Dr Rowe said.
The man hurried out and Rowe shut the door behind him.
“I presume you read The Lancet?” he said.
“Of course,” I replied.
“Did you see the article last month about computer-simulated illnesses?”
“Must have missed it.”
“Apparently they can simulate symptoms of mental as well as physical illness now. Hyperactivity, depression, even delusions.”
“Shocking,” I said. Somewhere in the back of my head, a thought was screaming for attention, but I couldn’t make it out.
“You look tired,” Rowe said. “Let’s get you away from computers for a bit, see how you feel in a few hours.”
* * *
If you enjoyed this story, you might also like my science fiction collection, Lies We Will Tell Ourselves. And if you want even more, you can sign up to my mailing list to get free fiction straight to your inbox every Friday.
Sir Thomas strode through the smog, his mask clamped to his face, rubber seal tight against skin. A Smith and Wilkins Model Three Aerator, it was the height of technology. A small steam engine in a satchel at his side kept the air flowing, constant and clean, as he made his way around the city. No need to walk in one of the transit boxes, sharing the breath of a score of the great unwashed, or to share a motor cab with one of the city’s other peers. He travelled alone, as a man should.
As he crossed Oldrail Bridge, he caught a whiff of chemical smoke. The smog must be particularly thick today if it was getting through the mask.
Up Redgate and along Pennypurse Lane he went, while one of those ghastly transit boxes rattled past in the other direction. The smell was getting stronger, like someone had set fire to a sewage plant and was marching him towards it. He swallowed back a wave of nausea and paused for a moment to catch his breath.
What in all eight hells was wrong with his mask?
Sir Thomas ran his fingers along his forehead, down the sides of his face, and around the underside of his chin, feeling for a gap between his face and the mask, some place he hadn’t fitted it right. Nothing. Apparently the air was simply so awful that even the worst mask wouldn’t help.
He started walking again, but still the smell grew worse. He could taste it on his tongue, something vile and tingling. He swung the satchel around from under his arm and flipped the flap open to check the filters.
A trickle of oily black smoke ran from the motor out into the thin, sickly brown of the smog.
Panic made Sir Thomas’s heart jump, followed a moment later by anger. He had been promised the best in personal perambulatory equipment and instead he had this. Someone would pay for this with their job, if not their hide.
A transit box ground to a halt next to him, its overhead wires creaking. A hatch opened and the driver thrust his head out.
“You need a ride, sir?” he asked.
“Certainly not!” Sir Thomas snapped. “Do I look like a man who would ride in your ghastly machine?”
“Suit yourself.” The hatch snapped shut and the box drove on.
By now, the smoke from the motor was visible behind the glass of his mask. A flame darted from the corner of the satchel.
“Gah!” Sir Thomas ripped the mask from his face and flung the whole device in the gutter. Something popped. More flames sprang from the side.
“I’ll sue the bastards,” he growled, glaring at the mask, its glass plate cracked where it had hit the cobbles.
But he couldn’t stay here, brooding on others’ failings – he had business to be about. With a furious snort, he set off along the road again.
The smell of the burning device might be gone, but now he faced something just as bad. The smog swirled around him, thick and acrid, filling his lungs with every breath. His eyes watered and his nose ran. The back of his throat tickled, then scratched, then burned. He clutched a handkerchief to his mouth but it did no good. There was no escaping filth when that filth was in the very air.
Only another half mile, he told himself. Keep going. You’ll be there soon enough.
A coughing fit took hold of him and he doubled over, bitter phlegm spraying from his mouth. The coughing went on and on until his head spun and his legs were week. Even when he finally got his breath back, his knees felt like jelly.
He took one step, then a second, and a third, grabbing hold of a lamppost just before he collapsed.
It was all so unfair. He had paid for the best, he should get the best. Otherwise he was just…
Was just like…
He jerked his head up, coughed again, caught a lungful of smog that almost made him puke.
Someone had hold of his arm.
“Here, quick,” they said. “Get him in before we have to breath any more of this shit.”
He was aware of being dragged and then lifted, of settling onto a hard seat, of the world moving around him. Gradually, he came back to his senses.
He was in one of those awful boxes. Beside him, a little old lady was holding out a cup of water.
“Here, love,” she said. “You’ll want to clear your mouth out after that.”
“Thank you,” he croaked, accepting the drink.
The box was crammed with people. Across from him, fleas were dancing on the back of a mangy dog. The whole place smelled of sweat and cheap gin.
“It’s not good to go out on your own,” the old lady said. “Better the box, where there’s someone to catch you if you fall.”
Sir Thomas nodded. Maybe she was right.
Or maybe he just needed a better mask. They said that Smith and Wilkins were working on a Model Four.
* * *
My latest steampunk book, The Epiphany Club, is out tomorrow! Collecting all five novellas of that name, it’s a great way to get the whole series cheaply or to buy it in print for the first time. Click here to buy the e-book from your preferred store or the print version from Amazon.
I woke with a start, sitting bolt upright on my lumpy, flea-ridden mattress. My head hit the bunk above me and I stifled a curse. In the surrounding darkness, the men of my company filling our dugout with the rumbling chorus of their snores.
I’d had the nightmare again. The one where the British stormed our trenches and I was taken captive. Mocked, beaten, scorned, an embarrassment to my family. Girls I had known back home pointing and laughing at me through the bars of a cage.
I swung my legs around to sit, hunched, on the side of my bed and laid a hand on my rifle. If the British came then I would not let them capture me, no matter what. Death before dishonour.
A stub of candle was stuck to a tin lid by my bed. I struck a match, lit the wick, and reached for my boots. If I couldn’t sleep then I might as well go up to the trenches and help keep watch.
Before I could get my boots on, the roar of an explosion filled the air, shaking the room. The sound of it drove the breath from my lungs. At the far end of the dugout, roof beams gave way and the earth fell in, burying men in their beds.
As the room kept shaking, men tumbled out of their beds, looking around in alarm. We were meant to be too deep for any shell to penetrate. We were meant to be safe.
Timbers groaned, creaked, cracked like God snapping his fingers. Dirt tumbled down the stairwell and into the room.
I rushed barefoot across the rough floor and peered up the stairs. They were filled with fallen soil and broken timbers.
Hans appeared beside me, dressed in only his underwear, a wild look on his face.
“We have to get out,” he said. “Before we’re trapped here forever.”
Some men came to us, while others dug frantically to rescue the buried men.
My skin crawled at a whole new imagined dread – the thought of being trapped not just in a cage but beneath the earth. My pulse quickened. Hans was right. We had to get out.
I grabbed a trenching tool and scrambled up the stairwell, the dirt cold and damp between my toes, until I couldn’t ascend any further. Then I started digging, hurling rocks and soil down behind me, opening a gap just wide enough for me to wriggle forward and keep digging.
Hans came up behind me and I could hear others behind him, shovelling the dirt back from one man to the next until it hit the floor of the dugout.
The ground shook again and I heard something fall. Dirt cascaded across my arms, almost trapping them.
“Faster!” someone yelled. “The whole place is going to collapse.”
I tore at the heaped earth with my digging tool, flinging dirt into the faces of the men behind me. My knuckles scraped against fallen boards and rocks. Dirt filled the grazes. Pain flashed and my heart raced.
My hands burst through a last layer of dirt and into air. I writhed out of the fallen earth and into a clear stretch of stairwell. Above me, I saw a rectangle of grey dawn sky.
I laughed, turned, and started digging again, trying to make a way through for the others.
There was a roar and I was flung from my feet. The walls came crashing down on top of me. I was swallowed into the darkness of the earth.
I couldn’t breath. Not just couldn’t reach the air but couldn’t move my lungs. I strained, trying to force air down, got only a mouthful of dirt. Panic gripped me and I would have sobbed in pity for myself if only I could have made a sound.
Desperately, I strained with my right arm, forcing fingers through the weight of dirt. They found the broken edge of a plank and I gripped it tight, trying to ignore the splinters piercing my palm as I heaved with all my strength. My body moved an inch, then another. I forced my other arm around, like swimming in slow motion, and took hold with that hand too.
My head was spinning, my chest burning. Muscles trembled as I pulled on the plank, dragging myself higher.
The dirt loosened. My chest heaved. I drew in air as well as dirt, but still it wasn’t enough. Muscles trembled as I tapped into the last of my strength.
Writhing and twisting, I worked my way up through the ground until my arm burst out into the open air. Moments later, I slithered snake-like from what had seemed to be my tomb and lay panting on the ground.
The world was filled with shouting, strange men using unfamiliar words. One appeared at the mouth of the stairwell, only a few feet away. He pointed his gun straight at me, a figure out of my nightmares, ready to drag me off into captivity.
I laughed and flung my hands up.
How sweet it was to breath again and to know that I might keep on breathing.
Better dishonour than death.
* * *
Harriet’s War, a comic I wrote set in the First World War, is out next week, so it seemed like a good time to return to that era.
I’ve written before about the attack on Messines Ridge, when the Allies triggered the largest non-nuclear explosion in military history. In To Win Just Once, I showed that action from the perspective of the New Zealand troops attacking the ridge. Ever since then I’ve been fascinated by the awful idea of what it would have been like to be on the other side, among the ten thousand Germans killed or buried alive in the explosion. This story is about that.
If you enjoyed this story then you might want to sign up for my mailing list. You’ll get free flash fiction straight to your inbox every week, as well as updates on my other releases. And watch out next week for more about Harriet’s War.
None stood brighter in all the Court of Arcadia than Lady Elithia. None stronger. None more elegant. None wiser in the ways of war. The beasts of the forest, awed by her prowess, bore her banners before her when she entered the mortal realm. Butterflies darted between the warp and weft of reality just to bring her morsels of fruit.
And so it was that a butterfly with gold and ebony wings landed before her on the council table laid down a grape.
“You are a fine creature,” she said, running a finger down its back. “More beautiful than those that normally tend upon me. Has nature adapted to pay fitting tribute?”
She split the grape in two, placed one part before the butterfly, and relished the taste of the rest on her tongue.
“The Dark Court knew we were coming,” Lord Asahar said, standing tall in his umber robes as he glared down the table. “How do they keep doing this?”
“There must be a spy,” The Frozen One turned their ice blue gaze upon Elithia. “Your mortal soldiers drink until their tongues loosen. My bones tell me that one of them let slip.”
“Then your bones are as hollow as your head,” Elithia replied, still stroking the butterfly. “I am too wise to give our game away. My mortals learn our intent only when the time comes to charge. Your weather sprites, though, are fickle and wind-blown, easily swayed. Clearly one has turned traitor.”
“My children would not dare!” Ice crackled across the table from The Frozen One’s fingers. Elithia laid her hand down to stop it before it reached the butterfly.
“Your children run wild every winter. They cannot be trusted.”
“How dare you, you pompous banshee.”
“Enough!” Asahar’s fist shook the table. “The weather sprites were locked away when the Dark Court countered our summer campaign. It must be another.”
“One of your scribes?” Elithia asked.
“Not this time.” Asahar shook his head. “I have… taken measures.”
“A lord or lady turned traitor?”
“Too much to lose.”
“One of Elithia’s armourer lovers?” The Frozen One asked. “Perhaps you whisper secret somethings in their ears.”
“Do not take me for such a fool.”
“You give the impression of it well enough.”
Elithia rose, the butterfly perched on one hand, her sword in the other.
“I have time for more than one war,” she growled, as The Frozen One drew their ice-rimmed bow.
“I said enough!” This time, the table buckled beneath Asahar’s fist. “Sit down, both of you. All our fates are at stake here.”
Grudgingly, Elithia did as she was told. She sank her sword into its scabbard and cupped the butterfly in her palm, stroking its wings to sooth herself.
“At least you understand me,” she whispered.
It flicked its wings, about to take to the air, to return to its blander cousins in the mortal world.
Elithia’s heart sank as realisation dawned.
“Perhaps you understand me too well,” she said, fingers closing like a cage around the butterfly.
It flapped and butted against her hand, desperate to escape, but her grip only tightened, squeezing until, with a flash of darkness, the creature transformed. Elithia was left clutching the arm of a dirty, jut-chinned boggart.
“Ha!” The Frozen One pointed. “The spy was in your camp! I would never be so stupid.”
“There is wisdom in learning from our mistakes,” Asahar said, and with a flick of his hands ropes appeared to bind the creature.
“Then maybe Elithia really might wind up the wisest of us all,” The Frozen One said.
Elithia picked up the leftover piece of grape, placed it in her mouth, and relished the flavour on her tongue. None stood stronger than her still, none more elegant. That would be enough.
* * *
As often happens, this story was inspired by something on Twitter – in this case, Emma Cunliffe’s photo of a butterfly in her office. What can I say, we writers are parasites who will feed off any spare thoughts you leave lying around.
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